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Week of 7 June 2010

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Monday, 7 June 2010
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09:30 - I deleted my Facebook account last night. So much for that experiment.

With less than two months to go until the final deadline for the new edition of Building the Perfect PC, I'm in heads-down mode. Posts here will be very sporadic and likely short.


Tuesday, 8 June 2010
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11:25 - I see that Apple introduced a new iPhone yesterday, which despite its misleading "iPhone 4" name is actually a 3G device. No doubt they'll sell a ton of these things, although the feature sets of the competing Android phones make the new iPhone look pretty pathetic. ESR sums up the situation as Too Little, Too Late. I think he's right.

Why would anyone buy a smart phone that's tied to AT&T's pathetic data service, which in many cities ranks dead last in customer ratings? Not to mention the fact that AT&T just eliminated their all-you-can-eat data plan, effectively increasing prices while calling it a price reduction. They may even be telling the truth for current usage patterns, but as data usage continues to grow, this new plan is definitely a price increase in the medium term, let alone the long term.

I don't need a cell phone, but if I did the iPhone would be my last choice. Apple and AT&T, two of my least-favorite corporations. What's to like?


Wednesday, 9 June 2010
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09:04 - Fred Reed just posted an article about the implications of cognitive stratification that's worth reading. In short, smart people tend to hang out with other smart people. Smart people may understand on an intellectual level, but seldom on a gut level, just how large the gap is between them and average people, let alone really stupid people. Stupid people, of course, have no clue just how large the gaping chasm is between them and really smart people.

"The commentators don’t realize that not everybody is like them. Those with IQs of 140 and up (130 gets you into Mensa, I think) unconsciously believe that anything is possible. Denizens of this class know that if they decided to learn, say, classical Greek, they could. You get the book and go at it. It would take work, yes, and time, but the outcome would be certain.

They don’t understand that the waitress has an IQ of 85 and can’t learn much of anything. "

Which is a real and growing problem, not just inside the Beltway but in society in general. For years, I've had an ongoing discussion with Jerry Pournelle about this. He believes there's a place for average people in society, doing economically useful work, such as skilled manual labor. He talks about machinists and plumbers, and suggests that we need more of what used to be called vocational/technical training. I think he's wrong. We need only so many machinists and plumbers, and people of average or lower intelligence are going to be displaced from those jobs by much brighter people who want those jobs. It's happening now.

Jerry loves to use auto mechanics as an example, but the truth is that the days when someone of average intelligence could be a top-notch auto mechanic are long gone. Nowadays, it's about a lot more than just pulling wrenches. A good mechanic has to understand a lot about electronics and computers to do his job. I haven't checked the numbers, but I'd be willing to bet that auto mechanics make up a much smaller percentage of the population today than they did in, say, 1950, and that today's mechanics are, on average, a lot brighter than their counterparts in 1950. They have to be, to do their jobs. The same is true for farmers--another of Jerry's examples--who are actually managers of high-tech operations.

Five hundred years ago, everyone worked to get in the crop. It didn't matter if you were a genius or a moron. You scythed the grain, because all hands were needed if everyone expected to eat through the winter. And, for such work, intelligence was immaterial. A moron could scythe just as much grain as a genius. Nowadays, the grain is reaped by one person using a harvester. One hundred years ago, a mine might employ 5,000 men using picks and shovels. Nowadays, a mine might employ 100 people, most of whom maintain and use the huge machines--built by other machines--that do the work formerly done by those 5,000 men. Human labor is becoming less and less important, and what human labor remains is increasingly shifting to intellectual labor--designing, building, and maintaining the machines that do the actual work--that only very smart people are capable of doing. And that leaves increasingly little room for average people to perform economically useful work.

Right now, I'd guess that the upper 10% or 15% of the population can do (and does) all of the real work that actually needs to be done. Obviously, a lot more than 10% to 15% of the population are employed, but the bulk of them are in make-work jobs that actually contribute little or nothing to the economy. As a rich country, we've been able to afford those inefficiencies, but as the economic crunch continues that's becoming less practical. I read the other day that white males, the group that historically suffers least from an economic crisis, are now experiencing a 20% unemployment rate. What's far worse is that this is structural unemployment. That 20% not only don't have jobs now, but never will again. To say that has profound implications going forward is probably the understatement of the century.

Despite that, I remain optimistic. Science and technology can get us out of this hole, but only if they're given free rein. We need to focus our efforts on ensuring that our best and brightest kids are well educated and steered into STEM fields. The upper 1% (actually, the upper 0.1%) are the ones who'll make a difference. Right now, we concentrate too much attention on dividing the economic pie equitably, and too little attention on growing that pie. We need to reverse our priorities, to ensure that there's more pie available to be shared out. And essentially all of the growth of that pie will be produced by that upper 0.1%.


Thursday, 10 June 2010
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07:55 - I'm not sure why the Empire State Building is refusing to honor Mother Teresa. I'm just glad they are. The woman was an evil troll, about as worthy of being honored as Jenny-Wanda Barkman. If you doubt that, read Hitchens' book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. (I actually prefer the alternative title Hitchens proposed, Sacred Cow.)

15:47 - Hallelujah! FTC bombs massive robocall operation

If you've ever gotten a call from "Stacey at Cardholder Services" you know who these scum are. I confess I was a bit disappointed when I read the article. The FTC didn't actually "bomb" these sons of bitches, as in cluster bomb (or, better still, tactical nuclear bomb). Instead, they just froze their bank accounts and appointed a receiver. Not as good as actually bombing them, but certainly better than nothing. And we can still hope to see "Stacey" disemboweled on live TV.


Friday, 11 June 2010
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09:51 - Wired links to a 1952 DuPont video about Mylar, which features 1952-style booth bunnies. The script is typically 1952 corny, and the presenter overdramatizes as expected, but the content is actually pretty interesting.

Watching this actually changed my mind about one of my current projects. Mylar is, of course, polyethylene terephthalate, which is now used for soda bottles, among many other things. I'm making up 0.1 molar and 1.0 molar solutions of many chemicals, and I had intended to use 500 mL, 1 L, and 2 L soda bottles for storage. When I checked chemical resistance of various plastics, PET was listed by several sources as having relatively poor resistance to even weak acids and bases.

So I started looking for a cheap or free source of HDPE bottles (milk jugs are a common one) for better resistance, but after watching this video I may just use the PET bottles. In one part of the video, the presenter fills a bag made of thin Mylar film with a mixture of concentrated sulfuric and nitric acids and tosses in a bunch of metal and plastic items. When he returns to it later, the plastic and metal items have partially dissolved, but the thin Mylar film is unaffected. If thin-gauge PET will stand up to those acids for even a few minutes, let alone the hours the presenter talks about, surely much thicker PET bottles should be okay with 1 molar hydrochloric acid or sulfuric acid or sodium hydroxide.


Saturday, 12 June 2010
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08:59 - We woke up this morning to a phone call from Barbara's sister, saying that she was on her way to pick up their dad and take him to the emergency room. All Barbara could tell me was that her dad was bleeding. She got dressed in about two minutes and headed off to meet them at the emergency room. I'm hoping it's not too serious, but her dad is 88 years old. I'm a bit concerned because Barbara hasn't called me yet to tell me what's going on.

How not to be a scientist: "You have shamed the entire scientific community. Fucking Einstein, everybody."


Sunday, 13 June 2010
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