Friday, October 30, 2009

An open letter to Steve Levitt

An open letter to Steve Levitt: [...]The point here is that really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you that the claim that the blackness of solar cells makes solar energy pointless is complete and utter nonsense. I don’t think you would have accepted such laziness and sloppiness in a term paper from one of your students, so why do you accept it from yourself? What does the failure to do such basic thinking with numbers say about the extent to which anything you write can be trusted? How do you think it reflects on the profession of economics when a member of that profession — somebody who that profession seems to esteem highly — publicly and noisily shows that he cannot be bothered to do simple arithmetic and elementary background reading. Not even for a subject of such paramount importance as global warming. (Via Real Climate)


Sunday, October 25, 2009

AlpControl claims world’s lightest wide skis

AlpControl claims world’s lightest wide skis: AlpControl claims its new carbon fiber skis weigh under 2000 grams (4.3lbs) a pair in 175cm with a shovel of 120mm. That’s less than some of the skinny competition skis used the the Pierra Menta competition. However it is ultra durable, the manufacturer claims it might be the best investment in your skiing life.

(Via PisteHors)

But how will it ski? All that elasticity could make for an interesting ride on hard snow.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet

I can't get words together. I was at the edge of my seat for much of almost two hours of music that was both unpredictable before it happened and the only way it could be afterwards. I think of the most memorable mathematical proofs, of Braque, Delauney, Pollock; Stravinsky. Deeply thought-out construction that yet feels spontaneous, alive, constantly evolving under its own dynamics. Clusters of notes bouncing among players to the point that one can't figure out what is coming from which instrument, and yet supreme clarity. Again with the mathematics simile, that feeling of vertigo when a inscrutable build-up of argument opens up into the revelation of a final step that makes everything make sense. Or as after ascending a steep snowy slope for hours, the other peaks start poking over the looming ridge, light spreads, and the horizon finally falls away to an infinite variety of landscape.

We've been lucky with several very good jazz outings over the last year, but this one was on a different (hyper)plane. Rubalcaba's virtuosity on the piano was never gratuitous, and rebounded off an incredibly skilled ensemble. Ernesto Simpson with a crisp, airy command of the drums and Yunior Terry with an insistent deep rumble on the bass spread out the piano's rhythmic sparks into space-filling creations (that Pollock idea). Alex Sipiagin on trumpet started maybe a bit tentative, but for the rest of the set and encores he grew and grew with urgent calls, oompah humor, almost painful buildups, longing. Yosvany Terry on alto and tenor sax was the hub of the ensemble, picking up ideas from the piano that spread through the ensemble, and reacting to them with discoveries and surprises now funny, now scary, spinning wheels of notes (that Delauney idea). When hints of a standard were brought in, it was never in the sometimes lazy way in which other bands take a break from hard work by indulging the audience's recognition. Instead, it became quickly transformed into something else, stretched, bent, rebuilt; in another mathematical (or Pollock) analogy, like a chaotic dynamics breaks up an initially compact region into a shifting flock of points.

One sad aspect of the concert is that the audience was middle-aged or older. I know that tickets are very expensive. But also, music like this is about individual engagement between the band and each serious listener, not about creating a framework for social interaction within the audience for an overwhelmingly social youth culture.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Music season starts

More musical events on my calendar the next couple of months than anytime since the legendary Gulbenkian Foundation festivals in Lisbon in the late 60s-early 70s. Coming week:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Farhad Manjoo on Google Wave’s Complexity

Farhad Manjoo on Google Wave’s Complexity: On Wave, every misspelling, half-formed sentence, and ill-advised stab at sarcasm is transmitted instantly to the other person. This behavior is so corrosive to normal conversation that you'd think it was some kind of bug. (Via Daring Fireball)

This is the silliest claim about human communication I've read in a long time. As a writer, Manjoo may be uncomfortable letting others see his communicative sausage being made. But before teletypes and their successors, "normal conversation" — face-to-face conversation — was — still is — all hesitations, false starts, disfluencies, failed attempts at humor, misheard words, losses of attention. That's what we are, that's how we work. We perceive, interpret, and think as we talk, and a lot of that is trial and error.

Manjoo complains that instant transmission of typed characters makes the typist "self conscious." Translation: I'm used to hiding what/how I'm really thinking when I communicate online, and I feel uncomfortable coming out from behind the curtain.

Answer to comments: What Manjoo wrote was at best a unwarranted generalization from his personal reaction to the feature. He made an empirically false claim about human communication; even it the claim is charitably interpreted to be only about typed communication, he cited no empirical evidence about the alleged corrosiveness. Why did he feel the need to make a sweeping generalization, instead of honestly reporting his own experience, and that of others he interviewed, and let us draw own own inferences? The disease of the current 24-hour punditry cycle is an escalation of instant assertion unsupported by evidence to demonstrate the pundit's manhood (how's that for a sweeping generalization?)

Much before the BSD talk program, there was the TENEX talk command that had the same character-at-a-time behavior and may have been the first such program I used. Personally, I didn't feel it corroded my ability to communicate, but I won't turn that into a general claim. I was using Wave editing a document a collaborator recently, and the immediate feedback was useful to what we were doing, especially the marker that showed where he was editing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Yesterday's book

Finished reading The Age of Wonder. I used to avoid the Romantics, but that was before learning about Banks, the Herschels, Davy and their overwhelming enthusiasm for science as hope, poetry, and practical success. Highly recommended.

Today's listening

The best This American Life in a while, on how we make health care so expensive. Grab it while it's available for free!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Today's listening

Avoidance of expensive roaming data access in Europe last week meant that I had a big podcast backlog. Just caught up with Planet Money, which is way sharper and less slavish to conventional wisdom than Marketplace.

Producer vs Consumer Viewpoints on the News Business

Producer vs Consumer Viewpoints on the News Business: [...] The trouble is that when journalists talk about journalism, they talk about it from the producer point of view. What Google does, from the media-as-production point of view really isn’t much better than what the paper boy does. But from the consumer point of view, having a paper boy who will fetch any paper you want in the world, for free, at any time, and open the paper to the page you were looking for is a massive improvement. [...] I think it’s interesting that journalists seem to have no problem following this dynamic when it comes to the car industry. This has been a terrible 12 months to be in the business of building cars, either as a worker or an owner or a manager. But it’s been a fine time to buy a car. There’s no car shortage. And there’s not going to be a car shortage. Drivers are in great shape. And it’s about the same with the news. Has there ever been a better time to be a news junkie? (Via Matt Yglesias)

This is an important insight, I think. As a fellow news junkie, I love this new world. In fact, I love it too much: I consume more news than I ever did, which maybe is a suboptimal use of my time. But I worry that there isn't a successful mechanism for compensating the news writers for the benefit I'm getting. After all, I used to subscribe to the NYT, and I would be happy to pay that amount to an aggregator that would distribute the proceeds to news sources in proportion to their traffic. It would be interesting to do a study on how many news junkies have dropped subscription to paper news sources over the last five years, and how much of that would be potentially recoverable as news revenue with the right mechanisms.

Update: Public radio stations have a funding model that has more or less worked even as their federal sources of funding have decreased. Pledge drives are not fun, but they bring in that fraction of the audience that cares enough to volunteer some support. I'd support Web news if the right mechanism was in place. In fact, I'd support public broadcasting more if there was a mechanism for a lump annual supporting multiple broadcasters. I see no reason why Web news sources cannot achieve the same kind of support.

Once again, future-safe archives

Once again, future-safe archives: Every time a relative passes this issue comes front and center for me. Most other times it's just lurking in the shadows. [...] We need one or more institutions that can manage electronic trusts over very long periods of time. [...] I've felt that universities would do the best job, since they already need to maintain the work of their professors, possibly in partnership with technology companies. This could be a huge source of endowments, as wealthy people with a vision for techology compete to build long-lasting monuments to their creativity and generosity. (Via Scripting News).

A big challenge here is to estimate the endowment needed to keep some amount of data archived in perpetuity, given the uncertainties of cost as technologies and environmental conditions change, and of return on endowment. The Barnes Foundation serves as a cautionary case. Its endowment turned out to be insufficient for the cost of keeping the collection safe. What saved the situation was that the popular appeal of the collection brought in other sources of funding in exchange for transformation into a more conventional museum. Most digital archives would not have that luck in a crunch.

Fortunately, for easily-copied digital information we don't need to rely on a small number of institutions for long-term preservation. Projects like LOCKSS demonstrate the possibility of distributed preservation using many cheap copies. Could they be institutionally extended to preserve personal data?

Update: David Rosenthal on digital preservation.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Shameless consumption question

Which new all-round (front-side-backcountry) powder boards?

I plan to use Marker Baron bindings for mostly inbounds skiing. I'm already fully equipped with Dynafit setups for the backcountry. I'm not interested in the heavy and stiff boards that Tahoe youngsters favor, but I'm looking for a bit more frontside performance than my light Karhu BC 100s.

New thread: today's reading and listening

I've failed miserably at keeping this blog up to date with what I'm reading or listening to. I'll try a new scheme: whenever I think of it, list what I've been reading or listening to that day. Here it goes:

Podcasts courtesy of (shameless plug warning) the indispensable Android app Listen.

Antisocial networking

Antisocial networking: I just got my invitation to Google Wave. The prototype that's now public doesn't have all of the amazing features in the original video demos. At this point, it's pretty much just a way of collecting IM-style conversations all in one place. But several of my friends are already there, and I've had a few conversations there already. [...] Right now, my standard set of tabs includes my Gmail, calendar, RSS reader, New York Times homepage, Facebook page, and now Google Wave. Add in the occasional Twitter tab (or dedicated Twitter client, if I feel like running it) plus I'll occasionally have an IM window open. All of these things are competing for my attention when I'm supposed to be getting real work done. [...] The bigger problem is that these various vendors and technologies have different data models for visibility and for how metadata is represented. [...] This is all the more frustrating because RSS completely solved the initial problem of distributing new blog posts in the blog universe. [...] Could there ever be a social network/microblogging aggregator?[...] In the end, I think the federation ideas behind Google Wave and BirdFeeder, and good old RSS blog feeds, will ultimately win out, with interoperability between the big vendors, just like they interoperate with email. Getting there, however, isn't going to happen easily. (Via Freedom to Tinker)

This is getting out of hand, even for those of us who have stayed away from Facebook and Twitter. Too many disparate streams, no single alerting system. Browser tabs are not the right tool for attention management. However, we seem so close: Google Wave, PubSubHubbub, and rssCloud all involve open publish-subscribe protocols that could be plumbed together to create notification hubs for multiple streams, filtered and ranked according to user preferences.