Archive for September, 2009

Jala neti
2009.09.30

Slightly more familiarly, the humble neti pot is a centerpiece of my life.  If it were a more well-known a part of our culture, I might display my neti pot as a centerpiece of my living room.  St. Thomas Aquinas may have waxed poetic about wine.  Let me, for a moment or two, attempt to do the same for my beloved neti pot.

For the uninitiated, jala neti is the practice of running a warm saline solution through the sinuses to remove debris, mucous, etc.  It also has the side benefit of conditioning the tissue in the sinus and nasal cavities by applying slight osmotic pressure to the tissues and membranes thereby drawing some of the water from the cells.  I’m sure future science will prove that this is a good thing.  Personally, I think it feels dreamy.

I use my neti pot every day, sometimes twice, once in the morning and once at night.  I am prone to environmental allergies and clearing the olfactory slate is an absolute necessity for me in order to breathe clearly through both nostrils.

You could say I’m obsessed with breathing.  I work a job which is physically very sedate and my breathing suffers.  This brought me to the neti pot and the neti pot brought me to yoga where I learned and continue to study breathing exercises.  I firmly believe that if the breathing is smooth and clear, the mind is smooth and clear.  Anything is possible with the proper breathing.

If you find that you are breathing only through one nostril or otherwise have an occasional or frequent impediment to continuous clear breathing, I suggest putting down the loratadine, cetirizine, or other antihistamine and pick up a neti pot.  It’s cheap, natural and, to shamelessly use a contemporary buzzword, sustainable.  After you get over the weirdness of purposefully putting saltwater in your nose, you’ll be a devotee forever.

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Cruise ships in the harbor
2009.09.23

The cruise ship season in Seattle is mostly over.  A cruise is a strange thing to witness as a resident of the place that is visited.  A thousand people come in to the city from the ship, do whatever it is they do, then, on Sunday night, they slide silently out of the harbor on to some next destination or to home, bringing with them the the same shock they brought on us wherever they land next.

I’m sure the cruise ships are good for the local economy.  They descend upon the city staying fairly close to the pier they tie to, consume, spend, gather, and then leave.  Its kind of awesome from an economic point of view if only a little rapacious and unsightly from every other point of view.  At any rate, I can see why the city encourages them to come.

I take exception to the way they continue running their diesel engines while moored.  Sometimes there are five or six ships blowing smoke at anchor all weekend.  This is to keep their systems running, no doubt but I think the city should find a way to power them from the grid while they’re here.  I’m sure it would take a lot of power, perhaps even a dedicated plant but the point source pollution would certainly be better for Seattle residents than the raw exhaust that these notoriously filthy beasts, who spend most of their time in international waters dumping and fuming to their hearts’ content, emit.

Space-based Solar Power or Dyson Specks
2009.09.23

There has been a bit of buzz around space-based solar power (SBSP) and when a friend chatted me up about it today, I decided to organize my opinions about the technology and share them here.  SBSP is not a new idea.  They amount to the smallest useful Dyson Sphere.  SBSP is ugly so I’ll rename them Dyson Specks for the remainder of this essay.

The idea, as you can read in more detail from the links, is that a geostationary satellite captures some energy from the sun and beams it down to earth where collectors gather it and convert it to electricity.  Sustainable, carbon neutral, green energy.  A veritable panacea and a damn sexy concept for anyone who’s ever turned their eyes skyward in wonder.

As a bit of an aside, the media coverage mentions “beam” and “microwave” when it concerns getting the energy to the ground.  I will call this “beam” what it is by referring to it as a “laser” from here forward.

Other articles discuss the engineering difficulties so I’ll ignore them here.  Let’s take a flight of fancy and say we can wave a magic wand and construct our Dyson Speck out of thin air.  What do we now have?  We have a pretty stellar (sorry) source of energy.  But there are side effects I haven’t heard mentioned yet.  I’ve heard that the laser could be some 10 km in diameter when it gets to the surface of the ground.  So we have a 10+ km diameter section of the earth permanently dedicated to receiving this energy safely.  This is not an insignificant alteration of the biosphere.

We also have a column of air 10 km in diameter and 120 km high that will be continuously heated by this microwave laser.  That’s a lot of air.  We may not be producing greenhouse gases anymore but now we’re heating the atmosphere directly with bonus solar radiation that would have otherwise sped out to the cosmos.  We’ve effectively increased the surface area of the earth.  This sounds like a great recipe for global warming to me.  If this technology becomes popular and we someday have 1000 of these satellites powering population centers all around the globe, how many watts of power will we be feeding directly into the atmosphere and what effect will that have on surface and ocean temperatures?  What about the impact on weather patterns?  One small benefit, I suppose would be the surreal and beautiful photos of the way these lasers would perforate clouds and otherwise manipulate atmospheric moisture.  But at what cost?

In order to keep the solar panels pointed at the sun, the satellite will have to expend a fair amount of energy to remain in position.  It will have to have fairly powerful propulsion to achieve this.  This subtle artifact leads me to my biggest concern about Dyson Specks.  The powerful propulsion mechanism required to keep the laser focused on the right spot while keeping the arrays pointed at the sun will make retargeting the laser swift and accurate.  What if the laser were fitted with a lens or mirror that it could use to focus its laser to, say 10 meters wide.  Now we have a weapon of mass destruction that can quickly target any point on half the globe with a push of a button.

The military says they are interested in this technology for providing power to tactical field operations, and I’m sure that is part of their motivation, but I think this is Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars) Redux.  What better way is there to furtively reinstate a controversial program than to greenwash it?

Sigg Bottles and BPA
2009.09.23

I use Sigg bottles so when my coworker told me about the media buzz surrounding  BPA in the bottles, I decided to get informed about the situation.  Sigg issued a letter of apology and have extended an offer to exchange bottles returned at the customer’s expense.  I went about trying to decide if I wanted to take them up on the offer.

First, I read their lab reports and decided that the old liners aren’t bad at all.  They may contain BPA in their construction but, if it doesn’t end up in the water, who cares?  I would like to see tests using acidic liquids like fruit juice, wine or tea.  I suspect the lower pH would increase the tendency for chemicals to leach out of any liner.  Alas, if they have done such tests, they have not made their results public.  Nonetheless, I am not particularly worried that their bottles contain BPA if basically none gets in the water under pretty strenuous circumstances.

As luck would have it, I have bottles with both liners so I decided to conduct my own experiment to decide whether to exchange my older bottles for new ones — a taste test.  I filled the two bottles with boiling water and wrapped them in the neoprene sleeves Sigg sells as insulation for their bottles.  After leaving them on the counter for 24 hours, I poured a bit out into two glasses and tasted them.  The water from the older bottle was far superior.  The newer bottle leaves a strong taste and odor of plastic in the water.  The older bottle was almost completely neutral.  I let my wife try the water from the two bottles and she also greatly preferred the water from the older bottle.

So, while I respect Sigg for responding to their customers and offering to exchange bottles with the older lining for ones with the newer lining, I won’t be sending my bottles in.  In fact, I now consider the bottles with the older lining vintage and will favor them over the newer ones.  I also won’t be buying any new Sigg bottles.  At this point, they are basically just very fancy plastic bottles.  There is no longer a compelling reason to choose them over more rugged, albeit less pretty, all plastic bottles.

This is yet another example of the mob evoking a knee-jerk reaction in a well meaning organization.  This is one of capitalism’s, and democracy’s for that matter, many failings.  Pity.

Magnum opuses, part 2
2009.09.15

The glory of summer did indeed hamper my progress on both of my magnum opuses.  I gave in and shoehorned Ubuntu onto my computer.  It is working fairly well but I’m tempted to give Fedora 11 a try.  I cut my Linux teeth on Redhat (and worked for Turbolinux ~= Redhat) so I might just be more comfortable there.

On the 1Q84 front, I have fully translated two pages.  That’s right, two.  Oh well.

But back to Linux.  Today, I was kinda bummed that I couldn’t find a good way to adjust the LCD brightness from the command line aside from variants of  the technique mentioned here, so I wrote a pair of programs to do it.  Find them here.