Archive for March, 2009

Penn and Teller: Placebo Effect

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Great Stuff!

T-Shirt Design

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I’m taking Christopher on another canoe trip this summer.  Since I’m not running right now, I have a bit of extra time on my hands, so I volunteered to work on the design of our T-Shirts for the trip.

Initially, I just couldn’t put my hands on clip-art that really captured these trips.  So, I decided maybe it was time to learn a bit more about using Illustrator.  I used pictures from previous trips as source material, even the moose skull.  This worked out really well.  Now all the people are “us” (the scoutmaster, Bill Storey, and David and Christopher figure prominently).



T-Shirt Back


T-Shirt Front

T-Shirt Front

The Crisis of Credit Visualized

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The Crisis of Credit Visualized.

I previously posted a link to a radio show that I felt was a pretty god explanation of the current crisis. I still highly recommend it, because, through the interviews, you can get a more direct impression of how everyone involved made decisions that made sense, even when they were “crazy” (you’ll have to listen to it to understand what I mean.) Today, on the Predictably Irrational blog, I found a link to this video. It presents the same information very succinctly, and with very well done visuals. You don’t get quite the same insight as listening to some of the interviews, but, I think most people will find it even easier to follow, and, with the visuals, easier to retain, and, as a bonus, it requires a much smaller investment of your time. You get about the same return as the longer radio link (an investment of more of your time), so I guess this makes this presentation a better time investment, what with it’s improved ROI.

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo

One thing that this one fails to mention, and I don’t recall the radio show covering in detail, is the role of the AIGs of the world. They were providing insurance to these investors against their investments failing. So, if AIG fails, then a lot of investors don’t have the insurance they thought they had and are exposed to much higher risks, and, of course, right now, you can’t really call it a “risk”. It’s losses. It’s only a “risk” if you’re unsure about the probability of it occurring. Certainly there’s still “risk” that hasn’t turned to loss, but a great deal of it has. So why does the government keep giving AIG huge wads of money? Because, if AIG fails, then investment losses will be much larger than they already are. Investors, wisely, knew they were taking a risk, and purchased insurance against that risk, now they need that insurance to “pay up”. Just like your insurance, I’m sure they don’t have insurance that keeps them from losing any money at all. That would really make the investments AIG’s investments entirely. Now, there’s a certain “truth” to these being AIG’s investments, since they were making money in return for offering to pay the investors in the event of a failure of that investment. You start to see how everyone seemed to be acting “wisely” from their own position, even knowing that the overall picture was “crazy”.

As you begin to see how we got here, the really interesting question comes up. How could we have prevented it? Now, if I’ve somehow set up the expectation that you’re about to read about a way to prevent this from happening again… well I need to come up with some “investment” to sell you, because you’re obviously putting too much stock in what I have to say :). However, I can’t help but make a comment or two. In this video, he highlights a “turning point” in the whole story, and I think it’s identified rather well. The whole thing fell apart because there could not be any real assessment of the risks involved with the sub-prime loans. They were moving more and more aggressively into “sub-primer and sub-primer” loans. There simply was no history against which to estimate their risk. Nobody had given out money with so little evidence of the ability to repay before. You could argue that, like all booms and busts, that people got carried up in the fever of everyone making money, and said to themselves “it might seem crazy to invest in this, but look around, everyone is making lot’s of money doing it. I’d have to be crazy to not get in on that.” In a nutshell that’s what I think drives all booms. We’ve not entirely thrown logic or rational thought out the window, we’re tempering it with a pragmatic assessment of the real results we’re seeing. Well, that leaves you with the “we’re doomed to repeat this over and over. It’s just human nature” conclusion. Not very satisfying (though certainly true to a degree, and we can’t pick what things are true based upon their “satisfaction index”). I do think that there are things that can be done o make the real risks more transparent, and that there’s not really anything you can do more important than make the risks more clear.

I think the tricky part here is that with all the “tricky” financial instruments created, it takes very financially savvy people to really understand the risk. And, it could be argued that, even these financially savvy folks didn’t see the real risk here. Maybe it boils down to something like getting back to a general wisdom, that you don’t invest in something you don’t completely understand, and if you invest in it you pay the price when it fails.

This is where it becomes a very difficult problem overall. We have so much inter-dependancy that it’s not just the big investors that had the risk. As is, obvious from this vantage point of hindsight, even “ordinary folk” are paying the price. It’s driven down the value of that “safest of all investments”, the purchase of your own home. Funny, maybe some of the lesson here, is that, as investors in our homes, we made the same mistake as the big time investors. Namely, that recent history predicts the near future. What was more widely accepted wisdom than “home prices always go up”. And yet, how much sense did that make? Sure, it’s a limited resource with growing demand. That was the clear thinking rationale that let us believe the lie. Perhaps we need to see that we’re just paying for a place to live, to protect our family from the elements, etc. Perhaps we need to get past it being an investment, and just assess whether or not we can afford it.

Hmmmm, let’s hope someone can come up with a better solution than changing human nature, even if it’s not so much a solution as a way to help control the wild swings.

(I just did a proofreading pass of this and realize that it rambles a lot, and could really use a lot of editing work. I don’t really have the time to do that, so I’m going to settle for an apology to you, the reader. It’s a rambling rant. Maybe I said something interesting. Maybe, someday I’ll even post a coherent version.)

xkcd – A Webcomic – Correlation

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xkcd – A Webcomic – Correlation.Correlation

Getting RSS from Apple mail to NetNewsWire


I have been using Apple Mail to monitor my RSS feeds.  I like it because it’s right there when I check email.  Unfortunately, while I can set up my mail account using IMAP and have everything in sync regardless of whether I use the Mac Pro in the study, my Macbook Air, or my iPhone, the RSS feeds do not sync up.  So, sitting here in the hospital, I am unable to keep up with all the feeds on my main machine.  I did a bit of searching and found that NetNewsWire will do the trick of keeping them all synchronized (including the iPhone).

Downloaded…Installed…now, just import my RSS feeds from Apple Mail…hmmmmm…. search Google… only hit is this blog entry bemoaning the lack of this capability.

Well now, a bored programmer, laid up in the hospital, feeling just fine, and sharing the same need can’t just let a situation like this stand.

So, here’s a ruby script that will read the RSS feeds from your Apple Mail and create an opml file named AppleMailRSS.opml on your desktop.  This file will import into NetNewsWire and, though I’ve not tested anything else, presumably any other RSS reader that imports opml files.

(Update note: (March 21, 2009) I’ve updated the script to handle any RSS feeds in folders in Apple Mail. Thanks Sebastion for pointing this out. I was not using folders in Apple Mail so I missed this detail.)

require 'rexml/document'

skeleton = <<EOSTRING
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<opml version="1.1">
    <title>Subscriptions from Apple Mail</title>

def getFolder(node,folders)
  return node if folders.length == 0
  folder = folders.shift
  node.each_element("outline[@title='#{folder}']") do |fNode|
    return getFolder(fNode,folders)
  fNode = 'outline'
  fNode.attributes['text'] = folder
  fNode.attributes['title'] = folder
  node << fNode
  return getFolder(fNode,folders)

def addRSSNode(body,folders,title,url)
  ol = 'outline'
  ol.attributes['text'] = title
  ol.attributes['description'] = ''
  ol.attributes['title'] = title
  ol.attributes['type'] = 'rss'
  ol.attributes['version'] = 'RSS'
  ol.attributes['htmlUrl'] = ''
  ol.attributes['xmlUrl'] = url
  getFolder(body,folders) << ol

doc =
body = REXML::XPath.match(doc,'//body')[0]
Dir.glob('**/*.rssmbox') do |mbox|
  m = mbox.match(/(.*\/)*(.*).rssmbox/)
  folders = m[1] ? m[1].split('/') : []
  title = m[2]"#{mbox}/Info.plist") do |file|
    url =*?<string>(.*?)</m)[1]

Dir.chdir()'Desktop/AppleMailRSS.opml','w') do |file|
  doc.write( file, 0 )


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godlessAtheist. I remember when there seemed no worse label to attach to someone. You could understand how others might have been mistaken in having the wrong religion, but denying the existence of God, well you just had to be “evil”, you just had to want to do anything at all without answering to any authority, you… well, you get the idea.

I just have to interject a definition of “atheist” I heard recently (don’t recall if it was in this book or not):

Atheist: a person who disbelieves in one more religion/god than you do.

There is a new “atheist” coming into focus. People who have just given it a lot of thought and come to the conclusion that they don’t see proof of a god, particularly a personal God as represented in religions descended through Judaism. The personal God that hears prayers and take sides. In previous days I could only have attributed this, as many still do, as becoming so focused on self and hard of heart that they had to deny God to justify their actions.

If this strikes a chord with you, then you really ought to consider giving this book a read. (If it doesn’t strike a chord with you, you may be more inclined to read this book, and I still think you’d enjoy it.) Dan Barker starts by laying forth his bona fides as a fervent evangelistic christian. You then take a deeply personal journey with him as he begins to question, and begins to find answers that, troublingly, don’t take him in the direction of confirming his faith.

I can hear scathing sermons about how evil, how dangerous this book is. How, whatever you do, you shouldn’t expose yourself to these sorts of thoughts. The devil will use it as a tool to erode your faith. Really?, just understanding how a fervent christian can honestly come to the conclusion that there is not good reason to assume the existence of god is dangerous? OK, take it upon yourself as a task to understand the position, the struggle, and, yes, the integrity, of a person like this.

There is a new picture of atheist emerging. (Or maybe I’m just seeing something that’s been there all along.) Folks are becoming more outspoken about how they have come to reject religion, how they’ve done it as a result of a need for the truth, not a running from it. With books like Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion becoming huge best sellers, and many sites emerging for “recovering christians”, I’m sure this is coming soon to be painted as our next great moral crisis.

There are points in the book where I feel that Dan Barker has reached a bit to far to include all counter arguments, to the extent of bringing in some weaker arguments that I think ultimately weaken the overall impact (i.e. the case would have been more convincing in the absence of some of the weaker arguments). This seem particularly true in chapters addressing arguments against “proofs” for god’s existence.

Other areas like chapters providing a background of the religious environment of the day, that shows how much of what seems so incredibly unique about christianity today was actually a very common thread of beliefs in all sorts of religious groups of that time in history, like the chapter that puts early church writing in a timeline of their writing and detailing how much more supernatural the later writings are than the early writing (no extra-biblical texts, but texts that are an accepted part of the canon (the accepted books of the Bible)), like a rather short chapter on emerging explanations about how we have evolved as moral beings with a predilection toward religious beliefs, are compelling, and I’d have liked to see even more on these topics. Of course, they’re covered in other books he refers to, and the compelling aspect of this book is understanding how a sincere person diligently seeking the truth arrives at these conclusions.

Someone once asked me “if you had to choose between your faith and the truth, what would you choose?”. I’m sure that many will see this as a non-question much like I did at the time. Hey, there’s no “choice” if your faith IS the truth. Of course, the question is more probing than that. Do you discount anything a priori because it doesn’t fit what you’ve been taught by your faith? Is your belief falsifiable? That is, can you point to anything, that, if it were proven true, would convince you you were wrong? Maybe more profoundly, do you think that you’d have the guts to change your mind? If you found that the your evaluation of the evidence demanded that what you thought and held dear was just not substantiated? Can you at least respect the courage of someone like Dan Barker who has the courage of his convictions to change his mind very publicly? Do you really think that, in our culture, it’s “easier” for someone to declare their new-found atheism or their new-found conversion to christianity?

hmmm…. guess that started to get a bit “preachy”, wonder how that happened.

Seriously, this is sure to be a thought provoking book. Consider it a dare to read the book without letting it provoke some sort of “righteous indignation”, but rather, a better understanding of an apparently growing segment of our population (and, actually a surprisingly large population in many other parts of the world).

(Can you tell that I’m stuck on bed rest for this stupid blood clot and have a lot more time on my hands for blogging?) 🙂

Blood clot

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Three weeks ago I blogged about turning my ankle on a morning run and fracturing a bone in my left foot. This morning I had my follow up and mentioned some pain in my calf and hamstring. The doctor didn’t think it was anything but decided we needed to check for a blood clot just to “be sure”.
they scheduled a Veinous Doppler and sure enough, I have a blood clot.
One lousy false step on a morning run and here I sit in the hospital waiting room waiting to be admitted to treat a books clot now.
Guess it’s a good thing I mentioned it. It’s not the type of thing you want to ignore.
Will post update later.

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