Sunday, October 19, 2014

The relativistic version of the linear motion equation: velocity = acceleration*time.

My son is starting to do … physics.

It is fair to say I am more excited about this than he is. There is a reason I have a copy of the 1973 Edition of Misner, Thorne and Wheeler’s Gravitation ($35!) on my bookcase. I’m saving it for retirement, by which time will breeze through all the visualizations. It is true I was a failure (non-physicist) at Caltech, but there’s still time…

Ahem. So when #w was given an assignment to create a poster about linear motion, with equations on time, velocity, constant acceleration and the like, I thought it would be fun to show that the equations of linear motion are merely a low velocity approximation to the relativistic equations of linear motion. I was sure a quick Google search would turn up a simple simulation that would look like:

v=a*t (starting at rest velocity after time t is acceleration times t)

Riiiight. I’m sure that simulation exists, but I was never able to find it. With a bit of thought about the problem I realized I might be better off dropping the tricksy concept of acceleration and looking for a relativistic version of:

v= (F/m)*t (since change in velocity is Force*Time/Mass. Push a trike, push a truck, which moves faster?)

That found an “off-topic” [1] stack overflow article which was just a few parentheses short of the good-enough equation [2]: v = c * tanh(asinh((F*t)/(m*c))).

This is the first time I’ve personally run into hyperbolic trig functions, so I thought that was pretty cool, especially since I’d just read Jon Butterworth’s lovely description of how one hops from simple physics to quantum physics simply by tossing the square root of -1 (i) into a classical wave equation (uses Euler’s Formula, so extra points). That article used the familiar sin/cos functions, so I was getting an extra dose of trig. 

Plugging v = c * tanh(asinh((F*t)/(m*c))) into Wolfram Alpha gave me this cool output (yes, the AIs wll be our death, but for now they’re fun):

Screen Shot 2014 10 19 at 1 20 50 PM

Now that is what I was looking for! It clearly reduces to v = (F/m)*t when the squared stuff is relatively small. [5]

We can now compare my son’s high school textbook linear motion equation (v=F/m*t) to the relativistic equation, using the sneaky physics trick of geometrized units so c=1. Just to make things even nicer I’ll arbitrarily set the applied force to “1” (some unit) and the mass to “1” (some unit). This is what Desmos shows:

Screen Shot 2014 10 19 at 1 56 56 PM 

The last shows how simple this is in geometrized units (v is change in velocity over time t in our funky units):

Screen Shot 2014 10 19 at 2 10 11 PM

and here’s the magic graph that shows what happens as velocity (y axis) approaches “1” (speed of light) in the original linear motion equation and the relativistic version:

Screen Shot 2014 10 19 at 1 58 53 PM

Yeah, hits the speed limit. [5]

[1] The iron law of StackOverflow is that any article of interest will sooner or later by marked off-topic.

[2] I discovered the problem when I plugged it into Wolfram alpha, I had to do some web searches and play around the parens to get the correct expression.

[3] Incidentally, if you’d told me in 1995 that we would still lack easy entry of mathematical notation into web pages in 2014 I’d have assumed some kind of worldwide civilizational collapse.

[4] Once I had this expression, which was provided by the Wolfram AI, I found a discussion thread (scroll down) telling me it can be derived by “substituting F/m for a in the Baez equations(where m is the proper mass) and dividing by c where the tanh/sinh stuff is related to “proper and coordinate time”.

[5] I’ve done great violence here to the principles of general relativity — the meaning of time and distance are entirely dependent on frames of reference and I’ve glossed over all of that — largely because, you know, I’m not a physicist. It is kind of neat, however, what one can kludge together with a handful of web tools. In the general vein of non-physicist at play, it’s fun to compare this to Butterworth’s masterly representation of quantum physics using high school math. I again am left with feeling that physics will be easier to understand once we figure out what “distance” and “time” emerge from.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Blogging is definitively back - the NYT has redone their Zombie RSS page

My feeds (Feedbin/Reeder) have never gone quiet — but there’s no doubt it was getting harder to find links to feeds over the two years since Google tried to kill RSS to boost G+.

Then came signs of a turnaround. Apple very quietly added RSS reading back into Safari — after removing RSS from both Safari and [2]. Google, fairly quietly, backed away from G+ — I don’t get any G+ social invites at all any more. More interestingly, Google blogs all became more active. Microsoft kept RSS features in IE 11. Facebook never removed RSS from Pages. Old blogs started lighting up in my feed reader. Rosenberg has started writing about a blog revival amidst disaffection with Twitter and Facebook [1]. 

All significant developments, but they pale next to the very biggest sign of them all — the New York Times has updated their RSS - Feed Page! It no longer recommends use of Google Reader! [3] The NYT has even added Topic Feeds:

Times Topics feeds collect news, reference, photos, graphics, audio and video on thousands of subjects, covering material published since 1981 … Search 10,000+ Times Topics Feeds

 Dave Winer should be a happy guy today.

[1] Not directly related, but fairly suddenly, and for no obvious reason, many of my friends and family have stopped posting on Facebook.

[2] Apple needs to update it’s RSS Feed page though — it doesn’t mention use of Safari.

[3] It does mention AOL Reader. I thought that was a bad sign, but, and this shocks me, AOL really does have a Feed Reader with its own spiffy web site: "Moving from another RSS reader? You can upload your subscriptions in standard OPML format and start reading right away!”. It even has its own friggin’ API. Turns out this was launched a year ago. It’s still in beta, but there’s an active development blog and they released an iOS app in August that has few ratings but seems well liked. Best of all, it supports OPML export as well as import. So this is a real contender.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Alibaba/Apple Ratio and the fools guide to post-bubble market timing

Google tells me Apple’s market cap today is 576.39 billion dollars. (Think on that for a moment.)

Alibaba’s market cap is 223.28 billion dollars.

So the Alibaba/Apple ratio is 0.39.

I’ll be buying into the S&P as the market falls, but I’ll buy more when that ratio gets closer to 0.10.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Repairing carbon frame mountain bikes: Ruckus Composites vs. Cyclocarbon

With this post I'll finish my 3 week journey from carbon frame naivete to bloodied veteran (see below for related posts). It began when a bike shop refused to repair my newly acquired used Cannnodale Scalpel because of this frame finding:

Yes, the strange irregular line where the end of an aluminum seat insert meets a carbon frame top tube. The bike shop and everyone else who looked at it was certain the frame was dangerously unride-able, whereas the previous owner felt it was fine. (As it turned out, it's not clear who was right [2], only that there was no way to service the bike.)

After a bit of research guided by local bike shops and mountain biking friends, I learned about the hierarchy of carbon frame repairs. There are roughly 3 levels of carbon frame repair:
  • Elite: often with a national market, may use ultrasound to inspect frame, usually need to strip bike and ship frame, repairs take 4-6 weeks but look like new.
  • Regional "race ready": services a metro area or geographic region, mostly hand delivered bikes, focuses on fast turnaround rather than fine finish. Often used by racers, who own the majority of broken frames.
  • Hobbyists who do a small number of frames, often for friends.
I ended up comparing an elite option from Ruckus Composites with a "race-ready" option from Drew at Cyclocarbon. This is what I heard back from Ruckus after they reviewed my blog post:
Ruckus Composites 
... First we will do a full inspection for structural integrity on the frame and hunt out all of the damage. once that is complete we will contact you with a quote and report our findings. 
After that we’ll machine out the damaged carbon fiber because (like a crack in a windshield or a tear in your jeans) all of the damage needs to be removed or it’ll keep propagating under the patch. 
Once we have that taken care of, we can go in and structurally rebuild it with fresh carbon fiber. When that’s done, we can repaint and clearcoat your frame so it’ll be just like new. 
For a repair like this I would estimate around $400-500 and about 3 weeks of in-house labor to complete. I suggest the next step you take is to take your bike to your local friendly bike shop and have them tear it down and box it up. Tearing the bike down to just a frame makes shipping a lot cheaper...
Cyclocarbon (Cyclocarbon on Facebook is more active) doesn't do this "like new" kind of repair. They do "race ready" for $150-$200, typically in about 3-5 days. That means no repainting of the original decals, no clearcoat, and a functional rather than "like new" shape. Repair warranty is informal.

I ended up going with Cyclocarbon, in large part because of turnaround time and because Emily was willing to drive my bike 1.5 hours from St Paul to Rochester MN [1]. Cyclocarbon has a strong local reputation, so I felt their repair would be reliable. For me the cost and hassle of tear down, shipping, and reassembly outweighed the aesthetics of a Ruckus repair. Once I factored in shipping and assembly costs Cyclocarbon was also significantly less expensive.

I think Ruckus would have been an excellent choice too however. I do miss the Scalpel graphics, and my top tube now has a bit of pudge. If I'd gone the Ruckus route I'd have invested in tools to do my own disassembly and reassembly.

It's good to have choices.

[1] If she'd known who lousy the drive would be that day I'm sure I'd have done local shipping rather than driving. I was able to pickup the bike during a trip to Rochester for my son's High School mountain biking race.

[2] Cyclocarbon's Drew tells me that despite the worrying artifact the carbon seemed strong. He's not sure whether the frame was truly weakened.

See also:

PhotoCard 1914

I'm a fan of Bill Atkinson's;  I send one weekly to my father, currently in long-term care. I love the fusion of ancient Egyption and modern American tech.

So I appreciated discovering a 100 year old PhotoCard in my father's effects. This print is a (way) pre-photoshop overlay of my father's Uncle Max and his mates on an 'ISOLATED' image.

On the back of the print is the stamp that made it a 1914 PhotoCard - with a section for postage and for a note. (In this case it was never stamped).

Hard to believe there will still be postal delivery in 100 years, but maybe Amazon will stick them in packages.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What is the best material for a mountain bike frame?

One of the great things about blogging is that it lets someone who knows very little look much the same as a world class expert. All of the usual cues to merit and expertise are stripped way. In the Feed Reader, nobody knows you're a naif.

Ok, that's enough informed consent. I'm now going to tell you what material works best for a mountain bike frame - Aluminum, Steel, or Carbon. I base this wisdom on two weeks of recrimination after Akerloff's information asymmetry and rampant bike lust [1] got me a problematic Carbon Frame Cannondale racing mountain bike. During this time I sorted out how to buy a used mountain bike and why Carbon frame warranty loss hits resale value -- and I came up with the definitive guide to the BEST frame material:

Attribute Aluminum Steel Carbon
Perform 2 1 4
Retail $ [2] 4 2 1
Repair $ [2] 1 1 3
Reliability 3 4 1
Comfort 1 2 4
Lifespan 2 4 1

The spider graph [3] makes it clear ...

What do you mean there's no clear winner?!

Year, it's like that. Since I don't race and don't have time to spend on fussy stuff I'd be best off with an aluminum frame or, if I had the money, a steel frame from one of the elite Minnesota steel bike companies. Still, there's no denying the performance and comfort of carbon.

So it just depends.

I lied. Sorry.

[1] My brother bought a Porsche under similar circumstances. He says I got off easy.
[2] In these cases higher rating is less cost. Carbon can be relatively cheap to repair if you can find the right person or don't mind mailing a frame.
[3] It is really quite amazing that one can create a table in Excel/Windows and paste it into Blogger's composer window as an HTML table. I don't think I can do that on my Mac. I tried to do this graph in Google Spreadsheet but didn't seem to be supported there.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Apple kills yet another photo sharing service - and generally screws up iOS photo management

I expect Apple to screw up anything related to long term data management, but this is extreme even by their standards. GigaOm, in language restrained by fear of Apple, tells us of another Apple datacide and botched product transition.

In the article quoted below “iPhoto” is for iOS. Given the timid language, I’ve added some inline translation in square brackets …   
[ has been removed from iOS, replaced by with fewer capabilities, including loss of iPhoto Web journals.
… In November of 2010 .Mac HomePages gave way to MobileMe Web Galleries. Then in June of 2012, MobileMe Web Galleries ceased to exist as iCloud came online. Now the most recent successor, iPhoto Web journals, is being shut down, or at least that is how it appears. With each transition, users of the previous online journaling feature really had little to no options available when it came to migration to a new or replacement feature. [users were totally screwed and lost hundreds of hours of work with no recourse
… you could add titles, insert comments, include maps, weather and other information intermingled with your photos. Users of journals would typically spend a good amount of time personalizing the delivery of their online photos by telling a story alongside their photos. 
The problem this time around is that there was very little notice and there really is no recourse or action that can be taken to preserve your iPhoto projects. … “Photo Books, Web Journals, and Slideshows are converted into regular albums in Photos. Text and layouts are not preserved.” And thats it, no more iCloud scrapbooking per Apple. 
… Apple has finally removed the concept of the Camera Roll …  all of the photos you have taken, whether they are on your device or not, now show up in the same “Recently Added” folder. This is not just a simple name change, it is a completely different experience. All of your photos are now synced across all of your devices, or at least the last thirty days worth. 
… iOS 8 has actually made it even harder to delete photos stored on your device [image capture delete all no longer works]. Tap and hold a photo in your “Recently Added” album and delete it from the album. It will move into the newly created “Recently Deleted” album …  delete it again from the “Recently Deleted” album…
Apple is a bit of a serial data killer -- usually with no public response. I still miss the comments I'd attached to iPhoto albums that were lost in the transition to Aperture.

Speaking of Aperture, both iPhoto (and Aperture) for Mac have been sunset, though Aperture is still sold. All three are eventually to be replaced by “”, which may be an improvement on iPhoto but is certain to be a disaster for Aperture users. We can expect a large amount of personal metadata to be lost. (No, Lightroom is not a migration path.)

New users may be transiently better off once all the pieces are finally in place -- until the projects they invest in disappear. This is a cultural problem with Apple, not a bug that will get fixed. Never make Apple the owner of your data.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bill Atkinson's for iOS - weekly messages to my Dad in his nursing home

I plan to expire at 85, 10 years later than Ezekiel Emanuel [1]. My Dad is a bit less directed; at 92 he recently moved into the longterm care unit of the veterans facility in Ste. Anne’s Hospital, Montreal island [2].

Since I live in St Paul Minnesota, and have a good number of child obligations, that’s a long way for a visit. Unfortunately, like many elderly men, he despises phones. He’s also resolutely low tech. 

Which leaves 2,700 year old technology — postal mail. 

The problem with postal mail, of course, is that the sending process takes time — and I don’t think Dad is into long letters anyway. Which is why I buy credits every few weeks with Bill (HyperCard, Paint, etc) Atkinson’s for iOS.

Atkinson developed this app in part to showcase his nature photography, but that’s now how I use it. I pick family photos Dad would like to have by his bed; I send one card a week with a short note of family news — and a reminder of the names and ages of 3 of his grandchildren.

I can reuse prior cards as a template, substituting a new photo and new text. The entire process from beginning to end takes about 2-3 minutes, I’ve a ToodleDo task that reminds me to send them weekly. I like the (rare) clarity of Atkinson’s pricing and the “buy credit” approach — my AMEX info never leaves the phone.

Cards are mailed from Silicon Valley and take 10-14 days to reach my father (Canada Post is notoriously slow).

I’m rather fond of this app.

[1] Obviously I approve of Emanuel’s essay, but I must say that by his logic most humans should be dead by age 20. His primary concern is to expire when he is past some absurdly high utility threshold; given his history and genetics a 75 yo Emanuel will still perform above the rest of us. I’m not worried about being vital or useful, I just want a 75% probability that I die in control of my life. So preventive care stops at age 75, cancer/cardiac interventions stop at age 80, antibiotics stop at 84, base jumping and cave diving start at 85.

That said, when I inspect Emanuel’s strategies I think he has rather good odds of making 82. If he really wanted to expire at 75 he’d need to be much more aggressive.

[2] WW II took a lot out of my father — who had more Aspie traits than I have. Maybe even a full diagnosis, though brains change a bit in 80 years. That’s not a good foundation for being a signalman on a frontline tank festooned with antennae (bullseye redundant). So whatever the Vets do now is small recompense. It does help he was a young Canadian in the war, and that Canada’s later wars were far smaller; he inherits facilities built for a lost generation. He’s been remarkably content there - so far.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How to buy a used bicycle - and why carbon frames are a special problem

I’ve sold several of the kid’s bikes (at bargain prices!), but this week was my first purchase of a used bicycle. It didn’t go well. Consequently I’ve learned a lot about the high end sold-by-owner used bicycle market. In the spirit of turning pain into a learning experience, I’ll share my personal recommendations.

First, however, I’ll warn you that George Akerloff would say you really shouldn’t do this. Consider buying from a reputable used bike shop that offers a warranty — but I think most high end used bikes are sold by owner.

  1. Be ready to walk away. Remember the seller knows a lot more about the bicycle than you do, so they have the advantage. Don’t travel somewhere to look the bike over — that makes it very hard to walk away. Sellers don’t want to travel either, so you should probably restrict your search to local sellers.
  2. If you aren’t an expert, bring an expert. If you can’t bring an expert, ask a bike shop you trust if you can pay for a pre-sale inspection and ask that of the seller. Explain that you lack expertise to evaluate the bike.
  3. Carbon frames are a special risk. I’ve read claims they don’t fail any more often than a steel or aluminum frame; that’s crazy talk. They are wonderful, and easier to repair than aluminum or steel, but they fail in an obnoxious number of ways. What makes that more tolerable is the lifetime warranties quality vendors provide on high end frames. Those warranties are generally not transferrable however, so a carbon frame is worth a lot more to the original owner than it is to you. You should expect a big price drop on a carbon frame bike, and if you don’t have a manufacturer warranty you need a good local source for carbon frame repair.
  4. Research the original list price, remembering that people who buy good bikes often negotiate 25-35% discounts.
  5. You really don’t want to buy a stolen bike. I avoided Craigslist for that reason and went through a local Facebook bike sell/trade group. I knew my seller’s name, home town, job, reputation in the local bike community and more. Even so, I think I bought a gray market bike — sold via eBay by a Cannondale dealer for less than authorized price — maybe without paperwork. Request a copy of the purchase records when buying a bike less than 6-10 years old. Many people won’t have these, but give special attention to any seller who can provide them.

That said, from what I hear from the local mountain bike community most sellers are remarkably conscientious — in one case assisting with a warranty replacement 1 year after the sale. That’s extreme! So even if you don’t follow all of these rules, you may do very well.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Information asymmetry and can my Cannondale Scalpel purchase be salvaged?

George Akerloff won the Economics Nobel in 2001 for a paper he wrote about why you should never buy a used car. I’ve written about Akerloff before, his 1970 paper is a gift that keeps on giving.

Akerloff would have told me I was a fool to buy a used carbon frame mountain bike, in my case a 2010 Cannondale Team Scalpel mountain bike. Alas, I did. I have no excuse, I should have known I didn’t have the time or expertise to buy into this market. I was swayed by bike fever after my beloved roof rack mounted 1992 Trek 7000 was decapitated by a height bar on an outdoor garage. I exchanged $1,500 for a lovely bike that the owner promised was fine to ride.

You know where this is going.

To be fair to my naive self, the seller is a man of some repute. He’s an assistant principal at a small town middle school, a running coach, and a competitive mountain biker who built the rural single track my son and I will be riding tomorrow. So when I asked about a possible problem, it’s not insane that I trusted his answer. I believe that he was telling the truth telling what he wanted to believe was the truth but, in reality, involved a good amount of denial. [1]

The problem is the line seen in the pictures below, where the carbon top tube meets what I think is an internal aluminum component for the seat post. On the left side the ragged line follows an elliptical curve, but it ends to the right of top tube. The picture also shows what appears to be a dimple near the seat post; I couldn’t see that with the naked eye, but it shows up well in this photo. I’ve since run my finger over that area and there is a small depression. Otherwise I can’t feel any weakness at all in this part of the bike, to percussion the frame sounds and feels as it should.

I noticed this when, in the throes of bike lust and (since lost) innocence about carbon frames, I first looked over the bike. The seller told he’d worried about it too, but had it checked by a Canonnondale tech who said it was a cosmetic defect. The kind of thing Cannondale’s tech note refer too. He’d raced with this for two years without change — and he rides a lot more aggressively than I do.

That wasn’t the reaction our local Cannondale shop had yesterday. They refused to service the bike. I understand why, because carbon frames have a (undeserved?) reputation for explosive failure with litigation fallout (update: also, the frame is cracked.) Their insurance doesn’t cover that. If it wasn’t a used bike, and if I had a purchase record [1], they could  have worked with Cannondale. Alas.

I called Matt Appleman, a local carbon frame expert, and he told me nobody but a Cannondale engineer could rule on this bike — and he wasn’t touching it. He referred me to Ruckus Composites of Portland Oregon.

I’ve emailed the seller to see if he’d be willing to work with me on a warranty claim; it would have to be pursued by him though I’d do all the work. I’m also looking for a local second opinion, I think Freewheel bikes may be willing to send photos to Cannondale (like these). I’ll followup with Ruckus Composites and see what they say.

Most of all though, I’d love to hear from folks who know more than me. Is it reasonable to ride this bike? Can it be repaired? Should I sell it to anyone who’d like the parts? All advice welcome! You can also email me: or tag me via or twitter.

I’ll update this post with what I finally do.

Scalpel frame 1Scalpel frame 2Scalpel frame 3

Update 9/26/2014: Emily wants to burn the bike and forget the $1,500. A regional carbon repair guy, Drew of Cyclocarbon, tells me “it’s broken” but he’s comfortable with doing the repair.

[1] Updated 9/26 and 9/28/2014.

I’ve learned a bit more about the provenance of this bicycle; I think I can explain how a reasonably honest seller sold a (probably) quite dangerous frame on a (certainly) unserviceable bike.

It begins with knowing that bike shops sell high end bikes at 100% markup. That’s typical of high service retail, and much less than iPhone markup (for example). Add this fact — bike shop employees are not highly compensated, but they can buy gear at very high discounts — maybe at cost. There’s probably some restriction on how many they can buy in a year, and maybe some restriction on how and when they can sell. Whatever the restriction is, I bet bike shops often look the other way.

So this bike listed in 2010 at $8,000 (way, way more bike than I would need/want). An employee bought it at, I’m guessing, $4,000. He didn’t ride it much, and a year later he sold it on eBay for $5,000. So the bike shop employee made $1,000 on the deal and the buyer got a great bike at a substantial discount — but no warranty. I think the $5,000 price tag was too high given typical high end retail discounts of 20-30% off list and the lack of warranty on a carbon frame bike.

After purchase it developed a discontinuity in the frame — perhaps less than what it has now. This was very bad news for someone who had just spent $5,000 on a bike with no frame warranty.

The new owner found a Cannondale rep who was reassuring (maybe the defect was smaller then?). So he continued to ride it, persuading himself the bike was safe. (And maybe it is, if I had office ultrasound I’d try imaging the frame. In any case, no reputable shop will work on this bike now.)

I then bought the bike for $1,500. It has some other issues, but that would have been a great price if not for the frame problem. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t buy it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Apple Watch - a bridge too far

There's a healthy business in in used 6th generation iPod Nanos. The kids lost ours recently and we all miss it; we might look for a used one.

I don't think the 1st generation Apple Watch will be nearly as successful in the US market, though it may have some success in its true target market of China. Unlike the much loved Nano-clip it doesn't solve anyone's problems well. An water-susceptible exercise device tied to an iPhone is far less useful than an inexpensive FitBit. An authentication device tied to an iPhone is redundant in today's world. The iWatch Apple Watch is a very limited music and video platform. It's too big, it's too expensive, it's too fragile (water), the battery is too small and the initial demo highlighted bumping hearts.

The Apple watch is less developed and less interesting than Google Glass -- and that's a very low threshold to clear. If Apple had innovated on the standalone Nano-clip they could have delivered an interesting product, but the technology isn't here for the product Cook decided to bring to market.

This isn't the usual Apple 1.0 product. The usual 1.0 Apple product is interesting and somewhat useful for early adopters with high pain tolerance and it comes with a clear path to a strong 2.0. This is version 0.5. It's far too ambitious for its time -- and it's 6 months behind schedule.

A waterproof $150 iOS 8 Nano-clip replacement in Sept 2015 will be interesting. Splitting the cellular phone into multiple components, for which iPad and Apple Watch are interaction elements will be interesting. Standalone Apple Watch 4 running on next-generation LTE will be interesting.

Apple Watch 1 is a mistake.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

How can anyone compete with Amazon?

Two weeks ago I decided I needed proper running shoes for my aching Achilles — something other than my flat Crossfit shoes or my ancient clunky 911s. I’d have loved to go to a proper store and learn about pronation, but, really, I don’t have time.

So I ordered a B-width Asics that’s in Amazon’s free return program. The first pair was a bit big, so I returned them and ordered a half-size smaller.  They’re great. They were also tax free (very unfair) and probably 30% cheaper than a store purchase — but really, it wasn’t the price, it was the time.

A week ago I biked two miles to Petco to pick up a poop-scoop. Kateva ran on the way out, trailored on the way back. I found a good enough scoop for $30, but it’s so annoying when these break that I wanted a backup. Amazon had a much better one for $20.

#2 son needs an introductory electric guitar for school music — $99 at Amazon. We want a useable kitchen radio with aux-in [1] - Amazon. Clipless pedals for #1’s road bike. Madden NFL 15 for xbox. Ruby Redfort book. Welch Allyn batteries for 30 yo otoscope. Vittoria road tires to replace 30yo originals. Amazon for all of it, with donations to Minnesota Special Hockey on the side.

How can any retailer compete? It’s not the price — it’s the convenience, the speed, the inventory, the buying experience, the easy returns, the reviews [2].

The only option I can see is for stores like Walmart and Target to setup mini-stores. Customers pick what they want, items get delivered to store within 12-24 hours. Consumer can try on shoes, inspect guitar, decide if they want to complete the transaction. Maybe order three pairs of shoes to the mini-store, but buy one.

Is there any other model?

[1] Aux-in for AirPort Express AirPlay connection, because, as best I can tell, almost nobody can make Bluetooth audio work. While I’m at it, why is Tivoli the only company that makes a simple half-decent bloody radio? Can’t someone simply clone them?

[2] Which convinced me the Bluetooth Tivoli was a very bad idea.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Lessons from our "Simply Vibe" soundbar: sunk costs and the curse of the embedded processor

Years ago, based on the recommendation of a web site that might have been something like Wirecutter, we bought a low cost Amazon sound bar for kitchen use. In retrospect, we violated Gordon’s Laws of Acquisition [1] — a cheap purchase had a high cost of ownership. By way of penance, I present a warning to others.


We used the @$30 device it for 2 years before a failing battery brought us to our senses. Over those two years we endured hundreds of dollars worth of aggravation [2] - all because this simple device incorporated a chip with the capabilities of a 1970s mini-computer (more or less). A chip that allowed a Chinese engineer to inflict their personal version of usability Hell on the world. The volume behaviors were the inverse of the US standard, every button had two to three uses, you could plug in a peripheral with its own odd mechanical switch, attach a USB music source (mp3, no AAC - not a FairPlay issue, just no AAC support), and Darwin-forbid, it could even be a display-free radio. 

The sound was fine.

As has been noted often, there’s a lot to be said for limited choice technologies. The more choices technology affords, the more designer talent is needed to manage the choices. Which is probably why we have exactly one competent producer of embedded processor consumer electronics, and so much trash ware.

Now I’m looking for an alternative. We want a first class FM radio user interface, a simple audio in connector and … dare I say it … bluetooth.

[1] See also: Gordon’s Laws for buying software and services

[2] The amount someone would have had to pay us to use such a stupid device if it hadn’t been our idea in the first place.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Coming to terms with the multiverse

Like most people, my neurons were rebooted a few times between birth and adulthood. So I don’t remember that much about childhood, but I do remember sitting in a schoolyard, perhaps in grade one or two, trying to get my head around the end of the universe.

I’m not at all sure, but I believe at that time, around 1970, I thought of the universe as infinite. Later it became finite, a theoretically countable number of galaxies somewhere between 10-20 billion light years “across” with an estimated age that didn’t quite add up. Then came inflation and the height of a human defined the mid-point between Neutrino and the Universe. That was six or seven years ago.

Those were the good old days. Now we have the Multiverse, and Tegmark’s taxonomy of multiversi …

Level I: Beyond our cosmological horizon[edit]

… A generic prediction of chaotic inflation is an infinite ergodic universe, which, being infinite, must contain Hubble volumes realizing all initial conditions.

Accordingly, an infinite universe will contain an infinite number of Hubble volumes, all having the same physical laws and physical constants…. 

Level II: Universes with different physical constants…

… In the chaotic inflation theory, a variant of the cosmic inflation theory, the multiverse as a whole is stretching and will continue doing so forever, but some regions of space stop stretching and form distinct bubbles, like gas pockets in a loaf of rising bread….Different bubbles may experience different spontaneous symmetry breaking resulting in different properties such as different physical constants…

Level III: Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics … 

Level IV: Ultimate ensemble …

I’m slowly reading Tegmark’s popular book of which some criticism might be made. That review, however, offers little solace to universe nostalgics (emphases mine)…

Level I [is] just lots of unobservable extensions of what we see, with the same physics, an uncontroversial notion. Level III is the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which again sticks to our known laws of physics. Level II is where conventional notions of science get left behind, with different physics in other unobservable parts of the universe. This is what has become quite popular the past dozen years …

So an infinite number of universes like the one we observe is “uncontroversial” and the idea that our infinite multiverse is only one extreme instance of vastly larger number (mostly unsuitable for particles, much less life) is “quite popular”.  There are necessarily an infinite number of John Gordon’s typing versions of this post…

Yes, infinity is like that.

I prefer to think that nothing ever happened, and that we are merely granite dreaming, but I try to creep up on the multiverse by way of metaphor. One person standing on a barren planet is inexplicable; 8 billion people on a planet infested with life is relatively easy to understand.

Perhaps so it is with universes.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Human pregnancy is a dynamic struggle - implications for eco-econ, corporate power and secular stagnation

At the “Spherical Cow” level of simplification, human pregnancy is a dynamic tension control system, a kind of brain and gene motivated cold war between fetus and host (emphases mine)

Pregnancy is a war between mother and child – Suzanne Sadedin – Aeon

As the pregnancy continues, the foetus escalates its hormone production, sending signals designed to increase the mother’s blood sugar and blood pressure and thus its own resource supply. In particular, the foetus increases its production of a hormone that prompts the mother’s brain to release cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Cortisol suppresses her immune system, stopping it from attacking the foetus. More importantly, it increases her blood pressure, so that more blood pumps past the placenta and consequently more nutrients are available to the foetus.

The mother … pre-emptively reduces her blood sugar levels. She also releases a protein that binds to the foetal hormone, rendering it ineffective. So then the foetus further increases its production. By eight months, the foetus spends an estimated 25 per cent of its daily protein intake on manufacturing these hormonal messages to its mother. And how does the mother reply? She increases her own hormonal production, countering the embryo’s hormones with her own that decrease her blood pressure and sugar. Through all this manipulation and mutual reprisal, most of the time the foetus ultimately gets about the right amount of blood, and about the right amount of sugar, allowing it to grow fat and healthy in time for birth.

Pre-eclampsia may represent a malfunction of these balancing factors — a malfunction that injures both fetus and mother (many wondered about this in the early 90s).

Eco-econ principles suggest we look for this kind of evolved dynamic tension in our economic and political systems. We might look at something like this…

Feb 2010.png

a three way struggle between powerful economic (voters are also customers) and political forces. 

By analogy our current situation of secular stagnation and extreme wealth concentration is the equivalent of pre-eclampsia — a dynamic control system disorder that ultimately injures even the dominant powers. Corporations  and powerful individuals have accumulated too much wealth and power, resulting in dysfunctional patent laws, increasingly oppressive non-compete contracts, and a corrupt political system.

We can either rebalance our control systems, or we can develop eclampsia.