Sep 25, 2007

Below the fold, a discussion about compression, using this as a clear example of a principle I intend to relate to other programming principles, and indeed engineering principles in general.

Read the rest...

This entry is part of the BlogBook called "Programming Wisdom".

What's the "proper" environmental impact?
Sep 24, 2007

An article on Slashdot about solar panels and the subsequent obvious comments arguing about the impact of these panels vs. fossil fuels got me to thinking: What's the "proper" environmental impact for a human being?

We can all agree on the negative extreme. Polluting groundwater with heavy metals or pumping enough pollution into Lake Erie to nearly sterilize it is bad. Hardly requires thought. But as you start getting back away from that, it gets a lot more complicated.

It seems to me that there are two major standards being applied, unexamined:

  1. A human should make no environmental impact; any difference from "the human never existed" is presumed bad.
  2. A human should never take from any other organism; anything that takes resources from another organism, be it land to live on, food to eat, etc. is bad.

Upon conscious examination, it should be obvious that both of these are as objectively absurd as you could ask for. Why? Because no other organism on Earth can meet either of these criteria. All organisms have impact, almost by definition. All organisms take from other organisms; life is nothing but a constant fight for survival and only the abundant resources we've found and even created for our species has shielded us from that reality. I reject any environmental impact standard so strict that it is unmeetable by any living organism.

On a similar note, I am suspicious of any standard which would declare that first photosynthetic organisms, which are arguably responsible for the single greatest life-caused mass extinction in Earth's history when they loaded the atmosphere with that incredibly toxic gas we call oxygen, should have been stopped at all costs. Stasis also falls down as a criterion when examined critically.

I've been pondering this in the back of my head for about half an hour now, and I don't have a clue as to how to even begin defining a "proper environmental footprint" in anything like traditional terms. This probably goes a long way towards explaining the effectively religious arguments on the topic.

It all comes down to a question of valuation; how do you value one ecosystem in relation to another ecosystem? That's mighty tricky, even when you don't view nature excessively romantically.

Making it even more complex is the fact that man is the biosphere's last, best hope to get off the planet. If Man spreads life abundant out into the vast desolate wastes of space, then from an economic viewpoint anything done to Earth can be forgiven, even total sterilization (after such massive space colonization). If some future event not caused by man is going to cause a mass extinction anyhow (asteroid strike or something), does any "damage" done really matter? Economic arguments are basically impossible to make because the future has effectively infinite uncertainty within the next two or three centuries, which is still a geological blink of an eye.

So... my conclusion is that we probably can't define "proper environmental impact", and in lieu of that, the best policy is probably to make reasonable efforts to minimize the impact, but one need not feel guilty about existing, or allow people to manipulate you on that basis. Which I suppose comes down to nothing more and nothing less than the Golden Rule.

Sep 08, 2007

Google video: Beyond Einstein - a presentation on the plans for various satellites to test General Relativity unto destruction. I'd heard about most of them, but this is a fairly good single-source introduction.

The video references a NASA website for the project. The video also promises that on Sept. 5, the most likely first satellite will be chosen; the Joint Dark Energy Mission was chosen (as described here). The logic is sound; LISA's design is audacious and the one I really want to see the results from, but probably needs more time to mature.

Exciting times. Cosmology seems like it's been on coast almost since the beginning of the 20th century, but the beginning of the 21st century is promising almost as much excitement. The result that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating is already breathtaking, and it's likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Sep 03, 2007

From the "How Much is a Terabyte" dept: As of this writing, this 320GB external USB hard drive is $80 at Best Buy. If you're willing to work with me a smidge, that's $240 for close-enough-to-a-terabyte.

I'm not claiming that the cheapest you can get, either, it's just the best bang-for-the-buck at Best Buy (usually on the expensive side) this week.

What do you do with 320GB? Well, I'm mostly using it for backup. With that I can back up my laptop and my wife's laptop hard drive. As an uncompressed image. And still have ~80GB left over.

Which in a way strikes me as even more amazing. 320GBs of hard drive, and I bought it as a backup device, to spend most of its life powered off, in a closet. That's progress.

Sep 03, 2007

Since I was young, I have seen any number of manufactured products based around chocolate and peanuts or peanut butter. And they have been OK.

But I never really understood the attraction.

Try this: Take some good peanuts. (Works with other nuts too, but start there.) Take some good chocolate chips; I recommend something darker than semi-sweet. (Hershey's Special Dark chips are surprisingly good for a Hershey product, and full-on dark may be too dark.) Mix about 50/50, to taste. Consume.

Now I understand.

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