Author Archive: Jim Razinha

Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

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Open source knowledge…what a novel concept

July 1, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More
Open source knowledge…what a novel concept

Thirty years ago, give or take, I read Lucifer’s Hammer (by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) for the first time. Published in 1977, it has a few dated elements, but apart from those, it holds its own in my mind. The novel describes a near future after a comet hits the Earth. I enjoyed it, but one very small reference stcuk in my head.

One of the characters has a library (that he preserves from the anarchy) and the one book he takes as currency to the outpost central to the novel is “Volume Two of The Way Things Work.” Google “The Way Things Work” now, and you’ll likely find mostly hits on David Macaulay’s illustrated book. Nice…and informative, but not the one Niven and Pournelle were talking about.

I searched for years, pre-internet, before finding my copy. It’s an eighth edition of the one originally published in 1963 by Simon and Schuster; subtitled “An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology.” It’s a single volume, not two, and although also dated (vacuum tubes), it is still an enormous, condensed wealth of knowledge. I’m not an end-of-the-world type person, but I have several survival books of this nature (Back to Basics, The American Boys’ Handybook, etc.) for my children and descendants…just in case. Not in case of the end of the world, but in case they get stranded or what have you.

Driving around to look in on various construction projects today, I listened to a few TED videos and one, very short by TED 18 minute standards, conveyed in four minutes one of the more amazing ideas I’ve seen at TED, host of hundreds of amazing ideas.

Marcin Jakubowski, a Polish American with a PhD in fusion physics, founded Open Source Ecology, “home of the Global Village Construction Set, developing community-based solutions for re-inventing local production” after starting a farm. I’ll let him describe what he’s done:

I’m adding this to my various “Way Things Work” works. It’s free, brilliant, full of maker ideals, and can deliver affordable technology to the world. Maybe I’ll even be able to contribute.


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Stephen Colbert…for the Supreme Court???

June 30, 2011 | By | Reply More
Stephen Colbert…for the Supreme Court???

Bob Edgar, opinion contributor at POLITICO both pans and applauds Stephen Colbert’s creation of Colbert Super PAC in this article: Stephen Colbert for Supreme Court justice!

Mr. Edgar says:

The Super PAC launched Thursday by the satirist Stephen Colbert and blessed by the Federal Election Commission is a terrible idea.

It makes a mockery of our campaign finance laws, inviting politicians of all stripes to launch their own Super PAC-linked TV “news” shows and then use those programs to raise buckets of money from corporations, labor unions and other special interests.

It’s the sort of thing Common Cause has always been against. We hate it.

And it’s positively brilliant!

But “…inviting politicians … to launch their own… TV ‘news’ shows…”??? What if we flip it, and TV “news” shows launch their own politicians?

Uh, oh. Too late.


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Impossible physics

June 13, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
Impossible physics

As I approach my 50th birthday, I’ve been having fun coming up with various lists of 50 things – 50 people I want to meet, 50 sitcoms I’ve watched at some time in my lifetime, 50 quotes I like, etc.

Among the lists of lists, I gen’d up two of books I want to read (50 is far too small a number for either list, but it fits with the age thing): 50 books I own that I have yet to read – I have many, many more than that, and 50 books that I do not own that I want to read. Of course, if I ever read any of them, I will likely find myself adding to my library (no surprise there).

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku happened to be first on my list of books that I do not own that I wanted to read. I picked it up last Monday when returning A Confederacy of Dunces to the library. I hadn’t planned on getting it – I was only looking to see if it was in – but was taken in immediately by the subtitle: “A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel”. Not unlike Star Trek – I’m Working On That by William Shatner and Chip Walter, the book promised a survey of science fiction concepts becoming a reality, but very unlike Shatner’s book, here was a theoretical physicist doing the looking and explaining why something could not be done or how it might.

It’s a rare scientist (or engineer for that matter) who is truly respected by his/her peers for research results/theories who can also communicate to the masses. Richard Dawkins certainly made that leap (his early books are more academic than his later works). When it comes to physicists, I think the pool shrinks. Stephen Hawking did a marvelous job conveying cosmological concepts in his books, as did Brian Greene – though Green’s books, while quite readable, are still fairly technical for the average person.

Michio Kaku writes a very readable book…for a physicist who is the co-founder of string field theory. Perhaps that is an unfair qualification. I have known many physicists who are wonderful conversationalists, but I don’t know if they are so because I am interested in their subjects or that they are simply wonderful conversationalists with everyone. Regardless, Kaku writes as one of those wonders. Peppered throughout this book are references to other books (a lot of fiction), a few movies, some history of the people and science behind the science. Those may make Kaku more accessible to the average reader, but I think it just shows that he has a life outside of theoretical physics.

In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku looks at science fiction to see what might possibly become science fact. He breaks down his subjects into three classes of impossibilities:

  1. Technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate known laws of physics and may be possible in some form in this or the next century (these are force fields, phasers, Death Stars, ETs and UFOs, teleportation, starships/antimatter engines, antimatter universes and certain forms of telepathy, psychokinesis and invisibility.)
  2. Technologies that “sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world.” They may not be possible at all, and if so, will likely only be possible thousands or millions of years in the future (these are time machines, hyperspace and wormhole travel as forms of travel faster than light, and parallel universes.)
  3. Technologies that violate the known laws of physics, which if possible, will result in a fundamental shifting of understanding of physics (Kaku notes there are surprisingly few such impossibilities, examining only perpetual motion machines and precognition).

Of course, one should read the book before thinking that Star Trek’s transporters, phasers, warp engines, or shields (force fields) could ever become a reality. I won’t spoil your read by revealing what the “certain forms” might be, but you can guess that Dr. McCoy won’t be complaining about having his atoms scattered across the universe for many centuries to come.

I was intrigued by Kaku’s discussions of what one would call paranormal, but after he gently observes that there has never been any real evidence for telepathy, psychokinesis or precognition, he explains the physics behind how one might be able to realize a part of the first two (precognition violates the known laws of the universe, thus cannot be performed through any technology…but is not completely impossible.) I liked his summary of science and psychokinesis:

One problem with analyzing psychokinesis scientifically is that scientists are easily fooled by those claiming to have psychic power. Scientists are trained to believe what they see in the lab. Magicians claiming psychic powers, however, are trained to deceive others by fooling their visual senses.

He’s fair where research has had some seemingly positive findings, but does note that “fully half” of the successful trial of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Program “originated from a single individual” and that the results are always non-reproducible.

The lesson here is that while almost nothing is impossible (what scientists really mean is that these ideas are impossible for primitives such as us), the technology needed to overcome the impossible is impossibly advanced.

So, I strike one from one list and add at least seven, as I now want to read Kaku’s other books. I highly recommend Physics of the Impossible as a diversion from the contemporary news.


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Political boundaries

May 18, 2011 | By | 4 Replies More
Political boundaries

On my way home tonight, I listened to NPR’s Andrea Seabrook talk about “Politicians And Their Wives: What’s Fair Game?

I recalled a political science class from the early 1980s and a professor who was examining the dignity of the office of Presidency…and how it was eroding. He related how when FDR got out of a vehicle, the media would turn their heads, examine their nails, look up at the birds, point their cameras away until he got in his chair and covered his legs. Regardless of the words, accusations, criticisms in print, the visual privacy – and dignity – was preserved.

I also recalled the (comical to me at the time) formal morning coat of the 1981 inauguration, as Reagan wanted to restore the dignity that supposedly was lost when Carter walked the parade route and had a “People’s Inauguration.”

I imagine the professor mentioned above would have been appalled at the television coverage of Reagan’s colon polyps a few years later and probably outraged at the media of today.

So what changed?

[More . . . ]


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The Edge of Physics

May 9, 2011 | By | Reply More
The Edge of Physics

I watched Anil Ananthaswamy’s TED talk video “What it takes to do extreme astrophysics” last Sunday. I thought he was eloquent and passionate. Intrigued by his way with words, I picked up his book – The Edge of Physics, on which his talk was based – from the local library the next day. I now need to add it to my own.

Ananthaswamy has created a fascinating survey of history and extraordinary efforts of today’s cosmologists to uncover the knowledge of the origins and the fundamental structure of the universe. It’s a quick read, even though I found myself pausing to seek out (and read) Hubble’s 1929 paper “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae”; Ostriker, Peebles and Yahil’s 1974 paper “The Size and Mass of Galaxies, and the Mass of the Universe” and to look up where these researchers are working. I thoroughly enjoyed his narrative and particularly the composition of the book. Ananthaswamy’s wonderful story has exquisite descriptions of the exotic and dangerous locations where the investigative scientists have found the “environmentally silent” conditions necessary to the detection of theorized particles and energy or of nearly unimpeded observation of the universe. Transitioning smoothly from optical cosmology to detection of neutrinos, dark matter, dark energy, Higgs bosons and more, Ananthaswamy excels at simplifying complex subjects, his narrative interwoven with the history of the building blocks leading to the current competing theories.

As an engineer, I wonder how knowing the nature of dark matter or the validation of supersymmetry or superstring theories is useful; or more practically, how that knowledge can be used. But as a former physics major who never lost interest in the subject, I love the quest for knowledge. It doesn’t matter if it can be used for anything practical.

I was asked in another thread what I might consider literature (with a capital “L”)…I’m thinking The Edge of Physics qualifies for me.


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A global empathy

April 27, 2011 | By | 4 Replies More
A global empathy

If you’ve lived in or spent any significant time in another country, you might have had to answer questions about why your country was doing certain things on the world stage. And if you took time to think of who was asking and how things appeared from their perspectives, your answer might be different than if you spent your life wearing parochial blinders.

I was in Korea when we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. I couldn’t answer the questions like, “Why is the U.S. doing that?” or the more common one, “Why are Bush and Cheney doing that?” And these from a country that enjoys (not universally) a U.S. presence and strong relationship with the U.S. I couldn’t answer not just because I was in the military for part of the time I was there, but also that I tried to understand how things looked from outside the U.S. I was, after all, a guest in their country.

Sam Richards, in this TED Talk titled “A Radical Experiment in Empathy” illustrates a message that I think that every single American needs to hear, whether xenophobic or not. I’ve lived all over the U.S. and I am continually saddened, if no longer surprised at how Americans view the world. “Speak English!” “But you’re in our country.” “Speak English anyway.” I am also saddened that I know many people that will not understand this video, which is all the more disappointing because despite my other challenges regarding the nature of humans though their arts, I do.

The message is simple: Step out of your tiny world and understand the larger world differently.

It should open some eyes. I really hope it does.


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A job that pays you to snipe at your coworkers

April 11, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
A job that pays you to snipe at your coworkers

Harvard professor Gary King determined that Washington lawmakers spend a lot of time calling each other names (King is interviewed “How senators spend 27 percent of their time taunting each other” in The Week).

Groucho Marx might have to rework the lyrics in the song from Horsefeathers

I don’t care what you have to say
It makes no difference anyway;
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I’m against it!

Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!

to include a couple of slurs to bring it up to date.


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Nine disappearing things?

April 7, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
Nine disappearing things?

I was sent this in an email today, along with the question: What will be the future for your children???

I’ll give some of my quick thoughts on it and let the comments flow.

Whether these changes are good or bad depends in part on how we adapt to them. But, ready or not, here they come.

1. The Post Office. Get ready to imagine a world without the post office. They are so deeply in financial trouble that there is probably no way to sustain it long term. Email, Fed Ex, and UPS have just about wiped out the minimum revenue needed to keep the post office alive. Most of your mail every day is junk mail and bills.

2. The Check. Britain is already laying the groundwork to do away with checks by 2018. It costs the financial system billions of dollars a year to process checks. Plastic cards and online transactions will lead to the eventual demise of the check. This plays right into the death of the post office. If you never paid your bills by mail and never received them by mail, the post office would absolutely go out of business.

3. The Newspaper. The younger generation simply doesn’t read the newspaper. They certainly don’t subscribe to a daily delivered print edition. That may go the way of the milkman and the laundry man. As for reading the paper online, get ready to pay for it. The rise in mobile Internet devices and e-readers has caused all the newspaper and magazine publishers to form an alliance. They have met with Apple, Amazon, and the major cell phone companies to develop a model for paid subscription services.

4. The Book. You say you will never give up the physical book that you hold in your hand and turn the literal pages. I said the same thing about downloading music fromiTunes. I wanted my hard copy CD. But I quickly changed my mind when I discovered that I could get albums for half the price without ever leaving home to get the latest music. The same thing will happen with books. You can browse a bookstore online and even read a preview chapter before you buy. And the price is less than half that of a real book. And think of the convenience! Once you start flicking your fingers on the screen instead of the book, you find that you are lost in the story, can’t wait to see what happens next, and you forget that you’re holding a gadget instead of a book.

5. The Land Line Telephone. Unless you have a large family and make a lot of local calls, you don’t need it anymore. Most people keep it simply because they’ve always had it. But you are paying double charges for that extra service. All the cell phone companies will let you call customers using the same cell provider for no charge against your minutes

6. Music. This is one of the saddest parts of the change story. The music industry is dying a slow death. Not just because of illegal downloading. It’s the lack of innovative new music being given a chance to get to the people who would like to hear it. Greed and corruption is the problem. The record labels and the radio conglomerates are simply self-destructing. Over 40% of the music purchased today is “catalog items,” meaning traditional music that the public is familiar with. Older established artists. This is also true on the live concert circuit. To explore this fascinating and disturbing topic further, check out the book, “Appetite for Self-Destruction” by Steve Knopper, and the video documentary, “Before the Music Dies.”

7. Television. Revenues to the networks are down dramatically. Not just because of the economy. People are watching TV and movies streamed from their computers. And they’re playing games and doing lots of other things that take up the time that used to be spent watching TV. Prime time shows have degenerated down to lower than the lowest common denominator. Cable rates are skyrocketing and commercials run about every 4 minutes and 30 seconds. I say good riddance to most of it. It’s time for the cable companies to be put out of our misery. Let the people choose what they want to watch online and through Netflix.

8. The “Things” That You Own. Many of the very possessions that we used to own are still in our lives, but we may not actually own them in the future. They may simply reside in “the cloud.” Today your computer has a hard drive and you store your pictures, music, movies, and documents. Your software is on a CD or DVD, and you can always re-install it if need be. But all of that is changing. Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all finishing up their latest “cloud services.” That means that when you turn on a computer, the Internet will be built into the operating system. So, Windows, Google, and the Mac OS will be tied straight into the Internet. If you click an icon, it will open something in the Internet cloud. If you save something, it will be saved to the cloud. And you may pay a monthly subscription fee to the cloud provider. In this virtual world, you can access your music or your books, or your whatever from any laptop or handheld device. That’s the good news. But, will you actually own any of this “stuff” or will it all be able to disappear at any moment in a big “Poof?” Will most of the things in our lives be disposable and whimsical? It makes you want to run to the closet and pull out that photo album, grab a book from the shelf, or open up a CD case and pull out the insert.

9. Privacy. If there ever was a concept that we can look back on nostalgically, it would be privacy. That’s gone. It’s been gone for a long time anyway. There are cameras on the street, in most of the buildings, and even built into your computer and cell phone. But you can be sure that 24/7, “They” know who you are and where you are, right down to the GPS coordinates, and the Google Street View. If you buy something, your habit is put into a zillion profiles, and your ads will change to reflect those habits. And “They” will try to get you to buy something else. Again and again.

All we will have that can’t be changed are Memories.

So, my quick take….

1. Probably right. Or at least a severely reduced version.

2. Also probably right. Online everything. Of course, sometimes don’t follow their own instructions when I turn off paper billing. That’ll need to get fixed.

3. As printed matter, again probably right. Where this hurts will be the insert advertisers (if they have no US mail to fall back on) and the comic strips. I heard Stephan Pastis, creator of the Pearls Before Swine strip, talk on Wednesday about trying to reach markets as newspapers die, and the frustrations of tapping into electronic publications. Not good. A few have made the transition, and some only know electronic distribution, but for many. it may spell the end of their livelihood (not to mention the non-reporter/editor workforce of the print paper).

4. Totally disagree. Yes, e-books grow in popularity daily, which will likely affect the printing costs (up as demand goes down), but I don’t see the printed book going away. Ever. Anybody ever try to shuffle back and forth in an e-version of a textbook. Paraphrasing Mona Lisa Vito from My Cousin Vinny, “Oh my Flying Spaghetti Monster, what a freaking nightmare!” (Be sure to read that with the appropriate Brooklyn accent – that works best.) I’ll read stuff on my phone, but when I read non-fiction and there are footnotes, I like to keep two bookmarks and flip back and forth. Not possible in electronic format. Maybe possible, but extremely inconvenient.

5. Probably. Communication technology advances all the time. This will likely disappear. Or at least VOIP will become the “landline” of the future.

6. Nope. Couldn’t disagree more. Whoever wrote this has obviously never seen the social media, viral phenomena, youtube “discoveries” – . There are too many possibilities for independents to publish their digital media. Now, the list author is right on one reason for the music industry slow death, but that greed is stonewalling any adaptation and they still wants to mark up physical media by outrageous amounts. And spend time prosecuting teenagers for downloading. This Harvard Business School study found no correlation, because the people downloading wouldn’t have bought the music anyway – can’t count lost sales that aren’t really lost. Someday I’ll read the suggested book and see what he has to say.

7. This comes off as more hope than speculation – “I say good riddance to most of it. “ Yes, content quality decreases. Commercial time increases (I’m working my way through the The Twilight Zone – on the fifth and final season – and not only did Serling produce 36 episodes for it, but the run time averages 26 minutes.) I’ll pile on the list item…“Reality” programming atrophies the already underused brain cells and sensational “news” channels dumb information down further. But it’s not going to go away. It’ll just evolve.

8. Hmm. Thinking about this one… E-books are a good example to go with the list item. When Amazon can delete what you’ve bought without your permission, that’s a bad sign. Can’t delete the book I have on my shelf (unless there’s a Fahrenheit 451 in our future.) Which ties into…

9. “It’s been gone for a long time anyway.” Can’t argue with that.

And somebody – either the author or one of the reposters – closed with “All we will have that can’t be changed are Memories.”

Sorry, even those can’t be trusted.



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Budget cut musings

March 22, 2011 | By | 10 Replies More
Budget cut musings

In the wake of the House voting to defund NPR last Thursday, and after weeks of rhetoric about cutting spending, I decided to take a 30,000 foot look at some of the budget line items of federal agencies and entities and come up with a list for the Congress to examine in detail.

First, I found several news cites (all with roughly the same wording) that a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report found that cutting public radio funding would net zero savings but I couldn’t find the report on the CBO website. I did find a report (dated Feb 18th) on H.R. 2 (the one with the creative title “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”) passed by the House on January 19th informing Speaker Boehner that the effects of the passage of the resolution would increase deficits in the decade 2012-2021.

CBO and JCT [Joint Committee on Taxation] estimate that, on balance, the direct spending and revenue effects of enacting H.R. 2 would cause a net increase in federal budget deficits of $210 billion over the 2012-2021 period (see Table 1).

And buried at the end,

Although premiums in the individual market would be lower, on average, under H.R. 2 than under current law, many people would end up paying more for health insurance…


Disclosure: I’m cherry-picking the non-zero lines tagged “discretionary” from the FY2011 Public Budget Database outlays spreadsheet. I left off lots of departments and agencies. These are the cherries I picked. Be my guest and drill through the 4880 line items and offer up your own list. Also, I did’t want to click back and forth between FY11 and FY12 to “help” out next year, so these are just for the current as yet unapproved spending – it’s a little ironic that most of the “cuts” being bandied are not cuts, but rather budget items that have not yet been approved. Certainly, the FY12 version of these numbers would still need scrutiny. And just because I chose the $1.3 trillion in discretionary items doesn’t mean that any of the “mandatory” lines are funded properly. The non-zero line items tagged as mandatory total $1.9 trillion, so I’m sure there are opportunities for belt-tightening there. At $3.2T total, of course opportunities abound.

Disclaimer: I’m only suggesting that the programs/offices below get looked at hard, not cut indiscriminately. That would be foolish. Well, foolish to the sane.

(Any more “Discl…” words I can use?) And this will get messy, so please forgive in advance the formatting.

Let’s start with the Legislative Branch. I think the before you start cutting programs, you need to make sure your own House (and Senate) are in order. The outlays for the agency labeled “Legislative Branch” total more than $4.6B. Here are some to consider:

Senate: Salaries, Officers and Employees [Senate] – $179M

Senate: Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Account – $402M

Senate: Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper of the Senate – $154M

House: Salaries and Expenses [House of Representatives] – $1.35B

Note: these are above the $123M mandatory compensation of members of the Senate and House, rank and file salaries being $174K, Majority/Minority Leaders being $193.400 and Speaker of the House being $223,500. That total for just salaries is $93,217,100.

Office of Compliance: Capitol Police – $265M

Legislative Branch Boards and Commissions: Open World Leadership Center Trust Fund – $16M

Legislative Branch Boards and Commissions: Capital Construction, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission – $10M

Guess what, folks? If you trim just 10% off of the Legislative budget, you save nearly a half billion dollars.

Executive Branch – $463M

Executive Branch: Office of National Drug Control Policy – $30M

Executive Branch: Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund – $47M (under the Bureau name of “Unanticipated Needs” – I think they are no longer unanticipated)

Oddly, the line item for compensation of the President is zero. Not sure where that’s stuck…
More follows….


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