Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, August 18, 2017

Four Things

1. Over at Hackaday is an article about difficulties you probably wouldn't have anticipated about colonizing Mars:

Mars doesn't have a local electrical ground. The Earth does because the ground is electrically conductive and accepts charge from any charged object that comes in contact with it. Due to the large mass of a local Earth ground, it accepts this charge without becoming very charged itself. The moisture in the Earth ground aids its conductivity by enabling ions to move around. Mars' ground, however, is dry and while it contains ice, that ice further decreases conductivity.
Yep. That one went right past me. Interestingly, that fact would affect architecture for any colonists.

2. Item One on this list of "Five Things You Must Not Do During Totality at the Solar Eclipse" is photograph it. For one thing, professional photographers will be all over this. For another, consult the rest of the list.

3. In an entertaining article about "The Confusing Way Mexicans Tell Time," a travel writer passes along the following method one American expat deals with the strange way they use the term ahorita, whose literal translation is "right now," but which is used quite differently there:
[S]ome expats living in Mexico just cannot get used to this more fluid way of measuring time. After moving to Mexico from the US, Elizabeth Wattson found a unique way of working with Ahorita Time. "Whenever my boss said 'ahorita', I would respond by asking 'ahorita when?'. I just couldn't work with this vague concept of something getting done at some indeterminate point in the future," she said.
I think I'd pretty quickly start doing something like that, myself, in such a situation.

4. Forget everything you thought you knew about lichens right now:
He has shown that largest and most species-rich group of lichens are not alliances between two organisms, as every scientist since [Swiss botanist Simon] Schwendener has claimed. Instead, they're alliances between three. All this time, a second type of fungus has been hiding in plain view.
Okay, so that was hyperbole: You're still right about them being compound organisms, but this recent discovery is still really neat, particularly if you have a biological, or maybe a botanical bent.

-- CAV

Look Before They Land

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Over at Unclutterer is a reader question with a more interesting answer than I expected, regarding the storage of someone else's possessions:

What you legally can and cannot do with someone's stuff stored in your home varies by jurisdiction. It is also based on the relationship of the people in question. For example, former spouses are treated differently from landlord/tenant relationships. The actual items in storage may also influence what you can legally do with them. For example, cars and high value items like jewelry may be treated differently from clothing and low value household goods.

Do not act hastily to dispose of Robert's stuff. You could be sued or accused of theft. It is unfortunate that this could be the case especially since you were trying to do Robert a favour.
This certainly stands to reason. However, a preexisting relationship and sympathy might keep one from thinking of it, even if one has strong personal boundaries in the first place. Perhaps a good second line of defense when thinking about helping someone is to consider what could go wrong if one were helping a stranger or ended up doing so for longer than expected, and acting accordingly. Some people are flakier than they appear, and everyone has free will.

-- CAV

No Good Guys in Charlottesville

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Conservative blogger "Ace" makes a great point about the disheartening recent events in Charlottesville and the greater context in which they occur:

... Identity Politics of all kinds are odious and poisonous to the individual -- if your value is your race or gender, well, you have branded yourself as someone of extraordinarily low value, haven't you?

But as John Sexton points out, you can't expect a culture to praise all sorts of Identity Politics -- flat-out racist groups and gender supremacists -- but say that one group doesn't get to play by the same rules.

Either it's all poisonous garbage, or it's all got something of merit to it.
Ace doesn't put it this way, but we also now have, with the Scalise shooting a few weeks ago, examples of domestic terrorism from both anti-liberty "sides" of the political spectrum. Regarding the white supremacists, it is indeed hardly surprising that, having been raised ignorant of American values and steeped in collectivism that some whites would end up behaving much as they have been taught -- and others have behaved lately:
The phrase "Blood and soil" is a Nazi reference but the rest of the arguments sounds a lot like the identity politics of the left, it's even couched in the premise of whites being a minority group in the near future. As for clearing the park for the "white identity rally" that's completely un-American. It's also reminiscent of the University of Missouri protesters who created a "black healing space" by asking whites to leave and the treatment of students at Evergreen College who were told they should not enter a room or speak up during a campus discussion because they were white. [links omitted]
It is wrong, but understandable on a level that some people, in reaction to feeling marginalized, would stand up for what they have been told they are all their lives. And it's very sad that, in doing so, they are abandoning -- or even failing to grasp in the first place -- their truest and most noble cultural -- does anyone actually understand the meaning of that term any more? -- heritage, that of free, individual Americans. The only loser in Charlottesville was what Ayn Rand called the smallest minority: the individual. That means you, me, and everyone, whether they know it or not.

-- CAV

P.S. Writing at The Federalist, Robert Tracinski argues in a similar vein, also discussing the role of the far-left protesters in this mess, further noting:
We are in a state of emergency, and it's because we're letting our political debate be defined on illiberal terms. We're supposed to either back the guys who try to re-enact Nuremberg, or we back the guys who whip themselves up into a frenzy to "punch Nazis" -- and define "Nazi" as anyone who disagrees with them. We either want technology companies to conduct ideological inquisitions, or we've got guys chanting "Blood and Soil." We take a vicious murder by a racist and turn it into another opportunity to score partisan political points on social media -- as if we want racism to be a partisan issue rather than a common cause that transcends party.

I wrote recently about the steps required to condition people to accept totalitarianism. One of those steps -- one of the last ones -- is that we get used to political differences being settled by a contest of force in the streets. We've been closer to that point before, during the 1960s, when the violent protests and race riots were far bigger. But that was the brink of a very deep precipice, and we should be doing everything we can, on both sides of the political debate, to pull back from it. [links and emphasis in original]
Read the whole thing.

Amusing. But Good?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Over at Medium, Jeff Goins lays out "8 Simple Steps I've Used to Write 5 Bestselling Books." I think most of the advice is good, but am not so sure about Item 6, on setting a due date. That said, the following method of enlisting help to meet a deadline made me smile:

A friend of mine, a talented writer, did this recently when he wanted to finish a book he'd been thinking about for years. Fearing he might never reach the last page, he wrote a check to a political candidate he hated, and post-dated it for X months in the future. Then he gave the check to a friend with strict instructions to mail it if he had not completed his book by that date.
This is funny, and it seems to have worked for the writer who came up with it, but is this generally good advice? I think the answer here is: It depends. What problem is one trying to solve? There can be numerous legitimate reasons one can't complete a book by some deadline, particularly a first book, and particularly if the deadline is arbitrary in any way. So if one has not set a realistic, but still challenging time goal, this tactic can backfire. But if, knowing oneself to have a tendency to procrastinate, and knowing, further, that being nudged by others helps one past psychological inertia, something like this can be helpful -- IF one has found a way to set a reasonable deadline.

On that last score, some advice on iteratively chopping goals in half I vaguely recall can probably help. (If anyone recalls the name of this process, or something that this sounds like, please feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line.) As I recall -- but haven't time to verify this morning -- one breaks the goal into chunks, and those into chunks and so on until one reaches tasks of known duration. Then one can construct a time line. Doing this would dovetail with Goins's other idea of creating a schedule, which would enable one to leverage very effectively having a set routine.

 -- CAV

Mexico Does to Its Whole Economy ...

Monday, August 14, 2017

... What the U.S. Does to Education (Well, not exactly, but bear with me a minute.)

Economists Santiago Levy and Dani Rodrik consider why Mexico's economy, despite some recent loosening of controls, hasn't grown more rapidly than it has. One distinct possibility has something to do with government-mandated "social insurance":

A large part of the answer has to do with the Mexican economy's extreme dualism -- a problem that has been called the "two Mexicos." The bulk of Mexican workers remain employed in "informal" firms -- especially firms in which employees are not on salaried contracts -- where productivity is a fraction of the level in large, modern firms that are integrated into the world economy. [link added]
And later:
... Firms and workers in the formal sector must pay for health insurance, pensions, and other employee benefits. But, because workers undervalue these benefits, the result is pure tax on formal employment.

By contrast, when firms and workers are informal, workers receive a similar bundle of health and pension benefits for free. The result is that formal employment is unwittingly penalized, whereas informal employment is subsidized.
So... Mexico's government subsidizes an inefficient part of its economy, in the process making it more attractive on price for individuals, even if it might serve them better to do business with more efficient competitors. The situation for "formal" employment in Mexico and private schools in the U.S. is somewhat analogous, with our system funding government schools on everyone's backs, including those who can afford or would prefer a private alternative. The analogy is hardly exact, but people in both countries would do well to consider, as individuals, the usual rationalizations for the policies behind both situations. How does it help me personally to foot someone else's bill? How does it help my quality of life, or that of anyone I care about, to give financial support to practices that hold everyone back? By what right is the government squandering my money, let alone taking it from me in the first place?

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, August 11, 2017

Four Things

1. What will you see on eclipse day? Head over here, plug in your zip code, and find out. (via Geekpress)

2. I've been dealing with patents a lot lately, so it was with some amusement that I noticed my beer-themed page-a-day calendar commented on Patent no. 3827595. For what it's worth, the plastic beer keg has now been around for over forty three years.

3. The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an amusing report about a book manuscript that was thirty years overdue (but still wanted), notes the following:
[David] Congdon's comically tardy book may seem like an extreme example of editorial generosity, but The Chronicle spoke to several people with lengthy tenures at university presses. They say that anyone who spends enough time in the industry, where a turnaround of several months to a few years for a book is the norm, will very likely encounter a project that is the not only years late, but decades so.

"Oh yes, this is something that comes up with surprising frequency!" wrote Leila Salisbury, director of University Press of Kentucky.
I've known academics to sit on results for years before publishing them as papers, but this takes the cake.

4. Get executed for 99 smackers? That's the "dangerous catch" an article about a startup called "Airmule" describes when it looks into its ultra-cheap flights to Beijing:
If you're acting as an air courier, you ... could be fully liable for what you carry through Customs. So, that suitcase of apparel you're supposedly carrying for a fashion show? If it's loaded with heroin, that's on you, and the penalty for that in China is death (no ifs, ands or buts). The suitcase full of baby formula? If you didn't know that it's illegal to bring it into China, it doesn't matter: the massive fine is all yours if you get caught.

Airmule takes a bunch of reassuring-sounding security measures. For example, they participate in a TSA inspection program which verifies that shipments are safe for air transportation. You do too -- by letting the TSA inspect your bag when you check it in (although in all fairness, there are some additional security measures cargo companies comply with, and Airmule says they do this). Airmule claims that they inspect shipments as well, and I think they probably do. However, while this provides reasonable assurance that whatever you're carrying won't cause the plane to crash, it doesn't provide as strong an assurance that what you're carrying is actually legal to carry into the country where you're carrying it.
Hmmm. One of the conditions of the fare is that you give up a bag to Airmule, but I'm not sure I would have considered the above possibility.

-- CAV

Do It First, Learn How Second

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Image courtesy of Unsplash.
While I don't recommend the title as general advice, it does hold a grain of truth, coming as it does from a participant in an "Act as If" exercise described in Barbara Sher's I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What It Was. (I've heard similar things called "Fake It 'Til You Make It," but I prefer Sher's name for it because it correctly calls attention to the fact that this is an exercise in self-actualization, rather than self-deception.) The grain of truth comes not just from the author's observation that such exercises build confidence, but also from something she mentions in passing. At one point, she asks, "How did they learn so fast?"

Any new skill has to be learned, and, while it is good to attempt to learn from others when acquiring the skill, the limitations of the human mind will likely prevent full recall of everything in the first few attempts for all but the simplest things. Action helps automatize what one knows, reveal strengths and weaknesses, and help one learn areas to work on -- as a small thing to improve upon rather than just one more item in an unfamiliar and easily-forgotten laundry list.

A late winter storm gave me a good example of that last point earlier this year. I have some experience dealing with winter, but suburbia has thrown a few curves at me. Last year, our long driveway and three feet of snow taught me, among other things, to park the cars closer to the end of the driveway in order to minimize the amount of snow clearance I need to do before we can leave the house.

This year, I was ready, or so I thought. Arriving home with the kids the night before a lesser storm, I parked the car halfway down the driveway, leaving enough room for Mrs. Van Horn to pull in behind me. The next day, we'd gotten about half the amount of snow we were told to expect, enough to close school, but not enough, I thought, to keep my wife from driving in to work if she wanted or needed to.


The day before, as I drove in, I noticed that other cars in the neighborhood were parked backwards (i.e., pointing out) in their driveways. I wrote it off as a local peculiarity since people seem to love parking backwards around here. I almost always see people doing this in parking lots -- often while I wait for them to back in and out of the spot they could have just pulled into.

The next day, my wife got stuck at the end of the driveway trying to drive to work. I had to get her car out of the street and back into the driveway, which I did without much trouble, but it caused me to learn two new things: (1) everyone had parked funny for a reason, namely to avoid losing momentum when leaving the driveway; and (2) I should have had my car, which is all-wheel drive, closer to the street, rather than hers. We ended up stuck for the day it took for the snow plow to arrive, and perhaps we might have been stuck anyway, but it was nice to get another "rookie mistake" (as someone joked to me about where I parked the cars last year) out of the way. And I won't have trouble remembering this, although it went into my pre-snow checklist, anyway.

Along with the above quote, this experience is something I plan to recall the next time I am confronted with learning a new skill that might seem daunting. Nobody learns everything at once, even relatively simple things (in the sense that there is lots one can do ahead of time) like preparing for a winter storm.

-- CAV