Saturday, April 13, 2002

Thursday, April 11, 2002

Non embryonic stem cell breakthrough?

I'll be keeping an eye on this. An Australian man has had adult (non-embryonic) stem cells injected into his heart in hopes of regenerating the tissue. Saving this one life might save many more.

Long distance dedication

Glenn Reynolds has updated his links this week to include such worthies as Kolkata Libertarian Suman Palit, Dr. Frank, Susanna Cornett, Mindles H. Dreck, and even this humble blog. To commemorate this occasion, I offer this obscure oldie.

Blacks vs. Unions

The Democrats have one of the strangest coalitions ever assembled. Among the least compatible groups are blacks and unions.

There's a certain perverse respect involved in racial discrimination. After all, you wouldn't need to discriminate if you knew that the victim couldn't do that same job you were doing. You know damned well they can, and might even do it more cheaply.

That was the driving force behind apartheid. White labor didn't want to have to compete with local blacks, so they used the law to prevent them from being hired. (Do you suppose these are the "stupid white men" Michael Moore is talking about?)

There was a similar situation in the South with the Jim Crow laws. Guess which party enacted those laws? I'll give you a hint - Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.

Don't get too smug, Yankees - guys like you passed the Davis-Bacon act:
The Davis-Bacon Act exemplified the protectionist laws of the first half of the twentieth century. The law originally was proposed in 1927 by Rep. Robert Bacon of Long Island, who was alarmed about low-paid black Southerners coming into his district and taking jobs away from white, unionized construction workers. By 1931, when the Depression intensified competition for scarce jobs, the law was enacted, requiring contractors to pay prevailing wages on all federal construction projects. The law removed the economic incentive to hire unskilled black laborers, and the black unemployment rate in the construction industry has remained far higher than the white rate ever since
Labor leaders aren't as prominent as they once were, but they're still around. Can you name any that are black? Could this be evidence of discrimination? Shouldn't there be a quota? Where are Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton?

Who's next?

I have never been a smoker, and I'm glad that I'm exposed to less smoke than before. But I'm not willing to make up statistics about the dangers of second-hand smoke or to demonize smokers, much less deny them employment. But I don't live in St. Cloud, FL, south of Orlando near Disney World.

The city of St. Cloud, FL, doesn't want to hire smokers. I wonder if they'll make an exception for the fire department.

I liked this, from a letter to the editor:
May the city of St. Cloud be blessed with an abundance of employment applications from every hypertensive, diabetic, obese, HIV-positive, alcoholic, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, drug-dependent person in Central Florida.
I've read of other municipalities that forbid smoking outdoors, and although I can't find a link just now, I thought Los Angeles had forbidden city workers from smoking on their own time.

Keep an eye on a self-righteous crusader named John Banzhaf, coming soon to a TV near you. He's the most insufferable of the anti-smoking crowd, and he's already planning his next campaign after tobacco.


The neat thing about looking stuff up on the Web is what you find along the way. I was trying to find more background on Paul Benedict on IMDB, then clicked his birth date. What do you know? - it brought up a huge list of people who were born, who died or who got married on that day.

OK, I edited the URL to April 10 and got this.

Peter McNicol is 48? He and Haley Joel Osment, John Madden, Lenin and Lew Wallace (the pride of Crawfordsville, IN) were born on this day.

Larry Linville died 2 years ago at 60 - he was Major Burns on M*A*S*H. Peoria, IL favorite Sam Kinison was killed in a car wreck on this date in 1992 - I was in a Peoria nightspot at the time (I must have been doing a deal), and they announced it and stopped the music.

Dennis Miller, Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall, Meredith Baxter Birney and David Birney, and Hermann Goering all got married on this date.

More useless information I'll remember...

Giants of Hollywood

I had read something about Rondo Hatton some years back, and for some reason it came popping back into my head today. Incidentally, I was nowhere near a mirror at the time.

Alright, who was Rondo Hatton? Supposedly he was a good-looking kid, and eventually he made his way to Hollywood.

Hatton wasn't the only actor with his particular gifts. There was also Paul Benedict, the neighbor across the hall in "The Jeffersons". And Richard Kiel, a villain from Bond flicks ("Jaws").

And don't forget the most famous of all, Andre Rene Rousimoff, who played in "The Princess Bride".

Rousimoff really was famous - just not as an actor. He was best known as a professional wrestler, "Andre the Giant".

Andre is dead now, so I can safely note that whatever his other strengths, he wasn't exactly a hottie in the looks department. Neither were any of the others, because they all had a strange disease called acromegaly.

Mercifully this condition is not common, yet here we have 4 actors with it. Hooray for Hollywood.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Cheap plastic solar cells

Nothing like being timely - Quana posted this over a week ago. It's about a new way to make solar photovoltaic (PV) cells cheaply at a large scale, at the cost of efficiency.

Early practical solar cells were developed for the space program. Cost mattered little compared to the amount of power, the volume and the weight, and we didn't need tremendous amounts of it. This forced the development of technologies that were particularly efficient (but still only on the order of about 10%) but expensive and slow to fabricate.

Suppose you want to use PV to power houses? Now weight, bulk and efficiency are less important, but you want cheap, fast, and lots of it. Suddenly the old technologies are no longer appropriate.

Imagine if you could get as much of this stuff as you wanted, and cheaply. You could use it for roofing, siding, drapes, tarps, umbrellas... If it's less efficient than other technologies, who cares? - even if you only get 1% of the power the sun shines on it, that's more than you had without it.

But guess what it's made out of. Cadmium, which is highly toxic. And plastic (polymers), which might well be derived from petroleum.

Tuesday, April 09, 2002

Neuro linguistic programming?

Another person's behavior can be duplicated by studying what that person does inside their head (language, filters, programs, etc.) to produce results. NLP was initially created in 1975 by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, who began modeling and duplicating the "magical results" of a few top communicators and therapists. Some of the first people to be studied included hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, gestalt therapist Fritz Perls and family therapist Virginia Satir.
Using your brain is something we take for granted. You have to start using it long before you can be taught anything like a method for doing so. So how can you know that you went about learning to do these things most effectively? Are they instinctive, or 'hardwired'?

NLP practitioners believe that you give physical clues to the way you are thinking in various ways, particularly with eye movements. Not everyone is the same, but many people supposedly are as follows: if you are trying to remember how something looked or picture how something would look, you look upward. Remembering or imagining would have you looking straight ahead. Remembering or imagining a physical sensation leads the eyes downward. If you're remembering something, you might look to the left, but if you're imagining something you might look to the right.

So if you try to remember the last thing your lover said to you, you'd probably keep your eyes level and skewed to the left. If you pictured Yasser Arafat smoking Monica's famous cigar, you'd probably look upward and to the right.

An NLP expert watched kids taking a spelling test and accurately predicted who the best spellers were. How? He claimed to have observed clues about how the kids were thinking - where they sounding it out, or were they memorizing the way the word 'looked'? Not surprisingly, the latter group turned out to be far better spellers. Can things like this account for difference in performance in spelling, math, reading and others? Are people literally thinking about them the wrong way?

These things are very interesting to me because I am fascinated by human performance. Why doesn't Michael Jordan make every open shot? Why are we sharp some days and not on others? Why do some people take to a new dance step instantly while I look like Al Gore's choreographer? How can I play a guitar riff perfectly 50 times in a row and then foul it up? Why is there such a thing as 'aptitude'?

Maybe NLP can tell us why.

Learning styles

This is partly inspired by a comment Susanna made on an earlier post.

On my first job after engineering school I met a couple of men (a steamfitter foreman and an inspector) who had decided to become engineers themselves. They were taking calculus and physics at a local community college and having a hard time. So in return for a lot of free meals I whipped them into shape.

They had two totally different styles. The fitter foreman was Mr. Abstract - 1+1=2 was fine, but no story problems!. The inspector was Mr. Concrete - give him an apple in each hand and he'd know how many he had, but 1+1 would throw him. Well yeah, that's an exaggeration, but in fact I had to present things in drastically different ways to get the concepts across.

Ultimately both got A's in both classes for both semesters when I helped them. But in a real classroom one would probably outperform the other, with the decisive factor being who they drew for an instructor.

So which one was smarter? Does one of them belong in a 'slower' class?

Monday, April 08, 2002

Buff brains?

I wonder, what are people doing with their brains most of the time? I suspect that most of the people I meet are intellectual couch potatoes, thinking only under duress. I wish you could tell who was smart just by looking at them (blondes excepted...).

Math in particular is of interest because so many otherwise sharp people seem to have trouble with it. Sorry folks, but most of math is about paying attention to what you are doing and following the rules, with about 1% inspiration. The occasional oddball geometry proof or differential equation may take a bit more ingenuity, but if you try enough things you'll probably get there. It definitely does not cause a taste for pocket protectors or loss of social skills - get over it.

But it seems like everyday math skills are going down the tubes, even after taking calculators into account. It's getting to be a political problem.

I don't suppose we'll ever have cheerleaders for the chess and math clubs or the debate squad. The day may never come when a young girl will look in the mirror and decide she's not smart enough. Maybe we'd be better off if they did.


This morning has to be a personal best - 20 pieces of spam.

Even my mother has received an "enlarge your penis" email by now, so I was kind of smug...then I got mine today. It was from where else? (with any luck, the spambots will pick up that email address and hammer him good)

Another offered to enlarge my breasts, which reminds me of a neato product I saw on TechTV the other day. Brava is a combination bra/vacuum pump that supposedly is good for a cup size or two using technology originally developed for penis enlargement (the latter supposedly doesn't work, but I wouldn't know). It's available for $2500 under a doctor's supervision. Warning - some graphics might not be appropriate for work.

Someone has forwarded me something forwarded 8 levels deep. Maybe you got it too - are you 98% or 2%? They stack the deck by taking advantage of the fact that the sum of the digits of any two-digit multiple of 9 is 9 itself.

Then there's the inspirational stuff, which is terrific for the first couple of times you receive it. This seems to be a woman thing - anything I've ever had forwarded from a man is usually locker room material, like that "why is the camel called the 'ship of the desert'?" joke from a while back. Not that the ladies haven't sent me some bad ones, usually involving some kind of man-abuse (q. - HOW MANY MEN DOES IT TAKE TO PUT A TOILET SEAT DOWN? a. -don't never happened).

But I'm sure you have your own spam, so I'll leave you to it. Just don't forward it to me or Jane Galt

Math tricks

Find your own links for this if you want - I don't recall where I picked them up.

Any idiot can figure out whether a number is divisible by 2 - is it even? Put another way, if the last digit is divisible by 2, so is the whole number. For four, check the last 2 digits, for 8 check the last 3, ad nauseam. It works because 10 is divisible by 2.

What about 3? Add up the digits in the number. If the sum is divisible by 3, so is the original number. Is the sum of the digits too big? Repeat the process.

We covered 4. The rule for 5 is easy. 6 works if the number is even and divisible by 3. 9 works like 3, except the sum must be 9. 1 and 10 will be left as exercises.

What about 7? Beats me. But the decimals have an interesting property - they consist of a string of 142857. For 1/7, start with the 1 - .142857.... Start with the next smallest in the group for each successive increment of the numerator, thus 2/7=.285714..., 3/7=.428571..., and so forth.

Alright, I'm a geek. But this stuff can come in handy sometimes, even in a world where people don't even have to count out change anymore.

Wanna get hard-core? Try this. As I recall, the inventor was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, and worked out these methods to keep himself sane.

Sunday, April 07, 2002

The skinny on pro-ana

TechTV has a show called CyberCrime. The episode I just saw mentioned something about "pro-ana" websites. Apparently the 'ana' comes from anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder.

Alright, I was curious, so I went looking for some example sites. A lot of Google hits were not found, but here are some that were - message boards and personal sites.

Well, if your body isn't your own, I don't know what is. But surely nothing is less natural than starving yourself.

Apparently there is a concerted ongoing effort to shut down pro-ana sites. Should this be done? Are there legitimate free speech issues here?

I don't think so, unless the heavy hand of govt is involved. ISPs will bear the brunt of any abuse resulting from extremely controversial content and must be permitted to police themselves within contractual limits.

Even so, I'm not fully comfortable with hounding something off the Web.


Admit it, you abused your kid brother/sister/cousins. You probably told them stories about "the bogeyman" or put them up to do obnoxious things. Like sending them to Sunday school to ask "Can God make a rock so big that he can't pick it up?"

Greenhorns and apprentices get a lot of this too. They might be sent on missions to pick up some prop wash or a left-handed crescent wrench. After hours they might be taken on a snipe hunt.

A few years ago I found myself exposed to horses quite a bit and I learned a lot. I thought someone was pulling my leg when they told me that horses couldn't vomit and were extremely vulnerable to digestive problems. After seeing a couple of them hauled away on endloaders I became a believer.

Then someone told me you could make a seagull explode by feeding it Alka-Seltzer. Hmm - anybody who has parked near the ocean can see the appeal of this. After the horse experience,, this had to be bogus. Here is confirmation from the ultimate source of everything worth knowing, Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope.

Yo, Hawspipe - any comments on the seagulls?

UPDATE - I guess horses can vomit after all. Yeah, I know - thank you for sharing.

TMI at 23

The accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 happened just over 23 years ago. What, you didn't remember?

I guess that's a good thing. I wasn't looking for it, but I didn't see any press coverage either. If so, it's about time. Few events have been more overhyped.

I could try to explain exactly what happened at TMI, but it would take a lot of time and space and others have done it so well. This has terrific resources about the event, plant design, and even a little reactor simulation to play with. (I checked it - despite nasty accidents, you can win).

Here is a version of the event written by someone who does not have a technical background. It may be more digestible, but IMO it leaves much unexplained.

A few big picture observations are in order:
  1. The sequence of events was implausible.
  2. About everything that could go wrong did.
  3. Piping layout, instrumentation and training issues and poor operations practices aggravated the problem and contributed to non-optimal decisions by operators.
  4. A huge explosion took place within the containment building.
  5. Part of the core melted down.
  6. Some radioactive material was released to the environment in a controlled fashion to avoid the potential of uncontrolled release.
  7. Despite it all, I have heard that TMI's environs received less dose from TMI than they were eventually to receive from the Chernobyl accident half a world away. I'm looking for a link for this.
  8. A bad Jane Fonda movie called "The China Syndrome" had opened the week before. It might have disappeared without a trace without this free publicity. So even the PR guys had lousy luck, and the public was given a warped view of the nuclear power industry that went unmatched until "The Simpsons".
  9. Major changes occurred in the aftermath involving plant design, operations, emergency planning and others, and were applied to existing plants as appropriate. Often this were done without any semblance of cost/benefit analysis, which drove the capital costs of nuclear power plants through the roof.
  10. This says:
    The TMI-2 accident caused concerns about the possibility of radiation-induced health effects, principally cancer, in the area surrounding the plant. Because of those concerns, the Pennsylvania Department of Health for 18 years maintained a registry of more than 30,000 people who lived within five miles of Three Mile Island at the time of the accident. The state's registry was discontinued in mid 1997, without any evidence of unusual health trends in the area.

    Indeed, more than a dozen major, independent health studies of the accident showed no evidence of any abnormal number of cancers around TMI years after the accident. The only detectable effect was psychological stress during and shortly after the accident.
The contrast between the above and Chernobyl is amazing. More on that in the next week or so, along with the 16th anniversary.

If anyone is interested on more detail or clarification, don't hesitate to ask. I never worked at TMI, but I worked at a site like it and three others besides.

The saddest movie of all time...

I say it was "Cat Ballou". They had Jane Fonda on the gallows and didn't hang her...

What I should have done in college

I get a fair number of hits from Campus Nonsense (their URL has changed to That always reminds me of my college days.

What a waste!

It's not as if I didn't learn anything. After graduation I could tell that I was better prepared for my career than graduates from other schools, and I passed professional exams on the initial tries with high scores.

But so much more was there for the taking. I went to one of the finest engineering schools in the country. It had incredible students, staff, facilities and other resources. And it depresses me to think of how many opportunities I wasted or didn't even recognize.

Maybe you have to work a lot to keep the money coming in. So did I. I also took big loads - during one fit of insanity during my junior year of engineering school I signed up for 23 hours of classes while working 2 part-time jobs. But even that might have been survivable if I had managed my time well, and there was still time to "hang out".

Well, you have to have a life, right? Sure. But how much? And can't it happen sometime when you aren't spending so much on college? If you really just want to goof off on someone else's dime, at least find a cheap school and leave a slot for someone with better use for it.

Respect your buddies' time too - don't lead people into sin, especially if you know they can't handle it. And anyone who does that to you is not good for you - surely you can find other friends.

You might think that grades aren't a big deal. Maybe not, for some of you. But I found out a few years after graduation than my mid-700 GRE scores weren't enough to get me into a local, comparatively little known engineering graduate program, because my grades didn't reflect my abilities. And it really wouldn't have taken that much effort to raise them significantly - I simply didn't do what was necessary, and didn't see the need.

Ah, grades, they're about sucking up, right? There's a case for that. And there's a certain number of SOBs out there teaching - I was in one large class where no one got an A, and I had another instructor who had given 60% D's or F's to another class. So some things are outside your control.

But that's no excuse for failing to show up to class, "borrowing" homework, and confining studying to allnighters before big tests. Every slacker work habit you develop here will have to be overcome when you get a real job.

Your professors are probably interesting people. Try to get to know some of them sincerely. You might like them, and even if you don't the day may come when you need a letter of recommendation or just some good advice. Your personal network starts here if it hasn't already.

I could go on for days with this. But I wonder - would I have done things differently if I had known then what I know now?

I'd like to think so. I just wish I'd had the chance to ignore the advice.