Sunday, September 30, 2007

Is schizophrenia the price we pay for an evolving brain?

Schizophrenia is pretty darned common, and it's a terrible disorder with clear inherited roots. So why is it so common?
Scientific American 9/6/07: It's No Delusion: Evolution May Favor Schizophrenia Genes

New research reveals that genes related to the debilitating disorder may also provide developmental advantages..

...Dorus co-authored a report, appearing in this week's Proceedings of the Royal Society B, about the evolution of genes linked to schizophrenia. After analyzing human DNA from several populations around the world and examining primate genomes dating back to the shared ancestor of both humans and chimpanzees, researchers reached a striking conclusion that several gene variants linked to schizophrenia were actually positively selected and remained largely unchanged over time, suggesting that there was some advantage to having them.

"Schizophrenia can be explained by a lot of individual alleles (variations of genes)," Dorus notes. "There are many different loci that impact the actual manifestation of the disease." Over the past decade, several dozen genes have been identified as potential culprits, and scientists believe that several genes cause disruptions in protein formations predisposing a person to schizophrenia.

...the team ... focused on 76 gene variations most strongly related to schizophrenia. By comparing these combinations with the evolution of other genes known to affect neuronal processes, the researchers determined that 28 of the schizophrenia-associated genes have been evolutionarily preferred in recent years by either Caucasian, Asian or African populations.

"Because it's a such a complex genetic trait … you actually expect there to be some variability from population to population, in terms of what genes are playing a role in the disorder," Dorus says. He notes that he was surprised that the study turned up a positive selection for some of the genes most closely associated to the disease, including DISC1 (disrupted in schizophrenia 1), which is involved in the transport of proteins along the relatively lengthy cell bodies of neurons, among them. "The most important thing is we don't really know what the basis of the selection has been," he says. "It could be due to an entire range of neurodevelopmental processes."

Co-author Crespi says that a number of theories have been floating around regarding the persistence of schizophrenia's genetic underpinnings. One holds that schizophrenia is a "disorder of language" and that the illness is an unfortunate consequence of the development of human speech, expression and creativity. "Whenever you get strong selection, it's like a big plus, and you can drag along a lot of minuses," he says. "You can think of schizophrenics as paying the price of all the cognitive and language skills that humans have—they have too many of the alleles that taken individually…might have positive effect, but together they are bad."

Dorus says the team will now home in on the 28 genes fingered in positive selection in the hope of finding new treatments for the mysterious disorder.
The explanation seems to be that it's very hard to construct a functioning human brain, and that the brain is still actively evolving. So in this case there's not necessarily an advantage to a schizophrenia gene, but rather that the diffuse set of disorders we label as "schizophrenia" arise because the human brain is very much a work in progress, one with a high defect rate ...

Update 7/2/2010: Structural variation in the human genome and its r... [Annu Rev Med. 2010]...
... The discovery of submicroscopic copy-number variations (CNVs) present in our genomes has changed dramatically our perspective on DNA structural variation and disease. ... CNVs, to a larger extent than SNPs, have been shown to be responsible for human evolution, genetic diversity between individuals, and a rapidly increasing number of traits or susceptibility to traits; such conditions have been referred to as genomic disorders. In addition to well-known sporadic chromosomal microdeletion syndromes and Mendelian diseases, many common complex traits including autism and schizophrenia can result from CNVs. Both recombination- and replication-based mechanisms for CNV formation have been described.

A picture to remember - Rangoon

TIME, September 27, 2007
Pictures of the Week - TIME

Photographer Kenji Nagai takes photographs after being shot by soldiers in Rangoon as the Burmese Army fired on the crowd. Kenji later died.

Send a letter to Rush

Army of Dude: The Real Deal is a post from a former Limbaugh listener, and veteran, who's opinions have changed. Apparently the latest right wing meme is to label any veteran who disagrees with them a "phony soldier". I'm sure someone will send it to Rush as a letter ...

Apple guilty of second degree iPhone murder?

We know there's a civil war brewing between Apple and an arguably critical part of their customer base -- the OS X geek community. If it turns out that Apple deliberately configured the latest OS X update to destroy hacked iPhones, the conflict will move up a notch. Glenn Fleishman of the venerable and respected Tidbits organization says Apple is not guilty of iphoneslaughter, but rather of murder in the second degree ...
TidBITS iPod & iPhone: Staff Roundtable: Apple Should Do No Harm to iPhones

... Apple has changed that equation with the iPhone's latest firmware and operating system upgrade. The iPhone is a powerful little computer controlled by powerful interests. Like almost all electronics sold today, includes a variety of kinds of firmware, or the software that controls the hardware. The firmware may be stored in different places, too, with radio cards and separate modules have their own internal firmware. Part of the firmware handles the boot procedure that allows the device to load the operating system; other parts handle upgrading and installing new firmware. Because the iPhone uses non-volatile, electrically erasable memory, there should be no problem with restoring a phone that has had every manner of change applied to it, as long as the boot routines aren't affected.

The hacks that unlock an iPhone to work with other carriers write special instructions to the firmware that controls the cellular network association to allow the use of any SIM - the authentication module used on worldwide GSM cellular networks - and not just AT&T's. This shouldn't affect the bootstrapping or firmware and operating system restore process one bit.

Gizmodo posted an interview with the iPhone Dev Team, a community effort that resulted in unlocking software. In the interview, the Dev Team makes it clear that Apple could very simply have included in the update a way to check whether the code related to the lock has been modified, and rewrite it. The team says that Apple could also fairly easily restore a default state and then more securely lock the phone down. (The team is also positive they can restore iPhones to a factory default state that have been "bricked," or turned into an unusable hunk of electronics.)
Has Apple lost its collective mind?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bicycling and Skating: Urban variations?

Minneapolis is a great bicycling city, and Saint Paul is not far behind. On the other hand, we don't have as many inline skaters as one might expect. We invented the darned sport (ignore the cheese heads in the corner please), but our Friday Night Skates occur only twice a month, and we rarely get more than twenty skaters. Our inline skate club is a great group, but we're a bit on the ... experienced side of 40 (I'm going to sign up my 10 yo to drop our average age).

So why do many of these cities have pretty active night skates, not to mention Amsterdam and especially Paris?
... It takes place every Friday night, except when it rains, and can attract as many as 20,000 skaters. Group skates have been around awhile in the United States and Europe, especially since the advent of in-line skates, which provide speed and maneuverability not possible with quad roller skates. But, in scale and longevity, nothing matches the festive Parisian skates, which began in a small way in 1994 and quickly grew to a point where, in 1997, the police decided to become involved for the safety of everyone concerned -- skaters, motorists, and onlookers. Today, the police not only block off roads and provide an escort for the skaters, but about 20 officers on skates join the rolling ranks during the weekly "rando," derived from the French word "randonée," or tour...
Ok, so Paris is bigger and has lots of tourists. Still, you think we'd be able to muster a few hundred!

One theory I've heard is that the bicycling and skating populations are very similar people. In Minneapolis that population bicycles, but in other cities the bicycle routes aren't nearly as appealing -- so skating is more common. Of course that doesn't explain Amsterdam ...

Curious. I do think we ought to try a weekly skate, but since I get free to join 'em only about twice a year I'll have to wait for someone else to make that happen.

Helmets: good for inline, not so good for bicycling?

Inline skaters should wear a helmet. But what about bicyclists? I wear a bike helmet, and so do my children. It seems to make sense anyone riding on a bicycle path, but today I read that it may not work for anyone riding with cars.

The problem, alas, is the car driver.

Cars are not much of a factor in head injuries occurring during inline skating; inline skaters rarely mingle with cars. Bicycles, however, do. Most bike fatalities and injuries are automobile related.

It turns out that automobile drivers, on average, give more space to bicyclists not wearing a helmet. If you wear a helmet, there's a 23% increase in automobiles passing within the 1 meter danger zone [1]

I suspect that this is doubly true for motorcyclists, though the researchers did not study that topic. So much for all my disparaging remarks about bare headed motorcyclists; if my guess is right than the decreased risk of automotive impact will far outweigh the decrease in head protection. Aging boomers -- let your residual hair flow free ...


So what do we do while researchers sort this out? If you're not riding in traffic the evidence strongly favors riding a bicycle helmet. If you ride in traffic, however, things are trickier than I'd once believed. There's a case for putting the helmet on the bike rack when entering traffic, and donning it for the bike trail...

I won't change what I do. For one thing surprising results require confirmation, for another I need to reinforce the children's behavior. For them the helmet is an unadulterated good.

In the meantime, let's find out what other things we can do to get more space from cars. How about a horizontal flag that extends one foot left? Professor Walker, please retest with the flag. Let's see what we can do to get those drivers outside the 3 foot limit. Maybe a flag and a helmet together will provide both head protection and a lower impact risk.

[1] Scientfic American Fact or Fiction, October 2007. Walker et al, Accident Analysis and Prevention, March 2007. The summary didn't mention gender variation. My experience is that women drivers give much less room than men drivers, perhaps because of a greater reluctance to cross the solid center line.

Friday, September 28, 2007

DI - Lake Peigneur

It's only 27 years ago, you'd think I'd remember this ...
Damn Interesting » Lake Peigneur: The Swirling Vortex of Doom

...Within two days, what had previously been an eleven-foot-deep freshwater body was replaced with a 1,300-foot-deep saltwater lake....
Turns out there's a good reason I don't remember this. The NYT story from 11/21/1980 is a brief, understated, summary within the "In the Nation" column.

There's a interesting gap between the miniscule national attention given the story in 1980 and what had really happened. Today it would be on FOX and CNN around the clock.

The evolutionary biology of Giardia - no mitochondria

Giardiasis is an annoying and fairly common infection, but we don't think it's not a big deal for a healthy adult. Turns out that the Giardiasis bug, Giardia, has some very interesting biology ....
The Loom : Carrying Ancient History In The Gut

... Giardia, many researchers suspected, was one of those early-branching eukaryotes. This suspicion was generated at first by simply eyeballing the creatures. They are quite weird. Their teardrop-shaped bodies have eight tails for swimming and a suction pad to clamp onto the wall of the intestines. They also carry two nuclei, each with its own DNA. How Giardia manages to keep all those genes coordinated--and why it even has two nuclei--remain mysteries. Bizarre single-celled eukaryotes are pretty easy to find. What set Giardia apart from most other eukaryotes was what it lacked. Scientists could not find a lot of those compartments in which the business of most eukaryote cells takes place.

Most significantly, it was missing mitochondria. Lots of things take place inside these sausage-shaped structures, most importantly the generation of ATP, the energy-bearing molecule found in all living things. Mitochondria started out as free-living bacteria and later evolved into permanent symbionts inside the eukaryote cell. (Mitochondria still carry some DNA of their own, which bears a strong resemblance to one group of free-living bacteria.) The fact that Giardia seemed to be missing mitochondria hinted that it was a transitional eukaryote...
Alas, the story is more complex than this, so you do need to and read Carl Zimmer's essay. Fascinating stuff.

I probably invited this bug onboard during a particularly rough college train trip through Mexico. I didn't realize I was carrying a possible echo of biology's "big bang".

Incidentally, speaking of parallels to cosmology, there's apparently a suspicion among some biologists that there's a kind of "dark matter" component to biology. They're looking for terrestrial life forms so bizarre that we don't even recognize them as "living" ...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Apple is at war with its own uber geeks

When Apple last returned from the grave, for the second or third time, geeks were important. OS X is a respectable piece of software, and geeks made it work. In several domains, particularly in communications and knowledge management, OS X now has a better range of solutions than XP.

Today, however, Apple is at war with its uber-geeks -- because of the iPhone. Saul Hansell describes the mood in the NYT, though he's confusing the unlockers with those who want the best possible iPhone on AT&T...
Steve Jobs Girds for the Long iPhone War - Bits - Technology - New York Times Blog

... This afternoon, Apple did release the update. And the gadget blogs confirm that it does indeed wreak havoc on modified iPhones. Some phones have indeed been “bricked.” In others, unofficial applications have been disabled. And there are worries that hacking the updated phone will be harder.

The result: Serious hackers will keep find new ways to break in. Less technically inclined may well find themselves chastened into technological submission, assuming they can get their pricey toys to work at all. Will Apple really refuse to help people with iBricks?

Speaking in London last week, Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, said the company is in a “cat and mouse” game with hackers.

“People will try to break in, and it’s our job to stop them breaking in,” he said.

There is something futile about the way Apple appears to be fighting some of its most ardent fans, those who want to use the full capabilities of the iPhone...

... Since the iPhone is a very sleek, capable handheld computer, people are going to want to run programs on it. They are going to want to hack and see what they can build. It’s a law of nature. And Apple might as well be fighting gravity.

Many other cell phones are locked down, of course. But few other phones capture the imagination of programmers the way the iPhone does.
There are two loosely allied groups of Apple geeks now at war with Apple. The unlockers want to use the phone with other providers; but most of Apple's geeks are willing to respect Apple's deal with Satan -- especially if the iTouch is improved. Everyone, however, is now united for at least a partly open iPhone and iTouch native development platform.

Geeks don't trust Apple to put the solutions we need on the iPhone. Apple's aiming at the mass market, and we're not mass market. We understand Apple can't justify investing in the solutions we need, but that's ok. There are lots of small, low overhead, high quality OS X development shops that will be able to make a very good living off the markets Apple doesn't want. Would it really kill Apple to have a 3rd party bluetooth keyboard added to the iPhone? How about the PIM/Outlook solutions Apple won't build? FileMaker Mobile? The list is long.

If Apple keeps the iPhone closed they'll alienate their uber geeks -- not just from the iPhone, but from the entire OS X platform. Maybe they're ready to run that risk, but I don't think the gain outweighs the likely costs. Keeping the iPhone virus free is a good reason to have a software certification program and a signed secure installation package, but it's not sufficient justification to close the platform.

Apple doesn't need to open the iPhone today, but they need to provide a roadmap in the weeks to come. Otherwise the Apple blogs are going to turn mean ...

Update 9/28/07: Wired has a brilliant summary of what Apple is failing to do -- the iPhone pre and post bricking. Some Apple employee ought to paste the Wired graphic to Steve Jobs door.

My double rainbow

Wikipedia's picture of a double rainbox (left, credit) is lovely, but mine was even better. The secondary rainbow was better defined, and I think I counted nine distinct bands in the primary. It arced, like this picture, from ground to ground.

I wasn't in a beautiful Alaskan national park, I was leaving my office in Roseville, Minnesota. There'd been a downpour, but the rain was now steady but widely spaced, an odd pattern I don't see much. The sun was at about 25 degrees above the horizon, and the western sky had cleared, so the light was completely unobstructed.

I stood and watched in amazement. It lasted only about four to five minutes, then the secondary began to fade. I phoned home when I saw it, but it couldn't be seen even 15 miles south of me. It was a private show.

I don't think I've ever seen a rainbow like that, and perhaps I never will again. It was just one of those odd, unexpected gifts, like a letter from an old friend.

Cringely runs the shark over

My favorite tech commentator has not merely jumped the proverbial shark, he's run it over. Cringely is going to launch a rocket to the moon and drive a rover around. The man needs a vacation.

I'll have to donate some money of course. Lunacy of this sort must be encouraged.

BBC IOT - Theories of Everything With Brian Greene

Even In Our Time has its limits. I wrote last April that Lord Bragg was struggling with the Poincare Conjecture, and compared it to my physics reading then ...
... Which brings me to my recent readings in physics. I'm reading Gribbins on Quantum Mechanics (1994) and Brian Greene with another cosmology/string theory overview, the Gribbins book is my personal favorite, but it's a bit dated now. Together though, they make it hard to overlook that physics seems to be getting harder and harder. We have more physicists than ever, and I'd wager there's a Feynman or two in the bunch, but we've been stuck for decades now...
I've been savoring Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos ever since, reading a few pages every day. It's rich stuff! I'll have a post on the book soon, but I confess I'd underestimated the progress of the 90s; quantum speckles on the microwave echoes of Higgs driven inflation is darned impressive.

Which brings me to the podcast I'm listening to now -- Theories of Everything, feature none other than ...
Brian Greene, Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University and author of The Fabric of the Cosmos (Allen Lane, 2004)

John Barrow, Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge and author of The Constants of Nature (Vintage, 2003)

Dr Val Gibson, particle physicist from the Cavendish Laboratory and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge

Further reading
The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene (Vintage, 2000)
[jf: odd choice, they should have recommended The Fabric of the Cosmos, his current book]
Theories of Everything by John Barrow (Vintage, 1992)
Now that's ambitious. Alas, Bragg is weakest when he ventures into math and physics, and his guests seemed to be struggling as well. At one point Gibson and Green talk about the relationship of extra dimensions to string theory, but they just miss making the key point -- that while finding extra dimensions won't prove string theory, not finding them will severely weaken string theory.

I was also left with the impression that the "string" metaphor is overdone. Maybe it would work better if Green were to say something like "we've developed very fancy maths that allow us to model both the jittery quantum world and the continuous world of cosmology", and one way to imagine the mathematics is to think that it's describing wee little bits of strings ...

Full points to IOT for courage, but Lord Bragg was traveling in alien territory ...

Update 9/30/07: I wrote this post pretty quickly -- like all my posts. Melvynn stayed lost, but his guests warmed up around the half way mark, so it did turn into a strong episode.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Amazon MP3 Store: great news for Apple customers

Amazon's MP3 store is a smash hit among OS X gurus like Gruber:
Daring Fireball: The Amazon MP3 Store and Amazon MP3 Downloader

...The songs sound great and come with high-resolution album art. Singles cost $.89 or $.99, and album prices start as low as $4.99 — i.e. they’ve introduced variable pricing to sell music for less, not more, than the iTunes Store. When you search for songs from an artist whose entire catalog is not available through their MP3 store, Amazon provides a direct link to the artist’s catalog in their CD store. Two million total songs is far less than the six million Apple offers at the iTunes Store, but it’s a pretty good start, and all of Amazon MP3’s songs are DRM-free. I’m not sure how many DRM-free iTunes Plus tracks Apple offers, but it certainly seems like far fewer than one-in-three, and thus far fewer than two million. So while Amazon can’t claim to offer the most songs, they might be able to claim the most DRM-free songs. In just a few minutes of shopping, I found plenty of songs at Amazon that are only available from the iTunes Store with DRM. Given the Amazon MP3 Store’s audio quality, prices, and user experience, I can’t see why anyone would buy DRM-restricted music from iTunes that’s available from Amazon. And given that Amazon is quite a bit cheaper than iTunes Plus, you might as well check Amazon first. I plan to...
Hallelujah. Amazon's not messing about, they launched this for OS X and Windows simultaneously. At last, Apple has very serious competition.

Of course since Amazon's tunes work perfectly with iPods, it's not going to hurt Apple's revenue stream all that much. I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple's share price fall a bit then recover as investors realize Amazon's play is poison for Microsoft's strategy.

The joy of it is that it will make Apple work harder to keep its customers happy, and it will strengthen the anti-DRM solution.

Now, just wait until Gruber realizes that Amazon has embedded a unique identifier in each song that they can connect back to his credit card* ....

* How do I know this? I don't. I'd bet on it though. I'm sure Apple does the same sort of thing with their non-DRMd tunes, I even expect that an AAC you burn from a CD using iTunes contains some sort of embedded identifier.

Update 9/26/07: I'm 99% sure John Gruber doesn't read this obscure blog, but shortly after I worte of the "Amazon unique identifier" he told us that while Apple embeds an identifier (which happens to resemble an email address but is tied to credit card identification) in their DRM-free downloads Amazon, in the NYT, says they don't (!). Well, gee, I was wrong. That's never happened before :-). Gruber has an essay on the broader implications too.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Error types in software and fort construction

CH pointed me to this one. A programming guru classifies errors in a family constsruction project, and relates them to software development. Emphases mine, number 4 is my fave.
Building a Fort: Lessons in Software Estimation - 10x Software Development

1. Numerous unplanned problems collectively added up...

2. Underestimation of unfamiliar tasks. My estimates weren't too far off for a lot of the work that I'd done before. But some things, like mapping out the site for the footing holes, I assumed would be 15-30 minute task ended up taking several hours.

3. Not decomposing big tasks into smaller subtasks. I'd planned out my project in whole days. At a birds eye view nothing seems obviously wrong with planning "frame the fort in one day." But when you break it down ... you start thinking, can I really do a whole wall in 2 hours? If the answer's even close to "no," then you start to realize that the whole estimate for that big task is probably wrong.

3. Using overly round time units. Using round units like "1 day" contributes to not thinking hard enough about decomposing large tasks into smaller tasks.

4. Substituting a target for an estimate. I had 7 days to do the project, and my estimate turned out to be 7 days. That's a little suspicious, and I should have known better than to make that particular mistake!

5. Sweeping numerous little tasks under the estimation rug....

6. Never creating a real estimate. The fact of the matter is that I carried around a rough plan in my head for weeks, but I never actually committed a schedule to paper...

7. All's Well That Ends Well. My kids love their fort, and I had a great time building it. "All's well that ends well" is one reason that companies don't improve their software practices more often than they do. If people like the software that the team produced, and the software is successful, then that reduces the incentive to try to do better next time.

Broadband speed trickery: couldn't happen here

In the UK broadband firms advertise speeds using the words "up to". Shockingly, the reality is typically less than 50% of the "up to" number...
BBC NEWS | Technology | Broadband speeds under scrutiny

Broadband speeds in the UK are much slower than advertised by internet service providers, a study by Computeractive magazine has found. Some 3,000 readers took part in speed tests and 62% found they routinely got less than half of the top speed advertised by their provider. It is the latest in a series of questions over the way net firms advertise broadband services...
Scandalous. It would never happen here of course.

Seriously, the interesting bit here is that a trade magazine actually did something useful. There was never much life in the trade journals (except for BYTE) to begin with, and I'd thought the web had completely killed them.

The market answer to dementia: Soylent Green

Markets are good at solving problems. Shut out all the reasonable options, and markets will come up up with unreasonable solutions. That's what's happening with our dementia problem.

The traditional approach to the care of the demented is very expensive. Americans don't want to pay for full-service nursing home care, but they refuse to consider the alternatives. That means market is going to invent an alternative, which it has.

The answer is - kill the demented elders faster, but setup ownership to avoid prosecution...
More Profit and Less Nursing at Many Homes - New York Times

Habana Health Care Center, a 150-bed nursing home in Tampa, Fla., was struggling when a group of large private investment firms purchased it and 48 other nursing homes in 2002.

The facility’s managers quickly cut costs. Within months, the number of clinical registered nurses at the home was half what it had been a year earlier, records collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services indicate. Budgets for nursing supplies, resident activities and other services also fell, according to Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

The investors and operators were soon earning millions of dollars a year from their 49 homes.

Residents fared less well. Over three years, 15 at Habana died from what their families contend was negligent care in lawsuits filed in state court. Regulators repeatedly warned the home that staff levels were below mandatory minimums. When regulators visited, they found malfunctioning fire doors, unhygienic kitchens and a resident using a leg brace that was broken.

“They’ve created a hellhole,” said Vivian Hewitt, who sued Habana in 2004 when her mother died after a large bedsore became infected by feces.

Habana is one of thousands of nursing homes across the nation that large Wall Street investment companies have bought or agreed to acquire in recent years.

Those investors include prominent private equity firms like Warburg Pincus and the Carlyle Group, better known for buying companies like Dunkin’ Donuts.

As such investors have acquired nursing homes, they have often reduced costs, increased profits and quickly resold facilities for significant gains.

But by many regulatory benchmarks, residents at those nursing homes are worse off, on average, than they were under previous owners, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data collected by government agencies from 2000 to 2006.

The Times analysis shows that, as at Habana, managers at many other nursing homes acquired by large private investors have cut expenses and staff, sometimes below minimum legal requirements...
It's a "soylent green" class solution. Anyone could come up with the solution of "make them die sooner", but it took genius to figure out a way to do this and avoid prosecution.

Markets always answer "problem of the weak" questions this way. That's why we need government ...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The human eye vs. a camera: how do they compare?

Humans are a visual species, so it's not surprising that our eyes work pretty well - though we don't compare to avians. ClarkVision compares the eye to a digital camera, and claims a resolution equivalence of about 580 megapixels, a relatively mediocre ISO 800 sensitivity (and only grayscale for that), roughly f3.5 and @ 20mm focal length, and an awesome (albeit complex) visual range. (link via Kotke)

It's a great set of references from a photographer and professional astronomer*. I'm not sure how this translates into realtime perception however, and that's the bit that matters. I recall reading that the pathways beween the retina and the visual cortex have pretty limited bandwidth, and the visual connections to the prefrontal cortex are astoundingly weak. It's as though the world's best camera were connected to your computer by an RS-232 serial cable. There has to be an incredible amount of pre-processing and lossy compression to get any useful realtime work, and for us only realtime counts. On the other end of the circuit, the brain is doing a lot of informed guessing to create it's simulacra of "reality".

This is why a human studying a photograph will get much more from the image than they can ever perceive from a realtime glance. The eye is a marvelous camera, but evolution hasn't had harder time optimizing the neural interfaces.

By the way, how good might the eye/brain be at lossy compression and re-representation of image input? One clue is how successful living organisms are at storing their "construction specifications" and startup machinery in a single cell (egg, the sperm could be eliminated). That's a level of data compression/packing (relatively lossless) orders of magnitude greater than we can achieve with current technologies.

* I've noticed less repetition lately of the absurd "bloggers are ignorant fools" meme.

UPS delivery record fraud - how to respond

I've experienced this twice in the past year. UPS claims they attempted a delivery at my home, but I've reason to believe they didn't. Kotke reported the same thing a few months ago ..
Harry Potter and the Phantom Delivery (

... At some point after 7pm, the UPS status page updated to say that a notice was left at 3:36 pm, implying that a delivery attempt was made and no one was home to receive it. (Amazon's tracking page says that UPS told them "Delivery attempted - recipient not home".) No such notice was left. My door buzzer did not ring at 3:36 pm (I was home all day on Saturday) and the doorman of the building next door who takes the deliveries for our building when people aren't home reported no notice or delivery attempt...
Recently I wrote of UPS' package-crushing habits.

UPS is following the airlines down the tubes, perhaps for similar reasons. Today I'd recommend the USPS over UPS. If you run into UPS problems with an Amazon order, use the Amazon feedback option linked to your order to complain. Don't bother contacting UPS, they're too far gone. We need Amazon to shift them, or to find another solution.

That Jena business: it's time to stop watching television news

Since I don't watch TV, news of the "Jena Six" passed me by. I kept seeing references to the topic though, so when Google News suggested an AP article by Todd Lewan I read Black and White Becomes Gray in La. Town. It's a persuasive summary; from it I concluded that Jena's racism level is at least American average, but probably not above the 80th percentile. I suspect a jury of enlightened rationalists would have punished at least some of the Jena Six, though with more creative and useful sentencing.

The story is thus mostly interesting as an example of how narratives are created in America's divided communities, and I suspect the real criminal here is American television news (CBC, NCB, ABC and Fox in particular*) and the people who persist in watching it.

Now, you might question how I can say this, since I told you I don't watch TV. Well, I do sometimes catch network TV news when walking through airports or sitting at restaurants. In the seconds before I can avert my gaze the shocking stupidity of it shines through. On the other hand, I read a lot of print media, and it's not so bad.

America, stop watching television news. It's a drowning beast that will grab onto anything above the water line. Just turn it off. Now.

* What about radio talk shows? Good question. I can't comment there, because it's been years since one of those accidentally crossed my radio. I mostly listen to podcasts these days ...

Today, would Gerald Ford be to the left of Hillary Clinton?

In a NYT Magazine article John Paul Stevens, the 87 yo "liberal" justice, reminds us he was appointed by Ford and is a "moderate republican"...
Justice John Paul Stevens - Supreme Court - Law - Washington - New York Times

Stevens, however, is an improbable liberal icon. “I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all,” he told me during a recent interview in his chambers, laughing and shaking his head. “I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.” Stevens said that his views haven’t changed since 1975, when as a moderate Republican he was appointed by President Gerald Ford to the Supreme Court. Stevens’s judicial hero is Potter Stewart, the Republican centrist, whom Stevens has said he admires more than all of the other justices with whom he has served. He considers himself a “judicial conservative,” he said, and only appears liberal today because he has been surrounded by increasingly conservative colleagues. “Including myself,” he said, “every judge who’s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell” — nominated by Richard Nixon in 1971 — “has been more conservative than his or her predecessor. Except maybe Justice Ginsburg. That’s bound to have an effect on the court.”
I usually think that the GOP has moved to an extreme position, so much so that a Ford Republican is a liberal today. On the other hand, is it correct to say that Gerald Ford would be to the left of Hillary?

It's a tricky question. These days even commies like me respect the power of markets, even as we fear the answers markets give the weak. Ford-era price controls aren't "liberal" today, they're dumb. On another paw, Ford @1970 would be far less tolerant of non-heterosexual gender relationships than most of today's GOP (ignoring their theater for a moment).

Bottom line, I don't think Gerald Ford @ 1970 would map onto any part of today's political spectrum. Probably not the Democrats, and certainly not today's GOP. Stevens and the few Republicans like him have been left adrift as the GOP has moved to some weird political dimension ...

Saturday, September 22, 2007 - Gordon's Notes on steroids, more art, less physics

I enjoy writing Gordon's Notes. It's my own little candle in the darkness. I have no pretensions to grandeur, but I do think it's a bit unusual in terms of the breadth of topics. Most blogs these days are more specialized, or represent multiple voices.

Except for one I came across today for the first time: :: home of fine hypertext products:

... is a weblog about the liberal arts 2.0 edited by Jason Kottke since March 1998. You can read about me and here. If you've got questions, concerns, or an interesting link for me, send them along. Follow via RSS RSS feed, see what I'm up to on Twitter, view my Flickr photostream, or check out some random entries from the archives. You may also be interested in my thoughts on books & movies or some photos I've taken. I also made a tiny bitmap font called Silkscreen several years's free and works on OS X, Windows, and Linux...
This blog has tends of thousands of readers on bloglines alone and includes gems like this review of the NYT archives. Compared to me Jason Kottke is a much better writer, and is more interested in the arts, movie and culture than exotic physics. He's also bawdier than me and lives in Manhattan rather than Saint Paul*, so be careful when reading at work.

His growing tags collection is a good topics guide:

Some recommended tags
photography economics lists bestof infoviz food nyc firstworldproblems cities restaurants video timelapse interviews language maps fashion nsfw remix

Recently popular tags (last 3 weeks)
indianajones multitouch harrisonford ratatouille movies firstworldproblems iphone facebook desktoptd aol jasonkottke nyc jenbekman mobiletelephones design pixar apple photography art mcsweeneys harrypotter geography books tv tennis

All-time popular tags
movies books photography nyc science food lists design business sports weblogs music art video bestof games tv funny apple language videogames google restaurants interviews maps

Random tags
bengibbard ajax sony pizza arthurclarke mattwebb kenjennings lordoftherings d70 soda textmate vogue aLinknildash lifeaquatic china starbucks anaisnin barnabyfurnas stevenspielberg upperdeck election2008 meteorology uptonsinclair legendofzelda foodnetwork

I recommend a trip to the archives, including the very earliest posts. I enjoyed the "about" page as well. Great fun!

Update: *Kottke was born in the Twin Cities, where I now live. He left at an early age though.
Update 9/23/07: Browsing Kottke's archives, I see he was back in Minneapolis from 1996-2000. Ahh, that explains it. Nice post on the Mill City Museum too.

Do you know where your identities are?

Yes, this chap has more than most geezers, but you probably have more selves than you realize.
Gordon's Tech: Online identities: management and multiplication:

... I currently have manged 'major' identities at Amazon,,, Google Gmail/Blogger, LinkedIn, and, yes, even Facebook -- and those are only the ones I can remember right now. I debated including my Yahoo! identity in the mix, but unless Yahoo does something remarkable with Zimbra that's just a front for spammers. I do have a Microsoft Passport (or whatever they call that now) identity as well, but I try to forget that one. I used to have a .Mac identity, but Apple's .Mac hasn't delivered much value for money so that one is in abeyance. There are a myriad of 'unmanaged' lesser identities, and of course all my emails have some form of identity associated with them ...
It's the gold rush of the 21st century, each identity a piece of reputation management. Which ring will bind them all?

If we survive, we will be Sweden

I think Africans are more optimistic than Swedes. Having said that, I'll comment on Follow Me Here and the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World. Essentially, the more "enlightenment 2.0" you are, the more you move to the top right of the chart.

The blessed nations include Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and, way out there at tip-top, Sweden. Japan and New Zealand approach from different directions, the US has a ways to move.

I'd love to see a dynamic model of this chart, showing the movement of nations over the past 30 years. Zimbabwe, by the way, now owns the bottom left.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Attitudes change: suicide bombing is unfashionable

This news is two months old, but a bloglines glitch threw it up today. I don't recall commenting on it before; it deserves a mention.
No wonder Muslim support for suicide bombing is declining | FP Passport

...The percentage of Muslims saying that suicide bombing is justified in the defense of Islam has declined dramatically over the past five years in five of eight countries where trends are available. In Lebanon, for example, just 34% of Muslims say suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are often or sometimes justified; in 2002, 74% expressed this view...
Next year it might be 20%. That's a change worth mentioning.

America's Billion Dollar Embassy - in Baghdad

Worth reading so you know what the Feds are up to:
Welcome to Baghdad, U.S.A. | FP Passport

...Located in Baghdad’s 4-square-mile Green Zone, the embassy will occupy 104 acres. It will be six times larger than the U.N. complex in New York and more than 10 times the size of the new U.S. Embassy being built in Beijing.... The Baghdad compound will be entirely self-sufficient, with no need to rely on the Iraqis for services of any kind. The embassy has its own electricity plant, fresh water and sewage treatment facilities, storage warehouses, and maintenance shops. The embassy is composed of more than 20 buildings, including six apartment complexes with 619 one-bedroom units. Two office blocks will accommodate about 1,000 employees.... Once inside the compound, Americans will have almost no reason to leave. It will have a shopping market, food court, movie theater, beauty salon, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, a school, and an American Club for social gatherings...
A billion dollars.

The cure for the AMT: The Carbon Tax

A few weeks ago, in the context of my carbon tax thread, I noted the synergy between our trillion dollar infrastructure bill and a carbon tax. That's a spend-side synergy though, so in the interest of encouraging my one GOP reader I'll mention there's also a tax-side synergy.

America is hooked on the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax). You can disregard all the Bush blather about cutting taxes, because he hasn't cut my taxes at all -- he's basically only cut the estate tax that affects very wealthy people. That's because I pay the AMT.

Inflation and economic growth will drive more and more Americans to pay the AMT. This is good in a way, because it's a built-in tax engine, though I think this has already been incorporated into social security and medicare projections. (Meaning if we actually did anything about the creeping tax aspect of the AMT our current huge deficits would see modest.) On the other hand, Republicans are allegedly supposed to hate taxes (true, that's not the way the Bush administration behaves, but it's the theory).

So here's the deal. Make the Carbon Tax "tax neutral". Use it to replace the AMT.

The roads will still need rebuilding, and medicare and social security will still be underfunded, but that's a political discussion. Providing a planet for our children is more important than getting our nation's finances in order.

So there you go Republicans -- embrace the Carbon Tax and axe the AMT. Let's see a candidate come out and say that ...

The dinosaur you ate yesterday

You probably ate an avian yesterday -- a turkey or chicken perhaps. You ate a dinosaur ...
Velociraptor was just a scary turkey, say scientists | Science | The Guardian

... Velociraptor, which was much smaller in real life than its screen version, was a one-metre tall, two-legged predator that lived more than 70m years ago. Equipped with large claws on each leg, it was a close relative to the earliest birds.

In a study of the fossilised forearms of velociraptors found in Mongolia in 1998, palaeontologist Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History found 'quill knobs' - bumps where the feathers used for flight in modern birds are anchored to the bone with ligaments. His results are published today in the journal Science.

'The more that we learn about these animals the more we find that there is basically no difference between birds and their closely related dinosaur ancestors like velociraptor,' said Professor Norell. 'Both have wishbones, brooded their nests, possess hollow bones, and were covered in feathers. If animals like velociraptor were alive today our first impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds.'

Because of velociraptor's relatively short forelimbs, the feathers would not have helped it to fly. The researchers speculated that the feathers could have been passed down from smaller ancestors that did fly but would have served other functions such as display, shielding nests, temperature control or to help stability.
Geezers like me still tend to think the dinosaurs became extinct, but my son Ben's books talk only about the 'extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs'. The dinosaurs that attract our imagination were probably all avian dinosaurs, so, truly, they never did become extinct. Now that's a successful design ...

Distrusting climate models - it cuts both ways

The newest rational attack on global warming fears is to denounce climate models as unreliable predictors. It's true that these attacks are often motivated by tribal allegiances, perversity, fear, denial and bribes -- but they're still important. Semi-rationalist opposition helped establish that CO2 is rising, and helped establish that we have been warming for over a 100 years, and warming faster over the past 10-20 years.

Now that those battles are done, we have to justly fight the battles over the reliability of climate simulation. I'm not making bets on this one, I think the deniers may have a case. Simulation is hard, the models may not work.

Of course (insert evil laughter), this cuts both ways. The models may exaggerate climate change, or they may underestimate it. Observational data from the arctic shows that in that region the models have been consistently too conservative (emphases mine)...
The North Pole Is Melting: Scientific American

... As a result of atmospheric patterns that both warmed the air and reduced cloud cover as well as increased residual heat in newly exposed ocean waters, such melting helped open the fabled Northwest Passage for the first time [see photo] this summer and presaged tough times for polar bears and other Arctic animals that rely on sea ice to survive, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Such precipitous loss of ice cover far outpaces anything climate models or scientists have predicted.

This new record low continues the trend of steadily shrinking summer sea ice. "We're already set up for a big loss next year," Serreze notes. "We've got so much open water in the Arctic right now that has absorbed so much energy over the summer that the ocean has warmed. The ice that grows back this autumn will be thin."

In fact, a German expedition on the icebreaker Polarstern has revealed that existing Arctic sea ice in the center of the ice cap is only about three feet (one meter) thick, 50 percent thinner than it was just six years ago. As a result, more melt water is mixing with the salty seawater and pulses of warmer Atlantic seawater have intruded into the Arctic Ocean.

Whereas the South Pole remains protected by differing geographic, atmospheric and oceanic conditions, the North Pole is undergoing rapid change not seen in at least 6,000 years and perhaps as much as 125,000 years, and which may spread to lower latitudes. "It is reasonable to think that if you lose the sea ice cover that is going to have an impact elsewhere, in the midlatitudes," Serreze says. Some modeling studies of such effects have suggested drought in the western U.S. or changes in precipitation patterns across Europe.

Serreze expects the ice will bounce back somewhat next year, if only because he cannot imagine it shrinking any more so swiftly. But ice-free summers in the Arctic may become the norm in the near future. "At this point, I'd say the year 2030 is not unreasonable" for a summer without sea ice in the Arctic, Serreze says. "Within our lifetimes and certainly within our children's lifetimes."

When that occurs, the Arctic Ocean may become a spooky, foggy place, haunted by diminished populations of spectrally thin polar bears clinging to life in residual habitat. "It's going to be a different world," Serreze notes. "The observed rates of change have far outstripped what we projected."
The antarctic is mercifully protected, but as goes the Arctic, so goes Greenland. That may lead to faster sea level changes than the simulations predict, but I expect they will be in line with estimates of ancient climate impacts on Greenland.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, we live the future. Our climate in the continental center is very affected by arctic conditions. The Feds have moved southern MN into a new climactic zone, outdoor ice skating is disappearing, Nordic (cross-country) skiing is finished in the metro area, snow sledding now requires artificial snow, the northern snowmobile industry has collapsed and we're building lots of indoor water parks to get the kids through increasingly dull winters.

Carbon tax, anybody?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Network TV commits sepuku - Fake Steve Jobs gloats

NBC and ABC can't help themselves. It's like watching a slow motion multi-train wreck. Forbes' "Fake Steve Jobs" provides the pithiest summary...
The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs: We're thrilled about this NBC download service:

... NBC is making a big deal of saying that the downloads will be free. Free! Free! Did you hear me? Not 99 cents like that greedy bastard Jobso, but FREE! Well they made sure the word 'free' would get into all the headlines but when you read the stories a little more closely you find the warts. Like, the commercials will be embedded into the shows and you won't be able to skip over them. Like, you'll only be able to download to a Windows PC. Like, they'll only be free for seven days after broadcast. Then they dissolve. If you want to get them later, you'll have to pay. How much? Um, ah, mwah mwah oh did we mention that they're free for the first seven days?

Oh, and if you want shows from ABC, you can go to AOL. (And yes, heads are rolling at Disney over that deal. More on that later.) Money quote from the story about the ABC-AOL deal: 'The consumer is probably becoming confused. He will need to go to AOL to watch ABC. CBS programming is on the iPod. NBC will be doing direct downloads from its own website. NBC and News Corp (NWS) are starting a joint online venture called Hulu.' So, fair enough. Bring on the big media cluster fuck. Roll out all the different systems that don't work together. Bring on all the different kinds of software...
Wow. The demographic that wants to watch commercial infested television on a Windows PC must be absolutely HUGE ...

[Caveat: I get hives when I think of watching commercial TV, so you may assume my opinions on this topic are particularly ill-informed.]

Ramstad - another bad sign for the GOP

I met Jim Ramstad a few years ago, while he was doing a walkabout at my employer's - a major donor of his. He was a bit of a puzzle; an intelligent if misguided man who ran with the GOP. He owned the 3rd district, a suburban zone west of Minneapolis. His retirement is great news for the Dems, and another bad sign for the GOP (emphases mine):
Ramstad's exit sets off a scramble in 3rd District

Citing fatigue and political isolation, U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad triggered a scramble by potential successors with a surprise announcement Monday that he is retiring from Congress next year after nine terms.

Ramstad, 61, had barely finished announcing his decision when at least five potential candidates declared an interest in going after his seat while other potential hopefuls were mentioned..

...He said he has grown tired from the relentless physical grind of service in Washington and weary of being a lonely centrist in an increasingly polarized legislative body.

... The congressman called himself one of the last of a "dying breed of Republican moderates." He has increasingly called on Washington politicians to "work in a more bipartisan and pragmatic way," as he put it Monday. "People need to put aside the harsh rhetoric on both sides of the aisle."

Although Ramstad has long easily cruised to reelection, he warned that the Third District "is not a safe Republican district," pointing out that Bill Clinton won it twice, John Kerry almost won it and it currently has more DFLers in the Legislature than Republicans.

... About a month ago, during a session at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Ramstad said he had been feeling increasingly isolated in his party as it has tacked to the right.

... Ramstad said he has no plans to return to politics. Instead, he wants to teach and work with people suffering from chemical addiction and possibly work a stint in academia.

He is now cosponsoring the mental health "parity" legislation with Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., whom Ramstad has been mentoring since Kennedy's high-profile car crash, which was related to prescription drug use....

... He broke with his party five times this year in key votes, most notably against the troop surge in February. He voted with Democrats to increase the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour over the next two years, to allow the government to negotiate directly with drugmakers for lower prescription costs and to implement recommendations by the 9/11 Commission.

He also voted for a bill that would repeal tax cuts to oil companies and fund renewable energy programs.

He voted with the GOP against a troop reduction in July and for funding for the war without withdrawal deadlines in May.
Ramstad basically voted as a Clinton Democrat, I wonder if he ever considered switching parties. The Dems could never have defeated him for that district, but now it's definitely in play. If nothing else, it will suck GOP resources to defend it.

It's a measure of the fall of the GOP that it's losing its last highly electable centrists. The next election may take them to the point where they either reform or become irrelevant. I'm hoping for reform -- the Dems without a rational opposition would be like Apple without ... errr ... like Apple 2007.

Squanto and the non-Puritan non-Pilgrim "Fathers"

As a Canadian I'd been spared the folklore of the first American thanksgiving, so I was surprised five eight years ago when I chanced upon a neglected monument in a decrepit park by the town of Squantum, across the harbor from Boston. The monument park was near the closed causeway to Moon island and its mysterious Potemkin Village.

From GeoMapped Images
Who, I wondered, was Squanto? Why was the nearby town evidently named after him?

When I returned home I read what was then known of Squanto, the one man who connects both Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. I later learned that in his own language his name meant the equivalent of Satan. We don't think the "Pilgrim Fathers", of whom only half were religious and that half was Separatist, not Puritan, knew what his name meant. Had they known, they would have considered that a most curious omen.

Today the Wikipedia entry isn't a terrible introduction, but it's been vandalized and seems too incredible even for a life as astounding as Squanto's:
Squanto - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

.. Tisquantum was kidnapped and taken by Georgie Weymouth in 1605, according to the memoirs of Ferdinando Gorges. According to Gorges, Tisquantum worked in England for nine years before returning to the New World on John Smith's 1613 voyage... [jg: that's Jamestown I think?]

Soon after returning to his tribe in 1614, Tisquantum was kidnapped by another Englishman, Thomas Hunt. Hunt was one of John Smith's lieutenants. Hunt was planning to sell fish, corn, and captured slaves in Málaga, Spain. Hunt attempted to sell Tisquantum and a number of other Native Americans into slavery for £20 apiece[citation needed].

Sir Ferdinando Gorges, in A Brief Relation of the Discovery and Plantation of New England (London, 1622) wrote that some local friars, however, discovered what Hunt was attempting and took the remaining Indians, Tisquantum included, in order to instruct them in the Christian faith.

Eventually, Tisquantum escaped to London, living with a John Slany for a few years, and then went to Cuper's Cove, Newfoundland. Attempting to avoid the walk from Newfoundland to his home village, Tisquantum tried to take part in an expedition to that part of the North American east coast.

He returned to Ireland in 1618, however, when that plan fell through...

He returned once more to his homeland in 1619, making his way with an exploratory expedition along the New England coast. He was soon to discover that his tribe, as well as a majority of coastal New England tribes, had been decimated the year before by a plague...

Tisquantum finally settled with the Pilgrims and helped them recover from their first difficult winter by teaching them to increase their food production by fertilizing their crops, and by directing them to the best places to catch fish and eels.

Whatever Tisquantum's motives, he ended up distrusted by both the English and the Native people. Massasoit, the sachem who originally appointed Tisquantum a diplomat to the Pilgrims, did not trust him before the tribe's dealing with the pilgrims...

On his way back from a meeting to repair the damaged relations between the Natives and the Pilgrims, Tisquantum became sick with a fever... He died a few days later in 1622 in Chatham, Massachusetts, and is now buried in an unmarked grave on Burial Hill in Chathamport, overlooking Ryder's Cove...
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry is briefer but only slightly less incredible (no trip to Ireland):
Squanto was born into the Pawtuxet tribe that occupied lands in present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Little is known about his early life. Some authorities believe that he was taken from home to England in 1605 by George Weymouth and returned with explorer John Smith in 1614–15. He was, in any event, seized with other Indians by one of Smith's men, Thomas Hunt, who took them to the Mediterranean port of Málaga, Spain, to be sold into slavery. Squanto somehow escaped to England and joined the Newfoundland Company. He returned home in 1619 on his second trip back to North America only to find that his tribe had been wiped out by disease.

During the spring of 1621, Squanto was brought to the newly founded Pilgrim settlement of Plymouth by Samoset, an Indian who had been befriended by the English settlers. Squanto, who had been living with the Wampanoag tribe since his return from England, soon became a member of the Plymouth colony. Because Squanto was fluent in English, Governor William Bradford made him his Indian emissary, and he then served as interpreter for Edward Winslow, the Pilgrim representative, during his negotiations with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags. Squanto died while guiding Bradford on Cape Cod.
Squanto's side trip with the Newfoundland company meant he was away when the plague depopulated most of the northeastern US. I'd read that it was Smallpox, but the descriptions didn't sound like Smallpox. If anything, it was even nastier. Modern historians apparently suspect Bubonic Plague, probably delivered by French fishermen off the coast of what is now Maine. The Europeans were relatively resistant -- though I wonder if plague didn't play a role in the 50% mortality rate of the "Pilgrim Fathers" during their first winter in America.

When Squanto returned home, after his astounding exile and enduring all manner of suffering, he would have found everyone he knew was dead. He himself only lived two more years, but during that time he saved the half-dead English immigrants. Without his training they would have certainly died. As it was the Pilgrims lingered on for a few years, before giving up and being absorbed by the massive Puritan migration that followed them. They were all but lost to history, until the Civil War led to a mythic reinvention of the first (euro) "Americans". [Update: see comment from GTT, I got this from the IOT lecture - In Our Time: The Pilgrim Fathers.]

For a bit more on this topic, though not enough on the most amazing figure of early euro-american history, do listen to In Our Time: The Pilgrim Fathers.

Oh, and the next time you serve that turkey, pause for a moment to reflect on the short, turbulent, violent and astounding life of Squanto. He paid a high price and ought not to be lost to memory.

Update 9/22/07: Jamestown. Plymouth Rock. John Smith. Myles Standish. A boat of religious zealots and roughneck desperadoes. The Black Plague. Slavery. Exotic locales. Alien cultures. The death of a civilization. Through it all ... Squanto, who's name meant Satan (or Lucifer?). Come on you-tubers, a dolt could make a classic movie of this material.

Kafka and the twilight of twentieth century aviation

Kafka would have understood.

I laughed when the "puffer" went off. I was in the "puffer" because of an "SSSS" on my boarding pass. I got the SSSS because I was on a one way flight over two airlines. I was one way because my 6:30 am Northwest Airline flight was canceled (probably for lack of a pilot [jf: actually, the engine couldn't be repaired]). The 6:30 am was a rescheduled flight from the 3:45 pm of the day before, which had a "slight mechanical". We sat for an hour or so waiting to learn about the delay, but we were never told anything -- except that the hotels were full. We knew, by word of mouth, that the mechanical was a bird that had shut down an engine on approach. Nobody expected the flight to leave.

I extorted a $15 breakfast voucher from NWA. That'll show 'em.

Another day, another airline anecdote. They're piling up. NWA can't stop birds from knocking out engines, but the problem is their system is so over-stressed it has no capacity to absorb shocks and surprises. Instead, everything piles up. There are no seats on outgoing planes anywhere. What was once a delay of a few hours becomes a day's delay.

After 9/11 I thought videoconferencing would catch on. I was wrong. 9/11 did not disrupt airline travel for me nearly as much as this constant drip-drip systemic dysfunction. It's costing the US economy a fortune's fortune.

Maybe this is the year Cringely will be right. More than that, maybe we'll look back and say that 2003 was the apex of 20th century air travel, that we're moving into something new and unpredictable ...

Update 9/20/07: I did get home, only out 24 hours, $200 in additional expenses, and 4 hours sleep and 6 hours of work (I worked on the plane, so it wasn't at total loss). A few other events along the way emphasized the key point of a system strained past the breaking point:
  1. When we arrived to get a NWA flight in Sacramento NWA's computers had crashed -- so there were no seat assignments. I thought we'd have a "Lord of the Flies" free-for-all scramble for the seats but the plane was half-empty (alas, it would have made a better story if we'd fought to the death for the seats ...).
  2. My employers costly travel service is supposed to cut costs when these things mess up, but I listened to their hold music for a total of 40 minutes when the first flight was delayed. I presume they were swamped by my colleagues suffering similar screw-ups across the nation.
  3. As a final jest, my seat on the last flight was broken and would not recline. I used to report broken seats, but they're very common on NWA and I've noticed the attendants never take notes when I report these things. I have a hunch their memories aren't any better than mine ...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Krugman's blog

The day that the NYT ends Times Select Paul Krugman's blog launches:
Introducing This Blog - Paul Krugman - Op-Ed Columnist - New York Times Blog

...For now, though, the important thing is to realize that the story of modern America is, in large part, the story of the fall and rise of inequality.
I don't believe the official story that Krugman played no role in the end of Times Select.

NYT frees Paul Krugman

I held out against TimesSelect for a year, then gave up and sent 'em $50. They've now given up the struggle.

Times to Stop Charging for Parts of Its Web Site - New York Times

....Those who have paid in advance for access to TimesSelect will be reimbursed on a prorated basis...

...Many readers lamented their loss of access to the work of the 23 news and opinion columnists of The Times — as did some of the columnists themselves. Some of those writers have such ardent followings that even with access restricted, their work often appeared on the lists of the most e-mailed articles.

By which they mean Krugman. I wonder what role he played in this ending, I thought they'd hold out longer. If his contract was up he might have threatened to leave.

They don't talk about the role blogs played in excerpting and republishing the paywalled content. Too bad there are no journalists there to dig a bit deeper into the story.

Welcome back to the real world Frank and Paul ... and the others ...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Scroogled - a jaundiced view of Google's future

Cory Doctorow is a privacy campaigner and a professional writer. He combines the two in Scroogled.

Conclusion? Live life as though everyone knows what you do and think today. That's not true yet, but it's not too early to start ...

Greenspan on the weak: it is right that the parasites die

There's a very dark thread in many libertarians, a thread that ran through Fascism as well. In theory a Libertarian might choose to help the weak, but object to being forced to give aid; in practice many of the true believers seemed to feel that justice, arising from the ethical primacy of the superior, requires the death of the weak ...
Ayn Rand’s Literature of Capitalism - New York Times

... Mr. Greenspan met Rand when he was 25 and working as an economic forecaster. She was already renowned as the author of “The Fountainhead,” a novel about an architect true to his principles. Mr. Greenspan had married a member of Rand’s inner circle, known as the Collective, that met every Saturday night in her New York apartment. Rand did not pay much attention to Mr. Greenspan until he began praising drafts of “Atlas,” which she read aloud to her disciples, according to Jeff Britting, the archivist of Ayn Rand’s papers. He was attracted, Mr. Britting said, to “her moral defense of capitalism.”...

... Shortly after “Atlas Shrugged” was published in 1957, Mr. Greenspan wrote a letter to The New York Times to counter a critic’s comment that “the book was written out of hate.” Mr. Greenspan wrote: “ ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”
He was 25 then, and infatuated with power in general and Ms. Rand in particular. Still, it is an extremely revealing statement. I wonder if he felt that it was ok to exterminate the parasites if they weren't dying off quickly enough.

I'm sure he's doing some book tours. I look forward to someone asking whether he's reconsidered his attitude to the feeble, and whether most of the religious right falls into the parasite category.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Maybe we can't drink the water ...

I've always been a tap water guy. Maybe I need to switch to wine ... (emphases mine)
Battling tainted water:

...Groundwater contaminated with industrial chemicals lurks under vast portions of the Twin Cities metropolitan area even though more than $200 million has been spent over two decades to combat the problem. The contamination, a legacy of once-prevalent industrial dumping, persists beneath communities from Edina to New Brighton to Woodbury. In Washington County, the spread of underground pollution is turning out to be worse than anyone thought.

A Star Tribune examination of groundwater monitoring reports, maps and other records has identified 20 significant plumes of contaminated groundwater underlying parts of 35 metro communities. If added together, the polluted zones would equal an area 2½ times the size of Minneapolis.
I doubt we're unique. We'll be cleaning up the ground water 100 years from now -- if we're lucky. Ethanol biofuels, by the way, are very hard on ground water ...

Broken hearts at WSJ editorial offices: Greenspan on Bush and Clinton

I came, by chance, on yesterday's WSJ. The lead story was that Greenspan thinks Bush, Cheney et al have betrayed American and the "libertarian" GOP, whereas Clinton was brilliant. Today The NYT picks up the story: "Alan Greenspan, who was chairman of the Federal Reserve for nearly two decades, in a long-awaited memoir, is harshly critical of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the Republican-controlled Congress, as abandoning their party’s principles on spending and deficits."

My first thought, was how the WSJ editorial page was going to spin this. The barking mad rabid loons that write the editorial page loved Greenspan almost as much as they hated Clinton and adored Cheney/Bush.

The answer, of course, is obvious. Yesterday's WSJ editorial page had no reference of any sort to the paper's lead story.

I'm enjoying their broken hearts ...

Frank Rich: comments on the forgotten war

Frank Rich used to write about culture and the arts for the NYT, that gives him a special interest in the mass psyche. The most interesting parts of his post-Petraeus commentary are about how the American gestalt has grown bored of War ...
Will the Democrats Betray Us? - New York Times - Frank Rich

SIR, I don't know, actually": The fact that America's surrogate commander in chief, David Petraeus, could not say whether the war in Iraq is making America safer was all you needed to take away from last week's festivities in Washington. Everything else was a verbal quagmire, as administration spin and senatorial preening fought to a numbing standoff.

Not that many Americans were watching .... New bin Laden tapes and the latest 9/11 memorial rites notwithstanding, we're back in a 9/10 mind-set. Bin Laden, said Frances Townsend, the top White House homeland security official, "is virtually impotent." Karen Hughes, the Bush crony in charge of America's P.R. in the jihadists' world, recently held a press conference anointing Cal Ripken Jr. our international "special sports envoy." We are once more sleepwalking through history, fiddling while the Qaeda not in Iraq prepares to burn...

...there were some eerie symmetries between General Petraeus's sales pitch last week and its often-noted historical antecedent: Gen. William Westmoreland's similar mission for L.B.J. before Congress on April 28, 1967. Westmoreland, too, refused to acknowledge that our troops were caught in a civil war. He spoke as well of the "repeated successes" of the American-trained South Vietnamese military and ticked off its growing number of combat-ready battalions. "The strategy we're following at this time is the proper one," the general assured America, and "is producing results."

Those fabulous results delayed our final departure from Vietnam for another eight years — just short of the nine to 10 years General Petraeus has said may be needed for a counterinsurgency in Iraq. But there's a crucial difference between the Westmoreland show of 1967 and the 2007 revival by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Westmoreland played to a full and largely enthusiastic house. Most Americans still supported the war in Vietnam and trusted him; so did all but a few members of Congress, regardless of party. All three networks pre-empted their midday programming for Westmoreland's Congressional appearance.

Our Iraq commander, by contrast, appeared before a divided and stalemated Congress just as an ABC News-Washington Post poll found that most Americans believed he would overhype progress in Iraq. No network interrupted a soap opera for his testimony. On cable the hearings fought for coverage with Britney Spears's latest self-immolation and the fate of Madeleine McCann, our latest JonBenet Ramsey stand-in.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker could grab an hour of prime television time only by slinking into the safe foxhole of Fox News, where Brit Hume chaperoned them on a gloomy, bunkerlike set before an audience of merely 1.5 million true believers. Their "Briefing for America," as Fox titled it, was all too fittingly interrupted early on for a commercial promising pharmaceutical relief from erectile dysfunction.

Even if military "victory" were achievable in Iraq, America could not win a war abandoned by its own citizens. The evaporation of that support was ratified by voters last November. For that, they were rewarded with the "surge." Now their mood has turned darker. Americans have not merely abandoned the war; they don't want to hear anything that might remind them of it, or of war in general. Katie Couric's much-promoted weeklong visit to the front produced ratings matching the CBS newscast's all-time low. Angelina Jolie's movie about Daniel Pearl sank without a trace. Even Clint Eastwood's wildly acclaimed movies about World War II went begging. Over its latest season, "24" lost a third of its viewers, just as Mr. Bush did between January's prime-time address and last week's.

You can't blame the public for changing the channel. People realize that the president's real "plan for victory" is to let his successor clean up the mess. They don't want to see American troops dying for that cause, but what can be done? Americans voted the G.O.P. out of power in Congress; a clear majority consistently tell pollsters they want out of Iraq. And still every day is Groundhog Day. Our America, unlike Vietnam-era America, is more often resigned than angry. Though the latest New York Times-CBS News poll finds that only 5 percent trust the president to wrap up the war, the figure for the (barely) Democratic-controlled Congress, 21 percent, is an almost-as-resounding vote of no confidence...
As a commander in chief Petraeus is at least an improvement on Cheney, though it's a bit worrisome that he wasn't elected. Rich continues his editorial with demands that Obama and Clinton declare a withdrawal date, conveniently forgetting that Edwards has received no support for a similar position. Rich's advice is at odds with his key observation: Americans have forgotten about Iraq -- and bin Laden too, for that matter. They won't respond to rhetorical reminders.

So what should Rationalists be hoping for?

Nobody should have any trust, of any sort in anything coming from executive branch. They're either lying (Cheney et al) or delusional (Bush et al). The Senate, I think, has the constitutional authority to develop their own channels to the truth, but the Senate is only barely Democrat. It won't be easy, and it may not be feasible.

My own recommendation for the Democrats (that should get their attention :-)!) and for Edwards, Obama, Clinton, is to make this their central theme. "We need information we can trust, and we're going to do whatever is constitutionally allowed to get it."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Historian wanted: The American Liberty League and 1930s fascism

I knew that America had had a quite vigorous fascist movement in the 1930s, but I hadn't read about the "American Liberty League"...
Damn Interesting » The Revenge of the Fighting Quaker

In the early 1930s, a secret collection of prosperous men are said to have assembled in New York City to discuss the dissolution of America's democracy. As a consequence of the Great Depression, the countryside was littered with unemployed, and the world's wealthy were watching as their fortunes deflated and their investments evaporated. As men of action, the well-financed New York group sought to eliminate what they reasoned to be the crux of the catastrophe: the United States government.

To assist them in their diabolical scheme, the resourceful plotters recruited the assistance of Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, a venerated, highly decorated, and considerably jaded former Marine. It was the conspirators' earnest hope that their army of 500,000 Great War veterans, under the leadership of General Butler, could overpower the US' feeble peacetime military and reconstitute the government as a more economical fascist dictatorship...

...The credibility of MacGuire's claims was reinforced when he produced evidence of considerable cash resources and made some eerily accurate predictions regarding personnel changes in the White House. He also accurately described the still-secret but soon-to-be-announced American Liberty League, a high-profile group whose stated purpose was to "defend and uphold the Constitution." The League's principal players were comprised of wealthy Americans, including the leaders of DuPont, JP Morgan, US Steel, General Motors, Standard Oil, Colgate, Heinz Foods, Chase National Bank, and Goodyear Tire. There are some who claim that Prescott Bush– father to the 41st US President and grandfather to the 43rd– was also entangled in the scheme.

On 22 August 1934, upon his return from a fact-finding trip to Europe, Gerald MacGuire dropped all pretense when he met with General Butler at an empty hotel restaurant. He indicated that his financial backers aimed to assemble an army of half a million disgruntled veterans, sown from the seeds of the original Bonus Army. He also stated that the group would like Butler to be the leader of this force. "We've got three million [dollars] to start with on the line," MacGuire claimed, "and we can get three hundred million if we need it." ...

...In the autumn of 1934, General Smedley "Old Duckboard" Butler finally sprang into action. A crowd of journalists surrounded him as he addressed the nation in a press conference. But the General did not demand the surrender of the United States government. Instead, he related to the reporters the details of the secret pro-fascist plot, and described the principal players. "The upshot of the whole thing," he explained, "was that I was supposed to lead an organization of five hundred thousand men which would be able to take over the functions of government." The Old Gimlet Eye, it turned out, had been playing along with Gerald MacGuire in order to glean information about the plot. Though Smedley Butler had indeed grown weary of being a government-sponsored "gangster for capitalism," he was still a true patriot. Butler's associate– Paul Comly French– was in actuality an undercover reporter for the Philadelphia Record and New York Evening Post. The two men testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), delighted to disclose all they had gathered from MacGuire. Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander James Van Zandt also testified, stating that he had likewise been approached to lead such a march on Washington.
The Wikipedia article points to a web page with more details and names:
... Who were the men making up this organization? There was, of course, its chairman, Jouett Shouse, a GM executive, former chairman of the Executive Committee of the Democratic Party, and former president of the Association against the Prohibition Amendment. Then there were Alfred E. Smith and John W. Davis, former Democratic presidential candidates; Congressman James W. Wadsworth (who would eventually become the father-in-law of Sen. Stuart Symington); Nathan Miller, a director of U.S. Steel and a one-time governor of New York; John Rascob, another GM executive and former Democratic national chairman; Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., head of General Motors; Ernest T. Weir of Weirton Steel; Dr. Samuel Hardey Church, head of the Carnegie Institute; David A. Reed, former Republican senator from Pennsylvania; Hal Roach, motion picture producer; Sewell Avery of Montgomery Ward; Joseph B. Ely, former Democratic governor of Massachusetts; Howard Pew of Sun Oil; James Beck, constitutional authority; and the Du Pont brothers—Irenee, Lammot, and Pierre.
Nice to see Sloan was into all kinds of management improvements. Note the bipartisan membership, lots of people hated Roosevelt. I wonder what Kerry's wife might have heard about the Heinz family connection, but I doubt GWB will tell us much about his grandfather's role.

There's one book mentioned, but, best of all, there's a BBC History broadcast (7/23/2007) you can listen to, or much better, turn it into a podcast:
The coup was aimed at toppling President Franklin D Roosevelt with the help of half-a-million war veterans. The plotters, who were alleged to involve some of the most famous families in America, (owners of Heinz, Birds Eye, Goodtea, Maxwell Hse & George Bush’s Grandfather, Prescott) believed that their country should adopt the policies of Hitler and Mussolini to beat the great depression.

Mike Thomson investigates why so little is known about this biggest ever peacetime threat to American democracy.
Thomson is asking the right question, the curious thing about this story is how little curiosity there's been about it. Well, maybe the time is right to learn more ...

DI is really a great blog ...

Update 9/25/07: I've finished listening to the BBC History broadcast (7/23/2007). It's not bad, but it suffers from melodramatic narratives, faux suspense, and cloying music. Clearly the BBC History shows are not quite in the same league as "In Our Time". The connection to GWB's grandfather, Prescott Bush, is pretty weak. PB was employed by a company that allied itself with Nazi Germany and had a connection to the people who organized the quasi-fascist Liberty Alliance, but that's all they mentioned. The Heinz, Dupont, JP Morgan, Sloane, etc connections to the Liberty Alliance stronger are stronger; they were probably fascist sympathizers back when that meant a corporate-government union rather than Auschwitz.

The national archives on the affair are remarkably slender, and it does appear that a significant part of Smedley-Butlers testimony was excluded -- indeed, the chair of the "House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities", then chaired by John McCormack (presumably a democrat) and Samuel Dickstein (republican?) admitted as much. The details were to be kept secret pending a full investigation, but that investigation never happened. No record is available now of anything but Butler's accusations, and the NYT article (see below) hints that Butler didn't have any physical or corroborating evidence.

There's a possibly historically significant twist to this. It's plausible that Roosevelt used the bad publicity, and the Liberty Alliance connections, to arm twist force Morgan, Heinz, Dupon, Sloane et al to cooperate with the "New Deal". One wonders if he could have pushed through the New Deal without that leverage. If so, then it's plausible that an american-fascist plot was key to the success of Roosevelt's New Deal, and thus, arguably, to the defeat of Hitler's empire ....

Here's the coverage from the NYT archives for Nov 21, 1934:
Gen. Butler Bares 'Fascist Plot' To Seize Government by Force; Says Bond Salesman, as Representative of Wall St. Group, Asked Him to Lead Army of 500,000 in March on Capital -- Those Named Make Angry Denials -- Dickstein Gets Charge. GEN. BUTLER BARES A 'FASCIST PLOT'
November 21, 1934, Wednesday

A plot of Wall Street interests to overthrow President Roosevelt and establish a Fascist dictatorship, backed by a private army of 500,000 ex-soldiers and others, was charged by Major Gen. Smedley D. Butler, retired Marine Corps officer, who appeared yesterday before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, which began hearings on the charges.
The fully NYT (PDF) article has more details:
  • MacGuire was a bond salesman for Grayson M.P. Murphy & Co, I think Grayson was supposed to have created the Liberty Alliance.
  • General Hugh Hackson, an NRA administrator was alleged to be the dictator in waiting
  • JP Morgan and Co was supposed to be leading donors
  • Only the two chairs of the House committee heard the testimony
Reading the NYT article today it feels as though the uncredited journalist was a bit skeptical ...