Sunday, February 28, 2010

Open Tabs 2

Another quick sampling of the tabs I've got open, stuff I thought you all might find interesting:

The Power Elite -- an op-ed from last week by David Brooks about the effect of egalitarianism on the effectiveness of government. I haven't entirely let this one digest, but I've been thinking it over. However, it's difficult not to associate this in my mind with the success of idiots like Jenny McCarthy in convincing parents not to vaccinate their kids, or those "tooth whiteners invented by a mom!" ads I see all over the place.

A Cyclical Argument with Literal Strawman -- Penny Arcade about a subject I personally find obnoxious. As much as I detest DRM, software pirates annoy me (marginally) more. The level of entitlement floating around out there is just staggering. (I also find it funny how so many Ayn Rand-reading college students think nothing of pirating, say, BioShock...)

Orphan works -- Speaking of copyright, one of the big questions in Google's book deal is the number of orphan works out there: works that are out of print and for which the copyright holder cannot be found. They're kind of a limbo state in copyright law, a direct result of eliminating the registration requirement, exacerbated by the sheer length of the current copyright term. Speaking as someone who writes, this category is somewhat chilling: the idea that my work could effectively be lost forever simply by slipping through the cracks. The link above is a great analysis of the means of finding out just how many of these orphan works there really are.

A videogame that caught my eye. I'm a fan of the Ace Attorney games. They're fun, and you get to shout "Objection!" and have everyone in the bus terminal stare at you. This one has the player act as investigator and prosecutor.

Why Didn't I Think of That?

It's not often that I see something in the news or online that I want to smack my forehead and regret not thinking of it. This is one of those cases: moon exploration via telepresence. The basic idea is to send a slew of humanoid robots to the moon, each equipped with a variety of sensors and actuators to roughly correspond to human operators down on Earth.

The trouble is, the article doesn't give due weight to the three-second delay. Three seconds is huge, as anyone who played first-person shooters online in the 90s knows. Lag is a major factor in error, and three seconds takes a human operator well out of the range of reacting naturally to events. In the paper linked, they only go as far as 225 ms lag time, an order of magnitude faster than is being talked about here. I have no doubt that some operators will become very skilled at this delay (though I really wouldn't want to share a road with them driving home after a long session!) but the learning curve will be awfully steep, and potentially expensive.

Part of the solution to that problem will be extensive simulation. Simulators can be built right now that would get the broad strokes right in terms of gravity. The lunar regolith composition will be tough to get the feel right, but hey, they have access to people who've been there and can offer pointers.

To me, though, the answer is to scratch the humanoid part of the telepresence plan. The more the operator expects the robot to act like a human, the more frustrating the experience will be. Locomotion would be the first target -- even in the low gravity, it would be far too easy to trip and fall. Walking would quickly become a chore anyway. A wheeled or treaded robot would be my first choice, but would not be terribly mobile, and those mountains would be awful temptations. I would go for a centaur-like robot, maybe built on a Big Dog chassis: an internal controller would take care of staying upright. The feet would have to be modified, but that's do-able.

The user-controlled manipulators could sit on top of that, taking care to keep the center of gravity low. I would personally prefer (at least for the first few attempts) a modal system where the operator can either move the robot or move the manipulators, not both at once. Part of this is so that the operator's time isn't divided, but also to allow centering and balancing routines to ensure that the robot doesn't fall over.

As for getting a bunch of robots to the moon in the first place? If only there were a commercial competition devoted to getting robots onto the surface of the moon cheaply...

Saturday, February 27, 2010


... and with a new-born appreciation of airports. To sum up the last week: I flew down to Austin, TX for NANOG 48. It was an excellent conference -- the highlights for me were a panel on network neutrality (with two reps from the FCC) and a lot of talk of the perennially-upcoming switch to IPv6. In terms of the former, I have to admit that I've always considered it a bit of a no-brainer: ISPs should not be allowed to put themselves in a position of gatekeeper, such that they can make deals to, say, slow down Hulu in favor of NetFlix, or Bing in favor of Google -- let alone throttle back whole applications or charge for access to certain applications. However, I don't think I properly appreciated some of the difficulties involved in telling the difference between malicious throttling and simple load-balancing, or effectively criminalizing some very common mistakes and accidents. A lot to think about.

In terms of IPv6: it had better happen. The alternative is for the internet to stagnate: when we run out of unassigned space, some can be reclaimed, but not nearly enough to make a difference. I believe the quote I heard was that the reclamation of one unused /8 would delay the "ran out" day by about a month. But most of the folks who run the internet just aren't ready for it. The tools aren't there, the training hasn't been done. A lot of people have been "checking the box" in terms of buying software that claims to support it... but those claims aren't being tested. A lot of firewall rules and IP blacklists will simply fail when the switch is made.

Fun stuff.

What wasn't fun was having my Tuesday flight home canceled with a half hour's notice. They called it "weather-related" which seems to be the airline equivalent of claiming "Base!" so they didn't pay for the additional two nights of hotel. Given the choice of waiting until Friday for a non-stop to Boston or getting back Thursday with a layover in Ft. Lauderdale, I chose the latter. (Hey, if I got stuck in Florida, at least I'd have nice weather...) The FLL->BOS flight really did take off, some hours late, and I got into Boston around midnight. Rescued by a friend with a spare couch, I set foot on my front porch at around 4:30 pm Friday.

As a parting gift, I seem to have caught a cold. Yay.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two Cooking Primers

These are worth reading. (Vegetarians might want to skip to the second one)

The first is from the French Culinary Institute's blog, Cooking Issues, the first part of a primer on sous vide. Sous vide is basically the idea of cooking in a medium no hotter than the goal temperature for the food: usually in a (food-safe) plastic bag in a swirling water bath for maximum temperature transfer, it can produce dramatic results in meat texture and taste. If you eat red meat, imagine that perfectly tender spot near the center of a perfectly-cooked steak -- and think about having that texture all the way through. It's remarkable, and not too difficult. That primer I linked to is the single most thorough description of the process I've ever seen, and I plan to refer to it often.

The second primer, from The Paupered Chef, concerns gastrique. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised. But you've probably consumed it. It's basically a thick sauce of vinegar and sugar. (Actually, I think what he's describing is technically an agrodolce, but whatever) It's been around for a while, but has apparently found new life in making cocktails! I'm intrigued by this development. Maybe one of you will try it and report back :)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Negative-calorie foods?

I've been thinking a lot about diet, and that thinking will eventually make its way into a blog post. But one thing in particular has always bothered me: since so much of the body's energy is devoted to maintaining temperature, shouldn't cold foods have essentially fewer calories than their warm equivalents?

There's not much out there on the subject, but I did find this paper by Paul Horowitz, of all people, a name the SETI fans among you might recognize, and the electrical engineers definitely will. (H/T to the summary I found here)

To summarize: yes, cold foods use up additional energy -- about 3.3 calories per ounce for a frozen yogurt. For cold foods that do not contain any calories (water, diet soda) a 12-oz can near the freezing point deducting a whopping... 12 calories. Yeah, you'd be better off at the gym, but in the mean time, now you have a good reason not to drink your Coke Zero hot. You're welcome.

Open Tabs

It occurred to me that my method of passing along links is somewhat haphazard: if something looks like it will really appeal to someone I know, I email them. Otherwise, it depends entirely on who happens to be on IM at the time. But I frequently leave interesting links open in my browser tabs because I know they'll be interesting to people. I'm going to try to start posting them here instead of my current method.

In Our Time, the most recent podcast I've added to my list. The most recent program, on the "unintended consequences of mathematics" is fascinating.

An object lesson in the value of persistence and practice. If you click on any of these links, click on this one. I was absolutely blown away.

A discussion of the use of quantum computation in plants. Sounds cool, haven't finished reading yet.

"Ten Simple Rules for Choosing Between Industry and Academia" -- just what it says. I wish I'd read that a long time ago.

Forbidden rice pudding with blueberries. Damn that looks tasty. I've been wanting to make this for weeks and not yet gotten around to it.

Machinarium, an addictive little point-and-click game starring a heroic robot. Hand-drawn backgrounds and graphics, well-done background music, not-too-difficult puzzles, and Chaplin-esque robot "acting". Great stuff.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

No, Bill. No. Just step away.

I deeply respect Bill Gates's commitment to philanthropy. He is obviously trying very hard to make the world a better place to live. But the man who gave us Microsoft Windows is the last person on Earth who should be developing a nuclear reactor. Just saying. I know you're jealous of that kid who built a nuclear reactor in his backyard (and that Microsoft is known for me-too products), but this takes it too far. And you don't want to end up like him anyway.

That said, his actual proposal (run by an actual nuclear physicist) makes a great deal of sense. I'm a little surprised that they're not going for thorium reactors, but hey. And yes, competition in this space among qualified participants could well be terribly useful to helping ease the country's energy problems. I'll post a link to the talk as soon as it's up... well, as soon as I notice, remember, and get around to it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jaime Oliver (and me) on Food

Watch this. (Go ahead, I'll wait. Sure, it's 20 minutes long, but it's important)

We eat a lot of crap in this culture [1]. Any time you see a misspelling or invented word on a package of food, you're buying crap. Anything that needs to tout its health benefits on its packaging is probably crap. Anything that is fortified with niacin is probably crap.

But we're also eating a lot of decent food way out of proportion. Stuff that used to be reserved for special occasions has become daily fare, meat particularly. Ever made french fries? They're a royal pain in the ass! You have to wash or peel the potatoes, slice them into relatively slim fry shapes, wash the starch off them, pat them dry, deep-fry them once at 250 or 300 degrees to par-cook them, let them drain, deep fry them again at around 400, then let them cool while the delicious aroma wafts around your kitchen. They're hard work, even disregarding the issues with filling, maintaining, draining, and cleaning a deep fryer. If you had to do that kind of work for a fry, how often would you eat them?

Most cultures have two kinds of cuisine: the everyday cuisine, and the celebratory cuisine. The former is nearly always simple, vegetable-heavy, and often pretty tasty. The celebratory stuff (usually served at weddings, holidays, or other special occasions) tends to be heavy on meat, use lots of ingredients, take a long time, and taste really good. There needs to be a place in our diets for both of these kinds of foods, in the correct proportion. The problem is, we don't really celebrate with food anymore. [2] We don't as a culture really save much for special occasions -- the celebration cuisine has become our everyday cuisine. When we borrow food from other cultures, we tend to take the celebration stuff and leave the everyday stuff. [3]

Now, that's just what we eat. We have this ridiculous mentality that we ought to be "getting our money's worth" when we buy food, by which is always meant "get a lot of food". Listening to people talk about food, it's almost like they've totally lost the ability to gauge the value of a meal by anything other than the poundage and the price. It's nearly impossible to get an appropriate serving size at a restaurant without ordering off the seniors menu or getting an appetizer as an entree.

Many of us also were raised to "clean our plates" and not "waste" food. If we don't finish those ginormous portions, we're somehow bad people: wasteful as restaurant patrons, ungrateful as guests. I'd yell at my parents, but they got this from their parents, who got it from the Great Depression or something. I guess our weight problems can be blamed on Herbert Hoover. What a jerk.

So... It's screwed up that a journalist can make a handsome living selling books whose main thrust is "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." But he makes that living because people don't know it, or at least haven't internalized it. Where would we get it from? Our parents didn't get it from their parents. Our government gets hammered by industry lobbyists and lawsuits whenever it tries to give it to us (when it bothers to try -- thanks ADM!). For every half hour of a helpful TV program like Good Eats or even The French Chef there are multiple hours of loud colorful ads for Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs and the latest incarnation of "corn chip sprinkled with flavored salt". And anyone who tries to take responsibility for changing it is derided as an elitist, a nanny-stater, or just a busybody. Not to mention the enormous pushback we're seeing in the Internet's near-worship of bacon. [4] Phew!

Now, I'm one of those people that I'm ranting about: at 30, I'm overweight (I lost twenty pounds over the last year, and am still overweight), I get precious little exercise (I manage to injure myself almost every time I try. Go me.), and as a result I already have a cholesterol problem. And I'm at an advantage, too: I'm an educated person here, lucky enough to have the free time to exercise and the spare (!) cash to buy quality ingredients; I know how to cook, I know how the human body works, I understand the basic concept that if you consume more calories than you use, you gain weight. But I like french fries, I like beer, and I do reject the notion that I should only consume those things if I make them. And I live in a part of the world that gets bitterly cold, making it unpleasant to spend time outside.

In other words, I have every reason to want to claim that this is a hard, nigh-unsolvable problem... but it's really not. It just sucks to consume less than I can: to eat less than I can, to drive less than I can, to take less vacation time or play fewer video games or buy fewer gadgets. Self-restraint sucks, and I resent it... but I have to admit that it's kinda important.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, so maybe he'd say that it's a good thing than an unexamined life is likely to be short. And short it will be: The undisputed point is made over and over that what we eat, and how we eat, and how much we eat, is killing us. My dad always says, you gotta die of something. That's true, the current mortality rate is and will likely remain 100%. But it's really fucking embarrassing to be dying of this.

[1] I originally wrote "country" here, but Oliver makes the point that we share this with other English-speaking countries, and are exporting it around the world. I've heard it said that we got this eating culture from the British, but it doesn't really matter where it came from.
[2] The closest we probably come to celebration cuisine is the Super Bowl, when it seems sometimes that we have a hard time being noticeably worse than normal. Though, not too hard a time. (, that looks tasty...)
Somewhat perversely, it seems sometimes that our holiday feasts are healthier than our everyday meals: we may eat a lot at Thanksgiving, but the ritual meal of turkey, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, &c. is probably better for us than, say, your average Chinese takeout order. A lot of holiday parties I've been to for Christmas and New Years have had food that's more celebratory, but the "stand around, chat, and snack" model often results in eating less of it, as people eat more slowly and get a chance to feel full.
[3] The exception that comes to mind here is Indian food. The British have done a number on it, but it's pretty easy in most decent Indian restaurants to get a good healthy meal where the vegetarian options aren't pathetic. Sure, the cream-bases sauces and stuffed breads are prominent on the menu, but the good stuff isn't buried. For that matter, Japanese cuisine seems to have been imported more or less unmolested. Teriyaki's turned into a sugary mess, true, and ramen has been transformed from an often-sublime experience into a deep-fried salty disaster, but sushi, soba, and donburi have arrived mostly intact.
[4] ... which is, admittedly, pretty awesome. And really, I think the pushback is less against the notion of eating healthy than it is against the notion of ALWAYS eating healthy. Just as it's not healthy to eat mostly celebration food, I think it's just as unhealthy to never eat it. Too often a "healthy" meal is presented as a joyless one: an ultimately unsustainable tactic.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Monkey Island!

I finally finished Telltale Games's Tales of Monkey Island. They did a really good job! The voice acting is some of the best I've heard in a video game, including many of the original voices. The puzzles can be tough but rarely ridiculously so (though this one did have me stumped because I didn't see something they probably figured was obvious). It's got a ton of great nods to the original series (MURRAY!!!) but isn't just a slavish recreation.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Quick Tour

For those of you who are fans of the space program, I thought you'd appreciate this tour of the space station (h/t Gizmodo)