Technology serving Community - a blog by Neal McBurnett

Free attic insulation in Boulder - get it while it lasts

I'm generally pretty skeptical of big claims, but this worked well for me. The Governor's office in Colorado is offering lots of energy rebates, including 40% on attic insulation (the most important kind) thru the end of September or until the allocated funds are exhausted: Excel is offering 20% rebates. Kelly's Insulation is offering 40% also in a new promotion. 40+20+40= 100% rebate! So I just got $1526 worth of attic insulation (according to them: 16" of fiberglass loose fill, R-40, 960 sq.ft. at $1.59/sq.ft.) for free - no out-of-pocket cost at all. Total time (from knock on the door to done) was less than an hour.

Contact 1-800-544-6721, to do your home. I'm embarassed to say that mine was only R-21 or so (6" of loose cellulose) beforehand, and code now requires R-38 as I recall, and now I'm up to R-21+R-40 = R-61 which is what is recommended. Which I like! Cooler in the summer, and cheaper in the winter :)

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Earth from Messenger spacecraft: so close but yet so far....

Link to Earth from Messenger spacecraft: so close but yet so far....

I love the cool picture of the Earth and moon from the Messenger spacecraft here.

But as an avid amateur astronomer, I'm trying to identify the stars. Not easy, since all the Messenger site gives is a date - no RA/Dec, constellation, etc.

In an effort to see where Messenger was on May 6, I found NASA's wonderful Solar System Simulator site:

I found the star field matches pretty closely if I plot it for the Earth at 8:00 UTC on the 6th:

Note that south is up in the image from Messenger. I figured that out because the moon, which is to the right of the Earth, was near 3rd quarter back then. So in the image which I included above I had to flip what I got from SSS by 180 degrees.

But I still have no idea exactly which way I'm facing and which stars those are. I figure they ought to be broadly speaking near Libra, since the sun from earth is in Aries, and Libra is in the opposite direction, and Messenger is near the sun.....

And that's all I have time for right now, other than suggesting to these two fine sites that they add information to the page about where we're looking.

If you've figured it out, leave a comment :)

Update, before going to bed....

Aha - I was right - it's in the constellation Libra! The two stars below the earth (actually North), halfway to the edge of the image, are 43 Librae and 41 Librae. Both about 5th magnitude, so you can see them on a good night. For a much richer sky field, see the 4-degree-wide image I saved from skyview (north is up this time):

[and hmm - comments seem to be broken....]

Update Sept 4

By the way - the earth was at R.A. 15 37 27.02, Dec -20 47 26.1 and distance 1.22525823308655 AU from Messenger.

There is a discussion of this also at the APOD forum Starship Asterisk*

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Ada Lovelace Day - amazing techie women in my life!

It's time to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day and honor some women I'm lucky to know who have made contributions in technology and science.

I have been a fan of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage since I got a t-shirt about the Analytical Engine in 1975. Other technically and scientifically adept women have inspired, challenged and educated me all my life.

My grandmother, Mary Lindsay White McBurnett, saw Halley's comet in 1910 from the gloriously dark skies of Texas, and always communicated her love for astronomy. Two cousins, Susan Hammonds and Ann Hammonds, have enviable scientific credentials and help advance the fields of psychology and genetics.

At Bell Labs starting in the 1980's, I was lucky to work with an inspiring, effective and forward-looking group of engineers. They included Margaret Burd, Teresa Matsushita, Sandy North, Deb Hill, Lori Fuller, Jane Gambill, Theresa Szczurek, JoAnn Zelasko, Lucy Sanders, Sarah Kiefhaber, Ronnie Trowbridge, Beth Benko, Connie O'Dell and many others. Beyond their many technical accomplishments, I appreciate their groundbreaking work with the Bell Labs WISE Club (Women's Issues, Status and Environment) and "Take your Daughter to Work Day" which helped create a diverse and innovative environment for everyone.

Other shout-outs go to Connie Barlow whose books and web sites connect us to the real Great Story of the universe, Biz Hertzberg with her incredible eye for visualizing flow with insight and beauty, Martha Kane Savage for her adventurous spirit and contributions to seismology and geophysics, and Tina Seelig for sharing her love of innovation with so many students.

Recently, Julie Colwell, Lin Hardin and Katie Hendricks have brought science, observation and their deep inner wisdom to bear in bringing profound learnings for my sense of who I am and how to get where I want to go.

And finally, congratulations to my wife Dr. Holly Lewis, an adventurous theatre major with a masters in counseling who demonstrated how to go back to school years later for science and medical training and incorporate it all into a marvelous holistic practice of medicine.

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Boulder Audit 2009 - data available now!

Boulder County is once again doing a pretty comprehensive and savvy election audit, and you are invited to nominate some batches to be targeted for hand-counting! They have a press release on it.

The general auditing goal is "software independence", so we don't have to trust the black-box voting system we have. We do that by looking for the best independent evidence we can find for whether the preliminary outcomes of the election are correct. Specifically, we take a detailed report on the election results by batch, and carefully (but mostly randomly) select batches for hand-counting, to compare with the preliminary results.

The theory behind this is laid out at Principles and Best Practices for Post-Election Audits.

Boulder produced unusually fine-grained data for this audit, which helps greatly with the efficiency of the audit and confidence levels achieved. In fact, at a meeting at the American Statistical Association two weeks ago, we published a statement on the importance of small-batch reporting. Rather than reporting by big precincts, Boulder reported in batches averaging 150 ballots each. Vote counts for all 41 contests in each of batch are available.

Boulder also continues to pioneer a "budget-based" audit approach, which tries to maximize the confidence we can get out of auditing a given number of ballots. The initial budget for this audit is 21,000 ballot-contests (e.g. one contest on each of 21,000 ballots). So I'm guessing they'll be auditing about 140 units, which is an impressive number. But since the batches are small, the counting should be more accurate than with full-precinct audits, and the overall effort is reduced, without sacrificing statistical efficacy.

They're seeking nominations (e.g. of "unusual" results) for a given contest in a given audit unit and would love you to apply your own analysis or intuition. E.g. say "I nominate the 'City of Louisville Ballot Question 2A' contest in audit unit p005_mb_568 because the winner seems to have a surprisingly large share in that one" (which probably isn't true, but you get the idea). More details would be welcome. One technique used last year by auditing guru Mark Lindeman was constructing a model to predict votes in one contest based on how voters in the same batch voted in other contests, and identifying vote counts that seemed out of character.

November 11 is the deadline to submit nominations. They will probably choose some at random, and I'm hoping they'll also choose some on merit.

Check out the audit page and all the data at

Helpful "Usage Notes" are in the third zip file there (the only one you really need, which contains the processed data to be audited and the spreadsheet that will actually implement the audit), i.e.

It also includes their detailed plan. The plan doesn't quite match the current state-of-the-art for dealing with discrepancies (represented by Philip Stark's work in California), and having an effective canvass of the chain of custody and reconciliation of the number of ballots in each ballot style is also necessary. Verifying chain-of-custody for mail ballot elections is a very very hard task of course. But this audit is way ahead of most of the country. Hillary Hall, Don Hayden, and the rest of the team should be commended on their work.

See other election info here:

This is all based on the audit we did last year in Boulder:

Your comments and analysis would be most welcome!

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Dozens of OSCON talks summarized - 30 seconds apiece!

This video by Gregg Pollack is part of a whirlwind tour through OSCON 2009. Each one has over a dozen 30-second versions of the talks at this great open source conference.

My talk on ElectionAudits is 3/4 of the way through. What a kick :)

See the others in the series, with more links, starting at

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