Posted by mike in Annoyances,Science,Work at 4:54 pm on January 10, 2009

There’s a particular facility where I find myself spending a significant amount of time working. It’s a nice place, fairly new, and the people who work there are very friendly and helpful. The one thing that always strikes me as odd about it, though, is their overzealous commitment to not only “being green,” but in the lengths they go to in order to prove just how “green” they are. In fact, they’ve made some changes in recent months that I feel take the concept to a ridiculous level. Even though I’m not supposed to be allowed to bring a camera into this facility (which is part of the reason why I’m not mentioning the name of it), I went ahead and took some pictures with my phone to show what I’m talking about.

When we first moved into this place, I spent about a month working there every day. I then had no need to be physically present for a couple of months, but recently I’ve found myself there again most days. The first time I returned after an absence, the fact that they’d made some changes (I’m sure they’d call them “improvements”) was obvious even from the parking lot:

Parking spaces reserved for low-emission vehicles

The spots with the white signs—the ones that are actually closer to the entrance than the handicapped spots—are now reserved for “low-emitting/fuel efficient vehicles.” (Yes, I realize that the handicap parking spots are closer to the wheelchair ramp in the sidewalk, but it still seems funny to me that if you drive a Prius you get a shorter distance to travel to the entrance than somebody in a wheelchair.)

Low-emitting vehicles sign

Of course, the several times that I’ve been to this place since noticing the appearance of these signs, I’ve never seen a vehicle parked in those spaces, low-emitting or otherwise. I’ve considered using them myself, just because, but I’m pretty sure they have carte blanche to tow me if they so choose.

On the front door to the facility is a sticker proudly proclaiming that they are a “Bay Area Green Business,” which I suppose isn’t such a big deal, as far as self-congratulating back-patting goes.

What cracks me up the most about this place, though, are the bathrooms. They, too, have been renovated in order to become more “green,” and the results are nothing if not strange. The urinals in the men’s rooms were replaced by “waterfree” versions:

Waterfree urinal

A quick search reveals that these are the WES-2000 model from Sloan, which utilizes some sort of cartridge to collect “sediments” while all liquid goes down the drain. Visible on the wall in the above picture (next to the capped pipe end where the water supply for the old urinal used to be) is a sign that they’ve proudly mounted, informing the user of the great environmental impact of using waterfree urinals.

Explaining the Waterfree system

I’ve had plenty of opportunities, while standing in front of these things, to do the quick mental math required to become a bit dubious of this claim. If the average “normal” (“old?”) urinal uses 40,000 gallons of fresh water per year, at 1.6 gallons per flush, that means it is flushed 25,000 times per year, or 68 times a day. Maybe in a busy bar, I could see this, but in a low-traffic establishment (which this is), that seems preposterous to me. (Even Sloan’s own website doesn’t make such lofty claims, estimating the water savings instead between 9,600 and 24,500 gallons per year… Although, if Sloan didn’t make that sign, who did?)

I assume that I’m not alone in that, when hearing the words “waterfree urinal,” the first thing I think of is “stale-piss-smelling bathroom.” Thankfully, this is not the case. The WES-2000 has some sort of air freshener in it, so that it always exudes a strong scent of cinnamon, which is decidedly better than the alternative.

The eco-friendly measures in the bathroom don’t stop at the urinals, though. They’ve also replaced the flushers on the toilets in the stalls with the “UPPERCUT,” a water-saving “flushometer”:

Installed Uppercut flushometer

The bright-green flusher handle is the “Dual-Flush Flushometer.” My favorite part of all of this, I think, is the sign describing how to make use of its water-conserving features:

Dual-flush instructions

This is without a doubt the most formal use of the terms “#1” and “#2” I’ve ever seen. I didn’t receive a copy of the memo, but thankfully this sign is there to help explain things for me. (I also note how much exaggeration is inherent in the little water-droplet icons: they seem to imply that the “up” flush uses 1/3 the amount of water as the “down” flush, but in fact the ratio is actually a little over 2/3—1.1 gallons instead of the typical 1.6.)

Personally, I think they should have a special sticker one receives as reward for taking a dump that can be flushed with the “up” flush. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see “I’m a green pooper!” bumper stickers while driving around Silicon Valley. That’s how these people are.

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Posted by mike in News,Science,Sports at 1:00 pm on August 8, 2007

This morning when I woke up, I took a Levothroid, as I do every morning. I do this to cheat my hypothyroidism so that I do not continue to gain weight (something I’ve struggled with since quitting smoking a year and a half ago), and am not as tired all the time as I would be if left only to the hormones that my body is capable of naturally producing on its own. I then put on my glasses, because I can’t see worth a damn without them; in a way, you could say I’m cheating by artificially improving my eyesight so as to function better in my day-to-day life. After showering and getting ready for work, I then took a Prilosec, another part of my daily routine, which helps me to avoid the heartburn that I would normally suffer from (partially as a result of the weight gain) without the help of medication. When I go to lunch today, if I have something with dairy products in it (which is almost everything that tastes good), I’ll have to take a Lactaid with my meal. My body isn’t capable of producing lactase enzymes on its own, you see, so I have to cheat if I want to enjoy a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza.

Could I live without these products? Sure, and man has been doing so for centuries. But I enjoy my life more thanks to them. Am I cheating by taking them, or just enhancing myself to make me a little better? People who are depressed take Zoloft to help them function better in society. Are they cheating? How about people who take Viagra, whether recreationally or as a prescribed fix for ED? Is it cheating when they “perform” better?

More to the point, people who work out often take Creatine to help them bulk up. This is legal and generally considered to be “ethical.” Millions of people, whether they work out or not, take vitamin supplements to help boost everything from their immune systems to their memories. And none of this is generally regarded as “cheating.”

So why is it, then, that when athletes take steroids so that they can perform better in the job they have dedicated their lives to, all of a sudden a whole nation of vitamin-taking, supplement-ingesting, over-the-counter and prescription drug dependent people suddenly becomes sensitive to what people put into their bodies? The vast majority of these people then proceed to denounce such atheletes, writing off their accomplishments as “cheating” or “supplemented” and debating asterisks when talking about records. To me, this is like saying that Ray Liotta was cheating because he wasn’t really a mobster. Well, no shit: he’s an actor whose job it is to pretend so as to entertain us. Likewise, a baseball player’s purpose is to entertain, and what’s more entertaining that hitting a record-setting number of home runs? How could one–especially a spectator–possibly think that what Barry Bonds ate for breakfast yesterday, or which vitamins he took, or which cream he rubbed on his muscles prior to hitting number 756, somehow makes the achievement less remarkable? I certainly don’t. That’s what he’s supposed to do: be the best specimen of human performance that he can be. In this case, the metric of human performance in question is hitting home runs, and he has achieved that goal better than anybody in history. Did he use “performance-enhancing drugs” in order to help him achieve this? Of course he did. We all do. It’s just much more obvious with him.

I’ll draw the line when a player uses mechanical appendages that actually swing the bat for him, or make him able to swing harder and faster than he would be able to on his own, or guide his arms to make more solid contact with the ball. And then that line will disappear again when pitchers start using that same type of equipment to throw more strikes, or to make the ball curve more, or to throw it faster.

Don’t get me wrong. I dislike Barry Bonds on a personal level, because he just seems like a huge self-centered asshole. Any athlete who doesn’t want media attention can suck it up and deal with it or find another profession, as far as I’m concerned. But that’s not to say that I still don’t think his accomplishment should not be regarded for what it is: the most home runs hit in the history of the game, plain and simple. I couldn’t care less how he did it; to me all that matters is that he did it. As long as he was the one standing up at the plate and swinging the bat those 756 times, it’s a legitimate record in my book.

I will say that I am in the camp that believes A-Rod, the youngest player to hit 500 home runs, will some day in the not-too-distant future hit more than 800, making all of the Bonds discussion moot anyway. For now, though, Barry’s the king, whether you like it or not. And if you don’t, at least it’s over, the inevitable has happened, and we can all get back to watching the Cubs blow their playoff chances yet again.

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Posted by mike in Computers,News,Science at 11:51 pm on May 8, 2007

A friend I used to work with in the OpCenter sent me a link to a Washington Post article on robots that I found very interesting. It started out reminding me of a selection from The Mind’s I:

The colonel ordered the test stopped.

Why? asked Tilden. What’s wrong?

The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.

This test, he charged, was inhumane.

(See “The Soul of the Mark III Beast” in The Mind’s I–which, incidentally, I would consider to be one of the two most influential books from my high school days, along with the previously mentioned Sirens of Titan.)

The article presents several interesting examples of people wanting to ascribe human traits to their robot assistants, and asks lots of neat philosophical questions that many of us might actually have to come up with answers to at some point in our lifetimes.

“The 2 million personal bots in use around the world in 2004 are expected to grow to 7 million next year,” it claims, but this makes me wonder: Where are all of these robots they’re talking about? They can’t all be vacuum cleaners, can they? I’d prefer to imagine 7 million ASIMOs walking around myself, as spooky at that might initially be.

Humans respond so readily to Kismet, created by Cynthia Breazeal, that graduate students working in the lab at night have been known to put up a curtain between themselves and the bot, Brooks reports. They couldn’t stand the way it seemed to gaze around and stare at them. It broke their concentration. These humans are as sophisticated about robots as anyone on Earth. Yet even they are freaked by Kismet’s lifelike behavior.

And, of course, whenever I start thinking about the topic of futuretech, I get to wondering: where the hell are the flying cars we’ve been promised in popular fiction for so long? This in turn brings to mind Avery Brooks lamenting the lack of flying cars in the early 21st century in a classic IBM commercial:

There are signs that we might actually get flying cars some day, although “as of spring 2007, no flying prototypes exist,” so we’ve probably got quite a wait still ahead of us. I expect it’ll take even longer for them to get personalities, unfortunately.

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Posted by mike in Film,Religion,Science at 10:12 pm on November 27, 2006

There have been several times in my life when I’ve been inspired to write something, but been beaten to it by somebody else. The best example of this is Kevin Smith, who has done it twice: first with Clerks, and then again with Chasing Amy. I have no way of proving that I thought of writing a screenplay in either case that would address the same subject matter in roughly the same manner. I furthermore make no assertions that what I would have produced, had Kevin not beat me to it on both occasions, would have been anywhere near as inspired and well done as his films were.

I’ve gotten away from my screenwriting aspirations in recent years, while trying to develop something that resembles a professional career. I’ll get back to said aspirations soon enough, I hope; in fact, part of the reason for starting this weblog was to try to return to the habit of writing out my thoughts in a manner that is at least a bit more planned out than daily conversations or message board arguments, in the hopes that I would eventually progress to more serious writing projects.

The most recent example of somebody beating me to the punch by writing something that I not only think I would have written, but could have written, is Sam Harris‘s Letter to a Christian Nation. In it, Harris has concisely and convincingly pointed out the major flaws with our culture’s ridiculous adherence to archaic religious beliefs. What I admire most about Harris’s writing is that he cuts right to the chase, and pulls no punches. I’d like to think that if I were to address the same subject, I’d be able to keep my cool as much as he does, but in reality I have trouble convincing myself of this.

A great example of his ability to maintain not only his rationality but also his temper in the presence of complete blind ignorance is a recent debate between Harris and conservative radio talker Dennis Prager. I think that the debate itself serves as a fairly accurate portrayal and summary of the issues at hand. On one side, you have somebody trying to illustrate his rational point of view using elementary logic and reasoning. On the other, you have somebody who obviously is unwilling to look at things in a logical manner, even while he recognizes the necessity of framing his perspective as if it were based on something resembling logic.

My favorite part, though, is when Prager decides to turn to attacking our system of education:

“We therefore have two choices about how to interpret these data. One is that the more one knows, the less likely one is to believe in God. That is your interpretation. I have another interpretation—that contemporary higher education increases factual knowledge but decreases wisdom. With some exceptions, I believe that the more time one spends at a university the more foolish he or she becomes.”

I would hope that I am not being too presumptuous to suppose that the ridiculousness of this statement is apparent to anybody who would be reading my blog: the distinction (and implied contradiction) between “factual knowledge” and “wisdom”; the implication that “wisdom” equates to “belief in God”; the nonsensical conclusion that attainment of factual knowledge is equivalent to becoming foolish. The funniest part, though, is the sheer hypocrisy of it: Prager makes it a point to emphasize his own university tenure in the About Prager section of his website, referencing his time as a Fellow at Columbia University and his graduate work he did while there. One can only conclude that Prager himself has arrived at his faith by succumbing to the foolishness that was instilled in him while at the university.

This is pretty indicative, I think, of the kind of self-contradicting nonsense that comes out when somebody attempts to expound an inherently illogical position by farcically pretending to use logic and reason in support of his stance. Personally, I would have infinitely more respect for his position if he just said, “Look, I believe in God despite the fact that there is no logical reason to do so, and that’s that.” Of course, that’s not saying much, mathematically speaking.

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