Thursday, December 31, 2009

This revolution will be televised

While singing christmas carols this winter, I saw something I've not seen before: audiences where half the people are recording my performance.

Privacy means something different in the 21st century, where you can Google someone in the blink of an eye and instantly find what used to take days to find. And not only can you find out someone's address and phone number, you can see pictures and even videos of them.

Even if they aren't posting the pictures themselves. I was performing in a public place. But it wouldn't be hard to take some pictures of me in private places, including very private places. As digital gets cheaper, it's revolutionizing how we live.

And we can watch each other all the time if we want.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I fell down one time

I got hit by a car in the snowstorm: Snowpocalypse 2009.

It was going 15 miles an hour, and the only injury is a bruised knee from falling over when it hit me, but it's still startling. Especially given that my instinct was to push against it to slow it down. I should have dodged. Although using my arms to break my "fall" did help. But I wish I'd reacted smarter.

Again: I'm fine. Worst thing was I got wet.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ninja robots

I wish the robots at OMSI did something like this. It's exactly what robots are good at.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The future will be a little creepy

When all the muffins and sausages are packed by robots, our factories will be kind of weird. And awesome.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Authentic Comics

From the glorious Cat and Girl, two comics about authenticity:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

ASCAP have a long history of being bastards

I'm a big fan of Lawrence Lessig, super copyright lawyer. He worked for years to make the system fairer and more balanced - it's way too much in favor of the big corporations right now. Back in the day you could only copyright something for 30 years - can you imagine the amazing art that would be created if we could remix anything from before 1980?

Anyway, here's a presentation he gave at TED I really enjoy. But I'm a huge copyright nerd.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Is Science Real?

I just read a series of blog posts by some guy about science and culture. He's summarizing a book by a French philosopher of science named Bruno Latour, who makes a distinction between Science and Research.

The basic thrust of Latour's ideas (as summarized by Some Guy) is that scientists are not objective observers of Reality, but exist in society constructing their own subjective reality. And if he didn't use the word reality, (and maybe that's Some Guy's language, not Latour's) I'd be on board. I think it's obviously true that scientists are biased and discover things that confirm their biases. It took a long time for the dangers of asbestos to become known. When it was put in every building in the nation, science was a wonder machine of discovery. Then we became aware of the possibility that some of these new discoveries could poison us, and we started looking for new patterns, and they showed up. We ignored those clues before, as well as the people who tried to warn us, because they didn't fit into the dominant cultural paradigm.

That's all true. But that doesn't change the underlying reality. Asbestos WAS harmful all along. We didn't construct a new REALITY by figuring out the danger. We revised our BELIEFS about reality. Our CULTURE changed, not reality itself.

When astronomers recategorized Pluto as a dwarf planet, the ball of rock and ice we call Pluto didn't change in the slightest. It kept orbiting the sun and its "moon" just the same as it has done for billions of years. There is a new socially constructed concept of what that means, but it does not change the actual facts.

I think it is valuable to point out that scientists are deeply fallible, and easily prone to ignoring significant evidence. And it's important to cultivate humility - knowledge that our discoveries go only as far as our technology allows. I often scoff at people who didn't take basic sanitary steps in hospitals before the discovery of microbes, but I should remember that before the microscope allowed us to detect disease organisms, it would have been quite the leap of faith to suspect that tiny invisible things in the air or water caused diseases. We WILL look just as foolish 100 years from now - it would serve us well to remember that.

But that point acknowledged, science does have the advantage of answering to reality. It may take a long time for our culture and our technology to sort it out, but I believe the facts will eventually be revealed. If science is a total cultural construction with no connection to reality, then there's no reason to prefer it to any other culturally constructed set of beliefs. And that means that we should teach Creationism and the Flying Spaghetti Monster in "Science" class.

But we should not go that way. Other ways of finding meaning in the world are good and valuable. Art and religion make us better people in ways science cannot. But science DOES answer to reality in a way religion never will. Science is a human enterprise, and full of human flaws and frailty. But it's got something special that must not be abandoned. As They Might Be Giants put it, Science Is Real.

Friday, December 18, 2009


The New York Times' Western correspondent wrote a post today about bias against the West. He had me at Ore-uh-GUN. (I was saddened when I heard They Might Be Giants in concert persist in mispronouncing my home state, years after I'd heard an entire Portland audience correct them - causing them to nod in shame.)

Oregon and California may have enabled the voters to pass lots of tax cuts and mandatory spending measures, putting our legislatures in impossible situations making them responsible for massive cuts in schools and police without giving them the power to actually fix the system. But we're cool.

I suppose I shouldn't get too aggrieved. The Times is probably about to print another story about how all the restaurants in Portland are made of gold, and how we're all skinny from riding our bicycles everywhere to our supercool rock concerts. And then all their unemployed college students will move here and boost our unemployment rate back up above Michigan's.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I've been killing mice lately.

There have been several mice living near my office. I found a bunch of their poop on my desk. That was gross.

Emptying traps into the garbage - disposing of dead mice - is also gross. I'm sad that they had to die. Definitely sad that glue traps were how they were caught. It's sad to imagine them stuck on the glue, dying slowly. A snap trap that breaks their neck seems much more humane. But they haven't set off any of the half-dozen of those that I set. Even the ones baited with peanut butter.

I had little choice. I tried removing the food supply (not that there was much) and they didn't go away. I realize it's cold and wintry. But I draw the line at things that poop on my desk.

Yes, if you poop on my desk I might have to kill you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I Deny your Reality, and Substitute my Own

Our banks were totally out of line, taking completely unnecessary risks, and nearly destroyed our economic system. Thousands and thousands of people have lost their jobs, and it could be years before we recover.

So who do Republicans blame? The goverment. Because it turns out we are in a
post-fact society. Our elected politicians are so committed to their ideas that reality can't shake them from it.

Most of us, in fact, are this way. We ignore unpleasant and inconvenient truths when they don't support things we like. I wish I had an answer apart from being frustrated with human nature and feeling like our society is rotting away.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chappy Channukah!

I thought that an LED menorah, or the droidel were the nerdiest possible ways to celebrate Hannukah.

Until I saw the best menorah ever. I'm still in shock from how awesome it is.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Motorcycle assembly stop motion

This makes me tempted to try to show a sweater knitting itself.

Maybe I should start by trying just a scarf. For a mouse.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sexism is alive and well

The National Organization of Women is fighting to block a tax on cosmetic surgery. Because while it would be nice if women's pay didn't correlate with their looks, it does. Which raises the question of where feminism has gone.

It seems clear to me, mirrored by our presidential choices, that sexism is still widely acceptable in our culture, while racism is taboo. Yes, there's plenty of racism in our nation. Yes, there are lots of racists. But President George W. Bush had only black secretaries of state. He did give speeches at segregated colleges, and made other winking gestures towards racism, but could not openly say he thought black people were inferior.

But it's open to discussion whether women should have careers or be mothers. If you're the president of Harvard, it'll get you fired to suggest that women are inherently inferior, but a large portion of our society believes that it's God's will that men be in charge of their wives. Medicine, the workplace and the political world are all defined in male terms of success and worth and value.

I think one factor in gender being harder to crack than race is that gender is partly biological. While there appear to be physical racial traits, genetics has revealed race to be an illusion - constructed totally by society to reinforce political power structures. While there is a huge social dimension to gender identity, there is also the fact that men and women are different. Not only in our genitals and statistically in our musculature, but there are real differences in the ways we think and what we find interesting and valuable.

Conservatives can see those differences and use them as an excuse to keep women down. Liberals can fear them as a barrier to equality. But I hope that one day we'll see it as part of the rich diversity that is us. And we'll value and respect women for qualities that aren't physical.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

He's just slow

An Oregonian columnist wrote yesterday that we should stop using "retarded" as a slur. She's right - hurtful insulting language is mean.

But I can't help but reflect on how many insults began as the kindest possible language. Retarded does simply mean slow. (Still does in Italian.) Now we use "developmentally delayed", because kids heard "retarded" and started using it with malice in their hearts.

The same is true of words like moron and idiot - once technical terms intended to be used with the greatest compassion, now raw insults with the power to burn. And very liberal, tolerant people used to use the word "Negro" out of the deepest respect. A word that in its roots really does just mean the same as the one in common use today - Black.

It's the way of things - we see our words are causing harm, and we find new words to try to fix the problem. And in a generation, the new words will have stopped working, and we have to try again. It's work we must do, but it doesn't mean we'll ever be done.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Religion and science, can't we all get along?

There's a superb article by Bruce Sheiman about science and religion in this month's UU magazine.

He excellently makes a case for how religion and science are worth having around. He does argue that science has a moral dimension, overlooking the many immoral uses of science in the world. But then, religion has been used immorally many times as well over the centuries.

It does make me wonder what the combatants in the "culture war" expect the final outcome to be. How can a creationist seriously expect the world to ignore evolution? I suppose they sincerely believe that evolution is a lie, but it's delusional to imagine that all the evidence and discoveries are going to ever go away.
I think the angry athiests who want religion to go away are slightly more connected to reality - religion is on the decline in many European countries, and science has undercut some religious explanations of the world in the last 500 years.

But the religious impulse - to find meaning in our lives and to spend time in communities that honor that meaning - that impulse is part of being a healthy human. That will never cease as long as there are humans.

The only way to end the war is with peace, not with more war. Unfortunately, peace is harder work, so this "war" isn't likely to end any time soon.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Batman: The Musical!

This is hilarious. And a real Warner Brothers Batman product. And it features Neil Patrick Harris. This is worth ignoring our crumbling democracy for. Thanks, pop culture!

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I've been "enjoying" Regretsy for a while now, although some of the disasters on Etsy are horrifying.

But I think the wreath of clown heads is my "favorite".

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Credit reporting gets serious

With all the news about credit card companies, it's of note that the credit rating agencies are engaged in struggles as well. Struggles with their enemies, to try to get more money from you. The Federal Trade Commission is not pleased with Experian, one of the big 3 credit agencies. Because after a federal law passed guaranteeing us all free access to our credit reports, Experian set up a website with a very similar sounding name, to sell us copies of our credit reports. (Not surprised the government didn't choose the best name. Although maybe it was already taken.)

But of course, on the internet, imitation is the sincerest form of spammery. Lots of people set up similar scam websites. But Experian couldn't have that, so they sued. And won. And every misspelling of their website now belongs to them.

There's big money in telling us whether we can borrow big money.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


In the spirit of Progress Quest, there is now also a text-based Pac Man.

I played Pac-Text for way too long before getting bored. I got a score of 1850. Dang. I need a life.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Republican Party more rigid, more negative

I know it's hard to imagine, but the Republican National Committee is working hard to make their party even less ideologically diverse than it is now. They've drafted a resolution to exclude dissenting candidates. If you don't agree with them on at least 8 of their 10 items, you won't get RNC support. (Which you only care about if you're a Republican, but does make all their candidates carbon copy talking-point machines like Ms. Palin.)

What I find most interesting is how most of the items on the list are negative. We oppose this, we oppose that. They don't stand FOR anything, just against. They have some ideals and values that have some potential merit at least worth arguing, but all they want to do about their ideas is nothing. That's weak.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Suck it, bing!

Microsoft's new search engine censors anything in Chinese. Anywhere in the world, if you search in Chinese, you get what China wants you to see.

Granted, Google is complicit in Chinese censorship, and Yahoo has been extremely cooperative. But only within the country of China itself. To go global is ethically lapsed. Or just lazy. I suspect both.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bomb-proof wallpaper

I never really saw the benefits of wallpaper. It's a huge pain in the ass to install, it's an even larger pain to remove. And you could just paint. And then when you change your mind about what you want, you can paint over with new paint.

But then I saw bomb-proof wallpaper. That's cool. In a hurricane or tornado or war, it could protect you from debris. That's awesome.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Health Care Reform

I'm not terribly surprised to learn that the right wing lies about healthcare are exactly the same arguments that were made against Medicare and Social Security.

And everyone wants to protect those. Except for the pesky fact that they cost money, which means taxation of some form.

But I was truly surprised by a chart showing healthcare survey results. Although I shouldn't have been. Who wants healthcare reform the most? The young and the poor, people who don't have insurance now who would benefit the most. The elderly poor are more ambivalent, because they already have Medicare and the uninsured young can suck it.

Who is most opposed to reform? The old and wealthy, who not only have Medicare, but could buy insurance if they had to. They (accurately, I suspect) probably fear that they're the ones who will have to pay most of the bill for expanded insurance subsidies.

There's some regional differences. New York is more pro-reform. Red states are more anti-reform. But the generational and economic divide is stark.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Amazon review comedy

There are many products on where the reviews are hilarious.

It does seem unlikely that these people bought these products. But their writing is awesome.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Patchwork sewing machine

Most of the stuff on There I Fixed It is hilariously badly built.

But the barette sewing machine patch I saw today impresses me.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Teachers selling out - or in?

The New York Times has an article about teachers selling lesson plans online and making some extra money doing it. One of the people they quote is shocked - SHOCKED! - that the great and noble art of education would be sullied by such dirty, dirty commerce.

I'm not nearly as offended. Teachers spend a lot of time at home, on evenings and weekends, coming up with lesson plans. They spend their own money taking continuing education classes and buying supplies. If new teachers are willing to pay for lesson plans instead of making their own, that seems a fine way to transfer generational wisdom to me.

If teachers are posting lesson plans during their contractual hours at school, or posting lesson plans they developed during their copious amounts of planning time on the clock, then that's not cool. But I doubt that's much of a problem.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Suck it, record companies

Turns out that a bunch of record companies song licenses are about to expire. While Congress has extended copyright to 1000 years (plus life of the author), the massive copyright extension of 1978 said that licenses would reboot in 2013.

This means that bands will be able to break free from their record contracts, and regain control over the rights to their music. The Eagles will be able to sell their own songs and take all the money.

Time to invest in new talent, record labels. Or just give up and die. Please.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fear: Vaccines

It's interesting to me how lots of people are afraid of the H1N1 vaccine, but for two opposing reasons. Some fear that the vaccine is dangerous, and some fear that there's not enough of it.

Health officials note that people used to instantly sign up for vaccines, because they'd seen epidemics. When you've buried children who died of measles, smallpox, etc. you weigh the risks and benefits differently. Today's parents knowledge of medicine includes thalidomide and their experience doesn't include plague.

We are emotional creatures, and reason is only a sideline. Rationalization comes much more easily to us.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fix patent and copyright law, please!

The Supreme Court is about to decide whether patent law has gone too far. Which is good. Because it has.

Currently you can patent a "business method", not to mention an algorithm or DNA. That's bad. That means you can patent a living being, and ban it from reproducing without paying you a fee. Not ok.

Patents have value. Protecting inventors so they have some incentive to invent makes sense. But today there is WAY too much value for inventors to milk their old inventions and not enough public good. Inventions should eventually come into the public domain so they can be imitated, modified and improved upon. But right now that can't happen.

I hope they make it better.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Multibutton mouse

Some linux nerds are building an 18-button mouse.

The horror. The horror.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Jaywalking is discriminatory

Well, Tom Vanderbilt makes the case that the media are prejudiced against pedestrians.

I wonder if it's as bad in Portland, where we have lots of political support for urban planning and walkable neighborhoods.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

We're not meant to kill

I just read that in World War 2, 80% of soldiers didn't shoot at the enemy. (In the excellent book How We Decide.)

Only 20% of our soldiers were able to overcome their natural instinct to not hurt another person, and shoot. I think that's excellent. It impresses me greatly that so many people, honorable people who wanted to serve their country, still couldn't bring themselves to harm another person.

The book goes on to describe how the Army saw this as a problem, and set about designing conditioning that would overcome our basic instincts of humanity. By the Korean war, they got 55 percent of soldiers to shoot. In Vietnam, the number reached 90 percent.

I believe this is a big part of why our veterans come back from war so much more damaged now than in the past. PTSD and the other mental damage our soldiers receive comes from overriding the basic human instinct to not kill another person.

It seems ridiculous to advocate for a military that's inefficient, where we have people whose job it is to kill who can't or don't. Obviously, as a hippy, I favor increased diplomacy and work to find peaceful solutions to conflicts so the military doesn't have to kill anyone.

But I think more than that, I'm intrigued by the fact that 20% of soldiers were able to fire in the past. And my impression is that the returning veterans were more able to reenter society successfully then. There are lots of complicating factors - differing political support for the different wars, new medical technology to help badly wounded soldiers survive - but I think the military's ruthless efficiency at "helping" our soldiers become ruthless has a real cost that must be weighed and noted. Our soldiers lose a part of their souls in their training. I'm not sure the nature of the debt, but we owe them something for that.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Strawberries, Pakistanis and Hermaphrodites, oh my!

Google will offer to complete your search for you. I have often enjoyed this feature, when I don't have to complete typing out a movie star's name. Although it doesn't work well for some names.

Many people have noticed recently that if you type in the beginnings of basic questions, like who, what, when, etc. you get some interesting results. That is, people are searching on Google for some pretty stupid stuff. And some pretty weird stuff.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Comic Mashups

Ryan Dunlavey has created hilarious comic strip mashups. Like X-Men meets Peanuts. Or Spy vs Spy vs Predator vs Alien.

I think it's awesome.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Copyright conundrum

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has put together a Takedown Hall of Shame - a list of particularly ridiculous organizations who sued to have content taken off websites, even when the content was clearly protected as fair use.

Some of them are pretty awesome, and it's ridiculous that they were taken down, even if briefly. Like a one man a cappella greatest hits of John Williams. Or a dubbed version of White Wedding, where Billy Idol just sings about the images in the video.

But one case involves NPR, and confuses me. A political TV ad, 30 seconds long, plays clips from an NPR story for 25 seconds, and says how bad things will be if Measure 1 fails. That seems a lot less creative, and more reasonable for NPR to say, "stop stealing our material". It is political speech, which should be protected, but why not write your own damn script and make a case instead of playing the radio clip? It seems lazy and not persuasive.

But I'm not a lawyer. Being lazy and unpersuasive isn't grounds for copyright violation. Using the whole piece you copied, destroying the market for the work, whether it's fiction or not, and the character of the use are how courts decide Fair Use. And apart from the utterly untransformative (albeit political) character of this copying, it does seem to meet all the other qualifications. (Although I'm sure NPR would argue that using NPR tape in political debates damages the market for their work.)

I'm curious to see how this case turns out. The EFF thinks that NPR is dead wrong. I don't think they're totally out of line, but I wonder how a judge will rule.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Jesus, Pope!

Seems to me like the pope is a jerk. Not a huge surprise, but after years of conversation with the Anglican church, to bypass that negotiation and just declare that Anglicans are welcome as Catholics is pretty cold.

Not to mention how unlike Jesus it is to celebrate people who are angry that the Anglicans are ordaining women and gays.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Handheld Nintendo

I do like video games. And the idea of being able to play NES games inside an old NES cartridge, with an old NES controller embedded inside? Genius.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bob Herbert is right

You know, I've been feeling like the world is out of control, and bankers aren't being held accountable, and that it's time to seriously upset the power structure and neuter the corporations that somehow are getting our elected officials to ignore the common good and legislate only to the bottom line.

Then Bob Herbert wrote a column about how things won't fix themselves and it's up to each of us to stand up and speak out and actually get things to change.

That's what I've been feeling. I just didn't know it.

I bet this apathy isn't original. I bet people were just as hopeless about the possibility of change in the 1890s or 1920s. But hopefully we'll snap out of it, just as we did in the 1960s. And 1770s. It's time for another greatest generation to rebuild all the things that Reagan and the Bushes tore down. I hope video games and cable TV aren't enough to pacify us into not fixing what's broken.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Coincidence? I think not.

Briefly: California Governor Schwarzenegger (shudder) recently vetoed a bill.
Unprofessionally, it contained an obscene acrostic. They claim the
lewd imperative suggestion is merely a bizzare coincidence. I think it's un-
likely that a swear would appear in that form without intention.

Someone did that. If it was a single four letter word, I would buy that it was a
harmless coincidence. But to have "fuck you" be the first letter of each line?
I think a person put it there deliberately. It's not easy for that to happen.
That's hard to do, even intentionally.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Technology is disruptive, but not THAT disruptive

For decades, corporations that make money make alarmist claims about new technology. Suggesting that kids stealing music online will cause poor helpless Paul McCartney to starve.

Of course, that's not how it turned out in the past. Ever. When John Philip Sousa complained about the phonograph driving sheet music purchases into the basement, it's not as though musicians have disappeared. It's just changed how they share their art with the world.

Technology's not going to stop just because you wish it would, RIAA. Suck it up. Radio adapted when TV was invented. So did movies. You can adapt to the internet. Or else you deserve to die.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Evolution at work

Go science! I'm quite impressed by people who study evolution by watching bacteria evolve for years. And then after thousands of generations, analyze their DNA and see what's changed. Pretty frickin' awesome.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Online books at libraries?

Disruptive technology means we need new way of doing things. Electronic books could destroy libraries. Unless we find a way to borrow electronic books. Publishers would like to charge libraries hundreds of times the price of a regular book, since it'll get read multiple times. But they're just getting greedy.

Honestly, the problem with electronic media with locks on is that corporations get greedy instead of thinking of how best to create an experience that gets customers coming back. Hopefully Barnes & Noble's ebook reader will crack this nut, by letting us share books with each other without charging extra for the privilege.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Copyright treaty is classified

The latest international copyright treaty is classified. Making it a federal crime to read it.

Man, that does make it hard to ensure that our rights are protected. Or make sure that corporations aren't taking too much for themselves.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


You have to wonder about the motivation of the scientists who did this one. Did they survey any men at all? Seems like we gossip, too.

Allegedly, women tell secrets in 2 days or less. I think that result is plausible, but I doubt there's anything special about women.

And this definitely goes in the "sure glad we cured cancer and war so we have time for stupid stuff like this" file.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fake engine noise for hybrid cars?

It's nice that hybrid car designers aren't limiting themselves to fake engine noise. It would be sad if they made electric cars make the sound of a gasoline car just so people won't get surprised.

But I have some sympathy for the people who say the drivers shouldn't hit people. It's not the pedestrian's responsibility to not get hit. If you're driving an electric car, don't run folks over.

Yet, while I'm biking, I want to hear people coming and passing me and not be surprised.

If only honking didn't mean anger here. In China, it just means "Hi, I'm here. Don't hit me!" When I bike and pass another cyclist who's slower, I ring my bell or call out to let them know I'm coming. Hybrid car drivers could use a honk or chime to tell people that they're present. Heck, it'd be great to be able to make a variety of sounds instead of just the honk - to be able to communicate more complexly about your intentions.

So, car makers, give us lots of noise options. Give me the ability to "honk" in ways that tell people the difference between "pardon me" and "go to hell". And let me have ringtones for my car. I want my car horn to be anything I want it to be. Heck, you can charge us $2 per sound, and create a whole new revenue stream.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Another chemistry video

This one's brilliant. Although it does anthropomorphize the various elements. But it's hilarious to chemistry nerds.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Chemistry videos

The makers of the PCR song have now come out with a wonderful new sequel: GTCA.

The PCR song, which has been stuck in my head for a week. Who's your daddy?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Smoking bans save lives

There's more data in to confirm that banning smoking saves lives. Banning smoking in public places - hotels, restaurants, bars - has resulted in fewer deaths from heart attacks.

I was a little surprised that the effect would happen so quickly, and be so measurable. But it's there. Secondhand smoke really is that bad for you. Penn Gillette, you were wrong.

I think the proposed ban on smoking in outdoor parks in Hillsboro may be a little much. Then again, we've managed to pollute the Earth pretty badly - it could be that even outdoor secondhand smoke can be harmful.

But it's clear that smoke-filled rooms were hazardous to everyone's health. I'm glad we've made some progress.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

ASCAP are jerks, and the court agrees

Thank goodness a judge decided that a phone ringing is not a concert. The fools at ASCAP sued phone companies, claiming that phones ringing by playing clips of songs was a public performance. This, in spite of the fact that they GOT PAID for the rights to those clips.

Man. ASCAP has been slamming a local theatre I work with, too. They're completely unreasonable in their demands, wanting more money for the same privileges, just because they can ask for it. Thank goodness they got slapped in court. It's about time. Artists deserve to get compensated for their work, but the system is bent way too far out of balance.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Take away Congress' health care?

While I support the cute concept, I think Nicholas Kristof overlooks an important detail in suggesting that Congress should lose its health care.

Yes, while 60 percent of Americans want Medicare for All, Congress is much more hesitant about any sort of reform. But if you took away their medical benefits, they'd all just go buy some health insurance. They're all millionaires.

Which is really the root of the problem. The rich buy power, and the rich medical companies are no exception. The reform process is corrupted by insurance money, and the change we need will be horribly watered down.

We need publicly financed election campaigns. And fully transparent political lobbying funding. The First Amendment guarantees the right to lobby, but we need to make that process as transparent and embarassing as possible.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Technology causing bad parenting

I know that TV has enabled bad parenting. I suspect radio did, too.

I think there have always been neglectful, inattentive parents, and it's just a question of how current technology affects the shape of modern parenthood, both good and bad. But it's still interesting to read about parents ignoring children to talk on cell phones, or text or tweet or whatever.

I just visited with a family that consciously chooses to eschew technology and focus on playing acoustical music and card games and read books with their children. The broad strokes of society are not changing. Bad parents just have new ways to be bad parents.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Media doesn't have that much power

A day after Thomas Friedman warned that the right wing crazies are creating a violent, dangerous climate, David Brooks argues that talk radio doesn't wield true power. He points out that when they tell people to actually vote for or against stuff, they have no effect. Beck, O'Reilly, even Limbaugh: when they told their listeners to get out and vote for Mitt Romney, they ignored the radio hosts and voted for Huckabee or McCain.

I think the massive "tea bag" events point out a gap between Brooks' case and reality, but it's reassuring to note that while a fringe is very loud, they are not changing minds. Just making life unpleasant for everyone else.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Google Groups suggests Google Books might not be great

Google wants to scan all the out of print books and save them from becoming the next lost library of Alexandria.

Unfortunately, last time they rescued an archive from the flames, it didn't go so well. Their storing of all the USENET archives in Google Groups has made the archive unsearchable.

There are lots of flaws in the Google Books plan. This is an example of why we shouldn't trust Google to just get it right, but make sure they're contractually obligated to.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Holy crap, I'm selling my house

After one day on the market, I accepted an offer on my home.

Holy crap. That's insanely fast. My neighbors have had homes for sale for months, even up to a year.

The standard offer/inspection/close cycle takes a month, but I could be moving that soon! Wow.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I have to tell you if I get free stuff

Apparently corporations are paying for people to shill crap on blogs. And giving lots of free stuff to bloggers. So soon, bloggers will have to reveal conflicts of interest. Tell you if the product they're reviewing was given to them for free, or if the corporation paid them to review it.

I wish they were paying me. I think it's good that blogging is maturing to the point that people are needing to develop ethical standards. I just wish more than 4 people read this blog, so I could make money selling ads and get free stuff.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Artificial heart with no pulse

A woman in Singapore has been implanted with an artificial heart that doesn't pulse. It just generates a continuous pressurized flow of blood.

When you think about it, why would you make an artificial heart pulse? It's easier to engineer a pump that operates continuously than one that stops and starts constantly. I suppose there are limits to how the blood vessels of the body can handle it, and I wonder how the body will react to the very unnatural blood flow this pump will create.

But I'm surprised it hasn't been done until now.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Politics is getting REALLY ugly

I knew that politics was in a rough phase. I knew that campaign funding had led to corruption. I knew that gerrymandering and the destruction of the middle class was leading to an erosion of moderates in politics, creating extremists who are unwilling to compromise and propose no solutions, only criticism.

But the attacks on the President have gone way out of bounds. The ridiculous birther bullshit and other attacks on the legitimacy of his presidency have given rise to presidential death threats. And these are way more serious than nonexistent death panels.

When people use racism to attack the president, and compare him to Hitler, it cultivates the extreme crazies out there and puts his life in danger. I didn't know that, at least not consciously. But now I do. And it makes me sad and angry.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Graphic Novel about math

I'm kind of curious to read Logicomix. It's a graphic novel about mathematicians arguing about the philosophy of math, and whether logic exists and can be useful in the real world.

And most of them are crazy. Which you always kind of suspected about really brilliant mathematicians.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Republicans' insane anger

I've felt for quite a while that the Republican party and Fox News were unreasonably, cutthroat anger and fear mongers. Bob Cesca explains it all.

He compares the insane protests now to the protesters during the Bush administration. I'm sure there are some crazy left-wingers he leaves out, but it's a compelling case. On the one side, people compare a president to Hitler for an unnecessary war on false pretenses that includes torture. On the other, people compare a president to Hitler for suggesting we have national healthcare. And for being born in Kenya, which he wasn't.

I'm hoping that the endless negative shouting of anger is as obvious to everyone else. They have nothing to offer. The best argument Fox has about healthcare is that we have the best system in the world. Except that we don't. We are no healthier than anywhere else, and we pay more for the same results.

One does hope that the Democratic majority in Congress and the election of President Obama are indicators that we stopped buying the BS. But that doesn't mean it's over. We will always be struggling to get stuff done while angry people try to drag us down. Hopefully we can get the economy going and get some effective health reform to remind people that good government actually does make their lives better.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I hate tile.

In the last month, I have come to hate tile and grout. My respect for tileworkers and their brother the bricklayer has grown immensely. I see why the Masons are a mysterious and powerful organization. The amount of talent, knowledge and experience it takes to work with cement is huge.

Nothing I seem to do makes my new grout work. However I mix it, it dries into a crappy powder that doesn't do the job. If you use too much water, grout fails. If you use too little water, it fails. If the surface is too wet, it fails. If it's not wet enough, it fails. That, or Home Depot sells crappy grout.

The first time I was prepared to accept user error. The second time, I was disappointed, but willing to accept that I don't know what I'm doing. But now I'm just done. I wish we'd never started this project to begin with. (Which I wanted to do.) Trying to make our house prettier and better for sale has totally backfired and blown up in our faces. We should have just left the old tile the way it was and let the new owner deal with it if they wanted.

Good thing my wife never reads my blog.

Update: Home Depot does not sell crappy grout. I was just REALLY bad at mixing it. We have finally successfully put in new grout on most of our countertops. But God, that took too long.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Text to Speech

There were a few stories recently about how computers have made assistive technology much, much cheaper lately. Computers have reached the point that it's cheap to produce software that speaks words in a human voice.

Which raises some problems, because medical insurance is supposed to pay for medical devices, but doesn't want to buy a laptop. But now you can get a laptop for $800 that will do the same job - talking for you when you can't - that otherwise takes a $3000 piece of equipment.

I hope they figure it out. Seems a no brainer to me to use the lower cost equipment if it does the job well. New technology can really change the playing field.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wolfenstein banned in Germany

There's a new video game out called Wolfenstein. It's a sequel to one of the first "3D" first-person shooters. It involves slaughtering lots of Nazis. It's very bloody.

The publisher wanted to release it in Germany, but there are a lot of things you can't put in a videogame in Germany. A lot of things.

You can see the differences between the German edition and the main edition, and they are many. Nazi symbols, blood, and more Nazi symbols. Not just swastikas, but a lot of other things. They put a LOT of work into modifying the game for the German market.

Unfortunately (I think...) they missed a few swastikas, and had to recall the game in Germany.

I don't want to play this game particularly - it looks really violent. But I am impressed by the amount of work it takes to make a game publishable in Germany, and that gives me respect for the industry workers. (And makes me think they truly intended to comply with the rules and just fell short, rather than trying to cheat.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

District 9 banned in Nigeria

Because it portrays Nigerians in a very racist light, the movie District 9 has been banned in Nigeria.

It's ironic that an otherwise excellent allegory about racism and apartheid simultaneously uses such racist stereotypes as lawless mercenary warlords who eat the flesh of powerful people to obtain their power.

The Nigerians have a point. The African characters in the movie are all stereotypes. But I wonder if banning the movie does any good. Censorship doesn't seem to me to be a good solution to anything. I'd show the movie and stage massive protests. But then I'm not being depicted as being brutal and violent - oh, wait. I am.

Friday, September 25, 2009

More House Seats?

Should the House of Representatives be larger? Some suggest that because there are wide discrepancies between the size of House districts, and because it's impossible for representatives to really hear from all their constituents, that we should add hundreds of seat to the House.

I'm not so sure. It seems to me that the problem with the House these days is safe seats and extreme ideology. We should find ways to redistrict that create lots of moderate seats. And ways to change campaign financing (public financing and massively public disclosure of independent group funding) so that the Representatives' corporate ties are weakened or at least laid bare.

I do get that if we add lots of seats to Congress, most of them would be in blue states. Montana and Wyoming would still only have one seat, but California would get a bunch more. But I don't know that would be a good thing. There would be a bunch of extremely liberal districts, with Representatives-for-life, who would never be willing to compromise on anything.

Our country has had many periods of fierce partisan rancor, with intense dirty politics. We are not that special. But I don't think we should build a system that makes it even worse.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

T-mobile sucks less

After massive consumer outrage, T-Mobile reversed a decision to charge for all paper bills.

I look forward to seeing what future decision they reach. I'm sure it will involve some sort of fee. But hopefully the massive consumer backlash they received will make them create an incentive instead of a punishment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vegetative people can "learn"

Scientists played annoying sounds and blew air on people in vegetative states, and found that they can "learn" to respond to stimuli. You can condition a person in a vegetative state. That's a pretty low level of learning. A fish can learn that food comes when I tap on the glass. And a flower can "learn" that I play music just before I set it on fire.

But I worry that this result will be misinterpreted by people who want to claim that a vegetative person is still conscious and aware. Evidence that you can condition behaviour in a person doesn't show they understand anything except for pain and discomfort. And "understanding" pain enough to move away from it doesn't take much. I expect I could successfully reproduce these results in worms.

If someone has a brain injury or infection that leaves them in this condition, it's tragic. But we shouldn't give families false hope about unlocking the person inside if there's nobody home.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Kenya Birth Certificate Generator

Some jerk photoshopped a fake Kenya birth certificate for President Obama.

But you don't have to be president to have a fake Kenyan birth certificate! You can make your own, using the Kenyan Birth Certificate Generator. Hours of fun for the whole family!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Billions and billions of dollars

I don't want to post the picture, because that would be stealing. But David McCandless made a beautiful illustration of how big different billion dollar costs are.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Metaphors for medicine

Some people like to compare healthcare to food, when talking about economics. I'm fond of the school metaphor. Both are interesting to me - imagining if other systems ran like the current medical system. Or if medicine ran like them.

If medicine were like school, everyone would get a basic level of service provided for free. You could spend your own money on extras, but the necessary basics would be provided. And in Oregon at least, when the economy sours and tax revenue is down, services would be cut. I don't know what the medical equivalent of art and sports is, but that's the "rationing" that some fear. I have to point out that medical care is rationed now - my health insurance rejects various prescriptions on a regular basis, demanding that we try a cheaper generic first.

The food metaphor is interesting - if groceries were like health care, our employers would pay most of the cost of "food insurance", and whenever we went to the store we could get whatever foods we wanted, and it would always cost $20. That would give me an incentive to buy more expensive foods rather than making do with generics or doing without delicious Brie.

But the metaphor has a problem - I have more information about food than I do about health. If I get a rash, or feel ill, I don't have the knowledge to tell the difference between a deadly disease and a random irritant. If I have a growth appear on my arm, I'm not equipped to make the best decision about how to spend money to treat it. It could be cancer, or it could be a harmless mole. But I'm not a doctor. If I pay out of pocket the full price of all my medical expenses (as I do with food), then I might not get that mole looked at because I think it's not worth it. And what could have been treated cheaply now will cost much much more later.

Not to mention the impact food has on our health and the cost of healthcare. I think the people who fear government regulating food to make it be more healthy are right that it's going to happen. I just don't think it's a bad thing. We should know how many calories are in a burger, so we might actually eat food that's good for us.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hair-based solar panels

I'm not convinced that the story is true, or that the product is viable, but a young man claims to have built a solar panel made out of hair. Using a waste product instead of expensive silicon, it allegedly would make solar power much cheaper.

I hope it's true and we all put mats of hair on our roof to power our homes in the years to come.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

College fail

I was surprised to find out that at a great many of our colleges and universities, about half the students fail to graduate. That's amazing.

At that rate, I think you can't just say that all those students earned those failures. While grade inflation is real, and we do need accountability for failure in our society, if half the students aren't graduating, something's wrong. You shouldn't be admitting those students in the first place.

But universities don't necessarily care about students' success - they care about their tuition checks. So admitting more students means more revenue. And, as the article I linked to points out, freshman lectures with hundreds of students are cheaper than upper level classes.

I knew our education system had problems. But I didn't know it was this bad in places.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Silly MTA. You can't copyright data

The MTA in New York is suing a guy for posting train timetables on the iPhone. Stupid. Sure, they want to control their data, and their marketing VP wants to control how people learn about the glories of the MTA.

But copyright law is clear on this. You can't copyright a table of data. You can only copyright expressions that require some scintilla of human creativity. The phone book? Not copyrightable. A list of the planets and their physical specifications? Not copyrightable. World almanacs and the CRC handbook are profitable only because it would be a huge pain to type them up and expensive to print your own. And because the almanac companies have a reputation for accuracy.

Suck it, MTA. Unless your trains and stations have artistic names like "Cornflower" and "Apple Blossom", telling a haiku poem about spring as you go down the line, your timetable is public domain.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Stephen Fry is smart and funny

In addition to being a great book-on-tape reader and a hilarious comic actor, Stephen Fry is a technology nerd. And he gave a talk recently about how he illegally downloads material off the internet all the time.

He didn't say illegally downloading was completely ok, but that it's something everyone does, and the recording industry's tactics of suing its customers is stupid. People are downloading illegally because it's not easy for them to find what they want legally. When it's easy to buy what we want and the product is reasonably priced, people are mostly going to do the right thing.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Meetings and schedules

A guy posted an essay making an interesting distinction between makers and managers. Managers are always in meetings. Their days are divided into 1-hour chunks, and they schedule meetings at available times.

If they need to meet with you, and you're available when they're available, it's a good idea to meet.

Except some people who do work creating things need to concentrate. The creative enterprise can take a few hours to get going, and an interruption can throw off several hours of concentration.

Paul Graham's solution? Set aside a couple days a week for meeting-free productivity. Block out the time and get stuff done. And plan on other days being the day of meetings. Fill it full of talking, and accept that unless you're a hermit working at a forge in the woods, you need other people for your work to be successful.

Monday, August 31, 2009

1984 a reality?

The British Government is planning to install CCTV cameras in people's homes. So that government workers can monitor the citizens and stop undesired behaviour. Although it's not as completely evil as it sounds at first blush.

The government isn't putting cameras in private residences, but making families who are abusive or neglectful live in government compounds with surveillance and supervision. Still authoritarian, but not quite a plot point from Orwell.

Still, holy crap. And this is proposed by a Labour government.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Google image search includes rights

I don't know how long this has been going on, but it's awesome. When using advanced Google Image Search, you can search for images that are legal to use. Now you can choose to not steal!

Creative Commons had a search tool to comb flickr legally already. And Wikimedia Commons is a great repository of images that are legal to use. But I'm delighted that Google has gotten into the game, too.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why did the Segway fail?

Why was the Segway such a colossal failure? While I think it's because the inventor was used to the medical market and built a product that costs way more than it's worth, Paul Graham has another idea. He thinks it's because the Segway looks too easy.

Segway riders glide effortlessly along the road. If they were positioned in a pose that looked like it was work, and the machine looked like it takes skill to ride, people wouldn't lash out at it as slothful.

He gives some pretty convincing examples.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Carbon eating cement

I didn't know this, but cement creates a lot of CO2. Cement is just about as bad for global warming as cow farts. Which is actually quite bad. Not everyone-in-China-driving-an-SUV bad, but bad.

Which is why cement that absorbs carbon dioxide is so cool. By changing the chemical reactions that make the cement strong, scientists have developed a new form of cement that makes the world a better place instead of a worse one.

Yay, science!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

DRM is bad news

Wal-Mart and others sold music with DRM - copyright protection software that kept you from copying the music. It logged into corporate servers regularly.

Then they got tired of paying to operate those servers. So they shut them down. And all that music you paid for and bought? Gone.

The corporate response? Too bad. What, you thought when you bought that album you'd be able to listen to it forever? For more than 4 years, even? That's ridiculous, the RIAA says. You should be paying us a toll every year to listen to our products, because we can't figure out a way to sell you music that makes enough money for us.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A wedding story

You think you know how this marriage story goes. After years of marriage, man comes to woman and says he's leaving, doesn't love her anymore, never did.

But what happens next is amazing and surprising.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bike law

So, on the heels of an awesome bike video, an article makes me want to write about how bikes are treated legally.

Traffic law does need to require bike riders to behave responsibly. We should be allowed to use the road, but we also should be required to obey signs and signals.

But the idea, often floated, of requiring bikes to pay for road-building? Doesn't make sense. We require people to pay vehicle registration fees because a truck does damage to the roads. Over time, we need to maintain the road surface and those fees compensate. Gas taxes are even more fair because you pay based on how much road you use.

But bikes do no damage to the road surface - they weigh far too little. We don't require pedestrians to pay a license to be allowed to walk on the sidewalk; we figure out how to maintain a decent surface by paying for it other ways. Oregon's existing funding system of devoting 1% of all road funding to bike projects is a great way to go: the infrastructure gets built with funding generated by people that use it, and a fringe is created for biking.

Monday, August 24, 2009


My favorite part about this very Portlandy biking video is the backup dancers. I think they're a great cross between music video culture and bike culture.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

District 9

I saw District 9 last week. It's a very good movie. A very violent, good movie.

It's about aliens who land in South Africa. But it's really about apartheid. The humans treat the aliens with the same racist contempt that whites treat Africans. And the parallels between the apartheid history and the movie plot are many. But being about aliens you can tell the story without fear of being too honest. And you can use fantasy technology to find a different way out of the problem than is possible in real life.

It's interesting how in the movie the humans keep the aliens oppressed, even though the aliens have superior technology. But their technology is all broken down, or the humans take all their weapons away from them. Of course, this parallels the Colonial experience: so long as you have superior weaponry, you can control the natives, but there's a constant fear that they will rise up and overthrow and take control themselves.

District 9 based on a 6 minute short film with the same premise, but doesn't explore the themes in the same way. It's called "Alive in Joburg".

Saturday, August 22, 2009

First Person shooter with real guns

With a few motion sensors, you can make a first-person shooter that uses real guns.

Or shovels.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Godwin's law

Are we really surprised that people are comparing Obama to Hitler?

I guess it's pretty cynical, but these days with people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh willing to advance the most insane allegations, it's not surprising that ridiculous over the top allegations are being made.

Although when you think about it, it's ridiculous. If Obama was Hitlerian, all the people who are yelling about how bad he is would be in jail. Or worse.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Star Wars makes no sense

John Scalzi wrote recently about flaws in the Star Wars universe.

I enjoyed his list very much. Until he said he's coming for Star Trek next.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Microsoft Word violates patent?

A court in Texas has banned Microsoft from selling Word there. Allegedly Word violates a patent. This seems unlikely to hold up to much scrutiny. This judicial district is known to be the place to go to sue giant corporations for violating stupid patents. I think, and indeed hope, that this patent will be thrown out as obvious, and Microsoft will be allowed to continue to make giant tons of money.

I'm no fan of Microsoft overcharging and invading markets. But the patent system is broken, letting people hijack truly creative work and claim it as their own. In this case in particular, if the random company that holds this patent wins, then the XML standard is dead. Instead of having a standard format for documents we can all send to each other, they'd want a fee every time you save a file. Which none of us would pay - we'd just go back to having to pay attention to file formats. Until XML 2 comes along.

The patent office needs 3 times the funding they have, so they can reject stupid crap like this to begin with. And the patent and copyright law needs to be changed so that you actually have to invent something to patent it, not just wave your hands in the air and describe something cool. Makes me want to patent "method for delivering chemical for cancer treatment" and then sue the crap out of the drug companies.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Using Games to balance your brain

Some guy on the internet had an interesting insight: some of us use games to keep our brain load balanced. When life is full of mental challenges, those of us who like games play games with simple rules as a distraction. When the complexity of life goes down, we play much more complicated games.

I can say this is true of me lately. For most of the past year, my life was full. I played simple games on the computer, seeking escape from the hard work of life. But I've had a break in the past few months, and I dusted off my copy of FreeCiv and have been fascinated by the complexity. I think in another month the pendulum will swing back the other way.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Kindle deletion aftermath

So, Amazon deleted copies of books that people had bought. That's a creepy amount of power for a corporation to have, even if they refunded the money.

But of course, they're being sued because the deletion made a kid's homework notes useless.

Never mind that this kid is clearly ridiculously wealthy, it's good to get corporate power under control before everyone is using the technology.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Take Back the Beep

David Pogue has an excellent post at the NY Times about how cell phone companies rob us with their instructions on how to leave a message.

The cell phone companies want to make as much money as possible. That's why text messages that cost them a hundredth of a cent to cent cost us 20 cents. (And 20 cents to the person you send it to!) So of course, they put a 15 second message on your voicemail before the beep, on the off chance that the person leaving a message is a customer, and they can charge them for the airtime. Even if I record my own outgoing message, theirs is there and I can't turn it off.

And of course you can't press the same button on every system to skip the message.

So: Pogue calls us to revolution. Complain. Complain to the phone companies about the ridiculous practice of adding instructions on how to leave a message. Here's where to complain:

* Verizon: Post a complaint here:

* AT&T: Send e-mail to Mark Siegel, executive director of media relations:

* Sprint: Post a complaint here:

* T-Mobile: Post a complaint here:

Friday, July 31, 2009

Healthcare Reform

There are a lot of people talking about healthcare reform. New York Times columnists, Nobel Prize winning economists, Nobel economists arguing with conservatives... I'm a fan of the speech former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber gives about healthcare, comparing it to public education and the trade-offs we face in that domain.

I find these discussions interesting. All the people I listen to make sense. And yet the politicians seem to ignore all these sensible ideas. I think it's clear that the insurance industry would rather not die, and is spending a lot of money lobbying congress to make sure it can continue leeching off us.

The insane out there will argue that free markets lead to efficiency. But the function of supply and demand doesn't work in health care. There's infinite demand. I want to be healthy, and I'll spend lots of money on it rather than be sick or die.
The incentives in the system now are for profit, not health. They need to be changed so that long-term prevention is rewarded more than expensive surgeries.

And the system isn't fair. Some people get better benefits than others from their jobs. And insurance companies can kick people out of plans for getting sick. That's evil.
The only way it's going to work is if we all pool our resources to take care of everybody. That means young healthy people paying into a system they don't use. And that does mean not paying for expensive things that don't improve health much.

The schools metaphor makes a lot of sense to me. Like the schools, we have public funding for a certain baseline education. Everyone pays for it, whether they have kids or not. (Everyone was entitled to an education when they were young, too.) Some luxuries aren't part of the system. If you're rich, you can go to a thriving private marketplace and get those extras.

Healthcare should be the same way. Because then we could give people pills and plans instead of expensive emergency room visits and hospital stays. Because we spend twice as much as other countries and we're less healthy.

I'm hopeful that Congress will make a change. And that it will make it better. I doubt it will be the best it could be, but hopefully we'll take some steps in a forward direction.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

God vs. Science

I've been thinking a lot about religion versus science lately (I'm actually writing a sermon for my church about it,) so I was interested in comments about a Presidential science appointment. The future head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins.

Collins has interesting views about God and science. He believes in science, but also in God. To paraphrase, "Evolution is a glove on the hand of God." He believes in the Creator creating the universe and designing the laws of nature, and then ceasing involvement. It's a pretty elegant solution.

Except. When it comes to the human mind and moral intuition, Collins thinks God came in from her extra-dimensional home and gave us a soul, once we evolved naturally to the point that we could sustain intelligence and such. And he believes that we can't ever discover the source of our consciousness or our ethics scientifically.

As scared as I am that we'll eventually find that our minds are just big machines and that consciousness is a wonderfully pleasing illusion, I can't accept the Intelligent Design idea that the mind is irreducible. It smacks of the roman patent clerk thousands of years ago who said that everything that can be invented has been.

I think there are things that are unprovable. The existence of God or an afterlife are concepts beyond science. I think ethics is a subject where science cannot be helpful. But when it comes to the relationship of the mind and brain, it is premature to say that science has reached its limit and that God has all ownership.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Transparent aluminum

Scientists have created transparent aluminum by using a laser to remove electrons.

Sadly, this doesn't live up to Star Trek expectations. The "transparent" aluminum is only transparent to UV radiation, not visible light. It's still an awesome trick, and I'm sure it's scientifically useful. But I can't see humpback whales through it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Suck it, Blackboard

Blackboard is a company that sells very expensive, hard to use software for online course management. They sued their competitors for patent violation. Blackboard lost - the court says their patent is invalid.

I think my glee at their loss is mostly because their product has many flaws. I'm sure I'd struggle to make something that worked half as well, but I'm not a giant corporation suing people for doing something obvious.

Monday, July 27, 2009

This blog post will self destruct in 10 years

There's new computer software that lets emails self-destruct after a period of time. It involves encryption that gets lost, so that eventually no one can find the key to unlock the message.

That's really clever.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Moveable Feast 2: Grandma's not that bad

Chip Hemingway, or whatever Ernest's nephew's name is, has decided to publish a new edition of A Moveable Feast with changes to the text to make his grandma seem nicer.

That's evil. And what's most evil is that he's supposed to protect his uncle's copyright. Someone should sue him to not print an altered version of the book. But the person who has the authority to sue? Him.

Particularly in the age of blog comments, he should just suck it up. If he doesn't like what Ernest Hemingway wrote about his grandma, he should write his own book about how great a lady she was. Changing a book someone else wrote? Deeply wrong.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hydrogen Pee!

Scientists have discovered it's easier to make hydrogen from pee than from water. Well, from urea, which is the main component of pee, and has other industrial/agricultural uses.

This could mean that in the not too distant future we'll have pee-powered cars.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Technology and Teaching

Southern Methodist University is removing computers from classrooms and telling professors to stop using Powerpoint.

The thing is, while I appreciate the effort of trying to make teaching more effective, a broad-based mandate like this doesn't address the true problem. The real solution is: don't be boring. You can use powerpoint to enhance a great presentation, and you can be boring as hell with no slides at all.

Yes, people often get sucked into the powerpoint template and giving bad presentations. But good teaching really comes down to charisma and enthusiasm, not any particular tool.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fast Food Mafia

I particularly like how evil Ronald looks. And how the Colonel doesn't need any modification to be totally badass.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

0118 999 881 999 119 725 3

Not sure you can remember the number that's replacing 911? Then you should watch the Public Service Announcement for the new emergency number.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Amazon deletes books off the Kindle

Electronic books are just as good as regular books, they say. Only it's more convenient to read, because you can carry thousands of books in your hand, and you can turn pages with the click of a button.

Yeah. Right.

Amazon deleted books off people's Kindles. Books they had paid for. Amazon says they were published in the online store by someone who didn't have the rights to do that. They should take better care to make that not happen.

But more importantly, if they can decide you shouldn't have something you bought, and delete it from your device, they have a lot more power over you than in the old kind of book purchase. I might be willing to accept that I can't lend a copy of a book to a friend in a new world order. But the idea that my access to the things I've bought (music, books, movies) is subject to a single corporation's whim? That's not worth it to me.

Which is exactly what Orwell was warning about in 1984 and Animal Farm. Which are the two books that Amazon deleted. Natch.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Nano makes LED lights super-duper efficient

LEDs are already a really efficient light source, turning electricity directly into light without making much waste heat.

Now LEDs could be 75% more efficient, thanks to using some nanoparticles that do very weird things with light. Plasmon resonance is a crazy weird new physics thing that has awesome applications, which I barely understand (and I suspect most physicists barely understand).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Quadrillion dollar errors

Not only are there people buying coffee getting billed for WAY too much money, but it turns out the amount they're getting charged reveals the error.

The number, if converted into hexadecimal, reveals that lots of spaces were used as blanks instead of zeros. When converted into dollar amounts, those "blank" spaces have enormous value.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lawyer Fail

A lawyer bragged on TV that he would give a million dollars to anyone who could prove his client COULD have committed the crimes he was accused of.

Then a guy did. On video tape. Oops.

Even if he doesn't have to pay a million dollars, now there's video tape evidence undermining his case. Oops.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Backups are especially important when travelling internationally

Customs agents are pretty much able to demand to confiscate your laptop computer and copy all the data. You could encrypt it, but then they'll demand a password. How can you protect yourself?

Block your data from yourself. Make it so your spouse or priest or doctor can unlock your computer, but you can't.

Clever strategy. I wish I had information that mattered enough to me that it was worth that much protection.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


How to be cool? Blog about stuff that nobody's blogging about.

How do I know this? I read an article. Hopefully nobody else read that article yet, and I'm cool.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The future of journalism

As people try to figure out how to fund journalism going forward, some are suggesting placing limits on free speech.

While I value journalism for keeping those in power honest and revealing abuses of power, I think putting a limit on free speech like banning paraphrasing news accounts or linking to articles on news sites is way too far to go. There has to be a way to fund journalism without making it illegal for me to muse about an event for 24 hours. That sort of restriction could be used for evil way too easily.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Man feeds us crap, and we like it

I read a disturbing account of how food companies manipulate us. I guess there's not a lot in the story that's new, but it's still amazing how pliable we are to a few simple sensory cues, and how hard it is to resist temptations.

It's frustrating to me that people are able to make such huge amounts of money exploiting our weaknesses.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hearing and Memory

Interesting fact about memory and sound: if you see one thing and hear another, your memory takes the evidence you hear over the evidence you see. You believe what you hear before you believe what you see.

Oh, memory. Such a beautiful illusion.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Anti-papparazzi handbag

If I were a celebrity, I would get one of these. A handbag that contains a bright light, that only flashes if it sees a camera flash. Ruins any photographs taken of you.

I wish he had a photo of what it looks like when not shining a bright light. Could be it's a hideous piece of electronics and duct tape, ready to be manufactured in a casing more suitable for beautiful people.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Social Insecurity Numbers

As we've known for years, your Social Security Number is not a secure identifier.

Turns out the SSN is really not secure. I knew that different regions had different numbers allotted to them. I didn't know that if you knew a birthdate and place you could predict the number that precisely. Down to the actual number itself.

Honestly, I like the idea of just making the whole damn database public, so people stop using it as something secret. Because it's not.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gender Bias in Theatre

This story is a few weeks old, but it's still fascinating. A scholar studied why it's harder for women to succeed as playwrights. The results? Women literary directors. They judge plays by women more harshly than male literary directors.

In general, it turns out that women get plays produced at about the same rate that men do, but since women write fewer plays they get fewer produced. (They need wives to do chores for them while they spend the day writing.)

We'll see if knowing these facts will change anything, or just lead to lots of hand-wringing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Biking doesn't build bones

I knew that you needed to jump or have some other impact to build bone strength, but I didn't realize that bicycling can eat away your bones.

Turns out if you do heavy bike rides, the physical exertion drains the minerals from your bones. A high-calcium beverage can stave off the effects. But so can doing things that make your bones thicker, like jumping rope, running or weight training.

Yay, science!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kindle shafting writers

The Kindle's pretty cool. Thousands of books in your hand, wireless internet so you can get more.

However, Amazon is screwing writers. If you wrote something and sell it on the Kindle, the most you can get is 30 percent. Sure, Amazon has to pay for that wireless internet access somehow. But it seems ridiculous for newspapers to only get 30 percent of the revenue from the sale of their product.

I suppose that's a standard percentage for musicians from record companies, but that business model is imploding right now.

I'm glad the Kindle got invented. But between the copy restrictions and the closed platform, I'm glad there are other people working on similar devices. I'm sure an iPhone app to do a similar function isn't that far off. I'd like to see some competition in the electronic book marketplace.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Copyright on blog rants

Can you make copyright claims to a posting on somebody's Facebook wall?

See, this is an important question because a small-town newspaper printed somebody's online rant as a letter to the editor. Without asking permission.

I want to get my letters to the editor printed. But I submit them to the newspaper. It can't be right for papers to publish people's work without being given permission by the author. Hopefully the judge in the case will reach the right decision and stop editors from just copy-pasting stuff off the internet. Where I come from, that's plagiarism.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Twitter rumors

Oh, the truth. Your boots are way too difficult to wear. Lies have such a head start.

In the last week, not only were Jeff Goldblum and Harrison Ford the subjects of false death rumors, but Walter Cronkite had rumors swirling about his health.

Twitter is the new way to spread rumors we never knew we needed. I wish "journalists" would confirm reports before, you know, reporting them.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

ZIP Decode

This is pretty cool. A webpage that lets you see the physical regions of each zip code. Interesting patterns you can play with.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Google Books settlement under investigation

The Department of Justice is investigating the Google Books settlement for antitrust violations. This is good news.

Google reached a settlement with the association of publishers that would make it possible to make out of print books available electronically to everyone. That's good. However, it would grant Google the exclusive right to provide this service, and exclusive rights to the money from it. That's very bad.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

McClatchy vs. Daily Show

Here's the thing: The Daily Show sent a "reporter" to Iran to cover the elections. McClatchy Corp, owner of 32 daily newspapers, sent no one.

I can see that they couldn't afford to, and it's much easier to reprint whatever the New York Times produces. But this is exactly the sort of hole in reporting that I hope we figure out how to fill. Maybe the Huffington Post will eventually have a foreign correspondent doing reporting like this. But the Daily Show? Really?

My brain hurts.

Monday, June 29, 2009

ASCAP are huge jerks

Artists should get paid. But suing AT&T for ringtone performance fees? If the cell phone companies aren't properly reimbursing the holders of the rights of the music, that's one thing. But ASCAP has gone way off the rails in their insane copyright arguments about ringtones. Damn.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wikipedia wars

Now that we know about the group that banned Scientology members from editing Wikipedia, it's interesting to learn about the various other fierce internal wikipedia debates. Like the one about whether Lucky Charms is sold in Ireland. Or how significant it is that Bono plays the harmonica.

Thank you Internet. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to care and fight passionately about such tiny, tiny things. Thank you for making it easy to ignore torture and famine and war.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


And now, a story about testosterone, or the lack of it. Just as with This American Life's episode about testosterone, you kind of don't want the differences to be as stark as they are. You wish that the differences between women and men had more shades of gray, with exceptions to the rule. And they do exist. But they don't get their columns published in the New York Times or have stories on This American Life.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Anonymous Blogging - Ethical?

There's an interesting debate about anonymity going on right now. Two guys who disagree strenuously about politics were arguing, and the conservative unmasked the liberal who blogs under a pseudonym.

I was taught at [elite liberal-arts] College to take responsibility for my words. That writing without putting my name by it was dirty, and anonymity allows for the worst in people to lash out without consequence. Certainly on the internet it's easy for anonymity to allow the worst in people to come out.

But some are making good points about the distinction between pseudonyms and anonymous writing. You can hold a pseudonymous writer to account to a limited extent - you can form a long term opinion about a body of work, you can quote previous writings to refute current arguments. You can't put toilet paper in the tree outside their house, but that's possibly a good thing.

I don't put my full name on this blog because I'm easily stalkable. Hell, there's enough already here for you to figure out where I live, but I'm going to make you work for it. Am I ethical in trying for a little privacy? What if I used a completely fake name, like monkeydude?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Scientology banned from editing Wikipedia

You know, if you're so aggressive in defending your reputation that you constantly shout out opposing points of view, to the point that Wikipedia bans all members of your organization from editing, you might be a cult.

I wonder where Scientology will be 100 years from now. Will they mature into a fringe religion like the Mormons? Or will they be like Pythagoras' bean cult, popular in its time but a historical curiosity?

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Yesterday I posted a video of Hitler complaining that people are posting videos of Hitler online.

Now I read that Apple blocked an iPhone app for linking to a Hitler video. They did this, in fact, because the video at one point has a curse word on screen.

There's so much copyright awesome nerditude here. The video was made legally, which turns out to be quite difficult given the terms of the DMCA. And Apple banned the app because it linked to a video about banning, in which those who ban are personified by Hitler.

I think this might possibly be amusing. But it's so confusing, I'm not sure.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hitler is a Meme

Not everyone may find this funny, but I find the idea of altering subtitles to put words in Hitler's mouth hilarious. This video is one of hundreds out there.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Manual Labor

There's an essay about working with your hands in the New York Times. It's awesome. Not only does he extol the virtues of manual work, but he also makes a strong case about how our educational system is biased towards itself. All the educators went to university, and were taught by people who went to extra bonus university, and so the entire system is built around assuming that university is the best option for everyone all the time.

The fact is, there are a lot of people who don't need what college provides. They do need job training and skills. And our nation does need people who can read and write and do math well enough to not get cheated by credit card companies and car salesmen. But you don't need 4 years studying anthropology to do that.

I think that it's great that people who find studying anthropology inspiring can do that. But I think future plumbers are best served by a high school that equips them to be great plumbers, not prepares them well for the SAT.