Patterns in static

Some fluff, some info

navigational aids:

topics covered:

10 April 04. Efficiency, poverty

Today, I'm writing you from a law firm, where I'm temping to the tune of $21/hour. The lawyers write their little bios, they get emailed to the manager, she prints them out, and then one of five temps (including me) goes to a little web form and types in the info.

As much as I harp about the inefficiency of the whole click 'n' drag paradigm, this has been by far its most spectacular failure yet. For example, today's project is to go through every bio and replace /U.S./ with /US/, and /D.C./ with /DC/. Since we only have a feature-rich and easy-to-use web interface, it takes about 25 temp hours=$525. If there were any sort of direct access to the files (i.e., a command line), you could teach somebody perl from scratch and guarantee that nothing gets overlooked in maybe 20% of the time. Later, when you get the note from one of the lawyers that (not making this up) bar regulations prohibit the use of the word /expertise/, so every instance has to be replaced with /experience/, re-running the script takes no time at all. Part of why I'm temping is that I want to feel like I'm adding value to the world instead of just filching, but I'm just not getting that feeling here.

But fortunately, it's not my project, so I can vehemently not care about how inefficient it all is. I have a spreadsheet which calculates how long I've been here and how much I've `earned' (before & after taxes). I can use it to calculate how much it costs to remove one period (50 cents), or what I'm charging for a single trip to the bathroom ($2.09). Fortunately, I'm a luddite, so I can get a command prompt on my home computer and write this while I wait for windows to pop up in the background.

It helps that the law firm breaks no stereotypes. When I first got here, I had to sign a fifteen page waiver before I could sit down and start clicking on things. The lawyer bios themselves alternate between dull lists of topics or cases, and boasting about how large the corporations are for which the lawyers have worked. Here's one: "Recent actions include [...] defending international financial companies against purported class action [regarding mishandling of retirement funds]." I guess, technically, somebody has to do it. Few of them are attempting to smile in the little black-and-white photos, since `friendly' is not the number one priority of the web site.

They do get points for a lot of asylum and immigration advocacy. One guy talked about how he's been instrumental in gathering evidence against President Bush in the September 11 inquiries, but the managers put a big X through the entire narrative, so that's gone from the public record.

The WB The other thing I've been working on while waiting for the web interface is a new proposal for the World Bank. I first met with one of the Bank managers about two weeks ago, in the lobby of their building on H & PA. I had been told that the building is really amazing, with a waterfall in the fifteen-story lobby and a big sign in gilt lettering above with their motto: `Working Toward A World Without Poverty'.

As it turns out, there's no sign.

The guy I met with, a manager in what stood out as a beautiful suit, was very quick to point out that the WB had bought a set of existing buildings and renovated them into what I saw here, so it was among the cheapest office buildings in DC. Since the WB is a non-profit established by international treaty, it's tax exempt on the profits it doesn't make, so I suppose taking up land doesn't cost them anything. [This is, by the way, a huge problem for Columbia in general: all of the prime real estate keeps getting taken up by people it can't tax.]

He bought me a coffee and forced a cookie upon me. We joked about how SBUX has fifteen different types of coffee, only one of which indicates anything about fair trade. Every trash can has recycling bins, and I didn't get the impression that people ignored them the way they do here at the law firm. As with many people in DC, he advised me about making my product less academic and more focused on the final product, which in this case would be results about immigration's effect on the poorer countries of the world. They're interested in the effects on the developing world of proposed taxes on remissions to home and the brain drain (if any), and getting a better handle on immigration from one developing country to another (south-to-south migration, he called it).

He forwarded my abstract around, and it wound up on Ali's desk. When I met with Ali the other day, he also failed to break any stereotypes, in his tie and short-sleeved dress shirt. He talked about supply and demand, and I thought about how infrequently I think in such terms (which is not a good or bad thing, just different). His office is in a different building, on the twelth floor, which gives you a really fabulous view of the city. The walls are half-glass, so that when standing, you have a panoramic view of the city, but when sitting you have enough privacy to pick your nose. The conference room looks down to the tidal basin, surrounded by cherry blossoms, and the Jefferson Memorial.

The project is to work out policies to dry up the black market in the EU. This becomes an immigration project pretty quickly, and the model I've put together could be readily applied. Ali was very excited and he sent me a half-dozen emails over the next two days about data we can get and things we can do. I like the approach, giving a justification for opening up immigration which has across-the-political-board appeal. So I've revised the proposal while here at the law firm.

So that's my life. Sorry if it was a bit too verbose there, but I've got time on my hands here. Update: one of the lawyers just informed us that /US Court/ is "very wrong" and should be /U.S. Court/. So you get two blogs today. Happy birthday.

[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

02 June 04. Yet another entry about drug access restrictions.

Oh, I am so depressed again. I apologize to those of you who were hoping for deep, incisive economic analysis, but this is a blog, so I have a whining-about-me quota to fulfill. Those of you who don't know me will (eagerly) want to skip to the auxiliary rant, which I wrote after the drugs kicked in.


See, I'm a contractor, so I don't have health insurance, so I can't afford to pay the four or five hundred dollars a psychotherapist would charge for a half-hour intake interview, at which s/he would establish that I am indeed depressed, just like the last psychotherapist said I was, so what was that person prescribing, yeah, here's a prescription for more of the same. What was the dosage she'd given you?

Most SSRIs have a half life of about two weeks, so in one day, the level in your blood drops about 4.8%, and that's normal, but anything beyond that is bad for you. It's been about three weeks, so I'm 65% below my normal level (=73 mg in my blood, vs normal=207 mg).

I have some backup Wellbutrin. Wellbutrin always comes with a little can of desiccant (Do Not Eat.) because if it gets the slightest bit soggy it starts to smell and taste like sulfur. But that's what I'm choking down lately, and maybe it'll kick in any minute now.

The primary way in which this depression thing manifests itself is, coincidentally, the same way that age manifests itself: the realization that everything has been done before, and it's not funny any more. It's like being trapped in a room full of high school students. Oh, they're not bad or evil or anything, but in your mind the jokes are already worn to tatters, all the cadences and politics and things people do to be unique that they'd just come up with feel awkward and less-than-brilliant to you because your pals had been doing exactly the same things to be funny and unique for a decade. Everything is tedious from the repetition.

So that's what being depressed feels like, except I'm the only person in the room.

There are only so many adequately sullen pop songs out there, and I've worn out their grooves on the hard drive, so to speak. I've probably heard Alfred Schnittke's "Collected songs where every verse is filled with grief" over a thousand times; it's a nine minute track, so that's about a week. Even Transatlanticism is getting old, and I've had the thing for just a month or two. Gee, Ben, tell me again how the Atlantic was born today?

I've already lived in this apartment and sat in this chair. I could go for a walk, but how many times have I done that before. How many thousands of times have I written sentences with `I' as the subject? You don't have to laugh, dear reader; I know you've seen self-referential humor before. Every time I do a half-life calculation, I have to start from scratch: OK, so exp(-k * 14) = 1/2, so what's k again? You don't understand how many dozens of times I've solved for k. Solving for k is just not fun anymore.

I don't know what to do. Everything has been done before, all of it, and that knowledge is causing me to age faster than the speed of light. The joke that is living is just not funny any more.

Maybe I just need a hobby.

Auxiliary rant Type II errors are when you give somebody drugs but they don't need them. Here in the U.S.A., the medical rule makers are obsessed with type II errors. [In another context, the type II error would be when you diagnose somebody to be a terrorist but they're not. Somehow the rule makers don't care about those errors so much.] Access to Lexapro is so carefully controlled that I can't get any unless I pay somebody several hundred dollars to certify and verify that I really do feel depressed, and I'm not just taking it `cause I get a kick from the side effects (nausea, anxiety, and in my case, tooth grinding).

Since I hang out with goths so often, I know that there exist people who believe they're clinically depressed but aren't, and the drugs they think are helping are either a waste or harmful. But what is the harm from a type I error (depressive doesn't get drugs) and the harm from a type II error (nondepressive takes extraneous drugs)? If the harm from a type I error is orders of magnitude greater---which it is---then don't build barriers around blocking access to the darn drugs. No offense to my dark pals, but writing the nation's drug policy around goths is just silly.

On the other hand, working in concert with the medical establishment, are the folks at Adbusters who believe that depression, panic disorders, and even PMS are "inventions" of drug companies to sell us more drugs. The conclusion follows the same puritanical streak as the Congressmen who pass laws blocking access: if you don't need a drug, then you shouldn't take it---and in the case of anxiety or depression, you never need drugs, because these states are inventions of the drug companies.

I am sorry to say that my emotional state is not a product of advertising.

I actually generally follow a life the Adbusters would approve of: I have no TV, don't let my browser load ads, and generally just don't see advertising, and yet the drug companies still got through to me that I have the ailment they invented. When I briefly lived in Venezuela, a short walk to the stream we drank from and bathed in but a long walk to the nearest town, subsisting on the mangos that fell from the trees in the yard, I was still depressed, and I knew it.

Yes, drug companies are evil multinational corporations. They also manufacture stuff that makes us better. Further, I have to give the evil multinationals a big YAY! for advertising aggressively that depression shouldn't be stigmatized, and that we shouldn't feel ashamed for our brain chemistry, and that it's OK to come forward and seek constructive treatment when just getting more sun doesn't work. The adbusters would point out that they're destigmatizing it to sell us more drugs, and so write articles that re-stigmatize depression.

So why, then, is the rate of depression so high in the U.S.A. compared to everywhere else, as shown in the articles in this sporadically scholarly Adbusters lit review? Some of the citations have quite the literary flourish, saying that there is a mismatch between what my psyche needs and what is provided by the consumerist culture in which I live. But I have a simpler answer: since there are drugs that can adjust the chemistry of my body to make me feel less miserable, and there is a gatekeeper between me and that drug who won't allow me to have that drug unless s/he is absolutely certain that I need it, I'm going to report the most severe depression I can conjure up. If only I could cry on command.

How does one collect statistics about depression? Any survey of people who got out of bed this morning and are willing to talk to the surveyor is going to be horribly skewed away from depressives. In other countries, and before SSRIs became prevalent in the U.S.A., there was just no reason for me to find myself a statistician and report my depression, while now, because of the philosophy espoused by both Congress and the adbusters, there is every reason for me to over-report.

[link][2 comments]

on Friday, June 11th, the author said

Mr. PH of Seattle, WA posted on this, and many people have commented on his post. So see some reactions here.

on Sunday, null , said

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

02 August 04. A line about closing

OK, so I closed on the house. A few people have asked me things like `Do you feel like an adult now?' and I have to answer no, less than ever.

The process is (1) wholly standardized and (2) absolutely overwhelming. At the closing, you're in a room with a few people who do nothing but close houses all day long, and they present to you a sheet, which they've done a thousand times before, listing every imaginable charge. The HUD-1 statement is a nice, standardized form that our benevolent government has put a lot of effort into making clear and fraud-free. Nonetheless, the line numbers go up to #603 on the thing, and it's all filled out before you get there. Every question I asked received a slightly condescending `you want that' or `that's already been arranged'. By the time you're at the closing, zero percent of it is negotiable, so why bother asking.

Figure 1: my house.

It was on the one hand comforting to not have to worry about all this stuff, because there are a thousand details that the title company takes care of that I never would have thought of myself (has the water bill been paid?), but on the other, the lack of control leaves me feeling used, like a dozen people simply proclaimed that I owe them money and there's nothing I can do about any of it.

There's a gnawing feeling that I got taken on at least some of it---I didn't agree to pay the $55 pest inspection, but there it was. Part of this is my brain's attempt to work on multiple scales at once and failing miserably. Fifty-five bucks will buy a very nice dinner for me and a pal, but it's 0.02 per cent of the price of the house, and therefore negligible. I just can't deal with the internal dissonance.

All I really have to say about it for now, and I guess even that can all be summarized to `gee, I had no control over anything at the closing; what an odd feeling.' More on comparative advantage or something next time.
[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

30 September 04. How to be respected without really trying

I've been a bit distracted lately, mostly by the class I've been teaching. I lecture to 84 undergrads, twice a week, about Game Theory. Yes, eighty-four students is a lot. I'm delighted to say that I'll have minimal involvement in grading the homeworks, which is the really painful part---paid those dues already, I guess. The lecture hall itself has a grandiose feel: if the classroom were a movie theatre, it'd be a good one, with a steep slope, and the chalkboard (and me) waay down at the bottom. If you've ever wondered what it feels like to be a movie, well, it's a bit intimidating.

The students don't really want to say much. They sit and stare at me, and despite my best efforts to be fun and animated, they still sit and stare, not wanting to say something dumb in front of 83 of their peers. Occasionally, I'll see vague nods in response to simple yes/no questions.

At first, I think every teacher wants the students to like them and get all animated at the sight of such a wonderful teacher. I wanted to be the cool teacher about whom the students say `I wish every professor were like Professor Coolio!'. But I'm over that desire, having realized that it's simply impossible: I have a pretty narrow sense of humor, which works great with about three of the students in the class---and there's no sense of humor that they'd all like. At this point, I've revised the original goal of `maximize the number of students who love me' down to `minimize the number of students who hate me'.

I'm absolutely certain that at least one of them is reading this right now (hi.), so I won't say anything too nasty. But there are certain types of people whom I never got along with. Erat gregius, holding a conversation with a fraternity boy has always been an abortive effort all around. This is not to say that I or they are evil, just that our conversational ideas, our forms of play, our ideals, our frequency of use of incidental latin, just don't match. So if I were to meet one of these folks at a party (which would not be surprising; I'm probably the oldest guy in the room, but only by a year or three), then they would pretty certainly either give me the cold shoulder entirely, or would attempt a brief conversation, decide I'm a dork, and move on.

So imagine my awkward surprise when such a person calls me `Professor' when nervously approaching me with a question. I guess it's great that the social set-up is such that two people who would never get along elsewhere manage to have a beneficial exchange of content---society at its finest; I'll have to work it into a lesson somewhere---but it still feels somehow incongruous to me. They're not really talking to me as much as the concept of professor they have in their heads.

Then there's the question of content provision. If you estimate about three thousand dollars per student (which is low), then 84 students collectively paid a quarter of a million dollars to hear me speak. What the *uck do I have to say about Game Theory, or anything else, that's worth that?

This is exacerbated by the fact that the content is entirely at my discretion. The class isn't a prerequisite for anything, so there's nothing I have to cover; almost all of the students would be perfectly happy if I told them `You've all got an A. Class dismissed.'; I'd guess if you asked the parents, most of them wouldn't know what Game Theory is outside of a vague idea. If I'd announced on day one, `Game Theory is the study of chess openings and sex', I'm sure the world would continue to spin, none the wiser.

One guideline from the people in charge is that they want me to teach a topics class---start off with the mechanics, but then apply them to different fields like politics, auctions, and prisoner interrogation. This is incredibly fortunate for me, because I've had heaps of practice doing this---right here on this blog. Yup, most of the class consists of recycled blog entries. Yesterday's topic was how to bid optimally on ebay, which you'll recall from this entry. It's a bit more detailed and technical in class, with more frequent use of the term `Nash equilibrium'. The format---a giant lecture hall and a fixed meeting time---makes the content somehow more important and valuable.

[The eternal conflict remains, however, that I need to provide new content twice a week, every week. As noted, I'm waiting to run out of content on this here blog, and it's the same in class but with time pressure. I've already had a few close calls, and even yesterday's class ran a bit short at the end there (not that the students care).]

I don't want to imply that I hate my students, or enjoy the odd power I have over them, or that I'm not taking the task seriously. But I'm just a guy, some loser with a blog and a PhD and an old mattress on the floor in the bedroom. I can play the character of Professor just fine, and deliver exactly the kind of lecture required for a good Game Theory class, but it still all feels like a strange kind of act.

It's like the first time I realized that the math teacher flirts with the language arts teacher, or the first time I went out drinking with somebody who teaches in an elementary school, or the first time I had lunch with a Nobel Prize winner. We've all had those experience where we realize that even people with a title and status are just people---except now it's me that the pretentions and expectations are directed toward.

[link][a comment]

on Saturday, January 7th, Dan Nguchu. said

hi(not to imply i am or ever was your student). I stumbled upon your blog miraculously and I was pretty impressed. Actually I still do not know why I wrote this comment (and im still writing....)
So has the going been? I can tell.from the date above this is almost a decade later.

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

10 March 05. Hot-headed over cell phones

[Today's guest blogger, Mr. GK of San Diego, CA, works for (cellular telephone company). When he first started there, he had the job of measuring the effect that cellular telephones would have on the brain.]

So everyone's walking around with these cellular phones stuck to their heads and some people are wondering about possible effects. One obvious effect is that people on the phone drive slower and swerve a lot. But what about the biological effects of placing a transmitter against the head? Beats me what the effects are, but I can tell how we to measure the power entering the brain and try to design around it.

First off, a little basic intro into the world of cellular phone antennas. Anything that can carry current on its surface is an antenna. [Antennae are the rods that stick out of a bug's head, and some antennas resemble them, but not all.] By the laws of physics, the currents on the surface will create radiating waves, and radiating waves striking the surface will create currents. Of course, the amount of energy crossing over could be very low, making a bad antenna, or close to all the energy could be converted, making a good antenna. Every mobile phone has an antenna, even if you can't see it. Actually, the phone itself makes up a large part of the antenna.

In a typical situation, there is a port or line near the top corner of the phone circuit board to which attaches a length of straight line (a whip antenna) or a metal spiral (a helix antenna). Frequently you'll get both, with the whip retractable and the helix hidden in a plastic stub at the base. So the current goes on the antenna part, right? Nope. When broadcasting, the current comes out of the port and spills all over the place since there's nothing to stop it. Some goes on the antenna, and some goes on the circuit board. So actually the whole phone is the antenna. A dipole antenna has two symmetric metal rods with a gap between them where the source goes; here, the whip or helix is like the top part of the dipole, and the phone body is like the bottom part. What about phones that don't seem to have an antenna? In those cases the antenna is inside the casing, usually as a wire or a little conducting plate along the top edge of the phone. Well gee, you may be wondering, why not always use nice, compact, invisible internal antennas? Much like Mister Ed being a horse, it's because of money, of course. Not the money involved in making the internal antennas, which is not that much, but the money in building more base stations so the phones will be in a higher-signal environment. It's when you're far from a base station and the signal is weak that you need a big antenna. In most metropolitan areas the signal is strong enough that you don't have to extend the whip antenna. There's also a psychological factor. Big antennas that aren't needed are sometimes called "placebo antennas".

Designing an antenna usually doesn't involve much since the phone is so small and the price is very constrained. There's just not much you can do, so as a cell-phone maker, you'll go to an antenna manufacturer and order an antenna from the catalog. The only real freedom in the design is in the matching circuit. That's a small collection of inductors and capacitors placed at the antenna port to try to maximize power transfer. There's a device called a network analyzer that sends a signal into the port and measures the reflection. So you sit there with the phone and try different positions, including holding the phone and putting it up to your head while measuring the reflected energy. Hopefully, the matching network will still work somewhat well in the different positions. Then come the radiation pattern tests. We take the phone and put it on a rotating stand in an antenna chamber. That's like a quiet room but the echoes being absorbed are radio waves. Imagine a dark little room with big, blue foam cones covering every surface. On one end is the rotating podium with the phone, and at the other end is a horn antenna. The network analyzer is attached to the phone and the horn antenna, but now it's measuring the power transmitted between them, rather than the reflection at one port. The podium rotates the antenna and we get a picture showing how much energy goes in which direction. Those patterns are always measured, and they're always a half-step above worthless. That's because the pattern changes completely when held in the hand up to the head.

There are fake heads that can help with the measurements. These are plastic heads with mannequin-like general features and filled with brain-imitating goo. The phone is strapped to the fake head and the antenna pattern measured. This is a better indication of how the phone radiates, although the best test is to have a person sit in the chamber and hold the phone. For that we take out the podium and place a chair on the rotating platform. The subject sits there holding the phone and gets rotated. I went to a conference presentation once where a university presenter mentioned that they couldn't get permission to do this kind of test since it involved human subjects, even though the power involved is actually less than when the phone is in operation.

That's the antenna design process to get it to radiate the most power; now we get to the opposite process, where we try to minimize power going into the head.

The important parameter when considering radio waves entering body tissue is called SAR. That stands for specific absorption rate, and is indicated in W/kg or mW/g [Watts per kilogram or milliWatts per gram]. There are various SAR limits set by the FDA and some agencies in other countries. The limits depend on frequency, exposure time and other factors, but for the frequencies we're interested in, the limit is 0.2 mW/g for the whole body. Since that's averaged over the whole body, it's actually not difficult to meet this limit. Perhaps you've got an antenna irradiating your left arm, but the rest of your body has no radiation and the average could be minuscule. So we don't worry about this limit. The rule that sends us to the measurement labs is the local SAR limit for brain tissue. That's 1.6 mW/g, and we're only allowed to average over a single gram cube. Some other countries follow the same limit, but for Europe and Japan it's a much easier to meet 2 mW/g averaged over a 10 gram cube. So how do we measure the brain tissue absorbing energy?

Imagine a plastic sink shaped like half of a human head. It's like someone cut the mannequin head in half, laid it on its side, and put an edge on it to avoid spills. Into that we put our brain-like goo. That goo is home-made, and actually quite simple. It's just water, salt and sugar. We start with water in a bucket, add some salt and sugar and then take a reading with a device to measure the conductivity and permittivity of the liquid. That device is a network analyzer again! This time it has an attachment that can be stuck into the liquid. It again puts some energy out into the attachment and measures the reflection. Roughly speaking, we add salt to increase the conductivity and add sugar to increase the permittivity. (What's permittivity? That's related to optical index, as in refraction, although this isn't in the optic range. It's like a measure of how electrically dense the liquid is.) If you go over the target values, add more water.

Once the fake zombie-food is ready, we pour it into the hollow head. Then comes the stirring. The ingredients will settle towards the bottom and throw off the carefully calibrated density. So about every hour the mixture has to be stirred with a long stick. The stirring has to be very slow; if bubbles develop, we'll have to wait for them to dissipate. A few minutes of slow stirring should do it. Now we're ready to take a measurement.

The phone is attached underneath the fake head around the ear and turned on. We program the phone to just transmit at maximum power. The measurement is done by a big robot arm set up over the head. The robot arm holds a long straight rod, and at the end of the rod are a couple of little dipole antennas. That's the near-field probe. The robot arm puts the probe into the head and starts measuring the field strength. The operator can kick back and relax as the robot arm sweeps the probe in a 3-D pattern over the head volume. We then look at the results. Did the SAR exceed the limit at any point? If not, we're set, right? Once again, the answer is a big opposite-of-yes. While the FDA sets the SAR limits, they don't say much about how the measurements should be made. How should the phone be positioned against the fake head surface? Can we include a fake hand? How about a fake ear? Is the whole concept of using a fake head with fake brain-goo valid? Who knows, but it's all we have to go on. And what happens if we measure areas where the limit is exceeded? That's when the witchcraft really begins.

To get the SAR down we can do things like metalize the inside of the plastic casing. Try different patterns; maybe one will work. There are metal screens available on the market that you can put over the earpiece that will supposedly cut down on radiation into the head. They must be meant to be used in the bizzaro universe, since by those pesky laws of physics they won't do anything in our universe. Unless the metal screen is attached to a ground, it will be invisible to static fields, radio waves, and any electromagnetic wave up to nearly optical frequencies. The metal patterns we put on the inside of the casing have to be attached to the circuit board, and they work by drawing the current away from the ear area rather than by shielding. Or maybe there is some shielding going on. It's all trial and error.

In the usual whip or helix antenna configuration, the electric current hotspot is around the ear. That's also the area where the SAR will be the highest. An antenna at the bottom of the phone would bring the hot-spot down toward the chin, but there isn't enough room in the phone for it. Probably the only way of reducing energy absorption into the brain is through distance, like with those ear-piece cords. Although on the down side, when you use those you look like you're walking around talking to yourself.

The issue of long-term low-level exposure is another mysterious area. SAR deals with heating of tissue. As long as you're at the SAR limit, the tissue will not heat up (there's actually a safety factor of about an order of magnitude, so you could go over the SAR limit and still not experience heating). Bad effects from radio waves caused below the heating level have so far not been found. A typical experiment involves putting a dipole against a mouse's head for a long time and then dissecting the mouse. That hasn't turned up anything. There has been the suggestion that long-term exposure could cause a benign (non-cancerous) tumor to develop around the ear. It's hard to talk about long-term exposure since cell-phones have been developing and power levels are dropping. An old analog phone is like a portable FM radio station, pumping away almost continuously. And 10 years ago it could have been trying to reach a distant base station. Digital phones are able to operate at lower power (analog maximum is 600 mW, digital maximum is 200 mW). They also switch on and off to save power, so across any second it may only be on half or a quarter of the time, further lowering power levels. Also, there are base stations everywhere now, so the phone doesn't have to raise its power output much.

Does this mean that there is now no danger? Don't know. So I can only offer these words of advice: Trust us.

[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

16 September 05. My plans to become condescending

So the book is almost done, leaving a vacuous hole in my life which I could ostensibly fill via social relations with my fellow man, or maybe trying to find a real job. But instead, I'm focusing on the usual `what am I gonna do with all these twenty-four hour days' question.

The subject of software patents had a few advantages. First, it's what basketball-playing lawyers describe as a slam-dunk case. I didn't have to have long internal debates about how to address this one situation where software patents are propping up the sky, because there are no such situations. There are a few business models that depend on patents, but for each such model there are a dozen that don't. From every perspective, the arrows point in the same direction.

Another bonus is that there's only so frigging much you can say about the topic. I have about two pages of extensions in mind (which my editors may let me include yet), but there will certainly be no volume II. That made it a great starter book, which I could watch develop for a year and then, to the extent possible, move on. I _could_ build an entire career about software patents, but that would depress even perky ol' me.

Finally, software, economics, and to a modest extent intellectual property law are all things I know about. If I were feeling juvenile, I could even point my finger at the other guys who write about the subject: how many function libraries have you written? Why are you writing about this when you've never suffered the pain of implementing n-dimensional arrays in Perl; have never even sketched game-theoretic simulations let alone programmed them? Like that.

development IP
So I've been thinking about moving on to intellectual property law in developing countries. It's pretty easy to find reports on developing nations that say something like `stronger IP laws are necessary to foster a better business climate.' I was involved in writing such a report for [name of international development organization] just the other day.

But that's a placeholder sentence for the actual question of how one does that. For a small, open economy to declare that as of Monday it will have strong IP comparable to the USA would be shooting itself in the foot. To recognize patents in the US or Japan or Europe would be to simply take what used to be in the public domain in your country and hand it to foreigners. Many argue that the USA has laws which are so strong they are verging on stifling progress: for example, I think I've mentioned Madey v Duke before, which basically eliminates the `experimental use' exception to a patent. Would a country really be better off if its universities have to pay royalties to a foreign country for all the technology its students build?

So when we say `these guys need stronger IP protection' we don't mean infinitely strong protection, but some balance between the two extremes. Which already gives us a contrast with software patents, where the right answer was not some wishy-washy compromise. I couldn't say with a straight face that all developing countries are better off with no IP protection of any sort.

Software patents are a tiny slice of nothing, but IP for developing countries is a topic that could absorb the entirety of my life. The returns would also be greater, I suppose, in that doing it right would affect more people's lives, but that brings us to point number 3.

Part of why I know the computing world so well, part of why its ethererality appeals to me so, is that I've spent most of my life below the poverty line. As a kid, there really were days when I didn't eat because all we had was rice with bouillon cubes, which I'd been eating for the last three days. We moved frequently, while my dear mother tried to find a job. You ever see Rent? The musical about poor people, whose end of Act I consists of a big kick line of people singing about how great it is to be poor and delighting in La vie Boheme? Let me say, as one who is actually half Bohemian and who has been poor, it's not actually like that. In reality, poverty sucks. You don't get fun toys, and when you do, you're reluctant to play with them because if you break them a replacement is too expensive.

Given the capital constraints, living in front of a computer makes sense. As a kid, there are always the school PCs, and when you're older, you're done after one initial capital investment in your neighbor's castoff. All the software you'll ever need is out there on the network. In college, during that year where I was once again losing weight from too-infrequent meals, I had three floppy disks with all my writing and all my requisite software, so I could show up anywhere and work. That was also the year that I really started to get good with the delightful world of computing. The novel really wasn't very good, but it was TeXed up perfectly. When you have time and energy but not money, which is true of all kids but especially the poor ones, information technology makes a lot of sense.

Every seminar on info tech in the developing world has some inevitable anecdotes about how they put a computer somewhere and were amazed at what the neighborhood kids worked out to do with it, from which we garner two possibilities: the speaker either has absolutely no imagination or is a condescending arse. Of course info tech has appeal to kids, because it's easy to build things that work, and of course it has appeal to poor kids, because all the resource constraints just don't exist. Scripts don't wear out and break.

Getting back to me, I'm not entirely sure where I fit. I imagine that learning BASIC at the Champaign Park District's computer lab is pretty different from learning cgi-bin scripts from time stolen from an Internet cafe in Nicaragua. Or so I imagine.
Playing right now: "The way we are", by the Cure. Here is the source for the lyrics.
I actually do have an income now---I'm even landed gentry---and am a pretty long way from when I first gained popluarity in my fourth grade class because I found out how to change the cursor on the TRS-80 to a rocket. The experience of trying to feed a family by starting a tech-oriented company is one I've never had.

And why do I insist on talking about software? What do I know about the provision of drugs or the building of factories? I always made fun of academics whose topics of interest are wholly predicted by a few life experiences. There was the woman who studied migration between Sierra Leone and southern France; you'll never guess where her family was from (hint: two places, actually). But I'm even more wary of those who write about those things they have no experience in at all. Me, I can barely build up interest in my own problems, let alone those of people whose lives I can only vaguely imagine. I can write up theoretical models all day long, but whether I can breathe life into them when it's not something I've lived myself is another question.
[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

08 November 05. Matching, failures of

If I were ever to write a comedy, it would be about finding roommates. It's the perfect setup: a long string of mismatched characters show up at your house and try to impress you with how well-matched they actually are. Hilarity ensues. If I did write the script, I wouldn't actually have to write in the sense of inventing original content, but would just take a transcript.

[Applicant is a white female, maybe 27. People passing in and out while I was interviewing her insisted that she was trying to flirt with me, but I missed it entirely.]
Me: So, what was your worst roommate experience?
Her: Well, there was this guy, I mean, he was nice enough most of the time, but sometimes he would just seriously lose his temper. He's just all-out yell at the TV during sports. Sometimes when we told him to wash the dishes he'd left in the sink for a month, he would throw things.
Me: I can see how that would be pretty unpleasant.
Her: Well, it got unsafe sometimes too. We were right by a Chili's, and sometimes people would park in his space. He'd leave them a note to come to his apartment. So people would come up to our address—_my_ address, and he'd tell them that they owed him fifty bucks an hour for parking in his spot.
Me: People would actually go to an address posted on their windshield?
Her: Yeah, so I have this not-so-bright person standing at my door, yelling at my roommate, and my roommate is yelling back, and you can imagine I'm a little scared.
Me: Yeah, this guy's gotta go. How long were you with this ass?
Her: Um, three years. [commences sobbing.]

[Applicant is a white male, about 20. His phone message turned us off, because he sounded like the perfect stereotype of the stoner.
Him: Yeah, um, I saw your roommate wanted ad. [pause] So, um, is that still open, `cause, uh, I'm lookin' for a place. [pause] Gimme a call, at [phone number].
We didn't call back. Fortunately, he left a message again. The third time, I picked up, because we were expecting Thai food and it could have been a lost delivery guy. Within five minutes of giving applicant our address, he was at the door.]
Me: So what brings you to sunny LA?
Him: Well, my wife and I left our apartment in Seattle last month, because, uh, our roommate was a heroin addict and he kept stealing—I mean, that's not us, and our landlord can give you a pretty good recommendation. We're clean. [pause] But our roommate was pretty bad.
Me: Your wife? You seem pretty young.
Him: Yeah, well, we found out that she's pregnant a few months ago.
Me: Would she be moving in with you?
Him: Uh. [Pause] No. Now she's at her parents' house in Las Vegas, and I'm here in LA, y'know, trying to find a job and an apartment. I guess she'd mostly be living there.
Me: How's the job search going?
Him: Well, I just got back from a job interview for a manager position at the Barnes and Noble. Yeah.
Me: That's the sort of thing you were doing in Seattle?
Him: No, but the interview went pretty well.
[Rustling at the door. The Thai food arrives and various roommates begin laying out containers on the table by the kitchen.]
Me: Well, I guess I'll let you know about things. Good luck getting things together with your wife and all. I wish I could help you out more.
Him: OK, thanks.
[He stands up, and sort of inspects the Thai food. He lingers a little.]
Me: Um, would you like some drunken noodles?
Him: Yeah, I haven't eaten all day!
[I'm not sure how this one ends, but it took under an hour to get him out of the house. I did feel bad for the guy, but there was no way he was going to be our roommate.]

Leave your own in the comments, people, because I know each and every one of you has a story that can top these.

[link][3 comments]

on Tuesday, November 8th, MK said

Applicant (MM) is 24, male, everything was going fine but when I showed him the room it went something like this--
MM: Hmm, this might do.
MK: What's wrong?
MM: Well there's not really so much wallspace.
MK: (Stunned into stupidity) What, do you paint murals?
MM: No, it's just that I've got a lot of re-CORDS.
[And he said it just like that, emphasis on CORDS, because, see, he had just earned a master's from LSE and we all know that in nine months' time naturally you acquire the poshest of London accents. For a while I avoided Sparky's because every time I went there I ran into this kid and he was cold whenever I approached him; now we just pointedly ignore each other.]

Then there's the all-about-me DNC campaign coordination assistant, male, 22-going-on-12. He asked _me_ to call _him_ to remind him of our appointment and was still forty-five minutes late. At the door he says, "I know it's a three-month sublet, but I'll only be here for two months, and I can't pay rent for the third. Sorry." He goes on to tell me that his job is "really important" so he wouldn't be able to help with chores. Ever. And I think my favorite, chatting in the living room, he tells me he does not have any furniture, points to the futon I'm sitting on and asks, "Hey, is anyone using that?"

on Tuesday, November 8th, Ms. DH of Ann Arbor said

It's late Fall 2000. He applies for our room on Park Rd in Mt Pleasant. It's a beautiful victorian row house. We have maybe 70 people call about the room in the first week and decide to hold a huge open house. He comes in. He has brown curly hair. Very relaxed. Very. I mean this is DC, Lots of people came in presenting themselves as "hipsters" but the dilligence and nerdiness of those post-ivy non-profit/ think tank/ do gooder kids shone right through their long sleved t-shirts underneath hip baseball t's. But not this one. He was chill to the core. No 4.0 Yale Political Science major hidden underneath his now-liberated urban self. "What do you do?" "Oh I walk dogs." "That's it? You can make rent walking dogs?" "Hell yeah. There's so many rich people in this city, you wouldn't believe what you can get for walkingone dog. And I have a few regular clients."... and the conversation continues about what he likes about Mt. Pleasant etc etc. I vote for the DAI research assistant. My rommates vote for Mr. Chill.

One month later my potter's weel arrives from home. Uncrating it with a crowbar he asks, "can I have a go at that?" and tears into it like that crate was the most vile creature on this earth. Another month passes. Our sandwich baggies disappear. Another month passes and people are coming into and out of our house 1 AM, 2AM. They go up to his room, talk for a minute and rapidly leave. More baggies disappear. We call a house meeting. We decide he has to go. We tell him he has 2 weeks. It's one night after the ''eviction.'' It's 12 AM and I'm walking home from the office where I was studying for calculus. The road has a long curve along an elevated sidewalk. The perspective is strange as you walk down the road. I see a fire truck parked. Is that our house? Nah that can't be our house. Wait, no that is my house. It's parked in front of my house. Wait, smoke? Is that smoke coming out of our windows? Are those my roommates in front of my house? "Hey Debra. Can you believe? That fucker burnt down the house?!? He burnt it down?!?" And so I moved into a studio.

on Tuesday, November 15th, ds said

was i interviewed?

and i passed ?

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

04 August 06. The Pitchfork T-shirt Festival

[PDF version]

The Great American Novel
The best starting point for a discussion of hipsterwear would be Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. For those who haven't read it, the book is a road trip story, about a man and the 12-year old girl to whom he is a guardian. To research it, Nabokov traveled across America, collecting butterflies along the way. He himself is a Russian of the old world tradition of reading obscure literature and oozing erudition. Literary scholars can take the book as a puzzle, what with all those obscure references to obscure literature. The rest of us can take it as a catalog of Americana:

We inspected the world's largest stalagmite in a cave where three southeastern states have a family reunion ... A granite obelisk commemorating the Battle of Blue Licks, with old bones and Indian pottery in the museum nearby ... The present log cabin boldly simulating the past log cabin where Lincoln was born ... a collection of European hotel picture post cards in a museum devoted to hobbies at a Mississippi resort ... Collections of frontier lore. ... and Abilene, Kansas, the home of the Wild Bill Something Rodeo. ... Always the same three old men, in hats and suspenders, idling away the summer afternoon under the trees near the public fountain. ... Indian ceremonial dances, strictly commercial. ART: American Refrigerator Transit Company. ... A winery in California, with a church built in the shape of a wine barrel. ... A man having a lavish epileptic fit on the ground in Russian Gulch State Park. ... A chateau built by a French marquess in N.D. The Corn Palace in S.D.; and the huge heads of presidents carved in towering granite. ... A zoo in Indiana where a large troop of monkeys lived on concrete replica of Christopher Columbus' flagship. ... Lincoln's home, largely spurious, with parlor books and period furniture that most visitors reverently accepted as personal belongings.

[from Lolita, part two, chapter two]

So picture Vladimir Nabokov standing before the Corn Palace. Is he merely admiring the architecture with innocent awe? Does he approach it as a hick attempt at splendor, with a touch of disdain and superiority? Is it merely an intellectual curiosity to be cataloged for future use? Is this his form of expressing admiration at a world filled with quirks?

Anyway, on to the the Pitchfork Music Festival. It was great: the bands were all pretty good, I got to see Wilco's drummer do a drum kit interpretation of the Balinese epic of the monkey, the non-music parts of the festival (nonprofit booths, food, trees) were all pleasant, and the people-watching was amazing. After all, indie rock kids have the highest proportion of tattoos and amusing t-shirts per capita.

Hipster t-shirts are typically billed as `ironic'. I put that in what are called `irony quotes' because they are frequently not actually ironic like an O. Henry story, but just sarcastic. These folks are all collegiate, and generally an urban-oriented bunch, so we can ask the same question we asked for Nabokov, without the literary genius part: how do these well-educated individuals relate to working-class and rural institutions?

From here, I hoped to get a little more quantitative. How many people really were wearing such sarcastic shirts? Can I determine sentiment from the shirt? I wrote down as many shirts as I could recognize, probably about 150 total. Since a great number of people were in blank t-shirts or other non-t-shirt apparel, this was a less-than-trivial sample of the audience's messages. [Interested parties may inquire about the full inventory.]

Sports jerseys
These are the t-shirts with a big number on the back and a team name on the front, and were by far the most common category of shirt. It is likely that many of these were `ironic', in that the bearer wasn't really on the St. Vincent softball team.

The big winner among recognizable national teams was Brazil's futbol team, which scored four supporters, beating out the Irish for coolest nationality status. This may partly be because Os Mutantes, a Brazilian band from the 70s, was the headliner on the bill. [Incidentally, they rocked.]

Band shirts
The next most common category. We can divide these into world-famous bands (Pink Floyd (4) and Rolling Stones (2)), indie-famous bands (Wilco (4), Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! (2), Ben Folds Five), and the wearer's personal faves (Flow Suicide Stimulus, Black Keys, Futureheads, Inferno, Red Five (which is also a Star Wars reference)).

Location markers
Like sports jerseys, the thrift store is full of these. They are almost certainly worn `ironically'. The Colorado flag. Washington, DC (3). Ten Mile Lake. Great Lakes (with an abstract mountain and sunset theme). Mississippi (picture of fish). Virginia is for Lovers. Nabokov could have done his research just wandering the average hipster hangout.

Abstract designs
Two categories had a strong showing, the first being girls' shirts which were mostly blank with an abstract design at the wearer's lower left. I was amused that there was such consistency, which gave me the impression of a fashionista conference that voted on it. The other category were silhouettes of animals, mostly birds and deer. As a category, this was the overall winner with ten or so, but they were diverse designers and critters.

Local shirts
Few as well. I believe the Chicago Reader was handing out shirts and bandannas, so it scored well. I spotted one TMLMTBGB (Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, local neofuturist theatre) shirt, but that's as much a hipper-than-thou thing as it is a local organization. Goose Island Brewery, also hip and local (2). If there were local Chicago bands, I'd have trouble recognizing them.

Political shirts
I counted three. Maybe it's just outrage fatigue, but Dubya had a weak showing.

Attempts at humor
Actual attempts to be funny are not hip. Too Hot Topic. But let me repeat a few for you so you can get the quarter-chuckle these shirts are worth:
Ninja, Please!
Vote for Jesus
Shakespeare got to get paid, son
A trompe l'oeil shirt of a pocket holding a banana.

Better are the semi-weird vaguely humorous one, such as:
Plate of spaghetti, cowboy sitting on top, using a strand as a lasso
Computers are fun and useful
A Mexican wrestler yelling “Escuche”

`Ironic' shirts
Finally, we get to the kitsch, irony, or sarcasm. The winner in this category, with an amazing four shirts, was the worn shirt with an airbrushed cat or tiger. Other kitsch items included shirts for the St Louis Girl Scout Council (on a boy), United States savings bonds, and Westerville Parks and Recreation.

Shirts directly referencing solidarity with the laboring class (a pose originated by Bertold Brecht, I am told) were barely to be found: I counted one Teamster's local shirt, and that's about it unless you want to count the Pabst Blue Ribbon and the Old Style shirts. So for almost all cases, the class warfare story often given with regards to trucker's caps doesn't work.

So I'm stuck again about what message these shirts, and some of the above categories like the tourist locale shirts, are attempting to send. Perhaps the main message is merely `I bought this at a thrift store', which translates to `I buck the fashion mainstream--in exactly the same manner as everybody else'. Perhaps it is merely an aggregation of quirks.

But in some cases, I don't see a love of quirk, but something more negative. Consider how an interaction between a hipster guy wearing an airbrushed cat shirt and a woman wearing her crisp new airbrushed cat would play out. The girl would probably be offended, and the boy would probably not want to continue the conversation. There's no innocent admiration of simple fun as Nabokov may or may not have had, no wannabe attempts to be a working-class Joe like Brecht, but simple mocking. Fortunately, shirts with an obvious mocking tone were a minority.

The t-shirt world is delightfully fragmented. The dominance of `ironic' shirts a few years ago has diminished, I like to think because they are mean-spirited and ham-fisted, but who knows. Things look a little more like the t-shirts of old, when people just wore whatever they happened to get from the kickball team (2) or logos for things that they actually like. I personally like the animal silhouettes as well, harking back to our simple associations with deer and birds.

Personal PS: On day one of the festival, I wore a t-shirt for the Valois Cafeteria, a place on the South Side of Chicago that is famous for its motto: See Your Food. The second day, I wore a shirt with the logo for Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical. I've been a happy consumer of both, and willingly endorse them both for their own sakes. I have a long story behind both of them, and both started brief conversations at the show. Of course, we can only guess at the personal stories behind the t-shirts listed above.

[link][5 comments]

on Saturday, August 5th, Ms MKW of Washington, DC said

'I bought this at a thrift store' or 'I bought this from a boutique aping the thrift store aesthetic'? Cool article.

Also, my friend on turning communist pinnacle into capitalist cog.

I admit to donating my Tennessee Girls State t-shirt to an ironic hipster boy at college. He was collecting all fifty states.

on Saturday, August 5th, ds said

good study, good findings, and good to hear 'ironic' dominance is waning. and good assessment of why they suck (ham-fisted, tru). but don't be too quick to judge- i have a shirt (Armstrong Tires) that would probably qualify .. that i pretty much just wear b/c i like the way it looks. no major ironic intent - or at least not too mean spirited - i dont think ..

on Sunday, August 6th, the author said

Gee, ds, I'm not quite sure what it says about me that `it looks nice' didn't even cross my mind as a possible motivation for wearing an article of clothing.

on Monday, August 7th, Miss ALS of San Diego, of course said

Okay, the shirts supposed to elicit a "quarter-chuckle" out of me, really got a guffaw. enough so that the kids in my hall had to ask me what I was laughing about. i knew they weren't prolly that funny, but that i am a freak, and think that "shakespeare got to get paid, son", and "ninja, please!" are the funniest things i've seen on my screen all day.

yes, people actually wear clothes they think look nice...kinda amazing, i know, my schlumpy genius. i like old t-shirts 'cause they're soft.
oh, and people that shop at those hipster boutiques are just plain morons--and, further, are encouraging boutiques to go and root out all of the fun clothing from the thrift stores,and re-sell the articles at a 1000% mark-up. I'd much rather put in the twenty minutes at the thrift store and pay a dollar for my clothing.

but we've had this discussion before on why people like to look homeless/like they shop solely at thrift stores--it imbues with the "struggling artist" look which is always the rage.

on Wednesday, August 16th, Matt F said

I was actually wearing a DC shirt non-ironically at the festival. I live in DC, and a bunch of us drove out for the weekend (a rather long drive, as it turns out). I'm also a mildly rabid DC booster, so the wearing of it was in earnest.

I think ironic location shirts are more likely to be from tiny towns that no one's ever heard of, or that have funny names.

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

04 October 06. DJ Spinoza

[PDF version]

I used to have arguments with some economists about how one would model people of limited rationality. The economists in question assumed that because you can't work out what somebody smarter than you is thinking (otherwise you'd be that smart), your mental model of other people's minds must be that they're either as smart as you or less so. If I can think forward three moves in Chess, I must assume that everybody else thinks ahead three or fewer moves. But this is often not the case: Kasparov can play against Deep Blue, and he knows that Deep Blue is looking further ahead.

But the question of what Kasparov is thinking remains. He is not just assuming that Deep Blue is exactly as smart as he is, but has to take some sort of action knowing that he doesn't know enough. If I were Kasparov, and I'm guessing that you're with me on this to some extent, I'd just put Deep Blue out of my head and try to play the best darn Chess game I can. Anyway, there's no point guessing what Deep Blue is thinking because a computer doesn't really think in any human sense of the term.

On to Theology
My premise for all theological questions is this: we are dumb.

Our senses are crappy, our brains are in some ways impressive but easily screw up when adding a column of numbers, and as a collective we can barely get bond referenda passed. And with these string-and-duct-tape tools, we're supposed to develop an understanding of the motivations and underlying machinery of our existence and our surroundings.

Premise D (we are dumb) takes seriously the standard claim that the average theologian gives about how ” is infinite and incomprehensible. To some extent, this is axiomatic--no, wait, it isn't. Baruch Spinoza derived it from other axioms over several steps in his Ethics. The most famous snippet from the Ethics is a proof that, for appropriate definitions of God and Nature, God and Nature are identical.

Baruch basically cut to the chase on the Socratic approach. Socrates was famous for asking people to motivate their motivations. E.g., “You're a baker? Why? You like giving people good food, why? Why do you like to see other people happy?” The other party would eventually break down into confessing that he or she has no idea what their underlying motivations are, and the whole thing was eventually resolved by putting Socrates to death. Spinoza's treatise skipped the endless questions and posited that there is something that is the fundamental cause of all things, which itself has no prior cause. Let this fundamental cause be represented by the term God.

The trouble with infinite and incomprehensible
So if this God substance is infinite and incomprehensible, and by Spinoza's definition can not be explained via other elements, then it's basically impossible for losers like us to understand His/Her/Its internal motivations.

The easy course is to posit that there's some Guy who has created us all, whom we look like, and who is generally like we are, but generally wiser. The same people who say that their deity is incomprehensible and infinite are happy to put a face and a beard and simple human motivations on the guy. Taking a line from Spinoza's Ethics, “[...] those who confuse the two natures, divine and human, readily attribute human passions to the deity [...]”

The White Beard story is an attempt to get around the premise that we have cognitive abilities on a too-piddling scale to get any of this. By positing a deity who is just like we are but cooler, we can apply all of our quotidian reasoning. We can take the standard story (bad person does bad things, good person does good things, events happen, and in the end bad person is punished and good person rewarded) and apply it on the cosmic scale to grand questions of the human condition and such. It's really easy, but it throws out infinite and incomprehensible, and flies in the face of Premise D.

The basis of the White Beard story is Genesis 1:27, about how man was made in His image, which by the most literal interpretation possible means that the eternal creator of the universe has arms, legs, lungs that breathe sea-level air, et cetera. Maimonides takes this non-literally to mean that Man has an intellect that can conceive of things and then build them; others similarly take verse 27 to indicate that there are divine characteristics that Man has that dirt and trees don't have.[Spinoza, for his part, will have none of it: “For intellect and will, which should constitute the essence of God, ...would have nothing in common with [the human intellect and will] but the name; there would be about as much correspondence between the two as there is between the Dog, the heavenly constellation, and a dog, an animal that barks.”]

Frankly, HP Lovecraft probably did a better job of picturing the infinite and incomprehensible than the the best of the White Beard storytellers. Lovecraft's monsters were gigantic, barely describable in human terms, had absolutely no motivation that the narrators could work out, and made the trees sway without wind.

Atheism? Also ignores Premise D, but in a different way, saying `I can't imagine anything on a theological scale beyond the White Beard stories, so I'll assume away the problem by stating with confidence that there's nothing there.' It's like Kasparov insisting that, since he can't prove anything about his opponent, the pieces must be moving of their own accord.

No, Premise D does not imply Nihilism, nor does it imply Agnosticism. Nihilism would say `I know there is nothing beyond what I see', which I take as overconfident; Agnosticism would say `I don't know', which I take as underconfident. Here, I am saying `I am absolutely certain that I have no clue'.

My position raises the hard questions that Nihilism, Atheism, and company all raise: if there's no Guy With White Beard telling you what to do, how do you develop your ethics? How do I draw a chain from the substance that has no predecessor and motivates all else to what I should have for lunch?

Nobody takes the approach of having no ethics at all. Even Objectivists have certain principles of what is Good. Some take a minimal-regret approach--Pascal's wager, presuming that you may as well behave as if the White Beard story is true, because there's some chance that it really is. Nobody takes this to its logical extreme, which would be to simultaneously subscribe to multiple, contradictory religions, just in case it's not Jehovah, but Oshun or Vishnu that wins you the jackpot. My own approach has been more along the intersection of the various religions of the world, which all have a few principles of trying to be nice to each other, and leaving it at that. This is frankly as much a cop-out as any other approach.

We find failures of Premise D among many of the world's leaders, for millennia. It is almost requisite. Any leader has to convince his/her/its followers that the leader knows more, is wiser, or is otherwise more capable than the followers--and no better way to do that than to claim that you've got a hot-line to the Heavens. This is nothing new to you, and you are well-aware that all of human history including the present is filled with people who claimed to have found a loophole in Premise D who then beat up on other people who made the same claim.

As you are no doubt aware, Spinoza's writings produced all sorts of annoyance among the powers-that-be, and led to Spinoza's excommunication. [See Wikipedia.] But hey, he did better than Socrates did when he called people out on their ignorance and the arbitrary nature of their social and private existence. The lesson from these lives is that the harshest possible critique is not `you are wrong' but `there is no right answer.'

Relevant previous entries:
The one about how Jewish theology generally does better with Premise D than most
The one about the never-ending Christian-Muslim war
The one about how academics handle uncertainty (and businessmen don't)

[link][a comment]

on Thursday, October 5th, Miss ALS of San Diego said

An excellent post.

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

28 October 06. Peanut sauce

[PDF version]

  • half a jar of peanut butter
  • soy milk
  • red pepper to taste; maybe some ginger sauce

Pour soy milk and optional spices into peanut butter jar, screw lid on tightly, and shake vigorously.

Sample usage:

  • pasta
  • soy sauce
  • sesame seeds--white and black

I'm not entirely sure of the difference between pasta in the packaging with the colors of the Italian flag and the peasant woman carrying wheat, and the pasta in the packaging with Japanese text on it and a delighted-looking cartoon girl. They're both about a buck, take seven minutes to cook, and are entirely wheat plus water. Trader Joe makes a curry noodle that goes very well with this peanut sauce.

Anyway, throw out the wrapper and you won't have to worry about the implied ethnicity of your pasta. Cook pasta as normal, stir in the peanut sauce, add soy sauce to taste, top with sesame seeds, serve.

Asst notes:

You can mix the soy sauce into the recipe above, but I like to give the user the option of adding more or less.

If you haven't worked it out yet, never buy spices from a place that calls itself a supermarket. Enough black and white sesame seeds for thirty servings is three bucks at any shop in Chinatown, and about ten at the supermarket.

Since soy milk requires refrigeration, so does this sauce. It thickens in the fridge.

Thanks to Ms ABR of Washington, Columbia for helpful additions.

[link][a comment]

on Wednesday, November 8th, Spoofy said

This sauce is super yummy. I recommend adding broccoli (thrown into the boiling pasta water). Tasty treat, good to eat.

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

06 June 07. Here comes the ocean, and the global climate change

[PDF version]

Today's brief guest blog, in interview form, is with an oceanographer who works with a certain climate-tracking agency for a certain large government. In the spirit of not getting fired, she asked that I refer to her as missmeridian. This will make it hard for you to track down her credentials, so you'll have to take my word for it that when people say `we should only listen to scientists who study climate change regarding climate change issues,' they mean we need more people like missmeridian.

The context is in how we understand carbon exchange. For example, there are the carbon offset credits that hipsters are buying, and other situations where people characterize Global Warming as a simple stock and flow model: carbon comes out of our tailpipes, floats around in the air, and eventually dissipates or is eaten by trees. Temperature is just an increasing function of carbon stock.

This makes basic sense, is easy to comprehend, and is basically wrong. Missmeridian points out that the oceans are a major destination for our tailpipes' carbon, but even that isn't so simple.

MM: The rate at which oceans suck up carbon varies over time and space. The southern ocean is net suck in the summer, the equatorial Pacific is balanced unless under el niño, the north Atlantic is net suck in the spring. Search for “ocean carbon flux” for details.

B: Is it ever the case that oceans dump more carbon into the atmosphere than they absorb?

MM: Yes. Late fall is famous for that. Sunlight is decreasing at an increasing rate, and faster than temperature is cooling (due to magical properties of water). So you have heterotrophs (= not plants) eating a decreasing stock and exhaling lots of carbon. Also, several large portions of the ocean go hypoxic [oxygen deficient] in the subsurface at various times during the year (i.e. Arabian Sea during the monsoon)--this is very complicated, but basically you get a huge bloom that is eaten so fast it pulls all the oxygen out of the water column, and all that plant biomass is turned into carbon dioxide very quickly.

Also keep in mind that carbon sucked into the ocean isn't removed from play until it is exported to depth (ie under a layer that does not ventilate to the surface on the scale of centuries). Export in the dissolved phase is controversial. Particulate export is much better understood, and is pretty small: only, say, 1% of a surface bloom reaches the bottom intact in that season.

So 99% is converted to either dissolved organic carbon or gaseous carbon dioxide. The gas part may or may not enter the atmosphere depending on the temperature, solubility, partial pressure, etc.; and the dissolved part may eventually be turned into gas, or may just stick around as stale, inedible carbon for centuries.

B: So if we dump a megaton of carbon into the air, is is possible that next year that would turn into 1.2 megatons, or are we guaranteed that some percentage will get sucked into the oceans, leaving .8 megatons?

The carbon flux is ultimately controlled by the quantity and ratio of nitrogen and phosphorus in the deep ocean, which is constant over century scales (this is because biomass [sugars, proteins, DNA] grows in a mostly fixed ratio of C:N:P [carbon:nitrogen:phosphorous], which is usually 106:16:1 [the Redfield ratio]). Greater than millennial variation is possible, but not well understood. So, on a year to year basis, the ocean is in steady state with respect to C:N:P. The most likely candidate for throwing that out of whack is temperature, which controls the solubility of gases in water. See the “southern ocean iron experiment” (sofex), iron experiments 1 and 2 (ironexI, ironexII) and the “southern ocean iron enrichment experiment” (soiree) for studies that measurably altered the carbon flux. Note that these increased photosynthesis in the ocean--the atmosphere was not manipulated. I don't think anyone's done that, mostly because the ocean-atmosphere carbon flux is so delightfully governed by gas chemistry--it's difficult to squeeze a gas into a liquid.

B: You've mentioned (in prior correspondence) that the term Global Warming is misleading, because some parts of the world will get colder. Do you have any readings on why Europe would get colder with climate change?

Readings: look up “western antarctic ice sheet (wais)” and “global ocean conveyor belt” or “global ocean deep circulation.” Basically, warming (global or local) causes the ice sheet to fall into the ocean, turns off deep circulation, which is what drives the gulf stream, which is what transfers Caribbean heat to northern Eurasia. Europe freezes.

[link][no comments]

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

12 June 07. Your genetic data

[PDF version]

[Or, The ethical implications of SQL.]

Our paper on the genetic causes of bipolar disorder finally came out last week. The lead author has repeatedly said things like `we really couldn't have done it without you,' though, to tell ya the truth, I have only a limited grasp of the paper's results, and have been unable to read it through, due to my lack of background in the world of genetics and biology in general. Fortunately, there have been press releases and a few articles to explain my paper to me.

The tools of the data processing field known as Biology
Figure One: The tools of the data processing field known as Biology

The figure explains how this is all possible. It is what a genetics lab looks like. That's a work bench, like the ones upon which thousands of pipettes have squirted millions of liters of fluid in the past. But you can see that it is now taken up by a big blue box, which hooks up to a PC. Some of these big boxes use a parallel port (like an old printer) and some run via USB (like your ventilator or toothbrush). The researcher puts processed genetic material in on the side facing you in the photo, onto a tray that was clearly a CD-ROM drive in a past life. Then the internal LASER scans the material and outputs about half a million genetic markers to a plain text file on the PC.

I know I'm not the first to point this out, but the study of human health is increasingly a data processing problem. My complete ignorance regarding all things biological wasn't an issue, as long as I knew how to read a text file into a database and run statistical tests therefrom.

Implication one: Research methods
We are in the midst of a jump in how research is done. Historically, the problem has been to find enough data to say something. One guy had to sail to the Galapagos Islands, others used to wait for somebody to die so they could do dissections, and endless clinical researchers today post ads on bulletin boards offering a few bucks if you'll swallow the blue pill.

But now we have exactly the opposite problem: I've got 18 million data points, and the research consists of paring that down to one confident statement. In a decade or so, we went from grasping at straws to having a haystack to sift through.

As I understand it, the technology is not quite there yet. There's a specific protocol for drawing blood that every nurse practitioner knows by heart, and another protocol for breaking that blood down to every little subpart. We have protocols for gathering genetic data, but don't yet have reliable and standardized schemes for extracting information from it.

When we do have such a protocol--and it's plausible that we soon will--that's when the party starts.

Implication two: Pathways
If you remember as much high school biology as I do, then you know that a gene is translated in human cells into a set of proteins that then go off and do some specific something (sometimes several specific somethings).

So if you know that a certain gene is linked to a certain disorder, then you know that there is an entire pathway linked to that disorder, and you now have several points where you could potentially break the chain. Or at least, that's how it'd work in theory. Again, there's no set protocol. There are many ways to discover the mechanism of a disorder, but the genetic root is the big fat hint that can make it all come together right quick.

Then the drug companies go off and develop a chemical that breaks that chain, and perhaps make a few million per year in the process.

Implication three: Free will versus determinism
One person I talked to about the search for genetic causes thought it was all a conspiracy. If there's a genetic cause for mental illness, then that means that it's not the sufferer's fault or responsibility. Instead of striving to improve themselves, they should just take a drug. And so, these genetic studies are elaborate drug-company advertising.

From my casual experience talking to folks about it, I find that this sort of attitude is especially common regarding psychological disorders. See, every organ in the human body is susceptible to misfiring and defects--except the brain, which is created in the image of '', and is always perfect.

Annoyed sarcasm aside, psychological disorders are hard to diagnose, and there's a history of truly appalling abuse, such as lobotomies for ill behavior, giving women hysterectomies to cure their hysteria, the sort of stories that made One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest plausible, &c. Further, there are often people who have no physiological defect in their brains, but still suffer depression or other mood disorders. They get some sun, do some yoga, and everything works out for them.

But none of that means that the brain can not have defects, and that those defects can not be treated.

The problem is that our ability to diagnose is falling behind our ability to cure. We know that certain depressives respond positively to lithium carbonate, Prozac, Lexapro, Wellbutrin, Ritalin, Synthroid, and I don't know today's chemical of the month. But we still don't have a system to determine which are the need-of-drugs depressives and which are the get-some-sun depressives.

Or to give a physical example, we don't know which obese individuals have problems because of genetic barriers and which just need to eat less and exercise. It's only harder because, like the brain, the metabolism is an adaptive system that can be conditioned for the better or for the worse, confounding diagnosis. Frequently, it's both behavior and genetics, albeit sometimes 90% behavior and sometimes 90% genes.

A genetic cause provides genetic tests. If we have a drug based on a genetic pathway, as opposed to a drug like Prozac that just seemed to perk people up, we can look for the presence or absence of that genetic configuration in a given individual. This ain't a silver bullet that will sort people perfectly (if that's possible at all), but having a partial test corresponding to each treatment is already well beyond the DSM checklists we're stuck with now.

Implication four: Eugenics
We can test for genetics not only among adults and children, but even fetuses. On one small survey, five out of 76 British ethics committee members (6.6%) “thought that screening for red hair and freckles (with a view to termination) was acceptable.”citation

Fœtal gene screens to determine Down syndrome or other life-changing conditions are common, and 92% of fetuses that return positive for the test for Down Syndrome are aborted [1].

Biology has an embarrassing past in eugenics. And we're not just talking about the Nazis--the USA has a proud history of eugenics to go along with its proud history of hating immigrants (I mean recent immigrants, not the ones from fifty years ago, who are all swell). My above-mentioned lead author refers me to this article on eugenics, and having read it I too recommend the first 80%.

If I may resort to a dictionary definition, the OED tells us that eugenics is the science “pertaining or adapted to the production of fine offspring, esp. in the human race.” In the past, that meant killing parents who turned out badly in life or had big noses, but hi-tech now allows us to go straight to getting rid of the offspring before anybody has put in too heavy an investment.

Anyway, I won't go further with this, but to point out that what we'll do with all this fœtal genetic info is an open question--and a loaded one, since the only choices with a fœtus are basically carry to term or abort. The consensus seems to be that aborting due to Down syndrome is OK and aborting due to red hair is not, but there's a whole range in between. If you know your child has a near-certain chance of getting Alzheimer's 80 years after birth, would you abort? This Congressional testimony approximately asks this question.

Implication five: the ethics of information aggregation
This is also well-trodden turf, so I'll be brief:

It is annoying and stupid that every time you show up at the doctor's office, the full-time paperwork person hands you a clipboard with eight papers, each of which asks your name, full address, and Social Security Number. By the seventh page, I sometimes write my address as “See previous pp” but they don't take kindly to that, because each page goes in a different filing cabinet.

You may recall Sebadoh's song on data and database management: “You can never be too pure/ or too connected.” If all of your information is in one place, either on your magical RF-enabled telephone or somewhere in the amorphousness of the web, then that's less time everybody wastes filling in papers and then re-filling them in when the bureaucrat mis-keys everything. I have a FOAF whose immigration paperwork was delayed for a week or two because somebody spelled her name wrong on a form.

Having all of your information in one place makes it easier for people to violate your privacy and security. As advertisers put it, it makes it easier to offer you goods and services better attuned to your lifestyle, which is the nice way of saying `violate your privacy'. It means more things they can do to you on routine traffic stops.

The data consolidation=efficiency side is directly opposed to the data disaggregation=privacy side. There is no solution to this one, and both sides have their arguments. A prior entry discussed how information aggregation can lead to disaster, but we should bear in mind that the same technology discussed there made the innocuous and essential U.S. Census possible. The current compromise is to consolidate more and put more locks on the data, but that doesn't work very well in practice, as one breach anywhere can ruin the privacy side of the system.

Back to genetics, when we have a few more snips of information about what all those genes do, your genetic info will certainly be in your medical records. This is a good thing because it means that those who need to will be able to diagnose you more quickly and efficiently; it is a bad thing because those who don't need to know may also find a way to find out personal information about you.

At the moment, you can rely on the anonymity of being a needle in a haystack, the way that some people who live at the top of high rise buildings are comfortable walking around naked and with the curtains open--who's gonna bother to look? But as the tools and filters and databases become more sophisticated, the haystack may provide less and less cover.

So we're going to have a haystack of data about you (and your fœtus) right soon. Unfortunately, we don't quite yet know how to analyze, protect, or act on that haystack. I guess we'll work it out eventually.

[1] @article{mansfield:downs,
title = "Termination Rates After Prenatal Diagnosis of {D}own Syndrome, Spina Bifida, anencephaly, and {T}urner and {K}linefelter Syndromes: A Systematic Literature Review",
author = "Caroline Mansfield and Suellen Hopfer and Theresa M Marteau",
journal = "Prenatal diagnosis",
Volume=19, number=9 , pages="808-812",
url= here }

[link][a comment]

on Wednesday, June 13th, lead author said

Is this your best-referenced blog post ever?

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

10 January 08. On writing

[PDF version]

Today's artificial division of the world into two types: those who are productive because of constraints and those who are productive despite them.

As with any `two kinds of people in this world' distinction, it's artificial, but I'm gonna run with it anyway. My favorite distinction of this type is from Pink Flamingos: `There are two kinds of people in the world: my kind, and assholes.' That just sums up the worldview of so very many people.

Igor Stravinsky was decidedly on the side of constraints:

My freedom thus consists in moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further. My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit. (Stravinsky, 1942, p 65)
So Mr. Stravinsky works within certain forms, though you won't find many folks who would call him uncreative.

On the other end, you've got the joke about how Michelangelo carved David: he started with a block of marble, then chipped away all the parts of the block that don't look like David.

You could argue that the constraints are just a question of degree: Michelangelo still had the constraint of the limited tools and techniques he had on hand, and marble has certain properties that preclude some techniques that would be fine on other slabs. But for the length of this column, I'm standing by my arbitrary distinction. E.g., at the extremes, you start to see the differences in people's reactions. When you list a hundred considerations before anybody can do anything, some people get engaged and start exploring the possibilities and combinations and some get frustrated; when you present a blank piece of paper and say go, some people get flustered and some attack.

I used to play a lot of Chess--I won the junior division Chess championship at the Champaign Public Library--but quickly gave up on it, because playing the game stressed me out. When you set up a Chess board, 50% of the board is covered in pieces. The pawns are in front, which means that you have to get them out of the way before you can move the pieces you want to move. That is, Chess is a game of constraints. There are many shelves' worth of books on Chess openings, and you could read them as a catalog of constraints: if you move here, this constraints loosens, but this other constraint binds more tightly, whereas if you do this the situation is reversed.

So I still play Chess at about the level of a skilled fifth grader, and have since moved to playing Go. The full game is played on a 19-by-19 grid, which means that the first player can pick among 361 options, though there are only a hundred or two that are salient. The second player then has 360 choices for the response, and so on until a structure and its constraints emerge out of nothing. I won't claim to be more than an OK Go player, but I feel better playing it.

So I'm coming to a close on my second book. I have about a dozen pages that need a heap of research and rewriting, and then I can count the whole 450pp of it as done. That is, I'm in the endgame, where there is a structure and its attendant constraints--that I built for myself--and I have to work within them to solve problems. So I came over here and filled a blank screen with text.

But that's why I like writing, be it stupid columns like this, full books, or code. It's the process of building something out of nothing--creating meaning.

Just as a block of marble is not perfectly malleable, a blank screen is not entirely constraint-free, being that you need to fill it with some coherent sort of language (English, HTML, C, some combination thereof). Further, you need to accommodate the sort of constraints other humans impose. A theory of the audience's mind is absolutely essential for good writing--and good sculpting, good coding, and any other sort of filling of the blank slate. Unless you put “Dear Diary” at the top of the page, you'd better have something that other people find coherent and useful.

To formalize this, more or less every published work has a query letter attached, explaining who the audience will be for the book/article/whatever, and why the article will interest and serve that audience. When I'm in a bookstore, I often try to picture the query letter that was attached to any given book. “Dear Editor: I would like to propose to you a book entitled Dancing with Cats, which will consist of photos of people dancing with their cats. Although the cat photography market is crowded and demand is strong, I could not find a single book in which the cats were dancing.”

But anyway, watching things form is fun. My commute passes several construction projects, and I always stop watching the road for a block to see how much more things are taking shape today than they were the last time I passed by. Then they finally finish, and it's just another condo.

OK, The Form says that this is where I'd put a conclusion, which would say something like, `In conclusion, I like writing stuff. I like watching things form'. But instead, here's a picture of a row of Baltimore houses being torn down to build a hospital.

As promised, a row of Baltimore houses being torn down to build a hospital.
Figure one: Creating a blank slate.

Relevant previous entries:
A prior essay on writing: “Why I blog”

title = {Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons: The {C}harles {E}liot {N}orton Lectures},
author = {Igor Stravinsky},
year = {1942},
publisher = {Harvard University Press},

[link][2 comments]

on Wednesday, January 16th, a silly person said

The cat book!! Yay! hmm...I wonder where you saw that?

Dear Readers of this blog: I highly recommend two books, 1) by the above author, Modeling with Data, and; 2) Dancing with cats. Both will change your life.

I get a warm and snuggly feeling just thinking about it.

on Thursday, January 17th, Mike Stanich said

I have to say it. There are only 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don't.

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

20 February 08. NIH contracting: a how-to

[PDF version]

I did work on a contract basis for the NIH in early 2007, and got paid today. Over the year of trying to get compensation for my labor, I have learned a whole lot about the NIH's billing system. This column will share with you what I've learned, both because it offers some interesting points about bureaucracy in general and because those of you who got here via a search engine may be in a similar position and will benefit from what step-by-step instructions I could manufacture.

First, a useful vocabulary, attributed (I am told) to Mr L Lessig: East Coast law is the typical legal code that the US Congress comes up with. West Coast law is computer code: what the database is actually capable of doing.

The problem is that the two sometimes disagree: The US Code says that the database must do some trick, but the guys who wrote the database somehow failed to include that trick. In this case, West coast law wins.

The NIH's Office of Financial Management (OFM) recently installed a new database system, with the pathetically generic name of New Business System (NBS). The NBS has very limited abilities. For example, I was repeatedly told that the technicians using the system are unable to look up a contract by taxpayer ID or name. They can only look it up by contract number and invoice ID. This is the first hint of trouble.

When you get your contract, a portion of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) will be stapled to the contract. But to the extent that the NBS manual and the FAR disagree, the OFM exempts itself from the rules laid down in the FAR. The example of this that hit me hardest was that the FAR does not list an invoice number as required for a proper invoice, but as above, an invoice number is absolutely essential for the NBS to keep track of the invoice. Therefore, an invoice with no number at the top is an invalid invoice, even though it complies with the FAR. Why can't the data entry technician just make up a number? I have no idea--there's probably not a law about it given that the FAR doesn't require an invoice number to begin with--but you'll see that, as a matter of actual practice, the OFM's technicians have only two responses to an invoice: process it or reject it, and they are very inclined to reject.

To continue my personal anecdote, my un-numbered invoice was just thrown out. The FAR states that I must be notified if an invoice is invalid within seven days, but being that they just threw the invoice out, I wasn't notified until a lengthy drama that took four months. The FAR states that I am entitled to interest, being that their non-notification delayed the payment process, but since the NBS can't possibly track owed interest on an invoice that never got entered, I ain't never gonna see an interest payment.

This is very clearly a problem of East coast law versus West coast law, with a system that does not do a very good job of implementing the East coast law is it charged with executing. As above, where there is a discrepancy, OFM employees will cite their internal NBS manuals as the rules governing the contract, rather than the FAR. Too bad you don't have access to their internal manuals. I repeatedly asked several people for complete rules for invoice processing, and finally established that there is no such document.

But one thing is for certain: if you follow the invoicing instructions on your contract, you will not get paid. Instead, you need to comply with the unpublished rules of the internal system.

So, here are some notes and suggestions for those of you who are faced with the problem of receiving payment for a personal services-type contract with NIH:

  • Avoid being a contractor: Push for a part-time job of some sort. The normal payroll department is doing fine, and doesn't suffer the dysfunction that the contract invoice processing system has.
  • Bill immediately: Nothing in the FAR says you have to do the work before sending the invoice, and neither the FAR nor the NBS are looking for a signature of approval or other proof. So send the invoice the day you get your contract.
  • Bill for billing time: If they're going to make you do the OFM's job for it, you might as well bill them for it. I sincerely hope that it takes you less than the several work-days of effort it took me to get paid, but be prepared for such an outcome by marking your hours from the start--don't just assume you'll write one invoice in five minutes and be done with it. If that means you're a PhD electrogeneticist billing $300 an hour to do clerical work that a decently-programmed database could do, so be it.
  • Read the West Coast law: Here is the list of NIH billing rules that I was given. Note well that this requires much more information than the FAR requires, because it seems that NBS makes it impossible for the invoicing people to look this information up themselves. This is in no way a comprehensive set of rules: I've submitted invoices that complied with these rules but were rejected for other ad hoc reasons.
  • Do not mail your invoice: The FAR says you should just mail in your invoice and that's all you have to do. That is simply hopeless advice from the East Coast. My lab has transmitted many pieces of paper to the OFM's Commercial Accounts division which were never heard from again. Gosh, I have an invoice that was stamped as officially received and then thrown out. My own experience has been that items sent to no one in particular have good odds of being lost, but individuals are very good about responding to emails. [Many seem to just check their email once a day, but that's sufficient.]
  • It takes two people to process your invoice--find them: There is one person who does receiving, and another who does the billing. I'm not very clear on why these two people are necessary and what distinct things each does, but there you have it. Call your contracting officer--the one listed on the bottom of your contract--and ask them who does receiving on you contract. While you're there, if you don't know any information in the extensive list above (I still don't know what a 2-way or 3-way match is) then be sure to ask your contracting officer.
  • Get immediate feedback from Receiving: Email your invoice to the person your contract officer specified, and in your email, ask for immediate follow-up on whether there are problems with the invoice. This is a dialogue: expect something to be wrong, and expect to be asked to resubmit. If you only follow the eight mandatory steps in the FAR, you are guaranteed a rejection; if you follow the instructions in the PDF above, then maybe you have a chance that it will be accepted on the first try.
  • Get immediate feedback from Billing: You will have to wait a day or two, and then start calling the OFM's Commercial Accounts division and ask if your invoice has appeared in their system yet. They have a "Customer Service" line--the name mystifies me because I'm a semi-employee, not a customer--but that line is frequently very busy with people trying to work out why they're not getting paid. Expect to wait an hour on hold before talking to anybody, though you might get lucky and have a significantly shorter wait. Once you do get through, ask if the invoice has been processed. The fact that receiving was able to process your invoice is no proof that the Commercial Accounts people will give your invoice the time of day. If your invoice was not processed, then get the email address of the billing person you're on the phone with [hint: if you wrote it down wrong, check in the online directory] and begin the dialogue again: email them a new invoice immediately, wait for them to reject it, email a new one, repeat until the invoice is accepted. You may want to cc your receiving person.

So, that's the best I could work out from the process. Once you have both receiving and billing accepting your invoice, you are theoretically done: the NBS has digested your invoice and should therefore be able to send you a check or deposit. If it hasn't, well, I'm happy to say that I haven't explored that part of the system (yet).

[link][a comment]

on Sunday, February 24th, Ms. DH, formerly of Ann Arbor said

I'm working on a paper about this type of employment right now! In other countries, like Italy, the company purchasing your contracting services would be required to pay you at least monthly and you would be covered for some minimum benefits through the gov't. Your paperwork story is funny- but this sort of work bites benefits wise and isn't shown to work as a "foot in the door" either.

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

26 June 08. Data is typically not a plural

[PDF version]

When we learned all those darn grammatical exceptions, we were usually told that they came about in some distant past, due to some arcane relic of old Dutch or something. But here in the new millennium, we have the chance to witness the development of a new grammatical exception.

If this sounds boring, bear with me: by the end of the column, about 360,000 people will die over this corner of grammar.

See, English has the concept of a collective singular, wherein a group of elements is treated as a unit: e.g., that clump of birds is moving pretty fast. The new exception is that this concept can apply to any group of anything except data. The data shows a steep slope is considered incorrect by some, who prefer the data show a steep slope.

If you are one of the people who think that the data is is wrong, please stop.

Some examples
First, let us imagine a world where English grammar would require all groups to remain plural:

1. The agenda are on the table.
2. The trivia in this book are silly.
3. Steely Dan are playing at the pavillion.
4. The NIH owe me $12,000.
5. The U.S.A. are in a recession.

Agendum/agenda has the same Latin-based form as datum/data. Yet I have never heard a person who uses the data are use the agenda are.

Sentence #2 is the only one that is actually incorrect, due to the odd history of trivia. Here's the definition of trivium from the OED: in the Middle Ages, the lower division of the seven liberal arts, comprising grammar, rhetoric, and logic. That is, trivium was itself once a collective singular. The meaning evolved, and we can now group together a collective unit of facts about the trivium into bundles that are collectively a unit: trivia. In the present day, trivia is always a plural, because trivium refers not to individual facts but to the above fields of study. The singular of trivia is basically lost. And since I know you're gnawing to know, the other part of the seven liberal arts is the quadrivium: “the four mathematical sciences, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music”.

Bands and orchestras are a great example of the whole being more than its parts.

The acronym in number 4 expands to National Institutes of Health, and they do continue to “lose” my invoices as quickly as I can send them. Acronyms are a great way to cohere a plural into a singular.

The 360,000 casualties mentioned above come from #5: the question of whether the U.S.A. are or the U.S.A. is is the difference between a Confederacy and a Federation, and was basically resolved by a civil war. People fought and died over the question of whether a set of elements should be taken as separate elements or a unit, just a box of parts or a coherent whole.

More mundane examples still reveal different points of view. Both the flock of birds are flying and the flock of birds is flying are correct, but one or the other probably sounds off to you. Maybe you flinched when I wrote agendum/agenda has at the first bullet point above. Here, grammar is a window to the soul. I think that some people generally lean toward seeing the parts and some generally lean toward seeing the whole. Linguist readers are welcome to leave citations regarding my claim in the comments. In one case this difference in thinking led to a war, but in most cases it seems to just lead to people correcting other folks' grammar when the grammar really just reflects a difference in perception.

Oh, and hair is an interesting case: there's a form your hairs for a set of items that is not to be taken as a whole, and your hair referring to the whole mop on your head. It'd be great if we'd evolved more pairs like that, like maybe datums and data.

The math section
Let's get back to data, which is in the mathematical realm. Precision matters in math, and grammar needs to follow along. The sentence that set of numbers is even is incoherent: only the individual numbers can be even; a set can't be even. The sentence that set of numbers are dense1 is incoherent: only the set as a whole can be dense; individual numbers are not dense. We need both the set is and the set are in our grammar.

Similarly with data: sometimes we are looking at the gestalt, such as statistic like the estimates of a regression parameter; sometimes we are looking at the individual elements, such as when we point out that all the numbers are positive. The data are a matrix is incoherent: on the left-hand side of the are, we refer to a plural, while on the right-hand side, we're stating a singular; the sentence reduces to plural = singular. It's a perfect demonstration that the left-hand side is meant to be taken as a collective singular, as expressed perfectly by the data is a matrix.

Efforts have been made to base the entirety of mathematics on sets of objects; in a world where collections are central, we desperately need both the set of items is and the set of items are to function; the data is/the data are is just a synonym.

Why the new exception?
Disclaimer to Ms. LDWH of Princeton, PA: the following paragraph does not apply to you. I know you're just following the darn style guide.

So why are the agenda is and the set of elements is OK, while the data is is now considered to be wrong? I can't put this politely, but I get the vibe that the people who correct the data is are just trying to indicate smartness--and failing. The process is perfect for the person working too hard at smart: (1) Identify trivia: data is actually a plural, and has a Latin-sounding singular. (2) Payoff: feel smarter for knowing trivia. (3) Find somebody who seems to not seem to know your fact. (4) Big payoff: correct them!

Another of my pet peeves, which I've mentioned before, fits the same form: the use of methodology (the study of methods) as a synonym for method. Look at me! I used a five-syllable word! I think it's a synonym for a two syllable word, but I chose to use the longer word anyway!

But, as above, there are times when data is a pile of parts, and times when it has meaning only as a whole. In all sorts of situations, our brains are wired to sometimes see the parts and sometimes the whole, and there's no point starting wars with people who see things differently.


... dense1
Dense: between any two elements of a set, there is another element of a set. E.g., between the real number 1.1 and the real number 1.2, there is 1.15.

[link][4 comments]

on Friday, June 27th, techne said

What about the pronounciation??

on Sunday, June 29th, the author said

Oh, techne. Let's call the whole thing off.

Gershwin tunes aside, you do raise an interesting question, which I'll have to blog about later. It turns out that the question has its origins around 1100, when the first crusades were launched over a misunderstanding caused by differing pronunciations of the word `stigmata'.

on Monday, June 30th, dch said

Don't forget about the count/mass distinction. I think that data plus 3sg verb is typically used as a mass noun rather than a singular count noun, indicating that the stuff of interest is conceived of as an infinitely divisible heap of stuff, like peanut butter, rather than a finite set of discrete objects.

on Thursday, February 18th, Neil said

One can say "an agenda", "a trivia" or "a set" but not "a data". It has to be "an item of data" or something like that. I am not sure that "the data is a matrix" makes sense. Perhaps "the data form a matrix" is better!

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human:

24 September 08. Causality and ethics

[PDF version]

There's a platitude that it is ethics that distinguishes humans from the rest of the natural world. In prior posts, you've seen me say that humans are distinguished by their ability and tendency to perceive causal relationships. These two statements are closely related: without causality, there can be no ethics.

Some causal chains are obvious, even to young children: if I drop a plate, then it breaks. If I kick the dog, the dog will bite me. For those that are not so obvious, you can help your child by laying it all out line by line. Here is Joe. Joe committed a misdeed. As a result, Joe's misdeed came back to him and he suffered. Here is Jane. She committed a virtuous act, and as a result, she was rewarded for it. The end.

Person does good, is rewarded; person does bad, is punished may sound simplistic, but it is the canonical format used by most of the stories we hear or see or read. The modern version of Little Red Riding Hood (as alluded to last time), all of Aesop's Fables, the one about Snow White and the vainglorious queen, any romantic comedy, they all tie reward to the virtuous and punishment to the misbehaving. We'll get to the stories that don't riff on that theme below.

These stories help us to move up the ladder of causal subtlety from mechanical misdeeds like kicking the dog to societal issues like littering. Thus, causal stories of the form virtue reward and ill behavior punishment are really central to building a society.

It so happens that religious stories directly fit into the same structure: the omnipotent overseer makes certain that good reward and bad punishment. Where no simple causal mechanism exists, the omnipotent overseer defines one.

The lit
I think it's so completely obvious that morality is taught through causal chains that I don't feel much compulsion to provide a host of references, but let me give you one or two so you know I'm not entirely making this up.

First, we can point to Jean Piaget, an oft-cited pioneer in the academic study of child development. Among others, he wrote many books on how children develop cause-and-effect relationships, and one entitled The Moral Development of the Child (that has almost no discussion of causality). So this could be traced back to Piaget's writings circa 1930 if you were so inclined.

The intro pages to Karniol (1980) give a nice summary of the modern interpretation of Piaget's moral stories, and examples of how kids sometimes take the causal story to what we consider an absurd extreme (e.g., the boy stole the bike the bridge collapsed). She also ran experiments on about 150 elementary school children. They were read skeletal stories of the form Joe stole money. Later, Joe fell down the stairs. or Jane lied. Later, Jane fell in a puddle. There were a range of types of causality, including immanent causality (the result is because of something inside the person), asyndetic1and/or mediated causality (it was the person's action, but mediated via another force), or chance causality (which is delightfully not jargon). Chance causality explanations were basically the least popular, ranging in use among the five grades from 16 to 34 percent; mediated causality ranged from 58 to 86 percent usage; immanent causality ranged from 23 to 47%.

That's the first experiment; the final experiment, using only kids who'd given a mediated causality response in the first experiments, and a story in which the kid in the story gets struck by lightning, was able to induce a greater recourse to chance causality among the listeners (70%). But the first two experiments (and another story in the third experiment where the boy breaks his leg) still show that if there is no causal story spelled out, the brain of the listener will probably invent one. If you want more, Karniol gives a dozen or so other papers that come to similar conclusions: even the youngest kids will see a link between a person's actions and the eventual outcome when there is a relationship to be had, and will invent one when there isn't.

Variants of the story
Now that the canonical story is ingrained in us, hard, there are all sorts of variants that turn our causal expectations around. Some just make for a better story, but others begin to show flaws in the system.

The ending to Moby Dick was so gut-wrenching because it was so outside of the entire framework. I'm a bit amazed that it got published and sold well enough that we've heard of it, given how much it bucks convention.

Adult fiction is filled with what we call moral ambiguity, by which we mean that the virtuous aren't rewarded and the evil aren't punished. This is not to be confused with stories that create tension by allowing the bad guy to win halfway through, getting the princess or the thousand pounds of gold boullion both props play the same rôle in the typical story. In those half-win stories, tension comes from our knowledge that the inevitable downfall will only be worse after the temporary victory.

Many bookshelves have been filled with Dark Knight-type stories about characters of ambiguous virtue. But we humans have an easy solution for these stories: if we are firmly wired to see virtue reward, then we eventually start to see reward virtue. In logic class, it'd be a blatant error to conclude the second relation from the first, but we're not talking about logic, we're talking about how people think.

If you're an Objectivist, you learn that whatever it takes to gain reward is by definition virtuous. If you follow other sorts of commerce-oriented ethical systems, then you follow a similar but looser line. And as the cliché goes, might makes right. In the other direction, I've heard more than enough people give me a line like `it's not illegal, so it's not unethical', which in this context means no punishment not evil.2

Or, it's easy for both kids and adults to miss what the cause that led to the final outcome. It's downright cliché that the protagonist is attractive and the antagonist ugly, from which we are taught that attractive reward; ugly punishment. Add this to the last paragraph, and we find that unattractive = evil, which I find really is how a lot of people think.

If the virtuous are always rewarded and the evil always punished, then anybody who is being punished must be doing something wrong. If we see a person, or a group of people (grouped by language, size of nose, or genitalia), and find that they are doing worse than others, our brains work overtime to fill in the blank in the relation ______ punishment. E.g., if they hadn't eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they wouldn't be worse off.

Now, all those stories are really just practice for what happens here in reality, where we write our own stories. The non-fiction evening news is making a huge effort to fulfill our expectations: the evil have to be punished, and (from time to time) the virtuous have to be rewarded. As viewers, our expectations about how the world should be are very high. If the assailant doesn't go to jail, then we're left with the frustration of a story cut short just before the resolution. If their country is evil, and our country is virtuous, then there is tension until we find a way to bring about some sort of punishment for them, preferably in a manner that brings rewards to our contractors.

And so we see a great deal of our legislative and interpersonal effort put into making sure that rewards and punishments are eventually paid out, even though the only real benefit may be the sense of resolution that comes from making the world fit the stories we were told as kids.

We all have these virtue reward and evil punishment relations tatooed to the inside of our foreheads. Our parents made sure of it, by teaching us ethical causal stories at the same time that we were learning more mechanistic causal stories. If they didn't present us such stories, we'd just make up our own. But the mechanical relationships like I drop the plate the plate breaks are much more robust than the relationship between nice behavior and reward, to the point that we can easily invent unverifiable relationships, like how a pretty face and big muscles implies virtue, or spilling one's seed is evil, or that whatever person we've never met before is getting exactly what he or she deserves. The ability to develop and understand causal stories, which makes us human, gives us ethical beliefs, and allows us to construct a society, is exactly the same force that lets us dress up self-interested behavior as virtue, makes us pine for retribution against perceived slights, and nudges us to wish ill upon those who look or behave differently from our ideal.

title = "A Conceptual Analysis of Immanent Justice Responses in Children",
author = "Karniol, Rachel",
journal = "Child Development",
volume = 51, number = 1,
pages = "118-130",
url = here,
publisher = "Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development",
year = "1980"


... asyndetic1
Syndetic: Serving to unite or connect; connective, copulative.
... evil.2
It's not as if I know what the True and Correct ethical system is, but an ethical system that directly equates individual benefit with ethics is really just the state of nature calling itself ethics, and a rejection of the idea that we humans can develop beyond biology.

[link][2 comments]

on Wednesday, September 24th, Spoofy said

Nice post. What happens if an attractive person spills his seeds? Is this person still evil? OR does this go back to the ambiguity thing= only ugly people that spill seeds are truly evil.

on Saturday, December 20th, yeah...still human said

Moby-Dick? Seriously? The most conventional (now) of morality tales? C'mon -- Queequeg is a completely exonerated non-Christian. What more can you possibly ask for? If you want to integrate non-analytical morality tales into your plot, why exclude the most 'Christian' plot available?

Yes, the comment box is tiny; write in a real text editor then just cut and paste here.
If you are a human, type the letter h in the first box.
h for human: