Not Clear on the Concept

Got this from the hotel at which I recently stayed:

By completing this survey, you may be contacted by the hotel to help improve the quality of service provided. We sincerely thank you for sharing your opinions as we continue to do our best to make each stay enjoyable.

So, so you send me spam and if I help you out, my reward is that you’re going to bug me more? Could be worse, though. They could be telling me it’ll take 5 freaking business days to remove me from their email list.

Let the Warm Fuzzies Begin

In case your week wasn’t bad enough:

Money for Scientific Research May Be Scarce With a Republican-Led House

In the Republican platform, Pledge to America, the party vows to cut discretionary nonmilitary spending to 2008 levels. Under that plan, research and development at nonmilitary agencies — including those that sponsor science and health research — would fall 12.3 percent, to $57.8 billion, from the Mr. Obama’s request of $65.9 billion for fiscal year 2011.

’cause what has science ever done for us? (You know, if you squint, the elephant looks like an insane clown posse mask)

This, on top of the continuing resolution that is cramping my style at work. There are only a few things that congress has to do each year, and one of them is pass the budget. Don’t let ’em leave Washington until it gets done. Wanna go on vacation? No. Wanna campaign? No. Do your effing job first.

(at the request of J)

edit to add, since it’s sort of related: Where Drugs Come From: The Numbers

You cut government research dollars and you reduce university research, which is an important source of new drug treatments, especially novel ones.

Tunnels and Bridges and Taxes, Oh My!

Krugman’s latest op-ed, The End of the Tunnel, reminds me a lot of a recent series of slacktivist posts, which were part of a continuing series on infrastructure: A bank run in reverse, Water, Sewers and storm drains, Offshore wind farms, The Grid, Bridges (come to think of it, I’ve never seen Krugman talk while Fred Clark is drinking a glass of water)

The American Society of Civil Engineers does a periodic assessment of the state of the infrastructure, and their 2009 report card isn’t pretty. They estimated that it would take 2.2 Trillion dollars over the following five years in order to bring our infrastructure up to “acceptable” levels (e.g. only 15% of our bridges being classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete). The problem is our scheduled spending was/is less than $1 Trillion.


Maintenance isn’t sexy, and it doesn’t tend to get you elected. Consequently, it’s been relatively safe, politically, to ignore it, as it often is in many other situations. But, as Krugman points out and is echoed in these other links, not spending money on infrastructure costs us in other ways, but that spending is in the form of taxes, and taxes are perceived as evil. Nobody in the government seem to be making the case that the money is going to be spent anyway, in the form of lost time and billions of gallons of gas wasted while we’re stuck in traffic, or in the other ways shoddy infrastructure will impede us. We’ve been sold on the idea that taxes are bad, and that we can just cut them, and everything will magically take care of itself.

And yet there’s still a popular notion that in the US we’re taxed too much, even though our income tax rates are at historical lows and are lower than most developed countries (and we lack a national VAT or sales tax, as well). The easily hidden underspending on infrastructure amplifies this illusion, since we don’t realize that our deficits would be even worse if we were properly funding our roads, bridges, dams, etc., and that we’re going to have to fix the problem sooner or later. Just that later will cost us more, since replacement tends to be more expensive, due to costs incurred while the item in question is broken and can’t be used.

NPR recently showed a receipt for a median US filer’s taxes. Of $5400 in federal and fica taxes, $64 goes to federal highways. Wow. A whole buck and a quarter a week. It’s hard to think that I’m being overcharged (even though I make more and pay more than this) when it’s put in these terms. I also look at the $1k paid into social security; one can go to the benefits calculator and see that for someone who works for 45 years and retired at 65 making that amount today (and made less and paid in less in years past) would draw of order $1k a month. IOW, in less than 4 years, they will have drawn more than they paid in. We simply aren’t paying for what we’re getting, but we’ve been sold the illusion that we’re not getting much for what we’re spending.


There’s also a notion that we can’t tax businesses, either. The idea that if they had more cash they’d expand and hire people has been neatly disproved in this recent economic crisis. And yet this unpaid-for, crumbling infrastructure is used by corporations to move goods around, and to allow customers to go shopping, but nobody wants to pay for it. In good old-fashioned capitalism the private sector would take care of this, but we went down the path of letting the government do it. Gosh, that sounds like … socialism. Since that’s bad, maybe we should send them a bill for services rendered, since that’s how capitalism works, and show them an EULA that tells them that by using the roads they agreed to pay, since that’s how they tend to do business these days.

We are no longer the nation that used to amaze the world with its visionary projects. We have become, instead, a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.

Mailing It In

I ordered something online, and expected it to be delivered at the end of this past week. I thought that it was going to ship via the postal service, but then got a tracking number from FedEx. Here’s why.

That’s right. (Pardon my use of the vernacular, but) FedEx got the package and then fucking mailed it. Apparently this is a new “service” called SmartPost, and if you Google on that term, you will find complaints all over the place. The skinny is that the SmartPost service waits until they have a critical mass of deliveries, and then they turn them over to the Post office, so “at the Postal Facility” might not be the truth. If it is, then they’ve been hanging on to my package for 4 days, not the 1 or 2 advertised. And based on the complaints I’ve read, if it actually gets delivered on Tuesday, I will be getting off easy. There are horror stories of deliveries taking weeks and packages just disappearing.

Politics and the Star Trek Effect

There are a couple of episodes of Star Trek that I can recall having some fundamental physics failures, which would lead one to believe that in the Star Trek universe, one cannot do an integral over time. The episodes that come to mind (and it’s been a while, so I may have some details wrong) are The Paradise Syndrome from ToS, and Déjà Q fom TNG. In both episodes, the Enterprise needs to transfer some energy and momentum to an object, and in each episode, they go for the Big Effort™ and lose.

In The Paradise Syndrome, Spock tries to deflect a large asteroid and fails to budge it, so he goes for broke and zaps it so hard he burns out a whole bunch of circuitry — the sci-fi equivalent of overexerting one’s self and pulling a muscle — and can subsequently only match the speed of the asteroid. It’s after this that we learn that the asteroid is two months away from the planet; a force exerted continuously for two months would transfer half a million times more momentum than their ten-second attempt, so they could have even tried a smaller force for that duration and deflected the asteroid. But that makes for boring TV. (And they could have increased their speed my throwing junk out of the rear shuttle bay, with bonus points if the projectile hit the asteroid, since the collision would slow it down. This would have been slightly more exciting than two months of pushing, but still not very much excitement) Similarly, the attempts to restore a moon’s orbit is made in fits and starts in Déjà Q, though in the plot there is at least an excuse for interruptions to their attempts, from some attacking Calamarains, but that’s after they gave up a few times. Forces cause accelerations and change momentum of an object. With the exception of the static frictional force on a surface, these don’t turn on and off only when a threshold is reached*.

\(p = int F dt\)

For a constant force this is just p = Ft. Linear in force, but also linear in time.

What’s the connection to politics? The US government seems to approach solutions to problems like the Star Trek folks do. Wait until the problem is a crisis and then try and exert a huge force to correct it, when a much gentler push would have sufficed if you had simply started earlier. We have been seeing this with Social Security for decades now — we know the system is going to go broke, and yet nothing is being done to fix it. Had we started when I first started paying into the system, the adjustments could have been relatively small. But like the transfer of momentum, the longer we wait, the force needed to achieve the desired result gets larger. The occasional nudge does only a little; it needs to be sustained.

Similarly for global warming. Our government hems and haws and does very little to actually address the problem. Even those politicians who are still doubtful (or whose palms are being greased so that they act doubtful) should be able to recognize that there is value in weaning our country from foreign energy sources, and that the kind of technology adoption involved takes decades to realize.

Of course, getting them to do something would be asking them to do their job, and we can’t have that, can we? Star Trek ignored physics because slow-and-steady makes for little drama, and TV, like sex, is all about having a climactic ending. Our elected officials have no such excuse. They are distracted by the manufactured controversy du jour, and are more concerned with not upsetting their benefactors and voter base than doing the business that’s in the best long-term interest of the country.

*which really isn’t how the frictional force behaves, but it’s a reasonable first-order approximation for its highly nonlinear behavior

How Google Works, or Not

Learn How Google Works: in Gory Detail

As nice as Google is, I am finding it to be somewhat less useful these days. I don’t know how much of that is from changes in Google, or because of changes in website “strategy.” In the early days of the internet, many web pages were all one page, and a search could give a hit because the terms all appeared, but in disparate topics located in different parts of the page. Then people learned they could/should link to different pages, and they segregated content to reduce load times, especially when pictures were being included and everyone had dialup. A long load time is bad for traffic — people are impatient (probably even for porn. Or especially for porn). But now we’re back to large pages, probably because enough people now have high speed access. So a search on reducing government waste will get you news or blog links that have stories on weight loss, politics and trash removal all on the same page. But some of it is due to the way Google has changed the way they do a search.

I am occasionally annoyed by Google because of the expansive use of synonyms and including different verb tenses, which lead to many more useless searches. Part of that is because it’s a very Microsoftian “I know what you want better than you do;” I haven’t gotten used to putting single words in quotes because it didn’t used to be necessary. (A blog search on swansont and some other term(s) should give my blog posts, but now I get masses of hits that include swan song and swansong, which I find to be less than useful. No, I typed what I meant, dammit. You used to ask did you mean “X” when you thought it was a typo.)

Another annoyance is searching on multiple terms and getting hits that don’t include all the search terms in the link. No, I wasn’t kidding about wanting to find that word in the text. It’s not optional.


I found another site that has a slightly more complete answer for how the “fridge of the future” is supposed to work. Nano bio robots upconvert IR into visible light, and send it out of the system. (No, it doesn’t. We call this magic, when we’re in a charitable mood. At other times what we call it involves the biology of used food, sometimes incorporating a male bovine)

But I’ve already said all of that.

The other thing that bothers me about this is that it’s part of Electrolux’s Design Lab competition, and I think they should be embarrassed to have included it. Design is not just aesthetics. If something serves no other function than to evoke a response based on how it looks, it’s art. We like art because it’s pleasing to the eye, or it arouses a certain emotional reaction, or make you think (or some combination thereof). But this wasn’t an art competition. It was a design competition, ostensibly meaning you want the best design. Design brings with it an additional requirement: it has to work.

Design incorporates a lot of things, and it’s not like experimental physicists are routinely mistaken a great designers. We tend to swing to the other end of the spectrum; if it works, who cares what it looks like? We’re the only ones who are going to use it, so why make the controls intuitive? Our experiments typically involve duct tape, parts held together with bits of wire and cables everywhere, and few labels. If you want design, you need to talk to an engineer — s/he will make it work, and do so in a more efficient fashion, put it in a box and make it (somewhat) easier to use. We than measure the quality of design by the attractiveness of the package and the level of user-friendliness, and great design is hard because you are trying to optimize for multiple variables, with often conflicting constraints — one demand might be that it’s small, but another requirement needs it to be big, etc. It’s hard to do all that. But the unspoken part of all of this is that the box has to do what it’s supposed to do — if it doesn’t meet spec, we tend to get mad and demand it be fixed, or give us our money back.

So an item that can’t possibly work can’t be an example of good design. It shouldn’t even get in the door.

Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me

I just got a new iPod Touch. My old iPod — purchased before the touch was on the market — is suffering from rapid battery depletion, and isn’t going to serve its purpose of distracting me for a long period of time on an upcoming trip to the left coast. So I decided to buy myself a present. It’s my birthday, and besides, I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me! Even after playing with it for only a short time, I found myself thinking that the whole web-surfing experience would be so much better with a larger screen and omigod. I’ve just purchased a gateway gadget, and addiction is imminent. I expect I’ll be jonesing for an iPad before long. But not before I rant a little.

Which brings to mind a number of articles I’ve read over the years, usually appearing in bunches whenever a new product has hit the market, which have tried to convince me that Apple actually sucks, and I’m just a victim of a slick marketing campaign. Yeah, right. The hypnosis must be very good, because I keep buying, which makes me a fanboy in the mind of many critics, in whose world there are two types of people: those who loathe Apple, and fanboys who unquestioningly buy the products, despite the fact that they suck. And I just don’t get it.

I bought a sports car because I wanted a sports car and is (for all practical purposes) a two-seater. Trying to convince me that I’ve been duped, and that I don’t love my sports car — and I couldn’t possibly enjoy it, because it has insufficient seating — seems pretty stupid. If I had wanted or needed a car that seats four or eight, I would have gotten a sedan or a minivan. If I had purchased a sports car knowing that I needed more seating capacity, I would be an idiot. But if you think I bought it because I was taken in by some glitzy ad, I think you have misjudged things. Sucky products suck because they don’t work the way they are supposed to, and good products do. That’s the dividing line. My car doesn’t have a trailer hitch, but that’s because it’s not designed to haul a trailer, not because it’s a shoddy product.

Timely Reminder

I migrated to the newer Microsoft Office Suite last fall, and it not only did not go particularly well (many things that should have been imported from the old version did not migrate), it’s still haunting me.

I discovered that a monthly task reminder had not “fired” — too late to help me, of course. Here’s what I found when I checked the task


It imported task with a new reminder date of late December — that part’s fine; it would run again each month — but somehow it decided that pushing it off by more than a hundred years was a good idea.

I hate the evil empire.

Bah, Humbug

No, that’s too strong
‘Cause it is my favorite holiday

After our recent snowstorm I spent more than an hour digging out my car, making sure I had a clear path behind me to back out of my parking spot. I even checked it on Monday afternoon, to make sure it was still clear. Then on Tuesday morning I go out … and find that someone had dumped a huge mound of snow behind and beside it, which had frozen overnight. Solid. Oh, F$^#@. My previous training as a naval officer came into play at this point, because I cursed a blue streak (true, the swear-training for the enlisted personnel is more thorough, but officers are expected to show initiative and work on it on their own)

So I got stuck as I tried to back out — couldn’t go back, couldn’t go forward, and my heels are sore from whacking away at the ice with my feet. I couldn’t even get out of the driver’s side door because of the new ice deposit, so I had to exit the passenger side. New tactics: hot water and a blunt instrument. The blunt doesn’t sound very good, it’s rarely used in symphonies, and I don’t play it often enough to be particularly good at it, but it can be very rewarding at times, especially when you are improvising and doing some vocal at the same time (see above). I eventually carved out a passable track, and re-exposed some pavement so I’d have traction as I backed out.

On one of my trips to refill the hot water jug I realized my iPod was missing from my pocket, so I had to search frantically for that, too, in addition to freeing my car from the ice. I finally got out — almost an hour after discovering I was blocked — and parked in a clear space and checked to see of there were tiny bits of iPod strewn about. Thankfully, no. I finally found it — it had fallen out of my pocket when I exited the car, and was under the passenger-side seat