That Simpsons Bit Wasn't a Joke

I always thought the bit where Mr. Burns briefly turns off the power plant to spite a strike among his workers was a joke ("Last Exit to Springfield"; script). You know, he and Smithers go through an array of high-security doors, including a facial recognition system that literally recognizes the shape of his face. Then they wind up in the control room, which has a faulty screen door and a dog has wandered in.

"Oh, for God's sake! (slams door shut) Good bye, Springfield. From Hell's heart, I stab at thee!"

"Oh, for God's sake! (slams door shut) Good bye, Springfield. From Hell's heart, I stab at thee!"

This has always been a favorite scene of mine, but in reading John McPhee's 1980 book The Curve of Binding Energy, about a former nuclear-bomb designing genius' concern about the ease of bomb making, I came across this amazing passage (in image) from a report by the Atomic Energy Commission—an agency since dissolved and its function moved elsewhere—about spot inspections of some private outfits handling nuclear fuel:

Now I'm wondering if the writers of this episode, Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky, read the book?!


The episode also has the great dialog:

HOMER
Who is it?

VOICE
Goons.

HOMER
Who?

VOICE
Hired Goons.

HOMER
(opening door) Hired Goons?

The goons grab Homer roughly and take him away.

How Air Conditioning Works

On the occasion three years ago of the 110th anniversary of the recognized invention of the modern form of air conditioning, I wrote this little historical/modern explainer about how heat-exchange and air-conditioning systems work for the Economist. Yes, the terrible title, "It's the Humidity," is all mine.

But I was trying to explain to Rex, age 8, this morning how air conditioning worked. I tried a bunch of explanations and metaphors, but this one stuck.

Imagine you have a pool that's 90°F. There is an endless line of swimmers who have a natural resting temperature of 60°F waiting to jump in. Each time one jumps in, they warm up to the pool temperature, and the pool, by necessity, gives up some of its energy to each swimmer, becoming cooler. The swimmer is then shot out through a chute, the friction of which warms them up even more. They stand in front of fan that cools them back to 60°F. Then they get back in the pool.

This is more or less it. A heat-exchange system has a coolant that has a low boiling point, so it's easy to manipulate it to absorb heat and shift from a liquid to a gas and vice versa, as well as varying pressure in gaseous and liquid states. The idea is that a fan takes in hot air, runs it across coils that absorb the heat, cooling the air, while circulating the heated coolant to an outside radiator or with a fan that helps vent the heat outside.

As with most things related to temperature change, it's a funny thing. Is "cold air" something real or is it reducing the temperature of air in its vicinity?

 

A New Economy Discovered in My Own House: Derrick Dollars

Derrick dollars in production.

As a business reporter, I’m always looking for unique economic angles in the new economy. Recently, while walking through my house, I encountered a new economy worker producing a form of scrip for an economy I was unaware of, denominated in Derrick dollars. Here’s the interview, published with the subject’s consent.

Glenn: Who makes Derrick dollars?

Rex (age 8): Any valid Derrick dollar worker. You need a membership card to create valid Derrick dollars.

G: What is Derrick’s role in Derrick dollars?

R: First in command. There are commands. The reason people make Derrick dollars for him is to get higher in command. By the time I finish all of these I am absolutely certain he will rank me second in command

G: What do you get for being higher in command?

R: It means if Derrick is not at school, if you are second in command, you are in charge. If you’re lower rank, you’re trying to be higher, because a lot of people have to be out of school for you to be in charge.

G: Is there any limit to the number of Derrick dollars that can be created?

R: No, you’re trying to create as many as possible to go up higher in rank.

G: That would cause inflation. Each dollar would seem to be worth less if you create more of them.

R: Not really.

G: What can you use Derrick dollars for?

R: To buy anything that’s being sold for Derrick dollars.

G: What is being sold for Derrick dollars?

R: Dudeize cards, paper crafts, chompies (they’re those things that can chomp on things).

G: What are Dudeize cards?

R: They’re cards that have Dudeize members names on them, and pictures on them.

G: Who are Dudeize members?

R: Members of the Dudeize soccer team. It is a soccer team at school.

G: So you can create as many Derrick dollars as you want?

R: That’s true, but there is a limit to how many Derrick dollars members can spend from the Derrick dollars members they make. They have to turn all their Derrick dollars in. They get a paycheck from Derrick.

G: Derrick is the central bank?

R: He’s the first in command.

G: Does he ever destroy Derrick dollars?

R: Sometimes he says they are too big or too small. But that doesn’t matter to me, because I just put them in his desk and afterwards he doesn’t notice.

G: People are making Derrick dollars, giving Derrick the Derrick dollars, Derrick chooses how much to pay his workers in Derrick dollars, and the only thing Derrick dollars buy are paper crafts?

R: True, people are making Derrick dollars and giving them to Derrick. But anything that is going to be sold for Derrick dollars — most commonly they are paper crafts — but anything that is being sold for Derrick dollars can be paid for with Derrick dollars.

G: Who is making things for purchase with Derrick dollars?

R: Robert, the Dudeize team, and a lot of other people.

G: So you make Derrick dollars for rank?

R: Second in command gets the highest paycheck. You get the paycheck each day depending on how many you turn it. If you turn in 10 and you’re fourth in command, you get one for your paycheck; if you make 10 and you’re second in command, you get five in your check.

G: Is this a stable system?

R: As I said before, you do need a Derrick dollars membership to produce valid Derrick dollars.

G: How do you get Derrick dollars membership?

R: You just have to sign up on the Derrick dollars sign up sheet.

G: Does he turn anybody down?

R: No, unless they’ve been known to be opposed to Derrick dollars.

G: Why would someone opposed to Derrick dollars sign up?

R: To spy on Derrick.

Over the Air, PVR, with a Rube Goldberg on Top

I can watch live and recorded TV on my Apple TV! It's very simple.

I installed an Ethernet-connected TV tuner from SiliconDust called HDHomeRun. It's plugged into a digital TV antenna on our roof. Then I use Elgato's eyeTV software on a Mac on the network to schedule and record over-the-air (OTA) programming.

That Mac is downstairs; our TV is upstairs. When I want to watch TV, I just:

The bizarre thing is this whole sequence works.

Giant towers broadcast digital signals that we capture a time slice of and convert into another digital format which are stored on a drive and then streamed over a Wi-Fi network to a mobile device that pushes it over Wi-Fi to tiny box that's connected to an HDTV.

It's as easy as 1, 2, 3…4, 5, 6, 7…8, 9, uh, 10, 11.

The Soylents of the Lambs

Durable, long-lived, dehydrated full-meal replacement products have a significant place in the future of human life on this planet as war and global climate change produce huge migrations and displacements. The problem of potable water is hard enough, and will become more challenging as wet regions dry out or become arid for parts of a year. But it's possible to sanitize water for drinking and convert sea water to fresh. It's a technological challenge, but it's not physically impossible, and some parts of it have been solved.

Getting sufficient quantities of food to the right places on the globe at the right time that is pest-resistant, stable, nutritious, and not foul is vastly harder. While there are many variants in the world today, most relief projects and ongoing aid to refugee camps involves food components, like beans, often requiring some preparation, and which may be deficient for a minimal healthy sustenance diet.

What if there were a product that required just potable water and little else, which could be used to feed tens or even hundreds of millions of people in a pinch? That would be palatable, nutritious, lightweight relative to calories for transportation, and non-perishable over long periods?

And what if highly compensated people were dying to eat it? That's Soylent and its ilk.

The Engineer's Food

I have a problem with what I define as an "engineering" mindset, though more precisely it's a mindset found most commonly among engineers—not all engineers engage in this way of thinking, whether they make software, products, or buildings. But I believe a mind that navigates to that sort of work also accepts approximation and reductionism gradually, because it is necessary. One has to break tasks down into solvable pieces to construct a new whole. This is extolled in all fields of engineering.

The trouble comes when reductionism comes without research—when a problem is approached de novo even when there is an enormous amount of information available about outcomes already. Nobody would build an edifice without using formulas that allow calculation of load, but many, many people will build a nursing-staff scheduling system without looking at how the system was previously handled and talking to those who use it. Existing users and and existing systems outside of mathematics and physics are seen as impediments to producing something more efficient than what it replaces.

I wrote about this in regards to Yahoo's new logo two years ago. Marissa Mayer seemingly ignored everything that has been learned about legibility over thousands of years, type design over hundreds of years, and human perception over decades of lab work to create a terrible logo.

Soylent strikes me the same way. Rather than do the tedious work of looking at past meal replacements and supplements, interviewing people in the field, and performing clinical tests, its developer, Rob Rhinehart, studied nutrition textbooks and read the FDA and other web sites, and "compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival," according to a 2014 New Yorker story. He ordered powders and pills and mixed them up.

He experimented on himself, decided the results were remarkable, crowdfunded turning it into a real product, raised a small fortune, and then went after venture capital. Soylent's brash claim that it could replace food (or at least some meals each day) became a statement of fact.

The New Yorker noted in 2014:

Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that it would be unwise to miss out on [phytochemicals]. “It’s a little bit presumptuous to think that we actually know everything that goes into an optimally healthy diet,” he told me. You can live without plant chemicals. “But you may not live maximally, and you may not have optimal function. We’re concerned about much more than just surviving.”

Soylent waved this concern off, and many competitors have since entered the market. The stuff is generally in scarce supply.

I've been skeptical and negative on Twitter to the extent that people ask me why I have a beef (or rice starch?) with Soylent or the concept. I don't. In fact, I want Soylent and its category to succeed wildly.

Food security

If they truly crack the code, they have the potential to improve global nutrition—whether it's a child in a refugee camp, a college student who would otherwise eat ramen and experience a form of affluenza malnutrition in the developed world, high-income programmers who are tired of food prep for some or all meals, or elderly with limited palates, digestion, and funds.

These meal replacements could achieve this without the usual problem of moving people up the food chain. Improvements in diets often include eating meat and other foods that have a disproportionate impact on the environment—better calories and more calories often mean a more intensive and worse use of the land to achieve them.

As insect-based proteins and algae-derived nutrients reach a commercial scale and are accepted, the efficiency of food production will increase enormously. Consumers in developed countries with middle-class incomes may reject them. Those who live in constant hunger or with constant food insecurity may embrace something that gives them enough quality calories to have the energy and fortitude to thrive. The developed world pretends that social programs provide enough food to those in want, when that's a patent falsehood we use to let us sleep at night. In developing countries, there's much less fooling about it.

No, my trouble with Soylent isn't its aim, but its journey. I want to see short-term and long-term independent clinical testing of results to validate the hype being generated. A sample size of one (the founder) or a few hundred (loyal adherents) or even thousands of happy customers isn't enough. This is a food experiment, not a food product yet. Rigorous testing and feedback will help shape these efforts into something real and beneficial—and profitable.

Some formulations by other companies are countering the reductionist approach of nutritional components by using real foods. Ambronite seems to be the leading practitioner. But at $9 per day for about 2,000 calories from Soylent, Ambronite's equivalent isn't competitive at $40 (four 500-calorie servings). I expect something closer in the middle in terms of non-reductionist ingredients (with the aforementioned algae and insect proteins as part of it) but at a lower price than Soylent outside developed countries will be a hit.

I don't criticize meal replacements being developed now. I criticize hype that may harm the health of those who buy into it until they're perfected.

 

 

Everything Is Mildly Broken, Part X of Many

Working on my new Mac mini, everything froze. Moments passed. The mouse resumed action. The screen went black. Then a login screen appeared. At least it didn't fully crash, but it took a good 20 minutes before all the apps had recovered—longer than a reboot for whatever internal reason.

I'm working on my iPhone and the screen goes blank and then the Apple logo appears. The springboard crashed. This happens every couple of days.

My Apple Watch won't show apps that appear as installed via the Watch app. I installed 1.0.1. A bunch of icon previews (the outlines) show up on the Watch. Time passes. Everything rights itself.

In the morning, I pick up my watch and try to unlock it via my phone. It doesn't work. I tap in the Watch unlock code on its face, and it's lost the connection with the phone. Again. Even though the phone is right there

This isn't how it was supposed to be. It isn't how it was.

Comcasterrific: Bills, Plans, and Caps

A few months ago, I noticed that Comcast had raised its $5/month modem rental fee to $13/month. Normally, I don't rent hardware of any kind, but when I started with this one, it was at least a couple hundred dollars, and cheaper to rent. Plus, Comcast guaranteed it would work. So I called Comcast to find out what modems were compatible, bought one for $80 and had someone there activate it for me and remove the rental charge. My wife returned the modem for me and got a receipt.

And then the charge appeared the next month and the one after. Comcast doesn't do email-based support, and their phone tree is terrible. I am disconnected after choosing options more times than not. Maybe 90% of the time I call. So I complain on Twitter, where they're responsive. Someone apologized, took the charges off, and credited me $20. Fine.

I just checked my bill in the process of looking at speed options. I'm tired of getting 3 Mbps upstream as I do now, as I have a lot of data to ship to the cloud. 3 Mbps is absurd in a developed country. Other lands have 20 Mbps or 100 Mbps symmetrical at rates lower than I pay for 16/3 Mbps, even when the overall cost of living is substantially higher.

And Comcast had charged me a rental again. I also found that I'm paying $60/month, but my account said for $62/month I should be getting 25/5.

I again went to Twitter, and someone there took care of the charge. I'll have to check again next month because Comcast. (Comcast's brand promise: Our bill is never right and there's no consequence of any kind for us being wrong.)

I have "business-class" Comcast, because I moved an office a few years ago, and Comcast has a 75% cancellation penalties on unused parts of a contract. This should probably be illegal, and if challenged, maybe it would be thrown out. But at the time, Comcast had a 300GB/month usage limited, and I'd exceeded it in testing backup services.

I was able to bring the business service home, and only pay about $10/month more. It was a good tradeoff for having no cap on usage. When I did the transition, I routinely saw 15 to 25 Mbps downstream and 5 to 15 up. Now they are much more careful at shaping traffic, even though their overall capacity can mostly allow much higher usage during non-peak hours.

The customer rep I was talking with on Twitter noted I could switch to residential service and get much higher speeds for the same money. I said, yes, but you're testing overage fees in some markets, and I don't have those now. The person agreed if I were concerned about that, I had the best service for now.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Missouri, where Google Fiber has one of its few operations, 1 Gbps up and down—symmetrical service—is $70 per month, no limits. Elsewhere in Seattle, where our telco is lightly building out gigabit service, it's $80 with a bundle and has no caps. In my neighborhood, they promise "up to" 40 Mbps downstream DSL for $30/month, but other neighbors report getting below 10 Mbps.

Comcast said before the FCC announced its regulatory change for Internet service earlier this year that such a change would affect its investment plans. Then a few weeks later (before its merger with Time-Warner Cable was called off days ago), Comcast said it will push 2 Gbps service to be available to 18 million households by the end of 2015 and 1 Gbps to almost all its service territory by the end of 2016.

I'll soon be paying less, getting more, or both. But all of this just demonstrates the necessity of competition, the broken nature of Internet service in America, and why other countries got it right before we did.

For now, I think I'll find a gigabit café to upload my photos.

Space Gets Farther Away

New Horizons, bound for Pluto

New Horizons, bound for Pluto

This week's Economist features two articles by yours truly about SPACE — and humanity's shortened reach.

You see, in the 1990s, America's budgets were flush, and we funded a ton of projects to send probes and landers and orbiters and oh my all over the place. Those missions came to fulfillment through the 2000s, and even as budget tightened, the early funding helped carry through missions that might take 10 years to plan and then several years to reach their target.

So Cassini is currently still active around Saturn, New Horizons reaches Pluto next month, and Juno orbits satellite in 2016. But nearly all current NASA missions outside of Mars start winding down after that. And then nothing heads out very ambitiously until the early 2020s, when the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA separately send missions to Jupiter, arriving by 2030, under current plans.

My first story, The worlds beyond, explains how this came to pass, what funding is needed, and what's to come. The second, NASA’s dark materials, is about an almost footnote: without an adequate supply of plutonium-238, a non-weapons-grade isotope, humanity's grasp is very very small. We need Pu-238 to power missions of all sorts—until it's routine to put nuclear reactors on spacecraft, which will happen at some unknown future date.

You can find these articles online, or in this week's print issue.

There's No Use Crying over a Podcast

This week, I pinch-hit to write an issue of a favorite email newsletter, Hot Pod by Nick Quah. I discovered it a few months ago, and it is like ambrosia to those like me who want more insight into the broad podcast "industry," especially the parts I don't know in public radio. Nick just got a new job and was going to take this week off, so I offered to write an issue, which you can read here.

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