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Wired Cola It's Cybermorphic! http://wiredcola.com/atom/feed 2014-09-26T13:30:46-07:00 The Year in Review http://wiredcola.com/content/year-review-1 2016-12-08T11:39:24-08:00 2016-12-08T11:39:24-08:00 rcousine It's been a good year.

TLO and I are on the verge of a very big change: for the first time in 15 years, we're moving house. We're heading into Burnaby, and we're swapping a freestanding house for an apartment. We'll miss the old place, but our new home will be very exciting.

My hobbies are going interestingly: I did everything from teach children how to crochet, to act as MC for the Cycling BC awards. I helped run something like 40 or 50 bike races. I did another playday, this time in support of a literature class at the college. I may have created an underground racing league. I attended the most amazing party of my life. I kept busy.

]]>
It's been a good year.

TLO and I are on the verge of a very big change: for the first time in 15 years, we're moving house. We're heading into Burnaby, and we're swapping a freestanding house for an apartment. We'll miss the old place, but our new home will be very exciting.

My hobbies are going interestingly: I did everything from teach children how to crochet, to act as MC for the Cycling BC awards. I helped run something like 40 or 50 bike races. I did another playday, this time in support of a literature class at the college. I may have created an underground racing league. I attended the most amazing party of my life. I kept busy.

This was the year that we didn't go to Greece: with TLO taking her mom on an Alaskan cruise, I stayed home, minded the dog, and took my vacation time in bits and pieces. I found something funny: I'm not good at that. I didn't travel as much as I should have (though trips to La Conner, Victoria, and Whistler were all very pleasant), and I missed it.

Really, there's a funny thing I have going: I'm very willing to travel in my same rut every day, unless somebody is there to pop me out of that rut, at which point I usually find myself very happy with the result. TLO, my lovely bride lo these 16 years, has been expert at getting me out of ruts.

Ruts are tricky things, as the surest signs of advancing age have been my inability to easily lose weight, and cleaving to things I already know I like.

Housekeeping

This site is in a forlorn state. I'm going to tidy just one small thing, the link list on the right side, which is uselessly out of date. But as an archive, here's the current links, and some updates:

Raul is still out there, but has moved back to Mexico, and his new blog focuses on his academic career. He is also active on twitter.
Mister Jalopy is still running an amazing bike shop in Los Angeles, and I need to get down there for a visit some time. He's not really blogging there, though.
Eric Bin abandoned his Supafamous.com blog (the one that more than any other inspired me to start writing here), but also moved to twitter.
Dinosaurs and Robots still exists, but was last updated in 2013. I still commend the archive to you.
I am still an active member of Bike Club, aka Escape Velocity. EV shaped me as a bike racer and a person, and it's not arrogance to say that I have also had a hand in shaping the club. My earnest wish is that the club long outlast me.
Colby Cosh lives and breathes, but his blog is moribund. He's also active on Twitter, and is a columnist for the National Post.
Sheldon Brown died in 2008, but his website, still the premier bicycle mechanic's reference, is actively maintained by others to this day.
Daring Fireball continues to be a first-rate source of opinion and info about Apple, Inc., and a second-rate source of political opinion.
Cowen and Tabarrok still write actively and regularly, in what is the best economically-minded blog (but so much more, as well) I know of.
Metroblogging Vancouver is a non-updated zombie, but I'm still proud of the writing I did there, and glad for the many friends I made.

Early Resolutions

  • More career focus
  • Fewer random diversions
  • Settle in to the new place
  • Finish more things
  • Get a bit more fit
    ]]> Sound Smart About Guns, Canadian Edition http://wiredcola.com/content/sound-smart-about-guns-canadian-edition 2016-06-14T20:22:35-07:00 2016-06-17T07:55:34-07:00 rcousine In the light of recent tragic events in Orlando, I've noticed a lot of comments in my feeds about guns. Given what I've seen there, I thought it worthwhile to write a primer about how guns work, both mechanically and politically, with a Canadian perspective.

    (Where my perspective comes from: I am Canadian, and do not have a
    Purchase and Acquisition License. I have never fired a firearm.)

    Guns in Canada

    ]]>
    In the light of recent tragic events in Orlando, I've noticed a lot of comments in my feeds about guns. Given what I've seen there, I thought it worthwhile to write a primer about how guns work, both mechanically and politically, with a Canadian perspective.

    (Where my perspective comes from: I am Canadian, and do not have a
    Purchase and Acquisition License. I have never fired a firearm.)

    Guns in Canada

    For most people, path to gun ownership passes through getting a Purchase and Acquisition License (PAL). This is not a trivial matter: it requires a safety course, personal references as to your stability, and notification of your spouse or ex, among other elements. I served as a reference for a PAL licensee: the phone interview was brief, but probed fairly hard to ensure the applicant had no violent tendencies or history of mental illness.

    Guns in Canada are classified as non-restricted (most normal rifles and shotguns), restricted (some rifles and shotguns, virtually all legal handguns), and prohibited (automatic weapons, various other firearms due to either general rules like minimum length, or because they are named as prohibited).

    Non-restricted and restricted weapons require a PAL. Restricted weapons are heavily restricted (surprise) as to where and how you can store, transport, or use them. Prohibited weapons are virtually impossible for regular citizens to own.

    Canada has magazine limits: 10 rounds for pistols, effectively 5 rounds for high-powered rifles, where "high-powered" means you're hunting something bigger than a squirrel. (The rule is more technical; I'm simplifying.)

    The Guns

    The shooter in Orlando used a Sig Sauer MCX rifle and a Glock 17 pistol. Both were semi-automatic, and both were presumably legally acquired in the US (or at least were legally acquireable).

    In Canada? The pistol is probably legal, but all pistols are Restricted Firearms in Canada, meaning that they are subject to very restrictive rules for most owners: you can keep it in your house; you can move it (unloaded and locked up) to a shooting range. And that's it. If the owner of a restricted firearm moves, they require a permit specifying when they will move the firearm to their new house. I was the accidental witness to a gentleman applying for such a permit a few years ago, and he asked for an 8-hour transport window; the police granted four. In short, pistols are treated very differently in Canada than they are in most US states (though US states vary considerably, too).

    The rifle is trickier. It seems the MCX is Restricted in Canada, which means it would be subject to the same rules as a pistol. However, functionally equivalent rifles of a different brand and look would be completely legal. To be clear: many of the rules about restricting or prohibiting firearms in Canada are based on whether that firearm looks scary; I am not making that up.

    Semi-auto, auto, and other

    Both weapons used were apparently semiautomatic. This simply means that pulling the trigger fires a single bullet, and firing the next shot requires the user to release the trigger and pull again (but no other action is required). Almost all handguns work this way, with some technical caveats, including revolvers dating back to the Wild West era. Most rifles also work this way, though bolt-action rifles are also common.

    The distinction here is as opposed to automatic (or "full-auto") weapons, which will fire bullets continuously when the trigger is pulled, until the firearm is out of bullets. It is also as opposed to weapons of various types that need to be cocked between shots (typically referred to by the type of "action": bolt-action is the most common on rifles which are not semi-auto, and shotguns use various action, most famously the pump action. The details are technical, but all of these not-semi-auto (and not-auto) weapons require a second movement between trigger pulls to make them ready for another shot.

    Automatic weapons are very hard for civilians to come by in either Canada or the US. They're virtually unknown as a factor in modern gun crimes, as far as I can see.

    Semi-auto is relatively common on what you may think of as hunting rifles, as is bolt action.

    What does this mean? Rate of fire and accuracy. Simplifying wildly, an automatic weapon can shoot faster but less accurately; the best bolt-action rifles are the most accurate, but are the slowest-firing.

    Assault Rifles?

    Terrifying Hello Kitty AR-15
    This actually exists, and I have no opinion about it

    To the extent the term means anything, it refers to rifles used in a military context. These are infantry weapons: if you've heard of the AR-15 or the AK-47, these are exemplary assault rifles. The military versions are generally capable of automatic fire; most are available in civilian versions (widely available in the US; mostly Restricted in Canada). The thing to understand is that military rifles are not really different in technology or firepower from hunting rifles: if anything, typical assault rifles fire cartridges that are in the low to moderate end of what hunting rifles use, considering range and firepower.

    The distinctive look associated with assault rifles is largely down to the "furniture": the grips and braces that aren't part of the firing mechanism, but are important for holding the firearm. On hunting rifles these bits are frequently made of wood, and on military rifles they are often made of black plastic or formed metal. But these choices, while somewhat practical, are substantially cosmetic: you can get wood furniture to dress down an AR-15, and you can get black plastic furniture (and "tactical" accessory rails, and whatever other dress-up you like) for hunting rifles. This has led to the shorthand term "black rifles" for such dressed-up guns, which describes the aesthetic in play. The term also points to the fact that the characteristics most people associate with "assault rifle" are cosmetic.

    normal ranch rifle
    Ruger Mini-14
    Terrifying Assault Rifle -- no wait, same gun as above, different furniture
    Ruger Mini-14

    To highlight the case, here's a review of a Ruger Mini-14. It looks like an archetypal sporting rifle (wood, no visible clip) because it is. It shoots .223 ammo and has a semi-automatic action. This is virtually the same cartridge (roughly same size and power, nearly interchangeable) as the NATO 5.56 ammunition used by most modern military rifles. It's a gun that the reviewer above recommends for coyotes: hunting a deer or larger animals would almost certainly be done with a more powerful gun.

    A Bigger Picture on Guns

    When it comes to gun violence, mass killings like Orlando should be understood as unicorn phenomena: rare (and getting rarer). The meat of gun violence, especially in the US, is either grimly domestic (a murderer shooting an acquaintance or relative) or part of some other criminal activity (gang activity is a common reason). While mass killers are biased towards rifles, in the overall US murder stats, long guns are dwarfed by handgun murders (If you look at that table, sharp objects are used to kill about as many people in the US as all types of rifles and shotguns combined).

    Final Thoughts

    I don't have anything very clever to say about crime, or mass murder. Before you assume this is a US phenomenon, remember Paris. Canada seems to have found a better equilibrium (tight restrictions on handguns, moderate restrictions on most long guns, and some fairly silly regulations about "scary-looking" guns) than the USA, but we started in a very different place and remain a very different country, and one that put serious restrictions on handgun ownership in the 19th century. Hopefully this essay will clarify some confusing technical details, though.

    ]]>
    Boring but useful investment advice from an idiot http://wiredcola.com/content/boring-useful-investment-advice-idiot 2016-05-05T17:26:33-07:00 2016-05-05T17:26:55-07:00 rcousine Full disclosure: I am invested in nothing. I have no debt and few assets. Hopefully my well-vested public-sector pension will meet my relatively modest retirement ambitions.

    With that said, I had a conversation recently. It was with a smart person who had a comfortably middle-class amount of money to invest. Never mind about time horizons, risk profiles, or whatever, here's the world's most boring and generic investment advice.

    Charlatans

    Do you have a guess about currency movement? Do you think you can pick stocks? Are you listening to people who claim either of those abilities? There are two important classes of investment advisors in the world: the first group has a personal net worth, on average, of some billions. The second group, on average, are charlatans.

    ]]>
    Full disclosure: I am invested in nothing. I have no debt and few assets. Hopefully my well-vested public-sector pension will meet my relatively modest retirement ambitions.

    With that said, I had a conversation recently. It was with a smart person who had a comfortably middle-class amount of money to invest. Never mind about time horizons, risk profiles, or whatever, here's the world's most boring and generic investment advice.

    Charlatans

    Do you have a guess about currency movement? Do you think you can pick stocks? Are you listening to people who claim either of those abilities? There are two important classes of investment advisors in the world: the first group has a personal net worth, on average, of some billions. The second group, on average, are charlatans.

    With few exceptions, forex speculation is garbage. The right guess for future currency movement is "a random walk from the present price" for almost every case. The demonstration of this is simple: entities that can reliably predict forex movements can make billions of dollars through currency trading. There are numerous organizations that desperately and continuously seek this kind of talent at any price, and have the means to exploit it. So if someone tells you they can predict currency exchange movements, ask if they are worth billions of dollars.

    The same goes for most other investments. Stock pickers who are able to outperform the S&P500 are also worth billions (a common shenanigan here is for a picker to tell you how they made 10% last year, which is impressive until you find out the S&P went up 12%).

    Boring Advice

    Unless you need your money in under a decade, put most of it in a big, boring index fund with very low management costs. The rest is details.

    These days, the hot setup seems to be Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). This is more or less a mutual fund that gets traded on the stock exchange, but who cares. What matters is they tend to have the lowest management fees. If you buy an ETF that tracks the S&P 500, you're good.

    For Canadians, there's a possible argument you should look at a fund that trades against the TSX, or perhaps more likely, an ETF like the Vanguard 500 CAD-hedged. The argument here is you have to pay your bills in CAD, so a fund that tries to hedge Canadian dollar fluctuations (or is inherently tied to the CAD, like the TSX) is reasonable.

    I'd argue those are details. Yes, at any given time, the question of whether you're hedged against the CAD or not may amount to a large pile of money, but in which direction? So in the short term you probably can't bet on currency fluctuations accurately, so you shouldn't worry about them.

    If you need your money in this decade, you need to wait for a market moment you can live with, sooner rather than later, and move most of your money to something even more boring, like Canada Savings Bonds or GICs.

    Ideally, you will follow this strategy and then forget you are invested in the market, because odds are, a potato (in this case, represented by buying the S&P 500 index, and then doing nothing) can out-invest you handily.

    Real Estate

    Man, Vancouverites...

    You need to live somewhere, it's true. For that reason, buying a home makes a modicum of sense, as a purchase of an asset that has intrinsic value. As a business (i.e. an active rental property manager) it may make sense, but as an investment, be wary. For every hot realty market in North America, there's several that got to star in a movie called "The Big Short," about how people thought house prices weren't going down. (Spoiler: it ends badly.)

    Even given that, renting may make some sense. I don't feel qualified to speculate on whether Vancouver's real estate will continue on its stratospheric trajectory. I think you have to treat this as a speculative investment.

    Wild Speculation

    If you must, allow yourself a small amount of your portfolio (10%, less if you can) that you can actively trade. Buy gold, short-sell Apple, purchase Venezuelan bonds, go long on Powerball. Whatever. If you need to feel like you're involved in managing your money, give yourself a very small fun-fund, and treat it as such. Better yet: track your results against the S&P 500, and remember to track them for long enough that you find out whether your investing habits simply have higher variance than the market (one investment foible is to stumble upon a strategy that runs ahead of bull markets and falls behind bear markets, which means you make extra money in the good years and lose extra money in bad years).

    Final Thoughts

    Be boring.

    ]]>
    Notes on a Unified Film Theory http://wiredcola.com/content/notes-unified-film-theory 2016-04-16T22:35:39-07:00 2016-04-16T22:35:39-07:00 rcousine What follows is not likely to be novel. It is surely naive.

    The most interesting question to ask about a film is "IS IT AWESOME?"

    Comic films are underrated compared to dramas. Or to put it another way, dramas are overrated. Great dramas are fine, but Good dramas are often mediocre, and sometimes bad. Compensate by assuming that critical opinion is tilted against comedy and toward drama, and act accordingly.

    Film is a visual medium. Based on that fact alone, the Wachowskis' "Speed Racer" is a minor classic. More generally, there seems to be a sort of high art (what I think of "photos composed by a cinematographer") that are praised excessively, while visually creative films often end up regarded as somehow lower forms of art.

    Movies about movies are the laziest of lazy settings. But I cannot deny the greatness to be found in the subject. "The Player" and "Sunset Boulevard" nearly justify the genre all by themselves.

    ]]>
    What follows is not likely to be novel. It is surely naive.

    The most interesting question to ask about a film is "IS IT AWESOME?"

    Comic films are underrated compared to dramas. Or to put it another way, dramas are overrated. Great dramas are fine, but Good dramas are often mediocre, and sometimes bad. Compensate by assuming that critical opinion is tilted against comedy and toward drama, and act accordingly.

    Film is a visual medium. Based on that fact alone, the Wachowskis' "Speed Racer" is a minor classic. More generally, there seems to be a sort of high art (what I think of "photos composed by a cinematographer") that are praised excessively, while visually creative films often end up regarded as somehow lower forms of art.

    Movies about movies are the laziest of lazy settings. But I cannot deny the greatness to be found in the subject. "The Player" and "Sunset Boulevard" nearly justify the genre all by themselves.

    There's a trope in many art forms of "a X's X", as in "a comedian's comedian," or "a musician's musician," or "a filmmaker's filmmaker." I think this is about making a work of art that fits the aesthetic and sentiments of specialists in the field: "a comedian's comedian" knows how to tell a joke that can still suprise a jaded comic, but may shock or annoy a non-insider audience. Holding such work in high esteem is tricky. Never forget that while Shakespeare winked at insiders, his stuff was loved by the punters. I have a high suspicion of work that can't appeal to a mainstream audience.

    I crave novelty in films, possibly too much. But I think "make it new" is a reasonable request.

    Good-bad movies: "Point Break" is true to itself. It knows what it is, and it is masterfully made.
    Good-good movies: "The Incredibles."
    Bad-good movies: "American Beauty" (good at pretty moments, but I can hardly believe a single human interaction in this film. You can learn more (vastly more) about human relationships from "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" than you can from this movie).
    Bad-bad movies: "The Big Hit." A lot of bad acting (except by Mark Wahlberg). A lot of bad plot. Cardboard characters. A lot of bad film-making. A lot of bad jokes. And an example of a self-conscious movie about movies that is utter trash. Also, I can't stop watching it.

    Animation (by which I mean the production of imagery other than photographic live set action) is eating all movies. Less so via obviously animated movies, more so by the ubiquitous use of CGI and other extraordinary manipulation of images. The end state is where on-set performances are optimized as motion-capture sessions rather than the primary film-making. It's not a question of "if," but only "when," and inside of ten years seems a conservative guess. Conventional film-making will persist as a stylistic choice, much as some modern film-makers take on deliberate constraints like black and white, or using film.

    It is interesting how "television" now encompasses shows that are not televised, and that are both longer and shorter than "movies." The disintermediation of moving pictures is nearly complete, and at some point the Oscars themselves will be demonstrably obsolete. This will be an interesting benchmark, and I am fascinated to see how the Oscars respond. During the Oscars was maybe a decade ago, an official, probably the AMPAS president, gave a brief speech extolling how movies were still best on the big screen rather than the home TV. This was illustrated with some clips from visually compelling movie scenes, rendered with superb sound and excellent high-definition picture on my home TV. I found the demonstration convincing, and have watched very few movies on the big screen since then.

    ]]>
    Amateur Futurism http://wiredcola.com/content/amateur-futurism 2016-03-03T10:17:34-08:00 2016-03-04T13:59:09-08:00 rcousine Thanks to my availability and willingness to identify as a futurist, I was invited to be on Technotopia, Episode 5.

    First, I'd like to thank John Biggs and Stefan Etienne for having me on as a guest. To be clear, the sound problems were all mine: I should have checked my audio better before showtime, and using a setup where you have no local audio feedback is a rookie mistake. Technotopia is a fun podcast, and I'm a subscriber now. If they're willing to have me, I'll do it again.

    About the content: I regret everything. No, not really.

    ]]>
    Thanks to my availability and willingness to identify as a futurist, I was invited to be on Technotopia, Episode 5.

    First, I'd like to thank John Biggs and Stefan Etienne for having me on as a guest. To be clear, the sound problems were all mine: I should have checked my audio better before showtime, and using a setup where you have no local audio feedback is a rookie mistake. Technotopia is a fun podcast, and I'm a subscriber now. If they're willing to have me, I'll do it again.

    About the content: I regret everything. No, not really.

    I hope my sincere love for William Gibson came through. It was fun to mock The Jackpot, and I don't think we're on a path to anything much like the Burning Chrome or Neuromancer worlds, but I love his writing, and I don't discount that if we're on a path to the Neuromancer world, it might just not have manifest yet. But he has been writing near-future dystopias for nearly 40 years, and yet the world isn't so bad.

    As for space travel, I stand by what I said: the future looks stagnant, with tourism being the most likely future expansion I see. Rockets aren't cheap, and I don't think there's any important cost savings coming on rocket-based exits from our gravity well. I do think if we build a space elevator of some sort (launch loop, space fountain, skyhook...any of the non-rocket schemes) there's a chance to greatly improve the cost to orbit (and hopefully the safety), and that might open up new uses. I really hope something like a launch loop or space elevator gets built, but I don't expect it to.

    On energy, the more I think about my answers here, the more I feel like the sun and batteries will beat fusion. The key problem is ITER, the hoped-for first energy-producing Tokamak fusion reactor, is scheduled to generate power in 2027 (competing fusion projects are even more speculative than ITER). Meanwhile, the price of solar panels is kinda-sorta grid-competitive right now, and there's reason to believe costs will continue to drop. There are several interesting technologies for power storage (everything from molten salt, a very large-scale tech aimed at solar power towers, to various battery technologies), and I have a feeling that by 2027, solar and some sort of storage system will be viable in a large number of places as a major component of grid power.

    So I see the future of grid power as moving towards renewables: much more solar and somewhat more wind. I think most of the places on the planet with good access to hydroelectric power have already exploited that. Power generation is not totally a local affair, but transmission losses are real, so there are parts of the world where renewables will supplemented by burning fossil fuels. I expect that for various reasons, the future of those plants is much less coal and much more natural gas (take any position you want on atmospheric CO2: smog kills people right now. Bonus prediction: we've seen peak diesel cars more or less right now).

    I don't mention nuclear fission power here, because I think many current designs have surprising cost problems. The US especially doesn't make nuclear power very cheaply (though South Korea, interestingly, does). There are many interesting new fission reactor designs out there, but I think they're competing with a solar option that is economically promising and less politically complicated.

    For non-grid power, the answers are more interesting.

    I expect electric cars to become ubiquitous surprisingly fast. In a decade, I think they'll be the default new-car choice. Commercial aviation will likely be the ultimate holdout for fossil fuels: we're nowhere near a competitive alternative, though at some point maybe hydrogen-fuelled jet turbines look like the right answer. Not soon. Commercial shipping is tricky: there aren't enough batteries, solar and wind don't really work, and I can imagine a general conversion from diesel to natural gas (or again, in the long term, hydrogen). On the other hand, if we ever get a small, safe, trustworthy nuclear reactor (I'm thinking fission, but as long as we're making things up, fusion too), commercial shipping could be its killer application.

    I think in many of my answers, I let myself be guided by costs. This is a good instinct. There are many things within the technical grasp of humanity right now: if we wanted to, we could land people on Mars; there are no insurmountable technical obstacles. We could mine asteroids; we could establish a moon colony; we could make nothing but electric cars from now on, we could shut down every coal-burning power plant on the planet in short order.

    What stops us is mostly the costs. Mining the asteroid belt would be so expensive, I doubt it would be worth it to recover an asteroid-sized flawless diamond. Flying to Mars would cost a lot of money, and force people to forgo doing other things here on earth. (Of the technologies I've mentioned above, I regard only fusion power as technologically gated: we could test our ideas about fusion sooner if we spent more money, but we haven't yet built a fusion reactor that produces more power than it consumes, and it's not clear to me which fusion technology is the most likely route to that end).

    On the other hand, solar power became viable because the cost of solar panels (or more precisely, the cost per kilowatt-hour of solar-generated power) fell dramatically due to some technology improvements and economies of scale in production. That has pushed solar power ahead of many other technologies as a promising means of generating power, storage problems notwithstanding. Similarly, the enormous demand for great batteries, first pushed by laptops and mobile phones, has improved batteries (and lowered costs) to the point that electric cars look feasible today, especially in the large chunk of the world that pays more for gasoline than the US does (my favorite example is taxis: in Vancouver, they were early adopters of the Toyota Prius. The cost proposition was commercially compelling, and the vehicle fit their needs. The taxi drivers haven't adopted electric cars yet, because none of them can meet the brutal range requirements of a taxi.)

    RIP Dr Tomorrow

    I briefly mention Frank Ogden, aka Dr Tomorrow in this podcast, and I did some better googling after. As I guessed, he has indeed died, but in late 2012, aged 92. Here's a biography of him at age 75, and his undated bio on his personal website. I mocked futurists in general, but I was an avid reader of his column. I can't say he inspired me to take up my amateur-futurist lifestyle (I was already deeply in the thrall of science fiction) but his work was a major avenue by which I kept up with the news of the future in the pre-Web era.

    Final Thoughts

    I share the hosts' philosophically optimistic attitude about the future.

    If I get any further chances to engage in amateur futurism, I'd suggest two other topics: dark clouds that might disrupt our future (aka filters, great and small), and the idea that the post-scarcity future has already arrived (but, per William Gibson, it's just not very evenly distributed).

    ]]>
    Mancrafted: a quick and foolish guide to crochet http://wiredcola.com/content/mancrafted-quick-and-foolish-guide-crochet-0 2016-02-22T09:07:43-08:00 2016-02-22T14:22:37-08:00 rcousine Those of you who follow me on feeds I still update may have noticed that I've been knotting some yarn.

    For just over a year, I've been dabbling in crochet, a deliberate attempt to take up a hobby that was, unlike my first love (car maintenance) and my dream (welding and brazing), doable inside a small house, that would occupy my hands, and would keep me away from a video screen.

    What follows is two things: a guide to some things I've learned about crochet that may help you learn it faster than me, and a brag collection of stuff I've made.

    The Basics

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    Those of you who follow me on feeds I still update may have noticed that I've been knotting some yarn.

    For just over a year, I've been dabbling in crochet, a deliberate attempt to take up a hobby that was, unlike my first love (car maintenance) and my dream (welding and brazing), doable inside a small house, that would occupy my hands, and would keep me away from a video screen.

    What follows is two things: a guide to some things I've learned about crochet that may help you learn it faster than me, and a brag collection of stuff I've made.

    The Basics

    Learn how to tie a slipknot (how you start most projects), chain stitch, and the "single crochet" stitch. There's lots of guides (I'm sure YouTube is great) showing you how to do these, but if possible, get a friend who crochets to show you them. Then hook away. If you need a project to get you going, the easiest thing in the world is to make something like a scarf or a trivet, where the pattern is pretty much "chain until it's long enough. Turn around, now single crochet". At this point, you're trying to learn muscle memory for the chain stitch and the single crochet, something that will require a few hundred to a few thousand stitches, which is probably a couple of hours.

    Virtually all crochet falls out of that. You can do almost any basic crocheted object using only chain stitching and single crochet. The rest is details, and relatively easy to learn on a foundation of an adroit single crochet.

    The Tips

    Some of this is contingent on me: I'm easily distracted, bad at counting stitches and dropping stitches, and literally couldn't tell where I was supposed to hook in next for most of a year, and I have other bad habits, but here's stuff that I either did wrong for a long time, or that helped me get better fast.

    -Especially at first, pick your yarn, hook size, and lighting to make it easy to see your work. This will vary, but I'd err on the larger side (think 5 mm hooks), and aim for yarn with a smooth texture that doesn't separate into threads easily. Also, I think light-coloured (but not white) yarn is good at first, because you can see the contours of the knots most easily. I spent a lot of time doing dumb things because I couldn't make out my own work in fuzzy dark blue yarn. (But that said, if you have a yearning to do amigurumi and nothing but, don't let me stop you, it's not that hard. Grab a 3.5 mm hook, some appropriate yarn, and go to town. I started out focusing on amigurumi myself, but feel like I got a lot better fast when I went through a phase of focusing on scarfs, which helped me practice away some bad habits).

    -As a practice, don't be afraid to work in contrasting colours. It's easy to crochet with two colours at the same time, and working against a contrasting row of yarn can really illuminate what is going on with the work for a novice. Even today, I find it easiest to see what's going on when I'm working rows in different colours.

    -Yarn tension: it's fairly important that you manage the yarn as you hook it onto the hook. Beginner's guides emphasize particular ways of holding the yarn between the fingers of your non-hooking hand, and if in doubt, follow those, but ensure that you're keeping your tension comfortable: not too tight, not too loose, and it will be far easier to make your knots.

    -Work somewhat loose, especially at first. My initial instinct was to pull every knot as tight as humanly possible. This is dumb. A looser tension makes many things easier, especially getting your hook into the next row of work. I'm sure this can be taken too far, but as a baseline rule, don't be like me and make your work over-tight. (This is a rule for beginners and general projects; there are reasons some projects are worked tight, and for example I did a project where I messed with tension to partly compensate for using yarns of different weights).

    -Relax: initial projects may look like garbage. You will likely drop stitches and pick up stitches and have gauge problems and make messes. I'd encourage you to avoid trying to correct every error: if you're like me, the forgiving nature of crochet is part of the charm. That said, unraveling failed projects is very easy, and in one unfortunate case involving some nice yarn, I literally unraveled an entire scarf because it was too big (and made it into several smaller scarfs). Give these early projects to your mom, or a dog, or something. You're learning.

    -Work on what you want to work on: this is general advice for myself, it may not work for you, but I need to be making something I want to make in order to learn a skill. Fortunately, I was pretty happy making scarves, and those are both easy and educational, and with practice scarf patterns can be effectively executed with two drinks in you and one eye on the TV. Amigurumi require more of your attention, because stitch counts matter. One piece you won't see below is a tiny replica of my dog, lying half-done for months because I can't bear to pick it up, it's such a mess of missed stitches and other errors. I'll probably unravel and retry.

    -I make up project bags that ideally consist of the yarn and tools for a single thing I'm working on, so I can grab and go when I think I might have a chance to get a hook in.

    -I have a hard time keeping stitch counts, but I recently found it's easier if I count off the stitches in a second language (French or Greek for me). My guess is that the numbers in those languages don't flow quite as naturally for my brain, so I have to really think about the fact I'm on stitch "sept", and moving to stitch "huit" is a noticeable jump.

    The Book

    It has to be said that I was working in yarn for almost a year before I impulse-purchased a great book on crochet. Alas, it's not the book that has Christina Hendricks on the cover; I have no idea if that one is good or bad. But Stitch Encyclopedia: Crochet has clear figures showing how to execute the basic stitches of crochet in a slim, pricey volume that. I read three different descriptions of how to do a "magic circle" (a tidy way of starting crochet in the round), but it was the one in this book that actually taught me how to do it. Is it a translation of a Japanese text on the subject? Well of course it is.

    Equipment

    Hooks aren't terribly expensive, and even the cheapest ones will work, but with smaller hooks, the ergonomic handles are a good idea. Clover Soft Touch hooks seem to be the gold standard here, though I found their blunt hooks hard to work with at first (as my technique improved, this became a non-issue, but I think Red Heart hooks have a much sharper edge, and that seems to keep the yarn in place better for me). I ended up buying hooks one at a time as I needed them, and that works fine, but if you know you're in whole hog, you might as well save yourself some money and trouble and buy a nice set like the one I just linked, and supplement with things like a big 10 mm hook so you can do fun stuff with stupid-big yarn.

    For yarn...whatever. Buy whatever you need for your projects, and hook away. For stuff worn near the skin, there's some very interesting acrylic yarns with super-soft textures. I'd encourage you to experiment. Synthetic and wool both have merits depending on what you're making, but when in doubt, cheap acrylic is fine.

    Aside from that, there's stitch markers and holders (useful, but I just use safety pins, they're fine) and yarn needles (These plastic Susan Bates ones are a dream: they cost a bit much, but work so well I could write a whole post about them). You'll need a cutting tool to snip yarn, but since anything will do, I recommend the most outrageous folding survival knife you can find, because it's funny.

    I haven't needed anything else, equipment-wise.

    The Results

    These photos are roughly chronological. Most items were made with only loose reference to patterns, though I often consult patterns of similar items to get a rough idea of what should work. The key exceptions are Yoda and R2-D2, made (as best I could) to the stitch from detailed patterns.

    My early ball-and-mess phase, working with only a minimalist amigurumi sphere pattern and lots of improvisation. You haven't lived until you're in a hard-bitten province-wide contract bargaining session, and one of your comrades asks you "what are you making?" and the answer is, technically, a stuffed turd:

    My sis' dog admires my work, though:

    An early bracelet, because bracelets are easy and amusing:

    A fitted cap, we'll declare this a success and move on:

    A scarf for my sis, not bad, I didn't like how the "fringe" came out:

    Um, so this is an infinity scarf worked in crazy chunky wool that got out of hand. I later unraveled it:

    Yoda's sweater, the only sweater I have done so far:

    These amigurumi Star Wars figures are far from perfect, but I like how they look. The outer two are quite complex, and were both made from patterns. The BB-8 is simpler, but I conceived of him entirely from scratch, and deliberately made him to the same scale as R2-D2:

    Knit vs. Crochet

    I can't really say. I tried knitting before I tried crochet, and had issues, but a lot of those were likely the same problems I later had in crochet (I made everything too tight, for example). Regardless, knitting never caught me, while crochet was immediately fascinating. I expect I'll try knitting again at some point.

    Crochet has a reputation for speed, but there are tools for doing very fast knitting. I think knitting, though correctable, is a bit less tolerant of faults than crochet, where I frequently find myself fixing prior faults in the work through minor tweaks in later rows.

    Crochet has one singular advantage: it is very effective worked in the round, especially for 3-dimensional objects. This is why amigurumi is primarily a crocheted form. Knitting has techniques that allow it to work with 3-d forms, but I don't think they're as natural as what you can do in crochet.

    Final Thoughts

    Crochet is fun and worth learning. It has enough depth to be a good hobby, and progressive mastery is rewarding: you can do interesting things as a beginner, and more interesting things as you get better. Now that I'm reasonably competent, people seem to genuinely like the stuff I make for them.

    If you're a guy and you do it, you'll also get major "dog walking on its hind legs" points: it's not that you do it well, but that you do it at all. I like it very much as a semi-creative outlet, and I see it as a tool that will let me fabricate interesting objects. I even have a half-done attempt at a crocheted charging station, I should really take that up again....

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    "The Nightmare Before Christmas," and some kind of Star Wars movie http://wiredcola.com/content/nightmare-christmas-and-some-kind-star-wars-movie 2015-12-20T08:13:26-08:00 2015-12-20T08:13:26-08:00 rcousine The new Star Wars (Episode VII: The Force Awakens) needs no review from me, but I might as well get a few things on the record: it's the best Star Wars movie in 30 years, and it's about nothing, and it's probably good enough.

    I read a claim in the last few days that at least The Phantom Menace had a coherent argument, however bad it was, but I'll suggest that when a poleconomic theory is as bad as the one expressed in TPM, it's better to have no argument at all. TFA is the best fanfic ever put on a big screen, which is its blessing and curse. It won't have its long-term reputation made until we see if it sets up interesting subsequent movies.

    To be sure, I don't regret seeing it in the theatre one bit, and I'll watch it again on my TV at some point, but "Mad Max: Fury Road" was in almost all ways a better action movie.

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    The new Star Wars (Episode VII: The Force Awakens) needs no review from me, but I might as well get a few things on the record: it's the best Star Wars movie in 30 years, and it's about nothing, and it's probably good enough.

    I read a claim in the last few days that at least The Phantom Menace had a coherent argument, however bad it was, but I'll suggest that when a poleconomic theory is as bad as the one expressed in TPM, it's better to have no argument at all. TFA is the best fanfic ever put on a big screen, which is its blessing and curse. It won't have its long-term reputation made until we see if it sets up interesting subsequent movies.

    To be sure, I don't regret seeing it in the theatre one bit, and I'll watch it again on my TV at some point, but "Mad Max: Fury Road" was in almost all ways a better action movie.

    But "A Nightmare Before Christmas"... TLO is a special fan of this, so we watched it last night. I had seen it before, but had forgotten how good it was. The animation was great, the character designs were imaginative, and you could probably carry the first half of the movie on the opening song ("This is Halloween"). But you don't have to, there's lots of other fun things to see.

    What I really loved on second viewing is that "Nightmare" is about how projects fail. Jack Skellington is incredibly competent in his domain, but he is bored by that success. He looks for a new challenge, and then commits every mistake possible: he doesn't understand the new problem, which is outside of his area of expertise, and he doesn't understand that he doesn't understand. He grants too much authority and too little oversight to key underlings. He doesn't listen to critical voices, even within his inner circle. Only a Christmas miracle saves him from himself in the end. (but of course, Christmas miracles do tend to happen, so this is realistic, too).

    You could even simplistically say the morals of the movie are incredibly conservative: if you summed up the tale as "stick to your knitting," or a Chestertonian exhortation about not tearing down a wall if you have no idea why it was put up, you'd be right, but the deeper interest isn't in the morals, it's in the themes of failure.

    I will watch "Nightmare" again soon. It is of course a Ring 0 Christmas movie, and I feel it deserves mention as one of the great ones. (Two of my very favorite Christmas movies are both Ring 2, so it's nice to find a Ring 0 story I can really get behind; this ring nonsense is fully explained in my seminal essay from 2010).

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    Tour de France jersey protocol, a small but interesting minor detail http://wiredcola.com/content/tour-de-france-jersey-protocol-small-interesting-minor-detail 2015-07-26T14:54:58-07:00 2015-07-26T14:54:58-07:00 rcousine So, you all know about the Four jersey competitions in the Tour de France right?

    There's also a protocol for which jersey you wear if you're entitled to more than one of them, laid out on page 29 and 30 in Article 10 of the Tour de France rules (document is fun throughout for a certain kind of nerd). The rules are simple: the order of precedence is Yellow, Green (points race), Polka Dots (mountains competition), White (best young rider). If a rider is entitled to two jerseys, he wears the most senior jersey, and the second-place rider in that competition wears the jersey.

    On the last day of the 2015, the jersey assignments got weird.

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    So, you all know about the Four jersey competitions in the Tour de France right?

    There's also a protocol for which jersey you wear if you're entitled to more than one of them, laid out on page 29 and 30 in Article 10 of the Tour de France rules (document is fun throughout for a certain kind of nerd). The rules are simple: the order of precedence is Yellow, Green (points race), Polka Dots (mountains competition), White (best young rider). If a rider is entitled to two jerseys, he wears the most senior jersey, and the second-place rider in that competition wears the jersey.

    On the last day of the 2015, the jersey assignments got weird.

    Chris Froome was leading the General Classification, so he wore the Yellow Jersey. Froome also led the Mountains challenge, so that jersey got delegated to the runner-up, who was Nairo Quintana, who...was leading the Young Rider competition, and therefore entitled to wear the white jersey.

    The precedence rule says Polka Dots trump White, but given that Quintana was outright entitled to the White Jersey, and would have only worn the Mountains Jersey by delegation. The rules are vague on this point, but a sensible interpretation prevailed: Quintana wore White, and the Mountains Jersey went to the third-place rider in that classification, Romain Bardet.

    And now, mostly unrelated, my favorite bit of jersey trivia. In 1969, Eddy Merckx won all the jersey classifications. At the time, instead of a "young rider" jersey, there was a "combination" jersey (also white) for the rider ranked highest in the other classifications. Merckx won that with the best possible score, 3. Merckx would have won the young rider classification as it is awarded today, if it was up for grabs. He also won the Combativity prize, and his team won the Team competition.

    The only classified overall prize he didn't win was the Intermediate Sprint classification, the prize for the best sprinter during sprints that nobody cares about.

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    An interesting thing about getting old http://wiredcola.com/content/interesting-thing-about-getting-old 2015-07-17T10:38:55-07:00 2015-07-17T10:38:55-07:00 rcousine Sad cookie! "You don't like Indian food, do you?"

    "No, I like it, it's just that you like it enough that I never feel the need to pick it."

    That was the substance of a conversation between TLO and myself, not so long ago.

    I'm in my early forties. And just in the last year or so, I've gone from craving novelty in many areas to being satisfied with old favourites.

    This isn't a small thing, and it's most obvious with food.

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    Sad cookie! "You don't like Indian food, do you?"

    "No, I like it, it's just that you like it enough that I never feel the need to pick it."

    That was the substance of a conversation between TLO and myself, not so long ago.

    I'm in my early forties. And just in the last year or so, I've gone from craving novelty in many areas to being satisfied with old favourites.

    This isn't a small thing, and it's most obvious with food.

    For most of my adult life, I've been both a lover of food and a fairly adventurous eater. The things I haven't eaten probably tell the story best: in my early twenties, I was in the Philippines, and was given the chance to eat the brains of a roast pig. I declined, and I regret doing so today.

    I'll try just about anything, at least once. When I eat out, I like to try new places, or new kinds of places. when I eat at a familiar place, I try menu items I haven't had before.

    Well, that was true. But I've noticed a gradual process of accepting the familiar that I know I'll like to a much greater degree. Some of this is because I'm done, so to speak: thanks to TLO, I've tried a great breadth of teas, certainly dozens, possibly over a hundred, and definitely covering all the major varieties. While I will happily drink all kinds of tea, if the choice of what to put on for breakfast is left to me, I'll automatically pick Earl Grey (or possibly one or two very closely related black teas). This in a house that has more than 30 varieties of tea on hand at the moment.

    Similarly, when I eat out, especially at a familiar place, I'm content to order old favourites over seeking novelties. This isn't universally true, but I can feel this preference slowly closing in on me, for better or for worse.

    Why

    In my mind, the biggest reason for this is that I know what I like: even on an unfamiliar menu, the chances are I'm familiar with most of the dishes, in one way or another. I have a pretty good idea of what I like, and how much I like it, especially with dishes that show very little variance: I'm not likely to meet a new kind of ika that convinces me to prefer it over a nice slice of fatty tuna.

    In other words, having eaten fairly broadly and fairly deeply, novelty is relatively hard to find, and of the non-novel dishes, I'm likely to know which ones I prefer.

    But the broader tendency of older folks, especially men, starting about my age, to get set in their ways, is a well-trod cultural trope, and while I'm too lazy to look up any references, I feel pretty confident there's research that backs that up (to mention just one thing, older voters are more conservative voters, and I believe the longitudinal studies strongly suggest this is a process where individuals are more conservative than their younger selves). My confident explanation above may be a post hoc rationalization of a largely physiological change.

    What is to be done?

    Maybe nothing. Maybe I'm just smarter than my younger self. But I hope that by being conscious of this trend, I'll be wary of being unfairly biased against novelty.

    Or perhaps in a decade I'll wonder why I ever fought the urge to get more set in my ways. In the meantime, get off my lawn.

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    And oh, why not, a review of "Debt" that's four years old http://wiredcola.com/content/and-oh-why-not-review-debt-thats-four-years-old 2015-07-06T10:16:19-07:00 2015-07-06T10:16:19-07:00 rcousine [This came up because a certain professor invited me to read Graeber's article "Debt: The first 5000 years". I had done so in 2011; the article was published in 2009. I think my critique from 2011 holds up, so I'm publishing it here, lightly edited. I hope you will all look forward to my upcoming article, "Decorative Gardening: The First 5000 Years"]:

    It's an interesting take, but I think the author suffers from Moore-Klein Syndrome: find coincidences, name them correlations, assume causation. And while an anthropologist's analysis of debt could be fascinating, I think this one is burdened by being written by an anthropologist.

    More particularly, he seems to ignore that the Slavery Question is whether anyone can be regarded as someone else's personal property, and that slavery doesn't generate shocking property institutions, but rather that those institutions are shocking when used on a person.

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    [This came up because a certain professor invited me to read Graeber's article "Debt: The first 5000 years". I had done so in 2011; the article was published in 2009. I think my critique from 2011 holds up, so I'm publishing it here, lightly edited. I hope you will all look forward to my upcoming article, "Decorative Gardening: The First 5000 Years"]:

    It's an interesting take, but I think the author suffers from Moore-Klein Syndrome: find coincidences, name them correlations, assume causation. And while an anthropologist's analysis of debt could be fascinating, I think this one is burdened by being written by an anthropologist.

    More particularly, he seems to ignore that the Slavery Question is whether anyone can be regarded as someone else's personal property, and that slavery doesn't generate shocking property institutions, but rather that those institutions are shocking when used on a person.

    The assertion that money didn't start as a means to improve liquidity is...challenging. His attempt to extract political structure from the "debt to society" metaphor is probably a false etymology, as if I claimed that the phrase "iron will" meant you didn't have anemia. Maybe there's some solid anthro research behind this theory of debt and society, but I detect the smell of the author just making things up.

    Here's a particular passage that is the core of his argument:

    The institution of wage labour, for instance, has historically emerged from within that of slavery (the earliest wage contracts we know of, from Greece to the Malay city states, were actually slave rentals), and it has also tended, historically, to be intimately tied to various forms of debt peonage – as indeed it remains today. The fact that we have cast such institutions in a language of freedom does not mean that what we now think of as economic freedom does not ultimately rest on a logic that has for most of human history been considered the very essence of slavery.

    That's an enormous claim requiring a certain amount of evidence, I'd say. The existence of a non-enslaved professional class (that is, people whose daily bread was not grown or gathered by them, but rather bought or traded for their non-food-making skills) goes very far back. The current theory is the Egyptians had substantial non-slave, non-farmer skilled populations. Also, the "roots in slavery" argument effectively extends to everything except for farming and foraging. Mediterranean sailing? Rooted in slavery. Cities? Rooted in slavery. Greek civilization, and therefore democracy? Rooted in slavery. Pizza? Well, you get the idea. The long history of slavery (and the relatively short history of near-universal emancipation) mean every institution older than Mormonism is rooted in slavery, plus also rooted in murder, envy, metallurgy, decorative gardening, masonry...when you can make the same argument about all of these (and you'll love my "Decorative Gardening: The First 5000 Years" article), it's reductio'd ad absurdum.

    Also, how he mentioned the Spanish conquest of the Americas and their extraction of precious metal without noting the disruptive amount of inflation they caused is beyond me.

    A devout economist would generally regard the existence of debt as an escape from various liquidity problems, most commonly the problem of insufficient trading currency, be it cowrie beads, cows, coins, or bullion. Paper bills and fiat currency may be a radical extension of simpler instruments like debt, loans, and scrip, but the problem being solved is similar (and I don't submit that any of those solutions are THE ONE TRUE SOLUTION to non-intrinsic trading medium dilemmas, but they're all plausible and in use).

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    Recent events in Greece, explained by an ignoramus http://wiredcola.com/content/recent-events-greece-explained-ignoramus 2015-07-05T21:26:33-07:00 2015-07-05T21:26:33-07:00 rcousine Let's lay out my credentials up front: I have few. I'm not an economist, or good at monetary theory, international finance, or Greece. I married into a Greek family, and I've spent numerous vacations there in the last 15 years. I don't really speak the language. Therefore, you can ignore me, if that saves time.

    So what just happened?

    Let's talk about some reference materials, in particular this interview of Piketty, (published in German, so we're trusting this translation and the second-hand analysis to some degree) regarding Greece.

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    Let's lay out my credentials up front: I have few. I'm not an economist, or good at monetary theory, international finance, or Greece. I married into a Greek family, and I've spent numerous vacations there in the last 15 years. I don't really speak the language. Therefore, you can ignore me, if that saves time.

    So what just happened?

    Let's talk about some reference materials, in particular this interview of Piketty, (published in German, so we're trusting this translation and the second-hand analysis to some degree) regarding Greece.

    Piketty points out that many countries, notably Germany, have defaulted. This is true. He feels, therefore, that Germany has no moral grounds on which to compel Greece to pay. This is an argument of straw. I'll stipulate that surely someone has argued the moral grounds by which Greece ought to pay its debts, but those moral grounds matter very little, just as they matter very little with any other sovereign debtor, be it Canada or Qatar. The main incentive for any sovereign state to repay debt is because repayment is the easy route to cheap access to financing. This is true for Greece as well.

    But none of the serious people at the table care about the moral dimension of the debt. Maybe some principals have tried to use an appeal to the moral imperative to repay debt, but the best way to understand the current negotiation is as one of leverage (notably, Greek Finance Minister Yiannis Varoufakis is an expert in the academic field of game theory).

    The levers on each side are relatively simple: the Eurogroup (the Euro zone national finance ministers), European Commerce Bank (ECB), and IMF (the "Troika") can offer very cheap financing on the current debt. There's also an implicit promise, based on previous negotiations and the realities, that eventually, the debt will be sufficiently forgiven to make it manageable. The other thing the Troika offers is continued comfort for Greece within the bosom of the Euro: there are good arguments the Euro is not a good currency for Greece to use, but it remains relentlessly popular among the Greeks, and there are plausible reasons for this popularity. The Troika also offers ongoing liquidity to the Greek banking system, as the ECB is the Euro equivalent of the Bank of Canada or the U.S. Federal Reserve: the implementation of monetary policy, including the vital bank-lender functions.

    The Greeks offer default: the threat to simply repudiate their debts, in whole or in part, is an open avenue for most sovereign states, and there is almost no recourse for most debtors, but the ramifications make states think hard before exercising this option.

    There is a poison pill for Greece in the Greek default threat, however: the ECB is effectively part of its creditor group, and is NOT ultimately beholden solely to the interests of Greece. It must heed the entire Eurozone, and set policy for all Euro-using member states. Because of that, cutting off the lending window to Greek banks is a near-certain consequence of default; indeed, the suspension of payments has already led to this happening, thus the ongoing bank run and slow-motion bank holiday in Greece. Eliding further details, this means yes, if Greece defaults, it will almost certainly lose access to crucial ECB functions, and given the choice between a banking-system collapse and forming a new currency (which I'll simply call the "drachma", because that's what everyone else refers to this putative currency as, and because that's what it probably would be called), it will almost certainly choose the latter.

    This is why default is seen as leading to "Grexit," aka the departure of Greece from the Eurozone.

    The playbook for changing currencies like this is known from previous, similar incidents, and I'm not going to get into that history. It's not pretty, it's not simple, and it's risky. It may still work out for the best, though.

    My point is there's no useful moral imperative, on either side, driving negotiating positions.

    Degrees of Forgiveness

    There's some element of debt forgiveness built into the current repayment plan. In the long term, it's likely implicit, but unspoken. In the short term, the lending terms over the last few years, wherein Greece got refinanced at, more or less, Germany's interest rates, amount to a massive forgiveness of their open-market debt obligations (at peak Crisis a few years ago, Greek debt traded at implied interest rates that exceeded what my credit card offered me: I was a better unsecured credit risk than Greece was. (This was, in retrospect, correct)). Piketty is arguing above that the offered terms should be even more forgiving: presumably in the form of explicit forgiveness of some amount of debt, or lower effective interest rates, or an even longer term. I need to point out this is an argument that the Troika (and their financier, mainly the people of Germany) are already virtuous donors to the cause of Greece, we're just arguing now about the size of the donation.

    Should it be more? It's been sized right now to be cheaper than default, more or less. At the start of this year, Tyler Cowen wrote a prescient post on Greece's debt and its interest rate. Note that the keys here are that Spain and Italy are in better (not great) financial states than Greece, and are not on the road to default FOR NOW. But both are still paying market rates. More importantly, both are bigger economies than Greece: Spain is much bigger, and Italy is huge, both in GDP and debt. Bailing out Italy, should that ever be necessary, is probably beyond the means (political, if not fiscal) of the Eurozone.

    I think Cowen rightly predicted politics as the potential cause of Greece's downfall in the last seven months, and I would say that SYRIZA, whatever understandable impulses drove their election, has been specifically and largely responsible for unintentionally (but predictably) talking and working Greece into economic and state-revenue downturns to go along with their preexisting fiscal problem.

    The Vote

    The Greeks voted "No."

    Does the question even matter? At heart, "Yes" would have been a vote to accept the Troika's terms, refinance, and reopen the banks, and carry on, more or less. "No" was a vote to renegotiate with the Troika, but it was obvious to most that the Troika was not (and is not) likely to change its terms much. I think Greece is bereft of additional leverage.

    So while there are still possible exits, "No" is likely a vote to default, and to (for the reasons mentioned above) exit the Euro.

    This is dangerous, but not crazy. The long-cited issue with the Euro has been that it does not float at a value convenient to its smaller, poorer nations, and that includes Greece. The currency transition and default may, in the long term, help Greece exit from its present fiscal mess.

    But the short term for Grexit is likely to be ugly, possibly very ugly. I cease making predictions at this point.

    Also, I might as well note in passing that while I think it had no great effect on the final result, "No" Day is a potent cultural touchstone for Greeks, a symbol of their resistance to foreign invaders, and that allusion was alive to everybody in Greece.

    Final Thoughts

    I have guesses as to the range of possibilities; I can demonstrate them by my revealed preference: I have another Greek vacation scheduled for the Fall, and no plans to change it.

    Don't take that as me thinking anything good happened today.

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    Thinking hard about action movies: "Mad Max: Fury Road" http://wiredcola.com/content/thinking-hard-about-action-movies-mad-max-fury-road 2015-05-17T20:17:25-07:00 2015-05-17T20:17:25-07:00 rcousine

    @rcousine my entire review of the movie is of the guy hanging off the 3 story high speaker truck playing an electric guitar that shoots fire

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    @rcousine my entire review of the movie is of the guy hanging off the 3 story high speaker truck playing an electric guitar that shoots fire

    — johnnysunshine (@johnnysunshine) May 16, 2015

    Let's give the real review up front: "Mad Max: Fury Road" has this for a trailer:

    If that makes you want to see the movie, you should go see this movie.

    But the film is worthy of a longer review.

    It is, first of all, a really good action movie. The stunts are kinetic, exciting, visceral, beautifully filmed, and (it's painful one has to mention this) shown in such a way that you can follow the action. Nobody desiring a great action movie with cars will regret seeing it.

    It is, next, a charmingly small movie. The scale of the stakes is personal and understandable for each of the major characters: survival; freedom; children. This is true of the villains as well as the heroes: they get interior lives and understandable motives. The fate of the world turns not at all on what happens next. One character memorably describes the situation as "a family squabble" (but Hamlet was also a family squabble).

    The plot has little or no idiocy. The action is true to itself: there were very few moments, despite some absurd spectacle, where I felt that the movie was straining my suspension of disbelief. Stuff that will do that for me are physics-defying stunts or feats of strength; the former are not really in play, and the latter were limited to one or two rather immaterial moments.

    The movie has what I like most in a piece of science fiction: a well-realized and well-detailed world. The movie avoids the sin of trying to tell you too much back story. You won't learn how Max became who he was. You won't learn how we got to this post-apocalyptic world. But you will accept them, because the details you get are enough to hint at coherent richness. Sure, we're following a suicidal-warrior-cult tribe, but it's one that is historically informed: there's a delightful death-chant, invocations of Valhalla, and a preparation-for-death ritual that's so cute I don't want to spoil it.

    It also has (I saw others, notably William Gibson, point out what I didn't consciously notice) lovely set-design details. There's a tin-plate headliner in one of the main trucks, made up of tiled stampings of the bad guy's logo. Every physical object in the movie is that thoughtfully detailed, and it helps make this world feel more real.

    So this movie's trinity of success is excellent action sequences, characters that are not cardboard (doubly tricky in a movie that is not dialogue-heavy), and lovely design. This isn't an amazingly thoughtful movie, and it probably won't change your life (not for the better, anyway), but it is a really superb genre movie. And in the same way that the best westerns were more than just genre movies, it is more than just a postapocalyptic car-combat actioner. It deserves a second viewing, and I look forward to seeing it again.

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    The Fritter Diaries: Mennonite Fritters http://wiredcola.com/content/fritter-diaries-mennonite-fritters 2015-04-21T21:55:53-07:00 2015-04-21T21:55:53-07:00 rcousine The Fritter Diaries, Day 1

    We're in search of the perfect apple fritter. This is the first try.

    With the permission of my Mennonite friend Johnny Sunshine, I have culturally appropriated honoured the recipe of his people, so let's examine the result.

    This is an apple-heavy, pan-fried recipe. The dough rising is powered by baking powder.

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    The Fritter Diaries, Day 1

    We're in search of the perfect apple fritter. This is the first try.

    With the permission of my Mennonite friend Johnny Sunshine, I have culturally appropriated honoured the recipe of his people, so let's examine the result.

    This is an apple-heavy, pan-fried recipe. The dough rising is powered by baking powder.

    Taste is pretty good. As designed, the recipe is not sweetened except by the apples. I tried dipping them in various combos of milk and syrup, and that seemed to work. Texture is not the magical crispness that is my holy grail, and it fades quickly from fresh. Some of that might come back from a serious attempt to glaze the fritters. I probably betrayed the taste with my choice of grapeseed oil (would do again with vegetable oil or shortening; would consider taking the dark path of beef tallow.)

    I would make this recipe again. I dream of a crispier fritter, and maybe a slightly airier one, but this is a defensible, tasty fritter. Especially nice if "cloyingly sweet" isn't your benchmark. As an accompaniment to coffee, this has promise.

    Production was dead easy. The only remotely hard part of prep was cutting up two cups of apples. If you want fritters 30 minutes from when you start pulling out ingredients, and you can chop apples quickly, this recipe works.

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    Should you buy an electric car? Wired Cola investigates http://wiredcola.com/content/should-you-buy-electric-car-wired-cola-investigates 2015-04-10T00:58:27-07:00 2015-04-10T00:58:27-07:00 rcousine Someone was wrong on the Internet the other day, and I was determined to fix that. The question at hand was "why don't cargo ships run on electricity?" And short answer is: because they can't.

    But that led to some questions about the economics of electric cars, right here, right now. Because in the midst of trying to prove that EVs were still a non-economic choice, I ran the numbers, and it turns out I'm right! But only barely.

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    Someone was wrong on the Internet the other day, and I was determined to fix that. The question at hand was "why don't cargo ships run on electricity?" And short answer is: because they can't.

    But that led to some questions about the economics of electric cars, right here, right now. Because in the midst of trying to prove that EVs were still a non-economic choice, I ran the numbers, and it turns out I'm right! But only barely.

    As a zeroth point, prices matter. Lots of prices. My analysis assumes no value for Electric Smugness or Saving the Earth (though it will be useful to those of you who value those things, because I can put a price on how much they will cost you). My analysis is based on my very local cost of gasoline, where it's about C$1.20/l. If your local cost of gas is lower (the US, Venezuela) an EV won't make any sense at all. If your local cost of gas is higher (most of Europe), the EV is more compelling. And there's a twist ending regarding fuelling costs, so read on. EVs also have cash-on-purchase subsidies from the BC government, and so on...just keep in mind that this analysis is very dependent on the place and time it was done for, though my math may help you with figuring out your situation.

    Nissan vs. Nissan

    At present, TLO & I own a 2007 Nissan Versa. It is a boringly effective tool for dispatching 15,000 km of driving each year, and thus I love it. We paid cash for it in early 2011. I would guess it would sell for about $5500 today.

    For comparison, my benchmark electric vehicle was a Nissan Leaf. The Leaf has two valuable attributes in this comparison: it's very close to being an electric Versa, and it's probably the best balance of price and performance in the Canadian EV market (which I will herewith dispatch for you: Smart EV, small; Mitsubishi iMiEV, available with such a heavy discount it's almost worth considering, but it's a wretched thing compared to the Leaf; Chevrolet Volt, more expensive (and for better or worse, not a pure EV, though you can get close with some driving patterns); Tesla, fantastic, and fantastically expensive. There are other EVs which may come to Canada soon, and may be competitive, but none is going to trounce the Leaf (the Fiat 500 EV and Chevy Spark EV may be very interesting, though).

    A Leaf costs, well, it's important! I did a first-cut estimate in which I assumed MSRP for the base Leaf ($31,798, excluding tax, PDI, and so forth, but also not including Nissan's considerable current incentives, or the $5000 the BC government will give you for buying an EV). It also turns out Vancity offers Prime+1 financing for EVs, which is not bad.

    If I apply all the incentives, and I trade in my car, (and let's assume I negotiate well enough to cover the taxes, which is ambitious), I'd owe $20000, and my payments could be $4400 a year on a 5-year term. I assume my electricity cost will be about $200/year, and that's an estimate that assumes I don't mooch free charging whenever I go out (which I would).

    That compares to an operating gas/oil cost of about $1900/year for the current car, based on our mileage and the car's fuel economy (usefully close to 10L/100 km).

    5 years from now, the Versa will be worth about $1500, the Leaf will be worth about $10000 (that latter based on Nissan's lease calculations). If that holds, and if you assume no repair costs for either car (that's a pretty big assumption!), then keeping the Versa costs less than driving a Leaf. The difference is about $1200/year.

    So for me, in my situation, that's the cost of, you pick: new car smell, smugness, saving the earth, whatever. That is about what it would cost to buy and operate a new EV over the price of keeping my well-used but very usable Versa going.

    Your Mileage May Vary

    So where does this calculation break down? I haven't calculated the cost of repairs properly (expect these to be a cost for the Versa, and a non-cost for the Leaf), and I also haven't calculated insurance (probably higher for the new-car Leaf). If you drive much more than we do, and can make the Leaf's range envelope fit your life, you might break even. If your current car is thirstier than our Versa, then you might break even (but compare to replacing your thirsty car with something more efficient, like...a Versa!)

    What this suggests is that the financial break-even for some electric cars is now surprisingly close to that for gas cars. If you care about total operating costs, EVs deserve your attention. Given that batteries seem to be getting cheaper (albeit slowly), the price trend may favour EVs.

    But I promised you a twist ending, right?

    A Twist Ending

    Prices matter, and there's a lot of things in the EV market that serve to distort prices, possibly temporarily. If you buy an EV in BC, you'll be eligible for a $5000 discount on the purchase price, so that's a nice incentive. Be sure it's available when you buy, though. More importantly, when you charge up an EV, you're using electricity. The important attribute of electricity here is it has no gas tax.

    Gasoline, of course, has gas tax. This isn't an inherent element of gasoline, it's a sideways method of funding road use (and it's weakly Pigovian, in this case pushing people to avoid using gasoline). But once EVs become a large part of the road population, they will be taxed, somehow, to make up for the lost gas taxes. This won't be the whole story when it comes to EV operating costs, but it means that both government subsidies to EV purchases and the fuel-tax-freedom of EV power can be expected to go away. This may not prevent EVs from taking over, but a sharp-eyed long-term assessment has to account for those subsidies, and their likely disappearance.

    Final Thoughts

    It came out pretty close. If I torture the numbers a bit, they might confess a new answer, one that tells me to buy an EV. If I valued New Car Smell more, I'd be able to justify a new EV. But the cold equations say we're keeping the Versa.

    Ask me again in a year.

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    How energy-efficient are pipelines anyway? http://wiredcola.com/content/how-energy-efficient-are-pipelines-anyway 2014-09-26T13:30:46-07:00 2014-09-26T13:30:46-07:00 rcousine Really efficient. They use less than 1/3 the energy of a freight train, per tonne per kilometre*, and in some places (like BC) the power mix is vastly greener for the pipeline than the train.

    First, excellent story of the day, a Belgian brewery wants to put in a beer pipeline. This is awesome.

    Second, my good friend Michael made a quip about this, saying "not all pipelines add greenhouse gases."

    Well...the comment made me do some math.

    1150 km is a funny distance to move something, but it happens to be the distance of the Trans Mountain (EDM - YVR) pipeline. Northern Gateway is actually more like 2000 km. For our purposes, longer transit distances make transport efficiency more important, but I did all the calculations based on 1150 km.

    Showing your work is boring, so trust me:

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    Really efficient. They use less than 1/3 the energy of a freight train, per tonne per kilometre*, and in some places (like BC) the power mix is vastly greener for the pipeline than the train.

    First, excellent story of the day, a Belgian brewery wants to put in a beer pipeline. This is awesome.

    Second, my good friend Michael made a quip about this, saying "not all pipelines add greenhouse gases."

    Well...the comment made me do some math.

    1150 km is a funny distance to move something, but it happens to be the distance of the Trans Mountain (EDM - YVR) pipeline. Northern Gateway is actually more like 2000 km. For our purposes, longer transit distances make transport efficiency more important, but I did all the calculations based on 1150 km.

    Showing your work is boring, so trust me:

    It takes 18.3 kWh to move 1000 kg of light crude 1150 km in a pipe, courtesy this report on pipeline pumps and some math around the density of crude oil.

    It takes 68.6 kWh to move 1000 kg of anything 1150 km in a freight train. Again, after mathing out the energy in a litre of diesel and some other conversions.

    (1000 kg of fuel oil or diesel has an energy capacity of 13440 kWh. Again, I've done some unit conversion to get there.)

    And it matters a bit that if run a pipeline through BC, it will be about 70% water-powered, thanks to our electrical grid power sources. Freight trains in BC are not water-powered.

    So the question from a GHG point of view is whether the nonexistence of a pipeline causes about 0.5% less oil to be consumed (NOT transported to Vancouver; one fate of the "excess" oil is being sold off cheap into the local market: the price for crude oil in Canada is lower than it is in China, because we have an effective surplus of the stuff, no transportation needed.)** So unless a pipeline of this length causes oil extraction to rise a fair bit***, it probably earns GHG credits.

    There's a lot of hand-waving here: I really don't know how responsive extraction is to price fluctuation, and the price difference is big: experts seem to think Alberta oil sells for about 20% less than it could if there was easier access to "tidewater" ports (that is, Northern Gateway and Keystone XL). On the other hand, that premium is large enough that even rail looks pretty viable. If Alberta isn't already shipping large amounts of oil by rail, it will once these pipelines die. What I'm saying is that we must not be blind to economics: lower the price of something, raise the demand. I don't know how much a pipeline will affect the demand for oil (though others have spent considerable time modeling this).

    What I can tell you pretty conclusively is that if you intend to ship a quantity of oil through BC, you will burn less than 1/10 of the fossil fuels doing it with a pipeline than with a train.****

    *Yes I am well aware I could express this dimensionlessly ("per weight per distance") but I think that's more confusing for a lay audience. Maybe I should have said "per gram per parsec" for lulz.

    **Because the difference in green-ness is that moving fuel oil by train takes about 0.51% of the load, in fuel oil, to power the train. The pipeline takes about 0.03% of the load in fossil fuels (coal or natural gas in this part of the world) to move it, with the balance provided by hydro. So the wash is about 0.05%, call it 0.048% if you trust my figures.

    ***If my guess is right, the break-even is creating an increase in Alberta oil production equal to at least 0.05% of the amount expected to be shipped by rail if the pipeline is cancelled. Why is left as an exercise for the reader. Also, plenty of fudging about the fact that the Northern Gateway pipeline is 2000 km; If the alternative is moving oil by rail 2000 km to Kitimat, my figure would be way too conservative about the GHG break-even of the pipeline; it's more like 0.1%. That doesn't sound like much, but whether it happens is dependent on a bunch of factors. If, for example, Alberta oil production is at or near effective capacity, the addition of a pipeline might only increase the price the oil gets, not the production rate. On the other hand, the pipeline may well increase production. I don't know what the current pressures on oil sands production are. For all I know, it may currently hinge on how many Nova Scotians can be recruited to work at the Pizza Hut in Fort MacMurray.

    ****Don't misread this too badly: trains are amazingly efficient in terms of transportation efficiency. But pipelines are even more efficient.

    PS: while researching this article, I discovered the Swiss once used electrically-heated steam locomotives, which is the most hilarious industrial hack I have ever heard of.

    PPS: yes I need to install a footnote plugin for the site, I suck.

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