Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bill Riiff, the store’s manager and a former air traffic controller in the Air Force, stepped into the circle, holding high a pump of hand sanitizer.

“Swine it up!” he bellowed.

Each employee simultaneously extended an arm, palm up, as Mr. Riiff squirted a dollop of goop into one hand after another to help stave off the H1N1, or swine flu, virus.

(Emphasis added.) Hand santizer kills bacteria. If you want to prevent H1N1, then wash your handsusing soap and water.

This message is brought to you by your high school biology class.

Monday, November 09, 2009

In Outliers, Gladwell quotes Bill Joy commenting about how they had nightmares about forgetting to go to class or forgetting they were even enrolled in a class.

I've had multiple 'Oh, snap! Wasn't I enrolled in an econ course?' moments toward the end of the semester. In fact, this year I've had at least one dream about completely forgetting about a biology course and a philosophy course for pretty much an entire semester. That was this year, and I haven't been in school since 2005.

Luckily, the reality is that I've missed class three times in my life: once because I was giving blood for six hours (long lines on Sept. 12), once because I was in a ballet performance at the same time, and once because I thought it was Monday or Wednesday, not Tuesday.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Science and technology are the only potential non-catastrophic solution to all our problems (and have been for thousands of years).

People don't accept this. Our current problems (global climate change being the big one nowadays) seem to be by-products of past sci+tech solutions to problems such as, oh, dying. But unless we want to experience massive (multi-billion person) die-offs and a reversion to the pre-industrialized world, we can only go forward.

Alas, people often argue for this reversion to past technological levels. When trying to convince them that that's idiotic, it's common to bring up life expectancy: up some thirty years in the past hundred years. But the naysayers dismiss that as unimportant: who really wants to live to be 80, anyway? 79-year-olds, not the new-agers and hippies we usually find ourselves debating with.

People really believe that the increase in life expectancy is a bunch of years tacked on to the end of life--that two hundred years ago, people rarely lived past seventy. This is patently false, though. People who made it to adulthood could easily live that long. In 1900, a 65-year-old in the US had an average of about 12 more years to live whereas in 2000 that would be 16 years. We've tacked an extra four years onto the average 65-year-old's life expectancy (and only two more years for the average 80-year-old). These are tiny, tiny gains, yet people treat them as if they're the ONLY gains. The true gains in life expectancy are not the tacking four years onto the lifespan of a 65-year-old, but about THIRTY years onto the lifespan of a newborn.

We need to stop talking about life expectancy and instead start talking about infant and child mortality: a child born in an industrialized country in 1800 had a one in five chance of dying by age 5. By 1900 it was one in ten and now it's below one in a hundred. It's not about who wants to live past seventy. It's who wants to live past FIVE.

So, yeah, if the global climate crisis were a cost of allowing a 65-year-old to live to 81 instead of merely 77, people might not think it's worthwhile, but if it's the cost of a newborn living to 30 (or 75), rather than dying by age 5...we get a very different answer from most people. People who actually appreciate what science and technology have done will not voluntarily go back. The only possibly choice is to continue to count on science and technology to solve this problem just as it's solved countless seemingly insurmountable problem in the past.

(Data sources: )

Sunday, August 30, 2009

(Potentially relevant link)

I had some stupid assignments in college, and, yes, freshmman health had some of the worst offenders. But this takes the cake. My brother's assignment is to:
1. Add specific numbers to the top of his mobile phone and show the contacts to the professor. (I, for one, have no mobile phone. When I did have a mobile phone, it was my private property and NOT subject to search my professors and the phone book was determined BY ME.)
2. Sign up for text alerts. (I, for one, have no mobile phone, and when I did, texting was far from free. if you want me to sign up for text alerts, you pay for them.) For the record, they used to email us these alerts. They're not actually very relevant.
3. Tell the professor what route he (my brother) take to and from class. Maybe we should have a mandatory GPS tracker?
4. Photocopy his student id card, driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards and anything else of importance in his wallet and
4a. Show a copy to his professor. (No, but I will report the assignment to the professor's supervisor.)
4b. Keep a copy in his [probably dorm] room. (An unencrypted hard copy in a shared room? This is to keep him SAFE?)
4c. Send a copy to his parents. (Guess who's over 18. That's right: EVERY STUDENT THERE.)

So, things to consider when applying to college now includes 'considers you an adult' (it actually was a problem back in my day to) and 'understands the concept of privacy'. (Also a problem to some extent in my day--while I was there, they finally switched to NOT displaying your SSN on your student id card, though professors would illegally post it with your grade or pass it around on an attendance sheet. They also still printed your full CC number on your book store receipts, though.)

I don't know what school to recommend, but I know it's not East Carolina University.

Friday, July 03, 2009

I argue by analogy a lot (though less than I used to). People are stupid, and analogies provide a very pithy way of demonstrating why what they just said is really, really stupid. Alas, they're pithy because the working premise is implicit, and they're doubly ineffective when they mention Hitler. Consider this discussion I've had ever so many times:

Foo: Bar punched me in the face just for kicks. He's mean.
Baz: He's my friend. You're a jerk for calling him mean. He's nice to me.
Me: Hitler was nice to his friends.
Baz: You're saying punching Foo the face is as bad as genocide?

A half-way intelligent person would realize the argument by analogy, made lucid, is this:

Your argument is premised on the claim that 'If X is nice to his friends, he's not a mean person.' However, consider the following argument using that same principle:
1) If X is nice to his friends, he's not a mean person.
2) Hitler was nice to his friends.
3) Therefore Hitler was not a mean person.

Clearly, the conclusion, 3), is false. 2) might be true. I suspect it that is--if you believe otherwise, just consider hypothetically that it were. Supposing 2) is true, do you believe 3) is therefore true? Probably not, which entails that 1) must be false (via denying the antecedent).

Thus, completely independent of whether punching Foo in the face is mean--or in any way comparable to what Hitler did1--the fact that Bar is nice to you, his friend, does not entail that he isn't mean.

1 Neither your argument nor mine is about what Hitler did or what Bar did to Foo. Yours is about whether Foo is a mean person and how he behaves toward you, not Foo, and mine is about whether your reasoning is sound.

That's a really, really long-winded, and any half-way intelligent person would be perfectly capable of getting it all from the six word reply I gave in the initial example.

I, however, do not frequently find myself replying to half-way intelligent people, as they would not say something so stupid as Bar did.

Since analogy is about as effective with these people as saying 'You're stupid', I sometimes go with the latter. An intelligent person will recognize that as shorthand for the relevant analogy.

(In the future, however, I may just say 'Hitler!' with a link to this post.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

In his book 200% of Nothing, Dewdney comments on how stupid American students in 1982 had trouble with this problem:

An army bus holds 36 soldiers. If 1,128 soldiers are being bussed to their training site, how many buses are needed.

Apparently only 70% of American students were able to get as far as 1,128/36 = 31 1/3. Additionally, however, only a third of those students when on to get the correct answer: 32, 'cause you can't have a third of a bus, right?


When taking a test, you have to ignore all quibbles caused by sloppy and inexact problem descriptions. Why can't we just use one bus and have it go back and forth repeatedly? Because it's a division problem. The solution is to do the division and stop. Maybe the buses can go back and forth, or maybe there's no time and you need concurrent transportation. The problem doesn't say, so you just do that math You lack the contextual knowledge to nitpick.

Dewdney is accurate that a third of a bus doesn't drive, but there's a big difference between using one third of a bus' capacity for your soldiers and filling the entire bus with soldiers. Suppose we also have two-thirds bus capacity of training equipment to ship? If you assess the soldiers themselves to require 32 buses, you end up procuring a total of 33 buses for them and their equipment. You shouldn't be assume that is the case or that it isn't, because you're taking a math test answering a division problem. Don't change your answer to mesh with unestablished context.

('Three to be safe.' -- George Frankly)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Back in the day, if we wanted to transfer data between our computers (avoiding the slow Internet) we would just go over ethernet. Nowadays, we go over the wifi.

At one point in time, we had a very crappy laptop lacking a network or wifi card. Oh, and the CD drive was broken. I put some stuff on it using 3.25" disks and later using a flash memory stick (though the laptop was running 98, so I first had to copy over drivers on 3.25" disks). It was a collosal pain.

Yet earlier today, I observed some of my housemates, both on the same wifi network, transferring music between their laptops using first a flash memory stick and--when that proved inconveniently small--an external hard drive.

The moral of the story: Some people don't know how to setup webservers, sshd, or the like, and their lives are, consequently, miserable. Barely worth living, one could argue.

Dearest Senecans,

(I've been meaning to configure a dyndns thing for my laptop, but have yet to do so, and how often do people here need to access my webserver, anyway?)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why must windows be quadrilaterals? When I have mplayer in the upper right corner of the screen, I want Firefox to take up the other three quadrants. Sure, it will mess up a lot of layouts designed for quadrilaterals, but if I want it to flow that way, whose to tell me no? X? Gnome? Firefox?


Monday, April 06, 2009

Thursday night: 'I don't see why you would bother saving money. We're making so little right now, any savings you make will be completely drowned out by future savings when we get higher paying jobs.'
Friday night: 'Oh, my god, if we don't get paid early, I won't be able to pay my rent.'

So you don't have enough money and can't see how having MORE money could solve your problem? SRSLY?

For someone who spends most of her time in other countries, she sure is American.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Last meeting, we decided on a new way to do officer reports: email.

But people objected to getting eight email messages every other week. (An average of 0.57 messages per day, tending toward the last couple days before the meeting. OMG, so much email!) Sign up for the digest version of the mailing list, maybe? No, instead officers will all send their reports to the Trustee who will manually combine them into a single report (which, of course, will be as long as all individual reports combined anyway). Result: more work for Trustee, less up-to-date reports (they have to be sent to the Trustee nearly four days before the meeting to which they apply), the inability to mark individual reports as read/starred/flagged/etc., and one more important point I just stumbled over:
Our Labour Czar's report had something I wanted to reply to. I had three options:
* Not use email. Presumably this is what the technophobes who wanted the manual digestation method would have used, but that's much less efficient: our Labour Czar isn't here right now and what I have to say IS, whereas the precise details of it may flee from my mind at any moment. I may not see him all day, or only when one of us is busy.
* Hit reply, sending my reply to the Trustee who could then manually forward it to the Labour Czar eventually--possibly in time.
* Look up the Labour Czar's email address on the UT website, c/p his school address to my email client (hoping it's the address he uses, and that it's the right him), c/p the relevant portion of the original email to my reply, turn it into quoted text, and then type and send my reply.

Technophobia has costs. If you're a senior honours student at a somewhat prestigious university, I think I'm justified in expecting better.

[For non-Senecans: The Hobart LX-18 is our sanitizer. You wash your dishes, put them in the Hobart tray, and put it into the Hobart when full. We have two Hobart trays so we can have one go through (which is very fast) while one is being loaded.]

Dear Senecans,
You have just washed your dishes (Thank you! You are my hero!) and now are faced with a choice. The Hobart tray by the sink is full. The other one is probably in the Hobart, full of sanitized dishes in need of unloading. Do you:
1. Remove the clean tray from the Hobart and put the new one in.
2. Pile the dishes between the sink and the Hobart tray to be loaded into the next available tray.
3. Pile your dishes precariously atop the already full Hobart tray, making it impossible to move, so that when some responsible person decides to run it through the Hobart, they must first partially unload the tray, undoing all your careful balancing.

Choosing option 1 makes you wonderful. It does lead to another choice--put the tray currently in the Hobart on the island to be unloaded by the community as time allows and needs require (leaving your dishes the same as in option 2), or be highly ambitious and unload the clean one yourself, then use it for your dishes. This makes you doubly wonderful.

Choosing option 2 is the correct choice if you lack the few seconds required for option 1 or if numerous people before you have already chosen option 3, making the tray immobile until partially unloaded (unless you have the time and inclination to be our kitchen fairy).

If you chose option 3, congratulations: you are an American! Why do more than is absolutely required for you, right?

A Kitchen Fairy

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Last night, our dumpster was emptied.

However, there's been a mattress standing up behind it for a while, and apparently it fell down while the dumpster was being dumped.

Result: very wobbly dumpster on a springy mattress on raised concrete, so anyone (well, many people) could just tip it over into the street. Maybe it would fall itself once filled (as filling would mostly be toward the front, probably.)

Initially my plan was to stick a couple cinderblocks under the hanging front end, but they weren't quite the right height, and I noticed it was actually light enough that I could manually tilt the dumpster up on one edge about 30 degrees--enough to get it pretty much completely off the mattress.

I couldn't, however, pull the mattress out while holding up the dumpster. Propping it up with the cinderblock on end held it high enough, but blocked the mattress in.

Luckily, Ayla showed up, and she pulled the mattress up while I tilted the dumpster off it.

So 'lifted a dumpster' goes on my list of accomplishments for the day. Not bad.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Our Kitchen Manager has ordered 80 pounds of pasta. A gallon vanilla extract. I don't know what else.

When I bring pasta for lunch, I usually have about 0.44 pounds (precooked weight), so 80 pounds is enough to feed me for 180 workdays. The vanilla extract a good deal longer.

(Pasta from Sysco is about a third the cost of HEB [which I guess is cheaper than Costco].)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

(Potentially relevant link)

Greg Mankiw's latest blog post asks (for classroom discussion) the macroeconomic stimulus difference between a bank using bailout money to pay Joe the Plumber to renovate their own bathrooms vs. lending the money to Bob the Baker to hire Joe the Plumber to do the same in his own home.

This is posed in response to Obama's complaint that the banks are using bailout money in the former, 'wasteful' way.

I don't know macroeconomics, but I'm pretty sure the point of the bailout wasn't straight-up stimulus--we use tax breaks and government infrastructure improvements for that. The point was to save the banks from going under.

In doing so it was hoped the banks would be able to loan people money in the short term, but there's more to it than that. In fact, no one really talked about that detail until much later (when it didn't happen).

If the bailouts were our screwed-up way of stimulating the economy, Mankiw's question would be relevant, as hiring people to renovating their bathrooms stimulates the economy. What it doesn't do is help keep the banks afloat. And if the money isn't being used to save the banks, maybe we should be giving the money to someone other than the banks.

To go back closer to Mankiw's question, I can tell you the difference on a less-macroeconomic level: safe loans--and nowadays they're pretty cautious about risk--to Bob the Baker results in future cash flow for the banks. Renovating the bathrooms is probably not going to bring in new money or or reduce future costs. The difference is that the former helps prevent bank failure or need for future bank bailouts, which I'm sure has some notable macroeconomic impact. I don't know how the two options differ stimulus-wise, but the loans seems like the loans would be better for increasing GDP just because more money gets handed back and forth. I just don't really see that as particularly desirable.

Friday, January 09, 2009

GM says this:

19 of our 2009 models have an EPA estimated 30 MPG highway or better2 — more than Toyota, more than Honda.

For 2009, we offer more hybrid choices than any other manufacturer. We currently have six hybrids available.

Well...yeah. Toyota and Honda made a few really good models. GM makes a million so-so models. Some of them are reasonably fuel-efficient. ('11 of our last 13 new-product introductions have been fuel-efficient cars or crossovers.' -- Okay, a bunch of them. Now stop wasting time and money on all those older models that get 6-20MPG.)

37 of our 2009 models have five-star frontal crash safety ratings.

So you have at least 37 2009 models. 19/37 = 0.513513514. But you clearly have more than 37 models or you'd say 'All of our 2009 models'. So probably far fewer than half, in the end.

From a consumer point of view, choice might be good. From a forced-new-owner of the company, it's not so good.