Stanford campus photo from above

11/30/2004

TextToMP3 1.0 - MacUpdate

So I've got about 50-100 research articles on vaccines to read and not nearly enough time to look at them all. What's the solution?

Tonight I found this little application which converts text files to mp3. One day I'll finally get an iPod and can listen to them wherever, but for now I can listen to them straight from iTunes just sitting around the apartment or at work. I can just download the full text where available (many are in pdf only) and then cut out everything but the abstract, intro, and results/conclusion. If the paper sounds interesting then I can go back and actually read the methods, etc. if necessary. Since I can vary the reading speed it should really save time, not to mention eyestrain.

The Mac speech could use some speech therapy at times (read - often), but on the whole, it's better than I expected.

TextToMP3 1.0 - MacUpdate: "TextToMP3 is a simple droplet application which accepts dropped text files and converts them into speech in MP3 format "

11/28/2004

Twentysomething

After years of expensive education
A car full of books and anticipation
I'm an expert on Shakespeare and that's a hell of a lot.
But the world don't need scholars as much as I thought

Maybe I'll go travelling for a year
Finding myself, or start a career
Could work for the poor, though I'm hungry for fame
We all seem so different but we're just the same

Maybe I'll go to the gym, so I don't get fat
Aren't things more easy, with a tight six pack
Who knows the answers, who do you trust
I can't even separate love from lust

Maybe I'll move back home and pay off my loans
Working nine to five, answering phones
But don't make me live for Friday nights
Drinking eight pints and getting in fights

Maybe I'll just fall in love
That could solve it all
Philosophers say that that's enough
There surely must be more
Love ain't the answer, nor is work
The truth eludes me so much it hurts
But I'm still having fun and I guess that's the key
I'm a twentysomething and I'll keep being me

- Jamie Cullum

11/24/2004

Staff

Looks like I finally made it onto the staff webpage here at the Center.

These kind of staff websites amuse me for some reason.

I usually don't blog much about details of work, but I've been finding it very interesting. I'm working on a number of projects. My favorite is one related to financing vaccines to encourage a stable supply and more R&D. Recently I've been working on a database of medical malpractice premiums and another one on closed claims in FL. We're trying to see the effects of various policies. My other project is a study of "why mature smokers don't quit", which relates to some of the tobacco litigation analyses that have been done here.

11/23/2004

UMN Dept of Psychology

UMN Dept of Psychology: "(This article is published in the Harvard Mental Health Letter)

Better is a handful of quietness,
Than both the hands full of labour
And striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 4:6

When T. J. Bouchard, Jr. and colleagues, at the University of Minnesota, measured the systolic blood pressure (BP) of 56 pairs of monozygotic twins who were separated in infancy and reared apart (MZA twins), we found a within-pair similarity, measured by the intraclass correlation, of .64. If we neglect the intrauterine and neonatal environments, then the only likely cause for this cotwin resemblance in adult BP is the twins' genetic identity. Therefore, we can say that the heritability of BP is about .64, which means that about 64% of the variation in these single BP readings is associated with genetic variation between the twin pairs.

But every physician knows that BP changes from time to time depending upon health status, emotional arousal, recent activity, and a variety of other factors. If the genes determine anything about BP, surely it is the basal BP, the characteristic set-point to which an individual's BP returns after perturbation, not the momentary level measured at some arbitrary time. To get an estimate of the heritability of the BP set-point we should make repeated measurements and then compute the MZA correlation of the average BP values. If this increases the correlation to .85 (let us say) this would mean that the heritability of the BP set-point is about 85%.

Happiness or subjective well-being (SWB), like BP, also varies from time to time about an average value that is characteristic of the individual. My colleague, Auke Tellegen, and I have measured SWB on hundreds of pairs of middle-aged twins, both MZs and dizygotic (DZ) twins reared together and also on Bouchard's twins reared apart. In addition, we have obtained estimates of average SWB by repeating these measurements after intervals ranging from 4 to 10 years. The heritability of single assessments of SWB is about 50% while the heritability of the set-point or mean happiness level is about 80%. What these data seem to indicate is that about half the variance in one's momentary feelings of SWB is determined by the great genetic lottery that occurs at conception (which determines 80% of individual differences in the set-points) and the other half depends on fortune's favors, good or bad.

Psychologists David Myers, at Hope College, and Ed and Carol Diener at the University of Illinois have been studying SWB for years with remarkable results. They find first that SWB is essentially unrelated to socioeconomic status, to income, to level of education, to gender or to race. We have replicated all but the race findings (fewer than 2% of births in Minnesota are to minority parents so that our twin samples are almost exclusively Caucasian). Those who ride to work in overalls and on the bus are just as happy on average as those in suits and ties who drive in their Mercedes. Although men still have a tenuous hold on the reins of power, women's average SWB is at least as high as men's (this is especially surprising since we know that clinical depression is far more prevalent in women).

Second, to explain these curious results, the Illinois researchers have shown that the effects on current SWB of both positive and negative life events are largely gone after just 3 months and undetectable after 6 months. A happiness reading on a victim of a spinal injury---or on a winner in the lottery---taken a year after the event, is likely to give about the same value obtained before the event. Most people, within 6 months or so, will have adapted back to their genetically-determined set-point. Getting that promotion, having Miss or Mr. Right say 'Yes', even having a 'born again' religious conversion---each of these may send the happiness meter right off the scale for a while but, in a few months, it will drift back to the set-point that is normal for that individual. (Perhaps this is why evangelicals have annual 'revival' meetings---to revive their faith and also their feelings of subjective well-being.)

One further replicated finding is that most people's happiness set-point is above zero, that is, on the happy side of neutral. Nearly 87% of some 2,300 middle-aged twins in our sample rated themselves to be in the upper third in over-all, long-term contentment. It seems plausible to suppose that, over the millennia of human evolution, those ancients who were grouchy or sad did less well in the struggle for survival and had less luck in the mating game. Our species has become biased toward positive well-being by natural selection."

11/21/2004

Inventing Thanksgiving

LiP | Feature | Inventing Thanksgiving: "Contrary to the widely accepted, idyllic account of two cultures sitting down to share a meal in harmony, most 17th-century colonial images relating to Native Americans depict violent confrontation. It was only around 1900, when the western Indian wars had largely subsided due to a shortage of Indians left to kill—and when it was safe for Euroamericans to supplant fear with nostalgia—that the romantic Thanksgiving narrative most Americans today are familiar with took hold.

Thanksgiving Day provides an ideal opportunity to consider the formation of national identity and the concept of a civil religion. It's also a living metaphor of the prevailing American model for immigrant assimilation and the ways in which history can be reinterpreted, and indeed wholly reinvented, to serve competing ethnic, patriotic, religious, and commercial ends.

A Host of Victory Thanksgivings

n overview of historical documents reveals the many uses to which various thanksgivings have been put. The Continental Congress declared the first national day of thanksgiving on November 1, 1777, to celebrate an American victory over British general John Burgoyne:

Forasmuch as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such further Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defence and Establishment of our inalienable Rights and Liberties... It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES, to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for the Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise: That at one Time and with one voice, the good People may express themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor.

Did such a weighty declaration to the Divine Benefactor cement the basic contours of the holiday? Hardly. Then as now, political struggles (electoral and military) were often interpreted as theaters for the enactment of divine will, and so victories great and small led to a rush of thanksgiving declarations. The Confederate Congress proclaimed separate thanksgiving observations in July 1861 and again in September 1862, after the First and Second Battles of Bull Run. And it wasn't just the South. President Lincoln similarly set aside days of thanksgiving in April 1862 and August 1863 to commemorate the important Union victories at Shiloh and Gettysburg. These ad hoc decrees fell in some cases on Sundays (a common day for religious observance) and in other cases on Thursdays. Lincoln declared yet another Thanksgiving Day in 1863, for the last Thursday in November—and it has been celebrated annually in late November ever since. In his proclamation he drew attention to affairs both national and international:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

It was not until 1931, when President Herbert Hoover made his proclamation, that any of the presidential declarations of thanksgiving mentioned the Plymouth Pilgrims and the 1621 harvest festival as a precursor to the modern holiday. By this time, yet another willfully amnesiac reinvention of Thanksgiving was under way."

11/20/2004

Church air is 'threat to health'

BBC NEWS | Health | Church air is 'threat to health': "Church air was found to be considerably higher in carcinogenic polycyclic hydrocarbons than air beside roads travelled by 45,000 vehicles daily.

It also had levels of tiny solid pollutants (PM10s) up to 20 times the European limits.

The study, by Holland's Maastricht University, is published in the European Respiratory Journal.

The researchers say that December, with churches lighting up candles for Christmas, could be an especially dangerous month for the lungs.

It is now believed that respiratory health is increasingly at risk from so-called 'indoor pollution' in the home, workplace and other enclosed spaces.

The Dutch team set out to examine the air quality in churches, as they are often poorly ventilated, with candles buring all day, and frequent use of incense. Both could, in principle, be expected to have some harmful effects."

11/17/2004

Researchers can now broadcast moving holograms

Link

IT IS not merely tractor beams that have a counterpart in the real world (see article). Some recent work by NASA, America's space agency, has produced and broadcast a prototype moving hologram.

SHIVA, the Spaceflight Holography Investigation in a Virtual Apparatus, was conceived in 1999 as an aid to conducting research in space. The “microgravity” environment found in orbit around the Earth has many advantages for scientists who want a greater understanding of physics, chemistry and biology. Unfortunately, excellent living conditions, safety and a regular home life are not among them. The answer is unmanned missions. But experiments on these still need to be controlled and observed, which is hard when the researchers cannot see what is going on.


SHIVA is designed to overcome this by broadcasting moving 3D images—in essence, 3D TV. And James Trolinger, of MetroLaser, a firm based in Irvine, California, has recently demonstrated its viability by using it to conduct, by remote control, a previously unperformed experiment.

Holograms are interference patterns generated by the interaction of a blank reference laser beam with a second beam that has been reflected from an object of interest. If a beam similar to the original reference beam is shone through a hologram, the result is a three-dimensional image of the object scanned.


In principle, making a moving hologram is easy. Just as a moving picture is actually a series of stills shown in quick succession, so a moving hologram would be a series of still holograms. The problem is that individual still holograms contain so much information that they are usually captured on film (indeed, so much information is needed that the film in question has a grain size a tenth to a hundredth that of standard photographic film). The electronic cameras used in television cannot provide anything like this level of resolution, so 3D TV has not been thought a viable proposition.

However, according to Dr Trolinger, electronic holography for scientific purposes need not suffer from that limitation. Instead of trying to grab each frame in a single exposure, the scientist (unlike the entertainer) can wait as the data build up over time. That is the wrinkle which allows SHIVA to work.

The test that Dr Trolinger and his colleagues conducted used SHIVA to look for a phenomenon in fluid dynamics called “history drag”. The details do not matter, except to say that this is precisely the sort of experiment that might be carried out in space, in order to eliminate the distorting effects of gravity. Despite being predicted as long ago as 1887, history drag had not before been observed. But Dr Trolinger observed it—and did so remotely with a ground-based version of SHIVA. The holodeck it isn't. But Dr Trolinger has made his point. It should be possible to observe and control such experiments in space. And if digital video cameras improve enough, 3D TV might yet become a reality.

11/15/2004

Marietta for Xmas

Flight: US Airways flight 3540 operated by US AIRWAYS EXPRESS-TRANSSTATES
AIRLINES (Non-Stop)
Depart: Raleigh/Durham, NC (RDU) - TERMINAL A
" Fri, Dec 24 at 6:10pm
Arrive: Pittsburgh, PA (PIT) - Terminal Information Unavailable
" Fri, Dec 24 at 7:33pm

Flight: US Airways flight 4724 operated by US AIRWAYS EXPRESS-AIR MIDWEST
AIRLINES (Non-Stop)
Depart: Pittsburgh, PA (PIT) - Terminal Information Unavailable
" Fri, Dec 24 at 8:45pm
Arrive: Parkersburg/Marietta, WV (PKB) - Terminal Information Unavailable
" Fri, Dec 24 at 9:30pm

______________________________________________________

Flight: US Airways flight 4711 operated by US AIRWAYS EXPRESS-AIR MIDWEST
AIRLINES (Non-Stop)
Depart: Parkersburg/Marietta, WV (PKB) - Terminal Information Unavailable
" Tue, Dec 28 at 1:45pm
Arrive: Pittsburgh, PA (PIT) - Terminal Information Unavailable
" Tue, Dec 28 at 2:30pm


Flight: US Airways flight 3560 operated by US AIRWAYS EXPRESS-TRANSSTATES
AIRLINES (Non-Stop)
Depart: Pittsburgh, PA (PIT) - Terminal Information Unavailable
" Tue, Dec 28 at 4:20pm
Arrive: Raleigh/Durham, NC (RDU) - TERMINAL A
" Tue, Dec 28 at 5:35pm

11/13/2004

black hole computers

Scientific American

I love this kind of stuff.

BLACK HOLE COMPUTERS

Overview/Cosmic Computers
• Merely by existing, all physical systems store information. By evolving dynamically in time, they process that information. The universe computes.
MORE TO EXPLORE

In keeping with the spirit of the age, researchers can think of the laws of physics as computer programs and the universe as a computer

What is the difference between a computer and a black hole? This question sounds like the start of a Microsoft joke, but it is one of the most profound problems in physics today. Most people think of computers as specialized gizmos: streamlined boxes sitting on a desk or fingernail-size chips embedded in high-tech coffeepots. But to a physicist, all physical systems are computers. Rocks, atom bombs and galaxies may not run Linux, but they, too, register and process information. Every electron, photon and other elementary particle stores bits of data, and every time two such particles interact, those bits are transformed. Physical existence and information content are inextricably linked. As physicist John Wheeler of Princeton University says, "It from bit."

Black holes might seem like the exception to the rule that everything computes. Inputting information into them presents no difficulty, but according to Einstein's general theory of relativity, getting information out is impossible. Matter that enters a hole is assimilated, the details of its composition lost irretrievably. In the 1970s Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge showed that when quantum mechanics is taken into account, black holes do have an output: they glow like a hot coal. In Hawking's analysis, this radiation is random, however. It carries no information about what went in. If an elephant fell in, an elephant's worth of energy would come out--but the energy would be a hodgepodge that could not be used, even in principle, to re-create the animal.

That apparent loss of information poses a serious conundrum, because the laws of quantum mechanics preserve information. So other scientists, including Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology and Gerard 't Hooft of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, have argued that the outgoing radiation is not, in fact, random-that it is a processed form of the matter that falls in [see "Black Holes and the Information Paradox," by Leonard Susskind; SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, April 1997]. This past summer Hawking came around to their point of view. Black holes, too, compute.

Black holes are merely the most exotic example of the general principle that the universe registers and processes information. The principle itself is not new. In the 19th century the founders of statistical mechanics developed what would later be called information theory to explain the laws of thermodynamics. At first glance, thermodynamics and information theory are worlds apart: one was developed to describe steam engines, the other to optimize communications. Yet the thermodynamic quantity called entropy, which limits the ability of an engine to do useful work, turns out to be proportional to the number of bits registered by the positions and velocities of the molecules in a substance. The invention of quantum mechanics in the 20th century put this discovery on a firm quantitative foundation and introduced scientists to the remarkable concept of quantum information. The bits that make up the universe are quantum bits, or "qubits," with far richer properties than ordinary bits.

Analyzing the universe in terms of bits and bytes does not replace analyzing it in conventional terms such as force and energy, but it does uncover new and surprising facts. In the field of statistical mechanics, for example, it unknotted the paradox of Maxwell's demon, a contraption that seemed to allow for perpetual motion. In recent years, we and other physicists have been applying the same insights to cosmology and fundamental physics: the nature of black holes, the fine-scale structure of spacetime, the behavior of cosmic dark energy, the ultimate laws of nature. The universe is not just a giant computer; it is a giant quantum computer. As physicist Paola Zizzi of the University of Padova says, "It from qubit."

When Gigahertz Is Too Slow

THE CONFLUENCE of physics and information theory flows from the central maxim of quantum mechanics: at bottom, nature is discrete. A physical system can be described using a finite number of bits. Each particle in the system acts like the logic gate of a computer. Its spin "axis" can point in one of two directions, thereby encoding a bit, and can flip over, thereby performing a simple computational operation.

The system is also discrete in time. It takes a minimum amount of time to flip a bit. The exact amount is given by a theorem named after two pioneers of the physics of information processing, Norman Margolus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lev Levitin of Boston University. This theorem is related to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which describes the inherent trade-offs in measuring physical quantities, such as position and momentum or time and energy. The theorem says that the time it takes to flip a bit, t, depends on the amount of energy you apply, E. The more energy you apply, the shorter the time can be. Mathematically, the rule is t = h/4E, where h is Planck's constant, the main parameter of quantum theory. For example, one type of experimental quantum computer stores bits on protons and uses magnetic fields to flip them. The operations take place in the minimum time allowed by the Margolus-Levitin theorem.

From this theorem, a huge variety of conclusions can be drawn, from limits on the geometry of spacetime to the computational capacity of the universe as a whole. As a warm-up, consider the limits to the computational power of ordinary matter--in this case, one kilogram occupying the volume of one liter. We call this device the ultimate laptop.

Wired News: Diebold to Settle E-Voting Suit

Wired News: Diebold to Settle E-Voting Suit: "SAN FRANCISCO -- Diebold agreed Wednesday to pay $2.6 million to settle a lawsuit filed by California alleging that the electronic voting machine company sold the state and several counties shoddy voting equipment.

Although critics characterized the settlement as a slap on the wrist, Diebold also agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to partially reimburse Alameda, San Diego and other counties for the cost of paper backup ballots, ink and other supplies in last week's election. California's secretary of state banned the use of one type of Diebold machine in May, after problems with the machines disenfranchised an unknown number of voters in the March primary.

Faulty equipment forced at least 6,000 of 316,000 voters in Alameda County, just east of San Francisco, to use backup paper ballots instead of the paperless voting terminals. In San Diego County, a power surge resulted in hundreds of touch-screens that wouldn't start when the polls opened, forcing election officials to turn voters away from the polls.

According to the settlement, the North Canton, Ohio-based company must also upgrade ballot tabulation software that Los Angeles County and others used Nov. 2. Diebold must also strengthen the security of its paperless voting machines and computer servers and promise never to connect voting systems to outside networks."