Tuesday, December 23, 2008

car keys

The keys to my 2000 Jaguar S type have a little remote control attached to them. Now it is pretty standard but at the time it was a rather new feature.

It has four buttons on it:

The first is a lock button. This one button does what all technology should, it makes my life better. The brilliance of this might not be readily apparent to everyone but it makes it so I never lock my keys into the car. On my old van the easiest way to lock the car was to hit a button inside the car. This made it all to easy to lock the door, close it, than realize you don't have the keys. With this button on the jaguar I am outside the car and have the keys every time I lock

The second button is an unlock button. It is nice but unlocking cars was never hard so the net benefit to my life is only slightly positive.

The next button is a panic button. This is Annoying and has no real use but does nothing worse to my life than make me yell at my car when I accidently hit it. People ignore car alarms but pay attention to people yelling help. So I would never actually would want this feature.

The last button I could easily be talked into paying at least a hundred dollars to disable. It is the open trunk button. Sounds harmless enough, right? Actually it just cost me a few hundred dollars and almost certainly will again. Let me explain. The first thing to understand is that it doesn't actually open the trunk, it unlatches it. The trunk stays closed until someone lightly pulls up on it. The insidious part happens when you accidentally hit it, the trunk is now ready to open but you have no idea. Being unaware you drive away with an unlatched trunk. Then when you hit a big enough bump it opens, often causing you to lose whatever happens to fall out before you
noticed it. This just happened to me on the freeway while going eighty with a trunk full of text books and binders of notes. I spread papers over a several mile section of road

Monday, December 22, 2008

Research supports my laziness

It is nice to see when research supports me being lazy. The research has been getting worse and worse for vitamins. Add to the list of things vitamins don't do, preventing cancer.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bad Timing

I sure hope I didn't completely miss the boat on energy jobs. After growing by 500% in a ten year period it really does look like the wind power industry is beginning to slow down, so is the solar industry. I suppose I shouldn't worry though, if the Bush administration manages to preside over more growth in Wind power than the Obama administration than it will be one damn strange twist of fate(although alternative energy probably did do better in the Bush administration than the Clinton one so maybe that is wishful thinking on my part).

Some videos

I haven't posted videos in a while, mostly because I haven't been watching them. So, here are a few from people I am impressed by:

Daniel Gilbert giving a talk for TED:

He is a happiness researcher at Harvard who has contributed a lot to my world view

xkcd founder giving a talk at google:

This is just impressive because he is a member of my demographic group: pasty white guys.

I haven't watched this one yet, but Rames Randi is one of my heros:

He is a magician, and one of the best people alive at seeing through bullshit. A shame he is almost 80, the world always needs someone like him around.


I finally gave in and started listening to Malcolm Gladwell's new book last night. While I had heard most of it before, it is still nothing less than stunning. Within the first few pages he managed to convince me of things I don't think anyone else could.

For example there is about an 11% lower college graduation rate for people who are the youngest in their class than people who are the oldest in their class. That is not the age for their college class, it is the age for their elementary school class! The gap between the average test scores for forth graders is huge between those youngest, and oldest, students in the grade (something like ten or fifteen percentile points). That alone convinced me that: either elementary school classes should be split into kids in a 3 month age range rather than a one year range, or any program that selects students based on their intelligence and gives them better education before the age of ten needs to be eliminated. While it is possibly making the smart kids smarter, just as often it seems to be making the old kids smarter. That extra preparation is what seems to be driving the higher college graduation rates for that group. Once they were passed over for GATE programs and the like they are far less likely to catch up to their classmates who were once just older than them and are now actually smarter from the better elementary school education they got.

Probably the better of the two choices is simply making age ranges for elementary school kids in a class a three month range. It would cost almost nothing to do, but for those youngest children not being compared to children a year older saves a great deal of frustration, but I can see the other point. From a fairness, and class mobility standpoint eliminating those programs before the age of ten could do a lot of good. Giving a small number of students a huge institutional head-start does seem unfair. These clearly are the students who already have better parenting on their side, better schooling to go with it seems extreme.

In a way the book is fairly motivational. As best as psychologists can tell the difference between someone who is poor, and someone who is one of the best in the world, at just about anything is simply practice. For example huge studies on musicians have been completely unable to find any world class musicians so brilliant as to get to that level with less than 10 000 hours of practice. That is about 20 hours a week for ten years, so typically it ends up taking a decade to reach that level. Not only that, but when looking at music school students they were unable to find any people who had practiced that number of hours and not reached that level! Consistently the poor musicians were simply the ones who practiced the least. Beyond actual mental retardation there is almost no place for talent whatsoever, those who practiced more beat those who practiced less every time.

Talk about motivation to get off the computer and learn something of importance! Actually though I could argue that what I am doing now is part of the 10 000 hours needed to build some skill. Another 9000 hours and I could actually be a competent writer!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fusion and Solar

This graph, from this article I found interesting.

It is more interesting when looked at side by side with:

Some environmentalists complain nuclear fission gets so much more money. This complaint seems silly to me, the ratio of subsidies to production is far better for nuclear. A dollar the government spends on nuclear power produces a lot of energy, a dollar spent on solar hardly anything.

The questionable allocation of resources gets really bad when comparing wind/geothermal/water/biomass with solar. We have spent as much on solar research as all of those combined! Yet the second graph clearly shows those three all producing at least ten times as much electricity. Talk about a misallocation of resources. I am not necessarily saying the solar budget needs cut as it, along with fusion, are possibly the best long term solutions, but if geothermal and wind have proven themselves to be so much more capable with so much less money, than shouldn't we be throwing more money at them to see what they can do? This is particularly true of geothermal which has got almost no government funding yet manages to consistently outproduce solar.

What comes up

This figure, from this article, is really quite impressive.

I think that my expectation that housing prices would return to their 2000 levels, and could fall as fast as they came up will not be far from the truth. The only thing I am surprised at is they seem to be falling faster than they came up. Oh well, no one in their right mind will buy into the idea of real estate being the ideal investment for a few years so if I can just get a job and start saving I will be in good shape to buy right at the bottom.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Silly arguments

This might be the silliest argument I have ever heard that nuclear power is not a zero carbon energy source.
But have they considered the carbon emissions that would result from the burning of the world's cities if, say, the expanded use of nuclear power led to increased nuclear-weapons proliferation and, hence, to nuclear war?

But nuclear power takes by far the longest—anywhere from ten to 19 years from planning to operation—so it has the highest level of opportunity-cost emissions. When you combine these implied emissions with the emissions produced in the process of building the plant and mining the required uranium (plus the off-chance of a big carbon release resulting from a nuclear war), nuclear power produces as much as 180 grams of carbon-dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour. That's still a lot less than coal. But for a supposedly carbon-free power source, it's pretty lousy.

Every single country that currently has nuclear weapons, made their first nuclear weapon before they made their first reactor(North Korea might be an exception to this but they have so far failed to make a bomb that doesn't fizzle, despite having nuclear reactor experience). Therefore there is little reason to expect that blocking countries from building nuclear reactors will block them from getting weapons.

You cannot build a nuclear weapon out of reactor grade Uranium, or even Plutonium for that matter. Because of the requirement of separation of different isotopes before you build a weapon from either source, it is just as difficult to build a bomb out of reactor grade material as it is from natural Uranium. Therefore nuclear reactors do not lead to it being easier for terrorists to get their hands on bombs. The biggest risk with terrorists will always be a group of them stealing a weapon from a military not building their own(usually its Russia people are concerned about, but you could imagine a situation where a quick strike might be able to even seize an American one, although it would probably require hundreds of terrorists an event almost impossible to coordinate).

Now, there will be more highly trained people in nuclear technology if we build more reactors and this will make it slightly easier for nation states to build atomic weapons. However both Pakistan, and South Africa have managed to figure out how to build atomic bombs. These are not exactly the most rich, or technologically advanced countries. That demonstrates that almost any country seriously considering building nuclear reactors could have nuclear weapons if it wanted them, without going through the trouble of building the reactors as a stepping stone.

As for the second argument he makes, that the longer construction times increases the amount of Carbon produced based on opportunity cost. I don't really buy that either. First off, assuming a time of 10-18 years is silly, in any event where nuclear power will make a difference in America reactors will be built in six years or less. The actual construction time is in the 4-6 year range, the rest of that is regulatory red tape that will be easy to streamline without compromising safety.

Even assuming that his timing is correct however, it doesn't change the fact that this is a fictitious cost that will only be incurred at the start of a big scale up in the use of nuclear power. It doesn't change the fact that the total amount of CO2 produced by a nuclear plant over its lifetime is similar to the amount a wind plant of the same capacity would produce. Once the grid developed to the point where nuclear plants were replacing other nuclear plants rather than coal plants this cost would entirely go away.

Oh, and I get to the end of this absurd analysis to see his result. Even after he assumes the burning of major cities from nuclear wars, and adds in several fictitious costs that will not matter in the long run: Nuclear Power still produces electricity while producing one sixth as much CO2 as using coal plants.

Yes, the technology is that good, even those who try really really hard cannot make it look worse than coal.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Steven Chu

I have seen Steven Chu give a couple talks, and had mostly good memories of his knowledge on energy policy. Reading up on the man a little more and I don't think Obama could have found a person who agrees with me more. He seems to acknowledge some simple truths that Obama never seemed to really grasp. For example he has publically stated that we should replace our coal fired plants with nuclear ones. He does this mostly because he realizes that coal power plants are not only releasing more Mercury, Carbon Dioxide, Sulfur, and Nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, but they release a hundred times as much radiactivity into the environment! There really is no environmental justification to stop building nuclear plants until we replace every coal plant we have.

On the biofuels front I typically find him to be the weakest. He however seems to at least know what he is up against though which is better than I get from most people. He directly points out just how much more land you need to get an equal amount of energy from biofuels than from solar cells, and at least isn't an advocate for corn ethanol. Still, he still seems to advocate advanced biofuels that depend upon the 0.1% photosynthetic effeciency of green plants which to me seems a pretty silly black hole to drop money down.

Overall though, he has the ability to just stand up and tell things like they are even if they are unpopular. No one has questioned the existence of greenhouses in hundreds of years; pretending like switching the silicon dioxide in a greenhouse panel with the most chemically similar molecule in existence, carbon dioxide, somehow completely changes this basic physics is silly. The greenhouse effect is real and the only debate we need to be having is how much we are willing to live with and what we are going to do. One of the nice things about having a Noble prize in physics is you have instant credibility. This throws a real wrench into the hire-a-scientist tactics that seem to be standard policy for lobbyists. In order to be taken seriously they have to find a scientist of the caliber of Steven Chu, which in politically charged issues will not be easy.

Friday, December 12, 2008

And life moves in the right direction

My cell phone was returned, my car is running again(it needed a new battery), my defense went well (I actually have to finish writing my thesis, but my committee signed off on my research/presentation so finishing writing the thesis is merely a formality at this point), and two of my four grades are posted, both A's.

Sounds like things are moving in the right direction at least.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

and that makes two of them

Well, I had a hole in my pocket, and now I have neither a cell phone nor any idea where to find it. I guess that makes two of them.

I really have no idea what I will be doing about that, buying two iphones a year isn't really an option but they catch you in a contract so it will be a real pain to get a phone that people will actually return to you when it is lost.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

I may not use open office again

So, I am writing my thesis and things seem to be going fairly well. But I decided to save it and reopen it because I seemed to have hit some setting I don't know how to get out of otherwise. I then reopen my document and find that every single image and has been deleted! It will take me at least an hour to return it to the state it was previously in! Apparently it is a known problem, and essentially the only solution is to simply not work in microsoft word formatting.

Not using .doc files seems absurd to me, no one knows what to do with a .odt file when you send them, which I have done by accident resulting in wasted time on both the part of me and the professor I sent it to. Even worse I have had one experience where I went to a presentation accidentally bringing an open office formatted presentation and it forced me to give the talk cold, without slides. Since that point in time I have religiously used the microsoft formating as a way to avoid any problems. Now that I know using microsoft formating can cause equally bad problems that leaves me with only one reasonable choice, come up with a real copy of microsoft office as soon as I can. I suppose since I am done with school this may become less important quite quickly though.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Almost done

My thesis defense is scheduled for next Tuesday. As I am not happy with my presentation, thesis, or lab work this may just be the most stressful week of my life. After that will be time for something completely different.