For The Birds

Stephen Johnson has got to go

The head of the EPA is a crony. A few months ago, he made headlines forbidding California from instituting higher fuel economy standards. That action went against the recommendation of all of the EPA's scientific and legal analysts, and was likely highly influenced by the oil Bush administration.

Now he's again overruling the unanimous advice of his scientific advisory council who say that ground level ozone concentrations (which produce smog and cause heart attacks and asthma) should be lowered to 60 to 70 parts per billion.

The EPA analysts who made the recommendation conducted a cost-benefit analysis to account for both health benefits to society and costs to industry, yet Mr. Johnson, in his infinite wisdom, decided that he had a better idea of what the limits should be. By overruling his analysts, he is essentially making a socially and economically inefficient (by every measure but the polluters' bottom line) trade of human health for corporate dollars.

In the words of William Becker, "It's disheartening that once again EPA has missed a critical opportunity to protect public health and welfare by ignoring the unanimous recommendations of its independent science advisers."
For The Birds

Super Mario Galaxy

For those of you who own a Wii but don't yet have this game, all I can say is: Get it now! As almost every review on the web will attest the gameplay is top-notch, but to me the most impressive aspect was undeniably the music. The music manages to create a superbly matched mood for almost every setting in the game. I threw together a YouTube playlist consisting of some my favorite songs, roughly in order of preference.

For those curious, my death stats: Mario: 264, Luigi: 162
For The Birds

Would you like some mercury dip with your sushi?

From the New York Times:
Recent laboratory tests found so much mercury in tuna sushi from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants that at most of them, a regular diet of six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sushi from 5 of the 20 places had mercury levels so high that the Food and Drug Administration could take legal action to remove the fish from the market. The sushi was bought by The New York Times in October.
About 40% of mercury emissions in the US come from coal power plants. I would hazard a guess that the crazy growth of coal power plants in China and India may be behind the increased mercury contamination.
Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

To make matters worse, India is right behind China in stepping up its construction of coal-fired power plants — and has a population expected to outstrip China's by 2030.
For The Birds

A story of fundamentalism in America and its victims

From This American Life:
A Muslim woman persuades her husband that their family would be happier if they left the West Bank and moved to America. They do, and things are good...until September 11. After that, the elementary school their daughter goes to begins using a [district-wide approved and distributed] textbook that says Muslims want to kill Christians. This and other stories of what happens when Muslims and non-Muslims try to communicate, and misfire.
Listen to the second story segment (starting at 7:10) here. The teacher and administrators saw nothing wrong with the textbook, which stated that Muslims hate Christians, Muslims hate Americans, the Koran teaches war and hate, etc. The family was essentially chased out of the neighborhood (through harassment) for being Muslim. The story doesn't mention the exact town or state, but it was somewhere on the east coast.

I thought intelligent design in textbooks was bad, but this? This is a whole different order of magnitude of badness. Separation of church and state? Freedom of religion? Will we soon be saying goodbye to these aspects of American life? The mother wants to believe that this is an isolated incident, but I'd guess there are similar stories happening across the US.
For The Birds

First-mover advantage

I've recently heard many others complain about how unfair it is for two states to have such a disproportionate influence over the nomination process. If it were up to me I'd have all of the primaries on the same day. Of course, Iowa and New Hampshire would have a cow over losing their first-mover advantages.

Why is it that the 1% of US voters who live in these two lucky states have such a huge influence on our political process? It's apparently human nature:
You will recognise your predicament in their results. First, when orders were called out publicly, people tended to avoid duplicating the choices of others. Second, that mattered: the people who chose first were significantly happier with their choices than those who felt obliged to choose whatever beer was left over. (This survey was done in the US. When transferred to Hong Kong, people instead tended to emulate the first choice. But, again, those who chose first were happier.)
Just as hearing someone else's beer order at a restaurant affects our decision, hearing who Iowans and New Hampshirites declare "the winner" affects our voting behavior. Some people just like voting for "winners". Others are contrarian and prefer voting against the "established". I have a feeling there are more people in the first category, which is why so much time and effort are spent in the first-mover states. Regardless of which direction the bias skews, that a bias exists at all is a problem that should be addressed.
For The Birds

(no subject)

Watched the Democratic half of the debate tonight, and you know... it wasn't all that helpful. The moderator stated at the beginning that he wanted the debate to be more of a dialogue between candidates rather than a Q&A session between the moderator and each candidate in turn, but in the end I didn't think he was very successful. Rather than highlighting differences between candidates, all we really got were variations on the following exchange:

A: I'm different because, unlike B, I believe that X.
B: That's not true, I believe that X as well.

The mudslinging was a total turn-off. Richardson tried to call the others out on it but ended up joining in later on.

It was interesting to see Richardson try to pass off a carbon cap-and-trade system as being less costly for consumers than a carbon tax... I was glad Obama called him out on it. We need leaders willing to publicly state the reality that reducing carbon output by any method will require some sacrifice. That is the only way to get the public to accept it and move forward constructively.

In the end, I thought Edwards came out of the debate looking the best due to his passionate speech against special interests. It's unclear though what exactly he would do to contain them once he got to the White House. I think I like all of the candidates a little more now than I did before watching the debate, especially Hillary.
For The Birds

Turning the heat down vs. Leaving the heat on

It's apparently a common misconception that leaving the heat on at home while you're out takes less energy than turning it off (or lowering the temp) and then heating it back up later. This idea probably stems from the large amount of energy necessary to bring a cold house up to a comfortable temperature (a high "peak load"), but it ignores the energy being wasted while you're away (a high "average load").

An easier way to determine the total amount of energy being used in either scenario is to consider the rate at which heat leaves your house. The total amount of heat that leaves your house is equivalent to the amount of heat your heater has to produce to maintain a set temperature. So the goal is to minimize heat loss. According to Newton, the rate of heat loss is proportional to the temperature difference between the house and the outside. In other words: the warmer the house, the higher the heat loss. The figure below (linked from this blog post, thanks Patricia!) helps to illustrate how much energy would be saved by turning down the thermostat at night.

For The Birds

Steven Levitt's dad studies the ultimate "anthropogenic" gas

From the article:
The study was the first ever attempt to provide an objective evaluation of the odour of flatus, Levitt explains. Volunteer judges, blinded to the identity of the generating gender, were asked to rank the potency of the end product.

Volunteer producers -- primed by a diet of pinto beans -- farted into aluminum bags via a rectal tube. The contents of the bags were measured for volume and for sulphur concentration. (Sulphur gases give farts their foul odour.) Syringes full of gas were withdrawn from the bags and wafted by the nostrils of the unfortunate judges.

"Some journal reviewed the worst jobs ever performed in science and this became the number 1,'' Levitt says with a chuckle.
For The Birds

I &hearts my car

CNN/ posted a list of the Best Cars of 2007:
  • Best-selling car: Toyota Camry
  • Best-selling vehicle: Ford F-150
  • Most satisfying car: Mercedes-Benz S-class
  • Best-loved car: Toyota Prius
  • Safest car: Ford Taurus
  • Best fuel economy: Toyota Prius
  • Best resale value: Mini Cooper
  • Most reliable: Toyota Prius
  • Most stolen: 1995 Honda Civic
Three out of nine categories isn't bad. I loooooove my car (in a platonic sense, of course).