Monday, December 31, 2007

Physics Feast: Sean Carroll's favorite posts

Sean "Cosmic Varience" Carroll has indexed his personal favorite posts. A true feast for the physics fan.

After the crash of '07: what 2008 may bring

The Economist tells us where we are months after the property crash of '07 (emphases mine):

... On December 18th the European Central Bank lent almost €350 billion ($500 billion) to tide banks over the new year. And yet most fear-meters, including, crucially, the price banks have to pay for funds (see chart), still register chronic anxiety...

... Subprime borrowers will probably default on $200 billion-300 billion of mortgages. That is a lot of money, to be sure, but hardly enough to imperil the world economy. For that, you need the baroque superstructure of mortgage-backed derivatives that enabled investors to bet on the housing market. From a mathematical viewpoint, the combined profits and losses on these derivatives will, by definition, cancel out, so they should not add anything to the total underlying loss. But that is only half the story. Individual investment vehicles may have sustained huge losses, especially if they borrowed heavily: it is the fear that your counterparty might be in that predicament that is gumming up the markets.

... banks now facing up to these contingent liabilities have not had to set aside capital in case of trouble—that gap in the regulations was precisely what made it so attractive to get their investments off the balance sheets in the first place...

... the money-market funds have gone on strike, cutting off the interbank markets' main source of cash ...

... Nobody yet knows whether the extreme borrowing in the credit boom was a sensible result of the powerful new machinery of debt, or the sort of excess still unwinding in Japan...

The markets will not recover until lenders believe the banks have credibly owned up to their losses...

... the frenzy of innovation around debt and securitisation got out of hand. Risk was supposed to be bought by those best able to afford it, but often ended up with those seduced by yields they did not understand. Mathematical brilliance was supposed to model risk with precision, but the models evaporated along with the liquidity that they had failed to quantify. Rating agencies were supposed to serve the market, but their first loyalty seems to have been to the issuers who were paying their fees...

Until that moment, the burden will fall on the central banks. They have tried to help by tinkering with the technical operations that supply liquidity (though they keep overnight interest rates on target by draining money elsewhere)...
The rating agencies failed us in the Enron scandal too, not to mention the last market crash. Maybe we need to oblige rating agencies to make financial bets aligned with their ratings -- so if they rate wrongly they go out of business. Oh, and the CEO's compensation should be aligned with those predictions as well.

The editorial claims that the primary fault with the financial instruments was a failure to model liquidity correctly. If so then increasing liquidity is a case of closing the proverbial gate after the horses have exited. I think DeLong and Krugman have been saying this, but I hadn't understood until now.

A significant part of the screw-up seems to have been that banks were allowed to hide very speculative bets from their balance sheets. Shades of the accounting scandals at Enron and others throughout the 90s! It would be interesting to know who put that loophole in, and how they got paid off for it. Now, to get the system going again, we need banks to reveal their liabilities -- to put this stuff back on the balance sheets.

It will be interesting to watch that fight.

Lastly, the reference to Japan is intended to scare. Japan's real estate bubble collapsed in the '80s -- more than 20 years ago. I don't think it will take 20 years for our real estate to recover, but there is a precedent.

As for recession, I guess we'll find out this year how big the pull is from India and China.

The NYT may be ready to fight

Today's New Years eve editorial suggests they won't be endorsing any of the GOP candidates -- with the possible exception of John McCain ...
Looking at America - New York Times

...There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country. Sunday was one of them, as we read the account in The Times of how men in some of the most trusted posts in the nation plotted to cover up the torture of prisoners by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators by destroying videotapes of their sickening behavior. It was impossible to see the founding principles of the greatest democracy in the contempt these men and their bosses showed for the Constitution, the rule of law and human decency.

It was not the first time in recent years we’ve felt this horror, this sorrowful sense of estrangement, not nearly. This sort of lawless behavior has become standard practice since Sept. 11, 2001.

The country and much of the world was rightly and profoundly frightened by the single-minded hatred and ingenuity displayed by this new enemy. But there is no excuse for how President Bush and his advisers panicked — how they forgot that it is their responsibility to protect American lives and American ideals, that there really is no safety for Americans or their country when those ideals are sacrificed.

Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer...

...We can only hope that this time, unlike 2004, American voters will have the wisdom to grant the awesome powers of the presidency to someone who has the integrity, principle and decency to use them honorably. Then when we look in the mirror as a nation, we will see, once again, the reflection of the United States of America.
I'm hope I'm not being delusional when I say that I see signs of a new attitude at the NYT. A move away from credulous "neutrality" of "he said, she said" towards speaking truth.

It's not just today's editorial. It's in a number of editorials that say things like:
"Today Giuliani/Bush/RomneyHuckabee/etc said .... None of these things are true."
If the NYT is really going to rouse itself from the trap it fell into ten years ago, then there may be hope for America after all.

An amusing summary of the Bush years: records lost in the Executive Building fire

Daily Kos: White House confirms the following records destroyed in the 3rd floor fire. It's a darkly amusing summary of the Bush years and legacy.

Of course it's not over yet. America is perfectly capable of electing any of the GOP candidates.

The great product problem: consumers

One step in my convoluted cell phone Sprint/RAZR -> AT&T/iPhone strategy is getting a "free with contract" AT&T cell phone before I buy the iPhone.

There are two "features" I want in the "free" phone. I want to be able to charge it from a standard USB cable/charger and I want it to have a standard 3.5 mm headset mini-jack. The former means one less charger when I travel. The latter is obviously important.

Any geek would agree these are very valuable features. Note the iPhone fails both tests; though it will at least charge from an USB source and you can modify a mini-jack plug to fit. The evil RAZR fails the mini-jack test and will not charge from a standard USB power source.

So, try to find out what AT&T phones actually charge from a USB power source. I'll wait until you get back ...

Right. You can't find out. I tried the AT&T chat sales support (comes up if you plink around their site long enough) and the rep didn't know. He suggested I try Phone Finder - search database of cell phone specs & features (Phone Scoop).

Right. Nothing there either. (They do have a 3.5 mm mini-jack criteria though!)

Here's the interesting part. This problem isn't just limited to the benighted cell phone world. I find manifestations of this problem in my day job, in the software I buy, and in most of the products I buy.

The problem is there's a big gap between what's important and what sells. Since we live in a world of finite resources, resources are directed to what sells, not to functionality that delivers ongoing value (like one less charger when traveling).

So where's the gap come from?


Humans, in other words.

In an increasingly complex world the African Plains Ape is increasingly adrift, no longer able to make rational buying choices. So the ape buys based on interchangeable face plates rather than USB charging.

So, short of upgrading the APA, what's the best we can hope for?

This is going to hurt.


The company that knows what's best for us, and will ram it down our throats until we agree. I think the "strong brand" and "company with a reputation" is about the best we're going to get.

At least until we can start to "print" our own devices ...

Update: PhoneScoop did respond to a request to add the USB power attribute. I'll be impressed if they do that!

Bush didn't want to know the location of the CIA's torture facilities

As long as the GOP held the Senate, the Bush administration could safely destroy the torture tapes, and, more importantly, they could safely lie about their non-existence.

So the decision to destroy them was a reasonable gamble. Rove really expected to hold the Senate. Heck, I though the GOP would hold the Senate. I'm surprised Lieberman still hasn't switched parties, for example.

They didn't, and so we have an investigation. It will, slowly turn up some interesting details. Like this one (emphasis mine):
Tapes by C.I.A. Lived and Died to Save Image - New York Times:

.... interviews with two dozen current and former officials, most of whom would speak about the classified program only on the condition of anonymity, revealed new details about why the tapes were made and then eliminated. Their accounts show how political and legal considerations competed with intelligence concerns in the handling of the tapes.

The discussion about the tapes took place in Congressional briefings and secret deliberations among top White House lawyers, including a meeting in May 2004 just days after photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had reminded the administration of the power of such images. The debate stretched over the tenure of two C.I.A. chiefs and became entangled in a feud between the agency’s top lawyers and its inspector general. The tapes documented a program so closely guarded that President Bush himself had agreed with the advice of intelligence officials that he not be told the locations of the secret C.I.A. prisons.
Bush, of course, wanted plausible deniability, so he could say there were no prisons in Poland, etc. A lie of course, but an easier lie.

As usual the driving force behind the investigation is the cover-up. People tried to conceal the existence of the tapes, and then lied about their destruction. I think many people are wondering if Rove's retirement will turn out to be related to the cover-up process.

There will be other surprises that turn up as the cover-up is investigated...

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The unclear implications of an iPhone contract

The more I look into the implications of the AT&T and Apple iPhone contracting the smellier the whole thing gets.

It doesn't help that Apple is routinely locking discussions about contracts, such as this one: Apple - Support - Discussions - End Of Contract.

On the one hand an Apple thread I initiated concluded that if I were to buy a second iPhone, that I could sell my first iPhone - unlocked. On the other hand Apple has never admitted this publicly -- and they prosecute sellers of unlocked iPhones.

Doesn't quite add up.

Eckels on managing software projects

Bruce Eckels (new feed of mine, so I'm working through the archives [1]) distilled a lot of professional experience into a commencement address [2]. I've emphasized one statement that a less kind person than I would suggest be applied to certain persons with a branding iron ...

The Mythical 5%

... some companies have adopted a policy where at the end of some predetermined period each team evaluates everyone and drops the bottom 10% or 20%. In response to this policy, a smart manager who has a good team hires extra people who can be thrown overboard without damaging the team. I think I know someone to whom this happened at Novell. It's not a good policy; in fact it's abusive and eats away at company morale from within. But it's one of the things you probably didn't learn here, and yet the kind of thing you need to know, even if it seems to have nothing directly to do with programming.

Here's another example: People are going to ask you the shortest possible time it takes to accomplish a particular task. You'll do your best to guess what that is, and they'll assume you can actually do it. What you need to tell them for an estimate like this, and for all your estimates, is that there's a 0% probability that you will actually get it done in that period of time, that such a guess is only the beginning of the probability curve. Each guess needs to be accompanied by such a probability curve, so that all the probabilities combined produce a real curve indicating when the project might likely be done. You can learn more about this by reading a small book called Waltzing with Bears...

I admit, I'd not thought about the inevitable unintended consequence of the "bottom 10%" cuts. Once one person figures out the "hire human sacrifices" strategy everyone will soon learn it, just as ingenious hacks percolate in prisons. Now it's hit on the web, so it's known to the metamind. Humans adapt, and a ruthless corporate culture will breed ruthless employees -- which might not work out as intended.

The rest of the essay is all good advice, most of which I've learned the hard way.

[1] Tip: When you find a good blog, explore the archives deliberately. In bloglines I mark a post as 'keep current' as a reminder that I'm still mining the knowledge. If it's a decent blog there will be far more gold in the best of the archives than in the day-to-day (average) posts of even the very best blogs. (Basic stats - sampling curves.)

[2] I remember when things like this were said once, barely heard, then vanished. Now they live on. I don't think we understand how much difference this makes.

Spolsky tips on travel, gear, phones and so on

Spolsky would be darned annoying if he weren't so generous. Entrepreneur, geek, knows everything ...

Fortunately, he's generous. Here he writes about lessons learned from a promotional tour for his software company - FogBugz. Many of them apply to routine travel (except the first class part). Emphases mine, alas I live in Saint Paul so I cannot escape Northwest.
Joel Spolsky's Travel Survival Guide - Business Travel - Software Demo'ing

  1. We waited until September to start the tour. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, September sees 15% fewer air passengers than August. That may seem like a small difference, but thanks to queuing theory, it's actually significant enough to eliminate most of the lines at airports.

  2. We fly first class...

  3. We scheduled most of the travel in the early afternoon, when airports are relatively quiet...

  4. We never booked a flight until we were sure there was at least one later nonstop flight that would get us where we were going..

  5. Oh, and we refused to fly Northwest Airlines (NYSE:NWA), which routinely schedules more flights than they have the ability to operate.

... we didn't have a single delay of more than an hour, and the longest line I waited in was about 10 minutes for security at Seattle airport.

...Here are a few of my tips for good demos:

  • Ban PowerPoint...
  • ...I try to watch video of myself to learn how to be a better presenter...
  • It's OK to tell jokes...

...In my carryon luggage:

  • My laptop is a Lenovo ThinkPad X61s…

  • To get on the Internet wherever I go, I have a Samsung Blackjack phone on AT&T ... supports GSM, so it works abroad, and HSDPA, for high-speed internet access... I wirelessly connect the laptop to the phone using Bluetooth and get high speed Internet access using my phone's unlimited data plan (this is called "tethering").

  • The projector I use is the NEC NP60 (about $1250)...

  • Because the laptop is usually too far away from the projector for a standard VGA cable, I carry these little gizmos called baluns which let me use a standard CAT-5 LAN cable instead of a VGA cable. I've found that a 25 foot LAN cable is plenty, but the baluns let you go much further if you need to.

  • I also carry my own lavaliere microphones with transmitters and receivers (Sennheiser Evolution G2s) ...

As checked luggage:

  • We had Lands' End Business Outfitters make us up a bunch of piquém polo shirts...

  • We had our printer make up two big professional vertical banners with the FogBugz logo...

Shipped straight to each hotel via UPS ...

  • 12-page 4-color brochures for each attendee
  • Logo pads and pens for each attendee
  • A couple of 25' extension cords, for the projector and the laptop
  • A roll of duct tape to tape wires down on the carpet
  • A couple of hundred "Hello, my name is…" stickers and sharpies so attendees can socialize before and after the event.
I didn't know you could do that with a Blackjack. Imagine if the iPhone were to support Bluetooth tethering...

There's a lot of advice in one place. I liked the "ship extension cords" -- obvious only in retrospect.

Thanks again Joel!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Music industry sows the wind

In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny: "You realize, of course, this means war" (emphases mine):
Download Uproar: Record Industry Goes After Personal Use - an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.

The industry's lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are "unauthorized copies" of copyrighted recordings....

...At the Thomas trial in Minnesota, Sony BMG's chief of litigation, Jennifer Pariser, testified that "when an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song." Copying a song you bought is "a nice way of saying 'steals just one copy,' " she said...
Meanwhile, in Canada, the music industry proposes to put a rather substantial tax on memory cards -- with an iPod tariff to come.


Until now a substantial number of elder geeks (i.e. people with money) have been on the sidelines of the copyright wars. For us the iPod has meant a renewed interest in music, and a steady stream of CD purchases (since we distrust DRM intensely, we don't buy online). We've been on the establishment-friendly side of Pogue's demographic copyright gulf.

But now ... Now the music industry is trying to change the rules of the game.

That's not fair. The Geek Code of Honor requires us to respond by the ancient rule of sheeps and lambs. Some will say the Code obliges us to support the theft of music and video alike, for the criminals have now become the honest outlaw.

The RIAA really shouldn't have crossed this line.

1/2/08: Turns out WaPo got it wrong, but the blogosphere is correcting. It's easy to see why WaPo jumped the gun, the RIAA's legal argument may partly rely on the fact that it has not been shown in US courts that ripping a CD is "fair use". So the RIAA hasn't pulled the trigger yet, but they've pulled back the hammer...

Security theater: airport liquid dumps

A wonderful example of what Bruce Schneier calls "security theater". I admit, I hadn't realized how ridiculously stupid the liquid disposal bins are:
The Airport Security Follies - New York Times Blog

...At every concourse checkpoint you’ll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit. Now, the assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are potentially hazardous. If not, why were they seized in the first place? But if so, why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash? They are not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are simply thrown away. The agency seems to be saying that it knows these things are harmless. But it’s going to steal them anyway, and either you accept it or you don’t fly...
My experience is that airport security people act as though the feds "jumped the shark" with the liquid ban. Security staff do their best to ignore the whole thing.

I've never been asked to pull out liquids when I forget and leave them in my toiletry kit. On the other hand there's a 40% interception rate when I forget and leave my tiny swiss army knife in my backpack. In both cases I think the contraband shows up on the scanner, but security staff are smarter than their political bosses. They've decided to spend their resources sensibly.

Incidentally, my question for the next candidate "debate" is: "will you eliminate the meaningless "orange alert" status?". We might as well go to a "normal" and "red" alert status, where red means it's time to evacuate the airport and ground the airplanes.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Sudden death in frontotemporal dementia - a clue to sudden infant death syndrome?

A friend of mine recently lost a friend and neighbor to Frontotemporal dementia (Picks disease), a particularly loathsome form of dementia (but aren't they all?) with a 50% occurrence risk in children of affected persons.

He mentioned his friend died fairly suddenly. Puzzling, I thought. Why suddenly?

Turns out that's common in FTD:
[Initial symptoms, survival and causes of death in...[Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr. 2007] - PubMed Result: "Causes of death were varied, but pneumonia and sudden unexplained deaths were particularly frequent."
Hmm. Sudden death. Brain disease. Could there be a clue in FTD to the causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?

Well, there are lots of Google hits on the paired terms, though the associations seem coincidental. On the other hand, a Pubmed search combining both terms had no hits (today). So maybe this research is yet to be published ...

Changing world: the Robosoft example

Earlier today I mentioned the impact of globalization on, among other things, American software engineers.

Which brings me to Robosoft Technologies - Management Team. This is a company based in New Udupi, Karnataka, India. Karnataka is the home of Bangalore.

I came across Robosoft because I was curious about who made the Lego Star Wars II game I bought the kids this Christmas. Lego Star Wars II is one of the very few "universal binary" games available for OS X. I figured this had to come from some US based small Mac specialist company.


The game logo mentions "Feral Entertainment" and "Lucas Arts", but the credits say the development work was done by Robosoft.

It turns out that the CEO, Rohith Bhat, did Mac development for some consulting firms. When he went solo, he carved out a niche in Mac software development - based in India. The firm appears to be doing pretty well. Interestingly three of the executives are Bhats and they rather resemble one another.

New world.

A real problem with CO2 controls

This occurred to me some time ago, but now it's made it into the popular press (emphases mine): | Clive Crook's blog: Trade and climate

...Suppose the US adopts a cap-and-trade regime for carbon, as promised by Hillary Clinton, or as envisaged by the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (yes, make this a security issue, why not) currently before Congress. Also suppose that China does nothing to curb its carbon emissions. Then Chinese imports, it will be argued, will have an unfair cost advantage in US markets...
Shame on Crook for not correcting the "unfair cost advantage" error. Trade theory tells us there's no such thing as unfair cost advantage in the naive mercantilist sense. On the other hand, if we were to create a set of carbon tariffs to offset this "cost advantage" then we'd amplify the negative economic effects of necessary carbon emission controls.

The legitimate issue, however, is one of relative socio-economic power. If a President Edwards were to ask Al Gore to lead a US-European world saving CO2 emissions initiative, the US and Europe would sacrifice a certain measure of economic productivity compared to non-compliant nations. That productivity hit translates to a power shift, with all the usual implications.

I think the rich nations will probably have to take the hit and live with it, but we need to recognize it's going to have an effect.

Krugman on globalization: how to manage the losers

Comparative advantage (see also) has been famously described as the one social science proposition that is both true and non-trivial. It's the reason that free trade strongly tends, on average, to be a resilient win-win proposition. I've summarized the thesis as:
... It's not that you can't do the work better than someone else, it's rather that you have better things to do...
The operative constraint here is "on average". A win for America is not necessarily a win for programmers, GPs, or the guys in the parts department. Increasingly the vast majority of the winnings from globalization appear to be going to the top 1%

Krugman last discussed this topic in May of 2007. Now he returns with new data ...
Trouble With Trade - New York Times

... contrary to what people sometimes assert, economic theory says that free trade normally makes a country richer, but it doesn’t say that it’s normally good for everyone. Still, when the effects of third-world exports on U.S. wages first became an issue in the 1990s, a number of economists — myself included — looked at the data and concluded that any negative effects on U.S. wages were modest.

The trouble now is that these effects may no longer be as modest as they were, because imports of manufactured goods from the third world have grown dramatically — from just 2.5 percent of G.D.P. in 1990 to 6 percent in 2006...

... Those who think that globalization is always and everywhere a bad thing are wrong. On the contrary, keeping world markets relatively open is crucial to the hopes of billions of people...

... It’s often claimed that limits on trade benefit only a small number of Americans, while hurting the vast majority. That’s still true of things like the import quota on sugar. But when it comes to manufactured goods, it’s at least arguable that the reverse is true. The highly educated workers who clearly benefit from growing trade with third-world economies are a minority, greatly outnumbered by those who probably lose....

...For the sake of the world as a whole, I hope that we respond to the trouble with trade not by shutting trade down, but by doing things like strengthening the social safety net. But those who are worried about trade have a point, and deserve some respect.

Krugman has been more specific in the past about strengthening the social safety net. Obvious ideas include:
Krugman is a gem. One of the reasons I gave up reading Greg Mankiw is that his ideological blinders prevent him from considering the impact of trade on less competitive workers. Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong don't have that problem.

Update 12/28: Today's Cringely column is sadly relevant.

Unsolved murders: 1982 Tylenol and 2001 Anthrax

The Tylenol murders of 1982 involved tampering with containers in the Chicago area.
... As the tampered bottles came from different factories, and the seven deaths had all occurred in the Chicago area, the possibility of sabotage during production was ruled out. Instead, the culprit was believed to have entered various supermarkets and drug stores over a period of weeks, pilfered packages of Tylenol from the shelves, adulterated their contents with solid cyanide compound at another location, and then replaced the bottles. In addition to the five bottles which led to the victims' deaths, three other tampered bottles were discovered....
There was no known communication from the murderer, so it didn't qualify as a terrorist attack. The killer was never caught, he (or she) might be alive today.

In 2001, seven days after the 9/11 attacks, another murderer sent anthrax contaminated letters from a mailbox in Princeton New Jersey. Again, wikipedia is the place to go for an update (something traditional media can't do):
2001 anthrax attacks - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, also known as Amerithrax from its FBI case name, occurred over the course of several weeks beginning on September 18, 2001. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two Democratic U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others...

...As of 2007, the anthrax investigation seems to have gone cold.[25][26] Authorities have traveled to six different continents, interviewed more than 9,100 people, conducted 67 searches and have issued over 6,000 subpoenas. The number of FBI agents assigned to the case is 17. The number of postal inspectors investigating the case is ten.[27] There are no reports that the investigators have identified the lab used to make the anthrax powders.
The failed Tylenol investigation is a discouraging precedent for the anthrax investigators.

We've mostly forgotten the anthrax attacks, and we've completely forgotten the Tylenol murders. Except, of course, for the survivors, the friends and families of the victims, Wikipedia contributors, and the investigators (do they contribute to the Wikipedia articles?).

The Tylenol murders led to some packaging changes; but I don't think they had a major impact on the American psyche.

The Anthrax murders, however, had a huge impact. Coming after 9/11 they were a part of the package that led to the invasion of Iraq (remember Saddam's mobile bioweapon facilities -- that turned out to be nothing at all?) . I suspect the direct attack on the Senate played a role in the powers the Senate freely granted Bush. If the Anthrax attack had not occurred, Bush's wartime status might have had a built-in renewal requirement.

Sadly, the vast impact of the Anthrax attack probably pleases the murderer.

Maybe forgetting is not the wisest thing to do. Maybe we should try to learn some lessons. How ought we to have responded? Why was such a high impact attack never replicated by a terrorist organization? Did the Senate lose its collective mind because of personal involvement? How could we prevent that happening again?

It would be marvelous to catch the killers of 1982 and 2001. Failing that, the best revenge would be to learn from our mistakes. We learned from the 1982 attacks, but I don't think we've learned enough from the 2001 murders.

Update: This post reminded me of one I wrote in 2003 about the Bush-Cheney smallpox fraud. That con job wouldn't have worked nearly as well but for the anthrax attacks.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Science fiction: the meme of universal cooperation

One of the classic science fiction answers to the Fermi Paradox is that any advanced technological civilization would decide that competitors are just too risky to tolerate.

So they would inevitably seed the galaxy with self-replicating machines designed to strange rivals "in the cradle".

This was the same line of argument given for preemptive nuclear attacks on Russia before it acquired the capacity to retaliate. More recently the argument is used to justify preemptive attacks on Iran.

It's easy to imagine an six-headed alien version of Dick Cheney arguing for the annihilation of the earth. After all, the planet Earth contains Dick Cheney!

But, in the spirit of the Solstice celebrations, we might ask whether a competitive rival strategy might emerge...

Even in simple game theory exercises, the 'initial friendship, then return as given' strategy can win. In a more complex universe, might one imagine a winning strategy of reciprocal alliance building?

What would be the characteristics of entities, large and small, that are able to build stable, growing, alliances and collaborations with very different entities and cultures? Tolerant, forgiving, compassionate, curious, patient, "turn the other cheek", "do unto others ...", etc.

Iain Banks trod some of this ground in The Culture novels. I've recently come across another variant. During my recent holiday time I managed to read a series a friend had sent, which I reviewed for Amazon ... Divergence: Books: Tony Ballantyne

... Ballantyne adroitly recycles a good range of science fiction, tossing in a one or two new ideas that I'd had on my private list of science fiction novelty. (So they're not original to me after all, Ballantyne thought of them too.)

So, a good read but nothing remarkable -- except for the last book.

In Divergence Ballantyne, who volunteers with special needs adults, is the very first science fiction writer to make "handicapped" adults first class characters. Indeed disability and fairness are revealed in the last book as core themes of the entire series (though I wonder if he knew how it would end)...
In addition to an almost unique role for disabled persons in his novel, Ballantyne also explores the idea of an aggressively cooperative culture, and they way they enforce their values of collaboration and fairness upon the universe.

So, Banks and Ballantyne (Banks is the better writer btw) have both touched on this meme. I wonder who else has covered it.

An encouraging thought as one contemplates the stars. Sadly it doesn't fit that well with the FP problem ...

Happy Solstice: A quiet revolution in human knowledge

This is a revolution.
ATA : Public Access Mandate Made Law

...President Bush has signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2007 (H.R. 2764), which includes a provision directing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to provide the public with open online access to findings from its funded research. This is the first time the U.S. government has mandated public access to research funded by a major agency.

The provision directs the NIH to change its existing Public Access Policy, implemented as a voluntary measure in 2005, so that participation is required for agency-funded investigators. Researchers will now be required to deposit electronic copies of their peer-reviewed manuscripts into the National Library of Medicine’s online archive, PubMed Central. Full texts of the articles will be publicly available and searchable online in PubMed Central no later than 12 months after publication in a journal...
I wonder if Bush knew what he signed. The open access provision would have been buried deeply in the bill.

Thank you Betsy Humphreys and the National Library of Medicine team that has worked for this end.

Thank you Alliance for Taxpayer Access. That's a diabolically clever name, anyone reading it assumes it's a group of rightwingnuts rather than a covert commie coop devoted to making knowledge freely available to all ...
A diverse and growing alliance of organizations representing taxpayers, patients, physicians, researchers, and institutions that support open public access to taxpayer-funded research...
I'd also like to thank the biomedical publishing industry. This could never have happened without the transformation of a cottage industry into short-sighted publicly traded corporations dedicated to maximizing near term revenue. Publishers pushed journal subscription and archive access prices to stratospheric levels, knowing their subscribers had no real options. It was a great short term strategy ...

This is a good day for the world.

Update 4/9/10: Three years later open access continues to expand internationally, and the US may make another big leap forward.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Obama attacks: haven't even begun

Astoundingly, the Obama campaign has apparently been claiming their candidate has been fully attacked and inspected ...
Talking Points Memo | You're Kidding Me, Right?

...Then there's the collective assault that constitutes modern press 'scrutiny', especially for a Democrat who generally has to deal with the tag team of the national political press and the regrettably much more able and ruthless GOP oppo research cadre, which has an established feeding operation mainlined to most national political reporters.

It ain't fair; it ain't right; but it's the reality. And if he thinks he's already gotten that, well ... what's he been smoking?
Any serious candidate running for the Dems is better than McCain, and the rest of the GOP slate ranks below Kucinich. On the other hand, Obama is delusional if he think he's been attacked. If he gets the nomination he might lead the Dems to defeat -- unless he gets a reality dose soon.

The GOP hounds must be snorting through their drool at the thought that Obama has been attacked. He hasn't even been brushed, and if we don't see some serious attacks soon he'll be torn apart when the real race begins.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Age and capacity: the strong shall be weak

The NYT has another story on age, diminished capacity and fraud. It's an echo of last year's story of InfoUSA marketing mailing lists of the vulnerable elderly to criminals.

The story is mostly routine. Independent elderly male is easy prey for traditional predators, Realtors, bankers and the like. Yes, as the pool of vulnerable boomers grows, the predator pool thrives as well. We studied these predator-prey models in my simulation classes; what's good for the wolf is good for the less attractive human equivalent.

The new twist is elders litigating for their money back using 'diminished capacity' defenses. Ironically the litigants argue that they should be considered both full capable to make their own decisions, except for the bad decisions they made. This reasoning, of course, is proof of diminished capacity.

The legal argument is arising now because the modern predator pool includes some deep pockets, such as banks and Realtor companies.

The last paragraphs of the NYT article have the most interesting comments:
Shielding Money Clashes With Elders’ Free Will (NYT 12/24/07)

...We know that, statistically, seniors are at enormous risk for fraud,” said A. Kimberley Dayton of the Center for Elder Justice and Policy at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. “It’s foolish to ignore that. But there’s also a huge dilemma in determining when someone is just being eccentric, versus someone who is a victim of undue influence.”

Mr. Tomer, as he prepared to join his wife on the dance floor, said that over a lifetime, people like Mr. Pyle were supposed to learn from their mistakes.

“Nowadays, I have a few memory problems — senior moments, I call them — and I know my limitations, what I can and can’t do,” Mr. Tomer said. “Bob was special, but he was susceptible to scam artists, and that was probably as true when he was young as now.

“Life isn’t perfect,” he added. “Even when you’re old.”
Mr. Tomer is the kind of elder buck the wolves prefer to leave for last, but there's no doubt about the reality of age and diminished capacity. That's not to say that the strong become weak when we pass our "peak" of 45 or so; heck with some luck we may be as effective at 60 as we were at 30. Further down the road though, most of us will have the effective judgment of a 16 year old (though the pattern of weakness differs).

That's bad.

So, where is this going to go in the age of fraud, post-50 boomers, and the reality that the strong shall become weak?

I don't know of course, but I'm hoping it will lead to a different (wiser?) understanding of the duty the strong owe the weak. There are a lot of wolves out theres (sorry wolves, you're just such a great metaphor), and diminished capacity, by definition, occurs at every age.

We're only beginning a very important intellectual and philosophical journey.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The end time for Amrican television and the evil genius of Rupert Murdoch

Last October I noticed that my son's generation doesn't seem to care very much about television. Cable, broadcast - it doesn't matter. It's not a big deal for them.

Today there's new affirmation from another direction. In a year or two analog broadcast television will end in the US. For years everyone I've read has assumed this will lead to a huge uproar, since most people don't know it's going away.

Maybe not ....
Rabbit-Ear Users Don’t Know The End (of Analog TV) Is Near

... none of these solutions seemed that attractive to the rabbit-ear set in the survey. Only 14 percent were interested in a converter box, and 19 percent said they would buy pay service. By contrast, 8 percent said they would just watch DVDs or play video games. And 12 percent said they would simply abandon television altogether....
American broadcast television may be going the way of the novel, which is probably cold comfort for professors of literature.

These results must be devastating to the still vast television media empire. They may see their industry go the way of the music business, or the American tobacco industry.

Hmm. Tobacco.

In my childhood there were two universal American addictions. One was television, the other was tobacco. I thought both were eternal.

Forty years later smoking is vanishing from the American landscape, and so is television. On the other hand, smoking is exploding in China (Philip Morris is doing very well, thank you.) So maybe there's a future for television -- in China and India.

Now, who figured this out many years ago? Yeah, Murdoch. He's the guy who twisted his media empire to serve China and buy his way to the future.

I've always thought of Bill Gates as a uniquely "evil" [1] genius, but Murdoch's right up there.

[1] Yeah, that's "evil" in quotes - not Evil. Gates did lots of nasty and probably illegal things as Microsoft CEO, but he's no tobacco executive. For a card carrying geek of a certain age Gates sins are not so much his borderline business practices, but rather that he created a world of persistently mediocre software from which were are only now possibly escaping.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Orphanages and international adoption

Our family lives in Chuck Nelson's former home -- including our three adopted children. We lived across the alley when he was a University of Minnesota professor traveling to Romania for a study that was recently published in Science (emphases mine).

The key feature of the study, and why it's both remarkable and controversial, is that the orphans were randomly assigned to either foster care or institutionalized care.

A report of the results has appeared in today's NYT... [btw. I think there's a significant error in the article, the author has confused foster care with adoption.]

Orphanages Stunt Mental Growth, a Study Finds - New York Times

Psychologists have long believed that growing up in an institution like an orphanage stunts children’s mental development but have never had direct evidence to back it up.

Now they do, from an extraordinary years-long experiment in Romania that compared the effects of foster care with those of institutional child-rearing.

The study, being published on Friday in the journal Science, found that toddlers placed in foster families developed significantly higher I.Q.’s by age 4, on average, than peers who spent those years in an orphanage.

The difference was large — eight points — and the study found that the earlier children joined a foster family, the better they did. Children who moved from institutional care to families after age 2 made few gains on average, though the experience varied from child to child. Both groups, however, had significantly lower I.Q.’s than a comparison group of children raised by their biological families.

... previous attempts to compare institutional and foster care suffered from serious flaws, mainly because no one knew whether children who landed in orphanages were different in unknown ways from those in foster care. Experts said the new study should put to rest any doubts about the harmful effects of institutionalization — and might help speed up adoptions from countries that still allow them...

...In recent years many countries, including Romania, have banned or sharply restricted American families from adopting local children. In other countries, adoption procedures can drag on for many months. In 2006, the latest year for which numbers are available, Americans adopted 20,679 children from abroad, more than half of them from China, Guatemala and Russia.

The authors of the new paper, led by Dr. Charles H. Zeanah Jr. of Tulane and Charles A. Nelson III of Harvard and Children’s Hospital in Boston, approached Romanian officials in the late 1990s about conducting the study. The country had been working to improve conditions at its orphanages, which became infamous in the early 1990s as Dickensian warehouses for abandoned children.

After gaining clearance from the government, the researchers began to track 136 children who had been abandoned at birth. They administered developmental tests to the children, and then randomly assigned them to continue at one of Bucharest’s six large orphanages, or join an adoptive family. [jf: I think this is a NYT error. They would have been randomized to foster care, not an adoptive family. ] The foster families were carefully screened and provided “very high-quality care,” Dr. Nelson said.

On I.Q. tests taken at 54 months, the foster children scored an average of 81, compared to 73 among the children who continued in an institution. The children who moved into foster care at the youngest ages tended to show the most improvement, the researchers found.

The comparison group of youngsters who grew up in their biological families had an average I.Q. of 109 at the same age, found the researchers, who announced their preliminary findings as soon in Romania as they were known....

Many nations dislike international adoption, even when foster care is not affordable and local adoption is not available. Well, if American girls were being adopted in China (maybe one day!) Americans would be pretty hostile to the idea too. The alternative though, is often orphanages. The study suggests that even the best orphanages Rumania can afford are not the equal of foster care; presumably international adoption would produce better outcomes.

The 8 point IQ gap (higher for the younger fostered children) is significant and it suggests a bigger post-natal influence on IQ than I'd have expected. On the other hand the 8 point gap pales next to the 36 point gap between a comparison group of non-orphans and children in orphanages.

Some of that may be related to breast feeding, but one recent study found only a 7 pt impact there related to breast feeding.

Children were not randomized between birth families and orphanages (I don't think that study is going to be done), so we don't know where the 36 point gap comes from.

We can make some guesses however. It is likely that the primary cause of admission to an orphanage in Rumania is extreme poverty in one or both birth parents. There are two strong relationships between poverty and IQ. On the one hand poverty is associated with malnutrition and a marginal intrauterine environment that harms brain development. On the other hand low IQ reduces earning power. IQ is significantly inherited, so children orphaned by poverty have both environmental and genetic risk factors impacting IQ.

Add in the impact of no breastfeeding and I think we can account for a 36 point IQ gap.

My Google profile -- another brick in the wall

I mentioned a few weeks ago that blogger knows me as 113810027503326386174. My friends call me 113. I wonder if Google will ever recycle that identifier, or if I can confidently carve it on the old tombstone.

Today Google maps has added a new profile link using the same identifier:

The maps profile link shows some maps I've created, and a link to "report this profile". (That seems an ominous invitation to the ill-intentioned).

I've read Google is also adding some collaborative mapping tools, so maybe I'll figure out a way to do something with (I've been waiting for Google's promised Wiki add-on to their Google Apps package).

I checked my Picasa web albums, but there's no profile link there -- yet. Maybe next week.

Incidentally, CH did a nice post recently on the identity profusion business. The topic must be in the air. Anyone remember Hailstorm?

Update 9/2/08: Google eventually rolled out the core profile link, a part of their social strategy work. Here's mine - 113810027503326386174.

RealClimate has an excellent summary of the "it's not the CO2, it's the sun" climate change group

We would expect solar output to influence our climate. If the sun goes out, things will likely chill down a wee bit. No surprise.

On the other hand, there's a politically important (re: almost all GOP) group of eccentrics who argue that CO2 isn't really driving global warming; instead the sun is doing it - either directly or through mysterious interactions with the earth's magnetic field. The implication is that there's nothing we can do about global warming, so we shouldn't talk about a carbon tax (or less efficient versions thereof like emissions trading).

RealClimate has an excellent review of the science involved, starting with the honest scientists and them moving quickly downwards ...

RealClimate » Les Chevaliers de l’Ordre de la Terre Plate, Part II: Courtillot's Geomagnetic Excursion

...Work on the influence of solar variability (and on its close cousin, the influence of the Earth's magnetic field) tends to fall into one of three categories. There is the Good, in which careful scientists do their objective best to unravel a complex and probably small (but nonetheless important) signal. As examples of work in this category, I would mention Judith Lean's tireless efforts on relating luminosity to sunspot number, the work of Bard and colleagues on developing isotopic solar proxies like 10Be, Shindell's work on response to solar ultraviolet variability, and the work of Foukal et al on factors governing solar irradiance variations. I would also include the recent work by Camp and Tung diagnosing the amplitude of the solar cycle in temperature in the "Good" category; that it is an easy paper for greenhouse skeptics to misquote takes away nothing from the quality of the science. In fact, I'd say most work on climate and solar variability falls into the Good category. That's rather nice. In fact, scientists have long recognized the importance of solar variability as one of the factors governing climate (see the very scholarly review of the subject by Bard and Frank, available here at EPSL or here as pdf) An understanding of solar variability needs to be (and is) taken into account in attribution of climate change of the past century, and in attempts to estimate climate sensitivity from recent climate variations. Further, the Little Ice Age demands an explanation, and solar variability at present provides the only viable possibility. (It's less clear that the Medieval Warm period is a sufficiently coherent phenomenon to require an explanation).

Then, there is the Bad, exemplified by two papers by Scaffetta and West that have been discussed on RealClimate here and here...

If the sun were significantly contributing to global warming, by the way, that would logically require us to restrict CO2 emissions ever more radically, since that would be the only part of the equation we could influence.

In a similar vein, critiques of climate models (which appear to have more science behind them) increase our uncertainty margins into a range that includes rapidly catastrophic climate transitions -- such as melting Greenland ice within 15 years instead of 100 years. So these critiques of modeling, which I think are interesting, make restriction of CO2 emissions even more urgent.

It's Reason vs. the GOP again, and we need every RealClimate post we can get.

Daring Fireball demonstrates why journalists are going to get smarter

I don't remember a golden age of journalism, but rumor has it that once upon a time journalists did not merely parrot press releases and insider leaks.

Now journalists are suffering from the twin demons of a defunct business model and a super-powered reader feedback loop. I don't applaud the end of journalism's business model, but I heartily approved of the feedback loop.

A widely read blog like Daring Fireball is to the old-fashioned letters page as a flame thrower is to a match.  That's a massive change, and it has to affect how journalists do their business.

Today DF demonstrates the new world by rending a poorly written "Fast Company" cover article into nanosocopic bits of confetti...

Daring Fireball: Yet Another in the Ongoing Series Wherein I Examine a Piece of Supposedly Serious Apple Analysis From a Major Media Outlet ...

...Except for all the music from any store that sells DRM-free music, like Amazon’s or eMusic’s. Otherwise what’s being argued here is that Apple should support Microsoft’s DRM platform, formerly known as PlaysForSure, recently renamed to “Certified for Windows Vista”, which Microsoft itself doesn’t support in its own Zune players. There’s a lot of stupid packed into the above 13-word sentence...

DF is piling on, but this poor journalist wrote a cover story comprised of an extraordinary set of factually incorrect and incoherent assertions. This kind of thing does deserve the DF flamethrower.

I hope both Fast Company and the misguided author will learn something from the experience. Feedback need not be painless to be valuable.

(BTW, I think one could write an interesting story about Apple's ongoing quality issues and some of their errors-of-arrogance -- like the oddly incompatible iPhone headphone plug. Alas, that one's for another day...)

The scale of the housing bubble: good news for first-time home buyers

Krugman posts a persuasive chart:

Charting the housing bubble - Paul Krugman - Op-Ed Columnist - New York Times Blog

... the chart shows is that this decade we’ve had a national housing bubble that is somewhat bigger than the bubble in LA in the late 1980s — a bubble that was followed by a 20% drop in nominal home prices, and a 30% fall in real prices. In LA itself, and in a number of other metropolitan areas, the bubble has been on a scale completely unprecedented in modern experience...

I'd have liked to see a third line showing the bubble in a non-coastal market -- Minneapolis - Saint Paul would be a good example. The national line incorporates the coastal effect, so for comparison we need a non-coastal line.

The implications of the chart are a transient (real price) decline of more than 30% on the coasts and roughly a 20% decline in less super-heated areas.

It's a good time to be a first-time home buyer.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Economist's Science and Technology feed

The Economist has fallen quite a ways since their glory days of the 1990s. I gave up on 'em about a year ago, but even in its dotage I knew I'd miss the Obit page and the science and technology coverage.

Now I can get the whole journal for free by feed. I tried the entire feed briefly, but The Economist uses "too cute" titles that don't give enough clues to the value of the feed. We really need the subtitles rather than the titles.

The really good news is that there are unique feeds for each section.

For example, the Science and technology feed.

Every article is of interest, so the titles don't matter.

Highly recommended.

eBay on the ropes - at long last?

I really don't like eBay or PayPal.

I've never gotten value out of eBay, and both eBay and PayPal were unforgivably slow to address problems with fraud and phishing. I won't go near either one. Instead I use Amazon and/or Craigslist for buying and selling used goods.

For years I thought Google Checkout and Google Base were going to put PayPal and eBay out of business. (I sure drank the Kool-aid on Google Base -- guess I'm not infallible after all.)

Didn't happen. Just another one of life's mysteries, like the continued survival of humanity.

Or maybe it's happening now. The NYT Bits Blog has two noteworthy posts on the topic:
Good. The sooner these companies go away the sooner Google, Amazon or someone else will provide better solutions.

Geeks at middle-age - we too shall pass

John Halamka, aged 46 today and one of my favorite bloggers, has written a post about the point in every geek's life when they know the road will someday slope downwards ....
Life as a Healthcare CIO: Embracing Innovation:

...My commitment to my staff is that if I ever become the rate limiting step in adoption of new technologies, then it will be time for me to go. In the meantime, bring on the AJAX, the Continuous Data Replication, Host-based Intrusion Protection and all the new acronyms that cross my desk every day. I may not immediately understand every new technology, but I look forward to being a student, learning about the latest innovations, for life...
I'm 48 and I think I know where John H is coming from.

John uses as one of his examples Doris Lessing's Nobel speech, where she characterized the Internet as the highway to intellectual perdition. I didn't comment on her remark because it was a bit sad, but I will defend her a wee bit.

When humans began writing, we enabled the birth of literature. We also stopped being able to recite the Odyssey, and the tradition of memory-based oral epics passed into history. Much was gained, but there was a price. So Lessing may be right that electronic communication will change the nature of the literary narrative, but none of us can know how the future will judge the changes to come.

An optimist named "Jessica" took exception to John's predicting of his future decline, to which I responded (slightly fixed up below):
Jessica, there may exist a human whose mental acumen does not decline with age. I've not met anyone like that however, and I did meet Richard Feynman.

An extreme example may help. I'm a reasonably clever sort, but I don't have the brain power Isaac Newton or even Linus Pauling had. They both declined in their dotage.

In some positions, like John Halamka's, productivity peaks around the mid to late forties. Alas, that's largely because our 'wisdom' (painful experience) and knowledge base offset our degrading neural networks. The balance shifts however, one day all the experience in the world is not enough.

We too shall pass. We can only hope there comes a day when instead of saying 'I'm not interested' we can say 'That's cool, even if I can no longer hope to understand it.'
Now, to (try to) show that my time has not yet come, I will present a slightly macabre idea I had last night while contemplating mortality.

When I stop writing my blogs and updating my web pages, how will my (small) audience know whether I've died, become incapacitated, been abducted by aliens, changed identities, or simply decided to move to a retreat in the vastness of British Columbia?

One answer is something I'll call the "digital death announcement" or "DDA".

The DDA would be an encrypted string that would be extremely likely to be unique. If decrypted by one's public key it would contain one's last words (example: "So long and thanks for all the fish").

Then DDA is, by direction, included in one's formal obituary. (Example: "John Gordon was put down on ____ due to mange. His last words were: 54285-45254-5425-6gsiyt985-34134ng").

The last piece of the puzzle is a bit of Javascript that's run each time one's blog or web page is open. The Javascript uses a standing Google search to look for the DDA.

If the search has a result waiting, then the announcement appears atop the page.

I'll have to put authoring that Javascript on my to-do list ....

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Microsoft's exciting new OS update

Microsoft's top-secret Vista update, now publicly revealed as "Windows XP", restores Microsoft's tattered reputation. Coding Sanity has the first review of an excellent upgrade experience ...
Review: Windows XP - Coding Sanity

I have finally decided to take the plunge. Last night I upgraded my Vista desktop machine to Windows XP, and this afternoon I will be doing the same to my laptop...

....Multimedia support on XP is vastly better than on Vista. Whilst content-creators had insisted on all sorts of intrusive features in Vista that made the multimedia experience a living hell for Microsoft users, thankfully with XP Microsoft were able to insist that their customers' needs came ahead of the content creators outdated business model...

....To be honest there is only one conclusion to be made; Microsoft has really outdone themselves in delivering a brand new operating system that really excels in all the areas where Vista was sub-optimal.... Anyone who thinks there are problems in the Microsoft Windows team need only point to this fantastic release and scoff loudly.
I can personally vouch for the similar excellence of the new replacement for Office 2007. Office 2003 is a great upgrade from Office 2007.

Why the US can't separate benefits from employment

A recent post on Ron Paul and the anti-outsourcing movement reminded me of a host of past posts on outsourcing. Unsurprisingly this discussion was most active in the last election cycle. Back in February 2004 I even had something nice to say about Friedman. Emphases changed for this post:
Gordon's Notes: India and outsourcing: Friedman 1, Kristof 0

...Friedman wins this match. Great column. Reich's recommendations are mine as well, except I think wage insurance won't fly. I do think that the 401K and its equivalents need to become life-event rather than age driven, and all benefits need to be unrelated to employment. Employment should be wages, nothing else.

Friedman/Reich point out that outsourcing is a tax deductible business expense. The tax code should NOT be facilitating outsourcing. It shouldn't obstruct it, but neither should it encourage it. That can be changed.

The world needs China and India to be wealthy. These are two sources of extraordinary power and vigor, and the US is acting as a short-circuit between them. If we capture a fraction of that current we can share in the wealth, but we can't do it with our current social support network. We need another solution...
Protectionist measures, including trade and immigration restrictions, can make some jobs last longer than they otherwise would. The price is typically some complex mix of higher product costs, diminished economic productivity, and reduced value. Still, the cost may be worth paying to reduce extreme social disruption, as China's capital controls demonstrated in the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s.

A better approach, however, is to make it less painful to change employment or retrain by separating benefits, like healthcare and retirement savings, from employment. This is a true win-win, with both individual benefits and economic logic.

Except it ain't going to happen. The only serious move in this direction was a fake Bush proposal that turned out to have a poison core.

It hasn't come up since.

Why not?

I don't know the real confluence of special interests that ended the January 2007 discussion, but I can think of one good reason that employers might want to hold onto benefit control -- no matter what they cost.

It makes it very hard to employees to leave and ... do nothing.

My guess is there's a significant fraction of the US workforce that, if they had affordable guaranteed healthcare coverage, would stop working. Some would take early retirement. Some would go back to school. Some would take six months off and try something different.

Not everyone would want to do this, or could afford to do it. Those that would, however, would be disproportionately upper middle class, confident, and adventurous.

That's one hell of an expensive group to lose. It would be a hard hit for economic productivity, and in the near term there would be a sharp fall in economic productivity. Recession. Big time.

Sure, in the long run it might lead to increased economic productivity, and it could lead to increased happiness -- though happiness tends to be genetically determined except at the margins.

In the short term though, increased freedom could be very bad for business -- and for the global economy.

We're going to be in the employer-based benefits ankle chains for years to come ...

PS. I do note that we haven't done anything in the past four years to reduce the tax incentives that promote outsourcing of software development. I wonder why that is ...

Ron Paul explained: pseudo-libertarian populism and geek subculture

I hadn't been paying much attention to Ron Paul, but an article on the Ron Paul spam bot caught my fancy.

What, I wondered, would account for his popularity with a slice of American geekdom?


After about 15 seconds of idle speculation I decided the secret sauce would have to be some sort of pseudo-libertarian populism. It would use libertarian language, but it would also offer something that would have a very specific benefit to the software community. It would have to promise better wages by limiting the use of inexpensive foreign workers.

This is from Ron Paul's campaign web site...
Ron Paul 2008 › Issues › Border Security and Immigration Reform

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dr. Paul tirelessly works for limited constitutional government, low taxes, free markets, and a return to sound monetary policies...
  • Physically secure our borders and coastlines...
  • Enforce visa rules. Immigration officials must track visa holders and deport anyone who overstays their visa or otherwise violates U.S. law. This is especially important when we recall that a number of 9/11 terrorists had expired visas.
  • No amnesty...
  • End birthright citizenship...
Yeah, I aced this one. The unionized assembly workers of 1970s Detroit would sympathize.

It wasn't hard to figure out. We have a group of relatively young men who know they're talented and among the strong, but they also know they're falling behind. They assume true capitalism would guarantee a fair competition (they don't understand local minima traps), so we clearly don't have true capitalism. The current system must be some perversion of the ideal, and thus it's unfair.

Since one obvious way these men are falling behind is through competition with inexpensive foreign labor, then that must be part of the perversion.

Hence they're easy to capture by a combination of libertarian language and anti-immigration populism. So they fall for Ron Paul.

I sympathize. I'd dearly like to see us outsource our CEOs and replace our GOP senators with more talented foreigners. As a former primary care physician I also saw primary care being outsourced to low cost foreign immigrants, so I have a (mild) degree of emotional as well as cognitive sympathy.

I'd sympathize more if this group would express solidarity with the former blue collar workers of Detroit, but that's asking a lot.

There's oil in this well. We can expect the GOP to unify behind a stronger anti-immigration stance to try to capture some of that Ron Paul magic.

The irony is that I think the upper end of the IT-outsourcing trend has run into a brick wall. We're going to see the high-end IT skill market strengthen, though more mechanical work will probably continue to move overseas, albeit at a slower pace.

In any event, could immigration and, inevitably, trade restrictions really help IT workers? They might. The traditional US auto industry is slowly dying, but if not for controls on Japanese imports GM would have died ten years ago and we wouldn't have Toyota plants in the US. We don't manufacture computers in the US now, but if Congress hadn't blocked Japanese imports in the 1980s Panasonic would have crushed the nascent US PC market. (Nobody remembers now that Japanese PC clones were far superior and cheaper than US desktops before Representatives took sledge hammers to Japanese clones).

So trade and immigration restrictions don't change the way things go, but they can delay the process long enough for people to shift their educational programs and their work direction. The trick is to realize that whenever Congress restricts trade or immigration the end is about ten years away -- though I think IT prospects aren't quite as dim as those for primary care physicians or auto workers.

The Chinese zombie computer industry

HTWW has a nice summary of the active Chinese market in zombie computers ...
How the World Works: Globalization

"In China, the going rate for a flesh chicken is anywhere from 0.1 to 10 renminbi. (10 renminbi equals 1.34 dollars.) A flesh chicken is what we in the West call a zombie computer -- a compromised machine that does the bidding of someone other than the legitimate owner. In Mandarin, according to a fascinating new report on the world of Chinese malware, the words 'chicken' and 'machine' sound similar, thus the pun.

In other parts of the world networks of flesh chickens are put to use generating spam for penis enlargement pills or, as another equally riveting new report tells us, pro-Ron Paul propaganda. But in China, the main goal in gaining control of user machines is to capture the passwords and usernames that allow access to online game worlds or the virtual currency employed in China's hugely popular QQ instant messaging network. (Thanks to Boing Boing for the link.)...
Readers of Neuromancer knew about this almost 25 years ago.

I suspect the Chinese government considers these kinds of activities as a relatively harmless way to use the restless energy of millions of excess males.

The low cost of a zombie computer is reassuring. The price tells us there is such a vast pool of vulnerable machines that there's no need to invest in much more costly OS X attacks.

I'd like to see a futures market in Zombie machines; a price rise would give us advanced warning of an upmarket threat.

PS. The link to a securenet analysis of the Ron Paul botnet spam is well worth following. The coordinating host machine lived in US based co-location facility and was described as "well known" to botnet researchers. See my next post ...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Human evolution: a pillar falls

I wish "paradigm shift" were not so overused, because it's so well suited to the news that human evolution has accelerated since we developed agriculture and dense settled populations.

The idea that human evolution had stopped once we "conquered nature" was firmly accepted, outside of the x-men, throughout my formative years in the late 70s and early 80s. By the 1980s sociobiology, later rebranded as evolutionary psychology, assumed many modern dispositions reflected frozen adaptations to ancient hunter-gatherer life. Even in the 90s, when I did my cognitive science, everyone assumed that that the human species had changed little since "cro-magnon" woman (the term is obsolete).


The change shouldn't come as a surprise to readers of this blog. Of course I didn't invent any of this (except maybe the concept of evolutionary disorders of the mind). I'm a longtime reader of bloggers like John Hawks - who authored one of the papers in the news. Sure, Hawks claims he was keeping quiet about the topic while his paper waited to be released, but he's been dropping hints for years. Anyone reading Hawks, or knowing what it means to have such a massive population, could see this was coming.

That's the way these things happen. Twenty years from now popular books will claim radical papers swept away stodgy beliefs, but in fact the fortress had been falling for some time.

Still, we shouldn't understate the historic transition. Sure, now it seems so obvious that population density and culture would create vast new niches for variation to fill, but we used to think evolution operated over vast time scales. We didn't understand how fast a species can change.

So, in what ways are we different from the humans of 50,000 years ago? I'd recommend reading John Hawks and following his suggested links. In my reading thus far I've seen mention of far greater variation in skin and eye color, dietary adaptations, changes in teeth, smaller size (for a time, but now bigger), smaller brain (!) for a time, but now ?.

I've not read much yet about how different our brains are from those of pre-industrial humans, but I've posted previously about papers suggesting adaptations enabling reading and other language skills.

We'll be digesting the implications of this for a while. Yes, race as a clinically or biologically significant idea has returned ...

... the new work indicates that variations tend to differ between races, and that these became more, not less, pronounced.

“Human races are evolving away from each other,” said Henry Harpending, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah, who led the study.

“Genes are evolving fast in Europe, Asia and Africa, but almost all of these are unique to their continent of origin. We are getting less alike, not merging into a single, mixed humanity.

“Our study denies the widely held assumption that modern humans appeared 40,000 years ago, have not changed since and that we are all pretty much the same. We aren’t the same as people even 1,000 or 2,000 years ago.”

The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If the trend towards increasing genetic diversity were to continue, it could lead ultimately to the development of different species. Most scientists, however, think this is now highly unlikely.

"Most scientists" ... A few years ago it would have been every scientist. Still, classic speciation is unlikely ...
... The research identified evolutionary currents only in past times. In the modern era, greater movement and gene flow between the continents has probably slowed or even reversed patterns of increasing genetic difference, making the evolution of separate human species virtually impossible.
On the other hand these days geek neo-Liberals feel like a different species from theocratic social conservatives. There may be more than one way for a sentient animal to speciate.

Well, I'm off to catch up on the Hawks links. It's a big day for science, though I imagine it must be a bit rough on the fundies.

Update 12/16/07: Hawks quote (via Marginal Revolution):
We are more different genetically from people living 5,000 years ago than they were different from Neanderthals...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A problem with Megan's Law: the price of false inclusion

So what does Megan's Law say the penalty should be for erroneously including someone in a sex offender registry?
Slashdot | Online Sex Offender Database Leads To Murder?

...The LA Times reports on the story of Michael A. Dodele, a convicted rapist, found murdered in a Lakeport trailer park. He moved there after having been released from prison just 35 days before. A 29-year-old construction worker has been arrested in the attack, and explained that he killed Dodele to protect his son from child molestation. He found out on the internet about Dodele being a sex offender, via the 'Megan's Law' database. The public entry for Dodele in the database was wrong — though he was found guilty of committing crimes against adult women he was not a child molester. Dodele's entry in Megan's Law DB has been removed....
Wow, what a coincidence that a bizarre murder would coincidentally expose the only erroneous entry in this online registry.

Gee, there couldn't possibly be other errors, could there?

Your name couldn't be on the list, could it?

Terry Gilliam's brilliant and prescient movie Brazil (inspired by 1984), begins with a data retrieval "bug", that plunges the protagonist into a dystopian nightmare. That movie should be mandatory viewing prior to graduation from an American High School. (That's one more reason I'll never be elected to anything!)

To answer my original question, I suspect that Megan's Law specifies the same penalty for misidentification as the Homeland Security Act.


No price for falsely including a person in a list. A potentially high price for failing to include a person in a list.

Gee. I wonder what error will be more common.

The entity responsible for maintaining such registries (lists) should be required to:
  1. Pay $10,000 for every false entry regardless of injury or lack of injury.
  2. Be liable for triple damages in the result of injury or inconvenience, plus payment of legal fees.
That would reduce the false inclusion error rates significantly. In the case of Homeland Security's Do Not Fly list, I suspect it would eliminate the list.

Note, by the way, I'm not saying it's wrong to publish the details of a person's crime, and to mandate that they should notify the public of their whereabouts [1]. I am saying that we need to reflect on the consequences of the inevitable data entry errors associated with every form of profiling.

[1] That's for another post. This one is about errors in assignment.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

1967 was a long time ago

We saw a children's play yesterday. It was written in the 1950s, and it reminded me of how much culture has changed in 50 years.

One of the curious comic anachronisms is that the "bad" kids smoke cigars in the school bathrooms. Of course at that time most adults smoked everywhere, including in school offices and teacher meeting areas. So high school students smoking cigars in the bathroom would have seemed a funny exaggeration of everyday life.

In 2007, when middle class grade school kids rarely see anyone smoking anywhere, it's mostly weird - a message from an alien world. I guess the modern comic equivalent would feature body piercings.

Our culture has changed more than we usually recognize. Consider this prescient corporate video ...
Warming and the Right - New York Times

... This week, though, a short, uncannily accurate clip from “1999 A.D.,” a film made in 1967 by Philco-Ford, got lots of attention online when it was posted to the Ultimate News Flash blog ( The film’s depictions of electronic commerce and e-mail are about as spot-on as they could be, though the filmmakers failed to forecast changes in attitudes toward sex roles. “What the wife selects on her console will be paid for by the husband on his counterpart console,” the narrator declares. She is in the kitchen, buying clothes; he is in the den, paying bills....
When we were kids in Quebec (Napoleonic legal code) I think my mother wasn't allowed to give permission for medical procedures. Only the male could do that ...

The story of leaded gasoline

The Philip Morris ("Altria") story is pretty familiar. Buy off scientists, lie, addict children, etc. If there's a Hell, Philip Morris has meetings there.

I didn't know the story of leaded gasoline though, not till I read DI's review. By the 1920s the science was very clear that lead was a dangerous neurotoxin. Europe was restricting its use.

America put lead in gasoline, and kept it there until the 1970s...
Damn Interesting » The Ethyl-Poisoned Earth

... Upon learning that automotive fuel was the source of the contamination, Dr. Patterson began to publish materials discussing the toxic metal's ubiquity and its probable ill effects. In order to demonstrate the increase of lead in the environment, Patterson proposed taking core samples from pack ice in Greenland, and testing the lead content of each layer– a novel concept which had not been previously attempted. The experiment worked, and the results showed that airborne lead had been negligible before 1923, and that it had climbed precipitously ever since. In 1965, when the tests were conducted, lead levels were roughly 1,000 times higher than they had been in the pre-Ethyl era. He also compared modern bone samples to that of older human remains, and found that modern humans' lead levels were hundreds of times higher.

The Ethyl corporation allegedly offered him lucrative employment in exchange for more favorable research results, but Dr. Patterson declined. For a time thereafter, Patterson found himself ostracized from government and corporate sponsored research projects, including the a National Research Council panel on atmospheric lead contamination. The Ethyl corporation had powerful friends, including a Supreme Court justice, members of the US Public Health Service, and the mighty American Petroleum Institute. Nevertheless, Patterson was unrelenting, and the resulting rise in scientific and public awareness eventually led to the Clean Air Act of 1970, and a staged phaseout of leaded gasoline. Ethyl and Du Pont sued the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming that "actual harm" must be demonstrated rather than just "significant risk," an effort which successfully prolonged lead additives' life by another decade...

Alas, it doesn't sound like Dr. Patterson got a Nobel for his work ...

Steal a movie for all the scared children

My son's copy of Barnyard starts with a RIAA drm commercial. It reminds me of the "this is your brain on drugs".

It's supposed to scare kids straight I guess, flashing "downloading is stealing" with painful sound and visuals.

My 8 yo has to leave the room every time it comes on.

Gee, what a way for the RIAA to make some friends. If I could, I'd make a donation to 'united pirates of america'.

In the meanwhile, please steal a movie for all the scared children of the world.

Slouching towards Skynet

What drove the development of human sentience?

We didn't need fusion bombs to become earth's dominant predator.

The most popular justification of human cognitive evolution is that it was driven by deception. The need to detect deception, and the need to deceive. Deceive other humans, deceive ourselves.

So it makes sense that nonhuman sentience is also driven by the deception wars ...
Rough Type: Nicholas Carr's Blog: Slutbot aces Turing Test

Russian crooks have unleashed an artificial intelligence, called CyberLover, that poses as a would-be paramour in sex chat rooms, enticing randy gentlemen to reveal personal information that can then be put to criminal use. Amazingly, the slutbot appears to be successful in convincing targets that it's a real person...
War, games, and financial instruments, are the other modern AI drivers. Search is the classic motivator.

We're toast, but then we always were.

Good thing I can't explain why we're still around - otherwise I wouldn't be so optimistic!