Monday, December 20, 2004

Life Interrupted

Very interesting article on how technology allows us to be interrupted more often and makes it harder to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Gloria Mark, a UC-Irvine professor, has been studying attention overload and multitasking among workers in a financial-services office. So far, she's found that the average employee switches tasks every three minutes, is interrupted every two minutes and has a maximum focus stretch of 12 minutes.

Closely related to trying to do two things at once is "task-switching," which is when you flit between functions. Meyer, who heads the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory, has tested this practice and says the results are clear: Constant nibbling from one task to another both slows and dumbs you down. It also is fatiguing and potentially harmful in terms of long-term health, and the cost of that split second you lose when you're talking on the phone and a traffic obstacle arises.
I wish they had done a study between those that are interrupted all the time and those that aren't and what the productivity difference between the two is. I bet those that put up barriers and don't allow themselves to be interrupted end up being more productive.
Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus himself uttered in 100 B.C., "To do two things at once is to do neither."
I like it. Well except for when I am walking and chewing gum. I think I can handle that much.
Blogs — personal Web sites where people share information, commentary and feelings — have filled part of the void, keeping their audience current on topics of specific interest. But as Brown says, if all your information is tailored to what you want to know, you may miss that which you don't know you want to know, and should.
Very interesting thought. Almost sounds Rumsfeldian. Gotta be on the lookout for the unknown unknowns, that which you don't even know that you don't know.
Daniel Hamermesh, a University of Texas economist, studied time-stress perceptions among higher-income households in the U.S. and four other industrialized countries. His study — "Stressed Out on Four Continents: Time Crunch or Yuppie Kvetch?" — found that the better off one is, the more he or she seems to complain about the time pinch. How can this be? Your opportunities and expectations grow as you grow wealthier, he theorizes, but time, which is finite, doesn't keep up.
At a certain point, time becomes more valuable than money. And yet those that are successful at work don't seem to want to exchange more salary for more vacation time. Or maybe they do but the work "requires" that they are there all the time.

via Pacific Northwest Magazine


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Time for New Economic Metrics

Since the time of Adam Smith, we've used the wealth of nations as a proxy for the well-being of nations. We measure whether life is getting better by checking whether the good numbers (GDP, personal incomes, and so on) are going up and the bad numbers (unemployment, inflation, and so on) are going down. However, over the past half century, something strange has happened. The US's per capita GDP - the value of all the goods and services a nation produces divided by its population - has nearly tripled, but American well-being hasn't budged. We've grown almost three times richer but not one jot happier. There's ample evidence that in all postindustrial societies, material wealth and broader happiness are no longer closely in sync.

True, the federal government maintains a $2 billion, 10,000-person statistical apparatus to track the blips and dips of our national well-being. But here's the problem: The current economic gauges don't tell us enough about how the economy is really doing. And just as important, how the economy is doing no longer tells us enough about how the nation is really doing.

Of course, critics may scoff that it's silly to calculate gross national happiness (a metric now used in Bhutan). But it's no sillier than spending nearly $150 million a year collecting agriculture statistics, as the US does, even though 98 percent of our workforce long ago transitioned to "nonfarm" pursuits.
via Wired


Saturday, December 18, 2004

Motivation for Most Successful Movie Ever

Ever wonder what James Cameron's motiviation was for making Titanic, the most financially successful movie of all time? Was he driven to make what he hoped would be the best movie ever? Did he have a burning desire to tell a story? Did he want to create the most elaborate set for a movie ever?

Turns out he just wanted an excuse to dive the wreck of the Titanic:

I have a confession to make. I made the movie Titanic because I thought I could talk the studio into letting me dive and film the real ship, 12,500 feet down in the North Atlantic. I was an avid wreck diver, and it was the ultimate shipwreck. Making the movie itself was actually secondary in my mind. So when I proposed the movie, I pitched the Titanic dives as a marketing hook - and the studio bought it. I figured, if I got killed, it would be before all the sets were built and the actors hired, so the studio wouldn't be out much.
via Wired


Global Corruption Barometer

I think that instead of focusing on spreading "freedom" and democracy, the US should try and increase transparency and reduce corruption around the world.

The Global Corruption barometer put out by Transparency International is a good ranking of which countries are doing well and which aren't. And it looks like the US has some work at home to deal with as well.

In half the 64 countries surveyed, political parties were rated by the general public as the institution most affected by corruption, the report' authors said. According to the survey carried out by the polling company Gallup International, Ecuador rates worst in its population's es for political corruption, followed closely by Argentina, Brazil, Peru and India.

The countries considered to have the most honest parties in terms of corruption were Singapore, the Netherlands and Albania.

Transparency International, a Berlin-based non-governmental organization which evaluates and ranks corruption around the world, released its 2004 Global Corruption Barometer in Paris today to coincide with the UN International Anti-Corruption Day.

via Indian Express


Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Ecobot Eats Dead Flies for Fuel

I had always thought that in the future humans would integrate more and more with machines and become cyborgs. But now I am starting to think it could go the other way, machines will integrate more and more biological agents and become alive.

Doing away with solar cells and batteries, their robot Ecobot II has a stomach consisting of eight microbial fuel cells, or MFCs, that contain bacteria harvested from sewage sludge. The microbes break down the food into sugars, converting biochemical energy into electricity that powers the robot. With bacteria breaking the food down and a type of robotic "respiration" in which air provides oxygen to the fuel cells to create useful energy, the whole system mimics real digestion as closely as possible. It is currently being fed a diet of dead flies and rotten apples.

That opens up a whole new range of possibilities, Greenman said. "You could take the robot and nail it to a tree and still be able to get flies or food to it or have it use tree sap, maple syrup and all the rest. You might get tree sap to run it and you could sense all kinds of things -- pollution, temperature, have some that work in the water."
via Wired News


Hate Something, Change Something, Make Something Better

Bizarre advertising video by Honda in UK. Check it out: swf file.


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

'Podcast' Your World

The idea behind a podcast is simple, yet brilliant. Instead of using portable MP3 players such as the iPod only for listening to music, new software called iPodder allows one to download prerecorded radio shows onto the devices.

At present, terrestrial radio stations tend to structure their playlists to offend the least number of people so that audiences will stay tuned for the next group of commercials. That format has alienated listeners who crave more eclectic, less predictable fare on the airwaves.

Many observers expect podcasts to become as diverse and niche-oriented as the world of blogs. In theory, listeners will be able to pick and choose from a menu of shows that cater to their interests. They'll also be able to subscribe to downloads that provide news from the stock market or updates on developments in a particular industry. And one will soon be able to access podcasts on a standard-issue cellphone.

"I venture there's about 33 million MP3 players out there, and after Christmas when everyone has their new cellphone, there's another 600 million cellphones that have MP3 capability - and they have a network connection," says Adam Curry, who along with Winer developed iPodder.

There's a term that sums up the future of podcasting: niche radio.
Blogging was 1.0. Podcasting is 2.0. Video Podcasting will be 3.0. Just as blogging allowed individuals to publish and add their voice to the world of written journalism, Podcasting will allow the same for the spoken word. Podcasting can be used as a Tivo for radio, but it allows more than that. It allows anyone to create their own "radio station". It allows users to just listen to what they want to listen to when they want to listen to it.

Due to blogging and RSS, Yahoo now gives you access to 200,000+ "news" sources. Soon, instead of having access to 20 radio stations, you will have access to 1,000s of podcasts.

Video podcasting will allow individuals to compete with TV stations. Niche programing will be available to the nth degree (just in case the 200 channels you get weren't enough). This TV over IP will allow anyone to have access to the TV screen just as blogging and RSS gives anyone access to the written word. The Comcasts of the world better beware. While they are pushing more content from the top down, the video podcasters will be pushing more content from the bottom up.

via Christian Science Monitor


What is the True US Savings Rate?

So, the U.S. savings rate is near a low point. What’s causing this? Isn’t net-worth rising? Yes it is. Doesn’t that mean savings should also be rising? Not at all. Ask yourself this question: If someone wins the Super Lotto, how much is he going to save out of his next paycheck? The answer is not very much.

This leads to an important question: What constitutes true net savings? Is it the actual savings (an income statement) or the change in net worth (a balance-sheet item)? When one thinks about it, both will result in a higher net worth. If you take the sum of private savings and the change in net worth as a percent of GDP as the approximation of the true savings rate, by my account, that rate is on the order of 10 to 15 percent today — within the historical range.
Interesting point. I agree that asset growth is just like savings and should be seen as such. I am not quite sure how he is estimating his 10-15% a year though. And I am not convinced that we shouldn't worry about the huge trade deficits and low savings rate.

via National Review


Sunday, December 12, 2004

Brooks: Good News About Poverty

Developing countries are seeing their economies expand by 6.1 percent this year - an unprecedented rate - and, even if you take China, India and Russia out of the equation, developing world growth is still around 5 percent.

In its report, the World Bank notes that economic growth is producing a "spectacular" decline in poverty in East and South Asia. In 1990, there were roughly 472 million people in the East Asia and Pacific region living on less than $1 a day. By 2001, there were 271 million living in extreme poverty, and by 2015, at current projections, there will only be 19 million people living under those conditions.

What explains all this good news? The short answer is this thing we call globalization. The poor nations that opened themselves up to trade, investment and those evil multinational corporations saw the sharpest poverty declines. Write this on your forehead: Free trade reduces world suffering.
While I think there could still be a good debate over free trade vs. fair trade, I agree with his basic point. There have been many articles condemning the call centers in India taking jobs away from the US. But these are exactly the kind of jobs we want India to create. These jobs don't ruin the environment, they require a good education and are using people's brains rather than their manual labor. In the US we lose one crappy paying job, in India they create a good paying job that is estimated to create 3 other jobs in the economy. I see no better way to reduce Indian poverty then to continue the outsourcing. I see no better way to alleviate world poverty than to continue the outsourcing.
Economists have been arguing furiously about whether inequality is increasing or decreasing. But it now seems likely that while inequality has grown within particular nations, it is shrinking among individuals worldwide. The Catalan economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin looked at eight measures of global inequality and found they told the same story: after remaining constant during the 70's, inequality among individuals has since declined.
Another interesting point. For all that we hear about American inequality going up, maybe what is happening is that globalization is causing localized inequality while promoting global equality. I had previously writen that we should not ask if Wal-Mart is good for the US, we should ask if it is good for the world. Same thing here. The question is not whether economic inequality is decreasing in the US, but whether if it is decreasing in the world.

via New York Times


The Fine Art of Questioning Bush

If you had one question to ask Bush, what would it be? I had pondered this question and was glad to see this article on how the reporters do it. Ideally, you need a question where no matter how he answers it, it tells you something. If he answers yes it means something, if he answers no it means something and if he won't answer it it means something.

CNN's John King said a rookie mistake is to ask convoluted questions, allowing Bush to answer only the part he wants to.

Every now and then, though, the press has its day. The master is John Dickerson of Time magazine, who has knocked Bush off script so many times that colleagues have coined a term for cleverly worded, seemingly harmless, but incisive questions: "Dickersonian."

He once asked Bush whether Muslims worship the same Almighty as Christians. (Bush said they did, prompting a stir among evangelicals.)
Excellent question. If he answers yes, he upsets the evangelicals, no he gets the Muslims madder at us (if that is possible) and deferring the question makes him look weak.
In April, Dickerson asked one of the most famous questions of Bush's presidency: "In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you'd made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You've looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?"
Another great question. Bush went for the defer option and looked like a man who couldn't admit a mistake. Had he answered yes, he would have had to admit a mistake, and had he said no he would have looked even worse.

via The Seattle Times


You Vote What You Watch

Chris Matthews recently released stats on how people voted based on what media they took in. Interesting stuff.

Fox News71%22%
Talk Radio62%36%

I happened to watch the "no spin" master himself Bill O'Reilly after the election and he explained the fact that 89% of his watchers predicted that Bush would win was because his viewers were smarter than others and could predict better than others who the winner would be. Excellent "no spin" work, Bill.


Urban India Piling on the Pounds

Nice to see that not only are we outsourcing our work, we are also outsourcing our eating habits. And so much for the idea that a vegetarian diet is always healthy.

While city dwellers account for only 5 percent of India's billion-plus population, they consume 40 percent of the country's fat intake, according to The Times of India.

And in the same country where 4 million people died of famine in 1943, the Indian Medical Association reports that one in three residents of Delhi is now obese. Residents of the capital consume 20 percent more fat and 40 percent more sugar than they did 50 years ago.

Nationwide, 31 percent of urban Indians are either overweight or obese, according to professor Anoop Misra, a specialist in metabolic diseases at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the country's leading medical school.
via The Seattle Times


Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Herring Break Wind to Communicate, Study Suggests

The study's findings, now published online in the U.K. science journal Biology Letters, reveal that Atlantic and Pacific herring create high-frequency sounds by releasing air from their anuses.

"We know [herring] have excellent hearing but little about what they actually use it for," said research team leader Ben Wilson, a marine biologist at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre, British Columbia, Canada. "It turns out that herring make unusual farting sounds at night."

Wilson and his colleagues named the phenomenon Fast Repetitive Tick, which makes for the rather mischievous acronym, FRT. But unlike the human version, these FRTs are thought to bring the fish closer together.
But, can they burp Jingle Bells?

via National Geographic


Friday, December 03, 2004

Unnatural Abundance

Soon after Europeans arrived, European diseases killed 90 percent or more of the hemisphere's original inhabitants - at least 30 million people, and possibly 100 million, according to most recent estimates.
I had no idea that the % was that high, or that that many Indians died. That is a massive number that dwarfs the plague.
Above the Rio Grande, Indians' principal land-management tool was fire, used to create and maintain open, game-friendly forests and grazing lands. Native pyromania created a third or more of the Midwestern prairie; fire kept Eastern forests so open that the first European colonists reported being able to ride through the woods in carriages. In California, Oregon, Texas and a hundred other places, Indian burning governed the conditions under which other species thrived or failed.

When disease carried away native societies, the torches went out. Trees and underbrush erupted in ways that had not been seen for millennia, filling in areas kept open by Indian axes and Indian fire. "Almost wherever the European went, forests followed," wrote the ecological historian Stephen Pyne. Far from destroying wilderness, in other words, European settlers created it - only it was a peculiar, unprecedented kind of wilderness, shot through with European invaders and characterized by population outbreaks from species that had formerly been uncommon.

Bison, elk, moose and pigeon were all kept down by Indians - the big mammals by hunting, the pigeon because Indians both ate it and competed with it for the nuts on which it depended. The huge herds and flocks seen by Europeans were evidence not of American bounty but of Indian absence.
I had no idea that the untamed west was actually the re-untamed west. It is nice to know there if there is ever a biological weapon that wipes out the majority of humans, at least it will be good for the environment.

via New York Times


Can you be a Frequent Flyer Environmentalist?

Or maybe a better title is: Can you be an anti-Hummer Frequent Flyer?

A while back I was reading an article on Congressman Jim McDermott and it struck me as odd for him to call himself a Prius driving environmentalist and at the same time brag about the 3 million frequent flyer miles he had wrung up. Doesn't the same oil that fuels Hummers also fuel airplanes?

Then I was listening to NPR and heard noted environmentalist David Suzuki. He had just taken his family of 4 to Dharmasala to talk with the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks about science and the environment. Good, cool stuff, don't get me wrong. But I was thinking, how much fuel did it take for him and his family to experience this? It is a 16,000 mile round trip from Canada to India. The average airline gets around 50 passenger miles/gallon. That is 320 gallons of fuel per person or 1,280 gallons for the entire family. That is a lot of gasoline! To put it in perspective, the average American drives around 12,000 miles a year. A H2 Hummer gets around 10 mpg. Driving a Hummer for a year would use 1,200 gallons. So taking the family on the trip to India used more fuel then driving a Hummer for a year!

If Jim McDermott is flying 100,000 miles a year, that uses as much fuel as a Hummer driven 20,000 miles a year. Now who looks like the environmentalist?

I am a big fan of Tom Friedman. Recently he did a nice rant on Hummer driving "patriots" and where all the oil money that fuels their cars ends up. But what about jet set journalists? Where does all the money that pays for the fuel in their airplanes go? Flying from NYC to Baghdad is 11,000 miles round trip. 220 gallons if you are flying commercial, but much more if you are flying in a military plane with few passengers. How many madrassas have you personally supported with your flying Tom?

In a way it reminds me of dieters who are meticulous in counting every calorie, well except for those late night snacks when you are so hungry that you have to eat. Those calories "don't count". Why is it that environmentalists that are so anti-Hummer have no problem with people flying around the world?

I think everyone should be cognizant of all of the fuel that they personally use (both directly and indirectly). There should be labeling laws that require transportation providers to tell you how much fuel your trip is using. Manufacturers and merchants should be forced to put the amount of oil used on all products. Then consumers could determine how much oil they use and figure out the best way to reduce it. Instead of trading in that Hummer for a Prius, you might save more oil by reducing your trips overseas from 4 to 3. The goal should be to minimize your usage of oil however possible.


Thursday, December 02, 2004

Brain Wave Sensing Device for Prevention of Drowsiness at the Wheel

By means of magnetic field sensors located on the cranium, the device transmits data to a PDA – a small, pocket computer – which analyses the kinds of waves registered and acts in consequence. The sensors are located in a cap which maintains a certain pressure on the skull and which has a small device at the back which receives information from the sensors and directs them to the PDA. The connection between both is by radio-frequency as employing wires might be dangerous in case of an accident.

The device, which analyses the brain waves of the driver, has been designed by the students at the Public University of Navarre and presented at the XVIII Technical Seminar on Automotion.

The authors of the project estimate that it the device would cost 4,500 euro, currently a very expensive item.
Sounds pretty cool. You wear a cap that is analyzing your brain waves via bluetooth (or some similar wireless technology) to a PDA. It can tell if you are falling asleep. I wonder if they could also tell other brain states like optimal concentration, peaceful meditation, aggravasion. It would be cool to wear it all the time (assuming they could make it fit inside a baseball cap) and take a look at how your brain was functioning througout the day. Getting sleepy around 2-3pm? Now you know exactly how bad it is. Or what if students wore this to class and teachers could see which students are on the brink of falling asleep? Lots of cool potential apps.

via Basque Research


Retiring in Chile

I remember going to NYC and watching the nightly local news. I was amazed that there was absolutely no news from anywhere outside of NYC. It was as if the rest of the world didn't exist. Whereas my local news would broadcast the results of all MLB games that went on that day, in NYC you just got the Yankees and the Mets.

I think we are in a similar bubble when it comes to the US. How much news do we get about how other countries tackle problems and compare that with our ways? The two biggest issues we have to deal with in the US are health care and social security. When we are reforming social security, why don't we look at how other countries have tried to solve this problem and figure out what works and what doesn't? Pete Peterson wrote a great book Gray Dawn where he did such a comparison.

That is why I was glad to see this editorial in the NYT about Chile's social security system.

Chile's Social Security Reform Act of 1980 allowed current workers to opt out of the government-run pension system financed by a payroll tax and instead contribute to a personal retirement account. What determines those workers' retirement benefit is the amount of money accumulated in their personal account during their working years. 10 percent of their pretax wage is deposited monthly into a personal account. Workers may voluntarily contribute up to an additional 10 percent a month in pretax wages. The invested amounts grow tax-free, and the workers pay tax on this money only when they withdraw it for retirement.

Upon retiring, workers may choose from three payout options: purchase a family annuity from a life insurance company, indexed to inflation; leave their funds in the personal account and make monthly withdrawals, subject to limits based on life expectancy (if a worker dies, the remaining funds form a part of his estate); or any combination of the previous two. In all cases, if the money exceeds the amount needed to provide a monthly benefit equal to 70 percent of the workers' most recent wages, then the workers can withdraw the surplus as a lump sum.

A worker who has reached retirement age and has contributed for at least 20 years but whose accumulated fund is not enough to provide a "minimum pension," as defined by law, receives that amount from the government once funds in the personal account have been depleted. (Those without 20 years' contributions can apply for a welfare-type payment at a lower level.) Workers with enough savings in their accounts to buy a "sufficient" annuity (50 percent of their average salary, as long as it is 20 percent higher than the minimum pension) can stop contributing and begin withdrawing their money.

Since the system started on May 1, 1981, the average real return on the personal accounts has been 10 percent a year. The pension funds have now accumulated resources equivalent to 70 percent of gross domestic product, a pool of savings that has helped finance economic growth and spurred the development of liquid long-term domestic capital market.
Sounds pretty good. This is the direction I would like to see the US go. What were the costs that they had to deal with?
We used five "sources" to generate the extra cash flow needed for transition: a) one-time long-term government bonds at market rates of interest so the cost was shared with future generations; b) a temporary residual payroll tax; c) privatization of state-owned companies, which increased efficiency, prevented corruption and spread ownership; d) a budget surplus deliberately created before the reform (for many years afterward, we were able to use the need to "finance the transition" as a powerful argument to contain increases in government spending); e) increased tax revenues that resulted from the higher economic growth fueled by the personal retirement account system.
That is pretty expensive. It will be interesting to see how the Bushies deals with this. Obviously c) is not an option. Option a) is pretty difficult given how much Bush has already run up the debt and deficit, how foreigners own 40% of this debt and may not want to finance any more given the dollar is falling. b) will require raising taxes and I think this is the way to go, but politically I don't know if the Bushies will do it. d) is good, but cutting more is going to be tough while we are paying for 2 wars and increased homeland security. e) I'm not sure how much we are going to gain from this given that our growth is already good and is spurred on by consumers who will now be forced to save instead of spend.

via New York Times


Tuesday, November 30, 2004

USB Port to the Brain II

This is version 2.0 of the kick ass BrainPort (see previous post). You wouldn't know it from the picture, but that if you put that retainer (lower picture with black background) in your mouth and it allows you to use the BrainPort technology wirelessly. You just put your toungue up against it and you get your sight back or what ever you are using it for. The Navy Seals are using it for navigation information. Sweet. I bet you even hook up a Daredevil like module to see in the dark. Or maybe a Superman like x-ray vision, or that Sony video camera that lets you see through peoples clothes. Whatever, they all rock.

Explanation of the device in Real Audio (3 min 42 sec).
Warning: never before has such kick ass techology been described in such a lame ass low tech way. Guys, have you ever heard of editing the video?


Japanese Kamasutra


Japanese Sex manuals via Boing Boing.

This completely explains 2 things:

  1. Why the Japanese birth rate is so low.

  2. Why you should never allow the Sony technical manual writers do a sex manual.


Too Much Stress May Give Your Genes Gray Hair

A team of researchers has found that severe emotional distress - like that caused by divorce, the loss of a job, or caring for an ill child or parent - may speed up the aging of the body's cells at the genetic level.

The researchers found that blood cells from women who had spent many years caring for a disabled child were, genetically, about a decade older than those from peers who had much less caretaking experience. The study, which appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also suggests that the perception of being stressed can add years to a person's biological age.

And when the researchers compared the DNA of mothers caring for disabled children, they found a striking trend: after correcting for the effects of age, they calculated that the longer the women had taken care of their child, the shorter their telomere length, and the lower their telomerase activity. Some of the more experienced mothers were years older than their chronological age, as measured by their white blood cells.

The researchers also gave the women a questionnaire, asking them to rate on a three-point scale how overwhelmed they felt by daily life, and how often they were unable to control the important things in their lives. The women who perceived that they were under heavy stress also had significantly shortened telomeres, compared with those who felt more relaxed - whether they were raising a disabled child or not.

She said the group had plans to test the effect of meditation, mindfulness training and yoga on both perceived stress and telomere length.
via New York Times


Monday, November 29, 2004

Let Them Study Here

Last year, the number of foreign students at American colleges and universities fell for the first time since 1971. Recent reports show that total foreign student enrollment in our 2,700 colleges and universities dropped 2.4 percent, with a much sharper loss at large research institutions. Two-thirds of the 25 universities with the most foreign students reported major enrollment declines.

Educating foreign students is a $13 billion industry. Moreover, the United States does not produce enough home-grown doctoral students in science and engineering to meet our needs. The shortfall is partly made up by the many foreign students who stay here after earning their degrees.

Equally important, however, are the foreign students who return home and carry American ideas with them. They add to our soft power, the ability to win the hearts and minds of others. As Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, "I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here."
The admission of foreign students to the United States has been controversial in the past. During the cold war, the Eisenhower administration negotiated a student exchange program with the Soviet Union. Opponents argued that our Soviet enemies would misuse the student visas to send spies who would steal our scientific and industrial secrets. That did occur, but it was not the most important effect of the program.

In the first exchange in 1958, one of the students was a young Communist Party official named Aleksandr Yakovlev. He was strongly influenced by his studies of pluralism with David Truman, the Columbia political scientist. Mr. Yakovlev eventually went home to become the director of an important institute, a Politburo member, and one of the key liberalizing influences on Mikhail Gorbachev. A fellow student, Oleg Kalugin, who became a high official in the KGB, said of the visa program: "Exchanges were a Trojan horse for the Soviet Union. They played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system. ...They kept infecting more and more people over the years."

Starting in the 1950's, more than 110 American colleges and universities participated; some 50,000 Soviet academics, writers, journalists, officials and artists visited from 1958 to 1988. Imagine if the visa hawks had prevented Mr. Yakovlev and his like from entering the United States.
What if instead of restricting visas from countries with known terrorists, we allowed even more students into the US?

via New York Times


Hydrogen Production Method Could Bolster Fuel Supplies

You hear a lot of talk about the "hydrogen economy". I think this is misleading and many people are under the impression that instead of drilling for oil, we just drill for hydrogen. But you don't just collect hydrogren, you have to produce it from some other energy source. Hydrogen should be thought of as a battery, a way to transport and store energy. And how is hydrogen as a store of energy?

Experts cite three big roadblocks to a hydrogen economy: manufacturing hydrogen cleanly and at low cost, finding a way to ship it and store it on the vehicles that use it, and reducing the astronomical price of fuel cells.
Pretty crappy. So instead of thinking of the "hydrogen economy" we should be thinking of the "renewable energy economy". We need to replace coal and oil with solar, wind and nuclear. We need to find a way to store and transport the renewable energy. If Hydrogen is the most economic and technically feasible way to do it great. If another gas like methane, a fluid like methanol or some sort of solid salt is better fine use that.
The heart of the plan is an improvement on the most convenient way to make hydrogen, which is to run electric current through water, splitting the H2O molecule into hydrogen and oxygen. This process, called electrolysis, now has a drawback: if the electricity comes from coal, which is the biggest source of power in this country, then the energy value of the ingredients - the amount of energy given off when the fuel is burned - is three and a half to four times larger than the energy value of the product. Also, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions increase when the additional coal is burned.
Nothing quite like getting your clean hydrogen from dirty coal and loosing 80% of the energy in the transfer.
The idea is to build a nuclear reactor that would heat the cooling medium in the nuclear core, in this case helium gas, to about 1,000 degrees Celsius, or more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The existing generation of reactors, used exclusively for electric generation, use water for cooling and heat it to only about 300 degrees Celsius.

The hot gas would be used two ways. It would spin a turbine to make electricity, which could be run through the water being separated. And it would heat that water, to 800 degrees Celsius. But if electricity demand on the power grid ran extremely high, the hydrogen production could easily be shut down for a few hours, and all of the energy could be converted to electricity, designers say.

The goal is to create a reactor that could produce about 300 megawatts of electricity for the grid, enough to run about 300,000 window air-conditioners, or produce about 2.5 kilos of hydrogen per second. When burned, a kilo of hydrogen has about the same energy value as a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline. But fuel cells, which work without burning, get about twice as much work out of each unit of fuel. So if used in automotive fuel cells, the reactor might replace more than 400,000 gallons of gasoline per day.
The Chinese are working on such a nuclear reactor as this Wired article explains. If we can create hydrogen from a nuclear plant at an economic price, this sounds like a good way to go.
Another problem is that the United States has no infrastructure for shipping large volumes of hydrogen. Currently, most hydrogen is produced at the point where it is used, mostly in oil refineries. Hydrogen is used to draw the sulfur out of crude oil, and to break up hydrocarbon molecules that are too big for use in liquid fuel, and change the carbon-hydrogen ratio to one more favorable for vehicle fuel.

Mr. Herring suggested another use, however: recovering usable fuel from the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada. The reserves there may hold the largest oil deposits in the world, but extracting them and converting them into a gasoline substitute requires copious amounts of steam and hydrogen, both products of the reactor.
Interesting idea to use the hydrogen not directly, but to hydro-crack petroluem tars to create gasoline. You could put one of these mini-nuke plants next to a tar-sand refinery in Alberta and get gasoline out.

via New York Times


Wednesday, November 24, 2004

"Brain" in Dish Flies Simulated Fighter Jet

Scientists have grown a living "brain" that sits inside a petri dish and can fly a simulated F-22 fighter aircraft.

The brainchild of Thomas DeMarse, a biomedical engineer at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the "brain in a dish" is a collection of 25,000 neurons taken from the brain of a rat that are connected to a computer via 60 electrodes.

Neural network research may be setting the stage for the creation of so-called hybrid computers based on biological systems.

As the neurons begin to receive information from the computer about flight conditions—similar to how neurons receive and interpret signals from each other to control our bodies—the brain gradually learns to fly the aircraft.

"The neurons will analyze data from the computer, like whether the plane is flying level or is tilted to one side," DeMarse said. "The neurons respond by sending signals to the plane's controls to alter the flight path. New information is sent back to the neurons, creating a feedback system."
via National Geographic


USB Port to the Brain

This is fricking amazing. To be able to "see" through your toungue. Or to feel, or to hear. The plasticity of the brain is truly incredible. More examples at the BrainPort website.

The BrainPort is nearing commercialization. Two years ago, the University of Wisconsin patented the concept and exclusively licensed it to Wicab Inc., a company formed by Dr. Bach-y-Rita to develop and market BrainPort devices. Robert Beckman, the company president, said units should be available a year from now.

"We see with the brain, not with the eyes," Dr. Bach-y-Rita said. "You can lose your retina but you do not lose the ability to see as long as your brain is intact."

Mr. Weihenmayer, a 35-year-old adventurer who climbed to the summit of Mount Everest two years ago, recently tried another version of the BrainPort, a hard hat carrying a small video camera. Visual information from the camera was translated into pulses that reached his tongue.

He found doorways, caught balls rolling toward him and with his small daughter played a game of rock, paper and scissors for the first time in more than 20 years. Mr. Weihenmayer said that, with practice, the substituted sense gets better, "as if the brain were rewiring itself."

Blind people who have used the device do not report lasting effects. But they are amazed by what they can see. Mr. Weihenmayer said the device at first felt like candy pop rocks on his tongue. But that sensation quickly gave way to perceptions of size, movement and recognition.
The potential applications to this are unlimited. X-ray vision, being able to see in the infrared spectrum, night vision, super hearing. I wonder if our brains could even handle echo-location ala dolphins and bats. But of course the billion dollar idea is entertainment and video games.
Sensory substitution technology may eventually help millions of people overcome their sensory disabilities. But the devices may also have more frivolous uses: in video games, for example.

Dr. Raj said the tongue unit had already been tried out in a game that involved shooting villains. "In two minutes you stop feeling the buzz on your tongue and get a visual representation of the bad guy," he said. "You feel like you have X-ray vision. Unfortunately it makes the game boring."
via New York Times


Food Without Fear

In 1984 Americans were spending roughly 8 percent of their disposable income on health care and about 15 percent on food. Today, those numbers are essentially reversed.

If your image of a turkey's life is one of green grass and rolling hills, look more closely. Nearly 300 million turkeys are raised today on factory farms where they live in windowless buildings illuminated by bright lights 24 hours a day. (This keeps the turkeys awake and eating.) The birds stand wing to wing on wood shavings and eat an overly fortified diet that enables them to reach an ideal dressed weight of 15 pounds in 12 to 14 weeks. The most popular breed is the Broad Breasted White, aptly named because these turkeys develop disproportionately large breasts, which makes it difficult for the birds to walk (if they had room to do so) and procreate (assuming they'd want to) without artificial insemination.

So what kind of bird would fit more accurately with our agrarian fantasies? Well, how about one that spends most of its life outdoors? Such birds - called pastured birds - are able to move around freely. Instead of having to be injected with antibiotics to stay healthy, they doctor themselves, seeking out certain plants at certain times of the year for pharmacological reasons. Because they expend so much energy moving around, they also grow more slowly: it takes them a month longer to reach slaughter weight than factory birds, which is one of the reasons pasturing is less attractive to industrial farmers. Scientific research comparing the health benefits of conventionally raised turkey to pastured turkey is scarce, but some work has been done on chickens. A study sponsored by the Department of Agriculture in 1999, for example, found that pastured chickens have 21 percent less fat, 30 percent less saturated fat, 50 percent more vitamin A and 400 percent more omega-3 fatty acids than factory-raised birds. They also have 34 percent less cholesterol.
via The New York Times


Tuesday, November 23, 2004

New Gene Linked to Lighting Up

Scientists believe they have identified a gene that makes some young smokers greatly at risk to nicotine addiction, a factor that also influences the outcome of efforts to wean them off tobacco.

The finger is being pointed at two variants of a gene called CYP2A6, which controls enzymes that clear up nicotine in the liver.

Variants of this gene decrease levels of the enzymes, which means the nicotine is processed more slowly.

As a result, the brain is quickly exposed to high concentrations of nicotine, thus giving the smoker a pleasurable feeling, which is the key to addiction, according to the study, which appears on Tuesday in a British journal, Tobacco Control.
I can't wait for the day when a child will get a DNA test at birth and you will know how susceptible you are to nicotine, alcohol, and other food and drugs. I say that day is 15 years off where everyone can get their DNA sequenced for a reasonable fee.



Monday, November 22, 2004

When a Video Game Stops Being Fun

Interesting look at how unfun it is to work at Electronic Arts making video games.

Putting in long hours is what the industry calls "crunching." Once upon a time, the crunch came in the week or two before shipping a new release. Mr. Kirschenbaum's experience, however, has been a continuous string of crunches.

For around $60,000 a year in an area with a high cost of living, he had been set to work on a six-day-a-week schedule. On weekdays, his team worked from 9 to 10 (that is, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.), and on Saturdays, a half-day (that means 9 to 6). Then Sundays were added - noon to 8 or 10 p.m. The weekly total was 82 to 84 hours.
via New York Times


Saturday, November 20, 2004

Capitalism and Discrimination

During the Frontline show Is Wal-Mart good for America, there was an interesting part when a US TV manufacturer described how Wal-Mart had choosen to support the Chinese companies rather than his company in a price-dumping legal case. Ignoring the merits of the case (the Chinese were found guilty of price-dumping) I want to look at a comment he made:
Why would American companies fight American companies and American jobs unless it was for their own profit?

Sounds like a harsh indictment of Wal-Mart and capitalism in general of being greedy and looking to make money rather than anything else.

But what if we rewrite it slightly:
Why wouldn't American companies fight against non-American companies and non-American jobs unless it was for their own profit?

Still sounds pretty good. But what if we take the same underlying logic and change the the American tribe to some other tribes:

Why wouldn't white companies fight against minority companies and minority jobs unless it was for their own profit?
Why wouldn't Christian companies fight against Jewish companies and Muslim jobs unless it was for their own profit?
Why wouldn't companies run by men fight against companies run by women and jobs for women unless it was for their own profit?
Why wouldn't 1st world companies fight against 3rd world companies and 3rd world jobs unless it was for their own profit?

Now the profit motive looks pretty good. Capitalism is being used to fight racism and sexism and other forms of discrimination. If capitalists are only concerned with making money, it means they aren't concerned about your gender, your sexual orientation, where you were born, or the color of your skin. The only color capitalists are concerned with is green. It doesn't care where you live, or what religion you belong to. It is simply based on maximizing profit and the rate of return.

The irony is that Capitalists are depicted as a greedy old boys club that protects their own. But if you believe that, then you are saying that they take their friendship and tribal identity more importantly then making money. So you can either be greedy, or support your cronies but not both. In order to truly be greedy you must also be non-discriminatory.


Is Wal-Mart good for the World?

I was watching the Frontline show Is Wal-Mart good for America and it dawned on me that I don't really care about that question. What I care about is whether Wal-Mart is good for the entire world.

Ethically and morally, I see the case for doing the most amount of good to the most amount of people. It also seems the worth of a human life is the same, whether that person was born in China or in the US. I can see the ethical argument of trying to help those that are less well off, to try and help the poor rather than the rich. But doesn't that mean if is more important to try and help those Chinese that are living on $1/day then Americans living on $15/hour? If 2 Americans lose their jobs but 4 Chinese gain jobs, isn't this a net benefit for the world? If capitalism and by extension Wal-Mart bring 300 million people out of poverty in China, isn't it worth it even if the US unemployment rate goes up by 1%? If Wal-Mart is good for the world but bad for the US, isn't that still a good thing?

I couldn't come up with a good moral or ethical reason why I should be concerned about just America. Yes, I am an American. But I am also a blue state American which means that I have more in common with blue state Europeans then I do with red state Americans. I work in technology which means I have more in common with Chinese and Indian tech workers then I do with American non-tech workers. Yes humans are tribal, and we want to belong to a tribe. But why should the nation state be that dominant tribe? If a Seattle worker loses a job because the company is moving to Iowa, how is that any different than the job going to Mexico or China?

Looking at it this way, is Wal-Mart good for the world? I don't know. But I would sure like to see a Frontline show dedicated to.


Friday, November 19, 2004

Air Jaws

This photo in Yahoo News reminds me of my favorite documentary of all times: Air Jaws. Flying great white sharks so totally kick ass. I definetly need to sign up for one of Chris Fallows Expeditions. Check out his flying shark photos.


Not in Front of the Children


Those Bake Sales Add Up, to $9 Billion or So

In an informal survey of about 100 of its member organizations by the National PTA, conducted at the request of the reporter, the group concluded that parents and their communities contribute as much as if not more than $10 billion in cash and services to the nation's schools.
Sounds like a lot of money until you realize:
Public elementary and secondary schools claimed nearly $373 billion in federal, state and local revenues during the 1999-2000 school year, federal statistics show. Nearly $9 billion of that came from nongovernmental sources.
Then the $10 billion works out to about 2.5% of all spending. The $373 billion is an important number because it includes government spending from federal, state and local. Too often you see reports just looking at the federal spending on education, which I believe is about $50 billion. $373 billion of a $10 trillion economy puts primary education at about 3.5% of GDP.
Parental giving and fund-raising varies widely by income level. The PTA's for the poorest 25 percent of schools surveyed typically contributed $13 to $68 a student, while the wealthiest 25 percent of schools surveyed typically donated $192 to $279.
I think there is too much emphasis on how much money each school gets and not enough on how much time parents volunteer to the schools. I would really like to see a study about how much volunteer time is given by parents in rich vs. poor schools. Or how much time parents spend helping their kids with school work in rich vs. poor schools. Or how much importance doing well in school is given. The ideas that all schools should perform at the same level is really an absurd one given these underlying factors. I also wonder if all schools did get an equal amount of money, how much difference in achievement would still exist?

via The New York Times


Turning the Tax Tables to Help the Poor

From an accounting standpoint, there is no difference between a direct transfer to the poor and a refundable tax credit. In political terms, one is called welfare (a sure loser) and the other tax relief (an almost certain winner).

For example, the Democrats should advocate making the child tax credit refundable. While it has been expanded under Mr. Bush to $1,000 a child from $600, the credit does not fully benefit poor families who owe fewer taxes than the full credit amount. Making it refundable changes it into a program that is no different than a negative income tax - what McGovernites were proposing back in 1972, while calling it tax relief. Or, if we do end up with a flat tax, why not play a game of political chicken with Republicans by pushing the "no-tax" income exemption as high as possible?

Why not cut the payroll tax? The Social Security payroll tax is the biggest tax burden faced by poor Americans; cutting it would put more money in their pockets. Such a move would also stimulate hiring, since employers shoulder half the burden of the tax. This plan could be kept revenue-neutral by merely raising the amount of wages subject to the tax - now capped at $87,900.
Good ideas.
The military is now the de facto welfare state. The armed forces and the Department of Veterans Affairs are the two largest health care providers in the United States. The military is also a major bankroller of higher education through the G.I. Bill. And because of America's all-volunteer force, it is the nation's poor that disproportionately serve. By proposing major increases in benefits for the families of active personnel, reservists and veterans, Democrats can use that holiest of holy grails on the right - "our troops" - to help increase opportunities in American society.
Interesting take, but I think it makes sense. I have always found it funny that the right believes that the government can't do anything right, and yet they believe that our military is the best in the world, run very well and they have no problem giving them more money to spend. Instead of fighting them on this, co-opt them. The internet was created by the military. DARPA funds lots of really cool research, why not expand this? Don't have the government fund solar cell technology directly, have DARPA fund it as a way to allow our solidiers to be more mobile.
While Mr. Bush is poised to campaign for an "ownership society," several proposals have been stymied in Congress to provide universal savings accounts. These bills would provide every American, as a matter of birthright, with a trust fund of a few thousand dollars
Great idea. The British do it and they call them Baby bonds. Give every child born in America something like $5,000. The money can't be spent until they turn 18. Forces people to save and to learn how to invest. And it will help to finance their college education.
The United States is a country where - depending on how the question is worded - 90 percent of the population defines itself as middle class (and the top 20 percent of earners think they are among the top 2 percent).
Only in America do we want to be average and above average both at the same time.

via The New York Times


Gates Most Spammed in the World

Bill gets about four million emails a day, most of them spam.
All of a sudden my 100 a day seem kind of trivial.

Who would have ever thought this juvenile delinquent would grow up to rule the world?

via The Inquirer


Thursday, November 18, 2004

SBC in Deal With Microsoft to Provide TV on High-Speed Lines

SBC Communications, as part of its effort to compete head-on with the cable industry for television subscribers, plans to announce today that it will pay $400 million to Microsoft for software used to deliver TV programming over high-speed data lines.
$400 million? What does this software do that is so good? Why not buy all of Tivo for $500 million?
All IP-TV programs will be delivered as video-on-demand - consumers request a program from a central server and it is delivered immediately. In contrast, cable companies typically send hundreds of channels to customers' homes all at once - although newer, digital cable systems can also send programs one by one as in video-on-demand.
IP-TV? Not a bad name, but what happened to TVOIP?
Initially, SBC hopes that the Microsoft technology will allow it to simultaneously send two high-definition channels and two standard-definition channels for consumers with two televisions on at once, as well as a high-speed Internet connection to consumers. Subscribers will need to add only a new set-top box to receive the programming. SBC will also have to achieve vast increases in data speeds on its network.
Mom, Billy is watching two TV shows and slowing down my downloads.
A major hurdle for SBC, however, is how to increase the speed of its network to deliver the television and Internet services it promises. SBC will have to increase its current connection speeds by sevenfold, which may make the company's goal of providing television programming within a year difficult to achieve.
I hate it when the writers think we are too stupid to handle numbers. What is the current speed and what do they need to get to? What does HDTV take, about 10Mbs? So they would need about 25Mbs to make 2 HDTV, 2 regular and broadband?

This is a major change in TV and could be a major competitive advantage for the telcos. The idea of the TV "channel" is dead. Syndicated tv shows will be more important then ever. Instead of watching one episode of the West Wing a week, why not wait until the season is over and then watch all the epsiodes back to back? I forsee a day of "series addicts". I first saw this when I loned by 24 DVDs to a friend, who then then spent 24 hours watching them back to back (well actually just 16 without the commericals).

Imagine having access to every interview Charlie Rose ever did. You aren't limited by who he has on the show tonight, this week, or even this month. If he ever did the interview you can watch it when you want. Want to see how Bill Gates has changed over time? Pull up his interviews over the years. Want to see how his vision of the world differs with Jobs? Watch interviews back to back.

The other big thing is the birth of TV Blogs. By this I mean individuals creating video material for others to view. Micro-audiences. Think Wonkette/Gizmodo/BoingBoing meets TV. Those of us that think that a week is just to short of time for Shark Week. Homemade/low buget underwater video of sharks. Bring it on, I will watch all that you have. Travel shows to exotic locations (particularly ones I am about to visit), I will watch it. Cooking shows that can be chosen based on the recipe, I love it. A Seattle (or any city) version of the Daily Show, I'm so there. Family vacation video, uhh get back to me on that one.

For those who are concerned about media concentration this is going to be a major opportunity to make sure that the law requires the providers to allow access to any "channel" that is out there. Because the big telcos are technological idiots I don't think they will see the advantage to them of doing this. Activists will have to take it to them to force the lines open. NTT DoCoMo created such an economic model that allowed small players to make money and it became a huge success.

via NY Times


Belarus is Rebuilidng on Top of Chernobyl Radiation

As the need for more energy from global warming friendly technology grows, we need to take a look at Nuclear again. Part of this discussion should be about just how bad nuclear waste is. We need to get perspective on it. Instead of saying that radiation causes cancer, we need to say that a prolonged exposure to low doses of radiation is the equivalent of smoking 1/2 pack of cigarettes a day. This isn't nearly as scary.

So why can't we get good data from the Chernobyl region about how bad the effects of radiation are? This article is a start.

In all, 7 million people in the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are believed to have suffered medical problems as a result of the April 25, 1986, accident. In Ukraine, more than 2.32 million people, including 452,000 children, have been treated for radiation-linked illnesses, including thyroid and blood cancer and cancerous growths, according to Ukrainian health officials.
Interesting stat, but how many of them had serious life altering illnesses or were killed? And could we compare these illnesses to those that are caused by burning coal for electricity? The air pollution and mercury caused by coal are bad too, but they aren't as scary as radiation.
Nikolai Nagorny, director of the International Committee of the Red Cross' Chernobyl program, said that cases of thyroid cancer -- one of the few radiation-related illnesses that has been well studied around Chernobyl -- have skyrocketed among children in Belarus' affected regions, from just two cases of thyroid cancer before the accident to at least 1,000 in the 10 years after.
Yes, the rate of thyroid cancer has skyrocketed, but it is still only 100 people per year. And thyroid cancer is not usually fatal. You need to have your thyroid removed and you are put on iodine pills for the rest of your life. Compare this with the number of people that are maimed each year from automobile accidents. Or what is happening in Iraq right now.

via North County Times


Tax Reform

Interesting ideas by Michael Graetz on how to reform taxes.

Enacting a value-added tax - a tax on sales of goods and services collected at all stages of production - at a rate of 14 percent would finance an income-tax exemption of up to $100,000.

Imagine a world of no tax returns for families that earn less than $100,000. Wealthier families, meanwhile, would face a vastly simpler income tax at a 25 percent rate on income of more than $100,000 after deductions for charitable contributions, home mortgages, medical expenses, and state and local taxes. Low and middle-income families would be protected from any tax increase by refunds of their payroll taxes.

This tax reform would eliminate more than 100 million of the approximately 130 million income tax returns filed each year. Unlike the flat tax or the sales tax, it would also keep income tax incentives for employers to provide health insurance and pensions to their employees. At the same time, the corporate income tax rate could be whittled down to 25 percent and, to eliminate corporate tax shelters, changes could be made to more closely link tax and book income.
I think I would get rid of the home mortgage deduction since it would only go to those making over $100,000. Why subsidize the purchasing of mansions?

And it would make for an interesting social situation. Income tax paying now becomes a sign of success. People would start bragging about how they have to pay income taxes.

via NY Times


George Will: Questions for Condi

Not usually a big fan of George Will, but these questions for Condi are right on.

If you had been secretary in 1991, would you have advocated regime change — driving on to Baghdad?

In 1991, the secretary of defense, explaining the unwisdom of regime change, said: "Once you've got Baghdad, it's not clear what you do with it. It's not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that's currently there now. Is it going to be a Shi'a regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists?

"How much credibility is that government going to have if it's set up by the United States military when it's there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?"

Was Dick Cheney right?
And, you might want to ask Dickie boy about that one as well.
The president says it is "cultural condescension" to question "whether this country, or that people, or this group, are 'ready' for democracy." Condescending, perhaps, but is it realistic? Tony Blair says it is a "myth" that "our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture." Are there cultural prerequisites for free polities? Does Iraq have them? Do the Palestinian people, after a decade of saturation propaganda inciting terrorism and anti-Semitism? Does the United States know how to transplant those prerequisites?
Good question. Seems like stability and security are prerequisites and that democracy can't be imposed from the outside, but what do I know?
You have said that it would be "unacceptable" for Iran or North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. What, if anything, does that commit the United States to do if negotiations continue to be unavailing? Or if, as some intelligence reports suggest, North Korea already has several such weapons?
All of his questions are excellent, I would recommend reading the whole article.

New York Post


In Asia, China Gains Economic Hold

"For a few years ahead, it will still be the United States as No.1, but soon it will be China," Long, the son of a Thai businessman.

The center is part of China's expanding presence across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where Beijing is making a big push to market itself and its language, similar to the way the United States promoted its culture and values during the Cold War. It is not a hard sell, particularly to young Asians eager to cement cultural bonds as China deepens its economic and political interests in the region.

Put off from visiting the United States by the difficulty of gaining visas after 9/11, more and more Southeast Asians are traveling to China as students and tourists. Likewise, Chinese tourists, less fearful than Americans of the threat of being targets of terrorism, are becoming the dominant tourist group in the region, outnumbering Americans in places such as Thailand and fast catching up to the ubiquitous Japanese.

But the trend is clear, educators and diplomats here say: The Americans are losing influence.

As Washington cuts back, China is providing concrete alternatives. The Chinese president and Communist Party chief, Hu Jintao, told the Australian Parliament last year:

"The Chinese culture belongs not only to the Chinese, but also to the whole world," he said. "We stand ready to step up cultural exchanges with the rest of the world in a joint promotion of cultural prosperity."
via Seattle PI


Oprah Celebrates 20,000th Pound Lost

Talk-show superstar Oprah Winfrey celebrated losing her 20,000th pound in a star-packed gala at the Sutton Place Hotel in Chicago's Gold Coast Monday night.
According to her spokesman, Winfrey has been on 674 diets, embarked on 255 fitness routines, and weighed herself 4,349,571 times during her 30-year career in broadcasting and film.
Yeah Oprah! And best wishes on going for 30,000.

via The Onion


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

What Wal-Mart Knows About Customers' Habits

By its own count, Wal-Mart has 460 terabytes of data stored on Teradata mainframes, made by NCR, at its Bentonville headquarters. To put that in perspective, the Internet has less than half as much data, according to experts.

With 3,600 stores in the United States and roughly 100 million customers walking through the doors each week, Wal-Mart has access to information about a broad slice of America .

Eventually, some experts say, Wal-Mart will use its technology to institute what is called scan-based trading, in which manufacturers own each product until it is sold.

"Wal-Mart will never take those products onto its books," said Bruce Hudson, a retail analyst at the Meta Group, an information technology consulting firm in Stamford, Conn. "If you think of the impact of shedding $50 billion of inventory, that is huge."
via New York Times


Tuesday, November 16, 2004

World Community Grid

I.B.M. plans today to announce a project to harness untapped computing power from millions of personal computers to help unlock the genetic mysteries of illnesses like AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, malaria and cancer.

The project, called the World Community Grid, was developed in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and other organizations, and represents a significant step in the use of the Internet to foster collaborative scientific research. The goal is to combine computer resources and the shared knowledge of researchers to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery.

The new network's resources will be devoted to a series of problems chosen by a 17-member advisory board. Its first mission will be the Human Proteome Folding Project, directed by the Institute for Systems Biology, a nonprofit research organization in Seattle. The proteome project seeks to identify all the proteins in the human body and their functions.

Researchers wishing to take advantage of the grid must agree to keep their research and software tools in the public domain.

Those wishing to join the grid project and donate computer time will be able to download software from a Web site,
via New York Times


Sunday, November 14, 2004

As the Dollar Declines

The dollar, which has declined nearly 30 percent against the euro since President Bush took office in 2001, fell to a record low this week. The decline has not been as marked against other currencies, largely because China and Japan prop up the dollar by investing heavily in United States Treasury securities - in effect, lending us money so we can buy their goods.

During the Bush years, 92 percent of the nearly $1 trillion increase in publicly held debt has been financed by foreign lenders.

Foreign ownership of Treasuries has tripled from the peak of the Reagan deficits in 1983. Because of this enormous dependency, anything that might affect foreign lenders' willingness to invest in Treasuries - including dismay over the United States' long-term fiscal disarray, better investment opportunities elsewhere, or geopolitical or economic strife - could cause the dollar to tank.
This is both amazing and underreported. All of our tax cuts are being financed by foreigners. This also means all of the Bush GDP "growth" has been put on credit cards owned by foreigners. I wish the article would have said which countries picked up this $920 billion tab. I would guess China and Japan own the majority of it, but I would like to see the actual numbers.

Clinton tried to warn us in his Democratic Convention speech, but Kerry never touched on it.

Argentinian style fiscal collapse, here we come!

via The New York Times


Saturday, November 13, 2004

Cellphones Take iPod Challenge

Cellphones handling music is the next step. Why have one device to play music and another to make calls/access the internet? This is the first step, but I think streaming the songs makes the most sense from a business plan perspective. You can't steal if you already have access to all music. The cellphone nimrods are working on video when they should be focusing on music. The files will be smaller. Follow the adaption curve just like on internet PCs: first text, then voice/music, then pictures/video. Give me a cell plan with unlimited 128kbs internet access for around $20/month. Give me a Rhapsody like subscription service music plan for $10/month. Call it the infinite iPod. Access to 70,000 songs, no hard drive necessary. But these guys aren't going that way yet.

The potential of mobile devices as a music delivery platform is clear. There are hundreds of millions of cell phone owners, particularly in European countries, where penetration rates can be as much 80 percent of the population. That pool represents a vastly larger potential market than the millions of people who use iPods or other MP3 players.

Music for cell phones is relatively expensive and scarce--just 3,000 songs are available through Vodafone's music download store, although the company promises that will rise to 50,000 in just a few months.

Getting the pricing right for music on cell phones can be a headache. Vodafone charges about $2.75 for each song, and in Japan, carrier KDDI plans to launch a service this month that will offer wirelessly downloadable songs for between $2 and $3. That compares with the 99-cent price per song at Apple's iTunes and other PC-based download stores. In addition, the cost of downloaded tunes is easily comparable to the cost of buying a CD.
via CNET


Friday, November 12, 2004

We Pledge Allegiance to the Penguin

"Backed by the ministry of culture and directed by Ronaldo Lemos da Silva, a law professor and point man for Creative Commons in Brazil, the project has rounded up an impressive starter collection of public-domain titles for digitization, mostly recordings produced by Brazil's music industry in its fertile early days. The hope, though, is that in the long run this initial collection might yield an even more ambitious scheme: an alternative compensation system for online music that could break the stalemate between industry and fans once and for all. One plan is to grant a copyright license to file-sharers, similar to the one that lets radio stations broadcast songs without prior permission. And as with radio, an agency would track downloads and then pay rights-holders their fair share of a universal service fee levied on all Internet subscribers.

It's a tough sell for sure, especially to an industry from which even Brazil's most politically powerful musician couldn't ransom 10 seconds of his own music. But so far no other plan for resolving the online-music wars promises to get closer to that best of all possible outcomes: artists get paid and peer-to-peer thrives. And so far, only Brazil has shown anything like the political will required to make it happen. "
Interesting idea. Music is going to become all about the subscription. Finding a way for people to consume as much as they want when they want, allowing artists to build on previous artists work, and allowing artists to get paid. A universal service fee on all Internet subscribers is such a subscription. It is also very similar to a tax. I like it!

via Wired 12.11


Is the Grass Greener in a Bush-less Country?

I guess I wasn't the only one checking the prices on a one way ticket to New Zealand. The ramifications of this will be felt for decades after Bush leaves office. If the most creative people choose to leave the US (or never immigrate to begin with) the economy will feel it and it will trickle down to all Americans, even those in red states.

While no one has good estimates yet on how many Americans may leave the country due at least partially to politics, if Web sites are any indication, the numbers are not paltry, or a few hundred on the fringe. Last Wednesday, Canada's immigration Web site had almost 180,000 visitors -- most from the United States -- six times its normal traffic. On the same day, a site for New Zealand received over 10,000 hits, more than four times its usual count of 2,500. And the people we spoke with were nearly all college-educated, well-employed homeowners -- the kind of people other nations usually welcome.

Terry Murphy, marketing director for the New Zealand Immigration Service in Portland, says he's getting five times the normal volume of calls, with many inquiries from Portland, Seattle, Idaho and Alaska.

He said about 25,000 Americans live in New Zealand now. Normally, 250 apply each year through their skilled migrant category; this year, pre-election, they were already at 350. They expect those numbers to spike as what some call "Bush refugees" send in applications.
via Seattle PI


Unanswered Election Questions

I have been thinking about this for a little while, and I have a whole different way of thinking and set of questions to be answered then what I have read in papers.

On the question of whether the Ohio votes weren't accurate: who cares? When Gore lost in 2000 I was upset because he had won the popular vote. I really don't like the electoral college. So I think when Bush won the popular vote by 3.5 million votes that he is the president. Had Kerry won the popular vote and lost electoral vote by 150,000 votes in Ohio, then I would be concerned about vote tampering. The fact that if 70,000 Ohioans had changed their votes that Bush could have lost the election while winning the popular vote 51% to 48% is more concerning to me.

There has been a lot of talk about how how about the problem of electronic voting machines not having paper trails. But, if you have a paper trail and the paper and electronic results differ, which one would you believe is more accurate? Why, or under what scenarios would you trust one over the other? I think the better question is what potential fraud strategies would paper trails deter, and do paper trails add more potential fraud strategies then they remove? I have yet to see any analysis of that question.

I think that we give up on the idealist vision that elections should be 100% accurate. Instead we should move to margin of error ala polls. The election result is 49% +-3%. We should aim to get our voting machines/system to an accuracy of 1% but we should base the error margin on type of voting system and previous results. If the voting ends up in the error of margin then there should be a coin toss. Or maybe set it up like College Basketball with a possession arrow. Do it alphabetically. Idaho went to Bush, so Indiana now goes to Kerry. :)

Ever notice how all the pundits on TV start by saying "well the exit polls may not be that accurate" and then go on to tell you why Americans voted the way they did based on the exit polls? Or they say, the exit polls might not be the best way to tell final outcome, but you can trust them for answering why people voted the way they did. But if the polls oversampled Kerry voters, wouldn't the results also over represent Kerry voter's ideas? Shouldn't they at least give you an error margin on the results? 22% of Americans voted on moral values +-10%. Supposedly 17% of voters in 2000 and 04 were 18-29. But if 2000 was 17+-3% and 2004 was 17%+-3%, then they actually could have been 14%-20% which is a major increase.

2004 Results:
Bush: 59.7 mil (+9.2 mil)
Kerry: 56.3 mil (+5.3 mil)
Other: 1.2 mil (-2.7 mil)
Total: 117.2

2000 Results:
Bush: 50.5 mil
Gore: 51.0 mil
Other: 3.9 mil
Total: 105.4

The question I still don't understand is where did all of these new Bush voters come from? 12 million more voters or 11% increase from last year. (Side point - Why the hell were the voting lines so long if the increase was only 11%? Sure seems like the wait increased more than 11%, but maybe that was just in a couple of counties where the increase was greater). If you look at this result from the exit poll (standard +-3% disclaimer :)) you see a couple of things:

Bush Kerry
Did Not Vote (17%) 45% 54%
Gore (37%) 10% 90%
Bush (43%) 91% 9%
Other (3%) 21% 71%

(By total vote) Bush Kerry
Did Not Vote (17%) 7.7% 9.2%
Gore (37%) 3.7% 33.3%
Bush (43%) 39.0% 3.9%
Other (3%) .6% 2.1%
51.0 48.5

(By mil people) Bush Kerry
Did Not Vote (17%) 9.0 10.8
Gore (37%) 4.3 39.0
Bush (43%) 45.6 4.6
Other (3%) .7 2.5
59.6 56.9

While there were 12 million extra voters, based on this data there was actually 20 mil new voters - 7.9 mil didn't voters (voted in 2000 not 2004). Of the didn't voters, 7.7 mil voted for Gore and .3 mil for Bush! What happened to all the Gore voters? 15% of people who voted for Gore in 2000 didn't vote! While 99.5% of 2000 Bush voters voted again in 2004.

Maybe the Gore voters died? About 3.8 million people die a year * 4 years = 15.2 million Americans * 50% voting rate = 7.2 million voters died since last time. But I wouldn't think they would all be Gore guys.

Maybe the Gore voters stayed home? But why? Were there disgruntled Gore supporters that wouldn't vote for Kerry? Haven't heard about them. Maybe the exit polls are off, but Bush's new voters had to come from somewhere. This seems to be a very important question to answer in explaining how Kerry has lost and I haven't read any analysis of it anywhere.

Another interesting question is if all 100% of eligible voters voted, who would have won? I think that the will of all eligible (or maybe you just look at registered) voters might be a more important question of who the American people support than just looking at the 60% that did vote. I wonder if the pollsters did any polls on registered voters vs. likely voters. And why the hell didn't the 40% get off their lazy behinds to vote this year? Maybe they didn't like either candidate? Haven't seen any analysis of eligible voters who didn't vote and who they are, who they would have voted for, and why they didn't vote. This is also important to understanding how Kerry lost.


Thursday, November 11, 2004

More Purple States

Cool Red, Blue, Purple State Maps
Image of Red, Blue, Purple counties resized by population:


Scans of Monks' Brains

The result was the scans that Prof. Davidson projected in Dharamsala. They compared brain activity in volunteers who were novice meditators to that of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. The task was to practice "compassion" meditation, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings.

In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators "showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature," says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.

Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.
via - Science Journal (Journal Article (pdf))


Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Conflicting Views of Reef-Fish Colors

People can theorize till the cowfish come home about what they see on a reef, but what matters is what fish see, and that's been hard to determine.

Improvements in cameras and in equipment for analyzing light and color are now inspiring new approaches to approximating a fish-eye view of the reefs. Looking at the abundant coloration from a fishy perspective, the new work demonstrates that people can be quite wrong about what's showy and what's subtle.

At the wavelengths in which fish see the world, the yellow of a trumpet fish swimming along 3 meters or more away becomes a "very good match" for the average reef background, says Marshall.

These researchers measured the wavelengths bouncing off various parts of the reef to come up with what they call an average reef color. They found, for example, that a common light-blue color, familiar to fish fanciers in the bands on the blue-and-yellow angelfish Pygoplites diacanthus, matches the general bluish background a fish sees when looking into the distance through relatively deep water.

"What's surprising is that some of the colors that look bright to us are for camouflage," Marshall says.
via Science News


Schizophrenia Brain Fault 'Found'

Scientists say they have identified faulty brain waves that may explain the symptoms of schizophrenia.

When the researchers looked at the brain wave patterns they found the patients with schizophrenia showed no activity in a certain wave band when performing the button-pushing task.

However, the healthy volunteers had visible gamma wave activity, indicating that their brains were processing the visual information to guide their response.

"If the most efficient communication between assemblies of neurons is at 40 hertz, and the schizophrenics are using a lower frequency, it's likely they have defective communication between cell assemblies and brain regions."

"If you know the neurochemical identity of the neurons and synapses involved in generating gamma activity, you can try to target treatments toward them."
via BBC


Monday, November 08, 2004

How To Be Creative

My favorite points:

2. The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to change the world.

3. Put the hours in.
Doing anything worthwhile takes forever. 90% of what separates successful people and failed people is time, effort, and stamina.

5. You are responsible for your own experience.
Nobody can tell you if what you're doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the lonelier it is.

7. Keep your day job.
I'm not just saying that for the usual reason i.e., because I think your idea will fail. I'm saying it because to suddenly quit one's job in a big ol. creative drama-queen moment is always, always, always in direct conflict with what I call "The Sex & Cash Theory."
THE SEX & CASH THEORY: The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs. One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task in hand covers both bases, but not often. This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.
A good example is Phil, a NY photographer friend of mine. He does really wild stuff for the indie pays nothing, but it allows him to build his portfolio. Then he.ll go off and shoot some catalogs for a while. Nothing too exciting, but it pays the bills.
I'm thinking about the young writer who has to wait tables to pay the bills, in spite of her writing appearing in all the cool and hip magazines who dreams of one day of not having her life divided so harshly. Well, over time the "gharshly" bit might go away, but not the "divided". This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended. Anyway, it.s called "The Sex & Cash Theory." Keep it under your pillow.

13. Never compare your inside with somebody else’s outside.

17. Merit can be bought. Passion can’t.
The only people who can change the world are people who want to. And not everybody does.

21. Selling out is harder than it looks.
Diluting your product to make it more “commercial” will just make people like it less

via Change This (pdf)


Conservative vs Liberal Child Raising

I took the various positions on the conservative side and on the progressive side and I said, "Let's put them through the metaphor from the opposite direction and see what comes out." I put in the two different views of the nation, and out popped two different models of the family: a strict father family and a nurturant parent family.
Strict father family:
The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good. What is needed in this kind of a world is a strong, strict father who can:

-Protect the family in the dangerous world,
-Support the family in the difficult world, and
-Teach his children right from wrong.

What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is a moral authority who knows right from wrong. It is further assumed that the only way to teach kids obedience — that is, right from wrong — is through punishment, painful punishment, when they do wrong. Without such punishment, the world will go to hell. There will be no morality.
Nurturant parent family:
In the nurturant parent worldview, both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. The assumption is that children are born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. The parents' job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.

What does nurturance mean? It means two things: empathy and responsibility. If you have a child, you have to know what every cry means. You have to know when the child is hungry, when he needs a diaper change, when he is having nightmares. And you have a responsibility — you have to take care of this child. Since you cannot take care of someone else if you are not taking care of yourself, you have to take care of yourself enough to be able to take care of the child.

Second, if you empathize with your child, you want your child to be fulfilled in life, to be a happy person. And if you are an unhappy, unfulfilled person yourself, you are not going to want other people to be happier than you are. The Dalai Lama teaches us that. Therefore it is your moral responsibility to be a happy, fulfilled person. Your moral responsibility. Further, it is your moral responsibility to teach your child to be a happy, fulfilled person who wants others to be happy and fulfilled.
via Alternet


Feds: Obesity Raising Airline Fuel Costs

Interesting article on the impact of heavier people on flying. The obvious solution to this problem isn't even mentioned: charge more for heavier people. No way I am going to subsidize someone elses fat ass.

America's growing waistlines are hurting the bottom lines of airline companies as the extra pounds on passengers are causing a drag on planes. Heavier fliers have created heftier fuel costs, according to the government study.

Through the 1990s, the average weight of Americans increased by 10 pounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (news - web sites). The extra weight caused airlines to spend $275 million to burn 350 million more gallons of fuel in 2000 just to carry the additional weight of Americans, the federal agency estimated in a recent issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The extra fuel burned also had an environmental impact, as an estimated 3.8 million extra tons of carbon dioxide were released into the air, according to the study.
via Yahoo News


Apply Current, Boost Brain Power

Sending a weak electrical impulse through the front of a person's head can boost verbal skills by as much as 20 percent, according to a new study by the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

In the study, researchers at the institute asked 103 volunteers to recall as many words that begin with a particular letter as possible. The researchers then passed a 2-milliamp current -- one-tenth of what is needed to power a small LED (light-emitting diode) light -- through electrodes attached to the surfaces of the volunteers' foreheads. When the volunteers were quizzed again while the current was still on, this time with a different letter, they were able to come up with 20 percent more words on average.

"This process is so easy to miniaturize that it essentially becomes wearable," he said. "One day, a patient could be wearing it in a hat with the power source in a bucket and turning it on perhaps at critical times of day."

But don't expect to be able to buy a "thinking cap" to help your kids with their homework anytime soon. Wassermann said he and his team only plan to focus on medical applications right now.
via Wired