Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Holy Crap

This just arrived. I thought they were releasing the lottery results on May 1, but maybe the emails go out a day ahead?

Subject: RAGBRAI Update

your wristband number is:

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Lemon Curd Mousse Cake

I made this for a dinner (with my fellow MS 150 riders) last Friday. Laura found the recipe of Epicurious. Two thumbs up; I think I'll likely make this at this year's wine & dessert party (but with a thinner crust). Here are a few pictures at various stages of assembly and decoration (including my first attempt at using a pastry bag):

Thursday, April 24, 2008

SWA Free Hooch

In reading this rebuttal of Judge Posner's commentary on why domestic airline service is so bad, this embedded bit of information about the dawn of airline deregulation in the 1970s made me chuckle:
In 1976, CAB Chairman John Robson pushed to “experiment” with price competition, and Continental was allowed to lower its intra-Texas fares to match and even undercut Southwest’s. Incidentally, Southwest introduced a two-tiered pricing structure… $13 each way fares matching Continental and $26 business fares which included a free fifth of alcohol. I vaguely recall Southwest becoming the largest liquor distributor in the state of Texas in 1977.

The rebuttal is worth reading. Posner's commentary is generally quite good, but he gets ripped hard by Mr. Leff. It sounds like Posner was commenting on an industry for which he doesn't have his normal depth of background (Leff calls him out for overtly false historical assertions left and right). Becker's commentary on the same topic differs a good bit from Posner's as well.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Large Prison Population Due to Long Sentences

....not due to readiness to arrest and convict people at a higher rate than other developed countries. To hear some people rant about it, you'd think they were trying to imply we're to be lumped with the Chinas and Irans of the world.

Reason has a post commenting on a NYT piece today studying this issue. All of this is likely followup interest after the news the other week that 1 in 100 adults in the US are incarcerated (or some similar stat). It finds that we are not at the the top of the list among industrialized countries for the rate at which we imprison people; it is in how long we keep them there that we are the outlier. We do imprison more people for drug offenses, but we keep people in much longer for 'regular' crimes as well (owing to minimum sentencing laws). For example:
Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison, according to Mr. Mauer, compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ghetto Avoidance Via Nav

Yesterday saw a story on AutoBlog about a coming enhancement to the navigation system in Hondas. The systems comes out today in Japan, but there are no currently-published plans to bring it to the US. Basically, the system takes into consideration high crime areas (in addition to the things such systems already take into account when routing, such as construction, real time traffic flow data, and the roads themselves) so as to potentially avoid the area in creating the route.

I have a hard time seeing how the introduction of such a feature in the US wouldn't result in cries of racial profiling (even if it was digesting raw geographically-tagged government crime rate statistics).

An Impressive Freak

David Blaine has always struck me as a bit of a tool, with the "I'm a mysterious hip 'street' magician", heavy on the novelty. Still, this story in the NYT on his preparation to try to break the breath holding limit (training with the US freediving team) is pretty interesting and impressive. The ancillary detail about human physical limits in this area (and how humans have gone much farther than was thought theoretically possible) is pretty interesting.

Stereotype #96

I happen to have bought a ton of them because they fit my weirdly shaped feet well, but yesterday's post on Stuff White People Like hit home: #96 New Balance Shoes.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Truth In Stereotypes

CU's 4/20 pot smoke-out draws crowd of 10,000

I wonder if the Wolverines feel usurped.

Rising Inequality Explained By....Educational Slowdown?

Mankiw has an AEI short publication out called The Wealth Trajectory: Rewards for the Few. It's interesting reading. He summarizes some recent results that have found quantitative support for the belief that economic inequality has risen (but interestingly, also show that it was also steadily rising in the 80s and 90s) -- not too many would find this all that controversial.

The interesting part is the thesis of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz: that basically people have slowed down the rate of increase of years of schooling, leading to more scarcity of the most qualified people. They assert that the latest crop of highest end jobs are -- like most 'new' jobs in recent decades -- knoweldge worker jobs, and that people have not ramped their education as fast as the switch-to-knowledge move in jobs has occurred.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Slew of Credit Crunch Musings..

Megan McArdle has a huge post of some digested thoughts after a consumer credit conference this past week. The whole post is worth reading.

The part that made me chuckle most was this section of her post:

3) The moral panic also extends to people who meet those needs: we view paycheck lenders as in broadly the same class as pimps, casino owners, and drug dealers. Particularly disturbing seems to be the notion that people make profits providing money to the poor. Yet there's little evidence that payday lenders make especially high profits; even non-profits who try to get into the business have found themselves charging interest rates they previously regarded as usurious. Poor people are, in fact, poor lending risks; the high interest rate compensates for the high default rate.

..when followed by this comment:

I find it odd that if you offer loans with high interest rates to Bangladeshis, you win the Nobel peace prize. If you do the same for... name your far more local constituency... you get vilified.

(Glances in the direction of Dr. Yunus and Grameen Bank...)

Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud

Kurt Schmoke was the mayor of Baltimore the entire time I was there for school. That was his standard election poster: 'Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud'.

I didn't know know what he had gone on to; apparently he's now the dean of Howard Law School. I saw an editorial yesterday that he has on drug control policy in everyone's favorite story-fabricating magazine. The commentary itself is pretty standard fare: stop going hard on minor offenders, expand the use and number of drug courts to deal with those minor offenders, and focus more heavily on it from a medical addiction angle. He does hint that he thinks you won't fully solve it until it is not a highly profitable underground enterprise -- advocating legalization, in other words -- but says that you have to take incremental steps first.

I remembered he raised some controversy years ago when he publicly advocated decriminalization. I've always wondered if that was partially the inspiration for the character of Bunny Colvin in Season 3 of the fabulous show The Wire (my favorite show, until it ended recently) and his experiment with a drug free for all zone ('Hamsterdam').

MS 150 Drama

I finished the 2008 BP MS 150 this past weekend. It was a long saga, though.

I was in Hartford, CT last week for a trip to Travelers. I was to fly home Thursday night, with plenty of time to board the 4:30 PM MS150 Houston to Austin bus (they also transport your luggage and bike). When I got to Hartford Bradley to fly home, it seemed that my return (on Delta) through Cincinnati was delayed. The problem: all of the AA cancellations had resulted in all available slots being filled, so there was nothing left to rebook me on for a later Cincinnati->Austin flight.

Delta initially told me they couldn't get me home before Saturday night. This was a problem, as I'd totally miss the Friday bus, and the ride itself was starting early Saturday morning, in Houston. After a long time on the phone with Delta rebooking, they found a solution: stay the night in Hartford, then leave on a 6 AM to Cincinnati, then to Salt Lake City, then directly to Houston. Jen was able to come to my house and pack up my gear and get my bike, getting it in Amar's hands at the bus departure point on Friday.

It was a bit worse than this: I had picked up my ride packet on the way to the airport, so my packet (a required item) was in my the Austin Fast Park location at the airport. Jen didn't have a way of checking her mail to see where I was parked (she was at my place, sans computer), so she ended up having to drive the rows at Fast Park until she found my car.

She managed to do all of this (I owe her big) and get it on the bus. My flights were miraculously not delayed at all, and I made it to Houston. I was able to grab a SuperShuttle over to the Rouse's (where my group was staying; Andy Rouse's parents' house...conveniently near Tully Stadium).

Here is what the start looked like at Tully Stadium (one of three possible starting locations):

Here is Chocolate Thunder, fired up to get going:

The riding on day 1 was pretty brutual. A front had come through, and as a result, we were riding into heavy (probably 20-30 mph) sustained headwinds...all day long. My lips are still so cracked and chapped from the wind that I'm bleeding every time I eat!

We did have a bad turn early in day 1: very shortly after the 25 mile stop (within sight of it, even), Amar wiped out. I was riding immediately behind him, and couldn't get left or right quickly enough, so I went down too. Andy was immediately behind me...and crashed as well.

I ended up with just a few scrapes, and (as far as I can tell) no damage to my bike. Andy may have very slightly knocked one wheel out of true, but it seems they fixed that at the 25 mile stop that the SAG wagon took them to afterward. Amar, though, had it rough: not only did he have to replace both of his wheels, but he also broke his collarbone! They didn't know this right away, and it wasn't until he rode to the next stop (about 10 miles) on his new wheels that he went to another medical tent and had EMS come. They took him to the hospital, where the broken collarbone was confirmed in x-rays. His right arm is in a sling for the next 4-6 weeks! Might be kind of hard to drive (both Amar and Kim drive sticks)...

We didn't know a bunch of this until much later in the day. We hung out at lunch for a good while while some of this was being sorted out. Being on a team has its pluses: see my team lunch spot (a 4-H pavilion):

Blue Bell was even giving out mini ice cream sandwiches there:

I had three.

The ride itself was pretty picturesque in places, like this field of wildflowers:

We even have Texas pride in our windmills:

Day 1 ends in La Grange, Texas. It was a madhouse: whereas the three starting points (and plenty of people leaving from hotel parking lots and such) earlier in the day resulted in a few thousand at each spot, the entire ~13,000 assembly of riders were present in La Grange. They brought giant temporary shower equipment in, and were even busing people to the nearest middle school to shower as well (the route I took). They had dinner for everyone at night, and breakfast in the morning. Various bike shops set up little covered mini-shops to sell tons of energy gels, tubes, and that sort of well as more than a bit of clothing. Later in the day, we heard that it was going to be in the low-mid 40s at the start of the next day, and most people just had regular short and jerseys. I think I was a bit behind the curve here: by the time I went to try to find a long sleeve jersey or base layer, pretty much everything of that sort in a men's large was sold out. I finally lucked out and got the very last men's large of an overpriced (but warmer than expected) Sugoi Helium windbreaker in red (err, sorry, 'Matador'). People were even cutting up garbage bags and taping segments of the plastic around their legs to stay warm early in the ride.

I wore a sleeveless jersey underneath my St. David's team jersey, with the new jacket over it all. I was pretty cold, but it was tolerable. Best of all, the wind was way down at the start of day 2: it was probably 5 mph tops. Around lunch, it picked up, and we were riding in pretty steady (10-15 mph?) winds the rest of the day. It was hugely better than Saturday though. We rode smarter on Sunday as well: Drew, Andy, Nate, and myself kept a tight pace line from lunch onward, and we were hauling ass (at least as compared to earlier in the day, and especially compared to Saturday). My knees were hurting a good bit by the end, and anything above about 3 hours in the saddle causes my lovely pair of torn discs to make their presence known, but it ended up not too bad. I expect we'll be back next year -- hopefully with our suave Indian mascot along for the entire ride this time.

Male Pill?

I've read stories about the 'coming' male pill for years. It's supposedly 'in a few years' every time I read it. This story is no different, although they claim to have concluded that they have an approach that both works with an efficacy similar to a vasectomy and is totally safe.

I saw this as a link off of Marginal Revolution; there are a ton of comments there as well. The part people in the comments (and in Tyler's story itself) seem to gloss over is that even the people trumpting the breakthrough say it's a good three or so years from availability and (more importantly) major pharma companies do not expect it to be particularly profitable, and so are sitting on the sidelines at the moment.

Jane Is A Badass

Jane Bui: Ironwoman.

Paul Graham On Group Size

I just came across a new Paul Graham essay (maybe a bit late; it's dated March 2008) called You Weren't Meant To Have A Boss. The main thrust of the piece is that working as a cog in a large company is suboptimal (for you) and a bit unnatural, based on what studies have shown to be roughly ideal upper limits on human group sizes. Above a group size tipping point, there is a big fall off in cohesion; there are too many nodes to keep everyone in sync.

The piece is worth reading (as are pretty much all of his essays), although it does have a bit of a "I'm a badass OG, and so are my friends, and today's smart guys are going for the safe and easy" feel to it. It feels related to condescension, but not quite the same thing. Still, the commentary and advice are worthwhile and interesting.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A 'Computer Programming' Major?

Since when was this a 'major' at non-vocational schools / at major universities? Computer Science != 'Computer Programming'. Stack ranked majors, by starting salary, as in today's WSJ:

The Roads I Left..

I am sitting here in the United section of O'Hare, waiting for my departure to Hartford. Browsing Autoblog to pass the time (hard to do heavy Guidewire work here, not being able to find a free power plug, grr..), I found a story on a contest to find some of the worst potholes in Michigan.

When I hit a particularly rough road in Texas, it's rare enough that it really stands out. I always forget how common really potholed, cracked roads are back up in Michigan. Ones like this:

If I had to pick a day to not be on American (where all of my miles live), today was probably as good a day as any, though. It looks like American has had to cancel a ton of flights today as it brought MD-80s (what I am overwhelmingly flying on with them) out of service to inspect wiring harnesses.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Postwar Tax Rate Trending

The content of this editorial in today's WSJ is pretty standard fare. The part I found particularly interesting was the tax burden as a percent of GDP (the italicized distinction would surely be seized upon by both sides arguing the merits of the content) as it has varied over time since WWII. The authors (Cogan, Hubbard) argue that if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are allowed to lapse, the resulting tax load increase would put the tax rate as a percentage of GDP at its highest level in the postwar era. The article is worth a read (especially for those who may not realize how small military spending is in comparison to entitlements), but here is the key trend graphic:

Female Inequality -> High Performing Kids

This post over at MR is interesting. He's summarizing the analysis of a final version of a paper that came out in an earlier form in 2004: that male inequality lends support to polygamy, but female inequality girds monogamy...with the conclusion hat female inequality seems to be the more powerful factor in the West:

Economic growth means that some women have higher human capital than others and thus they are better suited at producing and rearing high quality children. Wealthy men with lots of human capital will start to bid for these women and they will have to offer them exclusive status; these men also wish to invest in a smaller number of higher quality children.

In other words, male inequality encourages polygamy while female inequality discourages it. Apparently female inequality has been winning that race.

The hypothesis also helps explain why polygamy unravels so decisively at some point. Since monogamy itself encourages children (including daughters) with higher human capital, initial tendencies toward monogamy are self-reinforcing.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

This Is Awesome

I'm not sure how I hadn't seen this before, but LaBate pointed it out to me yesterday: the Stuff White People Like blog.

Not all posts there specifically cite things that white people like. For a consolidated list of those posts, you can see this list.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Erin On Perez Hilton

Perez Hilton is pointing people at Erin!

She's reppin' TU2K well!

Weight Contest Over!

You can see a few months ago a post detailing the Weight Wars contest with Jen and my sister. It ended yesterday. Yours truly was the victor. All of the travel towards the end (NJ, SF, SF, Tokyo) put an end to my continued drop, but I avoided backsliding too much, and ended up at 185.6 (-5.0%). I think I got as low as -5.2% or -5.4% before the travel halted the drop.

I need to keep dropping; the absence of weight will be definitely felt if I make it through the lottery for RAGBRAI.

Complexity Reduction: I've Heard This Before

I think I've heard this pretty much every year in the automotive press, especially from Ford. The domestic auto manufacturers (in general) offer far more permutations of each of their vehicles for sale -- orders of magnitude more than some of the Japanese makes. If you try to configure a Honda or a Toyota, you'll find your choices limited to a very small number of broad packages ('sport package' and so on), and that's about it. The US manufacturers offer packages, but also offer a ton of options entirely standalone (including many that are not optional in or out of a package from other OEMs), as well as many that can be obtained via standalone or package content.

The net result of this product offering strategy is that the US manufacturers offer for sale (and thus must be able to build) many more variants of their vehicles than their foreign competitors, leading to additional complexity in the manufacturing arena. Every so often (every new CEO, every new PD head, etc.), the US manufacturers say that they are going to reduce the complexity of their offerings (more closely mimicking the Asians) as a route to cost savings via reduced a engineering and manufacturing burden. The referenced link shows that they're talking about it again; they are targeting a 99% reduction in the offered permutations ('buildables') of the meaningful features on the vehicle for the 2009 Focus, for example.

I'm sure some would view this as 'bad', since it is reducing the choices available to customers of Ford/GM/Chrysler. However, just because those choices are available does not mean that people actually make use of them. Just because the F-150 is offered in a zillion ways, there really a small handful of common configurations that people ordering the F-150 as a work truck end up settling on. Similar clusters of configurations hold true for other use cases for the F-150 (and for every other such vehicle).

Back when I worked on a team dealing with Ford's global product definition (1999-2007), this was definitely the case. I was able to empirically verify this for specific vehicles, using data and configuration functionality available within our system. One quick study done out of curiosity used data for the Transit (a European market commercial van; you can see Sabine Schmidt drive one around the Nurburgring at this YouTube video). I had our system enumerate all buildable combinations of the 'defining features' (all of the important feature families in the vehicle: 'transmissions' is one such feature family, for example...'engines' is another) on the vehicle. Then, we took historical sales data (represented by a list of specific vehicle combinations for that given calendar year) and binned each of those against the theoretical possible buildables. The finding: something like 99%+ of the buildables had no sales volume. Of the tiny percent that had any actual sales associated with them, a tiny handful of that tiny handful accounted for nearly all of the sales. Being a commerical vehicle (commerical vehicles tend to have more options) offered in many markets, the Transit has more buildables and thus more complexity than most. However, the same story is true for all of the vehicles: more choices are offered than actual customer purchases seem to ever merit.