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Comment Re:Good... (Score 1) 94

It's disappointing. We ought to have CD-quality telephony by now. But instead, audio quality has gotten worse.

I wish I could recall what comic it was who noted the irony that "progress" has brought us from the days where phone carries used slogans like "you can hear a pin drop" to today when they use one like "Can you hear me now?"


Submission + - E=mc^2 is a liberal conspiracy (talkingpointsmemo.com)

Geoffrey.landis writes: "Conservapedia," was founded to be a conservative-tilted alternative to Wikipedia.
From the article: "To many conservatives, almost everything is a secret liberal plot: from fluoride in the water to medicare reimbursements for end-of-life planning with your doctor to efforts to teach evolution in schools. But Conservapedia founder and Eagle Forum University instructor Andy Schlafly — Phyllis Schlafly's son — has found one more liberal plot: the theory of relativity."
Yes, that's right: relativity is apparently a liberal plot. No doubt, the atomic bomb is a hoax, just like the moon landing and global warming.

Comment Re:Discovery Channel (Score 1) 287

The Discovery Channel has really disappointed me. It used to be that they put out good, educational television shows. Now, they've added all kinds of extra drama to shows to supposedly make them more interesting but in reality they have a dumbed down appearance. Now, they also have gone the reality tv route.

It is sad. I used to love watching The Secret Life of Machines. It was interesting and often very educational. I really can't imagine them showing something like that now. Thankfully, nowadays we have the WWW, so we don't need the Discovery Channel so much anymore.

Comment Re:Next step to prevent PC piracy (Score 1) 795

There may be yet one more group with indy games: Kids who have the money to buy the game in cash but who do not have access to a credit card. One problem with any digital media for which kids may be a significant audience is that credit cards are the main mechanism for payment. While some parents may get pre-payed cards for their kids or may make online purchases for their kids, that's not universally true. I'm not sure to that degree this group is significant, but it does exist (and I know people think about this effect with respect to selling music online).

Comment Re:Get ready to Bend over America (Score 2, Insightful) 410

Basically, it's important for VOIP to have a certain quality of service for clear voice calls, but different QOS rules may make sense for other data types. For example, downloading raw data files can be bursty. Precaching future web pages or Javascripts doesn't have to always succeed. But, "you don't discriminate against one person's [data] in favor of another".

I get what you're saying about the differing technical requirements of different sorts of communication on the Net. Neutrality with respect to the end points of a transmission is a start, but it seems like allowing ISPs to determine the priority of different data types is still dangerous in the long run. One hypothetical example is a carrier that offers conventional phone service or mobile phone service could decide to de-prioritize VOIP. But more likely, it will mean that protocols that are more widely used or more associated with commercial interests will tend to get prioritized much more often than other protocols, as much out of ignorance as malice.

The most ideal situation would be a world in which we all knew enough about networking to decide the priority of our various connections for ourselves and packets at various priorities were rationed out by the ISP. Ultimately, you'd like the priority to be according to what will best satisfy the user's priorities with the ISP simply distributing the scarce resource fairly among users. I don't know enough about networking to know if that's really technically possible, though. Then there's the problem that most of us don't have the technical expertise to make those decisions, so it would probably fall to our OS or applications.

Comment Re:Obesity? (Score 2, Insightful) 698

For some reason all I could think of after reading the parent post was this:

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen it's true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!"...

...and I'll look down, and whisper "no."

Comment Re:Would you prefer "irrational"? (Score 1) 835

Yes, "slow" is of course relative. I was speaking of selective breeding being slow compared to the time scales on which long term health effects might manifest in individuals. Certainly it is fast compared to evolutionary time scales, and just because we've been eating something for a few hundred or thousand years doesn't necessarily mean we're well adapted to eating that thing. Actually, I wouldn't even assume that the diet that an organism has eaten in its recent evolutionary history is necessarily the optimal food for it to eat. It might only have been the optimal food available in its particular ecological niche. Logically, it's possible that we could even develop a food that is better for us than any occurring in nature but which could not survive well in nature (the latter is already true of many food crops).

As far as deciding what a good diet is, I think we can pick out many things that have been eaten enough for us to say they are unlikely to kill you in the short term and are unlikely to cause a drastic decline in health in the long term, but when it come to more subtle effects (e.g., 10% increased chance of [health problem] later in life) we're probably mostly in the dark. The problem is that even foods with a long history of use mostly only have anecdotal evidence to back them, not the sort of controlled quantitative analysis that will discover subtle health effects.

Personally, I don't actually worry too much about all this. Mostly I guess it's that without much evidence to go on there's not much point worrying. The best advice I've heard can be summed up in two words, "variety and moderation". If one assumes that at least most traditionally used food sources don't have horrible problems and that most of the effects are cumulative, then a significantly varied diet should be a pretty good way to avoid any really bad pitfalls.

If you haven't read them already, let me recommend to you Michael Pollen's earlier books, especially "The Botany of Desire".

I've flipped through one or two of his books at the store, but there was a lot of stuff about the (nutritional) importance of locally grown food and so on that struck me as nothing more than faddish and pseudoscientific. My overall impression was that he rightly points out we don't know much about nutrition, but then he improperly concludes that then we should adopt some sort of intuitive notions about how to eat that are even less well supported. Maybe my impression was wrong, but I decided to skip the book because nothing irks me more than knee-jerk Luddite thinking.

Comment Re:Would you prefer "irrational"? (Score 2, Insightful) 835

the people decrying the lack of long term studies about the safety of GM quietly ignore (or are ignorant of) the fact that thousands of new artificial drugs enter medical and over-the-counter usage every year without long term studies.

Besides any unknown deleterious side-effects, most drugs have well known undesirable side-effects (well, drugs that actually work anyway, as I've tried to explain to people who trumpet homeopathic remedies for their lack of side-effects). There is still a rational basis for taking a medication, however, when the problem it treats is worse than the side-effects. For many prescription drugs, weighing these factors is a significant part of a doctor's job (whether they do that job correctly is a different issue). It's true that many drugs are approved without study of their long term effects, but this is because with medicine there's always an ethical dilemma: If you approve a drug too soon, you may be exposing patients to unknown side-effects (or giving them a drug that doesn't actually work); however, if you wait too long you may be denying patients medicine that would help them.

Now, you might argue that some similar ethical dilemma exists for GM crops in cases where you believe their introduction could alleviate malnutrition in developing nations, but in developed nations where food availability is not a big problem there is no such calculation. Where medicine is hopefully only taken by a small proportion of the population who needs it (often under the supervision of a doctor), GM crops could be introduced into the food chain of a large proportion of the population on a relatively short time-scale. If one were to make an analogy to medicine, it would be like telling all patients across the country to start taking a new drug, which treats something that can easily go without treatment, which would be unwise and probably unethical.

Now, there is in fact a balance to be struck (assuming that GM crops, in fact, offer benefits) between caution in introducing a new technology and it's potential benefits. If you subtract out the people screaming about "chemicals" and "frankenfoods", I think you can find a rational debate about whether this balance is being properly struck, and indeed a similar debate does exist in medicine. It's just that in medicine the factors counter-balancing caution are much more compelling, so the balance must be struck differently. That's why it's sort of comparing apples and oranges.

Comment Re:Would you prefer "irrational"? (Score 5, Insightful) 835

Genetically modified foods are just foods. There's nothing "natural" about selectively bred crops.

I used to take exactly the same view, but having thought about it a bit more I've realized it's a little silly for essentially two reasons. 1) The selective breeding that was used throughout most of human history introduces changes relatively slowly and involves either selecting out a subset of the crops you're already using that have desirable characteristics or cross-breeding with other crops that you're already using for food. So you're talking about a process that will lead to small changes over a series of growing seasons, which larger changes only being accomplished over a much larger timescale. Because the process is slow and usually involves selecting traits for things you can already eat*, there is a fair degree of safety automatically built in. Modern techniques of genetic engineering allow one to make significant changes to the genome of a plant over a comparatively very short timescale, and one can add in genetic material from a totally different sort of organism that may well not be a human food source at all. As such, there is a far greater risk of introducing significant harmful effects.

To emphasize the point that very different genetic material can be added, it seems that in some cases genetic material is added to produce toxins that act as an insecticide. I believe that Bt-corn is one such example. I presume that this compound is known to be safe (in reasonable concentrations) to humans, yet my point is that adding in genes from non-food sources for the production of insecticidal compounds it considerably different than, say, selectively breeding corn with bigger sweeter kernels.

Understand, I share your frustration with anti-science Luddites who assume that "natural" means good and "chemicals" are bad. I also think it's silly that people don't understand the level to which our modern food crops are a human creation (resulting in things like "the atheist's nightmare" video). I believe these things should be examined through a rational discussion based on scientific evidence. I don't think genetically modified organisms are generically a bad thing, but I do think that saying that directly injecting foreign genetic material into the genome is no different than selective breeding is disingenuous, and doesn't help us have a rational fact-based discussion of the merits of GM crops. Personally, I'm far less concerned about the health implications and far more concerned about the ecological impact, which I think is both harder to predict and harder to control.

Comment Earthships (Score 1) 274

Despite the silly hippy name, you might want to learn a bit about the houses known as Earthships if you don't know anything about them yet. I say this because they've been building these for a while, and they have some of the same goals of sustainability and using recycled materials. I'm not suggesting that you can just copy one of those, but you may glean some useful information. I first learned about them when I watched the documentary Garbage Warrior.

While the hippy ethos of the builders doesn't entirely resonate with me, I think one of the basic notions (as I understood it) is quite insightful, which, as a scientist, I interpreted this way: Rather than trying to use appliances and special materials to make a standard house maintain a comfortable environment, the house should be re-designed around that goal. A typical house is coupled to 3 temperature reservoirs, the sun, the air, and the ground. The temperature of the air is time dependent and so is the coupling to the sun. Each changes primarily on two time scales, diurnal (24 hr) and annual (365 days). Often in a normal house these factors don't get too much consideration, other than an attempt to limit the coupling to the air so that active heating and cooling can be effective. As a result, without active heating and cooling the temperature will fluctuate in time (on both time scales) and will often be uncomfortable (or even dangerous). You can improve the system by increasing the efficiency of the heating and cooling systems; however, it's better to alleviate the need.

The basic approach of the earth ships is to increase the heat capacity of the house to limit temperature fluctuations on the short, diurnal time scale, and then try to keep the time-averaged heating approximately constant on the annual time scale. At any instant it should be possible to use the 3 temperature reservoirs to reach an acceptable steady state, since the ground is cooler that the target temperature (10-15 C a couple meters below the surface) and the photosphere of the sun is hotter (approx. 5500 C). The remaining problem is to balance the coupling to each. To make a long story short, with appropriate use of south facing windows you can make it so your time-averaged coupling to the sun it high in winter and low in summer, to counter the variations in heating from the ambient air. And then you just balance coupling to the sun (hot) and ground (cold) until you have an acceptable steady state.

Of course, that's not quite the way they presented it...

Comment Re:Stealing vs. Cheating (Score 1) 973

My last paragraph addressed this point. I mean, I think it would be disingenuous to claim that most people who are file sharing are doing so out of some principled objection to copyright; however, I agree that copyright has gone rather out of control and that the current system no longer represents a consensual, mutually beneficial agreement. I think many content creators feel trapped by this system (and the middle men who perpetuate it) as much as content consumers. If one is trying to fight against the current copyright regime, file sharing is probably not an effective way to do it, and it's arguably not an ethical way to do it either. That fight should be happening by political organizing and, if necessary, perhaps civil disobedience (which means violating the rules publicly and bearing the consequences).

If we go back to analogies, infringing someone's copyright because you feel that copyright law has gone awry is like refusing to tip your waiter because you believe that tipping is a bad system and people should just be paid straight wages. The argument may have some merit, but your unilateral non-participation is unlikely to do much other than just screw some person who individually has little control over that system.

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