Archive for November, 2011

What the hell was THAT?

November 27, 2011 13 comments

Last night I was feeling a bit poorly but that’s not unusual. This morning at 5am I woke to abdominal pain which got worse until we went to the Emergency room, where it spiked three times at high kidney-stone, knee-buckling, all-coherent-thought-stops level.

Kidney stone? Another perforation? Did that cyst in one of my kidneys decide to go blooie? We don’t know, because the CAT scan and urine test came back clean. And while the pain is still here a bit, it has abated. The doctor said “that happens sometimes”. He thinks I might have passed a small kidney stone but no way to be sure.

Great. I’ve had many kidney stones, and a perforation, and assorted other problems some of which I have not discussed online in specific terms, but this is something new: “Massive pain for no goddam reason.”

I’m back at home now, a bit wrung-out and wondering what the hell hit me. Of course I’m really grateful it wasn’t another perforation but there’s this mystery. And how often is this going to happen?

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Compare and contrast: Black Friday campers vs Occupy Wall Street protesters

November 26, 2011 2 comments

Wednesday night (before Thanksgiving) we stopped in Best Buy to look at televisions. There was a row of tents – the camping kind – on the sidewalk outside.

I asked, was Best Buy getting into selling outdoor equipment? Nope. Those tents contained people who were getting in line – at least 36 hours early – for Black Friday.

“OK”, I thought; “If they save $360 on a ginormous TV, they’ll clear ten bucks an hour.” Not bad, except the hours in question are all in one go, and spanning a holiday at that.

Occupy Blono campers

Occupy Blono campers: scruffy-looking defenders of the middle class.

I couldn’t help contrasting the bargain-hunters with the Occupy Wall Street protesters, living in tents to draw attention to the huge hit our economy has taken from financial speculators. And with a little unintentional help from the authorities, they’re succeeding.

There is a very good reason for the OWS protest. The bailout cost of the 2008 collapse was about seventy times that of the infamous Savings & Loan debacle in which the administration of then-president George Bush senior sent more than 3,600 bankers and S&L officials to jail. Our current president has not sent anybody to jail. Where are the handcuffs?

The difference is directly traceable to the influence of the finance industry on our political process: the 1% are choosing our representatives. They can do this because we have abandoned the Fairness Doctrine, Glass-Steagall, and because they have the Citizens United supreme court decision giving nonliving corporations the same rights as actual people. But apparently, none of the responsibilities.

In spite of this there seems to be some manufactured confusion (pdf document) as to what, exactly, Occupy Wall Street wants. It’s really simple: get the money out of politics before it destroys our country.

Some people think it’s silly to camp on a sidewalk to get a low-priced TV.  I can’t really see anything wrong with it myself.  But the OWS people want something more important than a television: they want a government Of The People instead of Wall Street Government.  When’s the Black Friday for that?


  • Seen the documentary Inside Job yet?  Find out what risks the speculators were taking with your money
  • Major corporations complained (again on the basis that corporations are somehow people) that the Fairness Doctrine interfered with Free Speech, so it was struck down. Here’s the result: 232 media executives now control the information diet of 277 million Americans.
  • More background on the crackdown on OWS; there’s more going on than just local authorities’ overreaction.  You have to wonder why it’s SO important to shut down a nonviolent protest movement.
  • Our local paper complains that nationwide, OWS protesters “are costing millions in taxpayers’ dollars” for police “protection” and civic services.  First I couldn’t help wondering who was protecting them from the police, and then I couldn’t help comparing and contrasting that (probably inflated) millions figure to the trillions they are protesting.
  • In New York the police have been shooing reporters with press passes away from enforcement actions – and physically abusing those who remain.  Almost as if they don’t want anybody seeing what they are doing.
Categories: Uncategorized


November 20, 2011 1 comment

This is:

  1. A microscopic sample of transparent aluminum
  2. Heisenberg! I told you he was real, man.
  3. The Fortress Of Solitude
  4. Something I dug about 70 lbs of out of an old freezer yesterday

(Please note that option 4 does not preclude option 2)

UPDATE after reading up on ice crystals:

I understand how most freezer frost forms: you open the door and water vapor gets in.  It condenses and freezes. But these crystals are a different matter.  Super-clear and pure, they formed in a sealed storage container full of spaghetti sauce that lay entombed for over a decade in a chest freezer. It was surrounded by hundreds of pounds of other frozen things so there couldn’t have been a lot of temperature variation.

Not a lot of evaporation takes place at -18 c, but my guess would be that tiny variations in temperature set up a cycle of sublimation and condensation.  Airborne water molecules arranged themselves in crystals according to their 105-degree bend. Some of the angles visible in the picture reflect this.

The larger crystal shown here is about 2cm long. Those are not fracture lines at the top and bottom – they are shown here as they appeared when the lid was lifted.  They were so beautiful I could have spent an hour photographing them, experimenting with light, shining lasers through them.

I wonder if, in the frozen darkness of some cave on an icy planetoid somewhere, there are enormous, clear ice crystals formed by the same gas deposition process – twenty meters or so in length?  Is there an upper limit to the size of ice crystals?

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Violence for violence

November 20, 2011 5 comments

In the face of police violence against non-violent protesters, Mike The Mad Biologist asks; Will Occupy Wall Street remain non-violent?

“I hope so. To morph into a violent movement would be both ethically wrong and tactically stupid…

What I fear is that, at some point, some activists will react violently, if justifiably so. Maybe a few people will decide to bring their own pepper spray and give the police a taste of their own medicine. Or maybe some students decide to burn the Chancellor out–let her know what they think of her. They will be frustrated that they did everything they were supposed to do–support the ‘right’ candidates, give Democrats working majorities, and so on–and nothing changed. When they engaged in one of the few avenues left, they received this:

My hunch is they WANT the protesters to become violent.

Recommending the whole article to you, I’ll just observe that in a modern state, the footsteps of Ghandi and Martin Luther King lead to victory.

Yesterday I got an automated phone call from the president of the National Rifle Association.  As I listened the recorded voice went off on how Obama was going to take all our guns and that our second-amendment rights “were not up for debate… not now, not ever!”  And to a certain, limited extent, the crazy has a point.  You wonder why didn’t the police beat Tea Party protesters?  My guess is they figured it would have turned into a shooting war. But that kind of “protection” has pretty severe limits.  (Go ahead, 2nd-amendment fans; imagine you pull a gun on the cop who wants to search your house for some BS reason.  Does he turn to leave, saying “Oh, I’m sorry – I didn’t realize you had an anti-tyranny shield!” Right.)

But if you want a weapon that will win the war as opposed to the battle, it’s hanging around the necks of those people in the background of the picture.  These are the tools of the First Amendment, which is crystal-clear about free speech.  The camera, the smart phone, the computer – the Internet – corporate greed wasn’t the only motive for SOPA.  The Powers That Be want to be able to take pictures like this one down without even a court order, just by making a copyright claim.  The claim doesn’t even need merit.

Somewhere in one of my books by Arthur C. Clarke – I cannot find it right now – he describes a scene in which the police or some soldiers commit some awful assault, and a bystander sends the video out from a wireless device.  The camera is confiscated and smashed, and its owner arrested or shot, but it is too late – the video is already  available all over the world. I think the book was written in the 1960′s.

Tyrants worry only slightly about opposing armies, but they’re not afraid of your handgun.  That .357 is a bigger hazard to your family than it will ever be to them.  There is only one thing that tyrants are afraid of, and it’s the light of day, falling on their corruption and mendacity.  Suddenly the fiction that they are our protectors is shattered.  Suddenly we know what they really are.

It’s the First Amendment for a reason, folks.  Keep it strong: exercise it.  And give your legislators no rest whenever it is in danger.


  • Public Library Of Science (PLOS) on The Chemistry of Pepper Spray
  • Photographing uniformed cops in action is actually a felony in Illinois.  The law is making its way through the courts, however, and isn’t doing well.  I hope to see it rescinded soon.
Categories: Uncategorized

Gee dad, can I foreclose on the next one?

November 19, 2011 4 comments
Wristwatch ad

You could afford one of these too, if... Well no. You couldn't.

This just in: 68% of the sons of the 1% work at their dad’s company.  Which put me in mind of this ad I saw recently for a fancy wristwatch.

I’m sure they’re really nice wristwatches – for forty grand or so, they ought to be.

No big point here, other than that I just had to do a caption-contest response to this ad when I saw it.  If you have a good caption, share it as a comment!

Categories: Uncategorized

Can I afford to replace that freezer?

November 19, 2011 2 comments
Kill-A-Watt electric meter

Kill-A-Watt electric meter

Let’s see; our old chest freezer, though bigger than we need now, is working fine.  As it has been since about 1972, actually.  That is a high-quality appliance, no?  Why would I want to replace it?  Well suppose I bought one of those Kill-A-Watt electric meters for about twenty-five bucks.  I’ve been measuring different things to get a bead on where energy is being wasted.

P3 Kill-A-Watt data from old chest freezer

P3 Kill-A-Watt data from old chest freezer

I tried it on the freezer and here’s the result, written in Sharpie marker on the freezer lid.  The well-made old freezer devoured 12.95 kwh in 60 hours.  There are 146 60-hour periods in a year. Times 12.95 kwh equals 1,890… times the EPA standard of 10.65 cents per kwh, means that freezer costs me $201/year to operate.  (Our electricity rate may actually be a bit higher than that here).

A new freezer is $300, and by the same standard uses $35/year electricity.

There’s more: Ameren will come haul the old freezer away AND give us a $50 credit on our electric bill.

So that puts the payoff right around 18 months, followed by… bacon!

This is why I think cars should have gas mileage meters instead of tachometers. Sometimes the right information can have a clarifying effect.


  • This post has been edited for accuracy – see the first two comments.
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The art of not pissing people off with voice-operated systems

November 18, 2011 2 comments

In one of Robert Heinlein’s novels, Maureen Johnson (Lazarus Long’s mother) wakes up in a strange hotel next to a dead person. She calls the concierge, and, not impressed by his erudition, threatens to come take it out of his hide. “You’re welcome to try,” says the concierge; “I am bolted to the floor in the third sub-basement”. She has, unawares, been talking to a computer.

Although the story takes place in the distant future, the voice-operated computer system still manages to do what similar systems do today: piss off customers. But the mode of this pissing-off has changed over the years. Early systems were annoying simply because they didn’t recognize voices accurately – sometimes with comical results. Heinline’s heroine is upset because the hotel system can’t perform extremely high-level functions that would challenge a human concierge. Today we’re somewhere in the middle, where computer systems have gotten spectacularly better at recognizing speech, but grate our nerves from their location in the uncanny valley.

“The Uncanny Valley” generally refers to computer graphics or robotics portraying human faces that are almost, but not enough human. It’s creepy, the way all unliving things that pretend to be alive* are creepy. I propose that it can also apply to voice-operated systems.

When I dial into a voice-operated system, it engages in several programmed pleasantries in an apparent attempt to put me at ease:

Unliving Thing (UT), speaking in a female voice: “Please state your sixteen-digit credit card number.”
Me: (says number as clearly as I can)
UT: “OK. When you hear what you want me to do, just say it back to me.”

Stop right there. Put yourself in my place, scriptor of the Unliving Thing. The moment I hear a computer-selected recording (and I totally recognize this woman’s voice from three systems so far) I know it’s going to be a long haul before I get to talk to a person. That’s fine if I called to check a balance or report a stolen card – I don’t need a person for that.  But if I am calling for a more complicated interaction – something I know a computer isn’t going to be able to handle – the computer pretending to be a person becomes an obstacle that I know I will need to wait out and maneuver around. So stop trying to butter me up.

The result is that by the time I actually do get to talk to a human, I’m already forcing myself to be calm.  This is not a good way to begin any conversation, and I wonder if it increases stress for the human representatives on the other end of five levels of computer gatekeeping. It isn’t their fault; they’re trying to be as helpful as they can, picking up the wreckage of the customer’s mood to address the problem.

Corporations can’t, by the way, put “talk to a person” in the first menu; that would have the effect of routing almost all traffic around the computer and overloading the human operators.  Many people have not adjusted to the idea that for basic information, they should seek out a computer rather than a human operator. But many are catching on.

So here are three suggestions:

  1. Stop using recorded human voice clips selected by a computer.  People have human voices. A recorded human voice makes some part of my brain irrationally expect human-level understanding.  A good voice synthesizer sets my unconscious expectations at the “I’m dealing with a computer” level.
  2. Focus on what computers are good at, which is efficiency. People say “OK”. People refer to themselves in the first person. Computers are things and I damn well know I’m talking to a computer.  Putting all those human-touch flourishes on the system doesn’t put me at ease; it only widens the gulf between my unconscious and conscious expectations. Let humans engage in pleasantries.  (Actually the word “OK” might be OK, as long as it isn’t in a human voice.  But computers referring to themselves in the first person should wait for when they start doing it on their own.)
  3. Give people some hint where they are in the menu structure.  Perhaps something like: “Most transactions can be efficiently handled in the following three menus.  Please listen to all options.”

I titled this post “The art…” but this kind of process development is part art, part science, with a lot of usability and A/B testing.  It’s the kind of thing industry is very good at, once they know they need to do it.

* Like John Boehner. So close to human, yet so far, it creeps me out every time I see a picture of it. The android Sonny in “I, Robot” was way more human than that thing will ever be.

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No more dismissal, no more excuses

November 13, 2011 4 comments

(Trigger alert)

This article in Scientific American has been making the rounds, in defense of witnesses who don’t intervene, and in particular of Mike Mqueary, the Penn State grad student who walked in on Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy. Basically the piece says; “There’s ambiguity that everyone must take into account, people aren’t sure if they could make things worse, remember the Stanford experiments, blah-blah-blah…”

I have a different interpretation. I think people who fit in, who are team players, and who internalize organizational loyalty above personal ethics are less likely to break ranks even when human decency absolutely demands that ranks be broken. And history is full of sad lessons that this includes most people.  Certainly organizational conformity is what we teach children is important.

So thanks for the hotheads; for the misfits who rush in, the protesters, the whistle-blowers, and the people who, without any official mandate, put themselves in harms way. They may not always be right but give them props for trying. Even if they just shut down a racist joke at the office, or call a cop on a fight in progress, or a journalist about a big scandal. Or if they speak up at a meeting.  Or, walk into a shower to push a respected leader away from his 10-year-old rape victim.

Years ago a homeless woman was raped and murdered a few blocks from our house. It was a couple college-aged guys; one raped the unconscious woman and then convinced his friend to help him kill her and dismember her body. He later testified that he had wanted to call the police while the woman was being raped, but he was “scared”.

We talked about it as a family. I don’t even remember the discussion exactly but it was something like “who wants to live with the knowledge that they didn’t try to stop it?” If there was ever a good reason to die, or to face consequences, stopping an attack-in-progress is it.  And in the age of cell phones, that’s hardly ever necessary.  Call the police! You could even send a photo of the crime in progress, I suppose.  Imagine the court scene when that evidence is introduced.

And in the case of McQueary, the athletic, fully-clothed grad student confronting a naked man caught in a heinous act, I have a difficult time believing there was any real risk to intervening. Instead he walked away to call his dad and ask; “What should I do”?  And the answer was to report it to Joe Paterno, who did diddly.  Golly, what else could he have done?

No, I’m sorry, I’m not inclined to accept any of the explanations as exculpatory. Here’s an easy test: If you did what he did, would you feel guilty?  Yes courage fails sometimes.  We try to understand it, sure; we resolve to do better.  Next time.  Or the first time.

The Scientific American article linked above says that clarity comes in hindsight. Maybe so. The students at Penn State knew the facts of the case; they had hindsight. But they rioted in defense of the rape-enabler, Joe Paterno.  How are they feeling now?  What excuses are they making for themselves?

OK, suppose you grant that Penn State is just like any other place.  Say they’re everyman and everywoman; a cross-section of Western society. Fine. So that means no more dismissing the feminist talking about rape culture, about sexual harrassment, and about inequality of status. That means listening for a change, and putting on our courage for some change.


  • NY Times Timeline of the case
  • The pro-Paterno riot did more property damage than all the Occupy Wall Street protests so far.  And by the way, the OWS protesters are the ones standing up to corruption, to power, to the criminal financial class.
  • Couple thousand students at a big university riot, it means over seventy thousand didn’t.  I wonder what the relationship between the two groups will be now?  What’s the breakdown of opinion?  Will anyone resign their athletic scholarship in protest, for example?  And if they did, would others contribute to an alternative scholarship?  Anyone know of such a movement?
  • I once knew a man who lost his job for reporting to the EPA that his employer, a Christian summer camp, had buried several barrels of chlordane next to the city reservoir. His life worsened, his marriage broke up, he died young.  He was a rough individual in many ways, but the entire city of Bloomington, Illinois owes him a debt of gratitude.
Categories: Uncategorized

Hawk vs Squirrel at the dentist

November 11, 2011 6 comments

I sat in the dental chair, waiting for Novocaine to take effect, watching a squirrel outside the window filching seeds from the bird feeder. A hawk stepped out from under a nearby bush. Already that seemed odd to me; I always pictured hawks as swooping down, a fluttering of wings and then sharp-taloned death. Dentistry came to a halt as patients and technicians rushed to the windows to see the drama unfold. But what happened next completely surprised me.

The squirrel noticed the hawk and quickly ran around behind him. As I remembered my camera, the hawk lost track of the squirrel. Hawk looked this way and that while the squirrel ran back and forth under the ledge, along the fence, and through the bushes.  The squirrel came out of the bush and confronted the hawk; which puffed its feathers and backed away.  Three times the squirrel actually charged the hawk.

Squirrel charged the hawk

It isn't what you're thinking...

This particular hawk had entertained my dentist’s customers from time to time by devouring a rabbit in full view of the windows. You look at this picture and you think; “Oh – squirrel is gonna die”. And without the context that’s what it looks like, but notice the feathers – this hawk isn’t braking after swooping in from above; he’s jumping in the air to avoid his attacker which just ran directly at him.  It was too much for the fearsome predator; it flew away and the squirrel went back to thieving seeds from the bird feeder.

Rodents are pretty smart, and I’ve heard that birds of prey aren’t too bright.  Maybe this squirrel writes inspirational posters for other squirrels.

Oh, one other thing: after 10 months I have a new ceramic tooth on a titanium anchor in an artificial bone graft. So happy to be rid of that plastic thing in my mouth.


  • The camera was my little Pentax W60, distinguished by toughness and little else.  Oh how I wished for my Canon G11.
Categories: Uncategorized

I don’t know how to talk to crazy people

November 10, 2011 5 comments

The weather was cold and grey; the first bite of Winter swept across campus in icy gusts.  I encountered a half-dozen nice young students holding a sign that said; “Pure Love”.  One of them approached me and handed me a leaflet:

Pure Love leaflet handed out on campus

Pure Love leaflet handed out on campus

On the front it extolled the virtues of something called Pure Love: it’s pro-love, life, family and happiness.  And sexuality is a right-way/wrong-way thing, and love is a choice – not a feeling.

On the other side it listed web addresses and books that said:

  1. Contraception is bad and people shouldn’t use it
  2. Science supports chastity
  3. Premarital sex hurts people
  4. Overpopulation is a myth – it’s peachy that we have 7 billion people on the planet and there’s plenty of room for more.  A video on that website contained what may be the stupidest statistical illustration I have ever seen.
  5. John Paul II and Paul VI said we are created for extra-special love and have a bunch of responsibility and stuff

I glanced at it, got the gist and folded into my pocket. All of about 19 years old, she smiled and said: “Thank you for taking it!”

I just nodded and walked away.  I wouldn’t know what to say to her.


  • Nope, sorry: love is a feeling.  Integrity, fidelity, honesty – virtues like that – are choices.  And no, I don’t give a damn that the Greeks had different words for it.
  • In my mind I start to answer the rest of those claims – gahh! – and just don’t know where to begin.  Maybe I’m too easily frustrated but they don’t even rise to the level of being wrong.
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