Cracking scratch lottery with statistics

“People often assume that I must be some extremely moral person because I didn’t take advantage of the lottery,” he says. “I can assure you that that’s not the case. I’d simply done the math and concluded that beating the game wasn’t worth my time.”

via Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code | Magazine.

A really interesting story about the mathematical weaknesses of common scratch lottery tickets.

How easy is it to get guns without a background check?

Gunshow Undercover – Arizona.

New York City investigators found it easy to replicate the arsenal of Jared Loughner at a gun show in Arizona. It’s not really a surprise to me that they were able to, but it’s interesting that New York City is examining other jurisdictions’ gun policies and enforcement as part of their domestic crime prevention policy.

My own URL shortener

So I guess the modern equivalent of the vanity email address is the vanity URL shortener. I registered because it was available and cheapish and because’s links keep getting longer and longer.

I tried both Google’s and’s BYO domain shorteners and didn’t like them at all. Google forces you to use a subdomain and uses the same namespace for all shortening domains, so all it really offered was vanity, not improved shortness.

After a couple of wisely aborted efforts to write my own I just installed YOURLS, a simple, straight-forward, extensible URL shortener. Like all useful internet software it’s all PHP and MySQL so it took virtually no time to deploy – unzip, create database, edit config file, reload.

There’s a pretty good WordPress plugin that shortens a link and then posts to twitter that I’m experimenting with as a way to encourage myself to make longer than 140 character posts. Let’s see how that goes.

The Dubai Job: GQ

One year ago, an elite Mossad hit squad traveled to Dubai to kill a high-ranking member of Hamas. They completed the mission, but their covers were blown, and Israel was humiliated by the twenty-seven-minute video of their movements that was posted online for all the world to see.

via The Dubai Job: Big Issues: GQ.

It’s a long article but worth the time. A really in depth analysis of the evidence around the Mossad assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh by an Israeli journalist. It’s fascinating to see how the assassins were able to be so competent and so incompetent at the same time.

The Librarian of Alexandria supports the protesters

The world has witnessed an unprecedented popular action in the streets of Egypt.  Led by Egypt’s youth, with their justified demands for more freedom, more democracy, lower prices for necessities and more employment opportunities.

via To our friends around the world: The Events in Egypt – News – Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

HDCP’s real purpose

The recent leak or crack of the HDCP key has mostly been discussed in terms media piracy. There is already plenty of Blu-Ray piracy – nobody’s going to bother capturing raw HDMI traffic and re-encode it when they can easily buy a ripper. What this will do is make it possible for more small chinese manufacturers to get in on the HD television manufacturing game. HDCP provided a high barrier to entry for manufacturers so we haven’t seen the proliferation of TV manufacturers that we’ve seen in virtually every other kind of electronics. I expect that to change. I’m looking forward to buying sketchy HDTVs in chinatown super cheap.

The genetic inferiority of stupid people

Sharon sent me Jill Filipovic’s blog post about Stephanie Grace’s “racist email” that seems to be doing the rounds of the angry internet. First of all Stephanie Grace’s email was kind of racist. Not Arizona racist, but it definitely had a racist subtext. She doesn’t state that she believes that African Americans are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than the rest of the US population, but by raising the suggestion she… raises the suggestion. It’s kind of like me pointing out that Glenn Beck has never provided evidence that he didn’t rape and murder a young girl in 1990.

Personally I think that it’s an entirely reasonable belief that more closely related groups (for example Americans whose ancestors largely originated in the Twi-speaking tribes of West Africa, or Americans whose ancestors originated from small towns in Scandinavia) will share physical traits. We’ve spent the past year travelling the world and people in different places look different. They have significantly different features, often adapted to their environment. If we connect the fact that genes can determine traits and closely related groups of people tend to share genes it’s obvious that closely related people tend to share some traits. I really don’t think that’s a racist concept.

What is racist is attaching moral value to traits associated with groups of people.

I don’t have any reason to believe African Americans are less intelligent than the rest of the population. Any difference in performance at school or income levels or incarceration rates are easily attributable to the class issues that Americans are so afraid of talking about. I think Stephanie Grace’s suggestion that their might be a genetic predisposition to lower than average intelligence among African Americans isn’t a particularly sound or even interesting suggestion, but she didn’t directly suggest that lower intelligence lowers the worth of individuals or groups. That all came from Jill Filipovic. It was Filipovic who used took a discussion of different traits and applied language like “genetically inferior”.

To equate intelligence with value (which is what Jill Filipovic does in her post) is where I have the problem. I’m happy to assume (as Filipovic does) that Stephanie Grace also equates intelligence with value or “superiority” but that’s not what the blog post was about. It was about arguing that intelligence is the key factor in determining the value of a person in society, and in the legal system in particular.

Antidepressants and the placebo effect

I’m starting to shift the content of the blog beyond simple technical issues. My use of LiveJournal has diminished as everyone elses’ has. I’ll keep posting personal stuff there but more general stuff will end up here.

By Flickr user ~!. Used under A CC license.

Over the past few years I’ve heard rumors of studies that showed a negligible difference between the effectiveness of antidepressants and placebos at treating depression. Now one of the main researchers looking at this, Irving Kirsch, has published a book, The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, so there’s more press around the question.

While Mark Morford’s take on the issue in SFGate is (as usual) hilarious yet mildly insightful, the Newsweek article it references is where the really interesting information lies.

Basically Kirsch’s research shows that antidepressants have little better than placebo effect for depression (not anxiety, bi-polar or other disorders) in people with mild to moderate symptoms. He based these conclusions on the studies that the drug companies themselves conducted in order to have the drugs approved by the FDA. Initially he used the studies published by the drug companies, but then using freedom of information laws got access to the rest of the studies. Since FDA approval only requires two positive studies (from any number of unsuccessful studies) and statistically significant benefits over placebo treatments it’s fairly straightforward to run a lot of studies and choose the favorable ones when seeking approval.

“By and large,” says Kirsch, “the unpublished studies were those that had failed to show a significant benefit from taking the actual drug.”

In just over half of the published and unpublished studies, he and colleagues reported in 2002, the drug alleviated depression no better than a placebo. “And the extra benefit of antidepressants was even less than we saw when we analyzed only published studies,”

About 82 percent of the response to antidepressants—not the 75 percent he had calculated from examining only published studies—had also been achieved by a dummy pill.

That’s pretty terrible, especially since the frequently significant side effects of antidepressant medication can actually aid their placebo effect:

That matters because belief in the power of a medical treatment can be self-fulfilling (that’s the basis of the placebo effect). The patients who correctly guess that they’re getting the real drug therefore experience a stronger placebo effect than those who get the dummy pill, experience no side effects, and are therefore disappointed. That might account for antidepressants’ slight edge in effectiveness compared with a placebo, an edge that derives not from the drugs’ molecules but from the hopes and expectations that patients in studies feel when they figure out they’re receiving the real drug.

All of this flies in the face of the common understanding of how and why antidepressants work. Our amateur brain chemistry knowledge tells us that serotonin is the chemical that triggers happiness in the brain. Its receptors are what drugs like ecstasy, cocaine and speed target, and the popular SSRI family of antidepressants (such as Celexa, Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft) act to keep brain serotonin levels higher than they would otherwise be, “fixing the chemical imbalance”. But between research that dismisses those effects (and suggests other theories for the effectiveness of SSRIs) and evidence that SSREs (which reduce serotonin levels) are also effective as antidepressants it seems like the science to explain the actions of antidepressants is at best really weak.

The other side of this story is that antidepressants help people. I have plenty of friends who’ve had their lives significantly improved when they began taking antidepressant medication. Are they just getting a placebo effect? Does it matter if they are?

Well, the side effects of SSRIs can be fairly severe. And they’re quite expensive – Prozac is $12 per dose (or $1.40 in generic). But the problem with prescribing sugar pills is that they’re only effective when patients believe them to be an expensive, dangerous drug. I’d personally prefer for people with mild forms of depression to receive non-drug therapy initially (as the NHS in the UK now recommends). If 80% of patients aren’t getting a chemical effect, but a psychological (placebo) effect then we should be able to help them equivalently with other non-chemical methods like therapy. Of course, even at $12 a pill, using antidepressants for their placebo effect is probably cheaper than using trained therapists.

Go read the Newsweek article. It’s really good!

Travel Tips

The wife and I have been travelling for the past year or so on a fourteen month trip around the world. I was just reading Nat Friedman’s travel tips so I was inspired to add a few of my own more back-packer-y tips.

  1. For long trips use small bags within your luggage. We used Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes. It makes it so much easier to keep your luggage organized as you move about. Repacking becomes a 30 second effort.
  2. For power bring a single adapter (I’ve been using a universal adapter similar to this one) and then a multi-adapter from your home country. I picked up a tiny triple adapter like this one. That way I can charge two computers and a phone with a single (often scarce) wall outlet and a single adapter.
  3. An unlocked GSM phone plus a cheap local SIM card is really handy if you’re going to be in  a country for more than a week or so. You can buy a low-end Nokia that can still browse the web (poorly, but enough to check your email) for about US$30. We put our temporary numbers on Facebook so that friends and family could call us, but mostly we needed phones to call ahead to hostels and locals. Also, if you’re used to paying for phone service in North America you’ll be pleasantly amazed by how cheap it is in much of the world.
  4. If you have to pay for wifi, but have two computers then an ethernet cable plus internet sharing halves your costs. NetworkManager does the internet sharing stuff trivially, I’ve rarely gotten it to work through Windows and MacOS though.
  5. AirCrack-NG is your friend. Learn its quirks. Use it wisely. The documentation that comes in the Debian / Ubuntu package probably isn’t quite enough to get it working so you should practice somewhere where you already have access to the Internet.
  6. A travel clothesline can be invaluable in extending the length of your wardrobe. Pick up some hand laundry soap and you’ll be able to wash shirts, socks and underwear pretty easily. We found larger things like jeans harder to wash in hostel sinks, but if you can visit a laundromat a couple of time a month and wash the rest of your stuff a couple of times a week in your hotel or hostel you’ll have more time and money for fun while not turning into a completely stinky hippie.