Internet via the power line

The last hotel I was in offered wired internet to all the rooms. The real cool thing was that they didn't do this through a cable or DSL modem. Instead, the internet signal traveled via the power lines, so that the modem was simply plugged into the wall socket:
Over cocktails, I tried to explain the internet delivery mechanism to another guest at the hotel but she was not a tech-nerd and couldn't grok how cool this was.
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A griddle to make biriyani

What's a pizza griddle pan good for, besides making pizza?
Making biriyani. Heat the griddle and use it to cover the pot so that the rice cooks from the top and the bottom. (The traditional way to finish a biriyani off is to use indirect heat, to place hot bricks all around a clay pot. Needless to say, your favorite neighborhood Indian restaurant does not do that. They probably use an oven).
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Teaching math the way art is taught

A friend's Facebook post pointed me to this amazing article by Paul Lockhart where he laments that mathematics is not taught the way art is ... students do not learn math by figuring out how to solve problems; instead, they learn to manipulate symbols without intuition:
If your art teacher were to tell you that painting is all about filling in numbered regions, you would know that something was wrong. The culture informs you— there are museums and galleries, as well as the art in your own home ... But if your math teacher gives you the impression, either expressly or by default, that mathematics is about formulas and definitions and memorizing algorithms, who will set you straight?
The reason to learn math is not because it's a tool used by scientists and engineers, he argues:
I’m merely suggesting that just because something happens to have practical consequences, doesn’t mean that’s what it is about. Music can lead armies into battle, but that’s not why people write symphonies.
And anyway, the formulae and facts which is how we learn math are useless devoid of context:
Sometimes we want one plus one to equal zero (as in so-called ‘mod 2’ arithmetic) and on the surface of a sphere the angles of a triangle add up to more than 180 degrees. There are no “facts” per se; everything is relative and relational. It is the story that matters, not just the ending
Read the whole thing.

Bogus list of best places to eat

The Guardian has a list of the 50 best foods in the world and where to get them. How can list of the best places to eat food not include Singapore? And the best foods not include Mee Goreng or black pepper crab?

Why is the best South Indian vegetarian restaurant in Delhi? Delhi? That's like saying the best barbeque is in Washington DC.

Linking healthcare to employment is a bad idea

The health care bills currently under consideration do very little for Americans who are covered under their employers' plans. It gives them peace-of-mind, yes, in case they change jobs, get fired or decide to strike out on their own -- they will always be able to get health insurance. But if you remain at your job, then health care reform does very little for you -- current laws already prevent insurance companies from considering preexisting conditions when offering tax deductible policies.

This is by design -- Obama promises that "if you like your insurance you can keep it". People who like their insurance fall into two categories:
  1. The oblivious: Because employers pay for the plans, most Americans don't feel the impact of rising health costs. Few people realize that the reason their take-home income is stagnating is that their company is taking their raise and using it to pay their health insurance premium.
  2. The invincible: You don't know how good your insurance is until you actually have to use it. I collapsed at an airport a few years ago and had to be taken by ambulance to a nearby (25 miles away) hospital. The bill for the ambulance ride was $1000! My insurance company (Aetna, Delta or Blue Cross, I forget which one my employer had at the time) paid just $300, saying the ambulance was "out of network". I had to pay the rest. So much for the $400/month my employer pays.
So this aversion to change, from a politician who ran on the banner of "Change", makes no sense. It just means that health care reform is not going to do anything for us middle class folks earning wages.

Oregon Senator Wyden wants to remedy that and force all employers to offer a low-cost, high-value plan. I think he intends that this plan would be the public option: a plan that will take all comers, emphasize preventive medicine and have a large enough buying power so as to pay Medicare rates. But unfortunately, the mechanism he proposes won't work. He would impose:
one requirement on employers — that they offer their employees a choice of at least two insurance plans, one of them a low-cost, high-value plan. Employers could meet this requirement by offering their own choices. Or they could let their employees choose either the company plan or a voucher that could be used to buy a plan on the exchange. They could also simply insure all of their employees though the exchange, at a discounted rate.
The problem is that he is allowing employers to offer their own choices. That simply won't work.

You may remember that the Bush administration had a similar idea to reform health care -- make consumers realize the cost of health care by forcing employers offer high-deductible insurance plans and allow employees to save the premium difference into health care accounts that they could control. The idea was that if you are going to pay a hospital fee out of your pocket, you'd be a better informed customer. The idea was sound, but the execution was poor. My employer did offer a high-deductible HRA but its premium was higher than the normal plan. Now, why would you buy an insurance plan with a $5000 deductible if you could get an insurance plan with a $1000 deductible for less? The insurance companies did this because they were afraid that all their healthy customers would migrate to the high-deductible plan otherwise, leaving them with an unhealthy pool. Allowing the employers to offer the low-cost high-value plan will lead to the same fate -- the choice will not be a choice any more.

Health care should be independent of employment. I don't expect my employer to pay my car insurance premium. Why should they pay my health insurance premium? Instead, just raise my wages by the corresponding amount and let me buy health insurance on my own. But ... regulate the insurance plans so that they insure everybody and not just the healthy. And ... subsidize the plans for the poor so that they don't go to the ER for routine treatment.

What's a tax?

The Economist has a graph that lists effective tax rates around the world. It seems to indicate that India is a high-tax country and the US is a low-tax area. But there are two problems with this.

One: it's not a tax unless you pay it. The effective tax rate in India is supposedly 42% on someone making $100,000/yr. However, in India, only employees pay taxes. Tax compliance by small businesses is non-existent (and an income of $100,000/yr in India is unlikely to be wages).

Conversely, it's a tax regardless of how you pay it. Canada's tax rate of 31% includes health care coverage. Since health care premiums in the United States (counting both employee and employer contributions) is on the order of $5000/yr, the comparable US tax rate is not 26% but 31%. It's a wash.

American tax rates appear so low only because many things that are "included" in other countries are "a la carte" here. Indian tax rates appear so high only because everybody hides their real incomes.

Cleaning up at the county fair

S1's picture of the bird where he was experimenting with perspective won first prize in the 5-8 age group at the county fair:
S2's drawing (of tepees) placed second in the 4-year age group. As did her clay walrus. The wife's glazed ceramic plate placed first too.

The result gave each kid an argument for how they'd beat out the other. S1 said that since he got a first, he did better. But S2 countered that she got more prize money than him ($18 to his $10), so there!

Fortunately (for us), we didn't have to adjudicate. Outside the exhibits area, there were a bunch of rides and the kids forgot their argument and went on the rides.
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Joe Wilson: not there yet

Joe Wilson, the Congressman who shouted "You Lie!" at Obama (even though Obama was stating the truth), still has ways to go if he's going to catch up to Preston Brooks.

Preston Brooks was the South Carolina senator who took offense at Charles Sumner, a fellow senator who'd criticized President Franklin Pearce and other Southerners for their sympathy with pro-slavery violence in Kansas. So, he walked up to Sumner as he was writing at his desk in a mostly empty senate and hit him repeatedly with his cane. It took 3 years before Sumner recovered enough to return to the Senate.

And South Carolinans? What did they do? They did what they are now doing for Joe Wilson -- rally around him. The Richmond Enquirer said: "We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences. These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate must be lashed into submission."

The story gets better. Anson Burlingame, a senator from New England, called Brooks a coward and so Brooks challenged him to a duel which was accepted. Brooks backed out of the challenge though. Wikipedia drily observes: "Burlingame's reputation as a deer hunter and a deadly shot with a rifle could also have been a factor." As could the fact that the reason Brooks walked with a cane was that he had been shot in the leg in an earlier duel.

The Housekeeper and the Professor

"The Housekeeper and the Professor" by Yoko Ogawa is a revelation. Even more than most Japanese novels, the writing here is spare and haunting. Amazingly, the author draws out the psyches of the four main characters through their reaction to mathematics.

The housekeeper is a single mom living a hardscrabble life. The mathematics professor was involved in an accident and can only remember the last 80 minutes. So, everyday, he meets the housekeeper and has to get to know her all over again. He does this by talking math with her, and over time, (because, of course, her memory is longer than 80 minutes) she picks up a new way of looking at the world. He also takes a shine to her child and acts like a totally responsible caring adult in his company (the only man in the child's life). The three of them end up forming a tight family unit. Lurking in the background is the professor's sister-in-law whose relationship with mathematics and the professor is painted in just a few bold brush strokes (which I won't spoil).

In one sense, the book is about the capability of elegant mathematics to illuminate our inner selves. In another sense, it's about the role of memories and affection within families. Even if you don't normally read fiction or translations, make an exception for this book.

Al Franken draws a map

This is quite awe-inspiring, but curious minds (ok, just mine) need to know: what was Al Franken saying? Was he cracking jokes as he drew the map?


My favorite scene in Whistler: a garden built around a stream of milky glacier melt:
Migrating toads and slugs:
And trees with gnarled roots in fast-moving streams:

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Hitting the trifecta of worst possible siting

"NCAR", to me, always brings to mind their gorgeous location on the Front Range of the Rockies. So, when I went to a workshop at NCAR in Boulder a couple of weeks ago, I sort of expected to go to the mesa lab:
The taxi guy had other ideas, and to my disappointment, I was deposited in front of this non-descript building. It turned out to be part of NCAR too, but in some subtle mockery of their original location, this one is located in-front of a railway track, across the street from a munical airport and alongside a highway. In the area of worst-possible sitings, the Center Green campus seems to hit the trifecta!
This, being Colorado, though you only had to move a few paces to get a gorgeous view:

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Zipping in an unforeign land

It's easy to forget in Whistler, BC that you are not in a national park but merely in a very pretty city. This, below, is a view of Fitzsimmons Creek, the creek that separates Whistler from Blackcomb. I took it from a canopy in the rainforest.
This is what one of those canopies looks like from the ground. They're attached to these old-growth Douglas firs. What are those cables that lead from the canopies?
Harnessed to those cables, you can go zipping across the creek. Here I am doing the zip upside down. Loads of fun.
A blog entry about Canada would not be complete without my pet peeve about the country. It feels so unforeign, so ... American. Look at this sign about disappearing forests. Look closely. What country is on the map depicted? Really!

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