Monday, August 31, 2009

Obamacare. Wait. It's not over.

Birthers. Tea baggers. Deathers. Glen Beck inspired assassin wannabes. The weak dancing to their amoral master's tunes. Elders at town meetings demonstrating the pernicious effects of early dementia. Ratings starved media playing destructive games. Rupert Murdoch's Fox News and Wall Street Journal. Obama below 50%, vilified by the raving right and attacked by the fearful left. Kennedy dead and Robert Byrd 91 and ailing. Congressional democrats retreating on health care. And then there's the "bipartisan" "gang of six".

It's been a bad August for anyone worried about civilization. Despair is easy.

Don't despair.

This isn't new, and Obama is both lucky and good. It's not just him, look at his team. They're extremely formidable, and they've been in this game a while. They know the nation they're dealing with.

It's easy to underestimate Obama. He's identified with a tribe (black America) culturally associated with defeat. Unlike both Bill Clinton, GWB and most every GOP politician he doesn't rant and rave.

And yet, he tends to win.

For those who fear the worst, I suggest John Harwood's NYT article and John Scalzi's recent summary post.

Remember, any remotely sane American has to think that reform with enemies like Beck and the Birthers must be good.

Obama has been falling back, and the enemy has been charging forward. They think they see a soft center -- but they've forgotten about the hills on both sides ...

Update 9/9/09: I was early on this train, but now the NYT is catching up. President Barack Hussein Obama has not yet begun to fight.

PS. In case my use of the term "Obamacare" is confusing readers, I should mention that we have an inaugural postcard of President Obama prominently featured on our kitchen corridor wall at the children's eye level. I give it a nod every so often.

Update 10/1/09: As predicted, the forces on the western hill are now swooping down on the battle crazed spittle-flecked GOP berserkers. The eastern hill is standing by. Reminds me of the scene in "The Two Towers' when Gandalf leads the Horsemen of Rohan down upon the Orcs.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The evolution of comment spam - from parasite to symbiote?

Lately I've been getting blog comments that blur the spam/non-spam species boundary.

Comment spam used to be pretty clear. It would be unrelated to the post topic, and contained a link to a splog or other more or less fraudulent web page. These were easy to automatically block, so spammers dropped the links. Second generation comment spam aimed for search engine "optimization" through reputation enhancing back links to the author URL. Second generation comment spam was made of strings like "thanks for the the great post"

These were harder to machine reject, but easy for human reviewers to spot.

Now I'm seeing third generation comment spam. These have no links, and they're actually related to the original post. Sometimes they're almost non-sequiturs, but mostly they read like a fourth grade student answering a homework assignment. The grammar suggests either a very young or non-english writer. They do link back to splogs.

So how's the new species of comment spam being authored? It could be AI based -- maybe calling Wolfram Alpha or Wikipedia to retrieve relevant strings. It's probably human though -- outsourced work being done by low paid labor churning out comments at high speed.

This third generation spam isn't trivial to reject. Sometimes I have to think about it.

We know where this is going. Fourth generation spam comments will actually make sense. They'll be legitimate comments.

Fifth Generation spam comments will be very high quality. Skynet will appreciate them.

Update 9/4/09: Another (funny) take on the theme. Also, see the comment by one of my favorite writers.

Update 1/1/10: Cory Doctorow's excellent 2006 novella I, Row-boat (read it, it's online) tells us how Robbie the row-boat's ancestors became sentient ...
“Back in the net’s prehistory it was mostly universities online, and every September a new cohort of students would come online and make all those noob mistakes. Then this commercial service full of noobs called AOL interconnected with the net and all its users came online at once, faster than the net could absorb them, and they called it Perpetual September.”...

... “AOL is the origin of intelligence?” She laughed, and he couldn’t tell if she thought he was funny or stupid. He wished she would act more like he remembered people acting. Her body-language was no more readable than her facial expressions.

“Spam-filters, actually. Once they became self-modifying, spam-filters and spam-bots got into a war to see which could act more human, and since their failures invoked a human judgement about whether their material were convincingly human, it was like a trillion Turing-tests from which they could learn. From there came the first machine-intelligence algorithms, and then my kind...

Friday, August 28, 2009

OS X 10.6 - do you feel lucky punk? Do you?

I need to use my machines. So I'm the kind of geek who likes to, barring the addition of a new non-critical machine, wait 6-18 months before switching major releases of OS X.

As it happens I am going to buy an iMac in the next few months, but for now I've no hands on experience with 10.6. Still, if you review the late Aug 2009 late Aug 2009 OS X related reads the dog whistles are loud and clear.

Snow Leopard breaks stuff. Lots of stuff. It's also slower or only minimally faster than 10.5 on most machines, and Apple blew their major security feature (memory randomization) -- they obviously couldn't get it to work. So Windows 7 has better fundamental security -- as does Vista for that matter. Resolution independence? Oh, you remember that from 10.4 days? Of course not.

The only good news is that you can (illegally) install the $30 of 10.6 over 10.4. Considering Apple's long tradition of abusing early adopters I give everyone my ethical permission to do so. It's only fair.

There's good stuff in 10.6, and there's bad stuff. (For example, it looks like Apple continues to wreak havoc on pioneering concepts in the old Mac Classic file system.) There's enough good stuff that I'm looking forward to running 10.6.1 on a non-essential new iMac. Otherwise I strongly advise waiting 6 months before updating -- and even then you should confirm that your current printers and scanners and so on will work with 10.6.

Unless, that is, you're feeling lucky.

Update: This is the best review so far.

Update 9/6/09: I played with Snow Leopard in the Apple store today. As others have noted, it's hard to find any differences from 10.5. From what I read at least as many things have been broken as have been fixed. Unless you have to upgrade from 10.4, or you're buying a new machine, you shouldn't consider Snow Leopard before March of 2010.

Update 3/13/2010: I was too optimistic. My 10.6.2 machine crashes hard frequently. Among other issues, Apple screwed permissions and firewire. As usual.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Yeah, Cheney/Bush used the orange alerts to scare up votes

As suspected, despite fervent Bush admin denials, Cheney Bush used the "terror alert" scheme to scare up votes prior to Bush/Kerry: Informed Comment: Bush Admin. worse than our Nightmares.

Not really news, but, for the sake of history, important to note.

That administration was a cancer on the American psyche -- and their blight is far from gone.

The Google Voice story: It was Apple, not AT&T

As all true geeks know, a few weeks ago Apple purged the iPhone app catalog of all Google Voice apps, including GV Mobile. Apple then rejected a pending application from Google for their Google Voice app.

Geeks know this is big. Google Voice (it's available in the US, just go to the linked page and request a number) is fabulous tech. I've been a regular user for over a year, enjoying my 1 cent/min good quality cell phone calls to Canada (as of a week ago, free). When my family travels our cell phones forward to Google Voice so we get voice mail messages emailed to us -- along with quite good transcriptions. It doesn't need a dedicated app to work, but a good iPhone app would take it up another notch.

It's one thing for Apple to reject crappy stuff like Flash from the iPhone, but rejecting high value innovation is an injury to the geek soul.

Happily, the FCC then piled on Apple and demanded an explanation.

So, in record time, we have Apple's letter to the FCC, dissected by Gruber (who apologizes for blaming AT&T), Arrington (he's bested Gruber on this one - that's gotta sting), Mike Ash, and a zillion others.

Basically, Apple dodges, twists, hurls, whines, and, basically, lies big time - except when they admit full responsibility and absolve AT&T of all sins.

Besides generating a rich stream of bs, Apple also surrenders. As just about every blogger notes, one of Apple's whoppers is that they haven't really "rejected" Google Voice (or the other apps they removed from the app store?!), they're just "under review".

Which means Google can make some face saving changes and Apple will cave. I'm hoping to be using my iPhone Google Voice app within a month.

I thought Arrington had the best analysis. A heck of a lot of the iPhone's value is now tied to Google -- and Google Voice just hammers that home. Apple can't compete in the Cloud -- as we can gather from watching MobileMe twist in the wind.

I'm happy to see that a few bloggers have noticed that while AT&T played no role in this decision, there are AT&T rules blocking VOIP products that seem to apply to the entire world -- not just AT&T's turf. (If only AT&T had anticipated Google Voice they'd have banned that class of service as well. I wonder if they've fired anyone for missing that angle.)

Incidentally, the AT&T response to the FCC is interesting -- they're asking how Google is able to dodge various mandates applied to phone companies. This is how the big gun lawyers earn their yachts.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Conde Nast's latest spam ploy - Axciom's

Conde Nast, publishers of Gourmet and other periodicals, holds a place of dishonor among the world's scummiest spammers. It will be a sad commentary on humanity if the New York Times goes under and Conde Nast survives.

Spam must work for them, because they invest a fortune in spam and associated legal fees. They're not too hard to block; even though they change their email address every few months it's only a moments work to add another Gmail 'filter to trash' rule.

Today, though, they're trying something knew. They're sending their email using a "" account with a dedicated spamming service:
Acxiom Digital

... Acxiom Digital helps the world's leading marketers create and deliver permission-based email marketing campaigns. Acxiom Digital acts as an agent for our clients in delivering email communications to their customers. Our clients own the data on their customers, including email addresses, which are gathered via permission-based processes at their website or other online and offline sources...
"Permission-based" my ass.

So now anything from '' is immediately deleted. It will be interesting to see what email address Conde Nast uses next.

Friends don't let friends buy Conde Nast products.

The check engine light in the mobile net era

We're on day two of a two week family road trip and our 2000 Mazda MPV Van check engine light comes on.

On a Sunday.

Once upon a time, this might have led to an urgent search for an open garage.

Ahh, but now we have and iPhone and, at least until we hit Canada, net access.

So instead of pulling over, Emily researched and I drove. We found out ...
  • This should really be called the check emission control system light. In most vehicles it's triggered by a sensor in the emission side of the engine.
  • The most common cause is a loose gas cap. Presumably the loss of suction causes venting of gas into the emission systems.
  • Rarely it can be something bad with the engine, so the official word is always to get it checked out. If you play the odds though ...
  • Depending on the car it can cost $150 or more to read off the error code (my next car needs to have a diagnostic USB port on the dash as well as 4 110 V outlets - it's insane these are so hard to read).
  • In some cars the light won't ever go off until the dealer checks it out. In others, if the problem is corrected the light will eventually go off. The trick is that this may take 15-20 restarts (the number of restarts seems to be more important than time, presumably due to how the sensor works.
Emily had already noted that I'd only turned the cap 'one click'. (Ok, so it wasn't all iPhone. She remembered some of this stuff.) So simple Bayesian reasoning (prior probability, etc) meant there was a very high probability this was a (stupid) gas cap alarm.

So we just drove.

We stop and start a lot on our family trips, so about 3 days later we' d hit about 15-20 restarts and ...

The light went out.

We sacrificed a GB to Google in gratitude.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One possible strategic error in the Obama reform

In his NYT essay Obama talks about making medicare more efficient.

I wonder why his team chose to tie insurance reform and access to any kind of changes to medicare. Politically, would it have been wiser to have kept the two topics completely separate? The problems of medicare are huge, but perhaps should have been addressed in year 2 or 3 of the administration.

We'll get something, but it will be another patch. We'll be back in 10 years.

Alas, a large portion of America seems to suffer from Stockholm syndrome. They prefer familiar misery to the terrors of hope.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The CDC's vaccine data mess - please help them out

This page is how America distributes the data set that's supposed to represents all the vaccine information used in electronic health records and national reporting: Vaccines: IIS/Stds/CVX-Vaccines Administered

You know, the kind of reporting that's useful, for, say managing swine flu vaccine programs.

It's not being distributed in some UMLS data format, or a tab delimited UTF-8 file, or a Microsoft Acccess table or XML or even Microsoft Excel or ... or ... or even a 4 column RTF or .DOC table.

It's distributed as an HTML page with inline comments and footnotes or as a PDF document.

Anyone wanting to actually implement this has to cut and paste into something like Excel, move the inline annotations around, get rid of the footnotes, represent color and font changes as attributes, and so on.

This isn't rocket science guys. The management of this sort of data set was well understood in the 1960s. Forget about all those wonderful visions of just-in-time clinical decision support, this is really simple, basic, stuff.

Every American should give the CDC a penny so they can engage an underemployed informaticist to fix up their CVX distribution system.

Or maybe the CDC could, you know, hand this over to the NLM to manage?

PS. This story is consistent with the way ICD-9 was once managed. ICD-9-CM (diagnostic) is the payment justification code set that's sort of used to track diseases and horribly misused in clinical care reporting and automation. I'd love to see a sociology researcher dig down and find out why it is we end up with such bad management of fairly simple things.

Update: The CVX to CPT map table is even worse.

American Express credit card information theft

We just received official notification that our AMEX credit card information was stolen. Inside job, as usual.

Same old, same old.

I'm astounded that web services expect me to give them my Google authentication credentials. They're conning us when they claim mere encryption will secure the data.

Incidentally, this emphasizes the stupidity of the "secret security question" fail (see US Bank security shield makes me scream). Not only do they make it easier to hack into user data, they do nothing to protect us from the commonplace insider thefts and other, old, tactics.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Galaxies like stars in the sky

There's an antidote to reading about the Cheney torture program and the GOP's insurance-company funded attack on health insurance reform.

Download the images linked here, and open them in a robust image viewer. Browse at will. Visit galaxies as they were billions of years ago. Squint very hard, and image you're seeing something squinting up from one of the billions of worlds in the billions of stars ...
ESO - ESO 39/08 - A Pool of Galaxies - Associated Image

... The new image released by ESO combines data obtained with the VIMOS instrument in the U- and R-bands, as well as data obtained in the B-band with the Wide-Field Imager (WFI) attached to the 2.2 m MPG/ESO telescope at La Silla, in the framework of the GABODS survey.

The newly released U-band image – the result of 40 hours of staring at the same region of the sky and just made ready by the GOODS team – is the deepest image ever taken from the ground in this wavelength domain. At these depths, the sky is almost completely covered by galaxies, each one, like our own galaxy, the Milky Way, home of hundreds of billions of stars.

Galaxies were detected that are a billion times fainter than the unaided eye can see and over a range of colours not directly observable by the eye. This deep image has been essential to the discovery of a large number of new galaxies that are so far away that they are seen as they were when the Universe was only 2 billion years old....

Be sure to try the zoom tool.

Inmate Kyle Foggo – Creator of the post-2003 torture facilities

It looks like the Obama administration will investigate and prosecute senior CIA officials who broke American law. 

In the meanwhile CIA officials are spinning their stories to the NYT, with usual welter of self-justifications and contradictions.

If you read this somewhat confused NYT article carefully you’ll see examples of those contradictions – in addition to being generally incoherent. In one spot it says waterboards were built on the spot, in another paragraph it says waterboarding had been discontinued when the prisons were built. I

The article reads like multiple leaks with different aims. Some statements seem intended to help Mr Foggo, others to convict him …

Interrogation Inc. - A Window Into C.I.A.’s Embrace of Secret Jails -

WASHINGTON — In March 2003, two C.I.A. officials surprised Kyle D. Foggo, then the chief of the agency’s main European supply base, with an unusual request. They wanted his help building secret prisons to hold some of the world’s most threatening terrorists…

… Foggo went on to oversee construction of three detention centers, each built to house about a half-dozen detainees, according to former intelligence officials and others briefed on the matter. One jail was a renovated building on a busy street in Bucharest, Romania, the officials disclosed…

… a small company linked to Brent R. Wilkes, an old friend and a San Diego military contractor…  provided toilets, plumbing equipment, stereos, video games, bedding, night vision goggles, earplugs and wrap-around sunglasses. Some products were bought at Target and Wal-Mart, among other vendors, and flown overseas. Nothing exotic was required for the infamous waterboards — they were built on the spot from locally available materials, the officials said.

… Mr. Foggo .. pleaded guilty last year to a fraud charge … and he is now serving a three-year sentence in a Kentucky prison … He was not charged with wrongdoing in connection with the secret prisons, but instead accused of steering other C.I.A. business to Mr. Wilkes’ companies in exchange for expensive vacations and other favors. Before leaving the C.I.A. in 2006, he had become its third-highest official…

… Early in the fight against Al Qaeda, agency officials relied heavily on American allies to help detain people suspected of terrorism in makeshift facilities in countries like Thailand. But by the time two C.I.A. officials met with Mr. Foggo in 2003, that arrangement was under threat, according to people briefed on the situation. In Thailand, for example, local officials were said to be growing uneasy about a black site outside Bangkok code-named Cat’s Eye…

.. Eventually, the agency’s network would encompass at least eight detention centers, including one in the Middle East, one each in Iraq and Afghanistan and a maximum-security long-term site at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that was dubbed Strawberry Fields, officials said. (It was named after a Beatles song after C.I.A. officials joked that the detainees would be held there, as the lyric put it, “forever.”)

The C.I.A. has never officially disclosed the exact number of prisoners it once held, but top officials have put the figure at fewer than 100.

At the detention centers Mr. Foggo helped build, several former intelligence officials said, the jails were small, and though they were built to house about a half-dozen detainees they rarely held more than four.

The cells were constructed with special features to prevent injury to the prisoners during interrogations: nonslip floors and flexible, plywood-covered walls to soften the impact of being slammed into the wall

… C.I.A. analysts served 90-day tours at the prison sites to assist the interrogations. But by the time the new prisons were built in mid-2003 or later, the harshest C.I.A. interrogation practices — including waterboarding — had been discontinued

As the investigations proceed there will be more leaks. Eventually a case may be built against Mr. Foggo, but more likely the feds will lean on him, and whoever he implicates, to turn in someone else.

Oddities of modern video – frame rates and more

We have two CRTs on which “we” (meaning the kids) watch Netflix DVDs and local broadcast TV sports. The DVD display is a 15 yo SONY CRT. It will still be running when all of our neighbor’s LCDs need their light tubes replaced. The television is a 9” “portable” CRT that, I think, has color. The “TV” uses a “free” converter box and our rabbit ears.

So this story on how those newfangled HD TVs intersect with the complexities of capturing motion in analog film and digital sensors, both converted in various ways to travel through various digital to analog transformations (including some back and forth in fiber optic backbones) and then to photons (themselves both digital and analog) and then to quantum sensors (retinal neuron photo receptors) and to analog signals (brain) and then to perception and meaning (?) …

Well, it’s all a voyage to a foreign and exotic world that, one day, when the children are old enough to buy their own TV, we might visit.

Read both the story and the comments, I’ve excerpted enough here to show why this is academically intriguing …

Help Key: Why 120Hz looks “weird”

John Biggs

I’ve been testing an HD projector here at the house and, in its initial, out-of-the-box setting we found that the picture was ridiculously “sharp.” The picture, I suppose, looked like an old Dr. Who episode where the action on screen is smoother than the background, creating a jarring disparity when watching movies with lots of movement. It’s sometimes called the “Soap Opera Effect.” We decided to do a little digging to figure out why.

Most film is recorded at 24 frames per second, but your LCD TV probably either displays at 60 fps or 120 hz (hertz is just a measurement of frequency per second). There are three main ways to cope with this…

Paul Spurrier

… The problem with motion interpolation is that it is having to create new frames that weren’t on the original film..

… Your TV is having to do this in 1/24 of a second.

Which is impossible.

So it cheats. It uses warping and other motion compensaton/interpolation techniques to create inbetween frames that sort of fool the eye…

…And not surprisingly it looks weird…

… Nowadays, as more movies are shot digitally, filmmakers are trying hard to work out what it is that makes a movie looks like a movie. Then they’re trying to alter the digital picture to replicate that look…

… Gamma. It’s complicated but basically film and video react to light in different ways. Film still sees more detail in the brightest and darkest parts of the picture and sees colour in a different way. Another thing that filmmakers do to make digital images look like film is to alter the gamma, either in camera or in post-production…

… Frame-rate. To bring this back to the original subject, traditionally the biggest give away that one is watching a video-originated image and not film is the frame rate. In the US, video cameras shoot 60 frames a second. They cheat a bit to do this…

… Nowadays, we can set digital cameras to not do this. We change them to film in what’s known as a ‘progressive’ mode, which shoots full 24 frames a second.

In the old days, filmmakers used to go to great lengths to get rid of this interlacing….

… It was clear that the higher frame-rate was a give-away that the image had been shot on video not on film. So even if we degraded the picture somewhat by throwing out half the data, it still sort of looked ‘better’.

… audiences react differently to video and film. They don’t know they’re doing it, and it’s working almost entirely on a subconscious level, but when someone thinks they’re watching a movie, their mindset is that this is something more special, bigger budget, more worthy of their attention.

So imagine the frustration of filmmakers when new TVs undo all of the work we have put in to making something look like film and make it look indeed like a ’soap opera’…

Health insurance reform – 8 points to repeat and repeat

It will be useful to keep this list at hand and repeat it often …

The White House - Blog Post - The Return of the Viral Email

… 8 ways reform provides security and stability to those with or without coverage

  1. Ends Discrimination for Pre-Existing Conditions: Insurance companies will be prohibited from refusing you coverage because of your medical history.

  2. Ends Exorbitant Out-of-Pocket Expenses, Deductibles or Co-Pays: Insurance companies will have to abide by yearly caps on how much they can charge for out-of-pocket expenses.

  3. Ends Cost-Sharing for Preventive Care: Insurance companies must fully cover, without charge, regular checkups and tests that help you prevent illness, such as mammograms or eye and foot exams for diabetics.

  4. Ends Dropping of Coverage for Seriously Ill: Insurance companies will be prohibited from dropping or watering down insurance coverage for those who become seriously ill.

  5. Ends Gender Discrimination: Insurance companies will be prohibited from charging you more because of your gender.

  6. Ends Annual or Lifetime Caps on Coverage: Insurance companies will be prevented from placing annual or lifetime caps on the coverage you receive.

  7. Extends Coverage for Young Adults: Children would continue to be eligible for family coverage through the age of 26.

  8. Guarantees Insurance Renewal: Insurance companies will be required to renew any policy as long as the policyholder pays their premium in full. Insurance companies won't be allowed to refuse renewal because someone became sick.

Learn more and get details:

Personally I want health insurance severed from employment. That was part of McCain’s proposal during the last election; I recall thinking that the overall proposal was quite bad but I liked that bit. If we had a reformed GOP the McCain proposal would be a starting point for a great discussion on health care reform, but since we have the party of Cheney/Palin/Limbaugh we won’t get to have that discussion.

In the absence of a rational discussion on health care I’ll go with these eight items. They will raise premiums for large corporations (I’ll pay more) while shrinking premiums modestly for smaller businesses and by large amounts for individuals. That’s good in my book.

These proposals would also have lots of unexpected consequences, but that’s the nature of policy …

Governing America – the manual

Mr. President, here is your manual.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A strange note of optimism on health care reform

It's not looking so good. The whackos are pulling ahead. The media is feeding off hate and fear, and amplifying the dark nihilism of the modern GOP.

Rationalists realize that reason has no sway. There's a whiff of despair ...
Bernie Madoff and the birthers - Paul Krugman Blog
... How did Madoff pull off his scam? A lot of it probably involved affinity fraud: Madoff’s victims, largely affluent Jews, trusted him in large part because he seemed like one of them.

What I think is going on here, at least partly, is that the peddlers of anti-progressive lies are managing to convince a certain kind of American — white, socially conservative, etc. — that the hate-mongers are people like them; and, even more important, that progressives are Those People, people not like them.

Obama’s skin color makes this easy; but the Clintons faced the same kind of thing. Why? Well, the old line about Clinton being the first black president gets at something: even if Bill Clinton had a regular skin and name, he was obviously comfortable with people who didn’t, which made him one of Them.

And anti-intellectualism is also part of it.

In any case, it’s scary: you’ve got a good segment of the American population that is completely impervious to any kind of evidence, any rational argument. I mean, who collects statistics? People in black helicopters!...
America is looking pretty sick. So why do I feel some hope?

Well, for one thing, Obama is the President. That helps.

For another, he's dealt with a lot of fear and hate in his life. If anyone can shift it, he can. If he can't -- well, then nobody can.

Not lastly, the frothing chumps that the GOP is playing are going to run out of steam. On the one hand they thrive on hate and fear, but on the other hand they will get tired of punching at the air.

Lastly -- this isn't new. America has been binging on cheap rotgut since the late 90s. This isn't just one night off the wagon, it's going to take years to get the nation to out of the flophouse. Even so, we sobered up long enough to elect Obama. That means there's hope.

Keep you head down, keep moving, keep the pressure on your state Senator (in MN, Thank Wellstone, we're now much better off than most).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Academia collides with public health

This is not a pretty picture ...
The Doctor's World - Seeking Lessons in Swine Flu Fight -
... Officials and experts say they have learned a lot about human swine influenza. But relatively little of that information, including periodic summaries of what has been learned since the beginning of the pandemic, has been reported and published. Some experts said researchers were waiting to publish in journals, which can take months or longer. Journals impose severe penalties for disclosing information before publication, although they say they exempt matters of public health importance. Whatever the reason, delays in reporting such information can hamper plans for public health responses...
So when someone dies of Swine Flu, and lawyers trace the outcomes to suppressed pre-publication, will the journals be liable?

Silly Gartner hype cycle charts and "idea management"

Silicon Alley Insider's Here Comes The Twitter Backlash post includes a Gartner Hype Cycle chart.

I've seen these before, and I'm a wee bit suspicious that the items on the right side of "time" axis (which has no units) don't correspond to prior chart left side items.

In addition to selective recall and publication the unit-free time axis is key. That lets Gartner put SOA and "speech recognition" relatively close together on the graph, even though the maximal hype for SOA was about 3 years ago and for speech recognition it was 21 years ago.

There's one item in the cute info-free graphic that caught my fancy though. They list "idea management" as "post-hype".

Idea management?!

That one has completely passed me by but (thanks G) this blog post helped. Wow, I managed to almost completely dodge a very silly management fad. Until now. Yuck.

Clue to Gartner - ideas are easy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Android comments from an iPhone perspective

Now that Apple has been condemned to the innermost circle of Geek Hell, I'm on the lookout for Android overviews like this one ...
notes on "google phone day 1"
... I'll write about the software later. For now I can say I won't have a problem using it for 30 days. I am sure I'll miss a few games, but most of the apps I use are simply front-ends to web services like Twitter or Google Reader. Google Voice is EXCELLENT. The whole Google Account integration 'just works'. I launched maps for the first time and the system knew who I was and signed me into Google Latitude. Also, my calendar is updated and synced as are my contacts pulled over from Google Voice...
My 12yo is getting into cell phone range and he really likes sliding keyboards. Hmmm.

Update 8/11/09: He couldn't stand the G1 and switched back early. I appreciate his courageous exploration of the wild lands.

Google reader “like” and the shared discovery process

I use my Google Reader shared items as my general repository for all things I find interesting, including using the “note in reader” feature to attach comments to web pages I visit (see also – memory management). This works particularly well in my iPhone Byline reader client.

I also use the “star” feature to tag items for later reading or processing. Some of those I get to, some I don’t.

I haven’t known what to make of “Like” however (emphases mine) ….

Official Google Reader Blog: Following, liking and people searching

… Have you ever wanted to tell an author or publisher that you appreciate an article they wrote? Or maybe you want to let your friend know that you enjoyed the blog post he shared with you. With a quick click of the mouse (or a swipe of the "L" key -- for the keyboard shortcut pros), you can "like" any item in Reader. All "likes" are public, so anyone reading an item you've "liked" in Reader can see that you're a fan. Checking out shared items for people who have "liked" the same items as you is a great way to discover other people with interests similar to your own….

Aha. Now I get it.

“Like” is necessarily public, whereas sharing has privacy restrictions (though I share with all). Part of being public is that “Like” is associated with user-tags; if you click on the “# Like” link you get a list of names (I did get a 404 not found when I clicked on that link for an item that had been shared, but it resolved anyway). The names link to show items the person “liked”; you can then choose, I suppose, to follow their “shared” item list.

It doesn’t work in Byline though – they haven’t added support for that marker. Still, I’ll check it out as a discovery mechanism when using the reader web app. The intersection between Shared and Like is a bit weird, but that’s kind of the rule with today’s social software. There are lots of conventions and intersections we haven’t figured out yet. As a general rule, I assume everything I do is completely public.

I like who Reader works, and I’m hoping for more interesting developments in the world of shared-mind discovery. Twitter on the other hand … (more about that in a post I’m plugging away at)

COBOL and the surprising longevity of enterprise software

In my industry, we might substitute MUMPS for COBOL …

Coding Horror: COBOL: Everywhere and Nowhere

… I'd like to talk to you about ducts. Wait a minute. Strike that. I meant COBOL. The Common Business Oriented Language is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary as the language that is everywhere and nowhere at once:

As a result, today COBOL is everywhere, yet is largely unheard of among the millions of people who interact with it on a daily basis. Its reach is so pervasive that it is almost unthinkable that the average person could go a day without it. Whether using an ATM, stopping at traffic lights or purchasing a product online, the vast majority of us will use COBOL in one form or another as part of our daily existence.

The statistics that surround COBOL attest to its huge influence upon the business world. There are over 220 billion lines of COBOL in existence, a figure which equates to around 80% of the world's actively used code. There are estimated to be over a million COBOL programmers in the world today…

I’m skeptical about those numbers, but even if we cut them in half that’s still a lot of code. The linked essay skirts the subject, but I suspect very little of this code is related to new projects – the vast majority must be from projects launched in the 1970s.

It’s not just COBOL. A friend of mine is nearing retirement still maintaining and extending an RPG app he started in the 1970s. His software runs a very successful privately held company.

The longevity of enterprise software, to me, is the interesting nub of this story. Successful enterprise software has a very long lifespan – on the scale of the lifespan of a publicly traded company. This software can outlast careers, much less employment at a single company. I wouldn’t be surprised, given virtualization technology, if today’s enterprise solutions end up with sixty year lifespans.

There are interesting implications for the way we organize businesses and business processes…

Breeding even smarter dogs

The studies are probably not terribly rigorous, but it wouldn't be surprising to learn that that dogs are smarter than we thought they were -- seems just about every animal is smarter than we thought ...
Dogs as Smart as 2-year-old Kids | LiveScience
... While dogs ranked with the 2-year-olds in language, they would trump a 3- or 4-year-old in basic arithmetic, Coren found. In terms of social smarts, our drooling furballs fare even better.

'The social life of dogs is much more complex, much more like human teenagers at that stage, interested in who is moving up in the pack and who is sleeping with who and that sort of thing,' Coren told LiveScience.
The hypothesis is that dogs are getting smarter fairly quickly, that over the course of a few hundred years we've substantially increased the IQ of certain breeds.

So what would happen if we really tried to breed a dog that was smarter and lived longer? Could we get them up to, say, four year olds? Pretty soon we're in "uplift territory".

At what point do smarter dogs get civil rights? Reminds me of my childhood attempt to develop a non-species specific theory of ethics ...

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Search engine blind test: poor Yahoo

I tried the search engine blinded comparison test:
Which Search Engine Do You Choose In The Blind Test? -
... Have you tried out this blind search tool yet? It provides results from Google, Yahoo and Bing in three columns but doesn't tell you which column is which search engine. You then tell it which one you think shows the best results, and you then see which answers are from which engines. I keep choosing Yahoo as the best results...
In my testing all the results were all pretty similar, but I also choose Yahoo. I think it was by chance, but I can believe Yahoo is better than it was. Bing was, as usual, the worst.

Poor Yahoo, finally somewhat competitive, but Microsoft is going to replace them with Bing.

The results are a bit misleading though. I'm a heavy user of Google Custom Search, both through Google Toolbar training and my hand crafted custom search set. Those results are much better, for me, than the blind search test results.

So Yahoo had caught up with the old Google, but Google's intelligent search optimization is a step beyond ...

Status five nanosols

Observations on an utterly unique event, occurring once only in all of space and time ...

Status (personal metrics)
  • 55% total lifetime contribution [3]
  • 95% wisdom (guesstimated) [2]
  • 100% duties and obligations
  • 100% lifetime satisfaction level (to date)
  • 100% lifetime effectiveness [5]
  • 100% lifetime income [6]
  • 100% lifetime confidence
  • 100% lifetime kindness [7]
  • 30% lifetime arrogance
  • 30% lifetime certainty
  • 20% lifetime temper
  • 100% lifetime baseball skills
  • 90% lifetime hockey skills
  • 50% lifetime bicycling performance
  • 70% lifetime strength
  • 50% lifetime hair

Minimalist lessons

  • When swimming outdoors wear a swim shirt (see also).
  • Schedule haircuts q4w.
  • "A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person." (Dave Barry)
  • Our next home will be wheelchair accessible
  • When you're too old to drive you'll be too old to know you're too old to drive.
  • Accident is far more common than intent.
  • You only think it's about you.
  • When you hear a confident expert, run away.
  • People who are paid for a service are very unlikely to tell you their service is not working.
  • Sometimes the crowd is right. Sometimes the crowd is wrong. I can't tell the difference, but I pay more attention to the crowd than I once did.
  • Take pictures.
  • If you're think you can't be fooled, you are a fool. If you think you can't be corrupted, you are corrupt.
  • Obsolete things last a lot longer than I expect. (see also)
  • There was another one, but I forgot it. [8]
[1] Guesstimate. The tiny number that survive into the S&P 500 have a 40-50 year life expectancy.
[2] Eventually the dementia starts to whack the experience.
[3] Meaning I'm ahead of what it cost to make me, but still producing.
[4] Started around the Model-T, ends around 1917 though cars will last a long time.
[5] Ability to get things done. This is all about skill compensating for raw power. (see also)
[6] Historic record. Could go to zero tomorrow.
[7] I think I have average empathy, but I really have to work at some aspects of being kind. I work at it more now than I did when I was an obnoxious new physician.
[8] More profound that it seems.
[9] Successful enterprise software is very long lived -- longer lived than the average corporation and comparable to human work lives. This is an interesting situation.

How to use bear spray

Helpful advice...
Nicholas Kristoff - How to Recharge Your Soul -
... 10. In grizzly or polar bear territory, carry bear spray (which is a bit like mace). Frankly, the spray is unlikely to stop a 1,000-pound bear hurtling toward you, so experienced hikers respond to a menacing bear by using the spray in one of two ways. The first option is to spray yourself in the face, so you no longer care what the bear does to you. The second option is to spray your best friend beside you, and then run....

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Google - please give me tasks that appear on my calendar

I get a lot of value from Google Calendar, but there's plenty of room for innovation. In particular there's something relatively easy Google could do that would significantly improve my life.

First though, a bit of background.

I used to manage my time and planning around tasks, using a Franklin Planner biased version of Getting Things Done. I did so much with tasks at work I wrote an Outlook tutorial on advanced task management.

Problem is, I was adding tasks faster than I could complete them - especially when I tried creating tasks rather than letting emails sit in my inbox. The task backlog was kind of crazy. Since entropy means I'm getting dumber every day in most every way I had to find a new edge.

My current business approach works better. It's something like this (my personal planning is similar, but it's coordinated with my wife and is a bit simpler):
  • I use mind map software to do a 2-3 week planning cycle (Agile software devpt methodology taught me that).
  • I put the "A" tasks on my calendar. They don't go to my task list, just the calendar. I schedule what it takes to do them, and I'm getting better at time bounding those tasks.
  • I create very few "B" tasks -- these get dates but no calendar slots. They get completed opportunistically.
  • I create "C" tasks that are categorized by context -- but lack dates. Example: If I'm near a store I check my shopping list. (Less common at work, but common at home. If it's work related and it's not critical/must do I just don't do it.)
  • I do clear out my email inbox every day or two, mostly following GTD principles. I found I really have to do this, but I work hard to discourage email. How I reduce email use is a topic for another post, but among other things I follow the "two strikes" principle. If any email generates two send/receive cycles I create a meeting. Since most folks really dislike these meetings it encourages them to think hard before sending email. I also invest time and thought into email I write, crafting it to "kill" the response and save time on the back end. I think of business email like a serve in tennis - it should be impossible to return.Link
My newer approach is a significant improvement on my old methods. By combining these approaches with better use other people's brains I stay one step ahead of the reaper. Or so I dream.

Which brings me to where I want Google to help.

I really would like to have those appointments also be tasks. That way I could thread them to projects, use the completed task archive as a useful guide, and distribute tasks/projects across calendar slots. Gorilla Haven's DateBk did something like this on the old Palm Classic. You could create a kind of appointment (forget the type) that had a complete attribute and would jump forwards a day if not completed. It was close to what I want, but not close enough.

I want to have tasks that have optional one to many relationships to calendar slots.

From a task I can create a calendar appointment that links back to the task. From the calendar I can create an appointment that has a companion task with a link to the appointment. I also want to be able to add appointment links to an existing task.

From the appointment I want to be able to complete the appointment subtask, or the entire task.

Is that too much to ask?

OK, so maybe it's a bit extreme. I'd accept a simple 1:1 task to appointment link. Just throw me a bone Google! (See also - a prior, similar, plea on my tech blog)

Of course if Google gets that one done, I've another one they could look at next ...

Friday, August 07, 2009

Google Maps is seriously broken today

Google Maps is way broken.

It started a few weeks ago with our home address. When we entered it we got two results – one with the letter W for West (which is not part of our address). At first either of them worked, but tonight neither of them are recognized by Google.

For the first time in memory, our address can’t be found in Google. We live in a 90 yo urban residential neighborhood, so it’s not like there’s been a lot of change around here.

My next test was to find a route from Saint Paul to Montreal. Since our address doesn’t work any longer, we went from city to city. The preferred route was via Chicago, but the Canadian alternative was through Timmins Ontario – way up in the Shield! It was as though Google Maps had forgotten about the Trans Canada Highway.

Bing maps worked as expected. It found our home and had the usual routes from St. Paul to Montreal.

Wow. What the heck happened to Google? Some kind of covert Apple cyber-attack?

Aug 10, 2009: My house has one entry, and Google has rediscovered the Trans Canada. (Sorry Timmins). Don't you wish you know what was happening with this stuff?

How to deliver services badly

I think I've come up with a recipe that will guarantee bad services within an enterprise.

They key is to remove executives from direct use of a service or from direct contact with users. This is typically done by the use of admins (who are direct users for executives) and by an insulating layer of management.

This is hard to do when services are managed locally. In this case the service will report into someone who cannot easily attain isolation.

So, in practice, the delivery of a really bad services requires centralizing or outsourcing service delivery. This makes the essential executive isolation much easier to achieve.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Belgian Atomium

The Geek Atlas recommends a visit to Belgium's Atomium. Bizarrely, the book couldn't include a photograph; Belgian copyright law doesn't allow any reproduction without paying a large fee (which goes to inheritors of someone involved in design and construction -- I guess they've fallen on hard times).

Odd country Belgium.

Instead the atlas refers us to the net, such as this Panoramio image.

According to the Atlas, you can travel through the structure to the globes (iron atoms); one is reserved for school children overnighters.

White House deep in the muck with drug makers

A former GOP representative, Billy Tauzin, has blown the cover on a back door deal between the Obama administration and big pharma. I wonder how big pharma feels about him going public – is he serving pharma or the GOP?

Whatever his motivations, this deal stinks. It’s Chicago politics. If Bush did something like this Dems like me would have been all over him. I don’t have the heart do to the deed myself, but I’ll look for a good right wing rant to link to. Emphases mine.

White House Affirms Deal on Drug Cost -

Pressed by industry lobbyists, White House officials on Wednesday assured drug makers that the administration stood by a behind-the-scenes deal to block any Congressional effort to extract cost savings from them beyond an agreed-upon $80 billion.

Drug industry lobbyists reacted with alarm this week to a House health care overhaul measure that would allow the government to negotiate drug prices and demand additional rebates from drug manufacturers.

In response, the industry successfully demanded that the White House explicitly acknowledge for the first time that it had committed to protect drug makers from bearing further costs in the overhaul. The Obama administration had never spelled out the details of the agreement.

“We were assured: ‘We need somebody to come in first. If you come in first, you will have a rock-solid deal,’ ” Billy Tauzin, the former Republican House member from Louisiana who now leads the pharmaceutical trade group, said Wednesday. “Who is ever going to go into a deal with the White House again if they don’t keep their word? You are just going to duke it out instead.”

A deputy White House chief of staff, Jim Messina, confirmed Mr. Tauzin’s account of the deal in an e-mail message on Wednesday night.

The president encouraged this approach,” Mr. Messina wrote. “He wanted to bring all the parties to the table to discuss health insurance reform.”…

.. In an interview on Wednesday, Representative Raul M. Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who is co-chairman of the House progressive caucus, called Mr. Tauzin’s comments “disturbing.”

“We have all been focused on the debate in Congress, but perhaps the deal has already been cut,” Mr. Grijalva said. “That would put us in the untenable position of trying to scuttle it.”

He added: “It is a pivotal issue not just about health care. Are industry groups going to be the ones at the table who get the first big piece of the pie and we just fight over the crust?”..

… But as the debate has heated up over the last two weeks, Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats have signaled that they value some of its industry enemies-turned-friends more than others. Drug makers have been elevated to a seat of honor at the negotiating table, while insurers have been pushed away…

… The drug industry trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also opposes a public insurance plan. But its lobbyists acknowledge privately that they have no intention of fighting it, in part because their agreement with the White House provides them other safeguards.

Mr. Tauzin said the administration had approached him to negotiate. “They wanted a big player to come in and set the bar for everybody else,” he said. He said the White House had directed him to negotiate with Senator Max Baucus, the business-friendly Montana Democrat who leads the Senate Finance Committee.

Mr. Tauzin said the White House had tracked the negotiations throughout, assenting to decisions to move away from ideas like the government negotiation of prices or the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada. The $80 billion in savings would be over a 10-year period. “80 billion is the max, no more or less,” he said. “Adding other stuff changes the deal.”

After reaching an agreement with Mr. Baucus, Mr. Tauzin said, he met twice at the White House with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; Mr. Messina, his deputy; and Nancy-Ann DeParle, the aide overseeing the health care overhaul, to confirm the administration’s support for the terms.

“They blessed the deal,” Mr. Tauzin said. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House was not bound by any industry deals with the Senate or the White House.

But, Mr. Tauzin said, “as far we are concerned, that is a done deal.” He said, “It’s up to the White House and Senator Baucus to follow through.”

As for the administration’s recent break with the insurance industry, Mr. Tauzin said, “The insurers never made any deal.”

Tauzin is certainly plainspoken.

I wonder how Krugman and Reich are going to respond to this one.

Anyone know of a right wing rant attacking this corrupt deal that I can link to?

Update 8/9/09: Reich responds - this is bad for democracy.

Blogging about NYT journalists – now with an extra level of proofreading

This is not a first tier, second tier, or even third tier blog. It’s an Nth tier blog. Heck, I don’t even have AdWords!

This is a tiny readership (hi Emily) revenue-free all-but-invisible hobby blog with its own peculiar motivations. So when I write of NYT journalists David Pogue or John Markoff (or, of course, Krugman) I really don’t expect them to read the posts.


In the past week I’ve received corrections under both men’s names. I assume it was either them or an admin, but I tend to think it was them.

In one case I wrote of David Pogue’s “relationship to Apple” when I meant to write “association with Apple”. He politely objected, pointing out his work with Apple is no different than his work with other vendors. A few days previously I speculated that John Markoff had gotten some article information via Wikipedia (not a criticism, that’s where I got it), he said it came from an interview.

I don’t think either of these two journalists, both well respected in the geek community, are regular readers. I instead assume that the Times is reviewing blog posts linking to Times articles and flagging items that might merit correction. (Not for Krugman though – that would be a hopeless task.)

I’m impressed. It helps the Times manage its reputation. It’s certainly put me on my toes. I generally write quickly and hastily, but the next time I cite a NYT journalist I’ll be exceptionally attentive. It’s embarrassing to be corrected, even when it’s done so politely.

iPhone users are revolting

And we’re grumpy too.

Usually a PC World article with a title of “Apple Rots” would bring a deluge of flaming denials, but this article is current recommended 217 to 139.

I wonder if even Apple is starting to feel the heat …

As Apple Rots, iPhone Users Revolt - Business Center - PC World

Users are turning against the iPhone. Call it the summer of our discontent, but these hot, sticky months are proving an excellent time to not buy a smartphone. Apple and AT&T have only themselves to blame.

Now, we must wait for the two companies to learn their lessons and, just maybe, for a new iPhone carrier to emerge. If you are thinking about upgrading to a 3GS and can stand to wait, you might find a more attractive option in a few months, especially if the iPhone's downhill slide continues.

What is upsetting iPhone users?

App Store -- Do I really need to keep making the case that having Apple as the only vendor of iPhone apps is bad for customers? The rejection of Google Voice, potentially a killer app for smartphones, should prove that Apple doesn't care about its customers…

… The Apple monopolies must go.

Multitasking -- I did not expect multitasking to become a big deal so soon, but Google Latitude makes an excellent case for it..

AT&T -- I am not wild about Sprint advertising that I am paying $50-a-month too much because I am using an iPhone instead of a Palm Pre. I am not wild that Apple adds tethering to the iPhone but I don't get to use it. I am not wild that I am still waiting for the ability to attach pictures to SMS messages…

… The sense of smug superiority that we iPhone users have enjoyed has worn off. Now, instead of being the ones who've chosen, we're pawns in the games of AT&T and Apple. What used to be mere annoyances have become real pains. And the companies that ought to be our friends are the causes of our frustration…

So do really, really, annoyed geeks matter to Apple? I guess we’ll find out. The fact that Gruber’s recent attack on a dictionary app rejection prompted a response email from a senior Apple exec suggests they developing a bit of sensitivity. (Turns out Apple wasn’t entirely to blame in that one, but Schiller admitted they might have room for improvement).

The App Store monopoly isn’t working for us. We geeks want an alternative source for iPhone apps that’s outside of Apple and AT&T’s control. I’m willing to give Apple some more time on the multitasking if they can provide a location communication API and put Latitude back in the App Store.

I’m not ready to switch, but I am ready to wait some time before replacing my wife’s BB with an iPhone.

Pogue speaks out on the Apple/AT&T Google Voice ban

Phew. The longer David Pogue remained silent on the Battle of Google Voice, the more I wondered what the heck was going on. He’s criticized Apple in the past, so despite his long history of writing about Apple products longstanding relationship to the company I didn’t expect him to stay quiet.

Today he did speak. He didn’t add anything new, but he did make it clear that Apple/AT&T has few journalist or geek allies in its battle with Google (emphases mine) …

Is Google Voice a Threat to AT&T? – David Pogue -

… AT&T/Apple's logic doesn't even make sense. If the object is to prevent you from making cheap international calls, then they would also have to block Skype and all the other apps (already available) that let you do so. If it's to prevent you from sending free text messages, then they should also block FreeMMS and other apps that already do that.

It's almost as though AT&T/Apple never really cared while the apps in question stayed where they belonged—under the radar. But once big-shot Google got involved… well, we can't have that, can we?...

... In short, what Apple and AT&T have accomplished with their heavy-handed, Soviet information-control style is not to bury these useful apps. Instead, Apple/AT&T have elevated them to martyr status—and, in effect, thrown down a worldwide challenge to programmers everywhere.

"Get around THIS," they're saying.

But guess what? It won't take long. They've put a rock in the river, but the water will just find a way around it.

Already, Google says it is readying a replacement for the Google Voice app that will offer exactly the same features as the rejected app—except that it will take the form of a specialized, iPhone-shaped Web page. For all intents and purposes, it will behave exactly the same as the app would have; you can even install it as an icon on your Home screen.

What's Apple going to do now? Start blocking access to individual Web sites?...

Google can’t really do everything with the web app that they can do with a native app. There’s no getting around the dang startup and authentication delays with a web app – I’ve been using their current web app and it’s a bit of a pain (though GV Mobile was slow too – but that was fixable).

Otherwise, a pretty good commentary. The geek community is working overtime finding ingenious ways around Apple’s block – and that pressure is only going to grow.

Update: As an owner of several Pogue books on Apple products I assume he has an informal relationship with the company, but as he points out in comments he certainly doesn't have a formal relationship with them. I amended my introductory sentence to clarify that. I do think his words carry some weight with Apple.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

News: Dowd says something novel

Dowd can be sometimes funny, often grating. It's unusual, however, for her to be insightful ...
Maureen Dowd - Let the Big Dog Run -
... Bill Clinton will bring back valuable information about Kim’s mental and physical health. If we’d had that sort of information about the snubbed Saddam, we would have known that he was in his own spiral of doom, trying to bluff his neighbors, with no need for our shock and awe.

Hillary and President Obama look bigger when they share the stage with other talented players. And Barack and Bill may have finally started to put South Carolina behind them — without the need for a beer summit photo-op...
So will Bill come on board to push health care? Clearly Dowd's hinting as much. Might enrage the whackos even more, and the more they froth the better Obama looks.

The insightful comment though is about the intel on Kim. Imagine what someone as wicked smart and political as Clinton can figure out from some direct face time.

By their enemies ye shall know them: Great news for health insurance reform

I really want to write about peak oil (for example), tech churn and those alleged Burmese nukes, but I can’t escape the magnetic pull of health care reform.

I’ve had my own doubts about ObamaCare, but the GOP has laid them to rest. Anything that the right wing loons of the (all white) TeaBagger and Birther cults hate this much must be good …

Robert Reich's Blog: Astroturf Along American Highways, and the Republican Plan

On our drive across America, my son and I have spotted spiffy white vans emblazoned with phrases like "ObamaCare will raise your taxes" and "ObamaCare will put bureaucrats in charge of your health." Just outside Omaha we drove close enough to take a peek at the driver, who looked as dutifully professional as the spanking new van he was driving.

This isn't grass roots. It's Astroturf. The vans carry the logo "Americans for Prosperity," one of the Washington front groups orchestrating the fight against universal health…

… FreedomWorks, another group now Astroturfing its way around America, is chaired by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey. Texas Republican Pete Sessions, who chairs the National Republican Campaign Committee, says the days of civil town halls are "now over.”

… The Republicans' goal isn't ideological. It's power. Republicans smell 1994 all over again. That's when they defeated Clinton's healthcare plan -- and in doing so convinced large numbers of Americans that Clinton and the Democrats couldn't be trusted…

There’s nothing like enlisting the mindless mob to remind everyone how great Obama is …

Managed Care Matters: This is getting ugly - and that's good

… There have been many reports of town hall meetings disrupted by what appears to be carefully organized groups, using an approach scripted by a Washington lobbying firm headed by none other than former Texas Republican Rep. Dick Armey.

Armey's clients include insurers and medical device companies, firms that are terrified of the potential that health reform may actually harm their business models. The disrupt and obstruct model was actually tested here in Connecticut in a town hall meeting held by Fairfield County's Jim Himes (D). Read the memo at the link to see just how disgusting these people are…

The more rabid the GOP gets, the better for the good guys (emphases mine) …

TPM: Best moments so far

I wrote earlier this week that in the unfolding drama of the health care townhall teabaggery, conservatives have developed their series of shout-downs and freak-outs into something resembling a right-wing performance art…

… As our team has reported on at some length already, there appears to be a reasonably well-orchestrated national effort to mobilize teabaggers to go and shutdown these townhall events with raucous demonstrations...

The truth is that there's actually quite a lot of authenticity packed into these events, often a bit more, sometimes quite a bit more than the partisans helping put this stuff together end up being comfortable with …

… even though we're only a few days into the run, I thought it made sense to review some of the greatest moments so far.

High on the list has to be the group of Tea Baggers who hanged an effigy of Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-MD) from a noose in front of his district office a few weeks ago. Then there was the case yesterday where a few folks at a tea bag protest outside a townhall meeting in Hartford called on Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) to commit suicide as a way to cure his recently diagnosed prostate cancer. And even though it lacked any clear appeal to the murder of public officials or even a good suicide joke, I'm still pretty fond of this case on Tuesday where the head of the local Tea Party group up in Rome, New York just started yelling 'liar' over and over at a clearly befuddled and caught off guard Steny Hoyer.

It's hard not to get the sense that the longer this goes on the more cases you're going to have where some of these good folks let slip what they really think of Barack Obama

The DNC has caught on to what a wonderful job the mob is doing for Obama

Yes, now that the GOP is on the case I feel a lot better. The only way to improve things would be to enlist Bill Clinton to lash the whackos to new heights of self-mutilation.

Oh, my worries and doubts? Nothing I haven’t written about before, except the very first one ..

  • Medicare costs have to be managed with or without “health insurance reform” (good reframing there). It’s still politically lethal to touch Medicare. So it will have to be left for a time when Americans are a bit more reality based (if ever!). Key insight: We’re not going to make the Medicare problem worse by doing health insurance reform, and there’s no political support for fixing Medicare.
  • We need a minimum of “good-enough care” for all, including persons who are not employed by large corporate buyers and for people with pre-existing conditions. Delivering this cost-effectively will require radical experimentation, including composition, training and deployment of the healthcare workforce. Government can support that by altering blocking regulations, but this task is politically impossible – only private entities can do that kind of radical reengineering. So in an ideal world the GOP would have something to contribute – a market perspective. Unfortunately that GOP died with Nixon so we have to do what we can with what we have.
  • Even the best Tiramisu gets nauseating after the first pint or so. Most things in life have nice utility curve – you can almost always have too much of a good thing. There are exceptions. It’s hard to imagine a trans-Atlantic flight that would go too quickly. Another exception is health care. If you miraculously free up $300 billion in “waste” (doesn’t exist, but that’s besides the point) I’d easily spend it all on better healthcare welcomed by all. Heck, I could spend a trillion. It’s hard to get real about health care provision until you realize that the utility curve doesn’t stop climbing (though it does bend). Spend more, you can do more.

Doubts and worries I may have, but the GOP’s tactics have, as usual, clarified the fog. The rabid foaming loons confirm that we’re doing the right thing.

I’m ready to start sending cash to support “Health Insurance Reform”. Where do I fork out?

Update: Dang. Even the more reliable wingnuts are beginning to catch on.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Two income families and the curious economics of unemployment

Most of us consider involuntary unemployment to be entirely a bad thing. From a macroeconomic point of view, however, things are less clear ...
METRICS - For the Unemployed, the Day Stacks Up Differently -
... If all we were doing is substituting production at home for production in the marketplace,' said Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, 'then maybe unemployment wouldn't be so bad.'...
In 21st century America two income families have a very significant advantage. The risk of going entirely without health care and without income is half that of a single income family. Risk reduction isn't the same as economic value however. It might be more efficient for one family member to work for money and another to manage home and health (more sleep, more exercise -> longer life, less disability, greater lifelong income).

From the perspective of the overall economy, being unemployed is not the same as being unproductive -- and it's the productivity over time that matters for some measurements.

The (historic) Battle of Google Voice - Enter the FCC

Bush laid waste to rational government, leaving a largely broken and corrupted mess.

Bureaucracies are hard to kill however. Bush could introduce incompetent or destructive leadership, but eight years wasn't long enough to kill all of the professional core.

... AT&T is pushing the antitrust envelope in a fierce and rational fight to stay alive. Apple has more ways to make money, but they’re in the game with AT&T and they too face disruptive threats...

... AT&T and Apple are behaving rationally in the face of a disruptive market entry. The best answer, after all, to the Innovator’s Dilemma is to identify potential disruptive forces and use economic warfare to destroy them – or, in the case of an opponent the size of Google, slow their advance...

... It's ... easy to see, given these precedents, the path AT&T and Apple will (must) take to eliminate competitive threats and maximize their future revenue streams ... It’s no good trying to argue Google/Apple away from their positions – they are entirely logical...
In the Bush era, I'd have been right. In that time the GOP's marketarian mixture of corruption and evangelical libertarianism meant there was no consumer representation in business battles.

I'd forgotten that we're not in the Bush era any more. We're in a fragile interlude where Reason has a voice in the executive branch. A higher power has joined the Battle of Google Voice.
The Obama FCC is no longer a mockery, it has an agenda (emphases mine) ...
Why The FCC Wants To Smash Open The iPhone
Erick Schonfeld, (Washington Post Online)

Right about now, Apple probably wishes it had never rejected Google Voice and related apps from the iPhone. Or maybe it was AT&T who rejected the apps. Nobody really knows. But the FCC launched an investigation last night to find out, sending letters to all three companies (Apple, AT&T, and Google) asking them to explain exactly what happened.

On its face, it might seem odd to some people that the FCC is investigating the rejection of a single iPhone app. After all, iPhone apps are rejected every day. But the Google Voice rejection caused an unusual amount of uproar, and there is nothing like a high-profile case to make an example out of in pursuit of pushing a bigger policy agenda. The FCC investigation is not just about the arbitrary rejection of a single app. It is the FCC's way of putting a stake in the ground for making the wireless networks controlled by cell phone carriers as open as the Internet.

Today there are two different sets of rules for applications and devices on the Internet. On the wired Internet, we can connect any type of PC or other computing device and use any applications we want on those devices. On the wireless Internet controlled by cellular carriers like AT&T, we can only use the phones they allow on their networks and can only use the applications they approve. This was fine when the wireless networks were used mostly just for voice calls. But now that they are increasingly becoming our mobile connections to the Internet and mobile phones are becoming full-fledged mobile computers, an argument has been growing that the same rules of open access that rule the wired Internet should apply to the wireless Internet.

While Apple and AT&T cannot be too happy about the FCC investigation, Google must secretly be pleased as punch. It was only two years ago, prior to the 700MHz wireless spectrum auctions, that it was pleading with the FCC to adopt principles guaranteeing open access for applications, devices, services, and other networks. Now two years later, in a different context and under a different administration, the FCC is pushing for the same principles.

In its letters requesting more information from all three companies, the FCC cites "pending FCC proceedings regarding wireless open access (RM-11361) and handset exclusivity (RM-11497). That first proceeding on open access dates back to 2007 when Skype requested that cell phone carriers open up their networks to all applications (see Skype's petition here)…

… AT&T responded to this post with the following statements:

AT&T does not manage or approve applications for the App Store. We have received the letter and will, of course, respond to it. Customers can use any compatible GSM phone on our network, not just the ones we’ve approved and sell. And they also can use apps we don’t approve. We don’t approve iPhone applications.

So there you have it. You can use any mobile app you like on AT&T unless it is an iPhone app (that's been rejected by Apple). Does Apple ever reject apps at the request of AT&T though? Maybe they'll give the FCC a straight answer…

As’s Brainstorm Tech put it "Sometimes you’ve just got to love the government”.

Mobile communication companies lease a public good – frequency. In the Obama era there’s an active government role in aligning the public good with consumer interests through maximizing direct competition.

I recommend reading the 2007 Arrington article Schonfeld cited, particularly this section …

AT&T’s response to Google’s letter was breathtaking in its audacity:

… Not satisfied with a compromise proposal from Chairman Martin that meets most of its conditions, Google has now delivered an all or nothing ultimatum to the U.S. Government, insisting that every single one of their conditions “must” be met or they will not participate in the spectrum auction. Google is demanding the Government stack the deck in its favor, limit competing bids, and effectively force wireless carriers to alter their business models to Google’s liking. We would repeat that Google should put up or shut up— they can bid and enter the wireless market with any business model they prefer, then let consumers decide which model they like best…

Google lost that spectrum auction, but I dimly recall they did manage to get some rules on spectrum use added to the language of the auction.

I know some of my tiny readership felt I’d gone over the top when I wrote of the “Battle of Google Voice”. I even wondered myself if I’d been too dramatic. In retrospect, however, I called this one correctly.

This is big. I think, like me, Apple and AT&T forgot that the Bush era was over, and they foolishly gave the FCC the club they were looking for. They’ll now be turning to their Senatorial pawns, but Microsoft and Google will moving their Senators too.

Who’s to blame for the action and the blunder? At first Apple was leaking rumors that AT&T was to blame, but now AT&T is firmly and publicly blaming Apple. I though both had collaborated, but now I’m thinking Apple may have played the leading role. The timing of Steve Jobs return is obviously curious.

This really is a historic moment. We’ll either get an open competition that will deliver value to consumers in the near term, or we’ll be stuck in a ground war in cyberspace for the next decade.

Update 8/3/09: Al Gore is on Apple's board. I wonder what questions he's asking Steve Jobs now.

Central Park, Sioux Falls and Guns in America

A telling comment. Mr. Thune does not impress.
Gail Collins - Have Gun, Will Travel -

... John Thune of South Dakota, said that if people from his state were able to go to New York and visit tourist attractions while carrying their concealed weapons, “Central Park would be a much safer place.”

This suggests how much Americans have to learn about each other. Central Park is way safer than South Dakota. There were no murders and three serious assaults in Central Park in 2008, compared with five murders and 341 assaults in Sioux Falls alone...
Of course Sioux Falls is a city and Central Park is, well, a very popular park. Still, it is certainly not the den of crime Thune imagines, nor will it be improved by people carrying hand guns.

The GOP is desperate for a fight over hand guns. They'll try anything to provoke it, including mandating the distribution of hand guns to preschoolers.

They won't get a fight. Rationalists remember Al Gore. Gun limitations in America will have to come from the right, not the left. If Gore hadn't signed on to the Million Mom gun control initiative he'd have concluded a very respected two terms as President of the United States.

It's better to live with guns in the workplace than to get another GWB (or, worse, President Palin).

We Rationalists will slow the GOP's march to universal hand gun distribution, but America is still on the razor edge of sanity (vis. Birthers). The GOP won't get the fight they so desperately want. All Hail the National Rifle Association!

Heck, I bought a ticket from a (hard core Democrat) buddy for the raffle of some monstrous semi-automatic shotgun. If I win the raffle I suppose I'll technically be the owner for the two minutes it takes me to give it to him.

The 100 Iranian dissidents - a telling photograph

This NYT article on a mass trial of 100 Iranian dissidents is headline by a photograph of the men sitting at trial. We see them in profile.

They have, to me, formidable faces.

I can't say why they they should have those faces, or why they appear that way to me. It's a curious thing. It left me with the impression, in a photograph, that this struggle is not yet over.

This does not mean the regime will lose. One sees similar faces in images from the mass trials of the Soviet empire. I don't know nearly enough about Iran to guess how this might go.