Saturday, October 27, 2012

Remember, Felix Baumgartner Is Just A Daredevil

Earlier this month, I loved watching Felix Baumgartner climb halfway to space and free fall back to earth. It was quite a rush. Felix is an incredibly brave and talented man and daredevil.  But, I now realize that what he did, although pushing the limits of current technology about high altitude human endurance and exposure, wasn't what I hoped it would be.  I look forward to hear his thoughts about this accomplishment, but I think his opinions and statements about NASA and space exploration are completely wrong.

Baumgartner feels we spend far too much money on space exploration.  He would like to see all of that money spent here on earth.  He told the Daily Telegraph:

"So I think we should perhaps spend all the money [which is] going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don't think it does make sense."

We've heard that before and it is probably a common opinion held by many people, but it disappoints me that he would feel this way.  I had hoped that someone who has been able to see some of the advantages of prior exploration and research extending far beyond their original scope, enabling him and others to achieve mind numbing accomplishments, would be able to see more of the big picture.

The tiny fraction of what the US spends on space travel and exploration of the solar system IS a study about Earth, humans and what makes us who we are and shows us what we might become.  It inspires children and adults to reach for more.  Much of what Baumgartner has done was enabled by government funded air and space exploration programs.  The impression given by his comments are that he feels an energy drink company and a publicity campaign is a sufficient alternative to a publicly funded space program.  That is a very disappointing and short sighted point of view.

It was a little disappointing that during his highly publicized event that they did not take the opportunity to talk about the science and engineering behind what was going on.  I was thrilled to watch it, but felt it was a missed opportunity to inspire more than just a higher tech version of Evil Kenival trying to jump his motorcycle over a row of cars during a rodeo. The announcer on the video stream spent a lot of time clicking off ever increasing altitude numbers, like a circus barker, raising the audience’s excitement.  Making sure to regularly break the telemetry reports to ensure we all know that this is made possible by the soft drink company RedBull (it gives you wings you know). But, now I see that it really was really only a big campaign to sell soft drinks by giving an exciting show.  I don’t think that that is wrong necessarily, but I wish it could have been a bit more than that.

What drives Felix isn't a desire to push the limits of what we know or what we can do. It is much more about what he can do and his own fame. He is a professional performer after all.

I really can’t fault him for that, and I probably shouldn't have expected more from him.  His goals and objectives are his own.  RedBull is a corporation that makes soda pop and its purpose is to generate a return on investment for its shareholders, not improve extra vehicle space suits.  That is what corporations do, sell products, not advance knowledge.  That is why we need public funding of science and exploration.

So, even though this opportunity was missed, it serves as a good example of the limits of private enterprise and the merits of public support for space exploration for the sake of knowledge.  Because when a NASA space mission is executed, everyone gains and the world is smarter.  When a Felix Baumgartner finished exciting us with his daredevil feat, we were reminded to pick up a six pack of a caffeinated sugar drink.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On California Proposition 37, The Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Labeling initiative

On California Proposition 37

The Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Labeling initiative 

Here in California, we have a ballot initiative, affectionately known by the descriptive title California Proposition 37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food (2012)

I think I have decided, and I am voting NO on the California State Proposition 37. I have mixed feelings about it but here is why.
  • Labeling food ingredients as being GMO or not does not make the food any safer.
  • There is no validated evidence I am aware of that any GMO food that is allowed to be used in food is unsafe, or has ever been shown to be unsafe.
  • There is nothing inherent to being GMO food that makes them unsafe.
  • Having the labeling for GMO or non-GMO gives a false sense of improved safety.  Given the choice, I would feed my family cereal made from GMO corn produced in the United States before I would feed them anything made from foodstuff imported from China.
  • All of the reasons that I hear from the proponents of the measure are fallacious, and intended to scare, but have no real science behind them.
  • Most (but not all) of the reasons that I hear from the opponents of the measure are valid.

I said that I have mixed feelings.  That's because:
  • I feel Monsanto uses their GMO patents in an unfair, and harmful way.
  • I actually do support the use of the precautionary principle as a tool for making better health and environmental decisions, and think that there is a significant financial incentive to suppress information and studies. Looking only at past behaviors of large agribusiness behavior, and Monsanto in particular when it's a choice between profit and safety, safety may not always carry the day.
  • GMO crops can, but not necessarily, increase the use of both pesticides and herbicides in the production of food.
  • These pesticides and herbicides, coincidentally are not only very profitable, but they are manufactured, tested and sold by the same corporations that are producing and selling the GMO products that encourage their use. That is like adding extra salt to popcorn, so that you can increase your beer sales.

So, I am going to resit the temptation of voting for something on a purely emotional and partially vindictive basis, and vote against it because I feel all of the arguments are based on bad logic.

I hope that, if it is voted down, that this isn't viewed as encouragement for an escalation of bad behaviors in agribusiness. I'm conflicted because I think it will be.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Where Did Truth Go?

As hard to imagine as it is, I expect this week's 2012 Democratic National Convention will be almost as silly, and almost as short on truth as the GOP's was last week. 

Does it matter? Should deception, misdirection, being short on truth
 and long on misrepresentation be a hard and fast line not to be crossed, and punishable by loss of support? If so, who would be left to vote for? Would it be worth it? How to we hold the reporters, and ultimately the politicians, to a commitment to the truth and ultimately a respect for the voters.

How can we expect the media to hold up a lie for scrutiny when we seem to hang on the lies, eager to drink them in, and forward them all to our friends on social media? We are rewarding their bad behavior. We are encouraging the deception by aiding in its spread, and ultimately in its utility.

If we really want to see that stop, we probably should start with stopping it in ourselves.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Maybe because it is Friday

I don't know.  Maybe because it is Friday, maybe because I'm on my 4th (5th?) cup of coffee, or maybe because everyone with offices near mine seems to have taken off for 4th of July shutdown 1 1/2 weeks early. But, my mind has wandered off to a place where it goes sometimes and I can't get it off of a particular challenge. Let me share.

Lets say someone, no one in particular, had a couple chickens. And that that someone had an affinity to tinkering with electronics and computers, and liked to put those things into service in non-traditional ways. [#1]

Let me go about this from a different angle. Lets say you wanted to know what a group of chickens were doing during the day, and you didn't want to stay at home all day and watch them [#2]. How could you electronically track said chickens as they wandered around their coup, run and yard [#3]. Of course, this would all be tracked and visible on-line.

I want to know your ideas.

Things I have been thinking about:

a - RFID chips on anklets and multiple detectors, maybe even triangulation using field strength.

b - Modulated LED collars

Any ideas?

[#1] Ask me about a certain java powered hottub, or a keggerator that tweets when tapped, or the "gopher cam"
[#2] Because that would be weird
[#3] Because, the assumption is that this would be less weird than [2]

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Please fasten your seatbelts, We have started our descent.

Today, my youngest was awarded his driver's license. I expect that this was a much bigger event for him that it was for me. Hard to tell though, he plays it pretty cool. Not at all like his older sister. She gave the impression that getting her license was really the only, final thing, that forced her to have any extended interactions with her parents. As if, not having her own license was akin to that little drawstring bag that dog owners have dangling from their waist that contains bone shaped treats. The only reason their doting, prized yorkie pays any attention to their requests. Our ability to modulate her activities by controlling her transportation was, in her mind, the last step before parole and complete freedom.

You might have not even realized that our son's 16th birthday and the freedom it afforded was approaching. Of course there was the shift in the driving routines. Instead of either my wife or I driving and our son riding in the back seat, it got a little bit more complicated. At first it was business as usual if we were taking the freeway, but if it only involved city driving, then one of us would sit in the back, and he would get to drive. It seemed that even if the freeway would have been the best route, city street driving was chosen. So consequently, all trips got much longer.

Then, as his quiver of skills developed to include freeway driving, and then evening driving, it became more natural and it was more like we had 3 drivers in the house. Other then did certain pecking hierarchies between my wife and I that were previously understood, but heretofore never spoken, were brought to out in the open. This all resulted in a rule that particular one of us would never be the one who sits shotgun while the other rides in the back seat when our newest "driver under supervision" was at the wheel. This made for some awkward moments when boarding the car, but I am sure that it probably allowed for us to remain married.

So, now we are no longer required in order for him to get to school, to practice, to friends houses, to volunteering, to pick up something needed at the store. Other than being the source of the fuel in the vehicle and a check for a scheduling conflict, we are no longer part of that aspect of dependency.

That's actually the thing. Our son is a little bit less dependent on us to conduct his life than he was just yesterday. That is an incredibly wonderful thing for him, even if he is not letting on that he gets it. It really is. At the same time, it is also a bit more freedom for us, the previous chauffeurs. Our son's activities no longer requires an interruption of our activities in order to deliver him there, or pick him up. Now that we're there, I expect I'll miss that opportunity for discussions, arguments, laughing, or just listening to music (or whatever it is that he listens to).

Time will tell how much less interaction we will have between now and when he leaves for college in a couple years. But there is no denying that this is a major milestone in this trip.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Why do you post what other people ask you to?

Note to friends.

Sometimes, a Facebook message, E-Mail, comment or other, suggests that you type something into your status or comments. That may not always be a great thing to do.

Right now, there is a popular Facebook image going around suggesting that you type in the '@' symbol, some other symbols, and some combination of numbers from your cell phone. What happens is that Facebook ends up replacing it with some other words, usually a person's name.

Here's why this is not a good thing to do:
1) You are typing something into Facebook (known for their high regard for your privacy) that you have know idea what it will do. In this case, it is fairly innocuous. It simply is interpreted by Facebook as a macro to replace with the title of a page it knows about. I could give you a special number to type in there and it would replace it (for all of your friends to see) with the title of the page "I am Gay". Sure, no harm. But, you had no idea what it would replace it with that. What if it was the title of a page that was very offensive to you or your friends. What if it replaced it with your Facebook password. Or it randomly picked a photo that you had deleted in the past that you didn't want shown. The point is, as soon as you type something into Facebook that you are not sure what it does, you are at risk of something happening of which you have no idea.

2) Sometimes, even things that look safe, can give away a little bit about you that you don't want to give away. In this case, you might have just put in the last three digits of your phone number, and it converts it into words. Someone could easily convert those words back into part of your phone number. With that, and other information about you in Facebook, it would be simple to figure out the entire phone number. Maybe not a big deal, but that is probably more information than you planned, or realized you were giving out.

So, before you type something into your status that a friend, acquaintance, or stranger tells you to. Stop. Think about it. Do you know exactly what it is going to do? Are you prepared to share your decision to do that with all of your friends?

Finally, notice that I am NOT asking all of my Facebook friends to put this in their status.