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Saturday, April 25, 2009

2:27AM - The truth is sometimes nowhere near The Middle

I've often heard the saying "the truth is in the middle" when discussing heated political issues. The saying can be true when factions on either side make equally hyperbolic remarks, trying to sway the undecided into their camp. However, just because an issue has been politicized it doesn't mean that one side isn't more right than the other. In fact, people's tendency to assume "the truth is in the middle" can be exploited, skewing public perception away from the truth. If I were an oil/cigarette/coal/agriculture company executive who cared only about profits, this is definitely something I'd try to take advantage of.

From the NYTimes:

A document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the [polluting industry backed coalition] worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.


Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain. By questioning the science on global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like the Global Climate Coalition were able to sow enough doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential issue and delay government action.

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

“They didn’t have to win the argument to succeed,” Mr. Monbiot said, “only to cause as much confusion as possible.”
To people who have studied the science, man-made global warming has been practically undeniable for many years, but there has been so much manufactured confusion generated by the very entrenched and very rich polluting industries that people remain skeptical to this day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

2:34AM - Sensitive female chord progression? ... Really?

ceida pointed me to this interesting article in the Globe. My initial reaction was that it is a ridiculous name for what is just a sequence of sounds, but since there are so many songs that reuse a comparatively small set of chord progressions, I thought it would be an interesting, if only academic, exercise (which I have not done) to construct an index of songs searchable by chord progression utilized during the verse/chorus/bridge. I'm not sure how useful it would be to anyone other than a cappella groups constructing medleys, but such a piece of software would at least be helpful in identifying interesting trends and outliers. Might be an interesting signal processing exercise too.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

4:35AM - Science versus Politics

From NYTimes.com:

[The president issued] a memorandum that sets forth broad parameters for how his administration would choose expert advisers and use scientific data.

The document orders Mr. Obama’s top science adviser to help draft guidelines that will apply to every federal agency. Agencies will be expected to pick science advisers based on expertise, not political ideology, the memorandum said, and will offer whistle-blower protections to employees who expose the misuse or suppression of scientific information.

The idea, the president said in remarks before an audience of lawmakers, scientists, patients advocates and patients in the East Room, is to ensure that “we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology”: a line that drew more applause than any other.
The Republican response (from the same article):
But Mr. Bush’s defenders see Mr. Obama as just imposing an ideology of his own. They say Mr. Bush did not ignore scientific facts; rather, he took the counsel of scientists and used it to make a policy determination that reflected his values, just as Mr. Obama is doing in lifting Mr. Bush’s restrictions on stem cell research.

“Those who suggest that the Bush administration did not rigorously apply science are themselves ignoring the facts,” said Karl Rove, the former president’s political strategist.
Rove suggests that Obama is no different than Bush in merging science with values to make policy. But with science having a liberal bias and all, this meant that Bush largely replaced scientific recommendation with values (especially with respect to environmental recommendations), while Obama is hopefully looking to largely follow scientific recommendations. I, for one, welcome the change.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

3:23AM - Learning the GIMP (aka free photoshop)

Playing around with photo editing software -- it's interesting how quickly things can go from good to just plain wacky. The top one is the original taken with my Canon SD800 IS.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

1:06PM - Really?

From the Freakonomics Blog:

Who owns Trader Joe’s?

1. Some great California family full of surfers and gardeners.

2. A small band of communal farmers in Oregon.

3. A huge German discount-grocery chain best known in the U.S. for no-glamor stores often located in marginal neighborhoods.
SpoilerCollapse )

Friday, November 21, 2008

2:28AM - Higher pay = worse performance?

Interesting article from the NYTimes:
"We replicated these results in a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where undergraduate students were offered the chance to earn a high bonus ($600) or a lower one ($60) by performing one task that called for some cognitive skill (adding numbers) and another one that required only a mechanical skill (tapping a key as fast as possible). We found that as long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But when we included a task that required even rudimentary cognitive skill, the outcome was the same as in the India study: the offer of a higher bonus led to poorer performance.

"If our tests mimic the real world, then higher bonuses may not only cost employers more but also discourage executives from working to the best of their ability."
Maybe discourage is not the right word. Distract might be a better fit.

Monday, November 17, 2008

4:50PM - Thomas Friedman on Renewable Energy being the next Big Industry

From the Daily Show:

Friedman explains why we need to develop clean energy technology in the United States to a degree much greater than what has been done. He also supports carbon taxes or caps as a market signal to deal with the pollution externality. Smart guy.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

3:18PM - Addressing the financial and climate crises simultaneously

Hey Barack, congratulations! Your election has been a monumental and inspiring one. But we have some serious problems to solve, and I hope you have the courage to listen to 20 years of research and a Nobel Peace Prize:
"The world authority on the climate crisis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after 20 years of detailed study and four unanimous reports, now says that the evidence is “unequivocal.” To those who are still tempted to dismiss the increasingly urgent alarms from scientists around the world, ignore the melting of the north polar ice cap and all of the other apocalyptic warnings from the planet itself, and who roll their eyes at the very mention of this existential threat to the future of the human species, please wake up. Our children and grandchildren need you to hear and recognize the truth of our situation, before it is too late.

"Here is the good news: the bold steps that are needed to solve the climate crisis are exactly the same steps that ought to be taken in order to solve the economic crisis and the energy security crisis.

"Economists across the spectrum — including Martin Feldstein and Lawrence Summers — agree that large and rapid investments in a jobs-intensive infrastructure initiative is the best way to revive our economy in a quick and sustainable way. Many also agree that our economy will fall behind if we continue spending hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign oil every year. Moreover, national security experts in both parties agree that we face a dangerous strategic vulnerability if the world suddenly loses access to Middle Eastern oil."
It's going to take a monster fight against the politically powerful US coal, railroad, and (of course) oil industries. So stop pandering and realize that domestic fossil fuels are not and never will be the answer to our oil dependence problem, not when the reality of a carbon-constrained world is just around the corner. If America is to remain a leader in the global economy, we must become a center of renewable energy technology. It's as simple as that.

Friday, September 26, 2008

6:21PM - What year is this?

From this TIME article:

"As a new freshman [at the University of Mississippi] last September, Jeremiah Taylor accompanied his white roommate to a fraternity party where he was the only African-American in attendance. He says a partygoer, noticing him, commented, "Oh my God, I can't believe there's a nigger here." When Taylor turned to go, one student threw a beer can at him and some others pushed him down the stairs. In the ensuing weeks, he says many students suggested that by going to "their party" — meaning one for whites only — he had been looking for trouble."
I wonder why there isn't more community outrage that this was even possible at a state university. All I can say is I'm truly happy not be living in Mississippi.

5:31PM - Free sign ups for a Chevy Volt!

Anyone interested in a Chevy Volt can put their name down on the unofficial, no-deposit waiting list here. The price is expected to be about $40,000 not including a possible $7,500 tax credit. That's still pretty steep, especially for a compact four-seater, so I'm not expecting GM to move nearly as many copies as Toyota has of its $22,000 mid-size, five-seat Prius.

Computing savings from using electricity instead of gasoline is nontrivial given the somewhat complex rate structure of electricity. Martin Eberhard, a founder of Tesla Motors, posted his thoughts on the matter here. Using his figure of 3.6 cents/mile, you'd save roughly $700 per year (assuming 15k electric miles/year) in fuel costs compared to a Toyota Prius (8.2 cents/mile assuming $3.75 gas and 46 MPG), yielding a payback time of 15 years. However, the likely reason most buyers will choose the Volt is not the financial savings from fuel costs, but rather the accompanying reduction of oil consumption, CO2 emissions, and their associated negative externalities.

I've previously mentioned concerns with the duty cycle of a PHEV's battery (deep discharge) and its impact on longevity. As I understand it, the Volt will only allow discharge to 30% capacity, then maintain that state of charge using the generator until you plug it in again. Reducing the range of discharge during normal operation should reduce wear on the battery, though by how much is unclear. Since concern about the battery is one of the top reasons customers are hesitant to purchase a hybrid, GM is planning on warrantying the battery for 10 years/150,000 miles. Bob Lutz has indicated the replacement cost of each battery is actually already factored into the MSRP of the vehicle: "We're being conservative on battery life. For our cost calculations we're assuming each car will need a replacement during the warranty period."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

11:48AM - Solution to mortgage crisis: looser lending standards!

I kid you not:

James Lockhart, the head of [the Federal Housing Finance Agency], suggested Tuesday that mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500) could loosen lending standards to help more homebuyers qualify for a loan and stabilize the market.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

7:58PM - Prius depreciation revisted

Almost two years ago, I posted about how our Prius had been holding its value exceedingly well. Based on the resale value at 16 months old, I projected the expected depreciation over three years to be no greater than 13.6% as compared to 45% for the average vehicle in the US.

With gas prices so high, demand for the Prius is astronomical -- much higher than Toyota can meet. This in turn has led to very high resale values of used Priuses. After a little over three years, our car has depreciated only 7.7% 7.2%. This value reflects a below average number of miles, so correcting for that (assuming the average person drives 15k miles/yr), it would have depreciated 11.4% instead.

A lot of folks like to say that it takes years to make up the hybrid premium in gas savings. It's not hard to see that Prius owners made out like bandits (whether out of "foresight" or just plain blind luck) in terms of reduced depreciation alone. Whether this astoundingly low rate of depreciation will hold up for the next several years remains to be seen, but either way I'm sure the price of gas will be a large determining factor.

EDIT: Jess points out that we only have around 17k miles on our car versus the 24k figure I used in my original post, so I updated the pricing chart below. Our depreciation is currently about 7.2% (or 2.4% annually!) instead of 7.7% from original price.

Our pricing report...Collapse )

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

9:00PM - GH: World Tour!

I can't wait to get the new Guitar Hero! The drum kit looks amazing, and the Music Studio sounds absolutely insane. There's basically a full-blown MIDI editor built into the game, but there are also tools you can use to help fake your way through writing a song.

I'm definitely interested in fooling around with it, though I doubt I'll write anything worth playing -- I'm more interested in downloading the songs other people come up with. I'm sure there will be some musical geniuses out there who come up with great stuff and share it with the rest of us.

Anyone want to form a band with me? We don't even have to be in the same place to play together (though it would be more fun that way).

More videos ...Collapse )

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

3:04PM - Italia!

We had a fantastic time in Tuscany! Here are a few pictures from our trip.


More PicturesCollapse )

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

2:31AM - Where "self-excitation" is not as dirty as it sounds

For more than (most of) you'd ever want to know [pdf] about the physics behind the 1940 Tacoma Narrows bridge incident. My professor was wrong (and apparently so were a bunch of physics textbooks): the culprit was not wind-induced forced resonance, but in fact: flutter. Thanks Wikipedia!

From the abstract:

It is ... demonstrated that the ultimate failure of the bridge was in fact related to an aerodynamically induced condition of self-excitation or ``negative damping'' in a torsional degree of freedom. The aeroelastic phenomenon involved was an interactive one in which developed wind forces were strongly linked to structural motion. This paper emphasizes the fact that, physically as well as mathematically, forced resonance and self-excitation are fundamentally different phenomena.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

2:42PM - Deval Patrick and Energy Policy

I went to see Gov. Deval Patrick speak at MIT on Tuesday. He made an inspirational speech, and from what I can tell his environmental policies are more progressive than most governors in the US. The primary regulatory tools he supports appear to be subsidies in the form of favorable utility rates for renewable power and economic incentives for green companies to operate in Massachusetts. These initiatives are definitely steps in the right direction, but at the same time, I can't help but wonder if we'd be better off with a strict carbon cap or tax.

I get it: "tax" is a dirty word in US politics. But the money for subsidies has to come from somewhere, and we end up increasing the burden on distortionary taxes like sales or income taxes. If we tax carbon emissions and other pollutants, we can both reduce the distortions caused by the pollution externality as well as use the revenue to offset distortionary taxes. Would such a policy increase energy prices? Yes, but since the policy is revenue neutral, those who conserve energy and make cleaner choices end up with more money than before the tax, while those who guzzle gas and leave the air conditioning on while out of the house will have more incentive to correct their inefficient behavior.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

4:24PM - Brawl!

Anyone want to play Smash Brothers on the Wii with me?

Friend code: 2878-9355-4778

I need your code too, so either post in the comments or email me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

12:33AM - Democratizing our democracy

Here's a fascinating article on some of the major problems with our nation's primary voting process, along with some possible solutions. I'm a huge fan of Instant Runoff Voting and think it's a travesty that it isn't in use today.

Consider the Republican contest this year. John McCain earned his frontrunner status in January without ever winning more than 37% of the vote in a primary or caucus. The Republican's winner-take-all rules also aided him in gaining frontrunner status. Even on February 5th, where he essentially locked up the nomination, he only won a majority of the vote in three states. Whether Sen. McCain is the right nominee for the Republican Party is not the point; the reality is that he easily could have been a splinter candidate who didn't reflect the views of the majority of Republican voters.

On the Democratic side, even with proportional allocation rules mitigating the impact on distortions in allocating delegates due to plurality voting rules, the lack of instant runoff voting had a clear impact on the race. The media inevitably focuses on who wins the most votes, no matter how low that percentage might be - consider New Hampshire this year, where Sen. Clinton won a big boost despite securing less than 40% of the vote and potentially not being able to have defeated Barack Obama if supporters of the remaining candidates could have indicated a second choice between the frontrunners.

Monday, April 14, 2008

9:49PM - How we got into this mess

This PBS Frontline episode from last month sheds a lot of light on how we ended up in Iraq. From NYMag.com:

Like Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and Freud’s return of the repressed, the war in Iraq keeps on coming back to bite us in the pineal gland. We do our best to distract ourselves with the collapse of the American economy or the rehab of pop tarts, but then another suicide bomb explodes in Baghdad and we are made to wonder once again—$3 trillion for exactly what? Bush’s War can’t tell us exactly “what,” except for a fiasco, but this two-night, four-and-a-half-hour Frontline special is the best audiovisual history of who, why, when, and how available to date. Since Frontline has been tracking the metastasis from 9/11 through to the surge, producer Michael Kirk had access to more than 40 previous stories to bolster a fresh batch of interviews. Not only do most of the principals speak for themselves, but because they often had to revise, improve, or repudiate earlier sound bites, they speak against themselves, too.
As a result of watching it, I hate Dick Cheney even more now than I did before, and that's saying something. It's unbelievable how incompetent the Bush administration has been -- how damaging these two presidential terms have been to the world.

If you only have 10 minutes, watch segment twelve of part one.

Friday, March 14, 2008

12:21PM - Deadly adventure on the high seas

Wired.com published a suspenseful, fascinating, and very well written story in February on the salvage of an enormous ship carrying thousands of Mazdas that tipped over near Alaska.

A phone rings. Rich Habib opens his eyes and blinks in the darkness. He reaches for the phone, disturbing a pair of dogs cuddled around him. He was going to take them to the river for a swim today. Now the sound of his phone means that somewhere, somehow, a ship is going down, and he's going to have to get out of bed and go save it.

It always starts like this. Last Christmas Day, an 835-foot container vessel ran aground in Ensenada, Mexico. The phone rang, he hopped on a plane, and was soon on a Jet Ski pounding his way through the Baja surf. The ship had run aground on a beach while loaded with approximately 1,800 containers. He had to rustle up a Sikorsky Skycrane — one of the world's most powerful helicopters — to offload the cargo.

Ship captains spend their careers trying to avoid a collision or grounding like this. But for Habib, nearly every month brings a welcome disaster. While people are shouting "Abandon ship!" Habib is scrambling aboard. He's been at sea since he was 18, and now, at 51, his tanned face, square jaw, and don't-even-try-bullshitting-me stare convey a world-weary air of command. He holds an unlimited master's license, which means he's one of the select few who are qualified to pilot ships of any size, anywhere in the world. He spent his early years captaining hulking vessels that lifted other ships on board and hauled them across oceans. He helped the Navy transport a nuclear refueling facility from California to Hawaii. Now he's the senior salvage master — the guy who runs the show at sea — for Titan Salvage, a highly specialized outfit of men who race around the world saving ships.

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