Snuffing Out Pseudo-Emergencies

Monday, October 24, 2016

Welton Chang has a piece at Medium titled, "How Proper Planning and Being Organized Sets the Table for Productivity," and it offers a concise, but rich list of suggestions. I encountered the article through a Lifehacker post highlighting a "backwards planning" technique for meeting deadlines (or at least detecting those that will need negotiating in advance). That is new to me, and I plan to try it, but here's one that has served me very well over the years:

Organization, whether it be the file structure on your computer or the way you maintain written notes, means being able to call on the things and knowledge you need in a timely manner. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten frantic emails or calls from colleagues who misplaced a file or can't remember something and need to be reminded. Keeping yourself organized and having a system prevents these kinds of pseudo-emergencies from cropping up.
Pseudo-emergencies. What an apt term. And, yes, one of the first things that disorganized people do when they panic is -- if you're unfortunate enough to be working with them -- to suck you into the crisis. I am not sure whether I am more relieved that I have often been able to snuff such calls out quickly, or amazed at how disorganized many people get away with being. One of my biggest pet peeves is having to find something I know I have, and double if I have to drop what I'm doing and do so for someone else.

I hope I find backwards planning half as rewarding a practice.

-- CAV

10-22-16 Hodgepodge

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Greens Excited About New Perpetual Energy Source

Reports are out that a group of scientists from Oakridge have accidentally discovered a relatively easy way to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol, itself a fuel. Engadget summarizes the news as follows:

The team was already looking for a way to convert C02 [sic] into ethanol but were convinced that doing so would require multiple steps and catalysts. Turns out they were wrong. The system is surprisingly simple. The team created a tiny array of nanoscale copper and carbon spikes mounted on a silicon surface. A nanodroplet of nitrogen sits on the tip of each point. When exposed to carbon dioxide and a small electrical charge, this catalyst sets off an complex chain reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process and converts the gas into liquid ethanol. What's more, because the catalyst is so small, there is [sic] virtually no side reactions so the ethanol is quite pure. I mean, you wouldn't want to make a martini with it but it can go straight into a generator and work. Plus, the entire reaction works at room temperature. [links in original]
The author then editorializes:
Were this technology ramped up for commercial or municipal use, it could provide a viable alternative for utility-scale batteries, like the one's [sic] Tesla sells. That is, in times of excess energy production from renewable resources, rather than store that electricity in a giant battery, we could instead convert it to ethanol and use that to power generators when renewable sources aren't producing. Plus it would be carbon neutral since the carbon dioxide generated from burning the ethanol would be reclaimed by the catalytic process. There's no word, however, on when this accidental invention will make it out of the lab. [bold added, links in original]
Hell. Why not just burn ethanol to begin with, capture its exhaust, and burn that ad infinitum? On a more serious note (not to mention, in answer to that question), there is word on why this discovery won't "make it out of the lab" any time soon, via a blog post by Derek Lowe, who also links to the scientific paper:
The headline writers should have read the conclusions section of the paper, however, where it says that "The overpotential...probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst". Basically, you have to use more electric power to get ethanol this way than the resulting ethanol can possibly be worth. The authors suggest some ways that this might be overcome, but those will be matters for a lot of further experimentation. It's worth noting (and the paper has many references to this effect) that if you just want to chew up carbon dioxide electrochemically, you can already do that with existing technology. The big issues are the cost of the electricity you need to run such a process, and where that electricity comes from. If the amount of carbon dioxide emitted to generate all that electricity is more than the amount you're removing and turning back into reduced carbon feedstocks, the whole thing is as useful as a vacuum cleaner that sprays extra dirt out the back. [bold added]
That out of the way, Lowe also does a nice job explaining what is interesting about this process, as well as the problems that industrial application would present.

Weekend Reading

"The more government intervenes and subverts these laws of human nature, the more dysfunctional and political an economy becomes." -- Michael Hurd, in "Nanny State Leads to Rigged Economy" at Newsmax

"Sometimes the job is the career, and sometimes the job is a means for subsidizing the career." -- Michael Hurd, in "Being in Love With Your Work" at The Delaware Wave

"In my years counseling people who have cared for loved ones with Alzheimer's, I've learned several things that can make the ordeal more bearable." -- Michael Hurd, in "The Pain and Loss of Alzheimer's" at The Delaware Coast Press

"[I]n a free market, people don't get paid for the effort they exert but for the value that they create." -- Don Watkins and Yaron Brook, in "Inequality Doesn't Matter if We're All Paid According to the Value We Create" at City A.M.

"To ask candidates to address climate change without addressing the unique benefits of fossil fuels is like asking the candidates to address vaccine side effects without addressing the unique benefits of vaccines." -- Alex Epstein, in "Warming Is Mild and Manageable: Opposing View" at USA Today

Don't (Necessarily) Hand Google Your Phone Number

Unless you also use two-factor authentication, it is more than safe to ignore Google's periodic urgings to "secure" your account by associating it with your phone number:
Using a few old Google accounts, I experimented with Google's account recovery options and discovered that if a Google account does not have a backup phone number associated with it, Google requires you to have access to the recovery email account OR know the security questions in order to take over an account. However, if a backup phone number is on the account, Google allows you to type in a code from an SMS to the device in lieu of any other information.
The article details how this last "feature" can be turned against you.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, October 21, 2016

1. Oh, boy!, I thought, I get to referee again. Both of my kids -- three and five years old -- wanted to play hide-and-seek with me, exclusively.

Delightfully, I couldn't have been more wrong. I have no idea who came up with this solution, which seemed to arise spontaneously, but the hide-and-seek games each of my kids wanted to play with me merged and transmogrified into a what I can only describe as a "hide-and-seek race": When I was "it," the second kid to be found won, and when they were "it," the first to find me won. The best part about having kids is occasionally and unexpectedly getting to be a kid again, with them.

2. One morning this week, I had the pleasant surprise of spotting sun dogs for the first time in my life. I have no pictures of my own, since I was driving, but a dimmer version of the second image here will suffice. I spotted the right-hand one first, and wondered if it was simply part of a rainbow. But, then, its brightness jogged a memory, and a second look brought the reward of seeing both sun dogs and the sun.

3. To celebrate my birthday, my wife and I went last weekend to see Sully, which more than lives up to all the good things I'd heard about it. Although I first learned of the movie through HBL, I'll quote my usual go-to source for movies, reviewer Scott Holleran, whom I also consulted before selecting it:

Famous and accomplished Tom Hanks ... portrays Chesley Sullenberger with poise and command. The role requires that he show a man in full, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, who goes from a haunted self-examination in a steamy mirror, self-doubt and fear of being found out as a fraud to supreme confidence in his knowledge of reality and his own judgment. He's a detective on his own case, putting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his proper place and stressing to Katie Couric the fact of his "whole life", as against merely this particular part of his life, until he integrates the facts of his extraordinary, slow-handed, guided mastery in the cockpit of an Airbus crippled by a flock of birds.
One thing that fascinates me about this superb movie is that I experienced it a little like the way the movie itself unfolded. Yes, I enjoyed it at the time, but I found myself remembering scenes in detail over the next couple of days and getting more out of them, culminating a couple of days later in an I really needed that! one sunny morning.

Between the demands of two young kids and my wife's unpredictable schedule, we don't get to see movies as easily or as often as we would like. This makes me really appreciate places like HBL and Holleran's site. It's nice to be able to find out what's good and make those trips count when we do get to make them.

4. I generally take some time off from current events (particularly politics) on my Friday posts, but this is too good to pass up. Psychologist Michael Hurd notes a Freudian slip on the campaign trail on the part of Hillary Clinton who, apropos of nothing, made it a point to insult Ayn Rand:
"Boyish" is a compliment, intended or not. It describes an innocent stage of life when one hasn't become hardened by the soulless, awful ideas to which many adults subscribe... [bold added]
Having a three-year-old son, I heartily concur. Our whole culture could stand to become a bit more boyish.

-- CAV

An Example of Constructive Dissent

Thursday, October 20, 2016

In a recent post, "Evil HR Lady" Suzanne Lucas addresses a question related to this year's nauseating presidential election with a preamble that made me smile:

First a couple of things, just because I've developed a nervous twitch over this election: Trump is not a conservative. Sure, he's running as a Republican, but he's not a conservative.


[J]ust to make things clear -- I'm a free market capitalist and a strict Constitutionalist. Basically, I have no good options in this election, but no bother because I NEVER have any good options. I just throw that out because often when I write about politics I get nasty emails saying, "You only said that because you love/hate [insert candidate of your choice]!" I am not supporting Trump and I am not supporting Clinton.
That last line just about sums up all I want to say about this election, and what interests me is why I was so glad to read it. Do note that it is not all that needs saying, nor is it all Lucas said.

I think the cathartic value of that opening for me boils down to justice and benevolence, both of which seem to be in short supply during this election.

That said, either "choice" will prove a disaster as the executive of a free republic, presenting short-term threats to individual freedom with the real possibility of damaging the cause of liberty for the long-term. On top of that, the fact that we face such a choice speaks ill of many voters -- arguably the majority -- who seem indifferent to anything but a willingness to be pandered to. And this mindless depravity is being drummed into our heads constantly by a largely complicit media. In other words, at least for this advocate of individual rights, this election presents a particularly acute feeling of what Ayn Rand once identified as "Cultural Value-Deprivation" and I can't remember a time when the temptation to give in to cynicism has been stronger.

Those of us who favor freedom must, for the sake of sanity, solidarity, and our sacred cause, say something in the face of all the hostility and indifference to freedom embodied by the two major candidates. Any respect a supporter for one of those two might feel for one of us must be marshaled to at least cause them to see that there might be a good reason to question that support. Our fellow travelers need to know now, more than ever, that they are not alone. And, most important, we need to dig down and remember, taking our own independent thinking as an example, if need be, that our cause is not lost. Others can choose to question their beliefs or even how they approach thinking about their beliefs, if we can find a way to help them see the value in doing so.

What Lucas said in her opening was exactly the kind of thing we should be saying when we have the opportunity. The last line was cathartic, but it served as an exclamation point to a positive alternative offered by someone who is widely and deservedly respected. My thanks go to the Evil HR Lady.

-- CAV

Rotisserie Economics

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Over at Priceonomics, Karin Klein asks, "Are rotisserie chickens a bargain?" Her exhaustive analysis of price alone shows them not to be a bargain compared to raw chicken, at least on a pound-for-pound basis:

Rotisserie chicken might not be a huge discount for the consumer, or a loss leader for the store, but it is a pretty good deal for takeout food. It's certainly the winner if home cooks view their cooking time as money spent. When a cook's time is included as labor costs in the above calculation, whole chickens become more expensive than rotisserie options.
That may be true, but the story about time savings is trickier than that, and often includes more than just time spent in the kitchen, as I once noted regarding frozen, pre-cooked meals:
...I have often gotten friendly advice on how to save time cooking, only to see immediately that it would actually cost me time, money, or both, compared to what I usually do. Here's an example I'd hoped would work, but which didn't: There are some really good things out there, like frozen pulled pork, that can make good meals quickly -- but they make just one meal, and even the minimal preparation (starting with defrosting) alone takes far longer than just microwaving the complete meals I make. (I also have some quick meals in my repertoire that take about the same amount of time to prepare -- and yield leftovers). I'd had the pulled pork and liked it, so I tried it anyway. It was tasty, but I was right about it not saving any time.
For rotisserie chicken, which I also like, the story is similar. making a special trip to the store for it ends up costing me time, unless I was planning to go anyway and the trip is shortly before time for a family meal. (This is rare enough that the option rarely occurs to me.) Even then, saving time in the kitchen would require me either to already have leftovers on hand or buy a second chicken. So, at least the way I do things, a rotisserie chicken might be a convenient way to get in some variety during the week. Only if I cooked every night, or most nights, would I realize a time savings with the purchase of a single bird.

-- CAV

Craftsman or Hired Gun?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In his latest column, Dr. Hurd notes of a common dilemma many people face regarding jobs vs. careers, "Sometimes the job is the career, and sometimes the job is a means for subsidizing the career." Among other things, Hurd discusses a very common mistake many people make, of assuming that they must maximize the amount of money they are making at work, losing sight of what that money is for and so missing out on some of what they care about, since money can't buy everything.

But there are other pitfalls, such as one I recently ran across through the Ask a Manager blog. The title of the post is, "What Kind of Day Job Should a Writer Have?", but it draws on the example of a "long-haired, soccer-playing cabinet maker" who had found work as a carpenter in home renovations.

But that didn't last long:

When the team reconvened in fall, Frank had cut his hair. He'd gotten a job. Nine-to-five. He was one of us. Why, we asked, money?

He assured us that wasn't it; he could make a decent living in home renovations, but found the work too similar to his passion -- building cabinets. Both required working with tools and wood. It had seemed a natural fit, a decent way to fund an artistic pursuit. But it didn't work for Frank: after a full day on a job site his energy for cabinet making had been sapped. It occurred to me that the issue could have been partly physical -- carpentry isn't a sedentary occupation, after all -- but that wasn't the way Frank explained it. He'd been mentally exhausted, which impaired his ability to take up tools in his free time and work on things that mattered. [bold added]
That's an interesting kind of problem, but, in light of the rest of Hurd's column, I find the cabinet-maker's willingness to experiment -- and change when he realized he was off-course -- to be the take-home lesson in this cautionary tale.

But was the cabinet-maker wrong to at least try carpentry? I think not, based on the experience of a friend of mine who writes science fiction. His job involves lots of writing, and thinking about science. Years ago, I asked him if his job, being similar in so many respects to his passion, made it hard for him to start working on his fiction. "No," he replied. "The rewards are different." He went on, smiling at a simile left floating in the air by the recent release of Saving Grace, "It's a bit like landscaping for a living, and coming home to cultivate marijuana. The rewards are different enough."

The advice to leave one's comfort zone is very good when passion and career are unlikely to align themselves perfectly. A path like this could be the way forward, but one will not really know without trying. In any event, it is important to know that it may or may not work out.

-- CAV

Trump vs. (Little-R) Republican Norms

Monday, October 17, 2016

Charles Krauthammer writes a timely warning about the hazards of electing Donald Trump to the Presidency, noting with particular concern his repeated calls to imprison his opponent:

What makes Trump's promise to lock her up all the more alarming is that it's not an isolated incident. This is not the first time he's insinuated using the powers of the presidency against political enemies. He has threatened Amazon's Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, for using the newspaper "as a tool for political power against me and other people. ... We can't let him get away with it."

With exercising free political speech?

Trump has gone after others with equal subtlety. "I hear," he tweeted, "the Rickets [sic] family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $'s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!"

He also promises to "open up" libel laws to permit easier prosecution of those who attack him unfairly. Has he ever conceded any attack on him to be fair?
This clarion call comes after he expresses astonishment that the only thing Trump's opponents seem to be able to get excited about is his "locker room talk," and before his pointed criticism of so many in the GOP who are going along with this:
[T]he answer is not to start a new process whose outcome is preordained. Conservatives have relentlessly, and correctly, criticized this administration for abusing its power and suborning the civil administration (e.g., the IRS). Is the Republican response to do the same?
A Trump Presidency won't, "Make America great again," but it offers the disturbing and real possibility of making her much more like Venezuela or Russia, and for exactly the cultural reasons Krauthammer alludes to.

Clinton is very similar in many ways, but she seems to understand what republican norms look like and seems to have enough sense to value the appearance of following them enough not to openly abandon them.

-- CAV