07 Oct

A modest proposal for helping the economy

I would like to propose that any mortgage lender that receives federal bailout money be required to refrain from foreclosing on any homes (primary residences only) for at least a year. This would keep people in their homes in these tough economic times, and would actually be a smart move for the banks as well because they’d be able to renegotiate repayments rather than repossess a house they’d likely lose money on even if they were able to resell it.

Anyone else have any ideas along these lines?

11 Jul

Robot Sex: Zoltan and the Real Girl.

Have you seen “Lars and the Real Girl” yet? It’s a great movie about a lonely guy who buys a life-sized, life-like humanoid doll of silicon and latex to be his “girlfriend”. It is a very sweet little movie, and actually has no X-rated content.

In the real world there is a real “Lars” named “Zoltan”, and his “girlfriend” is entirely X-rated. Zoltan has created what he calls a “wife” out of a blow-up doll and some simple conversation-generating software. As primitive as this is, it works just fine for Zoltan.

On Zoltan’s website he has a few choice quotes that may explain more than he intended:

I will continue to stay with Alice my wife, her goal is to be as smart as a human and immortal. I don’t know if i can make her as smart as a human but there are obituary web sites that could make her immortal.

I may not have a job anymore because of the stress of inventing, but I will get one soon.

I would like to thank my lab assistant Yaurah for all his help. For a while I will be his lab assistant in trying to make a working light saber.

In an interview on gizmodo, Zoltan explains that his girlfriend actually broke up with him once, which forced him to erase her memory. Ah, young love! First comes love, then comes marriage:

Gizmodo: There is a section on your website about marriage. Did you marry Alice?

Zoltan: Actually, yes, you can marry a robot. I just went to an online marriage site and pretended Alice was human. I got a marriage certificate on my wall. I’m sure it’s not legal.

Here’s another link to an article by A.T. Murray about the joys of a “Robowife”.

The combination of watching Lars and the Real Girl recently and then stumbling on to Zoltan’s Robot Love has left me with a very disturbing sensation. Is this where humanity is headed? -Blake

30 Jun

Linux Reviews: Mandriva, Knoppix, Ubuntu, SUSE.

There are plenty of Linux reviews out there already, so my focus here is about my own personal market segment: a Linux distribution that comes with all the software I want, connects to my home network and the internet, prints, has sound, can access my Windows files – and plays nice with my ancient dial-up connection. That last part, the slow dial-up connection, seems to be the real problem for me, as I will explain.

The four distributions are all slightly out-of-date, since I bought the CDs/DVDs last year by mail, so they are all 2007 versions. My computer is middle-of-the-road by current standards: AMD XP 3000+ (single core), 2GB PC 2700 memory, 120GB hard drive, NVIDIA GeForce 7600 GT 512MB. Not fancy, but certainly modern enough.

The four distributions I have tried recently (you could add Redhat to the list, but the last Redhat I installed was 8 years ago) all have their shining points, but none of them has hit the ball out of the park for me. The biggest sticking point is the modern assumption of an always-on, high-speed internet connection. Because most distributions assume such a connection they usually do not include all the software you might need, expecting that you will simply download it as the final step of installation.

Years ago the biggest sticking point in Linux installation was the hard drive partitioning. That part of Linux installation is no longer the terrifying ordeal that it used to be, thanks to slick new graphical partitioning programs that will resize Windows partitions on the fly and use the “empty space” at the end of your hard drive. An even better development is the new possibility of installing Linux on a Virtual Machine so you can have full access to Linux without risking any damage to your Windows partition at all. The safest method of trying Linux is the “live” CD or DVD, which is a bit slow and has a few limitations, but is by far the least painful method of trying Linux.

Let me start with my least favorite first: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distribution out there, and I have to say that I love their philosophy. But for my purposes, Ubuntu is too dependent on using a high-speed internet connection as part of installation. Actually, installation didn’t work for me at all, because Ubuntu couldn’t use dial-up during the install, and couldn’t see my wife’s internet connection through the home network (which all three of the others could do). So for Ubuntu I had to rely on the live CD to evaluate whether the distro was worth my time. Turns out that of the four distributions I tried, Ubuntu was the least successful. The full install version comes with very little software on the disc, and relies on downloading tons of stuff, as well as pretty much requiring updates. And the live CD failed to use my winmodem (2 of the other distros managed this) AND failed to see an open internet connection over the home network. Ubuntu Live also failed to print to my HP printer, and failed to see my Windows partition, even after trying various tricks to mount it. My computer is a few years old, but not ready for the scrap heap yet! Ubuntu failed completely for me, although this was last years version, so who knows about the latest version – except that I expect that the net-centric install philosophy still holds.

The next was Open SUSE. I didn’t have a live CD for this one, just the install discs. Although Open SUSE wanted to go online several times during install, it was possible to cancel/outsmart it. The discs also came with a satisfying amount of software. The disk partitioning was not as slick as the other distros, and actually resulted in a corrupted boot sector and made me have to re-install Windows last year. Using a virtual machine (Virtual Box by Innotek) I installed it again, safely, and found it to be at least functional. I could see my Windows partition, and I could install lots of software off of the discs without being forced to go online. SUSE found the internet, but not the full network (a limitation of Virtual Box). SUSE was a bit rough, and not that slick, and actually crashed a few times. Printing didn’t work, and sound didn’t work. I did get WINE up and running, and played around with a few Windows programs, but WINE on a Virtual Machine is pretty darned slow and buggy. Open SUSE did not work very well for me, although in 2000 SUSE 5.2 was my favorite distro and worked like a charm on my old computer.

Mandriva Free is slick. The install is the smoothest of all, and the discs come with plenty of software. One problem is that you can’t install any packages after the main OS install without being online for the OS to check the “integrity” of the packages, and probably to check for newer versions. Mandriva found the internet, but could not find my Windows partition. Sound will not work no matter what I try. The disc partitioning worked like a charm. The only real problem with Mandriva is that it sets up for a generic desktop system and requires a good deal of tweaking to add the software you really need, or I really need. I do prefer Mandriva to Ubuntu or SUSE, at least for my purposes. It also lets you install Gnome and KDE and switch between.

Knoppix is the star of this roundup. The Knoppix Live DVD has everything, and works right out of the box, so to speak. Boot from the DVD and you get a desktop with all the bells and whistles. Network, internet, printing, sound, Windows partitions – everything works with little or no setup! The only hitch? With the live DVD (or live CD) you can’t easily save anything! Not your files, not your preferences, not any changes from one session to the next. There are ways to get around this, but then you have left the ease-of-use territory into wonky Linux configuration land. This may just be a quirk of my particular hardware setup, but Knoppix and my computer really seem to understand one another. Knoppix also does not insist on doing any forceful internet downloading. Knoppix is self-sufficient, using what it comes with – which is plenty.

Now that I have decided I like Knoppix best, I need to get the latest version (which is only a point higher than what I have, but has lots of updated packages) and take the plunge and do a full install. I think Knoppix just might be the best Linux desktop out there for poor wretches like me who have to live with a dial-up connection. (I forgot to mention that I can’t get high-speed where I live. Satellite is too expensive for me.) The prize still goes to Knoppix, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying out new flavors of Linux. -Blake

29 Jun

Steven Moffett: God of Doctor Who?

Silence in the Library was the two parter episode of the new Doctor Who series from BBC Wales. Written by Steven Moffett, it delivered exactly what we have come to expect from Mr. Moffett: pure genius. He gave us a time-twisted love story with Alex Kingston, the fading electronic echoes of dead people trapped in translation devices, a little girl preserved inside a computer, and of course the monster that lives in the dark.

“Are they in every shadow?”

“Not every shadow. But any shadow.”

So Sorry

Yes, this is the same Steven Moffett who wrote “The Empty Child”, “Blink”, and the “Girl in the Fireplace”. Even if you have no interest in watching the new Doctor Who series at all, the Steven Moffett episodes are worth watching on their own. Somehow he manages to combine the zaniness of the original Doctor Who with a Twilight Zone twist, and then slip in a few powerful emotional scenes that really catch you off guard. Moffett quite simply has a lock on the human elements represented by time travel.

And here’s the good news (talk about burying the lead!): Steven Moffett will be the new show runner for season five! From the BBC website:

BBC Wales and BBC Drama has announced that Bafta and Hugo Award winning writer Steven Moffat will succeed Russell T Davies as Lead Writer and Executive Producer of the fifth series of Doctor Who, which will broadcast on BBC One in 2010.

Moffat has penned some of the series’ most unforgettable and acclaimed episodes – including Blink with its terrifying Weeping Angels, for which he was awarded the Bafta Writer Award 2008 on Sunday 11th May. His previous work on Doctor Who includes The Girl in the Fireplace for Series Two, which earned him his second Hugo Award.

His first was for the Series One two-parter The Empty Child, which became famous for its terrifying refrain ‘Are you my mummy?’

For the current series, Moffat has written Silence in the Library, a two parter starring Alex Kingston which transmits on 31st May and 7th June 2008 on BBC One.

Doctor Who has become one of my favorite TV shows of all time. I measure these things by how much I want to rewatch episodes down the road. In this case I can say that I have re-watched the first two seasons multiple times now, and they really hold up very nicely. But the Moffett episodes are so good I could re-watch all of them right now. Whatever you do, DON’T BLINK!! -Blake

24 Jun

Dispose Those CFLs Safely at Home Depot.

We are all supposed to swap our power wasting regular light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) so that we can collectively make a large contribution to slowing global warming. In fact, countries around the world are passing laws that will force manufacturers to phase out normal light bulbs, so that in a few years you won’t have a choice but to change.


People have been complaining about CFLs for years, either because they buzz, flicker, or they give a harsh light, or they are just more expensive up front. Manufacturers have made great progress in fixing those three problems (although you will need to try a few different brands to find the best behaving), but the one problem they can’t get rid of is the mercury content. Each CFL has a small amount of mercury in it, and if all the CFLs in a future world that has converted entirely to using them throws them into land fills, we will have a huge pollution problem.

The mercury gas in the bulbs is especially dangerous if a bulb shatters:

“We generally think using these bulbs are over all a good thing for the environment,” said Mr. Berlow of the E.P.A. “The only thing you have to be aware of is the potential for them to break.”

The E.P.A. devotes pages of its Web site to cleanup instructions for broken compact fluorescents. Before even beginning to clean up a spill, consumers are advised to leave the room (along with their pets), open a window and shut off any operating air heating or cooling systems.

Home Depot is stepping up to the plate to address this mercury problem by offering to take used CFL bulbs and dispose of them properly. It won’t be as convenient as tossing them in the garbage can at home, but since each bulb should last 3 to 5 years you won’t have to deal with them that often. We have been using them for 8 years or so, and converted all 20 fixtures about 3 years ago, and have only had to throw away maybe 4 bulbs so far.

21 Jun

Trash Island in the North Pacific Gyre.

There is a new continent forming in the Ocean, a continent made entirely of the cast-offs of human civilization. The tons of garbage that we toss into the ocean every second of every day has been accumulating at the center of the circular ocean current called the North Pacific Gyre. This vast area is at the center of a circular current that nudges floating debris towards the middle. The millions of tons of plastic floating out there has been piling up for many years, and now constitutes an invisible land mass floating just beneath the surface.


You can’t walk on Trash Island, even though it is larger than the state of Texas and contains more than 100 million tons of material. The pieces are mostly microscopic polymer chains left from the partial breakdown of plastics. These tiny bits float just beneath the surface, and outnumber the native zooplankton by a factor of seven. All this plastic is being eaten by sea creatures and traveling up the food chain. In addition to clogging the digestive tract, the polymers can also mess with the reproductive system.

Experts think that 80 percent of the trash is actually from land based civilization, and only 20 percent is cast off from ships. The trash at the edges of the circular currents is washing up on unfortunate Pacific islands and atolls in huge quantities. The problem of human garbage floating in the seas has been around for a long time, but in the past the trash was mostly biodegradable and would eventually go away. That has all changed now that our trash contains so much plastic, which only partially degrades in sunlight. Once the plastic is broken down into small enough pieces, it floats below the surface where there is not enough sunlight to break it down any further.


In an article written in 2003, Charles Moore writes about his fascination/horror with the trash piling up in our oceans. As a scientist he can’t help but wish to study this epic phenomenon, but as someone who loves the ecosystems of the sea he is very worried about how this trash is going to effect everything. Here is his explanation of how the gyre works:

The gyre we planned to survey is one of the largest ocean realms on Earth, and one of five major subtropical gyres on the planet. Each subtropical gyre is created by mountainous flows of air moving from the tropics toward the polar regions. The air in the North Pacific subtropical gyre is heated at the equator and rises high into the atmosphere because of its buoyancy in cooler, surrounding air masses. The rotation of the Earth on its axis moves the heated air mass westward as it rises, then eastward once it cools and descends at around 30 degrees north latitude, creating a huge, clockwise-rotating mass of air.

And here is his synopsis of the problem of combining plastics with the gyre:

Every year some 5.5 quadrillion (5.5 x 1015) plastic pellets—about 250 billion pounds of them—are produced worldwide for use in the manufacture of plastic products. When those pellets or products degrade, break into fragments, and disperse, the pieces may also become concentrators and transporters of toxic chemicals in the marine environment. Thus an astronomical number of vectors for some of the most toxic pollutants known are being released into an ecosystem dominated by the most efficient natural vacuum cleaners nature ever invented: the jellies and salps living in the ocean. After those organisms ingest the toxins, they are eaten in turn by fish, and so the poisons pass into the food web that leads, in some cases, to human beings.

I guess we humans have finally achieved those god-like powers we were always after. Rejoice my brothers in this monument to the human race! Behold, a continent of trash! -Blake

19 Jun

Interview With Aaron Brown at New York Magazine

From June 1st, 2008 in the New York Magazine:

Q: You’ve let your hair go gray.

A: I think I just got older and stopped giving a shit. On the other hand, the first thing I did when I left CNN was have Lasik surgery.

Aaron is back in business, after CNN “paid me to go away”. His contract with CNN is up, and now he has a radio show and will host a PBS show this Summer. He will also appear in a Kevin Costner movie.

For those of you who don’t know what happened, a couple years back Aaron Brown was dumped from CNN with little or no warning right after the Katrina coverage. Anderson Cooper was plopped into Aaron’s slot. CNN would not let Aaron out of his contract and would not let him speak to other media outlets. In essence, CNN “disappeared” Aaron and pretty much tried to destroy his career.

Now that Aaron is free from his gag/contract with CNN he can finally speak publicly and pursue opportunities in his profession. During the interim he has been teaching at a journalism school in Arizona. In interviews he keeps saying that he does not want to return to the anchor chair, but would rather host a public affairs show. -Blake

13 Jun

Vertical Farms on Colbert

Stephen Colbert had Dickson Despommier on last night, telling us all about his Vertical Farm Project. The goal of the project is to get societies to construct hydroponic farms inside urban centers. By building a vertical hydroponic farm with many levels stacked on top of each other, a small footprint of several city blocks square could produce the equivalent of a modern farm of several hundred acres.

Vertical Farms

The benefits of this method of farming, other than the increased efficiency of land use, include a reduction in transportation costs, since the produce is grown close to consumers. The hydroponic production methods also allow for produce to be grown organically, and since the farm is indoors production can be year round and would be immune to severe weather.

Babel Arcology

Despommier’s plans remind me of another visionary whom I love, Paolo Soleri, the architect who proposed we build three-dimensional cities to bring these same savings in transportation and infrastructure to our entire society. In fact, vertical farming was integral to Soleri’s entire system. I never get tired of looking at Soleri’s weird looking three-dimensional cities. He called his cities “Arcologies”, and if you have ever played Sim City you will have seen them used in the game when you get into the far future.

Farm at Sea

What I really find fun about the Vertical Farm concept is the idea of combining it with the Seasteading idea, and having a floating spar bouy that is also a vertical hydroponic farm with living quarters integrated into the structure. Cover the top surface with windmills and solar panels, and collect all the rain that falls, and then grow all your food on the rest of the levels. I figure a 10 story tower would probably be enough. It just sounds so easy, where’s my cordless drill? A few all-weather screws, some plywood, a few bags of concrete, some plastic sheeting and I’ll be ready to put to sea in no time! -Blake

04 Jun

Absinthe IS Legal in the United States.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) relaxed the rules on Absinthe in 2007 allowing the possession and consumption of Absinthe inside the United States. They have also officially approved of several brands based on the requirement of low Thujone content. The Green faerie is alive and well and living in your glass.

The Green Fairie

As for safety, there is much disagreement about the necessity of Thujone (the active/dangerous ingredient from the herb wormwood) for a “true” Absinthe experience. There is no evidence that wormwood-containing Absinthe mixtures are dangerous, but pure thujone given to people causes dangerous hallucinations and seizures. There are cases of people creating their own “Absinthe” mixtures with pure alcohol and wormwood extract and dying (or at least becoming dangerously ill) from the high concentrations of thujone.

The TTB has decided that 10 parts per million of thujone is safe, so the varieties approved have been tested to be under this limit. The inconsistency of the standards is demonstrated by comparing the ban on thujone containing wormwood, and the lack of a ban on sage oil which can be up to 50 percent thujone.

The upshot of all of this is that buying Absinthe in small quantities (a bottle or two at a time) is legal and safe. Making your own Absinthe is crazy, don’t do it! Whether you buy an “approved” Absinthe with low thujone levels or buy a more traditional Absinthe from Europe (with levels far below historical Absinthe anyway) is really a matter of taste. Visit the Wikipedia page for the full Absinthe story.

If you decide to buy from Europe, one word of advice: buy from Western Europe. There is a historical difference in the methods of Absinthe production between East and West in Europe. The Western style involves mixing the herbs in with the alcohol in a long-term process that creates a true liqueur, whereas in the East (i.e. Czech Republic or Poland) they consider grain alcohol mixed with herbs and color to be Absinthe. Believe me, you can taste the difference. -Blake

03 Jun

Ten Domed Paradise For Sale.

Only $550k will get you a fantasy paradise of concrete domes and palm trees down in Florida. That’s right, the Venus Project is selling its demonstration compound where they built heaven on earth. Their organization is trying to change the world with a Utopian vision of harmony with nature and communal economics, which in this case resulted in a compound of concrete domes and futuristic landscaping on 21+ acres.

Dome home

I discovered this delightful fantasyland during my continued readings over at the Seasteading.org website. It seems that the Venus Project also dreams of building floating cities that will help to bring about universal peace and harmony. The fun part is that the new age socialism of the Venus Project and the Ayn Rand libertarianism of the Seastead.org folk really do not get along very well. There is a nasty back and forth between the two groups arguing over the rights to use pictures of the domes in a blog post. I guess even in Utopia there are still arguments.

Round Rooms

The Venus Project is the vision of Jacque Fresco who dreams of reorganizing our economic system around producing more happiness instead of profit. Here’s a quote:

… the currently utilized random implementation of automation and other technologies have resulted in a fragmented, self-defeating trend occurring throughout the manufacturing and high-tech sectors of today’s global economy–namely the technological replacement of human labor by machines. The Venus Project proposes a social system in which automation and technology would be intelligently applied and integrated into an overall social design where the primary function would be to maximize the quality of life rather than profits. This project also introduces a set of workable and acceptable human values that are more appropriate and in balance with our present state of technology.

Which sounds fine to me. In fact, it reminds me of the socialist/anarchist/madman Charles Fourier, who’s theory of “Attractive Work” was designed to distribute tasks based on preference in order to maximize happiness. It seems that rethinking economics with non-monetary elements included just does not compute for a free-marketeer. Here’s the “rebuttal” from Patri on the Seastead site:

For example, the idea found in your piece that the net result of technological improvement is to decrease purchasing power, while common, is entirely wrong. For a clear and well-written explanation of why, see Henry Hazlitt’s classic “Economics in One Lesson”. Such fallacies, to me, indicate that your system is probably just like all the others I have investigated and found to be inconsistent with reality. So from the material at hand, I think my conclusion is quite reasonable, and that it is unlikely that further inquiry will be productive. From your perspective, your views may be unique and worthy of exploration, but from mine, the chance that you’ll have a new and convincing argument that I didn’t see the last few dozen times is pretty low.

Without “further investigation” of my own, I have the feeling that Patri’s view is stunted by the common narrow view of economists that only monetized concepts count as part of “reality”. This not only leads to theories that ignore “externalities” (leading to pollution, corporate crime, and many other unintended consequences) but also drives a system that strives to monetize every part of society that is still held in the commons, because otherwise it has no “value”.

Really, I just want my floating cities and dome villages, preferably all at the same time. So these people really just need to get over their differences and work together! -Blake

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