Have you heard about McCain’s new ad? It’s on his main page, though there seems to be no way to direct-link to it. Somewhat bizarrely, it starts off with video of throngs of cheering Obama supporters, and calls him the biggest celebrity in the world, flashing images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. (By the way, Paris Hilton apparently had no knowledge she was being used in the ad; using one’s likeness in commercials is generally illegal, though I have no clue if political campaigns are exempted.)

It then goes on to say, “But is he ready to lead?,” before attacking Obama for opposing offshore drilling (I’ll save that rant for another time), but, more significantly, talks about his plan to raise taxes on electricity. Yipes, that’s bad! Raising taxes now? On electricity?!

There’s one problem, though. It’s not at all true.

Newsweek has a good article explaining where McCain’s campaign got the quote about Obama wanting to raise taxes on electricity. In an interview, he was asked, “Have you considered other funding sources, say taxing emerging energy forms, for example, say a penny per kilowatt hour on wind energy?” You can read the quote for yourself, but his answer was essentially that taxing renewable energy was an awful idea; taxing ‘dirty’ energy would make more sense, but even that isn’t the real solution to funding education. And yet, if you quote just one sentence from the middle with no context, you can make it seem like he’s saying that we need to raise taxes on electricity. Except that he was making the exact opposite point.

When Obama’s campaign criticized the ad as baseless FUD, McCain then went on to accuse Obama of “playing the race card.”

Unreasonably Much Information about Batteries

A few things I’ve learned about batteries lately:

  • Rechargeable AA’s are 1.2V, whereas normal alkaline AA’s are 1.5V. I didn’t believe this at first, but it’s usually printed right on the battery (in unreasonably small print). Where this generally matters is things that take many batteries (in my radio that takes 4, it’s the difference between 4.8V and 6V, for example), although most things will work just fine. (The rechargeables often have much higher capacities, though, so it works out… Unless you get something that’s very nitpicky about voltage.)
  • Almost all “normal” alkaline batteries: AA’s, AAA’s, C’s, and D’s, are 1.5V. The typical capacity of a AA is somewhere around 1,000-2,000 mAh, but did you know D-cells are often around 15,000 mAh? (Which is 15 Amps if I’m not mistaken, which means it’s got about 25WH of juice.)
  • As a consequence of the above, as far as voltage is concerned, you can use a AAA where a D is called for, or a D where a AA is called for, and they’re all the same voltage. It’s just that, as the batteries get bigger, they last a lot longer. (And good luck sticking four D-cells into your camera so it last longer…)
  • “Digital” devices will stop working below a certain voltage, which is usually before the battery is fully drained. Unlike a flashlight, which will just get dimmer and dimmer as the battery drains, electronics (think of cameras, for example) will continue working until there’s insufficient voltage, at which point they shut down. Thus the “dead” batteries from a camera (etc.) may continue to work in other things, like a remote control or a flashlight, though the flashlight would, of course, be dimmer than usual, since the batteries you put in would be low.
  • It’s possible to recharge alkaline batteries if they’re not completely flat. But don’t try this at home (unless you have the aforementioned charger or a desire to have boiling battery acid in your eyes): alkaline batteries were never meant to be recharged, so ordinary battery chargers will cause the batteries to overheat, ooze acid, or just flat-out blow up. But if you get a charger specially designed to recharge non-rechargeable batteries, it can be done!
  • There’s a AAAA battery, and it’s exactly what you think it is. The AAA is a smaller version of the AA, and consequentially doesn’t hold as much of a charge; the AAAA, then, is a smaller AAA which holds less of a charge. You probably haven’t seen many AAAAs, but that doesn’t mean they’re rare. That’s because…
  • 9V batteries are just 6 AAAAs in series. (That said, cut batteries open at your own risk!)
  • Your 12V car battery should actually be around 12.6V; a true 12V indicates that it’s largely drained. (Your car’s alternator should recharge the battery by providing ~13.8V when the car is running.)
  • There’s a lot of information out there about “memory effects” and such, and thus all sorts of confusing, contradictory information about recharging batteries. NiCd (Nickel-Cadmium) batteries suffered from a strong memory effect: if you routinely recharged them before they were completely drained, you would drastically decrease the charge the battery could hold. NiMH (Nickel metal hydride) batteries reduced this effect, and LiIons (Lithium Ion) eliminate it. Thus “topping off” most newer batteries isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. However…
  • Batteries still have a limited “charge cycle,” the number of times you can recharge them. Thus recharging your battery any time it dips below 95% charge is going to wear it out prematurely. Where this really matters is laptop batteries: you charge your battery fully, unplug and shut down to bring your laptop to a meeting, and then plug in there. This is murder on the battery. Some laptop battery systems are “smart” about this and will simply not bother charging a basically-full battery, but as a general rule, if you’re discharging a battery, don’t recharge it until it starts to get low…

Edit: An alkaline battery, being, well, alkaline, won’t actually leak acid, but potassium hydroxide.

Main Ideas

Do you remember standardized tests, especially in grade school and middle school, where they’d have you read a passage of text and you’d have to identify the “main idea” of the writing? Most of the choices were things that were in the passage, but only one of them was plausibly the main idea, whereas the rest were trivial details.

My takeaway from this WaPo* article? Phthalates is a really funny word, but virtually impossible to pronounce. You can make the “Ffff” sound, and the “Thhhh” sound, but there needs to be a vowel in between. The two sounds can’t be put together. It’d be like starting a word with “qb”—a bunch of valid letters strung together to form something nonsensical. (Realistically, I imagine it’s pronounced “Fih-thal-ates,” but note that the pronunciation adds in a vowel sound that’s not actually there.) If you attempt to pronounce the word, be careful that you don’t spit on anyone.

So what is the main idea of the article?

(a) Congress is considering banning phthalates, a toxic chemical in children’s toys.
(b) The move is seen as evidence of a shifting tide, swinging to the side of consumers and away from manufacturers.
(c) Phthalates is a really funny word.
(d) President Bush has said he opposes the bill banning poisonous children’s toys.

Hint: remember the old “When in doubt, guess C” adage about multiple-choice questions? They say that for a very good reason.

* I spent 5 whole days in Washington. I’m allowed to use the “WaPo” abbreviation, because I’m an insider now.


I keep hearing people on the right reiterating that “the surge worked,” so that withdrawing from Iraq would be surrendering. To me, this is a non sequitur.

First of all, there’s the simple question of why we’re at war. We went in as a pre-emptive strike against Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction. We took him out, and although we never did find evidence to support that he was building up his WMD arsenal, we did take out a cruel tryant. I’m a little unclear why we’re still there: the Iraqi threat has been neutralized, and Iraq’s got a sovereign government in place. Al Queda keeps coming to try to attack our troops, but the fact that our troops have become targets is hardly a reason to stay in Iraq.

Now here’s the thing! If the Iraqi government wants us to stay, I’m all for allowing our volunteer troops to keep helping them. But it’s being widely reported that they want us out. While I trust this was an unfortunate accident, it suggests that Iraq has wanted us to leave for some time: “It also bolstered calls from Iraqi politicians to pressure the American military to leave Iraq after this year, when a United Nations mandate expires, unless the United States agrees to permit its soldiers to be subject to criminal prosecution under Iraqi law for attacks on civilians.”

I’d ask: if we’re at war, who are we at war with? It’s the Iraq War, but we’re supposed to be helping Iraq. We’ve taken out Saddam, and most of the violence is directed at our troops: staying in Iraq isn’t going to fix anything.

It’s not “surrendering” or “giving up” to recognize that you achieved your goal a long time ago, and that all you’re doing now is making things worse. It sounds great to try to attack your opponent for that, but it’s simply not true.

Strange Call of the Day

As the massive thunderstorm came in, I flipped on the scanner to listen to local public safety, as there are often interesting things going on.

I don’t know the background, but here’s what I heard:

“Engines 2 and 3, you can cancel… The caller stated that he thought he had been struck by lightning, but he has not.”

I think that’s when you need an officer and an ambulance to respond for, as the Boston PD would call it, “a psych eval.”

Edit: These people tie with the people who called in a “past lighting strike” to report that they’d had a lightning strike in their yard earlier… They stated that their bugzapper, on their propane tank, had been struck earlier and exploded. I’m slightly confused about how their bugzapper got struck (maybe it was mounted to a tall tree, and the plug provided a nice ground?), more confused about why they thought it was a good idea to keep their bugzapper next to their propane tank, and most confused about why their home hasn’t been replaced by a large crater.

Nas’ Black President

Rapper Nas has a new song, Black President [obscene lyrics, NSFW]. I don’t give it high marks musically, but it’s interesting to me for two reasons. The first is that rap music actually addressing contemporary issues is rare. (Though it’s not entirely unheard of: Changes, for example.) The seconds is that the song is about Obama.

As I said, don’t set your standards too high if you listen to it, and don’t even waste your time watching the video, which seems to just be a montage of images of Nas. Do take care to read the lyrics carefully: a lot of people seem to miss the leading “They said…” and interpret the song as being against Obama. And the “Although it seems heaven-sent, we ain’t ready to see a black President” is actually from Tupac’s Changes, not an assertion that Nas is making.

What troubles me about the song:

Whats the black pres thinking on election night,
Is it how can i protect my life? Protect my wife? Protect my rights?

KKK is like what the f—, loading they guns up, loading up mine too,
Ready to ride ’cause I’m riding with my crew, he dies we die too

I read an article a while ago, citing absolutely no evidence, saying that there’s a persistent belief among African-Americans that Obama would be assassinated if elected. Hillary played into it, too, if inadvertently, both when some speaker in NH at a campaign event made a comment to the effect of, “Some have compared Obama to JFK, but let’s not forget what happened to him” (which Hillary denounced), but also when she said the same thing about Bobby Kennedy to explain why she was staying the race when it was clear she couldn’t win. It’s creepy how often it comes up, and then you add in the creepy amount of parallels to Lincoln…

And I find this snippet interesting, too:

Gotta do what we gotta do,
We ain’t got no governors comin’ through to help,
Anything we need, we gotta do for self,
New improved JFK on the way…

You may recall Kanye West’s spontaneous George Bush doesn’t care about black people remark during a Red Cross fundraiser, which then led to the (highly profane, thus NSFW) video, George Bush Don’t Like Black People song. While I’m not necessarily supporting the claim that Bush was overtly racist, I think it’s historically significant: not only was the whole Katrina event horribly mismanaged (the lyrics to the song include, “If it’d had been Connecticut, he’d have been there twice as fast”), but the whole deal with shooting looters (who were inevitably black) makes it entirely understandable that African-Americans may have felt a tad bit alienated.

Again, I’m hardly in agreement with everything put forth in the song, but I think it’s culturally significant. It’s not an advertisement or a campaign song, but just his perspective on the state of affairs. And I think it was interesting to look at.

Missing the Point

As I research candidates, I keep coming across a past proposed (U.S.) Constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m hardly for flag desecration, and would be appalled if any American did so. But do people not see the irony that the flag represents our freedoms as Americans, especially our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, and thus freedom of expression? To protect the flag from trampling, people are trying to trample the First Amendment. And I wouldn’t vote for anyone who values the flag itself more highly than what it stands for.

Wikipedia lists the times it’s come up as a Congressional vote, which is frighteningly often. There was H.J.RES.12 (“House Joint Resolution 12”) in 2007, introduced by PA’s John Murtha, with 70 consponsors: no local politicians cosponsored it, but Tom Tancredo and Marilyn Musgrave both supported it. It had a parallel in the Senate, but with only one sponsor. Neither bill appears to have come to a vote.

In the previous (109th) Congress, House Joint Res. 10 passed 286-130; the vote rolecall is here indicating that Charlie Bass and Jeb Bradley both voted for it. Its parallel, Senate Joint Res. 12, failed in the Senate, though it failed narrowly at 66-34; it’s not clear to me exactly what it needed, but it seems like it may have been one vote shy of passing with 2/3. Rollcall for that vote is here: Judd Gregg, John McCain, Harry Reid (!), and John Sununu all voted for it.


I’d posted before about my interest in picking up a low-capacity SSD card for my laptop, to drastically speed up disk access. (This actually has nothing to do with my recent posts about slow hard drives…)

Newegg seems to have a 64 GB SSD, 2.5″ SATA disk for $240 after rebate. Interestingly, from the specs, it seems as if not only are the seek times nill (on account of being solid-state), but the throughput exceeds that of your average hard disk. It won’t be released for four days, however. (Found via FatWallet, which also links to a review here.)

For those who aren’t major geeks, SSD is short for “solid-state disk.” Your ordinary hard drive is a bunch of spinning platters, whereas solid-state is the technology you see in a USB thumb drive or the like: no moving parts. The major benefit of SSDs thus far has been seek time: with a normal hard disk, the disk has to find the right spot on the disk and read it. Seek times average 8-10ms on most normal drives, but that adds up quickly with fragmentation or concurrent I/O. With an SSD, there are no moving parts, so “seek time” is pretty much non-existent: files are ready instantly. Early SSDs seemed to not be capable of moving as much data (in terms of MB/sec), though, meaing that SSDs were great for lots of small “random” access, but not so hot for handling big, contiguous files. Now, it’s looking as if OCZ has made SSDs kick butt over normal hard drives, and somehow offered the product at a fraction of what it normally costs. (This 64GB SSD is more normally-priced, to give you an idea of why they haven’t caught on so quickly.)

Incidentally, today I came across deals on two different notebooks for about $700, both of which have 4GB RAM, but 1280×800-pixel screens. The RAM is incredible, as are most of the other specs (though it’s 5400RPM drives), but I think you can do much better on the resolution.

Disk Throughput

I think I’ve alluded earlier to the fact that I’ve been trying to speed up some systems at home, and how some of them are really slow. (I’m starting to suspect Norton, actually, but more on that when I find out more.)

I just came across this spiffy application, which will write and then read a test file to measure disk performance. My laptop gets 27.1 MB/sec. (sequential) write, 41 MB/sec. sequential read, and 29.9 MB/sec. random reads. This was on a 1GB file; it wanted to do a ~4 GB file, but I really didn’t feel like spending the time. I suspect the goal is to make sure that it’s not being “fooled” by caching, but I figured 1GB was sufficient for that. Some of the results show read speeds of 600+ MB/sec., which is most definitely coming from cache. (That said, this is a more “real-life” test… Just don’t think you have a hard drive that does 800MB/sec. reads!)

Ancient Chinese Proverb

It is better to do something average than to wait until it is too late to do something spectacular.

I actually made that up, and I don’t mean to imply that you should aim for mediocrity. It’s certainly best to try to always do something spectacular. But sometimes I find myself spending forever trying to get something “just right,” before I realize that whatever I’m working on is losing relevance.

I can’t remember the source, but someone once told me that a book is never finished, but that the publisher eventually forces the author to send it to the presses.

Work towards something spectacular, but don’t lose sight of the fact that something spectacular that never gets released is, essentially, nothing at all.