Tuesday, December 04, 2007

And cute animals taste good too


BARROW, ALASKA—It is the law of the cute. If an animal is cute—at least when it is very young—it has a popularity that may not be justified when it grows up but people get very protective. And if it grows up to be a very beautiful creature, all bets are off. Consider the polar bear.

In recent months environmentalists and government officials have been warning that the the bears—certainly among the cutest of cubs and the most gloriously beautiful adults—are endangered by global warming. The ice they use to live on is melting and they may not be able to hunt. The Sunday Times of London reported as long ago as 2005 that bears were drowning because they had to swim longer distances than usual. The Washington Post reported a study in 2004 by the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, that predicted that the bears may become extinct by the end of the century, mostly because of drowning or starving to death. USGS reported in the New York Times that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be gone by mid-century. Practically every environmental group has issued press releases lamenting the impending extinction of what is an unarguably beautiful creature even if it is one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They could be gone entirely from Alaska.

Not everyone is convinced, including scientists up here in the Alaskan Arctic, where no one leaves town unarmed because of the bears. Daniel Lum, an Iñupiat guide had to chase a bear away from his semi-hysterical wife two weeks ago after the bear came exploring their Barrow home. Lum never lets any of his clients out of his SUV on the ice unless he has his rifle with him, and that’s not for effect. Anyone going near the beach is warned to watch for bears. People live with them and respect them here.

But Glenn Sheehan;, executive director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BARC), an Iñupiat-funded research center, says lamenting for the bears may be a tad premature. Along with most things in Arctic science, the baseline data needed to draw conclusions is missing. Also, Sheehan, an anthropologist, says the lamentation is coming mostly from biologists who know very little about ice and the bears’ relationship to it.

Sheehan does not doubt for a moment that climate change is real. Virtually no one in Alaska does. And he is worried that Washington—a long way from Barrow—will try to “save” the bears by dumping on the native people who live with them.

“I live here;,” says Sheehan, who is not Iñupiat. “Most of my friends here were born and raised here and they know that it’s much easier for people to regulate them than it is to regulate themselves. Polar bear survival aside, what’s the most likely result of putting polar bears—as opposed to any one of a thousand species that you’d find in Arizona or Pennsylvania that are potentially endangered by climate change—on the endangered list? The most likely result is: George Bush or Hillary or whoever succeeds [Bush] is going to say, well polar bears are endangered by climate change. I’m going to tell those Chinese, you cut it back from 3 to 2 coal plants a week? He’s going to go to Cincinnati and say, polar bears are threatened. Turn in your SUVs? I don’t think so. They’re going to go to the oil industry and say, polar bears are threatened so stop providing energy to our country? No.”

What they are going to do, he says, is put restrictions on the people in the Arctic to stop driving their ATVs on the beach or some other fairly ridiculous thing, affecting on their culture and their lives. Yet there is nothing the native people of the Arctic are doing that endangers the bears; they are helping them survive.

Without baseline data it is impossible to take real actions to save the bears—if indeed they are endangered. The science being used to alarm the public is spurious, he says. When you ask the biologists pertinent questions, you get weak answers: “Have you modeled the different types of sea ice? Do you know precisely what sea ice is most important to the bears? The answer is no. Is most of the sea ice that’s disappearing, that’s making most of the headlines and somehow being linked to the endangerment of bears, have anything to do with the survival of the bears? They don’t have a clue.”

Maybe the ice change has actually been good for the bears, he suggests. For instance, there are more grey whales coming to the American Arctic now that there is more water to swim in. And the more grey whales, the more orcas. When orcas and grey whales get together there are more whale carcasses around because the orcas rip out the tongues of the whales (it is an orca delicacy) and leave the rest of the animal, which bears love.

“A couple of years ago” he said, “the ice went out but it didn’t notify the bears--went out overnight and stranded 129 bears here. It went too far for them to swim if they didn’t have to. They were here for a long time. A grey whale washed up at Point Barrow and they were just all over that. They were the dirtiest looking bears. They were happy. They would eat. They’d sleep. They’d eat.” That could be a model for the bears adapting.

They can sit around waiting for home delivery.

He also points out that there have been two or three warming periods in the Arctic in the past and all the evidence indicates that the bears survived without any interference from politicians.
Maybe they ate them. Probably not. Politicians must taste terrible.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Healthful life with round corners



I'll have a pastrami on rye, chips and a Diet Coke, for medicinal reasons, of course--Federal scientists have found that moderately overweight people live longer than the obese or the scrawny, or even the normal. Now we're talking serious research.

People who have something to hang on to are much less likely to die from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease and while they are more likely than others to die of cancer, diabetes or heart disease, the increased rate does not make up for the benefits of not dying from the other stuff. You may be assured that this conclusion, published in JAMA, does not go uncontested from the weight police. It also flies in the face of conventional wisdom, bless it. The research came from the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.

"It's just rubbish," said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health to the Washington Post. "It's just ludicrous to say there is no increased risk of mortality from being overweight. . . . From a health standpoint, it's definitely undesirable to be overweight."

“I believe the data,” said Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, a professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego to the New York Times. A body mass index of 25 to 30, the so-called overweight range, “may be optimal,” she said.

People come in different weight classifications: normal, underweight, overweight and obese. Absolutely no one thinks obese is a good thing, either for health or aesthetics. The fight is over the other three. As Gina Kolata points out in the Times, a woman five-feet-four, would be normal at 130 lbs, underweight at 107, overweight at 150 and obese at 180. It’s the overweight category we’re talking about here.

Studies in mice, for instance, report that being seriously underweight, eating a near starvation diet, is linked [how I hate that word] to increased life span. There are no data supporting that notion in humans. The assumption has long been that the less you weigh the longer you will live. What the new research now shows is that—duh—things are more complicated than that.

Several years ago, Katherine M. Flegal, a senior research scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, reported that the common wisdom may not have been correct. "It's not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all situation, where excess weight just increases your mortality risk for any and all causes of death,” she said. Her study caused a major eruption in the blood pressure of most other scientists. The fat hit the fire, so to speak. The new work supports and expands on her study.

The analysis is based on the best cause-of-death data that federal scientists collected between 1971 and 2004 from the records of 2.3 million adults.

Being overweight but not obese was associated only with excess mortality from diabetes and kidney disease -- not from cancer or heart disease. There were fewer instances of death from tuberculosis, emphysema, pneumonia, Alzheimer's disease and injuries.

I am old enough to have learned certain rules of life. (Borrowing from Nelson Algren, the three most important are: "Never play poker with a man called Doc; never eat at a place called Mom's, and never, ever, no matter what else you do in life, go to bed with someone who has more troubles than you do.")

The fourth is "all things in moderation. Especially moderation."

Excuse me. It's dinner time.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The ghosts of Cold Spring Harbor


Dr. Watson meet Dr. Shockley—James Watson, he of Watson & Crick, the double-helix guys, apparently never heard of William Shockley. Biologists don’t hang around with physicists much. Watson, 79, caused an uproar and got fired from his job, for saying almost exactly the same thing Bill Shockley said 40 years ago and will likely meet a similar end. Coincidences abound.

Watson, who actually is fairly famous for stupid, poorly considered statements, told the Times of London last week that there really was no point in worrying about the people of Africa because there were limits to how much help you can give them. They are not as bright as white folks. When the world went “huh,” he apologized, saying “there is no scientific basis for such a belief,” which of course raises the question of why he said it in the first place. He got fired from his plush job as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which he served as president until 2003. All kinds of speaking engagements were canceled and he is now something of a pariah in science. He is triggering a debate on whether scientists should be shunned or silenced because what they say is not socially acceptable--or is even silly.

Those who do not study history and all that crap. Forty years ago, Bill Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, said essentially the same thing. Blacks repeatedly score 15 points lower than whites in IQ tests and therefore, as a whole (not individually) were less bright than whites. Moreover, he said, there was little point with welfare programs since they wouldn’t work. Sounds familiar?

[Your humble servant, is, of course, Shockley's biographer. For more on Shockley, you are all invited to purchase Broken Genius, The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, which by coincidence, comes out in paperback next January. I would like to thank Dr. Watson for the news hook].

Shockley also agreed that the statement had little scientific support beyond the IQ tests, but spent the rest of his life trying to get the scientific establishment to study the matter and see if he was right. They, of course, had no intention of doing any such thing, and in a classic instance of scientists behaving badly, went after Shockley, destroying his career. He was shunned and the establishment did its best to silence him. He died in 1979 at the same age Watson is now, alone and in disgrace. The same thing is likely to happen to Watson.

Shockley was a firm believer in the inheritance of attributes such as intelligence (nature) and ran up against an establishment that believed that intelligence was more a matter of environment (nurture). We now think it is both, but Shockley was far more right than the scientists of his time were willing to concede. Except for the race aspect, he actually won. It was when Shockley got into race, he lost the argument.

IQ tests measure one aspect of what we call intelligence. The tests were invented at Stanford by Lewis Terman [your humble servant also is his biographer. See Terman’s Kids. Do you note a pattern here?] They do not measure creativity, attention, motivation, talent, aspects of reasoning. Shockley even took Terman’s tests twice to see if he would qualify for Terman’s study of the gifted and failed twice. He was one of the smartest men of the 20th century and won a Nobel Prize but did not score dramatically on IQ tests. (The physicist Luis Alvarez also failed to qualify). Yet he used these tests as the basis for his racial profiling. Intelligence is much too complicated for testing or even definitions, and in one aspect, at least, Shockley was not as intelligent as even he thought.

The establishment at the time first attacked Shockley on grounds he was a physicist and didn’t know squat about biology (something they certainly can’t say about Watson, who headed the American efforts in the Human Genome Project), but Shockley learned what he needed to learn and could do statistics better than they could. So they carried the attack to the personal, behaving disgracefully. Shockley, however, was a terrible debater, a seriously unpleasant person, and he lost the argument.

Missing in much of the press coverage is another coincidence. Shockley was a eugenicist, the notion that smarter, better people, need to out-reproduce the less smart, less better people. Much of the work in eugenics in the first half of the 20th century was done at—wait for it—Cold Spring Harbor. The lab has happily moved well beyond that difficult time of its history, but the coincidence is notable.

Watson, if he pays attention, will learn from this that the best thing he can do now is shut up. He likely won’t.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

That's Jane Austen swinging from that tree! Darcy, quick, drop the banana!



"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single baboon in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife"--We are not nearly as far removed from our evolutionary cousins as we like to think. Nick Wade's story in the New York Times on the work of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth of the University of Pennsylvania is a case in point. The two, husband and wife, study baboons in Botswana and they tape the behavior of their subjects. The results, as Wade points out, is that baboons think. Slowly, perhaps, but we who allow ourselves to be governed from Washington have no right to feel smug.

The biologists set up tests for the baboons and actually taping what looks awfully like intellect. One male baboon has the hots for a female but she is being serviced by the alpha male. Suddenly, he hears the sound of another female nearby ("If you can't screw the one you love, love the one you screw?") and you can watch him think it out. "Hmmm. The boss is busy and we have this opportunity nearby, maybe I can knock off a quickie before he returns and...." Unfortunately for him, when he goes to find her, he finds a loudspeaker playing a recording of the second female's flirtatious call. Bad biologists! But the point is made.

The two suggest that there are pointed similarities between baboons and the women in 19th century English society. "Stay loyal to your relatives (though perhaps at a distance, if they are an impediment), but also try to ingratiate yourself with members of high-ranking families," they say. Sounds like the Bennet family, doesn't it? Female status is passed from mother to daughter and female society stays constant, while the males change regularly as new upstarts upset the reigning alpha male. They sort of move into Netherfield Park, put all the females into a tizzy, and walk off with the best-looking of the higher rank. Like the women in Jane Austen novels, the female baboons who do best are the ones with the best social skills.

I'm sorry, but is that vagina a Versace?--Speaking of females with social skills, I write this very carefully. The medical establishment in Britain is in a bit of a tizzy about the newest fad: cosmetic vaginal surgery. The number of procedures to reduce the size of vaginas has doubled in six years. Women claim they are having problems wearing tight clothing, ride a bike, show up in bathing suits or take communal showers and want surgeons to do something about it. It is called genitoplasty or labial reduction. The authors of a story in the British Medical Journal said they did a Google search of labial reduction and found 490,000 results. (I got 92,400). Most were ads for clinics in Britain and the U.S. that did the surgery. The Brits have been treated to television and magazines pieces on "designer vaginas." Can we expect knock-offs from China? No. It will be a sign of my maturity that I will drop the subject without the usual bad taste humor it so richly deserves. Aren't you proud?

Who are you going to believe, that printer or your lying eyes?--Everyone has had it happen. Your printer software proclaims you are out of ink (aren't you glad I moved from vaginas?) and you toss the cartridge out and put in a new one. If you suspect that you are somehow getting screwed, you may be right. A study from German suggests that in at least half the time, the software is lying--it isn't out. A German research company,TÜV Rheinland looked at all brands and both single-ink and multi-ink cartridges. Results did vary. Epson (which financed the study) was the most honest (told the truth 80% of the time) and Kodak the worst (told the truth 64%). Sometimes the printer said it was out of ink when there was still enough for hundreds of pages. Sometimes a multi-ink cartridge reported itself empty when only one of the inks was out. You are better off with cartridges with the inks in separate tubes, so that you can replace the one running low and not have to pay for the ones still in sufficient supply. Sometimes, the problem is just that if you don't use the printer for a while, the ink dries. If you are waiting for answer to how to solve the problem, I can't help you. They have us by the short hairs.

Vaginal statue photography by Dan Heller

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life is a crap shoot--existentialist alert!


All right, get out your hankies--If you were a college professor and you had a chance to give one last lecture before you died, what would you say?

At a number of colleges, professors have been asked to imagine what their last words would be and the results are no doubt fascinating and a great exercise. But for one of them, the exercise was not academic.

Randy Pausch, a well-known computer scientist at Carnegie-Mellon, has pancreatic cancer and will be dead in a few months. It was his last lecture. He is 46 and a father of three young children.

Jeff Zaslow, who writes “Moving On” for the Wall Street Journal, has a story about Pausch’s lecture today. It’s one of those only subscribers can read but I can tell you about it. If you have a subscription, click here. There is video of the lecture at the Carnegie Mellon website you will not want to miss. You also want to visit his web site to get more details on his illness. Click on his name above.

Pausch, the author of Alice, software that allows just about anyone to do 3-D animation on a computer, appears in remarkable health now that his chemotherapy is done. He said he feels wonderful and did push-ups on the stage floor to prove it. He lifts weights and rides a bicycle an hour every day That he has the most lethal form of cancer seems particularly ironic.

Four hundred people, all of whom knew the circumstances, came to hear the lecture. Pausch assured them he was not in denial. He knows he is dying. He even showed his CT scans with 10 tumors on his liver. The cancer had metastasized. If the audience expected him to be morose, he said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you.” And if you want to feel sorry for him, he said, you have to drop and do push ups first.

So what did he say as his last lecture:
  • Rejections in life, he said, are brick walls put there as a test. “They let us prove how badly we want things.” He also learned from a mentor that if “you wait long enough...people will surprise and impress you. If you are pissed off at someone,” he said, you haven’t waited long enough.
  • He got great pleasure, he said, from helping his students. He described requiring his students to create video games without sex and violence. “You’d be surprised how many 19-year-old boys run out of ideas when you take those possibilities away,” he said.
  • When he was a kid, he said, he had four goals in life: to win a giant stuffed animal at carnivals, design Disney rides, write an article for the World Book encyclopedia and fly in zero-gravity. He has done every one. He had all the stuffed animals he won brought into the lecture hall and gave them away to the audience.
  • Now he is facing death. “Like Moses, I get to see the Promised Land, but I don’t get to step foot on it. That’s OK. I will live on in Alice.” The program has had more than a million downloads.
  • He also admitted to a deathbed conversion, he told the audience. “I just bought a Macintosh.”

The lecture was taped so his children, 5, 2 and 1, can see it when they grow up. At the end he had a cake brought out for his wife, Jai [above] whose birthday was the day before. They kissed and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” and cried.

“This was for my kids,” he said finally. And everyone, I suspect, fell apart. Be my guest.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Google captured by space aliens!


Instead of Google Earth why don't we just call the Earth Google and be done with it--The folks at Google, who buy up everything they can find on earth, are slowly pushing their way into space. With more money than Croesus (or almost Bill Gates), the company has posted $30 million out of its petty cash drawer to stir somebody into putting robots on the moon. The company will give $20 million to the first group that lands a privately funded robotic rover on the lunar surface. The requirement is that it must rove at least 500 meters and send back images. A second prize of $5 million, plus a $5 million bonus will be added for additional tasks.

You better hurry. The prize goes down by half if no one does it by 2012, and the reward ends in 2014. Google even hired an astronaut, Ed Lu, to run the project.

The prize is in association with the X PRIZE Foundation (which gave a reward to Burt Rutan for being the first to launch a privately owned manned aircraft into suborbital space twice) and is welcome here. I covered the space program and the manned lunar expeditions, and never dreamed then that humanity would retreat from the moon and lose its vision of exploration. We haven't been there in 34 years. We prefer to spend our money on wars. I would rather we actually sent people up there, but at least we'd be doing something.

For Google, incidentally, this is not the first time they are dealing with space. They struck a jaw-dropping $1.3 million deal with NASA recently so they could park their corporate jets at NASA's Moffett Field in Mt. View, near their campus. The company gets to park three planes at Moffett, including the Boeing 767-200 the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, use as their corporate jet (talk about the road to excess!) and in return, NASA gets to put whatever instrumentation it wants on the planes. The other two planes are more modest Gulfstreams. NASA has already done an experiment on a meteor shower from one of the Gulfstreams. The deal is great for Brin and Page: Moffett is four miles from Google headquarters and the poor dears don't have to drive to San Jose or San Francisco like mere mortal CEOs to get on their plane. What the hell they are doing with a 767, I have no idea. A bowling alley in the air? Swimming pools would weigh too much.

NASA said it thinks the deal is neat. Besides flying experiments on Google planes, the money helps defray the cost of operating Moffett, which is adjacent to the Ames Research Center. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, that's a picture of their little investment up above.

Google's approach to buying things is admirable, by the way. They seem to look around for things that might be interesting and just buy them and figure out what to do with them later. I use a telephone service called Grand Central. I have one telephone number and it will ring on any phone I tell it it to. You dial the number (a Maryland area code because I normally live in Baltimore) and it will ring on my cell phone wherever it is, and my home and office phones, even here in Alaska. It does voice mail, contacts you by e-mail if there is a voice mail in your box, let's you listen to it on the web, and even call the number back. Amazingly, it is so far free. Google, of course, bought it up within months of its start up. It is still in beta, for heaven's sakes. It had potential; they have the cash. It's at grandcentral.com, and I love it. Google's record is such that I doubt they will screw it up.

Usually, when a company gets that big, you learn to hate it. See Microsoft. For some reason, I can't bring myself to hate them yet. They are simply cool. Rich, but cool.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The immortal berry--or not


Everything causes cancer in rats; everything cures cancer in rats--That used to be the motto of this blog and maybe I'll bring it back. As we have discussed, medical researchers only pretend to know anything about nutrition and part of the problem has to do with science writers. Here is the latest on what will and what will not make you immortal, all reported in the press. If you are confused it is only because you are paying attention--and many science writers aren’t.

  • Antioxidants, show no sign of being beneficial in preventing heart attacks or sudden death in high risk women. This, of course, despite the fact that scientific papers by the scores and scientific articles by the hundreds (and yes, I’ve written a few myself) exclaim how wonderful antioxidants are, especially for heart disease. “Antioxidants scavenge free radicals and limit the damage they can cause," says a paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine. "Diets high in fruit and vegetable intake, and thus rich in such antioxidants, have been associated with reduced rates of coronary heart disease and stroke. Vitamins C and E and beta carotene are potential mediators of the apparent protective effect of a plant-based diet on cardiovascular disease." Except there is no evidence in this study, which made use of more than 8,000 women over almost 10 years. Nada.
  • Studies showing that vitamin E has no effect on heart disease may have failed because the researchers didn’t test the right dosage, according to a study at Vanderbilt. In fact, the scientists said, no study has yet established what the right dosage is for vitamin E. They found that if they gave very high doses of E, 3200 IUs per day, far more than the minimum recommended dosage, for 16 weeks, they could finally get the vitamin to impressively suppress free radicals. The Duke people found that it required a minimum of 1600 IU per day to make a mark on oxidative stress. None of the published studies used that much.
  • Remember cranberries? A new study shows that it may improve chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Rutgers and Brown scientists found that cancer cells showed increased efficiency of platinum chemotherapy in patients who were resistant to those drugs. The cells became six times more sensitized to the platinum. The main researcher involved said it was “exciting” to see this--until someone proves it isn’t so and that’s before someone proves it is so again.
  • Since cranberries are red, does it make sense to think the color has something to do with the health benefits. Why of course. Ohio State researchers claim that the rich colors in berriesl, fruits and vegetables, may be powerful colon cancer fighters. At an American Cancer Society meeting, they said anthocyanins, the compound that produces the color, cut the growth of human cancer cells--in rats. Slightly altering the anthocyanin molecules increased the potency. The compound was extracted frrom grapes, radishes, purple corn, chokeberries, bilberries, purple carrots and elderberries.
  • Oh, and grapefruit is now linked to breast cancer.

Are you confused? Maybe science writers need to exercise a bit more discretion in publishing these stories. I can’t account for science journals.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

See that potato sack? See that river?


Oh Macavity? Hey you! Stupid, over here!--I'm going to write something now that will get me in a world of trouble. People are really going to yell at me because I am about to attack one of their most cherished beliefs. Boy, I'm in for it now.

Cats are about a smart as door knobs. They are genuinely stupid animals.

Cats are so stupid that cat lovers (who are truly weird) can anthropomorphise all kinds of attributes into their cats and feel sure they are seeing truth. T. S. Eliot wrote Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (used by Andrew Lloyd Weber for his show Cats) posited that the reason you get no reaction when you call a cat by its name is that you don't really know its name. It is a mystery that cats keep to themselves. In fact, they don't respond to their names because they are much too dumb. Dogs get it almost instantly, and if a dog changes owner (say through a dog pound) and acquires a new name, it learns that almost instantly and without regret. Whatever. So now I'm Fido. Cats have no sense of humor, no sense of shame, no loyalty. They understand almost no human language. They are stupid animals. There, I said it.

What triggered this treacherous scree was a study from the University of Alberta, Canada, on what cats remember and how, published in Current Biology. They tested the cats by tripping them up while they had to go over hurdles. Cats remember things physically, not visually, it turns out. They will remember bumping into something and avoid it in the future but won't remember it is there if they just see it. And they only remembered the obstacle for 10 minutes. The researchers said they found the same thing with dogs and horses, but that doesn't harm my thesis that dogs are a lot smarter than cats. (Editors note: I've had four cats. I think the only thing cats remember is who fed them last.)

Remember the song, "Memory," from Cats? Forget it.

While we're on the subject, researchers on the Big Island of Hawaii report that the slopes of Mauna Kea are infested with thousands of feral cats, posing a threat to the wildlife, particularly birds, on the mountain and could become a threat to humans. The cats have been there for years, probably descendants of house cats gone free. They are a potential threat to humans not because they are going to jump up and bite your neck, but because they carry diseases, including toxoplasmosis. They also have feline versions of HIV and leukemia. They wander between 6,500 and 9,000 feet, and eat birds they can find, including some that are endangered. If they come down from that height and mix with domestic cats, the diseases could spread to people. Any attempt to hunt down the little buggers would, of course, trigger a violent reaction from cat people.

[Picture above, of course, is Bill the Cat from Bloom County. I miss him.]

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Flashed any good books lately?


OK, we can talk to girls or we can decode flashing lights. Duh!--Silicon Valley, where I lived for 20 years, is a seriously weird place, filled with seriously strange people, and I enjoyed it very much. Once in a while, a story pops up that explains everything. Or not.

Last year, the city of San Jose, the capital of the valley, ran a Digital Art festival. You can work that out for yourself, but one of the displays was four glowing amber discs on top of the Adobe building (as in Adobe Acrobat). The lights were flashing a semaphore signal. The discs would light in sequences that never appeared to repeat, clearly a code. But for what?

Enter two classic geeks, Bob Mayo and Mark Snesrud. They had time on their hands and engineers cannot resist puzzles. Both were taking a seminar on “communication skills,” which means learning how to pick up girls. (I am not making any of this up. One of the features of Silicon Valley that intrigued me is that given the choice between deciphering a good piece of code and getting laid, the code wins every time. Keep reading.)

The two guys could see the disks spinning from a bar they frequented. They noted that each disk changed every 7.2 seconds. But what the hell was it trying to say? Geeks never read manuals, so first Mayo, who lost his job at Hewlett-Packard and apparently had a load of free time, photographed hours’ worth of spinning disks from a nearby parking garage to record the pattern. They then considered setting up a radio receiver to pick up electromagnetic transmissions from the disks. Then they found out that if they just went to the project’s website, they would have saved themselves the trouble. The website had the sequences.

First they tried to match the semaphore signals to ASCI code, the language most computers use to code text. They discovered that certain patterns matched passages from James Joyce’s Ulysses. [It’s not clear which of them knew enough of Joyce to figure that out but apparently at least one had a liberal arts education, or could use Google].

Then, spending months using pattern recognition software, they found certain odd words ["Dominus" and "calumet," to name two], which they then Googled, only to discover that all came from the same source: Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49. The semaphore signals from the Abobe tower were the text of the 1966 novel, which is set in the Valley and is about code. The disks took months to go through the 800 paragraphs.

The artist who designed the work, Ben Rubin, was pleased the mystery was solved.
What did the two get for all that work? The admiration of their peers. It’s the Valley, after all.

If you want to know the details, click here, and thanks to John Murrell at Siliconvalley.com

Oh yeah. Snesrud now has a girl friend.

Friday, August 03, 2007

It's Sgt. Preston of the Yukon! On King!--RANT UPDATED


He died of frozen nose hairs, sniff—As most of you know, I begin a eight month tour of duty with the journalism department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks this month, and in fact, leave in a week’s time. Consequently, this blog will be down for the next two or three weeks while I gather my mucklucks, cariboo parka and cans of jellied moose nose. I’ll be back the end of the month with a new, revived blog. This will be my cure for cabin fever. Everybody needs an adventure. The alternative at my age is to walk around on the grass hitting little white balls into holes with a stick, a sport designed for the village idiots of Scotland a century go.

In the meantime, I leave you with these quick thoughts:
  • Minnesota bridge is falling down, falling down--Why is the presence of Laura Bush and later her inept husband at the bridge collapse in Minneapolis news? He didn't show up when one of America's largest cities was being destroyed. To be fair, there isn't much he can do about the bridge except make sure there is funding, which he has; it really isn't even his fault that the bridge went down, and the reasons for the destruction of America's infrastructure seem beyond most politicians anyhow. But why is his presence, an obvious photo op, news? It is an attitude of the news media, particularly the press corps in Washington that everything a president does is important. It isn't.
  • And yes, the small death toll is wonderful and amazing and it does make you wonder about all the reports on CNN and Fox and elsewhere about a "major catastrophe." In the news business I thought you wait until you get actual facts before you draw conclusions. But what do I know.
  • Nomination for the Darwin Prize—Why am I supposed to be sympathetic to 23 Christian Korean missionaries who volunteered to go to Afghanistan, a dangerous and fervently Moslem country? You can still despise the Taliban who captured them and are still using the missionaries as hostages (and killed two) and hope they return to Korea safely and don’t reproduce.
  • And while we are on the subject, if you spend $1.25 for bottled water, most of which comes from a public source, you should consider not reproducing either. Or, you have too much money on your hands. Pepsi admits that's where Aquafina comes from, a tap, and so do most of the other non-spring water products. And why do you think spring water is cleaner or tastes better than public water? Most American cities (New York's is world famous for its quality) have superb water supplies, and if there are still too much chemicals for you, you can always filter it. To spend $1.25 for something in a plastic bottle is insane. (My wife refills a plastic bottle with splendid City of Baltimore water through a Britta filter, completely reasonable. And virtually free. And you?)
  • Suggestion for Constitutional change—American democracy has worked pretty damned well for more than 200 years, but it doesn’t any more. It’s time to consider a parliamentary system so that when you get an administration that has behaved the way this one has, and a Congress as corrupt as this one, you can vote the bastards out. Oh, and why do Karl Rove and Dick Cheney still have security clearances? I'm not alone in this: historian Robert Dallik has a suggestion in the Washington Post of how to get rid of a president who has failed miserably and lost all hope of redemption. He would have a presidential recall process added to the constitution.
  • Suggestion for cruel but not unusual punishment—Airline executives should be required to spend at least 4 hours a week in their own coach sections, in a middle seat, except for those airlines that fly the Atlantic in 757. Those executives should spend 10 hours flying to Vilnius every week. They should be required to bring their own food and sit next to either a fat person or a screaming baby. And every other week, they should have their flights canceled and have to spend overnight in Cleveland waiting for another flight.
  • Requirement for an antacid—Rupert Murdoch owning the Wall Street Journal. He has vulgarized everything he touches (and then sells them) and now he has his hands on one of the three best newspapers in America. No good can come of this.

We have become a docile and passive people, capable of putting up with any outrage without much of a protest or revolt. Been to an airport lately? Heard of anyone going bankrupt to pay medical bills or dying because a clerk at an insurance company won't let them have the treatment they need? Don't mind a government tapping your telephone without your knowledge and without a court order? Have schools so bad you have to home-school your kids to keep them safe? We should not be putting up with this stuff folks. Lost your pension? Had to take salary cuts while the guys running your company are pulling in millions? Still getting only two weeks' vacation time? Why are you sitting there?

Arise!

Whew. I feel much better. Next time from Fairbanks.

j

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Later we'll discuss sex and lower back pain


A breakthrough would be when you link intelligence to science writing--When I taught science writing I forbade the students from using the word breakthrough, mostly on grounds there are in fact very few real breakthroughs in science. The discovery of the helical structure of DNA is a breakthrough. The discovery of penicillin is a breakthrough. Breakthroughs come about four or five times a century. And the word is greatly overused by journalists who are trying to make their stories seem more important than they are, or by scientists doing likewise.

I’d like to add another word: link. The word link should be banned in all stories about nutrition, to be sure. What is linked today, isn’t linked tomorrow and even if there is a correlation that does not prove causation, so, so what? Journals are filled with stories linking something we eat to either something that will make us ill or to a cure or a prevention of whatever that was. And if you wait a year or two, someone will come up with the opposite results. Have some recent examples.

Vitamin C prevents or treat colds, or then, maybe it doesn't—Few substances have been studied more and the results are mixed. The general conclusion was that data were lacking to support the notion vitamin C prevents colds, but there was solid evidence it shortened their duration. Not now, at any rate. Sort of.

In a study published in the Cochrane Library, a meta-analysis of 30 published studies involving 11,350 people who took at least 200 milligrams of vitamin C daily, researchers reported that the substance did nothing to lower the risk of the common cold. There was a slight reduction in the duration and severity of cold symptoms compared to a placebo, but it was not statistically significant. There was no reason to take vitamin C daily, a Finnish researcher said, unless—here comes the almost part—you are exposed to short periods of extreme physical stress, like running around in sub-arctic temperatures. Vitamin C showed a slight benefit in that case. Note this was a meta-analysis, which I’m beginning to think is a procedure that is at the root of this problem. Meta-analysis are studies of studies, statistically measuring whether a bunch of studies prove anything. Statistically speaking, of course.

Diet sodas are better for you than the corn syrup kind—Wrong, you silly person. You’ve been reading too much of the medical literature. It turns out drinking as little as one soda can a day, diet or regular, is “associated” (that’s another word, a synonym for “linked”) with a 48% increased risk of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease and diabetes. Everyone agrees drinking the regular kind (corn syrup, which long ago replaced sugar) was linked to ill results but everyone thought diet soda was safe. The results, published in the journal Circulation, were puzzling even to the guys at Boston University to who did the study. They think it isn’t anything in the soda, just that it is sweet and hence, it changes dietary patterns toward sweetness, leading to obesity etc. This wasn’t a meta-analysis, but part of the Framingham study, which is much better. People who (like me) slugged down a Diet Coke a day also had a 31% chance of becoming obese; a 30% chance of having a larger waist line (like me), a 25% chance of developing high blood triglycerides or high blood sugar, and a greater risk of having too little of the good cholesterol. The soda industry pointed out, in this case accurately, that soda is 99%+ water and it was not likely anything in the rest could have that huge an effect. The study didn’t count all the other things these people did in their lives that could lead to the increases; the increase could easily have been coincidental to the diet soda.

But wait, there’s more.

Grapefruit is not good for you—All that vitamin C and stuff? Forgetaboutit. A study of 50,000 post-menopausal women found that eating as little as one quarter of a grapefruit daily raised the risk of breast cancer 30%. According to the British Journal of Cancer, the grapefruit inceased the levels of estrogen, which increased the risk. The problem with this study is that it relied on voluntary questionnaires, the least reliable source of data. And the objections above pertain here just as well.

Think we’re through?

Lycopene in tomatoes prevents cancer—Lycopene in tomatoes is not necessarily good for you. The Food and Drug Administration did a meta-analysis (here we go again) and found that lycopene, an anti-oxidant thought beneficial in preventing cancer (especially prostate cancer), doesn’t. Or, more precisely, the evidence is not statistically compelling. There is no evidence anything in tomatoes prevents cancer, the FDA reported, studying scores of tests that said there was. I had tomatoes for lunch.

But….

Organic tomatoes are better for you than non-organic tomatoes—Yes. Really. We agree on something. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (I have a copy by the bed for leisure reading) says that organic tomatoes have a higher percent of flavonoids, antioxidants “linked” to preventing heart disease and cancer. The study is one of the first to substantiate claims that organic vegetables have an advantage over the factory-farmed stuff. They certainly taste better. The researchers, at UC Davis, think organic vegetables are better because of the availability of nitrogen in the soil.

Are you confused, dear reader? I would like to suggest a tomato and cheese pizza and a good cold glass of beer for lunch. Maybe a little popcorn. Might I recommend the couch? We can’t live forever.

Damn, I'm hungry.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You are unbuttoned, you must be from Apple


You're going to have to file down those fingers, pal--A few weeks ago, during the iPhone hype season, I did a brief discourse on the aesthetics of Apple and how its industrial design philosophy is dramatically different from other companies, one of the reasons the company stirs such passion. This came in the context of the new cell phone which had only an on/off button. Everything else required that you press icons on the screen.  Apple's Jonathan Ive (Apple's chief designer) and Steve Jobs design from form to function. Sometimes, it turns out, that's good news; sometimes it isn't.

For instance: One of the more serious criticisms of the iPhone is that you can't replace the battery. You have to ship your iPhone to Apple. They send you a loaner while they remove your old battery, put in a new one, and then ship your phone back to you--a drag. But people who have taken the iPhone apart have figured out why: the battery setup is the result of the exterior design of the iPhone. In order to make the iPhone look like it does, as slim and sleek, they had to use a battery that was not easily replaced. Any other company would have sent the design back to the shop and told them to design around a replaceable battery. Not Jobs and Ive. They sent it back to find a battery that fit the case. So the user crashes into the design. The iPod has the same issue--a battery that you can't replace yourself--for the same reason. It would screw up the design.

However, another criticism was the lack of keyboard. You could not have the iPhone look like an iPhone with a button keyboard like the Blackberry. In this case, the user wins. Unless you have really, really tiny fingers, pressing icons on a screen is vastly more efficient than trying to press teeny buttons with big fingers. And it would look just as awful as a Blackberry. 

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting (and free on the web) take on all this. Steve Jobs hates buttons. He has minimized the buttons on every product Apple designed during his tenures, starting with the original Mac, which didn't even have arrow keys. The MacBook I'm using now has one-third fewer buttons that a similar HP or Dell laptop. The iPod has no buttons, the iPhone only one, and the mouse I'm using has one, not three. The Journal points out that Jobs doesn't even have buttons on his black shirts. (One presumes he uses a zipper on his jeans). According to the Journal, the main criteria for getting along in Apple's design department is not to add keys to a product unless there is a compelling reason, and there aren't any. Can't you see that discussion going on at the Dell design shop? Does Dell have a design shop?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mercy from the media


Pssst, little girl. If you get in my car I can tell you the ending of Harry Potter--I bet I'm not the only one who has noticed that all of the major newspapers have put off major reviewing the last Harry Potter book, apparently to give everyone a reasonable chance to finish it before giving away the ending. Good on them. You can't review the book or the series without discussing how it ends. Elizabeth Hand at the Washington Post does have an interesting review on the book in which she gives away some of the plot but not the ending. Maybe it's a review; it's hard to tell on the web. She says she wept reading it. If you want to go into the book without foreknowledge you probably would want to avoid clicking there.

I would love to be the director of the final movie just for the Battle of Hogwarts scene, which if done right might be one of the greatest battle scenes in movie history. The attack of the house elves did me in. Presumably, the major thoughtful reviews ("what does it all mean?") will come next week when most people have finished. I thank the editors one and all.

The Baltimore Sun has a story preceded by a warning not to read further if you don't know the ending and right below the warning is a sentence that would seem to give it all away. In fact, it doesn't, but shame on them.

Isn't it cool? Eight million of us have a secret.

I shut off my computer Friday night and went off to the bookstore to get my copy at midnight and started reading when I got home. I finished at 7 p.m. Sunday. I did not see the internet and tried to minimize social contact as much as possible. And I'm supposed to be an adult. I understand attendance out my synagogue was down. I can guess what some of them were doing.

It is the best book in the series and J.K. Rowling clearly clearly had this all laid out in advance. My wife heard me cheering once (it was the elves, Carol). It's no children's book. It's great fantasy, up with Tolkien and Lewis and Donaldson (bet you never heard of him. Stephen by name--see Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever).

Back to the real world shortly.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Oh gosh, frustrated telemarketers and pollister. What is this world coming to.


Of course we can talk now; I'm at a funeral and everyone is nice and quiet so I can hear you--Some day, someone will kill someone for interrupting a movie or a concert or a conversation--or a funeral--with a cell phone call. And when it happens, the prosecution would be hard-pressed to find a jury that would convict him.

Nonetheless, cell phones are a growing influence on life and not since Alexander Graham Bell summoned "Mr. Watson" from the next room, has there been such a great change in telephony (isn't that a great word?).

While cell phones in other countries work much better and are more useful than what we use here in the great American empire, even here, they are changing life. One of the best resources for knowing how is, believe it or not, the Centers for Disease Control. See here.

The latest of the National Health Interview Survey (I won't ask what this has to do with health) shows a staggering change in how we do things because of the little darlings. For instance:
  • At least 12.8 % of American households no longer have landlines but did have at least one cell phone.
  • At least 11.8% of individuals live in households with only cell phones, including 11.6% of all children.
Those figures have been steadily rising since 2003, and they are likely to continue to grow.
Here's more:
  • The population group with the most reliance on cell phones are adults living with unrelated roommates (54%)
  • Renters are more likely (26.4%) to rip out their land lines than property owners.
  • People under 30 are more likely to have cellphone-only homes. Half of all wireless-only were under 30.
  • The older the people in the household, the less likely they are to give up their land lines.
  • Men were more likely to go cellphone only than women (13.1%-10.5%), and the poor were more likely than the non-poor.
  • Southern adults (14%)were more likely to rely on cell phones only than northerners (8.6%).
  • Hispanics (15.3%) are more likely to go cellphone only.
There are a number of ramifications of this trend worth mentioning. One is the generational thing: an entire generation is moving from conventional telephones, which is not good news for the traditional telephone companies. Telephone marketers (phooey) and pollsters are screwed because there is no directory of cell phones. Mike Himowitz of the Baltimore Sun points out that this is because American phone companies charge you for both incoming and outgoing calls so there is considerable pressure not to create a directory. If your caller ID sees a number she doesn't recognize, she just won't pick it up. In Europe, the caller pays. There also is a federal law against random digit dialing of cell phones which is a serious handicap.

The effect on pollsters is particularly interesting considering what the CDC study found. As one generation weans itself away from land lines, that generation is more difficult to poll and some political experts think this showed up in polling in the last presidential election, giving John Kerry lower poll numbers during the campaign than he should have had. Since you can now take telephone numbers with you (I'll be using a Maryland number in Alaska), it becomes more difficult for a pollster to figure out where he has called. Hispanics become under represented. The people in these telephone categories are different enough to produce an 2% divergence between cellphone only respondents and those with land-lines, not enough to render current polling problematic, but enough to scare the hell out of people doing polls.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How come that trout that swam by is already cooked?


If you eat that salami sandwich and go back into the ocean you will get struck by lightning! --When I was a kid, my mother would drive me crazy when we were down the shore (that's a Jerseyism). She insisted that I had to wait a half hour after lunch before going back into the water. You'd get cramps if you didn't wait, she said. I did not want to wait. Everyone was told that, and it became a factoid (original meaning of the word: a small factually incorrect statement that is repeated so often it is believed to be true). It isn't true. You don't get cramps if you go back into the water within a half hour.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to get my daughter and her friend from the local swimming pool. There were thunderstorms in the area and of course they cleared the pool. Sounds reasonable. This is a universally held safety measure--clearing pools in thunderstorms--but I can't actually remember a single instance of reading about someone getting killed when lightning hit a swimming pool. I have a vague recollection of someone zapped while swimming in the ocean, but not a pool. With too much time I my hands, I did a bit of research. I still haven't found a case of someone dying from a lightning strike to a swimming pool, indoor or outdoor. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen or that you should stay in the pool when thunder booms about you, but it must be a really rare occurrence. Moreover, I have yet to find a single database containing information on people killed in pools by lightning.

In one survey, data from 1990-1994, showed 51,835 people died in swimming pools for unspecified reasons, almost all, I would think drowning. Thirteen hundred died in wading pools. Not one death was recorded specifically from lightning strikes. One survey of indoor pools made by a professional organization reported not a single database included deaths from lightning in indoor pools, which also are supposed to be cleared in thunderstorms. Standing in an open field seems to be the most dangerous thing you can do in a storm (27% of deaths) and of course there's golf (5%), another reason not to play the silly game. Eight percent of deaths were water related, but that included boating and fishing as well as swimming. The swimming component was not broken down, but I'll bet most of those people were in metal boats. (The most dangerous state, by the way, is Florida, another reason not to live in that awful place).

I am fully aware that if everyone got out of pools during storms, there wouldn't be any instances on Google or Yahoo. But this is a species in which thousands of people "tough it out" in hurricanes, build houses on flood plains and believe in creation science. Surely some idiots stay in swimming pools when the sky opens up.

You get sentences like: "Nearly 100 Americans die from lightning strikes each year, and a high percentage of these deaths occur in summer when people are swimming and participating in other water sports." I bet some of them were also barbecuing, playing golf or up on the roof fixing the antenna.

All the experts agree you should evacuate the pool at the first sign of lightning. I just wonder if the risk isn't greatly exaggerated. If you know of any incidence of death by bolt in a pool, pass it on and I'll post it.

Now my favorite lightning story of the year, A man named Hailu Kidane Marian was roaming the streets of Hialeah, Florida, selling religious books when he was struck by lightning out of a clear blue sky. When paramedics arrived he was not breathing and his heart had stopped beating, and he was essentially dead. They revived him, however, and he is in critical condition at a local hospital. "He's unconscious, he's in a coma," the head of the religious group said. "It's difficult what happened, you now, but what can we do? Things happen in life, but we still believe in God."

I would.

[Thank you, Gayle]

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mr. Gates are you in that closet? Is that a cell phone playing the Grateful Dead?


No officer, we're camping out here because I really want to buy a $500 cell phone. Really. I'm not making this up!--Friday is the day, people. i can’t wait Actually, i can wait.

As most of you may have gathered by now, I am one of the founding fathers of the Church of Apple. I’ve used Macs since they first came out in 1982 and I’m on my seventh or eighth by now. In fact, except for a year at Johns Hopkins, whose second-rate IT department was trying to squelch the use of every Mac on campus (Macs threatened their jobs because they did not need an IT person to set up, never got viruses and rarely broke down), I have never used a Windows computer and wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had it. (This is being written on a two-year old iMac, one of four Macs in our house).

Friday, is of course, iPhone day. That’s the day Apple and its accidental partner, AT&T begin selling the device that probably sets the world record for hype. No one does hype better than Apple. Whether no one builds a telephone as well as Apple remains to be seen. This had better be really, really good. If it is, Apple will have revolutionized yet another industry.

But some thoughts on aesthetics: I have learned that the Church of Apple divides the world into two kinds of people—those who love great design and will pay for it, and those who don’t understand that concept. Apple products, almost without exception, are the best-designed industrial products of the last half century. Nothing comes close. Jonathan Ive, the British-born designer and perhaps the greatest industrial designer since Raymond Loewy in the 1950s, gets a lot of the credit, but so too does Steve Jobs. It is Jobs’ conviction, that design follows function not the other way around, that makes Apple products so beautiful and useful. If you send messages on a Blackberry, punching out numbers with your thumb on minuscule keys, you understand. You are doing that not because it is the most efficient way of typing on a small device but because that's the keyboard the engineers attached to it and you must conform. That's function following design. Even Apple’s failures, such as the Cube, have been gorgeous, even if the public couldn’t grok them. As to those of us of the Church; you either buy into Jobs’ aesthetic and love Ive's implementation, or you don’t, and there is no in-between.

(I would point out that Apple may be the only large company in America that does no--as in zero, nada, zip--consumer research. No polls, no focus groups. We design them the way we think you ought to want them and you can either buy them or call Hewlett-Packard).

That aesthetic makes me a little crazy: I love gadgets, as my wife will attest. If it has buttons and lights, I want it, and the more buttons and lights the more I want it. I am about to buy a car with so much electronics, it will take me a week to figure out what button to press to turn on the radio (or I can bring in my 13-year-old daughter, who will have it down in about 10 minutes). Yet Apple’s aesthetic runs directly contrary to this. The Mac PowerBook has the fewest buttons of any laptop and nothing lights up, and while you can buy keyboards with lots of buttons and lights for your Mac, they come with the bare minimum because the machine works better that way. Your basic Dell laptop was designed by an engineer for people ostensibly like me; the PowerBook was designed by a designer. Big difference. And I am devoted to the latter. Weird. By the way, anyone know the person in charge of design for Dell? I thought not.

So, the iPhone. Apple got rid of the keyboard. In fact, the iPhone has only one actual button, the thing you turn it one with. You get to send messages--indeed, you implement every function--with a touch screen, using gorgeous icons larger than the mechanical buttons on your Blackberry and its ilk. There have already been complaints, but the complaints are misconceived: The touch-screen isn’t an accidental mistake; it’s the whole point. It's the Jobs-Ive aesthetic at work. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity." (If Thoreau really believed that, of course, he wouldn't have repeated himself twice.)

Do you really need one device that does everything but blow your nose, even if elegantly? Is Apple producing a high tech version of the dinner theater, which serves dinners, produces shows and does neither very well? We'll see. I'd bet on them.

The problem Apple faces is that its hype machine is so good, that every single flaw, real or perceived in the iPhone, will be used to slam the device and the company. Apple raised the bar too high. But we of the Church are not concerned. If the iPhone comes close to doing what it is supposed to do, it will revolutionize cell phones the way iTunes and the iPod revolutionized the music industry and the Mac revolutionized computers. Don’t believe the latter? Microsoft Windows and its new iteration, Vista, are fairly inexact copies of Mac OS-X, about one and a half-generations behind, soon to be two-and-a-half when Leopard appears in October. Stuff you are now doing on Vista, presuming you've managed to load it, we've been doing for almost three years, and more safely.

By the way, many have wondered how Apple gets away with the hype. The reason is simple: most journalists, writers and creative people use Macs. I was at a conference last year of Knight Fellows at Stanford. Most of the people there brought laptops. I did not see a single Windows PC.

Three years ago, I thought it would be nice to buy Apple stock. It was down in the 20s somewhere. I did some research and one thing that kept popping up was the adage from stock brokers and experts that you should never invest on emotion. I listened to the experts. I forgot that if they were so fucking smart, they wouldn’t have to work for a living as stock brokers and experts.

If the iPhone stumbles a bit, Apple’s very high-flying stock will fall considerably because people stopped actually investing years ago and Wall Street is just legalized gambling. But not to worry. The aesthetic will win out. Will I buy one? I wish. $500, I do not have. I wish I could afford the stock.

So I wont' be camped out in front of the Towson Apple store. I'll wait until I win the lottery.

If you want to see how wacky this is, see the armed guards and secret flights here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Corn Mafia and your arteries


Have some madeira, my dear, he sang in a voice loud and clear. At least it doesn't have high fructose corn syrup--My wife has run a campaign for years on processed foods, particularly drinks, sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, essentially barring it from the house as much as possible. That means most drinks, and it ain’t easy. The stuff has crept into food you would not expect. I was initially skeptical, but no more.

Years ago, food manufacturers stopped using sugar to sweeten foods and beverages because they could get fructose cheaper. They could get fructose cheaper because of the Corn Mafia that has essentially run rampant through Congress. Consumption of fructose-bearing drinks has increased 135 percent in the last 40 years. Few commodities are as heavily subsidized as corn, and few Americans suck from the federal teat as deeply as corporate corn farmers. See ethanol, for an example. Another result of our swimming in high fructose corn syrup is the obese American. Another, it turns out, is heart disease.

Fructose-sweetened drinks are more likely to provoke development of fatty artery deposits than sugar, according to a new study at UC Davis. Kimber Stanhope and colleagues compared the results of drinking fructose-laced drinks with glucose in overweight and obese adults for 10 weeks. The subjects ate an otherwise balanced diet. The only difference was what was in the drinks they drank. (The sample was small, about 30 people--I’m being vague because results have not yet been published). After nine weeks, those drinking fructose had an increase in the bad cholesterol, LDL, and triglyceride (blood fat) levels increased after only two weeks. Those drinking drinks with sugar had the reverse effect.

The results will be presented next week at the American Diabetes Association meeting in Chicago.

There have been years of study on just how bad fructose is for you. See here, for instance . It is especially damaging to people with diabetes, which is becoming one of America’s most common deadly diseases. One scientist was able to show that the rate of diabetes in America correlated with the wave of corn syrup on the market in 1970.

Don’t expect any help from Washington, of course. They sold out years ago. Meanwhile, Carol keeps reading cans and bottles. She’s right.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

More, you want more!


Chlöe, I understand our nose is running but would you mind bending your head out over the keyboard while I'm doing the Power Point?—I’m a tad late with this story—NPR had it yesterday. But it is not getting nearly enough attention. And I have a story to tell.

Merill Lynch, the world’s largest stock brokerage, cut its sick day allowance for its employees from 40 days to three. If you take more than three, they can dock your pay. If you take more than six you get a warning; more than nine and they can your ass. This in a company whose three top executives are making a total of more than $100 million and earned record profits last year. The limit isn’t mandatory—managers have the ability to bend the rules, but those are the rules. Boss doesn’t like you, don’t get the flu.

Any rule this stupid can only come from one source: personnel (sorry, Human Resources).

The reason given, of course, is productivity and profit. They apparently aren’t making enough. That this is happening in the U.S. shouldn’t surprise anyone. We are the only country in the industrialized world that thinks two weeks vacations is humane. (At the risk of sounding like my Communist grandmother, the correct way of phrasing that is to say this is the only country in the world where the workers find that acceptable). In fairness to Merrill Lynch, they give three weeks.

Here is how the procedure can now work out: You are an employee and you get the flu. You are flat on your back for three days. If you say out the fourth, it could cost you a day’s pay unless your supervisor is a mensch. Stay out the rest of the week and you are pushing the limit and losing money. So, you get out of bed and go to work, where you cannot perform up to healthy standards and run a real risk of infecting others in the office who then take days off for work. In other words, the ruling has two obvious effects. It not only does not improve productivity, it makes Merrill Lynch’s offices more dangerous for staff and visitors. Good work.

God help you if you get cancer.

Now the story. I once had a friend who worked for an oil company in Philadelphia (I, of course won’t mention the name of the company. On the other hand, there is only one oil company in Philadelphia but far be it for me...). They had really brilliant executive who was at retirement age and who didn’t think disappearing to a golf course was how he wanted to spend the rest of his life so he asked for something to do at the company. They said they had a real good one for him. The company had grown significantly in recent years and was being bogged down by bureaucracy. Paper work. Red tape Massive inefficiencies. Find out how that happened. He did. He discovered that there was an obvious and clear link between the explosion of paperwork and the year when the Personnel Department changed its name to Human Resources. You are welcome to make of that what you will.

Here’s the Merrill Lynch memo. Notice it applies to office drones, not the guys making the millions. Workers of the world—you deserve it.

Attendance Guidelines (Effective May 14, 2007) A good attendance record and demonstrated reliability is one attribute of successful performance and is expected of all employees. These guidelines are in place to enable managers to address and foster improvement when an attendance problem has been demonstrated.
Each day an employee misses work is considered an absence. Employees are considered absent when they miss one-third or more of a workday.

It is the employee's responsibility to contact their manager within one hour of their scheduled start time to report any absence, and failure to do so may result in disciplinary action. Absence without notice for two consecutive days is grounds for termination of employment.

An absence is recorded as excused under this policy only if it is a) a pre-approved vacation or an approved personal day; b) an approved leave of absence under Merrill Lynch policy; or, c) an absence covered by any applicable federal or state law. (See Leave of Absence Policies.)

Outlined below are suggested guidelines for managers to address absences based upon the employee's work schedule. Management may accelerate the action steps described in these guidelines when patterns of attendance problems have been identified (including, but not limited to, repeated absences the day before and/or after a holiday or weekend; unacceptable level of absences over time with no demonstrated improvement; absences surrounding vacation).

Employee Status: Full Time
Absences in a 12-month Period /Action
Up to 3 days/Acceptable attendance: No action.

4 to 6 days/Questionable attendance: Manager/employee discussion or written communication from manager to employee stressing importance of good attendance; reviewing impact on performance; and describing future consequences including termination of employment. Non-payment may result.

7 to 8 days/Poor attendance: Written communication from manager to employee reviewing impact on performance and warning that failure to improve will result in immediate termination of employment. Non-payment should result.

9 to 10 days/Unacceptable attendance: Resulting in termination of employment.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Computers of the living dead—UPDATED IMPORTANTLY


The FBI celebrates a zombie jamboree--About a million of you are about to be contacted by the FBI. No, you haven't done anything wrong, but your computer has been really, really bad. You can't much blame it; truth be told, it was taken over by zombies. You may know them as bots.

According to the FBI, the bots are "a growing threat to national security." This should be taken with several grains of salt since everything is a "a growing threat to national security" to the FBI, and because we all know how wonderfully competent the agency is. We might also mention that the FBI uses computer technology from the 1970s. Their department is run by Alberto Gonzales. Nevermind....

Bots, or zombies, are malicious programs that usually ride in as an e-mail attachment or on a web page. They essentially take over your computer. In most cases, you have no idea what your computer is doing when you aren't on it; in fact, you have no idea what it is doing when you are on it unless you know where to look. The evil doers (bot-herders) hook your computer up to other computers whose souls have been stolen into a zombie network (bot-nets) and use the network to transmit spam, spread spyware, or hide illegal content, including pornography or pirated movies, or databases they don't want anyone else to find. You could be sitting there like a good citizen, minding your own business, while your computer is grinding out thousands of messages from Nigeria promising unheard-of wealth, or Viagra from Bosnia. The bot-nets could involve tens of thousands of computers. In a program called Operation Bot Roast (well, someone there has a sense of humor), the FBI has been able to identify 1 million computers that have been compromised. Several of the evil doers have been arrested, including Alan Soloway, one of the kings of spam, who sent his bots or zombies off to dispatch millions of pieces of spam. Some of these guys establish their bot-nets and sell them to the highest bidder.

If you find you are infected, the FBI says, don't call them. They can't help. You can get software to save your machine or hire a professional.

How do you know your computer is a zombie? It may slow down for reasons not clear, something like loosing weight for unexplained reasons can hint you have a cancer. Your mail may contain lots of messages in the "sent" basket, that you didn't send. You may also get rude messages insisting you are sending spam when you are good and honorable person who wouldn't dream of such a thing.

How can you prevent it, you may ask? First and foremost, never open an attachment in your mail unless you know who sent it and what is in it. Chuck it in the trash basket. The chances of you losing something important are minimal. If you have a firewall, keep it on. If you have anti-virus software, keep it up to date. Install anti-spyware software. Keep your operating system current. Turn your computer off at night.

Or, (God, he's SO smug) get a Mac and stop worrying about all that crap. There has never been a single incident of a Mac being taken over.

UPDATE: Want to know how it's done? Read this from John Murrell's Good Morning Silicon Valley:
Making the rounds now is an e-mail bearing the subject line "Microsoft Security Bulletin MS07-0065" that describes a new vulnerability in Microsoft Outlook and provides a link to a patch. Don't click it. Instead of being directed to a Microsoft site, your computer will be steered to a compromised server where it will be vigorously encouraged to enlist in a zombie army.

"Security bulletins from Microsoft describing vulnerabilities in their software are a common occurrence, and so its not a surprise to see hackers adopting this kind of disguise in their attempt to infect Windows PCs," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for security outfit Sophos. "The irony is that as awareness of computer security issues has risen, and the need for patching against vulnerabilities, so social engineering tricks which pose as critical software fixes are likely to succeed in conning the public. By using people's real names, the Microsoft logo, and legitimate-sounding wording, the hackers are attempting to fool more people into stepping blindly into their bear-trap."

Just remember -- Microsoft never sends security alerts or patches by e-mail.
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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Stone washed genes












Do not get rid of the junk in the attic. It's evolution--
Life just turns out to be more complicated every day and don’t look for genetics to figure it out just yet. The common concept is that genes are strung like beads on a string (pearls for some of us) and that the individual, discrete genes are what makes us. Not so.

Rick Weiss in the Washington Post went through a whole bunch of papers published in the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (Encode), which among other things suggested that the $3 billion Human Genome Project produced a cartoon of the human genome. Weiss’ survey indicates that there is growing awareness that the individual genes is not just a biological code; they are elements in a complex operating system. It is what happens between and among the genes that counts. Many genes overlap and share stretches of code. The system would be totally chaotic but a switching system has evolved to make sense and order out of the instructions contained in the genes. Diseases like cancer are probably not errors in genes but errors in the DNA between them, which should disturb those in molecular medicine who have been aiming their attention on the genes, especially in their attempts at producing targeting medicines.

Another new concept concerns the so-called junk genes, the 95% of genes that did not appear to do much. When you think about it, that notion is silly. Evolution doesn’t waste 95% of anything. Now it appears that those junk genes are anything but. In fact some researchers have found that many creatures share their junk genes, meaning they are probably crucial for life and even the billion of years of evolution has failed to alter them.

“Oh my gosh,” one scientists told Weiss. “This is really complicated.” Yup. That’s us.

Encode, incidentally, is an interesting project. The goal is to find out whether it is worth the time to go deeply into each section of the human genome. For 3-1/2 years, scientists explored 1% of the genome as deeply as they could to see if this idea would be fruitful. The answer is a resounding yes, if for no other reason than to discover the misconceptions in the common wisdom. Of particular interest are those genes that do not appear to produce proteins. What are they doing hanging around?

Speaking of DNA, we reported earlier that James Watson, he of the Double Helix, had chickened out to having his DNA sequenced. He changed his mind, apparently. He donated some of his illustrious DNA to Baylor in 2003 but then decided he did not want it published because of privacy concerns and because his children might find out things about their own genetics they might not want to know. Now he agreed to have it published, or at least almost all of it. One spot shows a predisposition to cancer and Watson has survived skin cancer. He is not going to find out about Alzheimer's’ however, or have it published. He had a grandmother with the disease and that gives him a one in four chance, he says, and he simply doesn’t want to know. On the other hand, he’s 79 and probably would know by now.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Jersey girls and onion rings--UPDATED


Maybe Paris Hilton was the next one through the door--Never one to let a cultural phenomenon go unanswered (and coming from North Jersey, which gives me a particular insight into all of this) I feel obliged to comment on the last episode of the Sopranos. I loved it, and the more I think about it, the more I loved it.

It's a bit like Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey. You get to put in your own explanation and it is just as right as everyone else's. I, of course, would be happy to explain that movie to anyone needing an explanation. Just think Nietzsche. Here, we have something else going, but it still can be defined as art.

To be actually serious for a moment, I think that episode will wind up in every film class in the world as a lesson in how to build inexorable tension with absolutely nothing actually happening. Nothing happened. The family met for dinner at a restaurant and Tony ordered onion rings. People came and went. (The only sour note was Meadow's inability to park her car properly--every Jersey girl knows how to parallel park). And I'm sure when the unpleasant guy at the counter went into the bathroom everyone thought immediately of Godfather, which is, of course, the reason David Chase sent him there. Even the songs on the jukebox seemed to have some ominous meaning, even if they really didn't. And it ran 5 minutes late, just to build the tension. I kept looking at my watch. My God, he has only two minutes left to do something.

Want to know what happened? At least four times in the last minute of the program, Tony looked up and every time the camera showed what Tony saw. We see what he sees. So when Meadow walked into the restaurant, Tony looked up and then the screen went blank. Obviously we see blank because Tony saw blank. He obviously got whacked.

Works for me.

UPDATE: And apparently, I'm not alone. See here.

j