Sunday, June 29, 2008

If not for the anthrax attacks, would the US have invaded Iraq?

The post-9/11 epoch looks worse and worse as time goes by. The torture, the incompetent invasion (great move - start by alienating Turkey), the worse-than-incompetent occupation, the lies, the falsified intelligence ... and now we're reminded that the FBI and the Bushies botched the anthrax investigation. The Bushies, in particular, were keen to use the attacks to build the case for invading Iraq. They were much less interested in finding out what the heck was going on.

Much was made in 2001 and 2002 of an alleged relationship between Iraq and the anthrax attack. It was used to build the political case for war.

That was one hell of a big story. Many deaths, survivors suffering immensely, and a war.

And it's all but forgotten today ...
Scientist Is Paid Millions by U.S. in Anthrax Suit -

.... The settlement called new attention to the fact that nearly seven years after the toxic letters were mailed, killing five people and sickening at least 17 others, the case has not been solved...

.... An F.B.I. spokesman, Jason Pack, said the anthrax investigation “is one of the largest and most complex investigations ever conducted by law enforcement” and is currently being pursued by more than 20 agents of the F.B.I. and the Postal Inspection Service.

“Solving this case is a top priority for the F.B.I. and for the family members of the victims who were killed,” Mr. Pack said.

But Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat whose district was the site of a postal box believed to have been used in the attacks, said he would press Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I., for more answers about the status of the case.

“As today’s settlement announcement confirms, this case was botched from the very beginning,” Mr. Holt said. “The F.B.I. did a poor job of collecting evidence, and then inappropriately focused on one individual as a suspect for too long, developing an erroneous theory of the case that has led to this very expensive dead end."...
The NYT blew the anthrax coverage so many different ways I've lost count. That may explain why they've never returned to the mystery. Including the mystery of why this was never repeated.

Incidentally, the great Tylenol poisoning case of my youth was never solved either.

Sometimes the really bad guys win.

Reasons to feel better about the iPhone: secure wipe

Yes, it should have been part of the initial release, but it's coming with iPhone 2. It increases my trust in the iPhone ecosystem. Now if they'd do "cut and paste" and "full data search" and a few more things ...
AppleInsider | Secure data wipe built into iPhone Software v2.0: "People familiar with the beta versions of iPhone Software v2.0 say the upcoming release will employ a more foolproof method of erasing all personal data and settings from an iPhone. As is the case with the existing version of iPhone software, the function will be accessible by selecting Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Contents and Settings.

Unlike today's iPhone software, however, the revised function will wipe data in similar fashion to the 'Secure Empty Trash' function of Mac OS X, by which all data is deleted, unlinked, and then overwritten several times to make it irretrievable by even the savviest of recovery tools."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

ED treatment of acute back pain - what's missing and why

[There's something messed up with how Scribefire and Blogger are formatting this post, but for the life of me I can't fix it! So, there are no real paragraphs. I'm going to forego use of Scribefire with FF3 until I sort this one out.]

I had the 2nd ambulance ride of my life recently.The ambulance was overkill. Four strong bodies, duct tape and a door would have been more appropriate, and cheaper too.

Alas there was no intermediate alternative. I was unable to stand or crawl with mere ibuprofen and canes, and that becomes a problem over time. Since nobody will prescribe narcotics and valium over the phone this left me with only one route to medical care -- a back board.

The ED got adequate control over the back spasms with modest doses of IV valium and morphine [1]. I was a pathetic sight hobbling out of the ED on two canes to lie flat in an emptied van, but six hours later, after continuous ambulation, I walked a mile without difficulty using a single cane as a psychological aid. I was on the way to rehab. [2]

I'll have a bit more to say in a later post on the pointless cost of this episode vs. the intelligent alternative, but this particular post is about three very simple things that the ED didn't do. I had them covered myself, but without them I'd still be in the hospital.

So these interventions matter. The important question is why did I have to take care of them?

Now I think I was the guest of a quite good rural ED, and I felt feel confident that ER doc who took care of me seemed confident and competent (and comely too!), so I suspect these are common omissions:

  • a cold pack and a neoprene waist belt to provide continuous cold therapy to the acutely spasmed back
  • two canes to enable ambulation
  • a urinal to enable sleep at home
  • (see more here)
The urinal is key for the first day or two at home, yet I had to keep reminding the staff that it needed to go with me.

The ED had no canes, but I could never have done my pathetic totter out of the facility without them. They did have a walker I could test my gait with, but a walker isn't designed to support body weight while in motion. They didn't think to train me on how to use a cane (I knew how), but any significant back pain requires days of cane use. (If your acute musculoskeletal back pain doesn't require a cane, do you really need an ED?)

Continuous cold therapy during the acute episode is an key part of most therapeutic recommendations. I realize reactions differ, but cold therapy is essential for me. I had to bring my own neoprene cold pack belt, and I had to request ice (they had no cold packs).

In the end everything worked, but acute back pain is hardly a rare ED event. Why didn't they have the key ingredients in place?

I'd like to see someone do a survey article on what percentage of EDs provide these 3 items on discharge, in addition to whatever else they do:

  1. local cold therapy (an ace wrap and an Rx for a neoprene belt would do - total cost $4)
  2. canes with usage instructions ($10 each at Walmart - crummy but effective)
  3. a disposable urinal for men (free, since you keep the one you use in the ED).
My guess is that less than 10% of EDs meet this standard, and the result is a horrendous waste of money nationally.

So why hasn't the study been done? If it has been done, why aren't payors making these steps a part of their quality measures used to justify reimbursement? If this stuff isn't in the standard ED guidelines, then we have an even more interesting set of "why" questions.Understanding these "why" questions would tell us a lot of interesting things about health care and where money is spent.

[1] The cognitive effect of the "morphine" was so modest I wondered if it was saline placebo (which would have been fine really -- anything that works!). I think they were just doing small incremental dosing

[2] Once the pain is under some control, and improvement has begun, the rehab process has a certain appeal. Every day actions are a bit like mountain climbing, with the same need for concentration, precision, and planned motion. Also, the same sense of risk with error. It appeals to a certain twisted mind.

Philip Carter summarizes the Senate torture report: affirms use of Stalin's regimen

Phillip "Intel Dump" Carter, now writing for the Washington Post summarizes the Senate report on torture techniques used at Guantanamo Bay...
The Genesis of Torture - Intel Dump - Phillip Carter on national security and the military.

Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee released a 63-page set of documents that illuminates how the Pentagon developed, selected and approved its list of coercive interrogation techniques for Guantanamo Bay.

As Joby Warrick reports in today's Post, the documents clarify the role that the CIA (and senior government officials such as DoD General Counsel William "Jim" Haynes) played. "If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong," CIA lawyer Jonathan Friedman proclaimed in a working group meeting that led to the development of this DoD memo on approved interrogation techniques...
It's the best short summary I've seen. A few take-away points:
  1. After 3 years of acquiescence, the uniformed military finally began to rebel.
  2. The report only deals with Guantanamo, we don't know what techniques were used elsewhere. The US outsourced torture extensively, we bear full responsibility for what was done in foreign prisons on our behalf.
  3. This will be a significant part of future war crimes trials.
  4. The sources I read have felt that the regiment we use was based on Korean and Soviet torture designed to produce on-demand confessions. The Senate report confirms this.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Global warming: what you can do ...

Technically, it's not worth bothering with wall warts and light bulbs. If you buy a new car it makes sense to get something like a Honda Civic.

Otherwise ...
Ask Pablo, Global warming | Salon Life

... So to recap: Pester your local, state and federal politicians, eat less meat and make your home more energy efficient...
Of these, the first is most important.

Which brings me to where I disagree with Charlie's Diary. Yes, technically the light bulb and wall wart fuss is a waste of time better spent opposing GOP candidates, but humans aren't technical animals. Fussing about florescents fosters a culture that can support about a carbon tax, and it helps make global warming something a politician can campaign on.

So don't mock the the folks who worry about "vampire" appliances. They are making it possible to elect and support the politicians who will make the real changes.

The Last Lesson

Narrative comics from China's recent earthquake. Including The Last Lesson.

Via Fallows.

Journalists like politicians that make them feel smart

It makes sense. Bush II isn't as dumb as he acts (he doesn't have that excuse), but he seems dumb to journalists. They feel good about that.

McCain, even without dementia, has the same feature.
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong

...The number of mulligans that America's press corps gives John McCain is truly remarkable. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's because he doesn't threaten them--just as George W. Bush doesn't threaten them. By contrast, Bill Clinton and Al Gore and John Kerry and John Edwards and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are scary-smart, in the way that my ex-boss Alicia Munnell once spoke of Lloyd Bentsen: 'It only takes fifteen minutes before it is very clear why he is the Secretary of the Treasury and I am the Assistant Secretary.' That seems to provoke a reaction from many journalists...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Minneapolis is 9th on the top 10 bike city list. St Paul is ?

I'm surprised Minneapolis is only #9. I think they missed a heck of a lot of trails. Two or three of the other "cities" are barely towns, and Boulder is a college town for Pete's sake.

Montreal is a great town, but there's no chance it's a better biking place than Minneapolis.

Of course St Paul, the other half of the Twin Cities, is probably #20. Shame on my city! We need to put together a St. Paul pressure group and start making some progress.

Bottom line, adjusting the list for reality and eliminating towns, Minneapolis is genuinely the 3rd or 4th best biking city in America*. The real rivals (winter-free Portland has it easy) are far more expensive places to live, and Montreal* requires a change in citizenship.

Going by Gordon's Law (ye may know a city by its bike trails) Minneapolis is absolutely a great place to live, and Saint Paul, after all, is only a ten minute bike ride away.

* In the original version of this post I unfairly disparaged Montreal's bike network based on old data. Yesterday we completed a road survey (kids on strike) of part of the network, and Kateva and I sampled a stretch. It's a good bit more extensive than when I last checked, and it's tough to compete with Montreal's attractions. So, I admit, Montreal moves ahead of Minneapolis.

More on the US torture program, and preparing for the war crimes trials

Yes, more on torture. This is part of my duty as an American citizen. McCain would do his best to silence these stories. For now, they're coming out.

A NYT article that's ostensibly about the post-torture interrogation of KSM also tells us more about how the torture program came together ...
Inside a 9/11 Mastermind’s Interrogation - Series -

.... In its scramble, the agency made the momentous decision to use harsh methods the United States had long condemned. With little research or reflection, it borrowed its techniques from an American military training program modeled on the torture repertories of the Soviet Union and other cold-war adversaries, a lineage that would come to haunt the agency.

It located its overseas jails based largely on which foreign intelligence officials were most accommodating and rushed to move the prisoners when word of locations leaked. Seeking a longer-term solution, the C.I.A. spent millions to build a high-security prison in a remote desert location, according to two former intelligence officials. The prison, whose existence has never been disclosed, was completed — and then apparently abandoned unused — when President Bush decided in 2006 to move all the prisoners to Guantanamo...
Yes, "apparently abandoned". I suspect we'll hear more about that prison. Such things find a use.

The groundwork is being laid for what, if it takes place, will be the trial of the century. The war crimes trial of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condeleezza Rice and their colleagues may yet come to an iPhone near you sometime in the next twenty years ...

Update 6/24: The story is probably a deceptive plant. Makes sense that the torture was more entangled with the "good cop" routine than the NYT tells us.

Wiretaps are legal now

It's good to note these things.
This Modern World - It’s Repentin’ Time in Heaven:’s Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri this morning, explaining why Congress is making it legal for giant telecoms to wiretap us: "When the government tells you to do something, I’m sure you would all agree that I think you all recognize that is something you need to do."
We need a new American tradition.

Every time a traditional protection of the citizen is removed, we should have a national moment of silence.

Is this the right thing to do? The Cost of Havoc will continue to fall for the foreseeable future. There is an argument for reducing the freedom of citizens in proportion to the cost of this freedom. (Torture? No.)

This is a grave choice though, and it should be made with great thought and much discussion. It should be accompanied by greater oversight of government, strengthening the adversarial roles of the three branches, and greater penalties for incompetent and malign leadership.

We're not having those discussions, so this vote is a grievous thing.

Please don't vote for McCain. He is more, much more, of the same. If you can't manage to vote for Obama, vote for a libertarian.

Why blogs rule - Krugman on oil speculation

An example of why blogs rule. Krugman, responding to comments, makes a side comment on recent congressional testimony on oil speculation:
Calvo on commodities - Paul Krugman - Op-Ed Columnist - New York Times Blog

...Some correspondents have asked me what I think about the Congressional testimony of Michael Masters, who told a Senate subcommittee that “index speculators” — institutions that buy commodity futures as an investment — are responsible for the price surge.

The short answer is that I think his testimony is just stupid...
Topical, yes. Direct, rather. Informed, definitely. It's like a vastly smarter, faster version of radio commentary, but it's on demand, linkable, searchable and readable.

I love this stuff.

Oh, and oil speculation? I think it's a dumb term. I wish commentators would divide "speculative" pricing into psychological (futures contracts driven largely by uninformed human psychology) and fundamental (futures contracts based on expectations that demand for "light sweet crude" will exceed supply).

In August I will deliver my eagerly awaited judgment on the contribution of fundamental vs. psychological price projection to oil and gas prices.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

An astounding series on mental health disorders

I'm visiting family in Montreal, and the Globe and Mail came with the room today.

I've read the G&M before. It's a duller version of the Wall Street Journal, without the journalism. I didn't expect anything.

So I really was astounded by their special series on mental health: Breakdown: Canada's Mental Health Crisis.

The title is misleading, there's nothing particularly Canadian about the stories. The portrayal of schizophrenia (let us honor the Bigelow family) and David Golbloom's review of the mission of the Mental Health Commission of Canada are among the best writings on mental health I've seen anywhere.

The G&M has excellent journalists. I never suspected.

Canada's imperfect health care system gets knocked by people who don't read outcomes research, but it's vastly better than the America's non-system when it comes to delivering services to the underclass*. Canada is also quite good at "commissions"; Canada evolved the endless commission as an alternative to civil war. So the Mental Health commission may have an impact both in Canada and the US:
...People living with mental illness have the right to obtain the services and supports they need. They have the right to be treated with the same dignity and respect as we accord everyone struggling to recover from any form of illness.

The goal of the Mental Health Commission of Canada is to help bring into being an integrated mental health system that places people living with mental illness at its centre.

To this end, the Commission encourages cooperation and collaboration among governments, mental health service providers, employers, the scientific and research communities, as well as Canadians living with mental illness, their families and caregivers...
The world changes in the strangest ways. Decades of slow progress, regression and failure, then suddenly the world flips about. And that's just "gay marriage".

Progress does happen. We may be entering a new cultural model of cognition, cognitive disability, and cognitive variability.

* In defense of America, Canada has nothing like the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are things Canada could learn from the US.

Friday, June 20, 2008

PETCO goes down - pet food seizure

I wonder how much of this re-energized FDA activity comes from a Democratic House and Senate:
PETCO pet food seized after federal warrant issued | L.A. Unleashed | Los Angeles Times

...At the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Marshals seized all FDA-regulated animal food susceptible to rodent and pest contamination. The products violated the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act because it was alleged in a case filed by the United States Attorney that they were being held under unsanitary conditions...
No more PETCO visits for us, but of course we don't know if the competition is any better.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Mundaneum

I demand an investigation.

I demand an inquiry.

I want to know why the %$!$ I've never heard of the Mundaneum Project ...
The Mundaneum Museum Honors the First Concept of the World Wide Web

...Using 3 by 5 index cards (then the state of the art in storage technology), they went on to create a vast paper database with more than 12 million individual entries.

Otlet and LaFontaine eventually persuaded the Belgian government to support their project, proposing to build a “city of knowledge” that would bolster the government’s bid to become host of the League of Nations. The government granted them space in a government building, where Otlet expanded the operation. He hired more staff, and established a fee-based research service that allowed anyone in the world to submit a query via mail or telegraph — a kind of analog search engine. Inquiries poured in from all over the world, more than 1,500 a year, on topics as diverse as boomerangs and Bulgarian finance.

As the Mundaneum evolved, it began to choke on the sheer volume of paper. Otlet started sketching ideas for new technologies to manage the information overload. At one point he posited a kind of paper-based computer, rigged with wheels and spokes that would move documents around on the surface of a desk. Eventually, however, Otlet realized the ultimate answer involved scrapping paper altogether.

Since there was no such thing as electronic data storage in the 1920s, Otlet had to invent it. He started writing at length about the possibility of electronic media storage, culminating in a 1934 book, “Monde,” where he laid out his vision of a “mechanical, collective brain” that would house all the world’s information, made readily accessible over a global telecommunications network.

Tragically, just as Otlet’s vision began to crystallize, the Mundaneum fell on hard times. In 1934, the Belgian government lost interest in the project after losing its bid for the League of Nations headquarters. Otlet moved it to a smaller space, and after financial struggles had to close it to the public.

A handful of staff members kept working on the project, but the dream ended when the Nazis marched through Belgium in 1940. The Germans cleared out the original Mundaneum site to make way for an exhibit of Third Reich art, destroying thousands of boxes filled with index cards. Otlet died in 1944, a broken and soon-to-be-forgotten man.

After Otlet’s death, what survived of the original Mundaneum was left to languish in an old anatomy building of the Free University in the Parc Leopold until 1968, when a young graduate student named W. Boyd Rayward picked up the paper trail. Having read some of Otlet’s work, he traveled to the abandoned office in Brussels, where he discovered a mausoleum like room full of books and mounds of paper covered in cobwebs....

How did this all go missing? Twelve million index cards? Everyone just forgot about it?

What else from this era has been forgotten? (For relatively modern variants, see these links).

Mega drive 2008: the newest innovations

We're doing one of our family mega-drives. Thousands of miles with 1 dog, 3 children, 2 adults, one van.

It works. Better than a reasonable person would expect.

Each time we do this there's some technology variation. This year we had two.

First of all, we got the video iPod to output video to our shockingly reliable $200 car video "system". This would have worked years ago if I'd tried harder (or bought a custom video iPod cable), but Apple didn't distribute much kid vid. I would have had to rip my own video. Too much trouble!

Now Apple sells "Ben 10" and similar TV for $2 an episode, a small price for auto peace. We put Tom and Diane's iTune's gifts to good use.

Three year old technology, so this one was about the content.

Our second innovation was 3G Net Access with Emily's Blackberry browser. Between Saint Paul Minnesota and Escanaba Michigan Emily asked Google (I drove) about the location of Liverpool and three other topics:
  • Rib Mountain, Wausau, Wisconsin: The mountain/hill rises mysteriously from flat land. It's a final remnant of the 1.9 billion year old Penokean mountains, and the 2nd downhill ski resort in America. When I see it I imagine a colossus of the new earth, a tower far greater than Everest. Now all that remains is this rock, the broken heart of the ancient mountain. Once a century it beats "I was".

  • Chippewa Falls and Seymour Cray: How the heck did Cray, a certified eccentric genius, persuade a team to follow him from Minneapolis to Chippewa Falls? How good was Cray that Control Data built a lab for him on land he owned? (Very good, of course.)

  • The Yellowstone Trail: America's first northern coast-to-coast motoring road, the fruit of a small group of South Dakota entrepreneurs. I can't tell from the web site how much of this trail can be followed today.
We couldn't continue our data tourism into Canada, the long distance data costs are prohibitive. So all of this was from a few chance encounters in a single day's drive.

My iPhone to come will have a GPS. It will learn what I am interested in. Soon, when I travel, it will strike a bell each time I pass near these sorts of things.

Our next car trip will be even more novel.

PS. Another drive related observation. The UK academics that grace Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time program don't know squat about economics. What gives? Is it forbidden knowledge over there?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

That which does not kill me is not torture

At last we understand why the Bushies say they don't torture people:
BBC NEWS | Americas | US interrogation debate detailed

... John Fredman, then chief counsel to the CIA's counter-terrorism centre, argued during the meeting that torture 'is basically subject to perception'.

'If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong,' he said...
We've killed several detainees, so even by the Bush standard we do torture.

If they hadn't died though, no torture.

A clear cut standard.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Understanding net neutrality – Imagine Amazon owned the post office

Net neutrality is

Network neutrality - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

…  a principle that is applied to residential broadband networks, and potentially to all networks. A neutral broadband network is one that is free of restrictions on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, on the modes of communication allowed, which does not restrict content, sites or platforms, and where communication is not unreasonably degraded by other communication streams

How can we explain why the Net Neutrality discussion is important?

Imagine that there was no UPS and no Fedex. USPS only. There’s only one shipping service in this world.

Now imagine that Amazon owned the USPS.

Now you understand.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Private farming now, private manufacturing when?

Emily and Christina have joined a farm coop. We get a weekly produce share, and we're invited to visit and put the kids to work (as if).

It's good stuff. No melamine. No salmonella.

So what's next?

Why not private manufacturing?

Can't find a decent toaster? What if we could buy shares in a local manufacturing facility, and get goods built to our specs?

Well, we have been expecting computer controlled on demand manufacturing for a while ...

Gordon's Notes: A quick preview on the next thing to blow your world apart (Nov. 2005)

Do it yourself. Almost. ... Dan's Data provides a quick update on the state of the art in 3 dimensional "printing". As in download the specs, run the illegal hacking software, and print yourself an anonymous encrypted cell phone...

Probably going to happen, even without the nano stuff.

Maybe I'll get a good toaster before I die ...

Two years to crack Khan's hard drive encryption and reveal more bad nuke news

Presumably the NSA was truly responsible for cracking Khan's hard drive. It wasn't easy ...
Nuclear Ring Reportedly Had Advanced Weapon Design -

...Two former Bush administration officials said they believed Mr. Tinner had provided information to the Central Intelligence Agency while he was still working for Dr. Khan, including some of the information that helped American and British officials intercept shipments of centrifuges on their way to Libya in 2003.

When news of that interception became public and Libya turned its $100 million program over to American and I.A.E.A. officials, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan forced Dr. Khan to issue a vague confession and then placed him under house arrest. Dr. Khan has since renounced that confession in Pakistani and Western media, saying he made it only to save Pakistan greater embarrassment.

It was not until 2005 that officials of the I.A.E.A., which is based in Vienna, finally cracked the hard drives on the Khan computers recovered around the world. And as they sifted through files and images on the hard drives, investigators found tons of material — orders for equipment, names and places where the Khan network operated, even old love letters. In all, they found several terabytes of data, a huge amount to sift through.

“There was stuff about dealing with Iranians in 2003, about how to avoid intelligence agents,” said one official who had reviewed it. But the most important document was a digitized design for a nuclear bomb, one that investigators quickly recognized as Pakistani. “It was plain where this came from,” one senior official of the I.A.E.A. said. “But the Pakistanis want to argue that the Khan case is closed, and so they have said very little....
I noted related stories in 2004, including the last good Maureen Dowd column and Seymour Hersh's theory that Pakistan would give us bin Laden if we went easy on them for AF Khan.

Of course Pakistan didn't deliver bin Laden and now they're getting ready to release Khan from house arrest. So that deal is off I suppose.

It will all make for a fascinating book, assuming our peculiar luck streak continues.

For today though I'm most interested in how the encrypted data was hacked. I suspect that story won't be out for a long time ...

ISP access control: great for VPN providers

VPN providers like WiTopia VPN protect open Wifi users from packet sniffing attacks.

That's why I pay my yearly fee.

They have other benefits though. They provide a secure channel, so you can bypass access controls like this:
Slashdot | Verizon Cutting Access To Entire Alt.* Usenet Hierarchy

... Verizon has declared it will no longer offer access to the entire alt.* hierarchy of Usenet newsgroups to its customers. This stems from last week's agreement for major ISPs to cut off access to 'newsgroups and Web sites' that make child pornography available. The story notes, 'No law requires Verizon to do this. Instead, the company (and, to varying extents, Time Warner Cable and Sprint) agreed to restrictions on Usenet in response to political strong-arming by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. Cuomo claimed that his office found child porn on 88 newsgroups — out of roughly 100,000 newsgroups that exist.' In response, Verizon will cut its customers off from a large portion of Usenet, as it will only carry newsgroups in the Big 8....
Eons ago, before spam, there were some important resources in the alt groups. I'm sure some persist, but I haven't come across any in the Google Groups era (newsgroups via Google's connection rather than nntp clients). Google Groups, needless to say, doesn't carry problematic groups.

Even so, this is stupid politics.

Good business for Witopia though.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Why we have constitutions - a reminder

Dyer has 4-6 new articles up. For example ..
Civil Liberties

...a majority of the British public, given the right lead by the gutter press, would probably also support 90-day detention, waterboarding of suspects, 180-day detention, torture of their relatives, 360-day detention, and summary execution of detainees. Provided they were Muslim, of course. But democratic countries have laws and constitutions precisely to fend off this kind of ignorant populism....
By the vote of a single supreme court justice we still have a working constitution in America.

McCain is upset. He doesn't want a constitution.

Remember that.

The new signs: Generation X, Y and B

A colleague's presentation included a Generation X, Y, and B (boomer) profile.

It was good fun, reminded me of the periodic "what's your sign" astrology kicks that cycle through. Silly, but fun.

The closest thing I could find to her presentation were these Gen X, Y and B profiles.

Personally I seem to break down this way:
  • Values: X
  • Attributes: Y
  • Work: Y/X (they don't seem so different really)
I really couldn't fit myself into my chronological group (boomer), but that shouldn't surprise anyone. I've always been a geek.

The GOP thanks heaven for Al Franken

Even if by some miracle Franken wins, it's time to take apart the Minnesota DFL party.
SFGate: Politics Blog : GOP Clings to Firewall

... Ensign said it will be a really bad night if Republican incumbent Norm Coleman loses his Minnesota seat to Al Franken. 'We were very fortunate' to get Franken as an opponent in what looked like a race Democrats were set to win...
We need to start by getting rid of the caucus system in this state.

From now on this is the first thing I'm going to ask every DFL member I speak with:

How do we get rid of the Minnesota DFL caucus system?

Beating email - it's doable. Here's how.

[I'm doing a talk on a related topic, so I'm incrementally updating this post. Most recent update: 7/14/08]

Feeble NYT article: Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast. Thousands of emails, can't manage, etc.

At home I am not so reliable a correspondent, but not terrible. At work though, email is a part of my job. These are the lessons learned over decades of business email use.

First, start with the goals:
  1. Solve business problems efficiently.
  2. Build respectful relationships
  3. Eliminate replies. Inferior email multiplies. Superior email terminates. Get the job done with a single message.
  4. Turn your work email into a searchable knowledge repository that will add value over years and decades.
Here's what works:
  1. Email is an essential part of my job, but there's no credit for email work. It's a means to an end. I schedule 1 protected hour in the am, 1 hour in the pm, and deal with it opportunistically in between. I switch Outlook into offline mode so I don't get distracted by notices between scheduled times.
  2. When sharing knowledge, make your email a link to a blog post or a wiki. Instead of sending updated emails, update the blog post or add to the wiki. Interested persons can subscribe to the post/wiki feed. This helps eliminate
  3. Manage email using some variant of the GTD two minute rule.
  4. No email lists. Lists should have been buried long ago. If there's no feed, the owners are clueless. In theory I could auto-route into a folder and make them fodder for full text search, but in practice I don't do email lists.
  5. Use a feed reader for event subscription/notification. No Sharepoint 2007 email alerts, just feeds.
  6. Don't file email. The single killer feature of Outlook is the ability to edit the subject line. If email is worth keeping, then revise the subject line as needed and dump into the Save folder. Full text search, like Windows Search or Spotlight was invented to save you filing time. I do have 4-5 active project folders I throw things in, but this takes me no time and I don't worry if I get it wrong.
  7. Learn your full test search engine very well. You will use it all the time.
  8. Keep only the last email in a discussion thread. When I Search and find a long thread I delete the redundant emails as a part of my search work (quite fast, makes future search more effective).
  9. Spend time on emails. Bad emails create more bad emails. Craft the subject line carefully. Say what you need/want done/want help with. If the email is informational only say no action required. Clean up the copied email thread in the email so only the core information is there. Eliminate the thread.
  10. Email breeds email. Send as few as possible. Learn to reply to complex emails by creating an appointment.
  11. Don't do anything complex by email. Email is for simple things. Email should fit in a small window.
  12. Never bcc except to yourself. Use CC very carefully. Resist people who extend CC chains. The To line is strictly for people who have to do things.
  13. Don't send thank you emails to people who know you. They are a necessary email for many coworkers however.
  14. Don't use email to manage tasks. Drag and drop an email to a task icon
  15. Reserve 1-2 hours twice a day for email.
  16. If you find you're doing frequent important emails with one correspondent, schedule a weekly 30-45 minute meeting. Put all the topics into tasks or an appointment agenda. Discuss and send a summary email if needed.
  17. Triage your incoming email by rules that operate on sender and to line. If I'm not on the to line I rarely respond to an email.
I've got another ten or so, but I'll add them later. Out of time for now ...

The point is, it can be done. A key is to improve email quality to reduce volume.

This is largely cultural, the only technology component is the ability to edit subject lines (Are you listening Gmail?) and full text search. Culture takes a while to develop, but we're getting there.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Google's minimal progress towards sharing files - now PDF

So now we have Google's own products and a PDF viewer:
Google Docs supports PDF upload, viewing and sharing:

...Google Docs now allows you to upload PDF files to store them online. You can view uploaded PDFs right in your browser, and determine who else should have access...
Sharing PDFs through this mechanism is very helpful, I'll definitely make use of this.

The news does, however, remind me that it's been two years since I expected an imminent general file serving function for Google Apps.

Clearly, there's a reason they don't want to support other file types. Copyright violation? Performance? What?

Restoring food safety in America - thank you South Korea!

McCain will continue to support the GOP led destruction of the FDA, including Bush appointees who sabotage their own departments:
Op-Ed Columnist - Paul Krugman - Bad Cow Disease - Op-Ed -

... when mad cow disease was detected in the U.S. in 2003, the Department of Agriculture was headed by Ann M. Veneman, a former food-industry lobbyist. And the department’s response to the crisis — which amounted to consistently downplaying the threat and rejecting calls for more extensive testing — seemed driven by the industry’s agenda.

One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit...
Meanwhile, South Koreans are rioting rather than accept American beef imports.

Thank you South Korean rioters!

Don't trust us. Really. Resist. Push for real reform of America's food safety regulation.

We push China to reform their drug and manufacturing standards. South Korea pushes us to improve our food regulation. I approve of both movements.

Restore the safety of American food. Oppose McCain.

The terrible fragility of American freedom - McCain would destroy this

By one lousy vote the Supreme Court preserved a habeas corpus -- a core element of the US Constitution and a fundamental defense against tyranny.

One vote.
Editorial - Editorial - On Guantanamo - Justice 5, Brutality 4 - Editorial -

... It was disturbing that four justices dissented from this eminently reasonable decision. The lead dissent, by Chief Justice John Roberts, dismisses habeas as “most fundamentally a procedural right.” Chief Justice Roberts thinks the detainees receive such “generous” protections at their hearings that the majority should not have worried about whether they had habeas rights.

There is an enormous gulf between the substance and tone of the majority opinion, with its rich appreciation of the liberties that the founders wrote into the Constitution, and the what-is-all-the-fuss-about dissent. It is sobering to think that habeas hangs by a single vote in the Supreme Court of the United States — a reminder that the composition of the court could depend on the outcome of this year’s presidential election. The ruling is a major victory for civil liberties — but a timely reminder of how fragile they are...
If McCain wins the next such vote would be Brutality 5, Justice 4.

Stop McCain.

Vote Obama.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The end of Moore’s Law and the future of Dell

I can’t remember when the main feature of a major update was that it was significantly faster on current hardware:

Apple Gives Developers Safari 4 Preview | World of Apple

…Safari 4 currently has very few new features but is significantly quicker compared to Safari 3.1…

I have spent the last twenty years with the near certainty that every new version of a software product would be slower than the previous version on current hardware. [1] This drove hardware sales.

It’s not just Safari. Firefox 3 is faster than Firefox 2. The primary feature of OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) is that it’s faster on existing CPUs and GPUs.

An era has passed without remark. Hardware is getting faster, but the speed comes with power demands, heat production, and programming complexity. The cost of developing software is not falling, so there’s a desire to use common tools and technologies across multiple emerging platforms. That means performance on the lowest common denominator, whether that’s an ultra-cheap laptop [2] or an iPhone.

So if Moore’s Law is going the way of cheap sweet crude, should we expect our current hardware to last much longer than anticipated? What will that do to hardware sales for companies that don’t tie their software to their hardware, or their hardware/software to a recurring services-driven revenue stream?

Bad time to be working for Dell.

[1] Slight exception for OS X 10.1 and 10.2, but there were extenuating circumstances.)

[2] I remember when calculators went from $450 each to free. There’s no fundamental reason the same thing can’t happen to the ultra-cheap laptop.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Empire Strikes Back: complexity, mobile phone plans, and Apple defeated

I tried to parse my AT&T non-iPhone cell phone bill this morning.

I needed more coffee. I couldn’t do it.

Yes, the bill was confounded by switching the primary phone, but there’s a very definite pattern here.

Since we switched from Sprint to AT&T for the love of the iPhone we’ve seen our bills go up by about 25% for comparable coverage – and lower quality.

We’re not the only folks to notice this …

iPhone Plan Compared » a gthing science project

The breakdown:
Voice Plan - $40/mo for 450 voice minutes
Data Plan - $30/mo for unlimited 3G Data

So at minimum, you’re paying $70/mo. This probably won’t even satisfy most users who use more than 450 minutes a month. The next plan up is a $20 jump so you’re now paying $90/mo.

Yes, while every other piece of technology gets cheaper every day, somehow cell phone plans just keep getting more and more expensive.

Let’s compare this to Sprint’s offering:

The Sprint SERO plan (which anyone can get by going to a Sprint store and retrieving an employee’s phone number from their business card) is like this:

Voice Plan - $30/mo for 500 Minutes
Data Plan - included/ Unlimited
Text Messaging - included/Unlimited

So $30 on Sprint or $70 on AT&T (and keep in mind AT&T isn’t even throwing in unlimited free texting).

Ok, so this SERO plan scam involves a wee bit of fraud, but we noticed something similar with no ethical dodges.

But that’s not what I find intriguing here.

The interesting bit is using complexity as a weapon. It’s a legal dodge, brilliantly executed by cellular companies and perfected by AT&T. Plan comparison is pretty much impossible, and you won’t know the real price until the 3rd or 4th statement. The scheme worked for AT&T; despite lower costs and better, though not great, service, Sprint is bleeding customers and AT&T shares are rising.

Sprint is no angel of course. They’ve been sued for their deceptive contract swap practices. They haven’t been as clever as AT&T, however, at using the complexity weapon.

It’s not just Sprint that has fallen to the Empire.

Apple’s original iPhone plan was a blessed ray of light in the darkness. Crystal clear pricing, flat data services – water to a thirsty man.

No more. Now plans are through AT&T. The Empire has struck back. Apple has been, for now, defeated.

Ahh, but Apple is no angel either! They increase the cost of the iPhone, while advertising "price cuts". They use the complexity of cell phone pricing plans to deceive the naive and the overwhelmed.

Our society has to figure out how manage the complexity demon. It will take one heck of a consumer revolt to put it down.

Maybe an Obama victory will give us the energy to fight back …

Update 5/10/08: There is a precedent, though it's only partially encouraging. At one time home sales were encumbered with similarly incomprehensible contracts. This led to requirements to provide total cost estimates. So the contracts are still complex, but at least there are fewer shocks.

Update 6/11/08: In comments Sam points out that Sprint is "in" on the SERO gimmick, so it's not as shady as I made it sound. He also recommends 2600 The Hacker Quarterly as a weapon against the vile trickery of the Empire. I believe he's referring to Gaming AT&T Mobility. The journal is paper only (interesting topic worthy of comment) so I'll have to see if a local library has a copy.

Update 6/11/08b: Return of the Jedi? Don Reisinger speculates that this is stage of one AT&T/Apple divorce proceedings. Now that would be sweet ...

Update 6/12/08: Great comment here - complexity as a strategic tool in other settings.

Update 6/15/08: Ars tries to compare the iPhone cost to other 3G phones. Superficially it's comparable, but read the comments. Sprint (SERO, as above) and others offer many complex and "secret" options with deep discounts. So the iPhone list price is comparable to other 3G phones and services, but their prices may be deeply discounted.

Why Snow Leopard? It’s the cores.

John Markoff, who has special access to Jobs, says Snow Leopard is about new approaches to parallel programming and GPU use. The “breakthrough” is to be powered by newly acquired PA Semi’s Grand Central technology.

Somewhat coincidentally Coding Horror (Jeff Atwood) writes today (quoting Tim Bray):

… Tim has addressed both of those criticisms and rebooted with The Wide Finder 2 Project. It's bigger, badder, and brawnier, but the goal remains the same:

The problem is that lots of simple basic data-processing operations, in my case a simple Ruby script, run like crap on modern many-core processors. Since the whole world is heading in the slower/many-core direction, this is an unsatisfactory situation.

If you look at the results from last time, it’s obvious that there are solutions, but the ones we've seen so far impose an awful complexity cost on the programmer. The holy grail would be something that maximizes ratio of performance increase per core over programmer effort. My view: Anything that requires more than twice as much source code to take advantage of many-core is highly suspect.

Apple is attacking the enterprise market – with renewed confidence. A major improvement in the ability to leverage multi-core CPUs and GPU would justify that confidence.

I wonder how completely this has been factored into Apple’s share price.

About the solar heating meme

There's an increasingly popular GOP meme going round. The idea is that the earth is warming primarily because of increased solar radiation.

A few years back the same people said the earth isn't warming at all, and if Minnesota has another cool winter I'll be hearing that one again.

This is the intellectual equivalent of the bipartisan, but mostly left wing, conviction that vaccines cause autism. A plausible hypothesis, worthy of investigation, that persists when it fails our best available tests.

The solar forcing meme isn't as discredited yet as the vaccine/autism link, but my best science sources have it 1 foot underground.

These memes persist because they feed various emotional needs. In the case of solar radiative warming some of the more naive proponents also imagine their belief will decrease the urgency of CO2 reduction, but that's clearly illogical. If the sun were really adding to man-made warming our need to reduce CO2 emissions would be even more desperate.

So where does GOP talk radio get its ideas? From Bruce West, for one ...
Army Climate Skeptic: Global Warming is Man-Made | Danger Room from

...Global warming is real, and at least partially man-made, according to controversial Army scientist Dr. Bruce West. Greenhouse gases have contributed to rising temperatures by as much as 70 percent, he said during a conference call with bloggers, arranged by the military.

For several years, West, the chief scientist of the Army Research Office's mathematical and information science directorate and an adjunct professor at Duke University, has been touting the Sun's effects on climate change -- and warning that the 'anthropogenic contribution to global warming' has been 'significantly over-estimated' by the the majority of the scientific community....
I'm an adjunct professor too. That's the academic equivalent of the mail-order doctor. It's silly to see someone using it as a credential.

Hobbyist sociologists will note several things here:
  1. The military arranged a conference call with bloggers.
  2. West is an IT manager, but he's talking about climate. He might as well talk about vaccines.
  3. Right wing talk radio loves this stuff.
  4. IT people have a lot of conviction about their amateur science efforts. Note I'm an IT person, basically. I have the same disease.
  5. Despite all that, he's saying warming is 70% due to man-made CO2 emissions ...
As science it's pretty weak, but as culture it's interesting.

Incidentally, the sharp rise in gas price is a serious threat. It's making coal and other high CO2 fuels incredibly attractive.

(BTW, even though the GOP war on science is particularly aggressive, the left has its issues too.)

Monday, June 09, 2008

Quantum Computing: the lecture notes

From the professor (Scott Aaronson of Shtetl Optimized) who gave us his lectures on theoretical computer science, we now have PHYS771 Quantum Computing Since Democritus. Or at least, as of today, lectures 1-13.

We eagerly await 14-21, including "Free Will" (I really want that one) and "Cosmology and Complexity".

iPhone prices go up by $360 over two years

Great coverage from the NYT tech blog. The price of the iPhone didn’t decrease by $200. It went up by at least $120 a year …

The Cost of the iPhone: More Per Month for Data - Bits - Technology - New York Times Blog

The biggest news from Apple is what Steve Jobs didn’t say: It has completely changed the basis of its deals with AT&T and other wireless carriers.

According to a press release from AT&T, the carrier will no longer give a portion of monthly usage fees to Apple. Instead carriers will pay Apple a subsidy for each phone sold, in order to bring the price from $399 down to $199 for the 8 Gigabyte model. The company did not specify the amount of the subsidy. Subsidies of $200 to $300 are common in the industry.

What is more, consumers will now pay $30 a month for unlimited data service from AT&T, compared to $20 under the plan introduced last year. So even though the phone will now cost $200, consumers will be out more cash at the end of a two-year contract compared to the previous deal.

Of course, that includes faster 3G data service, so the price increase may be worth it. But we should call it an iPhone price increase, not a cut.

Unlimited data service for business users will cost $45 a month…

… For Apple, this move to getting all its money up front has several advantages. By using the same economic model as every other cell phone maker, it makes it easier to bring the phone to carriers in every corner of the world.

It also should help insulate Apple from the cost of people who buy iPhones and unlock them to use on carriers that don’t pay Apple the monthly fee. Now Apple will get its money, say $500, up front and it no longer has to police what people do with them. Whether Apple will still keep penalizing users who unlock their phones is one of the many questions that remain to be answered.

I preferred the clarity of paying for hardware and data services separately.

On the plus side this makes it easier to replace your iPhone with every contract termination.

On the minus side when you have to replace a lost or broken iPhone you’ll be paying out at least $500 (as is true for all other cell phones in this class).

I wonder if the new pricing model will make it easier to sell the iPhone into corporate accounts ...

Update 6/12/08: It gets worse (emphases mine)

Tidbits: $160 more expensive ...

...SMS messages are no longer included in the data plan either, so you'll have to pay extra for them. Previously, the data plan included 200 SMS messages per month. AT&T's Messaging 200 plan, which includes 200 SMS messages, costs $5 per month, so it would seem likely that the iPhone 3G's SMS plan would be similar...

... What does bother me about all this is how both Apple and AT&T are making a big deal about the iPhone 3G being cheaper, Apple with the "Half the price" tag line and AT&T with its "$199 Starting Price Significantly Expands Mass Market Appeal" line in the press release, along with the bare-faced statement that lowering the initial price will "accelerate subscriber volumes." That initial purchase will indeed be cheaper, but anyone who doesn't take the higher monthly fees into account is either being deceived or is just plain stupid. I know it's standard marketing practice to take advantage of the math-challenged with tricks like this, but it still feels underhanded.
More on using complexity as a weapon.

Update 7/3/08: Current AT&T customers don't get the $200 discount on new phones. So for a current AT&T customer, the two year cost of a 16GB iPhone hasn't increased by $160, it's increased by $360.

The end of Apple’s surprises

Everything about the Apple keynote address was exposed ahead of time – except that there’s no memory boost and the release is even more delayed than expected …

The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW)

…iPhone 3G will start $199 for an 8GB model. The 16GB model will sell for $299, and is available in a black or white backing. It will be available in all countries starting July 11…

As Andrew says, it’s tough to keep secrets these days.

So why the longer than expected release time and the disappointing capacity?

Component shortages?

So will we see a 32GB version in a few months, once the component shortages go away?

Ahh well, I’ll order the 16GB model as soon as the online ordering is available.

Gordon’s WWDC prediction

Everyone needs one …

Gordon's Tech: An offbeat Apple keynote prediction

…Apple has an interest in an always connected touchscreen slate device that will do video display and conferencing, does audio and has a data-revenue stream associated with it.

So Apple will do a touchscreen slate device with a subsidized price, AT&T 3G data services, a required subscription model including the dotMac successor, and books through the (to be rebranded) iTunes store in partnership with Google and Barnes and Noble….

GPS and a pony too.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Minnesota naturopaths can order MRIs

Michael Paymar is our state representative. I want to know how he voted on this bill. Note, this was a DFL bill!
A bitter fight over who can be called 'doctor'

It took 99 years, but Minnesota has finally given official recognition to the practice of naturopathic medicine, which relies on the body's powers to heal itself.

Under a new state law, naturopaths -- who use everything from herbal remedies to biofeedback -- will be allowed to register with the state and call themselves doctors without fear of running afoul of the medical establishment.

... "I didn't realize how much of an issue it was going to be," said Rep. Neva Walker, DFL-Minneapolis, who championed the bill for years before it finally passed and was signed into law in May. "[I] didn't realize somebody who had supported all forms of alternative healing for years was going to be an enemy."

It allows those who qualify to use the title "naturopathic doctor" and expand their "scope of practice" to include such things as ordering blood tests and MRIs, and admitting patients to hospitals....

...The Minnesota Medical Association (MMA), representing conventional doctors, objected to allowing naturopaths to prescribe drugs and perform minor surgery. When those items were dropped, the MMA withdrew its opposition.

So, if a naturopath orders an MRI, do payors have to pay for it?

I'll ask Mike Paymar that question.

In the meantime the DFL dominated Minnesota legislature has decided that they want to continue to limit medical decision making to "professionals". What's new is that they've decided that medical science is no longer the basis for measuring professional expertise. Social judgment alone is the new criteria.

It's the same sort of reasoning that brings creationism into science classes. People who believe solar variation explains most climate change fall into this category. We're used to this, it's a familiar fight. I don't think there is any alternative to science for making judgments about the natural world, but I accept most of society doesn't agree with me.

So I object to the decision on the basis of using social fashion as the basis for measuring expertise, but that's not my primary objection.

My real problem with this bill is that it doesn't go far enough.

If you abandon science as the basis for expertise, then you shouldn't stop with naturopaths. Certainly nurses should be included, but also teachers, chiropractors, shamans, plumbers, lawyers, accountants, radiology technicians, cab drivers, flight attendants, mothers, fathers and, heck, children too.

Nor should the boundary be artificially set at test ordering. An MRI is not a small procedure, nor necessarily benign.

Let us open up all of medicine and surgery. If Naturopaths are ordering MRIs, then carpenters should be doing hip replacements. If you've every seen a 110 lb orthopedic surgeon rear back to slam the silver hammer down, you'd appreciate the role a good carpenter can play.


If you abandon science as a measure for expertise, then there are no more boundaries. I expect the courts will, in time, agree with me.

Payors and insurance companies will love this. Plumbers are not only much cheaper than neurosurgeons, the follow-up care will also be much shorter and less costly.

Caveat emptor.

Update 6/14/08: Representative Michael Paymar responded promptly by mail. He's guilty - he vote for this sucker. To his credit he doesn't mince words. He's a believer, Mike Paymar is not a rationalist. The Minnesota Medical Association approved the bill, so he felt he had cover to proceed.

Shame on them too.


Paymar is a very good representative, he wins this district by huge margins, and it's not like I'm going to vote for anyone else. On the other hand, it will be much harder now to send him our yearly campaign donations.

Joy of the global web -- what's 101 mean?

A reader of a 2006 post of mine on "Wiki 101" asked what the "101" means.

It's a wonderful question. I answered ...
Blogger: Gordon's Tech - Post a Comment

In North American universities there's a convention that introductory courses are assigned a course number of '101'.

I've never thought about why that's so, and why all schools in the US and Canada follow this rule.

So 'Wiki 101' means 'introductory course in Wiki'...
I'm guessing the question came from an international reader.

Google is investing a lot in integrated machine language translation software. Over time we'll get more more of these questions, and I'll be asking the same sort of questions when I read blogs from other languages.

I love this stuff.

Modern management literature and the Hammer of Thor

I'm obliged to consume a regular diet of management books.

There are some good ones*, often outside the best seller lists, but a heck of a lot of them remind me of 18th century medicine. They're case studies, or stories, about complex and emergent behaviors we can't yet understand. The most successful ones, unsurprisingly, spend quite a bit of time bolstering the surprisingly frail egos of corporate leadership. Once a CEO decides a book is worth reading, their enthusiasm will sell tens of thousands of corporate copies - mostly unread.

That's the formula, by the way. If you have the stomach for it, and some writing skills and a lot of luck, you can be wealthy.

Emily pointed out this morning that the meme is older than 18th century medicine. It's as old as myth. Living without science in the natural world, you live with lightning and earthquakes, storms and drought, plague and locusts and the mixed miracle of life itself. Humans are compelled to create internally coherent stories, and so myth is born. Thunder is the Hammering of Thor.

That's what most best seller management books are. Stories of The Hammering of Jack Welch, God of Thunder.

At least they're quick reading.

* I'd forgotten about this old page of mine -- I last updated over eight years ago! There's some good stuff there ... I'll recycle bits of it for the internal corporate blogging I do.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Another week, another bridge closing

The collapse of the 35W bridge was no fluke.

That's the lesson of the fourth or fifth major bridge closure in the metro area: MnDOT barricades Hwy. 43 bridge in Winona.

Minnesota's GOP legislature and GOP governors have been neglecting public infrastructure for a long time.

We finally got the GOP out of the senate, but still have a GOP governor. He's not what he used to be though, deaths from the 35W bridge put Pawlenty on the defensive. His presidential ambitions are at stake.

Maybe we need a law to hold legislators personally responsible for criminal neglect. Shame that legislators would have to write the law.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose?

Gail Collins opinion:
Op-Ed Columnist - Gail Collins - What Hillary Clinton Won - Op-Ed -

... I get asked all the time whether I think Hillary lost because sexism is worse than racism in this country. The answer is no. She lost because Obama ran a smarter, better-organized campaign. It’s possible that she would have won if the Democratic Party had more rational primary rules. But Obama didn’t make up the rules, and Clinton had no problem with them until she began to lose...
Yes, Democratic primaries are pretty weird, not least in Minnesota. There's another factor though, which nobody has mentioned.

Nobody. You're reading it here first. So only five people understand this!

Collins has forgotten John Edwards. Nobody has noticed that when Edwards dropped out Clinton became more competitive.

I suspect Obama's victory was a side-effect of the who else was in the race and the sequence in which they left. Had Edwards stayed in I think Obama would have won sooner. Edwards split Clinton's base.

Why was that base splittable? Well, I like John Edwards, but I suspect a major factor was "Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton". At some level I think running the presidency forever between two families struck many people as Banana republic.

Gail Collins should have picked this one up, I think she got caught up in the feminist storyline. The current fad is to focus on millions of allegedly enraged feminist voters. My bet is that a week from now that meme will evaporate from lack of substance. These voters will realize that they don't want to emulate the Naderites who brought us GWB.

Boring explanation of course, so you'll never read it in the media.

Friday, June 06, 2008

A shift in diabetes control

It's bad news that we weren't able to improve outcomes with tight control, but I suspect many diabetics found that control very hard to attain ...
Tight Rein on Blood Sugar Has No Heart Benefits -

...Dr. John Buse, president for medicine and science of the diabetes association, the blood sugar/cardiovascular disease hypothesis has failed for people with established Type 2 diabetes.

For these patients, “intensive management of A1C for cardiovascular risk probably isn’t worth it,” Dr. Buse said.
The focus now will turn back to preventing and/or curing diabetes mellitus.

Raising gas prices may help reduce obesity, and thus reduce disease incidence over time.

UK university lecture podcasts – tears to my eyes

This kind of stuff brings tears to my eyes.

No, really.

Aaronson’s MIT lectures on theoretical computer science, MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenAccess journals, Apple’s iTunes U, the BBC’s In Our Time – all beautiful contradictions to recent history.

Today that illustrious group is joined by several illustrious UK institutions …

BBC NEWS | UK | Education | UK university lectures on iTunes

University College London, the Open University and Trinity College Dublin are putting lectures onto iTunes.

Educational content is already available in the United States through the non-charging "iTunes U" section of the music downloading service.

But European universities are now joining, providing video and audio material for students to use on iPods or computers.

The service will include recordings of lectures from leading academics…

… The initial offerings from UCL will include material about neuroscience, the university's "lunch time lectures" and an audio news round-up.

The Open University is promising to make available 300 audio and video files with material from current courses.

Trinity College Dublin is promising lectures from journalist Seymour Hersh, scientist Robert Winston, author Anita Desai and politician Alex Salmond.

This will be available from iTunes U, launched by Apple computers last summer as a free education area within the iTunes online music and video store.

It is intended to make lectures available to students at the institutions and to a wider public audience.

This has been used by leading US universities to provide lectures and research news, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley and MIT.

Many universities in the UK have been making their own podcasts of lectures, but this will be the first time they have been distributed on the iconic iTunes service.

Open University vice-chancellor Brenda Gourley said it was an exciting new opportunity for anyone, anywhere in the world to gain easy access to its courses.

"Our aim is to partner our established distance learning expertise with the power of the internet to provide as mobile, flexible and personalised learning as possible, whatever your current educational level, personal circumstances or technological abilities."…

One hundred years ago we thought radio would bring expertise to anyone able to listen, and, thanks in large part to the BBC, it had some success. Fifty years ago people thought television would contribute, but the twin barriers of time, reach, and limited bandwidth were too high for real progress. Twenty-five years ago Bill Gates father (William Henry Gates - "CD-ROM: The New Papyrus") and I thought the CD-ROM would do this, and it might have but for the net.

Now it’s happening, and almost nobody notices.


[1] See also: The quiet demise of the CD

Amazon is down?!

Other sites are online, but Google is slow and Amazon is …

Http/1.1 Service Unavailable

It’s probably a local router issue, but weird.

Update 6/6/08: Yes, it was down. Not a DOS attack though, probably human error.

Gourmet magazine: world's most successful spammer?

There are three classes of true spam, by which I mean spam for which unsubscribe requests don't work.

There's fraudulent spam with fake email addresses. That's 95% and it's hard to stop.

There's political spam with valid, albeit fungible, email addresses. It's legal. Congress always exempts itself from its own laws.

And then there's Gourmet Magazine and Conde Nast. Valid email addresses, but unsubscribe doesn't work. They're breaking the law, but the spam keeps coming ...
Nast and Spam: what's the deal here?

... It's easy to eliminate -- I just block ''. Still, it's weird. I suspect a good portion of the middle class doesn't mind getting spam from Gourmet ...

Update 10/14/07: Judging from a helpful comment, this appears to be a business decision by Conde Nast, not a technical error or a fluke. I think there's a strong case to be made for blacklisting the domain.

Update 1/18/07: I got another Gourmet magazine spam -- but the domain was Turns out this is not a Gourmet spam after all; it's a phishing email. I suspect even Conde Nast hasn't fallen that far. It's a measure of how low they have fallen, however, that phishers are now riding their spammy coattails."
Today they started using I noticed because I had to add that to my 'delete on receipt filter'. (Note to Gourmet, if you want to comment email won't work, your domain filters to the trash.)

So how and why does a theoretically legit enterprise become a unique category of spammer?

It must be working for them. There's evidently something vulnerable about a significant number of people who subscribe to Gourmet magazine (cough, not you Emily). They must be somewhat lonely or bored, and they must be uniquely easy to sell to. Gourmet probably makes a good bit of change selling these email addresses to crooks.

If I were an IRS agent with time on my hands, I'd be auditing Conde Nast. A company that does this sort of thing probably has other shady practices. You may know them by their deeds ...

Update 7/31/08: Phishers are leveraging Conde Nast's penchant for spam and various email addresses, today a phisher used". If you hand out in the swamps, you tend to attract alligators ...

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Google transit - slowly growing, now to add bike routes

The Twin Cities has many great things, but transit hasn't been among them since we lost our trams in the 30s.

The good news is we're extending our light rail system, and gas prices are being very helpful.

Still, it's no surprise Google Transit hasn't gotten to our area yet. On the other hand, they've done Montreal:
Beaconsfield, QC, Canada to Lucien-L'Allier, Canada - Google Maps
The integration is very elegant -- you see pt-to-pt route by multiple modalities. The mobile version has transit as well.

It would be nice if they were to add bicycle routes as well.

Ok, it would be extremely nice. Minneapolis has the best bicycle transit system of any snowy city in North America, and is probably #2 or #3 by any criteria. It would be wonderful to see that appear in our Google transit maps.

I think I heard gas break $4/gallon today ...

Update 6/5/08: Per comments, we'll be getting coverage in the TC's this summer! Yay! No bike routes yet, but that's gotta come soon. I suspect Google people like bikes ...

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Britannica finally goes social

I've been a Britannica Online subscriber since they launched -- mostly out of sentiment. I really don't use them very often -- even though I set Google up so Britannica is searched with every Google query.

Years ago I hoped they might find common cause with the New York Times and build a joint community. Heck, I'd have been happy if they simply built their own community.

They never did, and eventually I figured they'd lost their way for good. I mostly forgot about the EB, even though I still subscribed. Recently, though, I began reading the Britannica blog. It's pretty good. A sign of life!

Today there were two blogs on Britannica's long delayed social reinvention. It sounds like they'll try to merge a Wikipedia like community with the core formal encyclopedia
I hope it works, I'm just glad to see there's some energy left in the place.

Evolution in action - captured and dissected

A 20 year longitudinal study of bacterial evolution is further constraint on the argument facades creationists use to conceal their faith-based opinions. Emphasis mine, arguably this research evolved a new species of bacteria ...

The Loom : A New Step In Evolution (yes, Carl Zimmer again)

... After 33,127 generations Lenski and his students noticed something strange in one of the colonies. The flask started to turn cloudy. This happens sometimes when contaminating bacteria slip into a flask and start feeding on a compound in the broth known as citrate...

...Many species of bacteria can eat citrate, but in an oxygen-rich environment like Lenski's lab, E. coli can't. The problem is that the bacteria can't pull the molecule in through their membranes. In fact, their failure has long been one of the defining hallmarks of E. coli as a species.

...In nature, there have been a few reports of E. coli that can feed on citrate. But these oddballs all acquired a ring of DNA called a plasmid from some other species of bacteria. Lenski selected a strain of E. coli for his experiments that doesn't have any plasmids, there were no other bacteria in the experiment, and the evolved bacteria remain plasmid-free. So the only explanation was that this one line of E. coli had evolved the ability to eat citrate on its own.

Blount ...went back through the ancestral stocks to see if they included any citrate-eaters.... in generation 31,500, they made up 0.5% of the population. Their population rose to 19% in the next 1000 generations, but then they nearly vanished at generation 33,000. But in the next 120 generations or so, the citrate-eaters went berserk, coming to dominate the population.

This rise and fall and rise suggests that the evolution of citrate-eating was not a one-mutation affair. The first mutation (or mutations) allowed the bacteria to eat citrate, but they were outcompeted by some glucose-eating mutants that still had the upper hand. Only after they mutated further did their citrate-eating become a recipe for success.

... Lenski's research has shown that in many ways, evolution is repeatable. The 12 lines tend to evolve in the same direction... Often these parallel changes are the result of changes to the same genes. And yet when it comes to citrate-eating, evolution seems to have produced a fluke.

To gauge the flukiness of the citrate-eaters, Blount and Lenski replayed evolution. They grew new populations from 12 time points in the 33,000-generations of pre-citrate-eating bacteria. They let the bacteria evolve for thousands of generations, monitoring them for any signs of citrate-eating. They then transferred the bacteria to Petri dishes with nothing but citrate to eat. All told, they tested 40 trillion cells...

... Out of that staggering hoard of bacteria, only a handful of citrate-eating mutants arose. None of the original ancestors or early predecessors gave rise to citrate-eaters; only later stages in the line could--mostly from 27,000 generations or beyond. Still, even among these later E. coli, the odds of evolving into a citrate-eater was staggeringly low, on the order of one-in-a-trillion...

If E. coli is defined as a species that can't eat citrate, does that mean that Lenski's team has witnessed the origin of a new species? The question is actually murkier than it seems, because the traditional concept of species doesn't fit bacteria very comfortably. (For the details, check out my new article on Scientific American, "What is a Species?")...

There's a tangent here Zimmer didn't call out.

The researchers were able to replicate the speciation-vent, but it took trillions of tries from the relatively late stage precursors of the citrate eaters. It might take hundreds or thousands of trillions of "tries" to get the same outcome from wild E. Coli. Of course that's only a few hundred years of bacterial evolution.

If they repeated the same experiments fifty times, they'd probably get other one-in-a-hundred-trillion flukes over a 20 year trial, but they'd likely be different flukes.

Flip a coin a thousand times and there's a 100% probability you'll get a sequence made up of Heads and Tails. The chance that the next thousand flips will get the same sequence is very, very low.

Naive old-style creationists got hung up on the impossibly small probability that evolution, replayed from the start, would produce us.

Well, ummn, no, it wouldn't.

The more interesting question is, if you replayed evolution on earth 1000 times, how many times would you produce something that would do experiments about evolution on earth?

That's a Drake equation question. The "expert" wild guesses are in the 20% to 0.33% range, but we could do with a few data points ...

Aging is a very old strategy -- proteins in the cap

I almost missed this astounding Boston Globe article. Mercifully I track Zimmer's blog, so I'm only 48 hours behind.

Note the explanation of why evolution has not produced immortal species (it sucks resources from adaptive capacity), and the analogy between bacterial "caps" and human eggs (emphases mine) ...

Aging is older than you think - The Boston Globe Carl Zimmer

... why hasn't evolution favored perfect repair - in other words, immortality?

"Immortality is not cost-effective," says Stewart.

To never get old, organisms would have to invest a huge amount of energy in repair. They'd be left with little energy to reproduce. Natural selection would instead favor other organisms that put less energy into repair and produced more offspring.

A common solution to this trade-off is to set aside a special population of cells that will reproduce. Our bodies put a great deal of energy into keeping eggs and sperm from becoming damaged. They put much less care into repairing the rest of our cells.

"My children are born young and rejuvenated. So the damage of my aging is kept just to me," says Stewart.

Many scientists assumed that symmetrically dividing microbes could not take advantage of the aging strategy we use. "Every problem that would arise, the cell would have to fix," says Stewart...

... Stewart and his colleagues have revealed that even symmetrically dividing bacteria get old.

They put a single E. coli on a slide and allowed it to reproduce. They engineered it to produce a glow, which made it and its descendants easier to film. Using sophisticated image-processing software, they were able to track 35,000 cells, observing how long each one took to divide.

In 2005, Stewart and his colleagues reported that some bacteria began to reproduce more slowly than their cousins, and over the generations their descendants slowed down even more.

There was one crucial difference between the old and young microbes: the caps at each end of their rod-shaped bodies. Each time E. coli divides, the two new microbes each inherit one of its caps, and the microbe must manufacture a new cap for each one. When these two microbes divide again, they each make two new caps. Over the generations, there will be some bacteria that inherit the original caps from the common ancestor of the entire colony, while others have younger caps. After a cap ages for 100 generations, the scientists estimate, the cell can no longer reproduce.

The scientists then took a closer look at what was happening inside the bacteria. Earlier this year, they reported that clumps of tangled proteins grow in E. coli. As the bacteria divide, these clumps end up in the old caps. Somehow, the defective proteins help slow down the growth of old bacteria.

Stewart sees these results as evidence that single-celled bacteria use the same strategy multicellular animals do to cope with cell damage.

"It's probably cheaper to throw away your garbage in one cell while the rest of your population grows."

Daniel Promislow, an expert on the genetics of aging at the University of Georgia, finds the research exciting. For one thing, it suggests that the common ancestor of bacteria and animals was already aging 3 billion years ago.

"Aging would be a really old phenomenon," he says.

Studying aging in quick-breeding E. coli could allow scientists to get answers about the process faster than with other lab animals, like flies or mice, Promislow says. "There's a lot you can do in a short amount of time."

It might even be possible to translate some of those lessons to medical applications. Alzheimer's disease, for example, is associated with clumps of proteins called plaques that form in neurons.

"It may be possible to find a way to alleviate protein damage in E. coli that would have a use in higher organisms," says Stewart. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy to find, though.

To the non-expert this certainly has the smell of "breakthrough". Changing the evolutionary address of aging is a big deal, and developing a new "instrument" to study aging is an equally big advance.

It feels astounding to me, but I'm easily excitable.

PS. While Death sacrifices the individual to power adaptation, Sex sacrifices offspring to power adapatation. Sex is an even more radical gambit than Death, so it's not surprising that while Death is universal, Sex can be sacrificed even in multicellular organisms.

Buying Obama bumper stickers

Oddly, there's nothing on the front page of the official site about buying campaign paraphernalia. I had to go to the answers database and search ...
Answer Center Barack Obama

You can buy buttons, t-shirts, bumper stickers, lapel pins, and party packs here.

...yard signs will be available at the this summer...
Someone needs to put this stuff on page one.

The melamine is still coming from China ...

The report of this successful intercept was published on Dec 26, 2007:
FDA Says It Halted Melamine-Tainted Pet Treats

...Sampling by the FDA’s Los Angeles District showed that pet treats imported from China, including treat seed sticks for cockatiels and honey cakes for hamsters tested positive for melamine, according to a government report...
You gotta love those Google alerts -- a small release in a bird focused pet site shows up on my news page as though it were on the front page of the NYT.

This is not good news. Yes, it's nice to know the FDA is catching some melamine contaminated imports, but that's a bit like reading about the DEA making a big cocaine haul.

It just tells us that the supply lines are still running.

The one bright spot is that if the Dems hold the Senate and Obama takes the Presidency, then there's hope for a resurrected FDA and policies that hold importers liable for product defects. The FDA only has to hold on until then ...

Of course if McCain wins ...

Anti-science and global warming - the GOP's corporate rule

The Bushies understood six years ago that the best available science predicted rising CO2 emissions would lead to global warming and disruptive local climate transformations

They must have understood this, or they wouldn't have made strenuous efforts to hide the science ..
Editorial - The Science of Denial on Global Warming - Editorial -

... An internal investigation by NASA’s inspector general concluded that political appointees in the agency’s public affairs office had tried to restrict reporters’ access to its leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen. He has warned about climate change for 20 years and has openly criticized the administration’s refusal to tackle the issue head-on.

More broadly, the investigation said that politics played a heavy role in the office and that it had presented information about global warming “in a manner that reduced, marginalized or mischaracterized climate-change science made available to the general public.”...

... What was most noteworthy about the latter report was that it made it to the light of day. A 1990 law requires the president to give Congress every four years its best assessment of the likely effects of climate change. The last such assessment was undertaken by President Clinton and published in 2000. Mr. Bush not only missed the 2004 deadline but allowed the entire information-gathering process to wither. Only a court order handed down last August in response to a lawsuit by public interest groups forced him to deliver this month.
I do find it hard to write about this stuff. If we don't read, and write, however, we're surrendering. We don't deserve the option of surrender.

It's always the same story with the Bush GOP. They aren't rationalists. They believe what they want to believe. They silence opposing voices. They ignore laws they don't like. They know they'll get away.

If the Dems didn't hold the Senate by one vote (Senator Leiberman, basically) the Bush GOP would have gotten away with everything.

One lousy vote.

So where is this type of behavior normal? In corporations. Corporations are not democracies (shock!), they are more like feudal nations. Corporations have an obligation to obey the laws (ok, unlike the GOP), but they don't have an obligation to objective truth. If you work for Exxon, you have no right to complain if Exxon refuses to publish your Exxon-funded research on global warming. There's nothing wrong with that -- that's the nature of a business.

Governments are supposed to obey the law (unlike the Bush administration), but governments in a democracy have an obligation to give citizens the knowledge needed to make informed voting decisions.

The GOP doesn't believe this. Really, it's not in their DNA. They believe they know best, and the truth only confuses the masses. Government should be run like a corporation, and the masses should be told what they need to know.

Rule by the elite, knowledge for the elite, propaganda for the masses.

Give thanks to the public interest groups who sued to get the Bush GOP to obey the law. When I find out who they are, I'll look for a way to donate money to them. I'll post that here.

Vote Obama.