Monday, February 28, 2005

The Politization of The Social Security Administration

As if we didn't know, an analysis of documents issued by the Social Security Administration reveal that
the Social Security Administration has markedly changed its communications to the public over the last four years. Taken together, these changes — some subtle and others obvious — call into question the agency’s independence. While estimates of Social Security’s long-term solvency have improved over the last four years, the Social Security Administration’s rhetoric has moved in the opposite direction. Public assurances that the Social Security system faces “no immediate crisis” have been eliminated from agency presentations, and descriptions of the role Social Security plays in keeping seniors “out of poverty” have been dropped. In their place, the agency now repeatedly warns that Social Security is “unsustainable” and “underfinanced” and “must change.”

The new communication messages are not accidental. During the Clinton Administration, one of the agency’s primary strategic goals was to educate the public about the Social Security program. This strategic goal was replaced in 2003 by a new objective to use public communication to “support reforms” to Social Security. The agency’s 2005 strategic communications plan states that a key “message” is “Social Security’s long-term financing problems are serious and need to be addressed soon.”

Sex Police State

I don't really want to give them publicity, but Billmon of Whiskey Bar posted this USA Next anti-AARP picture. I couldn't resist.

One never knows what those crazy seniors are up to these days. The golden years just aren't what they used to be.


In a sweet blog piece, John Barlow used the word apophenia, which I had never heard of — or had forgotten if I had. Wikipedia defines it as "the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data."

The skeptic's dictionary has a nice history, which I found by double-clicking the word in this post and then following the link from OneLook.

It's illegal to publish current photographs of the Eiffel Tower at night without permission!

From Fast Company
The Eiffel Tower's likeness had long since been part of the public domain, when in 2003, it was abruptly repossessed by the city of Paris. That's the year that the SNTE, the company charged with maintaining the tower, adorned it with a distinctive lighting display, copyrighted the design, and in one feel swoop, reclaimed the nighttime image and likeness of the most popular monument on earth. In short: they changed the actual likeness of the tower, and then copyrighted that.

The Secret TV Revolution

In an article on TV/computer/etc. convergence, John Dvorak writes:
While you have surely read about HP Media Centers and new DVRs from cable providers, the real action is underground: a slow and steady invasion of incredible products created by slick young coders who are sick of products designed not to make life easier but to appease a Hollywood preoccupied with digital rights management (DRM). The leader in this effort is MythTV, perhaps the most powerful DVR yet devised. …

In a changing universe, technologists will refuse to be hemmed in by artificial roadblocks created for the purpose of maintaining the status quo. Microsoft and Hollywood and whoever else can create all the DRM schemes they want; they can sue college kids for trading songs, block trading networks, shut down BitTorrent systems—but it won't do them any good. The forces of 'We want it our way' will overpower them again and again, because that's the way technology works.

And this will all be shared. In a networked, computer-based world, the sense of community breeds a socialistic desire to share, not covet. This mentality is at the root of all the open-source activity and cannot be ignored or denied. I want my MythTV.
P.S. Dvorak says they are on their 17th release.
calls it release 0.17. It's not for the faint hearted.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Jonathan J. Harris

whose home web site is NUMBER27 / The Work of Jonathan J. Harris is a very creative guy. His web sites, which are very visually creative and attractive, use Perl, PHP, MySQL and Flash. His web site said that he spent some time at F A B R I C A, the Benetton Research and Development Communication Centre. (I didn't know they had one.) It too is very creative. As I've mentioned before, it is both reassuring and discouraging to find so much creativity on the web. It's reassuring to know that there is so much creativity and intelligence in the world. It's discouraging to realize that I don't have time to see most of it.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Krugman explains Thomas Frank

In Kansas on My Mind, Paul Krugman explains how the right wing uses the strategy that Thomas Frank described in What's the Matter With Kansas? to attack anyone who opposes the privatization of Social Security.
[I]t doesn't matter that Social Security is a pro-family program that was created by and for America's greatest generation - and that it is especially crucial in poor but conservative states like Alabama and Arkansas, where it's the only thing keeping a majority of seniors above the poverty line. Right-wingers will still find ways to claim that anyone who opposes privatization supports terrorists and hates family values.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Yahoo! Photos

Apparently Yahoo! offers a photo storage and display service similar to Flickr. It's not as slick, but it seems to have no limit(!) to what you can upload and store. Apparently also, you can't link to them. When I first create an <img …> tag, the image shows up. But it only seems to work the first time. At least on the blog site. I can see the image when editing the blog entry. I don't understand why that happens.

Here are some more of my pictures.

Friday, February 18, 2005


Debora has a fellowship at the The Liguria Study Center in Bogliasco outside Genoa. I took a side trip to Innsbruck to give a paper at a conference. I've uploaded some pictures to Flickr.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Women make more money for companies they run

Companies with the most women in senior management had a 35 percent higher return on equity than those with the fewest, according to a study (.pdf) by Catalyst, a nonprofit group that studies women in business. It also found those companies paid their shareholders 34 percent more than companies with the fewest women in top management.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Distressing amounts of creativity

I subscribe to so many blogs these days, that I don't read any of them. I don't like to look at my Bloglines subscription list because it shows too many unread blogs. I think I subscribe to Crooked Timber but I'm not sure anymore. (Crooked Timber seems deliberately to have hidden the url of its logo.)

Anyway, I got there though some means other than Bloglines — which apparently is being purchased by Ask Jeeves. From there I linked to
which is one of a number of web comics on
which seems strange because
is drawn by a man even though it seems to be drawn and written in a female voice.

All the comics on
which invites you to include their comics on your web site for free, are bright and playful, lots of creativity, as are the blogs on Crooked Timber. It's reassuring to know there are so many creative people in the world. It's distressing to realize that I don't have the time to follow what they are all saying.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Bush lies (again) about Social Security. Why does the media allow it?

In a speech in North Carolina, Bush said the following.
Now, some of you probably think there is a kind of -- a bank, a Social Security trust bank. But that's not what's happened over time. Every dollar that goes into Social Security has been paid out, either to retires or government programs. It is a pay-as-you-go system; it is a flow-through system. There is no kind of -- there are empty promises, but there's no pile of money that you thought was there when you retired. That's not the way the system works.
The fact is that the Social Security Trust Fund whose existence Bush denies consists of a debt that the Federal government owes to that fund. That debt is in the same category as the debt that the Federal government owes to anyone who buys Federal bonds.

If you buy a U.S. government bond, the government doesn't put that money into a bank account from which it retrieves the money when the bond matures. The government spends the money. So as Bush said, all the money in the Social Security Trust Fund has indeed been spent. But just as the government is obligated to repay those who buy Federal bonds, it is similarly obligated to repay the Social Security Trust fund. Failure to do that would be a default on a basic obligation. (Or doesn't Bush think that paying one's debt is an important value?)

After all, if Social Security were purely pay-as-you-go, why are we now collecting more in Social Security taxes than we pay out in benefits. The reason, of course, is to build up a surplus, called the Social Security Trust Fund. That surplus will continue to build until about 2018 at which time we will start to draw it down. But it is a lie to say that the Social Security fund does not exist. If that were the case, then for the past 20 years we have been collecting an extremely regressive tax to fund adventures such as the invasion of Iraq.

Surely Bush is not so stupid as to think that when one buys a government bond, or when one buys a corporate bond, or even when one puts one's money into a bank account, the money just sits there. Of course the money is spent. The purpose of a bond, or a loan of any sort, is to allow the borrower to have money to spend. But the condition is that the borrower will repay the debt when it is due. Even Bush is not that stupid; he must be able to understand that. The only conclusion I can draw is that Bush is once again lying deliberately. Why does our mass media let him get away with it?

Animal lifespans and space-filling curves

Science News has a review article on the 3/4 law of animal lifespans and metabolism.
In 1883, German physiologist Max Rubner proposed that an animal's metabolic rate is proportional to its mass raised to the 2/3 power. This idea was rooted in simple geometry. If one animal is, say, twice as big as another animal in each linear dimension, then its total volume, or mass, is 23 times as large, but its skin surface is only 22 times as large. Since an animal must dissipate metabolic heat through its skin, Rubner reasoned that its metabolic rate should be proportional to its skin surface, which works out to mass to the 2/3 power.

In 1932, however, animal scientist Max Kleiber of the University of California, Davis looked at a broad range of data and concluded that the correct exponent is 3/4, not 2/3. In subsequent decades, biologists have found that the 3/4-power law appears to hold sway from microbes to whales, creatures of sizes ranging over a mind-boggling 21 orders of magnitude. …

Rubner was on the right track in comparing surface area with volume, but that an animal's metabolic rate is determined not by how efficiently it dissipates heat through its skin but by how efficiently it delivers fuel to its cells.

Rubner should have considered an animal's "effective surface area," which consists of all the inner surfaces across which energy and nutrients pass from blood vessels to cells, says West. These surfaces fill the animal's entire body, like linens stuffed into a laundry machine.

The idea, West says, is that a space-filling surface scales as if it were a volume, not an area. If you double each of the dimensions of your laundry machine, he observes, then the amount of linens you can fit into it scales up by 23, not 22. Thus, an animal's effective surface area scales as if it were a three-dimensional, not a two-dimensional, structure.

This creates a challenge for the network of blood vessels that must supply all these surfaces. In general, a network has one more dimension than the surfaces it supplies, since the network's tubes add one linear dimension. But an animal's circulatory system isn't four dimensional, so its supply can't keep up with the effective surfaces' demands. Consequently, the animal has to compensate by scaling back its metabolism according to a 3/4 exponent.

Though the original 1997 model applied only to mammals and birds, researchers have refined it to encompass plants, crustaceans, fish, and other organisms. The key to analyzing many of these organisms was to add a new parameter: temperature.

Mammals and birds maintain body temperatures between about 36°C and 40°C, regardless of their environment. By contrast, creatures such as fish, which align their body temperatures with those of their environments, are often considerably colder. Temperature has a direct effect on metabolism—the hotter a cell, the faster its chemical reactions run.

In 2001, after James Gillooly, a specialist in body temperature, joined Brown at the University of New Mexico, the researchers and their collaborators presented their master equation, which incorporates the effects of size and temperature. An organism's metabolism, they proposed, is proportional to its mass to the 3/4 power times a function in which body temperature appears in the exponent. The team found that its equation accurately predicted the metabolic rates of more than 250 species of microbes, plants, and animals. These species inhabit many different habitats, including marine, freshwater, temperate, and tropical ecosystems. …

A single equation predicts so much, the researchers contend, because metabolism sets the pace for myriad biological processes. An animal with a high metabolic rate processes energy quickly, so it can pump its heart quickly, grow quickly, and reach maturity quickly.

Unfortunately, that animal also ages and dies quickly, since the biochemical reactions involved in metabolism produce harmful by-products called free radicals, which gradually degrade cells.

"Metabolic rate is, in our view, the fundamental biological rate," Gillooly says. There is a universal biological clock, he says, "but it ticks in units of energy, not units of time." …

The team's master equation may resolve a longstanding controversy in evolutionary biology: Why do the fossil record and genetic data often give different estimates of when certain species diverged? …

The problem is that there is no universal clock that determines the rate of genetic mutations in all organisms, Gillooly and his colleagues say. They propose in the Jan. 4 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that, instead, the mutation clock—like so many other life processes—ticks in proportion to metabolic rate rather than to time.

The DNA of small, hot organisms should mutate faster than that of large, cold organisms, the researchers argue. An organism with a revved-up metabolism generates more mutation-causing free radicals, they observe, and it also produces offspring faster, so a mutation becomes lodged in the population more quickly.

When the researchers use their master equation to correct for the effects of size and temperature, the genetic estimates of divergence times—including those of rats and mice—line up well with the fossil record.


I've been commenting on answers people have given to's question of the year: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" Most recently I discussed Lynn Margulis' answer.

Here I'd like to contrast two other answers. Joseph LeDoux said,
I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I, nor anyone else, has been able to prove it.
In contrast, Nicholas Humphrey said,
I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance—so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.
If you believe, as I do, that human consciousness is a simple (or perhaps not so simple but at least a direct) extension of animal consciousness as LeDoux does, Humphrey's position makes no sense. Certainly animal consciousness didn't evolve just in order to build human consciousness out of it just in order to fool human beings into believing we are supremely important. Whether or not human consciousness has the effect of encouraging us to self-aggrandizement — and thereby perhaps enhancing our changes of survival — it makes no sense to me to attribute the existence of human and animal consciousness to that effect.

As these answers illustrate, though, we are far from understanding consciousness. My view is that the term consciousness starts us off on the wrong track. The term consciousness has too much of a sense of self-awareness and conceptualization about it. The real mystery is subjective experience in general.

We all live in our own worlds of subjective experience — and it's amazing that we so frequently forget that subjective experience is just what occurs within our heads. Subjective experience may or may not have a connection to the world outside our heads. Most likely it does; otherwise we would be hard pressed to survive. But fundamentally, all our experiences, including all our perceptions, all our thoughts, and all our feelings, occur within our heads. We do ourselves a disservice when we forget it.

On the other hand, since subjective experience is all we have, we rightly value our subjective experiences and those of others. Otherwise, where would we be?

I agree with LeDoux that our subjective experience is similar to that of animals. We don't know how either of them works; we don't even know how to think about subjective experience in a useful way. But to say that subjective experience is nothing more than a conjuring trick seems much too dismissive for me.

Next Friday, Gerald Edelman will be giving the Jacob Marschak Memorial Lecture at UCLA. I regret I won't be able to be there. From what I've read Edelman knows more about consciousness than just about anyone. He calls his view Neural Darwinism. The following is taken from an interview with him from last Summer. (Edelman didn't participate in the Edge question.)
The most important thing to understand is that the brain is "context bound." It is not a logical system like a computer that processes only programmed information; it does not produce pre-ordained outcomes like a clock. Rather it is a selectional system that, through pattern recognition, puts things together in always novel ways. It is this selectional repertoire in the brain that makes each individual unique, that accounts for the ability to create poetry and music, that accounts for all the differences that arise from the same biological apparatus—the body and the brain. There is no singular mapping to create the mind; there is, rather, an unforetold plurality of possibilities. In a logical system, novelty and unforeseen variation are often considered to be noise. In a selectional system such diversity actually provides the opportunity for favorable selection.

Google loses trademark case in France

In an interesting legal case, CNET News reports that
The Paris District Court has sanctioned Google and its French subsidiary from selling search-related advertisements against trademarks owned by [Louis Vuitton ]. …

The ruling comes on the heels of another French court order against Google, in a case brought by European chain Le Meridien Hotels and Resorts. In that lawsuit, the court said Google infringed on Le Meridien's trademarks by allowing the hotel chain's rivals to bid on keywords of its name and then appear prominently in those related search results. …

In the United States, the company recently won a favorable ruling in a similar case brought by Geico, the car insurance company. In December, a judge in Virginia ruled that as a matter of law, Google's use of Geico trademarks to trigger ads did not constitute trademark infringement and that Geico had not sufficiently proven its case.

Google still faces other copyright disputes, including one brought by American Blind and Wallpaper Factory.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Financing the Federal budget

In my previous post, I commented on David Brooks' plan to replace Social Security with an asset-oriented alternative. We could use the same approach with the entire Federal budget.

Using rough figures, let's assume the current budget is about $1 trillion/year, and let's assume a 5% rate of return. Then we would need a "nest egg" of $20 trillion to finance the Federal government. To build up that amount in 65 years would require an initial deposit of about $900 billion. So if we just doubled everyone's taxes for a single year, then 65 years from now no one would have to pay any Federal taxes.

We could make it even less painful by extending the build-up period. If we allowed ourselves 95 years to build up the nest egg, say the end of this century, we would need only about $200 billion to start. Since that's about half the size of the current deficit, we could finance it easily. Perhaps no one would notice. Of course, unlike our treatment of the current "Social Security Trust Fund," we would need strict rules about how to keep our hands off that nest egg as it's building up.

David Brooks' Social Security welfare plan

David Brooks, the NY Times conservative columnist, outlined his version of a replacement for Social Security.
[T]he government would open tax-deferred savings accounts for each American child, making a $1,000 deposit at birth, and $500 deposits in each of the next five years. That money could be invested in a limited number of mutual funds, but it couldn't be withdrawn until retirement.

Over decades, it would grow and grow, thanks to the wonders of compound interest, so that by the time workers retired, they would each have a substantial nest egg, over $100,000, waiting for them.

The KidSave idea was an early venture in what has become a broad intellectual movement that goes by an infelicitous name: asset-based welfare.

The idea behind asset-based welfare is that we are living in the midst of a social revolution. It used to be that only the rich owned financial assets like stocks. But over the last 20 years, the number of American households with money invested in the stock market has more than tripled.

But people in the bottom half of the income scale don't get to join in to take advantage of compound interest. They don't get a share of the growing national economy. They don't get the psychological benefits of ownership.
In other words, the government would give each child $3,500, which according to Brooks, would grow to about $100,000 by the time the child was ready to retire. The arithmetic seems a bit optimistic, but not unreasonable.

How much would it cost? According to CIA - The World Factbook -- United States, the US birth rate is more than 400,000 people per year. So at $3,500 per child, this program would cost about $14 billion per year. Hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the Federal budget. (According to Tax Policy Center | Tax Facts, current payroll tax receipts are about $500 billion/year for the retirement portion of Social Security.)

How do the plans compare? According to the Social Security Administration's Quick Calculator, if you are ready to retire now, and if your current income is $40,000/year (the default on the page), benefits would be a bit more than $12,000 year — not really enough to live on, but that's the way it is. Under Brooks' plan one could get the same benefit rate with a $100,000 annuity for perhaps 10 years. (Presumably Brooks would apply to benefits derived from his plan the same income tax policy as that applied current to Social Security benefits. Fifty percent of Social Security benefits are taxable if you are single and earn between $25,000 and $40,000 per year. Eighty five percent are taxable if you are single and earn more than $40,000. For married couples the dividing lines are $32,000 and $50,000.)

Since the average American lifespan is less than 75 years, everything works out fine as long as those who die early give the unused portion of their retirement package to people who live longer than 75 years.

Would Brooks be willing to include that feature as part of his plan? If so, we could start tomorrow. Everyone currently alive would stay under the current Social Security program. Everyone born tomorrow or later, would be under the Brooks plan. The current system could be terminated gracefully, and the transition cost to the new system would be minimal.

How some of our design evolved

In a recent post about Intelligent design, I discussed the notion that contrary to the claims of the intelligent design proponents, it isn't at all easy to distinguish between something that was "designed" and something that, as the intelligent design people say, is found "in nature." The feature of biological entities that the intelligent design proponents seem most convinced provides evidence of design is our sensory equipment.

In Edge's recent 2005 question, "What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?'" Lynn Margulis answered:
that our ability to perceive signals in the environment evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors. … These abilities to sense our surroundings are a heritage that preceded the evolution of all primates, all vertebrate animals, indeed all animals. Such sensitivities to wafting plant scents, tasty salted mixtures, police cruiser sirens, loving touches and star light register because of our "sensory cells".

These avant guard cells of the nasal passages, the taste buds, the inner ear, the touch receptors in the skin and the retinal rods and cones all have in common the presence at their tips of projections ("cell processes") called cilia. …

I think that the common ancestor of the cilium, but not the rest of the cell, was a free-swimming entity, a skinny snake-like bacterium that, 1500 million years ago squiggled through muds in a frantic search for food. Attracted by some smells and repelled by others the bacteria, by themselves, already enjoyed a repertoire of sensory abilities that remain with their descendants to this day. In fact, this bacterial ancestor of the cilium never went extinct, rather some of its descendants are uncomfortably close to us today. …

[T]his bacterium who still has many live relatives, entered into symbiotic partnerships with other very different kinds of bacteria. Together this two component partnership swam and stuck together both persisted. What kind of bacterium became an attached symbiont that impelled its partner forward? None other than a squirming spirochete bacterium.

The spirochete group of bacteria includes many harmless mud-dwellers but it also contains a few scary freaks: the treponeme of syphilis and the borrelias of Lyme disease. We animals got our exquisite ability to sense our surroundings—to tell light from dark, noise from silence, motion from stillness and fresh water from brackish brine—from a kind of bacterium whose relatives we despise. Cilia were once free-agents but they became an integral part of all animal cells. Even though the concept that cilia evolved from spirochetes has not been proved I think it is true. Not only is it true but, given the powerful new techniques of molecular biology I think the hypothesis will be conclusively proved.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Any system can be gamed

I got an email spam message for a similar product, but the website was unreachable. Either it was a bad URL, or it was getting so many hits it was overloaded. I did a Google search and found a website with this picture and text.
PHOTO BLOCKER License Plate Spray, $19.99, Makes Plates Invisible to Cameras! PHOTOBLOCKER, Anti Photoradar, Photo Radar Spray, Red Light Camera Protection, Avoid False Traffic Tickets. …

Reflects photo radar flash. Spray it and make your license plate invisible to cameras. Proven to beat photo radar and red light cameras.
I have no financial interest in this product, which is one reason I'm not including the link. Another reason is that I'm not sure I want to encourage this sort of thing. But I doubt that this extra publicity will have much effect one way or the other.

This intrigues me for two reasons.
  1. It illustrates that as the world changes, we are able to adapt to it.

  2. The other is a bit more sophisticated. The cameras that automatically snap pictures of people running red lights are supposed to provide meta-level functionality, i.e., they are supposed to observe the world and provide information about it. They are not supposed to be part of the world. But of course, everything is part of the world. And once something is part of the world, it is open to being manipulated and gamed.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Intelligent design

The New York Times, surprisingly, published an op-ed piece by intelligent design advocate Michael Behe. Behe says the argument for intelligent design
consists of four linked claims. The first claim is uncontroversial: we can often recognize the effects of design in nature. For example, unintelligent physical forces like plate tectonics and erosion seem quite sufficient to account for the origin of the Rocky Mountains. Yet they are not enough to explain Mount Rushmore. …

The next claim in the argument for design is that we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence. … Darwinists assert that their theory can explain the appearance of design in life as the result of random mutation and natural selection acting over immense stretches of time. Some scientists, however, think the Darwinists' confidence is unjustified.

The fourth claim in the design argument is [that] in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life.

[It wasn't clear to me what the other claim was.]
As Behe acknowledges, many people, including me, dispute the middle claim. The final claim seems not be a claim at all but an assertion. I'm not sure what to make of it.

I think the first claim is most interesting, and it is this claim that is the basis of Behe's argument. He claims that it is uncontroversial that we can often recognize the effects of design in nature.

First of all, the word often is too imprecise. I assume Behe means that we can at least sometimes tell when something is designed, i.e., that there are cases of objects "in nature" that we would all agree are "designed." I don't think that is true. Behe's example is the carving on Mount Rushmore. But that isn't "in nature."

To be generous, let's weaken Behe's primary claim even further to: there are at least some objects about which we can be sure that they have been designed. I suspect that Behe would not argue with this assertion. But I would.

What should we decide, for example, about a beaver dam? Is that "designed?" Does it reflect "intelligent design?" Behe would probably argue that a beaver dam, like Mount Rushmore, is enough unlike "nature" that we must conclude that it was "designed." Beaver dams are not just animal by-products, they have a "purpose," i.e., to dam up a river. And they achieve their purpose because of how they are constructed. Did beavers design them to accomplish that purpose? Behe must think so — although for me that seems to be quite a stretch. So for Behe, beaver dams must be evidence of "intelligent design," which means that beavers must be intelligent designers.

If that's his argument, where does it lead? As far as I can tell, it leads to evolution, which as Dennett in his 1995 book Darwin's Dangerous Idea has pointed out is a powerful enough mechanism to explain just about any creative result.

Beaver dams almost certainly came about as a result of trail and error evolution — beaver ancestors doing better by dropping sticks into narrow parts of streams — until that activity was bred into them. Similar histories apply to birds nests and most other animal artifacts.

Even human-designed objects are the result of trial and error. No one gets a design right the first time. Most objects have evolved over a longer or shorter period to their current design as we learn more about how best to design them. That's exactly evolution in action. The most sophisticated objects are the result of many evolutionary steps. The more sophisticated the more steps.

Since even the most complex human-designed objects are the result of (1) human activity (and humans themselves are evolved beings and like beavers are part of nature) and (2) evolutionary processes, it isn't clear what to make of Behe's claim that designed objects are somehow different from non-designed objects.

It seems to me that what this means is that the more designed an object, the more evolution it has in its pedegree.

The new Cell chip: can it succeed incrementally?

So far I don't get it. The The New York Times reports:
In a new volley in the battle for digital home entertainment, I.B.M., Sony and Toshiba will announce details Monday of their newest microprocessor design, known as Cell, which is expected to offer faster computing performance than microprocessors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. …

The Cell chip, computer experts said, could have a theoretical peak performance of 256 billion mathematical operations per second. With that much processing power, the chip would have placed among the top 500 supercomputers on a list maintained by scientists at the University of Mannheim and the University of Tennessee as recently as June 2002. …

"Our goal with the Cell is to be an order of magnitude faster," said Lisa Su, an I.B.M. executive in charge of technology development and licenses.

Many industry executives believe that because of its low cost, the Cell is a harbinger of a fundamentally new computing era that will push increasingly into consumer applications.

"I think it will aid in some of the convergence between consumer and corporate I.T. and this will accelerate amazingly from the consumer side," said Andrew Heller, a former I.B.M. processor designer who is now chairman of Heller & Associates, a consulting firm in Austin, Tex.

One area of wide speculation is whether Apple might become a partner in the Cell alliance in the future. Apple is already the largest customer for the PowerPC chip, and it would be simple for the company to take advantage of the Cell design. Several people familiar with Apple's strategy, however, said that the computer maker had yet to be convinced that the Cell technology could provide a significant performance advantage.
So why wouldn't Appple be interested? Something doesn't make sense.

Acording to The Register,
The 'cell' which gives the chip its name doesn't refer to the hardware, but to a virtual clump of software which roams the system looking for computing resources. The patent refers to a 'cell object' - program and data - and it can even roam across LANs or WANs, to find another Cell-based device.
and The Register (again)
Cell is designed to be a component in a massively distributed, global computing infrastructure. It's hardware specifically designed for 'grid computing'. A world full of Cell chips allows an entirely different infrastructure to take the place of today's transaction-based data centers. Software processes will scavenge the resources of the local Cell instantiation first, but if they find more execution resources over a local area network, or even on the other side of the world, they'll go and find them, and execute there.
This is a good idea, but it also says that Cell will succeed only if its vision of computing succeeds. Can it succeed incrementally? Is it also a superior (order-of-magnitude better) chip in a stand-along device?

Bush Is Said to Seek Sharp Cuts in Subsidy Payments to Farmers

From the The New York Times
President Bush will seek deep cuts in farm and commodity programs in his new budget and in a major policy shift will propose overall limits on subsidy payments to farmers, administration officials said Saturday.

Such limits would help reduce the federal budget deficit and would inject market forces into the farm economy, the officials said.

The proposal puts Mr. Bush at odds with some of his most ardent supporters in the rural South, including cotton and rice growers in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
If he follows through, I will give him more credit for being principled than I have in the past. The real test will be whether he will do the same thing for oil companies.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Transhumanism: The World's Most Dangerous Idea?

Foreign Policy
asked eight leading thinkers to issue an early warning on the ideas that will be most destructive in the coming years. A few of these ideas have long and sometimes bloody pedigrees. Others are embryonic, nourished by breakthroughs in science and technology. Several are policy ideas whose reverberations are already felt; others are more abstract, but just as pernicious. Yet, as the essays make clear, these dangerous ideas share a vulnerability to insightful critique and open debate.
Francis Fukuyama said, "Transhumanism," thereby bringing recognition to a previously fringe concept.
For the last several decades, a strange liberation movement has grown within the developed world. Its crusaders aim much higher than civil rights campaigners, feminists, or gayrights advocates. They want nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints. As “transhumanists” see it, humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species.
The transhumnists respond. (The same essay is available at another site: Betterhumans: Is Transhumanism the World's Most Dangerous Idea?.)

The Extropy Institute is now planning a book of replies. Contact to contribute. They also have a long list of related web sites.

"Million Dollar secret"

In today's LA Times (article requires paid membership) Tim Rutten asks why no reviewer of Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby discussed what Rutten thinks is the heart of the film: the moral question of assisted suicide. He notes that most reviewers said that they did not discuss this question (or even mention that it played a central role in the film) because they didn't want to give away the plot. He writes
Imagine the Getty [art museum] had acquired an important new painting and your newspaper's art critic … [wrote] "this is a masterpiece that has as its theme a vital moral issue, which is depicted in a shocking image. However, I'm not going to tell about either the issue or the image, because I don't want to spoil your experience of the painting."
Rutten says that such an attitude would be appropriate for the plot of thriller but that "a serious film with genuinely important themes occupy an entirely different aesthetic space." He then puts his finger on exactly why the film was treated as it has been. "[To treat the film] otherwise is to relegate [it] to a lesser art."

In my opinion, "Million Dollar Baby" was a B movie that has been seriously overpraised. Those who attempt to elevate it to something more are the ones who are wrong. See my comments from December, when I saw the film.

Writing in public

The LA Times published excerpts from an amicus brief filed by the Writers Guild of America, general counsel Marshall M. Goldberg in the case currently before the California Supreme Court in which a former assistant for "Friends" sued for sexual harassment over the raunchy talk and explicit skits she says she witnessed while the writers were preparing the shows. (See my earlier posting: Writers and sexual harassment.) I thought the excerpts were interesting enough to copy them in their entirety.

The task of filling 50, 120 or 300 blank pages in an entertaining, insightful, unexpected and humorous way is among the most daunting in the creative arts, and the process for accomplishing that task is intensely personal, often eccentric. Before they could start writing, the staff of "The Bob Newhart Show" would order dinner before 10 in the morning; the writers on "It's Garry Shandling's Show" would have to stay up all night for two days' running to finish their work. "You're trying to get yourself into a zone, and you'll do anything to get there," says John Wells, executive producer of "ER," "West Wing" and "Third Watch." "It wasn't just mental illness that made Van Gogh rip off his ear; creating is frustrating, it's hard.... "

The personality of a room varies from show to show, but the essential dynamic is what Wells ... likens to "jazz improvisation. One idea leads to another. There is a rhythm to the room. Anyone who has ever been around a campfire knows how it can escalate. With my son it's about excrement, with adults it's about sex."

Group writing has certain advantages over individual writing. It's more immediate: You find out right away if an idea is funny. It's more probing: Left on their own, many writers will edit themselves to the point where some good ideas never see the light of day. And of course, it's more productive: Six or eight writers can turn out more pages and stories than a single writer. But group writing has an element not present in individual writing: social terror. Imagine suggesting a joke to your professional peers and no one laughs. Or imagine sharing your most embarrassing moment as a spouse or a child with a group of relative strangers. Most people would avoid that kind of vulnerability at all costs, yet television writers are expected to embrace it every day.

Group writing requires an atmosphere of complete trust. Writers must feel not only that it's all right to fail, but also that they can share their most private and darkest thoughts without concern for ridicule or embarrassment or legal accountability. "No one can work in fear of ridicule," says Norman Lear, creator of "All in the Family," "Maude" and "Sanford and Son." "The more people open their veins, the better your scripts will be. Ideas are like a crowd in a room with one door and limited oxygen. You have to find a way to get them all out, or some will die...."

Because the chemistry in a writing room is so delicate, the unwritten rule in television writing is "no outsiders in the room." [Producer Steven] Bochco won't allow anyone other than a writer in the room — not even a typist. "I'm unpopular with the Writers Guild because I won't even take on a Guild trainee. What goes on in that room is, for me, as privileged as any conversation between a husband and wife, or a therapist and patient. A certain level of intimacy is required to do the work at its best, and so there is an implicit contract among the writers: What is said in the room, stays in the room...." Ultimately, nothing is off-limits to a creative comedic mind, be it a bigot, a black junkman, or masturbation.

In her brief, Appellant tries to erect a wall between process and product, arguing, in effect, for a higher legal standard for the final product (which would receive strong 1st Amendment protection) than the process for getting there (which would, in Appellant's view, receive less protection).

She gives by way of example the "Friends" writers drawing and showing ribald sketches, and asks how that could possibly be necessary to a "Friends" episode. Yet, according to Pang-Ni Landrum, a writer and co-producer on "Malcolm in the Middle," that is precisely what happened all the time at "Malcolm," one of TV's most popular comedies.

One of the writers, a talented artist, would come in with a drawing you would expect in a sixth-grade boys' locker room, of a penis going into a politician's mouth or a pile of feces under a straining weightlifter. It's sophomoric and scatological and stupid, and the entire staff would look forward to it because it put them in a completely silly frame of mind. Ms. Landrum says the pictures were "pretty damn funny. Everyone who took a look at them would burst out laughing...."

An outsider might consider the drawings vulgar — even the writers might consider them vulgar — but vulgarity is not the issue; the issue is writing a quality script, under highly competitive and pressurized conditions. The writers on "Malcolm in the Middle" thought of those drawings as a catalyst to creativity, and anything that can help generate 11 hours of quality product was very welcomed indeed.

Lear puts it this way: "There were things we said we would never print.... That's what it takes to make a great show: smart people sitting in a room, going wherever they want."
I was notified about this story because I had created a Google alert for: "California supreme court" Friends "sexual harassment," another example of digitizing and indexing the world.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Smart dust: another step in digitizing and indexing the world

Electronic Business reports.
[S]mart dust, the nickname for wireless sensor networks, is already a reality. These networks of 'motes,' or small and low-power radios, monitor everything from the vibrations of machinery on a British Petroleum oil tanker to the efficiency of the refrigerators in a Supervalu grocery store. &helip;

The idea has since evolved into a line of products from companies such as Pister's startup, Dust Networks, and Crossbow Technologies. It has also captured the interest of companies belonging to the ZigBee Alliance, a consortium started by Philips Electronics to help standardize wireless networking over a limited space. The consortium intends to create standards for tiny low-power radios that are used in smart dust networks. ZigBee's software stack can be used to create radio networks, and companies can use their own software to create smart dust networks with unique features and sensors. More than 100 companies, including systems companies, sensor makers and chip makers, belong to the consortium. Estimates of the current size of the market vary, but Joyce Putscher, an analyst at In-Stat (a division of EB's parent company), predicts that the market for ZigBee devices, including smart dust, will grow to 150 million units by 2008. "The initial deployments are happening, all across the board," she says.
For more about digitizing and indexing the world, see Project Googlefox.

Watch out cell phone companies

The New York Times reports:
Today people take laptops to wireless hot spots in coffee bars and airports to check their e-mail messages and to explore the Internet. Soon they may pack a new type of telephone and take it along, too, to make inexpensive calls using those wireless connections.

The phones are called voice over Internet protocol over Wi-Fi (or, simply, voice over Wi-Fi) handsets. Like conventional voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, services, they digitize the voice and send it as data packets over the Internet. But they do it wirelessly, over an 802.11, or Wi-Fi, network. …

Dual mode handsets, which can use voice over Wi-Fi and cellular services, are also appearing. … These phones are designed to work as cellular handsets when, for example, people are driving, and then switch to a local area network as people enter a building and transfer from the cellular network to Wi-Fi.
I didn't get a cell phone until last year. I like being connected not matter where I am. But I doubt that anyone likes their cell-phone carrier. With Wi-Fi VoIP, we will begin to have more leverage.

As discussed earlier (Microsoft continues its invasion of the living room. The search for equilibrium in communications also continues.), we are still very much in flux with respect to our communication infrastructure.

Costs Billions. How believable is this?

The Washington Post reports that
Time wasted deleting junk e-mail costs American businesses nearly $21.6 billion a year, according to a new study from the University of Maryland.

A telephone-based survey of adults who use the Internet found that more than three-quarters receive spam daily. The average spam messages per day is 18.5 and the average time spent per day deleting them is 2.8 minutes.
So 2.8 minutes/day is worth $21.6 billion a year. If people work a full 8 hour day, 2.8 minutes is about 0.6% of the normal work day. That must mean that the total value of work done in the country is $3.6 trillion (21.6/0.006).

The Bureau of Economic Analysis: National Economic Accounts reports, if I understand the figures correctly, that the GDP for 2004 was about $12 trillion. Are these two figures consistent? Is labor really only 25% of the GDP? Perhaps spam is wasting much more than $21.6 billion.

On the other hand, does it really make sense to attempt to quantify the time wasted by a 2.8 detour from work. How much money is wasted by bathroom breaks? Would that much more work really have been accomplished if spam didn't exist?

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Long Tail

A month and a half ago, had an article called The Long Tail. It was about products that sell to very few people — as distinguished from best-sellers.
Robbie Vann-Adibé [is] the CEO of Ecast, a digital jukebox company whose barroom players offer more than 150,000 tracks - and some surprising usage statistics. He hints at them with a question that visitors invariably get wrong: 'What percentage of the top 10,000 titles in any online media store (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, or any other) will rent or sell at least once a month?' …

[T]he right answer, says Vann-Adibé, is 99 percent. There is demand for nearly every one of those top 10,000 tracks. …

Vann-Adibé, like executives at iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, has discovered that the "misses" usually make money, too. And because there are so many more of them, that money can add up quickly to a huge new market.

With no shelf space to pay for and, in the case of purely digital services like iTunes, no manufacturing costs and hardly any distribution fees, a miss sold is just another sale, with the same margins as a hit. A hit and a miss are on equal economic footing, both just entries in a database called up on demand, both equally worthy of being carried. Suddenly, popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability. …

[A]s egalitarian as Wal-Mart may seem, it is actually extraordinarily elitist. Wal-Mart must sell at least 100,000 copies of a CD to cover its retail overhead and make a sufficient profit; less than 1 percent of CDs do that kind of volume. What about the 60,000 people who would like to buy the latest Fountains of Wayne or Crystal Method album, or any other nonmainstream fare? They have to go somewhere else. …

What's really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you've got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are …

[M]ost successful businesses on the Internet are about aggregating the Long Tail in one way or another. Google, for instance, makes most of its money off small advertisers (the long tail of advertising), and eBay is mostly tail as well - niche and one-off products. By overcoming the limitations of geography and scale, just as Rhapsody and Amazon have, Google and eBay have discovered new markets and expanded existing ones.

This is the power of the Long Tail. The companies at the vanguard of it are showing the way with three big lessons. Call them the new rules for the new entertainment economy.
  1. Make everything available. …

  2. Cut the price in half. Now lower it. …

  3. Help me find it. …
Here's a brief extract from the Wikipedia article on The Long Tail.
The Long Tail is the colloquial name given to a feature of certain statistical distributions (Zipf, Power-laws, and/or Pareto distributions). Such distributions can be visualized by the image below. In these distributions a vast population of events occur very rarely (or more generally have low amplitude on some scale, e.g., popularity or sales) while a small population of events occur very often (or have high amplitude). The huge population of rare (or low amplitude) events is referred to as the long tail. In many cases most of the events are in the tail.

Such distributions are surprisingly common. Three examples: The word "is" is very common in English text, while the word "distribution" isn't; most words in English are part of the long tail. Lots of energy was released by the earthquake of Dec 26 2004, but there are tiny earthquakes all the time; most earthquakes are part of the long tail. Lots of loaves of bread are sold every day, but very few jars of pickled pig's feet; most food items sold are part of the long tail (assuming that the store carries them at all).

The last example has led to the term Long Tail coming into usage as a term in popular economics to describe what happens as a store becomes extremely large. Products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, if the store or distribution channel is large enough. …

A former Amazon employee described the Long Tail as follows: 'We sold more books today that didn't sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday.'
I guess what this means is that even my blog will have some readers.

And speaking of long tails, did you know that the

reports that
Exotic pets, including hedgehogs, have become popular in recent years among pet owners, especially in North America. Such animals can carry and introduce zoonotic agents, a fact well illustrated by the recent outbreak of monkeypox in pet prairie dogs. …

Hedgehogs are small, nocturnal, spiny-coated insectivores that have been gaining popularity as exotic pets. These animals are considered to be unique, low-maintenance pets, and an estimated 40,000 households in the United States now own them.
So there is probably a significant market for information about diseases carried by exotic pets. (If you are reading this on my web site, double click zoonotic for a definition or select and release for a Google search. This works for any word or phrase on this blog site.)


In his weekly email message David Pogue, the NYTimes Circuits columnist reported on an interview with Steve Jurvetson, a nanotechnology venture capitalist.
We define nanotechnology as the manipulation and control of matter at the nano scale, nano scale being a billionth of a meter. It's about 70,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. It's smaller than the wavelength of light, something you would normally not ever be able to see. And it's much smaller than anything we manufacture today.

The reason that it's so exciting, though, is not just that it's small. It's that everything changes at that scale. The physics you may have learned in school is completely different. In fact, it's wrong and doesn't apply at that level. Notions like temperature and electricity and magnetism are completely different. …

Right now, nanotech is second only to the space race for Federal funding of basic research and development. So the US government absolutely believes that this is the future technology wave. The National Science Foundation of the US estimates it will be a trillion-dollar market.

And I might point out that internationally, the U.S. is not number one or number two. We're number three, if you consider the EU as an entity and if you consider Japan as an entity.
Credit for the original idea of nanotechnology is given to Richard Feynman, whose December 29th 1959 talk to the American Physical Society was entitled, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom.

Here are too many (mostly) relevant web sites.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

It's frustrating how much Bush lies

In his state of the union speech, Bush said
Social Security was a great moral success of the 20th century, and we must honor its great purposes in this new century … The system, however, on its current path, is headed toward bankruptcy.
This is simply untrue. Social Security will never be bankrupt. As long as there are workers and employers paying social security taxes, the system will have an income. Bankruptcy is such a dishonest term.

If you use the economic projections that Bush uses to promote his tax proposals, Social Security will continue to pay projected benefits forever. Apparently, though, this is a complex economic modelling issue. The worse case scenario is that half a century from now Social Security benefits will have to be reduced from what the are expected to be then to what they are now (in inflation-adjusted dollars). So the worst case is to continue with what we have now.

The reason this would be a reduction is that the average retiree then is expected to have a higher income level than the average retiree now. In the worst case Social Security may not be able to keep up with those increased benefit demands. So the average payment would be what it is now, but the average expected benefit would be higher than what it is now. So the system is not and will never be bankrupt. Bush is simply a liar.

Most people would be willing to talk about making Social Security, or any system, better. I strongly believe that If it ain't broke, don't fix it. is the wrong way to approach things. Social Security ain't broke. But that doesn't mean it can't be improved. See, for example, my posting on Social Security, negative income taxes, and forced savings accounts.

But to talk to someone as dishonest as Bush about anything seems like a losing proposition. He won't engage in an honest discussion. He will lie and mislead until he gets what he wants. He isn't an honest negotiating partner. He is a power-driven demagogue, who is attempting to remake the country in his own dishonest image — while telling misleading stories to his gullible followers.

Mark Weisbrot continually provides good coverage of Social Security issues. Here's one of his latest columns: WHAT CRISIS?. Here's another.

Finally, a few additional points.
  1. Bush wants to spend about $4 trillion to convert Social Security to some other system. Can you think of any federal program that we should commit $4 trillion to at this point?

  2. Let's assume that half a century from now, we will have to reduce Social Security benefits or fund them in some other way. What's the problem with funding them? As Weisbrot points out,
    In fact the projected shortfall for the next 75 years is smaller than shortfalls covered by adjustments in each of the following decades: the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and '80s. It is also about one-third the size of the tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration.
    We have successfully adjusted to social security funding issues in the past. We can do so again half a century from now.

  3. The federal government counts social security income as part of its total revenue. If it were not for the excess being paid into social security, our official deficit would be a quarter of a trillion dollars higher than it is. Since social security can be considered part of revenues, it can be considered part of expenditures. Where is it written that no social security benefits may be paid unless they are funded by social security taxes? If payroll taxes aren't enough to meet the needs of social security recipients, let's use other sources of revenue. Payroll taxes are too regressive anyway. Again, see my earlier posting: Social Security, negative income taxes, and forced savings accounts.
There are many ways to improve most programs and systems. Lying about them is not the way to begin.

Both capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees have a sense of fairness (and of being cheated)

In September 2003, CBC News reported that capuchin monkey seem have a sense of fairness.
In a recent study, brown capuchin monkeys trained to exchange a granite token for a cucumber treat often refused the swap if they saw another monkey get a better payoff — a grape.

When both monkeys were given a cucumber slice after handing over the token, they completed the trade 95 percent of the time.

But when one was given the tastier grape for the same amount of work, the rate of cooperation from the other monkey fell to 60 percent, with the cheated primate sometimes throwing the token, refusing the cucumber or giving the cucumber to the other monkey. And when one didn’t have to do anything to get a grape, the other made the trade for the cucumber only 20 percent of the time.

The refusal to make the exchange increased as the experiment went on, the researchers reported.
Now Scientific American reports that the chimps have a similar sense of fairness suggesting that we all probably inherited it from a common ancestor.

Don't worry about energy?

In an article in Slate Peter Huber and Mark Mills suggest that even when we run out of oil, we will be nowhere near running out of energy.
Humanity currently consumes roughly 60 billion barrels of oil or its energy equivalent (referred to as BBOE, for billion barrels of oil equivalent) every year, about half of that as oil itself and half from other fuels. But the planet offers us, within quite easy reach, about 30,000 BBOE of coal and 2 million BBOE of oil shale. The winds of Nantucket Sound are powered by a tiny fraction of the 1 million BBOE of solar energy that reach the surface of the Earth every year. And the waters of the sound itself, and the oceans beyond, contain 2 trillion BBOE worth of deuterium, the fuel that lights the sun.
They elaborate in their book, The Bottomless Well.

The Darwinian era is over

That's how Freeman Dyson puts it in a brief Technology Review article.
The epoch of species competition came to an end about 10 thousand years ago when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence that we call globalization. And now, in the last 30 years, Homo sapiens has revived the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal.

In the post-Darwinian era, biotechnology will be domesticated. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners, who will use gene transfer to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also, biotech games for children, played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of the general public, will give us an explosion of biodiversity. Designing genomes will be a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and diversity to our fauna and flora.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Microsoft continues its invasion of the living room. The search for equilibrium in communications also continues.

Technology Review reports that
Verizon Communications Inc. plans to use Microsoft Corp. technology for its rollout of television service over a new fiber-optic network, becoming the third major telephone company to help fulfill Microsoft's long-stymied bid to barge into the TV business. …

The deal with Verizon comes on the heels of a contract from SBC Communications Inc. to use Microsoft's platform to launch that telephone company's planned TV service and an agreement with BellSouth Corp. to conduct trials with the technology.

By signing up the nation's three biggest local phone companies, Microsoft has taken a sharp detour to achieve in just three months what it failed to accomplish in a decade, bypassing the traditional cable establishment to establish a serious beachhead in the video entertainment industry. …

[T]he contracts may position Microsoft at the focal point of the expected convergence of TV and the Internet, helping replicate and reinforce its dominant position in the computer industry. That convergence calls for a television signal to be transmitted in the language of the Internet, known as Internet Protocol, or IP.

"IPTV" works much the same as the Internet-based phone service known as VoIP, or voice over Internet, which breaks calls into data packets, sends them over the Internet and reassembles them on the other end.

The advantage can be twofold, but there are questions about whether IPTV can replicate the immediacy and quality of a traditional cable feed.

One benefit is that IPTV can require less bandwidth than existing cable systems, which shoot every channel available to a customer in a continuous stream all the way to that viewer's set-top box. The viewer then selects a channel to watch, typically using a remote control and a set-top box.

With IPTV, only the desired channels are transmitted to the home. In theory, that allows the company selling programming through an IPTV system to offer a limitless choice of channels.
The evil empire is alive and well. Too bad for the rest of us.

According to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer Microsoft's
Home and Entertainment division, which includes its Xbox video-game console, achieved its first quarterly operating profit, boosted by strong holiday sales of products, including Microsoft's blockbuster "Halo 2" video game. …

The strong earnings last quarter resulted largely from the holiday shopping season and the November release of 'Halo 2.' More than 6.3 million copies of the first-person shooting game have been sold so far.
Clearly Microsoft is doing its best to grab control of as much of the entertainment market as it can. And it is beginning to see some success.

More interestingly, as phone companies position themselves to compete with cable companies, and as regional phone companies buy nationwide transmission networks (like SBC buying AT&T) it's clear that we are in the middle of an equilibrium puntuating period in communications. It will be a while before a new equilibrium is found. If you were going to pick a winner by buying stock in one or more companies, which ones would you buy?

Kurdistand and freedom

In today's The New York Times Peter Galbraith discusses the Kurdish situation.
With almost no advance notice, hundreds of Kurds erected tents at official polling places in Iraq's Kurdish areas and asked those emerging from the ballot booths to take part in an informal referendum on whether Kurdistan should be independent or part of Iraq. From what I saw, almost everyone stopped to vote in the referendum, and the tally was running 11 to 1 in favor of independence. …

[I assume the figures represent, from left-to-right, the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiites.]

What drives the move for independence is not just the love of Kurdistan but also a widespread antipathy toward Iraq. The Iraqi flag is a hated symbol of a brutal regime, and it is still banned in areas controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (it does fly, along with the Kurdistan flag, on a few public buildings elsewhere in the region).

The Kurds do not allow Arab units of the new Iraqi military onto their territory, nor do they permit Baghdad ministries to open offices. They refuse to surrender control of their international borders to Baghdad for fear that the central government will cut off their precious access to the outside world. …

[W]ill Kurdistan want to stay in an Iraqi federation - even a very loose one? As the United States learned in Yugoslavia, it is hard in a democracy to hold people in a country they hate.
Here is what President Bush said about freedom in his inaugural speech.
[I]t is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture. …

[W]hen the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own.

America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom and make their own way. …

Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.
Now, we all know that Bush is a lying hypocrite. (And I now believe that he is smart enough to be hypocritical.) Let's see how his so-called values play out here.

This certainly is not an easy situation. But Bush is being paid to deal with difficult situations. As he so brilliantly said during the campaign. It's hard work being the President. In this case, our allies, the Turks, are worried about an independent Kurdistan. So are our other "fiends," Syria and Iran, who also have large Kurdish populations.

Has Bush praised the fact that the Kurds are "finding their own voice?" Not that I can remember? Does he value the "call to freedom" that has arisen in the Kurdish soul? Not from anything he has said. Will he stand by his pledge not to "impose our own style of government on the unwilling?" Who knows.

Will he live up to any of his promises? Or are they as phony and dishonest as his social security crisis? (See Paul Krugman's latest for more on that intellectual scandal.) I guess we'll find out.