Friday, February 29, 2008

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Huh.

I think I got more information out of the following three minute news break from 1980 than I typically get in a whole hour of broadcast news in 2008. Now what was that I was saying about civilizations losing their skills?



However, this news brief isn't without problems.

Announcer: Cleveland school officials say that one of the major problems of student drug abuse is that parents don't recognize that their children use drugs. Surveys of students and teachers in city and suburban districts show that 20% of the students call themselves regular drug users but most parents don't believe their children are on drugs.
Um, if 80% of the students aren't regular drug users, then most parents are correct in assuming that their children aren't on drugs. Of course, that problem is as much with the district officials as it is with the newscaster.

Oddly enough ...

I can only find the transcript for one of my favorite SNL pieces online, but not a clip of the piece itself. NBC must be really good at pounding people into the dust on the internet. The skit was Harry Anderson's "Needle thru Arm" routine, a transcript of which can be found here. Oddly enough, there are a large number of clips of amateurs doing the "Needle thru Arm" trick. Incidentally, looking for the clip I came across this helful bit of advice:

(WARNING: only use rubber cement NOT contact cement. Using contact cement on your skin will result in a permanent connection to the skin. Extremely painful when removing from skin.)
Somehow I had forgotten that this was the Ron Howard episode, which featured the great "Opie's Back!" skit.
Opie: [walks over to window] Oh, I sure wish Pa was here. He'd know what to do.

[Andy's head appears in the upper-left corner of the screen]

Andy: What's the matter, Ope? You got a problem?

Opie: Pa! Pa, is that you? I need your help. I came back to clean up Mayberry, but I can't. They took my gun!

Andy: Aw, a gun never solved anything. I never carried one. You wanna get people over to your side, [winks] do what I did! Talk to 'em, reason with 'em. And if that doesn't work, ball up your fists and hit 'em upside the head![grins] How do you think I kept Aunt Bea in line?

The FUTURE is NOW!

Actually, given that I originally wanted to write this post a few days ago, The FUTURE is actually seven days before yesterday.

Beach Patrol Swabs Mouths In Hunt For Serial Killer
DNA Taken From Men At Sex Stings

From local TV station WKMG:

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Volusia County beach patrol officers are swabbing mouths and taking DNA samples at sex stings in the hunt for the Daytona Beach serial killer, Local 6 has learned.

Beach patrol participation is part of a massive effort to track down the elusive serial killer before he claims a fifth victim.
But even worse than swabbing our mouths, they can now (or rather, could then) read out thoughts.

Brain-Reading Headset to Sell for $299

From the AP:
NEW YORK (AP) — Hands cramping up from too many video games?
How about controlling games with your thoughts instead? Later this year, Emotiv Systems Inc. plans to start selling the $299 EPOC neuroheadset to let you do just that.
The headset's sensors are designed to detect conscious thoughts and expressions as well as "non-conscious emotions" by reading electrical signals around the brain, says the company, which demonstrated the wireless gadget at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

The company, which unveiled a prototype last year, says the headset can detect emotions such as anger, excitement and tension, as well as facial expressions and cognitive actions like pushing and pulling objects.
So now the video game designers are creating the scary tech. It would be especially scary if combined with ...

Miami police plans urban test of Honeywell's micro-UAV

Police in Miami, Florida want to find out whether a small unmanned air vehicle able to hover and stare can help law enforcement in urban areas.

To that end, Miami-Dade Police Department plans a four- to six-month evaluation of Honeywell's ducted-fan Micro Air Vehicle (MAV).

...

The 8.2kg (18lb) gMAV is Honeywell's second version of the man-portable UAV. Compared with the original tMAV developed for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the gMAV has a larger outside diameter housing twice the fuel and providing an endurance exceeding 55min at sea level.
All of which leads to these kinds of thoughts:

Automated killer robots 'threat to humanity': expert

From AFP:
Increasingly autonomous, gun-totting robots developed for warfare could easily fall into the hands of terrorists and may one day unleash a robot arms race, a top expert on artificial intelligence told AFP.

"They pose a threat to humanity," said University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey ahead of a keynote address Wednesday before Britain's Royal United Services Institute.

...

The use of such devices by terrorists should be a serious concern, said Sharkey.

Captured robots would not be difficult to reverse engineer, and could easily replace suicide bombers as the weapon-of-choice. "I don't know why that has not happened already," he said.

But even more worrisome, he continued, is the subtle progression from the semi-autonomous military robots deployed today to fully independent killing machines.

"I have worked in artificial intelligence for decades, and the idea of a robot making decisions about human termination terrifies me," Sharkey said.
I, for one, do NOT welcome our new robot over-lords. Hmm. Maybe this isn't such a bad idea after all....

It isn't "the wisdom" of the ancients that I find impressive...

It's the skills.

Mysteries of computer from 65BC are solved

From The Guardian:
A 2,000-year-old mechanical computer salvaged from a Roman shipwreck has astounded scientists who have finally unravelled the secrets of how the sophisticated device works.

The machine was lost among cargo in 65BC when the ship carrying it sank in 42m of water off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. By chance, in 1900, a sponge diver called Elias Stadiatos discovered the wreck and recovered statues and other artifacts from the site.
Some of the current era's most advanced technology had to be used to solve the riddle of what exactly this ancient piece of technology was.
Using modern computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning, a team led by Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth at Cardiff University peered inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism and read the faintest inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine. Detailed imaging of the mechanism suggests it dates back to 150-100 BC and had 37 gear wheels enabling it to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The motion, known as the first lunar anomaly, was developed by the astronomer Hipparcus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BC, and he may have been consulted in the machine's construction, the scientists speculate.

Remarkably, scans showed the device uses a differential gear, which was previously believed to have been invented in the 16th century. The level of miniaturisation and complexity of its parts is comparable to that of 18th century clocks.

WOW! But why is this the only such device known?
One of the remaining mysteries is why the Greek technology invented for the machine seemed to disappear. No other civilisation is believed to have created anything as complex for another 1,000 years. One explanation could be that bronze was often recycled in the period the device was made, so many artefacts from that time have long ago been melted down and erased from the archaelogical record. The fateful sinking of the ship carrying the Antikythera Mechanism may have inadvertently preserved it. "This device is extraordinary, the only thing of its kind," said Professor Edmunds. "The astronomy is exactly right ... in terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa." The research, which appears in the journal Nature today, was carried out with scientists at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens where the mechanism is held and the universities of Athens and Thessaloniki.
One item that I would like to point out: If the powerful civilization that created such objects could collapse and loose so much of its most advanced technical skills, there's no reason to suppose that ours won't too.

Trying to Clear the Deck

Over the last few weeks I've wanted to write a few posts on this and that, but circumstances haven't allowed for that. So tonight I'm going to clear out two or three items. Unfortunately, these won't be full posts, but I need to get back into some sort of groove.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Let me 'splain. No, there is too much."

"Let me sum up."

Since the start of the year:

  • The shower in our master bathroom was torn out
  • Our house was burglarized
  • In the process of investigating the burglary, the police got finger-print ink all over everything, leaving several large stains on the carpet
  • Our master bathroom remained torn up and useless for more than five weeks
  • My mother went BACK into the hospital with what appears to have been a minor stroke
  • My wife and I have both been working like dogs at our jobs
  • I broke my new glasses
  • We've become Ikea Zombies
  • Our house has become an official "Better Homes & Gardens"-designated national disaster area
  • Our new computer uses "Vista"
  • I got crushed by a seven year-old in a recent chess tournament
  • And several other items I'm too irritated to recount.

But now things are looking up. Our insurance company did NOT screw us on the settlement of the claim, we have a new machine, our bathroom has been repaired, we have an additional 54 feet of shelf-space, and several other minor victories. (Amongst the other minor victories: "Vista" is actually okay! Also, the seven year-old is really good, and may be a famous player some day.) Best of all, Mom's most recent bout of ill-health appears to have been a timely warning sign, as opposed to a full-scale disaster.

I won't say I'm hopeful or optimistic about the rest of the year, but I'm only half as fatalistic as I was a couple of weeks ago....

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My Old School

My old school has made the local paper again. At least this time there's some glimmer of hope:

While the location of Evans is in the commission's hands, [Evan's new principal] Christiansen is doing what he can with what he has.

He painted over the scuffs on the walls in the main office. He recites the pledge of allegiance and holds a moment of silence every day.

He increased the number of after-school clubs from six to 36. He doubled the number of advanced-placement courses and increased the number of students taking them from 72 to 540.

Evans now has a motto emblazoned across its facade: Evans High School: A Place of High Achievement.

Christiansen knows he has a long way to go, but he does not feel daunted.

"I've never failed anything in my life," he said. "And I don't plan on doing it now."
The saddest thing for me is that when my parents moved to Pine Hills in 1960, they did so because Evans was the best high school in the county. Now?
Christiansen recalled that an Evans visitor, who had recently been to Ghana, shook his head as he toured the campus. "He told me this looks like any building in any third-world country he's seen."
There are just so many appalling details in this story. I think this is the second worst:
The air conditioning didn't work in the building that houses seniors and science classes.

"I raised holy hell and got a chiller here," [Christiansen] said. "It's been going on for 10 years. We don't even have A/C for our students? Aren't they just like any other kids? Don't they deserve what other kids get?

"I believe we have one of the worst facilities in the county, and probably Central Florida, and likely the state."
Just to be clear, that building without AC has almost no windows.

But I think this is the worst detail, at least from a visceral standpoint:
For the new administrators, one of the worst features was what students called "the green mile," a reference from the Tom Hanks movie The Green Mile about the walk from death row to the execution chamber.

At Evans, it's the 6-inch-wide green stripes that border the campus' concrete walkways. For years, students had to stay between the stripes. They couldn't step over them, even to eat lunch on the benches in a weedy courtyard.

They felt penned in, like animals.
Wow. We thought the place felt like a prison when they put barb wire on top of the chain link fence that encircled the campus back in the 1980s. No wonder the so many of the students act like animals: that's all anyone ever expects of them.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

All Gone to Hell

The year 2008 is now officially on my personal shit-list. The latest is that Mom is back in the hospital, apparently after suffering a mini-stroke. (I believe that's a TIA in the lingo.)

I don't know what it is, but every 20 years everything just seems to go all to hell. 1968 was horrible, since that was the year of my birth. Seriously, what's up with that?! From the warm, snug security of the womb one gets thrust into this vale of tears. That's just play crazy! Plus, I had an inguinal hernia that did not heal on its own, eventually requiring surgical repair. The best part of THAT trip to the hospital was that they lost me for several hours. (I believe they eventually found me at the loading docks, sharing a smoke with some of the orderlies. I've since given up the habit.)

And I've already expounded on the crap-fest that was 1988. Incidentally, I ripped open another inguinal hernia THAT year, which also required surgical repair. (The hospital didn't lose me that time, however.) I'm starting to suspect that I will rip open another hernia this year. I'd swear to not pick up anything heavier than a box of crackers, but that didn't help last time.

Just to be safe, I'm pre-emptively adding 2028 to my shit-list. I got my eyes on you, 2028, so don't try anything with me.

Monday, February 04, 2008

A story that's not all that surprising....

...if one has been paying attention.

In a paper published online Monday in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal, Dutch researchers found that the health costs of thin and healthy people in adulthood are more expensive than those of either fat people or smokers.

Van Baal and colleagues created a model to simulate lifetime health costs for three groups of 1,000 people: the "healthy-living" group (thin and non-smoking), obese people, and smokers. The model relied on "cost of illness" data and disease prevalence in the Netherlands in 2003.

The researchers found that from age 20 to 56, obese people racked up the most expensive health costs. But because both the smokers and the obese people died sooner than the healthy group, it cost less to treat them in the long run.