Hello Kitty Maternity Ward

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

If you don’t like the typical hospital experience, perhaps you’d consider this Hello Kitty Maternity Ward:

A nurse tends to a baby inside a Hello Kitty themed maternity ward inside a hospital in Changhua County December 4, 2008. Mommy, daddy — and Hello Kitty — welcome newborns at a cat-themed Taiwan maternity hospital that hopes the Japanese cartoon icon will ease the stress of childbirth as well as boost business. The 30-bed Hau Sheng Hospital in Yuanlin in central Taiwan claims to be the only institution of its kind authorised by the popular cartoon cat’s parent company Sanrio Co Ltd. Newborns get everything Hello Kitty but a set of whiskers, including pink or blue receiving blankets, nurses dressed in pink uniforms with cat-themed aprons, cot linen and room decor.

Respect, rapport, hope, cunning, and deception

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Nobody expects the military interrogators. Amongst their weaponry are such diverse elements as respect, rapport, hope, cunning, and deception, and an almost fanatical devotion to — oh, damn:

Air Force officer Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym) was flown to Iraq in 2006 as part of a small group of military interrogators (or ‘gators, as they call themselves) trained to elicit information without resorting to the old methods of control and force. Upon their arrival, Alexander and his team are assigned to the search for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist organization threatening to plunge the country into a violent civil war. Structured around a series of interrogations, How to Break a Terrorist details the battle of wills between ‘gators and suspects as well as the internal fight between Alexander’s team and the old-school military inquisitors used to more brutal methods of questioning.

1. On the new interrogation tactics he was trained to utilize: “The quickest way to get most (but not all) captives talking is to be nice to them. But what does it mean to be “nice” to a subject under interrogation? … It means, ideally, getting to know the subject better than he knows himself and then manipulating him by role-playing, flattering, misleading, and nudging his or her perception of the truth slightly off center. The goal is to turn the subject around so that he begins to see strong logic and even wisdom in acting against his own comrades and cause.”

2. On the long-entrenched techniques his group tries to change: “After 9/11, military interrogators focused on two techniques: fear and control. The Army trained their ‘gators to confront and dominate prisoners. This led down the disastrous path to the Abu Ghraib scandal. At Guantánamo Bay, the early interrogators not only abused the detainees, they tried to belittle their religious beliefs. I’d heard stories from a friend who had been there that some of the ‘gators even tried to convert prisoners to Christianity. These approaches rarely yielded results … My group is among the first to bring a new approach to interrogating detainees. Respect, rapport, hope, cunning, and deception are our tools.”

3. On what makes a good ‘gator: “The best interrogators are outstanding actors. Once they hit that booth, their personalities are transformed. They can tuck their reactions and biases into some remote corner of their minds and allow a doppelgänger to emerge. What doppelgänger is most likely to elicit information from a detainee changes from prisoner to prisoner. Sometimes I must have a wife or children, so I can swap stories with the prisoner, though I have neither.”

Diary of a Self-Help Dropout

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Chris Hardwick (Nerdist) spent a couple weeks “flirting with The 4-Hour Workweek” and other productivity regimens, and he shares his experience in his Diary of a Self-Help Dropout, which he sums up nicely:

Allen, Morgenstern, and Ferriss are a nicely compatible family unit: David Allen is the practical dad who reminds you not to overcomplicate things; just get the job done. Julie Morgenstern is the encouraging mom who, while hugging you, says, “It’ll be all right; you just need to focus on what’s important here.” And Tim Ferriss is the upstart kid who cries, “Think outside the box, man!” So in retrospect, it makes sense that I found it easier to cherry-pick elements from each and stitch together my own wearable cloak of efficiency. Now, I know that David Allen is the head vampire of productivity, but if you only have the fortitude to read a single book, I’m gonna throw my lithe frame behind The 4-Hour Workweek. Ferriss lays out a series of nimble yet perfectly legal cons to help you break out of the corporate Bastille — and work from the actual Bastille, if you want. That sly creativity best fits the rogue nature of the freelancer.

Octopuses give eight thumbs up for high-def TV

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Octopuses give eight thumbs up for high-def TV — sort of:

[Macquarie University marine biology researcher Renata Pronk] collected 32 common Sydney, or gloomy, octopuses from Chowder Bay, near Mosman, and showed them a series of three-minute videos screened on a monitor in front of their tank.

One video featured a crab, an octopus delicacy.

A second starred another octopus, while a third had a “novel object” they would not have seen: a plastic bottle swinging on a string.

Miss Pronk then watched each octopus for any consistent response pattern, such as boldness or aggression.

When the crab movie was screened “they jetted straight over to the monitor and tried to attack it”, she said, adding that was strong evidence they knew they were watching food.

When the octopus movie was screened some became aggressive while others changed their skin camouflage or “would go and hide in a corner, moving as far away as possible”.

On viewing the swinging bottle, some puffed themselves up, just in case the object was a threat, while others paid no attention.

But significantly, when the experiment was repeated over several days, she found no consistent response from any octopus. Such random responses implied octopuses have no individual personalities.

She suspected previous efforts to show movies to octopuses failed because their sophisticated eyes were too fast for the 24-frame per second format of standard-definition video.

“They would have seen it as a series of still pictures,” said Miss Pronk, who had success using high-definition, operating at 50 frames per second.

Toyota Expects Its First Loss in 70 Years

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Toyota Expects Its First Loss in 70 Years:

On Monday, Toyota said it expected an operating loss in its auto operations of 150 billion yen, or $1.7 billion, for the fiscal year ending March 31. That would be the company’s first annual operating loss since 1938, a year after the company was founded, and a huge reversal from the 2.3 trillion yen, or $28 billion, in operating profit earned last year.
With some $18.5 billion in cash, and relatively little debt, Toyota is still in far better shape to weather the downturn than General Motors and Chrysler, which on Friday received $17.4 billion in emergency loans from Washington.

Bunny didn’t make it

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

The Brains of TSA

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

David Henderson says you’ll wonder why he’s quoting his own Making Great Decisions in Business and Life while discussing The Brains of TSA, but be patient:

A few years ago, I volunteered to serve hamburgers, hot dogs, and veggie burgers at a barbecue held at my daughter’s high school. When it looked as if we were running out of any of the three items, one of the cooks would put more of those items on the grill. At one point, the line got long, with about 12 people suddenly waiting for their meal. That was the symptom of the problem. The cooks quickly put more burgers on the grill. That was their solution. But I looked down and saw that I had about four each of hot dogs and veggie burgers. I realized that the cooks were implicitly assuming that everyone wanted hamburgers. But, I wondered, what if some of them were in line for hot dogs and veggie burgers? There was a simple solution that addressed the real problem: ask them. So I announced, in my booming voice, “Anyone who’s in line for hot dogs or veggie burgers please come up here.” Immediately, six people came up, cutting the apparent hamburger line in half. Interestingly, the server who had made the panicked request to the cook for more hamburgers was a high-level manager at a logistics firm. He didn’t see any easy way around the problem.

The punchline:

When Charley and I tell a story of poor thinking, we almost never give the name of the person. But here I’ll make an exception. This high-level manager of a logistics firm? Well, his name is Kip Hawley and he’s now head of TSA.

The Unread Fisher

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

David B. discusses The Unread Fisher, the last five chapters of R. A. Fisher’s Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, which are devoted to human evolution and especially to the evolution of fertility:

He argues that fertility, like any other trait, is subject to natural selection, and that the most important factor in determining optimal fertility is the amount of parental expenditure required: ‘In organisms in which that degree of parental expenditure, which yields the highest proportionate probability of survival, is large compared to the resources available, the optimal fertility will be relatively low’ (p.204).

In ‘civilized’ man, the most important determinants of fertility are psychological. There are factors of temperament which determine the propensity to marry, whether marriage is early or late, and the degree of enthusiasm for children (p.210-13). But there are also social and institutional factors such as prohibitions on infanticide (p.218-21). These factors will themselves be affected by psychological influences which will vary over time, (p.219), since parents who are reluctant to commit infanticide will have more children surviving, and the children will tend to inherit their parents’ temperament.

Fisher argues that this is responsible for the changing historical views on infanticide, and minimises the role of religious doctrine, which itself (he argues) is responsive to the general mood of the population. In a splendidly Fisherian phrase he remarks: ‘It would, I believe, be a fundamental mistake to imagine that the moral attitude of any religious community is to any important extent deducible from the intellectual conceptions of their theology (however much preachers make it their business so to deduce it)‘ (p.222).

The Rabbi and the Norse King

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

In The Rabbi and the Norse King, David Friedman shares an amusing story from Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish:

An official brought the chief rabbi of a town before the Court of the Inquisition and told him, “We will leave the fate of your people to God. I am putting two slips of paper in this box. On one is written ‘Guilty.’ On the other is written ‘Innocent.’ Draw.”

Now this inquisitor was known to seek the slaughter of all the Jews, and he had written “Guilty” on both pieces of paper.

The rabbi put his hand inside the box, withdrew a slip of paper—and swallowed it.

“What are you doing?” cried the Inquisitor. “How will the court know—”

“That’s simple,” said the rabbi. “Examine the slip that’s in the box. If it reads ‘Innocent,’ then the paper I swallowed obviously must have read ‘Guilty.’ But if the paper in the box reads ‘Guilty,’ then the one I swallowed must have read ‘Innocent.’”

As he says, it’s a clever trick, but one he’d heard before — in King Harald’s Saga:

It was determined, with the consent of all parties, that lots should be thrown into a box, and the Greeks and Varings should draw which was first to ride, or to row, or to take place in a harbour, or to choose tent ground; and each side should be satisfied with what the drawing of the lots gave them.

Accordingly the lots were made and marked. Harald said to Gyrger, “Let me see what mark thou hast put upon thy lot, that we may not both mark our lots in the same way.” He did so. Then Harald marked his lot, and put it into the box along with the other. The man who was to draw out the lots then took up one of the lots between his fingers, held it up in the air, and said, “This lot shall be the first to ride, and to row, and to take place in harbour and on the tent field.” Harald seized his hand, snatched the die, and threw it into the sea, and called out, “That was our lot!” Gyrger said, “Why did you not let other people see it?” Harald replies, “Look at the one remaining in the box, — there you see your own mark upon it.”

A commenter spotted an important difference in the two stories:

In the saga, Harald is the cheat. In the Jewish version, the rabbi is merely defending himself against a potential cheat; if his adversary was honest then there should be no problem.

I prefer the story in the original Klingon.

Stork Tools is a Cool Diaper Bag for Geeky New Dads

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Ken Denmead of GeekDad happily points new geek dads to the Stork Tools Daddy Diaper Bag from Dr. Moz, which is “gender-neutral in color scheme” and “designed with modern, geekier dads and moms in mind” — with the following geeky features:

  • double bottle holder for dad and baby drinks
  • sturdy handle reinforced with grommets, great for those with baby carriers
  • thick, adjustable strap for wearing over shoulder or across chest
  • slash pocket in the front flap is perfect for toys or dad’s cell, zippered pocket under flap for valuables
  • waterproof MP3 pocket inside, earbud port in side of bag

Star Wars Rebel Alliance LogoThe real key to its geeky allure though is the logo. Look closely. Anything seem familiar?

People ‘still willing to torture’

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Researchers repeated the famous Milgram experiment, with volunteers told to deliver electrical shocks to another volunteer — played by an actor — and, unsurprisingly, people are still willing to torture other people, if an authority figure assures them that it’s OK:

Dr Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University, used a similar format [to the original], although he did not allow the volunteers to carry on beyond 150 volts after they had shown their willingness to do so, suggesting that the distress caused to the original volunteers had been too great.

Again, however, the vast majority of the 29 men and 41 women taking part were willing to push the button knowing it would cause pain to another human.

Even when another actor entered the room and questioned what was happening, most were still prepared to continue.

He told Reuters: “What we found is validation of the same argument — if you put people in certain situations, they will act in surprising and maybe often even disturbing ways.”

He said that it was not that there was “something wrong” with the volunteers, but that when placed under pressure, people will often do “unsettling” things.

Even though it was difficult to translate laboratory work to the real world, he said, it might partly explain why, in times of conflict, people could take part in genocide.

I’m not sure why this is news. In 1963, Milgram’s work was — pardon the pun — shocking, but there’s no reason to think anything’s changed since then. So what was the purpose of this study?


Sunday, December 21st, 2008

When I first read that New York City Governor David Paterson was planning to introduce the iTax, I thought it had to be a joke:

New Yorkers who download music to their iPods are to see the cost rise after the state governor, David Paterson, slapped a 4% tax on the practice as part of an attempt to ease a massive budget crisis.

The charge, which has been nicknamed the iTax, will also cover ebooks and other “digitally delivered entertainment services”. It is one of 137 additional fees the state will exact from residents in its 2009-10 budget. Income from high-earning and highly taxed Wall Street financiers has nosedived since the credit crunch, leaving the state with a $15.4bn budget gap.

To try to close it, Paterson has risked incurring the wrath of multiple groups of voters as he pushes up taxes and slashes spending.

One of his most innovative moves is a charge on sugary soft drinks, dubbed the obesity tax. Any non-diet fruit drink that contains less than 70% natural fruit juice will be subject to an 18% tax. State officials said the tax would combat obesity, which affects one in four New Yorkers, but there was no disguising that it would raise more than $400m in the fiscal year, rising to $539m the year after.

Other products and services to be hit by higher taxes will be taxi rides, petrol, cigars and beer, manicures and massages, and tickets to cinemas and sports arenas.

A piece of advice: You might want to consider hard-to-dodge taxes on goods with inelastic supply or demand.

Erik J. had this sardonic comment to make:

If only there were some popular product that’s currently a drain on government budgets but completely untaxed, that could be made legal and taxed with minimal social disruption.

You might as well be teaching Chinese to a monkey

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

James, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, is teaching an intro Java course, and he has realized that he has no idea how difficult his class is:

I recently assigned a homework assignment that required the following: Using the Java Graphics library, draw three shapes on the screen (like a square, a rectangle, and a circle). Make each shape a different color.

About a third of the class was unable to complete the assignment.

About a third of the class turned in exactly what I assigned.

About a third of the class started giving me their own artwork, recreations of classical art, or art work from video games. One student gave me a pixel-perfect recreation of a screen shot of Space Invaders, and another student turned in a program that displayed the original box art of Super Mario Bros..

Some of my students are turning in beautifully crafted programs using language constructs that I haven’t taught in class nor are found in the textbook. Clearly, they don’t need my help learning Java.

But then there’s the other third of my class. A student sent me an e-mail with this line: “You might as well be teaching Chinese to a monkey.”

That line is depressing. The more that I teach computer programming, the more I wonder if programming is something that you just “get” and can’t really be taught.

About two hours after assigning the most recent homework assignment, two students came by my office to say that the assignment was too difficult and probably could not be completed in two weeks. At the same time, a third student came to my office to turn it in completed.

Every time I get an indication that the class is too difficult, I get another indication that it’s too simple. I have no idea how difficult my class is.

Of course, we already knew that some people have an aptitude for computer programming and others don’t. In fact, just a few powerhouse questions can reveal who has that aptitude.

Scientists Hack Cellphone to Analyze Blood, Detect Disease, Help Developing Nations

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

Scientists Hack Cellphone to Analyze Blood, Detect Disease, Help Developing Nations:

Using only an LED, plastic light filter and some wires, scientists at UCLA have modded a cellphone into a portable blood tester capable of detecting HIV, malaria and other illnesses.

Blood tests today require either refrigerator-sized machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or a trained technician who manually identifies and counts cells under a microscope. These systems are slow, expensive and require dedicated labs to function. And soon they could be a thing of the past.

UCLA researcher Dr. Aydogan Ozcan images thousands of blood cells instantly by placing them on an off-the-shelf camera sensor and lighting them with a filtered-light source (coherent light, for you science buffs). The filtered light exposes distinctive qualities of the cells, which are then interpreted by Ozcan’s custom software. By analyzing the cell types present in a much larger sample, a more accurate diagnosis can be made in a matter of minutes. No more sending blood away to a lab and waiting days or weeks for the results.

The images is of an off-the-shelf Sony Ericsson cellphone that has been modded into a LUCAS imager:

LUCAS is a selective acronym for Lensfree Ultrawide-?eld Cell-monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging.

The bulge on the back is the filtered light source that illuminates the sample. This low-cost hack could revolutionize disease detection in the field.

Massive Volcanic Eruptions Could Have Killed Off the Dinosaurs

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

It may not have been an asteroid after all. Massive Volcanic Eruptions Could Have Killed Off the Dinosaurs:

Physicist Luis Alvarez of the University of California, Berkeley, first presented the asteroid impact hypothesis in 1980. It was based on an extensive layer of iridium, which is associated with impacts, that could be found in many places across the globe in the same geologic time sequence. A decade later, the Chicxulub crater was discovered on the Yucatan peninsula, adding weight to the idea that an impact killed off the dinosaurs.

The idea that Indian volcanoes, known as the Deccan Traps, might have contributed to the mass extinction is not new. But scientists at the AGU meeting think the eruptions could be the sole cause of the die-offs, and that the asteroid had little or no effect on life at all.

“If there had been no impact, we think there would have been a massive extinction anyway,” Courtillot said.

Courtillot has studied the magnetic signatures of the Indian volcanic deposits that lined up with the Earth’s magnetic field as they cooled. Because the orientation of the magnetic field has changed over time, lava that cooled at different times have different signatures.

The more than 2-mile thick pile of Deccan Traps deposits has several major pulses that occurred over the course of several decades each, almost certainly less than 100 years. And the entire sequence erupted in less than 10,000 years, rather than the million years or more that has been suggested.

All told, this would have put 10 times more climate-changing emissions into the atmosphere than the asteroid impact.

Also supporting the volcanic theory is fossil evidence from Texas and Mexico that most of the species extinctions coincided with the final pulse of eruptions, not with the asteroid impact, which may have occurred approximately 300,000 years earlier, according to Gerta Keller of Princeton University.

“There is essentially no extinction associated with the impact,” Keller said.

Evidence that dinosaurs survived in India right up to the final volcanic onslaught further bolsters the case.