Observations Observations

Pop Quiz!

July 31st, 2015
Don't be frightened...

In the parking structure at my workplace today, I saw the following license plate:


The question: What kind of car was it? Leave your answer in the comments here.

There’s no prize except the certainty that you are smarter than everyone else.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Help Wanted

July 24th, 2015

Anybody know a kickass Web engineer looking for work? I’m happy to discuss specific technologies and whatnot with anyone who might be interested.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

At Last, An Answer to One of Life’s Burning Questions

July 23rd, 2015

Many, many years ago, in a time called the 1980’s, my roommates and I were sitting in our little house in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, talking about this and that. There may have been beer present. The conversation stumbled upon this question:

If you bounce a ball bearing off a steel plate and measure the height of the bounce, will it bounce higher or lower if you cool down the plate?

Before skipping to the end of this episode to see the answer, think about that question for a minute. On the one hand, you could imagine that the warmer plate is squishier, and would absorb more of the kinetic energy of the ball. Or would it be springier, and act like a trampoline? Does the fact that there is more energy in the overall system when the ball and the plate are warm mean more energy for bouncing?

We were stumped, and at the time there was no Internet. We did have one ace in the hole, however, because my good friend and former college roommate was an expert in… material science! So we called him up, fully aware that he was three time zones ahead of us and it was pretty late even in California.

That night, our Science Expert didn’t seem that enthusiastic about the mysteries facing mankind. It was a pretty short conversation.

I began to look like we might never find the answer to this burning question. Little did I know, but NASA engineers were also curious about the bounciness of steel balls as a function of temperature, and ’round about 1994 they built this gizmo to run some tests:

Device to bounce metal things on other metal things.

Device to bounce metal things on other metal things.
Source (crooked and everything)

I ran across the phrase “coefficient of restitution” when reading an example of how to calculate standard error in scientific measurements. The example used was about bounciness and temperature. Zounds! With fevered brow and shaking hands I pasted that into duck-duck-go and found this NASA paper, scanned and recorded for posterity by some underpaid intern.

To be honest, the paper is more an Engineering exercise than a real scientific paper (I’ll discuss another NASA ‘research’ project at a later date), but it does have graphs and whatnot, and here is the conclusion: metal balls bounce higher when they are colder, except for the occasional case where they do not. But MOSTLY, colder metal means higher bounce.

Whew. That’s a hell of a load off my mind.

Rumblings from the Secret Labs Rumblings from the Secret Labs

Junk Science is Everywhere

July 22nd, 2015
This is a story of the death of journalism.

You would really expect better from Prevention Magazine

You would really expect better from Prevention Magazine (image lifted from the linked article on io9)

Perhaps you remember the headlines a while back: “Eat Chocolate to Lose Weight!” Every week we learn about a new study that shows that X helps you lose weight. And right there is the first problem:

A study.

Singular. Let’s get something straight right now: A single study has never proven anything, ever. This is a fundamental part of science. When someone makes a discovery, it’s exciting. When enough other people confirm that discovery, it’s knowledge. “A study” is useful to guide future research and to provide fun anecdotes on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. But that’s all.

Back to the chocolate. The finding that chocolate helped weight loss was discovered in a laboratory study with the proper protocols, and published in a peer-reviewed journal. So, that’s real science, right? Even if it hasn’t been independently reproduced, isn’t it still important health news? You can’t blame the health press for jumping on something as sexy as “chocolate makes you thin”.

But then the people who did the study came forward and told the world that it was all bullshit. They’d done it to prove how easy it is to get junk science into the mainstream. Even they had not imagined how easy it would be.

Let’s start with the scientific study itself. It’s generally considered scientifically significant if the result of the test is less than 5% likely to be the result of random chance. Yep, it’s considered acceptable that one in twenty scientific experiments is incorrect just based on random chance. Madness? Not really, when you consider that all the studies in a field eventually have to work into an interlocking puzzle that forms a bigger picture. The studies that were incorrect either by blind bad luck or poor procedures get weeded out when others cannot reproduce the results.

But what if you test twenty things at the same time? Statistically now you’re very likely to hit a false positive. To quote the article:

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result.

In the jargon of the junk-science industry, this is called “p-stacking”. An incredible number of the health claims you read are likely the result of this film-flam.

“But,” you might ask, “aren’t there systems to filter this shit out before it goes mainstream?”

Well… yes, but those systems are pretty much broken. First off, science is a discourse, and all new ideas have to run a gauntlet of “peer review”. Ideally, the peers may not agree with the conclusions, but you damn well better dot your i’s and cross your t’s. If you take shortcuts in your process, your peers will keep you out of the journals. In the major journals, the reviewers take their work really seriously.

But now there are journals that, for a price will publish whatever twaddle you wish to sell. While they claim to be peer-reviewed, the peers seem only to be reviewing whether your check clears, and have little interest in the scientific validity of your study.

Academia may not be fooled, but the fifth estate certainly is. Journalists who are trusted to sort through the garbage and bring important health information to their readers instead just blare the sexiest headlines. In some cases, the online comments by the readers of those articles ask the questions the so-called journalist should have asked before even running the story.

In the chocolate scam, they recognized another important fact: if the press release is actually written as an article fit for a magazine, even fewer questions are asked. It’s jut cut, paste, and print.

The press is making hay selling junk science to you and me. We trust them to vet the information they bring us, and they are doing a terrible job. It’s not just health science, but that’s where most of the crap seems to be flying these days.

So if what passes for journalism these days won’t ask the hard questions, we have to. Don’t change your diet because of “a study”. Even honest studies are found to be false later on, and damn few of the health articles we read are based on honest studies. (That “damn few” assertion is totally baseless. I have no statistics to back it up. But you were right there with me, weren’t you?)

For your homework assignment, I’d like you to Stop And Think when you see something on Facebook, especially in the health industry. Maybe do five minutes of research on the people making the claim. Then CALL THEM ON IT. Say, “Hey! I call Junk Science on you!”

Get double-serious when you read the shit in magazines. Let’s publicly shame the so-called journalists who dump this stuff out without asking the hard questions first. Demand footnotes. Check sources. Someone has to teach those bozos their jobs.

Observations Observations

Speaking of Vernal and Fracking and Dead Babies…

July 21st, 2015
Let's add this to our calculations of the price of oil.

Some of you may recall that last month I became an involuntary expert on the town of Vernal, Utah. My car broke down Saturday afternoon and I landed there until a mechanic could look at it on Monday. The people were nice enough; the town showed plenty of new construction, and while small, Vernal was obviously the center of a very large rural community, sprawled over a vast basin.

So when Rolling Stone published this article about a spike in infant mortality in Vernal, it caught my eye.

Note, please, in the interest of rational debate, that the horrific toxicity of fracking and the sudden surge in infant mortality and deformation in Vernal have not been causally linked. Random numbers have a way of clumping sometimes, so when you look over an entire nation you get odd concentrations of disease just by random chance. Or there might be another root cause. Rolling Stone doesn’t mention that — they presume a cause and work backwards, which makes them just as bad at science as the anti-vaccers.

But let’s not kid ourselves; this horror coming at the same time fracking went full-speed would be a hell of a coincidence. Next time you fill up at the pump and reflect happily on the current price of gasoline, remember the babies of Vernal.

Bike Bike

Bike School — and Beyond!

July 20th, 2015
New skills, new friends, and a new way to make a difference.

6369080A couple of months ago I heard about a non-profit bike shop in my ‘hood called Good Karma Bikes, which is run by some pretty awesome folks who find a lot of different ways to help the community. The primary focus is on making sure homeless and working poor have transportation. They also provide training and stability for kids coming out of the foster care program, a segment of our population that generally gets tossed to the curb.

Unlike a typical bike shop, Good Karma has about a dozen workstations on its shop floor, to allow them to repair many, many bikes each week during ‘clinics’, when they fix bikes for those who can’t afford service. When clinics aren’t going on, people can drop by and use the workstations and all the tools in the shop for an hourly rate. What a great alternative to buying an expensive tool that you hardly ever use.

It turns out they also have instructor-led classes each summer, teaching people how to take their bikes apart and put them back together. It’s called ParkTool School (ParkTool is the Snap-on of bicycle tools) and it’s a great chance for people like me to learn the right way to do things, gain the confidence to strip things all the way down (“count to make sure you have an even number of ball bearings!”) and to fix up one’s own bike while there’s a safety net. You also get to use all the facilities and tools of Good Karma while you’re at it.

I am now the proud owner of a cheap-ass little certificate that says I’m moderately competent in bike repair. The course was eighteen hours of instructor-led class and lab activities. I also got to meet some fellow bikers who, like me, have reached a stage in their riding that it makes sense to be able to do repairs themselves. It was nice little bunch.

One woman in my class is the sister-in-law of a kid I knew in elementary school. Small world, man.

The instructor, Steve, was really good at explaining things, and combined with my general mechanical knowledge (the kind you get when you own a ’70’s-era Italian car whether you want to or not), I got things pretty quickly. Unfortunately for me, this didn’t prevent Steve from explaining the same point in many different ways. Sometimes that made it hard to concentrate.

The lab time was golden. I like to tinker, and as cars get less and less tinker-friendly, I now have new primary transportation that not just encourages a hands-on attitude, it requires it.

And get this: I can volunteer at Good Karma Bikes and tinker on other people’s bikes as well! I can hone my skills and help those in need at the same time. For free! I was already tempted when (at the sage suggestion of the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings) I checked and discovered that my employer will match each hour of volunteer time I spend there with a cash donation.

There is seriously no downside to this, other than dirty fingernails. I’m pretty stoked.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Requiem for My Travel Shirt

July 19th, 2015
Searching for the next perfect road trip companion.

It was on another road trip to Kansas that I first dubbed my blue aloha shirt my Official Travel Shirt. I was wearing it for the second straight day (no sense sweating up another shirt), and I tore the breast pocket just a bit while stuffing in change from a drive-through, limiting the other occasions I could wear it.

But for driving across the United States in a convertible, it was pretty close to ideal. Light and breathable, the cotton fabric was quick to wick the sweat away from my back and provide cooling. When I put my elbow up on the door frame, the shirt would balloon up, creating a cyclone of joy across my torso. Good times.

Good times that finally came to an end on this trip. The ravages of sun, sweat, suds, and more sun began to undermine the integrity of the fabric. The dye faded and the fabric got thinner where the sun hit it most directly—on the shoulders and (rather embarrassingly) on the gut.

When packing for my latest road trip, I realized the shirt’s days were numbered. The pocket was really starting to flap in the breeze and the fabric was giving out along the shoulder seams. This was to be the shirt’s last ride. In retrospect, I should have given the shirt a dignified retirement before the trip even started; it just wasn’t fair to ask it to get me across the Nevada desert in its condition.

The first night, in Wells, Nevada, I took off the shirt to discover two bright-red patches on my shoulders:

Sunburn on my shoulders makes me cry

Sunburn on my shoulders makes me cry

By the next night in Vernal, Utah, blisters had formed, and while I waited for my car to be repaired I also tried not to ooze into my sheets too much while I slept at night.

My travel shirt, after one too many days on the road.

My travel shirt, after one too many days on the road.

The shirt had given its last, and while I had other shirts along for the ride that were adequate, they were all too new and too nice to dedicate to being the new Travel Shirt (though one had good Cyclone of Joy™ action—I might have considered it were it not so dark-colored).

So the search begins, but clothing like this isn’t just found on a shelf, it’s discovered through adversity. It is the product of miles, and the grace with which it handles them. It is sun, and sunscreen, and sweat and wind and time and groping in the pocket for the toll ticket. It is the stop at a rest area with a gentle pit bull going to her new home. It is the discovery of a new road, the onset of a sudden rainstorm, the knowing glance from another convertible driver, the pause on a deserted road at night to hear the chirping of the crickets.

It is the stories. The new shirt will have a lot of catching up to do.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Is Facebook Killing the Blog?

July 10th, 2015
Second question: is that a bad thing?

There was a time, I call them the good ol’ days, when this humble blog was the anchor of a small but interesting community. I took great pleasure in the contributions of the blogcomm, as Funkmaster G-Force dubbed it; there was a second, more interesting layer under my ramblings — conversations that could last months, novel ideas and clever rebuttals. Traditions grew, and along with them a lexicon that applied only here. Members of the blogcomm even coordinated travel plans in those comment threads.

Things change. Facebook, for better or worse, has become the de facto place for online communities. I started announcing my new episodes on Facebook, and for a while that actually grew the community. Then people started assuming they would hear about new episodes from Facebook. Then Facebook started not telling everyone who has said they want to know, unless I pay. And if I don’t have a picture associated with my episode, the notice Facebook grudgingly gives up is almost invisible in the ridiculous noise of the news feed.

And the best discussions, those that would last weeks, die out more quickly now; people leave comments in Facebook-space and those that don’t join the discussion right away are left out.

To be fair this blog has changed as well; I’m working a corporate job at a company that doesn’t appreciate blabbermouths, and so a big part of my life is off-limits. But those changes began long after the erosion of the Muddled Community was well under way.

Meanwhile, many of the community functions that my blog offered to the regulars were supplanted by Facebook’s promise of group communication. It was only natural that the blogcomm would move. But as far as I can tell, the blogcomm didn’t move. It died. Where there was a group, now there is a series of individual broadcasts, the efficiency of which is governed by Facebook’s arcane rules. Perhaps the blogcomm was reincarnated in a form I don’t recognize, but I miss hearing from nico, f-g-f, gizo, and the rest. This is ultimately on me; if I had kept things interesting enough here, folks would still be around. Unless those folks were relying on Facebook to tell them when I posted a new episode.

Times change. It’s quite possible that using this format for personal expression and community building is obsolete. The thing is, social media in general and Facebook in particular don’t seem to be doing a good job of replacing it. Facebook sure looked promising back in the day, but when they decided to make their money honestly (charging their users) in addition to the making it dishonestly (selling their users) the way they always had, the whole dynamic changed. Now you pay to be seen on Facebook, and everyone agrees that they will quit that dang platform and…

Find another social media service that hasn’t started asking them for money yet. But mostly people don’t do anything except complain. As far as I know (which isn’t very far), Google’s social platform is still evil-only in terms of how they make their money, but even they haven’t managed to create a meaningful exodus from Facebook.

Facebook has become a giant advertising platform that we all dance on. Long ago I thought to use them to build my audience. For free. Facebook doesn’t owe me anything; I wanted a one-way relationship where Facebook would expand my audience and I would give nothing in return. Now they want something in return, and I’m not willing to give it. I’m the asshole in this relationship. But maybe it’s time for a breakup.

Huh. I did not expect to reach that conclusion when I started typing this episode, but I can’t argue the logic. Maybe it’s time we broke up. Maybe it’s time I started rebuilding the blogcomm honestly.

Politics Politics

A Step Forward for Freedom – And a Reminder for Myself

June 27th, 2015
Let's have more days like this.

By now you have heard that the Supreme Court of the United States has said that it is illegal to deny marriage to the citizens of this mighty nation simply because they want to marry someone of their own gender. This makes me happy, but not nearly as happy as it has made some people around me.

“I’m a person! I’m a person in my own country!” one friend said, before jumping in his car to drive a few hundred miles to celebrate with his partner in Texas. Man, that was cool. I’m no constitutional scholar, but I have to think this decision will have other, also-awesome echoes. “You can’t limit someone’s rights because of…” just got a lot stronger. A libertarian’s dream*.

So, I’m celebrating freedom, and I’m celebrating a magnificent milestone in the lives of some of my friends. It’s all good. But there’s a little part of me that asks, “Why did it even have to come to this?” Here is my rather tortured metaphor:

Imagine you’re in a big room with a lot of people. Everyone seems to be getting along just fine, but after a while you notice something: some of the people in the room are on fire. No one seems to be doing anything about it. You turn to your friends and say, “Jesus, shouldn’t we be putting out those fires?” You talk amongst yourselves and it quickly becomes clear that the people in question would rather not be on fire. The solution seems pretty obvious.

But a few wing nuts actually think we should not put out the fires, claiming those people chose to be on fire. Huh. So we talk some more, some people louder than others. Personally, I wasn’t talking that loudly, or at least only to people who already agreed with me. That’s why I don’t feel the right to crow as loudly today. I could have done more. Some of the let-them-burn crowd ended up lighting their own pants on fire (liar, liar)** and finally we decided that it was time to put the fires out. The joy expressed by those no longer burning was heartfelt and heartening.

Watch that joy. Participate in that joy. Maybe you can get a feel for what it is like to have a burden lifted.

Then look around the big room. Do you smell smoke? So do I.

* Oddly, those who self-identify as conservative voted in this case to give the state power over the individual. It happens pretty often. The word just doesn’t mean what it used to.

** A teachable moment for the leaders of the groups who, for their own political gains, wanted to continue to deny homosexuals their rights: if you go on about the “sanctity of marriage”, DON’T COMMIT ADULTERY! We are fortunate that the opposition couldn’t keep its dick in its pants.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

A Little Closer…

June 15th, 2015

The travel day started with a two-and-a-half mile hike from my hotel to the shop where my car waited, along highway 40, past a hotel that advertised


and past a store with a sign that read:


It is time.

Not far past that, in a red-brick building, next to a clothing store that sold both suits and skate gear, the tinted plate-glass proudly displayed a two-foot-tall green glass bong with a skull leaning out to the side. Perhaps some of my preconceptions of rural Utah are out-of-date.

A turn on Vernal Ave took me north, where I met an elderly power-walker heading the other way. She and I agreed it was a fine morning for a walk.

Finally, my destination. The good folks at Rev’d Up Auto Service had tested all the various parts of my electrical system and everything was running according to spec. “We could replace the alternator anyway, but it’s testing just fine.”

The kicker: The closest alternator was a day away. I could wait in Vernal another day, or I could cross my fingers and forge ahead. Heck, there was no guarantee replacing the alternator would fix what was wrong anyway. I chose finger-crossing and drove on, hoping that at least I’d get fair warning from the battery light if the problem recurred.

Nevertheless, I kept the car in minimum-electric-demand configuration, foregoing gadgets and radio and keeping my fingers off the switches for the electric windows.

After 100 miles I started to relax. After 130 I started to curse. The battery light had returned. I sweated the next thirty miles into Steamboat Springs.

When I was on my big road trip eleven years ago, 160 miles was about ideal for a day of driving. (On this day eleven years ago I was at Pepper’s pub, in Creston, Canada; the last night I spent on Canadian soil.) Of course, the best parts of that trip were when I didn’t have a destination. A destination is the bane of a good journey. Now I really want to be somewhere. Kansas, where the Bunch is gathered.

This time the auto shop is only one and a half miles from my hotel, but the walk is far less interesting, and far less pedestrian-friendly. I chose a kinda-dumpy looking hotel, assuming it would be cheaper, and I was not in a position to pop from place to place comparing rates. The internet might have been helpful, but every second my car was running might have been its last, and stopping and restarting would kill the battery even faster.

I’m not looking forward to sleeping in that bed tonight, let’s just leave it at that.

One thing for Steamboat Springs, it is within the craft-beer zone anchored around Boulder, and this time I’m much closer to the cutsey little downtown. I am now in a place called the Tap Room, and it’s pretty nice.

There is a saying I learned from Tony Hillerman: When there is a drought, the Navajo pray for rain; the Hopi pray for harmony with the drought. I think it’s time for me to be Hopi, and find harmony with the journey. I will get there. In the meantime I will travel.

Bars of the World Tour Bars of the World Tour

An Unplanned Visit to Vernal

June 13th, 2015
I should be arriving in Denver about now. I'm not.

I was making good time scooting across the southwestern part of the United States, plying US Highway 40 from outside of Provo to Denver, my target for the day. Somehow in all my traversals of the region, I had never taken this slice of roadway.

I paused in Duchesne to fill up the tank, and soon after I pulled back onto the highway I noticed that the battery warning light was on. Uh, oh.

I considered two possibilities: That there was some fleeting problem (like the window motors had briefly overloaded the system – the windows are getting very sluggish) and everything was actually fine but the error condition was still registered in the computer, or there was a deeper problem and I was currently drawing off the battery, and the running time I had left was strictly limited.

Highway 40 in eastern Utah is not exactly buzzing with humanity (despite this being the beehive state). The next settlement of any size was Vernal, so I turned off any optional electrical items and crossed my fingers. I made it, and pulled into a parking lot to see if I could find a clue about what was going on.

I happen to own a wifi-enabled ELM327 which, combined with an app on my phone, allows me to read and clear the error codes recorded by the car’s computer. I got the widget and my phone talking to each other, only to discover that whatever condition causes the battery light to come on is not recorded on the computer. As far as the OBD II port was concerned, everything was hunky-dory. Humph. I had to conclude that whatever condition caused the light to turn on was ongoing. I turned to Siri to find a mechanic. Mostly I got tire stores.

When I twisted the key to start the car, it turned over with a distinct lack of gusto. No doubt about it, I was running out of juice. I made a command decision: First I would find a hotel, then I’d find a mechanic once all my stuff was safely stashed in my room. I’m glad I did. Unloaded and rolling once more, I got about half a mile before the car shuddered and rolled to a stop as I ducked into the parking lot for a laundromat. The last few feet into the parking space took leg power. Then it was time to call the nice folks at AAA.

Those nice folks sent another nice guy with a huge-ass tow truck to drag my car to a local mechanic. The catch: It’s Saturday. He took me to a good shop that’s “pretty much almost always” open on Saturdays, but, alas, not this particular Saturday afternoon. Nor is it likely they (or anyone else) will be open Sunday.

Currently I’m sitting in a nice-enough place called Wingers Roadhouse, drinking a King’s Tale Pale Ale, by the Winger Bros. Brewing Company. Since it’s on tap, it can only be 3.2%, which makes for an odd pale ale. At this moment “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac is playing. If only I could.

Small-town Utah on a Sunday. Here we go.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

A Big Milestone

May 30th, 2015
Thanks to technology that didn't exist the last time I had a bicycle, I know when I crossed this magical threshold.

It seems appropriate that the ride that put me over 5000 miles was a slog. There are days like that, days you find yourself a long way from home and you’re not sure where the energy will come from to get you there. I’d fought a fierce headwind on Wednesday, and Thursday I was still feeling the effort. Man, I hate headwinds.

The traffic lights along Homestead were no help either as I plodded along, but since I had little momentum it was less annoying to lose it. Instead I waited, not winded (I was too tired to burn enough energy to require heavy breathing), and when the light changed in my favor I saddled up and with a moan I pushed ahead.

I catch myself moaning fairly often, in fact, especially when I discover myself in too tall of a gear when I pull out from a light. It’s not so much a moan of pain as it is a super-slo-mo version of a tennis player’s grunt, releasing from the diaphragm as one makes an effort. Only in my case the effort is stretched over a long period of time. “Uh-h-h-h” I sound like Frankenstein’s Monster as depicted in an old B-movie.

5000 miles. That’s a lot in 13 months; not bad at all for a gray-bearded somewhat-overweight dude. (This spring I entertained the idea of crossing that magical line before my bike’s first birthday, but April didn’t go too well, mileage-wise, and May wasn’t great either.) Next week I’ll cross another, perhaps more meaningful milestone: 100 miles for each year I’ve been on this planet. And I should be able to get the next 5000 before another year passes. (Although I won’t be getting many miles in June.)

You might think, with all that riding, that my legs would be really buff by now, but that’s relative. I still have skinny legs. They’re just a heck of a lot more muscular than they used to be.

I still have the newbie glow about my alternate lifestyle, that enthusiasm that makes commuting by bike more fun, not just cheaper and less frustrating and environmentally friendlier and healthier. This might be annoying to the people around me; I mention my bike fairly often in conversation and I’m a regular poster on Apple’s bike-to-work mailing list. The local bike shop knows my face, but they don’t see it as often as they used to. Gradually I’m getting more self-sufficient.

Toward that end, I’ll be taking a class on bike maintenance in July. I’ll be getting 18 hours of instruction by a trained expert while I work on my own bike from the inside out. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s run by a shop in town called Good Karma Bikes, a non-profit outfit dedicated to making the world a better place by providing transportation to people who can’t afford cars and by hiring emancipated foster kids and others who need a good start in life.

I’ve learned a lot since my last bike-milestone post, things like “always give the crossing guards a friendly wave and sometimes they’ll let you pass before stopping traffic,” but really there’s one lesson that stands out above all the others. I mentioned it in a post not long ago, but it bears repeating:

Just keep pedaling.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Remembering a Great

May 22nd, 2015
Don't give me this Man O' War shit.

Watching sports silently, I just saw an ad for the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in the triple crown of horse racing.

It got me to thinking about a horse I knew as a kid. Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in record time, and the buzz began. This was one ridiculously fast horse. I really wasn’t aware of how special that was at the time.

But the three races of the triple crown are different. A horse great at one distance may not do so well at another. The Preakness is a sprint, while the Belmont is a grind. The races favor different horses.

Unless that horse is Secretariat. Forty years and a bit later, Secretariat still holds the records for all three races. I remember watching those races on TV, the first time I ever gave a hang about horse racing, and I remember a horse flying around the course, leaving the pack far behind. In the Belmont, only four other horses even bothered to run against him. The track did not accept “show” bets. One horse kept up for a while, but the tremendous machine put down the fastest 1.5 miles in history of the sport and won by 31 lengths.

It appeared, to a kid watching, almost effortless. The horse just flew, while the rest of the field slogged along somewhere behind. The way he ran, it was like he was barely touching the ground.

I’m not sure, but I think the Belmont was his last race. There was nothing left to prove, an no track wants a race where the outcome is not in doubt. Secretariat broke the game. Nobody asked the horse if he wanted to keep running. Of course, they never asked if he wanted to run in the first place. But, man, that kid could fly. I have to think he enjoyed it.

A few years later I saw a “where are they now” feature and Secretariat was mentioned. I saw a clip of the majestic chestnut romping around in a field, a beautiful horse, still sleek, still fast, still carrying the love of speed, running just because he could. That’s a good retirement.

Observations Observations

Better Feet and the Conquest of the Galaxy

May 19th, 2015
Seriously, we can't be the first.

There’s an ad going around right now, for a car of all things, that features a woman who does not have the feet she was born with. It’s a cool ad, non-sequitur notwithstanding, but there’s a message there that maybe the car company didn’t intend.

The message is this: for certain well-defined purposes, we can build better feet than the ones we were born with.

We haven’t come close to matching the versatility of the human foot, and in my lifetime we probably won’t reproduce the feel of my toes wrestling with those of my sweetie, but if you want to sprint 100 meters there’s nothing like having springs for feet. People without human-born feet aren’t allowed in our races anymore.

So while the car company is trying to tie us to their brand through the undeniable awesomeness of this woman, there is another message, possibly more germane to their product: We can build some amazing shit these days. Technology that transforms lives.

It’s only a matter of time before folks start asking to have their weaker flesh-feet replaced with a socket that can accommodate a wide variety of specialized appendages. Once we develop muscle replacements that can be controlled by our nervous systems, things get crazier. And more powerful. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen in the moderately-near future.

Which leads, if you’re willing to follow me, to the Fermi Paradox. Fermi asked, “if there are so many stars, and presumably so many planets, where are all the civilizations?” The assumption is that any technological civilization will eventually send ships out to the stars, and even if it takes 10,000 years to get to the next place, that over a couple million years you can fill up a galaxy. It’s that exponential thing. And with millions of starters, one at least ought to succeed.

The ability to create a person who is powered by a nuclear reactor or solar cells, who can endure the hardships of empty space, makes that conundrum all the more perplexing. Better feet, better lungs, better heart. They’re all just machines serving our brains. We can give them galactic lifespans.

So the brains have to be the weak link, right? A car is just a way to get your brain to another location. Rocket feet are the same thing, but way cooler.

There’s an event that the Science Fiction crowd calls ‘The Singularity’. It’s the point at which we silly humans build something that surpasses us. It might be through genetic engineering, it might be though cybernetics, or whatever. Usually it’s presented as a scary thing; hell, nobody wants to become obsolete. But maybe better really is better.

But if it could happen here, doesn’t it stand to reason that it has happened a million times before? So where are those guys?

I have theories, but none I’m terribly convinced by. Either we are really unusual to reach the point of making custom feet, or there’s something ahead we’re really not going to like. Statistics favors the latter, but there’s a lot we don’t know. Meanwhile, let’s just keep on making things better.

Politics Politics

Ted Cruz and the WWE

May 13th, 2015
Maybe he's not a raving idiot.

So in case you’ve missed it, Senator Ted Cruz has done another batshit-crazy move. He’s asked the United States military to assure him that they do not intend to invade Texas.

Texas. You know, the state that is in fact already one of the United. We have, according to this amusing rebuttal, fifteen military bases in Texas. What would an invasion even do?

So Ted Cruz, Canadian, Ivy-League educated, has once more done something embarrassing and nonsensical. Can he really be that stupid? Is he really incapable of seeing how utterly ridiculous he looks?

“He’s just conveying the concerns of his constituents,” you might say, to cover for him. But is that leadership? Would he also petition the White House to turn off the tornado machines if some nutjob in the panhandle started quacking that the windmills in Kansas were actually giant fans aimed at Texas? Or would he choose instead to maybe not give credence to the whacked-out, nut-assed ravings of an imbecile? Or if I can ask another way, how many imbeciles does it take to get Cruz to embarrass himself?

What Cruz did is terrible governance. He undermined the very institution he is a part of. But… I don’t think governing is why Ted Cruz is in Washington. He has seen the future of politics and he’s jumped on board with gusto.

Ted Cruz is not a leader, he’s a showman. He’s not in Washington to make America better, he’s there to sell tickets. (Rhymes with: collect campaign contributions.) He sees politics for what it has become: the WWE.

Hm… thinking about this a little more, selling tickets is one part of what WWE does, but mostly what they do is make money for their corporate sponsors. In this way Cruz is exactly like a character in the WWE. Cruz’s corporate sponsors are companies who profit from the legislation he passes. Our government is all about the corporate sponsors these days.

And the product the WWE sells is characters. Heroes, heels, stereotypes, and fleeting characters representing America’s enemies, who rise and fall with the each new bogeyman who threatens the American way of life.

I know, I know, there has always been an element of this in politics. But Ted Cruz the politician is so far removed from anything you would expect given his history, that I have to wonder if Senator Ted Cruz is a wholesale invention, a six-year stand-up act on the nation’s biggest stage. Seriously, is there any other explanation for someone with more than five brain cells to rub together to act the way he does?

Perhaps in fact he is brilliant. Perhaps he has identified a group of people who love the WWE, who recognize the emotional manipulation but steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it. And for those people he has become Superpolitician, crusading against the Philistines in Washington, a lonely voice in a tempest of corruption. He does it well. Andy Kauffman would be proud.

Although, if Senator Cruz is the wave of the future, and other completely fabricated personas take up residence in Washington to pit staged fights with pre-dertemined outcomes, C-Span could get a lot more interesting.