Archive for the 'News' Category

Why the “red equals sign” campaign drives me a bit nuts

March 28th, 2013 — Wordman

If you’ve looked at a social network the last few days, you’ve probably seen the “red equals sign” logo show up, showing support of the marriage equality, currently being debated in the U.S. Supreme Court. While I intended to stay silent about this campaign, now that it has taken off, I can’t hold it in: this red logo campaign is driving me a bit nuts.

Not for any political reason, of course. It’s just… the compression artifacts… they are the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

The red equals logo uses simple, continuous blocks of pixels, in only two colors. Unfortunately, the most popular image compression technology in the world, JPEG, which was built to compress photographs, turns out to be hideously awful at compressing simple blocks of same-color pixels. It winds up creating weird bands of unintended colors around the edges of such blocks. For example, here is a version of the logo (3,183 bytes), compressed with really low quality JPEG settings (to exaggerate the effect).

Equality, with horrible artifacts

The artifacts become less noticeable, but still present (especially if you are overly sensitive to them, like me), using a high quality JPEG compression (generating a file that is almost twice are large: 5,517 bytes):

Equality, with slightly less horrible artifacts

It gets even worse. Because JPEG is lossy, these compression artifacts get progressively worse as you re-compress the same image repeatedly. So, for example, if you found a JPEG of the red equals on the net, then uploaded to to, say, Facebook, chances are that Facebook recompressed it again, making the artifacts worse.

A different kind of compression—portable network graphics or PNG—is, in contrast, is extremely good at compressing large blocks of same-colored pixels, particularly in a limited color palette. It shows no compression artifacts and, since it is lossless, you can re-compress it over and over with no quality degradation. And, as a bonus, this file is only 1,590 bytes:

Equality

In support of the red equals sign, feel free to link directly to the PNG version above (http://asteroid.divnull.com/images/equality.png) in blog posts, avatar icons and so on. Or, copy and distribute at will. Hopefully my server will keep up.

A reminder to European executives

May 16th, 2011 — Wordman

To European executives:

When traveling in the United States, please remember one thing: porn is not real. No matter how much films from San Fernando Valley may lead you to believe otherwise, the maid does not magically want to have sex with you, no matter how naked you are. The pizza delivery guy is just there to deliver pizza. There is no sex in the champagne room.

As a European executive, you are likely rich, powerful and, well…European. Most American cities have no shortage of sluts and boy toys who may be happy to have some meaningless sex with you, but you need to go out and find them. They will not be delivered to your door.

At least, not for free.

Forced medicine

April 12th, 2011 — Wordman

A woman in Massachusetts was just found guilty of attempted murder for withholding cancer medication from her autistic son, who has since died. Go read that article for the specifics. No, really. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

OK, so, there are a number of question raised by this case, some of them moral/ethical questions, some of them legal. But, before the sound and fury about this case (which I predict will only last about three days in the mainstream press) abates, I want to concentrate on this question: instead of withholding the drugs for her own reasons, suppose the woman withheld the drugs because she could not afford them. Would she then still have been found guilty of attempted murder?

I suspect a lot of people would say no, reasoning that a jury would find that, even if she wanted to provide the drugs, she couldn’t get them anyway, thus absolving her of the responsibility.

Now, suppose you agree with that. What this verdict then means is this: the state can now force you, under penalty of imprisonment, to consume medication if you can afford it. It is no longer your choice to consume life-saving medication, or to make that choice for your children. If you can afford it, you must purchase and use it, or go to jail. At least, this is true when (as is typically the case) your children are assumed not to be able to make legally binding choices for themselves.

Or, maybe it doesn’t mean that. Instead, maybe it means that the state now considers there to be a legal difference between choosing to consume life-saving medication for yourself vs. making that choice for your children. But if it isn’t the parent’s choice, whose choice is it? The only other possibilities are the child or the state. If it is the child’s choice, then the child has just been given a legal mandate to control the spending of others for his own benefit (“Ma, the doc gave me a prescription for a new Audi. Pony up!”), and if the others don’t like it, they can go to jail. If it is the state, then the state is now making medical and moral choices for its citizens. Neither of these two alternatives is all that palatable.

Another thing bothers me about this case. The state charges that Kristen LaBrie caused the death of the child by withholding the meds. The child is dead because, as the state would have you believe, his medicine was withheld. Then why is the state charging her with attempted murder? If you believe the state, then isn’t it full-on successful 100% genuine murder?

It’s likely that the attempted murder charge was used because it has a much lower burden of proof for the state, and the prosecutor didn’t think he could make a full murder charge. If that is the reason, then it suggests that this whole case is some sort of political wet dream agenda from the D.A.’s office. “Sorry Ms LaBrie. Nevermind that your son was autistic, had leukemia and died, you need to go to prison so that I can prove something to someone, somewhere.” The whole thing sickens me.

I may have more to say about this later. Right now, my neighborhood watch officer is telling me it’s time to take my soma.

The Last Shuttle

March 15th, 2011 — Wordman

When the space shuttle Atlantis returns from its final mission later this year, the space shuttle program will officially be over. A group of documentarians from the San Diego Aerospace Museum are trying to capture the last days of the program in a film called The Last Shuttle, using a number of different technologies. They have started a Kickstarter project to raise some of the money to do this. They are a bit far from their goal, but still have a couple days left. I’ve kicked some money their way. Please do the same.

Tea leaves

May 28th, 2010 — Wordman

Some days, the Google News home page overflows with stories that tell you more about the future than you want to know. Today is one of them, though the stories seem, on the surface, innocuous.

First, a pair of stories out of China (one about a strike, one about a pay raise following some suicides) suggest that China’s standard of living is starting to rise. I’ve mentioned before that this will probably slow its growth a bit, as it will raise costs, making Chinese labor correspondingly less attractive to foreign businesses.

Next, I hope you’ve got your plans for a warmer world ready, as the warm seas look to make this hurricane season a doozy. An added wild card this year will be to see how these storms churn all that oil leaking into the gulf around.

More depressingly, the “global economic meltdown” is causing doctors in eight African countries to turn AIDS patients away. You will see “triage” like this a lot more often in the future. During battle, combat medics have to make choices about where to spend their limited resources and time to best effect. When things get bad, the first to get passed over for care are those who probably won’t make it even with care, the mortally wounded who have not yet died. It’s a crappy choice, but a moral one, because it means that care instead is given to someone with a fighting chance to survive. If you can treat them all, you will, but if you can’t, you pick to save as many as you can. It won’t be long before that happens on a global scale, and you can see it starting with this story in Africa. When health care is rationed, assume that those with incurable, terminal illnesses will get abandoned first. And, of course, Africa will get the shaft, as always.

On the more upbeat side of healthcare, a study shows a correlation between brushing your teeth and reduced heart disease. I bring this up because it points to something that I’m guessing will start happening a lot more often: connections being discovered between things that don’t seem like they are connected, but are. (In this particular story, the connection may be that inflammation anywhere does things to your blood.) One reason this will happen with more frequency is that people are now actually looking. That is, rather than looking for cause and effect for a particular ailment, research is now being based on the notion of “well, we have all these huge data sets from various places, let’s mash them together and see if they tell us anything”. One such project takes the human genome data, information about drug interactions, and data on connections between diseases and certain genes, and builds “neighborhoods” of related information. This might reveal that a drug that treats one disease, for example, might wind up treating something that seems totally unrelated. This kind of thing will totally change medicine in your lifetime.

A quick primer on the health care bill

March 22nd, 2010 — Wordman

Until I get my more substantive post on the state of health care up, here is a quick primer on how the “sweeping health care overhaul legislation” will impact the nation.

Before bill: Health care degrading by the day due to unneeded, unwanted interference from corporations lining their own pockets. Hospitals closing because of it. Doctors no longer able to afford to practice. Government racking up debts for reasons mostly unrelated to health care.

After bill: Health care degrading by the day due to unneeded, unwanted interference from corporations lining their own pockets. Hospitals closing because of it. Doctors no longer able to afford to practice. Government racking up debts for reasons slightly more related to health care.

Settling into a warmer future

December 23rd, 2009 — Wordman

It is pretty clear that the world has been warming up over the last 150 years. It doesn’t really matter if you just shoveled two feet of snow off your driveway (as I did). It also doesn’t matter whether you believe the temperature increase is caused by human activity or not. Nor does it really matter that 150 years is nothing on a geological time scale; chances are that these higher temperatures will reign for the majority of your remaining natural life.

Teams from the various governments of the world, most of which do believe that this warming is man made, nevertheless failed to take any meaningful action when they met in Copenhagen last week. Most are blasting this as a “failure”, a “disaster” or, at least, “disappointing”. Instead, though, it really should be viewed as exactly what it was: the result of a number of diverse, self-interested parties acting completely rationally. That no magical concord came out of this is totally unsurprising. Likewise, no such concord will come out of the next such meeting, nor the one after that.

In other words, get used to it being hotter.

So, how to best do that? People seem to assume that every aspect of global warming is automatically bad. This is certainly not the case. How best to take advantage of its advantages? And how best to minimize its disadvantages?

What follows suggests some advice on how to prosper in a hotter world. One caveat: it is tailored to people living in the United States. Some of it might happen to be applicable to those of you reading from other countries, but you’re on your own. Which brings us to the first point:

  1. Assume that nationalism will increase. As the ecosystem adjusts to higher temperatures, the status quo of resource allocation will change. In some places it will get better, in some places worse. Nations will want new sources for what they used to have, and will want to take advantage of and protect what they have gained. In the short term, interruption of existing systems and their rearrangement will result in a net decrease in whatever the system produces or manages. So, not only will nations be trying to rearrange the shares of the pie, the pie will be getting smaller. This will make many countries grumpy, insular and tribal.
  2. Budget more for food. The “shrinking pie” will be most noticeable in the area of food production. It will be shocked hard, and will take a while until people figure out what works the a higher temperature world. While some have thought a lot about preventing this, it will probably happen anyway. In addition to the shrinking pie, pushes for renewable energy will divert more of the river of corn that feeds America into fuel production. (Since it seems like corn is killing us, this may not be a bad thing.) All of this will conspire to raise food prices, which have already risen quite a bit. You might want to start looking for local food or start growing some of your own to offset the higher costs.
  3. Move slightly north. At a very loose approximation, if you want to stay living in the climate you grew up in, you’ll need to shift a few degrees of latitude toward the pole. If you stay where you are, it will get hotter. But north of you is already colder, so moving there as it also heats up will keep your average temperature the same. Obviously, climate is more complicated than this, so you need to allow for terrain and such, but the basic idea is that if you find your current location becoming unbearable, somewhere more palatable is probably not that far away.
  4. Move slightly inland. If you are living right on the beach, you might want to sell now. While the really alarming maps of sea levels rising turn out to be BS, no one is really that sure about how sea level change works. If you look at a bunch of different effects and guess a bit, you reach a reasonable estimate of a one meter rise in sea level by 2100. This would be pretty bad news in Asia and parts of Europe, but not so much the U.S., unless you live right on the beach. Or in Florida. And, I wouldn’t move back into New Orleans. But, in general, the map doesn’t change much for a one meter rise, so just moving back a bit from the coast should be sufficient.
  5. Don’t be overly concerned with species extinction. So far, billions of species have gone extinct (something like 99.9% percent of all species that have ever existed are no more). Hundreds of species (90% or which were never cataloged) will go extinct this year. One will probably be extinct by the time you finished reading this post. Naturally, this species probably will be something dull, like a plant, or ugly, like a beetle, so won’t get as much press as, say, a polar bear, but it’s dead just the same. Yet this has happened every day of your life and, somehow, the remaining 10 million species on the planet have soldiered on (even if we’ve only cataloged three out of every 20 of them). Now, one of the concerns about this hot spell is that, geologically speaking, the temperature change is quite rapid and it is the rapidity of the change that speeds extinction, not the change itself. The idea is that a change can be so fast than nature can’t keep up. For example, assume a forest 25 miles across lives in a “viability zone”, beyond which it’s plants cannot survive. North of the zone, it is too cold; to the south, too hot. Suppose this zone is slowly shifting north. This isn’t really a problem for the forest. Even though the plants don’t move, the forest can “migrate” is by spreading north with new seed, while letting the southern border die off. But, assume that this zone instantly, magically shifts 100 miles to the north. That forest (and the species that rely on it) is now screwed because it can’t keep up. Even if the rapid temperature rise shifts these zones faster than nature can keep up, however, one force probably will be able to work around this: man. You can bet, for example, that corn will “migrate” north as temperatures increase as fast as man can carry it. (Also, it turns out that the “shrinking forest” problem is not likely anyway, as plant populations expand in conditions where temperature and CO2 rise in tandem.)
  6. Have faith in science. Assuming CO2 really is killing the world, the worse it gets, the more likely (i.e. cost-effective) it will be that science can solve the problem. Imagine, for example, a magical machine that sucks in CO2 and uses energy from the sun to pull out the carbon atom, releasing O2 into the atmosphere and embedding the carbon in some fixed medium. With enough such machines, CO2 is reduced, life goes on. Considering that billions of these “magical machines” already exist (they are called “plants”), it’s not much of a stretch to guess that science will be able to replicate (and probably improve) this idea synthetically as artificial trees or some such.
  7. Assume environmentalists will rail against solutions that don’t involve environmentalism. Solutions like artificial trees are collectively known as geoengineering, and environmentalists generally tend to hate them. Sometimes, such as when the idea is particularly bad, this hatred makes sense (usually because there are some obvious unintended consequences). But some environmentalists, usually the most vocal, will reject even ideas that demonstrably meet the goals they claim to have, if the idea uses a method other than the one they are really pushing. As an example, even if the artificial tree concept was able to meet any arbitrary CO2 concentration goal for, say, three dollars, there would still be environmentalists shouting it down and saying that clearly we should instead be spending billions to prevent the evil corporations from producing CO2 in the first place. (Such objections would, among other things, ignore the notion that, once emitted, about half of the CO2 stays in the atmosphere for 40+ years, so even stopping all emissions wouldn’t have any effect for generations while, meanwhile, artificial trees could be removing that CO2 immediately.) Bank on furor like this happening and causing political strife. Also bank on the profit that will be realized by those that ignore it.
  8. Don’t count on science. Faith in science isn’t like faith in religion: it is only rewarded when it was warranted in the first place. Faith in something like artificial trees (which is basically just a chemistry problem that already has at least one known solution) shouldn’t be blindly extended to everything, especially when there is good reason to doubt that science can help. As an example, science appears to be reaching the limits of how much it can improve crop yields, not necessarily due to limits in science, but rather limits in photosynthesis. Likewise, sometimes even low-cost science that sounds like an interesting idea treats the symptom, not the disease, so leaves much of the problem unsolved. The message here: learn more science, so you can tell the difference.
  9. Avoid political goals that require global agreement or action. There will probably be a time when the whole planet will be able to agree on something enough to act mostly in unison, but you are unlikely to live to see that time. (Or, if you do, it will be because things have become so bad that there is no other choice, which is beyond the scope of this post.) Consequently, political action expended towards goals that require this will be more profitably spent elsewhere. As one example, if all of the money and effort currently expended in the U.S. in pursuit of some kind of global climate policy (something the U.S. does not and cannot control by itself) had instead been spent attempting to to rid the U.S. of its dependence on foreign oil (something the U.S. can control by itself), we would have gotten a lot more bang for the buck (and, ironically, would have likely reduced our CO2 emissions more than we did barking futilely up the global climate tree). This goes hand in hand with the point above about nationalism.
  10. Assure a supply of fresh water. This is harder than it sounds, and will become moreso. Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting. Since 20% of the world’s fresh water is in the Great Lakes, you might want to mosey that way. (And, hey, that’s probably north and inland from you as well.) While it isn’t one of the six drinks that changed history, water is about to be the seventh.
  11. Realize that climate change is not the only (or even the most important) issue. Many of the concerns mentioned above really come down to issues of resource scarcity, and population growth is likely to put much more stress on such resources than climate change will. Mostly likely, while climate change is reducing the supply of things like food and fresh water, population growth will be driving up demand at the same time. In fact, it may be small consolation to realize that all of the problems “caused” by climate change would probably be getting worse even if the temperature wasn’t rising, because the population is still increasing. So, enjoy the weather.