Sunday, February 25, 2007

Will It Blend? Gets it Half-Wrong

For Valentine's Day, instead of blending diamonds, Will it Blend? decided to blend, due to reasonable budget constraints, cubic zirconia. For comparison, they tell us where it lies on the Mohs scale. What they failed to mention is that the Mohs scale is just ordinal; all the numbers mean is what substances are harder and which are softer. The absolute hardness actually compares the differences in hardness.

Cubic zirconia have an absolute hardness of around 300, diamonds 1500. In terms of hardness, iron is to cubic zirconia as cubic zirconia are to diamonds.

To further complicate things, cubic zirconia are very brittle; impact from a softer object can easy cause fractures.

Now, I'm not going to try this with my normal blender; my blog doesn't generate enough traffic to pay for both the bling and the new blender, and I'm not even going to consider spending $400 on a Blentec blender.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

How to Resolve American Political Conflict

We need a document in addition to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; we need a mission statement. Businesses have these all the time--they have a product line, an organizational structure, "corporate culture," etc. The US needs a similar basic philosophical premise on which to base policies.

In short, decide on social and economic principles politicians can use as guides in their decisions, like the political compass (find out where you fit in here) Let people not happy with the philosophy leave. This would greatly simplify decisions about foreign policy, wars, social programs (e.g. health care, state-managed retirement), legalization of marijuana, etc.

Since other countries don't have this, the country could be divided into four regions, based roughly on the political expectations of each region.

  • West coast: Libertarian left
  • East coast: Authoritarian left
  • South: Libertarian right
  • Midwest: Authoritarian right
Just an idea to ease political fighting. In presenting this idea, I don't promote or demote any quadrant, just the idea of putting people with similar political philosophies together so they can more effectively pursue their goals.

Further information:

Here are some competing representation of politics:

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Simple Image Compression Techniques

Before jpeg, gif, and png, images were compressed by much simpler means, often by analog circuits.

Analog TV uses two channels, luminance (the signal used by black and white TVs) and chrominance (color). The trick NTSC uses is to spend relatively more bandwidth on luma than chroma because the human eye is more sensitive to light than to color.

This image employs this techniques, but takes it a step further. The image is in CMYK. All color channels were reduced to 50% the resolution (requiring 1/4 the space) and due to the human eye being even more insensitive to yellow, the bits used were reduced by 50% to 4 bits.

So, the math:

Originally, each channel took the same space, s, so a total of 4s bytes were used. Cyan and magenta are reduced to .25s , each. Yellow, now requiring 4 bits per pixel, not 8, is reduced to .125s. The resulting space required is 1.625s, or around 41% of the original.

Here's the result (you should click it for the full effect; the image is too large):
The left-most pane is the original image. The middle-left pane is the result of resizing the image to take 40% the space, then resizing it up. The middle-right pane is the result of the aforementioned color specific process. The right-most pane is the same as the previous one, only with 1 bit yellow.

Things to note: the pink flower in the 2nd pane from the left is quite blurry when compared to the neighboring panes. The 3rd pane looks less crisp than the 1st, but in a less tangable way. Note the perceived quality difference in colors between the 2nd and 3rd frames is neglegable, despite yellow's reduced precision. Finally, note the severe, but almost acceptable color changes between the 3rd and 4th panes.

10 Ideas for Anna Nicole Smith's Corpse

Today, the fight was just resolved for where Anna Nicole Smith's final resting place would be.

How many options could there be that people would fight over?! For most people, it's a choice between being buried or cremated. Some of the slightly offbeat choices are natural cemeteries (sidenote: I am very much in favor of this one and would like it for myself), and having remains launched into space.

Here they are: 1 idea that shows I care and 9 ideas that are earning me a place in hell.

Locks of love.

Silicone implants harvested and saved for the opening of the Museum of Plastic Surgery.

Next generation Botox trials.

Brain research.

Albert Einstein's brain was donated for research in hope of gaining knowledge. I'm sure we can learn just as much, if not more with modern medical technology, from the his antithesis.

Next on the Howard Stern Show...

Used to scare Paris, Nicole, Lindsay, and Britney straight.

Corpse stuffed by a taxidermist and displayed in the Playboy Mansion.

ManBeef 2.0

1 word: eBay

The Anna Nicole Adult Puppet Show

Luckily, I'm not alone in joking about her too early. The good people (with whom I have no association) had a few ideas too:

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Biggest Problem with Social News Sites (Digg, Reddit, et al.)

Quite simply, and might I add poetically, sensationalistic headlines.

We've been exposed to and immersed in social hierarchies our entire lives, so it's no wonder we form similar hierarchies on social news sites. The desire to both fit in and stand out drives people to compete for "karma," recognition, or some other abstract reward for being popular. The best way to be popular is to submit stories with hyperbolic, semi-accurate headlines that appeal to the broadest demographic.

The result is biased news without integrity. True, some stories are of interest primarily to the demographic on the site, but others are explicitly biased.

Yes, the problem with social news is, ironically, the social nature of it.

Now, a solution: since these sites encourage almost capitalistic behavior, there needs to be some large penalty for submitting inaccurate and biased stories--enough of a penalty to discourage such tactics. In contrast, a community (more communist) approach would be to eliminate karma altogether, but people would quickly form black market karma (tm) that's created in the comments section.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why doesn't my old computer work well anymore?

In fixing people's questions, I got this question a lot. It's fairly complicated, and there are a number of reasons, some easy to fix, some not-so-easy.

First, it might not be, it might be you. Psychologically, when you buy a new computer, you expect it to be fast, but as it gets older, you expect less of it, and get dissappointed in the performance.

Here are some of the most common problems:
  • A virus, spyware, or adware is using you computer's resources.
  • Between installations and uninstallations, your systems registry can get corrupted. Additionally, it can get corrupted through normal use.
  • System files are damaged due to occasional hard power downs.
  • The hard drive is dying and beginning to corrupt your files.
  • Overheating
  • A weird hardware problem
Before trying anything, back up your data. You've heard it before, but it's true; backing up data can save you time, money, and a major headache.

If you're sure it isn't just you, it might be programs running on your computer. Spyware and adware use your computer resources for their ends, not yours. Before going further, make sure you virus scanner is up to date and run a scan. If you don't have a virus scanner, Avast free edition is, well, free. I'm not getting paid to plug them, but I found their virus scanner to be fairly user friendly and most importantly, free. After you've made sure a virus isn't using your system's resources, there might still be spy/ad-ware on it with a free scanner like AdAware.

Lots of programs use the Windows registry to store their information. With all the changes made to it, it can get corrupted. A tool (again, free) like CCleaner can fix some of these issues.

So you don't have any malware, and your registry is fine, but your computer is still acting weird. If some files got corrupted, there are three reasonable solutions. The easy one, although less effective, is using system file checker. To check system files, go to Start, Run, then type "sfc /SCANNOW" (without the quotes). It will ask you for your Windows CD. Hopefully your manufacturer included one with your computer for a situation like this. If they didn't you can probably find a copy on various websites, or you can call them and ask for one. Even if they won't give it to you, it will let them know that customers want to have this CD. If the system file checker doesn't fix your problem, it's time for more drastic action where you really should back up your data first. Boot from the CD and repair your Windows installation. This replaces most of the files Windows uses. If thing are still screwed up, repeat the process, only reformat your hard drive an reinstall Windows. This is where your backups come in handy.

If your new installation starts acting up or the installer fails, you probable have a bad hard drive, but first, make sure you don't have a dust problem. It's a little rare for computers to be affected by dust, but it's worth checking.

These days, new drives are pretty cheap. For those not technically savvy, picking the right replacement can be a challenge. The two things to look for in a hard drive. First, the size. Laptops use 2.5 inch drives, desktops 3.5 inch. The second thing to look for is the interface. The two main ones are Serial ATA and Parallel ATA. The label on the drive will probably say what the interface is. The general rule is that if the are a lot of pins, it's PATA (also called ATA), if it only has around 10, it's SATA. Be a little careful, though. If you see words like SCSI or fiber channel, it's not a typical consumer hard drive. Armed with this information, browse the internet or a local store for a new drive. If you know what you're doing, get the size that's right. If you don't, aim for the most reasonably priced size, and try to spend between $50 and $100. Once you've purchased and installed the new drive, repeat the Windows installation.

If you're still having problems, here are some things to remember about old computers:
  • Sometimes, they don't play well with new hardware.
  • Don't spend much more than $100 to fix it. At that point, just get a new one.
  • You might just need more memory. For Windows XP, 256mb is a reasonable minimum, but 512mb really helps.
  • If you're hearing strange noises, the parts that are supposed to make noise are the hard drive, CD-ROM drive (when in use) , CPU fan, and power supply fan. Strange noises are a bad sign, and you should try to replace the part.
The quick summary is that things usually get corrupted at different levels, and sometimes old hardware is responsible.

This isn't exhaustive. There are unusual things that can happen. Sometimes, CPUs, motherboards, and RAM die, but all of these are solid state, so death usually occurs later. I have a Pentium 2 system that's over 8 years old and still works fine, except everything other than the CPU, motherboard, and RAM has been upgraded.

I didn't explain the details on how to do some of this as there are numerous guides out there already. I mainly wanted to explain why your computer that worked fine when it was new is now sluggish.

The Hidden Cost of Big Box Retailers

In the form of an anecdote, of course.

Today, I headed to the local major electronics store (not Best Buy) to get a few miscellaneous things, one of which was compressed air. I don't normally need it--I go through so little that I might be better off letting my money make interest in the bank than buying three cans--so I just wanted a single can. Most were in packs of three, but some where singles. I found one, and it seemed to match the $4.xx price tag below it.

After picking up something else (and deciding to just order the other stuff online to save money), I started waiting in an extraordinarily long line, a line Disneyland would be proud of (the store was even themed like Disneyland). After the wait, they scanned in my stuff. The problem was that the individual can didn't show up and probably came form a three pack.

And now dear reader, where we started: the clerk wouldn't just sell me the can. I was polite, I didn't push him to do it, or anything, but I could purchase the single can I found with other single cans.

Every small business owner would have said "oh, well, if the three were $10, is $4 fine for the single?" The clerk didn't. In his world of SKUs and barcodes, this simply wasn't an option. For me, going back and waiting in line again for something so small wasn't an option. I purchased the other item and left.

In big box retailers, clerks lack, the power and the appreciation for the customer, and appreciation of the business to make a simple gesture like that. When people lose concern for others, the world becomes a very anesthetized place. Uniform, big box retailers encourage this general lack of concern among people.

I'm going to try to surrender an extra few dollars in exchange for a retailer that recognizes the value of my time and loyalty. We all know the tradeoffs of mom and pop vs. big box, but it had more personal meaning when 30 minutes stood between me and what I already stood in line to buy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Bayesian Probability on TV - A title only a nerd would love

I recently saw an ad for TGI Friday's 3 course meal where they stated there were 210 combinations for meals (5 appetizers, 14 entrées, 3 desserts, stated explicitly in the extended version) .

Does anyone care? Nope. They were just filling up time. It's just fun to see simple principles that are used in places like Google, Reddit, and Digg for delivering relevant content show up on a commercial aimed at crows not likely to otherwise see them.

Odd, I thought I went to college and took math classes to avoid asking people if they'd like fries with that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Second Best Facebook Group Ever

(The first, which is about as tasteful as a Chris Rock black people rant, is Facebook Group for College Threesome)

No, not even my high standards are immune to content like this.

"Drunk Girls That Kiss Aren't Lesbians"

Fair enough, but that means they're either trendsbians or bisexual.

These pics don't lie.

The obligatory full page. Click it to see the big version.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Tips: Finding software and website alternatives with Wikipedia

Have you ever searched for a program, found it, only to find you have to pay $40 for the full version?

Have you ever found a website you like, but found you don't meet the requirements to use it?

A quick tip: look up the software or website in Wikipedia. People often list competing and related products on the same page.

  • I found an open source equivalent of the sampling program Fruity Loops (a PC based predecessor of GarageBand) that way.

If that doesn't work, try looking up the general thing you're trying to do.

  • I found a tool that can extract files within Windows from a FreeBSD UFS2 partition on the UFS2 page.

A request: if you can't find what you're looking for on wikipedia but do elsewhere, please put it on a related page to help future people in your position, and maybe even yourself, later.

Leftover Technical Details: Part I

In much of our lives, engineers hide the technical details from us. We drive our cars through a simple interface, we flip a light switch and don't have to worry about circuits, volts, or amps, but in a few strange places, users are forced to learn the underlying details of technology.

Radio station frequencies, AM and FM

If we weren't so used to it, the idea of AM, FM, frequencies, and 4 letters representing stations with the first letter representing which side of the Mississippi the station is on would all seem crazy. How many people know what AM and FM stand for? How many people know what they mean from a technical standpoint? How many people actually understand what the frequencies mean, what frequency division multiplexing is, and the original meaning of bandwidth?

These are all technical details we must have a cursory knowledge of to operate a radio. They're mainly left over for historical reasons--a lack of technology to abstract frequencies into a list of stations--but now we have such technology. There's no need for us to know frequencies or even of AM and FM.


Fortunately, these are going to be phased out soon in favor of broadcast digital HD TV, and the technical details are mostly a thing of the past.

Some of use remember that not long ago, the coax cable that came in from the antenna attached to a splitter. Then, we had to hook up the VHF coax cable to the TV, and the weird cable with the screws up to carry the UHF signal. Some TVs came with two antennas on top, one for each band, and each screwed into the TV in a different place.

Before there was UHF, there was only VHF. To save money, when the first TVs supporting UHF were made, they used two internal tuners.

Old TVs featured the two dials above. The first selected either a VHF channel or switches the TV to the UHF tuner in the second picture.

The channel numbers don't overlap, and the frequencies don't overlap. The only reason this was done was to save money, and it lasted a while. This is similar to AM and FM, but luckily, these technical details from the past are almost gone. New TVs integrate both tuners together and hide the notion of different frequencies altogether from the user.


After reading an article about how Google is the new http://, I quickly realized URLs are yet another unneeded technical detail. When my mom wants to look up a website, e.g. eBay, she searches for it instead of going to; she avoids URLs altogether. Average users don't care what the address is. That's just an abstraction above IP addresses--closer to what users are looking for, but not quite.

That said, should Google and Yahoo be the definitive source for where eBay is? The strange thing is that this has been solved, albeit in a proprietary way: AOL keywords. Ironically, AOL has even abandoned them in favor of Google.

My solution is a non-proprietary top level keyword listing that ISPs mirror on keyword lookup servers. Registration priority goes to the owner of the trademark, generic search terms, e.g. cell phone, prescriptions, paint, are not permitted, scopes exist (global, national, regional, provincial, etc.), providing a means for returning the most relevant "Stan's Doughnuts."

The URL bar on browsers would be replaced with a keyword bar, and the search bar would be widened. Advanced users could still add a URL bar, but this serves no purpose for average users.

Area Codes and Long Distance

Between cell phones, VoIP, and instant messaging, I'm surprised long distance still exists on landlines. It seems like a dated construct leftover from the days of Ma Bell.

In a time where phones were switched by hand, the cost of long distance calls made sense (and cents for the phone company); it took a lot of effort to do the switching. When phone companies migrated away from that and to electronic switching, the overhead of a circuit still provided some justification for higher prices. Now, however, when even phone companies run calls over the internet, and two average users can use VoIP to talk to each other for free, the idea of long distance just seems dated. Maybe AT&T should have spent more time delivering my long distanceless world and less making a shiney new logo.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Part of the Solution

A major problem America faces today is obesity; approximately two thirds of Americans are obese. Numerous diseases have been linked to obesity, including diabetes and even Alzheimer's. The government has been less then helpful. Even the Food Pyramid produced by the USDA (and influenced by lobbyists), makes questionable suggestions. Between two and three servings of dairy products are suggested, despite the fact that dairy consumption among mammals (after nursing has completed) is generally limited to humans in Europe and North America. Websites like NotMilk are dedicated to showing medical problems associated with milk consumption and exposing some of the tactics of the dairy industry.

When an industry as historically "wholesome" as the dairy industry is part of the problem, who could be part of the solution?

In part, an industry paired with milk: cereal.

According to the Mythbusters, there's a myth that the cereals that kids like, usually ones with words like "chocolate" and "sugar" on the box have less nutrition than the box itself. Jamie and Adam failed to mention that humans don't digest cellulose very well, but that just makes my point stronger.

I purchased a few boxes of such cereals:

Both of these are marketed with the appeal of junk food to kids not in a position to make educated food choices. Nutritionally, though, they're surprisingly good, especially when compared to the store brand "Healthy Advantage," a product clearly targeted at these kids' more informed parents:

For the calorie counters out there, the "healthy" cereal might not be such a clear choice:

Just looking at calories, a key factor in obesity, 3/4 cup of both sugary cereals have 130 calories, compared to 2/3 cup of the healthy cereal having 230, approximately twice the calories per cup than the others.

While targeting kids through ads promising a tasty breakfast might create problems for their future diet, I applaud major cereal manufacturers for doing their part to fight obesity.

It's nice to see some responsibility, but the "healthy" cereal also reminds us to read the box before we buy.