Friday, August 29, 2008

Another Bit of Knowledge

I've just completed my second contribution to Google's "Knol" - their run at Wikipedia's dominance in the free knowledge marketplace. Both Wikipedia and Knol materials are written by unpaid volunteers, but there are important differences.

Wikipedia has been around much longer and therefore has a far more extensive and detailed range of materials. Wikipedia contributors are anonymous and the style is collaborative - anyone in the world can take a shot at any Wikipedia article and edit anything they want into it. Fortunately, at least for important topics, Wikipedia has many active volunteers who generally correct false or misleading or partisan articles and edits pretty rapidly and fairly.

Knol requires writers to identify themselves and their affilliations at the head of their articles. They even verify the writer's identity by making an automated phone call to the writer's phone. They also encourage edits by anyone who is interested, but these edits must be approved by the original author before they appear. It will be interesting to see how Knol fares against Wikipedia. Right now, Knol is David vs the Wikipedia Goliath - but Google is a very successful company and, with them behind Knol, and able, as the premier web search engine, to make sure Knols are well-represented in the results when people do searches!

I am using my Knols as materials for my U Maryland students, replacing class materials previously only available on the U Maryland website.

My most recent Knol is Quantifying Brooks Mythical Man-Month and my previous one is Optimal Span.

Ira Glickstein

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fungible Energy

In a Comment to our Accretion of Power Topic, Howard wrote, in part:
In the long run, however, natural resources are what give power to a society, and modern societies are not isolated like primitive tribes. Consequently, economic power, defined as fungible resources, is necessary to support modern military power. [Emphasis added]

"Fungible" means "interchangeable" meaning the consumer or user cannot tell the difference between the product from source A or source B. While looking it up I came upon the above Dilbert cartoon that states:

Oil is a fungible commodity, the capitalist system virtually guarantees that you'll end up buying the lowest cost oil from sources unknown to you. [Emphasis added]

True, but does that negate Dilbert's desire to buy a fuel efficient car or the newly-forming national consensus that we need more domestic sources of oil and other energy? I think not.

Energy conservation, if it is done in a rational way, should save us money in the long run, regardless of what other nations may do. Since oil (and by extension any other form of energy that is interchangeable with oil) is fungible, any bit we save will reduce worldwide demand and therefore, eventually, reduce prices or at least reduce the rate of increase that would have occured absent the conservation.

Similarly, any decision to permit new drilling or wind farms or nuclear power plants or biodiesel and so on, will eventually increase supply and therefore reduce prices or at least reduce the rate of increase that would have occured absent the increased supplies.

The argument that newly-permitted drilling (or wind or nuclear, ...) will not "add a drop of oil for ten years" is, IMHO, a phony one. It is like telling a high school graduate not to go to college because it will take ten years to recover the lost income during the four to eight years he or she will not be in the workforce. You have to look at the long-term payoffs!

Also, since part of the price of oil is based on future expectations, the change in public attitudes about tradeoffs between the environment and energy has already reversed some of the rapid rise in energy prices worldwide.

Of course our energy conservation and expansion of supplies must be done in a reasonable and responsible way.

When we purchased our Prius we knew we were facing short-term increased costs and were "betting" on the long-term payback. The Prius costs a few thousand bucks more than a comparable non-hybrid and we were told we'd have to spend $4000 bucks to replace the batteries in four years. We originally figured it would not pay back our investment for five or six years. Well, with the more than doubling of gas prices over the four years we've owned it, and the new estimate that we'll only have to spend about $2000 to replace the batteries and they will last six years or more, it has already paid off!

Smart energy conservation could pay off much sooner than we think if energy prices continue to rise worldwide. Now that China and India and Russia and other countries have adopted something like capitalism, their productivity and standard of living have shot up and are expected to continue to rise to the level of western democracies. That means, despite energy conservation and development of new supplies, energy demand and therefore energy costs will continue to go up.

As I wrote in my Global Warming Topic, the increased use of energy worldwide will mean more release of previously sequestered carbon (gas, oil, coal) into the atmosphere. While I am not an alarmist who thinks all global warming is caused by humans and the "tipping point" is ten- or twenty-years away, I do accept that humans are responsible for a significant fraction of global warming and we should curb the release of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere to the extent possible without ruining the worldwide economy.

Politicians and "do-gooders" can trumpet conservation until they are "blue in the face" but most consumers and industries will do little until it hits them in the pocketbook.

I have long supported a punitive carbon tax. I believe, within ten years, most governments will screw up the courage to impose a substantial carbon tax despite its unpopularity with voters. Government regulation and imposed mileage standards and subsidies for alternative energy are counterproductive and simply enrich the well-connected and bloat government. Just raise the costs of excessive carbon and allow market forces to do the rest!

Ira Glickstein

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Accretion of Power

It seems to be a general principle of human interaction that power draws power to itself. One sees this on both small and large scales, from the level of a committee to the level of a nation or group of nations. I've been on both sides of the fence, that is, participated in the accretion and fought against it. It seems to me that accretion, like gravity, is a natural force in the affairs of man.

One of my experiences was serving on the college curriculum committee for about twenty-five years, many of which I was the chair. The committee didn't even exist when I began my thirty year stint at the University of Hawaii and our university president was a real academic. A few years later, in an attempt to become a "big time" university, the state hired a new president, an academic manager who vastly complicated the structure of his domain without actually accomplishing anything positive. One of the complexities he added was college curriculum committees that filtered program changes before they appeared at the university level committee and thence at his desk for his approval or disapproval. The engineering college created the mandated committee with no intention that it actually function as anything but a rubber stamp for the departmental curriculum committees. In fact, myself and others served in that capacity for many years. Our meetings were brief and perfunctory. However, as time went along and the curriculum grew more complex and the various departments expanded, curriculum changes grew more contentious. The college program committee meetings became the battleground upon which territoriality was played out. Having a friend on the committee became a requisite for professors trying to mark out new territory. Looking back, I don't see much that we accomplished that the departments themselves and the free market could not have accomplished. I don't know if optimal span theory takes this into account, but it is the nature of humans that when management creates a box on a chart, it will eventually fill with power.

Another of my experiences was in fighting such a power. Before World War II, a national organization (ECPD) was started to protect students and the public from fly-by-night schools claiming to offer engineering degrees. Accreditation by the Engineering Council for Professional Development carried with it some benefits for students wishing to take the certification exam in his or her state. Otherwise the organization had little impact among legitimate schools. (MIT and Stanford, for example, have never bothered to become accredited.) Student were generally oblivious to accreditation and large businesses did there own accreditation based upon experience with a school's graduates. However, after WWII engineering based experienced a large upturn and funds for the operation of the accrediting body experienced a similar surge. ECPD became more and more powerful. About twenty years ago, when two year schools of technology entered the scene, they augmented their domain by becoming ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) despite the fact that there is no point of academic contact between engineering and engineering technology. The national organization became more and more dominant in stipulating the courses and methods to be used in every school in the nation. As a consequence, creativity and innovation in the teaching of engineering now resides in the few schools of repute that refuse to submit to the accreditation process. It was never intended that accreditation be anything more than a minimal guarantee of quality, but the principle of accretion of power inevitably produced a kind of dictatorship of fear. Withholding of accreditation by the "good old boys" and their young acolytes who run the organization is a powerful weapon. At a national meeting when I seized the floor to express my thoughts and pass out revolutionary literature, not a word of encouragement came from the audience. It was not into later, in private places like the rest room, that professors screwed up enough courage to say they agreed that ABET had gotten completely out of hand. Even well-intentioned members of the board may have realized that something was amiss. At the end of the three day meeting they announced that a committee would be formed to look into the problem of too much restraint on academic creativity. Unfortunately, nothing ever came from that as far as I know. Neither power nor authority are often relinquished voluntarily.

With respect -Joel

Monday, August 18, 2008

Authority vs Reason

Joel said,
"Too often quoting authority leads to questioning credentials (as we have seen) and obscuring the real issues. It's a waste of mental energy. I'd rather deal with arguments themselves."

My first instinctive response was to agree wholeheartedly. I associate authority with church dogma, bureaucratic red tape, and conservative principles. Incidentally, I don’t understand how you can claim to be a conservative if you don’t accept the cultural authority of the past?
But then I looked at my own work and realized that I could get nowhere without relying on authorities. It would be totally impractical if a scientist had to start every data collection and argument from scratch and could not accept the authority of historical data, mathematical proofs and foundational principles of predecessors.
Even Newton said he was standing on the shoulders of giants. Doesn’t our entire culture stand on the shoulders of giants? A person who does not accept any authority is simply an anarchist. I sometime think anarchy is worth a try, but then I would not call myself a conservative.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Guardians at the Gates are GONE - Freedom of the Press!!!

There have always been "guardians at the gates" preventing free access to the "press" - until now!

Prior to the invention of printing, books were manually copied by scribes and only the established church or kings or writers with rich patrons could afford to publish their books in multiple copies.

The first printed books had their letters manually carved into blocks of wood, a very labor-intensive and therefore expensive process. That effectively blocked most writers from publishing in multiple copies.

Even after the invention of movable type around 1450 by Gutenberg books were still quite expensive and limited in quantity. For example, fewer than 200 copies of the famous Gutenberg Bible were ever printed.

Since then, printing has become less and less expensive and the quantity of books published has greatly expanded.


However, Freedom of the Press was more a goal than a reality. Many governments own and control all newspapers and other media or impose various restrictions and censorship on privately-owned media. Most of these repressive governments restrict the distribution of publications from abroad.

Even in countries where the media is free, there are economic and ideological barriers to publication of unpopular viewpoints and/or new, unproven authors.

Until recently, the cost of setting a book in type was prohibitive. Publishers would not invest the tens- or hundreds of thousands of dollars required to set up, print, distribute, and publicize a new book unless they were sure they could sell thousands or tens of thousands of copies. To get a book published via the normal route you must first find an established agent, which is not an easy task. Then, the agent must find a publisher who is willing to invest the cash required up front.

Even self-publishing has been expensive until recently. For example, my brother self-published a book about public speaking about ten years ago and he had to front nearly ten-thousand dollars for his first run of a few thousand books. Fortunately for him, his book was eventually picked up by Random House and is now available on Amazon and other major bookseller websites. But, that is not the norm at all. Most self-published books go nowhere and the authors are left with boxes of unsold books.

Indeed even the yet-to-be famous Henry David Thoreau had this experience in 1853. In his journal he "brags" that he has "a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself." Those 700 were copies of his "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" that he published at his own expense. Fewer than 300 of the original 1000 printed had been sold or given away and he was stuck with the remainder.

Ideological bias by the journalistic and publishing industry is also a factor preventing "freedom of the press" from being actualized. People who go into these professions tend to have leftist biases and may therefore not recognize, or not want to popularize, views that may differ from their own. Most media are concentrated in a few large cities and many who work there are totally unaware of how the rest of us think.


The advent of the Internet has leveled the playing field to a large extent. Certainly fewer people will read this TVPClub Blog than will read the Drudge Report or the New York Times, but, at least, anyone in the free world can easily click and read either.

And, remember the Drudge Report started in the kitchen of a strange guy Keith Olbermann called "an idiot with a modem". It is now viewed by three MILLION visitors a month and earns massive advertizing bucks for Matt Drudge! (I look at it almost every day, sometimes multiple times per day.)


Modern technology has only recently allowed a drastic change in the economics of book publishing.

The first change occurred about a decade ago and I call it "the Kinko' Book". I wanted to have copies of my PhD Dissertation to give to family members and friends and students. So, since it was already a word-processor document on my PC, I printed it out and took it to Kinkos where they copied and spiral-bound it into a nice booklet for about $20 a copy for a couple-dozen copies. A few years later, after my dad passsed away, I also made Kinko Books of two sets of his writings to give to our children and his friends and relatives.

Kinko Books make sense if you are only going to need a few dozen copies. The books I made were letter-size and had color front and back covers with black and white insides. Although a Kinko Book cannot be confused with a professionally-published book, they cost about the same or more.

The second change is more exciting. With modern digital technology it is now almost as inexpensive to print a single copy of a professionally-bound book as it is per copy for a larger run. The new technology is called "print on demand" and there are several companies competing in this marketplace.

As many of you know, I published a free online novel a few months ago. Several of my friends and relatives expressed a desire for a printed version. I looked into it and found Lulu "Print on Demand" and have recently published my novel 2052-The Hawking Plan there. (The printed version is a much more tightly edited version of the online book.)

The economics are amazing! There is absolutely no set-up or up-front charge for the Author, no monthy charge for the Lulu "storefront" and no cost at all except for a per-copy charge, and, of course, shipping and handling (less than $4 for a single copy via USPS Media mail).

Right now, printed copies are available at 2052-The Hawking Plan. Within a couple of months, Lulu may be able to get Amazon and other major online sellers to list the book as well. (If you live in The Villages, FL area and would like to buy a copy, you can get one from me for the list price. $18 - "chai", and you won't have to pay the shipping and handling.)

If you have written anything, such as a family history, your personal journal, poetry, fiction or what-have-you, this is a great way to get a couple dozen professional-looking copies for your friends and family for a very reasonable price.

The "guardians at the gate" are gone! You do not need an agent. You do not need to find a publisher to put up the money for up-front costs. You do not need to pay those expenses yourself. You do not need to get the approval of the literary profession. You can DO IT YOURSELF and only pay for the copies you need.

Ira Glickstein

Monday, August 4, 2008

DNA "Fingerprints" in Anthrax Case

When anthrax was mailed to some media and political figures in 2001, resulting in some deaths, DNA testing fairly quickly determined that it was the "Ames strain," known to be the subject of experiments at Ft. Detrick. That made it most likely a rogue scientist at that facility was involved, and unlikely the killer used anthrax from a foreign source or it was "home-made." The anthrax was also in a form suitable for inhalation which apparently requires specialized processing, unlikely to be available to someone not associated with a major lab.

According to information released within the past week, some new, more detailed DNA analysis techniques have become available and affordable over the past year, and these have been used to "fingerprint" the DNA that caused the deaths and show they match the DNA used in Bruce Ivin's lab at Ft. Detrick.

While the details have not yet been released, I suspect the analysis looked for random mutations in the "junk" part of the anthrax DNA. Even assuming all the anthrax labs at Ft. Detrick started with the same exact Ames strain of anthrax, if each lab reproduced the anthrax independently, they would each end up with slight random differences that did not affect the function of the anthrax.

This case is applicable to our recent discussion of DNA "memory." You might say the DNA samples from the victims "remembered" the random mutations that occurred to their ancestors in Ivin's lab.

If you do not accept my use of the word "memory" in the Ivin's case, let me posit an analogous situation. Say a parrot has been stolen and is later recovered. The parrot is OK but, during its captivity it has added a few words to its vocabulary, and they are Hungarian words! The evidence of the parrot's memory of the Hungarian words would point to someone who speaks Hungarian as a likely suspect!

While discussing the Ivin's case with my wife, Vi, yesterday, she suggested that highly secure bio labs should consider purposely introducing telltale mutations in the junk DNA of the bioweapons in each lab. That way, if any of it was lost or stolen and used in a crime, the specific lab would be known and that could aid the investigation.

I believe there is a federal requirement that each batch of dynamite have a different mix of telltale materials added to it that are recoverable even after the dynamite has exploded. Anyone who makes a purchase must be identified and associated with the batch number of the dynamite. That way, when there is a criminal explosion involving dynamite, authorities can rapidly get a list of suspects - all those who have purchased sticks from that lot and others who are asociated with them or who may have stolen the dynamite from the legal purchaser.
Ira Glickstein