Friday, October 17, 2014

Hold Your Breath

(ABC News photo)
With headlines like Ebola Death Rate Hits 70% the public is understandably panicked.

The good news seems to be that Ebola will not be contracted if the uninfected completely avoid the body fluids of a sick person:
It kills health workers by exposing them to patients who, by the end, exude up to ten litres of virus-laden fluids a day. The number of infections [in Africa] seems to be doubling every two to four weeks. As health-care workers fall ill and the infection grows exponentially, a society’s defences against Ebola are rapidly overwhelmed.

The disease poses only a slight risk in rich countries, because tracing, diagnosing and isolating scattered cases is within the scope of their health systems. Officials are minimising the threat by screening travellers.
As of this writing, eight cases have been treated in the United States, but only two of them were contracted on American soil.

Hold your breath.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

San Francisco Giants: We Want More

San Franciscans believe in spreading the wealth around, but not when it comes to the success of their sports teams. The Giants are going to the World Series for the third time in five years. Even fans with a progressive disposition are saying "back up the truck and give us another trophy."

No one here is crying for the Cubs, who haven't been to the baseball championships since 1945, or the Washington Nationals, a never-been-there team whom the Giants defeated in the playoffs.

Most of the nation is probably rooting for the Kansas City Royals (29 years since their last title) in the World Series. Nevertheless there are good reasons to cheer for the Giants, whose individual players have engaging narratives.

Before 2014 Tim Hudson, 39, a multiple-year All-Star for the Oakland Athletics and the Atlanta Braves, had never played in a League Championship Series, much less the World Series. Injury-prone 32-year-old Michael Morse also never made it past the LDS.

From the doghouse to the penthouse  (NY Daily News photo)
But perhaps the most compelling story belonged to Travis Ishikawa, 31. After being cut by the Giants in 2011 (he did earn a 2010 World Series ring as a back-up first baseman), he tried unsuccessfully to land a spot on the Brewers, Yankees, Orioles, and Pirates. In 2014 he was re-signed by the Giants to the minor-league Fresno Giants, where he only played intermittently. A father of three, he was giving serious thought to giving up the game when the San Francisco Giants, in desperate straits due to injury, asked him to play left field for the first time since high school.

On Thursday night Travis Ishikawa hit the game-ending home run that propelled the Giants into the World Series. The last player to strike a walk-off National-League pennant-winning home run was the 1951 Giant Bobby Thomson, who hit the shot heard 'round the world.

If we stopped here, it would be a great story already. But we want more.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Painful Enough

Today is the last day taxpayers may file their returns for 2013.

Because we had to wait for the final piece of information to arrive in August, we submitted Form 4868, which grants a six-month extension, by April 15th. Last weekend we mailed in the tax returns.

For the record, we will receive a Federal refund but owe money to the State, including taxes and penalties (sigh). Federal Form 4868 and California Form 3519 (unnecessary if there's no balance due) grant extra time for completing and mailing the returns, but not for paying amounts owed on April 15th.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), we just received a phone call purportedly from the IRS. Below is the text.
Hello, we have been trying to reach you. This call is officially a final notice from IRS, Internal Revenue Services. The reason that this call is to inform you that IRS is filing lawsuits against you.

To get more information about this case file please call immediately on our department number 202-864-1284. I repeat, 202-864-1284. Thank you.
It should be noted that my caller ID says that the call originated from 932-569-3661, not the 202 number in the message.

From the grammatical and other mistakes (Service, not "Services"), the phone call is obviously fake. I forwarded the information (admittedly without much hope that anything will be done) to some government agencies. Paying taxes and filling out the forms are painful enough without falling for a scam.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Last Frontier

Two young scientists researched whether multitasking affected their fellow high school students' cognitive performance:
Though most teens perform better when focusing on a single task, those who are “high media multitaskers”—about 15% of the study participants—performed better when working with the distractions of email and music than when focusing on a single activity.
Most people perform poorly if they try to focus on more than one task at the same time; hence the laws against texting while driving. However, for a small minority these seeming distractions are correlated with higher performance.

Parents are concerned about the effect of information overload on the development of young brains. But the opposite---an environment with zero input to the senses ("sensory deprivation")---can also drive a mind mad.

One of the last frontiers of understanding is indeed the origin of understanding, the human brain.

Monday, October 13, 2014

When It Really Matters

SRO at City Hall (SMDJ photo)
The City Hall parking lot was filled by 6 p.m. Hundreds of Foster City residents were up in arms over the developer's proposal to raze the small shopping center and build a retail-residential complex with 150 townhomes and 250 parking spaces.

Bowing to civic pressure, the City Council killed the proposal without even taking the first step of referring it to the Planning Commission for further study.

Much as I believe property owners should be allowed a lot of leeway to maximize the value of their holdings, I couldn't support the redevelopment. Over the past 30 years a public elementary school and a private pre-school have sprung up across the street, and traffic is already a severe problem in the morning.

Traffic backs up in the morning heading north (to the left in the Developer's picture)
As I wrote to the City Council members
The intersection of Beach Park and Edgewater is one of the most congested in Foster City at 8 a.m. on a weekday, with children being dropped off and walking and biking to school. That is also the time when hundreds of residents are trying to get to work from Dolphin Bay, Sea Colony, Plum Island, and other developments, and Edgewater Blvd. is the only practical feeder route to the main exits from Foster City. Edgewater heading north is frequently stopped up for the entire length of the shopping center (to Port Royal Ave).

I cringe as drivers make hurried right turns from Beach Park to Edgewater with little kids on the sidewalk or cut through the shopping center to make a right from Edgewater to Beach Park. Pouring an additional 250 cars onto this intersection at this time (I imagine most of these projected homeowners will be working) would be a traffic and public-safety nightmare.
After the dust settles, I hope that some of the neighbors will stop complaining about every little move (painting a different color, putting up some signs) the shopping center owner proposes to improve his profitability.

Say no only when it really matters.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

History's Catalyst

(Image by Dragoart)
University of Utah professor Polly Wiessner claims that the campfire catalyzed much of human history [bold added]:
The human ability to control fire had transformative biological effects. It allowed us to extract nourishment from the toughest roots and roasts, and to feed our hungry, helpless children, with their big energy-guzzling brains. But Dr. Wiessner suggests that it had equally transformative social effects. Fire gave us the evening —too dark to work, but bright and warm enough to talk.....

This nighttime talk engaged some of our most distinctively human abilities—imagination, culture, spirituality. ....they transmitted cultural wisdom and historical knowledge to the next generation, and they explored the mysterious psychological nuances of other minds.
Campfires were part of the shared human experience up till a generation ago. Now they're the victim of concerns about global warming and forest fires, not to mention the now much-easier ways to meet people at night over a glowing light. But I'll miss the marshmallows.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

However, Cub Fans Are Still Waiting

The Economist reports that China is once again the world's largest economy in terms of purchasing-power parity.

The U.S. overtook China circa 1900 (see graph) and, 114 years later, China is back.

Economist: "The brief interlude in which America overshadowed it is now over."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Some of Our Best Friends....

Economist graph compiled from Gallup data.
Three reasons why same-sex marriage is rapidly gaining recognition throughout the United States[bold added]:
One reason is demographic replacement: the deaths of anti-gay traditionalists and the emergence of a generation that grew up accepting homosexuality as a normal human variation. Their nonchalance is founded upon broadening acceptance of the proposition that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is generally innate and not inherently harmful. Yet a third reason, underlying both of the others, is that sexual minorities have emerged from the shadows into full public view.
Familiarity sometimes breeds acceptance, not contempt.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Paper of Record Speaks

Per the NY Times, on Congressional inquiries into whether the National Resources Defense Council helped write the Environmental Protection Agency's draft regulations [bold added]:
The proposed rule, now in a public comment period, would force American power plants to sharply curb carbon emissions, the chief cause of global warming.
Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes
Mr. Sun and Madame Pele, sorry about that, but the Times has relegated you to the ash heap of history.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Castellated Abbey

Life (from ABC 7, Chicago):
In Africa, health officials actually screen travelers for Ebola symptoms. Here in the U.S. they don't. Even with deadly Ebola racing thru Western Africa, passengers coming from there are given no special attention arriving in the U.S.
Art (excerpts from the short story by Edgar Alan Poe):
The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal--the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys....

The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure....

it was a gay and magnificent revel. The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colours and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.
The story doesn't end well for Prince Prospero and his cosseted courtiers. But it's only fiction.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Keep This Outcome in Mind

Experts were zero for 18 predicting the NLDS.
Even pitchers have a better batting average.
Of course, we had a rooting interest in the playoff series between the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals. The Giants clinched the series, three games to one, on Tuesday night, despite having a vastly inferior team to the Nationals (one national baseball commentator said that the Giants did not have the better player at any position).

Gloating over the underdog's victory doesn't confer the usual pleasures because the Nationals aren't a hated rival like the Dodgers. Also, fans fondly remember Nationals manager Matt Williams as one of the all-time greatest San Francisco Giants third basemen.

If there's any gloating to be done, it's over the baseball writers who predicted the Giants loss. In fact, Sports Illustrated's nine so-called experts picked the wrong team on all four of the League Division Series. In the case of the Cardinals-Dodgers and Giants-Nationals, they were unanimously wrong.

In an age of deferring decisions on our lives to experts who know much more that we do on practically every subject, keep this outcome in mind. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Monday, October 06, 2014

Morgen, Morgen, Nur Nicht Heute

It's tempting to mock social scientists who study productivity, then make pronouncements such as "the key step in getting things done is to get started."

Once the laughter subsides, we may discover that researchers have something useful to say about what makes us stop dithering and take action. The trick is simple: get our minds to view a task "implementally," i.e., in the present, though the actual deadline could be months away:
the key that unlocks the implemental mode lies in how people categorise time. They suggest that tasks are more likely to be viewed with an implemental mindset if an imposed deadline is cognitively linked to "now"—a so-called like-the-present scenario.
Your humble observer read this item last week and was going to make a joke about linking to it only today, but the Economist editor already came up with a similar observation:
Note: The text for this final Babbage post was originally submitted some four weeks ago. The editor claims full responsibility for procrastinating over the post's production and publication, blaming his conception of time for the delay.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Same Time Each Year

At the Foster City Dog Park we greeted familiar faces, not all of them human. The occasion was the Blessing of the Animals, also known as the Feast of St. Francis in the Catholic and Anglican traditions.

One lady said that her 8-year-old had been coming for a blessing each year since he was a puppy.

Other owners were curious newcomers who wandered over from the dog run.

As we wrote in 2006:

eight centuries after his death, the light of Saint Francis shines brighter than ever.

Blessing the beasts and the chariots

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Consider the Geezers

The dangers of too much dietary sugar---in particular high-fructose corn syrup---have been known for years, but sometimes one just has to have that combination of caffeine, sweetness, and fizz found in a cola soft-drink. For the past three years I've been buying Mexico-bottled Coca-Cola from Costco.

Mexican Coke uses cane sugar and comes in retro heavy glass bottles. It's pricier than regular Coke or Pepsi, but at about a buck a bottle (more expensive at smaller retailers) compares favorably to high-end sodas. Drinking Mexican Coke has become a trend:
Mexican Coke is the new black. MexiCoke, as it is also called, is imported from Mexico and is sweetened by pure cane sugar, rather than the corn syrup found in the American version. Devotees say it delivers a sugar-infused, caffeine-amplified buzz, which is a particular draw for stay-up-all-night coders, writers and musicians. For hard-core fans, it’s Mexican Coke or none at all.
Note to all the viral marketers who look to teens and twenty-somethings for the next big thing: consider the geezers, a demographic which wants health and convenience, has money to spend, and is no longer saving to buy a house or put a kid through college. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Friday, October 03, 2014

View It As Insurance

We are one of the 76 million households affected by the J.P. Morgan data breach.

According to the bank the stolen information was limited to "names, email addresses, phone numbers and addresses." The thieves did not obtain sensitive data, i.e., "account numbers, passwords, Social Security numbers or dates of birth."

The biggest risk
is typically “phishing”—which involves identity-theft criminals contacting customers pretending they are the bank and asking them for more personal information.
We do not have J.P. Morgan/Chase checking or savings accounts but do have several JPM credit cards to which we make payments.

Though they want you to give them all your business, it's a good idea to keep your asset (checking, savings, CD) banks separate from your liability (credit cards, loans) banks. Whenever possible, make the payment instructions from the asset account and don't authorize the liability bank to draw on your cash.

Above all, zealously guard the passwords on your asset bank(s) and never respond to e-mails. To conduct business go to the asset-bank website directly on a secure network or even visit the bank in person(!).

Having more accounts will probably cost more in fees, but view the expense as insurance against inconvenience or even severe financial loss.