Say good bye to the grid

For whatever reason, I pay a lot of attention to alternative energy solutions. It’s not like I’m a hard core environmentalist, but I still find it compelling to create energy in ways other than burning fossil fuels.

I’ve talked a bunch with people I know about setting up a collective energy generation station type deal where a group of people would all fund a power plant that they could all benefit from. So, for example they could set up a big windmill or a big solar array or a big natural gas powered fuel cell. This way they would not be dependant on the grid and would be able to sell excess power to the power companies.

The problem is finding a group of like minded people and then organizing, buying houses near each other, etc.

The alternative is to do green power on your own. This is possible in some cases, in NJ you can do solar really cheaply if you have enough South facing roof area (like I talked my family into doing at a house of theirs in NJ). In other cases you can do wind if you have a bunch of money to throw at it, or geothermal if you have the right location, etc.

Now, in Massachusetts, there is a pilot program being set up to test single home power plants that use natural gas to generate 1Kw of electricity and generate heat as well. This is a growing thing in Japan where 20,000 of these units are now in use.

This is cool stuff. I wish we could get our PA lawmakers to push for something like this. PA, unlike NJ is really behind the times with alternative energies and when I build my new house in a few years I may actually do it in NJ since I can get so many credits and cool rebates for doing it Green.

Say good bye to the grid

For whatever reason, I pay a lot of attention to alternative energy solutions. It’s not like I’m a hard core environmentalist, but I still find it compelling to create energy in ways other than burning fossil fuels.

I’ve talked a bunch with people I know about setting up a collective energy generation station type deal where a group of people would all fund a power plant that they could all benefit from. So, for example they could set up a big windmill or a big solar array or a big natural gas powered fuel cell. This way they would not be dependant on the grid and would be able to sell excess power to the power companies.

The problem is finding a group of like minded people and then organizing, buying houses near each other, etc.

The alternative is to do green power on your own. This is possible in some cases, in NJ you can do solar really cheaply if you have enough South facing roof area (like I talked my family into doing at a house of theirs in NJ). In other cases you can do wind if you have a bunch of money to throw at it, or geothermal if you have the right location, etc.

Now, in Massachusetts, there is a pilot program being set up to test single home power plants that use natural gas to generate 1Kw of electricity and generate heat as well. This is a growing thing in Japan where 20,000 of these units are now in use.

This is cool stuff. I wish we could get our PA lawmakers to push for something like this. PA, unlike NJ is really behind the times with alternative energies and when I build my new house in a few years I may actually do it in NJ since I can get so many credits and cool rebates for doing it Green.

Fuck seti@home

A long long time ago when they first started out, I signed up to participate in seti@home. For those of you who don’t know it is a distributed computing platform that was analyzing date for the SETI program.

I had it running on 4 machines at one point and it was really tough to manage since they didn’t allow you to register the machines asa group. You had to have seperate email addresses for each account. That wasn’t too much of a problem for me at the time since I had 4 email addresses. I was able to at least group my results in what they called a ‘team’.

The problem was that to manage the accounts I had to deal with their incredibly slow web server. It was a pain. As a group I had completed hundreds of work units (each unit took about a day to complete). It was tough to manage them all since I chagned email addresses sometimes and I couldn’t have easy to remember passwords on their site.

Finally I gave up and stuck with one account. All of that work was useful for them, but I had no way of gaining recognition for my work. The account I stuck with had over 500 units completed at the time. I had it running for a year or two after that point and the problem was that I had changed my email address and forgot to let them know. I had also lost the password they gave me. That meant that there was no way to log into the account and change the email address to my new one. I let the program run anyway.

A couple of years ago I found the password and changed the account to my new email address.

Seti just changed the way the do processing and are migrating accounts to their new system and sent me an email about it. I haven’t run the software in a while and thought, hey, I can get back into this. I logged into their website to try and migrate my account.

Guess what, their web server is still slow as shit and it took 10 seconds per page change to work. That would be find if it would accept my account info. It didn’t. It said at one point “a registration key will be mailed to your account email address, enter it here”. I waited, and waited, never to get the email. I tried all kinds of ways to get into my account, any account. I tried all my old accounts, everything. All told I spent 2 hours trying to get set up. No luck.

Finally I tried to contact them. Surely a longtime user (early adopter nonetheless!) would get some help. Nope, no way to contact them. They do have a help message board, but of course you need your account info to log into it.

I’ve got a machine that runs 24/7 that could totally be helping the cause, but they can go fuck themselves!

Ok.. I’m really going on vacation now. bye!

Fuck seti@home

A long long time ago when they first started out, I signed up to participate in seti@home. For those of you who don’t know it is a distributed computing platform that was analyzing date for the SETI program.

I had it running on 4 machines at one point and it was really tough to manage since they didn’t allow you to register the machines asa group. You had to have seperate email addresses for each account. That wasn’t too much of a problem for me at the time since I had 4 email addresses. I was able to at least group my results in what they called a ‘team’.

The problem was that to manage the accounts I had to deal with their incredibly slow web server. It was a pain. As a group I had completed hundreds of work units (each unit took about a day to complete). It was tough to manage them all since I chagned email addresses sometimes and I couldn’t have easy to remember passwords on their site.

Finally I gave up and stuck with one account. All of that work was useful for them, but I had no way of gaining recognition for my work. The account I stuck with had over 500 units completed at the time. I had it running for a year or two after that point and the problem was that I had changed my email address and forgot to let them know. I had also lost the password they gave me. That meant that there was no way to log into the account and change the email address to my new one. I let the program run anyway.

A couple of years ago I found the password and changed the account to my new email address.

Seti just changed the way the do processing and are migrating accounts to their new system and sent me an email about it. I haven’t run the software in a while and thought, hey, I can get back into this. I logged into their website to try and migrate my account.

Guess what, their web server is still slow as shit and it took 10 seconds per page change to work. That would be find if it would accept my account info. It didn’t. It said at one point “a registration key will be mailed to your account email address, enter it here”. I waited, and waited, never to get the email. I tried all kinds of ways to get into my account, any account. I tried all my old accounts, everything. All told I spent 2 hours trying to get set up. No luck.

Finally I tried to contact them. Surely a longtime user (early adopter nonetheless!) would get some help. Nope, no way to contact them. They do have a help message board, but of course you need your account info to log into it.

I’ve got a machine that runs 24/7 that could totally be helping the cause, but they can go fuck themselves!

Ok.. I’m really going on vacation now. bye!

The elusive equal sign sticker

So let me tell you about something that has been a bit of an obsession for me over the past 6-8 months. I have seen this sticker on cars that has no words on it, just a symbol and I’ve been trying to figure out what it means. I have tried numerous times to find mention of it on the web (don’t get me started on how the “Internet as an information source” has failed me yet again) to no avail and I haven’t found a person who could help me either.

I’ve given up and I’m asking you guys to help me out. The sticker is a simple one. It’s a yellow equals sign “=” on a dark blue square. That’s it.

Today I came close to a breakthrough. I’m driving along and low and behold I see the sticker on a car in front of me except this one has writing below it. I needed to get closer so I could read it. The problem was that I had decided previously to let a car in ahead of me. I had to let the guy in and of course I lost sight of the car in front and the sticker mystery continued.

That is until about 2 minutes later when I found myself behind a car with an anti-bush sticker. I of course raced up to check it out. It said quite simply “George W. Bush, you’re fired!”. The interesting part is that at the bottom there was a tiny yellow equals sign on a blue square attached!

Ahaa! I exclaimed.. Mystery solved… it’s simply an anti-Bush sticker of some kind. Of course when I got home I started looking for anti-bush bumber sticker sites. I actually found a huge one here (along with a number of other great stickers for the anti-red state cause). Who knew that there were so many anti-bush stickers?

Of course, I couldn’t find any image that was even close to the equal sign. Perhaps they borrowed the image from some other movement for their anti-bush sticker? Perhaps it means something else like anti-war? You got me.. I still can’t find this damn image anywhere..

This is really frusterating. On the one hand, I love that there is a symbol out there that means something and the popular culture machine hasn’t gotten a hold of it, yet on the other hand I hate that there is something cool out there that I can’t participate in before it gets subverted by the popular culture machine.

Well, I guess I’ll just keep on wondering. Have a happy holiday everyone, I’m gone for a while.

The way we vote in America (repost)

note : the following is a repost of something I wrote in one of my old blogs on 11/4/04. The original post is here.

I’ve got a lot on my mind lately so I’m going to try to get it out in chunks. This first thought is about voting in America. I’ve complained a bunch about this issue here in a number of ways, from a number of angles, but here I want to just get it out all at once.

I could complain about voting and elections on local and state levels but I think that by focusing on complaining about and trying to fix presidential elections, any changes that happen will trickle down and help those smaller elections implicitly.

So, there are 4 main issues that bother me about voting and elections. They are (in no order):

– The machines
– The primary process
– The voting math
– The Electoral College

The top two issues should be combined and become sub-headings in a main issue called : “Letting States each have their own process”. Lets talk about that first.

I’ve argued before that there is no need for states anymore. We are way past that phase of our existence. If you think way back to before our founding, you will see that we were simply a group of states, all with similar values but each with different local ways of doing things. Uniting seemed to be a good idea in the face of opposing forces like England so that’s what we did way back in 1776. At the time, there were differences of opinion on how things should be handled at the state level so states got to keep a bunch of power and were allowed to make tons of decisions. That made sense and in our infancy as a country it was a good thing because the states had a serious hand in shaping what collectively would be our national focus and image and belief… (see civil war)…

But now, states are about as useful politically as our appendix. In fact, I feel that states end up causing more problems for our growth then they solve. When a group thinks “me first” all the time, the group as a whole suffers. I could go into this more and provide examples, but this is a post about voting and elections, not the abolishment of states, so I will leave it as an exercise. But think about it for a moment, what does having states gain us as a country? Think more about how cool it would be if as a country we had, say, a federal driver’s license, one where everyone driving had the same test. Staying on driving, think how much more competitive the auto insurance business would be if it could offer the same product in all of America instead of tailoring each offer to the states myriad of laws and regulations…

So states have all this power over federal elections and it’s very odd to me. Each state can decide on how to record the peoples votes, they can decide when to hold the primary elections, they can decide how to hold the primary elections, they can decide how to tabulate the votes and all oversight belongs to them. Now, why should a federal election be decided by a bunch of different methods? Why is this logical at all?

So, back to the machines. Says Mark Christian Miller in Salon today:

“Talk to anyone from a real democracy — from Canada or any European country or India. They are staggered to discover that 80 percent of our touch-screen electronic voting machines have no paper trail and are manufactured by companies owned by Bush Republicans. But there is very little sense of outrage here. Americans for a host of reasons have become alienated from the spirit of the Bill of Rights and that should not be tolerated.”

This is true. 80% of the new computer voting systems are completely unaccountable. If there is a recount, the people who do it press a button on the machine and it spits out the results again. There is no way to be sure that the votes are valid (meaning, what the voters intended). I’m a computer guy and I feel that with some work I could probably personally come up with an ideal voting machine in software, but in today’s climate, that will never happen with Diebold and the other voting machine makers. They have proprietary code that can’t be checked or verified by anyone external to the company. This is just silly. But it is accepted because there is a huge market. There are at least 50 separate groups of people deciding on which machines to use and within those 50 states, there are in some cases individual counties deciding. If we had one standard voting machine, then there would be one debate on which to choose and the chances of it being the best choice would go up considerably.

There are a few resources to check on this issue. First is an article in the Jan 04 issue of wired about the battle over putting new machines into a county in California. Second is a great website called Black Box Voting that is a watchdog over all these different machines. Third is a great article in Scientific American called “Fixing the Vote” (October 04 issue).

The Primary process in America is a mess. These elections are the foundation of the general election and in my opinion, much more important since they determine the candidates. What I don’t like about the process is that it happens on multiple days. This is an enormous problem for two reasons, it gives certain individual states too much say in the process, and it encourages fear in candidates. The two problems are related to each other as you will see.

So, there are a ton of candidates before the primaries. They all have different points of view and different qualities, some agreeable, some not. But each has his or her own agenda, their own plan. Each is a separate candidate. It is up to us, the members of the party to determine who we think best represents us. It’s up to us to decide who we think can win in November. This sounds like an ideal process doesn’t it? It is.

Lets look at who I could vote for in my primary in Pennsylvania… John Kerry. That’s it. By the time the election got to me and the rest of America, every other candidate had dropped out of the race. Why? Because in the first few primary elections, they lost, or didn’t come in first or second. So they figured they would have no chance. They got scared and their money dried up (since the backers got scared) and had to stop campaigning.

So, because we let some states hold primaries well in advance, the election is held mostly in those states. The rest of America has its choice made for them by Iowa. We are, in a sense disenfranchised from the process. How is this the best way to hold an election? It should be on the same day, the same way, everywhere in America.

Now, I know you’re going to complain and say, “Well those states would otherwise be ignored by the candidates”. I will counter and say this “of course they will, they have low populations”. But I will add this statement to that. In America, with television and the internet and radio, we are in touch with the candidates messages like never before, we don’t need them to come and pander to us. I could care less if a candidate came to my state. I have their websites. I can read their messages and make my decision on my time, in my own home.

So, in my world, we’ve got 10 candidates running together. Can we have a fair election with 10 candidates on the ballot? Have you ever thought about this? Say there are 1001 voters and 7 candidates got 100 votes, 2 candidates got 90 votes and the 10th got 120. In our current system, that candidate (with 12% of the vote) would be the winner. Is this fair? Let’s look a little bit deeper at this…

Say your candidate in the above election was one of the ones with 90 votes, let’s call her candidate A. The winner, candidate X, is someone you, and a bunch of your fellow A supporters, completely despise. If you, and they, knew he was going to win, you would have supported candidate B which was one of the ones with 100 votes and you may have swung the election. This is analogous to the Nader factor in the 2000 election. Most of those voters would have voted for Gore if they knew Bush would win. In a sense, by voting for someone they wanted, they helped someone they didn’t want get elected. Their vote had more power than it should have.

This is a very well understood problem and one that is very heavily studied by mathematicians. There is an amazing article on the subject in the March 2004 issue of Scientific American titled “The Fairest Vote of All”. It seems that most experts on the subject agree that the plurality system we use now is the worst of all the possible choices. This needs to be studied not by mathematicians but by election boards.

And lastly my favorite whipping post, The Electoral College. I won’t go into this too much since it’s been brought up so many times by so many smart people and, like the vote counting systems, it is roundly considered antiquated by the math people. In the 10/15/04 issue of “The Week”, they have a briefing on the College and say that it was developed as a way to stop bigger, more populous states from using their population to elect one of their own as the commander in chief:

“When the founding fathers were drawing up the Constitution, in 1787, there were no political parties, and no real national media. The founders feared that uninformed citizens would simply vote for “favorite sons” from their own states. This prospect particularly alarmed small states and the South, who assumed that Virginia, New York, and the most populous states would elect their own leaders as chief executive every four years. To dilute the big states’ power, James Madison and several other framers devised the elector system. They assumed that the electors would be selected from the ranks of the educated and politically involved, so their choices would presumably be more high-minded and less provincial. To ensure this, the electors were required to submit the name of at least one out-of-state resident in their choices for president and vice president.”

Well, we see that the intent of the system, while good, is a) not how it works today and b) hardly necessary now. If you agree that states are not as useful now as they were in 1787 and agree that every persons vote should count equally (which it doesn’t by the way with the EC.. the same article in The Week explains “a sparsely populated state such as Wyoming—with just 500,000 residents—has one elector for every 165,000 people. California—with more than 33 million residents—has one elector for every 600,000 people. In other words, a vote cast in Wyoming has about four times the weight in the Electoral College as a vote cast in California.”), you would think that the system should be scrapped, or at least changed in some significant way. The election of 2000 and a few others were won by people who didn’t even get the majority of the vote. Is this right? Hardly.

So, that’s my rough outline of what I don’t like about the way we vote here in America and if you agree with me in any way, you have to do something about it. You can’t just sit back and say “yea, totally the way I feel”. You have to amplify this message. You have to write about it yourself, or talk to others about it, or contact your senator or congressman or sate government. We as a people have to change the system for the better and by just reading about it and saying to ourselves that things are fucked up we do nothing. I know there are a lot of people who agree that we need to change the system. The roots of change are certainly becoming evident, but we have to do more. So do something people. Link to this post if that’s all you can do. We need to change things and I’m sick of just getting mad about it.