October 31, 2012

The science of “shaken, not stirred”

Filed under: Books, History, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:05

Ah, those dedicated researchers at The Register! This time, they’ve got Gavin Clarke looking into the famous dry martini of James Bond:

“A distressingly large amount of rubbish is talked about cocktails,” Noel Jackson, top boffin at the Life Science Centre in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, tells The Reg.

Jackson, a Cambridge-University-educated chemist, has all the straight-up science on alcohol.

“We do a lot of debunking of things that people think are true,” he tells us. “There’s this business of shaken versus stirred. Once you heard it said from people in the cocktail world that shaking ‘bruises’ a liquid! That’s rubbish.”

The Reg, as part of our ongoing celebration of James Bond’s fiftieth year on film, was talking to Jackson about one of the signature elements of the 007 package: the dry vodka martini. Shaken, not stirred.

Jackson comes on the best of recommendations. We were put onto him by the boffins of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, who have been instrumental in such developments as packet-switched networking and the “Dambuster” bouncing bomb of World War II fame.

“What he doesn’t know about drinks, doesn’t need to be known,” they told us.

We spoke to Jackson about chemicals and thermal dynamics. We start with flavour, and that means talking alcohol.

The pre-history of Halloween

Filed under: Britain, History, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:33

In History Today, Maggie Black looks at the origins of current Halloween traditions:

…the feast which the early Church took [over] most completely from the great pagan, Celtic feast of Samhain which celebrated the end of summer and the harvest, together with the start of winter and the New Year. The Celts believed that, on the eve of the festival (our own Hallowe’en), the dead returned to walk the earth for a night and a day and with them came the spirits of evil, at their most potent. Fires blazed on every hilltop to purify the land, defeat the evil ones and encourage the wasting sun to revive. Ceremonial dancing, noisy games and harvest-end rituals took place around these fires with drinking of the herbal ales for which the Celts were renowned. Seizing their chance to question as well as to honour and propitiate their dead, the Celts chose this time for divination rituals too.

The force and vigour of the ancient beliefs overrode all newer ones and these practices survived the advent of Christianity, in barely translated form at first, and only very gradually died out. The evil spirits became witches, and the bonfires burned them in effigy (for instance the Shandy Dann at Balmoral where, we are told, Queen Victoria much enjoyed the fun). A great number of divining rituals and games, often involving apples, nuts and fire, persisted; apples and nuts were the last-harvested fruits. Even the old herbal ale: survived as mulled ale or punch with roasted apples floating in it.

The more significant pre-Christian practice of impersonating the dead and other spirits and by so doing protecting oneself and others from their spectral power also continued. Sometimes this was acted out by processions of young adults (later children) wearing or carrying grotesque masks and often headed by a youth carrying a horse’s skull (as, for example, the Lair Bhan in co Cork, or the Hodening Horse in Cheshire). They went from door to door or visited friends and neighbours, collecting money for food. Before Christian times, such largesse had no doubt been given to feast the dead spirits in return for the promise of fertility and protection from evil provided by the visit. But in pre-Reformation Christian Europe, it provided candles and masses for the dead and snacks for the living.

The economic problem with recycling is that it’s the inverse of retail value

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Technology — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:01

Tim Worstall at Forbes:

We all understand how pricing in the retail chain goes. Each unit of something in a shipload of them is worth less than each unit when there’s only a container of them, and so it goes on. As we get closer to the retail point each unit rises in value. As we break down the shipment from tens of thousands of units, to a truckload, then a pallet load, finally to the one single item sitting on the store shelf. If you agree to purchase 5,000 iPads you’ll expect to pay less for each one than if you tried to buy just one.

We get that: the thing about recycling is that pricing works entirely the other way around. To a reasonable approximation the value of one unit of anything for recycling is worth nothing. The value of each of 1,000 units in the same place is higher than that solitary one. One scrap car in the middle of a field isn’t worth much if anything. 1,000 cars in a scrap yard might be worth $300 a tonne for the steel content (don’t take these numbers too seriously by the way, they’re examples only). Precious metals refining, scrap metal, recycling: they all share this same economic point. The more of something you have then the more each unit of that something is worth.

[. . .]

… the way we tend to look at the economics of recycling. We hear a great deal about how recycling plastics, or cooking oil, metals, electronics, you name it we hear the same thing, “saves resources”. Sometimes this is absolutely true. Other times however what we get shown is the value of the actual recycling being done. And we’re not told about the costs of collecting what is to be recycled. And as above it’s those costs of collection that are really the key to the whole enterprise.

Just as an example there’s value in 1,000 tonnes of used plastic bags. Among other things you can burn them in a power station and get some energy. Great: but what is the cost of collecting enough used plastic bags to make 1,000 tonnes? That’s the part that seems not to get into the calculations that our green friends present to us.

Cash4Gold seems to have gone under because the collection costs of the materials were higher than the value of recycling those materials. What’s really rather worrying about the larger recycling movement is that this can be/is often true of other materials. But because we don’t properly account for the collection costs we don’t see this as clearly as we do in the accounts of a (failed) for profit company (OK, would be for profit company).

October 30, 2012

Detecting Photoshopped images – a primer

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:18

I’m sure almost everyone saw dramatic and scary images of “Hurricane Sandy” like this one that went round my friends’ Facebook timelines yesterday:

As you’ve probably guessed from the title, this is a ‘shopped image. RJS Security has a quick primer on detecting doctored images using this example:

Whenever a major media event happens (like Hurricane Sandy), we are inundated with news. Sometimes that news is useful, but often it merely exists to create FUD… Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. While I have not personally seen any malware campaigns capitalizing on the event yet, it is inevitable. The pattern is generally as follows:

  1. Event hits the news as media outlets try to one-up eachother to get the word out.
  2. People spread the warnings, making them just a little bit worse each time they are copied.
  3. Other people create hoaxes to ride the wave of popularity.
  4. Still other people create custom hoaxes to exploit the disaster financially.

A few minutes ago, at least in my little corner of the internet, we hit stage 3 when this image was posted

H/T to Bruce Schneier for the link.

Meet the new Chief of Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson

Filed under: Cancon, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:54

David Akin reports on the change-of-command that happened yesterday as General Walt Natynczyk handed over to General Tom Lawson:

Canadians have a high regard nowadays for their military.

Not only did our soldiers earn our admiration and thanks for the way they conducted themselves in the longest war in Canadian history — the last decade in Afghanistan — but the last two chiefs of defence staff did much to advance the cause of uniformed men and women with their own outsized personalities.

Gen. Rick Hillier, the top general from 2005 to 2008, was a quote machine and a favourite for the TV cameras. His popularity sometimes caused headaches for his political masters, but the troops loved him.

He was followed by Walt Natynczyk who, though not as over the top and outgoing as Hillier, was so much a favourite of the troops that he was given the nickname Uncle Walt.

Uncle Walt finished his four years as chief of defence staff Monday in an emotional ceremony at the Canadian War Museum, handing off his responsibilities to Gen. Tom Lawson with the words, “My duty is complete. The nation is secure.”

[. . .]

Lawson seems a very different leader from the two tank commanders who were his predecessors. Though he may yet flower in front of the TV cameras or develop a “bone-rattling” back-slap, he does not seem to to be the media personality his predecessors were. That’s not a criticism, but it does mean that Canadians and the 65,000 men and women who now serve under him will see a different style at the top.

He is well spoken, crisp in his speech and smart. But there is a coolness to his manner that was absent from Natynczyk and Hillier.

Beginning to assess the damage

Filed under: USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:40

ESR posts a “we’re fine” report on Google+ and then points out the damage to New York City’s power grid may be incredibly expensive and difficult to repair quickly:

Reporting from a diner in Paoli, PA, near 40°02′27″N 75°29′24″W.

Power went out in Malvern about 2AM this morning. After sleep, we have fled to where there is power and light and steak and eggs.

It feels like aftermath. The NOAA seems to no longer be issuing track updates and the storm track has disappeared from the Google crisis map, suggesting that the anticipated conversion to a large but normally (un)structured nor’easter has completed.

This area got off lightly, especially compared to the ration of apocalypse-now the storm handed New York City. Exploding high-power transformers are very bad news — they tell us that all that tunnel flooding seriously damaged the downtown end of the Manhatten power grid. That kind of equipment is extremely expensive and difficult to replace, and the halogen compounds they use as insulators are hazmats when they get loose. The prompt repair costs are going to be a large fraction of a billion dollars.

But that isn’t the worst of it. Considering that this will have have paralyzed the largest node in the international financial system for some time, downstream economic losses could easily crack a trillion dollars. The impact will be global and manifest as higher prices for everything with cross-border supply chains, rippling all the way down to Third-World farmers buying fertilizer.

Update: In almost record-setting time, here’s the first example of the Broken Window Fallacy to make it past the editors:

Disasters can give the ailing construction sector a boost, and unleash smart reinvestment that actually improves stricken areas and the lives of those that survive intact. Ultimately, Americans, as they always seem to do, will emerge stronger in the wake of disaster and rebuild better-making a brighter future in the face of tragedy.

Sandy is unusual storm and complex to gauge. Coming late in the season and combining with cold fronts to the west and north, it is really a post-tropical cyclone and has the potential to deliver epic destruction. However, coming so soon after Irene in August 2011, the level of anticipation and preparedness demonstrated by federal and state officials is commendable and should mitigate some losses-especially loss of life.

[. . .]

However, rebuilding after Sandy, especially in an economy with high unemployment and underused resources in the construction industry, will unleash at least $15-$20 billion in new direct private spending — likely more as many folks rebuild larger than before, and the capital stock that emerges will prove more economically useful and productive.

Pushing for “medical marijuana” makes full legalization less likely

Filed under: Health, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:05

L. Neil Smith makes the point that supporters of medical marijuana may be missing:

What I do mind — and perhaps I am alone in this, who knows? — is weak and disingenuous politics with regard to drugs. It was the issue of “medical marijuana” that first got my goat this way. I don’t doubt for a microsecond that the weed makes life easier and longer for those suffering certain diseases, and I believe that those who would deny them that relief are little better than scavengers on the misery of others.

But observation — and my knowledge of history and human nature — suggests that the majority of those who advocate the legalization of pot “purely for medicinal purposes” do not require it for that reason. They simply want to slip the nose of their personal camel under the edge of the tent, and I find that approach sneaky, dishonest, and cowardly.

I believe that if they had spent the past fifty years pushing the Ninth Amendment right to roll up and smoke whatever frigging vegetable you wish, marijuana would be legal now, and there would not have been a “War On Drugs” handy for the psychopathetic enemies of liberty to transform into a War on Everything, including the American Productive Class.

I think we’ve seen the high point for medical marijuana. The proof of that lies in a current initiative to “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol”, on the ballot in my home state of Colorado this year. The title says it all, although the details could be gruesome, ending in a mess found in some states and all military bases, where the government runs the liquor stores (about as well as they run everything else). In the Air Force, when I was growing up, some officious snoops regularly examined the records of the store and your commanding officer would get a tattletale letter if they thought that you were buying too much booze.

Whatever that amounts to.

This is not a kind of progress any that real libertarian would recognize. The fact that advocates of the measure make a major selling point of taxing the stuff only makes it worse, both in principle and practice. First, by what right does anybody steal money from me when I choose to spend it on some things and not on others. Furthermore, when I was just entering college, a smoker could buy a pack of Marlboros out of a machine for 35 cents. Today, the price per pack is nudging five dollars, and only a small fraction of that is attributable to inflation.

Exactly the same thing will happen with marijuana.

A source of obscure and unusual do-it-yourself books

Filed under: Books, History, Media, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:51

Michael Bradshaw‘s letter to the editor in the most recent Libertarian Enterprise alerted me to a possible source of interesting and unusual do-it-yourself books and pamphlets:

“The Lindsay” of Lindsay’s Books has announced his retirement “in 2013 or earlier” and the closing of his book store.

For many decades Mr. Lindsay has been the premier supplier of technical books to the do-it-yourself crowd, machine shop mavens, foundry sand-crabs, eccentrics, nut cases (like me) and geniuses at large (like “Uncle Dave” Gingery).

It ain’t all Uncle Dave.

He (Lindsay, not Dave) has titles from all over and back to the mid nineteenth century. He used to have De Re Metallica by Agricola in the Hoover English translation, but I don’t know if it is still cataloged. There are tech-school text books, how-to volumes from some of the best industrial arts guys around and collections of articles from technical manuals and magazines back to the early twentieth century. Get a 1940’s version of “How to Run a Lathe” by the South Bend Machine Tool Company.

His titles cover a plethora (really!) of stuff, such as:

  • Machine shop practices, building the major tools from scratch — from scrap (the Gingery series), building EDM machines and other shop tools and techniques.
  • Foundry tools and methods. Make your own molding shop and blast furnaces for the back yard. Fuel them with charcoal, propane or natural gas. Pour castings in aluminum, zinc and pot metal, copper alloys, iron alloys. Design and build centrifugal fans to power your crucible and cupola furnaces. Make your own crucibles. Dig ore for your cupola furnace, with a sharp stick, while wearing a leather breech-clout, a tie and a top hat! (OK, that last one was a joke. Lame.)
  • Sheet metal shop tools and methods. Make your own brake and slip-roll. Books of projects. Start a local sheet metal fabricating business.
  • Make electric generators, modify alternators, re-build or modify motors, make electro- and permanent magnets. Make radios from scratch. Emulate Nicola Tesla. Short circuit yourself and go up in a puff of smoke!
  • Learn about old-time chemistry. Set up a chem-lab. Screw up and dissolve, stain, burn, poison, blow-up and generally kill yourself in the most ingenious ways! Go up in another puff of (green) smoke!
  • Make wooden toys for kids. Make ship models for yourself.
  • Make steam, sterling, turbines and other kinds of engines. Build boilers from scratch and blow yourself (and the garage) up again! Build locomotives from scratch. Well, “maybe” on that last one.
  • Make wind and water turbines to power your generators or shop. Recycle waste oils.
  • Other stuff that I forgot to mention.

Basically, if you drop a bunch of money (including postage) on Lindsay, he will show you how to make a very complete industrial revolution. You may even have some fun. While killing yourself in the most ingenious ways. Count your fingers at the end of the day.

[. . .]

Get a catalog for $2 from Lindsay at lindsaybks.com Order some books. Do it NOW while you still can. The complete machine shop from scratch series is available in a package deal at a discount. There are some other package discounts. Check out the trauma center and links to other book dealers. Some are available on Amazon.com, but not many.

You can also buy Uncle Dave’s books (and his son Vince’s, too) direct, at the Gingery book store.

Note: I just received a note from Lindsay Books. Here is the pertinent part:

    “In the future, you may want to visit our new associate e-store:

    Your Old Time Bookstore
    YOTB’s site offers all books printed by Lindsay and provides decline/error notification before processing…

    Lindsay Publications, Inc.

    PO Box 538
    Bradley, IL 60915
    Fax: 815-935-5477″

See you in the shop.

October 29, 2012

US 3rd quarter GDP number less substantial than it appears

Filed under: Economics, Media, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 11:17

A bit of a downer for what would otherwise be good economic news:

Chart from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Polls are less accurate thanks to a 9% response rate (and falling)

Filed under: Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:41

Iowahawk has been posting a daily Twitter update reminding people that the reliability of political polls is much lower than ever before:

At Macleans, Colby Cosh digs a bit deeper to find out how polling organizations are responding to their approaching-flatline response rate:

The boffins are becoming increasingly reliant on “non-probability samples” like internet panel groups, which give only narrow pictures of biased subsets of the overall population. The good news is that they can take many such pictures and use modern computational techniques to combine them and make pretty decent population inferences. “Obama is at 90 per cent with black voters in Shelbyville; 54 per cent among auto workers; 48 per cent among California epileptics; 62 per cent with people whose surnames start with the letter Z…” Pile up enough subsets of this sort, combined with knowledge of their relative sizes and other characteristics, and you can build models which let you guess at the characteristics of the entire electorate (or, if you’re doing market research, the consumerate).

As a matter of truth in advertising, however, pollsters have concluded that they shouldn’t report the uncertainty of these guesses by using the traditional term “margin of error.” There is an extra layer of inference involved in the new techniques: they offer what one might call a “margin of error, given that the modelling assumptions are correct.” And there’s a philosophical problem, too. The new techniques are founded on what is called a “Bayesian” basis, meaning that sample data must be combined explicitly with a prior state of knowledge to derive both estimates of particular quantities and the uncertainty surrounding them.

[. . .]

Pollsters are trying very hard to appear as transparent and up-front about their methods as they were in the landline era. When it comes to communicating with journalists, who are by and large a gang of rampaging innumerates, I don’t really see much hope for this; polling firms may not want their methods to be some sort of mysterious “black box,” but the nuances of Bayesian multilevel modelling, even to fairly intense stat hobbyists, might as well be buried in about a mile of cognitive concrete. Our best hope is likely to be the advent of meta-analysts like (he said through tightly gritted teeth) Nate Silver, who are watching and evaluating polling agencies according to their past performance. That is, pretty much exactly as if they were “black boxes.” In the meantime, you will want to be on the lookout for that phrase “credibility interval.” As the American Association for Public Opinion Research says, it is, in effect, a “[news] consumer beware” reminder.

The Dragon returns, bearing cargo

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:37

At The Register, Brid-Aine Parnell reports on the mostly successful cargo delivery round-trip by SpaceX’s Dragon capsule:

The reusable cargoship dropped into the ocean yesterday evening around 250 miles off the coast of Mexico after resupplying the ISS and its crew. The Dragon was ferried to a port near Los Angeles where it will be prepped for its return to SpaceX’s test facility in Texas.

Some of the cargo brought back by the capsule is due to be returned to NASA in the next couple of days, including research samples from the station’s microgravity environment. The ship delivered 882 pounds of gear to the ISS, including scientific research and crew supplies. It returned with nearly twice that weight of stuff.

The mission was only a part-success, as the secondary objective was to launch a satellite for Orbcomm, but due to a malfunctioning engine in the launch phase, the satellite could not be placed in the correct orbit and was lost. Orbcomm is sticking with SpaceX for two more satellite launches in spite of this initial failure.

Who actually benefits from the expansion of “self-service” retail?

Filed under: Business, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:25

In the Wall Street Journal, Joe Queenan meets the modern grocery store checkout:

At the end of my visit to my town’s brand-new supermarket the other day, the cashier said she would be more than happy to help me self-check-out my purchases.

I said, “No, thank you, I would prefer that you do that.” She said, “Actually, we prefer that the customers get into the habit of checking out their groceries.” I said, “Actually, I would prefer to never get into that habit. I would prefer that you handle the entire operation. You are the cashier. You are the vicar of groceries. You, not I, work here. So earn your money and ring up my purchases. And then bag them. Please.”

Are we entering a dark, deeply un-American era when we literally have to do everything for ourselves?

Retailers love the idea of self-checkout and other forms of selling goods to customers with fewer staff members and more volunteer labour donated by the customers themselves. Some customers even prefer this, as it makes them feel more empowered about their retail experience. Bring your own bags (so we don’t need to provide you with bags we have to buy)! Pack your own bags (so we don’t have to hire as many checkout clerks)! But don’t fool yourself that the store is doing it “for the environment” or any other such catchy excuse: they’re on board with ideas like this because it’s more profitable for them.

Twenty million broken windows

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:03

At Forbes, Tim Worstall patiently explains that the damage from Hurricane Sandy (or any major storm) will appear to boost GDP, because it only measures money spent to repair damage, not the costs incurred or the opportunities foregone because of the damage:

We know very well that Hurricane (or Frankenstorm as some are calling it) Sandy will leave a trail of destruction across parts of the US today. There will almost certainly be deaths, as there have been in the hurricane’s passage across the Caribbean. And there will also be a boost to the US economy. Which is really evidence of quite how wrong we are in the way that we measure the economy.

[. . .]

The problem with this is that it is only true because of the way that we calculate GDP. In our working of the numbers we assume that it’s final consumption at market prices: that is, the value that consumers put on everything. However, this is not true of government spending. It’s very difficult indeed to work out what government spending is actually worth: for as we’ve not a choice in it then there’s no market price nor accurate valuation from the people who actually get whatever is produced. Some government spending is most certainly worth more than the actual amount spent. The court system say: a pre-requisite of our having a complex society at all. Other parts not so much: what is the true value of a diversity adviser for example? So what we actually do is value all government spending, for GDP purposes, at the cost of that actual spending. Government spends $100, GDP goes up by $100. That’s just how we define it. This can cause amusement in measuring the success of welfare programs for example. Even Census admits that some of the people who receive Medicaid, or food stamps, value what they receive at less than the cost of providing it.

[. . .]

Now imagine that Hurricane Sandy does $10 billion of damage to that wealth (for our purposes it doesn’t matter whether it’s $100 billion or $1 trillion. Although this obviously matters to everyone except for the purposes of this example). The US is now worth $99.990 Trillion. GDP might rise to $15.1 trillion as we repair that damage. But we’re not in fact any richer at all: despite the fact that GDP has gone up. What has actually happened is that some of our stock of wealth has been destroyed and we’re having to do more work in order to rebuild it. This is exactly the same as our pollution example. We’re measuring what we produce but not the capital stock of what we have (or had).

Yes, the rebound from Sandy may well provide a boost to the economy. But that’s a function of the way that we measure that economy, not a real boost in our general wealth.

October 28, 2012

Yup. Nastiest political rhetoric ever. Or not.

Filed under: History, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:43

Got Milk (mutation)?

Filed under: Environment, Health, History, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:33

Lactose intolerance is part of humankind’s genetic inheritance, which is why the mutation that allowed (some) adult humans to digest milk is of great interest to geneticists:

A genetic mutation appeared, somewhere near modern-day Turkey, that jammed the lactase-production gene permanently in the “on” position. The original mutant was probably a male who passed the gene on to his children. People carrying the mutation could drink milk their entire lives. Genomic analyses have shown that within a few thousand years, at a rate that evolutionary biologists had thought impossibly rapid, this mutation spread throughout Eurasia, to Great Britain, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, India and all points in between, stopping only at the Himalayas. Independently, other mutations for lactose tolerance arose in Africa and the Middle East, though not in the Americas, Australia, or the Far East.

In an evolutionary eye-blink, 80 percent of Europeans became milk-drinkers; in some populations, the proportion is close to 100 percent. (Though globally, lactose intolerance is the norm; around two-thirds of humans cannot drink milk in adulthood.) The speed of this transformation is one of the weirder mysteries in the story of human evolution, more so because it’s not clear why anybody needed the mutation to begin with. Through their cleverness, our lactose-intolerant forebears had already found a way to consume dairy without getting sick, irrespective of genetics.

[. . .]

A “high selection differential” is something of a Darwinian euphemism. It means that those who couldn’t drink milk were apt to die before they could reproduce. At best they were having fewer, sicklier children. That kind of life-or-death selection differential seems necessary to explain the speed with which the mutation swept across Eurasia and spread even faster in Africa. The unfit must have been taking their lactose-intolerant genomes to the grave.

Milk, by itself, somehow saved lives. This is odd, because milk is just food, just one source of nutrients and calories among many others. It’s not medicine. But there was a time in human history when our diet and environment conspired to create conditions that mimicked those of a disease epidemic. Milk, in such circumstances, may well have performed the function of a life-saving drug.

H/T to Marginal Revolution for the link.

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