30 December 2005

The ultimate banner ad

OK, this really shouldn't have worked. A student in England turned a webpage into, basically, a 1000x1000 banner ad, and sold the pixels in it to advertisers for $1 per pixel. That's a million pixels, by the way. Thanks to a compliant press and viral marketing, he's sold 936,700 of those pixels. The appearance of the page is a little offputting, but apparently buying pixels has been effective for the advertisers—at least so long as the hype continues.

And waddya know. I just helped continue it.

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29 December 2005

Bush reads!

OK, to be fair, the full headline is "Bush reads up on Teddy Roosevelt, U.S. troops". Still, it's saying something that a simple assertion by the White House that the president is actually reading a book is considered newsworthy; even more that without corroborating evidence, the assertion isn't fully credible.

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Too southerly the phalarope

Birders (don't call them birdwatchers!) in California are spotting thousands of red phalaropes, which normally only land in the Arctic to reproduce. The article says that "scientists are stumped".

Well, given that some animals—including your cat—are known to navigate using the earth's magnetic field, perhaps it's related to the changing location of the magnetic pole?

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28 December 2005

Odd news this year

Go on, you know you want to read it—a roundup of the year's stranger stories.

A friend of mine was once accused by his brother of being too "pendantic". He says he saw the trap, but couldn't stop himself, and said, "Actually, that's pedantic." "See?", said his brother.

Well, sad to say, me too. When reading the above-linked story, you should note that cane toads are amphibians, not reptiles. And no, amphibians are not a subgroup of reptiles. Amphibians and reptiles are both chordates (as are we, with the exception of some politicians I could name), but that's as close as they get.

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Abnormal sounds about right

I had mixed feelings, looking at the lab results from yesterday. On the one hand, it's a little sobering to look at the 30 tests they ran and notice that 18 of them came back outside the normal range, especially when the abnormal results include important stuff like oxygen.

On the other hand, I've been putting up with the skepticism of doctors for a few decades now, who looked at my normal results on standard tests and clearly didn't believe my litany of what they call "non-specific" symptoms. It was validating, having finally figured out the right tests to run, and getting results something like I expected.

So what the results say is that I'm in respiratory alkalosis, due to my exhaling too much carbon dioxide. (Sorry about any additional global warming I'm causing.) This might be because my body is too acidic, causing me to get rid of CO2 in an attempt to make the pH normal. But the lung doc thinks it's due to sarcoidosis. He's put me on prednisone "just to see", something I resisted mightily, as prednisone has a bad side-effect profile (including such nasties as diabetes, arthritis, cataracts, and osteoporosis). It's also addicting. Besides, there's no evidence that it provides anything but symptomatic relief, and some evidence that it prolongs and worsens the course of the disease. So we compromised on a week at moderate doses, at which point we'll rerun the tests and see what changes.

One thing I'm excited about is that this condition may have reduced the blood flow to my brain by as much as half; thus, if it can be effectively treated, I might once again be able to think properly. It's nice, having a little hope after so long despairing.

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Who invented the Walkman?

As it turns out, it wasn't Sony. It was a Brazilian, Andreas Pavel, who just settled a lawsuit with Sony. Apparently Sony had been willing to pay a licensing fee from the beginning, but not to acknowledge him as the inventor.

I'm not surprised that was the sticking point with Sony; every time I've heard a Japanese person defend their country against charges that they lack innovation, the Walkman was the example they used to prove their point. Clearly they couldn't easily let that part of their mythology go.

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Hate writing papers? Become a mathematician!

I have a number of friends who possess what are known as ABD degrees—"all but dissertation". That is, they fulfilled all of the requirements for a doctorate or a master's, but somehow just couldn't bring themselves to write that all-important paper at the end.
What's more, science & math education in the US, says a USA Today editorial, is falling well behind that of other countries, and it's not all due to the "intelligent design" nonsense. A major problem is the lack of teachers with mathematics training.

So I'm going to do my part to help and point out the recent achievement of Steven Hofmann, who solved a newish math problem called Kato's Conjecture. This was a result important enough to get reported by the AP, and could well have been accepted as a dissertation.

Here's why the paper-shy should become mathematicians: it took all of 120 words to report the results. And he had five others helping, for an average of 20 presumably extremely well-chosen words per author. I suppose there were also some equations involved.

Even for a math paper, that's exceptionally short—I would guess that most math dissertations are closer to 20 pages long. Still, I think almost anyone could manage that.

If you need another reason—and I'm talking just to the boys here, and a few of you girls—Winnie Cooper grew up [warning: mildly not safe for work] and became a mathematician. Should you ever start going out with her, it'd be nice to have something to talk about, yes?

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27 December 2005

Polar bears

A friend sent me a link to this very cool picture of polar bears investigating a submarine. Go, look.

Such events may become much less common. As polar ice melts, the bears are being forced to swim longer distances—up to 60 miles—causing many to drown.

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Marfa lights explained; Texas folklore a little poorer

Many years ago, I took a trip to West Texas with a friend to attend the Cowboy Poetry Festival. (During the long drive, I passed the hours when I thought she was asleep softly singing to myself. Unbeknownst to me, she thought I was doing the standard serial-killer-mutters-to-himself-before-offing-the-passenger thing, and was plotting ways to escape before I could put my nefarious plans into action. Luckily for our continued association, her good sense got the better of her. But I digress.)

One thing she wanted to see in West Texas was the Marfa Lights. Yeah, I didn't know what they were either. From the Wikipedia:
Marfa may be most famous for the Marfa Lights, visible every clear night between Marfa and the Paisano Pass as you face southwest (toward the Chinati Mountains). According to the Handbook of Texas Online, "at times they appear colored as they twinkle in the distance. They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear. Presidio County residents have watched the lights for over a hundred years. The first historical record of them recalls that in 1883 a young cowhand, Robert Reed Ellison, saw a flickering light while he was driving cattle through Paisano Pass and wondered if it was the campfire of Apache Indians. He was told by other settlers that they often saw the lights, but when they investigated they found no ashes or other evidence of a campsite."

Investigations both on foot and by aircraft have failed to discover the source of the lights, and although theoretical explanations abound, they remain a mystery.

The county has set up a viewing area nine miles east of town on U.S. 67 near the site of the old air base.

These objects have been featured in various media, including the TV show Unsolved Mysteries.
Now a bunch of killjoy scientists say they've explained the Marfa Lights. According to them, the lights are simply car headlights from a distant highway.

I'm not so sure. For one thing, it would be hard to square that explanation with the lights I saw; for another, how many car headlights were there in 1883?

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Letting markets regulate companies not always a good idea

You sometimes hear free-market fundamentalists argue against legal regulation of companies, saying that firms that engage in bad business practices will get punished by the market and change their ways as a result.

There are some problems with that approach, illustrated nicely by recent admissions from Guidant Corporation, who failed to warn others of known problems with their implantable defibrillators. As a result they have been deluged by lawsuits.

OK, fine, say the free-marketers. They done wrong, and now they're being punished.

However, their customers didn't get a real chance to buy or not buy Guidant's products based on the merits of said products, because there's a glaring asymmetry between the information known to Guidant, and that which was known to their customers.

On top of which, some customers may die from defective devices, and it's cold comfort to those customers, or their families, that the market will force the company to change its ways. Basically, the company gets many chances to experiment with transactions until it gets it right; the customer may only get one.

These basic asymmetries are why regulation of corporate activity is often essential, lest the dead hand of the market turn out to belong to the angel of death.

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Cell phones are not for internal use

OK, everybody+dog has linked to this. But with a headline like this, I just can't resist:
Swallowing Cell Phone May Not Be Voluntary

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Health care in Thailand

So I just spent some time seeing my doctor. I went in to get the results from some blood tests. Those results, as it turned out, pointed to a possible respiratory problem, so he decided to refer me to a pulmonologist, who talked with me for a bit, looked at the test results, and sent me for some pulmonary tests. I'm going to take some medication for a week, and then we'll do the tests again and see if there's any change.

Total elapsed time today, from when the shuttle bus picked me up, including two consultations (one unscheduled) and the lung tests, until the shuttle dropped me off? One hour, forty minutes. Total cost, including meds? $168.22. And this is at a fully-accredited hospital, one of the best in Asia. The doctors are US board-certified. The people are even polite and friendly.

How is this possible? It reflects the generally lower costs here. Salaries are much lower, buildings and land are cheaper, and (I expect) litigation costs are much lower. And it should be noted that very few Thais could afford this.

Still, the excellent care, and low costs, are why more than 350,000 foreigners will be treated at that hospital this year.

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23 December 2005

And they say humans are bad at risk assessment

From a reader in Oregon:

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21 December 2005

Iraq headed for civil war?

Patrick Cockburn, writing in the Independent, argues that Iraq is splitting along the expected sectarian lines: Kurd, Shia, and Sunni. In it he quotes Zilmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq:
You can't have someone who is regarded as sectarian, for example, as Minister of the Interior.
This is a little rich, coming from a representative of the most divisive, exclusionary administration I've seen in my life. Pot, meet kettle.

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Mind control

It's recently been discovered that a parasite of grasshoppers is able to make the grasshoppers jump into water, which the parasite needs to complete its life cycle. This does, however, kill the grasshopper.

What's really interesting about this is that it's brought about by simply altering the mix of proteins in the grasshopper's brain.

I have a few qualms about this article, since it refers to "enslaver fungi", the only one of which I've ever heard was reported by the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Now, the MJT is a wonderful place to wander around, but I, um, wouldn't take it as an authoritative source. (If nothing else, think about its name for a minute...)

Still, I'm fascinated by a parasite's ability to improve its reproductive chances by altering the behavior of its host. It's seen in simple ways, as in the common cold, where the virus causes us to sneeze, thus spreading the virus. That seems like a simple stimulus-response. But what about the toxoplasma parasite, which normally lives in cats, but sometimes spreads to rats which eat cat feces? The parasite is able to increase its chances of returning to live in a cat by altering the rat's behavior. Specifically, it makes the rat less afraid of new things and new situations, making it more likely that it'll be in a place where a cat can catch and eat it.

The next question I'm interested in is how much of our specific behavior can be controlled this easily. Put another way, what are the limits on our "free will"? I have seen illness change the way I act, going from a shy withdrawn loner, to a gregarious social butterfly, and back again. While I feel that I could have chosen not to make those changes, the fact is that I didn't, so perhaps it wasn't a choice I was really able to make.

I'm going to guess that most "mental" and "autoimmune" "diseases" will be found to have genetic or infectious causes, and will be reclassified until all that remains are "behavior problems". I just hope it happens soon enough for Thomas Szasz to see it, and for me to benefit from it.

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20 December 2005

Want shops to say "Merry Christmas"? Come to Asia!

The malls in Bangkok are dripping with tinsel and decorated trees and big signs saying "Merry Christmas". All of this, mind you, in a country in which Christians are only 0.7% of the population. People here, and in the rest of Asia, have quite gleefully embraced Christmas—and it's "Merry Christmas" here, not that anti-Christian "Happy Holidays"—while rejecting Christ in droves.

It's not the words. It's what you believe, and what you feel, that makes it Christmas. What they're celebrating here, despite using the words and trappings, isn't Christmas. And loving your non-Christian neighbor by using the non-exclusive "Happy Holidays" strikes me as being more in the spirit of Christian charity than hectoring retailers who don't conform to your particular dogma.

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Unwanted births are up, which should please the fundies

A recent survey says that the percentage of births that were unwanted rose from 9 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2002.

This is being hailed in some quarters as a Good Thing:
"I don't think there's any mystery here," said Susan Wills, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The new data underscores that more women are turning away from abortions, even when it's a pregnancy they don't initially want, said Wills, associate director for education in the Conference's Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.

"It shows a real pro-life shift," she said.

More women may be carrying pregnancies to term because of increasing availability of ultrasounds and other information that show "it's a baby from an early time," Wills said.
It's hard to read that and not hear a celebratory undercurrent of "Yay! We forced women to have children they didn't want!" But you're not going to find me celebrating taking choices away from people.

Others are speculating that the result might have something to do with a 25% drop in the number of abortion providers between 1992 and 2000, something the above-linked article seems to think is a mystery. I dunno, maybe it has something to do with the risk of getting killed by anti-abortion terrorists?

I suppose it's also possible that this rise might partly reflect the emphasis on abstinence at the cost of more effective education in other birth control methods.

As if you needed a reason...

Dark chocolate may cut heart disease risk. White chocolate isn't as good for you (or as good, IMHO).

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What's next? Secret police?

Many years ago—as it turned out, Iraq invaded Kuwait during my time there—I traveled for a few weeks in Syria as part of an extended trip around the world. Another American I met there suggested that I read the travel advisory from the State Department. It turned out to be a rather dire warning about the dangers to be found in Syria, and stopped just short of forbidding travel there on safety grounds.

Turns out, though, that it was entirely false. Syria at the time was, for non-Israeli travelers, as safe a place as there was in the world. (It might not have been for Jewish travelers, but I met no Jews in Syria, so I can't say.) There was a very good reason why it was so safe. The place was crawling with secret police. As a result, the Syrians I met were welcoming and friendly in the usual Middle Eastern way, but only so long as I avoided talking about politics. Should I bring up anything political, people couldn't get away from me fast enough.

Now, the safety was only for some people, for foreigners and those who kept in their place. Those who objected to the governing regime tended to disappear. Those seen as a threat, such as the people of Hama, where the Muslim Brotherhood started to rise up against the Assad regime in 1982, paid a dire price. The Hama rebellion was brutally repressed, with tens of thousands dead, including many who had nothing to do with the uprising.

This is how totalitarian regimes operate. They promise, and to a large degree deliver, security to those who do not step out of line. Those who do not go along can eventually expect to find themselves arrested and detained indefinitely without charge, tortured until they confess, and then disappeared. The state, in order to identify those who are not in full compliance, spies on their citizens, using electronic means as well as secret agents.

The Bush administration is offering a less extreme version of this deal. They promise security, but in return ask that the executive be allowed to secretly and indefinitely jail, on nothing more than the President's say-so, anyone it pleases. They insist on being able to torture confessions from people, although they avoid that accusation by redefining whatever they happen to do as "not torture". Now they have admitted that they are secretly spying on US citizens, and tell us they are doing it to keep us safe.

This is how it starts. We trade "essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety", as Ben Franklin put it. And maybe we do, most of us, feel a little safer. So we trade a little more, and then yet more. And in the end we find that we have traded away our most precious and dearly-bought rights. But rather than the absolute security we thought we were buying we find instead that we live our lives in fear, fear of being identified as an enemy of the state.

This is why we must oppose the totalitarian impulses of the Bush administration. This is why we must insist on the President being subject to the rule of law. This is why we must fight to ensure that election results truly reflect the will of the people. This is why we must cherish and support a free and independent press.

Otherwise, we will wake up some day to find the Stars and Stripes, protected by a constitutional amendment, flying over a place that is no longer America.

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19 December 2005

America is hindering Middle Eastern democracy

The brilliant Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk—who I expect will win a Nobel prize someday, for reasons both artistic and political—is about to go on trial for having had the temerity to publicly discuss the Armenian genocide and the slaughter of Kurds. Pamuk is both a proud Turk and committed to democracy and free speech, so it should be especially worrying to the US that he is saying this:
As tomorrow’s novelists prepare to narrate the private lives of the new élites, they are no doubt expecting the West to criticize the limits that their states place on freedom of expression. But these days the lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret C.I.A. prisons have so damaged the West’s credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world.
The conduct of the Bush administration is besmirching the good name of democracy. As advancing democracy is in America's best interests, this means that this administration is hurting America.

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18 December 2005

Freelance bugfinders

In an interesting, er, development in software, someone recently tried to sell on eBay a bug he'd discovered in Excel. This bug would allow a maliciously-crafted spreadsheet to assume control of a Windows computer on which it was opened. The existence of a vulnerability in a Microsoft product is nothing new, of course—but the attempt to sell it is.

Software companies seem to expect their users to provide the valuable service of bug-finding for free, while charging for a product which is not guaranteed to do anything at all. (Ever read a EULA? They typically, in effect, deny that the software is in any way useful.)

Now, bugs do cost the software companies money, mostly in support costs. So those companies should be willing to pay for bug reports. Common, minor bugs ("I can't print to my 1978 IBM line printer from Windows XP!") would garner small payments; more major bugs ("Selecting that checkbox wiped my disk clean and electrocuted my hamster!") would get paid more.

It could create a cottage industry in bug-finding. On the other hand, it might bankrupt certain software companies.

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Christmas fights back!

In what was surely a skirmish in the War On Christmas I keep hearing so much about, 40 drunk Santa Clauses rampaged through Wellington, New Zealand.

Absurdity piled on absurdity.

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Henry Moore sculpture stolen

There's a Henry Moore in Houston, in a fairly little-visited (mostly because you have to get out of your car) spot off Allen Parkway, and I remember thinking up a way to steal it, and wondering how long it would be before anyone noticed.

As it turns out, someone did recently steal one of his pieces from his Hertfordshire estate. The article mentions that the thieves may simply have wanted it to sell for scrap.

From prices posted on the Internet, it seems that the thieves could only expect to net about $5-6K from selling the bronze, which hardly seems enough to justify the risk, not to mention the trouble of hiring a crane and a flatbed truck, and then melting the sculpture down. I mean, given that you've got a crane and the truck, why not just steal a nice car or two?

It seems far more likely that they wanted the sculpture, not just the metal. I wonder whose back yard will soon be featuring it.

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17 December 2005

Yet another example why mixing religion and politics is a Bad Idea

So Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not content with pissing everyone off by continuing Iran's nuclear program, has now denied the Holocaust and suggested that Israel be relocated someplace far from the Muslim world. I think this is mostly pandering to the fundamentalist base that elected him. Pakistan's nuclear weapons are seen as a source of enormous pride and prestige for that nation, not to mention a guarantee against attack; it's disappointing and scary, but hardly surprising, that Iran wants the same. But Holocaust denial is a shameful thing for a national leader to express, and it's a condemnation of the Iranian people that holding such a false belief could help anyone's political fortunes.

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Is it worse to waffle, or to stay the wrong course?

Nancy Pelosi said that the Democrats will not have a party position on what should be done in Iraq:
There is no one Democratic voice . . . and there is no one Democratic position.
This strikes me as a bad idea, born of a craven desire to avoid stating a position that could later be used against them. Even if they can't currently agree what actions should be taken now, at least they could agree as to what goals the US should be working towards in Iraq, and then have a discussion as how best to achieve those goals. As it is, they just look like inert obstructionists, and it's hard to imagine a worse image for politicians.

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World not rushing to help the US go it alone, complains Rice

Condoleezza Rice has lately been complaining that the rest of the world isn't doing enough to help try Saddam Hussein:
The international community's effective boycott of Saddam's trial is only harming the Iraqi people, who are now working to secure the hope of justice and freedom that Saddam long denied them.
As welcome as this broad support is, I am sad to say that the international community has barely done anything to help Iraq prosecute Saddam Hussein.

All who express their devotion to human rights and the rule of law have a special obligation to help the Iraqis bring to justice one of the world's most murderous tyrants.
OK, a couple of problems with this. First, what does she think others should be doing? Cheerleading? Mostly, though, it's this administration's own fault for having opposed the mechanism established by the rest of the world for trying those accused of "crimes against humanity"—the International Criminal Court.

Even if you're the richest kid on the block, and own the only baseball, if everyone else wants to play football and you've refused, you're gonna wind up trying to play catch alone.

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Mistletoe rustling?

Reuters is reporting that there's a mistletoe shortage in the UK, which has led to "cases of mistletoe rustling". It's a perfect business opportunity for some enterprising Texan, as the parasite grows everywhere there. All that would be required would be permission to import it into the UK. But once it was pointed out to the customs official that it would increase the likelihood of getting kissed this Christmas, that should be pretty easy.

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Oral swab HIV test produces false positives

There's a new HIV test, which uses an oral swab—much safer and more convenient for both the patient and medical personnel—to collect the sample. Unfortunately, about a quarter of those in San Francisco who have tested positive on it turn out not to be HIV positive after all.

There is speculation that perhaps there's something special about the group tested, as this problem hasn't been seen before with this test. But there's also something else at work here, a basic misunderstanding of detection systems, and of Bayes' theorem.

Detection systems can fail in two basic ways, known as Type I and Type II errors. Type II errors are what people normally think of when they think of an alarm failure—the burglar breaks in, but the alarm doesn't go off. In medical tests, this is called a false negative, which means that the patient had the condition but the test didn't detect it.

The false positives in this case are also known as Type I errors, which are also a problem. For one thing, too many Type I errors can cause people to disregard the result, as when we all ignore car alarms. In medicine, a false positive can cause needless worry, Just ask any woman who's been told that there are "abnormalities" on her Pap smear, a notoriously error-prone test.

Detection system can be tuned to have very low Type I error rates, or very low Type II error rates, but usually not both at once. In public medicine, it usually makes sense to have a cheap safe screening test with a very low false negative rate, and then a more expensive but more sensitive follow-up test for those who test positive. It sounds like this new test would be ideal for an initial HIV screening test.

The other thing that many people don't understand about testing systems is Bayes' theorem. Consider an HIV test that's "99% accurate". That is, when someone is known to be HIV+, this test will detect it with 99% probability; similarly if they're HIV-, the test will show that 99% of the time. The problem is, that's not how the test is used. Such a test is done on a person whose HIV status is unknown, and the test comes back positive. The question is, what's the probability that the person really is HIV+?

Bayes' theorem tells us that the answer depends on the incidence of HIV in the population. Let's run the numbers on a population of 1 million Americans. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the US is about 0.33%. That means that of that 1 million, 3300 will be HIV+, and 996700 will be HIV-.

Of the 3300 HIV+ people, 3267 (99%) will test positive, and 33 (1%) will test negative.

Of the 996700 HIV- people, 986733 (99%) will test negative, and 9967 (1%) will test positive.

Now comes our poor testee, whose test comes up positive. Remember we don't know if he's one of the 3267 HIV+ people who would test positive, or one of the 9967 HIV- people whose tests produce false positives. So the chance that he's really HIV+ is 3267/(3267+9967), or 24.7%. In other words, of the people who test positive, only about 1 in 4 is really HIV+. And that's with a test with 99% accuracy!

Given all that, I think that this new test sounds pretty good. They just need to educate people that a positive result just means that further testing is needed, and not that they necessarily really are HIV+.

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Bush, unindicted co-conspirator?

Robert Novak, who first published Valerie Plame's name, has been claiming of late that President Bush knows who leaked her name. In response, Bush said:
Although I have no first-hand knowledge of this leak, I have asked all White House staff to sign a statement that they did not reveal Ms Plame's identity as an undercover CIA operative to anyone not authorized to have that information. Anyone who refuses to sign such a statement will be suspended from further duties, and the case turned over to the Attorney General for investigation and possible trial.
I jest, of course. That only happens when adults with a sense of responsibility and accountability are in charge. What Bush really said in response to Novak's claim was this:
I appreciate his bold assertion.
What a weasel. The man can't even answer a simple yes or no question about what he himself knows. Good thing it's only about possible treason, and not extramarital sex, or he might find himself impeached. But of course I jest yet again—this Republican Congress will never hold Bush to any standard whatsoever.

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When love means having to say you're sorry

I remember a time when, shortly after being intimate with someone, I discovered that I'd had a communicable disease at the time. Although we lived on different continents, I was luckily in the city where she lived when I discovered this, and so was able to tell her in person. I took her into an empty room, closed the blinds, and proceeded to offer abject apologies and express my sincere hope that she was OK, but that I thought she really ought to go to the doctor and get checked for...

I realize now that I should have begun with this last bit of information, as she was pretty worked up by this point. Who could blame her, considering the nasty, even lethal, bugs that are going around out there?

Anyway, she went and got checked out, and as it turned out, she hadn't managed to catch my mononucleosis.

But she was a friend. What if she'd been someone I'd met casually? Now San Francisco and Los Angeles are providing an answer: a service which sends an e-card to those you slept with, telling them what they might have. One problem with this—you have to have their e-mail address, and they need yours. It might be a good idea to set up a special one, like tellmeifihaveanstd@yahoo.com.

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15 December 2005

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Give a thought for the people of Vanuatu—rising sea levels are forcing some people there to move inland; others are being forced from their homes by a volcano. Good thing they're not happening on the same island; just imagine one group, going inland, meeting the other, running for the sea, and all of them wondering what to do next.

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Grandma's a pill pusher

So now it's come to this: the US's insane drug policies, combined with poverty among the elderly, has led to 40 senior citizens in Kentucky alone being charged with dealing drugs.

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Emperor says he's not naked

This week President Bush, responding to criticism dating back to 2000 that he was out of touch, denied that he lives in a "bubble".

I swear, you can't make this stuff up.

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George Orwell's Shooting An Elephant

If you've never read it, or if you haven't read it recently, you really, really need to. There's a copy online here. In just a few pages of brilliant prose, Orwell recounts a tale that should give any would-be imperialist or occupier pause.

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Breeding like...well, maybe we need a new metaphor

How badly do you have to screw up your environment that you're endangering a species of rabbits?

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Technology leapfrog

One of the big disadvantages of being a leader in technology is that early, inferior versions tend to get entrenched as standards. For instance, the television standard used in the US, NTSC, doesn't produce image quality nearly as good as PAL/SECAM. And the cell phones in use in most of the world work more seamlessly than those in the US.

Places which are not on the leading edge benefit from the mistakes and advances made by others. Cambodia and many other developing countries have not needed to develop extensive wired telephone networks, as most people simply use cell phones.

Now cities in the US are, over the strenuous objections of the telecommunications companies, are beginning to provide Internet connectivity. I would guess that the WiFi used by Tempe to provide access will soon be superseded by a better wireless technology, possibly WiMax. And when the price on that better technology comes down, the developing world will be able to take advantage of it in the same way that they're taking advantage of cell phone technology.

Should that, coupled with the $100 laptop, come to pass, Sun Microsystems' vision that "the network is the computer", can become a reality. In that model, most of the processing load is offloaded to servers, so users don't need to have extremely powerful machines, no matter what Intel's Craig Barrett says.

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13 December 2005

Good news on the death penalty

From USA Today:
An October Gallup Poll found support for the death penalty at 64%, down from 80% in 1994. When life without parole is offered as an option, preference for the death penalty drops to the 40% to 50% range.
Life without parole has always seemed to be a better punishment than execution to me. Given that we know that innocents have been executed, it seems obvious that we should prefer to put convicts in jail from which they could, if later found to be innocent, be released, rather than sending them into death, from which no return is possible.

I understand the emotional appeal of killing those who have killed, but killing for revenge—even if the state is used as a proxy—legitimizes killing as a means of redressing grievances. The death penalty thus brutalizes society, and puts us in the company of such countries as China, Iran, and Syria. America can be better, and it's good to see Americans beginning to realize that.

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IEDs always make me feel welcome

In an article reporting Bush's denial that the bungling of the Katrina response reflected racism (for once, I believe him—I think it was much more likely because of the poverty of the victims), is this:
Bush defended Vice President Dick Cheney's pre-war assertion that the United States would be welcomed in Iraq as liberators.

"I think we are welcomed," he said. "But it was not a peaceful welcome."
Huh? Even allowing for his genetic estrangement from the English language, it's hard to make sense of this. When you're getting shot at and bombed, what you're experiencing is not a welcome.

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12 December 2005

No blogging for a day

I've got to make a quick trip, so I'll be away from a net connection for a day. But when I come back, I've got a couple of things to say about the shooting of Rigoberto Alpizar, and a comment on the virtues of monarchy.

In the meantime, you could always go read the always interesting Balloon Juice. But come back real soon, y'hear?

10 December 2005

Who knew kite flying was so deadly?

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09 December 2005

The new enemies list

The list of "terror suspects" distributed by the US to airlines has grown from 16 names pre-9/11 to 80,000 names. For some very good security reasons that list is classified, but I'm really curious to know how many of those names are actual terror suspects, and how many are just people who've publicly disagreed with this administration. You can't tell me they're above using such a mechanism to harass those they don't like.

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If you haven't got anything good to say about anyone...

...you should be a blogger. It seems that Mena Trott, the president of Six Apart—which makes Movable Type, one of the more popular blogging systems—doesn't really get it. At LesBlogs in Paris she took bloggers to task for their incivility.
She’d like to think that bloggers can be different, that they could change to all be “so darned nice” and that this would automatically lead to positive stories that will bring more people into blogging. Yeah right. Not in Britain they won’t and, I suspect, not in many other countries either. Maybe California is different. (And we mustn’t forget that more bloggers equals more revenue for Trott’s company.)

Specifically, she didn’t like people who say nasty things behind people’s backs yet are pleasant face to face. She coined the term “two-facedness” to describe it. She is disappointed that some people are so different to their online personalities.
The attraction of blogging for a lot of people seems to be the opportunity to be someone else online. I think she's missing the virtues of role-playing. Admittedly, blogging falls somewhere between D&D and real-life conversation, in that bloggers do talk about real people and companies. Part of the price of free speech, though, is that others get to say what they want about you, and it may not always be what you want to hear.

The audience was chatting on IRC about the speech as it was being given:
At this point in the proceedings the backchannel was on display. A “this is bullshit” comment from a backchanneler called ‘dotBen’ tipped Trott over the edge. “dotBen. Who’s dotBen?” demanded Trott. To a collective gasp, he promptly stood up and identified himself.

“All day yesterday you’ve been an arsehole,” said Trott, spluttering and stumbling her way to “why the fuck?”
Here's the kicker: dotBen is, or was, one of Ms Trott's customers—you can read his version of this story here. And Ms Trott has blogged about it as well here and here. They both seem to be pretty "darned nice" about it all.

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Real wife swapping

From Reuters:
A Turkish villager who ran away with his friend's wife has offered his own wife in exchange, newspapers said on Thursday.

Farm laborer Cengiz Esme said Gulhan, his wife of 18 years, disappeared a month ago after leaving their village to go shopping in the southern Turkish town of Tarsus.

The 36-year-old said his village friend Mehmet Yaksi had telephoned him the next day and said: "I've run off with your wife .... You take my wife," the Radikal daily reported.
I mention this not just for the intrinsic interest, but because it takes place in a place where I used to live—Tarsus, Turkey. The place isn't much in the news these days, but it used to be pretty famous, as it was St Paul's home town, and it's also where Antony and Cleopatra first met.

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07 December 2005

Maybe you can hug your kids in cyberspace

From Reuters:
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore scientists looking for ways to transmit the sense of touch over the Internet have devised a vibration jacket for chickens and are thinking about electronic children's pyjamas for cyberspace hugs.

A wireless jacket for chickens or other pets can be controlled with a computer and gives the animal the feeling of being touched by its owner, researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) told Monday's edition of The Straits Times.
Somehow I don't think is going to work yet. Our eyes see an image of a dog, and when asked what it is, we say it's a dog, but we're never fooled for more than a moment that an image is... Hang on a minute. "Chickens or other pets"? Who keeps a chicken as a pet? Besides, none of the chickens I have known have been notably fond of being hugged. NTU, if you're listening, this idea—or at least the PR for it—needs a little more work.

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06 December 2005

What's Diebold hiding?

I used to write software in a regulated industry, and one of the first things we did was to make sure that we kept all versions of our product software around so that if a problem occurred, we would be able to find out what went wrong and, if necessary, fix it in the current version of the software.

If we had wanted to hide (entirely hypothetical) prior software misdeeds, it would have been necessary to prevent others from seeing our old code.

Which is why, when Diebold refuses to put into escrow their software that runs voting machines, as required by North Carolina, I immediately suspect that they're trying to hide something in their code.

The commenters at Slashdot, on the other hand, seem to think that this is mostly about hiding the criminal past of much of Diebold's staff (scroll down a bit).

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Sorry I've been gone

After I last blogged, my health fell over a cliff, and then when I started to get better, I was out of the habit of blogging, so it's taken me a while to get back to this. I'm sorry I just disappeared without any notice; I won't do it again.