Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Escalade Hybrid ??!!

Will somebody please explain this vehicle to me? I just don't understand the buyer who would fall for this automotive equivalent of the triple-cheeseburger, chocolate shake, biggie fries, with a diet coke. Conspicuous but conscientious consumption?! Is such a thing possible? There is a close second in absurdity in the Escalade EXT luxo-sport-truck.
I think the owner is trying to say, "I have style and am very high class, but I want you to think that I can do useful things with my truck or escape to the great outdoors, but I can't possibly afford to scratch the $1000 white-diamond tri-coat paint." I'm a cowboy, but I'm an urbanite? Does this make sense to anyone? If you get the marketing dynamic, please post and help us all out...
This is no small part of the reason I felt I had to leave the automotive world I was in, but more on that later.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Igor Kenk, Gold Medal Bike Thief

The police have apprehended Toronto's and possibly the worlds most accomplished bike thief. Igor Kenk (don't you just love mug-shots?) was found with 2,865 bicycles in his possession, all of them stolen. He was also found with a fair stash of crack, cocaine, and marijuana. Apparently, he had them all organized by make and style and was purportedly waiting for the Oil Crash or a spike in commodities prices to come so that he could sell or melt them. Kenk's nominal job was running a used-bike shop (wonder where he got his stock), and was something of a sideways philanthropist since he hired local transients and mental out-patients to nab, maintain, and organize his bikes. During public viewings of the stash, around 1/4 of the bikes have been claimed by their owners.
(get the full story here)

Chinese Gymnast Age Controversy

May I direct your attention to a nice piece of Google-hacking at Stryde-Hax (here and here) which shows evidence of Chinese governmental tomfoolery with regard to the ages of He Kexin and Yang Yilin. The story has also broken (first, maybe) at the New York Times, here.
Didn't we all suspect this all along? My profound sympathy is toward these Chinese girls. Rules are rules, but apparently they are new rules, because I think Nadia Comenici was 14 when she scored her perfect 10.0.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Review: Between Silk and Cyanide

I just posted a review of this book to GoodReads. Enjoy:

Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 by Leo Marks

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a fascinating book about Leo Marks' experience in the codes division of the SOE, the British organization responsible for handling spies during the second world war. Not only do we get to find out a lot about the mechanics of how it all worked, what the codes were, and the British side of the Englandspeil/Nordpol game with Col. Giskes, but we also get some insight into the personalities and culture that allowed the SOE to be, at the same time fantastically successful in managing some spy networks and profoundly abstruse about recognizing and remedying their own mistakes.

For instance, Marks was a master at deciphering coding mistakes by stressed out agents and saved many lives by not requiring them to resend messages coded with the same key, etc. He would take bathroom breaks to solve 'indecipherables' and reencode them properly in such a way that the Free French would not realize that he had cracked their precious code, but at the same time saving their agent.

However, his own narrow focus and the turf wars of those around him allowed the Germans to capture dozens of agents and tons of airdropped supplies. Read London Calling North Pole for an account by the German colonel in charge. It was frustrating to think of how many lives could have been saved or how much more quickly the war might have ended if some of the British officers had been less concerned about their own fiefdom and more concerned about a common cause. We are left wondering what might have happened if there had been a spirit of cooperation instead of competition between the geniuses at Bletchley Park and those at SOE codes section.

All in all, I recommend this as a fascinating character study of a civilian in the war effort. It is full of interesting stories and anecdotes, and should be accessible to a general audience. However, those with an understanding of and appreciation for cryptography and espionage will especially enjoy this book.

View all my reviews.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Declining Gas Prices?

Don't get too used to declining gas prices. By many expert opinions (alas, I am no expert, but I agree anyway) this current dip in the price of gasoline is temporary. There's an article in the New York Times today about the oil industry and their struggles to find new production sources. The general idea is that the independent oil producers, ExxonMobil, for example, while awash in profits, are struggling to open up new production. One reason is political: as more countries nationalize their oil production, they are simultaneously restricting outside investment, with the result that, for example, American companies are not so free to go exploring in Nigerian oil fields. A second reason is closely related: there are not many more big new fields to finds, so those who have them are becoming more protective. Have you heard enough rhetoric about American dependence on foreign oil? Imagine the feeling in oil-rich countries about foreign consumption of their own precious oil. Think Russia wants to sell to just anyone? Think again: it's a big power position for them to hold large reserves.
The Peak Oil folks have been saying this kind of thing for years. Many of them have predicted this kind of thing, and they are going crazy on their websites with not-so-subtle "We told you so" proclamations. See here, here, and here for examples. Many people misunderstand the idea of Peak Oil to mean that we're running out of oil. That is not the case. There will always be oil to pump. The problem is one of macro-economics. As demand grows past supply, the price will start to rise steeply. What we're going to run out of is the cheaper-than-water oil that we've built our economies around. Think there's an oil-company conspiracy? It's just the economics of natural resource depletion playing out. Here's a snippet from the article:

The scope of the supply problem became more clear in the latest quarter when the five biggest publicly traded oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, said their oil output had declined by a total of 614,000 barrels a day, even as they posted $44 billion in profits. It was the steepest of five consecutive quarters of declines.

While that drop might not sound like much in a world that consumes 86 million barrels of oil each day, today’s markets are so tight that the slightest shortfalls can push up prices.

Along with mature fields, the companies have contracts with producing countries whose governments allocate fewer barrels to oil companies as prices rise.

“It has become really, really difficult to grow production,” said Paul Horsnell, an analyst atBarclays Capital. “International companies have a portfolio of assets in areas of significant decline and no frontier discoveries to make up for that.”

One reassuring point is that at least in the developed world, people are rapidly shifting away from ridiculously conspicuous consumption. Hummer sales have plummeted, and the carmakers can hardly sell new SUV's and pickups. Almost every car ad on TV now either offers $8k-10k discounts on SUV/trucks or trumpets the high mileage of the small cars they sell. Americans have scaled way back on driving and gas consumption. That is in large part what's responsible for the current dip in prices. That and the strengthening dollar. However, in India and in China, where fuel prices are highly subsidized, demand continues to grow largely unabated, so we shouldn't expect the current decline to last.

What should we do? Remember, "where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. (Matt 16:21)" The things of this world will pass away, so focus on the heavens. In an age and culture where car/house=identity, there is a real and living Person who can give us the incorruptible life... 

Also, you can ride a bike to save money on gas. ;-)

Announcing Daddy Magic

I started a new blog, focused on my experiences as a father, called Daddy Magic. Check it out if you're interested in that. I plan to keep Chubby GrumGrum as my eclectic mix of biking, graduate life, and sustainability issues. Enjoy!

Friday, August 1, 2008

It's Hot!!!

We are about to break an 83 year old record for the most days over 100°F here in Austin, according to the Statesman. In my own particular corner of the world, the implication is that it's like biking home through an oven. My water bottle is about 1.5 L, and I usually finish it about 3/4th of the way home, and I usually have to cool off a little bit before going inside, where the air-conditioning (set to 81°F) is too cold for me and give me chills if I transition too quickly. Yeesh!
The high temperatures tend to introduce a few new creaks and squeaks on my bike, too. For a while, I started experiencing rim-flats, when the cheap rubber rim tape that came with my bike got too soft in the heat and allowed the inner tube to expand through the spoke holes and touch the spokes nuts. Whoever thought that would happen? Easy to fix with some better quality cloth rim tape, but annoying nonetheless. In addition, the grease in my drive line has thinned out noticeably in the hot weather and I have to re-grease more frequently and notice a bit more friction, which doesn't really help the body heat issue. Finally, there's a new creaky noise in the cranks (not the one I blogged about earlier) that got a little better when when I tightened the cranks but never really went away. It's not there in the morning, when it's cooler, but appears faithfully in the afternoon when when the heat's on and I'm baking my way home.
This is the time of year also brings out the perverse phenomenon of what I call "summer frost bite." I noticed it recently when my advisor walked into the lab wearing a sweatshirt. Many of the area secretaries also bring sweaters during the summer months. Apparently, Texans feel the need to show off how well our air conditioners work, so in many of the offices and labs, the thermostat is set below 70°F. Try walking in from outside, with your skin at 102°F and adjusting 30° down. The worst eve case of this was when I lived in an all-bills-paid apartment with roommates who kept the air at 66°F. I think I actually got sick one time after a bike ride. Fortunately, I'm alone in my office much of the time, and I've found the thermostat control...