Friday, June 30, 2006

A Lever Long Enough

Imagine this thought experiment:
You are the single richest person in the world, and the founder of the most influential software company in the history of mankind.
In 2000, you use your massive personal wealth to establish a powerful charity foundation, and continue to lead your company.
Then, in 2006 you have a vision, A powerful vision of how you could use your wealth to change the world in a meaningful and permanent way.
You recall the words of Archimedes, that given a lever long enough he could move the world, and you realize that you have in fact the largest economic lever ever to be in the hands of an individual.
You announce that you're leaving your day-to-day role at the company you founded in order to focus full-time on your charity organization.
You confidentially share your vision with your friend, who happens to be the second richest person in the world.
So striking is the vision that, 10 days after you announce you're stepping down, he announces that he is giving away the vast majority of his entire net worth, and that almost all of it will go to your charity orgainization.
The tool that you've built to change the world is now twice as strong, and you have the personal resources if need be to repeat that kind of contribution from your own bank account.
Never before has such wealth and ability been concentrated into the hands of a couple of individuals. What could be beyond their grasp?
What scope must their vision be, to casue the two wealthiest people in the world to bet their entire futures upon it?

These are the thoughts that occurred to me after Warren Buffet announced he was giving $31 billion dollars to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, just a week and a half after Bill Gates announced he was phasing out his involvement with Microsoft to focus on the foundation full-time.
I don't know if this is how things happened or if so, what their vision might be, but my mind boggles at trying to concieve of a project that could consume such a vast amount of resources.

How would you change the world with $60 billion to spend and another $47 billion in your bank accounts?


Update: This webcomic from 1999 seems to have had similar thoughts.
A Suitable Seed

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Bird Flock Almost Takes Down Tree




Check out this crazy video of a flock of starlings almost taking down a tree.
The most interesting thing about this is how the entire flock looks like a single hive-mind organism in its movements. Wild!

[ Link via Digg ]

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cheap Tabletop Fusion Reactor

atom.JPG

Purdue scientists have produced a cheap tabletop fusion reactor, that extracts fuel from seawater and uses sound waves to ignite the reaction.

For the same unit mass of fuel, a fusion power plant would produce 10 times more energy than a fission reactor, and because deuterium is contained in seawater, a fusion reactor's fuel supply would be virtually infinite. A cubic kilometer of seawater would contain enough heavy hydrogen to provide a thousand years' worth of power for the United States.


Tabletop fusion: check. Now, where's my skycar?

[ Link via Purdue University ]

The Guy I Almost Was




The Guy I Almost Was is a great web comic. For some reason it makes me feel really nostalgic. Maybe it's my lost collection of Mondo 2000 cyberpunk magazines (I was so proud when my email-to-the-editor was published), maybe it's my memory of being a starving student.

Patrick Farley at Electric Sheep is one of the best web comic authors ever, though he seems to have disappeared about 3 years ago.
Go check it out.

Gender Neutral Pronoun

Gender Neutral Pronoun
I find it really annoying that whenever I refer to a hypothetical person, that there is no support in the English language for gender-neutral pronouns. If I'm writing instructions that will be followed by an undetermined audience, why should I have to classify the reader as male or female? Gender is totally irrelevant in many situations yet we're still required to identify a gender by our language.

Then there's the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which claims that the language one speaks influences and shapes what thoughts they are capable of. If that holds credence, then enforcing gender distinctions where none are necessary serves to emphasize and deepen the gender divide. I definitely think that mindset gets reinforced when you can't even talk about a person in the third person without defining their gender first.

This problem leads to clumsy alternatives like consistently referring to "he/she" or "(s)he" or alternating between he and she throughout a text, but these usages are awkward and confusing.

Several proposals for gender-neutral pronouns have been made already.

I am partial to the Ve/Ver/Vis conjugation popularized by Greg Egan in his oustanding book Diaspora. (Brief aside: Diaspora is a fascinating hard sci-fi book touching on the future of humanity, artificial intelligence, and the nature of the Universe. I cannot recommend it highly enough.)

In practice I tend to use the singluar "they". It's a pratical short-term solution as "they" already provides a gender-neutral reference to a group of entities. The American Heritage Dicationary (since 1992) and the Chicago Manual of Style (1993) both approve the use of a singluar they gender-neutral pronoun, and the Australian government officially encourages it's use.

It can still be confusing though in certain situations ("That guy said they needed to use the phone").
English is a constantly evolving language. I'd like to see it shed some of these lingering and effects of the past.
Tags:

Socially Responsible Investing

I had a disturbing realization the other day.
Take a look at the breakdown of a sample person's life:

6 years at home as a child, 16 years going to school, 43 years working at a career, and 30 years in retirement.

That means that during the period that person is working, they must earn enough not only to support themselves, but also save enough to support themselves for a period that lasts 70% as long as when they were working (not to mention that their medical costs are likely to be much higher during the latter period).

That's a frightening thought for someone who hasn't been saving as much as they should have. So here are some resources for anyone interested in investing for retirement.

Just like we try to be conscious of where we spend our consumer dollars, we also try to be aware of where we're spending our investment dollars.
SRI, or Socially Responsible Investing, is the term for the growing desire to avoid investment funds that include the worst polluters or human rights violators, for example.

This article has links at the bottom to several of the more popular SRI fund managers like Calvert or Domini Social Investments.

There are also resources like SocialFunds.com or SocialInvest.org where you can monitor funds by performance or screening criteria.

Immigration: A Manufactured Crisis?

So let me see if I've got this straight. We have people coming here to do necessary jobs that no one else wants to do, and are getting paid more than they could make at home but less than their employers would have to pay anyone else to do it.
And while they're here they're putting more money into the tax coffers than they're taking out.
So which part was the crisis again?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Shot of espresso, shot of rum, repeat


espresso

Coffee may counteract alcohol's poisonous effects on the liver and help prevent cirrhosis, researchers say.
In a study of more than 125,000 people, one cup of coffee per day cut the risk of alcoholic cirrhosis by 20 percent. Four cups per day reduced the risk by 80 percent.


Time to brush up on those coffee drinks!

[ Link ]

Return of the Smart Roadster

You've probably heard of Daimler Chrysler's Smart Car.
Starting at less than £7000 (under $13,000) and rated for a combined gas milage of 60 mpg it is both cheaper and more fuel efficent than the Toyota Prius hybrid (55 mpg for about $22,000 base).
The biggest barrier to adoption however is....well, a picture's worth a thousand words.
Smart Fourtwo
That is one ugly car.

Not so its sibling Smart Roadster.
Smart Roadster
Still managing 54 mpg with a top speed of 122 mph and available as a convertible or with removable hard top, this is a vehicle that could gain some traction.
The rights to the Smart Roadster have recently been picked up by MG, who could relaunch it as soon as 2007, with exports to the U.S.
You can read a review of the Smart Roadster here.
I can't wait to see one in person.
Tags:

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The High Cost of Meat

Most people know these days that a plant-based diet is healthier than an animal-based one.
However, not many realize just how many deaths are caused by the human practice of eating other animals.
Below are some statistics of human deaths caused directly or indirectly from using animals for food.

Heart Disease

5.1 million deaths per year.
30% of all 17 million heart disease deaths per year could be prevented by a balanced vegan diet.

Cancer

2.45 million deaths per year.
35% of all 7 million cancer deaths per year could be prevented by a balanced vegan diet.

Starvation

13 million deaths per year. 870 million going hungry.
Global Starvation could be prevented by using resources to produce plant-based food instead of wasting them on inefficent production of meat for wealthy nations.
1.4 billion people could be fed every year by the grains and soybeans fed to cattle in the U.S. alone.

Food Poisoning

2.8 million deaths per year.
70% of all 4 million food poisoning deaths per year are caused by contaminated animal flesh.

Type 2 Diabetes

4 million deaths per year.
Almost all cases could be prevented by a balanced vegan diet.

Mad Cow

161 dead or infected but the actual total may be higher.
Caused due to feeding cows the ground-up corpses of their fellow cows.
No treatment available. 100% fatal.
4 million cows killed to halt spread of the disease.

Anthrax

Approximately 200 dead.
"Hoof and mouth disease" first infected humans from livestock animals farmed for food.
SARS

774 dead as of 2004. No treatment available.
Spread to humans from civet cats slaughtered and eaten by people in China.

Bird Flu

125 dead. Experts warn a severe outbreak could kill 50 million.
Human/Avian Influenza strain evolved due to bird farming for meat.
AIDS

25 million dead. 40 million infected. 3.1 million new deaths per year. 15,000 more infected daily.
Simian Immunodeficiency Virus evolved into HIV after people in Africa butchered and ate infected chimpanzees.

1918 Influenza Epidemic

50 to 100 million killed in less than a year.
The last time that a Human/Avian Influenza strain evolved due to bird farming for meat, it caused over three times as many deaths as World War I.


Every year, about 30.5 million human and 63 billion animal lives are extinguished due to the practice of eating meat.
That is so much unnecessary death. We can do better.


Update:
I got some requests for more information on HIV originating from people hunting and eating chimpanzees. Here are a few articles from CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC for those who don't want to dig through the comments.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Saving the Planet One Meal at a Time

If you've been paying any attention to the news for the past year, you've no doubt heard about the major shift American consumers are making towards more fuel-efficient vehicles and what a benefit that could have for the environment. While this is true, there's another change that consumers can make that would have an even greater benefit for the environment while at the same time improving their own health and reducing global suffering, and it costs a lot less than buying a new car. That change is a move to a meat-free diet.

Greenhouse Gasses: Carbon Dioxide
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, producing one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10 times as much fossil fuel input, releasing more than 10 times as much carbon dioxide, as producing one calorie of plant protein.

According to researchers at the University of Chicago, the average meat eater causes 1.5 more tons of CO2 to be released into the environment every year than a person who doesn't consume animal products, whereas switching from a conventional gas-guzzler to a Prius Hybrid saves 1 ton of CO2 emmissions per year.

Greenhouse Gasses: Methane
Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. While atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen by about 31% since pre-industrial times, methane concentrations have more than doubled. Whereas human sources of CO2 amount to just 3% of natural emissions, human-controlled sources produce one and a half times as much methane as all natural sources. The number one source of all methane production in the world is factory farmed animals.

National Resources
Moreover, factory farming consumes 50% of the national water supply, 70% of all wheat, corn and other grains grown in the U.S., and 1/3 of all raw materials used in the U.S. annually. One half of the entire United States landmass is dedicated to producing meat.

Forests
More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to create cropland to grow grain to feed farmed animals. According to scientists at the Smithsonian Institute, the equivalent of seven football fields of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for farmed animals. Each vegetarian saves an acre of trees per year.

Land and Water Pollution
Farmed animals produce 87,000 pounds of excement per second that is dumped into the land and water.

The much-publicized 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska dumped 12 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, but the relatively unknown 1995 New River hog waste spill in North Carolina poured 25 million gallons of excrement and urine into the water, killing an estimated 10 to 14 million fish and closing 364,000 acres of coastal shellfish beds. Hog waste spills have caused the rapid spread of a virulent microbe called Pfiesteria piscicida, which has killed a billion fish in North Carolina alone.


A gallon of oil weighs 6.84 pounds, so the Exxon Valdez oil spill released the weight-equivalent of the amount of feces produced by factory farming in the U.S. every 16 minutes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the run-off from factory farms pollutes our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined.

Many leading environmental organizations, including the National Audubon Society, the WorldWatch Institute, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, have recognized that raising animals for food damages the environment more than just about anything else that we do.

World Hunger
Then there's the whole world hunger issue. With 870 million people going hungry right now, meat production is the most inefficient use of resources for food possible. It takes up to 22 pounds of grain and 2,500 pounds of water to produce just one pound of edible meat. The world's cattle population consumes the equivalent number of calories as would feed 8.7 billion people, far more than the entire population of the Earth. About 20 percent of the world's population, or 1.4 billion people, could be fed with the grain and soybeans fed to U.S. cattle alone. If Americans cut their beef consumption by just 10%, they would save enough grain to feed 60 million people.

Diet For a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lapp proposes the following thought experiment: Imagine sitting down to an eight-ounce steak. Then imagine the room filled with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls in front of them. For the 'feed cost' of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked cereal grains.

Making a Difference
In the world today, it's impossible to effectively boycott the oil industry. Even if you got rid of your car, you have to power your home, your office, etc. However, it is entirely possible, in fact it gets easier every day, to boycott the meat industry and do the most you can to save the environment and reduce the suffering of almost a billion global poor.

Links
Article in The Guardian
GoVeg.com on Environment
EarthSave on Global Warming
E, the Environmental Magazine
The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat (pdf)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Protect Your Privacy while Surfing the Web

Hi all,
Today's class covers increasing your privacy while surfing the web.
Normally, every website you go to is recorded and can be monitored. When you go to a website with SSL (https), the content of the page is kept private, but the website address is still in the clear.
This tutorial will use TOR (The Onion Router) from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF is an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of computer users from big corporations/government.
TOR is software you install that can direct all your internet traffic through a series of anonymous proxies to make it harder for observers to correlate a browser with the website it's going to. The Onion in the name refers to the many layers of proxies your web access goes through.
TOR is not foolproof, but greatly increases your security online. You can find more information here

Two things to note about TOR:
1) If someone has access to your computer, they can still see what websites you went to.
2) Because TOR goes through several redirections to hide your identity, it will slow down the speed at which pages load.

TOR can be used with any web browser, but Mozilla Firefox makes it very easy (and is a superior browser) so this walkthrough will refer to it.

Step 1: Install Firefox
Download and install Firefox here

Step 2: Install TOR
Download the TOR (The Onion Router) bundle here
Install all components.

Step 3: Install the Switchproxy Firefox plug-in
Go here to install SwitchProxy for FireFox
Click Install Now, and after the counter ticks down, click Install
After installation, restart FireFox
There should now be a new toolbar that starts with Proxy: None. Click Add on that toolbar
Select Standard (not Anonymous, that's for something else) then Next
Use the following settings:

Proxy Label: TOR
Manual Proxy Configuration: selected
HTTP Proxy: localhost Port: 8118
SSL Proxy: localhost Port: 8118
FTP Proxy: localhost Port: 8118
Gopher Proxy: localhost Port: 8118
SOCKS Proxy: localhost Port: 9050
SOCKS v5: selected
No Proxy for: localhost, 127.0.0.1

Hit OK

Step 4: Using it
For protected website access, change your Proxy dropdown to TOR and hit Apply (you must hit Apply for it to take effect)
For unprotected (but faster) access, change your Proxy dropdown to None and hit Apply

You can use TOR with any application that supports proxies (Internet Explorer, instant messenger, etc), just use the proxy settings above.

Note that with this setup, Google will sometimes display in a different language, because it may think you're coming from a different country. To always get it in English, use this link: http://www.google.com/ncr

That's it. Let me know if you have any questions or problems.

Hi all,
Today's class covers increasing your privacy while surfing the web.
Normally, every website you go to is recorded and can be monitored. When you go to a website with SSL (https), the content of the page is kept private, but the website address is still in the clear.
This tutorial will use TOR (The Onion Router) from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF is an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of computer users from big corporations/government.
TOR is software you install that can direct all your internet traffic through a series of anonymous proxies to make it harder for observers to correlate a browser with the website it's going to. The Onion in the name refers to the many layers of proxies your web access goes through.
TOR is not foolproof, but greatly increases your security online. You can find more information here

Two things to note about TOR:
1) If someone has access to your computer, they can still see what websites you went to.
2) Because TOR goes through several redirections to hide your identity, it will slow down the speed at which pages load.

TOR can be used with any web browser, but Mozilla Firefox makes it very easy (and is a superior browser) so this walkthrough will refer to it.

Step 1: Install Firefox
Download and install Firefox here

Step 2: Install TOR
Download the TOR (The Onion Router) bundle here
Install all components.

Step 3: Install the Switchproxy Firefox plug-in
Go here to install SwitchProxy for FireFox
Click Install Now, and after the counter ticks down, click Install
After installation, restart FireFox
There should now be a new toolbar that starts with Proxy: None. Click Add on that toolbar
Select Standard (not Anonymous, that's for something else) then Next
Use the following settings:

Proxy Label: TOR
Manual Proxy Configuration: selected
HTTP Proxy: localhost Port: 8118
SSL Proxy: localhost Port: 8118
FTP Proxy: localhost Port: 8118
Gopher Proxy: localhost Port: 8118
SOCKS Proxy: localhost Port: 9050
SOCKS v5: selected
No Proxy for: localhost, 127.0.0.1

Hit OK

Step 4: Using it
For protected website access, change your Proxy dropdown to TOR and hit Apply (you must hit Apply for it to take effect)
For unprotected (but faster) access, change your Proxy dropdown to None and hit Apply

You can use TOR with any application that supports proxies (Internet Explorer, instant messenger, etc), just use the proxy settings above.

Note that with this setup, Google will sometimes display in a different language, because it may think you're coming from a different country. To always get it in English, use this link: http://www.google.com/ncr

That's it. Let me know if you have any questions or problems.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Support Queers and Steers!

Companssion is Universal 
Queers and Steers


So Alex and I will be working a table for our animal rights group Action for Animals at Texas Pride Festival 2006 in Austin on June 10th at Waterloo Park, 403 E. 15th Street. It should be a lot of fun -- live music, food, that sort of thing.

I set up an online shop for AFA on Cafepress which was pretty fun. Check out my new t-shirt designs for Pride Fest -- Alex made up the slogan for Queers and Steers -- too funny!