Thursday, March 30, 2006


If you are really pissed off, press 1—One of the really useful technological tools to come along in telecommunications is Caller ID. We started using it about a year ago, and it has made life a lot easier. Even though our house has registered with the Leave-Us-The-Hell-Alone Directory, we still get calls because of loopholes in the law. So by looking at Caller ID and not answering any number that starts with an 8 or is identified as "unknown" we just don't get bothered. Unfortunately, that may not work any more.

This is filed under the rubric that if you give enough people chances to be assholes, at least one of them will take it.

There now are services you (and I don't mean you, gentle reader) can use that mask your telephone calls so people who use Caller ID are fooled into thinking there is a useful, respectable human on the other end. It's called "spoofing," the telephone equivalent of computer spoofing, using a fictitious e-mail address. Some companies sell calling cards; if you use them, the ID shows an entirely fictitious name and number. One company [SpoofCard] lets you change or scramble your voice, really handy for that obscene call you always wanted to make to the little boy or girl next door. Another, SpoofTel, says it is really just a way to guarantee privacy when you make a call. Privacy from whom? For $10 you get 60 minutes of talk. You dial a toll-free number, key in the destination and the number you want Caller ID to show.

According to the Washington Post, the Florida Attorney General, Charlie Crist, has begun an investigation, based largely on news accounts [click headline for AP story]. Interestingly, some of the biggest users of this practice seems to be political consultants who want to send out scurrilous messages without being caught. One Pennsylvania congressman, Tim Murphy, reported thousands of calls were made attacking him and, according to Caller ID, the calls came from his office. They didn't. Law enforcement agencies use it, sometimes illegally, to entice people to pick up their phones, and VoIP (Internet telephony) is particularly vulnerable. The victims of spoofing include Columbia University, which was swamped with callers protesting unwanted calls from university numbers, none of which actually originated from Columbia.

It makes me want to rethink my opposition to capital punishment.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rat Chip; Or, the Modern Prometheus loves cheese

What do you get when you cross brain cells with a microprocessor? Largely ignored—European researchers have created an interface between mammalian brain cell (neurons) and silicon chips. Think of organic computers or neural prostheses for certain brain lesions. Since the research was done in Europe, part of the European Union's Information Society Technologies program, it has been largely ignored on this side of The Water. Had they done this at M.I.T., it would have made the Times. It's called the NACHIP project, and it crosses the barrier between living creatures and machines.

As the report in IST Results points out [click headline], those potential benefits are years or decades away and would fit into the some-day-man-will-mine-the-ocean-floor school of science writing. But there is a potential short term result: the use of neuron-silicon chips to test the effect of new pharmaceuticals on neurons.

And how they did this little stunt is amazing.

A German microchip company, Infineon, placed 16,384 transistors and hundreds of capacitors on a chip 1 mm square. Then the researchers took rat brain neurons and using special proteins, glued the neurons to the chip. The proteins did more than just glue the neurons; they acted as an interface so electric signals could pass from the neurons to the transistors and back again using ionic channels. The transistors can record the signals, and the capacitors can pass signals to the neurons. They tested it by stimulating the neurons and seeing which ones fired. The most pressing problem now, however, is getting that to happen without frying the neurons, which is what they are working on. The researchers are now preparing a proposal to communicate with the neurons using genes. Isaac Asimov would approve. So might Mary Shelly.

The work is being done at the University of Padua in Italy, the Max-Plank-Institute for Biochemistry in Germany, and the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

[And a hearty thank you to faithful reader CW, who worries that the whole thing is more likely to produce Frankenstein than Steve Austin, and a good point that is too.]

Friday, March 24, 2006

If you look it up you'll get cramps

Well, Glicken says the encyclopedia must be wrong—When I was a lad I served a term as a reporter at a Newark newspaper [you thought I was going to break out in song, didn't you?] learning the trade. I had an editor, Lloyde Seymour Glicken, who specialized in taking young fools like me and turning them into reporters. Many of us did very well in journalism. There even was an alumni association. He was a one-man journalism school and we loved him dearly. One day I used a word in a story that Glicken objected to. I, being a smart ass, immediately ran up to his desk, pushed a dictionary in his face and pointed out I had used the word correctly.

"The dictionary is wrong," Glicken said. End of argument.

Back in December, Nature published a study on the accuracy of encylopedias, mainly concentrating in the upstart Wikopedia, the cooperative web-based reference. It concluded that Wikopedia was surprisingly accurate and pointed out that the hoary Encyclopedia Britannica actually was not a lot better.
Nature's investigation suggests that Britannica's advantage may not be great, at least when it comes to science entries. In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team.
Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.
You can imagine the dyspepsia this caused at Brittannica. According to a newspaper in San Antonio, the Britannica folks have fired back with a fairly damning letter to librarians and researchers.
Those reports were wrong... because Nature's research was invalid. As our editors and scholarly advisers have discovered by reviewing the research in depth, almost everything about the Nature's investigation was wrong and misleading. Dozens of inaccuracies attributed to the Britannica were not inaccuracies at all, and a number of the articles Nature examined were not even in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit.

Since educators and librarians have been among Britannica's closest colleagues for many years, I would like to address you personally with an explanation of our findings and tell you the truth about the Nature study.
It goes on with chapter and verse of Nature's apparent screw-ups. Media that covered the initial Nature report, need to revisit the issue, methinks.

If you want to see how bad the Nature story was, click here.

[Glicken, who covered high school sports with uncommon attention when he wasn't being a tutor, died in 1999. He was my first mentor. And the dictionary was not wrong. Lloyde].

You can blame it on your ancestors, none of whom could play the piano—Among the genetic price you pay for being an Ashkenazic Jew is dystonia, a disorder that cramps muscles or causes involuntary movements. It isn't fatal, but it can be a pain in the career. Ask Leon Fleisher, the concert pianist whose career was diverted by the nervous disorder. Until Fleisher regained use of his right hand, he wound up playing mostly one-handed concerti. There are some, believe it or not. Botox apparently cured the camps and he's back playing the usual repetoire with both hands—and very well indeed. We can now guess something about his genealogy he didn't know before.

It turns out, Leon can blame his genes. Judy Siegel in the Jerusalem Post reports that a genetic mutation among a small group of Jews from Belarus in the 17th century is probably the source of Fleisher's problem—and that of other Ashkenazim. They were among the survivors of pogroms at the time and their small number produced a genetic bottleneck. Someone among them had the mutation, LRRK2 G2019S, and because of the circumstances, passed it on to others in the group. In the 18th century, the Jewish population of the area exploded and so did the mutation, the reason why one in four of the Jews who can trace their ancestry to that area, have the gene.

The work was done at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and is based on work at UC San Francisco.

Interestingly, the gene is also found among a group of North African Arabs, further evidence that the Ashkenazim have Middle Eastern origins. They probably moved into Europe after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E., and somebody, gasp, intermarried.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Bill O'Reilly, you stop throwing those peas! UPDATED AGAIN

Is your kid whiny, unpleasant, insecure? Don't fret. He can eventually get a job on Fox News—According to a study in the Journal of Research into Personality [not posted], disagreeable and insecure kids grow up to be conservatives. Confident, self-reliant children grow up to be liberals. But you know all that, right? Back in the 1960s, a husband and wife team, Jack and Jeanne Block at Berkeley began tracking more than 100 nursery school kids to study their personality. Using teachers and assistants, the Blocks surveyed the kids' personalities. Politics never entered the picture.

A few decades later, Block (his wife had since died) went back to the kids and looked at their personalities. The unpleasant and rigid kids turned into rigid young people who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity. And politically, they were conservatives. Confident kids turned out to bright, non-conformists. The girls were extroverts, the young men a little introverted. And both sexes were politically liberal.

Actually, this is not the first time similar research produced similar findings. In 2003, a Stanford researcher, John Jost, concluded that people who are dogmatic, fearful, intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, and who crave order, are likely to tend conservative. He got a congressional investigation as a result, no doubt from guys where were really brats when they were babies.

Don't swallow that big round yellow thing, just the pill—One of life's little mysteries is the label on my blood pressure and cholesterol medicine (better living through chemistry) advising me, under no circumstances, to drink grapefruit juice when I take these medicines. Why the hell not?

Actually there is a reason but it's a little weird. In a story in the New York Times, Nicholas Bakalar reports that the reason is a substance in grapefruit that often emphasizes the effects of some medicines. There's a family of enzymes called Cytochrome P-450 [they'll be a pop quiz in the morning], particularly one called CYP 3A4, which changes substances in medicines so they can be less potent or more easily excreted or both. Grapefruit interferes with that process. The story oddly doesn't say what it is in grapefruit that does the deed because no one really knows, but the danger comes in taking a blood pressure drug and having the drug lower your blood pressure dangerously. Statins could lead to a fatal muscle disorder called rhabdomyolysis.

The answer is not to cut back on the medicine, apparently, and swig grapefruit juice. The answer is not to drink the juice. Too bad. Love the stuff.

Oh boy, now I can have viruses just like the rest of you!—One of the least interesting questions floating around since Apple started using Intel microprocessors on its Macs was whether its computers would be able to run Windows, which was designed for Intel chips. The answer is yes. The next question is why would you?

Apple never answered the question when asked if their Macs would run Windows. But a bunch of guys with too much time on their hands raised $13,864 for a contest to see who would be the first to pull off the stunt. The prize was won by two hackers who identified themselves only as "narf2006" and "blanka" [Jesus Lopez, if you want to know] who posted images and video of a Mac running Windows natively, meaning without outside help. It ain't easy, involving reformatting the hard disk and running a separate partition and disk images and all sorts of stuff you don't want to know. Graphics don't work and the operating system isn't particularly adept, but then neither is Windows. Emulators work better.

As to why anyone would want to—except to prove you can do it—the only reason would be to run software not available on Macs, mostly proprietary stuff your company runs. Otherwise, Mac OS-X is vastly superior. Now go get a life!

UPDATE: According to a posting on Slashdot, the hackers' blog
Sure, we all know that Windows can now run on Intel Apple Computers. Alas, the solution does not include drivers, and until now Mac users could still only hope to be able to use every application available to their Windows counterparts. However, with drivers now working 100% on the Mac Mini and drivers for the MacBook Pro only lacking video (which, by the looks of the 2nd link is only days away), Mac users now have a complete and working Windows solution.
UPDATE AGAIN: Meanwhile, Microsoft announced that Vista, the new rewrite of Windows, won't be ready for almost another year, and moved the guy in charge out the door. [Microsoft Office for Windows is also late]. By the time Vista comes out, us Mac folks will be on Leopard, the fifth rewrite of OS-X, and Microsoft will only be four generations behind.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Inhale and save your life--or not.

You can smoke that joint to fight your cancer but don't you dare enjoy yourself--What would the Food and Drug Administration do if scientists could prove that smoking marijuana--or at least taking tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)--could cure cancer? Probably nothing. Mythology and politics trumps science every time in Washington, and that preceded even George W.

Last year, researchers in Britain published a paper asserting that marijuana (or at least the THC) had potential as a cancer treatment. In some people, it mitigates the effects of chemotherapy, dulls pain, and stimulates the appetite (and you might have a nice time). This month the same researchers, at Barts and Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry at London University, published another paper claiming that cannabis kills leukemia cells. It appears to be one in a small collection of papers pointing to possible anti-tumor effects. [Got enough modifiers for you?] The paper was published in Letters in Drug Design & Discovery, which I am sure sits on your desk right now. No? Well, what the hell you think I'm here for. [Doesn't seem to be online yet]

According to a release [click headline] from Queen Mary's:
Now [the researchers], using highly sophisticated microarray technology – allowing them to simultaneously detect changes in more than 25,000 genes in cells treated with THC – have begun to uncover further the existence of crucial processes through which THC can kill cancer cells and potentially promote survival. Further, [they] found that the mechanism of cannabis may be independent of the presence of receptors – proteins found on the surface of cells to which other signalling molecules bind. Binding of molecules to receptors elicits a response in the cell, be it growth or death. The finding that cannabis action may not require the presence of these receptors introduces the possibility that the drug may be used more widely as the cancer cell’s dependence on the cannabis receptor is removed.

I hasten to point out that I have no idea if this paper has real merit, but I think it would be wonderful if it did, in part because it would help fight cancer, of course, and in part to watch the fun in the political world. I also point it out because, as we've discussed before, scientists outside the U.S. are doing interesting and important science that never gets a moment's attention among American science writers or in the media. Someone ought to pay attention.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Apoplectic apologies

Blogger's server (or filer, or something) was down for about 12 hours. And it still is not working well. Much of the business end is missing and the counter is off. We are not amused.

The management

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Democracy or incompetence. Choose one--UPDATED OFTEN

Look, we're losing circulation and advertising. The obvious answer is to destroy the product--If you care about journalism, your heart should be breaking about now.

We are all aware by now of the fall of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. It is being dismantled, thanks to Wall Street greed and the incredible ineptitude of Knight-Ridder management. The chain was bought by McClatchy, which actually is the best newspaper chain left in America. That would be the good news. The bad news is that McClatchy is selling off 12 of Knight-Ridder papers to fund the purchase, including my old paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was science writer at the Inquirer from 1969 to 1980, the best job I ever had in journalism. In the last 20 years, Knight-Ridder emasculated what was arguably the best newspaper in America to keep the ass-holes on Wall Street happy. (I don’t like using profanity on this blog but I am at a loss to find another word. I’m really pissed!). Tony Ridder [top picture], who drove his family-founded chain into the ground, is reported in the San Jose Mercury News (another KR paper destroyed by his management and now also up for sale) to be distraught. I weep for him.

Background: When I was hired by the Inquirer, Knight Newspapers, owned by the illustrious Knight family, had just bought it from Walter Annenberg, who ran a thoroughly dishonest newspaper. They brought in a man named John McMullen to clean house and turn it into an honest and fearless paper, which he did. The day of my job interview I had to pick my way through a picket line of Philadelphia policemen who were protesting a series of stories on police corruption. McMullen bragged about the number of libel suits he had pending, all but one of which, incidentally, he won. Sounded like my kind of place. I was hired. The Knights eventually merged with the Ridder chain of California, forming KR. Along the way, Gene Roberts [left, bottom], late of the New York Times, was brought in to run the Inky and in a matter of years, turned it into a great newspaper, probably the last great newspaper to emerge in this country. On any given day, we were simply the best. We had national correspondents and foreign bureaus, experts on any subjects (know many papers with an architect writer with a degree from Yale?), budgets that were now the stuff of dreams, and won something like 17 Pulitzers in 15 years. We just ordered champaign at the end of April, figuring it wouldn’t go to waste. The foreign correspondents, who won several of those Pulitzers, were legendary, including one Asian correspondent who allegedly had a pair of teenage female twins as housekeepers. To lure one Pulitzer winner back to Philadelphia from Rome, Roberts promised him he could cover the Phillies for a year. Richard Ben Cramer covered New York City until he went overseas. He covered the invasion of Lebanon by hailing a Tel Aviv taxi. No one else covered LA with the humor and eye of Murray Dubin. Don Bartlett and James Steele won two of those Pulitzers and should have won a third for their pioneering use of computers to analyze data for a story on the criminal justice system. They worked upstairs, were given an almost unlimited budget and were told to report downstairs whenever they had their story, any year they were ready. They were almost pathologically meticulous and never got it wrong. Don Drake, the medical writer, turned in a story or two a year, maybe, always wonderfully written and often heart-rending.

I could go anywhere I wanted to go if I could justify it on journalistic grounds, including the South Pole, and I was the first western reporter allowed into Somalia in a half dozen years to find the last naturally infected smallpox victim. I had editors who included some of the best I’ve ever known. A story I wrote with Susan Stranahan on Three Mile Island (coverage of which won another Pulitzer) was nominated by the University of Maryland as one of the 100 best newspaper stories of the 20th century. We knew while we were there we had the kind of jobs we dreamed of when we went into journalism. And, we were profitable. Sunday circulation topped 1 million.

I left to go to Stanford for various reasons and the Inky kept winning awards. Roberts sent my successor to Africa for several weeks because he thought there might be an interesting story in the endangered white rhinos. There was.

Then the suits in Miami, then KR’s headquarters, started putting the screws on Roberts’ budgets for financial reasons--profit margins weren’t high enough to suit Wall Street analysts. Roberts eventually quit, blaming the corporation for reducing the budget to the point he could no longer do the quality journalism he--and we--felt appropriate, and he just got tired of fighting them constantly. Most of the staff eventually followed. He was the first of several KR editors to quit for the same reason.

A good number of former Inky reporters and editors went on to major positions in journalism, their reputation as one of Roberts' people, assuring them the appropriate respect.

Tony Ridder, known as Darth Vader in his newsrooms, was far more interested in the price of KR stock and fearful of a takeover than he was for the quality of his product, his service to his community, or loyalty to his employees. Like other newspaper corporations, KR was under pressure from Wall Street to keep earning obscene profit margins (20% plus) and, as Roberts pointed out, the suits got together and somehow the answer to falling circulation and advertising was to give the readers less. It would be like General Motors deciding that in order to earn a profit they would take out the back seats of its cars. Budgets were cut, foreign bureaus eliminated, reporters and editors bought off or laid off and the papers are now remnants of their former selves. It, of course, didn’t work and couldn’t work. They teach this shit in business schools?

(By the way, if you want to see newspapers being destroyed before your very eyes, you are welcome to watch the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun, both owned by the Tribune Company in Chicago--and both formerly run by Roberts' disciples from the Inquirer--be dismembered. McClatchy is the corporation that proves the common wisdom wrong, incidentally. They have invested in their journalism instead of cutting back, and have had more than 20 years of growing circulation. Alas, they won’t try that at the Inquirer or the Merc.)

Now the Inky and the Mercury News and the St. Paul paper, are up for sale. The chance of white knights rescuing them is slim. There is Gannett, whose business plan demands mediocrity; William Dean Singleton, the anti-Christ of American journalism, and the Newspaper Guild and its supporters, who won’t win because the world doesn’t work that way any more. Good guys lose to greed every time.

An old friend, Laurie Garrett, who reported for Newsday, a Tribune paper, was invited to give a speech before Tribune Co. stockholders after she won a Pulitzer. In her speech, she pointed out that newspapers and journalism are unique businesses. So important are they to the running of a democracy that the Founding Fathers put special protection into the Constitution, a protection that no other field of endeavor enjoys, not lawyers or stock analysts or accountants. If, she told the stockholders, you don’t care about that responsibility, please invest elsewhere. Go buy stock in a shoe company or a computer company, and leave us the hell alone to do our jobs.

No one paid the slightest attention.

Steve Lovelady, one of the editors referred to above, has an interesting take on the business here. Also, nothing I am saying should be taken as a rap against the splendid people at the Inky now, one of whom is a former student of mine. They are in no way inferior in talent or energy to the Roberts era staff. There are just far fewer of them, they are limited in what they can cover, have smaller budgets and are working for howling incompentents, including a management that tries to explain how covering fewer things is good for business. That surely ain't the staff's fault. And yes, I read the paper regularly. David Zucchino, who worked at the Inky for 20 years and is now at the Los Angeles Times, has a good story this morning from the Inquirer newsroom. He points out the paper has 300 fewer reporters than it once had and describes the newsroom as vast but lightly populated. He, of course, should know. He works at another newspaper being run into the ground by nincompoops.

Question for discussion: is it possible that a public corporation cannot run a quality newspaper? The three best papers in the U.S. are still controlled by families. Family papers turned over to corporations (often Gannett or the Tribune Co.), immediately go downhill. Maybe the pressures on public corporations make it impossible for newspapers to function properly.

[The server has been down for several hours. We apologize]

[Photo of Tony Ridder from the San Jose Mercury News; photo of Gene Roberts from PBS]

Friday, March 10, 2006

Just because you are paranoid doesn't mean you haven't been googled--UPDATED

That guy Sergey Brin, he sure breathes heavy--If you are an employee of Microsoft you generally feel aggrieved that everyone buys your product and everyone hates you. You had one thing going for you, you were impervious to it all. No one really threatened the monopoly (and monopoly it is, gang). Just sometimes, in the dark shadows of night, you got to hear a little heavy breathing. If you listened just right, you heard the wind sigh: "Google."

Rumors have circulated for years that sooner or later Google was going to take on Microsoft in its most vulnerable place, application software--mostly Office--on the Internet. Microsoft has never quite gotten used to the Internet; the company always looks surprised when someone swoops in, takes control of an Internet function and swoops out with truck loads of cash. They were caught surprised by Netscape (for all the good that did Netscape). Apple's music hegemony must drive them crazy, and Google is the king of the search engines. Now Google is challenging Microsoft again. On the web. With applications.

What means is that Google may very well be finally taking on Microsoft in a vulnerable place. This shouldn't be over-emphasized, Microsoft only makes about 6% of its profit on Office; most of its money comes from Windows. But the philosophy behind Google is that anything you can do on your computer you can do better on the Internet.

Quietly, Google has purchased a small (four employee) company called Upstartle (isn't that cute?) that sells a program called Writely. Writely is a word processor on the web. You use it through your browser. It's good for collaborative work, particulary on the road. You can even upload Word documents. Since it is on the web, it doesn't matter where you are or what kind of computer you are using. More important, if you are writing as a committee or want to share your work, it doesn't matter where the other folks are or what they are using. And, you store it on the Internet, not your computer, unless you want a copy. Keep it on line and edit it there. You can store it as a pdf file, RTF or OpenDocument. Google already has a mail system, G-mail. Another Google move, long hinted, is something called G-drive. a place to store an almost infinite amount of data. You see the picture. Your computer becomes mostly a device to connect to the Web where you can do whatever you want. The Internet becomes your server.

And, it's all free.

UPDATE--Bill Gates clearly got the message. In a memo to his executives in October, Gates warned that the action was moving to the web and they better get on board the train. He has, however, said that many times before and the huge vessel he captains doesn't turn very quickly. He may have already missed--waiting for another metaphor out there are you?--the boat.

"Chris Gonna Find Ray Charles!"

Where are you buried, Christopher Columbus?--Seville. You asked. And who are you, Christopher Columbus? Stay tuned; we're still working on that.

Exactly who Christopher Columbus was (was he really a Sephardic Jew?) has long been the object of considerable speculation. So too is his burial site, with two cities, Seville and Santo Domingo, both claiming to have Chris's body. Columbus died in May, 1506 and it was generally believed he was buried in Seville. But in 1877, workers uncovered bones in Santo Domingo's cathedral, the Dominican Republic says are his.

A Spanish-led research team took DNA samples from Columbus' son and brother and then sampled the bones in Seville. They matched. The bones in Seville are Columbus'. The authorities in the Dominican Republic haven't permitted DNA sampling. It is conceivable, those bones are real also and poor Chris' skeleton was distributed to both sites.

As to who he was and his origin, the scientists are tracking down everyone they can find who might be related to him and will subject their DNA to analysis to see if they can pinpoint an origin. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Baby beluga in the deep blue miasma and herbal remedies won't help--UPDATED

Don't c
all me Ishmael. I can't find a white whale around here--Marine biologists working in Alaska have some chilling news: beluga whales may be endangered. Thirty years ago there were 1,300 in Cook Inlet. Last year, fewer than 280. No one knows why the decline. The gorgeous animals may wind up under federal protection. Such a listing was rejected in 2000 because it looked like overharvesting was the problem and that was fixable. Strict limits were placed on hunting but the population is still in decline. Something else is going on, says Lloyd Lowry at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. It could be human assaults on their habitat, including from oil and gas development, but the cause of the decline simply isn't clear. What's scary, of course, is that any single event, like an oil spill could be the tipping point that dooms the species.

They really have a cure for cancer but the herb growers are suppressing it--Americans spend billions on alternative remedies, highly touted in natural food stores, in magazines, and books. Even the government, thanks to the numbskulls in Congress, is in the act, with Congress forcing the National Institutes of Health to start a center to study and promote the use of these remedies. Enter the law of unintended consequences. One consequence is that some of these remedies are actually getting tested scientifically. To the surprise of many, it turns out none of them seem to work. Last week, two popular arthritis pills, glucosamine and chondroitin were found to be no better than placebos. Last month, saw palmetto, often thought to help prostate problems, was shown to be useless. St. John's wort doesn't treat depression, shark cartilage doesn't help with cancer and echinacea doesn't work for colds.

UPDATE--Oh, and vitamin B doesn't prevent heart attacks.

Do you think it will make a difference to the $20 billion-a-year industry or to the people shelling out the bucks? Certainly not.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Well, at least it isn't blackjack

Will Jennifer Aniston please report to the marketing department—OK. You live in China and you want to research the political situation in Taiwan. You go to the computer, kick up the web browser, and get—nowhere. You've been blocked. The old 404 message. The government has censored the site (with the help of American companies who give lip service to personal freedom). Or, you are sitting in your office and have nothing much to do at the moment and decide to see if you can track down nude pictures of Jennifer Aniston. (You need a new job, by the way). You can't; your employer is filtering such non-business traffic. He even bought software off-the-shelf to let him do it, commercal co-conspirators. In other words, while the World Wide Web was designed specifically to free the intellect and the soul, government and private censorship has interposed.

Not to worry. Censoring the web is a lot harder than it looks. And to make it even harder, a number of folks have devised ways of slipping by the censors. Bless them. The best site may be Boing Boing's Guide to Defeating Censorware. Click here. Reporters Without Borders has technical suggestions. You can trick Google into doing forbidden things and some RSS readers can slip around filters as well, apparently. There's also software called Circumventor, which you can download for free on a server. There are lots of others ways of screwing the screwers, and a world of people who get just as steamed as you do willing to help. Happy to be of service.

I found that Jennifer Aniston picture are at.....what?!....I'm melting......

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Decline of Western Civilization—Part V Fly With Me, or All We Like Sheep

In case of sudden decompression, you are on the wrong plane—Before we resume our usual kvetching, a rant. I have just spent 16 hours on an airline I will not name (Northwest) and this rant is not caused by any ill-treatment. Indeed, the flights were quite average. That’s what the rant is about.

I am old enough to remember when flying was fun or at least a special event you looked forward to. Many people even dressed up for a flight. The seats were comfortable, the prices reasonable, they fed you, later on they showed you a movie. You would call the airline for reservations and a human would answer the phone. The flight attendants (we called them stewardesses) were usually handsome young women. Drinks came in glasses, you ate with silverware on dishes, even in coach.

It was regulated by the government. Airlines couldn’t even jigger their tuna sandwiches without permission from the Civil Aeronautics Board. Then, of course, came deregulation and in 1985 tuna sandwiches became the least of our worries.

My flights to and from Californian this weekend were smooth, packed, cheap and unpleasant. They were unpleasant because I was jammed in a seat with not enough room to cross my legs, next to a guy who was territorial about the arm rest, in a packed plane with three flight attendants, at least one of whom had so little to do (there wasn’t anything to serve) she was reading a book in the galley. The airlines (Northwest particularly) have reduced travel to Greyhounds with wings. That’s fine for a 50-minute trip to Albany. It is not fine for five hours in a plane, sitting in seats 31-inches apart, with nothing to eat but crap ($3 a bag). Boarding was handled by one person who had to check the tickets and handle the desk for people who had problems at the same time. We boarded slower than we had to and the people with problems weren’t well served. Northwest, alone among major airlines, doesn’t even show bad movies. I treasured my iPod.

I was once a loyal supporter of what’s called the legacy carriers, you know, American, Delta, United, Northwest. I once even owned stock in Delta, so impressed was I with their service. Now they are in bankruptcy, arguably the worst-run major corporation in America with the possible exception of GM. I have frequent flier miles on several legacies and about 7 years ago, was one of United’s super fliers. Not any more. Last summer, my family did California on one of those new low-cost airlines, Frontier, with leather seats, leg room, satellite television entertainment, people who answer telephones and are not totally freaked out about losing their jobs. Still no damned meal, of course. At least they tried.

Some of this, of course is not the airlines’ fault. They are not the reason getting through the airports have become hell. Blame the 9/11 bastards for that. Nor are they responsible for the price of fuel, although most of the planes most of them fly are at least 10 years old and not the most efficient things on wings. But the rest of it is.

Two points to this rant then I’ll let you go. One, deregulation is over-rated. The airlines may have been more expensive, but they were better run and the customers were better served before the CAB was disbanded. You could fly from Philadelphia to San Francisco without having to stop in Dallas to save money. Fares were based on mileage. The longer the flight, the more it cost. Duh! It isn’t a political thing either; Jimmy Carter was president then. It’s economic philosophy. Not every human endeavor is better served by unregulated capitalism. Health care is another example. And those of you who think deregulation keeps down prices are invited to start paying my electric bill in July when the regulated price caps are removed in Maryland.

Second, if you are an airline and you are filling virtually every one of your seats, and you have cut service to the point where your customers hate you, and you are losing billions, is it possible you are still doing something wrong? Do you need an MBA to figure out you need to raise the price of your service? Can’t, you say? People won’t buy your service if they can get it cheaper elsewhere? How about providing something extra for the money, like good service and good food and enough people on the plane to service the customers properly? I'd gladly pay more. How about employees that have not just been screwed for the sixth time this month? You are in a service industry, schucks. We have to deal with your employees; you know, the ones you just stole the pensions from? How about, well, getting regulated again?

Come back for our next rant when we will discuss truly obnoxious characters who get insufficient attention: obese people in coach.

Back to business.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

On the road again....

Your humble servant is on the road again—California this time—and won't be back till Tuesday. Join me again then.