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May 30, 2007

The Future of Medicine

It's an exciting time to be alive. Medicine is following Moore's Law:

The technology involved here is worth thinking about. Even now, this was a rather costly experiment as these things go, and it's worth a paper in a good journal. But a few years ago, needless to say, it would have been a borderline-insane idea, and a few years before that it would have been flatly impossible. A few years from now it'll be routine, and a few years after that it probably won't be done at all, having been superseded by something more elegant that no one's come up with yet.

I feel privileged to be able to contribute, albeit indirectly, to this trend.

May 29, 2007

Whee, a Lawsuit!

I think it's time that I educate myself a little more about how government works. Or, in my case, about how government screws up. I'm going in with pretty low expectations given my experience with jury duty, but there's definitely a very slim chance something good will happen.

Yes, this is another chapter in the story of how the Oregon Department of Revenue botched my 2005 amended taxes. They ignored my pointed letter asking them to admit their mistake, instead sending a Notice of Deficiency Assessment in which they've added a $4.44 penalty for my failure to pay.

So I'm going to take the Oregon Department of Revenue to tax court. It's going to cost me $25 to file — much more than the $9.90 in penalty and interest they're seeking — but this isn't about the money. This is about the State being an ass, behaving as if they neither have to justify their claims nor admit their errors. I don't know about you guys, but I'm tired of being pushed around.

I'm going to be a plaintiff! I'm so excited!! :)

I'll pay now and seek a judgement for $36.09 plus interest, my filing fee plus postage for my three letters plus the the $9.90 at dispute only because they issued me a refund they shouldn't have. It looks like my bank waived the fee to get a copy of the refund check from their archives (it's good to know your bankers) or I would've sought that, too.

Obviously I'm going for the full immersion experience, so I'll be representing myself.

May 28, 2007


Dr. Jack Kevorkian, of assisted suicide fame, is going to be released from prison in a few days. I'm glad that he's being released.

The controversy around Dr. Kevorkian is an example of one of the fundamental divides between ethical systems (and therefore also of political ideas). At issue is the basic relationship between individuals and the rest of society. Assisted suicide brings this sharply into focus — much more sharply than ordinary suicide, because assisted suicide can be (and in the case of Dr. Kevorkian, has been) prevented.

The question is: Do you have the right to exist for your own sake, or must you exist for others? Do you create your own responsibilities or are they imposed on you?

The overwhelming majority of people are conflicted by these questions and reach a muddled middle ground, allowing some amount of freedom mixed with an amount of unchosen obligation. Observe a few examples:

A stereotypical conservative thinks that people should be responsible for their own financial lives and free to take risks and to enjoy the fruits of their success. They also think that many "vices" such as gambling or pornography or recreational drug use should be prevented by the government.

A stereotypical liberal thinks that people should have greater freedom of action and is accepting of their choices to have "nontraditional" families or to engage in risky (and possibly addicting) behaviors or to otherwise break with social norms. They also think that the government should try to insulate people from the effects of their bad decisions, and from the effects of others' decisions.

If you take seriously the idea of self-ownership, the typical political spectrum looks like an unprincipled jumble. Why do liberals acknowledge the fairness of voluntary trade in prostitution but deny the fairness of voluntary trade in factory work? And why the opposite attitude from conservatives? The religious origin of much of conservative thought makes it generally more cohesive than liberal thought, but at root it is even more conflicted: If your life belongs to God and should be spent in service to Him, why should you have any freedoms at all? (Islamic fundamentalists are at least consistent here.)

The controversy around assisted suicide should be divided into two portions. First, is it acceptable even in principle? Second (and presupposing an affirmative answer to the first), what methods and safeguards should be used?

If you believe that individuals own their own lives, the answer to the first question can only be "yes" — if my life is my own, I have the right to decide how I will live it and when to stop living. If you believe that individuals have unchosen obligations to others, the answer may be "no" — you would want to preserve their lives at least until they could no longer fulfill those obligations. (Examples of this may be rare in reality, but imagine the plight of a uniquely skilled surgeon who is in severe pain. Should he be allowed even to retire, much less to be helped to die, when his work could save others?) If you believe that individuals owe their lives to God, and that He does not give consent to euthanasia, the answer is clearly and always "no".

The second question is frankly less interesting to me than the first. :)


Zombies! Zombies everywhere! Be as inconspicuous as you can. If zombies notice you they'll start walking slowly toward you… so, so very slowly toward you. But relentlessly. Zombies do not tire, they only hunger, and they only want…

Your braaaains!

May 23, 2007

The KISS of Robustness

The "KISS" mantra — keep it simple, stupid — is a beloved design principle. Simpler systems are easier to understand, easier to create, and easier to validate. Over the past couple weeks I've bumped into this several times in diverse contexts and wanted to share an anecdote of what I consider good software philosophy.

Yeah, this is perilously close to "blogging about work". I usually try to avoid that, but it's For A Good Cause™.

Since a bunch of my co-workers read my blog I have to preface this by saying that I don't intend any disrespect by my choice of example. I understand the circumstances under which the tool was created, and it was reasonable for it to turn out the way that it did, even though I don't like it. :)

Intel has been selling multi-core processors for several years, and one very nebulous and mysterious piece of internal software whose source code I recently got to see just happens to care about how many cores there are. In this context the software is associated with a simulation of a processor, not with a physical processor. It's important to note that the number of cores running in the simulation can be fewer than the number of cores in a physical processor. These smaller simulations run faster and consume fewer resources, so we prefer them in many circumstances.

Our mysterious software requires the user to specify the number of cores.

That's dumb.

This mysterious software has access to the simulator, and the simulator already knows how many cores it's simulating. The mysterious software should learn how many cores are running from the simulator, not from the user.

Requiring the user to specify it is to invite error. If they do it manually, they might use the wrong number. If it's part of an automated work flow, that flow has to have the sophistication to provide the correct number. You get to choose between error-prone or complicated — what a great choice!

The KISS advice is for the mysterious software to take care of itself. Don't burden the user or the automated work flow. It's easy to learn how many cores there are by simply trying to "attach" to each possible core and stopping when the attempt to attach fails. Yeah, that means your software will have to <gasp> loop over the possible cores and <choke> check for failure to "attach". (But you're already checking for failures because you're a disciplined programmer, aren't you?)

The beauty of this approach is that it can't break. There's no concern about the user doing something wrong, or about adding complexity or maintenance work to an automation system. The complexity of dealing with a variable number of cores remains, but it's contained within the mysterious software itself and does not pollute its software ecosystem.

And did I mention it can't break? You should be as excited about that as I am — it's always correct, automatically, and nobody ever has to worry about it again! Awesome!

When the mysterious software can take care of itself, no one else has to do it. Simple is robust.

May 22, 2007

Big Bad Oil

Memorial Day is approaching, and with it the summer driving season and a drowning torrent of seething articles about the greedy rapaciousness of oil companies gouging us for gasoline.

Petroleum has become the Jew of commodities, irrationally hated and scapegoated. All manner of insult and ire and conspiracy are directed at it and its producers. Environmentalists say that it's destroying the planet. (It's not.) Politicians whip up populist frenzy against "windfall" profits. (Oil companies aren't especially profitable.)

But it's the conspiracy theorists that really burn me up. You know, they're the ones who are so eager to believe that gasoline prices are "manipulated" and cannot! possibly! be due to seasonal factors such as higher summer consumption and the mandated change of blends. They further believe that refineries are the best-run industrial facilities in the world, requiring no maintenance and never having unexpected problems. Sharply increasing demand from China and political instability in oil-producing nations are similarly dismissed as minor factors.

There is a vast array of mostly ignored but straightforward and true reasons contributing to the rise in gasoline prices. There's also a common and plausible but false one: that because the gasoline price is inelastic, oil companies will withhold supplies in order to increase their profits.

No, they won't. Really. I mean it.

Companies do not face the alternative of (A) sell all the gasoline they can produce or (B) withhold some production and sell the reduced output at a higher price.

Alternative (B) does not exist except for a legally protected monopoly.

The actual alternative for most products, including gasoline, is: (C) withhold some production and sell your reduced output at the same price as (A). This obviously results in lower revenues for (C) than (A), which is why the refineries in fact choose (A).

Where does (C) come from? From the fact that the additional quantity of gasoline in question is, by itself, profitable to produce. Even if a large supplier would like to raise the price of each unit sold by restricting the amount they offer for sale (because the price increase on a large quantity of sales would more than offset the lost additional sales), a smaller supplier would see this as an opportunity to expand production into the void left by their larger competitor. Compared to the larger company, a greater fraction of the smaller company's revenues would be due to the additional sales volume, so they would be less willing to withhold production in order to support prices. And to a would-be upstart competitor, the additional volume would represent 100% of their revenue, so they would have no interest in all in withholding production. The smaller the company, the more profitable it would be to expand production in response to another company's cutbacks. This incentive is strongest for new entrants; it would create a breeding ground for competitors.

The crucial point here is that if the marginal unit of gasoline can be produced for a profit, then it will be produced. As a supplier your only decision is whether you will produce it yourself or whether you will cede market share to your competitors.

Your choice is between (A) and (C) — option (B) is an illusion. So you choose (A).

May 20, 2007

Computer Warfare

Estonia, a former Soviet state and current bastion of capitalism in Eastern Europe (and a place a might actually like to visit), is under attack by its former master:

TALLINN, Estonia, May 18 — This small Baltic country, one of the most wired societies in Europe, has been subject in recent weeks to massive and coordinated cyber attacks on Web sites of the government, banks, telecommunications companies, Internet service providers and news organizations, according to Estonian and foreign officials here.

Computer security specialists here call it an unprecedented assault on the public and private electronic infrastructure of a state. They say it is originating in Russia, which is angry over Estonia's recent relocation of a Soviet war memorial. Russian officials deny any government involvement.

Obviously, I believe the Estonians and not the Russians. This is the first large-scale government-sponsored (did I mention I don't trust Russia?) internet attack that I'm aware of. Is this really the first, or have there been others?

Expect more of this, worldwide, and expect it to become increasingly difficult to finger the perpetrators. It will take time for networks and computer systems to be made resilient against such attacks.

May 19, 2007

Bullion Haul

Treasure!! The Odyssey Marine Exploration company has recovered sunken treasure estimated to be worth $500 million. The company's press release is a good read, and see also their FAQ.

The artifacts recovered from the site include over 500,000 silver coins weighing more than 17 tons, hundreds of gold coins, worked gold, and other artifacts. All recovered items have been legally imported into the Unites States and placed in a secure, undisclosed location where they are undergoing conservation and documentation.

It is believed that this recovery constitutes the largest collection of coins ever excavated from a historical shipwreck site. They were recovered in conformity with Salvage Law and the Law of the Sea Convention, beyond the territorial waters or legal jurisdiction of any country. The Company does not believe that the recovery is subject to sovereign immunity by any nation pursuant to the Law of the Sea Convention.

The "$500 million" headline figure certainly raises eyebrows. But almost all the value in that figure is numismatic; the melt value of 17 (short) tons of (sterling) silver is only $5.9 million. That's a much more sensible figure from the standpoint of what's reasonable to put on a boat.

The company is still being quiet about the identity of the ship, where it was found, and why it sank. Since they're not saying, I'll imagine a story that's surely more exciting than the real thing.

The ship, you see, was sunk in a pirate attack! In the crossfire of cannons and pistols many sailors were lost. Knowing that defeat was at hand, the captain ordered the ship scuttled so that the pirates could not plunder the ship. The booty sank to the bottom of the sea, where over hundreds of years its true story devolved into legend… except to the descendants of those pirates, who for generations pretended to lead ordinary lives while secretly lusting for the booty that should have been their forefathers'! (Does that sentence sound odd to anyone else?) Anyway, the reason the company is being so quiet is that in their research they discovered the pirates' pact to pass on knowledge of the treasure to their children, and their children's children, so that one day they could have their revenge.


And that's how it really is. I know, because I'm one of the descendants of that original pirate crew. The treasure will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.

P.S., they think they're so clever hiding the treasure "in a secure, undisclosed location." They might as well put a blinking, buzzing, GPS-coordinate-transmitting beacon on the treasure. It's all in Dick Cheney's basement.

May 15, 2007

Welcome to the World, Ellie!

A co-worker and good friend of mine just had a baby.

Baby photo now. Pirate blogging later.

Newborn baby Ellie Quinn

Ellie Catherine Optimus* Quinn was born May 12th at 5:12 a.m. She was 6lb, 12oz, and 20" long. Mother, father, and daughter are all doing well.

*No, not really.

May 14, 2007

About That $90

I've recently written about my conflict with the Oregon Department of Revenue over the $90 I owed when I filed my amended 2005 return.

Quick recap: (1) They tell me I owe $90. (2) I say no, and mail them a copy of my check as proof of payment. (3) They write back saying they got the $90 and then refunded it to me. (4) I respond, demanding evidence of the refund and the reason they would do that in the first place.

It's been nearly three weeks since then and I haven't heard back yet. Yeah, the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. Not content to wait for them, I had my bank pull up the images of my deposits from last July. This took a little while because they had been archived months ago. What did I find?

… a check for $90 from the Oregon Department of Revenue. They were right — they actually did send it back to me. (Oh noes!) I'll have to wait until their letter for them to explain why they did it.

It looks like I'll be sending them $90. Again. Maybe they'll keep it this time?

The sad thing in this is that even though it's their mistake, I'll probably still have to pay interest. They're charging me 2¢/day, so I wish they'd hurry up and write me back. :)

May 12, 2007

Anti-Capitalist Ignorance

What is capitalism? A lot of people don't know. One of them has a video camera and decided it would be a neat idea to interview a bunch of people to ask them to explain what they think capitalism is.

The video self-describes as "a failed attempt to understand capitalism." If you watch the video it's easy to see why it failed. None of the people interviewed has any idea what capitalism is, but only two actually admitted to not knowing. The others babble and ramble, talking about nonessential traits and a surprising number of completely incorrect traits. It's painful and funny.

Nine minutes of painful and funny!

The filmmaker would have done much better to simply pick up a dictionary and read it to the camera. Or if she was determined to do interviews, she should have interviewed an economist instead of a bunch of random hippies. George Reisman, for instance, defines capitalism in this way (Capitalism p. 19):

Capitalism is a social system based on private ownership of the means of production. It is characterized by the pursuit of material self-interest under freedom and it rests on a foundation of the cultural influence of reason. Based on its foundations and essential nature, capitalism is further characterized by saving and capital accumulation, exchange and money, financial self-interest and the profit motive, the freedoms of economic competition and economic inequality, the price system, economic progress, and a harmony of the material self-interests of all the individuals who participate in it.

Aaaahhhh.... I'm basking in the clarity and precision of expression!

May 05, 2007

The Ticking Clock

Browsing around the blogosphere today I found this article from a blogger named Megan about her desire to have children and resentment of the biological urgency. She's a vivid writer and you should read the whole thing. Here's a taste:

I always wanted kids, but for a long time it was just that I liked kids and thought that families laughed an awful lot and it seemed like a pleasant thing to do after you had had a lot of fun in your twenties. Until my mid-twenties, kids were an abstract good idea that I could have been talked out of by a better idea. Around twenty-seven or twenty-eight, babies became more interesting. They were just more… interesting. It became mesmerizing to watch one in a room full of people and to wonder was it was doing; nothing else in the room was really quite as vivid as the baby. By twenty-nine it started to hurt. And by hurt I mean some in the way where you are denied something you really, really want. But I mean mostly in the way that it physically hurts me. It feels like hunger, if you never ever get enough food. My breasts ache if I hear a baby; my throat closes; my womb clenches and my arms hurt. It has been like this for years. It has eased recently, and I dont know if that is because the babyhunger is passing or because I've pushed it away for so long.

… I am scared that I will not be able to make this right, that I cannot work hard enough, meet enough men to find one who wants to do this with me, be appealing and funny enough, be lucky enough to do this in time. I am doing whatever I can think of to solve this problem; whoring my life on the internet, meeting strangers, moving to a new town. And I AM increasingly desperate, because I DO believe there's a deadline for this. I just passed my thirty-fifth birthday, which might mean all sorts of things to all of you, but to me it was the "mandatory amniocenteses" birthday.

When I was younger, I couldn't have told you whether I wanted children or not. The topic simply didn't interest me and I didn't spend any time thinking about it. This has changed for me over the past few years as I've seen most of my co-workers get married and many of them start families. In fact, some good friends of mine are expecting their first child within the month.

It was a gradual realization for me that I want to have children, too. A couple years ago I started asking a few friends, both with and without children, how they realized they wanted (or didn't want) children and how those desires fit into the context of their lives. I don't think I learned anything actionable, but it was helpful for me to talk to people about it.

I recently passed my 29th birthday, and I'm starting to feel the clock ticking, too. It isn't as urgent for men as it is for women (men are fertile for longer and don't have the biological risks of child-bearing) but at the same time I'm aware that large age differences are atypical in successful relationships. For men in general, and myself in particular, the risk is that by waiting too long I won't be able to find a woman still young enough to have children. (Don't give me a hard time about this. I know I'm still under 30. I have a low discount rate.)

My parents had children by the time they were my age. That's less common today. People are waiting longer to have families, spending more time on education and establishing themselves in the world. This makes sense; the world is a more complicated place than it used to be. There's more to learn and it takes longer to specialize in a career. But the biological imperative doesn't adjust to the modern world.

I have a great sympathy for Megan, but I don't think I have any advice. Her situation serves as a warning to me: don't be too patient — you don't have all the time in the world. This is the second time in recent memory when I've had to stop and reflect on my time horizon. This is a change I need to make.

May 04, 2007

Dog Blog

I promised I wouldn't say "this blog's for the dogs" — and I swear, I won't! — but my sister's service dog has a blog. If you've been working like a dog all day, and it's made you dog tired, roll over that link and fetch the latest in canine antics. Sit down. Stay a while. It's a treat to read. You'll be begging for more.

Okay, I'll stop.

(Yes, she's using my comment software. I hadn't written it with portability as a goal, but happily that work ended up being easier than I expected.)

May 02, 2007

Net Worth Report - End of 04/07

This month was especially busy for me and I didn't make time to research new investments, so I'm still sitting on a lot of cash that's only earning 5%. I got a new batch of restricted stock grants as part of my performance review, and that combined with Intel stock rising 12% last month means that I'm no longer comfortable with my exposure to Intel stock. Counting unvested assets, it's almost 10% of my net worth — too high! I've decided to sell all my ESPP shares (despite the unfavorable tax treatment they'll get) in order to reduce my exposure.

Yes, it's a complete reversal from last month, where I defended holding on to my ESPP shares. :)

Net Worth Figures

I haven't had time to reconsider the next section. I still think it will be useful for me to break out investment performance from income.

Goal-Tracking Figures
Adjusted Net Worth$503,040.55$521,009.44
Next Month's Target$505,603.75$523,425.96
Estimated Contribution-$237.94-$468.97

No activity on credit card arbitrage this month.

Credit Card Arbitrage Figures
Balances @ 0% APR$19,654.13$19,455.94
Monthly Payment$393.08$389.12

You can keep track of other personal finance bloggers at NetWorthIQ. I've updated my entry there.

Tiny Island