Tuesday, March 28, 2006

virtual tribes

The NPR blog has a story on the recent immigration protests, with links to the LA Times. What I think is cool about this news story is the way it shows some of the unexpected effects of newer communication technology. A lot of the changes we talk about with computers and networks is just more / better / faster, but there are some fundamental shifts starting to emerge. One of those shifts is a much greater ability for people to organize themselves over distances. You can see it most clearly in Europe and Japan with their widespread use of text messaging on cell phones, but it exists in the U.S. as well with social networking sites like myspace.com and e-mail discussion lists. (Once you combine an e-mail discussion list with a Blackberry or Treo, you have effectively pretty much the same thing as text messaging on cell phones.) This is a trend to watch -- it may produce some big ripples in the future.

Friday, March 24, 2006

more on global warming and rising sea levels

The BBC is reporting on an article in Science which predicts a rise in ocean levels of 3-4 meters (but a mere 2-3.5 meters by 2100) with the collapse of half the antarctic ice sheet in 500 years. The prediction is based on past correlation between ocean levels and warming trends, with agreement from computer models. Another study shows that Greenland's glaciers have sped up.

So, how much is a 3 meter rise? There seems to be heavy demand on the interactive maps scattered around the Internet, but a 2004 National Geographic article gives a good feel.
The maps show that a 1-meter (3-foot) rise would swamp cities all along the U.S. eastern seaboard. A 6-meter (20-foot) sea level rise would submerge a large part of Florida.

. . .

A one-meter sea level rise would wreak particular havoc on the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard of the United States.

"No one will be free from this," said Overpeck, whose maps show that every U.S. East Coast city from Boston to Miami would be swamped. A one-meter sea rise in New Orleans, Overpeck said, would mean "no more Mardi Gras."

If you can get through to it, there's an interactive system here. There is also a collection of static maps here.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

60 minutes on global warming and ostriches

The most recent 60 minutes episode had a segment on James Hansen, the scientist who is charging the Bush administration with censoring research on global warming. I previously wrote about that situation here.

the apartment's packed

Sunday evening. On the flight back home. I should be studying evidence right now, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to pick up the flash cards. I was originally scheduled to fly out much earlier today, but I was pretty sick yesterday and Coppertop, who has far more common sense than I do, convinced me to switch to the later flight. It pushes the search for the new apartment back a bit, but I probably wouldn’t have been in any shape to drive by possible apartments after any sort of bumpy flight anyway. Instead, I’m feeling much better after a couple good meals and a nap.

The apartment’s pretty much packed except for last-minute stuff. The current plan is to move everything as soon as we’ve found a new place to move it into.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

BART and aesthetics

As I write this entry, I’m taking BART through Oakland. Public transit has a lot of things going for it, but I’m not sure aesthetics is one of them, at least when it comes to trains. For some reason, trains often seem to go through the scruffier sections of town. Maybe it’s because they tend to be noisy, which means the wealthier folks decide not to live nearby, so the property values drop. Or maybe it’s just that trains tend to give you a great view of back yards, back fences, and roves, things people don’t tend to pay as much attention to beautifying, so it’s all just a mistaken impression.

The ancient Greeks, or at least the Athenians, had a strong cultural sense of aesthetics. You can see it in the temples and theaters. We’re more like the Romans, though, with a sense of beauty oriented more towards functionality than d├ęcor. Compare the supremely functional, but frequently a bit dowdy, rounded Roman arch with the far less practical, but quite beautiful, Greek tradition of laying a slab of stone across the tops of a set of pillars. The Greek approach resulted in high, flat ceilings and a lot of broken stone, while the Roman one gave them sturdy buildings that lasted for millennia but with interiors that were sometimes rather tunnel-like. For us, I think it shows up in things like noisy but functional trains, in publicly funded airports (that also suffer from recent security regulations and increases in the number of people traveling by air), and in rather uninspired but inexpensive ticky-tacky houses and condos.

Somewhere, there should be a happy medium. I can’t prove it, but I have this sneaking suspicion accounting practices are tied up in the difference. It’s easy to account for the number of people who take the train, or use the airport. It’s much harder to account for aesthetics. But I also suspect aesthetics have a cost or benefit associated with them. If the train is ugly and noisy, maybe fewer people will use it, and maybe the areas along its tracks suffer from a higher crime rate because of lower property values. If the airport is ugly, maybe there are more frequent fights with the neighbors. Can our current approach to accounting include these factors, or does it treat them as external costs it can ignore?

Monday, March 13, 2006


Coppertop and I are packing an apartment. I'm stunned, not so much at the amount of stuff, but at the amount of stuff we're having to buy to pack the stuff. I bought 30 pounds of packing paper today and we've gone through nearly 20 of it so far. We've also shot through a couple rolls of tape and have already made one run for boxes. Moving is a great time to think about whether you own your stuff, or your stuff owns you.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


It’s a shame the Hindenburg got such bad press. The airship had a lot going for it that, I think, has been overshadowed by the explosion. For instance, compare the pictures of the interior, here, to the accommodations on your next Southwest flight. Have a look at that lounge area! If you’ve seen the third Indiana Jones movie, with Sean Connery, it gives a pretty good feel for the lounge. (The business about launching an airplane from a dirigible came from a couple U.S. Navy airships, the Akron and Macon. Sorry, no link handy at the moment, but a Google search will turn them up. Anyway, the Hindenburg was never a flying aircraft carrier, but other airships did test the idea.)

I’ve read a couple theories about why the Hindenburg burned as it did. The first, of course, is that they had to use hydrogen instead of helium. (The U.S. had much of the world’s helium supply and wasn’t about to give it to a country it could potentially wind up fighting in a war, especially a country that had used airships in the Great War.) The second was that it was the fabric covering that really burned, which makes sense to me since hydrogen’s flames tend to go straight up, since hydrogen is so light.

The real challenges with airships were a bit different. For instance, they need to be properly ballasted, but they get lighter as the engines burn fuel. Today, we might pump the helium into storage tanks to compensate, but at the time the choices were to either vent gas (which you might need later, and anyway that stuff was expensive), or to take on weight somehow. Some of those old airships had rain gutters – when they needed to increase ballast, they’d snuggle up to a rainstorm and fill tanks with rain water.Another big challenge is maneuverability. Airships are relatively light and have a lot of surface area, so there’s always a risk they’ll get tossed around by the wind and won’t have the engine power to go the way they need to go. To me, this is the biggest challenge with designing an airship.These are all problems we might have solved in time and might still solve some day.

Maybe it’s worth thinking about the direction we took: we got speed and reliability, but when’s the last time you flew on a plane that had a piano in the main dining lounge?

Friday, March 10, 2006

human powered aircraft

I've always been fascinated by the idea of human powered aircraft, an airplane that you pedal like a bicycle. I have this crazy idea that one day we'll see a California version of the Tour de France, with brightly colored flying machines in a multi-day race from Sausalito (just north of San Francisco) down to San Diego, with people on the ground cheering them on as they pass.

Well, the state of the art's not quite there yet. Human powered aircraft exist, but they're still pretty delicate and cantankerous. There's some information available on the web, though. You can find the Royal Society for Human Powered Flight here. There's an extensive Japanese site here. I don't understand most of it, but Coppertop tells me their Birdman Rally is a product of a local TV station. In the U.S., there's the Raven project, which doesn't seem to have been updated since 2001. And finally, there's the International Human Powered Vehicle Association. So the idea's still alive, but at the moment that's all it is. Maybe someday...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

speaking of the PATRIOT act

Speaking of the PATRIOT act, Bruce Schneier points out an interesting issue here. Some businesses are misusing it to collect additional information, claiming they need it for PATRIOT act purposes even though the act has no such reporting requirement.

waking up in bizarro world

Tom Delay is indicted, forced to step down because of the scandal, and . . . wins the Texas Republican primary by 61%?

In the meantime, Congress tells the President you broke the law when you authorized domestic surveillance, but we're not going to investigate, even though about, um, 8 of us know what actually happened. Instead, you naughty President, we're going to pass a law that (retroactively?) authorizes what you did, establishes an oversight function that may or may not actually oversee, and requires you to get a warrant after you've been spying for 45 days. It's not clear at the moment whether that's any and all spying for 45 days, or spying on the same person for 45 days, or what. Could the people doing the spying launch a general dragnet, where they spy on one set of people for 44 days, then shift to the next set of people, and so on? How long before they come back to the first set? And, since we don't know anything about this program, because there's been no investigation, how effective can we expect the legislation to be?

In the meantime, the PATRIOT act is now pretty much permanent. Also, we have U.S. envoys warning of civil war in Iraq, while the administration (via Donald Rumsfeld) said it was an exaggeration. Normally I wouldn't do this, but I'm in that kind of mood: let's not forget we've already won in Iraq.

I hate it when I wake up in Bizarro World. If I go back to bed, will the world get better?