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.