Monday, January 29, 2007

brain's tired

Started the morning trying to cram the law of mergers and acquisitions into my brain. Then it was researching the folks involved in the Disney exec comp stuff: Ovitz, Eisner, Iger. Then ethics rules. Then back to M&A. Then criminal law (which I'm supposed to be helping other folks learn--still figuring out how to do that). Then more Disney deals. Then more M&A (why's the chancellor talking about Unocal in a merger case again?) Then Brin's writing about gun control, Burnham's doing what's next for high tech companies, Schneier's got the attack in Iraq by gunmen in American army uniforms--uniforms as authentication tokens, and Sciam's showing about a zillion science posts. Too many analogies, similes, metaphors. To many verbal and conceptual patterns to sort and match. You can't stop the fire hose, you can only sip and get out of the way.

The brain's like a muscle in many ways. As you use it, it changes. Physically changes. Go blind and a lot of the parts that used to process visual information start to handle other kinds of duties, like maybe auditory functions. Master a musical instrument and the responsible parts of the cortex thicken. Just like your biceps respond to curls, your brain responds to mental curls.

And my brain muscle is pooped.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

follow-up on fountain pen highlighter

I've given up on using the italic fountain pen as a highlighter for a couple reasons. The first is that the nib on the pen is too narrow and its squared-off shape makes it too hard to lay down a stroke of highlighting ink. As I pull it across the text, it highlights only about half the line, and if I'm not very careful I get skips in the line. The second is that the Firefly ink, while initially fluorescent, seems to fade to ordinary yellow after a few days. Coupled with the narrow lines, it makes the highlighting difficult to see.

I haven't entirely given up on the reuseable highlighter idea, though. Bic makes a line of liquid-filled highlighters called the "Brite Liner" series which I quite like because I can see when one's about to run out. The next time I empty one, I'll probably experiment to see if there's a way to refill it with the Firefly ink.

I wonder if someone makes felt nibs for fountain pens.

Update: follow-up here.

Friday, January 26, 2007

the "war" on terror

While I'm on a kick of quoting eloquent statements, I came across this one by way of Schneier on Security:
London is not a battlefield. Those innocents who were murdered on July 7 2005 were not victims of war. And the men who killed them were not, as in their vanity they claimed on their ludicrous videos, 'soldiers'. They were deluded, narcissistic inadequates. They were criminals. They were fantasists. We need to be very clear about this. On the streets of London, there is no such thing as a 'war on terror', just as there can be no such thing as a 'war on drugs'.

The fight against terrorism on the streets of Britain is not a war. It is the prevention of crime, the enforcement of our laws and the winning of justice for those damaged by their infringement.

-- Sir Ken Macdonald, British Director of Public Prosecutions

To forget that, especially in the context of domestic activities, is to imperil our liberties, to risk undue expansion of the War Power, to risk using the wrong set of tools to solve the problem or to focus on the wrong problem, and, ultimately, to succumb to the very terror we feel we are battling.

the more I learn, the less I think I know

"As the circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness around it." -- Albert Einstein

"Vast is the field of science. The more a man knows, the more he will find he has to know."
-- Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), English novelist

"Well I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know." -- Socrates (469–399 B.C.), quoted in Plato, Apology, sct. 19

"To know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty." -- Lao-Tzu (6th century B.C.), Tao-te-ching, bk. 2, ch. 71, trans. by T.C. Lau (1963).

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Coppertop was just telling me about her co-worker who broke her foot surfing. Fell off a board, foot went between a couple rocks. Then earlier today a friend was telling me about a mutual friend who fell off her board, landed on a coral reef, and got cut up pretty badly. Now I'm really starting to wonder about surfing--maybe it's a good thing I chose a nice, safe hobby like aviation.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

reusable highlighter

Some time ago, I was lamenting the number of highlighters I tend to kill throughout a semester in some of these classes that require a lot of reading. It seems such a waste to have to throw away the whole pen when it's drained.

Well, now I've discovered an alternative and am trying it out. Noodler's Ink makes a line of highlighter inks for fountain pens. I'm using their fluorescent yellow Firefly Ink (which looks yellow on the page but an unearthly green in the jar.) I've loaded it into a pen normally used for Italic-style calligraphy which has a nice, broad nib.

So far, it's working pretty well. The pen's not really designed to flow this much ink at once, so I'm still playing with the technique. I like the fact that I have more control over where the highlighting goes and can refill the pen when it's empty, but on the other hand the pen's a little long for the pen pockets in the backpack. I'll probably post an update once I've had more time to use it.

Update: follow-up post here.

Monday, January 22, 2007

calling open source coders

David Brin might be interested in finding developers looking for an open source project. Here's the link to his blog entry.

And here's the gist of the idea:

During natural disasters like Katrina, the cell phone network went kaput. He'd like to have cell phones able to send text messages (not voice) peer-to-peer, bypassing the cell towers, at least during emergencies.

I think it could be done as a proof of concept project in two stages.

First, use plain old networked computers to develop the protocol and routing stack so they'd spontaneously organize into a network and allow simple text messaging. The challenges will be keeping the routing traffic under control, even if the network scales to hundreds of thousands of nodes, and keeping the routing tables small enough to fit in a phone's very limited memory. These are not trivial problems, but major street cred, and probably some publications, goes to anyone who can crack them. Personally, I'd suggest sacrificing low latency and the ability to text while the phone's moving.

Second, port it to the Green Phone (Trolltech's open source phone) to see if it works there and to get a handle on power consumption.

Friday, January 19, 2007

reading between the comments

This is somewhat interesting. The Weather Channel has a blog. Recently, the host stirred up some controversy about global warming. (Unfortunately, I didn't spot an RSS or Atom feed, so it's not going to make the list of blogs I track regularly.) The interesting part is to read the comments section of the blog, looking for patterns.

Much of the analysis is shallow. OK, nothing new there. You see that on the larger blogs all over the Internet, both in content and comments.

The slant of the comments is strongly negative, almost uniformly, and the number is quite a bit larger than that of the surrounding articles. This tidbit from someone named "JM" jumped out at me: "Your right. This issue isn't going away. Why didn't your site accept the hundreds of comments submitted today. It stopped at 306 out of 700+ submitted. Most of which were today." I couldn't find a count of "submitted" (as opposed to posted) comments, making me wonder how JM knew. As a test, I've posted that question to the comments section--we'll see if the e-mail I get back from TWC contains any indication. If not, then I have to wonder if the comments were some sort of organized effort, a sort of "comment writing" campaign. In which case, who organized it, and why?

Follow up: nothing in the confirmation e-mail about the number of comments submitted but not yet published.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

whitehouse replacing U.S. attorneys

I recently wrote "impeachment should be reserved for the most serious of cases, those that interfere with the voters' abilities to oversee the President." I'm leery of impeachment. I think it's been misused for political purposes, such as in Clinton's case, and that recalling politicians like that tends to destabilize the federal government, which isn't set up to be a parliamentary system. However, I may have to expand what I'd consider an impeachable offense.

Talking Points Memo is carrying a story on the Bush administration replacing U.S. attorneys who are involved in investigating political corruption:

Okay, so we already know that the White House has now taken the unprecedented step of firing at least four and likely seven US Attorneys in the middle of their terms of office -- at least some of whom are in the midst of corruption investigations of Bush administration officials and key Republican lawmakers. We also know that they're taking advantage of a handy provision of the USA Patriot Act that allows the White House to replace these fired USAs with appointees who don't need to be approved by the senate.

Given that these new USAs are being plopped into offices currently investigating Republicans and other administration officials and others into states with 2008 presidential candidates, there's certainly ample opportunity for mischief.

David Brin's also picked it up, presumably off Air America.

Here's the problem. We don't have special prosecutors any more, because Congress let the law lapse after Kenneth Starr's investigation. But the U.S. Attorneys report to the executive branch. So we're left with a conundrum: who investigates the executive branch? The courts aren't going to do it. They're really not set up for investigation. So that pretty much leaves Congress. Congress has the power to conduct investigations, generally in the form of hearings, and to subpoena witnesses and documents.

The question then becomes, what would happen if Congress discovered that a high-ranking official was intentionally interfering with investigations to protect him- or herself? At that point, I don't think you could expect a U.S. Attorney to be sufficiently disinterested to be able to prosecute the case in a court of law, and, depending on the official, the court might not even be able to take the case. So Congress might have to resort to an impeachment process.

I don't know enough of the facts to know if there really is a pattern here, though some investigation is probably called for, either by Congress or by an investigative journalist. (Those still exist . . . right?) There sure does seem to be a lot of smoke. I'd just like to know if there's a fire or someone's blowing it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

due for a paradigm shift?

Dark energy. Branes. Multiple dimensions curled up so small we can't see them. Difficulties unifying quantum mechanics with general relativity.

I wonder if we're due for a paradigm shift. The current environment, at least from an outsider's perspective, looks a lot like we're piling epicycles on top of epicycles, or positing the existence of luminiferous aether: we're extending our theories in multiple directions through the use of phenomena to which we're "almost totally blind" (to quote Sciam's Dark Energy article).

Maybe we're due for another Copernicus, Newton, or Einstein to fundamentally reexplain the world around us.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

new look for the blog

I'm playing around with a new look for the blog to try to clean it up a bit. The color scheme and layout may be changing over the next few days or weeks as I tweak it here and there.

crock pot oatmeal

Derived from an Alton Brown recipe, this little guy is now ready to unleash on the public. Combine
  • 1 cup steel cut oats
  • 1 cup dried apricots, chopped
  • 1 cup raisins or dried currants
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half
  • 1/2 tsp salt
in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 8 to 9 hours or overnight.

Tip #1: greasing the crock pot first might make clean-up easier. Otherwise, you might want to soak it afterwards.

Tip #2: serve with sliced almonds sprinkled over the top.

knocking the rust off my brain

Classes resume in two days. For the last few days, I've been studying for the MPRE, a test on the rules of professional conduct. Now I'm starting our homework assignments for the first day of class. It's amazing how a couple weeks off have dulled my study skills, or at least my drive.

Oh, by the way, OpenOffice has released version 2.1. Let's see how it holds up for class notes. I'd still like to find a good OpenOffice equivalent to Word's "insert ink drawing" feature but definitely don't have time right now to tackle writing one.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

peanut chicken stew

In a large pan or Dutch oven, brown
  • 3 tblsp oil
  • 3-4 lb boneless chicken thighs
for about 15 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside, reserving drippings. In the drippings, cook
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1-2 sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and chopped
until the onion is tender. Drain off the fat. Stir in
  • 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground red pepper
Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add
  • browned chicken
  • 1 15-oz can black beans
and simmer 20 minutes. Then add
  • 3/4 c peanut butter (preferably the all natural, just-ground-peanuts kind)
and simmer for another 20 minutes.

Makes a whole bunch, but the leftovers freeze and reheat well. We usually serve with couscous and a fruit salad.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


For some strange reason, the number 41 has been popping up frequently. I could understand 42, but 41 is a bit odd.

I almost never watch college football. I made an exception when Rice had their first bowl game in years. They lost to Troy, 41-17 (both prime numbers). I made a second exception for the Ohio State game. Even though they were heavily favored, they lost to the Gators 41-14 (a palindrome). Just now, the price at the grocery store was $41.41.

Hmm. Well, February 10th, a month from today, is the 41st day of the year. I guess we'll see if anything significant happens then.

deficit spending

After Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed a new $43B bond measure last night, following the $37B measure in November for transportation and the one-time $15B measure in 2004 to refinance the general fund debt, I started thinking about how reputation may differ from action. Consider this graph of the national debt by President. What's interesting is a tendency, since Regan, to borrow and spend, just like too many people do with their credit cards. What's particularly interesting is that the pattern seems most common among Republicans, who many people regard as the party of fiscal responsibility. There are times when it's necessary and desirable to increase debt--sometimes the leverage is helpful, like when you're buying a house--but there are other times when it basically boils down to living above your means, to trying to live off those credit cards with just the minimum monthly payment. Next time you hit the ballot box, maybe it's time to give some thought to what really is fiscally responsible and which candidate is proposing what, regardless of party.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

the impeach Bush sign

This is impressive, if for no other reason than the logistical considerations: a thousand San Franciscans spell out the word "IMPEACH" in hundred-foot high letters with their bodies. Their stated reason was for warrantless eavesdropping.

So, what do you think? Given the activities we know about,
  • warrantless wiretapping and eavesdropping of domestic citizens
  • the indefinite detention and interrogation of U.S. citizen(s) (Hamdi and Padilla)
do they rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors"? Do they warrant further investigation? Should there be additional investigation into allegations of vote manipulation?

Personally, I think impeachment should be reserved for the most serious of cases, those that interfere with the voters' abilities to oversee the President (as in Watergate, as opposed to, say, perjury and obstruction of justice allegations related to extramarital affairs with Whitehouse interns). If an investigation of vote flipping were to turn up links to the President, to me that would constitute an impeachable offense. The others are reprehensible but don't seem to fit the category of impeachable conduct. But I'm curious to know your views.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

successful printer surgery

The printer surgery was a success. Here are a few notes for anyone else going this route.

In general, the instructions that came with the new belt were clear. Do be sure to open the lid while the power's connected so the printer cartridges slide into the middle of the axle. Then unplug the printer and begin surgery.

I got confused removing the printer's end caps. The instructions say "there is a plastic tab on the front and back sides of the printer." If you turn the printer over, you will see two tabs. These are not the tabs you're looking for. Instead, you want tabs along the front and back edges:

Here's a close-up of the clip. The bottom part is slanted. A piece of metal fits between it and the top one.

That means you'll be putting your screwdriver into the little slot between the metal and the plastic when you're levering the plastic away.

Also, there's a sort of printer cess-pit on the right side. I think that's where the cartridges relieve themselves during cleaning.

Do not (as I did) accidentally drop the spring into the cess pit or you'll have a cleaning job on your hands. Um, all over your hands, actually.

In any case, surgery was a success. The new belt seems to be working happily.

Friday, January 05, 2007

the printer blues

I have a several-year-old HP Deskjet 812C that's seen very heavy use since the start of school. Though it's not a particularly fast printer, I like it because it's reasonably cheap to run (the cartridges hold a lot of ink and you can buy third party ones) and HP's printer driver will work over a network, so we can use it through the wireless network. (Note that the printer itself isn't network aware--we have a computer that acts as a print server--but HP didn't take steps to keep the driver from being network compatible, unlike with Coppertop's 5150 driver which seems to actively resist printing over our network setup.)

The problem is that the printer's slowly dying. The belt that drives the print head is disintegrating. Today, I nearly tossed the printer in recycling but ran a last-minute Internet search to see if a fix existed.

Turns out that disintigrating belts on these old printers are a common problem. There's a helpful thread here that discusses it. Even better, they offer a link to buy a replacement belt, which is great because HP's stopped offering that part. The $38 for belt, including shipping, is about what a cartridge costs, making it worth the attempt because otherwise I'd have to sell or recycle spare cartridges and have the extra headache of losing network printing. So I've placed the order. We'll see how well this replacement belt works.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

global dimming

There's an episode of BBC's Horizon show here which discusses the phenomenon of "global dimming," the impact of particulate matter in reducing the sunlight reaching the Earth's surface. The scary part is that global dimming may have been offsetting the effects of global warming. It's a fairly long episode but worth watching. You can find a transcript here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

old crock pot recipe posts

Here are links to the recipes on this blog that predate the switch to the new Blogger (where I could start labeling posts as recipes.) They're crock pot recipes because, well, that's usually about how much time I have to cook.

flying qualities report: Micro Mosquito helicopter

I'm doing everything I can to procrastinate working on a paper. Part of the procrastination includes playing with a new toy, Radio Shack's Micro Mosquito radio controlled helicopter.

Yeah, I know, totally geeky. So sue me. I'm having fun playing with it till I can afford the ten grand it'll take me to get a real rotorcraft rating. :-)

The Micro Mosquito is an indoor radio controlled helicopter with counter-rotating rotors and pretty amazing engineering. It weighs maybe a hundred grams, fits on the palm of my hand, and has survived repeated, ahem, "rough landings" from as high as ten feet with no permanent damage, though I do occasionally have to pop a piece back in place.

Helicopters are, by nature, unstable. Most airplanes want to fly--take your hands off the controls and most of them will right themselves and keep going. In contrast, you have to fly a helicopter constantly. The MM's counter-rotating design makes it more stable than most choppers and particularly easy to hover, but you still have to stay on top of it. If it bumps something while moving, or you give it too sudden a burst of forward thrust, it can start swinging around the rotors like a pendulum. If it swings too much, the rotors will eventually bump into each other and you're looking at one of those "rough landings."

The MM doesn't have a vertical stabilizer, which means its directional stability isn't so hot. While flying forward, air currents or friction in the drivetrain might suddenly kick the nose left or right. You have to watch and correct for it, but correct fairly gently or it'll start swinging around like I mentioned before. Our house is a bit drafty, leading to occasionally rough flying conditions, especially near hallways. In fact, the MM will sometimes get caught in up-, down-, or side-drafts that I can't even feel, sometimes too strong for the rotor system to overcome. I've installed the included "for extra forward speed" kit to help punch through some of the drafty areas.

My only complaint with the toy so far is that there's sometimes some odd control lag. For instance, I might tell it to thrust forward, but the tail rotor won't respond for a second or two, and there's an occasional lag in throttle response. The lag can lead to pilot-induced oscillations, where I tell it to go up to avoid the couch, it eventually responds, and by that time I'm saying "no, too high," then later it starts coming down and winds up bobbing drunkenly towards the coffee table. I don't know whether it's in the control system or maybe we just have a noisy radio environment. Otherwise, it's been a blast buzzing around the living room, avoiding the air currents from the wall furnace, and trying to land it on the helipad.