God Bless Lileks:

"My point? Simple: we live in an era of non-contiguous information streams. I believe one thing; someone else believes another – and the bedrock assumptions are utterly contradictory. This is what drives me nuts about discussing current events with some people. It’s like discussing the Apollo program with people who think it was all faked, or discussing archeology with those who believe the world is six thousand years old. I think the Iraq Campaign was part of a broad war against Islamicist fascism and the states that enable it; others think it’s all about oil and Halliburton jerking the strings of a Jeebus puppet. No. Middle. Ground. "

NCIS = noncontiguous information streams, if you forget. I think there's a show on CBS about this... heh.

I'm a part of this, too, preferentially reading Lileks to Josh Micah Marshall. When it's late and you're tired, you want to read someone you agree with, not someone who introduces uncomfortable facts or opinions that need to be reconciled. Plus, when you DO debate a friend or person at the bar, you want to have your stats and figures and sense of indignation ready, not be a mealy-mouthed equivocationalist.

I'd like to think this situation is unstable and will resolve, but it's been going on for a while. I thought the resolution would take the form of marginalization -- eventually the party that has espoused crazy ideas about Apollo or creationism or Halliburton will fade into bolivian (as Mike Tyson says). But five years ago the Republicans were convinced Clinton killed Vince Foster and bombed Iraq to distract the nation from Monica. They were espousing some kooky ideas then, but they didn't fade away.

My idea is that there's still a market for the Equivocation Channel -- where reporters file back-to-back reports, same facts, but the first is in the tone of shrill victimized liberals, the second in the smug triumphalism of conservatives. Viewers will watch both and just decide which one 'feels true'.

Guts and Brains

Nice article in the Times today about the BCS system for computing college bowl matchups. The writer created an essay-grading algorithm that agrees with humans more than they agree with each other (fits in well with the Gender Genie, see earlier entries). He says, among other things:

1. Playoffs aren't the best determinant of a team's ability -- the best way is to load the stats into the computer and have it play hundreds of simulated games
2. Even so, more work can be done to bring the sportswriter's picks in line with the computer picks

The thing to do is change the computer weighting of 'difficulty of schedule', 'size of the win' etc...

I can use this perspective for my ongoing approach to health stats. Dr. Pf, Ralph Nader and probably countless others continue to marvel that our society freaks out about SARS, about West Nile, and (though it's not the same) Viet Nam or 9/11, yet does very little about the number of traffic deaths each year, the number of people dying of lung cancer, the number of kids who fall out of windows...

One upcoming post should be all stats from the Bill Bryson book I'm reading (especially the numbers on fossilization rates). But right now just remember that 300 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century, more than all the wars and genocides and state-sponsored murders combined (which I think totals 100-150 million, depending on China totals).

Yet the eradication of Smallpox was not celebrated with the gusto of V-E day, say. And of course it couldn't be: Stopping a virus doesn't give the emotional satisfaction of stopping an army. Look at the Iraqis who didn't feel free until Saddam was physically captured, six months after it was clear he could never rule again.

But we have to work toward intellect and evidence-based decision making, over emotional decisions. In medicine it's still a problem -- there are plenty of useless antibiotics prescribed
just to 'do something', plenty of CT scans ordered 'just to see' when in fact there's no indication of anything to see.

But more importantly, as seen in my recent medical errors seminar, it seems like we allow 'a plane crash a day' of deaths due to communication errors, transcription errors, or missed diagnoses. We'd never allow a plane crash a day -- or a month, even -- from the aviation industry.

From this, we must deduce that the emotional impact of a plane crash hurts everyone -- families, airliners, economies, governments -- much more than the impact of diffuse medical errors, which, I guess, primarily hurt the families, but also the doctors, hospitals, insurance industries...

If we weighted the intellectual response to deaths more than the emotional response, we'd overhaul the healthcare delivery system overnight, and maybe lighten up on airline safety standards. We'd stop reporting on the flu outbreak and start reporting on traffic safety and CAD.

What attracts me to this line of thinking is you can apply the BCS-type algorithms to predict the public's (and media's) response. I touched on this in my Station Fire piece in the Herald, with the local vs. foreign angle, and rock fans vs. hip hop fans.

But the biggest factors in reporting deaths seem to be 'can it affect me even if I act responsibly?' (communicibility of SARS, flu, even though falling out of windows or traffic accidents are more widespread) and 'is it the result of cold-blooded intent' (9/11 killed 3000 people, possibly less than 10% of the Iran earthquake deaths (a sudden calamity), and a tiny fraction of those who will die of medical errors this year (a widespread, diffuse calamity)).

I suppose it will be harder for algorithms to predict public awareness of celebrity deaths, the shuttle disaster, etc. Aaron Schatz on the Lycos 50 reports on this regularly, and has some thoughts on which celebrities get the most searches when they die...

Finally, the way to measure public response to tragedy is as simple as counting newspaper column-inches, or minutes in a newscast... or as complicated as looking at new legislation, new money devoted to the problem, new policy changes.

I'd like to think, ultimately, we'll save more lives when, make people happier, etc, when we move toward appropriate quantification and response to these deaths... but there is something to be said for the emotional response. The most obvious example: Maybe the US prevented more 9/11's by going full-tilt against Al Qaida and Iraq, instead of shrugging it off. Maybe the muted response to medical errors or viruses, as opposed to plane crashes, or mass murders, is our society's way of trying to cope with things that can't be changed, and address things that can be... But everything can be changed, if we agree on it and make it a priority.

OnStar is Watching

From today'sNew York Times:
"People's cars have already started turning their owners in. Scott E. Knight, a California man, was convicted last year for the killing of a Merced, Calif., resident in a March 2001 hit-and-run accident; police tracked him down because the OnStar system in his Chevy Tahoe alerted OnStar when the airbag was set off.
Transportation experts say that if these sensor systems can provide crucial information for emergency aid workers and for vehicle research, lives will be saved. The federal government is considering rules that would standardize the information that black boxes provide, along with ways to gather the information."

The article is full of more examples of tracking -- from a stalker putting a transceiver in his ex's car, to tire RFID tags, to that rental car company that fined a customer for speeding (the fine was illegal, but the tracking was not). One expert suggests something Vanessa mentioned -- in the future, we can pay more to 'opt out' of the tracking when buying or renting a car. Higher insurance or higher fees.

OnStar, like cell phones, pays for itself with subscription fees or upfront costs. The potential for spam is low. But the potential to report speeding, loud music, changing lanes without signaling, not properly defrosting the windows before you go to work... that's mighty annoying, too. Maybe they won't call the cops on you, maybe they'll call the insurance company and you'll get more points at the end of the year. That's more annoying than location-spam, methinks.

Stealing Teen Spirit

In one of Instapundit's more insightful pieces, he looks at the uniting, catharctic effect of rock on a generation of down-and-out youth, and compares it to the appeal of Nazi rallies:

"After Elvis, the commercial culture of rock and roll simply occupied the mindspace that totalitarians need, and it out-competed them. "

I'd never considered this before, and I like the idea so much. It puts politics and music on the same spectrum, both competing for the attention of young people. And it makes sense for the 20th century, where the competitive antagonist 'music' progressively became more catchy and less motivating, as it got better and better at occupying 'mindspace'.

You'd predict that American politics would be more histrionic and meaningful, to compete with music, but I don't think that's what's happened.

Need to chew on this.

Shame and Humiliation

Jumping on this bandwagon at least a week too late, but I'm wonder what my Chancellor, Dean Aaron Lazare would think of the reports that Saddam's capture and subsequent medical exam was 'humiliating'.

First, I'd like to think that medical exams, at least the HEENT part, is not intrinsically humiliating for my patients. I'd like to think they're happy to oblige -- as I am -- and that I'm actually doing them a favor. (Some remarked that Saddam can't make eye contact with his examiner, just as many, ah, non-prisoners can't look at their doctors during exams... I must investigate this further, is this healthy?)

Second, it's worth noting that Saddam's prisoners received, shall I say, far worse treatment...

I would say the pictures do not diminish Saddam so much as they elevate the US. I think the army released the video because it wanted to reassure the world that Saddam was not being mistreated, that he had abrasions over his left eye before we got to him, and that all our prisoners are subject to basic entitlements, such as a medical exam.

It would take a lot to look past all that and say Saddam was being publicly mocked. It seems anything short of US forces bowing before him would be humiliating in some critics' eyes.

Scooped by the Globe

Bill Griffith notes in his SporTView column:
"Schilling was testy as he called early in the show to explain his reasons for ''posting'' on message boards and participating in chat rooms. ''I can get my message across the way I want in that forum,'' he said. ''And I'll call talk radio because I can have my say on the air, too.''
Well, what about TV, Curt? ''Too short. They cut your quotes into sound bites. What do they have, a little over two minutes for sports?'' And newspapers? ''They fit your quotes into their stories.''
Saintelus said it was ''pretty satisfying'' to have show co-hosts Tony Massarotti (Boston Herald) and Sean McAdam (Providence Journal) ''cutting me off. How many years have we sat here and had the media write stories as if they were on our behalf? In July, we [website visitors] wrote a letter of support to Kevin Millar. It was signed by 200 of our message board members and the players wound up hanging it on the clubhouse wall.
''We can think for ourselves. The fans now have a forum that owners and players are discovering, and they're coming straight to us.''
''You could feel the groundswell of interest in the topic,'' said McAdam. ''The audience got into the subject and they wouldn't be deterred.''"

All I can add is the comparison to Sci-Fi fans, and politics junkies. So far the political blogs have had the most impact on events (Trent Lott, etc) and the sci-fi fans have been around the longest... but the Sports fans seem to have the most interactivity with their stars (ie, William Shatner and Bill Clinton aren't posting to message boards, as far as I know)..

Scooped by the Times

From the timesTech section:
"Until recently, one of the main civilian uses of G.P.S. was in devices issued by the criminal justice system to track offenders as a condition of their parole or probation. The new generation of tracking devices has moved well beyond that population and now takes many forms, from plastic bracelets that can be locked onto children to small boxes with tiny antennae that can be placed unobtrusively in cars.
'We are moving into a world where your location is going to be known at all times by some electronic device,' said Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. 'It's inevitable. So we should be talking about its consequences before it's too late.'
Some of those consequences have not been spelled out. Will federal investigators be allowed to retrieve information on your recent whereabouts from a private service like uLocate, or your cellular carrier? Can the local Starbucks store send advertisements to your phone when it knows you are nearby, without your explicit permission? "
But it is not just the unnerving effect of uncovering small lies that has some users of the technology worried. Like caller I.D., location devices lift the curtain on a zone of privacy that many Americans value, even if they rarely have anything serious to hide.

"Think back to when you were a teenager and your mom or dad said, `I don't want you to do this,' and you said, `yeah, yeah, yeah,' because you knew you could do it and they wouldn't know," said Graham Clarke, president of National Scientific, which makes several G.P.S. tracking devices. "Those days are gone now, because they actually can know."

Mr. Clarke recently installed a tracking device called Followit in the Jeep Wrangler of his 17-year-old son, Gordon. It alerts him if Gordon has exceeded 60 m.p.h. or traveled beyond preset boundaries.

Many more examples of tracking in the article -- tracking employees, tracking Alzheimer's patients, etc. This just gives me confidence in my idea -- that number portability will help companies develop long-term records of user movements, spanning years, and that phones won't be left on as often as they are now... Another unintended consequence of goverment mandates...


Quoting Kaus:

Everett Ehrlich notes that decreasing information costs --i.e. the Internet-- now enable outside groups to do what only big political parties used to be able to do--i.e. organize effective national campaigns. And that's before you consider the effects of the McCain-Feingold law, which Ehrlich doesn't mention but which makes circumventing the parties not only possible but imperative. (See, e.g. Edsall's article on the "shadow" Democrats in the same edition of WaPo.)

Ehrlich draws some pithy conclusions from the parties' obsolescence:

For all Dean's talk about wanting to represent the truly "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the paradox is that he is essentially a third-party candidate using modern technology to achieve a takeover of the Democratic Party. Other candidates -- John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark -- are competing to take control of the party's fundraising, organizational and media operations. But Dean is not interested in taking control of those depreciating assets. He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization. What he wants are the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party's last remaining assets of value, as part of his marketing strategy.

Regarding the Kaus / Feiler Faster Theory on political trends, momentum, news cycles, Kaus says:

In short, political trends that used to last for weeks now last for hours. It's like watching the 1984 campaign on fast forward, except that the calendar still drags on into early June, meaning there's room for plot twists we could only dream of in 1984. To be commensurate with the speeded-up news cycle, the calendar would probably have to be compressed even more. Maybe we could have had the whole thing wrapped up by St. Patrick's Day!

Of course, voters may not entirely be keeping pace with Trends 1 and 2. Are they really as well-informed and conscientious as before--swooning, having second thoughts, rebelling, coming "back home," and so forth, just as they used to, only more rapidly? Can you keep dividing time into smaller and smaller bits without bumping up against the limitations of the human brain?

I would read James Gleick's book Faster and come up with some conclusions on that question. But I've got to get this up on the Web quickly before somebody beats me.

I did read Gleick's book. But I sped-read it and didn't retain much. Ha. No. It was ok. I think the big flaw in Kaus' thinking -- and most pundits are guilty -- is that everyone is paying attention to everything. Even folks like my dad, who watch the nightly news every 'cycle', don't know that Bush's turkey was plastic or Lieberman is moving pro-war to distinguish himself from Dean.

The news cycle is sped up, there is more maneuvering and counter-maneuvering, but the vast nation of voters is only half-paying attention, maybe catching bits here and there, and in general not hanging on every soundbite. I think there may be some kind of fluid dynamics analogy: if you have two kids having a waterfight in the ocean, the further out you go the less the tide is affected.

For those scoring at home: Politicians and handlers = waterfight kids, Voters = tide / waves

Aimless ramblings

According to NOVA, TMQ and a discussion board , the earth's magnetic field is weakening. At its current rate it will be 0-20% of current strength in 1000 years. It might stay that way for a while and bounce back, or it may flip, which it seems do to with some regularity (avg = 1/200,000 years, currently 580,000 years overdue).

Some of the consequences:

Less protection from solar flare
Aurora borealis will be visible across a much greater expanse of earth
Havok for boy scouts, compasses

That last item is worth dwelling on. I actually don't know how long compasses have been in general use -- my talks with Dr. V about sailing and astral navagation suggest at least 200 years... NASA has it... but certainly compasses were one of the indespensible tools of navigation, commerce, warfare, and progress in the past century.

It is fortunate now that we have GPS technology and have progressed beyond the reliance of earth's magnetic field. So consider: our civilization needed a 100+ year period of reliance on earth's magnetic field -- which is not available ~ 1000 years out of every 200k... Would we have progressed to GPS without a magnetic field? How would aerospace tech have advanced to that point without it? Put another way, the GPS network was launched and administered by the Air Force, and the air force wouldn't exist without compasses.

Would Oersted have discovered electromagnetism without having a compass near his electricity demo? Would engineers and scientists have detected a much weaker and less reliable magnetic field, and just found a way to work around it? Would we look at old magnetic rocks of various orientations and wonder, why did they solidify that way? I don't know, but I'm ready to add "functioning magnetosphere" to the list of physical properties of the world that needed to break our way for civilization to progress the way it did. Other things on the list: water, wood, coal, a preponderance of domesticable animals in Europe, etc.

In the past few decades it's become clear that meteors wreak havok with much of life on earth on a regular basis (on the scale of hundreds of millions of years, and getting rarer). It's also clear we're advancing to the point where meteors will no longer be a mortal threat (see "Armageddon", 1998). But it's worth considering a less catastrophic, more melancholy fate: world civilizations stuck in place, unable to easily explore and reliably travel long distances, all the while dazzled by the nightly not-so-northern lights...

Also worth thinking about is if we're not already stuck due to some cosmic coincidence -- ie, the raw materials for cold fusion used to be lying around everywhere but dried up a few hundred years ago.

Slamma Jamma

Gizmodo reports:
"Everytime we write about cellphone jammers we get at least one piece of hate mail, usually some bizarre, long-winded rant about how I'll be the one going to jail if a doctor isn't able to receive an important phone call, etc. At the risk of inspiring those person or persons to launch yet another angry missive, there's an article over at Slate about cellphone jammers (like the handset-shaped SHO66P, pictured at right) that argues that in the era of cameraphones they might be the only way to get a modicum of privacy back."

Maybe docs and VIPs can get Jammer jammers! Or, personal jammers will be outlawed, and wide-area jammers in movie theaters and lockerrooms will be allowed, if signs are posted. But jammers will stop incoming and outgoing calls, but not the actual photograph-taking. Once you're out of range of the jammer, you can still broadcast your pics. Really, the South Korean requirement for loud clicks upon snapping a pic is the only way to prevent unauthorized photos.

The Dark Side of Interactivity

Within a week of Curt Schilling turning to fans online for career advice, this quote from the Boston Globe that shows there's another side to internet geeks who think they should have a say in things:

"Chris Feehan, co-president of the Battlestar Fan Club at, said he's 'shocked' that the fans have not prevailed. 'Deep down,' he said, 'I'm hoping this is a flop so we can have a proper revival.'"

My guess is that sports hyperfans are intrinsically more reasonable than these sci-fi hyperfans. The sports fans who log on and listen to sports radio debate calls, debate managerial decisions, debate player merits, but appreciate that athletes are doing something that the fans themselves cannot do. Furthermore, sports is unscripted and there is at least some home-town loyalty and kinship.

The sci-fi hyperfans are different. They think the shows are for them alone, that they know more than the writers, more than the producers, more than the actors, and if the reigns were handed to them they would make a top-notch show or movie. Unlike sports, with hollywood you have script leaks, previews, and early reviews. Hence you have ridiculous quotes from fan clubs of long-defunct TV shows (which were never popular to begin with) about how they hope a remake of a show they've never seen fails, so a better remake can be made. As if there's enough interest and money to go around making multiple versions of Battlestar Galactica, all to please an intense but puny fan base that can't number more than a few thousand.

Steal This Book

InstaPundit.Com: "According to Danny Goldberg, CEO of Artemis Records and the author of 'Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit,' stars tend to alienate their fans 'if they become preachy, didactic, too predictable.' Despite the artists' best efforts, this seems to be what happened, at least at times, during Tell Us the Truth."

Schilling on the new Media

The new Red Sox ace (two aces? Full house?) was up late Thansgiving night, the night before the contract talks deadline, and decided to log into a chat room on Apparently he proved his identity (to some) and made some predictions about the talks (that an extension would be filed to continue talks until Saturday).

Just amazing stuff. What guided him to the chat room was a desire to feel out the Boston fans, to clear up some distortions foisted and amplified by the media, and to just air his thoughts, unfiltered. He gives really long interviews, and watches them get chopped into soundbites.

Now, think about it like this: a good fraction of sports fans are 'rabid', ie very informed, very opinionated, and can essentially go on reading about small facets of sports for days and days. Kind of the same with politics, with music, with movies. To these rabid fans, even ESPN isn't good enough -- SportsCenter can only give so many minutes to covering Boston pitching deals. When they do cover it, there's too many soundbites, it's too glib, and there's too much missed. Basically, if Theo spends 20 hours talking to Schilling, there are fans who need about 20 hours of coverage.

So, Schilling bypasses the media and talks directly to the rabid fans (at the only place they can congregate -- online), at least for a few hours. Tells them what he thinks, gets their ideas, gets their attitude... The rabid fans win, and Schilling wins. The media look slow, bloated, self-important, and even unnecessary, except to serve The Nonrabid Fans... (like me, I guess...)

Give credit to big media to making it part of the way -- Sports coverage, politics coverage, entertainment coverage is all 20x what it was 20 years ago, both in magazines and on cable. For the casual fan, that's plenty. But the rabid fan wants more, far more than can be profitable for a major network to provide. Fortunately, the internet has the infrastructure to accomodate the rabid fans, and now the stars themselves are tuning in. Sure, there have been AOL-sponsored celebrity chats, etc, and artists have been using the web to reach out to fans, but Curt Schilling has, to my knowledge, performed the first Big Media Bypass in breaking real news ... at least, that I can recall.

Will the politicians be far behind? Will Dean's blog release campaign news to Dean fans, and let them inform the media (and by extension, the casual politics followers)? Why not? The Dean followers care the most, contribute the most, and will accurately propagate the news (probably..) Reward them by telling them first, and in the most detail -- let the media break it into soundbites later, for the casual fans...

Sit tight

Just browsing though the Ideas.doc from May and June. Sheesh, when the thesis writing was slow-going, the article ideas knew no limits. There must be a dozen columns in there. And the basis for those columns should find its way onto this site.

Remember shazam. That will rule. Witty ticcy Ray, Police distributions, cameraphone implications, stubborness vs. intelligence... it's all there, baby.

No articles in November, so make it two in December? You have between Christmas and New Year's -- and many columnists will be away, many editors with deadlines...