Monday, January 30, 2012

Bike update

The good news is my bike isn't totaled. In fact, it's far from totaled. This last weekend I repaired the damage to my good bike owing to my chain-jump mishap several weeks ago, and I got it into working order for less than $40—and most of the expense entailed buying a chain whip and lockring so that I can do the job entirely at home next time.

That said, it's unclear whether the rear wheel is fully repaired.

Not having the two aforementioned tools to remove a cassette, I took the wheel to my nearby bike shop, with the remaining links of a mashed-up chain wedged between the big sprocket and spoke flanges. The mechanic removed the cassette, which had hidden the extent of the damage to the spoke flanges. At least a sixteenth of an inch of metal had been ground away, exposing shiny and now minimal flanges that now just barely hold the spokes to the hub.

It looks bad but it's only cosmetic, said the mechanic.

I'm mostly sure he's right, but I'm not entirely sure, and that's a big difference when all the chain-side spokes are now secured to the hub by the thinnest margin of aluminum. But wheels are expensive, and I'd prefer not to buy a new wheel on the spot if I mustn't. I should do some wheel-banging curb-jump tests near home before taking it out on a hard ride.

As for the root cause of the chain jump, I think this is no more than a case of the limit screw having been incorrectly set. I blame this entirely on the bike shop where I bought the bike, for limit screws shouldn't need to be adjusted after having been initially set at the shop. My guess is the mechanic who put the bike together adjusted the dérailleur cable but neglected the limit screw. While on my ride I tightened the micro-adjuster, which pulled the cable dérailleur out of alignment and into potential for jumping off into the wheel. Murphy's Law took care of the rest.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pound foolish

Last weekend Laura and I went backpacking in Saguaro National Park. It's the first time we went backpacking since our trip to Pine Mountain last April. This time we went with a group, the Arizona Backpacking Club.

Laura and I were in the company of people who know a lot more about backpacking than we do. Many of these people have backpacked many dozens of times, all over the state or beyond, in all four seasons, sometimes for many nights at a time. Unsurprisingly, a lot of their gear is much better than ours.

Many ABC members use ultralight gear. They carry an astonishingly small amount of stuff to survive a night in the cold desert wilderness. One guy, Mark, carried a pack that totaled fifteen pounds in weight, and that included some splurge items, such as a pair of binoculars, as well as necessities that Laura and I do without, such as a stove. By comparison, my backpack when empty weighs nearly half as much as Mark's entire load. Add to that a tent, two sleeping bags (because I play sherpa for Laura), a sleeping pad, food, clothes, water, tools, first-aid kit, and other miscellanea, and my load was triple the weight of Mark's.

My gear suits car camping, where weight doesn't matter and size barely does. For backpacking, my gear is merely adequate. But even so it's a stark improvement compared to what I used for the Havasupai trip three summers ago. On that trip I didn't even have a backpacking backpack. Instead, I bungee-tied half my load to a day-hike bag, which lacked a frame and sagged under the weight. In hindsight, that setup was probably sufficient if I had carried the featherlight load Mark carried to Saguaro NP last weekend, but instead I carried a heavy Wal-mart tent amidst a heap of other junk that included four pounds of cheese.

My gear is heavy because ultralight equipment is expensive and fragile whilst I am cheap and destructive. Also, when considering one piece of gear at a time, weight savings seem insignificant. An ultralight stuff sack may weigh an ounce less than a non-ultralight stuff sack, but it costs more and is more likely to rip because of its thinner material. An ounce doesn't seem like much, so at the time of purchase, the non-ultralight sack seems like a better deal. Because the same logic works for most other equipment, the result is that piece by piece, ounce by ounce and pound by pound, one eventually buys the straw that breaks the camel's back.

That said, I own one piece of gear that's good: my spork. Annoyed after having gone on several trips where I packed and carried conventional silverware from the kitchen drawer—a knife, spoon, and fork trio adding up to a pound or so—last year I bought a titanium spork. It cost me about $8. That's a lot for an eating utensil, but as sporks go, this one is full-featured.

In addition to weighing nearly nothing, and rather than awkwardly combining the spoon and fork together at one end so that it's too small for soup but too fat to stab lettuce—as a traditional spork is—my spork has a full spoon on one end and a full fork on the other. Both ends act as a handle for the other, which isn't gross by camping standards. What's more is that one of the outer tines on the fork end is mildly serrated so as to act like a knife in a pinch. Because the spork replaces the full trio of utensils, it saves me one pound of weight.

Thirty more pounds to go.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bottle imp paradox

Imagine you buy a magic lamp. After buying it you summon its genie within, and once summoned the genie grants you one and only one wish. And it's a nice genie, too, not a jinn that interprets your wish overly literally and transforms your pleasant wish into something terrible. No, this is a beneficent genie who will give you one thing you want, and you'll be better off for it. But there's a catch: once the genie has granted you your wish, you must sell the lamp, and you must sell the lamp for twice as much money as you paid for it. If you fail to sell the lamp in this way—say, within a week—then not only will your wish be reversed (whatever that means), but the most terrible of all fates will befall you—for example, you'll be tortured for the rest of your life. Also, the buyer to whom you sell the lamp becomes subject to the same stipulation, that the buyer must find another buyer who buys the lamp for double the previous sum—that's quadruple what you paid for it—or else the first buyer suffers that terrible fate. And so it goes to infinity, with each buyer required to find an ever richer buyer.

This is known as the bottle imp paradox. What makes it a paradox is that the lamp is theoretically worthless. That's because no matter how little you pay for the lamp—say, $1—after a few dozen transactions the lamp will cost more than the richest man in the world has. Thus, the last buyer—call him Mr. Z—will suffer a terrible fate. But Mr. Z would know his fate before buying the lamp (having done the math and checked it against the latest Forbes list of the world's wealthiest people to know he'd be the last possible buyer), and so Mr. Z wouldn't buy the lamp. That instead means the lamp's previous owner—call him Mr. Y—would be stuck with the lamp and the terrible fate. But Mr. Y too would have foreseen this, for Mr. Y would've gone through the same logic as the hypothetical Mr. Z did to know there would be no Mr. Z to buy the lamp, so Mr. Y too wouldn't have bought the lamp. But by the same logic, the previous owner, Mr. X, wouldn't have bought the lamp either, knowing there would be no Mr. Y. Nor would Mr. W, Mr. V, or anyone else have bought the lamp—not even Mr. A, who could have bought the lamp for a measly dollar.

And I'll point out, for you creative logic-lawyer-types, that there are no loopholes around the lamp's rules. For example, Mr. A can't wish himself a quadrillion dollars and then use some of that money to buy the lamp from Mr. Z, thus allowing for a possible infinite cycle of buyers. That's because the lamp can't be owned by the same person twice. Or whatever—any loophole can be closed with an explicit rule we imagine. The point isn't beating the game but dealing with the paradox.

That said, the bottle imp paradox demonstrates a rational counter to the greater fool theory. While the paradox says that the lamp is worthless because all potential buyers will have accurately valuated the lamp and will thus refuse to buy it, the greater fool theory says you should go ahead and buy the lamp for a $1 because you're sure to find a fool who'll buy it for $2. But that fool isn't quite so foolish because there'll be another fool who'll buy the lamp for $4, and so on. The greater fool theory works out well—until you get to the fool who can't find another fool, at which point the bubble pops and someone is in a lot of pain for the rest of their life.

For a long time, I've thought the stock of any company that forever refuses to pay out a dividend should be worthless. I concluded this using the same logic as used in the bottle imp paradox: that if a stock never pays anything back to the shareholders, then its only value lies in shareholders finding other fools who're willing to buy the stock in hope of finding yet other fools. I'm no fool—or so I like to think—so I figured companies shouldn't refuse to pay dividends on principle. Rather, they should fail to pay dividends for a good reason, such as their being broke.

Specifically, I thought Warren Buffett was foolish for being anti-dividend. How can his company, Berkshire Hathaway, be of any value if it doesn't eventually pay back investors? Without an eventual payback, its value must be entirely the result of a bubble of greater fools. But it turns out I was wrong: Berkshire Hathaway is indeed paying back investors. Recently, Buffett announced that Berkshire is running out of places to invest its mountain of cash, and so the company is returning some of that money to investors, who presumably will have better things to do with it. But Berkshire isn't paying its shareholders with cash dividends. Rather, it's paying back exclusively with stock buybacks. The buybacks work by reducing the number of outstanding shares, which raises the remaining shares' value. The reason for doing a buyback rather than a cash dividend has to do with incurring less tax liability, but in effect a buyback is the same a dividend.

Here's an article that explains these silent dividends.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Back to Arch

My discovery (or rediscovery) that my laptop's hardware is 64-bit and my subsequent switch to 64-bit software meant reinstalling the OS, and this spurred me to challenge my recent decision to stick it out with Ubuntu.

Six years ago Ubuntu was the cool Linux distro. It was the first Linux you would dare take home to show your parents. And I did just that: after getting snagged by Windows security problems, my parents ran Ubuntu for a year or two before spending their big retirement bucks and switching to Mac. But I digress—

Ubuntu was the first distro that was easy to use. After installation, everything just worked: wireless cards with proprietary drivers, laptops with complicated power options, graphics hardware acceleration—if there was a way to do it at all in Linux, Ubuntu probably made it work without fuss.

I, like many other Linux users accustomed to hardship, switched to Ubuntu early on. It began a Golden Era of Ubuntu, when things were still new and uncomplicated but also sophisticated enough so that things usually worked. This was also around the time when the web began taking over and locally installed apps became less relevant, and that made Ubuntu (or any other free OS) make more sense. For a few years, during the Golden Era, I didn't know what was going on within the system, like what kernel version I was using or how to set up encrypted wireless manually—and it was all due to Ubuntu.

But every golden era must end. A few years ago, I switched to Arch because Ubuntu had become too fat (This—becoming fat—is the evolutionary pattern for most sophisticated software.) Whereas Ubuntu aims to be easy to use, Arch makes no attempt to have things just work. Even in 2012, upon first starting your computer after a fresh Arch installation, you get only a Bash prompt; anything extra you must set up manually. This discourages most Linux users, and we're accustomed to command lines and to figuring things out.

Arch's objective is to be as simple as possible—but not simple as in easy to use. Rather, Arch is simple in the same way a bicycle is simple: it has few parts and complications, and little is hidden. The result is Arch is elegant. Also, Arch teaches you a lot about how a Linux system works, if only in the course of keeping up with the rolling updates.

These last few years, I've flip-flopped between Arch and Ubuntu several times, but this may be my last switch for a while. I may have entered the Golden Era of Arch.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Imagining the end of the world

According to Dan Gilbert, we're not any better off, on average, if we win the lottery than if we become paraplegic. It turns that a year or more after a life-changing event, most people revert to their old level of happiness.

It's facts like these that cause a lot of people to lose faith in the scientific method. I for one believe the evidence, and I even believe the conclusion that we humans are rotten at predicting our emotions, but if you were to force me to choose between instant wealth and losing my legs, not only would I pick wealth every time, I'd feel rather strongly about doing so. For me, the thought of never again riding a bike feels a lot like imagining the end of the world. This is one case where I can't bring my intuition to agree with reason.

An accepted theory about this phenomenon is that humans suffer from a cognitive bias called impact bias. In short, impact bias is the tendency to overestimate the importance of short-term effects while underestimating the importance of long-term ones. When I imagine losing my legs, I fixate on the immediate difficulties, such as losing my ability to bike to work or climb the stairs to my apartment, but I neglect thinking about the long-term, mundane details, such as how I'd eventually cope and that I'd still be a productive person who finds meaning in life. As I imagine them, the short-term effects are vivid, but the long-term effects aren't. Rationally, I understand all this, but emotionally I can't feel it.

There are many ways impact bias plays out around us, and given that we observe the effects of shortsightedness everyday in our own lives and in others', there are many possible topics to write about. But today I'm going to write about one that has bugged me in particular for a few years, ever since I learned about peak oil, and that's the problem of why people are so bad at predicting societal change.

As writers such as John Michael Greer point out, there's a baffling disconnect between history as it has actually happened and the future as it's popularly imagined. In short—at the risk of oversimplifying—actual history moves slowly while the future is imagined to move fast. Great peoples and civilizations rise for centuries and fall for centuries, and yet in the minds of many people living today, utopia or dystopia is just around the corner.

Creation myths and their Edens notwithstanding, we don't have any evidence of civilized life being anything but a struggle for most individuals alive at any moment—meaningful though that struggle may be. So much for utopia, despite most generations thinking utopia is within reach. As for the opposite view, the one that says we're headed for the abyss, we lack evidence for sudden, swift falls, too. Even the Mayan collapse, thought to be one of the fastest collapses, took two full human lifespans to complete from start to finish. This means if you find yourself thinking about scenarios where things fall apart—as I often do—know that you won't be alive to see the end. And you'll likely fail to identify the beginning except in hindsight.

But with every boom and bust that befalls us, sentiment swings from rosy to bleak and back again. I previously thought such wild optimisms and pessimisms mostly had to do with a refusal to deal with one's circumstances; that is, it's tempting to think big, sudden changes are on the way when the alternative is to believe in a slowly changing world where we all must wake up tomorrow, go to work, pay our bills, and own up to our burdens and mistakes as they are. Frankly, for a lot of people, the end of the world is a pleasant prospect.

However, I've changed my mind: I think our frequent failures in imagining the future have also a lot to do with impact bias and our tendency to project the near future onto the far future. Swings between bullishness and bearishness say more about our present circumstances than they do about any rational view of the future. Dramatic events capture our imaginations, and we extrapolate the current dramatic events into future ones, leaving us to struggle with picturing the mundane details. But it's those mundane details of a system keeping itself in check, with people adapting to change, that make the real world creep along at the pace it does.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Sometime around four years ago, I bought the laptop I'm now using to write this blog post. Though since then I've banged it around in my backpack and bike panniers, and though I've reinstalled Linux at least a dozen times since wiping clean the original Ubuntu that it came packaged with, the laptop has served me well. Despite its age, it's still a sleek machine.

However, I recently got a hankering for a 64-bit laptop. I don't know why—it's a desire that just came on. So I started checking out new laptops online—you know, just to get a feel for what's out there. And what I saw is that laptops haven't really improved much in either speed or cost in the last four years. Even quad-cores remain rare. And in particular for me (and my unusual case), there are even fewer Linux laptops available nowadays, which is sad. The hidden Windows fee on new PCs is in the neighborhood of—last I heard—$100. It's satisfying not to send that money to Redmond.

After searching new laptops for a while, I decided it would be smart to check out my current laptop's specs to get an idea of how the new hardware out there compares to what I already have. Even I though I'm often taken for a computer geek, I really had no idea what was actually in my laptop. And cat /proc/cpuinfo is mostly gibberish to me in my hardware ignorance.

So I looked up the specs and saw that I have an Intel Core 2 Duo T5250 processor. And I looked up the specs for that and discovered that it's a 64-bit processor. Did I know four years ago I was buying a 64-bit laptop, but chose to run 32-bit software, and then forgot all about the hardware; or am I just stupid?

Feel free to post comments below, but keep in mind it's a rhetorical question.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Central Ave bike lanes

This morning on my way to work, the city of Phoenix surprised me with a gift: freshly painted bike lanes on Central Ave for the one mile between Bethany Home and Camelback Rd. Here's the relevant AZ Central article, complete with the usual user-comment trolling that accompanies any article about bicycle infrastructure in this city.

I welcome this change. The addition of this one mile stretch of bike privilege increases the total distance I travel by bike lane during my morning commute to 1.3 miles. That's more than a 300% increase. Way to go, Phoenix!

Seriously though, if someone had asked me where to install one mile of bike lanes anywhere on my morning commute, this is exactly the mile I would have suggested. From my (admittedly subjective) perspective, it's the busiest, nastiest stretch of Central Ave anywhere between the Mountain Preserve and downtown. North of Bethany Home, Central Ave drivers are polite and patient. South of Camelback, they may be less polite and less patient, but the inclusion of light rail infrastructure chokes traffic and generally befuddles a lot of drivers, with the end result that they drive slower and more cautiously. But for the one mile between Bethany Home and Camelback, drivers are jerks. Were jerks. Now, with the addition of the bike lanes, drivers are choked there, too. Way to go, Phoenix!

This isn't to say I favor the outright choking of drivers—not even literally. Rather, I favor road design that encourages consistent driving, and if that means slowing traffic in one spot to match the speeds driven in the surrounding spots, then so be it. Hopefully the city then compensates for the change by quickening traffic somewhere else, say on the parallel-running 7th St and 7th Ave roads, to encourage northbound and southbound motorists to take those roads instead of Central Ave. Those two roads are already unsafe for cyclists, so we may as well squeeze through a few more cars on them.

While I can't imagine the addition of bike lanes ever making a road less safe for cyclists, I often imagine better ways to calm traffic or force drivers to pay more attention. But I'll take the new bike lanes on Central Ave.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bike fail

Some bikes come with an optional part called a spoke protector. A spoke protector is shaped like a disc and, on modern bikes, is usually made out of plastic. It fits on the rear wheel between the right-side spokes and the cassette, and it prevents the chain from jumping off the largest sprocket and getting caught in the spokes, which can cause a lot of expensive damage to the wheel and drive chain.

Spoke protectors are optional because the chain should never jump off the cassette. Bicycle derailleurs have a pair of screws, called the min and max screws or limit-stop screws, that forcibly prevent the derailleur from shifting too far left or right. On a well tuned bike, one where the limit-stop screws are set correctly, the rear derailleur can't shift far enough to the left to cause the chain to jump.

However, this morning I learned that my sporty, carbon fiber bike isn't a well tuned bike. I also relearned how finicky sports bikes are compared to, say, touring bikes. While I'm unsure whether my touring bike, which I've been using for heavy commuting for the last month, is well tuned, it has a spoke protector. That's because commuting or touring without such a cheap safeguard part is stupid, in the same way that removing the seat belts from a cargo van for performance reasons is stupid.

But for regular road bikes, which are rightly considered toys by most Americans, a spoke protector is yet another part that adds unnecessary grams—and in the worst place, the wheel. Also, spoke protectors make bicycles look less sporty. So most sports bikes don't have them.

The problem, as I've discovered the hard way, is that one doesn't know for sure whether a bike's chain can jump until after it has done so. I've ridden my bike for two years and several thousand miles, and this morning, for the first time ever, the chain jumped. It happened while I accelerated with a medium effort from a quiet intersection. I didn't know what happened at first, only that something had slid undone or had broken. For the few seconds until I came to a halt, I heard awful grinding and popping sounds.

I don't yet know what the total damage is because, as of writing this, I haven't been able to pry the chain from the wheel. I can see that a lot of the chain was ground away where it wedged itself between the spokes and cassette, and it looks like parts of the spokes and hub have been ground away, too. Also, the ordeal stressed the rear derailleur, so there's a fair chance that that's damaged, too, though hopefully it's no more than bent—derailleurs can be bent back into alignment. Strangely, through all of this, none of the spokes broke outright.

I own four bikes. Of the other two not mentioned in this post, one is a triathlon bike and the other is an $80 junker. Why couldn't this have happened to the triathlon bike instead?

Monday, January 2, 2012


With another year done, I've now gone two consecutive calendar years without changing a major opinion. It's as though I really am getting older. Though, there's nothing wrong with that; growing older continues to beat the alternative.

But I'm not yet ready to be one of those guys who has it all figured out and needn't budge on his stances. So for 2012 I'm resolving to do a little self-improvement and change at least one major opinion.

And, no, this won't include whatever decision I end up making about the Houston Astros and their pending move to the AL. As I see it, I won't be changing an opinion there; I'll merely be deciding which of the two I value more: my hometown team or legitimate baseball. Theoretically, that choice has always existed, it's that the universe has only recently conspired to force me to decide between the two.

No, I'm talking about a real, honest change of opinion, such as me joining a political party or coming to believe I have an everlasting soul—i.e., something big. The last time I changed my mind like that was in 2009, when I decided that economies are subsystems of the environment, rather than the other way around. That may not seem like much, but it's a mind-changer that has me still working through the consequences and re-figuring my stances on a lot of issues. But that re-figuring is all derivative work of the original change-of-mind from three years ago. Now I want another a-ha!

I have no idea what that change should be—which I think is the point. Craig-of-the-Present may see no immediate way to improve upon any of his ideas, but every Craig-of-the-Past thought similarly. And those Craigs proved to be, well, sadly mistaken about a lot of things. So it's foolish to suppose Craig-of-the-Present has it all figured out.

But I admit I don't know how to change my mind. (Does anyone?) That makes this resolution risky. Typically, a New Year's resolution is a test of willpower, such as making eating less enjoyable. But is it possible to will oneself to change one's mind? That seems impossible to me. Changing one's mind seems to be more a matter of luck, which is to say my resolution is in one way as stupid as a resolution to be struck by lightning. But my resolution has better odds—I've changed major opinions more years than I haven't—and I can improve the odds further by listening to and reading new, creative ideas rather than surrounding myself with old, stale ones. As for what comes of that, I'll let you know about 100 blog posts from now.