Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Arctic Ice Update. September is the Beginning of the 2010 Ice Pack

As everyone knows, the arctic ice melts in the summer, and freezes in the winter. In September, the melting stops, and the freezing slowly becomes more important. It is a good time to see what happened.

2009 was a frustrating year for climate-change activists, the sea ice is greater than 2007 or 2008, but the ice pack is well below the 30 year trend.

While green house gas emissions and green house gas content has never been higher, the climate is not monotonically getting warmer. While the sea ice is not the lowest on record, it is the third lowest according to Nature.

David Easterling of NOAA at Berkeley says that the noisiness of the climate data makes interpretation difficult for the impatient. He says it is easy for skeptics to find periods of warming.

This reminds me of how investment advisors claimed the bonds pay higher than stocks, back last February. That was because the market was at record lows. Now you don't hear that as much.

There has been a lot of noise on this issue as passionate environmentalists get shrill to advance their cause. The truth is that predictions about ice-free polar caps in the short run, don't help.

Twenty Dollar Theory of the Universe

Tom Ciarella of Esquire pockets a wad of twenties, and travels the world to see what a twenty dollar tip/bribe will do. Very entertaining.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Boxbe, Trojan Horse Spam Machine

Sorry to everyone who got a Boxbe invitation from me. Boxbe is a "white-list" email program, that I got invitation to, and then it grabbed by address book and spammed others. Also it sends annoying reminders to them to be sure to sign up. Here is a story similar to mine.

Boxbe started in 2005, and it allows mail to pass between approved users, and this should block spam. A white list means that only people on this list can send you mail. Their original business model was to make spammers pay to get access to their email list.  This is sleezy in that clients want freedom from spam, but the plan was to auction their addresses off. Wikipedia says they are not doing this anymore, but the Boxbe site is less clear about that.

Recently, they started automatically spamming the address book of subscribers. I found the whole thing quite embarrassing, and I hope that I have succeeded in disengaging from them.

Thede Loder is one of the founders, and he is a  former PhD student at U Michigan Ann Arbor. The other founder, Corbett Barr, was a consultant. Both lived in San Francisco.


1-October-2009: I got an reply for Boxbe, so be sure to click on the comments. I liked the fact that they are concerned about their reputation. That suggests they are trying to improve. 

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Stevia is Going Mainstream

Several years ago sister-in-law Tonee told me about Stevia, and said it was a great natural, sugar-free sweetener. I thought it had a strange aftertaste but the following year I bought some stevia (stevia rubaudia) seeds, and they were easy to grow. The herb was less than satisfactory as a sweetener. While I could taste some sweetness chewing on the stem, the leaves gave mostly a planty flavor.  After this I used to joke that stevia was not a sugar substitute, that it was a saccharine substitute. At right is a stevia plant.

Well, the organic food movement marched on, and big food companies are going to introduce stevia-based products for the mass market. At left is a prototype Sprite Green bottle with Stevia based sweetener.

Rather than the crude stevia extract, they are taking the best tasting fraction of the plant, and with modern plant hybridization (not gene splicing-- at least yet,) the flavor is much better.

It turns out that there are seven sweet components in the stevia extract, and the best tasting of them is called Rebaudioside A. All of these are glycosides of  a terpene alcohol called steviol. The components are shown on the graph at left which is from They vary in the modifications. Rebaudioside A has three pendant glucoses. Its structure is at the bottom. It is a larger and more complex sweetener than any of the current synthetic sweeteners, and happily it is not chlorinated.

Rebaudioside A production is being ramped up by some big name food companies including Coke and Cargill, Pepsi and Merisant, who makes Equal (aspartame). Botanists have developed strains that make 4% rebaudioside A on total plant weight, which will help keep costs down, and I am sure better varieties are coming. The new food products will all be based on plant extract rather than synthetics.

Early on there were controversy about whether the base terpene, steviol, caused liver damage. It seems that this has been disproven, and several companies are claiming GRAS status for Stevia extract. Stevia extract has been an FDA food additive for a while. GRAS status means that it is "generally regarded as safe", and a chemical on this list receives the broadest acceptance in foods.

More: Yes this is my second sweetener story in one weekend. For another sugar fix see my posting on non-fermentable sugars. This reminds me of the movie we saw yesterday The Informant! which was about food additives. The link will take you to my review. 

Friday, September 18, 2009

Foreign Media Exaggerate Carter's Racism Charges

I occasionally read foreign papers when I bored with American ones, and I was taken with a piece in the Singapore based Straits Times, that tried to explain Carter's complaints about Obama's critics. I don't mind American pundits waxing on about America's problems, but I don't like critics from half way around the world doing it -- I don't know why.

The different sites run the spectrum, Al Jazeera's english site makes the US look pretty bad.   This German posting plays up the worst aspects of the conflict and amplifies the Nazi connections. They ran the picture at right -- supposedly from a Tea Party street protest. This Austrian article simplifies the argument so much that it sounds like a battle between Obama and Representative Wilson only.

UK's Mirror had a neutral article except that it hopscotched over to Obama's babbling about Kanye West saying "He is a Jackass," -- a quote that mainstream American media edited out based on their dubious "talking on background" rule.

On the other hand, this UK article and video clip were very much like American ones.

I have two observations, most people don't know the difference between a Fascist and a Socialist, and that the World pays more attention to America, than we think.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

An Unreal Scene - Great Optical Illusion Display in Dresden

This optical illusion caught my eye, and the reason that it works so well is that the man is clearly standing behind the chair. If this is a trick in perspective, then the woman has to be far behind him.

Click here to see how the illusion is done.

This illusion is from the Tour of the Senses show in Dresden Germany, that has several other illusions that are more commonplace. The show closes today.

I also found this clever illusion, which is fun to look at, and I stared at it a long time. They call it Escher's Dice or Mobius Dice.

Sadly it was Photoshopped together from two photos. This blog describes how one guy made it at home. Photograph the "L" of dice forming the two left-most sides while lying on a table, and then paste a stack of 3 vertical dice on the right. It would be fun to try, but it would probably take half a day.

I found it on the Daily Telegraph, which has a few more illusions. Also check out my February 8th post that has another of my favorite optical illusions.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Vending Machine Deaths -- Fact or Urban Myth

I bought pretzels from the vending machine for lunch today, and the bag got hung up in the machine. I hit the machine a few times, and could not dislodge it. I bought a second bag, and got both of them -- two bags for twice the price.

I remarked that some people die each year from vending machines falling on them.

Coworker Collin said, "What a good blog post," and so here it is.

Strange as it seems vending machine deaths are real, and not urban myths.

One to three people die in America due to falling vending machines ( according to numbers for 1978-1995 from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.)  The Army published data of 15 cases in JAMA in 1988 including three resulting in deaths.

There are fewer deaths recently because vending machines are usually bolted to the wall or the floor.
Soda (pop) machines weigh 800-1000 pounds and candy machines weigh about 600 pounds.

A consulting company did an animation of a Dr. Pepper Machine falling and crushing a 14 year old boy, seemingly as part of an insurance company investigation. This is a RealPlayer animation, and it is fairly creepy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Five Rules of Morality

I came across an article by Jon Haidt on how people see moral differences.

I know how my conservative friends value loyalty and stability more than my liberal friends who value fairness and compassion. Jonathan Haidt is at the University of Virginia and he has developed a scheme for describing this. It is described in this article. (Click here for a more scholarly version, and here for a NYTimes pop version.)

The five dimensions of morality are:

Harm/Care - It is wrong to hurt people and right to relieve suffering.

Fairness/reciprocity -  Justice and fairrness are good; people have rights that need to be upheld in social interactions. 

Authority/respect - People should respect the social order, and the social order is necessary for life. 

In-group loyalty -  people should be true to their group and wary of outsiders. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues and betrayal is bad. 

Purity/sanctity - The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety are all good. Pollution, contamination, and associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.  

You can assess your moral compass at I measured mine and came out fairly conservative. It is on the graph above, and mine is the green bar.

There are two kinds of morality, one based on reasoning, and one based on feelings. Perhaps the right brain's morality and the left brain's morality.  The purity rule is one that I feel, and can't really explain.

Jon Haidt talks about how some moral views are selected by evolution. He works at the interface between biology and psychology.  I want to look into his views a little more.  It is like other evolutionary-sociology with  lots of lightly supported theories based on lifestyle assumptions for early humans and hominids.  

Monday, September 7, 2009

We visited Greenfield Village, the outdoor historical museum in Dearborn Michigan today.

I was surprised how enjoyable the day at Greenfield Village was. We went there on Labor Day and visited an eclectic collection of historical homes, late 19th Century workshops and a vintage farm. This is a large site and there is a lot to see. We spent four hours and saw about half of the Greenfield Village proper, and did not venture to the Henry Ford Museum itself.
It is hard to say what the best part was. Places like the boarding house where Thomas Edison's Menlo Park staffers lived actually had a lot of depth to them. 

There was a 1880's physician's office, and I was surprised to see the backroom where he made his elixirs in bulk - three fifteen gallon tanks, and many smaller barrels. Also a collection of molars. 

Jenny, because of her wool business, liked the water-powered carding mill, and of course the Marino sheep.

Not everything was outstanding, for example they had Edison's Florida Workshop, but all the equipment was behind glass, and hard to see. Somewhat better was replica of one of Edison's DC electric power plants, with authentic machinery inside. 

Oh, if you go, try the Hard Apple Cider. 

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Do You Realize How Bad the Housing Bubble Was?

A survey of housing prices shows that housing prices peaked nationally in 2006 and have dropped since. Optimists can see a leveling off in the last couple months.  [This data is from S&P and is called the Price-Shiller index.]

Pessimists can say that we have a long way until we get to the "so-called" normal prices near an index value of 100 to 110. Housing prices should be based on some fraction of the average household income in the area. Anything more than that, and it is doomed to crash. That or poor people leave and rich people move in.

Living in metro Detroit, I am happy to see that Detroit prices were never as inflated as other cities, but they are quite low now -- down 45% from 2006. I bought in 2007, and prices were trending down a little at that time. Still nothing to be happy about.

In Phoenix and Los Angeles prices were triple of the base line price in 2000. People that bought at the top could easily be bankrupt. On the other hand, New York, Cleveland and Detroit had modest price run-ups, but prices have still declined since the recession.

Click here to see my previous posts on housing prices. 

submit to reddit

Friday, September 4, 2009

Now running OS X 10.6 -- that's Snow Leopard

I upgraded my MacBook to Snow Leopard, that's OSX 10.6.

Let me tell you that I notice almost nothing different from 10.5 Leopard that I had been running. I remember when I got Leopard -- it felt like a whole new computer. On the other hand Snow Leopard cost $29 (as an upgrade from Leopard), and Leopard cost $129.

There are not too many changes. The biggest thing is that it boots up faster. I timed a restart in 95 seconds. Finder works a little differently, and there are more file preview options. Nothing earthshaking.

They say most of the features are "under the hood." I think most of the features are for people running multi-core processors and native Mac Apps.

No doubt it is best for the new super-cool Mac Pros running twin Xeon Nahalem processors,  each of which is a quad-core processor. I have no reason to run something this fast, but sometimes I wish I did.

Apple, unlike any other company assigns cool little logos to boring internal operating system functions, like "Grand Central Dispatch," which routes instructions to the different processors. It is like Microsoft giving a logo to sfc.exe.

Supposedly, Flash is supposed to run twice as fast. I tried some experiments, but I could not convince myself that Safari was loading Flash pages faster than Firefox.

Anyway, I wanted to get Snow Leopard because my policy is to keep the software current to avoid problems. I think $29 is better than spending a Saturday debugging some software. Of course it does not help me that my favorite application, Microsoft Excel, is still a buggy, non-native application.

The coolest thing about the Snow Leopard is the packaging. All the Apple packages are wonderful. I still have my iPod Nano box.  I photographed the Snow Leopard box above, and then downloaded the image below.  The white box and smart graphic design make you think you are getting something valuable and cutting edge.
How did they get the leopard to hold still while they blew snow on it?

submit to reddit

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why Are More Babies Born On Tuesdays Than On Sundays?

More babies are born during the middle of the week than on the weekend, and this is regular vaginal births not caesarians, that doctors could schedule.  Furthermore, it does not seem that doctors are delaying weekend births to Monday since Monday is not correspondingly too high.

2006 data from the Center for Disease Control is even more extreme than the 2000 numbers.

Why is this? I would expect that babies wouldn't know what day it was before they were born.

Turns out that the phase of the moon and the weather has no effect on birthrate.

If you have a theory, leave me a comment.