Archive for March, 2007

March 24, 2007

The Reality-Based Community: Global warming and the economy:

The ideas in good currency, between the lunatic fringes (there is also some supergreen advocacy for shutting down everything right away) are “taking action as long as it doesn’t hurt the economy” and taking more strenuous actions that (presumably) do. The first has a sensible, thoughtful, businesslike aroma, but it is profoundly nuts, unless you think that your family economy would be helped by borrowing lots of money and spending it right away on vacations and entertainment.

At first I thought this post by Michael O’Hare was just stupid, but now I think it’s actually quite useful at exposing the incoherence of phrases like “hurt the economy.” What made me think is was stupid is this passage:

There are three generic ways to stem the flow of CO2 into the air. The first is to catch it at the smokestack (for example, of a coal-burning power plant) and put it back in the ground or at the bottom of the sea. This is not impossible but it will never be cheap, almost certainly has no future for vehicles, and at the moment, it’s very expensive except at a few locations well suited to it. The second is a group of blue-sky geoengineering ideas needing (and deserving) many, many years of research and development but not certain to be practical ever. These include schemes to shade the earth with sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere or some sort of parasol in space between the earth and the sun, or to accelerate the growth of algae in the ocean by sprinkling iron about.

The third, and the only one we can start to use now or even soon, is to burn less fossil fuel, something that in turn can be done in only two ways. The first is to conserve energy. The second is to substitute fossil energy sources with something else. Nuclear, wind, and biofuels are good for this, but they are all more expensive and will be for some time, perhaps forever.

The first paragraph appears to confuse CO2 emissions reduction, enhanced removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and “global-cooling” techniques that would operate even as CO2 emissions continue to increase. This does not augur well.

The second paragraph engages in the common fallacy of pegging increased efficiency (and the general decoupling of GDP from energy use or CO2 emission) as “conservation”, which is always associated with turning down thermostats and driving tiny cars. It wasn’t conservation of rubber that motivated Goodyear to make vulcanized tires, or conserving vacuum tubes that got Shockley et al to make transistors. If we can do the same stuff, or more, with less CO2 going into the air, that’s not only dandy but also economically speaking a really good thing. And of course the whole “don’t hurt the economy” thing started with the observation that a lot of the steps you would like to take to mitigate global warming are in fact intensely profitable (once you’ve gotten over the market-entry hurdles).

So while I was grumbling about that, I started to take apart the rest of the paragraph, asking “what do you mean by ‘more expensive’? Do you mean they have a higher initial price, or that they’re more expensive even after all of the externalities and the disposal costs and so forth are factored in?” Because of course if you take global warming seriously, there’s a lot of stuff whose added up-front cost is more covered by the savings of, say, not having to relocate three-quarters of the major cities in the world.

And once you start down that road it becomes clear that “hurt the economy” isn’t really a meaningful phrase by itself. First, you have to decide on a bunch of time horizons and discount rates and risk sensitivities and such. So calling something “more expensive” only makes sense with respect to a particular interest rate, set of risk scenarios blah blah blah.

But the second part is even more important: what is this “the economy” whereof we speak? Yes, diverting resources to mitigating global warming means not spending them elsewhere. But so what? Diverting resources to building the internet or killing somewhere north of half a million people in Iraq or sending pieces of metal stamped “Lockheed Martin” to Mars all mean not spending them elsewhere. By this kind of simpleminded measure the Marshall Plan or the Interstate Highway System hurt the US economy terribly.

But of course they didn’t. It’s not as if the money spent on those things vanished down a rathole. People got paid their wages and bought food and clothes and cars and parts of houses. The immediate effects were distributional rather than on total activity.

Which brings us to the notion that mitigating global warming would be like a 1% in reducing consumption. That kind of formulation makes sense from the reactionary position where taxes are something you pay and get only intangibles for in return. But not so much if you think about government spending as providing tangible benefits — wages, services, infrastructure — for real people. (Yes, even “people like us”.)

Another way rich people are different

March 23, 2007

So yesterday I was looking through Honeywell’s 2007 proxy statement — these things are always an interesting read in a twisted sort of way — and I came up the section about severance pay for executives.

Damn but these people get some sweet deals.

Anywhere between $5 and $7 million for leaving. Free and clear if the company changes hands, under a few negligible conditions if it doesn’t. For example, if they’re fired for anything other than committing a crime or intentional misconduct that damages the company, they get the money. (Wouldn’t you like that: “I’m sorry, we’ve discovered that you’re just not competent to do your job, here’s $5 million to go away.”)

Better yet, they get the same severance pay if they just up and quit, just as long as it’s for a “good reason”. What’s a good reason for walking away with $5-7 million?

  • A “material change” in their duties or responsibilities. Well, OK, maybe.
  • A pay cut of more than 10%. Because, y’know, that kind of insult is worth 5 mil easy, even if the company could really use the money to pay the rest of its workers or its suppliers.
  • A “significant” reduction in company-paid insurance benefits or increase in premiums. Hands up, everybody whose employer hasn’t cut insurance coverage or increased the price you pay anytime recently. If you were an executive at Honeywell, you could walk away with $5 mil for your trouble.
  • An office relocation of more than 50 miles. Because having to move to a different exclusive estate to keep your morning commute down just isn’t worth it. Better take the millions and split.

And the footnotes. The footnotes are the best part. After giving all these numbers, lots of them nicely rounded to the nearest hundred thousand, the text continues, to explain just how the megabucks are allocated. In footnote 4, for example, we learn that executive officers fired for mere incompetence are entitled to receive their bonuses for the next three years, even though they might not have earned them had they remained employed. In footnote 9 we see that two executives even get to accrue vacation pay for the three years after they leave (details like this are important, I guess, because handing them a duffel full of Jacksons and saying “Dig in!” doesn’t pass SEC muster). Oh, and should any of these sweet perks result in extra tax liability, Honeywell has promised to reimburse its executives for the full amount of tax paid, including the tax on the money Honeywell gives them to reimburse the taxes on the base-level payout.

I don’t even think Honeywell is being significantly more disgusting than other big stupid companies its size. Their executives just have access to a huge pot of other people’s money and are doing what anyone who’s been trained to maximize personal utility would do. If I could get someone to pay me salary, bonuses and vacation pay for not wanting to do my job any more, I’d probably do it too.

Why are people so stupid?

March 21, 2007

YOU are big brother: Control and track your car from the ‘net – Autoblog

I can think of about a dozen ways offhand that this could be used to stalk people, harass them, maroon them in dangerous places, or even kill them. And I’m having a hard time thinking of authentication methods that would be strong enough to eliminate these risks without making the system largely pointless.

Oh, and that’s even before getting into the civil-liberties and workplace-rights issues…

More discussion over at Bruce Schneier’s place.

More crap

March 21, 2007

The Cheerful Oncologist:

Do Prayers for the Sick Make a Difference?

Afarensis: What Can Pigs Tell Us About the Peopling of the Pacific:

Recent research on the question analyzed the mtDNA from pigs across Asia and the Pacific.

ScienceDaily: Crops Feel The Heat As The World Warms:

Over a span of two decades, warming temperatures have caused annual losses of roughly $5 billion for major food crops, according to a new study by researchers at the Carnegie Institution and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | £350,000 damages for ‘binned’ art:

A High Court judge has ordered an art storage company to pay £350,000 for accidentally binning an artwork by Turner Prize winner Anish Kapoor.

Mr Schelps sued the company for damages or the return of the piece, which he bought in 2004 for £20,000 and put in storage before Kapoor was due to carry out restoration work.

Fine Art Logistics admitted that it was impossible to return it because it had been placed in a skip for disposal, and offered to pay £587.13.

Wired 15.03: Be More Than You Can Be:

Inside the Pentagon’s human enhancement project.

I’m a little surprised that this stuff isn’t much further advanced than it sounds — have we really not gotten this little past NASA’s liquid-cooled underwear?
The Frontal Cortex : Neuroscience and Science Writing:

Neuroscience and Science Writing

GMO corn causes liver, kidney problems in rats: study: Scientific American:

PARIS (Reuters) – Environmental group Greenpeace launched a fresh attack on genetically modified maize developed by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto, saying on Tuesday that rats fed on one version developed liver and kidney problems.

Greenpeace said a study it had commissioned that was published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Technology showed rats fed for 90 days on Monsanto’s MON863 maize showed “signs of toxicity” in the liver and kidneys.

Death of the Web, Film at 11

March 20, 2007

InformationWeek: Colorado Woman Sues To Hold Web Crawlers To Contracts

Computers can enter into contracts on behalf of people. The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) says that a “contract may be formed by the interaction of electronic agents of the parties, even if no individual was aware of or reviewed the electronic agents’ actions or the resulting terms and agreements.” This presumes a prior agreement to do business electronically.

So what constitutes such an agreement? The Internet Archive, which spiders the Internet to copy Web sites for posterity (unless site owners opt out), is being sued by Colorado resident and Web site owner Suzanne Shell for conversion, civil theft, breach of contract, and violations of the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations act and the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act.

Shell’s site states, “IF YOU COPY OR DISTRIBUTE ANYTHING ON THIS WEB SITE, YOU ARE ENTERING INTO A CONTRACT,” at the bottom of the main page, and refers readers to a more detailed copyright notice and agreement. Her suit asserts that the Internet Archive’s programmatic visitation of her site constitutes acceptance of her terms, despite the obvious inability of a Web crawler to understand those terms and the absence of a robots.txt file to warn crawlers away.

A court ruling last month granted the Internet Archive’s motion to dismiss the charges, except for the breach of contract claim.

I’m trying to imagine how many alternative versions of “accessing this site constitutes acceptance of our terms of service” and “we reserve the following rights from the following parties” search engines will be expected to parse.  This is, at the very least, what robots.txt is for.

more stuff

March 20, 2007

Geek to Live: Monitor your Mac and more with GeekTool – Lifehacker:

American Prospect Online – MotherLoad:

Institute for Investigative Journalism | Brandeis University:

Working families, the care crisis, and time for change | TPMCafe:

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | ‘Cave entrances’ spotted on Mars:


March 20, 2007

Crooked Timber » » Cool visualizations:

What do you get when you sort approximately 800,000 published papers into 776 scientific paradigms? If you have an interesting visualization expert working with you on the project then you get this map (or click here for an even larger version). Seed Magazine has more on the details and Brad Paley’s Information Esthetics Web site tells you how you can get your own copy just for paying shipping and handling charges.

Yet another brilliant dead end

March 20, 2007

IEEE Spectrum: Beyond Blue:

If this stuff works (how many times have I said that before) It could be way, way cool. Suddenly the efficiency of nice-looking light sources goes up from 2-3% to 30+%.  One complicating factor is that LEDs still like to be relatively small and consume about 20-30 mW in a single package, leading to really ugly arrays that try to fit into normal bulb spaces. It might be more interesting (even though the efficiency gains are less) to think what would happen if you made an LED bulb that fit into the space currently occupied by a fluorescent tube.)

How not to worry about health care in this country

March 9, 2007

Truck driver wins Mega Millions:

This really will be life altering. Right now Eddie lives with his mom. She says he’s struggled with health problems so this will take a lot of worry away. And she says he’ll really have the time for all that fishing he loves to do.

For some reason that line just leaped out at me. That means his health problems are the kind money can solve, but like so many other americans he just didn’t have the money to solve them. Now he does; may we all be so lucky.

Oh, wait.

More Links, some of them worth further comment

March 8, 2007

Cool Tool: Cintiq:

Digital Paper

Steampunk Keyboard Mod:

Steampunk Keyboard Mod

InfoWorld Tech Watch | InfoWorld | Check out Woz’s New Toy | February 12, 2007 01:08 PM | By Paul Roberts:

prototype RFID spoofer

Digital FAIR USE bill introduced to amend DMCA – Engadget:

Digital FAIR USE bill introduced to amend DMCA

I should take a look and see just what it does — if it only modifies a bit of the DMCA’s overarching evil, it might be worse than nothing.

Diebold considering dumping e-voting unit; Engadget says PLEASE DO IT – Engadget:

Diebold considering dumping e-voting unit

BBC NEWS | Technology | World’s tiniest RFID tag unveiled:

World’s tiniest RFID tag unveiled

Dark Reading – Desktop Security – How to Cheat Hardware Memory Access – Security News Analysis:

Rutkowksa will show how an attacker could prevent forensics investigators from getting a real image of the memory where the malware resides. “Even if they somehow find out that the system is compromised, they will be unable to get the real image of memory containing the malware, and consequently, they will be unable to analyze it,” says Rutkowska, senior security researcher for COSEINC.

Using the Web to Get the Boss to Pay More – New York Times:

A few Web sites try to level the playing field by providing more detailed information about salaries.


Image Denoising

The following examples illustrate how the algorithm can be used for image filtering, in order to denoise, simplify or create painting styles from color images.

The Loom : Evolving Robotspeak:

Laurent Keller, an expert on social evolution at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, chose the latter. Working with robotics experts at Lausanne, he constructed simple robots like the ones shown above. Each robot had a pair of wheeled tracks, a 360-degree light-sensing camera, and an infrared sensor underneath. The robots were controlled by a program with a neural network architecture.

This is pretty darn cool. But then I’m a sucker for simple social robotics.

“Chemical origami” shrinks 2D discs into 3D objects (February 2007) – News – PhysicsWeb:

Physicists in Israel have invented a neat method of making elaborate 3D structures from flat 2D discs. The trick is to pre-treat a gel disc half the size of a beer coaster with a monomer solution “blueprint” that selectively shrinks when heated.

Wired News: New Sub Dives Crushing Depths:

The battery-powered device’s hydraulic pumps generate minute changes in volume that cause the vessel to rise toward the surface or plunge further into the ocean.

That’s a lot of erosion from a sewage pipe

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala – A 330-foot-deep sinkhole killed at least two teenagers as it swallowed about a dozen homes early Friday and forced the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people in a crowded Guatemala City neighborhood. Officials blamed the sinkhole on recent rains and an underground sewage flow from a ruptured main.