You're Doing a Heck of a Job, Brownout

Lay and Skilling found guilty on many, many, many charges related to their fraud and lying! It's so nice to be able to say that with the force of a court decision behind it.

I've started reading Power Struggle: The Hundred-Year War over Electricity. Published in 1986, it appears to have an accurate map of the intent of what was to come over the next 20 years. They were anticipating more nuclear power, I believe, but I need to get further into the book. It starts with the WPPSS debacle (five nuclear plants being built in the Northwest for demand that never materialized), and goes from there.

Avoiding Those Men in the Middle

If you're interested in easy-to-use encryption that would protect communications, take a gander at my article this week in TidBITS on public key encryption. This method of encryption allows two or more parties to scramble data in such a way that only a recipient with an appropriate key can decipher it. With more familiar encryption (symmetric key), the same key is used to encrypt and decrypt a file or message. With public key encryption, a pair of keys are used: one public, one private. The public key encrypts; the private decrypts.

Public key cryptography is a broad term, and is used as an element of PGP, a software package that manages people's public keys and uses both public key cryptography and symmetric key cryptography for optimum results.

It's also part of Zfone, which uses what's called a Diffie-Hellman key exchange to provide private calls between two voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) clients. It doesn't work with Skype, but it does with many other packages.

Low Flow Brings Big Savings?

Skincare-FchromeI knew that low-flow showerheads could save water, but I'm a little flabbergasted looking at my energy bill. It looks like a switch from a not-very-vibrant older showerhead that never produced the kind of pressure we liked to a new Oxygenics SkinCare model saved us nearly $20 per month in water/outflow or about 40 gallons a day over last year. The showerhead cost about $30 and was easy to self-install; it included Teflon tape. It's also got a very intense spray.

The water bill shows 14 months of history in the two-month billing blocks with numeric comparisons for year over year adjusted for the length of the two periods, which can vary. At first, I thought we'd only saved a few dollars, as we pay $2.53 per cubic foot. By saving about two cubic feet a month, that's only $5. But we pay $6.76 for outbound water, which is where shower water goes -- and that's another $13.50.

This doesn't include the natural gas that heats the water. This showerhead runs 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm), while older ones apparently run 3 to 4 gpm or higher. We don't take excessively long showers, so I'm guessing we had a fairly high differential!

These are winter water rates, so there's more savings to be gained $ for $ over the summer.

We may be running laundry slightly less frequently versus last year, too, and a load of laundry can be up to 40 gallons of water per load. That's one of the next purchases for us. Front-loading, high-speed machines are the way to go for less wear on clothes and much less water use. If we're running about eight loads a week and can cut water use by--ye gods--160 gallons a week or 640 gallons a month, which is nearly a cubic foot or $9 at current rates. Over the course of the life of the product, that might be over $1,000 in savings, plus the state and federal government are offering some subsidies for that kind of appliance. There's also, of course, electricity use; modern units that are Energy Star qualified consume less than half as much as "standard" washer/dryers and we certainly have a standard set.

We wash primarily in cold since I read that the enzymes in modern detergents are optimized for cold water, which should be obvious, and that saves on heating the water, too.

Pretend Chicken Leg, Grandpa?


Pretend Chicken Leg, Grandpa?
Click the photo to see larger sizes.

A little explanation may be in order. My parents have an iSight camera and when we think about it, we do some videoconferencing so they can see Ben in action and talk at him. He's starting to get the idea that he can interact with them. My in-laws just upgraded from dial-up to cable modem service and they now have an iSight, too.

This morning, talking to my dad, Ben was playing with various things, like sticky notes and brand-name colored wheat dough, and he suddenly came up to our LCD and pushed a wooden hamburger bun at it. I thought he was playing with the screen and asked him to stop. He came back with the bun a couple times, and I realized he was trying to feed my dad. I asked him if he could give grandpa a chicken leg, and off he went to get the pretend chicken leg, and tried to offer it.

Little did he know my dad is a vegetarian.

Legal Rights and Wrongs

Thought of the moment after reading about how Vitesse fired its CEO "amid the company's probe into possible improper dating of stock options."

Something that's wrong isn't made right when a lawyer tells you it's right and agrees to sign a letter stating that.

Something that smells wrong, seems wrong, and looks wrong is still wrong. A lawyer may provide justified for an act, but that's different than the act being the right thing to do.

I'm amazed at how many people delude themselves (so many ex-executives, for instance) into believing that. That's the Enron exec defense, I suppose.

Logodyspepsia (and -dyscokesia)

Last week, I read Michael Pollan's fantastic new origins-of-what-we-eat book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. (He was on KUOW's Weekday this morning.) The book follows four meals as much as the author can follow them from start to finish. The first chapter, on conventional food that winds up in a McDonald's meal, could put you off your feed forever. Essentially, the average American diet is corn: Corn-fed beef, corn-fed chickens, beef that's eaten chicken that ate corn, and corn-fed pork. And these animals are all eating all kinds of other stuff, mostly derived from corn and soya. Then corn is turned through various processes into citric acid and other chemicals which are added to processed food.

Because corn almost uniquely captures a greater concentration of a non-harmful carbon isotope, it's easier to run finished food through analysis and find out what percentage came from corn. Answer: a lot. It's not just high-fructose corn syrup (read Fatland for more on HFCS's role in American obesity, especially juvenile obesity and diabetes). It's all the corn products that wind up through the system into what we eat if we eat conventional raised meat or conventionally processed products.

Organic and less-processed products don't have this particular problem because the ingredients tend to be "simple," which, Pollan points out, are actually more complex. When you strip and process corn into many forms, you produce very very simple molecules. But any given piece of fruit, vegetable, grain, or meat has thousands of compounds which we've co-evolved with (see Pollan's previous more entertaining book, The Botany of Desire, about our relationship with tulips, apples, marijuana, and potatoes.)

So, ironically, the simpler you eat in terms of processing, the more complex you eat in terms of nutrition.

Pollan's book was paired for me and my wife last night when we watched Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me, a jeremiad that was, of course, totally unfair to McDonald's in a completely fair manner. Spurlock ate and drank McDonald's for 30 days and nearly killed himself. But he ate in a manner that only a very tiny percentage of Americans eat because it would have killed them, too. (I say unfairly fair because he did show some alternatives to his view point, including a gangly guy who has eaten over 15,000 Big Macs. Of course, that guy was the exception that proves the rules: He rarely eats fries and they didn't show him with a sugar drink.)

Spurlock didn't look at the foodchain, only consumption and the end result. He interviewed a very brave man about to go through gastric bypass surgery who was willing to share his terrible eating habits and allow his surgery to be filmed. Before the surgery, he drank one to two gallons of sweetened soda a day. He and his wife said they would buy 52 two-liter bottles of soda per week. This is outrageous until you look at the way in which soda is sold and packaged. You buy a Double Gulp (Spurlock showed) from 7-Eleven that contains a half-gallon of soda.

The other highly disturbing moment (out of many mostly disturbing moments) was when Spurlock visiting a middle school with one of the best P.E. programs in the country. The kids all looked healthy and I didn't see a chunky kid in the bunch. However, they were eating French fries, process pastry rolls, and Gatorade for lunch. I see you misunderstand me. Not along with a meal--even like a grilled-cheese sandwich or something--but as their entire meal. Yikes. The school's lunch provider? Sodexho. It turns out a significant minority of schools in the country outsource food service to giant chains that typically offer the ugly food we find in airport concessions and at convention centers.

I don't eat fast food any more. Maybe once every month or two at most. I can't recall the last time I did eat at a fast-food restaurant of any kind. I don't eat fried food much--can't recall the last time for that. For nutrition and weight reasons, I stopped eating potatoes in most forms; I occasionally eat some boiled ones as part of a meal. And I eat a lot of organic food and unprocessed foods. Foods that, when you read the list of ingredients, start with organic brown rice or organic tofu and work their way down to sea salt or beet juice.

After reading Fatland, I stopped consuming anything with high-fructose corn syrup, which was a rare ingredient for me anyway. But did you know that conventional bread is full of HFCS? Nor was I aware!

We live in Seattle, so we have three good mainstream choices for organic, less processed, and/or sustainable food: Trader Joe's, which increasingly carries what Pollan calls Big Organic food (not sustainable, but using organic techniques), Whole Foods (which carries Big and Little Organic as well as conventional foods), and PCC, a cooperative chain that focuses on better ingredients and sources, including a focus on local farms and suppliers. PCC even has a foundation to help preserve farmland.

I'm not a food saint. I'm also neither thin, nor grossly obese, nor anywhere near the weight I should be for long-term health. I'm working on it.

Note to Future Self: How to Solve TiVo Stops Recording Problem

This is a note to me in the future and anyone else with the same problem: My DirecTV TiVo stopped recording programs last week. After troubleshooting with a couple of friends with greater TiVo knowledge, I tried rearranging items in the Season Pass list, which typically takes several minutes for the TiVo to look over two weeks of programming and do its priority sort. (It must be processing millions of combinations -- some kind of truncated traveling salesman approximation?)

Once having done that, the TiVo To Do List showed upcoming programs as being on the list to record. Some bit broke!

Asleep on ORD-SEA


Asleep on ORD-SEA
Click the photo to see larger sizes.

Ben was an excellent flyer on our recent trip to visit Lynn's folks in Connecticut. He fell asleep during takeoff (not in this position) from Chicago, and slept an hour. He then played nicely with a small set of toys for the next three hours. Go, Ben!