Signing off

I've decided to wind up my guest blogging a couple days early, but I want to thank Mark Frauenfelder for offering me the unique and wonderful opportunity to post here. Thanks Mark.

If any BB readers wish to contact me I am easily findable through

--Charles Platt Read the rest

Easy Encryption

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Back in the mid-1990s, the successful fight for the right to use strong encryption seemed hugely significant. Some of us believed that within just a few years, all emails would be encrypted, and no one would be able to snoop on anything. (Of course, this would have interfered with the evolution of Gmail, since Google scans messages to create its context-sensitive ads.)

Strong encryption from trusted sources such as PGP and TrueCrypt has been available free for more than a decade, now, yet people seem to find that installing it and using it is just complicated enough to be a disincentive. In any case, many people seem to feel that they’ll never be hassled, even while grandmothers are hauled into court for copyright infringement and federal agencies gain increasing power to monitor just about anything.

Well, at least there’s no excuse anymore not to encrypt external hard drives. (Note, I'm not an expert on this stuff, just a consumer, and there may be other products that I don't know about.) Maxtor’s BlackArmor series has strong encryption built into hardware, so that all data is automatically protected as you save it. As soon as power is disconnected from the drive, it secures itself. Now you don’t have to worry if you travel with sensitive corporate data (or other embarrassing materials) and you leave an external storage device behind in an airport or hotel room.

This system is password-activated, not fingerprint-activated. I dislike the idea of fingerprint scanning, because I do a lot of shop work, and have been known to cut a finger. Read the rest

Name this Insect

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

No doubt some BB reader can name this far-fetched creature, which I found pinned to some styrofoam in a display case at the Butterfly Museum in Boca Raton, Florida. Picture yourself camping somewhere in the wilderness and seeing one of these six-inch weirdos zooming into your tent. I have to wonder why such a thing should evolve the way it did, especially with that weird extra pair of wings, like the canard on one of Burt Rutan’s composite airplanes.

The museum is a fun place to visit, allowing you to walk through giant cages full of freshly hatched butterflies. Watching people trying to photograph them is highly entertaining, since butterflies move chaotically while flying and then, as soon as they land, most of them close their wings.

It was much easier to take pictures of the insects that were dead. Read the rest

Climatic Heresy: 4.

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Here are two more books that examine climate change from other perspectives. They differ in their tone and message, but they’re both intelligently written.

An Appeal to Reason by Nigel Lawson is a small but heavily referenced overview by a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Energy, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK. Lawson is not a scientist but does understand politics, and he sees a lot of it in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which is the primary source of global-warming projections. If you want an erudite introduction by a shrewd observer, this is a good place to start. This book almost failed to find a publisher because, as one editor put it, it defies the “prevailing orthodoxy.” Contrary to allegations, Lawson inists that he receives no money from special interests.

Cool It by Bjorn Lomborg. Formerly an avid Greenpeace supporter, Lomberg wrote his previous book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, after becoming convinced that many strategies advocated by environmentalists do not have a good cost-benefit ratio if we are primarily concerned with saving lives and fighting the spread of disease. Cool It uses a similar economic approach. He argues convincingly that if world hunger and mortality are our priorities, an immediate reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is a foolish way to allocate resources. Unfortunately this kind of economic assessment tends to be ignored in favor of emotional appeals featuring pictures of polar bears, raising the depressing possibility that people may care more about arctic animals than about third-world human beings. Read the rest

Climatic Heresy: 3

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

In the 1990s an attorney named Christopher Horner was appropriately disconcerted when Enron, his employer at the time, told him to lobby in favor of restrictions on carbon emissions during negotiations relating to the Kyoto treaty. Enron liked the idea of regulations that would raise the operating costs of coal-fired power stations, because it wanted to make more money from its pipelines supplying gas. (Natural gas creates about half as much CO2 as coal per unit of energy released, according to DoE figures.)

Thus one of the most despised corporations in history shared the interests of environmental activists. In fact, according to Horner, Enron donated almost a million dollars to the Nature Conservancy. Meanwhile some provisions of the Kyoto treaty were endorsed by BP (which owns companies that manufacture solar power systems) and General Electric (which has a substantial interest in wind power).

Massive government programs always create a feeding frenzy among large corporations. If we fight a war against climate change, how many new Halliburtons will profit from it? How many are exaggerating the consequences of warming right now, simply to further their own interests?

Christopher Horner’s recent book, Red Hot Lies, is an angry denunciation of “green” lobbyists who have a vested interest in subsidies for alternative energy. High on his list is Al Gore. He wants to know how Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection came up with $300 million for a public education campaign, and what the donors of this huge sum may be hoping to gain in return. Read the rest

Climatic Heresy: 2

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

The graph above shows surface temperatures in the Sargasso Sea, a 2 million square mile region of the Atlantic Ocean, with time resolution of 50 to 100 years, ending in 1975, as determined by isotope ratios of marine organism remains in sediment at the bottom of the sea. I copy-pasted this from the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. Note that ocean areas are in some ways a better guide to planetary temperature than land areas, since urban sprawl creates localized hot spots, and scientists don’t agree on how much allowance should be made for this.

Skepticism about human-caused climate change has been expressed by more than 30,000 people in the sciences, all of whom have signed a document which you can find at It states in part that “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.” More than 9,000 of the signatories state that they have PhDs. The petitions have been trivialized and ridiculed, but if you actually visit the site, you will find that it takes pains to answer the various allegations.

Here’s a quote from Robert Carter, an Australian palaeontologist, stratigrapher, marine geologist, and environmental scientist:

“Is there an established Theory of Climate? Answer: no. Do we understand fully how climate works? No. Is carbon dioxide demonstrated to be a dangerous atmospheric pollutant? Read the rest

Climatic Heresy: 1

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

At the risk of stimulating outrage, I’m going to ask some questions about climate. No one disputes that planetary warming occurred during the second half of the twentieth century; the question is whether it was primarily anthropogenic (i.e. caused by human beings). The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that the debate on this issue is over. I’m not so sure anymore.

I'll begin with The Deniers by Lawrence Solomon, which I regard as the most important book that I read in 2008.

Solomon is an old-school environmental activist who dislikes nuclear power, wants to save rainforests, yet started to doubt the environmental party line on climate change after he made contact with a series of highly credentialled scientists, all of whom have been labelled with the pejorative term deniers. They accept that warming has occurred, but don’t believe it’s as simple as the IPCC makes it seem to be.

Several are convinced that our lack of knowledge about factors affecting cloud formation in the upper atmosphere makes an accurate warming model impossible. Many feel that recent warming is just a cyclical recovery from a “little ice age” and may have little to do with human activity. Some conjecture that we are already starting to descend into a new cooling period which will be far more difficult to deal with than warming. Whether they’re right or wrong is debatable; the point is that a debate does exist, and those on the skeptical side should not be ignored, ridiculed, smeared, or threatened with career damage. Read the rest

Arizona continued

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

The Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona offers the only opportunity you’ll ever have to inspect a Titan II missile close-up. It’s an astonishing memorial to the paranoid insanity of the Cold War years. The control room and its systems are protected inside a giant concrete pod with walls three feet thick, located entirely underground and mounted on giant springs so that (in theory) the vintage electronics could survive shock waves of a first strike and would still be able to launch a retaliatory salvo.

My favorite souvenier from the installation is The Titan Missile Pantry Cook Book, containing recipes to make life more enjoyable underground during long waiting periods before, and perhaps after, armageddon.

Check the museum web site for tour dates—and take note of an exciting opportunity for younger visitors: “Complete the games and activities in the Junior Missileer Booklet, and when you’re done, you’ll receive a Junior Missileer Badge and a Certificate that certifies your qualification as a Junior Missileer. It’s fun, and you’ll learn a lot too.”

Even now, fifty years after the Cold War, something about nuclear weapons encourages text that reads like a parody of itself. This of course was Stanley Kubrick’s great discovery, when he realized that Dr. Strangelove should be written as a comedy. Read the rest

Homage to Arizona: Continued

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

In April 2005, while driving with my significant other on Arizona back roads near the California border, we noticed some clumps of strange orange stuff, like candy floss, tangled in normal vegetation. Some kind of fungus? A parasitic plant? A toxic byproduct of industrial waste? An alien life form scattered by black helicopters? We never did figure it out. It was fibrous, like string, and seemed to have no root system of its own. It appeared within a matter of days and was gone by the end of the summer. During ten years of traveling around, Arizona, I've never seen anything like it.

Read the rest

Driving on the Railroad

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

The North American Rail Car Operators Association (NARCOA) is an affinity group for people who own railroad motorcars (such as the one above) and like to drive them on a railroad once in a while. These antique vehicles were once used by railroad companies for track inspection but are now obsolete, having been superseded by Hyrail vehicles, which are everyday trucks with additional railroad wheels that can be lowered on demand.

The deluxe customized model above was advertised for $35,000 at the club web site, but generally you can buy a working model for $10,000. Most are sold with trailers so that you can haul them behind your pickup truck when you journey around the country to NARCOA meets.

Here’s an excerpt from the club’s FAQ:

“With permission of the railroads, members operate their motorcars on excursions ranging from one day to over a week in almost all parts of the U.S. and Canada. Many of these excursions are in remote and very scenic areas that are impossible to see from the highway and thus provide an experience not available by other means of transportation. . . . We rent the tracks for our outings from the many small railroad companies which have taken over former branch lines of the major carriers (as well as some large railroads in the U.S. and Canada). Often smaller railroads operate trains only on weekdays, so a group of motorcars on a Saturday or Sunday does not cause the coordination problems the larger lines would have.” Read the rest

Yesterday's Tomorrow

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Two of my favorite books are titled Modern Inventions and Our Wonderful World of Tomorrow, both written during the 1930s by A. M. Low, a British eccentric who was what we would now describe as a “futurist.” Low made some fairly good guesses, but of course he couldn’t imagine the consequences of quantum leaps in technology such as the transistor or the jet engine. This led him to make failed predictions such as floating islands at intervals across the major oceans, where piston-engined passenger aircraft would land to refuel while winging their way around the globe. I would love to have seen those islands.

My father, who was an automotive engineer, used to know A. M. Low, and received strange and wonderful Christmas cards from him each year. The most memorable one enclosed a transparent acrylic rod. When you placed the rod against some lines of text printed in the greeting card, the rod acted as a lens, turning text upside down. Strangely, however, every other line in the card was not turned upside-down. I was about 12 years old at a time, and was utterly fascinated by this mystery.

In retrospect I can guess at one possible answer. Maybe Low managed to write a poem in which alternating lines contained letters B C D E H I K O and X (which look the same when upside-down) and letters A F G J L M N P Q R S T U V W Y and Z (which don’t). Read the rest

Life at Wal-Mart

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

As I begin my second week here as a guest blogger, I'm going to risk venturing into a couple of contentious political areas. My aim is not to provoke dissent; I simply feel that some stories are not being told.

The picture above is of me, finishing my shift at the world’s largest retailer. How did I move from being a senior writer at Wired magazine to an entry-level position in a company that is reviled by almost all living journalists?

It started when I read Nickel and Dimed, in which Atlantic contributor Barbara Ehrenreich denounces the exploitation of minimum-wage workers in America. Somehow her book didn’t ring true to me, and I wondered to what extent a preconceived agenda might have biased her reporting. Hence my application for a job at the nearest Wal-Mart.

Getting in was not easy, as more than 100 applicants were competing for fewer than 10 job openings. Still, I made it through a very clever screening quiz, then through a series of three interviews, followed by two days of training. I felt ambivalent about taking advantage of the company’s resources in this way, but I was certainly willing to do my part by working hard at the store, at least for a limited period.

The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. Read the rest

Communication with Cats

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

When I owned a pickup truck, my cat Eddie used to enjoy sitting on top of the instrument panel, under the windshield, where he watched the highway while I drove. I was commuting to a regular job at that time, and if I altered my everyday route even slightly, Eddie would look at me and meow, indicating that he had noticed the change in our routine—although whether he approved or disapproved was hard to determine.

After some vandals stole the pickup truck and urinated into the gas tank before abandoning it, I bought a car. Its more steeply raked windshield allowed insufficient room for Eddie to sit under it, so, I made a shelf for him which hooked onto the hardware associated with the sun visor, and I stapled a piece of doormat to the shelf so that Eddie could dig in his claws. I suspect that a primary reason why many cats dislike riding in cars is that they don't feel entirely secure on a moving object if they cannot use their claws effectively.

The next time we went for a drive, Eddie located himself on the shelf without any prompting. He seemed to understand its purpose immediately. This photo was taken outside my Florida house when he was waiting for our morning commute to begin.

In my experience, if you treat a cat as “just an animal,” that's how he will behave. He will sense that you are not really trying to understand him, and naturally enough, he will give up trying to communicate. Read the rest

Artificial Life

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Rudy Rucker, whose online zine Flurb is worth a look, introduced me to the fascinating world of cellular automata back in the 1980s. They're so easy to program, even I can do it. This frame, resembling a garden of virtual flora, is one of my favorites. When the program is running, the bright pieces grow up the screen. As in many cellular-automata representations, cells change color as they age, in this instance cycling from white through yellow, red, and blue, to black.

Rudy wrote some fairly ambitious cellular software in collaboration with John Walker of Autodesk, now available for free download from For Java-enabled automata that you can watch online, try

I used to sell my programs as shareware, but never got around to updating them for the Windows environment. Read the rest

The Strange Realm of Infra-Red: 4

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Just one more sample. While agreeing that infra-red photography can be a gimmick (similar to false color, oversaturation, and many Photoshop effects) I like the way it seems to reveal another world that is inherent in our own.

The desert topography, the black sky of an infra-red photograph, and the clarity of desert air combine to create a landscape that looks like a tabletop model. This picture was taken from an overpass just west of Phoenix on Interstate 10. Read the rest

The Strange Realm of Infra-Red: 3

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

While driving through Dallas, I stopped to visit the museum in the old Texas Book Depository building from which Lee Harvey Oswald took a shot (or two, or three) at John F. Kennedy. Two X marks have been etched into the asphalt, marking the locations where the president was hit. I was fascinated to see tourists running out into the road to have their pictures taken while standing on an X.

The Book Depository looks especially good to me in infra-red

The ruthlessly modern, official Kennedy memorial, by architect Philip Johnson, is located just a couple of blocks away, but relatively few people seem to go there, perhaps because they are more excited by the guilty thrill of an assassination site which shamelessly admits what it is.

Another possibility is that Johnson’s memorial is shunned because it looks like a giant urinal. (Just my opinion of course. YMMV.) Read the rest

The Strange Realm of Infra-Red: 2

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Even this very humble shack in Louisiana looks mysteriously beautiful when the visible spectrum is blocked. If we had infra-red sunglasses, the world might appear a lot more pleasant than in its more usual shades of dull-brown, muddy-green, and dirt-gray. Read the rest

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