Monday, April 30, 2007

Buffalo Creek

Tammi and I managed to get up to Buffalo Creek again this week end. The weather was perfect for the most part. It blew up a bit of a storm during the last three miles, but no big deal. There was some snow left from last week's storm, but only about a dozen or so patches. With it, a little mud - but that only adds to the fun. We got in 18 miles of good, hard single track in good time - a good early season ride. The trail had a few blow-downs, but not like last week.

Otherwise, it was a typical week end - mow the lawn, clean the garage and all of the other stuff that gets in the way.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Stumbling...makes a new list!

The full shortlist for the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books:

Homo britannicus, by Chris Stringer (Penguin Allen Lane)
Homo britannicus tells the epic story of the human colonisation of Britain, from our very first footsteps to the present day. Drawing on all the latest evidence and techniques of investigation, Chris Stringer describes times when Britain was so tropical that humans lived alongside hippos and sabre tooth tigers; and times so cold they shared the land with reindeer and mammoth; and times colder still when humans were forced to flee altogether.

In Search of Memory, by Eric R Kandel (WW Norton & Co)
Nobel laureate Eric R Kandel charts the intellectual history of the emerging biology of the mind, and sheds light on how behavioural psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience and molecular biology have converged into a powerful new science. These efforts, he says, provide insights into normal mental functioning and disease, and simultaneously open pathways to more effective treatments.

Lonesome George, by Henry Nicholls (Macmillan)
Lonesome George is a 1.5m-long, 90kg tortoise aged between 60 and 200, and it is thought he is the sole survivor of his sub-species. Scientific ingenuity may conjure up a way of reproducing him, and resurrecting his species. Henry Nicholls details the efforts of conservationists to preserve the Galapagos' unique biodiversity and illustrates how their experiences and discoveries are echoed worldwide. He explores the controversies raging over which mates are most appropriate for George and the risks of releasing crossbreed offspring into the wild.

One in Three, by Adam Wishart (Profile Books)
When his father was diagnosed with cancer, Adam Wishart couldn't find any book that answered his questions: what was the disease, how did it take hold and what did it mean? What is it about cancer's biology that means it has not been eradicated? How close are we, really, to a cure? There was no such book. So he wrote it. One in Three interweaves two powerful stories: that of Adam and his father; and of the 200-year search for a cure.

Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert (Harper Press)
Psychologist Daniel Gilbert reveals how and why the majority of us have no idea how to make ourselves happy. The drive for happiness is one of the most instinctive and fundamental human impulses. In this revealing and witty investigation, psychologist Daniel Gilbert uses scientific research, philosophy and real-life case studies to illustrate how our basic drive to satisfy our desires can not only be misguided, but also intrinsically linked to some long-standing and contentious questions about human nature.

The Rough Guide to Climate Change, by Robert Henson (Rough Guides)
Robert Henson has written this guide to a pressing issue facing the world. The guide looks at visible symptoms of change on a warming planet, how climate change works, the evolution of our atmosphere over the last 4.5 billion years and what computer simulations of climate reveal about our past, present, and future. It looks at the sceptics' grounds for disagreement, global warming in the media and what governments and scientists are doing to try to solve the problem.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


This weekend Tammi and I got out to our favorite mountain biking area - Buffalo Creek. It was sweeeet to be out.

It's been a long winter. We usually start up Buck Gulch, which has a 1000 foot climb out of Pine Creek Ranch. Wow, definitely a long winter - I've got some work to do. All-in-all it wasn't horrible, but I definitely have some serious work-outs to put in.

There was only a little snow left above 7500 feet, but I think it was just about the first week-end the trails were rideable. But, the mountains got hammered yesterday, so I expect this weekend is out. The trails in Buffalo Creek are some of the best, and perhaps, arguably the best in Colorado and thus, just about anywhere. (There are some better sections - trail 465 in Crested Butte, Frutia, the Flume in Winter Park, but not whole areas) And, what makes them so good is just how rideable they are. Well, it's a mess up there now, at least Buck Gulch and Strawberry Gulch. There are hundreds of trees down and the usually wide open trails are now clogged with downed trees. In some of the burned areas the winter blow-downs are simply a spring occurrence, but good, healthy Ponderosa blowing down is something entirely different. I suppose the winds must have been once in a century winds because many older Ponderosa Pines were down - some of them more than 200 years-old. I'm sure it will get cleared quickly, and I wish I could help, but the shear number of down trees will take quite a mechanized effort.

One of the unique things about Buffalo Creek is the burns. The first burn, the Buffalo Creek fire was in 1996, the second; the High Meadows Fire was in 2000. The Hayman Fire, the big kahuna, didn't make it over Green Mountain, but is very close (the Hayman Fire is the largest fire in Colorado's history burning 138,000 acres and 600 buildings. It rained down ash at our house almost 50 miles away and I remember, the day was almost black as night in downtown Denver - the entire city was shrouded in a dense, black, choking smoke). These are all big burns. Most of the time, an area is avoided after a burn, but the Forest Service has created this special mountain biking area using the burns and I really enjoy ridding through them. The flowers are terrific and the wide-open space unparalleled. The tracks are smooth and fast.

I don't know how many miles of single track there are, but it's easy to do a forty-mile ride and never go down the same trail. I suppose there are about sixty to seventy-miles of excellent trails - there simply isn't any junk. Most of the climbs are between 800 and 1000 feet and a good rides will get you four good climbs. The down hills are pure joy. The important part to remember is that these trails were designed for mountain bikes so there are no blind curves, unrideable sections, or bad rutting.

Anyway, this is our big work-out room and we love it - it's good to be back in the saddle.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert is an interesting guy. He is high school dropout and the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and he has a top-selling book. Amazon recently named Stumbling on Happiness their #7 book of 2006 in the category of Business, and their #1 book of 2006 in the category of Mind, Body, and Health. Both the Washington Post (in the US) and the Globe & Mail (in Canada) named it one of the best books of 2006. Stumbling is in its 7th hardback printing. I can usually boil down a book into some general ideas, but this one, for me, defies easy classification or some quick descriptive sentences.

Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite thinkers, is quoted on the cover (see Recent & Recommended), so I was interested right away. Steven Levitt obviously liked it a lot too and he is also one of those divergent thinkers who, along with Gladwell replace standard perceptions with compelling and interesting new ideas that tend to throw the status quo off a bit.

This book really isn't about happiness at all, at least not in the sense that you're thinking. Stumbling on Happiness brilliantly describes all that science has to tell us about the uniquely human endeavor to envision the future, and how likely we are to enjoy it when we get there. So, it's not about how to obtain happiness, but how we envision happiness between our two little ears.

Here's an excerpt -

What would you do right now if you learned that you were going to die in ten minutes? Would you race upstairs and light that Marlboro you've been hiding in your sock drawer since the Ford administration? Would you waltz into your boss's office and present him with a detailed description of his personal defects? Would you drive out to that steakhouse near the new mall and order a T-bone, medium rare, with an extra side of the really bad cholesterol? Hard to say, of course, but of all the things you might do in your final ten minutes, it's a pretty safe bet that few of them are things you actually did today.

Now, some people will bemoan this fact, wag their fingers in your direction, and tell you sternly that you should live every minute of your life as though it were your last, which only goes to show that some people would spend their final ten minutes giving other people dumb advice. The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly. We go easy on the lard and tobacco, smile dutifully at yet another of our supervisor's witless jokes, read books like this one when we could be wearing paper hats and eating pistachio macaroons in the bathtub, and we do each of these things in the charitable service of the people we will soon become. We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fatcheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps. Even plunking down a dollar at the convenience store is an act of charity intended to ensure that the person we are about to become will enjoy the Twinkie we are paying for now. In fact, just about any time we want something—a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger—we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.

Yeah, yeah. Don't hold your breath. Like the fruits of our loins, our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they'd like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn't work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. Even that person who takes a bite of the Twinkie we purchased a few minutes earlier may make a sour face and accuse us of having bought the wrong snack. No one likes to be criticized, of course, but if the things we successfully strive for do not make our future selves happy, or if the things we unsuccessfully avoid do, then it seems reasonable (if somewhat ungracious) for them to cast a disparaging glance backward and wonder what the hell we were thinking. They may recognize our good intentions and begrudgingly acknowledge that we did the best we could, but they will inevitably whine to their therapists about how our best just wasn't good enough for them.

How can this happen? Shouldn't we know the tastes, preferences, needs, and desires of the people we will be next year—or at least later this afternoon? Shouldn't we understand our future selves well enough to shape their lives—to find careers and lovers whom they will cherish, to buy slipcovers for the sofa that they will treasure for years to come? So why do they end up with attics and lives that are full of stuff that we considered indispensable and that they consider painful, embarrassing, or useless? Why do they criticize our choice of romantic partners, second-guess our strategies for professional advancement, and pay good money to remove the tattoos that we paid good money to get? Why do they experience regret and relief when they think about us, rather than pride and appreciation? We might understand all this if we had neglected them, ignored them, mistreated them in some fundamental way—but damn it, we gave them the best years of our lives! How can they be disappointed when we accomplish our coveted goals, and why are they so damned giddy when they end up in precisely the spot that we worked so hard to steer them clear of? Is there something wrong with them?

Or is there something wrong with us?

When I was ten years old, the most magical object in my house was a book on optical illusions. Its pages introduced me to the Müller-Lyer lines whose arrow-tipped ends made them appear as though they were different lengths even though a ruler showed them to be identical, the Necker cube that appeared to have an open side one moment and then an open top the next, the drawing of a chalice that suddenly became a pair of silhouetted faces before flickering back into a chalice again (see figure 1). I would sit on the floor in my father's study and stare at that book for hours, mesmerized by the fact that these simple drawings could force my brain to believe things that it knew with utter certainty to be wrong. This is when I learned that mistakes are interesting and began planning a life that contained several of them. But an optical illusion is not interesting simply because it causes everyone to make a mistake; rather, it is interesting because it causes everyone to make the same mistake. If I saw a chalice, you saw Elvis, and a friend of ours saw a paper carton of moo goo gai pan, then the object we were looking at would be a very fine inkblot but a lousy optical illusion. What is so compelling about optical illusions is that everyone sees the chalice first, the faces next, and then—flicker flicker—there's that chalice again. The errors that optical illusions induce in our perceptions are lawful, regular, and systematic. They are not dumb mistakes but smart mistakes—mistakes that allow those who understand them to glimpse the elegant design and inner workings of the visual system.

The mistakes we make when we try to imagine our personal futures are also lawful, regular, and systematic. They too have a pattern that tells us about the powers and limits of foresight in much the same way that optical illusions tell us about the powers and limits of eyesight. That's what this book is all about. Despite the third word of the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you've bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why. Instead, this is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy. This book is about a puzzle that many thinkers have pondered over the last two millennia, and it uses their ideas (and a few of my own) to explain why we seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become. The story is a bit like a river that crosses borders without benefit of passport because no single science has ever produced a compelling solution to the puzzle. Weaving together facts and theories from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics, this book allows an account to emerge that I personally find convincing but whose merits you will have to judge for yourself.

Give it a try - it will change what you think about the future and if you think about it long enough change a bit about happiness.

Some additional stuff on Amazon.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Coffee Table

One advantage of making furniture is that you can match your existing stuff precisely in the way that you please. One disadvantage to making furniture is that you can match your stuff precisely in the way you please. The how becomes the question - a big question. The design becomes quite a laborious process fraught with false starts, bad ideas, and half-baked plans and quite a bit of uncertainty. With all the time and energy invested in the construction the design also dons a heavy mantel of importance.

Since I finished the nightstands our bedroom has improved quite a bit. We added a very modern touch to the whole room by adding brushed metal lamps, modern blown glass, and some modern sculpture (made by Tammi). We pulled off the mix pretty well, but I want to add a table in front of the couch - a coffee table that matches the antiques. But, I want to pull in a modern look too. I thought I would go through the design process a little and this design is fairly simple; that is, it doesn't have working parts, functionality, or other complications.

Off course, the Victorians didn't have coffee tables as such, but I could make a rectangular one with the same wood, construction, and finish. It would look like a coffee table, but match the old furniture. But, I think it might look a bit silly - kind of a fake antique masquerading as a coffee table. The form really doesn't lend itself to just anything you might expect to see. The obvious problem is; where's the "modern" in that? So, I thought about how to make it modern in more than just form - how about a brushed metal top with the remaining looking like the Victorian furniture? I thought about this for a while and thought it might look like a fake antique with a silly metal top. It simply needs something more.

Somehow, I need to suggest the shape and finish of the antiques without creating some goofy mix. While thinking about shape I started looking at pictures of purely modern furniture. This got me thinking about a incorporating some curves that suggest a certain style of modern furniture. One particular thing that bothered me was four legs. Everything has four legs and four legs seemed boring. What if I made the legs exactly the same as the antiques, but lost one and moved the third around close to the middle. This led me to draw this. In plan, the purple is the top and the orange is the shelve underneath. The legs and bottom shelve are of the same material and finish as the antiques. The top, metal, with a shape like the antiques. I thought I was on to something so I got started in CAD and drew and tweaked until I came up the proportions I liked.

Here is what that looks like. It might be a little hard to see, but if you double click I think you can make it out. The top view is the important one. You can see the bottom juxtaposed with the more traditional shape of the top and the location of the third leg. I intend to use wood under the metal top with exactly the same profiles as the antiques have. Thus, I have the same shape top with the same molding, but it is metal. I have the same exact legs, but there are three. The bottom shelve looks exactly like the tops, but it is a funky shape. Every element of the antiques is present, but no element is exactly the same and offers a bit of a surprise. It will be more like a modern piece that suggests the antiques and might blend the antique/modern look - maybe.

I think it will work, but I'm still not sure. Time for a model so I can see what it might look like. I printed out the CAD plan and used the printed version to scale a model. Out to the shop for a bit to make a quick table - a very little table. Now I have a bit of something to look at - shop if you will. Here are some pictures of the model. I think I like it, but I could have some problem with tipping as I located the middle leg off-center a bit. Even if it were centered I would most likely have the same problem. It, after all, is a three-legged table.

I decided I needed to do some testing on how much weight it would take to tip the table. When you tip this little scale model with your finger it seems to tip very easily. I took it to work and used the postal scale. The table weighs 1.1 oz. and it took 1.8 and 1.9 ounces placed on either corner (paper clips) to tip the table. A little math and an excel spread sheet produced the following calculations. (the calculation is - assumed weight/1.1 x 1.9 or 1.8) Thus, I can see (if I did things right) that if the table weighed about 40 pounds (I think it will weigh more, but I want to go low) a weight of somewhere between 62 and 72 pounds placed on the corners would make the table tip. That gives me a 20% spread on my calculations. I hope the calculations are right - I'm not known for being a math wiz! I think it unlikely that that much weight would be placed on one corner unless someone decides to sit on it. The most likely person to do that is Bridger, but he will most likely only do it once! As a last resort, if I did this all wrong, I can place some weigh under the bottom shelve located on the side with the two legs.

Now the question is; am I truely convenced the design meets my expectations and when it is finished it will really look good?

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