Saturday, June 28, 2008

Electricity from footsteps

I like this idea -- it's thinking outside the box. British engineers are working on a plan to use the footsteps of pedestrians to generate electricity.

The Times reports that the technology has already been successfully trialled and the firm behind it is in talks with supermarkets and railway stations. It works by using the footfall of pedestrians to compress pads under the floor, pushing fluid through turbines to generate electricity. Copy and paste this URL into your browser to see more: [1]

According to the report, calculations suggest that the 34,000 train-travellers passing through London's Victoria Underground station every hour could generate enough electricity to power 6,500 lightbulbs.

[1] The Times' Terms and Conditions prohibit giving the newspaper free advertising by linking to pages on their website. Links are prohibited, but merely providing the URL is allowed. Stupid, isn't it? Back

Friday, June 27, 2008

Whatever happened to Osama bin Laden?

Osama bin Laden seems to have gone from Most Wanted Man Alive to Care Factor Zero. President Bush, after swearing to bring bin Laden to justice, admitted some years ago that bin Laden was not a priority. But this interview with the late Benazir Bhutto is very interesting...

On 2nd November 2007, less than two months before she was assassinated, Benito gave an interview with David Frost where she talked about the people wanting to stop the democratic process in Pakistan, and her fear that they were involved in the previous assassination attempt against her and would try again. Six minutes into the video, Bhutto claims that bin Laden has been murdered. Frost didn't bother to question her about this: either he considers the murder of bin Laden old news, unimportant, or he's simply losing his mojo as an interviewer.

Bhutto clearly felt that she was at risk of assassination from Pakistani government forces. It's not clear why al Qaeda would have assassinated the opposition leader, if indeed it was al Qaeda: arguably they could have been motivated by pure misogamy, or perhaps they prefer having an anti-democratic military strong man in power.

Of course, this assumes that al Qaeda really was behind her assassination. It's not clear that al Qaeda is anything more than a convenient bogey-man for the US and Pakistani governments. It wouldn't be the first or the last time that a supposed revolutionary or terrorist group had been infiltrated by so many government agents that in fact there were no revolutionaries left in it. Once a government, or even part of a government, starts defining itself in terms of opposition to shadowy criminal figures, the temptation is very large to create such convenient scapegoats.

Big Brother is Watching

How very apt...

Big Brother is Watching - camera at George Orwell Place

(Click image for full sized image.)

At least the Spanish tell you when you're being filmed.

You can't have too many vowels

Yesterday I received an email (as a C.C.) where the sender couldn't remember if the person he was writing to spelled his name "Neil" or "Neal", so he compromised with Neail.

That's very ... something.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Put what where now?

Today I bought a jar of white Tiger Balm. The white variety isn't quite as hot or aromatic as the red, but I find it useful for headaches and nasal congestion.

I was amused to read the label:

Tiger Balm White for the symptomatic fast and effective relief for headaches, stuffy nose, insect bites, itchiness, muscular aches and pains, sprains and flatulence.

Apply Tiger Balm gently on the affected area.

Flatulence? Apply it where exactly?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Aussie drivers

There are times that I wonder how some people get their driver's licence. Perhaps they get it from the back of a corn flake packet.

On the way to work this morning, I got stuck behind a driver doing 40kph in a 60 zone. (That's about 25 and 37mph for those who prefer imperial measurements.) Oh well, he's just a nervous nellie being cautious about revenue speed cameras -- or so I thought, until he approached a traffic light that turned red just ahead of him, and suddenly accelerated and ran the red light, well after the traffic on the cross road had already started moving.

I guess that's what happens when the government hammers in the message that "Speed Kills" while giving licences to anyone who can do a three-point parallel park on the fifth attempt. (Okay, I exaggerate a tad, but the driving tests seem to be far more concerned with proving you can park than seeing if you can drive safely in a range of conditions.) Bad driving, but slowly.

A little later, I was on a street with two right-hand turn lanes. (Note to those from forn parts: in Australia, we drive on the left hand side.) I was on the left-most turning lane, and as I went around the corner, the car to my right -- a different car -- completed his (her?) turn and immediately tried to do a sharp left turn to get to the petrol station. I can only assume he wanted to buy a Clue, or possibly even a brain, because I can't think of any other reason why anyone would do a left-hand turn from the right-hand lane in the middle of heavy morning traffic. He ended up almost pointed straight at me, and fortunately missed my car by centimetres. (That's less than inches, for those who prefer imperial units.)

Australian drivers don't have a reputation for skillful driving. We tend to be as car-mad as the Americans, without their compulsory Driver's Ed in school, and there is little or no effort made to enforce safe driving. There seems to be a widespread assumption that if you obey the posted speed limit (set by a committee which may not have even seen the street except on a map) and don't drink, then anything else you can do in a car is perfectly safe. Tailgate? Change lanes without indicating? Drive backwards down a one-way street with a lampshade on your head? Sure, why not? There's no Stupid Driver cameras, and hence no revenue to be made, so the police and government apparently don't care.

When psychics attack

Orac from Respectful Insolence discusses what happens when zero tolerance meets psychics about :

You get the Child Protection Services called in to investigate the suspected (or should I say imaginary?) sexual abuse of her autistic daughter on the basis of a vision by a so-called psychic.

So this mother was reported to the authorities on the basis of a pinheaded, woo-loving, credulous teacher's aide who apparently regularly sought out the advice of psychics and even believed their B.S. I understand that the law probably seemed to leave the school authorities no choice in the matter. [...] The credulous insinuation of a moronic teacher's aide who believes in psychics must be treated exactly the same as a real allegation based on observations and evidence.

Fortunately for Colleen Leduc and her daughter, to say nothing of her fiancé, she had recently equipped her daughter with a GPS unit that made a continuous audio recording of everything that happened to her daughter, and this proved that nothing untoward had happened to her daughter.

And the reason she had bought the GPS unit in the first place? She had become tired of the school repeatedly losing her daughter.

The Internet is how old?

Bill Gates recently visited South Korea, where he declared that the Internet was ten years old. Richi Jennings commented:

Tell that to the National Science Foundation, who switched on the Internet as we know it today in 1983, migrating from the old ARPANET, which had been going since 1969.

He can’t possibly mean the Web, as that’s been going for over 15 years. He can’t even mean Internet Explorer — the first version of which was released in 1994.

Bill Gates was famously slow to notice the Internet. It barely got a mention in the first edition of his book The Road Ahead, although history was extensively revised in the second edition. But surely even Gates remembers Windows 95?

Deathless prose

This piece of deathless prose is worthy of winning a Bulwer-Lytton Award:

"Had it persevered - if awful chance had decreed that it escape from the quicksand as nightfall closed in over that foetid marsh, neither Colonel Jameson or Jim Tressidy or anybody in Horton's Crossing or camped in the adjacent hills would have survived to greet Lieutenant Wade Castro when, shortly after dawn the next day, he reported, red-eyed through lack of sleep, to the officer who had received instructions to accompany him in the spacious helicopter waiting on the hard-core, clambered aboard, took the ungainly seeming machine to tree-top level, and, half an hour later, brought it down skilfully in the deserted town's main street within yards of Sheriff Regan's office - just as Colonel Jameson had instructed."

-- Victor Norwood, 'Night of the Black Horror'
(Quoted in "Ghastly Beyond Belief", by Neil Gaiman.)

(Thanks to Mrs Impala for digging this one out for me.)

Silent longing

What a piece of work this guy is.

Last month, Sith Lord Benedict XVI declared that American Indians had been "silently longing" to be converted to Christianity by the Spanish Conquistadors 500 years ago, and had been seeking the god known only as God "without realizing it".

(One wonders how Emperor Popetine knows what was going through the minds of people from a foreign culture who died half a millenium ago? Oh wait, that's right, the god known only as God has made him infallible. That's what the Pope says, and he's infallible so he must be right.)

Sith Lords

(Click image for full view.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Losing the faith

Over the last century, what's the most successfully growing religion? Is it evangelical Protestant Christianity? Islam? Scientology?

Trick question: the answer is actually not a religion at all. It is the faithless -- atheist, agnostic or simply "no religion" -- that has seen the largest, most sustained increase in numbers over the last century. From a minuscule 3.2 million people (0.2% of the globe) in 1990, the number of non-religious has sky-rocketed to almost a billion people world-wide in 2000, and continues to increase at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million people per year. Worldwide, there are almost as many non-religious as Muslims, or as Hindu and Buddhist combined.

In the USA, the proportion of non-believers has increased from 1-2% in the 1940s and 50s to 9% today, with a further 12% saying they are not sure. At a growth rate of more than tenfold, the raise of atheism and agnosticism far outpaces even the growth in Mormonism and Pentecostalism.

There are now 30 million American atheists, far outnumbering American Jews, Muslims and Mormons combined. They outnumber Southern Baptists, and gaining new recruits every day.

In "Why the Gods Are Not Winning", Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman write:

To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.


The practical implications are equally breath taking. Every time a nation becomes truly advanced in terms of democratic, egalitarian education and prosperity it loses the faith. It's guaranteed. That is why perceptive theists are justifiably scared. In practical terms their only practical hope is for nations to continue to suffer from socio-economic disparity, poverty and maleducation. That strategy is, of course, neither credible nor desirable. And that is why the secular community should be more encouraged.

Even the fear, uncertainty and doubt following Sept 11 didn't put a dint in the rapidly increasing secularization of the world. Church attendance increased immediately after the tragedy, and then fell back to previous levels, and continue to fall. America has seen its first openly atheist Congressman, something which just two years ago I didn't think I'd live long enough to see.

And even among the religious, belief is becoming more liberal and less virulent: in the US since 1972, liberal religion has grown at a significantly faster rate than Fundamentalist religion.

We're still along way away from a world where people stop clinging to myths, but despite the priests and the mullahs, every day we get a little closer.

Monster parents

The Times describes the rise of a new class of "monster parents" in Japan:

The stage was set, the lights went down and in a suburban Japanese primary school everyone prepared to enjoy a performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The only snag was that the entire cast was playing the part of Snow White.

For the audience of menacing mothers and feisty fathers, though, the sight of 25 Snow Whites, no dwarfs and no wicked witch was a triumph: a clear victory for Japan's emerging new class of “Monster Parents”.

For they had taken on the system and won. After a relentless campaign of bullying, hectoring and nuisance phone calls, the monster parents had cowed the teachers into submission, forcing the school to admit to the injustice of selecting just one girl to play the title role.

(No link for the Times, as their Terms and Conditions prohibit linking to anything but their home page. However, they don't prohibit telling what the URL is, just linking, so feel free to copy and paste this URL into your browser:

Remember kids, with a law degree you too can be paid the big dollars to write stupid, unenforceable documents.)

Sagan's dragon

The late Carl Sagan once declared that he has a fire-breathing dragon living in his garage:

"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask.

"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."

And for every test that the skeptic proposes, Sagan had an excuse for why the test won't detect the dragon. It floats in the air; it's incorporeal; the flame it blows is heatless; and so on.

Naturally Sagan didn't actually believe he has a dragon in his garage, but he was making a point about religion and the invisible, incorporeal god that many people believe is in their garage. Instead of gathering evidence to support the idea of the dragon in the garage, believers insist that we accept the existence of such an invisible, soundless, heatless, incorporeal, undetectable dragon unless it is disproved. But of course it cannot be disproved, because there's an excuse for every failure.

Under normal circumstances, we treat the failure to find expected evidence as almost as good as positive evidence. In a murder trial, the failure to find gunpowder residue on the accused shooter can legitimately cast doubt on the claim he was the shooter. But such negative evidence is only useful when there is a clear-cut pass or fail. You can't accuse somebody of shooting the victim, and then when no evidence supports your accusation, turn around and say that the murdered must have used a special gunpowderless gun that fired invisible bullets that left no visible wounds.

God is invisible, that's why you can't see him.

In the face of such special pleading, then the failure to disprove the claim doesn't mean anything. There is no way to disprove the existence of god, because for every test there's always an excuse after the fact why it didn't work.

The game is always rigged, and you will lose if you play.

The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously?

(Thanks to PhillyChief.)

Believers will counter that of course they have positive evidence for their god. (It's evidently only other gods that are illusionary or mythical.) But the problem with the evidence given is that it either has other explanations ("see, there are no elephants living in my garage, because the dragon ate them"), or that it's entirely subjective. Your epiphany is my bad burrito -- and contrariwise, the awe and sense of wonder I have when I contemplate dirt is a never-ending source of amusement for Mrs Impala and her friends. (Some people hug trees. I play with dirt. If rocks are the bones of the Earth, then dirt, earth, is the flesh. Carl Sagan famously said we are all star-stuff, but the star-stuff had to become dirt before it became us.)

I can put my hands in the dirt, I can touch it and weigh it and dig it over, and if I treat it right, it will bring forth all manner of life. Perhaps that's the difference between religion and spirituality: spirituality is about subjective feelings related to real things, while religion is about subjective feelings about imaginary things.

It's good to be back

Things have been really hectic and stressful at work, which has lead to me not having the time or energy to blog even semi-regularly. But things are starting to look up, so here I am again.

Let me start off with a bashism that caught my fancy:

omega: i like star trek because it's actually pretty realistic. the technology is fiction, but it follows real physics
Kuiper: In Star Trek, whenever there are torpedoes or phaser fire hitting a ship, you can hear the explosions even though they're in space. How is that "real physics?"
omega: in space, explosions are actually louder
omega: because there is no air to get in the way
omega: dumbass