Kitchen Chemistry: What are Calories, and Why Do We Eat Them?


At one time or another, we’ve all looked at a food package to determine whether a food is “healthy” or not, according to the nutritional doctrines of the day.  Often, the first (and perhaps only) thing that someone looks at on such a label is how many calories a food product contains per serving.  But what are calories?  Are they good or bad for us?

A calorie is a scientific unit of energy

What food packages label as “calories” are actually “kilocalories”, or a unit that equals 1,000 calories.  In chemistry (and other sciences), a single calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one milliliter of water one degree Celsius.  Wait…huh?

Momentarily setting aside the discrepancy in naming conventions, let’s paint a mental picture of what this “calorie” actually does.

Think of a centimeter.  A centimeter is about 1/3 of an inch.  Now, think of a square that’s 1cm on each side.  That’s a square centimeter because each side is equal, and all four sides are 1cm long.  To get the area of a square, you multiply the length–1cm–by the width–1cm–and get…you guessed it: 1 square centimeter (a unit of area).  Now, think of that same square and make it three-dimensional.  It’s now 1cm wide, by 1cm long, by 1cm tall.  That’s a cubic centimeter or “1cc”.  1cc equals 1 milliliter (1ml).

So, let’s take that 1ml (1cc) cube and fill it up with pure water.  Next, we’ll put a tiny amount of fuel under it and light it on fire, then wait for the temperature of the water to go up by one degree Celsius.  The moment it has done so, we put out the fire.  How much of that heat energy just went into the water?  Exactly one calorie.  How do we know?  Because by definition, 1cal is how much heat energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1ml of water by exactly 1 degree Celsius.  See?  We’ve just used a single calorie to heat water.  How scientific!

As it so happens, 1cc [1ml] of water weighs exactly one gram.  Isn’t the metric system neat?

Alright, I see that you’re wanting to know how this has anything to do with food.  The neat thing about a unit of energy (a calorie, for example) is that it doesn’t just measure heat energy.  It also measures kinetic energy, positional energy, nuclear energy, and–what we care about, right now–chemical energy.  The amount of chemical energy that our bodies can extract from a morsel of food is what is being measured and written down on the food label.  More properly, this is chemical potential energy: energy that’s stored in chemical bonds that can be re-arranged to make heat, movement, and other fun stuff happen.

Why, then, does the label use kilocalories instead of calories as its unit of measurement?  Creatures with over 15 trillion cells in our bodies, each of which need energy to survive, we need a great deal of energy to keep living.  So, any meaningful measure of nutritional energy will have to be in the thousands.  1,000 calories (“small calories”) = 1 “large calorie” or kilocalorie, which means that we don’t have to put a whole bunch of zeroes at the end of every “calories per serving” number on a cereal box.  That saves space and is easier to read.

Why do we need chemical energy to live?  Because without it, our cells would be rendered immobile–unable to respirate, unable to repair themselves, unable to move oxygen and water around, etc.  When our cells stop moving, we’re dead.  The tricky thing is that we can’t just pump heat into our bodies and have our cells magically turn that into energy; our cells are combustion reactors, not very unlike the engine of a car.

Wait, what?

Yes, you read that right.  An automobile takes chemical energy from molecules called hydrocarbons and breaks the chemical bonds to release energy.  How does a car do that?  First, it takes a bit of energy to get the process started.  This is called activation energy.  The battery sends a jolt through the system (with the help of the starter, spark plugs, etc.) that lights vaporized gasoline on fire.  That little explosion makes the pistons move, which cause the wheels to spin, and also gives parts of the engine enough kinetic energy to fill the reaction chambers with gasoline and light it on fire.  This produces a chain reaction, because each little reaction makes another reaction happen (until you break the “chain” by cutting power to the ignition process–A.K.A. “turning it off”).

Our cells do basically the same thing.  We have a chain reaction already happening inside each and every one of our cells since the moment of conception.  Our mother’s womb feeds those cells chemical energy in the form of sugar and other things–all of which are hydrocarbons–and that lets our cells keep going while having enough energy left over to make more cells.  Eventually, we get big enough to survive on our own, and voila! we are born!  Every day, we put more food into our bodies because that food is made up of hydrocarbons that our body knows how to break down.  We have enzymes, symbiotic microbes, digestive juices, and other things that let our bodies disassemble a wide variety of chemicals and turn them into the stuff that our cells run off of.

In fact, the chain reaction that keeps us alive is part of the same chain reaction that started life on this planet!  Think about that for a moment.  If, at any point between the creation of the first primitive lifeform and when we were born, that chain reaction had completely stopped, our mothers would have passed away before giving birth to us.  Isn’t that remarkable?

If cars use gasoline for fuel, what do our cells use?

Short answer: a simple sugar called glucose.  Most single-celled organisms love sugar because it’s the easiest thing to light on fire and get energy from.  In human cells, we have a little cell-within-a-cell called a mitochondria that does the hard work of lighting stuff on fire without making us explode and die.  Our cells take in glucose, burn it with oxygen, and use the energy that produces to turn a low-energy chemical (adenosine diphosphate) into a high-energy chemical (adenosine triphosphate), which then goes around and deals smaller, safer amounts of chemical energy to its “customers” in other parts of the cell.  That lets the cell move around and do its job for the rest of the body–whether that be passing around oxygen (red blood cells), killing invaders (white blood cells), contributing to larger movement (cells that are part of muscle tissue), storing energy for later (fat cells), and whatever else our bodies need to do.

The average adult requires 2,000 kilocalories of digestible chemical energy per day to avoid cell death

It’s true: if we don’t get enough calories, our cells die.  We need about 2,000,000 calories (2,000 kilocalories) per day to make sure that, at the end of the day, we still have the same number of cells that we started with.  Of course, if we spend a lot of energy on exercise, we need more than that to maintain the same number of cells; and if we don’t get much exercise, we’re spending less energy, and don’t need to eat as much chemical energy to keep us going.  If we want to lose weight, that means that we’re actively trying to make some of our excess cells die by not feeding them enough.  When cells are in distress, they release lots of chemicals that tell our brains (comprised of nerve cells) and other parts of our bodies that something is very wrong.  In other words, it hurts.  This can manifest in tiredness, moodiness, etc.  Our bodies are built to gather more energy and make more cells, not to lose energy and have cells die.

Up until the last 100 years or so, this wasn’t an issue because we didn’t have reliable food supplies, and therefore had very little capacity to overeat.  Food was too scarce, too expensive, and required us to spend a lot of energy to get it.  That kept us skinny.  Now, our food supplies are pretty awesome, and starvation is basically gone in the USA.  (Yes, it still happens, but almost never on the grand scale, which may be the most remarkable achievement in our species’ survivability, ever.)  We can now sit at a desk all day, spending almost none of our stores of chemical energy, and still have cupboards and refrigerators stocked full of food!  We eat because our bodies tell us it’s “time”, and if we get a little too much, our bodies say, “That’s great!  We won’t starve, now!”

Evolution is a little behind the times–and that’s why we get fat: our bodies are telling us to eat as much as we can so we don’t die of hunger, but we have so much food available that we can literally kill ourselves by eating too much.  From a biological standpoint, that’s a very good thing…mostly.

So, to finally answer the question in the title: we will die if we don’t get enough calories, and that’s why we eat them.  We read labels and diet because, for the first time in human history, literally billions of people have the unique problem of being so wealthy, in terms of food availability, that we can eat ourselves to death.  How many calories are too many?  That depends on your body’s size (how many cells you’re currently maintaining); the amount of chemical energy you’re spending on a daily basis (A.K.A. “exercise”); whether you want to gain weight, lose weight, or stay the same weight; and the unique quirks of your particular body’s metabolic process.  (Each person manages their chemical energy slightly differently, and as a result, some people can seem to “eat anything and stay slim”, while others can’t.)

Fun fact:The kinds of cells that die first are somewhat dependent on what you’re (not) eating.  Your brain and nerves love fat.  Your muscles love protein.  Everything loves carbohydrates (simple and complex sugars like glucose, fructose, sucrose, and starch–which is made of glucose and/or fructose).  Every diet has a trade-off.  Don’t believe anyone who tells you that a diet is risk-free.

The important thing to remember is this: (calories in) – (calories out) = (net gain or loss).  If the net gain or loss is 0, then you’ll stay the same weight.  More means you’ll gain weight, and less means you’ll lose weight.

Finally, please be aware that our bodies need things that aren’t caloric (don’t contain chemical energy that our bodies can burn) like minerals (iron, magnesium, etc.), vitamins, amino acids (what proteins are made of), and so on.  The only way you’re going to get everything you need is by consuming the right amount of calories (not too little or too much) from a wide variety of sources that also contain other stuff that you need.  If you eat nothing but starch, fat, and sugar, you’re going to get very sick, indeed.  Follow the age-old wisdom of eating a little bit of everything in moderation and not being too picky.

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When It’s “Worth It”: The Ratio of Human Interaction


There’s an inherent calculation of human interaction that goes something like this:
 
(How much they improve your life) : (How much trouble a person causes you)
 
Put another way, it’s a ratio of Benefit:Cost or Happiness:Trouble.
 
Most people phrase this in an emotional context, but the meaning is ultimately the same. Personally, I find a simple mathematical ratio easier to convey than the amount of prevarication it would take to express such a thing emotionally.
 
When that ratio is consistently greater than 1:1, that’s a person who is worth “keeping”. If it’s only greater than 1:1 in some situations, then those are the only situations when it’s worth interacting with that person. When that ratio is consistently less than 1:1, it’s time to let that person go, and avoid him/her as necessary.
 
Naturally, foresight and personal preference comes into play, here. If a person is mostly troublesome, right now, but you foresee him/her being beneficial in the long term, then it might be worth keeping them around. If you’re OK with 1:1, even if it’s never greater than that, then that’s your threshold for deciding whether it’s “worth it”. Most people require a ratio much greater than 1:1 to consider it “worth it”. People with large circles of close friends that they consistently have problems with are less picky (requiring a lower ratio to be satisfied); whereas those who only really want to hang out with a few people who are particularly valuable to them are more picky (requiring a higher ratio to be satisfied). I’ve noticed that this level of “pickiness” directly corresponds with the amount of energy a person has for social interaction. Those who are more concerned with other things tend not to have any interest in those with less than, say, a 2:1 ratio of benefit:cost or happiness:trouble.
 
If you’re not providing at least a 1:1 ratio for someone, you’re doing it wrong. If you really want someone in your life, you need to provide them a higher ratio, and be sure that they’re doing the same for you, before committing to anything long-term.
 
Charity is an exception to this rule. (I’m using “charity” to refer to selfless love, rather than “giving money”, which, as an exclusive term, is a perversion of the original concept.) Charity is when someone offers you less than you would otherwise accept as a ratio of happiness:trouble, but you give that person your time, energy, and resources, anyway. You self-sacrifice for that person out of kindness. We can only do this to the extent that we have personal resources (time, energy, patience, emotional stability, money, etc.) to spare, and when we run low on this excess, we can no longer afford to give without receiving; otherwise, our own lives will suffer quite substantially. One only allows that for those we love most, such as family members. We give what we can, when we can, because we choose to; “obligation” is anemic to true charity, unless it’s someone we’re truly responsible for taking care of (such as an aging parent, a sibling in distress, or a child). Nevertheless, charity is what makes society worth having. We care for people who can’t give back as much as we give them, and, in turn, people do the same for us when we’re in need. Sadly, our society isn’t quite at the point when we can do this for each other very effectively (due to economics, and anger, mainly); but as we improve our way government and interpersonal interaction, this will slowly change–as it has been since the dawn of civilization.

Computing Lesson: How to backup a GPT hard drive using dd on Linux


This assumes you’ve already used “blkid”, “fdisk -l”, etc. to determine which drive is which.  All of these commands require root.

N = (number of partitions * 128) + 1024
The drive in question has 4 partitions, so N=1536
In this example, I’m using an eMMC drive: /dev/mmcblk0
Each partition appends “p<number>” after mmcblk0, such as “/dev/mmcblk0p1”
If you’re using a normal hard drive or USB drive as your source, it will show up as /dev/sd<letter><partition number>
My storage drive is mounted at /mnt/

Because one of the drives involved (storage drive) is connected via USB, it’s important to sync between transfers.  I find that using the “sync” mount option slows things down more than syncing manually.

First, backup the partition table:

dd if=/dev/mmcblk0 of=/mnt/mmcblk0.img bs=1 count=1536 && sync

(Note: the output filename is arbitrary.)

Next, back up each partition, syncing between transfers:

dd if=/dev/mmcblk0p1 of=/mnt/mmcblk0p1.img bs=4096 && sync && dd if=/dev/mmcblk0p2 of=/mnt/mmcblk0p2.img bs=4096 && sync && dd if=/dev/mmcblk0p3 of=/mnt/mmcblk0p3.img bs=4096 && sync && dd if=/dev/mmcblk0p4 of=/mnt/mmcblk0p4.img bs=4096 && sync

(Note 1: “bs=4096” sets “block size” to 4KiB, which speeds up the transfer.  Default is “bs=512”, which works, but more slowly.)

(Note 2: each “&&” tells the shell to only execute the command that comes next if the previous command worked.  This can also be accomplished with scripting, loops, etc.)

When you’re done, you should have a set of files representing the partition table and all the partitions.  They will be as big as the source data, so you may want to compress it with gzip or similar.  (This can be done with a pipe, but it might introduce a point of failure, so I don’t recommend it.)  To restore the data, first restore the partition table:

dd of=/dev/mmcblk0 if=/mnt/mmcblk0.img bs=1 count=1536 && sync && partprobe

(Note: I switched “if” with “of”, and added “&& partprobe” at the end.)

Then, restore each partition with the same command you used to create the backups, but swapping “if” and “of” after each instance of the string, “dd”:

dd of=/dev/mmcblk0p1 if=/mnt/mmcblk0p1.img bs=4096 && sync && dd of=/dev/mmcblk0p2 if=/mnt/mmcblk0p2.img bs=4096 && sync && dd of=/dev/mmcblk0p3 if=/mnt/mmcblk0p3.img bs=4096 && sync && dd of=/dev/mmcblk0p4 if=/mnt/mmcblk0p4.img bs=4096 && sync && partprobe

(Note: the “&& partprobe” at the end may not be totally necessary.  You may, however, have to reboot/replug the drives, regardless, at some point, to get the drive geometry to be properly refreshed in the OS.)

If, at any point, you run into errors, try removing “bs=4096” from each command that has it.  It will make the transfers slower, but more reliable.

Want to check the progress of a dd operation?  You can do this by sending dd the “USR1” signal.  If you have only one instance of dd going, you can simply do the following:

killall -USR1 dd

This will cause all dd commands to output–in their own terminals–their current status.  If you have multiple dd commands running, and only want to get a progress report from one of them, you can do this:

ps -A | grep dd
(Note the number to the left of the "dd" entry.)
kill -s USR1 <number>

Finally, if you want to periodically check on a dd command without having to keep typing or hitting ENTER, you can do the following.  In this example, “<command>” refers to either “kill -s USR1 <number>” or “killall -USR1 dd”.  Note that reporting progress uses more clock cycles than one would think, so it’s best to do so only once every few minutes.  This example checks once every 3 minutes.

while `true` ; do <command> ; sleep 180 ; done

(Note that the marks around “true” are backticks, not single quotes.  On a typical QWERTY keyboard, these are to the left of the “1” key, on the same button as “~”.)

You can press CTRL-C in the appropriate terminal to stop any of the above commands.

Happy computing!

 

 

A Centrist’s Analysis of the 2016 Presidential Election


A.K.A. “You heard it here, first!”

This started off as a Facebook post, about a week ago.  Many of the people who replied to the original post are of a liberal persuasion, and some took umbrage to my assertion that Sanders isn’t as intelligent as some of the other candidates.  The second half of this essay is a response to those objections.  As with all my posts, I take no offense at being disagreed with, but do request that any disagreements be presented respectfully and intelligently.

The Analysis

As a self-described centrist, I’ve watched the most recent Republican and Democratic presidential primary debates. I’ve noticed some striking differences that have influenced my opinion substantially, at this juncture.

1) Right or wrong in her policies, Hillary Clinton is the most intelligent person in the running.

2) Sanders is the only one who seems to care about or understand the major concerns of the millennial generation. He is, however, extremely vague (compared to Clinton) about how to fund any of the changes he wants.

3) The Republican candidates disagree with each other a lot less, but they don’t go into as much detail about their positions, or how they intend to accomplish their goals.

4) The Democratic debate facilitators ask much harder questions. Their candidates often dodge the question, but have stayed on topic better than in past elections. Republican debate facilitators ask much easier questions, and their candidates don’t dodge them as often.

5) The Democratic candidates put more focus on how they intend to do things, and are more specific about what they intend to do. The Republican candidates focus more on who they’re angry at.

6) Governor O’Malley makes much more concise, salient remarks, and asks harder, more intelligent questions than the facilitators or other candidates. He seems to lack the assertiveness to lead effectively at the presidential level, but he adds much to the election by way of keeping the other candidates honest.

7) Sanders and Trump are more childish than the other candidates, in their mannerisms and speech patterns. Trump is extremely so, to the point that I wonder if he suffers from a neoteny-related disorder.

8) Bush made more sense than any other Republican candidate, and seems to have some understanding that issues that have yet to be solved are unsolved because they’re complex and are trade-off centric. Clinton has a much better apparent understanding of this than any of the other candidates, including Bush, although Bush may be catering his responses to the less detail-oriented format of the Republican debates.

9) Sanders and O’Malley seem to be the least corrupt, in terms of taking money from special interests.

10) Sanders and Clinton get almost all the attention, and are rude to O’Malley when he tries to speak.

11) Trump really is an idiot. He has basically no understanding of politics, diplomacy, foreign affairs, economics, the economics of immigration, etc.  (Research early 20th century immigration and it’s effects, if you don’t believe me.)

12) Sanders is also pretty stupid, but he has a handful of ideas that could basically save my generation if he implements them with sufficient foresight (which he may or may not possess). If elected, he would screw a lot of stuff up, but maybe fix the things that most need fixing. He also doesn’t understand foreign relations, many aspects of economics, diplomacy, etc. In other words, a vote for him is a vote for sacrificing a lot of things that (mostly) work in favor of fixing a few things that are severely broken–if he’s clever enough to pull it off, which is worth questioning.

13) Clinton would hold down the fort with stunningly apt alacrity, but not seriously work on our country’s most severe domestic problems. She would make small, incremental improvements, and do a darned good job of that…slowly. Under her rulership, we should expect small, consistent improvements across the board (barring unforeseen circumstances). She has foresight, leadership ability, and genius-level I.Q. She’s one of the greatest diplomats alive. What she lacks is out-of-the-box thinking on some pressing issues.

14) I’m sad to admit that, in spite of my centrism, I can’t see any of the Republican candidates’ proposed solutions as being very sapient or realistic. Sorry, guys: you’re going to lose, this year.

15) Clinton listens intently to each of her opponents and nods appreciatively, apparently to herself, when they say something particularly intelligent. I expect that, like Obama, she’ll ask some of her former opponents to join her cabinet. Sanders is an ideologue who is too busy concentrating on making his next point to listen very well. (Referring to active listening, not hearing loss.) He may or may not have the wisdom to hire his former competitors.

16) Sanders has an annoying demeanor. Those I was watching the debate with (stalwart democrats) kept turning him down because he was a “loud mouth” and a “hot head”, which mostly speaks to his presentation, rather than his ideas. If people can’t stand listening to you, it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are.

In conclusion, either Sanders or Clinton will most likely be our next president. I like what Sanders is trying to do, but his demeanor is unpalatable, and he lacks the intellect to do a good job, on most fronts. He has admirable compassion, but precious little logistical sense, and would end up a lot like Jimmy Carter, in the eyes of history, were he to win. Clinton will probably be our next president, and will almost certainly do a very solid job of it, taking into account the quirks specific to her party (fixation on gun control, LGBT/race/female issues–all of which are sometimes sensible, and often not), and a penchant for small, safe changes, rather than large, riskier ones (some of the latter we seem to need). To put it simply, we are probably in safe hands, this time around, and the big changes will probably have to wait.

 

“But I like Bernie Sanders, and I think he’s smart!”

“He’s been working for decades to do what he claims to want, so shouldn’t we give him more credit?”

I don’t doubt that Sanders is sincere, or that he’s been working toward his goals for a very long time. He is, indeed, very committed. My concerns about his intellect come from a variety of things about him, most of them small and hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t also noticed it. Here are a few that seem relatively easy to communicate.

1) He stays “on message” a lot more than the other candidates. When asked about gun control, he talked about Wall Street. When asked about digital security and Constitutional concerns, he talked about Wall street, and then, eventually, about terrorists. When asked about racial inequality, he talked about Wall Street. Yes, the financial sector (which is larger than just Wall Street in New York City!) needs to be sat on for the way they have screwed up our economy and some other stuff. Yes, they’re crazy rich, while their employees are just getting poorer. They’re on my “sh*t-list”. They are not, however, the cause of every evil in the world, and changing how we interact with them isn’t going to solve most of our problems. That’s lazy thinking. He’s been on the job for long enough to know better…but he apparently doesn’t.

2) His vocabulary is limited.

3) He’s reactionary in the same way as people I know who have a fanatically-held set of beliefs, but who lack the wherewithal to justify those beliefs saliently to others. He gets upset, raises his voice, interrupts incessantly, gesticulates to get attention, etc. This is another sign of a weak mind.

4) His facial expressions are very limited. This one is a bit harder to explain, but I’ll try. For illustration, watch Trump speak and count how many distinct expressions he has. That’s an approximate number that can be used to extrapolate his range of emotions. People who have only, in the extreme example, “happy” and “sad” make you think of what group of people?  According to psychologists, what is the average IQ of people with that kind of disorder? (Down Syndrome sufferers are one example.  They have an average I.Q. of 80, whereas “normal” is ~100.) A person without nuanced feelings is probably incapable of understanding partial victories, mitigated defeats, trade-offs, moral gray area, etc.; if they did understand these things, they would have a decidedly more developed range of emotions, which would result in more unique facial expressions. Trump regularly displays fake sadness, sullenness, child-like delight, and anger–and not much else. Now, watch the same length of video and count Sanders’ unique expressions. There aren’t many more. Now, take a look at either of the Clintons (who have approximate IQs of 138 and 140, respectively). Do they look sideways in amusement? Do they smirk, wink, look ponderous, etc? You bet they do. They have also been shown to understand things like partial victories, mitigated defeats, trade-offs, moral gray area, etc. I know this might not make a lot of sense unless you’ve already noticed it, but here’s hoping…

5) He doesn’t seem to know when he has made his point, and people have stopped listening intently.

6) When he was asked whether he was raising taxes on the middle class to pay for universal health care, he prevaricated for over 2 minutes, apparently without realizing that everyone with half a brain cell would see that he was doing so. If you boil it down enough, his answer was, “Yes, I’m raising taxes on the middle class, but the savings from medical costs will be bigger.” For many, including me, this is probably true. However, anyone with a little life experience knows that some people get sick and/or go to the doctor more than others, so for the latter group, the math doesn’t add up. (I go to the doctor more than most people.)  Having worked on this problem for several decades, he should know better than to make such a brash assumption, but either he doesn’t know better, or is lying. It’s been previously agreed (by most in the conversation, so far) that he’s genuine; therefore, he’s stupid.

7) As obtuse as Congress is, if he were even a little bit good at explaining his ideas in a way that made other people who knew about the subject matter agree with him, he would have gotten the Democratic Party leadership on-board with his plan, after all this time.  Overwhelmingly, his colleagues seem to think of him as being unrealistic.  Often, when he seems to have “stumped” his opponent with a response, the expression on the opponent’s face isn’t one of concession or sullen disappointment about being bested in an argument, but of bafflement that he would even say such a thing.  How do you deliver a snappy retort to a statement that’s factually incorrect on a dozen different levels?  If you think back to a time when someone made such an argument to you, that debate dynamic will become painfully clear.  As previously mentioned, he consistently dodged Clinton’s questions about his previous voting record, and likewise refused to explain in any detail how he intended to mitigate the negative side-effects of his proposed changes.  Many of the bills he authored are only a couple of pages long, and make no effort to state, in practice, how they are to be accomplished, if made law.  Valid questions include: How do you enforce it?  What are the specific rules that businesses, individuals, and government agencies must follow, in day-to-day life?  Are those people actually able to follow those rules without it putting them out of business or turning everyone into a criminal–technically or judicially, depending on enforcement?  A 2-page bill can’t address these concerns, and Sanders repeatedly presents such bills, trying to make them into laws.  They are consistently voted down by his peers.  (Yes, he has managed to pass a handful of laws in the 25 years since he first got elected to Congress, which means that he occasionally writes a law that his colleagues don’t think is asinine.)  To my understanding, his biggest accomplishments as a member of Congress center around adding a little “heart” to bills that others have written–which makes him a decent Congressman, but doesn’t qualify him for the duty of vetoing poorly-written laws.

I could go on, but this should provide a little justification for my assertions about his intellect. Again, I think he has a few really good ideas; but I doubt that he has much understanding of what the side-effects of those ideas will be.  Therefore, I’ll reassert that a vote for Sanders is a vote for sacrificing a lot of things that (mostly) work, in favor of fixing a few things that are badly broken.  This comes down to the priorities of an individual voter; but be warned: some of the things he wants to change will make essential goods like food, fuel, clothing, and building supplies more expensive.  Will his other ideas counteract this by making you richer?  Will you be made richer in a way that doesn’t prevent industrialists from making those goods at a reasonable price?  Maybe, if he’s smart enough.  Do you care to roll the dice?  Vote according to your mind, heart, and conscience.

Why Internet Ads Are A Dying Business Model


I started using the Internet in the early ’90s, back when almost nobody had a computer, and few of them had an Internet connection.  Since then, I’ve never once made a purchase based on unsolicited Internet advertisements, and here’s why.

I started building computers at a very young age, and have since spent a large portion of my life fixing other people’s machines when they break.  The number one problem is malware, which includes (but is not limited to) viruses, spyware, and pranks; with the first two being the most common.  Malware usually exists for one of three purposes, with the first being true of almost all malware: (1) someone is trying to scam/steal money from you; (2) someone wants to annoy you for fun/revenge; and/or (3) someone wants to make a political statement (vis carrying out a Denial of Service attack on someone whose political/economic activities they don’t like).  The number one source of malware is web sites trying to scam money out of you.  The number one way they do so is by advertising to you (often in ways that make you think they’re NOT advertisements), such that you visit their site; and WHAM! whether you know it it not, your computer is now infected.  (Sometimes just visiting a site gives you malware, and sometimes you have to download and run something from that site that they claim is good/harmless, but isn’t.  Beware any file ending in .exe, .bat, .com, .msi, .dmi, as well as anything that can be “installed” or “run”.  Yes, this includes “FREE GAMES!!!!!!!”)

If every person whose computer I fixed because they clicked on an ad paid $100 for it…wait, what am I saying?  They DID pay $100 (or so) in repairs for every ad they clicked on!  That, in a nutshell, is how computer repair shops stay in business: people who don’t know that ALL Internet ads are extremely likely to infect their machines with viruses, spyware, and so on–such that they will soon have their sensitive information stolen, and their computers rendered useless–do something they don’t know they should NEVER do on the Internet, and then bring their computer into the shop to have it repaired.  (Note: sometimes hardware fails, Windows/Linux/Mac OS screws up of its own accord, or someone falls victim to the dreaded PEBKAC error.  Usually, though, it’s because of Internet usage failure.)

This is why, in theory, movements in favor of allowing “respectful” ads and blocking all other ads (example: AdBlock Plus–a great browser add-on that everyone should have, despite its failures) are ultimately not realistic.  Even if an ad doesn’t play obnoxious sounds/videos at you, flash distractingly, open pop-up windows, take up half the page, etc., there’s never going to be any absolute guarantee that the content behind the ad isn’t fraudulent, in some way.  Nobody is capable of policing every advertisement on the web, so those who try to come up with software to detect “annoying” behavior and block only that, rather than truly investigating every web page that advertises anywhere on the Internet.  That’s just not realistic to expect from anyone.

So, what’s that mean for ad-based revenue?  You can probably guess: as more computer users realize that clicking on ads (and things that don’t look like ads, but really are ads) is what’s causing them to shell out money for computer repairs, and take effective measures to avoid doing so, it will become decreasingly profitable for web pages to host web ads, at all.  Sadly, almost every page on the Internet can only exist because of advertisements, so we’re left with quite a quandary: how do we support worthwhile web pages (like this one, I hope…) without becoming easy targets for dishonest people looking to harm us for personal profit?

One solution that’s been proposed is to have every web site screen its web ads.  Unfortunately, ads just don’t work that way, and here’s why: webs are served up by companies who are “aggregators” of advertisements, such as Google (AdSense), Facebook, AOL (not dead, yet!), NYTimes, CBS Interactive, Ad.ly, and many, many others.  Almost nobody has the resources to get enough companies to buy enouch ad space from them to cover all of their expenses, so they instead let these aggregators post web ads to their pages in exchange for a small cut of the profits (and I do mean small).  “Well, make the aggregators censor out fraudulent ads!”  Sounds great!  …But again, the problem is volume.  How does a company of “only” 30,000 full-time employees (most of which don’t sell ads, but do other things, like programming Gmail and GPS maps, designing driver-less cars, and so on) thoroughly investigate 100,000 ads a day to determine which ones lead to pages that will never ship purchased products; will attempt to infect some types of computers with viruses (dependent on OS and software versions); ask for sensitive information that they will sell to their “partners”, three years from now; and so on?  The short answer is that it’s just not possible to turn a profit by selling advertisements if you try to do this.  So, what we’re unavoidably left with is a stinky, seedy, smarmy Internet full of paid advertisements that nobody should ever click on.

So, again, where does that leave us?  I don’t know, and neither do web-centric economists (professional or hobbyist).  Most will acknowlege, if pressed, that ads are a blight on safe computing, and almost anything would be better than the digital cesspool we have, now.  But, like democratic forms of government, it’s the only option we have that seems not to utterly break at the drop of a hat.  So, instead (like any nominally-working form of government), it’s breaking slowly, and nobody is very certain about what we can do to fix it.  In fact, most people who have tried at all to deal with it are utterly befuddled with the problem.

So, what do you think the solution is?  Maybe the right kind of genius is reading this ad-supported web page, at this very moment…  😉

How To Make Amends In 4 Simple Steps


It’s amazing how many adults don’t know how to do this, so consider it a “post-kindergarten education” for all of us grown-ups. Someone you know probably needs to see it, so please share!

1) If you had control over the thing that went wrong, then it’s your fault. If someone else also had control over it, then it’s ALSO their fault…but that doesn’t make it “not your fault”, so it’s time to fess up and take responsibility for your part in letting things go wrong. Step one is to admit you screwed up–to yourself, first, and then to whomever you caused trouble for. Don’t try to play down your responsibility (and don’t exaggerate it, either), because that will destroy trust and make the next steps harder. Don’t ask for forgiveness, yet, because at this point, you haven’t done anything to fix the situation.

2) Do everything you can to fix what went wrong. If you can’t fix it, try to compensate the person you wronged in an appropriate way. Money is typically NOT appropriate compensation, unless you deprived someone of physical wealth that they otherwise would have had/acquired. (This includes breaking something that belongs to someone else, or which is yours and would have benefited someone else.)

3) Ask for forgiveness. Keep in mind that unless you literally fixed EVERYTHING that went bad because of your screw-up (which is usually not possible), what you’re actually asking for is MERCY, not justice. Nobody is obligated to give you mercy (by definition!), so be grateful if they do. If they don’t, be understanding and act like a decent person, regardless.

4) Strive not to screw up in this way, again. The more you repeat your mistake, the harder it will be to make amends, in the future. If you ever completely fail to make amends, your relationship with a person will be permanently damaged.

As a final note, this also applies to things that people like to claim “just happened”, like scheduling conflicts, not having money with to pay someone what you promised them, and so on. If you booked the appointment/promised money/spent too much money, you had control over that event. Please be brave and make amends whenever it’s needed! Your social- and family-life will be much better for it.

Millennial


I’m of the generation that started off in one world and then crossed into the next during my formative years.

While those before me barely understood how to use a typewriter, I spent much of my childhood building computers and typing at a rate that would put most secretaries to shame.

My generation was the first to start off talking on a phone with a 6-foot long spiral cord, and then carry around high-powered computers in our pockets as we entered adulthood.


As soon as we entered kindergarten or first grade–since, back then, kindergarten wasn’t required–our teachers did a little bit of math on their abacuses and realized that when we graduated high school, it would be the year 2000.  I know you think I’m kidding about the abacuses, but when I started school, that’s actually what we did math on.

Graduating high school in that seminal year somehow carried a lot of weight.

It wasn’t just a number; it meant that humanity was getting a sort of “new start”, in the minds of a lot of people.  Therefore, it was generally instilled in us from an early age that it was up to us and those born at a similar time to change the world drastically and, essentially, fix all the epic screw-ups of our parents, grandparents, and every previous generation.

The funny thing is, while we were starting to learn the world and contemplate how we might change it when we finally got all grown up, it actually did change into something that nobody before our generation could have fully expected or adapted to.

Just about every piece of academic information suddenly became free.  Yes, I know that if you want to really drill into a topic, you still have to take a free online course from an actual university; but essentially, it became the new big thing that, if you didn’t know something, you could type it into Yahoo, Excite, Altavista, and later, Google, and then…you knew it.

This was really cool, and our parents, teachers, and, once we got all grown up, our bosses thought that this was the best thing ever…until they actually got a taste of what it was like to be around someone who knew more than they did.

Not long into my adult-ness I got hired on as a Computer Assisted Drafter at a door company.  This wasn’t because I’d ever done drafting of any kind before, and certainly not because I knew a thing about wood-working, beyond a few projects in elementary school; but the boss had realized that the digital age–whatever that meant–had arrived, and all the famous ink-and-paper magazines said that it was going to make her rich if she embraced it.  Therefore, she eagerly hired the first freshly minted grown-up who knew a particularly great amount about computers to do all the computer-thingies that she and her other employees didn’t really understand.

My first task was to start learning the drafting program, and my second task was to remove the plethora of viruses and other malware from all the computers on the network so that the program would actually run.  That was cool, and dollar signs began to flash before my boss’s eyes.

My next task was to actually start drafting.  This was easy enough: plug in the numbers, draw the lines, and print it out on a really big piece of paper so the guys in the shop could build it.  Except that the head of the woodworking department, who was over me, didn’t trust anything that wasn’t written in graphite.  Therefore, my final task before I could be happily away in my new career was to learn how to teach a person born in the ignorant world of pencils and paper that computers could do things better.  We were running Windows Millennium Edition, so this wasn’t an easy task.  Ultimately, though, despite all the difficulties this entailed, the company failed for the most venerable and inane of reasons: the boss liked to play fast and loose with the books, and apparently “going digital” didn’t make that any more legal.

From this, it quickly became apparent that simply knowing how to do one’s job wasn’t enough to be successful at making money.  One first had to figure out how to deal with the obtuseness of human nature.

Funny thing: in all of our classes on learning “the theory of how to do everything”, not one class was taught on how to actually get along in society.  Stuff like “how to talk to your boss without making him mad” and “what a checkbook is for, and how to make the numbers be nice to you” just weren’t considered important.  Thusly, Millennials, for all our unique insights into what technology does and doesn’t change, and despite being the foremost experts in turning an ignorant world into a knowledgeable one, it’s become a famous fact that, as a group, we simply can’t hold down jobs to save our lives.  People are just too stupid to know when they’re being stupid, and being as how (according to everyone more than 10 years older than us) we were supposed to teach the world how to drastically change for the better, we’ve largely done what any brilliantly unwise person would do and tried to actually teach people how to stop being stupid.

Wikipedia has the following to say about the Millennial generation:

Millennials [were predicted to] become more like the “civic-minded” G.I. Generation with a strong sense of community both local and global…[Some attribute] Millennials with the traits of confidence and tolerance, but also a sense of entitlement and narcissism…Millennials in adulthood are detached from institutions and networked with friends…Millennials are somewhat more upbeat than older adults about America’s future, with 49% of Millennials saying the country’s best years are ahead though they’re the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt and unemployment…Some employers are concerned that Millennials have too great expectations from the workplace.  Some studies predict that Millennials will switch jobs frequently, holding many more jobs than Gen Xers due to their great expectations…[Some describe] Millennials’ approach to social change as “pragmatic idealism,” a deep desire to make the world a better place combined with an understanding that doing so requires building new institutions while working inside and outside existing institutions.

That last part is a real pain in the butt.  As children and young adults, we were stuck playing the game of, “Yes, teacher/parent/employer, you are older and therefore much wiser than I am.  Sure, I’ll teach you how to open your word processor…again.”  Being the lowest person on the social totem pole because of your age, and having the best insights about how to actually get stuff done in this strange new world is a really fast path toward unemployment, unless you learn to (A) forget that you know what you’re doing, and become satisfied with doing everything the stupid way–at least until your so-called superiors retire, die, or stop telling you how to do things–or (B) try to be your own boss…just like every other unemployed person.  So, “changing the world”, apparently, must first start from a position of not doing anything to change the world, or being jobless.

About that.  Changing the world, I mean.  Sitting on the fence between the world of mostly-unwilling ignorance and the world of willful ignorance means that pretty much every modern “social change” movement not created and run by Millennials looks a lot like a pipe dream created by those who grew up with a search engine good enough to avoid ever having to look at anything they don’t want to.  While the older generation could, in most cases, rightfully claim to be doing the best they knew how, based on the information they were given, the generation after us sounds a little tinny when they say that “something is a basic human right” because they read it on SaveTheWorldWithCuteCatPictures.com.  How do these people who started life with the best access to information that the world has ever seen still not realize that the kinds of supposedly radical changes they’re totally bent on bringing about have either failed or caused total economic, social, political, and governmental meltdowns every time they succeeded?

Sure, it must be a good idea to let Russia keep pushing west, through Ukraine, in spite of the treaty they signed at the end of the Cold War.  Maybe if we shake our fingers at them hard enough, they’ll march back to their own territory like Germany did in 1939.

The truly galling thing about this, though, isn’t the naivety of post-Millennial 20-somethings, but how the previous generation seems to have decided that if something shows up on the Internet when they type “social justice in Crimea” into Google, it must be absolute truth.  Did they totally forget about voting for education reforms that involved teaching HTML code to high school kids who showed any particular aptitude in computing?  It would take me under an hour to create a not-too-shabby-looking web page saying that cheeseburgers cause cancer because cows are naturally-occurring GMOs.  But I won’t bother to do that, because it’s already been done, and a lot of people already believe that cheeseburgers cause cancer because…”GMOs!!!!”…to a sufficient degree that they’re willing to start a protest in front of Burger King.  They might even bring their very-skinny-but-still-cute-enough-to-post-pictures-on-Pinterest vegan cats with them.

To put all this another way, Millennials who really absorbed and believed what they were taught in school tend not to start “blooming” until they’re in their thirties, if ever.

Wikipedia also notes that some sociologists refer to us as the “Peter Pan Generation”, and as horrible as it might seem to be called that, I can’t help but agree with this assessment.  How does a person learn how life works before the dawn of the Information Age, then learn how to be the fore-runners of that age, then learn how to avoid pissing people off by being too good at it, and then finally learn how to have a career (read: wait for the older generations to die or retire) without taking a long time doing it?  If we’re lucky, we’ll have started our careers by age 35, and not hate ourselves for the dead end careers we picked back before all the careers that were profitable and fun switched with all the careers that didn’t used to be.  Some of us are bloody lucky to land a “career” at a fast food restaurant by virtue of having a bachelor’s degree.  And our parents’ generation is all up in arms because we complain about having $50,000 of student debt and want the minimum wage to be raised.

Well, except for those Millennials who, against everyone’s wishes, didn’t attend or finish college.

Sure, there are a lot of people my age who managed to buy degrees that will eventually pay themselves off.  However, most of the people I know who were born around 1982 did what all the adults told them to and ended up with little more than very expensive pieces of paper and a few years wasted in college housing.

One the upside, additional time spent learning things means that, to an even greater degree, those who spent at least a little time studying the “cutting edge” in such institutions know more about this “brave, new world” than people who didn’t attend college, at all.  On the down side, we’re once again stuck trying to convince people older than us that we do, in fact, know some better ways in which to do things, that are different from how they’ve always been done, without getting into trouble for saying so.

It’s worth noting, however, that there is a very sizeable contingent of Millennials who have figured out how to “live the American Dream.”  Overwhelmingly, these are the people who were uninterested in, or just too stupid to understand all that new-fangled computer stuff, back in high school.  Sorry, but those Millennials who were good at these things know exactly who and what I’m talking about.  They did as their parents and grandparents did, before them, and got jobs doing stuff that wasn’t, in any way, going to change the world.  Some examples include accounting, vehicle repair, construction work, bartending, marketing, and anything involving keeping your head down in a bureaucracy.  Perhaps the rest of us realized too late that anything that has generated tax revenue consistently for a few thousand years will, by extension of a famous proverb, result in job security–even if it’s the sort of thing that only a trained monkey could totally avoid feeling suicidal about.  Surprisingly, most people who actually got into computers when Forbes was predicting that people who got into computers would get rich, currently do computer repair or technical support for close to minimum wage.  After all, how much are people really willing to spend to keep a computer running when they can get a cheap-and-crappy new one for around $300?

I’ve never met a business owner who wasn’t willing to save a penny, now at the cost of a dollar, later.  Computers are like that, and contrary to what one might expect, business owners are willing to pay more than most to keep theirs running.  That should put things nicely into perspective.

This has been a rather long rant, and what I really mean to say by all of it is that people of other generations gripe way too much about people of my generation not “hitting the ground running”, “grabbing life with both hands”, “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps”, and all that jazz.  The fact is, we did all that, and it turned out that both the ground and life were covered in grease.  A lot of us fell flat on our faces with suddenly-ending careers, nervous breakdowns and other mental health catastrophes, stock market crashes, unrealistic expectations instilled in us from an early age, and so on.  That we’re at all willing to try–yet again–to get back on our feet in spite of how painful and discouraging our early adulthood was, is a sign of just how great this generation really is.

And we are going to change the world, damn it.