archive for March, 2004

The Human Mind

Steven Pinker is teaching a class at Harvard called “The Human Mind” and has placed the class handouts online. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to read there.

Death Count

Not to be morbid or anything, but did you realize how many people will die as you are reading this post? Check out this death rate page. Try leaving it running while you surf the web, and keep in mind that each of those lives deserves respect.

Homework exercise: at 106 deaths per minute, how long does it take to equal the 3000 or so deaths in the world trade center disaster?

Once you’ve digested that, look at the graph on right right side of this Center for Disease Control page showing actual causes of death in the United States for the year 2000. What percentage would you say is preventable?

Greener Cars

A few years ago, California passed a law saying that some percentage of vehicles sold had to produce “zero emissions” by a given year. The law underwent numerous revisions. The original law, while having good intentions, was obviously broken. It’s much better to have 10 percent of the cars be low emission (let’s say half of the emissions of a normal vehicle), than to have 5 percent of the vehicles be zero emission vehicles. The environmental impact is the same either way (the same amount of emissions), but the sociological impact is vastly different by doubling the number of people who think of themselves as driving “green cars”.

From my very brief reading, it looks like the new laws (to go in effect model year 2005 — later this year) are better than the original 1990 laws. They allow for partial credits depending on how clean a car is, and they probably won’t be shut down by the courts. Unfortunately, I don’t think they do enough, not that we should expect laws to fix the problem anyway.

So, what can be done to clean our air, and reduce our dependence on a non-renewable resource? Electric vehicles are nice, but that electricity has to come from somewhere, and today the bulk of it doesn’t come from clean sources like wind and solar. Actually, less than two percent of US electricity is clean. There has been a lot of talk lately about a Hydrogen economy saving us, but guess where that hydrogen will come from. Electricity, that same dirty electricity that would power electric cars. Hydrogen is obtained by splitting it from the oxygen in water by applying an electrical current to the water. While it’s probably true that the dirty sources of electricity production are cleaner than gas guzzling SUVs, it also isn’t a solution.

I’m sure you will be disappointed, but hopefully not surprised to find out that I don’t have a perfect solution; I doubt anybody does. Laws go a long way to encourage the automakers to do the basic research required for greener cars, but they’re too slow to adapt to new technologies. Cultural changes put people in the right mindset to buy greener cars, but they require the population to be educated enough to know that zero emission isn’t. Maybe biofuels are the way to go. At least when they are burned, they only put as much carbon into the atmosphere as was pulled out of it when the fuel was created. Solutions are definitely in the works, but we’re not there yet.

Roomba Returned

We’ve had our Roomba now for almost 2 months, and have been very happy with it. I think every week it has gotten at least two full runs on the bottom floor. I’m always amazed at how much dust lives in our carpet, and Roomba always seems to find more the next week.

Well, sometime last week I noticed that it was acting a little funny. When it should have been going into a spiral pattern, it tended to spin around one wheel, or sometimes around its center. I did some researched, and ran all of the tests that are suggested on the website. I eventually found some documentation on Diagnostic Modes. Going through the new tests, I was able to determine that the sensor in the right wheel was malfunctioning. I guess this isn’t that unusual; Roomba uses an optical sensor, so it’s no surprise that it gets dusty and fuzzy and can’t work after traveling enough down on the dirty floor. I hope they’re able to make newer versions a bit more robust.

Once I figured out what was wrong, and was pretty sure that I couldn’t fix it myself (compressed air didn’t seem to do the trick), I emailed customer support. After them asking me to try a few more things, they told me that I would have to send it back to the factory, but first I would have to call customer service and get some tracking number, and the info on where to send it.

Yesterday morning I called the number and was glad when someone answered the phone right away. The guy that took my call, Freddy if I recall, did a very good job of quickly understanding what I needed, taking my information, and telling me what I needed to do next. By two o’clock yesterday afternoon, I had dropped off my Roomba to be shipped back to Peoria, IL.

Once they get my old one, they’ll send me a brand new one, hopefully one that’s not so prone to being disabled by a little carpet fuzz. If my new one does have similar problems, after the warranty expires, I think I’m going to have to take it apart and fix it myself. Actually, I’m kind of looking forward to opening it up and fiddling with its innards. It’ll probably be a couple weeks before I get the new one, hopefully you won’t have to wait that long for me to post.

I guess that’s it. I can’t say that I’m really surprised that Roomba broke down so quickly. I knew when we bought it that it was new technology, and there would probably be problems, and I’m happy as long as they’re replacing the old ones, or if I can fix it myself. I’m sure they’ll improve in the future, technology always does.

More Banners

I just uploaded 22 more banner images from our Monterey trip. This should mix up the rotation a bit. Enjoy.

10% Myth

Just in case you ever wondered…

Scientific American answers the question: Do we really use only 10 percent of our brains?

Command-Line Options

I’ve been trying to find a list of command-line options for common media players (winamp, windows media player, real player, quicktime). Unfortunately, my search is not going well. I’ve tried all of the standard command-line arguments that usually list the options, and nothing is showing up. Is it possible that they really don’t support command-line options? It’s hard for me to believe, but it might just be true. Sad.


Well, I’ve really slacked of lately, haven’t I? Sorry about that. I guess I just haven’t been fining ad many interesting things lately. I guess I could start dropping in the most interesting Boing Boing post of the day, but I’d rather not. Let’s see… what’s new?

I did finish reading the Alvin Maker series (at least what’s available so far) from my projects list. It was a pretty consistently strong series. All of the books were a relatively quick read, and they didn’t explore any issues as much as I would have liked, but they were entertaining none the less.

Oh, I also found out that Source Forge didn’t like my description of the apejet blog project, or they didn’t like the license that I chose for it. I should see if I can deal with the license issues separately, and then re-submit my project.

One last thing… Jesse just sent me this what robot are you link. It’s pretty fun. I turned out to be Roy Batty from Blade Runner. Enjoy.

Tour of Chernobyl Area

Here’s a really interesting tour of the area around Chernobyl that I found on Boing Boing.

Corn Mo

Looks like They Might Be Giants are coming to town in April and will be playing with Corn Mo. I’ve enjoyed most of the bands that I’ve heard play with TMBG, except for that one guy who yammered on for half an hour about how nobody liked him. I checked out Corn Mo’s sample mp3s, and they sound pretty interesting.

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