Friday Four

Friday, October 20, 2017

Four Things

I'm taking next week off from blogging. See you back here on the thirtieth.

1. Not only is the following a cool problem for someone to have...

Back home, I have to unlock the door, climb like 20 steps -- it's plenty of time to connect to the wifi. Then I have to take off my headphones before my sweaty t-shirt, so it would be great to just switch the current song to the living room airplay system, so that there'd be no interruption. I couldn't do it, and don't understand why switching between bluetooth and wifi shouldn't just work.
... it also made me smile as I remembered Weird Al's parodic "First World Problems," embedded below.


2. I never drink it, but the story of the surprisingly (to me) recent invention of Bailey's Irish Cream was a fun read:
It was mid-November, dark, wet and cold. 1973. We collected the Baileys report from the market researcher alongside the Chiswick roundabout en route to Heathrow. We were cutting it fine for our big Dublin meeting. Tom drove and I leafed through the document in the car. It wasn't a comfortable read. "This isn't going to help our case," I said. "It's not all bad, but it isn't all good either." The bit about being a "girly drink" was in there and so was the comment likening it to Kaolin & Morphine. It was perfect ammunition for someone who wanted to kill the idea. The report contained nothing to reflect the earth-shattering idea we thought Baileys was now that we observed it in its full packaged glory. "Why don't we just put it away and not mention it?" I said. Tom immediately agreed and I stuck it in my briefcase and left it there. It stayed in my briefcase until 1984 when I unveiled it at the 10th anniversary party. It got a huge laugh. The "Kaolin & Morphine flavoured girly drink" had sold about four million cases (48 million bottles) that year.
Those brothers mentioned on the label? A confabulation.

3. If you've ever wondered why Linux on smart phones hasn't exactly taken off, one writer makes a very good case that it's a solution looking for a problem to solve:
In order for mobile Linux to really resonate with casual users, it needs to solve a problem. Right now, the biggest issue facing smart phones is planned obsolescence. This means when a device becomes too old and deemed no longer worth updating, smart phones then see their security and functionality updates stop.
That noted, this Samsung owner hopes a new effort to bring Linux to that brand succeeds where others haven't.

4. Have you ever wondered why open offices are awful places to work, but Starbucks isn't? Wonder no more.
[N]ew research shows that it may not be the sound itself that distracts us ... it may be who is making it. In fact, some level of office banter in the background might actually benefit our ability to do creative tasks, provided we don't get drawn into the conversation. Instead of total silence, the ideal work environment for creative work has a little bit of background noise. That's why you might focus really well in a noisy coffee shop, but barely be able to concentrate in a noisy office.
A comment thread at Hacker News makes much of power dynamics and having to "look busy" -- which I think are good points.

But the very day I read this, I stopped at a McDonald's after getting my car fixed. I'd worked at the shop on my computer and was thinking about eating lunch there and then working some more at the Golden Arches... Until some holy roller accosted me with the ridiculous assertion that the sunshine outside had something to do with God -- at which point I rolled my eyes, said, "Gotchya," and left to work elsewhere.

Call it a First Amendment Problem: Easily solved. But the point remains that this fool has no bearing on my life beyond where he chose to be at the moment and my willingness to spend energy fending him off. Distraction is a Big Deal.

-- CAV


Medieval Cynicism

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Over at Aeon is an article (that doesn't take one to read) about how trial by ordeal was actually used. This in no way legitimizes the practice, but it does answer a practical question faced by the mystics in charge: Essentially everyone believed in eternal damnation for the unrepentant, but that wasn't always an effective deterrent to actual crime. At the same time, a perceived inability on their part to render reliable verdicts would cast doubt on them as cognitive and moral authorities. The Church needed a way to achieve some level of certainty about innocence or guilt, but the priests knew on some level that they weren't going to get any help from their imaginary friend. What to do?

Capitalize on ignorance and rig the result:
... Did you catch the trick? Because of your belief in iudicium Dei, the spectre of the ordeal leads you to choose one way if you're guilty -- confess -- and another way if you're innocent -- undergo the ordeal -- revealing the truth about your guilt or innocence to the court through the choice you make. By asking God to out you, the legal system incentivises you to out yourself...
The piece goes on to elaborate on how the instruction manual for the priest who ran the "trial" should proceed:
A "miraculous" result was thus practically assured. For example, in the early 13th century, 208 defendants in Várad in Hungary underwent hot-iron ordeals. Amazingly, nearly two-thirds of defendants were unscathed by the "red-hot" irons they carried and hence exonerated. If the priests who administered these ordeals understood how to heat iron, as they surely did, that leaves only two explanations for the "miraculous" results: either God really did intervene to reveal the defendants" innocence, or the priests made sure that the iron they carried wasn't hot. [minor format edits]
So the Church found a way to both preserve its credibility by delivering a fair verdict often enough for that purpose -- and yet to maintain complete control over the result of any given trial. Even if, as the author claimed, this yielded "improved criminal justice," it served its true purpose, of maintaining the power of the Church over society, far better. The superstitious rabble were kept from utter lawlessness and any uppity heretics were put on notice, too, even if they saw through the ruse. Clever.

-- CAV


You'd Think He'd Croaked

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Eric Peters of The American Spectator asks, "Where's Ralph?"

For those of you too young to remember, Peters helpfully notes that Ralph Nader, a self-appointed "consumer advocate" made his name as an automotive gadfly.

A Nissan LEAF, parked in an area that may have power and someone friendly enough to lend an outlet and extension cord for a spell. (Image courtesy of Pixabay)
For those of us who do remember him, it may come as a surprise, considering his silence regarding electric cars, that he is alive at all. In any event, Peters ticks off the numerous deficiencies of the cars, which energy advocate Alex Epstein more memorably and accurately describes as "coal cars."

Many items on the list aren't really news. For example, things like "range anxiety" do pop up in the media from time to time. And the taxes that Peters notes come up even among proponents of electric cars, although they seem to regard taxes as a natural phenomenon of the same order of the weather: Not worth making a fuss over. Other things take more thought than many who skim through the news might give it, like the following:
[T]he Electric Car Chorus leaves people with the impression that electric car batteries are immortal. Which is like leaving people with the impression that they will never have to replace the 12-volt starter battery in a conventional car -- or change tires or brake pads. But unlike tires or brakes -- or the 12V starter battery that IC-engined cars have -- an electric car's battery pack costs thousands to replace when the time comes.

And the time will come.

So people will buy a very expensive electric car -- thinking that at least they'll save some money on maintenance -- and then find out they'll be spending several thousand dollars to "maintain" (that is, to replace) the battery -- long before the car itself has worn out.

Why no mention of this? [bold added]
But the fact that these things aren't really news is not really the important point. Peters's point is that such things as the power having to come from somewhere or the eventuality of having to dump thousands on an old car shouldn't be news, and wouldn't be, if the likes of Ralph Nader really did have our interests at heart.

On that score, I'd have to agree.

-- CAV


Context vs. "Trends"

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A typical journalist, courtesy of Pixabay.
An article at Inc. admonishes readers not to be fooled by three "trends" (i.e., examples of progress) that have been getting all kinds of coverage by journalists and pundits who are too busy pandering to fear of the unknown to notice that their big stories could easily be demolished by a helping of additional knowledge (historical or not) and a dash of integrative thinking. I'll highlight the third, because it shows that one needn't always necessarily have a knowledge of history to see that there is often no need to panic (or, conversely, become overly-excited) about the new and shiny. Here's the relevant excerpt on the "retail apocalypse":
Many are calling this a retail apocalypse, but look a little closer and it becomes clear that there is more to the story. Amazon has made a big push into physical retail, capped off by its $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods. Others, ranging from Bonobos to Warby Parker, also opened physical stores. [links omitted, bold added]
Indeed, the executive summary of the article, which is still worth a read in its entirety, might consist of three sentences:
  1. What is so special about the latest wave of automation that it's going to make us all idlers when every other previous wave has failed to do so?
  2. Please name me a business that can operate without some form of access to tangible assets.
  3. If Amazon has shown that brick-and-mortar retail is dead, why did it buy Whole Foods? (But I repeat myself.)
I appreciate good journalism like this: It gives me something to think about, and learn from. And it gives me hope that there are journalists out there who don't buy the hype that, since panic sells, it's the only thing that can sell. To those journalists, I would say, although really only as encouragement: There is an audience out there for an objective presentation of relevant facts, integrated with other knowledge, and interpreted in a rational manner. We'd like more of the same.

-- CAV


A Pivot Point? Yes and No.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Carl Cannon of The Orange County Register asks an interesting question: "Is Harvey Weinstein a cultural pivot point?" He offers some pretty compelling arguments for why this might be the case, contrasting Weinstein's rapid fall with the fates of a couple of other public figures about twenty years ago:

Yet, like Bob Packwood, Bill Clinton was "good" on Roe v. Wade, so what's a good feminist to do? In the end, they backed Clinton. This lesson wasn't lost on future offenders. Bill Cosby's camp has openly played the race card, just as Bill O'Reilly claimed to be the victim of a political "hit job" by liberals. Harvey Weinstein responded to the New York Times' expose with a statement beginning with his claim that he "came of age in the '60s and '70s, when the rules about behavior and workplaces" differed. "That was the culture then," he added. [minor edits]
And later:
If there's good news in this sordid tale, it's this: Once these allegations were made public, playing the partisan political card didn't create even a minor speed bump as Weinstein was being drummed out of polite society. Feminists openly scoffed at this gambit. Prominent Democrats didn't so much as acknowledge it.
This could be very good or very bad, depending on why this is happening so quickly. It would be a very good thing if, indeed, this is a sign that, culturally, the kind of mistreatment of women the likes of Weinstein specialize in is no longer getting a pass. But consider that some of the outrage is coming from the left, which has been responsible lately for fostering outrages against men, on the premise that, as Cannon puts it so well, "merely being a man [might be] some sort of pre-existing condition." (Oh. And Caucasians. And the wealthy, but I don't really need to bring that up, do I?) Let's not forget that Weinstein is something of a strikeout: white, wealthy, and male.

Perhaps there is a bit of both going on just as, not so long ago, racial bigotry became unacceptable while, at the same time, leftists pushed for the kind of legislation, regulation, and pandering that make such a thing as a "race card" even viable now -- and even after our country has twice elected a black man as President. An interesting thought experiment indeed is to consider where this story might have gone had it occurred on Hillary Clinton's watch, had she won the election. I suspect a one-word answer, starting with the word "no," and ending with the word, "where." Weinstein would have been too useful.

I personally think it's both: In the broader culture, men at work are expected to behave like professionals towards women. But at the same time, many on the left doubtless see yet another opportunity to tear someone down, ostensibly in the name of a just cause. Yes, our popular culture has reached a pivot point, but we're saddled with the same old, power-hungry left.

-- CAV


Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, October 13, 2017

Four Things

I've had to tinker a little with software this week, so here's a short collection of possibly useful tidbits.

1. In the process of reading a web article with footnotes collected at the end, I got tired of having to follow hyperlinks just to see which was worth reading. "Wouldn't it be nice if there were a web browser with a split view?" I thought, then ran a search.

As it turns out, a bookmarklet mentioned at Lifehacker can make any decent browser do this. This is also useful for comparing two web pages side by side.

2. After using Gina Trapani's nice Todo.txt script/app combination for years, I suddenly found myself at the store without a grocery list a couple of weeks ago. As a result of Dropbox changing its API, the phone app suddenly become useless -- a problem Trapani reports will require a nontrivial fix. In the meantime, she offers a refund and suggests a couple of alternative phone apps.

I had already found Simpletask, which she recommends for Android users, by the time I found her blog post. This app, which follows the same conventions as the script, is not just an able understudy, but superior in some respects, such as being able to look at items for two projects at a time. I still like Trapani's app, and will use it for certain things, should it get fixed.

3. Another app I used daily that was affected by the Dropbox API change was the text/markup editor, Draft. Fortunately, I had advanced notice of the change and had time to try several alternatives. This was a good thing, because Jotterpad, being the prettiest, seems to get the loudest press. But having to pay for basic functionality I could get elsewhere for free, and already disliking aspects of its interface, I found another app, the QuickEdit text editor, which turned out to be much better for my purposes and superior in most ways to what I had, most notably, being able to access anything in Dropbox, and handling sync better.

4. I'll end with a Bash script pomodoro timer I wrote for my desktop and laptop. Fellow Linux/Unix/Cygwin users will appreciate that it provides visual and audio notifications that your "pomodoro" is over. Time period is adjustable, but defaults to 25 minutes, and, for anyone who has to change settings frequently for such things as sleeping babies in the next room, one can test settings before starting by using a minus sign in front of the time argument. Code is in the P.S.

-- CAV

P.S. Oops! You'll have to email me for my pomodoro script. I thought it would be straightforward to dump it here with a <pre> tag, but font size was huge and, ironically, I have no time to figure out a decent way to display it within the blog post. If there's lots of interest, I may wait a few days to accumulate email addresses before sending it out (or notifying you that I figured out how to post it in an acceptable way), so as to save time.


A Conference of One

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The huge room and extra chairs are optional. Image courtesy of Unsplash.
While reading Cal Newport's Deep Work, I ran into an extreme example of a work strategy I have blogged at least a couple of times. (Sort of. More on that shortly.)

In a discussion of a strategy he calls the grand gesture, Newport tells of an inventor who basically scheduled himself for an entire conference -- alone:
Not every grand gesture need be so permanent. After the pathologically competitive Bell Labs physicist William Shockley was scooped in the invention of the transistor -- as I detail in the next strategy, two members of his team made the breakthrough at a time when Shockley was away working on another project -- he locked himself in a hotel room in Chicago, where he had traveled ostensibly to attend a conference. He didn't emerge from the room until he had ironed out the details for a better design that had been rattling around in his mind. When he finally did leave the room, he airmailed his notes back to Murray Hill, New Jersey, so that a colleague could paste them into his lab notebook and sign them to timestamp the innovation. The junction form of the transistor that Shockley worked out in this burst of depth ended up earning him a share of the Nobel Prize subsequently awarded for the invention. (loc. 1339)
The parallel with hiding out in a "meeting" with oneself made me smile, but the result is impressive to say the least. Aside from the length of time, anyone who checks my earlier blogs might notice another difference between what Shockley did and what neither of those posts really indicate is an option. Shockley worked with single-minded purpose on one thing. Indeed, one of my posts mentions the idea as a way of catching up on whatever tasks one is behind in, and the other isn't explicitly about what kind of work one could be doing in these uninterrupted blocks. Indeed, it leans the wrong way, if anything.

That said, the fact that one sometimes might require blocks of time to catch up even on mindless tasks underscores Newport's thesis, which is that concentration is an increasingly valuable and rare commodity these days. Newport's book has been very stimulating so far -- I am almost half-way through it now -- and is motivating me to reevaluate the way I work. It also, fortunately, offers advice on how to emulate such success along with the reasoning behind it.

-- CAV

P.S. Regarding the nature of what Newport calls a "grand gesture," it pertains to a high level of commitment one one's part, and is more directed inward than outward. Another example of a grand gesture from the book is J.K. Rowling's use of an expensive hotel for writing the last of the Harry Potter books. The setting provided both inspiration and freedom from distraction, and the expense probably made it hard not to do what she came to do.