Monday, March 29, 2010

Apple's next surprise: A Facebook alternative

It's easy to make fun of Google's "Don't be evil" philosophy. Just like it was easy to make fun of Al Gore.

Remember how "fun with Al Gore" turned out? We got Dick Cheney.

Maybe we should give Google a bit more credit, because the main rival to Google is the Dick Cheney of the online world - Facebook. Their motto isn't so much "be evil" as "whatever it takes".

Facebook is bad. I no longer suggest friends join up. Fortunately most of my friends who did join are drifting away, tired of account hacks, app scams, and the hopeless task of working with a demonic vendor (shades of pre-reform health insurance). Facebook's numbers keep rising, but there are fewer people I know participating. That's a bit funny. Does anyone audit that stuff?

It's a bit of a shame though. There are a lot of non-App things that Facebook did that I like. I hoped Google would give us a real alternative, but instead we got Buzz. There's more wrongness at Google than we know about.

So if Google can't do it, who has the brand and the money and the reach and the business savvy and just-enough evilness to deliver Facebook type services and a first-class user experience without Facebook-class evil?


Ok, so I admit Apple has struggled with the online world for a while (emphases mine) ...
AOL - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 
... In May 1988, Quantum and Apple launched AppleLink Personal Edition for Apple II and Macintosh computers. In August 1988, Quantum launched PC Link, a service for IBM-compatible PCs developed in a joint venture with the Tandy Corporation. After the company parted ways with Apple in October 1989, Quantum changed the service's name to America Online ...
I used AppleLink, it was pretty good. So too was 1990 AOL for that matter. Since then, not so good. Online hasn't been Jobs thing.

Still. We know Apple has built data centers they're not yet using. We know Apple has an increasing consumer platform reach with the iPhone and the iPad. We know Apple isn't adverse to entering a market and turning it upside down.

I believe Apple is going to go up against Facebook. Soon.
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The Lonely Planet blog

I had my time to wander, long ago. I used it well. I kept my Lonely Planet books at hand.

I travel different roads these days, but I've not forgotten the road. I've only now discovered that two years ago LP launched the Lonely Planet blog. The web site is slow to load, but the posts do fine in Google Reader.
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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Health care reform – the road ahead

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Winston Churchill, 1942.

One way or another I'm gonna find ya
I'm gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha

In the original Senate version of the Health Care reform bill we find this clause …

Subtitle D: Improvements to Medicaid Services - (Sec. 2301) Requires Medicaid coverage of: (1) freestanding birth center services …

Yes, there are a lot of funny bits in this sausage. We don’t know the half of ‘em, but I do know my family will pay for them. Now that the bill done (for now) I can say that the wingnuts were right about some things; my team’s “$250,000 and above” slogan was nonsense. “One way or another” upper 30th percentile “tax-equivalents” [1] will go up.

I’m good with paying for this; I expected to pay for it when I campaigned for Barack Obama. Altruism aside, there are tangible personal benefits for my family:

What’s next? We’ve been stuck in the headlights for a generation, but now we’re moving. We might be charging towards the oncoming truck, but even that may be an improvement on standing still. At least with motion comes opportunity.

The question isn’t where we need to go. We’ve known that for at least thirty years. We’re going to the same place as everyone else on earth – good enough care for everyone and luxurious care for those with money. The question is how we get there.

Until now the American people have been completely unwilling to think about health care cost. It would have been nice if we could have cut costs before increasing access, it would have been nice if we’d come up with a reform plan that made it easier to cut costs, it would be nice if we weren’t charging towards the right fender of that oncoming truck. Nice – but not going to happen in a world where the GOP has gone mad.

Now, however, we’ll all be, at last, considering costs and value. It won’t be pretty, but if it were pretty it wouldn’t be real.

That’s progress.

See also:

Post-passage commentary

Older general discussions that are still relevant

The future: “pretty good care”, aka “good enough care” – where we’re going

[1] Federal “Taxes” rarely include anything so obvious as a rate increase. Tax equivalents include

  • actions that shift services burdens to the states – which either reduce state services or increase state or local taxes
  • unfunded federal state or local mandates of all varieties including regulatory or reporting burdens
  • means testing that remove tax breaks (the AMT is the mother of means testing)
  • elimination of tax dodging programs such as the Flex plan we enroll in (I’ll be glad to see that evil scam die)
  • user fees
  • service taxes (such as the 10% tanning tax – which, amusingly, is aimed squarely at the Tea Party demographic of less educated paleskins).

Rwandan genocide and the Zani score

I made up the "Zani score" as "... a measure of how concerned one should be about nascent entities or organizations. It tries to measure social structures that, 999/1000 times go nowhere, but 1/1000 times lead, given chance and circumstance, to very bad things..."

I imagined it in the context of an industrial society, but I asked a friend who's an expert on the Rwandan genocide to try to apply the metric to that setting:
  1. A belief that the ends justify the means, or, in other words, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice". NOT SURE.
  2. A sense of grievance and injustice. YES.
  4. Celebration and admiration of violence. WELL, SINCE 1990. IT WAS SPECTACLE FOR SOME.
  5. Tribal or ethnic boundaries; a division into the "chosen" and the "other". YES.
  6. Anti-intellectual, in particular anti-geek. YES, INTELLECTUALS WERE AMONG THE FIRST KILLED.
  7. Denial of skepticism. Skeptics are outcast, dissent is forbidden. NOT SURE.
  8. Welcoming and affirmation of the convert. NONCONFORMITY WAS NEVER ENCOURAGED GENERALLY.
  9. Membership alone is proof of virtue. IN TERMS OF ETHNICITY.
  10. Scorn for the weak; denial of pity or sympathy for the other. NOT SURE.
The only real conflict to the model was that the leader of the genocide was not particularly charismatic -- but since he had total authority that wasn't much of an obstacle. There are a number of unknowns, but not bad for something that was designed with a very different society in mind.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Three NYT OpEds on the latest American extremism

Shortly after writing my post on the Zani score, the NYT has published 3 OpEds over 3 days on the latest Zani-score bumps in American culture:

The GOP's Zani score is probably about five. We should really worry if it hits 8.

Incidentally, Palin's Facebook page still uses gun sight cross hairs to mark our her enemies.
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Miep Gies and the Zani score

At age 50, at a local theater, I attended a performance of The Diary of Ann Frank.

I knew the story of course, but, until now I'd missed the book, the movie and the play. Seeing it at this point in my life I am awed by the endurance and compassion of Otto and Edith Franck, sympathetic to the less favorably portrayed refugees, and curious about the heroes Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, Jan and Miep Gies, and Johannes and Bep Voskuijl. Curious too about what kind of man Otto Franck was to create such love and loyalty in his employees.

Of the heroes we know the most about Miep Gies, in part because of her astounding longevity. She passed for an ordinary person before and after World War II. She claimed, somewhat convincingly, that she was motivated not by courage but by a fear of unbearable guilt should she fail to perform her duty. It may be relevant that she was, by necessity, given up for adoption by her birth mother.

I wondered then, and wonder now, how extraordinary Gies was. In coverage of her death this past January I recall that of 81 people asked by the Dutch resistance to shelter Jews, 7 accepted. Clearly they did not ask just anyone; if we guess that only 1/10 were considered candidates, and 7/81 of those accepted, then Gies-class heroes were, and are, perhaps 1/100. Unusual certainly, but more common than world class athletes.

That feels right. I can believe that somewhere between 1/30 and 1/100 of humans are heroes born, and another 1/10 to 1/20 heroically inclined. Likewise it feels like 1/5 of us are Nazi-capable and 1/50 Nazi born.  The rest of us, in most circumstances, favor the good. Which is why civilization is possible.

I expect the epidemiology of heroism has been studied by scholars of later genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. I know one such, so maybe I'll update my post with some real data.

Do the demographics of hero and villain vary by society? Obviously some societies are far more evil than others; Germany of 2010 is not Germany of 1940. I would not be surprised to learn, however, that the frequency of fundamental human heroism and villainy is fairly constant. It might instead be chance and circumstance that leads to the rare, but cataclysmic, ascendance of the villainous.

Could villains win in modern America? Obviously yes. Even if there had been any past doubts, the recent widespread public support for governmental torture has put them to rest. We, like most nations, are quite capable of industrial evil.

Given that we Americans, like most nations, have a low but real risk of repeating the worst of modern human history, shouldn't we put some measure in place so we can estimate and track our risk?

We can't call this the "Nazi score" because the word Nazi has too much baggage. It cannot, for example, be applied to readily applied to Israel and it is historically bound to a peculiar form of industrial organization. In any event  a Nazimeter score would be a Godwin's Law violation.

Still, the lessons of Nazism are so powerful, and so often studied, that it would be insane to ignore them. So I'll permute some characters and name this metric the Zani score.

It only remains then, to assemble the metric. Tradition dictates a 10 point scale, so we need to come up with 10 distinct indicators of roughly equal weight. As a rough guide we can assume that the National Socialists get 9-10 points and the American Tea Party movement must score less than 5.

Given that rough outline here's my start on the 10 indicators that sum to a Zani score for any social movement or organization. Suggestions are most welcome and I hope to refine the scale over time.

  1. A belief that the ends justify the means, or, in other words, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice".
  2. A sense of grievance and injustice.
  3. A charismatic leader.
  4. Celebration and admiration of violence.
  5. Tribal or ethnic boundaries; a division into the "chosen" and the "other".
  6. Anti-intellectual, in particular anti-geek.
  7. Denial of skepticism. Skeptics are outcast, dissent is forbidden.
  8. Welcoming and affirmation of the convert.
  9. Membership alone is proof of virtue.
  10. Scorn for the weak; denial of pity or sympathy for the other.
Any suggestions on additions or deletions? Does anyone know of a genuine, empirically tested, Zani metric?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dinosaurs born of CO2

The new bit is the Triassic transition, but an Economist article is a handy summary of current thoughts on the Permian and later extinctions (emphases mine):

Economist: Rise of the dinosaurs

… This cycle has happened five times in the history of modern life. The most famous occasion was 65m years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out and the mammals emerged victorious from the wreckage. A bigger mass extinction, at the end of the Permian period 251m years ago, killed 70% of the world’s land vertebrates (and 96% of all marine animals) and paved the way for the age of reptiles.

Exactly which sort of reptile would come out on top, however, was not something that was decided until later—201.4m years ago, to be precise. This was towards the end of the Triassic period. Then, the ranks of aetosaurs, phytosaurs, shuvosaurs and many other uncrocodile-like relatives of the crocodiles were suddenly thinned, and a previously obscure group came to the fore. The result, once natural selection had done its work over the course of millions of years, was the now familiar cast of Allosaurus, Diplodocus,Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex

… The dinosaurs were done for, as everybody knows, by a collision with an asteroid. The Permian was curtailed by massive volcanism. But what exactly happened towards the end of the Triassic has been much debated. A study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by Jessica Whiteside of Brown University in Rhode Island and her colleagues, pretty well nails it down. It was the geological chaos that created the North Atlantic Ocean.

… The initial volcanism as North America split from Europe released carbon dioxide from deep inside the Earth. That produced a greenhouse effect which, in turn, melted seabed structures known as methane clathrates, which trap that gas in ice. This caused a massive release of 12C-rich methane into the atmosphere, explaining the initial drop in 13C concentrations. The methane, being a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, exacerbated things, while the carbon dioxide acidified the oceans, killing most of the animal shellmakers and fertilising the photosynthesis of planktonic plants. The subsequent plankton bloom sucked up the12C and the isotope ratio veered off in the opposite direction.

The greenhouse warming and the acid rain also did for the forests and many of the reptiles. Only once things had settled down could the survivors regroup. New species of trees took over. The forests grew back. And a bunch of hitherto not-so-terrible lizards began their long march.

So a spike in CO2 from deep sources led to a methane spike. Together the two baked and acid burned the planet. A plankton bloom sucked down the CO2 and things settled down again.

We, of course, are on track to repeat history.

CO2 or not, we are in the midst of a mass “holocene” extinction anyway. What comes from that remains to be seen, but if humans last a bit longer it might be retrospectively labeled the transition to the age of the machines.

Summarizing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – in two pages and 10 titles

You may have heard that the Senate passed a health care bill. It is likely that it will be further amended by the House, and of course there will be challenges, but it is probable that the directives in the bill will be turned into law.

It is conceivable that this bill will have some implications for the future of health care, so it is useful to learn what is in it. It is quite a large bill.

Uwe Reinhardt, a well known health economist, recommended a summary prepared by the Congressional Research Service [1]. Even the summary takes a while to read. One can, however, get a sense of it simply by looking at the headings. I’ve excerpted them below. There are quite a few odd bits in there, but the scope of this bill is occasionally breathtaking.

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – Summary of Senate Bill – Library of Congress March 2010

Title I: Quality, Affordable Health Care for All Americans
Subtitle A: Immediate Improvements in Health Care Coverage for All Americans
Subtitle B: Immediate Actions to Preserve and Expand Coverage
Subtitle C: Quality Health Insurance Coverage for All Americans
Part I: Health Insurance Market
Part II: Other Provisions
Subtitle D: Available Coverage Choices for All Americans
Part I: Establishment of Qualified Health Plans
Part II: Consumer Choices and Insurance Competition Through Health Benefit Exchanges
Part III: State Flexibility Relating to Exchanges
Part IV: State Flexibility to Establish Alternative Programs
Part V: Reinsurance and Risk Adjustment
Subtitle E: Affordable Coverage Choices for All Americans
Part I: Premium Tax Credits and Cost-sharing Reductions
Subpart A: Premium Tax Credits and Cost-sharing Reductions
Subpart B: Eligibility Determinations
Part II: Small Business Tax Credit - (Sec. 1421, as modified by section 10105)
Subtitle F: Shared Responsibility for Health Care
Part I: Individual Responsibility
Part II: Employer Responsibilities
Subtitle G: Miscellaneous Provisions

Title II: Role of Public Programs
Subtitle A: Improved Access to Medicaid
Subtitle B: Enhanced Support for the Children's Health Insurance Program
Subtitle C: Medicaid and CHIP Enrollment Simplification
Subtitle D: Improvements to Medicaid Services - (Sec. 2301)
Subtitle E: New Options for States to Provide Long-Term Services and Supports
Subtitle F: Medicaid Prescription Drug Coverage
Subtitle G: Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments
Subtitle H: Improved Coordination for Dual Eligible Beneficiaries
Subtitle I: Improving the Quality of Medicaid for Patients and Providers
Subtitle J: Improvements to the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC)
Subtitle K: Protections for American Indians and Alaska Natives
Subtitle L: Maternal and Child Health Services

Title III: Improving the Quality and Efficiency of Health Care
Subtitle A: Transforming the Health Care Delivery System
Part I: Linking Payment to Quality Outcomes under the Medicare Program
Part II: National Strategy to Improve Health Care Quality
Part III: Encouraging Development of New Patient Care Models
Subtitle B: Improving Medicare for Patients and Providers
Part 1: Ensuring Beneficiary Access to Physician Care and Other Services
Part II: Rural Protections
Part III: Improving Payment Accuracy
Subtitle C: Provisions Relating to Part C
Subtitle D: Medicare Part D Improvements for Prescription Drug Plans and MA-PD Plans
Subtitle E: Ensuring Medicare Sustainability
Subtitle F: Health Care Quality
Subtitle G: Protecting and Improving Guaranteed Medicare Benefits

Title IV: Prevention of Chronic Disease and Improving Public Health
Subtitle A: Modernizing Disease Prevention and Public Health Systems
Subtitle B: Increasing Access to Clinical Preventive Services
Subtitle C: Creating Healthier Communities - (Sec. 4201, as modified by Sec. 10403)
Subtitle D: Support for Prevention and Public Health Innovation - (Sec. 4301)
Subtitle E: Miscellaneous Provisions - (Sec. 4402)

Title V: Health Care Workforce
Subtitle A: Purpose and Definitions - (Sec. 5001)
Subtitle B: Innovations in the Health Care Workforce - (Sec. 5101, as modified by Sec. 10501)
Subtitle C: Increasing the Supply of the Health Care Workforce
Subtitle D: Enhancing Health Care Workforce Education and Training - (Sec. 5301)
Subtitle E: Supporting the Existing Health Care Workforce - (Sec. 5401)
Subtitle F: Strengthening Primary Care and Other Workforce Improvements- (Sec. 5501, as modified by Sec. 10501)
Subtitle G: Improving Access to Health Care Services - (Sec. 5601)
Subtitle H: General Provisions - (Sec. 5701)

Title VI: Transparency and Program Integrity
Subtitle A: Physician Ownership and Other Transparency - (Sec. 6001, as modified by Sec. 10601)
Subtitle B: Nursing Home Transparency and Improvement
Part I: Improving Transparency of Information - (Sec. 6101)
Part II: Targeting Enforcement - (Sec. 6111)
Part III: Improving Staff Training - (Sec. 6121)
Subtitle C: Nationwide Program for National and State Background Checks on Direct Patient Access Employees of Long Term Care Facilities and Providers - (Sec. 6201)
Subtitle D: Patient-Centered Outcomes Research - (Sec. 6301, as modified by Sec. 10602)
Subtitle E: Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP Program Integrity Provisions - (Sec. 6401, as modified by Sec. 10603)
Subtitle F: Additional Medicaid Program Integrity Provisions - (Sec. 6501)
Subtitle G: Additional Program Integrity Provisions - (Sec. 6601)
Subtitle H: Elder Justice Act - Elder Justice Act of 2009 - (Sec. 6702)
Subtitle I: Sense of the Senate Regarding Medical Malpractice - (Sec. 6801)

Title VII: Improving Access to Innovative Medical Therapies -
Subtitle A: Biologics Price Competition and Innovation
Subtitle B: More Affordable Medicine for Children and Underserved Communities - (Sec. 7101)

Title VIII: Class Act - Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act or the CLASS Act - (Sec. 8002, as modified by Sec. 10801)

Title IX: Revenue Provisions -
Subtitle A: Revenue Offset Provisions - (Sec. 9001, as modified by section 10901)
Subtitle B: Other Provisions - (Sec. 9021)

Title X: Strengthening Quality, Affordable Health Care for All Americans -
Subtitle A: Provisions Relating to Title I - (Sec. 10101) Revises provisions of or related to Subtitles A, B, and C of Title I of this Act
Subtitle B: Provisions Relating to Title II
Part I: Medicaid and CHIP - (Sec. 10201)
Part II: Support for Pregnant and Parenting Teens and Women - (Sec. 10212)
Part III: Indian Health Care Improvement - (Sec. 10221)

[1] These summaries are written in a programming language for the creation of regulations. The bulk of the omitted material begins with command verbs that tell regulators what to do. I created this summary by regex operations on paragraphs beginning with the command operators which include:

Expresses the sense
Sets forth

It’s a very structured document that resembles generated software code and could indeed be created from a regulatory meta-language.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

If you laid every virus head to toe ...

You would get a very slender string of significant length ...
Welcome to Your Viral World | The Loom | Carl Zimmer for Discover Magazine
...Line up all the viruses on Earth end to end (go ahead, I’ll wait), and they’ll stretch over 10 million light years....
Is this conceivable? I know our planet is a seething ball of virii, but even a single light year is a very great length.

See also:

Monday, March 22, 2010

Best health care reform commentary

I'm waiting for week's end to write mine, but I'll be working from these early commentaries:
I think it's pretty damned awesome that the three* most intelligent commentaries I've read were written by amateur blog-only journalists. (Ok, so Sean is probably paid for his science blog).

Incidentally, I expect my "taxes" will rise to pay for this. More on why, how and where the quotes come from in a later post. We're good with that.

* I wrote "four" originally but I moved one to the PS and didn't decrement!

Update 3/24/2010: Leonhardt focuses on the distributive nature. This is why the GOP is enraged.
Update 3/24/2010b: Uwe Reinhardt points to the readable references. He discretely but clearly points out the cost will be higher than the CBO score -- but much less than the Bush Part D boondoggle.
Update 3/28/2010: HCR and labor motility

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Farewell Palm

I work in an IT shop. I can almost always find a home for my old gear. Tomorrow will be a real test though, I'm bringing in my Palm stuff to give away ...

The five PalmOS devices shown above are probably 1/2 to 1/3 of the total Emily and I bought between 1998 and 2006. I underwent the exquisitely painful Palm to iPhone transition in Aug 2008 (in some ways it's still continuing).

I don't think anyone will want the devices, but the chargers and accessories might be of interest. I have zillions of styli.[1]

One SONY made device uses AA batteries. It's the only one that would still work; I might keep it around for grandchild show and tell (I bet there's still an AA equivalent in 30 years. If there's civilization.) The others had LiOn batteries that are pretty dead by now.

Ahh, Palm. They were great in their time, but they peaked in the 90s with the Graffiti One Vx. Even after they lost their way, the company was sustained by some terrific developers like Pimlico Software (DateBk).

I'm not tossing everything. I added the Vx manual and Pogue's PalmPilot book to my shelf of computer book honor:

Even though Palm Inc's WebOS seems to have no relationship to PalmClassic, I'd hoped it would provide some inspiring competition for Apple. Judging by their share price, however, that seems unlikely ...

They fell of a cliff in the past week or so. I assume the price was being sustained by hope of a Nokia or Microsoft acquisition, but that news of Windows Mobile 7 made that unlikely. Instead the key people are likely to go to Microsoft or Google and someone will buy up any useful patents.

Farewell Palm.

See also:

Update 3/23/2010: The best pre-iPhone smartphone was the PalmOS Classic Samsung i500. Also, the Palm Vx pioneered the non-removable LiOn battery.

[1] Update 3/24/2010: My coworkers took almost every accessory, but nobody wanted a device. I love Minnesota -- the home of geeks who hate throwing things away.

Ancient wisdom: Their experts are like your experts

This one is the converse of "No man is a prophet in his own country".

On average, their experts are a lot like your experts.

No, it's not that your experts are right and their experts are wrong. It's rather that experts you don't know are as vain, clever, mistaken, thoughtful, rushed, insightful, venal and proud as the experts you know.

Just because you're reading them in a newspaper, or hearing them on TV, doesn't mean they're a different species of expert. Be as trusting of them, and as suspicious of them, as you are of the very human experts you know personally.

Try it the next time you read a recommendation about estrogen use, or a political opinion, or a CEO's strategic insights, or a blog post. Think of it as coming from an expert you know. Chances are you'll give the words respect and consideration, but not the unthinking acceptance of prophecy.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Top 50 children's film

I like this "top 50" list because I'd totally forgotten about #1. Our children would probably like it. Added to netflix queue ...
E.T. voted greatest ever children's film

1. E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial
2. Toy Story
3. Mary Poppins
4. Lion King
5. Wizard of Oz
6. Bambi
7. Back to the Future
8. Shrek
9. Finding Nemo
10. Labyrinth
11. 101 Dalmatians
12. Aladdin
13. Beauty and the Beast
14. The Goonies
15. The Jungle Book
16. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
17. Alice in Wonderland
18. Home Alone
19. Ice Age
20. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
21. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
22. Annie
23. Cinderella
24. Monsters Inc
25. Madagascar
26. Sound of Music
27. Wallace and Gromit – The Wrong Trousers
28. Mrs Doubtfire
29. Babe
30. Beethoven
31. Beetlejuice
32. Black Beauty
33. The Little Mermaid
34. The Railway Children
35. A Bug's Life
36. Dumbo
37. Wall-E
38. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
39. A Little Princess
40. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
41. Jurassic Park
42. Kung-Fu Panda
43. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
44. Billy Elliot
45. Lady and the Tramp
46. Neverending Story
47. Short Circuit
48. Sleeping Beauty
49. An American Tail
50. Chicken Run

Things I suspect: generic meds

Things I suspect without much evidence ...

... That our quality problems with generic medications are much bigger than we imagine.

Update 4/5/2010: see comments for more on this. A recent WSJ Health blog mentioned increased safety recalls for generics. I had not heard of the examples they cited.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Investing today

Burton Malkiel wrote “A Random Walk down Wall Street” in 1973. He believed the prices of publicly traded assets reflected all publicly available information. John Bogle, influenced by Malkiel, created index funds to reduce the risks of random market fluctuations and to profit from this rational pricing.

Peter Lynch wrote “One up on wall street” in 1989. He didn’t agree with Malkiel; he felt that “local knowledge” and personal experience could detect under and overpriced shares.

I suspect each was more or less right for his era. That is, I suspect share prices in the mid to late 1960s were more or less rationally priced. I suspect share prices in the late 1970s and early 1980s were not rationally priced, and that the anomalies were potentially discoverable by a rational investor with limited resources.

Of course by the time each person wrote their book, their era had passed.

Which brings me to our current era.

Since Lynch’s book we have experienced 20 years of economic turbulence fundamentally driven, I suspect, by the commercialization of the microprocessor and the industrialization of what we once knew as the third world. As a side-effect of these fundamental changes, including the collapse of the fourth estate, we have shifted towards the upper end of the historic scale of corporate and governmental corruption.

So what is the rational small investor strategy of today?

Of course I don’t know. My only personal insight is that I don’t yet see much short term correlation between share prices and the value of most of the goods and services I buy. Companies that deliver lousy value seem to track with their industry. The exceptions are a few companies that are intensely monitored (Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc); I think they are rationally priced but they are, of course, very volatile.

This would suggest we’re still in a Lynch era, where one should be able to use local knowledge to detect anomalies and profit from them. Over the past 10 years though you couldn’t detect the anomalies using the “local knowledge” he described – you had to be an insider who was able to sniff out fraud and corruption. In the past decade some have done very well detecting evidence of corruption and de facto fraud, and shorting companies like Lehman.

Of course by the time people like me decide shorting corrupt corporations is a good strategy, its time has passed.

I where are we today? I’m guessing that we’re in transition back to a Malkiel era. So for a few years shorting corruption might still work, but increasingly share prices will be a random walk. Even if index funds were a crummy investment over the past decade (everything was, except shorting fraud), this might be their time again. I wouldn’t mind some 1960s style dull dividend paying companies though.

Of course by the time anyone writes the “Random walk” or “One up” book of our era, that strategy will have passed into history.

Oh, and if you take investment advice from me, you totally deserve your impending financial ruin.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why we need to retire at sixty

Ten years ago there was talk of the boomers working into their seventies. The "me generation" was said to be "young at heart".

Then reality set in. Contrary to popular belief, brain decay is not a late life disorder. It starts in our twenties ....
This Is Your Faulty Brain, On a Microchip - Memory forever - Gizmodo

... Starting in your 20s—not old age—behavioral evidence suggests that you enter a linear cascade of general cognitive decline....

This decline is notably seen in tasks that are highly mentally demanding, like speed of processing (how quickly you handle incoming information), attention, working memory (how well you manipulate and keep information active in your mind), and, of course, long term memory.

In real life, these effects are seen in everything from how long it takes to learn a new skill to how quickly you can recall a factoid....
The Gizmodo article, clearly written by a young chap, imagines we'll outsource our recall and declining cognition to an onboard chip (vs., say Google). Sure.

While we're waiting to be chipped, however, knowledge work is becoming ever more demanding - and non-knowledge work doesn't pay too well (unless you're CEO, then non-knowledge work can pay very well).

In the post-modern world, unless we can bend that decay curve (hello? dementia meds?) many of us will have a hard time doing competitive knowledge work into our 60s - much less our 70s. Bagging groceries yes - genomic engineering not so much.

That could be a bit of an economics problem.

We really should be spending more money on trying to bend that curve. We need my generation to earn money until we take our dirt bath.

Why geek genes win

How is that that many of my fellow homely geeks are happily married to women so much more attractive than we are?

Geek genes (yes, we are "effeminate" no matter how many mountains we might climb)turn out to become desirable in high tech civilizations. Since geeks make tech, geek genes thereby support and create the environments that make more geek genes. Talk about the selfish gene ...
The battle of the sexes: Face off | The Economist

... Mating preferences, too, vary with a society’s level of economic development. That, at least, is the conclusion of a study by Ben Jones and Lisa DeBruine of Aberdeen University, in Scotland, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Dr Jones and Dr DeBruine, themselves a married couple, examined what might be called the Deianira paradox. Hercules, demigod and paragon of masculinity in the ancient world, was indirectly done for by his own sexual prowess—his jealous wife, Deianira, accidentally poisoned him with a potion she thought would render him eternally faithful. Deianira’s predicament is a woman’s ultimate dilemma. In a man, the craggy physical characteristics associated with masculinity often indicate a strong immune system and thus a likelihood of his producing healthier offspring than his softer-featured confrères will. But such men are also more promiscuous and do not care as much about long-term relationships, leaving women to raise their kids alone.

Nowadays, sound parenting is often more important to the viability of a man’s offspring than Herculean strength. That, some researchers suspect, may be changing the physical traits that women look for in a mate, at least in some societies. A study carried out in 2004, for example, discovered that women in rural Jamaica found manly types more desirable than did women in Britain, which led to questions about whether those preferences were arbitrary or whether women in different parts of the world might be adapting to circumstances that place different emphasis on manliness in the competitive calculus.

Dr Jones and Dr DeBruine therefore looked to see if there is an inverse relationship between women’s preference for masculine features and national health. Sure enough, they found one. In environments where disease is rampant and the child-mortality rate is high, women prefer masculine men. In places like America and Britain, where knowing how to analyse health-care plans is more important than fighting off infection, effeminate men are just as competitive...

... Neither wealth nor mating pattern had much impact on women’s preferences for manly men. Disease rates, by contrast, seemed to be directly related to how they went about choosing a mate—the healthier the society, the less women valued masculinity. Hygiene and wimps, it seems, go hand in hand....
So non-geeks really do need to destroy civilization. This explains the GOP.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Health insurance companies: only the demonic survive

Under the current system of incentives, only demonic health insurance companies can prosper…

Demons And Demonization - Paul Krugman Blog -

The usual suspects have been attacking Obama for “demonizing” insurance companies; but saying that people do terrible things isn’t demonization if they do, in fact, do terrible things.

And health insurers do, because they have huge financial incentives to act in an inhumane way — most obviously, by revoking coverage when people get sick, using whatever rationale they can devise.

Read this report by Murray Waas on Assurant Health (previously called Fortis), which used a computer algorithm to identify every client with HIV, then systematically revoked coverage on the flimsiest of grounds — and appears to have systematically hidden any paper trail showing how it made its decisions…

…  the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of rescissions, not just at Assurant but across the board, are, in fact, without justification…

… And to repeat what I and other have repeatedly explained, you need the whole package to make this work. You can’t end discrimination based on medical history unless you require that health as well as sick people have insurance, to broaden the risk pool. And you can’t mandate coverage unless you provide aid to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Right now, we have a system that creates huge incentives for bad, one might say demonic, behavior: Assurant made $150 million by revoking coverage, almost always without cause

In this system of incentives and a competitive marketplace, a virtuous corporation will lose out to one that follows the incentives. The virtuous corporation must either abandon virtue or die. Soon, only the demonic survive.

The same incentives, of course, apply in education. If a provider is judged by educational outcomes, the most successful strategy is to use “recission” to get rid of low performing students. Only the demonic survive.

We need to change the system.

Incidentally, it’s typical that the very first (asinine) comment on Krugman’s post is by someone who didn’t read the second to last paragraph. Eliminating patient discrimination while allowing patient choice on coverage timing is a recipe for bankrupting insurance companies. At that point,the patients are demonic.

We need the entire package.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Texan textbooks: Hallucinations that may backfire

Another reason why friends don't let friends live in Texas ...
Editorial - Rewriting History in Texas -

... The Texas Board of Education, notorious for its past efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools, has now moved to revise the social studies curriculum to portray conservative ideas and movements in a more positive light and emphasize the role of Christianity in the nation’s founding.
Clearly a loss for Reason in Texas, but, really, there wasn't much to lose. Publishers have been anticipating this, textbooks are being designed so that Texas-specific editions can be inexpensively created.

Even if the these books were widely read though, the consequences may be unexpected. I have some personal experience to share on this.

I grew up in a theocratic state. My public school history book was written by the Catholic church. I wish I'd stolen a copy; it may be the only book written in modern times praising the Children's Crusade as a noble cause.

How did we react to these books? Most of the students paid no attention to history at all, but the smarter students got angry. Whatever the impact of propaganda on individual students, the theocratic state shortly self-destructed. Within 10 years Quebec's Quiet Revolution swept the church away.

Farther afield, the communist propaganda of 1960s China laid the foundations for the most rabidly capitalistic state in modern history.

Who knows? Perhaps the 2010 Texas board of education is laying the foundations for an Enlightenment 2.0 Texas of 2025.

Climate - How will history judge the Wall Street Journal?

When the WSJ iPhone app provided free access to the WSJ, I tried reading it. Alas, it was already the post-Murdoch era. The raving madness of the editorial pages had begun to infect the rest of the newspaper. I gave up after a few months. Now, even friends of mine who have been longtime WSJ readers are also losing interest.

The WSJ has a lot of tribal power however. It will last at least another twenty years. Perhaps long enough that this will matter ...
Breaking the Climate Debate Logjam: Scientific American
... The Wall Street Journal leads the campaign against climate science, writing editorials charging that scientists are engaged in a massive conspiracy. I have made repeated invitations to the Journal editors to meet with climate scientists publicly for an open discussion or debate, but all have been rebuffed...
When the WSJ closes up, will their climate change dismissal and denial be seen as the fatal turning point? The moment at which tribal ideology made them worse than irrelevant?

I'll put a reminder in my Google Calendar to update this post fifteen years from now.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Political reform: Let's license legislators

Americans are grumpy. It's been a bleak decade, and the next one doesn't look too promising. Our politicians are going to have to work through the end of American exceptionalism, the beginning of the end of oil, the age of mass disability, the challenge of CO2 management, the rise of China and India, the Fall of North Korea, nukes galore, the ghost of Malthus and sentient machines.

Just kidding about the last one. Skynet is fifty years ahead and we don't survive it, so no need to worry.

America has the talent to manage these problems. Trouble is, none of the people we need are crazy enough to run for office, and voters wouldn't like 'em anyway. GOP voters would especially dislike the rationalists we need - and we Dems need a sane GOP opposition.

So how do we grow a sane government? I've thought of drafting people to serve, but it's easy to come up with too many objections. I really can't come up with a great alternative to elections, though I still like the idea of taxing campaign related activities at 50% to enable publicly funded campaigns.

So what can we do to improve the system we have now? Let's license legislators. After all, we license lawyers, accountants, physicians, barbers, and realtors -- why not legislators?

It's not hard to image an appropriate curriculum -- starting with courses and evaluation on basic probability, logic 101, business operations, economics, history of science, history, and comparative theology. An intensive 12 month program should do it for most legislators. Grading could be pass-fail -- I'm fine with that.

Legislators would, like physicians, redo their board exams every five years.

Clearly we'd need to compromise on certain topics. For this group there's no problem with "teaching the controversy". By all means, give biologists and Creationists equal time to discuss natural selection. We can balance climate scientists with hobbyists and eccentrics. Different religions can argue for their own creation myths; and our exam questions can cover both scientific and Hindu explanations of biological diversity.

As is the common custom we'll grandfather in current politicians. Maybe we'll even have an interim time when licensure is only needed for those seeking public financing. Eventually though, all legislators will be licensed.

Or we can just stay as we are and die in the cold and the dark. We always have a choice.

See also:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

France has a carbon tax

Who knew? France now has a carbon tax:

... France became the largest economy to impose a carbon tax on individuals and businesses using coal, gas or oil, with the explicit intention of changing people's patterns of energy use. The tax is US$24 per tonne of emissions now, but it will rise over the years...
Go France!

This is the first time I can remember France leading on anything. It certainly didn't get much coverage in the US, though that's hardly surprising. What could be less popular in America than global warming + taxes + France?

Happily, Gwynne Dyer posts his article notices on Twitter (see also) so I look forward to hearing more news that's forbidden in America.
My Google Reader Shared items (feed)

Was 10.3 the best version of OS X?

I'm just about done reorganizing the home network after shutting down my XP server and moving accounts to the newest iMac.

It's been a fairly painful process, due to hardware issues with the iMac (now resolved) and ongoing issues with 10.6 (permissions, firewire peripherals). Now that I've moved all the shares to the 10.6 machine things are looking a bit better.

Today I finished up by reorganizing an old iBook running 10. That old machine is the least troublesome device we own; it reminded me what a pleasure it was to run the later versions of OS X 10.3. It was PPC only of course, and it didn't have all the features of later versions, but it was a high quality product. I think Avie Tevanian still ran Apple's development program back then. Earlier versions of OS X had been understandably raw, but by 10.3 it just worked.

It's never been as good since. The OS offers far more power, but it causes me far more pain.

Why is that?

My working theory is that Apple lost some key engineers around 2003-2005, and they moved their very best people to the iPhoneOS around 2005. Of course many resources were also consumed by the Intel migration.

With all their billions, Apple doesn't have enough of the people they need to make OS X 10.6 as robust as 10.3. That's an interesting story.
My Google Reader Shared items (feed)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Changing habits: How do I know what I don't know?

Cognitive error: defining the possible. Accepting the rules. Failing to question. how many things in my life are like my shoelaces? How can I uncover them?

It is costly to change habits. It requires cognitive work, the transition time has an efficiency cost, and there's a risk the final result will be a regression. In the past I changed technology habits too quickly, and suffered through abandoned solutions.

On the other hand, there's my shoelace tying. For forty years I unwittingly tied granny knots. Then I read a NYT essay on shoelace tying, rear view mirrors, and habits. It wasn't hard to change my shoe lace tying, I had only to reverse the sequence of the first knot to produce reliable square knots. From the same article I've changed how I set my rear view mirrors (I think I had changed back in the 90s however, and then forgot and went back to old habits!).

Similarly I've changed how I tie up cords and cables, looping them into a figure-eight on my fingers. That took a while to learn, but now it's very fast and it's made my life much neater.

I used to open bananas from the top. An article suggested that the bottom worked better (allegedly chimps do it that way). I agree.

In each case it never occurred that there was a better way to do things. That's not true in the computing world. There's a geek fetish for finding ways to work more effectively on a computer - and I frequently find and communicate lessons learned there. My Voice post is a recent example. In theory sites like Lifehacker and 42 folders should be a source of these kinds of ideas, but they have too much noise to be useful (no noise, no traffic - tyranny of the market).

So how can I know what I don't know? How can I identify my longstanding assumptions that are flat out wrong -- like the assumption that all shoe laces came loose? How do I test my reasoning and look for unquestioned habits and assumptions?

What else am I missing?

Update: I asked Google: "How do I spot my own blind spots?" and got:
I also did restore my LifeHacker feed, even though the noise level is too high.

Tech churn 2010: How do you share a family file?

Twenty years ago we knew how to share files on a Mac. You created users and groups. When you accessed a share you entered a username and password. You could save a shortcut to the desktop and MacOS would store the credentials.Things weren't that much harder with Windows 95 a few years later.

That was then. In the bright shiny world of 1990's tomorrow a share/permissions bug in the combination of 10.6 + 10.5 + wireless networking put 45,000 zero length files with numerically iterating names in our "parents only" shared folder.

It's not the first time I've run into architectural issues with OS X's post-obsolete permissions framework; although 10.6 is exceptionally bad things have been more or less downhill since 10.3.Back at the corporation we have Microsoft SharePoint - or whatever it's called now. Microsoft keeps rebranding it to hide the bad news. SharePoint makes OS X 2010 look relatively benign.

I don't know how well things work with home Windows 7 network shares. I suspect it's better than OS X, but I don't think the Windows home file share appliance market is doing well.

I'm getting that old King Canute and the unstoppable tide feeling. I'm using something that's completely broken, but the ether isn't filled with the screams of fellow geeks. The path I'm on has clearly been abandoned; the days of being able to share files with one's wife, but not the kids, on a home machine have passed.

Unfortunately, there's no clear alternative. We're in tech churn -- the turbulent white water between technology transitions. We could do all our home file sharing using Google Docs, but, frankly, gDrive sucks and backup is a pain. We could use a drive hanging off the Time Capsule perhaps, but I doubt that's much better and, ironically, you can't easily back up a drive hanging off a Time Capsule. We could use MobileMe, but ... sigh. I could buy a Windows machine to use as an SMB share, but that's a maintenance pain. Everything I read about OS X Server tells me not to go there.

Maybe Apple will deliver a home file share appliance this year with integrated backup. I'm not holding my breath though.The bottom line is that there's no good solution for home-based group file sharing in 2010 on OS X, and probably not any platform. It's a tech regression - we're stuck until something better emerges. That will probably take years.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Vanguard - Adobe Reader required to access tax forms

Once upon a time Vanguard provided documents and tax forms ask PDF files. You could view them in any PDF reader, including Apple's built in product. There was no need to infest a Mac with Adobe's thrice-cursed bug infested reader and it's malign updater.

Now Adobe Reader is obligatory. If you access Vanguard without Reader installed you download the markup for their 'servlet' file.

Vanguard doesn't mail out tax forms any more. This is how you're supposed to get them.

I've been a Vanguard customer for a long time. I liked them when Bogle was in power and stayed after he was booted out. Now I'm looking for a different place to park our money.

Smart move Vanguard.

Anyone know a good mutual fund company?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Minneapolis St Paul bicycle maps: Google and More

After a long stream of disappointing Google news, it's a relief to learn that they've added a map layer for bicycle directions ( A commute by bike announcement references a user map I didn't know about - James Nordgaard's Twin Cities bike map. (I hadn't visited the map gadgets page for a while, it's worth a look.)

Google also offers a "biking directions gadget" that can be embedded in a web page.

Independently, the MSP GeoWiki has been developing very nicely over the past year and now has excellent coverage. I'm hopeful Google will be able to harvest that work even as the GeoWiki benefits from the Google maps.

I've long said that if you had only one question to ask about a community to live in, you should ask about the quality of the local bicycle paths. Minneapolis St. Paul does very well with that question.

Now we need to work on a map that shows what bicycle paths are suitable for inline skating!

See also: Google Maps ‘Bike There’ | Submit your bike data to Google.

PS. I’ve had to repost this several times, the Blogger in Draft editor bugs struck again. I think I’ve repaired it this time.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Reimagining realtime focalcast communication – Buzz and Twitter 2.0

Google, and Buzz, are flailing. Facebook is evil. Twitter is annoyingly limited [1].

We need to reimagine focalcast realtime communication [1].

As a first pass we can think of a realtime communication message channel as having two key properties: Audience and (primary) Purpose.

Audience is the set of permitted subscribers. Example: “Family” or “Public”.

Purpose is a single sentence definition of what the the channel is used for. Example: “Location sharing” or “Political opinions” or “Mate attraction”.

The resemblance of Audience and Purpose to century old definitions of printed media marketing is not accidental.

To be truly useful Buzz or Twitter 2.0 need to allow any message (not length limited) to be characterized by Audience and Purpose [2]. We can imagine these as two metadata elements [3] represented in a user interface as “drop down” or select boxes.

On the client side users subscribe to a channel defined by Author and Purpose for which they have access rights (Audience).

Since some Audience-Purpose pairs are far more common than others (“Location sharing”+”Family” or “Location sharing”+”Mate attraction”) combining these in a user interface would increase usability.

A single “identity” or “account” should own the definitions of Audience and Purpose, though it may be useful to associate Audience-Purpose pairs with a “persona” [4]

When I see a solution emerging that uses open data standards without data lock (Buzz API?) and that supports Audience and Purpose in a useable way, I’ll know it’s time for me to fully engage. Until then, I’m just playing.

[1] Geezers will remember email lists as the original focalcast medium. Since list communication was not realtime messages resembled postal letters; they often resembled exchanged essays. Twitter’s accidental length limit (determined by the quirks of the text (SMS) message hack) makes Twitter exchanges either staccato status updates or metadata pointing to discussions held elsewhere. Neither realtime length limited Twitter nor slowtime unlimited length email are adequate focalcast communication technologies.

[2] A third attribute of “archive” would cause the communication to become the equivalent of a blog post, but that’s a nice-to-have. Author is an implied attribute; it’s used by subscribers.

[3] Ontology strictly optional, though many will emerge.

[4] As of a few weeks ago I thought that persona management was a key component of Buzz/Twitter 2.0, but now I think the combination of Audience/Purpose pairs makes persona management less critical. One could handle other persona issues through separate accounts (identities).

See also

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Book Review: Three Steps to Yes - Sales for Poets

Part way through his short and readable book I decided Gene Bedell was just the sort of cheerfully cynical sales gunner I've been looking to learn from - albeit not to imitate. That was when he wrote of meeting his Prospect's "personal needs" by "arranging for him to make the keynote speech at an important industry meeting".

Or, you could, you know, slip your Prospect a thousand dollar bill. It's just a matter of degree.

By the time I was done though, Bedell had persuaded me that he's not nearly as amoral as I first thought. Yeah, he really has to win -- but he likes his Prospects to win as well. Including the Prospects reading his book.

Amoral gunner or admirable entrepreneur, or maybe a bit of both, he's written the sales book for me. In Bedell's words I'm a Poet, I ain't got a sales gene in my body. I'm so bad my specialty is covert persuasion, by which my ideas and proposals are delivered by indirect and untraceable paths.

After reading Bedell's "Sales for Poets" book though, I can see about a dozen ways to change what I do. Even if I can't execute on all 21 of his key recommendations at once, I can surely double my persuasiveness by just getting to average on 3-4 of 'em. I intend to work on a different 3-4 each month over the next year.

I wouldn't have wanted to read this book 10 years ago, but if I had my life would have been different (not necessarily better of course, but certainly different). It's a powerful paeon to persuasion, and, as the title suggests, a good complement to the classic book on negotiation "Getting to Yes".

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Google translate 2010 - a marker

This is the Feb 2010 Google Translate output from a Chinese language original ...

... Perpetual motion machine needs rotor, the rotor is Zhao Benshan and Guo Degang. Zhou Libo positioning themselves with the middle-class waiter, while a decorated themselves with the middle class, followed by a run did not forget about Zhao Benshan. Said Zhao Benshan services for farmers, location of China's rural areas. With that, make up an "In fact, I always have great respect for Old Zhao" and then express their hair a period of "cultural pluralism", the Old Zhao has also stepped on, their body position also climbed up. The results we all know that Old Zhao's fans will feel that "feelings were seriously damaged," the rotor to turn up...
Some of it can be understood, other bits read like receptive aphasia word salad. Amusing, but not terribly informative.

I'm keeping this example as a baseline for the translation results of 2011.

Update 3/21/2010: A NYT OpEd by a translator makes light of Google's efforts.
... Google Translate is a statistical machine translation system, which means that it doesn’t try to unpick or understand anything. Instead of taking a sentence to pieces and then rebuilding it in the “target” tongue as the older machine translators do, Google Translate looks for similar sentences in already translated texts somewhere out there on the Web. Having found the most likely existing match through an incredibly clever and speedy statistical reckoning device, Google Translate coughs it up, raw or, if necessary, lightly cooked....
The approach seems to work well for English/French, but it fails miserably for English/Chinese. The sentences translated from Chinese seem individually meaningful, but the paragraphs are nonsensical.

The critic sounds frightened to me -- and he should be. Google translator works quite well for similar languages. On the other hand, they have another great leap to take if they're going to bridge the Chinese to English gulf.

Google car goes where angels fear to tread?

When I opened this image I thought Google's camera bearing street view car took a picture mid-way across the Hudson-Oka ice bridge over the Ottawa River above Montreal ...

Alas, I think the street view icon in the midst of the river is a UI artifact of viewing Panoramio images in Google maps.

It would be cool to include the ice bridge in a future street view however.

Climate change, trees and your sinking home

If the Earth were warming smoothly everywhere, then we would expect to see the gradual migration of ecosystems. Iowa would migrate into Minnesota, and the Arctic would migrate into outer space.

Of course the Earth is not warming smoothly everywhere. It's warming on the average, but on the human level things will be messy. If greenhouse gases, particulates and other side-effects of humanity stabilize (a big if, unfortunately) then we might eventually return to the relatively predictable weather cycles of recent millenia. During the next century, however, the weather-cycles are likely to be turbulent.

What does turbulence and year-to-year micro-climate unpredictability mean to ecosystems? I've not read anything on this topic, and a quick gSearch found only some 2009 conference proceedings on marine ecosystems. I'm guessing we'll start reading about this over the next year, so this is your prologue.

As an uninformed guess, I presume this weather/climate turbulence will favor organisms that adapt rapidly to change. That would normally include humans, but we saturate most every ecosystem and, given our weaponry and limited judgment, we're likely to react to turbulence with devastating warfare.

Humans and their canine parasites/symbiotes aside, one would expect organisms with high mutation rates and short life cycles to do well. So that would include insects, bacteria, grasses, fungi and so on - including many things we consider "pests". On the other hand, we might expect trees to do quite badly in the near term. They could do fine in the post-turbulent future, but they don't seem likely to respond well to unpredictability.

Which brings us to your soon to be sinking home. If you were to look down at my neighborhood in St Paul Minnesota in July of 1999 you would have had a hard time seeing the houses. All you'd have seen would be trees. That's not so now. Pests and fungi have devastated our canopy. (This is not entirely due to climate change -- the emerald ash borer's range extension was assisted by human transportation. So our treescape is a premonition of what climate change may bring, even though we have assumed Iowa's old climate.)

How does losing trees impact your home? Well, we ain't called the "land of 10,000 lakes" for nothing. Twin Cities water lies close to the top of our clay soils. In this setting losing trees can have unanticipated consequences (emphases mine) ...
Shifting Soil Is Threat to a House’s Foundation -

... Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association indicates that since the 1990s there has been an accelerating trend nationwide toward more extended dry periods followed by downpours. Whether due to random climate patterns or global warming, the swings between hot and dry weather and severe rain or snow have profoundly affected soil underneath buildings.

Clay soils, like those beneath the houses of Mr. Derse and Ms. Wilson, shrink during droughts and swell during floods, causing structures to bob. And because sandier soil loses its adhesive properties in dry conditions, it pulls away from foundations. Heavy rains cause it to shift or just collapse beneath structures. With both kinds of soil, such sinking, called subsidence, usually happens gradually, said Randall Orndorff, a geologist with the United States Geologic Survey. But, he said, “swinging from very wet to extremely dry weather like we’ve been seeing lately in many parts of the country may be accelerating the effect.”...

... Subsidence is not covered by most homeowners’ insurance policies in the United States, unlike in Britain, where the increasing number of homeowners’ claims due to foundation failure prompted the Charter Insurance Institute, an industry trade group, to issue a dire warning about the financial drain in its 2009 report, “Coping with Climate Change: Risks and Opportunities for Insurers.”
“The question we need to ask is, are we building to cope with the enhanced weather events related to climate change,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group advocating science-based solutions to environmental and health issues. “It’s obvious that we need to look at changing building codes worldwide to deal with this.”...

... Fixing a failed foundation usually involves hiring a foundation repair company to install cement or steel piers around the perimeter of the house’s slab or near its existing piers if it is a pier and beam foundation. Once in place, hydraulic jacks lift and level the house and transfer its weight to the new supports. The cost depends on the severity of the problem but generally runs about $1,000 to $2,000 per pier, which should include a lifetime transferable warranty.

“It’s amazing to watch your house get jacked up like that,” said Miguel Rivera, a designer of heating and air-conditioning systems, who had to pay $13,000 to have his 60-year-old house in West Orange, N.J., shored up in January. “It’s just immediate. You’re like, whoa, up it goes.”

His dining room began separating from the rest of his house about five years ago after repeated heavy rains shifted the earth beneath it. The problem was made worse when he removed a nearby tree, which was probably siphoning off excess water and providing structure to the soil beneath his house.

“It often happens that you upset the moisture and structural balance when you knock down or tear out trees,” said Mr. Lourie, the geotechnical engineer, adding that planting trees too close to the house can be harmful. “Plant them at least half their mature height away from the house.”

Landscaping should, as a rule, be installed so that water slopes away from the house and gutters should discharge at least five feet from the house to avoid oversaturating the soil. During droughts, experts recommend placing soaker hoses around the perimeter of the house and turning them on for 30 minutes a day. “The idea is to maintain a constant amount of moisture in the soil,” said Tom Witherspoon, a foundation engineer in Dallas. “If you can do that, your house will never move.”...

... Engineering and structural-repair professionals say it is relatively easy to spot foundation problems in structures that are more than 10 years old. If you are considering buying a house, look for patched-over cracks in brick or drywall and doors that have been planed. Also notice if there are cracks in sidewalks and streets in the neighborhood.

... problematic areas like the Southeast, Southwest, Midwest and coastal states...
I like the last sentence. Why don't they just tell us what state doesn't have a problem? New Mexico?

So what should those of living in "the Southeast, Southwest, Midwest and coastal states" do? Many will have to budget for serious foundation work, and foundation/soil assessments will change property values (and thus property taxes). I'm most interested in whether we can use tree planting to manage a high and fungible water table. What trees do best at pulling up moisture in wet times, yet are likely to be pest resistant (assuming we provide the water in dry summers -- in Minnesota this is feasible)? How well does this work in reality?

I expect we'll learn a lot more on this topic over the next two years.

Update 4/7/2010: Some real science to complement my tree speculations ...
Tree-mendous - Opinionator Blog -
... being a tree has challenges ... longevity itself creates difficulties. In the course of centuries, situations change: droughts and fires may come and go, soil may erode, water tables may rise and fall. Worse, other organisms — especially enemies — can evolve far faster, because they can go through hundreds of generations during the tree’s life. How can trees avoid succumbing to diseases? Especially as they don’t have an immune system like ours: you can graft tissue from one tree to that of another (think apples and olives) without the kind of rejection that a mammal would experience. Part of the answer may be that many trees have evolved associations with other, fast-evolving organisms, like fungi and ants, that can protect them to some extent.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Google's problem is their corporate philosophy

As a Google customer, I'm not happy with this approach ...
Two keys to Google’s success: “paranoia” and “relentless brutality” | Good Morning Silicon Valley
.... So how does Google maintain its pace and sense of urgency? Through a Shiva-like dance of constant creation and destruction performed with “relentless brutality and execution,” said Herlihy...
… We seek ubiquity and then pray for luck. We learn from bad decisions. If something is wrong, we kill it as soon as possible, take everybody out and move onto a different project as soon as possible.” And the process of regular and rigorous reviews extends to people as well as projects. “We measure people every 90 days,” Herlihy said. “We get 360-degree feedback on people every 180 days and that feedback is published to the whole company. People want reality. Ninety percent of the rewards end up going to 10 percent of the people...
Since 90% of the rewards go to 10% of the people and non-hit products "die" (or are abandoned) young, engineers leading products that are not quickly successful must leave the company, or abandon a slow project as quickly as possible, or stay and become demoralized.

The result I see is a profusion of half-build services that start well, then stall then are abandoned, and, years later, are killed. As someone who's used most of what Google has built, I'm not happy with their management style. Of course I'm not a typical user, but I can say that many of the companies I've disliked are dead now - or are living dead.

Fire Eric Schmidt. Now.

Google Video Chat: getting to the new world slowly

It's been a year since I wrote about Video Chat for elder parents over OS X and 17 months since I started using Google Video Chat. It's been a mixed experience since due to poor reliability and spectacularly poor usability.

Google has updated the video engine recently, and we've updated our home machines, so during a visit to my parents I retested a link between my mother and I in Montreal and Emily and Ben in St Paul.

I used the superb Logitech QuickCam Vision Pro at both ends -- it's a vast improvement over the built-in iSight cameras on my MacBook and our home i5 iMac.

My mother's home has only a 128 kpbs uplink and a 1 mbps downlink (videotron basic - it tests out near the marketed rates). I suspect our image was pretty degraded by the slow uplink, but the quality of Emily and Ben's image and voice was superb. It was a promise of things to come.

The usability remains execrably bad. Either Google is intentionally slowing adoption or they should start randomly selecting San Francisco tourists to do their user interface design. We'll know Google is serious, or has found a good tourist, when a user can save a named shortcut to their desktop, click on it, and connect to a remote client.

We're getting to the new world of high quality realtime video/voice connectivity, but it's darned slow. At the current rate we'll be there around 2012.