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.