Saturday, January 31, 2009

Slashdot - why did the comments become worthless?

Eons ago, maybe eight years back, Slashdot was required reading for geeks. The commentary wasn't bad, the closest thing we had to the primordial pre-spam days of usenet newsgroups or the pre-Internet BYTE discussion forums.

I still read Slashdot, albeit once very few days. The articles are quite good. The commentary, however, is almost worthless.

On the other hand, the tech blogs I follow are terrific. The information flow is very high quality -- as good as anything. Particularly from single-author blogs.

I don't know the entire story about why Slashdot failed -- except I haven't seen significantly better quality discussions anywhere else. Single voices, for me, are better commentary and analysis sources than communities.

One clue might be that the comments I wrote for Slashdot were never very highly rated. Perhaps they were simply uninteresting, but the same fate seemed to apply to all comments not posted within a few hours of a news item. Slashdot effectively rewarded speed over all other measures.

I don't think an unfortunate rating system was the whole story however. I suspect that personal ownership (editorial control, strong identity tie) of one's commentary stream and extended memory will always be a key ingredient of any future system -- including future systems of federated journalism. Blogs allow that, community forums don't.

For Emily - Google's "potentially harmful" flub

This morning Emily told me that every local site was displaying a security warning.

I was mildly concerned that her browser account had been successfully infected, and was thus providing nonsensical warnings.

Looking at the history records though, the problematic URL was a Google interstitial message. Looked to me like Google was having a bad hair day. It was, and it made world news ...
BBC NEWS | Technology | 'Human error' hits Google search

... Google's search service has been hit by technical problems, with users unable to access search results.

For a period on Saturday, all search results were flagged as potentially harmful, with users warned that the site 'may harm your computer'.

Users who clicked on their preferred search result were advised to pick another one...
When Google has a bad hair day, tens of millions of people worry. Maybe hundreds of millions.

Why we need a reformed GOP – protectionism in the Stimulus Package

At long last I can criticize my de facto home team. The “Buy American” protectionist measures in the Stimulus Package play to the weaknesses of the Dems – and populist Republicans.

Why are they so bad?

It’s not merely the hit on our economic productivity from our unilateral protectionism.

It’s not just the secondary effects of our trading partners playing the same suicidal game.

Those are bad, but they’re not the real problem with protectionism.

The real problem with a neo-protectionist global trade war is China.

Keeping China healthy, peaceful, prosperous, and engaged in a win-win world trading system is job one for any American administration. Forget pinworms like Al Qaeda, whack jobs like North Korea, Gazan plagues, and Putin’s follies – China is what matters*. If China goes down the tubes, and hundreds of millions of young brideless Chinese men become restless, our current problems will be small tubers.

Here’s what’s happening …

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: "Buy American": A Very Bad Move in the Stimulus Package

… Even economists who strongly support the stimulus package are dismayed by the protectionist measures contained within it.

"It looks like a very bad thing in the bill," said economist Brad DeLong, who worked on trade issues in the Clinton administration and teaches at University of California, Berkeley.

"Pressure from the Canadian government saying, 'Do you really want to do this?' is important."

Canadian officials have, in fact, been working behind the scenes to keep protectionist measures out of the economic stimulus package.

But they failed to stop the House version of the bill from including a provision banning the use of anything other than American-made iron and steel in projects funded by the stimulus package.

The Senate version of the bill would require that everything it funds use only American products.

The White House could try to convince the Democratic leadership to strip the anti-trade measures from the bill, both before it is voted on by the Senate and during the conference to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

If that fails, then Mr. Obama could issue what is called a signing statement saying the "buy American" provisions of the bill violate treaty obligations. That might effectively veto the measures

If there's little excess capacity in the U.S. steel industry--so that the price of steel is high enough to induce people to look outside for suppliers--then a stimulus won't be much needed. If there's a lot of excess capacity so that a stimulus is needed, then steel customers should be able to bargain prices down to marginal cost--in which case foreign producers will have an extremely difficult time competing on price given that steel is heavy and distances are great. "Buy American" seems mostly designed to allow the steel producers to collude and push their profits up--at the expense of American taxpayers.

Could Obama add a signing statement to the stimulus bill stating that the "Buy American" provisions conflict with our NAFTA and WTO treaty obligations and hence are void? I am not a trade lawyer, but my suspicion is no: neither NAFTA nor the WTO are self-executing, so any actions they call for or block are supposed to be implemented through duly passed acts of congress. Of course, NAFTA and the WTO are also treaties that are supposed to be kept.

If Obama did declare the "Buy America" provisions null and void in a signing statement, people could sue in U.S. courts to carry them out--and IMHO likely win. Then foreign governments could take the case to the NAFTA and WTO dispute-resolution forums--and IMHO certainly win. Better to strip the provisions from the bill now, or in conference.

A reformed GOP would be strongly against Protectionist suicide – and would listen to military advisers warning of the importance of a peaceful, prosperous China. Alas, the POL (Party of Limbaugh) is probably pushing this stupidity alongside the Dems.

* What about India? I have, maybe undeservedly, far more confidence in the resilience and health of India.

Human lifespan may not be easily extended

There’s been some guarded optimism among scientists that it might be possible to find drugs that slow human aging, and either extend lifespan (slow aging does not extend lifespan if you die young of cancer) or compress debility. A contrary opinion is that most humans operate near the limit of our biology, and that lifespan is largely randomly determined.

The reference for most of the drug studies are the known lifespan extending effects of caloric restriction. Known, that is, in worms, flies, some monkeys, and rodents.

Alas for the guarded optimists, caloric restriction may only work for humans who are fat (emphases mine) …

Restricting calories may not extend lifespan for everyone: Scientific American Blog

Scientists have long known that severely cutting food intake may lead to a longer life. But new research shows the phenom doesn't apply to everyone – or, should we say, to every mouse. A new study recently published in the online edition of the Journal of Nutrition found that reducing caloric intake only seems to prolong the lives of fat mice with low metabolisms.

"There has been this kind of settled paradigm that caloric restriction universally extends the life span of animals, [and] some have implied that it also applies to humans," says study lead author Rajindar Sohal, a pharmacologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angles. But he notes that he and his colleagues found that "extension of lifespan by food reduction will occur only if there is an energy imbalance [caused by a low metabolism]."

Scientists have known for more than 70 years that slashing caloric intake by an average of 30 percent to 40 percent extends the lives of animals as diverse as rodents and monkeys. But this effect is not seen across the board, according to Sohal. Some breeds of mice, for example, live 25 to 30 percent longer when their caloric intake is cut by 40 percent, while other breeds experience no benefit from shrinking calories.

Suspecting that metabolism (the speed at which calories are burned) might explain the discrepancy, the researchers compared the metabolic rates of two strains of mice: C57BL/6 mice, which are known to enjoy the life-extending effects of dieting, and DBA/2 mice, for whom dieting has been found to have no effect on life span. They found that C57BL/6 mice had much lower metabolisms than the DBA/2 mice, regardless of how much they consumed. C57BL/6 were also, on average, beefier. 

These findings suggest that calorie restriction does not have the same effect on every animal. In other words, going on diet won't prolong the lives of mice with high metabolisms (who are likely to be thin, anyway), but it could help obese mice with low metabolisms. Sohal speculates that humans will respond the same way, but notes that such studies aren't practical in people. "You can't put human [study subjects] on caloric restrictions all their lives," he says, but adds: "There is no reason why it couldn't apply to humans."

The next step is pinpointing the cause of these metabolic differences, Sohal says: "What I would like to know is, what are the specific genes that determine the difference in metabolic rate?"

Human obesity is associated with shortened life spans. So it may be that “beefy” humans will benefit from, say, Resveratrol, while skinny humans will not. One might even imagine that slow metabolizers who manage to stay thin will tend to age slowly and live longer.

Or not.

There’s a lot of marvelous science to be done, but investments in Sirtuin drugs remains highly speculative. Techo-optimists should not book their tickets to the 22nd century Singularity.

Friday, January 30, 2009

GOP hysteria featured on … “Guantanamo Baywatch”

Don’t cry for Colbert. Bush is gone, but the GOP POL (Party of Limbaugh) is still hysterically funny. They’re the highlight of Guantanamo Baywatch - The Final Season, gnashing teeth and rending garments at the thought of Killer Khalid busting out of an American Supermax.

To quote Colbert … “If they had mutant powers, we’d know it by now”.

Intel is in the OS business - with Netbooks

Ahh, remember the days that Intel and Microsoft were friends? The Wintel days?

Those days are over.

NetBooks: Intel Shows Off Moblin, Their Own Netbook-Optimized Linux OS

... We're hearing more and more about specific netbook-optimized operating systems, and Intel is joining in the game with an alpha release of Moblin, their netbook Linux OS optimized for Atom.

Moblin is based largely on Fedora, and it's still a work in progress, but its main goal is to optimize performance for Atom and Core 2 processors running on smaller machines. The alpha Intel just released alread has an innovative network connection manager and fast optimized boot times, and it's confirmed to work well with Dell's Mini 9, the Acer Aspire One, and the Eee PC 901 (although right now wi-fi on the Eee is iffy).

... Right now Moblin is using the Xfce desktop, which is pretty bread and butter. Later in the development they'll switch to a more gussied up UI based on Clutter, which Intel owns...

In related news Dell was briefly selling a refurbished Netbook Inspiron Mini today for $177, Samsung has clobbered the price of RAM modules, and India is promising a $20 Netbook, and Gizmodo has a Netbook thread with feed that gives you all this stuff in one place.

I guess I was being about right when I predicted Netbook-induced mayhem for 2009. Maybe Mattel needs to accelerate production of the Barbie B-Smart Netbook in time for Christmas 2010.

Update: Oh, and this one too. Intel Android netbooks.

Dear Canon Camera - are you listening now?

Dear Canon,

I don't think you were listening last January when I told you that I don't give a flying damn about your megapixels.

I want ISO. Screw the pixels. Give me light sensitivity and I'll buy another Digital Rebel.

Otherwise, you know, this isn't a bad time to save money.

Maybe you're listening now?
Cameras Too Expensive For Christmas This Year: Canon's Profits Down 91% (CAJ)

Japanese high-tech giant Canon Inc. warned Wednesday the economic crisis would drive down profits by two-thirds in 2009...

... Canon logged a net profit of 11.62 billion yen (130 million dollars) in the fourth quarter of 2008, well short of the previous year's 127.85 billion. Operating profit fell 81 percent to 35.83 billion yen...

... "The rapid deterioration in the economic environment since the autumn has triggered a global slump in individual consumption. This has caused damage to the digital camera market beyond our expectation," [Canon managing director Masahiro Osawa] told reporters...

I'll bet Nikon's profits didn't fall by 81%.

Give me reasonable sensor noise at ISO 1,200 for $550 and we'll talk some more.


A currently thrifty former customer.

PS. While you're in a listening mood, your computer division needs to fire the outsourced operation that develops the OS X device drivers for your scanners and printers.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The $125 Barbie B-Smart Netbook of 2011

barbiebsmart_ Our 6 yo is still using the Barbie B-Smart Learning Laptop she wanted for the Solstice (ok, Christmas).

I thought it was a silly gift even by toy standards, but Emily knew better. It's on the wane, but two months isn't bad for something that's almost pure junk.

Almost junk, because there's a surprising amount of educational software stuck into the tiny black and white display of the "laptop", and the touch pad and mouse really do, sort of, work.

It cost $70, batteries not included.

So what's next for Mattel? Well, it's not hard to imagine some interesting possibilities. By 2011 the cost of manufacturing a battery-free Chromestellation Netbook should fall beneath $100.

Mattel could sell the Barbie B-Smart Netbook for $125 in 2011. There'd be no margin on the sale, but there would be a big margin from bonded online community services, marketing to susceptible minds, and DRMd Chromestellation products.

Big time disruption is on the way.

Microsoft is in big trouble -- unless they decide to go for the jugular.

Hang on.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vanguard fears money market losses, closes funds

Vanguard's is taking defensive action ...
Vanguard − Vanguard's Treasury money market funds are closed to new accounts as yields tumble

Vanguard has closed Vanguard Admiral Treasury Money Market Fund and Vanguard Treasury Money Market Fund to new accounts effective 4 p.m., Eastern time, on Monday, January 26, 2009. The decision was made to protect the interests of current fund shareholders in an environment in which yields on short-term Treasury securities have reached historic lows.

Current shareholders of the two funds who invest directly through Vanguard may continue to invest up to an additional $50,000 per day, per fund account. ..

and by email the legal notice (emphases mine)
... Although a money market fund seeks to preserve the value of your investment at $1 per share, it is possible to lose money by investing in such a fund.
Notwithstanding the preceding statements, the funds are participating in the U.S. Treasury's Temporary Guarantee Program for Money Market Funds. The Program generally does not guarantee any new investments in the funds made after September 19, 2008, and is scheduled to expire on April 30, 2009..
Were you aware that the Guarantee program doesn't apply to investments made after 9/19/08 and that it may expire in a few months? I confess, I wasn't aware.

Vanguard should simply have explained that they had to close the fund because it was running at a loss; overhead and expenses mean Vanguard is having to shovel funds in to avoid breaking the buck. They want to cut their losses.

It also sounds like people were using it to transiently park a lot of money -- which increased expenses and losses.

Vanguard is recommending bank CDs as places to park cash. I'm getting the feeling they wouldn't mind some withdrawals before the April Guarantee program expiration.

Merrill Lynch and bailouts to bonuses - It's bankruptcy time

It's time to bankrupt and break-up the finance companies.

David Krasne - Money for Nothing -

... Merrill Lynch is not the only irresponsible institution out there. Despite a year of record losses, despite all the taxpayer money being injected into our financial institutions, bonuses for 2008 were, in some cases, down less than 50 percent from those the previous year...

Let's look for the companies that cut out their bonuses. They can be funded to do the taking over.

Merrill Lynch can pound sand.

Update 1/28/09: Occasionally Maureen Dowd is right.

Monday, January 26, 2009

It's not 1982, it's not 1929. We need not fear fear, we need fear fearlessness.

As expected, opposition to aggressive action on the economy is building. One meme is "1982 was worse"; the implication is that since we survived 1982 without aggressive government action that we don't need to do anything differently this time.

This drives Krugman batty, since he repeatedly points out that you can't make interest rates subzero. Still, the 1982ers keep singing the "la-la" song.

Today, writing for Britannica, Jon Talton goes into more detail on how 2008 is not 1982 (emphases mine) ...

Today's Recession Is Different From Those of the 1980s - Jon Talton - Britannica Blog

... Yet having lived through the 1980-82 recession(s) as an adult, it’s also important that we understand how today’s economic disruption is different and dangerous. It’s not all in our heads, as some critics of the media might have it..

1. China was barely a blip on the world economy in 1982. .. China and America are locked in an unsustainable and reckless “debt-for-stuff” relationship. Were it to deflate suddenly, it could make the popping of the housing bubble look small by comparison. In addition, China has become the world’s factory .. Now unrest is growing and could prove destabilizing.

2. Peak oil. The United States was only a few years past its peak in oil production in 1982, and world production remained ahead of demand... World peak is happening or near and the nations of this petroleum-addicted world are far from making the necessary adjustments to make the transition to a future of much more expensive energy. This is another recipe not only for economic disruption but also for geopolitical conflict.

3. Global warming. In 1982, it was a rarefied theory. Now it’s a clear and present danger... It will impose huge economic and social costs in the decades ahead. Also, more than 2 billion people have been added to the world population since 1982, severely stressing the planet’s carrying capacity.

4. The housing bubble. The housing crash of 1982 was part of a broad, cyclical downturn, made worse by the 1979 oil shock and the Federal Reserve’s war on inflation. Today’s housing crash is the result of a speculative bubble the size of which has few precedents. It will take years for this sector to come back and, for a variety of factors, the old suburban sprawl model is dying or dead. So it’s pointless to hope for a return to the 2005 go-go era. The housing crash this time has made Americans poorer, decapitated several major job sectors and helped bring on…

5. The banking crisis. Nearly every recession has an accompanying banking crisis. It could be contained in 1982 for several reasons, especially better regulation and smaller banks. ..Today’s banking system is a highly concentrated creature whose innards have metabolized far beyond traditional banking...

7. Human capital. Americans have seen their earnings stagnate for years — their only consolation the housing bubble which has now exploded. Their 401(k) nest eggs have lost as much as half their pre-crash value. Income inequality is at a high not seen since the eve of the Depression, stifling, among other things, economic mobility. Perhaps a million or more illegal immigrants are consigned to the shadow economy, kept out of mainstream advancement and creating a costly underclass. In 1982, the middle class was still strong, with relatively secure jobs, benefits and pensions. The health insurance system still worked. It was a very different country, whatever the temporary pain. In addition, today the skill gap has grown substantially. A tech-savvy “creative class,” as Richard Florida calls it, will create value in the future. Yet millions are left out, without the ladder up once provided by skilled, union, blue-collar jobs...

He missed a few key items and his monetary policy explanation skirted the fundamental zero-problem, but it's a good list.

The 80s were bad, but we know how to fix that class of problem. We don't know how to fix this problem.

The problem with a need for aggressive action is that there's a lot of political appeal to sitting calmly while the "chickens" run about squawking. Sometimes that's (only in retrospect) the right thing to do -- I was very concerned about SARS, but it (somewhat mysteriously) went away. My SARS experience made me a bit more cautious about the 2004 Avian Influenza report.

Sometimes it doesn't work. A lot of people were complacent about pre-WW II Japan, or the economic situation of 1929, or strength of the Maginot line, or the expansionary power of early euro-americans, or, for that matter, CO2 levels.

This time we don't need to fear "fear itself". We need to fear complacency.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

NYT tracks the Netbook revolution

The NYT has done a great job of tracking the collapse of the personal computer industries business model, a topic I most recently discusses this morning.

Today Stone and Vance are drilling down on the impact of the $200 price point. It's not the best article in the recent series since they mix the true disruption ($100 netbooks) with various business-oriented cloud outsourcing measures. They also fail to mention Chrome, a rather big omission.

Still, worth a scan to see where the memes are going ...

$200 Laptops Break a Business Model - Stone and Vance-

... Microsoft’s valuable Windows franchise appears vulnerable after two decades of dominance. Revenue for the company’s Windows operating system fell for the first time in history in the last quarter of 2008. The popularity of Linux, a free operating system installed on many netbooks instead of Windows, forced Microsoft to lower the prices on its operating system to compete...

... Many consumers appear ready to abandon the costly desktop computer altogether. Analysts expect PC sales to fall in 2009 for just the second time in the last two decades, with desktops falling even faster than they did in 2007 or 2008.

The only bright spot in the PC industry is netbooks. Analysts at the Gartner research company said shipments rose to 4.4 million devices in the third quarter of 2008, from 500,000 units in the first quarter of last year. Analysts say sales could double this year despite a deep worldwide recession.

Two lumbering giants, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, missed the first wave of these tiny, stripped-down machines, allowing Acer of Taiwan to grab market share. Acer pushed Apple out of the No. 3 spot behind H.P. and Dell as sales soared 55 percent. Dell and H.P. are making the devices now...

... “Companies like Intel, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments that make chips for these devices are hiring Linux talent as quick as they can,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the nonprofit Linux Foundation. “They know the future is netbooks and mobile Internet devices...

How Microsoft can win the Netbook wars

Microsoft rules the computing world. Still. The King is old, decrepit, decadent -- but his treasury overflows.

The flow is going to slow ...
Gordon's Notes: Squeezed 2009: Netbooks, Android and Microsoft

... what's a Netbook running Chrome and Linux but a calculator in drag? It's fundamentally complete. It's built entirely of plastic, silicon (sand) and a tiny amount of rare metals. All the technology development costs have been fully realized, and there's no vendor with true monopoly control. IP attacks won't work if China and India decide not to cooperate...

... The squeeze has been coming, but in 2009 it's going to be obvious. The price of the personal computer has been doing a Wile E. Coyote -- running on air for 27 years.

This year, gravity is going to kick in. Within another two years we'll see very crappy netbook equivalents being sold for under $75. Maybe they'll be today's netbook, maybe they'll be an iTouch with external display and bluetooth keyboard, maybe they'll be subsidized Chromestellation machines -- but it's going to happen.

This isn't all bad for Intel. The computing must be done. They can sell cheap chips to the netbooks and the phones, and lots of chips to the Cloud...

... but then there's Microsoft and Dell.

For them, this is very bad...
The King could go gently into the night, but he's not acting that way.

So what can Microsoft do?

They can do this:
  1. Buy the pipes, which at this time probably means building cheap to free wireless broadband networks in key markets.
  2. Give away XP. Charge $5 a copy for Netbook manufacturers.
  3. Buy a slice of Dell and start making Microsoft brand netbooks.
  4. Create a version of Windows 7 for the Netbook (they've probably already done this) that's tied to Windows Live.
  5. Become a bank.
  6. Build a retail/transaction service across 1-5.
It's a low margin business, but they'll own it end-to-end. They ought to be able to soak up an average of $100/year/user from 2 billion users.

That's not a bad business, but it means gutting their existing franchise. That's bloody hard to do.

Bloody hard, but the King is bloody handed ...

Update 1/27/09: I remember where I'd seen the latter part of this business strategy before. It was back in the days when Microsoft Wallet was a part of Windows 3, and MSN was the pre-Internet transaction network.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How to tell Netflix is having money problems

Here's how to tell when Netflix is having money trouble.

Measure the scratch density on children's DVDs.

It costs money to replace scratched and old DVDs. Since scratched disks often work this is one of the first things Netflix will scrimp on.

We're seeing a lot of scratches ...

Update 2/24/09: And a lot of broken DVDs too - maybe 1 in 5. I wonder if Blockbuster is any better. It's time to look at alternatives.

Palm Pre has search, iPhone doesn't

Yeah, and the Pre has cut, copy paste as well ...
Palm Pre: The Definitive FAQ

... The entire contents of your phone are searchable. Whether it's contacts, old conversations, appointments, media file, etc., you can easily find what you need on your phone with all the results provided in a single screen...
Whoa! Smackdown Pre.

The Pre also has background multitasking and background notification.

Did we mention cut, copy, paste?

Eat that iPhone.

My Nano qualified for a $25 class action settlement

I think I got $50 back from a flaky battery in my original iPod in the form of an Apple Store coupon [1], now I'm getting (maybe, some day) $25 for Nano scratches.
Original iPod nano owners benefit from scratch settlement - The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW)

... Thanks to a now-settled class action lawsuit, nano owners who experienced the scratchies can apply for a refund of $15 (if the iPod shipped with a slip case, as later ones did) or $25 (for no-case shipments)."
It was a pain to enter the serial number at the settlement website, I found it easier to read on the internal 'about' screen than on the back of the phone. Between re-entering the serial number and re-entering the Captcha [2] it took me five tries.

You then get a printed form you have to mail in.

It's a lot of bother, and I wouldn't do it if I didn't feel that Apple has a nasty tendency to skimp on quality control. This seems to be the only way to keep them semi-honest.

[1] Much less useful than you'd imagine. It didn't work online. I think I squandered it on a 2nd generation iPod shuffle, which was (and is) a waste of money.
[2] Captchas are getting to the end of their useful lifespan; spammer neural network software is now better than humans at deciphering them. In fact, I'm soon going to have to start using that software to support my own (legitimate) Captcha entering.

Design gone bad: form over function

There's nothing so good it can't be ruined by excess.

Even the ideals of elegant design can be carried too far (emphases mine) ...
Palm Pre: Palm Chats with Facebookers, Explains Pre's Lack of MicroSD

... Crowley is currently holding an open chat on Facebook to answer any questions people might have, although it's heavily selective. Among the questions Crowley won't answer: how intrusive is the multi-platform personal information program Synergy going to be? What about the lack of desktop synchronization, or cloud storage? But he does take a crack at a question on MicroSD expandability.

‘Design' was the highest goal on the Palm Pre project. The phone has to look and function great in the hand and up against the face on a call. The decision to include or not include expandable storage is an easy one when design is the highest priority. The physical size of the device would have been compromised if we added another physical component to Pre. Just a millimeter can seriously impact the curvature of the design in a way that minimizes the design intent...

My iPhone doesn't have a removable memory card, and I don't miss it. So I'm not griefing Palm for that call. I'm just taking the opportunity to call for balance, especially at Apple.

Design is a high goal, but function matters too. The MacBook Air should have had an ethernet cable, the MacBooks should have had a firewire port, the iPhone needs a Calendar API.

DateBk 6 is ugly, but the iPhone Calendar is lousy. There's more to good products than being pretty.

Managing the biggest global warming problem -- the American public

It's been noted before that an African Plains Ape is going to worry more about global cooling than global warming. That's particularly true for apes living in a temperate climate ...
Obama Urgent on Warming, Public Cool - Dot Earth Blog -

The latest in an annual series of polls from the Pew Research Center on people’s top priorities for their elected leaders shows that America and President Obama are completely out of sync on human-caused global warming...

According to the survey of 1,503 adults, global warming, on its own, ranks last out of 20 surveyed issues. Here’s the list from top to bottom, with the economy listed as a top priority by 85 percent of those polled and global warming 30 percent: the economy, jobs, terrorism, Social Security, education, energy, Medicare, health care, deficit reduction, health insurance, helping the poor, crime, moral decline, military, tax cuts, environment, immigration, lobbyists, trade policy, global warming...
The only reason global warming outranks head lice is that the public wasn't asked to compare the two.

Well, we knew this was going to be hard. The American public has been in the Twilight Zone for eight years, it's going to take years of education before there's public acceptance of a carbon tax, even a carbon tax that's offset by other tax cuts.

The history of tobacco education is both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging because it worked, discouraging because the groundbreaking Surgeon General's report was published in 1964, but smoking in classrooms persisted into the 1970s. The real social transformations took place in the 1980s, and smoking bans in the 1990s.

So initial change took ten years, but real change took a generation. Of course the health impacts of smoking were not exactly deniable; even the hell-spawn tobacco marketers gave up on that line by the 70s. (Odd how Team Inferno also led GOP climate change denialism).

Since we're basically at ground zero in the US, this puts American acceptance of public sacrifice at least 10-15 years away. The 8 years of Bush-led paralysis may end up being the GOP's greatest crime -- which is saying something.

Well, it's probably too late for CO2 production control anyway.

Obama will have to move on things without public knowledge or support. That means a lot of money for public education (even if the results will take another 10 years), research on climate engineering and low CO2 emission energy, EPA limits on CO2 production to reduce coal driven CO2 emissions, a gasoline tax for "energy independence" that will be offset by a payroll tax, and backroom deals with China and India.

The single most important contributor to human survival, however, will be to keep an unreformed GOP out of power. That's why Obama is going to have to tread softly, and act covertly -- the electorate can't be frightened.

Obama's Jan 24 radio address

You can stream Obama's first weekly address from the blog. It's also available as an iTunes podcast, though that's through ABC TV rather than the gov site.

Excerpts below, with my emphases. I've asked the site to start providing full feeds rather than excerpts -- please add your voice to that cause ...
The White House - President Obama delivers Your Weekly Address

... Our economy could fall $1 trillion short of its full capacity, which translates into more than $12,000 in lost income for a family of four...

... I have proposed an American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan to immediately jumpstart job creation as well as long-term economic growth...

.. It’s a plan that will save or create three to four million jobs over the next few years, and one that recognizes both the paradox and the promise of this moment - the fact that there are millions of Americans trying to find work even as, all around the country, there’s so much work to be done. That’s why this is not just a short-term program to boost employment..

... To accelerate the creation of a clean energy economy, we will double our capacity to generate alternative sources of energy like wind, solar, and biofuels over the next three years. We’ll begin to build a new electricity grid ... weatherizing 2.5 million homes.

To lower health care cost, cut medical errors, and improve care, we’ll computerize the nation’s health record in five years, saving billions of dollars in health care costs and countless lives. And we’ll protect health insurance for more than 8 million Americans who are in danger of losing their coverage during this economic downturn.

To ensure our children can compete and succeed in this new economy, we’ll renovate and modernize 10,000 schools ... We’ll invest more in Pell Grants to make college affordable for seven million more students, provide a $2,500 college tax credit to four million students...

Finally, we will rebuild and retrofit America to meet the demands of the 21st century. That means repairing and modernizing thousands of miles of America’s roadways and providing new mass transit options for millions of Americans. It means protecting America by securing 90 major ports and creating a better communications network for local law enforcement and public safety officials in the event of an emergency. And it means expanding broadband access to millions of Americans, so business can compete on a level-playing field, wherever they’re located.

... Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made public, and informed by independent experts whenever possible. We’ll launch an unprecedented effort to root out waste, inefficiency, and unnecessary spending in our government, and every American will be able to see how and where we spend taxpayer dollars by going to a new website called

I'll subscribe to the iTunes podcast. isn't up yet, there's just a notice that it will be online after passage of the recovery act.

Since I make my living working on clinical computing software, I will abstain from comment on the economic and clinical merits of investing in the EHR. The rest of it sounds good to me.

The broadband investment is critical. Cheap broadband combined with the the $150 Netbook will be revolutionary.

Google: The Quick, the Sick, and the Dead

In the spirit of the Dapocalypse, and inspired by a recent Google Sites bug, I'm going divide the Google products I pay attention to into three groups: The Quick, The Sick, and the Dead.

This would not be a good time to start relying on items in the Sick list.

The Quick
  • Search and Scholar
  • Android
  • Google Reader
  • Gmail
  • Google Contacts (added 2/9/2009)
  • Google Video Chat
  • Google Mobile Sync (added 2/9/2009)
  • Blogger
  • Chrome
  • Picasa and Picasa Web Albums
  • Calendar
  • Maps
  • Earth
  • News
  • Browser toolbars
  • Translate
The Sick
  • Google Sites
  • Google Apps
  • GrandCentral
  • Gmail Tasks
  • Custom search engines
  • YouTube
  • Shopping
  • Google Groups
  • Google Checkout
  • Google Base
  • Orkut
  • Talk
  • Desktop
  • iGoogle
  • Knol
  • Mobile
  • Documents (Presentation is near death, Docs is sick, Spreadsheet is quick)
  • Google Health (added 6/09)
The Dead
  • Google Notebook*
  • Google Page Creator*
  • Google Browser Sync
  • Google Video
* Zombie, or walking dead

I'll revise the list over time, but I think most migration will be downwards.

How will we know the economy has recovered?

We will know the economy has truly recovered when it is possible to buy a good toaster.

What is the secret of a happy life?

What is the secret of the happy life?


All the Bush conspiracy theories - up for re-examination

A terrific summary of Bush era "conspiracy theories" from Tom Tomorrow, one of our most cogent political analysts (emphases mine) ...
This Modern World - (Tom Tomorrow) “Of course…”

Olbermann’s guest, the NSA whistleblower, got me to thinking: what other things that we already pretty much understand to be true will be confirmed as fact in the weeks and months ahead? This is the list that I’ve come up with so far. (Spoiler alert: this feels like something that will probably turn into a cartoon in the next week or two, so if you prefer to be surprised there, you might want to skip this one.)

1. The aforementioned spying on journalists. Of course they were spying on journalists. And there was that oddly specific moment where Andrea Mitchell, in the course of interviewing New York Times reporter James Risen about his reporting on the NSA and government wiretapping, asked if he knew anything about the administration spying on Christiane Amanpour — a question the network promptly scrubbed from the transcription.

2. Of course Cheney was running everything, at least for the first term.

3. Of course they made backroom deals with their pals at Halliburton, Enron, etc.

4. Of course they were lying about Iraq from the start.

5. Of course torture was sanctioned at the highest levels.

6. Of course Valerie Plame was deliberately outed in retaliation for Joe Wilson’s op-ed debunking the yellowcake uranium story.

7. Of course male prostitute turned fake journalist Jeff Gannon was having an affair with someone in the White House.

8. Of course we came close to war with Iran.

9. Of course someone was feeding Bush answers during that presidential debate where you could clearly see a square shape under the back of his jacket — a camera angle that the administration had specifically demanded the network not use. And there’s the point where he interrupts his own answer to chastise someone no one else can see — of course he was wearing a wire.

10. I’m not sure if this one counts as an “of course,” but I’ve long suspected that Bush has some sort of neurological disorder which worsened over the course of the past eight years. If you go back and look at clips from his days as governor, it’s almost shocking how articulate and quick he seems. I mean, yes, we can all chuckle, ha ha those wacky malapropisms, in the way that you might have had a good natured chuckle about Ronald Reagan’s absent mindedness, until years later when you realize with dawning horror that the man with his finger on the button probably had early stage Alzheimers. Bush was inarticulate eight years ago but these days he can barely string a sentence together.

11. And maybe an overall generic entry: of course the truth will turn out to be much, much worse than we ever suspected...

… of course I go out and run a few errands, and am swamped with reader suggestions when I get back. Most of these came in repeatedly, including many suggestions that my “neurological disorder” theory might more easily be formulated as “of course George Bush was drinking again.”

– Of course Alberto Gonzales fired those attorneys for political reasons.

– Of course the White House emails were deliberately deleted.

– Of course more than two hundred thousand Iraqis were killed and more than a million displaced.

– Of course there were plans to suspend elections in the event of another terrorist attack.

– Of course Bush decided to invade Iraq in October, 2002.

– Of course the administration leaked important details of ongoing investigations by federal agencies before the completion of the investigation for purely politically expedient reasons, thus compromising the security of the cases, alerting accessories, and endangering Americans.

– Of course Whittington’s shooting involved a criminal coverup.

One of Cheney/Bush's more remarkable achievements was to revise the tinfoil hat standards. What was once absurd and silly became, for eight years, well worth consideration.

It will be quite interesting, 10 years from now, to review this list. I suspect about 80% it will be found to be correct, and none will be considered absurd. Given the surprising accuracy of the loony gas station tabloids over the past few years, I have wondered about their persistent claims that Bush was drinking again.

I've also wondered about the neurologic disorder.

As bad as we now think the Bush regime was, it's possible it was even worse.

Friday, January 23, 2009

What the iPhone needs is Gorilla Haven’s DateBk6

DateBk6 is ugly, eccentric, and complex.

I miss it terribly. The iPhone’s Calendar is pretty and swooshy, but, as a tool, it’s pretty pathetic. It’s one of the reasons I don’t sing the praises of the iPhone. (My lack of praise is probably fully responsible for weakening iPhone sales.)

Give me an ugly jackhammer like the PalmOS DateBk6 any day …

Pimlico Software - DateBk6

When was the last time that you missed buying a birthday present because there was no ADVANCE warning of an event? Or missed a task because your tasks were not integrated with your calendar? Or spent more than two taps inserting a commonly used event for which DateBk6 has a built-in template? Or needed to look at a week-at-a-glance with the TEXT listed of your appointments? Or wanted to use color on your Palm handheld to emphasize important events? Or wanted to keep your spouse's or co-worker's calendar on your palm - but visibly separate from your own? Or have DateBk6 time-zone aware so that alarms and events are properly keyed to the correct timezone? Or wanted to recover an event that you accidentally just deleted? Or link an event or ToDo to an address book entry and automatically log to it? Or put an alarm on a ToDo? Or handle events that span midnight? Or.....? DateBk6 handles all of these tasks and more. No wonder it is one of the most popular Palm programs ever written…

…Best of all, the proceeds from this product go towards wildlife conservation and the Dewar's Gorilla Haven project in the North Georgia Mountains

Of course nobody would seriously consider porting DateBk6 to the iPhone.

What a developer might do is to make a deal with Pimlico. Work with the engineer (singular I think) to reverse engineer DateBk6. Understand what it does and why it does it. Then build a true iPhone app with a similar set of ideas, but have it sync to Google Calendar and Contacts (maybe sync notes/tasks to Evernote).

Yeah, in theory Apple could produce a good solution and take this niche away but, really, there’s no sign they’ll ever do this. Waiting for Apple to open up their Calendar APIs is waiting for Godot.

So screw Apple.

I’d pay $100 if it worked.

Update 12/23/2010: It's not on the iPhone, but Pimlical for Android has been released.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

We now have Krugman’s human sacrifices

Actually, it was Paul’s wife who called for a “human” sacrifice of bankers, and my wife who seconded the motion.

In any case, we now have the winning candidates …

TPMMuckraker | Talking Points Memo |

The Financial Times reports … today that in early December, Merrill, which months earlier had agreed to be bought -- rescued, really -- by Bank of America, decided to pay out $3-4 billions in bonuses.

The bonuses were handed out on an accelerated schedule -- at least a month earlier than in previous years. And they ere agreed to just days before Bank of America, realizing how much in toxic assets Merrill had on its books, went to the federal government asking for more taxpayer money to help it digest Merrill -- money that was eventually forthcoming…

Let the ceremony begin …

Colin Powell – the path to reform?

Powell squandered his honor serving Bush and Cheney. He may have been betrayed.

We knew he’d become an Obama supporter, but reading his quotes it’s clear he’s not just a voter, he’s a fan (emphasis mine) …

Colin Powell: The America We Remember Is Back Again - Political Hotsheet

.. "I am surprised," Powell said. "I am deeply pleased it happened in my lifetime…

.. As an African-American who was once touted as a presidential candidate, Powell offered his perspective on the Mr. Obama's historic election.

"We have a man who happens to be an African-American, but beyond that, he is a qualified, capable, transformational figure – that's why we elected him," Powell said. "The fact he is African-American says so much about who we are as a people, as a country. It has energized the country and energized the world. Parades the night of the election, not only in Chicago and New York, but in Rio, in Berlin, in Obama, Japan -- there is such a place. They're building a statue in it for him already. The world wondered, can America really do this? Aren't they too divided? Can they really pull something like this off? And we said to the world, yes, we can, and we did."

Regarding the ongoing wars that President Obama will inherit, Powell offered his view on how to proceed, " terms of Iraq, we can continue the draw-down a pretty steady pace, and the Iraqis get our help, but Afghanistan, a still more difficult task. Still a tribal society, still a very poor country. The government is not functioning as well as we want it to, and you have the drug problem, which I think can destroy any country if it is not brought under control. So additional troops will help, but we need more than just additional troops. We need to do something about the Pakistan side and the government needs to start functioning. It is a political and economic challenge."

It's not unlikely that President Obama will call upon Colin Powell for service in the new era of responsibility.

Powell may yet undo some of the harm he contributed to. If he’s really willing to help, I’d forgive.

Obama – leading us out of the darkness and the torture chamber

I lived 8 years under the rule of Cheney and Bush Jr. The darkness began to lift when the Dems took the Senate, but now I’m blinking into a rising sun.

I’m mostly stunned (emphases mine) …

Obama shuts network of CIA 'ghost prisons' | World news | The Guardian

Barack Obama embarked on the wholesale deconstruction of George Bush's war on terror, shutting down the CIA's secret prison network, banning torture and rendition, and calling for a new set of rules for detainees. The repudiation of Bush's thinking on national security yesterday also saw the appointment of a high-powered envoy to the Middle East.

Obama's decision to permanently shut down the CIA's clandestine interrogation centres went far beyond the widely anticipated move to wind down the Guantánamo Bay detention centre within a year.

He cast his scrapping of the legal apparatus set up by Bush as a way for America to reclaim the moral high ground in the fight against al-Qaida.

"We are not, as I said during the inauguration, going to continue with the false choice between our safety and our ideals," Obama said at the signing ceremony. "We intend to win this fight. We are going to win it on our own terms."

In a sign of the sweeping rejection of the legal standards set by Bush, officials briefing reporters at the White House yesterday said the new administration would not be guided by any of the opinions on torture and detainees issued by the justice department after 11 September 2001.

Instead, Obama, in three executive orders, renewed the US commitment to the Geneva convention on the treatment of detainees. All detainees will be registered by the International Committee for the Red Cross, in another departure of past practice under the Bush administration.

… Another order directs the CIA to follow the US army field manual on interrogations, which bars such techniques as waterboarding…

… Obama followed up the burst of activity on detention policy by announcing that his administration would put resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the top of his agenda, "actively and aggressively" seeking a comprehensive peace deal. As a sign of that intent, he confirmed that former senator George Mitchell, a veteran US mediator, would be his Middle East envoy…

In contrast to this great post from The Guardian, Minnesota Public Radio spent most of today butchering a confused story about the restoration of US funding for international family planning. Maybe they’re even more stunned than I am.

This is a good day. All of our traditional investments have been devastated, but our investments in Obama’s election have already paid off.

Now that Obama has done his part, our task is to support the creation of an American Truth Commission and international efforts to prosecute Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Bush.

PS. In honor of President Obama, after more than five years of posting, I’ve added the tag called “government” – now that we have one worthy of the name.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The new -- now with a blog

As of this moment Google Reader was unable to parse the feed [1], but via Daring Fireball we now know of the White House blog …

EOP - Blog Post - Change has come to

Welcome to the new

I'm Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media for the White House and one of the people who will be contributing to the blog.

… Our initial new media efforts will center around three priorities:

Communication --
Americans are eager for information about the state of the economy, national security and a host of other issues. This site will feature timely and in-depth content meant to keep everyone up-to-date and educated…

Transparency – .. The President's executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and that’s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. You can also learn about some of the senior leadership in the new administration and about the President’s policy priorities.

Participation –
…we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.

We'd also like to hear from you -- what sort of things would you find valuable from If you have an idea, use this form to let us know

[1] The blog feed is - I think they’re using their own platform. It doesn’t format as expected in WLW, so I think there are more problems than non-compliant feed announcement.

PC Chaos – the rise of the $150 Netbook

On the one hand, the rise of the Chinese batteries-not-included netbook.

On the other, the Great Recession and the threat of GD II.

The tech industry is being slammed, and Apple is not going to escape.

Emphases mine (note both Lenovo (mainland) and Acer (Taiwan) are Chinese corporations) …

Chaos Reigns in the PC Industry -

… The major PC component suppliers –- companies like Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Nvidia, Seagate and Western Digital –- are reeling as hardware sales dry up. The credit crunch took its toll on business spending, then American corporations shut down in December in a bid to save money and now companies in China have halted their spending as the Chinese New Year approaches...

… In the fourth quarter of 2007, Acer held 9.5 percent of the PC market, while Lenovo held 7.5 per cent. In the fourth quarter of 2008, Acer boosted its stake of the PC market to 12.3 percent, while Lenovo dropped to 7.1 percent. Acer’s market share is now just 0.9 percentage points behind Dell, according to Gartner.

The rise of netbooks, a type of cheap, ultra-compact laptop, has helped spur Acer’s growth. Acer and its fellow Taiwanese PC manufacturer Asustek Computer have led the netbook market, while slower-to-act rivals waited to figure out if the products would enjoy wide interest.

In its fourth quarter, Intel reported a 50 percent surge in the sales of its [jf. low margin] Atom products, which go into netbooks, hitting $300 million in revenue…

.. The PC makers tried the light, compact laptop idea before with so-called ultra-mobile PCs. But it took better broadband connections, more online services and much cheaper PCs to really make the idea take off. Now the PC market may never be the same.

Broadband providers around the globe are expected to start giving away netbooks in exchange for commitments to wireless network services, Mr. Richard said…

PC makers sowed the winds with 27 years of prices suspended in mid-air. Now comes the hurricane. Microsoft is going to be hurt very badly, and Google’s chromestellation strategy could be a big winner.

Alas, there’s not much money in this for any PC hardware vendor – not even Acer. Only for those that sell components to Google.

I think this is why Apple showed nothing at MacWorld. Apple had a netbook years ago, they’ve got a netbook-in-waiting now. It’s time to see if they intend to play.

Update 1/22/09: As expected. Microsoft is not stupid, though Gates would have been more brutal. His great strength was an eagerness to shoot the lamed horse - past love be damned.

Nonbelievers. Now that's change.

Obama included "nonbelievers" in his list of "good peoples".

That's change.

He didn't pull a lot of punches. His audience didn't entirely love the bit about embracing science and technology effectively. He outlined what he's going to do pretty darned clearly.

I believe. Change is here.

Update: DeLong makes a plausible claim that we may now have the most capable reason-based government since ... well, at least 100 years. Maybe longer. I need to add the "enlightenment 2.0" tag to this post.

iMacs are expensive

We'd like to reorg our home office. That means I need at least the same computing capability in half the space.

The best way to do that is to ditch my 5 yo big-old XP box and monitor, and replace it with a 24" iMac that will run Fusion/XP and OS X, using the monitor as a 2nd display. (The 20" model has a joke-quality LCD that Apple should be flogged for selling.)

Problem is, that will cost me about $2,400 with appropriate RAM.

Or I could get a Mac Mini and forgo the 2nd display. There the price is quite good, but the memory capacity and processor speed are currently on the low side -- and rumor is that the next generation will sacrifice CPU to make the Mini smaller and cooler. Of course Apple will also drop the firewire connection, so performance will take another big hit.

I'd buy a more powerful Mac Mini that would sell for, say $800 base and $1000 or so with 4GB. I'd attach an external firewire hard drive and/or a NAS.

It's not that the iMac is all that more expensive than a similar Vista box, it's that Apple doesn't offer the package I want. This isn't the time to be buying a $2,400 computer that we don't desperately need ...

Update 1/27/09: I originally titled this "Macs are expensive". On reflection though, it's more true that the iMacs are expensive. The newly renovated plastic "low end" MacBook is suddenly quite a bargain.

True, it's very hard to find on Apple's site, but there is a page. An adequate CPU, firewire, big drive, NVIDIA graphics, external monitor, 4GB RAM capacity, did I mention firewire ... The general MacBook tech spec page claims it outputs up to 2560x1600 external video -- sufficient to drive some 30" monitors ...

Update 3/3/09: Not any more! Evidently Apple agreed with me. A price drop from $2,400 to $1,500 is damned aggressive.

Performance-based compensation and novel financial instruments: an explosive combination

Econbrowser draws a connection between known problems with performance-based compensation, given to CEOs to “align” their interests with those of shareholders, lack of regulatory oversight, and financial innovation (emphases mine) …

Econbrowser: Executive compensation

… That the incentives for CEOs need not necessarily coincide with those of the shareholders is a well understood phenomenon that is a special case of what economists call the principal-agent problem. This arises in situations when an agent (in this case, the CEO) has better information about what is going on than the principals (in this case, the shareholders) who rely on the agent to perform a certain task. One way to try to cope with these problems of asymmetric information is to tie the agent's compensation directly to performance.

What caused that principle to go so badly awry in the present instance? I believe there was an unfortunate interaction between financial innovations and lack of regulatory oversight, which allowed the construction of new financial instruments with essentially any risk-reward profile desired and the ability to leverage one's way into an arbitrarily large position in such an instrument. The underlying instrument of choice was a security with a high probability of doing slightly better than the market and a small probability of a big loss. For example, a subprime loan extended in 2005 would earn the lender a higher yield in the event that house prices continued to rise, but perform quite badly when the housing market turned down. By taking a leveraged position in such assets, the slightly higher yield became an enormously higher yield, and while the game was on, the short-term performance looked wonderful. If the agent is compensated on the basis of current performance alone, and the principal lacks good information on the exact nature of the risks, the result is a tragically toxic incentive structure…

In point form then the contributing factors were:

  1. the well known principal-agent problem
  2. poorly designed performance based compensation (an attempt to mitigate the principal-agent problem, but the time scales are not aligned)
  3. leverage without regulatory oversight
  4. novel financial instruments with a no more than average* (probably below average when expenses are incorporated) expected value but a skewed probability distribution – so there was a high probability of slightly above average returns and a low probability of catastrophic failure

It’s a persuasive argument, consistent with Lewis and Einhorn on repairing the financial world, Lewis (again) reporting on the “end of Wall Street” and Henry Blodget writing for the Atlantic – Why Wall Street Always Blows It.

My take away lessons are:

  1. We need to be very careful with performance based compensation. The problem isn’t that it’s not an effective incentive, the problem is that it’s too effective an incentive. The physician “pay for performance” crowd should pay attention to this, but they won’t.
  2. We need regulatory oversight. Yeah, we knew that.
  3. Novel financial instruments, whether they provide new ways to skew probability (2008), or new forms of leverage (1929), need to set off red flashing lights and screaming alarms in the Treasury, Congress, the White House and the Federal Reserve. Our government and regulatory agencies need to be doing continuous “war gaming” about how new technologies will transform finance, and constantly about how to avert future catastrophic scenarios.

See also:

  1. Jumping the canyon of Great Depression II
  2. Stimulus and the scale of under-utilized global productive output
  3. Lewis and Einhorn: repairing the financial world
  4. The role of the deadbeats
  5. Complexity collapse
  6. Disintermediating Wall Street
  7. The future of the publicly traded company
  8. Marked!
  9. Mass disability and income skew
  10. The occult inflation of shrinking quality
  11. You get what you pay for. The tragedy of the incentive plan.

* In this sense “average” refers not to the averaging over the lifespan of the instrument, but rather all the probable outcomes – an expected value calculation really.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama falls for the Jena meme

Not Obama's best speech line ...
Obama Addresses Homophobia, Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia Among Black Americans | The New York Observer

... We have a deficit in this country when there is Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others...
Except the Jena story wasn't that simple. Wikipedia provides excruciating detail.

The speech would have been better without that line ...

Obama knows what he’s doing – calming the right …

I didn’t like the Warren choice, but I’ve been worried about culture shock on the right. Maybe Obama, who is perhaps a bit better at politics than I am, has been worried too. Maybe he’s been trying to calm their anxieties.

Maybe it’s working …

In McCain Country, Acceptance of Obama Grows

… In interviews in the week leading up to Mr. Obama’s inauguration, many people here said a tolerant spirit toward his presidency has been hastened, paradoxically, by some of the same groups that voted mostly Republican in the election. Those include active or former military personnel, and people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians, two groups with traditions of respecting hierarchical order and strong leadership…

… Leonard Nelson, 63, a 23-year veteran of both the Army and the Navy, said he had voted for Mr. McCain mainly through military fealty, believing that Mr. McCain’s own military record would make him a better commander in chief.

“But I’ve come to think the better man won,” said Mr. Nelson, owner of the Humidor Cigar Shop, an aromatic haven of pipes, blended tobaccos and customers on a first-name basis. Mr. Nelson said that Mr. Obama, through his cabinet selections, sent a signal of centrist government intention that feels all right to him.,,

… At one of the city’s biggest evangelical megachurches, Victory Christian Center, with 17,000 members, there were also mixed messages of enthusiasm.

The church’s pastor and founder, Billy Joe Daugherty, said that the selection of the Rev. Rick Warren, a prominent evangelical minister from California, to give the inaugural invocation went a long way to easing fears in Mr. Daugherty’s mostly conservative congregation about a liberal social agenda…

“What I’m sensing from Obama in making the choice he did — he’s saying to all groups, ‘Why don’t we come together?’ ” Mr. Daugherty said in an interview…

When Bush “won” in 2000, he acted as though he’d won by Obama’s 2008 margin. Obama, who really did win big, behaves like he just squeaked by and needs every vote.

What’s next, a visit to Limbaugh?

We don’t deserve this President, but I’ve never been in favor of getting what we deserve.

I find this all very hard to believe

Cheney is left to twist in the wind ...

Neither Libby, nor Cheney ...
Bush Commutes 2 Border Agents’ Sentences -

... There had been speculation that President Bush would grant clemency to some high-profile defendants, but the White House official said the two ex-agents would be the last to benefit.

I. Lewis Libby Jr., former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, could have been granted a pardon for his role in the leaking of a C.I.A. agent’s name and an attempted cover-up. In July 2007, Mr. Libby’s prison sentence was commuted. Nor was there any clemency for former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who in late October was convicted of ethics violations for not reporting gifts and services given by friends. Mr. Stevens would lose his bid for a seventh term....
I don't think the Bush and Cheney families are talking any more.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Why I ignore Amazon's "helpful" ratings ...

I think this sort of thing is pretty common, even when it doesn't involve bribery ...
Slashdot | Belkin's Amazon Rep Paying For Fake Online Reviews
... recently discovered that Belkin's lead online sales rep, Michael Bayard, has been secretly paying internet users to review his company's products favorably on and other websites like Newegg, whether or not they've ever used the devices. Bayard instructed the people he was paying to 'Write as if you own the product and are using it... Mark any other negative reviews as 'not helpful' once you post yours.'..
I always read the negative reviews. I never bother with the "helpful" rankings because they're often obviously gamed.

I kind of figured this out when I realized that my positive Amazon reviews were always "helpful", but my negative reviews were often "not helpful".

Jumping the canyon of Great Depression II

I'm now working my way through lectures by James Shenton, part of a 1996 Teaching Company course on the History of the United States.

It's radically abridged history; stories of a thousand pages become a few sentences or nothing at all. Even then there's too much attention to the idiosyncrasies of various presidents, but Shenton changes gears when he gets the Great Depression. Things get vivid, perhaps because Shenton was born in 1928..

Sheton's lecture took place at the height of Clintonian prosperity, in the midst of the roaring 90s, near the time Greenspan warned of "irrational exuberance" (alas he changed his mind) and four years before the dot com crash of 2000. Shenton might have wondered if he was replaying the 1920s, but that doesn't come across in the lectures.

Listening in 2009 it's eerie hear him walk through the prelude to Great Depression I, and comparing his list to our our time.
  • A culture of acquisition? Check.
  • Stocks couldn't go down? Depends when date the start of our troubles. If we go with 2000 then that's true again, even in 2007 the "home prices never fall" meme was in play. (Of course home prices fell big time in GD I.)
  • Income inequality? Check.
  • Great dust bowl? Not here, but how about China?
  • Exotic new financial instruments (margin buying)? Check (derivatives)
  • Excessive consumer debt (installment buying)? Check (credit cards)
  • Technological transformation (auto, electricity, radio)? Check (computer, net)
  • Complexity collapse (Keynes)? Check.
  • Collapsing banks? Not quite. This time we might have learned something.
  • Deflationary spiral? That's the current worry.
So are we going to lose 50% of our GDP, face 25% unemployment and 25% underemployment?

I really don't think so. Yeah, the bridge is out, but the engineer is turbocharging the train engines. Maybe we'll get through the bank crisis and the deflationary crisis before massive unemployment hits -- meaning the train jumps the canyon.

If we make it across the canyon though, we'll have one hell of a clean-up job ahead.

Obama's going to need 8 years, and pray Reason the unreformed GOP doesn't make a comeback.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Annals of idiocy - AT&T spams customers about a TV show

We live in numbing times. There's not much outrage left, we have to marshall what we have to deal with the Cheney/Bush torture program.

Still, lunacy like AT&T's recent bonehead move deserves at least a whimper or two (emphases mine) ...
AT and T Sends Customers ‘Idol’ Ads -

Some AT&T Wireless customers have voted an emphatic no on a promotion for “American Idol” that popped up on their phones this week.

AT&T, a sponsor of the show, said it sent text messages to a “significant number” of its 75 million customers, urging them to tune in to the season premiere on Tuesday night...

... Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T Wireless, said the message was meant as a friendly reminder. “We want people to watch the show and participate,” Mr. Siegel said. He added, “It makes perfect sense to use texting to tell people about a show built on texting.”

... Mr. Siegel said the message went to subscribers who had voted for “Idol” singers in the past, and other “heavy texters.” He said the message could not be classified as spam because it was free and because it allowed people to decline future missives.

“It’s clearly marked in the message what you need to do if you don’t want to participate,” he said. “It couldn’t be more open and transparent.”

Richard Cox, the chief information officer for Spamhaus, a nonprofit antispam organization based in Britain, countered: “It’s absolutely spam. It’s an unsolicited text message. People who received it didn’t ask for it. That’s the universal definition of spam.”..

...Mr. Siegel of AT&T defended the use of the medium given that voting by text message had played a big role in “American Idol.”

“Text messaging is the perfect way for us to tell people about this wildly successful show and to watch it,” he said...
Mr. Siegel's soul has had a rather bad day. I hope he sends it out for some rehab. Being a spokesbot for AT&T can't be pleasant.

AT&T's cell phone spam attack is not as bad as SONY injecting malware into their customer's computers, but it still deserves a spark of outrage.

Ok, a feeble squib of outrage.

Still. Something.

Update 2/7/09: Gizmodo's comments.

American torture - what's next

Obama (praised be his name) is likely to define waterboarding as torture and pledge to follow the spirit of the Geneva convention.

So what do we do next about American torture?

Well, to get caught up with the matter, a few helpful references:
As to the last, we're not outraged because, frankly, our outrage engines have burnt out. At this point nobody would be shocked to discover that Cheney has a private dungeon full of missing people.

So we'll have to proceed without outrage. Panetta says it reasonably well (emphases mine) ...
Brad DeLong's Egregious Moderation: Leon Panetta on Torture

... According to the latest polls, two-thirds of the American public believes that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is justified in some circumstances. How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear.

Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what's wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock?

The simple answer is the rule of law. Our Constitution defines the rules that guide our nation. It was drafted by those who looked around the world of the eighteenth century and saw persecution, torture, and other crimes against humanity and believed that America could be better than that. This new nation would recognize that every individual has an inherent right to personal dignity, to justice, to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment...
Admittedly, Panetta has rather naive view of American history, but I'll take it. Creation myths have their uses. At least he doesn't resort to the asinine tactic of including "torture doesn't work" as a reason to avoid it. That stupidity implies that if we came up with an effective way to torture then things would be simply peachy.

Next steps?

We need to support an American Truth Commission. We need to support international efforts to prosecute Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld and Rice. At the least they can be denied the comforts of Florence. We need to get the story out, and we need to write about it even when nobody wants to read about it.

Even with all the outrage worn out, we keep plodding along.

Eight years - among the worst

We've had some really bad presidents. I mean really bad.

Warren Harding was perhaps the very worst. He was completely unsuited to the job, but his friends made him look good by comparison. They stole and ruined a vast amount. It was a record of pillage, looting and waste that has stood for almost a century. But then came eight years of George Bush Jr (Frank Rich -

Wow. Rich has done a great job of summarizing an astounding record of greed, theft, and incompetence. It's easy to imagine that Bush was a Soviet "Manchurian candidate", programmed forty years ago to destroy America.

Except, of course, he couldn't have done it alone. He needed Cheney and GOP control of the House and especially the Senate.

The almost worst thing is, America reelected Bush. We stuck it to ourselves. The really worst thing is that we stuck it to the rest of humanity too.

Interview from the dark side of software

From Slashdot, a pointer the very best interview I've read in the past year.

It's the story of an extremely bright programmer who, step by step, walked beyond the limits of morality but just to the margins of the law. [Update: Or maybe well beyond the limits of the law. Via Schneier]

He's reformed now, but his look back at the software he wrote is amazing. There are clear indications of current wisdom ...
philosecurity - Interview with an Adware Author

.... Most things don’t have to be perfect. In particular, things involving human interactions don’t have to be perfect, because groups of humans have all these self-regulations built in. If you and I have an agreement and you screwed me over badly, you’ve always got in the back of your mind the nagging worry that I’m going to show up on your doorstep with a club and kill you. Because of that, people don’t tend to screw each other too much, right? At least, they try not to. One danger, perhaps, of moving towards an algorithmically driven society is that the algorithms aren’t scared of us showing up and beating them up. The algorithms will do whatever it is that they are designed to do. But mostly I’m not too worried about that....
The tech side is fascinating too. Nobody knows Windows like a black hat. I wonder how much this sort of story has informed the design of OS X 10.6 ...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Unexpected social good - a post on roaring fans

My tech blog posts are partly for my own use, and partly I'm trying to give back.

Sometimes it seems to work; some posts get very kind comments.

There's one, however, that really stands out.

An otherwise unremarkable May 2008 post on how badly written OS X print drivers cause howling, roaring, fans has earned me more “thank yous” than almost anything else I’ve done in the past few years.

Funny how that works.

China 2009 is about to become Japan 1986

So you’ve probably been thinking that after the last ten years we’re due for a respite. A bit of calm amidst the floating refuse of our crated life raft. It was a big waterfall for sure, but now we get to float for a while.

Then you hear the roar of the next cataract.

Very few people now remember than by 1986 Japan had just about finished off the American car industry and was about to conquer the American computing industry.

What'? You don’t remember the congressman taking a sledgehammer to a Japanese made IBM-clone?

I remember because my very first PC was an 8086 clone made by Panasonic. It was the most over-engineered device I’ve ever owned. It was built to last thirty years, and it cost less than the other clones on the market.

IBM, Compaq, and the like were terrified. Congress was appalled – America had lost the automobile*, now we were going to lose the computer too.

De facto “voluntary” quotas were enforced. Panasonic and other Japanese PC vendors left the desktop market. Dell became dominant.

Flash forward 23 years …

Chinese Electric Automaker Challenges Big Three

…Chinese car maker BYD Co. BYD developed an electric automobile that only costs consumers $22,000…

Gee, this feels familiar.

Wait until Chinese/Google “Chromestellation” netbooks start selling at Walmart for $124.99 (batteries not included).

Eeeeeeeyyyyyaaaaaaa …..

* The same set of “voluntary” quotas forced Japan to manufacture in the US, and also allowed GM, Chrysler and Ford time to more or less compete with Japan.