Saturday, August 29, 2009

Physical letters over the internet

Another interesting development, after the e-book. It is amazing thought that this time it is done by a public company.

The internet has revolutionised the speed at which people communicate. Now the Swiss postal service is hoping to do the same for regular snail mail.
The company offers a service called Swiss Post Box to customers wanting to receive their physical letters over the internet.
This system was first developed by the Seattle-based company Earth Class Mail, which has its own subscribers around the world.
For 14 euros (£12) a month, letters are redirected to a secret location in Zurich where the envelopes are scanned and an image is e-mailed out to customers.
They can then decide whether letters should be opened and scanned by vetted personnel sworn to secrecy, or simply shredded.


Friday, August 21, 2009

The Swiss President apologizes to Libya and UBS surrenders the names of 4450 account holders to the US

Is Switzerland loosing its power? Two incidents within just two days provide evidence to this.

After Swiss banking giant UBS AG agreed on Wednesday to turn over to the IRS the details of 4,450 accounts suspected of holding undeclared assets by American customers, piercing Switzerland's long-standing tradition of banking secrecy, another piece of news show Swiss weakness.

Further to my earlier comment about the incident in Geneva that led to the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi, son of Muammar Gaddafi, I now read that Hans-Rudolf Merz, the Swiss president, has apologised to the Libyan people over the arrest of the son of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's leader, in Geneva a year ago.
"I express to the Libyan people my apologies for the unjust arrest of Libyan diplomats by Geneva police," Merz said at a joint news conference in Tripoli with Baghdadi Mahmudi, the Libyan prime minister.
Libya responded to the arrests by suspending oil deliveries to Switzerland, withdrawing assets worth an estimated $7bn from Swiss banks, ending bilateral co-operation programmes and placing restrictions on Swiss companies.
Two Swiss businessmen in Libya were also banned from leaving the country.
Merz said at Thursday's news conference that "the Libyans have assured me that they [the two businessmen] will be allowed to leave before September 1".
"Today I have fulfilled my mission and achieved my goals of wiping the slate clean of last year's incident and opening the Libyan market" to Swiss firms once again, the president said.
After more than a year of strained relations between the two countries, Merz said "it is a satisfying outcome for me".
Mahmudi said Libya and Switzerland would set up a joint committee to examine what he called the "tragic incident" in Geneva.
The prime minister said: "Today we have been able to take a first step towards solving this problem.
"Switzerland has presented its official and solemn apologies concerning the unjust arrest of the son [of Gaddafi].
Last month, Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss foreign minister, said her country was trying to organise a meeting between Merz and the Libyan leader to defuse the crisis.
For Switzerland, the dispute is "a matter of law, while for Libya it is a matter of honour," she said.

For more information about Gaddafi's children and their activities see here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Town Hall Meeting and Deliberative Polling

From the NYT

Op-Ed Contributor
Town Halls by Invitation

Published: August 15, 2009

“CONGRESS on Your Corner” has turned into “Your Congressperson Cornered.” Around the country, lawmakers are finding their town hall meetings disrupted by hecklers, many echoing anti-health-care-reform messages from talk radio and cable television. Supporters of reform will surely countermobilize, leading to more outbursts and demonstrations. Forget, for a moment, that these impassioned voters have turned these meetings into political sideshows. Are town halls actually the best way for lawmakers to connect with their constituents?

The term “town hall” conjures up images of townsfolk gathering in some New England hamlet. But studies of New England town meetings have shown that such gatherings cease to be effective for large populations. They may work in communities of a few hundred, but when the population reaches the many thousands, attendance drops and the connection to citizens atrophies.

The Congressional town-hall-style meeting, which developed as a cost-effective way for time-pressed members to hear from constituents, also rests on an illusion: that a district of 650,000 potential voters can be represented by the unscientifically self-selected who decide to show up. Instead, these amorphous, unpredictable meetings have become open invitations for interest groups and grass roots campaigns to capture the public dialogue.

But there is a way of organizing town halls that would offer lawmakers representative and informed feedback about their constituents’ major concerns: a deliberative poll. Whereas ordinary polls represent the public’s surface impression of sound bites and headlines, deliberative polls bring together a scientifically selected microcosm of a lawmaker’s constituents under conditions conducive to thinking about issues. In effect, an entire Congressional district really can be put in one room.

These deliberative polls may, on the surface, look a lot like the current town halls — a lawmaker and constituents sharing their positions and asking each other questions. But a lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes. First, a survey identifies the range of attitudes and demographics in the district, before inviting a randomly selected, representative sample of constituents to attend. A random sample cannot be captured by people with intense interests volunteering themselves. Second, to facilitate discussion, participants are sent balanced briefing materials about the issues to be discussed ahead of time.

When they first arrive at the deliberative poll, attendees answer a confidential questionnaire assessing their positions, before being divided up for small-group discussions. This is key: in the current town hall format, shrill voices can easily silence the rest. But during a deliberative poll, trained moderators make sure that every voice is heard and that the group carefully and thoughtfully narrows in on its most pertinent and pressing policy questions. When all the participants finally assemble with the lawmaker, the result is a serious and productive conversation well beyond what we’ve seen in town halls lately.

At the end of the day, participants are polled again. Our research at the Center for Deliberative Democracy shows that participants always become better informed and that, about two-thirds of the time, they change their opinions significantly. Plus, the confidential questionnaires show what the real majorities in the room are — instead of assuming that the angriest and most theatrical speakers represent anyone other than themselves.

At the center, we have collaborated on more than 50 deliberative polls around the world. The process has certainly been shown to help overcome sharp divisions. In a 2007 deliberative poll in Northern Ireland on education reform, the percentage willing to agree that “most Catholics” or “most Protestants” were “open to reason” rose 16 points. Those agreeing that most Protestants or Catholics were “trustworthy” also increased considerably.

One we held in Bulgaria, about policies toward the Roma, or Gypsies, produced strongly reconciliatory policies at a time when loud fringe groups wanted to build walls around the Roma communities. And in a deliberative poll in Brussels just before the recent European Union elections, people from 27 countries, partaking in discussions in 21 languages, moved to support more tolerant policies toward immigrants.

If deliberative polls can produce mutual understanding in such cases of sharp ethnic and political conflict and across such linguistic divisions, surely this process can help members of Congress have civil, constructive conversations with their own constituents about health care.

James Fishkin, the author of “When the People Speak,” is the director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford.

About Headaches...

Interesting reading for those suffering from headaches

We all know what it's like to have a headache. They can turn the best of occasions into a form of torture. Four out of five people get tension headaches. One in seven experience migraines. Headaches cost the economy around £1.5bn a year through lost work days. Trouble is, while some causes of headaches are obvious – such as when you've had too many glasses of wine the night before – others are more tricky to call. And how can you tell what's serious and what isn't? A good starting point is knowing what type of headache you have.

Tension headache

Tension headaches tend to feel like a pressure or tightness around the head. They can last for only half an hour or up to a week. This is the most common type of headache and most people will have had one. Tension headaches can be stress-related or due to problems with the muscles in the neck and face, but there is often no obvious cause. Most people who get tension headaches don't get them very often but around 3% of the population get them regularly, on average every other day. Ibuprofen or paracetamol are usually effective, and exercise helps too. For regular headaches preventative treatment with amitriptyline is available. Although better known as an antidepressant, amitriptyline doesn't prevent headaches by making you happier, although why exactly it does work is still not known.


Migraine causes recurrent headaches on one side of the head that last for more than four hours. It is common to feel sick and sitting in a dark room often helps. A quarter to a third of migraine sufferers get an "aura" before the headache begins. This is not a supernatural glow around the body, but unusual sensations such as pins and needles, seeing bright lights, or feeling distant from people around you.

A recent survey found that a third of people who work with a migraine sufferer are suspicious that migraine is used as an excuse for days off work. Perhaps we should be more sympathetic: the World Health Organisation has ranked a day with severe migraine as disabling as a day with quadriplegia, psychosis or dementia. It is not a psychological illness: "Migraine is very clearly a brain disorder," says Dr Paul Shanahan, consultant neurologist at the Headache Group, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. "There are changes in activity of certain brain regions which occur during an acute migraine attack that give rise not just to pain, but a wide variety of symptoms. It's not 'just a headache', and it's certainly not psychological."

The mechanism underlying a migraine has been the subject of much debate over the years. Researchers used to think that the aura was caused by blood vessels in the brain narrowing. Then the vessels widen, which was thought to cause the headache. However, more recent research shows that blood flow changes may be a consequence of unusual brain activity rather than the initial cause of the migraine. During an aura, a wave of electrical activity travels slowly (at only a few millimetres per minute) across the surface of the brain. This can trigger a variety of symptoms including visual disturbance, pins and needles, speech difficulties and limb weakness. The way the brain processes sensations becomes disordered so that movement, lights, sounds and even smells become harder to tolerate.

Avoiding triggers can be useful so keeping a headache diary can help. However, only 20% of migraine sufferers have a dietary trigger. The British Association for the Study of Headache (Bash) guidelines warn that "too much effort in seeking triggers causes introspection and may be counter-productive." If migraine can't be relieved by over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, triptans can help. Triptans can abort migraine attacks by mimicking the effect of the neurotransmitter serotonin at nerve receptors.

Cluster headache

Cluster headaches cause severe throbbing pain on one side of the face around the eye. Each headache lasts for up to four hours and is often accompanied by a red eye, tears and a runny nose.

The pain can be unbearable. "Cluster headaches have been described as the most severe form of pain a human can experience," says Shanahan. "Occasionally patients can be driven to suicide by the severity and relentlessness of the pain, hence their description as 'suicide headaches'."

The name derives from their tendency to occur in clusters, often occurring at the same times every day. "These cycles can run for weeks, months or even years, and point to the brain's 'body clock' as having a role in the condition," says Shanahan.

Oxygen therapy (breathing pure oxygen through a mask for 20 minutes or more) is one of the best treatments for cluster headache and is available on prescription. However, not enough people are getting this, or other effective treatments such as sumatriptan injections, according to Shanahan. "These treatments for cluster headache are under-utilised, and, frustratingly, we see patients who are undertreated while having excruciating daily pain."


The exact cause of a hangover headache isn't known but there are plenty of likely culprits: alcohol causes blood vessels in the brain to widen and can alter the effects of serotonin on nerve endings – both of which occur in migraine. Alcohol also causes dehydration, a common trigger of migraine attacks. Fortunately the pain usually goes after some paracetamol and a good night's sleep but some may have migraine without realising it, according to Shanahan. "People who get headaches when thirsty may well have migraine, as do many people who get bad hangovers after fairly modest amounts of alcohol. Alcohol is often a very potent trigger for cluster headache, as well."

Medication overuse headache

Paradoxically, all painkillers can cause a headache if taken regularly over a long period of time. Medication overuse headache is difficult to tell apart from the original headache so it can be very difficult to diagnose. Anyone who takes codeine or triptan-based drugs for more than 10 days a month or other over-the-counter remedies such as paracetamol or ibuprofen for 15 days a month is at risk.

The only treatment is to stop taking the painkillers. The headache often gets worse initially, and improvement may only be seen between a week and a month later.

Brain tumour

Fewer than 4% of brain tumours present with a headache. Tumours cause the pressure within the skull to rise, which causes a morning headache and vomiting that gradually gets worse. Brain scans are only necessary when these or other features of a tumour such as weight loss, seizures or personality change are present.

Subarachnoid haemorrhage

A sudden severe headache, usually at the back of the head, may be caused by a bleed inside the brain called a subarachnoid haemorrhage. Many people with this say it's like being hit with a baseball bat. It is commonly caused by the rupture of an aneurysm at the base of the brain and needs urgent investigation and treatment.

Temporal arteritis

Headaches in people over 50 can be due to temporal arteritis. It often feels different to previous headaches and can be accompanied by a tender scalp or pain when chewing.

Temporal arteritis is caused by inflammation of the artery in the temple (hence "temporal") and can be treated with steroids. It is important to diagnose early as it can lead to blindness if untreated.


A headache with a high temperature, neck stiffness and/or a new rash may be due to meningitis. This needs hospital treatment as soon as possible.

Migraine Action: Ouch (the Organisation for the Understanding of Cluster Headaches):

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Princeton Review 'Green Ratings'

The Princeton Review's second annual "Green Ratings" includes scores for 697 colleges and universities that are based upon whether students have a healthy and sustainable campus quality of life, how well the school is preparing its students for employment and citizenship in a world defined by environmental challenges, and the school's overall commitment to environmental issues.
The evaluation was released on Monday, July 27.

NEW YORK, July 27, 2009 — The Princeton Review – known for its education services helping students choose and get in to colleges – today reported its second annual Green Ratings of colleges: a measure of how environmentally friendly the institutions are on a scale of 60 to 99. The company tallied its Green Ratings for 697 institutions based on data it collected from the colleges in 2008-09 concerning their environmentally related policies, practices, and academic offerings.

The Princeton Review also named 15 colleges to its "2010 Green Rating Honor Roll" – a list that salutes the institutions that received the highest possible score – 99 – in this year's rating tallies. (List follows.)

The Green Rating scores appear in the profiles of the 697 schools that The Princeton Review posted today on its site, The ratings are also in profiles of those schools in the 2010 editions of three Princeton Review books: "The Best 371 Colleges" (on sale July 28, $22.99), "The Best Northeastern Colleges" (on sale August 4, $16.99), and "Complete Book of Colleges" (on sale August 4, $26.99), all published by Random House.


The Princeton Review developed its Green Rating criteria and institutional survey in 2007 with ecoAmerica (, a non-profit environmental organization that continues to participate in this project. The criteria for the rating cover three broad areas: 1/ whether the school’s students have a campus quality of life that is healthy and sustainable, 2/ how well the school is preparing its students for employment and citizenship in a world defined by environmental challenges, and 3/ the school's overall commitment to environmental issues. The institutional survey for the rating included ten questions on everything from energy use, recycling, food, buildings, and transportation to academic offerings (availability of environmental studies degrees and courses) and action plans and goals concerning greenhouse gas emission reductions.

The Princeton Review’s "2010 Green Rating Honor Roll"

This list, published in "The Best 371 Colleges," salutes 15 institutions (eight private and seven public colleges) that received the highest possible rating score of 99. It includes:

(in alphabetical order)
Arizona State University at the Tempe campus
Bates College (Lewiston ME)
Binghamton University (State Univ. of New York at Binghamton)
College of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor ME)
Colorado College (Colorado Springs CO)
Dickinson College (Carlisle PA)
Evergreen State College (Olympia WA)
Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta)
Harvard College (Cambridge MA)
Middlebury College (Middlebury VT)
Northeastern University (Boston MA)
University of California - Berkeley
University of New Hampshire (Durham)
University of Washington (Seattle)
Yale University (New Haven CT)

Said Robert Franek, V.P. / Publisher, The Princeton Review, "The 'green' movement on college campuses is far more than an Earth Day recycling project. It is growing tremendously among students and administrators alike. This year we saw a 30% increase in the number of colleges participating in our Green Rating survey. We thank the nearly 700 institutions (697 vs. 534 last year) that supplied us with the data we requested to tally their scores. Many have shown extraordinary commitments to environmental issues and to the environment in their practices and programs. We are pleased to play a role in helping students who care deeply about these issues identify, get into, and study at these schools."

Franek noted the rising interest among students in attending colleges that practice, teach and support environmentally responsible choices. Among almost 16,000 college applicants and parents of applicants The Princeton Review surveyed this year for its annual "College Hopes & Worries Survey," 66% of respondents overall (and 68% of students vs. 59% of parents) said they would value having information about a college's commitment to the environment – a 4% increase from last year's respondents. Among that cohort, 24% of respondents overall (26% of students vs. 18% of parents) said such information would "very much" impact their (their child's) decision to apply to or attend the school.

The Princeton Review has dedicated a resource area on its website for students and others interested in learning more about the rating and the benefits of attending a green college. The area ( has information on colleges with exemplary environmental programs, questions to ask on school visits, and links to organizations that promote higher education and campus sustainability programs.

About The Princeton Review College Ratings and College Rankings

The Princeton Review college ratings are scores on a scale of 60 to 99 in eight categories that it reports in some college profiles on its website and in its college guides. The ratings are based primarily on institutional data. In addition to the Green Rating, other rating categories include: Financial Aid, and Fire Safety (for which The Princeton Review also reports Honor Rolls of schools receiving its highest possible score of 99), and Admissions Selectivity. Schools from which The Princeton Review does not receive sufficient data in a category to tally a rating receive a score of 60* (sixty with an asterisk).

The Princeton Review college rankings are lists of schools in 62 categories (in rank order 1 to 20) based entirely on the Company's surveys of 122,000 students attending the schools in its book, "The Best 371 Colleges." The survey asks students to rate their own schools on dozens of topics and report on their campus experiences at them.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

NYT: For Today’s Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics

From today's NYT:

Published: August 5, 2009

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — At Harvard, Carrie Grimes majored in anthropology and archaeology and ventured to places like Honduras, where she studied Mayan settlement patterns by mapping where artifacts were found. But she was drawn to what she calls “all the computer and math stuff” that was part of the job.

Skip to next paragraph
Thor Swift for The New York Times

Carrie Grimes, senior staff engineer at Google, uses statistical analysis of data to help improve the company's search engine.

Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times

T-shirts for sale at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Washington this week.

“People think of field archaeology as Indiana Jones, but much of what you really do is data analysis,” she said.

Now Ms. Grimes does a different kind of digging. She works at Google, where she uses statistical analysis of mounds of data to come up with ways to improve its search engine.

Ms. Grimes is an Internet-age statistician, one of many who are changing the image of the profession as a place for dronish number nerds. They are finding themselves increasingly in demand — and even cool.

“I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. “And I’m not kidding.”

The rising stature of statisticians, who can earn $125,000 at top companies in their first year after getting a doctorate, is a byproduct of the recent explosion of digital data. In field after field, computing and the Web are creating new realms of data to explore — sensor signals, surveillance tapes, social network chatter, public records and more. And the digital data surge only promises to accelerate, rising fivefold by 2012, according to a projection by IDC, a research firm.

Yet data is merely the raw material of knowledge. “We’re rapidly entering a world where everything can be monitored and measured,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Digital Business. “But the big problem is going to be the ability of humans to use, analyze and make sense of the data.”

The new breed of statisticians tackle that problem. They use powerful computers and sophisticated mathematical models to hunt for meaningful patterns and insights in vast troves of data. The applications are as diverse as improving Internet search and online advertising, culling gene sequencing information for cancer research and analyzing sensor and location data to optimize the handling of food shipments.

Even the recently ended Netflix contest, which offered $1 million to anyone who could significantly improve the company’s movie recommendation system, was a battle waged with the weapons of modern statistics.

Though at the fore, statisticians are only a small part of an army of experts using modern statistical techniques for data analysis. Computing and numerical skills, experts say, matter far more than degrees. So the new data sleuths come from backgrounds like economics, computer science and mathematics.

They are certainly welcomed in the White House these days. “Robust, unbiased data are the first step toward addressing our long-term economic needs and key policy priorities,” Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, declared in a speech in May. Later that day, Mr. Orszag confessed in a blog entry that his talk on the importance of statistics was a subject “near to my (admittedly wonkish) heart.”

I.B.M., seeing an opportunity in data-hunting services, created a Business Analytics and Optimization Services group in April. The unit will tap the expertise of the more than 200 mathematicians, statisticians and other data analysts in its research labs — but that number is not enough. I.B.M. plans to retrain or hire 4,000 more analysts across the company.

In another sign of the growing interest in the field, an estimated 6,400 people are attending the statistics profession’s annual conference in Washington this week, up from around 5,400 in recent years, according to the American Statistical Association. The attendees, men and women, young and graying, looked much like any other crowd of tourists in the nation’s capital. But their rapt exchanges were filled with talk of randomization, parameters, regressions and data clusters. The data surge is elevating a profession that traditionally tackled less visible and less lucrative work, like figuring out life expectancy rates for insurance companies.

Ms. Grimes, 32, got her doctorate in statistics from Stanford in 2003 and joined Google later that year. She is now one of many statisticians in a group of 250 data analysts. She uses statistical modeling to help improve the company’s search technology.

For example, Ms. Grimes worked on an algorithm to fine-tune Google’s crawler software, which roams the Web to constantly update its search index. The model increased the chances that the crawler would scan frequently updated Web pages and make fewer trips to more static ones.

The goal, Ms. Grimes explained, is to make tiny gains in the efficiency of computer and network use. “Even an improvement of a percent or two can be huge, when you do things over the millions and billions of times we do things at Google,” she said.

It is the size of the data sets on the Web that opens new worlds of discovery. Traditionally, social sciences tracked people’s behavior by interviewing or surveying them. “But the Web provides this amazing resource for observing how millions of people interact,” said Jon Kleinberg, a computer scientist and social networking researcher at Cornell.

For example, in research just published, Mr. Kleinberg and two colleagues followed the flow of ideas across cyberspace. They tracked 1.6 million news sites and blogs during the 2008 presidential campaign, using algorithms that scanned for phrases associated with news topics like “lipstick on a pig.”

The Cornell researchers found that, generally, the traditional media leads and the blogs follow, typically by 2.5 hours. But a handful of blogs were quickest to quotes that later gained wide attention.

The rich lode of Web data, experts warn, has its perils. Its sheer volume can easily overwhelm statistical models. Statisticians also caution that strong correlations of data do not necessarily prove a cause-and-effect link.

For example, in the late 1940s, before there was a polio vaccine, public health experts in America noted that polio cases increased in step with the consumption of ice cream and soft drinks, according to David Alan Grier, a historian and statistician at George Washington University. Eliminating such treats was even recommended as part of an anti-polio diet. It turned out that polio outbreaks were most common in the hot months of summer, when people naturally ate more ice cream, showing only an association, Mr. Grier said.

If the data explosion magnifies longstanding issues in statistics, it also opens up new frontiers.

“The key is to let computers do what they are good at, which is trawling these massive data sets for something that is mathematically odd,” said Daniel Gruhl, an I.B.M. researcher whose recent work includes mining medical data to improve treatment. “And that makes it easier for humans to do what they are good at — explain those anomalies.”

Andrea Fuller contributed reporting.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Political corruption in Israel

I never understood that part of Israeli politics

Israeli police have recommended charging the country's hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, with several counts of corruption as part of a bribery investigation, in a move that could lead to his resignation and a significant government reshuffle.

Lieberman, head of a popular far-right party, is suspected of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and obstruction of justice in a case dating back over nine years. If charged and convicted on all counts he faces up to 31 years in jail.

According to the Ha'aretz newspaper, Lieberman and his aides are accused of using front companies, some in Cyprus, to launder money and of obstructing the police inquiry by changing the company names during the investigation. He continued the business operation after he became a minister, the newspaper said.