Archive for November, 2008

The department of highly energetic disassembly

November 25, 2008

The Reality-Based Community

The Energy Department is poorly structured for doing this job under its current brief. Most of its responsibilities involve protecting the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, which really should now be in DHS. Energy seems to have gotten this job under its 1978 organizing statute, and it appears that no one really wants it: at the time, DOD would have been the logical candidate, and could have kept it if wanted to. Somehow, no one suggested or pushed moving the function to DHS in the 2002 reorganization, which suggests again that this is a headache no one wants.

My recollection from the time is that nuclear weapons went into DoE both so that it would have something uncuttable to do and so that a big chunk of defense money would no longer be in DoD competing with other DoD projects (and subject to the usual pressure to cut defense budgets). Not quite camouflage, but close enough for low-information-policymaker purposes.

In addition, “stockpile stewardship” has some things to do with physical protection of things that go BOOM but a great deal to do with making sure that they will continue to go BOOM into the indefinite future, even as the radioactives currently making them up decay, and the nonradioactives degrade under the influence of radiation. That used to involve firing warheads underground on a regular basis, now involves enormous amounts of computer modeling and a smaller amount of no-mushroom-cloud explosive testing. One blenches to think what would have happened to all this activity (much less the nukes themselves) had it been transferred to the cesspit that is DHS.

On the other hand, we never would have heard of Wen Ho Lee had the nuke labs been under DHS; he simply would have been disappeared…


Better dumb or better dead?

November 25, 2008

Steroids used in preemies may kill brain cells –

n the study, brain cells in mice died after treatments that were given four to 10 days after birth, says study author Kevin Noguchi, a postdoctoral fellow in the university’s department of psychiatry.

He says that danger zone translates to human babies from about 20 weeks in the womb to six weeks after birth.

Noguchi says other studies have shown that the synthetic steroid — called dexamethasone (usually used postnatally) — causes later motor and cognitive problems in children.

Because of that research, in 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that postnatal glucocorticoid use be halted, but the drugs are still used regularly in mothers at risk for early deliveries.

Noguchi estimates that about 8% of infants born at a weight of 3.3 pounds or less are still given these drugs.

“Thousands of babies a year receive these drugs that can cause damage to the brain,” he says.

What the article doesn’t say, I expect because that would require more familiarity with the subject or even independent reporting rather than just fluffing up a press release, is that the drugs in question are given (among other reasons) to accelerate lung development in preemies so that they can breathe once they’re out of the womb.

If they don’t get the drugs, some of these kids will have longterm diminished lung capacity, some of them will spend additional weeks or months in NICU (at a cost of a couple grand a day) and some of them will die. But better that than being clumsy or losing a few IQ points.

So yes, safer alternatives need to be developed if they can be. But in the meantime, let’s hope this reporter hasn’t helped trigger a small wave of dead infants.

Breaking news: dehumidifier invented.

November 25, 2008

The eco machine that can magic water out of thin air | Environment | The Observer

The company, Element Four, has developed a machine that it hopes will become the first mainstream household appliance to have been invented since the microwave. Their creation, the WaterMill, uses the electricity of about three light bulbs to condense moisture from the air and purify it into clean drinking water.

It works by drawing air through filters to remove dust and particles, then cooling it to just below the temperature at which dew forms. The condensed water is passed through a self-sterilising chamber that uses microbe-busting UV light to eradicate any possibility of Legionnaires’ disease or other infections. Finally, it is filtered and passed through a pipe to the owner’s fridge or kitchen tap.

OK, there’s the filtering and the UV sterilization, but this is pretty much what the gadget in my basement has been doing for a long time. I wonder if I could just run its output through one of the serious camping drip filters instead of down the slop sink. Or would I get slapped for patent infringement?

No bailout money for you, community banks!

November 25, 2008

Too Small to Fail – Phillip Longman & T. A. Frank

One reason community banks are doing so well right now is simply that they never became too clever for their own good. When other lenders, including underregulated giants like Ameriquest and Countrywide, started peddling ugly subprime mortgages, community banks stayed away. Banking regulations prevented them from taking on the kind of debt ratios assumed by their competitors, and ties to their customers and community ensured that predatory loans were out of the question. Broadway Federal, for its part, got out of single-family mortgages when they stopped making sense. “A borrower comes and asks, ‘Do you do interest-only, no-down-payment, option ARMs?’

This is a really nicely done article, because it makes it clear that a lot of people weren’t lemmings. It’s just that the lemmings swamped the sane folks’ market share. And of course the perfectly solvent people are now going to pay along with the crooks, both as taxpayers responsible for the bailout and as collateral damage when enterprises that used to be perfectly healthy get caught in the recession.

Something that’s been bugging me about cars

November 19, 2008

For a long time I’ve felt a background annoyance at the stupid “for environmental reasons you should buy a high-efficiency used car rather than a new prius or other higher-efficiency car” meme. And debunkings like this one didn’t satisfy me:

Is it more energy-efficient to buy a used car than a brand-new hybrid? – By Brendan I. Koerner – Slate Magazine

the Prius will consume 3,710 gallons of gas. Each gallon contains approximately 124,000 BTUs of energy, so that translates into 460 million BTUs’ worth of burned fuel. Add in the production energy, and the new Prius is responsible for a grand total of 573 million BTUs over its lifetime (not including disposal costs).

A Corolla with an automatic transmission, by contrast, averages 30.5 mpg—more than eight miles per gallon better than the average car on America’s roads. Over the vehicle’s lifetime, that translates into 5,656 gallons of gas containing more than 701 million BTUs of energy. Since the Corolla we’re considering is used, we won’t add to that total by factoring in production energy.

I realized that it’s because both the initial “contrarian” claim and this refutation are completely divorced from market economics. Or in philosophical terms, they’re Ayn Randian rather than Kantian. (or in physics terms, they hew to Galileo rather than Boehm… oh, nevermind)

In the world where the original claim and its refutation make sense, there’s an essentially infinite supply of high-efficiency used cars, and new higher-efficiency cars never enter the used market. Because if either of those assumptions is false (and both of them are) let’s see what happens:

If you buy a high-efficiency used car, that means someone else can’t buy it. They’re either going to have to buy a lower-efficiency used car or a new car, or no car at all. if demand for cars is unchanged by your decision, either you’re (by proxy) responsible for the BTUs spent manufacturing a new vehicle or for the BTUs spent by someone driving the less-efficient car they bought because you snagged the one they wanted. (And it gets worse: each decision to buy a particular car displaces some other potential buyer, so ultimately in the used-cars-only scenario you’re responsible for all the energy wasted by some gaz-guzzling battlewagon with blown piston rings that would have been junked had you not pushed every buyer down one notch by purchased a high-mileage used car.) In the new-vehicle case, the most you save is the difference in manufacturing energy between your original desire and the car that your displaced buyer decides on. But since all the people buying lightweight, higher-efficiency new cars are now buying used cars for ecological reasons, you might cause the saving of manufacturing any manufacturing energy at all. You might just have triggered the purchase of a Lincoln Navigator.

But what if demand for cars does change as a result of your decision? Can you now bask in the warmth of your ecological soundness? Well, sure, but the argument now boils down to “save the environment by not buying a car, or, preferable, arranging for someone poorer whom you don’t know or care about to not buy a car.” Contributing to someone else not having transportation to work or school or grocery store is an easy way to reduce carbon emissions, but it doesn’t have quite the self-righteous contrarian gloss.

Now look down the road five or ten years. All the original high-efficiency cars in the used market are clapped out. There aren’t a lot of newer high-efficiency cars entering the market because the people who were going to buy for ecological reasons them bought used cars instead. So what we have on the used market is a bunch of lower-efficiency cars. And what we have on the new market is a bunch of ditto, because manufacturers try (yes, try) not to build cars people don’t want to buy. It’s called responding to market signals.

Net result? More energy spent manufacturing (because the new-car manufacturers will be responding to the market of people who don’t care about manufacturing energy costs) and more energy spent driving (because the new-car market ultimately determines what’s available for used-car buyers). And this would be true even if today’s higher-efficiency new car had a higher lifetime energy cost than today’s high-efficiency used car. Because it’s not always going to be today.

Cute but useless?

November 17, 2008

Chris Harrison – Scratch Input

We employ a simple sensor that can be easily coupled with existing surfaces, such as walls and tables, turning them into large, unpowered and ad hoc finger input surfaces. Our sensor is sufficiently small that it could be incorporated into a mobile device, allowing any suitable surface on which it rests to be appropriated as a gestural input surface.

I’m sure it will be useful for something eventually, but as long as you need your gadget to have the input attached to it, you’ve already got the gadget there. I wonder, though, if it can’t be used to do away with mechanical components in certain kinds of remote controls. Imagine a set of “sliders” each of which is simply a surface with a slightly different texture (a different configuration of ridges, so that a more or less constant-speed scratch will yield detectably different signals). There’s a label printed over each one saying what it does. You substitute a bunch of signal processing for cheap analog parts, but sometimes that might be a good idea.

Or you could just use it to do remote handwriting recognition.


November 17, 2008

The flying car

Without recent advances in flexible wing technology, the idea would barely have got off the ground. New aerodynamic profiles and materials make it possible to lift a vehicle weighing 1,500lb and passengers without dangerous instability.

“This thing will launch itself without any pilot input,” says Cardozo. “You just open it up and it goes. The more power you put on, the faster you go until you come off the ground [at 35mph]. The wing will basically lock above you [once airborne] and stay there, without weaving, at speeds of up to 80mph.”

Paragliders really aren’t new, and you can buy lightweight trikes and fourwheelers to put you motor-and-airfoil kit on for less than $10K. But packaging the whole thing up as a roadworthy car seems like a pretty neat concept. These things have awfully short takeoff requirements, so I wonder how they’d be for ferrying supplies and such in natural disasters. And at less than $50K a pop they’re rather more disposable than, say, a real helicopter.

Don’t believe anything you see ever again

November 17, 2008

Extreme makeover: computer science edition

They say a user of the software can easily plunk an image on almost any planar surface in a video, whether wall, floor or ceiling. And the embedded images don’t have to be still photos—you can insert a video inside a video.

Here’s the opportunity to sing karaoke side-by-side with your favorite American Idol celebrity and post the video to YouTube. Or preview a virtual copy of a painting on your wall before you buy. Or liven up those dull vacation videos.

There is also a potential financial aspect to the technology. The researchers suggest that anyone with a video camera might earn some spending money by agreeing to have unobtrusive corporate logos placed inside their videos before they are posted online. The person who shot the video, and the company handling the business arrangements, would be paid per view, in a fashion analogous to Google AdSense, which pays websites to run small ads.

I guess no one should be amazed at the incredibly impoverished set of ideas that the developers have for what this might be good for. My wish is even narrower: use the inverse of this same set of algorithms to take the @#$@#$ chyrons off the bottom fifthquarterthirdhalf of the screen on all my favorite TV shows.

Financial Times in Pajamas

November 15, 2008

FT Alphaville » Blog Archive » A FDIC gift voucher for all

A FDIC gift voucher for all

From the people that brought you GE Capital’s participation in the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program – FDIC is now insuring ‘Stored Value Cards’.

Exsqueeze me?

Yes, that would be Stored-Value-Cards (and other non-traditional access mechanisms). According to the definition provided by the NY Fed these are:

… one of the most dynamic and fastest growing products in the financial industry. Anyone who makes purchases with a merchant gift card, places phone calls with a prepaid telephone card, or buys goods or services with a prepaid debit card is using a stored value card.

In other words, gift voucher cards, pre-paid telephone cards and any other prepaid debit cards.
hat said, consumers should be relieved. The spectre of losing holiday gifts to a retail bankruptcy certainly doesn’t incentivise Christmas shopping.

When Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy protection this year it apparently left an estimated $20m on unused gift cards, according to the Boston Globe.

So, good news for those holding cards issued by Circuit City, at least.

Unless I an some of the commenters are reading this entirely wrong, this interpretation is almost entirely wrong. Why? Because what would a company that issued stored-value cards be doing putting the resulting money in an FDIC-insured bank account when they could be investing it in the short-term money market, using it to pay their suppliers, pretty much anything but leaving it in the bank?

These cards aren’t redeemable in cash anyway, they’re only redeemable in goods and services so if you keep the money in the bank you’re only going to have to take it out and commingle it with the rest of the money you pay employees and suppliers, so why not just do that straight off? If card purchases and redemptions are pretty much equal at any given time, this works perfectly; if there are unmatched ups and downs, you might keep a certain level of reserves, but nowhere near the whole value of cards outstanding, and probably not in an account at an insured institution.

What if you go belly up? I can’t see why gift-card holders would have to stand in line with all the other unsecured creditors. (I haven’t read the fine print on a card lately, so maybe I’m wrong.)

There is one situation where this new ruling would be useful to consumers and to the companies issuing the cards. If the bank where the card reserves are deposited goes belly up, each gift card will now be treated as a separate deposit. So if the company had $10 million on deposit with the First Bank of Fail, where previously the FDIC would have said, “Here’s your $250K, goodbye and good luck” now they’ll act as if there were really a zillion little deposits, each insurable up to the limit.

Maybe I’m wrong, and a lot of this money really does sit there on deposit. Or maybe the FDIC, whose business is the health of insured institutions, would really like it if it did, and is waving the incentive of way-higher limits for deposited cash at the companies who issue gift cards and have to park their reserves somewhere.

(h/t eschaton for the pointer to the original (mistaken) post)

Windows declared illegal in UK?

November 14, 2008

DoS and distributed hacking tools finally criminalised • The Register

The Computer Misuse Act has also been changed to make it an offence to make, adapt, supply or offer to supply any article which is “likely to be used to commit, or to assist in the commission of, [a hacking or unauthorised modification or DoS] offence”. It is also an offence to supply an article “believing that it is likely” to be used to commit such an offence.

The meaning of “article” includes any program or data. The provisions would cover the supply of DoS or virus toolkits. Anyone convicted of breaking this section of the Act could be jailed for up to two years.

Oh, yeah, and ping, and mailing-list software, and almost certainly linux, and Thunderbird with that nasty cc: field, and gcc… It’s not just the computer-security people who could get clobbered by that passage.

It’s just tremendously bad wording for a law about computer crimes, which is not really surprising from the country that brought us the Regulation of Investigatory Powers act. I’m sure, though, that prosecutors will only use this against the sort of people who ought to be thrown in jail, so if you’re innocent you have nothing to worry about.