Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for November 24th, 2007

Interesting article on cash incentives

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My conservative readers will find this article right down their alley: people willing to make big changes for cash incentives, just as a conservative would predict. And liberals will endorse the idea for the social benefits that accrue. At last: something on which we can all agree. Still, as the article notes, some people object strenuously. I think that this in an indication that sometimes even a mildly complex idea idea—in fact, “complex” is an overstatement—is too much for some people to grasp.

“Anger over NHS plan to give addicts iPods,” ran the headline. The UK’s National Health Service is notoriously hard up, so news that government advisers were suggesting doctors offer drug addicts prizes as an incentive to stay clean was certain to raise some hackles. Why should “these people” with “self-inflicted” problems get priority, a patients’ advocate was quoted as asking in the article, published this July in The Sunday Times. “This country really is on its head,” concluded a reader in the newspaper’s online comments section.

Such reactions are typical when anyone raises the idea that addicts should be rewarded for changing their ways. Yet the fury over the proposal fails to account for one critical fact: incentive schemes work. And not just with drug abusers. Rewards have been used to help smokers quit, persuade parents to keep their children in school and boost uptake of healthcare. Far from being a waste of money, all the indications are that they can save money by reducing crime and other problems associated with poverty and drug use.

With over a decade’s worth of positive evidence, incentive schemes are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 2:50 pm

Jewels from technology

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When will they come to market?

Diamonds are so last year. Gems of rare beauty can now be made from simple chunks of silicon using technology developed for telecommunications.

The artificial gems are examples of a photonic crystal – nanoscale repeating structures that reflect different wavelengths of light at different viewing angles. Which wavelengths are reflected and in which direction depends on the repeating pattern.

This property is exploited in telecommunications to separate signals carried by different wavelengths within the same optical fibre. It also makes the crystals appear to change colour as the viewer’s perspective changes.

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 2:44 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Source of adult stem cells: menstrual blood

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From New Scientist:

The uterine lining is already known to contain adult stem cells, but harvesting them would be as invasive as getting them from other adult sources, such as bone marrow.

Now two separate groups led by Xiaolong Meng of the Bio-Communications Research Institute in Witchita, Kansas, and Julie Allickson at Cryo-Cell International in Oldsmar, Florida, say they have found these cells in menstrual blood. Both groups say the cells show all the hallmarks of stem cells: they replicate without differentiating, they can be made to differentiate into many different cell types, and they show characteristic markers of stem cells on their surface. Meng’s work was published in the Journal of Translational Medicine last week (DOI: 10.1186/1479-5876-5-57).

Cryo-Cell has now patented a collection and storage technique called “C’Elle”, enabling women to preserve their own menstrual stem cells in case they could be used to treat heart disease, diabetes, and spinal cord injury in the future.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Medical, Science

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Global warming claims first political victim

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In Australia, though:

 Global warming takes down its first major political victim:

“Conservative Prime Minister John Howard suffered a humiliating defeat Saturday at the hands of the left-leaning opposition, whose leader has promised to immediately sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.”

Why the stunning loss? A key reason was Howard’s “head in the sand dust” response to the country’s brutal once-in-a-thousand year drought. As the UK’s Independent reported in April:

… few scientists dispute the part played by climate change, which is making Australia hotter and drier….. Until a few months ago, Mr Howard and his ministers pooh-poohed the climate-change doomsayers.

You can read about Howard’s lame attempt to change his position rhetoric on global warming here.

Now we are the last industrialized nation with a leader who refuses to take any serious action — hopefully that dubious distinction will be corrected in next year’s presidential election.

For Australians, the drought, called “the first climate change-driven disaster to strike a developed nation” was enough to change their views on global warming dramatically. Of course, Katrina could have been the first — but we have no way of knowing for certain if climate changed caused that hurricane to become so deadly. Let’s hope we don’t need to suffer anything as brutal as what Australia is going through before we commit to serious action.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 2:39 pm

Midwest states agree on action plan for climate change

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People are definitely starting to wake up. The Midwest was home territory for the GOP for many years. Now the Midwest is taking regional action:

The heartland has spoken. Governors from six Midwestern states and the premier of Manitoba, Canada, signed a regional agreement to cap greenhouse gas emissions last week. With similar trading schemes already in place in the north-east and west coast of the US, that means 48 per cent of America’s population is now covered.

The Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord is the third regional emissions agreement initiated in the US in recent years, in the absence of a federal emissions reduction programme. “We can’t afford to wait for the federal government. Our environment and security challenges are too great,” says Matt Canter, spokesman for Jim Doyle, governor of Wisconsin, who chairs the Midwestern Governors Association.

The accord commits Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Manitoba to establishing an emissions credit trading system by 2010. If this group were a country, it would be the seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 2:33 pm

Cooking the turkey

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I decided to go with Elise’s mum’s recipe. I particularly like the back (of chicken, especially) and the breast-up cooking method never lets the back get cooked enough. The breast-down method also makes sense, just reading it. Moreover: no basting. I don’t like to baste, and opening the oven door every 15-20 minutes affects the cooking time a lot.

I did, though, push fresh rosemary and fresh thyme springs under the skin of the breast, taking the idea from this method.

I’m simmering the heart and gizzard, and I cooked the liver in the butter left over from coating the turkey. According to some tribal beliefs, by eating the turkey’s liver I gain its strength and courage. It was tasty, anyway.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 12:36 pm

The MySpace suicide

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Kevin Drum:

Have you read the story of Megan Meier? It was a news item so detestable that I didn’t want to link to it on Thanksgiving. Obviously there are worse things going on in the world than causing the suicide of one teenage girl, but it’s still stomach churning. How can people act this way?

I recommend that you read Jonathan Turley’s short op-ed first, which packs a punch and explains the basics. Then read P.J. Huffstutter’s longer piece, which fills in the gaps. If you’re anything like me, prepare to lose another little shred of faith in your fellow man.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 12:19 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

One problem with Japan

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Government

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Interesting reaction to the Utah Highway Patrol tasering incident

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The Salt Lake City Tribune has a story on the incident, and the comments on the story are particularly interesting. The UHP officer doesn’t get a lot of support. (Here’s the CBS news story.)

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 11:12 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Tagged with , ,

Do you know the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island?

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The largest island is Greenland, and the largest lake is the Caspian Sea. But the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island? Give up? Here it is (scroll down). [insert education-today rant]

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 11:00 am

Posted in Environment, Science

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And declaring bankruptcy doesn’t help…

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Because companies (illegally) simply keep the bill on your credit record until you pay. Read the story. It’s things like this that convince me that the government must always take the side of the consumer to balance the power that large businesses have. When government and business collude, the consumer doesn’t have a chance.

In a financial version of Night of the Living Dead, debts forgiven by bankruptcy courts are springing back to life to haunt consumers. Fueling these miniature horror stories is an unlikely market in which seemingly extinguished debts are avidly bought and sold.

The case of Van Rathavongsa illustrates how canceled debts regain vitality. The Raleigh (N.C.) factory worker pulled himself out from beneath a mountain of bills by means of a bankruptcy proceeding that wrapped up in 2002. One of the debts the judge canceled, or “discharged,” was $9,523 Rathavongsa owed to Capital One Financial, the big credit-card company. But Capital One continued to report the factory worker’s discharged debt to credit bureaus as a live balance, according to documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Raleigh.

This kind of failure by creditors to update credit reports happens with some frequency, consumer lawyers and court-employed bankruptcy trustees say. And it can have consequences: In September, 2003, when Rathavongsa tried to close on a $274,650 mortgage for a new house, his would-be lender, Wachovia, said he would either have to pay Capital One or show proof from the credit-card company that the debt had been discharged. Despite several calls and a letter from his attorney, he says, Capital One never revised the credit report. To obtain the home loan, Rathavongsa eventually did what many consumers in this situation do. He gave in and paid Capital One $9,523 he no longer legally owed.

Because of episodes like this, discharged debts have attracted the attention of little-known firms expert at buying and selling a range of delinquent consumer obligations. Back-due bills with a face value of billions of dollars change hands at a steep discount every year. Five of the companies in this business are publicly traded on Nasdaq. Others have large private-money backers. B-Line, in Seattle, was acquired last year by the Dallas-based hedge fund firm Lone Star Funds. The investment bank Bear Stearns owns two bankruptcy-debt buyers: Max Recovery and eCast Settlement.

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 10:37 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

“Best healthcare system in the world” dunning patients

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Read the whole story, which begins:

In a lucrative new form of fiscal alchemy, a growing number of hospitals, working with a range of financial companies, are squeezing revenue from patients with little or no health insurance. April Dial’s dealings with Hot Spring County Medical Center in Malvern, Ark., illustrate how the transformation of medical bills into consumer debt means quicker cash for medical providers but tougher times for many patients of modest means.

Dial, a 23-year-old truck-stop waitress who earns $17,000 a year plus tips, suffers from Type 1 diabetes. Sudden drops in her blood sugar level have sent her to the emergency room four times in the past three years. In September she spent three days at Hot Spring, including two in intensive care, fighting complications from her ailment. The bills came to more than $14,000. Dial’s job offers no health insurance.

Until recently her mother, Carolyn, who waits tables at the same roadside diner, sent Hot Spring $100 a month under the nonprofit hospital’s longstanding zero-interest payment plan. Dial says she couldn’t make payments herself because she spends more than $150 a month for other treatment and insulin.

In October she learned that Hot Spring had transferred her account to a company called CompleteCare, one of the many small firms fueling the little-known medical debt revolution. Enticed by the enormous potential market of uninsured and poorly insured patients, financial giants such as General Electric, U.S. Bancorp, Capital One, and Citigroup are rapidly expanding in the field or joining the fray for the first time. CompleteCare informed Dial that under the complicated terms of her newly financed debt, her minimum monthly payment had shot up more than fourfold, to $455. Dial says she doesn’t have anywhere close to that amount left over after rent, food, and other doctor visits: “Every extra dime I have goes to paying medical bills.”

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 10:30 am

Good advice for programmers

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A valedictory from a Microsoft lead programmer:

I have a few thoughts that I’d like to express about Microsoft’s software development before I go.

Clearest code wins.

Most developers at Microsoft haven’t yet learned the incredible value of writing the clearest code possible.  Once I saw a someone make a checkin that added 200 lines in the middle of a 600 line function. I’m thinking it was already about 597 lines too long.  Use Extract Method to break them in to bit-sized chunks.  Use Extract Class to manage the plethora of methods you suddenly produce.  Don’t stop there.

OO isn’t a fad

Microsoft has pushed hard over the last ~5 years to make its software secure.  Security is hard, but there’s no reason to make it harder.  For example, countless security issues came down to buffer overruns in C++ code where a buffer was passed without a corresponding length.  The response?  Let’s write tools that help you find places you pass buffers, and make sure you pass a length along side.

Hey, when you find yourself passing two or more values around together, why not put them in to a class?  Just start there.  Polymorhism, inheritance, and encapsulation can come later.

(Hey Windows: I’m looking at you!)

It’s OK to use someone else’s code

At one point, the Visual Studio code base had about a dozen implementations of a C++ String class, most of them hacked out of MFC.  That’s a vast improvement over passing the buffers around, but hey… these library writers are paid to work on these things full time!   Why aren’t you using STL or ATL yet?

This isn’t just in C++… in the original implementation of the .Net Framework, there were countless implentations of hash tables. Woah, guys!  Let’s get some libraries!

Design your problems away

Every time you run in to a problem, step back & ask “How can I make sure this never, ever happens again?”

Got buffer overruns?  Using a buffer class makes them go away.  Having trouble with refcounts? Try CComPtr.  Is your cache getting corrupted?  Remove it, or encapsulate it.

When we did this in my last C++ project, we found our C++ code started to look remarkably like C#.  That’s a clue: C# has already designed away most of the tedium of C++.

Most importantly: we can do better.

The above complaints are specific, local issues.  In time they can be addressed indivdually, and this blog post will become obsolete.  But there’s one thing that Microsoft developers should always be working on: doing their job better.  Ask yourself questions like:

  • “How can I make sure this problem goes away forever?”
  • “How can I produce fewer bugs?”
  • “How can I make it easier to fix the bugs I have?”
  • “How can I make it easier to respond to change quickly?”
  • “How can I make it easier to make my software fast enough?”

I once managed a team that did this very well.  They were largely new hires, mostly straight out of college.  But after a year, they were rocking.  They produced features faster, had fewer bugs, fixed bugs faster, and reliably beat the schedule every time.  They far outperformed teams of experienced developers working on familiar code bases, often with well-understood problems.  It was amazing.

EDIT: I wish I could have addressed these issues while I was at Microsoft, but that’s hard, and I wasn’t successful.  This blog post is about the last chance I have to do anything here; now it’s up to you to decide if you can use this.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 10:18 am

Posted in Software

Tagged with ,

Fats Waller et al.

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First a clip of Fats Waller playing his own “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and mugging like nobody’s business—and what a line-up: the drummer is Zutty Singleton, my favorite drummer all during high school, trumpet Benny Carter, and the bassist is Slam Stewart (who also played with Slim Gaillard: “Slim & Slam”). This is from the 1943 movie Stormy Weather. The beautiful woman is Lena Horne and the waiter is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

And here’s another, with a different version of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” followed by a short clip showing Art Tatum at work:

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 10:00 am

Posted in Jazz, Music

Tagged with ,

Where we stand on torture

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In a mystery I recently read, the protagonist is a New York District Attorney and he explains that we’re the good guys because we have rules and we follow them. Torture seems to be something readily distinguishes the good guys (don’t torture) and bad guys (do torture), but the GOP is making great efforts to blur that distinction, relying occasionally upon the argument that, since the bad guys torture, we can, too: that is, the US will now set its standards to match the lowest examples possible. Here’s a summary of the torture issue around the blogosphere:

Two centuries after the Bill of Rights, a half century after the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners, torture is no longer an evil to be denounced; it’s an open question. “McCain Finds Sympathy on Torture Issue,” a Nov. 16 New York Times headline proclaimed. It doesn’t get any more official than that. Forget earmarks and Social Security; in Election 2008 it looks as if we get to vote on stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and maybe even the rack. And the blogosphere, as usual, has got a head start on arguing what kind of place America wants to be.

With McCain a “courageous” exception among GOP candidates, “The use of torture is fast becoming a core principle of today’s Republican party,” conservative Andrew Sullivan asserts at “My sense is that many in the base are uncomfortable with the defensiveness of the Bush people, and their use of euphemism in this respect.”

Scott Horton, the international law expert who writes the No Comment blog at Harper’s, offers confirmation. He reports that “movement conservatives,” meeting with Attorney General Michael Muskasey before his confirmation hearings, pressed the nominee to protect those in the Bush administration who opened the door to waterboarding and other forms of torture. “There has been no shortage of litmus tests in the past: abortion, gay marriage, the flag amendment—whatever hot-button issue the G.O.P. cooks up for its next election campaign. But the torture litmus test is new,” Horton contends.

The suggestion that conservatives have made torture a political litmus test might be expected to provoke outrage in the right blogosphere. The response, though, has been surprisingly muted.

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 9:26 am

Posted in Bush Administration, GOP, Government

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Well-being as social measure

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Extremely interesting development. This ties in with the Michael Moore clip linked to in an earlier post. This should be of particular interest to those who support the U.S. Constitution, whose goals include “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Three of those goals (italicized) seem directly related to the following:

Is it time to offer day care for ailing older parents to give their care-giving children a break? Time for much bigger incentives for carpooling? Time to extend maternity and paternity leave substantially?

The answer’s yes to all three if you accept the findings of a new kind of public attitude polling that’s gaining influence with corporate leaders and in government policy circles worldwide.

It’s called well-being research or, by those who want to be seen as especially rigorous practitioners, behavioral economics. Personal trainers and life coaches who borrow from the same findings often call it happiness research.

Whatever the word, its pioneers intend that quantified self-assessments of satisfaction will someday be as powerful as the gross domestic product and other economic measures.

Indeed, well-being research came into vogue because of a powerful limitation in economic measures that was first noticed around 1980: While United States, Japan and Britain reported huge personal income growth over time, their citizens reported not the slightest uptick in personal happiness.

That triggered a new quest to find out what mattered more to people than money. More recently, a key aim has been to apply those insights to devising public policies that might make people happier.

Early next year, for example, the Gallup Organization will ask a sample of residents in 26 U.S. cities such questions as: Do you feel safe? Do you have confidence in your city’s leadership? Is your city tolerant of people who are different? Would you tell a friend to move here?

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the sponsor of the three-year $2.1 million survey, hopes that it’ll show cities and their leaders what they need work on to improve well-being and productivity, said Paula Lynn Ellis, the vice president for national and new initiatives at the Miami-based philanthropy.

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 9:15 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

For the factoid fans

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Sounds like a good one:

Already a hit in England (according to the jacket blurb, anyway), The Book of General Ignorance is now available in the US. It is ostensibly a book of factoids, but with a twist: these are facts many people have a mistaken knowledge of. Famously, George Washington didn’t have wooden teeth (they were mostly made from hippopotamus teeth). The factoid format makes this a perfect bathroom or coffee table book.

Some interesting tidbits at random: most tigers in the world live in the US (in zoos and as pets); Napoleon’s troops didn’t shoot the Sphinx’s nose off (it came off long ago and has never been found); there was no curse on King Tut’s tomb; Thomas Crapper invented the manhole cover but not the flush toilet; Thomas Edison may have invented the word hello (before Edison it was halloo or hullo); and Columbus thought the world was pear-shaped and much smaller than it is. Some “it didn’t originate where you think” bits: haggis is from Greece; kilts are Irish; chicken tikka masala comes from Glasgow; champagne is an English invention (as is baseball); Panama hats are from Ecuador; and, the guillotine was invented in Yorkshire.

More at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 8:52 am

Posted in Books

Free lectures online

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From the LA Times:

Baxter Wood is one of Hubert Dreyfus’ most devoted students. During lectures on existentialism, Wood hangs on every word, savoring the moments when the 78-year-old philosophy professor pauses to consider a student’s comment or relay how a meaning-of-life question had him up at 2 a.m.

But Wood is not sitting in a lecture hall on the UC Berkeley campus, nor has he met Dreyfus. He is in the cab of his 18-wheel big rig, hauling dog food from Ohio to the West Coast or flat-screen TVs from Los Angeles to points east.The 61-year-old trucker from El Paso eavesdrops on the lectures by downloading them for free from Apple Inc.’s iTunes store, transferring them to his Hewlett-Packard digital media player, then piping them through his cabin’s speakers. He hits pause as he approaches cities so he can focus more on traffic than on what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead, then shifts his attention back to the classroom.

“I’m really in two places at once,” he said. “The sound of chalk on the chalkboard makes it so real.”

By making hundreds of lectures from elite academic institutions available online for free, Apple is reinvigorating the minds of people who have been estranged from the world of ideas.

For several years universities have posted recorded lectures on their internal websites, giving students a chance to brush up on their classes or catch ones they missed.

But 28 colleges and universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Yale, now post select courses without charge at iTunes.

The universities want to promote themselves to parents and prospective students, as well as strengthen ties with alumni. Some also see their mission as sharing the ivory tower’s intellectual riches with the rest of the world.

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 8:15 am

A beautiful shave

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Truefitt & Hill Rose shaving cream, along with the Simpsons Key Hole 3 Best shaving brush, provided a sound (and fragrant) lather base, and then the Edwin Jagger Georgian with the Sputnik blade—this must be the 5th or 6th use—quickly and smoothly removed the stubble. Aftershave was Floid, and the entire experience and the resulting shave was easily 9.7—maybe 9.8.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2007 at 8:10 am

Posted in Shaving

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