Friday, December 30, 2011

IT'S NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION TIME MOTHERFUCKERS

In 2012 I resolve to halve my weight and double my salary. To reduce my slavery bootprint and obliterate my carbon assprint. I'm gonna bike to Tacoma, then I'm gonna bike to Olympia, then I'm gonna bike to Portland, then I'm gonna get drunk as hell, wake up on the bus mall, fight a wino, hug it out, bike back home, and run a marathon. No, fuck it, an ultramarathon. I resolve to hack the world, patch all the world's vulnerabilities, then hack the world again, just because I said it was impossible.

Other things I resolve to double:

  • My followers on Google Plus
  • Number of computers to which I have root access
  • Length of blog posts
  • Old stuff in my house (working variety)
  • Bench press
  • Lines of code hacked
  • Lines of code deleted
  • Lines of code crushed, driven before me, lamentation of the women, &c.

Other things I resolve to halve:

  • PRs in the mile, 5k, and 10k (this implies WRs, too, but I'm gonna rock the humility this year, so I might not even tell anyone)
  • Number of people I follow on Google Plus
  • Lane-miles of freeway in King County
  • All haters

Nobody can possibly stop me.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Stories I don't know (yet): the history of Phinney Way and the future of Green Lake Way

A few months ago there was a fire at the corner of 46th and Phinney Way. Jess told me she saw the fire on the way home from work, and this confused me. We live near Fremont Avenue, Jess works east of where we live, and Phinney (the street) is west of where we live. Unless she stayed on the bus too long, she shouldn't have passed the fire on her way home. It turns out that Phinney Avenue is west of us, and Phinney Way is basically an onramp to Aurora, just east of where we live. Seattle is full of wacky street naming quirks, but why would we have ever named this onramp Phinney Way when there's a street with nearly the same name a few blocks away, the onramp isn't in Phinney, and in fact takes you directly away from Phinney?

More recently I was thinking about intersections near where I live that hinder pedestrian mobility. Two that came to mind were confusing multi-way intersections. First, the 5-way intersection of N 50th Street, Green Lake Way, and Stone Way; second, the 7-way (!) mess involving two separate N 46th Streets, Green Lake Way, and Whitman Avenue. In fact, these intersections aren't much fun to cross by bike, bus, or car either. What do they have in common? Green Lake Way, which is itself a nearly-uncrossable pedestrian barrier all the way from 46th to 50th. How could one street cause this many problems?

And what do these two odd streets have in common? For one thing, geographical proximity. Here's a nice Google Earth cap:

Here's another thing these streets have in common: they didn't exist 100 years ago. Here's a clipping from the 1912 Baist map of Seattle:

In Chicago, I'm told, the diagonal streets that muck up the otherwise orderly street grid were there first, at least on the north side (I could be wrong about this, but I don't feel like researching it right now). The 1912 Baist map shows that in Seattle the grid streets came first. Roads taking curvy, relatively level paths around the hills like Fauntleroy Way and Sand Point Way didn't exist yet (though railroads took these sorts of paths did); neither did most of the current crossings of the Ship Canal; neither did roads like Bridge Way, Fremont Way, nor our culprits: Green Lake Way and Phinney Way. This last set of roads had not been built because their main purpose is to quickly funnel automobile traffic to and from Highway 99, which wouldn't exist in its current form for another 20 years (per Wikipedia: Ford started mass-producing cars in 1914; the Aurora Bridge was opened in 1932, and the highway through Woodland Park was built somewhere around that time; the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel were built in the 50s).

So the mess created by Green Lake Way comes into focus. At some point during the upswing of the automotive era the through-travel needs of motorists ran roughshod over the local-travel needs of pedestrians. Wide, fast roads were built along reasonably level paths cut through the existing urban fabric to connect drivers to what was then the major highway of the west coast. Bridge Way from Wallingford; Fremont Way from Fremont Avenue in Fremont (grumble); Green Lake Way from Green Lake (in this case the name worked out, as Green Lake Boulevard at the time didn't exist south of Woodland Park). And Phinney Way. Start at Aurora and continue its path. There must have been a plan at some point to build another diagonal road continuing along its path to Phinney Avenue, like a mirror image of Green Lake Way. But for some reason it was never completed, and Phinney Way is left as a weird stub with a weird name.

I'm sort of interested in when exactly these roads were all built, and why Phinney Way was never completed. It seems likely to me that these events predated the “freeway revolt” movement, so did some kind of proto-freeway revolt take hold (a proto-revolt for a proto-freeway), stopping the road? Or was it a more mundane reason? One reason I'm interested is that I believe we need to start reversing some of the legacies of the automotive era in our cities. One that I'd love to see go is Green Lake Way. I'm not a natural activist or leader, but I can envision a more cohesive and walkable neighborhood with more pedestrian-friendly intersections. There are plenty of other ways to get to Highway 99, and Highway 99 is no longer as important for north-south travel in the region now that I-5 exists. I don't know if anyone else is interested in this, but I'm sure interested in the history, and what we might be able to do in the future to re-shape our city.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Random transportation comments in Seattle

1. I was recently discussing the 520 bridge rebuilding project with some of my co-workers. One of them commented, in the context of a discussion about workers commuting from Seattle to the eastside, that many eastside workers would never ride the bus because Seattle has such a lousy mass transit system. It's possible that they would never ride the bus, but I think the reason is false — for suburban workers, Seattle has a great mass transit system. The best city I have to compare with is Chicago. Chicago does certain things much better than Seattle does. Its suburban commuter service to downtown is much better than Seattle's. The combination of the L and the very consistent local bus grid provides generally better service around the city than Seattle does. But we were talking about people that work in the suburbs. Seattle's transit system works a lot better than Chicago's for this. Workers in Seattle's eastside suburbs of Kirkland, Redmond, and especially Bellevue have pretty good transit options from many places around Puget Sound. There's regular 15-minute bi-directional service during the day as far south as Federal Way and as far north as Everett. Similar places in Chicago, for the most part, have only commuter service downtown and skeletal local service to nearby suburbs. Compare Bellevue to Naperville; Kirkland to Oak Brook; Issaquah to Schaumburg.

Chicago, of course, has a few handicaps. One is distance. Chicago (like many eastern and midwestern cities) has suffered from a sprawl-and-abandon development pattern, and while Chicago has managed to revitalize its urban core (like New York, unlike Cleveland or Detroit), it still has a band of severe economic depression in the outskirts of the city and the inner suburbs. Seattle is hemmed in by water and mountains that limit the pure extent of sprawl, and its history and geography has been shaped less by violence and racism. To be sure, Seattle's geography as it is has been shaped by these factors, not to mention corruption and gentrification, but not to the extreme degree Chicago's has. So Seattle's "boom-burbs" are closer than Chicago's are — closer to eachother and closer to the urban core. I think Chicago's other big handicap is the success and popularity of its commuter rail system. Commuter rail is cheap to expand because it runs on existing freight tracks, and popular because it allows people to avoid stressful downtown driving and expensive downtown parking. It's also inflexible, incapable of serving "boom-burbs" that mostly are nowhere near train stations. Seattle's advantages here are twofold. First, almost all of its transit service uses buses, which are very flexible. Second, the same agencies are responsible for suburban commuter services and local services, so they have a greater incentive to cooperate than compete for funds. Agency splits and politics also probably hurt transit service in the urban core of Seattle.

2. While talking bike commuting, a friend said that cyclists with serious-looking racing gear seemed to make up a really high proportion of Seattle cyclists. That sort of serves to reason, I guess. Seattle has a lot of weather that would scare off casual riders, but very little that will deter a committed cyclist. Combine that with the US cycling industry's general disregard for serious adult cyclists that aren't racers, and you have a lot of people riding around town in racing gear, even though many of them will never race on a bike in their lives. Some sport clothing is even pretty practical for longer commutes (I wear bike shorts and a bright yellow pullover, which work great our misty rain), though I'll never understand why people buy gear with "sponsor" logos all over it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Washington state law and taking the lane

From RCW 41.61.770, emphasis mine:

(1) Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place shall ride as near to the right side of the right through lane as is safe except as may be appropriate while preparing to make or while making turning movements, or while overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction. A person operating a bicycle upon a roadway or highway other than a limited-access highway, which roadway or highway carries traffic in one direction only and has two or more marked traffic lanes, may ride as near to the left side of the left through lane as is safe. A person operating a bicycle upon a roadway may use the shoulder of the roadway or any specially designated bicycle lane if such exists.

(2) Persons riding bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.

So the law in the State of Washington says that people on bikes should ride as far right “as is safe”. From what I understand, this is a very common rule. In Oregon and some other states they use the word “practicable” instead of referring to safety, but the basic intent is the same. Yet I and many other cyclists routinely “take the lane” in Seattle traffic, and I at least believe that I'm operating fully within the law when I do so. Recently when riding on Market Street in Ballard the driver of a purple Prius started behind me, correctly made a lane change in order to pass me, then encroached on my position from the side, in a deliberate attempt to force me out of my position. I approached her at the next intersection and she yelled at me not to take the whole lane. As it seems to be a common driver sentiment that bicyclists shouldn't take the lane, I'm going to make the case here that in many cases such as this, the center of the lane is the farthest-right safe place I can ride.

So we'll start at the right edge of the lane. On this stretch of Market Street, as on most major streets in Seattle, there is street parking along the side. This means that at least the right-most few feet of the lane are unsafe for biking. Certainly, nobody would try to drive a car that close to the parked cars, and I won't do it either. I will almost never use this part of the lane to pass between parked cars and those stopped at a stoplight, because passing cars on the right is one of the best ways to get hit; many cyclists will, and they seem to prove me right in a steady stream of mauled frames.

But aren't most bike lanes on the right edge of a lane, squeezed in next to parked cars? They sure are! Most bike lanes are narrow enough that you can only really ride toward their left edges to be out of the door zone. Some vehicular cyclists avoid bike lanes entirely for this and other reasons, but I think riding in bike lanes works OK most of the time. Because of the proximity to parked cars, I limit my speed and ride near the left edge of the lane. Bike lanes aren't really the interesting case here, though.

Just left of the door zone, on streets like Market, is the “right-wheel path”, which is, clearly enough, the path traced by most cars' right wheels. On the typical poorly-maintained Seattle street the roadway sags around cars' average wheel paths, so they're easy to follow. I see lots of people biking near the right-wheel path. But on many roads I think it's a bad idea. The problem is that usually there's almost enough room left in the lane for a car to pass within the lane but not quite enough. This invites a number of behaviors from passing motorists. A common one is passing within the lane, too close for comfort. Another is drifting partially into an adjacent lane to make the pass. The problem with this is that drivers often don't take the proper precautions when they do this. This means you're at risk of having a driver swerve right at you after realizing he's about to hit someone in the other lane. If the driver needs to make a partial lane change, he needs to make a full lane change.

The smallest distance left you can move to avoid these pitfalls (which are very real, in my experience, and in that of many others) is into the middle of the lane. Therefore, the middle of the lane is the farthest right I can safely ride on many streets.

This might sound unsatisfactory to drivers. I'm just going to ride right down the middle and not let you pass? Well, that's exactly what I'm going to do on Market. That's because it's a four-lane road and you can easily pass me in the left lane the way you'd pass anyone else. Two-lane roads are more of a problem. In Washington there doesn't seem to be any law preventing me from doing this, but I prefer not to piss people off. So if I'm going downhill or can otherwise keep up with traffic, I'll ride down the middle, and it doesn't cause any trouble at all. Going uphill I try to choose routes with bike lanes, without street parking (many two-lane roads without street parking have wide enough lanes that I can ride the right edge safely), or side streets without much traffic. Sometimes (as on my route to work) I take the lane on a two-lane arterial, but I try not to do it for long (on my route to work, I do it for one block. Oregon has a law that slow-moving traffic (including bike traffic) on two-lane roads has to pull off and yield to faster drivers; Washington, as far as I can tell, doesn't. But if I have to be on a narrow two-lane road for a long time I'll pull off and let people pass every now and then, just like I'd let the crazy speeders by while driving on two-lane highways in Wyoming and Montana.

For what it's worth, Purple Prius Lady doesn't stand in for all drivers in her actions (very few drivers actually use their cars to threaten people). But her anger at cyclists taking the lane, even when it's legal and the safest way they can ride, is all too common (many drivers honk and yell at me). My first priority when I bike on the road is my safety, and I won't compromise it by riding in unsafe lane positions. If you didn't know that, now you do. If you do know that, and still want to get angry at me (despite that the vast share of traffic backups are in fact caused by other drivers, not cyclists, cyclists take an incredible amount of abuse on the roads), you're probably beyond help.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Computer Down!

Shortly after moving to Seattle I was given a laptop, tcong by someone that didn't want it anymore. It wasn't hard to see why; the laptop was a bulky desktop replacement, and its screen had a defect, where it would intermittently show red lines across the screen. It was annoying but usable, so when I went out to Mountain View for my first week at Google I took it with me. On the way home, laden with my much nicer work laptop, I put tcong in my checked bag, surrounded by lots of nice fluffy dirty laundry.

Now its display seems to have bitten the dust completely. Not only does its own screen show no data (the backlight works, but the screen just shows white all the time), but it doesn't seem to output anything over the external VGA port either (a monitor attached to that always shows black). It also has an S-Video output, but I can't test it (I don't currently have any displays that accept S-Video). I managed to blindly turn on sshd, so I can connect to it remotely and verify that the rest of the system works fine. In fact, Xorg starts, finds the GPU, and correctly polls both the built-in display and an external monitor's EDID.

It seems weird to me that physical damage would cause video signals to fail both on the built-in display and the external VGA port without causing any other problems, but that appears to be the case. So another second-hand laptop bites the dust due to, apparently, physical failure. Assuming I deem tcong pretty much useless, it will become the fourth member of my computer graveyard (consisting of all my named computers that have died for some reason).

  • flytrap, used from 2004-2007, was a third-hand PIII laptop that I bought from John because he didn't like it. It ran FreeBSD and served hard duty in my backpack and bike basket around campus, where I used it to write papers and display remote X programs running on UIUC's Big Iron. Its CD drive fell out, in a bank (!), shortly after I moved to Santa Clara, and I think the power supply failed in early 2007. I stupidly bought a PC Card network adapter for it shortly before it died; now that's something with no resale value!
  • montana, used from 2005-2007, was a cobbled-together PIII desktop with an enormous case. I initially ran FreeBSD on it. I don't think I ever even installed X; it had a severe RAM shortage, so running anything significant meant lots o' swapping. For some reason I lugged it around campus once for a class project, which was hilarious and dumb. In Santa Clara I used it as a general-purpose Plan 9 server. It hit the recyclery before I moved back to Chicago because it was obsolete, not useful, and huge.
  • talkingcookie, used from 2002-2009, was my main desktop computer, running Gentoo Linux, from the start of college until its power supply died. At that point, its major components were obsolete and flaky, so I replaced it with impulse as, well, a random impulse.
  • tcong, used from 2010-2011, was given to me by one of Jess' friends before he moved, because it was enormous and sort-of broken. It ran Ubuntu, and its most notable use was handling audio and video for Seattle's RPM 2011 listening party.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Oh No, Street Parking Horror!

While I was just in California, lots of people within a few blocks of me were hit with parking tickets for violating the Seattle law that cars can't be parked on the same block for more than 72 consecutive hours. I've heard several possible justifications for this law, but none really resonate. Some people call in 72-hour complaints about ugly junker parked on their blocks; moving them to another block for a few days doesn't really solve this “problem”. Some people think this law is a good tool to use against people storing stolen cars on their streets; in that case, there's a much larger violation going on, and a known location for stolen cars ought to be ripe for a sting (unfortunately finding stolen cars is less lucrative than ticketing them for parking illegally)! Ultimately this law is never going to be widely followed, and is impossible to enforce consistently, so it's enforced inconsistently, sometimes as a result of petty personal disputes (or, perhaps, municipal money-finding expeditions).

It really comes down to a question of whether there's a parking shortage. If there's not a parking shortage in a neighborhood, having people move their cars every three days is just a nuisance. If there is a parking shortage, well, there should never be a parking shortage! As with most goods and services, there will only be a shortage of parking if its price is set too low. Rather than forcing people to move their cars all the time, why not just have people on high-demand blocks rent specific parking spaces monthly? If there aren't enough spaces in a neighborhood there aren't enough spaces — people will find that out one way or another when they go to park. But this way, they won't have to circle the block all the time looking for spaces. The city government, owning all these roads it doesn't have the money to maintain, should be charging the users, but it should do so consistently instead of with arbitrary parking tickets.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I don't think Teh Valley has changed much...

... I've changed a lot, though. Although I certainly wouldn't want to live in Teh Valley or something, being in a better place in life than I was then makes being here less weird than it was back in 2006.

I'm in Palo Alto right now, because I'm starting a new job at Google tomorrow and Googlers have orientation in Mountain View. After getting a bit lost running in Rancho Cañada del Oro I went walking around Palo Alto looking for something to eat. I came across a used bookstore called Know Knew Books holding a going-out-of-business sale, with everything half-off. I didn't have much cash on me, so I had to live behind an H. G. Wells combo and a couple old books about Seattle, but picked up a copy of Hunter S. Thompson's book about the Hell's Angels. Then some dude performed some monologues. The first was originally by a famous female monologist whose name I don't recall, and the second, I believe, was his own work. Really great stuff.

I brought ye olde guitar to work on some songs while I'm here, because I feel like I'm on the verge of getting somewhere on a few. I think I'm going to go back to my roots a bit for RPM 2012. Songs written from my own perspective or about personal concerns, more soft and acoustic sounds, harmonicas, clarinets. Maybe more piano. I'm thinking about trying to do one-word titles for all the songs.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Laurie Anderson for the win

When we lived in Cody it used to drive Jessica crazy that people would give directions like: "Go down the hill, then it's over pretty close to where the old post office used to be." I was just at Golden Oldies records in Wallingford browsing for new old CDs (and maybe later LPs), and I picked up the Laurie Anderson album Big Science. One of the songs starts with Laurie giving directions somewhere by reference to things that will be built in the future. I'd quote from the song but my CD player can't go back (to make a long story short, that function can only be performed with the remote, which was lost in a hotel room in Spearfish, South Dakota; I could probably get a replacement remote, but I've generally been OK with the limitation).

I think that's it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Another thing about biking; SPEED

One other interesting conflict between the vehicular cyclists and “separationsists” is over speed. To vehicular cyclists it's important to be able to ride fast. Some of their complaints about lousy bike trails go away if you don't need to go faster than 10 MPH (I find a lot of lousy bike trails perfectly suited to running, as long as I'm going slower than 10 MPH). Many opponents criticize the importance they place on speed on separated facilities, as it doesn't really affect the majority of users.

I think this is one case where the two groups should be irrelevant to eachother. Cyclists that want to ride fast should have the right to get out in traffic in most cases; a network of well-designed pedestrianized cycle paths won't stop them. But this argument ends up getting too personal. Vehicularists tend to agitate against the very existence of any slow bike trail, while separationists discount their need for speed entirely.

I'll start with the separationists. Discounting people's desire to get places quickly is a great way to become irrelevant. Your city may be beautiful, biking may be fun, but if you're biking for utility, you're going some place, and you'd probably like to spend less time getting there. Also, riding fast is just a fun thing to do. There's a more political argument that fast travel just promotes sprawl and greater distance, so it's a zero-sum game, and some of these sorts promote deliberately slowing down cyclists. I think this misses the mark. Fast bike travel won't promote any more sprawl than we already have because cycling is not the fastest way to get most places, and not how most people travel. That's the car. So fast car travel, and occasionally fast mass transit, can promote sprawl in ways fast biking, by itself, won't.

On the other hand, vehicularists don't recognize that for lots of people a slow trail is better than no trail. The numbers don't lie on this. They may be right to choose the road for themselves (I do this regularly), or even recommend it to others and teach road skills, but wrong to claim it's the only way to ride. They're right to want to ride fast sometimes, but wrong to believe only fast roads are good roads. It's another manifestation of their tendency to ignore the benefits of having more cyclists out there.

Seattle has plenty of fast cyclists zipping around the arterial streets, and they (we) aren't going anywhere. We could use lots more cyclists on the side streets and bike boulevards, using the (sort of lousy) bike trails (with caution), and rolling slow along Broadway when the cycle track goes in. Even if I won't use the new infrastructure all the time, I support it when it's designed well for its intended users.

The Death of Vehicular Cycling!?!

Apparently vehicular cycling has “been complete[ly] pummeled” or is a secret sect that's been discredited entirely. Funny, I hadn't noticed. In my daily riding, the advice of John Foerster remains as relevant as ever. But I guess some vehicular cycling advocates have really been, politically and socially, left behind by the times.

It's really a shame to see this. But it sounds like there's such a gulf between the core concepts of vehicular cycling and the social and political position of its advocates. I hope that, after the rhetoric has cooled off a bit, that we can employ the best ideas of vehicular cyclists and their adversaries within the community.

The concepts: vehicular cycling came to the US in a time when bicyclists largely rode on the wrong side of the road or on sidewalks, ducked in and out of car-park areas and inconsistent shoulders, and in many places would have been arrested for taking a lane on an arterial road. Bike trails and bike lanes were designed with little noticeable regard for their users; seemingly more to keep cyclists out of the way of motorists than to provide safe and useful places to ride.

In this atmosphere, the vehicular cyclists told us to ride on the correct side of the road, to ride a straight line, and to take a lane if it wasn't wide enough to share with a car. The core concept was that the safest and most effective way to ride was to be visible and predictable. This was good advice, it still is good advice, and it has largely been adopted. I rarely see the sorts of behavior that apparently predominated in the Bad Old Days.

Reasoning from the principles of visibility and predictability, they decried the state of bike paths and bike lanes. Bike lanes forced cyclists to do things that no driver would do, and because cyclists were rare on the road, this made their actions unusual, unpredictable to drivers. Like riding in the shoulder, riding in a bike lane could make cyclists invisible to drivers. Bike paths were often installed in disused rail rights-of-way; a train has, to understate wildly, quite different needs from a bicycle. Along these trails visibility at intersections was poor; trains had the right to stop traffic, and used flashing lights, gates, bells, and driver education campaigns to do it. Bikes get none of these advantages. The only way to safely ride a bike trail along an old railroad was to come to a stop at every intersection, even at unimportant side streets. Many of the trails were given superfluous curves, as if the landscape design was more important than cyclists' transportation needs. These criticisms of bike lane and bike trail projects remain true in many cases; there are lots of old trails and plenty of new ones being built to bad standards. In some cases, however, trail designers have started to take visibility, predictability, and real transportation needs into account when designing trails. At any rate, visibility and predictability remain a valuable rubric for evaluating infrastructure, whether you're planning a bike path of planning a route to work.

The politics: vehicular cyclists have taken lots of political stands against more “mainstream” cycling groups, policies, and ideas. Foerster attacks some policies as being improperly influenced by motives other than cyclist safety. For example, he cites the influence of bike manufacturers on safety standards that require only cheap reflectors, rather than expensive lights, for night riding (for my part, I'd love a bike with a built-in headlight). Or the influence of motorist groups on bike safety laws that run against his principles for biking. At the same time, vehicular cyclists have criticized the anti-car, pro-urbanist, environmentalist slant of many cycling groups. For the most part, vehicular cyclists in name want to keep a very narrow focus on cycling issues.

Given the wide range of issues that directly affect how cyclists get around today, keeping a narrow focus may have merit. If a cycling group takes political positions on the Deep Bore Tunnel and road tolls, how can it have time for the important stuff that affects day-to-day cycling, like good visibility at trail intersections? It seems to ignore a few things, however. Environmental, anti-car, and urbanist concerns may convince lots of people to try cycling — paying attention to these issues probably unites the biking community more than it divides it, and helps it make alliances with other sorts of groups (transit advocates, environmentalists, urbanists). Urban densities, good air quality, and slow driving speeds can really open up utility cycling to the masses. And cyclist safety, on a per-cyclist basis, seems to improve as cyclists increase in numbers. Furthermore, the specific political positions taken, such as the absolute opposition to separated bike facilities, have not been helpful. In European cities (and American college campuses!) pedestrianized cycle tracks have helped people feel safe, if at much slower speeds, and got a lot more people biking. Bike movements on cycle tracks are visible and predictable, just not fast, yet vehiculars still oppose them. That vocal vehicular cyclists have taken these positions may have more to do with their social attitudes than their principles.

The social attitudes: One thing that always stands out to me when I read vehicular cyclists is that they sound old. Their “opponents” in the cycling community tend to sound closer to my generation. The vehiculars stress personal responsibility, and the rewards of learning difficult skills. Their opponents stress the social benefits of increased cycling and insist that the government support them because they're doing so much good.

There are some conflicts that are probably specific to this particular generational divide. The older generation has settled into a suburban lifestyle, having chosen suburban homes in a time when inner-city life in America was at its nadir, while my generation is doing its best to gentrify the hell out of post-industrial inner cities. Indeed, most vehicular cyclists I read are from the suburbs or exurbs, biking in very tough traffic conditions indeed, and their opponents do tend to live in the city. In dense cities a slow or pedestrianized bike culture works because distances are shorter, high speeds are often impractical anyway, and the needed coverage area is not so great. Cycle tracks let everyone bike (as long as they live in the city). In vast American suburbs and exurbs there's no hope of good, useful, separated bike infrastructure going everywhere a cyclist might want to go. A vehicular cycling strategy, and respect for this from drivers and law enforcement, lets everyone bike (as long as they're strong enough to make the distance).

Then there are the timeless generational conflicts. The older generation (along with those that harbor socially conservative attitudes) stresses hard work and self-reliance, is skeptical of social engineering and great change, and tends to focus on the benefits of the status quo (which, after all, it built) as opposed its downsides. The younger generation tends to feel more righteous and entitled, and encourages the world to change in its image. It decries the injustices of the status quo, which it only inherits. The status quo, relevant to this conflict, is car dependence. Vehicular cyclists frequently defend cars and their drivers, and usually don't criticize cultural car dependence or vehicle emissions. Their “opponents” often engage in absolutist criticisms against drivers and self-righteously rant against car dependence and the lack of government support for their better lifestyle. Both groups will often sound completely irrelevant to eachother. Vehiculars aren't going to go to the city to ride on some slow cycle track, wait at stoplights, and dodge pedestrians and smoking hipsters. And the emerging mainstream of urban cyclists isn't going to take a lane in front of a truck doing 45 MPH.

The personal conclusion: I have to straddle these camps. Fremont, where I now live, is semi-urban; north of the ship canal but south of Green Lake, full of single-family homes, converted duplexes, and modest apartment buildings. Canyon Park, where I work, is pure exurbia. I love cycling, I'm reasonably fit, and I care about my technique in every regard (whether that's knowing how to take a lane, how to fix a flat and adjust my dérailleurs, or how to quickly get on and off of a bus bike rack) but not enough to log over 40 miles per day to get to work, so I take the bus part of the way. I ride according to the advice of John Foerster when I'm on the roads (I find I get into the most trouble when I lapse), and I believe most cyclists would do well to read Effective Cycling and practice their skills, but I also believe we'll get a lot more people riding, and reap real social benefits, if we don't make expertise a prerequisite. I like to go fast, because it's more fun and takes less time than riding slow, but if they build a good cycle track on Broadway I won't complain about having to ride slow on it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Decisions, decisions...

Jess and I are probably going to find a new place to live pretty soon, and the timing of the situation is one of these frustrating things that's forced us to make a decision affecting us for the next year based on quite temporary circumstances. We currently live right by a freeway entrance, in what's something like a small border vacuum. It's a very convenient location because it's close to one of the few bus stops useful to get to my workplace, and it's a pretty quick walk to both the U District and Wallingford commercial districts. Unfortunately it's not a very pleasant place. The freeway is loud, and there's an abandoned lot next door that, along with the large number of people passing through, make it a haven for panhandlers. Most of the panhandlers are alright (I got some gardening advice from one dude), but a few are drunk and violent, and there's a constant stream of litter coming from the bus shelter. And then there are the drug dealers, though it's not quite 3rd and Pike.

Long story short, we've been hoping to move soon, but not too far. We were hoping to make the decision where and when to move in about a month, because in a few weeks we'll know some things that could significantly open up our apartment search. But our lease is ending mid-August and we can't go month-to-month. We're near the University, where the yearly leasing cycle is very regular, and our landlord, understandably, doesn't want to try to put a unit on the market midway through September or October. So we have to seek out a year-long contract, either here or at some other place, before knowing whether we're still going to be as constrained geographically.

My last job search had some similar elements to it; I was waiting on some companies, and others were waiting to hear from me. There was one point where my parents were visiting Jessica and me in Wyoming, and I knew I'd be moving in little over a week, but I didn't know which state I'd be moving to! In these situations I feel like I'm stumbling around the country, rather than making intentional decisions about my future. I guide the stumbling steps as well as I can. And I've ended up in a city I like (despite all its flaws), married to someone I love a lot, doing things I like to do. Maybe I really have all the control anyone could expect to have, maybe more.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Transportation, Subsidy, Environment, Future, Rambling

I've been following Seattle Transit Blog lately, and thinking about the constant mass transit crises going on in American cities. It's not just Seattle, with its high-powered NIMBYs preventing dense inner-city development, lack of state income tax (and resulting extremely regressive tax impacts), and tortuous geography... just for a few of the obstacles faced by transit here. Chicago and New York seem to constantly have transit funding problems, too.

The root of the problem, from an economic perspective, might be that mass transit service is offered to the public below-cost. Expanding the system to serve more users means the transit agency has greater losses instead of greater profits like most businesses. But raising fares up to the level of per-rider costs doesn't really look so good in most places either — think $6 bus fares in most of Seattle. Maybe popular commuter routes to employment centers with scarce parking could cover their costs from the farebox, because they'd still be a good deal compared to paying for parking.

The government subsidy for transit service is one of the biggest targets for transit opponents. Transit proponents hearing this will shout back that the road networks are given away to drivers, mostly for free. A tiring argument follows, filled with conjecture, over who is subsidized more, transit users or drivers. I don't think there can be an answer to this question — surely it varies considerably in different circumstances, which doesn't help much if you're trying to create cost-effective transportation strategies.

Maybe the answer is that we shouldn't subsidize transportation very much at all. All motorized transportation requires lots of energy, and subsidizing lots of energy usage is about the last thing we need to do. If all the major highways were tolled to cover road construction and maintenance costs (probably with the toll roughly tied to vehicle weight, as heavy vehicles including city buses put a lot of stress on the roads), and transit fares reflected the cost of offering the service, all the costs of traveling would be included in the price for traveling instead of being externalized onto everyone else. The incentive, then, would be to act in ways that lower everyone's total costs. If mass transit is the most cost-effective way to get around, its fares will be cheaper than the cost of driving.

Another thing that's pretty obvious and affects thinking about transportation generally is climate change. People don't really like talking about this, but greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change, the earth has a limited supply of carbon sinks, and given past and present levels of emission, rich countries like the US have something like a moral imperative to reduce emissions. Because of this, we probably need to set something like a price on pollution itself. The goal would be to set the price of polluting at a level so that we weren't taking more than our fair share of the earth's ability to take carbon emissions. The incentive then becomes to travel when necessary, but to avoid unnecessary travel that adds cost and environmental damage.

In a place like Washington state, where taxes are extremely regressive, subsidies on transportation are probably, in terms of benefit distribution by income, one of the more progressive things going. King County's proposed $20 car tab fee puts this in relief: a regressive tax to provide a progressive benefit. This might be mitigated by replacing general sales taxes with general income taxes. Another thought is that after a truly significant carbon tax is in place (which would have to be at the federal level, not the state), the government would not have to raise as much money through income tax. Per-head refunds from this extra money would be a good mitigation for regressiveness of carbon taxes. The overall problem is not one to overlook; largely removing subsidies on an area as broad as transportation without fixing wealth distribution is basically a non-starter.

Ultimately, all this stuff would be a heavy disincentive towards economic activity, compared to the status quo. We don't just use energy because it's there, we use it to do stuff. But if we're really serious about fixing our emissions problems we might have to set markets to work in slowing down the economy in the wisest possible ways...

I'm currently reading Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom, which, among other things, makes the case that it isn't always economic growth that brings development (he, as the title suggests, measures development by people's freedom to live in a way they have reason to prefer). What we'd have to do in a world with less travel and less economic activity is to thoughtfully choose the things that matter most to us. We might choose to take this action ourselves to stem climate change; we might have it thrust upon us by environmental collapse or peak oil. Either way, I really believe we'll have to consider it within my lifetime.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Awkwardness dreams

I have been having social awkwardness dreams a lot lately, after not having them for a while. Old friends will enter a room and say something to me, and I'll respond by non-sequitur, as if they had said something different. Then they'll walk away and do something else.

I'm mostly posting this so I remember to fold this image into a song at some point, probably In The Morning, but maybe instead God (Abdicated), replacing weird references to Seattle urban development history...

Monday, July 11, 2011

I just joined Google+

LOL.

I may quit if it annoys me, like I did with Facebook. The big G doesn't seem to give off the same predatory vibe Facebook does. I never thought of it this way before, but it might be an east coast-west coast thing. I grew up in the midwest, but with more connections to the west than the east, and I've lived on the west coast twice now. I'm probably somewhat more comfortable with west coast social cues than east coast ones.

Anyway, I'm starting to get lots of email from stuff happening on Google+, and probably that's going to get annoying fast. Iunno. Weirdly, I don't think Google+ has Blogger integration, and Facebook did back in the day. Maybe blogging is old balls now.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

On the radio this morning I heard a discussion of the economic effects of environmental regulations. An economist that had studied the matter claimed that in the long run the level of environmental regulation didn't effect employment levels much either way (though it has other sorts of impacts), but of course proponents tout “green jobs” programs and opponents call any public policy that recognizes the environment at all a “job killer”. It's like this with just about every policy discussion today. Every program has to be judged solely on the merit of whether or not it creates jobs.

In our society we must sometimes act in self-interest and sometimes in civic interest. If our leaders focus only on job creation they're only serving a very narrow section of civic interest. And if we only vote on the basis of job creation we're basically voting by self-interest. Self interest isn't always easy to determine, but it's usually a lot easier to determine than civic interest. The “duh” case of voting for something that creates jobs makes it a perfect way for politicians to get a knee-jerk vote.

But, ultimately, it's a pretty big failure of imagination. We're told that we should support “green jobs“ programs because cleaner production “is the future” or something similarly vague. But environmental protection is hardly a natural law — it's only the future if we choose it. Why are we trying to become the leader in green jobs instead of choosing to protect the environment?

Friday, July 1, 2011

I feel safer...

... after reading that due to post-9/11 security concerns, the sidewalk on a bridge between Detroit and Windsor was closed. Because it's so much easier to conceal terrorist materials on foot or on a bike than in a car. Yeah, that. Mentioned on this page.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Seattle is becoming normal to me

On an unrelated note, we need IRV to break up the power of political parties (the undeserved sort of power derived from strategic voting, which is exactly what IRV breaks up).

Illinois needs it more, though.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Car-sharing: another thing

There's this other thing with ZipCar, though. I don't know Seattle as well as I know Chicago, but I think it's about as true here as there... and I'm not quite sure how to put this... hm... how about this.

A map of ZipCar locations is basically a treasure map, if the treasure you're hunting for is yuppies.

Another thing: car-sharing

Jess recently donated her truck to a charity (I believe benefiting people with developmental disabilities). We haven't needed to have two cars at the same time once since moving to Seattle, so the extra insurance and registration costs were a total waste. Actually, we don't really need a car on a daily basis, though we have some semi-regular trips that aren't convenient for us on transit (Lynnwood Skate-and-Bowl, and to some degree our church, but only because we're lazy on weekend mornings). So I'm trying to figure out whether it would be smart for me to get rid of my car and go ZipCar.

ZipCar has a page comparing car ownership costs to its own costs. Clearly it's picked a very expensive case of car ownership costs that doesn't match my situation. I have a 10 year-old car that I bought with cash, so payments and depreciation are not close to the $288/mo. listed, and I have no finance charges. My car probably depreciates at about $50/mo. at this point, which will decay exponentially over its life (unless something weird happens). I spend about $40/mo. on gas, not $100. Also their estimate of parking charges doesn't apply to me — I don't pay for residential parking, and probably won't in the near future (parking for the first car in a household is essentially free in Wallingford). Their other estimates are probably about right (the insurance estimate is about what I pay, I didn't investigate the others very closely), so I figure I spend $267/mo. on my vehicle. Most of the costs are fixed time-based costs of car ownership, which are a pretty big waste for someone that drives as little as I do. That's why ZipCar can probably save me some money.

ZipCar has some advantages over ownership of my existing car (it can be bigger or truckier if necessary, or smaller if that's more convenient) and some disadvantages (unfamiliarity with vehicles, need to plan reservations and stick to the plan). Clearly it wouldn't be economical for vacations or driving to relay races (though it might work for relay race vehicles... would have to do some math).

As it is, I won't get rid of my car and switch to a ZipCar today. Not because it doesn't make sense right now, but because my employer might move offices within the next couple years, and we don't know where. It's possible that would force me to buy a car, which would blow all those cost-savings out of the water. If a meteor fell out of the sky and destroyed my car completely, however... I'd probably do it. If I had the ability to buy and sell cars at exactly their market value, without significant additional costs, risks, or effort related to the transaction attached, the distinction wouldn't be as important, but because I don't, the status quo has an inherent advantage.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Barefoot running

In my ongoing quest to become a Seattle stereotype, I've started running barefoot. Not on the roads and stuff, but in parks. I can make it around Green Lake, though there is enough pavement there that I'm about done after one loop. Extended sections of pavement really are really hard on... everything.

What's really fun when running barefoot is going up hills. Without the weight of shoes on your feet you can turn over really fast. It's a joyous thing, a celebration of running!

My quest, as you can see, is well underway.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

French scarves and American drugs

1. The law in France banning face coverings just went into effect a few days ago. There are a few reasons I've heard for the ban. One is to prevent men from forcing women to cover themselves; the other primary reason, following the French idea of laïcité, is to keep the public sphere free of conspicuous religious displays. I've also heard people discussing the danger of public anonymity generally, but there hasn't been a ban on ski masks in even the most security-obsessed countries.

As for protecting women, a law like this is quite flawed. In a free country like France a woman has the right to leave her husband or her church for any reason — certainly being made to wear a veil against her will qualifies. She may feel that this is a dangerous thing to do, and may choose not to do it, or she might plan to do it in the right moment. A law banning her from wearing a face covering forces her hand. Although the law provides far greater punishments for those that force her to cover, it still can provide a fine for her if she does. And it means she'll certainly be asked to remove her headscarf in public by a police officer. At that point she has to choose to defy her husband or the law. She has lost her ability to choose the timing of her defiance. I hardly think this concept would be unfamiliar to anyone seriously endeavoring to protect women, so it seems likely to me that the protection of women was added to the rationale of this bill for political reasons.

So the real reason is about keeping France secular, upholding the principle of laïcité, where religion is kept to the private sphere of life. What's weird about the law, then, is that it doesn't actually mention any religion in its description of what's banned. The law's thrust is the French ideal of secular public life, but its text displays a wariness toward specifically regulating religion that's more a part of the American idea of religious freedom. As a result, the law bans all face covering in public, even when it isn't a religious expression. The contradiction becomes even starker in the exceptions to the law: face-covering during religious processions is explicitly allowed. What could be a more public expression than a religious procession?

Of course, many Muslims would say that face covering indeed isn't intended as religious expression, it isn't intended to be an outward display of religion in the same way that wearing a large cross necklace is. It does look like an expression to westerners because it looks different from the mainstream. Well, authorial intent is dead, is it not? If the state imposes a law that bans a minority religious practice by way of understanding it as an unwelcome public expression of religion, then explicitly protects the majority religion's traditional public religious expressions, the state is clearly acting in a racist way. It's promoting xenophobia, not laïcité.

2. I heard on the radio a couple days ago the story of injectable progesterone, which is used by some pregnant women to reduce the risk of premature birth in high-risk situations. The drug company producing it had stopped in 2000, but as there was still demand compounding pharmacies continued to make it and sell it at very reasonable prices.

Then a new drug company got FDA approval to sell the drug, set the price at about a thousand times what the pharmacies charge, and announced that they'd press changes against anyone else that continued to sell it.

What's weird is that they probably would have got away with it if they'd only tried to set the price, say, ten times as high as existing sources. Apparently the FDA is perfectly willing to give companies exclusive rights to sell products that are already being adequately produced by the market at large.

That's just what happens when the state grants monopolies to private companies. The enforcement power of the state (and, specifically, a part of the state that isn't held to much public accountability) has to protect the profit interests of businesses. This story is something like a microcosm of the American health care system — if only it was this simple!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Disrepair

So one of the more interesting websites to follow is The Oil Drum, because knowledgeable and smart people post there. Anyway, some sorts of peak oil discussions remind me a bit of eschatology. Are we or aren't we in the End Times, and if so, which part?

Some people place a lot of importance on their eschatological beliefs. This seems weird to me. Wouldn't one live by awfully similar principles regardless? I might say the same thing about the notion of the Trinity, something a lot of people have argued and ultimately died over, something that to a large number of people is sacred dogma, that just doesn't matter very much in how one is to live.

Anyway, I see a lot of that in peak oil discussions. When is Peak coming, what will Peak look like, how will we live after it, who are the elect?

The elect aren't the chosen ones, but the ones that choose.

(said the little glass of whisky)

Maintenance

In the two months since I last blogged, my interests have been something like what follows:

1. RPM Challenge. Album is this pile of awesome. Also, hosted the RPM Seattle listening party. Which consisted of music, beer, hummus, and Luther sitting on the floor showing our guests a truly impressive display of feline sloth, even for him.

2. Transition movement. I'd describe it as an attempt to make a low-energy future for ourselves before it's foisted upon us by peak oil and climate change. Jess and I are rank beginners and, in the words of the movement, have a lot of re-skilling to do. We want to start growing something this Spring, and I'd like to learn carpentry and food preservation. We've been meeting with a group at our church to read and discuss The Transition Handbook.

It's sort of startling how dependent we are on oil — not just energy, but oil specifically, and not just oil even, but cheap oil. When people talk about Americans having to adjust to a “new normal” economically, part of that is tied up in the physical fact that oil isn't going to be had at 1990s prices again and we almost certainly won't have a substitute. The other part of it, of course, is the fact that our economy, consuming far more than it produced and practicing economic imperialism, could never be sustained for that long even with a steady input of cheap oil.

I'm not as convinced as some people that we've bought our last cars. But I'm also not convinced of the opposite. I think it's possible that middle-eastern oil booms have been slowed by government interference more than in the US, and thus that they won't show the rapid peak and decline that we had. Either way, learning new old things (as opposed to Old New things) will be good.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tech priests and frame stories

A few days ago... is what this post is. So “A few days ago”, God, welcome to the 90s Mr. Dimond.

A few days ago I followed a link from a Penny Arcade post and wound up here. One of the songs I'm working on for the RPM album connects the idea of a scientific priesthood in Mervyn Peake's Titus Alone to that in the real-life Brown Dog affair. It appears WH40k (which I'm not familiar with at all) literally has Tech-priests and a “Cult Mechanicus”. Perhaps if I have some time I should look into this game, see what its angle is.

Back around Christmas I finally listened to the “new” Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. It's my least favorite of their albums so far, but generally alright. The more laid-back style, to me, exposes their often-formulaic tunewriting and composition... that doesn't bother me when they're singing the hell out of a song, but it's more glaring when it's just sort of chugging along in Rococo. They use lots of raised 4ths to bring in a dreamy state, which is cool. Some of its social criticism is vague (that seems to be the point in some songs, like Modern Man, but Sprawl I (Flatland) really bothers me for some reason). The storytelling of Half Light II (No Celebration), seems half-baked to me, it rolls off into vague non-sequiturs. And that's a shame, because its opening lines are so promising. I'm expecting something like Springsteen (especially The River)... can the Arcade Fire do that? Could their fans hear it? Anyway, another song whose best lyric is its first is City With No Children. In one rhyme, combining Elvis Costello-like cruelty with a nostalgia unique to this album's internal logic, they neatly set up a frame story, give their observations a listener. It's pretty catchy, and the last chord of the pattern suggests a modulation to V then snatches it away. Then the next line, “... and before a world war does with us what whatever it will do”, makes me want to throw things.

Speaking of frame stories, I caught The Social Network on my flight out to Germany. It's a frame story set around some deposition that Zuckerberg is pretty bored with. As well he should be. He's being sued by a bunch of rich whiners that each already owned pretty much the portion of Facebook they deserved. Who cares about them? That's nowhere close to the story. The real story is Zuckerberg's consistent disregard for the people whose data fuels his empire, starting with his first popular “hotness” rating site. The fact that after everyone hated Beacon, he said, “OK, well I'll take it away and bring it back later, packaged differently.” Maybe he's a genius for proving that we have no principles or backbone.

One belief that I hold pretty strongly is that it should be absolutely illegal to use people as advertising spokespeople without their consent. To put words in their mouths. That includes plenty of stuff Facebook does today (have you seen the messages you get when you try to quit the site?). I always thought the Apple “Think Different” ads were pretty sketchy, coming damn close to portraying Gandhi and Einstein as computer salesmen. But at least they apparently got permission from the estates of the people whose images they used. I'm not sure that should be allowed anyway, but at least they did something.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Germany!

I just got back from Germany, was there two weeks for work. For some reason I didn't blog while there; I would like to say I was too busy drinking beer, but I actually didn't drink that much beer. I did spend a ton of time just walking around Erlangen, and running in the German countryside.

The German countryside is a great place to go running. You know how when you fly into Midway it sort of feels like you're going to land in the middle of a great big rail yard (not just any rail yard, but the Clearing Yard of the Chicago Belt Railway, one of the biggest in the world)? When you fly into Nürnberg it looks like you're landing in a big evergreen forest. On Monday the 24th I took a run looping around a big chunk of this forest, took a wrong turn near the end, and ended up running 18-and-a-half miles through the snow before work. The forests, small towns, farms, all of it just had this magical feeling to it. And even in the freezing January weather I always saw lots of people out enjoying it on bikes, running, and walking. Trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing are very well marked, which helps.

But what probably helps even more is that everything is just so much closer. German cities certainly have some sprawl to them, but nothing close to what American cities have. Tennenlohe (where I worked in Germany) is a lot like Canyon Park (where I work in the States). You might consider it a "small edge city". It's about 7km from Erlangen and about 11km from Nürnberg, and isn't continuously linked by sprawl to either city.

I took the train up to Bamberg on my free Saturday. Its old city has lots of old buildings still standing, and as it was once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, there are a lot of historically important buildings in town. Coming from America, the re-use of the old buildings, cobbled streets, and plazas in the main part of the old city for a modern shopping district looks really strange to me. It is, of course, a bit of a touristy thing even in the winter. Up at the top of a hill going west out of town there's a trailhead for a walking trail going quite some distance. I also did some walking around newer parts of Bamberg, and even there a lot of the architecture is really beautiful. Somehow I forgot my camera, but I'm not sure pictures could really capture the different feeling of being there anyway.

I found being in a country where I don't speak the language very tiring. Even though a lot of people speak English there and I didn't have any serious problems resulting from not being able to communicate, it meant that every conversation took a lot of effort, even more than it usually is for me. I practiced German phrases that I thought I would need, but almost never was able to spit them out in context. I hated asking people, “Sprechen sie Englisch?” I felt like I had come to their home and forced my language on them. I obviously missed out tremendously on the culture and life of the places I visited because I couldn't understand people speaking in their native language, couldn't hear announcements or read signs.

On my way home from the airport I was waiting for a bus transfer at 3rd and Pine, and there were some guys shooting craps on the sidewalk. One of them yelled, “This is Chi-town, baby!” I'm not sure how often in Chi-town people shoot craps on the sidewalk downtown on an overcast, 50-degree, rainy day in January. That sounds about as Seattle as it gets. But just hearing the words and understanding them, and easily laughing at the irony of them, that meant a lot to me. On the bus going past an abandoned lot I thought, “I'm home — this is my home, even the stupid and ugly parts.”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Getting It

I've just started reading Studs Terkel's classic Working. I'm not too far in, but it seems to be a testament to what you hear when you listen. It was written in the 70s — do we listen worse now than we did then? Do we have less hope of brotherhood than we did then? I didn't live then, and I don't know.

Then, this, on the Singularity.

I also recently finished Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute (essentially a memoir of his military education and service in Afghanistan). One striking aspect of the book, to me, is the following statement: “At West Point we'd learned that responsibility preceded privilege”. Leading up to that, he'd been describing difficulties re-adjusting to civilian life after returning, and the sorts of stupid comments he'd hear from people at parties. That they'd sign up for military service if they were “guaranteed a challenging assignment”, or that they supported the troops but not the war, when in fact they did nothing to support the troops.

His subjective response of disgust is clearly justified, and points to a more universal truth. Yes, these people are clearly putting privilege ahead of responsibility, asking for the sorts of promises they'd get in business. That's one privilege my generation has become accustomed to, instant gratification and recognition. It's never asked for and rarely acknowledged. Mullaney's early decision to go to West Point instead of an Ivy League school contained an acknowledgement of this privilege (and of his discomfort with it) and a rejection of it.

Another theme that ran through was the question of meaning. It's sort of a cliché to describe bureaucracies as Kafkaesque, and some reviewers called his descriptions of West Point life and of his experience as an adjutant by that word. I don't think that's quite right. In those things Mullaney found meaning where it wasn't initially obvious — in some (especially in frustrating training exercises) he found definite, specific meanings, and elsewhere he seemed open to the idea of a yet unknown or unknowable meaning. To really be Kafkaesque the experience ought to be meaningless. He seemed more ambiguous about the meaning of the war in Afghanistan. Obviously it had as much personal meaning as his training but an actual war demands more than that. Could he have undergone meaningful training for a meaningless mission? At least within this book, he asks the question but doesn't become consumed with it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dolphin rights, beyond glibness

In my last post I made a cynical comment about the idea of rights for dolphins. Since I have read about, and more importantly, thought a lot about exactly what sort of rights animals deserve generally, it probably deserves something more earnest.

So, of course, the first thing that comes to my mind is Lou Reed: “There's no such thing as human rights when you walk the New York streets”. I said earnest, not idealistic. To me every being has the moral right to try to survive, but can never be guaranteed success, let alone any higher sort of dignity.

But just recognizing a dolphin's right to try is more powerful than we might think. A dolphin is not like a cat or dog, seeking a partnership with people. Surely our ability to understand animals is limited, but it speaks volumes that if you feed cats and dogs and let them generally run free (common enough in rural areas) they'll hang around for more than just the food. They'll enter something like a social contract with you pretty willingly. Dolphins won't, and it takes force and trickery to keep them in captivity. It takes constant frustration of their instincts and desires. That's true of almost every animal you see at a zoo, not just dolphins.

The question of zoos becomes more complicated in the context of widespread habitat destruction. Is zookeeping OK when it saves species from extinction? This speaks to an even bigger question. I don't want to go on endlessly about vegetarianism or something, 'cause that's not what this is about, but it's a necessary setup... it's really pretty easy to be a healthy vegetarian, as there have been a number of vegetarian food cultures in history and modern medicine believes you don't even really have to pay attention to protein mixing, just don't eat the same thing every damn day. But veganism is tougher — the current understanding is that the human body needs nutrients that can only be obtained through animal flesh, animal products, or industrial production. That is to say: we all have a need, as much a part of us as our right hands, or our abilities to reason, to either kill, exploit, or dominate. Choose wisely.

This need, which has developed with us (and our increasing ability to kill, exploit, and dominate) over many generations, is like our situation where many species are endangered by our hands. To someone that idealizes a peaceful and balanced world it's a moral burden we necessarily inherit. Satisfy our desires and frustrate those of another. Few take seriously the alternative: death.

Maybe at some point we had a choice but now we're kinda stuck with domination. I think it's true what Tolstoy said: that in his wars, Napoleon had the least free will of anyone.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Smorgasborg day

1. I don't have a lot to say about this, and it's sort of technical, but this blog post goes some way toward explaining why the Internet doesn't feel all that fast, despite gaudy bandwidth capabilities.

2. Also, from Slashdot, an article about whether dolphins should be considered persons and thus have rights. Based on how human persons treat each other, I'd say that in order to secure their rights as persons dolphins will have to present proof of citizenship — or, failing that, become a corporation.

3. Is it wrong that I don't like it when spec documents are given to me in Excel format?

4. I've been following some discussions over baseball's Hall of Fame, mostly in the Sabremetric community. I've been trying to waste less time and energy on that sort of stuff, but, you know, last verse of this song and all, what am I gonna do? Anyway, entrenched positions on the Blyleven candidacy have become truly silly over the last few years, and now are finally over. So, a few days late, I'll weigh in. Maybe one reason there's such a gap between Blyleven's aggregate stats (basically anything that's summed up without regard to the start and end of games) and his W-L record has to do with the distribution of runs given up per-start? Given his ridiculous number of shutouts, he might have a different-looking distribution than most pitchers, and really might not be as good as his aggregate stats in terms of winning games. Even if that's true, Blyleven might deserve to be in the Hall anyway...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

typedef structs

Within the last couple years I've become a fan of Yossi Kreinin's C++ FQA, which goes a long way toward explaining the feeling I get often when coding C++: This would be easier in any other language.

Often that includes C. The superiority of some old C features and methodologies over the C++ ones meant to replace them, and the fact that they're usually still available in C++, has led to their frequent use in C++ code. The use of macros, pointer arithmetic, format strings, and the like, is to me often justified, even if they make a program look a lot different than what you see in a C++ reference book.

One C-ism I keep seeing and don't understand, however, is typedef struct. In C you had to typedef your struct types to refer to them without the struct keyword. C++ lifted this requirement, but I still see it all over the place. Of course, C++ also changed what a struct is considerably: it's the same as a class, but its members are public by default, not private. Sometimes I see structs written basically as mini-classes, with member functions and perhaps even constructors. In this case I don't see the C-ish typedef very often. Similarly, these ones are more likely to have “C++-like” member names.

C++ is a language that gives its users lots of flexibility in pointless places. Of course, it's typical for the state of software in 2010 that we aren't making intentional choices with that flexibility...