Friday, January 31, 2003

Although Canada is still the US' largest trading partner, Mexico is now the US' biggest international phone call partner. According to email from Brian, for which I can't find the source, Mexico accounted for 5,193.1 million minutes in 2001, and Canada for 5,105.9. That wasn't the case before 2001: "According to the Federal Communications Commission, Mexico is the second most frequently called international destination by consumers, and receives 14.3 percent of all international call traffic from the United States. The most frequently called country is Canada and receives 15.2 percent of total U.S. international call traffic." (ref). Here's a good article on "telegeography".

Canada is not yet supplanted as largest trading partner because in 2000 Canada traded with US to the tune of US$411 billion, while Mexico accounts for US$261.7 billion , the next largest (ref 1, 2). However, if Canada/US trade continues to grow at 7-8%, and Mexico/US trade at 25 - 30%, Mexico will be the largest trading partner in 2004.

I'm back from New York, sorry for the unexplained hiatus.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

This month's Scientific American has a new food pyramid (link via Rob), to replace the overly simplistic "Fat is Bad" 1992 official pyramid. Most American fat consumption seems to have been replaced with products that were high in either refined grains or potatos (rice crackers, pastries, pasta, low-fat potato crisps) or high in sugar (soda, fruit-"based" snacks, sweetened yogurt...) I can't be the only one that gained weight on that kind of diet.

The new food pyramid is wacky too. It shows white rice, white bread, potatos, pasta and sweets (high glycemic index) at the top of the pyramid, meaning "use sparingly", and plant oils at the bottom. Surely they don't recommend eating a greater quantity of plant oils than any of the high glycemic index carbs? People would be drinking cups of canola oil to achieve that. I suppose I'm being obtuse, though it *is* difficult to understand whether they recommend getting more calories out of oil than out of high glycemic index carbs, or whether they recommend taking "a serving or two" of plant oil at each meal knowing that servings of plant oil tend to be small.

Anyway, I always knew ants-on-a-log were good for me, no matter what "they" said, because my mom fed me those. You know -- a long piece of celery (eat vegetables in abundance) filled with peanut butter (healthy nuts and legumes, also containing plant oil), and a few raisins (2/3 servings of fruit) dotted along the top for fun.

Monday, January 20, 2003

Tech Central Station has an article on a subject I've posted before: how oil and economics really intersect. For example, If the US gets 10% of oil from Saudi Arabia, and reduces its oil consumption by 10%, it does not eliminate its consumption of Saudi Arabian oil. It only reduces it by 10%. Oil is a commodity. The only way to not consume Saudi Arabian oil is by embargoing oil from that country. That wouldn't be very effective, because it would mean that only countries without an embargo would benefit from very-slightly-cheaper Saudi Arabian oil. Supply and demand are difficult to trick.

Embarrassingly enough, also in TCS today, Glassman suggests that "If Arianna [Huffington] is really concerned about U.S. use of Saudi oil or even foreign oil in general, she could support exploration in areas of the United States such as barren stretches of Alaska or off all three of our major coasts. Or she might try to encourage her friends to sell their 10,000-square-foot houses in Bel Air and live in apartment buildings. Or get them to stop flying in fuel-guzzling private jets." None of these things would significantly reduce use of Saudi oil (although it's true that changing SUV behaviour matters even less).

When a country allegedly sponsoring terrorism exports livestock, why doesn't anybody suggest reducing our consumption of meat? Because it would be riduculous, that's why.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Last weekend I was busy because my sensei's sensei came to Mountain View for an intensive, three-day, eight-hour total kata seminar. Somebody took a nice picture of Hanshi Miki adjusting my position. Boy was it hard to hold this kind of position (Shito-Ryu style cat stance or "neko-ashi-dachi") while he adjusted the angle and position of everybody's hands, arms, shoulders, spine, legs and feet.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

I am fated not to have a digital camera.

In September 2002 I packaged a digital camera (technically, not my digital camera, even worse) to bring to Canada in my checked-in luggage. By the time I looked for it a day after arriving at my parents' house, I couldn't find it. Optimistically, I thought it would be around there or at home somewhere but of course six months later it hasn't shown up at either house. I believe it was stolen from my luggage. My biggest fan however unsupportively suggests I lost it, though I fail to see how.

Well, I had already been thinking of getting a smaller model anyhow. Digital cameras have reached a point where for a price I'm willing to pay, I can get a high quality digital camera that I can carry everywhere. Now that, I would really use. In August I was discussing this with a friend who passed on a news article about new smaller Nikon and Casio models. I thought about this a lot. OK, in fact, I dithered, undecided, comparing features and prices randomly and unproductively.

I went to Good Guys and looked at cameras with the intent to buy. But I couldn't decide by the time my biggest fan unsupportively decided he was ready to leave, so I gave up for the time being.

A month or so later: I decided to stop dithering. I went to my biggest fan for help deciding, but he unsupportively suggested I decide what features were important to me before comparing cameras with those features. Fine! I decided size was crucial - it must fit in my laptop/messenger bag (peewee timbuk2 size) and stay there without me constantly regretting the space it takes up. But quality was also crucial - 2 megapixels with reasonable ability to take close-ups of the things I make. Three models seemed to basically fit my requirements: the Minolta Dimage X, the Canon Powershot Elph, the Casio Exilim EX-S2 or EX-M2. Maybe the Nikon Coolpix 2500 as well, but I never had the covetous craving passion for that one that I did for the Dimage or Exilim, despite its swiveliciousness.

I dithered some more. Would the MP3 player capabilities of the Exilim be useful to me, enough to justify the extra cost? Hmm.

Finally decisive, I ordered a Exilim EX-M2 through a vendor (Tristate Camera) found through Pricewatch. Tristate offered the EX-M2 for about $50 less than Amazon. Great! Only two days later, I got a call from Tristate saying the price was actually $50 higher because of Casio's Christmas packaging deals which included some thingy. On principle, I cancelled the order.

I looked at Amazon's listing for the Exilim, since I trusted Amazon not to bait-and-switch. However they didn't have it in stock at the moment, and I didn't want to buy something that might be in stock at some unspecified future date. I wanted reasonably quick, though not instant, gratification. I was hoping to bring a new digital camera with me to use at Christmas.

Christmas shopping was upon us and we headed to Fry's Electronics for various purchase. They had the Exilim EX-M2. After dithering more about whether I really wanted it, with my biggest fan still unsupportively hoping I'll hurry up and get it over with, I asked the sales guy to get me one. The only one they had left was a pre-opened model. Honestly, I didn't want anybody else to have already touched this camera. Somehow it seemed too personal. Would you buy underwear somebody had bought, then returned? However unreasonably, that's how I felt. I walked away.

Over Christmas, I did some serious rethinking. Maybe I didn't want an Exilim at all, with or without the MP3 capabilities. I wanted closeups to be high-quality, and I found out about the Dimage Xi, which has 3.2 Megapixels, compared to the mere 2.1 Megapixels of the Dimage X, and reputedly very fine opticals. It was somewhat more expensive of course, and the highest price I'd considered paying. But at this point I was willing to pay more to avoid any possible disappointment. I decided to get it. I ordered the Dimage Xi through Amazon. Only after emotionally committing the order, if not actually committing it, did I notice that the order was actually being filled by Office Depot. The date was December 29. The order was going to ship in 1-2 days.

Over the next few weeks, I periodically called home just before returning home from work. You see, I didn't want to sit in the train wondering the whole way if the camera was going to be there, and face disappointment at home. Two packages did arrive, but they were the other two things I had ordered from Amazon the same day as the camera.

Finally, today, I checked Amazon's status: order still there, not yet shipped. It said to call Office Depot for shipping information. I did and discovered that they had cancelled the order, although Amazon didn't know it yet. Apparently they don't stock it any more, and their response to that is simply to cancel the order. I checked a different page at Amazon which claims both that the camera order is ready for shipping 1/1/2003, and that a complete refund has been applied for that order. I don't think I've received the refund yet.

Looking through the Amazon site, they now appear to have taken down the useless offer to order from Office Depot, and instead they have a hopeful "in stock soon" offer for the Dimage Xi. "Order now to get first in line."

I don't know if I can handle the disappointment again. If camera manufacturers did a better job of stocking cameras rather than creating scarcity, and retailers didn't screw around with availability and packaging, somebody would have had my money three months ago. Now they'll just have to wait.

Saturday, January 11, 2003

I did enjoy the editorial today by David Brooks about a lack of class consciousness, particularly class envy, in Americans.
Time magazine survey that asked people if they are in the top 1 percent of earners. Nineteen percent of Americans say they are in the richest 1 percent and a further 20 percent expect to be someday...

[Americans] always had a sense that great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job or the next big thing. None of us is really poor; we're just pre-rich...

Every few years a group of millionaire Democratic presidential aspirants pretends to be the people's warriors against the overclass. They look inauthentic, combative rather than unifying. Worst of all, their basic message is not optimistic. They haven't learned what Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt and even Bill Clinton knew: that you can run against rich people, but only those who have betrayed the ideal of fair competition. You have to be more hopeful and growth-oriented than your opponent, and you cannot imply that we are a nation tragically and permanently divided by income.
However, Income mobility *is not* that much higher in the US. Although it's the classic location for a rags-to-riches story, other developed countries have similar income mobility. In addition, at least one very pessimistic economist has argued that many American adults remain stuck in poverty (see also this course plan which is practically a rebuttal). Anyway, it's all very confusing and there don't exist very many international comparisons of income mobility.

So is the reluctance of Americans to penalize the rich based purely on a hopeful and/or egalitarian outlook, rather than on a real economic difference? David Brooks' point may still be valid, but now I wish some economist/sociologist would link American attutides to income mobility to their actual opportunity for income mobility.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Colby Cosh posted a blog entry I wish I had wrote. It's about how the knee-jerk reaction to enact a measure "if it even saves one life" can so easily go astray. The example is regulations on commercial cigarettes to prevent accidental fires from being started.

Colby and I aren't the only ones frustrated with this (a, b, c). Unfortunately we are probably outnumbered. People who want to save one more life want us to have more signage and helmet laws, have automatic external defibrillators in every plane and firetruck, change every TV and radio so it can be turned on automatically in emergencies, and all get immunized for meningococcus.

Monday, January 06, 2003

My most loyal fan (who complained when I referred to him as "a reader" last week) points out that the oil/war objections typically overlook who is supposed to be benefitting. They also don't specify exactly what oil they're talking about although it's usually assumed Iraq's oil.

First possibility: Bush could be after the oil in Iraq for the benefit of American oil companies. Well, since France, Russia and China already have potential deals in Iraq, American oil companies may have the least to gain. Although the leader of the exiled Iraqi National Congress has promised oil contracts to US companies if US puts the exiled group in power, the benefits here would be far greater for non-American oil companies. I don't believe for a second that existing oil deals with F/R/C would be scuttled. Anyway, if helping American oil companies were Bush's aim, he could do so vastly more efficiently by giving the money that a war would cost to the American oil companies. Another way of benefitting American oil companies is by affecting the price of oil to keep it unusually high, but this is typically considered unacceptable and politically stupid because consumers (voters) suffer. Rather than see conspiracy in US actions, why don't protesters see at least as much venal conspiring in the F/R/C positions? They're the ones making oil deals with Saddam.

Second possibility: Bush could be after the oil in Iraq for the benefit of the American oil consumers. This one doesn't make a great deal of sense, because US already trades food for Iraq oil. Low prices benefit American oil consumers, but this extended saber-rattling is adding a risk premium of $5-$15 onto the price of a barrel. If Bush just wants to keep the price of oil down, he could ignore Iraq. Finally, note that keeping the price of oil down benefits Europeans at least as much, because in most European countries the price of oil is inflated by taxes. The only way Bush could help American oil consumers without helping global oil consumers would be by subsidizing imported oil.

Third possibility: Bush might wish to protect the oil in and around the Arabian peninsula (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) from future Iraqi agression, in order to benefit American oil companies. Would this really benefit them? It depends on how many deals American oil companies have in the area. If the entire Arabian peninsula were taken offline, the price of oil would definitely go up, and this would presumably benefit American oil companies rather than disadvantage them. Again, this would benefit any oil companies working in the entire region, not just American companies.

Fourth possibility: Bush might wish to protect the oil in and around the Arabian peninsula from future Iraqi agression, in order to benefit American oil consumers. However, Europe depends more on Gulf oil than US does. So really, Bush would be helping oil consumers worldwide if his plan worked.Krugman believes this is what Bush is doing according to a recent NYT editorial.

If you believe in one of the latter two scenarios, then just perhaps, Bush is defending people as well oil from future Iraqi agression -- Kuwaitis, Israelis, Kurds, possible American and European terrorism targets. It's impossible to tell if his motivations are limited to oil. How would one prove this?

Sunday, January 05, 2003

Most Canadians (all my relatives) think that the US plans for Iraq are all about securing oil supply (ref: "Outside Exxon and other oil company offices in St. John’s, protesters performed a "die-in" to highlight the connection between war and oil "). I guess the Canadian National Post likes to be contrarian. In this article debunking the "no war for oil" and no blood for oil catchphrases, there's the standard stuff about how the US already trades food for Iraq oil, and wouldn't stand to gain much directly from an Iraq freed from sanctions because Russia, France and China are much more heavily invested in Iraq oil fields. In addition, there's an interesting point about the essential inconsistency of the oil --> war position:
What makes the "no war for oil" school of thought so weird is that many of its adherents are also advancing the theory that war would be too expensive. The White House estimates the direct costs of a conflict in Iraq would be about $80-billion. But according to Yale economics professor William D. Nordhaus, the real price tage would be as much as $2.5-trillion once the cost of nation-building is imputed. Would the United States get a good return on this 13-digit "investment"? Let's assume Iraq's liberation leads to a long-term oil supply expansion on the scale outlined above, and that the price of crude falls by, say, 10%, as a result. Given the value of U.S. oil imports, that would translate to just $22-billion in annual savings. No profit-seeking CEO would accept this miserly rate of return for such a controversial enterprise.
I'm always dubious when I see arguments against a course of action that are inconsistent with each other. If it's the course of action itself, war, that is so objectionable, go ahead, oppose the war. But a bunch of motivation and cost arguments against the war that are inconsistent with each other weaken the basic position to me. I guess most people don't compare arguments to that extent -- they just see a long list of arguments arrayed against something and are overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
Here are some of the cost-based anti-war arguments, together with their top price: Now the articles on how the war is all about securing oil supply:Now that I've reviewed some of these more carefully than before, I'm really struck by how the oil arguments can go either way. For example, one of the MSNBC articles argues that the US should want to avoid war with Iraq, to avoid a spike in oil prices to $40-$60 per barrel. That would hurt already weakened airlines and could even "push the country into recession". Even the Guardian reports that "A prolonged disruption of world oil markets could cost the U.S. economy up to $778 billion, the researchers estimated. On the other hand, Iraq's huge oil resources could satisfy U.S. needs for imported oil at current levels for almost a century and otherwise benefit the economy by $40 billion. "A ZNet article: "Ironically, while the US and western countries would like to see lower oil prices, on the flip side of the coin higher oil prices mean more income for US oil companies and boosted investment returns for oil-related mutual funds.

So, oil is a consideration for many world players (like France and Russia who are on the security council, and have planned deals in Iraq on hold due to sanctions), but there's no doubt that for the US at least, it's not a simplistic cowboy equation of "let's go in there and get that durned oil". Even Krugman, normally bitterly anti-Bush, and my favourite left-coast liberal weekly alternative news mag The Stranger, recognize that it's not that simple.

Saturday, January 04, 2003

Now this is what I'm talking about. From the NYT editorials:
Scientists are as much victims of fashion as ordinary mortals are — a fact illustrated by the rich history of junk science and false alarms of the last 30 years. Recall a few instances:

In the mid-1970's, many climatologists warned of an ice age that would severely diminish agricultural productivity by the year 2000.

In 1972, the United States banned DDT, only to find out, years later, that the evidence of the pesticide's harmful effects on human beings is inconclusive. In the meantime, millions of people — 1 in 20 African children, for example — have died of malaria, as Europe and the United States remain reluctant to support controlling mosquitoes with DDT.

And let's not forget the dire warnings about natural resources. In the 1970's, we were told that there would be essentially no oil left by the 1990's.

Science retains its alarmist streak today. The scuttlebutt among the scientists I know is that they have a better chance of getting a government or private grant if they indicate that their research might uncover a serious threat or problem. Media fascination with bad news is partly to blame, along with the principled gloominess and nagging of nongovernmental pressure groups. But government itself has played its natural part.

The point is not to be cynical about science fads but to know enough to choose wisely when it comes to supporting pure science, along with research that can give us beneficial technologies.

— Denis Dutton, Department of Philosophy, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

It's so much harder to make money in science or media telling people things have gotten slightly better. It's either "much better" which causes inflated expectations and then disappointments, or "slightly" to "much worse" which of course is dismaying.

Friday, January 03, 2003

I love good news: Optimism, new laws, multiple political parties and a successful money conversion in Afghanistan. Though there's still much to do. At Kabul University, "only two of the university’s five donated laptops can be plugged in at the same time. Still, he says it gives Kabul’s professors a chance to learn how to use the computers and get the basics, like Microsoft Word and Excel. There is no internet access."
I was talking about fear yesterday -- that rational or irrational fears or anxiety govern so many of the activities of people I know, and seem to motivate much activism. I found, where people can vote on what they fear & add new fears, but it doesn't seem to have the big fears I've seen among acquaintances:Since we all fear different things to different extents, obviously some of this is irrational. If it were rational, then the biggest fear of each demographic would correspond to the biggest danger for that demographic, e.g. the 20-40 age group would all fear traffic more than food.

A professor Rosenau argues that fear has been key to success in preventive medicine and that we suffer less fear today. Rotenburg points out that some anxiety can increase performance. But I guess what most strikes me is how much fear, anxiety and pressure we continue to feel even when our lives are pretty easy. I'm sure those whose lives are truly hard feel more fear and pressure, but it's surprising that the baseline for angst is so high.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

A great discussion on Instapundit on surfing in class. I don't really know what the fuss is about, but at least some people understand that it's just like any other potential distraction: playing solitaire, sleeping, doodling, reading a novel, knitting (all of which I've done in class). It's not fundamentally new, not even the ability to instant message your classmates, it's just electronic for a change. And certainly what matters is results. If you don't have the discipline or skill to pass your classes, surfing just isn't going to make that much of a difference once you're used to it. A minor temporary problem is novelty; kids who have already learned not to read books in class haven't yet learned not to read Web sites. I expect one semester to be more than enough for a student to figure out how much attention they need to pay to pass.

Similar discussions are going on here and therewith respect to IM/chat at the workplace and in meetings. I just met a technical journalist with years of experience looking at new technology, yet he had trouble believing that IM can actually help productivity. I don't know, the fact that I conduct almost all communication with my east coast developer via IM and he's a productive member of the team -- well it seems to work for me.

I think I mentioned, but it's worth mentioning again, the IETF had its first experiment with official chat rooms duplicating and augmenting the real meetings, although of course IETF meeting attendees have messaged each other privately during meetings for years. The feedback at the end (much of which took place during the chat room mirroring the huge plenary meeting) was very largely positive. Of course a few people complained that attendees may be distracting themselves. But isn't that their lookout? When attendees actually whisper to each other, the complaint is only that they may disturbing those who want to hear. When there's no worry of disturbing others, why is there now a new complaint?

Of course these new activities can provide a positive function augmenting the in-person event, but even as unredeeming an activity as solitaire may not be entirely worthless. I once thought for a while about how to handle a 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm weekly anthropology course in university. I was interested and wanted to learn, but knew I had a history of falling asleep during class. Rather than change my schedule, take pills or jack up on coffee, I just brought along knitting to every single class. With something to keep my hands busy (I can look away from my knitting 80% of the time or more), I paid more attention, proving this to the professor with relevant questions once or twice. And at the end I had a sweater, too.

I wish I could do this in more meetings, unfortunately I seem to have to educate each new set of colleagues that this helps me pay attention.

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