Monday, March 31, 2008

The Bar

After 5 weeks or so of feeling like an utter failure, the Kansas Bar Association has informed me I have passed their little exam.

I think I'm still 7 forms and a few blood samples away from being a lawyer, but it's good to know the last couple years of debt accumulation might actually turn into some sort of paid work... someday.

Document Freedom

The OGB (not to be confused with ODB) recently had a post about Document Freedom. This is an issue I feel more passionately than articulate about. I'll do my best here to convey why I think it's important, expecting to lose most of you before the fourth paragraph.

For a long time now, a huge chunk of the world has used Microsoft Office. That works fine, short term. But in the long run, it can be risky.

When Microsoft puts out a new version of its software, it subtly changes the way the software reads the files and makes them into documents. This is a great way to keep the documents in line with current technology, and a great way to keep you updating your software. It wasn't too long ago I was collaborating with some fellow law students, when someone contributed a .docx file. None of us could read the damn thing. This is a great way to get us to either all buy Office 2007 (or yell at the person for using a bizarre format).

There's another side effect of this planned obsolescence. Enough revisions down the line, Microsoft could stop programming Microsoft Word to read Microsoft Word 1995 documents (and either stop making a Word 1995 reader for Windows 2012, or charge corporate customer prices for it).

(This sounds like a far fetched possibility, but Microsoft's Windows Media Player underwent some dramatic feature losses as it went from version 5.1 to 9.)

What happens when Microsoft outgrows its old formats? Your vital records you've been foolishly storing on a dusty floppy in your basement are lost forever. A brilliant inventor's early designs, gone. Historical or geneological records, no more. Government documents relevant for determining key ownership issues, vanished.

Open Document standards fight against these scenarios. Open Document Standards turn machine gibberish into text documents in ways that everyone can poke at and copy into their own programs, there are no hidden proprietary tricks.

Two years back, Massachusetts drew a little more attention to this issue when they began demanding all state documents be produced in open formats. Perhaps they were anticipating the lesson Hoboken, NJ learned a year later, don't leave vital public functions in the hands of a corporation (Hoboken learned this when a robotic parking garage licensed by the city refused to let anyone access their cars until the state paid the company its fee).

Fortunately, Microsoft has started bowing to the Open Document pressure, supporting the Open Document format, and (sort of)* opening their proprietary formats.

*(Is a promise not to sue the same thing as openness?)

Better still, there are plenty of other open format based options available for the general public. Some of these alternative word processors are free and high quality (arguably better than Microsoft products, especially for certain key uses). and Google Docs come to mind, but there are several others.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Mere Christianity

I read (listened to) Mere Chritianity this week.

I was impressed, overall. Lewis makes a number of careful arguments, generally designed to win over the religious skeptic (though the second half is dedicated to Christian morality). Lewis's arguments occasionally take the form of the dilemma. For example, he argues that Jesus readily and often suggested he was the son of God. In this way, Lewis insists the position that Jesus was merely a bright moral teacher is unavailable for the skeptic. Jesus must either be the son of God, or a lunatic. This strikes me as a risky argument to make to atheists.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Dark as your soul, the nanotubes are

The KC Star reported this morning that there now exists a new standard of black. While not funded by the military, this has definite uses by the military. Imagine rendering night vision goggles useless simply by wearing a particular uniform, or even making something appear where it is not.

There also include non-military uses, such as improving the efficiency of solar panels and increasing the range of telescopes for space exploration. Anything that makes solar power more practical is a good use of money in my book. Not that Harry Potter invisibility cloaks will seemingly be available at Sharper Image or Brookstone, does anyone have any requests for the next piece of science fiction/fantasy that they want scientists to develop?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Kansas Clean Energy

There are a few groups currently protesting the introduction of new coal power plants in western Kansas. The Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy (or NAMBLA), even has a video explaining why this is a terrible idea:

These groups are pushing for greater reliance on wind energy. Which is great, because everyone else agrees Kansas wind energy is basically a good idea.

Unfortunately, wind energy has unique problems as a power source. Mostly, this stems from the fact it is intermittent, by hour, by day, and by season. So to manage a grid, which requires predictable output, you need to supplement wind energy with some power source with an output that can be controlled. This could include hydroelectric, but not in Kansas. It could mean nuclear, but nuclear plants are actually most efficient when running at nearly full capacity. It'd be better for this purpose to pick a power source that is efficient even when operating at lower capacities. Oil is a great example of this, but in addition to being as messy or messier than coal, oil dependency isn't really en vogue at the moment.

So that leaves coal. If we go with coal, we have essentially two choices: the existing Kansas coal infrastructure, which was built before anyone cared about pollution, and is generally messy, falling apart, and with constrained capacity. Option two: we could build some new coal fired plants, utilizing the advances we've made in reducing the environmental impact for each ton of coal burned, and giving us a bit of room to grow.

GPACE and KCE are against new coal plants, which basically means they would prefer us to use the existing coal infrastructure. I have deep suspicions it's because they don't have the faintest idea what they are talking about.

Maybe I'm the one missing something, let me know in the comments.