Friday, June 20, 2008

Gas Prices

I've been keeping a little bit of an eye on the situation with gas prices, and I read something interesting this morning in the New York Times about the price of fuel in China. The Chinese government provides a direct subsidy for consumers there by fixing the price paid at the pump. This has insulated Chinese consumers from recent price increases and removed any motivation to scale back consumption in that country, which is one factor in the global increase in the price of oil and fuel. Yesterday, the government increased the price of gasoline for Chinese consumers by 16% to $3.83/gal, and the price of diesel by 18% to $3.58/gal. As a very tangible result of the complex psychology of oil trading, the commodity price of crude oil fell $4/barrel immediately on that news.
Although the Chinese have seen noticeable and rapid improvements in the quality of living, they are also rapidly transitioning from a biking to a automobile culture. Sigh...
The way things are going today with oil prices and global warming, Divine Intervention will hardly be necessary to have a really nasty Great Tribulation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Nerd Test

Hannah suckered me into this. If you click the link from my page, come back and post your score in the comments...

I am nerdier than 89% of all people. Are you a nerd? Click here to find out!

Back in the Saddle

Time to get back in the saddle. Of life, of school, on the bike, etc. We just returned from a very good weekend of the wedding of my brother in law Peter. It was a great time of family, friends, hanging out, sightseeing, monopoly, midnight pow-wows, etc. My wife, as usual, has posted her well-written and entertaining summary of the weekend, and I dare not compete or compare with my own version. I could go on and on about my nightmare travel experience with Continental and an unplanned and low-sleep overnight in Houston, but I'll spare you the details.
A much needed breather. The weather was actually cool, and I tried to spend a lot of time out it in to radiate the Texas heat out and see if I could lower my core temperature in preparation for the rest of the Texas summer. Unfortunately, thermodynamics does not work that way, and we're back in sweatland. For my ride in this morning, I actually was pretty much recharged, and the weather was not bad. I'm not sure how the ride home through the 40C heat will be, though.
Just one quick little funny about the airplane trips. For personal amusement, I have recently started counting the number of times that I hear certain phrases from the flight crew. The two most frequent ones, in my experience, are sentences that start with "Once again..." and "at this time". For the flight up, the score was tied at 4 and 4 because the captain spoke with unusually civilian jargon. The trip home, though was classic, with 7 instances of "Once again..." and 9 of "at this time".

PS, after a comment from my brother in law Paul, I'm switching RSS to full syndication so that those of you who use a blog reader get the whole thing and not just the first paragraph. Most of my ad traffic comes from searches on a few of my posts anyway, so it's not that big a deal. Enjoy!

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Funny Thing Happenend on the Ride Home

All I can say is I thank God for firefighters. Here's what happened:
I spent a busy day in the lab directing the eager efforts of two students visiting our lab for the summer from Dubai. They are both hard workers and smart, which means that they can pretty much finish a task soon after I assign it, and with my adviser away in Germany presenting a paper he and I wrote that leaves me pretty busy keeping these guys busy. Don't get me wrong, this is a good thing.
So I'm racing home on my bike through near 100°F heat, trying not to be too late for Eliza's 5th birthday. So that I can stay hands free and still talk on the phone while I bike, I've figured out what I thought was a pretty good way to tuck my cell phone under the straps of my biking helmet. With the phone on loudspeaker, I'm able to hear and be heard without sacrificing safety by tying up a hand while I ride.
I had just ended a call to let Hannah know I was on my way when, I'm not sure what caused this, the cell phone slipped from the straps and flew into the street, taking my glasses with it. I screeched to a halt and turned around as quickly as possible to rescue my glasses. Amazingly, they survived the fall with no scratches on the lenses, a big relief, but the only parts of my phone I could find were the face plate and key pad. Finally I realized that there was the storm drain, and when I stuck my head in, I could just barely see the rest of my phone, down in the leaves in the bottom of the drain.

View Larger Map
It just so happens that my mishap occurred directly in front of Austin Fire Department Station #3. (Behind and to the left in the picture above, it's the red brick building. The Offending Storm Drain is visible just ahead of my position on the right.) I grew up in the neighborhood, and I used to frequent this particular firehouse as a youngster , selling the Worlds Greatest Chocolate, popcorn, and whatever overpriced medium my school was using for fund-raising that year. Through these visits, I developed a fondness and respect for firemen that endures to this day, so I walked my bike over, explained my case, and asked whether anyone could help. Doing so, I interrupted and eagerly abandoned game of ping-pong, and created an opportunity for three of these fine men to grab a bunch of wicked-looking gear and hike across the street to rescue my phone. It was, of course, no problem to lift the cover and send the youngest guy, the new recruit, down into the hole to fetch the phone. Knowing full well that they loved the opportunity to get out and do something, I thanked them once, with genuine heartfelt gratitude, and rode the rest of the way home.
Now the moral of the story is, if you're going to lose something down a storm drain, do it in front of a fire station!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Chatter, a Review

If I haven't posted for a while, it's a consequence of being in that "all but dissertation" phase and being between semesters. Expectations are high that I would get a lot of research done. Alas, blogging takes the back seat...

In any case, tonight I finished reading a book Hannah got me for the first of m 34th birthdays. (I'm planning to hang out at 34, an entirely respectable age, for as many years as I may before conceding to 35 for several more.) The book is by a high school classmate of hers named Patrick Radden Keefe and it's called Chatter:Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping. The title pretty much tells you what it's all about.
I suspect that the word Echelon in the title is a bit of an attention grabbing device, since the book is not really about Echelon so much as the NSA, its eavesdropping network, and a history of its sucesses and failures.
Most Americans, including me before reading this book, don't have much of a clue about the extent of listening in that our government does. Apart from some awareness about the recent warrantless wire-tapping done by the NSA, we really only have at vague sense of unease that our privacy may be just an illusion. Keefe goes to some lengths to describe in as much detail as possible through public domain sources all of the eavesdropping activity that we unwittingly finance through our tax dollars. In various chapters he describes the infrastructure of eavesdropping; our international security partnership with the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; the lives of several insiders who went public; the crusades of several outsiders who research the eavesdroppers and report on their activities; the responses of foreign governments to our eavesdropping; and some very insightful discussion about the benefits of signals intelligence as well as its shortcomings, failures, and the abuses it allows.
Keefe likes to point out that there has been remarkably little public will to discuss the trade-offs between security and liberty. There have been several remarkable failures of intelligence, including most notably September 11th, the attacks on our embassies, and the attack on the USS Cole. Amazingly, our usual response to these failures has been to not hold anyone accountable, and increase funding for the agencies responsible for the failures.
This was quite an eye-opening read, and thankfully, Keefe steers well clear of any paranoid raving. Much of what is written in the public domain about Echelon is unashamed paranoid raving. Just Google "Echelon" and count the references to Orwell to see what I mean. In my opinion Keefe does a good job of informing without opining too much. His main grief seems to be that we in the public seem too apathetic to have much meaningful discussion about where the line between liberty and security should be drawn.
I recognize that my skill as a book reviewer is falling somewhat short in this post, and this is a difficult book to do justice to. That said, it is quite readable and will not fail to keep you turning the pages. I would recommend giving it a read, especially in the run up to the elections since we are sure to hear a lot of rhetoric about security and freedom in the debates this fall. Click the cover shot below for a link to the Amazon page for this book.