Archive for June, 2009

All-natural carbon-free sugar

June 29, 2009 Comments off

H22O11?  Wouldn’t that just wind up as eleven water molecules?  And what do they do with the twelve leftover carbon atoms, make pencil leads?

OK, I know I’m being infantile snickering at this.  The truth is, they capture the carbon atoms and give them loving homes in a free-range carbon sanctuary run by Exxon oil.  Which totally doesn’t just burn them to enslave them to oxygen molecules and screw up the climate any more.  Yeah.

No, no, that’s not it.  Sugar cane leaves a lot of biomass, which they burn to produce energy in a carbon-neutral way.  (Which is just what Exxon would do anyway)  Then they count it against the carbon dioxide which would have been released if the same energy had been generated by burning coal.  It’s actually a very good thing, if you don’t think about what the sugar plantation itself does to biodiversity.  Which I don’t, because I like sugar on my cereal, and in my iced tea.  Hey, I lived in Tennessee for eight years and developed a taste for sweet tea. 

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Is change even possible?

June 26, 2009 Comments off

When you go for a trip in your car, you fill the tank before you ‘take off’.  Not so for an airliner: the weight of unnecessary fuel becomes a significant cost on short trips.  So the jet only receives enough fuel for the journey, plus a safety margin. 

If everything goes just right, that is.

But one particular Boeing 767, known today as “The Gimli Glider”, actually ran out of fuel in mid flight; despite fuel gauges, despite preflight calculations, despite everything.

The story of how the pilot actually got the plane on the ground in one piece, with everyone onboard still alive (and applauding) is recorded in the fascinating book; Freefall, by William and Marilyn Hoffer.  But the book also covers the even more interesting story of how the hell a modern jetliner got up to 41,000 feet and ran out of fuel.

Or maybe we should say; it got up to 12,497 metres. Because the difference between metric and “English/Imperial” units (hereafter referred to by the ironic title; “Standard”) played a major role in the debacle.  It seems that the Canadian Parliament had just decreed that all fuel would be measured in metric units.  It was 1983, and the ground crews were trundled off to “metric orientation training”.  One fueler remarked; “It was all just numbers; they could have been bananas”. 

Even this would not have mattered, if the plane’s fuel computer had been working; pilots would still have spotted the discrepancy. So you ask; how on Earth could a plane be allowed to fly with its fuel computer broken?  Simple: the fuel was measured by “sticking the tanks” and the calculations were done manually.  Sticking is an utterly reliable method, in which you put a stick into the fuel tanks, and see where the fuel line goes.  It’s foolproof, unless something completely undermines the crew’s calculations.  That something was metric units.  The ground crew argued for half an hour, then the plane took off with about half as much actual fuel as it was supposed to have.

Imagine making that announcement!  “Ladies and gentlemen, the funniest thing happened while we were fueling up on the ground today…”

It was theoretically possible to land a 767 with no engines, but nobody had ever wanted to try it with 69 souls on board. The pilot set down on a decommissioned military runway, which had become a local drag racing spot (much to the surprise of local folk who had to get out of the way of the descending aircraft).  “The Gimli Glider” went on to have a normal service life, if a somewhat colorful history.  And you’d think that with an object lesson like that, Metric confusion wouldn’t screw up another high-technology project ever again. 

Until the $125m Mars Climate Orbiter crashed in 1999, that is.  The story is well known; one team was using Metric units, the other Standard. A completely bone-headed mistake, for a bunch of rocket scientists.

Our space shuttle program runs on a confusing mix of Metric and Standard units.  Even the new Ares rocket is designed using Standard units.  NASA says it would cost too much to convert a project that is this far along.  They’re probably right.

Today everyone knows what a litre is, thanks to soda bottles.  And that bottle is about two kilograms, discounting the plastic.  But if you start talking about converting our whole economy to metric units, it won’t be long before the ghost of Jimmy Carter comes back to haunt the discussion.

Ol’ Jimmy, if you recall, wanted to modernize our units of measurement.  Sure, it was Gerald Ford who signed the metric conversion law, but Jimmy took it as a personal mission. I think his unlikable personality set metric back fifty years or more.  Somewhere I have a hilarious book written during that time as a polemic against the metric system.  It seriously predicted the end of American dominance in the world, if we were ever foolish enough to start measuring in centimeters instead of inches.

I own a dial caliper that measures in inches; it cost me about $125, twenty-five years ago.  My metric dial caliper cost about $80, fifteen years ago.  Today you can buy a digital one for about $30, which can convert back and forth to either system by flipping a switch.  It’s made in China, of course.

And NASA still can’t build a rocket using metric units.  Why is that?

Well, why would they want to?  Metric isn’t more any more precise than Standard.  Can’t the rest of the world just march to our tune?  They always have, in the past. 

It’s that reluctance that makes me wonder if we really can limit population growth, cut back on carbon dioxide, stop giving antibiotics to livestock, and move away from a consumption-based culture.  Hell, we can’t even pick up a metric ruler and really learn it, when millions of dollars or even human lives are at stake.  Is change impossible?

In his 1960 book Realm Of Measure, Isaac Asimov thought that, while the present generation might be a lost cause, we could start with the children:

“To begin with, the metric system ought to be taught in grade school.  If American children were made familiar with it they would, as adults, not find it so strange and foreign.  Then little by little, metric measurements should be introduced into common use, without necessarily replacing the common measurements…

Thus eventually, the common system could be dropped altogether, and we could join the rest of the world in a union of logical measurements.

Oh, mister Asimov; so optimistic.  Those kids’ kids are all grown up now, and working at NASA.

So here’s my question: how can intentional change even happen?  What’s the solvent to break the glue holding our shoes to the floor?  Comments are open, and I want to know what you think.


  • Inching Along; Thirty years later, we’re still taking measure the old English way.

  • Check out Paul Sunstone’s post on The rarity of cultural change, written in response to this post.
  • ***Dave takes up the topic from another angle: Changing Our Minds.  Can we really handle the truth? 
  • Bonus question: even the French were slow and reluctant to adopt Metric measurements.  Anybody know how they pulled it off?  I really can’t figure it out; the French aren’t exactly famous for conformity.
  • Next month’s carnival entry: “A Brief History Of FAIL”.
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21st century surgery

June 24, 2009 Comments off

Check out this fascinating TED talk by surgeon and inventor Catherine Mohr, on Surgery’s past, present and future.  You’ll see 10,000 years of surgical history, from stone-aged trepanation to amazing robots, and even ways of seeing through flesh during surgery, without using radiation.  Seeing, even, the boundaries of otherwise invisible tumors in real time.

I’m not just geeking out over the cool technology; obviously everything about surgery catches my attention these days.  One takeaway for me is that the new techniques are great if you need precision excision but wouldn’t have been useful at all for what happened to me.  For certain classes of calamity, there may never be any substitute for the twelve-inch incision.  And mine is less than charming right now as the nerves get reacquainted and start sending in their garbled reports to the head office.

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In it for the money

June 23, 2009 Comments off

“There’s nothing that will change someone’s moral outlook quicker than cash in large sums.”
- Larry Flynt

(Bear with me a moment; this post isn’t really about software.)
A few months ago I was in Wal-Mart and noticed one of the cash register was sporting a Windows error dialog box.  I don’t remember what the specific error was, but I remember thinking; “Using Windows to run a transaction system is a pretty big error in itself.”

Seriously.  There are others who could explain it better than I can, but Windows is a stitched-together Rube Goldberg machine that tries to be all things to all people.  Which it does very well – it runs on nearly everything and it runs nearly everything.  It can be made secure, but it sure doesn’t start out that way by any stretch. 

I’ve had people tell me that Linux can be hacked too, but the thing about a transaction system is that it doesn’t have nearly as many functions as a desktop computer.  Linux geeks tell me that you can actually open up the kernel, remove functions that aren’t necessary to, say, a transaction system, and recompile the now stripped-down kernel.  External functions can be removed too until you have your own version of Linux that really keeps its eyes on the road, so to speak.  No side trips!

Today we learned from the Consumerist that ATM machines in Europe have been hacked in outrageous ways.  The bad guys actually used the ATM’s own card-swipe machine as an interface device to install their own version of lsass.exe, a Windows utility, on the system.  The phony lsass keeps a record of everyone’s cards and PIN numbers and obligingly prints them out at the end of the day using the built-in receipt printer.  Crooks have been successfully using the hack to clone large numbers of card and rip off a lot of money.  (Consumerist: Meet the virtual ATM skimmers.)

So why am I ticked off? The article said that lsass.exe doesn’t even play a role in the operation of the ATM machine!  Apparently nobody even tried to strip down the operating system to remove nonessential functions.  If that is even possible with Windows.

Companies keep telling us that they really care about our data security.  Then laptops get stolen with whole databases in them, but the company offers to pay for regular credit checks as if that makes it all better.  Systems get hacked, but they say “We are improving our security procedures” (closing the barn door, most of the way, after the horse has left).  Someone walks into a branch and gets terminal access for four hours because they claim to be from the head office, and the company says; “The incident has certainly caused concern but customers need not worry.”

Last week someone with a compromised laptop asked me; “Why do hackers write viruses?  Can’t they make any better use of their talent?”  I have gotten that question literally about every two weeks for the last 14 years. My stock answer, at least currently, is that the hackers do it for money.  For example selling conflicker access for other malware is very profitable.  For some reason this answer never satisfies the person asking the question.

But it should.  When plastics companies found out that the plasticizer BPA is an endocrine disruptor that hurts developing babies, did they stop using it in food packaging?  Nope, they put their heads together to try to dream up a better public relations campaign.  Health insurance companies are, as I write, trying to keep millions of Americans uninsured, because it’s better for their bottom lines.  It’s standard procedure for industry generally: when they are found to be harming the public good, they don’t shape up, they lawyer up and start massive public relations campaigns to muddy the issue.

So why does it surprise anyone that hackers are in it for the money?  And how, exactly, is it less moral than putting poison in food packaging and trying to call it “consumer choice”?


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Monday Morning Music: “Don’t Like Mondays”

June 22, 2009 Comments off

For my friend DKW, who is an even bigger House fan than I am:

(Actually, being something of a happy idiot, I like Mondays. But it is a very catchy song.) 
Shamelessly stolen from TwoBlueDay.

Categories: music, Reviews

Obama and Carbon Capture Re-Sequestration

June 21, 2009 Comments off

No politician can afford to be really uncompromising: the best we can hope for is that our guy does the right thing, most of the time.  Obama is no different.  He has a strong backbone, he’s smart, well-informed, and he mostly picks good people like Stephen Chu for Energy Secretary.  But he isn’t Superman.

Exhibit A: Obama energy plan expands use of coal.  This part of the plan is based on industry promises that they’ll take all that CO2, put it in baggies, and bury it deep in the ground.  They’re calling it CCS, or “Carbon Capture & Sequestration”.  There are two problems with that idea, both of which I know Chu is aware of.

First, the carbon is already sequestered; it was in the atmosphere millions of years ago but it was buried as coal and oil, allowing the cooler, more livable climate we’ve enjoyed.  Digging it up and burning it in the atmosphere un-sequesters it.*  We need to stop doing that – literally, we need to leave the fossil carbon in the ground.  But no politician, Obama included, has the juice to insist on such a thing.

Second, the proposals for re-sequestering the CO2 after burning that fossil carbon (they really should call it CCR-S) are bunk.  Nobody has demonstrated that the process can be secure (carbon stays in the ground) or even possible.  So far it’s a lot of hot air, as James Hrynshryn explains in CCS is in the same league as fusion.

Coal power is cheap because it externalizes an enormous cost to the commons.  When someone says that concentrated solar is more expensive, or that wind power is more expensive, they are referring to up-front costs.  Unaccounted in that comparison is the cost of climate change, which is like burning Renaissance masterpieces to keep warm.

My only hope is that various clean energy technologies will come down to below the artificially low cost of carbon energy, so it would be obvious to even the most short-sighted, profit-driven Cheney clone that it they’ll make more money with clean tech.  Because otherwise, I just don’t know how to get there from here.


  • Exhibit B would be Corn Ethanol.  Though an argument could be made that having an ethanol delivery infrastructure will come in handy for when cellulose ethanol becomes available.  Maaaaaybe…

  • * (We know this because the isotopic balance of carbon currently in the biosphere, and that of fossil carbon, are different.  As we approach 385ppm CO2, the isotopic signature of the carbon in our atmosphere is changing, too.  There’s no doubt where the extra carbon is coming from.)
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Supporting the public option

June 20, 2009 Comments off

In light of signs that moderate Democrats may cave in to Republicans and lobbyists, Mike The Mad Biologist suggests: If you support the public option for healthcare reform, write to your senators and president.

I spent a lot of time today doing just that; by email, by web forms, and even by plain old snail mail with actual stamps.  Defenders of the status quo are pulling out all the stops to protect their profits, sending out hordes of lobbyists and calling in every political favor in existence.  To arms!  Take up your pens and keyboards!


  • Eric Martin at Obsidian Wings takes down Republican objections to the public option in Testing My Patients

  • Here’s a TV ad for Obama’s plan.  A bit simplistic, but it gets the idea across:
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My Cyborg Name

June 20, 2009 Comments off

Digital Electronic Construct Responsible for Exploration, Peacekeeping and Immediate Troubleshooting

Get Your Cyborg Name

Huh… not bad.Never really saw myself as one of those destructo-bots.

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The ninth-grade dropout laureate of American culture

June 20, 2009 Comments off

George Carlin’s Last Interview; Enjoy!

George Carlin is truly one of the bright stars of American culture.  How else explain a ninth-grade dropout who wound up being a part of not only entertainment, but philosophy, law, literature and academia?  Like Twain before him, he relished the contribution that technology could make to his writing.  At first he described himself as “a comedian who writes his own material” but over time he changed to “a writer who performs his own material”; 

I wonder if any George Carlins will come out of the structured childhoods we enforce on today’s children:

As a child, my father was gone. I had no grandparents; they were all dead. Had no real cousins to play with, and I didn’t give a sh*t, frankly. I experienced my life in a very happy way, but, what I want to say to you is, I was alone as a child. My father was dead. My mother left him when I was 2 months old and he died when I was 8 years old. He drank too much and he was a bully and she had the courage to take two boys, one of them two months old and one of them 5 years old and to leave him in 1937 and get back into the business world and get a job and raise us through the end of the Depression and through the Second World War. She did a great job, but she was at work until 7 or 7:30 at night many nights.

So I spent a lot of time on my own. In the house or out around the neighborhood or sneaking in the subway, going down to 42nd street, traveling around Manhattan Island, learning it as a youngster. And I experienced that because psychologists ask you not if something’s good or bad, but how do you experience it? I experienced that as freedom, independence, autonomy. And I was brought up on that feeling. That’s what made me, I think, able to quit school, and go out and try to start my life and career early, because I had that strength…

We learn a great deal about his mother, who wanted him to go to college and get into advertising, but realized that was not going to happen and instead bought him a tape recorder in the days before they were consumer items.  At the time of this interview, Carlin gave no sign of being only a few days away from death: his commentary is incredibly sharp and textured. He was performing weekly and working on new projects in a rented house while his own home was being remodeled. 

(h/t to John Wilkins)

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No matter how badly you might want to think so

June 20, 2009 Comments off

No wonder the pope was so hard on Galileo.  He probably had a hunch it would end up this way, eventually.

Realizing the proportions of the universe (before there was ever a YouTube) pretty much holed (the notion of Earth exceptionalism) below the waterline, for me.

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