Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Detecting weapons grade uranium: give up

Twice in the past 7 years, ABC news has smuggled depleted uranium, with a radioactivity signature comparable to highly enriched uranium (HEU), into the US. Despite packaging and address data designed to ensure maximal screening, the mild radioactivity was not detected.

HEU, like depleted uranium, is just not all that radioactive.

ABC received technical support from two scientists, one of whom was transiently assigned to a Homeland Security watch list as punishment for embarrassing the Bush administration. Last month the two published an article on the detection of smuggled HEU ...
Detecting Nuclear Smuggling: Scientific American
  • Existing radiation portal monitors, as well as new advanced spectroscopic portal machines, cannot reliably detect weapons-grade uranium hidden inside shipping containers. They also set off far too many false alarms.
  • So-called active detectors might perform better, but they are several years off and are very expensive.
  • The U.S. should spend more resources rounding up nuclear smugglers, securing highly enriched uranium that is now scattered overseas, and blending down this material to low-enriched uranium, which cannot be fashioned into a bomb.
In addition to the above synopsis, the author's point out that it's fairly trivial with modern HEU to create a nuclear weapon. (The online version of the article includes a plaintive editor's note claiming all the information in the article is available from public sources.)

The NYT wrote about the detector program last March. The detectors are great at producing false alarms, it turns out that we live in fairly radioactive world*. Problem is, the best research tells us they're really lousy at finding minimally shielded weapons grade uranium.

It's reasonable to invest in better detectors, but the current generation are security theater with a high cost in false alarms. We should be focusing our efforts on restricting leakage of HEU from Russia and other sources. We won't get that kind of intelligent response from Bush or McCain, so all we can hope is that someone else wins the presidency.

On the other hand, I remain puzzled that five years after many experts agreed it was inevitable, we haven't seen nuclear terrorism in the US. It's not the detectors, and most reports indicate we're not doing enough to slow the HEU trade, so what's up?
* Good thing that current medical research suggests we're more radiation resistant than we thought we were. Our DNA repair systems do relatively well with radiation.

Sometimes a 2nd chance works - convicts in the army

People with a criminal record have a hard time finding work, but recently recruiting problems have created military opportunities.

The good news is a study of ex-felons finds many of them can succeed as soldiers ...
The Few, the Proud, the Bad - Intel Dump -

...The study looks at the performance of soldiers who entered the Army with waivers for prior criminal convictions, no high school diploma or other reasons. In a nutshell, these soldiers get into slightly more trouble, but assuming they make it through basic training and avoid major trouble, they're more likely to be better soldiers...
This is the proverbial silver lining in a pretty dark cloud.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The end of television - now it's official

I never caught the TV habit. When I was a child we were too poor to have a working television (really -- people gave us TVs but they kept breaking), and after that I was too busy. My wife and I watched Star Trek - Next Generation in its heyday and I think it was great stuff, so I'm not opposed to television -- it's just that I rarely have time for it.

If our children were calmed by TV I'd use it as a pacifier, but the commercials agitate them. So they watch Netflix videos, including TV episode DVDs, three times a week.

We're a weird family, so I assumed television was still popular among the normals. It came as a shock seven months ago when I realized how little television my children's classmates seemed to watch. Since then I've begun to pay attention to the slow and quiet collapse of broadcast TV in America. It reminds me of the disappearance of public smoking -- an unquestioned bit of boomer life suddenly impermanent.

Now the decline has become official, marked by a Clay Shirky book and essay that's receiving deserved attention:

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus - Here Comes Everybody

... And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement.

This hit me in a conversation I had about two months ago. As Jen said in the introduction, I've finished a book called Here Comes Everybody, which has recently come out, and this recognition came out of a conversation I had about the book. I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, "What are you seeing out there that's interesting?"

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto...

... So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years...

I think we missed how much of the boom years of the 80s and 90s came from freeing up cognitive resources consumed by the Cold War, and what it has meant to return to a military economy over the past decade. Shifts in cognitive resources, such as 1970s entry of women into the workforce, have big impacts.

I don't think ending television is going to have as big an effect on cognitive resource deployment as feminism or the end of the Cold War, but as a social phenomena it's well worth a notice.

Broadcast television is finally dying. That's news.

Update 5/15/08: A well written contrarian response to Shirky's cognitive surplus thesis.

How to save the New York Times - TimesCash voting

Murdoch, as expected, is remaking the Wall Street Journal in his own image. The old leadership has been evicted.

The New York Times is doing very badly in the market. The share price predicts a quick decline, the only thing saving the paper is a two tiered stock structure that splits control from equity. The NYT is next for the chopper.

Can it be saved?

If I had control, I'd introduce "TimesCash".

Here's how it would work.

Anyone can buy any amount of TimesCash at any time using their credit card, starting with a minimum block of $10. It's sold through Google Checkout, Amazon, or the NYT could process its own transactions.

Readers spend any amount of TimesCash they have on any story they like, but clicking on a button next to the story. Each day, the NYT would rank stories by TimesCash earnings, just as they do for "most emailed", "most blogged" and "most searched". Readers could decide if they want their names to be displayed alongside the stories they've voted for.

When a reader's TimesCash account is depleted, they can buy more whenever they want.

Once a year the names of the biggest TimesCash purchasers would be published -- for those who chose the publicity.

This would save the New York Times. I'll take $10 of TimesCash as my reward.

Monday, April 28, 2008

How are TV generals like tobacco industry executives?

Morford notices how much our once-respected military leaders came, under the Bush administration, to resemble tobacco industry executives ...

All the president's liars / Fun new game! Which TV news "military expert" is really a whore for the Bush administration? (Hint: all of them)

... Did you watch any CNN or Fox News or MSNBC, lo, these past five or six years, listen to the pundits and ponder the wise, informed comments of all the military experts the networks brought on to discuss Iraq policy,...

... a highly specialized group known to gullible Americans as stoic, stern-faced retired generals, colonels, majors, military advisers, former Pentagon officials, the ones you've heard and seen on TV news for years, but who are known to the Bush administration as a delightfully dishonest gaggle of preferred liars, lackeys, shills, puppets and mouthpieces for Dick Cheney and Donny Rumsfeld and Dubya himself...

...  Why would they do such a thing? ...

... That's easy: Access. Access to the White House, to the corridors of power and influence; access to the perks and the pals and snifters of brandy, the backroom handshakes, the business deals, the hugely lucrative military contracts, the sweet, sweet piles of cash and privilege and power awaiting them if they just toe the line and keep their real opinions to themselves...

...Reminds me, in a depressing sort of way, of that gaggle of Big Tobacco CEOs who banded together not long ago in a hilarious attempt to convince the nation — and the courts — that cigarettes aren't all that bad and there's little evidence smoking causes cancer or impotence or death, and in fact small children really love secondhand smoke and so do puppies and flowers and Jesus, and if you want to have fun sometime, walk into a hospital nursery and fire up a fresh Marlboro and blow that yummy smoke straight into the faces of the newborns. Watch them squirm with delight!...

I bet there's more here than great metaphor. I bet the same marketing companies that worked for the tobacco industry, and that had great relationships with their GOP allies, also advised the Pentagon on their propaganda plans.

The story was exposed by the New York Times. What the heck are we going to do when Murdoch et al acquire the New York Times?

The NYT needs to put Amazon and Google (not PayPal!) donation buttons on every article. We need that rag to keep running.

Edwards and Fallows agree - the press is bad. Why?

Fallows agrees with Elizabeth Edwards - the press is the problem.

James Fallows (April 28, 2008) - Most important item in Sunday's NYT

This Sunday's New York Times -- fat, varied, making me wonder how I got anything done on the weekends in America when I routinely had all this to read -- had lots of interesting stuff in it. But the most important item was the op-ed by Elizabeth Edwards called "Bowling 1, Health Care 0."..

...The more heartfelt and bitter complaint is about the way press coverage seems biased not against any particular candidate but against the entire process of politics, in the sense that politics includes the public effort to resolve difficult issues. (Medical care, climate change, banking crises, military priorities, etc.) For twenty years I have heard this from frustrated politicians -- Gary Hart, Newt Gingrich, Jimmy Carter, Dick Gephardt, Bill Clinton, they may not share a lot of views but they are as one in this frustration. What galls all of them is the way that the incentives created by most coverage bring out the very worst in most politicians, and discourage them from even bothering to try the harder, more "responsible" path. No one says that press incentives turn potential Abraham Lincolns into real-world Tom DeLays. But the incentives push in that direction rather than the reverse.

Active politicians rarely dare say this in public, since they know the same reporters and commentators will be there to talk about them tomorrow and the next day and from then on. For reasons personal (health) and political (husband out of the race), Elizabeth Edwards no longer has to hold anything back...

Alas, neither Edwards nor Fallows asked the interesting questions.

Why is the print press* bad? Is it really getting worse?

My suspicion is that the Craisglist-Google driven decline in ad revenues is forcing newspapers to be ever more customer focused -- which means struggling to hold onto the eyeballs their advertisers want.

That means they give their readers what they want.

What does the portion of the public who's willing to read a newspaper want?

The bulk of the readership doesn't want to read about policy, they want to be distracted and entertained. So the newspapers provide them entertaining news about politicians, such as their hair styles, bowling scores, partners, pastors, etc.

Pogo said it long ago - We have met the enemy and he is us. The media is not the problem, the voters are the problem.

It's easy for Elizabeth Edwards and James Fallows to beat up on the press. Heck, they richly deserve a beating. It's a lot harder for them to admit the real problem is the American citizen.

Now that's a hard problem.

* I don't know anything about TV and radio news except NPR, so I'll omit them.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The surprising cost of fly intelligence ...

Science is most fun when it throws up completely bizarre surprises. Like these study results ...

Learning and longevity | Critical thinking |

...After repeating the experiment for 30 generations, the offspring of the learned flies were compared with normal flies. The researchers report in a forthcoming edition of Evolution that although learning ability could be bred into a population of fruit flies, it shortened their lives by 15%. When the researchers compared their learned flies to colonies selectively bred to live long lives, they found even greater differences. Whereas learned flies had reduced life spans, the long-lived flies learned less well than even average flies.

The authors suggest that evolving an improved learning ability may require a greater investment in the nervous system which diverts resources away from processes that stave off ageing. However, Dr Kawecki thinks the effect could also be a by-product of greater brain activity increasing the production of reactive oxygen particles, which can increase oxidation in the body and damage health.

No one knows whether the phenomenon holds true for other animals. So biologists, at least, still have a lot to learn...

As far as we can tell, humans are the only technological species that ever lived on planet earth. (See, however, Stephen Baxter's Evolution for a wonderful imaging of a pre-technological sentience.)

We've come along fairly late in the planet's history.

Why did it take so long to produce an extinction-event class species [1]? What was there about intelligence that was so hard?

The flies might be giving us some clues ...

[1] Anyone studying the fossil records will see evidence of worldwide mass extinction beginning early in our evolutionary career. Species that can cause that kind of mass extinction are in a class of their own, albeit a short-lived class.

The way politics works: a Gail Collins reminder

Gail Collins, who's definitely growing on me, provides a voice of reality in the midst of the endless primary:

Hillary’s Smackdown - New York Times

... Although Obama has seemed way off his game lately, the odds are still really, really good that he’ll get the nomination. The superdelegates are just waiting for him to win something so they can rally. And once the fighting is over, there’s no question that Hillary would rally her supporters behind him. (This is a woman who sat down for a chat with arch-conservative-right-wing-conspirator Richard Mellon Scaife just to wrest an endorsement from his little fringe newspaper in Pittsburgh.) And within a couple of weeks, Bill Clinton would be treating Barack like a surrogate son and forcing him to play golf...

These people are lawyers.

A lawyer is someone who can spend years as a prosecutor, then switch sides with equal zeal. A lawyer is someone who can fight to the death in a courtroom, then go for coffee with the opposing attorney when the trial is done. A lawyer is someone who can rend a surgeon's reputation, then be genuinely puzzled when the surgeon avoids them in the supermarket.

Lawyers are conflict professionals, like salesmen, professional ball players, or genuine military mercenaries. Lots of ranting and screaming and even shooting, but really, it's just part of the job.

Lawyers who are politicians running for the presidency are the consummate conflict professionals.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Neuburg: 15 years of information wrangling

Tidbits turned 18 recently. The celebratory email referenced article series almost as old as Tidbits: TidBITS: Matt Neuburg - Conquer Your Text 1993 to 2006.

The classics are there: Symantec MORE, Inspiration (still sort of living), Acta, In Control, Arrange and WebArranger, (Double) Helix, Prograph, Idea Keeper, Boswell, StickyBrain, Tinderbox, iData Pro, Notebook (both of them), DEVONthink, TAO, Curio, Yojimbo, SlipBox and a few others.

There was terrific software in that collection, some of which is still sold. On the other hand the history is a reminder of the terrible cost of proprietary data formats; many of those apps took user data with them when they expired.

I love this class of software, but I wouldn't personally consider anything with a proprietary file format.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Incenting execs: they're very good at gaming the system

Harvard's Philip Greenspun does a great job describing how EBITDA and other compensation schemes are readily gamed ....
Philip Greenspun’s Weblog Statins, cholesterol, health; fancy employee compensation, EBITDA, and company value:

... Conspiracy of Fools chronicles one of the discussions about EBITDA among Enron senior managers. One guy pointed out to Rebecca Mark, a Harvard Business School graduate star of the company, that EBITDA was meaningless because one could improve EBITDA simply by borrowing money at 10 percent and investing it in T-Bills at 5 percent and that was essentially what Mark was doing. She was borrowing money at X% to purchase businesses that would return no more than (X-4)% in a best-case scenario. This fattened her paycheck, but led the company towards bankruptcy....

.... if you’re on a Board and you decide to compensate a manager with anything other than cash or a long-term stock option, make sure that you’re not granting compensation based on a number that the manager can easily manipulate. Keep in mind that managers are often a lot more clever in doing things that will benefit themselves than things that will benefit the company.
Senior executives in large corporations may not be particularly honest, honorable, or bright -- but they are always good at playing the game. Greenspun's key observation is that only long term share price is difficult to game for a CEO. All other incentive plans will lead to undesireable choices.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Damn, but Hoover was an evil man

Damn Interesting » Operation Pastorius tells us some more lousy things about mid-20th century American justice, but most of all it reminds me how bloody evil J.Edgar Hoover was.

As we inch our way from surveillance state to the next step down (more on that soon), it's ever more important to remember Hoover.

I'd buy a nicely made t-shirt that said: "Remember J. Edgar Hoover. Protect your freedom."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Who's paying for the "Global Climate Scam" billboards?

There's a large billboard near my Saint Paul home advertising "".

The url resolves to a typical denialist site -- all bluster and delusion. There's nothing unusual about the whacky website, but I was curious who's paying for the billboard, and what they want.

It turns out that "Minnesota Majority", a local right wing organization, displays the same content and is probably paying for the billboards. I haven't been able to discover where their money is coming from, and why they're suddenly keen to spend it on climate change denial.

Companies that have invested heavily in coal would be the obvious suspects. If we really have hit Peak Oil (I'm deferring judgment until August) then oil companies ought to be buying up coal reserves. The primary challenge to that strategy would be a carbon tax, or the regulatory equivalent. Coal produces so much carbon dioxide that any carbon-tax equivalent could do real damage to a coal-centric investment strategy.

It would be logical for these companies, assuming they are blithering idiots, to do everything possible to maximize their coal reserve value -- including climate change deniers.

So if I were a real journalist, I'd be looking for an Exxon connection to Minnesota Majority's new found fascination with climate change. I'd also look to see whether Exxon is putting its money into oil exploration or into coal reserve ownership.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Insanely bad decisions - the Dilbert example - and a wise correction

The primary Dilbert web site has gone to Flash. It doesn't work on Camino or the iPhone, and it's a mess on Firefox 3 (true, that's beta).

I assume Adobe paid United Media to do this.

The move has not been well received. Happily, there's an alternative non-flash link ...

Slashdot | Dilbert Goes Flash, Readers Revolt

... Good thing you can still get your Dilbert fix at []...

I'll change the link on our family news page to the non-Flash version.

This move deserves a Dilbert cartoon, but I don't think Scott Adams is going to satirize his own syndicate. He's a pretty careful businessman, despite the Dilbert persona.

Update 4/24/2008: United Media now redirects the archive to the Flash page. I sure hope Adobe is having to pay a lot for this! On the other hand Scott Adams has felt our wrath. A "plain" page is pending, and the RSS feed will show the strips chronologically without Flash.

Update 5/2/2008: A good solution, I've updated our news page to use it.

From Scott Adams blog:

.... if you promise to keep it to yourselves, we created a stripped-down Dilbert page with just the comic, some text navigation, and the archive: This alternate site is a minor secret, mentioned only here and in the text footnote to the regular site as “Linux/Unix.”

Lesson: Your data will be public

When you interact with a web page you're often interacting with a database of some sort. The simplest way to do this is to take text the user has submitted, put some SQL around it (standard database language), and the SQL will update the database, or get results back, etc. Some implementations even put the query string, including the SQL, in the URL.

The problem with this approach was discovered in the 1990s. You can write your own SQL in the URL, or, with a bit more work, you could type the SQL into the web field and the database would act on it.

The problem keeps returning, most recently in Oklahoma. Schneier describes the story (with an implied deep sigh), but I most appreciated one of the comments ...

Schneier on Security: Oklahoma Data Leak

... If you take the standard Google query for locating GET/sql servers (see and further restrict it to .gov domains, several somewhat  sensitive websites from the District of Columbia government show up --- including "Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration --- Suspended and Revoked Licenses", and "Department of Health --- Food Establishment Closures".

It's nice to know a simple Google query can expose vulnerable sites so readily. Another comment mentions a similar problem last year with Germany's security services.

The real lesson here is that all of your data will be public one day. Sooner or later it will leak by one security flaw or another. If they gather it, they will lose it.

If you really don't want data to be public, don't provide it in electronic form. Happily, most data about most of us is so boring it's only of interest to the extremely rare individual who wants to steal our identity, credit card, etc. Oh, wait ...

Network biology and the holographic resilience of biological function - lessons from E. coli

A recent groundbreaking study on the genetics of schizophrenia found a varied pattern of large scale "sledgehammer" (as in whack the genes) mutations in many persons with schizophrenia. These are thought to affect varying stages of brain development.

Curiously, the researchers found the same problems in a minority of the "control" group of "normal" people:

Gordon's Notes: schizophrenia

One in twenty seemingly normal people have big, ugly looking mutations that ought to be messing up their brain development. Yet they seem "normal"...

Now another big study explains this strange normality (emphasis mine) ...

Zimmer - Wired 04.18.08

.... In the latest issue of Nature, scientists reported an experiment in which they wreaked havoc with E. coli's network. They randomly added new links between the transcription factors at the top of the microbe's hierarchy. Now a transcription factor could turn on another one that it never had before. The scientists randomly rewired the network in 598 different ways and then stepped back to see what happened to the bacteria.

You might expect that they all died. After all, if you were to pop open the back of an iPod and start linking its components together in random ways, you'd expect it to crash. But that's not what happened.

About 95 percent of the rewired bacteria did just fine with their new networks. They went on with their lives, feeding, growing and dividing. Some even performed better than microbes with the original wiring, under some conditions.

The tolerance these bacteria showed reveals something important about how evolution works. Humans can randomly rewire cells, and so can mutations. There's something about gene networks that allow them to thrive despite these mutations, and, in some cases, to even gain an edge in the evolutionary race.

But scientists don't quite know why a network like the one in E. coli can handle this rewiring so well. The source of their strength lies not in a single molecule -- DNA -- but in a complicated web of relationships. The network itself is the mystery for biologists in the 21st century...

This is of a piece with the discovery that DNA control system have complex topological components, my June 2007 essay on evolved circuits. and reading I've done over the past year on bioinformatics (systems biology) and the modeling of interacting protein networks (interactome) (example).

The blueprint for an organism is emergent. It "appears" through the interaction of the storage elements in DNA and DNA associated packaging, but, like a holographic image, it can "appear" even when pieces of the storage structure are absent or reorganized. This is a shared characteristic of evolved systems on every scale, we see hints of this even in evolved mechanical systems such as the freight train pneumatic braking system. Bacteria, of course, are the most "evolved" of all systems -- far more evolved than mere humans.

That's why major "controllers" of brain development can be disrupted, but, in many cases, the brain can still develop -- differently perhaps. In some settings, the differences might even be advantageous.

How will we understand this emergent control system? We will not be able to do perceive it directly. We will need computational systems to discern the emergent controllers, and to be able to relate a network level "control element" to the set of physical manifestations of the abstract control element in real-world DNA.

Sigh. It all looked so simple in the days of 'one gene, one protein' ...

Update 4/19/08: There's an obvious metaphor for the type of emergence we see here. An example that makes the problem transparently obvious for all of us.

Imagine that I want you to meet me by the science museum at 11:30 am. I could use English or French or draw a picture. In any spoken or written language I could use an enormous variety of words and word order and still communicate my meaning.

If we think of "the meaning" in cellular biology as that which arises from interacting protein networks, then by analogy we can understand that many different gene arrangements and even several somewhat different proteins could produce similar protein network interactions.

Marvelous Gail Collins editorial on Bush's greenhouse 2025 goal

Gail Collins channels the spirit of Molly Ivins...

The Fat Bush Theory - New York Times

...Suppose that two years after taking office, George W. Bush discovered that because of the stress of his job, he had gained 40 pounds and was tipping the scales at 220.

The real-world Bush would immediately barricade himself in the White House gym, refusing all human contact or nourishment until the issue was resolved. But imagine that he regarded getting fat as seriously as he regards melting glaciers, rising oceans and drought and starvation around the planet. In that case, he would set a serious, management-type goal — of, say, an 18 percent reduction in the rate at which he was gaining weight, to be reached within the next decade...

Gail reminds us that Bush's 2002 "goal" was a voluntary 18% reduction in the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 (we won't achieve this). His 2008 "goal" is a voluntary 100% reduction in the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. This "goal" is not to achieved by “raise taxes, duplicate mandates or demand sudden and drastic emissions cuts.”

So Bush's reach goal is that the US stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at an level consistent with the complete melting of Greenland's ice cap. This goal will be achieved by technology alone. (Bush does not rule out tax reductions to support technology development.)

John McCain would be not any better.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Economist on the food crisis

How many people live on $1 a day?
Food | The silent tsunami |

...Roughly a billion people live on $1 a day. If, on a conservative estimate, the cost of their food rises 20% (and in some places, it has risen a lot more), 100m people could be forced back to this level, the common measure of absolute poverty. In some countries, that would undo all the gains in poverty reduction they have made during the past decade of growth...
Did you guess a billion?

In addition to the editorial, the Economist has essays on Bangladeshi and Chinese responses to food concerns. In the past the Economist has criticized China's insistence on food self-sufficiency, but they seem to have forgotten that.

They don't have any answers except the most obvious -- we need a billion in food aid quickly and stop the idiotic biofuel subsidies.

We need to a bit more creativity here ...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The infamous fake-Springsteen Vista video: we think it's kind of sweet

An internal Microsoft sales team mock rock video was leaked to the net, to general mockery and derision.

I've seen it 1.5 times, including a full sitting with my wife.

We think it's sweetly silly, though it's just musical enough to be disturbing. My toes almost started tapping, even as my teeth ached. The critics seem to think this was a serious marketing video, but they need a bit of sympathy for the Devil. It's obviously 50% self-mockery and 50% fun.

I wonder what Springsteen thought of it. The man has a sense of humor, but ...

Of course true geeks all want Microsoft to fail badly enough to crack their monopoly, but I really don't see that happening. They've got more cash than ever, they'll fix the worst parts of Vista, eventually the hardware will catch up, and Vista is far more virus resistant than XP. Unfortunately brighter days lie ahead for the sales team.

Do the sheep dogs think they are sheep?

My best explanation for the inexplicable survival of the east african plains ape is that the shepherds are keeping us around. (For mutton or for wool? The Bible is silent on that distinction.)

Shepherds, of course, make use of sheep dogs, which falsely think of themselves as more sheep than wolf.

I thought of that as I described John Halamka for a lecture I'm giving on technology for health record interoperability. From my graphic:

  • "John D. Halamka, MD, MS, is Chief Information Officer of the CareGroup Health System, Chief Information Officer and Dean for Technology at Harvard Medical School, Chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network (NEHEN), CEO of MA-SHARE (the Regional Health Information Organization), Chair of the US Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel (HITSP), and a practicing Emergency Physician"
  • sleeps 4-6 hours a night
  • wears an RFID chip in his shoulder
  • climbs ice-covered cliff faces to relax
  • flies 400,000 miles a year
  • tries to be nice

Sounds like a sheep dog to me. I'm sure he thinks of himself as human though.

PS. I realized after posting that I should clarify that I'm a major Halamka fan and read everything he writes. It's actually kind of nice to have "the bar" set so high that I can relinquish any competitive aspirations.

Proud to be a geek:

At moments like this, I feel an undeserved and irrational pride in being of tribe geek: - Joel on Software

Jeff Atwood and I ...  build a programming Q&A site that's free. Free to ask questions, free to answer questions, free to read, free to index, built with plain old HTML, no fake rot13 text on the home page, no scammy google-cloaking tactics, no salespeople, no JavaScript windows dropping down in front of the answer asking for $12.95 to go away. You can register if you want to collect karma and win valuable flair that will appear next to your name, but otherwise, it's just free...

... Every week, Jeff and I talk by phone (he's in California, I'm in New York), and we're going to record those phone calls and throw them up on the web for you to listen in on, and call it a podcast. We have a lot of trouble keeping on topic, so the podcast may be interesting to you even if you don't want to hear about The first episode is up right now. Eventually I imagine we'll figure out this newfangled "RSS" technology and you'll be able to actually subscribe and get fresh episodes delivered into your ears automatically. All in good time.

Jeff's Announcement

PS I'm still CEO of Fog Creek full time. is a joint venture between Fog Creek and Jeff Atwood. He's the full time CEO which means he's calling the shots. I'm sort of a consultant on this one.

From Jeff's description we see how inspiring 'experts-exchange' has been ...

Stackoverflow is sort of like the anti-experts-exchange (minus the nausea-inducing sleaze and quasi-legal search engine gaming) meets wikipedia meets programming reddit. It is by programmers, for programmers, with the ultimate intent of collectively increasing the sum total of good programming knowledge in the world. No matter what programming language you use, or what operating system you call home. Better programming is our goal.

I've followed Joel Spolsky's blog on business and software for several years, and Jeff Atwood's blog for over a year. They're both great writers and teachers with the geek compulsion to advance the world -- as well as their part of the world.

It's the bit about advancing the world that marks the noble geek. Karma counts. Fairness matters. You get and you give.

These two have millions of readers. By virtue of their considerable reputations earned through their writing, they may be able to make this work.

If it does work that will say something interesting about the power of the geek tribe, and of reputations developed entirely online.

Joel has a full-time job, but Jeff has only recently quit his programming job to work on independent projects. I wish him and every success. At the moment the site is entirely audio oriented, so the best way to follow its development will be to subscribe to Jeff's blog.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008 may be blocked by some corporate filters

A reader tells me that she can't access Gordon's Notes following migration to
Blogger: Gordon's Notes - Post a Comment

My workplace blocks (don't know why, I thought they only blocked porn and gambling sites) so I'll have to follow your adventures on my own time. Bummer.
This is indeed odd, since the only pages I've had at have been my tech pages, which are pretty plain.

One workaround is to read the blog through a web-based blog reader, which is really the right way to read these things. I use Bloglines, and I also like Google Reader. So if you can get to them, just add to the reader, choose any feed, and read that way.

Kateva is a made up name we gave our dog, but maybe it's impolite in some language? Or maybe your employer is using a fairly dumb filter that gets fooled by spammers faking the domain name.

I'll ask around ...

Dyer - 4 new articles

Dyer has 4 new articles out:

  • Maliki blinked: Sadr came out ahead, but it doesn't matter anyway. Soon America will leave and Iraq will be forgotten.
  • Zimbabwe: I'd skip this one, nothing much in it.
  • Olympics: The running of the torch was a Hitler invention. (!) Look for trouble in India, and mockery in Australia.
  • Nepal: The Maoists won the election.
  • Berlusconi; The best of this batch, see below ...

For example:

...To elect Berlusconi once, as Oscar Wilde might have put it, may be regarded as a misfortune. To elect him twice looks like carelessness. But to elect him THREE TIMES is beyond a joke, for he is the most transparent fraud to have held high public office in a major European country since the Second World War. He even makes the late Boris Yeltsin look serious and competent by comparison...


My country re-elected George Bush, so I have some sympathy for the shame and horror intelligent Italians must feel today. Between Italy electing Berlusconi, and Nepal electing Maoists terrorists, Democracy is looking a bit peaked.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gordon's Notes: move appears to have succeeded

The move to worked this time. Now we'll see if the feeds are redirecting properly ...

Update 4/15/08: Of course it didn't really work. Google changed the format of RSS feeds from blogspot to the custom domains, and so old RSS feeds don't work. I'm not sure any feeds, Atom or recent vintage RSS subscriptions, are forwarding correctly. Blogger is showing a very odd set of "recent" posts even with the new Atom feed.

Gordon's Notes to move to Take II

The last time I tried to change the url for this blog the move failed. Google says the problem is fixed, so as before ...

Gordon's Notes: Gordon's Notes to move to In theory, no changes required

... The address, however, is about to change to, where it will join Gordon's Tech which has been for about a year. It will still be published through Blogger, is a Google "custom domain"...

... In particular Google doesn't redirect for some legacy Blogger (working) feeds, only for the current feeds.

So if you find this post in your Feed, and then no "it worked" post after it, you should be able to find Gordon's Notes at The main page will also have news of the move.

Most blog readers will reset your "unread" count to 10 posts.

Wish me luck, I'll make the 2nd attempt to relocate tonight April 15th.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Scientific American on compact fluorescent light bulbs - toxic waste or not?

We'd be using compact fluorescent bulbs -- except I'm kind of clumsy. I break a few bulbs every year. According to the EPA a broken bulb is a toxic waste spill. The incongruity of one part of government advocating fluorescents, and another department warning against them, made me dig in my heels ...

... A commenter pointed to this Energy Star Canada document. It's deeply "schizophrenic" in the non-medical sense of term. On the one hand it says:

  • These are perfectly safe for your baby's bedroom. Don't worry about them. You could break one a day for the rest of your days and not have a problem.
  • They must be disposed of as toxic waste. Vacuum up carefully and then drop your vacuum off at the toxic waste site ...
I'm joking about the vacuum. Sorry, this still doesn't make sense. Either the mercury content is harmless and they're not toxic waste, or they're toxic waste. (My bet is they're not really toxic waste, but I'm not buying 'em until we get the regulators to be internally consistent.)

Recently Scientific American covered this topic. Some highlights (emphases mine):

Are Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs Dangerous?: Scientific American

... Compact fluorescents, like their tubular fluorescent precursors, contain a small amount of mercury—typically around five milligrams.

As effective as it is at enabling white light, however, mercury—sometimes called quicksilver—is also highly toxic. It is especially harmful to the brains of both fetuses and children. That's why officials have curtailed or banned its use in applications from thermometers to automotive and thermostat switches. (A single thermostat switch, still common in many homes, may contain 3,000 milligrams (0.1 ounce) of mercury, or as much as 600 compact fluorescents.)

Jim Berlow, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Hazardous Waste Minimization and Management Division, recommends starting by opening the windows and stepping outside. "Any problems at all frequently are handled for the most part by quickly ventilating the room," he says. "Get all the people and pets out of the room for 15 minutes and let the room air out. If you have a central heating system or an HVAC [heating, ventilating and air-conditioning] system, you don't want it sucking the fumes around, so shut that down."

... After airing out the room, the larger pieces of the bulb should be scooped off hard surfaces with stiff paper or cardboard or picked up off carpeted surfaces with gloves to avoid contact. Use sticky tape or duct tape to pick up smaller fragments; then, on hard surfaces, wipe down the area with a damp paper towel or a wet wipe. All materials should be placed in a sealable plastic bag or, even better, in a glass jar with a metal lid.

...Vacuums or brooms should generally be avoided, as they can spread mercury to other parts of the house.

Intact bulbs can be a headache to dispose of, too. In many locales it is illegal to throw fluorescents out with regular garbage, but the closest recycling or take-back facility may be miles away...

"Our first preference is not to see them go into landfills," Berlow says. "Recycling really closes the loop on this as best we can right now. But on the other hand, we also don't see huge risks from them going into landfills, either."

So the authorities aren't budging on the toxic waste cleanup routine, and legal disposal of even an intact bulb requires a significant trip (I have years of toxic waste dump material in the garage waiting for me to schedule that trip).

I'm waiting for the LEDs.

PS. I'm sure as heck not touching that thermostat switch ...

Condolezza Rice and Torture

Rice is said to be maneuvering to be McCain's VP.

Rice authorized torture. In detail. Repeatedly.

ABC has the story. Note that Ashcroft, who's reputation has been on the rise for a few years, was disturbed. Tenet wanted to be sure Cheney and Rice were implicated in the torture decisions, he didn't want his agents to take the fall alone. The torture proceedings are probably still continuing -- as indicated by the Goss transition.

Emphases mine.

Sources: 'Principals' OK'd Harsh Tactics


April 9, 2008—

In dozens of top-secret talks and meetings in the White House, the most senior Bush administration officials discussed and approved specific details of how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, sources tell ABC News.

The so-called Principals who participated in the meetings also approved the use of "combined" interrogation techniques -- using different techniques during interrogations, instead of using one method at a time -- on terrorist suspects who proved difficult to break, sources said.

Highly placed sources said a handful of top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al Qaeda suspects -- whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding.

The high-level discussions about these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.

The advisers were members of the National Security Council's Principals Committee, a select group of senior officials who met frequently to advise President Bush on issues of national security policy.

At the time, the Principals Committee included Vice President Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft...

... this is the first time sources have disclosed that a handful of the most senior advisers in the White House explicitly approved the details of the program. According to multiple sources, it was members of the Principals Committee that not only discussed specific plans and specific interrogation methods, but approved them.

... Tenet, seeking to protect his agents, regularly sought confirmation from the NSC principals that specific interrogation plans were legal.

According to a former CIA official involved in the process, CIA headquarters would receive cables from operatives in the field asking for authorization for specific techniques. Agents, worried about overstepping their boundaries, would await guidance in particularly complicated cases dealing with high-value detainees, two CIA sources said.

Highly placed sources said CIA directors Tenet and later Porter Goss along with agency lawyers briefed senior advisers, including Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Powell, about detainees in CIA custody overseas. ..

... Then-Attorney General Ashcroft was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.

According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."

The Principals also approved interrogations that combined different methods, pushing the limits of international law and even the Justice Department's own legal approval in the 2002 memo, sources told ABC News.

At one meeting in the summer of 2003 -- attended by Vice President Cheney, among others -- Tenet made an elaborate presentation for approval to combine several different techniques during interrogations, instead of using one method at a time, according to a highly placed administration source.

A year later, amidst the outcry over unrelated abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the controversial 2002 legal memo, which gave formal legal authorization for the CIA interrogation program of the top al Qaeda suspects, leaked to the press. A new senior official in the Justice Department, Jack Goldsmith, withdrew the legal memo -- the Golden Shield -- that authorized the program.

But the CIA had captured a new al Qaeda suspect in Asia. Sources said CIA officials that summer returned to the Principals Committee for approval to continue using certain "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Then-National Security Advisor Rice, sources said, was decisive. Despite growing policy concerns -- shared by Powell -- that the program was harming the image of the United States abroad, sources say she did not back down, telling the CIA: "This is your baby. Go do it."

Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Power, Tenet and even Ashcroft will need to be very careful about where they vacation for the rest of their lives. There are many nations which may be obliged to arrest them in the future.

If McCain accepts Rice as VP, he will be continuing a long repudiation of the values he once defended.

The Consumerist

A blog dedicated to consumer activisim: The Consumerist. It includes the Chinese poison train section. The world needs China to be enormously successful, in an ideal universe the Chinese government would be funding publication of "The Chinese poison train".

From the about stream:

7. Who is responsible for this?

The Consumerist is published by Gawker Media, the folks also responsible for Gizmodo, Fleshbot, Defamer, Idolator, Jalopnik, Gridskipper, Wonkette, Kotaku, Screenhead, Lifehacker, Valleywag and Gawker.

I can't get their feed to work with Bloglines at the moment.

Lester Brown, Julian Simon, the UNFPA, Malthus, and, again, the Food

I heard Lester Brown on NPR this morning.

That took me back 27 years. Bear with me, there's a reason to start then.

Once upon a time I was a covert intern at the UNFPA officers in what was then Bangkok.

In those days we thought of the "FP" in "UNFPA" as "family planning", though I think it stood for "Fund and Population". The UNFPA was all about changing fertility behaviors and accelerating the transition in family size from agrarian to industrial norms. Thailand, Taiwan, and Bangladesh were success stories. Rwanda was a worrisome failure. Afghanistan was on the map because of its ecological collapse.

In those days Lester Brown, the Worldwatch Institute, and Malthus were in the ascendancy. My UNFPA mentor and I leaned towards Malthus, and so I wrote essays for him attacking the optimistic economist Julian Simon, whose views were well summarized in his NYT obit:

... The essence of Mr. Simon's view of man and the future is contained in two predictions for the next century and any century thereafter that are in ''The State of Humanity,'' a book he edited for the Cato Institute.

''First,'' he wrote, ''humanity's condition will improve in just about every material way. Second, humans will continue to sit around complaining about everything getting worse.''

He argued that mankind would rise to any challenges and problems by devising new technologies to not only cope, but thrive. ''Whatever the rate of population growth is, historically it has been that the food supply increases at least as fast, if not faster,'' he said in a profile published in Wired magazine last year.

Mr. Simon's views were widely contested by a large coterie of the academic and scientific community, many of whose members believe that more people create more problems, straining the earth and its resources in the process.

''Most biologists and ecologists look at population growth in terms of the carrying capacity of natural systems,'' said Lester R. Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. ''Julian was not handicapped by being either. As an economist, he could see population growth in a much more optimistic light.''...

It's generally assumed now that Simon was right, but a pessimist would say it's too soon to tell. As DeLong and Krugman have pointed out, most of the human race was in a Malthusian trap from 6000 BCE until the time of Malthus himself. Rwanda, as feared in 1982, did experience a classic Malthusian collapse, though its subsequent recovery is much faster than the pre-industrial record. Afghanistan's fragile ecology collapsed in the 20th century, and we know how that story turned out.

Many things have happened since those days in Bangkok. Outside of Africa most of the world, especially China and India, followed the predictions of Simon rather than Malthus. On the other hand, world population growth has also followed the more optimistic projections of the 1982 UNFPA.

Given my historic roots, it's not surprising then that I would call the Simon vs. Brown battle a draw. On the one hand the Green Revolution worked, cheap energy meant cheap food, and worldwide trade combined with the kind of worldwide productivity growth Simon expected. On the other hand there were also near optimal changes in fertility behavior across many nations. The net effect was that a year or two ago we though that obesity might become a bigger public health problem problem than malnutrition in many once poor nations.

During this time the UNFPA, like all great bureaucracies, evolved to fill new niches. Now it's the "United Nations Population Fund - UNFPA" and all the links on the public page are about reproductive health and fighting HIV. The words "family planning" do appear, though they are a bit hidden.

Twenty-six years later, though, the wheel may have turned again. Simon died young at 65, but Lester Brown is still alive, and again on NPR. The reason, of course, is that classic collapse factors are again in play ...

Grains Gone Wild - Paul Krugman - New York Times

... Over the past few years the prices of wheat, corn, rice and other basic foodstuffs have doubled or tripled, with much of the increase taking place just in the last few months...

There have already been food riots around the world. Food-supplying countries, from Ukraine to Argentina, have been limiting exports in an attempt to protect domestic consumers, leading to angry protests from farmers — and making things even worse in countries that need to import food.

... First, there’s the march of the meat-eating Chinese — that is, the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains...

Second, there’s the price of oil. Modern farming is highly energy-intensive...

Third, there has been a run of bad weather in key growing areas. In particular, Australia, normally the world’s second-largest wheat exporter, has been suffering from an epic drought....

... Where the effects of bad policy are clearest, however, is in the rise of demon ethanol and other biofuels...

We need to dial way back on the biofuels experiment -- it's not working. Unless we figure out how to process cellulose it's an energy negative process. It should be a research project, not a production enterprise. Biofuel production happened prematurely because of US domestic politics (including, most shamefully, the actions of Minnesota's senators including the sainted Paul Wellstone).

The other problems are far less tractable, they'll persist even if we eliminate biofuels and lessen the direct competition between our mobility desires and food production.

So the EU, US, China and India could be simultaneously enlightened and decide to eat less meat, drive less, institute a carbon tax to fund research into alternative energy sources, and forswear biofuels. Or we could discover a something like "cold fusion", except it would have to work. Or we could ...

I'm out of ideas right now. Any suggestions?

It is worth remembering, in case anyone needs motivation for new ideas, that any local Malthusian collapse is likely to lead to the vengeful use of inexpensive weapons of mass havoc.

So we all have "skin in the game" -- beyond mere compassion.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Best explanation of the Monty Hall problem (Bayes)

John Tierney has been playing with explanations of the "Monty Hall" (Bayes theorem) problem for 17 years. That might be why he's provided the most succinct explanation I've come across ... (note: Monty knows where the car is, he can't open the door you picked, and he won't open the door for the car. That's important -- his actions provide new information. He's not picking randomly.)
Cognitive Dissonance in Monkeys - The Monty Hall Problem - New York Times

...Here’s how Monty’s deal works, in the math problem, anyway. (On the real show it was a bit messier.) He shows you three closed doors, with a car behind one and a goat behind each of the others. If you open the one with the car, you win it. You start by picking a door, but before it’s opened Monty will always open another door to reveal a goat. Then he’ll let you open either remaining door.

Suppose you start by picking Door 1, and Monty opens Door 3 to reveal a goat. Now what should you do? Stick with Door 1 or switch to Door 2?...

...You should switch doors.

... when you stick with Door 1, you’ll win only if your original choice was correct, which happens only 1 in 3 times on average. If you switch, you’ll win whenever your original choice was wrong, which happens 2 out of 3 times...
Probability problems are often asymmetric, they can be hard to solve in terms of the "correct choice", but easy to understand when considered when re-expressed in terms of the "wrong choice" (or vice-versa). That's what we see here.

Tierney's paragraph is a great example of expressing simple algebra in sentence form, but the key thing to recall is that Monty is adding new information because he doesn't choose randomly.

I'm fascinated by Bayesian probability. The mathematics is very simple, yet it can be very challenging to map correctly to the physical universe. On the other hand even a trivial understanding would greatly improve government and law enforcement. What a marvel!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The case of the curious silence: Counterfeit Heparin killed 62+

Counterfeit Heparin (alas, again fraud in China) killed 62 - Americans. I've not seen data on foreign deaths. The latest via ABC:

ABC News: FDA Puts Heparin Death Count at 62

... After reviewing adverse events back to January 2007, FDA said Tuesday it uncovered 103 reports of patients who died while taking heparin.

Of those deaths, 62 involved allergic reactions or hypotension, a type of dangerously low blood pressure. Those are the same side effects that caused Baxter's to pull all U.S. heparin injections from the market by February...

America's adverse event monitoring system is very unlikely to be complete. I would not be surprised if the true Heparin associated death rate were 2-3 times as high. Anaphylactic reactions are not universally fatal, so I suspect that for every death there might be ten people who were injured, some of who will not fully recover. Some will have been weakened at a critical point, and then died of other causes.

So let's make a wild guess, and estimate that 2,000 to 3,000 Americans were seriously injured or killed by a fraudulent version of an extensively used medication. Since up to 10% of our Heparin supply was affected by the fraud, that's not too shocking. In fact there's reason to suspect the practice started before January 2007, so the total could be higher.

But that's only one drug. And that's only the US. If we include all the wealthy nations of the earth (it's a cheap widely used drug but the most common uses are for expensive treatments) we can guess that 5,000 to 30,000 people have died or been badly injured as a result of fraudulent medications or fraudulent food practices over the past 2-3 years.

That's a fair total, so the curious thing in this affair is the public silence. There's a great deal of unmerited anxiety about immunizations, but very little about fraud and our food and medication supply.

So, why is America silent? Is this a variant of the social phenomena that leads to complacency about climate change?

I don't think so. Climate change complacency is relatively easy to understand -- for many Americans a warmer climate is seen as a net plus, and even some plausible experts feel our only hope is a technological breakthrough in either energy production or carbon sequestration.

This feels different. My best guess is a kind of learned helplessness, the result of 12 years of GOP destruction of government* and the obvious failure of Libertarian dreams of emergent market-driven auto-regulation.

If I'm right, matters will only improve if McCain loses the presidency and both the House and Senate stay Democrat. I don't see any other configuration that will allow the rebuilding of our government.

* 8 years of Bush, and during Clinton's last term the House and Senate were both GOP. It's much easier to destroy than to create or maintain, so control of either the presidency or the legislature is sufficient to destroy  government.

Aaronson's MIT lectures on theoretical computer science - open to all

Scott Aaronson teaches an MIT course on theoretical computer science (emphasis mine)

6.080 Great Ideas in Theoretical Computer Science

... a challenging introduction to some of the central ideas of theoretical computer science. It attempts to present a vision of "computer science beyond computers": that is, CS as a set of mathematical tools for understanding complex systems such as universes and minds. Beginning in antiquity -- with Euclid's algorithm and other ancient examples of computational thinking -- the course will progress rapidly through propositional logic, Turing m achines and computability, finite automata, Gödel's theorems, efficient algorithms and reducibility, NP-completeness, the P versus NP problem, decision trees and other concrete computational models, the power of randomness, cryptography and one-way functions, computational theories of learning, interactive proofs, and quantum computing and the physical limits of computation...

Prerequisites. This course is designed for undergraduates (both under- and upperclassmen) in computer science and related areas of science and engineering.... The only prerequisite is some facility with mathematical reasoning ... Programming experience is helpful but not essential; the course has no programming assignments.

Scott writes on his blog, Shtetl-optimized, where he's created blogthread for the course, including links to completed lectures:

A typical lecture handout is about 8 pages. I plan to print out each one and leave them by the spot where I keep all the material for five minutes of concentrated attention is practical.

Amidst the mixed news of everyday life in 2008, what a wonder it is that all of us can freely share in work like this. Thank you Scott, and thank you MIT.

Marx and Engels on the railway bubble of 1845

Brad DeLong has a great post for his econ class that includes, as an aside, a quote from Marx and Engels on a 19th century boom and bust ...

April 9 Lecture: Econ 101b: Arguments Against Lender-of-Last Resort Operations

... In the years of prosperity from 1843 to 1845, speculation was concentrated principally in railways, where it was based upon a real demand.... The extension of the English railway system... 1845... the number of bills presented for the formation of railway companies [i.e., IPOs] amounted to 1,035.... The heyday of this speculation was the summer and autumn of 1845. Stock prices rose continuously, and the speculators' profits soon sucked all social classes into the whirlpool. Dukes and earls competed with merchants and manufacturers for the lucrative honour of sitting on the boards of directors of the various companies; members of the House of Commons, the legal profession and the clergy were also represented in large numbers. Anyone who had saved a penny, anyone who had the least credit at his disposal, speculated in railway stocks...

I think something similar was going on in America, and the economic chaos is thought to have played an important role in the Civil War.

The entire quote is fascinating reading.

The railway bubble, though it burst, had very solid foundations. My Irish-Canadian grandparents and their extended family worked largely in the rail industry at the start of the 20th century -- fifty years after the great railway depression of 1848. So the historic analogy is not to the real estate bubble of 2002 - 2007, but to the Internet bubble of 1998 - 2000.

(Incidentally, DeLong is a solid neo-liberal capitalist, his reference to Marx belongs to the history of economic thought.)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Gordon's Notes move failed

My planned migration of Gordon's Notes is on hold -- Google's Blogger failed with a typically unhelpful Blogger error message.

I'm putting the migration on hold until I hear back from Google -- so posts should continue to appear at

Gordon's Notes to move to In theory, no changes required

I've been writing Gordon's Notes at the Blogger address of since July 2003. The 4050 posts to date have a very small (but much appreciated) regular readership, but they turn up in a gratifying number of Google searches.

The writing relieves my personal frustrations, and it helps me think and learn. I enjoy it, and I intend to continue. The address, however, is about to change to, where it will join Gordon's Tech which has been for about a year. It will still be published through Blogger, is a Google "custom domain".

There's an explanation of the name change at - Welcome to

... I originally published under my own name, but the common business practice of searching the names of new acquaintances meant I was making a bit too much of first impression. I've since taken a few steps to move the blogs one or two steps from my "real name", including publishing under a pseudonym (John Gordon) and moving the blogs to this domain. I am not, however, too hard to find...

In theory Google will do a "301 redirect" and old feeds will continue to work. In practice, problems can occur. In particular Google doesn't redirect for some legacy Blogger (working) feeds, only for the current feeds.

So if you find this post in your Feed, and then no "it worked" post after it, you should be able to find Gordon's Notes at The main page will also have news of the move.

Most blog readers will reset your "unread" count to 10 posts.

Wish me luck, I'll make the move later tonight April 6th.

Update 4/6/2008: Well, I tried the move and I got:

We're sorry, but we were unable to complete your request.
When reporting this error to Blogger Support or on the Blogger Help Group, please:
* Describe what you were doing when you got this error.
* Provide the following error code and additional information.
Additional information
blogID: 5587346
uri: /
This information will help us to track down your specific problem and fix it! We apologize for the inconvenience.
Sigh. There's no real support for blogger, so I guess I'll have to see how this works out. I wonder if this blog will continue to work ...

Primary care access problems in Massachusetts -- and the strange reporting thereof

The New York Times has a longish front page article on access problems in Massachusetts that could have been replaced by three bullet points:
  1. Massachusetts' pseudo-universal coverage cut the uninsured in half, making another 340,000 eligible for non-emergent care.
  2. The average radiologist in Massachusetts makes $380,000 dollars.
  3. In the rural areas that are short of providers "...some physicians are earning as little as $70,000 after 20 years of practice...".
Gee, that's not so complicated is it?

Cut reimbursement to radiologists and other specialists by 30-40%, and increase reimbursement to rural family physicians by 60-80%, and I promise those access problems would melt away. I can even promise that overall quality of care would eventually improve across the board -- after an incredibly painful transition period.

This is roughly the income distribution that both Canada and the Mayo Clinic used to have, so it's known to work. Of course an income cut of that magnitude would put some specialists out of their homes, and a goodly number of senior people would simply retire. The transition would not be pretty, and perhaps not very fair. It would work though.

For me, the interesting thing about this story is not its unsurprising content, but its peculiar structure. The relevant information is oddly distributed, and few will read to to the meaningful paragraphs at the very end.

For example, here's the beginning:

In Massachusetts, Universal Coverage Strains Care - New York Times

...In pockets of the United States, rural and urban, a confluence of market and medical forces has been widening the gap between the supply of primary care physicians and the demand for their services. Modest pay, medical school debt, an aging population and the prevalence of chronic disease have each played a role.

Now in Massachusetts, in an unintended consequence of universal coverage, the imbalance is being exacerbated by the state’s new law requiring residents to have health insurance.

Since last year, when the landmark law took effect, about 340,000 of Massachusetts’ estimated 600,000 uninsured have gained coverage. Many are now searching for doctors and scheduling appointments for long-deferred care....

This is followed by filler, and then "page two":

... The situation may worsen as large numbers of general practitioners retire over the next decade. The incoming pool of doctors is predominantly female, and many are balancing child-rearing with part-time work. The supply is further stretched by the emergence of hospitalists — primary care physicians who practice solely in hospitals, where they can earn more and work regular hours. President Bush has proposed eliminating $48 million in federal support for primary care training programs.

Clinic administrators in western Massachusetts report extreme difficulty in recruiting primary care doctors. Dr. Timothy Soule-Regine, a co-owner of the North Quabbin practice, said it had taken at least two years and as long as five to recruit new physicians.

At the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, no more than 4 of the 28 internal medicine residents in each class are choosing primary care, down from half a decade ago, said Dr. Richard M. Forster, the program’s director. In Springfield, only one of 16 third-year residents at Baystate Medical Center, which trains physicians from Tufts University, plans to pursue primary care, said Jane Albert, a hospital spokeswoman.

The need to pay off medical school debt, which averages $120,000 at public schools and $160,000 at private schools, is cited as a major reason that graduates gravitate to higher-paying specialties and hospitalist jobs.

Then, at the very end, the two most important paragraphs ...

... Primary care doctors typically fall at the bottom of the medical income scale, with average salaries in the range of $160,000 to $175,000 (compared with $410,000 for orthopedic surgeons and $380,000 for radiologists). In rural Massachusetts, where reimbursement rates are relatively low, some physicians are earning as little as $70,000 after 20 years of practice...

Where do editors and journalists learn this obscure form of writing?

In any case, the problem is relative income of course -- it always is. Relative not only to medical specialists, but also to corporate executives, business owners, lawyers, accountants, etc.

Incidentally, I'm fine with Bush eliminating the $48 millions in subsidies for primary care programs. In 2007 42% of family practice residents came from US schools -- that's low enough to be a serious quality issue. We probably need to close half of the remaining primary care residencies, and losing the subsidy would ensure that. Of course the access problems would worsen, but subsidizing training is the wrong answer. Perhaps a sudden drop in a tight supply would concentrate minds a bit ...

Update 4/10/08: Coincidentally, today's NYT editorial also mentions the Mayo example, but fails to make the important connection to May's relatively small specialty/primary care income ratio.

AT&T vs. Sprint: one is better

I don't think there are any truly good cell phone companies [2], but three months after switching from Sprint to AT&T I can say that for us these two are not the same.

Sprint has better service and costs less.


We switched because I wanted to buy an iPhone, which I still haven't bought [1]. I wasn't as wise as this writer:
ATPM 14.04 - Bloggable: Shallow Depth of Field

...Then, there’s writing about the iPhone. You see, I don’t have one, because I don’t have AT&T service. And until my friends who do aren’t constantly cursing dropped calls, I have no intention of switching carriers and buying an iPhone...
My friends weren't as forthcoming, but I can personally confirm that in the midwest AT&T drops calls routinely. My phone may show "four bars", but that's just a little AT&T joke. I go from four bars to no carrier in an eye-blink.

Cost? AT&T costs us about 70% more than Sprint for a similar set of services. I think this huge gap is partly an artifact of our usage patterns (two phones, moderate voice use, frequent calls to Canada, very little roaming on Sprint) but I suspect AT&T would cost most people about 20% more than Sprint.

Contracting trickery? Sprint has a nefarious history of covert contract extensions, but they've been getting better since being sued in Minnesota. AT&T has the rebate scam from Hell.

Sprint wins across the board on voice quality, cost, and contracting. I'm amazed.

The only thing AT&T has is the iPhone, but that's a very big thing. If you aren't going to buy an iPhone immediately, however, don't switch to AT&T.

As a current AT&T customer, I join the world's pleas for a great Google Android phone, and for a future iPhone free of AT&T.


[1] The timing of the switch was dictated by the impending death of my wife's beloved Samsung i500, I was waiting to see the shape of the SDK before committing to the iPhone. The SDK took so long to be revealed I ran into the pending iPhone 2.0 release!

[2] The contract lock-ins, switching costs, and the pricing costs all promote bad business practices.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Bush war crimes trial: exhibit A

Someday, many years from now, an aged George Bush may yet face a war crimes tribunal. If he does, the Yoo torture memo will be exhibit A:
There Were Orders to Follow - New York Times

...The March 14, 2003, memo was written by John C. Yoo, then a lawyer for the Justice Department. He earlier helped draft a memo that redefined torture to justify repugnant, clearly illegal acts against Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.

The purpose of the March 14 memo was equally insidious: to make sure that the policy makers who authorized those acts, or the subordinates who carried out the orders, were not convicted of any crime. The list of laws that Mr. Yoo’s memo sought to circumvent is long: federal laws against assault, maiming, interstate stalking, war crimes and torture; international laws against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and the Geneva Conventions.

Mr. Yoo, who, inexplicably, teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley, never directly argues that it is legal to chain prisoners to the ceiling for days, sexually abuse them or subject them to waterboarding — all things done by American jailers.

His primary argument, in which he reaches back to 19th-century legal opinions justifying the execution of Indians who rejected the reservation, is that the laws didn’t apply to Mr. Bush because he is commander in chief...

...When the abuses at Abu Ghraib became public, we were told these were the depraved actions of a few soldiers. The Yoo memo makes it chillingly apparent that senior officials authorized unspeakable acts and went to great lengths to shield themselves from prosecution.
The state of California needs to revoke John Yoo's right to practice law.

Those convicted of the Abu Grhaib war crimes should ask for a retrial, and submit the Yoo memo as evidence that they were following their leaders.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Over the hill

Older folk are slower at computer tasks:
Quoted : Good Morning Silicon Valley

...Does this mean that people in their 40s or 50s can’t do their jobs? Not at all. There are many other ways in which people get better with age...
We get more expensive, for one.

Oh wait, that's not a feature.

We need to move the retirement age to 40. Since many of us are in school and training to about age 30 that will give us ten years to work.


In ten years though, training will extend to age 33, and the age of incapacity will slip to 37.

I detect a problem.

How we perceive - a review of the art

Natalie Angier, while reporting on a science conference, provides a fascinating state of the art summary of visual perception.

We are again reminded that we live in our heads, and that the film that plays in there has only a loose connection to what's going on around us ...
Change Blindness - Natalie Angier - New York Times

.... Visual attentiveness is born of limited resources. “The basic problem is that far more information lands on your eyes than you can possibly analyze and still end up with a reasonable sized brain,” Dr. Wolfe said. Hence, the brain has evolved mechanisms for combating data overload, allowing large rivers of data to pass along optical and cortical corridors almost entirely unassimilated, and peeling off selected data for a close, careful view. In deciding what to focus on, the brain essentially shines a spotlight from place to place, a rapid, sweeping search that takes in maybe 30 or 40 objects per second, the survey accompanied by a multitude of body movements of which we are barely aware: the darting of the eyes, the constant tiny twists of the torso and neck. We scan and sweep and perfunctorily police, until something sticks out and brings our bouncing cones to a halt.

The mechanisms that succeed in seizing our sightline fall into two basic classes: bottom up and top down. Bottom-up attentiveness originates with the stimulus, with something in our visual field that is the optical equivalent of a shout: a wildly waving hand, a bright red object against a green field. Bottom-up stimuli seem to head straight for the brainstem and are almost impossible to ignore, said Nancy Kanwisher, a vision researcher at M.I.T., and thus they are popular in Internet ads.

Top-down attentiveness, by comparison, is a volitional act, the decision by the viewer that an item, even in the absence of flapping parts or strobe lights, is nonetheless a sight to behold. When you are looking for a specific object — say, your black suitcase on a moving baggage carousel occupied largely by black suitcases — you apply a top-down approach, the bouncing searchlights configured to specific parameters, like a smallish, scuffed black suitcase with one broken wheel. Volitional attentiveness is much trickier to study than is a simple response to a stimulus, yet scientists have made progress through improved brain-scanning technology and the ability to measure the firing patterns of specific neurons or the synchronized firing of clusters of brain cells.

Recent studies with both macaques and humans indicate that attentiveness crackles through the brain along vast, multifocal, transcortical loops, leaping to life in regions at the back of the brain, in the primary visual cortex that engages with the world, proceeding forward into frontal lobes where higher cognitive analysis occurs, and then doubling back to the primary visual centers. En route, the initial signal is amplified, italicized and annotated, and so persuasively that the boosted signal seems to emanate from the object itself. The enhancer effect explains why, if you’ve ever looked at a crowd photo and had somebody point out the face of, say, a young Franklin Roosevelt or George Clooney in the throng, the celebrity’s image will leap out at you thereafter as though lighted from behind.

Whether lured into attentiveness by a bottom-up or top-down mechanism, scientists said, the results of change blindness studies and other experiments strongly suggest that the visual system can focus on only one or very few objects at a time, and that anything lying outside a given moment’s cone of interest gets short shrift. The brain, it seems, is a master at filling gaps and making do, of compiling a cohesive portrait of reality based on a flickering view.

“Our spotlight of attention is grabbing objects at such a fast rate that introspectively it feels like you’re recognizing many things at once,” Dr. Wolfe said. “But the reality is that you are only accurately representing the state of one or a few objects at any given moment.” As for the rest of our visual experience, he said, it has been aptly called “a grand illusion.” Sit back, relax and enjoy the movie called You.

This evening my son was using a Flip Video camera to record the midst of a chaotic bout of present opening. I happened to play it back about an hour after the event, so I still had some memory of what I perceived. The video showed there was much more going on than I took in, including my oldest son reading a letter included in his brother's gift.

Truly, there are vast rivers of reality going by, we live on a few sips and a lot of extrapolation. It is a miracle, given the imaginary worlds in which we live, that we are able to communicate at all.