Sunday, July 25, 2004

Cloudy Ethics

Scientists in China are stealing clouds. I think they’re actually trying to steal water, but being scientists they tend to overlook the obvious methods of water snatching-- like backing a tanker truck up to a lake, or even arranging for a stream to take a sharp right turn. No, these brainiacs, or as the Chinese call them-- Puff Daddies, are using rockets to seed innocent puffy white clouds, causing them to suck up moisture as they drift over some poor guy’s land, and then hoping the clouds deliver the purloined rain onto their province.

Cloud stealing is not only technically tricky, it’s surrounded by cloudy ethical issues. The core debate centers on when, exactly, does a mere puff of wator vapor become a legitimate rain cloud--clinically referred to as cloud viability?

Is it when the stratosphere feels the first excited dew form under the Sun’s leering eye?

Is it when the Wind’s gentle caress twines vaporous wisps, rolling and roiling, until engorged, they strain at the lacey veil of air around them?

Is it when the scientist’s rocket, penetrating higher and higher into the creamy whiteness, finally releases its load of particles in a gushing explosion?

Or is a rain cloud only a rain cloud when it has grown to maturity, sagging full and heavy, capable of spurting its precious liquid onto the upturned faces waiting expectantly on Mother Earth below?

Whew! What were we talking about again? Oh yeah, cloud viability...its important because land owners, the dastardly Stratocasters, have resorted to firing even more rockets into the seeded clouds-- which blows them to birdfeed. The Puff Daddies claim it’s morally wrong for the Stratocasters to destroy fetal rain clouds. In this Chinese Battle of the Firecrackers the real loser is the Troposphere, who’s stuck somewhere in the middle.

The Stratocasters claim that an artificially inseminated cloud is not protected by the dozens of laws that protect naturally occurring clouds. Furthermore, as the owners of the air space in which the clouds get freaky with the rockets, Stratocasters claim it is their right and a personal choice to destroy unwanted clouds. The Stratocasters are financed by the deep-pocketed and deeply tanned owners of theme parks and beach resorts who would like nothing more than to guarantee their patrons good weather for a change.

The government’s Puffies argue their cloud seeding is not the issue since it simply accelerates a process God already started and is technically performed in the missionary position. Once there is a hint of white in the sky, they claim that cloud exists and is protected by the government or at least the National Hurricane Center. The Puff Daddies have the backing of former president Bill Clinton, who thought the group had something to do with smoking weed.

While the lightning rod issue revolves around individual rights versus what God wants us to do, other tangential issues remain unsolved. For example, who owns the byproducts of clouds-- mainly thunder and lightning? If lightning from an artificial cloud kills someone, is the cloud’s Puff Daddy held responsible, or is the cloud acting on its own will? What about clouds that start hanging out with the wrong company-- smoking chimney pipes in the rust belt before moving on to the harder stuff, eventually dropping acid rain and tripping on the sunset-- are there programs to get them back on the right track? Are rain and hail considered equivalent products in the courts? I mean, they’re in different physical states altogether. Does federal or state law apply? If a Puff Daddy is abusive, can his cloud be taken away or put up for adoption? Does an adopted cloud have the right to know who its meteorological parents are?

Left out of the debate, and none too happy about it is Mr. Wind. Said a vitriolic Wind, “They have tried passing Wind and they have tried breaking Wind, but who do you think is really controlling things around here? I have half a mind to start another El Nino, or is it El Nina? Maybe I’ll just start an El Nunya-- as in ‘Nunya going to have a house left when I’m done’.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Counting things - IRS

Some people, and by people I mean lawyers, accountants, and politicians mostly, make things too dang complicated.  The numbers they provide us are processed, spun, and interpreted because...why? Whatever happened to the simple art of counting things?  What we have here is an over-Excel’ing of the raw data. We have the GDPPPI, CPI, and GIGO. Even most polls aren’t really counting things; they’re counting answers to questions pre-spun to get the numbers someone needs.
My pitiful brain is tired from trying to unravel the motives behind all the complex formulas and numbers that come out of them. What I’d like to see is just some straightforward counting of things, like physical objects…lines of code, people, dollars…stuff like that. I’d leave the people to interpret, process, fractionalize, and rationalize the numbers all on their own.
So let’s count, IRS-style:
Number of dollars collected in taxes (2003). $1,952,929,045,000
Age of the universe in days: 7,300,000,000,000
Number of tax returns filed (2003 est): 230,600,000
Number of IRS employees82, 495 (full-time), 12,143 (part-time)
Number of IRS publications: 1600
Number of words in the US tax code: 2,800,000
Number of words in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: 208,000
Number of instances of the word ‘waste’ in the US tax code: 22
Number of tax accountants and auditors currently working in the US, (2002): 1,100,000
Number of people needing help from the IRS to complete their tax forms, (2003): 8,500,000 (in person), 88,500,000 (phone)
Number of people served by McDonalds (2003):  47,000,000 per day
There you go—pure, unbiased counting.  That wasn’t so hard was it?  Finally, I have to point out a statistic quoted in the IRS strategic plan (page 20):
“It costs taxpayers only 48 cents for each $100 collected by the IRS.”
Wonderful.  I’d gladly let the IRS spend double that amount, 96 cents, to collect half as much.  Is that an option?

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Yak farmers yak it up

Did you see where a local teacher educated at the University of Nebraska recently set up a Wi-Fi network in Nepal for yak farmers? Apparently, the yak farmers’ huts are two days walk from the yak herd-- the minimum safe down-wind distance. Yak farmers now use the so-called YakNet to trade veterinary tips, buy and sell yak, and email orders for takeout pizza. Farmer Puntun regards the new technology with awe, “I just like the word Wi-Fi—it sounds a lot like Hi-Fi.” Another farmer was less impressed, stating: “Wi-Fi, Schmi-Fi. I still have two days walk to the yak. I try to trade for bicycle but college boy says YakNet much better.”

MCI marketers didn’t want to miss out on this wonderful wireless PR opportunity and back-packing boondoggle. They are equipping farmers with the latest AT&T cell phones, including 10 free minutes per month*. The farmers are appreciative, but some wish a game better than ‘snake’ was included with their phones. Others are just thankful they weren’t given a Nokia nGage. “What a piece of crap that thing is,” said one.

The new technology has also improved health care, making the annual Running of the Yaks through Kathmandu a safer event. Using YakNet, gored runners are able to report they need medicine, blood, and common sense. Of course it takes five days for Nepal Trauma 1--a two-wheeled cart pulled by a yak named Speedy—to get there.

Yak farmers are also using the Wi-Fi network to trade vet tips. As one farmer explained, “Before I had YakNet, if one of my yaks started bellowing in the night, I would shoot him so I could get some sleep. Now I know from emailing the other farmers the yak probably just had an ear infection. I still shoot him, but I no longer wonder what was wrong. Knowledge provides great warmth during the cold Himalayan nights.”

YakNet, by connecting with the Internet, has opened up international markets for yak farmers. NYC restaurants are especially excited about overnighting yak steaks for their customers bored with buffalo, snail darters, and whale sushi. McDonalds recently announced they would design a healthy alternative to their famous Big Mac. “The Big Mac-Yak is a great new product that fits well with our new low-cal, low-fat approach to fast food. Yak tastes a lot like dirt, which is important to the credibility of health food…if it tasted good no one could enjoy eating it.” Demand is so high a new yak stock exchange was created. Hillary Clinton, showing she still has the Midas touch, made $100,000 on yak futures within the first week.

When confronted with the cultural and dietary pollution their project has introduced to Nepal, the original Wi-Fi proponents remain optimistic. “We have launched a new web site describing the dangers of Freedom Fries and Coca-Cola. We are also creating an interactive Flash movie that seeks to preserve Nepal’s history and culture using gigabytes of audio and video clips. Without technology, these precious artifacts would be lost forever.”

*Nights and weekends only. Other restrictions may apply.

Monday, July 12, 2004

RFID: Coming soon to stores everywhere

Walmart is requiring its top 100 suppliers to use Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags, small devices that emit radio waves containing information about a product’s size, price, age, etc. Walmart, famous for strong-arming suppliers, has backed away from a plan to literally tag the suppliers’ workers, opting (for now) to just tag pallets, crates, and boxes.

RFIDs promise to increase the quality of consumer goods. No longer will you get stale Corn Pops off the grocery shelf-- the RFID tag will know the product is old and those goods will be redirected to Asian food markets.

Retailers will also be able to spot trends more quickly and stock the items that consumers are demanding. For example, stores in cities hosting the DNC will now have plenty of fruits, flakes, and nuts on hand.

Retailers have only reported success stories with RFID technology to date, and are quick to point out that RFIDs do not use the same brain-damaging frequencies (BDFs) as cell-phones-- they use different BDFs altogether.

One problem has surfaced recently though: RFID tags don’t stick to frozen food very well. One company looked at sticking the tags directly into sausage before freezing, based on the notion that no one knows what’s in sausage anyway.

Sure enough, sausage makers can now track the number of links consumed and the exact position of their customers via the RFID tags in their bellys. The sausage maker’s in-house scientists are currently shredding evidence showing most of their customers weigh more than 250 pounds and sit in front of the TV a lot.

Although retailers are excited about the opportunity to make a buck, civil libertarians are, predictably, a little more pessimistic. They claim not only do RFID tags track goods through the supply chain, but that by linking the products purchased to the credit card numbers used to purchase them, consumer spending behaviour can be tracked.

Based on this potential, Texas Instruments is hurrying up development of new RFID tags code-named ‘truent officers’ that correlate a worker’s spending habits with their work attendance. The new tags can reportedly call tardy workers directly:

Worker: “I’m not feeling well today, I’m gonna stay home.”
RFID: “I guess you’re not feeling well, you drank a couple of bottles of Scotch last night, and it wasn’t even good Scotch.”
Worker: “Yeah, but I do that every night. I don’t think it was the Scotch.”
RFID: “Then it must have been the sausage this morning. You know how sausage affects your spastic colon. Now turn off the TV and get your fat ass to work.”

The RFID tags are not exactly cheap, costing 20 cents to $1 apiece for every company except the government, who put in a bid to pay $100 per tag. Seargent Awol Graft of the Army Logisitics Command proposed tracking every part in its inventory of 100 million parts. Stated Graft, “I know $15 billion is a lot of dough, but maybe now we’ll figure out who has all our damn Sidewinders.”

Refusing to be outspent by another government agency, NASA recently jumped on the RFID bandwagon saying the technology would have been perfect for finding all the broken pieces after the recent shuttle disaster. When we pointed out that perhaps preventing the crash in the first place was a better way to spend money a NASA spokesman said, “The general public doesn’t understand our mission. We have to account for every eventuality before launch and on re-entry. However, whatever goes wrong in space is a different story. You know what they say, ‘what happens in space, stays in space.’”

Internet hackers and the mafia, ever alert for new ways to steal, have recognized the intrinsic value of RFIDs for a long time. They rountinely pull tags off palettes and sell them on eBay repackaged as Walkman radios.

This black market was discovered recently when Timmy Stevens told his mom the Walkman commanded him to restock the cupboard with bran flakes and carb-free pork rinds. After massive doses of ADD drugs and shock therapy failed to change Timmy’s story, the police were alerted.

Sometimes, just for fun, hackers crack into the tags and switch the product ID’s around. Come to think of it, that could explain why our Corn Pops taste more like Kibbles lately.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Pimp my tech

Games they was trippin’: Take 2 on the label
So much mula put G4 on cable
GTA releases X’er-cynicism
Nothin’ better than car-jackin grey-hairs
On the telly vision

Xbox is kickin’ out the video
Microsoft is sneakin in the front do’
‘Cause Bill Gates wants more blingy
Than Trump, Usher, and Chingy

Got my dual flat panels
At only 10 G’s apeice
Wanna get ‘em crunk up
But nVidia’s patch is late on release

Who you with? Where you been?
Big Brother’s trackin’ all your sin
Where you going? What’cha doin?
With that Blackberry at the Holday Inn

Gold toof’ display, camera lens in the celly’s
Need stacks of cheese just to pay for these PC’s
Midgets with gold chains, making me insane
If you ain’t born short den gotta use yo’ brains

Goin’ back to Cali, Cali, Cali.
Goin’ back to Cali-- I don’t think so
The web boom dun ‘n busted
Can’t collect no checks cause my skilz up 'n rusted

Emailed Don, need work, hey you got some?
Said come to town, drop down and get your eagle on
Sent in my info, said they prolly get wit me
But they hired a Chinese Jew gurl cause it was better- more PC

So I was the renegade of funk
Stickin’ it to the man like a punk
Rippin’ gig’s of MP3s, pressin’ my own CD’s
Til’ the record execs got crunk, bitch-slapped me

Sent the FBI to my crib
I jumped out the back, broke my rib
Mofo’s stole my tunes, trashed my drive
Now I’m paying 10 bucks a month for XM, jus trying to stay alive

Went back to the block, now got pimps as my friends
I got marketing honeys in the Mercedes-Benz
My programming friends diss me and think they so funny
But I eats steak and lobster while countin’ my money

Dental Science

I recently lost a filling somewhere. I know I lost it because I could feel a hole in my tooth big enough to stash a chicken wing. I’m not sure where the filling went, but I’m guessing it’s probably sitting in the bottom of my stomach with a nickle, some erasers, and a few other indigestible items that have had the misfortune of getting too near my mouth over the years.

After a while the tooth-hole started hurting.  I held out a few weeks but finally made the dreaded call to the dentist.  This is not an easy call to make-- a lot of crazy thoughts go through your head before making a decision of this magnitude.  “Maybe I could duct tape it?”, “That drywall patch stuff is probably not poisonous.”, and “Handfuls of Advil won’t do any lasting damage, right?”  But the pain eventually became severe enough that I had a really crazy thought: “Hey, maybe the dentist is not so bad after all?”

So I went to visit the dentist.  All dentists have a one hour minimum wait strictly enforced by the Dentists of America and Crest.  The wait is a kind of hypnotic pre-anesthesia.  The dim lighting, the antiseptic smell, and the Muzak of the 70’s and 80’s make you very, very sleepy.  I was just entering a trance from staring at the rubber-tree plant, which I’m pretty sure was staring back, when the Hygenist hissed my name. The Hygenist is the evil assistant of the get the feeling if you don’t comply *exactly* with her orders things could get...ugly.

I was escorted down a long door-filled hallway. As I passed each room the patients inside gave me that souless Novacaine stare, blood spattered paper bibs around their necks and mouths stuffed with wads of gauze. Not a pretty sight.

The first bit of Dental Science I noticed upon entering was the chair.  It looks as if it is intended to satisfy multiple markets-- probably also being used by the CIA for confession extraction and mental institutions for electro-shock therapy.  It’s got everything-- the restraints, the interrogation lamp, the mechanical arm for whirring drilling devices, and the tidy bowl to keep bodily juices off the floor.

The Hygenist strapped me firmly down in the chair before bringing out the real weaponry.  Dentists have all the tiny murderous tools ever desired by miniature serial killers: ice picks, needles, curvey pliers, hammers, drills, chain saws, little axes, and chloroform. It kind of fits—isn’t your dentist a slight oddball, not exactly in the medical mainstream and probably a little resentful about it—quirky and dangerous but not aggressive enough to do more than maim teeth, lips, and gums?

But is this primitively inflicted pain all Dental Science has to offer the toothed of Society?  Couldn’t they have made more progress in the last 100 years?  I’d like to see one less space shuttle flight a year...instead put that money into researching ways to teflon-coat my teeth so I never get cavities.  And if I do get a cavity, come up with some painless laser zapper thing to fix it.  Zip-zap your tooth is back.  The eye doctors are kicking butt with Laser Keratotomy, laser this and laser that.  They can have you seeing 20-15 in 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, it takes 10 minutes just for the dentist to show up once you’ve made it to the chair.  And the first thing he says to you?  “Hey, you’ve got a chicken wing in there!”  Good call, killer.

The Computerization of Me

Lately I’ve started to feel like a computer. It’s kind of like the way that beagle owners’ start looking like their beagles. I’ve spent a lot of time with my computer over the years. I’ve stared into the screen until I’m bleary eyed and worn the keyboard down with millions of two-finger strokes. But thankfully, I’m not actually looking like a computer. More alarmingly, I’m behaving like a computer.

For example, I’ve noticed I can only deal with decisions that have been reduced to if-then-else statements. If boss out, then leave early, else read email. If email from boss, then forward to underling, else delete unread. If underling has shotgun, then duck behind desk, else inquire about family.

I’ve traded concentration for multi-tasking. I can only move from one task to another, pausing long enough to work for a few milliseconds before switching to the next one. I often get so many tasks on my stack that my buffers overflow. I slow down to a crawl, run out of memory, and the last thing I remember is a blue light coming down over my eyes. Someone eventually walks by and gives me a boot but not before putting finger prints on my glasses. I reboot slowly. While I’m waiting I go get coffee.

I communicate with coworkers in short bursts of three and four letter acronyms interspersed with redundant header packets and encrypted so chances of understanding by pretty much anybody is minimized. We repeat familiar patterns, such as sitting around rectangular tables and transferring our internal state to each other. Since computers have no self-awareness, we never think to ask why-- especially if someone brings bagels.

When my battery is low, I go home. I sometimes receive wireless transmissions while driving on the information super highway. Luckily my phone is knees-free so I can continue driving while jotting down takeout orders. After recharging, I sit in front of the master screen while it programs me to buy Big Macs and diet pills. As I fall asleep, my mind churns with random shards of information while the defrag process runs.

I’m pretty sure my boss has noticed my computer-like tendencies. But I’m a ‘286 in a Pentium world and the Intel Inside t-shirt isn’t fooling him anymore. I see an upgrade coming—it’s time to save off all those MP3’s before they wipe my hard drive. Maybe I should have bought a beagle instead of that Apple II afterall.