Bad news for the Christian Science Monitor

A new study has confirmed results reported last year on the power of prayer. Or rather, lack of power.

Scientists at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in MA evaluated the effect of prayer on over 1800 coronary bypass patients. They asked several Christian groups to pray for some patients, and not others.

The prayers made no detectable difference. In the first month after surgery, 52 per cent of prayed-for patients and 51 per cent of non-prayed-for patients suffered one or more complications […] A third group of patients received the same prayers as the first group, but were told they were being prayed for. Of these, 59 per cent suffered complications – significantly more than the patients left unsure of whether they were receiving prayers.

Maybe they should try praying for the doctors….

PGP for VoIP

Philip Zimmermann is in hot water again. The author of the PGP encryption program has just released Zfone, which encrypts voice-over-IP phone calls. This is sure to prompt debate about the use of encryption for personal and business communication.

Unlike PGP, Zfone does not require exchanging public keys. It exchanges keys inside the voice channel as the call is being set up. Zfone does not work with Skype, one of the most popular VoIP programs, which uses its own encryption scheme. But the NYT reports that Skype’s encryption has been broken by the German government.

At a conference last week in Cyprus, German officials said they had technology for intercepting and decrypting Skype phone calls, according to Anthony M. Rutkowski, vice president for regulatory affairs and standards for VeriSign.

Six degrees of Osama bin Laden

The N.S.A.’s Math Problem  by JONATHAN DAVID FARLEY

The National Security Agency’s entire spying program seems to be based on a false assumption: that you can work out who might be a terrorist based on calling patterns. While I agree that anyone calling 1-800-ALQAEDA is probably a terrorist, in less obvious situations guilt by association is not just bad law, it’s bad mathematics, for two reasons.

President Bush is only a few steps away from Osama bin Laden (in the 1970’s he ran a company partly financed by the American representative for one of the Qaeda leader’s brothers). And terrorist hermits like the Unabomber are connected to only a very few people. So much for finding the guilty by association.[…]

A second problem with the spy agency’s apparent methodology lies in the way terrorist groups operate and what scientists call the “strength of weak ties.” […] You might not see your college roommate for 10 years, but if he were to call you up and ask to stay in your apartment, you’d let him. This is the principle under which sleeper cells operate: there is no communication for years. Thus for the most dangerous threats, the links between nodes that the agency is looking for simply might not exist.

A trick of the light

In the wierd spooky realms of quantum physics, it turns out you can play lots of tricks with the speed of light:

Robert W. Boyd, a professor of optics at the University of Rochester … demonstrated an optical fiber — a glass strand that transmits pulses of light — with a couple of odd characteristics:
A pulse of light shot into the fiber departs before it enters.
Within the fiber, the pulse travels backward — and faster than the speed of light.

And no, I don’t understand it either.

Home-grown or import?

Back in 2003, Prof. Chen Jin of Jiaotong University in Shanghai announced “Hanxin”, the first DSP chip designed in China. The design was hailed as an important milestone for the Chinese semiconductor industry. The government ordered “millions” of chips from companies founded by Dr. Jin. Now the university and government say that Jin faked the research, and had simply copied foreign chips.
According to some reports, “migrant workers had simply scratched away the name Motorola from a chip and replaced it with Hanxin”.

I am shocked. Shocked and amazed. I didn’t even know that China had migrant workers.

NSA database of every phone call?

USA Today – NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls

“We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans,” Bush said….

Lawmakers question collection of phone call records

Hayden, on Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers, told reporters: “All I would want to say is that everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done and that the appropriate members of the Congress, the House and Senate, are briefed on all NSA activities, and I think I’d just leave it at that.”

California tax windfall

Big chunk of record tax receipts from insiders’ stock sales

California took in a record $11.3 billion in personal income tax receipts in April, $4.3 billion more than it collected last April. It’s almost certain that a significant chunk of April’s haul came from Google employees — perhaps one-eighth or more of the tax receipt gain.

Fourteen of Google’s top executives and directors sold $4.4 billion worth of stock last year.

Another likely source of April’s tax take, which could be less volatile than stock-based capital gains, is real estate.

Colbert walks a tightrope

Once again, Comedy Central has done what mainstream reporters are apparently too timid to do: speak truth to power. Stephen Colbert delivered an amazing routine at annual White House Correspondents Dinner. Apparently the head of the Press Club had never watched the Colbert Report. Because Colbert’s performance was completely unexpected by everyone in attendance.

They usually hire a mainstream comedian to do some good-natured ribbing of the President and press corp. It’s all mild, chummy and light hearted. This year they hired a Bush impersonator, who got a lot of laughs imitating Bush’s mannerisms.

Then they brought our Colbert. Like a court jester, he mocked the administration and press alike, with ironic humor. And in the process, he delivered a scathing, pointed roast of the Bush administration policies, its hypocracy, and numerous failures. All with the President sitting 8 feet away. Some of the humor fell flat. Some just provoked nervous laughter from the Washington insiders. But it was an incredibly brave performance. “Like watching a tightrope walker without a net” according to one commentator.

In the persona of the right-wing ideologue he plays on the Colbert Report, Colbert professed his love for the president, and his disdain for the “liberal media”. And point by point, he highlighted the administration’s worst mistakes of the past 6 years.

“Now I know there’s some polls out there saying this man has a 32-percent approval rating,” Mr. Colbert said a few moments later. “But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking ‘in reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

He talked about the quagmire in Iraq, the NSA wiretapping scandals, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, and the Valerie Plame affair. But more than that, he emphasized George Bush’s worst character flaw – how the President seems to come to a decision based on instinct, and then stubbornly hold to that decision in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

“The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.” (Transcript courtesy Daily Kos).

Over the past few weeks, the Colbert speech has become one of the most popular video downloads on the internet. The usually quiet CSPAN site, known for mind-numbingly boring coverage of congressional speeches, has had to cope with a sudden spike in traffic.

Why they keep calling it a ‘death tax’

According to watchdog group Public Citizen, an aggressive lobbying effort to repeal the estate tax has been largely funded and directed by 18 “super-wealthy” families. Those 18 families are worth a total of $185.5 billion.

That’s right. That’s an average of $10 billion per family.

That kind of money can buy a lot of votes in Washington. And it’s money well spent. According to the report, repealing the estate tax would save the families about $72 billion. And in the first decade, it would cost the U.S. treasury a trillion dollars.

Dinosaurs still walk the earth

I.B.M. Seeks to Make the Mainframe Modern Technology

The mainframe business, while far smaller than it was, remains crucial for I.B.M. Sales of the machines alone account for only about 5 percent of I.B.M.’s revenue. But all mainframe-related hardware, software and services account for a quarter of its revenue and, more important, about half of I.B.M.’s total operating profit.

Competitors say most of that growth comes from a comparatively small number of big customers like banks, brokerage houses, insurance companies and some government agencies, whose growing computing needs in general require continued investment in mainframes. The number of mainframe computers in use worldwide, analysts say, is about half what it was a decade ago.