Monthly Archives: December 2009

Lululemon openly mocking Olympic trade-mark restrictions

You know how the federal government passed a special law giving the Vancouver Olympics special trade-mark super-protection for basically any words associated with the Olympics (including “bronze”, “winter” and “Vancouver”)? I wrote an early analysis of the bill when it was still working its way through the House. Well, Lululemon, not an official sponsor so not licensed to use those words, is instead openly mocking the restrictions:

We’ve been covering how the Olympics has been able to get various governments around the world to grant it extra special intellectual property protection on certain words and phrases, with the upcoming Vancouver Olympics being no exception. In that case, you have to be careful of the use of “Vancouver,” “Olympics,” and even “2010.” So, clothing maker Lululemon decided to come up with a line that mocks these restrictions, with a brand new line of clothing called:

“Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 and 2011 Edition.”

Read more from Techdirt.

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MS could have used open source but instead stole Plurk

You know how Microsoft was caught this week having stolen code from Plurk for a microblogging website in China? Well, as Mike Masnick notes at Techdirt, Canadian-based open source uber-micro-blogging platform StatusNet would have been perfectly happy for MS to use their code.

Read more here.

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Kinder Surprise are banned in the US


I had no idea until now that Kinder Surprise is banned in the US because of small parts!

EtherPad goes open source

Etherpad??is a web service that provides a free simultaneous collaborative writing platform. Users who visit the same page can not only edit the text but can see other users editing text on the fly. It is very basic, without the features of most word processing applications, but it's all you need for writing some text with a group. This type of platform blurs the line between collaboration and communication.

If you haven't seen it already, you should take a minute and check it out at

As you'll see at that site, Google has acquired Etherpad and plans to integrate their technology into the similar but more robust??Google Wave. In the meantime however, to ease the transition from Etherpad, they have made the Etherpad code open source under an Apache licence.

Sure, wikis are great for long-term content and long term collaboration, but you need something like Etherpad for short term or instant collaboration, which is more likely the case when you're working with a group to write a document. With Wave coming down the pike (yes, it's pike, not pipe) it seems likely that eventually workplaces will integrate instant collaboration into their workflow. Open Source Etherpad is a great way to start using instant collaboration on the corporate intranet while we wait for Wave to mature.

Milk, I am your father T-Shirt

While I was helping build a Lego tie fighter this evening (awesome, btw!) this t-shirt popped into my head and I laughed out loud at the thought. It just doesn’t make sense in so many ways. Love it!

Probabilities of Cancer for Jewish women

Canadian sources are reporting today??that Jewish women have a much higher incidence of the two genetic mutations (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that are associated with an increase the risk of ovarian and breast cancer.??The articles are talking about women getting prophylactic mastectomy and bilateral oophorectomy surgeries because of the increased risk. One woman featured in the article expresses her relief after her surgery:

"It took away a lot of the terror, of wondering, `Do I have it, don't I have it, will I get it, won't I get it,'" she said. "I never have to think about ovarian cancer again."

So, you're a Jewish woman, you get the test for the BRCA mutations and you test positive. Is it off to the operating room? Or do you get a second test? And if that's positive, then??do you opt for surgery?

Let's look at the numbers.

While caucasian women in general have a 1:250 chance of having the mutation, Jewish women (by which researchers seem to mean Ashkenazi Jews, not Sephardic Jews, Kaifeng Jews, or other groups) have a 1 in 45 chance (2.22% — although in this particular study they only found 22 in 2080, or 1.05%).

Interestingly, even though Jewish women have such an elevated risk of having the mutations, a Jewish woman who tests positive for the mutation still probably does not have the mutation. See,??of the 2080 people tested, 46 would (in theory) have the mutations.??Given a 5% false positive rate, of the 2034 who don't have the mutations, 5% would still test positive — and that is 101 women. In other words, if you were among the 2080 women and got a positive test result, you would have only a 46:147 chance, or a??31% chance??of actually having the mutation.

If the 1 in 45 chance is inaccurate and we instead use the numbers from the study that found 22 of 2080 have one of the mutations, then 2058 of that group don't have one of the mutations, but 5% or 103 of them will test positive. In that case, if you were among the 2080 and test positive, you would only have a 22:125 chance of actually carrying a mutation, or 17.6% chance of carrying one of the mutations.

Sounds like maybe that one test is not enough information to rely on and you want a second opinion? If the??women who receive positive tests??pay for a second test to confirm the result, about 6 of them will still test positive!

Imagine it — you're a Jewish woman, with an increased risk of having one of the mutations, you test positive for it not once but twice… do you get treatment?

Think about it carefully, because the chance that you still do not have one of the mutations (5:2080 = 0.25%) is pretty close to the chance that the average caucasian woman does have one of the mutations (1:250 = 0.4%).

And that is all without getting into the chances, if you really do carry a BRCA mutation, that you will develop breast cancer or ovarian cancer — not a certainty, to say the least.

Whether to get the surgery or not is a personal decision of course and, in a sense, the woman featured in the Health Zone article is absolutely right — it's not so much that she found out early that she would get cancer, but that she doesn't need to wonder if she will.

It's just another example of how counterintuitive probabilities can be, and how that makes it difficult to make smart health choices on both personal and policy levels.??

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Probabilities are counterintuitive

Why are probabilities so unintuitive? Check this out, from Mammogram Math in the NYTimes Magazine, discussing how misunderstandings about probabilities affects the public’s ability to understand policy choices (via Brett):

Assume there is a screening test for a certain cancer that is 95 percent accurate; that is, if someone has the cancer, the test will be positive 95 percent of the time. Let’s also assume that if someone doesn’t have the cancer, the test will be positive just 1 percent of the time. Assume further that 0.5 percent — one out of 200 people — actually have this type of cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor somberly intones that you’ve tested positive. Does this mean you’re likely to have the cancer? Surprisingly, the answer is no.


To see why, let’s suppose 100,000 screenings for this cancer are conducted. Of these, how many are positive? On average, 500 of these 100,000 people (0.5 percent of 100,000) will have cancer, and so, since 95 percent of these 500 people will test positive, we will have, on average, 475 positive tests (.95 x 500). Of the 99,500 people without cancer, 1 percent will test positive for a total of 995 false-positive tests (.01 x 99,500 = 995). Thus of the total of 1,470 positive tests (995 + 475 = 1,470), most of them (995) will be false positives, and so the probability of having this cancer given that you tested positive for it is only 475/1,470, or about 32 percent! This is to be contrasted with the probability that you will test positive given that you have the cancer, which by assumption is 95 percent.

Counterintuitive, right?

Here’s another one:
Natto with Raw Egg

Image by nh7a via Flickr

Last week, Boing Boing carried a post about how delicious raw eggs are (apparently very delicious) and the risks of getting salmonela from them. According to the post, 1 in 20,000 raw eggs has salmonela in it. So how risky is it to eat them? The discussion went like this. Note that each of these people *thinks* they know something about calculating probabilities and is confident enough to comment about it on Boing Boing. For what it’s worth, I’m with @SamSam on this question. But then, Probabilities was my lowest math grade for exactly this reason.

Here’s the thread from Boing Boing:

peterbruells | #3 | 08:09 on Fri, Dec. 4 
1:20,000 huh? So that’s 55 years of eating one raw egg per day. (Not that I like raw eggs)

BCJ replied to comment from peterbruells | #57 | 09:53 on Fri, Dec. 4 
you mean 27.5 years, not 55 years. At 27.5 years you will have eaten 10000 eggs Once you have eaten 10001 eggs, it will be more likely than not that you will have eaten an egg with salmonella.

SamSam replied to comment from BCJ | #66 | 10:13 on Fri, Dec. 4 
@BCJ: Nope. After eating 10,000 eggs, what is the probability that you will have had at least one with salmonella? It’s 1 – the probability that every egg has been disease free.

The probability of one egg being disease free is 1-(1/20000) = 0.99995.

The probability of 10,000 eggs being disease free is 0.99995 * 10,000 = 0.6065 = 60.7%

So after eating 10,000 eggs, you will still have only a 40% chance of having ever consumed salmonella.

However, by 20,000 eggs you will have had a 63% chance of having eaten salmonella, so your magic 50.1% number is between those two values.

mattxb replied to comment from SamSam | #109 | 15:46 on Fri, Dec. 4 
@SamSam: Nope.

@BCJ: Nope. After eating 10,000 eggs, what is the probability that you will have had at least one with salmonella? It’s 1 – the probability that every egg has been disease free.

No, that’s the probability that all the eggs you’ve eaten are disease free; you’re calculating [egg 1 is disease free] AND [egg 2 is disease free] AND … which is (1-1/20000)*(1-1/20000)… = (1 – 1/20000)^N, N being the number of eggs and ^N meaning to the power of N.
What you want to find is the probability of at least one egg being diseased. This is [egg 1 is diseased] OR [egg 2 is diseased] … That calculation is (1/20000)+(1/20000)+… = (1/20000)*N, N being the number of eggs consumed.

The value of N for which you are 50% likely to have eaten an egg is the solution of (1/20000)*N = 0.5, which is N = 10000.

SamSam replied to comment from mattxb | #139 | 20:40 on Sun, Dec. 6
@mattxb: No no no no.

What you want to find is the probability of at least one egg being diseased. This is [egg 1 is diseased] OR [egg 2 is diseased] … That calculation is (1/20000)+(1/20000)+… = (1/20000)*N, N being the number of eggs consumed.

I’m sorry, but that is completely incorrect.

Here, how about this: what is the probability of throwing at least one six with three throws of a dice?

Your method will say 1/6 + 1/6 + 1/6 = 1/2, which sounds correct if you are new to statistics, but is completely wrong.

What is the probability of throwing at least 1 six with six throws? 100%? That’s what your method will predict. (1/6) * 6 = 1. But I’m sure you agree that that’s incorrect.

How about the probability of getting a head with two flips of a coin? You agree that it’s not 1/2 * 2 = 100%, right?

Does the probability of eating a salmonella egg double if you eat two of them? Well, does the probability of getting a head double (from 50%, remember) if you flip twice?

No, the probability of getting at least 1 head is exactly equal to 1 – [the probability of flipping no heads], which is 1 – (1/2 * 1/2) = 3/4.

The probability of getting at least 1 salmonella egg is exactly 1 – [the probability of getting no salmonella eggs], which is the calculation I performed for you before.

You can’t add probabilities together, or soon you’ll start proving that there’s a 110% chance of something happening…


Where are the contours of privacy in a world with Blippy?

Yes, we have privacy laws in Canada that protect consumers from some evil privacy violations, but that's a difficult front to protect — after all, companies can do almost anything with your personal information if they have your consent. And since people are apparently willing to do consent to almost any use of their personal information in return of the slightest benefit, what part of the personal information ecosystem should privacy advocates be focussing on?

Oh, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up a minute and introduce Blippy, a new service that launched in private beta last week that automatically publishes your credit card transactions to the web. You read that right. From Techcrunch's coverage:

A new service, Blippy, launching today in private beta,has an interesting way to take something you do everyday, buy things with your credit card, and automatically push those transactions online for others to see and interact with.


Yes, I know this is a controversial idea ??? that???s part of what makes it potentially a great one. Imagine being able to see everything your friends buy with a credit card as they do it. This not only tells you what kind of things they???re actually into (rather than someone just saying they like something), but also other information like how cheap they are, as well as where they actually are at a given time. There is actually a lot of data tied into the transactions we make, and Blippy takes that and makes it social.

The thing is, even though part of me sees this as the ultimate privacy violation, I can also see the appeal. What do you think?

Why are authors against libraries?

I just read Stealing Atwood, an article by BC author Michael Elcock.

I recently downloaded, at home, twenty-one copies of Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel Alias Grace from a B.C. library. I did it by accident, but if I was able to stagger the sign-out dates, and renew each of these digital copies, Alias Grace could remain in my possession for a long time.

Victoria-born Julie Lawson, who has written more than twenty books for young people, had no idea that one of her books for children, Cougar Cove, first published in 1994, is also available, free, via digital download, from most libraries in the province.

Atwood and Lawson’s books are available through the BC government’s Libraries Without Walls programme, launched in 2004 with an initial $12 million grant. The project involved the expansion of broadband across the province, and set out to improve access to books and journals. It has grown into a big initiative to increase the number of eBooks, audio books and periodicals in BC’s libraries—downloadable right to your home. 

To develop Libraries Without Walls, extensive consultations were held with sixty-six libraries, several BC government ministries, unions, schools, municipal representatives and the BC Chamber of Commerce. Unfortunately, the folks who in Canada own the legal copyright to the primary assets (the books)—the writers—were not invited. 

From my perspective, the author is probably right that libraries are infringing copyright, and I’m a little surprised the programme was approved for a government grant (except that digitizing collections is standard operating procedure for libraries nowadays, and it would be an absolute shame if Canadian books were among the last books in the world to be available digitally because of backward thinking).
But from a business perspective, the guy sounds like a horse vendor in 1909 complaining about automobiles being allowed to drive on roadways. He writes,

“There can be little question that the digitisation of books by libraries and their surrogates will have a significant impact on a writers’ ability to make a living—to the extent that some writers may wish to have library use specifically excluded in future contractual agreements with their publishers.”

This is patently untrue. It’s just false. It won’t have a significant impact on authors for regional libraries to allow a limited number of customers to have copies of books. Libraries have always allowed a limited number of readers to get books for free — that’s what libraries are for. What’s so special about digital copies that authors should be paid extra so libraries can distribute them?

Not only that, but libraries don’t even pay authors to distribute paper copies of books! They often have books donated or they acquire them second hand or as off-prints and distribute them for free to library patrons. Authors do not generally get paid for library copies of books. Traditionally, publishers don’t like this because they don’t get paid, but authors like it because their works get read by more people. Why does limited digital distribution change the equation?

Oh, and excluding libraries from being allowed to distribute their books? Impossible. Libraries don’t distribute books pursuant to agreements with publishers, so publishers have no control over it. Anybody can lend or sell a copy of a book they already own –it’s called the first sale doctrine, and authors with bees in their bonnets can’t do anything about it (so there).

I could rant on about this — about how the article’s author seems to like the government’s most recent attempt at copyright reform, but doesn’t mention that the Adobe DRM used on the library books is exacty the sort of thing that law would have allowed; about how more and more authors are embracing new models of free distribution and generating increased *sales* as a result… but I’ll restrain myself (barely). Instead, I’ll link to a related article on Techdirt discussing the same issue in the US.

I think I may post this as a blog entry for today. I feel like ranting. And then eating latkes. Happy Chanukah. That is all.

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