Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Computer Related Spending Spree

Well, I went on a spending spree today. Bought a decent Toshiba laptop and extra RAM for it. Don't know what I'll do with the old RAM. Bought a bunch of new and old books as well ranging from Computer Security to Science Fiction to Buddhist and Tao philosophy. I will probably never read any of them entirely with the exception of the fictional and philosophy works. There are two kinds of computer books - mechanical in the sense of how to do this or that, and academic in which they generally write a chapter as if it were a paper or they outline an idea or set of ideas that are useless to the reader unless that reader has the same program writing abilities as the authors. While computer science papers are somewhat interesting and sometimes the results are fascinating, the code that created their results or what they call "data" is often never available. In this sense, computer scientists act like members of a guild. The exception to this may be the area of artificial life since it was jump started back to life by a biologist called Tom Ray who gave away his code. (Just my impression and opinion. Apologies to those computer scientists who may know the history of the field better than I do, but it does seem that a biologist reinvigorated the artificial life field.)This is different from say biology or physics where the reader might actually be able to read, understand and use the information to start their own investigations as well as ask for the code since taxpayer funded research is public domain.

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Orbital Engineering

According to the physicists, the Sun will cause the Earth to become too warm for life in one billion years. Of course, in a billion years and with a gradual warming, Life has a tendency to adapt to even the harshest of conditions. But by then, whatever humanity has evolved into or whatever has come after us if it is organic, may have other options available to it. However, a team at UC Santa Cruz proposed a plan using an icy or rocky body that comes close to Earth every 6000 years and impart energy into Earth's orbit. This would have the effect of gradually increasing Earth's orbit so that the amount of sunlight we receive stays relatively constant. The technique could aslo be used to move Venus's orbit out to a habitable zone or move Mars closer so that it warms up. The paper entitled "Astronomical engineering: a strategy for modifying planetary orbits" is available for free download. Of course, we don't have the technology to implement their idea just yet. Come back in 50-100 years.

Interestingly enough, Dan Simmons has a science fiction short story entitled "Orphans of the Helix" whereby an alien race engineered their world to withstand the hellish environment of a Red Giant. They moved into the interior of the world as it was engulfed by the star. Their atmosphere and oceans were internalized. I believe that the plan outlined in the paper is simpler and more economical than deciding to live below the surface of a star. That does not take away from the beauty and drama of his fine short story though. It is a wonderful read and he is a superb storyteller. He also "gets" human evolution.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

When Customer Service Isn't

I recently purchased a refurbished laptop from Dell's Web Outlet. I received it on Valentine's Day. Unfortunately, it was refurbished in name only. Dell's website points purchasers who wish to return products to their Customer Care number. One is then routed to India. The CSR (Customer Service Representative) I spoke to on February 15th, was helpful and she routed me to another agent who could help me. He in turn directed me back to Dell's web site which had their Change Ownership page. After following the directions and filling it out with a minor oops from me, (you have to enter xxx for the first and last name of the previous owner for it to go through), I was told that it would be 5-10 business days before the change took affect after which they could help me. I was amazed at how broken and hidden this process is. All Dell had to do was tell people that if they want to return a refurbished system, that they have to change ownership first. They could have done this on the web page directing people to call Customer Care. Instead they waste 45 minutes of a CSR's time and the customer's directing the customer back to Dell's own website. Then there's the Customer Care voice menu. To get the Returns Department which is only open 0900-2100 Central Standard Time, you have to tell the voice recognition software, "none of those" for an option. Once you do that, you are eventually directed to the Returns Department. That CSR helped me over a 10 minute period and it was relatively painless. I was notified that the ownership was changed yesterday, and today was the earliest I could call them. The laptop and the battery I ordered are going back to Dell. Perhaps my credit card will be credited by the end of the week. This was a most unfortunate mess and it was made more painful by intentionally hidden options and by a bad process. The CSR was not at fault at all. Perhaps by not revealing the Returns Option, the company is making money in some way such as interest off of the transaction. So it comes down to making a buck or being insensitive to your customers, I'm not sure which. I won't be buying a Dell laptop any time soon however.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

120 mpg Car

This looks promising, a car that runs on compressed air.


U.S. Nuclear Insecurity

In this Washington Post article (subscription required) according to the Defense Science Board task force, the control and security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been given to mid-level civilian and military officials since 1991. This is in contrast to the Cold War which ended in 1991, during which senior civilian and military officials looked after the nuclear arsenal. The gist of the article is that captains and colonels and mid-level bureaucrats are doing the jobs of generals and senior level bureaucrats. I can only surmise that during a hot conventional war, the ambitious people go where the action is in order to get promotions. Guarding nuclear weapons used to be a means of gaining promotion, but it seems that that isn't the case any more. This makes little sense since nuclear weapons are still the chief means of U.S. national defense. Instead of correcting the oversights, the task force recommends adding another layer of bureaucracy to fix the problem. Where have we heard that before?


Monday, February 04, 2008

The Two Faces of Islam and the Challenge to America

I just read the Foreign Policy Research Institute's 2007 Templeton lecture Americanism vs. Islamism: A Personal Perspective by Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D. the founder of American Islamic Forum for Democracy. I found it through the blog, Haft of the Spear.The West should incubate or catalyze an Islamic Reformation possibly by restocking mosque libraries with more politically moderate books and supporting American Universities in the Middle East.


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