Newton the Alchemist

Posted on: Wed, 10/13/2010 - 21:57 By: Tom Swiss

You may know that Issac Newton is a contender for the greatest physicist of all time. You may know that he invented calculus to amuse himself. But did you know he was a serious alchemist? Natalie Angier discusses Newton's fascination with alchemy in The Hindu.

How did one of the greatest scientists of all time get caught up in what is usually thought of today as superstition? She cites William Newman, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University in Bloomington, who has extensively studied Newton's alchemical work. "Alchemy was synonymous with chemistry," says Newman, "and chemistry was much bigger than transmutation."

Maryland court upholds citizens' right to record cops on the job Tom Swiss Tue, 09/28/2010 - 22:49

The Sun reports that a Circuit Court judge in Harford County (Maryland) has dismissed wiretapping charges against Anthony Graber.

I've previously mentioned Graber's story: he was (apparently) being a dangerous jerk on his motorcycle, and got pulled over by a Maryland state cop who made a illegitimate traffic stop, cutting Graber off in an unmarked car (no lights or siren either) and jumping out his his car with his gun in his hand. Graber was wearing a helmet camera which recorded the incident. When Graber posted the video to Youtube, Joseph Cassilly -- State’s Attorney for Harford Count -- threatened to prosecute Graber for violating Maryland's wiretap law, a felony carrying a penalty of up to five years. It was in an act of pure intimidation for daring to embarrass a cop gone wild.

In yesterday's ruling, Circuit Court Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. quite sensibly noted that "Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public...When we exercise that power in a public forum, we should not expect our activity to be shielded from public scrutiny." He added that the incident "took place on a public highway in full view of the public. Under such circumstances, I cannot, by any stretch, conclude that the troopers had any reasonable expectation of privacy in their conversation with the defendant which society would be prepared to recognize as reasonable."

Jackass Cassilly claims the ruling "will make it more difficult for the police to do their jobs"; I can only interpret this to mean that he thinks that cops' jobs include intimidation and abuse.

According to the Sun's coverage, cops throughout the state have been using the wiretap excuse to seize people's cameras; a Baltimore cop threatened to arrest an amateur cameraman recording the arrest of a woman at Preakness, telling him, "It's illegal to record anybody's voice or anything else in the state of Maryland."

Recognizing our right to watch the watchers is a small, but important, step to get our out-of-control police forces to respect citizen's rights.

man shoots server -- computer, not waiter

Posted on: Fri, 08/27/2010 - 15:40 By: Tom Swiss

Anyone who works with computers can understand this guy: after a night of drinking, Joshua Lee Campbell allegedly returned to his workplace (RANLife Home Loans) and opened fire on their computer server with his .45-caliber handgun.

According to prosecutors, Campbell called police and claimed that he had been "mugged, assaulted with his own firearm and drugged" by an assailant who then shot up the server; but Campbell's acquaintances told the cops that they had seen him drunk, armed, and threatening to shoot the computer -- and maybe himself.

I've been programming computers for (counts on fingers) 29 years. (Great ghu, is that right? first programming class was in the summer of 1981, at the Maryland Summer Centers for Gifted Students' "Center for Advanced Studies" program.) Trust me, I know the urge to employ a high-velocity lead debugger all too well!

mixed up medical tubes and Murphy's Law

Posted on: Wed, 08/25/2010 - 16:05 By: Tom Swiss

The New York Times reports on how mixing up medical tubes (IV tubes, gastric tubes, oxygen tubes, and so on) is injuring and killing patients:

Hospitalized patients often have an array of clear plastic tubing sticking out of their bodies to deliver or extract medicine, nutrition, fluids, gases or blood to veins, arteries, stomachs, skin, lungs or bladders.

Much of the tubing is interchangeable, and with nurses connecting and disconnecting dozens each day, mix-ups happen — sometimes with deadly consequences.

“Nurses should not have to work in an environment where it is even possible to make that kind of mistake,” said Nancy Pratt, a senior vice president at Sharp HealthCare in San Diego who is a vocal advocate for changing the system. “The nuclear power and airline industries would never tolerate a situation where a simple misconnection could lead to a death.”

Some manufacturers have started using color codes to distinguish tubes for different functions -- but they've each used their own scheme, thus adding to the confusion! In 2008 California passed legislation mandating that different sorts of medical tubes not be compatible with each other, but the manufacturers’ trade association managed to push back implementation to 2013 and 2014. site upgrade

Posted on: Sat, 08/21/2010 - 17:34 By: Tom Swiss has now been upgraded to Drupal 6. For those reading my ruminations via Facebook, Myspace, Yahoo, etc., there should be no changes, they'll still import my RSS feed. For anyone viewing the site directly, I'll be cleaning up old spam comments and stories, and adding new features in the days to come.

solar power now cheaper than nuclear

Posted on: Thu, 07/29/2010 - 12:00 By: Tom Swiss

So here's an interesting pair of trends: the price of solar photovoltaic power continues to drop, due to economies of scale and improvements in technology and manufacturing, while the price of building nuclear fission power is rising. According to this study from the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC-WARN), the trend lines have now crossed, and in North Carolina solar power is now cheaper than nuclear. (The report was prepared for the state government; the exact results will be different in other states in depending on insolation, but the trend is going to be the same everywhere.)

The prices compared by the study are the prices to consumers and include government subsides for both solar and nuclear; but even if the solar subsides were removed, the crossover point would be delayed no more than ten years. And the solar includes only PV, with no accounting of the potential of concentrating solar power.

According to the New York Times, the construction of the first round of nuclear plants in the U.S. resulted in electricity users getting stuck with nearly $100 billion of costs from bankruptcies and "stranded costs", and a report by Citigroup Global Markets last November termed the financial risks for a new generation of nuclear plant "so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility to its knees."

Meanwhile, the proposed American Power Act is set to give away about $56 billion to the unsustainable nuclear power industry, including tax credits, access to bonds, an increase in government insurance against regulatory delays, and loan guarantees -- guarantees which leave the American taxpayer on the hook in case of default.

The risk of default for these nuclear industry loan guarantees is about 50 percent.

So, we can get stuck with the bill from the nuclear fission industry as they give us a power source with huge security, waste disposal, weapons proliferation, and safety concerns; or we can make clean, efficient, and effective use of that large nuclear fusion reactor that Providence has provided just 93 million miles away.

mama they took my Kodachrome away

Posted on: Sat, 07/24/2010 - 01:51 By: Tom Swiss

Don't tell Paul Simon, but the last roll of Kodachrome ever produced by Eastman Kodak has now been developed at Dwayne's Photo Service in Parsons, Kansas. Dwayne's is the last place still processing Kodachrome, or at least the last place certified by Kodak to do so.

Kodachrome, a color slide film favored by professional photographers, was produced from 1935 to 2009. This last roll was shot by Steve McCurry, a freelance photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic magazine; National Geographic Television was on hand to document that last roll.

Dwayne's will be ending its Kodachrome processing service in December, so if any of you shutterbugs have an old roll in a drawer somewhere, get it in soon.

the march of technology

Posted on: Sat, 07/17/2010 - 23:16 By: Tom Swiss

Here's some numbers I worked up for a recent thread over on Slashdot, that illustrate the pace of technological change since the late 1980s:

The costs of actually moving bits around have gone way down since the 80s -- I now have a ~4,700,000 bps (according to WiMax link for less (counting for inflation) than I paid in the late 1980s for a phone line I could only use to move data at 2,400 bps. (9,600 and 56k modems didn't come into common usage for ordinary folks until the 1990s.) Improvement: a factor of over 1,900.

The costs of storage are tremendously lower. Back in 1988 or so my first hard disk cost on the order of $200. It held 30 MB -- 30,000,000 bytes. One can get terrabyte disks -- 1,000,000,000,000 bytes -- now, for less money. Improvement: over 33,000 times.

And the costs of twiddling bits are far, far lower than they were in the late 80s. My first PC operated at 8 MHz -- "Turbo" mode. My current box, old and pokey as it is, runs at 2210 Mhz. Let's say the overall cost was roughly the same, though I remember my dad paying something on the order of $5,000 for our first PC. (A Victor 9000 that could run both CP/M and MS-DOS, wow!) Improvement, over 270 times -- and that's not counting the improvement in what gets done per tick. My current box rates 4420.08 BogoMIPS; using the conversions at that article, my 8 MHz "Turbo" PC would have rated about .032 BogoMIPS. Improvement: over 138,000 times.

"All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace"

Posted on: Thu, 06/24/2010 - 23:27 By: Tom Swiss

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
by Richard Brautigan

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
       (right now please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
       (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

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