Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sarah Palin Reactions...

From three of my favorite blogs: Protein Wisdom, The Anchoress, and Villanous Company. All three are well worth reading; the first is full of links that take you to all sorts of information...

Solar Irradiance vs. Climate...

Some scientists advocate the notion that small changes in solar irradiance (basically the brightness of the sun) make a major contribution to the changes in the Earth's climate, most especially the average temperature. I've seen bits and pieces of their work before, and while there are some very suggestive correllations, I haven't seen much in the way of plausible mechanisms explored.

Still, the apparent fact that solar irradiance is well-correllated with average global temperatures is very suggestive. I think we can be fairly certain that climate changes on Earth do not cause the sun to get brighter or dimmer. It's at least plausible on the face of it that changes in solar brightness do cause temperature changes on Earth. And it seems highly unlikely that a correllation like this could be a coincidence:
There's much more where this came from, in a very readable seven-page report available here (PDF). The discussion on the current solar cycle is particularly interesting...

Democrats Support Drilling!

Palin and Bullwinkle...

Politics of Personal Destruction...

The Clintons famously accused Republicans of engaging in the “politics of personal destruction” when accusations about Bill's dalliances emerged. Of course, the real masters of such politics are the Clintons themselves – most notoriously for the way they dealt with the “bimbo eruptions” that plagued the Clinton presidency.

Some lefties are now carrying on the tradition with a vile attack on Sarah Palin. They're accusing her of faking her last pregnancy to cover for the “fact” that her daughter (Bristol) was pregnant. The accusation is based entirely on amateur evaluation of carefully selected photographs, and on no actual evidence. Even worse than the accusation are the running commentary from Kos Kids and members of the Democratic Underground. Just awful. Makes me hang my head in mortification that these people are (presumably) fellow Americans.
It's so bad that even a number of the commenters are begging their fellows to stop raking this muck...

I know I'm voicing a fantasy when I say this, but...wouldn't it be wonderful to have a Presidential election campaign that focused on actual substantive issues?

Palin Visits the Troops...

I set out this morning to see if I could find anything at all – good or bad – about Palin's attitude toward our troops. I was especially looking for anything that occurred well before her getting the VP slot. In her Dayton speech, she referenced her son Track, who's in the Army and about to be deployed to Iraq – but politicians are slippery beasts, and I wanted some evidence that was uncolored by her recent leap onto the national stage.

Well, it wasn't hard to find what I was looking for, because it turns out that last year (2007), shortly into her tenure as Governor of Alaska, she embarked on a worldwide tour to the places where Alaska's troops are serving. The top photo shows her visiting with an injured soldier in Germany (which of course immediately brings to mind Obama's snub on his recent trip). The bottom photo shows her visiting with some Alaskan troops (their faces make their Inuit heritage evident) in Kuwait. This trip was widely – and very approvingly – covered in the contemporaneous press reports.

In addition to that tour, as Governor she has made many visits to military facilities in Alaska. It's also easy to find approving references to her by military support organizations, for whom she's made publicity appearances, helped with fund raising, and made contributions herself. Even before she was Governor she was involved in these efforts.

In other words, her record demonstrates a clear commitment to our troops. The news reports at the time have many quotes from the soldiers themselves – some what you'd expect from young men who get to sit down and talk with a beauty queen; others more substantive words of praise for their Governor who so obviously cares about them. Not a negative peep of any kind.

Chalk up one more plus in her column for me...

Saturday, August 30, 2008

War on Ants...

Anyone who lives in the high desert is familiar with the never-ending war against ants in the house. A house – perhaps especially a house with pets – is chock full of things that ants cherish. It's not even necessarily the food that they're after – sometimes it's just water, even splashes accidentally left on the countertop. No matter how carefully we clean up after ourselves, there always seems to be an inviting target for the ants – and the intrepid little explorer ants always find it.

Debbie absolutely loathes the ants. Me, I'm not too excited by them. But I've been doing my husbandly duty for years, trying every way I can think of to battle them. A few years ago we had our first success with the discovery of a spray formulation you can buy by mail that actually works. With this chemical warfare weapon, we were able to greatly reduce the ants living in the yard surrounding our house. This also reduced the ants we saw in the house, as many of them came from somewhere in the yard.

But it didn't eliminate the ants in the house, no matter how diligently I sprayed around the house. Without a single ant visible for several yards around the house, we'd still see hordes of them attacking some choice morsel. Usually this happened in the morning, when I'd be shaken out of my sleepiness by a shriek of dismay and anger from Debbie.

I figured that these ants must be living inside the house somewhere, or perhaps under the house. There are plenty of places that ants could use to sneak in – tiny cracks in the slab, the little spaces between cabinetry and the wall, and so on. Over time we came to suspect that there might be a colony of ants living in the very skinny-but-broad space under our granite countertops, just over the wood that underlies them. We still think that might be the case.

The challenge with these interior ants is that we don't really want to use our chemical weaponry on them. I have actually used it in a few careful cases, such as behind wood or under waterproof carpet cushion, where the chemical would be isolated from us and our pets. But we certainly wouldn't want to use it in a place like our kitchen!

A few weeks ago, Debbie and I started trying another strategy: we began patiently following the ants to find out where they were taking their ill-gotten gains. Inevitably the trail of ants led to an ant portal of some kind. One of the first things we discovered is that the ants in the kitchen were nearly all disappearing under the front edge of our countertops, where there was a roughly 1 mm crack between the edge of the rock and the wood supports. So I took out my new favorite anti-ant weapon – a tube of silicone caulking – and sealed all of that up.

A day or two later, the ants were back. So we followed them again, and discovered another ant portal behind the dishwasher. We sealed that up with more silicone caulking. A couple of days later, they popped out of another hole, so we sealed that one up. And so on, and on, and on – but not quite endlessly. As we've sealed up more and more of our house (which I'm now beginning to think of as a seive!), the ants were clearly having more and more trouble finding a way out. We are starting to think they have the look of desperation about them. And their numbers are down – way, way, down. We might actually be winning this war, and the total cost so far is two tubes of silicone caulking (from the Jamul Hardware Store, of course) and a few hours of our time. It's even taking on a bit of the aspect of a game, as Debbie and I track the little bastards down to their latest portal.

I decided to write this post because of an experience this morning. When I got up to make my morning tea, I noticed about a dozen ants going after the droplets of water in the kitchen sink. I followed them back, as has become our habit, and discovered that their new portal was in the vinyl framework of one of the bay windows in our kitchen. The ants had discovered an almost impossibly tiny crack – one sheet of paper would go into it, but not two sheets – and somehow they were squeezing through this. I think they really must be desperate! Five minutes later, that crack was sealed up.

I think our war on ants is almost over, and I'm almost ready to declare victory...

Steyn on Palin...

The incomparable Mark Steyn has a piece today about McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, and absolutely nails it. A selection:
What other country in the developed world produces beauty queens who hunt caribou and serve up a terrific moose stew? As an immigrant, I'm not saying I came to the United States purely to meet chicks like that, but it was certainly high on my list of priorities. And for the gun-totin' Miss Wasilla then to go on to become Governor while having five kids makes it an even more uniquely American story. Next to her resume, a guy who's done nothing but serve in the phony-baloney job of "community organizer" and write multiple autobiographies looks like just another creepily self-absorbed lifelong member of the full-time political class that infests every advanced democracy.
I kinda like the whole naughty librarian vibe.
But do go read the whole thing!

Rain in Lawson Valley...

Not a whole lot, mind you -- just 2 mm (about 0.1 inch) as I write this. But the rocks are wet, the normally-black moss is bright green, the frogs are ecstatic, and it hasn't stopped yet...

Startup of the Week...

InformationWeek magazine is profiling the company I work for as the “Startup of the Week”. Here's the lead:
"I founded this company to atone for my sins," says Fred Luddy, CEO of His transgression? Developing expensive and cumbersome IT management software while at Peregrine. Service-now provides help desk, change and configuration management, discovery, and more via easy-to-deploy SaaS. Can you forgive him?
Go read the whole thing, and decide for yourself if you forgive Fred.

Sarah Palin...

A couple of months ago, when I first heard Sarah Palin's name mentioned as a possibility for the VP slot with McCain, I did as much reading as I could about her – as I'd never heard of her before. The more I read about her, the firmer my conclusion: that there was no way McCain would choose her as his running mate. It would simply be too risky: she's light on experience (though not as light as The One), she's a solid, traditional conservative (as opposed to whatever the heck McCain is), and she's completely untested on the national stage.

Much of what I read and saw on video clips I really liked. An article written about her last year includes this paragraph, which matches what I've learned:
Her rise is a great (and rare) story of how adherence to principle--especially to transparency and accountability in government--can produce political success. And by the way, Palin is a conservative who only last month vetoed 13 percent of the state's proposed budget for capital projects. The cuts, the Anchorage Daily News said, "may be the biggest single-year line-item veto total in state history."
She is the antithesis of the pork barrel politician (a disease shared in a completely bipartisan fashion), a refreshingly direct and honest politician. Being attractive doesn't hurt a darned thing, nor does having a charming family that could have been carved from an All-American novel. She hunts, fishes, works on the family fishing boat on weekends, has five children. She also has a great track record of executive leadership, both in private business and in public service. The lefties are ignoring her roles other than governor and mayor, but the simple truth is that her experience is arguably more relevant to the Presidency than is The One's experiences, which are entirely non-executive. There's a good reason why so many more Presidents have been Governors than have been Congressmen.

Do I have any faults to find? A few, and all of the non-scary variety. She's a fundamentalist Christian, and on many issues I disagree with them. For example, as governor she has indicated a willingness (short of advocacy, though) for creationism to be taught in public schools alongside evolution. I strongly disagree with that, though in terms of importance that issue pales before national security.

In general, though, I am basically charmed by her choice as McCain's running mate. I'm not at all sure that it will play out well for McCain. For instance, how will she do in a debate with Joe Biden? I've seen video of her being interviewed by a hostile journalist, and I was impressed with her speaking and debating skills – but does she have the depth of knowledge at the national and international level that would enable her to hold her own with Joe ("The Mouth") Biden? And of course the rabidly pro-Obama press pirahnas will be all over every little gaffe she makes – real or imagined, relevant or not.

I'm fascinated that McCain would choose the one mentioned candidate that I was almost certain he would not. However he got there, the fact that he's chosen a solidly conservative, relatively young, female, status quo-bucking running mate has got to be shaking up the opposition a bit.
And yes, an attractive female, wearing a skirt no less. The fact that the Republicans nominated a woman, and not the Democrats, is already rankling more than a few Hillary supporters (their blogs are full of bitter commentary on the topic).

An already interesting campaign, albeit bereft of interesting Presidential candidates, just got more interesting. And entertaining, I'm sure...

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Some wit coined the term “Barackopolis” for the stage set in Invesco Field where The One will deliver his acceptance speech tonight. Though the venue is not yet open to the public, there are innumerable photos and videos available of the grand stage set, which strongly resembles Hollywood notions of ancient Roman or Greek temples. The McCain campaign has already poked fun at this, by publishing tongue-in-cheek guides for how to dress appropriately to attend the speech – in togas, of course.

I'm more bemused than amused at this. It strikes me as a perfect metaphor for the Democratic party: the party of personalities, rather than of ideas or ability. The party that promotes a rock star, instead of a doer. It makes perfect sense that there would be a grand, high-tech stage for such a candidate. I'll be disappointed if the presentation tonight doesn't include an automated light show, heavily engineered audio, careful attention to video-friendly lighting, foot-thumpin' music, and (of course!) spectacular fireworks.

On the other hand, I'll be very surprised to hear any actual ideas, plans, or commitments...

And doesn't that fit the candidate perfectly?

So now we have one of our major parties producing an entertainment spectacular instead of a public debate on ideas and issues, and in place of any real platform of plans and commitments. Let's hope that the other party can rise above this, even if just a little.

Here's a ponder for you, though. Suppose, for a moment, that The One wins the election – that the rock star campaign wins the popular vote. What do you think that portends for our future?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Watching Hillary...

I did not watch Hillary's speech last night – that is not the sort of thing that I could stand to sit through an entire hour-plus of. But, thanks to the magic of the Internet, this morning I watched several clips of the “highlights” of her speech. Here's some things that occurred to me as I watched:
  • Her loss to The One has spared the U.S. citizenry from possibly dangerous exposure to one of the worst public speakers on the national stage since the dawn of television.

  • What's up with the bright orange pantsuit? As my retinas burned, I had two thoughts: (1) she looked like a sort of psychodelic Chairman Mao, and (2) Sheriff Joe Arpaio must have been involved in the design.

  • Those bulging eyeballs have to be mechanically aided somehow. Normal human anatomy does not include eyeball pusher-outers.

  • Jaysus, woman, the shriek – please, please, please do something about the shriek!

  • I didn't detect even a whiff of genuine support for The One – my overwhelming impression was of someone bulling through an extremely uncomfortable duty in a minimally acceptable fashion, giving off vibrations of righteous indignation that nearly shimmered in the air. The frequent cut-aways to Mrs. One showed her looking less-than-thrilled, and it's easy to understand why.
Hey, I didn't promise you intellectual stimulation at 5 in the morning!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

She's Right...

Here's a McCain ad that speaks directly to the only important reason I'll vote for him over The One:

I'm deeply disappointed by both candidates, but...on the one issue that I am most concerned about (radical fundamentalist Islam), there is a clear difference between the two. I cannot even imagine Obama having a constructive or effective response to a terrorist attack, whereas I'm confident that McCain's response would be robust. And that's reason enough, in my book, to vote for McCain...

Yes, Hilary was right...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Over the Cliff?

New Jersey (the state I grew up in, and escaped from over 30 years ago) is a political and economic disaster. For well over 100 years, New Jersey has been a leader within the U.S. – a leader in corruption, taxation, and leeching the life out of legitimate businesses, that is. I had several jobs there while a teenager, and even as an entry-level employee the pervasive corruption those businesses operated in was evident.

My parents and one brother still live there, for reasons I've never been able to fathom.

Stephen Malanga, writing in City Journal, has an excellent piece about the most recent shenanigans in New Jersey. The lead:
The state’s leaders seem determined to drive it off a cliff.

Adam Smith once wrote that there’s a “great deal of ruin in a nation,” by which he meant that it takes an awful lot of bungling by political leaders to bring down a powerful and prosperous state. Today, New Jersey pols are giving Smith’s thesis quite a test drive. They are steering the Garden State toward ruin at an astonishing pace, and no amount of bad economic news seems capable of deterring them.

The latest indication of the state’s decline is the rapid deterioration of its newspapers, which rely heavily on the local economy and thus are good barometers of a community’s conditions. New Jersey’s biggest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, once one of America’s most profitable papers, is cutting 20 percent of its workforce because it’s losing more than $30 million annually, while the Bergen Record, to stay viable, is closing its headquarters and sending most of its reporters to work out of their homes. Six Gannett newspapers in the state are cutting jobs and planning early retirements for their employees.

Though Jersey’s papers are to an extent suffering the afflictions—like the flow of advertising dollars to the Internet—that plague the newspaper industry generally, they are also being hammered by the state’s considerable economic woes. The Star-Ledger’s owner, Advance Publications, says that the paper is doing far worse than the company’s papers in other markets. That’s not surprising, because Jersey never recovered as did the rest of the nation (New York included) from the recession of 2002. Only government employment soared in the state from 2003 through 2007, while private job rolls grew a meager 1.8 percent, mostly through the addition of low-wage service employment. In 2006, when the country was in the middle of an economic boom, New Jersey, virtually alone among the states, faced a crushing budget deficit of $4.5 billion that prompted an embarrassing shutdown of state government.

There's much more. Read the whole thing.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Word Games...

My cousin Mike passed along this great collection of word play:
I wondered why the base ball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.

Police were called to a day care where a 3-yr-old was resisting a rest.

Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off? He's all right now.

The roundest knight at King Arthur's round table was Sir Cumference.

To write with a broken pencil is pointless.

When fish are in schools, they sometimes take debate.

The short fortune teller who escaped from prison was a small medium at large.

A thief who stole a calendar got 12 months.

A thief fell and broke his leg in wet cement. He became a hardened criminal.

When the smog lifts in Los Angeles , U.C.L.A.

The dead batteries were given out free of charge.

A dentist and a manicurist fought tooth and nail.

A bicycle can't stand alone; it is two tired.

A will is a dead giveaway.

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

A backward poet writes inverse.

In a democracy it's your vote that counts; in feudalism, it's your Count that votes.

A chicken crossing the road, poultry in motion.

If you don't pay your exorcist you can get repossessed.

Show me a piano falling down a mine shaft and I'll show you A-flat miner..

The guy who fell into an upholstery machine was fully recovered.

A grenade fell onto a kitchen floor in France, resulted in Linoleum Blownapart.

You are stuck with your debt if you can't budge it.

A calendar's days are numbered.

A lot of money is tainted: 'Taint yours, and 'taint mine. ('Taint none of it mine lately!!)

A boiled egg is hard to beat.

He had a photographic memory which was never developed.

Those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.

When you've seen one shopping center, you've seen a mall.

When she saw her first strands of gray hair, she thought she'd dye.

Bakers trade bread recipes on a knead to know basis.

Santa's helpers are subordinate clauses.

Acupuncture: a jab well done.
Thanks, Mike!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Students and Their Metaphors...

Simi L. passed along this list of metaphors and analogies, allegedly a collection of actual student submissions. Their teachers entered them in a contest, and this list has the winners. I've not been able to verify the accuracy of that claim, but...who cares? These things are darned funny!
1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She ha d a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease .

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are known to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for awhile.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.
It's hard to pick a favorite out of such a wonderful selection, but if forced to choose, I think I'd go for #18...

Thanks for passing that along, Simi...

If Only It Was REALLY This Easy!

My mom sent this along:
  1. Open a new file in your computer.
  2. Name it 'Barack Obama'.
  3. Send it to the Recycle Bin.
  4. Empty the Recycle Bin.
  5. Your PC will ask you: 'Do you really want to get rid of 'Barack Obama?'
  6. Firmly Click 'Yes.'
  7. Feel better?
GOOD! - Tomorrow we'll do Nancy Pelosi…
On my Mac, it's even better: it doesn't ask, it just does it.

But I got to thinking: on a PC, you're sending the politician to the “recycle bin”. Is that really what we want? I think not – even if only for a moment – so here's a slightly modified version of the above:
  1. Create a new file in your computer and name it "Barack Obama" (because surely you don't already have one!).
  2. While holding the Shift key down, right-click on that file.
  3. Your PC will ask you: "Do you want to permanently delete Barack Obama?".
  4. Firmly click "Yes"!
  5. Feel better?
GOOD! - Tomorrow we'll do Nancy Pelosi…

Native JavaScript? Almost...

For several years it's been clear that standard practice in software architecture has been moving away from client/server (with big, clunky application programs that have to be installed on each user's computer) toward browser-based applications (where nothing specific to the application has to be installed on the client computer). This is true not only on the public Internet (think Google Maps, or Yahoo Mail, or any one of thousands of similar web sites) but also of corporate applications. Browser-based applications still are mostly HTML-based, with the use of JavaScript confined mainly to a little user interface “glue” where plain old HTML won't do the trick.

Increasingly, though, browser-based applications are making extensive use of the JavaScript programming environment built into the web browser. Generally the first step in this direction is to put all the rendering code – the code that turns data into something visual that the user can interact with – into the browser. Applications written like this communicate essentially just data between the client and the server, not the HTML that renders the user interface.

Another step in this direction is to move the application's logic into JavaScript on the browser. Like any architectural choice, there are pros and cons to this. Two main reasons to move application logic into the browser seem to dominate when this choice is made: (1) scalability is improved because CPU cycles are moved from the central server to the distributed users, and (2) the application's responsiveness is improved because many visible decisions can be made entirely on the user's computer, with no communication to the server required.

This logical next step in the evolution of browser-based architectures has been held up to some extent by something that software developers have little control over: the speed of the JavaScript environment. By “speed”, I mean the number of instructions per second that can be executed. JavaScript is one of the sloths of the programming world, and that means that computationally intensive application programs suffer from sluggishness when run in a browser.

But that may be changing, and sooner than I'd have thought: the Mozilla team is readying a new optimization technology that promises to make JavaScript much faster. The promise is made more believable by the fact that they're already demonstrating a more than 2:1 improvement overall, and more than 20:1 in certain areas that matter greatly to certain kinds of applications. From the Ars Technica article:

The theories behind tracing optimization were pioneered by Dr. Michael Franz and Dr. Andreas Gal, research scientists at the University of California, Irvine. The tracing mechanism records the path of execution at runtime and generates compiled code that can be used next time that a particular path is reached. This makes it possible to flatten out loops and nested method calls into a linear stream of instructions that is more conducive to conventional optimization techniques. Tracing optimization is particularly effective in dynamic languages and also has a very light memory footprint relative to alternative approaches.


To get a real-world performance increase right now, Mozilla has adapted the tracing technology and Adobe's nanojit so that they can be integrated directly into SpiderMonkey, the JavaScript interpreter that is used in Firefox 3. This has produced a massive speedup that far surpasses what is currently possible with Tamarin-tracing. In addition to empowering web developers, the optimizations will also improve the general performance of the browser itself and many extensions because many components of the program are coded with JavaScript.

This is very welcome news for anyone who (like me!) writes web applications for a living. It's yet another reason to move to Firefox, if you haven't done so already!

End Times...

Today's Day-By-Day perfectly captured a happy thought I've had more and more frequently over the past couple of months:

It's Biden...

I didn't expect to be surprised by Obama's choice for VP, but I am. For reasons that completely escape me, The One picked the man who is arguably the Senate's most notorious intellectual lightweight. Joe “The Mouth” Biden is most famous for his rambling, incoherent, and oops-filled extemporaneous comments in public places – often captured on tape, because, as the saying goes, it's downright dangerous to get between Joe Biden and a camera or a microphone. YouTube has hundreds of Biden clips, many of them exactly the sort of embarrassing (and revealing) comments for which he is famous.

The McCain camp has obviously been preparing for this choice. Just a couple of hours after The One announced his choice, this advertisement appeared:

While this year's Presidential campaign lacks in the essentials – quality candidates – it certainly doesn't disappoint on the entertainment side. I've been very amused by the antics on both sides. Overall, I'm most impressed by McCain's campaign team – they've made very effective (and fast!) use of the “new media” for getting their message out, and their attacks on Obama have been far more honest and fact-based than those from the other side. The messages I've enjoyed the most are those (like the ad above) that make use of the opposing candidate's own words, in context. I enjoy watching these much as a boxing enthusiast enjoys watching a skilled boxer decimate his opponent…

Obama's choice of Joe Biden must be very welcome to the McCain team. So far as I can discern, it adds no substance to Obama's ticket, but adds a great deal of opportunity for pointed and irrefutable critique.

This could be more fun than I was expecting! The only way I can think of for this to get any more entertaining is if McCain's VP pick was for someone even older than him!

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Bear's Perspective...

Most of the reporting out of Georgia since the Russian invasion has been the standard sort of hyperbolic, low fact content, unintelligent fare that CNN pummels its audience with every day. I've ignored it completely, as it does more to confuse me than enlighten me. But recently a real journalist has gone to Georgia – the independent Michael Totten, who is one of the handful of “New Media” journalists who has managed to make a living from his thoughtful and courageous reporting. He's spent a lot of time in dangerous places over the past few years, most especially in Lebanon, where his voice has been the only clearheaded, objective reporting (in English, at least) that I've seen.

So when I read last week that Mr. Totten was headed for Georgia, I looked forward to some interesting and enlightening reporting. He does not disappoint in a commentary piece in today's WSJ. A taste:

Lia's husband had remained behind and arrived in Tbilisi shortly before I did. "He was trying to keep the house and the fields," she explained. "Afterward, he wanted to leave, but he was circled by soldiers. It was impossible. He was in the orchards hiding from the Russians in case they lit the house. He was walking and met the Russian soldiers and he made up his mind that he couldn't stay any more. The Russian soldiers called him and asked where he was going, if he was going to the American side."

"The Russians said this to him?" I said.

"My husband said he was going to see his family," she said. "And the Russians said again, 'Are you going to the American side?'"

"So the Russians view you as the American side, even though there are no Americans here."

"Yes," she said. "Because our way is for democracy."

Sen. John McCain may have overstated things a bit when, shortly after the war started, he said, "We are all Georgians now." But apparently even rank-and-file Russian soldiers view the Georgians and Americans as allies. Likewise, these simple Georgian country women seem to understand who their friends and enemies are. "I am very thankful to the West," Maya said as her eyes welled up with tears. "They support us so much. We thought we were alone. I am so thankful for the support we have from the United States and from the West."

The “American side”. How interesting, and how telling.

As many other observers have noted, if you're old enough to remember the Cold War (and I am), then this is eerily familiar stuff. The mindset back then was that every war was a proxy war for the two superpowers – exactly what Mr. Totten reports about those Russian soldiers.

Russia, through its new “Czar Vladimir”, seems to have made a momentous choice. It could easily have chosen to integrate into the rest of the world's economy and political body. The Eastern European example, one would think, would be compelling. But it would only be compelling to those interested in their people's welfare, as opposed to personal enrichment and power – and it seems clear from his actions that Czar Vladimir has little concern for his people's welfare. The events in Georgia feel like a new escalation in the seemingly inexorable movement from a hopeful outlook for a peaceful, integrated Russia to a new era of superpower confrontation.

I can only hope that the rest of the world navigates this period with more success than they did at the outbreak of the first Cold War. If there is enough pressure brought to bear on the Bear, then the Bear may yet back down. There were some very positive steps visible last week, such as the Polish agreement to host an anti-missile defense system. You can tell they were positive from the beligerent response from the Russians, so reminiscent of the predictable Soviet bleatings in the Cold War. I hope there's even more of this going on in the shadows...

Mr. Totten promises much more, this weekend, on his personal site.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Drug Use...

The chart at right summarizes the findings of a study recently published at the Public Library of Science (PLoS). As usual, click to enlarge it.

There are lots of interesting findings in here, but I'm going to focus on just one: marijuana use in the U.S. vs. the Netherlands. I'm picking on that one because here in the U.S., marijuana use is illegal (though enforcement in many areas is almost non-existent), and in the Netherlands it is legal (you can walk into a coffee shop and buy the stuff). The study found that 42% of Americans surveyed claimed to have at least tried marijuana, versus just 20% of the Dutch.

That “war on drugs” sure has been successful, hasn't it?

People who know me are often surprised that I believe drug use should be legalized here – because I don't use any illegal drugs (I do drink a glass of wine many evenings, but that's about the extent of my mind-altering drug use). So why do I advocate legalizing drugs? Most fundamentally, it's because I believe people should be free to make choices that harm themselves, if that's what they want to do. As a society, we're very inconsistent about which risky choices we allow. For example, in most areas one can gamble (even if it's just the lottery) legally – even though that's a demonstrably risky choice. It's legal for us to participate in risky sports. It's legal for us to smoke. It's legal for us to drink alcohol, if we're old enough. But for reasons that seem quite arbitrary and capricious to me, we don't allow people to use certain drugs that we've deemed illegal.

This study looks at drug use from a different perspective: what drugs are actually being used, and by what number of people? This is fascinating data, for many reasons, but for me most especially for its illumination of the grand failure of the war on drugs. All those people in jail, all those crimes committed to pay the price of drugs that is artificially stratospheric simply because they are illegal, and all that time, money, and energy wasted on a completely ineffective interdiction effort.

This data suggests that the most effective way to reduce drugs use might be to make them all legal – perhaps then our usage rates would drop to the low levels experienced by the Netherlands!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


My wife is addicted to watching the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), which is broadcast on satellite TV. Many mornings as I'm getting ready to leave for work, a PBR contest is on the television. As I'm drinking my tea, I'll hear the commentators talking about the bull riders and the bulls – and often those bulls have some interesting names. Some examples:
Snot Slinger
Butt Ugly
Chicken on a Chain
Cat Daddy
Fender Bender
Scene of the Crash
Voodoo Child
There's a sport with a sense of humor!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vote Democrat!

My brother Mark explains why he's going to vote Democrat:

I'm voting Democrat because I believe the government will do a better job of spending the money I earn than I would.

I'm voting Democrat because freedom of speech is fine as long as NOBODY (not a soul) is offended by it.

I'm voting Democrat because when we pull out of Iraq I trust that the bad guys will stop what they're doing because they will NOW just begin to think we're good people.

I'm voting Democrat because I believe that people who can't tell us if it will rain on Friday CAN tell us that the polar ice caps will melt away in ten years if I don't start driving a Prius.

I'm voting Democrat because I believe that business should not be allowed to make profits for themselves. They need to break even and give the rest away to the government for redistribution as THEY see fit.

I'm voting Democrat because I believe three or four pointy headed elitist liberals need to rewrite the Constitution every few days to suit some fringe kooks who would NEVER get their agendas past the voters.

I'm voting Democrat because I believe that when the terrorists don't have to hide from us over there, when they come over here I don't want to have any guns in the house to fight them off with..

I'm voting Democrat because I love the fact that I can now marry whomever or whatever I want. I've decided to marry my horse.

I'm voting Democrat because I believe oil companies' profits of 4% on a gallon of gas are obscene but the government taxing the same gallon of gas at 15% isn't.

I’m voting Democrat because Nancy Pelosi knows that we don’t need to drill for oil, and won’t allow a true vote in Congress to permit drilling in our own Country. I think sending $700 Billion per year to the Middle East, is good for my future.

I’m voting Democrat, because “we need change”, and I don’t have the time to listen, pay attention, and research what that means to MY future.

Makes ya wonder how anyone would EVER vote Republican now doesn't it?
Mark lives in New Jersey, which means that I can't really tell if he's serious about supporting the Democrats, or if this is a sarcastic rant. If you're not familiar with the general political climate in New Jersey, here's a calibration: I'm pretty sure that if Lenin were running in an election there, he would be the right-wing candidate...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Your Monday Morning Quotes...

A different kind of wisdom, from some of the usual – and not-so-usual – suspects:
A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.
-Thomas Jefferson

If you don't read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.
- Mark Twain

I contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.
-Winston Churchill

A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.
- George Bernard Shaw

A liberal is someone who feels a great debt to his fellow man; a debt he proposes to pay off with your money.
-G. Gordon Liddy

Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
-James Bovard, Civil Libertarian (1994)

Foreign aid might be defined as a transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.
-Douglas Casey, (Classmate of Bill Clinton at Georgetown University)

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.
-P.J. O'Rourke, Civil Libertarian

Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases:
If it moves, tax it;
If it keeps moving, regulate it...
and if it stops moving, subsidize it.
-Ronald Reagan (1986)

I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.
-Will Rogers

If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it's free!
-P.J. O'Rourke

In general, the art of government consists of taking as much money as possible from one party of the citizens to give to the other.
-Voltaire (1764)

Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you!
-Pericles (430 B.C.)

No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.
-Mark Twain (1866 )

Talk is cheap...except when Congress does it.

The government is like a baby's alimentary canal, with a happy appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other.
-Ronald Reagan

What this country needs are more unemployed politicians.
-Edward Langley, Artist (1928 - 1995)

The Wisdom of Wizards...

Friday, August 15, 2008

How Government Works...

You can read this as a pure joke, but there's enough truth in it to sting:
Three contractors are bidding to fix a broken fence at the White House in
D.C.; one from New Jersey, another from Tennessee and the third, from
Florida. They go with a White House official to examine the fence.

The Florida contractor takes out a tape measure and does some measuring,

then works some figures with a pencil. 'Well', he says, 'I figure the job
will run about $900; $400 for materials, $400 for my crew and $100 profit
for me.'

The Tennessee contractor also does some measuring and figuring, then says,

'I can do this job for $700; $300 for materials, $300 for my crew and $100
profit for me.'

The New Jersey contractor doesn't measure or figure, but leans over to the

White House official and whispers, '$2,700.'

The official, incredulous, says, 'You didn't even measure like the other

guys! How did you come up with such a high figure?'
The New Jersey contractor whispers back, '$1000 for me, $1000 for you, and
we hire the guy from Tennessee to fix the fence.'

'Done!' replies the government official.

And that, is how it all works!
The New Jersey contractor in the joke is exactly what a real New Jersey contractor would be like!

Tip of the hat to Jim M. for sending this along.

And speaking of New Jersey…for the past couple of days I've been enjoying New Jersey tomatoes, courtesy of my parents. I think they send me these boxes of tomatoes so that I'll have something good to say about the place. I've been eating them in one of my favorite dishes: garbanzos, tomatoes, raw sweet corn, a little summer savory, and a teaspoon or two of mayonaisse. Yum!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

We Are All Georgians...

John McCain has a commentary piece in today's WSJ titled We Are All Georgians. Here's the conclusion:

The world has learned at great cost the price of allowing aggression against free nations to go unchecked. A cease-fire that holds is a vital first step, but only one. With our allies, we now must stand in united purpose to persuade the Russian government to end violence permanently and withdraw its troops from Georgia. International monitors must gain immediate access to war-torn areas in order to avert an even greater humanitarian disaster, and we should ensure that emergency aid lifted by air and sea is delivered.

We should work toward the establishment of an independent, international peacekeeping force in the separatist regions, and stand ready to help our Georgian partners put their country back together. This will entail reviewing anew our relations with both Georgia and Russia. As the NATO secretary general has said, Georgia remains in line for alliance membership, and I hope NATO will move ahead with a membership track for both Georgia and Ukraine.

At the same time, we must make clear to Russia's leaders that the benefits they enjoy from being part of the civilized world require their respect for the values, stability and peace of that world. The U.S. has cancelled a planned joint military exercise with Russia, an important step in this direction.

The Georgian people have suffered before, and they suffer today. We must help them through this tragedy, and they should know that the thoughts, prayers and support of the American people are with them. This small democracy, far away from our shores, is an inspiration to all those who cherish our deepest ideals. As I told President Saakashvili on the day the cease-fire was declared, today we are all Georgians. We mustn't forget it.

The piece is interesting on its face (RTWT), but perhaps even more so for the leadership it demonstrates – in stark contrast with Obama sounding like a Putin lackey and Bush (until yesterday, at least) emulating a doormat. There's plenty I don't like about McCain, but on national security issues he really does stand out from Obama.

What a mess the situation in Georgia is. The news this morning is full of stories of Russia's many violations of the “ceasefire” they have so publicly agreed to. Putin's calculated maneuver's are frighteningly reminiscent of Hitler's first testings of Europe's will. But at least there's no Chamberlain at large on the world's stage...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

EPA Eviscerated?

This morning I received this email from Kristin Johnson at the National Wildlife Foundation:
Dear Friend of Wildlife,

According to leaked documents obtained by the National Wildlife Federation, the Bush Administration is planning to rollback protections for America's imperiled wildlife by re-writing the regulations of the Endangered Species Act.

If adopted, these changes would seriously weaken the safety net of habitat protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years.

We need your help to make sure this attack on the Endangered Species Act is met with a huge public outcry!

"Do not be fooled when the Administration claims it is merely tweaking the law," said NWF's John Kostyack, Executive Director of Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming.

"The cumulative impact of these changes equals a full blown attack on America's premier conservation law. We owe it to future generations to stop this attack and continue our legacy of protecting wildlife on the brink of extinction."

Please email Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and make sure he knows that the American people will not stand for any attempts to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

And please forward this email to any friend or family member who might speak up for wildlife too!

Thank you so much,
Kristin Johnson
Grassroots Mobilization Coordinator
National Wildlife Federation
Here's the AP's report on the reason for the preceding email:

The new regulations follow a pattern by the Bush administration not to seek input from its scientists. The regulations were drafted by attorneys at both the Interior and Commerce Departments. Scientists with both agencies were first briefed on the proposal last week during a conference call, according to an official who asked not to be identified.

Last month, in similar fashion, the Environmental Protection Agency surprised its scientific experts when it decided it did not want to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

The rule changes unveiled Monday would apply to any project a federal agency would fund, build or authorize that the agency itself determines is unlikely to harm endangered wildlife and their habitat. Government wildlife experts currently participate in tens of thousands of such reviews each year.

The revisions also would limit which effects can be considered harmful and set a 60-day deadline for wildlife experts to evaluate a project when they are asked to become involved. If no decision is made within 60 days, the project can move ahead.

"If adopted, these changes would seriously weaken the safety net of habitat protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years," said John Kostyack, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming initiative.

Under current law, federal agencies must consult with experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to jeopardize any endangered species or to damage habitat, even if no harm seems likely. This initial review usually results in accommodations that better protect the 1,353 animals and plants in the U.S. listed as threatened or endangered and determines whether a more formal analysis is warranted.

The EPA is beloved by radical environmentalists and many scientists because it has real teeth – exactly the kind of teeth that I and many others object to: the EPA permits (nay, mandates) the government to stop any use of private property that it deems is dangerous to endangered wildlife. The property owner is not compensated at all – his property (or the use of it) is simply taken from him. I object to this kind of government power on principle, no matter how worthy the cause. For this reason, I would like to see the EPA removed from law, or modified to include fair market value compensation for the affected property owners.

The EPA has another problem, and this is the one that the Bush administration is addressing: the government scientists currently charged with making the EPA reviews are themselves predominantly radical environmentalists. The inmates are in charge of the asylum. The decisions coming out of the EPA reviews have been tainted time and time again by deceptive “science” and even outright fraud (for example, the completely manufactured data that underlaid many of the decisions about spotted owl habitat, now freely admitted by the government scientists involved). Bush's proposed actions would take the review power away from that group and hand it to many other groups of bureaucrats. I suppose that may be a good idea, but I'm having trouble getting excited about the notion – I'd much rather see the underlying problems with the EPA addressed.

It's interesting to observe how organized science is subject to the same forces that affect the rest of humanity. Different branches of science get their funding in different ways, and this means that their incentives derive from different sources. The resulting behaviors are then (surprise!) much different. For example, materials scientists are mainly funded by companies or governmental organizations who are interested in specific results. An aircraft company might want a lighter window material; an electronics company purer silicon; an oil company cheaper refinery processes. Those scientists who can consistently produce more useful materials are rewarded – and guess what? We get more materials scientists who develop the miraculous materials we now use every day. How do environmental biologists get funded? The rock stars of that world are those who have succeeded in “proving” that species are endangered – even if in order to do that the scientist had to invent a new species (think of the Florida Panther) or invent his data (like the spotted owl) or selectively ignore populations (wolves are scare in the U.S., but common in Canada). We have a culture that encourages environmental biologists to “discover” endangered species, and to support protection for them whatever the cost to humans. Some balance would be very welcome here.

I could get very excited about a piece of government that combined compensated takings (along the lines of eminent domain before Kelo), science review (with emphasis on ecological impact rather than species impact), and economic review (to allow judgments about where mitigation dollars might best be spent). Then we Americans could collectively decide how important we thought this effort was, as measured directly by how much of our hard-earned treasure we're willing to spend on it.

But this is not what we have. Instead, we have uncompensated takings, highly biased “science”, and no consideration of the economics at all. We can hardly be surprised at the result. I'm not optimistic about any near-term reform, as this is not an issue that voters (a) understand, or (b) passionately care about in any interesting numbers...

Cassini Lives!

Great news – Cassini survived the Enceladus fly-by, and is currently transmitting data gathered during the fly-by to Earth. The science team, as you might guess, is jubilant. No pictures posted yet.

I'm looking forward to some great photos!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Weekend Activities...

I spent this weekend engaged in three very different activities: programming, gardening, and our ongoing war against ants. Somehow these three things blended and meshed in a way that was quite...comfortable.

At my job recently I've been working on making our SNMP-based discovery more efficient and much smarter. This weekend I implemented a kind of filtering that can reduce the amount of data we gather, transmit, and process by a factor of hundreds. The idea is simple: only gather the stuff we actually need. Implementing it was considerably more challenging, as it required making our “probe” (the piece of software that actually does the SNMP querying) much smarter than it has ever been before. I got it all working, and tested at home – a very satisfying accomplishment...

On Saturday afternoon, Debbie gave me a ride down to Rancho Jamul Auto Care to pick up my truck (we'd left it there Friday afternoon for routine maintenance). Dave took my $48 (about a fifth of what Toyota of El Cajon charges for the same maintenance) and returned my truck in tip-top shape. Then Debbie and I stopped at Simpson's nursery and picked up some supplies, a couple small pots of blue fescue (very decorative in pots on our patio) – and a couple five-gallon potted Cape Honeysuckles. We were looking for some handsome plants, something on the order of five feet tall and about the same width, to place in pots along our home's north-facing wall bordering our patio. We looked in the tree section in vain, and were about to give up when we spotted these Cape Honeysuckles growing in pots right by the trunk of an enormous old pepper tree (and therefore mostly shaded). These things had obviously been there a while, as they had huge roots growing out of the pots into the sandy soil beneath. They were very reasonably priced, so we bought two of them. I covered the exposed roots with wet newspaper and headed home with four-way flashers going, never going more than 25 MPH...

On Sunday morning, bright and early, Debbie and I went to work on the patio. It was already looking very nice, but now it is working on fabulous! First we potted our new Cape Honeysuckles, replacing one dead and one ailing lilac. We trimmed them up, wove a few of the branches into different directions, and voila! – two beautiful (and big!) additions to the patio. Then we went a little crazy, repotting somethings in bigger pots, raising a lot of pots up on log segments (these look really nice, adding some needed three-dimensionality to the plantings), rearranged a lot of things, added soil and mulch to many of the plants, and fertilized some of the wan-looking plants. When we were finished, I could hardly move – I pulled and stretched and over-extended just about every muscle and tendon in my body. But oh, what a nice-looking result! I'll post some pictures during the week...

Finally, the ongoing ant wars. Last weekend I sealed up all the places I could find where ants were sneaking into the kitchen and livingroom. I used nearly an entire tube of silicone caulking, and it was very effective. However, in the kitchen we were still finding ants somehow getting in. We tracked them down to the area of the dishwasher – somewhere behind there they were getting in. So Sunday afternoon I pulled the dishwasher out, and discovered several cracks between the countertop and the cabinets that the ants were using. I also spotted a crude hole in the wallboard, through which the electrical cable for the dishwasher was protruding. A few more cubic inches of silicone, and the ants will use this no more! This morning we found just a few ants in the kitchen, and Debbie spotted their entry point: a teensy little crack in the frame of our bay window. We're taking that as in indication of antly desperation – and I will pop a little silicone on that tonight.

Just another weekend in Jamul!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Cassini's Calculatedly Risky Move...

The Cassini mission to Saturn has been spectacularly successful – thanks to its work, mankind has gained more understanding of Saturn and its moons in the past few years than in all of previous human history. It's been – and continues to be – a great example of the effective scientific work that NASA and its associated teams can do when they aren't distracted (and de-funded) by the relatively useless manned space “exploration” projects such as the International Space Station (ISS).

Cassini finished its prime mission this past June, but its mission has been extended because the spacecraft is still functioning at 100%, and still has fuel. The project team has done a fantastic job of navigating Cassini through the Saturnian system, making dozens of passes by satellites and to interesting perspectives (especially of Saturn's rings). With all the mission's initial objectives behind them, the team can now consider some riskier moves – and that's exactly what they're doing.

The photo above shows one of the most intriguing of Cassini's many discoveries: the “jets” on the Saturnian moon Enceladus – you can see the backlit vapor shooting out roughly roughly the 8 o'clock position. On previous passes by Enceladus (some of them quite close), scientists have learned a great deal about these jets. They appear to emanate from deep cracks in the surface of the moon, and they are primarily comprised of tiny particles of water ice. Now the Cassini team is preparing to make the closest – and riskiest – pass yet: on Monday, August 11th, Cassini will pass a mere 30 miles (50 km) above Enceladus' surface, right through the jets. The main objective for this pass is imagery: all of Cassini's imaging systems will be used to get more information about those deep cracks – hopefully peering down right inside one of them.

On this NASA blog there's a marvelous little video (scroll down toward the bottom) that shows the amazingly complex dance that Cassini will do as it approaches, passes, and flys away from Enceladus. You can see the many maneuvers the spacecraft will be making during this pass, to aim various instruments at the desired targets. All of this will be done autonomously by Cassini – it will all happen so quickly that Cassini will be past and far away from Enceladus by the time the first data arrives back at Earth.

There is lots more good information available at the main Cassini site and on this NASA blog where some Cassini team members are writing about this pass.

Thursday, August 7, 2008 On YouTube!

I work for, primarily developing software that does “discovery” – finding out about the existence of any sort of equipment plugged into the network, and then finds out all about it. This software will discover workstations, servers, routers, switches, printers and just about any other kind of device you can imagine.

We're a small company – less than 100 employees worldwide – but we're making a big impact in our world of IT management. One of the ways we're reaching out to prospective customers is in the “new media”, such as YouTube. Here's one of our first YouTube offerings:

YouTube is owned by Google – and Google's technologies are one of the sources of inspiration for our software.

I can't help but think back to the days when I was involved in starting up a company. For example, back in the early '80s, a partner and I founded a company to sell practice management software to optometrists. In those days before YouTube, web sites, or even email, it was very expensive to simply get a message in front of our prospects. Primarily we used direct mail and trade shows. What a difference today's technologies make!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Quote of the Day...

As you may know, not long ago a couple hundred thousand Berliners made a lot of noise for my opponent. I'll take the roar of 50,000 Harleys any day.
John McCain, speaking at a campaign rally today.

Monday, August 4, 2008

RIP, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn...

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's writings – especially The Gulag Archipelago – played a large part in my personal political awakening. Until reading his books in the early '70s, I hadn't really spent much time thinking about political structures and governments. Solzhenitzyn's works brought home the evils of Soviet-style Communism in particular, and liberalism in general, in a manner that I found very persuasive. I re-read The Gulag Archipelago just a few years ago, and found it just as shocking now as it was then.

RIP, Aleksander. The world is a better place for your years here...

Beware Charismatic Politicians...

The indispensable Snopes has verified that this was published as a letter to the editor in the Richmond, Virginia Times-Dispatch, on July 7, 2008:
Beware Charismatic Men Who Preach 'Change'

Each year I get to celebrate Independence Day twice. On June 30 I celebrate my independence day and on July 4 I celebrate America's. This year is special, because it marks the 40th anniversary of my independence.

On June 30, 1968, I escaped Communist Cuba and a few months later I was in the United States to stay. That I happened to arrive in Richmond on Thanksgiving Day is just part of the story, but I digress.

I've thought a lot about the anniversary this year. The election-year rhetoric has made me think a lot about Cuba and what transpired there. In the late 1950s, most Cubans thought Cuba needed a change, and they were right. So when a young leader came along, every Cuban was at least receptive.

When the young leader spoke eloquently and passionately and denounced the old system, the press fell in love with him. They never questioned who his friends were or what he really believed in. When he said he would help the farmers and the poor and bring free medical care and education to all, everyone followed. When he said he would bring justice and equality to all, everyone said "Praise the Lord." And when the young leader said, "I will be for change and I'll bring you change," everyone yelled, "Viva Fidel!"

But nobody asked about the change, so by the time the executioner's guns went silent the people's guns had been taken away. By the time everyone was equal, they were equally poor, hungry, and oppressed. By the time everyone received their free education it was worth nothing. By the time the press noticed, it was too late, because they were now working for him. By the time the change was finally implemented Cuba had been knocked down a couple of notches to Third-World status. By the time the change was over more than a million people had taken to boats, rafts, and inner tubes. You can call those who made it ashore anywhere else in the world the most fortunate Cubans. And now I'm back to the beginning of my story.

Luckily, we would never fall in America for a young leader who promised change without asking, what change? How will you carry it out? What will it cost America?

Would we?

Manuel Alvarez Jr.
Sandy Hook
Snopes goes on to cite some ways in which Fidel Castro's rise to power didn't resemble Barack Obama's march. But there's enough truth in Mr. Alvarez's observations to give one pause. I'll also add that part of the “game” of politics is candidates without any particular ideology other than to win – and Obama, with all his flip-flopping, certainly seems to be a member of that species of political animal. His positions seem to depend entirely on the latest poll, and not at all on his core ideology (which I suspect he has not a whit of). McCain, on the other hand, seems to be something like a 80/20 mix of ideology and bending in the wind...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Wealth of Nations...

Megan McArdle posted the map at right (along with two other related and equally interesting maps) a couple days ago. Her post is mainly concerned with the indisputable fact that the wealthiest countries are all either part of the English-speaking world (the “Anglosphere”) or are near them.

First a word about this map (which you can click to enlarge): the darker the shade on the map, the more GDP per capita. The latter is a simple calculation: take the total value of all goods and services produced in a country (the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) and divide it by the number of people who live in that country. The scale is not linear – look carefully at the numbers on the legend.

Something else jumped out at me from this map: many of the “high-tension” parts of the world are around places where there are large disparities in GDP per capita: U.S. and Mexico, Israel and its neighbors, Europe and the Balkans, Nepal and China, etc. Is all conflict essentially economic? Or is economic disparity a prerequisite for violent conflict? Or is it just coincidence?

Solar Power Breakthrough?

Just a couple of days ago, MIT released a rather breathlessly worded press release proclaiming a new breakthrough technology their scientists had discovered – promising cheap, efficient solar power for everyone within 10 years. It's as bad a distortion of the scientists' accomplishments as you might see from a technology company self-adoring their latest product.

The MIT press release is very misleading – the new technology actually has nothing whatsoever to do with solar power, though it could certainly be used in solar power systems. And the new technology isn't ready to go to market; it's only been shown in a lab, and the vast majority of such “lab-ware” fails somewhere along the line between the lab and production. Nonetheless, there are some good reasons to be optimistic about this particular technology – from the descriptions released it seems quite simple and inherently cheap. But I wouldn't place any bets on it quite yet – many risks loom between here and your Solapower 2G5 on the shelves at Walmart…

What does their new technology actually do? Well, at the simplest level it provides an easy and efficient way to split ordinary water into hydrogen and oxygen gas (remember H2O – two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom in every water molecule). Once you have separate supplies of hydrogen and oxygen gas, you can recombine them into water, generating electricity in the process. With a system including the new water-splitter, some tanks, and a fuel cell (along with a few technical details I'm ignoring), you can put electricity into it now, and take electricity out of it later. That's the same thing a battery does – but this system is far more scalable (meaning that it can store much more power) and potentially far less expensive. Not to mention that it should be much more reliable.

So what does that have to do with solar power? Well, the dirty little secret of the solar power industry is that they have no reasonable way to power your house at night. Actually, it's far worse than that: even in the land of the sun where I live (Southern California), on a summer day we'd only get 8 - 10 hours of power, and only 6 - 8 in the winter. You can add batteries to your system, and more solar panels, to get 24x7 power – but only at huge costs, both initially and ongoing, as batteries only last 3 - 5 years.

Just last summer I calculated what it would cost for me to take my home completely off the electrical grid, relying only on solar power. The answer: approximately $220,000 initial investment, and about $35,000 per year in battery replacement costs. Of that cost, only $42,000 was the solar panels themselves (and their associated cleaning and pointing systems).

MIT's new technology has the potential to reduce that storage problem to something much more manageable. It seems at least possible that a storage system based on this new technology, large enough to power my home for a few days, might be built for $10,000 to $20,000 in the not-too-distant future. In that sense, this technology is indeed a potential breakthrough for practicable solar power.

It's also useful for a myriad of other purposes, including large-scale commercial power storage to smooth out power demands – something that we have no practicable way to do today. In the area where I live, daytime demand for power (because of air conditioning) can be over 50% higher than nighttime demand. Right now, with no storage capability, we have to have power plants capable of supplying the peak power demand. If you added large scale power storage to the grid, then excess power generated at night (when demand is low) can be stored for use the next day (when demand is high). The net result is that a given set of power plants can handle higher peak power loads.

There's a decent technical description at Popular Mechanics.