Tuesday, November 30, 2010

rocket man

Michigan viewed from SkyLab III
The metal schoolyard shed looked strange in the early morning starlight.  It always looked strange compared to the yellow brick school next to it.  I'd been advancing along that building all my life, one room at a time.  My class was past the middle of the building now.  The 5th grade class was on the far side of the gymnasium.  Grades 4-6 on the north side, K-3 on the south.  I was standing pretty close to my classroom.  But I wasn't thinking about that as I considered the shed.  Smooth-walled and painted a metallic gray, in the starlight it was an alien silver.

I thought about how my brother and I climbed it as a challenge, pioneering a kind of bouldering technique using the small shed door handle and the two metal hinges.  The walls sloped inwards slightly, so if you could hop up on the first hinge, you could lean inward as you reached up for the second, placing your foot on the handle in the middle.  Once you grasped the higher hinge, you could pull yourself up onto the (also sloped and smooth) metal roof, You had to bend over and shimmy forward on your belly until you could grab the big metal loop in the center of the roof.  Pull, then up.  From there, if you were brave, you could walk to the edge and grab the roof of the school itself.  Up again.  In the summer, the metal would be blazing and sitting on top of the shed was like being in a sauna.  In winter, climbing it was almost impossible because the metal was so conductive your fingers froze before you could scale it.

Three-thirty in the morning.  That fact made the scene not just strange looking to me, but a little thrilling.  A couple of friends told me they would meet me by the shed.  But I was alone at the meeting time, and I didn't have a watch.  I really didn't want to be late. I folded up the scrap of newspaper I was carrying and put it in my pocket. Up on the shed, up on the school. 

Of course, I'd been on the school roof many times before.  We were free range kids before "free range kids" was a phrase.  Being on the roof of our school was a great place to be in our big dirt clod wars.  If you didn't get caught.  But I had never climbed the tall brick smokestack.  I hesitated a moment before climbing the metal rungs, hand over hand.  The stack was a brick rectangle, perhaps three feet wide.  The rusty rungs on the north side went all the way to the top. 

At the top, there wasn't enough room to actually get off the rungs and sit or stand.  I was too scared to do that anyway, since the smokestack stood by itself.  Vertigo.  I'm not sure if the darkness made it more scary or less, since I couldn't see that well.  I clung to the top rung as my head cleared the edge.  Four sharp metal spikes on the four corners pointed skyward.   Lightning rods, I realized.  They reminded me of the school drills where we'd pour into the long hallway, sitting cross-legged, heads bent over, hands over our necks.  These drills were practice for tornadoes, though it always felt like they were actually used as school-wide time-outs.

I wanted to check the newspaper scrap in my pocket.  It listed the times and dates for local sightings.  But I didn't want to take my hand off the top rung.  It was too dark to read anyway, I realized.

I waited, scanning the sky and my neighborhood.  I looked in what I thought was the right direction.  

How different the Michigan landscape looked from forty feet.  Across the street, I could make out my house where my family was still asleep.  I was about as high as our rooftop.  To the south, the Ecourse creek wound around the school.  The actual shape of my neighborhood became clear.

Nothing in the sky but stars.  If I could see it, it would be a fast-moving glint, visible only for a minute or so.  Arcing across the sky, it would be reflecting Earthlight, moonlight, but probably not sunlight at that early hour.  And what would the men up there see down here?  Not me, looking at them, looking towards me.

I don't know why I thought I needed to be up on my grade school smokestack to see Skylab overhead.  Maybe my 11-year-old mind thought I'd get clear of the streetlights, or the smoke of fireplaces.  Maybe it was just part of the adventure I came up with.  Not sure.

I didn't see a manned satellite winging overhead on that cool morning in 1973.  But that didn't keep me from continuing to look to the sky.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

voting made easy

Ballot initiatives can be complicated, especially in California.  My girlfriend, Yvette, has developed a graphical-lexical system for analyzing ballot propositions.  It provides a fool-proof method for voters to divine the best ballot choices.  I particularly like the marijuana leaf for Prop 19.  And the cute fish that stands for funding state parks.  I'm not sure about the Prop 20 and 27 blobs.  Are they supposed to represent gerrymandered districts?  Can you figure what the other pictograms represent?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

warning signs

a copy of "Eat, Pray, Love" on the nightstand
Truck Nuts
the phrase "the American people"
the phrase "at the end of the day..."
"From the makers of..."
mustaches waxed to points
Two Buck Chuck in the fridge
blackened anything
yogic anything
ribbon pins (any color)
public list making
motorized rotating hubcap covers
audible Grateful Dead music
quotations from "The Secret"
Jerry Bruckheimer
class rings
a tendency to read horoscopes aloud
more than three cats

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Raise it

How expensive can gasoline really be when every day I see my fellow citizens, rich and poor, idling their automobile engines?  Let's tax gas.  Target: $5/gallon.

Please pass the monolithic structure

I think we need a name for the traditional turkey dinner served at Thanksgiving, with a groaning table, and large amounts of roasted bird, 'taters, stuffing, etc. 

I like "Turkeyhenge".

TSA is focused on touching your junk, but what about the pilots?

"If you touch my junk..." has gone viral. 

The new TSA screening procedures for flyers have struck a raw nerve. TSA behavior, "security theater", civil liberties, the health effects of x-ray based body scanners.  These are all worthy topics of discussion.  And are they ever getting discussion-ed.  Will boycotts of the new procedures materialize at the height of holiday travel?  Have Americans finally reached the limit of what they will give up for security?  Will an actual junk-stuffed-bomb get detected by the new methods?

I don't know.  But I don't think we're thinking about the risks of air travel clearly. 

All the focus on screening passengers obscures the facts that the aircraft and the personnel that operate them are a much richer target for terrorists and security experts.  

Last weekend an exception to the new security measures was granted for commercial pilots.  Pilots (and maybe soon flight attendants) will be able to skip the x-ray machines and junk-touching pat-downs.  To make clear my point about rational thinking on security, let's consider a specific question. 

Who should we worry more about when it comes to suicidally crashing airplanes?  Pilots or passengers? 

Below is a simple analysis of intentionally-caused airliner crashes originating from the US over the last two decades.


Consider suicidal hijackers and passengers first.

In the last 20 years, hijackers who were passengers on board US flights have killed about 3000 people.  (Outside of Sept 11, I could find no other US-originating flights that passengers intentionally crashed)

In 2008 there were about 800,000,000 US passengers.  This number has grown significantly over the last two decades.  So, let's say the total number of passengers over the last 20 years has been ~ 20 x 500,000,000 = 10 billion.

That gives us rough odds that a passenger will successfully be involved in crashing a plane:
   ~ 19 hijackers/10billion ~ 1 in 500,000,000.

Airport screening is designed to catch these people.


What about pilots?

In 2008, there were about 125,000 active commercial pilots.  So, over the last 20 years, in round numbers we can say that there were something like 200,000 commercial pilots operating in the US, with some retiring, quitting or dying.

How many planes have commercial pilots on US flights intentionally caused in the last 20 years?  It seems clear that there was at least one such pilot and it caused all 200+ people on board to die.  William Langeweische wrote a great article about it in the Atlantic.

So the odds over the last 20 years that a specific pilot would intentially and suicidally crash a commerical plane are at least 1 in 200,000. 

Or:  The annual rate of successful suicidal pilot crashings is a thousand times greater than the rate of successful suicidal passenger crashings.


Looked at another way, the number of airline deaths caused by suicidal passengers over the last 20 years is 3000, with the average number of deaths caused per passenger at 3000/500,000,000 ~ 6/1,000,000 or 6 in a million.  The number of deaths caused by suicidal pilots over the last 20 years is about 200, with the average # of deaths caused per pilot at 200/200,000 ~ or 1 in a thousand.  Death caused per pilot/deaths caused per passenger ~ (1 in a 1000)/(6 in a million) which is ~ 167. 

Or, pilots are 167 times more likely to kill you by intentionally crashing your plane than your fellow passenger is.


Potential objections to this analysis:
  1. Egypt Air 990 wasn't conclusively caused by a suicidal pilot.  Possibly.  Seems pretty certain if you read the Langewiesche article.  However, the point remains that a single pilot suicidal crash, should it occur, would instantly make my argument, because the "effectiveness" of a single pilot-induced crash is so high.
  2. Other crashes, ruled as accidental, may have actually been caused by highjackings.  Possibly.  But even if you added up ALL the deaths and crashes ruled as accidents over the last 20 years, it wouldn't change the death toll, or the number of crashes, by a large enough factor to change the "effectiveness" of pilot suicidal crashes over passenger suicidal crashes.
  3. I treated pilots as countable individuals, but passengers were counted many times (that's how you get an average of 500,000,000 passengers/year in a country with only 350,000,000 people).  This is a serious potential flaw in my analysis.  But that's a fair way to treat the numbers today, because that's how the airline security industry treats pilots today.  Passengers are "fresh" to be screened each time they come to the airport, while aircraft crew members are not.  This is really my point actually.  If we treated pilots more like passengers, they'd get screened much more intensively than they do now.


So who should we be screening?  History and a simple analysis suggests pilots should be scrutinized much more closely than passengers.  But, as with many acts in air travel security theater, rationality is not part of the performance.

Kinda junky, don't you think?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

inner city pressure

Someone is talking to me hurriedly, softly.  I'm staring at Anaheim peppers.  Looking at the peppers, I ask: Why does Safeway have to advertise the prices for two items?  Just tell me the price per item.  Not that I can't divide a number by two.  I can.  I can do long division in my head.  Two digits into three is my limit, though.  When I fill up my gas tank, I divide the miles from the last tank by the gallons used so I can track the mileage.  Usually, I'm hurriedly doing this while pulling out of the gas station.  Driving, dividing, deciding on where to head next.  What's the traffic like?  Punching up the traffic map on my smart phone.  26mpg.  Good.  No change in mileage.  Don't have to worry about car maintenance.

Is Safeway going to charge me more if I buy one?  They don't say.  I peer at the little print on the two-for-XX-dollars sign.  Really though, does it matter to me?  It'll be a difference of a few cents.  Not enough to make me buy two peppers.  But it irritates to have to think it through. 

What?  Have I found everything OK?  Sure, sure.  I guess so.  It's the produce guy.  He's talking fast about the specials.  Did I want to try a raspberry?  Did I know the seedless grapes were on special?  I shift from thinking about misleading advertising to the produce guy.  Slowly I realize he's got some kind of disability.  I can't shake him.  I push the oversized cart down the aisle.  Why are there random stacks of specials placed on the corners?  I can't turn this big cart around them without squeezing the folks coming the other way.  Over my shoulder, I hear the produce guy talk-whispering at me, but I'm concentrating now.

Shopping here is tense.  It's like many places in the city now.  A nervous energy permeates.  I think of the Safeways we used to go to when I was a kid, freshly arrived in San Francisco.  1975.  The carts were smaller.  They didn't have those radio-controlled brakes that suddenly grind to a halt if you push the cart past the boundary of the parking lot.  We were pretty poor then, but the closest Safeway was the famous one in the Marina District.  It had and has a view of the Bay, and of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Famous, because it's allegedly a pick-up joint for singles.  Seems doubtful that was ever true.  We'd walk through the store, loading up on bulk items for our family of six, picking out Asian canned goods or Mexican items that we'd have never seen in our grocery store in Dearborn Heights, MI.  Avocados.  Tortillas.  The store was quiet.  You could feel the fog if you walked by the electric doors.  The aisles clean.  No advertising stickers on the floor.  People pushed their small carts down the right side of the aisles, like they were driving, sticking close to the side of the aisle.

Ahead of me are young people.  Too young to be so large.  They are pushing their carts, oblivious to others, doing that rolling gait people do when fashion requires them to step with their heel on the extra fabric of their baggy jeans.  We're all executing a random walk - dodging each other, dodging the piled, undesired goods on special that lean in, threatening to topple.  I'm just as intent on not getting run into as I am on picking out goods.  Cheap plastic boxes hang at head level with blinking LEDs.   Coupons wave in my face.  Tiny banners flying for the corporate nations of Nabisco-landia and Nestle-stan.  I'm tempted to slap the boxes off the shelves so I can navigate freely.

There's a Safeway downtown near Jackson Square.  I remember a decade ago staggering through the empty, clean aisles.  Tipsy, after a nice dinner out with friends and maybe too much wine.  No matter.  I'm on foot, so no danger of a DUI or worse.  I'm by myself, looking for Ben and Jerry's.  The store is quiet, the Financial District types have gone home long ago.  Somehow I can feel the weight of the skyscraper above me, but it feels all right.  It's the only Safeway I've been in that is in a skyscraper.  A different kind of inner city pressure than the pressure I'm feeling tonight.

Tonight.  The grimy carts of my fellow shoppers are filled with canned cranberry sauce.  Vodka.  Lots of bags of snack foods that I don't even recognize.  There's a whole universe of snack foods I don't know about.  Something about the packaging though, tips it off.  A sort of electric look to the bags and molded plastic containers.  Yellow seems a common color for snack food packaging.  It jars to look at it.  But look at it I have to as I push towards a cashier.  Whoops, no, have to change lines.  The woman at the front is arguing with the cashier about an advertisement or a coupon.  Most times I come here there is someone arguing about a coupon.

We used coupons too, when I was a kid.  I don't pay any attention now, but we did then.  Actually, we paid much more attention to the labeled prices for staples.  I got good at dividing two-digit numbers into three digit numbers.  We tried hard to buy at the lowest price/weight.  Back then, there was not a mandate to label the price/weight that we have now.  So, I did the arithmetic when we shopped.  Not that anyone reads the price/weight on labels at Safeway today.  But the numbers are there.  I see them when I look at the misleading "2-for-XX-dollars" advertisement signs.

At the front of the line, I volley the customary Safeway cashier questions: no, no, yes, cash.  Goods in the cart, I push out the door.  Cool air in my face.  I trundle the cart through the stained asphalt parking lot just like everyone else.  Away from the doors and people now, I run with the cart and gain some speed.   Jumping up with my feet on the lower bar, hands on the red plastic cart handle, I ride through the parking lot like it was 1975.

Friday, November 19, 2010

wherein Edgar turns 20 and begins a mid-life crisis

Meet Edgar.  He's my rubber band ball.  I started making him in 1990, which makes him 20 years old.  (I don't know the actual date I started him.)  I also don't know why he's called Edgar.  It was a joke that started some years ago.  The name outlasted the memory of the actual joke. 

I was near the end of grad school when I started Edgar.  I think I had a lot of rubber bands from veggies, because there were five of us cooking in our little kitchen.  Lots of broccoli.  Also, we had one or two newspapers showing up there, at our run down rental house in Davis, CA.  It was a more rubber-band-centric world back then.  Before those hybrid broccoli band/plastic clips.  And during the time in which people read newspapers.  (Newspapers were daily collections of printed pages, with a variety of reports written largely based on the relevant facts about stories of national or regional interest.  You couldn't click on anything.  And the advertisements didn't dance or talk to you.)

I started with one band wrapped tightly around another, and then wrapped single bands until it was ball-shaped.  The core of the ball is just rubber bands.  Nothing else, except maybe some hair and dirt that the ball picked up by rolling around across the floors of all the places I've lived since then.  Sometimes I wonder what it would smell like to saw Edgar in half.  Would it be all rotten sulfur rubber band smell?  Or would the smells of my Ann Arbor fireplace or my dead cat be released?

After it got to a couple of inches in diameter, I just put the bands around the ball.  That didn't last long though, because I wanted it to grow in diameter, and simply putting the bands circumferentially made it denser and heavier, but not larger in diameter.  So, I worked out a method of creating long linear chains with large closed loops on either end.  Think of a dumbell (other than me).

I made some back-of-the-envelope estimates of the size of Edgar at the end of my life.  I assumed that the rate of adding new bands would be constant, and would be my historical average.  I assumed I'd live to 80.  I did this a few years ago when Edgar was about 11" in diameter and came up with about a 14" diameter.  That seems to be not much growth over the next 30 years, but that's because the volume increase between say, 10" and 14" diameter, is greater than the volume increase between 0" and 10"...

Recently, I measured the diameter, and was surprised to see it had shrunk significantly.  Edgar stands at 9" now.  I haven't worked out why, exactly.  Perhaps at some critical size, the tension forces begin to significantly compact the ball, sort of like a collapsing star.

So, I have a crisis with two dimensions: my sources of bands have dried up at the same time that Edgar is collapsing towards some sort of rubber band black hole.  Readers, can you help?  Collect your spare rubber bands and be a part of this grand project.  Message me, and I'll send you an address, if you care to ship bands to me.

My little slide park featured in the NYT

My little micropark on my little San Francisco street was featured in the New York Times this week (thanks Mom!)

I didn't know the history.  But I do like the various little hillside parks in my neighborhood.  I've adopted this one.  I regularly walk the few houses over to the slide park at Esmeralda and Winfield Streets and pick up trash, sweep and remove graffiti.  It's a never-ending job.  Especially the graffiti.  On a tip from the guy who keeps up the park lying immediately downslope from this one (no slide, just a well-maintained rock outcropping and planted landscape), I bought gloves and paint thinner.  I pour the thinner on my gloves and directly rub off the graffiti with the glove surface, because the graffiti is usually tough.

The article has it right.  (Usually) good natured teens slide down in the evening.  Sometimes smoking and drinking, but usually not.  There are the occasional gang/drug sellers there, but they don't persist.  And a homeless guy has recently taken to quietly sleeping on the one bench that is protected from the street.  During the day, families bring their kids to the slide.  There is always some cardboard around that some use to get real speed on the slide.  I throw away the scraps when they build up.

The other day, Yvette and I were fascinated by a guy rolling a tennis ball down the slide to his young dog, who somehow caught the ball at the end of the slide, even though the ball was moving almost too fast to see at the bottom.

Friday, November 12, 2010

bedbugs and ballyhoo

There's a panic in America over the return of the bedbug.

In the media are numerous stories of people spending thousands of dollars, tossing out all their clothes, and turning their homes upside-down. In some cases, this is occurring even when there are no bugs detected, or bites experienced. These bugs don't affect human health in the main (no disease transmission, and many people bit don't even know they've been bitten.) So, panic is the right word, I think.

That's fine. People can panic.

However, I have some predictions for the aftermath of the panic:
1) We'll soon see reports of bug-sniffing beagles (or other dogs) raised in a hurry to respond to the panic and subsequently abandoned or abused as the panic subsides.
2) Some unlucky people - probably children - will be accidentally poisoned or intoxicated by illegal pesticides such as DDT.

You read it here first!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

evolution of life on Earth: the YouTube clip

Simple, but mesmerizing YouTube video clip of the geologic time scales of significant moments in the evolution of life.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

the 112th Congress: let's throw the bums out!

The 112th Congress was elected this week. They will be sworn in on January 3, 2011. They will have had their chance (in the future). And what have they done so far? That is, what will they have done so far, when their time in office actually comes?

You know what? I'm sick of the job they're going to be doing. At some point down the road, I'm going to be mad as hell! And, I'm not going to be taking it anymore! At that time, I mean!

I'm boiling mad. Or will be. Why don't we just throw the bums out now, before they even get sworn into office next year?

After all, that seems to be how we're electing our leaders these days...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mo wisdom

Why are Americans angry at this moment? The conventional wisdom is that it's the economy. Specifically, the tired phrase "jobs, jobs, jobs" is invoked at every turn. But is that why we're so mad? And is it those upset about losing a job or not having a job that turned out the Democrats or that have fired up the Tea Party kettle?

Well, my mother has another idea.

Her idea is that it's not the jobs outlook that has people angry, but rather the drop in their net worth. Certainly this gets talked about frequently, but during the lead-in to the recent mid-term elections, the talk was of jobs, and not of wealth.

My mom's political insights are sharp. So I thought this idea was worth investigating a little.

Polling data doesn't look at wealth nearly as often as income or employment. It would be great to find polling data that breaks along net wealth rather than income. I didn't let that stop me, though.

Consider a recent Gallup Poll look at the Tea Party. Gallup concludes that in many ways Tea Party supporters resemble average Americans demographically. The ways in which they stand out are: they're more likely to be male, to be conservative and to have higher incomes than average Americans. And, they participated strongly in the mid-term election, and of course they overwhelmingly voted for the GOP.

The jobless or the poor typically don't vote. They are usually near the bottom of ranking in participation, and that was true in this election too. The Edison Research poll, published by the NYT, shows those earning less than $50,000 comprised 37% of the voters. Presumably this lower income bucket includes the jobless and those who took lame jobs to survive. But, I'm sure that if you looked at the fraction of the population earning this much or less, you'd find that they make up a larger percentage of the population than their electoral participation. The same poll shows that those earning $100,000 or more participated at 26%, which is surely an over-representation of their fraction of the population.

This reduces to: If you lost your job, you didn't vote much or all that conservatively, but if you lost wealth in the financial crisis, you voted often and strongly conservatively.

Instead of the mantra, "Jobs, jobs, jobs", a more accurate slogan might be, "Wealth, wealth, wealth".