Archive for March, 2011

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I’ve got Cabin Fever

March 27, 2011

I love to backpack.  A lot.  Alas, lots of things conspire against me when it comes to this hobby.  Right now it’s that whole winter snow pack thing.  I only went backpacking once last year– and I got injured.  I was trying to break up a small tree into firewood, caveman style, and the tree quite resented that.  The net result is that I tore all the ligaments in my left thumb and dislocated it over 10 times.  That, and the resulting surgery, killed my chances for backpacking for the rest of the season.

12,200 feet up in the Rocky Mountains.

But it’s a whole new year, and my thumb has mostly forgiven me.  I have that itch, and it needs scratching.  Big time.

My last major trip was about 2 years ago.  It was a 3 day, 2 night, 27 mile trek with two cool guys.  We started at the Copper Mountain ski resort and went 27 miles to the south west.   About 3 or 4 miles of this was above 12,000 feet above sea level. Here’s a cool picture from near the top, click on the images to embiggen.

The only way I can do treks like this is to make my backpack as light as possible.  Many people who do this have backpacks that weigh as much as 60 pounds, although 40-45 pounds is more average.

For this trip, my pack weighed just 24 pounds, including 8 pounds of water and 3 pounds of food.  If you do the math, that leaves just 13 pounds for clothes, shelter, sleeping bag, stove, water filter, etc.   That’s not a lot, although I know of guys who backpack with even less.

My Small But Super-Light Tarp

One way I can get the weight down is to not use a tent.  Instead, I use a tarp.  On this trip, I used a tiny 8′ x 5′ tarp.   Net weight, about 8 ounces.  My trekking poles were used to make the tarp free-standing.

Another way is to use the Bush Buddy Ultra Stove.  This is a really cool wood gas stove.  Basically, it burns wood but in a very efficient way.  You put in small sticks and it heats up the wood so hot that it turns into a gas– and the gas is then burned.   The net result is very little smoke and ash.

With this type of stove I don’t have to bring along any fuel, as would be the case with a normal backpacking stove.  Stove plus pot weight about 11 ounces.  Unfortunately, this year has already been bad for wildfires, and it’s very likely that wood burning stoves will be banned in our mountains.  If that’s the case then I’ll be using the Jetboil Sol.

But of course, the main reason for backpacking is the scenery.  It’s awesome.   So I’ll close out this blog post with some eye candy for you all.  Click on an image to explodify.

Cool Waterfall

We're going where?!?!

Fly Fishing (on a different backpacking trip)

I am sooooo ready for summer to get here!

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Followup to Bad Witness, No Cookie!

March 25, 2011

I ran across this news item today and thought it was interesting, especially after my post the other day, “Bad Witness, No Cookie!“.  Here’s a link to a related video on YouTube.  In this news report and video, three strange lights in the sky were reported above the Boulder/Lafayette area.  An analysis of the reports, and the banter between news reporters, is quite amusing.

The big one that jumped out at me are the following quotes from the text version of the report:

“I don’t know what they are,” Leroy Vandervegt told the Boulder Daily Camera. “All I know is that I had no idea what it is. It wasn’t a satellite; it wasn’t an airplane; and it wasn’t a helicopter.”

And:

A man in Lafayette shot some video this week that he thinks may show some UFOs in the sky over Boulder County.

This type of logical fallacy is common (but apparently not common enough for me to know what the name of the fallacy is).  Basically, “Because I don’t know what it is, it must be aliens”.   Other people have used this same reasoning for aliens making all sorts of things including the  Egyptian Pyramids, Machu Picchu, the statues on Easter Island, and the Moon.

Here’s another quote from the article:

They stayed in a triangular formation, but the shape of the triangle changed.

Um, hello.  Did we not pass simple geometry in school?  It’s three points– three vertexes.  By definition, that’s a triangle!  What are three lights supposed to turn into?  A circle?

The reporters also debated if it could be a stealth bomber.  Their thinking was that that’s the only plane with a triangular shape.   Never mind that the stealth bomber can’t change shape, and moves a lot quicker than the video would imply.  Some basic thought would have told them that it’s not a stealth bomber.

Here’s another YouTube video.  The guy talking is funny.  He calls the formation a “perfect triangle”.  Pure genius!  Later he says that they are “levitating”.  I’m not quite sure how he can figure that out from three points of light in a black sky.

So this is a classic example of people seeing three unexplained lights in the sky and making up stuff to try to make sense of it.  Stealth bombers, UFO’s, and levitating perfect triangles.  Because you know that only aliens can make perfect triangles.

I’ll see you on the mothership!

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Bad Witness! No Cookie!

March 21, 2011

We’ve been trained for a very long time that an eyewitness is a very reliable source of information.  Often times an eyewitness at a trial can be the difference between a conviction and acquittal.  And if one witness is good, many witnesses is better.

The problem is, witnesses are a very poor source of information and whole crowds of witnesses are not much better.  Our senses, primarily sight and sound, are not perfect and our brains are very adept at filling in the blanks. When it comes to memory, we don’t fair much better as there too our brains tend to make up stuff.

A picture that has nothing to do with the article.

This is going to be a very important concept in future blog posts, so I figured I better cover it early.  So much of critical thinking centers around knowing what information to believe and what not to believe.  But for now, read this and let it sink in.  It’ll be important later.

Let’s start with memory.  Basically, you suck at memory.  Not only do you forget things, but you make stuff up and convince yourself that you got it right.  Our brains need to make sense out of everything.  If we experience something that doesn’t make sense our brains will frequently make things up in order to bring sense to our reality.  Check out this Scam School video.  In this video, Brian Brushwood demonstrates this effect.  It’s worth the 5 minutes to watch, and be sure to play along with the game.  Get your #2 pencil and paper ready!  Watch the video before reading on.

(As an aside, here are two more videos from Brian Brushwood.  At 40 minutes each these videos are a little long.  But they very entertaining, and will leave you wondering how humans ever got out of the stone age. )

So let’s say that an eyewitness was on the stand at a trial.  Can you trust their statements? Maybe, maybe not.  It’s a hard thing to judge, but you certainly can’t assume it’s true.  Here’s a transcript of a presentation by a Law and Psychology professors over at the Stanford Law School that covers the details much better than I could.

Now, on to eyesight.  Our eyes are bad, very bad.  We are especially bad at estimating size and distance.  And when things are fuzzy or dim we tend to make up detail that isn’t there.  The easiest example of this is your typical “UFO” sighting.  Here’s a great write-up about the October 2010 UFO sighting in New York.  The video embedded in that page is no longer valid, but this one still works.   I laughed when the reporter describes Jupiter as “having a tail and blue flashing lights”.

Most of our visual mistakes are made when looking up into the sky.  If you see a dot in a cloudless sky you have no frame of reference to compare it with.  You can’t tell if it’s a 1/2 mile wide balloon 20 miles away, or a 12 inch balloon 40 feet away.  Even if there were clouds you’d still have issues because you don’t really know how far away the clouds are, or how big they are.

We also make up detail that isn’t there.  In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s many people thought that there were canals on Mars.  The main proponent of this was Percival Lowell.  Lowell was an otherwise remarkable astronomer but fell prey to an imaginative mind and a fuzzy telescope image.   And don’t even get me started on the Face on Mars!

I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

The evidence is not quite so clear when it comes to hearing.  Mostly there just have not been as many studies into the accuracy of our ears and how our brain processes what we hear.  We certainly have a hard time counting events, like gun shots, that happen quickly.  I can also tell you that, as someone who has ran the sound system for lots of events, the volume of a sound will also effect your perception of pitch.  Our ears do degrade age.  And sometimes sound does not behave in an intuitive way.   The end result is that, like memory and eyesight, our hearing cannot be completely trusted either.

One topic which I won’t get into this time is our brain’s tendency to find patterns where a pattern does not exist.  That could be a whole series of blog posts by itself!

So what does this all mean?   Simply put, it means that we have to be mentally vigilant and identify ways that our senses and brain fail us.  We must take these into account when weighing evidence, anecdotes, and eyewitness testimony.  Later blog posts will cover things like the Scientific Method, which is simply a methodology to keep our brain from getting in the way of logic and reason.

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The Confines of Facebook

March 19, 2011

Awhile back I was in a lively discussion on Facebook.  The subject was getting into the technical details of AC/DC and DC/DC power supplies.  Very complex, dry, and geeky stuff.   For those who don’t know I’m an electrical engineer so I was, shall we say, in my element.  However, my part in the discussion ended when I posted the following comment:

I tried to write a reply to Kopp’s message, but after three attempts at writing a concise but technically correct message all I did was make myself sound like a pompous ass. So instead, let me offer to explain it over a beer or two. Some thing just can’t be discussed within the confines of Facebook.

While I had previously thought about starting a blog, this Facebook discussion finally pushed me over the edge.  I wasn’t trying to be an ass, and I didn’t want to be an ass.  But the message format of Facebook did not lend itself well to this discussion.

What should have been an eloquent six or eight paragraphs, with pictures and graphs, had to be concentrated down into:  “I know more than you, so just trust me“.  And that’s what we call a pompous ass.

Twitter allows for messages of 140 characters.  Just enough to say something useful, but usually not enough to hang yourself with.   Not so with Facebook.  You get much more room to spew inflammatory verbiage, but not enough room to put it into the proper context.  Facebook also makes it easy to post things quickly, before your rational mind get in the way and gives you the mental face palm.

So now I have a blog.  This gives me more room to spout, in a hopefully constructive way that Facebook doesn’t allow.  This is also a milestone on my path of total world domination.   First comes Twitter, and the 140 character limit.  Next is Facebook, with a paragraph or two.  Now a blog.  Then a book.  After that I can write my manifesto.  With a proper manifesto I can dominate the world and finally get my Latte with the proper amount of “room for cream”.

I don’t want to be like that twerp Ted Kaczynski.  His manifesto was a rambling piece of junk.  It sucks to be a Luddite.  He should have honed his skills with Twitter first!

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Hybrid Cars – Let’s do the analysis

March 17, 2011

A couple of years ago I was in the market for a new car.  I studied many options and, because I work in Boulder, Colorado, that included the new Hybrid cars.  Recently I got into a discussion about this again, so I figured that it’s time to look into this again.

There is a lot if hype, expectations, and misinformation about hybrid cars.   Are they really better for the environment? Does the effects of making those batteries outweigh the fuel efficiency?  How long will those batteries last?  Are the benefits worth having the same performance as a Big Wheel?  Most of us are not able to accurately answer those questions.  But there is one question that we can make a good stab at:  Will a hybrid car save me money over the life of the car itself?

The calculations are relatively easy.  Figure out how much the car will cost to purchase, figure out how much it’ll cost to run for X miles.  Guess how much gas will cost.  And Bingo!  Ok, while it’s relatively easy for those who like math it could be beyond most.  So here is an Excel spreadsheet that does it for you:  Hybrid Car Cost/Benefit Spreadsheet

Using this spreadsheet you can run your own what-if scenarios to see what savings you may or may not get.  First, any number with a yellow background can be changed to reflect your scenario.  You can change things like MSRP, interest rate, loan duration, sales tax, and when you have to replace the batteries in the Hybrid.

I set up the spreadsheet to be as much apples to apples as possible.  For this I compare a normal Toyotal Camery LE to a Camery Hybrid.  These two cars are as similar as possible, with only the engine being different.   I chose not to compare a Prius, but you can always change the numbers and run your own comparison.

The numbers that I put in for MSRP, sales tax, loan rate, etc. are typical numbers for the Denver/Boulder area.

There is another field where you can change the ratio of highway vs. city miles.  The default value is for all city driving– the best case scenario for a Hybrid.

Near the bottom of the worksheet is a listing of miles traveled, and how much the car has cost (purchase price plus gas and battery).  When the numbers for our two cars are roughly even, then you’re at the break even price for the Hybrid.

Also included is a column for the not so insignificant expense of a Hybrid battery replacement.  The default value is for $3000 at 150K miles.  There doesn’t seem to be any good guides for when or how much this is going to cost.  A quick Google search says that it’ll cost anywhere from $2000 to $6000, and happen anywhere from 71K miles to 200K miles.

Using the default values, and $4/gallon gas, the two cars break even at 80k miles.  But if you drive 50% on the highway then the Hybrid never breaks even.

But what if gas goes up to $6/gallon, with no highway miles?  Then it breaks even at 60k miles.  At 50% highway it breaks even at 130k miles (and again at 170k, due to the battery replacement).    But is it reasonable to do the calculations with $6 gas?   Historically, even when adjusting for inflation, it isn’t.  Of course that is no guarantee that it won’t.

What can we conclude from this?  Well, it’s all up to personal opinion.  But my opinion is that  total cost of ownership of a Hybrid car is not a lot better than a normal car under most scenarios.  And for that “not a lot better price” you get higher maintenance costs, lower performance, and not as much room or comfort.  In short, it’s not worth it.

Of course things can change.  Gas could go to $6 or $7 a gallon.  Battery technology could be more proven.  The government could put a huge tax normal engines.  But until then, I will enjoy driving in the mountains while zipping by the Prius that can’t go faster than 40 mph while going up hill at altitude.

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Bipartisanship and False Dichotomy

March 16, 2011

A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy whereby someone views things as being black and white with no shades of gray.   As in: a person is either tall or short, honest or a criminal, pro-life or pro-choice.   Reality often doesn’t obey our efforts to categorize things so simply.

A false dichotomy becomes a logical fallacy when we use it in a debate to argue a point.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in politics.   Our politicians must align themselves with the party line or risk having their career stunted.  And votes for critical bills are often divided on party lines.

For example, a Senate vote on March 9th on H.R.1 got a Yes vote by every Republican and No by every Democrat .  Another vote on February 15th was similar.   Now, I’m not saying that every vote goes this way, but many of the important ones do.  Similar things can be seen in our news media.  People like Glenn Beck will promote one parties agenda, to the exclusion of all reason.

When it comes to discussions between friends the attitude is frequently “either you’re a conservative or a liberal”.  Why can’t I be in the middle?  Or mostly liberal with a few conservative points?

By forcing our politicians, friends, and enemies into one of two boxes we are forcing our government and society to never meet in the middle.  To never work together. To never accept that the other side might have a good idea too.  And yet we wonder why the country is so divided.

And by forcing myself into a box I must support ideas that I don’t agree simply to remain “in the box”. In essence, to lie to myself and others.  Staying in that box also makes me ignore good ideas from those in the other box.  Call it pride or call it ego, either way it’s stupid, counter productive, and in some ways dishonest.

So how do you fix this?  Hell if I know.  Maybe by seeing everyone as equal.  Or by seeing the good in others while seeing the failings in ourselves.  But I can tell you that it starts at a personal/individual level.  Good luck with that!  Tell me how that works out for you.

I, personally, am mostly in the middle when it comes to most issues.  I’m pro-choice, anti-union, pro-gay, pro-gun, and pro-universal health care.  Although I will be careful to point out that while I’m anti-union, I am most certainly pro-teachers and pro-education.  Most of these issues will become topics for later blog posts, I’m sure.

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The world will never be the same.

March 13, 2011

Lots of things happened this past week.  There was a massive earthquake in Japan.  There was a wildfire near my office.  And I started a blog.  I feel like singing the song from Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the others”.

Like most other blogs, this is my soapbox, my sounding board, for ranting about whatever.  Mostly this is for posts that I would have put on Facebook, but for one reason or another didn’t fit with that medium.  Either I wanted a more public forum (I keep my Facebook privacy settings tighter than Oprah’s belt), or I wanted more room to write.  Either way, here it is.

No subject is off limits, of course.  Some of my posts will be highly technical.  Others will be humorous and light hearted.  I’m sure there will be a lot about our fellow man being stupid.  With any luck, some of them might even be inflammatory.  These posts won’t appeal to all, but on a whole I hope that they are worth your time to read.

Thanks for stopping by!