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Son of Philly Bluejay February 19, 2011

Posted by Amir Roth in Uncategorized.
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For all of you who have wondered where I have gone to, the answer is … tumblr. For the past month or so I have been experimenting with a new microblogging format and site. Micro-PhillyBluejay is called “A Frayed Knot” and you can find it at http://a-frayed-knot.tumblr.com/. I plan on keeping both blogs active. I will begin reposting to Philly Bluejay again as soon as I figure out which kinds of posts work better in which format.

Forty Five Minutes To Where? August 28, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, transportation, Uncategorized.
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It’s summertime. And Philly Bluejay is living it easy. And also has sporadic internet connection other than his iPhone. It’s hard to bang out multi-line email responses on an iPhone, much less 1,200 word blog posts! If only Philly Bluejay was a teenager during the dawn of texting, he would have developed the thumb dexterity necessary to conduct all of his online business on a 2.5″ by 4.5″ touch screen. Alas, club-thumbs relegate Philly Bluejay to the laptop set.

Anywhos, here is a SmartPlanet—not to be confused with SmarterPlanet®—blog post about vactrains. What is a vactrain? It’s a maglev (magnetic levitation) train that travels in an airless—or at least highly depressurized—tube. Because there is no friction with either the rails or the air, vactrains can presumably achieve very high speeds while using relatively little energy. China is currently developing a vactrain that will travel at 600+ mph. That is more than twice as fast as the fastest maglev train—the 268 mph Shanghai line, more than three times faster than the fastest conventional train, and even slightly faster than a jet! Second- and third- generation vactrains could break the sound barrier and reach speeds of 4,000 mph! NY to LA in 45 minutes!

Okay, so a train going 4,000 mph along a relatively straightshot 3,000 mile tube is probably not going to happen—not even with eminent domain—but even a train going 600 mph along a 300 mile tube would be a useful thing. Here is a CNN.com piece about high-speed rail projects in the US. The most interesting parts of the piece are the actual projects as well as the criticisms. The most prevalent criticism is that high speed train travel is less energy efficient than traveling in a small car and that it is not sufficiently faster to forfeit door-to-door convenience. This is a false argument. The competition for high speed trains is not cars—it’s regional jets. Regional jets are the least energy-efficient form of transportation. Jet travel in general is hard to make green because batteries cannot achieve anywhere near the energy density of kerosene-based jet fuel. But regional jets are worse than long-haul jets because they have larger vehicle-to-payload weight ratios and because they fly at lower altitudes where air resistance is higher. When Philly Bluejay and eighteen other people take the 6AM Embraer 170 to Boston—this happens!

Regional jets are ripe to get picked off by high speed trains. Train travel is as convenient as regional jet travel if not more so. There are no long security lines at train stations—although security at train stations should be increased. And most inter-city train stations are located in downtowns—at the hub of the local train system—whereas most airports are not. Philly Bluejay would much prefer to take the 6AM maglev-Acella or vac-Acella—actually, vac-Acella sounds too much like a disease—to Boston and get to the train station at 5:45 than the 6AM United-Express and get to the airport at 5:15.

Which gets us back to the US high-speed rail projects. Most of the projects—northeast corridor, California coast, Miami-Orlando—are sensible. There is a lot of regional jet travel along these routes. But some are pure pork. Is there significant regional air traffic between Cincinnati and Cleveland? Between Milwaukee and St. Paul? High speed track—especially maglev- and vac-tracks—is expensive. From a climate-change/renewable-energy perspective, it only makes sense if it can displace a significant amount of air travel.

P.S. Speaking of the 2.5″ by 4.5″ magic portal, Philly Bluejay recently discovered the rationale behind these magical dimensions! I’m sure you’ve heard of the classic Microsoft interview question: “why are manhole covers round?” The real answer of course is “Duh, because manholes are round and the cover needs to fit the hole!” but the answer Microsoft expects is “So that it can’t fall in.” Well, the reason the second smallest dimension of an iPhone is 2.5″ is so that it doesn’t fall through a sidewalk grating when someone bumps into you while you are trying to take a picture.

P.P.S. If you travel in computer science circles—and who among Philly Bluejay’s four readers doesn’t? except for my mother, hi mom—you know about the recent buzz surrounding the central question of the field—whether P=NP. About two weeks ago, Vinay Deolalikar—a mathematician working at HP—published a 100+ page proof of the widely believed but still not formally proven result that P≠NP. Why would anyone do such a thing? Well, there are 1,000,000 reasons—or maybe 1,166,666.66 now that Grigory Perelman refuses to collect after resolving the Poincare conjecture. After much prodding and pulling on the WordPress-sphere, it now appears that all has been for naught and that Mr. Deolalikar will not be collecting after all. Well, Philly Bluejay has recently proven a somewhat less known but no less important result—sources tell me that it was ranked 1,530 on the list of millenium challenge problems—specifically that YP≠MP. Follow closely. You≠me∴your problem≠my problem. QED. Now, where is my 1,166,666.66 USD?

P.P.P.S. Anyone know the HTML code for the QED “tombstone?”

P.P.P.P.S. A few weeks ago, Baghdad recorded an all time record high temperature of 126 Fahrenheit—it’s a dry heat. Then just this past week, the last US combat troop pulled out of Iraq. Coincidence? Perhaps the US/West strategy against Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran should revolve not around military action but rather around climate change! Humans can’t tolerate prolonged exposure to temperatures higher than 120 Fahrenheit. If we can raise the average summer high temperature in the region to that level—it’s currently about 108 Fahrenheit—I bet the locals would get a lot less feisty. Come on, we can do this!

P.P.P.P.P.S. Philly Bluejay also has a plan for long-haul trans- and inter-continental jet travel. With the shuttle program now retired, NASA needs to develop hybrid jets that fly both in the atmosphere using conventional forced-air jet propulsion and above it using stored oxygen. These hybrid jets would take off from commercial airfields, climb through the atmosphere like conventional jets, transition to shuttle mode, travel the bulk of their route in zero-drag conditions while discharging waste gas outside of the atmosphere, then reenter, transition back to conventional jet mode, then land again at a commercial field.

The Effects and After Effects of “24” May 26, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in society, television, Uncategorized.
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A few days ago, I heard an NPR interview with Kiefer Sutherland. The topic was the upcoming nine-season—eight television seasons plus one season when the show had to be suspended because Kiefer was in the pen—finale of “24.” One of the people interviewer Robert Segal quoted—I forget who this was—called “24” the “signature show of the Bush administration” and the “single most significant factor in the American public’s relatively new acceptance of torture as a military and counter-terrorism tool.” For the last nine years, 24 times a year, the American public sees Jack Bauer save the United States from immediate ruin using information obtained by what would surely be classified as torture. The American public, perhaps believing that “24” is a TLC reality show in the style of “Little People/Big World” or “Jon and Kate plus Jon’s 19-year old Girlfriend minus Kate,” come away believing that the CIA or FBI or Homeland Security—or whichever federal agency or sub-agency CTU is supposed to represent—routinely tortures people and routinely obtains reliable relevant information as a result. Or perhaps it’s nothing that sophisticated. Perhaps just regularly seeing torture on prime time network television—for whatever reason—desensitizes one to about torture, suppressing the gag reflex, and deprecating torture from something which is unspeakable to something which is both speakable and watchable on prime time television. Of course, Sutherland’s answer was expected. He essentially said that “24” was more a reflection of the post 9/11 world than a driver of it and that if it took several elements to the extreme, it was justified in doing so because everyone understands that “it’s just a television show” and “violence equals ratings” and “come on, it’s just a television show.”

Yes, we get it. “24” is (was) “just a television show.” And it wasn’t a very good show, either. I admit I used to love it. I have only enough attention to watch one show per season and for a few seasons—4 and 5?—”24″ was it. I watched the first two seasons on DVD also. In parallel with season 5 I think. But when the show took a year off, I switched over to “Fringe”, itself not the best of shows with no less tiresome acting, but with a more interesting plot than “24” at least. I mean, how many separate times can someone’s daughter be kidnapped in one 24 hour period?

Yes, “24” was not the best show. And it glorified torture and violence a little too much. But the twisted glorification of violence and torture was full on even outside “24.” Witness the whole “torture porn” film genre exemplified by the Saw series. As well as the GPU-enabled increasingly graphic nature of video games. “24”‘s bigger problems, in my opinion, were a cast of characters that changed by the minute as seemingly central players kept getting killed off—other than Jack you couldn’t get attached to anyone, not that you really wanted to get attached to Chloe—blatant abuse of techno-babble—really? it’s possible to download sattelite photos to a PDA over a secure link in under a second?—and its depiction of US President Charles Logan as an outright criminal. On second though, maybe “24” was the signature show of the Bush administration.

I will say this for “24” though. In addition to desensitizing America to torture, it also desensitized to the notion of having an African American president. I really believe that without “24” Barack Obama would not be president today. The country had to see it on television first.

P.S. Gregg Easterbrook has something to say about “24” also.

P.P.S. As if I didn’t like LEGO® enough already. Now I find out that they are manufactured to a tolerance of 2µm so that they can snap together tightly but still be pulled apart without excessive violence or torture. 2µm! The Intel 486, shipped in 1989, used transistors with a 1µm channel length. LEGOs are manufactured to roughly four times the tolerance of circa 1990 microprocessors! You can probably run Windows 3.1 on LEGOs!

I’m Not a Pothead, I’m a Marijuana Consumer April 15, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in Uncategorized.
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This blog is fast becoming a dumping ground for my reactions to stories I hear on NPR on the way to and fro work. I wrote fro on purpose there, in case you were wondering. Anyway, Tuesday’s Radio Times featured Philly DA Seth Williams and Chris Goldstein (let me guess, Jewish dad, Christian mom) of PhillyNORML about a move in Philadelphia to … well … not exactly de-criminalize marijuana, but at the very least to de-penalize it. The proposal is to downgrade possession of fewer than 30 grams of tea from a misdemeanor to a summary offense, reducing the penalty from a $500 fine and up to a month in the can to a citation, no time, a possible fine, and no permanent mark on one’s criminal record. Doing this will reduce arrests in Phillly by 4,000 a year or about 10% and save Philly about 3 million dollars. The city could use this money, e.g., reopen some public swimming pools in time for summer—not the one that kicked out a school-group of black kids, that club was private and outside of Philly, and I know they wish everyone forgot about that story, but I haven’t—and maybe a library or two.

Wow! Is Pennsylvania on its way to joining those other other enlightened states like California, Massachusetts, and New York which have de-criminalized possession to various degrees? Will Pennsylvania be the tipping point that moves the Federal government to scale back its “War on Drugs” to a “War on Narcotics” and moves Mary Jane from its current status of a “gray economy” to the mainstream? I heard (or read) a few weeks ago that once 15 states adopt some measure, Washington usually makes it federal policy if only to prevent chaos due to differences in state policies. We are already a little bit past 15 states, but Pennsylvania would add to the smaller list of “big states that matter!” Ha! I’m sorry, Montana, you matter. Without you, we wouldn’t have a city called Butte. Or Larry Craig. I digress.

As this is my second post in two months about legalizing chronic, you may be wondering whether I have a personal stake here. Well, I won’t deny that I have smoked and inhaled. But I also won’t deny that the last time was sixteen years ago. I don’t bang on this issue because I want to legitimize my own consumerism. Thankfully, I don’t have a medical condition that broccoli would alleviate. And I hardly drink much less get high. To me, as it is to the district attorney, this is an economic efficiency issue. Spending tax dollars punishing an activity which may not be ideal, but which is non-violent, or at least not directly, is a not a good use of resources. Even worse, keeping weed underground is ignoring a potentially enormous tax base. If I told you how big the US ganja economy is, you would fall off the chair. It’s $35bn a year. 90% of which is grown in the US. $35bn. $35,000,000,000. I saw a talk a few weeks ago where the speaker wrote out large numbers because he said that people ingested them better that way. So again, $35,000,000,000. Corn and wheat combined are only $23,000,000,000. $35,000,000,000 is roughly the annual revenue of Intel. There is as much money in reefer as there is in Core i7 and Atom combined!

For the third, and certainly not last time, I am pro vice taxes. If there is an activity that we as a society want to discourage, be it smoking, toking, drinking, driving or all four at the same time, the solution is not to outlaw it—well, doing either of the middle two either concurrently or sequentially but in close temporal proximity to the fourth should be outlawed—but rather to tax the hell out of it. This reduces crime, eliminates black markets and bootlegging, and raises money for the government. In Pennsylvania, liquor is sold through state controlled stores. Those same stores could sell grass as well. With a $10 per gram tax—roughly 100% at current prices—five for the state and five for BO. You don’t think BO could find a good use for $17,500,000,000 a year? At the very least, it would buy three more weeks in Iraq.

As far as science can tell, the effects of ganja are roughly on level with those of alcohol. Alcohol is restricted from minors, but is otherwise an above-the-table part of the general economy. Why shouldn’t weed be the same?

P.S. I thought the funniest part of the show was Goldstein constantly referring to potheads as “Marijuana consumers.” Evidently, this is part of a national campaign to de-stigmatize Afghan-nation, to scrub their public image and improve their community standing. I laughed every time I heard it. Burnouts want to be called Marijuana consumers. Child molesters want to be called Catholic priests. Cockroaches want to be called Cowboys fans. Who’s next?

P.P.S. Think I wrote this post in part so that I can use every name for giggleweed that I can think of? You bet your dime bag I did.

A Good Climate/Energy Bill? March 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, energy efficiency, sustainability, Uncategorized.
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If you were to ask the average Joe (e.g., Joe “the plumber”) or Sarah (e.g., SarahP) what the most important issue facing the country today, he or she would say “jobs” (if they didn’t have a job) or “health care” (if they had no health insurance or inadequate health insurance), “immigration” (if they were white and lived in Texas/Arizona/New Mexico/California/Colorado or if they were here illegally), “national security” (if they just saw or read about the Moscow subway bombing), DADT (if they are a hater) or “inability to see Finland from my house” (if they were SarahP).

But the real answer, the right answer, is climate change and/or clean energy interchangeably. Politicians usually deal with short term disasters like (e.g., housing market crashes, failure of “too big to fail” financial institutions) and some medium-term problems (e.g., impending bankruptcy of Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security). They are less apt to tackle long-term problems like climate change, preferring to defer those to future administrations which will be forced to meet them as they reach medium- and short- term status. And this is not just politicians, this is humans. We simply don’t respond to slow incremental change for the worse in the same way that we would respond if that change were abrupt.This is why Dan “Stumbling on Happiness” Gilbert says that climate change is happening too slowly. If it happened faster, we would be more likely to do something about it.

We don’t respond to slow change because evolution hasn’t selected and wired us (or our amygdala) for it. But fortunately, it has given us a frontal cortex which allows us to sit back, analyze, and take rational action. And any rational analysis shows that we can’t really afford to wait to do anything here. Unless we do something relatively drastic in the relatively near future, the effects of climate change will not only make actual living less physically pleasant or tolerable than it is now, it will exacerbate each and every problem we feel acutely today. The economy? Conservative estimates are that nations will have to forfeit 15-20% of their GDP to mitigate direct effects of climate change. Health care? Global warming will push malaria and other currently “tropical” diseases to latitudes and altitudes which are now temperate and free of these diseases. Immigration? Rising sea levels will displace the entire population of Florida, not to mention Bangladesh and about 50% of the population of China. DADT? I guess climate change will not have an impact on that. Although maybe it should. Maybe if climate change affected DADT, Republicans would become more interested in it.

But now there is hope. Maybe. After the health insurance bill, and the jobs bill, and the upcoming bank reform bill, could we actually have a climate and energy bill? And would this bill be any good? I am going to write more about this as more information comes out, but here are the preliminary details of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman clean energy bill. There is a useful side-by-side of this bill, the House ACES bill, and POTUS Obama’s proposal. The best thing I can say about KGL is that it includes a “linked carbon fuel fee” which sounds a lot like a carbon tax. Neither the Obama nor the Waxman-Markey bills contain any mention of a carbon tax, they are both pure cap-and-trade proposals. I am a big proponent of a carbon tax (if you have read a recent post, you know I am in favor of any vice tax) over a cap-and-trade system which I think will be too complicated to enforce, and not very effective at changing consumer lifestyles and behaviors. A “professional” environmental activist told me just this weekend that a carbon tax has “Absolutely zero political legs. None. Negative.” So for now, I will have to satisfy myself with the KGL language which probably isn’t a carbon tax but at least sounds like it could potentially be one. I am sure I will write more about carbon tax in a future post. The thing I found saddest (although I guess that is a relative term) is amount of projected overall investment: $100bn over 10 years according to POTUS, $150bn over the same in WM, and TBA in KGL. Anyways, really people? $150bn? That’s it? $940bn to insure 32mn uninsured Americans and only $150bn to save 300mn Americans from hell on earth? $1tn (is that trillion) over 10 years to save us from imaginary Iraqi WMDs but only $150bn to save us from multiple future Katrinas? $182bn to save “too big to fail” AIG and only $150bn to save the planet? Perhaps the planet is not too big to fail! Hey, we’ll always have Jupiter!

Anyways, expect to hear a lot more from me about this in the coming weeks.

P.S. An American would never do this. Either of it.

P.P.S. On the advice of aquaman 2.0, I have switched routines to 1000 meters followed by 10 100-meter sprints. So far, so good. Although I might be hooking up with a “total immersion” trainer soon.

P.P.P.S. What is the Vegas line on the number of days left in Mike Steele’s RNC chairmanship? 4.5? Give me the under.