Archive for December, 2010

New Year’s Eve 2010 Miscellanea

I’m a bit tied up these days with holidays and work (our team at work has been taking time off in shifts, ensuring that any day I’ve been at work I’ve had plenty to do). Add to this the fact that my Special Lady Friend is recently back in town from doing rotations in far-flung parts of the state, and blogging is and will be low-priority for a few more days. In the meantime, a few random thoughts.

I tend to do resolutions some time around the solstice. Not for religious or principled reasons, but rather because that’s roughly when my internal clock tends to click over to a new year. I almost always end up thinking that a new year has started a good two weeks before the calendar starts agreeing with me.

Last year, two of my resolutions were to get a better job and to lose 100 pounds over the year to come. The first resolution was successful when, on Sept. 7th, I started an awesome new job at Amazon. I work on the Kindle Active Content team as an analyst and support engineer. The work has been challenging, exciting, fun, and rewarding. As part of taking the new job, I also moved across the state from Spokane to Seattle.

On the second goal, I managed to lose about half the weight I intended. 50 pounds in a year isn’t bad, and I figure I can keep this pace up for another twelve months.

As I mentioned above, I’m a recent transplant to Seattle, WA. I’ve visited the city several times, of course. (No one grows up in Washington State without making occasional pilgrimages to the Big City.) I’ve made the cross-state trip to visit relatives, see shows (Seattle’s music scene is one of the best in the country, and a very welcome addition to a state full of excellent music), and take in the sights. On my several visits, I always liked the city quite a bit.

Now, as a full-time resident, I absolutely love it. I love the culture and the climate; I love the music and the food; I love the size and the international feel of this place. Seattle is everything I love about living in a large city, combined with a decidedly unique, Pacific Northwest vibe that I really dig.

Looking forward to the next year, I’ve decided to get much more serious about some of my hobbies, and to focus on spending time cultivating habits that I know are good for me. One of the hobbies I want to focus on is my writing, hence my condensation and revival of my blogging. Blogging’s a far cry from writing fiction, but at least it gets my cursor moving to the right. I’ve also been working seriously on some short fiction (one story finished, two more drafted), as well as a novel.

I’m also planning to get back into sport shooting. I made contact with a group of shooters at work, some of whom participate in a weekly falling steel league that sounds like a lot of fun. I’ve got a Springer XD-45 that I was pretty handy with the last time I went to the range some *mumble mumble* months ago. So I’l definitely planning to get back into that in the new year.

On a somewhat related note, I’ve been getting really interested in the whole Quantified Self movement. As such, I’ve started restructuring my goals to be a lot more measurable and started taking a lot more metrics about myself. (Before I was only recording daily weight and, very occasionally, caloric/nutritive intake.)

The whole Quantified Self notion is really a new, more empirical spin an a much older idea. After all, people have been doing analytical self-measurement for centuries. Benjamin Franklin’s whole idea with the 13 Virtues, after all, wasn’t just they they be abstract notions to which to aspire, but rather that they represented positive values that could be tracked and improved. The point wasn’t inspiration, but metrics.

So anyway, I’m starting by keeping track of some of the low-hanging fruit kinds of things first. The sorts of things that already come with easy, empirical numbers attached to them. (E.g. weight, hours of sleep, chemical intake). Next I’ll probably start tracking mood, and some of the fuzzier, but possibly more important sorts of things.

I imagine that a lot of my initial measurements will end up being noise. Maybe the difference between two cups of coffee and four is so negligible as to not matter. Maybe there’s no correlation between my body weight and my sleep cycle. I imagine some of the metrics I track will end up being “orphans” uncorrelated with any of the measurements I’m trying to maximize, and so I’ll probably ditch them. That being said, the only way to determine which matter and which don’t is just to start measuring them and seeing.

Yes, there is a massive spreadsheet. Yes, I’m running regressions. Yes, I am a collossal nerd.

But, I’m a nerd working at a job I love in a city I’m crazy about with the love and support of a wonderful family, an incredible partner, and the best friends a guy could ask for.

2010 has been a hell of a great year, and 2011 looks like it might shape up even better.

I hope the same is true for all of you.

Happy New Year.

Aubrey de Grey on Aging

Aubrey de Grey's Beard

Pictured: Aubrey de Grey's beard, with Aubrey de Grey in the background.

I’ve always been a pretty big fan of Aubrey de Grey, and not just because the man has the sweetest beard in science. He’s also brilliant researcher, theorist, and presenter on the topics of radical life extension and negligible senescence. The video below is a great one-hour intro to his work. It doesn’t get terribly technical, and it does an excellent job of presenting the goals, current status, and potential benefits of de Grey’s research.

I was particularly interested in the Singularity-like argument he made with regards to life expectancy. While I do consider myself a Transhumanist, I’ve always thought the odds of the Singularity are vanishingly small. And even if something like the Singularity does happen, the odds of it looking anything like what its proponents claim are even smaller. All that being said, de Grey makes an interesting Singularity-style argument with his idea of Longevity Escape Velocity. A similar, much more naive, argument that I’ve heard goes like this:

In 1000 CE, life expectancy in the West was about 25 years.
In 1900 CE, life expectancy in the West was about 45 years.
In 2000 CE, life expectancy in the West was about 75 years.
Therefore, we’ve made more progress in the last century than we did in the 900 years preceding it.
Therefore, clinical immortality is just around the corner.

It’s perhaps a compelling argument, but not a particularly strong one. De Grey’s argument has the advantage of providing a plausible mechanism for this escape velocity (the development and iterative improvement of anti-senescent treatments) and provides a strong scientific grounding for why that mechanism is achievable.

In short, I think that if anyone is going to accomplish the (very noble) goal of putting an end to the deleterious effects of aging, I think that Aubrey de Grey is the most plausible candidate we have.

Bug, Not Feature

So in putting together that last post, I ran into an issue with WordPress. I wrote the post, pasted in the YouTube embed code for the videos I wanted, and hit publish. Imagine my surprise when the videos didn’t appear. A quick view source on the post showed that WordPress was actually stripping out my embed codes.

A little light Googling turned up nothing, so I fiddled with the parameters, double-checked my tags to make sure there were well-formed, and tried again. Still no videos.

Some more intense googling turned up a lot of people with the same problem, but no solutions and no response from WordPress. This was definitely a problem with newer versions of WP (I just upgraded this blog when I resurrected it), and someone noted that it affected users with the “Author” role, but not the “Admin” role.

Came back to the blog, bumped this account from “Author” to “Editor” status and tried again. Sure enough, the videos publish.

Now WordPress hasn’t said anything about this bug, and it’s been vocally reported in several versions of the software (since at least 2.7). This leads me to the stunning conclusion that either a.) they don’t think embedding multimedia content is important and, hence, this is a low-priority bug. So low-priority in fact that they’re not even going to comment on it, much less fix it. Or b.) they think it’s a feature.

A note to the WordPress development team. If a “feature” is both undocumented and annoying to your users, then it isn’t a feature. It’s a bug.

So to anyone out there whose youtube videos aren’t embedding in their WordPress posts because WordPress is stripping out the embed code, change your role from “Author” to “Editor” and that should fix your problem.

“ALAN ALAN ALAN ALAN ALAN AL ALAN!”

Some videos to tide you over until more content arrives. First, the Beeb redubs some nature footage:

Next up, dusting clays. With a golf ball. A lot of people can’t even do this with a 12-gauge and their eyes on the target. One of these guys manages it with a golf ball, while having to look down to focus on his swing.

Small World Moment

I had a total small world moment earlier today. I was driving back from the Tri-Cities, trying to beat snow that was forecast for Snoqualmie Pass, when my good friend Jon called. I went to college with Jon and he’s probably the person most to blame for me realize that I was secretly a libertarian. We talked for a little while, mostly just catching up. At one point, however, Jon asked me how it is that came to follow Timothy B. Lee on the Twitters. See, it turns out that Jon is friends with Tim’s brother, having gone to High School with him.

Well, you see, I don’t know Mr. Lee. I am, however, very good friends with Heather, who is in much the same line of work as Mr. Lee. Heather and I have been very close friends ever since high school. At one point, Heather linked me to an article that Lee had written for the Cato Institute. That had lead me to his twitter, I had followed him, since his worked seemed interesting.

So I know two different people, from different phases of my life, who both happen to know the same person in two entirely different ways. That’s odd enough, in and of itself.

But here’s where it goes from coincidental to Twilight Zone/Truman Show territory. See, I hadn’t talked to Jon in several months when he called, seemingly on a whim, whilst I was driving through the Selah hills. Not an hour earlier, I had been sitting in a Mongolian buffet in Kennewick, having just had lunch with Heather, who I hadn’t seen in almost a year. The topic of conversation? Her work in privacy. One of the names that came up? Timothy B. Lee.

So to recap: today I had lunch with a close friend I hadn’t seen in almost a year, then spoke on the phone with a good friend I hadn’t talked to in several months. These two friends don’t know each other. They do, however, both know Timothy Lee, in two different ways. Timothy Lee gets mentioned in both conversations.

I think Jung would call this syncronicity.

I call it a weird coincidence.

Punch line: as the world becomes increasingly connected, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be an appreciable increase in the frequency of events like these. The world, despite all our advances, isn’t getting bigger.

It’s getting much, much smaller.

Hackety-Hack is Backety-Back!

The title pretty much says it all: Why the Lucky Stiff’s excellent Hackety-Hack is back online. It got caught up in the wake of _why’s disappearance and was unavailable for some time. Well, thanks to the work of Steve Klabnik, of the excellent Changelog podcast, it’s back online.

This is definitely the best way to learn to program or even just to learn Ruby. It’s definitely worth checking out for anyone and everyone, regardless of your level of coding (in)ability.

The Economics of Culture

One of the unfortunate truths about economic development, is that it’s not just about the measurable, tangible parts of a national condition. A big part of economic development also comes down to culture. Writing in the January issue of Foreign Affairs, ├ôscar Arias makes the case that there are traits found in Latin American culture that inhibit growth and development in the region.

From the article (sub required):

Nearly two centuries after the countries of Latin America gained their independence from Spain and Portugal, not one of them is truly developed. Where have they gone wrong? Why have countries in other regions, once far behind, managed to achieve relatively quickly results that Latin American countries have aspired to for so long?

Many in the region respond to such questions with conspiracy theories or self-pitying excuses. They blame the Spanish empire, for making off with the region’s riches in the past, or the American empire, which supposedly continues to bleed it dry today. They say that international financial institutions have schemed to hold the region back, that globalization was deliberately designed to keep it in the shadows. In short, they place the blame for underdevelopment anywhere but on Latin America itself.

Arias goes on to identify four cultural traits which, he claims, are currently holding Latin American nations back from economic development: “resistance to change, absence of confidence, fragile democratic norms, and a soft spot for militarism.”

I’ve always been interested by the ways fuzzy things like culture impact issues of national development and success. I’ve long thought that America’s greatest economic asset (and a large part of the reason why we are currently responsible for about a quarter of the world’s GDP) is a culture of innovation and embracing social change. (This, by the way, is one thing that we share with Japan who has, for years, been one of the strongest economies in Asia. This might be coincidence, but I like to think it’s correlation. Japan, after all, is a culture obsessed with newness, innovation, and the future. For more on that, see this great essay on Japan by William Gibson.)

If there is a strong correlation between economic strength and cultural neophilia, then Arias’ comments about Latin America’s perpetual resistance to change seem like not only a credible critique, but a pretty damning one.

From the FA article:

Latin Americans glorify their past so ceaselessly that they make it almost impossible to advocate change. Instead of a culture of improvement, they have promoted a culture of preservation of the status quo. Constant, patient reform … is unsatisfying; the region accepts what exists, while occasionally pining for dramatic revolutions that promise abundant treasures one one insurrection away.

This quote also dovetails nicely with Arias’ comments on the regions persistent militarism. But what interested me was that this showed not only a disregard for progress, but also a simultaneous impatience with it. Not only do Latin American cultures look to the past rather than the future, they are also, according to Arias, impatient when the future they’re ignoring takes too long to arrive.

Contrast this with modern America or with the Japan as described by Gibson in the article linked above; people in both countries expect that things will change and improve over time and enthusiastically embrace such changes (no matter how gradual.)

We’ve now reached the point in the post where I make a massive and entirely unsupported leap. I’ve given two examples where having a future-oriented culture coincides with prosperity and one example where having a past-oriented culture coincides with stagnation. This is enough to hint at, though not establish, correlation.

But I genuinely believe that there’s a causative relationship at play. In fact, I think that some level of neophilia in a culture is a huge benefit to economic growth, since it inclines people to embrace new technologies, ideologies, and lifestyles. This encourages diversity in the economy, which in turn spurs competition, which leads to greater adoption of better ways of living. This drives efficiency and innovation, and hence growth.

Now, of course, I would love to be able to prove that. But other than simply identifying which countries I think have some measure of neophilia, versus those that are (for lack of a better terms) neophobic, and then plotting their GDPs, I wouldn’t know how to go about it. As such, I’ll follow in the proud tradition of math and CS books everywhere and leave the proof as an exercise to the reader.

Of course there are other interesting explanations for this correlation, should it exist. One is that economic progress, in fact, causes neophilia. Perhaps seeing the fruits of economic growth leads people to wonder what else the future might hold for a developing nation and, as such, fosters amongst its populace a more forward-looking culture. This could explain, for instance, the 1950s obsession with science fiction and futurism. A post-war nation in the middle of the economic boom, which was seeing incredible scientific and technological developments and was in the middle of one of the biggest standard-of-living increases in its history, might naturally look to the future with wonderment and desire.

Similarly, perhaps the relationship between forward-looking culture and economic progress is in some sense reciprocal. Maybe neophilia and economic progress share at least one sufficient condition (e.g. strong individual liberty).

Maybe the correlation is purely incidental based on cultural imitation. I.e., those nations that are currently best-off are neophilic. They trade with a variety of other nations, and this trade brings about increasing prosperity for this trade partners. In addition, this trade ALSO helps spread cultural traits, including neophilia. This would mean that neophilia is, in some sense, a noise artifact cause by trade with wealthy countries that just happen to be neophilic.

One last thought on this occurs to me. If one grants as true that cultures exist on a spectrum in terms of their levels of neophilia, then there might be a global analog to Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations curve1. Some technology (e.g. the cellphone or, per Patri Friedman, the technology of Liberal Democracy) gets invented in one nation and is early-adopted by wealthy, future-oriented countries. It then diffuses to wealthy, but future-neutral countries, then eventually to poorer and neophobic nations adopt it last.

Of course this is all just speculation, and exceedingly hard to prove. Still, I am fairly certain that the relationship between cultural neophilia and economic prosperity is not only real, but causative. As it stands, there seems strong evidence that, at least in the case of Latin America, suspicion of the new has helped lead not to stability and security as come wish to suggest it would, but rather to poverty and conflict.


^1 For more on this topic, see Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations. Then, if it’s any good, let me know because I’ve been meaning for years to read it, but haven’t ever gotten around to it.^

“Evolution is a process too slow to save my [blog]”

Okay, so it became pretty apparent that the multiple, topic-specific blog thing flat wasn’t working. There wasn’t enough time nor energy in my day to keep all of them alive at once. As a result, I am henceforth merging my music and general blogs into my code blog.

Why merge them into the code blog?

Honestly: because I like the URL the best.

And no, I’m not kidding.

As a result, this blog with now contain my Internet writings on, well, everything. A short, but woefully incompletely topic list:

  • Music
  • Books
  • Science
  • Philosophy
  • Politics
  • Firearms
  • Coding
  • Video Games
  • Autobiography
  • General Nerdery

So please stick around. Update your feed readers and book marks. And settle in for what may be a wild ride, but will probably just be an exceedingly odd one.

Return top

Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.