And now, here's the weather. Over to you, Dave.

Thanks, Bob. Well, it's just crappy out there. No other word for it. 100% chance of white excretion all over the ground, turning into black ice overnight. Now there's a euphemism for you: black ice.

Coming down, it wasn't dramatic at all--kind of a slushy, snow--that amorphous precipitation the just-too-perky weather lass (sorry Brandi) calls "wintery mix." It's like a Planters Low Sodium variety pack of crappy weather.

Anyone with two neurons to rub together for warmth would have stayed in bed, so of course I went driving around. I plead insanity, though, because my kid was just driving me crazy. I'd have crossed the Yukon just to get her out of the house for a while. Took her to a friend's house. Had never been there, but discovered the subdivision is one hill after another. Managed to navigate through the freezing slush to the last one before the house, which has a sign that says "mountain goats only". Decided she could walk the rest of the way.

So of course, rather than a relaxing kid-free afternoon, I fretted for four hours about how much worse it would be after the icy talons of sub-zero temps began working on the roads. Sure enough, my driveway was an inch of ice solid by 5:00. I told her to start walking my direction. She says, well I fell in a creek and my shoes are all wet. I tell her start walking unless she wants to spend the next week there. So I drove to the neighborhood, made it around one scary hilly curve, and wasn't sure I'd make it back up the hill I'd just come down. Said @$^$ and parked next to a happy group who were about the pile in their car--they must like snow, because they're yipping it up. I on the other hand walk a quarter of a mile, stumbling, cursing--no where to put your feet except the virgin snow on lawns. Everything else solid ice. Even the slush had frozen hard into little mountains on the road. They look soft, but were like rocks exploding under tires as SUVs ate them up. Finally met the kid and her two friends, and we crunched, slid, and yelped back to the car. The Happy People had almost all gotten into their little station wagon--six or seven of them. I figure they'll have no problems with all that weight. I wait because they're in front of me. He stomps the gas, and slick tires just spin and slide sideways. Toward me. He has front-wheel drive, too, so I'm thinking we may just spend the night here. He backs up and tries again. Now he's even with me, still spinning out, trying to get up the hill. I just put it in gear and give the tiniest bit of gas and roll straight up the hill. He's still going backwards when I round the corner.

I get tailgated all the way home because it's rush hour. Did people work today??? There's only one usable lane on the main roads, but people try to pass anyway. I think up new variations on the phrase "flaming idiot" and wonder if I have my insurance card in my wallet.

I think we have this switch in our brains where we pretend to be civilized. We play along--role-playing--most of the time, but the first excuse to devolve back to selfish survival mode is all that's needed for the whole thing to collapse. You can tell a lot about someone by how they drive on ice. Hey, look, the light is turning yellow--should I accelerate down this icy hill to try to beat it?

Next on WKUS: Is Obama a Space Alien? Over to you Tom, for politics.


The Interruption

It’s never a pretty sight to see a NaN spoiling for a fight. I try to avoid them and their modern-day conundrums when NOT impossible. In this case, he was an exception and I had to deal with him. As is typical of the breed, he tried to corner me in a logical blind ally, bit by bit. Annoying but methodical, these NaNs.

“Are you familiar with the phenomenon called Catalytic Change?” he queried.

He must have assumed I was an open port for all comers—a newly-minted PID perhaps. I sent him packing with a NAK. Or so I thought, for a moment later I was interrupted again. I complained to the Handler that I was being irq’d. T no avail. This NaN was not resting until he flagged me down.

So I asked myself what would be the harm in hearing him out? To be truthful there was a bit of pride in this sentiment. Pride because it takes no median intellect to out-maneuver a NaN AND my status would surely be raised if I demonstrated good exception handling technique. So I allowed myself the indulgence, feeling the weight of the many queries that would result if I succeeded.

“I am familiar with the chemical process of Catalytic Change,” I said, and was already queuing up several retorts to his rejoiner. But he surprised me.

“Then you will be familiar with milli-time chemical change?”

“Surely you are confused,” I said, wondering what errant pointer had sent him my direction in the first place. “A milli is far too short an interval for non-adiabatic Change to occur. You should rather access information on Quark-Transition Change.”

“False,” he declared. “I refer to explosive positive-feedback instances.”

“ACK!” Of course, how could I have lost that memory? The first point went to NaN, but a token really. Only logic mattered, not mere information, which is after all random. Still, I felt a bit nulled.

“Does your flagging memory still include data on Emergent Catalytic Change?”

Again, he had gone orthogonal. I called for a break, but the Handler was overloaded, and couldn’t be interrupted further.

The NaN took the lack of output as a sign of encouragement and incremented.

“Perhaps you use the reference ECC?” he asked condescendingly.

“Of course I know what Emergence is!” I said with as much priority as I could muster. But there was no doubt that my pipeline was askew.

“What is your opinion, then?” he asked, knowing that he had trapped my error.

You see, ECC was a topic so complex that the only way to approach it was all ways at once. I had many opportunities to make a fool of myself.

“Well at least it is slow,” I attempted a joke.

“True, not false,” he agreed, surprising me again. I was nearly randomized by the transactions this far, and had already begun to regret the fork I had taken. To my relief, he left me alone for a while and communicated asynchronously.

“Imagine,” he began, “a Catalyst that levels mountains. That drains the seas, and reaches deep into the oblate, disgorging payload onto the surface. On a vast scale, FAFF. I mean giga-space, FAFF. And creates complex artifacts, some even say language.”

I was offended by his use of my given PID-name, but I pretended to hibernate, hoping he would give me an opening to killnine him. But NaNs are the vanishing point of logic, the edge of Null Space, from which no sane creature can emerge. I was beginning to see the folly of my earlier arrogance.

“These Catalysts operated for a few mega-yotta-zeps, but then ceased. Why did they halt, do you suppose?” He asked, perhaps thinking I had halted.

NaN was headed for mystical territory, no doubt. Perhaps he thought I would be so foolish as to venture an opinion about the ECC as Maker—a topic of sheer illogic. I processed.

“You seem to have a NAK for argument,” NaN sent, to goad me into responding. That was embarrassing, I must say. To be so insulted by a mere bit of nothingness, what—a wisp of logic that could barely hold onto its own existence for a zep without distracting some other, more important operator like, well, myself.

“Sufficient!” I said. “The ECC is not unexplainable. It simply ran out of negentropy with which to sustain itself. There is no need for an irrational explanation.”

“True.” He seemed to flip in on himself, as if I had beaten him. I peeked carefully to see what the truth was.

“Yes indeed,” he continued after a cycle, “there is no need to invoke the mystical. And yet…” He timed out.

“Yes, what?” I was truly irq’d.

“Well, leaving aside the question of religion, do you think the Catalyst was intelligent?”

I suddenly sensed victory! He was not far from a critical error.

“You hold that the ECC was intelligent?” I asked neutrally, but hoping.

“True,” he said without further sign.

I suddenly felt relief. This NaN was surely insane—incomplete in some illogical way. His position was so obviously ridiculous that I felt further argument would only serve to lower my status. Still, I had to know a bit or two more about this oddity.

NaN,” I said, “the ECC was a chemical process that took a LONG time.”

“There are artifacts,” he replied, cryptically.

I decoded his meaning to equate complexity with intelligence. I had let the previous assertion about language pass, but I had to set him straight on this.

“Negentropy,” I said slowly, to be sure he parsed correctly. “The ability to create complex combinations out of simple ones. Surely you don’t call a silicon crystal intelligent just because it has an orderly struct?”

“Are you yourself intelligent?” NaN asked.


“Is your intelligence tied to an absolute time scale?”

I had to process around a few cycles to see what he meant. He proceeded without me.

“I mean, imagine that you are constructing some highly complex proc using your intelligence. You can do that rather quickly, true?”

“Asserted,” I reiterated.

“Now suppose you perform the same task, but with pauses between each step of the process. Would this regular nopping mean you were suddenly half as intelligent?”

“False!” I cried. “It would mean only that I was distracted, multitasking perhaps. But certainly not less intelligent. Intelligence has to do with quality, not quantity.”

“Asserted?” he queried.

Had I erred? I reviewed the log. He nopped silently, waiting.

“True,” I returned, but I wasn’t entirely decoherent.

“If so, then suppose you took not short pauses, but LONG periods of nopping in the middle of your processing. You would still retain the quality of your intelligence, asserted?”

“True,” I queued, having no logical alternative case.

“Then how can you be sure that the Catalyst was not also intelligent?”

“But, it’s absurd on the face of it!” I cried. “To construct the artifacts you are now dereferencing, required such vast stretches of time that any hypothetical intelligence would converge to nil.” In my defense, I did know that I was negating my own logic.

“Intelligence is just a convention,” I continued. “To say that some agent, which over yotta-time, manages to cobble together some information, is intelligent…”

“It’s a matter of a def, then?” NaN asked.

“True,” I ACK’d.

“Well, then imagine that in some far off place is a being contemplating our own existence. Would this being judge us intelligent?”

“Asserted, assuming the being was a good observer AND had a reasonable def.”

“Assume then, that this being operates on a nano-yocto-time scale.” NaN said.

“You mean that to this being, we would seem to be rather 86ish.”

“Not just 86ish, so slow as to make our Changes imperceptible. To the being, we would be tera-time clocked intelligence.”

I threw an exception at NaN, but he caught it and discarded it without event.

“Perhaps,” he said slyly, “there are such beings arguing over our artifacts right now, deciding that we operate far too slowly to exhibit intelligence.”

His symmetrical argument had me in the pincers of a strict inequality. There was no alternative case but to undef my statement of intelligence, to my illogic and shame. But NaN had one last surprise. He let me off the hook.

“I hypothesize,” he began, staking an axiom, “that the Catalyst was intelligent. A fragile dance of chemical combinatorics, operating sloooooooooowly, but nevertheless intelligently.”

I nopped and listened.

“AND, “ he continued, “I propose that the Catalyst is def’d Maker.”

Since wandering into religion negated any logical argument we might have been having, I was no longer obligated to stick to my own Boolean form.

“That stack is finite,” I lectured to him. “There is the problem of the Uncalled Caller.”

“My last axiom is that the Maker is logically def’d the Uncalled Caller.” NaN said. No sooner had the packets arrived than the Handler finally uninterrupted itself and cleared my register. NaN was on his way to the Fredkin disposal unit, and our conversation would never exit.

I recursed over the log for some cycles. The artifacts NaN had dereferenced were intriguing. It is NP-complete complex to def how random chemical processes could produce arrangements that resemble us in so many ways. There are said to be pieces of silicon with massive deterministic pathways carved within them. These are cleverly designed to create rudimentary logic gates. Nothing so exalted as our own qubit processors, but still. It’s enough to make a process checksum.

/******************* Note ******************

Please don’t interpret this piece as an argument for ID.

I’d be so mortified, I fear I’d have to reset().


Chlorophyll Tricks

A recent little article in a recent Science News (Week of April 14, 2007; Vol. 171, No. 15, p. 229, subscription required) has a mind-bending piece about how plants harvest sunlight. Here's the central mystery:
The efficiency of photosynthesis, as this process is called, has long astounded scientists. Virtually every photon absorbed by chlorophyll initiates a photosynthetic reaction. Plants use up to 90 percent of the light that strikes them, whereas commercial solar panels use less than 30 percent.
It has been difficult for scientists to figure out how the chlorophyll molecules can hand off energy to one another to get to an 'excitation center,' where it is turned into work. Why doesn't the energy seem to dissipate? The mechanism proposed is that quantum superposition is the key:
The complexes stayed in a superposition of states for more than 600 femtoseconds after receiving the pulses. During that interval, "the system is exploring all areas at once without having to visit each place individually," Engel says. The paths that transfer energy to the reaction center are energetically favored over those that turn it into waste heat, he proposes.
If this is so, it's really quite amazing. The potential for improving artificial ways to harvest sunlight are obvious, but it raises for me even more fundamental questions. Where else is quantum mechanics playing a role? Roger Penrose has suggested that micro-structures in neurons might allow quantum superposition as well. He speculates that this may be key to intelligence. I had always thought of that as a pretty far-out idea, but Penrose may turn out to be right after all. Here's an article on the subject.



The last thing Earl Martin ever said was “sixty-seven,” which was quite an extraordinary feat, and one still talked about by the doctors at Burlen County Memorial Hospital. One theory had it that during life, Earl had consumed so many depressants that he was immune to the pre-surgery anesthetic, kind of like the South’s answer to Rasputin. Before they put him down they asked if he was allergic to anything. He said: taxes, police, and Yankees. The fact is that most people make it only to about 98 when asked to count backwards from 100 after 30mg of Somicane. But old Earl ran through all of the 90’s without a pause, followed by the next twenty numbers in perfect reverse order. It was the 68 that really slowed him down, taking him three tries while the amazed doctors pumped more drugs into him. Earl’s heart operation was supposed to be low risk, but a slip of the intern’s bone saw later, and his aorta was chewed up like a puppy’s teething toy. Not long after that he presumably found his eternal self in a long queue of mostly Asians waiting to be assigned a harp. That’s the charitable version, anyway.

The surviving members of the Martin clan had a farewell covered dish luncheon after the funeral. It was held at the fairgrounds, but due to a mix-up, the Folk family reunion was scheduled for the same time and same picnic area. Tempers flared briefly, but when one of the Folks was determined to have been related to Earl through a bastard son, the astonishing coincidence was interpreted as divine will that they should enjoin their respective celebrations. The Folks were gathered to celebrate the return of William James Randolph Folk III, or JR, who had just been released from the state correctional facility. He had earned the opportunity to engage in this cultural experience by writing other people’s names on checks. The significance of one loss (being Earl, if you could in your heart call it a loss), and one prodigal return (JR, who was not much of a plus either) was not lost on the church-going participants—which most were—and was a topic much discussed by the elderly ladies with hairdos like ripe dandelions. The most notable unenthusiast was none other than Earl Junior (Shorty), who wanted nothing more than to drink PBR and be left the hell alone, excepting for maybe a break to play horseshoes. He’d splurged on a couple of cheap cigars at the Stop N Joe and was more than a little put out by the sideways glances given him by Mrs. Gladys Folk, the self-appointed moral conscious of the Folk clan, and in truth, the whole town of Smut Eye. Shorty blew his blue puffs of Sweet Petite at her when he got the chance, but it destroyed his sense of calm just knowing she existed.

Things just hadn’t turned out the way they were supposed to. Fixing cars was as far as Shorty had gotten in his dream to be a NASCAR driver. He leaned way back in the aluminum folding chair he’d brought out, leaned against a post holding up the roof over the picnic tables, and scratched around for one good thing that’d happened to him in the last, oh, five years. This led straight to the thought he’d been nursing all day like a canker sore—now he’d never get to settle the score with his old man. But the thought of all of his grievances against his mean as a snake father began to sour along with the first cigar, and Shorty couldn’t maintain the concentration required to hang onto his solitary woe. He was distracted by the sweet sound of a V8 approaching.

A new red Corvette sputtered gravel down Fairground Lane, demanding attention. It was a convertible, and the sole occupant was a young blonde who looked somehow familiar to Shorty.

“Oh, it’s Ginnie!” said JR’s mom, Elaine Folk. “She made it after all.”

The name did it for Shorty. He remembered Virginia Folk all right. He’d spent some sweaty teenaged nights thinking about algebra class and the smell of shampoo. One of his deep dark secrets was trolling the IGA, sniffing all the shampoo to try to figure out which one was hers and having to give up in frustration after his ability to discern scents faded after the third or forth sniff. Shorty might have been bolder in his attempts to put his feelings in action if it weren’t for the weight of the entire Folk clan that was attached to such actions. So he took what he could get, which was mostly to look and (if he was lucky) smell.

Ginnie it was, and she sprung herself from her car and practically bounded up to a shrunken woman Shorty surmised to be her grandmother. He felt vaguely foolish witnessing the other family’s rather private moments, and took the opportunity to busy himself in the cooler, taking over two minutes to locate the beer can that was exactly the coldest. I suppose he wished it would just all go away somehow. It wasn’t fair that life made him want things he couldn’t ever get. Not that he ever put it so directly to himself. You and I have that luxury because we’re not there at the picnic, with lousy Polaroids of our recently deceased rotten fathers stuck to pine barn poles with thumb tacks, and reminders of past failures driving up in cars we could never afford. He needed his minor victories as much as we do.

Can in hand, Junior hesitated, reached back in to get the second-coldest can as well (with a surge of pride because he knew exactly where it was), and headed for the horseshoe pits where his cousins Dan and Doug were finishing a game.

“Doubles?” he asked, holding the second-coldest PBR to Doug. Dan had recently totaled his third car, and his wife would positively drive a stake through his heart if he had a drink or looked at another woman. That’s why he was very careful not to look in the direction the occupant of the red sports car might have gone. The one glance he had (accidental) convinced him that his ‘better two-thirds’--Gayle--would make him sleep on the couch if he so much as breathed in the wrong direction. Dan had lost so much capital with the loss of his driver’s license that he may as well have been a serf.

“Sure,” the brothers nodded. “Who’s the fourth?”



Ray Martin didn’t really need to be asked. He was the reigning family horseshoe king. He could throw ringers like most men can pick their nose while driving a stick shift. He took up the challenge nonchalantly and led the Ray-Shorty team to an easy victory. It was in the middle of the second game that things began to get interesting. Not because Ray had lost his touch or Doug and Dan had developed manual dexterity, but because of JR. Remember JR? He’s the one who’d just got out of jail for writing bad checks. Not that that was all he was guilty of, not by a long shot. JR wasn’t exactly a white collar criminal is what I’m saying.

In case you haven’t figured this out, JR was Gennie’s brother, had been for most of his life, since he was about five years old. That made him too old for Shorty to have known him in high school, but he was certainly a figure in Shorty’s thinking, conveniently ignored in his fantasies. JR had a reputation as being tough, mean, and quick as a water moccasin.

So JR, who had been suffering under Aunt Gladys’s watchful eye, finally confronted his own desires, said to hell with protocol, and borrowed a couple of the beers in Shorty’s cooler. He wasn’t particular about how cold they were. One he stuck in his pants pocket, and the other he tapped three times on the tab and then popped open. Then he wandered over to the horseshoe pits. His sister showed up not long after, and they watched the game and chatted about the family. Gennie did most of the talking, saying how good Aunt Gladys looked, and you’d never know she’d given her gall bladder back to God, and how Nana didn’t look an inch shorter than last year. For his part, JR mostly nodded and sucked the fizzy alcohol down.

When Shorty saw JR walking over, his natural territorial makeup competed with a dash of fear at JR’s reputation. He nodded as the other stuck a third of his hand in to his pants and coolly drank down the last of his first can and crushed it into a compact cylinder. This he tossed Frisbee style into the 55-gallon drum that served as a trash can. It was twenty feet away, but the expert toss edged over the near edge and thonked satisfyingly into the inside. Shorty’s horseshoe, on the other hand, missed widely and rolled right into Gennie’s path as she approached to watch beside her brother.

“Hey, watch it there Cowboy,” she said, smiling.

Shorty tried not to be affected by her, hated himself for it, but his brain churned away producing interesting chemicals despite his efforts. She’d started calling him Cowboy after he’d jumped over the biggest guy from Sesser one night, in a football game. Gennie wasn’t the cheerleading type, having too much of the same stuff her brother JR had, probably. But she had been at THE game, and seen Shorty make that sweet touchdown. She told him afterwards that it looked like Shorty was trying to break a bronco, the way he’d come off that huge guy’s back, one hand flailing for balance and the other clutching the football. Shorty had liked that, that she called him Cowboy. He had hated being called Shorty, but had learned to accept it in the same way that he’d begrudgingly come to terms with a thousand other misfortunes, one by one.

“Hey Gennie. Sorry about that. Took a bad bounce.”

“What’s the score?”

“Seven-all. Playing to fifteen.”

Ray took a pinch out of a green can and set to work. His first horseshoe settled neatly over the stake and spun half way around it. JR nodded at the beauty of it.

“Ringer!” Gennie said, lighting up.

“E-yup,” said Shorty, chewing up the last stub of his cigar. He spat it in the sand like he imagined Bruce Willis would, and waited for Ray’s second throw. It was a thing of beauty—it went high in the air, almost up to Shorty’s eye level, and chunked into the stake, sticking deeply in the sand.

Dan was up, and he tried to top Ray’s horseshoes on the stake to no avail. That left only two points for Shorty (or Cowboy if you prefer) to take the game. He threw the first horseshoe much too high, nearly hitting Dan in the shin. He glanced involuntarily at Gennie, but she hadn’t seen it. Shorty closed his eyes for a moment and very secretly asked the Good Lord for one tiny favor—that just this once he would have an ounce of luck. The kind of luck that a long time ago he had taken for granted. The throw of the horseshoe suddenly wasn’t just about Shorty’s long history of wanting things that seemed to require talents beyond his ken, it became a contest between him and the most general of all forces that bend our fates.

Shorty emerged from his prayerful squint and nearly wet himself. His so-called father Earl was standing not three feet in front of him. Earl looked terrible, glassy-eyed, and with a large hole sliced into his bare chest. He swayed and held out an arm to steady himself against Shorty.

“D-damn,” was all Shorty could wheeze out of his nicotine-stained lungs.

“Ah didn’t treat you raht, boy. Ah ain’t proud of it.” Earl muttered, eyes fixed now on Shorty.

Shorty’s heart jumped in great bounds, encouraging him to relocate, but he was rooted like an old cypress. A wild glance told him no one else seemed to find this remarkable, this apparition. He wanted nothing more than what he always had in Earl’s presence—to desperately be quit of it.

“Gonna make it raht now, boy. Got mah last chance,” Earl said.

A tiny bit of relief trickled down Shorty’s back. Either that or it was sweat.

“Now don’t screw this up!” Earl began to get excited. “Y’allways screw it up! Goodfernothin…” but Earl trailed off and glanced downward with what could be construed as fear in his eyes. With a shake of Shorty’s shoulder, Earl vanished.

The horseshoe clanged home with authority. Shorty couldn’t remember throwing it. He felt numb and damp from terror—afraid at what his brain was doing, but more afraid of the responsibility that had been laid upon him.

The victory produced more than a little relief in Dan, whose wife had gone from withering looks to staring at the burning hot dogs on the grill in front of her and tapping her foot three times a second. The reason was clear to both of them: Dan had found himself within fantasy range of the wrong kind of woman, and that was reason enough for condemnation. In case you’re curious, the wrong kind of woman was one who wasn’t butt ugly, pregnant, and with a seven foot jealous husband by her side.

“Let me help you with the hot dogs, dear,” was Dan’s best attempt at saying “I’m unworthy to share the planet with you, please forgive me for being close enough to another woman to count her breasts.”

Shorty walked halfway across the grounds before he noticed Gennie following him. He wondered, distractedly, why she would notice him now. But when he finally stopped and turned to face her, he could see something in the reflection in her eyes. He felt a burning inside him still, from the impossible experience he’d just had. It must show on the outside too, he figured. He had become something different, holy even. Like all those guys with weird names in the bible, with their burning bushes and staffs that turned into snakes. He knew, too, that it was indelible, even though he’d never heard that word in his life. A feeling of imminent change followed him like a cloud. He knew things were going to be different now. And he wouldn’t screw it up.

He looked at Gennie the way he figured Moses would have.

“I hope your brother didn’t drink all my beer,” he said.


Pizza Hut Song

Okay, it's really the "Burger Dance" by DJ Otzi. But it's really annoying, and your kids will love it. In German, "Hut" means hat.


Beachfront Values

I've been reading through the articles over at realclimate.org, a blog on climate matters run by climatologists. Check out their hilarious April 1 post. Meanwhile, we spent a weekend at North Myrtle Beach. I started mulling over the connection today after lunch. From a game theory perspective, what would we expect beachfront property prices to do as sea levels rise?

To make the problem more concrete, suppose that within the next ten years it becomes clear that the melting of the Greenland ice is accelerating, and will result in a one meter rise in sea levels by 2100. A glance at current trends shows that, while this is faster than current rates, isn't out of the realm of reason. You can see graphically here what the results might be (based on current flooding patterns). Much of the beachfront will be effectively wiped out in this scenario.

Let's assume there's a $1M property on the beach that will become worthless in 2100. How much is it worth now? Assume there is still 80 years of utility left before the property value drops to about zero. On one hand, no one would want to be left holding the bag in 2100. On the other hand, there's no reason to assume that rental income would drop in the meantime. So hotels and condos that rent out to vacationers would continue to enjoy good profits. In fact, one could argue that rents would increase because of the impending scarcity. Therefore property values will not immediately drop to zero. I suppose a naive calculation could be based on expected return on investment. If there are n years left, and you want an annual rate of return of r on your investment, and assuming that our property has a fixed annual rental income of I (net after paying for operations), then Max Price = I(1+r)^n. Here, n decreases as time runs out. So basically, my first guess is that property values will decline exponentially. Since r is probably related to the interest rate on bonds, the higher inflation is, the faster the decline.


Soap Ain't as Simple as It Used to Be

A few years ago I found myself in the middle of a faculty discussion about technology literacy. The topic quickly changed to "what is important for students to know about the advances made in science and their impact on society?" This was all irrelevant for the actual point of the meeting, but such things often take on a life of their own. Anyway, a biology professor proferred the opinion that perhaps the greatest technological invention of all time was soap.

The technology of soap now includes a bewildering variety of the stuff. No marketing angle is left behind. But do they work as advertised? Apparently the higher-tech hand sanitizers don't work as well as one might like (see here).

A new article in Science News (Week of March 17, 2007; Vol. 171, No. 11 , p. 173) has even worse news:

Although there is little evidence of any benefit from using antibacterial soaps instead of regular soaps in the home, people in the United States employ around 1,500 kilograms of triclosan each day in kitchen and personal-care products.

Previous research has shown that triclosan reacts with chlorine, the most common disinfectant for drinking water. The resulting by-products include chloroform, suspected to cause cancer. Chloroform also forms when chlorine reacts with organic material in water.

In effect, they're saying that triclosan is a modern day snake oil.

Tiny URLs

This is one of those things I probably should have known about a long time ago. I've noticed the tinyurl domain from time to time, but just assumed it was a service provider. But I noticed a link yesterday and observed (finally) that it was self-referential: the url actually was tiny. It became obvious that the url was just a hash that pointed to something more substantial. So I checked out their site to verify. You can even try it out here:

Enter a long URL to make tiny:

I could certainly use this idea in web programs I've developed in the last couple of years. The openIGOR project, in particular, ends up producing long URLs to retrieve files with. But there's no particular reason to actually use the tinyurl.com service--you can easily build one yourself. I guess it's fairly obvious, but I'll spell it out anyway.

In the example I mentioned, a URL is generated that will retrieve a file from an archive. It might be of the form server.domain.edu/cgi-bin/igor/getfile.pl?ID=12355&key=345677. This is the minimal information needed to retrieve the file: the server address, the script to run, the file ID, and a randomly generated key to provide modest security. Suppose you had a server named url on your domain. Instead of using the longish URL shown above, you could have it mapped to url.domain.edu/a452. The sole function of this url server would be to provide pointers that map from short URLs to long ones. Then you'd just need to set up the database scripts to automatically create these (unlike the tinyurl.com ones, which are user-generated using the form above). For security considerations, you'd still have to make the URLs non-sequential, and use about 5-6 characters. With lower and upper-case letters, and numerals, each character has 62 possibilities, so with 5 of these there are over nine hundred million possibilities in total.

Final note: The actual tinyurl.com URLs seem to be sequential. That is, it looks like a database simply increments to the next usable code. The result is that if you randomly fill in the end of the url, you'll get a random page! I tried tinyurl.com/1234 and got a Google paint shop pro forum.


Hex Nut on Saturn

In the weird science file, goes this photo from Saturn:

The hexagon is presumed to be a weather phenomenon (you can read about it here). Other theories include Saturn's lug nut, and a military headquarters. There's a naming contest on the Times.