Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas !!!


Friday, December 7, 2007

Yay! Winter Finally Arrived

Click on the photos to see more photos and much larger sizes.

The Next Day 06Dec07

Snow in Fairmont 05Dec07 (39)

Snow in Fairmont 05Dec07 (8)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Velcro Nightmares

Velcro hook and loop is one of the coolest inventions of the 20th century. Back when it was new it was expensive it was not very common but over time it became less expensive and found its way into more products. I assume that the patents have run out and it is now made in vast quantities so it has found its way into just about every product that needs a fastener.

But there is an unpleasant consequence to this proliferation. Have you opened a suitcase, pulled out a pair of sneakers and ended up with a four foot long daisy chain of unrelated items dangling from the shoes? I have. To make things worse, the "hook" part of Velcro sticks to many other things besides "loop" Velcro. It seems particularly fond of microfiber cloth (artificial chamois / lens cleaning cloth), to which it sticks very well, certain types of clothing, as well as fabrics used to make wrist straps on flashlights, personal electronics, and camera straps. The latter is a big problem in my camera bag.

I use a backpack to carry my camera equipment, lenses, etc. and many of these items are equipped with Velcro which combined with Velcro's aforementioned affinity for camera straps is a nightmare. It's not unusual for me to open my camera backpack and find camera, watch, flashlight, calculator, lens cleaning cloth, and other items, all wadded into a tight ball lovefest of Velcro togetherness. It takes a couple of minutes to carefully peel all the delicate items out of this mess and set them down so they don't touch each other and pull themselves back together again like the Liquid Metal Man in Terminator. It's also important to keep a tight grip at all times on things like the camera because I never know when the strap is going to stick to something and yank the camera out of my hand.

Can we please go back to using snaps?

Have any of you noticed this problem or is it just me?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Jim Rogers Dumping U.S. Dollars

On October 23rd, Jim Rogers, chairman of Beeland Interests Inc., gave an address to ABN Amro Markets in Amsterdam, where he said he's getting out of the U.S. dollar and into the Chinese yuan. He says the dollar has lost too much value and is going to lose more because the Fed's policy is to debase the currency.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Giuliani and Corruption

Looks like Giuliani is getting a head start. Giuliani's former cohort in New York City government is being indicted on corruption charges even before he gets elected.

What a go-getter that Giuliani is!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Your TV Will Stop Working on Feb 17, 2009

On February 17, 2009, just sixteen months from now, all television transmitters in the United States will forever cease transmission of analog signals (NTSC). From then on, only televisions with modern digital tuners will function.

I've known about this for years but I just read about a study showing that only 4 percent of Americans even know the year of the changeover and 60 percent of Americans know nothing at all about it. What's more, you can still purchase a shiny brand new TV that will be obsolete in 16 months and simply stop working unless you get a converter box for it. So I thought I'd do my little part to get the word out.

Here is the Federal Communications Commission web site about coming the changeover:

Friday, November 2, 2007

Diz Be Too Funny

If you need some laughs, check out this site:

Dis Not Be Cannibalism

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Virginia Tech Memorials and Terrorism

Some thoughts on a difficult problem...

I have been reading about the various ideas for converting Norris Hall into a memorial, or razing the building, and various other ideas. I feel similar sentiments and feel that the victims and the heroes deserve some sort of memorial.

BUT... What concerns me is that the more we make of this, the more attractive it becomes for a mentally disturbed individual like Cho to execute a horrible act like this, knowing that he will make a permanent mark on thousands of people's lives, memorials will be built, and so forth. In memorializing the victims we are also memorializing the perpetrator(s). This is unavoidable.

In a free society under rule of law and with a free press that makes money from sensational stories, it seems nearly impossible to minimize the notoriety that a person like Cho feels they will achieve. A similar situation is found when it comes to terrorists. Combating terrorism directly is nearly impossible, but there is a way to stop terrorism: By definition, a terrorist seeks to terrorize and cause fear in the population. He achieves this through the notoriety of his acts. If terrorist acts were kept as quiet as possible, and terrorists themselves were apprehended and "disappeared", Latin-American style, without the slightest news or the tiniest footnote in the newspaper, terrorism would cease. If you take away the one purpose that a terrorist hopes to achieve, he will stop. If nobody knows of his actions there's no point to terrorism.

To support my point, I'll cite a striking example of one arena where this "silence tactic" was applied, and that is by the Israelis with respect to airline hijacking. Those of you who are old enough will remember that during the late 60's and early 70's, hijacking of Israeli airliners by Arab terrorists was very common. It seemed like there was one every week. These hijackings would involve extensive negotiations, lots of news coverage, hostage exchanges, timed exchanges, exchanges for money, fuel, and safe passage, etc., etc., and they would go on for days, with food being brought to the plane as it sat on the tarmac for several days with 100 hostages onboard. These weekly hijackings came to an abrupt halt in the late 70's when Israel introduced and implemented a new plan. When an Israeli plane is hijacked, there is no news coverage until it's over, and it is over very quickly. Wherever the plane lands, it is immediately stormed by ruthless, heavily armed and armored troops who enter the plane and simply shoot anything that moves. They try not to hit innocents but sometimes they do. They simply move quickly and wordlessly through the plane, Uzis blazing, until every terrorist is triple-dead. The only thing that is reported in the newspaper is that a hijacking occurred and 8 nameless terrorists are dead. That's it. Those hijackings stopped cold because the Israelis removed the purpose, which is notoriety and news coverage, airing of demands, etc. A hijacker now gets none of that. Hijacking an Israeli plane means an anonymous suicide and nothing more so there's no point in it for the would be hijacker. The Germans also had problems with hijackings, although less severe than Israel. The Germans also adopted the Israeli tactic and bingo, no more hijackings.

I brought up the hijacking example to illustrate what happens when you remove the one thing a terrorist wants to achieve. A terrorist-act-minded individual, like Cho, is aware of the "impact" he will make and the lasting memorials that will remain. He knows that he will become instantly famous, and his thoughts and writings will be read by millions, and that's what happened. In a year or so there might be some new laws passed that will be named "Cho laws". In ten years they'll probably make a movie. The name "Cho" will be famous for decades. Unfortunately, and he will be far more famous than any of his victims.

How to change this situation is not clear. It might be impossible in a free society. But it would be good to bear in mind when we make much of events like what happened at Virginia Tech. In a country of 300 million people, there are surely more sick individuals in the population right now that envy Cho and wish they could achieve something similar. The more we make of it, the more attractive it becomes to those who would imitate. A hundred years ago such things happened far less often because news coverage was poor and slow. Notoriety was not guaranteed like it is today.

I wonder how many people consider this aspect that I have just brought up, of events like the Virginia Tech massacre. I wonder if it is even brought up in discussions about what to do with Norris Hall. Norris Hall is just a building, an inanimate object. I think it should be restored to it's previous condition as quickly as possible and put back into service as before. It should not be turned into an icon because in the end, it memorializes the perpetrator more than any of the victims.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Gnooze

This girl is too funny. Check out her videos. Great stuff!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Making Candied Orange Peel

Making candied orange peel is easy once you learn what to watch for. Expect a couple of spoiled batches where you undercook or burn the product, but after that it's straightforward.

Candied Orange Peel

The number of oranges to use is hard to specify. I eat two oranges a day and save the peel. Since I want as many long 1/4 to 3/8 inch wide strips that are 2 inches long, I cut the oranges in half and juice them or quarter them and carve out the inside (and eat it). Then I wash the peels under running water, and scrape as much of the meat off as I can and then toss the peels into a sealed plastic bin I have in the refrigerator. The sealed bin has a small amount of water on the bottom to keep them hydrated, otherwise the refrigerator will dry them out and they'll shrivel.

When I have "enough", I get the cutting board and start slicing as many long pieces as I can and I dice up the odd pieces, and continue until I have enough to fill a small 16 cm stainless saucepan about 3/4 full (but not more).

Next the peels optionally get boiled in the saucepan. Boiling them like I describe here will reduce the flavor and remove bitterness. It will also help to hydrate any peels that have dried and thinned. You can skip the boiling steps here for a stronger orange flavor. If I'm going to use the peels for baking I skip the boiling to get a stronger flavor. To boil the peels, fill the saucepan with water, and boil for 10 minutes or more, dump them into a strainer and hit them with cold water. Then back in the pot to boil again for 10 minutes or so, dump and rinse with cold water.

Next comes the candying step. Put 2 to 2-1/2 cups of sugar in the saucepan and 1 cup of water, bring it to a boil and dissolve all the sugar. Be careful from here on because the sugar syrup will be at 240 degrees F. Treat it with respect because it WILL hurt you--think napalm. Gently add the peels to the boiling syrup, bring back to a boil, then reduce to medium heat and cook them in the syrup (uncovered). I've seen recipes that say to cook for 20 minutes. Forget that. It takes 40 to 45 minutes of cooking. The whole time it will be merrily bubbling and foaming. Stir occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking or burning. When you get to around 40 minutes, you'll notice the amount of liquid is getting less and less and now is where you really have to pay attention. You want the peels to get that "glassy" candied look--not all the way through, but you want to see the flesh start to get glassy. Some people say to boil until all the syrup is gone. If you do that, you'll burn the peels. There's a fine line where they are "just right" and it always seems to come at around 45 minutes.

While it's cooking, I've put out sheets of waxed or parchment paper. When the decision point comes, dump the contents of the pot into a metal screen strainer (remember it's at 240F which will melt some plastics) and let it drain for a minute. Then spoon them out onto the waxed paper and as quickly as you can spread them out so they are touching each other as little as possible. When they cool they will stick together and it's pretty easy to unstick them from the paper but not from each other. Then let them cool off and dry for a while, an hour or two, and then you can use them or cover with another sheet of waxed paper. You can stack several batches on top of each other, put a dinner plate on top, and store them like this for several days.

Finally, you can sprinkle them with flour and mix them into a cake. You can dip the long ones in melted chocolate (just like strawberries). You can coat them with powdered sugar, use then to garnish ice cream, whatever.

o try this out I'd recommend starting with four oranges worth of peel. The thickness of orange peels varies a lot so it's hard to say how many oranges you need. Thick skinned oranges are great for this application. Oranges with very thin skins are not good choices for candying. You can also do this with grapefruit skins for a very different flavor.

For me, candied orange peel is one of the greatest flavors on earth, and it's extra fun to make because you are using what would otherwise be garbage plus about 20 cents worth of sugar. However, it is labor and time intensive.

Candied Orange Peel

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Nobody Ever Talks About Inflation

I found an interesting article below and it agrees with my observations down in the trenches with the poor people, which includes myself, my daughter and everyone she knows, various other friends, and discussions with my landlady on this topic about her other tenants. (She owns a number of income properties). Money has been getting tighter and tighter for everyone and it's now at the point where people just can't make ends meet anymore and they have zero disposable income so there are no vacations, no nothing. People are getting worked to death just like in the 1800's.

If I were to have the same buying power that I had in 1995, I would need a salary today of at least three times what I was earning plus bonuses. My net worth would need to be around--well I won't mention the number but around 4 times what it was in order to have kept even with where I was. This George Carlin video:

is right on target because salaries and benefits have not kept up with inflation at all. A salary of $100,000 is still considered "quite high" by today's PERCEPTIONS but in fact a $100,000 salary today is what a school teacher made not too long ago in terms of buying power. What this says to me is that American big business has pulled off a marvelous sleight of hand. Everyone's salaries have been cut by 70 percent without actually reducing the numbers, and I'll bet the benefits of this are flowing into somebody's pocket. Americans today are working far longer hours and far harder for less buying power.

Now who do you suppose engineered this, or is it simply the effect of profligate spending made possible by foreign confidence in the U.S. economy? What happens when that confidence wanes? What happens when Europe unifies its capital markets, as it's now doing, and becomes a far more attractive place for big investors like China than it is now? What happens when the massive influx of capital to the United States slows down?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Our Congress Works Very Hard

This is a hilarious (and appalling) but very well done educational video:

Traumatic Breathalyzer Test

It's okay to humiliate and traumatize innocent citizens? That's what a recent statement from attorneys representing the New York Police Department are, in effect, saying. According to attorneys representing NYPD officers, a breathalyzer test for them is "humiliating and traumatic". If that's so, then why are citizens of the United States subjected to a procedure that is "humiliating and traumatic"?

Friday, October 19, 2007

$146 Million in Unauthorized Travel Expenses

It's nice to know that our mid-level government employees are traveling in style. The GAO so far has uncovered $146 million in unauthorized or inappropriate air fares in the first half of 2007. The cases involve the breaking of rules such as those requiring federal employees to travel in business-class at $800 and not first-class at $6,000 and so forth, which happened 44,000 times. but the rulebreakers feel they are worth it 'cuz their work is so important.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Rudy is the Big Hero of 9/11

No, not Rudy Giuliani, a different Rudy.

'Nuf said.

Do you know where Rudy Giuliani was when the planes hit the World Trade Center?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Unintended Consequences

It's interesting to observe that states like Oklahoma and Georgia, that passed laws cracking down on illegal aliens, are noticing a significant drop in tax revenues. Why? Because those people are moving away to other states and taking their tax revenue with them. Another side effect is more houses showing up for sale, also because of illegal aliens moving away. This comes at a rather bad time though because the sub-prime mortgage crisis is already causing distressed houses to come on the market and depress home prices. This is now being aggravated by all the non-distressed homes belonging to illegal aliens that are also coming onto the market.

But in these cases, the system is actually working as the Founders intended. If a state implements foolish laws, people will vote with the feet and that state will get smacked in the pocketbook. It's working.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Tattle on Your Neighbors

Have a neighbor you don't like? Now you can go to this web site, mark their house on the map, and write an anonymous report on their nefarious activities.

I'm sure the cops are very pleased with this web site and will be watching it closely. It reminds me of what neighbors did to each other in the Soviet Union, only in the United States we choose to do it voluntarily. Haha. But what happens when people post phony accusations, which they surely will? Now you can anonymously defame anyone.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Income Gap Widens

Half of all Americans became poorer while the richest 1 percent became richer under Bush's policies. Are these two facts related? Apologists for Bush's pro-rich policies say no, that economics is not a zero sum game. But that argument is false in this case. Economics is not a zero sum game if the economy is growing at a good pace--there's more to go around for everybody. But after taking inflation into account, the U.S. economy is not growing, so it is zero sum game. What's more, it is still possible for wealth to move from the poorer to the rich even with a growing economy. But if the economy is stagnant or shrinking, as the inflation-corrected numbers show, then wealth definitely moved from the less-fortunate HALF of all Americans into the pockets of the richest one percent. There is no doubt that Bush's policies, which are designed to tilt the table in favor of the rich, are doing just what they were designed to do.

The last time that the richest Americans had such a large slice of the pie was in the 1920's, before the Great Depression. The income statistics were released by the Internal Revenue Service.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

U.S. Re-Embracing Authoritarian Sunni Regimes

Gee, isn't that what we were doing before the Bushes got their hands on the political steering wheel? Hmm. We'd be better off putting Saddam back in power in Iraq. Oops, I forgot, we killed him. Well, now what? The Sunnis are a minority in Iraq but Saddam was a Sunni. Oh dear, what HAVE we done? This problem was plainly visible to me back in 2003, which is one of the many reasons I spoke against attacking Iraq, but nobody seemed to care because the desire for Iraq's oil and the phony propaganda linking Saddam with 9/11 was clouding everyone's minds. So now we have an enormous mess. We have badly upset the balance of power in the Middle East by removing the one force that was directly counterbalancing Iran (Iraq, led by Sunni, Saddam Hussein).

We can't restore the balance now because we removed Saddam. It was he, as a Sunni leader of a country with a Shiite majority, who created the balance. We've now forever lost the ability to restore the balance.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Rich Whites Cheat Their Way Into College

Not all, of course, but a study of Ivy League colleges and universities shows that around 15 percent of the white kids in attendance did not meet the academic entrance requirements. Instead they were admitted because their parents made large contributions to the school or had a lot of pull with the alumni association. Is this a form of affirmative action for dumb rich white kids?

Check it out:

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

To All Who are Studying U.S. Presidential Candidates:

YouTube is an excellent place for "candidate surfing". Most of the candidates and as well as other politicos (Nancy Pelosi, for example) have their own channels where they post things of their choice, but more interesting are the videos posted by users. You can review all of the debates captured off network TV, listen as many times as you wish, and listen carefully to what the candidates are really saying. Many campaign as well as prior speeches by politicians and candidates are also there on YouTube for you to examine closely.

Just go to YouTube and search on candidate names or keywords such as debate. Note that you will also find plenty of videos expressing opinions on every political topic, which you may or may not find interesting, but there's tons of stuff showing the candidates speaking for themselves.

Here are some clips to get you started:

Clips from the Democratic debates:

28 minutes from the GOP debates:

Ron Paul:

And there's lots more up there.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Bank Overdraft Scam

Back in the good old days before so-called "overdraft protection", if a large check arrived that would overdraw your checking account, it was simply returned NSF (Non-Sufficient Funds) and a fee of $10 or $15 was deducted from your balance. But the rest of your funds in the account remained there, able to cover smaller checks or charges that arrived. Nowadays with "overdraft protection" if a large check arrives, it gets paid, a $35 fee is charged, and your account gets driven negative, and now, every single additional check or charge that arrives is guaranteed to "overdraw" and trigger another $35 fee. Each little three dollar charge get's hit with another $35.

But I still haven't gotten to the nasty scam part. Back in the old-days, checks and charges were handled during nightly processing in the order in which they arrived or in random order. But now, with the "overdraft protection" scheme in place, the order in which checks and charges are processed suddenly matters a lot. A new "game" is possible for the bank. So banks these days keep a temporary ledger in their computers that records transactions as they occur during the day. This temporary ledger is what you see when you do online banking. But then during the night when the computers reconcile all the accounts, the temporary ledger is ignored and all of your transactions for the day are re-executed in the real ledger. The transactions are not handled in the order they occurred during that day, instead they are sorted by dollar amount and the largest transaction is entered first, then the next largest, and so on. This is done in to maximize the number of overdraft fees that might occur.

For example, let's say on the morning of a particular day I have a balance of $150. During the day I use a debit card to buy a snack for $5, gas for $30, lunch for $10. During the day, if I checked my balance with online banking, my balance would have gone from 150 to 145, to 115, to 105. When I get home that afternoon I know that the three debit card transactions for the snack, gas, and lunch are done, safe, paid, right? Wrong!

Let's say that during this same day two checks also arrive at the bank to be paid, one for $12 and one for $140. Uh oh, the $140 check is going to bounce, right? Wrong. The checks will get processed at midnight but so will all your previous transactions that day. All five transactions will be re-processed into the main ledger at midnight and not in the order of occurrence but in order of decreasing dollar amount. First comes the check for $140, which clears fine because your balance was still $150, driving the balance to $10, then the $30 debit card transaction, driving the account to $-20, plus the $35 overdraft fee to $-55. Then the 12, the 10, and the 5, each of which invokes another $35 fee. The next day my $150 positive account balance has become overdrawn by $187. Congratulations, you've just been hit with the bank scam.

Back in 2004 this happened to me with Suntrust Bank in Florida. A $40 check I had overlooked triggered a chain reaction resulting in $175 in bank fees. I called customer service and asked them to remove the so-called "overdraft protection" and simply bounce any future checks that would overdraw. Nope, can't do it. The "overdraft protection" feature, which they tout as a great favor to their customers, is mandatory and cannot be disabled.

And if you think my story is bad, read some of these experiences with Citizen's Bank:

This is a big gravy train the banks have going here. No wonder they show record profits. But in my opinion it meets the definition of fraud: "A deception deliberately practiced in order to secure unfair or unlawful gain."

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Daylight Saving Time Redux

Well the poll is over. I'm sure the sample is too small to have any statistical significance, and the sample population was surely biased, but the outcome is interesting to me anyway. Eight people voted. Two people said they like daylight saving time and six do not. If nothing else, I know that I am not entirely alone in my dislike of DST.

Thank you all so much for participating!

If my blog drew a lot of traffic, I think it would be fun to do a simple poll of all presidential candidates from both parties. But at this point I think I have fewer readers than there are candidates running so that wouldn't work. Haha.

Friday, October 5, 2007

What is the Matter with George W. Bush?

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Bush's politics, it is very disturbing to compare the George W. Bush of 1994 with the same man 10 years later. In 1994, Bush was a capable debater, speaking freely, smoothly, with a good vocabulary, and in long complete sentences. Everything he said made sense. And I'm not talking about whether you agree with what he said or whether what he said was true, I am talking about his ability to smoothly string thoughts together into a logical sentence. Today, the simplest of concepts foul him up and his memory seems to have failed. It's truly astonishing to compare his performance in 1994 with the same man after 2002. They don't even seem like the same person.

The following video clip begins with a segment from the 1994 Texas gubernatorial debates. I would be shocked to turn on the radio today and hear President Bush speaking like he does in this video:

So what happened? You don't have to be a doctor to see that something has gone seriously wrong, but what? Any doctors or psychiatrists want to chime in with ideas?

Here are a couple more videos of the man who holds the most powerful political office in the world:

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Natural Ingredients?

Just what exactly does "natural ingredients" mean? For example, the flavor we call vanilla comes from a chemical called vanillin that is extracted from vanilla beans. One can also make vanillin in a chemistry lab, and this vanillin is identical to the vanillin that comes from real vanilla beans but it must be called "artificial vanillin". Okay so far, but it gets more interesting. Vanillin can also be made in the laboratory by means of a bacterial fermentation process and this product does not have to be labeled artificial. Huh? All three sources produce exactly the same substance.

(There is also imitation vanilla, which contains no vanillin at all but that's another story.)

Then there is the question of product labeling. There seems to be no regulation of use of the word "natural". Assuming that one has determined what is and what is not a "natural ingredient", there is no definition of what constitutes a "natural" cosmetic or food product. Each manufacturer has its own definition. Some feel that 70 percent natural ingredients justifies the product being labeled as natural. Others feel that 50 percent is enough. Some feel that one percent is enough. It's clear that without doing deep research on a each product, the word "natural" appearing on the label is meaningless. It tells you nothing more than showing you how to spell "natural".

Now what I want to know, is water a natural ingredient? How natural is natural? What about water produced in a hydrogen fuel cell? What about the exhaust from the space shuttle's main engines, which is 100 percent water? Is that artificial water? And how do you keep artificial water from mixing with real water? Curious minds want to know.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Food in a McDonald's Wrapper Tastes Better

Talk about brainwashing or Pavlovian training of our kids--a study was recently done with pre-schoolers that showed kids preferred foods that were wrapped in a McDonald's wrapper or that came in a McDonald's container. Not only did they choose it over other foods but identical carrots, identical apples, drinks, foods of any kind, were deemed to taste better when they came in packaging bearing the McDonald's logo.

This is disturbing and also raises a question. This was a test of just one type of brainwashing but how else have we and our kids been brainwashed?

Monday, October 1, 2007


Amazing how the U.S. focuses such intense "security" that it becomes a theater of the absurd:

...meanwhile, some real terrorist is probably floating a nuke up the Chesapeake Bay in a cabin cruiser.

It seems that nobody can face the fact that terrorist attacks simply cannot be completely prevented--certainly not in a "free" society. Even in an intensely guarded police state like the Soviet Union, they could not be prevented. The U.S. has a lot of coastline, a lot of unprotected border, hundreds of ships carrying hundreds of thousands of shipping containers entering the country every day, only a fraction of which can be inspected. We can't stop the flow of illegal drugs--we can't even make a dent in the flow of tons of illegal drugs. The street price of cocaine is now a quarter of what it was at the start of the "Drug War" Hello? It's absurd to even talk about preventing a determined individual, or group of individuals, or dangerous materials from getting into the United States.

Instead of spending vast sums of money and manpower on the impossible task of protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks, much better results could be obtained by changing our behavior in the global arena such that terrorists are no longer motivated to attack. By this, I am referring to curbing U.S. interference in the governments of other countries, curbing the use of foreign aid money as a form of bribe to get foreign governments to give special consideration to U.S. companies operating in those countries, curbing the criminal behavior of U.S. companies operating in foreign countries, and so on. A recent example of this was just in the news where Chiquita Brands was funding anti-government guerrilla fighters. Back in the 80's, Coca-Cola operating in Guatemala murdered nearly 50 people who were trying to get a union started. These things happened with impunity because the U.S. government had already bribed the foreign government into allowing it, allowing U.S. companies to do as they please, pay no taxes, ignore local laws. The politicians in those foreign governments are happily corrupt and happy to pocket the "foreign aid" money from the U.S., and retire in style, but the populace that suffers ends up disliking the U.S. This sort of behavior has been going on for about 100 years now. Meddling in countries pisses people off and it's starting to come back to haunt us.

For background on the sort of activities I refer to, the following two books are a good start:

The Central America Factbook by Tom Barry and Deb Preusch

Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano

And here's a little kicker for you of Congressman Ron Paul citing the 9/11 Commission Report and CIA assessments that say the same thing I said above:

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Absurd Immigration Policies

Helena, Montana is growing like crazy with new businesses opening up right and left. In the window of every store and business are "Help Wanted" signs. Some businesses are having to close or curtail business hours and are losing money because they cannot find workers. Some businesses in Helena are now importing workers from Eastern Europe to fill positions.

Does this square at all with the Bush / Republican anti-immigration policies? Bush has gotten behind yet another ill-conceived xenophobic right-wing cause and is hurting the country again? Do the right-wingers study demographics and learn a little bit before acting or are they just following the loudest voice they hear yelling in the mob?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

How Many of you Hate Daylight "Saving" Time?

Raise your hands. Better yet, vote in my poll on this topic. (You may want to read this before you vote)

I don't mind the act of changing the clocks to Daylight "Saving" Time. I don't even mind the sleep upsets in order to readjust. But what I do mind, a LOT, is the outcome and effect of Daylight Time. I like darkness and nighttime. I like seeing the fireflies and the stars. It should be dark at 6 PM or so, not 9:30 PM. I would much prefer for it to cool off an hour "earlier" in the evening during summer. Kids should not have to go to school and adults should not have to drive to work in total darkness in the morning. It's bizarre.

Equally annoying is that this is mandated by Congress for make-believe reasons that contradict reality. The main argument used by lawmakers is "energy savings". But no study has shown that any energy is saved. The major consumers of electricity: refrigeration and air-conditioning run 24/7, as does most industrial and office lighting. Any lighting savings at 5 PM are offset by increased light usage in the mornings. Cooking and showering habits will not change because of a time change. The energy saving argument is pure hokum.

Numerous studies have been done since 1974 on this subject and the results show that Daylight Time actually INCREASES overall energy usage because people drive and shop more when Daylight Time kicks in. Shopping and gasoline sales spike up when Daylight "Saving" Time kicks in. Wal-Mart and other consumer businesses benefit from increased sales and the energy companies sell more gasoline.

Now, what do you think would motivate politicians to put Daylight Saving time in place? And what would motivate them to increase it to a present level that nearly erases Standard Time from the calendar entirely? I think you can figure it out for yourself. (Hint: Concern for the environment is not the answer.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

IBM Joins Open Office Org

This is good news. Open Office, the main challenger to Microsoft Office, has now passed the 100 million user mark. Corporations and governments right and left, mainly in Europe, are adopting OO and the ODF document format, and booting Microsoft out of the game. And the latest bit of news is that IBM has decided to join the Open Office Organization, contribute code it has written, improve interoperability with Lotus Notes, and to push Open Office as a product.

As you probably know, IBM adopted Linux as the standard OS throughout the company some time ago, so this is a logical next step.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Journalism in America

This story...

...about Dan Rather being fired over a story he did about George Bush is interesting because it illustrates how the major news sources in the United States, CBS in this case, kowtow to the Bush administration, bowing and scraping in order to curry favor from the government. This is not the function of the fourth estate. The U.S. Constitution was designed so that journalists are free to harass and harangue all politicians. It is their duty to do so. The Founders knew that highly critical journalists with sharp pens and sharp tongues are the only thing that keeps the government honest. If journalists and news outlets align themselves with the government, or give politicians or the government the "benefit of the doubt", or in any way give in to the notion that criticizing the government is unpatriotic, then we are lost.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Why the Iraqi Government Can't "Get it Together"

Why? The simple answer is that the Sunni and Shia factions can't get along, right? Well, that's true, but it's not the whole story There's another issue that's been making a mess of the process of putting a government together in Iraq--an issue that is rarely mentioned in the press. From the start, the U.S. has insisted on certain provisions in the structure of the Iraqi government with respect to Iraq's oil reserves. Namely, the U.S. insists that the new government of Iraq must agree to allow two-thirds of the Iraqi oil reserves to be controlled by a consortium consisting of the usual suspects (Exxon, BP, Shell, etc.) This consortium would have seats on Iraq's governing bodies and have veto power over legislation. Furthermore, the agreement states that if there is civil war or unrest in Iraq, making it too dangerous for Exxon, BP, etc. to operate in Iraq, that they can wait until the problems are solved and then they can jump in, plant their flags, and take over the oil fields. Adding to the complexity, the Kurds very much want to keep 100 percent of the oil reserves they feel are theirs.

No wonder the Iraqi government is a mess. No wonder government officials hardly show up for sessions. No wonder the reception of American soldiers has changed from enthusiasm to where 70 percent of Iraqis feel it's okay to kill American soldiers. They do not want to give away the sovereignty of their country and its resources. I can understand that. It's always good to remember that the U.S. does not have a monopoly on patriotism. Iraqis feel just as patriotic about their country as United Statesians feel about the United States. I have found this to be true in every country I've ever visited, regardless of whether the government was oppressive or not. It must be a human trait.

Below is an article in the New York Times discussing the latest breakdown in passing the "law governing Iraq's rich oil fields", but they don't touch on the details of this law. What's the problem with the law? Now you know what the problem is.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bisphenyl A (BPA), Should we be Worried?

I promised my daughter and some friends to write about what I have learned about bisphenyl A (BPA) and I will keep it as brief as I can and still include everything I know. I learned this via Dr. Jane Adams who is a neurotoxicologist at the National Institutes of Health, (NIH).

Back in the mid-90's, Dr. Adams noticed that it seemed like a lot of urine samples coming into NIH were contaminated with bisphenyl A. So they did a quick study and found that 97 percent of the urine samples coming in, from all ages of people, were contaminated with what were, to her, alarming concentrations of BPA.

What is BPA? The chemical bisphenyl A was first synthesized by a German scientist in the 1890s. No use was found for it until the 1930s when it was discovered that BPA made a dandy artificial estrogen. It was used for that for a few years until they discovered DES (diethylstilbestrol) in the late 1930s and BPA was no longer used for estrogen replacement.

Most of you are probably too young to remember what happened with DES. I remember DES and I also remember when the thalidomide nightmare hit. I remember as a 10 year old, reading through LIFE magazine and being totally creeped out by the teratogenic effects of thalidomide. (Teratogenic means "monster making"). Women who were given DES and women who were given thalidomide started giving birth to monsters instead of babies. LIFE Magazine had big black and white photos that I will never forget.

Okay, so when DES was developed in the late 1930s they stopped using BPA for estrogen replacement. Then during WW II and at the dawn of the modern age of plastics and polymers, it was discovered that BPA makes a terrific polymer material. And it truly is terrific, having really no equal still today. You know this plastic as polycarbonate and its trade name Lexan. Polycarbonate is best known as the "bulletproof plastic", and it is exactly that. It's not perfectly transparent or even as clear as acrylic but it is clear enough to see through okay if made well, and yes, this is the stuff you may have seen in the TV ads in the 70's where a guy stands there and empties a .357 magnum at a window made of Lexan. When he shoots at an angle the bullets just bounce off. When he shoots straight on, the bullet gets stuck in the plastic but does not penetrate. Well that demonstration is real, not a trick.

Years ago I had a go at a little demonstration at a security show where they had a window made of 1/8th thick Lexan and you were given a 3 pound ball-peen hammer to do your best to break it. People were swinging on that thing all day for three days and nothing happened. The hammer was provided with a wrist strap that they insisted be used because the hammer would bounce back with as much force as you applied! Not expecting this, people would often lose the hammer and they didn't want a hammer flying across the convention floor.

The windows of the president's car, some bank teller windows, the Popemobile windows, and all fighter plane canopies are made of Lexan. It takes a steel cored armor piercing bullet to get through Lexan. It's still the toughest transparent plastic around. You also find it in industrial filter housings, vandal proof light fixtures in schools and prisons, and lots of other places. It's really cool stuff. And in your daily life you encounter it in those 5 gallon water bottles you set on top of the water cooler, some baby bottles are made from it, and BPA is used to coat the inside of food cans.

Polycarbonate (BPA) is a bit on the expensive side so it's not used unless you really need it. Refillable water bottles and baby bottles are two examples where it's a good choice. However, you also find bisphenyl A used as a plasticizer in certain uses of cheaper plastics like PVC. Mixed in with PVC, small quantities of BPA improves the feel and quality and makes PVC much "nicer". So BPA is not everywhere but it is more common than just water bottles, baby bottles, and food cans. And, just because a plastic bottle or other object is marked PVC (in the little recycling triangle on the bottom) does not mean that it contains no BPA. It might contain BPA as a plasticizer and it might not.

That's all fine and dandy except for one thing. Bisphenyl A leaches / dissolves into the water or food in small amounts and we consume it. This is the source of the BPA that Dr. Adams discovered in urine samples ranging from babies to the elderly.

Okay, but is it dangerous? Well this is where it gets interesting and a little complicated so read carefully. The teratogenic effects of DES were discovered in rats long before the problem appeared in humans but it was argued that rats and humans are very different, and you cannot make direct comparisons, and this is true, more or less. It turned out that to create monsters in humans, the concentration of DES had to be 1,000 times higher than the concentration that causes problems in rats.

DES and BPA both mimic estrogen in the human body and are capable of creating all sorts of problems besides monstrous babies including obesity, heart disease, cancer, mental problems, neural problems and who knows what else. Bisphenyl A creates problems in rats at a concentration even lower than DES. The concentrations of BPA found in humans today is over 1,000 times higher than the concentration of BPA needed to cause problems in rats. Does this mean anything? I don't know. Nobody else knows either.

No proven link to a problem has been found yet in humans but Dr. Adams is concerned because the parallels with DES are striking, to say the least, and the amount of BPA found in humans increases every year. We don't know all the problems that can occur. It is possible that the epidemic of childhood obesity and unexplained precocious puberty is caused by BPA. It's possible that BPA is causing mental problems that we have not tracked down to BPA yet. She argues that these chemicals that mimic estrogen are very dangerous things to play with and this one is in general distribution to the public. It's even found in baby bottles and we really don't know much about what it might be causing.

NIH is just now assembling people to begin to study it, but for the moment it's up to you to decide whether to be concerned or not. Nothing much is known except the above. The parallels with DES are creepy. You must make your own judgment.

Now if you couldn't follow the point I'm making above, let me compress it down to a short story:

Back around 1930 we develop a chemical which I'll call Chemical A. Chemical A functions as a synthetic estrogen. Chemical A is found to cause horrible birth defects in rats. Later, we discover the hard way that at a concentration 1,000 times higher it also causes horrible birth defects in humans. Chemical A is banned. Around 1930 we also develop Chemical B. Chemical B is very similar to Chemical A and also serves as a synthetic estrogen. Chemical B also causes horrible birth defects in rats. It turns out that a very useful plastic can be made with Chemical B. Chemical B is thus found all around us in our daily lives and the concentration of Chemical B in our bodies has now grown to about 1,000 times the concentration that causes birth defects in rats. However, harmful effects in humans has not yet been shown. Should we be worried about Chemical B?

Edit: More info has come out that I wrote about in this blog post:

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pride of Lions has a Bad Day

Here is one of the most amazing videos I have ever seen. It's eight minutes long but it's well worth watching the whole thing. There are several different events that take place throughout the video that will astound you. Any one of those events would make a stunning video clip by itself. A pride of lions, a herd of cape buffalo, and two big crocodiles get into a rumble, and you'll see who's boss. The lions are young and foolish, and have not yet learned to respect the cape buffalo. But they learn.

I learned 30 years ago from a very good friend who was a lifelong African big game hunter that the lion has the reputation but the real king of the hill in Africa is not the lion, it is the cape buffalo. My friend spent several months every year in Africa, for 40 years, hunting. He taught me that lions have the reputation of being a predator with no natural enemies--top of the food chain. Not true, he told me that while they are at the top of the food chain they definitely have a natural enemy. He said that herds of cape buffalo will hunt lions--not to eat them but simply to kill them and rid themselves of a pest. According to him, cape buffalo will raid dens of lions in an organized fashion and kill every one they can get. Groups of buffalo will locate and set up ambushes on each of the escape routes from the den, and then another group will attack the den in a frontal assault. The lions scatter only to run straight into buffalo that are waiting for them. The attack group then goes in and kills all the cubs. So the cape buffalo know all about lions. In this video you will see behaviors that I'm sure you've never seen before. Just one cape buffalo is a very dangerous animal, but as you will see they can also act in concert. Talk about scary.

It's easy to lose your sense of scale in this video. Remember that cape buffalo are enormous creatures, weighing over a ton, and the lions are 400 pounds or more. One of the lions discovers just how strong a cape buffalo is, the hard way. Ouch!

Prepare to be amazed again and again.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Food is Not What it Used to Be

Over the past 50 years, iron levels in meat have dropped from 47 to 80 percent. Iron levels in milk have dropped by 60 percent! No, this is not a joke and I'm not making this up. The AAAS (American Associate for the Advancement of Science) held a symposium on this problem not long ago.

Our high-tech farming with fertilizers, chemicals, etc. will make crops grow fast and look good but it's "all show and no go", as we used to say in the car racing biz. High-yield crops grow faster and bigger but fail to accumulate the nutrients we need. Nutrient levels in fruits, vegetables, and wheat have declined dramatically over the past 50 years. The concentration of some vitamins, minerals, and protein, including calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid have dropped by from 5 to 38 percent.

And get this, especially you women, the iron in 15 varieties of meat decreased an average of 47 percent. Some meat products fell as much as 80 percent.

Copper has fallen by 60 percent, magnesium by 10 percent. Both copper and magnesium are essential for enzyme functioning.

Here's a link to get you started for info:

Monday, September 10, 2007

My Ideal Notebook Computer

Back around 1992 there was a notebook computer called the Panasonic Business Partner P-180. It was a lightweight, rugged, clamshell notebook computer with a nearly full sized keyboard that you could type on all day, a 9 or 10-inch monochrome LCD display with no backlight that was very readable in ambient light and sunlight, a single 720k floppy, and a small 12 volt gel cell battery that ran the machine for 8 hours. The CPU was a CMOS 80C88, OS was DOS 3.1 and it was an outstanding "text mill". With a Wordstar clone and a PIM called Tornado installed, I had everything I needed. I could sit at a picnic table and bang out text documents all day long, make and refer to notes instantly. It was silent, no fan, no hard disk, no heat, and the keyboard was quiet, perfect for taking notes at a meeting or in college. It had an external 12V power input so if I brought along a little 4 Ah gel cell (size of a soda can), I could run for 30 or 40 hours without recharging. Today I wish I still had that machine.

Fast forward to 2007 and there is NOTHING like this machine on the market. We have battery technology today that is light years better than gel cells but every single notebook computer made is jammed with power hungry devices that give a battery life of 2 to 3 hours, which is FAR less than acceptable. With today's technology one could design a machine just like the P-180 with a transflective display and a backlight that can be turned off and only used in darkness. Replace the 720k floppy with a pair of 2 GB SD memory card slots (giving 2,500 times the memory capacity of the old Panasonic). VIA makes an x86 CPU that runs on about 1 watt of power. Add WiFi that can be powered down when not in use. Perhaps add a USB port or two. Run Linux on it, and you've got it made. There's plenty of memory to install Linux, Firefox, and Open Office and have 3 gigabytes left over.

This would be the ultimate machine for students taking notes in classes. They could run all day and into the night without recharging. Use it in the library for research without constantly worrying about running the battery down. Relax, use it all you want. Set it on your lap and not burn your legs from the heat since there IS no heat. It would also be excellent for news reporters / journalists in the field, just like the old Tandy Model 100 once was. It would be great for authors, lawyers, or anyone who would like to sit under a tree and write all day without the least concern about using up that precious little 3 hours of battery life, and it would be rugged since there is no delicate hard disk to worry about. In fact, this machine has no moving parts at all except for the keyboard contacts. It would be ideal for travelers and backpackers since it would be lighter than an average notebook and far more rugged. World travellers / backpackers / sailors use their machines mainly to compose and post blog entries and to do email. This machine can do that, much more, and run for 25 hours on a battery charge.

If I were designing this machine I would make the battery pack easily replaced so one could have two packs--one charging while the other is in use. Come home at night, swap battery packs, and you're ready for another day. If this machine could be powered and charged directly from a 12V automobile cigarette lighter it would be fantastic.

And a machine like this can retail for $300. Why doesn't it exist? I don't need this machine to store 8,000 mp3 files, and six episodes of "Lost", and play the latest video games because I don't use it for listening to music or watching video. I have other machines for that. I would use this little machine for practical work: referring to and making notes, and writing. Isn't this what people do all day in school and in meetings? Yes it is! And the machine I describe supports a browser and WiFi so web research can be done and one has access to things like Google docs and so forth when connected to the net.

Such a machine would be simple and straightforward to design, yet year after year I wait for a machine like this to come along and it never does. What's more, I run into applications that other people have, situations that are described to me where this machine would be the perfect solution, so I know there is a market for it. I recently became friends with a well-known columnist at eWeek magazine because his "holy grail" machine is very much like what I describe here, but there's nothing out there in the marketplace. We had hopes for the Palm Foleo but the project was canceled a couple days ago. Just this evening I spoke with a friend who is traveling in Vietnam and this machine would be ideal for him.

Are any of the manufacturers listening? Do they do any market research? Do they realize that not everybody wants a power-sucking super wowee-zowee dual-core turbocharged racing laptop that leaves second-degree burns on their legs if they use it as a laptop? All I want to do is type some text and do an email okay? That's it. A Celeron 433 from 1999 is plenty of compute power for this machine.

I am just astounded that nobody makes a machine like this. It would sell like crazy to the right audience.

NOTE: (Added April 15, 2008) I wrote a follow on blog entry to this post that discusses the new Asus Eee:

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Americans are Getting Shorter

Average height of a population is related to health and quality of diet. This has been known for a long time. In colonial times, Americans were the tallest people in the world. When traveling in Europe, Americans were accustomed to towering over the rest of the crowd. This makes sense because the average American had a healthier lifestyle, healthier environment, and better diet than his European counterpart. But that's all changed over the last 50 years. Americans are becoming shorter (and fatter) and Europeans are becoming taller. The average Dutch male is now 5 cm taller than the average American male and the difference is growing. The difference in women is even greater. The average Dutch woman is 5.9 cm taller than her American counterpart. Despite the fundamental importance of this trend, this gets little or no press coverage in the United States for some reason.

Why is this happening? An article in Social Science Quarterly says "... we can conjecture that there are differences in the diet of U.S. and European children that could affect human growth. For example, U.S. children consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density, and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children."

For the moment, Americans are still doing well on average in terms of lifespan but this may be due to the oceans of drugs we consume to treat illness. It's better not to get sick in the first place so this lead will probably disappear as the current "short and fat generation" ages.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

How Bush Gets Away With It

“If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier,
just so long as I’m the dictator.”
-George W. Bush, December 18, 2000

When observing Bush's actions since 9/11, people wonder how he gets away with blatantly violating laws such as those regarding domestic spying. Have you wondered why Congress does nothing about it, even with democrats in control? Breaking a law is a criminal act and grounds for impeachment, and yet nothing happens, nothing is said. And nothing is ever going to happen either. Bush and his associates will never be prosecuted for any of these crimes. Why? Because the Office of Legal Counsel (probably the most powerful organization in the U.S. that you've never heard of) approved all of Bush's actions. The blessings from the Office of Legal Counsel gave permission for these activities and confers immunity from prosecution on anyone who acts on their recommendations. The Office of Legal Counsel's decisions carry the same weight as a Supreme Court decision and cannot be challenged in any way.

Last night I listened to a great interview. Terry Gross interviewed Charlie Savage, author of In Pursuit of the Imperial President. Savage gives a complete explanation of what has happened in a clear concise manner, including how Bush managed to co-opt this all-powerful Office of Legal Counsel. There's a concrete reason that the president can do what he does and get away with it and there's nothing we can do about it. If you've wondered about this mystery, wonder no more. You can listen to the interview here:

The above link is to NPR's show called Fresh Air, September 5th, 2007. It will be 39 minutes well spent. When you get there, click on the "Listen" button.

Americans Get Half Their Calories From Sugar!

Did you know that today's average American gets half of his or her calories every day from sugar? It's true. The average American today consumes 160 pounds of sugar per year. A hundred years ago, this figure was 10 pounds per year. This is great for the sugar companies but also explains the explosion in obesity.

Americans have become sugar addicts. Besides Coke and soda pop that's loaded with sugar (Coke contains something like 10 teaspoons of sugar per can) read the labels in the fruit juice aisle at the market. Nearly all of them are labeled as "fruit drink" or "fruit cocktail" and are loaded with corn syrup. It's hard to find a bottle that contains just plain fruit juice. Look at the calories on these fruit "juices". It's shocking.

Three years ago I was living in a warm climate and took to drinking lots of "fruit juice". I thought I was doing myself a favor. After all, it said Vitamin C right on the label. But I noticed that I began to gain weight rapidly. I discussed it with a friend and she asked me to do a complete diet inventory, so I did. I discovered that I was consuming 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day, every day, just in "fruit juice". I stopped that cold and switched to water. For the next two days, my vision was not quite right. A lifelong diabetic friend explained that this was normal because I stopped the huge constant sugar intake so suddenly. He explained that it would take a couple days for my pancreas to adjust to the new sugar levels. He was right. Since then I have limited my fruit juice intake to only real juices, not spiked with sugar or corn syrup, and 8 to 10 ounces per day, maximum.

I was a prime example of the statistic I mentioned above. By quitting the "fruit juice" I dropped nearly 20 pounds, back to my normal weight.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Olive Oil that Ain't

I just listened to a piece on NPR about adulterated Olive Oil. This prompted me to do some research and reading.

Condensing it all down, basically, adulteration is not something that happens now and then. It's very common. So common that most of the oil labeled Extra Virgin Olive Oil in your supermarket isn't. It is soybean, or canola, or hazelnut oil with coloring and flavoring added. Some of it is olive oil that is misgraded or diluted with other oils.

The bottom line is that real EVOO is expensive. If the oil is inexpensive then it's very likely fake.

Apparently there is a lot of fraud and little enforcement in the U.S. Operators will set up in a warehouse, mix up and bottle 10 or 20,000 gallons of oil, and disappear, all in a few days, leaving no trace to track them down.

The Italian flags, quaint Italian names, the "Product of Italy", "Produced in Italy" and all that on the label is bogus. And on top of the outright fraudulent olive oils, that aren't olive oil at all, that are mixed up in an abandoned warehouse in South Philly, there are operators who are actually located in Italy, who import olive oils from all over the world in bulk and bottle it in Italy. So it actually was "produced" in Italy but it is not Italian olive oil.

Europe is much more strict about EVOO but even so, Italian growers watch their crops like a hawk, they escort their olives to the pressing mill, they watch their olives pressed and their oil loaded into their trucks and they take it home to bottle it. It never leaves their sight because of potential fraud. They go through that much trouble even in Italy.

All this is really a bummer for me because I like olive oil. For me, it doesn't have to be Italian but it does have to be real and as fresh as possible. The fraud problem explains why some bottles of "olive oil" I've purchased were odd tasting and odd behaving. Unrefrigerated OO tends to go rancid pretty quickly but this stuff doesn't. It sits on the shelf forever and lasts and lasts. Now I know why. It's fake.

For more about the problem:

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Living in the Internet Third-World

My Time-Warner / Road Runner Internet service here is your typical "high-speed" cable connection found in the U.S. -- 6 megabits down and half a megabit up. It's up pretty reliably although Road Runner has some router problems that cause portions of the Internet to be unreachable to me, and I am unreachable to them. Road Runner denies that it's their problem even though their own upstream / backbone provider points the finger at them as well as every routing expert I've spoken with and shown the traceroutes to. But that's another issue. It's the speed I'm talking about. Long ago, 6 megabits seemed fast. And it is fast compared to 110 baud that I used in 1972.

I recently spoke with a friend in Sweden. He has your average Internet connection in Sweden, for which he pays $15 a month. But he gets 100 megabits up and 100 megabits down with no limits! Last month he uploaded nearly 5 terabytes of data. (That's Terabytes, with a "T", 5,000 gigabytes.)

We're living in the technological Third-World here in the United States.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Skype Bashing

It's interesting that so many IT pundits are eager to pounce on Skype's recent outage. I've been a full-time Skype user since October of 2003. My business relies heavily on the telephone and I switched all my business operations to Skype as soon as the SkypeOut and SkypeIn services became available, 2-1/2 years ago or more, and I got rid of landline telephone service. In that time Skype has served me very well, has never missed a message, provides great convenience, especially with the call forwarding function, and has saved me an enormous amount of money.

Skype suffered a "two-day" outage recently. First of all, the outage was not two days, it was 28 hours. I know because I was on top of it the entire time. I suppose that since it was more than 24 hours, it becomes "two days". Two days of outage in four years of flawless operation of a brand new and extremely robust technology that nobody ever tried before is pretty darn good. In 30 years of running businesses I've had a lot more outages of landline telephones than Skype. Furthermore, Skype has been forthcoming about the exact cause of the problem. (A bug in their network allocation algorithm that was revealed when a Microsoft "Patch Tuesday" triggered the rebooting of millions of computers) The problem is fully understood.

In an eWeek commentary, Andrew Garcia makes the point that Skype gives no special consideration to businesses. He says, "[this failure] has conclusively proved there is no separation of services when it comes to business-class versus individual accounts using the Skype service." This is news? How is it relevant? Since when does standard telephone service differentiate between business and non-business service when it comes to restoring service after a failure? Either the lines in your area are up or they're down, either the CO (central office) is up or down. Once that twisted-pair of wires is up on the pole, there's no difference between business and residential. If any special consideration is given, it is given to hospitals, emergency services, and "lifeline service" (residential service to persons with medical problems).

The bottom line is that given the thousands of dollars I have saved so far by using Skype, one 28 hour failure doesn't concern me in the least, especially since the cause is fully understood and fixable.

I Love Winter !


can't wait for winter to get here! By that I mean temperatures at or below freezing. Yes, really I do. So I thought I'd come up with a top-ten list of reasons I like winter. I wondered if it would be difficult to come up with ten things. It wasn't. I came up with ten reasons as quickly as I could scribble a list with a few keywords for each one. Here we go:

1) When it's warm and humid I feel tired and slightly ill. I don't feel motivated to do anything because everything is an effort. My brain runs slowly. As soon as the temperature drops into the low 70's or below, I feel energized and alive, brain and vision are sharp. The colder it gets the more energized I feel. And don't suggest that I haven't tried the "dry heat" of Arizona. Yes I have. I lived in the southern Nevada high desert for seven years, in Guatemala for five years, and Florida for three years. I know all the types of heat and I don't like any of them.

2) I enjoy cooking and eating what I cook. When it's warm or hot I have no appetite and certainly no desire to cook. I get through the day on one sandwich and a hard-boiled egg. It's great for losing weight but I lose one of my favorite recreational activities: cooking. When autumn comes, I find my thoughts again wandering to food, recipes, stews, soups, baking, making bread, yumm!

3) Yes, springtime brings some nice smells of wildflowers and nice smelling trees, but the first thing I notice when winter thaws out is the return of the smells of all the molds and biological processes of nature. Every spring there will be that one day where I step outside and say, "Oh yeah. There's that stink again." Winter air is crisp, clean, and dry. There are no funny smells because there are no molds, spores, no flying insects, no fleas or other vermin, no rotting garbage because everything is frozen dead, dead, dead. I do miss the songbirds singing but there are always crows who are undaunted by the cold and continue to squawk and argue with each other in the winter silence.

4) I work with paper quite a lot and I like to write, and in winter the air is dry and paper feels and acts like paper should and not like a damp dishrag as it does in the summertime. My fountain pens write much nicer in winter than they do in summer when paper is limp and full of humidity. My laser printer is also much happier and feeds paper better in the winter.

5) In winter I enjoy feeling clean after a shower and becoming completely dry afterwards so that clothes slide on smooth as glass. In summer, one steps out of the shower and never becomes completely dry because the humidity prevents complete drying and sweating resumes immediately after showering. Clothing feels sticky and drags on the skin when compared to the smoothness of winter.

6) I live in a college town and on Frat House Row. My street should be renamed Animal House Street. When winter comes, the yelling, screaming, partying, 3 AM lover's quarrels in the middle of the street, and crazy driving stops. Traffic drops way down. Everyone is huddled in their homes, hopefully doing their schoolwork, and I can go take a peaceful walk on the crunching snow in peaceful silence.

7) Nobody likes winter here where I live in West Virginia--nobody. I bring it up all the time with people I meet and everyone I've met here says they hate it with a passion. I did meet one single soul here who said she likes the idea of snow but hates the cold. Fine, then why do I like winter? Because you don't! Yes, I'm a cranky old contrary curmudgeon.

8) My cat is like me and is much happier and active when it's cold. During the summer she is lethargic, uncomfortable, sometimes sitting forlornly with her mouth open and tongue hanging out with a look on her face that says "Make it stop, please!" On those rare summer nights that cool off, she sits jammed up against the window screen, straining to encounter the cooler air.

9) I like to wear clothes, not fancy clothes, just clothes. Sitting wearing nothing but my undershorts is not my idea of comfort but when the temperature goes above 85F with humidity of 50 percent, undershorts is all I can bear to wear.

10) Crawling into a clean cold bed at bedtime and warming it up is one of the finest pleasures known to man.

11) Ice and snow are beautiful things with endless variation in their form and appearance and they evolve from moment to moment, melting, freezing, growing, shrinking, always changing shape. Each day of deep winter I am greeted with a landscape that looks completely different from the day before. The decorative icicles change on a daily basis. Yes, I hate slipping on an icy sidewalk but it's a price I'm willing to pay and another reason I like lots of snowshowers because snow provides good traction and prevents slipping on the ice below.

12) The holidays! There's no need to explain the joy of the foods, decorations, music, spirit, and fun of the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year are the most special times of year and they all come in the WINTER!

Oops, that's twelve. Oh well.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Are You Happy Now?

Here's the latest video of my daughter performing "Are You Happy Now?" by Michelle Branch

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Shooting the Moon

Caucasus Mountains, 05Aug07
Notice the Caucasus Mountains, just east of the terminator, but still in sunlight.

It seems that a lot of people like my lunar photos, taken with a plain Fuji S700/S5700 low-cost camera, and I get a lot of questions about how I do it. So I thought I'd write up a little blog entry here with the details.

1) In order to get maximum resolution from refractive optics (your lens, in other words) you want to operate at the highest F-number you can get. This means closing the lens aperture as far as you can. On my camera f-13.5 is as high as I can go. Your lens might offer f-16, f-22, or even f-32. If so, use the highest F-number you can.

2) The most attractive moon photos can be had when the moon is between a thin crescent and first-quarter or so because you will have nice sharp shadows on the surface of the moon. Everybody likes to shoot the full moon but a full moon has no shadows and looks pretty flat and boring.

3) Because we will use a high F-number, the required exposure time will range from around 1/40th of a second for a full moon up to 1/2 second or longer for a thin crescent moon so a tripod is a requirement.

4) Use the highest resolution your camera can do. Use ASA 100 film speed in order to minimize noise from the CCD. Set jpeg compression to the highest quality and largest image, or shoot raw. If your camera has a "sharpness" setting, set it for maximum sharpness.

5) Use a delayed release on the shutter because touching the camera causes the tripod to vibrate and it takes about a second or two for the vibrations to die out after you take your hands completely OFF the camera. Just because the camera's display does not seem to show vibration does not mean there is none. Vibrations of 2 or 3 pixels amplitude are invisible on the LCD display. I use 2 seconds, gently press the shutter release and then remove my hands completely. I also sit absolutely still. I shoot from a wooden porch usually and if I move at all the camera will vibrate. Remember that you are trying to get every pixel sharp and so the SLIGHTEST vibration will blur the image. If the wind is blowing, forget it. If you have problems with vibration, try hanging a ten pound weight from the center post of the tripod. Many tripods are equipped with hooks for this purpose. This will cut down on vibrations a lot.

Once you are ready, zoom in all the way, focus or set the lens to infinity focus, choose a trial exposure time, and see what you get. If the exposure is too dark or too light, change the shutter speed to compensate. Always leave the lens set to the highest F-number possible.

Too dark is better than too light. You can brighten a dark image fairly well in post-processing (PhotoShop or whatever) but an overexposed blown out image is useless.

Take numerous shots. Some will have vibrations that you did not perceive at the time. Bracket your shutter speeds. You might even bracket the focus if you are not sure of perfect focus. I usually take about 15 to 20 shots and hope that one or two will come out okay.

Lastly, crop the image so the moon dominates the photo and then you might try a bit of image enhancement. Use the "unsharp mask" function (Laplace transform) at very mild settings. Since you have likely cropped a 3,000 by 2,000 image down to 400 by 400, and you are going for fine details, use a small matrix. Many "unsharp mask" functions default to a 50x50 matrix and that's way to big. Try a 4x4 or 5x5 matrix. Play with it and see if it makes it slightly better.

And that's it. Good luck!

Moon 27Aug07 2
Before and after "unsharp mask" enhancement.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bio and Profile:

Hello all. I'm a hardware and software engineer, now running a corporate / legal transcription business in partnership with my daughter. Originally from California, I live in Guatemala and am interested in writing, economics, politics, history, photography, fountain pens, languages, ham radio. I play keyboards (pipe organ, piano). Been doing web design since 1996. These days I enjoy building web based systems around AJAX.

My Stuff

Primary web site is here:

Photos on Flickr:

Maya Paradise Photo Group on Flickr:

My personal blog is here:

My Guatemala News Blog is here:

My YouTube Channel is here:

Hit me up on Twitter here:

I also hang out on Fountain Pen Network as CaptNemo:

My own message board here:

And on the Rio Dulce Chisme forum:

Email me at


I've been designing electronics since childhood and writing software since 1968 and have created many designs and systems in many fields. Some of my fields of expertise are:

Software expertise ranging from tiny 4-bit embedded microprocessor systems to mainframe operating systems.
Analog and digital hardware design.
Ultra-high security access control systems.
Seismology and seismic imaging.
Image processing.
Digital signal processing.
Graphics programming.
Real-time process control, servo systems.
Analog and digital sound/music synthesis.
Game design.
Photogrammetry, cartography.
I hold patents in the fields of networking, seismic/medical imaging, and others.

"And that's all there is to say about that."
--Forrest Gump

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Opening Gambit

Hello Everyone!

This is an experimental blog post in order to get a feel for how this works.

Let's try a small photo with link:
Deadly Nightshade

Okay. It seems to be working. Yay.