Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ghettoizing the internet

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, technology, internet, privacy, polemics

Try this sometime, on a computer that you don't use for your banking or paying bills online (maybe at the public library...): Delete all cookies, go to a search web site of your choice and make a search. Then open the privacy window that lets you read all your cookies and see how many have appeared, all from a single action. There may be very few, or even none, but the top "cookie monster" that I've heard about so far was looking up "depression" on The harvest? 233 tracking cookies!

Another interesting experiment: Call a friend in the phone, then both of you do the same simple search on Google or Yahoo! or Bing, and tell each other what are the top ten hits. Also take note of how many hits there are (it will probably be in the millions). Or you can make a game of it. Collaborate with five or ten friends to do several searches, chosen beforehand, and see who can collect the most hits, or the fewest (these friends all have to be honest!). It is important that everyone do this from their own home, because search personalization depends on your location, and whether you are logged in or searching anonymously.

Why should there be such differences? That is the subject of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser. The book is a polemic, in the better sense of the word, exposing and decrying practices that disturb the author, and ought to be of concern to all of us. Yet it is not shrill. The 233 cookies example comes from page 6 of the book.

Just looking at my cookie collection, after a run by AdAware that removed a couple dozen tracking cookies, reveals nearly 260 domains that have cookies stored on my computer. Spot checking shows that my e-mail account server keeps 34 cookies;, where I do genealogical research, has 9; and my online bank keeps 8. Even this blog has one cookie stored there. It is safe to say there are at least a few thousand cookies on my computer, and for most of them I don't know whether I really need them.

Cookies are just the tip of the iceberg. Google stores everything we do through its web site, whether we are logged in or not. Google usually knows who we are even when we are not logged in. But our searching and clicking activities are aggregated into a great many categories that are said to be for purposes of "personalization": the company uses our preferences, as evidenced by what we look for and what we look at, to raise or lower the ranking of search results. The days of pure PageRank are long gone. The data about you that Google or Yahoo! or Bing or Amazon have gathered is stored on their own computers. I've even noticed that, when I finish a blog post and publish it, the next screen usually includes one or two ads that are pertinent to the blog post's subject (in case you didn't know, Blogger is a Google product).

What is the danger of personalization? How harmful can it be? That depends on the personality of each of us. I happen to be rather easy to influence when confronted by an authority figure. This is why I gave up live debating many years ago. It is also why I have learned to hang up quickly (even if it is rude) when a telemarketer or pollster calls. Sometimes I am kind enough to say, "No, sorry" before I hang up; sometimes not. Psst! Did you know that many "polls" over the telephone are actually attempts to influence the way you are likely to vote, or a product you might soon buy? Online marketers of both the commercial and political variety are experts at discerning the levers that influence what you will do next. They vary their approach by time of day, by the mood you seem to be in as seen in how you write, and the various profiles about you, such as your FaceBook account.

Here is a FaceBook experiment: Check your News feed, and sort it by time. Then go to the wall of someone with whom you almost never interact, and find something to "Like", or leave a comment or two. Return to News and see if that person's updates have magically appeared. Sometimes it takes leaving several tracks to get this to work. P.S. If you have more than 100 FaceBook friends, keeping up with all of them is quite arduous. Let's all suggest that FB make available a sorted list of interactions so we can figure out a few people to UnFriend.

In eight chapters, Pariser makes his case, that all this personalization has the effect of isolating us, with the technology that was supposed to make us more connected. I have often said that, if two people have all the same opinions, one of them is redundant. We need variety in our lives, but too much personalization removes a great source of variety. If you only see search results that square with your past interests, how will you ever develop new interests? How can we grow? Serendipity, and the matching of diverse topics, drive our creativity. Personalization is a great creativity killer.

The author and others, including the authors of this USA Today article, mention products like Ghostery, AdBlock Plus, TrackerBlock and Do Not Track Plus, as means to cut out part of the tracking. Nothing will eliminate it all. Thus the author suggests political solutions, legislative solutions, in his last two chapters. I am skeptical of the approach. Like dealing with a home invader at 3:00 AM, sometimes the 38 caliber "solution" is the only effective one; the police can only do something after a crime has been committed. Too late.

I have, instead, a suggestion that is in keeping with the way Google and other search sites already work. I suggest prefixes that influence the filters temporarily. I suppose you know if you put "define:jejune" in the search box, the first hit will be a definition. Google has other prefix words. Here are some it needs to add:
  • all or every: Results only filtered by the PageRank algorithm that got Google started in the first place.
  • serendipity or ser for short: Results deliberately scattered among topical interests.
  • anti: Results from an interest set that is the opposite of my own. If I'm liberal, a bunch of right-wing rants; if I'm literary, some scientific and engineering stuff; if I like rock music, some old Roy Rogers or folk music or swing; and so forth.
  • statistical or stat: Results based solely on Bayesian statistical ranking, defeating even PageRank.
I am sure some more could be determined. This would shine a light on just what personalized ranking is doing, and we could make better choices as a result.

The other political solution is a series of high-profile lawsuits. To avoid such suits, Google needs to provide a tool to show you what it has on you; FaceBook needs a tool to show you whom it is filtering in and filtering out of your News Feed; and the other aggregating companies out there need to make available to all of us the data that exist about us, and allow us to correct mistakes, of which there are billions I am sure. Otherwise, our entire history will dog us forever, not taking proper account of changes in marital status, religious conversions, or the change in lifestyle that would result from a sudden windfall or its converse, loss of occupational income. How ironic is it if the homeless woman using a library computer is besieged by ads based on her former status as a corporate VP?

The book's website has a "10 Things You Can Do" section that can help us all partially alleviate the effects of the Filter Bubble as it currently exists. On this last day of 2011, I wonder what the coming decade will bring?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Are royals obsolete?

kw: current events, royal families

My wife has been reading the online Japanese newspapers, and recently informed me of the controversies surrounding the succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan. There are miles of ink on this, nearly all of it in Japanese, but this Wikipedia Article is a good starting point for the English-language reader.

To put it briefly, Crown Prince Naruhito married a bit late, and his wife Masako was just twenty-nine and a half on their wedding day. Then it took eight years before they had a child, a girl who is now ten years old, Princess Toshi (Aiko). They have no other children. The prince's brother Akishino is second in line to the throne, and Akishino's five-year-old son is third in line. Aiko is presently out of the loop.

Controversy one: Discussions have been going on for years whether to allow Aiko to succeed to the throne after her father, effectively putting her second in line. The negative opinion of the current Prime Minister indicates there is little chance of a new law to that effect. It is said, but seldom printed, that the problem is the added support needed for a larger royal family into the future: money problems.

Controversy two: The failure of Crown Princess Masako to produce further children led to a nervous breakdown and several years of psychotherapy. Her father-in-law, the Emperor, has been less than supportive, such that she declined to visit him during a recent hospital stay of nineteen days. The Crown Prince and his family live on the palace compound, but in isolation. The little cousins apparently nearly never meet.

To be short about it, if these "royals" are genuinely noble, both Princes ought, upon the death of the Emperor, to abdicate and declare the Chrysanthemum Throne to be vacant forever. Let most of the royal properties become museums and other tourist attractions. The families will need national support for this generation, but succeeding generations would need to get a job.

On our walk today, my wife and I had a long talk along these lines. I have similar opinions about the royal families of Europe. It seems the only one that brings in enough tourist money to "pay for itself" is the British royal family of Queen Elizabeth. This is unlikely to continue much longer, unless Prince William turns into a real whiz-bang of a popular king a few decades from now. But in my opinion, history has left royalty behind.

And it is dangerous to have monarchical leaders. Most current governments are dictatorships, and the reason we hear little about most of those are that they are poor. Dictatorship equates with a poor economy. Republics and even socialist republics simply do better.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A bee and a catcher

kw: photographs, nature, bees, spider webs

Of the "nature photos" I took around the yard this year, these are my favorites. Click on either image for an 800x533 version. Both pictures were taken July 16, 2011.

I was a member of the Great Sunflower Project for a second summer this year. That means I spent 15 minutes at a time, a few times weekly, standing around waiting for bees to visit my sunflower blooms. Of course, when the nearby Hydrangea was in bloom, it got all the attention (it has nectar, and sunflowers don't). Among the visitors was this large bumblebee, and I got this great shot of it.

The same day that I took the picture of the bumblebee, I noticed this orb web attached to blackberry canes and fern stems, blocking my way to the faucet. I took several photos, including this one that shows the whole web in reflected sunlight. My best photo ever of an orb web. I waited until the next day to remove the web; didn't have the heart while it was still nearly perfect!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pixie dust

kw: musings, words, proverbs

On occasion my grandmother would say, "Everybody is a bit pixillated, except me and thee; and sometimes I think thee is also pixillated." She claimed it was an old Quaker saying, in which "pixillated", from "pixie", is a nice way of saying "crazy". Though she was a Methodist, her grandmother was a Quaker. She would say it to one of us boys who was being silly.

These days you can't repeat this saying and be understood. The word "pixelated" has been coined along with digital imagery, to mean "low resolution so the pixels show", or "deliberately exaggerated pixels" as in this image.

A pixel is nowhere near as wonderful a concept as a pixie. A perfectly beautiful word has been superseded by technology.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Nature calms my heart

kw: nature, astronomy, photographs

I suppose I ought to have a label for naked-eye astronomy. As dusk deepened into night this evening, my wife and I took a walk along and through a small patch of woods near our house. The Moon and Venus made a pretty pair as we got far enough from the trees to see them clearly. I was glad I had a camera with me.

You can just barely see "Old Moon in New Moon's arms", or earthshine off the Moon. In a darker sky it will be quite evident.

Just having the walk together makes us both feel good, and having a bit of relatively natural landscape nearby in which to walk is all the better.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christ finds an Amish heart

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, memoirs, christian faith, religion

Ira Wagler was not a bad boy; neither was he an exceptionally good boy. He was an ordinary boy. If he was different in any way, it was that his heart was larger than the box of his upbringing, and that he longed to believe, but not blindly or unthinkingly. He has something of the soul of a Renaissance man, a keenly inquiring mind, and it is hard to keep such a person bound to unthinking tradition for long.

In Ira's case, it was impossible. Born and raised Old Order Amish, the culture to which he became accustomed is one of the most traditional, conservative and restrictive that Western life has to offer. His Amish community was not the tightest of the tight, not quite. The Amish that moved to Aylmer, Ontario, his parents among them, were seeking to found a colony that would be more pure, more tradition-bound than where they had been. Curiously, there are Amish who think the Aylmer community is too "loose" and "worldly", and will not take the bread and wine of communion with them. I wonder what Ira's life would have been like among them. Likely even shorter than his 26 years among his family's church in Aylmer, and later in Bloomfield, Iowa, and still later in other places.

Ira's book Growing Up Amish: A Memoir is a chronicle that begins in Ira's seventeenth year, when he first left to live among "the English", and ends in his twenty-sixth year, when he left for the fourth and last time, no longer to be an Amishman. You could call it a "life and hard times" book, and it surely is. You could call it a Quest, and it surely was. I find it most akin to The Girl Nobody Loved by Dorie Van Stone or The Woman at the Well by Dale Evans. It is a story of a lost soul being watched over by a loving God, finally to find God in grateful acceptance of His sacrifice for sins and His grace to live in His presence.

The book also provides a much-needed window into the lifestyle and ways of the Amish, which are a great mystery to most Americans, even those who live among them. I confess, though I live just over an hour from the "Amish capitol" of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and buy produce from Amish people at a local farmer's market; even though I have sat and talked with a few now and then, I have known little but that they were an ultra-conservative splinter from the Anabaptists known as Mennonites.

Because of their ultra-traditional way of life, I find in the Amish an exaggerated reflection of the experiences of my own, quite conservative Christian congregation. Christian communities everywhere that attempt to maintain a standard of purity while surrounded by "people of lower standards" experience quite a bit of contrarian activity among their children as they grow towards adulthood. The impulse to test boundaries is built into the human character, as illustrated by the story of Adam and Eve in the garden: There was but one rule, and only one, to not eat the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Of course, Genesis 3 begins with Eve hanging around near that tree, wondering why. The serpent is simply allegorical; she needed no prompting other than her own (slightly) rebellious thoughts. How bad could "just a taste" really be, after all? The rest of the Bible provides the answer: tragically bad, but God has a way of redemption.

How do we keep the youngsters from "impurity" and "worldliness"? One way is to eschew contact with that world. The communal Hutterites try to do so. But in some parts of Western North America, there are lots of ex-Hutterites. The Amish at least engage with the English, trading with us, getting jobs among us (if you want a deck built quickly and well, hire an Amish crew. Just be sure to provide transportation!). In the same way, I know quite a few folks who formerly followed a church life such as mine, that they have now left, either for a different "Christian brand" (denomination) or for a non-church kind of Christianity.

An old 1960s byword says it well: Different strokes for different folks. Or the French proverb: Chacun à son goût – each to his own taste. As much as any portion the "body of Christ" may attempt to be all-inclusive, it is not possible. What is liberating to some is stifling to others. Some are quite bored with others' greatest and most precious experiences. And sometimes, when a religious husk has replaced spiritual experience with mindless adherence to tradition, only the most mindless and dull folk will tolerate it. This is what Ira found.

Curiously, although the Amish are considered a Christian sect, the name Jesus never appears in the book, and it is only in the closing chapters that the title Christ is used in a personal way. In 25 years among Amish folk in several localities, Ira Wagler never heard anything remotely close to the Christian Gospel of salvation by receiving Jesus Christ's sacrifice for our sins. He was confronted, again and again, thousands of times, with rigid demands to conform, to perform, to, effectively, save himself by his own efforts. The only time he heard the Christian Gospel was from a friend he calls Sam, whom he met in the last Amish community in which he dwelt. And Sam was not born Amish.

The Amish do not take converts. They prefer to outbreed everyone else (Ira has ten siblings). If a person insists on joining them, they make it hard, very hard, almost damnably hard. You have to learn their dialect of German, memorize tons of their prayers, and go through a process that strongly resembles hazing. It takes years, before one is considered eligible for baptism. Sam had done so. It is obvious that he knew Christ beforehand. He sure didn't attain Christian faith among the Indiana Amish he had joined.

He was exactly what Ira needed. Why did Ira leave, and then return, three times? Primarily, though he wanted greater freedom, he did not want to be a lost soul. He was convinced that only the Amish could be saved. One who left after being baptized was excommunicated, consigned to the Devil, and bound for Hell. During his third return, Ira went through a process almost as tough as Sam's had been, to be reinstated a "member" of the Amish church. Yet he still felt lost, until Sam showed him the way of God's forgiveness in Christ. Only once Ira knew Christ for himself, and knew that it is God who forgives and God alone, did he leave his Amish past behind, his heart at peace.

This does not mean that one must leave the Amish to be saved. Far from it. They do have the Bible, and they do read it, though there is no mention in Ira's experiences of Bible reading for oneself. The Bible alone can lead a person to God. But Ira's experiences limn for us most clearly the difference between faith and religion. He was raised in the bosom of one of the most restrictive and traditional religions found on American soil. It was primarily fear that drove him back to it again and again. Once he attained faith, he was free of religion. He could have remained an Amishman, but the scars were too deep for that. He is a man in Christ now. He lives in Lancaster, a Mennonite, but not an Amishman.

If the best books make us think deeply about ourselves and our experiences, this may just be the best book I have read all year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tangling with the wrong crowd

kw: book reviews, science fiction, future fiction, space aliens

Joe Haldeman, who achieved fame with his Forever War series, takes up quite a different tack with his recent Marsbound novels. Marsbound was followed by Starbound, and now by Earthbound. The novels are set some 200 years in our future.

In this third novel, the meaning of "bound" shifts. In the first two, humanity was bound for Mars, then for the stars. Here, they are bound to Earth. The Others, greatly superior beings from 25 light years away, were discovered to exist in the first novel, and contacted in the second. They have imposed limits on human expansion, first by blowing up the Moon into a planetary shroud. When the American president ordered a shielded rocket to launch anyway, the Others shut off the power—a source of "free energy" that had only recently revolutionized the global economies. Then they went further to prevent all electrical machinery from working. Electrochemistry seems to still work, so brains have not shut down!

The novel carries Carmen, the heroine of the first two novels, through a few weeks of adventures on a world of eight or nine billions suddenly thrust into the Nineteenth Century. Actually, for most people on Earth, I would not expect the loss of electricity to have much effect. They are still living in the Sixteenth Century. A lot depends on how far "Western" technology spreads in the 21st and early 22nd Centuries.

It is hard to say too much without giving the story away. As you might expect, in a total collapse of society, money becomes valueless, and the greatest worth is now placed on food and ammunition. Much of the excitement of the book is set in a few pitched gun battles, in which Carmen learns to shoot, perhaps to kill. The book ends with a transition, so the author has more novels planned. Why should he stop with a trilogy? The fashion these days is to go on for five to seven volumes. In particular, in the closing chapters it is not even certain just how advanced the Others are, and whether humanity can come to terms with them on any kind of useful basis. I'll stay tuned.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Strength in length

kw: computers, hacking, passwords

The time will come when, if you want to have a secure password, it will have to be something like

Now i$ the t1m3 4 all g00d men 2 c0m3 2D aid of th31r Cntry

or, if spaces remain disallowed,


Now that larger numbers of cyber criminals have turned from stealing data to stealing money from online banking systems, protecting online accounts is even more necessary. The most frequent attacks recently have been aimed at an institution's customer records. If your bank is any good, your password is not stored with your account, but a "hash", or encrypted version of the password. When you log in, your password is encrypted to a hash and compared with the hash on file. If a criminal obtains those online records, the password is difficult to extract from the hash…difficult but not impossible.

Suppose that, like many, your password is only six characters, all lower case, perhaps with a numeric digit or two included; a password like my1dog. Someone wishing to crack your record will start with letters-only, then letters plus one digit, and so forth. A six-letter lower-case password will be one of 266 possible strings, from aaaaaa to zzzzzz, a total of about 309 million possibilities. Let one letter be a digit, and the total becomes 428 million. Those sound like a lot. But the criminals in this billion-dollar industry aren't afraid to spend money on hardware, and a recent exploit by the system Deep Crack was able to test nearly 100 billion possibilities per second. Your password would be extracted within 0.004 seconds!

Of course, for some time, it has been required at most banking sites to use at least eight characters, and it is "suggested" that both lower case and upper case and digits be mixed. The possibilities then get more numerous, because 26+26+10 = 62, and 628 = 218 trillion. That's more like it! Let's see, 218 trillion divided by 100 billion = 2,180 seconds, or about 36 minutes. If someone wants those passwords bad enough, and has the equipment, the hard part is getting the banking records in the first place. That done, passwords can be extracted at the rate of forty per day of CPU time. That is still not very comforting. Eight is not enough.

In length is strength. For the current time, it is better to use nine or ten characters, and keep things mixed up. Each added character multiplies cracking time by 62: 9 char means 37 hours and 10 char means 97 days. That is more like it. However, each decade that passes, ultimate computer speeds increase by a factor of 1,000. In about 2020, cracking a 10 character alphanumeric password will be achievable in about 2½ hours.

If you want a password to last a while, the time is now to go to at least 12-character passwords, which are nearly 4,000 times as hard to crack as 10-character ones. If your banking site allows certain punctuation marks also (such as $ # % @ * ), that just makes things even harder for the criminal.

Now, however are you going to remember such passwords? I find it hard to remember 5Zep38xN, which was suggested to me by an institution not long ago. Of course, I didn't use that, but created a longer one, based on an algorithm. I have a different algorithm now, so I can discuss the older one in relative safety. It worked like this:
  • Choose a 12-letter word such as homozygosity.
  • Break it into two or three parts (I usually used 2, but let's use 3 here): homo zygo sity .
  • Mix the three in sequence: hzsoyimgtooy .
  • Replace certain letters with numbers or punctuation: hz$oy1mgt00y (notice I didn't change one of the o's to a zero).
Now you have the problem of remembering it! hz$oy1mgt00y is not memory friendly. You simply have to keep a list. I keep my list in two parts: Part 1 contains such passwords and their generating words, and Part 2 has the account identity and just the generator word. I carry Part 2 and keep Part 1 hidden away. For further security, I have user names, wherever possible, that are as obscure as the passwords. I keep the decoding information on Part 1 and "reminders" on Part 2. With practice, if I can't remember the password from the hints on Part 2, I can regenerate it on the fly.

Passwords such as the one created here (Don't use it! Use a different starter word) will require a cracking computer to go through nearly 4x1021 combinations, which will require more than 1,000 years. In another ten years, it'll still take a year or more, so somebody will really have to want it bad to attempt it. And by then, who knows, maybe the web site will look at me through my web cam, listen to my voice, and "recognize" me. I'll address the problem of duress later…

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Bootstrapped Mobile

kw: art, mobiles

I created this mobile more than a year ago. I just moved it to my workplace because at home the cat keeps knocking it down. I call it "Upwardly Mobile". It is a prototype for a larger work I hope to produce. It helped me understand the parameters for a mobile that is supported from the bottom and does not clash.

The support is a finishing nail with the head ground into a sharp tip after being driven half into the wooden stake. The stake is held by a block of 2x4.

The three sections are cut from aluminum sheet; I used leftover flashing from a home maintenance project. The bottommost section is counterbalanced by a 3/8-inch hex nut. The sections weigh, from top to bottom, 0.55 g, 2.3 g, and 14.2 g. All three sections are 15 cm long. The assembled mobile rises 11 cm from the support tip, and can extend as far as 27 cm horizontally.

The weight ratios are the first crucial set of parameters. 2.3/0.55 = 4.18 and 14.2/(0.55+2.3) = 4.98. While it may be possible to tune up a mobile having weight ratios in the range of 3.0-3.5, let's analyze the more conservative value of 4.0, and see what it takes to design an upward-thrusting mobile with a minimum section weighing 1 gram, and a total mass of 20 kg or less.

The first two sections weigh 1 g and 4 g, totaling 5g, so the third is 20g. Continuing, we find the sections will weigh 100 g, 500 g, 2.5 kg and 12.5 kg. The total weight is 15.625 kg for all seven sections. To illustrate the power of the geometric sequence, if we were to design for ratios of 3.0, we could have eight sections totaling 16.384 kg, but if we went with ratios of 5.0, seven sections would total nearly 50 kg, and six would total 7,776 kg.

To get the most out of such a mobile, it makes sense to use thinner and lighter material for the longer sections of the arms. Perhaps it is best to use steel for the heavy ends and aluminum for the light ends.

This picture taken from above shows a little more detail about how the sections are balanced. I cut the first two sections freehand, and just rolled a piece of rod stock underneath to find the balance point, marked it, and drove a blunted nail partway through from the bottom side with the section lying on a block of wood. This made a dimple for the tip of the section below to stick into. I also made an aluminum counterbalance for the back end of the second section, which can be slid for tuning the balance point and angle.

The third, bottommost section was a bit trickier. I used a nut I had handy and cut the sheet metal piece extra-long by a centimeter. I attached the nut with folded tabs cut at the back of the piece. Then I found the approximate balance point—with the two upper sections lying across the tip—and made the dimple. I put the bifold in so the dimple would be horizontal when the section was rising steeply (it rises about 35°). I trimmed the tip back gradually until it was close enough to fold the last 5 mm for fine tuning.

The process could be continued, but a different way of attaching counterweights, or incorporating them in as thicker stock, must be devised, so the sections don't need to rise so steeply to keep out of one another's way. As with hanging mobiles, the more sections, the more complex and pleasing the motion.

Being light, Upwardly Mobile bounces and shifts with slight breezes I cannot feel. Too many sections, however, will yield a lower section or two that are impervious to "breeze" level air motion, and the mobile as a whole would be less pleasing. This has me leaning toward attempting a design with a ratio near 3.0, and maximum mass less than half a kilogram, perhaps in five sections total.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Johnny got the bigger piece of cake!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history of science, measurements, metric system

Should you decide to take a jaunt from Philadelphia, PA to Salisbury, MD, you'll wind up traversing the length of the state of Delaware, much of it on a stretch of DE 1 called the Korean War Veterans Memorial Highway. Things go swimmingly enough as you follow Interstate 95 for a few miles, then turn south on DE 1.

A few miles further, you'll see this sign. (This is a crop from a Google Street View image.) I recall the first time I drove this way, thinking, "I didn't know Delaware was quite that long." Almost immediately, if you tend to watch for mileposts like I do, you'll notice one that announces "Mile 101". What is going on here?

In 1993, when the route was renamed and made into a freeway, it was measured off in kilometers, according to the then-current federal standard. Km-posts were erected and the exits were numbered accordingly. Starting ten years later, the km-posts were replaced by mileposts, except for a 27 km / 17 mile section near Smyrna, which was only "converted" very recently. Artifacts of partial conversion can be found at this Colorado State U page. Milepost 101 is almost exactly between former km-posts 162 and 163.

This changeable attitude at both federal and state levels toward how to measure our highways has kept the United States as the only major country that clings to standards of measuring that are not based on the metric units used everywhere else in the world except Myanmar (Burma) and Liberia. It exposes a weakness of representative democracy, the weakness of the representatives themselves.

The science, history, sociology and politics of measuring are surveyed in quite entertaining fashion in World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement by Robert P. Crease. The need to measure things accurately begins by about age four, when a child realizes that a stack of several blocks is no bigger or smaller than those same blocks all spread out. At the very next dessert time, she is liable to either gloat ("My piece of cake is bigger, tee hee") or complain ("No fair! Johnny's piece of cake is bigger").

It would be easy for such a book to get hopelessly scattered. The author wisely uses just two case studies (Chinese measurement systems prior to 1911, and west-central African gold-measurements prior to the 1800s) to show the gamut of weights and measures and how they were influenced by their social setting.

This is a key theme of the book. Measurement is a social phenomenon, a social action. A hermetic miser may obsessively count and re-count his money, but most of us have no need to count anything until we make a transaction. A wise shopper watches where the butcher's thumbs are when the scale is measuring a cut of meat. Few will go so far as to bring a calibrated weight to check the scale; we trust that an inspector takes care of such niceties. Such trust underlies all commerce. Unfair measuring practices long predate Biblical injunctions not to make the shekel small and the bushel great. In a late chapter the author takes note of a "ruler" that is shorter than the standard, used by crooked lawyers to "measure" a damaged area about which they are suing.

The main historical narrative concerns the gradual conversion of most nations to a system that arose amidst the revolutionary fervor of the French Revolution, culminating in two precious artifacts still kept in a vault in Paris, the 1799 Metre and Kilogram standards, made of platinum. Though these were superseded two generations later by the platinum-iridium standards kept just outside Paris at BIPM (Bureau International des Poids et Mesures or International Bureau of Weights and Measures), they remain unique objects. Yet they and their successors are obsolete.

Starting in the mid-20th Century, the meter was redefined several times, and is now tied only to the speed of light. Now that light velocity in a vacuum is understood to be absolutely constant, unaffected by motion, gravitational potential or any other "environment", it serves as a standard for distance and time measurement that does not depend on the size of Earth, or even on its existence!

Although the Kilogram standard artifact is not yet wholly replaced with an absolute measure, this is expected in 2015, at the next meeting of the appropriate standards setting body, the CGPM (Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures or General Conference on Weights and Measures). The new Kilogram will be defined based on either Planck's Constant or Avogadro's Number, or perhaps both. Conference members are optimistic that the final details can be worked out by then. Meanwhile, standards-checking still relies on a precious metal cylinder weighing just over 32 troy ounces, and thus worth about $45,000 on the bullion market.

I recall learning the metric system in 1962, when I first took high school Chemistry. I became familiar with the cgs system, for centimeter-gram-second. My first year of college, I was brought up to date with the 1960 world standard, the MKS system, for meter-kilogram-second. Then in graduate school, the units didn't change, except in fiddling detail, but the name did, to SI (Système International or International System). As it happens, it is the most international system we have going! Assuming an absolute Kilogram is defined in 2015, a process that has been going on for 230 years will be nearly complete. It just remains to get one major country to convert to SI … mine!

I am ready. I know my height is 1.83 m and my weight is 98 kg. The second at least is the same the world over, so my age of 64 years and just over a month needs no conversion (and at 10:00 pm tonight, PST, it will be almost exactly 1.802 billion seconds).

In his epilogue, the author returns to the sociological implications of measurement. He had earlier introduced the new words "metrosophy" and "metroscape" to express the philosophy and environment that surround our ever-more-measured life. Will our measurements continue to define and redefine who we think we are? To what extent will it affect us that the standards on which our measurements are made no longer depend on the length of our arm or hand or foot, or the beat of our heart or the speed of a falling apple? As long as the meat I pay for does not include any of the butcher's thumb, I don't need to care. But if one day I decide to vacation on the Moon, it will be very important to know very, very accurately where my landing will be. I'd hate to make an error of 5 parts per million and run out of fuel a couple of kilometers up!

Monday, December 19, 2011

15 Dec 1967 - ordeal enough for me

kw: personal experiences, ordeals, hiking, climbing

The date 12/15/1967 is significant to me for several reasons. One is that, from late afternoon until late evening, I found myself fighting for my life on a mountainside.

I enjoy walking, and hiking even more, and when I was living in Pasadena in the late 1960s I often hiked partway up the old Mount Wilson road. I never went all the way to Mount Wilson, which is eleven miles, but usually stopped at Henninger Flats after four miles before returning. The 8-mile round trip made for a pleasant afternoon's walk. I nearly always went alone.

On this occasion I was early, and decided to try a shortcut down the mountain. In this overview of part of the area, the Henninger Flats Ranger Station is at upper right. Top center you can see a turnout in the fire road. It is at the head of a small canyon down which I decided to hike. At extreme lower left is a cliff that interrupts the canyon, and brought about my difficulties. Actually, my ignorance and arrogance brought about my difficulties. That, and the lack of a topographic map, which might have led me to a safer route.

I took my time going down the little canyon, and it was easy walking for the half hour or so it took me to go about half a mile. Along the way I hopped down a couple of little dry waterfalls that were five or six feet high. Then I came to a twenty-footer. I managed to clamber down that one, which shows in this relief image as a chute to left of center.

I was walking along, thinking, "I'm glad I don't have to go back up that one". Then I came to the cliff/waterfall at bottom left. What shows in this image is a fifty-foot sheer drop. The drop is followed by very steep going for another hundred feet. Measuring with Google Earth while compiling these images, I figured the total drop is 154 feet.

I had no climbing equipment. I am not a very good free-climber. I was stuck! Nobody knew where I was. Although I knew I was within a mile of the ranger station, I didn't think they would hear me if I yelled, because of the ridge intervening. I was a couple weeks past my twentieth birthday, and wondering if it might be my last.

I decided to climb the canyon wall to my southeast (the right side of this image). I walked back up to the 20-foot dropoff and began climbing there. To my dismay, this was a north-facing canyon wall, so it had more vegetation than the opposite side. Most of the vegetation was thorny. Zigging and zagging to miss the roughest patches, and just plowing through where I had to, I climbed from sundown until after 9:00 PM, almost four hours.

When I attained the ridge top, I was just about center-right in this image, where a fire trail goes along the ridge line. From there I hiked half a mile to the Ranger Station. The ranger on night duty kindly gave me some water and called my parents to let them know I was OK and would be home in a couple of hours. I looked in a mirror, and was surprised that I wasn't the bloody mess I expected from all the thorns. My shirt was a total loss, but had protected me.

I hiked back down the four miles to where my car was parked and went home. It is the last time I have hiked alone, or without mapping the route beforehand! Those principles stood me in good stead in graduate school; I hiked a few hundred miles of the trails in the Black Hills getting my studies there done. I always made sure there was a safe route to the places I needed to go, and didn't deviate. I also usually carried a topo map.

I am thankful I didn't actually have very far to go, when I got stuck, and even more thankful I was in good physical shape for a 4-hour climb. I'd have been really embarrassed if Search and Rescue had to come out to get me. It is said, "You have to know your limitations." Sometimes it takes a bit of foolishness to find that out. Glad I lived through it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Complete lack of discrimination

kw: commentary, current events

When I saw this in the mail, I almost threw it away unopened. What do the Time editors think they are doing?

The cover blurb mentions four "protest" movements. I have yet to open the issue, so I don't know if others are discussed, but these four pretty are much cover the gamut:
  • "Arab Spring" – This is a mixed bag. Starting in Tunisia, several brutal, falsely Muslim dictators were overthrown. In a few cases, however, Egypt in particular, this has led to a great strengthening of radical Islamic factions. This would be a bad thing for the world even if America didn't exist. (It would probably be even worse…)
  • Athens – I suppose the people have a right to protest, but they have badly mis-aimed. They ought to be directing their anger at several prior administrations, plus the current one, that got them into this economic morass, and because they did so. But without the proposed austerity measures—and more to come, you can be sure—the country will go belly-up and descend into overt civil war.
  • Occupy Wall Street (or wherever) – This began as a marginally good thing, to "defend" the "other 99%", which is anybody but the super-rich. It soon descended to an extended Woodstock, without the good music, but with rampant immorality (not just sexual), defecation everywhere, and a filthy, smelly mass of ingrates who represent quite a different 1%, the irresponsible 1% who don't want to work but want government to support their every whim. The Mayors were right to drive them out.
  • Moscow – Loosely based on Arab Spring, this doomed movement is up against a very different foe. Let us recall that Mr. Putin once directed the KGB, and there is enough of the old apparatus in place to cause huge mischief. This will mainly just set back Russian progress by another generation.
I came of age in the 1965-1975 "sixties", when protest movements were typically more focused, better led and eventually more effective than any of the "Occupy" hooligan groups. Full disclosure: many of the protests were very left-wing, and I am conservative. I was a heckler, sufficiently effective that I survived a couple of murder attempts.

While the impact of this year's protest movements has indeed been significant, they certainly don't deserve to be lumped indiscriminately together as Time's "person of the year".

Friday, December 16, 2011

The cat and the cutie

kw: book reviews, mysteries, animal fiction

The prospect of a quarter million dollars' worth of vintage Barbie dolls going up in flames is rather daunting. It makes for a fitting climax to the current adventures of Temple Barr, PR maven and part-time (usually amateur) private investigator, and Midnight Louie, her black tomcat. The twenty-third Midnight Louie book is Cat in a Vegas Gold Vendetta by Carole Nelson Douglas. In this one, Ms Barr is actually hired as a PI, and clearing up one mystery unlocks a couple of others.

The mean streets of Las Vegas are no fitting environment when you are a petite five-foot-nothing, but in addition to Louie, Ms Barr has a current and a former fiancé (Matt and Max, respectively), and the six-foot policewoman C. R. Molina looking out for her. In spite of all that backup, she winds up facing a serial killer called BDK, for Barbie Doll Killer, alone.

The series is noted for complex plots and driving narrative. The books are hard to read in the day-to-day way to which I am accustomed; they demand to be read at a sitting. Well, one does what one must.

I found myself comparing this series with my other favorite cat-mystery series, the Cat Who series by Lillian Jackson Braun (who passed away in June at the age of 97 and eleven months). Ms Braun's feline protagonist is Koko, a Siamese.
  • Louie narrates about every fourth chapter. Koko maintains catly dignified silence.
  • Louie knows what he is doing. Koko is an enigma; is he psychic as his owner sometimes thinks, or is he just doing ordinary catly things that are interpreted in all-too-human ways?
  • Ms Barr is clearly and explicitly active sexually, though she is serially monogamous. Koko's owner, James Qwilleran, has a romance going on in some of the novels, but its extent is kept mysterious.
  • Though in the crisis of each novel, Ms Barr is usually on her own, at least for critical moments, she is usually very social. Mr. Qwilleran tends to operate solo much more of the time.
  • The Louie novels have more sub-plots going on than the Cat Who novels.
As much as I enjoyed reading the book, it is too easy to give it all away (I already committed one partial spoiler). I'll content myself with reporting that the writing is solid, particularly the characterization and scene-setting.

A side element of the book is the issue of elderly persons with pets, who want to provide for them after their own demise. This is harder than you might imagine, and a closing epilog by the author gives good information on how to go about it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A first time for us

kw: movies

In more than thirty-five years of marriage, we never went to a movie. I'd pretty much given up on them several years before marrying, and my foreign-born wife had never been to an American film, and had no interest in it. Until tonight.

I was given a couple of movie passes, and after some discussion of regifting them, my wife and I decided to "have a date". We have just returned from seeing Hugo, not in 3D, just the "flat" version. I won't attempt to review the film. Better critics than I have reviewed it (If I did my Google search right, there are already more than four million reviews). Rather, just let me say we were transported. It was a fine choice for our first movie date.

We almost didn't see it. We went to a "Regal 16", and were the only ones in that auditorium throughout. Twice while we were there a guard walked through. But during the pre-film previews, my wife was seriously creeped out by being alone and wanted to leave. She was afraid nobody would know if we were mugged "or something". Well, we soon forgot ourselves in the story and had a good time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Nannyism - piled higher and deeper

kw: regulations, observations

Do y'all remember the OSHA Cowboy? 'Taint nothin' compared to what we'll soon have to do to drive in these parts. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB, pronounced "knee jerks") has "recommended" that the Federal and/or State governments make laws banning all use of communications devices while driving. The aim is to reduce "distractions".

Y'know what distracts me when I'm driving? People who don't look before changing lanes or turning; people who cut me off in an effort to get to work three seconds earlier (like they want to work more today???); people who fly by me at 20-30 miles over the speed limit, when I'm going only 10 over; and especially people who are really distracted, visibly so, because they have a book or newspaper open on the steering wheel, or are combing hair or putting on makeup. I actually saw a laptop propped on a steering wheel.

I don't mind laws requiring hands-free communications, such as Bluetooth. I wonder if using your phone on speaker while it is in your shirt pocket counts… that is what I do. I also only make calls when at a stop light or stop sign (he intoned primly).

But if we're going to reduce distractions, we need to consider these also:
  • Radios - particularly tuning the radio while in motion.
  • CD Players - particularly reloading five CD's when the stack of five already in there runs out.
  • CB Radios - Actually, I find using a CB quite a bit more distracting than using a handheld phone: changing channels on an "Up 5" request, for instance.
  • Passengers - will we be safer of carpooling is banned?
Come up with your own list. I am sure there are a lot of things that force us to multitask, and some folks do it better than others. But, hey, good buddy, can't we all agree to let the Darwin Effect take care of the multitasking-challenged?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Adding to the economy

kw: family events, home maintenance

"Work fascinates me. I can watch it all day long." I don't know who said that, but I spent all day watching work today. We had our garage doors replaced. The ones we've had were made primarily of 3/8" (9mm) plywood with framing to hold the mountings. There's a point where one more paint job just makes them look worse, and we wanted more insulation.

I confess I hadn't given a thought to how it is done. The three workers dismantled the doors piece by piece, by unbolting all the hardware. Then they took down the rails. The longest part of the job was getting the new rails mounted and lined up. Once that was done, the new doors were put together into the rails, section by section, and the hardware holds the sections together. Altogether, about five hours of work.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Toward less boredom aboard the aircraft

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, flying, science

Brian Clegg is trying to interest more people in everyday science. His latest effort, pitched at a very general audience, is Inflight Science: A Guide to the World From Your Airplane Window. Need I say it is an easy read? I actually Fogged six paragraphs, a total of 640 words, to find that the reading level is 10.4, suitable for anyone who managed a couple years of high school at least, and is accessible to a bright middle-schooler.

The book is in seven sections, from your wait in the airport lounge, to various aspects of the flight, to landing and deplaning. Have you been worried about the new backscatter x-ray machines you're asked to stand inside? (Unless you want a very thorough body search…) They are not at all airports yet, but give it time. They work on a different principle than the dental and medical x-ray machines, which take a picture right through your body. The airport machines use "soft" x-rays, that mostly bounce off your skin, but do pass through your clothing. They bounce particularly well off things harder than skin, such as weapons, whether metal or ceramic or even hard plastic. While there is some x-ray exposure, you'll experience ten times the radiation during the flight itself if you're going to be "up there" more than a couple of hours.

As you'll learn later in the book, being at an altitude of 35,000 to 45,000 feet (11-12 km) places you above 70% of the protective atmosphere, so you experience an increased dose of cosmic rays. However, six hours aboard an airplane is about like six months in Denver—compared to San Diego—so far as radiation exposure goes. These low levels are well within the range our bodies can tolerate. It is only a concern if you fly across the U.S. or across an ocean every week for year after year. As it happens, a schoolmate of mine is an international businessman, based in both Hong Kong and Los Angeles. He does fly that much. I ran into him (in an airport, natch!) last year, and he is healthy. I fly about yearly, but I am the one who had cancer! Go figure.

There is a lot more than radiation going on, though. There is the Einstein effect. My friend flies enough that, by now, he is 1/1000th of a second younger than if he'd stayed on the ground. Maybe 2/1000ths. Not a huge effect, of course, but consider satellites such as the GPS system that we all use now to find our way. They have to correct for time dilation, as it is called, or their errors would add up to 38 microseconds daily. Light goes 300 meters per microsecond, and 38x300 = 11.4 km. If we didn't know about relativity, errors would accumulate at the rate of 11.4 km per day, or about 8 meters every minute.

The author has a great way of putting things into perspective. He also discusses the implications of e = mc², the equivalence of energy and matter. The Sun converts four million tons of matter into energy, by producing helium from hydrogen, every second. That rate of energy production equals having 3/4 million million million large power stations running flat out. The portion that is intercepted by Earth is 1/7 billionth of this, or 108 million power stations. That is about 5,000 times as many stations as we actually have running.

I'd like to compare that another way. The Earth's sunny side intercepts 5,000 times as much energy as we are currently using. While modern, cutting-edge solar cells have efficiencies in the 30-40% range, affordable ones are about 15% efficient … while the Sun is shining. Averaged over a day, and assuming they are somewhat steerable, such solar cells can be 6% efficient. Grind out the numbers, and it would take 1/1,200th of Earth's total surface, spread around the tropical and subtropical latitudes, to capture enough energy to power all of modern civilization. That is a small matter of 160,000 square kilometers. Hmm. That is a rather big project, but not as big as doubling the number of coal-fired power plants, which is what we can expect if China and India expect to use even 20% of the energy levels the West enjoys.

OK, back to what the author wrote. While at altitude, if there is not too much cloud cover, the landforms come in for review. There is nothing quite like seeing a mountain range from above to appreciate their sheer scale. I haven't crossed the Himalayas, but I have crossed the Rockies several times. Even through the little window at my seat, they are impressive. Then I realize that they are in view for an hour or more, and I'm zipping along at 600 mph (950 kph), more or less.

Before or after the main part of the flight, during the climb to altitude or during the descent, you can see the ground from above a little more intimately. These portions of the flight are likely to be in or near cities, unless your airport is Denver Stapleton, which is way the heck and gone out on the prairie. So the author has interesting tips for estimating the population of a given area by counting street lights or city blocks in a smaller area and estimating how many of these smaller areas the town covers. He has tips for seeing archaeological features such as buried walls or building foundations, particularly if the light is low, such as late in the afternoon or in early morning (I tend to fly at dawn, which is perfect).

I have to take issue with one blunder. Discussing volcanoes, he mentions the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, that it emitted 20 cubic kilometers of ash. That is true. Then he writes, "…the equivalent of a cube 20 kilometers on a side." Very not true. Such a cube would contain 8,000 cubic km. Twenty cubic km is a cube with a side that is the cube root of 20, or 2.7 km on a side. That is still a lot of ash. The much smaller eruption in Iceland last year shut down much of European air space for weeks. If a Krakatoa-size eruption happens again, nobody is likely to take to the air for about a year! We would all get very, very good at telecommuting. Skype's servers would likely be swamped! Citrix and other "go to my PC" services would boom. Not a bad idea, actually. I video Skype with my Dad a few times a week. It sure helps I don't have to fly six hours every time we want to chat face to face.

It has been said that the most dangerous part of a flight is the landing. Actually, it is the approach. By the time the wheels are locked down, the plane is close enough to the runway to glide in if needed. Modern autopilot systems can take off and land without human help. As long as nothing goes wrong, the pilot and copilot are actually the backup system, particularly during many landings. Could we replace them? Not likely. Little things can still go wrong, and frequently do, so even during automated landings, the pilot is not just present, but is holding the controls, ready to take over immediately. Most airlines actually require a certain number of "hand" landings to keep the skills of the pilots up to date.

With this book in hand, there ought to be plenty to do during the whole flight experience, from being dropped off at the airport to gathering your luggage. No matter how much fun the book is, however, I am always glad to get off the plane and experience the relative freedom of being able to walk more than a few dozen feet. At least, knowing a few things the author has passed along, the flight itself can be more interesting than before.

Friday, December 09, 2011

What malls won't do for money

kw: popular culture, advertisements, shopping malls

Ever since about Halloween, a TV ad has been running, an anti-Mall spot with a very catchy song and dance (to the tune of "Up on the House Top"), by TJ Maxx and a couple of other retailers. I began to wonder, was this taped in a mall, or did they build a mock-up? If they used a mall, I suspect they paid them well!

I also considered: although we do, as the lyrics state, "pay through the nose", do we really? It costs between half a dollar and a dollar per mile to drive a car (more for luxury models); I am frugal, and it costs me about $0.70 per mile. You need to drive a real beater and do your own maintenance to get the costs down in the $0.50/mile range. How do the extra miles and costs add up if you need to drive from store to store?

I live a mile from one mall, a rather modest one, and twelve miles from a real mega-mall. The collection of retailers and retail outlets in this area is pretty well concentrated in several shopping areas (what we used to call outdoor malls), that are spaced about two miles apart in any direction. So if I want to go to four places, I'll drive a total of two miles if I can find everything at the mall, and about ten miles to visit four separate places and return home. The eight mile difference costs only $5.60. If I can save $1.40 per purchase at the separate stores, then the extra trips were worth it.

But then, what is the value of my time? Rather than use my own compensation, which is a bit on the high side, I'll use a more average figure of $20 per hour. Store-to-store time includes driving and walking, and comes to ten minutes for a 2-mile trip. This adds up to 40-50 minutes for the four-store visit. Can I do my shopping in the mall, at four stores, and spend less than a total 50 minutes going store-to-store? Let's assume I can, and that the total is half, or about 25 minutes. The mall trip then saves $8.30 or so in "opportunity cost".

Add this to the $5.60, and we have about $14 that needs to be made up, or $3.50 per purchase. It is worth checking into your purchases beforehand, and deciding if you can save $3.50 per purchase at the separate stores. For some items, particularly clothing, it's a no-brainer. But both the separate stores and the mall stores complicate matters by having specials and sales.

I think, for a lot of people, the time saving is worth more than the dollar amount, and the convenience of the mall simply outweighs everything else.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

What enemy will we marry next?

kw: national events, memorials, sociology

In early 1941, realizing that war between Japan and the United States was getting ever more likely, a Japan-born naturalized American citizen, who had lived in California for twenty years, took his wife and two daughters to Japan. Were there a war, he expected Japan to win. A few years later his wife died of TB and, during the last year of the war, he remarried. Early in 1946 their daughter was born, who grew into the woman I married in 1975. But before that, when the little girl was barely three, the man divorced his wife and returned to America, with his two other daughters, to marry again, but he had no more children.

Another Japanese man, a soldier in the war of the Pacific, lost his wife soon after the war. He had two young boys. He met the divorcée and married her; they blended the families. He it was who actually raised my future wife.

A key element here is that the girl's natural father had returned to the U.S. When she was a young working girl, she saved enough money to visit him in California. A second visit a few years later led her to decide to remain, and a year after that she and I met. I find it strange that, nearly thirty years before we married, her stepfather and my father were in the same region, fighting on opposite sides in the war. I did not get to know him well, as he spoke no English, but we had a cordial relationship for the very few weeks we spent together. He died more than ten years ago.

Today, the seventieth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack (and a coincident attack near Manila), carries great significance to my father and his generation. It is before my time, and my wife's time, so the event of greatest significance to the two of us has been her decision to reside in America, which has led, so far, to 36 years together.

Just five years after we married, Mount Saint Helens in Washington state erupted, devastating many square miles of landscape. It took just a few years for new life to take root in and through the ash and lava, and begin to reclaim the landscape. I liken the thriving relationship of my wife and myself, and our son, now in his mid-twenties, to new life that arose from the devastation the volcano. We were born in the aftermath of war, though in truth, her country was much more devastated than mine, and our fathers suffered their own traumas. Life is tough and tenacious. I wonder what we will find, a generation from now, in the aftermath of two current wars and another one or two that are on the horizon.

Old Ben may yet have the last word

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, sociology

Tom Blair is not a young man. While he might bemoan that fact, it is actually very, very good. He is about the same age as Benjamin Franklin was when he signed his name to the Declaration of Independence. By that age of seventy, Franklin had been retired from business for nearly thirty years, and instead occupied with diplomacy on behalf of the American colonies and then for "Our America", not yet formed, but a growing gleam in the eyes of a few such as John Adams.

Franklin died at the age of 85, some 221½ years ago. Had he the benefit of these two-plus centuries to accumulate further wisdom, aided by further observation of the American condition, what would he say today? Author Blair provides one possible window in Poorer Richard's America: What Would Ben Say? Having drunk deep of Franklin's writings, particularly in Poor Richard's Almanack, and having mastered Franklin's voice, as one of the most lucid writers of 18th Century English prose, Blair presents forty essays on the American condition, her fortunes, failures, foibles, and possible future as a nation in decline, but not yet fated to decline further. His watchword is, in my estimation, that continued decline is not inevitable, but is still "up to us."

Amidst essays aimed at targets from elitist educated ignoramuses to dogmatic, insecure religionists to an overhyped media to self-proclaimed leaders who nonetheless only know how to follow, he reserves his most persistent polemics for those imprudent guardians of the national treasury, the Congress. There is not one "problem of Congress", but a welter of them; the greatest being corporate lobbying and that great black box of campaign funding. For these he has a simple solution, one unlikely of passage, but it would nonetheless prove effective: a 28th Amendment that adds a $20 tax on every American household, from which all national campaigns are to be financed in equal measure, with no other financing being allowed. Divide the expected $2+ billion by a thousand or so, and you have about $2 million each, which is plenty for the TV/radio/print exposure of any incumbent or challenger.

But as several of the essays make clear, the greatest threat to America is a combination of two forces. One is internal, and was well stated by Lord Thomas MacCauley, who wrote:
A democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government. It can last only until its citizens discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority (who vote) will vote for those candidates promising the greatest benefits from the public purse, with the result that a democracy will always collapse from loose fiscal policies, always followed by a dictatorship.
This well states the course America has been on at least since the "New Deal" that preceded World War II, and is thus about eighty years along.

The second force is external, and is the determination of the Chinese leaders, not to foolishly try to bury America as Nikita Khrushchev threatened, but to instead simply buy America. At this moment, to repurchase America's debt held in China would cost each of us, from the cradle to the hospice-dweller, $2,800. That is assuming the Chinese would be willing to allow the bonds to be redeemed at par…unlikely. When, one day, the "banker" calls in the debt, the stars and stripes will be replaced by a banner reading "Under Foreclosure".

Considering the persistent call to responsibility found in its pages, some might call the book a Conservative work, but it is not. Those who bear the label Conservative today are not conservative, and those labelled Liberal are far from liberal (except with someone else's money). We have instead two kinds of totalitarian ideologues taking turns cursing one another's ideas, without bothering to consider whether any of the ideas proffered by either side makes any sense. Most do not.

America has great strength yet. Is a day coming in which that strength will all be harnessed to the well-being of others, while "the cobbler's children go shoeless"? I tremble for my son and his generation, even as I advise him to learn Chinese…

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Zero sum or infinite sum?

kw: business, creativity, competition, philosophy, quotes

About twenty years ago, when I was working at a major oil company, the executives began an exercise to "zero-base" the corporation's workforce. Effectively, they declared that upon a certain date, everyone should consider himself or herself laid off, unless "claimed" by one of the new organizations that would be designed over the following several months. Then we all were set to the task of designing those organizations. The claim was made that this would improve our competitive position.

I called it "downsourcing management". What do we pay them their huge salaries for? I prepared a banner and hung it above my office door:
Creators do not need to Compete
Things went along well enough for a while. A number of us revolted against designing new organizations that did not include provision for the work we were doing, and effectively forced top management to actually manage, to make some decisions. They were still carping about "competition" and staying abreast thereof. I made a second banner, to hang below the first:
When running, if you look over your shoulder, you are sure to stumble.
Strangely, I found that not many of my colleagues had a creative mind-set. Having built my career on a continuing struggle for excellence, I found myself surrounded by many whose focus was short-term and excessively profit-oriented. Sometimes, it is necessary to forgo immediate profits in favor of greater success a little later. Many people cannot comprehend that.

I can illustrate this with the matter of investing for retirement. The company had a very generous matching plan to go with the 401-K, fully matching the first 6% that we saved. I jumped on that bandwagon the day it became available! With each raise thereafter, I increased my contribution, until I reached the maximum, at the time, of 15% of my compensation. 15+6=21%, and that, well invested, led towards my getting, if not rich, at least comfortable. (At another company now—with 9% matching!—, I could have retired a few years back, but work because I enjoy it.)

One of my colleagues was also an early adopter of the 401-K, but did things in a different way. He contributed only 6%, to get the match, and then withdrew his money each year. He just used the matching plan as a way to get extra compensation from the company, and lived well. When he retired a few years ago, his 401-K contained only the company contributions, which were substantial enough, but he'd have had twice the money if he'd kept his own money in the plan. Meanwhile, by contributing 21% to his 6% I had more than three times the accumulated value.

This illustrates a maxim by Kant, and here I must paraphrase:
It is a universal fault in man during fair weather to make no provision for the tempest.
Further, the great attention to competition, at the expense of creation, is well expressed by Napoleon Hill:
There are two world views a person can hold: a world view of competition or a world view of creation. Most people have a competitive world view.
I think it safe to say creative effort is responsible for nearly all value creation. The competitive efforts that follow the success of something newly created add little value, except insomuch as they engender further creation. Thus, while I hate to give her last billing, I am compelled to quote Ayn Rand:
A creative (wo)man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.
Throughout my career, when I have found myself doing work that others could do as well or better, I have turned my attention to finding work that I could do better than my fellows, or what is better, work that I alone could perform because I had created it entire. This has led to a much better course of my life than if I'd stuck to my former occupation as a fair-to-middling laboratory technician and engineer. There are those who take the hand life dealt them, and attempt to gather extra Aces. With a modicum of different thinking, one can create new Aces as needed.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Bath toys in the biggest bath available

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, pollution, quests

About eight years ago Donovan Hohn became intrigued with the spill, in January 1992, of thousands of floating bath toys from a container ship into the northern Pacific Ocean. Initially thinking he could interview a few people and write an interesting article about it, he wound up quitting his teaching job and spent big chunks of the following four years traversing the planet in search of this latter-day "toy story" and of the toys themselves. His book details his travels: Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.

The toys that were lost were equal numbers of four varieties, 7,200 each of yellow ducks, red beavers, green frogs and blue turtles. Somehow, the duckies became the iconic representatives of them all. As this image shows, floating toys of all kinds have been lost in shipping accidents and wash up on "trash beaches" that are particularly prone to collecting flotsam. These particular toys were produced by The First Years and were called Floatees. The small duck below center of this image is the most like a Floatee, but it is not clear that it is the genuine article.

Most of the Floatees have never been found. Yet this unintended experiment in current tracking has been helpful to oceanographers that study the currents that circle within ocean basins and also flow between them.

This map, from the Wikimedia Commons, shows the likely current directions as deduced by Curtis Ebbesmeyer from reports of Floatees that were collected or spotted. Now that nearly twenty years has passed since the toys were exposed to the elements, it is a race against time whether any more will be found.

As the author found from keeping a plastic Floatee in his freezer for a few months, they become brittle and prone to breaking into pieces. Those that made it into warmer climes were sun-bleached and then degraded, and have also been breaking up. In gyres such as the North Pacific "Garbage Patch", the plastic that has been collecting there is mostly not intact, but is in little bits. Most plastic lost at sea is in the form of pea-sized "nurbles" that are used to mold things. All these bits circle the seas and collect in the centers of gyres. Their density ranges from a few per cubit meter to a few hundred per cubic meter. This seemingly low density makes it hard to spot the Garbage Patch visually. But there are a lot of cubic meters out there, and the plastic mass is in the millions of tons.

Somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 containers are lost at sea every year, and each is the size of a semi trailer, holding up to forty tons of cargo. That comes to as much as a quarter million tons or more of cargo lost yearly. Much of that is nurbles on the way to China or plastic toys on their way back to America.

To elucidate such facts, the author first visited certain Alaskan beaches where the Floatees were first reported. These trips comprise the second and third chapters of the book. He also visited a toy factory in southern China, then managed to obtain passage on a container ship as it sailed from Pusan, Korea to Seattle, Washington.

In his chapter on this cruise, he records a few helpful coordinates. These are marked on this image as red pins. The green line is the great circle route between the two harbors, and is a straight line on this projection. The image below shows a more conventional view of the great circle and of the ship's route, which is quite a bit to the south.

The great circle route is not precisely navigable, and for this reason, and to avoid the worst winter storms, once the ships leave the Japan Sea they stay south of the various archipelagoes along the route.

This doesn't keep them from losing cargo. Studies of the dynamics of these "Panamax" ships (meaning too large to pass through the Panama Canal) indicate that nonlinear effects of wave motions can cause them to suddenly tilt from side to side as much as 40°, which is almost certain to set loose some of the containers on board. On the author's cruise, he experienced only a rather mild storm, which was enough to make him hurl his lunch, but didn't cause any loss of cargo. This is the "normal" situation, or bath toys would be a lot more expensive!

It may seem that a lot of cargo is being lost, but it is a small percentage of total shipping. The insurance underwriters have so far been willing to carry on shouldering such losses (for suitable premiums, of course).

In his last chase, two chapters' worth, the author sailed on a research cruise through the Northwest Passage, on an icebreaker. He had quite a gaggle of scientists along for stimulating conversation. Few were interested in his quest for Floatees, however. While becoming one of a select few who have sailed the Northwest Passage and lived to tell the tale, he left posters in all the settlements where the ship docked, the kind of poster with little tags telling how to contact him. Unsurprisingly, he has not heard from anyone. By 2007, few Floatees were expected to be sufficiently intact to be recognized if one does come ashore. Along the way he helped one scientist launch more durable bottles containing notes with contact information, for a continuing study of polar currents. As long as you don't launch a glass bottle against the side of an iceberg and shatter it, it is likely to last many years and eventually wash up somewhere. Bottle launching is still more effective than computer modeling, primarily because we don't yet know enough about the oceans to accurately model their currents on any except the hugest of scales.

What resulted from the author's quest? He wound up with a fresh Floatee given him by Dr. Ebbesmeyer (who expects its eventual return), and a weathered one he found in Alaska. He attained a much greater appreciation of the sheer size of our planet. It is amazing that a little yellow duckie and a few thousand of its fellows can help us understand a little about what makes the oceans tick.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Can these properties be saved?

kw: tv shows, real estate

It seems whenever I am at the YMCA in the fitness room, one of the TV's is showing Property Brothers on HGTV. In the past I haven't paid much attention, but today, while crunching on the abs machine, and later creaking with the back machine, I did pay attention. The hosts show a couple house after house with the aim of finding one they can buy and fix within a budget they have stated at the outset. The show's web site states the aim is to reclaim "extreme fixer-uppers", apparently in a less comprehensive way than the ABC show.

This morning's couple was two men whose budget was $450,000. That is about $150,000 more than I've seen in most past shows. They were shown a few homes that I would not take money to take possession of, all priced "as is" in the $400,000 range. You could not fix any of these for $50,000, so they were all out of budget. When the men asked to see a house that would not need so much repair, they were shown one priced at $850,000. At that point, I'd have fired the "brothers" in favor of a more honest realtor.

I began to think, "Where is this? Palo Alto?" That is about the only place such crummy homes are priced so high. Even in the current real estate market, median asking price is about a half million (Median asking price in my Zip code is $300,000).

I didn't find out where the show was taped, but it doesn't really matter. The houses I've seen being flogged on the show are mostly better replaced than repaired.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Barriers to communication

kw: social trends, religion

A couple days ago I had a mini-rant about atheism and theism, and since then I've been thinking about it from another angle. Any spectrum of opinion or attitude typically has about seven "positions", which represent "mental distance" and express the ranges over which communication is possible. My classic example is the abortion scale, or the "choice-versus-life axis". The great majority of people (at least in the West) fall into one of these groups:
  1. "Abortion for any reason is a right that must be protected."
  2. "Abortion is allowable under most circumstances, and such choices should be protected."
  3. "What's the big deal?"
  4. "Life should be protected from conception on, except under certain circumstances."
  5. "All abortion is murder."
People in a two-position range (such as from 1 to 3) can communicate, though they may not agree on much. Two people who differ by more than two positions are not likely to understand one another at all, and groups 1 and 5 cannot communicate at all. Above I mentioned seven positions. Position 0 is "I'd kill to defend the right to choose" and position 6 is "I'd kill to prevent an abortion." Both kinds of killings have occurred, so these are not just theoretical.

Now to the religious divide. As a prelude, take a look at this Google Ngram that shows published accounts in English containing the words atheism, theism and deism, in order. Click on the chart to see it more clearly. You can see that atheism in its modern sense was practically invented about 1790, and the other two terms, now having a reason for being, came along for the ride. The heyday of atheism lasted until about 1900. These terms have a suspicious synchrony with a signal political event, the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1789. People had no option to be openly atheistic in America prior to that date.

I deliberately left out the word Christian because it completely swamps all the others. In literature and much philosophy, "Christian" became synonymous with "human" by the end of the Enlightenment in Europe, so it is meaningless to pull statistics on it.

Like any new thing, atheism spiked to its greatest popularity in about a decade, then slowly waned for a half century, leaving a small, vocal group who are also the ones that most frequently use either "theism" or "deism" in their writings. Committed believers in a God or gods may use the term atheism, but very seldom the other two.

What then are the seven positions along the religion axis?
  1. Evangelical theist: "I really believe in God, and I'd like to tell you about it."
  2. Lukewarm theist: "Sure, I believe in God. I even go to church … usually."
  3. Deist: "Yeah, there's a god out there, but we don't interfere with each other."
  4. Agnostic: "I don't know (and I don't care)".
  5. Nontheist or Atheist: "There are no supreme beings."
Again, I left off 0 and 6. These are the murderous ends of the spectrum. Let us take note, however, that historical slaughter in the name of religion was primarily political in nature; the perpetrators were typically entirely cynical about religion (that is a different axis, which crosses this one at position 3.5). In modern times, I would place those rare folks who call themselves "evangelical atheists" at about 5.5; not murderous, but more radical than the non-angry non-theists. Position 0 is possible (as is 6) but is much less commonly seen, at least outside China, than murderous pro-choice. I would then place the most extreme theists, those who want laws passed hindering atheistic practice, at 0.5; not murderous yet, but not far from it.

Where should governments stand? American experience has shown that the government is least damaging when it is slightly deist, in the 3.5 range, but not cynical. Rather, indifference is best.

The strongly theistic and the strongly atheistic among us cannot communicate meaningfully. Both can (barely) communicate with those in the middle, and they look to them for converts. The murderous extremes along any social spectrum need to be controlled by government. Otherwise, it is best to let folks argue it out their own way.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The newest evangelical religion

kw: religion, atheism, popular culture

It is all over the news today, locally at least, that the city authorities in West Chester, Pennsylvania are under pressure by atheists, nontheists and humanists to restore the display of a "Tree of Knowledge" along with other "holiday greetings" on city property. It seems the City had been allowing all faiths and non-faiths to put up displays on city property, but in 2010 banned them all in favor of a few banners with neutral slogans, such as "Happy Holidays", that had been deemed non-confrontational by the Supreme Court. Now the anti-religion folks plan a rally/protest in hopes of convincing the city otherwise.

Of course, they don't want "Merry Christmas" banners or nativity scenes restored, just their tree of knowledge display. This demonstrates they are not just pro-nontheism, but anti-theism. That is, evangelical atheists are actually anti-theist. They don't disbelieve in God, they hate God or any idea of any god.

There are two partially conflicting principles that underlie democratic institutions, at least in the US. One is to do the greatest good for the greatest number. The other is to protect the rights of minorities. On the first principle, the greatest number of Americans are either Christian or sympathetic to Christian principles, and the next largest group is Jewish or sympathetic to them. On the other principle, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees us the right to practice our various religions according to our conscience. It does not guarantee the right of anybody to oppose another's religion, or the lack thereof.

The First Amendment actually contains the "Establishment Clause", which prohibits the Federal Government from establishing a religion to be the nationally practiced standard excluding all others. Thus the intimate relationship between the English government and the Anglican Church, or the German government and the Lutheran Church, are disallowed for the U.S. government. On this basis, I agree that specifically religious displays on government owned properties should not be allowed. If a business permits a religious display on its premises, that is OK, and the government has no right to an opinion about such things.

Is the "Tree of Knowledge" a specifically religious display? I say that it is. In particular, it is an anti-reaction to the story in Genesis in which God requires Adam and his wife to refrain from eating the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil". Note that the tree's designation is not pertaining to all knowledge, but to knowledge of moral issues. God wanted them to ask Him about moral issues instead; this is the basic Christian interpretation of this passage, and I think most Jews agree.

Let the City of West Chester regulate its own public spaces without regard to religion. If the atheists and their friends can persuade a business to display their Tree, fine and dandy. I wonder what the upshot will be…

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The most primitive life is still with us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, viruses

I have read a number of books on viruses and virology, including a few that I have reviewed in this blog. The latest covers no new ground, but is a very informative introduction to the modern view of viruses: A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer.

Using a baker's dozen case accounts to cover the breadth of the subject, Zimmer introduces us to viruses large and small, from ancient foes to recent eruptions. Though it may have been with us the longest, smallpox was the first to be cured, partly because it is the most obvious. In contrast to HIV, which is very recent, smallpox makes a person sick immediately, with unmistakable symptoms, and runs its course, deadly or not, in a few weeks. This has led to it being the first virus to be eradicated in the wild.

Viruses are fearsome in part because there are no known "beneficial" varieties. Just as snakes are universally predatory, viruses thrive only by parasitism of cellular organisms. As it happens, though, just as there are billions of bacteria for every "higher" organism, there are huge numbers of virus varieties that parasitize only bacteria and are thus beneficial to us. Before the discovery of antibiotics, viruses called bacteriophages (for "eaters of bacteria") were cultivated and used to cure bacterial diseases. Their only drawback is that viruses are very specific, so it takes quite a cocktail of phages is needed to combat bacteria that exist in multiple strains.

It is now known that the sea is a "virus ocean", with many millions of virus particles per liter of sea water. It is likely that, without viruses, the seas would become a cesspool of bacterial goop! The air is filled with suspended viruses as well, though to a lower density. As numerous as they are, viruses are so small that it takes a few million to outweigh the average bacterium, so they are (probably) not the heaviest component of the biosphere.

A recent discovery shows they are not all that small. Mimiviruses are called that because they mimic small bacteria. They are visible in an optical microscope, being about a micron in size. The smallest viruses known are one-hundredth the size, and most are about one-fortieth to one-twentieth that size.

The most interesting viruses to me are the retroviruses, those that insert their genomes within the genome of their host. So many of these have become "endogenous", meaning incorporated permanently, that about 8% of any animal's genome, including ours, consists of viruses that can be reactivated (according to other accounts I have read, about another quarter of our genome consists of fragmentary virus genomes).

If we consider the ways that life may have originated, it is likely that viruses may have either preceded the earliest cells, or that they arose along with them. That means that living things have never existed in isolation, but have always partaken of a grand kind of cross-species interbreeding facilitated by viruses. They are sometimes called the third sex, although before binary sex arose, they'd have been called the opposite sex! (were there anybody there with sufficient brains to do the calling).

The book is an easy read, and an enjoyable one. For many, it will introduce many subjects that one can then pursue in other works, and the bibliography contains plenty of excellent resources for that.