Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Port Townsend

In case you have never been and if you are a Washingtonian there really is no excuse, Port Townsend and its environs are well-worth a visit. I haven't gone there in years but when I was stationed at NAS Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, I would often go there with friends.

It was a day-trip kind of place, not known for its nightlife but quaint and Victorian in appearance. Nearby, there are even naval gun emplacements that guard the entrance to Puget Sound--these too date from the Victorian era. Also in day-trip range is Victoria BC, which given the name should not surprisingly be quite Victorian. The Empress Hotel and Butchart gardens take one back to what one might imagine those times looked like.

The one flaw to the whole scene was the people: It is hard to feel like you are in Victorian times when all the tourists are dressed in t-shirts and shorts. I recently heard of a couple who live there and have adopted Victorian dress styles. They are very charming and the woman has even written a book:

Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself by Sarah A. Chrisman

Their very presence adds, at no charge to the local community, to the allure of the place.

Here is an image from their website:


It is clear from what I have read about this couple that they have not only taken up the appearance of Victorian people but much of the same outlook. I say much, because so far they do not appear to have done the thing Victorians were most famous for, which is have a large family. They are young so if they choose it, there is time for this . I am hoping that they do have kids and pass-on their ways to another generation.

To some extent they already are spreading their outlook, but in dilute form. Depending on how famous they get, they may touch millions of lives, but how much difference will one book or a television appearance make? On the other hand, one can only have only a fairly finite number of children but a much higher influence over them than with consumers of your creative output.

If you have an idea or a way of living that is valuable, shouldn't one want to have it carried forward into the future? Take Henry David Thoreau, in Walden he made an economic case for living a simple life. His point was that if you dispensed with much of what people spend their time working for, you would have much more time for what you really want to do. All fine and well, but if an able bodied man in his prime years only works hard enough to sustain himself, there will be no second generation to live this kind of life. His plan was not sustainable. An author who has ideas more fully-baked than Thoreau and also happens to hail from the Pacific North West is Neal Stephenson, who wrote a story about a future containing neo-Victorians. In The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer the neo-Victorians form communities in various locations and can raise their children, work and live all within a community that re-enforces their values. I do not think this is too far-fetched: Isn't this more-or-less what the Amish do now?

Added: Like most of Stephenson's works, I think his main goal is to take the reader on a tour of his imagined world, the plot is just a tool to move you from scene to scene. The device is a "book" which I put into quotes since it is really a supercomputer that teaches its owner whatever they need to learn. A neo-Victorian plutocrat commissions the book for his daughter, with the idea that their civilization for all its laudable ideas, can be too conformist and book is to introduce a bit of subversiveness into its reader. The upper middle class engineer sees the value in this and secretly makes an extra copy for his own daughter. This copy falls into the hands of a neglected girl living in a slum. The story revolves around this girl who would have been doomed by her circumstance to a base existence and early demise, but instead is taught skills and an outlook (the Victorian outlook) that allows her to survive and thrive.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rather Like A Gold Coin Once Held In Julius Caesar's Pocket--If Romans Had Pockets

Here is a philosophical question:  If you had a gold coin that had once been owned by a famous ancient statesman and somehow this could be proven, would it be more valuable than an otherwise identical coin?*

I think most people would understand that this particular coin would be worth more than an otherwise identical coin that lacked such provenance.  There is nothing intrinsic about the coin that makes it different, it is only how we feel about it which is different.

* Seems pretty unlikely but how about this:  The statesman was found buried in Pompeii and had the coins on his person.  There had been an unbroken chain of custody since the discovery.

This kind of meaning is where pretty much all of the value, to the extent that there is positive value, comes from when we concern ourselves with the provenance of our food.  So terms like halal,  kosher, GMO free and organic are mostly alike as a category.*

*If I feel like it, it does seem pointless to spell-out things which should be obvious to anyone with a rudimentary education in biology, I will explain why there is no intrinsic differences between the above rarefied categories and regular food.
There are real differences in how special foods (the above categories) are produced and handled.  In the religious categories, the differences in how the foods are handled is important to the observant because they put some value into following the commands laid out by their faith.  The organic and GMO free are similar in that there are very real differences in how the food is produced:  Organic will not use GMO seeds, nor chemically derived fertilizer or most pesticides.  In general, it takes more land and more labor to produce such food and this accounts for the higher prices.  One can debate the relative value of refraining from adding artificial chemicals to soil versus using chemicals but leaving more land uncultivated.  It becomes more of a metaphysical question if one tries to differentiate between nitrogen supplied by horse manure or the Haber process. A growing plant can't tell the difference, because there is no difference between these molecules.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kristen Schaal And Sandra Bernhard

A generation apart but really similar in several ways:

Kristen Schaal

Sandra Bernhard



1. Both work in comedy

2 Neither are pretty.  Not ugly or even homely either, just not pretty in any conventional sort of way--though perhaps contradictorily  they both have enormous sex-appeal.

3. The parts they play are just creepy enough to make them both a little intimidating.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Driverless Cars and Trucks

First, let's assume away the most likely outcome:  Massive resistance by professional drivers will kill the adaptation of the technology.  Why take this step?  Because if the technology is not adapted then there is nothing to speculate about and that is boring.

1. It will be less common to own your car.  The main reason people own their car is that they want to have one available.  Even if you wanted to share your car, it is not always convenient to do this.  A person could use my car for the ten hours I am at work or the 13 hours I am at home on a normal work-day, but they would have to live near one of those places and have to restrict their use to those windows of time.  But what if my car could drive itself?  It could go and pick-up someone who works later than I do or drive around a mom who has some mid-day errands to do.

There is a lot of trouble and expense in owning and maintaining a car.  All of that cost provides me with an hour per day of use.  For only a marginal increase in cost, the car could be kept busy all day long.  A company can operate and maintain a fleet of cars for less per car than individuals could do.  If they can do this and make sure that subscribers have a car when they need one, why would people bother to own one?  Some people would remain attached to an old car or one which is special to them in some way but a lot of the fun of driving will be gone because:

2.  It will become illegal, or very expensive to manually drive.  The software and sensors are improving all the time and it won't be long before computers are much, much better at it than any human.  The temptation will be to outlaw the risky behavioral of manual driving.  My kids, or maybe theirs, will be the last generation to know how to drive.

3.  Long range travel by car will be much more tolerable and therefore more common.  Computers would allow for faster driving and could save fuel by networking with other cars on the road to tailgate each other and thus save on wind resistance.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Shocking! Surgeon General Nominee Opposed Due to His Polarizing Stances

By all accounts, Dr Murthy is a fine physician and if that were the only qualification needed to be "America's doctor"  he would be a shoe-in for the post.  He has been busy with arguably non-doctor type activities though:  He co-founded and was president of Doctors For America which advocated for the ACA (Obamacare) and for gun control.

People of good faith can argue about the merits of each of these, but what is not debatable is that both are hot issues that divide the country pretty evenly--I would say that the doctor is on the somewhat less popular side of both issues.

Is it right to oppose Dr Murthy for the post of America's doctor for his political views?  Well, yes.  And it would hardly be unprecedented:  Feminists and other liberals opposed C. Everett Koop because of his views on abortion.  They failed, obviously, but one cannot deny they had a right to try.

As an aside, the NRA is often derided as having out sized influence given its meager numbers, but compared to say NOW, it is rather more representative:  
NOW has some 500,000 members and there are about 150 Million women in the USA, so the ratio is 1:300 
NRA has 5,000,000 members and there are about 75 Million gun owners in the USA, this gives a ratio of 1:15, which is 20 times more representative of the group they supposedly speak for.
Not to fight the gun control fight here but let's have a look as some of the proposals the good doctor put his name to:

Specific approaches should include:
A federal ban on the sale of assault weapons and ammunition – to stop weapons
from being added to the existing stock.
It is well known that only a vanishing small fraction of murders are committed by long guns of any type (mostly shotguns). By far, most crimes (that involve guns) are committed with pistols.  Also, well known among people who know anything about firearms, is that the ammunition used in so-called assault weapons is also very commonly used in regular rifles.  It is also well known that the differences between normal rifles and assault weapons are almost all cosmetic rather than functional.  Some anti-assault weapons proposals and laws go after certain pistols and shotguns too, but the assault versions use exactly the same ammunition as the regular ones.  The upshot of all this is that the guy makes proposals which would curtail the rights of millions of law-abiding Americans and yet can't be arsed to know the first thing about fire arms or bother to look at easily obtainable data such as FBI crime statistics.  These stats would show him that the lion's share of murder is committed with one type of gun, pistols.  And it would show him that "gun deaths"* have been on the decline for decades.

*In my view, the murder numbers have gotten so low that advocates like to use the term "gun deaths" instead.  The bulk of this number comes from murder and suicide, with suicide being about twice as common as murder.

Hey, I thought all good progressives were in favor of suicide--maybe only if it is assisted.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Too much time in Washington rots your mind.

" She earned a B.A. in political science from Yale University in 1972, followed by a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1975. "


AND

Thinks the US Constitution is 400 years old.


Sunday, March 02, 2014

What Does Russia Get From This?

Kiev had already granted Russia the right to use bases in the Crimea, which is the only warm-water port Russia has available.

Now what?

If Russia annexes the Crimea, they get the status of international pariah and gain bases they already had.

If Ukraine manages to kick the Russian troops out of the Crimea then they are also likely to end the Russian basing privileges too.   After all, they can say, "Last time we let you keep troops here, look what mischief they got into"?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How Many Gears?

My driver took the Autobahn between Darmstadt and Frankfurt.  He showed up in a Volkswagon, which did not dismay me since it was the same giant, powerful type I had been brought in.

He only hit around 125 mph but I looked over at the tach and it was only reading about 3,300!

I hope that was his top gear!

The Information In These Two Offices Vary

Both of these sites give the dates of Lake Champlain Closing (due to ice), both are tagged with NOAA and have the following address listed:

National Weather Service
Burlington
1200 Airport Drive
S. Burlington VT 05403
(802)862-2475


But one gives a closing date of Feb 12th and the other has no date listed.

The question I have is what they will say 6-months from now?  Will they agree on the date or claim the lake never froze?

I will update when and if there is a change to either site (I have screen-shots of what is there now).

Note:  Just playing with the font and background color for kicks--this will not persist.  Probably.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

The curious and irregular conception of Obamacare

Read the whole thing by Noemie Emery
 “Current and former administration officials .  .  . have been surprised at how steadfast the opposition has remained,” the Washington Post reported last summer, quoting MIT economist Jonathan Gruber saying, “It used to be you had a fight and it was over, and you moved on.” But few have moved on, for reasons which are not all that hard to tease out: It’s not working out, in fact it’s a disaster; it’s blowing holes in the federal budget; the win-to-lose balance is way out of kilter, as many more people are hurt than helped by it. Obamacare may collapse on its own for practical reasons, but there is a fourth strike against it that adds a dimension of weakness no comparable measure has faced: Much of the country believes it’s a fraud, passed dishonestly, and not deserving of moral authority. In short, they find it nearly illegal, highly immoral, and possibly fattening. And their minds won’t be changed.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Germany, Traditional and Modern



A typical street in Darmstadt.



An artsy apartment building: It was horseshoe shaped with one end at ground level and the other end about six stories tall. All of the top is covered with trees and other plants.



The circular building is one ward of a hospital complex.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Big Mac At Home and in Germany

I just had to know: Are they the same everywhere?

Difference #1 Price: 6.49 Euros comes to $8.87, so that is more but I really do not know how much more since I usually just buy the burger itself--or more usually, just whatever burger is on the value menu. This is not entirely cheapness on my part; I just feel like the fries and soda are much worse for me than the burger.

Sameness #1 The burger was, as far as I could tell, exactly like what I get in the United States. The fries were the same too. The coke tasted perhaps slightly better but this is hard to tell since I usually get Dr. Pepper and I am used to having ICE! please. It is possible that they use sucrose here instead of corn syrup and that would account for the Coke tasting better.

Difference # 2 The ketchup packet was much larger than the ones in the US. It takes three of the US ones at home while this larger one was plenty. Also, they offered me Ketchup OR mayonnaise. Neither was available to take as one pleased. Lately, the McDonald's in the US have pumps available or packets upon demand.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Labor Participation Rate and Bad Cancer Cures

One might be sanguine about our economy if you look at the unemployment rate: It has gone from about 10% back in 2010 steadily downward to 7.5% now. If you look at the labor force participation rate, the story takes on a different hue: We have steadily dropped from around 66% between 2003-2008 to about 63% now. Back in 2006, 66% of the people wanted to work, there was 5% unemployment and so 62.7% were actually working. Now, we have 7.5% unemployment and only 63% participating, so that leaves 58.275% working. If we calculated unemployment using the former participation rate,we would get:

(1-(58.275/66)) X 100 = 11.7%

Some might say that decreased labor participation is good because it gives us a better unemployment rate. I will show why I disagree below.

Unemployment rate: From BLS



Labor force participation rate: From BLS



The recent CBO report on the impact of "Obamacare" says:

CBO estimates that the ACA [Affordable Care Act] will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor—given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.
(People like Greg Mankiw (and many others) saw this coming from a long-way off.)

This has been greeted by some as a good thing. Certainly it is possible that some individuals will benefit: Let's say there is a guy who hates his job, doesn't need the money, but did need the health insurance. Let's further assume that now he can get his coverage for free or so cheaply that he could afford it easily. Okay, he is gaining from the new law. But what about society? We lose in two ways: 1. He will no longer provide the valuable work he had been doing. 2. We as a society are now paying for what he had previously provided for himself. Bear in mind that the above was a best-case-scenario. He could have been forced to quit because his employer had cut his pay to provide added benefits due to mandates or because of higher taxes or any number of reasons that leave him worse-off now.

The whole idea of society being better off with fewer people working reminds me of good and bad ways to decrease mortality from cancer.

A good way would be prevention: Get people to stop smoking and lung cancer rates will go down. Another good way is earlier detection and better treatments. But here is a bad way of reducing the rate of cancer deaths to zero: Execute anyone who is diagnosed with cancer. It is a ridiculous idea and yet one cannot deny that it eliminates death from cancer. The problem with it is that it doesn't leave anyone better off than they were before. Similarly, organizing our economy such that fewer people want to work deprives us of productive activities.

All of this leaves aside the non-economic value of work: This was well summed-up in a comment to this post over at MARGINALREVOLUTION: How happy should we be about ACA supply-side responses to work less?

Turkey Vulture February 5, 2014 at 12:06 pm
I really dislike working. I don’t like being tied down, and want to pursue other activities. But at points in my life when I haven’t worked, or have worked minimally, I have tended to just waste time doing nothing of use. And I want to do things, accomplish things, I just don’t. I am lazy, and especially so when I have no immediate need to do anything. This lowers my life satisfaction. But still, even knowing this, if I have a way to get by without having to work, I will be tempted to take it, and probably lose the good habits a regular job can bring.

I think most people are like this, which is why even though I will never pray at the alter of the protestant work ethic, I think that programs that encourage idleness can lead people into a rut from which they won’t have the wherewithal to escape. But hey, maybe everyone else is more of a go-getter than me, and I’m completely off base.

I think Turkey Vulture is correct--and far more honest than most people are about themselves.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Remember When You Didn't Care About Executive Overreach?

You were of course thrilled when president Obama decided to stop defending the Defense Of Marriage Act) DOMA. But now there is a Republican president and she has decided that all campaign finance laws are unconstitutional and will not be enforced. Still happy?

Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

Lou Reed, Perfect Day

Monday, January 27, 2014

Flat Land

Todd Zywicki does not exactly review The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, but he uses it as a jumping-off point for a number of interesting observations.

Read the whole thing of course--including the comments, some of which are really excellent. What interested me was this:

...he describes five key vectors or values of psychological morality: (1) care/harm, (2) fairness, (3) loyalty, (4) authority, and (5) sanctity. Haidt finds in his research that self-described “conservatives” tend to value all five vectors of morality (as he defines them). Liberals, by contrast, place a high value on “care” and “fairness”...

One might think this is all purely theoretical but some science was added:

...Haidt reports on the following experiment: after determining whether someone is liberal or conservative, he then has each person answer the standard battery of questions as if he were the opposite ideology. So, he would ask a liberal to answer the questions as if he were a “typical conservative” and vice-versa. What he finds is quite striking: “The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who describe themselves as ‘very liberal.’ ...

Conservatives and moderates can predict the kind of answers liberals will make because they have all the same tools, in addition to others which are lacking in liberals.

This explains very well an observed tendency one sees all the time:

In short, Haidt’s research suggests that many liberals really do believe that conservatives are heartless bastards–or as a friend of mine once remarked, “Conservatives think that liberals are good people with bad ideas, whereas liberals think conservatives are bad people”–and very liberal people think that especially strongly. Haidt suggests that there is some truth to this.

In fairness, I've seen the above formulation going in both directions. While I don't want to rule-out the possibility of there being some small number of genuinely evil people in the world, a safe rule is that if you think someone is evil, you are probably thinking about an issue in a simple-minded way.

Secondary observations: The side that can understand their opponent's viewpoint can be persuaded by it. The other side cannot understand the opposition's positions (except by assuming bad faith) and so are never persuaded. This would present a distinct disadvantage to the conservative side. It is an opportunity for a larger game though: If you can show how the other factors (which liberals are currently blind to) matter, then you might just plant a seed. A kind of broader-understanding-of-things seed, which might allow them to grow into a conservative.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

It Is A Tool

This is a tool, but for what?


Before I get to that, I want to talk about a goal from when I started lifting weights in June. An initial and realistic goal would be to lift my own weight within one year of taking up the training.

I knew that our bathroom scale weighed light but from the standpoint of monitoring weight this doesn't really matter. It may be systematically light but is consistent and so fine for keeping track of gain or loss, as the case might be. My wife has scientific training and was not happy with that answer, she wants to know what she really weighs. That plus my new need to know what I really weigh, led to this:


The hook on the end of the tool was to connect a rod in the tower to the mechanism in the platform. The screwdriver like slot is to adjust the zero and the hex hole was for bolting on the height measuring rod and the wheels.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Year In Weight Lifting

It really hasn't been a whole year since I started in June, see my post on that here.

I continued to add 5 lbs per week until about 105 lbs and then hurt my back trying for 110. I worked on my form and on getting my back well again and progress has been slow but steady. I have gotten to the point where I sometimes am able to lift 135 lbs over my head using the clean and jerk.

I have changed my routine a little: I used to just lift whatever weight I was at five repetitions. Now I start at 115 and then either lift 120 then 125, then 130 and then (sometimes 135). Other times I will skip increments in order to be fresher at the highest weight, so 115, 125 then 135.

Am I getting stronger?

The short, or as I like to call it sometimes--the Microsoft answer--is that yes, I must be getting stronger. But does it alone account for the fact that I can lift more weight? No, almost certainly not. When I make a successful top-weight lift, it often feels pretty effortless. The moves in a clean and the moves in the jerk are pretty acrobatic and require a lot of coordination. This difficulty is compounded by the stress and danger of doing it while holding a heavy barbell in your hands.

It is all for the best:

Whether I am purely getting stronger (which is the actual goal) or am getting purely better at the moves, it is fine. If I am becoming more skilled this helps in two ways: Going through the full range of motion which happens in the properly executed lift provides better training. If skill allows more weight on the bar, then eventually the weight will have to be lifted with strength and so my muscles will become stronger.

Learning to let go.

The thing I have to watch out for is hurting my back. As mentioned above, I did hurt myself at 110 lbs. This happened when I failed to make the clean and bent my back while under a load. Now what I do is drop the bar if I need to. The floor is concrete and an unfinished basement, but even if it was the finest teak parquet, my back is less replaceable. Still, my back does ache and it is hard to tell what the reasons are. It was totally fine a month ago and I was lifting 130 back then. I suspect it was other activities like snow removal and hauling around packages and heavy bags of salt. This current snow storm will not clarify matters, but back issues are something to watch out for.


Monday, December 30, 2013

The Year in Running

I did my last run of the year today and it was kind of a pathetic effort but when it gets averaged into a whole year the stink is diluted.

The goal for the year was 30 miles per week at a pace of 8:00/mile or better. 30 X 52 = 1,560, which I cleared by a massive 11.5 miles!

The grand total is 240 workouts covering 1,571.55 miles and taking a total of 208 hours, 42 minutes and 36 seconds. The average is about 6 1/2 miles with a pace of 7:58.

It can be broken further into runs with shoes and barefoot runs:

Shoes: 161 runs in 133:23:53 with 993.78 miles covered. Average pace of 8:03, average distance of a little less than 6.2 miles.

Barefoot: 79 runs in 75:18:43 with 577.77 miles covered. Average pace of 7:49, average distance of 7.3 miles.

I experienced much greater soreness after barefoot runs than with shoes and one can wonder if it is due to more intrinsic wear-and-tear or from running more than a mile further and 14 seconds faster per mile when barefoot as compared to running with shoes on.

No Picture, So It Didn't Happen

Actually a picture wouldn't really have added much, other than, ironically, filler.

We had gone to the 99 (right by where I work) after seeing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and I ordered a seafood sampler which included one stuffed clam.

The thing about stuffed clams is that I have never eaten one that was home made--most were the ones you get at the grocery, ready-made and frozen. You put them into the oven and like them but feel like they could be a lot better.

I decided to try and make them because I wanted to see how good they could be and the large clams used (quahogs) are a much better deal than the small ones that you might use for linguine sauce.

The ones I made were the best I've ever had, so here is how I made them:

I started with about 10 large hard clams (around 4 lbs total) I soaked them in a bowl, with many water changes for about 6 hours. This was to get rid of any grit that might be contained in them.

While steaming them in a covered pot, I browned a medium yellow onion and a similar volume of finely chopped celery (inner leafy part) along with a couple cloves of garlic in lots of butter and olive oil. The usual clan of herbs were added: Fresh parsley, bay leaf, black pepper, sage, oregano and I could have added paprika but forgot it. Into this I crushed about one sleeve of Ritz crackers.

If the above seems familiar, it should: It is essentially the same stuffing used for any seafood. I minced-up the clam meats, which had finished opening up by then and added that, along with fresh lemon juice to the stuffing and packed all of this into a dozen of the half shells.

These were arranged into the same skillet I had done the browning in and I added a tablespoon of the clam water from steaming to each shell as well as a bit to the pan to avoid scorching. This was put into a 350F oven for about 20 minutes, till the tops started to brown.

They were, as my wife put it, "guest worthy".