Sunday, March 29, 2009

eco: Earth Hour vs. a 2000-watt society

There's a predictable backlash to this weekend's Earth Hour, the third (or fourth?) iteration. I support the gesture and the criticism of it — we turned off our lights for half of this one, because we forgot. I posted this comment in response to one blog's "Fcuk Earth Hour:"

Earth Hour is fine, but the COMPLETE ABSENCE OF A REAL F***ING GOAL LINE from all discussions is pretty depressing.

Q: “I still have no idea what I personally should do.”

A: Reduce your share of greenhouse gas emissions to a sustainable level. Cue Chevron's revolting greenwash ads with a concerned Jeremy Irons lookalike intoning "I will use less energy". But how much less energy?!? With 7 billion people on earth, some engineers in Switzerland estimated that a sustainable personal share of greenhouse gas emissions works out to average power use of 2 kilowatts. In other words, all your energy use (not only electrical) should come to no more than 17,520 kilowatt-hours per year. Read Wikipedia's "2000-watt society" article, which references Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent "The Island in the Wind" article in The New Yorker where I first heard of it.

2000 watts seems doable if you just look at your monthly electricity bill — you're way out of line if you use 1400 kW·h a month of electricity — but it's staggeringly low if you factor in heating, transportation, and your share of society's energy consumption. I think it's 60 million Btus a year, only 478 gallons of gasoline! Ride a bike, go hardcore on energy conservation, don't heat or cool your house, only fly every few years, consume dramatically less manufactured goods. And/or spend a lot on renewable energy generation.

It's a daunting challenge, so all the feel-good stuff doesn't mention it, so people sincerely believe that by replacing a few lightbulbs and recycling some paper they'll save the planet. Every little bit helps, but those are tiny little bits.

Just because it's difficult, the reactionary "I can't/won't live that way, therefore I won't try at all and will be venemous and hateful towards enviro wackos" is far more moronic than not participating in whatever Earth Hour is going on.

Hacked Chevron 'I will use less energy' billboard (hacked billboard in DC, from Bioephemera blog


Friday, March 20, 2009

physics: the future is unwritten

Physicists claim to prove The Strong Free Will Theorem
The import of the free will theorem is that it is not only current quantum theory, but the world itself that is non-deterministic, so that no future theory can return us to a clockwork universe.
As always, this conclusion that lay persons and new age touchy-feelies can seize on and argue over is backed by heavyweight theorems, math, and logic. I can almost grasp the Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen paradox: badly summarized it's generate a pair of electrons, measure the property of one after it's traveled a long way, and you somehow force the same property in the other; Einstein didn't like such "spooky action at a distance." But the SPIN Axiom and the Kochen-Specker Paradox are new to me.


Monday, March 16, 2009

web, music: Mother of All Funk Chords video

  1. Visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tprMEs-zfQA
  2. Click play and cover up the video, just listen to the musicians jamming.
  3. Now play again and watch.
What the ??

In some browsers you can perform these steps here.

An amazing achievement in music and video editing. I'll never get tired of watching the musicians figure it out together.

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eco: charge big money for damn plastic bags

I walked the dogs around Candlestick Point. The little sandy beach on the bay was layered in plastic bags. There was literally one every square yard. Pulling it out often revealed another one underneath. Depressing and completely unnecessary.

OK, maybe you don't live by water. Someone comments:
I'm more concerned about the plastic bags that don't make it to the landfills. Take a road trip along I-5 in California or out along I-40 or I-10 to Arizona and you'll see downwind of every truck stop joshua trees and other awesome desert plants choked by these things, mostly cut off from the sun by thousands of Taco Bell bags that have blown away from the parking lots out into the desert. Depresses the hell out of me.
Meanwhile lawyer Stephen Joseph runs savetheplasticbag.com, with the usual confusion as to how plastic bags aren't so bad. Don't bother reading the site, there's no admission of how awful these things are, and it's full of the usual bait and switch crap, e.g. "If we really want to save [marine mammals and turtles], then we would need to ban fishing."

On issues like this people create all kinds of false choices and dichotomies:
"If you ban plastic, how will people store trash/pick up dog poop?"
People can scrounge bags or buy them, no one is proposing a ban on selling bags. If you put something in a bag for good, it's not going to drift away.
"Plastic bags are no worse than paper bags"
Maybe (paper bags are easier to reuse and easier to recycle), but the point is reducing the waste stream
The choice at the supermarket is not "paper or plastic?". The choice should be "Do you want to buy a paper bag for 25 cents that includes a cleanup & recycling fee, buy a plastic bag for 20 cents that includes a cleanup fee, or get a clue and bring your own reusable bags?" People will wise up fast.


Monday, March 9, 2009

CD and digital music reminiscing

Gizmodo remarked on the (sort-of) 30th anniversary of the CD format, prompting the following reverie (and also more begging for a downloadable "golden master tape" format):

a) There were no consumer cd burners available until something like a 15 years later.

You're right. I worked at a PC multimedia chip company in 1994. We had a $3000 2X Yamaha CD burner to make CDs of software releases and developer kits. If you so much as looked at it funny you'd get an under-run and the CD-R was worthless. It could duplicate a music CD, but with the blanks costing $10, why would you? Sony and Philips must have known bootleggers would eventually copy CDs, but as with vinyl and cassettes, you send cops with sledgehammers after that crime.

To show off our chip's audio quality we wanted to get a high-quality audio sample. This was in the day when 8-bit sound cards were the norm, the sample.WAV files in Windows played "boinnggg" noises, and at best CD-ROM drives had an analog audio connection to the sound card. So we rigged up a SCSI CD-ROM drive to an Adaptec controller, used special ASPI commands to read the 1s and 0s off a music CD, and converted them to a .WAV file that was the same song. There was no name for this process, this was seven years before Apple's "Rip. Mix. Burn" ads and 4 years before the first MP3 players. The resulting file was an unimaginable 17MB long.

I knew at the time it was going to be a huge deal. Not that we had made a copy — you could already do that with cassettes. The original song was divorced from any kind of media, turning it into a computer file that could be duplicated and manipulated at will. Eventually, a computer with a huge hard drive could be a jukebox. Many companies realized this sea change, they predicted and eventually came out with a hard drive music player for the trunk of your car, a hard drive music player for your home, etc. (I don't recall anyone predicting the dominant model of carrying your music collection with you in an iPod.)

This "home copying" to a computer didn't feel like piracy, any more than making cassettes of your albums for your car was piracy. Napster arrived 5 years later in 1999. Massive piracy required the confluence of music CD ripping, the Internet, and faster-than-dialup connectivity plus MP3 compression. The whole must have been completely unimaginable to Sony and Philips engineers in 1979.

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