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.
Comment on this post

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.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

What would Jesus do? You don't mean.....

Let’s pray together but would you take your pants down first?—It sounds just wonderful. Premarital sex is wrong, it’s a sin. Don’t do it. Evangelicals even throw virginity proms so the kids can publicly take vows of chastity. Kids coming from Catholic parochial schools have it drummed into their heads. Orthodox Jews tell their children not to do it, and the very Orthodox arrange it so that it is virtually impossible. All of this would be of just passing interest (I wasn’t the only non-Catholic teenager to discover that girls from parochial schools were pushovers) except that current government policy in combating AIDS, poverty, and under-age mothers has been taken over by Christianists who insist that this policy concentrate exclusively on abstinence. They also battle, often successfully, against sex education in schools. The fact that this strategy doesn’t work--or worse--doesn’t register. Why should it? Science is not part of their world.

In fact, abstinence pledges work for only a minority of kids and then often for not very long. Sociologist Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas, did a study on just how seriously these pressures work, and like everyone else who has studied the issue, his answer to the question in his book, Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers is: it depends. Mostly, it doesn’t work at all.

Much of the publicity has been on the failure among evangelicals to make it work. Evangelical teens actually are more likely to loose their virginity before marriage than are Catholics and mainstream Protestants. Indeed, they tend to lose it at an earlier age (16.3 years) than the others (16.7). And they tend to do it with more partners than the other kids. (Regnerus points out there is a problem with definitions. Many who list themselves as evangelicals may belong to an evangelical church but that doesn’t mean they buy the program. Also they tend to be of the lower economic class, which makes them more likely to have sex, and many are African-Americans, who really tilt the statistics.) Promising, often in public, to refrain from sex doesn’t help much. On average, studies show that the kids taking the vows keep the promise for about 18 months and then jumped into the sack with someone or got a rear seat dirty.

Worse, the young evangelicals in the study were more ignorant of sexual matters than their peers and tended to get knocked up at a greater rate, so a good argument could be made that their parents did them no favors. There also is the difference between religiosity and religion. Kids who were profoundly religious (about 16 %), as opposed to the ones walking around with religion on their sleeves, were likely to keep their promises and refrain. Those going through the motions will quickly lapse. Working against the abstinence model is the overly sexual nature of modern American society. You’d have to cloister kids (as very Orthodox Jews do) to keep them even partially immune.

Perhaps those writing our government policies might want to reconsider. Nah, won't happen.

So, where does a guy go to get laid, you may ask? Regnerus's data would recommend staying away from Asian girls who go to church; you are probably wasting your time with Mormons (but not, I assure you, fallen Mormons), so you ought to find himself a nice Catholic or mainline Protestant girl. Jewish girls are less amenable to rolls in the sack, although Regnerus (and others) point out they are more likely to enjoy it when they do it. Until, as Woody Allen points out, you marry them.

The rear end above belongs to the actress Lindsey Lohan, who, to the best of anyone's knowledge, has made no such pledge.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

There are reasons why some animals eat their young

Oh darling. Oh sweetheart. Get out of bed. MOVE YOUR ASS! Sweetie.--OK, here's the picture. My daughter and I have moved to Fairbanks and she has begun school. It is now mid-winter in interior Alaska. It is 6:30 in the morning, it is pitch dark and going to stay pitch dark for all but an hour or two. The temperature has fallen to minus 40. I think there is ice fog brewing. I have to get a 14-year-old girl up for school.

Good luck, you may say, and good luck I will need. But, I have a legitimate complaint that the parents of every teenager shares, even those who are smart enough to avoid the sub-Arctic. Teenagers are not morning creatures. Schools that start early in the morning are doing them no favor and making hard for the schools to fulfill their tasks. Even scientists say so. Here. Here. And here, among other places.

Study after study has shown that teenagers who get more sleep because school start later in the day, do better than those who do not. Their growing, changing bodies need sleep a lot more than do the teachers. In this case its biology not behavioral psychology that needs to be paid attention to.

One study published by the American Thoracic Society of 280 high school students found that most are not getting enough sleep and that more sleep would produce better grades. The kids went to Harriton High outside of Philadelphia and the study was done by the University of Pennsylvania's Richard Schwab, who has a personal stake in the findings: his daughter was one of the subjects. He noted--he couldn't help it, I promise you--how bloody hard it is to get her up in the morning. Since teens gradually change their internal clocks to stay up later, many of these kids were not getting to sleep until 1 or 2 in the morning and getting 6-1/2 to 7 hours of sleep and sometimes less. They need more. Notice how late they sleep on weekends.

But high schools usually start even earlier than elementary schools for some reason. My daughter's new school in Fairbanks, starts a half hour earlier than the day school she goes to in Baltimore. Why? It should be the reverse.

Mary Carskadon at Brown found the same thing. She found that teenagers are out of it in the morning, simply unplugged. No kidding! By studying teen saliva (now there's a thought) she found that melatonin (the sleep-inducing hormone) levels rise later at night for teenagers than they do for adults or children and stays higher throughout the morning. Sleep deprivation affects mood, performance, attention, behavior and learning, according to Stephen Sheldon at Northwestern.

And it makes them real sweet too, doesn't it?