Archive for February, 2008

cold weather biking strategies

February 19, 2008 6 comments

I noticed this van parked on Normal Avenue while riding home from work this evening:

We have some heroically hard-core bikers on campus, riding minimalist track-bike style custom jobs with sew-up tires.  I go the luxury route, riding a mountain bike with 21 gears, KoolStop brake pads, extra-strength wheels, front shocks and fat tires.  It’s the bicycle equivalent of an SUV.  Since it’s often dark in the winter, my bike lights up like a UFO with LED taillight and headlight, and fully DOT-tape reflectorized, even the hubs and wheels.  One of my sons pointed out that while the illumination scheme protects me from the accidental collision, it’s easier targetting for those who are trying to hit me.

Anyway, bicycling in very cold weather requires some strategizing against the freezing of one’s ass.  Every cold-weather rider has their own coping mechanisms.  You won’t see many heavy winter coats; more likely windbreakers with layers.  I’ve even seen guys in Spandex well below zero.  Oversize helmets make room for stocking caps or hoods.  Gloves are an individual matter, ranging from ski gloves to thin high-tech materials.  There are lots of different kinds of face masks, which is in indication that none of them is perfect.

I’m a bit of a wimp; when the temperature drops to single digits and the wind picks up, my own kit is significant armor.  I wear a thin cotton jacket with a windbreaker shell, the hood pulled up over my stocking cap and a pair of ski goggles capped with a helmet. If that doesn’t sound like much, a 100kg person generates a lot of heat riding a bike.  My gloves are a pair of cotton glove liners in cheap cotton gloves, which works surprisingly well for under three bucks.

One thing I don’t do is listen to an iPod while I’m riding.  My hearing’s bad enough and the approach of a nearby truck is the sort of detail I prefer not to be surprised by. I also leave the bike at home when the streets are icy.  When they come up with a tire that really grips ice, I’ll ride on ice.

Another thing I noticed this evening is that when you ride across the Quad you needn’t stick to the sidewalks in cold weather.  Nobody’s out playing flag football and the frozen ground offers little rolling resistance.

Notes and links:

  • I don’t expect to save the world by riding my bike; it’s more of an accommodation to my low boredom threshold.

  • The van owner is right that riding a bike is environmentally better than driving a car, though.  Every little bit helps. Big bits help too: there’s a really big environmental bang for the buck to be had from shelling out for protection and restoration of tropical rain forests.  It might be much more cost-effective than some of the fancier carbon-sequestration schemes out there

Dog is going to die tonight

February 18, 2008 2 comments

Riding home this evening, North on Normal Avenue, I saw a little bulldog puppy headed South right down the center line as fast as his little legs could carry him.  He was almost hit by a car and he ran in front of my bike too. Not a brain in his little head.

Yesterday it was fifty-five degrees but today it barely topped twenty.  It’s nine out there now and supposed to get down to six.  The wind is howling outside and I can hear tree branches cracking.  Seeing the little lost dog made me remember this scene from one of my favorite cartoons:

Frye and Leela are lost on the moon.  It’s getting dark.  Their tourist spacesuits will provide them with several days of recycled air but it’s the temperature is going down.  They encounter a grizzled old prospector:
Prospector: “You two better get inside!  It gets down to two hunnert degrees below zero at night!”
Leela: “Fahrenheit or Celsius?
Prospector: “First one, then the other.”

If somebody doesn’t catch up with that puppy, he’ll be a cute little pupsicle by morning.

Categories: Nature, observations

Obsolete Skills

February 18, 2008 5 comments
Categories: Science & Technology

“A Grammy In Mathematics…”

February 18, 2008 3 comments

Imagine holding in your hand the only existing live recording of a historically significant musician, Woody Guthrie.  It’s absolutely irreplaceable and it’s incredibly fragile; it’s a wire-recording…

So she (Guthrie’s daughter Nora) was determined to preserve the recording. For the first step, she and a team of engineers transferred it into digital format. It was a hair-raising experience. “The wire was really flimsy,” says Jamie Howarth, a sound engineer on the job. “It was frustratingly, maddeningly fragile.” It snapped over and over, and with every snap, a moment of the recording was lost. And when it didn’t snap, it kinked and snarled.

Wire recorders had lots of problems beyond fragility; the sound quality varied for many reasons.  Fixing that sound quality was a job for… a mathematician! 

The team discovered the many ways that wire makes a lousy material for sound recording. One problem is that wire’s round. When the wire kinked, it would twist out of position and the head would no longer be reading the proper side of the wire. The machine still read the low and medium frequencies, but the very high frequency sounds dropped out—including the signal Howarth used as his foot-beat.

Short developed techniques to interpolate the missing information. “We could actually pick up a hum from the Con Edison power supplies,” Short says. “It’s a pretty nasty noise.” Because that hum was lower frequency, it remained even in the twisted sections. Short also brought in more sophisticated techniques to shift the pitches once the algorithm had identified what needed to be done.

“When it was done, we were all just awed by this recording,” Howarth says. “It was miraculous.” Despite all the difficulties in the process, the wire recording was in many ways surprisingly good.

Click the picture to visit the original article and listen to the before and after-processing clip.  (Thanks to one of my sons for the link)

One of the advantages of an analog recording is that it can be decoded as long as it is intact. But it’s the “intact” part that is a problem.  Digitizing crumbling documents and recordings allows the bits to transcend the atoms.  But one problem with digital content is that the format can change until there’s no way to read it. I wonder how stable our digital media formats are now? 

Categories: Science & Technology

“Free-market health care” and national defense

February 17, 2008 1 comment

Sara continues her series debunking common lies about nationalized health care, bringing up an angle that had not occurred to me:

Getting everyone insured is, unequivocally, a clear matter of national security.

Our every-man-for-himself attitude toward health care is a security threat on a par with unsecured ports. In Canada, people go see the doctor if they’re sick for more than a day or two. It was this easy access to early treatment, along with the much tighter public health matrix that enables doctors to share information quickly, that allowed the country’s health care system to detect the 2003 SARS epidemics in Toronto and Vancouver while they were still very localized, act within hours to stop them before the disease spread any further, and track down and treat exposed people before they got too sick to be helped. In both cases, the system worked flawlessly. The epidemic was stopped within days and quashed entirely in under a month, potentially saving of millions of lives.

In the U.S., that same epidemic might easily have gone unnoticed for critical days and weeks. If the first people to get sick were among those 75 million without adequate insurance, they probably would have toughed it out a few extra days before finally dragging their half-dead carcasses into an ER somewhere. Not only would they be much farther along in the course of the disease—and thus at greater risk of death themselves—every one of them could have infected dozens or even hundreds of other people in the meantime, accelerating the spread of the epidemic.

Worse: America’s underfunded public health system might have taken several days to piece together the whole picture of an epidemic; and perhaps another week or two might have passed before the E. Coli conservatives in charge (having thrown out the science-based management plans thoughtfully developed by the bureaucracy) cooked up some kind of half-assed ideology-driven decision about how to proceed. (It would, of course, involve spectacular amounts of lying to the public.) By that point, tens of millions could have been infected, leading to a death toll that would make 9/11 and Katrina look like minor statistical blips.

Think about superbugs and the ongoing waves of immunological imports from the world’s swamps and jungles. Think about terrorists with bioweapons. And then think again about the undeniable fact that every single underinsured American is a gaping hole in the safety net that protects us all from a catastrophic epidemic.

Epidemics grow by exponential leaps and bounds; catching them earlier is much, better.  Think of putting out a fire in a wastebasket vs. arriving when the whole building is in flames.

There’s a lot more about competitiveness, “rationed care” “efficiency” and other canards used to keep Americans in the dark about their health care. Short answer, we’re paying too much, getting too little, and congratulating ourselves on the results.  (Tip ‘o the hat to Mike The Mad Biologist)

Notes and links:

History of global warming denialism

February 15, 2008 12 comments

The denialist campaign has experience, I’ll give them that.

“Polls show that between one-third and one-half of Americans still believe that there is “no solid” evidence of global warming, or that if warming is happening it can be attributed to natural variability. Others believe that scientists are still debating the point. Join scientist and renowned historian Naomi Oreskes as she describes her investigation into the reasons for such widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientific consensus and probes the history of organized campaigns designed to create public doubt and confusion about science. Series: Perspectives on Ocean Science”

Whichever “side” of the global warming issue you find yourself, this video is really worth the hour that it runs.  The first half is the history of global warming research and of the IPCC, and the second half is about the organized campaign to discredit climate science.  (Tip of the hat to John Lynch at Stranger Fruit)

Northern Illinois University

February 15, 2008 16 comments

Another day, another university shooting this time only only a couple hours from here.  You can’t work in a university building and not think about troubled students, about your own community, and about… the exits.  And what I would do, and who I would hope to be in the building when it happens.  We have a fine university police force.

Once again we’ll be treated to a round of “why” when the event is so rare that there is hardly any likelihood of a consistent reason.  And proposed solutions, we’ll have plenty of those.  There may be a little bit of truth in all of it, but no complete truth anywhere despite the religious opportunists piling on.

I don’t offer a solution, only a counterbalance; try to brighten the light of human kindness today.  Give someone a compliment, take an extra moment to help out a student or co-worker, and remember that cynicism is toxic in greater than the most minute doses.

I forget to be kind all too often so it’s important to cultivate it as a habit.  Lately I’ve been too grumpy, too cynical, too focused on my own concerns.  Kindness won’t bring back the dead or even necessarily prevent the next shooting, and it won’t give any insight as to ‘why’.  But I am certain that there isn’t enough of it.


  • My boss (ex- mil police) recommends this book, Verbal Judo. It’s a set of nonviolent tools for violent situations.  Since I can’t envision myself as the Rambo type, I’m going to pick up a copy and study it.

Categories: News, observations

A little Dynamic Web Template design music

February 14, 2008 3 comments

Choosing the right music is crucial to a successful design session.  OK my taste in movie themes isn’t exactly classic…

Categories: Uncategorized

Darwin Day 2008

February 12, 2008 Comments off

Today is Darwin Day! It’s fascinating to ponder the course of ideas, isn’t it?  Would Darwin have foreseen that his insights – which have been proven mostly correct and which have benefited humanity in countless ways – would still be struggling for popular acceptance 199 years after his birth? 

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
- Charles Darwin

Wishing you an adaptable 2008!

  • Illustration links to (and shamelessly stolen from) Darwin Day dot org, which is packed with resources about Darwin, his life, and evolutionary science

  • My DD post from last year

Categories: observations

“If you stare into the Google…”

February 10, 2008 4 comments

Look away!  Zoom out! Zoom out! Zoom out!!!

Categories: Humor, observations