2013-08-26 03:30
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Another story from Grandad:

Abe: "That means a fight where I come from!"
Zeke: "Then why ain't you fighting?"
Abe: "Because I ain't where I come from."

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Bring back the Fairness Doctrine. The Republicans want it now.

I've been inundated with e-mails lately by Republicans complaining about a video about Hilary Clinton, currently being made by CNN and NBC. They are assuming, without evidence as near as I can tell, that this will be a pro-Hilary pre-campagin puff piece, and they want it stopped.

Rather than deciding whether each thing that comes out is pro- or anti- a specific candidate, fix the whole problem at once. Bring back the Fairness Doctrine. If the Clinton flick is a puff piece, make the stations give the Republicans equal time.

Of course, this would have an effect on the right-wing screamers who tend to just make stuff up. Consider it a beneficial side effect. Broadcasters should not be able to use the public airwaves to deliberately misinform their audience.

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 For no known reason, I woke up with this phrase in my head.  I have no idea what I was dreaming about, if anything.  The only thing it suggests is the title of a really bad postwar French comedy.
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There's one and one thing only that will matter in the Zimmerman trial -- the judge's instructions to the jury.

What happened is obvious:
  1. Zimmerman, in his car, sees Martin "acting suspiciously" (walking while black, ducking into a doorway during a rain shower.)
  2. He calls 911.  The operator tells him *not* to follow Martin and that police are on the way.
  3. He follows Martin anyway.  He is carrying a gun in violation of his "neighborhood watch" policy.
  4. Martin freaks out.
  5. At some point, Zimmerman stops his car, gets out, and confronts Martin.
  6. Fisticuffs ensue.  Zimmerman, despite outweighing Martin by 100 lbs, gets the worst if it.
  7. When Martin has him on the ground and is slamming his head into the pavement, Zimmerman assumes he's in deadly danger, pulls his gun, and shoots Martin.
Was Zimmerman in deadly danger at the time he shot Martin?  Yes; getting one's head slammed into the pavement is a serious matter.  But the only reason that he was in that position was that he had, against explicit instructions, deliberately put himself there.  So the whole thing depends on exactly what the law "really" means -- and that is the responsibility of the judge.

My own cynical take -- white man shoots black teenager == justified.  This is Florida, after all.

"I know how good a gun feels. It makes you bright-eyed and bushy- tailed, three meters tall and covered with hair. You're ready for anything and kind of hoping you'll find it. Which is exactly what is dangerous about it-because you aren't anything of the sort."  -- Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein


Or, as somebody else put it more pithily:  "Guns make you stupid."
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 Machines lie.  Everybody knows this; the Automated House of the Future is going to do everything for us, but can't make consistent toast.  One thing I may have figured out, however, is how to put a thermostat on a shower, without any electronics (Batteries!  Electric shocks!).

The basis of a mechanical thermostat is a bimetallic strip.  It bends one way if it's hot and the opposite way if it's cold.  So if the water is too cold, it opens the hot water a bit and closes the cold water a bit.  Too hot, less hot, more cold.  We set the temperature by physically turning the strip.  If it can't generate the proper temperature, it goes to the end of its travel, where it hits a lever that pops up a little flag on the shower head.  I'd say blue for "too cold" and red for "too hot".

  • Scale buildups.  Ideally, the strip bending from the temperature changes would cause scale to flake off.  In practice, who knows?
  • Force.  A bimetallic strip doesn't produce much force.  Is it enough to work the hot and cold valves?
  • Corrosion.  This is a definite problem as we have dissimilar metals by definition.  I'd say just coat the whole thing with plastic.  A sacrificial anode would probably be overkill.
Other Ideas:
  • We could direct the water straight down the drain if it's too cold or too hot.
  • If we wanted to get "just a little bit electric", we could put a little generator in the water flow.  We could get enough juice to run a couple of LEDs so we could see if the shower was ready from outside the shower.  Or hook it to the Internet (only half kidding!)
  • To get really fancy, we could hook the whole setup to a demand (tankless) water heater.  (It's a waste of energy to keep a big tank full of hot water in the basement all the time, in case we might need it.)
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This is a simple quiz to see if a person you're talking with is worth talking to.  Get the answers wrong, and you're dealing with a fanatic, a denier of reality, or a troll.  I'm always looking for new items to add to this list.  In particular, I don't have any questions on economics or nuclear power/weapons that have stupidly obvious answers except for fanatics.

1.  How old is the Earth?

2.  Is the Earth getting warmer?  If so, what's causing it?

3.  What is the fundamental organizing principle of biology?

4.  T/F:  The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were evangelical Christians.
4a. T/F:  The US was founded as a Christian nation.

5.  T/F:  The Bible says life begins at conception.

6.  T/F:  The US Civil War was about "States Rights"

7.  Where was Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. born?

8.  T/F  Marriage has always been "one man and one woman".
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Fixating on the deficit while our economy is stuck is like worrying about your cholesterol while you're trapped under a rock.

There's a nasty situation that small plane pilots can get into called a "graveyard spiral". The plane is losing altitude, so the pilot tries to pull up. But it's not in a dive, it's in a spiral. Pulling the nose up just tightens the spiral. This continues until the plane hits the ground or the spiral gets so tight the wings come off. This is, according to the best guess, what killed JFK Jr.

To get out of a graveyard spiral, the pilot has to ignore the seat of his pants, which is telling him he's headed straight for the ground, and get the wings level. At this point, the plane is no longer in a spiral and the pilot can pull out of the dive.

Try to do it backwards and you're dead.

We're in the economic equivalent of a graveyard spiral. Unemployment is high, so consumer demand is low. With low demand, businesses lay off more people, which reduces demand. Unemployed people don't pay income tax, so tax revenues go down. Spending doesn't, so deficits go up. And because there's a Democrat in the White House, the Republicans get all bent out of shape over "the Deficit". (Funny, deficits weren't important under Reagan or either Bush.)

Trying to "fix the deficit" by cutting Government spending is like trying to pull the nose up in a graveyard spiral. It won't work and will only cause a serious crash. Cut Government spending, we lose more jobs, which reduces tax revenues, which increases the deficit ... Economically, this is called "Hooverism". It's what Herbert Hoover did to try and fix the Great Depression. Didn't work, bigtime. It won't work any better now than it did then.

To break out of the spiral, we need to put folks back to work. We have the questionable advantage that we've been deferring infrastructure maintenence for far too long, so there's a lot of work to do. We also have the real advantage that folks ::cough::China::cough:: are willing to lend us money at, effectively, negative interest rates.

Once we get people back to work, we can go back and look at the deficit again. Ideally, all we'll have to do is sit back and watch it shrink as the economy picks up.

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Connie Shultz, wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and real journalist writes about a woman who was carjacked and did everything right:

In this story, Ms Yee did almost everything exactly right, and she did do everything that needed to be done. The only thing she could have done better would have been to hit the "panic button" on her car key. Hard to think of everything ...

It's interesting to consider a case like this in the context of the current gun debate. What would have happened if Ms Yee had had a gun? Best case, it would have played out exactly like it did. Problem is, she had a gun pointed at her. She had no time to get her own (theoretical!) gun into action. Grabbing for it would probably have caused the attacker to shoot. If somehow she did manage to get her own gun out, she'd be in a gun battle at zero range, inside a car. Bad, bad, bad.

Problem with the pro-gun types is that they talk in terms of imaginary scenarios. It's far more useful to look at real-life situations like this one. The main problem with the scenarios that the pro-gun types use is that they ignore the time it takes to get a defensive gun into action -- a dead-flat minimum of two seconds. On the street, a heck of a lot can happen in that two seconds, and experienced robbers know how to keep a situation ambiguous until the last possible instant.

Another problem with the pro-gun types is that they assume that they will always be able to identify a situation requiring deadly force. Cops have trouble with this one. Harmless street person panhandling or robber? Life is ambiguous. Deal with it.

I may do a post later with my views on self-defense and martial arts. I have a lot of experience with American style wrestling, Judo, and Aikido. I have taught (as an assistant, not a primary) women's self defense. My opinions on the subject are pretty much The Common Wisdom, with some additions from experience, plus some things that are probably so "common wisdom" that they never get mentioned.

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Analog Science Fiction, March 1966.  Painting by John Schoenherr 
Greg Bear talks about meteorites.

I get a kick out of the fact that the definitive article on very large oceanic meteorite impacts was published in "Analog Science Fiction". (The picture with the CNN article above is the cover of that issue of Analog.)

Also, it seems that all the attention goes to "asteroids". Asteroids are hunks of rock orbiting the sun, in the ecliptic, just like planets. As such, their orbits can be predicted for decades or centuries in advance. If we sight one that's going to hit us, we have a lot of time to figure out what to do about it.

If you want something to *really* worry about, think about long-period comets. They come in from a long way out, moving effectively at solar escape velocity, and can come in at any angle, not just in the ecliptic. If one of these came in on a collision course, how much warning would we have? I've poked at it a bit; my calculus is no longer up to it. My guess is no more than a couple of years, depending on how far out it was sighted. That isn't enough time to set up committees to talk about it ...

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 Many years ago, I made a Valentine's Day dinner for the woman who would later become my wife.  It was a disaster, of the sort that, in prior years, would have epic poems written about it.  Dessert was chocolate mousse, Julia Child's recipe, which I had made before with spectacular results.  This time, it didn't work.  Turns out that she can't eat anything with raw eggs in it, and the "foam" part is uncooked egg white.  Additionally, I added some Chambord (expensive raspberry liqueur) and it Just Didn't Work.  The fact that our relationship survived at all is seriously impressive -- that was just one disaster of many that evening.
Anyway, I was under orders Not to Cook today, but I made this mousse anyway.  The only ingredients are chocolate and water -- no chance of accidentally poisoning the Love of my Life.  Admittedly, the Food Elves swapped the bittersweet chocolate that I bought with semisweet before I got it home, but it worked anyway.
This, I think, is the new Ur-mousse; the mousse against which all others are measured; the mousse that casts its shadow on the wall of Plato's cave.  Is it the best of all possible chocolate mousses?  No; it could be improved -- next time, I'm adding a bit of amaretto and using much higher cacao content chocolate -- but it is the base that everything else must be compared to.
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December 14, 1972

My dearest darling John:

Who ever in the whole world would dream of getting a real Partridge in a Pear Tree? How can I ever express my pleasure. Thank you a hundred times for thinking of me this way.

My love always,


Cut for length )
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Yowsah! Ya try to do something simple on Facebook and whadda you get? Another day older and deeper in debt ...

I wanted to get my Facebook notifications as an RSS feed, instead of e-mail messages. Facebook help has nothing; help for RSS leads to info on "subscriptions". No help. Googling gets ways to construct an RSS feed link using the "user ID" (not trivial to find.  It's at <[your Facebook account name]> if you want to play with it.), but they all give the error message "This feed URL is no longer valid. Visit this page to find the new URL, if you have access: ", which leads back to your timeline page.  Not helpful.

The alternative was to use an "app", which has access to all your information. One site had instructions for *writing* a trivial app, which was interesting but 'way too much work.

Finally got it. Go to the page <> and you'll see a list of all your Facebook notifications. And right there at the top of the list is a "Get notifications via:" link, with an RSS option. Works!

Note to the Facebook folks -- when you update features, you also have to update the docs and the configuration screens. The "Get notifications via:" link should be on the Notifications configuration page, for example.

Saint Peter, doncha call me, I can't go, I owe my soul to Mark Zuckerberg.

Nah. Doesn't scan. Or rhyme. Or make sense. Whatever.

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It's no secret that politicians, political pundits, and political reporters are innumerate and scientifically illiterate. It's a job requirement.  Can't let those nasty old facts get in the way.  Joe Scarborough's famous attack on Nate Silver is just one of the most notable examples before the actual election results started coming in and the real meltdowns started:

Nate Silver says this is a 73.6% chance that the president's going to win. Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73.6% — they think they have a 50.1% chance of winning.

.... Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue [that] they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops, and microphones for the next ten days, because they're jokes.

— Joe Scarborough, Morning Joe, 2012-10-29

So what's Joe doing here?  There's the obvious answer that everybody in the news media absolutely needs to see the election as a "horse race".  As long as it's a close race, they can keep everybody interested.  If everybody agrees that one side is going to win, folks lose interest.  The pundits, not having facts (which they can't recognize) or math (which they can't understand), fall back on "momentum" and "energy" and "excitement" and other things that can't really be quantified.  Journalists -- want to cause a panic?  Force a politician to put a number on something.  And follow up on it.

What I suspect he's doing (other than supporting his favorite candidate, of course) is making a very common error. He's assuming that, since there are only two possible outcomes, that each has a "probability" of 50%. After all, it has to be one or the other.  That's not how it works.

Let's use a gambling example.  (After all, probability theory was originally developed to calculate gambling odds.) Assume we have a roulette wheel, but instead of the standard layout we have 100 numbers that are either red or blue.  Let's say, so we have a number to think about, that there are 75 blue numbers and 25 red numbers.  Over a very large number of plays, red will come up 25% of the time and blue will come  up 75% of the time.  Basic probability.  We'd have no trouble saying that "blue has a 75% chance of winning."

However, we're going to introduce a problem — we're only going to play once.  Now, what's the probability of blue winning?  Well, nothing has changed — it's still 75%.  Let's change the question a bit:  Who is going to win, red or blue?  We can't say.  As long as there is at least one number for a color, it has a chance of winning.  It may be a small chance, but it's not zero.  If we have 99 blue numbers and one red number, we can't guarantee that blue will win.  After all, lightning does strike; somebody does win the lottery.

And of course, let's not forget the tinfoil hat explanation.  The fix was in; they had to make it look like Romney pulled off a not-completely-unexpected upset.

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One very familiar type of song is the Christmas carol. Although it is perhaps a bit out of season at this time. However, I'm informed by my "disk jockey" friends - of whom I have none, that in order to get a song popular by Christmas time, you have to start plugging it well in advance. So here goes.

It has always seemed to me, after all, that Christmas, with its spirit of giving, offers us all a wonderful opportunity each year to reflect on what we all most sincerely and deeply believe in. I refer of course, to money. And yet none of the Christmas carols that you hear on the radio or in the street, even attempt to capture the true spirit of Christmas as we celebrate it in the United States. That is to say the commercial spirit. So I should like to offer the following Christmas carol for next year, as being perhaps a bit more appropriate.

Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don't say "when."
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

On Christmas Day you can't get sore,
Your fellow man you must adore,
There's time to rob him all the more
The other three hundred and sixty-four.

Relations, sparing no expense'll
Send some useless old utensil,
Or a matching pen and pencil.
"Just the thing I need! How nice!"
It doesn't matter how sincere it
Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit,
Sentiment will not endear it,
What's important is the price.

Hark the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things

God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the Yuletide pay.

Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!

So let the raucous sleigh bells jingle,
Hail our dear old friend Kris Kringle,
Driving his reindeer across the sky.
Don't stand underneath when they fly by.

Actually I did rather well myself, this last Christmas. The nicest present I received was a gift certificate, good at any hospital, for a lobotomy. Rather thoughtful.

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 The New Scientist has an article about creating gasoline from air and electricity.  There are two reason this is important :
  1. Most alternative energy sources are not constant.  There has to be some way of storing energy for later use.  The flip side of this is that alternative energy sources can produce too much energy; sometimes the producers have to pay somebody else to take it off their hands.
  2. Liquid hydrocarbon fuel is far and away the most efficient way of fueling transport.  Should be; we've been doing it for over 100 years now.
I've been kicking around similar ideas for a couple of years now.  Unfortunately, I lack the chemical engineering knowledge to even know if it is possible.  Unlike the system in the New Scientist article, I assume that liquid carbon dioxide and water would be supplied, rather than extracted from the air.  Water is water and CO2 is a byproduct of "carbon sequestration", which will be needed to cut down emissions from current fossil-fuel power plants.  In other words, power plant operators will pay us to take it away.

So here's the plan.  We have three chambers A, B, and C.  There is a proton-exchange membrane between A and B.  There is a layer of zeolite catalyst between B and C.  A contains water and a bit of sulfuric acid.  B contains liquid CO2.  C contains the generated hydrocarbon.  Ideally, it'll be pure 2-2-4 trimethylpentane (AKA octane, AKA 100-octane gasoline); how pure depends on how good the catalyst guys are.

An electric current through A, with the negative pole at the membrane, electrolyzes the water to hydrogen ions and oxygen.  The oxygen is "waste" for this process.  The H2 ions pass through the membrane into B, where, with a proper catalyst, they pull an oxygen atom off of a CO2 molecule, converting it to CO.  Now, a mixture of CO and H2 is called "process gas", which is an input to all sorts of useful chemical syntheses.  In WWII, the Germans made synthetic gasoline from process gas via the Fischer–Tropsch process.  This uses a fairly simple nickel catalyst and produces complex hydrocarbon glop that can be dumped into a conventional oil refinery.  I'm sure that our catalyst guys can come up with something a lot better.  Last time I looked, zeolites were the top catalysts for petroleum chemistry.

Separating the CO from the CO2, transporting the CO to the reaction zone to convert it to gasoline (or at least hydrocarbon glop), separating out the water resulting from converting CO2 to CO, and transporting the water back to chamber A are things that I have no idea how to do.

Anyway, it's a half-baked idea that I wanted to get down in electrons.  Perhaps somebody else can do something with it, or let me know why I'm full of little red ants.

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Congressional Republicans have been sandbagging the Voting Rights act (big surprise, right?).   So instead of just extending it, we need to update it, to take care of some problems we noted in this year's election:
  • Voter suppression:  attempts at voter suppression of any kind need to trigger some intense Federal scrutiny.  The Old South is not the only place where the Powers that Be would like very much to prevent Certain People from voting.  Long lines (9 hours in some cases) are prima facie evidence of voter suppression (or incompetence).  So are shortages of materials (paper ballots, for example).
  • Nonpartisan election commissions:  This business of having a partisan office determine all the important parameters of the election has got to stop.  At best, it looks bad.  At worst, it's outright corruption.
  • ID:  Needs to be some kind of Federal standard; most of the State ID requirements are unsubtle attempts to suppress poor and elderly voters.
  • Electronic voting machines:  Ideally, the voter should mark a card ("fill in the bubble"), which most voters have been doing since elementary school.  Then you can have a machine count the ballots, but there's always the possibility of a recount.  Diebold- type (unauditable) machines must have the source code escrowed, and random machines examined to make sure that the code in the machine matches the code on file.  Any change to software must be tested, tracked, and audited; "midnight upgrades" of any kind are Right Straight Out.  Also, the entire system needs to be auditable (and audited!).  For example, one report from 2008 (hopefully obsolete!) said that the Diebold central vote-tabulating system was based on a Microsoft Access database, with the default password.  First, the password is an elementary mistake.  No programmer with any experience at all should do that.  Second, nobody who knows databases uses Microsoft Access for anything more important than a Christmas card list.  It's just not sufficiently reliable.  The pros use Oracle, or if you want to stay in the Microsoft universe, SQL Server.
  • "Instant runoff":  Optional, but very desirable.  This would be ideal for things like primary and local elections, which can have many candidates.  Runoff elections are expensive and inconvenient, and a "straight plurality" leads to elections where the winner gets, like, 15% of the vote.  There are all sorts of schemes, ranging from "first and second choice" to the full-up "Australian ballot".
While we're at it, Republicans have been complaining for years about "voter fraud", which to them means people voting who shouldn't.  We need to educate people about what real voter fraud looks like.  Hint -- it's not retail (one vote at a time); it's wholesale (boxes full of pre-marked ballots).

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The Republican Super-PACs spent a jaw-dropping amount of money on this campaign, to amazingly little effect. Karl Rove, in particular, is going to have a lot of uncomfortable explaining to do*. I hope the reason he failed so spectacularly is that his style of campaigning isn't working any more.

Rove's campaigns are about as "content free" as it's possible to get — remember that his chief beneficiary was George W. Bush, about as close to a completely "empty suit" as you can get. His chief gimmick is to accuse the opponent of the candidates's failings — if your candidate has a drinking problem, accuse the opponent of being an alcoholic, no matter how far-fetched, and do it first. That way, the opponent's response looks like "you're another!" sour grapes.

The campaigns are also relentlessly negative — if you're selling an empty suit, you really don't have anything positive to say.

The icing on the turd, of course, is that he lies** constantly. He is fully aware that his lies will end up has headlines and that any "corrections" will be at the bottom of page 3 and published after people have already made up their minds.

In general, the Rove strategy is to win elections, by whatever means necessary.  Governing after the election?  Doesn't care.  The opinion of non-voters (especially foreigners)?  Doesn't care.  The chief result of this, of course, is to make the voters cynical, destroy trust, and in general, pollute the discourse.

Not what we need, to put it mildly.

* The classic advice at this point is "make a run for the border".  In this case, that won't work very well ...

** Not really lies, but bullshit. (See "On Bullshit", by Harry Frankfurt). In his definition, bullshit is statements made to have an immediate effect with no regard to their truth or falsity.

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The biggest political party in the US is neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party. It's the "I didn't vote" party. If the ones who don't bother to go to the polls actually voted, they could take over the country in one election cycle.

Of the things that I consider requirements for Good Citizenship (voting, taxes, jury duty) voting is far and away the easiest, even counting the Getting Informed part. We work hard to make it easy to vote, but half of the population still can't be bothered.

Whether the issue you care about is national economic policy or the pothole in front of your house, if you don't vote, you don't get to complain.
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One of Grandad's stories:

Abe asked to borrow Zeke's car.  "Treat it as if it were your own", said Zeke, as he handed over the keys.

So he did.  He sold it.
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One of Grandad's stories:

Once there was a guy in an insane asylum who sat around all day completely naked except for a hat.

"Why don't you wear any clothes?", a nurse asked.

"Ahh, why bother?  Nobody ever comes to visit."

"Then why the hat?"

"Somebody might!"


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