Saturday, November 29, 2008

Power Tip of the Day - Unplug Power Supplies

The average cell phone charge uses a surprising amount of energy, even when it isn't charging a phone, just plugged into the wall.  5-15 watts may not be very much, but 5-15 watts, times each transformer you have plugged in the wall, times 24 hours a day, times 30 hours a month, and a 5 watt drain turns into 3.6kWh a month.

Most electronics have this phantom power problem.  Anything that you can turn on with a remote will also have a significant stand-by drain, just listening for the remote's signal (ie DVD players, TVs, etc).  Computers are another one; laptops aren't as bad (though they still have transformers like cell phone chargers), but desktop computers even keep the network interface powered up, to allow for WOL signals to be received.  I have all of my desktops wired together on an easily reachable power strip under my desk, so whenever I'm not using them, they're physically cut off from the grid and have zero drain.

At my parents house, we found a compromise between the inconvenience of the switch on the power strip vs the cost of stand-by: We have just the TV and DVR on one strip, then the less used devices (digital TV tuner, CD player, VHS, etc) on another strip, which is usually kept off.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Power Tip of the Day - Washing Your Hands

When you wash your hands, which water do you use: hot or cold? Most people use the hot one. How often do you actually run the hot water long enough to get hot water?

This was a habit that we didn't notice until we got a tankless water heater. The concept is great: With a larger burner, generate hot water on demand instead of keeping ~30 gallons of water hot all the time. Out for the week? Doesn't matter, zero gas used. Another advantage from a usability stand point is that we can take two hot showers at the same time. Forever. (Note: The temp does fluctuate, so getting a thermostat controlled shower fixture was highly recommended. I love them too)

So every time someone runs some hot water, there is a pressure drop at the heater, and it lights up in all of it's 50,000 BTU glory and heats the water on demand. But if it's just for washing hands, and the water is never really run long enough, all this does is heat up some copper pipe in the wall: wasted energy.

There is nothing wrong with washing your hands with hot water. I enjoy the nice hot hand washing now and again, but if you're going to use the energy to heat the water (tankless or not), just try and use it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Grace Alive Meeting

Grace Alive is one of the Christian groups on campus. In the interest of an intelligent discussion, AgASA (UCD Atheist group, which I'm essentially a member of) attended a talk given tonight (and obnoxiously publicized through signs every meter (really) around the quad) titled "Reasonable Christianity, Unbelievable Atheism" by Richard Spencer, a leading electrical engineer at UCD. Our turnout was quite good, as we managed to fill the front five rows as a group. He presented five of life's biggest questions and compared the answers an Atheist and a Christian would give.

To be frank, this lecture was little more than frustrating. Where Dan Barker stood in front of us for an hour and gave a very entertaining examination of faith and how its meaning changed to him, Richard Spencer used powerpoint to slam us with page upon page of 12 point vague quotes from random sources and used Christian rhetoric to sidestep what felt likes holes in his argument (This is a generalization from a tired and frustrated Atheist).

I took two pages of notes at Dan's lecture. What he said was very focused and reducible to key points. I spent two hours furiously writing tonight, and I'd rate my concept capture at maybe 25%, and that's generous. You can see my physical fatigue through my writing. By the 5th question, I had all but given up, and that shows in what I'm able to write about, let alone recall.

The Introduction
Before discussing the questions, Richard laid out a very reasonable framework to make sure we understood the implications of terms he was using throughout the talk. This was quite reasonable and very helpful for not getting hung up in details that would otherwise not make sense.
  • Faith: This is nothing more than believing something without proof. This is to be contrasted with the Biblical definition of faith, which is believing in God, which is less useful in a discussion between an Atheist and a Christian.
  • Proof: A collection of arguments that a reasonable person has no choice but to agree with.
  • Reason: The ability to apply formal rules of logic to analyze a proof.
Very useful definitions of the terms, considering, and not what many would intuitively assume. I became a bit nervous that he would begin building these long ladders of logic to prove stuff with, since any more than this would become unruly.

I also enjoyed his introduction to Gödel's first incompleteness theorem, which states that any system of logic is either incomplete, or contradictory, which makes sense. Every formal proof is based on some set of Axioms, which are left unproven, since they are obvious. To prove one of them would require more axioms, which aren't proven yet. Large systems of logic can be reduced to an incredibly small number of axioms (ie Mathematics), yet there will always be a set of axioms which are assumed.

Question 1: Is the Universe a closed system?
An Atheist would say yes. God doesn't exist, so there is no external force to act on the system. RS then pointed out that a closed system must be eternal, and contain all of the information required to produce any subsection of the system. He then so cleverly pointed out that we all must agree that information can only be produced by something that is intelligent, because otherwise it would just be noise. Therefore, since we all agree that humans did not exist from the beginning (which is also impossible), God must be real to have created us, since that information didn't exist beforehand.

It was at this point I developed a sinking feeling in my gut which never went away.

RS also made sure to point out that the Atheistic argument of multiverses is irrelevant, since that is just pushing the question of endlessness out one layer. He will not tolerate an argument based on recursion. Unfortunately, multiverses don't not fit the requirements for a closed system (See how I was tricky there with the double negative? Welcome to hell). A widely agreed theory is that our universe began with a big bang, and will end with a heat death, but we've made no observations about the multiverse, and cannot make any arguments about it not fitting any requirements.

Question 2: What is man?
Atheist: We are nothing more than an animal. We evolved from other animals, and are nothing more than a wet computer. God is a construction of man.
Christian: We are completely different from animals. God created us with both a body and soul.

RS believes in evolution. It is visible every day in organisms such as germs and parasites. What he does not believe in is Darwinism, which argues that all diversity came from evolution. You can see a creek carve a ravine out of the side of a hill, which leads you to find the Grand Canyon not unbelievable. It's simply a matter of scale. But on a qualitative level, the ravine and a canyon look generally the same. Evolution is the same way. Qualitative changes such as beak shape and color are possible through evolution. What isn't possible is entirely new appendages. Wings can't just sprout out of an animal so they can fly. Evolution doesn't work like that.

The next argument used the phrase about monkeys on typewriters generating Shakespeare. He showed that generating 39 random characters time and time again statistically precluded every find the phrase "TO BE OR NOT TO BE THAT IS THE QUESTION" since 2739 > 1055. Concerns later raised about the lack of any kind of selection process were shot down with how this is obviously an over simplification and any more meaningful examples would be far too complicated to present in two hours.

Also (notice how he's just piling all these arguments on?), note the Malaria germ, which infects 254 million people per year (I may have miscopied this in hast), and each infection produces trillions of individual germs, there is such a possibility for evolution, why aren't Malaria germs sprouting wings already?

Finally, what about AI? If we're truly all just wet computers, then we're all completely deterministic, which implies no free will. That is completely preposterous. Of course we have free will, RS says. Except there is fundamental differences between a wet computer and a dry computer; that's why we've had so much difficulty simulating one in the other. On the other hand, why not? If you made two identical copies of me, and places them in identical situations, I would expect all of my reactions to be the same. We are deterministic. Our "will" is the deterministic feature. We can change what we want to do, but that changing of want is deterministic. I have no problem believing that, and see nothing wrong with it. This was really the first argument he made which really upset me due to its weakness. From here it was a painful hour long downhill slide to the end, with increasingly vague arguments based on more assumptions difficult to capture in real time.

Question 3: Why are we here?
The Atheist has to say that there is no reason for us to be here. It was random. Because of this, we have no moral values (He actually said this, no joke).
The Christian knows that God put us here from a reason, which only he knows, or can understand (This blanket excuse for everything illogical in the world was used extensively throughout the rest of the talk). God provides a absolute definition of moral values and what is right.

Note: In the question and answer session at the end, I asked his which channels God uses to convey this absolute moral truth to us. He first pointed out to the rest of the audience how strange it was I used the term channel. He then said that the Bible is how, as well as my conscience, although this can become scarred through sin (read: it only works if it agrees with the Bible, otherwise it's broken).

Question 4: Why is there evil?
Again, RS's Atheist has no choice but to say that there is no such thing as absolute evil, since there is no absolute truth, since no one is able to define it.

Only other thing I bothered writing down about this question was a note about a 10 line long quote (in a powerpoint, mind you, and not the only one by far) about how the line between good and evil only runs through each own's heart.

Question 5: What happens what we die?
Atheist says we die, Christian says we die and go to heaven or hell. First thing in at least half an hour I could agree with him on.

So why then, he asks, do Atheists all say things like "She's in a better place now" at funerals? This was the first time our entire group of Atheists audibly broke into laughter, which is commendable. He continued on with many more vague generalities which weren't true, but at this point I had had it and gave up on trying to keep up.

He closed the formal talk with the point that it is impossible for an Atheist to ever disprove God, because every Christian knows and sees God every day, and Atheists are unable to disprove that relationship any more than disprove that RS's mother is real.

Questions and Answers:
I was really hoping that our group would try and keep this civil. There was irritation after some quite nonsensical questions were asked at the Dan Barker talk, and I hoped that the questions asked would have more thought to them. However much I disagree with everything RS was saying, it was no excuse for how other Atheists were acting.

There was double edges questions about ridiculous hypothetical situations. Questioners were actively trying to paint his arguments into a corner with oversimplifications and slamming his simplifications throughout. I made an honest effort to ask an intelligent question about God's channels of communication, and I feel his response to it did much more to undermined his credibility than him arguing with some jerk in the front row over whether God would ask you to rape an eight year old girl or not.

Dan's talk on Friday allowed me to have respect for Theists and suggested that, even with different religious views, there is no reason we can't coexist. At one point, RS tonight literally compared gay marriage to seeing a blind man walking full stride off a cliff, and it's our obligation to not condone such sinful behavior, regardless of their beliefs. Besides everything else, I find RS repulsive based soley on his intolerance of others in the US based on religion.

Overall, both the speaker and the audience were a disappointment, and this was easily the most miserable two hours of this quarter.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Comment on "Google and Your Privacy"

This was originally a comment response to Jeff KE9V's post Google and Your Privacy, but grew a little too large for me to be comfortable just dropping into someone else's comment box like that. The post links to a video about privacy issues in Gmail, which doesn't present any solutions to the problems other than contacting Google, which comes off as more just bagging on Google while wearing tin foil hats than being productive. Watching the video first maybe help the est of this make sense.

Email is inherently insecure. Anyone between Alice and Google's servers can read the "secret" message, never mind Google, who at least Bob trusts. It's sent in plain text all the way. Anyone can write a message and represent it as coming from Alice as well; that's also an inherent flaw in SMTP.

Setting SSL as the default in Gmail is trivial. Every time I go to, I get redirected to https for the entirety of the session. Before that option was available, I was careful to login to instead of, since that keeps the entire session in SSL throughout the session. With this enabled, sniffers between the Gmail user and Google are defeated.

The fact that Google is reading my email with a profit motive is perfectly justified. I'm using Google's *free* offering of an inherently insecure protocol, of course they can read my email. There isn't anything keeping Microsoft or Yahoo from reading the emails either. Microsoft and Yahoo may not visibly do anything with it (except inserting ads into the out going emails, thanks Yahoo), but they have full access to your messages. If Alice didn't agree with Google's policy on reading email, she should refuse to send the email. Blindly sending a secret email in plaintext to some domain not directly controlled by Bob is not secreat, but just moronic.

What Google does do is enable the overly paranoid to solve all of these issues. Setting up Thunderbird (or Outlook) with PGP encryption and generating a key is free (Enigmail + GnuPG). This lets Alice and Bob generate pairs of keys to trade and encrypt emails with. Since the email is encrypted, Google can't read it, anyone between the Gmail user and Google can't read it (although they shouldn't anyways, since the paranoid Gmail user is using SSL, right?), anyone between Google and Alice's email provider can't read it, and neither can Alice's provider. Only Alice can because only she has her private key matching the public key Bob used (unless he used the wrong one). At the same time, the signature feature of PGP lets Alice verify that the email truly came from Bob in the first place (or who she thinks Bob is), and not someone else perporting to be Bob.

Try sending an encrypted message with Yahoo. Last time I tried, it didn't work. Yahoo is nice enough to insert ads and do other funky formatting stuff to messages for free accounts, which garbles the encryption and makes it unreadable (this may be fixed).

So all of the secrets not really being secret problems have been eliminated, except for the original authentication between Alice and Bob, which requires that at some point the two exchange these keys over a authenticated (though not necessarily secure) channel. The telephone would be rather authenticated, if they already knew each other rather well. If not, then meeting in person would solve the problem. If that's not possible, they can use a third person to verify both of them and then they can exchange these verified keys (See Web of Trust).

So all of the privacy issues have been solved, but at what cost? Quite simply, convenience. Bob and Alice can't (or at least shouldn't) just get on any random computer and sent private messages. They have to use their own computer. But if they're using someone else's computer, the client side isn't even guarantees to be secure, so none of the rest of it really matters anyways. Security isn't convenient. Security is the complete opposite of convenient. That's just inherent to everything.

The other issue raised, about the guarantees of security removed by Google Chrome direct links, doesn't really hold any water. There is no visual indication of SSL, but I don't believe the certificate would fail silently. Distrusting Google to keep the connection confined to SSL (which you've already set as the default) implies an inherent distrust in the Chrome browser, which transcends everything, and simply means you shouldn't be using that browser in the first place, browser bar or not.
Note: This is ignoring all the failures of SSL acctually solving authentication problems due to user ignorance (ie accepting self-signed signatures in place of those for Google), since anyone who expects any kind of privacy online cannot do so without the education needed to be able to identify these risks in the first place.

Power Tip of the Day - AC

The last few years, my dad's little project was to reduce our family's energy footprint.  We've reduced our usage so far that the majority of our PG&E bill is the connection fee we have to pay every month (The average bill runs about $25).  This wasn't one big thing (except maybe the solar panels), but many little things, which I think I might share with my fellow apartment dwelling friends so they too can strive to reduce their PG&E bill.

First one will be an easy one.  Set your AC/heater less agressively.  Running the heater at 70 instead of 75 makes a big difference.

Can't really say this one helps me much.  We have turned the AC on once in the past two months, and that was because there was a dozen people in the living room.  I have better ones on the list, I promise.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Pastor Turned Atheist

Dan Barker is a very well known and out-spoken Atheist. He came to Davis on Friday to give a talk on Atheism, which Alison and I attended, revolving primarily around his new book, Godless. His story is especially interesting, because before he defined himself as an Atheist, he was an vangelical Christian minister. He spent most of the talk describing the events and realizations that cause a pastor of 17 years to stop believing in God.

I've been an Atheist for essentially all of my life. I won't be as crude as to assert that coming from a family of engineers was the decisive reason for this, since that is too large of a generalization that includes many people who are religious. Growing up in a United Methodist Church was very comfortable as someone who didn't quite buy it. It felt that the focus was more on the teachings of the Trinity than on the believing of them/it/him/her/etc. Many of those teachings are hard to disagree with: loving and forgiving others, being kind, helping hand, etc. It just feels that on some level, this lack of lobbying for me believing in any of it allowed me to be there, participate in church, be a good person, without anyone pointing at me and identifying that I assumed the off-handed mention of God in the middle of a sermon on love was more about using him as a hypothetical example than as a real entity (The Alice and Bob of real life).

So Dan goes through his experience of first meeting a vocal Atheist, and how the incongruencies of Christianity started to bother him to the point where he finally declared that he didn't believe in God anymore, and how that affected his family and friends. After that, he then started making observations about Atheists that were "Ah ha!" moments for me for things that have always bothered me about us as a group.
  • Atheism is a very organic religion (using the term religion very loosly here). You don't generally see people standing outside college buildings handing out Atheist books like you do with other religions. There are exceptions to this; there are people who feel so strongly about the non-existence of God that they need to attack others or damage property, but the vast majority of us do not believe in God in a very logical and passive way. My introduction of religion had too many contradictions too early and just never stood in my mind as a useful tool for dealing with my problems.
    • I've categorized theism as a tool. This means I can't disrespect other's religions because they find it extremely helpful. What I can disrespect is the justification they have for thinking that I should be interested in their tool. If God's word has saved you from sin, all the power to you. If God's word will save me from my sin, go screw yourself.
    • Another thing that has always bothered me about religion is embarrassing things throughout history like the crusades. Granted, there have been several wars not based on religion, but the crusades are just disgusting in how the perpetrators justified it. As Dan said, once you take off the goggles, stuff stops looking very good.
  • Dan pointed out that most of Europe is stunningly secular. They have all of this religious history, and all of these incredible churches; empty churches.
    • This of course warrants a crack about the Darwinism of religion.
    • It also means that Europe is way ahead of the US tolerance wise, which is immensely ironic ("Let us go to the new world, to have equal rights for everyone who believes our religion instead!"). At some point, people en mass just stopped going to church.
  • Atheists are a greatly under-represented and under-targeted group. Over the last 10 years, the number of people who have identified themselves as "non-religious" has grown from 7% to 16%.
    • When was the last time you heard a politician run under the stance that he's going to do the right thing just because it is the right thing, and not because God told him to?
    • This citation that we really are a severely ignored group is very comforting. I feel like a freak of nature in several other ways (my hobbies, my entertainment, my idea of a fun Friday night), I don't need my religious beliefs to be on my black sheep list too.
Dan also answered specific questions from the audience. This part was very resonant with my feelings.
  • With no religion, wouldn't the world plunge into chaos with no moral values? No. Morality is a human reflex to reduce suffering. If you see someone drowning in a river, you don't need to be religious to want to go save them. At the same time, as someone who is drowning, you wouldn't want an 80 year old lady with a cane jumping in after you, that wouldn't reduce anyone's suffering. Lying can be used to reduce suffering, that's the concept of a white lie, but a common child difficulty with religion is the rule that you must never tell a lie, which just doesn't reduce suffering.
  • With no religion, would a consensus be reached and a singular humanity exist? Certainly not with atheists, atheists exist because of this disconnect between different groups of people. What would be different is that atheists accept this disconnect between groups, instead of denying it like religious groups, or even making threats about it.
    • I need every Evangelical Christian to stop and think about this for a second. I'm an Atheist. You warning me that unless I let Jesus into my heart, I will go to hell, does not work. I'm an Atheist. I don't believe in hell. That is just as effective at making me a theist as me warning you that when you die, your neurons are going to shut down, and the rest of your existence is as unglamorous as rotting in the ground somewhere. You would laugh it off with a thought of, "but my soul would be in heaven!" I'm laughing you off with a "but hell doesn't even exist," so no, it's not going to work.
  • There was a question about Pascal's wager, which is that we should believe in God just in case it's really true, because even the chance of eternal damnation is a risky gamble. I loved Dan's response to this, the Barker wager: God will only reward those who chose not to believe in him for being free thinkers and for being moral out of each own's personal fiber.
And on a final note, we were urged to go through and really read the Bible. If it doesn't somehow turn you religious, it will at least reaffirm your feeling that it doesn't make any sense. One of the most amusing citations during the lecture was the virgin war booty in Numbers 25:16-17.

Edit: The capitalization errors were not meant to reduce the weight of any term, but was simply a confusion about the properness of religion while researching this post. You can mainly thank Wikipedia for that. The errors were mostly uniform anyways, so no offense should have been taken.

200 Posts

That's right.  This is the 200th post on this fine blog.  Ask yourself; what have you done over the last three years?

(There's going to be some real content soon, I promise.)

Making Money on Blogs

Just read an outstanding article about how to make money on a blog.  This guys stats are just mind-blowing. $1000/day!  Personally, it's an outstanding day if I break $1, and the average is sitting around 22 cents/day.

As justification for my ads, just think:  At some point (well in the future) I'll finally manage to make $100, then I'll get a nice check from Google, and do something fun with it.  Then I'll blog about it, and all of my fine readers can revel in my fun-having, and it'll be like you earned $100 too!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Usable Linux Desktop in 10 Minutes

Doesn't actually happen in 10 minutes, thanks to Ubuntu's super slow update servers.

For almost no one's entertainment except my own, a list of every piece of software I install on a new system. To install, just type:
sudo apt-get install list-of-programs-to-install





Saturday, November 8, 2008

Good News from the ARRL

I swung through Sunnyvale today on the way down to Santa Cruz to visit my sister for the weekend, and was going through all of my mail in Sunnyvale, and one of the letters was from the ARRL.  For those that don't know, the ARRL is the lobbyist group for amateur radio operators.

 Two pieces of good news:
  • As of March 29, 2009, the high-powered shortwave broadcasters sitting in the middle of the 40 meter band at 7100-7200kHz will finally be forced to move.  This will greatly increase the bandwidth available on this unique band available to hams internationally.
  • As of January 1, 2009, internationally, amateurs will have access to a new band, which is exciting because it is a Low Frequency (LF) band.  The FCC has yet to approve it for use in the US, but once they do, we'll have privileges on 135.7-137.8 kHz.  That is really low.  That is like 2km low.  It'll be interesting to see what amateurs do with this.  Note though, that this band is only 2 kHz wide, which means that voice is out of the question.
Being a poor college student prevents me from donating to the "SPECTRUM DEFENCE FUND - We Must be Vigilant!" fund (do that sound at all right wing to you?), but I do appreciate what the ARRL is doing for me.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Is Davis the Next Atlantis?

I don't think so... It's not even raining outside...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

My Handwriting Changed

Last week my fountain pen was giving me some problems, and I realized that cursive helped keep the ink flowing, so 10 years after fourth grade, I've started writing in cursive again.
Beginning of the week:
End of the week:
Both images from my Moleskine.  Like always, click to enlarge, if you really want to read about what I write in my notebook *eye roll*.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Netboot Install of Ubuntu

And this is the network usage as I spent all day trying to get Ubuntu running on a Powerbook G3. I have finally gotten it working, and had a whole hell of a lot of fun hacking on a 400MHz/192MB computer.
Click on the image for a better view.
Graph brought to you by Tomato.