20 Years

•2009-06-04 • Comments Off on 20 Years

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It was 20 years ago today that the Chinese government killed 2,000 to 3,000 of its own citizens for the crime of demanding their own liberty. This iconic photo is about all that’s left of them.

George Orwell said, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” He’s all too right. Last century, an estimated 262 million people were murdered by their own government . That doesn’t include the hundreds of millions more killed by opposing governments during war.

Today ought to be a day to celebrate and promote human liberty, and to remember the abuses governments have heaped upon their subjects over the centuries.

So go find your own metaphor for the government tank pictured above.

Then put yourself in front of it.

The Fallacy of Locally Grown Produce

•2009-06-01 • Comments Off on The Fallacy of Locally Grown Produce

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Traveling SalesmanThe famous Traveling Salesman math puzzle is much more than just a fun game. It’s a dramatically illustrated way to understand the efficiencies involved in product distribution models. The problem works like this: Take a map and draw dozens of dots on it. The salesman’s task is to define a driving route that visits each dot, with the minimum driving distance connecting them all. He has to visit so many locations, and he wants to burn as little gas as possible. Obviously this is something that people are looking at harder than ever today.

There’s a very cool piece of freeware software that uses a genetic algorithm to solve the Traveling Salesman problem. It’s by Michael Lalena and is found at http://www.lalena.com/AI/Tsp/. Draw dozens (or hundreds) of dots, and the software will start with a random route and then refine it iteratively until it’s super efficient. It’s fun trying to stump it with a zillion dots in a pattern that appears to be hard to traverse, and then to see what a surprisingly simple curve it finds to visit them all.

Many years ago I did some consulting for a company that was then called Henry’s Marketplace, a produce retailer built on the founding principles of locally grown food. They had grown from a single family fruit stand into a chain of stores throughout southern California and Arizona that stuck to its guns and sold produce from small, local farmers. It’s a business beloved by its customers for its image of wholesome family goodness, community, and healthful products. (Henry’s has since gone through several acquisitions and is now called Henry’s Farmers Markets.)

Part of what I helped them with was the management of product at distribution centers. This sparked a question: I had assumed that their “locally grown produce” model meant that they used no distribution centers. What followed was a fascinating conversation where I learned part of the economics of locally grown produce. It was an eye-opening experience.

In their early days, they did indeed follow a true farmers’ market model. Farmers would either deliver their product directly to the store, or they would send a truck out to each farmer. As they added store locations, they continued practicing direct delivery between farmer and store. Adding a store in a new town meant finding a new local farmer for each type of produce in that town. Usually this was impossible: Customers don’t live in the same places where farms are found. Farms are usually located between towns. So Henry’s ended up sending a number of trucks from different stores to the same farm. Soon, Henry’s found that the model of minimal driving distance between each farm and each store resulted in a rat’s nest of redundant driving routes crisscrossing everywhere. What was intended to be efficient, local, and friendly, turned out to be not just inefficient, but grossly inefficient. Henry’s was burning huge amounts of diesel that they didn’t need to burn.

You can guess what happened. They began combining routes. This meant fewer, larger trucks, and less diesel burned. They experimented with a distribution center to serve some of their closely clustered stores. The distribution center added a certain amount of time and labor to the process, but it (a) still accomplished same-day morning delivery from farm to store, and (b) cut down on mileage tremendously. Henry’s added larger distribution centers, and realized even better efficiency. Today their model of distributing locally grown produce, on the same day it comes from the farm, is hardly distinguishable from the models of Wal-Mart or any other large retailer.

Here’s where it seems counterintuitive: If you look at the path traveled by any one given box of produce, it’s much longer than it used to be. It no longer travels in a single straight line from farm to store; it now travels the two long sides of the triangle in its path from farm to distribution center to store. But quite obviously, this narrow view omits the overall picture, where the stores are all stocked with produce that got there much more efficiently.

Locally grown produce is rarely efficient. Apply a little mathematics to the problem, and you’ll find that the ugly alternative of giant suburban distribution centers accomplishes the same thing – fresh produce into stores on the same day it’s picked – but with much less fuel burned.

This even extends to local farmers’ markets like you may have in your town, where all the family farmers personally bring their produce to the market to sell. Imagine a map with the market in the center, and the round-trip routes driven by all ~20 vendors radiating out from the market, like the arms of a starfish. Applying our Traveling Salesman model to this map, it’s clear that the farmers’ market is the least efficient model possible, if you are measuring efficiency in terms of delivery miles driven and gallons of diesel burned. To properly restructure this model to be as efficient as its proponents believe it to be, you’d drive a single truck in a calculated route to visit each farm in the morning, sell all the goods in a single store, and then discard or donate the leftover food (why double the driving miles to return perishable goods to the farmers?).

Don’t get me wrong, I love farmers’ markets. We go to our local one sometimes and it’s a fun family event for us. We love the giant, wonderful tomatoes and strawberries that you can’t get at the supermarket. I’d hate to see the experience replaced by the efficient alternative I just described, but then, I understand that farmers’ markets are more of a premium boutique community experience than an efficient (or “green”) way to buy food. The real reasons to enjoy your farmers’ market have nothing to do with it being somehow magically environmentally friendly. It’s the opposite.

Too often, environmentalists are satisfied with the mere appearance and accoutrements of environmentalism, without regard for the underlying facts. Apply some mathematics and some economics, and you’ll find that a smaller environmental footprint is the natural result of improved efficiency.

Netherlands runs out of criminals, has to shut prisons

•2009-05-29 • Comments Off on Netherlands runs out of criminals, has to shut prisons

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The Netherlands (where most drugs are cannabis is legal) has so few criminals that it is now faced with the choice of shutting down its prisons and laying off the staff, or importing criminals from other countries like Belgium on a contract basis:

During the 1990s the Netherlands faced a shortage of prison cells, but a decline in crime has since led to overcapacity in the prison system. The country now has capacity for 14,000 prisoners but only 12,000 detainees.

Deputy justice minister Nebahat Albayrak announced on Tuesday that eight prisons will be closed, resulting in the loss of 1,200 jobs. Natural redundancy and other measures should prevent any forced lay-offs, the minister said.

Netherlands to close prisons for lack of criminals

(via Futurismic)

Kid keeping a lending library of banned books in his her locker

•2009-05-26 • Comments Off on Kid keeping a lending library of banned books in his her locker

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Javier sez, “A teenager asks Yahoo! Questions whether maintaining a lending library in his school locker is illegal (as opposed of merely in contravention of school regulations). A school friend asked to borrow off him The Catcher in the Rye, one of the books in the banned list, and one thing led to another…”

This happened a lot and my locker got to overflowing with the banned books, so I decided to put the unoccupied locker next to me to a good use. I now have 62 books in that locker, about half of what was on the list. I took care only to bring the books with literary quality. Some of these books are:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
His Dark Materials trilogy
The Canterbury Tales
The Divine Comedy
Paradise Lost
The Godfather
Interview with the Vampire
The Hunger Games
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Animal Farm
The Witches
Shade’s Children
The Evolution of Man
the Holy Qu’ran
… and lots more.

Anyway, I now operate a little mini-library that no one has access to but myself. Practically a real library, because I keep an inventory log and give people due dates and everything. I would be in so much trouble if I got caught, but I think it’s the right thing to do because before I started, almost no kid at school but myself took an active interest in reading! Now not only are all the kids reading the banned books, but go out of their way to read anything they can get their hands on. So I’m doing a good thing, right? Oh, and since you’re probably wondering “Why can’t you just go to a local library and check out the books?” most of the kids are too chicken or their parents won’t let them but the books. I think that people should have open minds. Most of the books were banned because they contained information that opposed Catholicism. I limit my ‘library’ to only the sophmores, juniors and seniors just in case so you can’t say I’m exposing young people to materiel they’re not mature enough for. But is what I’m doing wrong because parents and teachers don’t know about it and might not like it, or is it a good thing because I am starting appreciation of the classics and truly good novels (Not just fad novels like Twilight) in my generation?

Give that kid a medal and a full-ride scholarship to the best library school in the country, please!

Is it OK to run an illegal library from my locker at school?

(Thanks, Javier!)

The Geek Guide to the Upcoming Fall TV Season

•2009-05-24 • Comments Off on The Geek Guide to the Upcoming Fall TV Season

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By Casey Lynn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

You may recall that last Fall we gave you the heads-up on some new, potentially geeky TV shows. Of course, as a whole that batch didn’t fare so well; Eleventh Hour, Life on Mars, My Own Worst Enemy, and Knight Rider (shocker!) all got the ax. Only two turned out to be hits: Fringe will be returning to NBC in the Fall with new cast member Leonard Nimoy, and the second season of True Blood begins airing on HBO on June 14.

Now that the major networks have announced their Fall line-ups, here’s hoping that this year’s new science fiction and fantasy shows will be more successful! Below is a rundown of some new shows that geeks might want to set their TIVOs for in the Fall, along with news on which old favorites will live to see another season.

Day One (NBC)

Described as a cross between Cloverfield and Lost, this new science fiction series is about a group of apartment dwellers in California dealing with the end of the world. It was created by Jesse Alexander, a former producer for Heroes, Lost, and Alias. The small band of survivors include a former marine, a computer genius from MIT, and a couple of obligatory hot girls, who have to try to rebuild society while unraveling the mystery of why the event took place. Also, this show isn’t starting until the Spring. Apparently NBC is looking to push this one hard because they’re putting it into the comfy Heroes time slot.

Eastwick (ABC)

Based on the 1987 film and/or the John Updike novel, this show is another version of The Witches of Eastwick. It stars Rebecca Romijn (remember the blue body paint and strategically-placed prosthetics in X-Men?), Lindsay Price (from the newly canceled Lipstick Jungle), and Jamie Ray Newman as suburbanites with supernatural powers. I can just hear the elevator pitch for this one: “It’s Harry Potter meets Desperate Housewives!”


In the recent tradition of classic Sci-Fi reboots, V is a new version of the 1983 miniseries about a race of aliens called “the visitors” that arrive on Earth. The reboot stars Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost as a Homeland Security agent and the gorgeous Morena Baccarin (Inara from Firefly) as the leader of the aliens, and at least the pilot features another one of Joss Whedon’s pet actors, Alan Tudyk. The producer is the same guy who did The 4400, but the producer of the original series is not involved. The trailer actually looks pretty good; maybe this one is stepping up to fill some of the void left by the end of Battlestar Galactica.

Vampire Diaries (CW)

This newest in the line of the CW’s teenage dramas is based on a series of YA novels that were published in the early 90’s. The story centers on a high school girl torn between two vampire brothers, one good and one evil. This one’s kind of a no-brainer, an attempt to cash in on the recent Twilight craze. Even the books’ author wrote another book in the series after a fifteen-year hiatus. The show will probably be a hit, but if you’re over the age of sixteen, I’d just skip it and watch True Blood instead.

Also, don’t forget: there are some new shows coming up from the SciFi channel as well.

And the news on the existing geeky TV fare out there? Along with Fringe and True Blood, Heroes (NBC), Chuck (NBC), Big Bang Theory (CBS), The Mentalist (CBS), Ghost Whisperer (CBS), Numb3rs (CBS), and Dollhouse (FOX – yay, that one was a nail biter!) have all been renewed. Meanwhile, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (FOX), Pushing Daisies (ABC), and Reaper (CW) have been canceled. And Medium, which was canceled by NBC, has been picked up by CBS.

For an idea of what the schedule looks like for now, TV Guide has a handy grid.

Related posts:

  1. The Geek Guide to New Fall TV
  2. Flight of the Conchords Season 2 Premieres Online
  3. Geek TV: BBT Takes on AoC

Boston Police Dept. will report all zombie attacks

•2009-05-22 • Comments Off on Boston Police Dept. will report all zombie attacks

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Boston Police Dept. will report all zombie attacks screenshot

This story can only be spuriously related to videogames by putting a Left 4 Dead spin on it, but it’s just too awesome not to write about. A short Twitter exchange between a concerned citizen and the Boston Police Department revealed just how dedicated the boys in blue can be, as they pledged to inform the world of any zombie attacks they come across.

Boston_Police: INJURED OFFICER: Officer from district 4 transported to Beth Israel Hospital, human bite to arm, suspect in custody.

willcady: @Boston_Police if that was a zombie bite, would you tell us?

Boston_Police: @willcady Yes, absolutely

With so many videogames based on zombies, we should be more prepared than anybody else to tackle the undead menace when it comes, and it will definitely come one of these days. As skilled as we may be at introducing flesh-eating ghouls to the business end of a shotgun, however, it’s great to know that the police will be looking out for us with the rotting apocalypse arrives.

Federal Judge Shuts Down Car Warranty Robocallers [Finally]

•2009-05-19 • Comments Off on Federal Judge Shuts Down Car Warranty Robocallers [Finally]

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Shared by shay

About fricking time!!!

“Oh hell no!” Federal District Judge John F. Grady told a marauding group of car warranty robocallers who managed to annoy pretty much everyone over the past few months. The judge slapped two Florida companies with an immediate restraining order and froze their assets, which should be enough to finally end those maddening robocalls.

Judge John F. Grady of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois issued a temporary restraining order against Voice Touch, as well as a business partner, Network Foundations, from making further calls. He also issued a separate temporary restraining order against Transcontinental.

Also named in the restraining orders are Christopher D. Cowart, the owner of Transcontinental; James and Maureen Dunne, the owners of Voice Touch; and Damian Kohlfeld, an owner of Network Foundations.

In freezing the companies’ assets, the court also appointed receivers over Transcontinental and Network Foundations to ensure that documents are preserved and assets are not dissipated. The restraining orders are in effect until a preliminary injunction hearing set for May 29.

Really, restraining orders? Injunction hearings? C’mon, judiciary! FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz called this “one of the most aggressive” telemarketing schemes ever. They’re witches, plain and simple. Burn them!

Judge blocks ‘robo-calls’ selling car warranties [AP]