Archive for March, 2008

But where do they get their broadband?

March 31, 2008

Stubborn homeowners live by oozing volcano –

Earlier this month, a two-block-wide swath of lava burned through abandoned homes and reached the ocean. And the first gas explosion at Kilauea’s peak since 1924 scattered gravel onto a tourist lookout, road and trail before daybreak last week, injuring no one but spreading fear.

Olson and her scattered neighbors have built houses atop blasted land of hardened black crust where previous neighborhoods were destroyed by lava flows in 1990. Most get their power from solar panels, their water from the rain and some of their food from gardens planted between lava rocks. Until a new lava viewing area began drawing big crowds a few weeks ago, they lived in relative isolation.

If the price is low enough (and it apparently is) this sounds like a perfectly nice idea to me.



March 31, 2008

New Edison-Style Cup Phonograph Kit

This replica kit uses the same technology that Thomas Edison used, replacing Edison’s waxed pipe and stylus with a plastic cup and a needle, but the end results are the same! You record your own voice on a plastic cup — and play it back!

It’s either that or just build the thing from scratch. So to speak.

Nice if true

March 29, 2008

PuneTech » Building EKA – The world’s fastest privately funded supercomputer

supercomputers have typically used sparse interconnect topologies like Star, Ring, Torus (e.g. IBM’s Blue Gene/L), or hypercube (Cray). These are more scalable as far as building the interconnect for really large numbers of nodes is concerned. However, the downside is that nodes are not directly connected to each other and messages have to go through multiple hops before reaching the destination. Here, unless the applications are designed very carefully to reduce message exchanges between different nodes (especially those that are not directly connected to each other), the interconnect becomes a bottleneck for application scaling.

In contrast to those systems, Eka uses an interconnect designed using concepts from projective geometry. The details of the interconnect are beyond the scope of this article. (Translation: I did not understand the really complex mathematics that goes on in those papers. Suffice it to say that before they are done, fairly obscure branches of mathematics get involved. However, one of these days, I am hoping to write a fun little article on how a cute little mathematical concept called Perfect Difference Sets (first described in 1938) plays an important role in designing supercomputer interconnects over 50 years later. Motivated readers are encouraged to try and see the connection.)

To simplify – Eka uses an interconnect based on Projective Geometry concepts. This interconnect gives linear speedup for applications but the complexity of building the interconnect increases only near-linearly.

Just wow

March 29, 2008

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Blog: Air Force Wants Contractors to Write Its Strategy

1.1 Mission. To provide the focal point for the Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and Quadrennial Roles and Missions Review (QRMR) through an integrated process that reaches across the Department of Defense (DoD), supporting the Chief of Staff’s global strategic vision while preparing our nation to fight and win in air, space, and cyberspace. 1.2 Scope. Non-personal advisory and assistance services (A&AS) contract to support mission and requirements as well as all supported staff organizations and agencies. Primarily responsible for integrating positions from all Air Staff, MAJCOM, Doctrine Development Center (AFDDEC), and DoD inputs with all relevant existing research. Conducts requisite novel research and analysis for developing recommended advocacy positions on relevant issues that have effects on the Air Force and DoD as a whole. A&AS contract support should include, but is not limited to, analysis and position development on DoD roles and missions, air mobility, global strike, command and control (C2), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), cyberspace, ballistic missile defense (BMD), irregular warfare (IW), joint recapitalization, strategic communications, QDR strategy and other timely and acute strategic issues.

I think the only fair way to do it is to give the job to a consortium, so that the interests of all the big defense contractors get considered, rather than just one or two.

More mush from the wimp

March 28, 2008

Talking Points Memo | Bush seeks financial regulation overhaul

The recommendations are the product of a yearlong review that was begun in an effort to modernize the government’s regulatory structure so that the country’s financial services industries could better compete in a fast-changing global economy.

And let’s forget that “modernizing” regulations so that big financial players could supposedly compete better is a big part of what got us into this mess.

The proposal would allow the Fed, in its new role as “market stability regulator,” to dispatch examiners to check the books not just of commercial banks but of all segments of the financial services industry.

Because what we really need is the Fed with the power to examine books and to lend hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to corporations it determines are in danger of insolvency. But no power whatsoever to tell those companies what capital reserves they must hold to cover their transactions, or what level of mind-blowingly stupid transactions they may or may not engage in.

The administration proposal would also consolidate the current scheme of bank regulation by shutting down the Office of Thrift Supervision and transferring its functions to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates nationally chartered banks. The plan recommends that the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates stock trading, be merged with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates futures trades for oil, grains and various other commodities.

With no evidence that the Office of the Comptroller would get enough staff to handle the huge pile of additional work, or that they have the mindset to deal with an entirely different kind of banking enterprise. Or that the SEC and CFTC really need to be merged to work together.

The plan would create a national regulator for the insurance industry, which is now largely governed by the states, and would create a Mortgage Origination Commission to try to address the abuses exposed in the current tidal wave of mortgage defaults.

Ooh, because what we need is a commission to tell us that you don’t give negative-amortization loans to people with no documented income. And because states have proven so ineffective at regulating insurance companies, so very ineffective that insurance lobbyists have repeatedly tried (and failed) to get Congress to pass laws that would establish nationwide insurance rules that would preempt any stricter provisions enacted by state regulators, with an unfunded mandate for some brand-new office (staffed by whom?) that would magically acquire the expertise to recognize when insurance companies were pulling a fast one.

If this idea were in effect now, for instance, California would have been barred from investigating all those cases where insurors retroactively cancelled sick customers’ health insurance. Instead, that work would have had to come from the Bush Justice department. You know, the same one that just disbanded its anti-corruption office in California…

And so forth.

Restaurant at the end of the ocean

March 28, 2008

The Associated Press: No Bait! Fish May Respond to Sound

Miner said the specially trained fish could someday be used to bolster the depleted black sea bass stock. Farmed fish might become better acclimated to the wild if they can be called back for food every few days.

The bigger goal is to defray the costs of fish farming, an increasingly important source of the world’s seafood. If fish can be trained to return to the farmer after feeding in the open ocean for several days, farms could save money on feed and reduce the amount of fish waste released in concentrated areas.

The key question for fish farmers: How many fish will actually return, and how many will be lost to predators or simply swim away?

Also interesting: what other species will learn that there’s free food and prey to be had when the bell rings?

Ooh, I am quaking in my boots

March 28, 2008

US state outlaws RFID data theft | The Register

Washington state governor Chris Gregoire this week signed a bill which will make data theft by RFID illegal and punishable with up to 10 years in jail. The bill was signed in response to the growing use of RFID tags in the state, ranging from driver ID cards to company ID cards and retailers’ loyalty cards. The legislation is intended to prevent criminals using RFID readers to gain information from those cards without the owner’s knowledge. State Representative Jeff Morris, who sponsored the bill, told Computerworld, “If I take an RFID card from work or the grocery store, I should know that it’s protected, and someone else can’t read that card to get my identity, steal from me or stalk me…Our intent was to put some basic rules of the road in place.”

This law isn’t entirely bogus, I suppose — it prevents ostensibly legitimate organizations such as stores, restaurants, bars, malls and so forth from collecting information just for the heck of it. If you can prove that they did it by snooping rfids, and if the information they snoop is considered personal enough. (For instance, would a mall tracking customer movement and purchase patterns by rfid be considered snooping if the data weren’t explicitly associated with individuals.)

And as for illegitimate enterprises…

On the other hand

March 28, 2008

Berlin zoo accused of profiting from slaughter | Environment | The Guardian

Claudia Hämmerling, a Green party politician, backed by several animal rights organisations, alleges that the zoo’s director, Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, sold the animals to traders.

She claims to hold evidence on four Asian black bears and a hippopotamus, which were taken from Berlin, officially to go to a new home. They were transported to the Belgian town of Wortel, which has no zoo, but which does have an abattoir.

According to Hämmerling these animals were slaughtered at the abattoir. She said the systematic “overproduction of animals” at zoos, designed to attract more visitors, was to blame.

Hämmerling said she also knew of several tigers and leopards from Berlin that ended up in a tiger breeding farm in China that promoted itself as a purveyor of traditional potency-boosting medicines made from the bodies of big cats. She alleges the animals’ remains were pulverised and turned into drugs.

If this is a replacement instead of an incentive for animals in the wild to be killed for “traditional medicines” and other delicacies for rich crazy people, then it’s not entirely clearly to me that it’s an unalloyed bad thing. (Later in the article there’s a mention of the furor caused by a zoo feeding a “surplus” — bred beyond the zoo’s carrying capacity — antelope to some lions. What the f— do those visitors think happens in the wild?)

So much for mystical techniques

March 27, 2008

‘Suspended Animation’ Induced In Mice With Sewer Gas: Effects Are Reversible

In all the mice, metabolic measurements such as consumption of oxygen and production of carbon dioxide dropped in as little as 10 minutes after they began inhaling hydrogen sulfide, remained low as long as the gas was administered, and returned to normal within 30 minutes of the resumption of a normal air supply. The animals’ heart rate dropped nearly 50 percent during hydrogen sulfide adminstration, but there was no significant change in blood pressure or the strength of the heart beat. While respiration rate also decreased, there were no changes in blood oxygen levels, suggesting that vital organs were not at risk of oxygen starvation.

50% is interesting, but I’d love to see if it’s possible to do more. What’s particularly interesting is that this seems to be a generalized metabolic effect (i.e. blood oxygen doesn’t change with reduced heartbeat and respiration, but CO2 goes down).

But can it play with your cat?

March 26, 2008

Laser designated step’n’fetch wrinkle-robutler shown | The Register

The idea is that the wrinkly owner/user of future El-Es has dropped something on the floor, and finds him or herself unable to pick it up; or perhaps the thing is across the room, and going to fetch it would be a pain. Trying to tell a normal robot what you wanted would be an onerous business involving tiresome voice commands or some kind of remote TV gadget.

With El-E, one simply lights up the necessary item with a laser pointer, and the servile droid scurries to collect it. Provided, of course, that one hasn’t dropped the damn laser pointer.

I think this is actually pretty neat. It’s a nice example of a user interface that might quietly just work. Of course, it would be much neater if you could point at what you wanted with a finger. But that would require a robot capable of recognizing fingers.