Archive for January, 2011

“Too Much Information” Technology

Posted January 27, 2011 By Steve

“Too much information will make your brain choke.” — Bryan Davis


liar game

When it comes to privacy, I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to put the toothpaste back in the tube. I think what’s going to happen is that modern culture will adapt to an ever diminishing expectation of privacy. To older people that probably sounds really terrifying. Younger people don’t seem to be as bothered, especially considering what they’ll post on Facebook.

And it’s not just the Internet that will erode the walls that separate us from one another. One of the things that’s coming up is a technology called augmented reality, in which what you see in the real world has an added layer of computer generated information overlaid on top of it. So imagine you’re walking around on vacation and want to get a bite to eat. You don’t know any of these places. But with AR, you might have a small screen or even glasses to wear that overlay additional information about what you see. When you look at a restaurant it may also display how well it’s been reviewed, or whether it’s been cited by the health department, or if it has low sodium options.

This relates to privacy in that as facial recognition software becomes more mature, it will become possible to use AR to learn things about people just by looking at them. Imagine something like this connected to a database of registered sex offenders, for example.

What will be even more game changing will be on the fly lie detection. As scanning technology used in MRIs becomes cheaper and miniaturized, someday it will fit into these sorts of AR systems. Another way to do this that might be technologically easier to engineer would be if the sorts of microexpressions that show deception can be analyzed by the facial recognition software. Either way, imagine having a conversation with someone and having your AR system display a big stop sign every time the person shows signs of deception.

So at what point will information technology become “too much information” technology? Love it or hate it, you’re likely going to find out!

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Save Your Pennies

Posted January 18, 2011 By Steve

“If it’s a penny for your thoughts and you put in your two cents worth, then someone, somewhere is making a penny.” — Steven Wright

1937 penny obverse
Recently I posted on using gold and silver as money, and got some interesting commentary in return from Mark Herpel, editor of DGC Magazine. One of the resources he suggested referred to the use not of gold or silver, but of copper as a trading commodity, as it included a bit from a group that was planning to produce copper rounds for that purpose.

It made me think that while gold and silver get the limelight, copper too has a long history as a circulating commodity in coinage. And that reminded me of the humble penny, a coin which was 95% copper until 1982, but debased to be mostly zinc in that year because it started to cost more than one cent to manufacture a penny coin.

If you look through your spare change, however, you’ll see that a significant percentage of pennies in circulation today are still from before the Reagan Debasement. And these pennies are worth a lot more than their face value. There are about 155 pennies in a pound, meaning a face value of about $1.55. But the current price of copper is nearly three times that at $4.40 per pound!

Now, like many people, I’m not in a position to buy gold or even silver rounds and sock them away. But like anyone else, I get pennies in change. Sure, you’re not supposed to melt them down for their metal content, but might it still be worth it to sort out the ones from before 1982, roll them up, and set them aside? If inflation really goes haywire as some expect, it might not be the worst idea to take a few minutes a day to save your pennies — the real ones, anyway.

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Free Software At The U. of Memphis

Posted January 18, 2011 By Steve

“Software is like sex: it’s better when it’s free.” — Linus Torvalds



I’m a big fan of free software. I had been running Windows and DOS before it all the way back to the early ’90s, but I always had an interest in free software and about two years ago I finally made the switch to Ubuntu Linux. I’ve been very happy with it, as it does everything I need, and since it’s easier for me to be the system administration for the family if we’re all on the same system, I went further and bought Adella a laptop with Ubuntu Linux, and even gave my mom’s old PC a new lease on life by replacing her crawlingly slow Windows XP installation with Ubuntu Linux.

It’s come a long way since I first toyed around with it in 2000, but because Linux still has such a small share of the market, occasionally I run into something I want to do where there’s no Linux support. When I would call my Internet service provider, for example, I quickly learned never to tell them I was a Linux user because their brains would turn to goo and they would stammer that they wouldn’t be able to help me. Similarly, when I worked for Marymount the helpdesk wasn’t in a position to offer support for Linux, almost all the students ran Windows or Mac, and that was all they could really handle.

I saw that the introductory assignment for my Statistics course was to get set up using a remote client to access a terminal server that had PASW, an expensive commercial Statistics software package, and that there were two sets of directions — Windows and Mac. “Uh oh,” I thought, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of that bit in “King of the Hill”, where… well, see for yourself:


So I contacted the University of Memphis helpdesk, just to see whether they could offer directions for a Linux user like me. I had really low expectations, but I was pleasantly astonished when they responded immediately with useful instructions. After a few iterations with them, I was connected properly and using the remote application. University of Memphis helpdesk for the win!

At the same time, using an application on their server over my not-so-great connection was pretty slow. The thing is, the reason they provide this convoluted means of accessing the application isn’t that it won’t run on people’s computers at home. The reason people have to jump through all those hoops is that licenses for this software are incredibly expensive. But free software to the rescue, because there’s a free software alternative called PSPP that is designed to replace it costlessly. I imported the data set in both places and it looked the same and gave me the same results, so I emailed my instructor asking whether he minded if I use PSPP instead. Because the directions on getting set up with PASW were so particular, I was concerned that he might insist I use it. But he asked which particular package I’d like to use and he sounds amenable to it. So that’s pretty impressive as well.

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U.S. And Chinese Economic Trends

Posted January 16, 2011 By Steve

“Although China and United States are competitors, China and the United States are indeed partners in trade.” — Zhu Rongji



I saw this Reuters article on how economists foretell of U.S. decline, China’s ascension, and since my teenage son is studying Mandarin, I posted it to his wall on Facebook. My mom, also an avid Facebooker, suggested we read the reader comments also, since there was a lot of disagreement. So I thought I’d elaborate on why I sent it to him.

I don’t think the U.S. is going to drop out of the economic top ten any time soon, I just think since the end of the Cold War that it’s enjoyed an unrivaled preeminence that is coming to an end. I think there are things that the U.S. could do to put off that trend, like tax reform and immigration reform, but that policy makers don’t understand these issues and that even among those who do there’s insufficient political will to take these things on. That said, I don’t think it’s so much that the U.S. is in decline so much as that other countries are catching up, which doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.

China is also doing a much better job building relationships with countries where incomes are low but natural resources abound. For example, China has been increasing their presence in Ghana’s oil sector at the Americans’ expense. They’re also doing a good job shepherding their own natural resources, for example with farsighted policies on rare earth metals extraction — metals needed in a variety of industries for which they currently are the only economically viable source.

That’s not to say the Chinese have every advantage. Their huge agrarian population keeps labor costs low, but that also means their GDP per capita will be lower than that in Western countries for a long time, even as they get squeezed in the other direction by countries like Vietnam that are emerging as cheaper outsourcing destinations.

The American educational system for all its faults is also better overall than theirs. Even their K-12 system isn’t focusing on the right things. Over there it’s all rote memorization of facts, and very little emphasis on understanding the connections among things — sort of like NCLB tests from hell. That’s an okay system for a manufacturing economy, but a terrible one for a service economy where innovation is key.

So my point wasn’t that the Chinese were taking over the world, just that there’s a difference between a large economy and a dynamic economy, and these days they seem to be both, and there are worse uses of time for a young person than to be learning Mandarin.

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Memphis: Day One

Posted January 13, 2011 By Steve

“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.” — The Buddha


start of a race

Today my first classes begin at the University of Memphis. I’m taking Statistics I and IT Trends. I did fine in statistics as an undergraduate, and I have a pretty good support system when it comes to statistics, so I’m not as worried about that as I’ve heard some people get. And having done a Master’s in educational technology, I’m not exactly terrified about an IT course for educators either.

Speaking of educational technology, it looks like Memphis uses Desire2Learn as their LMS. It’s one of the few systems I haven’t seen before, and I suppose it’s okay. It seems to run extremely slowly, but in fairness there’s a notice saying they’re aware of it and are working on it, so there’s hope that won’t be a constant situation.

Even though it’s a distance learning program, all of my classmates who have introduced themselves so far today seem to be from Memphis, and most of them work for the University itself. I suppose that’s not surprising since it’s a new program, and it will take a little time for most people in the wider world to hear about it. Even though I keep my ear to the ground on these things, I only heard about it by chance.

Having read both courses’ syllabi, the most daunting thing will likely be the twenty page term paper for IT trends. I’m hoping that my experience in the field will help on this a lot, though, and that I can even turn this into an opportunity to do something publishable, or even start with something that might be relevant to a dissertation topic later.

So those are my first impressions. So far so good, anyway!

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Using Gold As Money: Just Do It!

Posted January 8, 2011 By Steve

“An almost hysterical antagonism toward the gold standard is one issue which unites statists of all persuasions. They seem to sense… that gold and economic freedom are inseparable.” — Alan Greenspan


gold coins

The Washington Post is reporting that conservative state legislator Bob Marshall is proposing the Virginia government study the feasibility of minting gold and silver coins to be used as money in the event that hyperinflation renders the U.S dollar unusable. Rather than address the proposal itself, the response to this from the left has been ridicule Marshall for wanting to bring back the Confederacy.

Now, I realize that Southern whites are the last remaining group in America against whom it’s still culturally acceptable to be bigoted, but this is not a proposal for the South to rise again, and I think most of its better-educated detractors know it. It ought to be enough to damn Marshall’s proposal for the flaws it actually has, which are (1) it’s not constitutional, as Article I, Section 8 assigns the federal government the exclusive authority to coin money, (2) it’s unlikely to pass in the General Assembly, and (3) if one government is debasing its currency it’s a little foolish to trust a different government not to do the same thing.

The real solution for those who want to use gold and silver as money is to use the Nike maneuver — just do it. You don’t need to wait for some government to tell you it’s okay. If you own a store, list your prices both in dollars and in ounces of silver. If you’re a customer, offer a silver round and see what the store owner says. It wouldn’t be that hard for someone enterprising to set up an online directory of businesses that participate. If there really is enough interest, those people can have their own sound money economy just like that. It’s the sort of thing I’ve always thought I might do using simply web technologies like PHP and MySQL if I can find the time. And with “quantitative easing” and related euphemisms for running the printing presses to churn out more money coming out of Washington, maybe sooner would be better than later.

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Palin Missing The Point On Childhood Obesity

Posted January 5, 2011 By Steve

“Let me have men about me that are fat, sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights. Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” — William Shakespeare, Julius Caeser, Act 1, Scene 2


obesity parody poster

A friend of mine pointed me to an article in the Christian Science Monitor in which Mario Rizzo defends Sarah Palin’s criticism of Michelle Obama for having spoken out on childhood obesity. It made me realize how much commentary I’ve seen on this seemingly trivial issue in the last few weeks.

Some Republicans have come out in disagreeing with Palin, saying that Obama is simply speaking her mind about a societally important issue. Many of these seem delighted to have an opportunity to knock Palin down a peg or two going into the 2012 presidential election season, but surely that’s merely a coincidence. Others are agreeing with Palin, basically saying that as First Lady, Obama is close enough to being a government official that her campaign is an unwelcome social engineering effort on the part of the federal government.

Initially, I saw all this as a good barometer of hysteria. I find that those who’ve said Palin’s gone overboard with this are on the right side of the hysteria threshold. I mean, at this point the technical term for the size of the average American kid is “ginormous”. So what if Obama’s a quasi-politician, the message in this particular case is correct, right? But then I realized that if you’re really in favor of tackling obesity in government that focusing on what Sarah Palin is saying is pretty stupid, because it’s a lost opportunity to respond more directly to Obama’s approach to the issue.

What I mean is that if Michelle Obama really believes that childhood obesity is an important problem, then why doesn’t she come out in public opposition to government policies that encourage it? For example, shouldn’t she hold a press conference to trumpet her support for an end to government subsidies for sugar, corn, meat, and dairy?

But of course she isn’t going to do that. And the meanstream media isn’t going to call her on it. Agribusiness is big business, after all, and nothing, not even the health of America’s children, can be allowed to interfere with the ménage à trois of government, corporations, and the media. That’s why these sorts of subsidies weren’t even mentioned during the debates on the cost of healthcare last year, and they won’t be mentioned this year even as the federal debt continues to expand like, well, like an American waistline.

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