Monday, May 31, 2010

Outside is good for you

When you were a small child, did your parents tell you to go play outside already? Or were you the type that preferred to go outside to play anyway? In either case, going outside is not only good for you, but can even make you smarter, more creative, and happier? Wait, what?
It seems that there's some kinds of bacteria in most soils that can float through the air, and improves your brain's function should you inhale them. You're most likely to encounter them while walking on grass or dirt, and least likely inside, when you breathe mostly filtered air and have little contact with the soil. Mice given an aerosol spray of these bacteria could run a maze in half the usual time, and showed less anxiety to boot.
I'm also jokingly thinking about what these means to Internet addicts, who are stereotyped as shut ins. Could this be one of the reasons why they are so grumpy?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Stress Miscarriage and Gender

The terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001, deeply traumatized America. Even people watching on TV thousands of miles from the actual incident were terrified that such a thing could happen in their town too. And, to everyone's surprise, demographic studies showed that it caused thousands of miscarriages nationwide. Even more curiously: all the miscarriages would have been male had they been born. Wait, what?
Many women speak enviously of some male traits. Men are stronger, having 3 times the muscle density, easier time working out, easier time losing weight, and make more money. But this comes at a cost.
Maleness is, essentially, fragile. We humans are conceived with a male:female ratio at about 1.6:1, and this is down to about 1.2:1 by birth, and is down to 1:1 by the time we're 30. If you're male, you're more likely to abruptly die. Both unexpected incidents, like heart disease, and injuries from unwise events ("Hey guys, I'm going to jump this bike over this set of boxes! Oh crap, not far enough!") disproportionately affect men. Men's life expectancy is 4-7 years less than women's in all but the most misogynist of societies.
Even on a genetic level, maleness is fragile. Women have two X chromosomes, men have one X and one Y. X contains many things that you need to live, and deficiencies in yours can result in conditions from hemophilia to color blindness. X-linked conditions affect men way more than women, because women can use the secondary X chromosome to back up the first, while men only have one to work on. For a woman to be color-blind, she needs 2 X chromosomes with that trait, while a man only has 1 to work with anyway. Also, genetic errors can copy or delete chromosomes, and it's been noted that men who have more Y chromosomes (XYY, XYYY, etc) are more likely to be arrested, men who have X duplications (XXY, XXXY) only have a tendency towards being fat, transsexual, or both. Having only Ys (YY) results in an early miscarriage, as a fetus with that genetic set can't survive. While having even one Y chromosome makes you male, you need at least one X chromosome to live.
Biologists speculate that then in times of stress, this suggests danger to the tribe. The tribe will therefore need more females to repopulate than males (who would primarily just shuffle the genes and compete with each other), and maleness is temporarily selected against.
These biologists unfortunately don't have any advice for women wishing to avoid miscarriages. Not all stress can be avoided.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Gasoline, Revisited

Gasoline is pretty cheap in America when I think about it. Compare it with other fluids that people buy without blinking. The cheapest wine costs $19.96/gallon. Cola? A better deal, $1.72 per gallon, but only if you buy in bulk. $3/gallon if you buy from a supermarket. Vinegar? A whopping $8.76/gallon.
American consumers pay this without blinking an eye. But when gas hits $3/gallon? The complaints never end. The current price at the closest station to me is $2.69 per gallon. People see this as expensive, but I'm going to convert it to European standards so my European readers give some perspective. This is .53 Euros/liter after I do the math. I can already hear the derisive laughter.
One reason why the gas prices are this low in the US are because we have oil supplies in the country (even though we use far more than we can readily extract), and the refineries are also local. Another reason is the political will to keep it flowing. Our politicians will move heaven and earth to keep gas cheap.
Last time there was a major spike in the gas prices, there were many speeches about gas being essential to our way of life and demanding action. But there were also considerable funds put into research for alternatives, from ethanol to electric. Funds that promptly dried up again when the price fell, supposedly due severe cutbacks in transportation leading to a fall in demand.
I think it is desirable to have alternatives, especially considering the increasing political hostility of many of the major suppliers. The three biggest suppliers of petroleum I can name offhand, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela, all have deteriorating relationships with the United States. There is a security standpoint, which notes that if the US were blockaded, gas prices would rise to extreme prices, and probably would be unavailable to the civilian population entirely. This would affect more than just personal cars -- most businesses in the US are supplied by truck. Shortage would become the norm, shutting down large sectors of the economy.
It would be nice to develop a cheap and abundant alternative, but it may just be wishful thinking. Electricity suffers from storage issues, hydrogen is a carrier, not a source, (and is immensely difficult to keep contained), coal is smoky (and possibly stinky), nuclear is not happening, and solar is totally impractical. Ethanol would require a huge increase in farmland (and would likely drive up food prices from competition), and methane...methane could work. Insert "fart powered car" joke here.
In France's "wine lake," a region in which a large number of amateur wine producers have grown so much wine that the price of wine in the area has pretty much collapsed, it may be practical to have a wine-powered car that would filter the ethanol from the water, and burn the ethanol for fuel.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Drive Train

People in America love driving. But hate paying for gas. Many routes follow identical routes, and the most cost effective way to haul mass is a train, so...
Imagine a large train with many many car-sized platforms. It stops for 3 minutes at every big city, then speeds along at 100+MPH. At the stops, cars can drive on or off.
Every morning, a train goes through the country to the city, and back. There's a 6:00am shift, an 8:00am shift, and a noon shift. Most of the traffic is to the city, so it doesn't stop on the way back. The pattern reverses for trips at 4:00pm, 6pm, and 8pm.
The stops are a platform exactly aligned with the train in height, so cars can drive right across. A ramp from there goes to the nearest road.
For a bonus, the train doesn't have to stop completely if no one is getting on, merely slow down to an acceptable speed.
Drivers would save fuel on the common part of their route. How to pay for the train?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Anarchy is Bad for the Environment

The New York Times is reporting that in Madagascar, the lack of government authority is leading to devistation of the forests.
See, the rare woods that grow in the rural regions have significant economic value, and the people of Madagascar don't earn very much doing regular work, when it's available. So running off to the forest, and cutting down a few hundred trees is a real serious temptation. When lots of people do this, the forest has difficulty recovering. They wouldn't dare steal, but they don't see the forest as belonging to anybody. Short sighted, maybe, but when you're really hungry, trading your future for a banquet now seems like such a good deal.
A stronger government could send out patrols, ban the trade of the wood, or some other measure, or even assert ownership. But government authority is mostly lost due to a series of coups. The money to do anything significant doesn't exist, and worse for the local government, it's unsure of how long it can survive in its current form.
Madagascar has an interesting history. It went unnoticed for centuries, as the local African powers didn't have enough naval power to go find it, and by the time they were aware that it even existed, Africa was crawling with colonial European powers. Madagascar was mostly colonized by Muslim traders from northern Africa, who used it as a trading post. Eventually the French came rolling in, and there was a lot of exchange between their various colonies until independence came in 1960.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Computational Chemistry

If I were to somehow explain the rules of chemistry in terms a computer could understand, I could have a computer search for particularly useful configurations of molecules. Allow me to explain.
Chemistry is pretty much deterministic. When you mix this chemical with this other chemical, there's an X% chance of reaction Y that swaps around their atoms to produce chemicals W and Z. Only some reactions are possible. 2O2 + H2 => H2O is a likely reaction. 9O2 + 9H2 => H9O7 + O2 can't happen.
The biggest variables in reactions are valiance electrons and reactivity. Valiance electrons depends on atom type and charge. Hydrogen has one, Chlorine has seven, and an atom's "goal" in reactions is to fill their outmost layer, which is two for hydrogen and 8 for most other atoms. I can represent this with pointers.
For reactivity, certain atoms are most likely to replace other atoms, based on a property that chemists call Electronegativity. Wikipedia can offer a quick primer on that subject.
This together strongly suggests an object oriented approach. Atoms are Objects, with valiance pointers for data, (the valiance pointers would point to other atoms to suggest chemical bonds, and a null value meaning that this electron is unbonded) and methods that describe their probability for combining with other atoms. Another data item describes their electronegativity situation. If they encounter the chance to change theirs for one further down the series, they take it.
We could then spawn a number of atoms, and start randomly combining them. We would need some way of checking for certain properties that we find useful, which a chemist understands and I do not. Chemical reactions with high energy properties might make good battery material, while chemicals that have certain effects on biological life are likely of interest to pharmaceutical companies.
Chemists could describe fitness functions for their particular goals, and I could have the computer then "evolve" the right molecule to solve that problem.
Hopefully helpful.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cheap Solar Cells

Via Lady Ada, I have learned that a new technique has been pioneered to make inexpensive and powerful solar cells by depositing more effective chemicals on top of the traditional silicon.
Silicon solar cells are about 10% efficient. That is, of all the solar energy that hits them, 10% becomes electricity, and the other 90% is turned to heat. With the chemical additive, the cells are now 40% efficient. The main problem in the past was that the expensive additive was very fragile, and tended to break while being put in place, when ruined the cell.
With the depositing trick, the fragile layer builds up on top of the silicon, which tends to hold its shape. The best of both worlds is thereby achieved. This should make solar power cheaper.
Anything that helps us get more energy with less pollution, I'm all for it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Denied by history

There are a lot of things that cannot be done anymore because of the negative weight in history. Ideas so abused that we dare not try them ever again.
Like Literacy testing for voting. Good idea to prove that the electorate can read and write, so that they have a good understanding of what the hey they're voting for in the first place, yes? Unfortunately, we've had a history of it being applied in a racist fashion. A white would-be voter would be given an extremely easy question, a black would be voter would be asked a question with no real answer. (Like "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?") Any answer he gave would result in him being told that he was illiterate, and he would be rather impolitely told to leave. Usually with a racial slur thrown in. So, it is now illegal to have literacy tests for voting, because we can't trust some people not to pull that shit again.
Same deal with poll taxes. Elections do cost some money. Have to print up the forms, collect the results, pay someone to count it, (and count it fairly dammit), booths, workers to explain instructions and make sure no one votes twice, and so on. So the idea being that paying to vote would recoup the expenses, as well as strongly discouraging double-vote cheating. Except that again black people were charged and turned away if unable to pay, but white people always got it mysteriously "waived." So, several court decisions later, it's not legal to do that. (And besides, it's kind of unfair to the very poor.)
There's a lot of ideas out there that might have worked out very well, but for historical reasons, are untenable today. We just can't trust people not to screw them up somehow.
So when people tell me about this law in Arizona, the one that where any "reasonably suspicious" person can be subject to arbitrary deportation, same sort of problem emerges. The technical language of the law may be reasonably neutral, but it's fairly obvious at this point that it will be enforced with "Latino-looking" substituted for "reasonably suspicious." Which kind of torpedoes the entire thing. Already 20 people with US citizenship have been deported. Without a chance to gather the paperwork that would allow them to, you know, return.
Mexico's not pleased about suddenly having a bunch of American refugees when they're already suffering a whole host of other problems.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cotton Cleanup

Large animal farms often pollute the area around them in a very ironic way -- they overfill the land with plant-nutrients. The trees turn neon green and the excess leeches into the waterways, causing algal blooms and bad smells.
On the other hand, some crops, particularly Cotton and Tobacco, have been particularly famous through farming history for needing quite a lot of these resources. I think we can use one to solve the other.
In an abandoned animal farm, grow quite a lot of Nitrogen-needy plants. They will absorb the pollution. Do not make cigarettes/textiles out of them, as they're probably infected with all kinds of heavy metals and bacteria to be trusted near humans. The crops can be chemically separated into any useful components.
Nearby trees should indicate the nitrogen-balance of the soil. When their leaves change from an unhealthy-looking neon-green to a lush summer-green, this indicates that the soil is now ready for conventional agriculture. Before that, the soil should test free of heavy-metal contaminants (which we will test for chemically), and then we can turn the farm over to a farmer of some kind.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Birds Don't Like Organic

Technical news site Ars Technica reports today that a controlled study of songbirds strongly prefer conventionally farmed seeds over organic ones.
Ars Technica notes that the conventionally farmed seeds had more protein, due to Haber-processed ammonia providing more nitrogen to the crop, while the organic ones had to get their own nitrogen from the soil. So it may be the case that what the birds are preferring is the higher protein quality, a major concern for a wild animal. (A good source of protein helps you heal injuries, keep your body in peak condition, and also make more of you. All things that animals want to do.)
Organic advocates shouldn't be insulted by this announcement, then. We humans have protein in pretty much unlimited quantities, so it makes sense for us to be a little picky about what we eat.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Artificial Genetics

Preeminent biologist PZ Myers reports today that a biologist has crafted an organism completely artificially with no DNA not synthesized by his laboratory. (Okay, so the pattern was that of an existing organism, but he sequenced it himself and did not take any part of any existing organism to do it.)
The implications of this blow my mind. We could, based on this, develop life to do almost literally anything. If we can work out a protein to see in the dark, we could then make a baby (for an infertile couple interested in adoption) who has night-vision. We could make plants that crank out billions of nutricious seeds or berries. We could make animals that serve our every need, and protein is the limit. And protein has made some pretty interesting animals in nature. Sharks have electrical vision. Snakes can sense heat. Lizards can regrow lost limbs. And all these powers could be ours.
My head asplode with possibilities.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Physics has very little knowledge about time. There definitely is time -- otherwise everything would happen at once. Time also clearly has direction. More entropy, less useful energy, is always later. But there's no clear rules about why time goes the way it does. In fact, there's no obvious rule disallowing time travel to the past, other than it blows all our ideas about causality to hell. Also, because of time and entropy, aging is inevitable.
We also know that time is sort of limited in that more than about 13.7 billion years ago, there were no possible differences between one moment and another, and therefore no time. (Although time also theoretically existed even back then in the extent that if you could somehow import something to back then, that thing would have changes and hence time.)
Time is also blocky. Physicist Max Planck determined that there's a very small interval of time and any intervals smaller than that make no physical sense. Hence, this period of time is called Planck time after him. The same exists for space, with a smallest possible unit and any lower makes no physical sense, and this is called Planck distance. Curiously enough, 1 planck distance divided by 1 planck time equals exactly c, the constant of the speed of light in a vacuum and the maximum possible speed in the universe. (I can imagine faster, with something somehow traveling 2 planck distance units in 1 planck time, but it has all kinds of insane implications, including using more energy than exists in the universe, weighing more than the universe, and being so compressed in time that time goes backwards. So...not happening.)
So physicists describe time as a unit of change, essentially. Change with direction, from orderly to disorderly, from useful energy to useless energy. Time is relative, as we are aware from experiments in special relativity, which verified it, and yet going backwards somehow never happens. So time is not exactly a dimension.
The big problem with time travel is the immense paradox. Let's say I go back to the 1800s, and save a man's life. He ends up having a daughter, who proves more attractive to my great-grandfather than my historical great-grandmother was, and so he marries this lady instead. As a result, my grandfather and his entire line, down to me, never existed in the first place, which undoes the entire change. (And yet if I don't exist to save the man's life in the first place, then the man died and the daughter was never born and so I end up existing.) This is the "grandfather paradox." Similar paradoxes can be imagined, where a rolling ball on a desk is struck by its future self, thereby causing it to not travel back in time, which undoes the entire chain of events. Take that, causality. Another paradox is the information origin paradox. I bring Shakespeare his famous plays, which means that he plagiarized them, which means that no one ever wrote them, which is unspeakably insane. (Or, in the technology field, I bring Charles Babbage my desktop computer, he "invents" it despite it relying on technologial principles that only exist because of researched piled on research that Mr. Babbage has now never done.) Faced with So the usual resolution is to proclaim the entire thing impossible in the first place, full stop. do we best investigate the nature of time? And what kind of bizarre truth waits for us when we do investigate?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Water is a precious resource, as Discover News is aware. They now report that deserts have additional options for gathering water. A dutch inventor has a box to pull moisture from morning fogs, the rare rain, and occasional humidity condensed. A tree planted in the box in the middle of the Saraha desert survives 90% of the time, but a tree planted in the same place with no box survives only 10% of the time.
Apparently, this was inspired by a Peruvian practice of using a net to absorb water from morning fog. The net would absorb water from the fog, and drip it down during the day, thereby bringing water to environments that were normally quite dry.
I'd like to see this used to modify climates. Trees in the desert would provide shade and comfort to those who live there. And some climatologists think that enough trees could actually tip over the balance of climate and bring rain. (And others think that rain is a matter of wind and evaporation and the first bunch is a bunch of whack-jobs.)
The box is designed to provide an initial sealed environment, and ultimately gets pushed out of the ground, where it can be taken away to be reused. By the time the tree is strong enough to do this, it's typically reached down to the water line, and is no longer dependent on surface sources for water.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mobile Animal Trap

We humans develop colonies of animals at the periphery of our civilization. Mice and Rats seek out our food stores for a free meal. Predators of mice and rats do the same for the same reason: easy food. Next thing you know, you have a very large, complex, and frankly annoying food web of animals that you constantly trip over. Also, the mice and rats have "fun" diseases that infect us. For our health, we have to nip this in the bud.
The best solution would be to quickly kill off the mice and rats, but we're squeamish. So most pest-control works by trapping. The animal is lured into one of many cages, which must be periodically checked for the presence of an animal. And when one is found, it should be removed from the cage, followed by removing it from the area. (Some animals, like skunks, are more useful elsewhere. Others, like the mice or rats, probably need to be killed off.)
I saw an episode of "Dirty Jobs," Mike Rowe's little show where he does many of the strange professions that people do for a day, and in this episode, he was a trapper, joining a professional trapper in checking all the cages. Some were empty, some had badgers, racoons, and skunks in them. The cages all had to be emptied by hand. As I was watching this, it struck me that this is fairly inefficient of the trapper's time. Therefore, it should be automated.
I have an idea of putting the cage on wheels. The cage has a small weight-trigger, and when the animal is inside it and inadvertently activates the trigger, the cage puts down the wheels and rolls itself over to a larger centralized holding area, which it would find by GPS signal. Once there, it would deposit the animal, run through a cleaning area to wash off anything the animal left behind, obtain a fresh bait, and roll over to its original location. Then the wheels would be taken back up, and the trap would be fully reset, ready for trapping a new animal.
The trapper's job would now consist of handling the animals in centralized holding, and deploying new traps. Much simpler. The decrease in workload should be offset by trapping way more areas, as the more pest control can be handled, the better.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Coffee Efficiency

There's a drug that you can take, legally, to make you more efficient at your job: Caffeine. It comes in all kinds of foods and drinks, and makes you more alert than napping.
Of course, like any stimulant, your body habituates to its presence. The more you take, the more you need to get the same effect. And more eerily: you only habituate to the alertness that people consume it for. The increasingly unpleasant side effects like jitteriness, insomnia, skipped heartbeats, and irritability, are directly proportional to use.
Caffeine addiction is also fairly easy to gauge: On a day when you don't have to go to work, skip your morning coffee, soda, or chocolate. If you have a massive headache and an incessant urge to go have one anyway, congratulations, you're addicted. (If it's important to you to quit, you can switch to decafs for a while. Same ritual, less psychoactive.) Although, a caffeine addiction isn't a problem unless you have trouble sleeping at night as well. We need sleep: being awake slowly gives us brain damage that only sleeping can repair.
Plants that make caffeine do so to discourage insects and other animals from eating them. We humans survive it mostly by being very large, and keeping our consumption down. (There are web programs that can determine the lethal dose of your favorite beverage of choice. For most people, it's very high but technically possible to consume in one day.)
Caffeine is also highly present. Huge numbers of people start their day with a cup of coffee, or tea, or a huge bottle of soda. Chug chug.
And yet for maximum efficiency, humans work best alternating between periods of high activity and periods of rest. We're not robots or computers, and we don't work like them. The most effective workplace would be one with periodic 20-minute naptimes. That mostly doesn't happen because it's a hard sell to the average manager.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is a political Internet structuring idea that requires Internet service providers to handle all bandwidth equally. Internet service would be a dumb pipe, like your water main. (Not quite like the telephone. Your telephone company knows what numbers you've been calling and how long you've talked. They are, however, prohibited from listening in. That's typically done by the government, with a court order.)
The ISPs generally dislike this, as they want to promote some traffic over others. They'd rather favor email and WWW over, say, Bittorrent. They complain that Bittorrent sucks up all their bandwidth, costing them money. (When the bandwidth runs out, you need to buy more capacity, or it'll slow down for everyone and your customers complain.)
Internet companies, like this blog's host, Google, fear that a lack of Net Neutrality will mean that they will be extorted by every ISP in the land. That every month a representative will come by and demand money, and if not granted it, will throttle all traffic to unacceptably slow speeds without quite cutting it off (because cutting it off entirely will be seen by the customer as censorship of the company, while slow access will suggest problems on their end.)
The ultimate in neutrality would be my earlier proposed grid Internet in which there is a massive array of underground routing boxes, all connected to their immediate neighbors. One could, for very little money, have a choice of connecting to one of four boxes, and connecting to several would make your own connection more robust. When connected to several, your connection would go through whichever was most available and least congested. ISPs would pretty much be obsolete. The main reason that this plan isn't being done is that it would require many many ditches dug, and land-management authority that only the government has. Also, the need for more and more routers would quickly rack up a budget in the high millions nationally. (I think connecting the entire world this way would cost in the trillions). The main advantage to it is a communication infrastructure that is for all intents and purposes indestructible.
Main arguments for opposing neutrality are to point to the Pareto principle, an economic principle that points out that many things are divided 80/20 instead of the 50/50 one would normally expect. 80% of the money is earned by the top 20 richest people. 80% of the sales are made by the top 20% of salespeople. 80% of the spending is done by 20% of the people. And so too, with bandwidth, which costs money, 80% of it is used by the top 20%. Since ISPs price their services per account rather than per gigabyte of traffic, ISPs would like to throttle down those top 20%. Or, alternatively, they could price by usage, but that doesn't sell very well.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Oil Drilling Drama

Discovery News is reporting that the effort to repair the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from BP's malfunctioning oil derreck has lead to all hell breaking loose.
Many many plans have been proposed, and most of them have apparently failed badly. Robots? They've jammed. Build a containment dome? Methane hydrates made that too unsafe. Repair the pipe? Ruptured again.
The last ditch step is building another well that drains out this one, and that will take several months. Several months of oil washing up on the Louisiana coast, with volunteer hippies washing birds and filming weepy commercials. The beaches are unusable, tourism plummets, and the public turns further against offshore drilling.
Clearly, there are two priorities. First, to stop the flow of oil. Second, to clean the oil that's already spilled. Stopping the flow is difficult because of the methane hydrates, a volatile solid form of methane that develops in high pressure, low temperature situations, like the deep ocean.
BP would, of course, like to recover as much oil as possible. They can sell oil. They cannot sell the oil-seawater mixture they have now.
I can't really help, unfortunately. I'm an amateur, and this situation requires the professionals.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Butt Recycling

Discovery News is reporting that chemicals found in old cigarette butts makes steel stronger.
If this were Fark, there would be a joke here about cancer not being cured yet, but there's a reason why these chemists were messing around with cigarette butts. They're a major source of pollution, since one butt seems inconsequential, but throw ten in a lake and suddenly half the fish abruptly die. So, the more butts can be recycled, the less polluting they will be. (Because now they will be worth money.)
Curiously enough, the chemical that helped the most was nicotine, the very chemical reason that people do smoke in the first place. Nicotine is a strong stimulant that Tobacco plants make to make insects that eat them die of heart failure.
So...if I want to help the steel industry, I should sponsor a tobacco farm. Or something.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Compression heating/cooling

In desert climates, like the one where I was born, it's ridiculously hot in the day, and then very cold at night. People who live there spend a fortune on air conditioning, and gain a little more relief with swamp coolers, which work by evaporation. (Works great in dry desert climates!)
As a student of physics, I am aware that fluids (gasses and liquids) become higher in temperature when compressed, and lower when decompressed. I wish to harness this effect to replace air conditioning, and to shift costs to when energy is the cheapest, which is typically at night in deserts. (Day costs are high from high demand, everyone running their air conditioning at once.) If this system is widely deployed, then the energy pricing would be recalculated, and we'd have to switch to a battery system or something.
So we build under the house a huge air tank, compressor, and heat exchanger. At night, it's cold and energy costs are low, and we run the compressor. The compressed air in the tank gets very hot, and the heat exchanger blows the heat into the house. Aaaaaaah. Feels good. The tank is high pressure, room temperature air.
When the sun rises, the compressor is shut off. The tank under the house is now under huge pressure, likely many atmospheres worth. When the heat of the day starts, we open a valve and fill the house with a cold wind. (Because the same amount of heat to make a many atmosphere'd tank room temperature is very little heat at all when that air is reduced to one atmosphere's worth of pressure, as it would be when let out.) Aaaaaaaaahhhh. Feels really really good. The expander valve should only allow a small amount of air out for maximum results. The tank will also get very very cold as it does this.
By the time the sun goes down, ideally this is when our tank has reached one atmosphere of pressure, ending the cold wind. It's time to repeat the cycle, but we won't start compressing immediately. We should probably let it sit a few minutes. Then we compress it up.
I got this idea thinking about a museum I visited once that talks about how it shifted its cooling energy burden to nighttime, when energy demand is least, by freezing a whole lot of ice and using this ice for cooling during the day, when energy demand is higher. And I thought, why bother with ice?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Carbon Cooling

Discovery News is reporting that in the microscopic scale, Graphene, a complex form of carbon, conducts heat really well. Graphene would be layered with the silicon and would distribute the heat made by the circuits to the edges of the device. The larger surface area would help it cool off.
This is important because the faster processors of today are getting harder and harder to cool off. The faster they switch, the more power they need, and the more heat they make that has to be hauled away before it melts something. 1980s era personal computers needed a small heat sink. 1990s era computers needed a large heat sink and a small fan. Today's computers need a large heat sink and fan, and thermal paste to facilitate heat transfer to the heat sink.
With this discovery, the entire backplane (like the motherboard in personal computers) can now effectively be used as a heat sink, making the entire cooling process more efficient. The heat radiates into the air, requiring slightly less fan action. This will make computers quieter. Or faster. Probably faster. (Same cooling setup will now tolerate more heat output, so the CPU is clocked even faster than before.)
Good news if you like overclocking. Bad news if you're air conditioning a data center.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cap and Trade Roughly Analyzed

Cap and Trade is an American proposed law, in which carbon emissions would be limited per entity, (the "cap,") but the limited quantity could be traded between entities (the "trade") to minimize the cost to any one person. Permittable pollution would be represented with certificates. Companies that were particularly efficient in reducing their pollution output could trade their savings to companies that were having a harder time doing so. Reactions are mixed.
The American political left really enjoys this idea, because it would be the cheapest possible solution for limiting carbon emissions. Prices would rise, but not by much, and the economy would develop a certain efficiency of pollution, with more trade-able dollars per unit of carbon production, and the limits could be tightened or loosened by the requirements of the environment.
The American political right despises this idea, as it would increase costs for businesses for something that they refuse to consider a problem. They mostly see environmental legislation along these lines as a plot to damage business interests, as the relationship between business and environmentalism has been strained for years now.
I personally like the idea, as it combines environmental and business concerns for the cheapest possible solution. I like the way that it internalizes the externality of carbon, and uses free-market logic to minimize the expenses involved.
Some economists worry of potential side effects. Who gets the issuing certificates? If it's per person, then either we get business beholden to random people (which they will intensely resent), or we get into corporate personhood issues and shell corporations that exist purely to collect more certificates. Alternatively, if you have to buy them from the government in the first place, it's basically a stealth carbon tax. If you clean carbon from the air, do you get a certificate for that? (You should, the issue with carbon is statistical. 1 ton minus 1 ton equals zero tons.) If so, how do you prove you cleaned the carbon? What if somebody counterfeits the certificates? Or, what if somebody buys up every certificate and demands exorbitant amounts of money for any of them? (An obnoxious example of what economists call "Rent-seeking behavior" in which one seeks to be paid despite providing little to no benefit to those around you.) Some experts proclaim that the disreputable financial firm Goldman-Sachs plans to do exactly that, and has the political lobby resources to force it on the rest of us, public opinion be damned.
If it's a some-freely-issued, others produced by demonstrable sinking efforts, monopoly-free system, I'm all for it. If it's a government-issued-only system that's ignored after the initial issuing, I'm against it.

Monday, May 10, 2010


So yesterday I was taking a walk in a lovely park with a lake, and there were Muscovy ducks swimming around the lake. I fed them some of my bread, which they really enjoyed. I started to think how food is like money to them, no matter how much they get, they always want even more than that. And that got me to thinking, if I could somehow speak their language, how could I explain trade and economics to them?
Ducks make primarily three things. Their bodies grow feathers, which they discard at a certain level of wear. There are two levels of feathers, the large outer feathers, and the fluffy inner down. Both are oiled to keep the duck waterproof. (Which helps them float on the surface of the water.) The other are eggs, which they use to make more ducks. I don't think they'd be inclined to trade their eggs. Their feathers, on the other hand, were littered around the park.
I'll be imagining the ducks to be speaking in LOLCAT speak, because they're not very smart compared to humans. (Big human-style brains are metabolically expensive. We humans are the nerds of the animal world.)
Lesson for the ducks #1: Feather Plus Wood Equals Arrow

Patience, my Anatidae friend, we're getting to that. I just have to establish some things first.
Lesson for the ducks #2: Down Feathers Plus Textiles Equals Pillow

Probably a really good one too, all natural and all that. All the humans love down pillows.
No, ducks. But we're getting to that.
Lesson #3: Goods like pillow and arrows can be traded for monies.

No, you can't eat money, but we're getting really close to that, I promise. Next lesson.
Lesson #4: Monies can be traded for anything, including bread.

No, ducks, you don't get stuff for free.
"BUT WANT!!!!"
I see, I think you'll like lesson five then.
Lesson #5: Since all goods are interchangeable, you can trade feathers you don't need anymore for bread from a human like me. He (or she) will do the remaining transactions without you.

No, I didn't bring any more bread, but you might want to start saving your feathers.
No, you need some feathers to, you know, stay afloat, but when some fall out naturally...
Maybe I shouldn't trade with you ducks, lest you destroy yourselves.
"NO WAIT COME BACK ME WANT MORE BREAD!!!"'re eating well enough as it is.
I'm going now. I think I need to talk to someone less...impulsive.
I'll bring some tomorrow. No trading.

So...imaginary trade with the ducks proves...disastrous....and is accordingly not performed. Ah well. The ideas are almost assuredly too complicated for them.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


The first three types of electronics, resistors, capacitors, and inductors, were discovered very early, before 1900. It occured to people that logically there should be a forth type, but no one went very far with that idea. A mathematician, Leon Chua, proved mathematically that this forth type would exist and what properties it would have, but didn't build one. (He designed many other circuits, including some that are non-deterministic, an unusual trait for electronics.) This was in 1971.
An actual memristor wasn't built until 2008. 37 years later. It's still in the experimental stage, physically, but it implies some interesting things.
Especially in computers. Memristors could produce, according to electronics experts, a device that is a CPU, RAM, and a hard drive, all in one device. (It's a CPU because it can process information, RAM because it can store it [and reads and writes very quickly], and a hard drive because the information is not lost when the power cuts out.) It would enjoy capacities of terrabytes per cubic centimeter, and could be stacked together. This would be an impressively powerful computer that could be made literally arbitrarily large.
The future's so bright that I'll need to wear sunglasses.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Oceanic Plastic Cleanup

Discovery News is reporting that a bacteria colony has evolved the ability to consume plastic. This is excellent news.
In the pacific ocean, floating swarms of plastic have become a severe problem. An enormous swath of floating discarded plastic has reached twice the size of Texas, and roams around the ocean. In the affected areas, sure the ocean looks blue, but if you ran a plankton net through it, you'd get a whole bunch of plastic for your trouble. This is proving problematic for filter feeding albatrosses, who get large amounts of plastic in their diet. They have been turning up dead on the pacific's many small islands, their digestive systems clogged with loads and loads of plastic garbage. The garbage becomes apparent when the bird dies.
If these microorganisms could be bred to handle to the greater salinity of the open ocean, then we could deploy them in colonies in the middle of the patch, and the patch would quickly be consumed, leaving the water pure. If the plastic ran out, probably the microorganisms would die off and sink to the bottom.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Private Currency

Libertarians and the like will enjoy this notice: there is no law preventing you from producing a private currency. One of your own issue, backed by gold. There's no guarantee that anyone would accept it. (I wouldn't.)
When I buy things, I pay with US Dollars. Either directly by handing over notes, or indirectly via a credit card, which involves a series of bank transfers. These dollars are valuable basically because the US government has a monopoly on their production, and because the government says they are. They are "legal tender," the denomination and payment instrument of debt. That is to say, if I owe someone money, they have to accept the notes as payment or the debt is void. If they demand I pay in gold bars, I can take it to court and tell them "Well, I tried to pay with these dollars, he didn't want them" and then they would rule that I don't owe money after all.
Libertarians dislike the idea of legal tender, as they want to neuter the government to the point of which it could not enforce such a decree. They perceive only things backed by metal or some other such tangible good, to be of value.
So logistically, to have your own currency, you'd need a printing press, intricate designs, some sort of anti-counterfeiting system so that it's difficult for other people to copy your notes, and a stash of gold so that people can redeem your notes at their request. They should not be confused with US Dollars, and for safety's sake, should be of a very different design and size.
As a precedent for this, Scottish-printed notes in the UK are not legal tender in Scotland. In spite of this, a number of shops will accept them anyway, as if it were a check written out to them.
In the past, currency issuing was generally done by banks, who made them as a symbolic representation of a deposit, and then people exchanged them to save themselves the trouble of retrieving the deposit to hand over to the shopkeeper, who probably planned to spend it on something else anyway. The note was lighter and more portable than the original deposit, and easier to handle commerce in. Governments got into the act later.
Now as for accepting, I think it would go over about as well as a foreign-issued currency. In theory I could pay for my groceries in British pounds, or Mexican pesos, or Chinese renminbi, but in practice the store's probably going to demand US dollars, because it can use those right away.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Due to a recent moth infestation that we've been vigorously fighting, the walls in my house have little stains on them. This is, needless to say, annoying.
I'll probably wipe it up with cleaning sprays and towels, but I'm not the only one to have this problem. I understand that parents often have children who either inadvertently throw food at the wall, or doodle on it with crayons. So, how can I clean the walls more...automatically?
I suppose the best way I can think of is to take the "Roomba" approach and have a robot. The robot would wheel itself alone the walls, sliding up and down on metal supports, scrubbing grime from the walls, sucking the soap and absorbed dirt into a special container, and periodically leaving the walls to go dump its bin into a nearby sink.
I think people will really like this. iRobot's robotic vacuuming machine, the aformentioned Roomba, is so popular that people treat it not as an appliance, but as a pet. People will actually sweep their floors for their robot so it doesn't have to "work" as hard. Which, mind you, it is a robot. It at worst does not care, and at best could be said to actively enjoy cleaning.
You could write entire psychology books on that topic.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


"Are corporations a materialist or idealist entity?" asks one of my rather confused readers. Neither. Corporations are a matter of law, not philosophy. Allow me to explain.
In physical terms, I could destroy even the mightiest corporations with my bare hands. This is because they are a paper filed in a law-office somewhere. Even the richest and most powerful corporations are just a stack of papers and could be destroyed easily.
But to actually get to that paper, one would have to commit multiple crimes, not limited to breaking and entering, multiple counts of vandalism, and probably assault from the angry humans wishing to prevent this sort of thing. Most of these humans are lawyers, and I'm expecting them to be in a vindictive mood.
A 12th century legal case granted in UK law, and the US law that inherited it, all legal rights and duties of person-hood to corporations when the very slick lawyer attempted to argue that his firm, not being a person, was exempt from the statue in question. The court ruled that his firm was an "artificial person" with all that that entailed, human rights included.
However, unlike human people, corporations can easily be neutralized against any particular agenda. Buy their shares until you control 50% or more of the company, and at the next board election, fire the board, fire the CEO, and replace them with people loyal to you. The corporation now follows your agenda.
Now philosophy wise, corporations are idealist in that everything substancial about them are ideas and legal filings. The physical part of a corporation is a piece of paper on which is printed a charter. It's the abstract legal part that gives them the power that they have.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Business corruption

Everyone wants less corruption -- or more opportunities to participate in it. The Economist is now reporting that corruption has many hidden costs and is therefore worth stamping out even from the bribers perspective.
Corruption hurts because it damages trust, a very valuable economic asset indeed. The article goes on to explain that contrary to expectation, it also discourages officials from acting efficiently, as instead of doing their proper jobs, they now act primarily to hit up people for money. Repeatedly. Paying one bribe encourages the demand of additional bribes in the future. In addition, it psychologically damages both parties -- the briber feeling morally filthy, the bribee becoming more entitled and obnoxious.
The article also goes on to say that even in countries with a lot of corruption, companies can prosper without paying bribes. It even gives a list of them.
In India, a country notorious for having corrupt officials, an NGO produced a zero-rupee banknote to remind officials that asking for bribes is unacceptable. One "pays" bribes with a note that explicitly proclaims itself to have no value, embarrassing the corrupt official. So far, it's working. When the official himself (or herself, but generally corrupt officials show a tendency to be male), doesn't take the hint, it becomes quite blatant to his supervisors what he's trying to do, and they order him to do the right thing. Or else. I salute the clever Indian anti-corruption NGO's solution, and wish to see it exported to other countries. Perhaps even my own -- I have yet to have a bribe demanded from me, but I'd want to be ready, just in case.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Snake Road

Discovery News reports that snakes in the southwestern United States have a major problem: They refuse to cross roads and are becoming severely inbred as a result of this.
Rattlesnakes are a common species in the southwest, being a brown snake that eats rats, mice, and opossums, and having a collection of dried skin at the end of their tail that makes a rattling noise when shaken, hence the name. They shake their tails when they feel mildly threatened as a warning, and if that doesn't work, they have a poisonous bite. Hikers in the southwest are instructed not to provoke them, as they don't bite arbitrarily.
When more severely threatened, by loud noise or severe vibration, they lay perfectly still and hope that their camouflage will leave them undetected. This works great when hiding in the grass and the threat is a screaming hawk. This works less great on an asphalt road when the threat is a large car. The car's drivers typically never even sees the snake, and the snake's life ends with a loud thump that the driver can't tell apart from hitting a rock.
As a result, the surviving snakes have come to the conclusion that road equals squishy death, and refuse to cross them. The result of this and expanding roads have meant that snakes live in the little pockets between them and do not cross the road for any reason. Snakes will not mate with a snake a mere 500 meters away due to a road between them, and have gotten very incestuous as a result.
I know most people will just shrug. "Who cares about snakes?" To which I respond, "You like eating, don't you?" Snakes are the main rodent-control of the southwest, eating the vermin that would otherwise threaten crops. If they become too inept or sickly to eat these mice, then local farmers will need to invest in an expensive series of rodent-controls.
Discovery's biology department proposes that roads be built with periodic bridges, as snakes are perfectly willing to travel under a bridge.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Blog commenters have long been familiar with CAPTCHAs, small automated tests to prove the humanity of an activity. Blogs usually require them to prove that the commenter is not a posting program, as such programs usually exist purely to post spam.
Most existing ones involve reading a wavy, distorted word. There are OCR programs that could read straight, clear text, but the wavy and distorted letters are currently only comprehensible to humans. Blind users are forced to prove their humanity through other tests, such as sound-based comprehension tests. The same robot-fooling aspect of the test foils the unfortunate person's screen reader.
One group of people wrote a new CAPTCHA, Resisty, which requires users to identify the color bands on a resistor. Its value is not its CAPTCHA value, which is low because it requires not only vision, but color vision, to pass. (Color blind or completely blind people would require a different test.) Its value is that if it is cracked, as spambot writers want to do, they now have a program that can automatically identify and classify resistors. Such a program would further the automation of making electronic devices. Whereas if the conventional wavy-text program is have a slightly slightly better OCR. "Oh joy."

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Algae plastic

Plastic is one of our favorite manufacturing materials. You can make it in so many kinds, with practically any trait imaginable, and for cheap. Only problem is, it's made of oil, which we're finding less and less of every year.
Discovery News is reporting that a California biotech company is now making plastic directly from algae.
Aside from the sustainability issue, as algae keeps going but oil has been used up faster than its been produced for the last 110 years, this is also useful for red tide issues. Too much algae on your beach? Rake it up and make it into plastic. No more will it rot in the sea, stinking it up and draining it of oxygen so hard that all the fish die. No more will it poison the oysters and clams. We'll make it into cars, keyboards, and iPods and be done with it.
It's also a great carbon sink. Algae are plants, and suck carbon and nitrogen from their environment to make their bodily structure, and we're very good at replacing the nitrogen.
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