Make your own air

One of the places I spoke on my recent trip to India was at the Paharpur Business Centre in Delhi. The owner, Kamal Meattle, gave me a tour of the top floor of the building, which contains a greenhouse that removes carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air, producing oxygen in the process.

Kamal was at TED recently and gave a very interesting presentation on this topic.

Whose father was he?

The first installment of this series in the New York Times — about the identification of the photo above, found clutched in a soldier’s hand after the battle of Gettysburg — was very good. Further installments are supposed to run each day this week.

Identifications like this happen all the time on, one of my favorite sites.

ADDENDUM: If the purpose of the Times article was to entice readers to follow the mystery by reading the Times on successive days, they should have used a different title for the photo. If you go to the article and look at the URL for the photo, it includes a family name (I edited that name out when I posted the photo above). Do a Google search on that name + children and you will find the complete story from other sources such as the Smithsonian.

Mathematica Home Edition

Wow. I am going to have a hard time resisting the temptation to spend $295 on this. At work we have a site license for the professional version, but I’ve never had the time to learn how to use it.

Q: How is Mathematica Home Edition different from the professional version of Mathematica?
Mathematica Home Edition is a fully functional version of Mathematica Professional with the same features.

Smart Grid

The $787 billion Stimulus Bill signed by President Obama includes an $11 billion investment in smart grid technology. How many people have any idea what the smart grid is all about? Here is some good background. From the article:

The grid took more than a century to grow into the unwieldy beast it is now. Given the urgency of climate change, energy independence, and economic demands, we have only a fraction of that time to fix it. But the solution won’t spring forth fully formed. This, the greatest engineering challenge of our era, must be solved the same way it was created—piece by piece, with utilities and consumers acting in their own interests. For too long, those interests have been misaligned. It’s time for a reset.

Global Guide to Tipping

I travel overseas a couple of times a year and never know how much to tip in hotels, taxis and restaurants. Via Newmark’s Door I found this international tipping guide from Forbes, which may help — though I’m sure I’ll still be confused.

Books the internet has made obsolete

I have a lot of books, and I’m running out of shelf space to keep them in. It occurred to me the other day that there are certain classes of books that no one with an internet connection really needs to own anymore.

1. The Dictionary. For sentimental reasons — it’s the one we had at home when I was growing up — I’ve always been partial to the American Heritage Dictionary. I have a copy of the Second College Edition, and I haven’t cracked it open in years. Whenever I see a word I’m not familiar with, I just google it. Try it. Do you know what petrichor is? I’m sure your nose does. Type define:petrichor into a Google search box.

There are other ways to find definitions on the web, but none of them are as convenient. For example there’s The address sounds promising — one of those URLs you imagine someone paid a lot of money for — but the site itself is a disappointment. For example, it could not find a definition of petrichor, a fact it revealed at the bottom of a page full of ads for petri dishes and other laboratory equipment. Plus it opened a pop-up ad. Fail.

2. Calculus textbook. This is not my original one from college — that I sold back to Follett’s for beer money sometime during the Ford administration. Years later I decided I needed a table of integrals and a general reference. But I haven’t opened that one in years either. Any time I need an integral I go to the Wolfram Mathematica Online Integrator. And for general mathematics, it’s hard to beat Mathworld — another Wolfram resource.

3. The Bible. Yeah, I have a copy. Two in fact: one in English and one in Spanish. I’d probably never get rid of either one of them — again, more for sentimental reasons than religious ones — but on the rare occasion when I need to look up some scripture, I go to the Bible Gateway, which has 20 different editions in English, and versions in dozen of other languages. For instance if you ever wondered what John 3:16 looks like in Cakchiquel, here it is:

Ri Dios can sibilaj yerajoˈ ri winek ri yecˈo chuwech re ruwachˈulef, y rumariˈ xutek cˈa pe ri Rucˈajol waweˈ chuwech re ruwachˈulef. Riyaˈ xaxu (xaxe wi) cˈa jun Rucˈajol cˈo, pero xutek pe riche (rixin) chi xabachique cˈa winek ri xtiniman riche (rixin), ma xtibe ta pa tijoj pokonal, xa can xticˈojeˈ cˈa rucˈaslen riche (rixin) xtibe kˈij xtibe sek.

4. The Encyclopedia. I don’t actually have a copy. My brother inherited the Britannica that our parents bought in the 60s (imagine what you’d find under computer). But I couldn’t finish this post without mentioning Wikipedia. A lot of people criticize it, but at least on major topics it’s as good or better than what it replaced.

I heard Clay Shirky mention that Wikipedia is the product of about 100 million hours of human effort. The time the human race spends in front of the television represents about 2000 Wikipedias a year. Imagine what could be achieved if that time were spent productively.

The downside of setting goals

Children are taught the importance of setting goals from a very early age: almost as soon as they learn to speak they are expected to have a Plan For The Future. In fact when we meet a child one of the first things we ask is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Although by all rights they should say “I don’t know yet”, they always seem to have an answer.

As children grow we expect their goals to change, but we always assume they will have one. By the time they are 18 years old we expect them to choose a university, and then a major field of study.

The devotion to goal-setting continues throughout life, probably nowhere more so than in the workplace. In my office we begin each year by writing a Performance Plan.

I have never seen anyone question this whole enterprise, which is why this article came as such a breath of fresh air. Read it and see for yourself.