November 2006 Archives

Happy Thanksgiving

I'll mostly be cooking and eating today, so no time for a lengthy post. Anyway, I've practically been posting essays of late. Just wanted to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving! Not that, as a historical holiday, it isn't highly compromised; but everyone needs an excuse for a party now and then, so think of it as an old-fashioned harvest festival. Here's to good company and good wine.

As a reminder, tomorrow is Buy Nothing Day (known as Black Friday in the retail biz, which should speak for itself). So, you know, don't buy anything. It'll be good for the soul.

Free Energy?

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When I first moved into my neighborhood I kept seeing this ghostly red pinacle over the treetops. Thanks to the surrounding buildings you can only clearly see what's going on from a few vantage points, but I eventually found one and discovered that it's a watertower basking in neon glow.

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The source being the Pilsbury sign, facing off with the Gold Medal sign across the river, pictured last week. While not quite as efficient as something like a LED, the neon discharge tube is far and away the most energy-efficient technology able to produce light in this sort of industrial quantity.

Free as in Free Software, that is. Or to be a bit more slogantastic, not free as in beer (to quote the article I'm about to crtique, "free as in fusion"). How about free as in free to open a post in the least useful way possible, then?

Moving on. At my house we've been doing some winterizing, so energy is on my mind. One of the Debian bloggers pointed me to an article that proposes a free energy movement analogous to the Free Software or Free Culture phenomena. Obviously the parallel envisioned is in tactics, since software and joules behave fundamentally differently as commodities. See, e.g., conservation laws. And while I'm not sure the comparison drawn is sufficiently precise as to be useful, the underlying idea merits some thought.

At root, the question is how new technology and media -- specifically the many-to-many interactions that networked life delivers -- can be exploited to organically create more beneficial modes of relating to energy. Free Software created an alternative and self-amplifying marketplace for code that subverts copyright law to counteract the negative impacts of proprietary software. It worked as far back as the 1980s because, while networks only reached the technical elite, that audience was exactly the one with the skills and motivation to create software. Free Culture is a derivative effort to create an alternative marketplace for expression, designed to grow outside the bounds of media conglomeration, which is working because, again, the social classes with access to fast networks and multimedia hardware are also those priviledged with the leisure time and education to pursue creative endeavors without remuneration.

Come at from this direction, we see the outlines of why something analogous might work for energy. Most of the world's energy is consumed by technologically advanced Westerners (although the more useful term, I've stated before, is the Global North, not West), who are by now almost universally connected to global packet networks. We do run into a problem of motivation, since these affluent classes will also be best insulated from climate change -- but their lifestyles are the most sensitive to depleting nonrenewable energy reserves. Thus networks might be a plausible vector for change, but what is the mechanism?

The article gives product energy labeling as an example. In this scheme of things, networks can be used to collaboratively generate a shared symbolic vocabulary allowing consumers to directly compare, say, the carbon footprints of two products. The idea has merit. One notion that informs Free Software and Free Culture thinking is that everyday artifacts can be made disruptive in context. This can be done -- routinely is done -- by arranging for a mundane object to represent a question whose answer would otherwise have been taken for granted by the user. In the case of the above mentioned movements, the central question is, can I share this thing? For Free Energy the corresponding technique is to present the consumer with an unexpected choice, of how much energy to consume in using a thing.

There are a few problems here. Products are already awash in brands disguised as choices, for one thing, including those designed to mark some as more environmentally friendly than others. The trouble is that, with all those brands on the shelf, the choice is already framed as a three-way tug-of-war between altruism, quality, and price. So I don't think presenting an additional choice here is really all that revolutionary. There's a larger difficulty here, though.

Ultimately a scheme like product energy labelling is just tinkering at the margins, because we already know where our energy goes -- moving our heavy, ubiquitous vehicles and moderating the temperature swings of our temperate zone habitats. Energy efficiency in our engines and construction goes a long way, as does revamping our economy to move fewer people and things over shorter distances. Both of these goals require fairly substantial changes in the real world, but both are also driven by the economic choices of individuals. In short, most everyone already knows what to do to conserve energy: drive less, insulate buildings, buy goods that don't have to be shipped enormous distances. This should be common sense, except that right now energy costs less than skilled labor, efficient materials, or our own time. As long as energy remains artificially cheap these options will look like luxury lifestyle choices.

So insofar as our networks provide an infrastructure within which to collaboratively debug, upgrade, and disseminate improved lifestyles, we might be onto something. But we don't just need better symbolic vocabularies -- we need re-engineered marketplaces that correctly reflect the price of energy.

Week in Review

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Flying into the city at night this is how I can spot my neighborhood. The bright neon signs of the Gold Medal and Pilsbury flourmills face each other across the river three blocks from my house. 2006:11:08 22:21:51

Whew, busy week, but I think things are about back to normal after the election push and the catching up therefrom. Didn't quite keep all my balls in the air and completely flaked on a couple of things (sorry Gemma), but all in all we're in good shape.

My atmospheric turbulence video was more popular on YouTube than I would have thought, and has been viewed several hundred times now. Who knows, maybe there's some huge pent-up demand for 80s-filmstrip-quality instructional videos. I've got plenty more image sets like that, but since I animated the thing frame by frame I doubt it'll be a regular feature unless I suddenly acquire a lot more free time.

Billmon does the best job I've seen yet of summarizing the past couple of weeks:

A Bush in the White House, the Democrats in control of the House and Senate, Jimmy Baker, Robert Gates and now Larry Eagleburger making U.S. foreign policy, the neocons in retreat and the Sandinistas back in power in Nicaragua. I feel like I stepped into a political time warp and came out in 1989.

If that doesn't freak you out enough, here's a horror story from Pam at Pandagon. Morale of the story: watch out for fundies. On a brighter note, Ezra thinks a Democratic Congress might well get us universal health care after all, kind of despite itself.

Finally, today's picture. Sure, you may have a picture in your head of driving white and snow-blindness, but Minnesota in the winter isn't like that. Between the end of daylight savings and the already early sunset, it can happen that one's primary experience of this city is in darkness, and it's designed to be well-lit in compensation. So as we drive further into winter, expect more photos of luminous landmarks.

(I have recently come into possession of an actual tripod, so I will only get more obnoxious with this long-exposure work. I cannot control that.)

My Congressman

This is my new Congressional Representative: yesterday, Keith Ellison blew off a new-representatives' reception with Junior to attend an AFL-CIO event.

I like his style.

[Updated 18:15] -- swapped link to a Minneapolis local news outlet, although it appears to be the same AP wire story. Also got some attention on one of the big national blogs.

Video Noodlings: Moon Edition

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Continuation on a theme; this very theme in fact. The last time we were here I posted a GIF animation loop showing off the effect of atmospheric turbulence on my astrophotography.

To review: the moon, it did ripple and wave, thanks to the slight variations in the refractive index of air you get from density and temperature gradients. Since this sequence was shot from our refractor dome on a fairly warm night, most of what we saw represented turbulent mixing in the bottom few hundred meters of the atmosphere; the important factor there being the recently sun-warmed ground and buildings driving convection. (This never really stops, but in the winter when the ground's nice and chilly, it quiets down a lot. Not that this helps much with the dome seeing, since in winter it's generally already full of air that's much warmer than outside.)

Now in addition to assembling animated GIFs (in, say, GIMP), there are a number of command-line tools that will take a big collection of images and run them together into some kind of MPEG encoded movie. Which ordinarily wouldn't be so attractive to me, since it's always a pain to figure out what movie formats one's audience is able to view. But with the advent of YouTube I just have to work out how to encode for their system (320x240, MPEG-4) and away we go. So we have this movie now, which is a bit lower resolution than the original GIF loop, but since one can stick a great many more frames in an MPEG movie than in a GIF file, it's possible to make up the difference in the time domain. Check it out:

Hope

It's in the air, new and intoxicating. It's even in my comments: said Gemma, "Who knows, at this rate there may actually be fish in fifty years." There's a sense that we may finally be at the beginning of the end of a dark chapter in American history, or better. Connor: "This may end up being the Best Year Ever. Or even better, the beginning of the beginning..."

I've been wanting to share this article in which Chris Bowers attempts to define the progressive movement as fundamentally cultural, the political reflection of an emerging ethos of creativity and re-invention. It's a hopeful vision, even if he glosses over a number of important issues and caveats, and I'd be interested in hearing your take.

An anonymous commenter announces that Overheard at UChicago is open for business again, and looking for submissions. This started out as a Scavhunt item, but has the potential to be delightful in its own right.

Finally, my latest experiment in image-processing has turned cinematic. I took a bunch of rapid-fire pictures of that odd little snowstorm back in early October, and was looking for a good way to encode the motion of the flakes to help them stand out. And wound up making a movie of them. So I figured I'd just stick it on YouTube and share it with you folks. Enjoy:

More on Voting

Aaand, the election continues.

There are still 10 house races that haven't been called, a couple of which the Dems stand a good chance of flipping yet. However, the Florida-13th is turning out to be a special case. Whether by design or incompetance the voting there was flawed, and now Republicans are trying to steal the election there. Fittingly enough, it's Katherine Harris' old seat.

It's actually your pretty standard tale of electronic voting -- in one Democratic-leaning county a shocking 18,000 voters apparently cast no vote in the Congressional race, and without any paper trail there's no obvious way to check on that. Except that the local newspaper and Democratic campaign office received hundreds of complaints that voters couldn't find the race, or that their vote didn't seem to register on the machine. Unsurprisingly the Florida Secretary of State is refusing to investigate, so the local party is going to have to fight this one on their own. You can help them out here.

Which reminds me of something I saw a few days ago (via Lindsay) -- there's a company out there hawking a provably secure, open-source voting system for the modern age. They've got a cute little slideshow illustrating the basic idea, which is this: by borrowing some ideas from cryptography, it's possible to build a voting system that's nearly impossible to cheat. Once a ballot is voted it's impossible to know for whom it was cast, but the voters can prove to themselves that each vote was counted, the candidates can prove to themselves that the system is fair, and the head of elections can prove to everyone that the count is correct. If the new Congress pushes another round of voting reform (as it certainly should) systems like this should really be the gold standard against which proposals are weighed.

(Personally I think the technique is pretty neat, but since I don't really want to math out my audience I won't get into it unless you folks want me to.)

Short Updates

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It has been pointed out to me that when I post YouTube videos, they don't show up in the LiveJournal feed version of this blog. So LJ users: sometimes you just have to click through. In fact, it looks like none of the images or formatting really go through, so I'd bet this whole blog makes a lot less sense if you just read it on your friends-list page.

The past week I've been running nonstop like it's Scavhunt, so that's about it for today. But we've been having an interesting discussion on the implications of the election over at Connor's place if you're up for more.

Otherwise, I leave you with a photo.

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Jack'o'lanterns are inherently ephemeral things. I ran across these in north Minneapolis while GOTV doorknocking, and so much care went into them that I just had to make a record. 2006:11:04 15:26:49

Sweep. Yes, Most Definitely.

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We. Win. The AP is calling Montana, and it's not clear they'll even bother with recounts either there or in Virginia.

Newt's "Republican Revolution" took place in 1994, and even though the good guys have been slowly crawling back to parity ever since, this is really the first time since 1992 that it's felt like winning. First time in my active political life. And it is ... delicious.

There's a lot of work to do. The "Republican Revolution" is dead, but notice that they guy about to replace Rumsfield is an Iran/Contra old hand. Movement conservatives are basically political zombies, and it's time to finish them off. But also, stop for just a second and savor the moment.

It's a new day. A beautiful day.

Tentative: Sweep?

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Okay, so it's been a long run of losses, many so close we could taste them. So tonight is a sweet, sweet thing.

Because Good God, Sweet Creeping Zombie Jesus, and By the Noodly Appendage -- I think we did it!

I'm looking at the numbers now, and it's pretty much a cinch that when the new Democratic majority is seated in the House come January, we're going to have a larger majority than the Republicans have now. Plus we're totally dominating the governors' races -- although I will personally strangle Peter Hutchinson if he puts Pawlenty back in the state house, as it looks like he might have.

More speculatively, even money says we take the Senate by one, although what with the Virginia recount it'll be weeks before we know for sure. But I'll come out and say it: I think we took the Senate.

Vote!

This electon cycle's going to be all about turnout, which is why the Republican party would really rather you didn't bother voting. And in case you were fired up, they're ready and willing to fix you.

There are reports coming in from all over the country. Talking Points Memo, TAPPED, and Firedoglake have good running coverage as well. Just remember, they want you scared:

And seen by Shakespeare's Sister via Amanda:

They'll threaten us, even attack us, and it's time to stand up to the bullies. Vote.

PS. Cribbed directly from here:

1-888-DEM-VOTE for the DNC's voter hotline — this will get you directly to DNC lawyers and others to help with fraud issues.

Election Protection's 1-866-OUR-VOTE has live operators who can address some problems over the phone and dispatch lawyers on the ground, if necessary.

Common Cause's 1-866-MYVOTE-1 can help people find their polling place.

48 Hours

Prognostication:
America chooses change.
Can't wait for Wednesday!

Okay, so now there are slightly less than 48 hours until the polls close.

This morning it was announced that we knocked on just over 20,000 doors yesterday, according to our tally sheets. And that's just the Minneapolis operation -- America Votes pulled off about as many in St. Paul and Duluth on Saturday as well. (One of my roommates, meanwhile, has been in South Dakota all weekend door-knocking to repeal the Coathanger Act ... er, unconstitutional abortion ban.) By the end of the first shift today we had crossed off the entirety of north and northeast Minneapolis.

For the second shift we were joined by Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak and America Votes president Maggie Fox. The former took a shift of pavement pounding with us, although I didn't catch which ward he chose. Between shifts I added the above to a haiku board hanging on one wall of the makeshift America Votes assembly area, then I hit a couple of neighborhoods in south Minneapolis. Monday I'll be in the lab, then it's out again on Tuesday to prod people off to the polls.

It's not to late to help out. (Minneapolis: Monday night and Tuesday. Everywhere else.)

[Update: Election Day] -- Well, we did all we could. By Sunday evening we knocked on over 105,000 doors in Minnesota. I don't know how many more on Monday and today. Now we wait and see.

You Know Too Much

We may not be hearing any more stories of illegal imprisonment and torture like this one. It's a pretty nifty trick -- once you've been subjected to the CIA's tender mercies, they want to stamp your brain "top secret". If they get away with this, they never again need to worry about having to release detainees or allow layers to see them, because of national security.

Observe. From the Washington Post:

The Bush administration has told a federal judge that terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons should not be allowed to reveal details of the "alternative interrogation methods" that their captors used to get them to talk.

The government says in new court filings that those interrogation methods are now among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets and that their release -- even to the detainees' own attorneys -- "could reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage." Terrorists could use the information to train in counter-interrogation techniques and foil government efforts to elicit information about their methods and plots, according to government documents submitted to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Oct. 26.

The battle over legal rights for terrorism suspects detained for years in CIA prisons centers on Majid Khan, a 26-year-old former Catonsville resident who was one of 14 high-value detainees transferred in September from the "black" sites to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many detainees at Guantanamo, is seeking emergency access to him.

The government, in trying to block lawyers' access to the 14 detainees, effectively asserts that the detainees' experiences are a secret that should never be shared with the public.

Because Khan "was detained by CIA in this program, he may have come into possession of information, including locations of detention, conditions of detention, and alternative interrogation techniques that is classified at the TOP SECRET//SCI level," an affidavit from CIA Information Review Officer Marilyn A. Dorn states, using the acronym for "sensitive compartmented information."

96 Hours

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As of Friday evening, there were 96 hours remaining until the polls close on Tuesday. This is endgame, folks, when the ground operations swing into high gear to get voters to the booth, and the legal teams suit up to make sure Republican tricks don't force them away. The final round of surveys is winding up, and the Senate's going to be an absolute squeaker -- but we have the chance to build a Democratic majority in the House that will set back the conservative machine by a generation. But now the time for advocacy is pretty much over, and there's no more infrastructure to build. So this morning I was at the America Votes field office for my first shift of pavement pounding in the 96-hour final push (a bit of local coverage here).

Two three-hour shifts in north Minneapolis, and by my count I knocked on something like 120 doors ... and there were probably a hundred volunteers there today. A well-run GOTV operation, according to conventional wisdom, can tilt a midterm election by 1-2 percentage points. There's lots of races out there that'll be decided by less than that. I've got two more shifts tomorrow. What are you doing in the next 72 hours?

P.S. Anyone remember how David Horowitz finally went over the edge into tin-foil-hattery and discovered The Network? I have to say that the entry on America Votes somehow manages to be both reasonably informative and pure comedy gold.

Sunset

By my ephemeris, yesterday was the last day of 2006 that the sun will set after 5 pm in Minneapolis. The sun won't be visible after working hours again until January 17 of 20071.

Regarding the Hubble servicing mission I discussed earlier, I notice that DrSpiff is less enthused than most, judging it a "too little too late" effort. And while I would correct him on one point (the mission description I saw actually does devote a spacewalk to attempting to repair the STIS instrument), he makes a good argument that the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph doesn't seem like the best use of Hubble's very limited capacity. I also mentioned the possibility that HST won't even make it to the 2008 servicing mission window; DrSpiff pegs this at an alarming even odds chance.

Anecdotal hopeful sign of the times: It's well known that the 18-29 year old demographic has been breaking heavily Democratic for several years now, but can't be bothered to vote. If they do start showing up at the polls, the Republican party is royally screwed for a decade ... and now I'm starting to think that they will. Teaching lab today, I absolutely did not bring up the subject, but the election was just about the only topic of conversation at the group tables. I am heartened. Apparently, so are the pros, as every new analysis that comes out predicts a bigger landslide for the good guys. There's every chance that come January the Democratic majority in the House will be even larger than the Republican majority is now.

So make sure everyone you know votes.

1 The astute will notice something odd here: November 2 is about six weeks before the winter solstice, but January 17 is only four weeks after it. What gives with the asymmetry? As it turns out (I hadn't thought of this until just now, either, so I actually plotted it up!) our earliest sunset will be at 4:32 pm on December 10, even though the shortest day of the year doesn't arrive until December 21. Between those two dates, the sun will set later each day, but the sunrise will be later too, by a slightly larger amount. I'm not entirely convinced that I understand why this occurs.

Shop Talk

In a bit of self-promotion by proxy, I'd point those as have an interest at this article, wherein one of my old cosmology profs lays out in reasonably straightforward terms the theory behind the experiment my group is trying to pull off.

Check out this APOD from a couple of days ago. And my students complain that the Moon's hard to find whenever it's partly cloudy or not visible at 9 pm. Now if only we could make them record the phase of Venus as well...

The Centauri crew was sad that the starshade proposal didn't make the cut for this round of Discovery missions. I suspect the idea's awesome but not necessarily as workable as its proponents think. Still, there's a great journal club article in there for someone.

Oh, and I mailed in my absentee ballot today. Which made for an ideal excuse to make sure that everyone in my lab is planning to vote on Tuesday. And you'd better, too. They're talking about a Democratic blowout, but the thing that's driving it is turnout among independents fed up with incompetent (and criminal) Republican rule. That falls apart if you stay home thinking it's in the bag, so I'll be tromping about knocking on doors all weekend to remind them. Never mind love, if you're even vaguely fond of America (or what it could be), vote.

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