Friday, August 31, 2007

"My friends often accuse me of talking
about problems without giving any solutions.
But they never tell me what to do about it."

- Daniel Gilbert

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Afghanistan Advances to 20th Century

Here's a synopsis of a NYT article:
Amid War, Passion for TV Chefs, Soaps and Idols

By BARRY BEARAK, Foreign Desk

Television is rapidly capturing an increasing audience in Afghanistan, where the population seeks the escapist fare of soap operas and reality shows. Owning a television was a crime under the Taliban, but a recent study finds that two-thirds of all people in Afghanistan's most urban provinces watch television daily.

Women most often watch their favorite shows at home, but men watch television together in restaurants. Tolo TV, the channel that dominates the market, has drawn a huge audience while testing the bounds of certain taboos, such as putting men and women on air together.

Is it that Tolo TV draws a huge audience while being provocative, or is it because they're doing so ?

The Afghanis should televise school curriculums for various ages and grades, so that girls who live in places where they might be at risk of being killed by Taliban terrorists if they attend school can learn at home.

For Those Who Enjoy Drinking Coffee

A Harvard PhD researcher analyzed 8 separate studies in 2005 and found that adults who drink 6-7 cups of coffee every day slash their risks of diabetes by over ONE THIRD over those who drank just 2 cups a day.

Another study focusing solely on women showed similar results: A 13% reduction in diabetes risk for females who drank 2 cups daily, and as much as a 40% drop for those who consumed 4 or more cups each day!

Drinking coffee also had positive effects on the risk of Parkinson's disease and colon cancer...

According to some new Italian research highlighted in a Reuters health article in June 2007, both men and women who drank at least 28 cups of coffee every week enjoyed as much as a 60 PERCENT reduction in their risk of a certain type of liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) over those who drank less than 14 cups a week...

This risk reduction was not seen among decaf drinkers or among those favoring tea.

~ William Campbell Douglass II, M.D.


Bargain Hunters Boost Stocks After Selloff
By Madlen Read, AP
Posted: 2007-08-29

NEW YORK (Aug. 29) - Stocks rebounded Wednesday as investors, though still uneasy about shrinking credit and its effect on the economy, scooped up "bargains" [scare quotes added] after the previous session's huge tumble...

Someone is being stupid - either them or me. We'll know shortly.
Housing Prices Fall by 3.2 Percent
Posted: 2007-08-28

NEW YORK (Aug. 28) - U.S. home prices fell 3.2 percent in the second quarter, the steepest rate of decline since Standard & Poor's began its nationwide housing index in 1987, [emph. add.] the group said Tuesday. [...]

The index tracks the price trends among existing single-family homes across the nation compared with a year earlier .

A separate S&P/Case-Shiller index that covers 20 U.S. cities fell 3.5 percent from a year earlier. A 10-city index fell 4.1 percent from a year earlier.

Also, from Michael Shedlock:
The other argument about cheapness of stocks has to do with forward earnings. Few have bothered to look at why earnings were high, the quality of those earnings, or whether or not those earnings will be repeatable.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A good example of unnecessary risk

Heaven-Sent: Vatican Airline Debuts

On Monday the Vatican inaugurated its latest venture: a low-cost charter airline to ferry thousands of Catholic pilgrims from Italy to popular religious sites around the world.

Did anyone at the Vatican consider the possible downside?

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Common Person Rejects AGW

At the reference frame blog,, (tip of the hat to Harry Eagar), there is this post about a number of polls, some scientific, some not, that tend to show that the general public is skeptical about AGW.

For instance, this: "In another British poll two months ago, 56% of respondents agreed that scientists are still questioning climate change. Most people thought that the problem was exaggerated to make money."
(Although the linked article expresses disapproval about that result).

Also, in the comments to that post, "rafa" wrote that "a recent national poll in Spain showed 83% think global warming is a 'problem' when answering the question 'do you think GW is a real environmental problem?' The funny thing is people were asked at the end of the poll to mention up to five environmental problems they 'personally' consider important. How many mentioned global warming?: 3%"

This is in line with Annoying Old Guy's opinion that AGW fervor has peaked, and that an intellectually-mature consensus about the issue will emerge.

Finally, I should note that polls of the general public about matters scientific are not definitive. In the U.S. barely 25% of the adult population can accurately describe basic science concepts like what DNA is, or the physical structure of atoms. Famously, a quarter of all Americans can't even pick out their own nation on a world map, much less other significant and geographically-easy nations like the UK, Japan, China, or Russia. I've seen a published study that indicates that the common person in Europe, Russia, or China fares no better when asked about simple science concepts.

So it really wouldn't matter if 99% of poll respondents in a poll of the general public anywhere were on one side or the other about AGW. It's meaningless in determining whether or not AGW is in fact true.

However, it absolutely affects the political response to the issue, which is why it warms the cockles of my heart to see a majority, (albeit a modest one), agreeing with my opinion about what is most likely true, and rejecting panicked, "do something, anything !" approaches to the issue of a warming planet.

Have the French received a backbone implant?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday a diplomatic push by the world's powers to rein in Tehran's nuclear program was the only alternative to "an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."

As printed in today's International Herald Tribune, but not yet available on line, the story goes on to say:

Although Sarkozy's aides said that French policy had not changed, some foreign policy experts were stunned by the blunt, if brief, remarks. "This came out of the blue," said François Heisbourg, director of th Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and author of a forthcoming book on the Iranian nuclear program. "To actually say that if diplomacy fails, the choice will be to accept a nuclear Iran or bomb Iran — this is a diplomatic blockbuster"

To describe a statement of the glaringly obvious as a "diplomatic blockbuster" makes me hang my head even lower in abject shame than it already did for obtaining an undergraduate degree in International Relations.

Finally, a respectable argument against immigration

RIO GRANDE, Texas: Along muddy roads invisible from the highway, some families crowd into battered trailers patched with plywood.

Others jam into self-constructed dwellings that seem designed by Dr. Seuss - wood and tarpaper shacks attached to half-finished concrete-block rooms, wires and hoses snaking in.

The counties of south Texas are among the nation's poorest, and their jumbled subdivisions, known as colonias, home to 400,000 Hispanic Americans, can certainly look the part. Since the 1950s, developers have carved small lots from mesquite woodlands and flood plains, selling them to workers with the promises that utilities, sewers and paved roads would follow. They rarely did, and for decades the colonias were seen as hopeless slums.


Through frugality and hard work, in a process known as "incremental building" that is rare in the United States but common in the Third World, families are transforming hovels into homes, one wall and window at a time.

While the jerry-built shacks may look crude, they are often the works in progress of determined parents willing to spend decades to create a heart for their extended families. Many start with used trailers and upgrade as their finances improve. Their determination perhaps explains why the colonias, despite infrastructure gaps and a lack of amenities like parks and street lights, are not suffused with the bleak resignation evident in the most blighted urban centers or parts of the Deep South.

Based upon this story, can anyone guess what the argument is?


Click on images to slightly enlarge.



From the (highly recommended) toothpaste for dinner site archives.

You Go, Girl

Midlife Crisis

Click for larger image

From the archives of Natalie Dee, at

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

And for the Most Part, Men Like Women Who are Dressed in Pink

Women really do prefer pink, researchers say
Aug 20, 2007

Boys like blue, girls like pink and there isn't much anybody can do about it, researchers said on Monday in one of the first studies to show scientifically that there are gender-based color preferences. [...]

Recent studies have suggested there is a universal preference for "blue," and there has not been much previous evidence to support the idea of sex differences when picking colors, said Anya Hurlbert, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University who led the study. [...]

In the study, the researchers asked a group of men and women to look at about 1,000 pairs of colored rectangles on a computer screen in a dark room and pick the ones they liked best as quickly as possible.

Afterwards, Hurlbert and colleagues plotted the results along the color spectrum and found that while men prefer blue, women gravitate towards the pinker end of the blue spectrum.

"Women have a very clear pattern. It's low in the yellow and green regions and rises to a peak in the purplish to reddish region," she said.

Hurlbert believes women's preference for pink may have evolved on top of a natural, universal preference for blue.

"When you add it together you get the colors they intrinsically like, you get bluish red, which is sort of lilac or pink," she said...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Mini Hiatus

I will be an infrequent poster/commenter for the next few weeks. This week is the big push to get the house ready for sale. My deadline for putting it on the market is next Monday. Wish me luck.

Daily Deliberation # 5

Is America decadent?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

An Amusing Google Ad

At the top of the blog there appeared this ad:
The Middle East
Holds the center of the Worlds' Attention. Why?

Now, in the proper context that's not necessarily a stupid question, as there are no doubt many young people who haven't yet learned why it's so.

But all I could think was "Like, duh". (Also, is this an ad from the future, when we have colonies on the Moon and Mars? [Worlds'])

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dhimmi Bulb

The conventional wisdom for American religious conservatives has secular Europe succumbing to a resurgent Islam for want of a strong belief system (ie. religion). But while atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is hounded out of the Netherlands for her strident anti-Islamic rhetoric, and the late atheist writer Oriana Fallaci was put on trial for offending Islam with her impassioned defense of Western values, what have the Christian religious authorities on the Continent been doing, for their part? Why they've been rolling out the red carpet:
Roman Catholic Bishop Wants Everyone to Call God 'Allah'
proposal by a Roman Catholic bishop in the Netherlands that people of all faiths refer to God as "Allah" is not sitting well with the Catholic community.

Tiny Muskens, an outgoing bishop who is retiring in a few weeks from the southern diocese of Breda, said God doesn't care what he is called.

"Allah is a very beautiful word for God. Shouldn't we all say that from now on we will name God Allah? ... What does God care what we call him? It is our problem," Muskens told Dutch television.

"I'm sure his intentions are good but his theology needs a little fine-tuning," said Father Jonathan Morris, a Roman Catholic priest based in Rome. Morris, a news analyst for FOX News Channel, also called the idea impractical.

"Words and names mean things," Morris said. "Referring to God as Allah means something."

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based Islamic civil liberties and advocacy group, backs the idea as a way to help interfaith understanding.

"It reinforces the fact that Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the same God," Hooper told "I don't think the name is as important as the belief in God and following God's moral principles. I think that's true for all faiths."

I'm glad I don't have to make this stuff up. I'm not that creative.

Food for Thought

This is NOT a prediction, it's just a projection, based on historic trends.

Housing prices over the past century+:

Click for larger image

This chart is based on the work of Dr. Robert Schiller, the bestselling author and Stanford economist, based on 116 years of U.S. housing market data.

One interesting feature is the huge dip in the middle of the chart. Although it's been labeled "Great Depression" by the graphic artist, it's clear that the inflation-adjusted price of existing homes was plunging fifteen years before the stock market crash, including all throughout the "Roaring Twenties". I've read an explanation that attributes this to advances in materials, construction technology, and construction techniques which greatly lowered the cost of new homes, similar to what happened with automobiles.

Note also that although inflation-adjusted prices have centered pretty consistently around $ 110K since WW II, in the past few decades we've been getting a lot more house for the money than they used to in the 60s and 70s, so the value received per dollar spent has been going up* - again, similarly to automobiles.

* At least, it was until the turn of the century.


In the spirit of less anonymity, here are some images of myself and some of my loved ones, chosen almost solely on the basis of their convenience for posting:

My wife Amanda and me at our wedding in the spring of '93. It was a Las Vegas wedding - but not a spur-of-the-moment, let's-get-hitched deal. We were living there at the time, and it remains one of our favorite places.

It was a great wedding, because we were originally planning an extremely intimate ceremony, i.e., a sparsely-attended civil service. In fact, we were even kicking around the idea of getting married by an Elvis impersonator, just because hey, it's Vegas.

However, we notified my mother a couple of weeks beforehand, as a courtesy, and she contacted everyone and their dog. Despite our families being spread literally from Pacific to Atlantic, and the extremely short notice, it turned out that every one of our immediate relatives was able to come the following weekend !
We were further able to secure an LDS chapel and the ward Bishop for the ceremony, despite the time crunch.

My mother also ramrodded the entire planning phase, from helping to make the wedding dress to decorating and making refreshments.

Click for larger image

We then had a picnic reception at Calico Basin, (above), which is on the city-side of the much more well-known Red Rock Canyon, (below).

Click for much larger image

Although there was a week of stress for my intended, and especially for my mother, the wedding and reception both went well, and the entire shebang, including lodging, cost under
$ 3,000 in today's dollars. Over the years it's been mentioned several times at family gatherings that it was the best wedding from among those of my siblings, primarily because it was the least-planned and was very low-key.

So, we're both very, very grateful to my mother.

Here are my siblings and me circa '84. I'm on the far right:

Click for larger image

Rear, L - R: Siddhartha, Auralie, Aeowyn, Michael-Gerrard
Front, L - R: Nolayan, Zenas

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Recent Comments

Not great, but better than nothing.

Bret or David, if you want to paste the code for the plug-in you used in the comments for this post, I'll try it out.

Otherwise, this is what we got.

Comments are grouped by post, in the order that they appear on the main page, so a comment made on the third post down will show up in the "recent comments" not at the top of the list, but at the top of the sub-group within the list that corresponds to the third post down. (Tip: Scan the list for dates. The more recent the date, the more likely to be a new comment. And if you move your cursor across the date, the link info contains the name of the corresponding post).

Further complicating things is that I can't get the sub-groups to break, or label themselves, despite hours of completely ignorant Frankensteinian tinkering with the template HTML.

UPDATE: I got the code for the plug-in from Hackoshere, but for whatever reason I can't get it to work...

So rather than the code, it appears that what I really need are detailed instructions and hand-holding. Any help appreciated.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

No No No

Amy Winehouse is in rehab. Hopefully they can pry her finger off the self-destruct button. We wish her well.

Love means never having to say "I wan't my money back!"

What do you do when a cup of coffee no longer gives you that jolt of energy? You graduate to Jolt Cola. When regular cocaine won't sustain that high? You move up to crack.

What do marketing executives do when consumers don't respond to brands like they used to? You move them up to Lovemarks - the future beyond brands:

Brands have run out of juice. More and more people in the world have grown to expect great performance from products, services and experiences. And most often, we get it. Cars start first time, fries are always crisp, dishes shine.

A few years ago, Saatchi & Saatchi looked closely at the question: What makes some brands inspirational, while others struggle?

And we came up with the answer: Lovemarks: the future beyond brands.

How do I know a Lovemark?

Lovemarks transcend brands. They deliver beyond your expectations of great performance. Like great brands, they sit on top of high levels of respect - but there the similarities end.

Lovemarks reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without. Ever.

Take a brand away and people will find a replacement. Take a Lovemark away and people will protest its absence. Lovemarks are a relationship, not a mere transaction. You don’t just buy Lovemarks, you embrace them passionately. That’s why you never want to let go.

Put simply, Lovemarks inspire Loyalty Beyond Reason

The Hallmarks of a Lovemark

At the core of every Lovemark is Respect. No Respect? It’s not a Lovemark. It’s as simple as that. Check out the Love/Respect Axis and see just where your favourite brand is sitting.

A Lovemark’s high Love is infused with these three intangible, yet very real, ingredients: Mystery, Sensuality and Intimacy.

Mystery draws together stories, metaphors, dreams and symbols. It is where past, present and future become one.

Mystery adds to the complexity of relationships and experiences because people are drawn to what they don’t know. After all, if we knew everything, there would be nothing left to learn or to wonder at.

Sensuality keeps the five senses on constant alert for new textures, intriguing scents and tastes, wonderful music. Sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste.

Our senses work together to alert us, lift us, transport us. When they are stimulated at the same time, the results are unforgettable. It is through the five senses we experience the world and create our memories.

Intimacy means empathy, commitment and passion. The close connections that win intense loyalty as well as the small perfect gesture. These are often remembered long after functions and benefits have faded away.

Without Intimacy people cannot feel they own a brand, and without that conviction a brand can never become a Lovemark.

I found this website from the intranet site of the client company I am currently working for, a large financial services firm. They have started their own campaign to make their brand a Lovemark.

Even for a committed materialist like myself, this crosses a boundary. This isn't so much marketing, it's religion. Or it's religion in the service of marketing, or an unholy marriage of transcendent yearning and corporate strategy. As much as I disagree with traditional religion, I at least respect its focus on important, fundamental things like community and morality. But even traditional religion has become increasingly commercialized, so it only follows that commerce would inevitably get religious. They both want the same thing: mindshare.

But the people at Lovemarks, outside the boxers as they are, aren't limiting their calling to the traditional boundaries of products and services. Anything, or anyone, can be a Lovemark. People, places and things - anything that can serve as the object of love. Here's a testimonial on author and Lovemark nominee Arundhati Roy:
Breathtaking images

Arundhati Roy. Her debut novel "The God of Small Things" is an exotic reading experience for any Malayali (People of Kerala) or any English reader. Keen intriguing insight into human behaviour pattern. Breathtaking images. Simple and structured beauty of prismatic – sensuous words and nuances. Besides her writing, her activism for greater common good for people transformed her status as an engaging political interferer who represents a good human cause. Arundhathi is an activist and a writer Lovemark of India and the world.

Interferer? Bleccch! She's also an anti-American apologist for international terror. On a less political note, here's a more traditional, commercial Lovemark:
I always know what to wear

I decided a while back that I wanted to simplify my life and stick to a single brand for casual wear. Ronnie Corbett inspired me to go for Lyle and Scott. The eagle on the chest is delightfully simple (and possibly a bit flash) and the sweaters, argyle or plain, and polos are reasonably priced quality bits of kit. Now I always know what to wear, I just have to decided the colour combo (to co-ordinate with my adidas sneaks).

You just have to follow the link to see the hideous sweater that our nominator considers a "quality bit of kit".

Allow me to wax cynical for just a bit. I'd say that neither of these examples fulfill the qualifications that are expected of Lovemarks. I doubt that extreme numbers of people will miss the absence of Ms. Roy or Lyle and Scott. There may be a passionate minority who build their identity around them, but that's what is known in business as a niche. Nothing new here.

The Lovemarks campaign smacks of desperation on the part of marketers. A desperation that is directly analogous to that of the cocaine addict needing to snort or inhale more and more potent concoctions just to maintain their precarious hold on a mood. There are a narrow few businesses that have authentically generated the kind of fanatical loyalty that the Lovemarks theory embodies. Apple comes to mind. So does Harley Davidson. Neither of these companies engaged in anything as silly as the Lovemarks campaign to acheive that status. They created that status from their own genius. Any company that has to resort to a Lovemarks campaign to move beyond brand loyalty is just fooling themselves. They'll be trying to improve their own brand image by associating it with the Lovemarks brand, which only proves the impotence of their own brand to garner loyalty on its own. You don't proclaim your uniqueness by slapping someone else's logo onto yours.

As much as marketing firms would wish to believe it, people really aren't that stupid. Associating your brand with Lovemarks is like making your marketing plan explicit to the consumer. Its like stating to your blind date at dinner "this dinner which I am buying for you will endear you to me, which will act in my favor when I try to get in bed with you later this evening". Undoubtedly the date knows the man's intentions beforehand, but stating it explicitly breaks the magic.

And marketing is all about the magic.

Health & Beauty Section

All stories courtesy of Harold Maass of The Week:

* [A] study from the University of Washington suggests that the Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby DVD series actually hinder development in 8- to 16-month-olds. Children whose parents read aloud or told them stories had better vocabularies than the DVD-watchers.

Parents aiming to put their babies on the fast track, even if they are still working on walking, each year buy hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of the videos.

Unfortunately it's all money down the tubes, according to Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"I would rather babies watch 'American Idol' than these videos," he said.

By Amber Dance, Times Staff Writer, and Harold Maass
(Los Angeles Times)
Related: By Monix, RandomDistractions blog:
Human babies are amazing creatures: given normal hearing and average cognitive ability, they progress from 'mewling and puking' to being masters of their mother tongue(s) in less than four years...
* For kids, it tastes better if it's in a McDonald's wrapper
Tots rate food by how it is packaged, study finds

Tuesday, August 7th 2007

CHICAGO - [P]reschoolers [think that] anything in a McDonald's wrapper - even a vegetable - tastes better than the same food in a plain wrapper.

"You see a McDonald's label and kids start salivating," said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to kids.

Stanford University researcher Tom Robinson, who conducted the study, said kids' perceptions of taste were "physically altered by the branding."

And it's not just burgers and fries. Carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids when they were wrapped in the the Golden Arches.

The study had youngsters sample identical McDonald's foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test...
Related: As consumer-product firms lose their ability to connect through ads, they are turning to packaging to grab consumers' attention. The average life for a package design has dropped to about two years, from at least seven years in the 1990s. And if temperature-sensitive beer cans and "graffiti"-covered soda bottles aren't loud enough, some companies are looking at making their products talk through computer chips. (The New York Times, free registration required)
* Smoking declines as taxes increase
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY

As Congress weighs the biggest federal cigarette tax hike in history, a USA TODAY analysis finds that higher state taxes on smokers have produced sharp declines in consumption.
The amount of decline in smoking is directly tied to the size of the tax increase, the analysis shows.

Cigarette sales fell 18% in North Carolina last year after the tax was raised in two steps to 35 cents from a nickel. The tobacco-growing state resisted higher cigarette taxes until 2005. Elsewhere:

•Connecticut has increased its tax to $1.51 from 50 cents per pack in 2002. Since then, per capita consumption of cigarettes has fallen 37%.

•New Jersey raised its tax to $2.40 from 80 cents in 2002. Smoking has dropped 35%.

•California raised its cigarette tax to 87 cents per pack in 1999 but hasn't changed it since. Smoking is down 18% since the tax increase.

By comparison, South Carolina has kept its lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax at 7 cents since 1977. Cigarette consumption there has fallen 5% since 2000.

As Congress considers raising the federal cigarette tax to $1 [a pack from 39 cents] per pack, the nation may be about to experience one of the biggest one-time declines in smoking, health experts and economists say. [...] Smoking falls 2.5%-5% for every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Thomas Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, agrees that consumption will fall about 6% if a $1 federal tax is imposed but says the high tax will have negative effects. State governments will suffer a sharp decline in revenue, and black-market sales and thefts will increase to avoid the draconian tax, he says. [Emphasis added.]

Appalling, Amusing, and Most Importantly, Educational

While probably none of this will shock Harry, those of us who don't have our faces thrust into the worst of human behavior on a daily or perhaps weekly basis may benefit from reading some at Etiquette Hell. It's a primer on what to teach children not to do, and might help adults avoid getting roped into really sticky situations.

One amazingly tacky, base, greedy, and near-criminal example:
Just this last Saturday my husband and I attended a wedding for his boss, a man who owns several restaurants and is extremely well-to-do. He brags about his vacation houses and condos around the world. We do not have a lot of money, but we bought the nicest gift we could afford. The gift was sent beforehand though, not brought. The ceremony was beautiful, the food was incredible, but before the best man gave his speech, the bride and groom had an announcement. And I quote this from a copy of the wedding video that was sent to each guest as a "keepsake":

Groom: Beloved guests, we would like to take this time to thank you for attending our wedding.


Bride: But we need to bring something important to attention.

G: We have spent a lot of money on this affair for all of you. So "Linda" and I feel that the least you all could have done was give us gifts worthy of such an event.

*jaws dropping, uncomfortable silence*

G: This reception alone is running us about $200 for each of you.

B: To make it even, we need gifts that are that much each. But to be a gift and not just help us break even, we should have gotten something at least $400 from each guest.

G: So "Bubba" (best man) will now read a list of who still owes us a better gift or cash, and for how much. Please raise your hands when he says your name. The ushers will bring you envelopes for you to make a monetary deposit in cash or checks. If you wish to bring us additional gifts, please inform them of this when they bring your card.

It was about this time we left. But on the video they actually did this. And we weren't the only guests to leave before the list. People were so embarrassed! Did he really expect $800 from us as a couple? Does he not realize weddings aren't for the gifts?

The couple were basically con artists, suckering people into attending a "ceremony and celebration", which tradition would dictate ought to be paid for by the hosts, but then presenting the guests with a bill on the way out, marked up 100% !!!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Model Kira Burgess wears a backpack outfitted with a microcontroller and a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit that downloads recent news of bombings in Baghdad, Iraq, with their relative locations superimposed onto a map of Boston, during a fashion exhibition at SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group for Computer GRAPHics) 2007 in San Diego, California August 6, 2007. The backpack would "detonate" and release a compressed cloud of confetti when the wearer's location correlates to a site of violence in Baghdad. The exhibition showcased innovated and interactive works in fashion inspired by new technology by international designers.
REUTERS/Mike Blake
No doubt this was supposed to be in some way profound, but to me it just seems clear that whomever conceived of this display doesn't know why Iraq is like it is, and the U.S. are not, despite the extreme simplicity of that knowledge.


This blog has a feed going to

It appears that we'd have to fiddle around with the blog's template to publish a chiclet for that, so I won't be doing that anytime soon - maybe Duck will.

But you can subscribe to the feed by following the above link.

Folding Green

As Harry recently commented, the U.S. stock market isn't always the first place to which one should look to invest. Harry mentions real estate, but look at this one-year chart of Japanese Yen per US$:

Now consider that foreign exchange traders can be leveraged up to 400:1, and it's easy to see the makings of a dynastic fortune - IF one has the Soros touch.

Almost nobody does.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

It Was Fairly Inevitable

Hillary Clinton Leaps Ahead in Latest Poll
By Susan Page, USA Today
Posted: 2007-08-07

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has significantly widened her lead over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination in the wake of a dispute over handling foreign policy, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.

The survey, taken Friday through Sunday, puts Clinton at 48% - up 8 percentage points from three weeks ago - and Obama at 26%, down 2 points. Among Democrats and independents who "lean" Democratic, former North Carolina senator John Edwards is at 12%, [and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is at 4%.]

The 22-point gap between [Clinton and Obama] is nearly double the margin found in the July 12-15 poll. [...]

[The Democratic race is much closer in the states where opening contests will be held and campaigning already is fierce. Clinton and Edwards are essentially tied in Iowa, according to the three most recent statewide polls aggregated by the political website She holds a small lead over Obama in New Hampshire.]

[In the survey, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents by overwhelming margins say Clinton would do a better job as president than Obama in handling terrorism, the Iraq war and relations with unfriendly nations.

If the nomination comes down between the two, Clinton was preferred over Obama 59%-36%.]

Bill Burton, Obama's spokesman, dismisses the findings. "National polls may go up and down before people actually start voting, but their irrelevance will not," he says.
[Of course, of course - LOL. Those grapes were sour anyway, eh? And nobody's going to base their decisions about to whom to contribute money based on the candidate's popularity and the perception of their ability to win, right? - M.H.]

Among Republicans, the race was stable: Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani at 33%, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson at 21%, Arizona Sen. John McCain at 16% and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at 8%. [...]

Also in the poll, President Bush's approval rating ticked up to 34%, [from] his low of 29% in July.

And Congress? The approval rating for congressional Republicans sank to 29%, for congressional Democrats to 37% - both new lows in the eight years since the question was first asked.

The survey of 1,012 adults has an error margin of +/- 3 points for the full sample, 5 points for the Republican and Democratic subsamples.

Unless she really botched the race, Clinton was going to start pulling away from Obama at some point, because she can win the general election and he can't.

What puzzles me is why so many people think that Edwards has better than a snowball's chance, and that Richardson, the only "real" candidate with executive-branch experience in the Dem race, does not.
(Dennis Kucinich was briefly the Mayor of Cleveland, but he's not a serious candidate, in the sense that while he might be completely dedicated to his mission, there is no chance whatsoever that he will be POTUS, at least not in this dimension).

The wildcards on the GOP side are: Will Thompson's popularity survive his actually entering the race? My guess is no.
And, can Giuliani translate national popularity into top-two finishes in conservative-state primaries? Beats me.

Fun !

From Blogger:

Browse Profiles! Find new blogs to read!
Say you live in Albuquerque, count the Smashing Pumpkins among your favorite bands, and like sushi. Starting today, we’re making it easy for you to find other bloggers who share your interests.

Now you can go to any Blogger profile page and follow any of the links on the page to get list of other bloggers with the same industry, occupation, location, interest, or favorite book, movie, or music.

But also a big time-eater. So browse at your own risk.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Robot cars, falling bridges, and the psychology of risk assessment

Bret posts an amusing hypothetical conversation at Great Guys weblog between an insurance adjuster and the owner of a car that was hit by an experimental robotic vehicle. The technical challenges of creating an autonomous land vehicle got me thinking about the ways that people ascribe risks to various activities that are often contradicted by the actual statistical probabilities of risks associated with those activities, likek flying and driving:
The robotics for a jumbo jet to take off, fly halfway around the world and land all by itself are in production now, but the robotics to drive a car around a parking lot are still in its infancy. That says something about the relative difficulties between the tasks of flying and driving. Yet people who fear to fly probably feel safe driving their car on the freeway. How can human psychology be so bad at risk assessment?

Relative to driving a car, flying is exceedingly safe, yet people continue to fear plane crashes more than everyday commuting. I used to think that this was related to the catasprophic nature of plane crashes, where hundreds of people are killed at once, whereas automobile accidents rarely kill more than four or five people at a time, though their cumulative daily toll attests to the risks involved.

But I've re-assessed my thinking based on the recent collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, and the public outcry over unsafe bridges in its wake. I now think that, paradoxically, people associate higher risk value to rare, unexpected tragedies than to frequent, expected ones. People fear being killed by random serial killers more than they fear being killed by an acquaintance or a family member, even though the latter is statistically much more likely than the former, and no less likely to be brutal and fearful.

As horrible as the Minneapolis bridge collapse was, such collapses are exceedingly rare. Between 1983 and 1995 there were four highway bridge collapses that killed a total of 28 people. The news coverage has publicized the frightening fact that about one in four of the nations bridges are classified as structurally deficient, as was the Minneapolis bridge, yet if that were a meaningful statistic we would be witness to daily collapses across the US. We aren't. Even for structurally deficient bridges, a total collapse is an exceedingly rare occurrence.

Yet our nations politicians are falling over themselves in fingering blame for the collapse and in calling for comprehensive action to make sure that the I-35 bridge collapse never happens again. Should our politicians be calling for, in the words of James Lileks, a "Marshall Plan for the Nation’s Roads"?

If they did, it would represent one of the most massively expensive overreactions to a perceived problem since Mayor Quimby instituted the flying "Bear Patrol" to quell the fears of irate Springfield residents resulting from the intrusion of a single confused bear into the city.

The disaster does expose one glaring gap in our current infrastructure management environment: inspections are a very poor method for determining if, and when, a bridge will collapse. The above referenced figure that 1 in 4 US bridges have been rated deficient, which works out to around 125,000 bridges, and the fact that only five bridges have experienced a catastrophic collapse since 1983 means that we would have to upgrade 125,000 bridges to be sure that none of them would be likely to collapse in the near future. Is that money well spent?

What we need is a way to predict when a bridge is in danger of collapse. Inspections can't do it. An inspection is a static view of a structure at a single point in time. To have better predictive capabilities, we need real time data on how a bridge behaves under daily traffic and environmental stresses. How much does it vibrate? How much does it sag under a load? Is it expanding properly under heat, or are its expansion joints clogged with debris? Is the bridge deforming over time?

I'm envisioning a method whereby a bridge can be wired with sensors to generate all these data points and stream the data to computers for analysis. A healthy bridge should have a set profile of responses under the full range of load and environmental conditions. A bridge that is losing its ability to maintain itself should display a data profile outside of those healthy boundaries. It doesn't make fiscal sense to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars it would take to rebuild every deficient bridge when most of those bridges could last decades into the future without failing. We need our engineers to design bridges that will tell us when they are getting ready to fail. Call it "just in time" infrastructure management. Lets take the opportunity afforded by this disaster to develop smarter ways to manage our infrastructure. We don't need a feel-good overreaction to satisfy our fears of the moment. We don't need a "Bear Patrol for our Nations Bridges".

The Kings of Drama

America's bad will ambassador and crybaby drama king Sean Penn visits Venezuela's dictator Hugo Chavez to lend solidarity and ego support.
Chavez said he and Penn discussed the question of "why the (U.S.) empire attacks Chavez so much," saying Venezuela's oil wealth is a key reason.

Of course! It's the oil!

From reading this article, I suddenly realized why self-absorbed Hollywood actors feel such affinity for dictators like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. Its because politics is a stage, and the dictator, like any self absorbed actor, demands sole creative control of his projects.

This is Exactly What I Was Talking About

In this thread at Thought Mesh, I wrote, in part:
On an inflation-adjusted, per-capita basis, the U.S. GNP tripled between 1929 and 1995. So, at least during the 20th century, the average per-capita real growth rate, over times of war, peace, boom, bust, catastrophe and cornucopia, has been about 1.8%.

Considering the coming advances in automation, robotics, nanotechnology, and biotechnology, as well as the decline in birth rates and the Boomer retirement, my forecast is that during the 21st century, we’ll do 30% better, on average. Therefore, by 2100 I see an American GNP of about $ 240 trillion, in 2001 dollars.

Comes now this:

From Harold Maass of The Week:
While most people use Internet aerial map photos to spot their houses, entrepreneurs are using free services like Google Earth and Zillow-dot-com to find clients. Roofers, landscapers, insurance firms, real estate agents, and pool cleaners are among those using aerial images from map Web sites to inspect potential jobs, drum up new business, and create long-distance cost estimates. Jay Saber, the owner of a California roofing company, recently bid a job 175 miles away by looking at a photo of the building in Google Earth. "Instead of nine hours," he said, "I spent 10 minutes on the computer." (The Wall Street Journal)

The Bourne Ultimatum

The third movie in the Jason Bourne saga opened in theaters last night, and unlike many third movies in a series it managed to maintain all of the qualities that made its two predecessors, the Bourne Identity and the Bourne Supremacy, box office hits. "Ultimatum" has all of the suspense, intensity, and non-stop action of the first two movies.

The plotline remains just feasible enough to nourish the viewer's inner conspiracy theorist while holding his inner skeptic at bay. It's a plotline that appeals to the anti-American audience's prejudices while leaving room for a pro-American audience to stay engaged. A CIA rogue assassination program, codenamed Blackbriar, is in danger of being blown, and the program's director as well as Jason Bourne engage in a race to find the source of the leak, for different reasons: the director in order to keep the program from being exposed, and Bourne in order to retrieve his true identity and to understand how he came to become Jason Bourne.

The true skeptic has to wonder at some of the implausible elements, such as the ability of CIA hackers in their control room in New York to tap into and control surveillance cameras in London's Waterloo train station. But it is a scenario that perfectly taps into a technically unsophisticated public's fears of intrusive and ubiquitous surveillance technologies. The reality of the CIA's worldwide surveillance operations are both less frightening and more. With the thousands of wiretapped conversations that are recorded by the CIA and NSA in pursuit of terrorists, it takes months for trained analysts to sift through them and produce actionable intel. Comforting for the average paranoid citizen worried about being swept up in an overzealous anti terror campaign, frightening for those of us who want that anti terror campaign to be more effective.

But for all the advanced technological wizardry at the disposal of the Blackbriar program's director, he is helpless at mastering the situation because of the human element beyond his control: Jason Bourne and his intimate knowledge of CIA techniques, and his uncanny ability to thwart every move that they make. The movie is a perfect illustration of the "OODA Loop", a decision-making process developed within the US Air Force which stands for "Observe, Orient, Decide, Act". The OODA Loop posits that decisions are only as effective as the information that they are based upon, and as that information becomes obsolete by unfolding actions on the battlefield, the decisions based on that information must be adjusted in the face of new information. The side that can make decisions more quickly based on the latest, most accurate data will have the advantage.

Bourne thwarts his enemy's actions by quickly assessing or predicting his pursuers intentions and then taking actions which change the assumptions upon which those actions were based. He is able to "obsolete" the information from the CIA's sophisticated surveillance and communications network moments before the realization of the decisions based on that information. His "OODA Loop" is quicker than theirs, and he maintains the advantage throughout the movie, but just barely. And that makes for a relentless thrill ride.

The movie demonstrates the downside of the power enabled by technological mastery when it is wedded to human arrogance. The director of the Blackbriar program has awesome technological assets at his disposal, as well as a worldwide network of crack assassins who can be activated at a moments notice. He works with a very tight OODA loop, tighter than any of the targets he is pursuing, or any of the police forces or governments of the nations his operatives cover. He has learned to make snap life or death decisions without the luxury of reflection or conscience. But when an enemy gets inside that OODA loop, the speed of his actions mean that his operation comes unraveled just as quickly. Watching his mounting frustration, desperation and fear as his world comes crashing down is delicious, a high tech comeuppance for an evil control freak reduced to impotence.

Five stars. Go see this movie!

"Sell in May and go away" - So Far, So Good

Reported by Bloomberg:

An investor who placed $10,000 in the Dow average at the end of April each year since 1950 and sold at the end of October would have a net loss of $272, according to [the calculations of Jeffrey Hirsch, president of the Hirsch Organization in Nyack, New York]. Someone doing the opposite would have gained $534,323.

The Dow has risen 0.3 percent on average in the May-to- October period since 1950. For November through April, the Dow has climbed 7.9 percent -- a performance that reflects year-end bonuses, tax refunds and pension-fund contributions flowing into stocks.

As for this year, well...


The Ritz-Carlton Moscow threw open its neo-imperial doors near the Kremlin this week. The cheapest room for the summer tourist season is $1,036 with tax.

That rate reflects how Moscow hotel openings are lagging behind room demand fueled by soaring tourism, exports and investor interest in the world's largest energy producer

High hotel prices reflect Russia's economic outlook. Foreign direct investment reached $9.8 billion in the first quarter, an increase of 150 percent from the same time last year, according to the Federal Statistics Office. Russia's economy is now about $1 trillion, ranking it 10th in the world between Spain and Brazil.

"There is huge foreign investment coming in," said Andrew Somers, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. "The feedback I get is not cancellations, but only shock at the room rates."


So Get Out in the Sun a Little More

Researchers at Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry and the Imperial College in London found that vitamin D has such strong immune-boosting power that it can fight tuberculosis (TB) and other bacteria for at least six weeks. After a single dose. And a single 2.5 milligram dose at that.

The research team based their study on a previous finding showing that over 90 percent of the participants who had been exposed to TB had significant vitamin D deficiency. From there, they divided the subjects into two groups. One group was given a single 2.5 milligram vitamin D supplement. The other was given a placebo. Researchers then took blood samples from both groups and examined the samples to see if the vitamin D had any effect on the immune system's reaction to the TB bacteria. The results were so strong that the researchers concluded that vitamin D "could make a significant impact on the health of people most at risk from the disease."

Paging Paris Hilton...

Why Rich Kids Don’t Stay Rich
July 30, 2007
By Robert Frank blog The Wealth Report

Rich kids, we hear, have it all. Money. Connections. Top educations. Cars and clothes. For those who are part of what Warren Buffett calls “the Lucky Sperm Club,” life is supposedly one long shopping trip with an no-limits ATM card.

But what if it’s not?

What if growing up rich actually has disadvantages? And what if rich kids’ penchant for spending — and their lack of experience at earning — catches up with them, and that unlimited ATM machine winds up empty? (Not to feel sorry for these people, just to point out a reality.)

That’s the premise behind my article in the Los Angeles Times (reg. req.). [...] My conclusion is that despite all their supposed advantages, today’s rich kids have grown up in such bubbles of privilege that they’re not prepared for today’s increasingly competitive job market. They don’t make good investors, they don’t compete well for the top jobs, and they’re not hungry for success like kids who grow up in middle-class homes can be.

Eventually, I argue, their money will run out. And much of the inherited wealth in America will flow back to people who actually earn it — as it has throughout history. This is what makes wealth in America dynamic, rather than dynastic.

Some readers disagreed. One sent me a thoughtful email arguing that “the ultrawealthy are not stupid. They know their children. [...]”

In other words, rich parents don’t give their money to irresponsible kids. I’m sure this is true for some families. But in my experience, rich parents can’t help themselves when it comes to spoiling their kids, no matter how irresponsible those kids are with money. And those kids usually wind up squandering their money through bad investments, bad relationships or lavish shopping sprees...

Judging only by the turnover on the Forbes 400 list, staying superrich is much harder than becoming superrich.