Wednesday, December 30, 2009

the briefs bomber

My favorite quote so far about the man that tried to blow up a plane with explosive underwear is from Monday Evening:
What could go wrong? Well, if the device functions as designed, you could kill a bunch of innocent people and yourself, and then go straight to hell. If it doesn’t function at all, you’ll go to prison for a long time. If it partially functions, you’ll set fire to your crotch, the other passengers will beat you down, and then you’ll go to prison for a long time
I'm going to call him the "briefs bomber". The other options are "the underwear bomber" which doesn't alliterate and "that 'tard who tried to blow up a plane with his underwear" which is too long.

I'm sure it was uncomfortable having his genitals on fire, but where I really sympathize with him is in having to wear the ashen underwear until they got him to the hospital. Maybe that's just because I've never had my genitals on fire so I don't know how uncomfortable it is --at least I can't recall that ever happening-- but I have had to wear ashen underwear and believe me, that is no fun at all.

We may all think we can joke about this because no one was killed and no one was even injured except for the murderous 'tard who burned his own pecker off, but I'm concerned about a very serious side effect. Because of the Shoe Bomber, the 'tards in airline security force all airline passengers to take off their shoes and pass them through the scanner separately. Are we now going to have to do that with our underwear?

You might thinks this is silly, but taking off shoes is just as silly. It would be easy to form explosives so that they did not show up in a scan. In fact, I doubt that it would require much special effort at all. The reason we have to take off our shoes is because the people making decisions about these sorts of things are not trying to solve the problem of keeping people from being killed. They are trying to solve another problem which they consider much more important: protect their jobs.

These bureaucrats fear that if another shoe bomber tried and succeeded in bringing down a plane and they did not have this policy, then their jobs might be in danger. They are afraid that the media, which would obviously be looking for a villain other than the bomber himself, would latch onto the fact that the shoes were not scanned and blame whoever made that policy. A media blitz like that can overwhelm all reason in politicians, sending them screaming in a panic to punish someone else before their voters punish them. And if the scanning would have made no difference at all, well, no amount of protests like that are going to get through a full-scale media Storm of Righteousness.

But really, how serious a threat is that? No one gets fired for security lapses in the US government. Good grief, no one was even fired for 9/11 --a grotesque security failure which resulted in the deaths of 3,000 people. In fact, I recall that one of the screwups in the FBI was actually promoted shortly afterward. These media storms never happen to US civil servants any more, only to Republicans and pro-life Democrats. I speculate that this is because reporters have come to see the US bureaucracy as an ally in the war against Republicans.

Oops. I guess I got a little off-topic there. So back to the briefs bomber. Let's see, I need some more comments about a dumbass who sets flames to his underwear...

I'm hopping the dumbass is now qualified for the Darwin award, which only requires you to take yourself out of the gene pool, not die. Making yourself sterile would qualify.

I hear when the dumbass is at a barbeque he likes to grill his own weaner.

Maybe instead of the briefs bomber we should call him the Oscar Meyer bomber.

I hear that he had a syringe of igniter in one pocket and a squirt bottle of mustard in the other. (sorry, but you should have quit reading after the barbeque line).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

the color purple

Well, I haven't reverted all of the colors back to the exotic yet subtle purple/gold/turquoise scheme, but at least the post titles are in purple. I just want you all to feel at home.


Well, my old comment system is going away so I'm having to make some changes. The easiest way to enable Google comments was to install a supported template. That's why my beautiful color scheme is gone.

I'm going to try to import the old comments into Google, but frankly I don't have much hope for success so they are probably history.

Meanwhile I decided to look for my old Doc Rampage picture and it reminded me once again of what morons they have at Microsoft. I've been using Microsoft Windows for fifteen years. In that time, I've probably done thousands of file searches. Now with the new and "improved" Windows Vista, I can't figure out how search for ".jpg" files within a specific directory. What kind of mega-twit changes the most basic functionality of a user interface like that?

I really don't have any need for Microsoft and I think I'm going to try going back to Linux again. I was happy on Linux for several years but I was sucked back into the Evil Empire when I bought a laptop. Linux support for laptops was always a bit spotty and I didn't want to mess with it, but that was several years ago and I think it's time to give it another try.

Monday, December 07, 2009


An ornithopter is a flying machine that works by flapping wings like a bird. Did you know there have been some man-sized ones that have actually flown?

Here is a fun web site devoted to the subject (it's the same place you get to by clicking on the image).

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Bono and the Scottsman

I don't know if this is a true story, but it's funny enough to repeat anyway:
Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, is famous throughout the entertainment industry for being more than just a little self-righteous.

At a recent U2 concert in Glasgow, Scotland, he asked the audience for total quiet. Then, in the silence, he started to slowly clap his hands,once every few seconds.

Holding the audience in total silence, he said into the microphone, "Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies."

A voice with a broad Scottish accent from the front of the crowd pierced the quiet...

"Well, foockin stop doin it then, ya evil bastard!"

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

high-tech, high-speed hypocrisy

The picture is a picture of Earthrace, the current record holder for traveling around the world in a power boat. They have one of those horrible, buggy, slow-loading, active-content websites designed by someone with more enthusiasm than taste or talent, so getting the following information was painful (in fact I ended up getting most of the information elsewhere).

Before I talk about the part where he killed somebody with his hobby, let's talk about the environmentalist hypocrisy. This guy is trying to sound like Earthrace is some sort of Green Machine. He brags about three things in this regard: biodiesel fuel, a solar panel, and non-toxic bottom paint. To take them in order:

1. Biodiesel is just diesel made from plants. There is no technological innovation needed to use it. You put it your standard diesel engine and go (for some kinds of biodiesel you may have to prewarm it). Using biodiesel in an enormous high-polluting engine is just tokenism. And to add insult injury Earthrace doesn't use pure biodiesel, it adds a product of animal fat. That sort of fuel isn't even sustainable because you could not possibly build a fuel infrastructure based on animal fat.

And don't forget: this guy created a 1,000-horsepower boat with no purpose other than to go really, really fast --an enormously wasteful, expensive, hi-tech toy designed to gratify his desire to break a world record. Just to be clear, I don't have any problem with that, but this biodiesel gimmick is clearly just a bone that he is throwing to the environmentalists in an effort to keep them from vilifying him like they normally would anyone who did something like this.

And here is the final irony. With those huge biodiesel engines, they still couldn't beat the overall around-the-world record which is still held by sail boat.

2. The solar panel is just laughable. Those two 500 horsepower engines are running at cruising speed almost the entire time someone is aboard the boat, and an alternator capable of serving all of their power needs would probably make no measurable difference in fuel usage. The only purpose of a solar panel in a power boat is for when the boat is sitting idle for long periods with people living on it. This boat was never meant to be used like that so the panels provide nothing useful, but manufacturing them was expensive in terms of energy and other environmental damage.

3. Bottom paint is intended to keep barnacles and other things from attaching to the bottom of the boat and slowing it down. Some of these paints have substances like copper that are toxic to many marine species. It's really great that an organization that can afford a multi-million-dollar boat as fancy toy is willing to hire people to go and scrape the crud off the boat rather than add toxic substances to the water. I'm serious about that, not sarcastic. All rich yacht owners should do that. But it's not the sort of financial sacrifice in the name of the environment that justifies bragging how green you are with your 1,000-horsepower boat. Nor is it any sort of demonstration that non-toxic bottom paint is a viable solution for average boaters.

On their first record attempts, Earthrace collided with another boat and killed a Guatemalan fisherman. It was just an accident, right? Who ever could have thought that racing along a coast at 20 knots at night in an area where fishermen still fish in low-tech boats with a helmsman who is probably exhausted by many days at sea in a high-speed motorboat might be dangerous?

Well, if they didn't know it was dangerous the first time, they surely knew it was dangerous the second time. Fortunately, on the second attempt they didn't kill anyone, but they were willing to risk other people lives again. But I guess that's not hypocrisy if you only care about the environment and not about other human beings. It's just living your beliefs. Except, of course for all of the environmental damage you are doing in that 1000-horsepower boat.

And now this goofball is lending the boat to those Sea Shepherd goofballs who harass Japanese whalers. They are going to use a 1000-horsepower powerboat to interfere with boats pursuing whales. I see another killing in this boat's future. Accidental, of course. Who could have thought that racing around at high speed, deliberately interfering with other people who are running at high speed while trying to concentrate on a job might lead to an accident?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the 21st Century

I loved the car in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There were two things about Chitty that appealed to me. First, I've always had an obsession for multi-purpose technology such as amphibious vehicles and flying cars (Chitty was both). Second, I liked the idea that it was built by a back-yard hobbyist from an old wreck. I've always wanted to do those kinds of projects but never had a back yard :-).

So naturally, I think the Maverick is super cool. This is a flying car put together by Christian missionaries to reach remote areas in South America. Here is a video of a test flight.

In the Popular Mechanics article they imply that it is amphibious as well because you can replace the tires with floats, but I get the impression that they haven't actually done any work on that aspect and it would be cheating anyway. The floats have to be built-in for the car to really be amphibious.


Monday, November 30, 2009


This is the first good, comprehensive summary I've seen of the recent global-warming scandal. Thanks to John C. Wright for the pointer.

I've seen little pieces of it all over the internet, but this is the first article that really draws it all together, identifies the players, and explains the implications.

Huckabee parolee murders four cops

Maurice Clemmons, a man who is out of prison thanks to a Mike Huckabee clemency has murdered four police officers. Apparently he just walked into a coffee shop and started shooting.

Huckabee comments on the shooting:
He [Maurice Clemmons] was recommended for and received a commutation of his original sentence from 1990, making him parole eligible and was paroled by the parole board once they determined he met the conditions at that time.
Real leaders don't try to brush off their responsibilities onto others like this. The parole board members also deserve blame for their bad judgment, but that doesn't lesson the blame of Huckabee who was the one that second-guessed the judgment of the court in the first place and made Clemmons eligible for parole. The court thought that Clemmons should spend the rest of his life in prison and that is what would have happened without Huckabee's intervention. Huckabee second-guessed the court. He put the welfare of the criminal ahead of the welfare of potential future victims, and the future victims have suffered horribly as a result. Huckabee was the chief law enforcement officer of the state, the chief man responsible for protecting his citizens from criminals, and he failed miserably at his responsibility.

Huckabee doesn't just try to pass the blame off onto the parole board, he tries to pass it off onto the diffuse "criminal justice system" as a whole
He [Maurice Clemmons] was arrested later for parole violation and taken back to prison to serve his full term, but prosecutors dropped the charges that would have held him. It appears that he has continued to have a string of criminal and psychotic behavior but was not kept incarcerated by either state.
Those sorts of failures of the criminal justice system are so commonplace that they were predictable. The justice system had already dealt with this violent man and there are already so many obstacles to getting dangerous people out of society, and the process is so unreliable, that it was reckless for Huckabee to throw that work away and require it to be done all over again.

And this isn't an isolated issue, rather it is an illustration of Huckabee's general bad judgment on law-enforcement issues. As governor of Arkansas, Huckabee gave far more pardons and commutations than other governors in similar states.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Islam and civilization

Anyone as ignorant of history as Arthur C. Clark should be more reticent to make statements about it in public. I got this quote from a link at Roger L. Simon:
A Chat With Arthur C. Clarke

FI: What appeals to you in Islam?

Clarke: Historically, Islam had a great deal of tolerance for other views and offered the world its priceless wisdom in the form of astronomy and algebra. And, as you know, Islam helped rescue Western civilization from the Dark Ages by preserving classical texts and transmitting them to the West. We, on the other hand, burned the library at Alexandria. If Islam hadn’t fallen into internecine warfare and had gone on to conquer the rest of Europe, we’d have avoided a thousand years of Christian barbarism.
I thought I would add a few notes from someone (me) who is also ignorant of history, but apparently not so ignorant as Mr. Clark.

1. Muslims never invented anything of note. During their empires, there was some knowledge distributed between Europe, India, and China, but it's not clear who distributed the knowledge (except that we know in one important case it was a Christian, Macro Polo) or how it might have gone if there had been a different empire.

2. Muslims had little to do with preserving Greek writings during the Middle Ages. The influx of Greek writings happened after the fall of Constantinople and the ensuing flood of Christian refugees into Western Europe. It was Constantinople that preserved the Greek writings.

3. No one knows for sure who burned the library at Alexandria, but most likely it was during a Muslim sack of the city.

4. The thousand years of "Christian" barbarism was, more than anything else, just a period of extreme poverty caused by endless invasions from (mostly) non-Christian barbarians and Muslims. And the barbaric activities that Christians are so often accused of were all commonplace in the non-Christian world at the time.

5. Over the centuries of Muslim dominance, some of the most civilized places in the world (Persia and Egypt, for example) were reduced to barbarism --not from wars but just from social failure. The beginning of the downfall was when Europeans found sea routes to Eastern Asia. The Muslims had squandered the accumulated wealth of centuries of pre-Muslim civilization, and without the constant infusion of new wealth from trade between other, more productive areas, the Muslim regions collapsed. Meanwhile, modern civilization grew from the battered survivors of Christianity. With this historical evidence, the idea that Islam could have saved Christian Europe from barbarism is laughable.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

boats made out of pumkins

I thought the pumpkin-boat races were a gag at first, but no, there are pumpkins big enough to make boats out of, and people, er, ambitious enough to do it.

Even the Germans are doing it so you know an Olympic event can't be far behind. What would you call this event? Pumpkonavigation? Vegi-aquatics? Nautifruit racing?

Monday, November 23, 2009

a sex scandal that the press won't cover

Whenever you accuse the press of being biased, they and their defenders like to claim that they just follow the stories that the public is interested in. But they also claim that stories involving sex are always popular, so why aren't they covering this one?

The American Spectator reports that Kevin Johnson was accused of sexual misconduct with at least three underage high-school girls who were effectively working for him when he was running the local chapter of Americorps. This was part of what Inspector General Walpin was investigating when Obama fired him illegally (the firing was illegal according to a law that Obama himself had sponsored). Kevin Johnson is a friend and supporter of Obama, and the man who let Johnson off the hook (with nothing but partial restitution) both for this crime and for stealing government money is a big Democrat supporter also. There's lots more; read the article.

As Instapundit says, "WHEN THE PRESS CAN IGNORE A SEX SCANDAL, you know it’s covering for politicians, not covering them."

I have a tactic to suggest for Republicans to use in the next election: concentrate on all of the shady stuff that has gone on at in the Obama administration, at ACORN, at Eric Holder's Justice Department, at the polls in swing states and elsewhere. Always ask why the press isn't covering these scandals like they cover allegations of Republican corruption. Point out that the press is 90% Democrat and that they can't be trusted to watch Democrat politicians. But they watch Republicans like a hawk, so if you want clean government, you should vote for the party that the press will watch: the Republicans.

The press is supposed to be the social institution that protects us against corruption in government. That is in large part why the press has special protections in the very Constitution. But the press has become so monolithically attached to a single party that they can no longer fulfill that function when Democrats are in power. That is why people who care about honest government must vote Republican. Not because Republicans are inherently more honest than Democrats, but because our civil watchdogs will only watch Republicans.

Monday, November 09, 2009

the attack of the European X-wing swallow

Remember that ridiculous plot element in Star Wars where there is this huge moving fortress, the Death Star, but if you shoot a little missile in exactly the right spot, you can blow up the whole thing? George Lucas is a dundering idiot for that. What a maroon. Huge mega-expensive mega machinery doesn't have one tiny little spot out on the exterior that can be used to sabotage the whole thing.

Oh, wait...

I'm sorry, George...

Saturday, November 07, 2009

pushing roads around

In this time-lapse video, they are moving a huge section of the San Francisco Bay Bridge and replacing it with another huge section. I wish I'd known this was going on, I would have gone to watch.

(Hmm. Although I tried to copy the link to the video, the link only seems to take you to the page, not the video. You have to search for "time-lapse" then click on the link there.)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

DDWFTTW - Directly Downwind Faster Than The Wind

Did you know that it is possible to make a wind-driven vehicle that goes down-wind faster than the wind? Here is an interesting discussion. Some skeptics can never be convinced. They sense intuitively that it violates some conservation law. Conservation of motion is not just a scientific theory, it is something built into our mechanical intuitions. There are actually two different conservation laws that correspond roughly to our intuition: conservation of momentum and conservation of energy. Neither one is really violated by DDWFTTW, they only appear so to the intuition. Our intuitions can lead us astray when considering situations that are well outside of normal experience, and this is one of those cases.

So let me try my hand at making this reasonable. Take a cart with a propeller that is physically connected to the wheels with a gear so that when the wheels turn, so does the propeller. Lets say that for any speed that you move the wheels at, the propeller turns fast enough that it would, by itself, push the cart at half that speed. This does not violate any conservation laws. Suppose that you are pushing the cart at 10 mph in still air. The propeller turns fast enough that it would, by itself be pushing the cart at 5 mph. But the cart is already going faster than 5 mph, so the propeller is not adding any speed to the cart, in fact the drag of the propeller may actually be trying to slow the cart down.

What happens if you stop pushing the cart? Well the only thing driving the cart is the propeller which is trying to drive the cart at 5 mph, but the cart is going 10 mph. So it gradually slows down to 5 mph. But when it is going 5 mph, the propeller is only trying to drive it at 2.5 mph, so it slows down to 2.5 mph, and the cycle continues until the cart halts.

Now suppose the cart is being pushed at 10 mph and there is a 5 mph tail wind. The propeller is now trying to push the cart at ten mph because the speed of the propeller through the air is 5 mph and the propeller is turning fast enough that it wants to go 5 mph through the air. So what happens if you stop pushing the cart now? The cart is going ten mph along the ground. This causes the wheels to turn fast enough to turn the propeller fast enough that it is pushing the cart along at 5 mph through the air --which is 10 mph on the ground. With a 5 mph tail wind, this is a steady state: once you stop pushing the cart, it will continue to move along at 10 mph which is faster than the 5 mph wind that is pushing it.

There is no violation of conservation of energy here: the propeller is slowing down the wind, taking energy from the wind to move the cart. There will be friction losses of course, but those are figured into my premises. That is, if not for friction losses, maybe the propeller could move the cart at .65 times the wheel speed rather than .5 times the wheel speed.

And of course these numbers are just made up. Maybe it's not possible to have the propeller move the cart at one half of the wheel speed. (But if not, then you can do it at 1/3 or 1/4 or something. For any speed you pick, there is some wind speed that will make the cart move under wind power faster than the wind.) And of course I am neglecting the complex interactions of friction and thrust which vary with wind speed and ground speed, but the point of this thought experiment is not that that DDWFTTW is physically possible, but only that it does not violate any conservation laws.

To find out if it is physically possible, you do an experiment.

The very strong skepticism towards DDWFTTW that you see on various forums is caused by the fact that the skeptics think of this as an energy problem when it is really just a leverage problem. There is plenty of energy in the wind to move the cart faster than the wind, you just have to find a way to apply the leverage to make it happen. One way to do that (maybe not the only way!) is to gear the relationship between the wheels and the prop in such a way that the air speed of the propeller for a given ground speed of the wheels will give you a limiting speed faster than a tail wind.

Monday, October 26, 2009

everything you always wanted to know about eggs and then some

Did you know that chicken breeds with white feathers and ear lobes lay white eggs while breeds with red feathers and ear lobes lay brown eggs?

Did you know that the blood spot you see on the yolk sometimes has nothing to do with fertilization? It is an actual spot of the chicken's blood caused by a ruptured blood vessel during egg production.

Did you know that a chicken takes 24 to 26 hours to produce an egg and then starts over again 30 minutes later?

Did you know that there are no egg-related words beginning with i, j, or k, but that, by contrast, o is heavily used?

You would know all of these things if you, too, had read "All about the egg" by the Iowa Egg Council.

Monday, October 19, 2009

bad web sites

Why do some companies spend thousands of dollars to turn their web sites into poorly-designed flash sites where you can't find the information you are looking for. Are they deliberately trying to hide the information in hopes that they will force people to email them? That seems unlikely since in many cases it is just as hard to find their email addresses as any other information. I'm guessing that they just don't have anyone whose job it is to evaluate the web site as a potential customer who is looking at dozens of web sites for information. They always evaluate it as people who think that their web site is the center of the world and worth spending hours getting to know.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Google Chrome

It's not what I expected. I never read any of the hype about Google's new web browser because I assumed that it would just be Mozilla with a Google bar built in. And the name led me to believe that its main selling point was flashy appearance. I visualized a nightmare of animated partially transparent doodads rotating and sliding around the screen every time I moved my mouse. Google Chrome is the opposite of that. It's actually a very bare-bones browser with some nice features.

There's nothing amazing about Google Chrome, but I think Google is taking a page from Microsoft's playbook. When you are that big, you can be a lot worse than your competition and still grab a significant number of users. Then over time you improve the product enough that it actually deserves all of the users. That's how they did it with Blogger, which started out as a pretty stark blogging platform, far behind other products in terms of features. But Blogger has caught up to other blogging software over the years. Google Docs seems to be following that plan as well. It really isn't very good compared to Microsoft Office or Open Office, but it has some interesting features, it is just good enough to be usable, and it is from Google.

So I expect Google Chrome to follow the plan and gradually add features. They will be smart about it and only add features that users complain about not having. In the end they will be left with something that has all of the important features but is still leaner than the competition.

I like the idea behind Google Chrome. I downloaded it and tried it out, thinking that I might become a beta tester. But a half hour of experiencing the web the way website designers think it should be experienced put that plan away. I just cannot read web pages with moving things on them. It is so distracting to me that I have several Firefox extensions dedicated to shutting things down. If Google wants users like me to use a minimalist browser, they could make a single configuration option on it that stops all motion on web pages --all animated gifs, all movies, all flash, all Javascript animation, everything. Then they could have a single button that you press for a given page that allows the page to run. That would be my dream browser. But until Chrome gives me some control over how web pages are displayed, I'm afraid that I'll have to stick with Firefox.

speaking of spite...

Speaking of spite ... an anonymous commenter just tried to out me in the comments to this post to punish me for speculating about Light Blue Optics and their mysterious lack of anything to ship even after announcing products and evaluation kits. Doc Rampage is only semi-anonymous anyway, so the threat has less effect than he probably thinks it does. Still it seems like bad strategy if he wants to put a stop to bad publicity for Light Blue Optics. I was only interested in finding out the truth about LBO, good or bad. If my speculations are wrong, all he had to do was email me in his own name to answer my questions. Assuming that it really answered my questions (in unambiguous language) I would have published the letter, said "there you have it" and gone on to other interests.

But whoever is making these marketing decisions at LBO seems to have chosen instead the strategy of trying to piss me off. I'm not sure how he thinks that making this personal is going to help Light Blue Optics with their image problems. They think a pissed-off critic is going to give them less bad publicity than an idly-curious critic? The only way this would be good strategy is if they really are trying to hide something and they figure that their only option is to try and scare me off.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

on spite and apologies

Anonymous commenters on my second post on Light Blue Optics have suggested that I should apologize for my posts about LBO. One accused me of "spiteful and unfounded insinuations". I haven't yet read the latest links that have been left for me to peruse, but given the quality of the previous links, I'm not expecting much. Still, I will read them eventually and if I decide that they answer my questions, then I will write another post acknowledging the new information and update my previous posts accordingly.

However, it is hard to imagine a circumstance that would make me feel that I had to apologize for what I have written about LBO. There is an argument to be made that people are entitled to the benefit of the doubt, and that you don't post suspicions about random people without some sort of evidence. I am more sympathetic to this view than not. For example, I think the ridiculous speculations about Gov. Palin's child not really being hers would never have been published by a responsible person.

But LBO is not an individual; it is a company that goes out to investors and asks them for money (large amounts of money) based on their own reports of their own achievements and potential as a company. When they do this, they give up the presumption of innocence. They have to be ready, willing and able to confront criticism openly and effectively. If the best that they can do is to post anonymous links and outraged comments then they need to grow a thicker skin. I'm a pussycat compared to an angry investor.

In addition to my criticisms and suspicions of the company, I did question the credentials of two individuals who work for the company. However, these two individuals are high-level employees (one is a VP and the other is the CTO) who have lent their prestige to the company, so their credentials are also open to criticism on the same grounds as is the company itself. Furthermore, none of my published comments would do them any harm at all if I am wrong and if I am right the only harm it would do them is to make it more difficult for them to deceive people. In fact, if I am wrong, I imagine that they would find my suspicions more amusing than troublesome.

And finally, I would like to say (again) that there is no spite or ill-will in any of my remarks. Those who see spite here are just projecting their own anger and spite onto the person who is making them angry and spiteful.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

the odd case of Light Blue Optics II

In a previous post, I gave a list of reasons to wonder if Light Blue Optics really has the technology that it claims to have. It is very cool technology and if it is for real then LBO is going to be big. But is it for real? Among the reasons for doubt, I gave a list of announcements that the company made: claiming that they had a working prototype, claiming that they were selling evaluation kits and announcing a product line, even though in a dozen articles about the prototype demo, no one claimed to have seen it personally and Light Blue Optics has never shipped a unit.

Now all of this could be just bad luck, but I noticed other issues like slippery language discussing the qualifications of the contributors to the technology. Now, I'm not a degree snob. A lot of very smart people (like myself, just for example) have gotten their PhDs from second-rung schools. Lots of other very smart people don't have PhDs at all. So I'm not suggesting that just because Adrian Cable and Edward Buckley may not have the degrees that are implied on the company website that this would mean that they are not smart guys. But it would mean that Light Blue Optics is trying to trick people. And that is a bad sign --I don't believe in harmless marketing lies. A lie is a lie, and if a company lies to you about one thing, they will lie to you about something else.

And finally, there is the non-existence of any real explanation of the technology. All I could find are the usual gadget-porn sites with the usual gee-golly half-coherent buzzword-laden but not really informative company-supplied pitch and some whitepapers with the above along with some scary math that doesn't really explain anything either.

So, hating to waste all that research time, I decided to write a post about what I had not discovered. I edited the post three times to tone it down and not look like I was outright accusing the LBO of fraud. All I have at this point is suspicions, so I didn't want to write anything that would negatively impact the LBO if I were wrong.

A couple of people have objected to the post anyway. One anonymous commenter speculated that I had been turned down for a job at the company and called me a baby. As luck would have it, I am older than twelve and so this reproach did not cause me the angst that it otherwise might have. The other commenter was kind enough to contribute to my research by giving me some more links to read. The purpose of this post is to discuss that additional information.

First, the commenter gave me three patent links to look at:
These are patent applications, not patents; they haven't been granted yet. And there are only two applications represented here. Light Blue Optics Patent application 1 is mostly about noise reduction in a holographic 2D projector once you have the 2D projector. It doesn't really say how you make one in the first place. Patent applications 2 and 3 are essentially the same appliation, one to the US patent office and one to the WIPO. It only claims the general idea of a projector based on holograms and suggests some fairly standard technological means to solve various standard problems of projections. How you get real-time moving-picture holograms is left as an exercise for the reader.

The other links seem aimed at establishing the bonafides of the two people I wondered about. The first is this: ...n_sturgeon.html
"The Ben Sturgeon Award for 2009 has been awarded to Dr Edward Buckley....
Edward graduated with a first class Masters degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from University College London. Following that, he began his Ph.D. research into real- time holographic projection systems at Cambridge University in 2003. While at Cambridge, he jointly invented a method for real-time holographic laser projection on which the company Light Blue Optics was founded in 2004."
I have two things to say about this: first, although it clearly implies that Buckley got his PhD at Cambridge, it doesn't really say so. This is the same kind of slippery language I complained about before. Second, this award is by SID, the Society for Information Display. More about that organization later.

The other link is this sharp.html
"The winner of the Sharp-SID Best Student Award 2007 is Dr Adrian Cable of Light Blue Optics, who completed his PhD under Tim Wilkinson at the University of Cambridge. Adrian's work has resulted in an algorithm, which allows binary phase holograms to be generated in real time."
Three things to say about this one. First, this one is a little harder to explain away as fishy language, but, as luck would have it, I am up to the task. Second, this award is also granted by those ubiquitous SID persons. And third, that comma after "algorithm" really bugs me. Don't they edit these things? So, in more detail, why is this language slippery? Doesn't it say that he "completed his degree" at Cambridge? Doesn't that mean that he was given his degree at Cambridge? Well, not exactly. The wording is odd. You don't say that you "completed" your degree at an instution, you say that you "earned" or "were granted" your degree. Of course this is England where they haven't kept up with modern trends in the language, so this could be an Englishism. But it is also possible that he started his degree under Tim Wilkinson at the University of WTF, that Wilkinson subsequently moved to Cambridge and took his students with him to finish their WTF degrees. So although they were working at Cambridge, and may even have been working on Cambridge salaries working for a Cambridge professor, they would actually be granted their degrees from WTF. At least that's how it works in the US sometimes.

I hasten to add that this is all mere speculation spurred by tortuously ambiguous language; I don't have any actual inside information. But tortuously ambiguous language makes me suspicious because I'm just a suspicious kind of guy.

Now what about those ubiquitous SID folks? They publish all of LBO's whitepapers and give all of LBO's awards. It looks like this group is just all-to-hell impressed with Light Blue Optics. Or maybe they're just getting paid? I don't know, but looking at their web sited I wonder if SID is just a marketing organization masquerading as an engineering society (see last sentence of previous paragraph).

Well, that's enough for now. Reading patents and awards testimonials is not really exciting stuff so I'm done for the moment. I'll do some more research on LBO and SID and post again if anything interesting comes up.
UPDATE: more as of 4/2010.

Monday, September 28, 2009

AARP and Obamacare

People have been amazed at how persistently the AARP continues to support Obamacare despite the anger that it has caused among their membership. Michelle Malkin may have the answer: bribery.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

the odd case of Light Blue Optics

Light Blue Optics is one of those young companies with an exciting technology that all of the gadget sites want to write about. Imagine a normal-size cell phone that could project a touch-sensitive picture on any wall or table top. You could use it to show movies, give quick presentations, make video calls, or, with a projected keyboard, just use it as a computer.

But is this cool new technology for real or is it just a promise intended to relieve unwary investors of excess capital? Now, the technology of miniature laser projection, in general terms, is for real. VKB has been selling their virtual keyboards for years (I even own one) and another company, Microvision, has demonstrated a real device. Laser-projected images is old stuff. The only real challenge is the miniaturization. But is the peculiar 2D hologram technology of LBO for real? Everyone assumes that it is, but I've seen some disturbing warning signs.

Ever go to a company website and after reading some of it, start to think that it looks fishy? That's the feeling I got from the LBO site. Now, I'm not an optical engineer and I don't know the inside scoop on this company, so I'm not saying affirmatively that LBO's technology doesn't really exist, I am only saying that I'm suspicious.

What first made me smell something fishy was the overall impression that I got from the website. None of the issues alone would mean much, but taken together, they form a suspicious pattern. And the suspicious pattern led me to a more thorough investigation which I'll detail later.

Here are the things that seemed fishy to me. First is the news that is highlighted on their starting page. This is supposed to be an exciting new technology company about to come out with a revolutionary new technology --and the news they see fit to highlight is how good they are doing at attracting investors. It looks like whoever is in charge of marketing at LBO views the technology as a secondary consideration.

Second, various other aspects of the site seem more aimed at investors than at customers. For example their "vision" is "to become the world's leading supplier of miniature projection systems". A company with a revolutionary product in the near future should be focused on customers. They should have a vision like "to produce the world's best, brightest, most efficient, and least expensive miniature projection devices". If they really do have something great then the investors will come to them; they won't need the hard sell.

Third, the explanations of the technology are vague and fishy. They have several white papers on the site. The three that I downloaded and read are about the applications of the technology; they are written for a non-technical audience. But they all include a section on the technology (pretty much the exact same text and pictures for each paper) where they give scary mathematical formulas and assume that the reader is familiar with advanced optics, vector equations, and Fourier transforms. Clearly the author expects almost all of his readers to scan quickly past this part and be left with the impression that there is a detailed explanation in the paper that is beyond their comprehension. But there isn't a detailed explanation. I don't fully understand those sections either, but I understand enough to see that there are nothing but some basic formulas of interest only to theoreticians and some vigorous hand-waving. I conclude that these papers are deliberately intended to make non-technical readers think that they have been shown a detailed technical explanation when they haven't.

Fourth, there are several references to patented technology, but no patent numbers. Why not? Anyone who has the resources to compete with LBO can easily find the patents if they exist, so there is no reason not to give them. And giving patent numbers lets your non-technical readers see that you actually do have a patent and lets your technical readers evaluate how significant the patents really are.

Fifth, the emphasis on "holograms" seems designed to be deceptive. Everyone in the world thinks "3D" when you say "hologram". I can't help but speculate that when the company started out they really did intend to sell investors on the idea of a laser 3D holographic display and that when this became untenable, they invented the idea of 2D holograms as a fallback position. But, that's only speculation. Maybe they really did start out intending to cause confusion between 2D and 3D.

These warning signs, and a few others, led me to do a bit more research. That research revealed some more warning signs.

* LBO supposedly had a lab-based demo going back as far as December, 2003. This demo already had their revolutionary algorithm implemented in hardware, which means that the production step to a chip is very quick. But the reporter doesn't say that he saw the demo, only that it exists. I wonder. Still, LBO seemed to think that the technology was close enough to justify starting a buzz in the tech world. Today, five and half years later, Light Blue Optics is still not shipping.

* LBO supposedly was providing evaluation kits to technology companies back in January, 2006. Those kits are supposed to be at least fully functional prototypes so that other companies can design products around it. But today, three and a half years later, Light Blue Optics is still not shipping.

* LBO announced a product line back in January, 2008 but today, 18 months later, Light Blue Optics is still not shipping.

* In January, 2009, one year after it "announced a product line" and three years after it was supposedly offering evaluation kits, LBO announced that "it will demonstrate its latest miniature projection systems to key customers and strategic partners". Not an open demo, but a controlled demo to a specially-chosen audience. There is something inconsistent in this time line.

* Now that other companies are coming out with real products in this area, Light Blue Optics is trying to change the game. They've started talking about touch-enabled projections. This could be a response to slipping shipping schedules, but if they can't ship even the technology that they have been working on for the past 5+ years, why are they adding new complexity which will delay the product even more? That is at the very least abysmally poor judgment. Come out with a solid competitive product as soon as you can, even if it is no longer the knockout that you were aiming at. And once you have proven yourself, then add the bells and whistles.

* They claim that their patents came out of research at the Photonics and Sensors Group at the University of Cambridge. But of the four researchers who supposedly came up with this technology, only one (assuming that Nic Lawrence is N. A. Lawrence) had any publications with that group. And none of those publications are directly related to the LBO technology. So apparently, this revolutionary technology was invented by four minor researchers who didn't bother to publish.

*It's not that they can't publish. One of the four, Dr. Edward Buckley seems to be responsible for all of the technical material that I could find. According to LBO, Buckley "holds a Masters degree in electrical and electronic engineering from University College London and a PhD from the University of Cambridge". Is it significant that they say what his masters is in but not his PhD? If he had a PhD in EE from Cambridge wouldn't he be more clear about that? And if he does, why is he VP of business development rather than having a technical position? Why is the VP of business development writing all of the technical documents put out by the company?

* Their CTO is Adrian Cable who "has a degree in electronic engineering from Cambridge University and his PhD focused on holographic optics, projection technology, and simulation and modelling of complex optical systems". Again, I note slippery language about the degrees it seems to imply that he has a Ph.D. from Cambridge but doesn't say so. All it says is that he has a degree in EE from Cambridge and he has a Ph.D. They could be two different degrees. I found two patent applications for Cable, only one of which applies to LBO. And that patent is just for the idea of a 2D holographic projection system --there is no clue how they solve the fundamental problem of calculating the interference pattern needed for the projection. I didn't find a patent for that, or any description of the algorithm anywhere.

So, does all of this prove that LBO just scammed 15 million dollars out of foolish investors? No, of course not. But I can say that I hope those investors were able to get a lot more and better information on the company than I was able to get and that they hired an independent optics expert to review the technology. If they didn't, then I think they were being a bit reckless.

UPDATE: even more LBO speculation here
UPDATE: more as of 4/2010.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

presidents and race baiting

As pointed out in the comments to this post, my prediction hasn't turned out exactly correct. It isn't the administration itself that is using false charges of racism to attempt to suppress dissent, it is other members of his party. And in fact Obama has tried to get the race baiters to shut up.

My prediction also is not panning out in another important way: namely that these false accusations of racism don't seem to be making race relations in this country worse. People actually seem to be seeing these charges for the slanders that they are. The effect may actually be beneficial if it can get Americans used to evaluating charges of racism on the merits and not just believing whatever the liberal press tells them.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

told ya

Conservative blogs have been complaining lately about how Obama's critics are always accused of racism. I'd like to point out that one prescient blogger, namely me, predicted before the election:
Many Americans seem to be under the impression that if we elect a black president, then this will somehow lessen racial tensions in the country by showing that the country is non-racist enough to elect a black president. In other words, many Americans are hopelessly naive. If Obama is defeated in this election, there will be the usual condemnation of the Great Racist Satan, America, and we can look forward to at least a decade where liberals toss out allusions to this election whenever they are losing the argument in order to distract us and make us once again defend how the elections was not about racism.

But if Obama is elected, we can look forward to four years of intensely racial politics that will change the political landscape very much for the worse. Race will become an Obama administration's goto charge for anyone they are angry at, anyone who opposed a substantive policy initiative. And that's just policy initiatives; imagine if Obama or any of his Chicago cronies are caught in corruption or other misbehavior in office. Racism will be their armor against all criticism.

I'm persuaded that for intelligent liberals, one of the primary reasons they are so excited by the idea of a black president, is because they know that it will give them leverage for four years and create an environment where the charge of racism can be used more freely beyond that.
Frankly, I was a little surprised at the time that this was not talked about in the conservative blogosphere --it seemed obvious to me. Now, here is a hint possibly of why it was not talked about. Ann Althouse writes:
Imagine if, before last year's election, someone had argued: If a black man becomes President, anyone who dares to criticize him will be called a racist.

1. I would have viewed that argument itself as racist.
(link from Instapundit).

Several people in the comments claim that they warned about this too, but I don't recall it. I recall a lot of people criticizing Obama and his supporters for using that tactic during the election, but I don't recall anyone else worrying about this being used as a tactic to shield a sitting president from all criticism. No, only your wise interlocutor was so gifted as to predict this eventuality.

But far be it from me to brag about it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Harry Collingwood

I chanced upon a new (actually an old) adventure-fiction author while looking for history on Project Gutenberg. The first book I read was The Pirate Slaver, told from the point of view of a British Middy on the west coast of Africa who is assigned to fight the slave trade. It was a wonderful adventure; so good that I've just downloaded several more of Collingwood's books.

Athelstane E-Books also has some of his books on-line along with some information about the books and the author.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Kennedy conspiring with the enemy

This post discusses an attempt by the late Senator Kennedy to conspire with the Soviet Union to help him become president. I can't say that I'm too shocked by the revelation or by the fact that I had never heard this before because the media protected Kennedy so well. Nor am I shocked that the Democrats don't care about this --after all, they didn't care about John Kerry or Jane Fonda consorting with the North Vietnamese while they were shooting at our soldiers and torturing American POWs, so why would they care about Kennedy conspiring with the enemy in a mere cold war?

But it is depressing that the Democrats still control the press so thoroughly that with all the evidence of their support for Americas enemies over and over and over again, that they can still pretend to be shocked and offended when they are accused of being anti-American.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

stinky vegetables

Last weekend I ate at a restaurant called the Stinking Rose. Their slogan is "we like to spice our garlic with a little food" and their purpose seems to be to explore the eternal question, "Can you have too much garlic?" I am pleased to be able to report that the answer seems to be "no".

The tables come pre-equiped with a jar of strongly-flavored garlic-and-oil relish. This proved to be fortuitous because soon after I sat down, I was presented with some fresh, warm, focaccia sliced bread --an ideal delivery device for garlic-and-oil relish. The combination was as good as I had anticipated, and the garlic flavor was noticeably stronger than you would get at other Italian restaurants. I added salt of course.

One thing that that I learned long ago is that without salt, garlic is just a stinky weed. I learned this from an initial misunderstanding of the term "garlic salt". My mother bought some garlic salt once and used it to make garlic bread. Making garlic bread was easy: just warm up a slice of bread, spread liberally with butter and wait for it to melt in, then add garlic salt. When I went away to college, one of the first condiments that I bought was garlic salt, in order to continue mom's brief but memorable tradition.

When the garlic salt ran out, I bought another shaker of what I assumed was the same thing: garlic powder. I learned to my dismay that garlic salt is not at all the same thing as garlic powder. The garlic powder made absolutely horrible garlic bread. Being (at the time) a scientist in training, I applied my prodigious intellect to the problem of analyzing the discontinuity.

My mind, honed to a fine edge of alertness by many semesters of calculus and physics, latched on, after a few days or perhaps weeks of thought, to the curious use of the word "salt" in the term "garlic salt". It occurred to me that in no other product that I knew of, did they use the word "salt" to mean "powder" (this was in the days before salt substitutes). So maybe the word "salt" in "garlic salt" did not mean "powder". What then could it signify? Could it, indeed signify the typical colloquial use of the term? Could it refer to that powdered mineral consisting largely of sodium chloride crystals with minor impurities often used as a standard table condiment? Could the "salt" in "garlic salt" actually mean salt?

The thought intrigued me. It vexed me. I could not rest until I had determined its truth or falsity. But how to determine its truth or falsity? An English student might have gone down to the grocery store and read the label on a shaker of garlic salt but this is not the way of a Scientist in Training. No, as a Scientist in Training, I had to Perform an Experiment. The experiment, carefully planned and executed was thus: I warmed a piece of bread, spread a generous helping of butter on it waited impatiently for the butter to melt in, then added some garlic powder, and then --the critical point of the experiment, the point to distinguish this experiment from the previous experience which was to act as the control-- I added some salt. The resulting garlic bread was perfect. I had discovered a major Law of Nature: without salt, garlic is just a stinky weed.

Well, enough of my digressions --I was reviewing a restaurant as I recall. The relish at the Stinking Rose was so good that I immediately ordered their appetizer specialty, Ragna Calda. Said appetizer is described thusly: "garlic cloves oven roasted in extra virgin olive oil and butter with a hint of anchovy". Sounds like just the thing for someone who can't get enough of the garlic-and-oil relish, no? Well, it was a crushing disappointment. The Ragna Calda was so mild that after the relish, I couldn't even taste garlic in the dish. And that was even when I tried eating a spoonful of the cloves (both with and without salt). The cloves had all the flavor of boiled potatoes with the feel of boiled onions.

Fortunately, the main course was better. It was prime rib served with a garlic topping, garlic mashed potatoes, and a side of horse radish (you thought I was going to say "a side of garlic", didn't you?). Except for the rather dull appetizer, the meal was a brilliant success.

Afterward, I wandered around the neighborhood until I found a store where I could find both breath mints and breath gum and I bought some of both. I felt that my meal called for stern measures in the breath department.

Conclusion: if you like garlic (and who doesn't?), then I recommend that you try the Stinking Rose if you ever get a chance.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

evolving out of Armageddon

I just finished reading one of many Sci Fi stories with a peculiar assumption that I've seen over the years. It is probably an outgrowth of the anti-war movement of the 60's and the anti-cold-war movement of the 70s and 80s --the idea is that when a civilization acquires nuclear weapons, that it is in danger of destroying itself, but that if it can somehow "evolve" through this stage without destroying itself, then the danger has passed.

My question is, why would the danger ever pass? Whatever form this "evolution" takes, whether a change in government, or social structure, or behavior, the authors never assume that it is an absolute change to pacifism. There are always continuing disputes and violence among humans. Therefore the change is only a matter of degree. But human technology will continue to improve and ever-more destructive weapons will become possible, even without military research. All it takes to make a planet-destroying attack is a good space tugboat that can grapple onto a big-enough space rock.

So as long as there is any friction, any violence, there will be the possibility of some maniac destroying the whole planet. How is the danger ever going to be over?

As I said, I suspect this thinking arises out of the peace movement. Some people were absolutely terrified of the prospect of nuclear war, and the Communist-supporting news media and entertainment media did all that they could to exacerbate this fear. For the Sci Fi authors writing back then, I think that this idea that there is a hump, and then once we are past the hump we will be safe, is a sort of fantasy wish fulfillment. It is the fantasy that one day the terror will go away.

For people writing since then, I suspect that they are looking at history, at how things turned out, and thinking that, "see, nothing happened and the Cold War is over." but they are not thinking critically. The Cold War is over because the US won. That might have not happened. And there is no reason to assume that such a standoff between great powers will never happen again --quite the opposite.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

addiction and your friendly neighborhood convenience store

I've always thought of 24-hour convenience stores like Circle K and 7/11 as, well, significant conveniences. When I look for a new place to live, I have always looked for a nearby convenience store. But lately I've realized that most of what I buy at those places are things I really shouldn't be buying --and that I probably wouldn't be buying if it weren't so convenient.

I'll bet that well over 90% of the income from convenience stores comes from alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine and junk food. One important thing that all of these things have in common is that they are all addictive. Maybe they aren't all addictive in a technical medical sense (I honestly don't know) but they all cause physical changes in the body that lead to compulsive behavior. What I mean by compulsive behavior is this: you can decided during the day that you aren't going to drink alcohol tonight, for example, or that you aren't going to eat any junk food tonight, and then later that night you change your mind and do it anyway, even though you know that you are going to regret it later. If it is something that you know that you should not do but you do it anyway, repeatedly and over a long period of time going through cycles of deciding not to do it, doing it, and then regretting that you did it --that's compulsive.

In particular, compulsive behavior follows cycles where sometimes you have the will to resist the compulsion and sometimes you do not. If you can predict when the compulsion will be greater, then you can take steps to make the compulsive behavior harder to satisfy during those times so that you are less likely to do it. For example, I'm a junk-food-aholic. I eat junk food compulsively (by the way, sugar and other simple carbohydrates do have a physiological effect much like alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine). One of the hardest times to resist junk food is late at night when I'm close to going to bed (and that's also the worst time to eat it). Because of this, I never keep junk food in the house. When I buy it, I never buy more than I plan to eat right away. Depending on where I live, this can greatly decrease the amount of junk food that I eat.

But that's where convenience stores come in. When I live close to a convenience store, all I have to do is put my shoes on, walk a couple of blocks, and get any junk food I want. The convenience store nullifies my method of controlling my junk-food intake (I actually enjoy the short walk). I've never had a problem with alcohol or cigarettes, but I'll bet the effect is the same. Night time is the time of relaxing, of letting go of the discipline of the day. It is the time that compulsions are often the strongest. If it weren't for convenience stores, people could plan to reduce their intake of harmful things just by not having them in the home. But convenience stores negate that.

Now, I'm not implying that convenience-store owners are the bad guys here. They are just responding to demand --it isn't their job to decide if they are really doing the customer a favor by meeting the demand. Lots of people want a convenient place to buy alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and simple carbohydrates and don't regret the purchase later. Also, convenience stores do carry items that are often needed late at night or in a hurry: automobile oil, drugs, hygiene products and other things. The stores probably could not stay in business just selling such emergency supplies.

Still, I wonder if there is some way to reduce the harmful side-effect of convenience stores without losing the convenience.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

homeless extortion

There is an apparently homeless guy who always hangs round one corner that I walk past on the way to work. Twice now I've seen other homeless men go up to him and give him something. He always talks to them pleasantly and they answer pleasantly, but I still can't help the feeling that this guy is extorting the other homeless people in the neighborhood. And if he is, I'm not sure if I should do anything about it. I doubt the police are going to care if none of the victims complain. And I could be completely wrong. Still, it bothers me.

Monday, July 27, 2009

book hints

So, as long as people are giving me advice on reading material... There was a TV show based on a series of books from sometime in the 1700s (I think) about a young naval officer in the British navy. I can't remember the name, but it was a pretty famous series of books. Can anyone help out?

UPDATE: Thanks nk. It's Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester. However, these books were written in the mid 20th century --a lot later than I had thought so they won't be available in Project Gutenbert soon. Oh well, there is plenty of other stuff to read.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

file formats for ebook readers

I should have tried to download some pay content before reviewing the Sony PRS505 ebook reader. After spending about half an hour trying to buy John C. Wrights "Golden Age" trilogy, I am a lot less happy with the Sony. First of all, the Sony ebook site sells the second and third books in the trilogy, but not the first. I found several sites that sell either the whole trilogy or a collection that contains the whole trilogy, but none of them were in a format that is supported by the Sony PRS-505.

Back when I first talked about ebook readers, I mentioned that the PRS-505 had the most limited selection of formats. I was concerned about that, but lacking any experience in ebooks I was not sure how big a deal it would be. I'm now starting to think that it's a pretty big deal and I'm thinking about returning the Sony.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

review of the Sony PRS-505 ebook reader

As I mentioned in comments to this post I ended up buying the Sony ebook reader because I could go down to Target and get instant gratification rather than ordering and having to wait for it to be delivered.

All in all, the purchase was a success and may even save me money. Since I moved and did not get cable TV at my new place, I have been buying about one paperback a week: that's about seven or eight dollars a week. Since I bought the PRS-505, I've read nothing but free books. So far I've finished a collection of books and stories by Keith Laumer called "A Plague of Demons" that I downloaded from Baen Free Library (thanks to Foxfier for the reminder) and I've finally read "Dracula" which I downloaded from The Guttenberg Project.

Reading is very nearly as comfortable as a paperback but not quite. The disadvantages I've seen so far are
(1) contrast is not as high as black print on white paper,
(2) glare is a bit more noticeable than it is on non-glossy paper,
(3) the device is heavier than a paperback (but I have read heavier hard-covers)
(4) there is a slightly distracting delay and flash when you turn the page
(5) you can't always find the books you want as e-books
For me, the disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages:
(1) it is more compact than a large paperback
(2) whenever I have the device with me I have several thousands of pages of reading to choose from
(3) I now have a convenient way to read all of the free ebooks that have been too awkward to read before.
For other people, the fact that you can buy new books and download them from the internet would be an advantage, but it is not an advantage to me. I like going to book stores.

My overall reaction is that the technology still needs some improvement, but it is adequate now. If you like older (that is, free :0) books or if you just have a long commute by bus or train and like to read, this could be a worthwhile investment. Of course if you are just a technophile, you don't need those kinds of justifications, just the assurance that the technology actually does what it claims. As far as I am concerned, it does.

UPDATE: I'm having second thoughts now that I have actually tried to buy something for the PRS505. The limited selection of formats is turning out to be a problem.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

e--book readers: Amazon vs. open standards

The big story going around the blogosphere this weekend is Amazon's behavior in deleting books from other people's computers (link from Instapundit who has done a good job of covering this even though he must make a lot of money from Amazon). The Amazon Kindle is an e-book reader --a small device designed to let you read electronic books. E-book screens are e-paper (rather than LCD), a technology that gives better-quality reading and uses natural light rather than back lighting. It looks like a neat toy and I'm planning to buy an e-book reader sometime in the next couple of weeks.

If you have a Kindle, you can buy e-books from Amazon and download them into the device. What Amazon didn't tell you is that they have the ability to not only download books onto the device but also the ability to delete books from the device. And they recently did just that after complaints from a copyright holder, with no request for permission --they just deleted books that people had bought.

They claim that it's OK because they credited people's accounts for the money, but I don't think that covers it. First, if someone paid ten dollars for the book then it must be because they thought the book was worth more than ten dollars. So they haven't been repaid what they valued the book at. Second, some percentage of these people will never see that ten dollar credit, either because they lose their account information or because they never make another purchase from Amazon, or for some other reason. A ten-dollar credit is not the same a cash money and I'm pretty sure that it is not legal tender.

And besides that, when has it ever been acceptable for someone to sneak something away from you and give you back what you paid for it? Does it become not-theft if a pickpocket grabs your watch and leaves you money in your pocket? What about the people who were in the middle of reading one of the books? I don't know about you, but when I'm reading a good book I couldn't stand to lose it before I'm finished.

Allahpundit asks
Is this a dealbreaker for would-be Kindle purchasers?
It is for me. I was wavering between the Kindle with Amazon's leadership on-line content and an open-standards alternative, but now I'm going for open standards. In a way I'm glad this happened because letting one company control your library is a very bad idea and it would have come back to haunt me sooner or later.

So I've been doing my research and I'm leaning towards one of these:
HanLin eBook V3 supports more formats than the other two and has the longest batter life but is also the bulkiest and only has one content partner. However, it can be used with content from other e-book companies.

Sony PRS-505 has the fewest open formats that it supports and is the most likely, in my opinion, to have Kindle-like drawbacks --I'm not sure how open it is to other content providers-- but it is supported by a huge electronics company and three major publishers. And I've been able to see it myself at a local Target store. It has more gray shades than the others, but I'm not sure if I care. I'm not planning to use this for images.

Bookeen Cybook Gen3 is the smallest of the three (so the most likely to fit in a jacket pocket). It supports more formats than the Sony and is less likely to be tied to specific e-book providers.
None of these devices has wireless connectivity, but I'm wondering how big a deal that is. With all of the free e-books available I'm more likely to have a hundred books on the thing that I'll never get around to reading than I am to be caught with nothing to read.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

the righteousness of null-A

The final issue of interest with null-A is the idea that genuinely logical people are moral people. This can be seen in "The Null-A Continuum" by references to evil acts as insane and various implications that the hero does the good thing because it is the sane or rational thing. But in reality logic and rationality cannot possibly produce morality. There are two reasons for this: the non-reducibility of moral propositions to non-moral propositions, and the requirement that to be morally good, one must intend to be morally good.

What I mean by the non-reducibility of moral propositions is that you cannot reason to a moral conclusion without moral premises. You cannot reason, for example
(1) Joe needs help.
(2) Ben has the ability to help Joe.
(3) Ben should help Joe.
The word "should" is the only word with moral force in the argument. The argument is not valid (as a matter of logic) as can be seen by another (clearly false) argument with the same form
(4) Joe needs heroine.
(5) Ben has the ability to give Joe heroine.
(6) Ben should give Joe heroine.
The meaning of "need" is arguably different in (4) than it is in (1), but I am just copying the form of the argument, not the meanings of the words. I could have picked words with entirely unrelated meanings, so a slight change in the meaning of one word does not matter.

You might have an intuition that the first argument is true, at least under some circumstances. Why? Well, presumably you think that if someone needs help and you have the ability to help, then you should do so. Let's call that idea GA1 for "Goodness Axiom 1" (we'll ignore all the complex qualifications that would need to be added for a really true goodness axiom). Now let's add GA1 to the original argument and see what we get:
(1) Joe needs help.
(2) Ben has the ability to help Joe.
(GA1) For all people X and Y, if X needs help and Y has the ability to help X then Y should help X.
(3) Ben should help Joe.
This is a valid argument but look at that little word "should" in GA1. That is a moral term. We have used logic to combine specific facts with a general moral judgment to get a specific moral judgment. But we did need the general moral judgment to begin with.

This is always the case. There is no way for logic to get from completely non-moral facts to moral facts --you have to start with moral facts of some sort.

But let's suppose that someone comes up with a logical theory GT that seem to have the same effect as morality. For example, suppose that the purely logical considerations of GT lead someone to GA1, and not only to GA1 but also to other goodness axioms like
(GA2) For all people X and all puppies Y, X should not kick Y.
(Ga3) For all people X and all kittens Y, X should not throw Y out the second-story window to see if Y lands feet first.
Suppose that GT actually seems to include all goodness axioms. Let's suppose that Ben wants to always be logical and so he always carefully reasons out his actions using logic and always ends up abiding by the goodness axioms because they are a part of the purely logical system, GT. Would this make Ben a good person? I'm not asking if it would Ben a good neighbor, or a nice guy to have around; I'm asking if Ben is morally good.

If someone sticks a knife in your throat, is that good? Well it depends on motivation. If the person who does it is performing a tracheotomy to save your life then it is good, but if the person does it to kill you then it is evil. And it is only the intention that counts. If a doctor slips and accidentally kills you while trying to save your life, his action in trying to save you was morally good. If someone tries to murder you and accidentally saves your life, his actions are still evil. In judging whether a person is good or not, you do not look at his actions or on their outcomes, but on his intentions.

So now you know what I'm going to say about the hyperlogical Ben. Ben is not motivated by the desire to be good; he is motivated by the desire to be logical. It does not matter what his actions are or what the consequences are. Ben only wants to be logical, so if it were logical to kidnap, kill, and eat babies then he would do that. The logical theory GT, no matter how close it is to real goodness is unlikely to be exact. At some point Ben will find a situation where logic leads one way and good leads another way, and because of his motivation, he will chose the evil act.

FOOTNOTE: By the way, "should" is not a true predicate and neither "should" nor other moral concepts can be handled by normal logic. You need a special kind of logic called deontic logic to deal with such subjects. But the issues are purely formal ones, and deontic logic is not a different form of reasoning from regular logic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

on acting like a Leftist

Cynthia Yockey is making a name for herself (with instalinks even) by going after David Letterman for his offensive jokes about Sarah Palin and her daughters. The jokes were pretty sleazy, even if the sex jokes had been aimed at an eighteen-year-old girl instead of a fourteen-year-old, but Letterman has apologized one and a half times now (the first was only half an apology).

But that's not enough for Yockey. After the real apology she writes
This [CBS's response] is why the campaign to get CBS to fire David Letterman must continue and expand with more and more people sending letters and e-mails of protest to CBS, Letterman’s sponsors and the sponsors of Letterman’s racing team to notify them that their products will be boycotted until Letterman is fired. It also will be important to send letters and e-mails of protest to anyone who appears on Letterman’s show to impress them that doing so will put a long-term stink on their careers.

CBS is still playing the “This will all blow over” card. No. It. Won’t.

Persistent, consistent effort on our part will persuade sponsors to drop Letterman’s show and CBS to fire David Letterman.
Elsewhere Yockey tells us that conservatives should be more like the Left. When someone on the other side makes a blunder, we should go after them relentlessly until we damage them in some dramatic way. Make an example of them so other people will be afraid to challenge us.

Yes, that's the Left all right, and that's one of the big reasons that the Left sucks. Stacy McCain quotes Yockey from a phone conversation:
Republicans are too willing to take that kind of abuse, Cynthia said, but she comes out of the gay-rights movement, and they don't roll that way.

No, they don't roll that way. Gay activists get people fired for contributing to the wrong proposition campaign. They maliciously set traps for young Christian beauty pageant contestants and attack them hatefully for weeks when they don't avoid the trap. Do you really want to be associated with that kind of attitude? I don't.

Is Yockey's idea good political strategy? It pretty clearly is. The Democrats have used the strategy with enormous success, to the point where people are afraid even to hint that they may have a difference on certain issues. A large part of why Democrats are able to force their caricatures of Republicans into the public consciousness is because entertainers go along. And a large part of why Republicans can't do this is because entertainers are afraid to go along with anything the Democrats don't like. If they were similarly afraid of Republicans, it would be politically very useful.

So, yes, politically powerful but wrong. One of the reasons that I identify as a conservative is because conservatives actually seem to care about right and wrong. The Left, of course, is famous for their holier-than-thou attitudes, but their morality changes with the political winds. They were the defenders of segregation until black people started voting. They were the defenders of recreational drugs and gun control until it became a political liability. They were the defenders of smoking until the tobacco companies started donating too much money to Republicans. They were the defenders of wars to defend the victims of dictators when Clinton did it but we all saw their change of view when it was Bush. They can take self-righteous moral positions on either side of an issue, depending on what's best for them politically.

By contrast, the conservatives base their morality on principles rather than on expediency. And my moral principle is that you shouldn't go after someone's livelihood to support your political goals.

Some people who seem to agree with me: Jim Treacher, datechguy, Sarah Palin. Not a lot of people on my side, but that last one is pretty significant...

they got the bastards

yeah! The FCC has finally tracked down the assholes responsible for those "your auto warranty is about to expire" phone calls. I must have gotten thirty of those calls, and ATT was absolutely uninterested in helping me block them or even find out who it was.

Everyone involved is claiming innocence, but they were actually using software to spoof the caller-ID system. That action proves that they knew there could be negative consequences of their actions if they were identified. And it's not enough to go after the owners. The FCC needs to punish all of the operators also. Everyone of them must have been told thousands of times that what they were doing is against the law and they kept doing it.

Next question: why did it take the FCC so long to do anything?

I wonder if I can sue them myself...

citations: instapundit and slashdot

Sunday, June 14, 2009

general notes on general semantics

One of the premises of general semantics is that our thoughts are controlled by the meanings that we assign to words. I'll quote from John C. Wright's introduction to "The Null-A Continuum":
The theory of general semantics postulates that through a proper understanding of the relationship between words and the reality words allegedly represent a mind can be trained to avoid disorientation. On an emotional level, a lack of disorientation means the absence of neurotic and self-destructive behavior.
This is reminiscent of some philosophers of the early twentieth century who tried to reduce thought to symbol manipulation. Symbol manipulation is just computation, and I explained in the previous post why computation cannot expand reasoning power. In this post, I will concentrate on three points: it is implausible that our thoughts really are limited by the words (or other symbols) that we have available, symbols cannot represent without the presence of a mental act which comes before the symbol, and if our thoughts really are limited by symbols then we have no way to judge which symbols are good ones.

I sometimes think in sentences. This happens when I am formulating an argument or trying out in my head something that I may write or say. When it does happen I am fully aware of it. Other times I think in terms of diagrams or physical geometry. I do this when I am trying to solve a problem that is too complex for my bare intuition to handle; I (like most people) have a more effective grasp of spatial relationships than of abstract relationships. Again, when I am thinking this way, I am fully aware of it. Most of the time, whether I am working hard at solving a design problem or wandering idly down the beach enjoying the sound of the waves, I don't think in symbols.

Some philosophers and psychologists would say that I am thinking in symbols but am just not aware of it. This view was especially prevalent during the first half of the twentieth century. But how can I be thinking in symbols when I am not aware of the symbols? Symbols are objects of consciousness. A symbol is a symbol in virtue of what it means to someone. Awareness of meaning is a conscious mental state, and without awareness there is no meaning. Being aware of a symbol unconsciously is a contradiction in terms.

Is there a more plausible to understanding of this idea? Maybe the underlying idea is that I have mental states that are the cognitive equivalent of symbols in the sense that they are physical objects or states in my brain that represent or are about something else. But how could physical states in my brain represent something else? It can't be the normal form of representation because as I argued before, something cannot represent in the usual way without a conscious intention for it to represent. The only physical way for something to represent would be with physical properties. What physical properties and relationships go into the relationship of representing?

One proposal is that representation is the physical relationship of similarity. For example a portrait represents a face by being visually similar to the face. A map represents the terrain by having elements that are geometrically similar to the terrain. But this account fails for two reasons. First, the notion of similarity is completely arbitrary. Does a glass of water represent Lake Michigan by way of chemical similarity? Does a piece of granite represent the Hoover Damn by way of having similar hardness? Even if you restrict "similarity" to being a geometric similarity it is peculiar that the lines on a map, which are just discolored sections of the page become representation of actual physical objects on the terrain. And what if John has a portrait taken but then grows a beard so that the portrait no longer looks like him at all? Does the portrait then come to represent his twin brother James who is beardless?

Clearly similarity does not work. Even if it worked in those cases that I mentioned (maps and portraits) it would not work for arbitrary symbols such as the word "Obama". The word "Obama" is not at all similar to the person the word represents. Representation is not a physical property at all, it is a mental property. A symbol represents in virtue of a mind intending for it to represent. And if a mind intends for the symbol S to represent an object O, then the mind must be able to form the concept of O without already having the relationship of symbolizing or it would never have formed the intention to represent O. If the mind needs a symbol to entertain a concept, then there is no place to get started. It needs a symbol to have a concept, but it needs a concept to have a symbol.

Minds can grasp concepts and think about concepts without symbols. And that is a good thing because if we needed symbols to think about things then we would not be able to grasp novel situations.

But suppose, against all evidence, our thoughts actually are controlled by words and what we think that they represent. How then could we possibly judge that some semantics is better than another? After all, if you are going to tell me that this relationship is better than that one then I need to use another such relationship between words and reality to decided if you are correct. But how do I know that that prior relationship is correct?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

is there anything you can't do with bacon?

It can turn boring lettuce and tomato into a fabulous BLT. It can top a boring casserole to turn it into a thing of wonder. Its grease can be used to fry some of the best eggs of all time. It can turn an ordinary cheese burger into a bacon cheeseburger. And now, it can be used for welding.

NOW and David Letterman

From Xrlq, wonder of wonders, NOW is actually criticizing someone for making sexually degrading remarks about a conservative woman and her daughter. Patterico and Allah also noted it. But I doubt that NOW has actually grown a spine as Xrlq suggests. I looked through their archives and there was nothing at all about the weeks of sexually degrading leftist hate visited upon on Carrie Prejean. That alone shows how politically biased this list is. They do criticize a few political personalities on the left for insensitivity on women's issues and they do criticize entertainers for sexually degrading remarks aimed at Governor Palin, but no political personality (I include commentators and reporters in that) on the left is criticized for making sexual attacks on women of the right. The two entertainers criticized for their attacks on Palin are David Letterman and Eminem. Frankly, David Letterman seems a lot less leftist than most in the New York entertainment business, and Eminem is grotesquely gynophobic, so I don't think you can give NOW too much credit on either of those.

By contrast, three conservative commentators are criticized for taking shots at women of the left: G. Gordon Liddy, Glenn Beck, and Bill O'Reilly. The criticism of Liddy is a good one --he was acting like a pig-- but the criticisms of Beck and O'Reilly are partisan (I first wrote "embarrassingly partisan", but after NOW's reaction to Clinton and to O.J., they obviously cannot be embarrassed). Beck was criticized for criticizing Obama for his affirmative-action stance in picking Supreme Court nominees. O'Reilly was criticized twice, once for comparing a woman to the Wicked Witch of the West and once for doing a Michael-Moore ambush on a leftist woman blogger.

When O'Reilly (actually a female producer) did the ambush, they called it "stalking" to make it sound like sexually violent behavior but I didn't see any criticisms of Michael Moore himself. If they really think that camera ambushes are bad, this would have been a good time to criticize Micheal Moore, just like they took the criticism of David Letterman as a good opportunity to remind everyone how mean some conservatives were to Chelsea Clinton (if Rush really called a 13-year-old girl a dog on the air then he should be ashamed of himself, but I doubt that NOW is reporting his remarks accurately). As to O'Reilly's allusion to "The Wizard of Oz", it was not very nice, but the woman it was directed at, Helen Thomas can throw around insults with the best of them and I don't see how calling a woman the Wicked Witch of the West is sexist since men are often compared to unflattering male fictional characters.

So, although NOW should be congratulated for being able to suppress their partisanship long enough to criticize a relatively conservative entertainer for making a statutory-rape joke about a fourteen-year-old daughter of a Republican, let's not get too carried away congratulating them their new-found integrity until they show that it can actually apply in more politically-charged circumstances.

UPDATE: foxfire in the comments has unearthed a link that discusses the alleged case where Rush Limbaugh called Chelsea Clinton a dog. What actually happened: Rush (or his camera crew) showed a picture of a dog when Rush wanted a picture of Chelsea. Rush claimed immediately that it was an error and apologized immediately and then apologized again a few days later, again claiming that it was an error. Furthermore, if it was a joke, it's hard to see how it was aimed at Chelsea since they hadn't said her name yet. As a joke it would be the joke of referring to the Bush's dog as a child --it would be a joke aimed at the Bushes. Even better, Al Franken who started this story about Rush was a producer of Saturday Night Live at a time when they did a skit that very definitely make fun of Chelsea's looks in a very mean way --and Rush criticized them for it.