Friday, November 30, 2007

SETI: find one of nine galactic civilizations

Damn Interesting has a very nice Drake Equation/SETI review today. Allan Bellow's even touches lightly on the Fermi Paradox, though he doesn't get into the various paradox resolutions.

The highlight of the article is an interactive Drake Equation calculator. Users start with various presets, including the 'rare earth' and the 'Drake 2004' options, then add their own biases. Two of the "terms" of the Drake Equation are now relatively accepted, below I show them and 3 variations on the rest: Drake 2004, rare earth, and me.
Common assumptions
New Milky Way stars per year = 6.00
Proportion of stars which have planets = 50.00%

Drake 2004
Average number of life-compatible satellites = 2.00
Percentage of planets where life does appear = 100.00%
Percentage where intelligent life evolves = 20.00%
Percentage of civilizations which send signals into space = 100.00%
Average years that civilizations will send signals = 10000.00
Average civilizations in our galaxy = 10,000

Rare Earth
Average number of life-compatible satellites = 0.000001
Percentage of planets where life does appear = 33.00%
Percentage where intelligent life evolves = 1.00%
Percentage of civilizations which send signals into space = 1.00%
Average years that civilizations will send signals = 10000.00
Average civilizations in our galaxy = 0

Me
Average number of life-compatible satellites = 0.10
Percentage of planets where life does appear = 87.50%
Percentage where intelligent life evolves = 20.00%
Percentage of civilizations which send signals into space = 90.00%
Average years that civilizations will send signals = 200.00
Average civilizations in our galaxy = 9.5
So Rare Earth ends up with zero civilizations, though I think this might be a bug. The first time I ran the calculations they had 1 civilization, presumably us.

Drake has 10,000 current civilizations that send signals for 10,000 years. This definitely runs into Fermi Paradox territory. If there are so many, and they endure for so long, then over galactic time scales at least one ought to have infested the stars.

I end up with 10 civilizations, of which we are 1. I get that by assuming an upper limit of 200 years of radio signals. We started radiating significantly around 1960, and if our civilization endures I don't think we'll be doing much wasteful radiating by 2160. I suspect we (or our inheritors) will be utterly incomprehensible, and perhaps uninterested in the merely physical universe.

This is a very small number of civilizations across a galaxy. Ssuch a low number makes it very unlikely that one of them will choose to aim a high intensity radio beam directly at us -- and that's all we can detect with today's technology.

We'd need to build a receptor the size of the solar system to pick up accidental signaling. I'm sure we could do that by 2160, but of course that takes us into the realm of the unimaginable.

So SETI won't find much.

Damn.

Update 12/31/09: I think we can rule out "rare earth". Also, another take on the Drake Equation.

McCain on torture: the least bad Republican

McCain's policies on lots of things, including his astounding ignorance of science, would put him well below any plausible Democrat for the presidency.

Even so, among the Republican candidates, he comes in first. For this if for nothing else:

INTEL DUMP - John McCain, good on you:

...ROMNEY: And as I just said, as a presidential candidate, I don't think it's wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use. And that is something which I would want to receive the counsel not only of Senator McCain, but of a lot of other people.
And there are people who, for many, many years get the information we need to make sure that we protect our country. And, by the way, I want to make sure these folks are kept at Guantanamo. I don't want the people that are carrying out attacks on this country to be brought into our jail system and be given legal representation in this country. I want to make sure that what happened ...
(Applause)
... to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed happens to other people who are terrorists. He was captured. He was the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 tragedy. And he turned to his captors and he said, "I'll see you in New York with my lawyers." I presume ACLU lawyers.
(Laughter)
Well, that's not what happened. He went to Guantanamo and he met G.I.s and CIA interrogators. And that's just exactly how it ought to be.
(Applause)...

"McCAIN: Then I am astonished that you would think such a — such a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our — who we are held captive and anyone could believe that that's not torture. It's in violation of the Geneva Convention. It's in violation of existing law... (Applause) And, governor, let me tell you, if we're going to get the high ground in this world and we're going to be the America that we have cherished and loved for more than 200 years. We're not going to torture people. We're not going to do what Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak. I suggest that you talk to retired military officers and active duty military officers like Colin Powell and others, and how in the world anybody could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted by Americans on people who are held in our custody is absolutely beyond me."...

[later]

McCAIN: Well, then you would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions, which were for the treatment of people who were held prisoners, whether they be illegal combatants or regular prisoners of war. Because it's clear the definition of torture. It's in violation of laws we have passed. And again, I would hope that we would understand, my friends, that life is not "24" and Jack Bauer. Life is interrogation techniques which are humane and yet effective. And I just came back from visiting a prison in Iraq. The Army general there said that techniques under the Army Field Manual are working and working effectively, and he didn't think they need to do anything else. My friends, this is what America is all about. This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America. (Applause)
Kudos to Intel Dump for including the Applause/Laughter annotations. In a just universe (pray it is not) those applauding Romney would get their afterlife orientation via Pol Pot.

How can McCain stomach his own people?

PS. The ID Comments included a link to Joe Klein's report on how Republican "undecided" voters responded to the debates. Chilling, but sadly predictable.

The spectrum wars: Chapter One

... we announced today that we are applying to participate in the auction.

We already know that regardless of which bidders ultimately win the auction, consumers will be the real winners either way. This is because the eventual winner of a key portion of this spectrum will be required to give its customers the right to download any application they want on their mobile device, and the right to use any device they want on the network...

Regardless of how the auction unfolds, we think it's important to put our money where our principles are. Consumers deserve more choices and more competition than they have in the wireless world today. And at a time when so many Americans don't have access to the Internet, this auction provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring the riches of the Net to more people.

While we've written a lot on our blogs and spoken publicly about our plans for the auction, unfortunately you're not going to hear from us about this topic for awhile, and we want to explain why.
Monday, December 3, is the deadline for prospective bidders to apply with the FCC to participate in the auction. Though the auction itself won't start until January 24, 2008, Monday also marks the starting point for the FCC's anti-collusion rules, which prevent participants in the auction from discussing their bidding strategy with each other.

These rules are designed to keep the auction process fair, by keeping bidders from cooperating in anticompetitive ways so as to drive the auction prices in artificial directions. While these rules primarily affect private communications among prospective bidders, the FCC historically has included all forms of public communications in its interpretation of these rules.

All of this means that, as much as we would like to offer a step-by-step account of what's happening in the auction, the FCC's rules prevent us from doing so until the auction ends early next year. So here's a quick primer on how things will unfold:

• December 3: By Monday, would-be applicants must file their applications to participate in the auction...
• Mid-December: Once all the applications have been fully reviewed, the FCC will release a public list of eligible bidders in the auction. Each bidder must then make a monetary deposit no later than December 28, depending on which licenses they plan to bid on. The more spectrum blocks an applicant is deemed eligible to bid on, the greater the amount they must deposit.
• January 24, 2008: The auction begins, with each bidder using an electronic bidding process. Since this auction is anonymous (a rule that we think makes the auction more competitive and therefore better for consumers), the FCC will not publicly identify which parties have made which bid until after the auction is over.
• Bidding rounds: The auction bidding occurs in stages established by the FCC, with the likely number of rounds per day increasing as bidding activity decreases. The FCC announces results at the end of each round, including the highest bid at that point, the minimum acceptable bid for the following round, and the amounts of all bids placed during the round. The FCC does not disclose bidders' names, and bidders are not allowed to disclose publicly whether they are still in the running or not.
• Auction end: The auction will end when there are no new bids and all the spectrum blocks have been sold (many experts believe this auction could last until March 2008). If the reserve price of any spectrum block is not met, the FCC will conduct a re-auction of that block. Following the end of the auction, the FCC announces which bidders have secured licenses to which pieces of spectrum and requires winning bidders to submit the balance of the payments for the licenses....

So Chapter One will likely run from now through March 2008.

Let the glorious battle begin! May the barbarians run rampant on the ruins of the Empire.

In Our Time: Symmetry, Moonshine, String Theory and E8

It's good to stretch one's mind on the way in to the office. It makes modeling relationships between arcane procedural descriptions and CPT codes seem pleasantly relaxing.

Today's stretch is courtesy of an In Our Time podcast [1] on symmetry. The professors do discuss Galois, but so far they've missed Emily Noether. Excellent anyway.

I'm not quite done, but I've learned about Galois, a bit of history, and, for the first time, I have a vague understanding of what Group Theory is about and it's relationship to geometry and topology. Not bad for free.

Towards the end of the podcast they talk about mysterious relationships between one "monstrous" element in an "atlas" of "Groups", where a Group is a collection of mathematical objects with shared symmetric transformations. One of them, the "monster", is described as having a mysterious relationship with mathematical physics.

Cue Wikipedia:
Monstrous moonshine - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Specifically, Conway and Norton, following an initial observation by John McKay, found that the Fourier expansion of j(τ) ... could be expressed in terms of linear combinations of the dimensions of the irreducible representations of M ...

... lying behind monstrous moonshine is a certain string theory having the Monster group as symmetries; the conjectures made by Conway and Norton were proven by Richard Ewen Borcherds in 1992 using the no-ghost theorem from string theory and the theory of vertex operator algebras and generalized Kac-Moody superalgebras.

... Igor Frenkel, James Lepowsky and Arne Meurman explicitly constructed this representation using vertex operators in conformal field theory describing bosonic string theory compactified on a 24-dimensional torus generated by the Leech lattice and orbifolded by a reflection. The resulting module is called the Monster module...

Well, ok, so I didn't exactly follow all of that. Impressive at a cocktail party no doubt, but we don't do that sort of thing.

All quite exciting in a geeky sort of way, except bosonic string theory seems to have been a bit of a dead end. Again, from Wikipedia (emphases mine, I thought this was a lovely explanation btw_:
Bosonic String theory is the original version of string theory, developed in the late 1960s. Although it has many attractive features, it has a pair of features that render it unattractive as a physical model. Firstly it predicts only the existence of bosons whereas we know many physical particles are fermions. Secondly, it predicts the existence of a particle whose mass is imaginary implying that it travels faster than light. The existence of such a particle, commonly known as a tachyon, would conflict with much of what we know about physics, and such particles have never been observed.

Another feature of bosonic string theory is that in general the theory displays inconsistencies due to the conformal anomaly. In a spacetime of 26 dimensions, however, with 25 dimensions of space and one of time, the inconsistencies cancel. Another way to look at this is that in general bosonic string theory predicts unphysical particle states called 'ghosts'. In 26 dimensions the no-ghost theorem predicts that these ghost states have no interaction whatsoever with any other states and hence that they can be ignored leaving a consistent theory. So bosonic string theory predicts a 26 dimensional spacetime. This high dimensionality isn't a problem for bosonic string theory because it can be formulated in such a way that along the 22 excess dimensions, spacetime is folded up to form a small torus. This would leave only the familiar four dimensions of spacetime visible.

In the early 1970s, supersymmetry was discovered in the context of string theory, and a new version of string theory called superstring theory (supersymmetric string theory) became the real focus. Nevertheless, bosonic string theory remains a very useful "toy model" to understand many general features of perturbative string theory, and string theory textbooks usually start with the bosonic string...
So why does Time always get only one dimension? Space seems awfully greedy.

So the monster/physics connection didn't quite hold up, but one supposes Supersymmetry might have some familial connection to the Monster.

Or perhaps there's another step up?
... E8 is the symmetries of a geometric object that is 57-dimensional. E8 itself is 248-dimensional...

...Hermann Nicolai, Director of the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam, Germany. "While mathematicians have known for a long time about the beauty and the uniqueness of E8, we physicists have come to appreciate its exceptional role only more recently - yet, in our attempts to unify gravity with the other fundamental forces into a consistent theory of quantum gravity, we now encounter it at almost every corner."
Or a step down?
... Since 1997, physicists have proposed countless variations on Maldacena's theme, all of which interpret a string as a swarm of particles living in a small number of dimensions. Perhaps the easiest case to visualize is when that number is two. In such a scenario, anything that takes place in your many-dimensional, stringy universe has a sort of shadow representation in terms of particles moving on that universe's 'sphere at infinity.' This esoteric-sounding concept is actually similar to the familiar celestial sphere of the night sky as seen from Earth: It's the two-dimensional surface spanning all possible directions one can point to infinitely far in space..
I probably need to stop now. Work beckons, and my furhter inquires on relationship between E8 and the Monster Group started running into "alternative physics" posts. I have enough trouble with "conventional" physics, thanks.

Ok, one last comment. In the nice, sane, quiet world of the humble Higgs (God) particle CV tells us:
... if you impose upon our relativistic, complex, quantum-mechanical wavefunctions the requirement that they be invariant under these U(1) transformations, then you get electromagnetism. Conservation of electric charge. A massless photon. QED - quantum electrodynamics, in all its 12-digit precision glory. Electromagnetism is a simple consequence of the U(1) symmetry of any wavefunction....
It's all relative (sorry). QED seems perfectly pedestrian now.

[1] From a prior post:

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.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Economist's print edition has a full Feed

So how are they going to make money?

There's now a full feed for The Economist print edition. It's somewhat useful for reading (esp. on the Kindle methinks), but it doesn't provide any orientation cues. So no "Africa", "Lexington", etc. It does let you know a new version has been released and it's easy to click to the web view.

I ended my Economist subscription about two years ago when the quality went down the tubes. It's still pretty crummy, but this feed will get me scanning the articles at least. Their science and Africa coverage is still quite good.

In January the WSJ is supposed to go free as well.

I will need to boost my scanning speed.

HealthcareITJobs - from Mr HISTalk

This is a bit different from my usual posts.

I work in healthcare IT. I've done it for over 10 years, mostly in a large corporation. The last bit is mind boggling.

Anyway, in our industry we read HISTtalk, the anonymous blog of a healthcare CIO. At its best it's a rich source of industry gossip, though in recent months it's been a bit dull. The contradictions of writing interesting things about companies that are also sponsors may be taking its toll.

Today's issue tells Mr. HISTalk is getting behind a job board focusing on Healthcare IT, named, remarkably, HealthcareITJobs. If you're interested in this industry it is likely worth a look.

BTW, the best Healthcare CIO blog belongs to Harvard's John Halamka's, aka the "geekdoctor". It's amazing, I write about it on our corporate blogs pretty regularly.

How Venus got its CO2 atmosphere

Praise goes to Kenneth Chang, for writing the first article on recent Venus discoveries that makes any sense.

We know why Venus is hot -- it's the CO2 atmosphere. The new discoveries are about how Venus went from an atmosphere like ours to a very dense atmosphere that's almost all CO2 ...
New Findings Underscore an Earth-Venus Kinship - New York Times:

... Subsequent visits by spacecraft confirmed that the surface temperatures exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt tin and lead...

... Scientists imagine that Venus formed with much liquid water, just like Earth, but that because it is closer to the Sun, with sunlight twice as intense as on Earth, the water began to evaporate. Water vapor, also a greenhouse gas, trapped heat.

“That heats up the surface and leads to more evaporation,” said David Grinspoon of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “It’s a powerful feedback.”

The evaporation accelerated until all the liquid water had turned into a thick atmosphere of water vapor. As the water molecules floated in the air, scientists hypothesize, ultraviolet rays from the Sun broke them apart into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Chemical reactions with minerals in the rocks transformed the oxygen into carbon dioxide. The hydrogen, the lightest of atoms, escaped into outer space...
So the oceans of Venus, and a chunk of its surfce, turned into an ultra-dense atmosphere of CO2. That's a satisfying story. It will likely help us understand what the habitable zone of star is.

Anyone have a few bazillion tons of hydrogen lying about?

Selfishness and its justifications

I'm echoing DeLong here, save I think the thesis is at least as true of America libertarians as of American conservatives.
D-squared Digest -- FOR bigger pies and shorter hours and AGAINST more or less everything else:

...As I've posted earlier, the single most sensible thing said in political philosophy in the twentieth century was JK Galbraith's aphorism that the quest of conservative thought throughout the ages has been 'the search for a higher moral justification for selfishness'.

Some rightwingers are not hypocrites because they admit that their basic moral principle is 'what I have, I keep'.

Some rightwingers are hypocrites because they pretend that 'what I have, I keep' is always and everywhere the best way to express a general unparticularised love for all sentient things.

Then there are the tricky cases where the rightwingers happen to be on the right side because we haven't yet discovered a better form of social organisation than private property for solving several important classes of optimisation problem...
Neo-calvinism is the American fusion of 'selfishness as virtue' with 'wealth as a sign of God's blessings'.

China's hundred billion reasons to dislike the US

Maybe this is why China blocked US ships from entering Hong Kong ...
Dyer- The US Dollar: The Long Farewell

...China, which was sitting on about a trillion US dollars, simply lost several hundred billion as the currency's value fell....
So, does this mean China has just paid a large chunk of the costs of America's adventures in Iraq?

That might engender a certain amount of unhappiness.

Yes, Google does know where I am

Today I searched on "arrowhead resort".

After about 2-3 hits Google inserted something new. A geographically constrained suggestion:
Ahh. Yes, I'd read Google was going to be adding location to their search results, using both traditional IP location and more exotic methods.

It's a bit spooky, but good.

Privacy? I fought that battle in the early 90s. Nobody was interested. It's much too late now.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

History of the First Peoples - Charles Mann's 1491

Charles Mann wrote a 2002 article in the Atlantic about the human history of the Americas prior to the European invasion. This article became a 2004 NYT essay and then a well regarded 2006 book.

Most recently this letter to Brad DeLong, published on Brad's blog, is a great advert for the book (emphases mine) ...
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

... Pennington correctly observes that I "barely mentioned the horrible [e]ffects of the wars that went on between the whites and indians." This is because I was writing about demography and demographically they didn't amount to much. By the 18th century, disease had already wiped out 75-95% of the native population of the Americas. Indian warfare, awful as it often was, simply piled on another few percentage points to the mortality count.

... As the historian Alfred Crosby has repeatedly observed, societies tend to measure "progress" in terms of things that they are good at. Europeans were good at making metal tools and devices, so we tend to look for them -- Indians didn't have steel axes and geared machines, so they must be inferior. But many Indian societies were extremely deft about agriculture. Looking at a Europe afflicted by recurrent famine, one can imagine them viewing these societies as so undeveloped that they were unable to feed themselves. It's hard to say which view is correct.

...many European innovations were directly related to the existence of domestic animals. At the time of its construction, the Roman highway system had no direct equivalent in the Americas. Paved roads are obviously a sign of technological development, because you need them for large-scale transportation, right? But it would have been nuts for Indians to have built such roads, because they didn't have wheeled vehicles. And they didn't have wheeled vehicles (except as toys) because they didn't have horses, and they evidently calculated that the small gains in efficiency for human-powered vehicles was not worth the large costs in labor and materials to build highways, especially when rivers were an attractive alternative. (Compared to Europe, much of the Americas is river-rich.) So does this mean that Native America was less developed?

Lauren Tombari asks, "Wouldn´t there be some evidence of the many towns Desoto saw? Would there be ~100 million graves from the 95% death rate?" She will be happy to learn there is lots of evidence of the many towns seen by DeSoto. Although it is inexplicably absent from US history textbooks, there were literally thousands of mound cities and towns in the US Southeast and the Mississippi valley. Many have been destroyed, but my book, 1491, has a map of some of the main sites that remain. About the graves: the answer is no. In epidemics, people generally aren't buried, but left to die where they fall. The vast majority of those skeletons simply vanish. An example of this is the slaughter of the buffalo. We know from abundant historical records that less than 150 years ago hunters killed millions of bison in the Great Plains. Yet if you drive around there now, you don't see heaps of bones. The same, alas, happened to Indians. Of course it didn't happen to every Indian -- and there are many, many known Indian graveyards, so many that the federal government has passed special legislation to protect them.

... In this country, the French, Spanish, Dutch and English made more than 20 attempts to found colonies before the Pilgrims. All but one of them failed. The exception was Jamestown, in which almost 5 out of 6 colonists sent in the first 15 years died -- something that most people would regard as a failure. (St. Augustine, in Florida, was founded before Plimoth, but it was abandoned for years before being resettled, so I would count it as a failure, too.) Then comes the epidemic in New England, and suddenly, beginning with the Pilgrims, almost every English colony survives and thrives.
The thesis, in short, is that the pre-euro population of the Americas was tens of millions of people, perhaps 100 million. A larger population than the Europe of that time.

A possible counter-argument would be to ask why then did Amerindians not have their equivalent of the Euro's embedded bio-weapons? A population of that size should be able to support some very nasty viruses.

The Atlantic article argues that humans disseminated throughout the Americans long before 12,000 BCE, however I think recent gene data supports the 12,000 BCE date for all living descendants of the first people. Animal extinction and canine genomic data may also support the 12,000 BCE date. If 12,000 BCE is in fact the date for entrance to the Americas, that might also argue against such a vast population.

See also: Squanto's story, European rat plagues kill American rats, Mann's 2004 NYT essay, European dog diseases kill American dogs.

Regardless of the original population the euro "conquest" (inheritance, almost) of the Americas is an abject lesson in the awesome power of biological WMDs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Romney and Mormon theology

Four years ago I wrote about John Krakauer's book on Mormon fundamentalism. I've also visited the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City -- something no tourist should miss.

Between those two primary sources, and a few other readings, I came away thinking that Mormonism is no odder than any other religion, but that it suffers the great disadvantage of being born in the modern world. The Mormon church has only become socially respectable within the past 30 years (really end polygamy, deemphasize the sin of being pigmented), and we know, unfortunately, far more about Smith than Buddha or Christ.

Here's how the Enclyclopedia Brittanica describes Mormon theology:
...The Book of Mormon recounts the history of a family of Israelites that migrated to America centuries before Jesus Christ and were taught by prophets similar to those in the Old Testament. The religion Smith founded originated amid the great fervour of competing Christian revivalist movements in early 19th-century America but departed from them in its proclamation of a new dispensation. Through Smith, God had restored the “true church”—i.e., the primitive Christian church—and had reasserted the true faith from which the various Christian churches had strayed..
The Britannica article omits some interesting details. Mormons believe the ancient peoples of America fought a cataclysmic "high tech" (compared to pre-civil war America) battle. The story is no more bizarre than "Noah's Ark", but it's a different story than Christians are accustomed to hearing.

This is why I've been amazed that Romney has been able to run for president within the GOP. Socially and culturally he has a lot in common with Christian fundamentalists, but so do Islamic fundamentalists. Mormonism is no closer to Christianity than is Islam. How does this
ever play within the GOP?

This must annoy people like Christopher Hitchens who struggles in Slate to find a secular justification for asking Romney about the Mormon church ...
Mitt Romney needs to answer questions about his Mormon faith. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

...It ought to be borne in mind that Romney is not a mere rank-and-file Mormon. His family is, and has been for generations, part of the dynastic leadership of the mad cult invented by the convicted fraud Joseph Smith. It is not just legitimate that he be asked about the beliefs that he has not just held, but has caused to be spread and caused to be inculcated into children. It is essential. Here is the most salient reason: Until 1978, the so-called Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was an officially racist organization. Mitt Romney was an adult in 1978. We need to know how he justified this to himself, and we need to hear his self-criticism, if he should chance to have one...
Hmph. The argument feels week.

It would be interesting to know whether Romney is a racist or not, but we should be able to find that out from the Boston media who knew him as governor of Massachusetts. Otherwise Romney's religion and theology are mostly curiosities for secular humanists, agnostics, and atheists.

For Christian, particularly fundamentalists and evangelicals, the questions are far more important. I'm a bit surprised, but mostly amused, that nobody asks on their behalf.

The cinema beneath the Seine

Today we all feel proud of the French.
Undercover restorers fix Paris landmark's clock | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited:

...Klausmann and his crew are connaisseurs of the Parisian underworld. Since the 1990s they have restored crypts, staged readings and plays in monuments at night, and organised rock concerts in quarries. The network was unknown to the authorities until 2004, when the police discovered an underground cinema, complete with bar and restaurant, under the Seine. They have tried to track them down ever since....
Emily thinks they've been reading Neil Gaiman.

So is the spelling "connaisseurs" a clever word play?

The American cellular empire has fallen, let the wars begin

This is what Europeans have had forever:
Verizon Wireless Says ‘Bring Your Own’ Device - Bits - Technology - New York Times Blog:

... Verizon Wireless has stunned the wireless world by announcing that by sometime next year it will open its network to “any apps, any device.” There is a lot of fine print, but the essence appears to be that Verizon will offer two flavors of service: its traditional bundle, which typically includes a subsidy for phone purchase and various other features, and “bring your own” device service, which will be open to any device that meets “minimum technical standards.”...
The excellent NYT blog post connects this move to the big bandwidth brawl (BBB) over the 700 MHz US spectrum. On a related front T-Mobile announced a month or so ago that their future phones will support VOIP over Wifi.

The American cell phone empire as we've known it has fallen. It was a rotten tree of an empire, it only took one shove from Apple to bring it down.

Now we will see the mother of all bloodless battles. May the struggle be glorious and long.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Nanotechnology made real: inner life of a cell

This one came via a DeLong link. Here you can see the dreams of nanotechnology made real - 20 years ahead of time:
Cellular Visions: The Inner Life of a Cell | Studio Daily:

... The Inner Life of a Cell, an eight-minute animation created in NewTek LightWave 3D and Adobe After Effects for Harvard biology students... Created by XVIVO, a scientific animation company near Hartford, CT, the animation illustrates unseen molecular mechanisms and the ones they trigger, specifically how white blood cells sense and respond to their surroundings and external stimuli....
Everyone needs to watch this. I could make up a story for most of it, but I'd like to hear a technical commentary. DeLong's post apparently had that, but it's missing in action at the moment.

Housing: oh poop

This would be mildly worrying if it weren't written by Larry Summers.
FT.com / Columnists / Lawrence Summers - Wake up to the dangers of a deepening crisis:

....Several streams of data indicate how much more serious the situation is than was clear a few months ago. First, forward-looking indicators suggest that the housing sector may be in free-fall from what felt like the basement levels of a few months ago. Single family home construction may be down over the next year by as much as half from previous peak levels. There are forecasts implied by at least one property derivatives market indicating that nationwide house prices could fall from their previous peaks by as much as 25 per cent over the next several years.

We do not have comparable experiences on which to base predictions about what this will mean for the overall economy, but it is hard to believe declines of anything like this magnitude will not lead to a dramatic slowing in the consumer spending that has driven the economy in recent years.

Second, it is now clear that only a small part of the financial distress that must be worked through has yet been faced. On even the most optimistic estimates, the rate of foreclosure will more than double over the next year as rates reset on subprime mortgages and home values fall. Estimates vary, but there is nearly universal agreement that – if all assets were marked to market valuations – total losses in the American...
Since it is written by Summers it's a cut above mildly worrying.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The dysfunctional print media

I don't read TIME magazine. Good thing, given this story of TIME's fictional coverage of some recent federal legislation ...:
Glenn Greenwald - Political Blogs and Opinions - Salon

... Klein, of course, never bothered to read the bill and still hasn't (even though he is published by Time to "report on" and opine about this bill). Instead, even now, he says that he has spoken with both Republicans and Democrats, and while Democrats insist that what he wrote was false, "the Republican Committee staff disagrees and says [his] reporting is correct."

In other words, Klein's GOP source(s) blatantly lied to him about what the bill does and doesn't do in order to manipulate him into uncritically feeding Time's readers the Rush Limbaugh Line -- namely, that Democrats are giving equal rights to Terrorists and preventing the Leader from eavesdropping on foreign Terrorists. And Klein dutifully wrote down what he was told in Time without bothering to find out if it was true and without ever bothering to talk to any of the bill's Democratic proponents. And no Time Editor knew enough or cared enough to bother correcting any of it. And thus, the unfortunate 4 million Americans who read and trust Time now think that the Democrats' FISA bill does the exact opposite of what it actually does.

That is the real story here. That's how our political system works. Scheming GOP operatives feed whispered lies to their favorite, most gullible, most slothful and/or dishonest Beltway journalists...
These stories do make me feel a bit better about the implosion of the print media. There's a lot of rot in that old world.

Unfortunately I suspect TIME is only giving its readers what they want to hear (and the truth is irrelevant). So things won't improve until the audience is upgraded.

The real threat to Microsoft and Apple

I'm not much of a salesman -- except on the rare occasion that I'm selling something I really believe in.

Twice I've made the big sale. One of those times was when I sold a rural school group on moving from the computer lab model to the computer library model -- @ 1992. Using the ultra-portable no hard-drive Apple Newton laptop.

Mercifully the school group came to their senses the next day and the plan died. A few months later the Newton laptop died too. Few now recall its brief existence.

Fifteen years later that original plan is becoming feasible ...
Charlie's Diary: Commoditizing our future

...Well, the OLPC XO-1 is now out, costs \$188 in bulk (a chunk of which is attributable to the dollar collapsing in the meantime), and hasn't exactly taken the world by storm — but succeeded in sticking the proverbial cattle prod up Microsoft and Intel's collective arse. For too long, the software and CPU giants had been treating the PC market as a cash cow, with a natural floor on the price of the product; the XO-1 proved that they were overcharging grossly. Intel's reaction was the Classmate reference design, their own purported rival to the XO-1; the Asus Eee is what you get when a large far eastern OEM thinks 'hang on, can we commoditize this and sell it in bulk?' Microsoft, incidentally, failed to make it onto the Eee bandwagon because they wanted \$40 for a Windows XP license — on a machine that starts at \$250 for the stripped-down version. Mine runs Linux perfectly well, thank you, and comes with the basic stuff you need to be productive; OpenOffice, Thunderbird for email, Firefox as a web browser, and some other gadgets (like Skype and a webcam).
My first calculator cost about \$180 in the early 1970s, required a plug, used wires to form numbers, and was bigger than my MacBook. Within 10 years similar machines were being distributed in cereal boxes.

That was commoditization.

I thought the same thing would happen to the Palm, that within 10 years we'd have similar things in our cereal boxes. After all, there were no moving parts.

That didn't happen, because Palm controlled the software and because the market for personal organizers turned out to be much smaller than I'd imagined.

I think Stross is right that we're again on the cusp of true calculator-style commoditization. The trick has been open source software, ruthless competition on the hardware side, the plummeting price of solid state storage and the development of low power designs that can run off commodity batteries (and outlets).

The DRM marketplace will keep proprietary system vendors alive for a while -- only they will be able to partner with media owners. How long, however, can the DRM market resist such a tide of low cost non-DRM compatible hardware?

On the other front, Google's Android reference mobile phone design has its natural home on millions of 2012 cell phones distributed throughout Africa.

Samsara happens.

This is a bad time for both Microsoft and (to a lesser extent) Apple to be demonstrating severe quality and reliability problems. Quality and cost-of-ownership are the most obvious ways Apple can slow the tide long enough to find a way to surf along (Android uses Apple's WebKit for example). If Apple and Microsoft continue to cede that advantage, they'll be obliterated.

Hmm. Microsoft cratering. The US dollar in free fall. Peak oil showing up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. A \$400 billion mortgage market collapse. Should be an interesting decade.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Every human base pair mutated

A memorable comment on the effects of large numbers:
If mutations occur at random over the entire sequence of a species' genome, how can a complex organ such as an eye evolve? How can all the mutations that direct the development of that:

... At more than six billion individuals, the human species is now so large that every single base pair of the three billion in the genome is mutated several times, somewhere in the population, every generation. Some of these mutations are so harmful that they're eliminated before their carriers are even born. But the great majority of mutations are harmless (or at least tolerable), and a very few are actually helpful. These enter the population as exceedingly rare alternative versions of the genes in which they occur....
The response to the question doesn't address the hypothesis that clusters of genes may have higher mutation rates as an adaptive response to a novel ecological niche.

They really love me. The splogbots love me.

I'm reasonably sure I have a fairly small readership.

Ok, miniscule.

So it's interesting to note that I have some fan base. Sort of. Splogbots like me. They've like me since mid-2004.

What's a splog? Spam blogs, or splogs, are computer generated blogs that pull posts from true blogs and use them to generate new blogs with associated adwords. The business model is parasitic (like Dell's, for example); cloned content is harvested to attract readers, and adwords generate revenues. Splogbots use my full content RSS feeds to harvest posts, then they reuse these and others to create faux blogs. Spolsky described this well in 2005.

I'm sure there's a good biological analogy.

I know about this shady readership because one of my bloglines feeds is a subscription to the results of a Google Blog Search [1]. That canned search finds all blog postings that link into Gordon's Notes. So, if a post of mine links to another post of mine, and the first post is incorporated into a splog, then it shows up as a hit on my standing search.

Google tries hard to filter out splogs (spam blogs) but lately there's been a surge in new hits showing up in my search, and they're all splogs. So for the moment they've slipped past Google's radar.

Ironically, this post may show up in a splog somewhere. So if you're reading this and the blog title is not "Gordon's Notes", you might be reading a splog. (Note Brad DeLong tends to quote entire posts, so if the blog is "Grasping Reality" you're in good hands).

So how do I feel about it?

I don't bother with adwords, so it's not like I'm losing revenue to the parasitic splogs. I do partly write to inject memes into the metamind, so I suppose a splog might help with that. On the other hand, Google used to confuse my blogs with splogs, perhaps because my original posts matched those appearing in the splogs (they seem to have fixed that problem).

So I'm ambivalent, but mostly bemused.

So why do they like me so much? I don't know the business, but a colleague of mine once moved to the Dark Side and started writing splogbots. I wonder sometimes if he used my blogs as an early test case ...

Update 11/29/07: I may have been seeing a part of a massive 'SEO poisoing' attack on Google. I think the links are going away now.

Tom Friedman joins David Brooks

Obsidian Wings says it well: "Tom Friedman Has Gone Insane"

Friedman has been pompous and pointless for about seven years, with extended digressions into lunacy.

He seemed to have been chastened for a bit, but his "Obama needs Cheney" meme is proof he's passed the point of no return.

Friedman has now joined David Brooks in my "do not read under any circumstances" category. I'll leave it others to read him and provide me with the summaries as needed.

The subprime mortgage story: a problem of the weak

Most everyone is weak sometime. I'm basically tossing a coin when I choose health care benefits.

Ok, so I don't know anyone who isn't tossing a coin when they choose health care benefits. It's just that some of us know we're gambling while other players are more naive. The truth is the guy at the other end of the table wrote the rules -- he knows the game much better than we can.

When it comes to mortgages things are simpler for us. We're not sub-prime (yet), the products we buy are relatively simple and definitely generic -- there are lots of eyes on our side.

In the sub-prime market the game is trickier and the players have fewer resources than we. Those players get fleeced:
Lost in a Flood of Debt - Bob Herbert - New York Times

... There is some truth to the assertion that a lot of buyers signed up for deals they should have known they couldn’t afford. But it won’t do for the fat cats to fall back on empty phrases like “buyer beware.”

The subprime mortgage frenzy was a shameful, highly-charged phenomenon, motivated by greed and played out on a field of rampant exploitation. The victims deserved more protection than they got. As Paul Leonard, director of the California office of the Center for Responsible Lending, told me this week: “You shouldn’t have a marketplace that’s a ‘buyer beware’ marketplace for the most important financial transaction of most people’s lives.”

It’s not too much to ask that when Americans of modest means put their economic futures on the line, we have regulations in place to see that they are not ripped off...

The players get fleeced, the CEO walks, and some investors win, some lose.

So what ought we to do for the players who get taken, what do we do for the weak?

If you're a social Darwinist or neo-Calvinist this is just one more way that the market eliminates the unfit. If you're Libertarian the strong owe no duty to the weak, and you're probably a social Darwinist as well. If you're conservative there's a good chance you're either a religious neo-Calvinist or de facto social Darwinist -- but there's probably a portion that favors some state protection for the weak.

For neo-Liberals like me then the transiently strong definitely owe a duty to the currently weak. The question is not if something ought to be done, but rather what's the most pragmatic course given the reality of politics, the power of the market, and the inevitability of unintended consequences.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Bruce Springsteen. Saying thanks with Magic.

In October of 2004 my wife and I attended Springsteen et al's Vote For Change concert in Saint Paul (Neil Young dropped by.) My hearing hasn't been the same since, but I appreciated the sentiment.

Springsteen worked hard for the Kerry campaign, including writing a very good NYT OpEd.

It didn't work of course, but damn he did try. He didn't have to do any of it.

I thought back then I'd buy an album to say thanks. Unfortunately his next album had some nasty SONY DRM features -- it couldn't be ripped.

The other day I saw his newest album on sale at Starbucks: Magic. He's dumped SONY, this one is a plain old CD. So I got to express my thanks - at full price. I like the music too.

Tonight it's \$9 on Amazon - a real bargain. #10 in music sales, so not too bad for an old rocker.

Thanks Bruce.

America 2016: how close are we tracking Fallows predictions?

Two and a half years ago Fallows wrote "Countdown to a Meltdown - A look back from the election of 2016". I came across it tonight; it's been a while since I read it.

It's the story of a nation that went off track in June of 2001:
... Before there was 9/11, however, there was June 7, 2001. For our purposes modern economic history began that day.

On June 7 President George W. Bush celebrated his first big legislative victory. Only two weeks earlier his new administration had suffered a terrible political blow, when a Republican senator left the party and gave Democrats a one-vote majority in the Senate. But the administration was nevertheless able to persuade a dozen Democratic senators to vote its way and authorize a tax cut that would decrease federal tax revenues by some \$1.35 trillion between then and 2010.

This was presented at the time as a way to avoid the "problem" of paying down the federal debt too fast. According to the administration's forecasts, the government was on the way to running up \$5.6 trillion in surpluses over the coming decade. The entire federal debt accumulated between the nation's founding and 2001 totaled only about \$3.2 trillion—and for technical reasons at most \$2 trillion of that total could be paid off within the next decade.4 Therefore some \$3.6 trillion in "unusable" surplus—or about \$12,000 for every American—was likely to pile up in the Treasury. The administration proposed to give slightly less than half of that back through tax cuts, saving the rest for Social Security and other obligations.

Congress agreed, and it was this achievement that the president celebrated at the White House signing ceremony on June 7. "We recognize loud and clear the surplus is not the government's money," Bush said at the time. "The surplus is the people's money, and we ought to trust them with their own money."

If the president or anyone else at that ceremony had had perfect foresight, he would have seen that no surpluses of any sort would materialize, either for the government to hoard or for taxpayers to get back. (A year later the budget would show a deficit of \$158 billion; a year after that \$378 billion.) By the end of Bush's second term the federal debt, rather than having nearly disappeared, as he expected, had tripled. If those in the crowd had had that kind of foresight, they would have called their brokers the next day to unload all their stock holdings. A few hours after Bush signed the tax-cut bill, the Dow Jones industrial average closed at 11,090, a level it has never reached again...
Well, that last part didn't pan out. The Dow is up and down right now, but we were up to 13,000 at one point. Of course if Fallows could really predict the DJIA he woudn't be writing a blog from Beijing. He also predicts economic calamity when with a 40% rise in the spot price of oil sometime around 2010 -- but we've already been through something close to that.

So he's not psychic. On the other hand the plummeting dollar and \$400 billion plus housing market collapse happened roughly as predicted -- though we have yet to implement the massive federal trailer parks for families foreclosed from their homes. There's no discussion of global warming, but peak oil makes a brief show.

I hope I remember to take another look in 2009 ...

Quality crisis: software, hardware, publicly traded companies, food, toys and nations

My intuition has a reasonable, but not perfect, track record.

On the one hand I've been pretty good over the years with social and technological evolution. On the other hand I really don't understand why humanity is still in business forty years after the development of fusion weapons. I'm clearly missing something there.

Grains of salt advised. Anyway ...

My intuition is telling me that we have a 21st century "crisis of quality". I think this is related to some of my favorite themes, such as fraud (see esp. 21st century deception) and reputation management. It's demonstrated in the failures of the publicly traded company, our food and imported quality problems, and, I believe, the reelection of George Bush.

It may have its roots in anonymity, transience, and complexity.

Take my last week in the world of software and hardware for example:
Yes. That's all in one week -- and I don't use either Vista or OS X 10.5.

Apple has a quality problem. Microsoft has a quality problem. Google has a quality problem.

The entire human world has a quality problem.

Except I seem to be the only one who's complaining.

Anyone else notice anything?

The key to successful remote collaboration - from 1970

John Halamka (amazing blog) quotes an email from Paul Gray, Professor Emeritus of Information Science, Claremont Graduate University. The topic is remote collaboration:
Life as a Healthcare CIO: Cool technology of the week:

Being retired, I receive my copies of Computerworld in batches from my office. Hence I only now read your September 15 article on flexible schedules. I was pleased to see that you found the need for initial meetings important in your thinking.

I thought you would like to know that this concept is not a new idea. When we first proposed telecommuting (Telecommuting-Transportation Tradeoffs: Options for Tomorrow, Wiley 1975) we quoted results that we found in the literature on the dispersal of government workers out of central London and central Stockholm in the 1960s. The dispersal was the result of, for example in London, of the concentration of office jobs that wound up depopulating the hinterlands of young people.

Everybody complained that they could not be moved out because they needed continual face to face contact with people in other agencies. Studies were done that found that once there is an initial meeting, which coupled a human face and body language with voice and correspondence, people were able to work in dispersed mode with no loss of effectiveness. However, they did need periodic (typically 6 month) refreshing of the initial contact so that the ties would be maintained.
I've lived with remote collaboration approaches for about seven years. I could definitely write a book, and, even before I read this, it would have said that an initial face-to-face meeting with q 5 month refresh meetings are essential to effective collaboration. I'd further recommend, if one can get away with it, spending the bulk of the in-person time time skiing, bowling, walking, dinner -- whatever activity the participants are able and willing to perform.

The social connection is the key factor in these face-to-face meetings, not the actual work done face-to-face. (Though that can be very effective, one outcome of the face-to-face needs to be a shared understanding of how remote work will proceed effectively.)

There are more things needed for effective collaboration -- like good quality phones. (Corporations can be absurdly stingy about phones while spending a fortune on dysfunctional video conferencing systems.) The social connection, however, is pretty much fundamental.

Even the best remote collaboration doesn't work well for new product development, but if done well with an experienced crew, good methodologies, and attention to the infrastructure it can be a good second best.

Interesting, but equally interesting is that his paper was published in the 70s and the underlying research was performed in the 60s. I used to study the dissemination of knowledge in medical practices; knowledge diffusion is a very rocky process. It will be interesting to see if blogs, wikis and the like will make any difference over the next 10-20 years. I think they might ...

The perils of compensation plans: housing market version

Publicly traded companies have a problem with their shareholders. They approve seemingly absurd executive compensation plans:
Banks Gone Wild - New York Times:

...But if the success turns out to have been an illusion — well, they still get to keep the money. Heads they win, tails we lose.

Not only is this grossly unfair, it encourages bad risk-taking, and sometimes fraud. If an executive can create the appearance of success, even for a couple of years, he will walk away immensely wealthy. Meanwhile, the subsequent revelation that appearances were deceiving is someone else’s problem...

The best explanation I've heard is that shareholders think they can get out before the stock craters, so the fundamentals are much less important than the share price.

The shareholders are wrong of course, but we are dealing with barely sentient primates after all.

Do we need to be looking at alternatives to the publicly traded company?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Pet poison follow-up: melamine and cyanuric acid

I've had a standing Google search on melamine for the past few months; I wanted to track developments beyond the lifespan of the original story. Today it served up an article on the mechanisms of the pet poisoning.

Last May there was still some questions about the nature of the toxin. That appears to have been settled - at least for cats:
UC Davis researchers identify toxic chemicals in pet food - Campus News

... Veterinary Toxicologists at UC Davis have discovered the toxicity of the chemicals behind the deaths of approximately 16 pets in the United States this year. The pilot study conducted in April and May of 2007 found that a combination of melamine and cyanuric acid caused cats in their study to experience acute kidney failure.

The two chemicals, found in nearly 60 million packages of recalled pet food in March of 2007, have been added as a source of protein in some brands of pet food, but until recently had not been tested for their toxicity.

"There were no published reports of toxicity studies examining the combined effects of melamine and cyanuric acid in any animal species," said director of the study and associate professor of Veterinary Toxicology Birgit Puschner. "We needed to determine with certainty whether or not melamine or cyanuric acid alone or in combination, could cause renal disease."

Although the University of Iowa conducted a similar study with pigs, UC Davis is the only research institution to find and publish the cause of toxicity in the recalled pet food. Their findings were published in the November issue of the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation...
The Wikipedia article on the pet food recall already includes the citation. That's fast!

My personal sense is that Americans have mostly forgotten about the problem and have not changed their buying habits.

For example, Eukanuba, who used to make our dog's food, once boasted of their US based supply chain. They are now owned by Iams, who's name is now on our food. They make no such claims.

Clearly consumers have not been demanding any real changes.

It's hard to be a "market of one".

Two dimensional string theory

Promotion has sapped the output of my favorite physics bloggers, so I'm grateful to FMH for my physics fix:
Shadow World: Science News Online, Nov. 17, 2007

....Since 1997, physicists have proposed countless variations on Maldacena's theme, all of which interpret a string as a swarm of particles living in a small number of dimensions. Perhaps the easiest case to visualize is when that number is two. In such a scenario, anything that takes place in your many-dimensional, stringy universe has a sort of shadow representation in terms of particles moving on that universe's 'sphere at infinity.' This esoteric-sounding concept is actually similar to the familiar celestial sphere of the night sky as seen from Earth: It's the two-dimensional surface spanning all possible directions one can point to infinitely far in space...
So this re-representation of string theory has been popular for 10 years -- but I don't recall reading about it.

Annoying.

Sciam did cover this in Nov 2005 ("The Illusion of Gravity"), but I wasn't a subscriber then. (SciAm is the only periodical I subscribe to does not give archival access to current print subscribers. It's their right, but I do hold it against them.)

Wikipedia presents the theory more technically:
Juan Martín Maldacena (born September 10, 1968) is a theoretical physicist born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Among his many discoveries, the most famous one is the most reliable realization of the holographic principle - namely the AdS/CFT correspondence, the successfully tested conjecture about the equivalence of string theory or supergravity on Anti de Sitter (AdS) space, and a conformal field theory defined on the boundary of the AdS space.
In physics, the AdS/CFT correspondence (anti-de-Sitter space/conformal field theory correspondence), sometimes called the Maldacena duality, is the conjectured equivalence between a string theory defined on one space, and a quantum field theory without gravity defined on the conformal boundary of this space, whose dimension is lower by one or more...
Now, as we all know one of the primary challenges of the last 80 or so years of physics has been quantizing gravity. So, as a hobbyist reading this, I'm thinking the mathematical trick is to make the problem more tractable (and perhaps more constrained?) by taking gravity out of the picture. Hence the SciAm title - the "illusion of gravity".

This might be a bit like the old polar vs. cartesian coordinate transformation in Physics 101. Neither is "truer" than the other, but in some problems solutions are much easier. Or maybe the the Maldacena view will turn out to be the "better" model of "reality" (whatever that slippery beast might be).

I'll have to look around for some other popular summaries ...

Ravel on Bolero

Maurice Ravel
I have written only one masterpiece. That is Boléro. Unfortunately, it contains no music.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Guess what phone isn't promoted on the A&T site

Yep. No sign. No sign of the iPhone. It's beginning to look like AT&T's margins are every bit as thin, and Apple's every bit as fat, as rumor suggests.

AT&T is promoting phones where they at least make money on the plans.

I wonder if AT&T will eventually beg Apple to let them out of the contract early ...

Update: At least one commentator sees an iPhone, though it doesn't appear on the screen I get.

The best Trek: Slashdot chooses

Slashdot Polls are generally silly, but this time they asked a question that both matched the readership and was taken seriously.

They asked which Trek was the best. Voyager was not an option.

The rankings as of 61,594 votes (talk about a significant sample size) were:
• Star Trek: 14%
• Next Generation: 46%
• Deep Space 9: 16%
• Enterprise 5%
• Joke responses: 12%
I've never watched Enterprise, but that's the way I'd rank the rest. NG wins by a landslide and DS 9 and the original are roughly equal.

Of course NG was better before Picard was transiently assimilated. The Borg were great theater, but they sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the series.

One of my most memorable episodes, oddly, featured the often annoying "Q". Picard disdains his youthful recklessness, and Q decides to, you know, "teach him". Q causes Picard to live his life more circumspectly, leading Picard to a dead end job in the science division.

Any relationship to my current employment is purely coincidental :-).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Five by Dyer: two on Oil

Five from Gwynne Dyer
Oct 29 The Indo-US Alliance: The Wheels Fall Off
Nov 2 Telling the Truth about Oil
Nov 8 After Peak Oil
Nov 13 Pakistan Scenarios
Nov 18 Australia's Climate Change Election
All interesting, as usual.

Particle vs. Field: which is truer

Today it seems that particles are merely secondary ....
Nonlocality of a Single Particle Demonstrated Without Objections

... The scientists note an interesting comparison of their result to a principle of Leibniz’s metaphysics, the identity of indiscernibles. According to the principle, a pair of entangled quantum particles must be indiscernible from a single particle, since both objects have in common all the same properties—this is the only stipulation of the principle, number being irrelevant. The single-state nonlocality demonstrated here reinforces the equivalence of a single state and an entangled state—giving more credence to the position that quantum field theory, where fields are fundamental and particles secondary, is a close representation of reality...
In knowledge modeling the debate is between the nodes (statements) and the arcs (relationships). The arcs are pulling ahead.

Galois: killer unknown

My IOT podcast of the moment is on Symmetry. That story begins its modern history with Evariste Galois, who died in a duel aged 20.

Wikipedia tells the story, it's a bit less dramatic than the IOT version:
Évariste Galois - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

.... As to his opponent in the duel, Alexandre Dumas names Pescheux d'Herbinville, one of the nineteen artillery officers on whose acquittal the banquet that occasioned Galois' first arrest was celebrated. However, Dumas is alone in this assertion, and extant newspaper clippings from only a few days after the duel give a description of his opponent which is inconsistent with d'Herbinville, and more accurately describes one of Galois' Republican friends, most probably Ernest Duchatelet, who was also imprisoned with Galois on the same charges...

Whatever the reasons behind the duel, Galois was so convinced of his impending death that he stayed up all night writing letters to his Republican friends and composing what would become his mathematical testament, the famous letter to Auguste Chevalier outlining his ideas... However, the legend of Galois pouring his mathematical thoughts onto paper the night before he died seems to have been exaggerated. In these final papers he outlined the rough edges of some work he had been doing in analysis and annotated a copy of the manuscript submitted to the academy and other papers. On 30 May 1832, early in the morning, he was shot in the abdomen and died the following day at ten in the Cochin hospital (probably of peritonitis) after refusing the offices of a priest. He was 20 years old. His last words to his brother Alfred were...

If Galois had lived, there's little doubt the history of mathematics would be rather different.

Galois story is invariably described as romantic, but "stupid" seems more appropriate. Even a genius can be a fool - especially at age 20.

I was curious about the history of his opponent. The man played a major role in history after all. It's disappointing that he turns out be anonymous.

I could find nothing on the web about the subsequent life of Mr. Duchatelet, though I did find a number of spam sites that copied the wikipedia article. I suppose to track this down one would have to look for descendants, and see if there were some kind of oral family history.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Profiling: the astrology of criminology

Schneier sent me to this New Yorker article on the pseudo-science of FBI "profiling". It turns out to be about as scientific as lie detectors -- meaning not at all.
Dept. of Criminology: Dangerous Minds: Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker:

They had been at it for almost six hours. The best minds in the F.B.I. had given the Wichita detectives a blueprint for their investigation. Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a “now” person. He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental. If you’re keeping score, that’s a Jacques Statement, two Barnum Statements, four Rainbow Ruses, a Good Chance Guess, two predictions that aren’t really predictions because they could never be verified—and nothing even close to the salient fact that BTK was a pillar of his community, the president of his church and the married father of two.
The Jacques, Barnum, Rainbow Ruse, etc are techniques used by professional "psychics" on their marks.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Second Life: 2.5 billion lines of code

I believe this is more code than runs in Vista (emphases mine) ...
OOPSLA 2007 « Dan Weinreb’s Weblog

... Jim Purbrick and Mark Lentczner of Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life, explained a great deal about what Second Life is and how it works. The most interesting thing is that 15% of the residents actually do coding, in a language that lets you make active objects. There are 30,000,000 running scripts, 2.5 billion lines of code. Generally there are 15,000 scripts actively running on each “region” (processor), updating at 45 frames per second, and there are 4,000 processors. There are 30,000,000 concurrent threads. The language itself they described as “terrible”; they are working on bringing up the Mono implementation of the CLR so they can provide good languages. There are some complicated issues in which threads must be migrated from one CPU to another as an object moves around within regions of the Second Life world. The most impressive thing is how many people with little or no technical training are doing programming. They also talked about how the Linden Labs developers, eight of them at five physical locations, use Second Life itself as a collaborative development environment; they say it works really well, particularly due to having stereo audio that’s good enough that you can tell where sounds are coming from. During the talk they showed Second Life on the big screen and moved around and interacted with people, so that you could see what it’s like...
One of the common themes of modern science fiction is that the human world fissions into mutually incomprehensible domains.

Babel 2.0, in other words.

I can see that happening.

How to demo software

Joel Spolksy, geek god, tells us what he learned about demoing software -- after a world wide software demo.
How to demo software - Joel on Software:

...It’s already all a blur. 26 cities. 6 weeks. 2913 attendees. \$160,000. 23 hotels, one Cambridge college, one British library, and a “Sociëteit Het Meisjeshuis.” (“Gesundheit!”)...
Stuff like this is like finding diamonds scattered on the front lawn.

It's hard to remember there was a time this sort of thing wasn't freely available.

America, the richest third world nation

Twenty six years ago I watched a long line of children and teens waiting for dental care. This was in the north of Thailand.

The dentists pulled bad teeth, one after the other. I don't recall any anesthesia, there wasn't time for much.

I think one of the children cried, and I recall a sense of disapproval from his peers.

It was a long time ago.

Things have changed since then. Now we have those lines in America ...
Health and Medicine - Insurance - Health and Managed Care - Doctors - New York Times

... The group, most often referred to as RAM, has sent health expeditions to countries like Guyana, India, Tanzania and Haiti, but increasingly its work is in the United States, where 47 million people — more than 15 percent of the population — live without health insurance. Residents of remote rural areas are less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to have health insurance and more likely to be in fair or poor health...

And so each summer, shortly after the Virginia-Kentucky District Fair and Horse Show wraps up at the fairgrounds, members of Virginia Lions Clubs start bleaching the premises, readying them for RAM’s volunteers, who, working in animal stalls and beneath makeshift tents, provide everything from teeth cleaning and free eyeglasses to radiology and minor surgery. The problem, says RAM’s founder, Stan Brock, is always in the numbers, with the patients’ needs far outstripping what his team can supply. In Wise County, when the sun rose and the fairground gates opened at 5:30 on Friday morning, more than 800 people already were waiting in line. Over the next three days, some 2,500 patients would receive care, but at least several hundred, Brock estimates, would be turned away. He adds: “There comes a point where the doctors say: ‘Hey, I gotta go. It’s Sunday evening, and I have to go to work tomorrow.’...
Dental care is particularly in demand.

Comet Holmes - it's quite simple

This isn't unusual.
Comet Holmes and the case of the Disappearing Tail | The Register

"Amateur astronomers the world over have been stunned and amazed by the weirdest new object to appear in the sky in memory," wrote Sky and Telescope .

"The comet shocked skywatchers as it went from a dim 17th magnitude then suddenly to 3 magnitude" wrote Theo from the Pacific Northwest.*
Zorgonian battle cruisers always do that on approach to the target system.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Via TMW I've learned that Consumers Union has an advocacy campaign for toy safety. They want inspections funded and they want a real inspection program.

Of course I signed up immediately. They generate email to senators and file names.

was the most recent episode I've commented on. It's only one of many such.

Highly recommended, though of course what we really need is to get the GOP out of the government.

Be sure to use your spam email (for me that's a Yahoo account). I don't trust CU not to spam me.

Next they can tackle generic drug quality. Our son uses a medication which recently came to use with an unusual scent and a somewhat different appearance. It's produced by a Spanish chemical/pharmaceutical vendor that obtains products from "Asia" (meaning China).

We're not giving him any more until we check this out.

I remember a time when it would never have occurred to us to worry.

Sign the toy petition. Mostly, though, don't forget we need a different government.

The hidden insurance problem: they can play the game better than we can

Last week I wrote that it is impossible for a sane human to truly judge the value of employment benefits, particularly health care benefits.

That complexity is not accidental. Complexity facilitates deception. The consumer can't really price the product, but the vendor can. A product that seems to offer good consumer value may be a trap.

It's a huge competitive advantage. Companies that don't leverage it will disappear, until finally it's the only way to play the game.

Bob Herbert provides a great example of the game in action:
It’s Not Just the Uninsured - Bob Herbert - New York Times:

...The next round of bad news came in a double dose. One night, after coming home from school, Brittney suddenly found that she couldn’t walk. The cancer had attacked her spinal cord. As the doctors geared up to treat this new disaster, Ms. Hightower received word that her insurance policy had maxed out. The company would not pay for any further treatment.

Ms. Hightower was aghast: “I said, ‘What do you mean? It was supposed to be a \$3 million policy.’ ”

She hadn’t understood that there was an annual limit of \$75,000 on benefits. “It was just devastating when they told me that,” she said.

Most of the debate about access to health care has centered on people without insurance. But there are cases like this one all over the country in which individuals are working and paying for coverage that, perversely, kicks out when a devastating illness kicks in...
Few consumers would knowingly purchase an insurance policy with a \$75K yearly cap, but that cap can make the coverage very profitable.

The best way out of this trap is to create offerings that apply across a state or region, and make the available to all persons in the region. This allows newspapers, consumer organizations, and government to analyze plans and expose deception. The next best option is to create standard care scenarios and require insurers to describe how their plans would operate under the scenarios.

Lastly, we could make insurance companies liable when a "reasonable person" would be unable to understand the true costs and benefits ofa given plan.

There are lots of ways we could make things better - even without reforming the health care system.

A year from now, we might even hope that some of them might become law.

The best pro-Hillary argument

The best argument for Hilary:
Hillary Fries the Waffle - Gail Collins - New York Times:

...All these people believe pretty much the same thing, and when it’s time to take on the Republicans, I would prefer the candidate who knows how to change the subject and stack the deck."...
The best argument against: Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton.

Krugman on social security: I think he's wrong

Well, it's not that he's wrong by the numbers, it's that he's being politic.

I think he's right when he says the GOP attacks on social security are ideologically motivated and deceptive, and I agree that Obama has shown he's not ready to be president by falling for that ploy.

On the other hand, he's being tricksy when he deemphasizes the (small) rationalist part of the GOP attack on social security.

First Paul's blog post today, with emphases mine:
Long-run budget math - Paul Krugman - Op-Ed Columnist - New York Times Blog

... Start with the current position. Last year, federal spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid was 8.5 percent of GDP, equally divided between Social Security and the health care programs. Dismal long-run projections, like those of the GAO, have this total rising by 10 percentage points of GDP by mid-century.

So, how much of this is a Social Security problem? Pundits like Tim Russert love to point out that in its early days Social Security had 16 workers paying in for every retiree receiving benefits. But this is irrelevant; looking forward, we’ll see the worker-beneficiary ratio fall from about 3 to 2 as the baby boomers retire. This will raise the percentage of GDP spent on Social Security from about 4 to 6 — that is, a rise of about 2 percentage points of GDP, which is a small fraction of the entitlements problem. See, for example, this chart from my NY Review of Books piece on the subject.

What’s more, Social Security has already been strengthened to deal with this rise. In 1983 the payroll tax was increased and adjustments made to the retirement age, so as to build up a trust fund. According to the “intermediate” projection of the Social Security trustees, this trust fund will be exhausted in 2041 — but they also present a more optimistic scenario, based on economic assumptions that don’t seem at all outlandish, in which the trust fund goes on forever.

This brings us to the claim that the trust fund doesn’t exist, because it’s invested in government bonds. The full explanation of why this is sophistry is here.
I followed Paul's link. These are his words from that document (emphases mine):
...The lesser problem is that if you say that there is no link between the payroll tax and future Social Security benefits - which is what denying the reality of the trust fund amounts to - then Greenspan and company pulled a fast one back in the 1980s: they sold a regressive tax switch, raising taxes on workers while cutting them on the wealthy, on false pretenses. More broadly, we're breaking a major promise if we now, after 20 years of high payroll taxes to pay for Social Security's future, declare that it was all a little joke on the public.

The bigger problem for those who want to see a crisis in Social Security's future is this: if Social Security is just part of the federal budget, with no budget or trust fund of its own, then, well, it's just part of the federal budget: there can't be a Social Security crisis. All you can have is a general budget crisis. Rising Social Security benefit payments might be one reason for that crisis, but it's hard to make the case that it will be central.
So, is it plausible that Greenspan & Co pulled a fast one in 1980, and that our government can break a major promise?

Cough.

Of course it's plausible.

That's where Paul is being politic. I respect him for that - there's no alternative in today's world.

Still, by his own words, it's only if you assume an honest and responsible government that we face a health care funding crisis; if you assume a corrupt, stupid and sleazy government, one only half as bad as our current regime, we do face a general budget crisis.

We can attack that crisis by defunding social security (the GOP plan, though motivated more by ideology than budgetary sanity), or by limiting what we spend on health care (a rational alternative, or by inventing a new, vastly cheaper, health care system (the optimists proposal).

Or, we could slow the progression of the physiologic Alzheimer's process by 10%. That would enable delayed retirement and it would substantially reduce future health care costs. It would resolve our pending financial crisis.

Anyone for investing in Alzheimer's disease research?