Saturday, March 21, 2015

The world needs a global heat map of nation-specific stress levels

I new Russia was stressed, but I didn’t know it was this bad …

G.M. Exiting Russia, for the Most Part -

… Because of the collapse of the ruble in December, Russians’ incomes have plummeted: The average salary peaked in 2013 at $800 a month, and is projected this year to be about $400…

That line is buried halfway down in a NYT article on GM closing a Russian plant. I wasn’t able to confirm it in a quick search, and it’s likely ruble denominated salaries are roughly flat, but, still, that’s an amazing shift. Russia is a poor country, and given massive wealth inequality and corruption, most Russians are extremely poor by wealthy world standards. Russia remains a failed state and it’s getting worse.

Which reminds me, again, that we need a worldwide heat map of national distress levels to understand the planet we live on. Something we can glance at to see current stress levels, and click on a nation to get underlying information.

I can’t find anything like this today (maybe the CIA has one?). Instead I find World Stress Map is a “global compilation of information on the present-day stress field of the Earth’s crust”, while a search on “Distressed World Map”  finds simple maps rendered in a “distressed” style of aged paper.

That’s not what we need. We need an interactive “heat map” of nations that shows, at a glance, stress level indicators. I’m thinking of a 100 point linear scale of collapse probability, but probably it’s a non-linear “richter” type scale.

It’s not hard to come up with candidate metrics.  Economics, ecology, political science and history are full of possible indicators. Active civil war (Syria scores 100), changes in per capita income and income distribution, deterioration in air and water conditions (Egypt!), shifts in “tribal” (ex. white nationalist) power, instability in neighbors, military threats, deflation measures, employment churn, demographic transitions (birth rates, age skews), shifts in savings balances, rise of women in patriarchy — it’s basically the same list once used to model the rise of Al Qaeda.  

Someone like Randall Munroe could put up a first draft. Alas, he has a firm rule - “I don’t use submitted comic ideas”. Still, it’s the kind of thing that he does so well… 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Gordon's Laws of Acquisition updated: The Device Limit

It wasn’t the MacBook Air’s SSD problem confounded by encryption usability problems and the “Update Needed” ghost user. [2]

It wasn’t the cognitive gymnastics that connected inability to access iCloud video to Apple’s newly announced device limits. (Though once I connected this to weeks lost to iTunes sync bugs I was probably getting there.)

It wasn’t that our still warranteed AirPort Extreme Base Station acts like it has a failing power supply.

It was, finally, when the MacBook Air ran into a cyclic reboot problem. That’s when I did the math.

Our family owns 5 iPhones [1] and 3 Macs (and various iPods, but I’ll ignore those). Child #1 and #3 have school iPads. About ten devices across five users, and each user has iCloud and Google Accounts (more than 13 Chrome Profiles).  So maybe 20 or so things each of which has a 98% chance of being problem free in any particular week. How often should we have a trouble-free week?

That would be (0.98)^20, or about 67% of the time. So about 1 week in three I should run into one or more significant debugging problems. That’s pretty much what I see. I have other things I’d rather be doing.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this kind of complexity crunch. Until 2005 we were primarily a Windows XP household with a single lonely iBook. XP was emphatically not problem free 98% of the time. Maintenance was eating way too much of my life. I bought a G5 iMac, retired the XP machines, and, after I made it through some grim early days with the G5, life got a lot better.

So what can I do in 2015? XP was pretty bad by 2005 — I don’t have such an easy target today. I’ve already cut out a lot of services; we use a selective mix of Google Apps and iCloud with a handful of other high quality high reliability services (Pinboard, Feedbin) that only I use.

The answer, I think, is fewer devices. So instead of buying an iPhone and an iPad, buy an iPhone 6s+. If I want a new MacBook, I have to find something comparable to get rid of. If the WiFi is bad in a part of the house, I don’t buy a WiFi extender; I just don’t use the WiFi there. Over time, work towards fewer devices and services — sacrifice power for reliability.

Oh, yeah, and no (useless) Apple Watch.  Life is too short.

Fewer devices means it’s time to modify Gordon’s Laws of Acquisition (2008)…

  1. Never acquire anything until you really, really, want it -- three separate times.
  2. The real cost is the lifetime cost, from acquisition to disposal … think subscription — not ownership. In the modern world we don't own, we subscribe to something that's neither inert nor living. The purchase price is often the least of things.
  3. Don't buy on promises or potential. Acquire for real value now. Anything in the future is a plus (or, sometimes, a minus).
  4. Don't buy more than you can consume now. We all have fixed resources to acquire and adopt new things; acquisitions that sit on the shelf depreciate very quickly.
  5. (new) Every purchase must reduce maintenance time and complexity, typically by replacing a less reliable device or by substituting one device for two devices.

 See also

[1] I won’t pay for anything else. The thought of trying to maintain any other type of phone gives me hives.

[2] My blog post is still in draft. That was just 3 weeks ago.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Dinitrophenol and obesity: The NYT's curiously sparse coverage from 1933 to 1938

via Corante I came across Dinitrophenol and obesity: an early twentieth-century regulatory dilemma. - NCBI. It’s a modern article on a pre-FDA weight loss drug that worked very well.

Very, very well. Except for the death part.

Reminds me of 2015 herbal remedies, but at least most of those contain no active ingredients at all.

Since it’s from the 1930s, I thought I would be fun to look at what the NYT was writing about the drug at the time. I didn’t find as much as I expected, and at least two articles in the archive couldn’t be retrieved, but it’s interesting to look at what turned up…

TimesMachine: November 26, 1933  British Scientists Report Progress With a New Drug for Reducing Weight -

Encouraging results … dinitro-ortho-cresol … five times more powerful than dinitrophenol which American physicians have been trying out clinically … speeding up rate of metabolism … Dinitrophenol is a very potent and dangerous substance … Dinitro-ortho-cresol is said to be safer …


TimesMachine: May 26, 1935 Drug Lowers Body Heath -

Something rare in medicine, a drug that lowers temperature… dinitrosalicylic acid … attracted attention because of wide medical interest in dinitrophenol… has found wide use for reducing weight … It speeds  up metabolism … temperatures of animals dropped 7 degrees F


TimesMachine: October 13, 1935 Dangers in Diets (book review of Diet and Die) -

.. better-known systems of reducing such as Salisbury system, fasting, vegetarianism, low protein diets, the banana and skimmed milk diet … Hollywood Eighteen Day diet, the Rocine, Hauser and Hay diets…

… thyroid and dinitrophenol preparations … fairly fast and sure methods of committing suicide …


TimesMachine: June 7, 1936 Deformities laid to reducing drug -

… use of dinitrophenol, and the inhalation of naphthalene given off by ordinary moth balls, were described to the American Eugenics Association as causing congenital deformities…

… Women who used the reducing drug… may expect their children to be born with eye cataracts, atrophied livers or other defects…

The rest of the Eugenics Association meeting was about hereditary deformity and subnormality. A resolution to comment on the risks of dinitrophenol failed because the association dealt with heredity, not pharmacology.


TimesMachine: September 9, 1938 F. T. C. Attacks ‘Weight Reducer' in First Test of New Powers -

The Federal Trade Commission, acting for the first time under a provision … gives … commission limited powers in stopping false advertising …order restraining Hartman chain … sales of … 281 … alleged to contain a drug which causes … blindness.

… contained a drug known as dinitrocresol …

… Senior surgeon .. stated physicians had “practically abandoned” the use of dinitrocresol or its milder congener, dinitrophenol, because of the risk that use of these drugs would tend to the formation of cataracts or even death …

Well. There’s just too much here. To unpack it all would take a rather long NYT Magazine. For example …

  • Why doesn’t the NYT have more articles on dinitrophenol? It was being used in the US in 1933, but by 1938 it was already out of use because of widespread cataracts. In the course of that entire time there are less than 8 articles? (2-3 of which couldn’t be retrieved.) Did the NYT not cover medicine or health care in the 1930s? Who was writing about this stuff?
  • WTF was dinitro-ortho-creso/ dinitrocresol? How could anyone think a drug that was 5x more powerful was “safer”? I assume that was mangled journalism, but what the heck did DOC do?
  • Acetylsalicylic acid is better known as aspirin. First discovered in 1763 and widely used by the the 1900s. So what was the deal with dinitrosalicylic in 1935? Dropped temperatures 7F?! That’s one wicked poison.
  • In 1935 vegetarianism was a considered a potentially lethal fad diet. The Rocine diet must be related to “Eating for Beauty” by Victor Rocine, 1929 including “How Iron Food Makes a Woman a Social Magnet”. (I couldn’t quite figure out what Racine was into, but he didn’t like fried foods).
  • The Eugenics Association was just like you’d think.
  • Why cataracts?! That’s intriguing. What was it about metabolic decoupling that led so remarkably to cataract formation? Do we understand this? Was there some kind of general accelerated aging of select tissues? Really, that’s quite fascinating.
  • There’s no mention of the FDA, which FDR established in 1938. The Colman article says it took the early FDA to stop dinitrophenol, but the NYT 1938 article says use had been abandoned before the FDA was established. Instead (like today, thank you Senator Orrin @#&#$ Hatch) it was the FTC that blocked sale of a herbal remedy on the basis of false advertising. Interesting the false part wasn’t efficacy (it worked!), it was claims that the active ingredient was still popular with physicians.

Really, one could write a book. Incidentally, methamphetamine was a very popular diet drug around this time. American had fairly  effective diet drugs from 1930-1950. Maybe that’s why we seemed thinner then…