Archive for May, 2011

The new biological age test may not be exactly what you need

May 31st, 2011
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ThinkTech Hawaii

The news recently brought us some stories about a new over-the-counter blood test that will tell you your “biological age” and will be able to predict your life expectancy to within a decade. It will come on the market in Britain later this year, and we can expect that soon enough it will be in the U.S. too.

You want scary? That’s scary. Exactly how much do you want to know about when you will die? And if you do know, what will you do with that information. Perhaps scarier still is what other people would do.

It’s like a science fiction version of Faust, where you bargain to find your mortality, and finding it changes your life completely. No one will find joy in these metrics. The uncertainty of life, the challenge of living into the mystery of the future, is what makes us human to live another day. What do they say? Ignorance is bliss.

Literature and art have long tantalized us with stories where by one means or another we see into the future and learn the date or circumstances of our demise. These fantasies will now be made into reality through the miracle of modern biology. It’s much more serious, and threatening, when bioscience tells you so.

The test was designed by a company called Life Length. It measures the length of a person’s “telomeres,” the cap-like structures on the tips of the chromosomes. Scientists say that the shorter your telomeres are, the nearer you are to death. That gets right to the point, doesn’t it?

This goes way beyond the conventional predictions we can make by Q&A about life style and medical conditions. This is much more the real deal than Q&A analysis, and it gets you where you live, as they say. We never had this level of accuracy before, except perhaps when it was much too late.

Without dwelling on the biochemistry, we need to examine what it means to humankind and to scientific ethics, just as we should do for all disruptive biology. Once you have this information, can you ignore it? Can you override it? You might be motivated to go the gym, but it’s not clear that that will affect your telomeres or your measured mortality. I think I liked it the old way better.

In any event, you may not have exclusive control of what happens with it.

This is great fodder for the actuaries among us, and surely the insurance industry must be reading the news with great interest. If anyone will permit them to take the biological age test from us they can get a much better handle on life expectancy, and thus on rates and reserves. It’s only a matter of time before they do. This will take the discomfort of life expectancy to a new level.

What about our employers? What about the government? Will they be able to require us to take these tests in order to plan or not plan our careers or medical or retirement benefits, or worse? That would make age discrimination into a new and more chilling art form. It sounds like 1984 all over again.

Of course, the test raises the “bucket list” phenomenon. After the movie, lots of people started making and executing bucket lists, and they still do. They weren’t about to go, nor did they have any idea when they would go, but the movie encouraged them to do some madcap in anticipation anyway. Good for them for breaking out. A darker model would be that of Nicholas Gage in “Leaving Las Vegas.”

But if a person takes the test and determines he’s not long for this world, that would be great cause, wouldn’t it, to take the bucket list more seriously. I would predict that many people will take the test, $700 cost or not, and once advised of their biological age and life expectancy they’ll make a list too. The movie will become popular again. Stores will sell bucket list stationery and there’ll be websites too.

It opens the door, doesn’t it, to all kinds of end-of-life planning scenarios, many of which I can’t think of and don’t want to think of. One thing’s for sure, this test has appeal, morbid perhaps, but appeal nonetheless, and its availability is more likely to be remembered than forgotten. Lots of people will be drawn to it, something like the moth to the flame. Clearly, it's not the ideal birthday gift.

Over time, the cost will come down to a manageable price, and more people will be drawn to the flame and will, with trepidation, award themselves with this dreaded personal sentence. Their lives are likely to change, but how will the lives of their families and friends change? The ripple effect could be something to watch.

For me, I think for now I’ll just skip it.

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Will current controversies change public opinion on rail?

May 24th, 2011
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ThinkTech Hawaii

Rail has been in the paper plenty lately, and after years of controversy it’s becoming even more controversial. How will this change things?

Sumitomo has filed a protest to the contract the City gave Ansaldo. Sumitomo says the total cost of its bid was less than the total cost of the Ansaldo bid. Surely, this would be relevant to those who examine and select low bids. We do want the low bid, don’t we? Something is fishy in Railville.

The Ansaldo award is another symptom of our forced and foggy thinking. Just as the Ansaldo award was questionable, the decision about rail in general was questionable. The whole process has been yes railroaded without due diligence or genuine public discussion, first under Mufi Hannemann and now Peter Carlisle. The legatee has accepted a plainly defective legacy.

And now Ben Cayetano and others have filed a suit pointing out that the EIS did not contain the requisite alternative analysis and must therefore fail, adding fuel to the legal fires burning around rail, and to mounting public concerns about how we got here. Perhaps the tide is turning?

Many people feel there has been a hoodwinking, and that had there been a proper discussion we would never had gone down this road. In any event, rail is not going anywhere without serious and continuing controversy, on the procurement and contracting issues, on the condemnation issues and, of course, on the basic question of whether to go ahead.

Why is it that this big bad project has gone so far and we have spent so many tens of millions digging a hole in the sand? The confusion has gone widespread. Why can’t we do better on a project so large? The answer: because it is so large. Ten billion does have a way of gathering flies. That's my estimate of what it will cost given the overruns Parsons Brinckerhoff had at the Big Dig in Boston.

Some say that rail will meet the fate that so many large projects in Hawaii ultimately meet. We seem to have a problem with large projects. We get intimidated somehow, and we make mistakes in planning them and also in executing them. It’s embarrassing. We seem to get distracted by a swarm of special interests, and we wind up losing our perspective. Our officials seem to disregard the larger picture and flout the greater good, despite their promises to the contrary.

We can't afford rail, and we can't afford to wait 20 years to deal with our horrendous congestion. So why are we barking up this $10 billion tree? We have to reorder our priorities and soon. We have to fix the traffic and pay our bills, and those things must come first. We don’t have the money to waste on big bad rail projects. To ignore that fact is reckless, and will put all of us in the poorhouse.

The bright side is that these emerging controversies could also awaken a sleeping public, and that once aroused that public will put the brakes on runaway rail. We can hope, can’t we?

This subject was discussed at a panel at the Book and Music Festival at Honolulu Hale last weekend. Also, ThinkTech and the Hawaii Venture Capital Association will present a related luncheon panel program called "Big Projects in Hawaii: are they are track?" on Thursday, May 26th at the Plaza Club. To learn morer, visit hvca.org.

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Conspiracy is a movie you've got to see

May 16th, 2011
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ThinkTech Hawaii

Conspiracy is a movie you've got to see. It's a serious movie about a serious footnote to the Civil War. It’s a Robert Redford film featuring James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, and Robin Wright as Mary Surratt. It reflects years of research and is as authentic as Redford could make it.

Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, after Lee had surrendered but before other Confederate armies had surrendered. We all know John Wilkes Booth did it, but perhaps we didn’t know that his group of conspirators had also attempted to assassinate William Seward, Secretary of State in Lincoln’s cabinet, and nearly succeeded. The whole affair was more complex than we thought.

Edwin Stanton, the War Secretary, was really ticked off. After all, he was the Secretary of War, as powerful as anyone in the Lincoln government and more so after Lincoln’s assassination. The war was still going on for him, and he was deeply worried that the South would rise again. His primary concern was, as it had been for the past four years, to keep the Union together.

He and many others in the Union felt that drastic action had to be taken to find and summarily punish those responsible for Lincoln’s death, and he proceeded accordingly. Mercy would not be shown. Justice had to be swift. He found a number of the conspirators and ordered them to trial before a “military commission” composed of Civil War generals and some of their dutiful officers. For Stanton, the future of the country rode on immediate vengeance.

The defendants arrested were not in the military, and there was a substantial question as to whether they could be tried by a military commission. One of them was Mary Surratt, who operated the boarding house where the conspirators had hatched the plot. Mary was charged as a conspirator. Her son John had been active in the conspiracy, and in fact had escaped capture, but Mary herself denied being part of the conspiracy, and maintained her innocence throughout.

These were critical times for the country. We had just come out of a Civil War that had resolved some fundamental issues and redefined the character of the country going forward. This was 150 years ago. We all studied the Civil War, but we never learned, or have forgotten, how the Union handled the assassination conspiracy. The movie takes us back, in frightening detail.

This is a movie that shows you life in that period - how they lived, spoke, dressed, how they socialized and courted each other, their parties, homes, and Washington and the politics of the time, with gravel in the street and large fields and forts nearby, even within view of the Capitol.

Details we never knew, but should have. Like a time machine, Conspiracy transports us to the summer of 1865 and puts us there among those characters, living their lives, feeling their anger and outrage, down to our toes. They are Americans for sure, but living in an America different than the one we know. The movie was color, of course, but somehow it was black and white.

It’s a movie about the lawyers and law of the time, very different than the law we know today. This law had the Constitution and many legal elements we may find familiar, but the law in this movie was rough and ready, brutal even brutish. It was a law that preceded the refinements of the late 19th Century and the growth of the courts and the Constitution in the 20th Century.

You see this movie and you want to go back and explain to them how much they will have to learn to get from the closing days of that war to our modern civil society. And it makes you realize how far we have come, and how important it is that we hold on to the gains we have achieved.

As much as it’s a story about Mary Surratt, it’s also a story of Frederick Aiken, the young lawyer and decorated veteran called to defend Mary Surratt. Mary had asked Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland, a former U.S. Attorney General, to defend her, but he soon turned the case over to Aiken, who had little or no experience. Soon enough, Aiken was transformed and in the process lost his friends, social status and fiancee. Washington society was not about to tolerate a lawyer who represented a conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination, veteran or not.

He tried the case brilliantly, although the courtroom process was a lot different than what you would see today. The method of prosecution and examination was different, at times crude, but always forceful. The prosecution engaged in subornation and open tampering that would be found criminal today. Aiken should have won the case, but the commission was predetermined.

Under overwhelming command influence, the commission convicted Mary Surratt and awarded her a prison sentence. Stanton, unsatisfied, imposed further pressure on the commission, and they then changed their vote to death. It was not a happy moment for American justice.

Stanton believed that the Union was more important than the Constitution. Frederick Aiken disagreed. He handwrote a petition for habeas corpus and sought a writ from a federal judge at home in the middle of the night. Aiken’s argument to that judge was the most powerful moment in the movie. It was a perfect argument, and he prevailed on the judge. In the morning light, he delivered this writ of habeas corpus to Stanton and asked him to remand Mary to the judge. One would have expected Stanton to comply with the writ, but it was not to be.

It’s out of Shakespeare, or perhaps a tragic opera. Aiken goes to tell Mary Surratt the good news, but just as he tells her, he is informed that President Andrew Johnson has quashed the writ and that Mary is to be executed after all. Stanton has his day, and Mary is hanged straightaway with the others, the first woman ever to be executed by the federal government. It was the end of Mary Surratt, but it was certainly not the end of the issue over military commissions.

The aftermath brims with irony. A year after Mary Surratt’s execution, the Supreme Court found that civilians could not be tried by military commissions, and were entitled to trials by juries of their peers, just as in the Constitution. It was no less ironic that her son John was captured after that decision, and was never convicted. And we also find that Frederick Aiken, who left the law after Mary’s execution, became editor of a brand new newspaper – the Washington Post.

I'm sure there's much more to find about these rich characters and events, but the movie gives us enough to look into the barbershop mirror and re-examine the lessons of earlier times, and to see into the hearts of our national ancestors and be proud and thankful to them for their courage.

At the same time, we can’t escape comparing these events with those that have followed 9/11, and we can’t help wondering why the lessons of the past 150 years can be so easily forgotten. Redford knew there were parallels with today, but he didn’t have to make any of this up.

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The Table of Shame - can we afford everything we wish for?

May 9th, 2011
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ThinkTech Hawaii

For what it’s worth, Panos Prevedouros has been circulating the “Table of Shame.” It’s a table intended to demonstrate that Hawaii will have an indebtedness of some $40 billion over the next few years. Assuming 85,800 households of 4 members, each household will pay $466,200.

Is he kidding? Will your household or any household be able to pay even a fraction of that that much money, even over time and especially in a declining economy? No way.

UHERO can predict better times for our mono-economy at some point in the future, but right now that economy is paper thin. Occupancy is dropping on Bishop Street and businesses are downsizing all over town. Many are holding on by their fingernails. Hopefully, many will be able to stay the course until things get better, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

Our tax base is so shriveled we can’t even balance the budget, even after three years of nickel dime tax increases and belt-tightening to the point where everyone you know has felt the pain. We’re getting used to it already, and it shows no sign of letting up. Oh, for the good old days.

So how are we going to pay this $40 billion? This situation didn’t emerge over night; it’s taken years of complacency to get here. Decade after decade we’ve let these future debts accumulate like storm clouds, even in good weather when the government could have done something about it.

But right now we’re in bad weather and completely unprepared for these debts. We’re going to have to suffer some major austerity to pay them, way beyond just balancing the budget. Are we prepared?

The $40 billion of debt on Panos’ Table of Shame includes unfunded ERS contributions ($9.5B) and health care ($10.8B), rail ($4.5B), sewers and treatment plants ($4.7B), water mains ($2.0B), airport upgrades ($2.8B), highway repairs and improvements ($4.1B), and the undersea cable ($1.5B). This doesn’t include the enormous costs we’ll have to incur to repatriate the homeless.

And it doesn’t cover the huge costs involved in dealing with sea level changes in our island state, an average increase of 3-5 feet, or more, by 2100. No beach, no tourism, no money, no nothing. To say nothing of so many other infrastructure costs we’ll have to spend to deal with climate change.

Some of the debts on Panos’ Table go directly to our quality of life, such as sewers and water treatment. As a community we can’t exist without these basic services, and yet we’re not able to pay for them. We gave away our money in the good times, and now we have no reserves.

Neither did we diversify, so now the odds work against a robust economy going forward.

The government payroll and benefits are way too big and expensive. It’s a double whammy when the government costs too much and at the same time stands in the way of new projects, progress and the diversification and expansion of the economy. This leads to a spiral down.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, with all his passion, has the right idea. Rome is burning, and we’ve got to fix the economy soon and no matter what. Will the legislature help? This session they seemed more interested in short-term issues, while our economy is languishing and our children are leaving.

Although Panos’ Table is shocking, that doesn’t mean it’s not true or at least in the ballpark. He says he got the numbers from the newspaper and other generally reliable sources. But even if the debts he lists turn out to be $30 billion rather than $40 billion, we’re still waist-deep in kimchee.

This raises a question that seems obvious: With a $40 billion of impending indebtedness we can’t pay, and an economy that can’t sustain us, how in the world can we afford to spend $5 to $10 billion for a rail system most people won’t use and many feel we don’t need? With that kind of extravagance, we’ll be wandering in the desert for 40 years in long-term poverty.

We need to find our way back to rationality before the ship sinks under the weight of all this debt. The money we squander for rail could go a long way to fund much more important projects, like those that will rebuild our community instead of enriching one group at the expense of another.

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We should be troubled about Apple's consolidated.db

May 2nd, 2011
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ThinkTech Hawaii

Did you know that iPhone was recording your movements with its GPS function? I didn’t. I bet you didn’t either. This is not cool and is in fact quite troubling.

Researchers at O’Reilly Media discovered it in iPhones and 3G iPads running Apple’s iOS 4. Apple is storing GPS coordinates in an accessible but hidden and undocumented file which gathers thousands and thousands of time-stamped location data entries about you. It’s intentional, since the file is being restored across backups and migrations.

This hidden file is called consolidated.db. Anyone who gets access to it will know everywhere you’ve been over the past year, since iOS4 was released.

“Why this data is stored and how Apple intends to use it — or not — are important questions that need to be explored,” said the O’Reilly team that discovered it. Apple did not respond to O’Reilly’s request for comment.

When some people are confronted with this discovery they say it’s okay because even though Apple didn’t say anything, given the technology of the GPS function, they would have expected Apple to do this sort of thing simply because it could be done.

They point out that the file is just sitting there, so no harm no foul. Apple is just gathering data on you and putting it in a file on your iPhone. We don’t know whether Apple is in fact sending the file anywhere or whether it does retrieve the file or plans to retrieve it or enable someone else to retrieve it.

Actually, there are third party vendors right now that sell devices to the police that can read everything on your phone, including your iPhone and including this GPS file. If you try, surely you can get one too, and with it you can copy the file off your phone, or someone else’s phone.

It’s not acceptable to say that we should have expected that Apple or any other phone company would do this simply because they could. We should have expected instead that Apple would not have done any such thing, and frankly we should be outraged about it.

For me, I thought is that Apple would be respectful of our privacy and would let us control that information in the same vein perhaps as Google’s promise of “not doing evil.” Does Apple feel it does have that obligation? If so, we should look at everything it does more carefully.

Apple has engaged in some serious transgressions here. First, they built this file without telling us, second they haven’t given us access to our own information, and third when turned out they haven’t explained their actions or intentions. Taken together, it’s invasive and arrogant.

The public should take a stand on this. It’s not acceptable. Apple should revise iOS4 to stop making this file or make it only with our consent and give us the option to delete it or at the very least give us the option to look at the file and in any event prevent others from looking at it.

If we don’t take a stand here it’s going to get worse. This is a slippery slope. It’s Big Brother, like national ID cards. Did you know we’re going to have national ID cards in 2013?

With Apple it’s worse because we trust ourselves to their instrument and now we’ve been compromised by it – there’s no assurance that the whole world will not know everywhere we’ve been and by inference everything we’ve done.

Where is the ACLU when we need them? There ought to be a demand and lawsuit. If Apple is doing this to us, what about the others? Are they doing it too? If they see that nothing is done to stop Apple will they now try to emulate Apple, even if they have not done so already?

Will our phones be instruments to report on exactly where we are going and what we are doing? This is ultimately very scary, as scary as anything we’ve seen in the past few years.

In a way it’s worse than the warrantless black boxes under the Patriot Acts because the technology is real time and the data could be propagated real time. We could be bugging and broadcasting ourselves 24x7 to anyone anywhere, like self-surveillance.

Sure you say our government would never capitalize on that, but think about it. Our civil liberties and right of privacy have been seriously compromised in the age of tech and 9/11. These rights didn’t come easy and they didn’t come quick, and we can’t afford to lose them now.

If we let Apple record and retrieve GPS information, others will follow and other erosions will follow that, and government invasions will not be far behind. Can Apple resist if government demands that information? Did it intend to resist when it built the function?

No, the death of Bin Laden doesn’t end the terrorist threat. But it does signal that we need to put things in perspective at the current intersection of terror, tech and hard won civil liberties.

We’re at a turning point. Let’s make sure we know where we’re going, and where our data is going.

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