Sunday, November 23, 2003

Detroit News Quote: Michigan Dems to Caucus over the Internet

The national Democratic party has approved the use of Internet polling for conducting the state Democratic Presidential caucus in February. The plan is controversial: some complain that this gives an unfair advantage to those who have better Internet access. If you support Howard Dean, who's used the Web to organize supporters and donors far more effectively than other candidates, you like the plan. Other than Wesley Clark, all the other contenders for the Presidential nomination denounce it.

My friend Mark Grebner, far more expert about elections than I will ever be, says the concerns are misplaced because:
-- The instructions for voting online are mailed to caucus voters along with a paper ballot. Voters can vote by mail, in person, or online.
-- This is not a secret ballot. If there were allegations of fraud, the record of how an individual voted could be reviewed during a challenge.

Along with Grebner and myself, the piece quotes the Michigan Secretary of State, Terri Land, and others. Land opposes Internet voting for general elections. I agree wholeheartedly. This is a different situation. It's a party caucus, not a primary or a general election; if you worry about caucuses representing the will of party members, go immediately to Iowa and do not pass Go. The Michigan Democratic caucus scheme lets you vote by mail, by Internet, or in person at hundreds of union halls and other sites statewide. No one among the party faithful is disenfranchised or disadvantaged.

See this article excerpt:

Richard Wiggins, a senior information technologist at the Michigan State University Computer Center, added:

"Nothing in the world of computing is ever 100 percent secure. Security experts would say, 'How much risk are you willing to undergo and how much are you willing to spend to see that people only vote once
and that votes are correctly tabulated?'

"But we can't be 100 percent assured that whatever system we use cannot possibly be tampered with."

Michigan's chief election official, Secretary of State Terri Land, said she's not interested in statewide Internet voting any time soon.

"There are so many different ways bad things could happen," Land said.

Mark Grebner, an East Lansing-based voter list consultant, countered that potential for tampering is minimized partly because voters must identify themselves.

He added that most voters are likely to use mail-in ballots, diminishing the digital divide issue.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

What happened to the IT Skills Shortage?

Today's news included an estimate that half a million IT jobs vanished last year. This put me in mind of a conversation with some friends a few years ago, when companies large and small were hiring programmers from overseas because they couldn't find enough skilled workers.

I remember arguing with one friend that post-Y2K and post-improved productivity, the skills shortage would vanish. Here's what I said to her in an e-mail:

Date: Tue, 11 Apr 2000 15:25:09 EDT
From: Rich Wiggins
Subject: ITAA says IT worker shortfall now at 850,000
In-Reply-To: Your message of Tue, 11 Apr 2000 12:23:30 -0400

>yes, but when the "webification" occurs, there will be some other new IT
>initiative to which e-commerce technologists can transfer their skills.
>That is the way of the IT world. We've been doing that (retraining and
>redeploying talent) since forever.
>-----Original Message-----

Well, as it happens Microsoft says they feel the pain, too:

But I stand by my claim. This IT stuff is gonna get easy, it's
gonna get integrated. The Web is going to be as easy as
running a fax machine, including Web-integrated databases.

So I challenge you, XXXX XXXXXX, to a bet. I bet that as
of April 11, 2005, there is no reported IT skills shortage.
I bet their may be a white collar talent shortage, but
that's for people who are literate, who have basic
management skills, or people who can manage technology.
But the shortage of programmers and programming project
leaders will be gone.

I bet you $100, or a share of XXXX stock as of that day,
whichever is worth more. :-)


Sadly I was off by a few years. Not only did the bubble burst and IT jobs vanish, but my friend, herself an employee of a high tech company, was laid off several months ago.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Our cat is radioactive; self-styled thyroid expert has the facts wrong

Our cat Sophie is radioactive right now.

Let me explain. She was recently diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a condition that can afflict humans as well as cats. It's a common condition in older cats; usually a benign tumor causes one of the cat's two thyroid glands to go into overdrive, producing far more hormone than the cat needs.

This is one area in which a cat is superior to humans. (Wait a minute! If you ask Sophie, she's superior to all creatures in all ways!) With the human, the thyroid is a single gland shaped like a butterfly and wrapped around the windpipe. (Remember from high school anatomy that the "isthmus" is the part that's around the windpipe, connecting the larger parts on either side?)

Whether a human or a cat, treatments for hyperthyroidism include medication, surgery, or radiation therapy. The standard radiation treatment is to administer radioactive iodine. In cats or humans the body sends iodine to the thyroid. It's very rare for both of the cat's thyroids to be diseased, and the radiation attacks the gland that has the tumor.

The cool part is that the thyroid that isn't diseased doesn't get zapped but the other gland does. The healthy one has been dormant because the pituitary has been shouting "Hey! Enough thyroid hormone already!" After a while the good gland wakes up, and in a month or so Sophie will be neither hyper- nor hypo-thyroidic.

Only 1% of cats require supplements after radiation treatment, and 97% are cured. By contrast, it's common for humans to produce too little hormone after treatment, requiring supplemental hormones for the rest of their lives. (Some people think the first President Bush ran a lethargic re-election campaign in 1992 because his supplemental hormone wasn't properly calibrated after he had radiation treatment for hyperthyroidism.)

We had Sophie treated by Dr. Judy Violante, who operates one of only a handful of clinics in Michigan licensed to perform the procedure. She administered the medicine to Sophie and kept her in a lead-lined room for 4 days. Dr. Violante explained that the authorities, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, police their procedures very carefully.

We picked Sophie up this morning. Dr. Violante went over the safety procedures for us. We have to be careful for a couple of weeks; the half-life of I-131 is 8 days. We have to wash our hands and be careful to flush her waste:

W H I T M A N, Mass. — Be careful what you do with your radioactive cat poop.

William Jenness agreed to pay a $3,856.47 fee for mishandling his cat Mitzi's litter box.

Jenness took Mitzi, 11, to a local clinic to treat her hyperthyroidism. The treatment involved giving the feline an injection of radioactive iodine, and Jenness was given strict instructions to flush his pet's waste down the toilet, rather than throw it out.

The funniest part was when the vet brought out a Geiger counter and went close to Sophie so we could tell she really is a radioactive cat. The meter jumped at the sound leapt from tick... tick to tickety-tickety as she approached our newly hot feline.

Sophie was glad to be home after a few days' absence but Judy is understandably shy about petting her; you've got to wash your hands frequently. I told Judy "Geez, you're avoiding Sophie as is she were radioactive!"

There is a lot of good information on this topic on the Internet. I was surprised to find one self-styled "expert" getting the facts wrong. The author's ignorance of cat anatomy is an object lesson in the risks of Googling without a skeptical mindset. Herself a thyroid patient, she writes about the cat as if it had a single gland as humans do:

The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland located on either side of a cat's windpipe....The main way cats develop hyperthyroidism is due to development of a benign tumor, known as an adenoma, in their thyroid gland.

Unfortunately the author confuses human and feline anatomy. The single "butterfly" gland describes the human setup, not the cat's. The author also states that the radioiodine is injected into the cat; while that's a common scenario, Dr. Violante administered an oral dose to Sophie using a pill pusher.

The author, one Mary Shomon, has written a lot about health issues; she authors the Thyroid section of Her other qualifications include writing the 1993 Washington, DC bestseller, "The Single Woman's Guide to the Available Men of Washington." She also says "I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Georgetown University in Washington D.C." Er, a BS in what area?

You would think that would choose someone with scientific or medical credentials to cover health matters. A friend once told me that the "guide" on Mexican cooking is a numbskull who knows very little about Mexican cooking. In that case the risk is obviously minimal. If's guide on thyroid disease has no relevant credentials (beyond having had thyroid disease and writing a lot) then you've got to ask how serious they are about providing authoritative information. My dad had an electrical engineering degree, became an aerospace engineer for NASA -- and also had heart disease. All respect to my dear departed dad, if he'd written about heart disease I wouldn't take his words as medical advice.

Reminds me of the old skit on NPR where the guy gives a whole bunch of bogus science info and then says you can trust him because "I have a master's degree ... in SCIENCE!!" No thanks, Ms. Shomon, I'll get my information from veterinarians and from trusted university sources.