Friday, August 20, 2010

Dropping Anchors

Many on the right are currently pushing two agendas that contradict one another.  How do I know this?  I read, and one of my closest friends is the smartest man in the universe.

Agenda #1: Re-jigger the 14th Amendment so that people who are born in this country do not automatically become citizens, if their parents are not already citizens.  The idea is that illegal immigrants are crossing the border to drop so-called "anchor babies" who, as citizens, can enable their parents to stay in the U.S.  Leaving aside the notion that it's really not at all that simple, we can examine in the context of another agenda item...

Agenda #2: Social Security is insolvent, and the only way to save it is to ___________.  Some fill the blank with extending the retirement age, some with privatization, some with means testing, etc...

TSMITU* pointed out to me that the problem with Social Security is not, as many claim, that the population is aging.  It is, but the system is one where young people support old people with their current contributions.  So the real problem is that the demographics of our country are shifting.  In the 40's, there were 8 people in the workforce for every person in retirement.  This balance has been shifting steadily over the decades since, and we are rapidly approaching a ratio of 2 people working for every retiree.  In other words, the problem is not too many old people, it is too many old people for the number of young ones.

Illegal immigrants tend to be on the young side.  Elderly people don't cross the border in the back of Coyote trucks, and older (let's say it) Mexican citizens tend to be better-established in their own country, and have less reason to seek work in the states.  Still, the average age of an un-documented worker is 39, which, statistically means that they shift our national average age by only 4 months in the young direction (Source: Center for Immigration Studies) .  Their babies, of course are another matter.

Whatever your view on immigration is, whether you want undocumented workers in this country or not, if you want to save Social Security you want their babies, and you want them to be citizens paying into the system.

Thank you F.T.


*The aforementioned Smartest Man in The Universe, one of my oldest and dearest friends, Dr. Frank Tamburine.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost, and Won

I've been reflecting on the end of Lost, and I thought I'd share some of my thoughts.

First of all, I think the ending was both a success and a failure, depending on what you wanted from the show, and what you thought it was.

As science fiction, it was a failure. We never find out the mechanics of the smoke monster, the light, the electromagnetic "properties" of the island, etc... Why Tunisia? What caused the time travel? What was going on with Faraday's rocket? If one was looking for rational explanations of these phenomenon, one would not find them. Personally, I came to realize that the show was not science fiction at least a season ago, maybe even earlier than that. I'm okay with that... I don't know why the One Ring makes you invisible, and I don't care. It's fantasy, and fantasy can be done well.

As character drama, one could argue that it was a success. Jack comes to a resolution with his need to make things right ("fix" them) and he has his denouement with his father. Sawyer finds his way to justice and redemption, and reunites with Juliette (having already resolved his need for family by joining the Dharma Initiative and playing house with her). Sun and Jin get to have the baby together, Kate gets to save a mother (not her own, but Claire), and so forth. Hurley gets to help, Ben gets to serve, all that. Fans who were caught up in these aspects of the story are well satisfied, and so, I believe, are the writers who have long said that they wanted to solve the mysteries that the characters cared about more than the ones the fans may care about. Fair enough. But there is a third aspect, which is where the ending falls short for me.

It is the big-picture narrative, the critical motivations that drive the plot overall. 
  • For example: What does Charles Widmore want? What would be a "win" for him? Why did he send Martin Keamy and the mercenaries? To kill Ben? To capture Ben? To kill everyone but Ben? Does he want to destroy the island, save the island, control the island, or... what? The Mother says that men want more of the light, but is that what Widmore is, simply the greed of men? Why does he bring Desmond back to the island; Desmond being the only one who can pull the magic stopper and... destroy the island? Save the Island? Why does he fake the crashed underwater plane with all the dead bodies? I don't know, and I wanted to know.
  • For example: What was the Dharma Initiative doing, and why? I know they were doing "research", but into what, and in what way? Why have people sit and punch numbers into a console every 108 minutes? Was it "faith", that is, they wanted to see if people would do it? That would explain the notebooks that go nowhere. But no, it turns out that something really bad does happen when you don't push the button, so is it "science"? If so, why have people type the numbers in like that? Seems pretty dangerous. You have a computer system, why not just automate the whole thing? Why the fake quarantine? What's the thing about the babies? Why these particular stations? Why do the "Dharma drops" keep coming after the employees are all killed and "the initiative was deemed a failure?" Who is sending them? Why?
  • For example: What is Eloise Hawking trying to do? She knows that she killed her own son accidentally in the past, which must be her greatest tragedy... so she makes sure he becomes a physicist, makes sure the oceanic six go back to the island... to make sure it happens? Why? What's her goal? She seems exceedingly determined, but I'm not clear what she's determined to do.
 The ending is lacking, for me, because it fails to address the key motivations and actions that constitute most of what actually happens in the narrative. We never really know why the man in black wants off the island. We're told that "everyone will die" if he succeeds, but why is that? Is it even true? I have no idea.

I think the writers realized at some point that they had written themselves into an impossible situation. They determined, I think in season 5 if not earlier, that they needed to get the audience to "let go" and "move on" when the show was over, and that this final season was essentially a 12-step program to get us weaned off the show. Unfortunately, this ends up in an emotionally-manipulative ending that is satisfying only to those who wanted that kind of thing; the lovers reunited, all that.

For me, it was disappointing. I still really enjoyed the show, and I'm glad I watched it. But I'm not sure I'm strongly motivated to watch it again, now that I know that so many of my questions will be essentially abandoned as unimportant, and that the climax of the drama will be totally about love, children, and the inevitability of death. Interesting topics, but not the show I thought I was watching.

So, a little bummed here.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Purpose of Terrorism

Why do terrorist organizations target innocent people with their violence?  What do they hope to achieve by doing this?  This is a critical question because we know that people do things that they believe produce a benefit for themselves, even if that benefit is short-sighted or misinformed.  If the terrorists believe they are achieving what they intend, they will continue to attack.

The actual suicide bomber who detonates himself in a crowd of people likely has motivations that are too complex and strange for anyone not of that mind to truly understand, but it is not the bomber I am considering here, it is the people who planned the attack, recruited the bomber, and made the bomb.

Al Qaeda did not kill 3,000 Americans in the World Trade Center out of any expectation that they could significantly impact U.S. population, obviously.  They did not do this to gain territory, capture resources, or to in any way materially effect their lot in life.  They did this to effect behavior, to make people around the world change what they are doing, and thus to prove to themselves and others that they can.

I suspect the nature of this change is less important to them than the existence of the change, any change, that they can foment through their violence.  I think it's no accident that terrorism grows in parts of the world that are relatively powerless to actually effect the rest of the world.  They feel powerless because they are, and when they see an event like the recent scare in midtown Manhattan, even though it was a completely failed attack in every sense of the word (nobody got hurt, the attacker was arrested quickly, and he spilled his guts immediately to the authorities), dominating the airwaves and capturing the attention of legislators in the halls of real political power, they feel satisfied.  And encouraged to do more.

I'm sure there are other motivations.  Revenge for predator attacks, religious fervor, internal power struggled within these organizations, etc...  But it seems to me the major goal of any terrorist attack is to show the world that these powerless people can force others to change what they are doing, in any way.  They make us endure invasive body scans, give up our mouthwash and nail clippers, and wait in long lines.  They force powerful governments to pass new laws, change policies, and withdraw (or send) troops.

It's understandable that our social and political leaders want to respond (or at least appear to respond) to terrorist attacks by  making new rules, instituting restrictions, etc... but this will simply not have any effect. It will not make us any safer:  the terrorists will do the unexpected, as they always have, and in showing a response they give the terrorists exactly what they want.  We won't see more planes flown into buildings... the next significant attack will be something we are not talking about right now.  As a casual observer, I can think of a dozen ways to kill a lot of people quickly.  I am sure the people who are focusing their entire attention to this question can as well.

Imagine a bomb going off in a Miami shopping center, killing hundreds, and for some reason nobody anywhere said anything about it.  No news stories, no congressional investigation, nobody talking about it over the water-cooler the next day.  The terrorist would feel that they had failed, because they would have.  Dead bodies get them nothing, getting attention and altering behavior is the entire point of such an attack.

That will never happen, of course.  It's unreasonable to suggest that it could.  But, I say every time we mitigate our response to these attacks in any way, we're moving in the right direction.  Let's ignore them as much as we can, and perhaps they will engage in this behavior less and less until, perhaps, one day they will realize these attacks are not an effective way to prove their existence to the world.

The popular wisdom about dealing with terrorists seems to be split between two camps: those who want to punish them, and those who want to remove their motivation.  The former send troops, the latter say "why do they hate us?" and seek to fix whatever they think is the cause.  Sending troops plays into their hands, but so does "reaching out". 

Living our lives normally and ignoring them entirely would be the only defeat for them.  If only.

Friday, April 2, 2010

My Interview with Scott Roeder...

...will never happen, of course. But, if I had a chance to cross-examine the man who shot George Tiller to death in his church, I know what I'd ask. And, given his willingness to speak at length on his views and ethics, I think I can guess what his responses might reasonably be.

Bain: My Roeder, you admit that you killed Dr. Tiller by shooting him in broad daylight, and in a public place, his church. Is this true?

Roeder: Yes. He was guilty of murdering innocent children, and deserved death.

Bain: Do other people, similarly, deserve to die?

Roeder: Yes.

Bain: Given that you have not killed everyone who deserves to die, I have to assume you had some specific goal in mind when you killed Dr. Tiller. Why did you decide to shoot him to death? What did you believe this would accomplish?

Roeder: It was the only way to stop him from ripping infants limb from limb. That's what he did, you know. So-called partial-term abortion is basically taking a viable baby and cutting it into pieces. It's pure murder, and by killing him I stopped him from doing it anymore.

Bain: I'll agree that a dead person cannot do anything, so you did indeed prevent him from taking any actions whatsoever from this point forward, including performing abortions. But, could you not have accomplished the same thing by kidnapping him and imprisoning him in some dungeon?

Roeder: I don't have the resources to do that. Only the government can put someone in jail for life, and they refused to do their job. It was left to people like me to deal with this murderer.

Bain: Could you not simply have crippled his hands, or even removed them? He could no longer perform abortions if you did that, but he'd be alive.

Roeder: He got what he deserved. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the Bible teaches us. He killed, and so he deserved to be killed.

Bain: So, preventing him from performing abortions was not your only motivation. You were also seeking justice for the abortions he had already performed.

Roeder: Yes. Again, dispensing justice is the government's job, but since they refused to do their job, it was left to those who do God's will to punish the wicked.

Bain: So, to summarize, you killed Dr. Tiller to punish him for his past acts aborting the unborn, and to prevent him from doing so in the future.

Roeder: Yes, that's right.

Bain: Then why do it in public? You could have kidnapped him, or confronted him in his home, and killed him just as easily. Also, you might have been able to escape capture and reamined free to deal with some of those others who equally deserve, in your view, to die. Why did you kill Dr. Tiller in a public place?

Roeder: People need to know what happens when you ignore God's law, and when you victimize the innocent. I was willing to give up my own life for this, to make sure that the public sees the harvest of such sin. If you kill the innocent, you yourself will be killed. If I did this in private it would have been far less visible.

Bain: You feel that this will deter others from performing these abortions?

Roeder: It already has. The planned parenthood-types are already complaining that women are having trouble getting access to what they obscenely call "reproductive health". Most doctors won't do abortions, especially in the heartland of this country. Hopefully there will everntually be none at all.

Bain: So, in truth you had three motivations in killing Dr. Tiller. To punish him for past acts, to prevent future abortions, and to deter others from performing abortions as well. Correct?

Roeder: Yes. All three things are important.

Bain: Which is the largest issue, in your view?

Roeder: The last one. Stopping one abortionist murderer is important, but if the example I set, that we will kill you if you kill innocent children, if that stops large numbers of other doctors from doing the same then the good I will have done is much larger.

Bain: By killing doctor Tiller, you put the fear of death into others who might otherwise support abortion rights in this country?

Roeder: I certainly hope so.

Bain: In what way, Mr. Roeder, does this not constitute terrorism?

I don't know what Roeder would say about this. Maybe he would say terrorists kill innocent people to make their points... but I'd point out that terrorists do not consider the people they kill to be innocent any more than Roeder would consider the fact that Dr. Tiller's acts were lawful (they were) makes him innocent.

Terrorists always feel that they are doing the right, moral thing. Whether they quote the Quoran, the Bible, whatever, they feel justified by moral ascendence to commit acts that take the lives of others.

"I think I know what's right" is in the mind of every truly dangerous person; people who kill their spouses for infidelity believe that this punishment fits the crime. People that kill for money obviously feel their gain is more important than the loss of life on their victim's part.

I know. I'm right. My view is more important. These attitudes are at the center of most represensible behavior. You may feel abortion is okay, or wrong, or murder, but a firm belief that you are right and others are wrong, to a moral certainty, and your willingness to act based on the certainty, is what makes for a terrorist.

Let's question ourselves, practice humility, and work to persuade.

Why don't the Roeders of the world work to repeal the laws they hate, work to register voters who believe as they do, do the hard work of systemic change? The left recently got a black man with the middle name "Hussein" elected president, mostly by creative use of the internet to organize and findraise.  No easy task, but they did it.

It's a lot easier to pull a trigger, I guess.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Health Care Insurance and the Profit Motive

Rachel Maddow said, on her show a few nights ago (Feb 23-ish), that the real problem at the core of our health care crisis is that the system is set up in a way that pretty much ensures the problem will exist.

The progressives on the hill, and in the media/blogshpere, have basically demonized the health insurance industry and for seemingly good reason.  Insurers keep raising their rates, reducing the procedures and drugs they will pay for, and dropping people entirely when they get sick (and therefore expensive).  Each year we hear of obscenely high profits for these companies and the huge bonuses they pay themselves, and it is infuriating... especially to those who are sick, alone, hopeless, and afraid.

Rachel, a progressive if there ever was one, pointed out that we cannot blame a for-profit corporation for trying to maxmize its profits.  As a health-insurance provider of course they will prefer to keep rates as high as the market will bear, and to insure the healthiest (cheapest) people possible.  Maximize income, minimize expenses.  That's basic business.

Complaining about health insurance profits and cost-cutting measures reminds me of those people who insist on bringing wild animals into their homes as "pets", and then cry foul when one of them turns on a family member.  I grew up in rural Northern California where my father was the local fish and game warden.  It was (and is) illegal to keep deer as pets, but people do it, usually because they find an abandonned fawn.  Barely a year would go by before we'd hear another story of how the "cute fawn" that had grown into the family pet doe had, for no reason anyone could explain, attacked and killed one of the children.  A very tragic thing but let's face it: if you bring a wild animal into your home, you are foolish to expect it not to follow its own nature.

For-profit corporations are considered citizens in this country; they have rights, they pay taxes, etc... but they are not people.  They are collectives, and the people hired to run them have a clear and unequivocal fiduciary responsibilty to maximize profits and thus benefit their stockholders.  Those who do not are quickly gotten rid of.  If you have a 401K or a mutual fund, I guarantee the companies you own stock in are corporations you expect to generate a profit, and would vote the current leadership out of power if your stock value is consistently decreased.

It is, therefore, natural selection at work.  The corporate big-wigs who have remained in power are those who have generated maximum profits, and are therefore still in the job.  The "nice guys" who tried to look out for others failed to generate such profits, and thus are gone.

This can work.  An automobile company can only attract buyers if its cars are better and cheaper than the competition.  This pressure gets us, generally-speaking, better and cheaper cars.  Same for electronics, fast-food, tanning salons, etc...

The problem is that health care is different.  You do not control when you need it (you can decide not to replace your car this year; you canot decide not to have a health issue).  Also, the incentive for a car company is to sell you a car which they hope you will use (and wear out, and thus need another one).  The incentive for the health insurance industry is to sell you an insurance policy that they hope you will never use.

Cars, DVD players, hot tubs, vacations, tie-die neckties, etc... are nice things to have, but if we are not satisfied by the quality and the price we are offered we can elect to forego them.  You need health care and, given how expensive it is, you need insurance unless you are very wealthy.  If you don't like the price and the quality of what you are offered by the health insurance industry you have to buy it anyway.

  • The incentive of a car company is to figure out how to make a car you will find desireable at a price you will accept.
  • The incentive of a health insurance company is to sell you the most expensive policy, and then do the least for you.
This is nobody's evil intent here, it is inherent in the system. So... what do we do about it?  The only way to fix this is to change the system, and thus change the incentives and what they lead reasonable people within the system toward doing.

One way would be to remove the profit motive entirely (not from the health care providers, but from those that pay, the insurers).  "Single Payer" is often mistaken for socialized medicine, but it is not; it is eliminating for-profit health insurance, while maintaining a for-profit health care industry.  Replacing them both with government programs would be a "takeover" by the government, and nobody I know is seriously suggesting this.  Single payer is not on the table now, unfortunately, though it should have been... had it been explained properly, I think people would have supported it.

Think of it this way:  I think the proper job of the government is to do those things which we cannot reasonably do for ourselves, but must do collectively (I think it was Thomas Jefferson that said that originally).  National defense, protecting the environment, international treaties, things like that.  If we agree that most people cannot pay for their own health care when things get really bad, then this seems like such a thing.  We all pool some of our tax money, and when one of us gets seriously sick then this person draws on the fund.  It is, of course, what insurance is based upon... but a public fund would not be permitted to make a profit.  In fact, the accountability here would require managers to keep down costs while maximizing access to and the quality of care, or be replaced.  Pretty much the opposite of what we have now.

The other way, we are told, is to let market forces pressure the for-profit health insurers to lower rates and improve coverage.  Unfortunately this requires competition, and given that health insurance companies are exempted from anti-trust laws (believe it or not... they, and major league baseball are the only ones), then they can collude with each other so as not to compete.  They carve up the country into non-competitve business zones, and then charge whatever they want.  Of course they do, because they can, and this makes them more money (which is, again, what they are supposed to do)...

The proposed "public option" in health care reform is really just a way to re-insert competition into the system by giving people a government-run option to turn to if the for-profit industry refuses to act competitvely... but that looks to be circling the drain.  Thank the astro-turfing teabaggers for that one.  Of course, they were funded by the for-profit insurance industry, no suprise.

I am personally in favor of single payer, because I think health care is like clean water, something that we all need and that should not be a privilege.  That said, I think the conversation should be about how the system incentivizes the people who run it, and how we can create incentives that lead to the health care system we want.

What we have now will not do it.  We've invited a wild animal into our homes and are expecting it to act like a tame one.  This is fundamentaly foolish.  We must either increase the competition in the health care insurance business, in such a way that lowering our rates and improving the coverage makes them more money, or we need to eliminate the profit motive entirely.

What is being proposed now is "regulation".  It is probably the worst way to go; the only thing worse would be to do nothing at all.  Regulation depends on the wisdom of regulators to make rules that will force these for-profit corporations to forego profits... like trying to tame that wild deer by rapping its nose when it flashes its hooves.  This will be a constant struggle and will fail at times.  Given the inherent corruptability of regulators and the enormous sums of money involved in a large country, I don't see this as realistic... but again, better than nothing.

What I hope is that this is a step along the way toward real reform, but we'll see.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Heat, Part 2.

We need heat.

Heat makes us warm, produces energy and, oh by the way we make our food using energy and heat (trust me). If we can get ourselves a nice, constant, renewable, clean source of heat then the problems are all gone, and we can all just sing and dance ourselves into a stupor.

Really, if we didn't need oil... would we be in the middle east at all? Of course not. Its all sand, it's really hot, and figs are disgusting. It seems to me our quest for heat via oil has led to an awful lot of the horrors of the past, and present.  Like Iraq...

So, I left off last time with a question... what if there was a source of heat that was nearby, did not require consuming fuel, produced no waste, and would never end?

There is. Right here on earth. It's the earth.

The earth is actually quite hot. We don't think so, because we live on a very thin crust of skin that is quiet livable, but just under that crust the earth is really one big ball of hot. Every once it a while it reminds us of this by burning our faces off with a geyser or destroying the occasional Pompeii with a volcano, but most of the time we forget that this planet is smokin' hot inside.

This is not a new idea, of course. It's called geothermal energy and they've been using it in places like Iceland for a long time. Iceland, I guess, has a thinner crust. Lucky them. At least we don't have to eat Puffins.

But why are we not, like, totally focused on figuring out how to get and use geothermal heat? Dig holes down into the hot stuff, transfer the heat up to the surface, boil a liquid, and spin a turbine? No fuel, no waste, dig the hole wherever you want (maybe some places are easier, but the magma is everywhere).  We're talking steam technology, here, not magnetic bottles and cold fusion.

Okay, I don't know anything about this... but the experts can bring it on. It's farther down that you think, Scott. It's really hard to deal with those pressures, and transferring the heat is very tricky, Scott. We probably will need a whole new thermocouple technology, Scott. It'll cost way more than you think. It's really, really, really hard. You're an idiot, shut up, Scott.

I don't care. Really, I don't care. Whatever it takes to make it work, once it does we have free energy forever. Amortize any cost, any effort over "forever" and it's worth it.

Besides, do you mean to tell me that we split the atom in the 40's, flew to the friggin moon in the 60's, created plasma in the 90's, but here in the 21st century it's too hard to dig a really deep hole? I don't buy it. I think this is a failure of imagination.

Really, think about it. Let's say it takes some Manhattan-Project-Multiplied-By-The-Moon-Program type effort to do this... but once you do, the energy problem is solved. We can make all the electricity we want, forever (or as long as the Earth is hot inside, heh). Cars can run on it, trains can, we can festoon ourselves with pants made out of flat screen TV’s or whatever... and no pollution, no fighting over fuel sources. Nothing. Done.  (Okay, the earth's heat does pollute now and again, but even Al Gore can't blame humans for volcanos, and we get them anyway).

Ah, but the big bad corporations won't allow it, you say. They want to hold us by the short and curlies and make us buy their oil, rubbing their hands and cackling like Montgomery Burns, all that.

But... I thought we decided it was way hard, way expensive, to build a geothermal plant, right? Gonna take an Exxon-Mobile, or General Electric, or Mondo Corpromonstro corporation with deep, evil pockets to build it, right? Then, once they do, they are in the "sell electricity to all the suckers while paying for no fuel and no pollution" business. Who does not want to be in that business? Once you get it going, to get to own the richest corporation in the history of everything. Yeah, they'd hate that.

I understand why solar has failed.  They fear that we'll all put cheap plastic waffles on the tops of our houses, get off the grid, put them out of business and all turn into folk singers.  Fine.  I don't think we're about to build our own geothermal wells anytime soon.  The big corps get to keep control, just as they always have.

Sincerely, someone explain to me why this is not the answer, and please do so without pointing out how difficult it would be. We do difficult and expensive things all the time. I'll bet with just the cost of *one* of the countless wars we've fought and are fighting over oil, we could be lousy with GT plants. Someone tell me no, and why.

Heat, Part 1.

There has been a lot of arguing going on lately about whether or not we are messing up the climate by dumping greenhouse gasses into it. The argument goes sort of like this:
1: The climate is changing because of our actions, and we'd better do something about it.
2: No, the climate is changing because it always changes, always has. We cannot influence something as major as the weather.
1: But we are! Ice caps are melting, glaciers are receding, the ocean level is rising, the whole planet is warming in some places and cooling in others. We're shifting the balance, and it could be catastrophic.
2: Our data are too recent to know that, the sea level is not rising, and caps and glaciers are always cyclic. This is bad science done by bad scientists.
1: Do you really want to risk that? Ever since we've been burning fossil fuels the data have changed. Whole landscapes are changing. The pine beetles are wearing earmuffs. It's bad.

...and so on. Al Gore says this, Glenn Beck says that. I don't know. I don't think it's really the right question.

(Okay, maybe it is. Maybe we on the verge of a global cataclysm, and pretty soon the only people left will be John Cusack and Jake Gyllenhaal. If so, it probably does not matter what I write into my blog and whether you continue reading it, so let's assume the opposite)

So, here's the real question. What do we need?

We need food (so we don't starve), warmth (so we don't freeze in the winter), and energy (so we can run our machines that make for a civilization).

Food we'll leave aside for the moment.

Warmth is, well, warmth, but energy is also, when all is said and done, a matter of heat.

You move your car by expanding gasses that push pistons... heat. Electricity is generated by spinning turbines, which are spun mechanically. Heat. "But wait!" I hear you cry, "What about hydroelectric power, and wind turbines! Water and air don't seem so hot to me..."

True, but:

Hydroelectric power works because the water is pulled down by gravity. How did it get "up" in the first place? The sun evaporated it from the ocean, turned it into water vapor which cooled over the mountains and rained. It was heat that put the water up there, and without heat, you have no hydroelectric plants.

And the wind? The wind is moving air. Why does it move? Heat. The sun heats the air in one place, which rises, and air from other places rushes in to fill the void. The "rushing in" is the wind that moves our big pretty white propellers. No heat, no wind.

Nuclear power is heat. Fossil fuels are heat. The sun is heat. Heat is what we need.

(There may be a wonk out there or two who will point out that there is a non-heat alternative... tidal energy, caused by the moon's gravity, which can be used to turn propellers. Gravity is not heat... I guess not, I don't really understand gravity, but if anyone has a way of powering our civilization from the moon's gravity, I am willing to listen)

So, the real question, if what we need is heat how do we get it?

The answers fall into two categories: Use heat that is already there, or make it.

The sun is heat that is already there, and it does produce a lot of our energy. Heck, you could say that fossil fuels have their origin in plant matter that was made through photosynthesis, and thus all energy is solar, but that's probably a bit too arcane. The sun shines its heat upon us, costs us nothing, and produces no waste.

The problem with the sun is two-fold. First, the sun is really far away (93 million miles, on average), and therefore a lot of its heat is lost along the way. Also, half the time we are facing the other way 'round, so, you know, there's night to deal with. Maybe we could make it work anyway. I dunno. People argue over this one.

The other way to get heat it to make it, and here again we have two basic choices: Nuclear and Chemical energy.

Nuclear, today, is fission. Unfortunately it requires fuels that are dangerous and tend to get turned by self-important crazy-ass dictators into bombs, and it produces really nasty waste. What do we do with the waste? I guess we're going to put it all into a hollowed-out mountain in Nevada or something. Is that bad? Not for me, I live in Washington state. But, frankly, I'd like to think we can come up with something better than "stick it in a hollowed out mountain in a fairly ugly state". Also, sometimes the reactors melt down and kill many people at once.

Fusion... I don't know. Maybe, we'll see.  Sounds nice.

What's left is chemical energy, which basically means burning stuff.

The problem with burning stuff is that when you burn the stuff you don't have it anymore, and then you have burnt stuff to deal with.

Coal, gas, oil, these things will eventually run out. I know, I know, we have "vast reserves" of coal, and natural gas is everywhere, and as far as oil, well, drill baby drill!

"Vast" is not "infinite". We will run out, and long before we do these things will become scarce. When there is scarcity, people really tend to misbehave, invade each others' countries, blow themselves up, all manner of horrors. Scarcity is something we'd do best to avoid.

Also, we end up with burnt stuff... carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, I dunno, Baddy Maloxide, and we have to put it somewhere. Apparently it won't fit in a hollowed-out mountain, so we pump it into the air.

Is that a bad idea? Some say yes, it's going to destroy everything and some say no, Mother Nature can handle it. I really don't know if we can just poop into the air we breathe and everything will be fine, or if the whole of mankind will end up as John and Jake on Brokeback Mountain. It just seems that, if we could avoid it, we should.

So, it would seem we're screwed. The sun is too far away and is gone half the day, nuclear is a political mess and a dangerous source of radioactive yuck, and fossil fuels are finite, and messy, and might just destroy the plant though well, probably not, we're not sure, could be maybe.


What if there was a source of heat which, like the sun, consumed no fuel (okay, the sun is consuming fuel, but come on) and produced no waste but, unlike the sun, was close by and always available? What if it was safe, here, constant, would never (essentially) run out, and clean? We'd want that, right? Seems like the best of all worlds.

There is. Stay tuned. :)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Inbox Zero

For about the past year, I've been dealing with my incoming stream of email in a new way (at least for me).  I heard Andy Hunt ("The Pragmatic Programmer") talk about this at the IEEE conference last year, and I decided to try it.  It's called "inbox zero".

The idea is very simple.  Think about your postal mailbox at home... how many of you would go to the mailbox, take the contents out, look at them, open some of them, and put most of them back in again?  Not many, I would submit.  And yet, people do this same thing all the time with the "inbox" of their email system.

Andy asked how many people had over 100 emails in their inbox.  Just about every hand in the (rather large) room went up.  Then he said how about 200, 500, 1000... it was sobering how many people just left tons of email in their inbox.

Inbox zero basically says this:  my inbox is empty.  When I check it, I empty it.

The specific process to accomplish this is (and should be) different for different people, but here is mine.  Whan I open an email, I then do one of the following things to it:

1. Delete it (spam, or just "okay, see you then" messages).
2. Act on it, and delete it ("send me the file", or "call me" messages).
3. Foward it to someone else (delegate) and delete it.
4. Put it in my "to followup" folder for later action (big, important things).
5. Archive it (I use folders in Outlook or labels in Gmail).

What I *never* do is close it and leave it in the inbox.  Yeah, I do mean never.  The only email that will ever be in my inbox is email that I have not yet opened, and that's because I have not checked the inbox since it arrived.  When I check my inbox, I open every email and do one of those 5 things with it.

What is the point of this?

It's hard to explain, really.  Part of the value is stress reduction.  I think the idea of this big pile of email sitting there all the time creates a general feeling of "wow, I have a lot to do" and being overwhelmed by the notion of ever getting it all done.

Part of it is efficiency.  I deal with each email once, or if it's something substantive (placed into the followup folder) then I treat that as special.  Jokes I want to save, interesting links, stuff I want to prove later, I file away.  Gmail labels are better for this because a message can have more than one label (with Outlook folders, you have to decide "the" folder it belongs in).

But there's more to it than this.  Honestly, this has had a very positive effect on the way I think.  I'm more focused, more purposive, and I seem to remember things better.  Perhaps a cognitive scientest could explain the details, but my experience is that this yields far more than I ever expected, especially from such a simple thing.

Give it a try!  (BTW, if you're worried about "step one", just take your existing inbox and move everything into "old inbox", and start fresh.  That way you won't lose anything, and 99% of that "old inbox" folder is junk anyway).