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I come today to complain about complaints about people who complain about the AMBER alert system. Let's unwrap.

The AMBER alert system is a police-controlled cell phone emergency broadcast that can vigorously signal the police's need for the public's help in finding freshly abducted children.

Complainers about the AMBER alert system are folks who don't like receiving these broadcasts, in the form of repeated loud horns from their phones, often in the middle of the night.

Complainers about complainers about the AMBER alert system are folks who thinks the above complainers are selfish, and that if it helps the children, the alerts are fine. Plus the above complainers who go so far as to ring 911 are being very bad.

And then there's me, the complainer about complainer about complainers about the AMBER alert system. Oh sure, my one or two readers know that I'm also in the complainer #1 category. IMHO, at the very least, the phone software should suppress these alerts by default, if the phone infers that the owner is sleeping. Heuristics like this are easy: time of day, no motion, little ambient light, little ambient sound, etc.

But let's focus on the meta-complainer group. These are all well-intentioned people, and their anger is reasonable at people who abuse the 911 system. But there's another thing, there is usually a righteousness, there is a pride, in the fact that they woke up during the night. They literally did nothing else, but wake up, worry briefly, and go back to sleep (if they could). It doesn't make any sense, but suffering for the cause made them feel good. They they post about the bad selfish complainers.

I think the underlying psychological error may be yet another example of the most harmful fallacy ever: affirming the consequent. This case goes like this:

  • Those who help solve a problem must often suffer (doing something difficult or dangerous).
  • I suffered (waking up).
  • Therefore: I helped solve a problem (so I'm a good person).

They miss recognizing that suffering can come from other causes like ... a poorly designed cell phone system that doesn't let you suppress irrelevant alerts (and otherwise keep the phone fully functional). The thought that they suffered for nothing is not acceptable.

But all the outrage at the complainers about the AMBER alert system makes it more difficult to state the technical problems about the way it works. After all, if those who complain are bad selfish people, then they shouldn't be listened to. (Hey, that too is an instance of the most harmful fallacy!)

Posted Thu Jul 11 13:43:23 2019

Yo, Larry. Get on with your trip, everything's packed. Good luck, buddy!

There are some things you should remember. Don't say aloud all your thoughts, and for god's sake don't act all of them out either! With people, be friendly, but not gross. Keep your tested friends really close, and I mean really close, they are that valuable. New friends --- well, don't trust just anyone. Dude, what's wrong with you? Don't keep getting into fights. But if you find yourself in one, fight like hell! Make everyone afraid of ever fighting you again.

Listen to people - but keep your mouth shut. They'll give you advice for hours, but it's better to keep your opinions to yourself than to yap. When it comes to money, feel free to spend some, but dude, no ostentatious crap, okay?

Don a nice suit. People will think well of you, especially the French. Don't borrow money - and why lend it? A friend you lend to might not pay you back, and then you lose both the money and the friend! That sucks! And if you keep taking on credit, you will forget how to save, and then what?

Most importantly - be true to your character. If you're honest to yourself, you will be honest with everyone else. Isn't that just grand?

Good luck, safe travels! Remember my advice, Larry-O!

Posted Thu May 23 17:55:55 2019

Actual phone call just received from a local high school:

"Good evening, [...] Please remember that tomorrow [...] we would like you to wear your unique socks to show your support for mental health. All day, you can wear non-uniform socks with the regular uniform to support mental health awareness week. Have a great night, [...]"

I believe I have just become aware of a mental health issue.

Posted Wed May 8 18:17:53 2019 Tags:

Today I come to sing the praises of boy #1. He did today the most courageous thing I've ever seen him do. It has to do with his music.

As my one or two readers may know, both our boys have been playing the piano since something like kindergarten. They're starting to get the hang of it! Eric in particular channels the memory/focus advantages that come with other disadvantages effectively into piano performance.

For the last, what, five years, his dream has been to play with an orchestra. The BSO in our own little town is fine, and offers a concerto opportunity to local youth artists, once every two years. These opportunities are of course scarce and highly competitive. He was disappointed at the previous two chances in 2016 and 2018 to have not been selected. But he hasn't given up. Rare amongst the senior students (who are in high school, and too busy to memorize a concerto movement or two), he keeps learning them. He's working on two at the moment.

It is 2019. Those of you who are good at math will notice that the next BSO opportunity, according to the established formula is in 2020. However, the competition part was opened at our local festival in this year's syllabus. Of course, Eric and a small number of other younger competitors entered. My eyebrows were raised at the broken year pattern, but surely things were as they seem...

Today was BSO concerto competition day.

Literally one minute before the competition, the adjudicator/conductor stood up and explained that there was a mistake. The BSO is not doing youth concerto program this fall, and that this class should never have been scheduled. There will be no winners. But he came, and offered to give adjudication / suggestions to the three kids who showed up.

We were stunned. Eric - I have tears just thinking what must have been in his mind. He's been working on this piece for over a year, auditioned it several times in several venues, polished and polished and polished. He sometimes says that the main reason he's still taking piano is for this very competition, for this particular orchestra opportunity. And then, the rug is pulled from beneath his feet, literally one minute to go. What a mindf--- (please excuse my french).

It was gone.

He just sat there.

I snuck over, told him some encouraging words.

He just sat there.

Then, when it was his turn, the brat walked up to the front with his accompanist (thanks, Maggie!), announced his piece, and performed. It was not perfect, but it was about the best he's ever played it. Then, later on, he had a conversation with the adjudicator about what could be made better.

Like a boss.

I have never been prouder.

Posted Sat May 4 17:18:18 2019 Tags:

What do you know about hybrid cars? Lots? Then you probably won't learn much here, sorry!

Until two weeks ago, I knew very little.

Until four weeks ago, I had little reason to learn about it. There was too much hype, maybe a bit of smug, and the family had all the cars it needed. But then our little sedan decided it could do without one of its wheels. Unfortunately, it made this decision while in traffic. Fortunately, this happened close to home. After 22 years with little brown car, it was time to let her go.

But we still need two cars. Some requirements from me and the missus: four wheel drive, not gross on gas, not grossly expensive, large enough for our soon-excruciatingly-tall boys and our scouting gear. Quickly, a Big Manly Pickup Truck was imagined then ruled out. I hate having too much choice, so I decided to narrow things down to hybrids. Two weeks later, hello there, "Cargoyle", our new Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. Assembled just a few miles away, just a few days ago.

OK, so what? I had no idea how neat it would turn out to be.

A brief recap on car technology. Normal gas/diesel cars burn fuel to turn an engine, which in turn powers the wheels and electric accessories. Old school, works fine, always burns gas. Recent models have tricks to shut parts of the engine off when not needed, whether individual cylinders, or (when stopped at a light) the whole thing.

Electric cars like the Tesla series and a few others have big-ass on-board batteries to power the vehicle. They have regenerative braking (so slowing down charges the battery). When the battery's empty, you're stuck for a slow or not-quite-as-slow recharge. Plus big batteries = big cost.

Hybrids cars, like the original Toyota Prius / Honda Insight from fifteen years ago, are a normal car, with a little wee electric car hidden inside. A transmission lets both a little gas engine and a little electric battery/motor drive wheels. On-board software determines what to use when. There's a couple-thousand-buck cost premium over regular cars, much less now than originally.

Plug-in hybrids are a hybrid between hybrids and electric cars. They have an intermediate size battery that's worth charging at home, but a normal engine too. The downside: the battery is large/heavy and the engine small, so performance is often a problem. So is the cost of the larger battery.

Or in tabular form:

type propulsion battery size cost fuel consumption pros cons
Regular gasoline engine none low moderate low price, common fuel usage
Electric electric motor large high none futuristic high price, recharge delay
Hybrid gas+electric small moderate low good compromise moderate price
Plug-in Hybrid gas+electric largish high very low fuel sipper, no recharge delay high price, weak

The engineer in me appreciates the compromises and complications required in a good product. Balancing out many conflicting factors is IMHO an art. I get the sense that these wacky Toyota guys/gals did it well, really well. The thing that strikes me is how they managed to make a vehicle that's performant when needed AND a miser on fuel the rest of the time.

The performant part means that the vehicle should have enough acceleration to easily perform maneuvers like merging onto highway traffic. (Quite a few hybrids are anemic.) So, this guy has a medium but not small gas engine connected in parallel with two electric motors (front & back axles). When I floor the throttle, the thing takes off noticeably faster than any other common car I've driven. (OK, except that Ford Mustang I rented accidentally that one time in Boston.)

The miser on fuel part means the rest of the time, the engine is turned on as little as possible. It's ridiculous how little this can be:

  • When the car is stopped, the engine doesn't need to run.
  • When the car is slowing down, the engine doesn't need to run, and the battery charges.
  • When the car is urban cruising, the engine doesn't need to run, and the battery discharges slowly.
  • When the car is accelerating gently, the engine doesn't need to run, and the battery discharges quicker.

There is a pattern here! On the other hand:

  • When the battery gets low, the engine needs to run.
  • When the cabin is cold and the wimpy human wants more heat, the engine needs to run, just long enough to build heat in its coolant.
  • When the requested power level is high (accelerating rapidly, going uphill, going fast against air resistance), the engine needs to run to help the electric motors.

... but those can be rare. What does all this add up to? A gasoline system where the engine is tuned to run intermittently, and an electric system that tries to harvest energy whenever it can.

The thing is silent at rest. It is silent when rolling out of the garage or from a stop. Well, it would be silent, if certain influential people didn't fear silent vehicles, so they mandated that they make a noise. Our RAV4 gives a weird electronic chime / choir chord sound when going forward, and a louder version of the same when going backward. So it is "silent" when going down hills. It is "silent" when slowing down for a red light. It is "silent" scurrying around a parking lot.

Power consumption is smoothed out by the battery, so the power production by the engine can be intermittent and as brief as possible. The thing might turn on for 30 seconds here and there, climbing across a bridge or hill, or taking a longer/harder acceleration. Then it goes back to sleep -- while one's still just driving around. It's ridiculous. The power transmission is so smooth that I just can't feel in the throttle/brake response when the engine comes on and off. One would be barely aware, were it not for the little extra vibration, and the energy monitor display. Energy can flow to or from each of the wheels and the battery, changing instantly with the conditions.

Some of the engine-control thresholds are controllable by the driver. There is an "ECO" mode knob beside the "gear" selector. There are other modes where the engine cuts in more aggressively to give more acceleration by default, or charge the battery to a higher threshold, not sure. I haven't used these modes, because the novelty of the hybrid is maximized at ECO.

What's the fuel consumption bottom line? I still can't quite believe it, but when just goofing around in an urban chore, this comfortable medium-sized 4-wheel-drive SUV can sip less than 5L/100km, which is about 50 mpg for our American friends. At the same time, I can floor the gas pedal and get a comfortably strong acceleration -- noticeably more than Big Yellow Car with its larger 3.4L V6 engine, which by the way never consumes below 10L/100km. On a fully-loaded rainy-night crap-weather long highway drive, a worst-case condition for hybrids, we got around 7L/100km. As long as the machine keeps working, it will be our primary vehicle for fuel efficiency, comfort, safety (more air bags and sensors and stuff I could go into if someone asks).

Will report on disappointments as/when they arise, but so far so good!

Posted Fri Apr 19 16:28:42 2019

One should stop while one is ahead. Trite cliche? Yes. True for me today? Also true.

  1. Visit the Ottawa science & technology museum.
  2. Spot from afar kid #1 admiring electronic instrument.
  3. Must be famous, find in the museum's awesome online artifact database.
  4. Notice that this device is roughly as old as I am.
  5. Google it, of course, starting with "minimoog circuit diagram".
  6. Come across this collection of schematics, photos, manuals.
  7. Admire the engineering craftsmanship from back in the days when electronics were simple enough to be understood by hobbyists.
  8. Start showing the data to kid #2. Include the sounds made by this delightful device as recorded this video.
  9. Follow reference to with more stories about the device.
  10. Yep, amazing, reliving childhood & engineering fanboyness. Even contemplate building one, just for fun.
  11. Find links about (synthfool collector) Kevin Lightner's disease, and 2014 death. Heart broken.


PS. 12. Find out that Moog has put a near clone of this classic back into production.

Posted Sun Mar 10 20:58:24 2019

In 2018, I have discovered the most harmful fallacy in the world. This logic error is worse than others, because its problem is not glaringly obvious, and has resulted in a lot of bad policy. I'm not talking about the good old standbys like ad hominem (insulting your opponent to prove him wrong), nor straw man (arguing against a caricature), even though these are very popular. It's something better (worse).

What do all these claims (made by serious people) have in common? OK, most of them are on political topics, but not that.

  1. Nazis made lists of Jewish people. You made a list of Jewish people. Obviously, you're a Nazi.
  2. Good software passes tests. This software passes tests. Thus it's good software.
  3. Bad people have guns. You have a gun. So, you are a bad person.
  4. Killing is bad. Weapons are designed to kill. Therefore, weapons are bad.
  5. Discrimination can chase away women from STEM black people in mathematics. There are not many women in STEM black people in maths. Discrimination did it.

It's the same mistake over and over again: the affirming the consequent fallacy. In mathematical notation, the logic is:

if P then Q
therefore P

This is wrong, terribly wrong, because there can be other causes for Q. Stopping at the first possible cause P is a cognitive shortcut - and sometimes a powerful weapon.

Let's go through each of these examples.

  1. Nazis & lists. Yes, obviously Nazis are/were bad. But that was not simply because they made lists. Anyone can make lists, for all kinds of purposes. Somewhere around here, I have a list of my favorite Jewish musicians, but don't want to do away with them. But the accusation of "you're a nazi!!11!" is sufficiently toxic these days that defending oneself with elementary retorts like ... "Nazis drank water ... don't you drink water too?" can get one into trouble.

  2. Software & tests. Yes, obviously it is good for software to pass tests. But it is neither strictly necessary, and definitely not sufficient. The tests may be fictional, provide poor coverage, or even contain & enshrine errors. Focusing on testing may detract from gathering actual deployment experience. Seeing good test results may produce a false confidence of actual quality. Software quality can be better measured with success of the user base & their bug reports.

  3. Guns are bad, m'kay. Yes, obviously it sucks if criminals are armed. But many non-criminals also have guns, some millions of people here in Canada and perhaps a hundred million in the States. The worst thing they may do is cause accidents or suicides, but that's a tiny share. Most of them are just plain good reasonable people, and it is completely unfair to taint them with the crimes of, well, criminals. But, for a leftie politician, it is easier to punish this whole mostly-innocent class of people.

  4. Another gun one, sorry: Yes, they are "designed to kill". Except they really aren't: guns are designed so that they CAN kill. They are also designed to shoot holes into paper targets. They are designed to hold their value by being robust and long-lasting. They are also designed to be able to provide some protection even if just brandishing them. They are designed to make people be ABLE to do all those things, most of them fine and legal. (Even killing is sometimes legal - for example in self-defence.) I christen this particular variety as the inverse teleological fallacy, after teleology (explaining something by reference to their design / purpose), and inverting capability into mandate. You heard it here first.

  5. Yes, obviously unjustifiable discrimination is bad. But to assume that discrimination is the sole or primary cause of outcome disparities is simply wrong. There can be many other reasons, but in the present corporate/political atmosphere, even just to discuss the possibilities leads to fainting couches and firings. Worse, it leaves the other causes unexplored and thus unfixed (if they can/should be fixed at all).

The common thread is the lack of imagination to look for and quantify other causes. The danger is the tyrant's satisfaction with simplistic & weaponizable answers. Please let's try to do better, and call out others to do the same. Here's where you, cherished reader, come in. Please think of an example or two you have seen, and add a comment.

Posted Tue Jan 1 22:18:55 2019

My email addresses have been public for years - almost three decades actually. I'm not anyone important, but spammers don't give a damn. They just want someone to send to.

On a lark, boy #2 and I went digging through my saved spam folder. (I don't outsource spam detection to gmail, no, I run spamassassin and other stuff right here in the house. google delenda est.) We came across this darling of a post:

Subject: Your immediate response is required if you are alive

Whoa, what a hook! I had to investigate immediately - well, four months after receiving it:

Dear Client,

Please confirm if you are still alive because two gentle men
walked into my office this morning to claim your inheritance
funds with our bank. They said that you are dead and that they
are your
representative. I got your email from the file of your relative
who is yet to be paid for the Contract he has executed before his
death several years ago.You the beneficiary of this fund has
not been in contact with the bank to claim your fund. The
gentlemen submitted an address where they want your VISA DEBIT
ATM CARD sent.

If you are still alive, please indicate by sending your full
contact details within 7 day of receiving this message, faliure
to do so, I will send the card to the address submitted by your



Derek, if you're still out there, you can REST EASY! I am indeed alive. All of my relatives are alive. All of my ancestors are alive. There is no one in my entire family history, going right back to the primordial slime creature in the volcano-lake of Gumzablobia who is not hiding somewhere on our property, in deep freeze.

So, sorry, better luck next time with a mere mortal, Derek.

Posted Sun Nov 18 20:17:27 2018

Sunset and/or flying photos might be a dime a dozen. This one stands out to me because of the way the horizon reflects on the propeller spinner & engine cowling.

Posted Sun Jul 29 19:42:38 2018 Tags:

This is what happens if a 13-year-old takes flight controls with "steep turns please!" on the agenda. Good thing there are no airborne cops pulling people over for suspected intoxication! (Don't worry, our airspace was clear, and neither of us got queasy enough to stop before sunset ... somehow!)

Posted Sun Jul 8 23:09:10 2018 Tags:

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