Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mommie Dearest: Earth can be one mean mama

This beautiful photograph of Mother Earth was taken earlier this month by NASA astronaut Ron Garan, now in residence aboard the International Space Station. Mr. Garan is currently blogging from space on a site called Fragile Oasis, a site he shares with three other NASA veterans. I learned about Garan's efforts (and obtained this photo) from Denise Chow's April 21 article posted on OurAmazingPlanet.com. Chow writes that by "shining a light on Earth from space, Garan and his colleagues hope to mobilize people to improve the conditions on our fragile planet."

This is a wonderful goal and entirely appropriate for this Earth Day weekend.

We should work together to protect our home.

But we must also worry about how to protect ourselves from our home -- and this Earth Day season seems as good a time as any to remember this.

A lot of politicians and pundits are obsessed with "climate change." This used to be called "global warming," but "climate change" tests better in markets experiencing unusually cold weather, such as we've had in Chicago of late.

Climate change was before the U.S. Supreme Court just this week, in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, No. 10-174. The Court was reportedly skeptical about whether courts are proper places to address such complicated issues.

The Court's apparent skepticism seems quite appropriate to me. I am no climate change denier; the one constant of Earth's climate throughout time has been change. At different times in pre-history, Earth has been completely covered in ice and completely ice-free. Inasmuch as we weren't here yet, humans had nothing to do with these extremes. Climate fluctuations in the relatively brief time that humans have clung to this floating rock have been linked any number of human tragedies, including the French Revolution, the Viking terror raids on Britain and elsewhere, and the collapse of the Mayan Golden Age. Humans were not driving SUVs during any of these events. If everyone switches to Priuses tomorrow, Toyota stock might soar, but climate change would continue.

Interestingly, while the courts, the EPA and the states wrestle with how best to regulate carbon dioxide (fingered, not so many years ago, by a still-nascent science as the key culprit in climate change), science may have moved on to another suspect: Soot. A nearly invisible layer of soot, released into the atmosphere from autos, trucks, airplanes and coal or wood-burning all over the world, is collecting in the Arctic, absorbing sunlight and contributing to record warmth (and ice melt) in that region. The AP reported just a couple of days ago that scientists now believe "that cutting the concentration of short-lived pollutants, such as soot, will reduce the rate of warming in the Arctic faster than cuts in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which last far longer in the atmosphere." This one seems obvious in retrospect. Anyone who's watched the difference in the rate of snow melt on asphalt as opposed to grass could figure it out -- if they knew that soot was accumulating in the Arctic.

But if all the soot from every car and power plant in the world could be scrubbed from the sky tomorrow, climate change would still continue. The Earth may be our mother, but she's often an indifferent one.

And, of course, she might kill us at any time, too. Folks in Japan recently received a harsh reminder of this sad truth.

And earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes and even plain old ordinary volcanoes (e.g., Mt. St. Helens) aren't the worst things that Mother Earth can hit us with. The eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Sumatra, around 74,000 years ago, seems to have caused an immediate global winter followed by an ice age of a thousand years or so. Some scientists believe that the Toba eruption may have also caused the near-extinction of the human race. The event has been linked, by some, to a 'bottleneck' in human evolution.

There's a supervolcano in our own backyard which erupted 1.2 million years ago and 640,000 years ago. We call it Yellowstone National Park. Scientists recently announced that the "gigantic underground plume of partly molten rock that feeds the Yellowstone supervolcano might be bigger than previously thought."
The volcanic plume of partly molten rock that feeds the Yellowstone supervolcano.
Yellow and red indicate higher conductivity, green and blue indicate lower
conductivity. Made by University of Utah geophysicists and computer scientists,
this is the first large-scale 'geoelectric' image of the Yellowstone hotspot.
Credit: University of Utah.
Eventually (though presumably not next week) Yellowstone will erupt again.

So let's celebrate Mother Earth on Earth Day and every day and do what we can to preserve our home. But let's not forget the need to keep learning how to figure out how best to preserve ourselves and our posterity from Mommie Dearest.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

There's nothing like a good pun


And this web comic, from Luke Surl, is nothing like one.

Still, I needed a laugh, even a pained one, with the White Sox on a losing streak and a wet, gray, misty, near-snow rain falling outside, and this comic provided it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Passwords obsolete? It's about time

The Chicago Tribune Breaking Business site reports a Reuters story this afternoon about passwords: The Obama administration, it seems, is against them.

Finally, some good news out of Washington.

Maybe.

See, the administration wants the private sector "to develop methods that consumers can use instead of passwords to identify themselves online," which sounds pretty good until one reads further that "the Commerce Department is also keenly aware that any attempt by the federal government to create a national identity card would be extremely controversial."

To say the least.

However, standardization of password structure might be very helpful. The problem is not that people can't handle complex or unique passwords; the problem is that most people can't handle 87 of them.

Soulless Megabank wants a password of not less than seven nor more than 11 characters, two of which must be numbers, one of which must be a punctuation mark.

2Big2Fail.com requires no more than eight characters, three of which must be numbers. And don't even think of using a punctuation mark.

On the other hand, Master-Visa-Express insists on a password that has no z's or x's, except on Tuesdays, or during a full moon when the password must be changed to only p's and v's.

Every one of these sites also requires the customer to provide a "user name." The customer often finds that the same user name will not work on every site. The user name might be the customer's last name... but some sites won't accept that. At least one initial, at least one number, or at least one character which is neither a letter nor a number must sometimes be added. The customer now has two things to remember for each site.

More and more of us are paying bills on line. Every vendor wants a password and every one has unique requirements. The security gurus tell us this is supposed to protect our security -- but with so many different passwords necessitated by so many different rules on each website, only a genius or savant can avoid writing these all down somewhere.

And the one thing we're never supposed to do with passwords is write 'em down.

And then there are the challenge questions. Many sites require customers to answer questions in advance in case he or she has trouble remembering the user name or password. Or in case the customer tries to sign in from a machine in which the site hasn't planted a cookie. And even when the customer is using a familiar machine and has remembered the user name and password, these questions may be asked anyway, just because. Now, if these were objective, factual questions (Where were you born? What was the name of your high school?) the challenge questions might be reasonable. But... what is your favorite color? How the heck do I know? Today it might be green. Tomorrow, blue. How will I remember, six months from now, how I answered that question today? And some sites have even more esoteric, speculative questions. What is your least favorite vegetable? What is your neighbor's favorite pasta? What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Some sites don't bother with challenge questions. These give you a limited number of chances to guess your user name and password combination and, when you exhaust these chances -- typically, three strikes and you're out -- the site assumes you must be an identity thief. The site then goes on total lockdown.

This is fine if someone really is trying to steal your identity. It is not particularly helpful if the bill must be paid by 4:00pm and it is already 3:57.

A standard password format might solve everything. As a nod to the paranoid, we could make the standard password 15 to 20 characters long. If the security gurus think that 15 to 20 characters is not enough, we could make it 25 or even 30. We could require that three characters be numbers or that two be neither letters or numbers. At least it would be only one password. I'm sure I could remember that.

Probably.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Today was International Be Kind to Lawyers Day

Honest. There's a web site and everything.

According to that web site, Be Kind to Lawyers Day is the brainchild of Steven Hughes, a non-lawyer from St. Louis. The web site explains:
[Hughes] had been working with attorneys for several years in the presentation and rainmaking arena. He liked his job and the clients who hired him.

However, whenever Steve mentioned to friends and neighbors that he worked with lawyers he was met with crinkled up faces, snide remarks and sarcastic sighs. They would say things like, "Lawyers? I bet that's a treat." Or, "Lawyers? You poor thing." (Can't you just feel the animosity?) Suddenly he found himself playing defense counsel for an entire profession.

Then one day as Steve was putting away the decorations from National Bubble Wrap Day (late January) his thoughts drifted to National Ice Cream Day (late July) and then it struck him. Why not a special day for lawyers? Lawyers are just as good as bubble wrap and ice cream, in fact, they're better. Thus, the idea for NATIONAL BE KIND TO LAWYERS DAY was hatched.

After extensive planning, detailed research and countless reviews by a team of legal experts, NATIONAL BE KIND TO LAWYERS DAY was established as an annual holiday celebrated on the second Tuesday in April. This date was chosen because it is strategically sandwiched between April Fool's Day and U.S. Tax Day on April 15th.
This is a very nice idea and, even if it's too late today for extensive celebration, I hope you start making big plans right now for April 10, 2012.


Although... bubble wrap is pretty cool, too.... (Go ahead... click on the link. You know you want to....)