Factlet of the Day

From a New York Times Magazine article about gigantic data centers and the power it takes to run them:

While it once took 30 to 50 years for electricity costs to match the cost of the server itself, the electricity on a low-end server will now exceed the server cost itself in less than four years — which is why the geography of the cloud has migrated to lower-rate areas.

According to Jonathan Koomey, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the internet consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world’s electricity.

Yesterday I posted a chart showing that as Iran's Interior Ministry announced election results throughout the day, the winning percentage for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stayed almost eerily constant.  It seemed likely that in a genuine election there would have been a little more variation, so this looked like a piece of evidence that the vote count had been rigged.

It still seems likely that the vote was rigged, but the steady vote count apparently doesn't prove anything one way or the other.  Nate Silver plotted the 2008 U.S. election results using waves of states in alphabetical order, and he came up with an almost dead straight line, just like the Iranian results.  One of Andrew Sullivan's readers did the same with the results as announced every half hour through the night, and again the line was as straight as a laser.  So this is apparently a null piece of evidence.

But now I'm curious.  The Sullivan graph shows that by 7:30 pm Eastern time, when you have two data points, you could predict the final popular vote in the 2008 election with about 99% accuracy.  Question: would you get the same results if you plotted the last five or six elections?  If so, it means that most years we'll know with almost complete certainty who the winner is by 7:30 pm, exit polls be damned.  Can this really be true?

New York, New York

In a couple of weeks I'll be taking a few days off and jetting to New York City for a short vacation.  Marian has never been before, and neither has half of the couple we're going with.  So far, the Circle Line tour and the Empire State building are on the agenda, as well as an afternoon at Carnegie Hall, where a friend of ours is singing.  Anybody have other suggestions?  Both obvious and nonobvious ones are OK.  We're staying at a place on 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, so restaurant suggestions in the general area would be great too.

Marian constructed our San Francisco weekend a couple of months ago out of suggestions from commenters, which is why I'm going back to the commentariat for help again.  You guys were great with Bay Area recommendations.

Also, anyone know the best place online to get Broadway show tickets?

Getting Out the Vote

Alex Moskalyuk reviews Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive and offers up this summary of #15:

Labeling people into a social group tends to increase their participation ratio. A group of people was interviewed regarding their voting patterns. Half of them were told that based on their response criteria, they were very likely to vote, since they were deemed to be more politically active. Later on the election day that specific half did indeed turn up a participation rate that was 15% higher than participation of the control group.

Hmmm.  This sounds pretty handy as sort of the mirror image of a push poll.  (1) Identify people likely to vote for your guy, (2) call them up and ask them to participate in a survey because they're "politically active," (3) watch them show up to the polls at a higher rate than normal.  Result: as long as you've done (1) reasonably well, instant boost for your candidate.  Campaign managers take note.

In the two weeks since the Air France 447 crash, I’ve written several times about the possibility that composite parts may have played a role in the disaster. This prospect has dire implications for the future, since these lightweight, fiber and resin materials are increasingly replacing aluminum in aircraft construction. AF 447 was an Airbus A330-200, a plane a body fuselage built of metal, but significant levels of  composite in its other parts–most importantly, the wings and the tail. 
Now, wreckage recoved from the crash shows that 447 may have broken up in midair–which raises new questions and offering new clues on this subject of composites, according to a piece today in the Christian Science Monitor.

“There is a very compelling need to find the wreckage,” says Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation safety consultant. “We need to know, if some of the composite parts failed [on Flight 447, whether they failed at a point that any other material would have failed."
Some of the biggest pieces of debris found so far appear to be the plane's tail fin and vertical stabilizer. These parts are made partially of composite materials, and their failure has contributed to several crashes in the past. In the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus 300 with a similar design to the A330, the vertical stabilizer snapped off in severe turbulence. One of the first questions investigators addressed was whether the composite materials used in the component contributed to the crash, according to Mr. Healing.

The Vote in Iran

The chart on the right comes from Andrew Sullivan, and it shows the size of the announced vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in six different official announcements on Saturday.  As Andrew says, "They didn't even attempt to disguise the fraud."  A real vote count would have shown at least a little bit of variation during the day, not the laser-like precision of this one, which shows Ahmadinejad winning almost exactly two-thirds of the vote against reformist challenger Mir Hussein Mousavi every step of the way.

I was at a book party for Bob Wright's The Evolution of God last night, and even then it was obvious that the Interior Ministry was probably rigging the vote.  One of the topics of conversation was: when autocracies decide to do something like this, why do they do it so clumsily?  Why not give Ahmadinejad 52.7% of the vote, which would be at least within the realm of reason?  Or force a runoff and let Ahmadinejad win a week from now?  Why perpetrate such an obvious fraud?

Hard to say.  Maybe it's just too hard to orchestrate something more believable.  Maybe, against all evidence, they believe that smashing victories are always more convincing than close ones.  Maybe it's just rank panic and stupidity.  It's a mystery — and a counterproductive one, too: there isn't a person on the planet who thinks that Ahmadinejad could have won two-thirds of the vote with a turnout of 85%, and the possibility of inciting an internal revolt is a lot higher with a barefaced fraud like this than it would be with something a little more subtle.

On the other hand, maybe we're looking at this through the wrong lens.  Obviously something about Mousavi started to badly spook the powers-that-be during the past week, and maybe they decided something needed to be done about it.  Maybe they wanted to provoke a round of violence from Mousavi's supporters as an excuse to lead a crackdown on dissidents.  And what better way to do that than to make the election rigging so obvious even a child could see it?

Maybe.  My crystal ball is cloudy, though.  I'm not sure what to make of this.

UPDATE: Juan Cole summarizes the evidence that the vote was rigged and then speculates about what happened:

Just as a first reaction, this post-election situation looks to me like a crime scene. And here is how I would reconstruct the crime.

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning....The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose.

They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts. This clumsy cover-up then produced the incredible result of an Ahmadinejad landlside in Tabriz and Isfahan and Tehran.

The reason for which Rezaie and Karoubi had to be assigned such implausibly low totals was to make sure Ahmadinejad got over 51% of the vote and thus avoid a run-off between him and Mousavi next Friday, which would have given the Mousavi camp a chance to attempt to rally the public and forestall further tampering with the election.

This scenario accounts for all known anomalies and is consistent with what we know of the major players.

UPDATE 2: The election still seems likely to have been rigged, but this chart apparently isn't evidence for it one way or the other.   Details here.

Since the stimulus package kicked into action, the federal government has been hiring at unprecedented rates. But if you're job-hunting and you think that office culture is uniform across all agencies and departments, think again.

Enter BestPlacesToWork.org. This ranking system uses ten categories including "effective leadership, employee skills/mission match and work/life balance" to rate the best and worst federal employers. Granted, none of them have Google's perks (or do they?), but some departments' worker satisfaction is pretty darn high.


1. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

It's great to work here because: A. You have the power to save (or destroy) the world, B. you get to work in places like Area 51, and C. nobody messes with you.

2. Government Accountability Office

It's great to work here because: A. You get to tell other people how to do their jobs, B. you are fulfilled because when you talk, Congress listens, and C. your colleagues are a bunch of accountants without the power trips of political appointees.

3. National Aeronautics and Space Administration

It's great to work here because: A. It's a science-fiction nerd's fantasyland, B. you get to re-enact scenes from Apollo 13 during lunch time, and C. the sky's the limit (literally).


28. Department of Homeland Security

Problem: If you had to put old ladies' shoes through an x-ray machine 42 times a day, you'd be miserable too.

Possible Solution: Maybe those new whole-body image scanners will be more visually appealing.

29. National Archives and Records Administration

Problem: Ever since Sandy Berger walked out with an armload of uber-classified documents, its reputation has gone downhill.

Possible Solution: A newly found letter from Abe Lincoln will give the Archives a second chance to prove that it can properly secure important documents.

30. Department of Transportation

Problem: There are so many to mention. Air traffic control methods are antiquated, America's railways are pathetic, and GM just went under.

Possible Solution: Build a shrine to Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger.



Almost by mistake, the Senate passed legislation Thursday that could greatly benefit the environment. By a margin of 79-17, Senators approved a bill that will allow the Food and Drug Administration to place substantial regulations on tobacco products. Most of the regulations are aimed at reducing the number of people who begin smoking at a young age by banning fruit-flavored cigarettes and cartoonish packaging and ads aimed at children. Such efforts would undoubtedly improve the nation’s collective health. But applying higher taxes and stricter rules to tobacco product sales could also clean up the stain cigarettes leave on the planet.

BUTTsOUT, an international organization dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of smoking, reports that 4.3 trillion cigarettes are disposed on the side of roads, in water sources, and in public parks every year. And cigarette butts, which take more than 25 years to decompose, account for more than 50 percent of all litter in most western countries. Growing tobacco contaminates water supplies, destroys soil, and consumes almost four miles of paper every hour during the factory rolling process.

This legislation is good news for the 440,000 smokers that cigarettes kill each year. And if it can clean up tobacco's environmental mess at the same time? We'll all breathe a little easier.

First, check out this vivid simulation of the ugly synergy between population growth and C02 emissions. It's called Breathing Earth and it simulates realtime births outpacing deaths as carbon dioxide emissions spew at ~1,000-tons a second.

Too bad we can't turn Breathing Earth into the default screensaver on all new computers. Maybe: from screensaver to worldsaver.

Another interesting simulation, this one published in an upcoming PNAS, describes how Earth's 1-billion-year lifespan can be more than doubled by adjusting atmospheric pressure.

[Simply put: the only reason we can't breath easily atop Mount Everest is not because there's less oxygen in the air. In fact there's the same amount of oxygen at 29,000 feet as there is as at sea level. What's different is a greatly reduced atmospheric pressure that causes oxygen molecules to be dispersed over a much greater volume of space.]

Well, about a billion years from now, believe it or not, greenhouse Earth will fail. Ever-increasing radiation from our aging sun will heat Earth to the point where atmospheric C02—the kickstarter for plants that turn inorganic sunlight into organic life—will have been pulled out of the air by weathering rocks. Oceans will evaporate. The atmosphere will burn away. All life will disappear.

But Caltech researchers propose a solution: Reduce the total pressure of the atmosphere itself by removing massive amounts of molecular nitrogen.

Nitrogen is the mostly nonreactive gas comprising 78 percent of the atmosphere. Removing a bunch of it would regulate surface temperatures and allow C02 to stay alive in the atmosphere and support life for an additional 1.3 billion years.

Strikingly, no external influence [read: intelligent life or intelligent design] is necessary to remove N. The biosphere will accomplish this task all by itself—since nitrogen is incorporated into the cells of living organisms and is sequestered with them when they die.

In fact this reduction may already be underway. Earth's atmospheric pressure may be lower now than it was earlier in the planet's history. To assess this, some researchers are examining gas bubbles formed in ancient lavas to determine past atmospheric pressure.


"Law enforcement's challenge every day is to balance the civil liberties of US citizens against the need to investigate activities that might lead to criminal conduct," Joseph Persichini, Jr. of the FBI said yesterday. He was struggling to explain why, despite 88-year-old James Von Brunn's website full of hate speech, his criminal record, and numerous other warning signs, the FBI wasn't actively investigating him when he mowed down a security guard at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday.

But consider the case of Syed Haris Ahmed, a 24-year-old Georgia Tech student who was found guilty of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists on Wednesday. His crime bears a lot of resemblance to the stuff that Von Brunn had been getting away with for years: He wrote emails and chatted online about engaging in violence. In his case, it was jihad. (For the record, evidence against Ahmed also included amateurish "casing videos" of Washington landmarks.)

US Attorney David Nahmias openly admitted that Ahmed’s case did not involve an imminent threat or act of violence. “We will not wait to disrupt terrorism-related activity until a bomb is built and ready to explode,” he explained. “The fuse that leads to an explosion of violence may be long, but once it is lit...we will prosecute them to snuff that fuse out." Ahmed is now facing 15 years in prison. He's already spent the last three in solitary confinement at Atlanta's US Penitentiary.

It makes you wonder if law enforcement applies a different standard to different kinds of terrorists. And if they think some terrorists' civil liberties are more sacred than others'. One thing is certain: They shouldn't, because if we've learned anything in the past few weeks from James Von Brunn and Scott P. Roeder, it's that old white men can do a lot more damage than young Muslim ones.