Archive for June, 2008

Quote of theweek: Donald Kaul

June 30, 2008 2 comments

From a column on sexism and the Hillary Clinton campaign:

“I blame religion. Religion is the great machine societies have for passing on values and one of the chief values religions pass on is that women are second-class citizens, useful in their way but not to be entrusted with leadership. And the more orthodox the religion, the more likely to be hostile to the idea that women are the equals of men.”
Donald Kaul, The American Way

Categories: observations

Movie Review: Wall-E

June 29, 2008 2 comments

Just on impulse I Shanghaied MrsDoF to see Wall-E this afternoon.  After all, it’s from Pixar, and they did Incredibles, which I thought was wonderful.  And it got a somewhat over-the-top review from one of the ScienceBloggers I often read. 

The movie is about a lonely robot, the last of his kind left behind on Earth to clean up the environmental mess.  He encounters another robot dropped off on a reconnaissance mission, and attempts to make friends with her.  Because, though neither robot is humanoid, there isn’t any doubt about the expressive gender of either one.

And watch out for this chick, Wall-E!  She packs a punch.  But they establish a relationship amid the mountains of trash, and all goes well until Wall-E presents her with a little green plant, and then things go terribly wrong…

The movie is fine for kids and adults won’t be bored.  Aside from the awesome Pixar animation, I enjoyed the tribute references to other science-fiction movies and stories.  The ship’s computer is so clearly HAL, only more bad-tempered.  And see if you can spot the brief reference to The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Repeal the Second Amendment?  UPDATE

June 28, 2008 10 comments

The Chicago Tribune editorializes; “Repeal the Second Amendment”.  My first reaction is quite negative – we’re talking about one of the rights guaranteed in the constitution here.  It’s late, and I’ll have more to say about this on Sunday but I’d love to hear what you think. 

As promised, below the fold are some updates on this subject.  The Chicago Tribune editorial had many, many comments and I will base my responses on those.  Many were slogans that we’ve all heard before, and they deserve a response:

“If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”
This is a real problem for gun-ban advocates: criminals don’t obey laws.  But it isn’t a problem for gun-control advocates, which is a very different thing.
“Concealed-carry will result in more crime, more shootings.”
Hasn’t happened, in places where concealed carry is allowed.  I bow to experimental results.
“Why don’t you just repeal the First Amendment!  The Second is the one that protects the first!”
This is not supported by the record of oppressive countries with armed populations.  Nearly every family in Saddam’s Iraq had a gun, and there were certainly people who wanted him dead.  But his government kept the people in line with torture and threats to family.
“The Nazis confiscated all the guns!”
Again, the idea that owning a gun is somehow a hedge against governmental oppression.  Sorry, but it isn’t.  There are lots of ways of controlling a population that are not fixed by bullets.  Propaganda, censorship, and terror all apply; no single amendment is sufficient or there would only have been one of them.  And while we’re at it, forget holding off the government with your trusty rifle; that’s just delusional.  You just might, however, keep it from ever getting that bad if the press isn’t a presidential lapdog.
“Washington DC has the strictest gun laws in the country, but it’s also the country’s murder capitol.”
Again, a simplistic explanation for a complex problem.  Part of our national psyche seems fixated on the last line of defense.  We like diet pills but we don’t like to count calories.  We like levees but we don’t like wetlands’ protection laws.  We enjoy excellent emergency medicine but had to be forced by law to wear our seat belts and they’ll have to pry the cell phone out of our cold, dead hands.  Our answer to safe streets is more cops, more guns, more violence.  It never occurs to us to do something about drug laws that impoverish inner-city neighborhoods while empowering criminals.  Or to put national resources behind inner-city schools and do something about hungry kids and ignorance.  We need to start applying long-term solutions to long-term problems.
“The Left has had its social experimentations with gun control for years now.”
It’s an experiment doomed to failure in a country awash in guns.  About all we’ve learned is; it doesn’t work to draw a line around a certain area and say; “No guns here”.  And here’s a related objection:
“Every single shooting has been in a ‘gun-free zone’”
Not true, and not meaningful.
“I have a right to self-defense!” (variations thereof)
Then you better get serious training.  The likelihood of your gun protecting you or your family has to be balanced against the greater likelihood of the opposite outcome. That said, many people do have training, and should update their training throughout life if they use a gun for defense.  And even then, recognize that a gun can give tragic force to your most irrational moments.
“The Second Amendment refers to a ‘well-regulated militia’, not to individual rights to own arms”
Admittedly this is one of the great historical puzzles.  The framers of the Constitution usually wrote in excruciatingly clear language, so we have to assume that this language was clear to them.  But for reasons of cultural change, it is far from clear to us.  A couple commenters even said that that armed citizens would regulate the militia – but they may have been joking.  See what happens if you pull up to the National Guard depot with your rifle and start telling them what they’re doing wrong.  I’m afraid we’re going to have to figure this one out ourselves.

There was much more; this is just a sample.  So let’s try to figure it out here.  I’m going to say what I’m in favor of, and ask you to poke holes in it.

In many ways this is more a rural/urban problem than a conservative/liberal problem.  If you live in a rural area, it’s difficult to appreciate the constant slaughter that parades through urban emergency rooms.  As the saying goes, “all politics is local.”

But it can be a problem even in rural areas.  When I was doing a pastoral internship in NC, there was a feud between two local families.  Now this is back ‘up the hollows’ and they called the ‘young rev’rund’ to officiate.  I was sitting in the living room of one of the families listening to ‘maw-maw’ when the ‘young buck’ walked into the living room carrying a nickel-plated .38 revolver.  His index finger was comfortably ensconced inside the trigger guard.

“Where you going with that?” I asked.  I felt pretty safe, because he was not mad at me.

“Uh, nowhere.  I just had it out,” he answered.

You have every right to believe that you are superior and more rational than that young man, and you might be.  But laws aren’t written for you; they’re written for everyone.  And there are lots of different kinds of irrationality.

I’m in favor of controlling criminals, and to do that we need gun control.  If you have a record of violent crime, such as assault, then no gun license for you, period.  And just as there are different kinds of drivers’ licenses (motorcycle, day-only, car, truck, etc) there should be different kinds of gun licenses.  All of them should require training, testing, recertification and liability.  A gun license should place very strict obligations on the gun owner.  And once you have licensure in place, it’s a lot easier to identify an illegal gun and more importantly, an illegal gun owner.

You might wonder, since criminals break laws, what good a licensing scheme would be?  With laws in place you can come down harder on a criminal caught with a gun – some laws already go there. And you would have law-abiding citizens with guns, which would give the criminals something to think about.

The first-level license would be approximately like the current Illinois FOID card.  You can own them, buy ammo, etc.  But every gun needs to be registered and a ballistic sample taken.  You need to have a locking enclosure and a homeowner’s liability insurance rider.

The second-level license would be a concealed-carry license.  You have to pass rigorous training and you get to carry one, specific registered weapon of limited type. You leave it home when you fly.  And you’re legally liable if the gun is stolen so load up on the insurance, baby.

The third-level license would allow you to carry your gun pretty much anywhere, even on an airplane.  License applications should be reviewed by a citizen’s jury like a trial, to limit political clout.  Most third-level licenses would answer some demonstrable professional need.

That’s the legal stuff.  Now for some practical stuff.  People who live in “nice” neighborhoods may not recognize that some homes do need defense.  But defending one’s home against criminals is NOT a simple problem.  The scenario in most people’s minds is this: you are sleeping and you hear someone break in.  You get your gun and force them to flee, or shoot them.  That’s a small minority of home invasions.  Odds are good you won’t have a chance to get to your gun.

I grew up in a house full of guns, so I have handled and fired most of the common types.  Handguns are a poor choice for home defense – they require a lot of skill and if they are stolen, are easy to conceal for crimes.  For most homes, a shotgun is probably better – easy to use, effective, and so intimidating it may not be needed.  And it won’t go through your wall and across the street and kill your neighbor.  Me, I keep an old golf club around, somewhere.  I live in a neighborhood that is quiet enough for a gun to be a bigger hazard, statistically, than the likelihood of a home invasion (which has to be further divided by the likehood that I could effectively use a gun to counter one).

I don’t know why Americans are so gol-durned het-up on guns; we just are.  There’s no one-size fits all solution to it either.  Switzerland is awash in guns too, but their murder rate is far below ours.  But they have a lot less poverty and racial strife than we have.  Maybe that’s the big difference?  But criticisms of American culture reinforce my point that we need long-term solutions, meaning structural, even foundational changes in American society.  Until then, we need improved gun control, much improved criminal control, some government control (stop the war on drugs and stop treating drug users like criminals), and ever-better emergency medicine. 

Finally, I am extremely uneasy with removing anything from the Bill Of Rights.  Our country is what it is; let’s start thinking up ways to live with ourselves.

OK folks, hit me with it: what do you think?  Let’s see if we can figure something out that isn’t just rhetoric.

Categories: Issues, observations

Elite transportation

June 27, 2008 12 comments

One of the trends I have noticed lately on campus is the explosive growth of custom bikes.  Somewhere there’s a bike shop that takes old but high-quality frames (maybe a 10-speed racer from the 1970’s) and tricks them out with the latest high-tech components, like track gears, double-wall wheels, and LED taillights.  These bikes are usually ridden in any weather, which I love to see.

But the majority of bikes I see creaking around are mass-produced cheapo machines from discount stores.  These pieces of junk are, in my not-so-humble opinion, the main reason that many adults regard bicycles as an impractical way to get around.  It is not possible to properly adjust their gears and brakes, so they don’t work well enough to be good mechanical stewards of the rider’s muscular energy.  In addition, nobody at a discount store will make sure the bike is adjusted correctly, which again makes them much harder to ride.

Many bike shops refuse to work on discount-store bikes.  It isn’t just elitism or dealer protectionism; it is literally a waste of time to try to fix them.  They are broken when they leave the factory.  I’m going to talk a little bit about how to distinguish a good bike from a crappy one. Because as bikers like to say,
“Friends don’t let friends ride junk”. More detail below the fold…

In this illustration are two bikes; a reasonably well-made bike (the black one) and a dime store special (the red one).  What makes one an example of practical transportation and the other an example of why Wal-Mart is not the answer to every material need?

The first clue is that the dime store bike is overly flashy for the price.  It just seems to be trying to impress you.  See the complicated frame? It’s a “soft tail” which means it has a shock-absorber system for both the front and rear wheels.  This is great if you are a professional rider and you need to handle 6-foot drops without breaking your back.  Billing itself as a “Power Climber” – LOL – it assumes you are in top competitive shape for riding.  But for getting around town, you’re going to lose a lot of energy squishing the rear shock absorber up and down.  Soft tail bikes can be done well but they start at about $600 – and this one was about $100.  It is, to put it bluntly, a fake, and it will work like one.

The other bike shown here is a diamond frame, which has a hard tail and is simpler and far more efficient. (More on frames later) It probably cost around $250 and was worth every penny.  And as we discuss the differences between them, I hope to show that it’s worth going well above even that figure.

The fat tires on both bikes are fine.  On city streets, you want fat tires.  I can ride right over a pot hole or a storm grate without much hazard on my bike (though I avoid them for comfort’s sake of course).

Take a look at the cranksets – the part you actually pedal.  In the dime store bike, it is a single forged piece of steel; cheap to manufacture but heavy.  (Be sure to lift any bike you’re thinking about buying.  Could you carry it up stairs?) At least it won’t break because you won’t ever ride this bike far enough to induce metal fatigue.  The crankset on the good bike is 3 pieces: a steel axle with two aluminum levers.  This makes sense because axles carry a far heavier load than crank arms. But I have seen crummy bikes with really cheap 3-piece cranksets.  It still comes down to the quality of the whole bike.

Plastic pedals appear on a lot of bikes up to about the $300 range but the better plastic pedals will be very sturdy and spin smoothly.  Cheap plastic pedals have a lot of friction and under heavy use, they break.  Really good pedals are usually cast, forged, or machined out of aluminum.

The dérailleurs (gear-shifting machinery) of a bike are usually made by Shimano or Suntour, but try a test ride and see how smoothly they work.  Either Shimano has a crap-line or somebody in China is making fake Shimano parts. (Unthinkable!) You should be able to shift gears smoothly and without incident. 

Brakes should be powerful and smooth – so powerful in fact that you will need to move your weight toward the rear of the bike when braking hard to avoid tipping over the handlebars.  (This motion will become automatic as you learn to ride)  If the brake mechanism looks cheap, and if the brake shoes do not align with the wheels, steer clear.  Disc brakes are great in wet weather.

Notice the seat tube – between the frame and the seat.  Both these bikes have steel seat tubes with horizontal-bolt adjusters at the top under the seat.  No advantage to either bike here but the best seat tubes are aluminum with a single vertical hex screw at the top that loosens the clamp for adjustment.  The seat itself should be well-made with a depression in the middle to avoid damaging your penile nerve.  To put it crudely, your weight should be borne on your ass-bones, not your crotch.

If you are of the female persuasion, you will want a woman’s seat on your bike.  (Since women no longer wear petticoats, there’s less distinction today between the sexes than there used to be in the design of the actual bike.  But bike seats are the beneficiary of a lot of anatomical refinements).  Some bike shops may change the seat on a new bike purchase.

Shock-absorbing front forks make things a lot easier on your wrists, and help keep the bike under control.  As you might imagine, this is a major area for clues on quality.  The cheap bike has an upper fork made of welded steel; it is both heavy and weak.  The “shocks” may be cheap springs with friction dampers, or they may actually be pneumatic with adjustable vents and locking for efficient travel on smooth roads.  But I’d rather have high-quality plain forks than low-quality shock forks.

The gooseneck is a quality indicator.  It’s the part that connects the handlebars to the frame.  Basically you’re looking for good quality finish.  I have seen cheap goosenecks break from metal fatigue.  Larger diameter tubing is better here.  Take a look at the handlebars.  Grips should be deeply textured and high quality – if they seem thin and cheap, they are.  Make sure the shifters are comfortable and easy to use.  (I hate “grip shifters” but they have infested even some high-quality bikes)

Study the frame.  Especially compare the cheap frames with the really expensive ones.  Quality beats complication every time.  And for general use, you want a diamond frame bike, so named for its triangular frame sections. The frame can be made of high-strength alloy steel, aluminum, titanium, or carbon fibre composite, but by the time you get to the last two you’re up in the stratosphere, price wise.

Really cheap bikes have steel wheels.  This matters because heavy wheels have double-inertia to overcome – you need to not only make them move forward, but turn as well.  Then comes aluminum, and then double-wall aluminum, and then carbon fibre composite.  Spokes are usually stainless steel but may be titanium or carbon fibre composite. 

Don’t buy a bike without riding it, and herein is the most important advice:  set aside your preconceptions of how much you will spend.  Test ride a really good bike (I mean something in the over-$500 range at a reputable bike shop) at the beginning of your bike shopping experience.  Have the bike shop adjust the seat for you and show you how to use the gears before you ride it.  If you are not familiar with bike gears, experiment with them a lot, shifting up and down (don’t worry about what “number” gear you’re in, just get a feel for them).  Test the bike thoroughly, at least ten minutes. (Leave a friend in the bike shop as collateral) Get a feel for the bike responding to you.

All good?  OK, now you can try the cheaper bikes.  Go ahead and try one of the Wal-Mart specials.  Go back to the bike shop and try something in the $300 range.  Try something in the over-$1,000 range.  Try different styles of bikes – mountain, hybrid, cruiser, etc. Try different bike shops – a really good bike shop is your friend. And keep in mind, that’s not necessarily the big bike shop – I recently bought a great bike from a mom ‘n pop store.  Take notes.  Take your time.  Now go home and think.  Don’t be in a hurry.  Go back and test-ride your most likely machines again.  Think about the bike as transportation.  Think about $4 gas.

One alternative is the aforementioned custom bike.  If you have a local bike shop with a reputation for creativity, they might have a stable of customized older bikes that would be a real pleasure to ride.  (This is something that certain bike shops do in the winter when business is way down – they rebuild and customize old bikes) I’d take a tricked-out 1965 English 3-speed over the “Power Climber” any day.  Recently I saw a fully-rebuilt Bridgestone MB3 in a bike shop for $225 – a bargain (since they sold for $500+ new). Some high-quality older bikes may have steel frames or wheels, but they used high-strength alloy steel so they were still fairly light.

Unless you are ready for major lifestyle changes, a bike is not a total replacement for a car.  My basic rule is; “Buy a cheaper car and a more expensive bike”.  Many of my friends have told me they never imagined how much fun it is to ride a really good bike.  And, how practical because they ride it enough to stop caring about the weather.  A couple have lost weight.  One even relinquished his parking space – a savings of about the cost of his bike each year.  A couple have told me; “You know it’s funny, but I really don’t care about the price of gas anymore”.  Easy to do when you cut your driving in half; I put about eight gallons of gas a month in my car.  Some months, less.

Elite transportation is muscle – your muscle.  To me, philosophically, it’s the purist, most elemental way to get around, whether you use a bike, rollerblades, a skateboard, a scooter, or just plain old shoe leather.  For too long we’ve let our cars dictate where we live, what we wear, where we shop, how we handle traffic, even what income we need to have.  We think that being owned by machines is something from science fiction, but if you can’t go up two flights of stairs on your own power without getting out of breath, what else would you call it?  So break loose, already.

What’s your favorite muscle-powered way to get around?

Wonderful news from Florida

June 25, 2008 3 comments

BBC News reports in “Healing Everglades’ river of grass” that governor Charlie Crist “announced plans to buy more than 800sq km (300sq miles) of land used for growing sugarcane, and restore it to its natural state.”

The idea is to turn sugarcane fields back into wetlands, and restore the natural water flow of the Everglades.  But this goes way beyond just alligators. It should cool the area somewhat. It will absorb storm surges and keep up the clear water table for coastal cities.Also wetlands are the most effective kind of carbon sink on Earth – that’s 300 mi2 of solution, there.  And it will benefit Florida’s economy too – ecotourist dollars into perpetuity.  A little good news for a change.

Categories: Uncategorized

Which way is your apartment facing today?

June 25, 2008 2 comments

I don’t know why, but the idea of an apartment building in motion strikes me as pretty cool.  But I’m having trouble visualizing the hallways.  And how do your friends find you?  “We’re usually somewhere on the 18th floor.”

Categories: Design, Geeky

Drawing a better conclusion

June 25, 2008 Comments off

Or, you can spend four years trying to tell McCain apart from Bush.  Not as easy as you might think.

Categories: Politics

The next revolution: RE<C

June 24, 2008 5 comments

I’m not sure whether the entirety of The Economist’s special report is available online – you might have to be a subscriber but give it a try anyway.  Pretty sure the abstract is available to everyone.

The sub-articles are The energy alternatives, Wind power, Carbon storage, Solar energy, Geothermal generation, Bespoke biofuels, Tomorrow’s cars, Nuclear’s return, Energy’s future, and an audio interview with Geoffry Carr, science editor of The Economist.

I recommend these articles for one reason: human nature sucks.  The whole planet can be in danger, with a bleak future for unborn generations, and you’ll only get a minority of people to do so much as recycle an aluminum can.  Altruism is simply not a reliable way to save the world.  But make clean energy one cent cheaper than coal, and the world will practically save itself.

I wish I could in good conscience have a better opinion of humanity, but the evidence is against it.  That is the concept of Renewable Energy cheaper than coal, or RE<C.  And why is a conservative magazine like The Economist reporting on this approach?  Simple:

EVERYONE loves a booming market, and most booms happen on the back of technological change. The world’s venture capitalists, having fed on the computing boom of the 1980s, the internet boom of the 1990s and the biotech and nanotech boomlets of the early 2000s, are now looking around for the next one. They think they have found it: energy.

Think the information technology economy is big?  It’s measured in mere hundreds of billions of dollars.  The energy market is measured in trillions.  So while the 21st century certainly has the potential to royally screw things up for future generations of humanity (to say nothing of fish) it also has the potential to blow the lid off poverty, pollution, and isolation and usher in the 22nd century in shades of cool green.  Take that any way you want.


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  • But then ***Dave suggested using HTML entity code & lt ; and it rendered correctly.

I thought I understood what “naive” meant…

June 24, 2008 2 comments

Drug Monkey reports about some singer named Amy Winehouse, who has emphysema at the ripe old age of 23, and the likelihood that it is related to her use of crack cocaine.  The interesting part of the post for me was her father, also her manager, who proposes a solution:

He called on drug dealers to help her recovery by refusing to supply her with crack cocaine.
“If she hadn’t done recent shows in Moscow and Portugal she could have been dead by now,” he said. “She abstains and regulates her drug use when she has to do a show.”

Wow.  He called on drug dealers to help her?  That’s not just naivete’, that’s “tobbacco is good for you, global warming is a liberal plot” level flat-out denialism.  Just amazing.


June 22, 2008 6 comments