Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gaming Google reviews?

I'm staying at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel for the Strata 2012 conference. It has some good features, but, for a geek, it has a problem. The room wireless connectivity is feeble, and the old wall ethernet port is disabled.

This isn't a demand problem -- the signal is simply very weak in my room. It's a typical big hotel problem; the Courtyard's can manage it but the big guys can't. Still, this is Silicon Valley after all. How can they get away with it? Isn't their Google Maps site full of complaints?

Well, no. Because they don't exist on Google Maps. You can't leave a review. The Hyatt's current location is occupied by a 'closed' site:
Westin-Santa Clara: 5101 Great America Parkway, Santa Clara, California
That facility was presumably refurbished and rebranded to create the current Hyatt-Regency. There's no problem finding the Hotel on Google of course -- even the (supposedly) unpaid listing is #1. It is a bit hard to find on Google Maps however -- if you don't know the address.

So is the hotel's invisibility diabolical scheming to better manage reviews? A happy accident? Free rooms to Google execs? Am I the first geek to ever notice this and lodge a notification with Google's map listing? [1]

It's a minor mystery.

[1] I suspect it's a happy accident and I'm the first person ever to lodge a notification. The greater mystery is how the Hyatt could do a major geek-oriented refurb (outlets built into the bedside table) and blow the wireless.

Update:  Since I'd actually complained in a blog post, my conscience forced me to call the front desk and give them a chance. They fixed the ethernet (disconnected cable, broken port - bet someone else was fighting it) and noted the poor wifi signal.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Americans Elect - another try at GOP 2.0

Unsurprisingly, given the current state of the GOP presidential primary, people who'd prefer to vote GOP are advocating third party equivalents. This endorsement is from a Marketarian venture capitalist ...

A VC: Americans Elect (Fred Wilson)

Yesterday my partner Albert and I sat down with the people behind Americans Elect. For those that don't know, Americans Elect is an online third party movement. In their words, "Pick A President, Not A Party."...

Fred and  his kin assert the usual 'false equivalence' claim that both parties are equally dysfunctional. Sorry, that's not true. Team Obama is a good representative of a reason (data + logic, including evaluation of political realities) based implementation of social compact ("Branch I") values for a multicultural nation. The 2012 Dems are about as healthy as political parties get in an era where voters tolerate widespread corruption.

The problem, of course, is with the GOP. It has fallen into a political death-spiral where its survival depends on tribes that lack a common framework for interpreting reality. Some cleave to particular religious doctrines, others to secular tribal beliefs. The modern GOP is the party of unreason.

Obviously, this is bad. It's bad because the GOP has quite a good chance of taking full control of government. It's bad because a weak GOP will lead the Dems to destroy themsevles - and we'll have no government at all.

We all need need GOP 2.0, a reason based representation of Branch II values, a party that speaks for the powerful, the incorporated, the status quo, the authoritarian impulse and all those wary of change and disruption. Americans Elect is a part of the process of finding GOP 2.0. I wish them luck; we need this process to succeed.

American obesity and the public schools - one anecdote

We have three children in the St Paul MN public school system. It's an urban public school system, but statistically above average.

We don't have that many complaints really. We've had some very good teacher-child combinations and some mediocre ones. Our children's ethnicity, talents, and temperaments cover a wide range; a teacher who does well with one child may do less well with another. Some classrooms are easier to handle, some harder. Sometimes the principal is doing well, sometimes they're looking for another job. Improving quality in education is a lot like improving quality in healthcare -- it's a culture-building process that requires years of patient focus and stable funding. Humans are bad at that sort of thing.

We don't have that many complaints -- but we do have an observation about schools and exercise. As we've all heard ad nauseum, Americans are obese behemoths that will soon sink the continent [1]. Maybe that's what did in Atlantis.

So, since American schools are tasked with everything, one might imagine they'd do things to encourage athletic activity. And our schools do -- in the elementary schools.

After elementary school though, things change. There are only so many fields and rinks and coaches -- and "elite" [2] sports consume them all. American high school sports resemble American society -- the elites do well, the masses not so well. There are no equivalents of the 'fun' or 'club' sports found in most American colleges. Given available budgets and facilities, supporting recreational non-elite exercise would require defunding competitive teams. Think 'Title IX' for the non-athlete.

Defunding competitive sports would not go over well. So, in normal times, this wouldn't be a consideration. After all, America fails miserably at the far more fundamental task of providing textbooks and teachers to all public schools [3].

These are not normal times, however. Obesity really is a serious public health problem, and, for better and for worse, public schools get the assignment -- along with zero-increment financing. Are there any examples of public schools that do this well?

[1] In reality, recent data suggests we're reaching some kind of obesity maximum. Since we're driving less every year obesity might even decrease.
[2] Teams and activities that are competitive at the inter-school level. 
[3] One of America's great failings is that schools are largely funded through local taxation. It's a recipe for lifelong suffering for a large number of Americans, and a colossal waste of national talent.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Strata big data Santa Clara - should be interesting

I'll be in Santa Clara CA next week (2/27-3/2) attending the Making Data Work: Strata 2012 - O'Reilly Conference.

I believe this is the first non-healthcare conference I've ever attended [1], and it will be my first visit to the heart of geekdom. Big data is fashionable these days, and it's always fun to attend fashionable things. Lots of interesting commercial and ethical aspects, since the most profitable use of big data seems to be finding ways to exploit the vulnerable.

It's hard on my family for me to be away that long, so I'd better use the time well. I'm hoping to put out a summary post when I'm done.

[1] In my real life I work in applied clinical informatics in the depths of a large publicly traded corporation -- and before that I was an academic family physician and country doc.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Interesting problems: MobileMe, iCloud, Lions and Google

These are interesting times for our home IT strategy. Recent Apple changes are accelerating the demise of the general purpose computer in ways I'm only beginning to understand.

At our home, for example, we have been using MobileMe to manage Contact synchronization between iOS devices (iPhones w and w/o SIMs) and our four Macs. Each of the Macs has multiple user accounts to serve some subset of our family of five. (I'm omitting the Google Apps aspects to simplify - things are complex enough).

This has to change, MobileMe is going away June 30th 2012. It is being replaced by iCloud. iCloud works with most of our iOS devices, but it requires Lion (Mountain Lion soon) on the Macs.

Of our four Macs, only two will definitely run Mountain Lion. [1].

Meanwhile, Google's Anakin Skywalker emulation means we want to back away from our dependency on them, which leaves, unfortunately, even more dependency on the Other Devil.

I think, going forward, the transition over the next year is to:

  • A server (iMac) and 1-2 laptops
  • iPads - eventually one for each child ($$)
  • iCloud (yech)

I'm glum, but I don't see how I fight this. The old G5 iMac with the decaying (delaminating?) display may go to anyone interested in a machine that can run MacOS Classic. The Dual USB laptop will stay Snow Leopard and be a kid's homework machine.

[1] Lion is such a mess I've been restricting it to a single device that came with it. It's unlikely that Mountain Lion will work on our Core 2 Duo plastic body MacBook with integrated Intel graphics, though there are rumors that Apple may add some coverage. It appears even Apple is embarrassed by Lion, and may feel the need to bury it rather than let it quickly.

Update 2/25/12: ironically, one reaction to Apple's Snow Leopard/MobileMe/MacBook triple termination is to turn to the other agent of the DarkSeid - Google. i used Spanning Sync ($25/year) with some success for several years to sync Address Book to Google. We already use Google Apps Calendar for our family including our iPhone calendars. So one solution is to go Google across all our Macs, even on Mountain Lion.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A GOP blog I can read

It hurts me to read blogs or editorials written by 2012 Republicans. Oddly enough people like Santorum don't bother me as much as the Romneys and Douthats and Friedmans [1].

Santorum doesn't cause me intellectual pain because he's logically consistent. His God has told him that Man should have Dominion over the earth, so environmental objections are the work of Satan and most Christians are thus Satan's pawns. Since his God promised no more Floods, Global Warming can't happen. He's an internally consistent Capitalochristian fundamentalist. Yes, he's crazy, but that alone doesn't bother me. Besides, he makes Romney mad, so he serves a social purpose.

Nothing here I haven't said before of course -- except recently a I found a Republican blog I can read.

Well, at least the author ran on the GOP ticket when I voted for him in 1994 (first and last time I voted that ticket). Now, however, Arne Carlson's blogger profile doesn't mention the R or G words. He probably voted for Obama last time. (The state GOP hated him in 1994 and hates him even more now.)

So maybe he's not much of a Republican by post-Reagan standards. Go back to President Ford though, and he'd have been northern GOP [2]. If America is to have a health democracy with a  reality-based GOP 2.0, he might be mainstream GOP again.

For now Arne is my token GOP voice - whatever they may call him

[1] Friedman isn't technically a Republican - yet. Given the flavor of his reasoning though, he's more than half-way there.
[2] Excepting sociosexual issues. Progress is funny. In the 1970s even Romney's current reactionary statements on Gay and Civil Rights would be unspeakably progressive, and Romney would be almost a mainstream feminist.
See also:

Friday, February 17, 2012

GOP jumps off bridge on birth control

At this point, I wonder if a significant number of establishment Republicans in Congress are going to covertly vote for Obama:
How The GOP Went Back To The 1950s In Just One Day | TPM2012 
...  women being told by Republicans that they’re not qualified to talk about their own sexual health, are dressed like “whores” and probably need birth control because they’re so slutty. And this is just in one day... 
... Another Republican operative defended her party for fighting the fight on contraception access, which she said was an important pushback on White House overreach and electoral winner in states with heavy Catholic populations. But she said the “optics” of the Issa hearing were “probably bad.” And she wasn’t thrilled with the image of Republicans that the likes of Santorum and Friess were presenting. 
“Some will see it as reinforcing the impression a lot of people have of Rick Santorum as the candidate straight out of the 1950’s. I bet it gets played up that way,” she said. “I think most of us know you can keep your knees together and still, um, do it.”..

It will be interesting to watch recalculations over the next few months. If Israel decides Obama is going to have a second term, their policies will shift. GOP Senators, who still expect to be in the majority, may want to start doing deals with the President.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

OS X Message: Another nail in the SMS coffin

Two hours after I berate Apple for being unable to do basic maintenance on OS X and their core apps (ex: generations of worthless and unchanging OS-tied iChat), they announce Mountain Lion.

That's pretty good customer response Apple.

There's no mention of iBook for OS X, but a very big part of Mountain Lion is available to download now (for Lion I presume):
Apple - Mac OS X - Download the free Messages Beta.
Download Messages Beta and get a taste of what’s coming in OS X Mountain Lion. When you install Messages, it replaces iChat...
... Send unlimited iMessages to any Mac, iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch.
Launch a FaceTime video call and bring the conversation face-to-face...
Remember telephone companies? The corporations who've been living on the vast profit margins of SMS messaging? Like AT&T, that just raised the cost of its standard data plan by 50%?

This is what they're afraid of. iMessage is why my family no longer pays AT&T $30 a month for text messaging. The pool of people who can use iMessage is growing fast, and now Apple is moving their voice alternative (Skype, etc) a step further.

See also:

Apple's software maintenance problem

By Darwin, Apple has screwed up a lot of Mac software products over the past six years. They can send a rocket ship to Mars, but they can't get manage a Cupertino to LA shuttle.

I don't care if they've put their OS X products on maintenance, I care that they can't do basic maintenance with $100 billion in the (offshore) bank.

What the #$@$ is going on with Apple?

I hope Niall Ferguson is spending that offshore money to fix their maintenance issues.

Update: Ok, that was fast. Messages is a big deal; it's another nail in the coffin of the carrier's SMS revenue stream.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Progress is uneven: digital video mess and Google search

Eight years after my last effort to digitize our home analog video, I discover digital home video is still a mess. I also learn that Final Cut Pro X has a lot in common with Aperture 2 -- it's not ready for production and it's not a robust upgrade path from Apple's consumer products (iMovie HD, iMovie 11).

On the other hand, when I operate my 15 yo SONY camcorder I feel like I'm working on a 1910 automobile. Massive physical controls that require actual muscle input, an array of puzzling buttons ... I'm used to my iPhone.

Radical progress in some areas, but small progress or even regressions in others.

Similarly, vast torrents of social media, yet I have to discover FCPX sucks the old fashioned way - by personally using the free trial version.

More interestingly, I again find that advertising-funded search isn't working. I fear we're experiencing a negative feedback loop. That is, Google's search quality has been slowly deteriorating as Google's services increasingly align with Google's advertising driven business model (ex: if Google downrated pages with advertising quality would improve). Ordinarily that would promote alternatives, but Google is so dominant that it instead discourages the production of quality content... which makes search less useful ...

Update: I revised the last paragraph a half-hour after posting as I began to think through what's happening.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Foxconn vs. Apple?

A copyright troll claims ownership in China of a brand Apple thought it had bought from the original company ... in Taiwan. Chinese IP law allows litigants to block export outside China as well as sales within China ...

Second City in China Halts Sales of Apple iPads - 
... the tablet computers are under “temporary impoundment” from retailers in Xuzhou, a city of 1.8 million people in coastal Jiangsu Province, Ma Dongxiao, a lawyer for Proview’s creditors and the company, said by telephone. State-owned CCTV television confirmed the seizures in Xuzhou. 
News reports Monday said that about 45 iPads had been confiscated from outlets in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province, about 265 kilometers, or 165 miles, southwest of Beijing. Reports on the Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo said that other retailers had removed iPads from displays, though some were selling them under the counter... 
... court in Shenzhen, China, acting in a legal dispute between the two firms, dismissed Apple’s contention that it owned the iPad name in China ... 
... Proview has also made a filing with the General Administration of Customs in China, he said, putting Apple on notice that the company could seek to block the export of iPads, should Proview’s ownership claims be upheld... . 
.. Proview, based in Hong Kong, was once one of the world’s biggest makers of computer displays. But it fell into financial difficulties and was delisted by the Hong Kong stock exchange in 2010. The company trademarked the name IPAD in several countries in 2000, intending to use it for a Web-capable hand-held device, but the project was scrapped, said Mr. Ma, the lawyer for the company. Apple bought the rights to the name from a subsidiary in Taiwan in 2009. 
Proview now contends that that sale did not cover its Shenzhen subsidiary, which had registered the trademark in China. The Shenzhen court rejected Apple’s argument against that in December, but Apple is appealing that ruling. Proview has filed another lawsuit in Shanghai; arguments in that case will be heard this month, Mr. Ma said.
China can be a rough place for US citizens with Chinese features, but this moves things up a notch -- particularly because of the ability to block iPad exports (else Apple would probably rename the device in China).

China being what it is, I wonder if the courts would rule this way if Foxconn had Apple's back. I've been wondering about Foxconn ever since I saw pictures of their MacBook clones a few months ago.

If Foxconn has decided they no longer need Apple, then Apple will find their cash reserves handy. I wonder if the big boys are betting on a stock fall.

Slavery, technology, and the future of the weak

Reading 9th grade world history as an adult I read over the names of the wicked and the great. I round years to centuries, and nations to regions.

Other things catch my eye. Reading of slavery in ancient Rome and Greece, I think of India's untouchables. The theme of surplus built upon slavery runs constantly through human history, until it blends into an industrial model of market utilization of the "The Weak".

Yeah, progress happens. I'd choose a minimum wage job in Norway, or even in Minnesota, over slavery.

So what's next? In a globalized post-industrial world, does the labor of the "Weak" have sufficient value to support a life of health and balance? If it does not, if within the framework of the post-AI world 20% of the population is effectively disabled, then what do we do?

Slavery was one answer to the problem of the weak. Industrial and agricultural employment was another. If we are fortunate, we will provide a third answer.

See also:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

My iPhoto miscalculation - whitewater world

iPhoto is dying.

That much is clear. iPhoto 11's launch bug problems followed the pattern of the past decade. Unlike past releases though, iPhoto 11 lost important capabilities -- just like iMovie and Final Cut Pro X regressed from prior versions.

That's bad, but what's worse is that, after seven years of sort-of trying, Aperture is still not an adequate iPhoto replacement.

Bad on bad news, but the real sign of a dying platform is the echoing silence. When users stop complaining, a software platform is dead.

Fortunately I had planned from this the very beginning. I knew, nine years ago, I was taking a big risk putting my photos and data into an Apple product. Even then Apple had a reputation -- it didn't worry much about customer data. I figured Apple might abandon iPhoto, but I also figured the Mac community would come up with a migration solution.

I was wrong. There's no migration to Lightroom, there is no exit from iPhoto that preserves data.

Where did I go wrong? I missed this ...

Of funerals, digital photos and impermanence — Tech News and Analysis

... Apps like Instagram and Path, both of which I love, actually make this problem worse instead of better in some ways. They are great for sharing quick snapshots of a place you are visiting or someone you are with or what you are eating — and you can share those easily to Flickr and Facebook and Tumblr and lots of other platforms (more than 26 photos are uploaded to Instagram every second). But do you want to save all of these for a lifetime, along with the ones you took of your new baby or your sister’s wedding? Probably not. So again, there is a filtering problem....

I didn't imagine that geeks would basically give up; overwhelmed by rapidly changing technologies. I didn't anticipate that the 'prosumer' computer platforms would die instead of reforming. I didn't imagine that OS X would go into maintenance mode. I didn't imagine a technology regression of this magnitude.

I expected rough waters, I didn't expect whitewater.

See also:

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ancient Rome in a nutshell

One of my weekly pleasures is writing up adapted history notes for a special needs high school student. I love doing it; his 9th grade history book (Ellis and Esler, World History, Prentice Hall) is well written and lines up fairly closely with the adult material I consume, including In Our Time's superb history curriculum. The exercise is filling the background gaps in my spotty knowledge of today's version of world history.

It's not hard to write the digests in a form he can use with his assignments. I'm surprised there aren't adapted versions of these school texts. Perhaps someone will do them using Apple's new iBook toolset for the creation and distribution of low cost textbooks. Heck, I'd do it, but the list of things I need to do is rather long.

I particularly enjoyed Chinese history, until that exercise it had seemed impenetrably complex. This week was Ancient Rome. I was struck by the role of population growth, climate instability, large scale migrations, public health breakdown and epidemic spread, and economic inequality and government corruption in the fall of Rome. Nothing familiar about that!

For your reading pleasure -- the adapted version of 9th grade Roman History in a medium-sized blog post. It's more or less written for something between a 3rd and 5th grade reading level.

Ancient Rome: 500 BC to 500 AD

Key Ideas

  • Rome was and is a city in a region we call the Italian Peninsula.
  • Long ago the people of the city of Rome controlled many lands. We call all of this ‘The Roman Empire’.
  • Rome is still around today! It is the capitol of modern Italy.
  • Christianity started in Rome
  • Today’s Europe was very influenced by Rome’s Empire
  • The Romans took over from the Greeks. Rome became powerful as Greece was getting weaker.
  • We divide Roman history into 3 parts:
    • Republic: 500 BC to about 0 AD. The best part of Roman history. Good government, healthy culture.
    • Empire: 0 AD to 200 AD. Rome is very powerful, ruled by dictators (Emperors). Rome depends more and more on slavery, stops developing new ideas.
    • Decline: 200 AD to 500 AD. Rome is powerful but troubled and falling apart.


Rome’s Empire included everything around the Mediterranean sea and then all of modern France and the southern part of modern England. Rome was the center of the Empire, it is in the brown box below. Today we call that land Italy.


Major Achievements of Ancient Rome

Rome had a very great impact on the history of Europe and the Mediterranean.

Rome learned a lot from the Greeks. When Rome conquered Greece it did not destroy Greek knowledge and culture. Rome admired the Greeks. They preserved Greek knowledge and spread it around. They made Greeks Roman citizens and helped Greek scientists and doctors.

Rome had many great writers. Rome developed the Stoic philosophy.

Roman developed their own style of Art and Buildings (architecture) and learned how to make big and strong bridges and buildings and roads. Romans invented ways to carry water into Romain cities and how to get rid of human urine and stool (plumbing).  This meant Roman cities could grow large with less disease.

Romans learned to make very good maps, and to avoid the spread of diseases.

Rome developed a strong system of laws. Roman laws are the basis of American, European, and other legal systems today.

The Roman-Jewish religion of Christianity spread all over the world and continues today.

The Growth of Roman Christianity

Christianity started in a Roman land called Judea, the land of the Jewish people. It started as a Jewish sect (cult) based on the idea of a Savior or Messiah called Jesus Christ born around the year 0 AD. Our calendar is based on the year of Jesus Christ birth.

Christianity grew because it allowed non-Jews to join. Christians were supposed to protect one another and when it developed there was a lot fighting and danger. So it was safer to become Christian.

Christians believed it was important for rich and powerful people to help poor and weak people. Even slaves could become Christian. There were a lot of poor people in the Roman empire after 100 AD so Christianity grew quickly.

Christianity also took some ideas from Roman Stoicism, so many powerful Stoics liked it.

Why did the people of ancient Italy (Rome) build a lasting empire?

An Empire is a large area with many languages and cultures controlled by a single nation for many years. Rome controlled one of the largest and most long lasting Empires in human history.

There were several things about of Rome’s geography, neighbors and culture that helped them build a big empire.

Geography: The Italian Peninsula (land of ancient Rome) is a long narrow region of land surrounded on 3 sides by the Mediterranean with a mountainous area in the North. It is protected from invasion. In the peninsula there is good land for growing food. The peninsula is easier to travel across than Greece.

Neighbors: The people of Rome were the Latins. They came to the Italian Peninsula around 800 BC. They learned a lot from the Etruscans who were there before. They learned how to write and they learned Etruscan engineering. They also learned a lot of things from the Greeks.

Government: The Romans invented a system of government that worked well for hundreds of years. Even if a powerful ruler died, the nation of Rome would continue. Their system balanced the power of the rich and the power of the average person.

Culture: Roman women were still limited by male power, but they could contribute more to society than Greek women. Roman society made better use of the talent of women. Unlike Greek girls Roman girls learned to read and write. Even poor Romans learned to read and write.

Leadership: When Rome conquered a country they let the people live and manage their affairs. The people could become Roman citizens. They learned the Roman language. Rome took taxes but protected them.

Why did the Roman Empire Decay and Fall?

After about 0 AD Rome was ruled by dictators (Emperors). This form of government has problems. People got to be Emperor by military power or friends or family, not because they were good at governing. Good Emperors were replaced by Bad Emperors. Emperors could do what they wanted, nobody could prevent bad choices.

Emperors took money and gave it to their friends and family.  They used more and more slavery.

Rome had more poor people and more slaves. Instead of improving things and trying new ideas they used more slaves. Rome needed more money and slaves to keep going, so Rome conquered more lands.  Even as Rome got bigger it was getting socially weaker. Rome depended on slaves now, but slaves did not like Rome.

At the same time human populations were getting bigger around the world and the world’s climate was also changing. It changed a lot between 250 and 500 AD, sometimes hotter, sometimes drier, sometimes colder. There were some years with good weather and good harvests, then years with bad years and bad harvests. During bad years lots of people would move around looking for better lands.

Growing numbers and changing weather meant lots of people were forced to move from the North and East of Europe and Asia into Italy, looking for land and food and a place to live. They were constantly invading the Italian Peninsula even as Rome was getting weaker.

In the Italian Peninsula more migration and more population and less government meant it was easier for diseases to spread. Huge plagues, like the Black Death, attacked Rome.

PS. OS X Pages pastes very well into MarsEdit!

Apple's Potemkin Parental Controls (iOS edition)

When the NYT's NYT's Tedeschi admitted to me that he'd missed the boat on iOS Parental Controls I was hoping for a correction to his NYT mobile porn article. He'd written "For parents who are uncomfortable letting children browse such content on an Apple device, the first step is to tap the Settings icon... Enable Restrictions and ... switch Safari to Off..".

Of course this doesn't really work. Last week someone I know discovered the joy of porn videos as viewed through Flight Update - with Safari and YouTube restricted. He finished off his 200MB data allowance in two half hour car drives.

How did he do it? It's not hard. In Gate Guru, for example, the 'legal' page has a link at the bottom. Tap on the link, and you get an embedded WebKit browser. Tap again to get to USA Today, from there it's a couple of taps to Google search.

This isn't a new problem. The WebKit back door has been in iOS since Apps came on board. Most non-Apple Apps have these back doors, including many educational apps. Almost any app that accepts advertising will link to an external site. The safest approach is to only allow Apple's software, but in practice many non-free games are fine.

I suspect most kids are very familiar with using this backdoor; I've seen children with 3rd percentile IQs find and exploit these loopholes in a few minutes. Adults have more trouble, it took Bob Tedeschi a few tries to find the loopholes. I suspect we're more bound by preconceptions of what's possible. (Who'd think to hide explicit emails in the Spam folder, for example?)

Apple's Potemkin parental controls are really only effective at placating parents. It seems to work though, I've been the only one complaining.

See also:

Update 3/5/12: Just demonstrated this with, which my son would love to use. There's a twitter share icon. From that it took me a couple of taps to the twitter blog. That's  rich source of links, so from there I hopped to Amazon and from Amazon I had the web. All with Safari disabled of course.

Why did Sean Carroll write 'From Eternity to Here'?

Newt Gingrich has written many Amazon book reviews. One of them was on a physics book I'd read, maybe Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos -- though I don't see the review there now.

I don't remember which book, but I remember Gingrich claimed he'd finished it in a few days of easy reading. Given Gingrich's historical record he's either the world's smartest fool or a master of bull poop. Modern physics books are a hard slog for the non-genius, non-physicist. I've read a few of them, and I'm always impressed by how much work it is to integrate the concept space, and how insane the working scientist authors are to write these complex tomes.

Why, for example, did Sean M. Carroll [1], write From Eternity to Here? The guys an untentured Caltech theoretical physicist -- he's supposed to be cranking out grants and papers. I mean, I love the book, but this isn't survival behavior. His blogging is sinful enough, but the book is another level.

Part of the reason might be getting some of his personal theories more attention. Carroll believes cosmological inflation, while "true", simply "begs the question". That is, while cosmological inflation explains some properties of the observable cosmos, it raises even more questions about the state of the pre-inflationary cosmos. Carroll believes the physics of entropy is a possible key to that puzzle. In today's physics community this seems to be mildly heretical and probably not a great way to get tenure. [3]

So frustration with the establishment is probably a part of his compulsion, but it's not all. There's a clue to the rest buried in the footnotes [2] ...

273. What would be even better is if some young person read this book, became convinced this was a serious problem worthy of our attention, and went on to solve it.... if you end up finding an explanation for the arrow of time that becomes widely accepted within the physics community, please let me know if this book had anything to do with it.

The work of puzzle solving goes on, from one mortal generation to the next. That's our little way of poking a stick in the Eye of Entropy.

[1] The unrelated Sean B. Carroll is another working scientist author of popular biology books.
[2]  Consecutively numbered - brilliant. Wish everyone did this instead of renumbering each chapter. After reading the core book, go back and read the footnotes. I made the mistake of borrowing this book from the library -- and blowing through multiple renewal periods and fines and so on. Finally, with 30 pages to go, I gave up and bought the sucker. If Carroll ever does another edition though, he ought to include a concept glossary as well.
[3] Most serious books of lay physics, including Greene's work, has this element. Like Greene and other working physicists, Carroll sticks with establishment physics for 90% of the book, then lays out his own ideas with clear warnings that "dragons are here". It's a good practice and it's part of what distinguishes books by reality-based physicists from the flaky side of the cosmos.  Of course in modern physics "reality" is profoundly unreal.

See also:

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Bexarotene clears amyloid plaques in ApoE4 defective mice - and an Alzheimer's review

While it's true that we can cure just about anything in mice (at least once), this is still remarkable ...

BBC News - Alzheimer's brain plaques 'rapidly cleared' in mice

... Scientists at the Case Western Reserve University in Ohio were investigating ways of boosting levels of ApoE, which in theory should reduce levels of beta-amyloid.

They tested bexarotene, which has been approved for use to treat cancers in the skin, on mice with an illness similar to Alzheimer's.

After one dose in [genetically engineered mice with dysfunctional ApoE4] young mice, the levels of beta-amyloid in the brain were "rapidly lowered" within six hours and a 25% reduction was sustained for 70 hours...

What's remarkable is the speed of the result, and that the drug is already FDA approved for another use. That means, although as chemotherapy agent for mycosis fungoides it has nasty side effects, Bexarotene will be very soon studied in humans with advanced dementia. We may find, however, that the drug is primarily useful for people who have remarkably poor ApoE4 directed amyloid clearance.

The role of amyloid in Alzheimer's dementia was well described in a 2010 NYT review ...

Insights Give Hope for New Attack on Alzheimer’s - NYT 12/13/10 - Kolata

... most people with Alzheimer’s seem to make perfectly normal amounts of amyloid. They just can’t get rid of it

... Researchers have also found that amyloid, in its normal small amounts, seems to have a purpose in the brain — it may be acting like a circuit breaker to prevent nerve firing from getting out of control. But too much amyloid can shut down nerves, eventually leading to cell death. That means that if amyloid levels were reduced early in the disease, when excess amyloid is stunning nerve cells but has not yet killed them, the damage might be reversed....

... With Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Bateman discovered, beta amyloid is made at a normal rate, but it hangs around, draining at a rate that is 30 percent slower than in healthy people the same age. And healthy older people, in turn, clear the substance from their brains more slowly than healthy younger people...

... beta amyloid seemed to be part of a nerve cell feedback loop. A nerve will start firing, but under some conditions, the signal can get too intense. Then the nerve releases beta amyloid, bringing the signaling down to normal levels, at which point the nerve stops releasing beta amyloid... [especially in the 'default network']

... There may be another way to protect nerves from too much beta amyloid, and it involves a different protein linked to Alzheimer’s. Problems with it show up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients later, after there has already been a buildup of beta amyloid.

The protein is tau, an integral part of normal cells. It becomes tangled and twisted in Alzheimer’s, after cells are already dying, looking like strands of tangled spaghetti...

... New studies by Dr. Lennart Mucke, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease there, and others suggest that tau facilitates beta amyloid’s lethal effects. In genetically engineered mice and in laboratory experiments, the researchers found that without tau, beta amyloid cannot impair nerve cells...

...Amyloid was in ...  the default network. It is used not only in daydreaming but in memory and in the sense of self...

... The default network is costly for the brain to run, using huge amounts of glucose, Dr. Raichle said. And one indication that a person is getting Alzheimer’s is that in scans, the brain’s glucose use is markedly lower. The observation that Alzheimer’s attacks the default network, then, explains the observation that a low use of glucose by the brain is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

... Beta amyloid synthesis increased when they were awake, when the default network is most active, and decreased when they slept...

... the less active the person’s brain, the less beta amyloid it made. That made the researchers ask whether something similar was happening during sleep — the default network was less active, so perhaps less beta amyloid was being made. If so, the implication, which Dr. Holtzman is studying, is that people who are sleep-deprived might be at greater risk of Alzheimer’s.

I am prone to believe in the sleep loss/dementia connection, I wrote about that in 2008 and more emphatically in 2010.

The role of ApoE4, exercise and dementia was also highlighted two weeks ago in the NYT ...

How Exercise May Keep Alzheimer's at Bay - NYT 1/18/2012

... Most of those who carried the APOE-e4 gene displayed much larger accumulations of amyloid plaques than those without it.

Unless they exercised. The carriers of the gene who reported walking or jogging for at least 30 minutes five times a week had plaque accumulation similar to that of volunteers who were e4-negative. In essence, the APOE-e4 gene carriers mitigated their inherited risk for developing Alzheimer’s by working out. Or, as the study authors wrote, a “physically active lifestyle may allow e4 carriers to experience brain amyloid levels equivalent to e4-negative individuals.”..

... An overwhelming majority of the people in the study were sedentary, and for them, an inactive lifestyle seemed to be accelerating the accumulation of amyloid plaques. Those with the e4 variant who rarely or never exercised had the most plaques, putting them at heightened risk for the memory loss of Alzheimer’s in the years to come.

From another angle, another recent article points to a prion like spread of malformed tau protein as a critical component of Alzheimer progression. (see tau references in the 2010 article) ...

Alzheimer’s Spreads in the Brain Like a Virus, Studies Find - NYT Kolata 2/1/2012

Alzheimer’s disease seems to spread like an infection from brain cell to brain cell, two new studies in mice have found. But instead of viruses or bacteria, what is being spread is a distorted protein known as tau...

The studies, done independently by researchers at Columbia and Harvard, involved genetically engineered mice that could make abnormal human tau proteins, predominantly in the entorhinal (pronounced en-toh-RYE-nal) cortex, a sliver of tissue behind the ears, toward the middle of the brain, where cells first start dying in Alzheimer’s disease. As expected, tau showed up there. And, as also expected, entorhinal cortex cells in the mice started dying, filled with tangled, spaghettilike strands of tau.

Over the next two years, the cell death and destruction spread outward to other cells along the same network. Since those other cells could not make human tau, the only way they could get the protein was by transmission from nerve cell to nerve cell...

... beta amyloid, which accumulates in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients, forming hard, barnaclelike plaques. But beta amyloid is very different from tau. It is secreted and clumps outside cells. Although researchers have looked, they have never seen evidence that amyloid spreads from cell to cell in a network.

Still, amyloid creates what amounts to a bad neighborhood in memory regions of the brain. Then tau comes in — some researchers call it “the executioner” — piling up inside cells and killing them...

... it may be necessary to block both beta amyloid production, which seems to get the disease going, and the spread of tau, which continues it, to bring Alzheimer’s to a halt...

These are exciting times in dementia research, particularly given the discouraging state of the art only three years ago.

Alas, good news can't come fast enough for the 40+ set - our brains start running downhill fast at around age 45 [1]. While we wait to see if anything will come of this, our take away lessons are ...

  • Avoid head injury.
  • Exercise. If somehow you know you have problematic ApoE4 this seems utterly essential. Probably good for all of us.
  • Sleep 8 hours a night. (Speculative, but I bet this will be true).

[1] Yes, raising the retirement age is a sick joke.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

How nations die: GOP mandates 2+1=4

The modern GOP is in the final stages of a form of political dementia:
Bruce Bartlett: Tilting the Budget Process to the G.O.P. -

On Feb. 3, the House passed H.R. 3582, the Pro-Growth Budgeting Act of 2012...

... The legislation would require that the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation do a “dynamic” analysis of major legislation – defined as that with a gross budgetary impact greater than 0.25 percent of the gross domestic product. Such an analysis would calculate the impact on real G.D.P. growth, the capital stock and labor supply.

The dynamic calculation would be supplementary and not replace the current official scoring methodology, but the obvious long-term goal is to require official revenue estimates to incorporate “Laffer curve” effects in order to make it easier to cut taxes and harder to raise them...

... this fits into a pattern – since getting control of Congress in 1995, Republicans have often abolished institutions that they couldn’t turn into puppet organizations for promoting their agenda...

... Republicans don’t really care about accurate revenue estimates; they just want them to show that tax cuts pay for themselves, so they can pass more of them without constraint. As my fellow Economix contributor Simon Johnson has noted, the corruption of the agencies that produce budget data is a crucial cause of Europe’s debt crisis.
For the modern GOP, Orwell's 1984 is an operations manual.

We're living in a race condition. Which will die first -- America or the GOP?

If it's the GOP, there's a good chance it will be reincarnated as a rational party. If it's America, not so good.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Adapting to Minnesota's new winter

The streets were clear today, the sun was up, and the temperatures were the 20s (F). A fine day for a bicycle ride in Minnesota's year without winter.

Next winter I'll probably buy winter bike shoes and studded tires and plan to ride year round.

That's how short term adaptation works in Minnesota, where climate change is already personal. We'll be doing a lot more over the next few decades.

Beyond that, given current trends, the prognosis is poor.  I'm relatively sanguine about that. I mean, if we can't figure out something simple like CO2 emissions, then we weren't going to make it as a sentient species anyway. Might as well get it over with.

That's probably a century away though, lots of time for billions of us to experiment with short term adaptation. So, for the Twin Cities, what can we expect from our winters over the next decade? In particular, what can we expect in terms of Real Cold (RC, temp < 5F), Skiable Snow (SS, >8" base), and Skateable Ice (SI)?

Of course I don't really know. But that won't stop me from making some half-educated guesses. I expect winter in 2021 to be rather like this winter. That is no RC, no SS and no SI.

Between now and 2021 I expect 3-5 weeks total of Real Cold. We will complain bitterly -- because we'll be unused to it. I expect 3-4 winters of SS and 5-6 winters of SI.

That means we really can't rely on outdoor ice skating, sledding or nordic skiing. On the other hand, we can't dramatically reduce our snow clearing capacity because every year or two we'll still get dumped on. We can't plan on winter road work either, but some years it will be possible. Some years an exurban commute will be fine, other years it will be intolerable.  We'll still have to pay for alley snow clearance -- even for years when there isn't any snow to clear.

That's a big change. I can't estimate the economic impact, but I suspect the unpredictability will mean increased costs (but also more jobs?) from 2011 to 2023. After that, as snow accumulation becomes truly infrequent, costs will fall.

It's easier to predict what we'll need to do to adapt to an unpredictable winter. We'll do what Portland does. That means more community recreation centers with indoor soccer, indoor tennis, indoor golf and indoor swimming (all of which will increase our CO2 emissions). It means even more year round bicycling, perhaps with winter adapted bikes (corrosion-proof drive chains, internal gearing, wide studded tires, etc). Maybe more arenas ($$) and refrigerated ice rinks. St Paul and Minneapolis will invest more in clearing bike trails. Probably more of us will take holidays in other states ...

Any other thoughts on near term adaptations for Minnesota winter?

See also:

I particularly appreciated today's Salon article by Bill McKibben:

  • Salon: Climate change denial's new offensive

    "... the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by “16 scientists and engineers” headlined “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” The article was easily debunked...

    ... Of the 16 authors of the Journal article ... five had had ties to Exxon...

    ... If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons — five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground. 

    ... in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil (and people in places like Venezuela)..."

Monday, February 06, 2012

Siri struggling

This time around, I got my 4S early in the adoption cycle. So I remember when Siri mostly worked.

Since then, Siri works, at best, about half the time. She's overloaded. Even when I get through processing seems more error prone, perhaps because accuracy has been sacrificed to manage capacity.

Since the initial results were pretty decent, I assume Siri will eventually work. We've seen this before; it has taken about two years for Facetime to become a useful solution.

For now I've learned to avoid Siri during the US evenings. During the mornings results are much better. I've also learned to break my requests into stages, allowing Siri to scope her language processing in smaller chunks. To create a reminder I start with 'remind me' ... then I wait ... then the reminder text ... then the time ... then I have to wait for the confirm.

Processing aside, there is obvious room for improvement. We need, we REALLY need, a way to tell Siri to give up and start over again. We need a way to tell Siri 'yes and confirm' so we can skip the confirmation dialog. I assume Apple omitted these commands because they don't market well - they expose the limitations of 2011 Siri. Just like Graffiti exposed the limitations of 1990s handwriting recognition. Time to give a bit so we can get better results from a useful tool.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Google and Facebook: how Chrome supports life with an dully evil corporation

Just three years ago Facebook's Gordon's Evil Score was 12, and Google was a mere 6. Today, 3 months after Google's day of infamy, I'd give Google 10, Facebook 8, and Apple a 6. (Philip Morris gets 15. Evil is relative.)

These days Facebook is less evil than Google 2.0, probably because Facebook has been on pre-IPO best behavior. Post-IPO I expect 'em to hang with Google in the gray zone of generic AT&T-style corporate badness. After all, both companies package and sell us.

So why is Facebook's badness boring, and Google's badness Bad?

It's because we always knew Facebook was evil. I never gave FB anything I couldn't walk away from. If Facebook went away tomorrow, I'd be slightly sad.

Google though, Google once made me smarter. Our family uses Google Apps. My shared images are in Google's web albums. A lot of my external memory is Google dependent (so losing Google Reader shares felt like a mini-lobotomy). Google search, born in the day of the ad-infested Portal, was beautiful.

Google though, Google was going to make free the world's knowledge.

Google though, Google wants to build a sentient AI. Do we want our first sentient AI born of our bad parents?

That's why Google's Page-driven race to the Darkseid matters a lot more than Facebook's perennial villainy. We loved Google, we trusted Google,  we married Goole and made Data together -- and we were chumps. (Some of us are still in denial.)

What now? Well, Google hasn't turned into Philip Morris -- and it probably never will. They've just become as evil as most publicly traded corporations -- and a lot of us work for those. Besides, we can't completely divorce. Think of the Data. [1]

So I'm still living with Google. Yeah, I did try Bing. Have you ever used Bing? Go and give it a try. I'll wait here for a while. Right. Even EvilGoogle is better than Bing.

I'm living with Google, but I'm keeping my distance. Coincidentally (?) Chrome recently made this much easier.

Chrome now supports client-side identity management. On my Mac the Preferences:Personal Stuff menu has a "Users" section. A "User" is simply a separate identity, where an "identity" is a set of cookies, credentials, bookmarks, cache and so on. Optionally, a "User" on Chrome can be associated with a Google account, and Chrome/Google credentials and bookmarks sync between those accounts. These don't have to be Google+ accounts [2]. If you link a Chrome User to a non-Google+ account, you're basically using GoogleMinus. That's what I do.

In Chrome I currently switch between 5 Users as needed, each with a paired Google account. One user is my original TrueName "113" Google account. I deleted that account's G+ Profile, so this "User" gives me something of an old-style GoogleMinus experience. This account owns my Google Docs, my Email, my Calendar, and way too many Google properties to remember (including the remnants of Google Reader social.)

I use my G+ John Gordon identity with Blogger [3] and Google Reader (I moved GR subscriptions over to this account). I have yet another identity associated with my corporate work, another with our family domain, and then 1-2 more to make it easy to switch between the kid's Google accounts [4].

Google Chrome has made it easier to live with Google 2.0, but it's an uneasy relationship. Evil Facebook is fine -- because I don't care. Evil Google is not a good long term relationship. I'm seeing other services now, services like and the shared items I post there. It will take decades, but I'm hoping true alternatives to Google will emerge. Alternatives that charge real money for their services. That's how I'll know they're worth being with.

[1] It's no coincidence that when Google turned evil, the Data Liberation team fell silent.
[2] For now, though in future that might be impossible to avoid.
[3] Google's blogs can have multiple contributors, so I just made John Gordon an admin on blogs that started with John F. as admin. Early on Google forbade pseudonyms in G+ accounts; now they only require that pseudonyms "appear" to be well formed, generic names not associated with celebrities or historic figures.
[4] All through our family domain. They don't know the passwords.

See also:



Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Translating brain electrical activity into word sounds

Under some conditions, researchers are able to translate brain electrical signals into concepts/sounds which can be expressed using English words.

From the description I think the analysis focused on sound generation, so it was downstream from concept generation (which might express words before we were conscious of thinking them).

I have been following this research from a distance, and I knew the 'lie detectors' were getting pretty good, but this genuinely surprises me.

Science fiction writers are now frantically revising works in press. Charles Stross is probably banging his head on the wall right now.

Stunning, really. I'd been hopeful that I'd avoid the inevitable Singularity*, and that my kids would have good lives before it hits. Now I'm less optimistic.

* My favorite explanation for the Fermi Paradox.