March 21st, 2007

#319: Derivatives

I talked about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with one of my team leads at work. He pointed out that if Gwyneth Paltrow's character had been male, he would have been a villain who was killed at the end of the story. That was a pretty good point, IMHO.

* * *

Roast chicken--particularly the "broasted" variety--is pretty bland when cold. Fresh and hot, I love it; but cold, or reheated, bleah. I discovered that if I eat it with salsa, it's a lot better.

I like to take about half a pound of "taco meat"--ground beef which has been prepared with taco mix--a can of refried beans, and Kraft "mexican" four-cheese blend, and make a sort of con carne dip.

I spread a layer of the beans in the bottom of a pasta dish, add a layer of beef, then cheese; then do it again. Microwave for about a minute to melt the cheese. Then serve with Tostitos "Scoops".

Even better is "Mexican lasagne". You make layers of flour tortillas, beans, cheese, and taco meat--lay tortillas on the bottom of the pan and go from there--in a 9x13 pan until it's full. The meat must be prepared with a taco mix, according to the instructions on the package. There isn't really any "right" way to layer the ingredients but I normally start by putting a layer of beans on the first layer of tortillas. Use con queso dip on a couple of layers, including the top, and add a layer of crushed tortilla chips on top. Bake in a 350° oven for about 20 minutes. Serve with sour cream (and guacamole, if you can stand the stuff. I can't). One pound of ground beef, a packet of taco mix, one jar of con queso, one 8 oz bag of shredded cheese, and a package of large tortillas will usually do it, and it serves four without any trouble whatsoever. You can even freeze it and reheat it later, and it tastes just fine. This is one of those dishes which is almost impossible to ruin or make wrong.

* * *

I was thinking about audiophiles and their stupid-expensive cables again, and I realized that I had missed something.

It's a phenomenon known as "pulse spreading". A square wave is fundamentally a mixture of many other waves; perform a Fourier analysis on a square wave and all sorts of sine waves come out. Signal processing, among other things, relies on this.

Because of the physics of waves, over a long enough run these sine waves can run out of phase. Physicists call it "dispersion", and among other things it allows such natural phenomena as rainbows. But when you're designing a communication system, such as one which uses a fiber optic cable, it can be a royal pain in the ass. But pulse spreading or dispersion is really only a problem for long cable runs. (When I say "long" I mean miles.) This difficulty is addressed by using repeaters: periodically there will be a station which reads the signal before it degrades beneath readability, and then transmits it. Since the signal is digital, the retransmission is a crisp square wave.

Audiophiles--the "rich but dumb" ones--believe that cheap cables can introduce enough such "phase errors" to be audible, even over very short runs, runs measured in meters.

Well, hell, if I'd spent $1,000 on a one-meter interconnect cable, I think I'd claim to be able to hear the difference, too....

Speaking of that site, I found myself hard-pressed to find any kind of technical specifications. After sifting through page after page I finally found this which discusses the specs of some of their products. If I was going to drop literal hundreds of dollars on this kind of stuff I would demand more information than that. And for the price of those cables, would it kill them to give a longer warranty than one year? I think if you're going to charge $500 for three feet of cable, a five-year warranty would not be excessive. My LCD monitor cost $340 and it comes with a three year parts and labor warranty, for crying out loud; $340 would cover only the cheapest cable on their list and leave a bare $10 towards tax, shipping, and handling.

In fact, if I paid that much for a stupid cable I would expect a lifetime fucking warranty on the damn thing.

Overall it sounds like a rather hefty load of snake oil. Expensive snake oil.

* * *

On Battlestar Galactica they're having a two-part episode about the trial of Gaius Baltar.

I liked the opening statement of Baltar's attorney, Lambkin. The legal theory he's proceeding under shows an excellent grasp, not only of the theory of law but legal strategy.

The fact that Baltar colluded with the Cylons is not in doubt. But Lambkin's defense is built on the premise that Baltar had no choice; that to resist the Cylon invasion was to insure the demise of humanity at New Caprica.

And there, I have to say, Lambkin has an excellent chance of convincing the tribunal not to convict his client. Okay, yes; Baltar did the things he is accused of--but there were extenuating circumstances, and in fact Baltar's actions kept humanity alive long enough to escape from the Cylons. If--goes Lambkin's theory--Laura Roslyn had still been President at the time of the invasion, humanity would have fought back, and been slaughtered.

(Of course, if Laura Roslyn had been President of the Colonies at the time, they wouldn't even have tried to settle on New Caprica. Everyone seems to have forgotten that.)

Anyway, the preview for the second half of the two-part episode strongly suggested Baltar is found "not guilty". I don't know what to say about it, though. They killed off Starbuck a couple of episodes ago, in a way (and for a reason) which doesn't seem to make a lick of sense in the larger context of the story. In the story, killing Baltar would be perfectly justifiable; but I don't see the writers removing a primary villain so precipitously--and certainly not so soon after killing off another major character.

Well, we'll see, I guess.

* * *

This new monitor is bright enough--and non-reflective enough--that I can actually have a desk lamp on most of the time. It lets me see the keyboard when I need to look for something, which is pretty much every time I use emphasis. Why "." and "," are easy to type but ">" and "<" are not is beyond me.

I've been touch-typing since 1982, for crying out loud. I took a typing class in high school because I wanted to be a writer "when I grew up". Little did I know what that would lead to--but it turned out to be a correct choice, even if the reasoning wasn't entirely correct. I used to write technical manuals; and the personal computer revolution pretty much guaranteed that I would be typing routinely, anyway.

I've used word processors since 1983, running Paperclip 64 on my trusty Commodore 64 before moving up to other computers as time went on. On the IBM compatible computers I've owned since 1990, my word processor of choice was Professional Write until I started writing avionics manuals at Rockwell-Collins in 1998; then I finally made the switch to MS Word.

One of the little projects that floats around in the background of my mind is finding a way to convert everything to a Windows-readable format. The C-64 stuff--Commodore never used ASCII, so all their characters are wrong, and the data has to be translated somehow. Probably the easiest thing would be to print the stuff and scan it, and save the scanned pages as image files on CD-ROM. But that's a lot of scanning to do. I have over 250 pages in one story alone, and there is a lot of text on those 5.25" floppies.

The other alternative is to build an x1541 interface and dump C-64 floppy images to the hard drive, and then use a C-64 emulator to view the images. A suitable emulator--there are several--would let me print hardcopies at will.

All of this assumes that the flopppies themselves are still readable. None of them is newer than 1990, for crying out loud.

* * *

It's amazing that people manage to type quickly on a keyboard that was arrange specifically to slow people down.

I'm sure I don't need to explain the origin of the QWERTY keyboard to anyone reading this. But people manage to get quite credible speeds from the thing long after that speed has ceased to be a problem for the hardware. With a computer keyboard there are no type bars to jam or get stuck.

Still, thanks to inertia, it has stayed with us, much the same way that modern cars' tires and the rails of railroad tracks are about as far apart as the wheels of Roman chariots. 500 years from now they may still use the QWERTY keyboard.

* * *

For reasons which mystify me, the car stereo in my Fiero has a remote control.

The car stereo is an aftermarket unit. It's a DIN 1.5 Pioneer AM/FM/CD unit. It's pretty good, except you can't see the display in direct sunlight; it's not bright enough. It was already in the car when I bought it and the previous owner had kept the original stereo with the car, so I could put it back to 100% stock if I wanted to.

Anyway, why the remote? The only useful thing about the remote--when you are sitting right there--is that the remote has a "mute" button, which the control panel of the stereo lacks.

And that leads me to the Aiwa CD stereo in my Escort, which I installed.

The thing doesn't have a "loudness" button on its front panel. You have to push a button some four or five times to get to the "loudness" setting. There is a button on the front panel for the "local" filter for the radio receiver, something you might change once in a blue moon, but nothing for "loudness".

The user interface of the Aiwa unit sucks, and if the unit is not on, there is no clock. Except for the missing "mute" button, the user interface of the Pioneer unit is much better, and it displays a clock whenever the ignition is in the "run" position if the stereo is off.

So next time I buy a car stereo I know what to look for....

#320: How does he plan to do this?

Edwards Calls for New Emissions Limits

John Edwards' plan calls for "Setting a goal of freezing electricity demand in the next decade and calling for 25 percent of the nation's electricity to be from renewable energy sources."

How does he want to "freeze demand"? Does he have some magical economic tool which can do that?

According to the article, apparently John Edwards believes that it is possible to cap energy usage, "limit demand", force the use of renewable energy, raise taxes, force conservation...and benefit the economy.

How would Edwards "freeze demand" for electricity? He must be smarter than I am, because there is only one way I can think of to limit demand for something: raise its price.

Make electricity more expensive, and you will limit demand for it. Make it expensive enough and you will "freeze" demand. But that will not benefit the economy, because money spent on paying for electricity will not be available for buying other things. This will produce a net negative effect on the economy, because some electicity use is non-volitional.

He wants to set a cap on greenhouse emissions in 2010, and then reduce emissions by 15% of that level by 2020. Barring new technology (like fusion, which isn't going to be commercially viable for 50 years, we are told) that'll be flatly impossible without choking the economy. Kyoto is already doing that to Europe; they can't meet the requirements and they're killing their economy trying.

He also supports raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy limit to 40 MPG. That basically means any car which doesn't get 40 MPG must have an added "gas guzzler" tax.

Earth to Edwards: There are very few cars on the road which actually get 40 MPG, and you wouldn't be caught dead driving any of them, sir. I've seen pictures of your mansion, Mr. "Two Americas".

As a matter of fact, with current technology, you can have any two of inexpensive, efficient, and comfortable. Saying, "Manufacturers will simply have to build more hybrids!" won't fix the problem. First off, hybrids are very expensive, especially considering that the real-world gains in fuel economy over a conventional car are not really exceptional. (My 1995 Ford Escort LX gets 36 MPG and is rated at 42; a 2007 Toyota Prius gets 45 and is rated at 55.) Second, the manufacture of hybrid cars is a horrendous source of pollution, particularly since most hybrids use Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries, and those batteries have a service life of about 100,000 miles.

Most cars average an EPA fuel economy rating of around 28-32 MPG. Raising the requirement to 40 MPG would eliminate all trucks and SUVs, and nearly all of the most popular passenger cars. Foreign automakers would benefit the most from this, which--again--would not help the American economy one whit.

It may be possible that Edwards' "new energy economy" would produce "1,000,000 jobs"--but it would cost many times that number of jobs to implement. It would not be good for the American economy, and it would do nothing but hurt the average American citizen.

But John Edwards doesn't have to worry about that; he's rich enough to go on living the way he does, regardless of how much energy costs.