April 2006 Archives

Gasoline Rebates

The latest Republican quick fix scheme is apparently to write everyone a $100 check as a "rebate" for the high gasoline pump prices they're paying. It should be immediately obvious that this idea would be daft on its face even if we weren't running enormous fiscal budget deficits. Unlike the tax surplus "rebates" handed out a few years back, this is money that will come directly out of the Treasury general fund and have to be offset by reduced spending on other priorities. Since Bush has flatly rejected punitive taxes on the energy industry, you can't even try to justify it by claiming that it's a redistribution of wealth from price gougers back to the public. It's just a stealth one-time tax cut. Moreover, it's far too small to cover the difference between what people are paying and what politicians glibly claim they should have to pay, while at the same time will only serve to reinforce demand and drive actual prices higher still. So, worse than useless on all fronts.

Should this laughable thing actually pass, I plan to endorse my check over to the DFL.

Bikes ARE a Blessing

I know I've mentioned this phenomenon before, and encountered some dubiousness that such a thing be possible. Moving by bicycle: it can be done, especially if you have folks like the Chicago Critical Mass crowd to call on. Last weekend Rachel Friend pulled off a six-mile, single-trip move with the help of a couple dozen bike trailers, which was ambitious enough that it made the evening news (alternate link for the video).

Related news, in New York Earth Day can be celebrated by having your bicycle blessed. And if you're bicycle commuting in Manhattan, I'm sure you'll take all the help you can get.

Unicornitoad?

Now see, when I thought up yesterday's analogy with the frog, I so almost went with "saliva cures breast cancer," but that just didn't sound quite right. Shows what I know. Even as I was writing that, a webcomic was setting me straight.

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Distribution of mutations in the BRCA1 gene. Image Credit: Larry Brody, NCHGR, NIH, Bethesda, MD, USA

Gemma (who is welcome to this neighborhood's bunnies, but will have to come get them herself) finally got around to watching The Corporation the other day, and an interesting notion emerges:

When a genetic laboratory identifies a genetic sequence, their scientists can patent it immediately. For example, the gene that creates a predisposition towards breast cancer has been patented.

"Why," asked Tyromaven as we watched, "can't someone sue them for having breast cancer?"

Why not, indeed.

I'm hard-pressed to identify any concrete good resulting from the utter mess that is the present American patent system, so I'm inclined to sympathize with this sort of notion. It's exceedingly tempting to render the thing broken in some way fundamentally unacceptable to the incumbent stakeholders, because then there'd at least be a chance of starting over and getting something sensible out the other side. Perhaps unfortunately then, patents don't work like this.

So far, I find 35 different patents on the BRCA1 gene alone, one of the first to be definitively linked to a modestly common cancer. You have to slog through the claims sections to figure out what they actually cover, though, an ordeal complicated by the fact that the patent lawyers who wrote them took some pains to ensure they cover as much as possible. But no company claims to actually own a gene, in a "this gene of yours made me sick" kind of way. Patents theoretically give an inventor the exclusive right to make or sell some novel thing. However, this concept has been stretched beyond all recognition of late, to the point where one can patent a mathematical expression (in the form of software) or an ad campaign (as a business method). Compared to this, patenting life is a quite straightforward concept.

Consider a frog. Suppose you discover that its slime cures the common cold. You can't patent the frog or its slime, but you can certainly patent the (newly invented) process of using it to cure a cold. Now you take the slime-gene and insert it into a cow so the milk does a body a whole new kind of good. New cow and new milk, so there's a patent so only you can make (by breeding or otherwise) the cattle or sell the drink. You'll probably also patent the gene itself, and what that'll mean is that only you can use the gene to create useful new organisms or otherwise cure the common cold.

Finally, imagine that through some odd mutation you wind up with a copy of slime-gene in your own cells, and it's gonna make you croak. You're not using it to cure anybody's anything, and you're sure not making any money off of it, so the necessary conditions to activate the patent don't exist. Moreover, you'll notice that if either was true, this would put you in legal jeopardy, not the patent holder. In court all you have to work with are plain old tort laws, which say that the patent holder didn't do squat to you. Thus you lack standing, and case dismissed.

Likewise, the patents on BRCA1 and friends are generally of a piece; they list off sequences, protein codings, or identified mutations, and claim the right to use those to screen for, identify, or treat cancer, which in practice means licensing someone to make drugs or test kits to do the same. In particular, it's a good bet that nobody's patented using a BRCA1 mutation to cause cancer. In general, patents by their nature only create rights for the patent holder. Quite by design, the existence of a patent only benefits you, the average non-patent-holder, by theoretically making the fruits of research more available to you than if they were locked away as a trade secret.

And after all, if patents created some kind of opportunity-cost liability for the patent holder, don't you think somebody would be suing the pharmaceutical companies over the millions of Africans who will die this year because they can't afford the patented drugs for treatable diseases?

Tormenting 'wingers

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Okay, things are just sane enough around here that I might try posting three times this week. Such daring! We'll see how that goes. Since folks have been asking, plans are definitely afoot to Hunt me some Scav (not Snorlax) next month. I don't know exactly what days I'll be in Chicago, as that is somewhat dependent upon my ability to bend time and space to my will or, to be more precise, reschedule finals week. Offers of crash space are gladly accepted. If I owe you a lunch date, let's talk.

If you were to, say, contract Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and be medically forbidden to type with your dominant hand, but still had papers to write and the like, you'd probably want one of these, wouldn't you? Except, we usually mouse with our dominant hands, so I don't know if the party this is intended for is reading.

Now here's a handy reference! The good folks at Firedoglake have been running a series of articles conclusively demonstrating once and for all that the Republican base is a, and I love this phrase, "racist freak show." This post summarizes the series and links to the previous installments. So the next time a Republican accuses you of being unserious unless you first denouce Howard Dean or Jessie Jackson, point 'em here and ask 'em what they think of their own base.

And speaking of making Right-winger heads explode, try this line next time you run into an abortion protestor: "If a fire breaks out in a fertility clinic, who do you save -- a Petri dish with five blastula or the two year-old child?" Not, you know, to make any sort of point, but just for good old-fashioned head-spinning fun.

Thank you, and good night.

Pan-American Maglev

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Baby rabbits are oddly proportioned little things on their best days. Also, none too bright. This one required some coaxing to transport itself out of the busy bike lane. It takes a special kind of animal obliviousness to almost get flattened by a bicycle. 2006:04:17 20:00:11

What with Scavhunt, semester's end, and optics fabrication looming large, my inclination would be to take a cue from Connor and declare EGAD to be in Fluff Mode for the time being. But then I realized that EGAD pretty much is fluff anyway, even if it is interspersed with bouts of scientific or social analytic pseudo-rigour. All I can do is warn you to expect an even lower density of actual thoughtful posting for the next few weeks.

Today, for instance, is pretty much linkage and random thoughts. And baby bunnies, 'cause it's that time of year.

My house acquired a new roommate recently. Leo replaces Ian, the fresh-out-of-high-school slacker with an absentee band who proved unable to hold down a job long enough to pay his bills. And if you know how little it costs to live at my place, you'll realize just what a committed bit of slacking that had to have been. Leo is Argentinian and kind of hyperactive, but altogether employed, so that's cool. When he found out that I'm an astronomer he was extremely curious to know just why there aren't rocket trains yet that would let him visit home in an hour. We had a conversation about acceleration and energy efficiency, leaving aside for the time being why he would expect an astronomer to know anything about rocket trains. But now I've got the beginnings of a seemingly inevitable idea in my head: the Pan-American maglev.

Speaking of Scavhunt, and in keeping with the apparent trend of ex-UofC-ites wandering off to Minnesota, I ran into a certain notorious ex-Judge with Jedi tendencies the other day. Yes, Sebastian is now in law school just across the river, meaning that the two people who covered the most miles to attend last year's Hunt will be covering exactly the same number of miles this year.

Courtesy Lydia, there's a fellow attempting, with considerable success, to build a flippin' Difference Engine out of Legos. Which is just tremendously cool, and might just be what it takes to renew my desire to build the prototype Clock of the Long Now, preferably out of something awesome like Legos.

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So I'm biking home the other night and I notice that a clutch of rabbits has recently hatched, but that Mom, being a rabbit after all, has been scared by the passing traffic and retreated to a neighboring yard. So these little bits are crawling around generally munching grass and being obtrusively tiny, and at least one has fallen off the curb and into the street. That one gets a poke in the backside from my sandal to prod it out of the road. I assume they'll figure out the whole flighty nervous rabbit thing at some later date. 2006:04:17 20:01:12

Several of these come from the Chicago Critical Mass mailing list, because I hadn't read it in a couple of weeks and had to clean it out. It's a rather high-volume list.

I learned that England also has some remarkably lousy bike lanes. Makes me feel better about the center lanes downtown that randomly stop and start.

It appears that I can get a roundtrip from here to Chicago and back for $25, and that's a quarter the price of the equivalent Greyhound ticket! Anyone know if these MegaBus.com folks are legit? Anyone used them before?

Purdue won this year's National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest with a 215-step paper shredder. On which topic, one of my labmates showed me The Cog, an astounding Rube Goldberg-worthy Honda ad that apparently attained viral status in 2003. You can still watch it here.

Cool idea: location-efficient mortgages. Get a better loan for buying in an area where you won't have to spend so much on transportation. Not available in Minneapolis, sadly, but if it's already in Chicago we can't be that far behind. There's also developments in some cities that have prime locations (London in particular comes to mind), but strongly discourage or even forbid car ownership. Because New Urbanism is the new hot thing.

Aaaaand ... We're Done

Okay, that should be the last proposal of the season for me. The big important ones should be at NASA HQ by now, but I had to finish off this request for time on the supercomputers. I've got non-sitting-at-a-computer stuff to catch up on now, including but not limited to sleep, so that's a wrap for the weekend I think. Not including my taxes, thank the Maker. That sort of thing I took care of a month back, for pretty much this reason.

To those so embedded, have a good Easter and/or rest of Pesach.

Rites

Tonight Jews worldwide celebrate the Pesach Seder of the Jewish year 5766. Half meal, half religious ceremony, there will be prayers and songs, questions and games, unpallatable ritual herbs and bounteous feasting. Good times for all, on the whole.

Christians likewise celebrate Passover tonight, although they generally think of it as Maundy, or Holy, Thursday. In Christian tradition, the Last Supper is believed to have been a Pesach Seder meal, and most years the Thursday of Holy Week is the same day as the first day of Pesach. (Some years it's a week or so off, due to slight differences in how the two religions compute it.) A somber Mass is celebrated. Same idea, less food, but you can get your feet washed if you like.

When I got back to the physics building from the evening service, Campus Crusade's weekly Thursday Jesus Rock Sing-a-long was in full swing. This was quite the contrast. They weren't doing anything obviously different from their usual routine, though.

Potato

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Also, should anybody happen to be on campus in Chicago today and run across curiously-positioned potatos (in a turtle-on-a-fencepost kind of way), take note. Maybe even take a picture and post it somewhere. I'm curious to see how a planned operation went off last night.

Nerd Distractor

This may turn out to be too distracting to be allowed to live, but for now I'm tickled.

The sciences pre-print archive has had RSS feeds for a couple of years now, which let you do fun things like slurp the latest physics abstracts into a feed reader or blog aggregator. Or anything else that can read the RSS format.

A screensaver, for instance. Now, whenever nobody's using it, one of our lab computers will scroll the latest abstracts for astrophysics papers. In large enough font to be read from anywhere on that side of the lab. Nonstop.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I've hit upon a Venus Flytrap for astronomers.

Sources of Energy

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An ethanol-blend gas pump. Couldn't say where, exactly, but it's off this DoE page on biomass technology.

Good news; I got one of the research grants I was applying for last month. It's a small one, just a few grand to buy materials for a specific project, but every little bit helps. That brightened my day. Over and beyond the glorious mid-70s sunny weather and finally managing to break out a road bike, that is.

I've been digging into this After Oil special report that I mentioned yesterday. The first two articles are about the economics and politics of a biomass economy -- principally, replacing petroleum with plant oils. This is an attractive concept for a couple of reasons. Unlike solar or wind-generated electricity, oils behave like the oil we're used to: you can easily transport them, or make things out of them. Gram for gram, liquids like ethanol have vastly higher energy content than any battery, precisely the reason why gasoline and diesel are by far the dominant energy sources for transportation needs. Moreover, you can't weave clothes or mold containers out of pure energy, but the long carbon chains found in both organic and mineral oils are perfect for transforming into plastic.

The other big advantage to biomass energy is that, in a very real sense, it doesn't pollute. Yes, your biodiesel car will still have an exhaust pipe and the grass-fired powerplant will retain the smokestacks. But with plant inputs, most of the gases belched out into the atmosphere -- carbon dioxide, most significantly -- are just returning from whence they came the previous season. Assuming best practices for sustainable cultivation and clean combustion, energy from biomass is every bit as free as sunlight, and a good deal cheaper to collect than with photovoltaic cells. Ditto biopolymer plastics, which more often than not biodegrade right back into dirt and air.

Brian Schweitzer is seemingly a political anomaly, the popular Democratic governor of theoretically stolidly Republican Montana. His campaign revolved around what used to be thought of as tree-hugging environmental issues, wilderness conservation and sustainable energy. However, in a state that straddles the American farm belt and the mountain West, that's a powerful mix if you apply some common sense to the problem. One can't hunt, fish, hike, camp, if there's nowhere unspoiled to do it. On the question of energy, the article lets Schweitzer summarize with a story (that reminds me for some reason of the scene in Good Will Hunting wherein the title character improvs to the spooks why he doesn't care to work for the NSA, so I'd imagine delivery is everything):

After a recent speech to a Montana audience, the visiting U.S. undersecretary of agriculture took questions from the audience. Governor Schweitzer was allowed to pose the first question. The United States currently spends $6 billion a year to subsidize the grains we export, Schweitzer began. Farmers then give 40 percent of the price of their crops to the railroads to ship the grain to port; multinational corporations then use more energy to ship the grain to the Third World to sell it below the production costs of subsistence farmers driving them out of business, Schweitzer continued. We then send boats full of oil back across the ocean, with oil and grain tankers passing each other somewhere on the high seas. The unloaded oil is then refined and shipped back to rural America, where farmers again pick up the cost of freight. With farmers losing their land at home and abroad, energy prices out of control, and new threats to our security, Schweitzer concluded, shouldn’t we just invest that $6 billion a year in the production of oil seed, help farmers own a piece of refineries, and break our addiction to oil?

To which the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture replied: “Next!?

Sounds like simple common sense, but there's a potent economic argument to be made here. As the Morris article observes at length, farmers do rather poorly if all they do is grow food (except the organic farmers, whose niche is going gangbusters). The real value of a bushel of corn has been falling steadily for decades, just like most every other staple crop. However, in Minnesota and elsewhere they can make up much of that lost ground by starting coop ethanol plants (biorefineries, they call 'em), and at least here something like a third of corn farmers have bought shares in one. Unlike oil, biofuels can be produced anywhere, and since it's considerably cheaper to transport liquid fuel than trainloads of grain, the economies work out nicely to favor refinining in local or regional facilities that keep most of the profits in the region. Minnesota's been busy subsidizing this sort of thing, because someone worked out that three quarters of every dollar spent on gasoline leaves the state, but three quarters of every dollar spent on ethanol stays here.

But plants can't replace petroleum.

Harvesting every crop plant on Earth would handily replace the fossil carbon used in petrochemicals, and would maybe just barely cover the liquid fuels used for transportation in the United States. But all told, you're talking about ten to twenty percent of the coming century's energy needs, and we certainly still want to use plants for things like food and fibers and construction, too. In the end, plants are collectors of solar power, and their efficiency stinks. At best, photosynthesis captures a few percent of the solar energy falling on a plant. So while the solar energy irradiating the Earth's surface exceeds human needs by a factor of many thousands, the photosynthetic processes of all plant life on Earth captures perhaps ten times as much energy as we use. Presumably, it would not be sustainable to annually harvest a tenth of the world's total plant growth for energy alone. Ultimately we need either fusion or good (i.e. both efficient and cheap) solar conversion technology, but there's decent reason to believe that at least the latter will arrive in the next few decades. In the meanwhile, biostuffs will be an invaluable stopgap, and even in a solar world will play an important role in a fully sustainable economy.

Doctor Who

Just a programme note of sorts, the BBC has officially released the episode guide for the 2006 season of Doctor Who. It starts airing in the UK this week, as it happens. Which, locally, means we should think about having another marathon so we can finish up with the 2005 season.

Miscellaneous Updates

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It's sunny and the robins are posing for pictures again. And getting fat, as is their wont. 2006:04:07 09:44:35 et seq

While I continue to be busy with (funding) proposals and the like, I did endeavour to take advantage of the absurdly lovely weather this weekend. This involved more not blogging than usual, and more in the way of prepping for summer gardening and otherwise puttering about. With the exception of the sage, my first batch of herb seedings failed, probably because I didn't have anywhere sunny to set them where it wasn't also noticeably chilly. I've gotten ambitious and planned a vegetable garden for this year, so there was some plotting and poking things with a shovel as well. The first pepper seedlings are already coming in, so I'd better hurry up and prepare a spot to transplant them.

After too many months of dormancy, it looks like my old Scavhunt team is kicking into gear. Good thing, too, 'cause List Release is one month from today. Although the days are long past when I took an especially active hand in pre-Hunt groundwork, it still always finds a way to keep me occupied.

My web reading at the moment: the American Prospect special report on the Post-Oil Economy. Lots there, so it'll be a while before I've fully digested it.

I'm Prolific!

As a postscriptum, that last post appears to have put me over the line to get onto the U Library's list of most-posted blogs on the UThink University blogging system.

It's not that I write so very much (I sort of do, but you get no points for lots of long posts), but the vast majority of bloggers get bored after a few months, on average. It can be a pain sometimes, but on the whole I find this blogging thing's rather fun, so I guess I'll keep on plugging away.

Good-ish Legislative Outcomes

I know, it's a shock, but these things can happen. Of course it wouldn't be so unusual if regular folks were to wake up, try voting themselves out of the present mess, and stop electing Republicans. Just had to get that in as preface.

The big national story is that Massachusetts has enacted reforms that will, in principle, ensure that everyone in the state has health insurance by next year. It is, as Ezra Klein points out, far from the ideal system. But the people want it and the next governor will likely be a Democrat, so there's cause for cautious optimism.

Closer to home, the state Senate's Judiciary committee has rejected Constitutionally-mandated bigotry by declining to pass on to the full Senate a bill that would put on November's ballot an amendment denying "marriage or its legal equivalent" to same-sex couples. That's probably just as well for the Republicans, since when you tell them that civil unions would also be outlawed, something like three-quarters of Minnesotans disapprove. Still, it's the sort of issue that tends to break down into a divide between the conservative rural communities and the Twin Cities metropolitans, and that sort of polarization we can do without.

Archival Paper

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From the NPR article, the codex ends with the words, "Gospel of Judas." National Geographic Society © 2006

The story today that a 1700-year-old codex has been found and translated brings up an interesting point. The text contains, among other things, part of a Coptic translation of an older Greek Gnostic text dubbed the 'Gospel of Judas,' whose existence had long been inferred from other sources but never before found. Gnosticism, a concept derived from Platonic philosophy, flourished throughout the Hellenistic world in several sects associated with the early Christian movement. When the monolithic Church emerged, it declared Gnosticism a heresy and waged a long campaign to wipe it out.

So given that you believe yourself in possession of knowledge vital to the salvation of mankind, and given that sooner or later you will be found, forced to recant, and have all your books burned, what do you do? If you've had the forethought to copy the works into well-bound books (vellum would be best, but papyrus works if you're careful), the easiest thing is to seal them up in a jar and bury them in a desert cave somewhere, in the hopes that it'll stay hidden until enough centuries have passed that the ideas are safe again. Hence the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi library, and the current find. Among others.

And that, kids, is why, if you have anything really important to say, write it out on archival, acid-free paper. Fired clay tablets work well, too. Just be sure to do it in a widespread language that's not likely to be forgotten. Those Linear A inscriptions are interesting and all, but not nearly as useful as if we could actually read them.

Believe me, the modern world's not doing very well in this respect. Even the mass media is starting to notice (at least read the list; it's depressing but exceedingly funny).

Dehumanizing

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On NPR the other morning was some coverage of the latest Moussaoui case decision. Now that the jury's found him eligible for execution he moves on to final sentencing. And then appeals, most likely. But I digress.

A brief interview with some random family member of a 9-11 victim. On the way out of court, Moussaoui exclaimed, "you will never get my blood! God curse you all!" Apparently he does that a lot; he may have noticed that it freaks out the audience. Some were understandably upset, but not really for the reasons you'd assume.

"I'd describe him like a dog with rabies, one that cannot be cured, and the only cure is to, to put him or her to the death, " said one. Another, who lost her cousin Eddie on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, complained:

For him to leave the courtroom and say, 'you can't have my soul,' I mean, this man has no soul. He has no conscience. So what else could we ask for then this? For this part to end in this manner.

I'd really like to thank these two for nicely illustrating my biggest objection to capital punishment. I don't much care what happens to Moussaoui personally; it's nothing new to observe that every day many thousands die for no particular reason, and a great many live comfortably who've committed worse crimes than anything he's accused of. However, while closure is all well and good, slaking the public's thirst for vengeance is a terribly dangerous thing. The wars that turn vicious and stubborn get that way because the people on one side stop seeing the other as human, as worthy of being allowed to live as a default position. And while I doubt those interviewed would appreciate the irony, the rhetoric of dismissing one's enemy as a soulless and diseased animal is a favorite talking point of extreme Islamic fundamentalists as well.

Intelligent Design-ists: Still Kooks

Apparently I missed this particlar "national media firestorm," but hey, I'll link to anything that reinforces once again just how viciously crazy this crypto-creationist bunch can be. Now they're accusing a respectable ecologist of advocating planetary genocide by airborne Ebola. (These people seriously need to get out more, and try reading fewer pulp thrillers. Yes, this is me advocating that certain people read less. They clearly can't handle it.)

Anyhow, Nick Matzke summarizes and debunks nicely at Panda's Thumb. All kidding aside, get used to this extended McCarthyite moment. As PZ rightly notes, so long as the extreme right is in power, it's going to be increasingly the case that academic is the new commie.

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Suppose you found a few LEDs behind glass.

Ugh; working on submitting a proposal this week, but I'm trying to be good and at least post some kind of update every day. Today, a random thought inspired by an installation in Millenium Park from my trip to Chicago a few weeks back.

It turns out that, if you're Richard Daley, this is what you do with a bajillion LEDs.

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Okay, I lied. There are actually a goodly number of the things here, behind glass bricks.

LEDs are all kinds of neat devices. Using semiconductor engineering to harness the magic of quantum mechanics, Light Emitting Diodes turn electricity directly into light, commonly with better than 90% efficiency. In an incandescent light bulb the light is got out by brute force, by heating a strand of wire until it glows white hot. Like, hotter than the surface of the Sun hot. A light bulb makes a grand radiant space heater, in fact, but less than 10% of the energy you put in comes out as visible photons.

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Actually, you appear to be standing in front of a wall of LEDs behind a wall of glass bricks.

Ultimately the hope is that by using LEDs places like North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia that light up the globe like an ornament in space, drastically less power will be consumed by electric lighting. Before that can happen the white LED has to be perfected and the price needs to come down. Thanks to their quantum nature LEDs are much better at generating single spectral wavelengths of light, rather than the mix needed to appear white. They're already revolutionizing light in certain niches, however. The bulky D-cell powered flashlight will soon be extinct, for one thing, as hopefully will be the nuisance of finding that your flashlight's batteries are dead only after the breakers trip. Also, LEDs make it economical to build things that are always lit.

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Holy mayoral vanity project, Batman, that's a lot of LEDs!
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Oh! That's what you'd do? Really?

The other big advantage to LEDs it that, even when constantly lit, they can last literally decades before wearing out. This comes in handy in remote areas. Turns out, one surprising obstacle to human advancement in the developing world is the lack of artificial light after sunset in regions without electricity. An extra hour or two of light after outdoor activities come to an end means time to read books or newspapers or teach children. Not having to do this with crude kerosene lamps is a major boon to public health and safety. The Light Up the World Foundation is devoted to installing virtually indestructible solid state lighting systems based on LEDs combined with solar panels, pedal generators, or miniature wind or water turbines.

Which brings us back to the installation at hand. A low-power, highly rugged light source has plenty of applications right here in urban North America, too. In fact, LEDs work well nearly anywhere one might want to run a constant source of light, especially if you need a large number of them, or if they're hard to get access to, because in those cases changing bulbs that burned out becomes a major project in itself. Hence the gradual changeover of most traffic signals to LEDs, and the proliferation of LED display roadside billboards. And in Chicago, for reasons nobody quite comprehends, two enormous walls that display a constantly rotating selection of peoples' faces, every minute of every day.

Daylight Savings

See now, this whole daylight savings thing is just confusing. I didn't even notice that the afternoon was gone, because here it is after 5 pm already and it's still blazing sunlight outside. Maybe that's just by comparison though, since we did spend the last several days beneath the vortex of gray.

But what'll be really strange is next year, when US daylight saving time is extended clear back to mid-March and out to mid-November. This far north, if we're still on GMT+6 clear past Halloween, it's going to feel like the sun doesn't properly rise until lunchtime. As it is, all winter I'd glance at the sun when I went out for some mid-day chow, and think it must be 4 or 5 pm already because the sun's so low.

What I need to do, is spend some time tromping about near the poles. Then I won't notice these little quibbling differences between latitudes 29° and 45° so much. See, Antarctica will be good for me!

Onion Linkage and Like Dithering

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I'd say this article in the current Onion treats both the WWE and the Republicans' latest xenophobic immigration reform push with about the respect that they deserve.

The implied dig at Lucha Libre, on the other hand, rubs me the wrong way.

Recall that Where's George thing I mentioned a while back. I got three more Georgified bills the other day, although these were less prominently stamped than the first one; here's what the current stamp lookes like. That's four bills in about six weeks, which struck me as odd. Estimating the $1 bills I go through in an average week, that's probably 3-5% of the bills I touched in that time period. I must have similar habits to whomever is injecting them into the currency stream hereabouts, because otherwise that would come to a staggering number of the things in circulation.

Finally, I leave you with a thought. I don't know the originator, because it seems to have cropped up in similar form in several places on the internet simultaneously. Each instance begins with the observation, spurred by various articles in the mainstream media, breathlessly reporting facts that have been common knowledge to most anyone actually paying attention for some years now.

Namely, that the Iraq war will cost in excess of a trillion dollars, maybe more. The observation is that, given the CIA's figures for the demographics and economy of (either pre- or post-war) Iraq, the United States could have simply hired every working-age Iraqi for multiple decades. This, presumably, would have been less messy than fighting a large chunk of them for years on end. So think ... if only someone had thought to suggest that Cheney just give Halliburton a trillion bucks to hire the population of Iraq, we could have avoided this whole occupation.

Airmass Wholly Seasonal

Dean gave me a cool idea for visualizing the big cyclonic vortex spinning across the Great Lakes that's providing so much interesting weather and announcing rather boldly that the vernal season is upon us. Grab some of the archived hi-res visible imagery from the appropriate geostationary operational environmental satellite, which happens to be GOES-12 for North America. Shoot for near sunset to enhance the contrast of the cloudtop structures. A bit of cutting and stitching and overlaying the supplied map outlines, and voilà! One enormous low pressure system in sharp relief.

Fun fact: these systems are sometimes referred to as inland hurricanes due to their prominent vorticity and occasionally associated high winds. But the mechanism is completely different from a tropical system. These are driven by colliding airmasses of very different temperatures. That happens a lot in the spring.

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Image 0603312045G12I01, a mosaic of the Iowa and Great Lakes sectors. Click to enlarge.

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