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Microsoft shuts down utility monitoring service, proves you can’t go Hohm again

Is there anything more tragic than a broken Hohm? Microsoft announced this week that it will be shuttering its utility monitoring service at the close of May 2012, citing a lack of consumer adoption. The news comes a week after Google announced the closing of its competing PowerMeter service. Despite the shutdown, however, Microsoft assures us all that it's still in the business of developing energy solutions for cities with a wide-ranging list of partners. Hohm itself will continue to operate through the end of May 2012, at which point its users will be rendered Hohmless.

[Thanks to everyone who sent this in]

Microsoft shuts down utility monitoring service, proves you can't go Hohm again originally appeared on Engadget on Thu, 30 Jun 2011 17:13:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Tangled web

Now, it's true that nobody cares what Rick Santorum thinks, but he has articulated the central conundrum of the Obama presidency:

A visibly angry Santorum told Fox News host Greta Van Susteren that Obama’s targeting of corporate jet owners defies the candidate’s pledge to bring Americans together.

That is the basis of GOP strength: Obama promises to bring the two sides together, they refuse to cooperate and then blame him for failing to fulfill his promise. Meanwhile the Village media tut-tuts themselves into a frenzy if he's the tiniest bit confrontational and the country blames him right along with the Republicans because they hate the fighting and believe Gloria Borger when she tells them both sides are acting like children.

Maybe it's not such a good idea to promise to bring people together when they have fundamental disagreements about how to solve our problems and one side has gone completely insane.

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The Perfect vs. the Good: Tackling Maternal Mortality in Mozambique [The Pump Handle]

NPR's Melissa Block traveled to Mozambique, where poverty and a shortage of both healthcare providers and facilities contribute to a high maternal mortality rate, for the first segment of the "Beginnings" series that will air throughout the summer on All Things Considered. She starts off with some grim statistics:

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Solution: clap like crazy for the confidence fairy, she’s all we’ve got.

Jon Stewart takes issue with both sides of the aisle for their stubbornness in the debt ceiling talks and asks if there's anything they both agree upon. Then he shows some funny clips of Democrats and Republicans saying that the other side is kooky and delusional. What he fails to note is that there is one thing that both sides have already agreed upon: somewhere in the neighborhood two trillion dollars in spending cuts.

The only thing that's currently under debate is whether some gluttonously profitable oil companies should get their subsidies cut (until their lobbyists can sneak them back in) and whether CEOs should have to pay a little bit more in taxes for their corporate jets. That's the substance of the partisan argument. And somehow, I have the feeling that the Democrats are not going to tank the world economy because of CEO jet travel. And neither are the Republicans. The real problem is what they've already agreed to.

Dday has a great piece on that subject today in which he points out that the only leverage the Democrats have left is to deploy the so-called constitutional option, whereby the president simply orders the treasury to pay the nation's debts. I don't expect that will be necessary since I don't think the wholly owned subsidiaries of Wall Street in the congress are interested in angering their masters. (It's interesting that Tim Geithner apparently mentioned it today. It appears that the pageant is going to have quite the suspenseful third act.)

But Dday's analysis of the real stakes in this kabuki shows they are much higher than people are acknowledging:

I’m not only worried about the problem of the debt limit. I’m worried about the solution. Near-term fiscal contraction is going to kill an already sick economy. If anything will produce market uncertainty, it’s a double-dip recession, which is entirely possible in an extreme scenario where there’s a lot of deficit reduction at the federal level to match all of it at the state level. No less than Bill Clinton explains this:

“If they [the Republicans] said, look, that now is not the time for big tax increases to harm the recovery, they would be right,” Clinton told ABC News in an exclusive interview at the Clinton Global Initiative America conference in Chicago. “But it’s also right to say that now’s not the time for big spending cuts.

“What I’d like to see them do is agree on the outlines of a 10-year plan and agree not to start either the revenue hikes or the spending cuts until we’ve got this recovery underway,” Clinton added. “The confidence that the Republicans say would be given to investors with a budget plan, they’d get whether we started this year or next year or the year after that, for that matter.”

For the first time, the former president is focusing his Clinton Global Initiative on creating jobs here in the United States. He suggested waiting for the recovery to take hold before pushing spending cuts and tax increases will make the issues clearer.

“We’ve got to get the jobs back in this economy again,” Clinton said. “The more people we get going back to work, the more businesses we start, that’ll bring up the revenue flow, and it will cut down on the expenses. Then, we’ll see what the real dimensions of our problem are.”

Well, we wouldn't want to do that, now would we? We might find out that a good portion of these deficit projections were based on the fact that 20 million people who wanted to work full time couldn't find a job! That would waste this marvelous Shock Doctrine moment. (Having the Democrats lead the way is just icing on the cake...)

Everyone who reads this blog already knows what I think of these "negotiations." There's simply no excuse for the Democrats to have gotten to this point in the first place and I hold them equally, if not more, responsible for the repurcussions. There can be no excuses -- "the president had no choice" or "they didn't have the votes." Bullshit. The GOP signaled long ago what they were doing. The Dems could have held tough for a clean vote --- and taken it to the people if they had to. Would they have been any worse off politically than they are now?

How's this working out for them:

Where are the adults in Washington?
By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst

Call me old-fashioned, but when the president and congressional leaders get into a tussle over who should be "leading" the country in matters of real national consequence, I feel like sending them to their rooms.

(Good thing she didn't use the "d" word or she might have gotten in trouble.)

Clearly, the Democrats believe that at the end of the day massive spending cuts will be so popular that the beltway and the people will reward them with fawning press and a big majority. I'm guessing they'll get the first, but if it tanks the economy even more I'm guessing that Michele Bachman is their only hope. They'd better pray the confidence fairy is so impressed with all this that it waves a magic wand and creates a gigantic boom that will make everyone in the country so rich that even the old and sick will be able to survive just by picking up the hundred dollar bills that are lying all over the sidewalks.

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What’s So Interesting About Extreme Lasers? [Uncertain Principles]

The second in the DAMOP research categories I talked about is "Extreme Lasers," a name I was somewhat hesitant to use, as every time I see "Extreme [noun]," I get a flash of Stephen Colbert doing air guitar. It is, however, the appropriate term, because these laser systems push the limits of what's possible both in terms of the pulse duration (attosecond pulses are common, with 1as = 0.000000000000000001 s) and the pulse intensity (1014 W/cm2 is a typical order-of-magnitude, and some systems get much higher than that).

One of the main tricks for generating these ultra-short pulses is to do high-harmonic-generation (HHG) by blasting a femtosecond duration, very intense infrared laser pulse into a sample of gas (typically noble gases: He, Ne, Ar, Kr, Xe). These pulses are sufficiently intense that they can be thought of as basically a huge classical electric field-- the number of photons in the pulse is large enough that it's not worth trying to keep track. When the field get big, it strips electrons off of the gas atoms, and accelerates them away. A short time later, though, the field reverses direction, and accelerates the electrons back toward the atoms they came from. When they get back, they have acquired a great deal of kinetic energy, which is carried off in the form of a high-energy photon when the electron recombines with the ionized atom.

HHG_schematic.png

(Figure from this Nature Photonics article, available for free from the Kapteyn-Murnane Group page at JILA.)

When you work out all the details of the process, you find that you get pulses of high-energy photons (ultraviolet and even x-rays) that last a few attoseconds. What's more, the pulses are generated at multiples of the original laser frequency (hence the "harmonic" in HHG), and come out in coherent beams along the original direction of the exciting laser.

So, what's exciting to do with this sort of system?

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Greg Sargent exposes the Village Virgins

Oh hell, I had half a post written about this Mark Halperin flap (he said the president was "kind of a dick" on Morning Joe)and then saw this by Greg Sargent and realized it had already been written.

I’m sorry, but this is crazy. Halperin’s crack was crude and dumb, but it doesn’t deserve indefinite suspension. Halperin’s use of an expletive is trival when compared with the degradation of our political discourse we witness on a regular basis from Halperin and many others — degradation that is seen as perfectly acceptable because no curse words are employed. Suspending Halperin only reinforces a phony definition of “civility” in our discourse, in which it’s unacceptable to use foul language and be “uncivil,” but it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted; to traffic endlessly in false equivalences in the name of some bogus notion of objectivity; and to make confident assertions about public opinion without referring to polls which show them to be completely wrong.

I care less about Halperin’s use of the word “dick” than I do about the argument he and Joe Scarborough were making — that Obama somehow stepped over some kind of line in aggressively calling out the GOP for refusing to allow any revenues in a debt ceiling deal. This notion that Obama’s tone was somehow over the top — when politics is supposed to be a rough clash of visions — is rooted in a deeply ingrained set of unwritten rules about what does and doesn’t constitute acceptable political discourse that really deserve more scrutiny. This set of rules has it that it should be treated as a matter of polite, legitimate disagreement when Michele Bachmann says deeply insane things about us not needing to raise the debt limit, but it should be seen as an enormously newsworthy gaffe when she commits a relatively minor error about regional trivia.


This really is nonsense. It's not the word "dick" that's the problem, fergawdsake. It's not pictures of dicks either. It's that these people have contrived this absurd set of shallow manners in which saying dick or taking a picture of a dick is wrong while lying, manipulating and cavalierly risking the country's future (which is what Obama was allegedly being a dick about!) is considered perfectly acceptable.

It's the perfect manifestation of the Village. A bunch of decadent aristocrats pretending to be virgins and nuns, moralizing over trivia as a "lesson" for the rubes, all the while indulging in a debauched orgy of power and privilege.

Read the whole thing. Sargent discusses Halperin's personal part in creating this ridiculous system and admits that it's poetic justice that he would be caught up in it. But keep in mind that among Halperin's fellow Villagers, calling President Obama a "dick" will be considered an act of macho rebellion --- and that being suspended in the middle of the summer is unlikely to be a hardship for a millionaire.

It's a brave piece for a Washington Post writer to write. Bravo.

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Inside Nature’s Giants: polar bear special [Tetrapod Zoology]

So sorry for the very short notice. The following airs here in the UK tonight (Thursday 30th June 2011), Channel 4. I look forward to it.

ING-POLAR-BEAR-front-June-2011.jpg

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5 Simple Tips for Creating an Effective FAQ Page

A Frequently Asked Questions page is necessary if you’re selling something, providing a service, or giving information about a complex subject. It takes the guesswork away from your visitors who may have questions, and makes the experience that much easier. When designing a FAQ page, usability should be at the top of the list of criteria to meet – after all you don’t want it to turn into a black hole of information. In this article I will present effective techniques and solutions to designing a FAQ page, with consideration given to how visitors will use the page.

Remember that a FAQ should supplement good content, with answers to those questions also found elsewhere on the site. It’s a section of questions that visitors genuinely ask and should be arranged with care. Above all, keep it simple! Your user is more interested in finding specific information than anything else. Read on to discover how to best present a FAQ page.

Gather Appropriate Questions

In putting together questions for inclusion on your site, it’s essential they be real. Give yourself a month and collect all the questions you receive from customers in that time frame via email or direct calls.

Another valuable research technique is to ask good friends or customers to give you feedback on your products or service. What questions popped into their minds when they visited your website. (You might offer a small gift or discount to your customers in exchange for feedback.)

After getting everyone’s comments, assemble the questions and group by category. For example, questions about how quickly you ship products would be under your “Shipping” category, etc.

Takeaways:

  • Write your FAQ in a “Question & Answer” format.
  • Organize the questions in each category so the most important questions appear near the top.
  • If you’re having trouble collecting questions, announce an open question period on your website.

Questions and answers are clearly displayed on the website for Pixelmator.

Provide an Adequate Entry Point

If you’re going to provide a FAQ page, finding it should be easy for your visitors. A distinct, well-positioned link will do the trick. There are a few good entry points which I’ve gathered:

  • Main Navigation: It’s hard to miss when it’s right there with the meat and bones.
  • Subsection of the help or about pages: When someone has a question about your site or company, the help or about sections are the first logical places they’ll look.
  • Double exposure: Even better is if you link to your FAQ twice on your index page. For example you can include a link in both the header and footer.

A support link is displayed in the top navigation on VersionApps.

Readability

I’ve stressed at the beginning of this article how important the information in this section is, and how users are primarily concerned with scanning to find their appropriate topic for an answer. The best way to achieve customers satisfaction in this area is to provide typography with a good contrast between the background and the text itself and to address line and letter spacing.

Takeaways:

  • Distinguish questions from answers, whether by color, size, typeface or decoration.
  • Page length should be kept to a minimum. Endless scrolling will tire users and cause them to leave before finding answers to their questions. Make sure each question and answer pair is valuable.

Tinkering Monkey uses a different font and size to differentiate the questions from the answers.

Categorize Questions

Categories are the best way to organize a longer FAQ. Categorization aids readability, so it’s important to design a hierarchy that users can easily access. Give short, intuitive names to each category to further enhance readability and avoid confusion. You also don’t want to include more categories than are necessary, so choose them wisely based on the questions you’ve collected earlier.

  • Create a “Table of Contents” at the top of your FAQ page and put the most asked questions here.
  • Hyperlink them so your customer just has to click to get to the answer. Or hyperlink your categories at the top of the page.
  • If you have more than 10 questions, it’s a good idea to list your questions without showing the answers directly under them, and instead include a link.
  • Order questions according to priority and frequency of the query. Questions can also be grouped together by topic.

Mint.com has a well-categorized FAQ page complete with succinct and descriptive categories. Their most frequently viewed questions help guide the users to pertinent topics.

 

Comcast’s FAQ page, while not over the top, allows the user to click on a question and be directed immediately to the corresponding answer via JavaScript.

Provide Assistance

If a user can’t find an answer to their question, it would be a great idea to allow them to contact you directly. A question or contact form that allows them to achieve this through your FAQ page is the best alternative.

  • Place the contact form prominently on your FAQ page, allowing visitors to reach you easily.

Search

If a FAQ has many categories and sub-categories, search becomes more important than ever. It’s essential for longer FAQ pages where a customer is likely to encounter lots of questions.

  • FAQ search should differ from a regular site search and be clearly designated in order to reduce the amount of results that turn up.

The label of the search feature on the FAQ page of SurveyMonkey works well.

SXSW clearly designates their search field through bold typography and a catchy illustration.

Summary

While not the most glamorous part of any given site to design, the FAQ is where a user goes when they have a question about the rest of the site. With this in mind, it’s pivotal that you address usability concerns in the design of the FAQ. Putting careful thought into how your users will use your FAQ’s is of the utmost concern, as you intend to have these visitors stick around for the duration.

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How Can We Keep Students From Jobless Subjects? [Aardvarchaeology]

Here's a piece of radical Libertarian politics for you. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, Svenskt Näringsliv, is an respectable mainstream employers' organisation. Their people have identified a problem with the Swedish university system, viz, that unemployed people are entering undergraduate programs that do not actually make them employable. The Confederation points out the Humanities specifically. And they suggest a solution: students in these programs should not receive the same amount of study loans as other students.

I agree that the problem exists, but not with the suggested solution. The problem is actually due to the orthodox marketism that the Confederation espouses, where universities compete for students according to the students' demand. If the students want an MA in queer Mickey Mouse studies, then that's what Swedish universities will offer. Trouble is, the students are not making rational or informed choices. They do not know or care what education they need to have a decent career. They are 19 and choose on a whim.

My solution to the problem is to change whose demand decides what university programs will be offered. Don't ask the students. Ask the employers, by means of the unemployment statistics. It is much cheaper for society as a whole if university teachers in jobless subjects are allowed to do research full time for a few years than if they have to educate a new generation of unemployed queer Mickey Mouse experts.

Via my buddy Ny Björn, who doesn't share my views.

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Static Electricity Isn’t What You Were Taught! [Starts With A Bang]

"Electricity can be dangerous. My nephew tried to stick a penny into a plug. Whoever said a penny doesn't go far didn't see him shoot across that floor. I told him he was grounded." -Tim Allen
I know what you're thinking. "Of course I know what static electricity is!" Oh, really? Let's go through the basics.

_van-de-graff-hair_raising.jpeg

You've all (hopefully) gotten to play with a Van de Graaff Generator at some point. It's one of the simplest electricity demonstrations there is. You stand on something like a milk crate, touch your hands to the generator, have someone turn it on, and your hair (for those of you with hair) stands up on its end!

The reason for this, of course, is that when you turn the Van de Graaff Generator on, the top of it charges up (with positive charges). If you're connected to it, then you charge up with positive charges as well.

3366-004-8E50176E.gif

Since positive charges repel one another, those of you with straight enough, long enough hair will notice that the electric forces in your hair easily become more important than gravity or any other electric forces. This causes the very fun phenomenon of causing your hair to stand on end, since positive charges repel other positive charges.

van-de-graaff-generator-girl-hair-stand-on-end.jpeg

Now, what you're used to calling static electricity is a little different. You probably think of rubbing two objects together, like your socks on the carpet, or a piece of glass with some silk.

static.gif

And, as you were (properly) taught, one of these materials loses electrons, leaving it positively charged, while the other one gains electrons, leaving it negatively charged.

This applies to a whole bunch of things, like rubbing a balloon against your hair.

Balloon_hair.jpeg

After a good static charging, you'll notice that the balloon can do all sorts of interesting things: cause your hair to stand up, stick to the wall, or annoy the ever-living-daylights out of your poor grandpa.

static electricity.jpeg

How does this happen? Presumably, you've stolen some electrons from the balloon leaving it positively charged. And when you bring it close to a neutral object -- like a wall -- you attract the "opposite" charges on the wall (the electrons) and repel the "like" charges (the nuclei). As long as this configuration remains, the balloon will remain stuck to the wall, as the electric forces, due to static electricity, will hold it in place.

Induced Charge on Balloon.jpeg

And that's how you were taught static electricity works.

Turns out, that picture is not quite right. Why not? Imagine what should happen if you take two identical materials, like two sheets of office paper.

PRB04128_1_1.jpeg

If you rubbed them together, you'd expect that neither one would wind up with a static charge on them, right? They're made of the same material, so neither one should give up negative charges to the other, and so there shouldn't be any charge.

Only, that's not what happens. Let's take a closer look at this sheet of office paper.

eyeontechfig2Plastic.jpeg

(Image credit: Del Atkinson, Durham University.)

Smooth as paper might seem, at a microscopic level there are tiny imperfections on the surface, visible in the image above. When you take two of these sheets of paper (or any two identical materials) and rub them together, what do you suppose happens to the voltages on the surface? Amazingly enough, no one had done this experiment until this past year! But thanks to Professor Grzybowski's group at Northwestern University, we now have the results from this, and they are spectacular. (Ars Technica writeup here.)

static_charge.jpeg

(Image credit: H. T. Baytekin et al.)

Instead of not charging, they totally pick up static charge! In fact, different sections of each surface pick up large amount of positive or negative charge. What we've been looking at, this whole time, as static electricity, is just the net charge on these objects. But what actually causes the individual molecules to attract or repel a nearby object has very little to do with the overall charge and everything to do with how those particular nearby molecules are charged! To put it in the authors' words:

For centuries, it has been assumed that such contact charging derives from the spatially homogeneous material properties (along the material's surface) and that within a given pair of materials, one charges uniformly positively and the other negatively. We demonstrate that this picture of contact charging is incorrect. While each contact-electrified piece develops a net charge of either positive or negative polarity, each surface supports a random "mosaic" of oppositely charged regions of nanoscopic dimensions. These mosaics of surface charge have the same topological characteristics for different types of electrified dielectrics and accommodate significantly more charge per unit area than previously thought.

So yes, some materials gain electrons and other materials lose electrons when you rub them together. But it is now thought -- and this is brand new -- that every statically charged material has significant regions of both positive and negative charge!

Not only is this a new finding, it's now thought that this is the dominant reason for static electricity.

scling.jpeg

But don't worry. You can still be "static cling" for Halloween. Only this time, you'll know how it works!

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