Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Islamofascism; the greatest threat ever

I can't add anything to Krugman's comments here:
Fearing Fear Itself - Krugman New York Times

... "And Mike Huckabee, whom reporters like to portray as a nice, reasonable guy, says that if Hillary Clinton is elected, “I’m not sure we’ll have the courage and the will and the resolve to fight the greatest threat this country’s ever faced in Islamofascism.” Yep, a bunch of lightly armed terrorists and a fourth-rate military power — which aren’t even allies — pose a greater danger than Hitler’s panzers or the Soviet nuclear arsenal ever did...
The Party of Bozo indeed.

iPhone progress: pretty darned slow

My crummy Palm Tungsten T/2 is failing fast -- the power switch has died (a known design flaw) and the LiOn battery is good for about 3 hours (died within a year of purchase). It crashes frequently and is, really, an awful thing. Palm deserves to die.

The Palm world is pretty awful, but I hate my RAZR more.

Wouldn't it be nice if I could replace both of 'em, and not have to carry an iPod around too? What a great idea!

Yeah. The iPhone. Gee, I almost forgot about that #$&^@# thing.

Problem is, the iPhone is making very slow progress on my "most have" and "nice to have" iPhone demands. Let's check the list (updates in bold):

  1. Copy, Cut, Paste: No progress
  2. Search: No progress
  3. Tasks at least comparable to the 1994 PalmPilot tasks: No progress. Task sync was supposed to be in 10.5 but was dropped.
  4. Synchronization with Outlook at least comparable to the modern Palm OS (in other words, flawed, but useable). A 256 character limit on contact comments is not acceptable. No progress.
  5. Run FileMaker RemoteL No progress, except a rumor that FileMaker is abandoning FM Remote completely.
  6. Synchronize notes. : No progress. Dropped from 10.5
  7. Multi select and process for email. : No progress.
  8. Apple needs to fix the "international problem". It's ridiculously easy to run up a $1000 phone bill unintentionally when outside the US. The phone needs to provides a permission-only control over non-US EDGE access. Fixed.
  9. Enable iPhone Bluetooth tethering, so a computer can use it to go online. (added in honor of Boingo). No progress.
Wishes, not demands:
  1. A real calculator. No progress.
  2. Flatten the recessed headphone socket. No progress.
  3. Site-selective synchronization - so can sync at both work and home, but not send home data to a work machine. No progress.
  4. Support for a bluetooth keyboard and mouse. No progress.
  5. Video out - so I can use a larger display. No progress.
  6. Encrypted data stores. No progress.
  7. Third party app support (signed is ok). There's a promise of some kind of development environment, but it's not clear it's Cocoa based. Apple is adding data storage and more UI power to WebKit, but that doesn't help me much if the app can't work with tasks, calendar items, etc.
  8. Flash support, but not from Adobe. No progress.
  9. GPS No progress.
  10. Custom ring and alert tones: Available now.
  11. Allow file storage on the iPhone. No progress.
Of the nine critical items, only one has been addressed so far and one (FM Mobile) has had a big regression. It's plausible of course that Apple will add the task/note synchronization to 10.5.1 or 10.5.2 by next February.

Of the 11 "nice to have" items there's resolution of one and we might see something on another some day.

The iPhone I am willing to buy probably won't be available before spring 2008.

Deep sigh.

So what about the Blackberry and Windows Mobile?

The geeks I read tell me that Windows Mobile is even worse than the Palm world. Hard to believe, but I trust 'em.

So that leaves Blackberry, but I'm an OS X fan. BB is basically an Outlook extension. I'd prefer not to be tied to Outlook forever.

I think I'm going to have to buy another crappy Palm device. I'll buy exactly what I have now to reduce the pain.

Image of the week: Fallows in Berlin

James Fallows visits a minor Berlin museum.

I definitely want to visit Berlin. Definitely a glass-half-empty and poisoned kind of place, which suits me of course.

Fallows took a photograph from one of the museum exhibits. I won't try to describe it, but it really must be seen. A thousand words indeed.

LinkedIn joins Google's open social networking

The great thing about a closed ecosystem taking the #1 position is that the best option for rivals is to collaborate around an open solution.

That's the best option, but it rarely happens. Usually rivals simply fight it out. Remember Sun and Netscape? In the 90s the two could have collaborated to fight Microsoft on the browser front, instead they fought bitterly. Netscape died, Sun was mortally wounded, and IE ruled (still does).

Google might be smarter with OpenSocial:
BBC NEWS | Technology | Google opens up social networking:

...Google said that around a dozen social network partners had signed up to the system, including business site LinkedIn, Friendster and Google's own social network Orkut...
I bolded LinkedIn because it's the social face for one's corporate self. A unique front with few challengers. I'd expect Google to invest in them if they haven't already.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Deja Vu: DeLong on Health Care Reform -- and Ira Magaziner

Bred DeLong cannot be on good terms with Ira Magaziner. Today he resurrects a 1997 book review including this paragraph:
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal:

... So those were his two maor flaws: a love of complexity, and the instincts of a consultant--no, three major flaws: his judgment was also very poor. Remember: this is a guy who, without knowing anything about nuclear physics, testifies before congress that America has no choice but to pour lots of money into research into Cold Fusion. This is a man who thinks at the end of the 1970s--a time of record high energy prices and rapidly-growing competition from new producing nations like Brazil and Korea--that what America really needs to do is to invest in more brand-new integrated steel factories. Combine Magaziner's flaws with the sense at the start of 1993 that possibilities were unbounded--that, as one (anonymous) senior White House aide put it, no one in the White House '...was thinking about the fact that Bill Clinton got only 43 percent of the votes. He was on top of the world. He was young, he was good-looking, he gave a good speech. The world was full of hope'--and you have the setting for a policy-planning disaster....
Clinton still hangs with Ira; one hopes he's changed over the years.

What I dimly remember of the Clinton plan, besides a level of media analysis far beyond anything any media corp would tackle today, was that it seemed dishonest.

The plan only made sense (to me) if there were quite a few limits on how money could be spent in the pursuit of "health", and, by implications, limits on what people could choose to do.

This is, of course, always true of any health care service. The main variation among them is whether wealthy people can opt out and take their money with them.

The catch was nobody was allowed to discuss this. We were all to pretend that we'd get universal coverage and nobody would lose anything they had. Even people who had no idea what the plan was smelled something fishy about that ...

PS. For the record, I think we should have no-frills healthcare guaranteed to every US citizen as a birthright. This does mean, however, that the non-wealthy have to wait for expensive stuff to get cheap, which generally takes 2-3 years post release. Those can be long years.

The coastal housing bubble collapse - in pictures

I missed this post when it came out, but caught it via DeLong. Paul Krugman illustrated the coastal housing bubble in pictures. It's sobering. I'd guess MN's prices were between Michigan and Florida -- so only a mild bubble here. We knowingly bought at the peak of the bubble and figured we were going to lose 10% of value within 1-2 years, that's about what happened.

So bad news for the economy, but on the other hand folks I know who follow housing are thinking "post-bubble investing opportunity". There's an unbelievable amount of money sloshing around America looking for a home -- if it pours into housing now we might see an unprecedented recovery as well. (That's easy for me to say, because I'm not predicting anything and don't have time to put my money anywhere anyway!)

Is Google winning the spam wars?

I've posted on Gmail and spam fairly often. A year ago things looked pretty bad, but then I realized that my email redirection was poisoning the domain reputation algorithms Gmail used back then.

From Sept 1996 through July 2007 Gmail's spam filtering was doing pretty well, but in July they had a serious screwup. Mercifully by August it was under control and the results have been great for three months.

It seems Google's Gmail team has also noticed things are going well, today they declared light at the end of the tunnel. Google OS followed up with a bit more detail:
... Many Google teams provide pieces of the spam-protection puzzle, from distributed computing to language detection. For example, we use optical character recognition (OCR) developed by the Google Book Search team to protect Gmail users from image spam. And machine-learning algorithms developed to merge and rank large sets of Google search results allow us to combine hundreds of factors to classify spam," explains Google. "Gmail supports multiple authentication systems, including SPF (Sender Policy Framework), DomainKeys, and DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail), so we can be more certain that your mail is from who it says it's from. Also, unlike many other providers that automatically let through all mail from certain senders, making it possible for their messages to bypass spam filters, Gmail puts all senders through the same rigorous checks...
For years I've written that the way to defeat spam was through differential filtering based on the managed reputation of the authenticated sending service. This little blurb is consistent with Google implementing that approach.

Today about 70% of Google's incoming mail is spam -- but that's an improvement! It used to be closer to 80%. Excluding a weird 2004 bump this is the most prolonged drop in three years.

My inbox is looking pretty good, and I hardly ever find anything in the spambox now (though I only scan about 20% of what I delete, I get a huge amount of spam).

Gee. I have something nice to say about Google!

Monday, October 29, 2007

The aviation "near miss" problem

Flaming airplane collisions are a relatively blunt instrument for aviation safety measurement.

Airlines can cut a lot of corners, stress the aviation system considerably, and still go years without a big newsworthy wreck. So the wrecks will happen faster than they ought to, but probably not fast enough to perturb the public.

It might be better to detect gross problems sooner. Which is why this AP story on NASA's suppression of aviation risk data got a brief bit of attention ...
The Associated Press: NASA Chief Regrets Agency's Statement

...Among other results, the pilots reported at least twice as many bird strikes, near mid-air collisions and runway incursions as other government monitoring systems show, according to a person familiar with the results who was not authorized to discuss them publicly.

The revelations this week prompted the House Science and Technology Committee to launch an investigation into NASA's decisions, with a public hearing scheduled for next Wednesday...
I gather all the near misses are not being reported. Perhaps airlines don't like their pilots relaying bad news, so they find ways to discourage it. We need the study results to understand the problem.

Of course the Bush administration hates bad news too, and they hate the thought of government having a job to do. So it's understandable that a NASA administrator might prefer to bury this report

Which brings me to the motivation for this post. Yesterday my wife's NWA small jet flight from Dallas got within about 25 feet of the runway at MSP before making a rather steep climb to cruising altitude.

Seems something was on the runway that shouldn't have been.

I wonder if that near miss was reported.

Oh well, the collapse in aviation safety is probably one of the lesser sins of the GOP. Eventually the market will sort things out.

Any resemblance to problems with childhood toys and the human and canine food supplies are completely coincidental.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Petraeus team plays the propaganda game

Glenn Greenwald reviews a bizarre correspondence with a military member of Petraeus staff.

There are two take aways. The first is Petraeus has some dim bulbs on this team. More importantly the correspondence shows us that the US military is playing the same propaganda game with US media that it plays in the Iraqi theater.

I recall this US-directed propaganda initiative was originally a Rumsfeld proposal; I'm not surprised it's continuing.

Proof that we can't trust what Petraeus says. We need other, more trustworthy, sources.

Some relevant old links from similar operations:

Web 2.0, AJAX and the thin client iPhone: all overrated

Most of the time, I am quite fond of Gmail. Which is to say, the AJAX technologies that Microsoft gave us [1] were a nice improvement on what we used to call DHTML (JavaScript drive dynamic HTML). Reliable JavaScript [2] and AJAX are the technical foundations of what's still sometimes called Web 2.0 .

So far, so good.

Alas, that's as far as it goes. An infinite amount of money can't make Google Docs anything more than a pale imitation of the desktop office products of 1990. The very, very best web-based applications for creating web pages have about 2% of the power, functionality and performance of FrontPage 98. As in 1998.

Jobs much vaunted [3] iPhone web apps don't work when you're in an airplane, a tunnel, inside the bowels of an office building, in an elevator, in a remote cabin, outside the US or anywhere else that AT&T's network isn't performing at full speed and top quality.

Stop it.

Just stop it.

Give me thick client applications written in Pascal [4], C, assembler, FORTRAN, C#, Python ... even Java ... any day. I don't care how painful it is to code those suckers, that's why I pay money for the products.

Ok. I feel better now.

[1] The primary challenge to Microsoft's dominance of the desktop came from ... Microsoft. They weren't unique, but IE did set the standard.

[2] More irony. Microsoft's war with Netscape had, as a side-effect, the establishment of a standardized open JavaScript.

[3] I can only pray these are a delaying tactic to allow a true SDK to come to market -- which Jobs has sort-of promised us.

[4] I've never seen software that performed as reliably and as efficiently as the Mac Classic applications written in Pascal. I think they were even relatively immune to typical hacking measures. Just saying.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Amazon's eBook program: online and print

Amazon is now doing something similar to O'Reilly's Safari Books Online - but it's not just technical books and it's one book at a time:
How to Solve It: Modern Heuristics: Books: Zbigniew Michalewicz, David B. Fogel

Upgrade this book for $11.99 more, and you can read, search, and annotate every page online...
They've done this rather quietly. A book I ordered a year ago is now available for me to upgrade today.

I suspect it would be of most value for technical references - like this one. The advantage over O'Reilly's program is you can do it for just one book.

It's an interesting advantage to buying through Amazon, since it's only available for books on one's personal account.

Huckabee and Gail Collins

The other day I actually tried to defend something Gail Collins of the NYT wrote, even comparing her to Molly Ivins.

Today DeLong persuaded me that I was making a mistake:
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

...The bottom line is that a woman is dead... because Huckabee went along with crackpot anti-Clinton conspiracy nuts and released someone with a significant history of violence and sexual assault...
Collins completely missed the back story of Hucakbee's pardon of a man who went on to murder a woman. It wasn't some act of reasoned compassion, it was a bizarre side-effect of the right's insane hatred of Bill Clinton.

That is one heck of a blunder; one that would have passed without notice in the days before blogs.

I'm sorry Molly, I won't do that again.

The Wellstone memorial and the path not taken

The family was wandering the Iron Range, exiled by yet another "school release day", when we came upon the Wellstone memorial.

We hadn't known it existed. The memorial brought back bitter memories.

It's been five years since Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone's plane crashed as he flew north to attend the funeral of a friend. The 2002 election was only a week away.

Wellstone, his wife, his daughter, several friends and two pilots died in the crash. The pilot and copilot had made several errors, it was later determined that they were not qualified to fly the plane.

In October of 2002 America's future was balanced on the edge of a precipice. From much of 2000 to 2002 the Senate had been evenly balanced, but before the election a rational Republican had defected and the Senate went Democrat.

Wellstone's death pushed America over the edge. Minnesota and national talk radio hosts used a impolitic memorial service and the Rove playbook to bring GOP Norm Coleman to power.

Minnesota traded a Senator famed for his integrity for one of the most craven politicians ever to spring from Rove's foundry. The GOP had a one seat majority in the Senate. From 2002 through 2006 the GOP controlled the Supreme Court, the House, the Senate and the Presidency.

Everything that was to follow sprang from that poisoned moment.

On May 1, 2003 the US led an invasion of Iraq and by 2004 the name Abu Ghraib had come to symbolize the worst of America. An American era that began with the abolition of slavery and peaked with the 1947 Marshall plan ended in government approved torture and ideologically mandated incompetence.

Which is why the Wellstone Memorial is a genuinely historic site. For the moment it's is not terribly well marked and is little known outside of the area. On Google's maps it's near here -- give or take a kilometer.

When we arrived, on a cold wet Sunday morning, we were alone. During a visit limited by our children's limited patience two other cars arrived. I think the site gets regular visitors.

From The Iron Range
(click on the pictures to see larger versions, you can download a full res image from the associated album)

It is a very beautiful site, one of the loveliest memorials I've seen anywhere. Certainly it has the sweetest air and finest scents of any I've known.

The Wellstone family and friends are memorialized by ancient stones ...

In 2006 another historic Senate election turned on the the survival of another midwestern Democratic senator, Tim Johnson of South Dakota. This time the balance tipped the other way, Johnson survived his ruptured aneurysm and the Democrats took the Senate.

Now we have no choice but to hope that the worst is over. We can't go back to the days before waterboarding became a national sport, but maybe we'll start a new path.

A new American enlightenment. There's not much choice, really.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The nuclear apocalypses that should have happened

I've read of most of these before, but DI has a complete collection of publicly known nuclear attack false alarms like this one:
Damn Interesting » The Apocalypses That Might Have Been

.... Unlike the previous alerts, this event wasn't an error in the early-detection system, this missile was confirmed as real. Fearing the worst, the Russian military prepared to launch a full-scale counterattack against the United States. Planes were readied, and missiles sat waiting to launch a nuclear volley on selected targets in the United States at a moment's notice. Tensions were running so high within the Russian leadership that Russian President Boris Yeltsin activated his nuclear briefcase, enabling him to communicate with his top military advisers and review the situation online. This was the first time he had ever done so. Amidst this uncertainty, as many fingers nervously hovered over death-bringing buttons, word was received from Soviet military observers: the missile, while real, was not en route to Russia. It was a harmless research rocket headed for space...
Basically if soldiers had followed their orders properly you wouldn't be reading this and I wouldn't be writing it. In the unlikely event we were alive today, we'd be foraging for food. There certainly wouldn't be an Internet.

I really don't understand why human civilization is still around. I share the opinion of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project physicists -- there's no evidence to suggest that humans are capable of living with nuclear weapons.

Still. We're here. Apparently.


Rat plagues wipe out indigenous rats

We know that European human plagues depopulated most of the Americas, and allowed the Puritans to scavenge from dead Amerindians.

I've speculated that European dog diseases (Distemper?) wiped out the indigenous new world dog (true Indian dogs became extinct long ago).

So it's interesting to read that European rats wiped out native Island rats -- or rather, their infections did:

Damn Interesting » The Crabs of Christmas:

... the [Christmas Island] rats were identified as another endemic species, the Maclear's rat. It seems that in the late 19th century, these rats were as numerous as the red crabs are today. Like the crabs they were scavenging creatures that lived in burrows on the forest floor, but the exact role they played in the ecology of the island will forever remain a mystery– for by 1903 the species was extinct, wiped out by an epidemic of trypanosome parasites introduced by ship-borne black rats...
Europe's dense urban populations cooked up lethal bioweapons, carried around the world by European animals.

The US does NOT have a problem with science education

It may have a problem with science related employment however ....

The Science Education Myth (Business Week, Vivek Wadhwa)

Political leaders, tech executives, and academics often claim that the U.S. is falling behind in math and science education. They cite poor test results, declining international rankings, and decreasing enrollment in the hard sciences. They urge us to improve our education system and to graduate more engineers and scientists to keep pace with countries such as India and China.

Yet a new report by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, tells a different story. The report disproves many confident pronouncements about the alleged weaknesses and failures of the U.S. education system. This data will certainly be examined by both sides in the debate over highly skilled workers and immigration (, 10/10/07). The argument by Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), Intel (INTC), and others is that there are not enough tech workers in the U.S.

The authors of the report, the Urban Institute's Hal Salzman and Georgetown University professor Lindsay Lowell, show that math, science, and reading test scores at the primary and secondary level have increased over the past two decades, and U.S. students are now close to the top of international rankings. Perhaps just as surprising, the report finds that our education system actually produces more science and engineering graduates than the market demands....

... As far as our workforce is concerned, the new report showed that from 1985 to 2000 about 435,000 U.S. citizens and permanent residents a year graduated with bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in science and engineering. Over the same period, there were about 150,000 jobs added annually to the science and engineering workforce. These numbers don't include those retiring or leaving a profession but do indicate the size of the available talent pool. It seems that nearly two-thirds of bachelor's graduates and about a third of master's graduates take jobs in fields other than science and engineering...

So the data suggests we actually graduate more scientists and engineers than we have jobs for. Encouraging science education isn't going to make more scientists, any more than encouraging farming education will make more American farmers.

There's better paid work for smart American students in other domains.

Which brings us back to the farming analogy. The US is a post-agricultural nation that dose agriculture as an expensive hobby. Are we a post-science nation too?

BTW, I'm so pleased someone has done the research on this. I love to have my intuitions confirmed ...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

On saving the world - Shtetl-Optimized

I've had a post bouncing around my head for a while. It's about saving the human world. (The rest of the world will do just fine - eventually. As my 8 yo says, history just keeps happening.)

I'm going to write that post - eventually. I'll try to write the main risks down (US-China conflicts, WMDs, cost of havoc, rapid environmental collapse and resulting socioeconomic disruptions, artificial minds [1], etc) and what a geek can do about them in the age of O'Reilly.

In the meantime, a post by Scott Aaronson (yes, two t, two a)...

Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Procrastinating on the sidelines of history

... So, Al Gore. Look, I don’t think it reflects any credit on him to have joined such distinguished pacifists as Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat. I think it reflects credit on the prize itself. This is one of the most inspired choices a Nobel Peace Prize committee ever made, even though ironically it has nothing directly to do with peace.

With the release of An Inconvenient Truth and The Assault on Reason, it’s become increasingly apparent that Gore is the tragic hero of our age: a Lisa among Cletuses, a Jeffersonian rationalist in the age of Coulter and O’Reilly. If I haven’t said so more often on this blog, it’s simply because the mention of Gore brings up such painful memories for me.

In the weeks leading up to the 2000 US election, I could almost feel the multiverse splitting into two branches of roughly equal amplitude that would never again interact. In both branches, our civilization would continue racing into an abyss, the difference being that in one branch we’d be tapping the brakes while in the other we’d be slamming the accelerator. I knew that the election would come down to Florida and one or two other swing states, that the margin in those states would be razor-thin (of course no one could’ve predicted how thin), and that, in contrast to every other election I’d lived through, in this one every horseshoe and butterfly would make a difference. I knew that if Bush got in, I’d carry a burden of guilt the rest of my life for not having done more to prevent it.

The question was, what could a 19-year-old grad student at Berkeley do with that knowledge? How could I round up tens of thousands of extra Gore votes, and thereby seize what might be my only chance in life to change the course of history? I quickly ruled out trying to convince Bush voters, assuming them beyond persuasion. (I later found out I was wrong, when I met people who’d voted for Bush in 2000 but said they now regretted their decision. To me, it was as if they’d just noticed the blueness of the sky.)...

...In the end, though, the Nadertrading movement simply failed to reach enough of its target audience. The websites put up by me and others apparently induced at least 1,400 Nader supporters in Florida to vote for Gore — but 97,000 Floridians still voted for Nader. And as we know, Bush ended up “winning” the state by 537 votes...

Ah yes. Nader. There are no words.

But. We're not alone. Not completely.

[1] Even I wince when I write that. It's just so geeky. Tough.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fragments of history: Manchester air raid shelters in abandoned mine shafts

My mother was a girl in Manchester England during WW II. Today, after my usual stories of what the children were up to, she mentioned that as a child, early in WW II, she enjoyed the family time in the backyard bomb shelter. These were hand dug pits with concrete bottoms, metal siding and roofs, and dirt on top. It's not clear to me how much protection these things provided, but I imagine the psychological benefit was significant.

We spoke a bit of general WW II shelter design, and she mentioned that among the Manchester shelters were abandoned mine shafts. Coal mine shafts in particular. These were group shelters, a step below subways and the like.

It seems to me there ought to be some stories about taking shelter in an abandoned coal mine. Pleasant no, memorable yes. The search terms should be specific enough to find something.

Alas manchester "air raid" shelter coal "mine shaft" didn't come up with much today, though it did catch another story of a lost world.

In a day or two, of course, the search will find this post.

Sheila Cox says hello.

1940 was 67 years ago. Getting on half way to the American Civil War.

Imagine someone, or something, searching on this topic 70 years from now. It's rather hard for me to imagine what they might be like.

Financial market turmoil: The problem is obvious, the fix is hard

The current explanation of why the trillion dollar securities market is in turmoil, which may push us into recession, is that mortgage-backed security pricing was inaccurate because credit-rating agencies didn't do their job.

Gee, I wonder why they didn't do their job? It's a mystery. Needs lots of investigation.

Or not ....

Robert Reich's Blog: Why Credit-rating Agencies Blew It: Mystery Solved

Recently, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson sharply criticized credit-rating agencies for failing to recognize the risks in hundreds of billions worth of mortgage-backed securities whose values continue to plummet as home-loan defaults grow.

... obvious why credit-rating agencies didn't blow the whistle. (They didn't blow the whistle on Enron on Worldcom before those entities collapsed, either.) You see, credit-rating agencies are paid by the same institutions that package and sell the securities the agencies are rating...

As I've noted in other contexts, it's not necessary for anyone at the credit-rating agencies to actually conspire to create false results. It's simply emergent behavior -- natural selection in action. Competent honest people will fail to make their incentives, so they'll either become incompetent, move to other businesses, or become dishonest. It probably only takes 1-2 years of this type of conflict of interest to create agencies that are a mixture of incompetent and dishonest.

So the interesting question is not why the credit-rating agencies are dishonest and incompetent. That's obvious.

The interesting question is why Congress never fixed this back in the Enron days. The division was proposed then, probably by Robert Reich but also by the usual suspects (Krugman, DeLong, etc).

Oh wait, we know the answer to that one too. Congress is incented by reelection and retirement jobs, which are paid for by the .. the credit-rating agencies and securities company ...

Hmm. So why does Congress get away with such incompetency and corruption ...

Oh wait, we know the answer to that one too.

The newspapers don't write about this and the talk shows and television news groups don't educate the public.

I'll leave the rest of the "Oh, waits" to the reader.

The problem is the American voter.

My answer to Jeff Atwood's question: Why Does Software Spoil?

Jeff Atwood writes Coding Horror, one of my favorite technical blogs. In two posts he asks familiar questions (remember, he's from the XP world): Coding Horror: Why Does Software Spoil? and "Are Features the Enemy".

I think the answer is pretty straightforward. The way we pay for software induces perverse incentives. Here's the comment I wrote to his blog:

It's the business model.

If we rented software then there'd be a steady revenue stream for developers, and a lesser feature incentive.

Since we buy software (sort of) developers have perverse incentives. They have to "break" the prior version by not maintaining it, introducing new file formats, and they have to add features to hide the fact that the updates are driven by vandalism, not value.

Of course software rental completely screws customers unless the file/data  formats are completely public and interoperability is assured. I'm sure customers will realize how important that is.

Thirty years from now.

Viruses and worms now help drive this model. Security issues make it much easier for companies that own both the OS and the software products to "break" older software, thereby forcing updates. Feature addition is simply a way to make customers accept the forced update. If Microsoft didn't add features, but forced Office updates by making old versions run less well, customers would scream.

These kinds of things don't really have to be planned. They're simply emergent. It's just the way natural selection operates on business.

Of course the only thing worse than the current business model is the combination of software leasing and proprietary data formats, including proprietary metadata models. (Ever try extracting and moving all your iPhoto data?)

Happily customers would never fall for that trick.

Oh, wait ...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sibling Neandertal and the end of the modern human

I asked the other day "what was Homo sapiens doing for 115,000 years?"

I didn't expect John Hawks to answer me so quickly (emphases mine):
... we have undergone light-years of change since the last Neandertals lived. This is not a question of "modern human origins" anymore. We can now show that living people are much more different from early modern humans than any differences between Neandertals and other contemporary peoples. I think that "modern humans" is on its way to obsolescence. What matters is the pattern of change across all populations. Possibly that pattern was initiated by changes in one region but the subsequent changes were so vast that the beginning point hardly matters... [From John Hawks Anthropology Weblog : 2007 10]
Most of the popular books on human origins I've read emphasize how similar we are to Homo sapiens of 60,000 years ago. It appears that meme is on its last legs. We look a lot like our ancestors, but our minds are very different.

To answer my original question -- Home sapiens spent the last 115,000 years turning into an animal that could write. It wasn't easy.

It's tempting to suggest we need to name a new human "species" that was launched 15,000 years ago, but these arbitrary demarcations are increasingly unconvincing, just as misleading as the concept of "the modern human".

The more we learn about the evolution of the human mind the more fluid it seems. Our modern world has many more niches for exotic minds than the ancient world; if we live long enough we'll fill those niches.

One day we might need interlocutors -- even between speakers of the same language.

The rest of Hawks article is well worth a close read. He uses a recent discovery from the Neandertal genome to support a favorite thesis of his -- that we are part Neandertal.

The Bush/Cheney regime in a nutshell

To a first approximation, this summarizes the entire reign of the modern GOP...
Suicide Is Not Painless - Frank Rich - New York Times

...The inspector general also assured Congress that neither Donald Rumsfeld nor Paul Wolfowitz knew anything about the crimes. Senators on the Armed Services Committee were incredulous. John Warner, the Virginia Republican, could not believe that the Pentagon’s top two officials had no information about “the most significant defense procurement mismanagement in contemporary history.”

But the inspector general who vouched for their ignorance, Joseph Schmitz, was already heading for the exit when he delivered his redacted report. His new job would be as the chief operating officer of the Prince Group, Blackwater’s parent company....

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hibbing and the Hull Rust

Hibbing is a northern MN town with a remarkable history (the 10/07 Wikipedia article doesn't do it justice).

If you're ever wandering Minnesota's Iron Range, I recommend a visit to the outskirts.

Yes, as seen on screen capture of a Google sat map the town of Hibbing (bottom right of the image) is dwarfed by what was once the world's largest open pit mine - the Hull Rust:
".... more than three miles long, two miles wide and 535 feet deep. This man-made "Grand Canyon of the North" was the first strip mine on the Mesabi Iron Range. The amazing view continues to grow as the Hibbing Taconite Company Mine expands its mining operations.

Since 1895 more than 1.4 billion tons of earth have been removed on its 2,000 acres of land, and more than 800 million gross tons of iron ore have been shipped from the mine. At peak production in the 1940's, as much as one quarter of the ore mined in the United States came from the Hull Rust Mine."
Hibbing was a boom town before WW I, with 60 saloons, about 16,000 people, an Opera House and a gorgeous Carnegie Library. That's about the time folks realized the town was sitting on vast amounts of iron. The town was demolished, it's not clear it every truly recovered. The Greyhound bus company started then, busing miners from their new, more distant homes.

There's a small park, little known to tourists, documenting a bit of the old town. The park itself is falling into history, it looks like a political gift that has since been neglected. There's a lot of that in the range.

I took a hand-held panorama picture from the Hull Rust lookout and stitched it together. It was a hack job with lots of artifacts and a curious triplication in one join, but it does capture something of the view from the lookout (click to see larger image, you can download the full res as well):

From The Iron Range
Update 10/27: Here are some more photos from our Range trip, see also: The Wellstone memorial and the path not taken.
The Iron Range

I am 113810027503326386174. And 578762461. At least.

Today I have been re-christened 113810027503326386174. It is the ID Google assigned to the persona associated with Gordon's Notes and other blogs. I assume it will be the foundation for Google's future identity management services.

If you do various straightforward manipulations based on the geometry of the Incan pyramids, you will extract the number 666.

That persona also has my primary GMail account, though at last count I had at least four GMail personas (associated with various Google App domains -- nothing fishy about it).

I will need to add this new number to the page where I park all my public and related personas.

Incidentally, I read in Slashdot today that Facebook, where I am 578762461, is moving to 64 bit identifiers. That should cover the first ten minutes of post-Singular identify explosion.

I thought of 113810027503326386174 and tatoos, but that's not something to joke about.

It will take me a while to memorize these new names. Mnemonic anyone?

Update 10/2/08: It finally occurred to me that this is my "number of the beast". It is, after all, clear where Google is going, it's a number, and it's mine. So now I can add the religion tag to this post. As of today there are 0 hits on "Google Profile" and "Number of the Beast". Maybe I can tweak that a bit ...

Update 4/25/09: Well, that was quick. no longer works! Instead the new URL is which now redirects to

Update 9/19/11: My G+ posts incorporate this ID

Saturday, October 20, 2007

iPhone Jan 2008 and, at last, the end of Palm

Apple doesn't make the mistake of thinking thinking the customer knows best. Mostly this works, but sometimes it leads to perverse obstinacy. iPhoto won't import image Libraries. Aperture can't edit date metadata. Apple can be incredibly obtuse.

So it was plausible, though it bordered on the crazed, that Apple intended to own the iPhone completely, and to reserve all software production to Apple.

It felt even more plausible when Apple talked about AJAX apps like they were a credible solution, tightened its ringtone control, went to war with Apple geeks, and even Nokia taunted the lion.

Plausible enough, that fear of Apple's choices meant I couldn't get an iPhone until Apple met my personal requirements. I've been sitting on my wallet, even contemplating a BlackBerry. Yes, even contemplating another year with a Motorola RAZR, a replacement Palm Tungsten, and an iPod.

Then, last week, Apple promised a true iPhone/iTouch SDK in February 2008 and Pogue wrote:
... Here's my view of the timeline: Leopard ships October 26th. Apple announces a new iPhone model or models at Macworld Expo on January 15th. The models ship along with an updated OS that's more fully Leopard for iPhone as a software update by early February. The iPhone SDK appears shortly thereafter...
It seems that Apple has chosen the iTunes signed application distribution model, with Apple taking a percentage of every sale. We don't know if they go to a software subscription model.

I'm good with that. If they'd announced this a month ago I'd have an iPhone now.

So was this the plan all along, or did Jobs change his mind? I suspect it was more or less the plan, but if there'd been less screaming Jobs might have tried to own the whole thing.

So why the long delay between product release and SDK announcement? Probably the 10.5 delay, which arose at least partly from the decision to take the iPhone to market. Key people were pulled from 10.5 to the iPhone, then pulled from the iPhone back to 10.5. The last step meant there was no time to do an SDK and improve the iPhone APIs, and perhaps Jobs didn't want to announce SDK plans six months ahead of time.

They also needed to get everything working flawlessly with 10.5, which was hard to do before 10.5 went public.

We're close enough to Jan 15th I'll wait to see if Pogue's right, but clearly this is great news for Apple geeks.

Oh, and what does this have to do with Palm?

As long as it seemed possible that Apple was going to keep the iPhone a strictly entertainment-oriented device, Palm still had a ray of hope. That light just went out. Assuming Apple doesn't screw up, and I don't think they will, a large developer community will fill any Palm functionality that Apple doesn't provide.

Palm, at last, is finished.

Update: Daring Fireball has a detailed discussion of a hypothetical but plausible signed distribution model and how it would work for developers.

Update 10/21/07: Glenn Fleishman of Tidbits covered this topic with more nuanced detail. Nokia's "Symbian Signed Application" program might be Apple's model. Glenn also mentions something I forgot, that Leopard's signed application model is probably a prerequisite for the the iPhone's application distribution mechanism. No mention of what this has to do with current iPhone applications "running as root", but it sure feels like the iPhone was originally designed to run 10.5, and that the shipping version was put together in a hell of rush.

It's a miracle the 1.0 iPhone works as well as it does. One day someone will write a heck of a geek book about the iPhone's creation. I'm imagining it involved flogging and illegal stimulants.

Update 10/21/07: Michael Tsai says we shouldn't be so trusting, the word "SDK" need not mean the ability to deliver the class of products Apple delivers. So if we don't hear more details with iPhone 2.0 in January, waiting for February would be a good idea.

Fallows says No to Mukasey

If Mukasey is rejected Bush will use some in-place stooge to run the department through 2008. No matter, Fallows is right:
James Fallows (October 19, 2007) - Mukasey: No

....A specific point: the 'waterboarding' outrage. As is now becoming famous, Mukasey said this, when asked by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse whether waterboarding was constitutional: “I don’t know what is involved in the technique,” Mr. Mukasey replied. “If waterboarding is torture, torture is not constitutional.”

Either way you slice it, this answer alone is grounds for rejecting Mukasey. If he really doesn't 'know what is involved' in the technique, he is unacceptably lazy or ill-informed. Any citizen can learn about this technique with a few minutes on the computer.* Any nominee for Attorney General in 2007 who has not taken the time to inform himself fits the pattern of ignorant incuriosity we can no longer afford at the highest levels.

The cult of IQ

It occurred to me that Greens and Grays and IQ is a good excuse to say something about the cult of IQ (that is, whatever IQ tests measure).

Very quickly (because the kids are getting restless):
  1. Whatever IQ score means, it's only loosely correlated with most measures of "success" - at least in our world. It certainly doesn't correlate with number of genetic descendants, but it doesn't correlate with leadership success or even wealth either. There are lots of poor and/or unhappy members of Mensa, and lots of very successful entrepreneurs with unremarkable IQ scores.
  2. Whatever value IQ might have in today's world, it will probably have about as much value in 30 years as muscle has had since the steam engine was fully implemented. The strong become weak, the weak become strong; it's the selfish justification for "compassion".
  3. There's not much evidence that IQ correlates with either insight or judgment. I suspect one day we'll figure out they have pretty different physiology, evolutionary history, and adaptive advantages. I don't think George Bush's problem is that he's dumb, his old SAT scores tell us that, at least as a teen, he had a quite decent IQ.
IQ is useful, but generally overrated.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

So what was Homo Sapiens DOING for 115,000 years?

After humans were hunters, but before they were farmers, they learned to fish ...
ASU team detects earliest modern humans | ASU News

After decades of debate, paleoanthropologists now agree the genetic and fossil evidence suggests that the modern human species – Homo sapiens – evolved in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago...

... “Generally speaking, coastal areas were of no use to early humans – unless they knew how to use the sea as a food source” says Marean. “For millions of years, our earliest hunter-gatherer relatives only ate terrestrial plants and animals. Shellfish was one of the last additions to the human diet before domesticated plants and animals were introduced.”

Before, the earliest evidence for human use of marine resources and coastal habitats was dated about 125,000 years ago. “Our research shows that humans started doing this at least 40,000 years earlier. This could have very well been a response to the extreme environmental conditions they were experiencing,” he says.

“We also found what archaeologists call bladelets – little blades less than 10 millimeters in width, about the size of your little finger,” Marean says. “These could be attached to the end of a stick to form a point for a spear, or lined up like barbs on a dart – which shows they were already using complex compound tools. And, we found evidence that they were using pigments, especially red ochre, in ways that we believe were symbolic,” he describes.

Archaeologists view symbolic behavior as one of the clues that modern language may have been present. The earliest bladelet technology was previously dated to 70,000 years ago, near the end of the Middle Stone Age, and the modified pigments are the earliest securely dated and published evidence for pigment use.

“Coastlines generally make great migration routes,” Marean says. “Knowing how to exploit the sea for food meant these early humans could now use coastlines as productive home ranges and move long distances.”..
From the press release alone it seems the significant observations were that early Homo Sapiens may have evolved by the ocean. Hard to know if that explains why we are, for a primate, terrific swimmers [1]. The study also moves a key cognitive task, bladelet creation, back another 60,000 years.

So if humans could manufacture bladelets 125, 000 years ago, what the heck were they doing for 115,000 years prior to conquest of the planet? That's a heck of a long time in the context of human evolution

We have a lot in common with those early Homo sapiens, but I suspect our minds are pretty different.

Update 10/20/07: I remembered this was called the "aquatic ape theory". It may have been popular in the 1970s. It's suffered from some eccentric proponents over the years.

Greens and Grays and IQ

James D. Watson appears to be a member of the Bell Curve club. He's also very old, and I suspect his own IQ is nowhere near where it once was.

Whatever the cause of Watson's opinion, the topic has lead to the usual questions about the genetics of "whatever it is that IQ tests test". I read the NYT response as relatively cautious about the influence of post-natal environment on IQ. It could be read as acknowledging that IQ is largely determined by genes and the intrauterine environment, with very little other environmental influence. I think that is roughly the current scientific consensus.

I've written about this before; it's a fascinating if unsettling topic. Ashkenazi Jews and South Koreans seem to be unusually good at clever things, and for the former there's even some suggestive genes to inspect.

But what of it?

Let us assume the human race was divided into Greens and Grays, and that Greens scored 20 points higher on IQ tests than the Grays. This would translate into lots of Green wealth and power.

What would the Greens then owe the Grays? What do the strong owe the less strong? That, to me, is the more important question.

I, of course, am a good commie. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Adjusted for human limitations of course.

There are no American professional hockey players

Or so I might think, judging from the  U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum Inductees. I gather from the absence of the inevitable inductees like Rocket Richard and Wayne Gretzky that only US born players can join up. It's a paltry list, and I don't recognize any of them from the years I followed hockey.

I think they need to bend the rules a bit. Wayne married a American after all, and for all I know he's naturalized by now. Heck, what about Jacques Lemaire, now residing in my hometown. Surely Jacques must have a green card ...

In Our Time: Opium Wars and the 2008 Olympics, Spinoza's radical determinism and the new feed page

Melvyn Bragg's BBC show, In Our Time, has begun a new season. I'm a fan.

The bad news is that the BBC is sticking with its execrable latest-episode-only download policy. So if you want to listen to the superb Opium War episode on your MP3 player you need to either use Audio Hijack Pro to capture the RealAudio stream or (if you know me) ask me for a DVD with the entire series [1]. Incidentally, this is a good time to write a quick email to set IOT free.

The good news is there's a new page that makes it easy to subscribe to a feed. I used to subscribe via iTunes, but if I went a week without using iTunes I missed the show. Now I subscribe via iTunes and Bloglines; I use Bloglines at least daily so it's easy for me to save the MP3 and email it to myself.

On to Opium War. Alas, it's from last season, so you're stuck with theft or RealAudio hijacking [2]. Wonderful episode that cleverly features 2 UK professors with Chinese names [4]:

Yangwen Zheng, Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Manchester
Lars Laamann, Research Fellow in Chinese History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
Xun Zhou, Research Fellow in History at SOAS, University of London

That was a politically astute decision as well as didactically informed. These 3 are willing to say things that people with non-Chinese surnames are going to pussy-foot about. Even the one contributor who's voice trembles slightly when describing her parents outrage at the "unequal treaty" more or less concedes that her feelings reflect modern sentiments rather than the historic record.

In brief (sorry, you need to listen, these are my interpretations):

  • To understand this as a 19th century person might, think 1920s prohibition or 2010 cigarette management. Opium was an over the counter remedy into 20th century America; Opium was the now-lost secret to well-behaved children around the world. [3]
  • Tobacco smoking, introduced to China by the Portugese, was the technical innovation that built the opium trade. Smoking opium is much more entertaining than eating eat, so, as is forever true, tobacco was the gateway drug.
  • Lin Tse-Hsu, the Chinese intellectual, modernist, and bureaucrat who triggered the smoldering conflict, might have been pleased with the long term impact of the enforced opium trade. Lin Tse-Hu wanted China to modernize and be able to stand independently. These scholars agreed that China's defeat in the Opium Wars, and the resulting trade agreements including later trade in industrial goods, was a major contributor to the rise of modern China. So Lin Tse-Hsu lost his battle, but in losing he did achieve his true desire. I wonder if he ever realized that. History has strange lessons indeed.
  • For 19th century China the Opium War was something of a sideshow and trading Hong Kong was a trivial cost to placate the transiently powerful foreigners. The Dynasty had much bigger internal problems to worry about.
  • Opium was a currency in the China before the war, especially after the introduction of smoking (which must have increased the value of the currency ten fold), an alternative to copper. From an economic perspective the war resulted from a balance of trade problem. England was industrializing, and like all industrial nations they were switching from alcohol (locally grown) to caffeine (tea, imported from China -- coffee was not yet widely available). Alcohol was handy for dulling the pain of pre-industrial life, but industry required shorter sleep periods. England was hooked on uppers, but pre-industrial China was hooked on anesthesia. Prior to the Opium War England sent new world silver to China to buy tea, but Chinese trade restrictions meant England had nothing to sell in return. China was the "silver drain" of the world. The cost of tea was rising fast, and something had to be done.
  • Britain's attack was a mixture of governmental and private sector action. In those days the boundaries between industry and state were even thinner than in modern America -- and they're pretty darned thin here.
  • After the 1920s the Opium War, previously an annoyance primarily to Chinese intelligentsia, was transformed into a populist causes to further nationalist movements. So the Opium War not only transformed China economically, it did double duty in creating the modern Chinese nation. So it remains today, there is no doubt that many Chinese leaders, and most of the Chinese nation, bitterly resent what they know of the conflict. This is very human of course. Americans who say "Remember the Alamo" typically know very little about it, and no Chinese leader can possibly be as ignorant of history as George Bush Jr.

It's a great show and really, required listening for anyone living in the Decade of China to come. The 2008 Olympics are near, and, assuming the news is not entirely about athletic asphyxiation, you'll hear more about the two Opium Wars.

On the other hand, last season's Spinoza episode, while better than the immensely dull "William of Occam", was still disappointing. Spinoza was a radical determinist, but none of the speakers put this into a 17th century context of Calvin and Newton (billiard-ball determinism), or in the 20th century context of Einstein (non-quantum General Relativity implies rigid determinism), post-modern physics, transactional interpretations of quantum physics or even the Tralfamadorians. Melvyn was asleep at the switch on that one.

Oh, Occam? Don't bother. It reminded me too much of my work.

[1] Note to BBC. I'm just joking of course.

[2] Do any of the file sharing sites do IOT? If they do I might just try out an OS X client.

[3] One of the most memorable drug seeking patients I've encountered asked me, incidentally as our routine visit was ending, for an opium containing remedy that I think was a prescription med for children in the mid-20th century. I had no idea what it was, but of course I looked it up before prescribing. I recall she was very professional about it, she didn't get too upset when I pointed out that it wasn't really a good idea.

[4] I originally wrote "3" because I swear Laars sounded like he had a slight Chinese accent. I wonder which was his first language. The other profs pronounced his name something like "Lau".

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Romney for torture

Romney's New National Security Adviser Said He'd Torture "In A Heartbeat"t.

If Romney were Christian, he might have theological issues with his pro-torture stace. On the other hand, I suppose the Inquisition is a relevant precedent.

I'm sure glad I'm not Republican. I can't imagine the horror of choosing the least bad bozo in this field.

British Telecom's futurist predicts end of the world in about 10 years

Ian Pearson tries to predict the future for British Telecom. I think I've previously written about his 2006 Technology Timeline.

Now he's being interviewed by Computerworld about the develop of sentient machines.

Computerworld - BT Futurist: AI entities will win Nobel prizes by 2020

...We will probably make conscious machines sometime between 2015 and 2020...

... I think that we still should expect a conscious computer smarter than people by 2020. I still see no reason why that it is not going to happen in that time frame....

... they will get very, very clever. It's kind of like a hamster trying to understand a human being. They can't simply understand the problem. How could they possibly think in the same way? It's like as if a human being is compared with an alien intelligence, which is hundreds of millions of times smarter. We don't have the right capabilities to start thinking in the same way. So, we put machines winning Nobel Prizes in our technology timeline, because we got good reasons to do that...

The scenario is very familiar to anyone who's done their essential reading. Certainly I've written about it enough. Once machines get to hamster level, much less consciousness, it's basically game over. I'm not entirely confident humanity will vanish immediately; that might depend on the AI's sense of humor.

What's novel is the date -- that's the earliest prediction I've read from anyone gainfully employed. Most of predictions are out around 2040, where I have a decent chance of being safely oblivious (whether dead or alive). In ten years I might be still standing.

I think he's wrong. Actually, if I were the praying type, I'd pray he's wrong. I'm more inclined to 2050 myself, which makes it my kids' problem. Once you move it out to 2050 there's a decent chance of prior civilizational collapse anyway, which could give Homo sapiens a bit of a longer run.

BTW, wouldn't a TV show about a top secret spy organization that goes around the world messing up AI projects be a lot of fun?

Collateral damage - Microsoft destroys an ISO standards committee

Microsoft probably didn't mean to destroy an international standards group that works with file format specifications. They simply wanted their "standard", OOXML, to be approved. There was only one problem, the committee wasn't going to play ball. So Microsoft bought the committee, bribing a large number of nations to join up.

To everyone's surprise, the initiative failed anyway.

There was, however, some collateral damage ...
Slashdot | Format Standards Committee "Grinds To a Halt"

Andy Updegrove writes:

"Microsoft's OOXML did not get enough votes to be approved the first time around in ISO/IEC — notwithstanding the fact that many countries joined the Document Format and Languages committee in the months before voting closed, almost all of them voting to approve OOXML. Unfortunately, many of these countries also traded up to 'P' level membership at the last minute to gain more influence. Now the collateral damage is setting in. At least 50% of P members must vote (up, down, or abstain) on every standard at each ballot — and none of the new members are bothering to vote, despite repeated pleas from the committee chair. Not a single ballot has passed since the OOXML vote closed. In the chairman's words, the committee has 'ground to a halt.'..."
The honorable thing for Microsoft to do now would be to pay their shills to resign from the committee. Nobody is holding their breath.

Way to go Ballmer.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Miscegenation in America

Progress happens, even when we don't see it.
Paul Krugman, "Conscience of a Liberal" | Salon Books

...In 1978, as the ascent of movement conservatism to power was just beginning, only 36 percent of Americans polled by Gallup approved of marriages between whites and blacks, while 54 percent disapproved. As late as 1991 only a plurality of 48 percent approved. By 2002, however, 65 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriages; by June 2007, that was up to 77 percent...

What my dishwasher taught me about 21st century life

If I'd googled on "dishwasher won't fill" I'd have saved $60.
How to Diagnose Dishwasher Problems |

...Dishwasher won't fill Inlet valve or float switch is malfunctioning

Clean or replace valve or float switch...
A child's cup top had jammed the water-level float full open. The dishwasher wouldn't fill because its sensor said it was already full.

Easiest $60 a repair guy ever makes. They have to make a living, so I don't feel too bad that they didn't suggest we check the float when we phoned.

The real lesson though is always google first. I always remember that when my computer hiccups. I don't always remember it when the dishwasher is dry.

Don't forget.


The sled dogs and polar bear: not a fake

Emily forwarded one of those chain emails to me -- this one was about a polar bear, presumably a young polar bear, appearing to play with sled dogs.

Naturally, I figured this was a brilliant fake.

No, it's real: Urban Legends Reference Pages: Polar Bear Plays with Sled Dogs. There's even a public radio show on the images.

Clearly there's a lot of variation in the psychology of the juvenile polar bear; long after they're extinct we'll probably be wondering how complex their minds really were.

I find the dog's behavior more mysterious. They are not puppies, they're adult sled dogs.

Clearly there are worse strategies than cooperating with a playful polar bear -- but how did the dogs figure that out? Was it simply that they've never seen a polar bear and had no idea what they were dealing with?

I suppose that's possible, after all, most dogs meeting a polar bear wouldn't live to tell the tale.

The bear and the dogs are said to have played nightly for a week. Maybe the dogs thought their visitor was a weird smelling human in a fur suit ...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Are oil futures nonsensical? What happened to arbitrage?

I was wondering today what the futures market says about the price of oil. I was surprised by the result. NYMEX is the traditional place to trade ail futures; the price is roughly $74.60 for the next 8 years (I thought 84 months is the trading limit, so I don't know how they get 96 months) Light Sweet Crude Oil: "Dec 2015 74.81"
I would personally be quite surprised if oil were selling for less than US $100 a barrel in 2015. That would require either a stunning rise in the relative value of the US dollar, the economic collapse of China and India or Europe, or a technology or social breakthrough capable of reducing world oil demand by about 30% prior to 2025. Either that, or we make amazing oil discoveries that push "peak oil" day beyond my personal life expectancy [1].

Or maybe the futures market is predicting we'll really take global warming seriously, and create one hell of a carbon tax.

So maybe it's possible, but it sure seems unlikely. It seems even more unlikely that we'll remain at $75 US a barrel in five years; all of the "radical impacts" I've listed are particularly unlikely in that time frame.

Whatever happened to arbitrage?

So, how do I take $25K or so from the family kitty and make a derivatives bet that crude oil is over $100 a barrel on or after 11/1/2012?

[1] Which, by the way, would imply civilizational collapse from extreme global warming scenarios.

PS. I suspect this may be relevant.

Update: I fixed some arithmetic errors.

The Good Americans and the meaning of silence - Frank Rich

Emily tells me Frank Rich is not reading Gordon's Notes. After all, I wrote "Torture and the end of the American Exception" only 10 days ago, and Rich was probably working on today's column before that.

Actually, I really don't think he's reading GN. It's simply synchronicity; the meme is in play. It's past time to stop blaming only Cheney and Bush, though they deserve historic shame (Thank you Mr. Carter).

The truth is, America's worst enemy is not Dick Cheney, Iran, what's left of al Qaeda, or Islamic fundamentalism -- it's the our own worst selves. We've failed the American Idea.

Here's Frank Rich. Emphases mine. The "Good Germans", it's important to know, were those who looked away, who chose to remain silent even before it was dangerous to speak.
The ‘Good Germans’ Among Us - New York Times - Frank Rich Oct 14, 2007

“BUSH lies” doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves.

Ten days ago The Times unearthed yet another round of secret Department of Justice memos countenancing torture. President Bush gave his standard response: “This government does not torture people.” Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of “torture” is. The whole point of these memos is to repeatedly recalibrate the definition so Mr. Bush can keep pleading innocent.

By any legal standards except those rubber-stamped by Alberto Gonzales, we are practicing torture, and we have known we are doing so ever since photographic proof emerged from Abu Ghraib more than three years ago. As Andrew Sullivan, once a Bush cheerleader, observed last weekend in The Sunday Times of London, America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques have a grotesque provenance: “Verschärfte Vernehmung”, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the ‘third degree.’ It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation.”...

... We can continue to blame the Bush administration for the horrors of Iraq — and should. Paul Bremer, our post-invasion viceroy and the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts, issued the order that allows contractors to elude Iraqi law, a folly second only to his disbanding of the Iraqi Army. But we must also examine our own responsibility for the hideous acts committed in our name in a war where we have now fought longer than we did in the one that put Verschärfte Vernehmung on the map.

I have always maintained that the American public was the least culpable of the players during the run-up to Iraq. The war was sold by a brilliant and fear-fueled White House propaganda campaign designed to stampede a nation still shellshocked by 9/11. Both Congress and the press — the powerful institutions that should have provided the checks, balances and due diligence of the administration’s case — failed to do their job. Had they done so, more Americans might have raised more objections. This perfect storm of democratic failure began at the top.

As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin...

.. the administration also invited our passive complicity by requiring no shared sacrifice. A country that knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch was all too easily persuaded there could be a free war.

Instead of taxing us for Iraq, the White House bought us off with tax cuts. Instead of mobilizing the needed troops, it kept a draft off the table by quietly purchasing its auxiliary army of contractors to finesse the overstretched military’s holes. With the war’s entire weight falling on a small voluntary force, amounting to less than 1 percent of the population, the rest of us were free to look the other way at whatever went down in Iraq...

... Our moral trajectory over the Bush years could not be better dramatized than it was by a reunion of an elite group of two dozen World War II veterans in Washington this month. They were participants in a top-secret operation to interrogate some 4,000 Nazi prisoners of war. Until now, they have kept silent, but America’s recent record prompted them to talk to The Washington Post.

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, took place over a chessboard. George Frenkel, 87, recalled that he “never laid hands on anyone” in his many interrogations, adding, “I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”

Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.
Verschärfte Vernehmung is pronounced something like "VERR-SHAREFF-TA VARE-NA-MOONG. With practice it rolls off the tongue.

There's a rule of thumb in net culture that any reference to Naziism indicates poor thinking. It's not a bad heuristic, but it has its limits. The unique feature of Naziism was not its brutality, its cruelty, its racism, its rhetoric, or its genocides -- those are common in human history. The unique feature of Naziism was that it emerged in a democratic society with a free press and universal literacy.

Germany of the 1930s was an incredibly stressed society. Modern America is taking the Verschärfte Vernehmung road amidst unprecedented wealth, freedom, and communication. We're fat (really fat) and happy -- yet we've become "Good Americans" anyway.

I think the religious right should be very careful about asking God for justice. Mercy might be wiser.

What if Clinton had been elected to a third term?

Amidst a Nobel-inspired burst of Bush-mourning, comes some speculation about what would have happened if the 22nd amendment hadn't applied to Clinton I. He'd have defeated Bush of course...
Daring Fireball

... Nice little video celebrating the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but I don’t get their “it’s a good thing because Bush can’t be elected to another term” angle. If it weren’t for the 22nd Amendment, Bush never would have been elected in the first place, because Bill Clinton would have cruised to a third term...
But then, in this alternate reality, what would have happened next? I think there's at least an even chance that the Clinton team would have prevented 9/11. On the other hand, by the end of the Clinton administration the American right was reaching levels of rage not seen since the 1930s -- or perhaps the American Civil War. It's forgotten now, but we had a burgeoning right wing indigenous terrorist movement in the late 1990s. It continued for a while after Bush won, but it had lost its focus. It was returning to a baseline state when 9/11 diverted wingnut rage overseas.

If Clinton had returned for a third term, or even if the Supreme Court had done its constitutional duty and "elected" Gore, there's a good chance we'd now be dealing with a local terrorist movement as well as an international one.

The irony is excessive.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

High altitude exertion will damage your brain

John Hawks quotes R. Douglas Fields:
John Hawks Anthropology Weblog : 2007 09

.... The body is remarkably resilient--does the brain recover from these mountaineering wounds? To answer this important question, the researchers re-examined the same climbers three years after the expedition, with no other high-altitude climbing intervening. In all cases, the brain damage was still evident on the second brain scan.

Still, Aconcagua is one of the world's highest mountains -- in the top 100. Mont Blanc, in the Alps, is less extreme. With a summit at 4810 meters, it is climbed each year by thousands of mountaineers who probably do not expect injury to their 'second favorite organ,' to use Woody Allen's nomenclature for the brain. Yet the researchers found that of seven climbers reaching the summit of Mount Blanc, two returned with enlarged VR spaces.
Hawks notes: "the altitude of Mont Blanc is substantially lower than the Everest base camp at 5500 meters."

Better imaging technologies now show that high altitude exertion will cause significant irreversible brain damage in many people, very high altitude extertion will damage all brains.


Something nice about Apple - better repair service

I wrote recently about Apple's longterm but worsening quality problems. In a similar vein Business Week notes increasing service issues, including worsening ratings from Consumer Reports. So I was pleased to hear something encouraging about their service ...
So how will Apple maintain that golden rep for customer service?:

....Another improvement: while Apple used to send broken Macs to repair depots, they know do more than 70% of repairs in in-store repair shops. Even more impressive, 50% of them are fixed and returned to the customer on the same day, and 75% are back home on the second day....
About a year ago I mentioned I didn't go to Apple for repairs because of the rotten reputation of their centralized and outsourced repair services. Instead I used a local Apple dealer (not an Apple store, though we have two of those). It's great to hear they've moved repairs back to the local stores.

Carter on Cheney ... and Bush

I'm surprised I missed this. It didn't seem to get much attention. It's worth remembering that Jimmy Carter made "human rights" a primary theme of his presidency. I suspect the human rights agreements he signed with the USSR, which were much mocked at the time, had a greater impact than most remember now. (emphases mine)
Jimmy Carter: U.S. tortures prisoners | - Houston Chronicle Oct 10, 2007

WASHINGTON — The U.S. tortures prisoners in violation of international law, former President Jimmy Carter said Wednesday, adding that President Bush makes up his own definition of torture.

"Our country for the first time in my life time has abandoned the basic principle of human rights," Carter said on CNN. "We've said that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to those people in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo, and we've said we can torture prisoners and deprive them of an accusation of a crime."...

... In an interview that aired Wednesday on BBC, Carter ripped Vice President Dick Cheney as "a militant who avoided any service of his own in the military."

Carter went on to say Cheney has been "a disaster for our country. I think he's been overly persuasive on President George Bush."...

In the CNN interview, the Democratic former president disparaged the field of Republican presidential candidates.

"They all seem to be outdoing each other in who wants to go to war first with Iran, who wants to keep Guantanamo open longer and expand its capacity — things of that kind," Carter said...
Thank you Jimmy Carter, you are a great American.

Carter, by the way, won the Nobel in 2002. I expect he'll be in the audience when Gore speaks, I hope he takes that opportunity to speak again.

How bad can a Business Week article be?

Daring Fireball rips apart a Business Week article on Universal's music distribution plan. It's a good dissection, but it begs the question -- what kind of a deal did BW get for playing the fool? They can't be this stupid by accident -- can they?

Google's storage model: fixed price, more service

I was a paying Google/Picasa Web Album customer [1] when Google introduced its integrated Gmail + Web Album storage model. That meant I started off with 10GB combined, based on the $20 or so I was paying for my photo store. I've used 4.5 GB, or what was almost 50% a day or two ago.

Today I'm back at 34%: "4.5 GB (34%) of 13 GB". Google has increased the storage pool by 33% for the same price. I've read that this will be their model going forward -- keep the price the same, but increase the store.

I like that model.

Curiously, back when I just used Gmail, I'd typically run at 30-35% of capacity. I was using storage up at the same rate that Google was adding it. Now, in the combined model, I'm back in the same range.

Things will change if Google ever introduces an S3 type online data store, or an online backup service. Then I'll need to buy a lot more storage. Given their current problems [1] I don't expect to see that before the middle of 2008.

[1] This was back when their Web Album iPhoto plug-in actually worked. Apple's iLife 2008 broke it two months ago, and Google has been unable or unwilling to fix it -- or even to let users know it doesn't work any more. This fits with my recent Google Apps experience. I don't need the recent 'Google to Facebook exodus' meme to tell me Google is struggling.

Friday, October 12, 2007

When Google fails and an expert succeeds

We were looking for a cheap corporate videoconferencing solution that would allow us to share whiteboard, and even projected screens, in regular lighting conditions.

We knew that Apple's discontinued iSight webcam was good enough, but it's, you know, discontinued. In any case, we don't have Macs at the office (yet). We knew from recent research and past experience that no other consumer grade webcam would work. We also knew that firewire based camcorders (digital video cameras) had been known to work with OS X iChat AV and on XP wiht help from 3rd party software, but I thought firewire camcorders were extinct. USB camcorders, for unclear reasons, don't seem to have the ability to act as a webcam on XP, though there's some software that claims to support them on OS X.

I spent some time on Google and Amazon looking for a firewire consumer camcorder, but all the pages I found were old, and many of those were in decline. None of the camcorders they mentioned are sold now. I searched on Canon's web site and on Amazon, but I couldn't find anything. Even now that I know the Canon ZR 850 has what I need, I still can't find that information on the Canon website.

So a colleague asked at the Roseville Minnesota National Camera office. An expert there thought we had two choices, but he recommended a hands-on test.

We tested onsite with my MacBook and we found both of the old-fashioned camcorders worked with iChat AV. Next we'll buy one and test in an XP box with a firewire card and some XP add-on software. If it works we'll buy a few cameras for the team. We'll pay a premium for the cameras, but it's just payment for help we got -- and its corporate money.

Which brings me to the moral of the story. Even in these days, there are some seemingly easy questions Google can't answer. This wasn't a question about cancer therapy, all we needed to learn was if there were any firewire consumer camcorders left on the market. That seemingly simple question required a human expert [1] to answer.

[1] I now realize I probably could have asked in Apple's iChat AV forum, but we were thinking XP, not Mac. Even then, of course, we'd be relying on a human expert.