moldybluecheesecurds 2

Friday, August 31, 2007

"All Rights Reserved" has its limits

Watch a pro football game in the past few years? Recall the phrase "Any rebroadcast, retransmission or other use of this telecast without the written consent of the National Football League is prohibited."

In the world of copyright, digital technology has enabled information sharing - and piracy - on a new level. But the reaction of many rights holders in this environment has been to overstep their legal rights and assert total control over their content. Not only does the NFL assert total authority over their broadcast, they even asked a university professor to take down a YouTube video of the copyright notice.

The truth is, the Fair Use clause of the copyright act provides several venues for rebroadcast or other use of copy-protected content. From the Wikipedia article:
The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.
Some companies, Microsoft and Google among them, are banding together to help defend Fair Use, arguing that legal overreaching on copyright is harmful to innovation. Check out their website, Defend Fair Use, here to see some examples of copyright abuse.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Yogurt pants

Main Entry: yogurt pants
Pronunciation: \ˈyō-gərt\ \ˈpants\
Function: adjective
Etymology: descriptive phase resulting from part one landing on part two
Date: post-foil-lid-yogurt-container, United States
1: the state of one's pants after attempting to open a foil-covered, plastic single-serving yogurt container.
2: leg wear made of "a fermented slightly acid often flavored semisolid food made of milk and milk solids to which cultures of two bacteria (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus) have been added."

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Daily etymology, 1st Edition

From the blog How to Make it In Life:
And so here's the origin of "turd burglar": Back when the early white settlers headed west to settle the American frontier, they needed fuel for their nightly camp fires. Dried buffalo dung was plentiful and burned quite easily. But as the buffalo was hunted to near-extinction, their poop understandably became more and more scarce. Buffalo dung became a rare and highly sought after commodity. And in the Wild West, this meant the outlaw element soon got involved. Bandits would hold up stage coaches for the sole purpose of robbing innocent folk of their buffalo chips. Frontiersman would curse these purloiners of poo, these dung desperados, these... "turd burglars". And thus the term was coined. But wait, you say, robbery is not the same as burglary, is it? Shouldn't it be "turd robbers"? Indeed, you may be right. But in the Wild West, no one cared for such semantics. So don't be an a-hole about it.
Unfortunately, I was unable to verify this for myself. But it's funny, so you got to read it.

Natural oils repel bugs?

From one of my green technology RSS feeds, a biotech company finds a low toxicity way to kill insects, by discovering natural oils that disrupt the bugs' chemical receptors.
G-coupled proteins, which are often targets for pharmaceutical developments, pick up chemical signals from outside a cell and relay them to the inside. The disruption of receptors can repel or kill insects.
Yeah, I don't know what half of that means either, but this part makes sense:
The company's first product, TyraTech All Natural Crawling Insect Killer, will be made with active ingredients on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's exempt list...Because the ingredients are natural oils, that means the products are safe to drink.
Tell that to your can of RAID.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Thursday, August 23, 2007

President Bush: codifying environmental degradation since 2001

Coal mining has been in the news with the trapping of six miners in a collapsed Utah mine and the subsequent death of three rescuers in a second collapse. The federal government has joined the fray, with an announcement that new rules will expressly allow the longtime practice of mountaintop removal for coal mining. The tradeoff is that this method of mining is substantially safer than underground mines, but significantly more destructive to the environment.
The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams...Mountaintop mining is the most common strip mining in central Appalachia, and the most destructive. Ridge tops are flattened with bulldozers and dynamite, clearing all vegetation and, at times, forcing residents to move.

...From 1985 to 2001, 724 miles of streams were buried under mining waste, according to the environmental impact statement accompanying the new rule. If current practices continue, another 724 river miles will be buried by 2018, the [Army Corps of Engineers] report says.
As always with this administration, however, the stink of corruption lies heavy about the decision.
The early stages of the revision process were supported by J. Stephen Griles, a former industry lobbyist who was the deputy interior secretary from 2001 to 2004...The regulation is the culmination of six and a half years of work by the administration to make it easier for mining companies to dig more coal to meet growing energy demands and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Gee, the industry writes its own rules. That's new.

And then there's the bogus note about oil dependence. Coal is for electricity, oil is for cars. But thanks to the excellent journalism at the New York Times, that lie talking point on energy independence will reach thousands of readers. Bravo.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Replacing an iPod battery

Summary: need to replace your 3G iPod battery? Get a guitar pick and then check out the video.

I was a relatively early adopter of the iPod, jumping in shortly after the release of the 3rd generation and reveling in my pack-of-cards size music library. However, as all good portable electronics are wont to do, this 3G iPod's battery finally bit it.

Since I read Slashdot, have built my own computers, and perform tech support on the PCs of friends and family, I felt I qualified to try one of the iPod battery replacement schemes that involved opening the not-designed-to-be-opened iPod. I mean, I'm smarter than the tools, right?

I chose to go with the thrifty, where my grand total was something like $18 for the iPod battery, instructions, and two mysterious looking plastic wands. After an hour of hacking at the iPod per the enclosed instructions (and the futile effort of my coworker), resulting in the steady filing down of the useless plastic wands, I decided to hit the interweb for more information.

Two great resources lit up my life:

  1. Videos of iPod battery replacements, for every generation of iPod

  2. A tutorial, with step-by-step images, especially for the 3G iPod.

The best bit of knowledge? Screw the enclosed wands. Get yourself a 25-cent guitar pick. My local guitar store had a bin of them and I chose two medium thickness picks.

  • Time spent hacking iPod with "proper tools": 1 hour.

  • Time spent opening iPod with guitar pick: less than 1 minute.

Photo summary:

The battery swap was simple, but involves some delicate manuvering of the iPod's innards (watch the video). My 3G is currently running down the new battery in preparation for a full charge later tonight. Snap!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Antibacterial soap beats regular soap at marketing, little else

The pervasiveness of "antibacterial" in the health and beauty section has been lamented for years by medical professionals who insist that more prophylactic antibiotic use only leads to more resistant bacteria. However, millions of Americans eschewed this common sense, buying the "safer" soaps by the handfuls. The University of Michigan decided to formally investigate antibacterial soaps, and found that they're not only clever marketing, they're useless:
"What we are saying is that these e-coli could survive in the concentrations that we use in our (consumer formulated) antibacterial soaps," Aiello said. "What it means for consumers is that we need to be aware of what's in the products. The soaps containing [antibiotic] triclosan used in the community setting are no more effective than plain soap at preventing infectious illness symptoms, as well as reducing bacteria on the hands."
What antibacterial soaps are good for, however, is helping bacteria mutate into more resistant forms.
E-coli bacteria bugs adapted in lab experiments showed resistance when exposed to as much as 0.1 percent wt/vol triclosan soap.
So show a little marketing resistance and buy regular soap. Clean hands, weak bugs.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why Windows is Free (and what it means for Linux)

Be honest. When's the last time you paid for computer software? For your operating system? Dave Gutteridge thinks the pervasiveness of piracy is keeping free software like Linux from breaking into Microsoft's market share.

His thesis is basically this:
  • Windows costs around $200.
  • Ubuntu Linux is free as in beer.
  • The features of the two systems are nearly equivalent.
So why isn't Linux gaining market share? Because most people don't pay for software in Windows, making the switch seem much less convenient than saving $200.

So here's your chance interact with Moldy! Answer the poll to your right about your computer operating system. Did you pay for it? Really?

This f***ing union works for you,

Mr. Citizen

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How to make screwing your kids into social justice

A lesson from the Cato Institute, in their argument against oil conservation (and gas taxes):
[Does] intergenerational equity demand conservation? We think not. The strongest normative argument against conservation is that it transfers resources from the relatively poor to the relatively rich. That’s because today’s generation is almost certainly much poorer than future generations will be. For instance, if per capita income grows at 2 percent a year, people 100 years from now will be approximately 7 times wealthier than we are today. Those concerned about intergenerational equity should worry more about standards of living today than about standards of living tomorrow.
You hear that? There's no need to conserve, because everyone will get richer. On the other hand:
  1. You forgot inflation, which also runs around 2% a year. So future generations might be 1 times wealthier than us.
  2. Will my children feel richer when they pay $5/gallon at the pump for unconventionally-derived gas? You suggest that the market will take care of supply as the price rises (by tapping unconventional sources like oil shale that are not economical today). Great, but more of my child's disposable income will go for transportation/food/etc as it becomes more expensive.
I think I'll conserve.

Changing fonts on the federal freeways

Here's a great essay on the quest of two men to create a more legible road sign by finding the perfect font. The result? A new typeface called Clearview that can be read from 30% greater distance that the existing federal highway sign font, stodgily named "Series E-Modified." The font also reduces "halation," the glowing effect that renders reflective signs less legible when hit with your high beams.

Learn more about Clearview here, or test it out below (image copied from here):

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

American business: providing superior service to totalitarians internationally

Nothing like a little U.S. private sector ingenuity to help the Chinese government keep an eye on their peons:
China is building the largest and most sophisticated people-tracking network in the world, all to track citizens in the city of Shenzhen. This network utilizes 20,000 intelligent digital cameras and RFID cards to keep track of the 12.4 million people living in the Southern port city. The key to the system is the new residency cards fitted with powerful computer chips. 'Data on the chip will include not just the citizen's name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord's phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included...
Who cares about human rights and democracy. We're doing great business!

Monday, August 13, 2007

The buck stops passes through here

When disaster strikes, as it did the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, a lot of politicians are quite to eschew responsibility. Former state finance commissioner John Gunyou has an excellent illustration of the Take Responsibility Two-Step, performed by Governor Tim Pawlenty, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, and President George W. Bush.
Where's Harry Truman when you need him? Today's leaders seem to have a sign that reads, "The buck passes through here." The non-apology has become the refuge of those who'd rather act resolute after the fact, than actually demonstrate forward-thinking leadership.

Cheney: Marching to Baghdad is a lousy idea

Mainstream media, why do I only see this stuff on Youtube?
"Once you took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place?"
Good question.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The conservative vine withers

The Economist has a fairly brief, but substantive look at the declining support for the Republican Party in the United States. From a botched war to nepotism and corruption, there's a reason 40% of Republicans think Democrats will win the presidency next year.

There's one particular graphic that's worth a closer look. The following chart (center) tracks support for "peace through strength" among Americans. Note the dips in the "agree" line? Right after we got involved in wars. Militarism sounds great until the bodies come home.

The welfare queens...

...don't live in the ghetto. They live on Wall Street.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Civil unions don't sound, or look, like marriage decides that the endless supply of civil union supporters should answer to the facts. Are civil unions really just like marriage without the name? Not so much.

What a marriage gets you that a civil union doesn't:
  1. Federal recognition. Want to file taxes jointly? Use a partner's health insurance? Designate your Social Security suvivor's benefits to your life partner? Sorry. Try Canada (rumor has it the health insurance is better anyway).
  2. Portability. Want to move and stay married? Better pick a state that supports civil unions, or you may get a de facto divorce with that UHaul.
  3. Equality. Given the perspective of many that marriage is more than a collection of rights and responsibilities, telling gays they can't do it is a lot like "White" and "Colored" drinking fountains.
So next time a civil union sounds like a good compromise, think Plessy v. Ferguson.

Iraq Timeline: How do you define "six months"

Since the war started in 2003, it's been predicted to be decided in "about six months" just about every six months - for four years. The Center for American Progress has a timeline of the major repeat offenders in the "six months club," including columnist Thomas Friedman. In fact, Friedman has used the phrase so often (14 times since the war began) that a popular blogger coined the term "Friedman unit" to describe a period of about six months.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Marketing American food

There's nothing like a good caustic look at what Americans eat, and this essay is no exception:

Remember how it used to be so difficult to transport yogurt? When yogurt only came in 50-pound reinforced steel containers that had to be moved using federally regulated yogurt transportation vehicles? Well, they've fixed that. Now you can get yogurt in an easy-to-transport package with a dumb pun for a name: Go-Gurt!
The article also delves into the inanity of the "100 Calorie Snack Pack," and other new ways to market old food:

This is because extensive scientific evidence shows that round numbers lead to weight loss. Eating an entire box of Cheese Nips is unquestionably unhealthy, unless it's really easy to do math afterward. This is why people in countries that use the metric system -- which is to say pretty much any country except the United States -- are much slimmer.
I was particularly entertained by this article's cynical assessment of food marketing given these recent findings: food - any food - wrapped in a McDonald's wrapper tastes better to kids.

The study had youngsters [ages 3-5] sample identical McDonald's foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test...

Even [store bought] carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids when they were wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Eat local, save the environment?

This article looks at the term "food miles," how far your food has traveled from farm to plate. In an era where environmental impact and carbon emissions are important components of the price of food, distance matters:
On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer. In Iowa, the typical carrot has traveled 1,600 miles from California, a potato 1,200 miles from Idaho and a chuck roast 600 miles from Colorado. Seventy-five percent of the apples sold in New York City come from the West Coast or overseas, the writer Bill McKibben says, even though the state produces far more apples than city residents consume. (emphasis mine)
And yet, as it turns out, focusing on shipping distance alone obscures the overall environmental impact of a given meal:
Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call “factor inputs and externalities” — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit. (emphasis mine)

Buying local does have other advantages. Shopping at an independent retailer keeps 45 cents of every dollar spent in the community, versus 14 cents for shopping at a chain or franchise store. There's probably a similar payback on local food. But if you're out to minimize environmental impact, it's probably better to grow food where it grows best, and to pay a fair price for shipping (e.g. such as a carbon tax on fossil fuel used in shipping).

Monday, August 06, 2007

The cause of the 35W bridge collapse

Unless you live under a rock, or Amish-style, you heard about the Interstate 35W collapse (video) in Minneapolis, MN last week. I was out of town, so I missed a chance to speculate about causes, mortality, and the fickle nature of politics. Others, however, have covered that ground.

Wonkette has an excellent overview of how we fund transportation in America, and why this kind of bridge collapse shouldn't be entirely unexpected. She also notes that it's silly to blame the current administration in Minnesota - despite its penny pinching - since rebuilding bridges can take over 20 years.

There's also a good op-ed on shortchanging infrastructure investments, a follow-up to a 2005 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers giving the country a "D" on its infrastructure report card.

The state's Republican governor has already expressed a willingness to override his "no new taxes" pledge to support a gas tax to increase road and bridge maintenance funding, and will likely call a special session of the Legislature. Too bad it took a disaster of "historic" proportions (5 dead, but $250 million and 18 months to replace the bridge) to get him to move.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hydrogen vehicles - fair and balanced

The original post linked to a fairly biased article (reflecting to some extent my own skepticism) and we've seen the reply from Curly. So what's the real scoop on hydrogen for automobiles?

How it works
Hydrogen would most likely supply a fuel cell, basically generating electricity to power a vehicle. A fuel cell is like a battery that carries a recharging source (hydrogen, in this case), so it's range can potentially be greater than simply a battery powered car.

The efficiency problem
The primary means of getting hydrogen - which does not occur naturally - is to use electrolysis to separate water into H and O2 (many proponents believe nuclear power will supply the electricity). This process is only about 30% efficient, so 70% of the electricity used is lost in the process. If that electricity instead went right into a battery for an electric-driven car, we don't lose that energy. Zfacts has a nice illustration of this:
Here are two ways to drive on wind power.
1. Wind => electricity => Battery => motor turns wheels
2. Wind => electricity => hydrogen => Fuel Cell => motor turns wheels
Hydrogen just adds an extra step. And if you've seen Who Killed the Electric Car, you know that we can already produce an electric vehicle to serve most American drivers.

The supply problem
As noted, hydrogen doesn't naturally occur in a harvestable form (unlike oil - our primary vehicle fuel). Hydrogen must be extracted electrically (from water) or chemically (from natural gas). The latter means pointless dependence on fossil fuels, so let's focus on the electrical derivation. A lot of people note that we can eventually electrolize water to get hydrogen using renewably-generated electricity. But less than 10% of U.S. power generation capacity is currently renewable (and only a quarter of that is non-hydro). That's not counting the additional electricity we'll need to generate to make hydrogen.

On the other hand, an electric car can be powered off the existing grid. In fact, some studies have shown that it would be possible to convert almost every American car to electric without having to substantially expand electric generating capacity by simply charging cars during off-peak hours (at night). From Celsias:
A new study for the Department of Energy finds that “off-peak” electricity production and transmission capacity could fuel 84 percent of the country’s 220 million vehicles if they were plug-in hybrid electrics.
To be fair, a plug-in hybrid still has a backup combustion engine. But the gasoline reductions are still dramatic:
According to EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute), half the cars on U.S. roads are driven 25 miles a day or less. Consequently, a plug-in hybrid with a 25-mile all electric range could eliminate gasoline use in the daily commute of tens of millions of Americans.
The Size/Weight Problem
From Zfacts again, the problem with hydrogen fuel cells compared to conventional batteries:
The advantages of fuel cells might be that they hydrogen tank and fuel cell combination needed to drive 300 miles could be smaller cheaper and lighter than a battery pack needed to drive 300 miles. Right now, it's the other way around. (emphasis mine)
And every pound needed to move the car uses more energy.

The Infrastructure Problem
As Curly noted, hydrogen filling stations are the chicken/egg problem. Do you build thousands of stations first and then wait for cars to show? Or do you get a critical mass of cars? Such investments aren't cheap in any case. This study estimated it would cost between $100 and $500 billion to create the fueling infrastructure.

Contrast that with electricity, which is already present at every existing filling station in the country.

There are two major reasons why I'm a hydrogen opponent:
1) It takes resources away from readily available solutions to consumption of foreign oil and carbon emissions. Plug-in electric and then all-electric vehicles can be powered off existing electric capacity and the technology is already commercial.
2) It's outrageously expensive/wasteful. Even if we only need to convert 8-10% of filling stations to hydrogen to get critical mass, it would eventually require that we convert all stations. That's a big waste when we already have electricity everywhere. We also lose energy converting water to hydrogen with electricity, when we could use the electricity directly.

A former Vice President condemns the current mire

In response to the Washington Post's series on the vice presidency of Dick Cheney, former Vice President Walter Mondale has written about the dishonor and secrecy in the current administration. Mr Mondale writes from his perspective as the first Vice President with real executive authority, but one who was much more the presidential aide and confidant than decider.
This all changed in 2001, and especially after Sept. 11, when Cheney set out to create a largely independent power center in the office of the vice president. His was an unprecedented attempt not only to shape administration policy but, alarmingly, to limit the policy options sent to the president.
Mondale is even less a fan of Cheney's treatment of Congress.
The corollary to Cheney's zealous embrace of secrecy is his near total aversion to the notion of accountability. I've never seen a former member of the House of Representatives demonstrate such contempt for Congress -- even when it was controlled by his own party. His insistence on invoking executive privilege to block virtually every congressional request for information has been stupefying -- it's almost as if he denies the legitimacy of an equal branch of government.
A lot can be said of this administration, but respect for separation of powers is not one of them.