Sunday, November 26, 2006

Between a Rock and a Soft Place!

Livingstones. Pillows that look like large rocks. Sadly, there's no American distributor yet - they seem to mostly sell through upscale european interior design companies.

There's even an outdoor version made from neoprene.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Playing instruments you don't know

Here's another nice "Why didn't I think of that?" YouTube moment:

Friday, November 24, 2006

Thanksgiving tactics

Zefrank's been on a great run lately. Here's a goofy show on how to approach Thanksgiving (from a combat perspective):
November 21 theshow

Followed by a more serious one on thankfulness:
November 22 theshow

Meanwhile, Scott Adams gave a most profound, brief, and important wish for this Thanksgiving: Bring them home.

When challenged in the comments, he clarified the position - he'd bring them home TODAY - and the logic behind the position couldn't be simpler:

"It's rational to make decisions on the knowable (we are losing troops every day) and not the unknowable (what happens if we leave). To do otherwise is to let hopeful thinking guide policy."
Bravo. So...

Where do we want our troops? HOME!
When do we want 'em back? NOW!
Where do we want our troops? HOME!
When do we want 'em back? NOW!

Now go have some turkey. There should be leftover stuffing in the fridge. No, on the left, behind the cranberry sa- yeah, right there. Yum!

Thanksgiving as a Libertarian Parable

Each Thanksgiving, economists retell this story: The new colonists only survived and prospered once they rejected socialist institutions in favor of private property...

Old-World Baggage

One of the traditions the Pilgrims had brought with them from England was a practice known as ``farming in common.'' Everything they produced was put into a common pool; the harvest was rationed among them according to need.

They had thought ``that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing,'' Bradford recounts.

They were wrong. ``For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte,'' Bradford writes.

Young, able-bodied men resented working for others without compensation. They thought it an ``injuestice'' to receive the same allotment of food and clothing as those who didn't pull their weight. What they lacked were proper incentives.

A New Way

After the Pilgrims had endured near-starvation for three winters, Bradford decided to experiment when it came time to plant in the spring of 1623. He set aside a plot of land for each family, that ``they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to themselves.''

The results were nothing short of miraculous.

Bradford writes: ``This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted than other waise would have bene by any means the Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave far better content.''

The women now went willingly into the field, carrying their young children on their backs. Those who previously claimed they were too old or ill to work embraced the idea of private property and enjoyed the fruits of their labor, eventually producing enough to trade their excess corn for furs and other desired commodities.


Given appropriate incentives, the Pilgrims produced and enjoyed a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1623 and set aside ``a day of thanksgiving'' to thank God for their good fortune.

``Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day,'' Bradford writes in an entry from 1647, the last year covered by his History.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the Pilgrims' good fortune was not a matter of luck. In 1623, they were responding to the same incentives that, almost four centuries later, have come to be regarded as necessary for a free and prosperous society.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A new way to multiply!

I did not realize it is possible to efficiently use graphs to multiply decimal numbers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ski-Gliding the Eiger

This is just too cool:

Sunday, November 19, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth is Online!

The entire movie has been webbed, making possible a point-by-point discussion with reference to the original. Don't know how long it'll last, but here are the links to Gore's movie _An Inconvenient Truth:

part 1 part 2.

Gore starts out by attributing a version of "The trouble with people is not that they don't know but that they know so much that ain't so." to Mark Twain. Twain never said that, and since Gore gives no source, you can't check his claim. An inauspicious beginning. The actual source for that quote is Josh Billings, who also wrote these gems:
"I have lived in this world just long enough to look carefully the second time into things that I am most certain of the first time. "
"Don't ever prophesy; for if you prophesy wrong, nobody will forget it; and if you prophesy right, nobody will remember it. "
13 minutes in, Gore lies with statistics by cutting off the bottom of a C02 chart. The camera zooms in as it scrolls across the page so you can't see the scale, but it looks like about a 2% increase over 40 years. The book How to Lie With Statistics points out that chopping off the bottom of a chart, carefully choosing how much data to include and rescaling the resulting chart to fit the available space is a good way to turn an insignificant rise or fall into one that looks scary. If you do that twice, say, once with CO2 and once with temperature, you're pretty much guaranteed that the overall trend will look somewhat similar if both curves are increasing at all.

14:00 shows the chart in red with no scale at all. As if the sheer fact of a number increasing were scary without regard to how much it is increasing.

15:00 red line, no scale.

17: "Glaciers are so beautiful, but those who go to see 'em, here's what they're seeing now." (Shows a calving video, falsely implying that calving into the water wouldn't happen without warming and that no glaciers are growing.)

18: shows glaciers receding, as if this is an unambiguously bad thing.

19: On ice cores, a somebody told Gore "Right here is where the US passed the clean air act." Gore adds "And I couldn't believe it, but you could see the difference with the naked eye - a couple of years after that law was passed, it's very clearly distinguishable." Gore is either mistaken or lying about this; it's not believable.

20: Shows a hockey stick. Doesn't mention it's not all charting the same information or the divergence issue or that - contrary to his chart - a great deal of evidence suggests the Medieval Warming Period was warmer than today. Now that we've had the NAS study and the Wegman report, nobody should present the Hockey Stick in this fashion.

20:30: compares (reconstructed) temperature and CO2 concentration side by side.

21:50 Gore now shows the graphs one above the other - which is a bit better - and asks "did they ever fit together?" but never superimposes or calculates a difference to show which moves first or to what degree they are similar. He never mentions that CO2 changes generally trail temperature changes. If you pause the video and look carefully you can see this - often the uptick in temperature comes first.

23:30: Gore implies that higher CO2 means higher temp rather than the reverse, never mentions the scale on the chart or percentage increase. Also, the predicted increase is outdated.

28:38 Gore says that according to atmospheric measurements, "the hottest (year) of all was 2005." Nope; 2005 is in a dead heat with 1998. To make the stronger claim, Gore is either cherrypicking his source or silently switching to Northern Hemisphere temperature.

30: Gore claims when the oceans are warmer we get more storms. (unproven, dubious)

37: The plot of "number of storms and floods" shows growth. This is true, but misleading because - according to those who study storms - the frequency is primarily driven by other things than temperature. Gore claims 2005 will be "off that chart". Was this true? In any case, 2006 won't be.

39: Lake Chad nearly dried up in 1908 and 1984; the fact that it also did so again recently is more related to changes in irrigation than global warming. Gore is now cherry-picking to find any random recent bad event to pin on AGW. He also did this with Katrina, but note that 2006 was an extremely mild hurricane season.

42:30 "Drunken trees". Gore thinks it's bad that the permafrost is thawing.

43:10: Gore shows a plot of "Alaskan Winter Tundra Travel Days". Hallelujah!! It's an honest chart! Possibly the first we've seen. The scale is clearly shown and starts at zero, so the chart does not create a false impression of disproportionate movement. It's still not clear why the trend being shown is such a bad thing - it implies the need to build roads rather than trek straight across the countryside - but the chart is honest and does bear some relation to Gore's thesis. Phew! Things are looking up!

44:10: Whoops, I spoke too soon; he's already at it again! This plot of "Sea Ice Extent" (measured in millions of kilometers squared) shows what Gore calls "a precipitous drop" largely because he's cut off the scale at 10 instead of zero. By mis-scaling and zooming in as the chart is drawn so you can't see the scales by the time the relevant data appears, this chart leaves the viewer with the visual impression that this measurement has roughly dropped in half but actually it's declined from around 13 to around 11. Gore then says "It has diminished by 40% in 40 years." His own chart does not show this. Eyeballing it, I make out the high point of the chart as 14 and the low as 11.3 - that's a 20% drop if you cherrypick the endpoints well enough. (The actual decline is around 15% if you compare two relative highs or relative lows or if you take a moving average.)

45:24: Polar bears drowning. Al Gore notes that a study found that some polar bears drown while swiming long distances for food. Gore claims that "they didn't find this before" but that's because they weren't looking for it before. There is no data to support a claim that more polar bears are drowning now than have been in the past, nor are polar bears endangered.

End of Part 1.

Part 2
0:54 Gore says "If we have an increase of five degrees (F), which is on the low end of the projections..." Those are old projections, and he doesn't say how long it would take.

3:25 The thermohaline currents shutting down is just a scare story; there's no evidence for it as a likely possibility. He says "we'll get back to that later" but never does so.

6:00 The caterpillars and chicks story. Why do we care more about these chicks than the butterflies they eat and whatever the chicks were competing against?

6:38 The chart of "frost days" versus "Number of invasive species" is correctly scaled to zero! And he superimposes them to see the relationship between the two! Hurray! What does this mean? Many species do better when there's less frost. Seems like a good thing generally, even if a few of the species who profit by it can be called "invasive".

7:06 Pine beetle. Another cherry-picked example. Somehow no endangered species that are helped by warming reach Gore's radar.

7:23 Claims various towns (Nairobi and Harare) were founded because they were "just above the mosquito line" but that line has increased due to warming.
As I understand it, Gore is wrong here -- malaria has been documented at an altitude of 2,500 metres while Nairobi and Harare are at about 1,500 metres. The increased malaria problem in Nairobi is largely due to local land use changes and population pressures, not global warming.

7:42: "We've had 30 new diseases that have emerged in the last quarter century." Yes, but none are attributable to global warming according to those who study them. Good quotes here.

9:30: talks about ice loss in the Antarctic Peninsula. Doesn't mention that the Antarctic as a whole has in many recent years gained more ice than it has lost - the Peninsula has been a local exception to an overall trend that was often neutral or in the other direction.

11: Mentions in passing that various people have had to move to New Zealand due to rising water, implying this was caused by antarctic melting. Doesn't name the countries, so we can't check whether sea level rises have actually occurred there - the pacific is falling in some parts.

12: "if this were to melt, or if greenland were to, sea level would rise 20 feet. Doesn't mention that given current sea level trends it would take over a thousand years.

13:40 "If greenland broke up and melted, or if half of greenland and half of antartica broke up and melted, this is what would happen to the sea level in florida." Starts showing computer animations of a 20 foot rise. Doesn't mention it would take a thousand years.

14:43: "Imagine the impact of a hundred million or more refugees." If the change happens, it will be imperceptively slow year-to-year and so far in the future that the people to whom it happens will be immeasurably richer than we are now and correspondingly more able to handle changes. That is, if we don't let scare stories cause us to shut down the engines of progress in the meantime.

18: Honest charts on population. Yay!

22:30: Honest charts on carbon emissions by regions - they start at zero.

23: The parable of the frog. Gore claims a frog in lukewarm water won't jump out as the temperature rises. This is an urban myth. The fact that real frogs jump out when it gets too hot should lead us to think people will act if and when we, too, are actually threatened.

27: Refers to the Naomi Oreskes literature study on "Climate change". Few published studies that include the string "climate change" explicitly reject the consensus view in their abstract, which is all that Oreskes read. However, surveys of scientists have found a wide range of views including quite a lot of dissent. Perhaps the presence of a "consensus view" is merely making it hard to publish papers that explicitly reject that view. Or perhaps the problem is the phrase "climate change". If you search instead for "climate variability" it's apparently possible to find published studies that reject the consensus of climatologists, though they aren't always labeled as such.

30: Gore expresses concern that scientists are being browbeaten into expressing views that are not their own. That concern works both ways; it doesn't only support his own view. For instance, the IPCC "Summary for Policymakers" has been known to include wording the individual scientists don't support.

31:15: Gore displays an Upton Sinclair quote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding." That's actually the correct attribution! Huzzah! (Note that one might apply the quote to Gore himself, as chairman of a company that is heavily invested in "sustainability" technologies.)

31:30: Gore asks "Do we have to choose between the economy and the environment?"

32:52: Gore says "If we do the right thing, we're going to create a lot of wealth and a lot of jobs."

35: Another dishonest graph - the base of the fuel economy graph starts at 20mpg, which exaggerates the difference between countries.

35:42: Gore claims China's fuel economy standards are way above ours. However, they don't meet their own standards, and their cars suck in every other way, particularly safety. Mileage is a nice feature of a car but it's not the only important feature; there are tradeoffs to make. We don't want to pay the cost in lower safety, less carrying capacity, etcetera.

37:30: Hey, it's another chart that starts at zero! Gore claims we can reduce our emissions to 1970 levels with known existing technologies. He doesn't give any indication of cost or whether making the changes he advocates would pass a cost-benefit analysis.

38: Gore says "We can make choices to bring our individual carbon emissions to zero." I rather doubt that, short of suicide...

39: Gore supports Kyoto. Ugh.

In summary: there seems to be a human need to believe in doom and gloom scenarios. Gore resembles an old time revival preacher, scouring the world for evidence that things are getting worse so he can claim the end of the world is at hand. But if the evidence were as solid as he claims, he wouldn't need to lie about it. He could present honest charts that start at zero, are clearly sourced, and clearly distinguish between actual data and computer "projections". He wouldn't need to selectively present only the data that supports his own side and claim a false consensus.

The fact that Gore needs to engage in this sort of rhetorical slight of hand indicates a weak case.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman, R.I.P.

Free To Choose was a major transformative experience for me. It made economics matter, and it made economics fun. Milton Friedman was such a clear thinker that it was nearly impossible to disagree with him - whenever he ventured an opinion on a topic, it was clear he'd wrestled with the strongest contrary views he could find and adjusted his own position to take them into account. He could cut straight to the heart of almost any contentious issue and locate the exact point of disagreement, often understanding both sides of an argument better than those with whom he argued.

His key concern was always to distinguish what policy was most likely to bring about a positive change in the world. Good intentions could usually be assumed, but good outcomes were what really mattered.

Before I read Friedman, I was a liberal. Immediately after, I was a libertarian.

He will be missed.

UPDATE - here is the Parable of the Pencil:

And (very low quality video, but a classic) The Four Ways To Spend Money:

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Not Voting

"Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail." - Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
In accordance with my anarchist principles, I tried just not voting this time around. First time ever. You know what? It felt good!

Some argued for casting a straightforward throw-the-bums-out vote. Which I admit has some appeal, but the problem with voting Democrat is that even after all this time, all the incompetence, all the lying, all the full-bore idiocy of the current administration, I somehow can't manage to convince myself the Dems would have done much better. Different, I'll grant. We'd certainly have different problems in a Dem administration or with a Dem congress. But different is not the same thing as better. There's a lot of ruin in a nation - things could be better, but other things could be worse. Having been lied to and disappointed too many times before by both sides, I'm just not buying it any more. Go ahead and play the game if you must, but deal me out. I abstain. And in abstaining, I withdraw my moral sanction from the outcome.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Daily Show does Schoolhouse Rock

This is pretty funny.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

8 ways not to succeed in music

Unfortunately, I've been following a few of these rules, but in the next year I hope to break more of them:

1. Stop writing new songs.

2. Stop learning and improving your technique.

3. Don't work with other musicians.

4. Don't make demos.

5. Don't try to publish and elicit interest in your demos.

6. Don't perform for people.

7. Don't listen to other artists, study their techniques, or learn who is popular.

8. Don't attend live concerts.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Top 8 reasons you have too many books

I used to add more bookshelf space every few years but it never solved the problem because the number of books would always expand to exceed available space. What I needed to do - and finally did do - was brutally cull the population. Here are some bad reasons to own extra books:

1. Wishful thinking. Someday, when I have the time and motivation to spare, I might read this book. Mind, you haven't read it in the last three years...but who knows? Examples: The Art of Computer Programming (Knuth), War and Peace(Tolstoy). If and when your interest level returns, you can always buy the book back from or or find it in a library. Meanwhile, it's taking up too much valuable space.

2. Reference. Someday I'll want to check some numbers I found in this book. Example: The Economic Consequences of Immigration (Simon). Why you won't: by the time the argument comes up, the reference will be outdated. It's faster to check your half-remembered facts using the internet. And besides, nobody will accept your ten-year-old book reference as more relevant than something current. Keep a dictionary; lose most of the rest.

3. It's a lifestyle statement. The kind of person I am, ought to own this book. You might never read it, but still feel good about having it around to demonstrate your values. Examples: The Panda's Thumb (Dawkins), Brief History of Time(Hawking). Why not? Realistically, nobody else cares that much about your library. Keep a few books like this, chuck the rest.

4. Loaners/gifts. This is such a good book, I'll want to lend or give it to my friends who haven't read it. Example: The Golden Transcendence (Wright). Keep a few like this if you must, chuck the rest. Remember that Amazon does gift-wrapping!

5. Will-finish. If you read half a chapter and got bored or distracted, what makes you think you'll get back to it? Toss.

6. Will-reread. I'll want to re-read this. How long has it been since you read it last? Less than a year: Keep. Three years: Toss.

7. Reminders. I want to buy the next book in this series; having the current one on my shelf will prod my memory. That's what recommendation services are for. Besides, you do most of your reading on the net now and don't have time to read more than a fraction of the good books that come out each year. If you overlook this one author or series for a while, it's no big loss. Toss.

8. I'm interested in this. Fair enough, but do you need a whole shelf on that topic or would just a few of the best books suffice? Keep only the best references, cull the rest.

Having culled gave me a bigger apartment without having to move or pay more rent - fewer bookcases and fewer free stacks of books means I've got more square footage of usable space. So be merciless. Buy boxes. Fill them with the books, tape them closed, and get the boxes out of your house. When you've cleared enough room to free a bookcase, get the bookcase out too.

The reason to own books is that you expect and intend to read them sometime soon. Getting rid of all the almost-but-not-quites doesn't merely declutter your house and your life, it also makes it easier to find and access those few books you really care about when you do want them.