Sunday, January 28, 2007

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Amazing Interactive Infoporn

I'm blown away by Gapminder, an amazing presentation of various world stats from the folks at Google.

I don't know about the stats themselves (I assume they're OK), but the presentation is mind-blowing. SciAm said
Finally, and Not To Be Missed Under Any Circumstances: The Gapminder World, which is only the world's most fantastic and amazing piece of interactive infoporn you have ever laid eyes on. Really.
Well, that's certainly true for me.

The West and Islam: "Hurray! We're Capitulating!" - International - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News

The West and Islam: "Hurray! We're Capitulating!" - International - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News

Good piece.
Why didn't we see the handwriting on the wall when there was still time?
Some did. Some do. Doesn't matter.

For those facing a hopeless situation and powerless to change it, self-deception offers at least some succor.
So, what can be done? Were I dictator I'd have a policy of "assimilate or out". When in Rome, do as the Romans or else.

Were I dictator we'd be ... Never mind. That would be evil.

I don't believe in preordination, but a fatalistic outlook seems justified.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Technology Review: Battery Breakthrough?

Technology Review: Battery Breakthrough?
Well, that's certainly interesting.
... dramatically outperform the best lithium-ion batteries on the market in terms of energy density, price, charge time, and safety. Pound for pound, it will also pack 10 times the punch of lead-acid batteries at half the cost and without the need for toxic materials or chemicals ...
... specific energy of about 280 watt hours per kilogram, compared with around 120 watt hours per kilogram for lithium-ion and 32 watt hours per kilogram for lead-acid gel batteries.
As for a first production run,
a 15-kilowatt-hour energy-storage system for a small electric car weighing less than 100 pounds, and with a 200-mile driving range. The vehicle, the company says, will be able to recharge in less than 10 minutes.
If my numbers are right that's a 90 kilowatt charge rate, several times the maximum my house uses at summer peak. Home plug-in charging will have to be throttled considerably, or dedicated charging stations will be required. The range and energy numbers imply something like 5 kilowatt drain, which may be reasonable for a small, aerodynamic car.

Should this thing take off in the automotive sector it will have significant implications for the electricity grid. That's no biggie, as the electricity grid already faces significant issues. This'll just be one more challenge, and not the biggest one.

Even if the thing doesn't work out in the automotive arena, and if this isn't a bunch of hype (such as I've become accustomed to with flywheels over the years), and if self-discharge isn't an issue, this could be a big deal. In any event it's worth watching.

My biggest problem with the article is the final part of this sentence:
Such a breakthrough has the potential to radically transform a transportation sector already flirting with an electric renaissance, improve the performance of intermittent energy sources such as wind and sun, and increase the efficiency and stability of power grids--all while fulfilling an oil-addicted America's quest for energy security.
It's a battery, not an energy source, and it's not going to fulfill any quest for energy security. Maybe I'm nitpicking.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Motorcycle Diaries (film) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Motorcycle Diaries (film) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
I was never one to wear a Che t-shirt or anything like that, but I enjoyed this movie about a road trip he took in his younger years. I had to rely on the subtitles, though, because even though I'm fluent in Spanish, between my bad ears, the accent and the wide dynamic range typical of movie and TV audio, I couldn't make out much of the dialog.

I was a kid in Guatemala when Che was killed. The father of one of my friends down there was a CIA guy who occasionally had guys with guns in his house (which happened to be the location of the school I attended during third or fourth grade some years prior). My friend had huge stacks of worthless Bolivian money from having been stationed there prior to Guatemala. His father was supposed to have been involved in the operations leading to Che's capture and execution.

Another little tidbit about Che was that he was supposed to have been in my Grandfather's employ for a short time in Guatemala. I guess that would have been while my Grandfather was the president of the power company down there. Anyway, there was some story about how my Grandfather's life was spared by chance while Che was in his office one day. Something fell off my Grandfather's desk, and at the moment he bent over to pick it up a bullet came flying through the window.

Something like that. It's been a long time...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Political Ponerology

The majority who are healthy have a difficult time understanding that some people are not — they can not fathom being a psychopath or acting like one.
For example, Lobaczewski discovered that dealing with psychopathic systems made healthy people neurotic. However, they could heal very quickly when he gave them a scientific framework for understanding what had happened and why.
Hmmm... This sounds interesting.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Cold Within

I've had this poem cached in several places for a long time. I never knew who wrote it. Just "Author Unknown".

It still shows up "Author Unknown", but the widow of a fellow named James Patrick Kinney claimed her husband wrote it back in the 70's. I guess that's good enough for me.

The Cold Within

Six humans trapped by happenstance
In dark and bitter cold
Each possessed a stick of wood--
Or so the story's told.

Their dying fire in need of logs,
But the first one held hers back,
For, of the faces around the fire,
She noticed one was black.

The next one looked cross the way
Saw one not of his church,
And could not bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.

The third one sat in tattered clothes
He gave his coat a hitch,
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?

The rich man just sat back and thought
Of wealth he had in store,
And keeping all that he had earned
From the lazy, shiftless poor.

The black man's face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight,
For he saw in his stick of wood
A chance to spite the white.

And the last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain,
Giving just to those who gave
Was how he played the game,

Their sticks held tight in death's stilled hands
Was proof enough of sin;
They did not die from cold without--
They died from cold within.

-- James Patrick Kinney

Fox News: Former Narcs Say Drug War is Futile

I am, not unjustifiably I think, prejudiced against Fox News, so I started to pass this Google News Alert item by. Instead, I took a look and thought it was a good look at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, deserving of a wide audience. Here's the printer friendly version (or in comments).
I can get my point across in 30 seconds in an elevator, a few minutes in a restaurant, or full-blown speech at a Rotary Club.

Cool. That's Howard Wooldridge of LEAP.

The drug war stops real cops from doing real police work.

Coming from the former chief of a major metropolitan police force, that's pretty powerful stuff.

For several years now, LEAP has been looking for a debate with the country's top drug policymakers – anyone from DEA Administrator Karen Tandy to Drug Czar John Walters to powerful prohibition politicians like Indiana Rep. Mark Souder.

So far, they've had little luck. That's too bad. If the drug war is still as important and necessary as our leaders in government say it is, it's champions should be able to defend it--especially against the law enforcement officers they've asked to fight it.
O'Riley must be fuming.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

McCarthy's Optimism

Picking up from last night, I read and reflected on John McCarthy's response to the Edge Question for 2007, which is: What are you optimistic about? Why?

John McCarthy is known for his optimism about the sustainability of human development, so he decided instead to respond about world peace and politics.

McCarthy says that what we have is world peace, that there are only minor wars, and that only Africa and the Arab world are in bad shape. He contrasts this with the period between 1914 and 1989 when there were serious attempts at world domination and three (presumably the Armenian, Jewish and Cambodian) genocides .

He knows that something bad and surprising could happen. He thinks that Arab jihadism will soon be outgrown as a function of a younger generation questioning their parents' slogans, but if not we'll kick their ass in war. McCarthy isn't that plain about it, though. What he does is write, “If not” and then inserts an 1898 line from Hilaire Belloc,
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.
McCarthy takes heart in the fact that virulent, militaristic nationalism with one-man rule doesn't exist in major countries today, but concludes by agreeing with Stephen Hawking about mankind's chances being increased by migration from Earth.


I'm sorry to say I did not find McCarthy's response persuasive. I didn't think it was an expression of optimism as much as a nod at hope. At least McCarthy's response wasn't framed in terms of his technical field, in which I'm sure there is much reason for optimism.

I think McCarthy is wrong about Arab jihadism. It's not Arab jihadism, it's islamic jihadism, which implies a much wider, and faster-growing, demographic and geographic scope.

He takes heart in developments in “major” countries, but I wonder if he's thought about what constitutes “major” in this new era of asymmetrical conflict, bathtub nerve agents, bioengineering, nuclear proliferation and loose radioactives, resource depletion and globalism (not that there's anything inherently wrong with bioengineering or globalism).

That the former-Yugoslavian and Rwandan genocides, and the ongoing catastrophe in Sudan and Chad, have occurred since 1989 may mean something.

I certainly don't mean to be disrespectful of McCarthy. I just disagree. Your mileage may vary, and I hope he's right.

Maybe something good and surprising will happen.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Edge Question 2007's annual question for 2007 is
What are you optimistic about? Why?
I am very much looking forward to reading all the responses, to see what all these brilliant people are optimistic about.

As usual, they didn't ask me, but it's just as well because I'm not particularly optimistic about anything.

Oh, sure, I'm optimistic about a number of things in isolation, such as about advances in various scientific and technical fields, which is how I suspect the majority of responses will be framed (we'll see).

One of the likely respondents is Stanford's John McCarthy. Last year (or was it the year before?) his response to the Edge Question sent me on a very entertaining exploration of mind-expanding math that I thought I followed at the time, but didn't retain. (Actually, I think it was during that exploration that I learned how infinities could have different sizes, and I did retain a bit of that notion.) McCarthy is optimistic about sustainability of human progress, so it'll be interesting to see what topic he responds with.

I jumped ahead. McCarthy mentioned his above optimism, but since he's known for it he opted to respond about world peace and politics. His will be the first response I'll read. Maybe he can change my mind in that regard.

Tomorrow. It's way past my bedtime.

Exxon cuts ties to warming skeptics - Environment -

Exxon cuts ties to warming skeptics - Environment -

Well, this certainly seems like good news.
In a report last year on how oil majors are addressing global warming emissions, Ceres gave Exxon a 35 — the worst of any company. Oil majors BP and Royal Dutch Shell got 90 and 79, respectively.

“Given how large and influential Exxon is and that they are basically the last big industry climate skeptic standing, even small moves can have a very big impact,” said Logan.

But he said it was too early to tell the substance of the change [by Exxon with respect to dropping funding of climate change denying stink tanks]. “The devil is in the details,” he said.

Yes, in the details, as with those surrounding Exxon Valdez compensation payments and fines. Still, this sounds encouraging.

My only quarrel with the MSNBC report is where they write:
Last year, CEI [Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of the stink tanks] ran advertisements, featuring a little girl playing with a dandelion, that downplayed the risks of carbon dioxide emissions.
I think MSNBC ought to have included the downplay line, "CO2: they call it pollution, we call it Life!"

See RealClimate's post on the subject.

Thanks Cervantes , I'd missed that.

Oh, come on...

Flipping through the BBC News links we read that Michelle Manhart is a US Air Force sergeant involved in training recruits, that she's 30 years old, married, and a mother of two.

We see that she's reasonably attractive:

We read that she's now in trouble with the Air Force for becoming a Playboy model, and that the AP quotes her as saying, "Of what I did, nothing is wrong, so I didn't anticipate anything, of course."

Of course.

She's been in the US Air Force, the same US Air Force infested with proselytizing fundies, part of the don't-ask-don't-tell military, since 1994, but she didn't anticipate anything. Right.


What really caught my eye, though, and what prompts this post, is this:

What does it mean that Google's image search service doesn't turn up a single image of Michelle Manhart? Not one. The pictures are definitely out there - you can find them if you look.

Maybe it's just a glitch in Google's service, but I don't think so. Google is too good for that.

It seems highly likely that the lack of Michelle Manhart images is deliberate. That's the troubling part.

I gave Google some slack for cooperating with the Chinese, but this is supposed to be a free country. I hope that's not the issue.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Good move: Skeptic Revamps $1M Psychic Prize

"We can't waste the hundreds of hours that we spend every year on the nutcases out there -- people who say they can fly by flapping their arms," says Randi. "We have three file drawers jam-packed with those collections.... There are over 300 claims that we have handled in detail."


In 10 years, though, nobody's passed the preliminary exam. The most recent one was administered in Stockholm in October, when Swedish medium Carina Landin tried to identify the gender of the authors of 20 diaries by touching the covers. She got 12 right; 16 was the agreed-upon threshold for success. (The foundation plans to re-administer Landin's test following revelations that several of the diaries were older than stipulated in the protocol.)
I hope there was a stipulation about repeatability. I would never be convinced, and would never pay off, on a single test with these odds.
Before that, the last preliminary test was in July 2005, when a Hawaiian psychic named Achau Nguyen traveled to Los Angeles to demonstrate he could mentally transmit his thoughts to a friend in another room. Under the watchful eyes of paranormal investigators, a video camera and a small audience, Nguyen selected 20 index cards from a deck of 30 and focused on the words written on each of them in turn -- while one floor below his "receiver" wrote down the wrong word, 20 out of 20 times.

These tests, however unsuccessful, represent the cream of the crop for the Million Dollar Challenge -- polite, sincere applicants able to agree to a reasonable testing protocol. The vast majority of the people applying for the money don't get that far.

A Nevada man legally named "The Prophet Yahweh" planned to seize the prize for charity by summoning two spaceships to a Las Vegas park last year, but negotiations broke down when he announced he was bringing several armed guards to the demonstration in case any "negative personalities" showed up. An inventor who claimed to have built a device that could sense the psychic distress of an egg about to be dropped into a pot of boiling water recently abandoned his application when the foundation suggested the egg be threatened by a hammer instead, in case the invention was really just detecting steam.

"One a week gets as far as a protocol negotiation, and then drops off," says Jeff Wagg, who administers the challenge.


Those are the easy ones. In some of the applications, perhaps most of them, the foundation has to deal with the thorny dilemma of where to draw the line between upholding its commitment, and potentially exploiting or feeding someone's mental illness. The demarcation is inherently tricky, since the entire theatre of paranormal testing is located in the realm of extra-rational belief.


The media's lightweight treatment of professional psychics is a deadly serious matter to Randi.
The media's lightweight treatment of professional psychics ought to be a serious matter to everyone, especially educators everywhere. It's revolting to see these frauds treated with kid gloves by the likes of Larry King.

More power to James Randi!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

NYT - Yet Another Worry for Those Who Believe the Glass Is Half-Empty - New York Times

Oh, no! I'm gonna die!

A Dutch study followed about 950 65-85-year-olds and concluded that
people who are temperamentally pessimistic are more likely to die of heart disease and other causes than those who are by nature optimistic.
The article's (comments) author, Dr. Richard Friedman of Cornell, is a bit worried.
This is the kind of study that worries me. Not personally, though — I’m as optimistic as they come. No, I’m worried about my pessimistic friends and patients who will get hold of this article. After all, if the findings are valid, how much can anyone really do about a gloomy disposition?
Drugs!! No, seriously...

So am I gonna die, pessimistic nihilist that I am? Of course I am. Sooner rather than later? There's no way to know. I think one thing pessimists could do if this article bothers them is to think. Divide the things they're pessimistic about into those they can do something about and those they can't. If the things that bother them are not things they can act on, maybe that simple realization can be helpful. Don't worry about things you can't do anything about. It seems elementary, but maybe it's not.

Maybe there's nothing one can do. There was another interesting article in the NYT a few days ago, Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don't (comments). Is free will an illusion or not? I've long felt that free will is largely illusory, but does it matter?

Other studies apparently show that religion confers benefits similar to the benefits of optimism shown in this study. Could I decide to acquire faith and thereby derive those benefits? Could I decide to become optimistic about the pressing global issues that cause me gloom? Seems bloody unlikely, but maybe that's the pessimist in me talking.

I remember an acquaintance I had a few years ago. This man was brilliant, but he was suffering great mental anguish over something that had happened to his family, a great injustice that had forever damaged his entire family's physical health and ruined him financially. This man had done everything in his power to deal with the situation, but he was unable to avoid ruin. Things had reached the stage where I was actually worried that he might resort to violence. He was under tremendous strain and entertaining murderous thoughts.

In one discussion we had I stupidly tried to bring up the idea of addressing his psychic suffering via counseling or introspection. His immediate response was, "I've never been a navel gazer." End of story.

Maybe navel gazing is a learnable attribute of optimism. Whatever...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sony RF914R and RF920R wireless headphones- Avoid these products

I have one set each of Sony's RF914R and RF920R wireless radio frequency headphones, but I really wish I'd purchased something else.

The biggest annoyance with the RF914R is the ear pads, which fall apart pretty quickly, long before the headset quits working. That wouldn't be so bad if you could replace the pads at Radio Shack or at any of the other usual electronics outlets, but no. You have to get these directly from Sony (which I already did once but now they've worn out again). You can probably have someone else's parts department order them for you.

These chintzy ear pads cost $7.33. EACH! Shipping adds another $7 or $8.

Another annoyance is that the batteries are not consumer-replaceable. Not handily, anyway. You can't just slide open a hatch and replace standard batteries. Oh, no. I don't know how much the batteries cost, or how much trouble they are to replace, because when these quit I'm throwing the headset away.

The RF920R headset, on the other hand, is the type that surrounds the ear. The ear pads are much more substantial than on the RF914R above. However, the two annoyances with the RF920R are that:
  1. While you can replace the the batteries yourself, if you do so with standard batteries you won't be able to use rechargeables (unless you take them out and recharge them externally, of course). Sony's rechargeable batteries are standard AAA size, but they've got a square part glued on at both ends that, if missing (as on standard batteries), disables the recharge function. How annoying! Once again, I don't know how much these batteries cost because I won't be replacing them.
  2. The second annoyance with the RF920R headset is the volume limiting circuit, over which you have no control. I use these headphones for TV listening, and despite what the broadcasters say, the volume goes up and down a lot. When Sony's volume control kicks in it's really annoying! It seems to be built into the transmitter unit so, as a workaround I've just tuned this headset to the frequency being used by the other set, which lacks the volume control.
I probably won't be looking to Sony for my next set of wireless headphones.


A couple of nuclear items in the news caught my eye this morning. The Times reported that Israel is planning an attack on Iran's enrichment facilities (which Israel denies, of course). Meanwhile, the US administration has apparently decided to blend two designs for modernized bombs competitively recommended by the two American nuclear weapons labs.

I would be shocked to find out that Israeli leadership had been so negligent as to not study options for attacking Iran's nuclear facilities. Of course they have such plans, which is entirely different from saying that Israel has such intentions, or even that they think they could succeed. This "news" about Israel planning to attack is just part of the game.

The new American hybrid weapon design is supposedly based on one lab's design that was actually tested way back when, but with certain untested safety and security innovations from the other lab. That's not much information, but I tend to think it would be dumb to forgo modernization of the American nuclear arsenal. I'm afraid, though, that that's exactly what we'll do as a result of senselessly "surging" in Iraq, leading to the Democrats retaining control of both houses of congress and winning the executive in a couple of years. Bye bye new and improved nukes.

But what do I know? One of the few things I feel confident about is that geopolitics, like the climate, is growing more chaotic and extreme.