moldybluecheesecurds 2

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Winter in the midwest: to hat or freeze?

Writing on a topic he's much more capable of than basic economics, the Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman examines the winter hat dilemma: freeze fashionably or be a warm dork?

Al Gore's personal call to action

Before you hear the mainstream media account of Al Gore's energy usage, reported by the conservative Tennessee Center for Policy Research, here's a few thoughts offered by energy blogger Robert Rapier:
  1. As the most prominent environmentalist in the US (and perhaps the world), it's a shame that Gore hasn't done more to reduce his ecological footprint. Even George W. Bush's Texas ranch is more environmentally sound.
  2. Buying carbon offsets to combat global warming is like buying a hybrid SUV to reduce gas usage.
  3. Gore's personal energy use should not detract from his message - global warming is going to be extremely costly and action is necessary now.

To Mr. Gore:
Preventing global warming starts at home - try some energy reduction.

To Matt Drudge and the rest of the conservative chattering class:
How's your energy usage? What have you done to solve global warming (other than accosting one leading activist for his hypocrisy)?

This hypocrisy call is valid, but let's not kill Paul Revere just because he bought some English tea, eh?

Congress: The Suggesting Branch of Government

President Bush recently submitted his fiscal request for Iraq - all emergency spending of course - for nearly $100 billion. Democrats were initially planning to set conditions on the war policy before giving the President his fat check, but have apparently been shamed into de-linking war funding from policy by Republicans, who are waving the bloody shirt again and accusing Democrats of trying to harm the troops in the field.

Aside: for the love of Pete, get a backbone! Is it worse for the troops to limit funds that will require them to be sent home or to keep funding this failed war?

So what's the bold move? The Democrats are going to require that troops are equipped and rested before Bush sends them off to Iran Iraq. Of course, this is already the policy, but it can be waived by the Defense Department. The new policy - the sum total of Democratic war-ending efforts - is that the new policy requires the President to waive the readiness requirement.

Newsflash 1: The Defense Department works for Bush. When they waive the requirement, they do so at his bidding. He is the Commander in Chief.

Newsflash 2: Bush has already taken the blame for Iraq (see Approval Rating and 2006 Elections).

In other words, this is posturing on the level of "you don't support the troops because you want to end a war!" (see Republican Party)

The Democrats need to do two things:
1) Exert Congress' muscles in wartime and tell the President that he can plan a war, but he can't pay for one without approval.
2) Do what they were elected to do - end the war - by putting heavy restrictions on the fiscal authorization such as:
a) no troop readiness certification can be waived, period.
b) no troop surge can be sent without Congressional approval.
c) no war in Iran without Congressional approval (and no money for it, period).
d) no more war funding without some way to pay for it - i.e. taxes
e) no more war funding without a comprehensive plan for caring for injured vets (and paying for such care).

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Katrina, Mad Cow, GMO and "sound science"

It seems the US government likes to use "sound science" as a soundbite more than a decision philosophy.

In a 2005 column, agricultural economist Daryl Ray examined the similarity between US government policy on mad cow disease (BSE) and maintenance of the levees in New Orleans. The pressure on the Japanese to open their beef market to US exports after our positive BSE test mirrors the choice to delay levee repairs. The decisions are based on the "sound science" that the chances of a Hurricane Katrina (or a BSE-infected beef patty) are relatively rare and that the resources spent building 100-year levees or testing every cow are disproportionate.

Critics of this approach tend to favor the "precautionary principle." Under this philosophy, you prepare for the worst. This philosophy is embodied in the motherly advice "better safe than sorry" as well as Franklin's "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." More to the point, the preference of "sound science" versus precaution depends a lot on where you stand.

If you're a New Orleans resident, precaution sounds pretty smart. Same for a Japanese beef consumer, who's apparently willing to pay the premium to test every cow and certify that their beef is disease-free (whereas the US government explicitly opposes full testing). And ditto for European consumers who'd rather not take the risk that genetically modified (GM) food might prove harmful in some unanticipated way.

What really galls me is that the US government clearly is not representing the will of the people, but the will of the some other interest. Levee repair gets delayed so we can fund illegal wars and tax cuts. Government trade negotiators try to push US beef on Japanese consumers on behalf of beef producers, and not beef consumers. And GM crops tend to help crop producers by making food hardier, as well as more resistant to disease and pests; but when was the last time you heard of food being modified to be more healthy, tasty, or nutritious? (there are a couple examples, but not usually funded by corporations...)

Maybe our government needs some more motherly advice.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Government and technology - don't try to pick winners

This excellent post on Slashdot reminded me why letting government pick technology winners is dangerous. GE has just announced a more efficient incandescent light bulb, hoping to reap the benefits of increasing consumer focus on energy efficiency with an accepted technology. The bulb will allegedly approach the efficiency of a compact fluorescent over time.

So, instead of the recent proposals to ban the incandescent light bulb, an energy-conscious governing body could simply ban less efficient bulbs (as measured by lumens produced per watt consumed) or tax bulbs on a per watt basis. This lets the market help filter out the most effective way to meet the energy efficiency goal.

Lesson: let government set the goal and structure the market, not pick the market.

Other examples: renewable fuels mandates instead of ethanol mandates; renewable electricity mandates instead of wind mandates; higher CAFE standards instead of banning Hummers (though I'd be okay with banning those things anyway :-)

Update 2/27/07
: Energista picked up the same story and came to the same conclusion - efficiency standards are better than bulb bans.

Unions: A look at the Employee Free Choice Act

With Democrats at the helm in Congress, labor is back on the table and legislation has been proposed to overhaul the way that unions get organized. The prime focus of the legislation is to simplify the ratification of a union by replacing the organizing drive and secret ballot with simple majority signup - 50% plus one employees approve and you are union. The legislation also asks for stiffer penalties for companies (read Wal-Mart) for interfering with union drives, a nice touch for the 31,000 people who were fired for participating in an organizing drive in 2005.

Some folks, such as Russell Roberts, downplay the importance of unions. He cites dropping unionization rates, few people being paid minimum wage, the ability of people to have employment empowerment by job switching, and the portion of GDP going to wages. Of course, he also thinks that cleaning people make $20/hour, which may be what he pays his Honduran help, but according to actual statistics is at least double the typical maid wage. He also dodges the fact that while wages are a growing part of GDP, the portion of income going to the middle class is shrinking. While Roberts' data is lacking, his conclusion is a nice tangent - let's fix public education!

Harley Shaiken wrote the pro-union column and his essay reflects it. He notes the large number of people fired for trying to unionize a workplace (30,000 a year), the failure of the Wagner Act to protect unions, as well as the slow increase of wages relative to productivity. His argument for eschewing the secret ballot part of the union drive is an interesting take - is a secret ballot meaningful in the coercive anti-union environment of most workplaces? Instead, he says that the simple signup will give union organizers a chance against the tactics of the modern corporation.

Read the 1-page bill summary (provided by the AFL-CIO).

Studies show that...

Pharmaceutical companies are constantly pushing the envelope on drug development and testing, because each new product proven safe and effective means more cash flow. So is it really surprising to anyone that industry-funded, published studies are 55% more likely to provide positive results than non-industry funded ones?

There are two things at work here. First, the pharmaceutical companies are less likely to want to publish unfavorable results. They're scientists with an agenda and that agenda is selling more product. Publishing studies that showed deleterious side effects or no therapeutic effect at all aren't worth the time to put the study to print.

Second, pharmaceutical-funded studies are also half as likely to use a control group to test their drugs. This is a major science no-no. A control group is necessary to ensure that your intervention - drug or otherwise - is not simply inducing the placebo effect. This still-not-understood effect often shows healing results in people who merely think they are receiving therapy, even if they just ingest sugar pills. Two-thirds of the drug companies' studies eschew the control group - and any change of ruling out the placebo effect.

What does this mean? Next time you see a commercial for Havidol touting how "studies show miraculous effects," just remember who paid the scientist.

Note: I also recall a fascinating tidbit about statistical significance in scientific studies. There are a disproportionate number of studies published with findings that are just over the threshold of statistical significance (here's a link to an analysis of political science studies). The study of peer-reviewed journals revealed a slight bias in scientific publications toward publishing findings that could "prove" something, although a little bit of mathematical tinkering is often the only barrier between "just significant" and "insignificant." This may be why 54% of all pharmaceutical studies found positive results instead of just half.

The four types of leadership after Iraq

The brouhaha over the Iraq War goes on, flowing naturally into the 2008 Presidential campaign (the one that started shortly after the 2006 elections). Columnist Debra Saunders is scathing in her assessment of the Democratic field because so many of the candidates voted for the Iraq War resolution but are now touting their opposition to the troop surge and the war itself. To her, this displays the best of the infamous "I was for it and then I was against it."

Leadership isn't so black and white. At the top you have Visionaries like Dennis Kucinich or Barack Obama. Kucinich opposed the war from the get-go and has this to say of his vote against the Iraq War resolution:
"You know, it must be really tough for candidates for president to come before the American people and to complain that they were tricked, deceived and misled by George Bush.

"Well," he deadpanned, "here's one person who wasn't."

Then there's the folks who voted for the war, but have withdrawn their support. I call these leaders Owners, because they take responsibility. John Edwards starts his Iraq War mea culpa with "I was wrong." He, among others, has the leadership skills to admit error and correct it.

Below them we have the Correctors. These folks can at least admit mistakes, though they're loathe to claim full responsibility. Hillary Clinton, for example, has been "misled by "false" intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction presented by the Bush administration." As Dennis Kucinich pointed out, being fed moose ka ka didn't prevent him from voting the right way.

And at the bottom of our scale are the Idealogues, the marble statues of the intellect that continue pointing boldly in the same direction regardless of the changing landscape. President Bush and Vice President Cheney proudly stand on their Iraq record and now point the military finger at Iran, as though starting another military fiasco will repair the errors of the first. These stone edifices are pretty, inspiring, and completely nude.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Why coal is as dirty as ever

If you listen to public radio, you've probably heard one of the "clean coal" interludes. There's a bunch of hooey about domestic energy and then a lovely line about "increasingly clean" coal. Well, my good friend Chris over at Energista had something to say about "clean" coal.

No amount of technological improvement on the consumption end - scrubbers or electrostatic particulate removers - will improve the mining process. Terms like "sludge dam," "hilltop removal," and "black lung" come up frequently in a discussion of coal mining, an "ongoing dirty" technology.

Even the promised technologies to make coal "increasingly clean" on the back-end haven't really reached fruition. The biggest liability of coal in a global warming world is that it's the most carbon-intensive method of producing energy and technologies such as carbon capture sequestration - where we theoretically bottle up the CO2 and inject it underground - aren't even commercialized.

The Energista analysis also points to a discussion of local justice in energy production, as wind projects are springing up in the same Appalachians that the coal mining has ravaged. While wind promises to have a significantly smaller impact on the environment, practically and aesthetically, the wind farms are all developments of energy companies from outside the area. The locals, screwed over so long by the coal mining, are naturally suspicious of someone else taking advantage of their local resource at their expense.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bush Budget: Less Health Care, More Wal-Mart

In keeping with tradition, President Bush's submitted budget proposes extensions of all his tax cuts, including a repeal of the estate tax (costly war, what?). Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone excoriates the Bush plan, noting that the cuts to Medicaid - health care for the poor - are about the same as the bottom line boost to the Walton family, the Wal-Mart heirs.

That's right. Bush's budget would reduce funding to Medicare by $28 billion and guarantee a tax break worth $32 billion to the Waltons. Now that's what I call democracy!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Forget batteries, just use a freezer

One of the ongoing liabilities of wind power is its intermittency. When the wind doesn't blow, you don't have electricity. Battery storage systems are still much to expensive or inefficient to store electricity during the sometimes long periods when the wind doesn't blow. But the Netherlands may have come up with a solution - using refrigerated warehouses to store energy.

These massive buildings often store food and other perishable products and are already dotting the landscape of industrialized society. By having the warehouses drop the temperature by a single degree Celsius in the evening (when the wind blows but grid demand is low) and letting the temperature rise one degree Celsius in the daytime, the warehouses essentially act like large batteries, storing the energy from onsite wind turbines and reducing demand during peak daytime periods.

While initially cool to the idea, rumor has it that the warehouses are warming to it.

Helpdesk, circa 1200 AD

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Senator Franken from Minnesota?

Comedian Al Franken announced his intention to challenge Norm Coleman (R) for his U.S. Senate seat in 2008. I've been a skeptic ever since rumors emerged that he was considering it, but his announcement statement was pretty darn good. I'll be interested to hear how he proposes to pursue many of these "bread and butter" Democratic issues as a senator.

Microsoft's excellent software support

I've never bothered to contact Microsoft about a software problem before, figuring that I would a) have to pay and b) be able to find a solution on the web somewhere. Well, it turns out neither were true when Microsoft Graph (the chart plugin for MS Word for Mac) recently went haywire on me.

Since I use this program daily at work, finding a solution was essential and I finally went looking for real help. It turns out that for each piece of MS software you own, you can receive two free technical assists. Fortunately, no previous user of the program had used any of them, so when I emailed for help last Friday, I was told to expect a response within one business day. Not bad at all!

It got better. Jack, the MS tech, responded with a solution on Saturday and even wrote back Sunday to ensure I had received his first email. By Monday when I came to work, I had the three emails from MS, including my solution - which worked perfectly.

That's exceeding expectations.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Star Wars: A New, Very Short, Hope

If you need that quick taste of nostalgia, try the 5-second Star Wars fix:

Seen on Slashdot: Sliced Bread

"There can be no question that sliced bread is the greatest invention of all time: it is the yardstick by which all inventions have since been measured."

Credit to

Monday, February 12, 2007

Trade does not solve hunger

Despite the economic theory that would encourage a country to pursue the manufacture of things for which it has a competitive or comparative advantage, some very preliminary analysis suggests that fighting hunger and malnutrition starts at home. Countries that develop stronger domestic agriculture are more likely to confront malnutrition effectively.

If you want to help countries pursue self-sufficiency, one person at a time, think of Heifer International. Nothing like giving a goat for Christmas!

Relationships, Chias, and Puzzles: Why I married a puzzler

Lately I've been thinking more about the meaning of friendship. I'm always fascinated with the process of making friends and the sometimes randomness in which friends remain close and which do not as time goes by. I'm also intellectually and emotionally intrigued by the depth of relationships. What makes a friendship deeper than others? What makes a friendship more lasting?

Such was the origin of my chia / puzzle piece theory of human relations. I'm an imagery guy, so I'd never make it as a social scientist or philosopher, since I have no ability to discuss cognition or ego or any of that. But I do have a gift for finding metaphors (or similies) for things.

I think that people are like puzzle pieces. Their personality is of a shape and size similar to that of other people, but uniquely crafted with slots and tabs that make other people particularly suited to connect or fit uncomfortably. Prejudices about race, or intellect, or even food all determine the shape of a person's personality puzzle piece.

However, due to social expectations and pressures, we often grow a chia-like fuzz around our puzzle piece. It helps to mask the unique features of our personalities (like prejudices and preferences) that we don't want people to judge us on. It also ends up masking some of the ideas and thoughts that make us unique, often burying core beliefs under a green carpet of sameness.

This chia fuzz is to some extent a social lubricant. It masks differences and lets people relate without having to acknowledge the underlying differences, the way person A's puzzle slot would not accept person B's tab. It helps us get along.

The chia fuzz is also an inhibitor. It's the use of humor to deflect a serious question or a conversational tangent to avoid an unwelcome query. It masks the unique features of a person's personality - who they are - in order to make them more agreeable to others.

Since I'm fairly heavy on chia fuzz, I have a particularly strong admiration for people who can shed that fuzz and invite other to do the same. That's why I married someone who can. These people, I feel, are willing to share something of themselves at risk of being judged. They offer to deepen a relationship by showing a bit of their puzzle piece and asking if it fits. These fuzz trimmers ask the same in return: to see beneath the masking chia and to understand the individual. These puzzlers have a gift for challenging people to have a relationship that's deeper than pop culture or even shared experience, to create a relationship based on the acknowledging and embracing differences.

In addition to exploring the underlying pieces of people, puzzlers are also willing to challenge people to live up to their beliefs, their standing. A chia is inclined to gloss over or simply ignore thoughts or comments or actions that seem uncomfortable. Not a puzzler.

When it comes to developing deep and lasting relationships with people, I think everyone needs a puzzler in their life; someone to question and challenge and really explore the innermost parts of who you are.

The difference in relationships is stark. This quote illustrates the chia:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

This quote exemplifies the puzzler:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Friday, February 09, 2007

+-/*: The Math Behind Beer Goggles

I love when scientists and mathematicians put their prodigious skills to work answering life's questions. I mean, the real important questions such as, can the beer goggle effect be quantified?

Yes. Yes, it can.

How accurate is that forecast?

A longstanding question finally answered by the Omninerd! Tracking 10 online weather sources for two months, the Omninerd tells you which weather service is most likely to get your forecast right. Tables 6 and 7 are probably the most useful.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Me: And the Quest for Mo Money

In a rare move, here's a post about me. I started a great job four months ago and agreed to a salary that I felt was a bit below my standard. However, the job seemed like exactly what I'd been looking for, so I thought - what have I got to lose? It has turned out to be just what I was looking for and as my thoughts turned to staying there long term, so did my thoughts about salary.

I've never asked for a raise before, but I thought it was worth a shot. Conversation with a coworker suggested that writing my thoughts down was good, and a memo might be just the thing. So I did it. I sent the memo last week and The Boss agreed! Voila, 10% raise!

Anyway, I'm no expert on bosses or raises or anything, but I thought I'd share my salary request memo (which was, as all good memos are, 1 page long) in case anyone is looking for inspiration for how to put down their thoughts on increasing their take home pay.

To: The Boss
From: jff

Re: Salary Request

Dear Boss,

Now that my probationary period is over, I was thinking about my career at [workplace] over the long haul. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to be working here – it’s a joy to look forward to work and to feel that my work complements my personal passions. Feeling comfortable here has also led me to evaluate how working at [workplace] fits in to the rest of my life, which is why I’ve been thinking more about my salary. I feel that I am worth more than we initially agreed upon and that my work, both completed and forthcoming, will continue to be of high value to [workplace].

Why Now?
Because of my characteristic reserve in asking for things for my own gain, I wouldn’t normally be addressing salary four months into a new job. But I feel that the level of work I’ve provided, the potential substantial increase in our funding, and the prospective hiring of two new employees make it more reasonable to evaluate right now.

Why Am I Worth It?
You knew from [professional reference], my work history, and my writing samples that I would be an asset to [workplace]. However, I feel that some of the skills I’ve demonstrated since arriving here were not ones that could be conveyed via my resume or interview. [List of several skills that have added value to workplace].

The Bottom Line
In the context of [workplace] as a small nonprofit, I’m not interested in pay equity with other places I’ve interviewed, whether [firm A] or [firm B]. But I feel that my work may be more valuable than my original starting salary suggests, and that I am worth [$new salary] a year. I’d love to discuss this with you when you’ve returned.

Thanks for your consideration,

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Why "think of the children" means thinking about food

TriplePundit has a guest blogger who offers up a (very) long treatise on the implications of diet on academic performance and health.

Conclusions? Watch out for processed foods and food additives. Corn gets put into almost everything - thanks to government subsidized production - and the prevalence of corn syrup and corn oil in just about everything means that we're nutritionally out of whack. It means a greater chance of various diseases and ailments as well as poorer school performance.

But does it produce 1.21 gigawatts?

Scientists at Purdue have developed a mobile electricity generator that can run on biomass and garbage. Thanks to generous funding from the U.S. military, this portable generator is also "tactical." Using a digester and a gasifier, the system creates a crude biofuel that can power a diesel generator. Mr. Fusion is here!

If my blog was illustrated

Then I think I'd have cartoon like xkcd draws. I've not looked through the whole archive, but my two favorites are The Problem with Wikipedia and Nintendo Surgeon.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A game simulation is lame, unless...

News folks have become obsessed with filling the news hole in the week prior to a major sporting event. In the digital age, this has led to the predictable simulation of the forthcoming match in the related EA sports program. For the Superbowl, Madden 2007 provides the reporter with too little real news to report a chance to create some.

The Chicago Tribune was the guilty party this time, sharing the results of their one simulation (which would never show up as statistically significant in any mathematician's book). However, while alienating most intelligent readers with this inane exercise, the reporter did have a nice tagline on how the Bears could "overcome" the video game's result:
Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A