Finally a better battery?

Self-Healing Battery Electrode Shows Promise for Smartphones, EVs

I didn’t get the impression that this design had higher density, just that it lasted longer. Sure, that is nice, instead of replacing your PV/wind turbine batteries every 5 years you can do it every 10 years, but if they cost twice as much that isn’t terribly valuable.

Still, any improvement in batteries is something to be happy about.

It is hard to think it is a coincidence

Does calculator overstate heart attack risk?

When I first read an article about this new way of doing things that was expected to double or triple the number of people on statins I was very skeptical (see here for some earlier info), it sounded like a gimme to the pharmaceutical industry. I filled out their little calculator (an Excel spreadsheet; nice plug for Microsoft, eh?) with some figures I half remembered from my last blood tests and it said I was well under the 7.5% 10 year risk. However, it did say I was something like 5% which seemed quite high to me. I sent an email off to my wife (a nurse) and forgot about it. Until I read this interesting article that has this little bit in it…

Concerns about the calculator were first raised, according to the Times report, by Harvard Medical School professors Paul Ridker and Nancy Cook.

In an analysis to be published Tuesday in the medical journal The Lancet, a copy of which was obtained by CNN Ridker and Cook write they calculated 10-year risks using the tool and compared the data to event rates using three large previously-published studies in which participants’ characteristics such as age and smoking status were known.

The calculator “systematically overestimated observed risks by 75 to 150 percent, roughly doubling the actual observed risk,” they wrote.

CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen said when she used the calculator, putting in a 65-year-old man with normal cholesterol levels and no risk factors — normal blood pressure, no diabetes and a nonsmoker — the calculator said he needed statins.

Shocking, I know, to find out that there is likely to be an agenda behind something this momentous, but hey, this is the good old USofA where ordinary people are simply sheeple to be herded in ways to further the excess of the elite.


Systems engineering

Goals vs. Systems

This is another interesting article from Mr. Dilbert. I suggest my reader(s) take a look, but for this post it was more or less a trigger and my post won’t focus too much on it. When I was quite young (probably 11 or 12) I gave a lot of thought about what I wanted to do with my life (actually, it wasn’t as portentous as that, I think about long-range things all the time; I thought about building a house for nigh on 3 decades before it finally happened). I felt that if I set easy to reach goals I would quickly reach them and then be left with nothing. I decided then to set my goals so astronomical (it wound up being literal) that it would take essentially forever to realize them, thus I would never be left with “what’s next”. To give you a scale for judging ‘astronomical’, my ‘reasonable’ unreasonable goal is to build space stations in the Lagrange points fore and aft the moon. You know, something modest that holds a few hundred thousand people. Sadly (or laughingly, depending on my mood), I have made no measurable progress toward achieving those goals. However, whenever any opportunity arises (I firmly believe that people are ‘lucky’ all the time (see here for some of my ideas) and simply lack the wit to realize) I always measure them against my long-term (‘reasonable’, keep that in mind) goal. When I evaluate the potential of a business opportunity it is always along the lines of ‘can it scale far enough and fast enough to make it worth the intense effort needed (I am quite cognizant of the 100+ hours per week a business startup requires for success). If I don’t feel that effort is likely to be rewarded I wait to see what the next one brings along.

Because of my lofty goals my calculus has had me sidestep or ignore quite a few opportunities over the years, opportunities that no doubt could have been grown into very nice little businesses that might have brought in millions or more a year. Because my goals are so lofty (I was going to use ‘ridiculous’, so I guess you can guess where my state of mind is at present) I am extremely risk seeking (in business; I still have no interest in jumping out of perfectly good planes). Because high reward almost always comes with high risk (unless you are a banker in our f-ed up world today where you can make astronomical rewards by destroying the world’s economy, then get bonuses for your effort), since I seek high rewards, in order to have the resources to accomplish my goals, naturally my approach is extremely high risk as well. High risk, by definition, means low probability of success, so I invest a lot of time and effort into projects that statistically speaking are highly likely to fail. I made this decision decades ago because it is clear to me that doing the same thing that everyone else is doing is never going to be high reward. One of the reasons I am attracted to the world of invention is that in our current world’s economy having a patent on a (desirable) product means you have monopoly powers and can have elevated margins in spite of the markets efforts to drive you down to the typical 20% after tax margins (so when you see a company making margins higher than that you know something interesting is going on). In order for me to afford the billions (lots of billions!) to build space stations I need big fat margins, margins way larger than the marketplace will normally allow. That is the main reason for my somewhat single minded obsession with inventing new things and trying to commercialize them (well, I am inventive, but I seldom invest energy in going from idea to reality unless I think there is a huge market for it).

I also know in the world of invention that all are not created equal. Indeed, the vast majority of patented ideas are worth less than the paper they are printed on, so though I have explored the mechanics of patenting over the years I have never felt any motivation to file for one until recently (relatively, it has been nearly a year now since the process started): my DNA sequencing idea. Looking back at that post I was so optimistic that it would be different this time (I tried to find investors back in ’08 with zero luck), but reality has reared its ugly head, yet again, and the long odds have stretched its hand out and relegated this to the dust bin of history (not even a footnote!). It turns out there is a company called Pacific Biosciences that has a functionally identical product (technically quite different, though) that it already has in the markplace (unlike my earlier mentioned ‘competitor’ (can’t really call them a competitor if I don’t have a product, eh?) which has been promising a commercial product for the last several years), is well funded (more than $100 million) and is actually generating millions in revenue each quarter. Since I was not getting any interest from investors before I found out about this product I can’t imagine suddenly I will get interest now. While it might be possible to still get interest in the patent, if it is granted as written (meaning the claims aren’t narrowed to uselessness), I have pretty much given up any thought on it.

I, of course, have a long laundry list of other ideas that I may or may not invest energy in. As I believe I bored you with a number of times before, I am slowly working toward making a commercial effort out of aquaponics (see here for what I think the potential is) and according to my nice pretty spread sheets this has as much or more potential as the DNA sequencing idea has/had, though there is more work and less protection from competitors (meaning managing the growth becomes critical; fortunately I expected to care about that and spent a lot of time focusing on that in my MBA education). I won’t bore you with other ideas (I have mentioned several here off and on), but they also depend on long odds. Recently I have been thinking about how much longer to beat this dead horse and when to give up on my lofty (astronomical (ridiculous)) goals.

It might be possible to get some of my interests in space satisfied by doing my own exploration. Years ago (over a decade now) I spent a lot of effort on an ‘atmospheric satellite’ idea. The idea is to build a huge light-weight plane that can fly at extremely high altitude (not as crazy at it might sound, really, the technology is from back in the 50’s and 60’s), say around 20 miles (100K feet) well above almost all the weather and nearly all the moisture, making it a nearly unbeatable location for stargazing (and telecommunications, my original business intent to pay for my stargazing). The wrinkle then becomes how to make a huge (I am talking football field sized planes, doanchano) mirror that is light enough to fly up there. There are approaches for doing so (I will avoid boring you with these) and I believe it is feasible to investigate that in my post space station life. There is also the idea of micro-satellites where the costs can be dramatically lower (but still likely to be more than I can convince my wife to cover). I believe there are enough things that are affordable that can indulge my interests in space, but I don’t see any of them making enough money to even pay the bills, let alone leading to space stations (unless they are for fleas ;-)).

It has been a rough last couple of years; giving up on long-held dreams is not easy. I worry about becoming a bitter old man who rails against the world (well, more than I already do). Not a very good role model for my boy and not a very good husband for my wife (nor, I suspect, a great child to my mom either). I lack the capacity to grok the math that might allow me to invent ‘warp drive’, so to get to space on my own will require either ‘winning the lottery’ (i.e., one of my ideas (e.g., DNA sequencing, aquaponics, etc.) pay off) or dramatically narrowing what ‘get to space’ means. Telepresence has taken such huge leaps forward lately that I suspect that putting little micro remote controlled lunar landers (say, sugar cube sized (do they still make sugar cubes?)) could allow for exploration but in the hands of ordinary people. Do we really _need_ to put people in space (other than diversifying our race locations so we can avoid going extinct with a single event here on Earth)? If we can knock off a bunch of zeros on the price then it becomes practical for ordinary people to get involved and suddenly, the market I have been focused on springs into existence, just in a very different way than I had anticipated. Who knows? Perhaps in the long run my ‘failure’ will still lead to success.

At least that is what I tell myself to try to keep from sinking into depression and becoming that bitter old man.

The natural course of events

This is about the typhoon Yolanda that struck the Philippines at Tacloban, Leyte, where my parents-in-law live. Fortunately, they have a very sturdy reinforced concrete house that is several stories tall and were able to weather the storm comparatively well (the entire first floor flooded in the storm surge, though; they are only a few blocks from the ocean and a few feet above sea level). Evidently ‘storm surge’ doesn’t convey much to the average person, I have heard several reports that if they described it as a ‘tsunami-like’ rise in water level people might have been more inclined to respect the evacuation notices. The forecasts were all quite clear on the magnitude of the storm surge and the result was pretty much exactly what was predicted, so wind, rain and storm surge were pretty much spot on to the predictions passed at least 36 hours in advance.

However, when people experience a ‘near miss’ in that the predicted bad things happening fail to happen, that makes them less likely to heed warnings in the future. Storm path forecasting can never be exact, there are millions of variables that interact in a non-linear fashion that determine the path of a storm, the severity at landfall, how quickly (or slowly) the power dissipates, etc. When people get jaded by general warnings that can’t be made more specific until it is too late to react, they set themselves up for the inevitable instance when the warnings were spot on. This is clearly a case of that, though I expect those who have survived will no doubt instill a sense of urgency in their children and perhaps grandchildren for decades to come.

Everything that has happened so far (and is yet to happen) is pretty much a script that is executed whenever a wide scale disaster strikes. Those responsible for organizing rescue and relief efforts _cannot_ do anything until _after_ the event has passed, that is unless they want to be part of the disaster themselves. Had the eye passed 50 miles further south Tacloban would not be ground zero so staging material/personnel in advance would have been wasted anyway. Thus, a response _must_ wait until after the event, the only meaningful preparation is to call up the ‘troops’ and get them organized to respond as soon as the storm has passed.

Now, once the event has completed, the first step is to evaluate the extent of the damage. How wide spread is the devastation, is it necessary to call up additional support, can some of the called-up support be sent home, etc. In this case likely more were scheduled to call up, but that can only be decided once the survey has been completed. This, of course, doesn’t happen instantly, it happens over the course of hours. Next, someplace has to be setup for staging the response. In this case it was the Tacloban airport, which was out of commission because of the storm. So, first helicopters need to land so the runway can be cleared (likely manually!) so that some transport can get in to bring larger equipment and to start staging relief supplies. Until the runway is open, relief is limited to helicopters and they are very limited in their ability to respond to a disaster of this magnitude. Indeed, the amount of relief they could provide would seem insulting and they are better used to scout and assess damage. This process takes time as well, so we are probably 12-18 hours before any meaningful response is on the ground. Note that this response is limited to the airport and its immediate surroundings, anyone further than a couple of hour walk is totally on their own.

Now, in parallel, the people who survived the onslaught of the storm are emerging from their bunkers, etc. and doing their own evaluation of their new circumstances. At first in shock, many do things that can easily be called pointless or counterproductive, but that is the nature of people in shock. Then they start to organize somewhat and make immediate changes to their local environment (find and care for the living, recover the dead, clear entrances, etc.). At this point the initial survey helicopters may pass overhead and some people start to get upset that no notice seems to be taken of their plight. People quickly start to realize that they have no power, water, food, etc. are dirty, scraped, bruised and battered (if not worse) and they are surrounded by death. On an extended adrenaline high from the disaster, likely without sleep for many hours, they enter a hyper alert state where minutes seem like hours and the lack of response by the rescuers starts to gnaw on them. The 12-18 hours it takes for planes to start to land at the airport feel like days causing them to start to think very short-term. This the origin of the looting, people are desperate and have lost perspective and start to search for and hoard whatever supplies they can find. Instead of a managed distribution of resources to those most needy (say, the functioning hospitals and clinics) people are now keeping things they don’t need because of this attitude their circumstances have force them into.

Back to the relief efforts. Now that large, heavily loaded transport planes can get in and out of the airport lots of supplies are arriving steadily. However, due to the limits of the weight carrying capacity of the planes, the heavy equipment (trucks, backhoes to clear the roads, etc.) arrives sporadically and irregularly, so it takes quite a while to start to clear the road. The road clearing takes a lot of time because people are searching for relatives in the debris and no one wants to risk killing someone who might be alive but buried under the rubble, so it might take hours to clear just a few hundred feet of road. As the road gets cleared it immediately fills up with refugees who want to be away and see the airport as their only salvation, thus further burdening the road clearing effort. Initial attempts to send resources are generally met with groups of desperate people who, for all intents and purposes, attack the transport and, just like described above, strip the transport of materials even if they can’t make use of it. This slows the relief efforts further, and now we are several days into the effort.

Back in town people are getting very resentful of the lack of response. Nothing can get in from sea because the port is destroyed, nothing can get in from road because they are blocked everywhere and helicopters simply can’t bring enough to make a difference (except, perhaps, by dropping medical supplies), but they can’t see that everything possible is being done. Non-governmental relief agencies are in no better shape than the government and must wait for the government response to clear roads, etc. All these events are pretty much inevitable and the typical course of action. If the relief is well organized then it will begin to accelerate after a few days as slow progress starts along several paths. Some relief can get in by sea, but much like helicopters, it can’t be much, but if targeted correctly can have a huge impact. Surviving local government can start to organize things in town and start clearance efforts from the inside out (most by hand since there is very little that functions), triage the sites that need the greatest response, organize the people who will be evacuated, etc. If there exists a strong (surviving) local government their organization efforts will start to calm people down and reduce their anxiety as they can see small signs of progress. Poor (or totally destroyed) local government can exacerbate the bad situation and when the relief finally arrives, it can lead to even worse outcomes as anarchy reigns. I have seen some small signs of the former and get the impression that the latter won’t be the case, but at this time it is a bit premature to judge the local government and organized relief efforts, they are largely doing all that is possible no matter how well funded, trained or organized.

It sucks a lot, but this is the inevitable result of a wide scale disaster. It is repeated almost exactly everywhere. Where there are slight benefits in a tsunami, for instance, is that it is a very coastal event and there are plenty of roads on the interior that are totally undamaged. Likewise tornadoes are very local and neighboring communities might be totally unaffected. Earthquakes are the closest parallel, but often there will be irregular damage where there will be neighboring communities that are relatively unaffected that can help out. This typhoon is a collection of relatively rare events all piled on top of one another, and it seems to me that everyone is doing what they can as fast as they can.

We are not so different

Tea Party shocker: Even right-wingers become liberals when they turn off Fox News
America’s center is to the left, and even Tea Partyers are liberals when they turn off Rush and learn real facts

A very interesting article that talks about a broad poll that shows when you ask people about specifics that we respond the same way (Tea party or otherwise) regarding which parts of the budget to cut or enhance and where to get new revenues. I won’t summarize the article (which, after all, is a summary of a paper), but for all practical purposes, other than rhetoric, Tea Party conservatives are indistinguishable from bleeding heart liberals in almost all senses.

Hard to believe, I know!

It is worse than we thought

ANOTHER DEVASTATING Chelyabinsk METEOR STRIKE ‘7x as likely’ as thought

I think that we (as a species) have been very lucky over the last few thousand years. Just a few large volcanoes (not ‘huge’, merely ‘large’), no massive tsunamis (the one in Japan a couple of years ago and the one in the Indian Ocean back in ’04 are nowhere close to ‘massive’) and essentially no significant asteroid/comet impacts. The Tunguska event is the largest we have had in known history (which only goes back a few thousand years) and we got really lucky it hit in the middle of nowhere. (Detroit, for instance, is around 300 square kilometers, the Tunguska event devastated 2,150 square kilometers, or 7 Detroits.) One of these days (no way to predict, for the most part) we are going to get a very major ‘normal’ event such as a meteor/comet impact that hits a populous area and the results will make the quarter million dead/missing from the Indian Ocean tsunami look like an average day of highway deaths.

It could be happening as I type this, or it could be 10’s of thousands of years in the future. One thing is totally clear, these sorts of events are totally inevitable and we have been fairly lucky up to this point, 7 times luckier, it seems, than we earlier thought.

Bridging the air gap


I got to say I was very skeptical when I started reading the post and kept checking my calendar to see if it was April 1st. As is usual for Schneier’s blog, the comments are also interesting reading; I suggest interested reader(s) scroll down and check them out. The general consensus I got was it was feasible to get a few kbps and the knee jerk response is that bandwidth at that rate is useless. Well, for surfing the ‘net today, that is certainly the case, but back in the ‘old days’ when you weren’t transmitting gigabyte Flash files it actually could be very useful. Back in the ‘old days’ you would transmit compressed code and then compile it (or run it as a script) on the remote host and actually move quite a bit of functionality around over such a low bandwidth connection. So, for well written malware (yes, I know that is generally an oxymoron) such a tiny soda straw would be very valuable.

The moral to this story: with modern computers with all sorts of wireless communication (intentional or otherwise) devices built-in it can take a great deal of effort to truly isolate them.

Cheating as the day wears on…

Why You’re Likelier to Cheat in the Afternoon
Willpower takes work, and the later it gets, the more your energy runs down

A brief one for those of my reader(s) that like that sort of thing. People are more likely to cheat later in the day as they get tired than they are earlier in the day when they are fresh. On a related note, there is this new idea called “Decision fatigue” where decisions get more conservative as the day wears on (for instance, judges were several times more likely to grant early release if asked before lunch than after lunch).

It really amazes me that we have managed to create a society at all, given how damn dumb we are and how programmed by instinct we are.

Now we know where you are in real time! And you paid for that!

Close-In Surveillance Using Your Phone’s Wi-Fi

Schneier’s blog post contains links to other articles, but to me the more interesting was reading the comments. Of course, infosec people will whine, bitch and moan, but for the average user this is great. At work this morning a co-worker mentioned that some phone (I think he said iPhone, but wasn’t paying much attention at that moment) was listening to the conversation in the room and would pop up targeted ads related to the conversation. He was talking about how cool it would be to modify it slightly so it would recognize movies and pop up relevant, scene-specific information. I remarked that just the other day I was complaining that without Google I am a moron since I have stopped retaining information I can trivially look up, what about the next generation that never did learn anything? With the context specific information provided by the tools above, they literally don’t have to think about anything, the cloud does it for them. Since they won’t retain any information either, ‘truth’ will be whatever the app discloses to them at whatever instant they are talking about something.

A truly brave new world!