From The Erbo Files
Saturday, March 31, 2012

  • Angry Birds, well known as the hottest mobile game in the history of ever, is now taking over a theme park...or at least a part of Särkänniemi Amusement Park in Tampere, Finland. Playset manufacturer Lappset Ltd. of Rovaniemi is working on the equipment for Angry Birds Land.  Will it finally be the site of an historic peace treaty between the birds and pigs? Don't bet on it...

  • Speaking of gaming, Ars Technica notes that Microsoft will be increasing the number of achievements and Gamerscore points that Arcade titles are permitted to hand out, and wonders if we're on the verge of Gamerscore hyperinflation. Not that it really means anything; M$ could change the name of the Gamerscore to "E-peen" and it would probably better define what it actually amounts to.

  • ESR went to check out the new movie John Carter, and he actually liked it. He says it sticks pretty well to the flavor of the Burroughs original, and where it deviates is either a nod to present-day movie conventions (e.g. giving Dejah Thoris the "Arwen treatment" ) or actually improves things (replacing the handwave over how John Carter actually got to Mars with some actual plot, including a possible sequel hook). This one might be worth seeing in 3-D IMAX "Holy-Shit-o-Vision"...

  • Crappy customer service is almost legendary across multiple industries, but here are some shining counterexamples. Note especially the one from Southwest Airlines. Damn contact lenses are bugging me again... ;-)

  • Alan Skorkin gives us the main reason why you suck at interviews. There's plenty of helpful tips in here for developers looking to ace their next interview. Not that I need this advice at the moment, deus volent.

  • Remember I mentioned Pivotal Labs not long ago? Well, EMC just bought them. Om Malik speculates it's a move by EMC to take agile development to the enterprise. Wonder how that'll affect their pair programming?

  • The recently-announced tablet that runs KDE Plasma, formerly known as "Spark," has been renamed to "Vivaldi." Now that's a classy name. Besides, I think I'd be a little leery of using a tablet with a name that represents pretty much exactly what you don't want a tablet to do.

  • So you say to me, "Erbo, is flamenco guitar metal?" And I reply: Yes. Flamenco guitar is f**king METAL. \m/ (Hat tip: The guy behind the counter at Tradesmart over in Littleton, where I picked up an Epica CD and a Within Temptation CD I'd been looking for.)

  • Of course, I have declared a number of other things to be f**king METAL on Facebook, such as harps, violins, Harry Potter, grand pianos, clarinets, flutes, and woodwinds, and Christmas music (another example). \m/

  • And where is the most metal place on earth?  If you said "Finland," DING DING DING DING DING. (Via JWZ)

  • Dave Winer sums up what he sees as the Republican philosophy: "1. My money is mine. 2. Fuck you." And just what the hell is wrong with that, Dave? Don't you believe your money is yours? If not, I'll be happy to take it off your hands, right here, right now! ;-)

  • Research in Motion, the blackberry people, are going to give up on most consumer markets and concentrate on their business customers. Well, business is where CrackBerry is strongest, so that kinda makes sense. But opinions are mixed. ESR thinks that RIMM has opened itself up to imminent disruption from the low end and the company is on the skids; Karl Denninger, on the other hand, is happy that RIMM's new CEO seems to have pulled his head out of his ass, and has bought in as a bit of a punt. Time will tell which of them is right.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Over on Facebook, this little bit of feel-good liberal wankery is circulating: (transcribed)

Don't pump gas on April, 15 2012 [sic]

KEEP SENDING THIS Lets [sic] all try this, wonderful if it helps.

Il [sic] do it! If running low, just get your gas the day before on April 14 or the day after on April 16. Every little bit helps.

In April 1997, there was a "gas out" conducted nationwide in protest of gas prices. Gasoline prices dropped 30 cents a gallon overnight.

On April 15th 2011, all internet users are to not go to a gas station in protest of high gas prices. Gas is now over $1.20 a liter/$3.87 in most places.

If all users did not go to the pump on the 15th, it would take $2,292,000,000.00 (that's almost 3 BILLION) out of the oil companies [sic] pockets for just one day, so please do not go to the gas station on April 15th and let's try to put a dent in the Middle Eastern oil industry for at least one day.

How quaint...a boycott of gasoline, on Tax Day (or, for some, Buy a Gun Day), no less. Of course, if you do as they say and tank up on the 14th or the 16th, the oil companies will still get their money, as this MSNBC article debunking the whole concept tells us. The article's author points out that Department of Energy statistics show no evidence for the massive drop in gas prices in 1997 the aforementioned spam claims. (Given MSNBC's well-known liberal bias, the fact that they'd run this article is telling.)

As for myself...well, I only generally fill up once a week, so there's a 86% chance I won't be buying gas on April 15th, "boycott" or no. But, if I have to fill up that day, I won't let some anonymously-circulated, semiliterate piece of liberal propaganda stand in the way of my having a working car. Funny how, you know, having an actual job that you have to get to on a daily basis changes your perspective on this, now, doesn't it?

Now, if the liberals are reading this, they would probably say something like, "Well, why don't you just take the bus/light rail/bicycle to work?" Sure, I could do that...except that any of those solutions would take at least twice as long, and maybe three times as long or longer, as driving myself. My time is a valuable resource, too, you know! I have chosen one of the classic tradeoffs of money (in the form of gas) for time here...and if you know anything about engineering, you'll know it's all about tradeoffs.

(Speaking to bicycling in particular, I have hard numbers on this from Google Maps. My home to IQNavigator is 7.3 miles over surface streets, i.e., not on I-25. They time that route as 20 minutes by car...and 54 minutes by bicycle. I'd be spending over an hour a day extra if I tried to commute by that route...a full 1/24th of my precious life's hours. Remember, folks, you can frequently make more money, but, no matter how rich you are, there are still only 24 hours per day. Puts it in perspective, doesn't it?)

. . .

There's one aspect of that little missive that does potentially have a point...the point about the "Middle Eastern oil industry."

Why do we bring in all that oil from the Middle East, anyway? Could it be because the liberal envirowackos--the same kind of well-meaning fools who are circulating the "Don't Pump Gas" screed--have, through their wholly-owned subsidiary the National Socialist Democrat Workers' Party, made it damn near impossible to drill for oil in this country? Colorado, for instance, has an awful lot of oil shale out on the Western Slope...and, if it were allowed to be extracted, not only would it keep us from having to import as much oil from overseas, the royalties from oil production would go a long way towards shoring up the state's budget woes. (Not that we want to encourage the clown car we call "the General Assembly" to spend more money, mind you...)

Instead, we trade off drilling here for drilling there...and any environmental damage that might happen as a result happens to "the little brown people" in Saudi Arabia, etc., not us. And they get the money, too...which they, in turn, spend on terrorist groups that would like to see us wiped off the face of the Earth.


. . .

But it doesn't have to be this way...and, if you read Karl Denninger (and if you don't, why the hell not?!?), you'll know there's a way forward.

Did you know that the United States has even more in the way of coal reserves than we do in oil? And did you know that one of the primary impurities in coal is thorium? And did you know that thorium can be used as fuel in nuclear reactors--reactors of a vastly different type than we have now?

Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) are not new; the technology behind them was successfully demonstrated at Oak Ridge Laboratories in the 1960's. The only reason we didn't pursue them back then was that they breed fuel very slowly, and the fuel they produce is very difficult to extract for making nuclear weapons. Sounds like a big plus in this day and age, doesn't it?

LFTRs are also inherently safer than other nuclear reactors. The reactor does not require high pressure; the fluid it uses is a liquid at atmospheric pressure and its normal operating temperature. The reactor literally cannot suffer a Fukushima-type meltdown, as there are no fuel rods to melt down; the fuel and the coolant are the same fluid, circulating through the fixed moderators in the reactor core vessel. This fluid is kept in the reactor by an actively-cooled "freeze plug"; if the reactor loses power, the plug melts, and the fluid drains out of the core into holding tanks below, where it cools and solidifies, as it cannot maintain criticality outside the reactor vessel. They tested this safety feature of LFTRs at Oak Ridge, too--they literally turned off the power and went home for the weekend!

LFTRs also operate at a much higher temperature than regular reactors, around 650 degrees Fahrenheit. This has several advantages; for one, we can use air-cooled combined-cycle generating turbines, for instance, instead of water-cooled Rankine-cycle turbines that require access to large amounts of water. But the big advantage is that we can tap that process heat directly--and use it to run the Fischer-Tropsch process, to convert the coal we extracted the thorium fuel from into synthetic petroleum. This is also not new technology; the Germans were using it in World War II, and the process has been refined (no pun intended) somewhat since then.

By many estimates, the potential energy in the thorium impurities in coal amounts to thirteen times the amount of energy we could get from just burning the coal. So why do we still burn it?

Instead, we could take that coal, extract the thorium, use it to run LFTRs, and use the heat generated by the LFTRs both to run turbines to generate electricity, and to run the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert the remaining coal into petroleum. We could literally replace all our gasoline and diesel fuel requirements this way, ending imports of foreign oil. A second-order effect of this is that we could shrink our military expenditures, as a large portion of our military power goes into making sure we have access to foreign oil. We might be able to cut the amount we need to spend on the military in half this way.

In addition, this way, we don't have to replace our fleet of cars and trucks with hybrids, electric cars, cars that run on hydrogen and/or ethanol, etc. Despite any faults, liquid hydrocarbons are still the most effective fuel for mobile use that we have, both in terms of energy density (both per-unit mass and per-unit volume) and in terms of the energy and expenditures required to make the propulsion systems (internal-combustion engines vs. battery packs, etc.). But, though we're still "burning" our coal, in the form of synthetic petroleum, we're not burning the oil we would have imported but aren't any longer! So we're getting both electricity and transportation, but we're doing it with only half the carbon emissions as before (approximately). Put it that way, and I don't see why the Glowbull Wormening fanatics aren't all over this plan!* (Nuclear waste, you say? LFTRs produce a hell of a lot less waste than other nuclear reactors...they tend to "burn up" their own waste over time, and the fuel/coolant mix can be continuously reprocessed without producing weaponizable byproducts.)

We also wind up with dramatically more electrical power than we would have had by burning the coal--and that's after taking into account the energy expenditures required to produce the synthetic petroleum. So there'd be plenty of energy available to charge up electric cars, or electrolyze water into hydrogen, if you still wanted an electric or hydrogen car for some reason. More energy available equals more economic output...equals more prosperity.

How long could we sustain this, with our proven coal reserves? At least two centuries, even accounting for population growth and assuming no drop in per-capita energy use. At our rate of technological progress, we'll have figured out hydrogen fusion in far less time. (Hell, Star Trek: Enterprise posits that we'll have warp drive before then. I wouldn't go that far, but we're certainly not just going to stand still.)

There are engineering challenges to be solved along this path, to be sure. But no breakthroughs of technology are required, just refinements on what we already know. We can make this work, and do so at a reasonably-competitive price. We can have vastly more energy, keep our cars, and go tell the "weird beards" of the Middle East that they can damned well drink their oil...but, if they try any more shenanigans with us, the retribution that will follow will rank among the great retributions of human history.

What's the tradeoff? Mostly, we have to have the political will to do it...and that means potentially pissing off not only the aforementioned envirowacko contingent, but those companies that are already making comfortable money off the existing energy non-policy. (I'd say, get them on the same side by letting them run the reactors...there'd be profit to be made there.)

Unfortunately, that's a tradeoff our spineless, gutless politicians on both sides of the aisle are unwilling to make.

(Go search Denninger's site for "thorium," "LFTR," or "energy." He's written a lot more about this, that defies easy summary.)

* - Actually, I do.  This plan doesn't allow them to redistribute the wealth of the world from "evil" countries like the United States to all those "deserving poor" elsewhere, while skimming off any amount they like to enrich themselves, and exercising all the political power that goes with it.  But that's kind of beside the point.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Every once in awhile, since I'm known to be a metal fan out there on the Internets (No!! Really??), I get "picked up" by bands on Twitter, YouTube, or whereever, looking to gain popularity, fans, or maybe some free publicity. Some of those bands are really, really good. One of those really, really good bands is from the Land Down Under: Divine Ascension.

More on their story below the fold.

[Read More]
Tuesday, March 6, 2012

  • Seems that Facebook has been claiming that people's friends are playing games they're not actually playing. I've noticed this issue first-hand. Sabrina asked me why I was playing a specific game on Facebook; I checked, and I had blocked that game entirely. (I block most games on Facebook routinely. It's nothing personal.) I put it down to Facebook having more bugs than a bait store...but guys, you might just want to slip a user story into your next iteration for this.

  • More innovation from the Finns: they have an "Open Ministry" (Avoin ministeriö) Web site launching soon where anyone can propose a new law or initiative, and, if it's popular enough, the Parliament has to take it up. You'd expect this sort of thing in Finland, where Internet access is practically a way of life; in some respects, this is one of those "Oh, they're only doing this now?" moments.

  • And, while I was over on the Helsingin Sanomat Web site, I spotted the news item that Tarja Halonen has stepped down as President of Finland, ending a 12-year term. In the United States, Halonen is most noted for her resemblance to talk-show host Conan O'Brien; Conan has created political ads for her (getting mention on US news channels!) and even traveled to Finland (report in Finnish, from MTV3). I think everybody got a good laugh out of that. In the meantime, Halonen's record as President has been exemplary; I trust she will enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

  • For some perspective on why Finland is so awesome, this piece by Chris Byrne is a good overview. The cartoon is priceless, as is this advice: "Never drink with a Finn, unless you feel like getting in a friendly knife fight. No seriously, there will be a knife fight, or at the very least a rock or iceball fight, but it will be friendly. You'll only be cut up a little bit and then everyone will go back and drink some more...Unless you're a Russian in which case you'll end up wearing your testicles as earrings."

  • Why does everyone hate jury duty? Professor Bainbridge offers up a laundry list of reasons. Via Glenn Reynolds, who adds "I think it's a matter of respect, ultimately. The jury is supposed to be coequal with the judge, but they treat you like cattle instead." Ask Sabrina what she thinks about jury duty...and better not have anything else scheduled for awhile; a rant like hers takes time to fully appreciate.

  • Research is being conducted into the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to improve learning; if this writer's report is to be believed, what it does is help silence all those inner voices of self-doubt and let you get on with the business of learning. "What would a world look like in which we all wore little tDCS headbands that would keep us in a primed, confident state, free of all doubts and fears? Wouldn't you wear the shit out of that cap?" I think we all would. (Via JWZ, who refers to it as a "tasp." Slightly incorrect terminology, though; a Niven tasp stimulates the brain's pleasure centers wirelessly, from a distance. A closer term might be "droud," which is the device that wireheads use that regulates the current into their brains, also from Niven's work.)

  • Jon Evans, posting on TechCrunch, takes the knife to one of Extreme Programming's sacred cows: "Pair Programming Considered Harmful?" Some shops, like Pivotal Labs, live and breathe pair programming (as I learned at their session at Mile High Agile 2011); they likely won't think much of this article. However, the article suggests that developers are more productive when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption; Joel Spolsky and Fog Creek Software would agree heartily with this assessment. A mixture of both approaches is what Evans advocates; at IQNavigator, we kind of do this, employing pairing when it makes sense to do so and working solo when it doesn't. (The fact that our workstations are actually laptops, which can be undocked and taken elsewhere at need, helps facilitate this.)

  • Six words: " has come to this."

  • Warning: Do not watch this video without having taken your blood pressure medicine first, and secure all firearms and heavy objects near the computer before playing. I'll just say this: "Nuke 'em till they glow, and shoot 'em in the dark. With bullets dipped in pig fat." (Via LCBrendan at Misha's place)

  • Here in Denver, we have a local traffic reporter named--I am not making this up, as Dave Barry says--"Amelia Earhart." And yes, she is a relative of the famous aviatrix. And she's a pilot herself, training to do what her famous relative attempted: fly around the world, in her Cirrus SR-22T. Here's her blog about the effort. Clear skies to you, ma'am!

  • Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked what the most astounding fact was that he could share about the Universe. In this video, he gives his answer: That the atoms of our bodies were once part of stars themselves, that while we are in the universe, the universe is also inside us. Of course, as a Babylon 5 fan, I already knew this: "I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of all time. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff, we are the universe, made manifest, trying to figure itself out." (Ambassador Delenn, episode "A Distant Star," season 2)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sabrina has a very nice article up about pets today, in which she talks about her cat Deamon, my late cat Miss Star Kitty, and our present cat, Her Serene Highness, Princess Penelope Ponderosa Pollyanna Peachfuzz ("Penny" to her hoomans). But "pets" doesn't necessarily mean "dogs" or "cats." Let me tell you about some of the non-traditional companion animals our family has had.

[Read More]
Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Sheila needs $60 to be able to see her cardiologist," said Sabrina, turning to me, having muted the microphone that was sending her words to Sheila via Skype.  "There's no way they can get that money.  Is there any way you--"

I thought for a minute, sipping at the remnants of the large Pepsi I'd brought home from Subway. "Don't we have to go out and look at Walmart for your books? What day do they come out?"

"The 28th..."

"Well, it's the 29th. Tell Sheila we'll be coming by on our way up to Westminster, to pick up that computer from her that I'm going to be working on." The machine had lost its video twice already, and probably needed a new motherboard at this point.  Which meant long, tedious hours to reinstall the operating system, but not for a couple days yet at least. "And then you might want to get dressed."

"I'll wear my new dress," Sabrina said, referring to the dress that she had literally just received from, after I'd placed the order over two weeks ago. It had to be shipped in from Germany, which accounted for the delay. "Sheila wants to see it."

She got ready as I slipped into the computer room, raised the lid on the Cr-48, and set up a transaction or two.  Not long after I finished, we were off.

I pulled in at the Creekside King Soopers on Leetsdale, because I knew there they had a FirstBank ATM where I could score the needful.  While I was there, I decided to toss in another wrinkle.  I rushed over to the aisle with the greeting cards and flipped through the "Get Well Soon" cards until I found a good, funny one, which I paid for at the self-scan registers.  Back in the car, Sabrina inscribed the card, then we tucked the three crisp $20s inside it before she sealed it up and wrote "Sheila" on the envelope, underlining it several times.

Of course, I went through downtown to get to the express lanes north, then carefully merged right to exit at Thornton Parkway and the drive to Sheila's place.  To say she was surprised with the card would be an understatement.

. . .

The computer tower in the trunk was accompanied by several bags from the Westminster Walmart.  We were taking it easy on the way back, driving down Sheridan Boulevard because we'd seen something going on on I-25 on the way up there, with only one lane getting by in the southbound direction.  (Accident? Construction? No way to tell.)  I had stopped at another Walmart further south, almost at US-36, to look for something I couldn't find at the first one.  As I returned to the car empty-handed, I heard Sabrina talking on the phone.  Whatever it was, it sounded serious.

"Sweetheart," she said, pulling the iPhone away from her face for a moment. "Jasmine is stuck over at the Walgreen's on Leetsdale. You know, the one where we get our meds? You think we can go get her and bring her back up to Sheila's place?"

She quickly explained. Jasmine was a friend of Sheila's who was eight months pregnant and had recently been kicked out of her apartment; she'd be staying with Sheila for a few days, then going home to her parents for a time.  Somehow, she was stranded down there, and no one else Sheila knew could get there to give her a ride.

"All right," I said. "I'm headed that way double-time." As I said so, I cut south on Sheridan to pick up the US-36 East onramp, headed for I-25 and a quick trip towards home.

En route, Sabrina got a phone call which, confusingly, said "Portland, ME" on the caller ID display.  The call turned out to be from Jasmine herself, who had made her way to a nearby friend's place.  She gave us the apartment complex name and unit number, and I had Sabrina Google it to get a definitive address and get a proper fix on it with the map. In the meantime, the route there was much like the route home, so it was no trick to get there quickly.

At the destination apartment complex, we were met by Jasmine and her friend, and we loaded Jasmine's possessions into the trunk and back seat.  Seeing how crowded she was, I made a quick stop by our home first, offloading the computer and Walmart bags and adjusting the rest of the load so she could have a more comfortable ride.  Then off we went to Sheila's again.

Once we got there, I helped offload Jasmine's belongings, helped get enough of her bedding inside to sleep (Sheila's son had graciously offered Jasmine the use of his room), and even got her charger plugged in to provide some power to her nearly-dead smartphone.  She was certainly in the best of hands when Sabrina and I left once more to head for home.

. . .

The way I look at it, I've accumulated a good amount of good karma this evening, first by helping Sheila, then by helping Jasmine.  That's good.  I have a feeling that, one day, I'm going to need all the good karma I can get, and then some.

Copyright © 2012 Eric J. Bowersox, All Rights Reserved.
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