Saturday, June 27, 2009

Storms and Rockets


We run our son's Cub Scout Pack's rocket launch every year (although next year will be our last, as our youngest isn't so very young anymore). This year the event was a bit less organized than we would have liked.

Normally, the night before launch is prep time. I get out the launchers and check everything with a voltmeter, recharge the marine battery I run everything from and do any other maintenance. My dear wife and I get the rocket engines and supplies, count out the appropriate number for each den, and bag them individually to save time the next morning.

This year, we didn't have the launcher control panel until the last minute. The son of the gentleman who was storing it had crossed over to Boy Scouts, so we weren't in contact with him, and by the time we got a hold of him it was last minute. To make things more hectic, my youngest had a friend of his staying with us for a few days, and had decided he would rather have his friend than finish building his rocket.

So a lot of things were left until "the night before". And what a night it was! I got home about 5:45 and the most incredible electrical storm began. The sky got black. The temperature dropped from about 80 to 65ish. We had a few minutes of violent rain and wind, followed by about 20 minutes of nearly continuous lightning and thunder. We stood on the deck and watched. I tried to show the kids how to count seconds to tell how far off the lightning is, but it was hopeless because there was so much lightning there was a continuous rumble and we had no idea what noise was associated with what bolt of lightning.

Of course the power went out immediately, and came back on, and off, and on...more than once a second. I raced to the basement and threw the master breaker for the house, with visions of fried computers. Since we are about the only family in the neighborhood that still has a "classic" telephone we elected ourselves to notify the electric company. Their system said it would call us back when the power went on (I'll save you the suspense - they never called).

So we sat in the deck and watched the display. It was like the grand finale at a fireworks show! The sky turned various colors, including blood red (which was very eerie). After about an hour the sky mostly cleared, but we still had lightning bolts going almost from horizon to horizon across the now clear sky.

By 9 PM the storm was over, but we could still see the sky and trees lighting like strobes in a disco (OK, I'm old). The lightning flashes went on until at least 11 PM. Well, here we are with a house full of kids sitting in the dark. No easy way to check out launch equipment or charge batteries.! Those of you who live in the city may not realize the enormity of being without power. Not only do we have no light or electronics, but we have no heat or air conditioning (not a big problem this time of year) and NO WATER. That means no cooking, cleaning, or FLUSHING.

So we went to bed, figuring the electric company would either call us when the power came on (I had to switch the breakers back on before we could enjoy electric power) or else we would have no power in the morning (in which case we really had to figure out how to run the launch).

Fortunately something woke me around 1 AM and I peeked out the window to see lights in the neighbor's window. I went downstairs and hastily set up the battery charger and did what I could in my sleep addled state to prepare for the morning.


Of course the next morning arrived early and beautiful; the proverbial calm after the storm. I drove the car to the local park to set up the rocket launcher, and was surprised to see cars in the parking lot. I figured they were probably leftovers from an early morning soccer game or something, and drove past them to the end of the field where we launch.

As I unloaded the car and began setting up, a park employee in a golf cart began driving towards me. "Checking permits" I thought to myself. As suspected, the gentleman, Sean, asked if I had a permit for the use of the field. I produced the paperwork.

"There's a problem," he told me. "They scheduled a soccer game on this field this morning at the same time. You'll have to move to the north end of the park." What else could I do? He invited me to hop on the golf cart, and showed me where we would be able to launch. a very long walk from another parking lot. He dropped me back at my car and drove off. Grrrr!

I drove my car past the "park vehicles only" sign and down the walking path to unload. That way it was only 50 mils to carry all the equipment instead of 100. Immediately golf carts converged on my from every direction (Sean went back to his end of the park) telling me I couldn't park there. I must have looked annoyed because they swiftly drove off after delivering their message.

Meanwhile, a cadre of scouts had assembled, (presumably directed there by Sean, since we hadn't had time to notify anyone of the location change). Several parent's pitched in and we got the launcher assembled.

My life from the next 2 hours consisted of placing rockets on launch pads, connecting wires, and doing countdowns. My mantra became "is the safety on?" The sun was hot, but the sky was blue for the first time in weeks, so I didn't mind (at first). Life was good as I watched the rockets, four at a time, soar into the sky and deploy parachutes and streamers.

We lost one nose cone, when a rocket separated from it's parachute and nose cone. No doubt it came to earth somewhere, but the last we saw it was hundreds of feet up and traveling south. Another rocket had a balance problem and embedded itself in the ground down range before deploying its chute on the ground. Other than that, we had well over a hundred successful launches.

Of course (it happens every year) someone showed up just as we were putting away the last of the gear. We hastily assembled a makeshift launcher, found a hand-held controller that still had life the batteries and pulled off 3 more launches.

Next year will be our last time running the launch, since our youngest will be crossing over to Boy Scouts. I'm gonna miss it, and I guess that's the whole reason for this post; to remember the fun.

[images by computerhotline and Sacha Grant]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

White is Green

In keeping with my Use Paper and Save Trees post, I came across this article today. It talks about how Obama's energy secretary, Steven Chu, wants to "paint the world white" to fight global warming. In fact he feels so strongly, he says "I think you should regulate." Does this make sense?

At first glance, this is a stupid idea. The average albedo of the Earth is 0.367. Pavement has an albedo of 0.05 to 0.4, and gets lighter as it ages. So one might consider 0.1 a pessimistic average albedo for paving. Using all light colored paving (0.4, rather than 0.05) would reflect about 35% more light. How would that change the average albedo of the Earth? Barely at all. The same argument can be made for roofs.

However, let's consider some other aspects of the change. The heaviest concentration of roofs and paving will be in urban areas, where the heat from all those buildings and roads has a disastrous effect on local climate and comfort. Certainly making buildings and roads a lighter color would improve life for city dwellers.

But that's just the start of it. Lighter colored buildings will absorb less heat, requiring less energy for air conditioning. Lighter colored roads will require less lighting at night which will also save energy. Saving 35% off an air conditioning bill is a significant change. Heating and air conditioning is the second largest consumer of energy in this country (after automobiles).

So the science is sound (as the native Americans of the American Southwest or the inhabitants of Saharan Africa or the Mediterranean could tell you). Light colored buildings and road make sense. Should this be a matter for federal regulation, however? There I have to disagree. Simply publicizing the cost savings should be enough for businesses and municipalities to want to take part. If needed, local building codes could be changed. Putting federal regulation in place is just a grandstanding waste of my money. So I guess we'll be regulatin' then.

What do you think?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Barack Obama on Parenthood

“I’ve got two daughters, 9 years old and 6 years old. I’m going to teach them first of all about values and morals but if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.”

-Barack Obama, March 29, 2008

"This isn't an obligation. "This is a privilege to be a father."

-Barack Obama, June 19, 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

Science E-books Suck

Here's the much await next instalment of my comments on an article "6 Lessons One Campus Learned About E-Textbooks" by Jeff Young.

First off, let's briefly go over the 6 lessons again:

1. E-book readers suck.
2. E-book readers are hard to use.
3. Professors wanted to be "on the bandwagon".
4. Batteries die.
5. Some subjects' E-books are worse than others.
6. E-books save trees.

On to #5 "SOm subjects' E-books are worse than others". There are 3 big problems here:

  • E-books are not "rich" enough.

  • Number of pixels

  • E-book formats are (mostly) proprietary

E-book's are for reading, not drawing. So the data they contain is text and images. There are things you can do with text, but images are basically static. There's nothing you can do with them. Likewise, you can annotate (some) E-books with bookmarks and/or text, but you can't draw on them. This is not so much an issue with some subjects, like literature, but for something like biology or math the format and placement of information is part of the information, and not being able to draw arrows and circles and line, and put one thing over or inside another is a serious problem.

The small number of pixels available also means that either images are too low resolution to accurately display some information, or they are too big to fit on the screen of the reader. Of course, reading the E-book on a laptop with a large screen helps somewhat, but there's no getting around the fact that a textbook printed on paper has an effective resolution of (conservatively) 600 dpi, so if the book is 7x9" the number of "pixels" is 4200x5400, which is big. Things like anti aliasing and good font design fool us into thinking displays are better than they are.

We could conceivably get around some of these drawbacks if there were a standard format that was extensible enough to support the kinds of things (image manipulation, equation editing, drawing on the pages) that are needed by a textbook, but the market isn't big enough, and the vendors try to hold market share by using proprietary formats/technologies that none of them has the capital to build into what's needed.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Use Paper and Save Trees

I just read an article "6 Lessons One Campus Learned About E-Textbooks" by Jeff Young (AFAIK, no relation to Jeff Young), and had some thoughts about e-books to share.

First off, let's briefly go over the 6 lessons:

  1. E-book readers suck.

  2. E-book readers are hard to use.

  3. Professors wanted to be "on the bandwagon".

  4. Batteries die.

  5. Some subjects' E-books are worse than others.

  6. E-books save trees.

Now I am a techie kind of guy, and I wold love to have some sort of E-book, if they had even most of the benefits of a paper book, but sadly that is not the case. Here are my pet peeves about E-books. Since they are long, I'm going to cover one lesson/peeve per blog post.

E-books kill trees?

Yes, I know they just said in that learned article that they save trees. By "trees" I mean "The Environment", just to be clear. A search on the internet leads me to believe one tree produces 8,000-9,000 sheets of copy paper (which goes to show that I'll believe almost anything). Let's say I'm taking 5 courses and each textbook is 800 pages. Ignoring the fact that textbook pages are thinner and smaller than copy paper, I am using about 1/2 a tree per year. Of course, the average textbook will last more than a year (I have some from my college courses mumbly years ago). Assuming some the textbooks get sold back to the campus book store and resold until they fall apart, we'll be picky and say the average textbook will last 2 years. So the environmental cost of the books is 1/4 tree/year.

Now let's say I throw out those pesky textbooks and get a laptop. I say laptop because of the problems with an E-book reader (which I'll get into later). That laptop takes something like 2000 KWH of energy to produce (hard to find figures online, mine were actually based on energy cost of manufacturing a desktop computer, which I'm assuming is similar. A laptop has less plastic and steel, but also has batteries and more exotic materials, so I'm guessing the numbers are comparable). Electricity is produced at the rate of 2460 KWH/ton, so the laptop uses about 1600 pounds of carbon. A tree absorbs 13 pounds of carbon/year, so that laptop consumed the equivalent of 125 tree years, or about the equivalent of 6 "paper" trees (assuming trees grow for 20 years before being made into paper).

Of course that laptop lasts more than just one year. Again hard to find numbers, but averaging a bunch of sources the laptop can be expected to last 3 years. So we have manufacturing environment impact for the laptop of 2 trees/year. Oh yeah, the laptop also has other uses, but since we're a student, we're going to spend as much time in class, studying, reading, etc. as we are playing games/music, etc. (most of the time we're doing both), so I'll reduce that by a factor of 2 and call it 1 tree/year.

So, just by manufacturing, the books are ahead by a factor of 4. We still haven't considered the electricity used to run the laptop. Assuming it's on for 6 hours a day (class time plus homework plus study time) and uses 50 watts we have bout 200 pounds of coal or 3/4 of a tree/year in electricity to run the laptop.

Final score:

Paper BooksLaptop
Tree equivalent0.25/year1.75/year

Now, let's consider that we eventually throw out the textbook and the laptop. The textbook is almost entirely recyclable (except for the ink) at very low energy cost. The laptop is difficult to recycle, and requires lots of energy to do so. And when it gets into a landfill, the textbook is biodegradable, whereas the laptop will ast for centuries, leaching chemicals into the soil.

I agree the numbers would be closer if we were talking about a dedicated E-book reader, like the Sony or Amazon readers, but I don't think you can get below (or even meet) the tree-friendliness of real books. Stay tuned to see the next exciting blog post on this topic.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wave to ME!

Every once in a while a product comes out that makes me say "Dang! I wish I had thought of that!" This is the story of one such product. I was alerted by a friend who works for google to watch the wave developer preview. Sadly, I have a job and it's an hour and a half. So far I have been through about 1/2 of it and I am impressed. I should probably wait until I've seen the whole thing but who knows how long that will take?

The presentation goes on about wave's uses, things like instant updates to text, media, and searches, inline responses, editing simultaneously, privacy options, embedding on a web page. Here's a great highlight page about the features.

While all these features are cool, none of them is radically different from things that have been done before. Updating a chat session character by character just requires more bandwidth. editing simultaneously is handled by any number of version control/merge products, etc.

However, the fact that they can do all these things in one document is exciting, because to me it points to new ways of handling the data. Note I said document, not chat session. A "wave" really is a document editing system, that's also usable for chat. In fact, a wave is really a databse, when it comes down to it.

The content is mixed media, but it is organized and indexed in many ways simultaneously. First off, there is the presentation structure, which is a tree of media. The media itself is cool. During the demo they freely mix images and text (no mention so far of video or sound, but that's gotta be in the works). Even cooler is the mixture of languages, including non right-left languages.

So each "leaf" has a location in the tree that represents the document. The tree structure is self generating from the way the content is created, which is kind of cool. However, the leaves are also organized linearly as a history by creation/modification time. That allows the "playback" features, and also allows the simultaneous editing and merging.

But wait, there's more. The tree has hierarchical access security. I'm not sure how that works. Typically you can give a document security by encryption or by physical access. I presume the wave uses physical access restrictions, which means the master wave lives on a server. Either way, cool.

But wait, there's more. The search feature also works instantly - if one party searches for a term, results are added and removed as another user types the word or deletes it. Again very cool. I presume this leverages off of the fact that a small number of leaves is being modified at any given time, and the leaves are indexed by modification time already, in order to support playback and merging.

So to me, the coolest part is not what they did (which is impressive looking) but how they wrote things in a way that makes it all possible, in one package, in real time. It's very interesting, very clever, very dynamic, and I think is truly the basis for a possible paradigm shift in collaborative software.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Are Catholics catholic?

People ask if I'm conservative or liberal (in terms of my views and opinions). I reply that I am Catholic. Each person assumes something oddly different from that statement, and pretty much all are wrong. Some equate that with "conservative". Others think it means "republican". One friend was astonished to find that I was not a creationist. "But you said you're Catholic!" he said. Very few people, however, care to ask anything deeper.

First of all, note that I'm saying "Catholic", not "catholic". The word "catholic" has sort of fallen out of use these days, although I would claim that to be "Catholic" implies that you are "catholic", but not necessarily the other way around. The dictionary entry for "catholic" says:

1. Universal or general; as, the catholic faith.

2. Not narrow-minded, partial, or bigoted; liberal; as, catholic tastes.

3. Of or pertaining to, or affecting the Roman Catholics; as, the Catholic emancipation act.

So what does it mean to say you are Catholic? Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden would tell you they're Catholic, but what they call Catholic isn't in keeping with the Magisterium (AKA teachings of the Catholic Church). Fr. Richard Rohr wold tell you he is Catholic and in union with the Magisterium, but even a cursory look at his writings/sermons convinces me that he is not (in union with the Magisterium).

Would I call these people Catholic? They are baptized into the Church and so they are themselves Catholic, but I wouldn't call their views Catholic. What I mean by a Catholic point of view is that one's views are in alignment with the Magisterium.

Does that mean that people with "Catholic" views are little robots, programmed by the Pope? Quite the contrary! As I stated above, such people are also "catholic" (in the sense of the first two definitions). First off, the views of the Church are not arbitrary, but are based on reasoning from principles. Someone who wishes to know the teaching on euthanasia, for instance, can access Catechism of the Catholic Church and under Respect for Human Life we find:


2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.

Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

2279 Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.

Here we see not just "yes" or "no" but what kinds of acts are considered morally acceptable and unacceptable and by what principles the decision is based. So the Catholic should understand and think about this position. In order to disagree, one must either reject the principle (all human life deserves respect) or the logic (directly killing a person because he is handicapped is unjust because it denies his intrinsic right to life). Note that the position is "catholic", taking into account the responsibility to respect life but also the burden of caring for the dying and the appropriate use of medicine to balance these principles. You have to use your brain to be Catholic.

Secondly, it is possible to accept these teachings and be extremely "liberal" or "conservative" on many issues that are not so cut-and-dried. Gun control, for example, or health care reform or the environment. I was involved in a lively debate today about the disposition of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. I would consider the participants all to be "Catholic" in their views, yet there are legitimate differences in our positions based on principles of public safety vs. individual rights, responsibilities of government to the governed, etc.

So, far from being "conservative" or "liberal", or being "programmed" or "mindless", or "anti-science", I think Catholics are the most "catholic" people around.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


We took my sons and friends to see "UP" yesterday, in "Disney Digital 3D". Quite an enjoyable film, and fairly family friendly.

[This is not spoilers, most of it is in the trailer for the film, so no worries] It is the story of an old man who wants to fulfill the dream he and his late wife had, of going to South America. He decides to do this by flying his house there. He winds up accidentally taking along a young boy who is a "Wilderness Explorer". They have an adventure in South America, and learn the value of family and relationships. Of course there is an evil guy and his minions, and the omnipresent talking animal comedy relief.

I said "fairly" family friendly. There are some parts which deal with themes that are quite sad and serious, but are done in a way that is not threatening, and although the adults will tear up (well, ones like me who tear up at the drop of a hat will), the kids will gloss over it and enjoy the physical comedy. There is also quite a bit of mockery of Boy Scouts, which I didn't appreciate, but younger kids will probably miss it, and Boy Scouts (at least the ones I know) are strong enough to take it.

All-in-all it's funny, touching, and remarkably free of body noises or crudeness. I'd give it two thumbs...UP!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Stem Cell News

"So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science." -- Richard Feynman in Cargo Cult Science

Several Stories have been in the news recently. On the adult stem cell side, we have Adult Bone Marrow Stem Cells Injected Into Skeletal Muscle Can Repair Heart Tissue. According to this article, injecting adult bone marrow stem cells into skeletal muscle can repair cardiac tissue, reversing heart failure. Adult stem cells have been used to repair heart tissue before, but this method is non-invasive, eliminating the risks of heart surgery.

Also in the news is Combined Stem Cell-Gene Therapy Approach Cures Human Genetic Disease In Vitro. According to this article there is proof of a cure in humans of Fanconi anemia, a genetic disorder that impairs the body's ability to fight infection, deliver oxygen, and clot blood. Hair or skin cells are taken from the patient with Fanconi anemia, the defective gene is corrected in the cells, then the cells are transformed into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The resulting FA-iPS cells were indistinguishable from human embryonic stem cells and iPS cells generated from healthy donors.

Wow! Great news of important cures using research that is ethical and doesn't disregard human rights! Let's take a look at research in the news using embryonic stem cells.

First is Method To Neutralize Tumor Growth In Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy Discovered. This article talks about the dangers of tumor formation using embryonic stems cells, and a theory being looked into at the Hebrew University that would suppress certain genes in the embryonic cells, that might lessen the chance of tumor formation. According to the article the inhibition of genes before or after transplantation could minimize the chances of tumor formation, but the researchers caution that a combination of strategies may be needed to address the major safety concerns regarding tumor formation by human embryonic stem cells.

Next is Case Report Of A Brain And Spinal Tumor Following Human Fetal Stem Cell Therapy. The article describes how doctors (unclear who they are from this article) from the Sheba Medical Center, Tel Aviv, Israel, report the case of a boy with a rare genetic disease, Ataxia Telangiectasia, who underwent human fetal stem cell therapy at an unrelated clinic in Moscow and who, four years after the therapy began, was shown to have abnormal growths in his brain and spinal cord. The article goes on to say that although this report indicates the need for caution in stem cell therapy, the authors conclude that their findings "do not imply that the research in stem cell therapeutics should be abandoned. They do, however, suggest that extensive research into the biology of stem cells and in-depth preclinical studies, especially of safety, should be pursued in order to maximize the potential benefits of regenerative medicine while minimizing the risks."

Where would you spend your research dollars? On dangerous, ethically and morally reprehensible research that so far has produced suffering instead of cures, or on research that is actually working and harms nobody.

Of course, even if embryonic stem cell research were curing cancer and saving GM, that still wouldn't make it right to be killing human beings.