August 29, 2006

Random number generation

While I don't normally link to silly time-wasting sites, this is worth your 20 seconds.

Posted by eroberts at 11:51 AM

August 24, 2006

Perils of coffee abroad

Russell Brown is unimpressed with the Pod coffee maker:

Their [Six Apart's] kitchen is also home to something called the Keurig Premium Coffee System, which affects the appearance of an espresso machine, but is in fact the creation of Satan himself.

You insert a pre-packaged pod of coffee and press the button. What comes sluicing out to fill your paper cup looks like hot coca-cola. It is very possibly the worst cup of "coffee" I have ever had in my life. The search for acceptable coffee becomes an underlying theme. Like the PA readers who wrote desperate emails for our coffee posts a while ago, I've been obliged to resort to Starbucks. Starbucks espresso is not bad so much as truly, desperately average; about the cup you'd expect to be served in, say, Taumaranui (I hope I'm not doing Taumaranui undue insult there). Its latte is definitively insipid.

Life is tough on the Antipodean coffee drinker abroad.

Posted by eroberts at 6:19 PM

August 23, 2006

Stamping out marijuana in sports

I don't get it:

The race directors for the Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York marathons -- collectively known as the World Marathon Majors -- aren't waiting to take action. The group said Tuesday it will impose lifetime bans at its races for any runner caught using a banned substance, including minor offenders for drugs such as marijuana.

I'm all for getting performance enhancing drugs out of sport, but marijuana just confuses the issue, because it isn't performance enhancing. What are they going to do next? Impose a ban on athletes who get on the turps the night before and still manage to get amongst the money?

One of the problems with performance enhancing substances in sport is that some of them are legally available (if sometimes restricted), because they have genuine medical applications. Like EPO, for example. It does seem that when significant doping is going on with the assistance of medical professionals, those same medical staff are often violating some regulations about appropriate dispensing of drugs. This gives anti-doping authorities a completely legitimate avenue to pursue athletes for breaking the civil laws of the country, as well as the specific regulations of the sport. (Still following me?) But, by and large, the converse is not true. Athletes who have broken laws unrelated to sport shouldn't be banned from the sport because of it.

Marijuana is precisely an example of confusing the relationship between general law, and the specific rules set up by private bodies governing sports about what aids and enhancements are acceptable in training and competition. This will not get me elected to public office in America (but believe me, there's other impediments to that so I don't care), but the criminalization of marijuana is in many ways a historical accident that does not reflect the harms the drug imposes on society. I'd be willing to bet [a six pack of beer] that under-age drinking causes more harm to the world than marijuana use. Under-age drinking, however, has a long, mostly happy, association with the fine sport of athletics. If they started banning people for that, we wouldn't have a sport left.

Posted by eroberts at 11:11 AM

August 21, 2006

Paying not to go to the gym

All those anecdotal stories about people who sign up for gym memberships and then don't go. The plural of anecdote sometimes is data:

How do consumers choose from a menu of contracts? We analyze a novel dataset from three U.S. health clubs with information on both the contractual choice and the day-to-day attendance decisions of 7,752 members over three years. The observed consumer behavior is difficult to reconcile with standard preferences and beliefs. First, members who choose a contract with a flat monthly fee of over $70 attend on average 4.3 times per month. They pay a price per expected visit of more than $17, even though they could pay $10 per visit using a 10-visit pass. On average, these users forgo savings of $600 during their membership. Second, consumers who choose a monthly contract are 17 percent more likely to stay enrolled beyond one year than users committing for a year. This is surprising because monthly members pay higher fees for the option to cancel each month. We also document cancellation delays and attendance expectations, among other findings. Leading explanations for our findings are overconfidence about future self-control or about future efficiency. Overconfident agents overestimate attendance as well as the cancellation probability of automatically renewed contracts. Our results suggest that making inferences from observed contract choice under the rational expectation hypothesis can lead to biases in the estimation of consumer preferences.

Posted by eroberts at 1:48 PM

August 18, 2006

They write letters

Posted by eroberts at 1:07 PM

August 12, 2006

Shifting along the keyboard

Occasionally when typing I get my fingers on the wrong keys, typically one key to the left and things come out like this
IxxAUBkkt qgwb rtoubf
In case it's not clear, that's "Occasionally when typing" shifted one key to the left (the placement of your caps lock may differ)

In principle it should be pretty easy, given the standard layout of the QWERTY keyboard, to write a program that would translate that text to its correct characters ... what would be great is if you could highlight the nuartows rwzr (mistyped text), right click, and bring up a menu that would translate. Just like how you can highlight text and change the case.

Perhaps the demand for this "feature" is not very high.

Posted by eroberts at 11:52 AM

August 10, 2006

Why does Susan in England have a Russian email address?

Seeing as how that whole story about Nigerians coming into money they couldn't access was getting a little bit of bad publicity, the inventive email spammers come up with this cute story about "Susan" in England by way of Canada trying to sell her artwork in the "states". But Susan, can I see some of your artwork?

From: Susan Patrick

Good day,

My name is Susan Patrick and I am an artist. I live in England, with my two kids, one dog and the love of my life. It is definitely a full house. I have been doing artwork since I was a child when I was in Canada were I took interest in arts that gives me about 23 years of experience.I majored in art in high school and took a few college art courses. Most of my work is done in either pencil or airbrush mixed with color pencils. I have recently added designing and creating artwork on the computer.I have been selling my art for the last 4 to 5 years and have had my work featured on trading cards, prints and in magazines. I have sold in galleries, museums and to private collectors from all around the world. I am always facing serious difficulties when it comes to selling my art works to Americans; they are always offering to pay with US POSTAL MONEY ORDERS, which is difficult for me to cash here in England.

I am looking for a representative in the states who will be working for me as a part time worker and I am willing to pay 10% for every transaction, which wouldn't affect your present state of work, someone who would help me receive payments from my customers in the states. I mean someone that is responsible and reliable, because the cost of coming to the states and getting payments is very expensive, I am working on setting up a branch in the state, and so for now I need a representative in the United States who will be handling the payment aspect.These payments are in money order and they would come to you in your name, so all you need do is cash the money order deduct your percentage and wire the rest back. But the problem I have is trust.But I have my way of getting anyone that gets away with our money; Imean the FBI branch in Washington gets involved. It wouldn't cost uany amount, u are to receive payments which will be sent to u by FedEx or USPS from my business partners, which would come in form of a money order then u are to cash it and send the cash to me via western union money transfer all western union charges will be deducted from themoney. If you are interested, please get back to me as soon aspossible.with your contact addres.

Posted by eroberts at 5:11 PM

August 9, 2006

Meta-blogging politics

As you may be aware Joe Lieberman lost the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary last night. The New York Times throws in this somewhat silly phrase about the election being a chance for "liberal bloggers to affect a major election, instead of merely commenting on politics in cyberspace."

It's a pity that the word "blog" sounds so different from "typing" or "chatting" or "communicating," because it makes it sound like the internet and its various manifestations are sorta different from actual real life. They're not. The internet in general lowers the costs of communicating to a geographically dispersed group who have other interests that bring them together. It's not at all surprising that people alter their behavior, sometimes substantially, in response to the dramatically lower costs of doing something they probably wanted to do before anyway.

Sticking with politics for the moment, perhaps this is news to the New York Times political reporters, but before the internet people interested in politics got together in bars and coffee shops and people's houses and shot the breeze about politics and how to take over the world. Now, this kind of thing is great, but here's the thing. Getting lots of people together in one place at one time has substantial co-ordination costs. It's OK if there's just two of you, but once the numbers start climbing, you try and find a time that works for all of the people all of the time ... It also has not insignificant transportation costs. Really, should the New York Times be surprised that people in the Connecticut suburbs don't want to drive to political meetings on their crowded, narrow roads when they could organize over the internet?

This rather simple "insight" applies to lots of other activities where the internet has become important in communicating things that might previously have been done in person. It would be great if I could find a time to meet up with people 4 days a week and run with them, and share my random, possibly dodgy, views on their training, but again ... time, distance, etc ... and we're only 25 minutes drive apart (on a quiet Saturday morning).

It's much less exciting to see blogs as merely low cost, wide-distribution, interactive, pamphlets but that's all they are.

(See also Yglesias)

Posted by eroberts at 10:18 AM

August 8, 2006

Pawlenty-Klobuchar voters

Another poll confirms that there's a significant minority of people out there in Minnesota who are voting for Tim Pawlenty and Amy Klobuchar. Who are these people?

Posted by eroberts at 7:13 AM

August 7, 2006

The 80 mile per week sweet spot

Theoretically every extra mile of training per week has diminishing returns. It's a nice theory that gives you a nice logarithmic curve of improvement versus miles gained. Great in theory, but I think that there are points where your 10-20 extra miles per week can give you increasing returns (for a while). Specifically, if you're running around 60 miles a week I think there are surprisingly large benefits to getting up to 80 miles per week.

I found this out by trial and error several times in my early twenties, but never really thought about why that might happen. With the shallow wisdom of being 31 I can look back 8-9 years and see why ... If you get your mileage up to 80 your long run can average 20 miles. Allowing for a bit of a range of ability, that's a 2:15 to 2:45 run. When you're running 60 miles per week, if your long run is in a good proportion to your week it's hard to get above 16 miles, or much over 2 hours. Get your long run out to 20 miles, and you're well into the territory of recruiting fast twitch fibres to keep going. That longer long run, I think, accounts for much of the benefit of getting to 80.

That's 20 miles for the week. I have a friend who jokes that 80 miles is easy, it's a 20 miler and then six 10 mile runs, but if you really want to optimize your 80 miles that's not the best way to do it if actual real life (work, family, the long arm of the law) let you mix it up some more. With 80 miles you are not staring at the more imposing face of 10 miles on your recovery days, so you can have two six mile days for recovery if you choose. That gets us to 32, which leaves 48 miles over 4 runs. Throw in a 13 and 15 mile day (perhaps intervals with long warmup and cooldown, and a long tempo run), and there's just two days left for moderate paced 10 mile runs. There's your 80 miles, with no doubles (singles can be easier to schedule) plenty of recovery, three quality days, and two moderate days for aerobic development.

If you can get the extra 10, 20, 30 ... miles per week that's great. Do that. But I find that the extra benefits from going to 100 from 80 are somewhat smaller than the benefits of going from 60 to 80. You may wonder, how easy does the jump from 60 to 80 feel? Even at the time I remember being surprised at how manageable it was to move up from 60 to 80 over a couple of months. The point is that at 60 miles per week you're doing more than pottering round for health and fitness. Few people run that much without some competitive desire, and for a reasonably small amount of extra time I think there are surprising benefits to be add in getting the mileage up to the magic 80.

Posted by eroberts at 12:49 PM

Check it!

The Star Tribune's columnists say what I feel about people who bring wheelie suitcases onto planes with more panache than I could. Basically, don't do it. Check it, for everyone's sake.

Having traveled on both third world (Vietnamese) buses and American planes, the similarities are surprising. In both cases, people bring on board far more than they need for the journey and far more than can reasonably fit in the space available. I can understand this on Vietnamese buses, there's no secure protocol for checking your bags and getting them back at the other end. But the bizarre practice Americans have of bringing their suitcase into the cabin is a bit of an example of a tragedy of the commons. Everyone thinks they're saving themselves some time by not checking the bags, but by the time we've all waited for people to find a space for their over-stuffed roller bag and several people have wandered fruitlessly up and down the aisle without finding a space, and had to check it anyway, the time saved is minimal, if not evaporated. If you don't need spare underpants during the flight you can check that bag.

While the proportion of the traveling public that reads this is, ah, minimal, to put it mildly, I trust that those who do read will take note ... the Star Tribune of Minneapolis tells you to check your bag too.

Posted by eroberts at 7:50 AM

August 3, 2006

East of Eden

It's easy to think of the situation in the Middle East as intractable, innate and insoluble—as if the current crisis, tensions, war, whatever you wish to call it, had been pre-destined since various improbable events like floods and burning bushes. But it's not. The specific conflict we're seeing now is entirely due to the founding and existence of Israel, which has itself only existed since 1948. Less than sixty years, which is an eternity going forward, but really not so long for historians looking backward. I mean this not to take sides on the question of Zionism or a Palestinian state, but rather that if Israel wasn't there we wouldn't have the current specific conflict. In the end that's a rather trivial statement. I think it fair to speculate, though it could never be shown, that even if Israel did not exist (if the Jewish state has been somewhere in Africa or North America) the Middle East would still not be filled with stable, democratic governments. Countries with borders shaped oddly by departing colonial powers and economies dependent on resource extraction tend that way.

Even going back fifty years you can see how dramatically things can turn. That much is clear from the Guardian's recent retrospective on the Suez crisis. In the current crisis, Israel and the United States are closely allied, with Britain at a small remove, and France seen by supporters of the Israeli government as a potentially duplicitous friend of autocratic regimes. But fifty years ago it was France, Britain and Israel that invaded Egypt while a Republican President in the United States urged caution, and worked to undermine the trio's plan for a military strike on Egypt. And then there's this fascinating backdrop to the whole disasterous caper into the canal: that before they invaded Egypt, Britain had plans for how to invade Israel if that proved necessary to fulfil treaty obligations with Arab states.

You can, if you like, draw parallels between Suez and Iraq, but I prefer to restrict myself to the more banal sentiment that just seeing how much has changed since 1956 show that the current crisis is not intractable, that things can change. Perhaps the current events will be resolved with an unstable truce, but there is always the possibility, at least, of real peace.

Posted by eroberts at 4:12 PM