Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why does the calf trick work?

There's a little trick I use to guess someone's fitness at a glance. It doesn't work with everyone at all, but I have learned you can't just go by size or visible flab. What seems to work is glancing down at the calves. You look at how big the calves are relative to the rest of the body - and in my experience, that does a remarkably good job with skinny people, fat people, and everybody in between.

Yes, skinny people can be out of shape. I know, I know - it's the appearance that matters, so often, but there's so much more to fitness than size.

Fact of the matter is that most forms of aerobic exercise - and the most intense forms of exercise, period - involve moving the whole body, and that comes down to actually using your leg muscles. Some guys work out their upper body heavily without getting into shape - but very few people, aside from dancers, work heavily on their calves specifically. If they do calf-specific exercises regularly, odds are they're doing exercises for most parts of their bodies.

And that's why it works so often. Doesn't work for someone paralyzed from the waist down, or with muscular atrophy in their legs, but for most people, overall level of physical activity is tied to calf muscle use. Most people who sit down all day and don't walk much are desk-bound and out of shape.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Continuing to watch Iran

The latest news I've caught regarding Iran is that the Guardian Council performed a partial (closed-doors) recount and announced that the election results hold, that while there were irregularities, they weren't significant enough to warrant a full recount or a runoff election.

Based on what I said earlier, I would take the position that the magnitude of irregularities the Guardian Council has already admitted to are significant enough that recounting merely shifts the possibilities a little, especially doing a small partial recount. Moreover, a recount only fixes counting errors; it does not cover the margin of outright fraudulent votes.

If a significant fraction of ballots are fraudulently cast, recounting the same partly-fraudulent ballots will not test whether or not the fraud altered the election. I am somewhat discouraged to see that the Guardian Council is trying to close off the idea of holding a runoff. I do even take it as a sign that they are worried Ahmadinejad would lose such a runoff. If he enjoyed the level of popular support they claim, he would easily win a runoff election, and I should think that holding a runoff election - normally warranted in Iranian presidential elections - would shut the mouths of many complainers.

I'm still hoping that this all works out nicely in the end, but I am growing quite pessimistic.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

I like long games

I'm a bit of a gamer. There are a few computer games I play a great deal of, and I enjoy board games and tabletop roleplaying. There are two common features in most of the games I play: Long and complex.

I like Battletech. It's a tactical game you play on maps or terrain and either one of hundreds of "official" units, or, just as often, ones that you''ve designed yourself. Simulating five minutes of combat with twelve-meter tall futuristic war machines can take five hours - and I've very cheerfully enjoyed playing Battletech for five hours.

Lately, Twilight Imperium has become one of my favorite games. It's like a more complex and less violent version of Risk, and similar to a nice long Battletech game, it lasts long enough that you can schedule a pizza break in the middle.

I've run and played tabletop RPGs - roleplaying games, mostly different kinds of Dungeons and Dragons - and a good session length is about four hours. The "whole" game ideally lasts for semesters, possibly years, of sessions every week or two, and the fellow running the game gets to decide which optional rulebooks to use. Talk about complexity - there's literally over a thousand pages of "core" material for many RPGs, and the optional rules can fill bookshelves.

Defense of the Ancients is probably my favorite computer game. It's a particular custom map on Warcraft III - and where a normal WCIII game involves several types of units and a choice between a dozen or so heroes with a few items, DotA is a ten-player romp with somewhere around a hundred different heroes with similar numbers of items. Some of which work together, some of which don't, and others of which transform into new items when combined with others. A full game will usually last an hour.

The drawback is that when you play long games, you pretty much have to schedule them, and you don't always have the time to get in a game. The drawback of complex games is that it can get difficult to find people to play them with.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Occupation and representation

Every so often I am reminded of Puerto Rico. It comes up in political discussions, and I've known a few people from there, or who have family from there. And every time it comes up, I wind up feeling like there's something wrong.

A dozen generations ago, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and company were grumbling about being subject to a sovereign who they had little influence on. Parliament representation was not for mere territories.

Now, here we are, continuing to return the favor. I know - Puerto Rico gets a lot out of its relationship with the US. But it's a real affront to democracy for us to be sitting here on the mainland and handing down decrees. It's not a pressing security issue or some kind of wartime emergency; we just own it and rule the 4 million or so people there in a state of legal limbo - neither an independent country nor one of the states making up the United States proper.

There's also Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marinaras, which are a good bit smaller - between the four of them, they have a little less of a population than Wyoming. Each is individually large enough to be admitted as states under the Constitution, of course. And while many people on both sides of the affair find the status quo a reasonable compromise, I don't.

If we're ruling over you, you deserve representation in our government. "Territory" should always be a temporary status, and it should be one that's revisited regularly. Puerto Rico was taken over by the US about the same time as Hawaii and the Phillipines. Hawaii has been a state for fifty years; the Phillipines were granted independence sixty three years ago. Puerto Rico deserves to get its hands on either full statehood or independence; so, too, do the four smaller territories I mentioned.

As small as they are, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marinaras, and the US Virgin Islands still deserve to participate in every level of government they are subject to.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sin taxes vs impact taxes

Sin taxes have bothered me for a long time. Taxing a product or behavior because it is of questionable morality or unpopular has always struck me as a heavy-handed form of social engineering and an act of political cowardice - and highly regressive. Sin taxes usually come out more heavily on the poor, who spend a greater fraction of their income on alcohol, on cigarettes, etc.

But then, there's also a compelling reason for taxing many of these things that has nothing to do with holier-than-thou punish-the-poor reasoning. The fact of the matter is that the consumption of some things has a defined impact. Take driving. There's a "social" cost several times the cost of gasoline with average automobile mileage - dimes per mile.

Same with cigarettes and alcohol. There's a measurable cost associated with the health problems that come out of cigarette smoke, there's a social cost to alcohol, and in states/countries where prostitution is legal, that, too, has a social cost. And this sort of heavy-handed social engineering not only works to cut the vices they target, these specific and targeted taxes can fund the sort of programs that would compensate for the negative social impacts.

And not only that, but many of these taxes fall far short of the actual impact. Such as gasoline taxes, which in the best of times barely cover road maintenance.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Markets want to be conservative?

The other day I said something that should strike a reader as odd: Markets want to be conservative. And in that, I did not mean "conservative" as a collection of political positions that some pundit might want to assign to the term; I mean the much older and more literal meaning of the term. The sort of market economy we have today resists some types of change.

It's not an inherent property of the market itself. It's a product of social influence. With the creation of each market, each service, each industry, a special-interest group is created. The invention of the personal automobile lead to the automotive industry - and all those involved in the manufacture, sale, and maintenance of the automobile have a vested interest in consumers using cars, and will try to influence policy to fit.

The only change that the market embraces is one that makes someone more money; privatizing prisons, for example, has backfired by creating a lobby - one with, in many cases, pre-existing ties to state legislators that landed them the contracts in the first place - with a vested interest in increasing the prison population. Insurance companies have a vested interest in preventing health care reform - because successful reforms would obliterate their bottom line.

In a land where everything is for sale - including legislative access and the publicity needed to get into office - the market provides incentives for parties to fight against change. We've seen it with the tobacco industry; we've seen it with state-run lotteries; we're seeing it now, once again, with health care. In each case, the profit motive of the private sector puts the brakes on changes in public policy.

When I look at the privatization of prisons, I am not surprised that some states may achieve short-term savings in higher efficiency operations; I am also not surprised that in the long term, it comes back to bite them in the tail, as suddenly there's a group that benefits if recidivism rises, if indeed crime rates rise, and fundamentally if prison populations rise - a motive that does not exist in a publicly run prison.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Watching health care

By now, I think the news that the US government spends more per capita on health care than some countries that do have universal coverage should be new to nobody. It's been true for quite some time.

The odd public-private loosely regulated but subsidized system we have, it almost seems designed for maximum inefficiency. There is a certain level of fixed demand that the government pays for through Medicare and Medicaid, creating a nice disconnect from competition; there is a serious informational gap between consumers and the facilitators (insurance companies), where the facilitators are considered essential. There's also the systematic denial of benefits to "risky" consumers in order to have a better margin.

Every insurer has an incentive to generate paperwork - as much as possible in order to delay payouts as long as possible or prevent them; providers want additional paperwork to help protect themselves from lawsuits - around which another insurance industry has sprung up; malpractice insurance is a major part of the cost of a practice.

And then consumers themselves are often ill-informed on actual costs and benefits of services. The cost of not getting a regular checkup gets to be quite high in the long run; saying when it exceeds the cost of getting one is a difficult calculation if you aren't trained as an actuary. So when I look at health care, I see a large collection of opaque boxes that all eat money. Even the experts can only figure out how to look at some of them.

It can be fixed many different ways - whether leaning heavily on the private sector (regulated tightly between employers and insurers with a government insurance program covering those not required to have private insurance) as in Japan, or whether working wholly through the public sector, as in Sweden, but it's going to take a dramatic change; and because markets want to be conservative, that change is going to be difficult. And it's going to kill some corporations.

But I'd rather have dead corporations and bankrupt insurers than dead people. And that's what we're getting out of it now.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Werewolves and vampires and getting laid

One of the most persistent themes of modern fantasy literature set in the modern world is the theme of sex with the supernatural. The asexual nature of vampires has been one of the refreshing differences in Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels books (Magic Bites et cetera) - of course, lycanthropes and shapeshifters are oh-so-sexy.

There are, of course, patterns within the details. I'm having trouble thinking of many leading pairs in which a female vampire and a male human connect together; much more often, it's the other way. The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice comes to mind, but primary romantic arcs usually feature a female human and a male vampire, as in the much more widely watched contemporary film Twilight. And when I move to novels... the only cases I can think of where male human and female vampire pairings are exhibited are in secondary characters.

If anything, I think I've seen more male human/male vampire pairings in that type of literature. But when we shift over to werewolves... the same pattern isn't so clear. Werewolves in popular "modern" literature persistently feature both female and male werewolves, and it isn't unusual to pair a male human lead with a female werewolf (An American Werewolf in Paris) or suspected werewolf, as in the brief (and quickly canceled) show Wolf Lake.

Maybe it's because lycanthropy is often described as a family curse, passed on through the generations, and wolves are so well known to be social animals; perhaps it is a consequence of the originating literature. In the case of modern vampire novels, everything returns to Bram Stoker and Dracula, often taken as a commentary on female sexuality in the Victorian era; the brief flirtations of Dracula's brides with Harker is a single scene, while Dracula's designs on Lucy and Mina occupy the central plot of the movie.

Monday, June 22, 2009

From tae kwon do to fencing

I suppose I've spent around five years taking lessons in tae kwon do, and a similar length of time fencing, when we account for my lengthy lapses in both, and it's always been interesting to me the similarities and differences.

Some correspondences are very close.

The parrying edge used in TKD is the leading edge of the forearm, about the same length as the forte of the fencing blade used for parrying. With that in mind, it's pretty clear that the mechanics are the same for a parry five and a high block. Parry four is an inside block; the outside block lines up neatly with parry three. Those three are the normal saber parries. There's another direct correspondence; the fourth basic TKD block, the low block, is parry is a parry eight; parry two would be a high low block, something a little too awkward to use comfortably. Parries one, six, and seven would correspond to blocking with the inside of the forearm; in TKD, you would use the other hand instead, something you do not do in fencing.

The lunge and the front stance are similar, but there's a key difference. In TKD, the back foot and hips are squared to bring both arms to bear, while in fencing, they are twisted sideways to minimize target area. In both cases the back should be completely vertical in practice - no martial artist is advised to lean into their attack and overcommit to it as a matter of habit, though at a crucial moment, overcommitting may be occasionally worthwhile.

The classic fencing en garde stance falls between TKD stances. The feet are in an L - as in a back stance - but the weight is further forward. TKD uses asymmetric weight distributions to make light-leg kicks easy and quick, and heavy-leg kicks powerful due to whole-body momentum shifts; fencing uses even distributions to let you change directions from forwards to backwards more quickly.

When it comes to stretching, fencers are advised to use many of the same leg stretches. The reason in TKD is that being able to split one's legs apart gives you easier higher kicks; in fencing, it is to maximize lunge range. Fencers, however, use their wrists a great deal more; I have found the stretches TKD students do not use, but aikido students do, to be quite useful as well.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The latest developments out of Iran

In what Nate Silver is calling the worst damage control effort ever, the Guardian Council admitted that the votes collected in 50 cities exceeded the number of eligible voters in those cities, "only" affecting 3 million odd votes.

Even given that the reported turnout was a historic high - over 80% - that's an indication of fairly massive fraud in those cities. While local turnouts, counted by the number of ballots, of more than 100% necessarily imply fraud, it is not necessary for the number of votes to exceed the number of voters in order for fraud to happen - and to do so is a strong indication of the strength of fraud in those cities. If turnout was about average in those cities (and actually a historic high of ~80-85%), then fraud accounted for more than 15-20% of all votes cast in those cities.

And if that figure held in many areas - with or without red flag overturnouts - turnout may not have been at record highs, and we're seeing the sort of degree of massive falsification that could swing an election so dramatically. And if the Guardian Council is admitting that massive fraud happened, I think the case is now quite materially convincing that the sitting president cheated. Not only that, but that the cheating was extensive enough to make a difference.

If I am convinced that fraud was indeed definitely present, and of an order of magnitude large enough to potentially swing nearly any contested election, I doubt that supporters of the opposition are anything but convinced that it did swing the election, and I hope that a peaceful runoff election, rather than violent revolt, is the outcome of this.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

219 hours: How long was this supposed to take?

A reflection: How quickly could I have done this? My bachelor's degrees came out with a total of 174 credit hours listed on them; my master's degree involved 45 credit hours of graduate study. I spent five years on my undergraduate work, and two on my master's degree; fourteen semesters, with the summers off. I did earn some money over my summers for my troubles, though not all that much.

On paper, the maximum credit hour enrollment at my undergraduate institution is 18 credit hours. So, beginning with no credit, it would take ten semesters of sequential full-time work at a full load, with six hours of slack - which would be needed, since a few classes were 2, 4, or 5 credit hours instead of the usual 3. The maximum credit hour enrollment for graduate students is lower - 12 - and so I would need to take the full four semesters.

So fourteen semesters is quite reasonable. But it's not the theoretical top speed. I started with 24 hours of AP and placement credit, and it's possible to exceed 18 credit hours with special permission - easily given to a student in the honors program, as I was. So my undergraduate work could have been crammed into 8 semesters (by averaging a little over 18 hours per semester); perhaps I would not have had the time to sing in Higher Ground, or fence, but possible.

Had I been more proactive in high school, and better at convincing administrative types, I would have covered more math and science credit in high school. Spending a single year on geometry, going Calc BC instead of AB, and taking a math class each semester at UNC as an independent study would have meant covering 14 additional credit hours of mathematics early - and had I been particularly convincing, I might have been able to finagle my way out of introductory physics, which was only interesting during the honors lab section, another 10 hours.

So now, I'm down to 126 hours that I "had" to take at college - which could be done in seven semesters. But I'm not done. If you were in my shoes, and were trying to accelerate as quickly as possible, you'd take summer courses. By taking two summers of core courses in each of the two summer sessions, the undergraduate study could be cut to three years for the triple major course of study. Assuming scheduling worked out perfectly, of course; and then, by overloading four extra graduate level math courses into 20-21 credit hour semesters, I could have theoretically completed my master's program in a year and a half with all the same coursework.

So yes. I'm a very lazy fellow, since if I were as diligent and directed as possible, I could have completed the same coursework before I turned 23 instead of after turning 25. But I don't think I would have quite the same education, as I have had so many other learning experiences outside my coursework that would not have fit in such a schedule. Some wasted time as well, yes, but I will not greatly regret taking the same length of time we would normally expect such a course of study to take.

Indeed, by taking minimal full-time loads, another person, perhaps one more like Van Wilder and less like myself, could have easily spent nine years as a full time student on the same course of study without failing or repeating a single class. Throw in failed and repeated courses, and we might be able to stretch that another year to a full decade. And I am at least not that lazy.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Dancing and the martial arts

It may come as a surprise to those of you who know me for more cerebral reasons, but I am actually a very physical person.

And one of the things I've had cause to reflect on is the curious relationship between martial arts and dancing. It's a connection with history; classical dance and fencing, for example, have stolen footwork from each other for a long time. You've probably heard of football players taking ballet to improve their performance in that violent sport; you may even have heard of capoeira, which blurs the line between dance and martial arts.

I've taken modern dance classes and danced recreationally - international folk, contra, and swing at one time or another, and it seemed I was always following choreography in high school chorus. Being a male who could carry on loudly and on pitch while moving around meant I was indispensable in many numbers. I took tae kwon do into my teenage years, and then fenced in college.

Dancers and martial artists share many of the same warmups and stretches, more than typical for two different kinds of athletes; flexibility, balance, and coordination are are crucial in both pursuits. The key difference is not in the types of movement used; every basic building block that is used in one can be used in the other. (Well, almost. En pointe in ballet is, I suspect, an exception, but I can think of few others.)

The most basic difference lies in the treatment of rhythm. When you dance, you dance with the rhythm. When you spar, you fight against the rhythm. The skilled martial artist constructs rhythms in order to break them; the point is to become the unexpected, to surprise your opponent with carefully controlled timing. When you dance with a partner, the point is to communicate and telegraph your timing as much as possible; in dance, you must master gluing yourself to a rhythm so intimately that even should you slip, you will move with the rhythm.

To be masterful in either, one must master rhythm - but in two completely different opposed ways.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The case for throwing money at higher education

I've been thinking long and hard about my home state's funding priorities as it moves into a budget crunch. The annual earnings of an individual tend to increase by about $5,000 for every additonal year of higher education; North Carolina spends somewhere in the range of $5,000 to $15,000 in educational subsidies for that year of higher education, depending on where the student goes.

And I ask myself: What sort of investment will take a series of $15,000 up-front payments and pay out $5,000 a year for each payment you make into it - for several decades? Sure, the state of NC takes a longer time to recoup tax revenues, but that is an enormous public benefit for the amount of money being spent. Where can we get more of this?

When I look at North Carolina on the long term scale, the biggest difference I see between North Carolina and its neighbors is the UNC system. North Carolina supports a large number of public universities and community colleges, and subsidizes the tuition of in-state students very heavily. There's a very bright future in continuing to throw money at higher education at every level - as much as the state can afford to do.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Today was Juneteenth, and so the historical ending point of slavery in the US has passed through more minds than it usually does this week. And yet, archaic institution or not, slavery captures a lot of creative thought.

There are several modern arguments hidden in the corners of the moral and ethical spectrum of opinions that favor slavery. All - well, almost all - are unwilling to say that the institution of slavery as practiced in the US was a-OK. Hereditary racially-based lifelong slavery in which the owners have unlimited rights to dispose of their property as they see fit? Certainly not!

But while I think that the wrong was in the humans-owning-other-humans part, others would suggest it is in the other details. Why, if it is entered into with agreement by the party being enslaved, appropriate rights left to the slave, has nothing to do with racial oppression, what of it? Shouldn't people be free to enter into such a contract?

It is a perfectly libertarian turn of phrase. If slavery is a transferable contract, shouldn't it be legal? Leaving aside the sticky issue of people being pressed into slavery under duress, false pretenses, et cetera. There is a subtle point in the works. While undoubtedly there are those foolish enough to sign themselves onto an open-ended transferable contract - and some of the more clever transferable labor contracts look something like that - there remains the freedom to walk away from a contract at any time - throw up your hands and walk off the job. You may be out money; you may even be liable for financial penalties; but you retain that liberty.

Perhaps most importantly, it retains a sharp distinction between people and property, which is a dangerous line to blur. And perhaps we should carefully look at the things that look like slavery - prison labor to fill pockets, transferable contracts, and the penalty clauses allowed to labor contracts - and ask ourselves "What is the difference between this, and some nicely cleaned-up version of slavery?"

And those of you in the BDSM crowd who are into the master-slave relationships and roleplay on a purely consensual basis, who can end it at any time? You can ignore all that.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Herbal remedies

I recently read a piece in the newspaper - a little AP notice saying that a decade after the government embarked on a massive effort to study herbal remedies, there has been little positive news. The "lone exception" cited in the article is the suggestion that ginger may alleviate nausea caused by chemotherapy.

But that doesn't really tell the whole scientific story of herbal remedies. Sure, the popular (and lucrative) herbal remedies have generally not lived up to their reputation in clinical studies. The placebo effect is strong with us, but seems to be the main benefit of such.

However, the herbal remedies the AP article is referring to are hardly the whole story of herbal medicine. Many herbs have potent medicinal effects affirmed by studies. Cilantro does interesting things with heavy metals; cinnamon affects blood's cholesterol and glucose balances; turmeric (the orange spice that gives curry powder and many curries their distinctive yellowness) plays a role in suppressing histamines. Garlic really does have an impact on the immune system's behavior.

Willow bark does indeed alleviate pain, and also has potentially beneficial cardiac effects - you've probably taken a concentrated form of the same chemical, marketed under the name of aspirin. Camellia sinensis and coffea arabica share a remarkable effective stimulant chemical released when parts of the plants are steeped in hot water - caffeine.

So when I read that article, I thought to myself that it overstated the case. There certainly are herbal remedies that work. There may be many, such as echinacea, which fail to live up to the hype of their fans under scientific scrutiny, but even if the government-funded studies in question picked out only one significant effect, the things you put in your food will affect the systems of your body.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Retroactive reason

We are very fond of speaking of ourselves as rational creatures, but I cannot be sure that even I am more rational than rationalized. As methodically and carefully as I approach life, and making the decisions that I make, it is very difficult to be sure that I have arrived at a decision through the rational process, or whether I simply use the rational process to justify the decision I want to make.

Every once in a while I catch myself at it - usually a little late. You rationalize a little bit, then you rationalize a little bit more, and then the data come around and slap you in the face and say Yo, you're wrong! This is why I'm very leery about claiming to know things - careful critical examination of the justification is required to be sure it's not just a pleasant rationalization with a giant hole in the middle.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

About that Iranian election...

A friend of mine made the following comment: "Obama wins 52.9% of popular vote, CNN calls it a resounding victory. Ahmadinejad wins 62.6% of popular vote, CNN portrays scattered opposition protests as a revolution."

There is a point to be made in that the US media are sometimes reluctant to question those in power in the US, and that has lead to an imbalance in scrutiny. A better example would be the elections of 2004; the famous differences between exit polls and official ballot counts cast a shadow over both the US and Ukrainian presidential elections. The difference?

US media by and large buried the story of irregularities within the US election; the very same indicators, however, were taken as proof positive of fraud in the Ukraine. What we saw happen in the Ukraine was a national re-vote under intense scrutiny from international and domestic observers - and that's what we should see happen every time we see significant irregularities whose magnitude is large enough to potentially change the election.

In the case of the Iranian election just past, I think the allegations of massive fraud in reporting the results deserve investigation; the Huffington Post has been assembling everything they can. What I find particularly striking is that all the international media, from Al-Arabiya to ZDF - not just, in other words, US media - are finding their ability to report in Iran sharply curtailed. I do not expect the current Iranian government to conduct a revote; Iran, like the United States in 2004, is a nation with a proud incumbent government willing to hold itself aloof from the wishes of the rest of the world, with little interest in transparency and accountability.

I'm pretty sure elections are stolen on a regular basis, all around the world. There's certainly fraud and voter suppression in every US presidential election, and it has probably changed the result of our presidential elections a half dozen times or more; I hate to think of how many state and local elections are decided fraudulently. And for that reason, whenever there's probable cause to question the results of an election, a full investigation - followed by a recount and a revote - is the right thing to do.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Lessons I have learned about hiking:
  1. Forests regulate their own temperature, and therefore are nice and cool in the summer heat. The patchy areas between forests aren't, not even the shady spots.
  2. Bugbites and sun exposure are things your body adapts to over time.
  3. Surefootedness and stealth both come from leading with the toes.
  4. Wild animals are mostly scared of noisy humans.
  5. Avoid bear cubs.
  6. If you look closely at the ground, you will eventually notice tracks.
  7. Pack extra water if you're with a group. Someone else will be short.
  8. Machetes are handy, whether or not you brought a knife.
  9. Knives are handy, whether or not you brought a machete.
  10. Lightning does actually strike. It can also hit more than one person at once.
  11. Humans have better peripheral vision, hearing, and sense of smell than commonly realized. They just have an annoying habit of ignoring them.
  12. Trail blazes are really useful.
  13. Have a first aid kit; whether you're hiking alone, with a buddy, or with a group, not having one around is an invitation for disaster.
  14. If you don't feel spiderwebs, someone else was already through here today.
  15. Walking sticks are very much optional, but somehow always seem handy when you have one.
  16. The deadliest mushroom in North America looks really innocuous.

Friday, June 12, 2009

In a perfect world, there are no divorces

On the 12th of last month, I said that in a perfect world, there are no abortions. This month, I continue the theme of perfect worlds: In a perfect world, there are no divorces. I suspect the reasons for this diverge substantially, so you'll have to take your pick, but I think I can convince you that a perfect world is divorce-free.

This is easy if you think that divorce is immoral. Marriage is a bond for life in the eyes of God, and should not be dissolved by anything short of death. So then, divorce is wrong, and a perfect world must therefore include no divorce.

It is also easy if you think that marriage is an unnatural institution that works against human nature - because then, in a perfect world, nobody gets married. If nobody gets married, nobody gets divorced. QED.

Where this becomes more difficult is when you are a moderate who understands the necessity of divorce in the real world. People do get married, and it is something that they wish to take seriously; at the same time, marriages turn out to be abusive. People change and grow apart, or have conflicting beliefs from the start.

And here, our perfect world must be more complex - one free of spousal abuse, one in which people only bind themselves in marriage wisely with rare, nearly precognitive foresight, one in which "for tax purposes" or "for social pressure" has no meaning. People whose relationships are destined to end instead select some other form of partnership than a permanent marriage; perhaps something with term limits, or something less formal, but accorded similar status and respect by others.

In fact, while we can see the perfect abortion-free world in the horizons of science and social engineering - even, in fact, can see it in some dystopian futures - this perfect divorce-free world of ours seems terribly unreal. But while the limiting case may seem impossible, we can see the virtues of incremental steps towards it. Thinking carefully before tying the knot, stamping out abusive behaviors - these are good things. But our real world is complex, and needs escape valves for when mistakes are made.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Physics, dating, and the elusive house-husband

To continue the vein of yesterday, where we explored the social dynamics of academia and the nearly unique social role of physicists outside of academia (a role they don't exactly seek, usually), today I'd like to write a little about another side of the "science ladder."

Dating. One of my female physics professors once told our class that the quickest way to get rid of a guy in a bar was to mention that she was a physics student. That wouldn't work on other physics people, of course, and I don't think it works on women, either. I didn't notice the same phenomenon as a man; while many male physics majors are socially awkward, the fact that they are interested in physics doesn't cast aspersions on their manliness, or make them less appealing.

I really don't think this strange aversion applies to anything other than the traditional heterosexual dating field in that one particular direction: When a woman is highly educated, and especially in a mathematically intensive field, men find it intimidating. A couple decades of sitcoms and movies starring dumb-as-rocks male lead roles paired with more educated female lead roles may have eroded this a little, which make me wonder just how strong a phenonemon this used to be.

The growing educational gender gap between men and women (women are becoming more educated than men) may bury it completely, eventually; it's only a few fields, and mainly the doctoral level, that we still see a gender imbalance favoring males, but in the mean time, I can't help but wonder if this is one of the factors that helps drive women away from physics and mathematics.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Physics envy

Choosing where to go to graduate school was a long and difficult process, and of the many considerations that passed my mind, none seems more petty than status. There's something of a heirarchy of academic fields when it comes to the respect its practitioners and experts get, and "social scientist" ranks near the bottom of the sciences pile, to the point where many people will point at one or more of its disciplines and say "Well, that's not even a science."

Indeed, I've accused economists of being nonscientific before myself.

I was introduced to this concept in my introductory psychology class as "physics envy" - because physics tends to be on the top of the respect pile for the sciences, unless you count mathematics - and talked about it in my philosophy of science class. In fact, physicists get so much respect from "lay" people that they're almost treated as a priesthood of the modern age; listen to the questions physicists get asked in media interviews.

There's also a ladder of respect based on your school's reputation. So when I passed up going to a top-25 physics school for theoretical physics, and decided to go to a unique cross-disciplinary program at a less prestigious university, I felt a twinge of regret on that account. It felt like I was gambling the respect I could expect to get for my research against bad house odds.

A doctorate in physics from a top-25 school - nobody but the most Ivy League of snobs would dare to badmouth that. Working on an applied mathematical field traditionally occupied by economists at a school I hadn't heard of three years ago? Perhaps it's because that evaluation felt like such a petty reason that I made the decision I did. I've been known to be contrarian before.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

No winning: Incentives

Lately in my home state of North Carolina, there's been a lot of talk about corporate incentives. The way it works is straightforward: A company makes noises about considering locating in such-and-such places, and then turns around and asks state and local governments what it's worth to them to locate there. A special tax cut, an outright rebate, land arrangements, utility support, etc.

The result is that state and local governments are competing with each other to bid for a share of tax dollars and economic development. It's like the prisoner's dilemma: If one town/state offers incentives, and the other doesn't, they win with a low bid and take home a large benefit, reduced slightly by the cost of the incentive. If none offer incentives, one location gets the maximum possible benefit - a crapshoot, but a fair one. If a bidding war springs up, it turns into a crapshoot with a low payout.

The best strategy for all of us on the tax-paying end would be for nobody to offer any targeted incentives at all; the best strategy for each individual location is to bid up to the anticipated value of the prize. In which case the corporation comes out ahead, and the rest of us experience a slim net benefit. Throw in the griping about unfair taxation, threats to relocate from existing industries unless they get a similar break, and some bad math by legislators and town councils, I think the rest of us are outright losing the incentive game.

Monday, June 8, 2009

What working at a weight loss camp did to me

Yesterday, I noted that I once (twice, actually) worked at a weight loss camp. It amazes me how often that experience turns out to be relevant to the topic and hand; it also had a truly remarkable impact on my life.

Before I worked at camp, I was absolutely terrified of the idea of working with children. It wasn't going to be pleasant, or something I would be too competent with. Children were something you tried to avoid getting stuck with. My surprise was that I actually had fun, and my second summer there, Ira told all the other counselors that I was a fantastic counselor. Before working at camp, I was ambivalent about the idea of having children in the future; after working at camp, I decided it would be nice to have kids of my own at some point.

Before I worked at camp, I didn't think about my weight. Nothing like working at a weight loss camp to suddenly make you conscious of your weight and give you a touch of paranoia about weight management. Most of us counselors also picked up very funny food issues during the summer, since we could eat freely so long as the campers surrounding us for most of the day didn't see it. I ate about three times what the campers did.

Before I worked at camp, I had no idea how sleazy people could be. Ira himself meant well, but had some old bad habits and a couple of associates widely criticized by the counseling staff; the people running the Patterson school, however, were the real eye-openers. Ira's buddy (partner, the first year, I think; later, Tommy became his business partner, and Tommy was a much more upright guy) may have been an eBay-flipping online poker addict with an eye for quick-get-rich schemes, but the people running the Patterson school? Complete sleazeballs, made every one of us involved look like saints even on our worst days.

And the school was just falling apart around us. Talk about a badly managed property. I learned a lot of practical lessons in maintenance and repair. Not to mention the second year, I had some nice hands-on experience in pool chemistry and how to operate a pool.

I think one of the more subtle things I got from working at camp was a self-image boost. Even the most athletic of the other counselors wouldn't be able to jump as high or run as quick a mile; it's hard to get too down on yourself when the kids look up to you, your boss thinks you can do anything, and you're rapidly finding out that you can teach things you've never taught before.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

How you can gain weight while burning calories

As you may or may not know, in addition to being a student of physics, I worked for two summers at a weight loss camp. And so it was that I thought to apply thermodynamics to what was happening to my campers.

Some campers would lose weight steadily; others would have slow and fact points; in the long term, they all improved dramatically. And yet, when you use weight to try to measure your fitness, things tend to fall flat a little more often, and you see quirks.

As BMI measures it, I hit the "overweight" marker at 184 pounds - at which point my body fat percentage is still quite healthy. If I drop to 170 pounds (BMI 23, still in the upper half of "normal") my body fat percentage is dangerously low. I would probably drop dead before hitting the "underweight" BMI (136 pounds).

The quirk here is lean body mass. I have a relatively high lean body mass; my campers, universally, were increasing their lean body mass as well, strengthening muscles they didn't know existed, drinking plenty of water, etc. And at the most extreme end of it - you can be burning through calories and still adding just a little bit of mass as you reshape your body. I've seen it; I've also seen, on weighing day, how terribly discouraged campers get when they discovered they lost little to no weight that week.

Hidden in that news is the amazing improvements they made in their fitness. They can now hike further, lift more, swim more quickly, and they may even have lost an inch on their waistline. And when we're worried about our appearance, it's that - not the proxy of total weight - that makes the difference when people look at you.

So if you're working out hard and watching your diet, and yet you just don't seem to be losing weight, cheer up. You're still probably improving your health and appearance.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The key of falsifiability

When I hear people talking about teaching intelligent design, "proofs" of economics, and touting home remedies, I think about what makes something a scientific theory.

It needs to make some kind of predictions that can be tested. A scientific theory has to be falsifiable; it simply has to be the case that measurements could be made that would make it false. When they fail to do so, we proclaim the theory good.

An object falling does not prove gravity. I could just as easily say that things want to be close together, that celestial bodies naturally move in circles while terrestrial bodies want to be stationary on a low-lying surface, and explain everything that way. Data always underdetermines theory, points underdetermine functions, facts never tell the whole story of a case.

So why? The best theory is the one that walks the knife-edge between falsifiable and false. The slightest changes in the data could invalidate it - but somehow, they haven't. Arguments about government policy illustrate the point perfectly; is the problem too much protectionism, or too much free trade? Too much subsidy, or not enough? We can stretch and contrive a complex explanation justifying ourselves, and in fact, pundits seem to do so all the time.

What would it take for you to disbelieve this idea? If you can answer that question, you know whether you're relying on science or faith to justify your belief.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Housing strategies

And so, my graduate housing saga continues. After being assigned the more expensive option, and accepting that option, I've received a lease. Within that lease, of course, are a number of restrictions...

... namely, there's to be no smoking anywhere near the building, and no pets whatsoever. At the start of the UC-I graduate housing application, there are questions about cats and smoking. You can apparently come with up to 2 cats.

Hypothesis: My optimal strategy, as someone with a limited budget and allergic to cats, would have been to claim to have 2 cats. This would have guaranteed that I was assigned to the cheaper housing; since they surely don't want too many cats per apartment, that probably would have minimized my chances of being assigned to another cat while saving several hundred dollars per month - on average, enough to keep me rolling in antihistamines in the event I turned out to have to deal with one.

Now, why this information wasn't presented at the start of the process, I can guess, but I have to say I don't like that system so far. And I still have a bone to pick about the affordability of their housing. I foresee an interest in committee-work in my future.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I'm studying the shapes of voting systems

Writing this out loud makes it a little more real. Yes, this is what I'm doing. Methods of putting together larger numbers of ballots and coming out with a winner have a shape, and this, somehow, is useful. I'm working on finding shapes. Right now, one of them is looking somewhat hexagonal for some numbers, although it can compress into a line or, when we allow more deviant behavior, morph into a triangle. Then, it also can be unfolded into a solid.

When I put it like that, it sounds like I've gone off the deep end. What will I do next, find the scent of an ethical code? The sound of ideological distributions? Maybe I should turn my problem around - design shapes, and find voting systems that produce them. I wonder what degree of complexity I would need to make a voting d20.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Median voter theorem

Why politicians talk in code

The median voter theorem is an interesting result in the study of elections. Suppose you have some political spectrum, and two candidates. Doesn't matter how many dimensions there are to that spectrum, even, with two candidates; the politician who is closer to the center (median) of voter positions will be closer to more voters. Voters - if acting rationally - will vote for the closest candidate to them.

Voila, so suddenly we have centrist candidates - or do we? There's another problem: Turnout. The further away a voter is from a candidate, the less likely a voter is to turn out. In fact, if they feel far away on the fringe, they may feel the difference between the two centrist candidates is negligible. Perhaps a third party candidate will look attractive - it's time to make a statement!

But what if you can occupy more than one position at once? Suddenly, you can secure much more of the political spectrum. This is why politicians talk in code, and try to position their opponents as extremists; why we see different messages sent through different media. Coded language is understood differently by different segments of the political spectrum, and by segmenting your audience into different groups, it allows you to try to position yourself near the median of each group rather than the whole population.

And this is how a politician masters the median voter theorem; not by moving carefully to the center of the population, but by seeming to be in different places when looked at from different perspectives.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Beauty tips from the furball

Many of you may not have realized I have any interest in cosmetology. Truth of the matter is, I'm interested in everything, and so, here it is - what I know about cosmetic care.

Keep those pores clean and that body free of toxins!

For flushing out the skin regularly, and purging your body of toxins, what works better than a nice long workout followed by thorough rehydration? Sweat pores are tiny and everywhere, and when you're adding and removing a few liters of water, anything water-soluble is likely to go with it - along with some dead skin, dirt, and body oils.

In fact, I now believe that particularly harsh and sour body odor is the result of not having sweated enough recently. I've noticed it with myself - if I haven't done a solid workout lately, I'm going to smell pretty sour the first time I break a sweat. Go on, prove me wrong - take up a regular exercise regimen and tell me you don't feel better about yourself. Or stop, and tell me you think you smell nicer.

What, me smell?

Personally, I'm not fond of scents. Unscented deoderant for me, please - and if I can't find that, a palmful of baking soda works quite well to mute the natural smell. If you must, please be subtle... some of us have sensitive noses, others are allergic, and I, at least, remember some terribly irritating people in high school who wore much too much scent, so I have poor associations with that.

The idea is to smell nice - something that will blend into your deoderant, your surviving natural scent (yes, you still have one), and in all probability your shampoo, conditioner, body wash, soap, lotion, and any other products you use, rather than overwhelm everything. In my humble opinion, one should not to smell like perfume. Your scent will tend to improve with exercise and regular showers, of course.

Yes, showers!

Nothing beats regular doses of epidermal water. Nothing! I go in for at least one shower a day. I recommend it - it's nice, pleasant, helps wash gunk and dirt off your skin, and usually makes you smell better, even if you don't use anything scented. I also have the vague feeling that making your skin soaking wet might moisturize it, too.

Myself, I have very curly hair. I've found it actually looks best with a combination of chlorine and sun bleaching plus regular combing in the shower using copious amounts of conditioner. Following the advice posted in this livejournal group, I've found that using large amounts of cheap conditioner with no sodium laurel sulfate really works. For me, anyway; for those of you with other hair types, I recommend reading around in there. Amazing stuff.

And then... fashion?

No, let's not go there. There are many things I detest about men's fashion, and this entry is positive! If, perhaps, a little sarcastic here and there.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Measuring a libertarian

I've been thinking about this one for a while. There are social libertarians; there are economic libertarians; the idea is less government. And at the end of the day, I think that this might be the best way of all to measure whether or not someone really is a libertarian:

What is out there, that you think is wrong, but nevertheless believe should be legal?

For example, as I mentioned the other day, I think prostitution should be legal - carefully regulated in the public interest, but legal; however, I do think there's something terribly wrong with selling sex services. I'm even bothered by the overly mercantile nature of much dating, by mothers who tell their daughters they should judge a man by the price on the ring he brings them, by the high class escort services that carefully step around prostitution laws, by gold diggers, and by "Who wants to marry a millionaire?"

I am at least a little bit of a libertarian in that way. I want the government to step in because there is a compelling public interest - not because my personal sense of right and wrong is affronted.