Mythology and Wikipedia

This is the first time I am posting from my iPad. I’m seeing how it goes but if this becomes a habit I will need to start packing a travel keyboard.

I have started working on a small mythology-based project. I’m not sure where it is going to go and I get about thirty minutes a day to pick at it. It is not much time but thirty minutes a day starts to add up. I wanted to download Knowledge into my head but since my brain isn’t chipped yet for instant information transferral I went to wikipedia.

Now I know what bored people with phds in mythology or various cultures or library science do in their off-hours. Dude! I have several mythology books but save something like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology the articles in wikipedia are better than most reference books. I was shocked. They go on for pages and pages and are sourced to the nines.

The iPad’s Wikipanion app has been a real help. Not only does it do the fancy formatting but it bookmarks, follows links, and follows internal wikipedia links. Bookmarking is key.

So that’s that. If you haven’t looked up your favorite god, you should. The articles are impressive.

On Risk

We, as competitive monkeys, did not evolve to deal with risk on large scales well. We understand the risk a lion poses (get eaten) or a drought poses (no food) but we do not deal well with large, abstract risk. We dismiss it as a “1 in a million phenomena.” This is a well studied phenomena in computer security: it is difficult to get buy-in from those with the money in security without external pressure like, say, being hacked.

Understanding risk is important to understanding what happened in the Gulf and also what happened on Wall Street. For the Gulf, the issues with dealing with risk are simpler to understand: in a straight up but difficult engineering project quantizing and assessing risk is a well-known process, but dealing with mitigating risk is a matter of money. One must pay for the extra layers of protection or reinforcement. Even if risk is properly assessed, it costs money to mitigate the risks. Spending the money to mitigate the risks cuts into profit margins and adds to project overheads. BP made business choices over engineering choices to maximize profits at the expensive of mitigating risk. Destroying the entire Gulf of Mexico is a difficult consequence to conceptualize — it looks awful big! have you seen it? — so the risk of something that catastrophic is pulled off the table and labeled as “ridiculous.” Engineers are over-conservative whiners, anyway, when money can be made.* Risks were taken with the implicit assumption that if something did happen, the US would step in and BP’s liability would be capped.

The Wall Street risk is similar to the Gulf although the damage is in numbers instead of the environment. The risk of actually damaging the world economy is too large of a risk to contemplate. It cannot possibly happen! So we can over-leverage (Lehman Brothers) or create huge bad investments (Goldman Sachs) or insure all these bad investments (AIG) and nothing bad can happen! Because the numbers may be large but they certainly are not as large as the entire economy. Besides, the FDIC insures depositors so what does it matter if a proprietary trading desk loses everyone’s money? Sure the bank might close and the trader might lose their job if things go bad but look at all this money to invest!

Risk is calculable; most risk is known on a certain level. Risk is understood. But risk pays off in large financial reward, so humans wired to seek out large financial reward will pursue the risk. And they have found a way to fob off the downsides.

The core problem we have right now, today, is that risk is a throw of the dice and the system is rigged so if the dice come up snake-eyes the results are socialized. The bigger the risk, the more the downsides are subject to being covered by the Government. “Privatize the profits and socialize the risk.” When the risk is socialized corporations, constantly in the pursuit of profits, will negate any downside to risk to maximize their returns. This is what a corporation does. Without external pressure for culpability for the downsides of risk, a corporation will never mitigate the risk (expensive) in return for profits. If the corporation is not responsible for the downsides of risk, they’ll just rampage.

This is where the Government has a role to play. The Government can do precisely three things to reign in this behavior:

* Regulate. The Government can enforce a standard playing field with a certain floor of risk mitigation in return for safety and assurance. In return, the Government gives its stamp of approval.

* Litigate. The Government can sue in a post-mortem after disaster to recoup the funds used for cleaning up disaster after risk failed to pay out.

* Regulate AND Litigate. Force corporations to adhere to basic standards and then sue for liability depending on how may of these standards were met.

In an ideal world, we want the Government to do #3. We want the Government to be a licensing and auditing body that forces corporations to a certain level of responsibility and litigate for damages to recoup costs post-disaster. They are supposed to be a third party, not-for-profit, objective body that says, “You do X or else.” Today, for these “Too Big to Fail” institutions, we have none of these.** It’s cheaper to lobby/bribe than it is to comply to regulations, and it is cheaper to pay out on lawsuits than apply safety standards to mitigate the risk. Government is not properly funded with auditors to audit everything that needs auditing. Regulations have been continuously relaxed over the last thirty years.

We should be pressing the Government to enforce the same standards on everyone:

* No one is too big to fail, not even enormous banking institutions or car companies or oil companies.
* Assume a “you break it you bought it” mentality.
* Force corporations to build walls between “risky” business practice and routine business practice.
* Fund Government auditing with teeth.

I don’t think we’re going to do any of these because we, as Americans, are so wrapped up in the concept that a lack of regulations == jobs and short term profits that we cannot get off the mark — and it’s simply not true. It’s a PR job done by the corporations.

The core problem is risk. We need to start having a real conversation about risk across the board. It’s an abstract subject but we’re not having it so the big corporations are being allowed to walk away with their risks still being socialized.

* Engineers who are trained to be paranoid doubly-so.
** Small to mid-sized companies are regulated up the wazoo. Don’t get me wrong. It seems that the bigger you are, the less the regulations mean to you because you can cover the costs of the inevitable litigation by finding the change in the seat cushions and you can afford a huge PR media buy to cover your butt.

iPad Apps

I’m having some mild bandwidth problems lately and I was disappointed with the lack of a good WordPress app on the iPad so posting has gotten mildly sporadic. I swapped out my netbook for my iPad as my “go to” travel computer and, after having used it for a while, came up with a list of apps with high value. I am hoping to find something decent for blog posting but nothing has come up yet.

Stuff I have given high marks to so far and are worth buying:

Amazon’s Kindle Reader: I found I cannot stand Apple’s iBook’s application but I can read from Amazon’s Kindle Reader for hours without eyestrain or issue. Also, it syncs up with my Kindle seamlessly, grabs me books from our eBook archive, and looks very nice on the screen. It must be the iBooks choice of font because I don’t use it. Amazon Kindle Reader for the win.

Reeder: A beautiful RSS reader that integrates seamlessly with Google Reader. It makes reading feeds feel natural and has clean integration with services like Instapaper, ReadItLater, etc.

myTexts: A clean full-screen editor that turns the iPad into a distraction-free writing work surface. Works beautifully with a bluetooth keyboard. It performs all the saving and backing up of documents automatically, has several syncing/exporting options to get text off the iPad. Integrates with myTexts for MacOSX.

Good Reader: PDF reader that gets better with every update. Beautiful presentation of PDFs on the screen with easy navigation options. It looks beautiful with full color PDFs and the text is easy to read. It makes purchasing gaming PDFs seem like a good idea.*

DropBox: Easy access to cloud storage. Integrates with several apps, including Good Reader, for file display. Makes it trivial to carry around a huge number of PDF books and call them up at will, WiFi Gods willing.

TabToolKit: The reason I wanted an iPad — the app that sold it to me. (You can look at it here.) It plays fully voiced Guitar Pro tabs — thousands and thousands can be found complete and of decent quality online. For learning songs on the guitar, it’s fantastic. It is not quite as good for piano because it only shows one hand at a time — if it could multi-track, it would be the perfect piece of software.

Plants vs. Zombies: No one gets their life back until the game is defeated.

Wikipanion: It makes Wikipedia feel like a Real Boy. In landscape mode, it integrates table of contents, links, and inline media beautifully. Want to learn about the Han Dynasty? Portugal? It feels like reading from a book and it’s comfortable.

Instapaper: Instapaper alone is magic. Instapaper long-formatted on the iPad with no ads for clean reading makes long articles on the web worth it.

Carcassone: Yes, this is only the iPhone version of this application but it scales nicely. It has local LAN iPad support. It has internet iPad support. It’s Carcassone!

There’s other stuff, of course: my addiction to Puzzle Quest, Battle of Wesnoth, Youtube, etc. But these are the apps that have, so far, really stood out with usability and utility.

Update: I use the word “beautiful” way too many times in this post and I apologize for way lazy writing. But they do look nice on the screen when it isn’t all smudged up with fingerprints.

* I have a hard time reading PDFs off normal computer screens.

Kowtowing to the Corps

I watched Joe Barton yesterday, live, kowtow to BP. It was not a tossed off comment from a politician caught on a live mike. It was an eight minute long apology on live TV when he went, in some detail, on how he felt the President was giving BP a “shake down.”

My instant reaction was to be completely appalled. And thus, I made a comment.

Later I realized the man was simply coughing up the party line and not a new party line for any politician in America. His sin was not to have an original thought — he did not have an original thought — but to accidentally tell truth in a prepared statement on camera. He felt he would have sympathy and cover from the chattering classes. Isn’t this what they all say?

His sin was to say out loud what we already know: these people posing for the camera and giving us a bit of political theater are all bought and sold by corporations. If their patronizing corporation should suddenly die due to, say, killing off a few States we may or may not have been using* and a chunk of Ocean we sort of liked, then said politician is out of a job. And Joe Barton is very sad indeed because now his corporate masters will not have the cash on hand to pay him. Very sad. He is very, oh so very sorry. Especially as his main backer owned a 25% stake in the well now gushing into the Gulf. That $20 billion escrow fund — not even paid out at once but over years and not even compelled but sort of a gentlemanly agreement! — means he won’t get his payoff and his golf junkets.

The “small people” comment from the other day also told us what we already knew: we’re in a war between Corporations and Democracy. And the Corporations are winning. They control it all. They have managed to get rid of the regulations that may have capped profits and kept people safer. They have pursued profit to the detriment of entire countries — Greece is never going to climb out of its hole. They get what they want when they want it. And here is this guy making it plain to us all just how much he’s in the pocket of the very people he is supposed to be overseeing.

Democracy is losing. Freedom is losing.

People are very tightly controlled. We have to throw out bottles and be subjected to searches at the airport. We have road laws. Employers can read our text messages and emails on the job. And because we are afraid of terrorists we are even more controlled than before — the government can tap our phones, sniff our transmissions, and not even bother to read us our Miranda rights. Terrorism! Terrorism Terrorism Terrorism! If you don’t like this, you’re with the terrorists!

Corporations, though. If we try to hold a Corporation’s feet to the fire, especially something as filthy and polluting as the oil industry, it’s Socialism. Regulate health care? Socialism. Suggest cap-and-trade or carbon taxes? Socialism. Suggest we should get rid of the proprietary trading desk or regulate derivatives? Socialism.** Socialism, socialism, socialism. Don’t control the free market because it is good and perfect and never does anything wrong and self regulates and oh, did you just lose your house and you cannot get health care? And were you in the Florida panhandle and now you’re covered in oil? Sucks to be you. Because if we regulate Corporations we lose our freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeedoms!

The corporations are winning and to prove it, a corporation vaporized some States through malfeasance and then used their puppet Congressman to demand an apology for being mean to them. We gasp! The truth, it is an ugly beast.

The only good thing about the Deepwater Horizon spill, the only silver lining, is that cover it gives the the Government to fight back. A teeny tiny bit.

Funny, I wanted to talk about this neat graphic about how energy in the US is used and wasted and how changing to wind power does nothing about the use of oil in the US but I have gotten myself way off topic.

* Are we using Alabama? Did anyone keep the receipt?
** These cries of Socialism are also paid for by Corporations.

Genius Lists on the iPod

I received a replacement iPod classic for my birthday for my stalwart and constant iPod companion. It had been my companion for 3 years but the hard drive was starting to make some suspicious clicking noises once in a while and it was having a hard time syncing for podcasts in the morning. With a heavy heart I put it in a box as a backup iPod* and replaced it with a cooler and thinner and younger model.

The new iPod classic has Genius lists. I have 60G of music for it to search, sort, and mess with. Being who I am, I was instantly curious and made it cough up a few playlists. What spit out of it is essentially my core playlist from 1995.

I’m a little disturbed and freaked out.

Let’s see… I tell it to give me a Genius List based on Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” and I get Pearl Jam, STP, Offspring, Alice in Chains, Led Zeppelin, Soundgarden, Metallica, a little bit of Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath. All excellent — how does one go wrong with Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused?” But I feel like this thing is reading the inside of my brainmeats.

I did get newer and stranger songs when I fed it Radiohead.

These genius list searches are weird and will keep me entertained for weeks but still, man. I feel old. Old old old.

* I have been asked why I did not replace it with an iPod Touch from several avenues.

A. The iPod Classic holds 160G of music (!), where I cannot get all my music on an iPod Touch.
B. The iPod Classic is basically the perfect gizmo for carrying music libraries. Anything else is over-engineering.
C. I have an iPad, the world’s most expensive dispenser of Puzzle Quest.

Words, Words, Words

“Words, Words, Words.”
— Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2

I wanted something else out of Obama’s address yesterday. And I’m not certain what precisely. I felt like he was reciting my blog. All the things I wanted was there:

– Hanging the spill around BPs neck like a big, fat, decaying albatross.
– Making it clear that we are past Peak Oil and we have an Issue.
– Making moving to the new source of fuel a point of national pride/Apollo Program-ish.
– And etc.

Here’s the rub. I’m just some jerk who writes on a blog. I can spit out all these things I would like to see — the primary one using this horrible disaster as our “Sputnik” moment to give the entire United States a big jolt of realization that we are losing. Barry is not a blogger. He is President of the United States and I would like something more substantial than words.

I walked away feeling like that’s all we got here: words.

I have been trying not to add my voice to the chorus of “Do Something, Dude” because I know damn well the man is a law professor and now a petroleum engineer but I heard nothing but quibbling pass his lips. I wanted to hear the words “carbon tax.” I wanted to hear that the US is going to start taking over operations because BP is obviously worthless. I wanted to hear something, anything specific. Something to hold on to. Something real.

I know the White House is trying desperately to avoid the Carter “Malaise.” But I want to shake them until beans fall out. The Oval Office is hard core. Why not use the opportunity?

I shake my tiny fist.

The Sporkful


If you happen to enjoy listening to podcasts* you need to go over and start listening to the Sporkful. It’s a food podcast, but it’s not about restaurants or cooking. It’s about ridiculous bits about food like “Apples vs Oranges (literally)” or “How to Eat a Cupcake” or “How to Stack Your Burger So Stuff Doesn’t Go Sliding Off.” Today it was about yogurt — what yogurt is best, why low-fat yogurt is an abomination, the controversy over fruit in the bottom of the cup, and the mooshiness of granola in yogurt.

Seriously. If you like podcasts, you totally have to listen to this one. It’s my recommendation of the day!

Also, as an aside, if you are following the FIFA World Cup, Slate’s Hang Up and Listen for this week is hilarious.

* I listen to many podcasts!

Quick Update

I live. I was at SANSFIRE Baltimore 2010 getting my brain pulled through my nose with a hook. It mostly was hard. I tried to stuff a term’s worth of information into my head in 6 days and I’m not sure how much will stick. I am still super tired/burned out from it.

Meanwhile, I had a birthday, and during this birthday I received an iPad named Chopin. I am still trying to work it into my workflow and it hasn’t found a happy balance quiet yet.

Yes! This is the blog equivalent of an alive ping.

Risk and Doing Something

I am beginning to believe in the Onion headline: “Black Man Takes Nation’s Worst Job.”

Every pundit — right, left, center, on the moon, whatever — is howling for Obama and the Federal Government to do something about the BP Oil Spill. No one has any suggestions what that “something” is, only “something” must be done and it must be done “now.” Would a nice speech plug the hole? Some words keep the horrible pictures of oil covered birds from getting all over the Internet, livelihoods destroyed, and entire states wiped out? We elected a guy who can keep his cool in the face of adversity and here he is, keeping his cool in the face of massive adversity, and we’re flipping out because he is keeping his cool in the face of adversity.

I asked myself the honest question: “What should the Federal Government do?” That lead to the more interesting question: “How did we get here?” And I came up with my friend, the bullet points.

How We Got Here:

1. We are approaching a condition called Peak Oil. The easy to reach oil fields are tapped out so oil companies, to keep up with the insatiable demand for dead plant pumped out of the ground in the form of fuel and profits, must venture further and further afield.

2. While venturing further afield, oil companies must take on great amount of risk.*

3. Mitigating risk is extremely expensive. It requires stricter regulation, third party validation and audits, expensive engineering solutions to ensure safety. Knowing a little bit about Six Sigma is helpful to understanding what BP was attempting to avoid. Mitigating great amounts of risk to drill safely costs great amounts of money.

4. Risk analysis, risk mitigation, business continuity and disaster recovery are all basic business processes that BP should have undertaken, and likely did, but decided instead to socialize the risk to privatize the profits.** They had two major disasters prior to this one: a major Alaska oil spill and a Texas refinery explosion. Neither caused the slightest hardship for BP, so “big dangerous risks” meant “the Government will cover the costs of cleanup so we’re good.”

5. Third party audit and validation through licensing is one of the few ways to force dirty companies to be good citizens. Otherwise, see #3, above. Mitigating risk meeting requirements is very expensive.

6. It was cheaper, during the Bush Administration and into the Obama Administration, to simply bribe auditors and staff Interior’s audit and compliance department with lobbyists than it was to mitigate the risk on the rigs.

7. Certainly it was on the Obama Administration’s list to audit and reform the Department of Interior, but it was somewhere below the Euro imploding, the Financial Crisis, 10% unemployment, North Korea, Iran… he is not a bored man.

Big risks + no risk mitigation + cutting corners + socialized penalty for failure + no third party oversight == BOOM.

This brings us to “the Federal Government needs to DO SOMETHING.” So far the Government has:

1. Provided extensive financial assistance. (This was reported in the Economist at length but not in the US papers, which was weird.)
2. Deployed the Coast Guard.
3. Deployed the Navy.
4. Fired people in the Department of Interior.
5. Provided all the scientific and engineering logistic support they can.
6. Opened up civil and criminal cases against BP which may or may not be helpful.

The Federal Government does not have petroleum engineers or the equipment to go undersea and plug the leak. Nor do they own the rig, the equipment, or the wreck on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. They must rely on BP, who has the equipment on the scene, to cap the leak before the Federal Government can unleash assistance to start the unbelievably massive cleanup. The Government can make some suggestions and keep people away while BP tries to work, but reality is that they cannot actually do anything.

And this is deeply frustrating because BP is incompetent.

This brings us to: What should Obama Do Now? I cannot see anything he can do right now. Walking along the Louisiana Coast looking frowny might make for some okay media coverage but the reality is, until the well is capped and the oil stops spewing, he can not do anything except provide some optics.

What do I think the Government should do once the well is capped and cleanup has begun? Here are my suggestions, and take them or leave them, but this is all I have:

1. Reform the Department of Interior from top-down. Fund and mandate all third party government regulations and audits. Put the screws down on licensing. Force the oil companies to pay to mitigate risk.

2. Pull BP US’s leases until they go through a complete safety audit. Yes, it will spike oil prices but we can no longer afford to socialize the end result of ignored risk. Force the company to have a hand their own risk and force them to pay enormous financial penalties.

3. Start a Manhatten Project/Apollo Space Program for getting off oil. Make it the #1 National Priority. Make it a point of National Pride. Run commercials. Run op eds. Show dead birds 24/7 on TV. Run anything to get the public turned in that direction. If Congress cannot figure out a way to pass funding, find it in the already allocated Defense Budget. God knows, that Defense Budget is mammoth. Do anything, anything at all, for funding a massive initiative to get us away from the death by dead plants. And do it now. We should have done it 10 years ago.

This is it. This is the last great warning we will get. We must change.

* BP keeps using this excuse that this enormous risk was “too remote to be quantifiable.” This is bullshit.
** Sound familiar? There’s a trend…

RAR T-Rex!

T-Rex Attacks!

At Art Weekend 2010, I started working on the Knit Picks Critter Mitts T-Rex hand puppet. What better use for yarn is there but making awesome toys? Sure you can make socks and gloves and sweaters but you can also make hand puppets!

The first one came out well. He has a little ridge of spikes and big scary teeth and a big red mouth and little teeny tiny useless arms. He reminds me of T-Rex from Dinosaur Comics! (In fact, I may need to take more pictures and do a little photoshopping… he might be full of burgers! And atoms!)

I believe T-Rex needs a friend. One cannot just have T-Rex. The kit provides the yarn and instructions to make a triceratops. And he is orange so….

As you can see, Katie greatly appreciates T-Rex. She’s as scary as it is! RAR!