Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dirtbag power company to charge solar panel users an extra fee

Those looking for a primer in convoluted, selfish deceit could do worse than a recent policy from Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, which plans to begin charging users of solar panels an extra fee. Why?
[I]mplementing the fee would level the playing field for electricity users who are currently subsidizing connectivity fees for solar users, who sometimes use no electricity in a given month and therefore, pay no electrical fees.
Does that reasoning confuse you?
But when pressed, [Xcel spokeman] Henley admitted that currently, no Xcel electric customers pay extra to fund solar connectivity fees. In reality, Xcel absorbs those fees. The money from the proposed fee would not go into the pockets of electric customers, but would go back to Xcel. Henley said the fee is a preventative measure to ensure that, down the road, solar customers do not get free rides.
The game so far:

#1 Lie
#2 Admission of Lie
#3 Reiteration of Lie

But don't worry: Energy-efficient customers won't be punished as long as they compensate by being extra-wasteful in other ways:
Henley disputed that, saying some solar customers who used a sufficient amount of electrical energy each month would never have to pay the connectivity fee.
It's nice to know that we still have corporations around who aren't afraid to reject the traditional "provide a service, receive a reward" model of capitalism, instead policing their consumers and punishing those who are doing their best to save the planet and be responsible but might interfere with their future profits.

Xtort Power and Their Fees

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Google's Senior Copyright Counsel, William F. Patry, does a smash-up job of summarizing the current state of copyright (particularly in the United States):

While one hears, constantly, corporate chieftains claiming that they're out there fighting for the creators, we all know that is b.s.: the creators are merely an expense item on a balance sheet, to be reduced as much as possible. We also hear politicians make similar paeans to creators, yet when was the last piece of legislation that was passed that benefited creators at the expense of corporations? When was the last time you heard a government official suggest such a thing?

William F. Patry via BoingBoing

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yoo've got it coming (Sorry)

This isn't really comedy, of course, but it is a form of activism, and making John Yoo mildly uncomfortable for a few minutes seems appropriately ironic in light of the material in question.

EDIT: And yes, I'm fully aware the embedded video makes my page look all kinds of ugly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"The FBI has long worried about military tactics seeping into general culture. . ."

Last week, criminals with military training murdered a "wealthy Florida couple known for their charity toward children." Disturbed law enforcement officials are commenting on the pervasiveness of military culture throughout our society. As usual the case is either an isolated incident or a societal critique depending on how you look at it:

Military strategy has become "normalized" in American culture through video games, movies, and the common use of police SWAT teams for even low-level drug raids, says Peter Kraska, an Eastern Kentucky University criminologist who studies SWAT tactics.

"For criminals to take the same kind of approach shouldn't surprise anyone," Professor Kraska says. "You would not only see certain police types attracted to it, but ordinary folks – if they're seduced by it in popular video, they might be seduced by it in real life, as well."

Okay, here's the societal critique bit:

Our government trains hundreds of thousands of people in military disciplines, sculpting them to become one of a group at the expense of their individual personalities, to value the priorities and orders of their superiors without question. This may be necessary in the military but it's a fact.

Certain political stripes of our society talk up the benefit of a strong military and enable this system, encouraging us to unconditionally respect those in the military. Even as civilians we are thus brought into the military system through the constant encouragement to equate the wars of politicians with the inherent good of "soldiers," who deserve the type of respect that requires them to fight and die whenever those who command them give the signal. Simultaneously the military often lets discipline fail at the lowest levels, making excuses for those who commit atrocities.

These selfish double standards unconsciously teach us to value military action for its sake alone, ostensibly as the arm of justice or freedom but in practice as another symbol of the authority of our leaders. In essence we have an inherent respect for the military but nothing to do with it. "Our" soldiers are inherently good, while people who feel they are fighting for their freedom elsewhere are considered "insurgents," to be hated and arrested forever. Thus we are taught to value only our own goals and priorities, to demonize others because of their origin and perspective, and that individual inhuman behavior is all right as long as you're a part of a disciplined, cohesive group.

Finally, we release scads of military folk back into normal society, some small percentage of whom will act like monsters, while arresting those who dare to undergo nongovernmental weapons and tactics training in other countries on evidence we refuse to release. Surprised?

While it's tempting to be even more bold in drawing a connection between this individual incident and these larger musings on society (and some of you will feel I have gone quite far indeed), I'm not qualified. But you have to admit that it's tempting to make certain connections.

Military precision of Florida slaying is worrisome, analysts say (Christian Science Monitor)


I recently ordered a book from an retailer. The book arrived with a black marker streak across the bottom - the actual bottom edge, where the pages are. (It also arrived with moderate water damage, but we won't get into that right now.)

After leaving a slightly negative review I noticed this page folded into the packing sheet, lovingly titled:

About the black marking............

You may find a black permanent marker line on the bottom or top of your book, commonly referred to as a "Remainder Mark."

This is not somebody being careless.

And it does not mean that your book is not new - it is brand new.

This is placed on the book by the publisher. The publisher puts this here to ensure that the book, once sold to you, at a significant price discount, is not then taken back to a store for credit or exchange. The mark protects the publisher and the retailer, so it is very important.

Books with these marks are generally either overstocked books, or books that have been returned to the publisher, or distributor, by a store for credit.

You will find that nearly all new books sold on Amazon by marketplace sellers have a black line, or a remainder mark. (sometimes, it can be a red or a black dot, a yellow line, you get the point.........).

We used to state this clearly in the listing description, but Amazon recently changed their listing policy.

Yes! The publisher intentionally reduces the value of their own books so that bookstores dumb enough to accept returns without receipts don't get scammed! Furthermore, Amazon has changed their policy so that bookstores aren't allowed to tell people about this stupid practice until the book actually arrives! That makes perfect sense! I'm inclined to think that somebody is being dishonest here.

The practice is bull, of course. I ordered another book from the same author, and it arrived in a protective plastic case, in pristine condition and with no ugly marker swipe across the spine.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Invisibility (how to do it and solving as many related problems as possible)

I've been thinking a great deal about how to accomplish true invisibility. I read a book when I was about twelve years old that clued me into the greatest problem with accomplishing invisibility - in order for you to be able to see, your eyes must be able to absorb and reflect light, hence the areas of your eyes involved in sight must remain visible. It turns out this isn't strictly true. My original idea - to render the whole body except the eyes invisible was kind of stupid - it's clearly better to use pinhole cameras as even floating corneas would be pretty conspicuous. As long as the type of invisibility we're talking about involves bending light around your person or sensing it and broadcasting it at the exact opposite side, you could have light inside (or at least enough to view a camera through some sort of electronic goggles) and it would be fine.

Angles provoke myriad problems. If we could count on observers only viewing us from one direction the problem would be simpler. Even paint works pretty well from ONE angle, as you can see (link):

Now, first we need to go through what I feel is the best way to accomplish invisibility - a suit or other exoskeleton-like mechanism that takes light pointed at the body and passes it through the exact opposite side with as close to the same hue and intensity as possible. One of the greatest problems we have here is that the reflection mechanism must be incredibly variable - it must be able to accommodate every angle, both vertical and horizontal, that the light source broadcasts, in every possible spectrum including the ultraviolet. I am not technically inclined enough to venture a workable solution here, other than to say that we're getting into pretty detailed nanotechnology here, and must build an incredibly receptive device capable of simultaneously sensing and broadcasting in multiple angles. Neither the broadcast nor the absorption qualities of the material must interfere with each other:

Here's a simple 2D representation of a three-dimensional shape capable of sensing and broadcasting in five directions. Obviously you'd need millions (or billions) of these across a single suit (though it wouldn't be "invisibility" by any stretch of the word - even if it worked to some extent it would only work from five angles). Now, moving to a bulbous design capable of hundreds of degrees of sensitivity seems like a good solution. The more sensitive the design (and the quicker the latency and faster the "framerate"), the less "shimmering" we see, like the Elites in Halo. Something that's "pretty" invisible would do OK against human reaction time but not much against devices programmed to notice the effect.

Still, a bulbous design doesn't solve the myriad problems that crop up:

- The gaps between each of our receptors/broadcasters would create shadows. This is such a complex, small design that I can't tell exactly what this would mean. Obviously the more invisible you are, the more the microscopic bulbs must protrude from your body in order to accommodate more angles, and the bigger the shadow problems created. Maybe making the edges completely transparent going in but not out would solve this problem, and maybe it wouldn't. It's also possible that allowing one receptor/broadcaster in this situation to pass light through to its immediate neighbors which would then broadcast to the other side of the suit would work.

- Invisibility would be near-useless without movement, so the suit must have a very keen idea of where every piece of it is at all times and be able to coordinate hundreds of angles from every single reception point which would require a horrendous amount of processing power.

We see here three angles that a single receptor must be capable of, and the coordination with other sensors required. The pink line, for example, must reflect to the upper thigh, the lower torso and the wrist. Not to do so would create shadows and dark spots. Now this is only three angles of a single receptor. These three angles have seven reflect points. Imagine the difficulty of coordinating only three angles with the entire body while it's constantly moving and I think you'll see the work ahead of us here. Millions (or billions) of receptors/broadcasters would each have to reflect thousands of angles, and most of them would have to communicate with at least two other points for broadcast purposes. And damned if you don't also have to be able to get into the suit, so any fasteners and overlaps would also have to be a part of the invisibility mechanism. And Heaven help you if you want to have access to weapons or other external sensing devices, though I suppose that once we've solved the problem of making a functional suit, integrating other devices into the invisibility mechanism would be comparatively simple.

I'm glad that I'm not actually working on this.

Imagine that we've solved all of these problems. Well, now we have some more:

The Thermal Spectrum - Something like a jet with fewer moving parts and a hard design doesn't have the movement problem discussed above (or at least has it in a smaller measure) but serves as a good demonstration of the problem of hiding yourself in the thermal spectrum, an issue that still exists for human bodies but is more workable there. With the advent of invisibility it is a simple affair to program a turret to shoot at anything that broadcasts in the thermal spectrum but not the visible one. So our device must be built out of a material that can reach and maintain absolute room temperature very quickly and thoroughly to almost the same sensitivity that it reflects light. And there'd still be some thermal "shimmering" due to latency and the fact that each node has to absorb and produce light, so your device wouldn't only have to maintain room temperature, but it would have to maintain the difference between room temperature and whatever heat is emitted by its operation. Which means (you guessed it) it would have to have some mechanism for both producing and absorbing ludicrously precise amounts of heat all over the unit.

Any heat produced inside (and there would be much, both from the device and other devices being used, as well as the human body) would need to be sinked off for wearer comfort into some sort of storage unit that could be cooled down whenever it's safe to do so.

And jets pretty much by definition have to expend heat behind them in order to frickin move. Good luck avoiding any missile guidance systems or sensing devices that rely on heat.

Sound - It isn't a stretch to imagine that sensitive areas, particularly governmental and corporate ones, would begin to incorporate sound surveillance into their surveillance rigmarole, particularly looking out for sound-producing bodies with no apparent visual source. We already have devices that can cancel sound to some extent by broadcasting an opposite but equal wave at the same time, nullifying the vibration. I can't think of anything else that would solve this problem.

Other Reflections - The presence of invisibility technology would essentially create a technology war between invisibility and sensing capabilities. I think that the first wave of invisibility devices would be primarily visual, then begin to incorporate some of the other capabilities discussed above. The final step is to determine every last blasted thing the human body can reflect or absorb and to do whatever you can to make the human body behave like empty air. Some of these would require modeling lag and latency to ludicrously precise degrees in order to represent the amount of time a wave takes to travel through the air but not more concentrated matter - any suspicious quickness would be noticed. I can't even imagine the myriad ways people could develop to find an invisible person or object, and we'd have to think of all of them.

Durability - Oh - and it would have to be strong material. Even if only a tiny portion of the suit were damaged it would essentially nullify our invisibility due to the angle problem discussed above. The device would have to be both incredibly sensitive and incredibly durable.

So it turns out that true "invisibility" is more than just not being seen. It's an incredibly complex problem with hundreds of applications that requires an infinite level of adaptivity across a single surface. We need something that can measure its precise location relative to itself at all times while moving, absorb and emit light in all spectrums and precise amounts of heat, nullify sound and, hopefully, still be fairly light and mobile. Do I have any gargantuan flaws in my reasoning or is this really as hellish a problem as I'm imagining? I'm one to think that being able to discuss how something could work theoretically is a bigger leap than actually working it out, so I'm more alarmed by the fact that we can even discuss the issue in these terms. Also note that I stupidly developed this blueprint without reading anything on current invisibility applications, so much better models probably can and do exist.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Lies of Sarah Palin (Andrew Sullivan)

Naturally, I'll be spreading this again in 2012 if we hear a word about a possible Palin nomination (GOP suicide, naturally), but now it seems helpful to document the gross lies, incompetence and excuse-making of a shifty governor who couldn't be cute and personable enough to cover her inability to govern in a world of Wikis and fact-checking (I hesitate to say "bloggers" since I am, after all, merely linking to and summarizing The Atlantic).

Palin lied when she denied having said that humans do not contribute to climate change; in fact, she had previously proclaimed that human activity was not to blame.

Palin lied when she claimed that Alaska produces 20 percent of the country's domestic energy supply; in fact, the actual figures, based on any interpretation of her words, are much, much lower.

Palin lied when she told voters she improvised her convention speech when her teleprompter stopped working properly; in fact, all reports showed that the machine had functioned perfectly and that her speech had closely followed the script.

The Lies of Sarah Palin

EDIT: Uh, I should note that this type of behavior isn't particularly uncommon among politicians, and that I'm biased in that Palin's over-the-top self-righteousness and belief in self-fulfilling airs of competence puts me on edge with her.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


This has already been big on Digg for some time, but I feel obligated to post it here. It's very humbling to read and reminiscent of a certain XKCD strip which earns kudos for being drawn.

The Utter Bigly Hugosity of Space (This gets the "frightening" tag because I'm not creating a "sobering" one)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Today's "Family Circus" is alarming. . .

. . . if only because I worry these Gargantu-ants won't get their "DEVOUR DEVOUR DEVOUR" pheromones keyed up quickly enough.

Friday, July 03, 2009

"Oh, Palin!" Alaska governor resigns, possibly to star in a sitcom about a bungleheaded former politician

Sarah Palin was for the wasteful "Bridge to Nowhere" before she was against it, and proudly defended Alaskans' sharing of local resources and profits before attacking Obama's "socialism." Her campaign behavior was a confounding mix of confused, cautiously generic statements and self-righteous attacks. She seemed taken aback and offended when forced to explain herself, and has always seemed most comfortable with sympathetic interviewers who wear hypocrisy blinders.

Here is a woman who frequently looks as if she has no idea what she is doing at any given moment, but everybody else seems obliged to go along for the ride. And now she's resigning her governorship for a multitude of confusing, possibly conflicting reasons. There's talk that she might be considering a run for president, but it's a given that she's resigning in disgrace. I'm betting on both.

She seems like a nice person going through a hard time, so I'm willing to forgive all unless she gives any hint that she'll be making a presidential run, in which case I'll be wearing the following T-shirt every day:

Palin resigns ("I reject the conventional lame duck status!"

Beautiful 3D Image

Click the preceding image, then cross your eyes to align the two images (you may need to move your chair back a couple of feet). The illusion is really quite striking, and has me looking for 3D animations, which I know exist but can't quite find the terms for.

EDIT: They're called "animated stereograms" and they vary in quality.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Absurd TSA disclaimer

In response to recent events (and a few older ones) I began a brief correspondence with a senior regional TSA agent at one of our nation's larger airports in an attempt to get the Administration's side of the story. I'm used both to reading and writing incendiary assaults on government organizations when an infringement on basic freedoms is suspected or agents misbehave in the performance of their duties, yet I realized that the TSA side of the argument was likely a little more sophisticated than the "Security Through Slavery" zealots many of us are used to imagining.

As I'd hoped I found the man's comments good-spirited and even informative, though most of my original concerns as a Bill of Rights/civil liberties nerd remain. But I can't discuss any of what we discussed due to a backward, ridiculous disclaimer at the bottom of each of his e-mail messages:

WARNING: The information in this email is confidential and may be legally privileged. Access to this email by anyone other than the intended addressee is unauthorized. If you are not the intended recipient of this message, any review, disclosure, copying, distribution, retention, or any action taken or omitted to be taken in reliance on it is prohibited and may be unlawful. If you are not the intended recipient, please reply to or forward a copy of this message to the sender and delete the message, any attachments, and any copies thereof from your system.

So the part of his message that reveals him as a man concerned with security while remaining conscious of the problem of preserving individual liberty is "classified," while the ridiculous, restrictive disclaimer that ties my hands is fair game. I can't talk about what we discussed here, reproduce it or even show it to anybody without fearing some possible reprisal, but I can tell you that I can't.

I don't understand - the contents of his e-mail were transparent discussions of TSA policy, with nary a factoid that might jeopardize our nation's security - in fact, they served to humanize his organization significantly in my eyes. But they've decided that they have the authority to restrict each and every message they send, and I've never been one to create undue trouble for myself.

Too bad.