Monday, June 30, 2008

June Photos

Maintenance work being done on Martha Cook Hall

The charred remains of Delta Upsilon after the June 2 fire.

Just another Saturday morning at the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market.

Continued build of North Quad, as seen from MLB (Romance Languages)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Credo of those with strong convictions

"Judge those who you think might judge you.
Hold preconceptions that you know have worked.
People are dumb, except for those that aren’t.
Don't restrict civil liberties, except when people are dumb.
Things are never black-and-white, except when they are.
It’s okay to kill people, except when they were not meant to die.
Stereotype all the time.
Remember that I’m the victim here!"

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Why computer system updates are annoying

Yesterday, I learned that I didn't have enough funds in my checking account (poor grad student as I am) to cover a small purchase, something that I knew shouldn't have happened, since I was supposed to be paid the previous week. However, I went online, checked my balance and account activity, and low-and-behold, I was overdrawn. Arse.

So this morning I called university payroll. I spoke to a very nice woman there who politely informed me that I wasn't hired. Hm! "Well..." I told her, "I'm pretty sure that I put in hours, filled in a time-sheet, and handed it in to the appropriate person in my department." However, that attempt was only met with the same polite information that my bi-weekly payments authorization was not in the system, and suggest that I call my department's HR person.

So I call my department's HR person, who is a lovely individual. She informs me that, no, I couldn't be hired yet, as I had not completed the "student employment application" on the new and improved student interface. Shit. The university's upgrading their system, and they can't "remember":
  • that I am eligible to work in the United States
  • that I'm not a felon
  • what my prior non-university employment was
  • whether I have family employed at the university, and
  • that I understand that I cannot profit privately from public research funds.
Well, I had to sign off on all of these things before. For five years. Why is it different now? What part of a W-4 tax form makes it obscure whether I'm eligible to work in the US? What part of the university's own employment form's section on prior felonies makes it unclear that I'm not a felon? Why isn't their database strong enough for it to figure out on its own whether I have family working at the University? (I'm pretty sure that they don't count anything beyond a first cousin.)

All because of four little questions that someone decided weren't important enough to 'port over from the previous databases did I not get my direct deposit, forcing me into negativity (financial and emotional). Why am I not surprised?

What really gets my goat, though, is that I had been working continuously for over one year! Yeah! I know. Apparently, the university's main HR database doesn't know that I'm working presently for it and getting paid. (Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing!) Sheesh!

Of course, I could be kvetching (hey! Firefox's spell-check includes the word 'kvetching'!) about nothing. These sorts of things may well be greater nightmares in other universities, in government, or in the private sector. Of course, not having worked through another system's overhaul, I'm in no place to say, and I'm merely disgruntled about the stupid shift over.

On the plus side, the interface is much cleaner, the graphics are nicer, and there are more pieces of information that can be accessed. (Previously, you might have to drill down through several different menus to find the one you were looking for.)

Therefore, this is the moral: When there's a system overhaul, immediately figure out how it affects you and seek to rectify the situation as soon as possible.

UPDATE 2008/06/25: I talked with the manager of my bank's local branch (where I set up my account). I showed him the university's pay calendar, explained the situation, and showed him the e-mail I received from my department's HR person stating that I can pick up my paycheck from payroll tomorrow. He kindly waived my overdraft fee. YAY!

UPDATE 2008/06/26: I went down to payroll myself to pick up a check they issued off-cycle. Although I had to take a 10-minute bus ride down there, wait 10 minutes for another bus after picking up my check, and ride the bus 10 minutes back to campus before cycling to my bank to make a deposit, it was very nice to spend almost an hour in order to get money in my account.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Assistance to quit smoking in Scotland: a tangential analysis

From today's PhysOrg:
The pilot scheme to be tried in Dundee, north of Edinburgh, will see smokers offered 12.50 pounds (15.8 euros, 24.7 dollars) per week to quit. Health bosses hope that 900 smokers will give up as a result in the next two years.
This program is based on an apparently successful previous program called: Give it up for baby. As of the end of September 2007 thirty-one women were recruited in the program, with a 95% pass rate based on weekly carbon monoxide breath tests. From the December 10, 2007 progress report for the program:
The scheme has paid £1,760 to the women as credits to be claimed against fresh food and groceries at ASDA. The first birth of an infant under the scheme has taken place, with both the mother and father having given up smoking.
No significant operational issues have affected the provision of the scheme. No significant risk issues have been identified.
I've not found more recent results, but it seems that things are going well. However, a basic economic analysis of future cost-savings would be useful. However, I've not found any such analysis in the summary, so I decided to do really basic back-of-the-envelope calculations to see what sort of benefit the "Give it up for baby" scheme might have. First, I had to find out what sort of things the British press reports, viz health risks caused by smoking during pregnancy in the UK.

From The Independent (March 2, 2002):
Pregnant smokers are a further cause for concern, with higher risks of miscarriage, reduced birthweight, and perinatal death. For parents who continue to smoke after birth, there is an increased risk of cot death and the children themselves are more likely to take it up. The highest smoking rates found among expectant mothers are closely related to health inequalities.
Pregnant women who smoke are a key focus of action as smoking cessation services are developed. The Government's latest infant feeding survey figures show a 5 per cent drop in the number of pregnant women smoking since 1995, and pounds 3m has been invested in training and appointing midwives to co-ordinate antenatal and postnatal smoking cessation services, giving specialist advice. A new national NHS helpline for pregnant smokers wishing to quit has also been set up.
Areas of cost savings for the woman include cigarettes at roughly ~£490 (based on a median cigarette usage over a 280-day pregnancy of 7 cigarettes/day, 20 cigarettes/pack, and a cost of £5/pack*), for a low birth-weight baby £50,000 (based on a low value of $100,000 in the United States in 2000 dollars and exchange rate of £1=$2), and funeral costs due to perinatal death £2,048 (based on median British funeral cost) give an estimated (low) cost savings to the mother of £52,538. This doesn't even cover the costs of possible counseling and ancillary costs due to lost time at work, for example. Admittedly, I would imagine that the NHS would cover some (or a lot) of the £50,000 I'm listing as care for a low birth-weight baby, but even if it is covered by a negligible co-pay, the direct costs are still high.

In 1998, the British government released a report stating that smoking costs the NHS £1.4 billion each year. If we assume that the NHS picks up the majority of the bill for the estimated £50,000 listed above, then even for the small sample size of this program (31 women), the NHS saves a possible £1.55 million at the expenditure of only a few thousand pounds. If this was expanded to the rest of Scotland, the NHS may well see large-scale results.

The figure of £1.4 billion provides a scale of how much cost-savings the NHS would see if the Scottish scheme a) worked, and b) was used throughout the country. Already, the UK has mandated a smoking ban in all public buildings throughout the country (including pubs, mind). Of course, after the UK gains the benefits of cost-abatement due to a more healthy society, it will inevitably have to deal with the costs of a society that has lived longer than previously would have - increased costs for senior living...

* The NHS has a nifty little Flash applet on personal costs of cigarettes.

George Carlin is dead

George Carlin is dead at 71 from "heart failure." Unfortunately, due to his freedom-of-speech, and anti-religious bigotry routines against profanity decisions have put him on a hit-list of certain cretins in the "moral leagues" of this country.

Although I could post some of his stand-up here, I'm not going to do so, because any one stand-up routine that I post might be pulled for various reasons (copyright, obscenity, etc.). However, I'll link to YouTube's search results for 'George Carlin'.

The world will be a paler place until the next social commentator steps into the breach. George, you'll be missed, since you never seemed to sink into the intolerant form of vitriol that those who support religio-dogmatism and censored speech.

Friday, June 13, 2008

China #1 in CO2

From PhysOrg:
With an eight percent national increase, China's carbon dioxide emissions contributed the bulk of last year's 3.1 percent global rise in CO2 emissions, according to a statement released on the last day of a United Nations conference on climate change in Bonn, Germany.

"With this, China tops the list of CO2 emitting countries, having about a quarter share in global CO2 emissions (24 percent)," it said.

The United States was second with 21 percent, while the European Union was at 12 percent, India eight percent and Russia six percent, said the statement.

Cement clinker production was a major cause of the emissions, and with an increase of 10 percent in 2007 China now accounted for about 51 percent of global cement production, said the PBL.

"After the earthquake which recently hit the Sichuan province, it may be expected that the rebuilding of houses and roads for over five million people will cause the cement demand to soar even further," it said.

Warmer winter weather and high fuel prices contributed to a two percent drop in CO2 emissions in Europe last year, it added.

But in the US, a cold winter and warm summer contributed to rising carbon emissions from heating and cooling functions. Overall in the US last year, CO2 emissions rose by 1.8 percent.

"Since population size and level of economic development differ considerably between countries, the emissions expressed per person show a largely different ranking," added the agency.

The US topped the list of C02 emissions per person measured in metric tonnes with 19.4, followed by Russia with 11.8, the EU with 8.6, China with 5.1 and India with 1.8.

The figures were compiled from recently published British Petroleum energy data and cement production data for 2007.

In the current global warming talks, the US and other Western nations have balked at making mandatory cuts in greenhouse gases as developing nations like China are not required to slash emissions under the UN climate change framework.
This might not be such a great time to harp on about this (again), but one wonders how this will impact the Olympic games (since much of China's energy production is via coal).

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Thunderf00t, VenomFangX, and false arguments

For those of you not "in the know", Thunderf00t and VenomFangX are both Youtube posters who oppose each other's viewpoint on whether the science of evolution describes the myriad of life we see today or if that myriad was specially created by the Christian God. Based on some videos previously posted here, you might guess which one I agree with.

However, on one of the latest (not the greatest, but rather humorous) rebuttals posted by Thunderf00t (which apparently got pulled sometime between 12:15pm and 1:15pm), I saw this humorous message (complete with mis-spellings) posted by ooglebydoogleby:
ime convinced where do i sign up to have my brain removed and a blomonge inseted with a jelly crusifix internal moulding. venom= the snake in the garden. fang= for another negative god. and the x= the the cross of christianity turned 1/8 at 45 degrees 8x45=360 which added to the five days of satanic festivals that the pagans marked the begining of the new year with = one year, 5 representing the devils dominium over the four spacial direction nth sth east and wst the fifth being time. ooohhh..
"Ooohhh.." indeed. The context within which the statement was written makes it even more funny:

VenomFangX "proves" the existence of God (once again) by showing that God knew the "exact diameter of the moon" in miles, as evidenced in the Gospel of Joshua, chapter 6. His "logic" in the video goes something like this:

6 days of marching around the city of Jericho (360 degrees) = 2160

2160 miles = "the exact diameter of moon" in miles

Based on his convoluted argument, VenomFangX twists logic in a way that only the best Bible Coders do to show that "A proves B because of something I make up based on numbers in the Bible." To that end, the statement by ooglebydoogleby is quite (at least to me) funny.

VenomFangX's argument is - of course - a false one, since it is an argument the begs the question. (i.e., God is omniscient and omnipotent. There is evidence that God knew something before man did. Therefore I can prove God's existence through his omniscience.) However, regardless of the fact that this is a false argument, VenomFangX makes several mistakes.

1. The passage of Joshua 6 is actually:
6 So Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, "Take up the ark of the covenant of the LORD and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it."
There is a mention of seven priests, and no mention of circling the city, nor of the number of times these priests were to circle it. Looking back at Joshua 1-5, though, one sees:
1 Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.

2 Then the LORD said to Joshua, "See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. 3 March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. 4 Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams' horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. 5 When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in."

VenomFangX obviously needs to look at his Bible reference again, since it isn't Joshua 6, but Joshua 3 where the statement of marching around the city six times comes into play.

2. VenomFangX appears to place a lot of emphasis on his Bible Coding on Joshua 3, leading up to the what happens on the seventh day (remember that the number "7" has mystical significance in Judaism and Christianity). On the seventh day, the seven priests are supposed to march around the city seven times. This is significant. This is what the whole thing is leading up to. Not including this would be tantamount to heresy! If VenomFangX took this into account as well - as opposed to doing Bible Code searching - then you get the following:

7 priests (6 days * 360 degrees + 7 * 360 degrees)
= 7 (2160 + 2520)
= 7 (4860)
= 34020

As everyone knows, 34020 - while being a really large number - was the code given to the second generation of the TMS integrated circuit, as well as being the code for an image of City Hall Staton on the NY subway system. This proves God exists, since - in his omniscience - he was able to forsee integrated circuits as well as underground public transportation and centralized metropolitan goverment!

Okay, okay, that's a stretch. Maybe I shouldn't have included the 7 priests in the above equation. If I don't include them, then the resulting number is 4860. Consulting the Oracle at Google, one can find that this is the NIH code for the human gene nucleoside phosphorylase, which:
Encodes "an enzyme which reversibly catalyzes the phosphorolysis of purine nucleosides. The enzyme is trimeric, containing three identical subunits. Mutations which result in nucleoside phosphorylase deficiency result in defective T-cell (cell-mediated) immunity but can also affect B-cell immunity and antibody responses. Neurologic disorders may also be apparent in patients with immune defects. A known polymorphism at aa position 51 that does not affect enzyme activity has been described. A pseudogene has been identified on chromosome 2.
This proves God's existence because only through his omniscience would he have known about the creation of the National Institutes of Health and the funding of the Human Genome Project. Only he - in his eternal wisdom - would have encoded such a message in the form of a Bible dictum with no clue as to the means of mathematically extracting the information that would lead people to understand his true meaning. I see, however, that by hiding the number 4860 within his devising of a scheme by which Joshua could knock down the walls of Jericho, God was seeing a greater picture because he correlates the knocking down of the walls of Jericho with the knocking down of the mystery of the human genome! Wow!

Oh, wait. Maybe not. Maybe I've got the whole mathematical operation wrong. Maybe I'm supposed to add the values together (7 priests + 7 days + 13 times around the city = 27). And everyone knows that 27 is the product of 3 * 9, and when you add 3 + 9, you get 12, the number of Disciples! That is what the story of Jericho was really foretelling - the coming of Jesus Christ!

3. The diameter of the moon is not "exactly" 2160 miles. It's approximately that amount at the moon's equator. Between the moon's poles, the diameter is approximately 2157 miles. The average diameter of the moon is approximately 2159 miles. I'm sure that if one looked at the infinite number of different diameters one could draw through the moon, one might find something that was "exactly" 2160.0 miles. If God was omniscient and omnipotent, then wouldn't he have created a moon that was an exact sphere of 2160 miles? (Or is polar flattening and meteor impacts the work of the devil?)

4. The "mile" was not fully standardized until 1959! Below are some conversions of the equitorial lunar diameter into different miles (conversions done using, with the value of 3476.28 km):
  • 2497.32 Spanish miles
  • 2287.03 Ancient Roman miles
  • 2160.52 Ancient British miles
  • 2160.05 US survey miles
  • 1916.36 Scottish miles
  • 1875.84 UK nautical miles
  • 1877.04 International nautical miles
  • 1783.62 French miles
  • 1697.40 Irish miles
  • 1665.44 Portuguese miles
  • 463.50 Danish miles
  • 325.28 Ancient Swedish miles
People, this is one of the reasons why much of the world uses kilometers, and not miles. The fact that the moon is approximately 2160 US miles does little to show God's existence. It would have been much more conclusive if there was a Hebrew unit of length that somehow linked closely with the diameter of the moon - in this case. However, Hebrew units of length were not standardized. Therefore, a measurement in ells would be different for each person making that measurement, to such a degree that the "diameter-of-the-moon" argument that VenomFangX makes above would be covered within that really large spread of human-to-human error.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sensible Units

Ever want to know how to convert between different types of units? Well, one can look up unit conversions on a table (so old school), or online at Online Conversion for a very extensive selection of conversion options.

For example: 
1 foot = 0.16666 fathom = 0.3048 meter.

Of course, there are some things that you need to convert that don't have constant conversion rates, such as currency. If you want to convert US Dollars into Canadian Dollars (or Australian Dollars or any other type of dollar), what would be a fair conversion rate? Well, a great online tool for this kind of unit conversion is (which even allows you to look at historic currency conversion rates - limited to 20 years of data - and a whole bunch of handy currency conversion tools besides).

For example:
 USD 1 = CAD 1.0050905404 on June 3, 2008
USD 1 = CAD 1.4530000000 on June 3, 1998

Of course, with the wonders of the internets, I find "SensibleUnits" - a place where you can convert standard units to "sensible" units.

For example: 
1 foot = 6.0 AA batteries end-to-end = 30 stacked CD cases

UPDATE (2010-03-29): The "SensibleUnits" website is no longer functional. Kinda sad, since I was just wondering how many Great Walls of China long the Mississippi River is.