Friday, February 29, 2008

Heparin production: scraping pig intestines

If you'd asked me about how Chinese Heparin was made for Baxter pharmaceuticals, I wouldn't have thought of this ...
Blood Thinner Might Be Tied to More Deaths - New York Times
...The New York Times reported Thursday that at least one of the consolidators received supplies from small, unregulated family workshops that scraped mucous membrane from pig intestines and cooked it, eventually producing a dry substance known as crude heparin...
...The Chinese heparin market has been in turmoil over the last year, as pig disease has swept through the country, depleting stocks, leading some farmers to sell sick pigs into the market and forcing heparin producers to scramble for new sources of raw material.
As a result, even big companies have been turning increasingly to small village workshops, which are often unsanitary. In interviews this week at some of these workshops, employees told The Times that they had not been inspected by the government....
The GOP sacrificed our regulatory infrastructure to the great God of the Holy Market, who's Hand Invisible punishes all evil and brings the greatest good to the greatest number.

Get Bush and the GOP out of office. Now.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

What lies ahead for Obama

If he gets the nomination, we know what the McCain playbook will be. Josh Marshall lays it out for us ...

Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall | Road Map

Hopefully, everyone can now see the McCain strategy for running against Barack Obama. Yes, we have some general points on taxes, culture wars and McCain as war hero who can protect us in ways that flash-in-the-pan pretty boy Barack Obama can't.

But that's not the core. The core is to drill a handful of key adjectives into the public mind about Barack Obama: Muslim, anti-American, BLACK, terrorist, Arab. Maybe a little hustler and shifty thrown in, but we'll have to see. The details and specific arguments are sort of beside the point...

... You've got your multiple distribution channels. You've got the way McCain's selling the product. Broadcast. Broad and thematic about McCain. But you've got a number of other product channels to sell through, most of them a lot grittier, but no less essential for ultimate success.

Both can work simultaneously. In fact, in the kind of campaign McCain's running, they're both essential for success (see the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina). The key is just that the channels don't cross. Because that's when the trouble starts and they can begin to undermine or even short-circuit each other...

... Don't insult your intelligence or mine by pretending that John McCain's plan for this race doesn't rely on hundreds of Cunninghams -- large and small -- across the country, and the RNC and all the GOP third party groups, to be peddling this stuff nonstop for the next eight months because it's the only way John McCain have a real shot at contesting this race.

If McCain really wants to repudiate this stuff, he can start with the Tennessee Republican party which dished all the slurs and smears about Obama being a Nation of Islam-loving anti-Semite, just today. And once he's done talking to the people who will be running his Tennessee campaign, we'll have a number of others he can talk to, like the head of his Ohio campaign, former Sen. Mike DeWine, who gave that Cunningham guy his marching orders.

Let's just not fool ourselves, not lie to ourselves about what's happening here and who's in charge.

Every day, in every way: Muslim, HUSSEIN, anti-American, BLACK, terrorist, Arab, shifty, hustler, druggie.

Get used to it and be ready.

As for us, our campaign donation is ready and waiting for the nominee.

2/29/2008: Morford says it with a flourish.

Brad DeLong Lecture slide: The Invention Transition

From his Berkeley Economics course: Brad DeLong's Slides: The Invention Transition

  • Population (n)--two heads are better than one
  • Education (fi)--standing on the shoulders of giants
  • Societal openness (li)--how many people can you talk to before being "shown the instruments"
  • Means of communication--language, writing, printing, etc....
  • If these four are hobbled, the pace of invention will be slow
    • Fortunately, no global technological regress (that we remember, at least)
    • Only seven known--and disputed--known examples of "local" technological regress
    • Iron Dark Age, Medieval Dark Age, Medieval Greenland Vikings, Mayan Heartland, Mississippi Mound-Builders, Easter Island, Flinders Island...

DeLong's "Chains of Innovation" equation has a parameter representing "number of links to others"; the "economy-wide innovation" value tends to infinity as the number of links and "probability of successful transmission" increase.

In my lifetime I've seen the "links to others" bit grow exponentially.

Hello Singularity.

I was struck by the comment that there are only seven known examples of "local" technological regress. Technology is sticky.

Tulshiram and Baba Amte

Which of these humans is not like the others ...

Baba Amte | Obituary |

HE HADN'T meant to touch it. As he grubbed in the rain-filled gutter to pick up dog shit, human excrement and blackened, rotten vegetables, stowing them in the basket he carried on his head, he brushed what seemed to be a pile of rags, and it moved a little. The pile was flesh; it was a leper, dying. Eyes, nose, fingers and toes had already gone. Maggots writhed on him. And Murlidhar Devidas Amte, shaking with terror and nausea, stumbled to his feet and ran away...

...Deliberately, he went back to the gutter to feed the leper and to learn his name, Tulshiram. He then carried him home to care for him until he died, and began—once he had had training in Calcutta—to work in leper clinics all around the town.

His own ashram, founded in 1951 on barren, rocky land full of snakes, was specifically for the handicapped and for lepers, who built and tilled it from scratch with half a dozen tools and their stumps of hands. It was called Anandwan, “grove of joy”; its philosophy was that lepers could be rehabilitated not by charity, nor by the begging life in railway stations and on streets, but by hard work and creativity, which would bring self-respect. Not by tears, but by sweat, Mr Amte wrote once, and noted how similar those were.

By his death around 3,000 people lived at Anandwan. The farm grew millet, grains and fruit; in the schools, lepers taught the blind, deaf and dumb; there were colleges, two hospitals, workshops and an orchestra, where popular songs were conducted by a polio victim. Warora townsfolk, who had shunned the ashram in its early years, had learnt to buy its vegetables and drink its milk without fear of contagion. And at its centre, himself crippled from his 50s by degeneration of the spine, lay Mr Amte on his cot in his white home-woven vest and shorts, smilingly encouraging human beings to see the divine spark in each other...

WorldWide Telescope: A spring gift from Microsoft Research

Microsoft is delivering the universe this spring, dedicated to the memory of Jim Gray.

WWTelescope Frequently Asked Questions

... The WorldWide Telescope (WWT) is a rich visualization environment that functions as a virtual telescope, bringing together imagery from the best ground- and space telescopes to enable seamless, guided explorations of the universe. WorldWide Telescope, created with Microsoft®'s high-performance Visual Experience Engine™, enables seamless panning and zooming across the night sky blending terabytes of images, data, and stories from multiple sources over the Internet into a media-rich, immersive experience...

I remember when Planetaria were high tech -- "... planetarium projection apparatus uses a hollow ball with a light inside, and a pinhole for each star, hence the name "star ball".

Yes, back then I liked to go and watch a fancier version of a flashlight in a tin can.

Now we have Google Sky, and soon we'll have the WorldWide Telescope.


I'd like to hook the WWTelescope to a big HDTV and a remote control ...

Billionaire wanted - how to manage a broken brain in the stone age

Bestyoucan is seeking a billionaire with a cognitively disabled child or sibling ...

Be the Best You can Be How do you manage a broken brain? We don't know

How do you manage a broken brain?

...Do you create a profile of all the strengths and weaknesses, a visual representation to analyze and evaluate? An MRI of the mind?

Do we create programs to strengthen the weakest areas, or do we leverage the stronger domains? Or perhaps the middle range?

Can two or three areas of strength be combined to help an area of weakness? What role might cognition-medications have? What role do psychostimulants have?

How do we measure progress? How do we know when to change direction?

How do we intervene in infancy, when surgeons can remove half the brain and a child can still go to college? In early childhood? In pre-adolescence? During the teen years? In adulthood? In old age?

How do we leverage computerized, robotic, and remote human aides to support severely impaired cognitive functions?

We flippin' don't know...

... I can imagine ways to start to make progress. Ways to study developing brains and minds. Ways to create comprehensive profiles of strengths and weaknesses and use those profiles in discussion and analysis. What I can't see is how to make significant progress in my lifespan with the available political will and funding....

Let him know if you find any.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Palm OS Obit #245 - and a contrary opinion on the death of the mobile platform

Yet another Palm / Handheld obit, this time focusing on applications: Mobile Opportunity: Mobile applications, RIP.

There are some interesting bits in the essay. Fragmentation of platforms (esp. Microsoft's numerous platforms) made it prohibitively expensive to reach large numbers of users. Java was mentioned in an editorial aside, I think it deserves more attention as a disaster all by itself.

Greedy/incompetent carriers sought funds through "certification", but never seemed to have much interest in building a platform.

I particularly appreciated the discussion on marketing and platforms. I can confirm that the great free websites promoting PalmOS software are largely gone ...
(Elia Freedman): Then there's marketing. Here too there are two issues. The first is vertical marketing. Few mobile devices align with verticals, which makes it hard for a vertical application developer like us to partner with any particular device. For example, Palm even at its height had no more than 20% of real estate agents. To cover our development costs on 20% of target customer base, I had to charge more than the customers could pay. So I was forced to make my application work on more platforms, which pushed me back into the million platforms problem.

The other marketing problem is the disappearance of horizontal distribution. You used to have some resellers and free software sites on the web that promoted mobile shareware and commercial products at low or no charge. You could also work through the hardware vendors to get to customers. We were masters of this; at one point we were bundled on 85% of mobile computing devices. We had retail distribution too.

None of those avenues are available any more. Retail has gone away. The online resellers have gone from taking 20% of our revenue to taking 50-70%. The other day I went looking for the freeware sites where we used to promote, and they have disappeared. Hardware bundling has ended because carriers took that over and made it impossible for us to get on the device. Palm used to have a bonus CD and a flyer that they put in the box, where we could get promoted. The carriers shut down both of those. They do not care about vertical apps. It feels like they don't want any apps at all.
Michael Mace continues:
...I've always had faith that eventually we would solve these problems. We'd get the right OS vendor paired with a handset maker who understood the situation and an operator who was willing to give up some control, and a mobile platform would take off again. Maybe not Palm OS, but on somebody's platform we'd get it all right.

I don't believe that any more. I think it's too late...f you're creating a website, you don't have to get permission from a carrier. You don't have to get anything certified by anyone. You don't have to beg for placement on the deck, and you don't have to pay half your revenue to a reseller. In fact, the operator, handset vendor, and OS vendor probably won't even be aware that you exist. It'll just be you and the user, communicating directly.
Not bad, but I think there's a flaw in his reasoning. He's clearly stating that Palm built an elegant platform, but failed to create a robust business model.

That's not my recollection.

Palm did build a very elegant platform with the Palm III and V, but after the V their quality went off a cliff. Around the same time Microsoft cut them out of the business market with Exchange, and then Palm chopped off its remaining leg by fighting a no-win battle with Xerox over Graffiti One.

As for a developer community, Palm had the Palm Economy -- not a bad idea. I can't speak to their execution on that, but my sense it collapsed because the platform rotted away first.

Microsoft, meanwhile, having destroyed all their competitors without actually delivering anything, developed mad cow diseases and drove the Mobile PC platform into the grave for the heck of it. (Hey, how else can you explain their mobile strategy?)

So now we have the iPhone. The browser experience leads people like Mace to predict that the browser is the new platform.


On the other hand, there are a lot of very, very smart developers who want to create the best possible native experiences for millions of iPhone users. Experiences that work on airplanes, cars, trains and lots of other places where the wireless experience sucks. Sure, you'll be able to create disconnected apps using Google Gears 2009 and Adobe AIR 2009, but they won't have the smooth elegance of native apps.

If Apple can prosper while staying clear of Microsoft's Exchange turf (don't go there Apple, it's a death trap) Mace may discover that he's declared the mobile platform dead at exactly the wrong time ...

Using a webcam to help with audio-only phone conferences

I'm certain someone has written about this, but I couldn't find it on a quick web search.

Office videoconferencing has been limited by corporate bandwidth and the dismal state of USB webcams [1]; there's no practical solution that enables one to share whiteboard work over a video link for example. Even so, I've recently been persuaded that for many people, including me, even crummy low resolution images enable better social interaction and higher quality communication.

So I've started using a webcam with Office Communicator 2005. Unfortunately the people I communicate with don't usually have a webcam, so it's one way. They see me. I either see a blank space or my own face.

That's where I made an interesting discovery. It helps me, when on a phone call, to see my own face. It helps me be more patient, and even to be a better listener. Of course, as Emily points out, a mirror would have the same effect -- but a mirror in my office would seem a bit .... odd.

So I'm experimenting with viewing my own face and body language when I'm on voice only calls. I'm guessing it will help me be more conscious of my own reactions, and better able to manage the call. 

I suspect this might be a bigger help for people with geek-genes than for non-geeks. 

This would make an interesting psychology study btw ...

(I'm sure someone has written about doing this with a mirror in the "old days". One could probably use an iPhone with "mirror" wallpaper in place of a physical mirror or webcam.)

[1] BTW, the built-in Mac webcams aren't the equal of the much mourned firewire iSight (best webcam ever) but they produce much better results than my Microsoft LifeCam. It's not just resolution, it's also video rate, color balance, focus, white balance and, above all, adjustment for variable lighting.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The meaning of median compensation with a high school education

The problem with this statement

William Kristol's bad grade in economics - How the World Works -

...For American men with only a high school education, Rodrik writes, median compensation has declined by 10 percent since 1980...

is that the average man with only a high school education in 1980 is probably not the same as the average man with only a high school education in 2008. In 2008 we're talking about someone who's either making some very bad decisions or who has a very significant cognitive disability. In 1980 the group would have included many people who would now go to college or trade school; back then these folks could enter the blue collar labor market and be reasonably well paid.

I think if one adjusted for IQ the income decline would be much less than 10%.

Odd to find myself almost defending Kristol here, as I do believe that much of America is being "Left Behind" - economically speaking. It's just that I have a hard time letting an illogical statement stand ...

Sometimes medical progress is exceedingly slow

Much is made of the great speed of medical progress, of impossibility or keeping up, etc, etc.

Sometimes yes, that is true -- though much that is "new" does not last. Often though, progress is glacial.

One of my medical hobbies is using a Pubmed feed to track articles written about aphthous stomatitis (aka canker sores). This is a generally benign (albeit painful) condition that remains almost as mysterious today as it was when I entered McGill in 1982.

For example, today's feed tossed up an article that could have been written thirty years ago: Topical minocycline for managing symptoms of recur...[Spec Care Dentist. 2008 Jan-Feb].


In 1982 we were pretty sure canker sores would not be a great mystery in 2008. Of course in 1995 we were certain everyone would have fiber to the desktop by 2001 ...

Dark energy is not a force, and another take on fermions and bosons

This December post by CV has been in my queue for a while. He starts out complaining about the popular depiction of Dark Energy as a "force", but soon digresses into lots of basic physics I have trouble remembering.

Here are the parts I particularly liked:
A Dark, Misleading Force | Cosmic Variance

... The wrong part is referring to dark energy as a “force,” which it’s not...

... quantum field theory implies that the ingredients of a four-dimensional universe are divided neatly into two types: fermions, which cannot pile on top of each other due to the exclusion principle, and bosons, which can. That’s extremely close to the stuff/force distinction, and indeed we tend to associate the known bosonic fields — gravity, electromagnetism, gluons, and weak vector bosons — with the “forces of nature.” Personally I like to count the Higgs boson as a fifth force rather than a new matter particle, but that’s just because I’m especially fastidious....

...dark energy is definitely “stuff.” It’s not a new force. (There might be a force associated with it, if the dark energy is a light scalar field, but that force is so weak that it’s not been detected, and certainly isn’t responsible for the acceleration of the universe.) In fact, the relevant force is a pretty old one — gravity! Cosmologists consider all kinds of crazy ideas in their efforts to account for dark energy, but in all the sensible theories I’ve heard of, it’s gravity that is the operative force. The dark energy is causing a gravitational field, and an interesting kind of field that causes distant objects to appear to accelerate away from us rather than toward us, but it’s definitely gravity that is doing the forcing here...

...Anyone who has spoken about “energy” or “dimensions” to a non-specialist audience has come across this language barrier. Just recently it was finally beaten into me how bad “dark” is for describing “dark matter” and “dark energy.” What we mean by “dark” in these cases is “completely transparent to light.” To your average non-physicist, it turns out, “dark” might mean “completely absorbs light.” Which is the opposite! Who knew? That’s why I prefer calling it “smooth tension,” which sounds more Barry White than Public Enemy.

What I would really like to get rid of is any discussion of “negative pressure.” The important thing about dark energy is that it’s persistent — the density (energy per cubic centimeter) remains roughly constant, even as the universe expands. Therefore, according to general relativity, it imparts a perpetual impulse to the expansion of the universe, not one that gradually dilutes away. A constant density leads to a constant expansion rate, which means that the time it takes the universe to double in size is a constant. But if the universe doubles in size every ten billion years or so, what we see is distant galaxies accelerating away — first they are X parsecs away, then they are 2X parsecs away, then 4X parsecs away, then 8X, etc. The distance grows faster and faster, which we observe as acceleration...

Italics mine. I left out his further discussion on negative pressure, he persuaded me that it's a dumb concept (sort of like "centrifugal force").

Challenges of software as service: Spolsky's version

Amazon's S3 was down the other day. A lot of company's that use S3 were down too.

Such are the woes of 'software as service' -- what we used to call "application service provision".

Amazon didn't say much about the S3 outage, but when something similar happened to Joel Spolsky's product he had quite a few interesting comments:
Five whys - Joel on Software

..Most well-run online services will have two, maybe three outages a year. With so few data points, the length of the outage starts to become really significant, and that's one of those things that's wildly variable. Suddenly, you're talking about how long it takes a human to get to the equipment and swap out a broken part. To get really high uptime, you can't wait for a human to switch out failed parts. You can't even wait for a human to figure out what went wrong: you have to have previously thought of every possible thing that can possibly go wrong, which is vanishingly improbable. It's the unexpected unexpecteds, not the expected unexpecteds, that kill you.
...Think of it this way: If your six nines system goes down mysteriously just once and it takes you an hour to figure out the cause and fix it, well, you've just blown your downtime budget for the next century. Even the most notoriously reliable systems, like AT&T's long distance service, have had long outages (six hours in 1991) which put them at a rather embarrassing three nines ... and AT&;T's long distance service is considered "carrier grade," the gold standard for uptime.

Keeping internet services online suffers from the problem of black swans. Nassim Taleb, who invented the term, defines it thus: "A black swan is an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations." Almost all internet outages are unexpected unexpecteds: extremely low-probability outlying surprises. They're the kind of things that happen so rarely it doesn't even make sense to use normal statistical methods like "mean time between failure."...
Spolsky cares deeply about customer service, his company's response is impeccable.

Others don't do nearly as well. I have trouble imaging large corporations caring enough to delivery truly reliable service, though the phone companies (for all their many ills) managed it for many years.

Even Nader's sympathizers are appalled

James Fallows turns out to have an unexpected history with Ralph Nader. So his judgment carries more than average weight: Ralph Nader: tragedy to farce.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Legislative review: Obama and Clinton

Daily Kos: State of the Nation is a well researched review of the Obama and Clinton legislative records. Obama gets the nod from the blogger, but Clinton doesn't do badly either.

Personally I think both records show Congress spends far too much time on micromanagement of peripheral issues, but I guess that's what American's want. If we wanted politicians to tackle the real problems we'd elect different people.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hey, we still have rabbit ears!

This was on a list of "obsolete skills":
Obsolete skills - Scobleizer — Tech geek blogger:

...10. Adjusting the rabbit ears on your TV set.

Our sole source of television is a pair of rabbit ears on a 9" CRT. I still have rabbit tuning skills.

The power of video - the beef recall

This really is the video generation.

We're "pithed frogs" about lethally contaminated Chinese manufactured meds, but a video of "downer" (meaning prion-packed, example: CJD/mad cow disease) cattle being slaughtered raises the roof:

The Biggest Beef Recall Ever - New York Times

A nauseating video of cows stumbling on their way to a California slaughterhouse has finally prompted action: the largest recall of meat in American history.

Well, maybe it shakes the shingles for a day or two.

This is what you get after 8-12 years of the GOP taking apart American government (depending on how you measure GOP control during the hallowed Clinton years).

The video was supposedly done randomly, but even if it wasn't there's nothing in our system to suggest that this isn't routine. I suggest a prayer to George the II the next time you eat a hamburger, feed your pet, buy a child's toy, or give a medication to your child.

Or save your energy and use it to campaign for whoever gets the Democratic nomination.

I destroyed Facebook

I knew this would happen ...

BBC NEWS | Business | Facebook 'sees decline in users'

Social networking site Facebook has seen its first drop in UK users in January, new industry data indicates.

Users fell 5% to 8.5 million in January from 8.9 million in December, according to data from Nielsen Online....

...Nic Howell, deputy editor of industry magazine New Media Age, said the site was no longer as popular among its core audience of young people.

"Social networking is as much about who isn't on the site as who is - when Tory MPs and major corporations start profiles on Facebook, its brand is devalued, driving its core user base into the arms of newer and more credible alternatives," he said...

After all, I did this.

Imagine the horror of a 17 year old seeing a geezer's face.

Heh, heh.

I enjoyed doing them in.

So, who do I take out next?

Word file formats: the Nisus achievement and a gentle wish for .DOC

I use Nisus Writer Express for OS X, and one of these days I'll probably upgrade to Nisus Writer Pro. There are many fine features of this high quality product, including the fact that they don't emulate Microsoft Word. The key features for me [1], however, are that:

  • Nisus uses RTF as a native file format
  • Nisus can, optionally, use Word .DOC files as their native file format and do a pretty reasonable job of editing existing Word files without messing them up too much.

I've learned many times over many years that data mobility is a critical requirement of my digital world [2]. In 2008 RTF is the closest thing we have to a mobile word processing file format, .DOC is next, and the Oasis OpenDocument File format is a very distant third.

Recently Microsoft released the specification for Word's .DOC binary file format [3]. Joel Spolsky tells us a bit about that format:

Why are the Microsoft Office file formats so complicated? (And some workarounds) - Joel on Software

...The assumption, and a fairly reasonable one at the time, was that the Word file format only had to be read and written by Word. That means that whenever a programmer on the Word team had to make a decision about how to change the file format, the only thing they cared about was (a) what was fast and (b) what took the fewest lines of code in the Word code base. The idea of things like SGML and HTML—interchangeable, standardized file formats—didn’t really take hold until the Internet made it practical to interchange documents in the first place [jg - 4]; this was a decade later than the Office binary formats were first invented. There was always an assumption that you could use importers and exporters to exchange documents. In fact Word does have a format designed for easy interchange, called RTF, which has been there almost since the beginning. It’s still 100% supported.

...Every checkbox, every formatting option, and every feature in Microsoft Office has to be represented in file formats somewhere. That checkbox in Word’s paragraph menu called “Keep With Next” that causes a paragraph to be moved to the next page if necessary so that it’s on the same page as the paragraph after it? That has to be in the file format. And that means if you want to implement a perfect Word clone than can correctly read Word documents, you have to implement that feature. If you’re creating a competitive word processor that has to load Word documents, it may only take you a minute to write the code to load that bit from the file format, but it might take you weeks to change your page layout algorithm to accommodate it. If you don’t, customers will open their Word files in your clone and all the pages will be messed up.... [6]

Hats off to Nisus. Their ability to work with .DOC file formats [5] is a great achievement, and a testimony to coding excellence and true grit.

Beyond Nisus (buy it) this is another illustration of why we need to care about file formats. Is the Word 2007 .DOC binary file format really the a good way to carry our documents forward?

Today uber-geeks like Schneier seem to be discovering lock-in - decades after I put (small) audiences to sleep with it. A bit late, but it's a start.

Die .DOC die.


[1] Nisus doesn't really promote this as a feature. I think they should, but I'm a market of one.

[2] My biggest concession to data-lock is iPhoto. Even there I know that with AppleScript I could extract the majority of the data structures in my photo libraries - not easy, but doable. If I'm every lacking for work to do I might turn that into a product.

[3] A grudging effort to appease governments. I suspect China is a big driver.

[4] Spolsky used to be a Microsoft guy, which is probably why he doesn't remember that WordPerfect, Ami Pro, MacWrite and many other extinct applications used to read and write Word's .DOC format. It was "practical to interchange documents" eons before HTML/SGML - in fact it was a necessity as Microsoft rode its proprietary file formats and trade press control to victory.

[5] Not perfectly of course. Even Nisus Writer Pro can't read and represent an style-generated Word table of contents -- a feature I use extensively.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The trial of Khalid Mohammed - America's next opportunity for shame

Khalid Mohammed is alleged to have planned the 9/11 attacks. While being tortured, he is said to have confessed to many crimes.

So will his testimony under torture be used against him in a military tribunal?

Morris Davis, an Air Force colonel and chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, from 2005 to 2007, responds:
Unforgivable Behavior, Inadmissible Evidence - New York Times

...My policy as the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo was that evidence derived through waterboarding was off limits. That should still be our policy. To do otherwise is not only an affront to American justice, it will potentially put prosecutors at risk for using illegally obtained evidence.

Unfortunately, I was overruled on the question, and I resigned my position to call attention to the issue — efforts that were hampered by my being placed under a gag rule and ordered not to testify at a Senate hearing. While some high-level military and civilian officials have rightly expressed indignation on the issue, the current state can be described generally as indifference and inaction.

At a Senate hearing in December, the legal adviser for the military commissions, Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, refused to rule out using evidence obtained by waterboarding. Afterward, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is also a lawyer in the Air Force Reserves, said that no military judge would allow the introduction of such evidence. I hope Senator Graham is right about military judges, and it is unfortunate that any might be put in a position where he has to make such a decision.

Regrettably, at a Pentagon press briefing last week announcing that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and five others had been charged and faced the death penalty, General Hartmann again declined to rule out the use of evidence acquired through waterboarding. Military justice has a proud history; this was not one of its finer moments.

That is not to say those subjected to waterboarding get a free pass. If the prosecution can build a persuasive case without using the coerced “confession,” then whether a defendant endured waterboarding is immaterial in determining guilt or innocence.

There are some bad men at Guantánamo Bay and a few deserve death, but only after trials we can truthfully call full, fair and open. In that service, we must declare that evidence obtained by waterboarding be banned in every American system of justice. We must restore our reputation as the good guys who refuse to stoop to the level of our adversaries. We are Americans, and we should be able to state with conviction, “We don’t do stuff like that.”
This guy ended his military career to save America's honor, and nobody cared.

Meanwhile McCain is backpedaling away from what was once a principled stand against torture.  The Khalid trial may be a factor in his craven reversals.

Khalid Mohammed doesn't matter any more. What matters is that America has another chance to disgrace itself, or a chance to move away from the Bush legacy.

Catastrophic extinction in the Anthropocene: now for the sharks

Sharks were old when Dinosaurs pounded the ground. 100 million years ago they looked like those that live today.

Now they're headed for extinction.

Ocean's fiercest predators now vulnerable to extinction

Sharks are disappearing from the world’s oceans. The numbers of many large shark species have declined by more than half due to increased demand for shark fins and meat, recreational shark fisheries, as well as tuna and swordfish fisheries, where millions of sharks are taken as bycatch each year.

Now, the global status of large sharks has been assessed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which is widely recognized as the most comprehensive, scientific-based information source on the threat status of plants and animals...

...Research at Dalhousie University over the past five years, conducted by Baum and the late Ransom Myers, demonstrated the magnitude of shark declines in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. All species the team looked at had declined by over 50 per cent since the early 1970s. For many large coastal shark species, the declines were much greater: tiger, scalloped hammerhead, bull and dusky shark populations have all plummeted by more than 95 per cent.

A 50% decline in about 30 years. In the geologic record we use to track extinctions this is meteor-impact fast.

We truly live in the Anthropocene. Of course it may be a relatively brief geologic era; if so the sharks might squeak through ...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Science and the alternative

Eons ago, Emily and I wrote an editorial in the now defunct Journal of Family Practice [1] on the topic of alternative medicine. It was titled "Science and the Alternative" which sort of gives away our opinions (see also).

Oh, to be clear, it's not that I think herbal remedies can't work (for example), but rather that it's magical thinking to assume they're fundamentally safe because they're "natural".

Today CV tackles the topic, after discovering, to his horror, that his readership doesn't necessarily know what science is ...

Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory | Cosmic Variance

...If we can show that psychic phenomena are incompatible with the laws of physics we currently understand, then our task is to balance the relative plausibility of “some folks have fallen prey to sloppy research, unreliable testimony, confirmation bias, and wishful thinking” against “the laws of physics that have been tested by an enormous number of rigorous and high-precision experiments over the course of many years are plain wrong in some tangible macroscopic way, and nobody ever noticed...

[1] The name lives on but the journal died.

PS. I love that Michael Crichton, the climate change denier, is also a spoon bender.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Stealing ideas - a quote I like

My iGoogle page had this quote today:

Howard Aiken - The Quotations Page

Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats.

It's not true of course, but there's enough truth there to make it amusing.

The Microsoft Word anti-fan club

I've been a longtime member of the Microsoft Word anti-fan club (the last good version came our @ 1995-97), but today I learned via ATPM that I have new company. Virginia Hefferman for the NYT and Steven Poole for The Guardian.

It must be admitted that I despise Word for different reasons than Hefferman and Poole, but still I welcome them to our little club.

BTW, Nisus Writer (I have the Express version) is a wonderful alternative to Word on OS X.

Friday, February 15, 2008

We really need to panic more - FDA inspection of Chinese drug suppliers

I remember the good old days. Back then, the public panicked about apple's sprayed with relatively harmless insecticides. In those days we panicked about everything.

Ok, so we still see insane full page ads in the NYT accusing immunization of inducing a plague of autism. On the other hand, where's the panic about our drug supplies?

The FDA would take 40-50 years at its current rate to inspect today's Chinese drug manufacturers?! Plants like the one producing defective Heparin?! ...
F.D.A. Broke Its Rules by Not Inspecting Chinese Plant With Problem Drug - New York Times

... Baxter International announced on Monday that it was suspending sales of its multidose vials of heparin after four patients died and 350 suffered complications, many of them serious. Baxter bought the active ingredient for this product from Scientific Protein Laboratories, which has plants in Waunakee, Wis., and Changzhou City, China...

... Ms. Gardiner said that recent tests by Baxter had found subtle chemical differences among the lots that Scientific Protein shipped to Baxter “but it is unclear what impact the differences would have” on Baxter’s heparin product.

Dr. Ajay Singh, director of dialysis at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said he was astonished by what he called the many failures to ensure a safe supply of heparin. There are 450,000 people in the United States on dialysis, and nearly all of them need copious doses of heparin, he said. Heparin is also used in cardiac surgery and among chronic care patients.

“We need to ensure that this country has access to the crucial medicines it needs,” Dr. Singh said. “This is a national security issue.”

The heparin scare comes at a particularly delicate time for the F.D.A. Over the past year, a wave of tainted goods from China, including deadly pet food ingredients and tainted fish, has prompted concern about whether regulators are adequately monitoring imports’ safety.

The Government Accountability Office released three reports in recent months that found that the drug agency provided little oversight of the increasing number of foreign plants that export food, drugs and devices to the United States.

Although the agency must inspect domestic drug plants once every two years, the investigators found that it inspected foreign drug plants at best once every 13 years. The agency’s record in China, now one of the biggest drug suppliers in the world, is even worse. Of the 700 approved Chinese drug plants, the agency has been able to inspect only 10 to 20 each year and would need 40 to 50 years to inspect them all.
Really, this would be a great time for panic.

Instead the American public behaves like a pithed frog -- a study in learned helplessness.

We really, really, need to get the GOP completely out of power.

Update 2/15/2008: If our medication supply is having quality issues, they would not all be as obvious as fatalities. They might only show up in large scale studies ...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Fibonnaci sequence, In Our Time and why digital cameras should adopt the 35 mm aspect ratio forever

Not to mention my old neglected web pages. All intimately connected through the 1/Golden Ratio of "1.6180339887". That's a smidgen more than 8/5.

How connected?

To begin with, here's a (slightly revised) discussion from an ancient web page of mine about photographic aspect ratios, long the bane of the art:

John's Digital Photography Page

I thought printing was a peculiar curse of digital photography, but "Socrates" corrected me:

Printing is the curse of ALL photography and has been for a hundred years. 35 mm. has been the most popular format for probably fifty years. Until very recently (with 4X6 paper), there was NO paper available that matched the 3X2 aspect ratio. We had a choice of 3.5X5 or 5X7 or 8X10. The 8X10 was perfect for a 4X5 view camera used by professional portrait photographers. The smaller sizes were "almost" the 4X5 aspect ratio ...

In the case of digital photography, consumer camera sensors follow the convention of monitors: 640:480 = 4:3; on the other hand 35 mm film has a ratio of 3:2. Digital SLRs most often go with the 35 mm ratio of 3:2 (width to height), and some oddball Panasonic cameras use the video ratio of 16:9.

Not quite the same. The most popular print size, 4x6, is a good match to 35mm film, but not to most digital sensors. (BUT, Apple's photo books expect the 4:3 ratio.) If you print to a 4x6 paper; either there's cropping (most common) or dark bands are seen (better really, but unsightly).

This list of aspect ratios helps clarify the problem (here I use height/width as it makes the ratio easier to compare):

4x5: 0.80 (view camera and 8x10 prints)
3x4: 0.75 (most digital cameras and Apple's PhotoBook)
5x7: 0.71 (print size)
3.5x5: 0.7 (print size)
2x3: 0.67 (35mm and 4x6 prints - 35 mm is the diagonal for the old netatives) 
5x8: 0.63 (Golden Ratio, more or less)
9x16: 0.56 (video ratio, widescreen monitors)..

So, we clearly see that the so-called 4x6 aspect ratio of 35 mm film and dSLRs is closest to the Golden Ratio. Which makes that the best choice for digital photography sensor size.

Huh? How did I make that leap? Well, it turns out the "Golden Ratio" is baked into the mathematics of the universe, and it has some odd aesthetic appeal to the human brain (Parthenon, art, architecture, music, etc).

The Golden Ratio is derived by looking at the convergence of the ratio of number pairs in the Fibonacci sequence. That sequence was introduced to Northern Europe in the early 13 century by Fibonacci (In Our Time: 11/29/2007), who might have come across them while learning about Arabic (Indian actually*) numbers when adventuring in Northern Africa. The sequence goes like this:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on (each digit is the sum of the preceding pair).

the ratios look like this (note the 3/2 -- the 35 mm negative size:

1/1, 2/1, 3/2, 8/5, 13/8, 21/13, 34/21 and so on ..

So we see that our familiar 4x6 photographs are the 3rd item in the ratio sequence, and not too far from the covergent value of the Golden Ratio: 1.6180339887.

There's no arguing with the fundamental structure of the universe, adjusting slightly for tradition.

The 4 x 6 printed image rules. Let no pretender emerge.

* I thought our digits were an Arabic invention. They turn out to be Indian, but they came to Europe via Arabia. This is an interesting example of wrong things I learned as a child that I have not since revisited, an increasingly common phenomena.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My favorite OS X headline

TidBITS Macs & Mac OS X: Leopard Emerges from Beta as 10.5.2 Ships

That's about right. 

When 10.5 slipped from its original release date of Feb 2007 I figured it would be ready for release by March of 2008. Instead Apple released the beta version in October of 2007 to people eager to pay for the honor of beta testing.

That's a bit rich, even for Apple.

Apple managed to beat my prediction by about two weeks -- so maybe all those unwitting beta testers helped move things along a bit. Based on the many fixes in 10.5.2 it looks 10.5.3 will be the release I'll upgrade to -- the first service pack after the true "gold" release. 

eBay admits it has a problem

I don't trust eBay. I think the management has known for a long time that they had a lot of crooked sellers, but they did nothing as long as the money came in.

Now, as reviewed by Nicholas Carr, eBay is worried:
Rough Type: Nicholas Carr's Blog: Crowd control at eBay
... overall, the current feedback system isn't where it should be. Today, the biggest issue with the system is that buyers are more afraid than ever to leave honest, accurate feedback because of the threat of retaliation. In fact, when buyers have a bad experience on eBay, the final straw for many of them is getting a negative feedback, especially of a retaliatory nature.

Now, we realize that feedback has been a two-way street, but our data shows a disturbing trend, which is that sellers leave retaliatory feedback eight times more frequently than buyers do ... and this figure is up dramatically from only a few years ago...
No joke. I was blackmailed by a crooked seller myself. Of course that only ensured I left scrupulously honest and accurate feedback, which resulted in retaliatory negative comments on my profile. (Since I don't use eBay any more that didn't matter too much.)

Craigslist, Amazon and specialty shops are better choices for selling and buying used goods. eBay deserves to be liquidated.

What should they have done differently? For one thing, anonymity doesn't work in commerce. It was too easy in eBay to create and destroy fake personas. Reputations matter, and they need time to be established.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Gwynne Dyer: Kosovo, Climate Change, US Defense budget

My Dyer Detector fired today. Sure nuff, he's added three high value essays:
  • Kosovo update: Independence pending in next few weeks
  • America's half-trillion dollar defense budget is not driven by the 'war on terror', it's in anticipation of resource and climate conflicts with China
and a favorite of his -- Climate change:
Over the past few weeks, in several countries, I have interviewed a couple of dozen senior scientists,government officials and think-tank specialists whose job is to think about climate change on a daily basis. And NOT ONE of them believes the forecasts on global warming issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
just last year. They think things are moving much faster than that.

The IPCC's predictions in the 2007 report were frightening enough. Across the six scenarios it considered, it predicted "best estimate" rises in average global temperature of between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Celsius (3.2 and 7.2 degrees F) by the end of the 21st century, with a maximum change of 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees F) in the "high scenario". But the thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers that the IPCC examined in order to reach those conclusions dated from no later than early 2006, and most relied on data from several years before that.

It could not be otherwise, but it means that the IPCC report took no notice of recent indications that the warming has accelerated dramatically. While it was being written, for example, we were still talking about the possibility of the Arctic Ocean being ice-free in late summer by 2042. Now it's 2013.

Nor did the IPCC report attempt to incorporate any of the "feedback" phenomena that are suspected of being responsible for speeding up the heating, like the release of methane from thawing permafrost. Worst of all, there is now a fear that the "carbon sinks" are failing, and in particular that the oceans, which normally absorb half of the carbon dioxide that is produced each year, are losing their ability to do so.
Dyer points out the five degree average increase includes cool supra-ocean air, so the inland increase is rather higher than five degrees.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Manipulating the hairless ape: applied mimicry

A little mimicry, but not too much ...

Psychology - Mimicry - Persuasion - How to Build Rapport - New York Times

The technique involved mirroring a person’s posture and movements, with a one- to two-second delay. If he crosses his legs, then wait two seconds and do the same, with opposite legs. If she touches her face, wait a beat or two and do that. If he drums his fingers or taps a toe, wait again and do something similar.

The idea is to be a mirror but a slow, imperfect one. Follow too closely, and most people catch it — and the game is over....

...Social mimicry can and does go wrong. At its malicious extreme, it curdles into mockery, which is why people often recoil when they catch of whiff of mimicry, ending any chance of a social bond. Preliminary studies suggest that the rules change if there is a wide cultural gap between two people. For almost everyone else, however, subtle mimicry comes across as a form of flattery, the physical dance of charm itself. And if that kind of flattery doesn’t close a deal, it may just be that the customer isn’t buying.

I'm going to test my boss, who I suspect is good at this sort of thing (consciously or not). I'll try changing my hand position and see if she mimics it ...

Big iPhone SDK slip?

Rumor of an end-of-February Apple event are offset with rumors of a major SDK delay ...

iPhone SDK rumors suggest delays, inclusion of simulator

Speaking of taking longer, another more ominous rumor suggests that the iPhone SDK may not be arriving in February after all. Delays in packaging, documenting, and testing the SDK could push the release back as far as WWDC in June. Delays could also be caused by Apple spending tweaking the security "features" of the SDK.

I've been figuring I'd buy an iPhone if Apple came out with a real SDK (access to internal data stores, sync framework, etc), so my purchase time is post-SDK. If it slipped that far I'd wait for the 3G version of the phone.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

More money, fewer children. The paradox gets another look.

Almost thirty years ago I was a Watson Fellow. In between recreational diversions in various corners of the world I made a serious study of how one might try to change fertility behaviors.

Even then we'd known for a long time that as nations "industrialized" (became technocentric) families became smaller (Mormons are an interesting exception).

This disturbed me. Back then what's now "evolutionary psychology" was "sociobiology" (name change for branding reasons), and within that framework I couldn't understand how the heck wealth produced infertility. I thought the usual theories [2] were nonsensical in the long term, but they were widely accepted.

My best guess was that technocentric wealth was so different from anything in human evolutionary history that we were "outside system bounds"  and that women (in particular) were behaving "irrationally" [3]. In time we'd adapt to our new technocentric world, fertility would climb and we'd be back to the core business of churning out copies of our genes (children). [1]

I've been waiting thirty years for biologists and behavioral economists to recognize that this was an unsolved mystery. Now, at last, some new thinking has come along ...

Demography and genetics | Kissing cousins, missing children |

...Now yet another explanation has been added to the pot. This is that the mixing-up of people caused by the urbanisation which normally accompanies development is, itself, partly responsible. That is because it breaks up optimal mating patterns. The demographic transition is thus, in part, a pure accident...

This is a variation of my "out of bounds" theory. It implies that we'll eventually adapt to urbanisation and that family size will again increase.

It's good to see this topic is in play. Took long enough!

[1] I was looking for ways to reduce fertility, so this suggested that we shouldn't rely on the wealth effect to shrink family size forever.

[2] Lowered infant mortality, economic benefit of education and employment of women, etc, etc.

[3] In a Darwinian sense.

Update 2/14/08: Another new theory. It's nice to see this paradox getting a bit of attention!

Saturday, February 09, 2008 first, have a beverage at hand

Zillow does real estate estimates. Type in your address and check it out.

I did my check after reading this NYT Times post:

... 77 percent of homeowners from around the country believe the value of their home has increased or stayed the same...

... This in spite of a recent Merrill Lynch prediction that “housing prices will remain in free fall,” declining 15 percent in 2008 and 10 percent in 2009, “with more depreciation likely beyond the forecast period,” even if the Federal Reserve continues to cut interest rates.

Stan Humphries,’s vice president of data and analytics, said the results of the survey could be attributed to the fact that most Americans have yet to try selling their homes. “Most people are not really affected by declining values unless they absolutely must sell or need to immediately refinance or withdraw equity,” he said. “This has contributed to the healthy investment intent, particularly in home upgrades, despite the downward trending markets.”

I think I need a Scotch now ...

The GOP isn't the torture party any more

Mitt "thumbscrews" Romney is gone. Even Ron Paul is gone. Only McCain and Huckabee are left.

McCain's opposition to torture is well known. But what about Huckabee?

In December he declared waterboarding was indeed torture.

Huckabee Chafes at 'Front-Runner' Label -

... Huckabee joined Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in declaring his opposition to the interrogation procedure known as "waterboarding," and said he would support closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a contrast with the other leading Republicans...

I'm surprised to be saying this, but the GOP isn't the pro-torture party they were in May of 2007, or even in November of 2007.

Every single GOP candidate that backed torture has been eliminated from contention.

Sure, the rabid right winguts of talk radio still pant ecstatically about the secret joys of agony, but their candidates are gone. Republican voters, after all, have a voice in what the GOP is.

Shockingly, it seems they don't like torture any more -- if they ever really did.

I'm surprised nobody else has mentioned this.

I'm even more surprised to be saying something complimentary about the GOP -- or at least today's Republican voters.

The disposable decade: and the economics of the extended warranty: iMac, phones, camera and homes?

The LCD screen of my 2.5 yo $2000 iMac is coming apart. The average cell phone costs about $400 (hidden in the monthly fee) and lasts 1-2 years. My 1.5 yo Canon (made in Japan!) SD600 digital camera's mode switch is failing. The February 2008 Atlantic (not yet online) describes the construction techniques of $600,000 (made in America) McMansions -- they won't outlast their mortgages. Nothing made in China lasts much beyond the warranty period -- if that.

We live in the decade of the disposable. We no longer own material goods, we lease them for their warranty period.

Except for the McMansions, unless you consider your home insurance policy a warranty.

Ok, so there's one very big exception. Modern cars last a very long time. I wonder when that will change.

So, geezers and young-uns alike, let us wrap our minds around the new reality beginning with these guidelines:
  1. Products are only as good as their warranty. So before you buy, you need to know the warranty will be honored.
  2. Product lifespans are now about 120% to 300% of the extended warranty, with a median value of 140% (so there's a long tail).
In this world extended an extended warranty is not necessarily a bad deal - unless you're the company on the hook for the bill.

Apple provides AppleCare, which these days seems to be better behaved than a year or two ago (at which time Apple's outsourced repairs had severe quality problems and Apple often struggled to get off the hook for repairs). In this world Apple Care might not a bad idea, but that means you need to factor AppleCare into the cost of the product. When you do that the cost of computers is rising, not falling (though the cost/capability is still falling).

The best deal, however, are credit card buyers insurance programs. American Express, for example, doubles the original warranty up to an additional year (so it's basically an extra year unless you're foolish and buy something with a worthless 3 month warranty).

AMEX used to advertise this feature of their credit cards. They don't any more -- I couldn't find any mention of it on their web site. No mystery there. It must cost them a bundle. I wonder if they still offer it with new cards.

My card has this feature, which is why I buy everything with it. The program might be a secret now, but it still works. I couldn't use it for the iMac (I passed the two year limit), but for the Canon I called the secret number (800-225-3750) and a most excellent service person quickly walked me through the process. Here's how it went:
  • I assembled the warranty proof (Canon web site), my invoice ( web site) and the entry in my AMEX statement (AMEX web site).
  • I should have noted the serial number on the camera as they asked for that, but they didn't really need it.
  • I phoned.
If they decide to f/u they might request the camera or the documentation, but the last time I called they didn't. Instead the full original cost of the camera was credited to my account.

The buyers insurance program site did warn of "an extremely high call volume". I wonder how long they'll be able to keep offering this program.

In the new world, it's a great deal for me.

Now, about those McMansions ...

Update: The other question I was asked was "how did you learn of the buyers assurance program"? I assume AmEx uses that information to eliminate clues to the existence of the program.

An old post also reminds me that I bought the SD 600 through the same AmEx buyers insurance program when a Canon SD 450 mode switch failed! So AmEx has paid out on two consecutive Canon compact cameras. I'm thinking I might replace the SD 600 with something that's not from Canon.

Update 2/11/08: It took less than 8 business hours for buyers assurance to credit my AMEX card. So far they don't want the camera, though of course I'll hold on to it. Amazing response really, though it seems a risky business for AMEX to be in. (On the other hand, the buyers assurance and AMEX security programs are why we use the card for every possible transaction, so they so make a fair amount from their slice of our transactions.)

Now I get it. The McCain reaction.

Tom Tomorrow helps me feel Rush Limbaugh's pain. That's an impressive feat ...
This Modern World - Why they hate him

Imagine how you’d feel if Joe Lieberman had just captured the Democratic nomination.

That’s how the far right sees McCain.
Of course it's not only the far left of the Dems that would be horrified by a Leiberman nomination -- he'd never even get to first base.

Migraine: how often do meds work?

Siri Hustvedt writes of a life with very severe migraines. After many referrals and medication trials she gets by with biofeedback-trained relaxation techniques and, I would guess, some over the counter analgesic.

This prompts me to confess that, in my days of seeing patients, I felt very unsuccessful treating migraine.

Now that was over 10 years ago, but the medications haven't changed all that much. I used the medications I'd read about, and some of my patients even sat through several rotations, but nothing seemed to stick.

Some meds worked for a while, but then the patient would return. Sometimes a med stopped working, sometimes the side-effects were worse than the headaches, sometimes they were too expensive.

I know others claimed much more success, but I'm suspicious. I know quite a few people with migraine, and they mostly seem to live with them. They often have meds that help about as much as the ones I used to prescribe, and sometimes they need stronger narcotics, but by and large they, like Siri, live with migraine.

Maybe I wasn't imagining things long ago. Maybe we really don't have any great medical treatments for migraine. If so, then it might be useful to admit that in print ...

Friday, February 08, 2008

Cringely provides a sane justification for Microsoft's acquisition of Yahoo!

Cringely makes Microsoft's acquisition of Yahoo! sound potentially rational ...

I, Cringely . The Pulpit . The Men Behind the Curtain | PBS


What we have here at Microsoft is a generational transition like we've seen in many other industries as leading companies go from robber barons to industry stalwarts. ...

Cringely claims that Microsoft wants to become GE 2.0 - a finance and management company rather than a software and services company.

I imagine if this were to succeed we'd see Gates return at age 60 to oversee Microsoft's acquisition of GE 1.0.

I think he's on to something. Ballmer is many things, but stupid is not one of them.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Strict control of type II diabetes increased mortality in one (big) study

I left longitudinal primary care practice before metformin. Back then tight control of Type II diabetes was just about impossible. If we pushed insulin patients just got heavier. In the rare event that we got reasonable control we feared the that occasional hyopglycemia could be deadly.

Times changed. Metformin and subsequent medications transformed Type II DM care. Now it's possible, with a dedicated and disciplined patient, to achieve tight control. Studies of intermediate measures (heart disease, renal failure, eye disease) in patients with both Type I and Type II diabetes showed the value of tight control. Physicians were financially penalized for patients who didn't get good control, and roundly chastised for a lack of energy in pursuing this goal.

There was only one problem. We didn't really know that reducing the rates of nerve, kidney, heart, vessel and eye disease would actually reduce mortality. It certainly seemed that it should...

Diabetes Study Partially Halted After Deaths - New York Times

For decades, researchers believed that if people with diabetes lowered their blood sugar to normal levels, they would no longer be at high risk of dying from heart disease. But a major federal study of more than 10,000 middle-aged and older people with Type 2 diabetes has found that lowering blood sugar actually increased their risk of death, researchers reported Wednesday...

Even the control group, who weren't under "tight" control, had very low glucose levels by the standards of the bad old days. So we're not talking about a return to the dark ages. The question instead is how hard to push, I think this study alone will cause payors to back off on financial penalties for "good" rather than "great" glucose levels.

Incidentally, a similar finding has come up many times over the past 20 years in studies of cholesterol reduction and all cause mortality. We know that reducing cholesterol lowers the risk of heart disease, but it doesn't reduce the risk of death in patients who do not have known heart disease or diabetes (1990:

... Mortality from coronary heart disease tended to be lower in men receiving interventions to reduce cholesterol concentrations compared with mortality in control subjects (p = 0.06), although total mortality was not affected by treatment. No consistent relation was found between reduction of cholesterol concentrations and mortality from cancer, but there was a significant increase in deaths not related to illness (deaths from accidents, suicide, or violence) in groups receiving treatment to lower cholesterol concentrations relative to controls (p = 0.004).

Later studies suggest that, on balance, persons with diabetes or known vascular disease benefit from simvastatin. Maybe a lot. There's still the suspicion that the harm may outweigh the benefit for non-diabetic patients with no known vascular disease (primary prevention) though.

These are tough questions, and in this domain my much loved animal model studies aren't that helpful. All cause mortality can only be studied in humans.

2/15/2008: It occurred to me that results like these could suggest the possibility of unsuspected quality issues with the medications we consume.

Omega-3 fatty acid flop - in transgenic mice

A few months ago Omega-3 fatty acids were promoted as the cure for everything from reading disabilities to autism to dementia -- often based on retrospective case-control studies.

Naturally this has put me on the alert for negative studies. You see, I've heard this story before. Many times. Almost always involving retrospective case-control studies.

Pshaw! Give me transgenic animal model studies any day ...

A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids does not improv...[Neuroscience. 2007] - PubMed Result

Although a number of epidemiologic studies reported that higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids (largely associated with fish consumption) is protective against Alzheimer's disease (AD), other human studies reported no such effect. Because retrospective human studies are problematic and controlled longitudinal studies over decades are impractical, the present study utilized Alzheimer's transgenic mice (Tg) in a highly controlled study to determine whether a diet high in omega-3 fatty acid, equivalent to the 13% omega-3 fatty acid diet of Greenland Eskimos, can improve cognitive performance or protect against cognitive impairment. Amyloid precursor protein (APP)-sw+PS1 double transgenic mice, as well as nontransgenic (NT) normal littermates, were given a high omega-3 supplemented diet or a standard diet from 2 through 9 months of age, with a comprehensive behavioral test battery administered during the final 6 weeks. For both Tg and NT mice, long-term n-3 supplementation resulted in cognitive performance that was no better than that of mice fed a standard diet. ... While these studies involved a genetically manipulated mouse model of AD, our results suggest that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids, or use of fish oil supplements (DHA+EPA), will not protect against AD, at least in high-risk individuals...

Now that's more like it. Nice and negative.

Eons ago I used to teach evidence-based medicine. Back then we had a hierarchy of evidential goodness. The very bottom was "Dr. Schmo at Harvard loves this surgery" [1], the very top was randomized, double-blind case control studies. Retrospective case-control studies were lower tier but respectable given suffient statistical wizardry.

Later "meta-analysis" slipped in, perhaps higher than it deserved [2].

Doing it today I'd want to put retrospective case-control much closer to Dr. Schmo (low, that is), and I'd like to see transgenic animal model studies much closer to the top (wasn't even on the list in my day). Of course this is just my opinion speaking (like Dr. Schmo); I haven't seen any (retrospective) research on how well results from transgenic animal studies hold up 3-5 years later. Hope someone does that in the next year or so.

[1] This never goes well.

[2] Gets messed up by unpublished studies though now the meta-analysts struggle mightily to find the unpublished.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Lessons for MN DFL caucus attendees

Minnesota is, in many ways, an exemplary state.

But not in every way.

I just sat through another Minnesota DFL caucus. This consisted of three parts:
  1. Presidential preference. Our candidate received 210 ballots, Hillary Clinton 88, Dennis Kucinich 1.
  2. Selection of delegates for the next stage in the caucus system on Saturday March 8th, where the real decisions are made. Delegates need to be able to take a Saturday off.
  3. Resolutions. Before these were presented our caucus leader passed a resolution that "all DFL resolutions" would be passed unanimously. I confess I didn't quite grasp what this meant, I thought it referred to some sort of official party process. Turns out it applied to anything anyone resolved during the caucus.
There was one good resolution. The rest can be most succinctly summarized as "give me and my buddies some money". They all passed "unanimously". I slowly grasped that they would all die a quiet death at the right time, though I was sorely tempted to add a resolution to "end the caucus system" -- since it would have passed with the rest.

Has any state ever escaped the trap of a caucus system? If any have, how did they do it?

Ah well, the key lessons for future caucus activity are that there are two times to leave:
  1. After the presidential preference ballot, which runs from 7pm to 8pm.
  2. If you want to be a delegate, after the sign up.
There's no sane reason to sit through the resolutions, that's what the all day meeting is for.

I really need to remember this for next time ...

Update 2/14/08: Caucuses are stupid everywhere. We just need to get rid of them.

Strategic packaging- or just supplier contracts? The 16GB iPhone.

So is it strategic packaging - or just related to contracts, suppliers and channel status? Apple's evil genius is such that none of us know for sure.

Apple increases iPhone, iPod touch storage capacity - The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW)

The iPhone is now available with 8GB (at $399US) or 16GB (at $499US) of storage. The iPod touch is now available in three models; 8GB ($299US), 16GB($399US) and 32GB($499US).

Note that the 16GB iPhone and the 32GB iPod touch are both $499, while there's a one hundred dollar difference between the 16GB iPhone and the 16GB iPod model...

The strategic message here is that there won't be any more iPhone changes until iPhone 2.0 due sometime in 2008 (I'm guessing September/October, but I wouldn't be shocked if it slipped into 2009).

So those of us waiting for a sign have it. I don't need that extra 8GB for music or video of course, I want room for old-fashioned locally resident applications to grow.

Now all that remains is to see that the SDK is real, and that Apple is giving developers the (secure and signed-for-in-blood) keys to the kingdom -- including the calendar and contacts data stores and the synchronization frameworks.

Why must I wait for the real SDK?

The MacBook Air is proof positive (the I/O limits in particular) that Apple isn't making products for the likes of me. Happily I know there's a world of developers who are eager for a paying customer -- and who can live off a smaller base. A working SDK means they'll be beating down the door to my open wallet.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The BlackBerry is jam

As in a fruit squished between the iPhone and Windows Mobile, then spread on toast.

I'm surprised the BlackBerry lasted this long, the old Microsoft would have squished RIM eons ago. Now though, the day of reckoning at hand.

I base my cruel judgment on my personal experience with the BlackBerry Pearl and my knowledge of what Microsoft is selling to large corporations.

First, a step back. I have known for years that the BlackBerry is a terrific Microsoft Exchange peripheral. Nobody I knew, however, could explain whether it was anything more. For that I had to buy my wife the BlackBerry Pearl.

The answer is that it's very slightly more than an Exchange peripheral. Emily's Pearl has 64MB of memory available and a JVM; the combination can run several Google Apps that give it proto-Android features. You can even install ePocrates -- but then you hit the 64MB barrier hard (which I last encountered on a Commodore 64 around 1983). True, the BB can hold a 2GB memory card installed, but it can only store media - nothing useful.

Beyond the severe memory limitations, the BB's built-in applications are crude. They show none of the elegance and loving attention to excellence seen in the original Palm, the pre-multifinder Mac, or the new iPhone. The only thing that impresses in any way is the simple built-in push email app. It works, and for geezers it's an improvement over instant messaging.

Still, as a consumer device, the BB is a step up over, say, the despised Motorola RAZR. Unfortunately, it's not competing against the RAZR. It's going up against the iPhone, and there's no comparison.

So, the BB has no future on the consumer side.

What about the massive business franchise? Every executive worth their weight (not me by the way!) carries a BlackBerry and lives by it. Well, to be precise, they use email, calendar and contacts -- nothing more. Still, it works.

Except that Microsoft is now selling complete communications solutions to corporations that are built around Exchange, Sharepoint, and various messaging technologies. Microsoft's phone OS (whatever it's called today) is a major component of this package, and they'll shove it down everyone's throats. It won't be hard for Microsoft to break BlackBerry's Exchange server integration now that they're making their play for this space.

So, end of story. The BB is nowhere near good enough to compete with the iPhone on the consumer side. On the corporate side the axe is finally coming down.

RIMM's shares are doing pretty well. Maybe they could survive on patents alone. I would like to figure out how to short them though ...

Should I vote for Clinton or Obama?

Like Rebecca Traister, we're Edwards supporters who can't figure out who to vote for tomorrow.

So let's review the list, including, for this purpose, the GOP:

Smartest: Hillary Clinton

Best policies: Hillary Clinton

Most disturbing choice for American democracy: Hillary (Bush Clinton Bush) Clinton

Least bad republican: John McCain

Best executive and management skills: Mitt Romney

Supports torture: Mitt "thumbscrews" Romney

Most disastrous choice: Mitt Romney

Most inspirational: Barack Obama

Toughest fighter: Hillary Clinton (John McCain is next)

Republican most likely to win: John McCain

Best president: Hillary Clinton ties with Barack Obama -- for different reasons. Obama may win overall because slavery is the historic American curse, and Obama can be a part of a cure.

Democrat most likely to win against McCain ...

Ahh, the last is the reason we struggle.

Today Hillary energizes the "independents" -- to vote for McCain. Given time I think she might win over many of the women "independents". Overall I think Hillary can win nationally among women, even if men vote for McCain.

I don't trust white (including, in this case, Hispanic) Florida democrats for vote for Obama -- no matter their silence today.

If they had equal odds against McCain I'd vote for Obama - because slavery really is the curse at the heart of America. If he were a white guy with a similar story he'd still be an astounding person and potentially an excellent president, but he wouldn't be in this race.

I fear McCain would beat Obama though, even though the Giants did win the Super Bowl.

I'm still undecided.

Update: Krugman is pushing me closer to Hillary.

Update: A colleague claims Obama is being smart about mandates -- knowing what Americans would accept. Good point.

Update: My most influential friends are pushing me to Obama. Krugman, another Edwards orphan, feels that electability, my main issue, favors neither. If it's Obama I don't think Nader, despite his GOP funding, will have any traction.

So, for the moment, Obama.

Update 2/5/2008: My reading of James Fallows analysis is that he's in the same spot as Emily and I. Straining the tea leaves, he too favors Obama. The riskier bet, the greater return -- if it works.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

What happens when an ATM dispenses free money?

Apparently ATM malfunctions are fairly rare, and most often limited to "eating" an ATM card. Rare is not impossible though, and yesterday my bank's ATM failed.

It gave me too much money.

At first, after much noise and delay, it coughed up a solitary twenty. I indignantly waved the bill in the face of the video camera. Then, after several more minutes of grinding and retching, the abashed machine retched up another pile of cash. I managed to pull it free of a jam and found $60 more than I'd asked for (the receipt matched my request).

I have to cash some checks tomorrow, so I'll see what my bank does. I wonder how often this happens? I doubt that I'll get to keep the money, I suppose I'd have to donate it to charity if they don't want it.

Update 2/4/08: Here's what happens:

  1. Claims of ATM underpayment are not unusual.
  2. Claims of ATM overpayment are, unsurprisingly, unusual.
  3. The bank investigates then corrects with an additional debit.
  4. There's a presumption the customer is being honest when they claim an overpayment. I suspect that varies by age, ethnicity, race, dress and appearance when one claims underpayment.

Top Al Qaeda leader killed - best commentary

15 rows in the table, and counting ...

Making Light: Top Al Qaeda Leader Killed (again)

It’s like being the drummer for Spinal Tap...

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Features that sell products are often useless

This is the curse of product design. The features that sell a product are most often ignored. More precisely, they are not used by the people who buy the product.

It's a curse because, as most of us have noticed by now, we live in a universe where resources are finite. The features that are not used, hence useless, have a cost. That cost is either paid by increases in product price, or by taking away from features customers don't realize they need, or by using lower quality inputs, or by spending less on quality control.

Product managers, developers and designers learn this painful lesson -- sooner or later. They put features in products that won't be used, skimp on the things that don't sell, mourn that they deliver less value than they could.

The only answer is smarter customers, but that may take a long long time ...

Of course similar behaviors are seen in mate selection as well ...

Another dumb article on exercise and aging

I'm guessing Gina Kolata has entered the death zone of middle-age and has started grasping at straws. It's the only explanation for the credulous tone of her article on how exercise can slow our entropic decline:
Staying a Step Ahead of Aging - New York Times:

...Their results are surprising, even to many of the researchers themselves. The investigators find that while you will slow down as you age, you may be able to stave off more of the deterioration than you thought. Researchers also report that people can start later in life — one man took up running at 62 and ran his first marathon, a year later, in 3 hours 25 minutes.

It’s a testament to how adaptable the human body is, researchers said, that people can start serious training at an older age and become highly competitive. It also is testament to their findings that some physiological factors needed for a good performance are not much affected by age...

...But Dr. Hagberg found that studies of aging athletes sometimes were distorted because they included people who had cut back on or stopped training...

So these researchers showed that athletes who don't stop doing intense exercise can be more fit that most middle-aged people.

Gee, I wonder why most athletes stop doing intense exercise. Injury? Aging?

There's nothing surprising about these results, and they hold no new lessons for us. We know not everyone ages at the same rate. We know some people have better athletic genes than others. We expect some people get both sets of genes. We know even demented 80 yos in nursing homes improve their lives when put on a weight training program.

Gina, you can do better than this. You must by now know the difference between an observational and an experimental study ...

Michael Vick's dog Georgia - a description

Reading this description, I wondered what Michael Vick was doing now:
Given Reprieve, N.F.L. Star’s Dogs Find Kindness - New York Times

A quick survey of Georgia, a caramel-colored pit bull mix with cropped ears and soulful brown eyes, offers a road map to a difficult life. Her tongue juts from the left side of her mouth because her jaw, once broken, healed at an awkward angle. Her tail zigzags.

Scars from puncture wounds on her face, legs and torso reveal that she was a fighter. Her misshapen, dangling teats show that she might have been such a successful, vicious competitor that she was forcibly bred, her new handlers suspect, again and again.

But there is one haunting sign that Georgia might have endured the most abuse of any of the 47 surviving pit bulls seized last April from the property of the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in connection with an illegal dogfighting ring.

Georgia has no teeth. All 42 of them were pried from her mouth, most likely to make certain she could not harm male dogs during forced breeding...
Wikipedia has the answer. Still in prison, with another trial pending in 2008. Financially broken with many lawsuits pending. Unlikely to play in the NFL; particularly if Georgia appears in a commercial or two.

Has any human as cruel as Michael Vick ever been redeemed? I'm unable to think of an example.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Mahoo! - hope Google feels threatened

So Microsoft is acquiring Yahoo -- one way or the other.

Yahoo's been a disappointment for years, so that's no great loss for me. Really, Microsoft's recent work is much better than anything Yahoo's done.

The big upside though will be if it scares Google. Google needs a serious competitor, their pile of half-finished work is starting to smell a bit. I'm hoping Mahoo! puts the squeeze on ...

Charlie Stross profiles today's UK teens. Slashing?

Charles Stross, a top-rank science fiction writer almost as old as me, decided his business requires a profile of today's 18 year old. He's published a UK version of the Beloit College list he references:
Charlie's Diary: Youth of today:

I am a forty-something, which means I am out of touch with what passes for common knowledge among 18 year olds today. (Dodgy joke about keeping in touch with 18 year olds deleted in the interests of good taste.) Beloit College in the USA used to maintain a list for their staff, to explain what the world looks like to an 18 year old freshman: here's their 2006 list. It's heavily biased towards (obviously) American 18 year olds, but it got me thinking...

...Lots of people take antidepressants. Everyone slashes themselves; it's no big deal. (Statistics show a third of UK teens self-harm at some stage.)...

...There have always been cameras in shops and schools and other public places, although there are more of them than there used to be. Old folks grumble about privacy, but really, you're being watched wherever you are. If you don't like it, get a hoodie.
Slashing?! Geez, I really am a geezer. I don't think the US frequency is that high but I expect I'll find out (my oldest is 11). Forearm scars are not currently a winning point in job interviews.

Soon 18 year old Americans won't remember when smoking tobacco was a socially acceptable adult activity, but from a recent visit to the UK I know that's not true there.

Update: The comments are great, including some from the target demographic. I particularly liked Alex Gurney's remarks:

The word "digital" feels strange in "digital camera", "digital TV", "digital music", etc., since of course these things are digital. You have no idea why a "digital watch" or "digital alarm clock" would ever have seemed exciting or futuristic.

You either do not care about politics, or you obsessively follow political news, polls and statistics. Either way, you probably do not vote.

You think nothing of changing your phone handset or provider every few months. It would never occur to you to repair, rather than replace, broken electronic equipment. Even so, your data is far more important than the device, since you view phones, cameras and computers as essentially disposable.

You have never had to wait to get photos developed.

Anything which you have and don't want will probably get sold on eBay.