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Archive for April, 2009

Swatch Internet Time

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Sometimes I run across a thing so odd that it makes me wonder if I slipped into an alternate world. Today’s example:

Swatch beats watch

Swatch Internet Time was a decimal time concept introduced in 1998 and marketed by the Swatch corporation as an alternative, decimal measure of time. One of the goals was to simplify the way people in different time zones communicate about time, mostly by eliminating time zones altogether.

Swatch Internet Time was announced on October 23, 1998, in a ceremony at the Junior Summit ’98 attended by Nicolas G. Hayek, President and CEO of the Swatch Group, G.N. Hayek, President of Swatch Ltd., and Nicholas Negroponte, founder and then-director of the MIT Media Lab. During the Summit, Swatch Internet Time became the official time system for Nation1, an online country created and run by children.

Documentation of US torture

Friday, April 17th, 2009

The ACLU went to court and forced the release of Office of Legal Council memos written under the Bush administration to provide legal cover for torture conducted by the CIA. The memos are here. The make for chilling reading, approving the use of medieval tortures on prisoners held by the US.

Republicans have embraced torture, and react with satisfaction and glee to the documentation of US torture. Most people find it appalling. A number of moderates find torture disgusting and are glad that the Obama administration has ordered it stopped but are dead set against prosecution of the torturers. For example, read Kevin Drum, Rob Farley, and Greg Laden. Newspaper editorial boards are split between torture advocates and moderates who oppose torture but also oppose prosecution of torturers. A few editorial writers are calling for what went on to be looked into and publicized–a truth and reconciliation type panel, but they are the rare wild-eyed ones.

The law here is clear. Torture is illegal under several US laws, for example:

TITLE 18 > PART I > CHAPTER 113C > § 2340
§ 2340. Definitions

As used in this chapter–
(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting undepecifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm resulting from–
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and
(3) “United States” means the several States of the United Sof Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

And yet moderates argue that government agents who tortured prisoners were told that the OLC memos made it legal and protected the agents from prosecution, and that we must respect this.

As near as I can tell the moderates are making one or more of these arguments: 1) these government agents (CIA, etc.) can torture people because they the OLC memos make their actions legal, 2) that what US agents did to prisoners wasn’t torture, or that reasonable people could disagree over whether the prisoners were tortured, or 3) a combination of the two saying that the law was unclear on how much prisoners could legally be abused and the OLC memo clarifies the law and draws the line. The third argument is what the OLC normally does–interpret ambiguous or uncertain cases for the Executive.

I won’t touch argument one. The other two arguments often get combined–mostly three with a bit of two. The third argument, the ‘normal action of the OLC’ depends on two being true.

I would argue that you are reading the parsed legal language of the memos the wrong way. You read the parsed language, the detailed descriptions of the what is allowed and its limits, i.e. “For walling, a flexible false wall…” will be used and “the head and neck are supported with a rolled hood or towel” and think you are seeing the OLC clarifying ambigous law. This is not the case. What the OLC memo does is give aproval to a set maximal torture techniques, maximal under certain limits.

The torture techniques approved are protocols of torture limited to keep from killing the prisoners not to stay on right side of the law. The OLC is approving a torture regime that has been careful worked out by trial and error to inflict maximal pain, damage, and suffering without killing the prisoners or leaving obvious signs (broken bones, scars, death). The detailed protocol for beating prisoners (“walling”, slaps, grabs) was developed to keep from killing prisoners, not to prevent torturous treatment. Repeated knocking a man’s head against the wall will cause intracranial hemorrhage that kills a man and so a special beating protocol is necessary. It is surprisingly easy to kill a person by banging their head against a wall, the head is much more delicate than the limbs. Slapping and grabbing protocols are specified to prevent broken bones and also to prevent fatal contusions. A US Army report from a few years ago found dozens of homicides of detainees, many inadvertently beaten to death.

The OLC memo limits sleep deprivation to 11 days because that is the longest anyone is known to have survived under sleep deprivation. In experiments, rats have died after two weeks of sleep deprivation, it is not clear when it would kill people. So the OLC memo is endorsing maximal sleep deprivation. After two days, sleep deprivation causes progressively worse mental anguish and physical dehabilitation.

The stress positions endorsed by OLC are extremely painful and can cause permanent joint damage. Stress positions don’t leave scars and are rarely fatal, so they get OLC endorsement.

Previously released memos allow interogation up to the point of ‘major organ failure’. The typical result of ‘major organ failure’ is death of the patient. So the OLC was endorsing interogation up to but short of death.

The OLC memos approve a set of protocols designed cause extreme mental and physical anguish without killing the prisoners. The approved treatment includes many torture techniques of ancient origin, some notorious for their recent use against US soldiers in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The OLC wasn’t parsing ambiguous law so the ‘normal action of the OLC’ argument fails. As the government agents were using notorious torture techniques the argument that situation is ambiguous also fails. Realistically, can the people who carried this out and ignored the screams of their victims argue in court that this was not torture?

Great web comic

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Breakfast of the Gods

Breakfast cereal characters inhabit the world of Cerealia. I didn’t know there were so many of them! Full of sugary goodness.


Pyrete boats

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

I saw the MythBusters segment on making a boat out of frozen water and wood pulp, called Pyrete. It is essentially a composite material. Pyrete worked pretty good, except for it melting quickly. A boat might last in the Arctic winter for a while if the boat was made from pure water as the salt water there is a few degrees below 0°C. Even at best it would melt over the summer.

This material could be useful if the freezing point could be raised. Unfortunately, most things added to water lower the freezing point. NaCl, table salt, is the best known example. There are ways to raise the freezing point of water–certain organic acids, salts, sugar alcohols. But they require large quantities of additives, so they are either expensive or toxic or both. Too bad.

Examining the giant marijuana cash crop urban legend.

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

I’d heard before that marijuana is the biggest cash crop in California …in Kentucky …in the US. Online you can see a 2006 estimate that puts marijuana on top by Jon Gettman. It always sounded patchy, and here Kevin Drum links to a critical site that estimates the retail value of the cannabis sales at $10 billion.

Even this seems high according to my estimate. I recently (can’t lay my hands on the figure) saw a graph of pot smoking by age in the US within the past month. Highest for people in their 20’s, then about 10% until people hit 60. Older folks smoke very little. So let’s say 10% of people from 15-60 (roughly 24 million people) smoke twice a month:

24 million people x 24 joints/year / 40 joints/ounce x $100/ounce = $1.5 billion retail per year.

By comparison, the US corn crop is $24 billion/year. $1.5 billion/year is about the size of the US tobacco or orange crop. But then we are comparing retail prices to farm prices. So figure growers are getting at best 1/5 or 1/10 or the retail price, and now the marijuana crop is tiny, smaller than the peach crop. Also, considerable marijuana in the US is imported, so the US crop is even smaller.

Running the estimates in the other direction, the $10 billion estimate of spending on marijuana has the monthly US smokers lighting up every other day. This sounds too high, most smokers are occasional smokers. Estimating pot spending at $35 billion as Jon Gettman does has monthly pot smokers averaging eleven joints a week, or every man, woman, and child in the country lighting up once a week. Way high.

Are people on the Nicoya peninsula, Costa Rica long lived?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Caught a story on the Oprah TV show talking about why the people living on the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica are long lived. And I asked myself, are these people long-lived? I haven’t heard that before and I should know.

So I went looking, and the special on Oprah was touting a book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner. Buettner first reported the story for National Geographic. So why does Buettner think Nicoyaians are long lived?

Some populations have been studied and found to be long lived–for example, there are four times as many centenarians in Okinawa, Japan compared to Japan as a whole.

Buettner’s source is Dr. Luis Rosero-Bixby, a Costa Rican demographer. The sole published source I can find is The exceptionally high life expectancy of Costa Rican nonagenarians. I haven’t read the paper, but from the abstract national birth registry data was used to establish date of birth and census data was used to monitor survival, and life expectancy of 90-year olds was found to be half a year longer than anywhere else in the world, for males only.

This seems very thin evidence, I can’t find other studies by Rosero-Bixby or evidence that these people were studied by any other groups. It is especially odd that the effect is seen in males but not females–this was the pattern in other areas where long survival was reported but didn’t pan out-the Caucus region of Georgia, northern Pakistan, and the Andean village of Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador. Usually remote areas with poor record keeping.

Harnessing static cling

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

It would be useful to attach a static electricity generator on the end of a long thin rod to pick up small non-metallic things dropped behind bookcases or otherwise out of reach. Could run a band through the center of a thin rod, or easier yet just package a thin PVC rod with a piece of rabbit fur or nylon.

256 colors in vim on OS X

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

Terminal colors are broken out of the box in OS X terminals. In part due to a poor OS X terminal implementation, part due to problems with vim. I try new colorschemes and get strange, random looking results.

After many fruitless searches I finally got 256 colors working in vim in a terminal. This post and the GVim site were very helpful. It turns out that the included Terminal app in OS X only supports 16 colors. The terminal background can be set to any color which confuses the issue. The colortest Perl script available on the Gvim site makes this clear.
OS X Terminal colortest:
colortest run in Terminal

The free GNU licensed iTerm terminal does support 256 colors.
iTerm colortest:
colortest run in Terminal

OK, now the terminal supports 256 colors. There are still some hoops to jump through to get vi to show colors though. Most colorschemes are built for gui (using 24-bit RGB colors), so vim needs to be built with gui support. This can be checked with :echo has(‘gui’). It reports 1 for yes, 0 for no. The vim I had (default or Fink installed) didn’t have gui support, so I downloaded GVim and copied it over the old vim:

cp /Volumes/Vim-7.2.148/ /usr/bin/vim

and now vim has gui support.

I copied /usr/share/vimrc to /usr/bin because the downloaded vim didn’t know to look in /usr/share and added a few configuration lines:

” Doesn’t get set right.
set t_Co=256

” Needed because the new vim doesn’t know to look in /usr/share
set runtimepath=~/.vim,/usr/share/vim/vim72_2,/usr/bin/vimfiles,/usr/bin,/usr/bin/vimfiles/after,~/.vim/after
let $VIMRUNTIME=’/usr/share/vim/vim72_2′

syntax on
colorscheme LightTan

OK, so now 256-color support works and I can set colorschemes. They still don’t look right because colorschemes made for the gui don’t look right on a 256-color terminal. There’s a great vim script called CSApprox that converts gui colors to the closest of the 256 colors and makes gui colors look pretty good in a terminal. Download it, unzip it, and copy files to the vim directory:
sudo cp plugin/CSApprox.vim /usr/share/vim/vim72_2/plugin
sudo cp autoload/csapprox.vim /usr/share/vim/vim72_2/autoload

and now when I load colorschemes they look pretty close to what the Vim colorscheme test site shows, with the only difference due to font differences.

To get full color support when I log into a linux machine I need to do some more setup. To get gui support in terminal:
yum install vim-X11
and then add to /etc/profile:
alias vi=’gvim -v’
and “source /etc/profile” to enable it.
and add:

set t_Co=256

if &t_Co == 256
colorscheme LightTan

to /etc/vimrc to force 256-color mode and pick a colorscheme.

I also copied the CSApprox files to /usr/share/vim/vim70 and now it works when I ssh to this machine as well!

Indie games

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I ran across the independently produced game World of Goo. Fun game, the stylish graphics caught my eye.

So I wondered what was involved in creating a modern game. What’s done? Tech wise, graphics engine, physics engine, AI, etc. Art and sound. Looked around, found these two sites:

Indie Game Developer Links

Never found the a straightforward answer to my question though.


Reading the ‘how we made it’ articles on their site, it looks like World of Goo was made using the open source PopCap framework. PopCap includes two physics engines, the 2D Chipmonk Physics library and the 3D ODE physics library!