May 2007 Archives

My brother sent me this article that talks about "wasted" time at work and mentions a new approach to business: the "results-only work environment".

“The old thinking says ‘the longer it takes, the harder you’re working,” says Lynne Lancaster, a founder of BridgeWorks, a business consulting firm. “The new thinking is ‘if I know the job inside and out and I’m done faster than everyone else then why can’t I go home early?’ ”

A few companies are taking the concept of “watch what I produce, not how I produce it” even further. At the headquarters of Best Buy in Minneapolis, for instance, the hot policy of the moment is called ROWE, short for Results Only Work Environment.

There workers can come in at four or leave at noon, or head for the movies in the middle of the day, or not even show up at all. It’s the work that matters, not the method. And, not incidentally, both output and job satisfaction have jumped wherever ROWE is tried.

In other words, what looks like wasting time from where you sit, could be a whirl of creative thought from where I sit. And, with due respect to Mr. Gilbreth, all the energy that’s been poured into trying to force everyone to work at the same pace and in the same way — it seems that’s the real waste of time.

As the article notes, a product built from knowledge and creativity can't really be judged merely by how much time is spent directly producing it. Time that appears "wasted" is actually spent collecting thoughts and ideas, mulling them over, reconsidering, and finally deciding on implementation. A writer working on a novel might only write one or two pages a day, but the time he spends walking around the park is just as critical to the creative process as the time he spends on his keyboard.

Can apes use language or do they just learn to correlate symbols with reactions from humans? The story below doesn't come close to convincing me that the "interviewed" ape understands the meanings behind the symbols it recognizes.

Sound beyond belief? During a visit to the Great Ape Trust, I sat down with Kanzi the Bonobo -- the first Ape I have ever interviewed.

I read Kanzi a series of words, and then without fail, he hit the corresponding lexigram symbol on a touch screen.

I said "Egg."

He pressed "Egg."

I said, "M and M."

He pressed "M and M."

Then Kanzi took control of the conversation and pressed the symbol for "Surprise!"

Needless to say, I was quite surprised, having never actually spoken to an ape before.

But Kanzi was pointing to a box of candy that I was sitting near. That is the surprise that he wanted.

Correlating sounds with pictures (e.g., "egg" with an egg) is a far cry from comprehending the symbolic, abstract communication of true language. John Berman's interpretation of the "surprise" symbol strikes me more as projection on his part than as communication by the ape.

The real difficulty I have believing the researchers in this case is one that is similar across many scientific endeavors: conflicts of interest. The researchers at the Great Ape Trust have a vested interest in demonstrating that the apes can learn language; if they spent millions of dollars studying apes for years and then concluded "nope, no language", they'd be out of a job. In contrast, news stories like these bring publicity and funding to their life work, stroking egos and provoking all sorts of non-scientific motivations.

Confirmation bias: the researchers set up a foundation to study ape language and to promote ape conservation, and lo-and-behold their sincerest hopes are confirmed by their own research! Apes can use language and must be protected!

It makes me very nervous when Supreme Court Justices blatantly put themselves above the law rather than simply taking it as it is written by our elected representatives. At least the majority on the Court made the straight-forward and correct judgment on this matter:

A Supreme Court once again split by the thinnest of margins ruled yesterday that workers may not sue their employers over unequal pay caused by discrimination alleged to have occurred years earlier.

The court ruled 5 to 4 that Lilly Ledbetter, the lone female supervisor at a tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., did not file her lawsuit against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in the timely manner specified by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. ...

A jury had originally awarded Ledbetter more than $3.5 million because it found "more likely than not" that sex discrimination during her 19-year career led to her being paid substantially less than her male counterparts.

An appeals court reversed, saying the law requires that a suit be filed within 180 days "after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred," and Ledbetter could not prove discrimination within that time period. ...

Alito wrote for the majority that "current effects alone can't breathe life into prior, uncharged discrimination." He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Thomas is a former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"We apply the statute as written, and this means that any unlawful employment practice, including those involving compensation, must be presented . . . within the period prescribed by the statute," Alito said.

That seems fair, right? The law says 180 days, so what's the argument? Well, apparently some Justices think they know so much better than Congress that they should be able to rewrite the law as they see fit.

The decision moved Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to read a dissent from the bench, a usually rare practice that she has now employed twice in the past six weeks to criticize the majority for opinions that she said undermine women's rights.

Speaking for the three other dissenting justices, Ginsburg's voice was as precise and emotionless as if she were reading a banking decision, but the words were stinging.

"In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination," she said.

Justice Ginsburg is wrong; if she doesn't like the text of the law then she should take it up with Congress. If she thinks there's a lack of comprehension she should quit her job as a Supreme Court Justice and get elected to Congress where she will be legally empowered by the Constitution to propose whatever laws she wants. It doesn't matter whether or not the law is "fair", it is the Court's job to apply it as written. Unelected judges have no business changing laws that were created in a democratic fashion. They don't have that power under the Constitution, and they have no extra-legal moral standing to undermine the will of the majority.

As for the plaintiff, if she believed she was being paid unfairly she should have found another job. That's what the rest of us do. Newsflash: we'd all like to make more money, but few of us have the self-important nerve to sue for it.

Ledbetter, like Ginsburg a woman in her 70s, said she was "disappointed, very, very disappointed" with the decision. "I worked a lot of years doing the hard work and not to get paid as much as the men will affect me every day in the future" in the form of lower retirement benefits, she said.

She knew what she was getting paid, she agreed to it, she did the work... what does she have to complain about? If she didn't like the offer she didn't have to take it. It's called a free market. Instead of whining to the courts, Ledbetter and other women who face this issue should learn to deal with it through negotiation.

JV sent me a link to a post claiming that lobbyists buy votes based on data from MAPLight showing the correlation between donations and votes by various legislators.

If you click the “Video Tour” button on the home page, you’ll see a six-minute video that illustrates the point. You find out that on H.R.5684, the U. S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement, special interests in favor of this bill (including pharmaceutical companies and aircraft makers) gave each senator an average of $244,000. Lobbyists opposed to the bill (such as anti-poverty groups and consumer groups) coughed up only $38,000 per senator.

Surprise! The bill passed.

If you click “Timeline of Contributions,” you find out that — surprise again! — contributions to the lawmakers surged during the six weeks leading up to the vote. On this same page, you can click the name of a particular member of Congress to see how much money that person collected.

Another mind-blowing example: from the home page, click “California.” Click “Legislators,” then click “Fabian Nunez.” The resulting page shows you how much this guy has collected from each special-interest group — $2.2 million so far — and there, in black-and-white type, how often he voted their way.

Construction unions: 94 percent of the time. Casinos: 95 percent of the time. Law firms: 78 percent of the time. Seems as though if you’re an industry lobbyist, giving this fellow money is a pretty good investment.

Of course, correlation does not equal causation, as the first commenter on that post points out. Do legislators vote in certain ways because money is given to their campaigns, or is money given because of how the legislators vote? To put it another way, which came first, the money or the votes? In reality, the answer is neither -- money and votes are symbiotic.

Legislators don't pocket this money, they spend it to get reelected. It's a cycle, like how water cycles through the environment as clouds, rain, rivers, oceans, and then clouds again. "Special interest groups" get money from voters who want to pool their resources to achieve some political goal; the groups give the money to politicians who have and will vote the way the group wants; the politicians spend the money to convince voters that they should be reelected.

Does this political-money cycle always work perfectly? No, because money is not a perfect proxy for votes -- that is, everyone gets one vote, but some people have exponentially more money than others. Still, it's the best system I can think of other than making me king-for-life. The last thing we need is the government "elite" regulating our speech or telling us how we can spend our own money.

If the federal government followed the same accounting rules that corporations, states, and local governments use the truly astounding extent of our national debt would enrage the public.

Modern accounting requires that corporations, state governments and local governments count expenses immediately when a transaction occurs, even if the payment will be made later.

The federal government does not follow the rule, so promises for Social Security and Medicare don't show up when the government reports its financial condition.

Bottom line: Taxpayers are now on the hook for a record $59.1 trillion in liabilities, a 2.3% increase from 2006. That amount is equal to $516,348 for every U.S. household. By comparison, U.S. households owe an average of $112,043 for mortgages, car loans, credit cards and all other debt combined.

Unfunded promises made for Medicare, Social Security and federal retirement programs account for 85% of taxpayer liabilities. State and local government retirement plans account for much of the rest.

These numbers are obviously unsustainable and demonstrate why social security is doomed and young workers would be foolish to expect anything from it for their retirement. It is disgraceful for our government to hoodwink us like this, and I hope that the Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Board will follow through with its proposal and force the feds to accurately count the costs of our "entitlements".

I'm not fond of Hillary Clinton's politics -- her recent cry for a "we're all in it together" society is pure socialism -- but I think she's right on the nose when she points out that too many Americans are going to college.

Clinton spoke at the Manchester School of Technology, which trains high school students for careers in the construction, automotive, graphic arts and other industries. The school highlighted one of the nine goals she outlined: increasing support for alternative schools and community colleges.

"We have sent a message to our young people that if you don't go to college ... that you're thought less of in America. We have to stop this," she said. "Our country cannot run without the people who have the skills that are taught in this school."

Of course government policies are part of the reason that so many adults are over-educated for their jobs (but under-trained).

Check out SeatGuru before you travel and find the best seats on whatever type of aircraft you're flying on.

Happy memorial day. Amidst all the barbecuing don't forget the men and women who died to give us these precious moments of peace and tranquility.

The doors on my house have old knobs with deadbolts built into them. The knobs are old and I'd like to replace them, but all the doors have only a single bore and I don't want to drill new holes for deadbolts. (They're storm doors, and very hard to drill.) However, I can't find the hardware I need because I can't figure out what this type of door know is called! Google searches for "door knob with deadbolt" just turn up sets containing standalone knobs and deadbolts. Can anyone tell me what these knobs are called or where I can buy some? Maybe they just don't make them anymore.

Please help me find out what this is! Read the extended entry for pictures.

Here's a long article by an employee of who went undercover as a car salesman to learn the ins and outs of the trade. Basically, yes, car dealerships really are trying to rip you off.

Here's a great series of posts on frugal living. Anyone who knows me knows how important it is to me to save money! I don't mind spending money on important things, but I hate wasting money on frivolous items or spending more money on something than is necessary. The My Money Blog is going onto the sidebar!

I've written about Dubai a few times, so here's another crazy engineering project they're financing with our petrodollars: a ski resort in the desert. Check out the pictures.

(HT: JV.)

Mind-reading toys. What could go wrong?

A convincing twin of Darth Vader stalks the beige cubicles of a Silicon Valley office, complete with ominous black mask, cape and light saber.

But this is no chintzy Halloween costume. It's a prototype, years in the making, of a toy that incorporates brain wave-reading technology.

Behind the mask is a sensor that touches the user's forehead and reads the brain's electrical signals, then sends them to a wireless receiver inside the saber, which lights up when the user is concentrating. The player maintains focus by channeling thoughts on any fixed mental image, or thinking specifically about keeping the light sword on. When the mind wanders, the wand goes dark.

Of course, the big question is whether or not these games are more fun.

It's also unclear whether consumers, particularly American kids, want mentally taxing games.

"It's hard to tell whether playing games with biofeedback is more fun -- the company executives say that, but I don't know if I believe them," said Ben Sawyer, director of the Games for Health Project, a division of the Serious Games Initiative.

Games are generally meant to be diversions, mental distractions.

In my opinion, the really cool application for this technology will be a device that allows two humans to receive feedback on each others' thoughts.

The Lost season finale last night, "Through the Looking Glass" completely rocked. Many of my Lost predictions were right, but the big shocker to me was that Penny wasn't involved with Naomi's boat. I predicted that the boat people were going to be bad -- in opposition to Ben's "good people" -- but I thought they might be working for Penny's evil dad and Widmore Labs. So who the heck are they?

The boat people must be somehow related to my wife's research into the wake Jack attended solo.

There have been several people blowing up the screenshots of the obituary Jack was so upset about.

The words we can make out are:

Man Found Dead in Downtown Loft

J---- ---anthem of New York was found shortly after 4 am in the --- block of Grand Avenue. -----The Towers ----- on a beam in --- loft. (There is lots more to the obit that hasn't been deciphered yet, but Lost Easter Eggs on Blogspot has some good screen captures)

So one may begin theorizing that someone killed themselves by hanging in their loft.

People have been suggesting that J--- ---anthem stands for "Jeremy Banthem" who was an 18th century philosopher who also had ties to John Locke (the philosopher).

I did some research on Jeremy Banthem and besides the Locke connection, Banthem had an experient called the Panopticon. Basically, it held that observing people without them knowing they were being observed is the greatest power over the human mind, or something like that. Maybe Panopticon was an influence for some Dharma hatches?

Going back to the obit, we can make out the words "The Towers" and in Los Angeles, there is a Panopticon-inspired prison called the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.


Also, apparently the obit was in the LA Times from April 5th, 2007. If they bring Walt back more it'll be in flash-forwards that allow the actor to look his real age.

I need more time to process the episode... but it was awesome.

I guess it should be obvious, but it's worth spreading the word: vegan diets harm babies.

Indigenous cuisines offer clues about what humans, naturally omnivorous, need to survive, reproduce and grow: traditional vegetarian diets, as in India, invariably include dairy and eggs for complete protein, essential fats and vitamins. There are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long run. ...

The fact remains, though, that humans prefer animal proteins and fats to cereals and tubers, because they contain all the essential amino acids needed for life in the right ratio. This is not true of plant proteins, which are inferior in quantity and quality — even soy.

A vegan diet may lack vitamin B12, found only in animal foods; usable vitamins A and D, found in meat, fish, eggs and butter; and necessary minerals like calcium and zinc. When babies are deprived of all these nutrients, they will suffer from retarded growth, rickets and nerve damage. ...

An adult who was well-nourished in utero and in infancy may choose to get by on a vegan diet, but babies are built from protein, calcium, cholesterol and fish oil. Children fed only plants will not get the precious things they need to live and grow.

Besides, if humans aren't supposed to eat animals then why are they made out of meat?

Am I the only one who loves semicolons? I try hard not to use them gratuitously, but I sprinkle them throughout my posts and emails when appropriate. One could certainly go overboard with semicolons, but if you neglect them entirely you're missing out on the subtle flavor of the language.

Rachel Lucas extols semicolons in a post discussing online dating, and I agree with her unspoken premise that exclamation points are their grammatical antithesis.

19. Severely curtail your use of exclamation points. For example: "I don't want to sound arrogant! But I'm a great guy! Are you a great girl? I love the outdoors! Talk to me! I'm looking to meet nice ladies for friendship and maybe more!" Good lord. Take a deep breath. By the way, I'd like to see MORE use of the semicolon; it can be pretty sexy.

I don't find that many people are particularly fond of semicolons, or even give them much thought! However, semicolons are obviously important to programmers, and there's even a Semicolon blog! Thanks to the internet I have finally found my kindred spirits.

Now if only we can get people to stop abusing the poor comma....

My wife tells me a new DNA test is going to be released soon that will determine what breeds are in your mutt. Could be interesting, depending on the cost involved. We've long wondered what the heck Monte is.


Orson Scott Card -- whose socio-political essays I normally enjoy -- has written a rant against the automobile founded on the myth of oil depletion. (Check out that second link so I don't have to re-explain why we'll never run out of oil.) Mr. Card longs for subdivisions designed around pedestrians:

Now imagine living in a house where your garage opens onto the alley in the back. You still have a deck or patio in back, and a small but decent grassy area with trees. Big enough for the barbecue. Big enough for toddlers to play in. Big enough for trees to grow and tree forts to be built.

Your front yard is small, too, but you can make it a garden spot and sit on the front porch and watch people pass by just beyond your picket fence, while the toddlers play inside that fence.

Across the street or just around the corner there's a park with wide open greenspace, where those occasional games of hide-and-seek and ultimate Frisbee and touch football can be played. Where neighborhood kids can get together for pickup games of soccer or softball, without having to drive them to league games.

Neighborhoods where everybody walks to school on sidewalks, and shops on foot or on bicycles (or has purchases delivered).

You know, the neighborhoods in It's a Wonderful Life.

Those neighborhoods have disappeared, at first because everybody wanted to appear rich, and later because local governments legislated to make everything more convenient for drivers.

Neighborhoods like this do exist and are currently being built: two miles from my home is The New Town at St. Charles -- it's extraordinarily expensive (like all "New Urbanism" developments) and the best-selling development in the Midwest. New Town is designed for walkers and has very narrow streets to discourage driving. Houses and lots are small, and there is very little privacy. (My wife has talked to people who live there in detached homes who say they can hear your neighbors' toilets flushing.) New Town has great freeway access and lots of common open area, and presumably there are some people who love it. More power to them. If the experiment succeeds, I expect we'll see more such communities.

However, when Jessica and I were looking for a house we were specifically looking for space and privacy. Coming from Los Angeles we were familiar with the old houses on tiny lots, and we wanted some space of our own. Having a public park across the street is different from having a large private backyard. In the former, you have to coexist and compromise with all your neighbors, and in the latter you can do whatever you want. We like owning the space, we like maintaining it, we like decorating it, and we like using it.

That's why I said we have to change our social expectations. We have to make it a mark of shame to be stuck in a neighborhood where the lots are so huge that you can't walk in order to get anywhere.

It's already a huge inconvenience and expense. I daresay most readers of this column spend most of their gas money and transportation time on two things: Shopping and commuting. And how much of that is spent just getting out of your neighborhood?

It takes about two minutes to get out of our neighborhood, and maybe five minutes to get onto the freeway. From there it's another 15 minutes to my desk at work. Including errands, I might spend an hour each weekday in my car, which I don't find to be excessive.

One factor Mr. Card neglected to mention (to the detriment of his argument) is that several times a month I work from home, and many other people are doing likewise. In our service-based economy, a growing number of people can perform their work without commuting at all! This capability will lead to more "sprawl" rather than less, but will also reduce the traffic burden on our roads. Ultimately I expect our cities to continue to evaporate into the countryside, and eventually all that will remain will be their industrial skeletons, the few remaining production-based businesses that require the physical infrastructure of a city to thrive.

I recently wrote about how a government-enforced monopoly in the medical industry leads to poor customer service, but what would the medical industry look like if it were deregulated? Look to the optometrists.

The history of the availability of eyeglasses to the common man is one of patented innovation. In 1804, the meniscus lens was patented. Patents for innovations to eyeglasses were still being granted in the twentieth century. The first corneal contact lens was patented after World War II, leading to countless papers and several new journals dedicated to the new technology.

Between 1910 and 1997, the number of optometrists in the United States multiplied more than eleven times, versus a doubling of the general population. The real price of high-quality glasses was dropping, making them widely available. Advertising supported competition in selling eyeglasses: a lesson for those who would prohibit it for prescription drugs. In 1963, prices of eyeglasses in American states that restricted their advertising were 25 percent higher than in states that allowed it.

Data series extracted from Statistics Canada’s CANSIM II database show that, between 1985 and 2001, the price of eye care in Canada dropped 23 percent relative to the Consumer Price Index. In 1998, Canadian households’ average expenditure on prescription eyeglasses was $113. In Canada and the United States, innovation and competition quickly brought eyeglasses to everyone.

There's no reason to believe that the services of medical doctors couldn't be as cheap and efficient as the services of optometrists and dentists. The reason they aren't is that doctors maintain artificially high barriers to entry to their profession, in collusion with the government.

It bothered me when John Kerry and John Edwards abandoned their Senate responsibilities to run for president in 2004, and it bothers me when John McCain (and other GOP presidential-wannabees) are doing the same thing now.

McCain's aides have acknowledged that the senator hasn't been as active in the Senate this year as he's been out campaigning. As Capitol Briefing noted Thursday, McCain hasn't cast a vote in more than five weeks now.

But Jones said McCain's staff has been deeply involved in the immigration talks. ...

After making a few comments, McCain left the Capitol to head to New York for presidential campaign events. Later that day, McCain missed his 43rd straight vote, this on the $2.9 trillion budget outline.

I still fervently believe that political office-holders should resign if they intend to spend all their time campaigning for another job. Here's some data from the end of April about presidential-wannabe absenteeism, and I'm sure the numbers are much worse now a month later.

Besides Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) - who's missed the entire year as he recovers from a brain hemorrhage - McCain has now missed more votes, 60, than every other senator, making it to less than 60 percent of roll-call votes.

The next three most absentee senators are also 2008 candidates, Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.). But they've only missed 41, 37 and 26 votes, respectively. And two top-tier presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), have been present so often on the chamber floor you wouldn't even know they're running for the White House.

Obama has missed seven votes, Clinton three.

McCain also continues to miss many critical votes on Iraq, the issue that he has previously said would be so critical to his own campaign. He's now missed at least seven votes of prominence on Iraq.

Good for Senators Clinton and Obama. I couldn't abandon my responsibilities at work for months or years on end to, say, start my own business, and there's no reason we should expect less from our "leaders". And yes, I'm basically forced to resort to scare-quotes for these people, because it's really hard to remember the last time I felt led by any of them in any way.

The Los Angeles Times carries an insightful profile of Paul Wolfowitz by Lawrence WIlkerson, a former colleague who describes the man's brilliant mind and inept management skills. I've long been a fan of Wolfowitz's ideas, but knew nothing about his leadership abilities.

WHEN I WAS ASSIGNED to the U.S. Pacific Command in the mid-1980s, we military officers would often discuss the ambassadors in our theater of operations — a huge area embracing more than 30 countries and most of the Pacific and Indian oceans. One name came up constantly as one of the best of the best: then-U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz. He understood the culture, the people and the special circumstances of the world's most populous Muslim country, and he did a superb job in dealing with that country within the context of U.S. national security interests.

Understand, then, my wonder over the last few years at Wolfowitz's fall. From my position, first at the Pentagon, then at the State Department, I watched the talented Wolfowitz self-destruct. How could such a successful, intelligent ambassador transmogrify into the petulant old man I watched fighting unsuccessfully to keep his job as president of the World Bank?

There were early signs. In 1990, when both of us were at the Pentagon — I worked for Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Wolfowitz for then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney — I discovered that Wolfowitz was geared entirely to conceptual thinking and not to practical action, planning and detail and the disciplined routine that government requires.

Of course, part of the problem with the government bureaucracy is that it is often all action with no vision. Taking the article as truth, there is an important place in the world for Paul Wolfowitz and others like him, but it's probably not at the head of a large organization. Nevertheless, the World Bank would do well to be guided by his vision, even if he wasn't capable of implementing it.


And apparently now that Wolfowitz is resigning the World Bank ethics board has announced that he did nothing wrong.

Yet another adult stem cell miracle, this time in the field of hair restoration.

The human head comes equipped with 100,000 tiny hair follicles, from each of which grow a single hair.

These follicles are produced by the embryo in the first stages of pregnancy, and it was thought that no further replacement follicles could be produced during life.

The Pennsylvania team found that a particular gene important in wound healing, called wnt, appeared to play a role in the production of new hair follicles.

In its experiment, small sections of the outer skin layer, or epidermis, were removed from mice.

Just this act appeared to awaken stem cell activity in the area, the scientists said, which included the production of a number of hair follicles.

If the action of the wnt gene was blocked, no hair follicles were produced; but if it was boosted, then many more hair follicles were produced, with the skin layer eventually being indistinguishable from surrounding areas.

More significantly, the same procedure can speed would-healing.

I like my full head of hair, but I've always figured that if I went bald I could still be cool like Captain Picard.

I hate waiting for doctors. You've got an appointment at 4pm, you arrive a few minutes early, and you're kept waiting for an hour and a half. That's what happened to me recently when I had to see an orthopaedic surgeon, and he became literally enraged when I expressed my irritation at waiting. How dare I criticize his performance of a service I'm paying for? I made a single, not particularly aggressive comment, and he ended up throwing me out of his office. What gives? Well, it's not that hard to explain from an economic standpoint.

Unlike many other more customer friendly businesses, a doctor's income is limited by the number of patients he can see. A widget-maker or a widget-seller can always sell 10% more widgets, so he has to keep his customers happy. His income depends on how many widgets he can sell, and he has an unlimited supply of them. Each disgruntled customer is money out of his pocket, so he wants to keep them all happy.

Doctors, however, seem to have an easy time filling their appointment book; there's a limited amount of time in the day, and as long as it's filled doctors have no incentive to keep their customers happy. (Plus, many doctors are extremely arrogant.) Any patient who resents the poor customer service and leaves can be replaced with another, and as long as the doctor's time is maxed-out it doesn't matter how angry people get.

Taking a more macro view, much of the problem can be laid at the feet of government regulation. The situation I just described persists because the government regulates the medical industry and makes it extremely hard for people to practice medicine. Think about it: does it really take a doctor to diagnose an ear infection or to set a broken bone? No! A nurse or an EMT could do the same job far more cheaply and with far less training. Doctors can treat their customers poorly because they have a government-enforced monopoly on their profession, and the medical schools, the American Medical Association, and the various state and federal governments all collude to continually raise barriers to entry.

What's more, this government-medical collusion increases prices for everyone. A wealthy person who can afford to pay the fees may very well prefer to see an MD for an ear infection -- and he'll probably get superior care -- but why should a poor person be forced by the government to engage such an expensive professional simply to get a prescription for amoxicillin? Yes, sometimes the ear infection will be something more serious that only a MD could diagnose, but most of the time it won't be and the money used to pay the MD will be wasted. Shouldn't the customer get to make that decision, instead of the government?

So if you want to improve service and reduce costs in the medical industry the solution is simple: reduce government regulation and let the free market sort things out.

Here's a short video showing how The Lord of the Rings should have ended.

Of course, this idea is old and has been discussed at great length in many forums with various results.

(HT: GeekPress.)

Speculators are betting that Paul Wolfowitz will resign from the World Bank by the end of June with around 70% probability. If they're right, that will be a grim day for America and democracy in general. Billions of dollars will continue funding tyrants around the world, and the poorest will suffer most.

"Innumeracy" being the numerical equivalent of illiteracy; it's sad how many supposedly educated people are completely clueless when it comes to interpreting the meaning of numbers.

Fear of flooding did not appear to scare off prospective buyers at the New Town at St. Charles, a housing development whose sales office hummed with activity on Sunday, even as the Missouri River was rising. Although the community is near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, residents are not required to have flood insurance, because they are beyond the 100-year flood plain.

The location was a selling point for Ken Snider, a high school teacher from St. Louis.

“It’s not going to flood here for another 100 years,” Mr. Snider said, “and I won’t be around by then.”

100-year flood plains don't flood every 100 years like clockwork, of course, and everyone who lives near a river should know that. However, even the New York Times doesn't correct this moronic appraisal.

But critics of the developments say someone else is likely to be around then, and taxpayers in general will carry the tab after the next disaster bailout.

Even if "100-year floods" happen on average every hundred years (show me statistically significant data!) there's no certainty or claim that two won't happen right in a row. Ken Snider's reasoning, implicitly endorsed by the NYT, is baseless and betrays a total lack of comprehension of the data.

I love numeric trivia, so here's one for you: The Lines Number.

Given a sum of single digit (decimal) numbers raised to single digit exponents. Take all the single digit numbers and the single digit exponents, and put them together in the order they appear to form a single, multi-digit number. There exists only one positive sum of this kind so that the answer to the sum equals the resulting multi-digit number:

40 - 33 + 79 - 56 = 40337956

The number was discovered by my geeky friend Glenn T. Lines in December 2005. Unfortunately, Glenn is too lazy to make a description of his own number. Hence, I do it for him. Unfortunately, I'm no good at describing math, so let's revisit the above paragraph, this time visually:

= 4 0 3 3 7 9 5 6

That the number is unique was demonstrated exhaustively, since there's an upper limit to how large such a number can be.

(HT: JV.)

Biofuel will never be a significant source of energy for the United States.

Arable land in USA: 165,006,200 hectares.

"Target" biomass crop yield: 11.2 tonnes/hectare. It's not clear what percentage of this "biomass" gets turned into biodiesel, but Wikipedia gives yields of about one tonne per hectare for higher efficiency crops. Let's divide by 5.6 instead of 11.2, just to be conservative, giving a yield of two tonnes per hectare.

Energy content of biodiesel: 37.8 GJ / tonne.

Arable land * crop yield * energy content ~= 12 billion GJ.

The USA consumes about 900 million tonnes of oil per year and about 950 million tonnes of coal per year. At 44 GJ per tone and 29 GJ per tonne respectively, that's around 67 billion GJ using numbers from 2000-ish.

So assuming our coal and oil consumption haven't grown since 2000 (unlikely) and assuming a generous ratio of biomass to biofuel conversion, the United States could generate about 18% of the power it consumes by converting 100% of its arable land to biofuel production.

Why the heck are we wasting time and money on this when nuclear power is cheap, non-polluting, and plentiful?

I don't understand why the agricultural industry -- dominated by giant, well-organized corporations -- gets what is in effect free government insurance against damage to their business.

Agricultural Disaster Assistance Appropriations Act On Passage 05/10/2007 House Roll Call No. 336 110th Congress, 1st Session

Passed: 302-120 (see complete tally)

This House bill would provide $3.5 billion to farmers who lost crops or livestock due to weather-related events during fiscal years 2005 through 2007. Farmers who lost 35 percent of their crops or livestock producers located in counties where the Agriculture Department declared a natural disaster would be eligible for relief.

Why can't farms buy insurance in the private market like everyone else? Is there something special about the agricultural industry that prevents them from buying insurance and passing the costs on to their customers? Considering every other similar circumstance, it's hard to believe that the private sector couldn't handle this much more efficiently.

My Japanophile brother sent along this NYT article about Japan's criminal justice system that was incredibly surprising to me. Norimitsu Onishi makes it sound as if Japanese police don't even do proper investigations or gather evidence, they just pick a suspect, coerce a confession, and then rely on that confession alone for a conviction.

The Japanese authorities have long relied on confessions to take suspects to court, instead of building cases based on solid evidence. Human rights groups have criticized the practice for leading to abuses of due process and convictions of innocent people.

But in recent months developments in this case and two others have shown just how far the authorities will go in securing confessions. Calls for reforms in the criminal justice system have increased, even as Japan is to adopt a jury-style system in 2009 and is considering allowing victims and their relatives to question defendants in court.

In Saga Prefecture in March, a high court upheld the acquittal of a man who said he had been coerced into confessing to killing three women in the late 1980s. The court found that there was no evidence against the man other than the confession, which had been extracted from him after 17 days of interrogations that went on more than 10 hours a day.

In Toyama Prefecture the police acknowledged early this year that a taxi driver who had served almost three years in prison for rape and attempted rape in 2002 was innocent, after they found the real culprit. The driver said he had been browbeaten into affixing his fingerprint to a confession drawn up by the police after three days of interrogation.

Who knows how exaggerated or widespread these incidents are, but it's still odd to consider that a rather modern, wealthy, civilized nation doesn't even have jury trials.

A couple of my friends from church are on a short-term missions trip to Thailand that's focused on evangelizing vacationing Chinese tourists (if I understand correctly). That link takes you to some pictures and a daily account of their activities. Keep them in prayer... China is a hard nut to crack, but from reports we've heard the Chinese people are hungry for the gospel.


More pictures from Thailand.

Here's a report about the relationship between longevity and retirement age that claims that early retirement is the key to long life. But here's a BBC article that says the opposite: "Early retirers don't live longer". The thing is that retirement age and longevity aren't independent variables! Among the many dependencies, smarter people tend to live longer and could also save up money to retire earlier; sick people might retire early for health reasons and also die younger. Each person will have their own reasons for retiring or not, and their own risk factors that affect their longevity.

Though technically impossible to feel empathy ("Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives.") for a thing with no feelings of its own, it seems that robots are becoming so lifelike that some people can't resist biopomorphizing them.

The most effective way to find and destroy a land mine is to step on it.

This has bad results, of course, if you're a human. But not so much if you're a robot and have as many legs as a centipede sticking out from your body. That's why Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built something like that. At the Yuma Test Grounds in Arizona, the autonomous robot, 5 feet long and modeled on a stick-insect, strutted out for a live-fire test and worked beautifully, he says. Every time it found a mine, blew it up and lost a limb, it picked itself up and readjusted to move forward on its remaining legs, continuing to clear a path through the minefield.

Finally it was down to one leg. Still, it pulled itself forward. Tilden was ecstatic. The machine was working splendidly.

The human in command of the exercise, however -- an Army colonel -- blew a fuse.

The colonel ordered the test stopped.

Why? asked Tilden. What's wrong?

The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.

This test, he charged, was inhumane.

Setting aside the absurd word choice (even killing an animal can't be "inhumane") the colonel here is acting foolish. Rational people would be wise to quickly nip this tendency in the bud lest groups like the ACLU abandon real civil rights (like gun rights) altogether and become entirely nonsensical.

More significant than autonomy, thinks Rodney Brooks, may be the way humans have evolved to recognize instantly when an entity behaves like it's alive -- "animate" is the word he uses. Brooks is director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, co-founder and chief technology officer of the pioneering firm iRobot and author of "Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us." ...

Humans respond so readily to Kismet, created by Cynthia Breazeal, that graduate students working in the lab at night have been known to put up a curtain between themselves and the bot, Brooks reports. They couldn't stand the way it seemed to gaze around and stare at them. It broke their concentration. These humans are as sophisticated about robots as anyone on Earth. Yet even they are freaked by Kismet's lifelike behavior. "We're programmed biologically to respond to certain sorts of things," Brooks explains.

It's not about how the machine works. It's about how humans are wired.

I don't doubt that there's a biological basis for these irrational responses... and I am "fond" of my computer in a certain sense, but that fondness is really for what the computer can do for me and how it performs as a tool, not because I believe my computer has any inherent moral value.

Is the soldiers' emotional connection to their robots different than the age-old relationships between mariners and their ship or even knights and their horses? Some officers seem to think it's good for morale and encourage such behavior.

"I've been a proponent for a long time of painting a mouth and eyes on the Global Hawk," the Learjet-size surveillance bot, says retired Col. Tom Ehrhard, a former chief of the Air Force's "Skunk Works" -- its strategy, concepts and doctrine division.

"It looks like a blind mole. Give it some character. Make it easier for humans to deal with -- more animate. Humans are social animals. Make that other thing part of your family, your social structure. Try to animate and make either fearsome or lovable your implements of war."

I'm not a soldier, so it's very possible this would be good for the troops. I'm all for painting scary pictures on our weapons, for the sake of art, spirit, and morale, but attributing lifelike qualities to machines would seem to undermine the robots' purpose: doing jobs that are too dangerous for humans.

Maybe not as fun as comparing starships, but here's a cool page from reader JV that let's you compare skyscrapers in various cities. Here's the page with St. Louis skyscrapers, and here are New York skyscrapers and Los Angeles skyscrapers.

My brother sent me a link to WashingtonWatch, a blog/wiki that attempts to calculate the net present value of various legislation pending in Congress. Some legislation saves taxpayers money, but most of it costs us. As the methodology page indicates, this isn't the last work on the financial aspects of legislation, but it's a place to start.

Porkbusters is another good site that focuses on pork-barrel spending by our Congressmen. The quote by Trent Lott at the top of their page is priceless.

French Socialists are now urging an end to the riots they incited Sunday after their presidential candidate lost to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy. Most interesting is the completely unbiased reporting by AP writer Angela Charlton.

The leader of France's defeated Socialists appealed for calm Tuesday after a second night of post-election violence left cars burned and store windows smashed.

While the unrest has been small-scale, it sent a message to Nicolas Sarkozy: He may have won the presidency, but he hasn't won over the many French who consider him—and his free-market reforms and tough line on crime and immigration—frighteningly brutal.

Sarkozy, who beat Socialist Segolene Royal in a runoff Sunday, is a divisive figure whose tough language and crackdowns on crime and immigration have angered many on the left—and in the immigrant-heavy suburban housing projects that erupted in riots in 2005. An anti- Sarkozy rally in Paris was planned for Tuesday afternoon.

Some 730 cars were burned nationwide Sunday night and 592 people arrested, police said.

The language shows that the "some people" who are so often referred to most likely includes the reporter herself. Rather than sourceless opinions, why not actually do some reporting and get some quotes? And since when is "small-scale violence" a term sufficient to describe 730 burnt cars and almost 600 arrests?

I haven't posted much about Paris Hilton going to jail because there isn't much to say. She's a spoiled brat, and she's getting better treatment than she probably deserves. Maybe she'll learn something and become a better person, etc. Who knows? I pretty much feel the same as when I pass a car accident on the freeway... I stop to look and say a quick prayer that everyone is alright. (The prayer offsets my macabre fascination.) More details about Paris' prison sentence here.

A nifty tool that gives you an indication of how insurance companies view your make and model of car. These ratings supposedly affect your premiums, so they might be worth considering before you purchase your next vehicle.

La Griffe du Lion has a fascinating statistical analysis of race and criminality and describes a mathematical model that explains the black/white incarceration ratio and why most serial killers are white males.

Walsh identified 90 African American and 323 white American serial murderers, all men operating between 1945 and 2004. (Though Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans were not included in the study, their addition would not alter the fact that most serial killers are white men.) African American serial killers made up 22% of Walsh's sample, a figure in close agreement Hickey's enumeration. But, as blacks number well below 22% of the U.S. population, they are actually overrepresented among the ranks of serial killers -- roughly by a factor of 2.

So, why are most serial killers white men? The short answer is that serial murder is primarily a male enterprise, and in the U.S. white men outnumber black men seven to one. The long answer, however, is instructive.

The ratio of black to white criminal offenders generally increases with the progression from passive white collar crime to pernicious violent crime. In 2003, for example, blacks were imprisoned for violent crimes at approximately 7 times the per capita rate of whites, but only 4 times the white rate for property crimes. Serial murder, by any reckoning, ranks at the top of this progression. Consequently, black serial murderers should, per capita, outnumber their white counterparts by at least a factor of seven. In actuality, the factor is closer to two. The appropriate question, then, is not why most serial killers are white men, but rather why black men are only twice as likely as white men to be serial murderers. Criminality distributions provide the answer.

There's a bit of math, but Griffe's model of criminality is elegant in that it depends only on hard numbers rather than on unquantifiable concepts of justice or racism.

My wife sent along this world sunlight map that shows real-time sunrise and sunset across the globe. Kinda cool to imagine what other people around the world are probably doing right now.

The time is now 12:34, 5/6/7. Not exactly a common occurrence.

Here's a pretty comprehensive page with links to state speeding laws, claiming to be last updated in June of 2006.

Mark Hulbert explains why the market's 25-day winning streak isn't that significant from a statistical perspective.

I don't have the patience to write up a minute-by-minute analysis of last week's Democrat primary debate or last night's Republican one, but here are my general impressions.

Democrats: Hillary was the clear winner. Obama stumbled several times: forgetting about Israel and denigrating the Confederate flag could lose him votes (but would anyone who cares about the Confederate flag vote for a black guy anyway?). None of the other candidates distinguished themselves except Mike Gravel, who's a loon (and therefore surging in online polls). Hillary came across as measured, confident, and polished -- no major mis-steps, which should be her main concern at this stage of the race. Obama needed to come out strong to demonstrate why he'd be a better pick than the anointed crown princess Hillary, and he didn't do it. Edwards was... mostly invisible. Richardson looked like he was about to faint from stage-fright, but of all the Democrats he had the most specific and rational policy ideas.

I was glad to hear the Dems talk tough about the GWOT, despite their constant harangues against "this administration". Socialized medicine scares me though, and they all seem to be for it... just imagine how much you hate dealing with the IRS, and extend that to the medical field. Just look at how terribly the Department of Veterans Affairs is run and imagine your health care being administered by a similar federal bureaucracy.

Republicans: The "big three" of Rudy, McCain, and Romney did the best. I like Tancredo, but I was surprised by how nervous he appeared. Ron Paul is a nut, but he's a nut that I agree with on a lot of issues (not the war, though) and I'm glad he was there. He didn't come across nearly as crazy as Mike Gravel did for the Democrats, and all the Republicans on stage could genuinely say that any one of them would make a better president than any one of the Democrats.

Romney was the most eloquent of the speakers and his take on Osama Bin Laden ("He is going to pay, and he will die") was strong and somewhat humorous.

McCain seemed solid, but his denunciation of pork-barrel spending rang hollow in my ears... he promises to veto pork-barrel bills as president, but he's in the Senate right now! He can filibuster those bills any time he wants, why is he waiting to be elected president?

Rudy came off well, and his constant reminders of the miracles he worked in New York were impressive. His stance on abortion seems rather ill-formed, and it's not clear to me what he'd do about it. Even if he vows to appoint pro-life judges, I'm not sure I'd believe him... plus, the presidential podium is a powerful platform for advocating an end to abortion, but he certainly wouldn't use it to that end.

Missing: I'm looking forward to seeing Fred Thomson in one of these debates. I like what I've read about him, and I want to see him on the stage.

Not that the anniversary is violent, but rather the tornado that struck Moore, OK, eight years ago today.

Wikipedia has more about the most violent tornado ever recorded on earth.

(HT: My own personal weather-girl.)

Who would have guessed that the best drug men could imagine would be one taken by women?

Scientists are developing a pill which could boost women's libido and reduce their appetite.

The hormone-releasing pill has so far only been given to female monkeys and shrews who displayed more mating behaviour and ate less.

The team from the Medical Research Council's Human Reproduction Unit in Edinburgh believe a human version could be available within a decade.

Of course every brilliant discovery has detractors.

But psychologist Lesley Perman-Kerr said relationship problems usually had a psychological, rather than a biological, basis.

"Some women have problems specific to libido.

"But often if they go off sex, it's more to do with their relationship than their level of libido.

"When couples come to me and they are not having sex, the last thing they want to do is examine their relationship.

"They want to believe that it's nothing to do with their relationship."

Of course a psychologist would see it that way, since the profession makes so much money off of distressed marriages. Why deal with all that complicated relationship mumbo-jumbo when the woman can just take a pill? Another problem soon-to-be-solved by modern pharmaceuticals!

Of course, it could be a hoax.

Here's a simple flat tax primer from the Heritage Foundation that explains how a flat tax system would work and why it would be beneficial for our country. There are numerous advantages, but three are of particular import in my mind.

No Double Taxation of Saving and Invest­ment. Flat tax proposals would eliminate the tax code’s bias against capital formation by ending the double taxation of income that is saved and invested. This means no death tax, no capital gains tax, no double taxation of saving, and no double tax on dividends. By taxing income only one time, a flat tax is easier to enforce and more conducive to job creation and capital formation. ...

An End to Micromanaging and Political Favor­itism. A flat tax gets rid of all deductions, loop­holes, credits, and exemptions. Politicians would lose all ability to pick winners and losers, reward friends and punish enemies, and use the tax code to impose their values on the economy. Not only does this end a major source of political corruption, but it is also pro-growth since companies would no longer squander resources lobbying politicians or making foolish investments just to obtain favorable tax treatment. ...

Simplicity. Complexity is a hidden tax amount­ing to more than $100 billion. This is the cost of tax preparation, lawyers, accountants, and other resources used to comply with the Internal Revenue Code. The Internal Revenue Service even admits that the current tax code requires taxpayers to devote 6.6 billion hours each year to their tax returns.[8] Yet even this commitment of time is no guarantee of accuracy. The code is so complex that even tax experts and the IRS often make mistakes. All taxpayers, from General Motors to a hamburger-flipping teenager, would be able to fill out their tax return on a postcard-sized form, and compliance costs would drop by tens of billions of dollars.[9]

The end of the guide talks about how a flat tax would make America more competitive in the world market, and that's also an important consideration.

People should realize that a flat tax could be implemented in a revenue neutral manner (though I'd prefer to cut government revenue). There's no partisan advantage here, and people of every political stripe would benefit from a simpler tax code.

An emerging strain of extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) highlights the reason why you should finish the course of antibiotics prescribed by your doctor for an infection.

MOSCOW -- A virulent strain of tuberculosis resistant to most available drugs is surfacing around the globe, raising fears of a pandemic that could devastate efforts to contain TB and prove deadly to people with immune-deficiency diseases such as HIV-AIDS.

Known formally as extensively drug-resistant TB, or XDR-TB, the strain has been detected in 37 countries. It arises when the bacterium that causes TB mutates because antibiotics used to combat it are carelessly administered by poorly trained doctors or patients don't take their full course of medication. Rather than being killed by the drugs, the microbe builds up resistance to them.

At least 50 percent of those who contract this strain of TB will die of it, according to medical experts. In trying to stop the spread of the disease, which can be transmitted through coughing, spitting or even speaking, health officials have imposed sometimes extreme controls on infected people.

(I've written about those extreme controls before and wondered if similar measures could stop the spread of AIDS.)

It seems that more research needs to be done to determine how long is long enough, because there are risks associated with taking antibiotics for too long as well as for too short a time.

In another one of those "and why hasn't THIS been done before?" kind of studies, Rachida el Moussaoui and colleagues at the Amsterdam's Academic Medical Center, randomized 119 patients to receive either 3 days or 8 days of amoxicillin for bacterial pneumonia. Though the 8-day course has long been the universal standard, the 3-day course proved equally effective--and half as likely to produce adverse side effects such as antibiotic-associated diarrhea or drug allergy.

Of greater concern are the unseen side effects of those extra days of unnecessary antibiotics--especially the selective pressure they place on the body's trillions of resident bacteria. The longer the course of antibiotic, the higher the level of drug resistance bred into our native bacteria. Thanks to the wonders of bacterial gene swapping, this drugs resistance can easily end up in truly dangerous bug such as the strep, staph, and haemophilus behind most cases of bacterial pneumonia. ...

Still, the study's conclusion contains a powerful if painfully obvious message. There's no scientific basis for the duration of antibiotic therapy for many common infections. With respiratory infections such as pneumonia accounting for an estimated 75 percent of all antibiotic prescriptions, determining the shortest EFFECTIVE course of antibiotics for these ills could go far in reducing drug resistance in all of us.

Till then, of course ... be sure to take your antibiotics as prescribed, lest a too-short course fail to cure you.

More research please, and us laymen should continue to trust our doctors.

I've been playing Europa Universalis III for the past week and I can't get it out of my brain. General idea: you pick a country in 1453 and play it through 1789, doing pretty much whatever you want. Despite the title, you don't have to pick a European country. The problem for me is that playing day by day for 300+ years of history requires a tremendous amount of thought, and the stupid game has basically been churning in my head non-stop for days.

I'm still on my first game, having started as the single-province country of Leinster on the island of Ireland. My first goal was obvious: take over the other four Irish provinces and unite the country. Sounds easy, right? Except that Meath was controlled by Britain, and the other three provinces all allied with each other and whenever I'd attack one the other two would jump on me. So I had to use diplomacy to turn two against each other, and once they were fighting I attacked the third. The two warring provinces were easy to mop up, but what about Meath? Britain would crush me like an ant, so I had to incite rebellion in their Irish stronghold and convince the superpower to cede the troublesome province over to me. After several days spent conquering Ireland, then what? Why, off to Italy to vassalize one of those rich trading nations, like Milan.... Now that I've subjugated Milan and annexed another nearby Italian province after a war with Rome, I need to figure out how to take Rome itself....

Anyway, it's ridiculously complicated and therefore agonizingly fun for an OCD gamer like myself. If you're into history and strategy games, you won't regret picking up a copy for yourself. And don't forget to check out the EU3 wiki for some helpful tips, you'll probably need them.

Remember World War 2 when Americans actually wanted to win a war despite difficult odds? Maybe these WW2 posters will bring back some memories. Too bad no one makes posters like these for the GWOT... but I guess there wouldn't be much of a market, unfortunately.

(HT: Nick.)

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