Saturday, February 28, 2009

Jindal - the GOP's gift to the nation

I don't thank the GOP for much, but I do have to credit them for an unsuspected sense of humor.

How did they know Jindal was just the comic relief we needed?

Inventing stories of personal faux heroism (remember how the GOP savaged John Kerry for relatively minor discrepancies in true stories of military action?), alienating the entire Coast Guard by claiming government did nothing for victims of Katrina (they were heroic), mocking federally funded research on (wait for it ...) volcanic eruption prediction ...

Phew! Pardon me while I wipe a tear from my eyes. That was a comic tour de force. But Frank Rich tells us there was even more...
Frank Rich - The Ecstasy and the Agony -

... Listening to Jindal talk Tuesday night about his immigrant father’s inability to pay for an obstetrician, you’d never guess that at the time his father was an engineer and his mother an L.S.U. doctoral candidate in nuclear physics. Sanford’s first political ad in 2002 told of how growing up on his “family’s farm” taught him “about hard work and responsibility.” That “farm,” the Charlotte Observer reported, was a historic plantation appraised at $1.5 million in the early 1980s. From that hardscrabble background, he struggled on to an internship at Goldman Sachs...
Really, it's too much!

Thank you Party of Limbaugh! You sure know how to make me forget my minor woes ...

Economist obituary: Christopher Nolan

The photograph accompanying Christopher Nelson's obituary shows a young Nolan with his mother by his side, his father smiling in the background.

I wonder how the heck they got that photograph.

Nolan asphyxiated when eating, a complication of his severe cerebral palsy.

The Economist tells the story of an author and poet with a terrible disability and remarkable parents (and, I suspect, friends and family too). The obituary doesn't mention that he inspired a U2 song.

It's a memorable story, remarkably written. The Economist saves its best writing for the last page, and some nameless wordsmith wrote their heart out to get this one done.

Economic recovery test -- the pencil sharpener

I've recently proposed the toaster test as a measure of economic recovery. We'll know the economy is healthy when it's again to buy a toaster that works well for ten years.

Personally I like the toaster test, but it takes a lot of toast to show that the toaster works. Not everyone likes toast as much as I do. Fortunately there's a cheaper alternative, one that I mentioned in a rant last year...
... This morning our last modern pencil sharpener broke. We have only one that works now. It's twelve years old, I remember coming across it in the campus bookstore ... It was made in Germany. We're going to mention it in our will, it may be worth a fortune thirty years from now...

... How to explain this emergent conspiracy of globalized incompetence and occult inflation? Clearly the answer is related to Krugman and Hilton [1] and the reelection of George Bush... Consumers are ... consistently making very poor choices, and the market is responding to the frailty of the consumer...
When we buy pencil sharpeners now they look like this:

When we can buy pencil sharpeners that work as well as this one ...

the economy will be on the mend.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The iChat abandonware problem - a sign Apple is in trouble

There's a feature in iChat, Apple's videoconferencing software, that's supposed to allow users to auto-accept chats.

It looked promising for what I want to do -- set my mother up for videoconferencing in the simplest possible way.

Problem is, when you activate it, you get this message:
AppleScript Event Handler Error
... Event: When I Log In
File: Auto Accept.applescript
Error: Error -1708
It's not a new bug, it was recognized at least two years ago. Apple hasn't fixed it in 10.5.6.

It's not the only sign that iChat is abandonware.

Apple didn't used to be this bad. My recollection was that with 10.3 they tried to fix egregious bugs and they incrementally improved their bundled apps.

Something changed after 10.3. Maybe it was losing Avie Tevanian, or maybe it was when Apple decided that they would stop adding significant new features with OS point releases, possibly related to their interpretation of Sarbanes-Oxley revenue recognition (aka technical accounting) ...
Gordon's Notes: Sarbanes-Oxley means no features in future software updates from publicly traded companies?

... Update 3/10/07: I'd read some coverage that claimed Apple was interpreting Sarbanes-Oxley incorrectly. I'd written our representative to ask about this, and Betty McCollum's office replied "Apple has to account for the separate value of a software upgrade that allows for additional capabilities from the hardware.... a nominal fee ... establishes a reportable value for the upgrade." So Apple has interpreted the law as congress understands it. At least when it comes to enabling new hardware capabilities, SO means Apple must account for the value delivered. A nominal fee is one way to do that.
Of course here we're talking bug fixes, not new features, but I wonder if there's an indirect connection.

I see similar problems across OS X applications, such as iCal, Address Book, etc. They're pretty competitive when the OS is first released, but they're very buggy. After a point release or two the biggest bugs get more or less worked out, but then they slowly fall behind the competition.

Apple doesn't improve them, so over time they're less used. They become abandonware. Unfortunately, their bundled existence also prevents vendors from easily filling the gaps with aftermarket products.

Then a new OS release comes along and the cycle begins anew. Of course the new release often requires purchasing new hardware ...

This has become a kind of sickness for Apple. They desperately need better quality in their non-core OS applications, but they also need to find a way to stay competitive with these apps. They could change their interpretation of Sarbanes-Oxley, they could change the way they recognize revenue, or they could separate these core apps from the OS (the way they did with iLife -- some of those apps used to be bundled with the OS).

I'm not a representative Apple customer, so I can't say this sickness is all that harmful to them. I think though, if they wait for signs of retail trouble, that they'll find they've waited too long. Maybe Apple should consider customers like me to be the "canary in the coal mine".

This canary is looking for a new mine.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A beautiful opportunity for an OS X app – front end to GVC

I’ve recently raised the grade on Google Video Chat.

Gordon's Tech: Google Video Chat - a status report - Grade B-

Update 2/24/09: Grade A-: The OS X client now seems comparable to the Windows client. Both drop sessions every hour or so. The quality can be astounding. Usability is astoundingly bad however. Still, beats Skype and iChat easily.

Really, it’s amazing technology. Congratulations Vidyo.

Alas, usability sucks. There’s no way my mother could operate this monster.

Which means there’s a beautiful opportunity for an OS X shop when Google finally publishes an API for GVC.

Someone can put together an app with five huge buttons.

My mother opens the app, clicks a button, and I’m called.

I’d pay $50 for that alone.

The Empire Strikes Back – Microsoft launches IP war on the netbook

A day after officially announcing that a slimmed down version of Windows 7 will be targeted at the netbook (no surprise), Microsoft dropped the other anvil

Microsoft (MSFT) has gone and done it, they've filed suit in U.S. District Court claiming Linux violates their patents…

No word yet on the finer points of the dispute, all we know so far is Microsoft claims eight patents were infringed…

The suit was launched against a GPS vendor, but nobody thinks they’re the real target. Microsoft has targeted Linux via proxies, but this is the first time they've worn their own face.

Microsoft fully understands the threat they face …

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…

Well, maybe the IP attacks won’t “work”, but they can buy time – time that’s worth hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue. Time to execute on a strategy Microsoft can win with

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.

The patent attacks will slow things down. I’m sure this strategy has its own risks. The EU won’t like it for one thing. On the other hand, Microsoft is facing disruptive annihilation. They’ve decided they don’t have a choice.

Now things get ugly.

Look for IBM and Google to move next.

The $50 server platform to come

There are so many things, for better or for worse, people will do with this ...

SheevaPlug: A $99 Linux PC Crammed Inside a Wall Plug

Think about it—an inexpensive Linux PC crammed inside a wall-wart plug. Something like this SheevaPlug ...

Inside the SheevaPlug you will find a 1.2GHz, ARM-based Sheeva embedded processor, 512Mbytes of FLASH, 512Mbytes of DRAM, gigabit ethernet and a USB 2.0 port.... operates on only 5-watts of power..

... Marvell expects the price for these devices to dip below $50. [Marvell and WSJ via Tech Report via Slashgear]

It's of a piece with the netbook tsunami; intensely disruptive in the Christiansen sense. What makes it so disruptive, beyond price, is that it's a standard component based platform - low power consumption (so no fans, cooling, etc), Linux (so software), USB 2 (peripheral) and GB ethernet (I/O).

There's no display of course, but there will be a slightly more expensive version with monitor connector -- or the video will route through a future USB 3.0 peripheral connector.

The next two years will be very ... interesting. I wonder when this kind of device will become contraband.

I remember when I first saw "the web" -- except it was Gopher then. Same idea though, the web was just a prettier version. I knew then the world was turning upside down.

Same feeling the first day I used Google and called my fellow geeks over to let 'em know Alta Vista was dead.

This is blood in the water for geeks. We can smell it ...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Narrowing the Drake equation - if earth is common then ...

It's certain not everyone agrees with Alan Bass, but this fits the trend of the past few years (emphases mine):

Earths Common as Dirt: Scientific American Podcast

“We’re on the verge of finding out how frequently habitable planets occur in the universe.” That was astronomer Alan Boss at the AAAS meeting on February 14th. “And I think we’re going to find out that that number is very close to one.” Meaning that each solar-type star is probably orbited by, on average, one Earth-type planet. So how many habitable planets might be out there?

“10 to the 11th in our galaxy and then there are something like 10 to the 11th galaxies. We’re up to about 10 to the 22 Earths, plus or minus a few.

“You don’t have to just believe that this speculation is going to be correct or not. NASA will be launching the Kepler space mission, and Kepler’s entire purpose is to count how many Earths there are around a population of stars in the constellation Cygnus.” Kepler launches on March 5th.

“Then about three or four years from now, there’ll be a press conference at NASA headquarters, and Bill Borucki, the Kepler PI will stand up and tell us just how frequently Earths occur. And once we know that we’ll know how to take the next steps in the search for living planets, and some of that work will involve not only telling if the planets are habitable, but actually searching for signatures in their atmospheres if they could be inhabited, as well.”

Presumably including signatures in the atmospheres that might also indicate widespread use of hydrocarbons.

Incidentally, 10*22 can be written as 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planet Earth's throughout the observable universe, and 10*11 means 10,000,000,000 in our galaxy alone.

Which brings one to the Drake Equation. In 2007 I reviewed a "Damn Interesting" summary of this simple equation ...

Damn Interesting has a very nice Drake Equation/SETI review today. Allan Bellow's even touches lightly on the Fermi Paradox, though he doesn't get into the various paradox resolutions.

The highlight of the article is an interactive Drake Equation calculator. Users start with various presets, including the 'rare earth' and the 'Drake 2004' options, then add their own biases. Two of the "terms" of the Drake Equation are now relatively accepted, below I show them and 3 variations on the rest: Drake 2004, rare earth, and me...

Here was my guess then using the interactive Drake Equation calculator

Average number of life-compatible satellites = 0.10
Percentage of planets where life does appear = 87.50%
Percentage where intelligent life evolves = 20.00%
Percentage of civilizations which send signals into space = 90.00%
Average years that civilizations will send signals = 200.00
Average civilizations in our galaxy = 9.5

If I boost the first number I get (emphases mine) ...

New Milky Way stars per year = 6.00
Proportion of stars which have planets = 95.00%
Average number of life-compatible satellites = 1.00
Percentage of planets where life does appear = 74.00%
Percentage where intelligent life evolves = 20.00%
Percentage of civilizations which send signals into space = 100.00%
Average years that civilizations will send signals = 200.00
Average civilizations in our galaxy = 168.7

Actually, there's a defect in the calculator. You can't make the percentage of life-bearing planets where intelligent life evolves > 20%.

That may be an underestimate. From The Economist (2/8/2009, emphases mine):

Charles Darwin's revolution is unfinished | Unfinished business | The Economist

.. Gould’s view was thus that the evolution of human intelligence while not exactly an accident, since it was a response to a long series of circumstances, was certainly not a foregone conclusion. If that series of circumstances had been even slightly different, there would have been no egg-headed Homo sapiens...

That view is being questioned. For example, in a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a group of researchers looked at crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, woodlice and so on) over the past 550m years and found far more examples of groups of species evolving towards complexity than in the other direction. Matthew Wills of the University of Bath, in England, commented at the time that it was the “nearest thing to a pervasive evolutionary rule that’s been found.” In this study, the only crustaceans that became simpler were either parasites or those living in remote habitats, such as isolated marine caves.

Simon Conway-Morris, a palaeontologist at Cambridge University, in England, is the champion of a new interpretation of evolution—one that challenges the view that it is largely governed by the accident of circumstances. Unlike Gould, he thinks that if evolution were replayed from the beginning, a lot of things would turn out the same.

Dr Conway-Morris has arrived at this view from a detailed study of what is known as convergent evolution. Darwin himself was intrigued by this phenomenon, in which different groups of organisms independently evolve similar solutions to similar problems, whether these solutions are teeth, eyes, brains, ecosystems or societies...

.. His argument is that, given the nature of physics and chemistry, there may be only a limited number of ways in which things can work. Evolution will be channelled into these successful paths, and thus does have trends. Two of these, he thinks, are towards complexity and intelligence. He adds that things “don’t just happen in chemistry”. They happen because of pre-existing causes. Whether it is the molecules of crystallin that are used to build an eye or the haemoglobin that makes blood carry oxygen, the nature of molecules themselves means that evolution is more likely to follow a path determined by their basic structure. Evolution is a mechanism, and it works within rules...

With far less evidence, I wrote about similar suspicions about six years back. Back then the oddity of expanding brains was also noted in Matt Ridley's book Genome ...

If information processing (IP) is an adaptive advantage in systems where natural selection applies (eg. all systems - see below), then it will increase over time...

.. Natural selection applies to systems where there is competition for scarce resources, inherited variability, and where some variations enhance competitive advantage. These systems may be biological or a pure information system -- such as an economy. Natural selection then applies to the human brain, human information processing tools (writing, calculating) and computing systems -- and perhaps to the cosmos itself.

One may imagine "intelligence", or information processing, as a parasitic process which begins on simple chemical systems and migrates across various hosts. On our planet the primary host is humans, but computational devices are secondary hosts as are, to some extent, books. The host may change, but the process is self-perpetuating.

(This is not an entirely untestable hypothesis; I suspect it has been tested in simulated evolutionary models. There is one odd historical example, though it seems so odd as to be more likely coincidental. In Matt Ridley's book Genome he writes "the brains of the brainiest animals were bigger and bigger in each successive [geologic] age: the biggest brains in the Paleozoic were smaller than the biggest in the Mesozoic, which were smaller than the biggest in the Cenozoic, which were smaller than the biggest present now" (p. 27). Unfortunately Mr. Ridley did not cite a source for this statement, but a quick Google search found this possibly relevant reference...

If we redo the simple Drake equation with a higher probability of intelligence evolving whenever it can, say about 60% of the time, we get about 540 likely coexisting civilizations in our galaxy alone -- and that assumes they only broadcast about 200 years before going silent (we've been sending since about 1910 or so). If they broadcast for even 1000 years than that there would be about 3,500 such civilizations in play right now.

Ahh, but then one comes to one of the most tantalizing questions in science. Where are they? If the numbers were so large, one would think that at least a few hundred would have broadcast in a way we can receive, or sent self-replicating probes throughout the galaxy.

Alas, the best response to this Fermi Paradox is that the number is not that great -- because technological civilizations are short lived. They either self-destruct or change to something that's not interested in communication with us.

Such a fascinating question ...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Acer netbook aims for $150 (euro)

The $150 batteries-not-included Netbook is very close -- but with batteries ...

Translated from (google translation)

I announced it several times, now it is certainty... Acer is launching a price war... The A110L is now here in Taipei for the converted 150 euros ... Acer zerschiesst the competition with this ... LowEnd in the margin area (Yup, even when there is already Netbook different categories) and intends to market its own product soak... The 2nd Generation ( Aspire One D150 ) ..  is also expected within a very short time become one of the cheapest Netbook belong...

Google's translation services are imperfectly impressive, but you get the idea. I assume at this price we're talking Linux.

This is happening much faster than I'd anticipated, driven by the desperate desire to survive economic disruption.

The screaming collapse of netbook prices is my number one explanation for Apple's product silence. I assume they're rethinking their OS X product strategy. They may have thought they had more time ...

Causes of the crash of '08 - how much fraud?

At last count my list of contributing factors to the crash of '09 included ...

  1. Complexity collapse: we don't understand our emergent creation, we optimized for performance without adaptive reserve
  2. Mass disability and income skew: The modern world has disenfranchised much of humanity
  3. The Marketarian religion: The GOP in particular (now the Party of Limbaugh), but also many Democrats and libertarians, ascribed magical and benign powers to a system for finding local minima (aka The Market). The Market, like Nature, isn't bad -- but neither is it wise or kind.
  4. The occult inflation of shrinking quality: What happens when buyers can't figure out what's worth buying. Aka, the toaster crisis - yes, really.
  5. performance-based executive compensation and novel, unregulated, financial instruments: a lethal combination. See also - You get what you pay for. The tragedy of the incentive plan.
  6. Disintermediating Wall Street: Wall Street became a fragile breakpoint
  7. The future of the publicly traded company: A part of our problem is that the publicly traded company needs to evolve
  8. The role of the deadbeats: too much debt - but we know that
  9. Firewalls and separation of powers: a culture of corruption, approved by the American electorate, facilitated dissolving regulatory firewalls
  10. Marked!: Rapid change and the Bush culture made fraud easy and appealing

I put Marked! pretty low on the list, but maybe I should bump it up a bit. The Hall of Shame (Clusterstock) lists a lot more fraud than has made the papers [1]...

Good old fraud didn't cause the crash of '08, so I'm not going to move it up from the bottom of my list. I think it's more of a cofactor -- the primary drivers of the crash also made fraud easy, profitable, and almost culturally acceptable. In turn fraud, at more levels than we can imagine, accelerated the downturn.

One interesting note. Emily remembers John McCain's reaction when the crash began in the fall of 2008. McCain said "fire Cox". At the time that seemed rather odd, and McCain was criticized for coming up with Chris Cox (#18 on the list). In retrospect, one wonders how much political insiders knew about the amount of fraud in the system. Politicians of both parties spent a lot of time with people like Allen Stanford, and I'm guessing, despite the photographed smiles, that they felt a severe need for soap every time they shook his hand ...

[1] Inanely, we have to plow through a lot of links to get to the interesting ones, including a number of unfair listings - though this one's fair.

Good news from China

Between a wee bit of economic turbulence, the end of the Twin Cities outdoor ice season, the chalkboard nail screeches from the Party of Limbaugh, the apparent end of product development at Apple, the fight for the midterm (2010 is tomorrow) elections and the endless march of Bush/Cheney hangovers this ain't the happiest of times.

On the other hand, there's some good news from the most important place in the world.


I don't think the US is going to fall apart, and I presume that whatever alien forces that have allowed us to survive the development of fusion weapons will continue to operate, so my top priority as an American father is that China be prosperous, happy and ... you know ... peaceful. (Sorry India, I have more confidence in your stability -- despite your neighbors.)

If I were running the US government my top priority for our economic interventions would be that they helped China. That's only one of several hundred reasons why I'll never hold political office.

So it's good news that Hilary Clinton was very warmly received in Beijing. And it's good news that James Fallows, senior editor of The Atlantic and Beijing resident for the past several years, sees real progress on climate change discussions ...
Even more on US-China climate cooperation - James Fallows

I've previously mentioned the Asia Society/Pew and Brookings proposals for US-Chinese cooperation. Here is another one, from the National Resources Defense Council, which has been doing environmental work in and with China for a long time. As a bonus, here is the summary of its 9-point action plan:

1. Engage in serious bilateral meetings on climate change and address the key sticking points to reaching meaningful agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009
2. Establish a US-China forum on climate change strategies that promote green jobs and economic recovery
3. Mobilize the untapped potential of energy efficiency
4. Assist in the deployment of renewable energy sources and technologies
5. Promote low-carbon, high-efficiency vehicles, fuels, transportation systems, and community development
6. Expand research and investment on carbon capture and storage technology
7. Improve greenhouse gas emissions monitoring and data transparency
8. Conduct co-benefit analysis on GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions controls
9. Invest in regular exchanges and sharing of expertise to improve enforcement of
environmental law and energy efficiency standards.
For North America climate change is a mixed bag. Some areas do worse (California agriculture is toast and we know New Orleans will sink), other regions, for a tropical primate, seem "better".

For China, however, climate change means lots more desert. China appears to pay far more attention to science than the Bushies or the Party of Limbaugh, so this is well understood there.

If China goes, we all go.

So it's double good that China relations in general are improving and that climate discussions are front and center.

Obama's maternal grandfather

As a father by adoption I've wondered who was Obama's de facto childhood father. As near as I can tell it was his maternal grandfather, Stanley Armour Dunham. I couldn't find out much about Mr. Dunham, perhaps because in our more or less patrilineal culture maternal grandfathers are kind of forgettable.

I really do need to read Obama's bio.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Apple's G3 software product

Can you guess what Apple software still supports the PPC G3?

Hint: It has its own revenue stream.

So when Apple is sufficiently motivated they don't have to obsolete old platforms.

Funny that.

Snap Circuits – a toy and a company from another era

The following is modified from my Amazon review of Snap Circuits (SnapCirtuits) -- a highly recommended electronics toy (a review by Mr. Verwillow helped sort out the confusing supporting web site story):

Snap Circuits Pro SC-750 (

... The toy is the work of genius, but the manuals could use a refresh, the web sites are the work of a pre-Internet generation (The company was founded 30 years ago by two electrical engineers), and marketing is not exactly a priority.

As best I can tell the official web sites are and ( now redirects to tries to cover their educational market, soldering kits, and non-toy devices, so the Snap Circuits (SnapCircuits) site is a better bet. is your best bet.

The web site parts page includes upgrades kit from the simpler to more comprehensive Snap Circuits kit. I think the SC-500 is the sweet spot for most of us.

I strongly recommend the inexpensive Student Guide (experiments up to SC-300) and the Student Guide extension (covers the added experiments of the SC-500). Some Elenco documents mention a teacher's manual, but I get the sense that's obsolete.

I had to print out a paper form to order these, and even do my own arithmetic! First time I've done that in over 10 years. There is a (third) online site for ordering the manuals and other parts but it was so poorly done I preferred to trust the post office.

This toy really is a blast from the past, but it's wonderful.

Why models underestimate climate change

Members of the church of climatic stability emphasize the limitations of climate simulation and modeling. It would be a fair criticism if they noted that errors go both ways; models can both under and over estimate climatic variability. Alas, that would contradict church doctrine.

Model variability is a reason to be extra cautious, especially because climate models put us pretty close to the cliff.

Unfortunately over the past ten years the models have almost always underestimated climate variability, pretty much putting us, as Dyer wrote recently, over the cliff.

Why should the models be consistently too optimistic? In theory they should err equally both ways.

Turns out this is a serious question ...
Global Warming Leading to Climate Tipping Point |

... Since the real world is so messy, climate scientists Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker turned for insight to the distinctly neater world of mathematics. Last year, they published an analysis in the journal Science arguing that climate models were skewed in the direction of underestimating the warming effect of carbon. The report reasoned that carbon emissions have the potential to trigger many changes that amplify the warming effect—water absorbs more sunlight than ice, humidity traps more heat, and so on—but few that would mitigate it. The odds, they figure, are about one in three that temperatures will rise by 4.5 degrees C (the top of the IPCC's range), but there's little chance at all that they'll rise by less than 2 degrees C. "We've had a hard time eliminating the possibility of very large climate changes," says Roe...
Reading between the lines climate modelers have been quite cautious; they chose to err towards optimism. That was probably politically wise, the church of climate stability would be even stronger had the models been more often wrongly pessimistic.

The reality is we're over the cliff. The question now is whether we can survive the landing.

America is going to have to grow up very quickly. The Dems alone can't do this. We desperately need a reformed science-based GOP, but instead we've got the Party of Limbaugh.

Are there any rationalist republicans at all?!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lessons from baseball – the data will be known

I didn’t pay much attention to Alix Rodriguez’s steroid use. It’s been clear for some time that baseball fans, players, coaches, owners, team physicians and so on are all pretty comfortable with performance enhancing drugs.

But then I learned how he was “caught”. That’s much more interesting …

Link by Link - As Data Collecting Grows, Privacy Erodes -

… In Mr. Rodriguez’s case, he participated in a 2003 survey of steroid use among Major League Baseball players. No names were to be revealed. Instead, the results were supposed to be used in aggregation — to determine if more than 5 percent of players were cheating — and the samples were then to be destroyed.

… when federal prosecutors came calling, as part of a steroid distribution case, it turned out that the “anonymous” samples suddenly had clear labels on them…

… the baseball players’ union… is being criticized for failing to act during what apparently was a brief window to destroy the 2003 urine samples before the federal prosecutors claimed them …

So he was caught because he honestly completed an “anonymous” survey, and the union kept the urine samples around. Instead of public outrage at this betrayal, the public beat up on Mr. Rodriguez (though, not, I gather, with much energy).


The lesson, which has been taught before, is that data flows in the direction of profit. Never depend on anonymity, and don’t believe anyone who promises it.

Routine tech tips everyone should know.

A great set of tips for common problems! Here are my personal favorites from Boutin’s article

Basics - Low-Tech Fixes for High-Tech Problems - PAUL BOUTIN -

Cellphone Losing Charge

If your cellphone loses its battery charge too quickly while idle in your pocket, part of the problem may be that your pocket is too warm…

… To keep the phone cooler, carry it in your purse or on your belt.

This same method can be used to preserve your battery should you find yourself away from home without your charger. Turn off the phone and put it in the hotel refrigerator overnight to slow the battery’s natural tendency to lose its charge…

Remote Car Key

Suppose your remote car door opener does not have the range to reach your car across the parking lot. Hold the metal key part of your key fob against your chin, then push the unlock button. The trick turns your head into an antenna, says Tim Pozar, a Silicon Valley radio engineer.

Mr. Pozar explains, “You are capacitively coupling the fob to your head. With all the fluids in your head it ends up being a nice conductor. Not a great one, but it works.” Using your head can extend the key’s wireless range by a few car lengths. 

Cellphone in the Toilet

It could happen to anyone: you dropped your cellphone in the toilet. Take the battery out immediately, to prevent electrical short circuits from frying your phone’s fragile internals. Then, wipe the phone gently with a towel, and shove it into a jar full of uncooked rice

… It is a low-tech version of the “Do Not Eat” desiccant packets that may have been packed in the box the phone came in, to keep moisture away from the circuitry during shipping and storage.

Longer Wi-Fi Reach

If your home Wi-Fi router doesn’t reach the other end of the house, don’t rush out to buy more wireless gear to stretch your network. Instead, build a six-inch-high passive radio wave reflector from kitchen items, like an aluminum cookie sheet.

Follow the instructions at Place the completed reflector — a small, curved piece of metal that reflects radio waves just like a satellite TV dish — behind your Wi-Fi router..

Dirty Discs

You need to clean a skipping DVD or CD, but as a bachelor you don’t have any sissy cleaning fluids? Soak a washcloth with vodka or mouthwash.

Alcohol is a powerful solvent, perfectly capable of dissolving fingerprints and grime on the surface of a disc. A $5 bottle of Listerine in your medicine cabinet may do the job as effectively as a $75 bottle of DVD cleaning fluid…

Too Much Flash

If your cellphone’s built-in camera flash is much too bright, washing out photos, tape a small piece of paper over the flash

Crashed Hard Drive

If — no, make that when — your PC’s hard drive crashes and can’t be read, don’t be too quick to throw it out. Stick it in the freezer overnight.

“The trick is a real and proven, albeit last resort, recovery technique for some kinds of otherwise-fatal hard-drive problems,” writes Fred Langa on his Windows Secrets Web site. Many hard drive failures are caused by worn parts that no longer align properly, making it impossible to read data from the drive. Lowering the drive’s temperature causes its metal and plastic internals to contract ever so slightly. Taking the drive out of the freezer, and returning it to room temperature can cause those parts to expand again.

That may help free up binding parts, Mr. Langa explains, or at least let a failing electrical component remain within specs long enough for you to recover your essential data…

Steve Ballmer - comedian extraordinaire

That Ballmer. He's such a joker. Imagine the riotous laughter after this straight faced delivery by Microsoft's CEO...
Slashdot | Ballmer Pleads For Openness To Compete With Apple

... At the Mobile World Congress, Steve Ballmer took aim at Apple's closed iPhone ecosystem with .... plea for openness: 'Openness is central because it's the foundation of choice.' Ballmer has apparently forgotten his company's own efforts to vertically integrate hardware and software (Zune, XBox), its history of vertically integrating software (tying SharePoint into Office, IE, SQL Server, Active Directory, etc.), as well as years of illegally tying Windows to Internet Explorer that only the US Justice Department could undo...
Nothing in that list compares to Microsoft's great triumph -- controlling the file formats for Office.

Sigh. If only people could remember how powerful a move that was ... and is. On the other hand, the Sharepoint strategy is almost as effective. Shall we mention ActiveSync and Exchange Server?

What a hilarious fellow.

It's a shame Jobs isn't well enough to do a competing monologue about how keenly Apple listens to their customers.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Immunizations - origins and necessity

I'm a physician with an interest in history, but I didn't know many of the stories im Jim Macdonald's post on immunizations:
Making Light: Why We Immunize

...Kids Vaccinations in general..
Advantages: none
Disadvantages: enormous

... I suppose that depends on whether you feel “Didn’t have to buy a teeny-tiny headstone” is an advantage....
Great reading for historical and cultural context. It's also a useful antidote to people with a foolish sentimentality for Nature. Remember, we may love Nature, but Nature does not love us.

American right keeps FactCheck busy

I think thought they'd be able to rest after the presidential election.


Between chain mails (a popular conduit of nonsense for the right) and GOP Senators (another conduit of nonsense) FactCheck is quite busy exposing undeniable whoppers.

People without allegiance to reality are full time employment for an organization attached to the facts.

Bank stock prices are rational now - the nationalization effect

Krugman points out than until recently bank share prices reflected the hope that the Feds would bail out the banks -- and stick taxpayers with the bill.

Now that it's becoming clear that shareholders will get stuck with the bill, bank share prices are returning to a rational level. Meaning about zero...

Nationalization fears - Paul Krugman Blog -

So everyone agrees that fears of nationalization are driving bank stocks down. That’s probably true, but those fears have to be carefully interpreted.

We are not talking about fears that leftist radicals will expropriate perfectly good private companies. At least since last fall the major banks — certainly Citi and B of A — have only been able to stay in business because their counterparties believe that there’s an implicit federal guarantee on their obligations. The banks are already, in a fundamental sense, wards of the state.

And the market caps of these banks did not reflect investors’ assessment of the difference in value between their assets and their liabilities. Instead, it largely — and probably totally — reflected the “Geithner put”, the hope that the feds would bail them out in a way that handed a significant windfall gain to stockholders.

What’s happening now is a growing sense that the federal government, in return for rescuing these institutions, will demand the same thing a private-sector white knight would have demanded — namely, ownership.

Pakistan's objections to American drone attacks somewhat less credible now ...

I don't think many people trusted the sincerity of Pakistan's complaints about American drones invading their air space. That number has now gotten even smaller ...

Google Earth exposes a U.S. drone base in Pakistan. - By William Saletan - Slate Magazine

... The image was freely available on Google Earth until Wednesday, when the News of Pakistan published a story about it. At that point, it vanished, as other sensitive military pictures have done. Today, you can still view it on the Web site of the Times of London. If you're a Pakistani citizen, it confirms that the United States has been launching its killer drones from inside your country, contrary to your government's pretense of opposition...

The bright side of the news is that this is positive sign of US-Pakistani cooperation. The consensus on the drone attacks is that they're killing bad people -- in addition to innocent bystanders of all ages. Their accuracy must be coming from Pakistani intelligence sources, which have presumably deeply infiltrated the Taliban.

The down side is it would have been nice for Pakistan to have had more deniability.

When will Google 2.0 sell a branded netbook?

The great thing about the netbook is price (batteries not included). Of course, like any computing device of any quality, netbooks also need network access -- but I think network access will also be commoditized.

The bad things are quality, cost of ownership, and value delivered.

The Target Trutech that triggered my netbook interests was/is incredibly crummy. The hardware is crummy, the software is ugly, the usability is lousy, and in fairly short order a new wave of virus attacks will destroy the first generation linux-based netbooks.

On the platform side Google Chrome for Linux will address one set of issues. That still leaves hardware quality and virus security as obstacles to Google's Chromestellation strategy. An extra $5 spent on a keyboard will vastly improve user experience, but at the brutal low end of the market there's no brand awareness to justify a $5 price boost.

Google, of course, can address those issues. Unlike Apple they don't have a hardware franchise to protect, and, of course, unlike Microsoft they don't have a software franchise to support.

Google will sell a Google-branded netbook. They'll do the ultra-thin Linux distro, and they'll do the antiviral and security updates. Their device, sold under the Google brand, will be able to justify the $15 higher price point that will take the $135 2011 Google netbook something everyone will own.

Which bring us, inevitably, to antitrust.

Google is now so dominant in search that a revived American antitrust division is already making noises. If they come to own the entire western, and possibly world, netbook industry they'll make the Microsoft of old look modest.

Google will sell a branded netbook, but they'll have to split the company to do it. Google 1.0 will have search, and Google 2.0 will have the netbook.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

All stupidity is rooted in tax law

Why have companies learned to finance operations through debt?
The merits of equity v debt | Debtors' prison | The Economist:

... Corporate-finance theory may state that the value of a company should not be affected by its decision to finance itself with equity or debt. But, in practice, interest payments are generally tax-deductible; dividends are not. That gives companies a big push in the direction of debt...
If you ever see something in the world that seems bizarre, like rice paddies in the middle of 1970s Tokyo, think tax law and accounting.

Why are humans such wimpy primates?

Chimps don't look so big. Size isn't everything ...
Why would a chimpanzee attack a human?: Scientific American

... The chimpanzee has strength for a human that is utterly incomprehensible. People watch pro wrestlers on TV and think they are strong. But a pro wrestler would not be able to hold a chimpanzee still if they wanted to. Chimpanzee males have been measured as having five times the arm strength as a human male. Even a young chimpanzee of four or five years, you could not hold it still if you wanted to. Pound-for-pound, their muscles are much stronger...
I don't think it's so much that chimps are exceptionally strong for a primate, it's that modern humans are really weak.

Why are we such runts? We look pretty big, and we still run pretty well, but in hand-to-hand combat we're hopeless.

My guess it's so that we don't damage each other when we fight. We're not a particularly peaceful primate (though we're becoming far gentler than we were), and we're very expensive to rear to adulthood. Maybe it's better for our hand to hand combat to be relatively harmless; a means to establish dominance rather than do harm.

For harm we have tools, fire, pits and cliffs, and we've killed anything that was ever remotely threatening.

We're the Potemkin primate -- at least so far as muscles go.

The rest of the article is worth a read. Briefly, chimps are not, shall we say, domesticated. Dogs are domesticated. Cats are sort of domesticated. Humans are domesticated. Chimps are not.

Tigers and chimps are playful prior to puberty, but unlike dogs or humans they're not playful as adults. Adult chimps are very aggressive, and, to us, unpredictably vicious.

Stay far away from chimps.

Update 2/20/09: Another explanation would be that chimp muscles take a lot of energy to run and produce a lot of heat. We need to feed and cool our hungry brains, tools mean our main problems are microbes, entropy and each other, so we sacrificed our muscles. I couldn't find any publications on this topic, but the energy balance idea isn't novel.

Update 3/1/2009: Aha! Chimpanzees aren't as strong as we've been thinking! They're stronger than we are, but not fantastically stronger. On the other hand, we're clearly wimpy primates. John Hawks mentions a couple of genes that may have been important in the loss of human strength. He doesn't mention his thoughts on what's going on, perhaps, based on his past practice, because he has relevant research underway. From what Hawks has taught us about evolution, I suppose some of those genes might have been knocked out in the cause of re-purposing them for something related to human cognition.

Reading and hand signals

The opening paragraph of an article on hand motions and representing arithmetic reasoning

The value of handwaving to arithmetic | A handwaving approach to arithmetic | The Economist

HUMAN language is the subject of endless scientific investigation, but the gestures that accompany speech are a surprisingly neglected area. It is sometimes jokingly said that the way to render an Italian speechless is to tie his wrists together, but almost everyone moves their hands in meaningful ways when they talk...

Is an excuse for me to again reference an old idea that doesn't seem to have caught on.

Almost thirty years ago, puzzling about why humans are able to translate written squiggles into concepts and thoughts, I wondered about evolutionary antecedents. I concluded that we humans are able to interpret letter and word forms because we already had the brain mechanisms to read hand shapes, and that we probably had those mechanisms before we could speak.

So it's not surprising that deaf persons can read; reading may be older than speaking.

Super science 2009: The Economist at the AAAS meeting

The Economist today highlights a few of the recent super science (AAAS) meeting.

Cooking is humanity's "killer app" (emphases mine) underscores that we are not natural, we are a creation of our own technology. Perhaps cooking is the oldest profession ...

...without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.

In fact, as he outlined to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Chicago, he thinks that cooking and other forms of preparing food are humanity’s “killer app”: the evolutionary change that underpins all of the other—and subsequent—changes that have made people such unusual animals...

...even modern “raw foodists”, members of a town-dwelling, back-to-nature social movement, struggle to maintain their weight—and they have access to animals and plants that have been bred for the table. Pre-agricultural man confined to raw food would have starved...

...Dr Wrangham suspects the main cause of the modern epidemic of obesity is not overeating (which the evidence suggests—in America, at least—is a myth) but the rise of processed foods. These are softer, because that is what people prefer. Indeed, the nerves from the taste buds meet in a part of the brain called the amygdala with nerves that convey information on the softness of food. It is only after these two qualities have been compared that the brain assesses how pleasant a mouthful actually is....

What goes into a dog breed emphasizes how plastic our forms are, and how fungible ...

Dr Ostrander has already used dogs to track down the genes behind certain cancers that the species shares with people, and to work out the dog family tree. At the AAAS she described her search for the genes controlling three of the most important features of a breed: its size, its hair and the length of its legs...

... The size of water dogs, she found, is governed mainly by variations in a gene called insulin-like growth-factor 1—and that is probably true of other breeds as well...

...Short legs, a phenomenon known as chondrodysplasia, are characteristic of many dog breeds, perhaps most famously dachshunds and corgis. In people the condition is known vulgarly as dwarfism. Dr Ostrander’s work showed that in dogs it is caused by the reactivation of a “dead” version of a gene involved in the regulation of growth. Chromosomes are littered with such non-functional genes; they are the result of mutations favoured by natural selection at some point in the past. Here the gene in question has been reactivated by the arrival within it of what is known as a LINE-1 element. This is a piece of DNA that can jump about from place to place within a genome, sometimes causing havoc as it does so....

...Dr Ostrander found that 80% of the variation between breeds in coat form and furniture was explained by differences in just three genes. Different combinations of these result in different mixtures of coat and furniture...

Now that you're thinking about how a few gene variations can cause amazing changes to shape and size, you're prepared to contemplate another genome ... that of our brother Neandertal ...

Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, chose Darwin’s 200th anniversary to announce what would, until recently, have been thought an impossible discovery in evolutionary biology—a draft of the genome of Neanderthal man.

Dr Paabo made his announcement to the AAAS meeting via a video link from Germany, and followed it up by a lecture in person on the 15th. The Neanderthal Genome Project, as it is known, is the culmination of a career devoted to the examination of ancient DNA by a man whose work provided inspiration for Michael Crichton’s novel and film “Jurassic Park”... coverage gives you about 60% of the genome, and that is what Dr Paabo’s first draft has achieved...

...the Neanderthal line and that of modern humanity parted company only shortly before the oldest known Neanderthal fossils were alive...

...The team has also looked at a few genes of particular interest. The most famous of these is FOXP2, damage to which prevents speech in modern humans. Neanderthals turn out to have the same version of FOXP2 as Homo sapiens (and thus a different one from chimpanzees). Researchers are divided about how significant FOXP2 really is, because it is involved in the mechanics of speech production, not the mental abilities that lie at the root of language. But some regard this discovery as evidence that Neanderthals could speak.

Much more information should emerge as Dr Paabo increases his one-fold coverage to 20-fold, the point at which almost every base pair is represented. At that moment, science will have in its grasp the genetic details of what is probably modern humanity’s closest relative...

Min-pin and Newfie look less alike than Neandertal and us. They cooked, of course, but perhaps not as well as we did ...

Sanity timidly emerging eight years after 9/11

It took eight years for sanity and reason to begin to emerge after 9/11 ...

Schneier on Security: Terrorism Common Sense from MI6

... Refreshing commentary from Nigel Inkster, former Assistant Chief and Director of Operations and Intelligence of MI6:

I laughed at this one ...

"If I hear one more speaker suggest that the root of terrorism is poverty I'll probably become a terrorist myself," he joked. "But we have to acknowledge that it's a factor."

Read the excerpt and then the original. Obama and his team understand this. This by itself would have been reason enough to elect Obama and reject Palin/McCain -- though only one of many, many, reasons.

It has taken far too long for reason and sanity to emerge from the foxhole. It took the end of Bush and Cheney.

If only.

The netbook train rumbles onwards - heading below $200 this year

The NYT has been paying a lot of attention to the netbook* train -- the train that's going to run over the industry in the next year or two. They recognize this isn't about features, it's about hitting the $125 2011 Barbie b-smart netbook batteries-not-include price point. They haven't quite figured out that Google's advantage isn't merely Microsoft's (avoidable?) doom, it's Google's Chromestellation strategy, but they're getting there ...

Can Cellphones Grow Up to Rival PCs? - Saul Hansell -

... Coming by the end of this year are a new crop of small inexpensive notebook computers, known as netbooks, based on the ARM microprocessor design and running one of several versions of Linux, including perhaps Google’s Android cellphone operating system. ..

... Netbooks have been a rapidly growing category of computers, mainly because they are more portable and typically cost $400 or less. So far they have been mostly based on Intel’s Atom chip, which uses its X86 instruction set and thus can run Windows. Some manufacturers, including ASUS and Hewlett-Packard have also offered versions of their netbooks that run Linux, but these have not yet been popular in the market.

Some argue this will change as the combination of an ARM processer and Linux may allow netbooks to be sold for $200 or less.

Earlier this week, Freescale, the chip company spun out of Motorola, announced a new high end chip, based on the latest ARM designs specifically for netbooks. This follows a similar announcement by Qualcomm last month...

... its chip will cost about $15 each when bought in large quantities, with about $5 of other chips that support the processor; the Linux operating system, of course, is free. The company estimates that a computer maker would need to spend $50 to $60 on an Intel Atom, related chips, and Windows.

Mr. Burchers said that the company figures that the $200 netbooks will not have a hard drive, but will have 4 gigabytes to 8 gigabytes of flash memory. The devices will mainly be used, he figures, by people to surf the Internet. A few, more expensive models will be able to connect to cellular data networks, but mainly they will be aimed at young people who connect through Wi-Fi networks.

... No manufacturers have announced they are building netbooks using the chips, but Freestyle was showing a prototype manufactured by Pegatron, a Taiwanese affiliate of ASUS, that makes notebooks for a number of brands...

... Freescale is working with Linux makers to make them easier to use. The chip is designed to be used with Linux versions made by Phoenix Technologies, Xandros, and Canonical, which makes Ubuntu. Freescale added support for Android to its plans this year because computer makers said they see a market for it...

Close, but just wide of the mark. Android is just a smokescreen here. The real story is Google Chrome for Linux, and Google's "Chrome OS" strategy -- aka "Chromestellation".

Of course, let's not forget China's Godson project.

* Since the NYT is still using the term, Psion's trademark battle might be hopeless.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Newsweek stakes future on ... George Will

Fifteen years ago The Economist was pretty good. It's pablum now, but it occasionally tosses off a few sparks. It also makes money; indeed, when it got dumber it also got richer.

There really ain't no justice.

Newsweek wants to emulate The Economist, and it's got just the team to do it ...
Newsweek Plans Makeover to Fit a Smaller Audience -

.... Newsweek also plans to lean even more heavily on the appeal of big-name writers like Christopher Hitchens, Fareed Zakaria and George Will...
George Will? A man who's been over the hill for at least 10 years? Author of a recent global warming denial essay that has been been itself denied by its own sources?

George Will?!! Christopher Hitchens?!

This is too sad to be funny.

Newsweek, RIP.

SciAm's quantum weirdness day: Nonlocality

Almost exactly two years ago a Wired magazine article inspired me to catch up on the past 15 years of popular physics. I've had a great time since then, but I particularly appreciated Gribbin's willingness to meet quantum weirdness head on.

I'm thus pleased to report that SciAm has an article and a few blog posts on one of my favorite topics -- non-locality ...
To be clear, I'm over any childhood pretensions to novel insights into modern physics. I'm strictly a non-participatory fan, and very grateful to physicists who try to translate their world into our world.

Jon Udell's 21st century radio:

Jon Udell, one of my favorite deep thinkers, is championing community collaborated audio sources, a kind of 21st century radio service ...
Introducing - Jon Udell:

...Back in the good old days, circa 2006 or so, I was a happy podcast listener. During my many long periods of outdoor activity — running, hiking, biking, leaf-raking, snow-shoveling — I sometimes listened to music, but more often absorbed a seemingly endless stream of spoken-word lectures, conversations, and entertainment. Some of my sources were conventional: NPR (CarTalk, FreshAir), PRI (This American Life), BBC (In Our Time), WNYC (Radio Lab). Others were unconventional: Pop!Tech, The Long Now Foundation, TED, ITConversations, Social Innovation Conversations, Radio Open Source....

... From the FAQ:

Think of as a funnel. You collect streams (RSS feeds) of programs from all over the Web, then combine them into a singe collection on Then in iTunes you subscribe to just one feed: the feed from your collection.

Managing feeds, in addition to (or instead of) managing items, is an aspect of digital literacy that’s only just emerging. I think it’s critical, so I’m a keen observer/participant in various domains: blogging, microblogging, calendaring, or — in this case — audio curation...

... I’m hoping that SpokenWord will become a place where curators emerge who lead me to places I wouldn’t have gone...

That hasn’t happened yet, of course, since just launched in beta this week. Meanwhile, the site offers a variety of lenses through which to view its growing collection of feeds and programs: tags, categories, ratings, user activity... the Active Collectors bucket on the home page has alerted me to a couple of feeds I hadn’t known about, notably BBC World’s DocArchive...

I can't believe Jon ran out of In Our Time podcasts. My personal collection goes back about five years, and it offers a lot of listening and re-listening.

Then there are the Teaching Company's lectures. Not free of course, but you can by a lot from the backlist for a bit of money.

Still, if Jon's into it then it's worth examining. I've signed up.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Staggering towards health care access ...

There's just a hint these days that Americans are, for the first time in about sixteen years, starting to think about health care semi-seriously ...

Managed Care Matters - Comparative effectiveness - what's left after the sausage-making process

... As the Gooz said;

"Based on the experience of the past few weeks, it's clear the U.S. is still many years away from having a rational discussion about limiting access to technologies that have been priced far beyond a societally-agreed upon benchmark for what constitutes affordable care." ...

The mere fact that anyone mentioned "affordable", even in the context of saying we're year away from a serious discussion, is progress.


I'm so glad you asked. Excuse me while I pull out the soapbox.

There are an infinite number of ways to deliver health care services, but since the dawn of time they have mostly fallen into two large bins

  • Deluxe (luxury)
  • Adequate (spartan)

The word "quality" doesn't come in here. The appearance of luxury might mask lousy quality (think the bad years of American cars). Spartan things can be very high quality (Honda Civic, 1990).

In health care, as with everything else, a new medication, procedure, lab test, or imaging study can be very expensive. There's not that much competition, and there's a lot of development costs that need to be recovered. Five years later the prices are often a lot lower (though modern IP absurdities can keep price high). Development costs have been recovered, the technology may be "obsolete", there's more competition driving prices down, cheaper ways have been found to deliver the service, etc.

Part of what makes care "Deluxe" is the availability of new stuff. A lot of what makes care affordable is avoiding the expensive new stuff. Sometimes the new stuff is really good, so affordable care is inferior care. Sometimes the new stuff is overrated or even harmful, so affordable care is (usually in retrospect), superior care.

Real healthcare access is about making "good enough care" available to every US citizen and taxpayer. Good enough, as in at least 88% of the benefit for 50% of the cost.

Good enough care is not not Deluxe care, it's adequate care. Waiting rooms with peeling plaster instead of plush carpet. Formularies with good-enough drugs. Lacerations repaired by relatively inexpensive family docs rather than plastic surgeons. Care that follows the best affordable standard practices, rather than the preferred practices of a cutting edge surgeon featured in USA Today. (Ironically the "standard" practices usually turn out to be better in every way than the unscientific whims of a single star performer).

So that's what to watch for in discussions of Health Care reform. Any "reform" discussion that doesn't involve delivering "inferior", but good enough care, doesn't really move the ball.

The humbling of Economics

Economists are very highly paid academics. They can easily earn several times what a comparably paid physicist earns.

This may change …

Dismal scientists: how the crash is reshaping economics - The Atlantic Business Channel

...The current recession has revealed the weaknesses in the structures of modern capitalism.  But it also revealed as useless the mathematical contortions of academic economics.  There is no totemic power.  This for two reasons:

(1) Almost no-one predicted the world wide downtown.  Academic economists were confident that episodes like the Great Depression had been confined to the dust bins of history.  There was indeed much recent debate about the sources of "The Great Moderation" in modern economies, the declining significance of business cycles…

… I myself was so confident of the consensus of the end of the business cycle that I persuaded by wife after the collapse of Lehman Brothers to invest all her retirement savings in the stock market, confident that the Fed would soon make things right and we could profit from the panic of a gullible public.  The line "Where is my money, idiot?" is her's.

(2) The debate about the bank bailout, and the stimulus package, has all revolved around issues that are entirely at the level of Econ 1.  What is the multiplier from government spending?  Does government spending crowd out private spending?  How quickly can you increase government spending? If you got a A in college in Econ 1 you are an expert in this debate: fully an equal of Summers and Geithner.

The bailout debate has also been conducted in terms that would be quite familiar to economists in the 1920s and 1930s.  There has essentially been no advance in our knowledge in 80 years

.. Recently a group of economists affiliated with the Cato Institute ran an ad in the New York Times opposing the Obama's stimulus plan.  As chair of my department I tried to arrange a public debate between one of the signatories and a proponent of fiscal stimulus -- thinking that would be a timely and lively session.  But the signatory, a fully accredited university macroeconomist, declined the opportunity for public defense of his position on the grounds that "all I know on this issue I got from Greg Mankiw's blog -- I really am not equipped to debate this with anyone."…

My recollection is that Paul Krugman has done pretty well over the past few years, but he’s been the exception.

I don’t think this is a fixable problem. We don’t have the science to understand the real economic world. We need something like Asimov’s “psychohistory”, but I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime though, it would be nice if economists would be a bit humbler.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Netbooks and the like: Nvidia's netphone project

I guess we need another word for the netbook now that Psion is enforcing their trademark.

Maybe the WeeBook? Or maybe the cellbook? (emphases mine)...

Smartphones Under Assault from Beige Box Bunch - Bits Blog -

... Intel and LG also showed off a mobile Internet device, which sits somewhere between a cellphone and a netbook. The product, expected to be released next year, will run on an Intel-financed version of the Linux operating system called Moblin and Intel’s Atom processor...

... Nvidia thinks it has a leg up on Intel on both graphics performance and power consumption with these small devices through its Tegra and Ion chips.

According to Nvidia, Taiwan’s Inventec Appliances and China’s Yulong will ship Tegra-based smartphones this year...

...The Nvidia-based devices will be able to connect to televisions at hotels or in the home via HDMI, letting people stream movies off their phones. Nvidia claims these high-definition devices will cost less than $100 each...

Moblin is open source btw.

I suspect they mean $100 with a 2 year mobile services contract, meaning they're about the cost of an iPhone. If they mean they're $100 cash that's much more interesting ...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Obama difference

Obama visits a part of the country that voted for McCain. He accepts questions at a rally there ...
Obama goes bipartisan for real - Joan Walsh -

...The president didn't screen his crowd or his questions...
Remember Bush? I know it's hard now. In the Bush era only loyalists could attend rallies, and only his questions could be asked.

Those were bad times.

How will history see Cheney?

I think we're going to be learning a lot of interesting things about Dick Cheney, none of them good.
An Oral History of the Bush White House |

.... Lawrence Wilkerson, top aide and later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell: We had this confluence of characters—and I use that term very carefully—that included people like Powell, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and so forth, which allowed one perception to be “the dream team.” It allowed everybody to believe that this Sarah Palin–like president—because, let’s face it, that’s what he was—was going to be protected by this national-security elite, tested in the cauldrons of fire. What in effect happened was that a very astute, probably the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur I’ve ever run into in my life became the vice president of the United States.

He became vice president well before George Bush picked him. And he began to manipulate things from that point on, knowing that he was going to be able to convince this guy to pick him, knowing that he was then going to be able to wade into the vacuums that existed around George Bush—personality vacuum, character vacuum, details vacuum, experience vacuum...
I find it hard to believe he actually left the White House peacefully.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Crooked judges and the powerful emergence of corruption

[My original post is below, but the subsequent "update" is more interesting ...]

These guys might just qualify as evil. They had their full faculties (emphases mine)...
Judges Plead Guilty in Scheme to Jail Youths for Profit -

... At worst, Hillary Transue thought she might get a stern lecture when she appeared before a judge for building a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She was a stellar student who had never been in trouble, and the page stated clearly at the bottom that it was just a joke.

Prosecutors say Judges Michael T. Conahan, and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., above, took kickbacks to send teenagers to detention centers.

Instead, the judge sentenced her to three months at a juvenile detention center on a charge of harassment....

... the judge, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and a colleague, Michael T. Conahan, appeared in federal court in Scranton, Pa., to plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers run by PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care.

While prosecutors say that Judge Conahan, 56, secured contracts for the two centers to house juvenile offenders, Judge Ciavarella, 58, was the one who carried out the sentencing to keep the centers filled.

“In my entire career, I’ve never heard of anything remotely approaching this,” said Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim, who was appointed by the State Supreme Court this week to determine what should be done with the estimated 5,000 juveniles who have been sentenced by Judge Ciavarella since the scheme started in 2003. Many of them were first-time offenders and some remain in detention....
I assume they only got 7 years because they were plead guilty to secondary crimes (wire fraud) rather than the to far greater crimes sentencing unjustly for personal enrichment.

The civil suits will take whatever money they have left.

I'm opposed to the death penalty for many reasons, but it is possible to be tempted.

Update 2/15/09: I've been thinking about this. On reflection, the story is both more ambiguous and even more educational than I'd thought. Consider these stories (a lot have to do with health care conflicts of interest, but that might be because I am a physician and follow those stories) ...
The real lesson is the old one -- who watches the watchers. Humans are very bad at managing our own conflicts of interest. Our self-judgments are easily warped.

We vary of course. Con men love marks who are certain of their sharpness. I'm guessing the men (it seems to be men, doesn't it) most sure of their probity, most certain they won't be so easily corrupted, are easily taken. One day, years from now, with nothing more to think of, maybe these judges will finally realize how far they fell. Maybe not.

Doubt yourself. Be skeptical of your integrity. Above all, be sure that others can see what you're doing, and be in a position to blow the whistle.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I walk out of Slumdog Millionaire

I've walked out of two movies.

I quit Dead Poets Society when it played up the romance of teen suicide. I was annoyed, and resented being manipulated.

I left Slumdog Millionaire, a currently fashionable movie, for two reasons. For one, my stomach hurt. I suppose that's a side-effect of not watching modern television. I don't have the stomach for the torture and mutilation of children.

For another, my exploitation alarm was ringing. I gather the movie becomes terrifically uplifting, but uplift is a relative thing. The director had set the stage very low when I gave up.

I now have sympathy for those Indians who are offended and irritated by the film.

Update: I'm not the only one.

Emergence: how entropy and incentives create scams

This afternoon I went through an aneurysm-stressing experience related to Aetna's management of my employer's flexible spending account.

The details of this particular screw-up don't matter, I'll just pick on Aetna because, well, they have the voice menu system from Hell. Really though, it's the incentives, not the company.

The trick is understanding how Flexible Spending Accounts work in the US. Participating employees predict their spend in qualified programs (dependent care, health care) and set aside a portion of regular earnings to cover the costs. The amount spent is not subject to payroll tax.

The catch is the what happens to any unspent funds.. Employers get to keep 'em. I am willing to bet that, somehow, someway, the FSA administrator also benefits from unspent money.

Now here's where it gets interesting. The plan administrator and employer are clearly incented to make the claims process as problematic as possible -- but they don't have to actually do anything bad to get their money. In fact, they don't have to do anything at all.

They can let "nature" take its course. It's like gardening. Weeds are the easiest things to grow; you just have to let entropy work its magic.

Benefit systems, particularly those involving low bid outsourced companies,have a lot of complex moving parts. It's natural for things to go wrong, for communications to be forgotten, for software bugs to flourish. In fact, it takes a lot of money and effort to make the system work.

Companies with perverse incentives don't have to create scams, they simply have to let entropy build a dysfunctional system. They even don't have to know how it's built or how it works or even that it's in operation, they can still reap the rewards of an emergent scam.

It's a lesson worth remembering. Don't participate in complex systems with perverse incentives; you can't beat Mother Nature.

The case for kicking the can down the road

Paul Krugman, who's got a relatively good record of understanding the American economy, feels the Obama plan is too modest ....
Krugman - Failure to Rise -

... So far the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis is all too reminiscent of Japan in the 1990s: a fiscal expansion large enough to avert the worst, but not enough to kick-start recovery; support for the banking system, but a reluctance to force banks to face up to their losses. It’s early days yet, but we’re falling behind the curve.

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice.

There’s still time to turn this around. But Mr. Obama has to be stronger looking forward. Otherwise, the verdict on this crisis might be that no, we can’t.
Politics is the art of the possible. One reason to kick the can down the road is that there's no choice -- the GOP's Marketarian religion and the makeup of the US Senate means this is the best politics can do. If more members of the Party of Limbaugh leave the Senate then we can do more.

Another reason, however, is that we don't know what's going on.

I think both are good reasons to kick the can, but the second, of course, is more interesting. I'm old enough to know my strengths and weaknesses, and to have a pretty good understanding of what humans more talented than I are capable of. From that I'm reasonably confident that even someone with the extreme talents of, say, Richard Feynman, couldn't fully understand the causes and interactions driving the Great Recession.

Heck, people are still trying to fully understand the Great Depression, and that world was very simple compared to ours.

We're boldly going where no "man" has gone before.

I would not be shocked, if, six months from now, the Dow is over 10,000 and home prices are up 10%. On the other paw, I would not be surprised if, ten years from now, we are as shattered as post-WW II England.

I suspect I'm not alone in my thoughts. Maybe Geithner came across as uncertain because, really, nobody should be certain today.

So we've kicked the can. In six months we kick it again. Maybe 70 years from now we'll understand today's collapse -- even as we contemplate the post-human economic crisis of 2079.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How I'd save the New York Times

Henry Blodget has been tracking the collapse of the New York Times for a few months. Among other things he recommends they adopt the pay policy of the WSJ (the WSJ evolved this policy over time) ...
Save The New York Times - Henry Blodget - (NYT)

We are proposing that the New York Times do what the Wall Street Journal does, which is run a hybrid subscription-free business:
  • Many news stories are available for free at every day. So much so that the site's direct, non-subscriber traffic is meaningful and impressive.
  • ALL of the WSJ's content is indexed by, and available through, Google and other search engines. Most people don't understand this, but it is critically important. The WSJ's paid content is NOT hidden behind a firewall. It is available for free, all over the web, on a story by story basis.
  • Many sites have deals with the WSJ where they can link to WSJ's content and have their readers read it for free. This encourages bloggers and other publications to include the WSJ in the conversation economy.
  • The only WSJ content that web searchers and readers CANNOT access are the full navigation pages of Put differently, only subscribers can read The Wall Street Journal. Non-subscribers have to settle for reading the occasional Wall Street Journal story when they happen to encounter it.
I used to pay just to read Krugman, so I know I'd pay as long as the price wasn't insane.

I'm atypical though. They need something more.

The Encyclopedia Britannica online charges about $70 a year for full access. The NYT should buy/partner with the EB and the World Book. For $70 a year customers would get full access to the NYT, full access to the article archives, and full access to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Book Encyclopedia. NYT articles would routinely leverage the content of the encyclopedias.

Put this way, it looks like a bargain -- an easy sell for families with school aged children.

No, really, it was easy. Glad to have helped. Ok, if you insist, we'll accept 10 years of free subscriptions ...