Friday, October 31, 2008

The importance of photos in sustainability

Like in many areas, photography is an important addition to telling the big stories of the world, especially if those stories are too far away or too big to capture in people's minds with words alone. Therefore, just like the importance of war photographers in all armed conflicts going back to the creation of a camera that can capture a candid picture, photography presents the reader with a gritty vision of today.

I have been (tangentially) following the Prix Pictet, and they have found a winner for their 2008 prize: Benoit Aquin. The following quote and picture are from the Prix Pictet website:
Making the formal presentation, Kofi Annan said: "It is my hope that the Prix Pictet, the world's first prize dedicated to photography and sustainability, will help to deepen understanding of the changes taking place in our world and raise public awareness about the urgency of taking preventative action. Each artist has addressed the environmental and social challenges we face in their own personal way. The result is a series of powerful images which seeks to confront us with the scale of the threat we face and to inspire governments, businesses, - and all of us as individuals - to step up to the challenge and support change for a sustainable world."

Benoit Aquin was chosen by an international panel of independent judges, chaired by Francis Hodgson (head of the photographs department at Sotheby's, London) who said:

"The jury were impressed by the overall standard in this the Prix Pictet's first year. The photographers have made it a really tight competition. In the end we are pleased to acknowledge the quite excellent series that Benoit Aquin has made on desertification in China, which in the opinion of the jury just pipped a group of other excellent candidates.

"We are proud to have set a standard to which future Prix Pictet nominees can aspire and we are delighted to compliment Benoit Aquin on a quite splendid achievement." 

Critical Mass?

I think I might try it out today... My first Critical Mass turn-out. Looking (briefly) around on the interwebs... I don't find much about Ann Arbor's, save for some photos by I'm a raindog too.


Hmmmm.... don't know if I'm really in the mood for it. It's way too warm out for it to be Halloween in Michigan.

On a tangential issue, I learned that Halloween is called Dia de las Brujas (Day of the Witches) in Spanish. Based on the Wikipedia, Halloween has only really be celebrated in Mexico since the 1960s:
In Mexico, Halloween has been celebrated since roughly 1960. There, celebrations have been influenced by the American traditions, such as the costuming of children who visit the houses of their neighbourhood in search of candy. Though the "trick-or-treat" motif is used, tricks are not generally played on residents not providing candy. Older crowds of preteens, teenagers and adults will sometimes organize Halloween-themed parties, which might be scheduled on the nearest available weekend. Usually kids stop by at peoples' houses, knock on their door or the ring the bell and say "¡Noche de Brujas , Halloween!" ('Witches' Night—Halloween!').
Halloween in Mexico begins three days of consecutive holidays, as it is followed by All Saints' Day, which also marks the beginning of the two day celebration of the Day of the Dead or the Día de los Muertos. This might account for the initial explanations of the holiday having a traditional Mexican-Catholic slant.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Microsoft Office, Graphics, and Filesize

NOTE: I don't know if this works in Office2007 or MacOffice2008.

When you move a graph or picture into Word (or PowerPoint) and then make it smaller, remember that the program doesn’t actually shrink the filesize of the graphic – it enforces a reduction on the full filesize. This is good if you have to restore the graphic to its original dimensions (saving you time in having to find the damn thing again in the future). However, this does make your Word (or PowerPoint) file much larger than it needs to be.

This is only a problem when you are trying to do things to the file (or with the file) that requires a relatively large amount of memory – such as converting to a pdf or modifying a slide show (which happens to have many pictures).

To fix this in Word, double-click on the picture or graph. This will bring up the Format Picture window. Through this window, you can ultimately shrink the filesize of the picture you selected (or all pictures in the document) to their new dimensions. However, you first have to convert your graphic into what Word recognizes as a “picture”. To do this, first click on the Layout tab, then choose any form of picture layout other than “In line with text”. This transforms how Word deals with your graphic from pretending that it is “text” to allowing that it is actually a picture. Once you click “OK”, double-click on the picture again to re-open the Format Picture window. If you click on the Size tab, you will note that the size of your picture is not 100% of the original (I’m assuming that you have shrunk the image) – this is your indication that the graphic’s filesize has not been altered. Click on the Picture tab, and then on the “Compress…” button. This will bring up the Compress Pictures window. Here, click on the “Change Resolution” to either “Web/Screen” or “Print” (unless you have a photo, don’t worry about the supposed loss in dpi – there usually isn’t much difference in the end). After selecting, press, OK, returning to the Format Picture window. If you click over to the Size tab, you should see that your graphic is now 100% of the size of the original (since you have compressed the filesize of the original to be what it is now). Finally (if you want to have Word treat the graphic as “text” again) click on the Layout tab, and then select “In line with text”, and click OK.

Effectively the same, but you don’t have to change the graphic from a “text” object to a “picture” object – PowerPoint treats all graphics as “picture” objects.

In conclusion, by doing this, you will save the amount of space needed for your Word and PowerPoint documents. One recent document I applied this technique to went from being 1,789,952 bytes before graphics compression to 896,000 bytes after graphic compression. (Woot!)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

UPS, EPA, and A2

The USEPA office in Ann Arbor has - together with UPS - designed an HHV (hydraulic hybrid vehicle) for use in Brown's delivery vehicles. Cool video at the link.

Hat tip to EcoGeek.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Solar-powered automatic lawnmower

I still say that a sheep has many more advantages over lawnmowers (for normal applications of lawnmowers, that is), but this one really makes me want to change my mind...

Of course, you still have the issue of what a "lawn culture" in the United States means, but the ingenious combination of a Roomba with solar-power capability all transformed into a lawnmower is just ... brilliant! Now, even though you add all that fertilizer and pesticide to your lawn, you can at least have it cut in a more environmentally friendly manner.

(hat-tip to EcoGeek)

And in the wierdness category...

Larry Flint - of Hustler 'fame' - is making a porno film about Sarah Palin. Entitled, Who's Nailin' Paylin?, the film stars the busty Lisa Ann as the GOP VP nominee. I'm sure the plot of the film is not a very complex one, nor do I imagine that it paints a flattering political picture of the real Sarah Palin. However, it's not because of the technical merits of the film that I'm writing, but about some quotes from an interview with the (perhaps now infamous) actress about the woman she is portraying.
Q. Any more [catch-phrases]? Maverick? And uh...
A. All you Joe Six-packs out there... I love that one. And of course, I'm a hockey-mom ... we also need to add a soon-to-be hockey illegitemate grand-mom. It's a good one to throw in there - one she doesn't say, but she should.
Q. What do you think of Sarah yourself?
A. Oh, I think she's out of her mind. This smoke smile is nothing to [unclear] cannot be satisfied with that."

Q. You've got any questions for Sarah?
A. Sarah, I've been what kind of panties you wear. What your sex life is like, and I'm hoping you embrace your inner MILF. And allow me to represent your bootie on my site, because I think you're hot.

Q. Do you think Sarah'll be watching the film?
A. I'm not sure she'll be watching the film, but I'm sure she's gonna to find out about it. I don't think she's gonna be that thrilled.
Lisa Ann apparently did her homework in 'boning up' for the part (sorry - couldn't resist) by watching the VP debates "over-and-over" as well as Tina Fey's portrayals of Palin, but "the sex is all secondary and second-nature to [her]."

Video contains no nudity, but does have a busty woman with cleavage showing.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Oh, no. Not again.

Apart from being a nice line from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, this sums up my feelings when I read the following headline:

Beetle Invasion Threatens New England Trees.

Although I don't live in New England, the Upper Midwest is still recovering from the impacts of Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s and Emerald Ashborers from just a couple of years ago. Now I find out about an Asian longhorn beetle that can burrow into birch, poplar, willow, sycamore, maple and elm. Hmm... Looking around Ann Arbor, I have seen birch, poplar, willow, sycamore, maple and elm... Many of the trees planted around the city are maples, although the number of sycamores are also sizeable. I wonder how they these beetles will affect oaks, which are another major constituent tree in so-called Tree Town.

If this beetle gets into town, then Ann Arbor might have to plant softwoods that people are not really craze about. It will change the cool summers into heat-island infernos. It might also allow for a greater infestation of invasive shrubs and trees. It will - in the short term - create many eye-sores around the city as trees die and are left un-cut, and then (possibly) create hazards to property and public safety.

I'm not really happy about this ecologically dark-side-to-globalization. (At least some action is being taken on aquatic invasions...)

McCain's foreign backers and non-backers

Two pieces from the British press. The first one - from the BBC - is about how McCain is categorically not getting backing of any kind from the Russians:
The Russian mission to the UN in New York says it has turned down a request from John McCain to help fund his presidential campaign.
Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin and others received standard mail-outs asking them to help "stop the Democrats from seizing control of Washington". 

Funding denial
The letter to Mr Churkin has a return form which carries the words: "I am proud to stand with our Republican candidates as the Obama Democrats and their wealthy liberal backers focus their attacks squarely on defeating Republicans and gaining control of our government.
"I want to do all I can to help stop the Democrats from seizing control of Washington and implementing their radically liberal policy for our nation." 

The form then has a space for a signature over the typed name, Vitaly Churkin. 

But he also stressed: "Russian authorities are in no way engaged in funding political campaigns or political activities abroad."
Apparently the Russians have a sense of humor - sometimes.

The second one - from The Times - is about how McCain has (hopefully unwittingly) garnered the (possible) endorsement of Al Qaeda (maybe):
It emerged today, however, that al-Qaeda supporters have been posting internet messages in recent days hoping for a victory by Mr McCain, even saying they would welcome a pre-election terror attack on the US because it could tip the election the Republican’s way.


One message, posted on the extremist website al-Hesbah — which is closely linked to al-Qaeda — said that if the terror group wants to exhaust the US economically and military, then victory for the “impetuous” Republican candidate would benefit them because Mr McCain would continue “the failing march of his predecessor” President Bush.

The message was posted by Muhammad Haafid, a longtime contributor to the website. He has no direct affiliation to al-Qaeda, making it unclear whether he reflects the views of Osama bin Laden — who has not been heard of for six months — or anyone else in the terror organisation. While Mr McCain fiercely opposes a timetabled withdrawal from Iraq, he has pledged to end the war within four years.
So... McCain loses the endorsement of former Michigan governor Milliken, but possibly gains the endorsement of Al Qaeda, while also garnering no support from Colin Powell or Russia. Meanwhile, according to an extensive worldwide poll, many (many) people would prefer Obama to be the next president of the US. (No, this doesn't mean that they are telling us how to vote. It only means that many people around the world are keyed into the US elections - maybe because the US is so important in other countries' activities or because the US campaign is so fecking long - and have developed an opinion about it. It is no different than me stating my opinion on British or French elections - which I sometimes have followed.)

Something new from David Sedaris

I don't normally read The New Yorker, but I was sent an article by David Sedaris, and I normally do read him. It was a piece on undecided voters, and I couldn't help but print it out immediately and devour it like a hot grilled cheese sandwich. The piece, although shorter than my hero-worshiping self would have liked, was funny in only the way that Sedaris can make a topic comical: biting satire (that is closer to high-tea cucumber sandwiches-biting than a 12-inch hoagie-with-extra-onions-biting) with just enough zing to make it really shine.

Below are some of the pieces that I found especially humorous:
   To put [undecided voters] in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”
   To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.
   I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?
I really like how his images - although not stating any particular choice of candidate in this election - make it seem like anyone would be stupid to be an undecided voter in this year's election. It's almost like that South Park episode where the children had to choose between a douche and a turd. This correlation between the choices of presidential candidates and chicken vs. a "platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it" really does sum it up for many voters (on both sides). One choice is seen as the healthy meat option. The other one is a pile of shit with broken glass. It's inconceivable to people who have made their minds up how anyone could even think of having a different opinion. And yet there are those people...

Although Sedaris' choice of candidate this November seems to be clear without having to read too closely between the lines, he never comes out and says who it is. (Pardon all the metaphors there.) However, I do love how he wraps up his essay:
   I wonder if, in the end, the undecideds aren’t the biggest pessimists of all. Here they could order the airline chicken, but, then again, hmm. “Isn’t that adding an extra step?” they ask themselves. “If it’s all going to be chewed up and swallowed, why not cut to the chase, and go with the platter of shit?”
   Ah, though, that’s where the broken glass comes in.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Population and CO2

I read an interesting piece over at Prometheus about how European countries have - per capita - not generally performed better than the United States in the period of 1997-2005. There are a few troubling things about this post for me (and it's not because I'm European, a Euro-phile, or a US-hater). The central graph seemed wrong to me. I think it was because the CO2 per capita graph is analogous to the one I wrote about a while ago: it seemed to be comparing things that could not be equally compared across set items.

If per capita CO2 emissions was something that could be standardized across countries, then its base values (CO2 emissions and population) should share some characteristics. Minimally, they should have similar slope values in a direct comparison with each other. If they don't then the value of "per capita CO2" is not a standard unit. Looking at the graph at Prometheus, I chose to compare Denmark (the best actor), Spain (the worst actor) and Luxembourg (one that ends up with near-zero change) against the United States.

For data on CO2, I used data found here. For data on population, I used this data. The values appear to be slightly different from that used on Prometheus, but do not vary so much as to make comparison invalid for these purposes.

As you can see in this first graph, the untransformed values of CO2 emission and population do not provide linear regressions of similar value across all four groups.

 Even after a log-log transformation, the values for slope are not very similar, regardless of looking at the trend from 1950-2005 (the available data) or 1990-2005 (since the Kyoto Protocol requires a 10% decrease below 1990 levels).

From this comparison, it seems to me that there is little statistical justification to compare trends of per capita CO2 emissions across countries, even after you do a log-log transformation. So... that would mean there seems to be a problem with the overall argument at Prometheus, since it seems (to me) to presuppose that addressing the issue by looking at per capita CO2 emissions would be a good enough control for population growth.

One interesting thing (to me at least) is looking at what is happening at different time-frames. I will use here Prometheus' own methods of comparing change in per capita CO2 emissions against a base level. (I know that I cast doubt on it, but bear with me...) I will compare these per capita graphs against both the population growth and CO2 emissions of the same period. However, instead of only showing 1997-2005, I will also show 1990-2005 and 1950-2005.
 What is apparent is that population growth is having an effect on the values of CO2 emissions in Luxembourg, especially when one considers changes since 1990 or 1997 (since Luxembourg has the highest population growth rate during this period of time, and has the smallest population to begin with). Due to this issue of scale, Luxembourg (and likely other small-population countries) should be dropped from the initial analysis. (Luxembourg was also a country that had little similarity between other countries from above).


Autumn is a great time to take photos. The warm light is further heightened by the red and orange leaves as well as brick. Walking around campus these days of the Fall Break provide great photos of the buildings that we otherwise shuffle past day-by-day. I also found that a new art installation was being, well, installed in front of the art museum extesion.

New landscaping construction along the formerly named E. University Ave.

The Samuel Trask Dana Building in the autumn sunlight.

New art installation.
I don't know if I like it or not... The shot on the left looks almost like a kobold sorcerer (D&D reference if you didn't know...)
Due to the construction of the UM art museum annex, these class-gift benches were moved into their own little plaza. However, one bench didn't make the move, and is sitting on its own closer to Haven Hall. (so sad...)

A view east from the ramp going up to the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library entrance on the Diag. I really like that two-topped pine. It looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, and I wonder if it was purposefully done.

A mostly vacant Ingalls Mall. (Fall Break makes grad students feel like little lords of the campus, and - given how much we make - that's not such a bad thing.) The trees along the mall have not yet started to turn, and is indicative of how much impact they have on the view from the steps of the library. As you can see from the photo on the left, both Kraus (biology) and the Burton Tower (clock tower) are completely obscured from the trees. In the right-hand photo, Rackham (graduate school) is mostly obscured from view. Happily (for me), neither the Modern Languages Building nor the Alumni Center are visible from either vantage point, since I personally think that both of these buildings are rather more like blemishes upon the Central Campus (admittedly from differen decades); not truly "fitting" amongst the other buildings.

Makes me wonder if I should get a "real" job...

Sometimes, you just have to wonder whether being an academic is a "smart" thing to be...

Via PhDComics:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Website I found.

I just found this:

Powell = Arnold?

Sociological Images has a story about a political cartoonist who equates Colin Powell with Benedict Arnold. Seriously.
As Rob Tornoe discusses at Politicker, this feeds into the idea that Obama isn’t a real American and, accordingly, neither is Powell.  That this is about skin color is revealed by the fact that he put Arnold in blackface. and uses the term “Race Patriot.”  The implication is, Powell is endorsing Obama because he’s black and that’s treason (i.e, anti-white and therefore anti-American).

It also speaks to white privilege and a phenomenon I’ve seen elsewhere during this election.  It is white privilege to be able to vote for Obama without your endorsement being attributed to the color of your skin.
Ironically, this apparent single-mindedness and intolerance is what Powell cited as one of his major reasons as to why he isn't supporting the Republican ticket.

Wildlife need wildlife-friendly habitats? REALLY?!?!

New research out of UC Davis shows (basically) that when some place looks good to humans doesn't mean that it's good for wildlife. This is one of the problems with restoration, whether it is terrestrial or aquatic. This past weekend, I was able to take a trip with a University of Michigan graduate class to the DNR fish hatchery in Oden, MI, which had a stretch of a restored stream (photo looking downstream)

The stream used to be a concrete-lined channel that went from the hatchery (upstream of the photo) to the river, maybe one mile downstream. Apart removing the concrete and replanting the floodplain, the stream was designed to be "encouraged" along its path, thanks to a series of log-hardened banks lining the bank facing upstream. The stream setting looks quite natural to the eye - a floodplain vegetated by grasses and mosses with a stream running down the middle. The place is engineered to look (to human eyes) like it is a perfect place for fish habitat. It cries out to our own human ideas of how a small creek should look like in the Upper Midwest. Looking into the creek, a person sees a gravel bottom, riffles and pools in fast-moving water, both perfect for trout. However, these beautiful-to-the-eye characteristics of the system are quickly shown to be merely gussied-up stream-porn. After conducting a few invertebrate samples of the region turned up a very low diversity of insects, especially considering what one would expect to find in such a setting (if it were truly natural).

Part of this low diversity can be explained by the fact that all of this is below a fish hatchery, which are known for producing high-nutrient waters. However, this is surely not the whole story. I'm not personally sure as to why there was such a limited diversity of invertebrates in the area, especially since one might expect a high level of algal formation due to the presence of such high nutrient levels. However, grazers (other than isopods) were largely absent from the sample. Similarly, even isopods were not highly abundant, making the area not only have a surprisingly low diversity (surprising only if you had no knowledge of the hatchery upstream of the apparently natural site), but also a surprisingly low biomass. Some of this might be explained by the following: due to the low diversity of organisms, fish present in the stream feed heavily upon isopods and amphipods, thus diminishing their overall abundance; this predation has little impact on increasing the biodiversity since conditions are not good for maintaining a highly biodiverse system to begin with. I don't know if this is true, but on the face of it, the so-called restored stream doesn't seem to provide a good source of food for fish living outside the hatchery, while making it look "nice" for people.

However, even this latter point is one of potential contention, since the system does not seem to have been engineered appropriately. The design of the stream system appears to be too narrow for the amount of discharge it receives, and some of the log-reinforced banks are being under-cut. Rivers are, after all, dynamic systems, and forcing it along a pre-determined path using logs which are effectively perched on sand is not likely going to create a lasting system. Examining even a portion of the system showed places where the stream had cut into the bank to go around root systems, cut under logs (anchored into the stream bank) to effectively "straighten" itself, and the like. Perhaps the design firm wanted to make the system look naturalized to the eyes of humans faster than the stream wanted. To put it another way, I feel that the design firm removed a concrete channel and created a surrogate out of logs and gravel. Although it looks natural, it isn't really so.

However, one great aspect of this resoration process was the creation of a fish-viewing room where one can look immediately upstream and downstream of a plunge pool, and see how the fish utilize that area of habitat to their advantage.

Immigrants learning English

When I get two articles (or more) on the same day about a non-election issue, I take notice. Today, I found two articles in my newsfeed on how quickly immigrants to the United States learned English in the past. Greg Laden's post goes into a discussion of his own encounters with this in Boston in the early 1980s, and one can also easily think of how a similar encounter might have taken place in the Italian market setting of Rocky's Philadelphia in the mid-late 1970s (or even today in New York's, San Francisco's and Los Angeles' Chinatowns).

The PhysOrg brief of Salmons' work parallels Greg's later points (since Greg's post seems to have been motivated by Salmon's article) about how German was actually the dominant language in parts of Wisconsin during the early 1900s. One key point taken from the Salmons article is that the 1910 census of Germantown, WI showed that 43% of US-born residents only spoke German, and this sizeable percentage was also seen in other towns and counties. Furthermore, German newspapers pervaded the region until the 1940s (at which time the newspapers were usually consolidated into larger ones), 100 years after Germans settled the region.

I agree with Greg's point that the myth of previous generations trying to learn English once they got here is just that: a myth. The fact that US-born primarily-Chinese speakers in cities' Chinatowns still occupy a sizeable population is an example of this trend continuing. Just because English happens to be a language spoken by a national majority does not mean that it should be an offical language. As a friend of mine pointed out, you cannot have freedom of speech while also enforcing an offical language.

Candidate Support

So... it's old news now that Colin Powell is endorsing Barak Obama. It's old news that Obama is leading in the polls. It's not so obvious, though, who's supporting whom. One website shows how some people are skewing the meanings behind the polls to match their own agenda. I got curious about this connection and decided to Excel the data available on Gallup.

Using the Gallup data split by education for Non-Hispanic Whites, I inputted the figures for Obama and McCain supporters. After doing this, I subtracted the McCain polling percentage from the Obama polling percentage. This was also done for the polling data from the General Population. The resulting difference from each set of polls was then graphed. Due to the equation I used (Obama - McCain), values in the positive range indicate support for Obama by members of the group in question, while values in the negative rage indicate support for McCain by members of that group.

After producing these two graphs, I then subtracted the Non-Hispanic Whites set valuse from the General Population set values individually for both Obama and McCain. These differences were then graphed on a final graph. Again, due to the equation I used (General Population - Non-Hispanic Whites), values in the positive range indicate support for Obama, while those in the negative range indicate support for McCain.

(Please note: I do understand that adding and subtracting percentages is problematic. I also do understand that adding and subtracting when the total doesn't add up to 100% is a problem. However, this is kind of fast-and-dirty, and only done to see if there are larger trends.)

First, let's look at the group Non-Hispanic Whites, split by eduction:

It appears that those polled with postgraduate educations consistently supported Obama over McCain. On the other hand, for much of the polling period (8/12/2008 - 9/24/2008), McCain had a commanding lead over Obama amongst all other education groups of Non-Hispanic Whites. However, after the 9/24/2008 period, this support seems to be diminishing.

Next, let's look at the group General Population, split by education:

Similar to Non-Hispanic Whites, the general population of those polled with a postgraduate education consistently favored Obama. Of course, one might argue that the likelihood of a postgraduate-educated person being a "non-hispanic white" is quite high in this country, and so this trend will be driven by what one sees in the previous graph. However, one thing that is of interest is that in General Population, support among the other education groups for one candidate over another remains roughly even until 9/19/2008. After that point, the trend starts to move toward Obama among all the education groups, and seems to spike the highest among the group "Highschool or less" in the latest poll (10/12/2008).
Finally, let's look at the difference between General Population and Non-Hispanic White, split by education:
In this graph, it seems clear that there is a trend among Non-Hispanic Whites of all education groups to prefer John McCain, while the opposite trend - support for Barak Obama - seems to prevail amongst General Population (without the Non-Hispanic Whites). There are problems with this type of analysis, since I am trying to proxy race via two different sortings of the data. However, let's see what an analysis (Obama - McCain) of Race alone (Non-Hispanic Whites, Non-Hispanic Blacks, and Hispanics) says:

Here, "Non-Hispanic Blacks" overwhelmingly support Obama, while "Non-Hispanic Whites" only mildly support McCain over Obama. "Hispanics" tend to support Obama roughly 30% more than McCain. One could say from this that non-Hispanic whites are more ambivalent (as a group) than either Hispanics or non-Hispanic blacks, but still overall supporting McCain. However, the trend of support of late (since 9/29/2008) has been edging toward 0%.
I suppose that at the end of this week, we might be able to put another column of data on these graphs and see if the trends of the last two weeks will be carried forward. (Ahh, the greatness of the campaign comes in the fact that it offers many opportunities to fill one's time in procrastination, since the only poll that counts is the one cast in 15 day's time.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Wall McCain

Walking home to watch the final candidates' debate, I saw this chalk-mural up on a wall of the Dennison Building. I wondered to myself how long it would stand in this condition.
Today, this is what it looked like. I think people were not impressed with the man's debate performance (or maybe they are just biased against him in general...).Still, this visual representation of how students relate to McCain is mirrored in his support in the polls among student-aged voters (data from Gallup):

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe the Plumber

I feel sorry for "Joe the Plumber". During last night's presidential candidates' debate, I felt that he was the belle at the debutante ball. (**barf**) First McCain cited him as a person who would suffer under Obama's tax plan. Then Obama told Joe (via the TV) that McCain was wrong, and his tax plan would do no such thing to people like Joe.

Joe showed up twice more during the debate. His first return citation was during a discussion about the current economic crisis and the second was with Obama's health-care plan.

Who is Joe the Plumber? Well, Zina Saunders has already made a picture of him comemorating how he usurped the position of Palin's "Joe Sixpack" (who himself had a brief attempt on his position by Joey Danco, courtesy of Biden), who was himself the usurper of John Q Public.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The wonders of gmail.

I recently read an article about how "Mail Goggles" have been inserted into GMail as an option from the GoogleLabs. What are Mail Goggles? Well, it is a program that forces you (if you choose to activate it) to answer a set of relatively simple mathematics questions before sending out an e-mail during the night or on weekends. (The assumption is that if you are inebriated or otherwise without mental filters, you might not be able to answer the posed questions, and thus don't really want to send out that screed you just penned.) I don't know what happens to the mail that doesn't get sent, but it I'll test it later (either tonight or this weekend) to see what happens.

In addition to the "Mail Goggles" thing, there are several other ones that I added to my own private [Idaho] Gmail, including "Quick Links" (which provides obvious URLs to links in your mail), "Pictures in Chat" (which should be self-explanatory), "Muzzle" (which eliminates people's chat statuses), "Right-side Chat" (which puts the Chat box on the right-hand side of the screen), and "Right-side Labels" (same as Right-side Chat, but with labels). Now all I have to do is get used to how my screen looks when I startup GMail.

In addition to all these great things from the Google Lab, I also added the Firefox add-on "Better GMail" which (among other things) provides file icons for attachments and different skins for GMail.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Funding for AmTrak!

Finally, things are looking a little up for AmTrak: the Senate has passed a 5-year, $13-bn funding package in a veto-proof margin. Now all it has to do is make it through the House and then the president's desk and AmTrak can be on the good track for getting out of debt, buying new locomotives, passenger cars, state-federal partnerships, etc.

The recent increases in ridership on the nation's rail system has also helped justify the continued existence of train travel, even in the eyes of those who think that such things are merely socialism in disguise. (Or at least seem to.) Speaking of those groups who tout the benefits of road travel over rail - like the Heritage Fund - the costs of rail are (true) subsidized by government. However, the costs of road travel are also subsidized by government (what are the Department of Transportation and the federal, state, and local highway systems all about anyway). If everyone had to pay tolls on those roads (as opposed to funding the DOT through the opaque mechanism of taxation), then more people might dislike road travel. Groups like the Heritage Foundation conveniently "forget" to mention this when doing their analyses or discount the costs significantly.

We have learned (sometimes painfully) that the answer for highway congestion is not just to build greater capacity (since greater capacity ultimately leads to increased demand in a seemingly never-ending positive-feedback loop). Increased capacity leads - among other things - to an ever-increasing reach of development outward from a city center, and so long as the development is road-centric, the necesity for owning (and therefore using) cars and roads increases. In some locations, the use of preferred tolls has eased traffic congestion for those who saw a marginal benefit for paying the toll. However, even this is a limited option, since if many people choose to pay the "express lane" toll, congestion even in those lanes will increase. (I'm guessing this will happen as gas prices continue to inexorably rise, while toll prices are likely to remain steady, meaning more people will see the utility of paying money to drive faster and waste less fuel being stuck in traffic.)

In other locations, cities have worked with state or federal transportation agencies to provide mass transit along pre-existing rights-of-way that exist as medians between the oncoming lanes of highway traffic. The use of these rights-of-way decreases the cost of rail projects, since no extra land is needed to be purchased, and maximizes utility of the rail project, since in many places communities were developed to be optimized to the highway system's installation. An additional benefit for this type of setup is that during peak rushour traffic, while individual motor vehicles are stuck in traffic, the commuter rail system calmly flies by, increasing the morale of those in the train, while demoralizing those stuck in their cars burning fuel and their patience.

I could also make a brief (unsubstantiated-by-data) argument that rail travel is much safer than road travel on a per-capita basis, thus proving to be less-costly than road travel on a social level. Even though the United States doesn't really have a nationalized health care system or a national vehicle insurance system, both of these privatized systems react to the relatively high rates of accidents caused by motor vehicles, raising the rates of insurance for everyone who is in a statistically equivalent situation (if the policy-holders are lucky) or across-the-board (if the policy-holders are not lucky). Therefore, the high per capita rates of accidents (motor vehicle insurance-related) and injury (medical insurance-related) associated with motor vehicle use are secondarily more expensive than rail travel. It only makes sense: trains (in optimal situations) are not likely to crash with anything that would cause significant damage to its passengers, since the momentum of a moving train is likely orders-of-magnitude greater than anything it might encounter normally on a train track. Furthermore, train tracks are not shared - in most cases - with other motor vehicles, thus minimizing any "driver errors" that one might encounter, while with road travel, the amount of "driver errors" one might encounter is orders of magnitude higher than the train situation, and the types of accidents encountered are less likely to be one-sided.

Finally, the opportunity cost of driving vs. taking a train are very different. While taking a train might take a little longer than driving during a commute (under ideal conditions), there are (likely) unmeasured benefits, such as the ability to focus on work on the train, not getting stressed due to traffic, the ability to walk about while commuting (unless the train is packed), etc. Although I might be considered a bit of a granola-cruncher for saying this, I think that such things are worth something in a monetary sense.

Friday, October 03, 2008

ebina2 said...

"if they weren't so enjoyable, orgasms would just be annoying."

Writing in the appropriate English

Today, I read a story over at Dispatches that got me thinking about using the appropriate English in writing. In that piece, the Mr. Brayton block-quotes an author with the London Telegraph who quoted Obama campaign insiders as saying (emphasis mine):
"We're much stronger on the ground in Virginia and North Carolina than people realise."
"The poll numbers say Florida's back in play. McCain hasn't spent a single penny there and that's Obama's calculation, that he can capitalise on that."
Now, I'm being picky here, but should the author not have written, "...than people realize" and "...the he can capitalize..."? I know this may sound petty, but to me the spellings, "realise" and "capitalise" are British Commonwealth spellings. The words "realise" and "capitalise" are therefore not spelled correctly in United States English. Therefore, if you are directly quoting a person who - I am presuming - is a United States citizen, why intimate - through the choice of English - that he is a British Commonwealth citizen?

Similarly, it really gets my goat when newspapers in the United States talk about what "the Labor Party" does in the UK. Of course, there is not "Labor Party", but a "Labour Party" (the CAPITAL letters indicate that is is a name, and as such, should be spelled in the manner it is written by the named person/organization/etc. - why else would Catherines, Cathrines, Cathrins, Katherines, Kathrines, and Kathrins be vigilant about how their names are spelled). In the course of things, I feel that this is a more egregious error than the one committed by the writer in the London Times. However, this brings up an interesting question-de-minute for me: to what extent should a person write in the "appropriate" language and dialect? For example, at the language level, if I were to be paraphrasing a person from Mexico who was describing "pezes" in an "arroyo", should I translate it to "fish" in a "book"? The word for fish (pez) is not one used widely in English, and might be confused for something else. What about "arroyo", though? Does it carry a specific feeling of contextualization that I might therefore choose to leave it as the Spanish word (which also happens to be used in the Southwestern United States, too)? Or do I remain a purist and change both words? I don't know.

For a dialect example, if I were to be paraphrasing a person talking about small rivers in upstate New York state, I wouldn't use the word kill, but use a more widely used term like "stream" or "creek" or "brook". However, if the person said "kill", should I not use that word instead of inserting my own for clarification purposes? (Similarly, if someone describes a draw, wash, gulch, gully, etc.?)

These two case of British vs. U.S. written English, though, is more nuanced than either of the two examples. There are words (not too many that spring to mind) where both the spelling and pronounciation differ significantly enough between the two Englishes that I feel it does warrant spelling it in the manner of the person speaking. One example that springs to mind is aluminium vs. aluminum. (Check it, there is a difference.) However, both "realise" and "Labor" sound effectively like "realize" and "Labour" to make the difference only in writing. Thus my dilemma. As a purist, I would say that writing "realize" when spoken by a U.S. English speaker is the correct thing, even though the publication is otherwise in British English (it is, after all, an indication of how the person spoke). The pragmatist in me says that one should write in the English required of the publication (thus even negating the difference between aluminium and aluminum).

I don't think there is a "right" and a "wrong" on this one. It just irks me when I see it, and then I get irked that I got irked. (Finally, I just got irked enough that I decided to write about it, I suppose.)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

And I thought red leaves were just pretty.

Via PhysOrg we learn that trees might have evolved all their autumnal splendor not for the benefit of humankind's viewing, but to protect themselves from aphids.
Along with his colleagues, Professor Jim Hardie from the Division of Biology at Imperial and Dr Marco Archetti from Oxford University, Dr Döring has theorised that the production of red pigments in leaves could be concealing the yellow leaf colour that is highly attractive to tree-damaging insects such as aphids.

Yellow pigments are present in leaves in the spring and summer but only become visible in autumn when the tree breaks down and recovers green chlorophyll from leaves before they fall off. The red colour, on the other hand, is caused by pigments called anthocyanins that are produced in the autumn, just before leaf fall.

To test their theory, ... Dr Döring ... sampled the colour of hundreds of leaves from many different tree species and used the results from the trap experiment to predict how attractive the colour of each leaf would be for the insects. He found that red leaves were much less attractive than green or yellow ones for aphids.

The team speculate that some tree species may benefit from producing red leaves as a safety mechanism to fight off aphids. If these insects land on them to lay their eggs in large numbers, this could affect the growth of the trees in spring and potentially reduce their fitness.


The question of why some trees stay yellow and would not use red to conceal themselves is maybe down to the relative cost of the insect attack on the tree, explains Dr Döring: "In theory, if insect attack is generally high, causing higher costs than the costs for the production of red anthocyanins in autumn, trees would benefit from being red. If the costs entailed by the insects is lower, then you can afford to stay yellow.”
Cool. Of course, when I go every morning to walk in to work and classes, I likely won't be thinking about aphids and tree color, merely reveling in the wonderfulness that is the mutli-varied hues of autumn in Michigan. (Not as nice as Vermont apparently is, but then again Tree Town is usually quite stunning enough in its own right.)

Connections with strangers

Tall Penguin wrote about something that I hadn't thought upon for some time. Like so many things she writes about, I feel that there is a lot of insight in what she sees and how she writes about it. This one was about how it seems like the deepest connections we feel that we share are with strangers. It moved me to respond, and I am reposting it here:
This is one of the strongest sensations of attraction I have felt. It's not [always] been a physical one (per se), but it can be almost a physical tugging, like a slap upside the head to pay attention, or a bolt from the blue. I've shared those in the past when looking across a room, down a street, on the bus, etc. It's scary and wonderful at the same time, especially in that moment after eye-contact when you know (somehow) that they are looking back at you in the same way.

That wonder comes from standing at that brink of wondering - playing with the idea, really - of whether it would be a good idea to walk over there and say hello. Your mind might even play along snippets of conversation you [think you] see reflected in those eyes.

And then - more often than not - that transient location in which that connection was made brusquely intrudes, safely whisking each of you away from a "what-if" conversation, a "what-if" touch, a "what-if" life... leaving you with that sense of something special shared - self, perhaps? - yet yours alone.

In those rare instances when reality doesn't impose itself, the rising crest of that potential moment transforms from the initial casual-glance-turned-fixed-stare into a seemingly insurmountable mountain of your mind's fears, hopes, dreams, expectations; likely something that neither of you will attempt to climb. Yet, in that case, too, after you - or the other - turn (achingly slowly) away, you hold that sense of a shared self with you.

Sometimes for a long time.

Human contact - a great, wondrous, curious, annoyingly addictive thing, no?

cdk007 on the silliness of the large cable news channels

End message: check the following sites for less spin (for reasons, watch the video)

Thunderf00t on "How to lose a TRILLION dollars"

End message: Deregulation got us into this economic mess. McCain and many Republicans supported deregulation. McCain wants us to bail out Wall St. to the tune of $3000 - after he helped cause this problem. (side note: Obama also wants to bail out the economy, but he didn't have a hand in causing it; he didn't have a 20+ year record of supporting financial deregulation.) This is really shitty for the next many years, and no future president will have an easy time coming out of this problem. (side note: for those people who call Democrats "tax-and-spend", the Republicans have just created the largest tax burden on the American people, and with all of it going to pay for breaking even! Not schools. Not highways. Not bridges. Not the military. Not energy. BREAKING EVEN! If you want to label Democrats "tax-and-spend" then lets call this group of Republicans "cut-and-bail" (for "cutting taxes" and "bailing out Wall St when it all goes to shit".)

Shade-grown coffee helps deal with climate change?

Well, I know some of these people, so I'm posting this story (via PhysOrg):
Over the last three decades, many Latin American coffee farmers have abandoned traditional shade-growing techniques, in which the plants are grown beneath a diverse canopy of trees. In an effort to increase production, much of the acreage has been converted to "sun coffee," which involves thinning or removing the canopy.

Shade-grown farms boost biodiversity by providing a haven for birds and other animals. They also require far less synthetic fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides than sun-coffee plantations.

"This is a warning against the continuation of this trend toward more intensive systems," said Ivette Perfecto of the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment, one of the authors. "Shaded coffee is ideal because it will buffer the system from climate change while protecting biodiversity." 


The livelihoods of more than 100 million people worldwide are tied to coffee production. In Latin America, most coffee farms lack irrigation---relying solely on rainwater---which makes them especially vulnerable to drought and heat waves.

Shade trees help dampen the effects of drought and heat waves by maintaining a cool, moist microclimate beneath the canopy. The optimal temperature range for growing common Arabica coffee is 64 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shade trees also act as windbreaks during storms and help reduce runoff and erosion.


"These two trends---increasing agricultural intensification and the trend toward more frequent extreme-weather events---will work in concert to increase farmer vulnerability," Lin said. "We should take advantage of the services the ecosystems naturally provide, and use them to protect farmers' livelihoods."
So... the lesson seems to be: if you are going to drink coffee, make sure that it is shade-grown if you want to mitigate the impacts of climate change upon coffee-growing regions. You could argue then that shade-grown coffee 'trumps' fair-trade coffee, since it insures the presence of plantations in the long run, as opposed to the destruction of sun-grown plantations under conditions of climate change. Of course, currently, shade-grown and fair-trade are co-related; many shade-grown operations seem to be fair-trade.