Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Exploiting my Thirty Minutes of Fame

Someone recently posted, somewhere online, a picture of me playing World of Warcraft while listening to a talk at the International Students for Liberty conference last weekend. It got quite a lot of attention, including, I am told, "over 5,000,000 click rate and 10k SHARE" in China.

My guess is that there are two things going on. One is that people who already know of my existence see this as evidence that I am a real person, not some academic off in outer space somewhere. The other is that people who have been told by their parents or other authority figures that playing WoW is a juvenile activity and a waste of time see the picture as evidence on their side of the argument.

My son Bill, having observed the phenomenon online, suggests that I ought to find some way of taking advantage of my temporary fame. His only idea was setting up an AMA on Reddit, something I might do if I can figure out how—I have done two AMA's in the past, but both were arranged by other people. 

This post is an alternative approach. If lots of people are (briefly) looking at me, the obvious thing to do is to point them at things of mine that I would like them to read and that they might enjoy reading:

My web page, with lots and lots of stuff on it, including links to the full text of several of my books and most of my articles.

The third edition of my first book, The Machinery of Freedom (Kindle. The hardcopy will be available shortly on Amazon).

Harald, my first novel. EBook version. Free podcasts of it, read by me.

Salamander, my second novel. (Kindle. The hardcopy of that will also be available shortly on Amazon)

And for any who share my interests in recreational medievalism, two books coauthored with my wife:

A Miscellany. Free pdf. Hardcopy.

How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes. Free pdf. Hardcopy.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Wanted: A Better Shower Controller

Taking a shower this morning I was struck, not for the first time, by how badly designed the mechanism for controlling the temperature is. Turn it a little to the right and the shower is uncomfortably hot. Turn it just a little back to the left and it is uncomfortably cold.

What is going on is pretty clear. The controller maps its position to the amount of hot water in the mix in a roughly linear fashion. All the way to the left is straight cold, all the way to the right is straight hot, any intermediate position is a proportional mix.

In practice, almost nobody wants a cold shower or, unless the temperature of the hot water is pretty low, a straight hot shower. What almost everyone wants is a mix within a fairly limited range—say from .6 hot to .8 hot—with the exact range varying both with the temperature of the hot and the cold water and the preferences of the person taking the shower.

Imagine, to make life simple, that the controller has a handle that can be rotated through an arc of a hundred degrees. In the simplest version of my improved controller, the zero degree position is still pure cold, since there may be some masochists who like a cold shower to wake themselves up in the morning. The hundred degree position is still pure hot, since the water heater might be malfunctioning and producing only lukewarm water. But the first ten degrees of rotation map into the range from 0 hot water to .6 hot water. The final ten degrees map into the range from .8 to pure hot. The other eighty degrees of rotation cover the range from .6 to .8, giving me much better control over the temperature in the range I care about. A slightly improved model, designed to take account of variations in the temperature of the hot and cold water in different houses and hotels, has an adjustment that shifts exactly where the central range is, used once and then left alone unless something changes those temperatures. 

For the Silicon Valley market we have the intelligent version, which keeps track of what temperature the user actually takes a shower at and adjusts its central range accordingly. Its high end variant allows for up to four users with different tastes in shower temperature. Step into the shower, tell it which you are, and it automatically chooses a mapping that makes it easy to control the temperature over the range you care about.

For the next generation, we have the thermostatic version, which maps the setting of the controller not to the amount of hot and cold in the mix but to its temperature. Turn on the shower and for the first few seconds nothing is coming out, because the "hot water" isn't—it has cooled in the pipe between the water heater and the shower. When the temperature of the hot water reaches the level set on the controller, the shower turns on. Thereafter it adjusts the mix to give the temperature it is set for. As in the previous versions, the position of the controller maps to the temperature of the water in a non-linear fashion, designed to use most of its range to cover the range of temperature that the user cares about.

Do any of these already exist?

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Should I Throw Out Books?

I do not like to throw things out and my house has a full basement, so from time to time I pack things for which I have no use, now or in the foreseeable future, into plastic boxes, label them, and lug them down to the basement. That includes old magazines, obsolete computer gear, and books. Two boxes worth just this evening.

The implicit theory is that some day, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now, a future occupant, perhaps a descendant, will find what I have stored of interest. In some cases the idea is not entirely implausible. The LNW80, for instance, that was my first computer, might be fun to play with for a future kid with an interest in gadgets and the history of technology, and similarly for my vectrex game machine. 

But what about books? My younger son reads them as kindles on his phone. There are lots of people around, of course, who still prefer to read books as books, one reason I have just been converting two of mine, currently available in the form of Kindles, into print on demand hardcopies. But will there be lots of such people fifty years from now? I doubt it. And if there are, there will also be a lot of old books for them that nobody else wants.

Which makes me think that instead of putting books I will never read in the basement, perhaps I should put them in the trash. But I don't have the heart to do it.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Better than Facebook

For many years I spent a lot of time in conversation and argument on various Usenet groups. Eventually Usenet began to fade, with groups losing members and activity, and I shifted much of my online interaction to Facebook and G+. 

Facebook has an enormous population and a lot of different interest groups represented, but the average quality of the conversation, in my experience, is pretty low. That became particularly clear in climate arguments, where most people on both sides were more interested in cheering for their team and badmouthing the opposition than in understanding the arguments, science and evidence. One illustration was an error that I discussed in an earlier post. Someone posted a link to a video of an experiment that supposedly proved that CO2 was a greenhouse gas. Believers in AGW supported it, critics attacked it, and almost nobody realized that the experiment, even if done perfectly, did not support the conclusion—because almost nobody, in a discussion centered on global warming, understood how the greenhouse effect works (for details see my earlier post).

Not all of Facebook is that bad, of course. The SCA groups contain a good deal of interest and a higher ratio of light to heat. And if one finds someone who is both reasonable and an active poster, friending him and following his posts can be worth doing—although even then the quality is pretty variable.

I think I have now found a better venue for online argument and conversation. I mentioned in an earlier post a blog, Slate Star Codex, by an unusually able, energetic and fair minded poster. It turns out that not only does he write interesting essays, he also attracts a pretty high quality of commenters, making the comment threads interesting conversations, sometimes interesting arguments. Once it occurred to me to read the latest essay, for which the comment thread was still open, instead of whichever old essay looked most interesting, I had a brand new way of interacting with interesting people online.

Not only does Scott write interesting essays and attract interesting people, some of them write interesting essays as well, as I discovered by following a link in a comment thread to this one.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Word Processor Advice Wanted

I have been trying to get the third edition of Machinery of Freedom done and have encountered problems coming from what appear to be bugs in Microsoft Word 2011 Mac. They include:

My sections have the headers set up as different first page, different odd and even pages. The program shows odd numbered pages as even, even as odd. This isn't a big problem in itself, since I can always adjust formatting accordingly, but I suspect it is evidence of a bug that is causing more serious problems.

The program sometimes inserts an invisible page, so that page number 16 is followed by page number 18. If I save as pdf, the invisible page shows up as a blank page in the pdf.

The program insists that the page number for a page I want to number 4 must be either 3 or 5. If I adjust the starting number for the page by 1, the number that appears changes by 2.

It's possible that with enough kludges I can work around all these bugs, although I have spent quite a lot of time so far trying without success. But I'm worried that even if I manage to produce a pdf to send in that appears correct, some one of the bugs will keep biting me. For one thing, judging by past experience, the proof copy of the book will have multiple errors that need fixing, despite all my efforts to get it right in advance, and every time I change anything ...  . Hence this post.

1. Is any of my readers sufficiently expert in Word to diagnose the problem from my description? I will be happy to send the first chunk of the book, which shows the problem, to anyone who is. 

2. Alternatively, do people have suggestions for an alternative word processor that I should switch to? Desiderata are:

Can import from Word keeping most of the formatting reasonably close to the same.

Does indexing and table of contents. It would be a big help if the words marked for indexing in the Word document stayed marked when the file was imported to the new word processor. 

Lets me format page numbers and headers in a way that alternates which side of the page the number is on, so that it is always on the outside edge.

My final recourse would be to simplify my layout until it is so simple that Word can get it right, but I would prefer not to do that if I don't have to. The current layout is designed to look reasonably similar to the second edition, although not identical. 

On another topic ...  . If Anarchei is reading this, would he please get in touch? As I explained in a comment on an earlier post that he may have missed, he and one other person did the covers I liked best and I want to correspond with both of them about the possibility of improved variants.

P.S. I eventually solved the problem, in part by noticing that "Format Document" had a "section start" option and tinkering with that.  As best I can tell, all bugs are now out of that particular document. I sent the pdf in to CreateSpace and am now waiting for my proof copy.

Thanks to everyone for suggestions.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, the New York Times, and Tribal Politics

I have seen and heard a good deal of talk about the decision by the New York Times not to reprint cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. The official explanation is that they do not want to offend their Muslim readers. Their critics point out that they have been willing to publish things offensive to other groups of readers in the past, and attribute the policy to the fear  that publishing the cartoons might result in violent attacks on the Times or its staff. They go on to argue that refusing for that reason is, if not admirable, at least understandable, but that the Times ought to have the honesty to admit that that is what they are doing.

I think both explanations are wrong. What is really going on, as I interpret it, is tribal politics, as described by (among others) Dan Kahan and Scott Alexander, both of whom I have linked to in the past. A considerable part of the U.S. population identifies with either the red tribe (Republicans, conservatives) or the blue tribe (Democrats, liberals), choosing positions and interpreting evidence accordingly. 

Both tribes are, of course, opposed to Muslim terrorism and the murder of journalists. But the blue tribe version amounts to "Muslim terrorists are bad people, but we should not let their offenses prejudice us against the vast majority of Muslims who are not terrorists or give us a negative opinion of their religion." The red tribe version concedes that not all Muslims are terrorists but sees Muslim terrorism as part of an us vs them conflict, with "us" the west and "them" the Muslim world. The same split shows up in views of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The blue tribe, or at least its hard core members, sees the Palestinians as the oppressed, the Israelis as the oppressors. The red tribe sees the Israelis as part of us, the Palestinians as part of them.

The New York Times is the nearest thing the blue tribe has to an official organ. The Charlie Hebdo case is a red tribe story. The Times cannot deny that it happened, cannot refuse to cover it, cannot defend the killers. But it also cannot identify with victims who, from its (unstated) point of view, were on the wrong side of the red/blue split over Islam, deliberately provoking Muslims with their cartoons.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Evidence of how Stupid Partisanship Can Make You

An online friend well to my left, one of the more reasonable people I argue with on FaceBook, recently posted the following. The link is from


Could this be more stupid? No. No, it could not.


After listening to the video and failing to persuade him that host said nothing of the sort, that the post and his response were evidence not of her stupidity but of how eager partisans are to think badly of members of the enemy tribe, I made a transcript of the relevant part of the conversation:

Host: “We are now going to bring in a former FAA insider saying that the different way other countries train their pilots may be the real reason Air Asia flight  has gone missing. Joining us now on the phone is former FAA official Scot Brenner. Scot thanks to be with us.”

Scott: “Good morning.”

Host: “Let’s talk about the differences. I mean even when we think about temperature it’s Fahrenheit or Celsius. It’s kilometers or miles. You know, everything about their training could be similar but different, right.”

Scott: “Correct. Yeah, what I think you see it could be a large reliance on automatic pilots and the requirements that pilots use that automatic pilot … “

Host: So it’s not just differences in the way we measure things, it’s difference in the way our pilots are actually trained. Is it not as safe in that part of the world …
The host offers differences in measurements as a simple example of difference, with no suggestion that that particular difference was responsible for the crash. Which doesn't prevent not only multiple left-wing web sites but my pretty reasonable friend from reading into it what they think she must have meant. And claiming she said it.

Stupidity, yes. But not of the host.