Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Abraham Lincoln, The US Civil War and the 1960's...

I didn't grow up in the 1960's, but my parents did and I grew up hearing lots about it. Not as much from my parents as just from society at large. Some hated it, others were "part of it". According to my Uncle, if you remember it, you weren't there.

Lots of people, hippies perhaps, thought they were changing the world. Lots of people also derided the hippies of the 1980's who turned in their tie-dye shirts for suits and ties. They called them traitors. I don't know much about that, because, as I said, I didn't grow up in the 1960's.

What I do know is that the Civil Rights movement started in the 1960's. But, the Civil Rights movement could never have happened without the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln and the end of slavery in this country.

Looking back, it all seems so logical now. The Civil War lead us to the Civil Rights movement which lead us to Barack Obama being elected president. Some may say this is good for African Americans, but I say this is good for everyone. Hatred, fear and division brings us all down. Coming as far as we have shows that we can all hold our heads high.

This country has shown that it has come a very long way.

"Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama's running so we all can fly." -Jay-Z

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I've been called worse by better!

Next time you want to call me names, just remember that I've been called worse by better.

A good friend of mine was fortunate enough to be chosen to attend a dinner with Richard M Stallman a.k.a. "RMS". My friend cast about for questions to ask RMS during dinner. Here was mine (which I am told was printed out and handed to RMS, rather than verbally paraphrased):

Ask him what he thinks of William Wallace (Character portrayed in                                                                  
Braveheart). Does he see himself as someone who wanted to be just an                                                               
average farmer, but got pulled into something bigger and more important                                                            
because his conscience would not let him ignore what was going on? Or was                                                          
he always scrapping for a fight and the free software issue seemed to suit                                                         
him well.                                                                                                                          
                                                                                                                                   
My guess is that it's the latter, but he is only capable of seeing himself                                                         
as the former.
 
And the response from RMS:

"This is hostile. Who wrote this? Fuck him."

Monday, October 13, 2008

A tale of two candidates...

This is the the vision John McCain inspires:

Ohio Christians !Againt! Baby Murdering Muslims for President
Photo Credit: http://www.brettmarty.com/



This is the vision that Barack Obama inspires:
HOPE
Photo Credit: http://obeygiant.com/post/obama


Sunday, October 12, 2008

A sign?

I am an Atheist. I have rejected all forms of the supernatural. *BUT* if I were into "signs from above", how do you think I would interpret these:

2003: The US invades Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence.

2004: Just prior to the presidential election, Osama Bin Laden releases a video taunting George W. Bush. The result is a 1-2% shift in the polls handing victory to Bush and ensuring that Osama Bin Laden gets to keep his recruiting drive running.

2006: Mark Foley scandal erupts just prior to the election, Democrats take over both houses of Congress in a landslide. George W. Bush later describes it as a "thumpin'".

2008: The global economy melts down just prior to the election, poll numbers climb out of reach for the Republican candidates still banging the drums of war and relying on hate speech and lies to run their campaigns.

Personally, I believe it's just chickens coming home to roost. You simply cannot expect to run a permanent campaign of deception and denial and not expect to see some backlash. *BUT* if I were a Christian fundamentalist, I can't imagine how the above facts would not give some pause to reflect on.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Social Security Privatization

Sooooooo, the DOW just dropped another 675 points to 8,579. Anyone wanna take a stab at how much support there is for privatizing social security at the moment?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oil drops below $114 on slowing economies...

Newsflash, oil drops below $114 on slowing economies. Well duh! Why the heck do you think the economies slowed down in the first place...

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Things aren't always as they seem...

A few nights ago, the lights flickered kind of strangely. It was enough that both Karey and I noticed it, but everything seemed fine so we ignored it. The next morning, Karey calls me at work and says the refrigerator wasn't working... Hmmm, maybe that's what the light flickering is all about. Compressor motors tend to go out in an inductive blaze of glory...

I have her set up an appointment with the repairman for the next day. I might be able to fix it, so I don't want them coming out that day, and they may be really busy, so it's good to get an appointment set up as soon as possible... Later on Karey calls back about something unrelated and I have the bright idea to ask her if anything else isn't working. She tries the toaster... no joy... Hmmmm. try plugging it in somewhere else... Bingo works great! Ok, so the fridge isn't broken, it's a power issue. I have her check the breakers, but everything seems in order. She cancels the appointment and I wish upon a star that it's just a bad breaker, and not some mysterious break in the wall.

I get home and confirm that every outlet in that string is dead. I further confirm that none of the breakers are tripped. Hmmmm, weird... During our remodel I was careful to do all of my electrical work up to code. I am now very glad I did because all of the splices are accessible through wall plates with plenty of spare wire, etc. I test all of the wires and everything is working. I am pretty certain I did not touch the wires in the dead string during the remodel, but it helps to confirm that everything behind the plates is unaffected by this... anomaly...

I mentally trace where the wire would probably be and realize that the most likely route to the panel is a trip underneath the house. That means I have to get into the crawlspace... I hate that place... I move 64 tons of crap out of the closet to get access to the crawlspace and finally get the "portal to hell" open. The usual musty smell floods in while I get the light turned on (I always feel like the bogeyman is going to grab my hand while I'm grasping in the dark for that infernal light switch puller string).

I peer inside and am immediately shocked by what appears to be pools of blood and spatter! Holy %^&* what the ^&*$ happened! My first thought was to wonder who the heck you call when you see something like this. It wasn't a huge amount of stuff, so I figured it was a rodent of some sort that bit into the wrong wire and learned a very shocking lesson. It then hit me that I didn't notice the usual rotting flesh smell when something dies. Odd, maybe it crawled off.. I also thought it was weird to see spatter, I didn't think animals did that when they were electrocuted...

I was too chicken-$%&^ to actually go in there just yet, so I got a stick and poked around the heating duct that crossed in front of the "crime scene" to see if I could find more clues. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't see any dead body or anything. Could something else have gotten in there and carried it off?????

I finally got the nerve to go in there and take a closer look...

I slowly creep over to the puddles and survey the scene. There's definitely nothing dead (or .... yuck ... dying) that I can see so far. There's also more spatter than I could originally see from the entry. I poke around a bit more and notice a dark red stain permeating the insulation above the spatter. Yuck! Maybe whatever it is, is in the insulation somewhere.... I guess that makes sense since the wire runs above the insulation. I poke at the insulation (from a distance) and nothing falls out, but I do notice the stain travels up... to... the... floorboards... above...

And then it hits me...

Remember that bottle of wine we broke a month ago.... I bend down and smell the puddle very carefully, and confirm that it's got a rather pleasant boquet to it... a rather *CABERNET*-ish smell, mixed with 30 years of musty dirt...

One mystery solved... but the power still wasn't working...

I traced the wire underneath the house and it was very much intact and unadulterated. I decide to call it a night and sleep on it...

Next morning I noticed the heater air circulator (we keep it running year round to filter the air in the house) wasn't running. Ah ha! A clue! After getting home from work, I go to take a look at it and also notice that the automatic litter box has been falling down on the job. Wait a mintue... the power light is off! Ah ha! Another clue!

At this point, I'm considering that a surge hit the house and took out a few of our geriatric circuit breakers. It wouldn't be the first time something like that ever happened. Since my circuit breaker box labeling hasn't been up to date for nearly 20 years, I need some help tracing which wires go to which circuit... I purchase some trace tools from Home Depot and promptly discover that you need an energized circuit to get them to work. *GRUMBLE*...

I'm prepared to use my pulse generator and reciever that I use for LVW (Low Voltage Wiring) tracing since the circuit is clearly not energized. Before I do that, I pull the panel cover and use my passive electrical detection pen "thingy" to see if I can identify a dead breaker. You can also test a breaker with a multimeter by checking for an AC potential between the wire screwed into the breaker and the ground. I just happened to have the pen handier than the multimeter in this case...

As I'm testing the wires, they all seem to work. Hmmmm, not good, that means there's probably a break buried somewhere in the wall. *GRUMBLE*...

I set my pen down on the generator hookup switch box to think about my next course of action when my eyes drift down to the switches on the front of the switch box...

Hmmm, two switches aren't lined up with the rest of the... *HEAD SLAP*

Two switches accidentally got bumped to the "generator" setting, which cuts off the main panel supply to prevent grid backflow... I check with Karey and she confirms that it was probably her when she was grabbing the stroller to take her infant nephew for a walk...

Mystery solved...

No broken appliances... No electrical surge... No bloody horror show... No broken wires... No bad circuit breakers... A few new tools and a good test of the generator hookup switchbox...

Not bad for two day's work...

Thursday, July 31, 2008

WHARRGARBL

I have a black lab, so this really hits home. I just can't stop laughing at this picture!



BTW: I did an inadequate search to see where it came from and didn't find anything obvious. If anyone knows, please let me know so I can give credit.

Monday, June 16, 2008

3rd Class Medical

I belong to the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association). They are a really cool group that looks out for the interests of GA (General Aviation) pilots and small aircraft owners. What most people don't realize is that GA is like the ecosystem in the Amazon Jungle. You may not be directly affected by the massive destruction of the rain forests at the moment, but you will once it's too late. The same goes for GA. Most of the technologies that help large commercial aircraft go bigger/better/faster get their start on small GA or military aircraft. Granted military aircraft aren't GA aircraft, but considering military applications are "bleeding edge" feeder technologies, GA aircraft are usually the first ones in the civilian world to make use of those technologies as they mature. Simply put, you do not "bet the farm" on a technology that has only been proven in the military world. The military and civilian worlds are completely different. GA bridges that gap since small aircraft cost a fraction of what a large transport jet costs to design. GA allows for more "technology maturing" design cycles. A large commercial aircraft company like Boeing measures its design cycles in decades. A bad design decision on a large transport jet can cause heartache and ruin for many decades to come. A bad design decision on a GA aircraft design is more like a 5-10 year setback, depending on the fallout.

While I'm on the GA bandwagon, another value most people don't realize is that airlines depend on GA to fill the need for good pilots. The military does an excellent job training pilots, but they can't possibly fill the entire need. Many airline pilots worked their way up the hard way, grinding it out one hour at a time. They scraped their pennies together to buy flight time and eventually get their CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) certificate. At that point they can build time and get paid for it. They're barely able to make ends meet, but usually don't mind because they're pursuing something they love.

All things considered, the margins are very thin in GA. No one gets into GA because it makes a lot of economic sense. They do it because they truly love flying, or perhaps they see it as a step towards a career. It's sometimes very easy for those in power to lose sight of the fact that GA represents a critical ecosystem that feeds this country's economic engine. The AOPA exists to make sure those in power understand those complex issues and don't make stupid decisions that affect everyone from the retired "mom" who has always wanted to fulfill her dream of flying, to the technology pipeline that drives much of the innovation in the multi billion dollar air transport industry.

But enough about that... Each week the AOPA sends out their ePILOT newsletter. Since I'm in training to be a CFI, I was interested to read this in the recent newsletter:

==> QUIZ ME! <==
Here's a question asked by an AOPA member who contacted our aviation services staff through the AOPA Pilot Information Center. Test your knowledge.

Question: Does a flight instructor need to hold a second-class medical certificate when providing flight instruction?

Answer: A flight instructor does not need a second-class medical to provide dual instruction. If the CFI must act as pilot in command (PIC) for the flight, he or she is required to hold a valid third class medical certificate. While a commercial pilot certificate or airline transport pilot certificate is required to become a CFI, the FAA has determined that when providing instruction, a flight instructor is simply receiving compensation for his or her instruction and, therefore, exercising the privileges of a private pilot certificate. If the CFI is not required to act as PIC and is not performing the duties of a required crewmember (i.e., safety pilot), he or she does not need a valid medical certificate. Additionally, a medical certificate is not required when performing the duties of a flight instructor with a glider rating or sport pilot rating. This information is discussed in FAR 61.23(3)(iv)

What does all of that mean? GA pilots have to have a medical certificate clearing your way to fly. Even if you have a pilots license, you can't fly if you aren't approved by a FAA designated doctor. The higher up you get, the more stringent the medical certificates. Airline transport pilots have what is called a first class medical. This has to be renewed every 6 months. From there, it goes down to a second or a third class medical certificate. Third class medical certificates are all that are required for private pilots, and those are good for three years, unless you are over 40, then you have to get it renewed every 2 years. I've personally always gotten a first class medical and as far as I can tell, the exam for all three medicals is the same until you turn 35. It's basically just a standard physical with a vision and hearing exam thrown in. When you turn 35, the first class medical requires an EKG.

If you are exercising the privileges of a commercial pilots license, which means you can be compensated for flying, you need a second class medical. What makes the quoted passage so interesting is that even though you need a commercial certificate to be compensated for flying, being paid to instruct others to fly only requires a third class medical. Wonder why that is...

I suspect that it probably has something to do with the fact that you aren't alone in the plane and more likely than not, your student can land the plane safely if you keel over and die of a heart attack. I also think it has a lot to do with not grounding a lot of good CFIs. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work to be a flight instructor and they don't exactly grow on trees.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Back in the Saddle

After an 8 year hiatus, and a few hours spent with a flight instructor to take care of my biennial flight review, I finally took to the skies solo last Sunday. I did 8 touch-and-goes in a Cessna 152. If you have to fly around in a 2 seater, the 152 is a much better ride than the 150. Eight extra horsepower make a huge amount of difference.

Having been away from flying for 8 years, the event was not without its problems. I did an absolutely thorough pre-flight; probably more thorough than I ever did as a student pilot. Unfortunately, I was so fixated on the checklist that I neglected to take into account the odd corner the airplane was parked in. I very nearly whacked the left elevator into a deck support. Fortunately one of the FBO's CFIs was aware of the situation, ran over and gave me the big "X" shutdown signal with his hands. It was very embarrassing, but not nearly as embarrassing as putting a dent in their airplane. Strike one...

After getting situated again I did a pretty good job with the radio calls and managed to do a proper run-up (pre-flight engine and instrument test).  After the run-up, I requested, and was given, clearance to take off and was then on my way into the air. My first trip around the pattern was pretty ugly. It wasn't unsafe by any means, but it was probably the most ungraceful solo flying I'd ever done. I made my crosswind turn way too early and didn't even make it up to traffic pattern altitude until I was almost through with my downwind leg. About that time the tower comes on the radio and informs me that they aren't picking up my transponder signal... whoops, I forgot to turn it on... Arrrrgggggg, strike two. Total rookie mistake! I turn it on, but they still don't see it. I make a note to get it looked at on the ground. Tower clears me for the option (meaning I get to land or do a touch-and-go). I fiddle with the transponder some more, but I can't get the little status light to blink and the tower says they still can't see it.

As I entered the approach phase I felt a bit disoriented, but the old training came back quickly.... abeam the end of the runway, drop the power to 1500RPM pull the carb heat... speed is in flap operating range, give me 10 degrees of flaps... hmmm this looks like a good place for a base leg... give me 10 more degrees of flaps... whoops I better turn before I blow final... crap, I blew final, wish I'd given myself more time on that crosswind leg... better correct to get back on final... oh wait, what did ATIS say the winds were... nevermind, I can see the smoke blowing from a fire somewhere on the ground... wow pretty hard crosswind... crab the plane into the wind with left rudder and right aileron... ahhhh good I'm back on final... PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator) is showing two reds and two whites.... good I'm on the glideslope, I guess I wasn't completely ungraceful... hmmm oh yeah that transponder thing; I radio the tower and tell them I'm going to do a full stop to get the transponder looked at... tower clears me for the full stop... hmmm maybe I should go with 10 more degrees of flaps... nevermind the plane is landing fine as it is... sinking... sinking... don't flare too early... sinking sinking... flare... chirp... chirp... wheels kiss the ground surprisingly gently... hmmm not a bad landing, next time let's try to avoid missing the centerline by a half plane's width... good thing the runway is 150 feet wide...

I taxi back to the FBO and have them look at the transponder. I know the transponder is working just fine, it's the pilot that's working incorrectly, but I'm stumped and need some help. I've read enough close call stories to convince me that it's better to be embarrassed than to do something stupid that'll get you hurt or sanctioned (or escorted home by a pair of F-16s because you are now an unidentified flying object in controlled airspace). The owner of the FBO is in the lobby and hears me asking about the transponder. No doubt he's already aware of me nearly denting his airplane, so he's already not terribly pleased with me. Seeing me ask questions about equipment I should already know about must really be making his day... He marches out to the airplane with me and asks me when I turned the transponder on. I admit that I turned it on about halfway through downwind... he just shakes his head...  Then he notices that I haven't removed the keys from the ignition and sternly reminds me that I left the mags hot which could injure a ramp person if the prop chugs through a revolution while they're moving the plane into its parking spot. Strike three...

By now I'm wondering why he hasn't just told me to go home and never come back. Instead he proceeds to give me a stern lesson on how transponders work. I keep my mouth shut and actually learn a few things. Apparently it takes four minutes and 30 seconds for this particular Mode C transponder to warm up. This explains why the tower didn't see me even after I turned it on. He advised that I should keep it on the "ON" setting while taxiing so it can warm up without useless altitude strobes cluttering up the control tower's radar. Once I'm ready to request clearance to take off I should switch the transponder to the usual "ALT" (altitude) setting. I'd never heard of that little control tower courtesy before... After fiddling with it for a while, the FBO owner wasn't able to get the little status light to blink, but assured me that the transponder was working earlier that day and was probably fine. I was later able to confirm with the tower that it was in fact transmitting properly.

I taxi out again and am cleared for take-off.

I'm determined to do the perfect pattern and the perfect landing. I've heard career pilots talk about how they've never had what they consider a perfect landing. I totally agree. The dynamics of flying an airplane are very fluid and there's always something you could do better. It's a very satisfying challenge.

Each touch-and-go was better than the last. I made a note of something I did wrong after each approach and made an effort to improve it the next time around. By the last time around, I was landing exactly on the center line  and pretty much at the exact spot I was aiming for, even with a pretty gnarly crosswind. My patterns still weren't as good as I'd like to see, but at least I was able to make them marginally consistent. I got the plane up to traffic pattern altitude before I turned into the crosswind leg, gave myself plenty of room in the pattern and kept ahead of the airplane. My altitude still fluctuated more than I wanted to see. I'm sure the guys in the tower were getting a pretty good chuckle watching my altitude bounce all over.

On my last pattern, after clearing me for the option, the tower suggested that I may want to make it a full stop. Apparently the FBO had called the tower and said they had a student waiting for the plane. I guess I'd lost track of time. Fortunately I had planned on making a full stop anyway.

When I got back into the FBO, the CFI who'd stopped me from whacking the deck post looked pretty cranky. I guess it was his student who was signed up for the plane. I don't think I made a lot of friends that day, but I did knock a lot of rust off of my skills and got my confidence back.

I start my commercial flight training on Friday...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

ID Not Required!

This comes from my friend Phil Mocek. I've reprinted it here with permission unedited.

Hi, everyone. Sorry for the rather impersonal mass mailing.

Some of you, namely KU basketball fans and Kansas Citians, have undoubtedly already seen this, but I'm pretty excited about it and want to bring it to others' attention: On Wednesday, April 9, 2008, the  Kansas City Star ran a front-page article [1] about my efforts to stand up for our right to travel freely in this country without being monitored by our government.

[1]: <http://www.kansascity.com/105/story/567590.html>

Inspired by people like John Gilmore [2], Chris Soghoian [3], and my friend Ben [4], I've been flying without identifying myself to TSA agents for a couple years, and after my last flight to Kansas City, I filed a complaint with the TSA about signs posted at the airport [5] that falsely state that travelers must present photo identification before crossing the security checkpoint.

[2]: <http://papersplease.org/gilmore/>
[3]: <http://www.cnet.com/8301-13739_1-9769089-46.html>
[4]: <http://oblivion.net/~ben/journal/?entry=725>
[5]: <http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmocek/2349302702/>

After receiving a response from TSA [6] confirming that there is no requirement that people show ID for domestic flights (and not mentioning anything about fixing the signs), I got in touch with the right people, and the next thing I knew a reporter from the Kansas City Star was interviewing me.  At the time I had no idea it would end up on the front page, much less on a somewhat-commemorative "National champion University of Kansas basketball team returns home to big parade" issue that was surely in the eyes of many people who wouldn't otherwise pick up the paper.  (That a picture of me, someone who would rather watch paint dry than sit through a basketball game, is likely to end up on the walls of hundreds of KU fans is particularly delicious.)

[6]: <http://papersplease.org/wp/2008/03/31/id-still-not-required-to-fly/>

I feel pretty strongly about this issue and hope that you'll give it at least a little consideration.

If you're so inclined, please read on for my best newspaper-friendly summary of why I've been doing what I do.  I submitted this to the Star today and very much hope that it is published by them as an op-ed. Judging by the interest the story seems to have generated in KC, I think  there's a good chance that they will do so.  If they do, I'm going to do what I can to get one of the Seattle papers to pick it up, and I also have a connection at the AP who might be interested.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

While flying out of Kansas City last year, I saw TSA signs at the airport stating that travelers must present government-issued photo identification.  I knew that wasn't true, and I didn't show ID. I neither caused trouble nor slowed things down for other travelers when I asserted my right to travel without checking in with the government by identifying myself; I was taken out of line to be screened along with other "selectees".

After returning home, I filed a complaint with TSA.  I received a response from Jeanne Oliver, Associate Director of TSA Office of the Executive Secretariat.  She did not indicate that TSA would fix the problem, but did confirm that if a traveler is "unwilling or unable to produce a valid form of ID, the traveler is required to undergo additional screening at the checkpoint to gain access to the secured area of the airport."  People who show ID receive a less-thorough screening.  Any time saved when people volunteer to show ID comes at the cost of less effectively checking them for dangerous items.

We're being lied to about federal air travel policies by airport security at KCI and other locations, and it's not making us any safer.

Government agents requiring people to show ID before boarding a flight wouldn't make air travel any safer.  It's relatively easy to get a fake ID, and regardless of how much technology we put into ID cards, a criminal will be able to purchase a fake one or steal someone else's identity and get a real ID with his picture and the other person's name.

We can and do call upon TSA to ensure safe air travel by preventing people from carrying dangerous items onto flights.  TSA's current practice of allowing people who show ID through security with less  screening than other people receive contributes to a false sense of security, breeding complacency among passengers, crew, and TSA agents.

I acknowledge that the inconvenience of showing ID is trivial.  My concern is that a requirement to show ID would allow the government to monitor and restrict our travel.  Our courts have established that   people in this country have the right to travel and associate without being monitored or stopped by the government unless they have been convicted of committing a crime or are suspected -- with good reason -- of having committed a crime.  They have ruled that we cannot set up roadblocks and checkpoints to stop everyone who passes just to catch the few who have done something wrong, or to find the few who are suspected of intending to do something wrong.

Recent Congressional testimony suggests that over 900,000 names are now on the United States' so-called "terrorist watch list".  Many people who have found themselves on the list are U.S. citizens who have no ties to any terrorist organization.  There is no appeals process for those who have been blacklisted.  We are not allowed to know who is on the list, who put them there, or why they were put on it.

If these people pose a danger to others, why don't we go arrest them instead of waiting for them to present themselves at the airport, then hassling them or preventing them from flying before sending them on their way?

Even if we could prune the list so that it included only people who actually pose a "known" threat, potential terrorists could probe the system by sending people on innocent trips, observing which ones were subjected to additional screening, then later sending the other people on a real terrorist mission.  Restricting travel based on an ID check simply cannot improve security.

People can show their ID to whomever they want, whenever they want to do so, if it makes them feel safer.  My doing so doesn't make me feel any safer.  When a government agent asks me to show my papers or searches me, I feel *un*safe.  It reminds me of descriptions of life in the former USSR, where identification was required upon demand, movement was restricted, and people either kept quiet and did as they were told, or risked disappearing into the night, never to be heard from again.

When I see security guards in airports wearing what look like police uniforms and demanding identification, and police on our streets wearing what look like military uniforms, driving DHS-grant-funded armored vehicles, marching in riot gear with machine guns, pepper-spraying and
Tasing peaceful demonstrators, it makes me feel like I live in what is approaching a totalitarian state.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Catholic Church Employed 6,000 Forced Laborers In WWII

This recently came across Free Internet Press:

Germany's Catholic Church employed almost 6,000 forced laborers during World War II, according to new research commissioned by the church. The report highlights the church's ambivalent relationship with the Nazis. The German Catholic church made no secret of the fact that it employed forced labor under the Nazis and commissioned research into its history in 2000. That research was published on Tuesday, providing detailed figures on the numbers of forced laborers used and underscoring the church's "historical burden," according to Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the bishop of Mainz. Records collected from the Catholic dioceses over the last seven years showed a total of 4,829 civilian laborers and 1,075 prisoners of war worked in 776 Catholic institutions such as hospitals, homes and monasteries, on church-owned farms or gardens during World War II. They came mainly eastern territories overrun by the Nazis such as Poland, Ukraine and the Soviet Union.

Original Source: http://freeinternetpress.com/story.php?sid=16141
This is more evidence towards refuting a point Dinesh D'Souza, and other supernaturalists (people who believe in a power greater than the physical laws of nature, like the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or Allah, Zeus, Vishnu, etc) make. They posit that religious atrocities, though abhorrent, pale in comparison to what atheists have done throughout history.

Supernaturalists tend to claim that their deity created morality and without their deity there is no morality. I grant that there is some divergence among supernaturalists with respect to this point. Some supernaturalists seem to claim that their deity's morality is "poured out" like a bowl of morality soup on the population thus giving everyone a little morality, but the true believers get the whole meal deal. They tend to explain away disgusting things like priests molesting little boys, stealing from old pensioners and perverting the minds of young children in cult like environments by saying that the perpetrators aren't *TRUE* believers.

The hardliner/fundamentalists tend towards the idea that without following their deity's dogma, you won't have any morality at all, and as a result you get Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc. It's a well worn, tried and true argument. It's also a very weak one. There are more ways to counter it than I have time to put here in this blog entry.

Although there is ample proof to show that the Catholic church was complicit in Hitler's genocidal agenda (what I re-posted above is probably only the tip of the iceberg), it can be argued that Hitler was unaffected by the church's position and that they were just a convenient ally. In other words, so postulate the hardline supernaturalists, Hitler was an atheist and had no morality, so he had no problem doing what he did.

Christopher Hitchens addressed this issue extremely well in his book "God is not Great". In a nutshell, Christopher showed that the idea that atheism leads to Hitler (and Stalin, Pol Pot, etc) is absurd. Those genocidal dictators simply mirror dogma of the sort you find in supernaturalistic worship. They utilize certain supernaturalist sects, like Christianity, in order to get utility out of it. What you do *NOT* find is a genocidal dictator advocating on the side of atheism as part of their platform. He gives plenty of examples and accessible source references, go read his book if you're curious. Why is that relevant?

What we know for sure is that no genocidal dictator could do what they do without the support of a certain cornerstone of the population. The easiest way to access this population cornerstone is by mirroring the ritualistic dogma you find in supernaturalism. By adhering to supernaturalistic dogma, just the opposite of atheism, a talented dictator can take control, and over time do terrible things. Regardless of the beliefs of the genocidal dictator, the population cornerstone, who has sincere supernaturalistic beliefs, is the unwitting enabler of the dictator.

It is not the dictator that does the real damage. This idea makes a lot of people uncomfortable. If people weren't so credulous, Adolf Hitler would have very likely ended his life in old age with a lot of weird ideas in his head and nothing more than a failed career as a painter to show for it. Instead, as we're finding out more and more with evidence like the Catholic church's complicity in the holocaust, it's the overly credulous believers who have underdeveloped critical thinking skills that are the biggest dangers to humanity.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

2007 Tax Hilarity

Saw this one while doing my taxes for 2007:

Do you want to designate $3 to a fund that provides campaign money to presidential candidates?
Note:
Selecting Yes will not increase your taxes or reduce your refund.

Am I the only one who finds the "Note" hilarious?

(Yes, I realize it refers to the 2007 tax refund... but in a way, it almost doesn't...)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Communicating with Highly Physically Disabled People

I am not a linguist, I am a mathematician, computer programmer, amateur electrical engineer and all around renaissance geek. I just finished reading the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is a profoundly moving memoir dictated one letter at a time by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a stroke victim who suffered from locked-in syndrome.

Jean-Dominique was only able to communicate by blinking his left eye. An alphabet was developed that was re-ordered from the usual alphanumeric ordering, so that the most frequently used letters were at the beginning. To communicate, the speaker would cite each letter and Jean-Dominique would blink when the appropriate letter was said. Slowly, words would be built up and sentences would eventually form, conveying meaning. It was a tedious process and it had its drawbacks:
" "Want to play hangman?" asks Theophile, and I ache to tell him that I have enough on my plate playing quadriplegic. But my communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it letter by letter. So the rule is to avoid impulsive sallies. It deprives conversation of its sparkle, all those gems you bat back and forth like a ball - and I count this forced lack of humor one of the great drawbacks of my condition." (Pages 70 and 71, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

Since Jean-Dominique was a native French speaker, the letter frequencies in his special alphabet were based on the French language. The alphabet looked like this:


E S A R I N T U L O M D P C F B V H G J Q Z Y X K W


For the English language, the letter frequencies (which can be found here) would be:


E T A O I N S H R D L C U M W F G Y P B V K J X Q Z


As I was learning this system, it occurred to me that there had to be a more efficient manner to do the same thing. The main problem appears to be that it takes a great deal of time to get to a letter deep into the alphabet. In addition, the deeper in the alphabet you go, the more likely it is that an error will happen thereby missing the intended letter and causing the letter selector to have to start again at the beginning.

In order to improve communications speed, I came up with this alternate "tabular" method:

E A N D W
T I R M B
O H U P X
S C Y J PH
L G K Z LY
F V Q QU RY

Note: Since the standard Latin alphabet has 26 letters, a six by five table left four empty spots. I chose letter pairs to fill those spots. The letter pairs were guessed at, as my brief searching was unable to turn up any letter pair frequency tables. I have no doubt that an exhaustive lexical analysis of the English language would turn up the true top four letter pairs. Some pairs like IE and EA are very common, but they are pretty cheap to create one letter at a time, so it's not worth using them in the far bottom corner where it takes more steps to get to them.

This alternative method works as a simple Cartesian coordinate system. That's fancy mathematics speak for "select the row and then select the column". To find the letter M, the letter selector starts at the top row and works down row by row, until the patient blinks when the second row is chosen. This means the patient could be interested in the letters T, I, R, M or B. The selector would then work across the columns until the patient blinks when the M character is chosen. In total, six stops were made to get to the M character. The old system would have required fourteen; more than twice as many. In addition, by locking the selector into a given row, the possibility for error is greatly reduced. If the selector picks the wrong row or misses the target letter, they will know they've done so because the patient never blinks by the end of the row. With the old system, the selector would have to go to the end of the entire alphabet to find that they've missed the letter.

To give you a better idea of the benefit of this system, here's the same table with the relative costs of getting to each letter added. The letter represents the target letter, the number represents the number of steps, or "cost", required to get to that letter and the number in parenthesis is the cost the old system required to get to that letter:


E - 2 (1)A - 3 (3)N - 4 (6)D - 5 (10)W - 6 (15)
T - 3 (2)I - 4 (5)R - 5 (9)M - 6 (14)B - 7 (20)
O - 4 (4)H - 5 (8)U - 6 (13)P - 7 (19)X - 8 (24)
S - 5 (7)C - 6 (12)Y - 7 (18)J - 8 (23)PH - 9 (27)
L - 6 (11)G - 7 (17)K - 8 (22)Z - 9 (26) LY - 10 (29)
F - 7 (16)V - 8 (21)Q - 9 (25) QU - 10 (38)RY - 11 (27)

Some immediate observations are that the letters E and T actually require one more step in this system than the old. In addition O and A cost the same in both systems. However, it should be noted that the overall cost savings is dramatic when you start creating whole words. For example. Let's take the following sentence (chosen from a random poster I saw at my Son's elementary school):

SEE JANE RUN
The cost breakdown is as follows:


Word Old Cost New Cost
See 9 9
Jane 33 17
Run 28 15
 
Thus with the old system, it costs 70 letter stops to spell the test sentence. With the system I am proposing, it only takes 41. It is also important to note that the word SEE costs the same in both systems, which is an example of how the extra step to find the letters E and T are quickly absorbed by economies elsewhere.

Potential improvements on this would be to re-arrange the alphabet on a per patient basis. Since everyone uses a slightly different subset of their native language's words, their letter frequencies would likely be slightly different. If available, recordings and writings from the patient created prior to becoming disabled could be analyzed to alter the table layout. However, after the patient starts using the table, I would suggest that it not be altered unless absolutely necessary, as a familiarity will have been built up that will be difficult to overcome to take advantage of newer efficiencies. It would be interesting to study whether or not patients adapt their vocabulary to the table, thus removing any need to alter the table to introduce efficiencies after being introduced to it.

A potential objection to altering the table on a per patient basis prior to being introduced to it, would be that each patient should use the same letter table to keep communications uniform. I would overcome this objection with the idea that patients will not be using this system to talk directly to each other. This system would only be meant to facilitate communication between a disabled patient and an able bodied person who can work the board. The able bodied person working the board, should be able to adapt to different boards for different patients, especially considering that the incremental improvements in communications speed will far outweigh any inconvenience to the board operator. In addition, there is no reason why the intermediary could not be a computer, thus allowing similarly disabled patients to communicate with each other in real time. I wonder if it would be a positive thing for a patient to share their feelings with someone in the same situation?

It is important to note that this system is only useful for persons who already have the ability to read and can process information relatively normally. It is also only useful to those that have the ability to consistently gesture in a singular fashion, such as an eye blink, or some other "single bit" manner. If multiple gestures can be clearly and consistently mastered, there are much faster ways of communicating than the system that I am proposing. It would be very interesting to be able to study systems that apply to various numbers of feedback bits from the patient. As a general rule, the greater number of feedback bits available from the patient, the more robust and efficient the communication. I should coin the term CFB - Consistent Feedback Bits. A basic eye blink would be one CFB. An eye blink and a finger twitch, would be two CFBs and so on. The various systems of communicating could be indexed by CFBs. A specialist could assess the patients CFBs and perhaps use therapies to expand the number of CFBs, and then a system of communication could be chosen that best fits their unique situation. Again, many of these systems of communications would fall apart if the patient is simply cognitively unable to process information.

I believe that this system requires the ability to see out of at least one eye, but could possibly be used with a blind patient as long as they could hear well enough to memorize the table and give "single bit" feedback as they were learning. If the patient were blind and deaf, it may still be possible to communicate as long as they had relatively normal information processing abilities and could feedback to indicate to their teacher where they were in the learning process.

With an advanced enough computer, this could all be done automatically. It would not be that difficult to train a computer to analyze when an eye has blinked or a similar "single bit" gesture has occurred. Lights could be used on the selection table (or sounds if the patient was blind) to work through the table. Even further, if recordings of the patient's voice could be found, the patients words could be synthesized in their own voice! The only drawback would be that the table would have to be enhanced to include commands like "turn on/off synthesizer", numbers and some punctuation.

Going even further, a computer could learn to discriminate multiple gestures from what appears to be a "single bit" gesture to a casual human observer. For example, to most people an eye blink is an eye blink. A finger flex is a finger flex. To a computer, who can analyze millions of pixels of video data per second, the subtlest differences in movements can be discerned. Given enough training, a computer could learn to pick up on the many different shades of meaning a patient could build into a simple "single bit" gesture. For example, a patient could decide that a fast blink means one thing and a slow blink means another. Or perhaps a fast half blink means something different from a slow half blink. Or perhaps, the patient can actually move their eye, so a blink and a move to the right could mean something different from a half slow blink with a move to the left.

To be sure, it would be a long and arduous process for the computer and patient (and technician(s)) to get this language straight. Once it was learned though, it seems entirely likely that a completely paralyzed patient who only had the use of one eye (or some other single bit gesture), could communicate using a computer as quickly as you and I can with our voices.

I considered several other systems for organizing the alphabet in a manner that would require the fewest number of steps to get to a given letter. All of those that I could come up with were either too complex, or communication efficiency wasn't high enough. If you're interested, I'd be happy to talk over some of the ideas I've abandoned.

Oh, and if you've got a pile of money and want to see something tangible developed along the lines of what I have just described, feel free to throw it at me. I would love nothing more than to be able to work on this full time.

Monday, February 25, 2008

PZ Myers: The Courtiers Reply

I found this to be absolutely brilliant in its construction and execution. It echoes a sentiment I have often felt when reading logical deconstructions of Atheist works by inconvenienced believers. Except in this case, it puts into words what I have only been able to internally articulate in vague emotional terms.

Reposted from http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/the_courtiers_reply.php:

There's a common refrain in the criticisms of Dawkins' The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) that I've taken to categorizing with my own private title—it's so common, to the point of near-unanimous universality, that I've decided to share it with you all, along with a little backstory that will help you to understand the name.

I call it the Courtier's Reply. It refers to the aftermath of a fable.
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.
Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.
I'm afraid that when I read H. Allen Orr's criticism of The God Delusion in the NY Review of Books, all that popped into my head was a two-word rebuttal: Courtier's Reply. You would be amazed at how many of the anti-Dawkins arguments can be filed away under that category. That's all you'll get from me on Orr's complaint—it's another Courtier's Reply. If you want a more detailed dissection, Jason Rosenhouse provides it.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Not exactly the target demographic...


Can you spot what's wrong with this picture? Hint: Check the advertisement on the right side... Whoops... In their defense, they probably use an advertising syndicator and don't have much control over what appears. However, you'd think that someone would go to at least a little bit of trouble to research their target demographic...


Poor Choice of Words...

This unemployment benefits appeal was forwarded to me by the writer's sister. I've redacted all of the identifying information with X's to protect the innocent (and the guilty). While I do not condone violence, including threats of violence, perceived or otherwise, I can empathize with her frustration...

Okay, so my sister...whose name has been partially changed, wrote the letter below which earned her a call from the XXXXXXXX County Bomb Squad Sheriff today.  The funny part (besides the fact that they called her) is that it's been two weeks since she faxed this to the unemployment office.  The sheriff said that he sympathized with her letter, as did all the other's who had read it.

Enjoy...                        
XXXXXXX

Ima D. Bomber
XXXX XXXXXXX XXXX
XXXXX, WA XXXXX
(XXX) XXX-XXXX
SS# XXX-XX-XXXX
Decision to appeal:  denied benefits
Reason for appeal:  I believe I had a "good cause for quitting".

        My decision for quitting my job is quite clear.  My husband was laid off from work, we were unable to pay the rent on my single income and we were subsequently evicted from our home.  As I had no way to house or feed my children, I was forced to separate from my husband and travel across the state to move in with my sister's family (including my mother who also resides at that address).
      
        I put in my two week notice to my employer, with every intention of fulfilling my obligation. As I found that telling this woman I hardly knew that I was being evicted from my home was far too embarrassing, I told her that I was moving to my sister's to help care for my ailing mother. This was not entirely honest but, as my mother suffers from anxiety and a heart condition, I found this a more acceptable reason for my departure During my lunch break on 11/19/07, however, I received a distressing call from my children regarding a lack of food in my house and knowing that I had no way to pay for groceries, I knew I would have to move more quickly than planned.  At this time I had finally reached my breaking point and had a complete emotional melt down. Knowing that I could not return to work with my face blotchy and my eyes full of tears, I told the supervisor that I was suffering from a migraine headache and could no longer work that day and, furthermore, I had to pack my belongings quickly so I would not be able to return to work for my remaining days.  Although your office found this reason for quitting my job both "plausible and/or compelling", it did not fit into one of your nine clearly defined reasons for "good cause" and my benefits were denied.                                         

        Since that time I have gone through a number of emotions.  Starting with utter despair, continuing on to a feeling that I can only relate as a suicide bomber and finally to an almost uncontrollable anger.  I am unable to make my car payment or my car insurance payment and will be unable to get to a job, even when I get one. So, yesterday, I found myself applying for state assistance.  Now I have gone from being a productive member of society that pays my taxes, to a user of state resources set aside for those who can not provide for themselves.  Now YOUR taxes are being used to support me even though I am quite capable to supporting myself, but needed a bit of help to get by.  I believed I was paying into an unemployment system that would provide for me should this unfortunate event arise and I find that they are not.                             

        I have been paying taxes since I began my first job at age sixteen and have only once before received unemployment benefits.  During that time I had been laid off because the government did not find it necessary to supply enough funds to provide my patients, the mentally ill, with a nurse.  My union fought bitterly and used my story as a compelling reason for the government to stand up and take action to help those suffering from mental illness.  Again, I find that the government has no problem taking my money, but has no intentions of using it to help me or my fellow Americans in any way, other than to support immigrants (noting that all government forms come with a variety languages to choose from) and a war against those who wish to immigrate here.  I am proud to be an American.  I know a lot of them and they are generally a good people.  The people in charge of the bigger picture, however, are obviously taking advantage of our general good nature and at some point this MUST come to a stop.

        I have considered bombing target areas, but find that I do not have the stomach to kill innocent people like yourself who are just trying to do their own job and take care of their own families.  Nor do I have the availability or knowledge to use a weapon large enough to make any impact that would draw the governments' attention.  I have seriously contemplated suicide and hope that you will think of me whenever you hear of someone who has literally come to the end of their rope.  The irony in all of this is that if I proceeded down either of these paths I would probably end up in prison or a mental hospital and either way the American tax dollar would be paying to support me even though the government could not provide for a few months unemployment that I paid for in advance.

        So, if this letter falls into your hands and you find yourself saying, "I would love to make a change, but I don't have that kind of power." do not despair.  I have been in your position, wishing I could do more for my patients with mental illness and finding that the government has more money wasted in meetings, paper work and red tape than in truly trying to find what will work best to aid the American people and implementing it.   All I ask is that you pass this letter on to your boss and if he/she finds himself/herself saying, "This is totally out of my hands." then they should continue to pass this letter up the chain of command.  I know eventually this will fall into the hands of someone who says, "It is my job to make sure that my boss is not bothered with this kind of thing."  To that person I would like to say, "Please file this between your butt cheeks.  Because you are part of the problem and not part of the solution!"


Sincerely,

Ima D. Bomber (aka #XXX-XX-XXXX)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mounting Flat Panel Monitors

After getting rid of my CRT monitors in favor of flat panel monitors, I couldn't believe how much space I freed up on my desk. I'm still a big fan of CRT monitors because they simply have a better picture, much in the same way that a vinyl record gives a deeper and richer musical experience as compared to a compact disc recording. However, the differences between CRTs and flat panels are becoming smaller and smaller and, for my needs, the space saving attributes exceed any complaint I may have about quality differences.

I recently decided to take it one step further by mounting the flat panels to the wall in front of my desk. Not knowing the first thing about how to do this, I googled for the manufacturer of the monitor thinking they had some sort of "wall mount kit". Well... they did have a nice kit, that enabled the monitors to swivel on a ball joint, but it was about  $100 before shipping, which comes to a little less than 50% of the cost of one of my monitors. I could buy a third monitor for what the mounts cost. In addition, I don't want my monitors to swivel on a ball mount. I wanted something that would mount my monitors nice and flush to the wall to free up as much space as possible.

I couldn't find anything else simply because I'd never dealt with flat panels before. On a whim I went to my friendly neighborhood Video Only. I figured they get questions like that all the time. I wasn't optimistic though, as I assumed that each manufacturer had a different mounting scheme for their monitors. You could have knocked me over with a feather when the sales guy informed me that, with the exception of Phillips, every flat panel monitor and TV used a standardized mounting scheme! Yay for standards :-)

About ten minutes later I walked out of the store, the proud owner of two new "Sanus Systems Vision Mount Flat Panel TV Wall Mount" kits. Model number was VMFL1b-01. These babies were exactly what I needed. Total cost: about $25.00 each. I got out of there for about $55.00 including tax. The wall mount went from about 50% of the cost of the monitor to about 12.5%.

(Actually Video Only had one in stock and had to order in the other one. They called me the next morning and said it had arrived about 5 hours earlier than they'd promised. We managed to get over to pick it up that night about a minute after they closed. The sales guy doing after hours inventory saw me run up to the door, and was nice enough to run back and grab it for me, rather than force me to come back the next day. I have nothing but praise for Video Only. These guys really work hard for their business. The deals are fair, the sales people are knowledgeable and they don't annoy you with junk you don't want.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Big Pharmaceutical

Surprise surprise, the pharmaceutical industry spends twice as much on marketing as it does on research and development. The details can be found in this article. I really wish this got more press than it did. At least I don't remember hearing a lot about it from the mainstream press.