Yosemite is sinking

[Editorial note: the title of the piece should have been “Yellowstone is Sinking”, since it’s Yellowstone, not Yosemite, which is a super-volcano. The original text has been edited to correct this.]

Right after President Obama’s address to the nation, the Republicans mounted a short response led by Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA). While we all have worries about how this plan will turn out [1][2], Jindal made some odd comments.

I was encouraged to write a few things about Jindal’s calling out of magnetic levitating trains and volcano monitoring. A close colleague of mine beat me to the latter [3], but I won’t let that stop me from jotting down at least some of what I wanted to say about this.

What did Jindal have to say? He pointed to some specific items in the bill and called them wasteful spending. In general, it’s always wise to avoid casting stones in the glass house of perceived earmarks [4]. But, I digress. Here’s the quote:

Instead of trusting us to make wise decisions with our own money, they passed the largest government spending bill in history, with a price tag of more than $1 trillion with interest. While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a “magnetic levitation” line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called “volcano monitoring.” Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C. [5]

So, let’s go to H.R.1 [6] and explore the actual language (I hate these simplistic summaries!).

Energy-Efficient Federal Motor Vehicle Fleet Procurement
For capital expenditures and necessary expenses of acquiring motor vehicles with higher fuel economy, including: hybrid vehicles; electric vehicles; and commercially-available, plug-in hybrid vehicles, $300,000,000, to remain available until September 30, 2011

For an additional amount for section 501 of Public Law 110-432 and discretionary grants to States to pay for the cost of projects described in paragraphs (2)(A) and (2)(B) of section 24401 of title 49, United States Code, subsection (b) of section 24105 of such title, $8,000,000,000, to remain available through September 30, 2012

United States Geological Survey
surveys, investigations, and research
For an additional amount for `Surveys, Investigations, and Research’, $140,000,000, for repair, construction and restoration of facilities; equipment replacement and upgrades including stream gages, and seismic and volcano monitoring systems; national map activities; and other critical deferred maintenance and improvement projects.

Let’s go in order. I have very little to say about the comment “$300 million to buy new cars for the government”; government employees need cars, and replacing the existing aged fleet with fuel-efficient vehicles sounds pretty damned responsible. Given the age of government vehicle I see around national laboratories . . . well, you get the idea. Besides, we’re talking about $300 million over two years. That’s chump change.

I also have little to say about the high speed rail comment. What I didn’t quote about was the one page of “Proveded thats…” that follows; so many conditions are laid on that $8B, you can’t imagine how it could be easily wasted. Not only that, this money is meant to supplement existing federal law that provides grants to states for high speed rail projects.

The one that got the most attention from my friends and colleagues was the “volcano monitoring” comment. As my colleague points out in his blog post, Governors from states in the ring of fire were super-pissed. That kind of criticism notwithstanding, it’s also important to remember that the eruption of a major volcano not only affects the hundreds of thousands of people living in its proximity, but affects climate for thousands of miles around. Thousands of miles conveniently covers, say, a continent like ours, making volcano monitoring critical to national security and the economy. Even though we can’t stop them, we can prepare for them.

The worst of these could be Yellowstone, which is believed to be the caldera of a super-volcano whose eruption is due and which, the last time it erupted, coated this continent in ash. [7]

Science aside, the main point here goes back to the comment I made earlier. You have to be super-careful not to cast stones in the glass house of earmarks. Everybody has benefited from one. Jindal is no different. In fact, scanning the bill turns up this gem:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the President shall establish an arbitration panel under the Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance program to expedite the recovery efforts from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita within the Gulf Coast Region . . . The Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency may not prohibit or restrict the use of funds designated under the hazard mitigation grant program for damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita if the homeowner who is an applicant for assistance under such program commenced work otherwise eligible for hazard mitigation grant program assistance . . .

Of course, no surprise – Jindal’s own state will benefit from the laws in this bill, having many restrictions on spending FEMA relief money for the natural disasters that ravaged the Gulf just a few years back. Sure, the bill doesn’t authorize more money, but it loosens strings attached to the significant existing allocation of relief money. Now, quite apart from the fact that Jindal benefits from this bill and calls out money that benefits Governors of other states, there is a deeper problem. Jindal criticizes prevention of a national emergency – a volcanic eruption – and yet he CLEARLY must understand the value of gettings hundreds of thousands of people out of the path of nature’s fury.

Or, maybe he doesn’t understand the value of prevention – in which case, I say, “Woe be unto Lousiana.”

[1] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/2009/02/19/treat-stimulus-money-like-blood-sugar-handle-the-spikes/
[2] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/2009/02/24/retinopathy/
[3] http://christianphysicist.blogspot.com/2009/02/jindal-vs-volcano-monitors.html
[4] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/2008/09/27/3m-on-bear-dna/
[5] http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/24/sotn.jindal.transcript/index.html
[6] http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:H.R.1:
[7] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/megavolcano/

sTeVo Mythtv: total cost of ownership

Back in the beginning of 2006, I constructed my own Mythtv-based digital personal video recorder, or PVR, which Jodi nicknamed “sTeVo”. Many people found this amusing, and some people found it down right cool. Everybody asked me the same question: how much did it cost?

It was a $500 up-front investment in the hardware, about $150 of which was supplied by my parents in the form of a TV tuner card for the system. The rest was dominated by the memory and the hard drive, which totaled to 250Gb of disk space (SATA). At about 2Gb per 1 hour of TV, that gives me 125 hours of TV recording. I can backup the video to my laptop and compress it, taking my TV with me on long trips. I can access all of my music library over an NFS-mounted drive. I can even access photos and have automated photo slideshows running on the system. I can stream podcasts and vodcasts, and using Firefox I can watch Hulu. The value of the investment has grown over time, as mythtv has gone through several updates and added new features every time at no cost to me. The Ubuntu-based “Mythbuntu” installation is my current choice for the base system, offering superior setup capability and, of course, the Hardy Heron base system as my long-term Ubuntu flavor.

But what’s the total cost of ownership? By investing $500 in this project, have I saved money in the long term, as is the promise of home-brew linux-based PVR construction? The answer is an unassailable YES.

Let’s compare to TiVo, the obvious competitor for this project. As of right now [1], the TiVo service plans are ranked by the following cost per unit time:

  • monthly: $12.95/month
  • yearly: $129/year
  • 3-year: $299/(3 years)
  • lifetime: $399 for life

where “life” means “as long as TiVo survives”. The hardware from the company closest to my original system is the base model, offering 80 hours of TV in analog format (no HD). That system costs $149.99.

In the first three years, I spent $500 up front on the system. I have to pay a very modest fee for access to TV listings, which comes to less than $50 over three years (that’s actually a generous over-estimate). So let’s call the 3-year total cost of sTeVo $550 [2].

In that same 3-year period, TiVo costs $616.19 (monthly plan), $536.99 (yearly plan), $448.99 (3-year plan), and $548.99 (lifetime plan). At the present time, I have beaten half of the TiVo plans.

Now, to be fair, I’ve actually done better. My machine can hold nearly 50% more TV than the base TiVo. The value of my system is much greater, even if all you care about is having a ton of TV on disk. The user interface for TiVo is certainly superior, but the sheer breadth and functionality of Mythtv-based sTeVo is, in my opinion, unrivaled. And I totally, absolutely own it. It’s mine. I built it, and nobody can take that away from me.

What about in a few more years? In fact, let’s look at the total cost 6 years out, or in 2012. Just today, I added 1.5Tb of disk space to sTeVo for about $0.10/Gb. That’s incredible. I can now store more than 800 hours of TV on sTeVo, more than enough space to hold our favorite movies, TV, audio, etc. That drove the total cost of ownership of sTeVo up to $700. I also expect to pay for the listings between now and 2012, so let’s call the total cost of ownership $750 in 2012.

In 2012, TiVo (if it still exists) will have cost $1082.39 (monthly plan), $923.99 (yearly plan), $747.99 (3-year plan), and $548.99 (lifetime plan). That, of course, is just the cost of the base model. If somebody wants to upgrade, that will be another upfront cost on top of the original hardware purchase, costing approximately $200-$300 dollars. That drives the range of total cost for TiVo up between $900-$1200, and I think I’m being conservative on this estimate in favor of TiVo.

No matter how you look at it, I win. I save money. I own this baby, I built it with my own two hands. Ubuntu makes it simple to keep up with the latest trends. Even with the transition to digital cable or TV, a few free filters fixes that stupid problem. I have my music, I have my videos, I have my TV, I have my podcasts and vodcasts, all in one living room appliance. And I saved a lot of money doing it this way.

I encourage everybody to find a project and go for it. Try building a computer, or a solar power station; try building a PVR, or a music player, or kitchen cookbook computer. Innovate a little. You get to consume, but you also get to create something greater than the sum of its parts. That, inevitably, will be what heals this economy.

[1] https://www3.tivo.com/store/plans.do

[2] The cost of the video device – TV, monitor – is excluded from this cost. Of course, you have to own a TV to watch TiVo, and that’s no different for Mythtv, so this is a fair comparison. I did even better than a TV 3 years ago – I plugged in (recycled!) an old hi-res computer monitor, yielding something about the size of our old TV but with superior resolution.

Surprise, surprise: it’s the physics diet, stupid.

The NY Times reported that the results of an extensive study comparing diets found that it was calorie reduction, independent of the means by which calories were reduced, that caused weight loss [1]. Surprise, surprise. As cranky Maryland physicist Bob Park has put it many times before [2],

Eighty-five percent of Americans list weight loss as their top goal, but studies find we are going the other way. So Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman invited authors of the most popular diet plans to Washington to debate nutrition. At one extreme there was Dr. Dean Ornish pushing his high-carbohydrate diet, and at the other Dr. Atkins, the current number one best-selling author, urging people to eat the hamburger patty and the cheese and throw away the bun. Atkins, who didn’t look exactly svelte, took a postprandial nap during the proceedings. Since all of these best-selling authors have become millionaires, WN decided to offer the “physics plan”: burn more calories than you consume.

Physics has always offered a simple recipe for weight loss: if energy input is less than energy output, the body will plunder its energy reserves (fat) to make up the difference until eventually equilibrium is achieved. Physics doesn’t care how you achieve that, it doesn’t care what a best-selling medical guru (or snake-oil salesman) is pitching, and it doesn’t care whether you eat less carbs and more protein. Just cut a fixed number of calories from your diet. In fact, if you cut 500 calories from your typical daily diet and set that as your new typical intake, you’d lose 1 pound per week until equilibrium is achieved [3].

Energy is energy. Whether it’s in a quark, in a photon, in a candy bar, or in a cracker, energy is stored and transformed from one form to another. The secret to losing more of your own stored energy is to simply stop providing a steady supply of new energy to maintain the store.

Nice to see somebody finally taking a shot at separating fact from fad.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/health/nutrition/26diet.html?ref=us

[2] http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN00/wn022500.html

[3] http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/calories/WT00011


President Obama’s address [1] to the two houses of Congress was a fairly predictable survey of the current economic crisis, foreign policy, and a host of other issues. Delivered with his usual eloquence, even garnering a few laughs from both sides of the aisle, a few things jumped out at me during the speech.

The first was his statement that “The answers to our [economic] problems don’t lie beyond our reach.  They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.” The fact that laboratories and universities got first mention there – not things typically associated with the favorite child of “blue collar America” – really caught me off-guard. I am used to the powerful pandering to the patently blue collar sectors of our economy; pandering instead to our engines of innovation, themselves a vast partnership between blue collar and white collar America, was a pleasant surprise.

The recognition that long-term economic answers will come not from (just) propping up failing industries, but from investment in the engines of new economic sectors, is something the President constantly highlights. In such a spotlight moment as tonight’s speech, he could easily have set aside the long view to instead focus on the short-term benefit of staving off the collapse of the old auto industry.

He also again highlighted the basic research portion of the stimulus bill, saying “We have also made the largest investment in basic research funding in American history – an investment that will spur not only new discoveries in energy, but breakthroughs in medicine, science, and technology.” I can’t speak to the “largest” part, but it was again reassuring to see the President go out of the mainstream and highlight basic research.

The last thing that hit me was the President’s rather specific view of the relationship between education and citizenship, a relationship I had not seen highlighted recently except in references to the founding fathers’ views of an educated citizenry. He says, ” . . . it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in [the education system].  And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.  This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.  But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.  And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.  It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

Not just quitting on yourself . . . quitting on your country. That’s a very stark view of the failure to conclude an education. We’ve not had a President since I’ve been paying attention who put it so directly. To all of those out there who think that college is a waste of time, and that you can get more from instead entering the work force or entering the military – take note. Education is back on the list of things that matter to a nation.


[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-of-President-Barack-Obama-Address-to-Joint-Session-of-Congress/