Summer 2007

What is the Monkeysphere?

Cool Stuff / September 30th

Go read What is the Monkeysphere?. It takes maybe ten minutes, and it's really funny and insightful.


Cool Stuff / September 21st

I just read an interesting article on CNN, If you see it, you'll eat it. According to a study, having food --especially snack foods- convenient and visible will cause you to eat them until something causes you to stop.

The article basically said that if you make healthier snacks more convenient than junk food, you'll favor those simply because it requries less effort. I'm not sure that it is quite as simple as the study suggests, but it's interesting in any case, and at least true in some cases. I remember when I worked in Waukesha and Pam would put out a jar of Twizzlers on the back table. They were close enough that I would notice them and close enough that it only took a moment to grab one, and I would graze on them throughout the day. The candies that she put on her desk in her office, on the other hand, I would avoid simply because while I knew they were there, I didn't see them and they were further away.

Nutrition Rating System

Personal / September 11th

Last night Sarah and I got into a discussion about corporate marketing techniques versus personal responsibility. I believe that people are ultimately responsible for the products that they buy and that so long as companies are not misleading or untruthful in their advertising they can use whatever coercive tactics they want. I may find it annoying, and I may protest some of the more intrusive advertisements and some of the tackier product placements or truth-stretching statements, but I have the option of not buying from companies whose methods I disagree with. That extends beyond advertising to any and all of their business practices.

At the same time, I have made a conscious effort in recent years not develop strong emotions about companies, and to reduce the strength of emotion that I have accrued over the years. I feel that strong attachment or hate for a company is a form of anthropomorphism. Every company has multiple employees that each make different decisions that may impact how that company is perceived, and the sum of the experiences a person has from their own interactions, from what they see in advertisements, and from what they read or hear develops into that person's perception of that company. For myself, I want to base my decision to patronize a company or not to be based on that information and those perceptions, while still keeping a healthy detachment in how I think about what really isn't a singular entity. From Walmart to Starbucks to Microsoft and Apple, I'm trying to keep in mind that these are large, complex organizations that shouldn't be summed up with love or hate.

One of the things we talked about is that the most people seem to fall prey to this marketing, thinking that they need or deserve or should want something because of the way it is advertised, because of the consumer culture we live in, and because of perceived social pressures. In a lot of cases, though, the products are genuinely useful and worthwhile. Communities can develop around the experiences with different products, from a bicycle or motorcycle to a Gameboy or an Xbox, and being part of them can be rewarding.

Ultimately I believe the problem isn't companies and their marketing, it's people making often poor decisions with their money. Granted it is their money to spend as they wish, but while I have a fair share of libertarian leanings I feel education is a powerful force for social good. Often people make poor decisions because they don't have all of the information or the information is not presented in a form that is simple to understand. I don't believe for a second that people are too stupid to make good decisions when we've seen generations of people with better spending habits than are prevalent today. Today I happened across a story in the New York Times that underscored that belief.

A chain of grocery stores on the East coast started labelling all of the foods they sell with a nutritional star system. The more stars, the healthier it is for you. They found after doing this for a year that the products people chose shifted toward the healthier items. Some products marketed as health foods got no stars because they contained too much sugar or salt. Other products saw an uptick in sales once the stars showed people that it was a healthier food choice. With our already mandated nutritional labels, how difficult would it be for a standard set of criteria for determining healthiness to be developed by the FDA and a star system implemented for nutritional labels? How would this shift the ingredients that companies choose to put in their foods and the buying habits of Americans? If they could plainly see not by weighing various ingredients or daily diet percentages but by a simple to read and understand overall nutritional rating, it could even have an impact on the obesity of the country.

With all of the signals people get from TV, magazines, and the Internet about gadgets, luxuries, and lifestyle, maybe what we need are some PSAs reminding us to stay grounded, to be a bit more conservative in our spending, and to think about the choices we make every day. On the other hand, our government is just as bad about spending money it doesn't have, and our economy is already precariously upheld by rampant consumer spending. If nothing else, it's food for thought.


Site News / August 21st

I added a new feature to the Profile section to display stories that I recently "dugg" on Digg. For some reason it is also showing the number of other people that dugg the story, even though I specified not to display that, so hopefully that piece will disappear at some point. I'm thinking about some other things I can add into the profile page, but I'm not sure what that format will look like, or if I'll even keep this. In any case, it's something new.

Dick Cheney in 1994

Politics / August 17th

This has been around the Internet for a while, but I'm a bit behind the curve. In any case, I thought it was interesting to see what a difference a decade makes. In the first Gulf War (first by U.S. reckoning anyway) Dick Cheney was the Secretary of Defense. In this C-Span interview he explains why they did not invade Iraq and take down Saddam Hussein.


Politics / August 6th

Sorry, I couldn't resist the title. Here's the thing: I believe in the surge. This may seem absurd, especially since the surge of troops in Iraq is nothing new, and results to date are mixed at best, so let me spend some time stepping back from that blanket statement.

I'll start by saying that I don't necessarily believe in the surge in reality, more in the surge as a concept. We have spent the last four years in Iraq wasting ammunition, wasting money, and most importantly, wasting lives. I thought invading Iraq was, in a word, retarded from the beginning. I thought the justification was hasty, ill-conceived, and clearly spoke to ulterior motives. However, we are there now and we have to extricate ourselves.

Option one is that we pack up and leave, and that isn't as bad as some would have us believe. In fact, I think it may yet be the best option. The government there is squabbling over the most basic ideas, ineffectual against the now financially self-sustaining insurgency, woefully corrupt, and beholden to at least some of the militant factions currently beheading civilians, kidnapping, planting roadside bombs, and committing sectarian murder daily. In the face of this, the lack of any prospect of us getting something much better in place, and an interminable wait on our hands until things can stabilize, getting the hell out is something to seriously consider. A military solution cannot solve the problerms there alone.

The second option was to continue what General Casey would have seemingly done indefinitely. Troops would go out on regular patrols that found roadside bombs when they drove over them. The approach did nothing to protect the civilian population because while they would assault an insurgent held area, they would then leave the area to be reclaimed.

The idea of the surge was that a troop increase would allow the troops to hold onto territory they cleared of insurgents, protect the people, build relationships in the community to drive support, and further develop the infrastructure rebuilding and political work that needed to be done. In terms of applying actual, tested counter-insurgency tactics, this is what needed to happen in 2004 or 2005, before things got to the state they are now. I have respect for General David Petraeus for having actually done his homework and applied it. He used the same strategy effectively before he was promoted. In areas that this strategy has been used since the surge started, progress has been seen.

The problem with the surge is three-fold. First, it didn't bring enough troops to actually work. Second, any increase in troops strains the capability of the Army, since we were already stretched with what we were doing before. Third, the last thing anyone wants to hear after trying to get us out of a worsening Iraq for three years is 'more troops'. Echoes of Vietnam come to mind, where drastically more troops were called in. It's important to note that those increased troops were not brought in to practice effective counter-insurgency. At the time the Army had very little skill at fighting asymmetric warfare, despite having invented it during the American revolution.

So the answer may be a pull-out after all. The surge as it has been implemented may well not work. If it had been done right, and had been done a couple of years ago, I think it may have stood a good chance of stemming the bloodshed, though it is still anyone's guess if that will ever result in a stable government there.

The Simpsons

Cool Stuff / July 12th

I don't want to link and run, but there is little I can say about this except that I was relating the exact same sentiment just yesterday on the way back from lunch. This short essay on the state of The Simpsons is spot on in my estimation, and if you're a true fan of the series, I bet you'll agree.

Rise and Fall of a Comic Genius

Flame-Throwing, Laser-Wielding, Weed-Killing Robot

Technology / July 5th

Danish scientists have invented a robot that weeds fields. "Hortibot" is a compact, self-directed, GPS-equipped robot that can manually pick weeds, spray them with pesticide, or eliminate them with flames or a laser.

I see stories like this and I get giddy. Not because I'm a farmer, because I'm not. Not because I do a lot of weeding, because I don't. What I see though is progress in a number of tricky fields in robotics, and actual application of those developments leading to a product that not only reduces the use of herbicides by 75% but does it for lower upfront and ongoing costs than the system currently being used. We've all seen movies or read books where robots take on all sorts of manual labor. The challenge in bringing that vision to reality is that robots have not faired well in our analog, organic world. Visual recognition is still very primitive, but Hortibot can recognize 25 different weeds (distinguishing them from actual crops).

This story follows on the heels of a Wired story about a fruit-picking robot called "Agribot" (naming is very original in the robot world). Agribot is a two stage system where one robot scan trees and identifies the precise position of ripe fruit, and then a second robot with eight arms drives down a row plucking all of the pre-located fruit from the tree.

As these technologies develop further, costs will come down, accuracy will go up, and the applications will grow. Optical recognition from a fruit picker or weed killer will be adapted to other robots, and as the technology gets better and better, we may eventually see the robots of fiction that pick up your home, do your laundry, and wax your car.