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March 31, 2007

Peanut Butter, Creationism, and Categories

Via boing boing comes an entry by Mike the Mad Biologist linking to a YouTube video of a Creationist explaining how, since life doesn't spontaneously arise in jars of peanut butter, evolution can't be true.

My favorite part isn't the video itself (which is staggeringly inane), nor the observations by Mike and his many commenters, but rather the blog categories into which Mike has placed this entry (edited here):

  • Creationism
  • F***ing Morons
  • Religion
  • The War on Science
  • We're Really F***ed
Now those are some cool categories. Mine just seem boring now.

March 30, 2007

Am I the Only One?

For years, my drink of choice at Starbucks was a venti skim decaf latte. (As a general rule, I avoid caffeine except in times of extreme need -- maybe once every month or two.) Along the way, I experimented with an iced version of the drink, because unless it's seriously cold, I prefer chilled drinks. About a year ago, I decided that the milk in the latte was just empty calories, and so switched to the venti iced decaf americano, which I would then top off with a little bit of skim milk.

Recently, though, I found myself thinking that between the water of the americano and the ice, I was getting a fairly watered-down drink. I wondered, "Can't I just ditch the water and order an iced espresso?" I decided to add a bit of flavor by including sugar-free syrup (Starbucks offers three varieties). And I tried out half-and-half, and realized that in the small amounts I'd be using, it was a minor luxury that greatly improved the taste.

So with all that, my order is now a venti iced decaf espresso, add a shot (for a total of five), with sugar-free syrup, fill the cup with ice, and top it off with half-and-half. I usually get the same reaction whenever I order it, which is something like, "I've never seen that before." So am I the only one?

March 29, 2007

McCain Following in DeLay's Footsteps

I used to have a soft spot for John McCain. I disagreed with him on many of his policy positions, but felt that he was always straightforward, always told the truth, and always owned up to the facts no matter where they might lead. If he had won the 2000 Republican nomination, I might even have voted for him over Al Gore (whom I deeply underappreciated at the time).

Now, though, he seems like just another politician, saying whatever he has to say to get elected. After seeing Tom DeLay lie about his own words when presented with evidence of them... well, make what you will of this exchange on CNN, found in this entry at Think Progress (found via Crooks and Liars):

CNN’S JOHN ROBERTS: I wanted to talk to you about the situation in Iraq. Yesterday in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on The Situation Room. I want to play this back for you. You had this to say about the situation there.

[McCAIN CLIP]: General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed humvee. I think you oughta catch up. You are giving the old line of three months ago. I understand it. We certainly don’t get it through the filter of some of the media.

ROBERTS: Senator, did you mean to say that, that General Petraeus goes out every day in an unarmed humvee?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): I mean that there are neighborhoods safe in Iraq and he does go out into Baghdad and the fact is there has been significant progress and people are stuck in a time warp of three months ago. Of course, it’s still dangerous. Of course it’s still very dangerous. We only have two of the five brigades there and we are already seeing significant progress.

ROBERTS: Because I checked with General Petraeus’s people overnight and they said he never goes out in anything less than an up-armored humvee. You also told Bill Bennett on his radio program on Monday. You said there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhood today yet retired General Barry McCaffrey said no Iraqi government official, coalition soldier, diplomat reporter could walk the streets of Baghdad without heavily armed protection. We’ve got two different stories here. Who’s right?

McCAIN: Well, I’m not saying they could go without protection. The President goes around America with protection. So, certainly I didn’t say that.

The sad thing here is that in attempting to look informed and correct, McCain makes himself look uninformed and incorrect. In attempting to make himself look strong, he makes himself look weak.

Imagine that he had replied by saying, "I was wrong about General Petraeus' vehicle, John. I was misinformed about that, and I'm sorry. And I didn't mean to say that you or I could walk around Baghdad without protection -- of course we couldn't. It's a dangerous situation, which is why we need our troops there. Without them, the conflict in Iraq will metastasize into something far more threatening to the region, the world, and of course the US. So of course we would need protection. But could we walk around given that protection? Yes, and I think that's an improvement from six months ago."

Not that I agree with that position, but it would have been honest given his viewpoint, it would have been consistent with his views on the war, and it would have made him look strong -- strong enough to admit his own mistakes.

March 24, 2007

"Drunk with Ambition"

Via Andrew Sullivan, via Taegan Goddard, comes a minor but eye-opening sequence from an interview of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay by Chris Matthews. You can watch the clip here -- and I recommend it -- while the transcript is below.

In this section of the interview, Matthews is asking DeLay about a passage in his new book:

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me go -- you know one of the fellows we've had on this show on occasion is Dick Armey. We've had him on quite a bit. And I don't know him that well. I didn‘t have any problem with him. I didn't have to work with him. I thought he was an OK guy. He seems sort of a Knights of Columbus type to me, a regular guy.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I don't think he was Knights of Columbus. But he seemed like a regular guy. You say he was drunk with ambition.

DELAY: Actually that's not what I said. What I said was he is blinded by ambition. Drunk with ambition is a quote of a cliche. I said.

MATTHEWS: Oh, well, why would I underline it in the book? Go ahead, continue on your thought, he was blinded by ambition, I'll look for drunk.

DELAY: Look, what I did in the book, Chris, is I talked about all of our strengths and weaknesses and telling the story of what went on in the Republican majority over the last 12 years in this book, of course I'm going to talk about my strengths and my weaknesses and the players' strengths and weaknesses.

I compliment Armey on the fact that he put together the Contract with America and he did a fabulous job in writing the bills of our agenda of the [sic].

MATTHEWS: "He resented me for being the other Texan on the leadership team, and he resented anyone he thought might get in the way of his becoming speaker of the House. Beware the man drunk with ambition."

DELAY: Read the sentence before that, it said "blinded."

MATTHEWS: That's what I just did.

DELAY: "Blinded by ambition."

MATTHEWS: No. I'll read the sentence here. "He resented me" -- it's right here in your book. You have got to read it.

(LAUGHTER)

At this point, Matthews hands the book to DeLay, open to the page with the quote in question.

MATTHEWS: I'm sorry, Tom, it's there, I read you said he was drunk with ambition.

DELAY: Yes. That is the cliche. But right up here, I can't -- I don't have my.

MATTHEWS: Well, you didn't put it in italics.

DELAY: I don't have my glasses on. Up here it says blinded.

MATTHEWS: OK, OK, OK. So it is blinded or drunk with ambition.

DELAY: It's still a good book.

So the question is, if Tom DeLay will lie about his own words, written down in a book he wrote, when confronted with the book itself, what won't he lie about?

How can anyone have any faith in a person like this? I know there are still people out there who do, and I just can't get my head around it.

March 19, 2007

Antibiotics, Farming, and the Presidential Primaries

In my previous entry, I discussed the non-therapeutic of use of antibiotics for livestock, and the nearly-unbelievable statistics that the US livestock industry uses eight times as much antibiotics as are used to treat all human disease -- and this while the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics is growing rapidly.

All this would normally lead me to say that politicians -- including those currently running for President -- looking for issues on which most Americans can agree should get out in front on this and propose far-reaching restrictions on the use of antibiotics in in agriculture. This is the kind of issue that most people don't know about, but if they did, they'd react forcefully to it: "What? We give livestock eight times as much antibiotics as we do humans even though they're not sick? And more people are dying every year because of antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Why hasn't anyone said anything about this? Someone needs to end it!"

On the other hand, our Presidential primary voting system means that candidates spend most of the year before an election -- as in this year -- pandering to the residents of Iowa, a state that poorly represents the country as a whole. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2000, the population of the US was 75.1 percent white, 12.3 percent black or African-American, 3.6 percent Asian, and 12.5 percent Hispanic or Latino (of any race). Meanwhile, Iowa was 93.9 percent white, 2.1 percent black or African-American, 1.3 percent Asian, and 2.8 percent Hispanic or Latino (of any race). Perhaps more to the point, while 20.6 percent of Iowa residents were employed in the agricultural sector in 2002, the comparable statistic for the US as a whole was 14.3 percent.

In other words, Iowans are 1.44 times more likely than Americans as a whole to be employed in agriculture. They're also 1.25 times more likely to be white, 5.86 times less likely to be black or African-American, 2.77 times less likely to be Asian, and 4.46 times less likely to be Hispanic or Latino.

This is not to say that the people of Iowa are less wise than Americans as a group. This is not to say that the people of Iowa are less honest, less prudent, less thoughtful, or less concerned with the future of their country. I'm sure the people of Iowa are, more or less, as wise, honest, prudent, thoughtful, and concerned as the average American. But representative they are not. And as long as Iowa (and New Hampshire, for that matter) continue to exert influence on Presidential candidates so far out of proportion to their population, then we will continue to have Presidential candidates who -- for example -- are scared to say anything that could be construed as anti-farming. Even something as blatantly obvious as ending the abuse of antibiotics by the livestock industry.

March 18, 2007

Antibiotics and Farming

I've long been troubled by the idea that as antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread, the farm industry is allowed to give antibiotics to cattle, swine, and poultry merely to accelerate their growth and reduce mortality due to unhealthy living conditions. But "Pig Out", an op-ed piece in The New York Times this week, opened my eyes:

Of the 60 million pigs in the United States, over 95 percent are continuously confined in metal buildings, including the almost five million sows in crates. In such setups, feed is automatically delivered to animals who are forced to urinate and defecate where they eat and sleep. Their waste festers in large pits a few feet below their hooves. Intense ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes from these pits fill pigs' lungs and sensitive nostrils. No straw is provided to the animals because that would gum up the works (as it would if you tossed straw into your toilet)...

The stress, crowding and contamination inside confinement buildings foster disease, especially respiratory illnesses. In addition to toxic fumes, bacteria, yeast and molds have been recorded in swine buildings at a level more than 1,000 times higher than in normal air. To prevent disease outbreaks (and to stimulate faster growth), the hog industry adds more than 10 million pounds of antibiotics to its feed, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates. This mountain of drugs -- a staggering three times more than all antibiotics used to treat human illnesses -- is a grim yardstick of the wretchedness of these facilities.

Once more, for emphasis: the hog industry alone uses three times the amount of all antibiotics used to treat human illnesses. We haven't even gotten to cattle and poultry yet. This is from a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS):

[T]he quantities of antibiotics used in animal agriculture dwarf those used in human medicine. Nontherapeutic livestock use in chickens, pigs, and cows accounts for 8 times more antibiotics than human medicine, which is using only 3 million pounds per year...

Until now, health officials and citizens had to rely on incomplete industry estimates to design effective responses to the antibiotic-resistance problem. According to the new UCS report, "Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock", the total use of antibiotics in healthy livestock has climbed from 16 million pounds in the mid-1980s to 25 million pounds today. Of that, approximately 10 million pounds are used in hogs, 11 million pounds in poultry, and 4 million pounds in cattle.

So when we count poultry and cattle, nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock rises to eight times total human usage.

Keep Antibiotics Working is an advocacy group founded to reduce and eliminate the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. They have a page on the scientific evidence for the idea that "that bacteria are developing antibiotic resistance as a result of antibiotic use in animal agriculture". By my count, this page lists 31 studies that address the links between agricultural abuse of antibiotics and increased antibiotic resistance in human pathogens -- as well as dozens of other studies on related topics.

What is the human toll of this? A report by Keep Antibiotics Working notes the following:

  • Resistant bacterial infections increase health care costs by at least $4 billion per year in the U.S.
  • One out of six cases of Campylobacter infection, the most common cause of food poisoning, is resistant to fluoroquinolones, the drugs most often used to treat severe food-borne illness. Just six years ago, before fluoroquinolones were approved for use in poultry, such resistance was negligible.
  • Campylobacter accounts for 2.4 million illnesses and over 120 deaths each year in the U.S.
  • One out of three cases of human infection by a particular strain of Salmonella bacteria is resistant to more than five different antibiotics. Salmonella causes 1.4 million illnesses and 580 deaths annually in the U.S.
  • Nearly all strains of Staphlococcus infections in the U.S. are resistant to penicillin, and many are resistant to newer drugs.
In the case of Campylobacter, one could infer that at least some of the 120 people who die from it each year in the US die because the fluoroquinolones they're given are ineffective against the infection, as a result of use in the poultry industry. This is an inference, but I'd be surprised if it weren't true. The same could be true of some portion of the 580 people who die from Salmonella each year in the US. (See the original article linked above for citations for all these statistics.)

When are we as a country going to become angry about this and put a stop to it?

March 12, 2007

Good News

Duncan is out of surgery and came through it just fine. According to his surgeon, the probability is that it wasn't an infection. Osteoid osteoma is a possibility, as is a stress fracture, but we won't know definitively for a few days. The bottom line is that he's coming home tomorrow, and unless something unexpected turns up in the post-surgery laboratory tests, he won't be on antibiotics longer than a day.

Waiting at Duke

I'm spending this morning in the surgical waiting room at Duke University Medical Center. My son Duncan is having surgery on his hand today -- in fact, as I write this, the operation should be well underway.

Duncan has been suffering from pain in his right wrist and hand for the last few months now. An x-ray at the orthopaedist was inconclusive, which led to a bone scan. That showed a mass, but of unknown type. His orthopaedist referred him to the specialists here at Duke, who did an MRI. That, too, showed a mass of unknown type, so at that the point, the only option was surgery.

What the surgeon is telling us is that there are two basic possibilities:

  • Duncan has an osteoid osteoma, which is basically a benign bone growth. If this is the case, they'll remove it, close him up, and he'll be back home by tomorrow at the latest.
  • He has an infection in his hand. If this is the case, they'll remove all of it that they can find, and then he'll be in the hospital as long as five days while undergoing intensive antibiotic treatment. After he's discharged, he'll be equipped with a shunt for a few weeks to deliver antibiotics directly into his bloodstream.
The surgeon was hopeful that Duncan will have the osteoid osteoma, not the infection -- he says he only sees half a dozen such infections each year. We're hopeful, too. We should know in about an hour.

March 11, 2007

Section AA, Row 36, Seats 5-6

In 1998, I started compiling a list of 100 things I wanted to do in life. (In the eight and a half years since, I've accomplished 26 of my goals, but added another 19, so I still have 93 to go -- but that's another story.) One of my goals was to see The Police in concert should they ever reunite. I had no idea whether this would ever happen -- after all, the stories of Sting and Stewart Copeland going at one another are fairly legendary. But I added it to the list just the same. Now it's 2007 and The Police are touring this year... and my son Duncan and I have tickets for floor seats to see their first show of two in Seattle this coming June.

I've long been convinced of the essentiality of setting goals for ourselves -- after all, if we don't know where we want to go, how are we ever going to get there? Now I'm convinced that at least some of our ambitions should be goals we don't know how to accomplish when we set them. As Goethe said, "Dream no small dreams."

Writing this entry, and thinking of no small dreams, I'm reminded that one of the goals I set for myself back in 1998 was to visit space -- six years before SpaceShipOne and the founding of Virgin Galactic. That particular goal doesn't seem so impossible now. Just expensive.

March 09, 2007

Thoughts on the Game Industry from GDC

It's the final day of the Game Developers Conference. I'm not blogging individual sessions as I did last year (search this blog for "GDC 2006"), though I will post pictures from a couple of noteworthy talks. I did, though, want to post my thoughts on the evolution of the game industry -- thoughts that have been forming for a few months now, and that have coalesced during my week here.

It's an axiom of the gaming industry that new platforms fuel surges in creativity, as game designers and developers imagine and then create new game experiences that wouldn't have been possible with previous platforms. Our industry is in the early stage of a new platform cycle, and as ever, this new cycle is fueling innovation and creativity. However, unlike previous platform cycles, the amazing new technical abilities of the most advanced consoles -- the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 -- aren't driving innovation. Yes, developers are taking advantage of these consoles, and they are producing some very cool new games. But these new games aren't radically innovative. They're shinier than their predecessors, to be sure: better graphics, better audio, larger worlds, you name it. But if anyone can point to something fundamentally new about them, I haven't seen it.

The Wii is definitely enabling -- demanding, even -- innovative game design. Nintendo has shown that they can be successful with an approach that combines low-end, low-cost hardware -- basically, graphics that are last-generation plus just a little bit -- with radically new controller design. I believe the Wii will do extremely well for Nintendo, and I think we're going to continue to see cool new games for it. But I don't see the Wii Remote as appropriate for every kind of game, and I don't want to wave my arms around to play every new game I buy.

To me, the enabling platform for the industry's next surge in creativity -- which is already underway -- isn't the 360 or the Playstation 3 or even the Wii. In fact, I don't see the platform as any one piece of hardware or software. It's a collection of technologies, design techniques, and business practices, all centered around the transformation of the industry from a hits-driven model to one in which independent, innovative game development is seen not as a labor of love, but as a profitable pursuit.

A friend of mine here at GDC put the argument this way: in the 1990s, Hollywood went through a transition from its pure blockbuster model to a model that preserved the blockbuster, but also enabled the profitable creation of independent films, such as short films, foreign films, story-driven ensemble films on the cheap, documentaries, short animation, you name it. Just look at the state of documentary films today: 8 of the 10 highest-grossing documentaries of all time have been released since 2002. It's now possible to make documentaries that make money. Generally speaking, that wasn't the case 10 or 15 years ago. How did this come about? I'm not a Hollywood expert, but my impression is that it was a variety of changes, from new methods and sources of financing to new distribution mechanisms (new cable TV channels, 'long tail' DVD buying on the Internet, short film Websites, etc.), from a new understanding of techniques for writing and directing documentaries that viewers would find compelling to the evolution of a new audience of consumers hungry for more good documentaries.

This same sort of thing -- the rise of indie-style development and distribution -- is evolving right now in the game world. I'm not talking about cheap, imitative casual games. "It's bowling, but with penguins." "It's miniature golf, but in outer space." "It's a match three game, but with glowing alien fruit." Yawn. I'm talking about truly innovative game design: games that aren't large and expansive, but that within their limited scope, offer new types of gameplay and new experiences for their players.

Put another way, I believe there's a creative high ground in game design, between the ultra-low budgets of most of the PC casual games industry and the ultra-high budgets of the console and PC AAA-level games industry. At the low end, budgets are so small that they constrain innovation, leading designers and developers to think first of imitating successful competitors (because they don't have the money or time to do anything else). At the high end, budgets are so large that they, too, constrain innovation, leading publishers to avoid taking risks (because failure would be devastating).

Where is this creative high ground, this sweet spot for innovative game development? There's no hard and fast rule, but I'd say that game budgets between $100,000 and $1,000,000 sound about right. It's possible to create games for less than this that bring it all together (DEFCON comes to mind), and there are games with larger budgets that nevertheless have an independent feel to them (see LocoRoco), but in general, a budget in this range is large enough to enable creativity and innovation while staying small enough that risk-taking is still possible.

I described the platform driving innovation as a collection of technologies, of design techniques, and of business practices. There's no such thing as a definitive enumeration of these components, but we can point to a variety of things that play a role. Low-cost, high-performance game engines such as Torque make it possible for developers to create compelling games without spending half their budgets on engines. Financing schemes such as project-specific LLCs make it possible for developers to find the money for their projects without going to traditional publishers (often losing creative control and ownership of their intellectual property in the process). Community-based game sites such as Kongregate make it possible for developers to find an audience while retaining more control than would be possible with traditional casual game portals. Console game download systems such as Xbox Live Arcade give console owners a continuous stream of fresh new games, most costing $5-10, as a complement to their high-profile AAA-level titles that cost $50-60 (and that cost $5-25 million to develop).

The result of all this is that I do believe we're in the early stage of a huge creative surge in the game industry, but one unlike any of the platform-driven creative surges we've seen in the past. It will change the industry for a long time to come, if not permanently, and this change will be for the better.

March 05, 2007

When in Doubt, Generate Random Answers

My son Duncan, who's 19, is looking for a job. He recently applied on the Website of a major grocery firm -- a company that operates a variety of grocery chains around the country. The hiring manager at the local store invited him in for an interview, which was last Friday. Duncan stopped by to see me before the interview for some last-minute practice, and he was well-prepared. I wished him luck and he was on his way.

The next day, he came by the house to spend some with me before I took off for San Francisco (where I am now). I asked him how the interview went. "It was pretty strange," he said.

When Duncan applied on the Website, the only thing the Website asked him to do was to fill out a form with basic résumé-type information, which he did. It turned out there was also a personality test, but the Website didn't offer him the chance to take it. When Duncan indicated that he was done with the form and wanted to submit his information, instead of generating an error, or submitting his information with blank personality test results, apparently the site filled in random answers for the test.

Duncan said the first few minutes of the interview were straightforward, and then the manager told him that the reason he had brought him in were his personality test scores, which were the worst he had ever seen -- in terms of suitability for employment, Duncan had scored something like 8 percent on one scale and 13 percent on another. Apparently the only reason the hiring manager had invited him in for an interview was because he wanted to confirm that the test was representative of Duncan's personality, and if so, to flag him in his company's system so that he would never be hired by any of their chains.

Of course, Duncan explained that he had not, in fact, taken such a test. The hiring manager figured out what happened, asked him to take the test, and when last I heard, it looked promising that he was going to get the job after all.

I give the hiring manager a great deal of credit for actually taking the time to investigate and not simply accepting the ludicrously bad personality results, which many people might have done in his place.

The obvious question is, how many people have been flagged by how many companies for tests they never took, answers that were never theirs? How many hiring managers haven't investigated test anomalies such as Duncan's? How many companies have missed out on great employees because of poor Website design and implementation errors? How much does this sort of thing cost us?