Archive for December, 2009

Modern behavior of early humans

December 31, 2009

Scientists have discovered that modern behavior by early humans started half-million years earlier than previously thought.

I could have told them that. It was Aunt Ja that started it. Her and Uncle Tok. You see, Aunt Ja was the original domineering mate. We would have called her a diva, if any of us knew how to sing. (I thought we did, but some big shot paleoanthropologist has said that rhythmic grunting was not singing, any more than the slap dance was true dancing.) She was tall, well, tall for a proto-hominid, and her bead string was always just so, to accentuate her hips, and her hair was always stylishly waxed with mammoth dung. When we made camp, she knew exactly where she wanted to sit to chew on the fish sinews, and where the fire should go, and how we should pile the yams and the nuts.

Uncle Tok was, well, a caveman. He was short, fat, and hairy, just the opposite of Aunt Ja. After a hard days hunt, he liked nothing better than to sit back on some hillside, preferably one with a patch of overfermented berries, and watch the hyenas squabble over the remains of some smilodon kill. Him and Dad each had a favorite hyena pack, and they’d make bets on which one would get the head and how far they’d get before the other pack brought them down. If it was a particularly good berry patch, they’d end up yelling advice at the hyenas and flinging chunks of rock at them. One day, they found a really good berry patch, and ended up throwing all their hunting rocks at the hyenas. Then they threw their cutting rocks. They’d have thrown the rocks they used for the slap dance as well, but they were laughing so hard they fell down and forgot to. Then they both were sick, and wandered back to the camp, their arms on each others shoulders, singing (yes, I said singing. Stuff it, anthros.)

So, no rocks meant no cut up game, and maybe no game at all. That meant that Uncle Tok had to make some more if we were going to eat, and Aunt Ja let him know it, in no uncertain terms. She went on about how he wasn’t going to get any yams, any nuts, and any of something else that I wasn’t too clear on until he had made a full set of hunting tools for the group, plus a set of kitchenware for her. She didn’t call it kitchenware, but that’s what she meant. Uncle Tok just stood there, holding his head and nodding when he thought she wanted him to.

Later that afternoon he wandered off, looking for rocks. We kids helped, by running over and pointing whenever we saw a good one. He didn’t seem to appreciate our help. When he came back, he dumped his armload of rocks next to the yams and sat down to eat and knap. That set Aunt Ja off again. Those rocks were going to get in with the yams, and some of the kids would eat them, thinking they were food, and then we’d have another round of kids with tummy troubles. Now, I know the difference between a yam and a rock (you can peel a yam, if you have a sharp rock), but my cousin Tak probably didn’t. That’s why he didn’t have as many teeth as I did.

Anyway, Aunt Ja went on an on, until Uncle Tok got fed up. “Fine,” he said, “I’m moving my stuff over here, and I’m going to use this big rock as an anvil, and you can just go find some other rock to crack your nuts on.” Aunt Ja could see he was steaming mad, and she really hadn’t liked the big rock anyway. It was slanted, and all the nuts kept rolling off. So she said “Fine”, and he said “Fine” again, and then there was no backing out.

And that’s the way the rest of our stay at that camp was. Uncle Tok drew a line in the sand with a stick, and said that all the girls had to stay over there, while all the boys would stay over here and have fun. It didn’t last, of course, but I still remember seeing the little piles of fish bones and flints, and nuts, and yams, each at a different place. Silly idea, but Aunt Ja liked it.

With apologies to Italo Calvino

TSA: Not idiots, opportunists

December 28, 2009

Yet another new rule from TSA kills the use of airline-provided internet/phone/GPS service on international flights into the US. As the article points out, it also impacts domestic flights using those aircraft, since the systems can’t be reset until the plane overnights someplace.

So, what’s with all these new rules, none of which would have prevented the pants-on-fire guy from making his attempt? Has TSA finally gone round the twist? Not exactly. They are following an old and honored habit of using any excuse that works to further their agenda. The trick works like this. You have a goal you want to achive — maybe you want to go to war with somebody, or implement a new policy that will make life easier for your bureaucrats — but proclaiming that goal out loud won’t pass the sniff test. This is usually because it’s a really bad idea. Destroy the constitution bad, destroy the economy bad. That kind of bad. So, what do you do?

Well, if you are any administration since LBJ, you prepare the documents for the policy you want passed, you wait for an event that can be construed in someway as both relevant and dangerous, you puff up the panic so that people want you to do something, and you slide your policy through while everyone is blinded by the fireworks. Can you say Gulf of Tonkin?

The best recent example is the Patriot Act. It was over a thousand pages long, and it was prepared within days of the 9/11 attacks. How could this happen in a bureaucracy that takes months just to send a form letter acknowledging a FIOA request? Well, it wasn’t written from scratch. It was a compiled wish list. A collection of proposed legislative snippets that could be copy/pasted together and submitted in one lump. God Bless MS Word, and I’ll bet the hardest problem they had was getting the automatic paragraph numbering to line up. Pull it out of a drawer, slap a new HR/SR number on it, and ram it through.

TSA seems not to care what their impact on the US economy is (we’ll never see another Olympics in the US), or how inconvenient they make it for travelers. Deadly inconvenient if you have thrombosis, merely agonizingly inconvenient if you have small children. Their prime concern is that no airliners explode on their watch, but they don’t really know how to ensure that, so they chase all these movie-plot what-ifs. And they come up with these costly-yet-ineffective policies so they can say they are doing something. But of course, they’d be laughed out of the NSC if they just flat proposed these things. So they write the proposed rule, and when some inept boob tries something on a plane, they shout “See! See that!”, and while you are looking that way, they slide it in the new policies. That’s what happened this week.

More Security Theater

December 26, 2009

So, some guy sets fire to his crotch, and DHS goes berserk. It’s early days yet, but let me summarize the current reports:
1. We have a radicalized Nigerian.
2. He’s on a watchlist.
3. He may have visited Yemen.
4. His father may have reported to the US Embassy that he’s disappeared and may be doing something radical.
5. He gets on a plane in Nigeria, and flies to Amsterdam. Nigerian security doesn’t pick him up.
6. He gets on a plane in Amsterdam to fly to the US. Detroit, as it happens. Dutch security doesn’t pick him up.
7. Just before landing, he tries to use the same explosive that Reid did, with only slightly more effective results.

What went wrong?
Let us suppose, against all prior experience, that these initial reports are correct. Obviously, we have a failure of police work. The half-million-name DHS list didn’t work. There was a coordination breakdown between the US embassy in Nigeria and DHS. The screening process in Amsterdam missed his crotch, and his hypodermic. If he had it in his carry-on, they missed it there. All of this happened overseas.

What is the DHS response?
1. They have increased security on flights out of Detroit. Guys, he was flying into Detroit. He probably was flying there because nobody wants to go to Detroit for Christmas and that’s where he could get a seat. If people in Detroit want to attack Detroit, they’re already there.
2. They have prohibited movement from your seat for an hour prior to landing. So all the little old ladies with bladder problems, and the old fat guys with thrombotic legs will just have to suffer, or become terrorist suspects. What’s the point of this? Do they think terrorists don’t have watches? That they can’t figure out when it’s 1 hour and ten minutes prior to landing?
3. They have limited carryons to one per person. Because, you know, it’s impossible to hide stuff in just one carryon…or in your crotch. Update: the attacker had only one carryon, and no checked baggage, so this rule would have helped how?

As many other people, much smarter than I, have said, it’s good police work that catches terrorists, not knee-jerk reactions to their current tactics. But DHS is inept at normal police work, enamored of security theater, and is expert at chasing the threat of the day. I worry that it will be almost impossible for a diabetic to fly anywhere in the US for the next year — after all, the attacker reportedly used a hypodermic. I also worry about what further actions DHS will mandate, once they’ve had a chance to think this through. After all, Reid tried to blow up a plane with an explosive hidden in his shoes, and forever after we’ve all had to remove ours to get through security. This new guy used explosives hidden in his pants…..

Wednesday Wii: My Routine

December 23, 2009

One of the major improvements of the new Wii Fit + is the personal exercise program feature, called My Routine. Previously, there was no way to personalize your exercise regime. You started anew each session, picking exercises from the full list, or you ran through the ones listed in the Favorites section, because they were, you know, the ones you did before. With My Routine, you can select those exercises you want to do, in the order you want to do them. When you run the sequence, there’s none of the annoying administrivia, you just blaze on through all the exercises, in the order in which you set them up. It saves me a good ten minutes when doing my thirty minute regime. Doesn’t sound like much, and it’s not, in absolute terms, but in relative terms, in terms of reducing the aggravation, it’s a winner.

Positive: As I said, speed. No more annoying modal screens that have to be clicked. The individual exercises are run close enough together that you get a certain cardio advantage that was impossible under the old system.

Neutral: Some features are not well thought out, or are lacking. Some have workarounds. Like the fact that each exercise defaults to the lowest number of reps, with no way to change that — unless you put the exercise in multiple times. Not stopping to score you means you don’t see your score on each exercise, so if you are trying to improve your technique, this isn’t the approach you want. It would be nice if a simple numeric score popped up beside each exercise on the list as you finished it.

Negative: Some things are just poorly done, and detract from the experience. First, the maximum length your routine can run appears to be 50min. Now, that’s quite long enough for me, but my wife regularly runs a 90min program. About the only way you can work around this, inside of My Routine, is to run it twice. Probably the lawyers set this one, so people wouldn’t OD on endorphins and sue the company. An associated failing is the fact that you can’t have more than one routine. So you can’t run one set in the morning and a different one in the afternoon. Second, you have no way of modifying the routine short of deleting it and starting over. Want to add an exercise in the middle? Start over. Want to move an exercise to a different position? Start over. Fortunately (ha, ha) it’s easy to do. The [Reset] button is an unlabeled roundel that looks like an old phone dial, and sits right next to the [Start] button. In keeping with the high speed approach to My Routine, they don’t warn you or ask you if that’s what you really want. One click and you’re cleared. In a product that requires you to acknowledge that yes, you can tell them how much your clothes weigh before being allowed to tell them, this is inexcusable.

Finally, we have yet another example of how Wii Fit isn’t sure if it’s a game or an exercise tool. None of the game style (Aerobics, Balance, Training Plus) exercises are available for My Routine. So, if you want to warm up with some step exercises, you have to do that separately. C’mon, guys! People don’t buy Wii Fit for the games aspect of it. Sure, they make the exercise more fun, but people who want games, even just “games the whole family can play”, will buy something in the Wii Sports series.

Overall, however, I like My Routines. It’s a step in the right direction.

Global Warming 2

December 21, 2009

EurekAlert reports on a Chemical & Engineering News analysis of the global warming debate. The bottom line of the discussion is that both sides of the debate agree that atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased since the 1700s, that most of the increase is due to human activity, and that global temperatures have increased since the 1850s. The disagreement is over causality — did the increase in CO2 cause the increase in temperature, or is the increase due to some sort of natural cycle? I’d say they’re asking the wrong questions.

The right question is this: given that global temperatures are rising (for whatever reason), and given that human activity emits a number of known greenhouse gases, and given that controlling greenhouse gas emissions is the easiest (effectively our only) way to push back against the warming, should we not do everything we can to limit those gases? Note well what I am saying. We may not know everything about warming. We may not have caused it. Human greenhouse gases might only effect X% of a given increase in temperature, where X is the number being fought over. It might be 100%, it might be 50%, it might be more — or less, although I doubt any reputable skeptic would claim zero. To the extent that it works, and to the extend that it’s the one lever we can put our hands on, should we not use it to fight the known warming trend?

Global climate is a complex dynamic system, possibly even a chaotic one. As such, it appears to have what are called tipping points, where it can be thrown from one basin of attraction to another. We have seen this in the past. Dynamic systems are susceptible to control through fairly subtle means. For example, Peter Senge talks about the idea of a trim tab, as used on big aircraft before we had power steering. The pilot isn’t strong enough to move a rudder the size of a barn door against a 300kt wind, but he can manipulate a smaller trim tab, a sort of rudder-for-the-rudder, which pushes the big control surface where he wants it to go. We don’t know enough about climate dynamics to say what would work for sure, but we can certainly hope that greenhouse gas control can prove to be an effective trim tab, even if some would doubt that it can control the entire rudder.

Hal Linstone, of RAND corporation and Portland State University Systems Science program, talks abut multiple perspectives as a way of understanding problems. In this case he isn’t talking about multiple individuals, but about multiple ways of approaching a problem. The three he concentrates on are the Technical, Organizational, and Personal perspectives.

The Technical perspective tends to think of all problems as technical ones, with technical solutions. If the problem is global warming, then put solar shades into orbit to block the sun, or dump iron into the broad ocean to encourage plankton to grow and eat the CO2, or, yes, put scrubbers on factories to pull CO2 out of the exhaust gas. Purely technical solutions often fail because they run afoul of limits imposed by Organizational or Personal issues.

The Organizational perspective asks if changing the rules about how an organization works might not help solve a problem. If you change the rules, you change the game. If companies have to pay the cost of polluting the commons with their effluent, perhaps they will find better ways to do things. On the other hand, if a set of rule changes is going to make it harder for a company to operate, that company may well oppose the changes.

I think that the Organizational perspective is one that argues for our current emphasis on cooling the Earth by finding ways to limit greenhouse gases, and doing this by changing the rules of the game. That kind of solution may cost money (but we keep hearing reports of how it can improve profits), but the costs are spread around a great many people in a great many countries. Most of the purely technical solutions are “point” solutions, where one country, or group of countries, has to continuously appropriate enough money to, say, put an enormous solar shade in orbit and keep it there. Organizationally (i.e. politically), that’s much harder to do.

The Personal perspective says that people matter, that key decisions might go one way or another, depending on who is making them. The difference in approach to warming by Presidents Bush and Obama is the most obvious example, but a 60 year old owner of commercial real estate in Miami, Florida might not support policies that will hurt him financially in the short run yet will only prevent his property from flooding half a century from now.

In my less charitable moments, I get the feeling that most of the global warming deniers are doing so because it is organizationally or personally advantageous to do so. To quote Upton Sinclair, “It’s hard to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. This is, of course, shortsighted, and gives no thought to what the future might bring, but to throw out another quote, Marx this time*, “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”**

So, there’s my solution, the one we knew of from the beginning, and the one we will come back to once the evidence starts sloshing ankle deep on Wall Street. Of course, by then it will be too late.

*Not that Marx, the other one
**Thanks, Kurt, for the correction.

I love words

December 12, 2009

While reading the Oxford Dictionary of National Biograpy’s weekly free bio, I came across the wonderful phrase “stuff merchant”. You know what it means, but there’s no definition. In fact even Google doesn’t define it. Then, while looking for a definition, I came across a UK site on the meanings of words and phrases, and from there found my way to the definition of the term “the whole nine yards“. Turns out, nobody knows, but it likely was coined by the US military in the 1960’s. I don’t remember coining any new phrases just then.

Getting out of Afghanistan – Obama's Nobel speech

December 11, 2009

There’s been a wide range of reaction to Obama’s Nobel speech. Informed Comment didn’t like it. Jon Taplin did. Joe Galloway didn’t comment on the Nobel speech, but from what he said about West Point, I doubt he would have agreed with any of it.

As Juan Cole pointed out, there were a number of rhetorical sleight of hands: “The fringe terrorist group al-Qaeda is depicted as a challenge for the Pentagon, not the Interpol. Then Afghan insurgents are equated to al-Qaeda.” It was probably the best speech he could have given, given that he made the decisions he did, but the decisions were not very good. The oratory was inspiring. The basis for it was flawed. One might even say, built on sand.