31 January 2006

Another Reason To Buy Used

From CNN.com today:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - A Michigan environmental group is charging that at least part of the so-called "new car smell" is toxic, and that the interior of an automobile has dangerous levels of various chemicals.

The report, "Toxic at any speed," comes from The Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based group. It reports that PBDEs, used as fire retardants, and phthalates, used primarily to soften PVC plastics, are found in dangerous amounts in dust and windshield film samples.

It called for tougher regulations to phase out the use of the chemicals as well as voluntary moves by the auto manufacturers to stop using the products inside of new vehicles.

It also suggested that car owners take steps to reduce the release and breakdown of these chemicals by using solar reflectors, ventilating car interiors, and parking outside of sunlight whenever possible.

The group says that phthalates are partly responsible for the smell associated with new cars.

Drivers and passengers are exposed to these chemicals through inhalation and contact with dust, according to the group's report.

"These groups of chemicals have been linked to birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, premature births and early puberty in laboratory animals, among other serious health problems," according to the report.

This report will be very unsurprising to certain of my friends and family; it may be news to others. Regardless, it's something to consider when shopping for new vs. used wheels. I know that, if nothing else, the smell makes me feel pretty gross...

This is yet another example of various technologies that have hidden risks about which the public is relatively ill-informed. Don't even get me started about the way that the pharmaceutical industry sometimes handles testing (and marketing) of its products!

28 January 2006

The Inventor In The Family

I ran across this while, I'll admit, I was searching Google for my own name. From CNET News.com:

Strings stretch and bind. Fluctuations in humidity and string tension cause instrument necks to bow, arch and twist. Something--it is not always clear what--throws string pitch out of whack. Professional players on stage and in recording sessions find themselves twisting tuner knobs between every song and sometimes in the middle of songs.

"It is maddening that we play instruments that do not stay in tune for very long," Mike Marshall, one of the top mandolin and guitar players on the acoustic-music scene, wrote during a recent online discussion on the topic. "This seems a bit insane, considering the fact that we are surrounded by so much incredible technology."

Technology, it turns out, does offer a remedy for tuning problems--at least for those who play electric guitars. Backers and users of an electronic system called the Performer say it offers a big leap beyond the ubiquitous electronic pitch readers that, while reasonably accurate, still require the player to tune manually. It's also seen as a way to let players use the same instrument for a variety of musical purposes.

Those attributes have helped sell the system to rock icons Graham Nash, Jimmy Page and Joe Perry, along with other concert-stage veterans.

With the touch of a button, The Performer is designed to automatically tune open, unfretted strings to whatever notes the player programs into the system's computer. The retuning can happen any time the player has a moment to strum on open strings, even in the middle of a song.

"Now how," you might wonder, "is this at all related to Brian poking around the Internet for mention of himself?" Well, the connection can be found here (emphasis mine):

As it is currently offered, The Performer is designed to readjust the tension on all six strings simultaneously in about five seconds, with the push of a button. A small LCD screen cut into the guitar body displays the note, octave and "cent value" of each string. (A cent is a unit of relative pitch; there are 1,200 cents in one octave). Neil Skinn, the man who developed the system, says the gadget's tuning is accurate to within 2 cents.

And yep, we're related... Neil is my dad's youngest brother. So, I've got an Uncle Inventor! Is it not nifty?


Ok, well, I think it's pretty cool, anyways. :-P

In all seriousness, from what I understand of what's involved in playing a guitar, the ability to automatically retain tuning is powerful enough in and of itself. However, the ability to dynamically retune mid-song seems like something that could lead to all sorts of awesome sounds.

<shrug> I could be wrong. :-)

Regardless, if you or anyone you know plays electric guitar and wants the ability to re-tune automatically, please link 'em to this. I'm sure my uncle wouldn't mind a little word-of-mouth advertising. ;-)

Some additional links:

11 January 2006

Kelo, Norwood, And Ohio Issue #1

I'm sure you all remember the Kelo decision last year regarding eminent domain. In the event that you don't, I've got posts about it. Regardless, Kelo has come to Ohio. Michelle Malkin points to this AP story:

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Joy and Carl Gamble say they just wanted to retire peacefully in the dream home where they've lived for more than 35 years, but the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood had other plans for their property.

Using its power of eminent domain, the city planned to take the neighborhood, which it considers to be deteriorating, and allow a $125 million development of offices and shops to rise in its place.

The two sides took their argument to the state Supreme court on Wednesday in the first challenge of property rights laws to reach a state high court since the U.S. Supreme Court last summer allowed municipalities to seize homes for use by a private developer.

As I understand it, the situation here is much the same as in New London (the city involved in the Kelo case): a private developer wants a certain piece of land to develop commercially, but the current private owners don't wish to sell and leave the land. So, the developer asked the city of Norwood to take the land by eminent domain and sell it to them. Per Kelo, increased tax revenues represent the putative 'public benefit' through which the city of Norwood could validly apply eminent domain.

Along with various others, I find it stupefying (and mildly terrifying) that local governments have been given a big SCOTUS thumbs-up to the ability to arbitrarily take property from a private entity and hand it over to another private entity. As I've written before, that capability has a strong whiff of socialism about it, and I'm not at all keen on that idea. I think that transactions like those disputed in Kelo and the various Norwood cases should be handled in an entirely capitalistic fashion: if the company wants the land, then they should have to buy it from the current owners at a price named by the owners. If the developer isn't willing to pay that or the current owners aren't willing to sell, too bad. If the developer wants land that the current owner is really attached to, then they need to factor the (possibly exorbitant) cost of getting that land into their initial cost estimates of the proposed project involving that land. Simple as that.

The previous point aside, the thing that really worries me is this: in the most recent November elections, Ohio voters passed Issue #1, which was an amendment to the Ohio Constitution geared towards spurring industrial, commercial, and research development in Ohio. Now, I'll grant that on the surface this really is a pretty good thing... I mean, developing those things is generally a smart plan. Most of the complaints I heard about Issue #1 centered around the proposed source of funding for this development: the text in sections three through five allows for bonds to be issued to pay for it, which basically means development now, debt later. Definitely a valid concern. However, in a vein more germane to this post, sections two and six speak to issues related to eminent domain (emphasis mine):

This proposed amendment would:


2. Declare that local government public infrastructure, and financial assistance for research and development and development of sites and facilities in Ohio for and in support of industry, commerce and distribution (all referred to together as “development purposes”) are public purposes.


6. Authorize the General Assembly to pass laws providing for its implementation, including laws providing procedures for issuing obligations, ensuring the accountability of all state funding provided for development purposes, restricting or limiting the taking by eminent domain of private property for disposition to private sector entities for research and development and the development of sites and facilities, and for the implementation of the research and development purposes to benefit people and businesses otherwise qualified for the receipt of funding in all areas of Ohio, including economically disadvantaged business and individuals in all areas of the state, including by the use Ohio products, materials, services and labor to the extent practicable.

So. The wording in section two is somewhat vague, but it could either mean that development for commercial, industrial, or research purposes is a 'public purpose,' or that funding for such development is a 'public purpose.' In either case, though, it's readily arguable that seizing, for examble, part of East Cleveland by eminent domain and handing it over to, say, Case Western Reserve University or University Hospitals to build, say, a new cancer research center would be perfectly acceptable because, look! It's RESEARCH!! That's a public purpose! Wheee!!!

"But wait!" you say. "Didn't section six restrict such takings?" Nope! Because section six doesn't actually restrict takings by eminent domain, it just gives the Ohio General Assembly the power to make law restricting (or not) the applicability of eminent domain in these sorts of situations. It provides no real protection to Ohio property owners.

So. Private ownership of property in Ohio is protected by the whims of officials at both the local and state level of government. Dunno about you, but I feel safer already.

10 January 2006

I Probably Shouldn't Link To This...

... as I fear that I'm opening a biiiig can of worms (knowing my friends). :-P

So, look here. And read the disclaimer all the way through. And take it seriously I am totally not kidding.

Normal laser pointers are (I believe) Class I; the ones being sold on the site above are Class IIIb, and:

The beam from a class IIIb laser can cause serious or even permanent eye damage and the blink reflex is not quick enough to prevent this damage.

(Laser classes are described here.)

Fun, eh? Now you know why I probably shouldn't have linked to this. :-P