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17 July 2009

Apologizing x 304,059,724

I read this post by Paul Krugman which is basically him finding a now public email from Slate's publisher stating that he thinks Krugman (soon to be Nobel Prize winner) is a crank - supposedly because of his early on anti-Bush Administration rhetoric.

Anyways, this got me thinking. I felt like there was a general feeling of unhappiness in America beginning some time in 2002 or 2003 and lasting through the last part of 2008. I have absolutely no evidence for this. It's very possible that it was just my perception, but I really feel as though a lot of people were unsure about what our country was up to. Slight aside. My parents are a great source of information about the past events. One that I remember very vividly is my mum telling me about JFK. According to her the whole country was in somewhat of an emotional slump and it made everyone feel better to have a youthful and beautiful couple in the White House. Kennedy didn't really get anything done. He was way too young to have any sort of pull in Washington, but he made people feel better and to my mind that really counts for something. The president is, after all, mostly a figure head. I've always told people that regardless of what Obama does his initial appeal to me is that he'll make us feel better. Sounds corny I know, but when you're talking about 305 million people feeling better about their lives and their future prospects it has serious ramifications.

World War II had a deep and profound effect on the psychology of the Germans that persists to this day. We joke about it a bit - think; crazy scientist from Dr. Stangelove. We all laugh when he calls the president "mein Fuhrer!" but it's just a thinly veiled joke about the reality that Germans have to live with. What they did as a nation will go down as one of the worst atrocities that humans have ever been subjected to. How do you live down allowing a man now synonymous with mass murder to rule your country? You got behind him as a nation and undertook his bidding. Germany must now live with that. One would have to imagine that it has a profound effect on their collective psychology.

My point is this - hindsight is 20/20. There were people in Nazi Germany that knew what they as a nation were doing was wrong. The problem was that there weren't enough of these people. (Random aside; check out Valkyrie. It's unbelievably historically accurate. They even toned down certain parts to make it more believable.) You'd have to imagine that the majority of people weren't really truly into being a Nazi. But at the time... everyone was involved in it. Who in America hates American soldiers? I don't...

Human psychology fascinates me because it easily explains all sorts of otherwise incomprehensible historic events. In the case of the Nazi's there is one seminal experiment that explains the phenomenon of "I was just doing my job" - type excuses (often uttered at the Nuremberg trials). That is, the Milgram Studies (if you don't know what this is read it). There's also diffusion of responsibility and a few other things that I don't feel like talking about. The point is that people as a whole act surprisingly similar given certain environmental conditions. People tend to think that they're unique and act differently... but it's just not the case. In any given situation your behavior is fairly predictable.

For example there's a TV show called "The First 48." The premise of the show is that they follow around homicide detectives as they try to solve murders. Usually if you don't have a good lead in the first 48 hours it's a sign that you may not ever catch the culprit. It's a really sad show to watch. It's usually the same sad story; young black kid involved in some sort of drug deal shoots someone because he's defending himself. He then sobbingly confesses to the police and gets 20 years to life in jail. Another mainstay of the show is the accomplice. This person usually confesses willingly and proudly to police that they rang the door bell of the house where the person was about to be murdered or in some other way helped but did not actually pull the trigger. Of course, they too get charged with murder because of their involvement - much to their shock. I posit that this is what they, Stanley Milgram's test subjects, German citizens circa 1945, and to some degree Americans from roughly 2003-2008 all felt - to one degree or another. Ours is obviously the most subtle of the four.

We all know we were accomplices in doing something wrong. Seriously. I know, I know, I'm a crazy liberal... but seriously. He allowed torture. He started a war for no good reason. He spied on his own people without warrants and we allowed him to do it. I am of course talking about our last president. Although, oddly enough, you could say the same thing about Hitler and his cronies. The comparison is not meant to be direct. As much as I dislike Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld they and their actions don't hold a candle to Hitler and the Nazis. Wasn't it our duty to protest? This isn't up for debate. Saying what Bush's Administration did was "okay" is no longer acceptable. There were no WMD's, they tortured people, they lied to us, and we did nothing. To deny this is as ignorant as denying evolutions existence.

So what is to be done? Let's act like rational adults who know they screwed up. First, apologize to the world. Then, lets try to fix the stuff we broke as best we can. A touch of humility wouldn't hurt either.

And to those who call me a crazy liberal (my family); Reagan. Love him right? No pun intended. He despised torture (my source is the Atlantic and if that isn't credible then what is?). And I dislike all the presidents back to Woodrow Wilson minus Ike's speech about the military industrial complex.

And one last aside - Teddy Roosevelt was a badass (read the intro).

12 July 2009

Just Some Links

Desert rhubarb (plant) irrigates itself.

The evolutionary aspect of economics. I've always thought this way... didn't know it was "different."

Scientists to public: "We think you're dumb."

It was Tesla's birthday a few days ago, and I'm mildly infatuated with him so here's a 90 minute video on the man who more or less single-handedly invented AC electricity, the radio, the electric motor, hydro-electric power... get the point?

Economists oppose more stimulus. Krugman wants more.

Japan; totally screwed.

Dietary Help

I'm writing this as a reference stub so I can send people here where they ask me one of the same three questions that all of my friends ask me at some point:

"I want a bike kinda like yours but that costs around $200-$300, show me how to use a camera, and make me a diet."

1 - Cheap single speed bikes just don't really exist. If I had the capital I would go to China and build a quality stainless and chromoly (I just remembered I want to learn more about metallurgy) single speed bike and sell them in the US for $200-$300. But I don't have that kind of money so a good and somewhat cheap place to buy from called Bikes Direct.

2 - Taking/making photos is half physics half composition. Ansel Adams was the master at the physics portion and if you read and understand this book you'll be well on your way.

3 - And now the real reason for this post - diet. Here's the golden rule that a good portion of people I tell this to refuse to accept. Anyone can lose weight. I don't care what glandular problem you have or how slow your metabolism. If you burn more calories than you eat, you will lose weight. It's just math. At the risk of bringing up a terrible yet poignant event in history - have you ever seen what the Nazi concentration camp victims looked like? That's what happens when you burn more energy than you consume.

Here are some common truths I find to be helpful if a bit facile:

Consuming less calories while still remaining full seems to be the main goal. One of the easiest ways of doing this dietarily is to eat more fiber. Fiber is the part of a plant that your body can't fully digest. It sort of cleans you out and fills you up. It's worth mentioning that about 1/5 of your bodies energy is dedicated to digesting food. Since fiber doesn't release any energy into your body you end up burning more energy in digestion when you eat foods high in fiber. This is the main difference between white and whole grain rice, bread, etc. Foods high in fiber are vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, flax seed, some cereals, etc.

There is no such thing as a "bad" food. Some just have more calories than others. The point here being portion. This may be the most important concept in dieting/changing your lifestyle. Eat more slowly, stop eating when you're full, don't eat because it's free... just think. A large part of portion control is being cognisant of what you're eating. Sometimes we go on autopilot and just stuff our faces. Sometimes it takes creativity or shear will power to overcome that one.

It's nearly impossible to be overweight if you eat nothing but vegetables and fruit. Seriously, minus salad dressing there are hardly any calories in a salad. Think about those rare occasions when you want a snack and you eat an apple. Think of how much that fills you up. That's something like 80 calories. One regular size snickers bar is 270 calories. How much does that fill you up? Now imagine eating 3 and a half apples. The energy content is that same but now you're much more full. This is the same argument as my one about fiber. Vegetables are essentially like a vitamin pill with fiber. The amount of calories in them is nearly negligible.

Oh, and drink more water. People often confuse being thirsty with being hungry. The price is right too. Assuming you're not above tap water. Similarly, stop drinking soda. It provides no substantive benefit to just about anyone's diet.

Vitamins and supplements: the evidence is confusing and all over the place. There's just so many variables that any experimental design is difficult. I personally don't take any.

Also, when you cook for yourself you begin to understand what goes into your food. You can start to omit parts of recipes that aren't contributing to a healthy diet. For example I rarely add the full amount or any of salt recommended in a recipe. Once you stop using it you stop missing it pretty quickly. Then when you do taste salt it's amazing.

And now to be a hypocrite; here are some foods that I consider amazing for one reason or another:

Ground flax seed - Tons of fiber. I add it to cereal.

Garlic (put in a garlic press) - Adds flavor without calories, there's also a ton of studies saying it has a myriad of other health benefits. Who cares, it's delicious.

Olive oil - Fat in general takes longer to digest and thus keeps you full longer. Olive oil has the added benefit of suppressing your appetite. Apples supposedly do a similar thing. If you have to heat it beyond 400 degrees don't use olive oil. Use grape seed oil or another oil that has a higher smoke point.

Tofu - You can buy a block of it from Whole Foods for $1.75 and its roughly equal to a few chicken breasts. Learn how to cook it in a Teflon pan. Filling, good for you, and sucks up the flavor of whatever you cook it with.

Egg whites - The best form of protein you can possibly get.

Broccoli or really just any vegetable - Filling, almost no calories, great for you.

Avocado - Great substitute for cheese on a sandwich. It's just better fat (monounsaturated) by which I mean that it's easy for your body to break down.

Goat cheese - Better nutrition profile than regular cheese and tastier.

Whole grain anything - Same calories as their white counterparts but lots more filling, don't spike your blood sugar, and they have more vitamins and minerals.

10 July 2009

Backlog of Reading

My physics class ended yesterday so I'm back. I have a lot of stuff to write about but until then here's a sample of the best stuff I've read.

DARPA builds a robotic hummingbird... crazy... If you don't know what DARPA is I suggest checking it out.

Great tidbit from Freakonomics about the safety of airliners versus cars... in a round about way.

Also from Freakonomics, a Q&A with University of Chicago Economist and economic adviser to Obama Austan Goolsbee. He was recently on Colbert's show too. This is funny too.

The official White House Flickr account. Here's a favorite.

Robert McNamara died a few days ago. He's the subject of one of my favorite documentaries, The Fog of War. Random note: he was the reason my great uncle (in the photo below he's second from the right with light hair), my grandfather's brother who was a three star general, was forced out of the military during Vietnam. I asked him about McNamara once and he replied that "He was a damn fool. He thought you could set up some sort of trip line across the northern border of South Vietnam and detect incoming VC." Vietnam was the first war America fought in (or really any large nation fought in) where there was no clearly defined war zone. It was the first large scale guerrilla warfare-stlye conflict and according to my great uncle McNamara didn't understand this. Over 58,000 US soldiers were killed as a result.

The results are in on caloric restriction diets for primates. Was this a surprise to anyone? Yes, as previously proven with mice, restricting your calorie intake while maintaining nutrition levels significantly increases health and overall lifespan. So far it's the only proven such mechanism to actually increase your lifespan.

100 skills all geeks should know. No official count yet, but I'd say I can/have/possess roughly half of these.

New class of black hole discovered! Well... I'm excited, but check this out; 4 galaxies colliding. Although colliding is a loose term. They actually more or less pass through one another because there's so much empty space between stars, so when they collide what they really mean is pass through one another and rip and contort one another with their respective gravity.

Evan has misplaced our shared DSLR camera, ouch. Here's Canons newest cheap DSLR that I'm lusting after.

06 July 2009


"The harsh, useful thing of the world, from pulling teeth to digging potatoes, are best done by men who are starkly sober as so many convicts in the death-house, but the lovely and useless things, the charming and exhilarating things, are best done by men with, as the phrase is, a few sheets to the wind." - H.L. Mencken

This is a palladium print I made from a 3 3/4" x 2 1/2" negative I found at my parents house. It was printed on a hand-coated cotton rag paper. Palladium prints have a quality that can't be photographed or scanned. They have a texture and tonality very different from a typical gelatin-silver print. The person on the far right is my grandfather (Dad's dad) I'm pretty sure. Second from the left is Wilson who is now 91, and continuing left is Thad (fighter pilot MIA in WWII in the Pacific), Inez, and Charles.

01 July 2009

Physics = Economics

I recently started taking a physics class at Northwestern (yes, I definitely feel pretentious, and the funny thing is that I didn't expect to) because it's a prerequisite for me to attend IIT this Fall. Apparently it's important for an architect to know something about physics...

I was walking home from class today, which by the way has been consuming my life (the class) as it starts at 7AM and goes till noon and the work outside of class is generally a few hours, and something occurred to me as I pondered my ineptitude when it comes to understanding friction - physics is just like economics. Yup, everything I study is just like everything else I study.

In economics there are these theories which predict very precisely how one event will effect another, and they're always very elegant and in some sense idealistic. Then there is reality, and in reality the number of variables truly acting upon any given economic event is generally mind numbingly large. So some kind of a sluff factor is often included in equations to account for hard to account for variables. This is where Chicago school economists need to ease up a bit and become less rigid in their dogma (maybe it's just my reaction to the times). It may be more efficient to let the market dictate, but in reality a few people always screw it up for everyone in that system.

In physics it's the same deal. Elegant, simple, beautiful equations explain about 90-95% of any single event that happens at a very earthly level (read: masses, velocities, and forces that are familiar to you). The moment you start talking about speed as it relates to the speed of light or mass as it relates to a star... more or less everything starts to break down. Then you hit the speed of light time stands still, you become mass-less, and turn into pure energy. The factors that screw up your answer vary, but again, on an earthly level they generally include some sort of air resistance or friction which are kind of ridiculously hard to factor into the final answer.

Lesson: When few variables with reasonable quantities are involved the products of these equations is quite knowable. Things get complex (and to some extent unknowable in the predictive sense as of the present) when they hit reality and specifically, very messy situations involving "large" quantities or variables. What I'm trying to say is that models and theories are nice and extremely helpful but sometimes you just have to build a model and put it in a wind tunnel. Physicists have nature as their final arbiter as my professor is fond of saying. On the other hand progress in economics will most likely be brought about by making huge mistakes. And according to one of my favorite economists (one of the authors of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt) economists are often tasked with solving arcane math equations because there's more incentive to do so.

Reassuring I know.