Tuesday, August 30, 2005

"'Loverspy' Spyware Creator Indicted, On the Run"


I hope the feds catch him, and I hope they go after more of these creeps. People who write spyware are no better than vandals and thieves.

Monday, August 29, 2005

"Brits driving Austrians bonkers over rude village name"

This is kinda funny.

Some interesting pull quotes from this article:

"We will not stand for the F---ing signs being removed," the officer told the broadsheet.

... and ...
Local guide Andreas Behmueller said it was only the British that had a fixation with F---ing.

... and ...

Guesthouse boss Augustina Lindlbauer described the village's breathtaking lakes, forests and vistas.

"Yet still there is this obsession with F---ing," she said.

"Just this morning I had to tell an English lady who stopped by that there were no F---ing postcards."

Do the Austrians realize how hilarious this sounds? Perhaps not. Perhaps they are just tired of the jokes. If so, maybe they should change the name of the village.

How about "Sucking"?

UPDATE: Some pictures here on this excellent Web site.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Telling statistics

Trust for America’s Health, an advocacy group, released a ranking of all 50 states in the U.S. based on how fat the citizens are. According to them, Mississippi is the fattest state and Colorado is the thinnest.

But some have questioned the group’s report, as noted in this USA Today article.

But government and other statistical experts take issue with the methods used to compile the ranking. The group averaged three years of data (2002-2004) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a state-by-state telephone system in which participants report their own weight and height.

Because people are believed to underestimate weight and overestimate height, some experts say actual obesity rates are higher than data suggest in self-reported surveys of this kind.

CDC officials say the ranking is misleading for a more technical reason. "This is not a valid statistical comparison," says Michael Link, a senior survey methodologist at the agency.

The percentage of obese adults in each state actually could be several points higher or lower than the numbers indicate, Link says. Because the sample size varies from state to state, each one has a different margin of error, which means the states can't be compared without giving that range, he says. [Emphasis added]

Advocacy groups often release studies and reports with no real intrinsic value other than the sensational media attention they generate (which, I realize, is the point with such groups). But it is disingenuous to try to influence public opinion with bad statistics. Or no statistics.

And that brings me to my annual moment of tooth-grinding frustration, when Men’s Fitness reveals its annual ranking of the fattest cities in America.

The Men’s Fitness survey is hopelessly flawed. It postures as a genuine statistical report, which is risible because its methods are lazy and not based on any legitimate method that I am aware of. Granted, I am not a professional in the field of statistics, but I question their choice of factors, and their blind reliance on an Internet telephone book for data strikes me as a poor method of statistical analysis.

Let me explain why I feel this way.

Men’s Fitness has graciously explained their method on their Web site (here), and I will address each portion as I see fit to explain why I look on the survey with contempt.

[The block quotes are from the Men’s Fitness Web site, and the emphases have been added by me.]

How We Did It - The 50 largest U.S. cities were selected using the most recent United States Census Bureau statistics available at the time of the survey, which was conducted from August 2004 through October 2004. Cities were assessed in 14 equally weighted categories, using data specific to each city, except as noted when data was available only for a metropolitan statistical area or for a state. (When no data was available, an average score was assigned.) The categories were selected as indicators, risk factors or relevant environmental determinants affecting fitness, obesity and health.

Indeed, there are a lot of categories, and I do not see why they all should be weighted equally. Should equal consideration be given to hard data and assumptions, as some of the categories surely cover?

Also, the survey makes up for a lack of data with an average score. Admittedly, I am not sure if this practice is common among statisticians and auditors, but I would think the report would just reflect that no data is available for certain markets.

The cities were ranked first to last and assigned numerical grades based on a relative curve. The scores were then translated into letter grades, which, while a more familiar point of reference, eliminated some of the scoring nuances. Since the survey is based on a comparative scale, with cities ranked solely in relation to each other, some positions and grades may have shifted from last year without necessarily indicating significant statistical changes.

Why was this done? Was something wrong with the numerical grades? How are letter grades more familiar than numerical grades?

Gyms/Sporting Goods - Composite score, equally weighing (a) total number of clubs, gyms and fitness studios ranked per 100,000 population, from YellowPages.com; and (b) total number of sporting-goods retailers ranked per 100,000 population, from YellowPages.com.

Does YellowPages.com include all clubs, gyms, fitness studios, and sporting-goods retailers in any given market? I doubt it. What about those clubs and gyms that aren’t listed? Without them, the survey is less accurate and less reliable.

Besides, counting fitness clubs does not take into account the people who work out at home or on the road. My wife and I work out together, but we do so in our house and not at an expensive gym.

Nutrition - Composite score, equally weighing (a) average frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption (percent that consumes five or more servings per day) in state-level data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System; and (b) total number of health-food stores ranked per 100,000 population, from YellowPages.com.

Again, I doubt all health-food stores in the nation are listed on YellowPages.com.

Also, the Men’s Fitness survey is relying on data from the same source as the scorned Trust for America’s Health report, i.e., the CDC surveillance system that relies on people to be honest about how tall they are and how much they weigh.

Exercise/Sports - Total participation in 103 sports and fitness-related activities. Measured by participants per 100 residents for the top 30 metropolitan statistical areas and by state. State-level data used when no metropolitan data available. Honolulu and Wichita, not surveyed, were given average scores. Data from the Superstudy of Sports Participation Geographic Supplement, from American Sports Data Inc.

A “superstudy” is the source of the data, but does it take into account people who work out at home?

Also, Honolulu and Wichita get the short end of the stick. They were assigned average scores. I wonder if that includes surfers?

Overweight/Sedentary - Composite score according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, equally weighing (a) percentage of population that is obese; (b) percentage of population at risk for health problems related to being overweight; (c) percentage of population at risk for health problems related to lack of exercise; and (d) percentage of population not participating in physical activity. SMART (selected metropolitan-micropolitan area risk trends) data used for specific cities. State data used where city data unavailable.

Again, Men’s Fitness is relying on the CDC surveillance system, which (according to Michael Link, a survey methodologist at the CDC) doesn’t reflect the actual number of obese adults in any given state.

Junk Food - Total number of fast-food outlets, pizza parlors, ice cream shops and doughnut stores ranked per 100,000 population, from YellowPages.com.

Again with the YellowPages.com. Is that gospel?

Besides, a strict cumulative count of fast-food outlets does not take into account eating habits. Should MacDonald’s be given equal ranking along with Subway, which offers several low-fat menu items? What about new menu items that are much healthier? I went to Jack in the Box today, but I did not have cheeseburger. I ordered an Asian chicken salad with a diet Dr. Pepper. Might others in the land of fast-food chains be doing the same?

Alcohol - Composite score, equally weighing (a) total number of bars/taverns ranked per 100,000 population, from YellowPages.com; and (b) apparent alcohol consumption by state, from the surveillance report of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

OK. They've admitted this is just a complete guess. How statistically significant can it be to measure apparent data?

And, again, the gospel according to YellowPages.com.

TV - Metered Market HUT (Homes Using Television) Analysis, Primetime, June 1, 2003-May 31, 2004, from Nielsen Media Research. Average or regional scores assigned to cities where specific data unavailable.

Does anyone still believe the Nielsen numbers? Have they ever? I never have.

Air Quality - The air-quality index is based on annual reports from the Environmental Protection Agency. The number of ozone-alert days is used as an indicator of air quality, as are the amounts of pollutants, including particulates, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, and volatile organic chemicals. From Sperling's Best Places.

What does this have to with fatness? Don’t lean and hefty people all breathe the same air?

Climate - The climate index is based on National Weather Service data combining estimated annual days above 32 degrees and below 90 degrees, amounts of precipitation and sunshine, and the August heat/humidity index.

Wow. Cities in Texas and Florida get bad marks right from the start because of the weather. As does Alaska. That seems lame. Good thing Canada was not included in the survey.

Geography - Accessible recreational forests, lakes, rivers, waterways, mountains, and ocean beaches, compiled from almanacs and additional sources.

I don’t know about you or the researchers at Men’s Fitness, but I don’t need a mountain to do pushups. Besides, fatties can float on lakes, rivers, and waterways.

Commute - Based on the Travel Time Index, which measures traffic delays due to congestion, according to the Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. Average score for small cities assigned to Tulsa and Wichita.

I’ll concede this category. Long commutes can discourage activity, which can lead generally worse health. We all could walk more.

Parks/Open Space - Composite score, equally weighing (a) total acreage per 10,000 population of federal and state recreation areas plus all listed water areas, from the Places Rated Almanac; (b) number of city parks per 10,000 population, according to a 2004 Men's Fitness custom survey; and (c) acres of city parks and recreational open space per 10,000 population, according to a 2004 Men's Fitness custom survey.

See my remarks to the “Geography” category above.

Recreation Facilities - Composite score based on totals per 10,000 population, from a a 2004 Men's Fitness custom survey, equally weighing (a) number of public basketball courts; (b) number of public swimming pools; (c) number of public tennis courts; and (d) number of public golf courses.

What about roadways for runners and bicyclists? Why weren’t they taken into consideration? Are golfers inherently more fit than bicycle riders? Do you think John Daly could take Lance Armstrong?

Health Care - Based on city-by-city ranking of health resources, access, cost of hospital stay, and cost of doctors' visits, as measured by Sperling's Best Places.

How is this a direct indicator of fitness? My last doctor visits had more to do with colds and allergies than anything else.

OK, I’m done. Needless to say, I think the rankings released by Men’s Fitness every year are bogus, and the media and local officials give the whole thing way too much consideration.

To which, I give a healthy “faugh”!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Selling flimflam

It seems like Kevin Trudeau has a book for sale called Natural Cures 'They' Don’t Want You to Know About. It seems like it's popular. And it seems like a whole lot of snake oil and flimflam.

According to this article on MSNBC.com, the New York State Consumer Protection Board called the book a "fraud", and one disgruntled buyer had this to say:
"The book is just gobbledygook. There's nothing in it. He doesn't say what the cures are," [Gerald] Bates said. Instead, Bates said, on page after page the book urges readers to head to Trudeau's Web site, NaturalCures.com. Consumers must pay $10 a month to use the site. And for those calling the toll free number to purchase the book, operators work hard to tack on a Web site subscription. "Something should be done to pull that ad off TV."

Ouch. Sure sounds like a bait-and-switch to me. Get the mark -- er, customer -- to spend $40 on a book that supposedly contains cures but that actually directs them somewhere else for $10 a month where the cures actually (presumably) are. It's shameless, but it's an old scam, updated for the Internet age.

I am a firm believer in the First Amendment, and people like Trudeau have the right to publish whatever drivel they want. But, buyers beware. Don't believe everything you see, hear, or read, especially if it sounds too good to be true.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"Black Hole Forges Invisible Bubble"

The universe is so cool.

The newfound bubble [around black hole Cygnus X-1] is about 10 light-years across and is expanding at about 225,000 mph (100 kilometers per second). Its creation has been ongoing for a million years or so. Astronomers are excited about the disovery because it is impossible to measure directly the power of jets like this one. By noting the interaction at the bubble, however, the researchers were able to calculate the jet's power.

The jet packs about 100,000 times more energy than our Sun.

"Remarkably, it also means that, after a massive star dies and turns into a black hole, it is still capable of energizing its surroundings, by means of completely different mechanisms," [University of Amsterdam's Elena] Gallo said.

Astronomers suspect there are millions of black holes similar to Cygnus X-1.

The cycle of life goes on, even for the universe. Stars die, but apparently they turn into the soil that feeds the space around them.

Makes me want to listen to Rush some more, especially this album.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

"Microsoft, Apple in iPod patent tussle"

How could Apple let Microsoft get to the patent office first? This is almost laughable.

I can't believe Microsoft was able to patent some of the iPod technology before Steve Jobs, who's probably grinding his teeth right now at the prospect of paying Bill Gates for the iPod's success. If Apple truly makes products that revolutionize the computing world and everyone else just copies them (as any Mac lover will assert), I would think they would be filing patents at the drop of a hat.

Maybe they will be quicker from this point on.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Appreciating vanilla

Amanda Fortini defends vanilla in "The White Stuff", and gives a little history as well.

I appreciate true vanilla flavors, and I don't write the flavor off as bland. I also appreciate Fortini's writing in defending the precious, expensive stuff (the real stuff, that is). For example:
And suddenly I had a vanilla epiphany. The rice, a truly bland food, forced the vanilla to take center stage. But vanilla is essentially a supporting actor. It is a sociable flavor, at its best when bringing out the best in other distinct ingredients, softening their acidity, drawing out their intensity, helping them to cohere. This is why baked goods made without vanilla lack depth and dimension, like music without a bass line.

She packs a lot of metaphors in this one passage, but I don't think she goes overboard with them. It is a smooth, readable writing style in defense of a smooth, delicious flavor. And I like it.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Pondering the next vehicle

I'm glad the shuttle made it safely back to Earth. But it's probably time to put a new vehicle design on the fast track. The shuttle design has served well, but it might not be a bad idea to separate missions where a crew is critical from those that are just putting a payload in orbit (for which plain rockets will do just fine).

I, for one, can't wait to see what they come up with.

Monday, August 08, 2005

"Ex-U.N. official admits taking bribes"

Wow. One of them actually confessed.

By "them", of course, I mean the miscreants who were taking advantage of a humanitarian program to make themselves rich. And they weren't Americans. And I'm sure that they, to a man, opposed invading Iraq.

No wonder. That took away their gravy train.

A former U.N. procurement officer pleaded guilty Monday to accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from U.N. contractors, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Alexander Yakovlev pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering and could face up to 20 years in prison for each charge, the office said in a statement.

I really have no opinion of John Bolton, Bush's appointment as United Nations ambassador. But it sounds like he has a tough job ahead of him as he heads into the snakepit. I wish him luck.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Finding chiasmus

Chris Lydgate has a piece in the Opinion Journal about the sad state of prison affairs near Portland, Oregon. Though the subjet matter of the piece is quite interesting, what caught my eye was Lydgate's cheeky use of chiasmus, a rhetorical literary devise whereby a parallel structure is reversed for poetic effect.

Like this: "While scofflaws scoff and perps perpetrate, the Board of Commissioners is deadlocked over the sheriff's budget."

It isn't an exact chiasmus as I learned it, as the subject and verb of each phrase are in the same position. However, the spirit is there as the one syllable word that echoes its polysyllabic partner switches places in the second phrase.

I know I'm a language geek, but something like this impresses me more than whether or not Oregonians can figure out how to fill a jail with criminals.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A ferry landing

Just a simple picture of a ferry landing.

Watching space junk

Since the 1960s, humanity's forays into space have become so commonplace that no one really notices launches anymore. Oh, people pay attention to NASA's space shuttle, but, really, can you remember the last time a communications payload was put into orbit?

I think this is good, in a way. Using space for the benefit of humanity has become necessary in many respects. But, with so many launches of so many satellites (not to mention the shuttle missions and those association with the International Space Station), litter has tended to build up over the past few decades.

Space litter. Junk left over from previous launches and missions and spacewalks and what-have-you. On the ground, such mission detritus would pose no real problems because whoever came along next could just kick the debris to the side of the road.

In space, however, the junk remains in orbit, which means it is moving around the earth at very high speeds. If such trash would happen to hit a valuable item -- such as the space shuttle -- then severe damage could result.

Enter the 1st Space Control Squadron. This unit of Peterson Air Force Base is located in Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado. There, they keep an eye on all identifiable manmade items in orbit and assess the danger they may pose to any current or future space mission. Not a very celebrated unit of the Air Force, I am sure, but an absolutely necessary one.

Keep watching the skies, guys.

Monday, August 01, 2005

"Study Links Tobacco Smoke With Belly Fat"

OK, I get the message that smoking is bad for you. But does it really cause everything? What's next, smoking causes smallpox? Excess hair? Athlete's foot? Locusts?