Tuesday, June 30, 2009

U.S. Bank's ID Shield makes me scream

U.S. Bank, alas, is my bank.

Recently they instituted new mandatory "security" feature they . I had to provide them with answers to a wide range of security questions.

Yes, the "security" questions that provide a yawning back door into your online data, because it's easier for a crook to get answers to the security questions than it is to get at a strong password. Security question attacks are how most celebrity email accounts are hacked.

Today I tried to sync my Quicken data and I was asked where my maternal grandparents live.

I don't know where the #$!%$ my maternal grandparents live. They died before I was born, back in the early part of the last century.

American Express does not do this to me. I respect American Express's security model; ever since I learned the hard way about the Visa/MC systems.

I can't tolerate the pain of switching checking accounts, but US Bank has earned my enmity. I'm going to make them send me paper statements until the last post person falls.

Update: It gets better. I looked up the answer to the security question in my password database. I'd used a longish passphrase, so I gave that back to US Bank. The web site croaked with an error (probably string overflow) and locked my account (yes, like this). They gave me a #$@% phone number to call. US Bank is dead to me.

In What City Did You Honeymoon?And other monstrously stupid bank security questions tells us these passphrases are the fault of RSA Mobile, who provides them to banks. I want a bank that's smart enough to pay for a smarter version of two factor authentication. For example:
... Instead of coming up with ever-more-ornate questions about teachers and toys, banks and security companies should push solutions that are safe and customer-friendly. While everyone hates calling customer service, confirming your identity on the phone (an out-of-band device) is way more secure than using an online form. RSA's Gaffan told me about a phone-based authentication system used by more than a dozen of the company's clients. At sign-up time, you enter your work, home, and cell numbers. If you lose your password, simply indicate whether you're at home, at work, or on your cell. To authenticate yourself, just answer your phone and type in a number that appears on your computer screen. There's nobody asking about your honeymoon and no stuffed animal names to remember. Sounds perfect to me. What's my favorite bank? The one that doesn't ask me stupid frigging questions...
Passwords are dying, and they may take the world's less intelligent banks down with them.

Update 7/1/09: Michael A. points out that parents and children know each other's secret questions (children may need to do a bit of social engineering). On the other hand, spouses don't. My wife and I share a US Bank account, and she doesn't know my "High School mascot". There's got to be a lawsuit in here somewhere. Children hacking parental bank accounts, spouses denied access, users denied access ... I fear we don't have enough hungry lawyers these days.

There's a simple solution for US Bank that would be a win-win. Provide an option for customers to choose an alternative authentication option. Customers using option B would be required to have a strong password (but not to change it routinely, that's been shown to harm security) and, if they need to reset it, to physically travel to a bank branch, present legal ID, and pay $20 cash to cover the extra costs.

Update 7/3/09: One common workaround for stupidity of this extraordinary magnitude is to come up with a single robust "backdoor" password and use it to answer every secret question. US Bank does not allow this, each "secret question" response must be unique. I need a smarter bank! I can't trust any entity this incompetent with our money and our identity.

I've asked Bruce Schneier if he could write an essay identifying banks who actually demonstrate a basic understanding of security principles. I've also written a note to REI, who's VISA card I like. Unfortunately REI use's US Bank ...
... I love my REI Visa card, and I use it all the time.

Unfortunately, US Bank has introduced new online banking security measures that are proof of security team incompetence...

... I can't use an online bank with an incompetent security team!

I'm sorry I'll have to give up my REI Visa card. I hope you'll consider this email when you evaluate your relationship with US Bank.

Dog food: now it's the fluoride

We don't know the safe levels for dogs. Apparently the fluoride comes from a high bone meal content in pet food ...
Fluoride in dog food - Pets' health at risk? | Environmental Working Group:

.... An independent laboratory test of popular dog food brands, commissioned by Environmental Working Group, revealed that the food we buy for our pets contains high levels of fluoride, a contaminant that may put dogs' health at risk.

Eight major national brands marketed for both puppies and adults contained fluoride in amounts between 1.6 and 2.5 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum legal dose in drinking water... All 8 brands contain bone meal and animal byproducts, the likely source of the fluoride contamination.

Scientists have not studied the safety of high doses of fluoride for dogs....
It's hard to know what to make of this, except to reiterate that, in practice, libertarianism sucks.

Coleman is gone. At last.

It's a bit anti-climactic, but it's still good ...
The Associated Press: GOP's Coleman concedes, sending Franken to Senate

... Republican Norm Coleman has conceded to Democrat Al Franken in Minnesota's contested Senate race, ending a nearly eight-month recount and court fight.

Coleman conceded at a news conference in St. Paul, a few hours after a unanimous Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Tuesday the former 'Saturday Night Live' comedian and liberal commentator should be certified the winner...

...A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the earliest Franken would be seated is next week, because the Senate is out of session for the July 4 holiday."
Coleman steered to the wind. When Bush was powerful he was a conservative, when Bush weakened he was a "moderate". He was never a GOP rebel like the Senators from Maine.

Health Care reform and Climate change response (aka the survival of civilization) both got a big boost today. Of course there really aren't 60 certain votes for anything, but we're closer.

Now if we could just get rid of Pawlenty ...

Monday, June 29, 2009

States nobody should live in: add Georgia

One less state that a moral person would choose to live in ...
Editorial - Two Meals and Not Always Square - NYTimes.com
... Three days a week, Georgia now serves inmates only two meals...
Texas is another such.

Minnesota is a better choice.

Human progress and global climate change – are we good enough?

We are not what we were 20,000 years ago. We are not the people of 2,000 years past.

Hell, we’re not even the people I was born to.

We’re better than we were.

We’re better at damned near everything. I don’t know the how or why, but we’re still around 50 years post-fusion weapons. We got rid of Freon. We don’t routinely torture children in public schools. We have the ADA. We don’t smoke on airplanes. We have Obama. Gay unions, by whatever name, are inevitable. Religious fundamentalism in American is on the wane. We got rid of the torturers. Maybe this year, maybe ten years from now, America will guarantee good-enough health care to every American.

Progress happens. Lots of progress. Yeah, we go backwards, just like real estate, the Dow, and average July temperatures. Backwards – in the short term. Long term it’s one hell of a trend.

So I think that if the climate change riff on our smoldering Malthusian crisis had come along in 2060 that we’d be ok. Fifty more years of Singularity-free progress and we’d be ready to handle our CO2 problem.

Except it isn’t 2060, and we’re struggling big time. The US Congress has passed a bill that gets us about 5% of the distance, and the Senate is expected to suffocate it. To add injury to injury, those who argued against the bill were babbling gibberish.

I think we’ll still work something out. It’s the Obama effect; the boundaries of the impossible have moved. It’s going to take a lot of effort from the Rationalists however.

So I’ll start with an exercise. I’m going to try to invent a plausible argument against a Carbon Tax-equivalent like Cap and Trade.

For my first Denialist argument I’ll admit that the earth has been been growing warmer, on average, over the past 150 years. There’s no sense fighting on this point.

Then I’ll grant that CO2 might warm the earth, but I’ll say that particulates also cool the earth. Moreover, I’ll claim, we can’t trust simulation data so we  really don’t have good evidence that CO2 emissions are warming the globe. The effect may be solar in nature, and the historic relationship of global warming to CO2 rise is merely coincidence [1]. Therefore, I’ll argue, we need to do more research before acting on CO2 emissions.

That’s one. For my second argument I’ll grant that the earth is getting warmer and CO2 is the cause, but over the next 100 years it’s cheaper to adapt (build submerged homes) than it is to reduce CO2 output. Most likely, assuming we don’t vent the methane, we’ll only have a 3-4 degree Celsius warming by 2100 and that will only reduce GDP by 5%. By the time we get to 2060 we’ll be sucking yottawatts from parallel universes and we can dump the CO2 back into whatever cosmos we’ve depleted.

For my third argument I’ll grant the earth is getting warming, and that CO2 is the cause, and that we can’t “adapt” without risking human civilization and the lives of billions of people. In this case we should invest in terra-forming and climate engineering, such as CO2 sequestration or high altitude aerosol deposition, and forget about Carbon taxes.

So far I’ve come up with three semi-rational contrarian arguments all opposing a Carbon Tax (equivalent). I’ll call them “Solarian”, “Adaptionist”, and “GeoEngineering”. The three cover a spectrum from very weak (Solarian) to worthy of discussion (GeoEngineering).

The latter two are reasonable enough that most Rationalists would include aspects of them in a full-spectrum response. Personally I believe the “Adaptionist” argument makes unrealistic assumptions about the willingness of millions of humans to go gently in the night, and I think the GeoEngineering is astoundingly unlikely to work. Still, I think we’ll have to have some Adaptation (Leaving New Orleans…) and the GeoEngineering approaches do deserve study and testing.

Are there any quasi-Rational arguments against a Carbon Tax (or equivalent) that I’ve missed?

[1] An odd coincidence of course.

Finance transactions aren't so standard after all

In my job I'm familiar with the hellish stew of healthcare IT transactions.

Honestly, I'm a bit of an expert about that.

We always assume things are better in the simpler world of bank transactions.

That's probably true, but apparently they weren't so great 10 years ago ...
Charlie's Diary: How I got here in the end, part nine: the little start-up that could:

.... 1998 was a painful learning experience. It turns out that while the British banks all adhered to the APACS protocols for exchanging financial transactions, the protocols in question were prone to, ah, flexible interpretation — and each and every one of the banks interpreted them differently, seemingly in order to lock out their competitor's suppliers' EPOS terminals....
Standards are hard work, particularly when one's income depends on the standards not quite working.

Cyclopath.org: A GeoWiki for the Twin Cities metro area

Cyclopath is a Twin Cities Metro area bicycle map and "GeoWiki". It's operated by the University of Minnesota's GroupLens Research group. An associated Wiki provides news and documentation...
Welcome to Cyclopath, the geowiki for Twin Cities bicyclists. You can use Cyclopath to find routes and share information with other cyclists.Nobody knows where you can go, and what you will find when you get there, better than you, the bicycling community. Cyclopath enables bicyclists to harness this collective knowledge and build a comprehensive, up-to-date information resource by and for the community
This is what I'd thought long ago I might do with msptrails.org, but it's always been a future project for me.
A very nice local development.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mysteries of Annandale Minnesota

Parental anxieties, not without foundation, led me to a secret location a few miles from my eldest son’s overnight camp. I was under cover, he was not to know I was positioned for first night emergency response.

My bolt hole was a very small AmericInn in Annandale, Minnesota, a town of 2,700 white people that’s somewhere southeast of Lake Wobegone


My home is the “A” in the above, and Annandale is the “B”.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Annandale was a railway stop that morphed into an agricultural service center and a resort community. It later became a summer lake town and probably struggled economically. Now it’s gradually being absorbed into the monster sprawl between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. If life continues on the current path (unlikely post-Peak Oil) it will be fully exurban within 15 years.

Of course I had to explore. I started with the downtown, which looks like it made a serious effort at being tourist-friendly in the past decade. There’s a genuinely artistic fountain by the library, for example. On a Sunday things are quiet, so I ended up at Tootsie’s Bar and Grill here seen in the Google Street View ..


Yes, the friggin’ Google Street view. Think about it.

I’d had enough sense to put pants on, so they didn’t beat me up. Still, it ain’t the kind of place that sees a lot of strangers on a Sunday night. I made the mistake of sitting at a table. I think I could have died of old age there. I did better at the bar.

The white skin didn’t fool the locals. They could tell I didn’t belong.

I went to check out the library since I’ll need a place to work tomorrow. While I was sitting there the local cops pulled in. Coincidence, I’m sure.

I knew there had to be a mystery in Annandale, so before the cops chased me away I scanned the sat view of the town on my iPhone. Sure enough, this looked odd …


What was laid out in a grid like that, and what were the flat greenish areas? Street view didn’t go in there, and the satellite res was too low. It looks like a big parking lot, but the scale is wrong.

What could all those units be?

Think …

This is what used to be called a “trailer park”, the more correct term is modular home community (See also – a lot of American live in these communities, 10-15% maybe. They’re often hidden just out of sight). I’d guess there are about 300 units, so a good portion of Annandale lives here. These communities are too intimate for me to drive around in, but I did navigate back to check out the green area and I drove by some homes. The community looked more occupied than the rest of the town, with groups of teen and pre-teens in the streets.

The mystery areas, by the way, appear to be a manufactured wetland and the town dump. I think the latter is commonly found by modular home communities.

There are other mysteries near Annandale. One is a sign saying “Big Woods”. I had to chase that down, but the road turned to dirt and I ended up at in farmland. A sat map check didn’t show anything even remotely woody. So that one’s still a mystery.

On the other hand, I did turn up the Minnesota Pioneer Park in Annandale.


An Annandale historian tells the story. The Pioneer Park was built in the 1970s from the remnants of a train depot with the help of a group of reasonably prosperous and well connected summer residents who appeared to have an insane amount of time and energy. Thirty years later the park has seen better times, but I’ll look for a chance to get the kids out when it’s open.

Which led me to Annandale Online, the personal project of a Ms. Jill Bishop (emphases mine) …

Jill Bishop started the Annandale Online Website in 1999 while studying for a Masters of Liberal Studies. She had considered ethnography of the Annandale area for her project when she came across another city’s community website. In March 1999, Annandale Online became part of the internet after the City of Annandale okayed it. Now eight years later, Jill is still the website administrator of the site, which is sponsored by the City of Annandale. The website has grown from 50 pages when it was introduced to 600 pages of information. (A “page” can include many screens of information.)…

…The Annandale Online home page features a picture which is changed every week or two. Currently, it features a 1945 Annandale street scene. The sections include Events, Government, Library, School, Business, History, Advocate, Civic Groups, Religion-Spirituality, Health, Visitors, Other, and Weather.

The Events section includes the what, where and when of what’s going on each month in Annandale…

… There is also a link to a website in Finland listing Annandale area cemeteries and an alphabetical listing of burials in those cemeteries. This is a project completed by Ernest S. Lantto.

Annandale Online includes most everything a person would want to know about Annandale.

Actually, I don’t think it says much about the sociology and history of the modular homes, but it does hold rather a lot of information, including an explanation of how the town came to be (the page counter reads 1,263 today. If you read this, please do visit and kick the counter up a notch).

Mysteries, mostly, resolved.

I’m a great tourist.

Update: A visit to Tootsie’s should be balanced with a cup at In Hot Water on the other side of the tourist area (old main street). Superb organic/free trade coffee, great outdoor seating, small and welcoming indoor seating.


Annandale 001

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Alternative medicine and celebrity illness

Wealthy celebrities seem particularly prone to fantasy cures (see also - the Fall of Oprah). Unfortunately, they encourage others to make the same mistakes ...
What celebrity patients like Farrah Fawcett can teach us about cancer. - By Barron H. Lerner - Slate Magazine

Fawcett's case had another component that potentially sent the wrong message to other patients. In addition to the traditional cancer treatment she was receiving in the United States, the actress traveled to Germany six times to receive a combination of natural supplements and immune treatments not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These trips were chronicled in a moving documentary, Farrah's Story, that aired on NBC in mid-May. In seeking this type of therapy, Fawcett mirrored a choice made by actor Steve McQueen, who futilely traveled to Mexico in 1980 in search of a cure for his malignant mesothelioma. McQueen's Mexican doctors treated him with dozens of enzymes and vitamins, coffee enemas, and an anti-cancer drug called Laetrile, which was ultimately shown to be worthless.
Did the alternative treatments help Fawcett? It is unlikely. As Laurence R. Sands, a Florida surgeon who treats anal cancer patients, told WebMD, there is no scientific proof that such immune system stimulants work. Nevertheless, one of the German doctors involved in Fawcett's case claimed that the treatments had shrunk her tumors and substantially prolonged her life.
Once again, media coverage of Fawcett's case, while ostensibly providing useful information, ran the risk of sending the exact wrong message. Thousands of desperate end-stage cancer patients traveled to Mexico upon hearing Steve McQueen's story. The new destination may now become Germany...
Well, maybe not so much to Germany given Fawcett's recent death.

I've written about science-free therapies before.

Health wars: The armies muster

Towards the end of the Lord of the Rings the armies of the West march upon Mordor. In the movie they're dwarfed by the vast hordes of Sauron.

That's how I see Obama's army (link mine, and I corrected the British "organising") ...
Healthcare - it's make or break for Barack Obama | World news | The Observer
... the town hall meeting is just one aspect of the political machine that Obama is deploying in order to force through healthcare reform. Obama's vast network of online supporters built up during his election campaign is now being swung behind the effort. Called Organizing for America, it has got 500,000 people to commit to volunteering for the healthcare cause. It has released its first advertisements and put paid staff in 31 states to organise locally. Another group, Healthcare for America NOW!, has raised $35m. It has 120 staff in more than 40 states and in April alone staged 102 events related to campaigning for change.
Thirty-five million dollars.

That's so sweet.

Sauron must be shaking in his booties.

Oh well. In the Lord of the Rings the point of Aragon's tiny army was to distract Sauron from the real goal -- tossing the Ring into the pit of fire. Maybe Obama has a top secret plan, and our pathetic forces need only distract the Enemies ....

How to choose a city to live in

Imagine you are an active geek, and that you can live in any city on earth.

Where do you go? For that matter, where might you want to visit?

There are all kinds of metrics you might consider, but there’s a single metric that produces this particular list:

  1. Copenhagen, Denmark
  2. Portland, Oregon
  3. Munich, Germany
  4. Montreal, Quebec
  5. Perth, Australia
  6. Amsterdam, Netherlands
  7. Seattle, Washington
  8. Paris, France
  9. Minneapolis, Minnesota
  10. Bogota, Columbia (yes)

What does Minneapolis have in common with Paris?! What joins Copenhagan and, yes, Bogota?!

Think ….

Think ….

This list. These are the world’s top 10 cities for bicycling.

I’ve lived most of my life in Montreal and Minneapolis, and I’ve bicycled Munich. It know it’s hard to credit, but there is something similar about those 3. Paris is an outlier, but then there’s no accounting for Paris.

Ok, so Bogota, which people my age associate with drug wars and extreme violence, is another outlier. Until I summarized this list I’d never have considered visiting Bogota. Now I guess I have to.

If you’re a US citizen you might now be considering Portland, Seattle and (yes!) Minneapolis. I know, it’s a bit mind blowing. Now consider this list

  1. Wisconsin
  2. Minnesota
  3. Massachusetts

These are the top 3 states for health care quality in a the recent NHQR State Snapshot report (I must confess, by the way, that Wisconsin is a better bicycling state than Minnesota, it’s just that it doesn’t have much in the way of an urban life.)

I live in Minnesota’s Twin Cities (St. Paul, the sleepier sib of Minneapolis), which in addition to being the #3 bike city in the USA is also home to the world’s largest and most attractive legal dog park.

Sometimes, you just get lucky.

Update: chrismealy tells us that his Seattle hometown doesn't belong on the list, and that Portland has cyclists but not infrastructure. He writes recommends a terrific bicycle blog (http://hembrow.blogspot.com/, I just subscribed) so I'll take his word for it.

I know Munich is extreme, and Montreal is only very good, so there's clearly a big drop after #3 on the list. That moves Minneapolis even further up.

Incidentally, this update gives me an excuse to post a picture of the bicycle I bought in 1976. My Raleigh International (see Sheldon Brown's page for an original ad photo) is going for the full refurb treatment at the local racing shop in honor of a coming birthday. This is the pre-refurb shop ...

In appreciation of RealClimate

I don't know how the RealClimate crew is able to keep fighting for Reason, but I sure appreciate them.

Today they respond to yet another burst of Reason-free denialism....
.... Some parts of the blogosphere, headed up by CEI ('CO2: They call it pollution, we call it life!'), are all a-twitter over an apparently 'suppressed' document that supposedly undermines the EPA Endangerment finding about human emissions of carbon dioxide and a basket of other greenhouse gases. Well a draft of this 'suppressed' document has been released and we can now all read this allegedly devastating critique of the EPA science...
It's a devastating takedown, but imagine how boring it must be to read this drivel, and how painful it is to regurgitate the same old facts.

We owe these stout warriors a great debt. Beverages are on me if the RealClimate crew should happen to visit the Twin Cities.

Alas, despite their diligence, Reason is losing this battle. Most Americans have checked out on both health care revision and dealing with global climate change.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sprint while you commute?

If you're under 25 and in reasonably good shape, I suppose you could try this exercise regimen ...
Can You Get Fit in Six Minutes a Week? - Well Blog - NYTimes.com

... In one of the group’s recent studies, Gibala and his colleagues had a group of college students, who were healthy but not athletes, ride a stationary bike at a sustainable pace for between 90 and 120 minutes. Another set of students grunted through a series of short, strenuous intervals: 20 to 30 seconds of cycling at the highest intensity the riders could stand. After resting for four minutes, the students pedaled hard again for another 20 to 30 seconds, repeating the cycle four to six times (depending on how much each person could stand), “for a total of two to three minutes of very intense exercise per training session,” Gibala says.

Each of the two groups exercised three times a week. After two weeks, both groups showed almost identical increases in their endurance (as measured in a stationary bicycle time trial), even though the one group had exercised for six to nine minutes per week, and the other about five hours. Additionally, molecular changes that signal increased fitness were evident equally in both groups. ... In other words, six minutes or so a week of hard exercise (plus the time spent warming up, cooling down, and resting between the bouts of intense work) had proven to be as good as multiple hours of working out for achieving fitness. The short, intense workouts aided in weight loss, too, although Gibala hadn’t been studying that effect.
The response has been found in rat studies, so it's a little bit plausible.

If you're not under 25 several caveats apply
  • The study results need to be replicated with larger groups and older participants.
  • The news article didn't mention gender. Maybe this only works for young men with lots of testosterone on board.
  • The risk of injury with extremely intense workouts is high.
  • This is a good way to die if you're over 25 and aren't accustomed to repeated levels of intense exertion.
  • I suspect when they say "intense" they mean an intensity level that most older people can't reach (short of death).
  • Most Americans are exercising for weight loss.
  • Maybe we'll find out it causes accelerate atherosclerosis (you never know ...)
That said, if you're young, healthy and reasonably fit, it would be easy to work this kind of routine into a commonplace 30 minute bicycle commute. Just don't do it on a 10 mph bicycle trail!

Facebook observations

I've been enjoying Facebook, though the iPhone client is overdue for an overhaul. My conclusions about what's interesting with FB are a bit different from what I usually read, so, inevitably, I'm compelled to share:
  1. Internal identity - no anonymity. This means control over communications, which means spam is manageable. The FB equivalent of spam is metastatic "apps", but, for the moment, you can opt out of those. Spam free communication environments are worth much more these days than they were 7 years ago.
  2. It's AOL 2.0. I remember when AOL was interesting, back when it was a Mac only spinoff of one of Apple's many failed online communities. I'll call that AOL 1.0. Of course in those days there was no spam, no phishing, no viruses -- essentially the proto-Net was risk free. That meant AOL didn't have an enormous amount to offer, but it still did quite well. Now the Net is extremely risky, especially for XP users. AOL 2.0 has a much bigger value proposition than AOL 1.0.
  3. I love pub/sub, especially as implemented in feeds and readers. Unfortunately, this technology was a bridge too far for the vast majority of humanity. Only the uber-geeks knowingly use feed readers like Google Reader; all the good desktop XP feed readers have died. Facebook is all about pub/sub, but they've made the technology feel natural to their base. That's a real accomplishment.
  4. Facebook has shown (sigh) that logic and usability are not all that important for a social application.
I've never paid much attention to the alleged role Facebook played in electoral politics. I'm still unsure how much of that is real, but there is some potential to gradually encourage specific memes in one's FB network. It has to be done judiciously. I actually streamed my Google Reader "notes/shares" into FB for a while and I think I about vaporized my friends. Now I restrict the meme injections to 1-2 a week.

The dark side of FB, of course, is data lock. (Privacy you say? Surely you've given up on that 20th century dream.) They're providing more APIs and sharing more identity information than they have, but I would never put my photo library on FB. It's a place to put things that are intentionally transient.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Kristof points out the AMA doesn’t represent physicians! (At last)

Congratulations to one of my favorite columnists. He’s the first commentator I’ve read to point out that the AMA doesn’t represent physicians!

Nicholas Kristof The Prescription From Obama’s Own Doctor - NYTimes.com

the A.M.A. now represents only 19 percent of practicing physicians (that’s my calculation, which the A.M.A. neither confirms nor contests). Its membership has declined in part because of its embarrassing historical record: the A.M.A. supported segregation, opposed President Harry Truman’s plans for national health insurance, backed tobacco, denounced Medicare and opposed President Bill Clinton’s health reform plan…

He only gets partial credit for the explanation however. Membership fell because the AMA was more or less created to represent surgeons in their negotiations for procedural reimbursement. Non-proceduralists have a direct economic conflict with the AMA.

Kristoff continues …

… when the A.M.A. uses its lobbying muscle to oppose major health reform — yet again! — that feels like a betrayal…

… most physicians expect better as well, which is why the A.M.A. is on the decline.

“It’s what has led to the decline of the A.M.A. over the last half century,” said Dr. David Himmelstein, a Massachusetts physician who also teaches at Harvard Medical School. “At this point only one in five practicing doctors are in the A.M.A., and even among its members about half disagree with its policies.” To back that last point, Dr. Himmelstein pointed to surveys showing a surprising number of A.M.A. members who support a single-payer system.

For his part, Dr. Himmelstein co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program, which now has more than 16,000 members. The far larger American College of Physicians, which is composed of internists and is the second-largest organization of doctors, is also open to a single-payer system and a public insurance option. It also quite rightly calls for emphasizing primary care…

Physicians know that real health reform will be a mixed bag for them. Some things will get better, some things will get worse. Proceduralists will lose income, but primary care physicians might disappear. Or they might do relatively well. All physicians know is that the transition is going to hurt like hell.

I think if we could poll physicians (which is very hard to do) we’d find a majority do support major change – even though they’re going to get hurt in the process. Even many of the physicians who are likely to lose income (which translates to losing things like homes) may be more supportive than logic would dictate – especially if the transitions can be staged.

If I’m right, that’s worth of praise.

As for the AMA, please stop paying them so much attention.

Pro wrestling and celebrity tweets

Remember when pro wrestling was big? Some folks really seemed to believe it was all spontaneous.

Reminds me of the belief that wealthy celebrities and politicians actually "tweet" ...

Gail Collins - The Love Party - NYTimes.com

... it is highly unlikely that anybody actually gives a fig about Mark Sanford. (Including, perhaps, his beleaguered staff, which spent the last week fending off calls from the lieutenant governor and diligently filing Sanford’s daily Twitter.)

Tough times are good times for LinkedIn

I just received 40 LinkedIn updates in 24 hours (via Feed) distributed across a fair number of my connections.

I used to get 0-1 a day.

The update volume has been growing exponentially as my friends and colleagues scramble for new jobs.

It’s tough times for many, but good times, so far, for LinkedIn.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Don't forget Iran, but worry about China

Five years ago Iran's government was like that of China of 2006, Putin's Russia or Castro's Cuba. It was a tyranny, but a popular tyranny. It was not East Germany under Soviet occupation.

Now Iran's government is an unpopular tyranny. It's starting to resemble East Germany, but with more public unrest. Truly unpopular tyrannies can endure for ten or fifteen years in isolated nations, but Iran is a highly educated and moderately well informed nation.

Iran's current tyrant will fall within the next four years. He will most likely be replaced by a more popular tyrant, but there's a chance of something better. Tyrants are often surprisingly sensitive to foreign opinion, so we should keep the light on Iran and keep the BBC's Farsi service funded. There's not much else to do though. The Iranian people will have to fix this one.

So don't forget Iran, but we have something much bigger to worry about.

We need to worry about China.

We know world economic output is falling as quickly as in the Great Depression, but America isn't (yet) reliving GD I. So if the mean is bad, and we're above the mean, who's big enough to bring it down?


I've commented on some signs of fear in China's government. Today brings another sign ...
China blocks Google services for an hour | World news | guardian.co.uk

Google suffered intensive disruption in China tonight just days after it was warned by the authorities to scale back its search operations.

Search functions and Gmail were inaccessible for more than an hour in a move seen by web watchers as a warning shot across the bows by China's censors...
This is desperation. China's tyrants are afraid of what China's economic upheaval is going to mean. Their worried about North Korea collapsing, they're worried about the Iranian example and they're trying to turn off news from the world. It's craziness born of panic.

The desperation of China's tyrants is probably not something to celebrate. China's people will eventually demand representative government, but it would be best to have that happen in a setting of economic prosperity -- not depression.

We need to get more Americans buying more Chinese stuff. Now.

The paradox of Amazon's negative reviews: Best material, lowest ratings

Sometimes I despair of mere humanity.

Take Amazon reviews, for example.

I write a fair number of 'em, enough to qualify as a "Vine" candidate. A lot of my reviews are quite positive, but I think some of my most valuable reviews are the negative ones. Curiously, my positive reviews are always well rated, but my negative reviews often receive few and mixed reader ratings.

Of course some of this is fraud -- employees pretending to be customers. I don't think that's all of it though. Humans love to acquire, and they want their acquisitive impulses to be reinforced. A negative review is a buzz kill.

It's not just me. Consider the Hasbro Nerf N-Strike Longshot CS-6. This nerf weapon has a 4+ star review, with lots of keen reviews. It is astonishingly cool looking, and my son yearned for it. He earned it through accomplishing a challenging and important task; it came while I was away on a (infrequent) business trip.

Within a minute of walking in the door I was handed the gun and asked to fix it. The front gun component wouldn't fire its foam dart.

It took a bit of playing around, but I eventually figured out the plastic handgrip interlock was defective. It wasn't a random manufacturing error, the mold was obviously incorrect. With a bit of work with a Dremel and a razor I was able to trim the plastic tabs and allow the grip to lock. At that point the firing tab engaged and my son was quietly pleased.

He was not impressed mind you. He expected that I'd fix it.

Ok, I'm getting to the point.

I returned to Amazon to warn of this manufacturing problem, and this time I read the negative reviews. Most of them mentioned that the pistol grip didn't mount, and most of them were rated "unhelpful" -- if they were rated at all.

The negative reviews have been warning for months of a significant manufacturing error -- one that I'm certain Hasbro knows about even as they continue to sell the unfixed toy. Despite their fundamental value they go unread.

Remember Cassandra? Do you remember that nobody liked her predictions of doom? Most people don't remember she was right.

There's a reason that story resonates.

It's not just the rest of humanity. Even I didn't read the negative reviews -- though I usually do. In my defense, I didn't read any of the reviews. It looks cool, my son wanted it, it was a reward for a task completed, it doesn't cost much -- I didn't do a lot of research.


Happily, in this case, there is a candle you can light. The next time you buy something from Amazon; read the negative reviews. Reward those that describe negative experiences and concrete issues. It's not hard to filter out the nonsensical rants. Strike a blow for Reason!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

World industrial output – tracking the first Great Depression

Almost as an aside, Krugman delivers the bad news at the end of a blog post …

Green shoots, 1930 - Paul Krugman Blog - NYTimes.com

…I thought everyone paying attention to this stuff was familiar with the Eichengreen-O’Rourke work. EO point out that the original Great Depression was most severe in America, while this one is more severe in a number of other countries. So you want to do a world comparison — and if you do, we’re actually tracking the first year of the GD quite closely. Here’s world industrial production …

Nicely is an understatement. By this chart world output is cloning the first 12 months of the first Great Depression. I really don’t think we’re appreciating how bad things are getting in China.

We should all be very, very nice to China.

It took 3 years for world industrial output to bottom out in GD I, falling about 40% during that time. We’re down about 13% judging from the graph Krugman provides.

I don’t think we should be worrying about the stimulus package being too big. (Not that anyone paying attention is worrying about that.)

The interesting aspects of Steve Job’s alleged liver transplant

A surgeon expresses the thoughts on the mind of every physician who’s heard that Steve Jobs received a liver transplant (per WSJ) for a metastatic neuroendocrine tumor …

What's wrong with Steve Jobs, revisited : Respectful Insolence

… How many people are capable of getting themselves listed for transplant in a state nearly 2,000 miles away from their home? When a liver becomes available, there isn't much time to get to the hospital. That means a person seeking a transplant in another state either has to stay in that state for as long as it takes to get an organ or be within a distance to be able to fly there within a very short period of time. Moreover, organs eligibility and availability are determined by the United Network for Organ Sharing, which maintains the donor lists. When an donor is identified, regional and state organizations (in my home state, for example, Gift of Life, where one of my relatives works), obtain consent, arrange for organ harvest, and decide, based on fairly strict criteria published by UNOS regarding medical need and practical matters like how long it will take to get the organs out and to the hospitals where they are needed, which people on the waiting list for the state will receive each of the organs harvested. If this story is true, what Jobs did is not illegal, but it sure does leave an unpleasant stench of the rich and powerful taking advantage of regional differences in organ availability, perhaps at the expense of a lifelong Tennessee resident who needs a liver…

… Worse, the indication is somewhat shaky. For one thing, as was pointed out in the article, neuroendocrine tumors are generally very slow growing and take a long time to metastasize. One of the more "common" subtypes of the rare neuroendocrine tumor in particular, a carcinoid of the appendix or the rectum, is particularly prone to metastasize to the liver and is notorious for causing carcinoid syndrome, which is due to serotonin secretion by these tumors and causes flushing, diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms…

In the United States organs are gifts from the dead to strangers. Most of the donors are not wealthy. In this country we don’t, yet, seem to have much of a commercial market in organs – though the organ trade is growing in much of the world (the sale of sperm and eggs, by contrast, is a very active US market, sure to be increasingly global).

The story of Jobs liver transplant has two interesting aspects. Both demonstrate what power can achieve.

One aspect is that it was kept pretty much out of the media, though clearly thousands must have known the details. In this regard it resembles the seven month media silence about the imprisonment of a senior NYT journalist in Taliban-occupied Pakistan . The modern world is better at keeping secrets than many imagine.

The second aspect is that it shows that we need to talk more about organ distribution. The rich will always have access to more health care options – though, as in this case, it may lead them to make medically sub-optimal choices. On the other hand, organs are a gift from people who are usually not themselves powerful. Given two equally appropriate candidates, one powerful and one not, I’d rather my liver go to the less privileged. It’s my way of spitting in the face of a fundamentally unjust universe.

We should be talking about the organ trade.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Neda Soltani - an Iranian student

Neda Soltani - Wikipedia and Facebook.

The Wikipedia article states that her family donated her organs.

Why do we tolerate so many Apple bugs?

It's not hard to find bugs in OS X. Just spend a few minutes with Parental Controls for example. If Apple offered a bounty for bugs they'd go broke.

So why don't Apple's customers bitch more?

Is it because ...
  1. They don't experience the bugs.
  2. They run into problems, but don't realize they're bugs. (Users think they've done something wrong).
  3. They run into the bugs, but don't care.
  4. They've given up hope.
I'm guessing it's all of the above.

Unfortunately those bugs aren't going anywhere unless customers (that's us) get much more demanding.

It's like French Pastries in Minneapolis. There are a few that aren't terrible, but there are none half as good as those sold in the English suburbs of Montreal (much less downtown!). The difference is the standards of the consumers.

Please software buyers, please, please, please be more demanding!!

Hell frozen: a GOP columnist says something non-raving about health care

Ross Douthat is the NYT’s latest attempt to find a GOP-friendly columnist who’s not a raving loon.

He writes of health care today, and he’s only lightly raving …

Ross Douthat - The Hard Part - NYTimes.com

…. In a world without political constraints, it wouldn’t be hard to create a fiscally responsible alternative. Conservatives would encourage people to self-ration, by putting a certain number of health care dollars directly in their hands and leaving the rest to market forces. Liberals would ration more directly, by slow-walking Americans into a public health care system, whose cost-conscious, evidence-weighing bureaucracy would pay for procedure X but not procedure Y, surgery P but not prescription drug Q.

But of course Americans want their health care system to bankroll the entire alphabet — and they definitely don’t want to think about “market forces” when they’re going to the doctor. They might be willing to pay slightly higher taxes to bankroll a reform, but their ideas about what “reform” should mean are far more expensive than what health care experts have in mind. Indeed, as William Galston noted recently, the best way to satisfy the public’s health care preferences would be to start with whatever the experts — right and left alike — say is required to keep the system solvent and do exactly the opposite…

Of course the choices are not as stark as Douthat pretends. He is a GOP voice, after all. On the other hand, my champion, Paul Krugman, isn’t as forthcoming as he might be. Krugman is very careful to skirt the reality of how health care services will be delivered -- if we actually win this one.

I’m 95% sure Krugman understands that what we will eventually guarantee every American is a ticket on the Manhattan subway, not the keys to a new Lexus. Everyone will get at least Quebec-quality healthcare, which is what I like to call “crummy care”. People with money will get what my family enjoys today, people without money get the Spartan version, and nobody gets “crappy care”. (As an aside, Subway Care may have better outcomes than Lexus Care, but that’s another post.)

Douthat is right that the average American’s ideas of “reform” are a delusion. Right wingers won’t mention that because they fear Obama will succeed – and maybe they hate that more than they love America. The good guys won’t talk about it because they suspect informed voters will freeze in the headlights -- and get squashed.

I’m not running for office though, so I can mention it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Isn't the NYT's Roger Cohen a bit old for this?

The NYT's Roger Cohen was criticized a few month's for a relatively positive spin on Iranian culture and politics, particularly claims that Iran was not predictably anti-semitic. He was portrayed by some as naive, removed from the realities of the Iranian street.

Now he's dodging tear gas and bullets on those streets ...
Roger Cohen - A Supreme Leader Loses His Aura as Iranians Flock to the Streets - NYTimes.com
... Just off Revolution Street, I walked into a pall of tear gas...
... I did what I could and he said, “We are with you” in English and with my colleague we tumbled into a dead end — Tehran is full of them — running from the searing gas and police. I gasped and fell through a door into an apartment building where somebody had lit a small fire in a dish to relieve the stinging.

There were about 20 of us gathered there, eyes running, hearts racing. A 19-year-old student was nursing his left leg, struck by a militiaman with an electric-shock-delivering baton. “No way we are turning back,” said a friend of his as he massaged that wounded leg."...
Cohen is no youngster. Who the heck sent him to Iran?!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Apple's iPhone Calendar makes me miss my parents' anniversary

I blogged about this four months ago, but it's the Apple gift that keeps on giving.

For the seven or more years that I used various versions of Gorilla Haven's DateBk on my Palm, I got 2-3 week warnings of birthdays, anniversaries on the like.

It was great. I rarely missed a card or an event

Then I got my 21st century iPhone, with a locked down, no API, Apple authored Calendar.app. A calendar that allows a maximum 2 day reminder of events.

Events like my parents' anniversary, now 2 days away.

Two $!#$#$ days!

That's the problem with devices built by children. In their world, 2 days is a long time.

Nettie, how many days warning does the Pre calendar allow you?

Update: It's unchanged in iPhone 3.0.

Update 6/20: The Pre isn't all that much better - suprisingly!
Via Nettie:
... for all-day events in the Pre calendar you can remind 1/2/3/7 days before. For meeting-type events you can remind 5/10/15 mins and 1 day...
It must be something in Cupertino water supply.

Why smart software can be so stupid – the Microsoft Access example

This is one of my favorite examples of the wrong way to deliver smart software.

Microsoft Access 2003 (2007 too I think) tries to be smart when importing an Excel spreadsheet. Rather than look at Excel’s data types, it looks at the data in the first 25 rows. Then, based on the patterns it sees there it infers a data type … (emphases mine)

Import, export, and link data between Access and Excel - Access - Microsoft Office Online

Data type  By default, Access scans the first 25 rows to guess the data type of the column. If Access encounters values beyond the 25th row that are not compatible with the chosen data type, it will simply ignore those values and not import them.

… You cannot change the data type of the destination field during the import operation.

It’s the combination of oh-so-smart cleverness (infer the data type) and pure stupidity (no user override of the inferred type) that makes this such a priceless example.

The lessons?

First, be very conservative about making your software “smart”. In general, you’ll make it stupid.

Second, if you’re going to make your software smart, let the user override the clever code.

It’s not like Access is a consumer tool anyway.

I can’t measure what an amazing amount of pain this stupid design has caused me over the years. It even afflicts linking to a spreadsheet from Access.

H1N1 (swine) flu – it’s back in Minnesota

Actually, it never went away – which is a bit weird.

We’re seeing a fair amount of it in Minnesota.  This blurb came from the University of Minnesota and it’s not bad as these things go.

Emergency Preparedness : Academic Health Center Office of Emergency Response

As I’m sure you’ve been hearing in the news, spread of the novel H1N1 influenza (swine flu) is increasingly common and occurring throughout Minnesota. I thought it would be a good time to provide you with an update.

Currently all patients in Minnesota with flu symptoms such as fever, cough or other respiratory symptoms are considered likely to have the H1N1 novel influenza virus. The Minnesota Department of Health is now only conducting diagnostic testing on severe, hospitalized cases of possible influenza.

Given the increasing spread of H1N1, this is a good time to be reminded of the following:

  • If you are sick with flu-like symptoms, you should stay home. You will be considered infectious for 7 days after the onset of symptoms or 24 hours after you are symptom-free, whichever is longer.
  • Use excellent hand washing techniques and cover your cough. It is our best first line of defense against the spread of influenza.
  • If you are pregnant, immune-suppressed or have a chronic health condition such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma or emphysema, you are at increased risk for severe flu or flu complications. You should contact your health care provider if you have flu symptoms or have been exposed to people with flu symptoms.
  • Keep hard surfaces such as workstations, door handles and bathroom surfaces clean using household disinfectant.

The following links can also help answer any questions you may have:

Pretty good, but their list of increased risk is not complete. This one is from the MN Dept of Health

  • Children aged less than 5 years, particularly those less than 2 years of age;
  • Persons aged 65 years or older;
  • Women who are pregnant;
  • Adults and children who have chronic health conditions including chronic lung problems such as asthma, metabolic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and certain blood diseases;
  • Adults and children who have a lowered immune system from medications or chronic health conditions such as HIV;
  • Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities.

The implication, not explicitly stated, is that if you’re not at increased risk you’re supposed to stay home.

The CDC and departments of health need to do a much better job of providing guidance about home management of H1N1 flu -- including a description of the expected course and instructions to contact a physician if the disease is NOT following the expected course.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think the CDC has blown this one. We’re just lucky this flu hasn’t been unusually severe – so far. Though any influenza is nasty enough.

Fear in China's government

I don't think this has much to do with porn ...
China lambasts Google again for disseminating porn - Ars Technica
.... Google is guilty of 'disseminating pornographic and vulgar information' and should stop immediately, according to China's Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center. The organization made the accusation Thursday after making several requests to Google to remove what it has deemed inappropriate content, and said that Chinese authorities should take action if Google won't conduct a 'thorough clean-up"...
China's economy is under severe strain. International coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmnen square protests must have leaked back into China. China is mandating use of government controlled filtering software on all computers. South Korea is a huge cultural influence in China, and the inevitable collapse of North Korea will eliminate China's last remaining communist ally. The Iranian protests must be unnerving, and disturbingly reminiscent of Tiananmen and the fall of the Berlin wall. Lastly, with Bush gone, it's harder to find an inspiring example of a criminally stupid western government.

Installing monitoring software and attacking Google are not things the Chinese communist government does when it's feeling confident.

Interesting times.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Apologies to politicians of 1990s Japan and 1930s America

In 1930's America, Krugman shows us that a big majority of Americans thought it was critically important that Roosevelt try to balance the budget.

So he did.

And the Great Depression returned.

Today Americans want to make the same mistake, just as the Japanese did in the 90s. We need to cut the past politicians who blew this decision a bit of slack. It's hard to fight a national urge to suicide.

We Americans have less excuse than the people of that era. I hope Obama can convince America not to repeat the same old mistakes.

The CDC flunks the H1N1 test

The CDC is whining ...
Health Care Workers Muffed H1N1 Flu Precautions - ABC News
... A snapshot of the health care workers who came down with the H1N1 flu in the first few weeks of the outbreak suggests that proper infection-control practices weren't uniformly followed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today....
Bah, humbug!

I've been checking the CDC's web site for provider oriented recommendations over the past few months.

Shall I be delicate?

Heck, no.

The CDC's H1N1 recommendations were, and have been, a fuzzy pile of worthless pap. They've provided no practical guidance on managing patients with fever and cough, very little useful information on infection control, almost nothing on diagnostic procedures and criteria, and very few concrete therapeutic recommendations.

They've weaved, dodged, hemmed and hawed.

And now they're whining.


A good thing happens: fiber optic connections to the Horn of Africa

We’ve had a bit of a good news deficit lately, though there’s no doubt things could be (much) worse.

So this bit of good news is most welcome. Among other things it’s potentially a significant business opportunity for Minnesota’s large Somali and Ethiopian communities.

Emphases mine.

Economist.com – June 2009

… THE Horn of Africa is one of the last populated bits of the planet without a proper connection to the world wide web. Instead of fibre-optic cable, which provides for cheap phone calls and YouTube-friendly surfing, its 200m or so people have had to rely on satellite links. This has kept international phone calls horribly overpriced and internet access equally extortionate and maddeningly slow.

But last week, in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, a regional communications revolution belatedly got under way when Kenya’s president, Mwai Kibaki, plugged in the first of three fibre-optic submarine cables due to make landfall in Kenya in the next few months. They should speed up the connection of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as bits of Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, to the online world. Laying the cable cost $130m, mostly at the Kenyan government’s expense; Mr Kibaki hailed the event for bringing “digital citizenship” to his countrymen.

The new cable will compete with the other two to be welcomed onshore, perhaps later this year. The hope is that the high bandwidth and fierce competition between the three cables will slash costs and help create new business. With a mass of young English-speakers only an hour or two ahead of Europe’s time zones, east Africa should, with luck, be well-placed to compete with India and Sri Lanka for back-office work for Western companies. Broadband, say its promoters, will transform the lives of millions in countries such as Kenya and Sudan, almost as dramatically as mobile telephones have done—all the more so because of the parlous state of east Africa’s more old-fashioned infrastructure, especially roads and railways.

A few call centres have already got a toehold in the market and expect to expand fast when the cables arrive. Security experts say cybercrime and junk mail may increase too. Still, mobile telephones, not internet cafés, will continue to grow the fastest. The number and quality of handsets should rise. In a couple of years even fairly poor east Africans may be getting knowledge, news and entertainment on robust versions of existing Apple iPhone and Palm Pre models. That, in turn, may prove to be a political as well as economic boon, as information gets shared “horizontally”, among people rather than “vertically” via media outlets run by the political and commercial elites.

Rwanda may emerge as a winner. Its president, Paul Kagame, has long identified the internet as a key to his country’s development, offering concessions to software companies setting up there. But Kenya also wants to cash in. It has abolished sales tax on computers and in last week’s budget ended the sales tax on new mobile phones. It has also let businesses write off bandwidth purchases in the hope of dominating the regional internet market. That may make other countries push companies to drop their prices…

There will be problems of course. Stolen infrastructure, corruption, cybercrime, etc.

Even so. Change you can believe in.

Martha, what do you think?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The very cool Layar mobile augmented reality browser (for iPhone)

Flying in to MSP the other day I really wanted icons on the landscape. Click to find out what that lake is. Click to identify that ballpark.

Seems that’s coming sooner than expected, though perhaps not for plane use just yet …

Gizmodo - Layar: First Mobile Augmented Reality Browser Is Your Real Life HUD – Layar

Layar combines GPS, camera, and compass to identify your surroundings and overlay information on screen, in real time. It is available for Android now and it will be available for iPhone soon, but exclusively for the 3GS.

The reason is that Layar needs a compass to work, as Maarten Lens-FitzGerald—from developer SPRXmobile—tells us:

We are definitely going for the new iPhone 3GS because of the compass! We're aiming for release after summer, but we depend on Apple accepting it…

Yes, all those science fiction stories are now passe. I’m looking forward to when they incorporate the facial recognition module …

The backup problem – sometimes the backup isn’t worth the cost

Halamka has a great review of backup strategies and costs, but my favorite bit is in the last paragraph …

Life as a Healthcare CIO: Our Storage Backup Strategy

Over the past year, Harvard Medical School has worked with research, administrative, and educational stakeholders to develop a set of storage policies and technologies that support demand, are achievable in the short term and are affordable.

I recently gave a keynote at Bio-IT World where I described the HMS storage strategy to ensure scalability, high performance, and reliability.

Since that presentation, we've refined our strategy for replication/backup/restoration of data for disaster recovery. In many ways backup is a harder problem to solve and a more expensive project than data storage itself.

Our best thinking (a strawman for now that we are still reviewing with customers) is outlined on this slide. For databases and Microsoft exchange, we're using Data Domain appliances to replace tape …

…  Some departments have asked not to replicate at all, since it is cheaper to rerun an experiment than to replicate the terabytes of data each experiment generates. …

I recently sat through a fascinating recounting of a corporate IT outage. They thought they had sufficient redundancy, but there’s always a limit.

Backups aren’t just a problem for home users. Our current technologies don’t scale as well as one might imagine.

Gmail: I don’t love you any more, but we can still be friends

I’ve been using Gmail since the week it was “released”. There’s a lot I like about it, but I’ve finally decided it’s killing me.

There’s more than one set of problems, but the number one problem is the bloody obligate subject line threading model.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they used some kind of message unique identifier to implement usenet style threading. It would be immensely better if Gmail allowed me to edit the subject lines of incoming messages and thus to create new threads (like this).

In the current state though, it’s a killer. I have too much trouble picking out critically important messages from threads. Searches return the thread, and trawling through the thread is too error prone.

The obligate threading was and is a mistake.

There are other Gmail problems. Google’s only recently fixed up the Contacts model, and I despise the UI for creating mailing lists and working with Contacts. Gmail can be intermittently slow and unreliable – this past week has been very annoying. The IMAP implementation intersects badly with labels; my use of labels means Spotlight searches in OS X Mail.app return multiple instances of a single message.

There’s still a lot I like about Gmail, especially when I use it with iPhone Mail.app. I’m not going to abandon it, but I’m considering simplification measures. I might return to POP style access on OS X for example and use OS X Mail.app when I need to get real work done.

As long as Gmail was used primarily for personal email, their lowest common denominator approach wasn’t necessarily wrong. That’s often a good way to win. Now, though, Google wants to support large enterprises on their Google Apps platform. There are going to be more users like me.

If Google doesn’t start listening to its more demanding customers I won’t be the only one to start seeing other software.

Update: I realize that Gmail contributes to hiding messages in mis-identified threads by hiding the subject line on reply. Sigh.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Choosing a brand? check GoodGuide

I'm delighted someone's doing this ...
An App, the GoodGuide, Aids in Careful Shopping - NYTimes.com
... GoodGuide, a Web site and iPhone application that lets consumers dig past the package’s marketing spiel by entering a product’s name and discovering its health, environmental and social impacts....
Kellogg got an OK rating.

Subversive theophysics - Greg Egan

I've been composing a post about Greg Egan's Permutation City for a while. I'm afraid I'll never get to the whole thing, so I'm going to toss off the short version. (Warning, contains spoilers)

Greg Egan is usually said to write "hard" science fiction. That's inadequate. He writes neutronium grade science fiction. His mathematical physics bent has become so extreme that his latest book is a thin layer of fiction around a core of speculative physics (Amazon promises me a copy in 3-4 weeks, apparently they have to retype it. Egan has put a prequel to the story on his web site).

Permutation City is one of his best works. Despite the math science bent several of the characters have stuck with me.

The best part though, is the fusion between theology and physics -- theophysics. In Permutation City reality is fundamentally mathematical, much as imagined by Stephen Wolfram and many more conventional physicists. A group of experimental modelers creates an artificial world with a different sort of mathematical reality.

No wait, hang in here for a minute. I'm really going somewhere.

The creatures of this new world are fantastically alien, but like us they're compelled to understand their world. Problem is, their world is fundamentally incomprehensible. It was created by omniscient and omnipotent Creators. Gods.

So the alien critter(s) is(are) "anguished". They are compelled to understand, but they cannot understand. The human Creators are sympathetic, and decide to manifest themselves in the alien world. The Truth shall be known, and the aliens will understand.

Except, the aliens come up with their own Theory of Everything; their equivalent of quantum gravity. It looks crazy and absurd, but it's internally consistent. It explains everything but the appearance of the Creators, and that detail can be quickly forgotten.

The Creators suddenly find themselves written out of the script, but that's a different story. I'm telling the story of the subversive aspects of Egan's fiction.

Obviously, the invented aliens of Permutation City aren't alone. We too are compelled to comprehend, and modern physics is getting pretty damned absurd...

State of the Art; The Origin of Life

This article does a great job of describing one of biology's great questions, and describing the state of the art. Superb work. Unfortunately it's so good I'm obliged, for the sake of my own reference, to replicate the whole darned thing. Please click on the link so the NYT gets a visit. Emphases mine.
New Glimpses of Life’s Puzzling Origins - Nicholas Wade - NYTimes.com
.... 3.9 billion years ago, a shift in the orbit of the Sun’s outer planets sent a surge of large comets and asteroids careening into the inner solar system. Their violent impacts gouged out the large craters still visible on the Moon’s face, heated Earth’s surface into molten rock and boiled off its oceans into an incandescent mist.

Yet rocks that formed on Earth 3.8 billion years ago, almost as soon as the bombardment had stopped, contain possible evidence of biological processes. If life can arise from inorganic matter so quickly and easily, why is it not abundant in the solar system and beyond? If biology is an inherent property of matter, why have chemists so far been unable to reconstruct life, or anything close to it, in the laboratory?

The origins of life on Earth bristle with puzzle and paradox. Which came first, the proteins of living cells or the genetic information that makes them? How could the metabolism of living things get started without an enclosing membrane to keep all the necessary chemicals together? But if life started inside a cell membrane, how did the necessary nutrients get in?

The questions may seem moot, since life did start somehow. But for the small group of researchers who insist on learning exactly how it started, frustration has abounded. Many once-promising leads have led only to years of wasted effort. Scientists as eminent as Francis Crick, the chief theorist of molecular biology, have quietly suggested that life may have formed elsewhere before seeding the planet, so hard does it seem to find a plausible explanation for its emergence on Earth.

In the last few years, however, four surprising advances have renewed confidence that a terrestrial explanation for life’s origins will eventually emerge.

One is a series of discoveries about the cell-like structures that could have formed naturally from fatty chemicals likely to have been present on the primitive Earth. This lead emerged from a long argument between three colleagues as to whether a genetic system or a cell membrane came first in the development of life. They eventually agreed that genetics and membranes had to have evolved together.

The three researchers, Jack W. Szostak, David P. Bartel and P. Luigi Luisi, published a somewhat adventurous manifesto in Nature in 2001, declaring that the way to make a synthetic cell was to get a protocell and a genetic molecule to grow and divide in parallel, with the molecules being encapsulated in the cell. If the molecules gave the cell a survival advantage over other cells, the outcome would be “a sustainable, autonomously replicating system, capable of Darwinian evolution,” they wrote.

“It would be truly alive,” they added.

One of the authors, Dr. Szostak, of the Massachusetts General Hospital, has since managed to achieve a surprising amount of this program.

Simple fatty acids, of the sort likely to have been around on the primitive Earth, will spontaneously form double-layered spheres, much like the double-layered membrane of today’s living cells. These protocells will incorporate new fatty acids fed into the water, and eventually divide.

Living cells are generally impermeable and have elaborate mechanisms for admitting only the nutrients they need. But Dr. Szostak and his colleagues have shown that small molecules can easily enter the protocells. If they combine into larger molecules, however, they cannot get out, just the arrangement a primitive cell would need. If a protocell is made to encapsulate a short piece of DNA and is then fed with nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, the nucleotides will spontaneously enter the cell and link into another DNA molecule.

At a symposium on evolution at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island last month, Dr. Szostak said he was “optimistic about getting a chemical replication system going” inside a protocell. He then hopes to integrate a replicating nucleic acid system with dividing protocells.

Dr. Szostak’s experiments have come close to creating a spontaneously dividing cell from chemicals assumed to have existed on the primitive Earth. But some of his ingredients, like the nucleotide building blocks of nucleic acids, are quite complex. Prebiotic chemists, who study the prelife chemistry of the primitive Earth, have long been close to despair over how nucleotides could ever have arisen spontaneously.

Nucleotides consist of a sugar molecule, like ribose or deoxyribose, joined to a base at one end and a phosphate group at the other. Prebiotic chemists discovered with delight that bases like adenine will easily form from simple chemicals like hydrogen cyanide. But years of disappointment followed when the adenine proved incapable of linking naturally to the ribose.

Last month, John Sutherland, a chemist at the University of Manchester in England, reported in Nature his discovery of a quite unexpected route for synthesizing nucleotides from prebiotic chemicals. Instead of making the base and sugar separately from chemicals likely to have existed on the primitive Earth, Dr. Sutherland showed how under the right conditions the base and sugar could be built up as a single unit, and so did not need to be linked.

“I think the Sutherland paper has been the biggest advance in the last five years in terms of prebiotic chemistry,” said Gerald F. Joyce, an expert on the origins of life at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

Once a self-replicating system develops from chemicals, this is the beginning of genetic history, since each molecule carries the imprint of its ancestor. Dr. Crick, who was interested in the chemistry that preceded replication, once observed, “After this point, the rest is just history.”

Dr. Joyce has been studying the possible beginning of history by developing RNA molecules with the capacity for replication. RNA, a close cousin of DNA, almost certainly preceded it as the genetic molecule of living cells. Besides carrying information, RNA can also act as an enzyme to promote chemical reactions. Dr. Joyce reported in Science earlier this year that he had developed two RNA molecules that can promote each other’s synthesis from the four kinds of RNA nucleotides.

“We finally have a molecule that’s immortal,” he said, meaning one whose information can be passed on indefinitely. The system is not alive, he says, but performs central functions of life like replication and adapting to new conditions.

“Gerry Joyce is getting ever closer to showing you can have self-replication of RNA species,” Dr. Sutherland said. “So only a pessimist wouldn’t allow him success in a few years.”

Another striking advance has come from new studies of the handedness of molecules. Some chemicals, like the amino acids of which proteins are made, exist in two mirror-image forms, much like the left and right hand. In most naturally occurring conditions they are found in roughly equal mixtures of the two forms. But in a living cell all amino acids are left-handed, and all sugars and nucleotides are right-handed.

Prebiotic chemists have long been at a loss to explain how the first living systems could have extracted just one kind of the handed chemicals from the mixtures on the early Earth. Left-handed nucleotides are a poison because they prevent right-handed nucleotides linking up in a chain to form nucleic acids like RNA or DNA. Dr. Joyce refers to the problem as “original syn,” referring to the chemist’s terms syn and anti for the structures in the handed forms.

The chemists have now been granted an unexpected absolution from their original syn problem. Researchers like Donna Blackmond of Imperial College London have discovered that a mixture of left-handed and right-handed molecules can be converted to just one form by cycles of freezing and melting.

With these four recent advances — Dr. Szostak’s protocells, self-replicating RNA, the natural synthesis of nucleotides, and an explanation for handedness — those who study the origin of life have much to be pleased about, despite the distance yet to go. “At some point some of these threads will start joining together,” Dr. Sutherland said. “I think all of us are far more optimistic now than we were five or 10 years ago.”

One measure of the difficulties ahead, however, is that so far there is little agreement on the kind of environment in which life originated. Some chemists, like Günther Wächtershäuser, argue that life began in volcanic conditions, like those of the deep sea vents. These have the gases and metallic catalysts in which, he argues, the first metabolic processes were likely to have arisen.

But many biologists believe that in the oceans, the necessary constituents of life would always be too diluted. They favor a warm freshwater pond for the origin of life, as did Darwin, where cycles of wetting and evaporation around the edges could produce useful concentrations and chemical processes.

No one knows for sure when life began. The oldest generally accepted evidence for living cells are fossil bacteria 1.9 billion years old from the Gunflint Formation of Ontario. But rocks from two sites in Greenland, containing an unusual mix of carbon isotopes that could be evidence of biological processes, are 3.830 billion years old.

How could life have gotten off to such a quick start, given that the surface of the Earth was probably sterilized by the Late Heavy Bombardment, the rain of gigantic comets and asteroids that pelted the Earth and Moon around 3.9 billion years ago? Stephen Mojzsis, a geologist at the University of Colorado who analyzed one of the Greenland sites, argued in Nature last month that the Late Heavy Bombardment would not have killed everything, as is generally believed. In his view, life could have started much earlier and survived the bombardment in deep sea environments.

Recent evidence from very ancient rocks known as zircons suggests that stable oceans and continental crust had emerged as long as 4.404 billion years ago, a mere 150 million years after the Earth’s formation. So life might have had half a billion years to get started before the cataclysmic bombardment.

But geologists dispute whether the Greenland rocks really offer signs of biological processes, and geochemists have often revised their estimates of the composition of the primitive atmosphere. Leslie Orgel, a pioneer of prebiotic chemistry, used to say, “Just wait a few years, and conditions on the primitive Earth will change again,” said Dr. Joyce, a former student of his....

A cogent, and funny, observation on health care costs

I don't agree with the premise, but I rather liked Gail Collins' aside ...
Health Care Follies - The Conversation Blog - Gail Collins - NYTimes.com
... The big problem is that the economy is sinking under the rising cost of medical treatment, one cause of which is doctors recommending unnecessary and overly costly procedures. (For which I do not blame the doctors. If we lived in a desirable world in which people were insured against not getting enough news, I can guarantee you that I would come up with some really excellent additional products.)...
She really is a wonderful writer, and she's getting better.

Unfortunately, as recently illustrated by Atul Gawande, the premise is sadly simplistic. It's not simply that all these procedures are "unnecessary", it's rather that most people, if they had to pay for them, would choose something cheaper even it were less effective.

So if we had to pay for our shoulder MRIs, we'd probably give "rest" a longer try before looking for a (probably inoperable) rotator cuff tear. If we had to pay for our anterior cruciate repair, we might decide to live without inline skating -- like we used to.

This is why these decisions are much more troublesome than anyone but an unpaid blogger is willing to publicly acknowledge.

We won't really get universal coverage until we close our eyes, grit our teeth, seal our nostrils, and embrace crummy care (aka "good enough" care).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Health War II

America's Health War I ended about 14 years ago.

We lost, the bad guys won.

Now Health War II has begun ...
Roert Reich's Blog: The Healthcare War is Now Official

Yesterday the American Medical Association came out against a public option for health care. And yesterday the President reaffirmed his support for it...

... All major lobbying firms in Washington -- many of them brimming with ex-members of Congress -- are now crawling all over the Hill. Lots of money is on the table. AMA's political action committee has contributed $9.8 million to congressional candidates since 2000, and its lobbying arm is one of the most formidable on the Hill. Meanwhile, Big Insurance and Big Pharma are increasing their firepower. The five largest private insurers and their trade group America's Health Insurance Plans spent a total of $6.4 million on lobbying in the first quarter of this year, up more than $1 million from the first quarter last year, and are spending even more now. United Health Group spent $1.5 million in the first quarter, up 34 percent from the $1.1 million it spent in the first quarter last year. Aetna spent $809,793 between January and the end of March, up 41 percent from last year. Pfizer, the world's biggest drugmaker, spent more than $6.1 million on lobbying between January and March, more than double what it spent last year. It also spent nearly $3.3 million lobbying in the fourth quarter of 2008. Every one of them is upping their spending....

... The President can't do this alone. You must weigh in and get everyone you know to weigh in, too. Bombard your senators and representatives. Organize and mobilize others. And let the White House know how strongly you feel...
In Minnesota our senators are Al Franken (still not seated) and Amy Klobuchar. I'm not worried about Franken, he'll do the right thing. I'm very concerned about Klobuchar. I've sent her an email through her extremely sluggish contact form.

This won't be pretty. I'd expect Obama to lose this one, except he's a pretty resourceful guy.

We know where we have to end up. We need to get to "Crummy Care".

Crummy Care is healthcare with dingy carpets and peeling (lead free) paint. Crummy Care is delivered by physicians, but also by a lot of cheaper routes. Crummy Care sends films to be (double) read in Malaysia, uses CT scanners that are four years past cutting edge, has waiting lists for services, and has tight formularies and highly optimized low cost standard care protocols.

Crummy Care is not what most of us want, but it is what we can afford to provide to everyone in America. (No, I'm sorry, electronic health records aren't really a miracle solution -- though they can make Crummy Care quite a bit better.)

Crummy Care is the good enough, affordable, minimalist solution. If you have money you can buy Mercedes care, but if you don't you'll get reasonably state of the art treatment for your breast cancer (sorry, probably not a bone marrow transplant) and reasonable preventive care (no PSA for your prostate).

So we know where we have to go. The problem is it's a lousy, harsh, innocence crushing trip. We won't travel that road if we try do do business as usual

Which is why we need the "public option".

If we don't get it, then I think we'll eventually decide we lost Health War II.

So what happens if we lose?

We wait 5-7 years for Health War III.