Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why Do I Set My Clock Fast?

We've had the same clock hanging in the kitchen for something like ten years. And for ten years I've set that clock five minutes ahead. I know it's five minutes fast, my wife knows it's five minutes fast, so what possible use is it?

Obviously none at all.

Yet I continue to do it and will probably do it for the rest of my life, because it has now become a sort of superstitious ritual. God knows we could use an extra five minutes in the morning, but I'm sure we'd adapt to it just as we adapt to daylight savings time.

Speaking of DST, Russia, in surely the smartest legislation ever passed by any government ever, has been on permanent DST for two years now. If it's going to be dark most of the time, I'd rather have that extra hour of light in the afternoon than the morning, although I think the argument for going off summer time is to make it safer for kids to walk to school in the morning. Obviously I don't care about that because I hate children.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Paleolithic People Were Better at Depicting Animal Gait

Via Discoblog, an interesting paper by Horvath et al comparing cave painting depictions of animals to modern paintings before the invention of photography and the influental pictures of Eadweard Muybridge*. Not terribly surprising that the cave paintings were more accurate. But rate of accuracy perhaps is:
We have analyzed 1000 prehistoric and modern artistic quadruped walking depictions and determined whether they are correct or not in respect of the limb attitudes presented, assuming that the other aspects of depictions used to determine the animals gait are illustrated correctly. The error rate of modern pre-Muybridgean quadruped walking illustrations was 83.5%, much more than the error rate of 73.3% of mere chance. It decreased to 57.9% after 1887, that is in the post-Muybridgean period. Most surprisingly, the prehistoric quadruped walking depictions had the lowest error rate of 46.2%. All these differences were statistically significant. Thus, cavemen were more keenly aware of the slower motion of their prey animals and illustrated quadruped walking more precisely than later artists.

Here's an image from the paper, a sketch by Leonardo DiCaprio from the set of Titanic:

Okay, it was the other famous of the Leonardi. The gait shown by da Vinci in (A) and (B) with two feet on the ground simply doesn't happen with actual horses. And these sorts of incorrect gaits are seen with much less frequency in cave paintings. Even if the rest of the animal in the typical cave painting doesn't have the amazing execution of a genius like da Vinci. Of course, the cave masters weren't exactly drawing in the most ideal of conditions.

I find it pretty interesting that da Vinci got it wrong. Sure the guy was a polymath who didn't spend all his time observing animals, but horses were as much a part of life back then as cars are to us today. And let's face it, the guy was a genius, perhaps the greatest genius ever.

This doesn't detract from da Vinci's genius so much as it reinforces the fact that our paleolithic ancestors had a very deep understanding of the animals they observed and hunted daily. Keep that in mind the next time you hear some vegan claim that animals weren't an important factor in the paleolithic diet.

*Speaking of  Eadweard Muybridge, the guy shot his wife's lover in the heart and skated with justifiable homicide after she apparently conceived the lover's child.

Extreme Peacocking

Saw this yesterday walking my kid home from school:

A hummer limo is ridiculously ostentatious anywhere, but it's really off the rails in Prague where so many of the streets are windy, narrow cobblestones. Not to mention the cars and trucks double parked everywhere, narrowing the passage even further. And to top it all off, it is so long as to strike me as structurally unsound. Doesn't it need a pair of wheels in the middle to take some that center load? I guess that's the whole point of Veblenesque conspicuous consumption.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Screwed By The Cluster Effect

Ever noticed how a KFC will be located across the street from a McDonalds? Or all the car dealers in town will be in the same area? This is known as the economies of agglomeration effect in economics, a sort of cousin of the economies of scale effect.

In my neighborhood we have an agglomeration effect, but the sector is banking, which is the most useless business I can think of from a neighborhood resident standpoint. There are five banks on my block alone, and a couple more down the street, invariably replacing useful retailers like restaurants, food shops, etc. In fact, one of the banks (Raiffeisen) with a branch on my block bought out another bank with a branch across the street, and they kept both branches open--which just shows that banking is a license to print money, in case anyone didn't know that already.

I'm not sure why banks would benefit from agglomeration. Cars seems like a no-brainer, people want to compare and contrast brands, but are people walking around my neighborhood comparing banks in order to decide where to open an account or take out a loan? I suppose that's possible, although I've never known anyone to actually do something like that.

Speaking of cars, when I was a security guard on the graveyard shift at a car dealer, there would be a fair amount of people looking at cars. I was told not to bother these folks. I suppose they wanted to look at the cars with no threat of a pushy salesman.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Video Games Are Not Rock'N'Roll, But Restricted Access to Easy Fun May Be Hormetic

Warning: this image can cause violent behavior in self-righteous do-gooders
Penn Gillette was going recently going on quite a bit on a recent podcast about how video games are the new rock'n'roll. This is an idea that Penn picked up from his friend Mike Nesmith of Monkees fame (whose mother made the family fortune by inventing Liquid Paper, ha, how many young people today even know what that stuff is?).

This is one of those facile comparisons that simply doesn't hold water.

The main evidence for this idea is that video games and rock'n'roll (and rap and jazz etc) are art forms that the older generation just doesn't get, and not only that, feels they are damaging the fragile brains of the nation's youth. Hilary Clinton famously lambasted video games back when she was just a humble attention-seeking senator from NY.

Let's face it, video games are more like the younger generation's television. I first read this comparison in the Economist ten or so years ago when serious gaming was really hitting the mainstream and the lamentations of the baby boomer generation were first accompanying this boom, and I thought it was apt way back then.

While there is definitely a generational divide of consumers of video games that doesn't make it the new rock'n'roll. There's a generational divide on users of computers in general and all forms of technology. Young people SMS all the time, does that make it the new rock?

I could also toss in a rant here about how baby boomers think rock'n'roll was such a groundbreaking, earth-shattering accomplishment that changed the world, which it wasn't. But I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Video games, like television and like radio before that, are chiefly home entertainment.While music can also be a form of entertainment, it's not usually a primary source of it. In other words, very few people come home from work and spend their evenings just listening to music, at least not if that music isn't enhanced by drugs, ie, Pink Floyd and a bong, Wagner and a bottle of wine, ABBA and a loaded gun.

One could compare the relative good and evil of TV and video games to society but neither form of entertainment is going away any time soon.

TV is quite passive, hence the term 'idiot box'. My father used to come home from work and flip on the TV and he was basically done for the night. In my idealistic youth I saw this as a tragic mind-wasting soul-sucking activity. As a consequence, I refused to even own a television for many years--which had the consequence of receiving many (okay two) TVs as gifts or hand-me-downs. Poor Sean all alone without even a television to keep him company! In my extreme wisdom of late middle age, I realize that my father was burned out from programming all day long and wanted to engage in something mindless and relaxing in the evening. He also used to tell me this every time I brought up his prole-ish behavior as a know-it-all teenager.

These days, I'm happy to have my son watch a reasonable amount of TV, especially if it's in English and it's geared for an older audience, because living in the Czech Republic with myself as the only native speaker he interacts with, this is a great way for him to absorb new words and expressions. Which he does with amazing alacrity, I'm pretty sure his English vocabulary exceeds his Czech vocab by a significant amount. 

Video games are much less passive than TV, of course. That's the upside. They are also more addicting than TV. And arguably less socially enlightening (I mean socially in the sense of interacting with one's fellow humans, not in the evil sense).

Which one's the lesser of two weevils?

Ultimately it boils down to moderation in all things. Having a puritanical sense that playing games or staring at the boob tube is ultimately a guilty pleasure.

A year or so after I moved to the Czech Republic, I bought a TV (from Kmart, no less! Which is now a Tesco), with the idea of learning Czech by watching television. This doesn't work. At least it didn't work much in my case. TV is a passive activity and language is an active one and there's a huge difference between the twain. Perhaps if I'd had a video game instead, say a first person shooter that allowed me to get new guns and armor by recognizing and speaking words in Czech...

On the other hand, since there was nothing to do when I was at home, I read all the time. And since I didn't have that much to read (pre-internet) everything I had was precious. I read my weekly Economist from cover to cover. I read the books I had bought at extortionist prices from the Americanische bookstore over and over again, and I chose those books with extreme prejudice.

It's certainly true that having a constricted access to entertainment can have a hormetic effect on what one chooses to consume and how one consumes it. When I moved to Prague at the age of 29 I had been mostly spending my evenings staring at the tube. After the move I spent a lot more time either socializing (and boozing!) or reading and uhm, socializing with my then-girlfriend now-wife. When my mother would package a movie (VCR of course) it was a precious gift to be savored on a Saturday night.

Does that mean I'm willing to give up all the easy access to entertainment in multiple forms I've grown used to with broadband internet, iPads, ebooks (I was a very early adopter out of necesity), etc. Hell no.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rockets, Restaurants and Quality Control

I was reading about the Soviet Moon project thanks to this post pointing out that this was the biggest man-made non-nuclear explosion in history.

And my back-of-the-napkin theory for why the Soviets had such a hard time with the Moon* project occurred to me looking at all these engines:

The Soviets were famous for great designs often implemented with extreme size and brute force--and really awful quality control.

The Soviet T-34 tank, for example, was a superior design to the American Sherman tank. But the T-34 in the actual field greatly suffered from quality control issues and even from silly things such as a lack of proper radios.

Once the basic technical problems of how to build a chemical space rocket have been solved, the building of a more complicated rocket really becomes about quality control. When you double the amount of engines on a rocket, you increase the complexity of that rocket by a huge amount, I'm hesitant to say exponential, but certainly a geometrical amount.

If you look at the failures of the Soviet Moon rockets, they are technical screw-ups, the Soviets were simply unable to deal with the complexity of the system they had created.

Why not?

A rocket of this magnitude is made up of a ridiculous number of parts and those parts are designed by engineers, manufactured by factories made up of workers, engineers, managers, etc, assembled by factories consisting of workers, engineers, managers, etc, and the whole process is organized by bureaucrats, managers, engineers, etc. It's hard to conceive of the complexity of that problem and it being solved in an era essentially without computers.

The American 'capitalist dog' system was better able to produce and supply a consistently higher number of all these people. But I think the true advantage was in management.

When I first moved to the Czech Republic in '95, and for a long time after, the restaurant situation was pretty awful. I decided that there are four factors that make a successful restaurant: price, service, food, and atmosphere. For a long time it was almost impossible to find a place that didn't fail miserably on one of those basic elements. A restaurant might have decent food, nice staff, fair prices but play really loud annoying techno-pop music (and you'd be shocked how often this happened, or still happens today). Or a restaurant would have everything, but the service was almost intolerable. There always seemed to be one basic factor that fell through the cracks.

What these places seemed to be lacking was decent management. The most egregious mistake, in my opinion, was the playing of loud, awful music in a place that had everything else going for it, but I may be especially allergic to this, a lot of people, especially Czechs, seemed to be desensitized to what I considered ear-rape. The managers in the Czech restaurants, when they were visible, usually spent their time displaying their hierarchical status, ie hanging out at the bar with their expensive phones, looking cool, and generally lording it over the place. This was in marked contrast to managers at restaurants I worked in the States.

Is this an Eastern European thing? A Slavic thing? A communist thing? Since the situation has greatly improved here in Prague since '95 I'm going with communist. The managerial system under communism was mostly about class hierarchy, connections and nepotism rather than meritocracy. The system in America in the late 60s wasn't a perfect meritocracy, but it was much closer to it than the Soviet system.

Ironically it was Karl Marx who pointed out quite a while back that changes in degree of a social system lead to changes in kind.

Socialism, under whatever name it travels--communism, progressivism, liberalism--is a system that emphasizes equality of outcomes in an inherently hypocritical manner. It's a system that inevitably replaces the merit of intelligence, knowledge and creativity with the merit of gaming an inherently increasing corrupt system.

*I capitalize Earth, Moon and Sun these days, because they are proper nouns, like Mars, Jupiter, and Your Anus. I don't know how the convention of not capitalizing them took hold, so I'll just attribute it to the general decline of civilization.