At a Long Enough Time Horizon

Yesterday I had an itch to set my thoughts careening by reading some good science-fiction. I went down to the library and picked up Vernor Vinge’s “Marooned in Real Time“. It did not disappoint. It was interesting enough that I ended up finishing it in one day. It has the perfect mix of intrigue and ideas that set your imagination afire. The basic plot is a murder mystery with the twist that it takes place as the cast of characters travels through time using bobble technology. Bobbles are basically stasis spheres, so you don’t really travel through time as much as everything remains in suspended animation while the world goes on without you. The characters in the book end up bobbling through millions of years of real time and are able to observe changes to earth geography and evolution in progress.

Far future earth evolution is exactly the kind of thing that’s fun to speculate about. How will life change? What new animals will arise from current forms? Will any creatures achieve sapience? Likewise, if we could travel through time for millions of years, how far could we go? What would happen to the universe? What would we see if we could stick around until the end of the universe?

The pleasant side effect of reading about the flow of millions of years is that it makes all of your problems shrink to insignificance. At a long enough time horizon, nothing really matters. When the going gets tough, this idea can provide relief and perspective. One of the humbling facts about existence is the knowledge that everything you do, everything you have, everything you know, is temporary… even humanity, even this world. If everything is temporary what is the proper attitude of life? How should this inform our conduct?

Your earth capsule

When you sit in traffic, you realize how most people are driving solo. It’s horribly inefficient, but there’s no reason to believe people will ever double up or that traffic will ever get better. That’s just not what having a car is about. The whole point to having a car is that it provides the freedom for you to go where you want on your own schedule. No need to ask someone else for a ride or to schedule your outings around another person. Your car is your earth capsule; a climate-controlled extension of your home base.

It seems like a certain population density is required to make mass transit a rational choice. It has to be prohibitively expensive in terms of travel time and money to encourage people to use mass transit options. In places like New York City, it is rare and expensive to have dedicated parking. Likewise, in such a dense city environment, it often does not make sense to drive yourself. As a result, people take the subway or a cab rather than deal with the hassle of driving.

In almost every other part of the country outside New York City, it makes sense to drive yourself as most mass transit options are simply worse than driving. In the future, I think the solution to horrible traffic will be cars controlled by artificial-intelligence and demand-based toll pricing.

Automated cars will allow more efficient driving and a more pleasant commute. Cars controlled by AI will be able to drive much better than human drivers and they will be able to interact with one another to avoid road hazards via ad hoc networking or a centralized traffic control system. With AI drivers, cars will be able to travel at a high speed and will be able to coordinate to maintain efficient traffic flow. Just like timed traffic signals facilitate traffic efficiency by coordinating access and cross traffic, cars controlled by AI will be able to work together to maintain the most efficient flow of traffic throughout the system.

Demand-based toll pricing is another way to improve traffic flow. As our infrastructure needs increase, governments will struggle with providing and maintaining the roadways. When you add new roads or highways you would think this would reduce traffic congestion, however traffic congestion quickly increases to use up the newly available capacity. In other words, adding new roads does little to reduce traffic congestion. The only real answer is to control demand and to encourage more efficient use. Gasoline taxes are a blunt instrument in that people who contribute little to traffic congestion (for example, people who drive within their immediate area) bear the same tax burden as commuters who clog the highways trekking into the city from the exurbs. The most efficient way to control traffic and to pay for the roads is to encourage the expansion of tollways, especially demand-based tollways. For example, most tollways already support toll tags or some similar way of automatic payment. Why not alter the toll prices based on congestion? In other words, the more traffic, the higher the tolls. Late at night, when there is no congestion, allow free travel. During rush hour, keep raising the toll amount until congestion shrinks to allow a set average speed of say 50 miles per hour.

While the highway system was built as a common resource it is indisputable that some people use this common resource more than others and that some contribute a lot more to traffic congestion than others. It is reasonable to expect heavy users to bear more of the cost.

Conditional separation

Heard on NPR about televangelists fighting Senator Grassley’s request for information on their finances and how these tax-exempt organizations spend their money.

For example, Grassley wants to know for what tax-exempt purpose Joyce Meyer Ministries, based in Fenton, Mo., bought a $30,000 malachite round table, and spent $11,219 on a French clock and $19,162 on Dresden vases.

He’s also interested in the total amount of “love offerings” received in lieu of salary by Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., and how Long reports them on his W-2 forms to the Internal Revenue Service.

Kenneth Copeland Ministries, in Newark, Texas, also received a letter. Grassley is curious about reports that a gathering of ministers presented Kenneth Copeland with a “personal gift” in excess of $2 million, in celebration of the organization’s 40th anniversary.

On the one hand, some religious groups want to abolish the separation of church and state when they want to change the law to reflect religious principles, but when it comes to protecting their finances from taxation and scrutiny they want to preserve the separation of church and state.

Influence is a two-way street.

I can feel inflation

I must be getting old or inflation must be getting bad. Every time I end up at the store, I see things that cost way more than they should. Today at Target, I noticed they were selling Christmas stockings for $12.99. Thin, felt-like polyester Christmas stockings for $12.99. It struck me as seriously overpriced. Everywhere I looked I saw total junk going for way more than I would expect. Holiday goods are probably a special case because during the holidays consumers have a heightened emotional state when shopping. They’re excited about the holidays and everything that comes with it, so they’re more likely to buy stuff they might never buy otherwise.

I fought the law and the law was nonplussed

A few months after I bought my Mustang, I received a couple speeding tickets. Being naive in certain aspects of Life, I had a few things to learn about owning a sports car. Namely that it takes discipline to drive like a normal person when you don’t have to, and that sports cars make you more conspicuous to law enforcement. These were expensive lessons that I have fully incorporated into my Way of Life. As a result, I’ve become a slow and cautious driver. Now, whenever I cruise past the highway patrol I wince like a pyromaniac who has suffered 3rd degree burns.

One thing you notice when you get a traffic ticket is that there is a thriving business in traffic law. The week after you get a ticket your mailbox is deluged in come-ons from every traffic attorney in the county. Normally, I would just pay the fine and kick myself for throwing good money away. But as I received letter after letter, I figured there must be something to it. If it was a scam or useless to hire an attorney for a speeding ticket there would not be a thriving business around it, right? I wanted to find out for sure.

The next time I was downtown I stopped by one of the “firms” lodged like ticks near the courthouse. I asked what I needed to do to get a lawyer to handle my ticket. For the two tickets I had they charged $200 for representation. Even though I was concerned about spending money for what could turn out to be worthless, I was dying to know if this was a better option than just paying the fines, which I had no problem with aside from the considerable expense.

Using an attorney I might be able to keep the tickets off my record and maybe not pay the fines at all. After talking to an older gentleman who told me he always uses a lawyer for traffic tickets, I signed up, wrote out a check, and left the clerk with the tickets. The clerk issued a bond later that day to cover me until my court date and a few days later I received a note explaining what I needed to do next (just show up and say “Here” when they called my name at the docket) and that I would have to appear in court in 6 months. A few months later I received another letter that my court appearance was rescheduled another six months after the original date. Basically, this meant I would not appear in court until over a year after I had received the tickets. My guess is the traffic lawyers like to do this as a delaying tactic, especially since my court appearance was scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving, which might be inconvenient. The delay was also a good thing in that it allowed me to put off an unpleasant trip downtown, although it took everything I had to remember to go.

When my court date finally approached, I got up early and was down at the Courthouse for my 8:30 AM appearance. If you’ve never been to court for a traffic violation, you’re in for a treat. The whole thing is a remnant of bygone days when you had to interact with other people and wait patiently like cattle. It was fun to observe the random cross-section of my fellow Dallas citizens. Although, I imagine more higher-income people would not waste their time challenging a ticket. You’re more likely to see the lower and middle classes represented. People for whom a few hundred dollars and an increase in auto insurance premiums can cause a serious hardship and a cascade of negative consequences. This is one of the unpleasant realities of the criminal justice system. The penalties sufficient to encourage compliance from the bulk of the populace are often an extreme burden for those living paycheck to paycheck.

When you go to your assigned court room, the judge comes in, explains a few things, then proceeds to do a roll-call from the docket. This determines which cases will be handled. In Dallas, they use a stand-by system where they don’t call the witness (the police officer) in until they know you’ve showed up. The judge goes through 40-50 people to determine which cases will be on the second docket call. If you show up the case goes forward, if you do not, the judge would likely issue a warrant for your arrest. About 30% of people on the docket were not present. When they call your name, you say “Here” and the prosecutor tells the judge whether the state is ready to proceed or not. Generally, the state is ready pending arrival of the witness. After the docket has been cleared, the judge declares a recess until the second docket call an hour later where the real business begins and the attending officers make their appearance.

When you come back for the second docket call, they do another roll-call and the prosecutor announces whether the state is ready to proceed. If the witness (the officer) is unavailable, the case is dismissed. If the witness is available, you or your lawyer will generally make a deal with the prosecutor: dismissal for things like “no proof of financial responsibility” (no auto insurance) if you can prove you had insurance at the time, or “deferred adjudication” if you plead no contest for something like speeding. Deferred adjudication basically means they dismiss the ticket if you can go six months with no other offenses, but you still have to pay court fees, which can be equivalent to 50-75% of the original fine. And if you fail to keep your nose clean for six months, you would have to pay the fines. Besides pleading no contest, another option would be to plead innocent. But this is generally a bad idea as it wastes everyone’s time and suggests that you might be a prima donna who doesn’t want to play ball.

In my case, both tickets were dismissed because the witness was unavailable. Dismissal means it never happened. No fines, no court fees, no increases in your insurance premiums, no six hours watching “comedy” defensive driving. Could I have achieved the same result without a lawyer? Only if I could be certain the witness would be unavailable. Otherwise, you would have to be prepared to make your case with the prosecutor pro se (representing yourself). They hand out deferred adjudication like candy and I probably could have received it by working directly with the prosecutor. So, the jury is out on whether it was a good investment. I’d be curious to hear of anyone else’s experience.

In my case, I never even met with my attorney. His clerk showed up to make sure I was there as they are responsible for the bond if I was not. Then I never saw him. Luckily, the case was dismissed, so I didn’t need him anyway. Aside from moving the dates, I did everything else myself. I got the impression that the attorneys are there mainly as backup and to ensure that you get a crack at deferred adjudication. I’m not convinced they do anything else and some of them seemed pretty useless and just as seedy as you might expect. One lawyer had silver hair in a ponytail AND crutches for a broken foot. Another in a tired brown suit looked like he just crawled out of a whiskey bottle.

Even though I spent $200, it was a good experience and preferable to the $600 I would have had to spend in fines. I am still not sure if hiring a lawyer made any difference, but I would probably try it again.

Things I learned:

  • As bureaucratic and imperfect as it seems, the legal system works pretty well. At its most basic level, the Law aims to define negative behaviors and prescribe remedies. There is something comforting about this emphasis on creating order from the general human chaos. This is no small task. There are rules and then there are the ways we carry out the rules. Reason is a necessary basis for Justice. Justice guarantees our freedom and harmony by theoretically ensuring that all men are treated equally in the eyes of the Law.
  • Traffic offenses are criminal offenses. As a result, you are protected by the Constitution. Pretty cool, huh?
  • As the judge put it, the aim of the law is generally to encourage compliance. In other words, while the measures may be punitive, the goals are noble. This is a good distinction as people often attribute a nefarious dimension to the role of Law in Society. As I have some experience with people and their failings, I prefer this imperfect system to the law of the jungle.
  • When it comes to motor vehicle violations, unlike in other areas of criminal law, intent is irrelevant. You are responsible for what you do in your vehicle, even if you did not mean to do it.
  • Drive the speed limit.

7 years

Although I’ve had this domain name for a while longer, today marks the 7th anniversary of this humble little blog. I’m amazed at how mainstream this form of public expression has become, however I’m not surprised. People want to participate. People want to talk and listen and share with others in an endless conversation between themselves and the rest of the world. The old world of one-way communication through newspapers, radio, and TV seems so alien and backward. Connection is our cultural reason for being.

Eventually, we will all be blogging in some form, although we may call it something else…streaming bits of our little lives out through Flickr, twitter streams, blog entries, Facebook wall posts, YouTube videos, etc. It will be interesting to see what new social practices develop as everyone becomes attached to The Network and plays around. We’re still at the very beginning and it is important to remember how much more change we have in store. It is exciting to be alive when so many new things are happening. It makes me wonder. If we can count on so many things changing, what should we hold on to? What should we try to preserve as a culture? What have we learned that we should not forget?

QR-Code: Linking the physical world

QR-Code from WikipediaQR-Code (quick response barcode) is a 2-dimensional printed barcode-like system used to encode information such as URL’s, phone numbers, text, and other data. The code image can be read by a scanner or decoded from a photographic image of the printed code.

From the QR Code web site: “QR Code is a two-dimensional barcode, used widely in Japan. The advantage of QR Code from well-known barcode is larger data capacity (more than 100 bytes, typically) and error correction.”

From Wikipedia:

Although initially used for tracking parts in vehicle manufacturing, QR-Code is now used in a much broader context spanning both commercial tracking applications as well as convenience-oriented applications aimed at mobile phone users. QR Codes storing addresses and URLs may appear in magazines, on signs, buses, business cards or just about any object that a user might need information about. A user having a camera phone equipped with the correct reader software can scan the image of the QR Code causing the phones browser to launch and redirect to the programmed URL. This act of linking from physical world objects is known as a hardlink or physical world hyperlinks. A user can also generate and print their own QR Code for others to scan and use by visiting one of several free QR Code generating sites.

The use of these types of codes allows more physical world interaction with our communication devices. For example, you could launch a URL directly from the code image printed on a show flyer or film showing. Or, you could print a QR Code on your business card to allow people to easily capture your contact information and copy to their phone.

Related stuff:

  1. PHP and Perl scripts to generate QR Code.
  2. Semanote: Tag the world This looks like fun.
  3. QuickMark: Read barcodes and QR-code with your webcam
  4. Web-based QR-Code generator
  5. TED Talks: Jan Chipchase: Our cell phones, ourselves: Must watch video.
  6. QR-Code processing library
  7. QR-Code WordPress Plugin: WP-QRcode is a highly configurable plugin that generates QR codes for your blog posts and lets you show them in specific places in your WordPress website. The purpose is for mobile phone users to have easy access to your posts by capturing the QR code by the phone’s camera and then go straightly to your post from the phone’s web browser.

I would like to be able to photograph and read barcodes from my Blackberry, however most mobile readers do not support the Blackberry. If you know of any reader that does, please let me know.

If you have a Windows Mobile Device or Symbian device you can use the following applications: Kaywa Reader, QuickMark. Devices that support J2ME can use QRMidlet.

Selections from Moby Dick

Last winter I finished reading Moby Dick. When you read a book that is justly revered you cross a line into understanding what all the fuss is about, though maybe even further from understanding. Moby Dick is the kind of book you could never imagine writing yourself.

Melville has this ability to capture and convey existential feeling so that it is beautiful and tangible. In Moby Dick, he does it better than the best philosopher.

  • Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish, Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.
  • There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
  • To enjoy bodily warmth,some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.
  • There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:–through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

You are a colony organism

A long time ago when I was a courier for Fedex I had a dropbox on my route at the front of a vacant office building. While emptying it of overnight-letter envelopes one evening, I noticed the tiny body of a gecko tucked into the lower lip of the dropbox door. As I had to empty the box each day, I noticed that over the next few days the gecko started to rot. The stench was amazingly potent and widespread especially considering how small it was. It got worse and worse until one day the smell was gone. I popped open the door to empty the dropbox and looked down to find a naked gecko skeleton. A single fat maggot was curled inside the ribcage.

I was amazed at the transformation. The gecko had probably died a few days before after getting trapped inside. Then bacteria had gone to work digesting its dead flesh. Then a fly detecting the stench had come along and laid an egg on the corpse where this newly hatched maggot had made quick work of the remains. Now finally, this maggot was preparing to develop into a fly. It was the circle of life played out in miniature.

It got me thinking. Can we really call ourselves individuals? You can shave off some of your cells and grow them in a dish for years if they have access to enough food. Are those cells you? Where does your body end and you begin? Is it just that plants and animals evolved as intelligent vehicles for multi-cellular life? In other words, what if consciousness is just a highly developed system for protecting and reproducing life? What if we, our consciousnesses, are just an adaptation to better promote a lower-level biological imperative? What if our minds are just the pilots for a lifeboat of individual cells and creatures? A Portoguese Man O’War is a colony of organisms working together as one unit. Maybe we are not much different. In biology there is this theory that the individual organelles of our cells, like mitochondria, were once separate organisms who were taken inside other prokaryotic organisms to live together as endosymbionts. As a single organism. Did the separate natures of each creature disappear when they became one?

What are you? Consider that your body cycles much of its components on a monthly basis as your cells divide, tissues replenish, waste excretes, and nutrients move through your system. Physically, you are never the same person twice. If that is the case, what makes you you?

We know that a body can be kept biologically alive without higher-level brain function. I’m no atheist by any means, but I do have to wonder. As every dream and thought I have experienced has taken place within my body, what happens when my body ceases to function and dies? It stands to reason that whatever I am also dies.

Get the hell out

Back when I was sixteen years old and bussing tables at “The Hungry Farmer Steakhouse”, I had a sure-fired way to let people know we were closing. When closing time came around I just started sweeping the dining room and putting the chairs up on the empty tables. If you were still eating, you got the hint. We wanted to go home. If you didn’t get the hint, I might lean on my broom and glare at you.

Tonight, I was up at the local library here in Lewisville and they had a novel way to tell me it was time to go home. Now, most libraries have an intercom system to tell patrons it’s closing time, but Lewisville Public Library adds a nice touch to it. At 30 minutes to closing, they play a recorded message that the library is soon closing. Then at 15 minutes till they announce again and start playing mellow classical music. It’s not jarring, but it’s different from the usual silence so you feel something about the library has changed. It’s enough that you are mindful of the need to leave. Then at 10 minutes to closing they announce one more time and the music changes to a bubbly jazz music as if to say in a friendly way, “Bounce up and dance on out of here. We’ll see you the next time around.” I wasn’t bold enough to see what happened after that.