Archive for January, 2009

Over the rope

January 17, 2009 2 comments

Recently I was riding through downtown Normal, which the brilliant city leaders like to call “Uptown Normal”.  It’s all part of their clever program to look like small town hicks taken in by big city consultants.  Anyway, there’s a lot of construction going on, and the distinction between street and sidewalk is a bit confused in places.  I rode between two of the day-glo orange traffic barrier barrels, and didn’t see the rope tied between them.

The barrels weigh about 20 lbs each, and there were four of them tied together.  But it was a cloudy day, and nobody had tied any markers on the rope so it wasn’t that obvious.  My not inconsiderable weight began to pull the barrels along with me and then I went over the rope.

I tucked and rolled on the pavement, landing unhurt on my back. Which is to say, on my backpack, which means, landing on my Lenovo X40 laptop computer.  After I picked myself up and dusted off, a nice person stopped to inquire if I was OK.  I thanked him and said I was fine.

The computer is also fine despite its crushing experience.  The rope did break a cable housing on my bike, though.  Downtown Normal still looks like a giant construction site with stores in it, and will for at least another year.  I think I’ll go tie some bright-colored ribbons on those ropes.

Categories: Uncategorized

Weather, or climate? (cold snap in the MidWest)

January 16, 2009 Comments off

We got down to -21 f last night, apparently a record.  I had no trouble getting in to work this morning – with the right protective gear you can ride in just about any weather.  But a lot of people have been joking about global warming missing in action.  It seems like a good place to talk about The difference between weather and climate.

My favorite analogy is that weather is what you get when you pull the lever on the slot machine, and climate is the casino’s bank account balance.  But remember, all analogies are like the bear in the woods who walked too far and found himself getting on the bus.  More directly, weather is what’s happening today, and climate is a statistical aggregation of several years.

It is also true that we are heading into a cooler part of the multi-decade Atlantic oscillation, which will cool things down and buy us a little bit of time.  Let’s not waste it.

Categories: Uncategorized

McAfee Gasoline?

January 16, 2009 Comments off

McAfee enterprise antivirus has a new logo in the system tray.  It reminded me of another corporate logo:

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Almost there…

January 14, 2009 8 comments

The little Firefox browser plugin that’s been tracking “days left in the Bush administration” switched this morning, to counting the hours.  As I write this, about 147 to go.

Here’s a little musical response to Bush’s final press conference.  I know Stevie Wonder wrote it with Nixon in mind but what the hey…

Don’t let the screen door hit you on the ass on the way out, Shrub.

Categories: Uncategorized

Enron reaches out from the grave (to bite us in the ass again)

January 12, 2009 4 comments

Did anyone watch the 60 Minutes story last night, titled Did speculation fuel oil price swings?  If not, you can read the transcript at the link.  I don’t even play an economist on TV, but what did you think of it?

…Asked who was buying this “paper oil,” Masters told Kroft, “The California pension fund. Harvard Endowment. Lots of large institutional investors. And, by the way, other investors, hedge funds, Wall Street trading desks were following right behind them, putting money – sovereign wealth funds were putting money in the futures markets as well. So you had all these investors putting money in the futures markets. And that was driving the price up.”

In a five year period, Masters said the amount of money institutional investors, hedge funds, and the big Wall Street banks had placed in the commodities markets went from $13 billion to $300 billion. Last year, 27 barrels of crude were being traded every day on the New York Mercantile Exchange for every one barrel of oil that was actually being consumed in the United States.

“We talked to the largest physical trader of crude oil. And they told us that compared to the size of the investment inflows – and remember, this is the largest physical crude oil trader in the United States – they said that we are basically a flea on an elephant, that that’s how big these flows were,” Masters remembered.

Yet when Congress began holding hearings last summer and asked Wall Street banker Lawrence Eagles of J.P. Morgan what role excessive speculation played in rising oil prices, the answer was little to none. “We believe that high energy prices are fundamentally a result of supply and demand,” he said in his testimony…

Well that’s the gist of why oil prices were so volatile.  And how did the regulatory environment become so ridden with holes so that it could happen that way?

“Who was responsible for deregulating the oil future market?” Kroft asked Michael Greenberger.

“You’d have to say Enron,” he replied. “This was something they desperately wanted, and they got.”

Greenberger, who wanted more regulation while he was at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, not less, says it all happened when Enron was the seventh largest corporation in the United States. “This was when Enron was riding high. And what Enron wanted, Enron got.”

Let that soak in for a moment; Enron was the seventh largest corporation in the United States.  They didn’t produce anything; they bought and sold stuff, and manipulated markets.  And left a mess that blew up in our faces (again) last summer.  Think of all the poor SUV owners who were tricked into buying a Prius when they could have just waited out the high fuel prices! 

Damn that Enron.

Seriously though, what other booby-traps lie in wait for us from that era?


Categories: Uncategorized

The laughing dinosaur

January 10, 2009 2 comments

I work in a state university.  We’re very devoted to our students and to our purpose in advancing human knowledge.  We’ve got some brilliant instructors and students.  From our University president to the people who plant flowers in the quad every spring, we mean it; we take pride in what we do.  And we have great facilities too, with room for classes and events and… learning.

Wonder if dinosaurs laughed the first time they saw little furry mammals?

It doesn’t matter if the university featured in this ad is any good; there will be others.  Right now we’re watching newspapers die in the transparent flame of the WWW.  Are brick-and-morter universities really that different?

Our university was founded in 1857, and it’s tempting to think that we couldn’t possibly be displaced by a single office building with some professors and a web server farm.  But it has to be about more than survival in changing conditions.  We have an opportunity to do things that our founder couldn’t have imagined.

MIT has put all their courseware online, for free, extending their reach to motivated students all around the world, yet their campus is still packed.  Here in Illinois we are experimenting with podcasting, classroom wikis, blogs, and telepresence.  This is no time to slow down.

What’s the university of the future going to be like?  How will its core and its boundaries be defined?

Categories: Education

Throw a little light on the situation

January 10, 2009 1 comment

I occasionally spend time crawling around in tight spots trying to install or service audiovisual and computer equipment.  In such environments, it is usually helpful to have a flashlight, and also a third hand to hold that flashlight.  Unfortunately such mutations, while of value to our distant descendants, are of little help now.

But in the discontinued items bin at Wal-Mart, I found this LED light equipped with a ¼X20 threaded socket in one end.  Just the ticket to combine it with this nifty gripping tripod my son gave me for Christmas.  It works incredibly well – this little combo is going to get a lot of use. 

Categories: Uncategorized

***Dave on Rule Of Law

January 7, 2009 5 comments

Next time someone says “he got off on a technicality” and you feel like that’s a bad thing, consider all the various ways it could be worse:

…Every now and then, someone comes up with the brilliant idea of loosing these restrictions. “Don’t let criminals get off on technicalities,” they say. “Let the police do their jobs,” the say. “They’re professionals,” they say. “We’re at war,” they say. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” they say. “It’s just for now, until things settle down,” they say. “Only the guilty need be afraid,” they say.

And so the wrappings are loosened, the few guy wires holding down that awesome power are weakened or detached, and…

And Justice Scalia says there’s “a new professionalism” so cops don’t need to knock before breaking down your door.

Categories: Uncategorized

Apple and obsolescence

January 7, 2009 8 comments

I guess I’m just an old fogey, and someone will tell me to get with the times. But it annoys the hell out of me that Apple made their new Macbook Pro without a replaceable battery.  They claim the battery is good for a 5-year lifespan, and then you recycle the laptop. 

The Macbook claims up to 8 hours of life from its battery.  They say it will “last for a thousand charges”, but I wonder how many hours of operation it will deliver after 600 charges. 

Am I too grumpy?  Should I just go with the flow on this? My 5 year old Lenovo X40 got sluggish, so I dumped Windows and installed Linux; now it runs quite briskly.  The battery got weak, so I got a new one on eBay for thirty bucks and I’m right back in business.

Categories: Uncategorized

A smart way to cut carbon output

January 7, 2009 3 comments

New energy technologies are so gee-whiz, with concentrated solar (wait, that isn’t new, just improved), geothermal (same deal), windmills (much improved), nuclear reactors (improved again) and so forth.  Fusion power is still ten years away, and it probably always will be. Hopefully we will soon be able to make jet fuel from switchgrass and old newspapers.  But the biggest bang for the buck, and the one that creates the most jobs, is still conservation. 

Glad to see it’s a big part of Obama’s energy plan.  He must have somebody around who did the math and pointed out that if you make a lot of houses more efficient, it’s even better than building new power plants. It starts working right away and actually reduces the load on the power distribution grid.  A kilowatt saved is probably something like a kilowatt times 1.n generated, where n is the transmission-line losses and the social cost of the global warming that comes from generating the power in the first place.  Bravo!

But smartening up the grid is coming too.  Our current grid barely handles variability of load, and it can’t handle variability of generating capacity, like windmills and concentrated solar. 

Categories: Uncategorized