Misc: May 2007 Archives


May 16, 2007

Terence Spies pointed me at Someecards, snarky electronic greeting cards:

Pretty entertaining.


May 15, 2007

In the Fellowship of the Ring, as everyone knows, the eponymous fellowship sets out from Rivendell to RMA the One Ring. Clearly this is an important mission, but for some reason they're incredibly poorly equipped. Relatively early on we discover that Frodo is the owner of some really cool mithril body armor, which saves his life. Yet none of the others are issued any, something Boromir no doubt comes to regret later when orcs turn him into a pincushion. Similarly, when they pass through Lothlorien, the elves give them elven cloaks, some sort of elf superbread, and some other gifts.

So, here's my question: why does their gear suck so much? If you're going to send 9 guys out to save the world, wouldn't you want them to have the best gear you could scrape up? You'd think the elves could have managed to find enough. Seeing as they started out from Rivendell, would it really have been so hard for Elrond to have given them bread himself? Maybe he was out, but surely he could have had Galadriel FedEx him some. Similarly with the armor, I get that Mithril is expensive, but the dwarves had whole mines of the stuff, so it's pretty hard to believe the elves couldn't get their hands on it, unless some sort of Elvish Donald Rumsfeld was out to prove he could win the war against Sauron on the cheap.


May 14, 2007

Was rereading Niven's Neutron Star the other day and the following passage from Flatlander struck me:
"You picked my pocket?"
"Sure! Think I found it? Would I risk my precious hand under all these spike heels?"
"How if I call a cop?"
"Cop? Oh, a stoneface." She laughed merrily. "Learn or go under, man. There's no law against picking pocket. Look around you." I looked around me, then looked back fast, afraid she'd disappear. Not only my cash but my Bank of Jinx draft for forty thousand stars was in that waller. Everything I owned.

"See them all? Sixty-four million people in Los Angeles alone. Eighteen billion in the whole world Suppose there was a law against picking pockets? How would you enforce it?" She deftly extracted the cash from my wallet and handed the wallet back. "Get yourself a new wallet and fast. It'll have a place for your address and a window for a tenth-start stamp. Put your address in right away, and a stamp too. Then the next guy who takes it can pull out the money and drop your wallet in the nearest mailbox—no sweat. Otherwise you lose your credit cards, your ident, everything."

This all sounds very plausible initially—Niven has a talent for sounding convincing—but upon a moment's reflection it doesn't make any sense. I suppose it's possible that with a high enough population density it would become impossible to enforce laws against pickpocketing, but the rest of the reasoning doesn't make sense. You wouldn't expect people to react to an epidemic of pickpocketing by just accepting it, but rather by taking countermeasures. Sure, it's inconvenient to lose your entire wallet, but losing your cash isn't much fun either.

Of course, there are simple countermeasures. First, it's dramatically harder to steal your wallet if you're wearing it inside your clothes rather than in your hip pocket. Second, if people are actually having their wallets stolen enough that they need to put a stamp in them, you'd expect them to simply stop using bearer instruments entirely—or at least stop keeping them in their wallets. And of course, once people stop using cash, there's no point in picking their pockets. This certainly seems like a more likely equilibrium than one where pepople frequently lose their hard earned cash to pickpockets and don't take any countermeasures.

Even stranger, it emerges later in the story that the pickpocket is an otherwise perfectly nice woman with a good job. Even if we accept that pickpocketing is legal, I think we can also agree that it's not exactly what you'd call nice. There are lots of things that are legal but still aren't done by people who desire not to hurt others. I would expect that even in a pickpocket-legal world, stealing others wallets would fall into that category.


May 11, 2007

I'm in the market for a new phone to replace my venerable Treo 600 and I'm thinking about the Blackberry 8300/Curve (allegedly available from Cingular/ATT in the US in a few weeks). Do any EG readers have one of these already and want to chime in with their experiences. I'm particularly interrested in (1) call quality and (2) how the keyboard compares to the Treo.

UPDATE: Here's CNET's Curve review

Kieran Healy posts about how annoying endnotes are:
Via Andrew Gelman, a post by Aaron Haspel about the evils of poorly-done endnotes, and endnotes in general. This is something John has written about before, too. Endnotes really are a problem in scholarly books. In general, footnotes are better. Both are better than author-in-text citations (Healy 2006).

Indeed. It's important to distinguish between references used as citations and what are basically sidebar comments. It's not that bad to have to flip to the end of the book to figure out which exact publication someone is citing, especially if there is an inline explanation. The right form here is "Rescorla [9] argues that...". On the other hand, having to flip to the end of the book to see some endnote that explains a subtle point of the argument is quite intolerable.

One particularly horrid practice is using the same code point for multiple endnotes (Haspel's suggested practice of using symbols rather than numbers is particularly problematic here). If you must use endnotes, best to number them continuously from the front of the text. Otherwise one is forced to remember not only the note number but also the chapter—or worse yet which page—it appears.

All that aside, while I hate endnotes I rather like footnotes. The linear nature of manuscripts formatted on paper (as opposed to electronic hypertext) lends itself to a particular expository style with a fairly short maximum context stack depth. Footnotes provide a limited escape hatch to that linearity (kind of the way programmers think about goto). The context switch overhead makes this effect a lot harder to achieve with endnotes.


May 7, 2007

Mike O'Hare makes an interesting point about current efforts to convert incandescent lights to compact fluorescents (CFLs). Like many O'Hare posts, the writing is a bit hard to track, but the point is simple: any lighting system has two outputs, light and heat. The heat is typically thought of as waste and so CFLs are more efficient than incandescents in that they have a far higher light/heat ratio. If you're heating your home anyway, than that heat isn't waste, but rather it's something you want, so if you switch from incandescents to CFLs you end up heating your home some other way. Some of those ways are more efficient than others is,1 but you're certainly not getting the rated efficiency gain of CFLs. By contrast, if you're cooling your home (i.e., via AC), then not only is the heat waste but you then consume more energy by running the AC more to cool the house.

1 The physics here is a just a little complicated, but again the basic ideas not so much. When you burn fossil fuels locally to produce heat, you can arrange to capture the energy of the reaction quite efficiently (with the losses being in emitting exhaust that's hotter than the ambient temperature). So, if you're burning oil or gas to heat your house, this is quite efficient. By contrast, if you're using resistive electric heat, the fossil fuels are burned remotely and then turned into electricity and run to your house where you run them through wires to produce heat—just like a lightbulb but here the light is the waste and the heat is the intended output. Luckily, for second law reasons it's pretty easy to tune for a very high heat/light ratio. So, because of generation inefficiencies and transmissive loss, electric resistive heat is less efficient than locally burned fossil fuels. But there's not much efficiency difference between electric resistive heat and lightbulbs as long as you're lighting your house anyway. By the way, that while it's easy to burn fossil fuels for heat efficiently locally, it's not so easy to burn them for power locally, which is why plugin hybrids and electric cars are more efficient than regular internal combustion engines or even regular hybrids.


May 6, 2007

Matthew Yglesias links to this depressing NYT article about some AEI conference where a bunch of conservatives expresed skepticism about evolution:
For some conservatives, accepting Darwin undercuts religious faith and produces an amoral, materialistic worldview that easily embraces abortion, embryonic stem cell research and other practices they abhor. As an alternative to Darwin, many advocate intelligent design, which holds that life is so intricately organized that only an intelligent power could have created it.


The reference to stem cells suggests just how wide the split is. "The current debate is not primarily about religious fundamentalism," Mr. West, the author of "Darwin's Conservatives: The Misguided Quest" (2006), said at Thursday's conference. "Nor is it simply an irrelevant rehashing of certain esoteric points of biology and philosophy. Darwinian reductionism has become culturally pervasive and inextricably intertwined with contemporary conflicts over traditional morality, personal responsibility, sex and family, and bioethics."


Skeptics of Darwinism like William F. Buckley, Mr. West and Mr. Gilder also object. The notion that "the whole universe contains no intelligence," Mr. Gilder said at Thursday's conference, is perpetuated by "Darwinian storm troopers."

"Both Nazism and communism were inspired by Darwinism," he continued. "Why conservatives should toady to these storm troopers is beyond me."

A few points worth making here. First, it would be great if the NYT would stop referring to the theory of evolution as "Darwinism". As far as I know, no biologist uses the term "Darwinism" to refer to the theory of evolution. The term is used more or less exclusively by Creationists as part of their frame that it's a religion rather than, you know, the consensus scientific theory of the development of more or less all life on Earth. It would be great if the NYT didn't implicitly buy into that frame. If they're going to call the IDers by their chosen name rather than "Creationists", the least they can do is use an accurate name in this case.

Second, it's not like Buckley, West, or Gilder are qualified to have any reasonable opinion about the truth value of the theory of evolution. Moreover, when you look at these quotes it becomes clear that at least in the case of Gilder his problem isn't that they have some evidence-based objection but rather that he doesn't like the cultural/moral implications of the theory, or even more ridiculously, that he doesn't like some of the conclusions that others have drawn. But of course that's not the criterion we use to judge the truth of a scientific theory, as Derbyshire points out:

As for Mr. Derbyshire, he would not say whether he thought evolutionary theory was good or bad for conservatism; the only thing that mattered was whether it was true. And, he said, if that turns out to be "bad for conservatives, then so much the worse for conservatism."


At the Republican presidential debate, the candidates were asked whether they believed in evolution and apparently Tancredo, Brownback, and Huckabee raised their hands for no. Huckabee has since issued some kind of clarification:
"And the main thing ... I'm not sure what in the world that has to do with being president of the United States," said the former Arkansas governor.

Huckabee said he has no problem with teaching evolution as a theory in the public schools and he doesn't expect schools to teach creationism.

He said it was his responsibility to teach his children his beliefs though he could accept that others believe in evolution.

"I believe that there is a God and that he put the process in motion," Huckabee said.

Well, I supposed that not expecting schools to teach creationism is better than expecting them to (though I wonder about "intelligent design"). I'm not sure I really believe him, since Wikipedia quotes him as saying something rather different:

Huckabee has voiced his support of creationism. He was quoted in July 2004 on "Arkansans Ask," his regular show on the Arkansas Educational Television Network: "I think that students also should be given exposure to the theories not only of evolution but to the basis of those who believe in creationism." Huckabee also stated "I do not necessarily buy into the traditional Darwinian theory, personally.

Moreover, I can't agree that it doesn't have much to do with being president. Even if you ignore the fact that the president does have to decide on policy positions that require some knowledge of biology (and so it would be helpful to know something about it) what does it say about someone that they've managed to get to be 52 years old and be nearly completely ignorant of the foundations of biology (or at least being willing to pretend to be so to get elected)? Truth be told, I can't decide which is more depressing.


May 4, 2007

I've been backpacking for years with the venerable Sierra Designs Clip 3. A nice, comfortable tent (though like all n-person tents more suitable for n-1 people), but not freestanding and more importantly, not exactly light. For my trip to Emigrant, I updated my gear with a Seedhouse SL2. The SL2 is a freestanding double wall two-person tent (though I think two people would be pretty cozy) with a rated weight (trail weight) is 2 lbs 14 oz, lighter than many single wall tents of equivalent size. This weight reduction is achieved at least partly by having the tent body itself (except the bathtub floor) made nearly entirely of mesh.

Putting the tent up is easy. It's a single pole design with the pole being sort of an H shape, or rather >-<. One end goes in each corner, giving you a freestanding pole, and then you clip the tent to the pole. Getting the pole inserted in the corners is a bit tricky, since once you get the first two ends in the other ends tend to spring out a bit, but it's fairly straightforward once you get the hang of it. Although the tent is technically freestanding, as a practical matter you want to put in at least two stakes—one per side—to pull the walls of the tent away from your body. The ground I was camping on was fairly hard and the stakes hard to get in, so I settled for those two and two more to stake out the vestibule. Also, if you're using the rainfly you can clip the walls of the tent to the rainfly to tension the walls even more. This wasn't necessary with one person but with two it would probably be good to do this or (if you're not using the rainfly) to guy out the tent walls.

Generally, this tent worked well and was comfortable. My only complaint is that because the tent body is solely mesh, air tended to come up through the vestibule and into the tent, which wasn't that great on a cold night at 8000 feet. I only noticed this effect in the middle of the night so just dealt with it by unstaking the vestibule and lettign it sit against the tent wall, which worked fine. This could probably be ameliorated in a number of better ways, either by carefully staking the vestibule to the ground (this requires getting your stakes pretty much all the way in) or by just sleeping with your feet to the door.

Aside from this issue, I'm happy with the SL2. Also, currently, it's on massive sale at REI for $219, down from $319.


May 3, 2007

I spent a couple days in the Emigrant Wilderness (trail conditions report to follow shortly) earlier this week. A short trip, but a good opportunity to try out some of my new gear, including Cilogear's 40 liter worksack (the older model).

Cilogear is a tiny company run by a guy named Graham Williams (he's who answers the email when you write to them). Their special sauce is the extreme configurability of the packs. In particular:

  • It's an internal frame pack but the framesheet and backpad fit into a sleeve in the back of the pack, so that they can be removed and the pack used as a frameless backpack. This feature isn't unique to Cilogear, but is nice. The backpad also doubles as a bivy pad.
  • The hip belt can be easily removed to make the pack even more of a simple knapsack. The lid/loft comes off. as well.
  • Instead of fixed compression straps like most packs have, each side of the pack has two vertical rows of attachment points, one on in the front and one in the back. This lets you use a variety of strap arrangements to transfer/control the load as appropriate for how you've packed the pack.

I got a dynamite (super-tough) model on clearance for $80 (just before the new models came out) and then got the upgrade kit, consisting of a new, thinner hip belt, an improved lid, and some extra straps for $40, for a total cost of $120. Total pack weight is advertised as 3.6 lbs, which is heavier than an ultralight pack but still lighter than the much larger the Gregory Forester (just under 5 lbs) it replaces.

Generally, I'm quite happy with this pack. I was carrying a moderate load of around 30 lbs, but I never felt overly weighed down. The pack is narrow and rides close to your back so you're agile over even fairly rough terrain. I definitely felt like that aspect was better than with the Gregory. The hip belt conforms extremely well to your hips. With the Gregory my hips started to hurt after only a few hours (some sort of pressure point over the ischial spines), but with the Cilogear they were never sore at all. After two days, my suprapinatus (between neck and shoulder) were somewhat sore, but this is to some extent a feature of every pack I've ever used and I think is just a feature of wanting to carry a bit more weight than average on my shoulders rather than my hips. It could probably be ameliorated with better pack positioning, as I have a chance to tune this pack a bit. One thing you'd think would be uncomfortable is that the backpad is flat and fairly hard, so you'd expect to have it hurt your spine and also get a lot of sweat collection. Neither seemed to happen much, though.

I definitely like the ability to use this bag as a frameless pack—it's a nice feature when traveling. I haven't come to a decision about how I feel about the strapping system yet. In theory you're supposed to be able to do a lot of adjustments to optimize load carrying but I haven't experimented enough to really think I've done substantially better than the fixed strapping systems on standard packs. Maybe this is something I'll get used to as I work with the pack some more. It's at least not worse.

A few small quibbles:

  • There's a second, smaller rip-stop sleeve in front of the main frame/bivy pad sleeve, presumably to let you put small items in. The top inch or so of stitching on mine has torn out. This isn't a big deal and the pocket still works, but given that it is a small bug.
  • This pack doesn't have any pockets for water bottles in the sides of the pack—though the crampon pocket on the back can be used for this purpose. This means you absolutely have to take your pack off to get a drink (unless you use a drinking bladder, which I don't). On the other hand, my experience with those pockets is that they tend to either be hard to get your bottles into/out of or that they eject the bottles unexpectedly (or both), so that's not as biga drawback as one might like. This does seem like something Cilogear could easily fix,

All in all, I'm quite happy with this pack. It's comfortable and carries well and I expect to use it for future trips rather than my Gregory, unless I really need to carry a lot of stuff). I imagine that the new version is even nicer. If you're in the market for a new pack, I encourage you to check out Cilogear.