The WELL is independent again

The WELL, an online community that predates the World Wide Web, has been purchased by a group of its members.  The WELL began as a dialup bulletin board system in 1985 and was bought by during the tech boom of 13 years ago.  Salon fell on hard times (recall its ill-fated IPO) and recently found it necessary to sell The WELL.  A group of WELL members formed an investment group, and purchased the service from Salon effective yesterday.  Here's a charming document describing how The WELL bought itself.

In an age where discussion forums are anonymous and fleeting, The WELL is characterized by long-term membership by passionate, engaged people.  The 11 members who formed the investment group have been on The WELL for an average of 20 years.  Think about that.

Congratulations to The WELL.  I'm glad it will continue.  It adds something to my life that I couldn't easily find elsewhere.  And if nothing else, The WELL can take care of itself.

Fear of an Earworm

I'm halfway through the article "Fear of a Black President" by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the latest issue of The Atlantic.  It's an insightful and probing discussion of how Barack Obama's race has affected his presidency.  But the most memorable thing about the article so far, for me, is the author's name.

When I became aware of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a cultural critic a few years ago, I assumed the author was a woman.  There's something vaguely feminine about the prefix "Ta" and the ending "isi".  In the discussion of this latest article - I read about the article before I actually read the article - I learned that Coates is a dude.  OK, fine.  Filing away that fragment of cognitive dissonance, I dug into this important cultural artifact. 

Mr. Coates points out Obama's embrace of his race:  his unabashed blackness in preferring one rap star over another, in being photographed while a little black boy feels his hair.  These are cultural signals, and they're emanating from the highest office in the nation.  All previous emanations from that office signaled white culture.  Shades of white, from the Stepford-meets-Mad-Men Kennedy White House to the we-mean-business-but-we-horse-around-too presidency of Bush the younger, but all white.  Barack Obama is black, and the fact that he enjoys it and doesn't feel obligated to hide it is revolutionary for this nation.

How, then, does one pronounce Ta-Nehisi?  I'm pretty sure I've got Coates down, but ... tah neh HEE see? tah NEH heh see? 

I read, too, about Trayvon Martin's death and how the tenor of the national conversation about it changed after Obama addressed the issue.  All he said was 'if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon' and 'let's understand exactly what happened here, understand everything and investigate everybody'.  And suddenly what had been an uncontroversial tragedy became racialized political fodder. 

TAH neh hissy?

The name floated through my head while I chopped vegetables, while I drove to work.  It nagged me like an earworm, like a child's choir singing Go Tell It On The Mountain in my head endlessly.  Race relations in America faded into the background.

Some people have excellent visual memories.  My memory is audible.  To dial a phone number, I read it out loud to myself and speak it back as I dial (usually sotto voce).  If I just look at the number, no matter how long, I forget it by the time I've dialed the third digit.  I'm good at remembering how to pronounce words and names.  I need to know I'm saying it right.  It bothered me when my Chinese coworkers wouldn't even tell me if I was pronouncing the name of their damn city correctly (for the record:  Quanzhou = "chen-zo").  So it drove me nuts not knowing how to pronounce this name that was so foreign to me that I couldn't even deduce its gender.

Finally I had an idea.  Tennessee.  Whenever I think of this author, I am mentally going to pronounce his name Tennessee.  Like Tennessee Williams.  Or not so much.  But anyway:  problem solved.  LA LA LA LA LA LA LA.  Now I can go finish the article, and find out how Obama can be black in some ways but not others, unburdened by questions of pronunciation.

Gooooo tell it on the mooooountaaaaain....

Gotye at Nautica, er, Lakewood High School

"Somebody I Used To Know" was at full viral fever level when tickets went on sale this spring.  We paid Ticketbastard, err, Live Nation $50 plus $13 fees per ticket for two decent seats, assuming it would sell out fast.  Evidently it didn't, because they ended up playing on a stage that normally hosts talent shows featuring pimply jugglers.

Our first clue was that several weeks ago Groupon offered tickets at half price.  Consternated would describe my reaction.

Our next clue was not when we went to Live Nation's website and downloaded and printed out the tickets on the day of the event - nope, the site and tickets said Nautica.  Nor did we receive an email - they might have sent one, but apparently as far as our spamfilter is concerned, Live Nation's credibility is comparable to that of ads for discount pharmaceuticals.  No, our next clue came when we were looking for other bands to see, and we stumbled upon a second concert listing for Gotye, on the same day, in a different venue.  *rolls eyes*

What happened?  Did Nautica get sick and have to stay home?  Did Lakewood make them an offer they couldn't refuse?  Based on the attendance we saw (a whole lot of people sitting in cheaper seats behind us, and about 50% butts in the more expensive seats in front of us) Nautica would've been empty.  My guess is that Nautica charges the band a lot of money for the privilege of playing there, and the band moved to Lakewood to cut costs.

We had seats either way.  Lakewood's were even padded, though the amount of kneeroom they provided would have shamed a Third World airline.  And no beer.  That's right, I remember now, THERE'S NO BEER IN HIGH SCHOOLS.

So, the show:  the sound was quite good - I could even understand the lyrics, which is rare.  I enjoyed almost all the music (but see below).  They had captivating video material going on a movie-sized screen at the back of the stage; they must have had several artists make videos to play along with the songs.  They played "Somebody I Used To Know" with the female part sung by the lead singer of the opening act, because Gotye is estrogen deficient.  The only significant negative was the spotlights slashing across my retinas repeatedly.  Seriously, guys, that's obnoxious.  For a couple songs I didn't dare open my eyes.  I can still remember my field of vision filling with peach-pink as the glare burned through my eyelids.

If Gotye reminds me of a band, it's Talking Heads, in their heyday of quirky pop and suspension-of-disbelief lyrics.  Gotye used instruments ranging from up-to-the-minute (programmable touchscreens like those pioneered recently by Bjork) to historical (the Suzuki Omnichord from the mid-80s).  There was a lot of percussion.  They were literally tripping over drums on that stage.

The videos got me thinking.  They were in time with the music, so that could mean they perform the songs exactly the same way every time - or that they brought the videographers along with them to tweak the videos when they want to change the way they play a song.  A lot of bands do use road trips to refine their songs, and this would prevent Gotye from doing that.  Or, it could mean that the videos were in short pieces, and the pieces were triggered by one of those up-to-the-minute tabletty things.  (Which is yet another job the keyboardist has to do.)  That would allow them to rearrange the songs at will.

But, as I mentioned, I only enjoyed *almost* all the music.  The last three songs of the encore were something different entirely.  By that point, I had gotten used to Gotye's brand of weird, so when the home stretch was really ordinary instead, I was completely thrown.  It was major-key crowdpleasing arena rock.  It was like the '80s Top 40 came back to life for fifteen minutes.  And the crowd loved it.  Alice turned to me and actually asked if our intelligence was being insulted.  I said no, but I wasn't sure I wanted to find out what came next.

And then the show was over.  What a trip.

A Venn diagram: my next car

The problem with Corvettes is, once you buy one, you become a Corvette Owner.  A lot of people say the same about BMWs, but I like the cars so much I'm willing to let people assume I'm a jackass and learn otherwise later.

But seriously, the candidates for the bullseye position are:  (a) used Hyundai Genesis Coupe, or (b) rather-more-used Infiniti G35.

There are, of course, other circles not pictured:  Reliability, Wife Acceptance Factor, etc.

AssholeDirectory dot com

I've got a great idea for a website:  Asshole Directory.  It's a user-maintained online database of people who are assholes.  Feel free to build it and cash in.

My wife had her lunch ruined by just such an asshole today.  Sitting at the bar at B Spot, she was accosted by a righteously indignant know-it-all who expounded on subjects such as the likelihood that her medium rare hamburger contained parasites, dead baby jokes, and how computers are bad.  In a perfect world, her parting remark to this miserable shit would be "by the way, what's your name?  OK thanks, I'm going to submit you to the Asshole Directory."

Users of the website would upload Assholish Behavior Reports identifying the name of the offender.  They would list the transgressions and, if possible, the date and location.  Other users, upon meeting someone and learning their name, would surrepititously check the Asshole Directory to gauge the quality of their new acquaintance.

Also, there would be an app.

Sure, it would be possible to abuse the system, but if Wikipedia can come to some kind of stalemate over global warming, we can at least provide some information about people.  Whaddyathink?

Fiction: Uptight

Cyrus's nose had been useless since he moved to Muskegon.  The paper mill had long since closed, but people said it was the kind of town that deadened the senses anyway.  His friends had abandoned wild hairstyles and clothes, moved past tattooing, and taken up piercings and implants in an arms race of personal branding.  The pavement cracked; their psyches thrashed.

They said he was uptight.  He resisted their jaded scarification.  Inwardly he reeled when Ethel became a junkie as a fashion statement, but at the bar Cyrus pursed his lips and nodded with everyone else.  He felt the emperor had no clothes, but who would listen?

He took to driving the battered streets after the early bars closed.  They said the Midwest was a post-industrial wasteland, but the bricks felt warm to him.  At least the buildings let the bindweed grow on them.  Nothing grew in his broken social scene.  As he rolled past the fences he felt watched, or perhaps looked upon.  It wasn't the buildings' glassless spectacles regarding him.  Maybe it was the Milky Way.  Muskegon no longer put out enough light pollution to drown out the stars.

Sometimes, as he drove, the crickets would go silent and Cyrus would sense a presence.  Above him there floated an ambivalent deja vu.  The hair would stand up on the back of his neck.  Would they take him away?  Would they show him a different place to be, a different way to be?  If they did, what could he do?  Nothing:  his friends' condescending grins would lock him out forever.  They could never change, even as they burned with the pace of their fashion.

I wish that they'd swoop down on a country lane late at night when I'm driving.
They'd take me on board their beautiful ship and show me the world as I'd love to see it.

DIY: USB wall plates

Have you ever wished you could plug a USB device directly into your wall to connect it to a computer somewhere else?  Wireless USB basically doesn't exist.  So I got some generic wall plates and USB inserts.
Pro tip:  connect the wires and make sure it works before you drill any holes.
In my kitchen, I have a laptop that's used for recipes, Internet radio, Netflix, etc.  We have a nice stereo sitting on top of the cabinets, but getting the sound up to the stereo meant having wires hanging down.  That's ugly and it got in the way.  I solved the problem by putting a USB hub up there (with a USB audio output) and running the USB cable from the computer to the hub through the wall.
The bottom plate (with old paint showing around the edges)
At the countertop level, I decided to repurpose a hole in the wall for a phone jack we weren't using.  Above the cabinets, I figured I could safely put the other plate a couple feet to the side.  Nope:  I forgot that the wall contained vertical boards (studs) that the drywall is screwed to, and there was at least one stud to the right of my upper plate that would prevent the wire in the wall from going sideways to reach the lower plate.  (That, of course, was after the first set of holes I drilled ended in solid wood up there, forcing me to drill a second set and patch the first.)  It wasn't going to be pretty up there.

Once I realized the upper plate was going to have to be roughly above the lower one, I drilled a third set of holes and tried lowering the cable from above.  I hit what appeared to be a *horizontal* board in the way inside the wall.  Exhausted, I packed up my tools and gave up.  That was January.  On Sunday I picked it back up again, and realized that (a) the horizontal board didn't block off the whole interior of the wall, and (b) the wall was insulated.
The top plate, with extra holes I had to patch
At this point I resorted to the ultimate homeowner hack:  a straightened coathanger.  I pushed it up from the lower hole, and its tip barely came out of the upper hole.  I attached the bottom end of the USB in-wall cable to the top of the coathanger with electrical tape and was able to pull the cable down through the insulation.  At that point all the wire connections were functional, and all I had to do was screw the plates to the wall.  Done!  Well, except for patching and painting over all the extra holes up there.

RSS for work and play

RSS is a technology for subscribing to blogs (or changes to any other website).  That may sound like something only a database administrator could love, but it helps keep my professional work relevant:  it provides context.  Without it, I run the risk of becoming out-of-touch or too highly focused.

I used to follow RSS feeds just for entertainment.  Recently, though, I've subscribed to several useful kinds of RSS feeds related to my work, and I want to share how I set them up. 

Google Alerts:
If you log in to your Google account, you can click "alerts" on the main page of all Google services, or simply go to  There's a screenshot above.  A Google Alert simply monitors the Google search of whatever keywords you specify, and notifies you when something new is available in the results.  For example, instead of doing a Google search for "U2 new concert dates" every day to find out where the band will play, you could subscribe to an alert and let it notify you.  I've used it to search for press releases about my field.

Google Blog Search:
Google Blog Search is essentially a Google search that only returns results from blog postings.  This is useful for excluding commercial pages from your results and getting an outsider's perspective.  You subscribe to it through Google Alerts, but you pull down the "Result Type" menu and select "Blogs".  Unfortunately I've found that there is still a lot of what amounts to advertising in the results - blogging is free, so many vendors set up multiple blogs with posts automatically generated to describe their products.

Scientific publishing houses:
For me, this has been a grand slam.  Once I left the national laboratory system and its free access to the technical literature, it became very difficult to follow new developments in my field.  I was thrilled that scientific publishing houses like Elsevier and Wiley provide RSS feeds of new articles with any terms you like appearing in the article's title or introduction.  For me, the feeds have been rich, with an excellent signal-to-noise ratio.  If you're not a scientist, the equivalent might be the publishers of the trade journals for your profession.

Professional societies:
Whether you're an accountant or a structural engineer or a massage therapist, you probably have a professional society.  And it probably has a blog.  Whether you're a member or not, subscribe to find out what the hot topics are.

In some of these cases, RSS is taking over the function of the good old-fashioned email newsletter.  The difference is that I've chosen what content I want to receive, rather than relying on a curator to compile what they think is relevant to a mailing list. 
There's a trap that professionals sometimes fall into where their work provokes the response "this solves a problem I don't have".  You may recognize the tendency in academics and artists, where they become so deeply specialized that nobody outside a handful of their fellow professionals can comprehend, let alone use, their work.  Remember the mathematician who proved Fermat's Last Theorem a few years ago, despite Fermat having died 350 years ago?  Yeah, me neither.  Only maybe five mathematicians in the world were qualified to judge whether or not he had succeeded, and his work was relevant to no one.

Tracking these RSS feeds has made me much more in touch with what's going on in my technical community.  It's also given me a broader understanding of how advances in my field are relevant to others.  I felt some of the news was worth sharing, so I'm sending my coworkers a monthly newsletter (yes, I created a mailing list).  It's a little like blogging, and so far, people like it.  Not only that, but I've come up with more potentially patentable ideas in the last six months than in the preceding three years.  Reading about what other people are doing has really gotten my creative juices flowing.  Give it a try!

Return of the 125,000 mile curse

I like my car.  Or, I should say, I liked it.  I am not a superstitious person and there are very few inanimate objects I'll ascribe intentions to, but I think my car is trying to make me hate it.

My cars have what you might call a 125000 mile curse:  at that point they either break beyond repair, get totalled in a crash, or (rarely) get traded in while still functional.  I swore it'd be different this time.  My Mazda3 suits me very well, and it should be capable of 175000 miles if not more.  So when it reached 125k, I put $2000 into it to fix an engine mount and work on the brakes and suspension.  I thought that should keep the car on the road for another three years, at which point the inexorable advance of rust would claim it.

Almost immediately after the brake and suspension work, the squeaking and rattling came back.  Can I get from point A to point B?  Yes.  Enthusiastically?  No.  I have to admit that driving past people in a car that is audibly in need of repair makes me feel *bad*.  I can ignore that problem by rolling up the windows.  However, earlier this summer my air conditioning began to flicker on and off.

Two weeks ago my turn signal stopped shutting itself off after right turns.  The windshield wipers have been whacking loudly against the metal beside the glass for the last 40,000 miles.  The A/C is unreliable.  It squeaks like a bus and rattles like a coffee can full of rocks.  And the rust is spreading. 

And yesterday it wouldn't start.

It may be time to trade in this sled.

The mechanic says the only thing wrong is the battery, but I know:  it doesn't like me.  It wants to go sit in someone else's driveway.  Maybe I'll grant its wish.

Ancient Chinese science fiction

When we think of science fiction, what comes to mind is space operas and barely-credible technologies.  It's very much a genre of the modern age.  But could science fiction have existed in other times and places?  When the Chinese invented gunpowder, what kind of future technology might they have imagined?

Fantasy (fiction) has always existed.  Think of the Epic of Gilgamesh - it's one of the oldest examples of literature of any kind, and although people had a different relationship with their myths than we do today, surely nobody took it as literal truth.  Fantasy is born out of an incomplete understanding of the physical world; the stories are narratives to fill in the gaps and possibilities opened up by not-knowing.  Why does the Nile flood every year?  Let's make up some supernatural beings--with personalities like ours--to explain it.

The genre of science fiction, by contrast, dates back only to the late 1800s and the rapid evolution of mechanical design that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.  Jules Verne and H.G. Wells caught the imagination of a lot of people.  It was born when a generation saw so much technological change that they began to expect change, and they began to wonder what changes the future would bring.  They speculated. 

That notion got me to wondering:  could science fiction have evolved alongside other surges of technology?  In the medieval Arab world, when they mastered the distillation of alcohol ("al-kohl"), did they cure some disease and invent some new kind of boat at around the same time, leading people to wonder what was next?  Was there speculative fiction in ancient China when they pioneered papermaking and invented the compass?

The thing is, "fiction" as we understand it today - as leisure reading for entertainment - is a product of the age of the printing press and of disposable income and time.  Gilgamesh, on the other hand, was probably pregnant with symbolism and lessons for members of Mesopotamian society; I imagine it was required reading.  Literacy rates were low and everybody was busy just surviving, so stories had to be important to be passed on.  So with some disappointment I must conclude that it's unlikely that science fiction flourished in the silicon valley of the Orient.  There would have been no audience, and it wouldn't have been thought important enough to write down.  Too bad.

The Chinese auto industry is exporting ... jobs

In a turnaround that makes me dizzy, The Truth About Cars reports that one of China's largest car companies is looking to build cars in Brazil and Russia.  What do they know that we don't know???

Let me get this straight.  The world goes to China to build stuff.  Heck, my company has plants there; I've visited them.  Virtually every automaker I can name is feverishly working to scale up production plants in China and establish joint ventures with automakers there.  On top of the cheap labor advantage, that old Henry Ford magic is creating a booming domestic market in China for the cars built there.  So why would a Chinese car company choose to manufacture anywhere but in China?

I can speculate on a few answers.  First of all, cars are heavy.  It costs money to ship cars to their buyers; putting the plants where the customers are reduces costs.  It also gets around import taxes.  Remember how expensive Hondas and Toyotas were in the 1970s and 80s compared to Detroit iron?  They weren't more expensive to build, they cost money to import.  Another reason for Chinese companies to build cars elsewhere is to avoid boom-and-bust cycles in individual countries:  if business isn't great in one part of the globe, another region might keep you in the green.  For example, right now, Chrysler's strong sales in North America are offsetting its parent company Fiat's losses in Italy.  For a contrasting example, Mazda is hurting because all its production is in Japan, where the high value of the yen relative to other currencies makes it a losing battle for them to sell cars overseas. 

China's extraordinary climb from an inward-looking land of half-starved peasant farmers to a modern nation with a middle class has brought with it a lot of surprises.  The Chinese leadership knows that their country cannot be a manufacturing economy indefinitely, no matter how good they are at it.  There is a growing emphasis on "knowledge workers" in the form of advanced degree programs at universities and other efforts.  And now, evidently, Chinese companies are willing to have other people build things for them.

Sometimes it helps to leap without looking.

The Grog Shop and the Beachland Ballroom feel like home to me.  I've been saying for a while that I could probably show up at those venues on any random night and enjoy myself regardless of what band was playing.  Recently, without really intending to, I tested this idea.

A few weeks ago I was making plans for a free Friday and selected Hoots & Hellmouth at the Beachland on the strength of a blurb that praised their inventive songwriting.  The two opening acts were kind of country-tinged, but I've been exposed to "alt-country" before and I expected the main act to be more "alt".  Nothing in the show's description gave any suggestion that this was going to be Country Night.  But Hoots & Hellmouth were unmistakeably a country band.  The thing is, they were tight.  I don't see too many bands--rock, country, jazz, whatever--that can stop on a dime like these guys did.  I was impressed.  And I had a good time.
Last night I went to the Grog to see Cantankerous Dingos, who were described as "experimental alternative rock". That sounded like something I'd enjoy, and my evening was free, so I went over.  I saw the third and fourth of five (!) bands on the bill, and concluded that this was Metal Night. 

I was wearing plaid unironically (I'd been doing yard work), but for once, I was the only one there thus attired.  I thought it might be a joke when I walked in and heard the third act's sound check:  the vocalist's mic check was "RRUAAARRRAGGGH MMNORRRSCHH FFLAAAUUUUUGGH...."  But no, he really uh sang like that.  Nonplussed, I hung around for the main act.  But about one beer in, I realized that behind the vocalist, the music was highly organized, syncopated, mathematically precise rock.  It was, in a nutshell, prog with screaming.  The fourth act (see video below) was actually very good.  They were real showmen.  And for the whole night, the musicians comported themselves with a bizarre mixture of joking around and taking the proceedings way too seriously.  Seems like metal fans and musicians are a close knit community.
Of course, in either case, I could have looked up the main act on Youtube and found out what I was in for without leaving the house.  But then, I probably wouldn't have left the house, and then how would I know how entertaining a metal show can be? 


Bonus:  local venue Now That's Class wins the award for booking bands with the most amusing names
  • Puffy Areolas
  • Homostupids
  • Deathamphetamine

How important is face-to-face friendship?

An article in The Atlantic this month discusses the counterintuitive notion that Facebook might be making us lonelier.  Much has already been said about this, but one thing caught my eye about it:  the idea that face-to-face communication is the only kind that counts.  Err, OK.

John Cacioppo, author of the book Loneliness, asserts that communication on the Internet allows only surrogate intimacy, which cannot make up for the absence of a face-to-face confidante.  Now, I haven't read his book, so I'm receiving his argument secondhand (he didn't write the article), and it may be more nuanced than that.  And to be fair, we're talking about the closest kind of friendships, those where you can discuss anything.  Still, the absolute nature of the argument bothers me - that Facebook is good for you when you use it to arrange to meet friends, bad for you when you use it to avoid meeting friends, and otherwise neither good nor bad.  I've written plenty about the importance of getting out and meeting face-to-face (see links within this post), but I find this a little over the top.

Cacioppo's implication is that there is no value in exchanging ideas with other people via a keyboard.  I've phrased it that way deliberately:  communication is exchanging ideas.  (Sure, if you meet face to face you can also exchange bodily fluids, but that's a whole different question.)  History has given us an ever-expanding list of options for communication:
  1. In person
  2. Writing a letter
  3. Telephone
  4. Internet chat or real-time text messaging
  5. Videoconferencing
In person, you can communicate via the literal English meaning of your words, via the tone, timing, and emphasis of your words, and by gesture and posture and touch.  The other modes of communication rule out one or more of those kinds of information.  The only thing that can only be done in person is touch.  Does that mean it's impossible to maintain an intimate friendship via videoconferencing?  How much meaning do we normally convey to our closest friends through touching them?  I'm not convinced it's all that much.  I'm willing to believe it's important, but is it irreplaceable? 

I think we can all agree that a balanced life is a better one.  I've argued many times that getting out and meeting people face to face is important.  But let's not discount what can be conveyed with pen and paper.  Otherwise a whole lot of English majors might get irate.

Realistically Titled Manila Folders

When I was in grad school, my boss had a file folder with "USELESS INFO" written on the tab.  We ridiculed him, but I thought it was a refreshingly honest assessment.  Here are some more - you probably have some like this in your own desk, but with less candid names.
  • Solutions for Problems that Don't Exist
  • Plans that will Never Get Executed
  • Paperwork I Want to Forget About
  • Expensive Fantasy Projects
  • Time Bombs
  • Clear-Headed Visions Nobody Wants to Hear
  • Job Security for Some Bureaucrat Somewhere
Do you have any to add?

What do those function keys do?

There's a row of keys on my laptop with little blue symbols on them.  If you hold the blue "Fn" button and press one of these keys, interesting things happen.

Summon Alien Invasion:

Make Laptop Larger than a House:

Raise and Lower the Half Moon:

and lastly, my favorite...
Break Computer:

Is music hardwired?

I present for your consideration two videos.

One:  dogs playing the piano.  No, really:  they hear notes and then play them.

Two:  a human audience singing notes corresponding to the places where Bobby McFerrin lands as he jumps back and forth on a stage.

Coincidence?  I think not.

My P90X Experience So Far

My wife is doing a 90-day fitness program called P90X, and I'm her workout partner.  I was already doing regular cardio and a little upper-body strength training, and I could use some flexibility, so we agreed this whould be a great way for us to be active together.  Now, I am a 6' 150lb guy with 11 inch biceps.  So here's how it's gone so far.
Day 1:  "Plyometrics" (lower body), 60 minutes
It was 5AM.  I hadn't had any food or water in 10 hours, and I'd been sweating all night in bed, so I was probably dehydrated, but I just went along.  There was a lot of squatting, lunging, and jumping.  At first it was easy, but after 20 minutes I had trouble doing all the repetitions.  At 30 minutes I was seeing spots and tasting blood, so we quit.  Conclusion:  I overdid it. 

That day I ordered a heart-rate monitor with one-day shipping so that wouldn't happen again.  My legs felt pretty worked out, not like noodles, but tired.
Day 2, shoulders and arms, 60 minutes
Getting out of bed, I discovered what the "P" in P90X stands for:  pain.  My legs could barely support my weight.

With lower body exercises, your body weight is all the resistance you need, but your shoulders and arms need dumbbells.  We didn't have any.  All I had was some small plate weights that fit onto bars, but the heaviest one I could keep a grip on was 8lb.  At the end of 60 minutes I hadn't broken a sweat.  Note to self:  buy some dumbbells.  Also, the instructor kept talking about writing down how much weight we were using and how many reps, but our package didn't come with hard copies of the lists of exercises.  Alice and I shrugged and chalked it up as a learning experience.

I spent the day in meetings, my legs gradually tightening, gritting my teeth every time I had to stand up or walk.  Every fifteen minutes, I pulled a knee to my chest or straightened my legs to stretch.
Day 3, yoga, 90 minutes
My first experience with yoga was like a Marx Brothers movie.  I must have looked like a newborn giraffe on drugs.  I've never felt so bewildered by my own body.  Namaste, bro.  Now get back up.

There were many poses where you're supposed to stand on one straight leg and hold the rest of your body in a certain way; lacking flexibility, I couldn't straighten my leg, which forced me to use my burning thigh muscles to support my weight.  Still, the stretches I was able to do felt good.

Conclusion:  I have no flexibility and terrible balance.  Clearly, I stand to benefit a great deal from this.  No wonder I can't dance.  Also, we need yoga mats:  the synthetic carpet allowed our hands to slide and gave Alice rugburn. 

As in the previous routines, there was a fair amount of squinting at the television trying to figure out what the hell he was doing.  It was worse this time, because three of the four trainers were wearing black pants.  It was impossible to tell which of their legs was in front of the other on the video.  Especially since my glasses won't stay on my face when I sweat.  Tactical error, sensei.

Throughout the day, my legs hurt whenever I got out of a chair.  I couldn't take stairs two at a time.  Patience, grasshopper.

Day 4, legs and back, 60 minutes
I knew I was in trouble when I got out of bed and my legs still hurt from the workout three days earlier.  Today's leg workout was more lunges.  I decided to be moderate and just stop doing reps when I felt my legs weakening.  That got me about a third of the way into most of the sets.  But we at least got through the whole hour, got our heart rates up, and familiarized ourselves with it.

What they call back exercises was all pull-ups.  Now, we don't have a pull-up bar, and we can't bolt anything to the ceiling, so we did a lot of standing around while they did chinups on the video.  Eventually I started doing bent-over-rows and other assorted lifts during those pauses.  I guess I'll have to jerry-rig a chinup bar in a doorway.
My take-away from these first few days is:
  1. The approach is "muscle confusion", but at first there will be an equal amount of mental confusion as you try to figure out the right way to do each move.  That's OK, you'll improve with familiarity.
  2. You can't do as much as the trainers, and you won't look as good as them doing it, but do it anyway.  Forgive yourself for your terribleness.
  3. You need some equipment or it's not going to be difficult enough, and if it's not difficult enough, it won't have any effect.
  4. If you overdo it, you'll take too long to recover, and it'll interfere with your ability to do the following days' exercises.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Subaru R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

Even H. P. Lovecraft could be terrified in the passenger seat of a Subaru BRZ.
I want this car.  It's a stripped-down, affordable sports car:  light and tight, with rear wheel drive and modest horsepower.  What's wrong with other sports cars?  They're either too expensive or they don't handle well enough.  In most cases, the money goes into pointless horsepower.  The only exception to that is the Mazda Miata.

The public regards the Miata as a convertible "chick car", but I'll bet there are more Miatas with roll cages bolted into them than any other model of car.  There are *several* spec-Miata race series, several regional and national Miata racing clubs, and several aftermarket companies offering any kind of performance parts you care to bolt on.  It is precisely this community that the BRZ, and its cousin the Scion FT-86, hope to target.  And I love my wife's Miata.

The privilege and exclusivity of academia

I knew that when I left the world of academia and became an industrial scientist, my relationship with the rest of my field would change. I knew I wouldn't be writing so many papers, but I thought I'd still have access to what others had written.  This week I had an experience that showed me how hard it really is for the general public to get access to science as it happens, and what a privilege it is to be a professor.

I needed some data about what results to expect from an experiment a coworker had done.  When I was in school or worked at the national laboratories, I could look that information up in a database at my library.  (I'm referring to the database that I discussed in a previous post.)  The database costs thousands of dollars a year, but that's nothing for a national laboratory employing 900 PhD's.  The University of Michigan had a subscription, but I was shocked to discover that Case Western Reserve University does not.  They have a pretty good materials science graduate program there, so I expected them to carry it.  My company pays for a third-party service to search intellectual property databases and the technical literature, but they didn't have it either.  It looks like in order to get the data that I need to make a comparison between our experiments and a model, I will have to drive to Michigan and visit the library in Ann Arbor.  Or ask a favor of a colleague.

A similar thing happens with what I've called the technical literature.  That's all the peer-reviewed articles that have been used for hundreds of years to present new scientific results in journals.  As an industrial scientist, I depend on keeping abreast of new developments in my field, and looking up solutions to old problems.  In academia, that was trivial:  universities maintain digital subscriptions to the major journals, so I could just download articles from my desk.  At my current job, our third-party service can alert me to new articles I should read, but they won't retrieve them for me.  I have to go to a library that has a subscription to that journal and photocopy it.  If no local library has it, I have to pay the publisher $30-45 for a copy.

Why?  Databases and journals cost money.  The five or so major scientific publishers have been raising subscription prices at a rate that far outstrips inflation - something like the rapidly increasing price of an undergraduate education.  They can get away with it because it is very close to a single-payer system.  Very few private libraries subscribe to these journals; the places that do are major corporate research labs like IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.  The entire national laboratory system's subscriptions are paid for by the US Government, and ultimately most public and private universities' subscriptions are too, through research grants.  They ask for more money and the government pays, and the government doesn't try to do too much about it because of the publishers' lobbying power.  Who loses?  The general public, and the thousands of less-than-immense corporate research labs, like mine, scattered throughout the US. 

I came away from this experience with a strong sense of why technology companies are concentrated in cities with major research universities.  It's the library.  There are some scientific problems that just can't be solved without one.

Hardwired for abstractions

Recently I was part of a discussion about whether a particular musician's work was art or schlock.  Someone commented that those who call it schlock are members of the same class of self-appointed arbiters of taste that pollute every artistic field. 

And I thought, yes, the leaders in every field of human endeavor, not just art, maintain their lead by constantly creating new abstractions, forcing others to learn them.  Trading coconuts for bananas became gold currency which became paper currency which became credit which became junk bonds which became packaged mortgages.

And that's what I suspect differentiates genetically modern humans from other species:  we are hardwired for abstractions.  A successful quest for food or sex leads us to continue pursuing the winning strategy.  In apes, it ends there.  But in humans, we're saddled with self-awareness, which forces us to create a worldview.  Every success or failure has to be integrated into that worldview with an abstraction, or else it makes us feel anxious that we don't know how the world works.  So:  I killed the deer because I left a heap of apples for it to eat.  I got laid because I used that cologne.  These explanations give us a handle on what to do next.  They might be utterly wrong, but they dispel the angst of believing we're ignorant.

This post was an abstraction.  But was it art or schlock?

Confidence and trust when presentations fail

We're never surprised when an inexperienced coworker puts up a chart that doesn't make any sense or fails to prove their point.  But we expect better from scientists.  And when a scientist puts up a bad graph in a professionally produced brochure, while trying to sell data to other scientists ... well, it's a cautionary tale.  When this happens, should you merely lose confidence in the presenter or actively distrust them?  Let me go through a few of the rules of data visualization with the help of a counterexample from the International Centre for Diffraction Data
Click for big.  [from]
The ICDD sells a database called the Powder Diffraction File which is used by crystallographers.  Here, they've plotted the size of the database (which they call its "value") on the left Y axis, and the price on the right Y axis.  Time is on the X axis, so you're looking at history from left to right.  The first problem here (common to all double-Y graphs) is that it takes effort to sort out which line corresponds to the numbers on which side.  The blue line corresponds to the numbers on the left Y axis, but you can only learn that by finding the word "Entries" in the legend and then finding the same word along the left Y axis.  They should have attached an arrow to the blue line, pointing leftwards.
The second, and most glaring, problem is that the Y axes don't start at zero.  Look folks, whenever you make a bar chart or a scatter plot or anything where vertical position implies "more", the bottom should be "zero" unless you have a damn good reason for it not to be.  I don't care what Excel's defaults are, it doesn't communicate effectively and it can be actively misleading.  In this case, zero entries is no database, and zero price is free, which is exactly what the ICDD is competing against.  As it is, I can't really tell how much the database costs today, except that it's somewhere between $3000 and $8000. 

Probably.  The 2011 list price could actually be more than $8000, because "$8000" is the second of eight labels on the right Y axis whereas the red line treads below the second of only seven horizontal lines across the graph.  AAAARRRGGH.

Fourth, I have to ask why the right Y axis goes up to a price of $38000 when they don't sell anything worth more than $8000.  (Probably.)  Should they have started the right Y axis at zero and topped it out at $10000?  Probably. 

The truth is, what they did is they plotted the number of "entries" and got a nice looking upwards slope.  Then they they plotted the "price" and got two noisy, up-and-down but vaguely increasing swaths across the middle of the plot.  So they jacked up the maximum value of the "price" axis until the list price of the first data point, 1987, sat on top of the number of entries for that year.  Hence the seemingly random top price of $38000.  For the minimum on the price axis, they either left Excel's default nonzero value, or they actually changed it from zero to $3000 to make their prices look smaller.  I can understand that they're trying to imply that as time has gone on, users have actually gotten proportionally more value (entries) for a given price.  But in order to make a proportionality argument, you have to put a straight line through zero ... and zero is off the bottom of this plot.

Putting yourself in your audience's shoes and presenting information well is a learned skill.  Failing to do so makes you look like an amateur, which is forgivable but doesn't build your audience's confidence in you.  It's worse to fail to be honest about how well the actual numbers support your interpretation of them.  That manipulation erodes your audience's trust in you, which is almost always a more valuable asset than winning a particular argument.