Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 12th, 2012

Watch 15,000 heat record highs for March be broken

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Thanks to TYD for this:

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Robert Gonzalez at io9 reports:

Data collected by NOAA reveal that the month of March saw a total of 7,755 daytime and 7,515 nighttime record-breaking high temperatures, making last month far and away “the warmest March on record.”

The video featured up top shows the locations of each daytime and nighttime record (or tied record) in sequence, over the course of the month. It’s absolutely staggering.

For more information, check out NOAA’s State of the Climate Report, which reveals that the first three months of 2012 were also the warmest on record for the contiguous U.S., with an average temperature of 42.0°F — that’s 6.0°F above the long-term average, and 1.4 degrees higher than the all-time record. According to the Washington Post, these records are usually broken by just one- or two-tenths of a degree.

Other highlights from the report include:

  • Twenty-five states, all east of the Rockies, had their warmest first quarter on record, and an additional 16 states had first-quarter temperatures ranking among their ten warmest.
  • Numerous cities had a record warm January-March, including Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. No state in the contiguous U.S. had below-average January-March temperatures.
  • Alaska had its ninth coolest January-March period; temperatures were 5.2°F below average.
  • The nationally-averaged precipitation total for January-March was 0.29 inches below the long-term average. States across the Pacific Northwest and Southern Plains were wetter than average, while the Intermountain West, parts of the Ohio Valley, and the entire Eastern Seaboard were drier than average.
  • NOAA’s U.S. Climate Extremes Index, an index that tracks the highest 10 percent and lowest 10 percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought and tropical cyclones, was 39 percent, nearly twice the long-term average and the highest value on record for the January-March period. The predominant factor was the large area experiencing extremes in warm daily maximum and minimum temperatures.

[NOAA State of the Climate Report]

Are the denialists still claiming it’s all a hoax? And have they joined forces with those who say the moon landings were staged in the Nevada desert?

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 5:57 pm

Interesting doings at Johns Hopkins

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The Eldest sent me this link—some fascinating stuff underway. Watch the slides through one cycle (there are about a dozen—14, by my count) to get an idea of the range, then click the “Read more”s for those of interest.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Science

Enjoyable series: Life (two seasons only)

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I just finished watching the 32 episodes of Life that were made. (The entire series is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.) I really enjoyed it and got caught up in it, and was looking around, hoping for Season 3, when I checked the Wikipedia article and found that it had been canceled after two seasons. Too bad, because it really was quite enjoyable—some shows had their languors, but overall it delivered. So it goes.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Movies

Information-management software

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I, like James Fallows, am fascinated by software that handles information well. My all-time favorite was Lotus Agenda, Mitch Kapor’s inspiration that Lotus simply didn’t know what to do with, but what a fantastic piece of software (pre-Windows: runs under MS-DOS). Next is Microsoft OneNote, but that’s Windows only—but a dynamite piece of software that every Windows user should know about. (James Fallows was consulted during the design, BTW.) I haven’t found just the right thing for the Mac, though I’ve been using Evernote heavily for book notes.

Take a look at this post by Fallows. It has some excellent links including a comparison of Brain V. 7 (for Windows) and Tinderbox (for the Mac).

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 11:57 am

Posted in Software

The future of computer games

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A fascinating article in the Atlantic—read the whole thing. This video is from the article, which begins:

LIKE MANY WEALTHY people, Jonathan Blow vividly remembers the moment he became rich. At the time, in late 2008, he was $40,000 in debt and living in a modest San Francisco apartment, having just spent more than three years meticulously refining his video game, Braid—an innovative time-warping platformer (think Super Mario Bros. meets Borges), whose $200,000 development Blow funded himself. Although Braid had been released, to lavish praise from the video-game press, on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service that August, Blow didn’t see a cent from the game until one autumn day when he sat down at a café in the city’s Mission district. “I opened up my Web browser and Holy fuck, I’m rich now,” he recalled. “There were a lot of zeros in my bank account.”

Blow’s similarities to the average millionaire end right there, however, because unlike most wealthy people, he seems faintly irritated by his memory of striking it rich. When Blow told me, during a typically metaphysical conversation in a park near his Berkeley office, that his windfall was “absurd,” he didn’t mean it in the whimsical “Can you believe my luck?” sense; he meant it in the philosophical, Camus-puffing-a-cigarette sense of a deeply ridiculous cosmic joke. “It just drives home how fictional money is,” Blow said, squinting against the unseasonably bright December sun. “One day I’m looking at my bank account and there’s not much money, and the next day there’s a large number in there and I’m rich. In both cases, it’s a fictional number on the computer screen, and the only reason that I’m rich is because somebody typed a number into my bank account.” For the world’s most existentially obsessed game developer, coming into seven figures just provided another opportunity to ponder the nature of meaning in the universe.

Which is not to say that Blow has forsaken his wealth. As Braid grew into a bona fide phenomenon in its first year—selling several hundred thousand copies, winning armloads of industry awards, and becoming Exhibit A in the case for the video game as a legitimate artistic medium—Blow made several upgrades to his austere lifestyle. In place of his old Honda, he now drives a $150,000 crimson Tesla Roadster, a low-slung all-electric automotive dynamo that offers a highly realistic simulation of being shot out of a cannon whenever Blow clamps down on the accelerator. And after a yearlong victory lap filled with lectures and laurels, he moved into a spacious hilltop condo that overlooks the eastern half of the city as it slopes down to the sapphire-colored bay.

Yet aside from his electric car . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 10:54 am

Rules for eating in restaurants (for those who like food)

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Very interesting article (with a video) by Tyler Cowen at the Atlantic:

A BAD OR MEDIOCRE meal is more than just an unpleasant taste, it is an unnecessary negation of one of life’s pleasures—a wasted chance to refine our palates, learn about the world, and share a rewarding experience. Virtually every locale offers some good meals at a good price. But too often, amidst the clutter of our days, we don’t find them—at least not consistently.

I’ve been an economist for some 30 years, and a foodie for nearly as long. In this time, I’ve learned that by applying some basic economics to my food choices, I can make nearly every meal count. I’ve also realized that a lot of the best food is cheap. Herewith, a distillation of what I’ve learned about dining out, in six simple rules.

In the Fanciest Restaurants, Order What Sounds Least Appetizing

At fancy and expensive restaurants (say, $50 and up for a dinner), you can follow a simple procedure to choose the best meal. Look at the menu and ask yourself: Which of these items do I least want to order?  Or: Which one sounds the least appetizing? Then order that item.

The logic is simple. At a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out. The kitchen’s time and attention are scarce. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good.

Many popular-sounding items, on the other hand, can be slightly below the menu’s average quality. For instance, you should be careful not to get too enthusiastic about roast chicken, especially if you are in a restaurant that, like virtually all restaurants, does not specialize in roast chicken. Roast chicken is an exceedingly familiar dish, and many people will order it to experience the familiar. Consider the incentive this provides the chef. And consider that a few items may be on the menu specifically because they are generally in demand, not because the chef cooks them with special brilliance.

So order the ugly and order the unknown. You’ll probably get a better and more interesting meal.

Beware the Beautiful, Laughing Women

When I’m out looking for food, and I come across a restaurant where the patrons are laughing and smiling and appear very sociable, I become wary. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 10:49 am

Posted in Business, Food

Obama Administration says it will make no changes to drug policies regardless of facts

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Joe Biden pretty much said that the facts and findings of studies are unimportant, presumably because the policies are not based on or derived from facts but are simply empty political positions that nonetheless wreck millions of lives. When you have policies that are not going to be changed regardless of facts that surface, you have something extremely bad—as we see. Philip Smith reports on how the rest of the world is getting fed up and refusing to go along with the US and its irrational drug laws:

In just a couple of days, President Obama will fly to Cartagena, Colombia, to attend this weekend’s Organization of American States (OAS) Sixth Summit of the Americas. He and the US delegation are going to get an earful of criticism of US drug policies from Latin American leaders, and that makes it an historic occasion. For the first time, alternatives to drug prohibition are going to be on the agenda at a gathering of hemispheric heads of state.

It’s been building for some time now. More than a decade ago, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle became the first Latin American sitting head of state to call for a discussion of drug legalization. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox joined the call, albeit only briefly while still in office through some media quotes, much more frequently after leaving office in 2006. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya issued a similar call in 2008, but didn’t move on it before being overthrown in a coup the following year.

Meanwhile, drug prohibition-related violence in Mexico exploded in the years since President Felipe Calderon called out the army after taking office in December 2006. As the savagery of the multi-sided Mexican drug wars intensified and the death toll accelerated, surpassing 50,000 by the end of last year, the call for another path grew ever louder and more insistent.

In 2009, a group of very prominent Latin American political leaders and public intellectuals led by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, calling for a fundamental reexamination of drug policy in the hemisphere and a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and regulation of black markets. That was followed last year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes the Latin American ex-presidents, as well as former Switzerland President Ruth Dreiffus and other prominent citizens such as Richard Branson and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, echoing the Latin American Commission’s call for reform.

As the commissions issued their reports, the violence in Mexico not only worsened, it spread south into Central America, where governments were weaker, poverty more endemic, and violent street gangs already well-entrenched. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in particular, saw homicide rates soar in recent years, well beyond Mexico’s, as the Mexican cartels moved into the region, a key transit point on the cocaine trail from South America to the insatiable consumers of the north.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the secretary of defense under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and a man who knows well just what a sustained war on drugs can and cannot achieve, has been among the latest to pick up the torch of drug reform. Santos has made repeated statements in favor of putting alternatives to prohibition on the table, although he has been careful to say Colombia doesn’t want to go it alone, and now he has been joined by another unlikely reformer, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a rightist former general who campaigned on a tough on crime agenda.

It is Perez Molina who has been most active in recent weeks, calling for a Central American summit last month to discuss alternatives to drug prohibition ranging from decriminalization to regulated drug transit corridors to charging the US a “tax” on seized drugs. That summit saw two of his regional colleagues attend, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamian President Ricardo Martinelli, but no consensus was achieved, no declaration was issued, and three other regional leaders declined to show up. But that summit, too, was a first — the first time Latin American leaders met specifically to discuss regional drug law reform.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by policymakers in Washington. Vice-President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, State Department functionaries and US military brass have all been flying south this year, reluctantly conceding that drug legalization may be a legitimate topic of debate, but that the US is having none of it.

“It’s worth discussing,” Biden told reporters in Mexico City last month. “But there’s no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization. There are more problems with legalization than non-legalization.”

But along with discussing an end to prohibition, the Latin Americans have also offered up proposals between the polar opposites of prohibition and legalization. Options discussed have included . . .

Continue reading.

Biden’s comment that there are more problems with legalization than non-legalization is completely empty: devoid of facts, reasoning, or content. It reveals a shallow, flippant attitude toward a serious problem, and his declaration that that facts will not influence policy decisions, though refreshingly honest, is breathtakingly stupid: “wooden-headed” doesn’t touch it.

We now have people running our country who will explicitly say that their actions and policies will not be influenced by facts. This is not “decline”, this is “jumping off a cliff.”

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 10:43 am

Economic Sociology: Five books discussed

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The “Five Books” interviews at TheBrowser.com are wonderful. Here’s another on a topic of great interest to me:

The author of The Architecture of Markets says it’s important to understand social aspects of economic behaviour, particularly when times of crisis reveal shortcomings of traditional economic theory

Economic sociology is our topic. Please explain this hybrid discipline to those of us unfamiliar with the field.

People tend to make an artificial separation between what they do in economic life and what they do in the rest of their lives. Economic sociology breaks down the distinction between those two things. For example, if you think about what’s important in your every day it’s the people you know – your family, your friends, your colleagues. Market and economic processes rely on those things as well. So the same kind of things that matter to you every day matter in the way that markets operate.

Will you distinguish between the classic era of economic sociology, whose hallmark was the work of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, and the contemporary work of economic sociologists such as yourself.

Durkheim provides a great deal of inspiration for the field. Some schools of economics say society is little more than a whole bunch of contracts. Durkheim pointed out that society confers the binding force behind contracts, which would otherwise be just a bunch of words. He was also interested in how the division of labour helped produce modern society. There are Durkheimian elements in a lot of what we modern economic sociologists do. Durkheim probably operated a little more at the macro level than contemporary economic sociologists, who often focus on particular markets.

Weber, of course, emphasised the importance of cultural factors in the development of capitalism. But he saw economics as somewhat separate from sociology. Modern economic sociologists, have empirically verified, by looking at real existing markets, that we rely on trust for markets to work, that there are no anonymous actors, that price setting doesn’t adjust all the time, and that there are profound information problems – all of the things that aren’t supposed to happen in markets according to the neoclassical view. Weber was willing to erect a barrier between the social and the economic. That barrier has been knocked down.

What is the distinction between economic sociology and socioeconomics?

There are a variety of fields that have different ways of examining how social and political factors impact the way markets works. People mobilise different disciplines and concepts to examine economic life.

Let’s go to the examinations of economic life in the five books you have selected. Currency seems like a good place to start our discussion of economic sociology. Please tell us about The Social Meaning of Money, by Princeton’s Viviana Zelizer. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 10:30 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Places not to live, sinkhole group

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Avoid living where sinkholes suddenly appear. Doesn’t Florida have this problem in some areas? Andrew Kramer reports in the NY Times:

BEREZNIKI, Russia — Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian fertilizer tycoon who in February bought the most expensive apartment ever sold in New York City — the $88 million penthouse at 15 Central Park West — may have done a lot for real estate values there. But here in this old mining city in the Ural Mountains, where he made his fortune, not just property values, but properties too, have been plunging.

Sinkholes are common hazards in mining regions, plaguing areas where miners have burrowed into layers of soluble minerals and accidental floods have followed. But in Berezniki, as often happens in Russia, the problem has been magnified by past practices in which safety was not always the foremost concern.

In the West, mines are usually located far from populous areas, to reduce the risks of sinkholes to homes and other buildings. But Berezniki, a city of 154,000 that began as a labor camp, was built directly over the mine — a legacy of the Soviet policy of placing camps within marching distance of work areas.

And so Berezniki is afflicted by sinkholes, yawning chasms hundreds of feet deep that can open at a moment’s notice. So grave is the danger that the entire city is under 24-hour video surveillance. On a screen in the command center late last year, one such hole appeared as a small dark spot in a snowy field in the predawn hours, immediately threatening to suck in a building, a road and a gas station.

“I looked and said, ‘Wow, a hole is forming,’ ” recalled Olga V. Chekhova, an emergency services worker who monitors the video. This was a small one by the standards of Berezniki, which has had three in the past four years. In fact, it has since been called “The Tiny One.”

While scientists have so far successfully predicted each sinkhole, the chasms can open with astonishing speed. On Dec. 4, as Ms. Chekhova watched the dark spot on her screen expand, witnesses began calling an emergency number for reporting sinkholes. They had heard a loud swooshing noise.

As the police cordoned off the area that day, dirt and snow tumbled in. Before noon, the sinkhole was 25 yards across.

Berezniki’s problems have been traced to October 2006, when a freshwater spring began flowing into the mine, where potash fertilizer is extracted from salt lying 720 to 1,500 feet below the surface. The problem is that the walls and pillars of salt that miners had left to support the ceilings of huge underground caverns began to dissolve.

“Imagine putting a sugar cube in a cup of tea,” Mikhail A. Permyakov, the chief land surveyor for Uralkali, the company that owns the mine, said in an interview. “That is what happened under Berezniki.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 10:26 am

Posted in Daily life

Good examples of clear thinking by governments

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Governments occasionally do things quite well—and things that could be done in no other way (businesses would not do them because of no pay-off, for example). James Fallows posts some letters pointing out some excellent things from Down Under:

 An American reader based in Australia writes:

I hope you also noticed:
•    that prostitution is legal, unproblematic, regulated, organized, and therefore much less obtrusive than it is in the US.
•    that gambling is also legal, with slot machines in every “hotel”, but that unlike prostitution this remains very problematic and controversial.
•    that the institution of the “hotel” (for what we would call a tavern) arises from an ancient requirement that establishments serving alcohol must also provide lodging, to avoid disgorging drunks onto the street.  While the legal requirement has fallen away, classic “hotels” still have this feature.
•    that in New South Wales, the legalization of small, quiet wine bars serving alcohol without food — as distinct from the noisy “hotels” — occurred only in 2010.  During that debate, as I recall, the head of the NSW Hotels Association was quoted as saying:  “Really, who in the world would want to sit with a glass of chardonnay and a book!”
•    that nobody likes to talk about the fact that the entire economy rests on digging up rocks and selling them to China.
•    that mining companies expect to be praised for their cleverness simply because Australia has lots of rocks.
•    that the plastic currency doesn’t deterioriate or tear the way paper currency does.
•    that despite the levelling pretenses of Australian culture, there is considerable bandwidth for both erudite and artistic broadcasting on both TV and radio, especially through SBS and the ABC, and that it’s accepted that national radio should have an educational function.  Aussies generally believe that it doesn’t hurt to learn more stuff in the course of life, and that when the radio offers to teach you something objective and useful, that doesn’t mean they have a “left-wing bias.”

As someone who’s lived in Australia and remains deeply ambivalent about the tradeoffs of living there as opposed to here, I thought you’d value those notes.

All this rings true to me, notably the fact that both the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) have unembarrassed “educational,”  “cultural,” and “public service” aspirations like those of the “educational TV” channels, precursors of PBS, that I remember from boyhood.

Another:

Your simple ideas post immediately brought to mind what was a totally mind blowing thing from my trip several years ago to NZ: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 10:20 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Shaving comparison

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Interesting video. I have a few quibbles—my blades cost me 9¢ each, not 20¢ each—but on the whole well done.

Yesterday I had a LONG interview with a researcher hired by Procter & Gamble to find out why guys were flocking to traditional wetshaving products. The focus was on prep, so P&B must be rethinking the canned shave lather formulations that use propellants. It was an interesting conversation—in the course of it, I was struck by how the shaving brush sort of allowed us authorship of the lather. It’s the same idea as boxed cake mixes: they could easily be formulated so that you just add water, stir, and bake, but the manufacturers require you to add a cup of milk and an egg (typically). They do that because they found out that people did it anyway in order to view the cake as something they themselves made, not just something they dumped out of a box. Pillsbury and the others decided to go along with the desire for the “cook” to do some little thing to mark the product as his or hers.

The brush does that because with the brush you take away some of the soap or shaving cream from its original container, and on the brush it’s now yours—it no longer belongs to the soap/cream manufacturer, because here it is on your brush. And now you use it as a raw material to make something: lather. So suddenly you’re the creator, not P&B or whoever made the soap/cream.

With the canned lather, you do nothing: you’re just a spatula, in effect: squirt ready-made foam into your hand, smear it on your beard—where’s the creativity? the art? the joy?

So we’re having an effect. Whether P&G can change corporate culture to do something new is iffy: all those at P&G who have power achieved it under their current way of doing business, and such people tend to resist changes. Creating a learning organization is difficult and generally such a culture will last only a brief while.

Here’s the video that prompted these thoughts:

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 9:57 am

Posted in Shaving, Video

A young entrepreneur

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Thanks to The Eldest for passing along this video:

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You can donate to his scholarship fund—why not toss a dollar or two his way? Or, if you’re feeling generous, the price of a grande latte?

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 9:45 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Toys, Video

Nancy Boy makes great stuff

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The shaving cream has darkened some in color over the years, but still does a great job. The little Vie-Long horsehair brush was mostly used to spread the cream around and massage my beard, not really working up a lather since this is not a lathering shaving cream—but it has a terrific fragrance and does a great job. Three passes of the DLC Weber with a Bulldog handle, using a newish Astra Superior Platinum blade, then a small drop of Institut Karité 25% shea butter aftershave balm, and I’m good to go. Once dressed, of course.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2012 at 9:39 am

Posted in Shaving

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