Parallel Play

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

In Parallel Play, Tim Page explores how a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome explained a lifetime of restless isolation:

Oddly, the book that helped pull me into the human race was Emily Post’s “Etiquette,” which I had picked up in a moment of early-teen hippie scorn, fully intending to mock what I was sure would be an “uncool” justification of bourgeois rules and regulations. Instead, the book offered clearly stated reasons for courtesy, gentility, and scrupulousness—reasons that I could respect, understand, and implement. It suggested ways to inaugurate conversations without launching into a lecture, reminded me of the importance of listening as well as speaking, and convinced me that manners, properly understood, existed to make other people feel comfortable, rather than (as I had suspected) to demonstrate the practitioner’s social superiority. I revelled in Post’s guidance and absorbed her lessons. And, typically, I took them too far: even today, I would never dream of addressing a teen-age busboy in a small-town diner as anything other than “sir.”

Arm-wrestling game recalled after players break arms

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Arm-wrestling game recalled after players break arms:

Distributor Atlus Co. said Tuesday it will remove all 150 “Arm Spirit” arm wrestling machines from Japanese arcades after three players broke their arms grappling with the machine’s mechanized appendage.

“The machine isn’t that strong, much less so than a muscular man. Even women should be able to beat it,” said Atlus spokeswoman Ayano Sakiyama, calling the recall “a precaution.”

“We think that maybe some players get overexcited and twist their arms in an unnatural way,” she said. The company was investigating the incidents and checking the machines for any signs of malfunction.

Players of “Arm Spirit” advance through 10 levels, battling a French maid, drunken martial arts master and a Chihuahua before reaching the final showdown with a professional wrestler.

The arcade machine is not distributed overseas.

Is There Anything Good About Men? And Other Tricky Questions

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

In Is There Anything Good About Men? And Other Tricky Questions, John Tierney looks at Roy Baumeister’s address to the American Psychological Association:

The “single most underappreciated fact about gender,” he said, is the ratio of our male to female ancestors. While it’s true that about half of all the people who ever lived were men, the typical male was much more likely than the typical woman to die without reproducing. Citing recent DNA research, Dr. Baumeister explained that today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men. Maybe 80 percent of women reproduced, whereas only 40 percent of men did.

“It would be shocking if these vastly different reproductive odds for men and women failed to produce some personality differences,” he said, and continued:

For women throughout history (and prehistory), the odds of reproducing have been pretty good. Later in this talk we will ponder things like, why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce. They might drown or be killed by savages or catch a disease. For women, the optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and you’ll be able to have babies. All that matters is choosing the best offer. We’re descended from women who played it safe.

For men, the outlook was radically different. If you go along with the crowd and play it safe, the odds are you won’t have children. Most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative, explore other possibilities.

Read the whole address.

Fungi Make Biodiesel Efficiently at Room Temperature

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Fungi Make Biodiesel Efficiently at Room Temperature:

Typically, biodiesel is made by mixing methanol with lye and vegetable oil and then heating the brew for several hours. This links the methanol to the oils to produce energetic called esters. Unfortunately, heating the mixture is a huge waste of energy, and a major selling point of alternative fuels is efficiency. An enzyme called lipase can link oil to methanol without any extra heating, but the pure protein is expensive.

Potumarthi [of the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology] has a simple solution. Why bother purifying the lipase? It would be easier to just find an organism that produces plenty of the enzyme and squish it into pellets. In this case, the fungus Metarhizium anisopliae does the trick.

What Would You Pay To Stay Cool?

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

What Would You Pay To Stay Cool?:

Tucked in the massive energy bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives Aug. 4 is a provision that uses $2.25 billion in matching grants to promote an energy-saving idea that appeals to both free marketers and environmentalists.

The idea: smart grid technology. In its simplest form, it lets your “smart” electric meter talk back to the utility and record your usage by hour, so you can adjust your habits to take advantage of lower, off-peak rates.

Maybe, for example, you ‘d be ready to put off running your dishwasher until 3 a.m. if you could do it with electricity that costs 5 cents a kilowatt hour, instead of 25 cents. (Today, most residential consumers pay a flat rate — a national average of 9 cents a kilowatt hour, though local rates vary widely.)
Will customer behavior really change? And how expensive must electricity be to spark a change? In a California test that ran from 2003 through 2005, the average customer reduced his usage by 13% during the hottest summer hours when rates were five times higher. Customers with smart thermostats reduced their usage by 27%, and customers with gateway systems, which adjust the electricity use of multiple appliances, reduced their usage by 43% during the peak hours.

Virus Spreading Alarm and Pig Disease in China

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Virus Spreading Alarm and Pig Disease in China:

A highly infectious swine virus is sweeping China’s pig population, driving up pork prices and creating fears of a global pandemic among domesticated pigs.

Animal virus experts say Chinese authorities are playing down the gravity and spread of the disease.

So far, the mysterious virus — believed to cause an unusually deadly form of an infection known as blue-ear pig disease — has spread to 25 of this country’s 33 provinces and regions, prompting a pork shortage and the strongest inflation in China in a decade.

More than that, China’s past lack of transparency — particularly over what became the SARS epidemic — has created global concern.

“They haven’t really explained what this virus is,” says Federico A. Zuckermann, a professor of immunology at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. “This is like SARS. They haven’t sent samples to any international body. This is really irresponsible of China. This thing could get out and affect everyone.”

There are no clear indications that blue-ear disease — if that is what this disease is — poses a threat to human health.

Why Study War?

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Why Study War?, Victor Davis Hanson asks:

Try explaining to a college student that Tet was an American military victory. You’ll provoke not a counterargument — let alone an assent — but a blank stare: Who or what was Tet? Doing interviews about the recent hit movie 300, I encountered similar bewilderment from listeners and hosts. Not only did most of them not know who the 300 were or what Thermopylae was; they seemed clueless about the Persian Wars altogether.
This state of affairs is profoundly troubling, for democratic citizenship requires knowledge of war — and now, in the age of weapons of mass annihilation, more than ever.
Military history teaches us, contrary to popular belief these days, that wars aren’t necessarily the most costly of human calamities. The first Gulf War took few lives in getting Saddam out of Kuwait; doing nothing in Rwanda allowed savage gangs and militias to murder hundreds of thousands with impunity. Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin killed far more off the battlefield than on it. The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic brought down more people than World War I did. And more Americans — over 3.2 million — lost their lives driving over the last 90 years than died in combat in this nation’s 231-year history. Perhaps what bothers us about wars, though, isn’t just their horrific lethality but also that people choose to wage them — which makes them seem avoidable, unlike a flu virus or a car wreck, and their tolls unduly grievous. Yet military history also reminds us that war sometimes has an eerie utility: as British strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart put it, “War is always a matter of doing evil in the hope that good may come of it.” Wars — or threats of wars — put an end to chattel slavery, Nazism, fascism, Japanese militarism, and Soviet Communism.

Military history is as often the story of appeasement as of warmongering. The destructive military careers of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler would all have ended early had any of their numerous enemies united when the odds favored them. Western air power stopped Slobodan Miloševi?’s reign of terror at little cost to NATO forces — but only after a near-decade of inaction and dialogue had made possible the slaughter of tens of thousands. Affluent Western societies have often proved reluctant to use force to prevent greater future violence. “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things,” observed the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. “The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.”

Indeed, by ignoring history, the modern age is free to interpret war as a failure of communication, of diplomacy, of talking — as if aggressors don’t know exactly what they’re doing. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, frustrated by the Bush administration’s intransigence in the War on Terror, flew to Syria, hoping to persuade President Assad to stop funding terror in the Middle East. She assumed that Assad’s belligerence resulted from our aloofness and arrogance rather than from his dictatorship’s interest in destroying democracy in Lebanon and Iraq, before such contagious freedom might in fact destroy him. For a therapeutically inclined generation raised on Oprah and Dr. Phil — and not on the letters of William Tecumseh Sherman and William Shirer’s Berlin Diary — problems between states, like those in our personal lives, should be argued about by equally civilized and peaceful rivals, and so solved without resorting to violence.

Yet it’s hard to find many wars that result from miscommunication. Far more often they break out because of malevolent intent and the absence of deterrence. Margaret Atwood also wrote in her poem: “Wars happen because the ones who start them / think they can win.” Hitler did; so did Mussolini and Tojo — and their assumptions were logical, given the relative disarmament of the Western democracies at the time. Bin Laden attacked on September 11 not because there was a dearth of American diplomats willing to dialogue with him in the Hindu Kush. Instead, he recognized that a series of Islamic terrorist assaults against U.S. interests over two decades had met with no meaningful reprisals, and concluded that decadent Westerners would never fight, whatever the provocation — or that, if we did, we would withdraw as we had from Mogadishu.

His conclusion:

We must abandon the naive faith that with enough money, education, or good intentions we can change the nature of mankind so that conflict, as if by fiat, becomes a thing of the past. In the end, the study of war reminds us that we will never be gods. We will always just be men, it tells us. Some men will always prefer war to peace; and other men, we who have learned from the past, have a moral obligation to stop them.

Definitely read the whole article — and continue on to read Where to Start, his recommended reading list.

Gamers’ world reveals secrets of the next epidemic

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

I recently cited some of game-designer Ryan Dancey’s examples of online games gone awry. Now it appears that real epidemiologists are studying the World of Warcraft outbreak to improve their models of how diseases spread. Gamers’ world reveals secrets of the next epidemic:

But Lofgren, who played the game, alerted Fefferman, and they studied what they could.

Fefferman, a medical epidemiologist, immediately recognized human behaviors she had not ever factored in when creating computer models of disease outbreaks. For instance, what she calls the “stupid factor.”

“Someone thinks, ‘I’ll just get close and get a quick look and it won’t affect me,”‘ she said.

“Now that it has been pointed out to us, it is clear that it is going to be happening. There have been a lot of studies that looked at compliance with public health measures. But they have always been along the lines of what would happen if we put people into a quarantine zone — will they stay?” Fefferman added.

“No one have ever looked at what would happen when people who are not in a quarantine zone get in and then leave.”

She will now incorporate such behavior into her scenarios, and Fefferman is working with Blizzard to model disease outbreaks in other popular games.

Turning Internet search into sales leads

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Turning Internet search into sales leads certainly sounds easy:

His latest client: First Choice Holidays, a U.K.-based company that sells travel packages. Vurnum saw a First Choice ad for destination weddings in Cyprus, but he noticed that the offerings were buried deep in the company’s website.

So he e-mailed First Choice, offering to deliver potential clients. He set up a site ( with nothing more than a front page. Below a generic happy-couple photo and a title (“Destination Wedding”), Vurnum slapped in some highly targeted copy with lines like “What you must know before you make any plans for booking your dream wedding in Cyprus.”

At the bottom he added what’s known as an auto-responder template, in which visitors enter information such as their e-mail address and wedding date. The auto-responder (run by AWeber, one of many cheap providers) fires off two e-mail messages, one to the customer, the other to First Choice.

The page looks so bare-bones that Vurnum says he doesn’t even show this kind of site to his clients for fear they’ll disapprove.

How does Vurnum get paid? He charges clients a month in advance: If a company wants 300 good leads by a certain date, he delivers. To price his services, Vurnum checks the cost of keywords to calculate what it will cost him per lead and typically doubles that amount.

The beauty of the model, he says, is that it can be applied to virtually any kind of business anywhere in the world. “I’ll be brutally honest with you,” he says. “I’m not a genius in any way, shape, or form. Anyone can do this. And there’s an endless supply of customers who want someone to do this for them.”

Top 10 Zombie Flash Games

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Ben Zamorski shares his Top 10 Zombie Flash Games.

Take a look at Boxhead and De-Animator.

And Endless Zombie Rampage, which a commenter recommended.

How to Get Rich Programming

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Jeff Atwood explains How to Get Rich Programming by citing an interview with Paul Preese, the author of casual Flash game Desktop Tower Defense, who is making around $8,000 per month from his game:

So here’s a couple ways to a create successful game online:
  • Find an investor who’s crazy enough to give you millions of dollars
  • Put it on a distribution network and hope you get enough customers willing to buy it as a download
  • Make a Flash mini-game, let people play it for free, and watch the ad revenue pour in when the site gets 20 million pageviews a month.

That’s the option Paul Preece took with his phenomenally popular Desktop Tower Defense, and though he has no professional experience with game development, the Visual Basic programmer is now making, by his estimate, high four figures monthly for his ferociously viral little game.

DTD’s main revenue source is AdSense, but with its avalanche of popularity, advertisers have approached Preece directly, leading to “Affiliate deals, sponsorship, custom versions for other companies etc. The last two are in the pipeline but I thought I’d add them in at a low level.”

Preece’s main expense is running the server. “Hosting fees are negligible,” he says, “at $130 per month. But I am getting very close to the 1200GB bandwidth allocation!” That plus “the continuous supply of late night Red Bull” comprise the bulk of Desktop’s budget.

Science Channel

Monday, August 20th, 2007

The Science Channel is looking for “someone who makes science FUN the way the Mythbusters do” and “can demonstrate its complex principles in a simple way” — as demonstrated through a 3- to 5-minute video. Hmm…

Squirrels wield a hot, secret weapon

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Squirrels wield a hot, secret weapon:

It’s Californian ground squirrel versus rattlesnake in a potentially lethal showdown. But the squirrel has a secret weapon that until now has remained invisible to the human eye.

The ground squirrel heats up its tail then waves it in the snake’s face — a form of harassment that confuses the rattler, which has an infrared sensing organ for detecting small mammals.

This defensive tactic remained invisible to biologists until they looked at the animals through an infrared video camera. Now they believe that many other animals might be using infrared weaponry to ward off potential predators.

Young California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) are easy prey for snakes, so protective adults harass the predators while puffing up their tails and wagging them.

Graduate student Aaron Rundus and his supervisor Donald Owings of the University of California, Davis, wondered how this might affect the snakes’ interaction with the adult squirrels. So he borrowed a $35,000 infrared camera from another scientist and spied on squirrel-snake stand-offs.

He saw the adults’ tails heat up, presumably due to increased blood flow, when they were warning rattlers away – making the squirrel appear larger to the snake’s infrared organ.

Confronted with a gopher snake, which has no infrared sensory organ, the squirrels wagged their tails but didn’t bother to warm them up first.

Sea lion attacks Australian girl

Monday, August 20th, 2007

A sea lion attacks an Australian girl — and a marine scientist asserts that it was probably just trying to play with her:

A teenage girl has been attacked by a sea lion while surfing behind a speedboat off Australia’s west coast. Ella Murphy, 13, suffered cuts to her throat, a broken jaw and lost three teeth when the mammal leapt out of the sea and mauled her. She is in a stable condition in a Perth hospital after having surgery. A marine scientist said attacks by sea lions were rare and it may have been trying to play with the girl. Sea lions can grow up to 300kg (660 pounds).

The sea lion jumped out of the water like a white pointer shark, family friend Chris Thomas, who was driving the speedboat at Lancelin, 125km (80 miles) north of Perth, said to Western Australia’s Sunday Times newspaper.

“It actually lined her up. It jumped out of the water at her and hit her head-on … it opened its mouth and grabbed her head. It latched on,” he said.

The girl narrowly avoided a second attack, Mr Thomas said.

“It was going back for her, it was looking for her and it spotted her,” he said. “I had this horrible feeling I was not going to make it back in time.”

Sydney Aquarium marine scientist Grant Willis told AP news agency he had never heard of such an incident.

“To be out in the water and be attacked like this is just bizarre,” he said.

Mr Willis said the protected species would only attack humans if provoked.

“It might have been like a rag doll toy … it could have been … play for them, just wanting to shake it around,” he said.

(Hat tip to Todd.)

Let the Sun Shine In

Monday, August 20th, 2007

In Let the Sun Shine In, Greg Blonger notes that “too much energy is wasted by converting it”:

Sometimes the best solutions to the energy crisis are the simplest, and often they’re right in front of our eyes. Consider the use of solar power to light a home. Even the most advanced photovoltaic solar panels convert just 20% of the available sunlight to electricity. The resulting direct current (DC) then must undergo conversion to alternating current (AC), losing another 20%. If that AC goes on to light an incandescent bulb, which is only 5% efficient, you end up using a fraction of 1% of the original sunlight as room light. (Even switching to compact florescent bulbs, which are 15% efficient, makes little difference in overall energy efficiency.) But if you were to simply leave sunlight as light—via proper skylights, window orientation, and louvers—nearly 80% of the light ends up as illumination.

Or take the multiple conversions required to produce alternative biofuels. The efficiency of converting sunlight into plants such as corn and switch grass and then into ethanol or biodiesel is one-tenth of 1%, or less. Algae looks like it will perform slightly better, but at these rates, why bother? The best way to convert plants to energy, frankly, is to eat them.
We could begin by siting new buildings for optimal exposure to sunlight and properly designing them to best capture daylight via skylights and windows. Though still a rarity in the U.S., such design practice has become much more common in Europe. With proper insulation, such structures also require very little energy to heat.

Similarly, we could install heat exchangers—simple, low tech devices that operate with 90% efficiency—much more widely. Office building architects, for example, increasingly use heat exchangers to help separate sources of heat and cold, thus eliminating double heating and cooling. Banks of server computers, now routinely walled off from office space, use heat exchangers to transfer the hot air they generate out of the building during summer and into the building during winter. Less-expensive versions for the home can do the same for refrigerators or stoves (why use electric energy to cool food when the outside temperature is 30 degrees Fahrenheit?) and hot water generated for showers (why lose all that heat down the drain?).

Even if you can’t avoid mulitiple conversions entirely, there are ways to minimize the number of conversions. For example, we could also find more opportunities to break the DC/AC conversion cycle. Refrigerators and other appliances that operate on DC are becoming available and, with the certain arrival of economical LED lighting, which operates on DC, direct DC solar-power-to-DC-end-use shortly will become much more practical.