Archive for December, 2010

An efficiency question

December 17, 2010 3 comments

I do cardio on a treadmill every day; it helps keep my legs working and relatively pain-free. It’s a very dull activity, so I have a little folding DVD player on a shelf right in front of it to watch movies and documentaries. This week the little player finally died, so I bought a little television and hooked up an old DVD player to it.

The $135 TV I bought has a 16-inch screen with a lovely HD picture, stereo sound, plus free shipping. So here’s my question:

Which burns less fuel: ordering the TV online, or driving to the store (in practice, several stores) and bringing it home myself? My little Honda gets great gas mileage, but the UPS truck is definitely “combining errands”. I have no idea how to calculate the relative energy usage. Any ideas?

Categories: Uncategorized

Simple, not easy

December 13, 2010 1 comment

Anthropologist William Ury has worked with some pretty hot conflicts over the years, including Chechnya and in the Middle East. He’s talking about how he tries to get opponents moving in a common direction – sometimes literally.

In any argument of two intractable sides, he says, there’s a third side – the surrounding community. That community represents interests the two sides hold in common (whether they acknowledge it or not) and it can play a constructive role.

In the context of terrorism, which treats strangers as enemies, he says that acts of kindness and hospitality to strangers, is immensely powerful. Hear him tell the story of how he started a “Footsteps of Abraham” walk in the Middle East, and how it helps people find a common identity – and a common economy:

…and even how virtual Abraham walks have started up on other continents, for people who can’t travel to the one in the Middle East. “Simple”, he says; “not easy”. I might quibble over whether Abraham is the right symbol for hospitality toward the other – certainly Moses would not be. It may not fix everything by lunchtime tomorrow, but it seems to be gaining traction. I wonder what route an Abraham walk would take, if Republicans and Democrats were to take it together. Or gays and Prop 8 lobbyists, or secularists and Christianists. Any suggestions?

(h/t that other anthropologist, Greg Laden)

Categories: Uncategorized

Cheap car cover

December 12, 2010 Comments off

Using a $10 tarp to cover the glass

With an ice storm coming, I thought it might be nice to cover the windshield and door tops with a tarp.  Inexpensive reinforced plastic tarps like this shed ice easily and greatly simplify entering the car.  The problem is that they don’t fit the car top, so there’s a lot of loose tarp material for the wind to grab, and you find your car cover in the bushes three blocks away.  This happens even if you clamp down the tarp.

The solution is to put the tarp on the car, fold the extra material and stitch it to make it fit the car.  Then it has half a chance of staying put.

I used braided contractor’s string – it’s nice to work with because it doesn’t fray much.

Using nylon string to sew tarp

I didn’t have a needle capable of threading such thick string, so I made one out of coat hanger wire.  I cut a piece, heated one end with a torch, flattened it on an anvil, and drilled a hole through it.  Then ground the other end to a point and the following end around the hole.  The following end grind is a bit sloppy; I was shivering.  But the needle still worked just fine.

There were spring clamps and strong magnets (harvested from old hard drives) in the garage to secure the tarp.  Since I use both items for other purposes, I didn’t include their cost in this project.  So there you have it: a $10 car cover.

Needle made from coat hanger wire

Needle made from coat hanger wire

You might ask; what’s in the garage? It’s pretty much a workspace, full of things like a table saw, work table, drill press, bicycles, etc. A good Summer project will be to figure out how to make the table saw roll to one side to allow car-parking. But the person who built the garage, for reasons I shall never understand, screeded the concrete with a half-inch washboard pattern. So it’s extremely difficult to roll around a 250-lb table saw.

Categories: Uncategorized

Are we afraid of a free press?

December 12, 2010 1 comment

Ron Paul is a Libertarian/Republican Congressman from Texas. Spend five minutes watching him destroy the criticisms against Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Be sure to stay with it to his questions at the end:

I’ve been trying to make sense of the whole Wikileaks issue and several things stand out. First, the “rape charges” against Assange seem awfully damn convenient: he causes major embarrassment to several governments, and suddenly there’s an international manhunt for him on unrelated crimes. OK, sure; suppose he’s a rapist – that has, exactly, what to do with the US lying its way into the Iraq war, or supporting the Sharia government of Saudi Arabia? (Pop quiz: where did nineteen of the twenty hijackers come from?)

Second, suppose we extradited him here, and imprisoned him or executed him. We couldn’t call ourselves a free country anymore; we’d have to reprint all our stationary. Thomas Jefferson said he’d rather live in a country that had newspapers and not government, than a country with government and no newspapers. And that’s from a guy who’d just helped found a government! But suppose you don’t like Jefferson? At least note that the rest of the Founding Fathers saw fit to put freedom of the press in the very First Amendment.

Third, the criticism could be made that spies or soldiers are in danger because of Wikileaks. And that may be. Of course, we’ve killed somewhere North of a hundred thousand Iraqis (possibly as many as a million), and 4500 US soldiers, not to mention coalition soldiers, contractors, academics, enabled the looting of Iraqi cultural heritage, plus related injuries (which are far in excess of deaths), damaged US/allies relations…

Fourth, and most basic, every politician promises “transparency”, so we can see the inner workings of government. We vote them into office, so let’s not freak out when we find out how the sausage is really made. Put it another way: if your government breaks the law or does something evil, would you want to know? Why or why not?

Fifth, welcome to the new reality. As security expert Bruce Schneier says, Wikileaks is just a website; tomorrow there will be more. Somebody’s always going to spill the beans. Maybe we should stop doing things we need to be embarrassed about. And no, I don’t mean that in a fuzzy, idealistic sense; I mean our government should at least act like everyone will eventually know.


Categories: Uncategorized

Overthinking the problem

December 9, 2010 9 comments
Soap leaf dispenser

Soap leaf dispenser: "Push down lever and release"

Once upon a time, public washrooms had a sink, a bar of soap, and a towel.  Then somebody got sanitary and the towel became a roll of re-usable cloth, usually laundered and refilled by the uniform company that supplied the business. It was a good system that you still see in very busy places.

But paper towels also became popular (however wasteful they might be) and nobody wanted to handle a bar of soap that strangers had handled.  So somebody thought up the bright idea of a “soap leaf” dispenser.  The business would buy packets of “soap leaves” which were thin little wafers of pressed soap.  It was a new revenue stream for the supply company!

I remember them; the wafers broke, the mechanism jammed, but the fancy stainless steel dispensers were bolted into the wall forever.  This one is probably thirty-five years old but I bet it actually only dispensed soap leaves for the first three months of its existence.  For the last several decades every one I’ve seen has had a plastic dispenser next to it, for liquid soap.  Simple, effective, cheap.

It’s important to avoid making overly complicated solutions to simple problems: people won’t use them no matter how shiny they are.  The trick is figuring out if your new invention is a soap-leaf dispenser, or something people will use.

Categories: Uncategorized

Let’s vote on basic research!

December 6, 2010 12 comments

Two Congresscritters Eric Cantor of Virginia and Adrian Smith of Nebraska (Republicans both; did you need to ask?) have set up a website to allow the public to vote on research projects that jus’ don’t seem right to them.  You know the kind I mean; science that sounds wacky when you ‘put it like that’.  Of course if you explain cost-benefit relationships you find out the reasons for most of the research, but that takes all the fun out of this exercise.  What the two critters want is some of that outrage on their side from the good ol’ days of Sarah Palin complaining about fruit fly research and John McCain making fun of planetariums.  The reasoning, if you call it that, goes something like this: if scientists want something to do, why don’t they study Curing Cancer?  Why are they looking at all that silly stuff?

The short answer is that the big questions are made up of a lot of little questions.  There really is no such thing as “studying how to cure cancer” because there is no one thing called; “cancer”.  There’s a lot of things called cancer, and they have in common uncontrolled growth.  If we ever hope to talk about a cure, we’re going to have to take it apart piece by piece, and there are one hell of a lot of pieces.  Worse, we don’t even know what the pieces are in advance.  They often turn out to be something that at first glance is unrelated – or even silly.

By way of illustration, did you know that there are only six kinds of machines, and those break down into only two types?  Think of every machine you’ve ever used; a clock, an oven door, an automobile, a faucet… all made from variations and combination of those six basic types.

When most people look at machines, they see only the resulting function, the outer conceptual skin.  People who can fix things, though, understand the six simple machines; how they combine, and how they move, redirect and apply work.

Now suppose there were some political reason to make fun of the study of those simple machines and the physics behind them.  You’d think; gee, that’s dumb, we’re losing our advantage so some idiot politician can look like a deficit hawk.  At best we could keep the machines we have – if anyone could fix them – but we wouldn’t be getting any new combinations, any new complex machines.  And what if our whole economy, not mention the solution to ageless human problems, and even our national defense depended on the new machines?

The reality is a whole lot more complex than that… but the stupidity is the same.  Take about $7bn (the NSF budget) out of a $14T* economy, and single out that little bit for taxpayer ridicule and erosion

*(That’s five percent of one percent)

Categories: Uncategorized

It snows in Illinois in December

December 5, 2010 6 comments

We got a few inches of heavy, wet snow today – no doubt disproving global climate change.  I moved several hundred pounds of it off the driveway and back walk; the parts of my abdomen that are held together by polyester mesh are not happy, and my shoulder joins in the protest.

But the day hasn’t been a total loss; I did try out my new bike tires in the snow and they’re great.  It’s going to be a fun winter in spite of occasional shoveling.

For some reason I just have not been able to collect my thoughts this week; there are two pending drafts in the queue.

Categories: Uncategorized