28 March 2009

State of the Blog Report

I blog, like most bloggers, mostly as an exercise of self-expression. However, I cannot help but occasionally peek at Google Analytics to see who (if anyone) is visiting TLP. Admit it, we all like being read.

I've posted 53 times this year. Most of my hits are from family, it seems, but I've also had 83 unique visitors directed from Google. My most popular posts by far were Head-Fi Ahoy! and This Little Piggy, directed from searches for "piggy headphone amp" (32 hits!). Clearly I should start making and selling piggy headphone amps. Sadly, I've published professional papers requiring infinitly more effort that I'm certain have been less read.

Next most popular (16 hits) was my review of the JVC HA-FX33/34 headphones, followed by various hits for my other discussions and reviews of audio gear and albums. Jim Noir, in particular, must have more fans than one might suspect (at least 5, besides me). My politics, economy, health and other such posts get basically no referred hits.

I'm a researcher both by nature and profession, but for someone who works with ideas for a living, I have little personal interest in abstraction or simple communication. Anymore, I read very little fiction. I read quite a lot of religion and history, but just professionally. Personally I'm more interested in ideas made concrete, able to be both examined and experienced, such as food or the arts or invention. I have a general interest in industrial design that is strongly expressed in my personal interests. A well-made flashlight may both be highly useful, admirably clever, and an object of functional beauty. The same is also true of, say, Eero Saarinen chairs, but being unable to collect or use those, I'm more inclined to research and admire (even if more prosaic) a great flashlight or a fine pair of headphones.

Given that what I most like to write (reviews and such) is what googlers most like to read, I'm encouraged to do something I've been thinking about for a while. I'm going to go thick into gear topics for the next bit, starting first with a knife month in April, perhaps spilling into May. I'm short on time and will only post a couple times a week. But who knows, aside from the simple pleasure of it, maybe I'll produce another "piggy headphone amp"-caliber hit.

27 March 2009

EDC Flashlights: UltraFire C3

I have never really owned a quality flashlight, except perhaps my tiny AAA Maglight Solitaire that ate batteries and put out very little light in return. But I recently purchased a latest-gen LED flashlight that is a quantum improvement over anything I've ever used before. I'm not going to get into a lot of detail, but for the interested, there is a great flashlight FAQ here and a flashlight forum here. See also light-reviews.com and flashlightreviews.com for loads of reviews. Many lights (mostly cheap) are available on DealExtreme, and many items are listed with reviews and comments from buyers.

The flashlight revolution is all about powerful new LED emitters. We're all familiar with the little two-wire LEDs found on keychain lights or used in clusters in (cheap) larger flashlights. These are called simply "miniature LEDs." They use little power and put out decent light. But companies like Philips and Cree have developed much larger and more powerful LEDs called "power LEDs." These require heatsinks and some associated circuits to operate, but they too are very efficient and put out a lot of light.

The Cree XR-E (detailed tech) is a power LED performance/value champion and can be found in a large variety of inexpensive lights. I purchased the UltraFire C3 from DealExtreme for about $10 shipped. It is a single AA design, with an anodized aluminum body and what appears to be decent o-ring seals. It is no SureFire, but for the money I'm very happy. It puts out probably about 40-45 lumens (peak), depending on your battery. That is more than enough for any basic task and better than your typical double C-cell non-LED flashlight (e.g., 2xC Maglights produce 36 lumens). And a single, quality alkaline AA will run for about 90 min down to 50% output and will continue to put out at least some light for about twice that long. For fuller reviews, with lots of photos, see here and here.

You can find any number Cree-based AA flashlights on eBay and all over the internet. Energizer makes one that you can pick up for $17 at Target. But anything that says Cree on the box is a serious light. Upmarket, look for Fenix or the above-mentioned SureFire, the Cadillac of tactical lights. Personally, next time I will buy either the Romisen RC-G2, which is just $11.30 shipped, forward-clicky (see below), and has a little better reputation for consistent quality than my UltraFire; or spend a bit more ($16.67) on the even better MTE SSC-P4. Both are 1xAA lights.

To really get high output, you need a higher voltage light, which will typically use 2xCR123A batteries. Examples are the 170 lumen Romisen RC-E4, the 180+ lumen UltraFire C2 (review), or the fantastic 225 lumen Fenix TK10. If you prefer sticking with (cheap) AAs, there are also brighter 2xAA lights like the UltraFire WF-606A (maybe 110 lumens).

There are two things I don't like about my C3. The first is that it has a reverse click-switch, meaning that you have to click it all the way on for it to power up. A forward click-switch will allow you to depress the switch slightly for temporary light, without turning it all the way on. Also, when I first got it, mine flickered a bit until it warmed up. I just stretched the rear spring and tightened everything really tight, and that fixed it. I hope it stays fixed, but in any case, I like things to work right out of the box.

Next time I would like to get a light with a crenellated bezel (as below), which may be touted a defensive feature, but more importantly protects your lens and lets you stand your light lens-down to make a kind of mini-lantern. I'd also like another light with some real output, for effective outdoor use. There may just be an UltraFire C2 in my future.

A boutique McGizmo McLuxIII-PD: about $400, if you can even find one for sale

Addendum: See update here.

25 March 2009

Everyone Likes a Quitter

At least when they work at AIG. Or so the comments about this resignation letter of an AIG exec generally indicate. It is not a bad letter, really, and one might even rightly feel sympathetic. Until you remember that this gentleman has made millions just pushing around other people's money. Much of which has now disappeared while, as he admits, he still has his.

One commenter muses: "My father is an ironworker and so was my grandfather. My uncle, as a carpenter, builds beautiful staircases. I also work with my hands. For the life of me I still can't figure out what AIG makes that justifies the $700,000 bonus this man received." Indeed.

20 March 2009

Trending towards Homogeneity

I found interesting Nick Kristof's take on one consequence of the global migration away from consuming newspapers to grazing on-line news. One result, he argues, is that we will see further polarity and more entrenched homogeneity of perspectives, because we naturally self-select news that is most congenial to our personal perspectives. The more empowered we are to self-select our media, the less diversity we are exposed to. One pundit calls this new self-selected Internet news "The Daily Me":

    The effect of The Daily Me would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers. One of last year’s more fascinating books was Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” He argues that Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do. Almost half of Americans now live in counties that vote in landslides either for Democrats or for Republicans, he said. In the 1960s and 1970s, in similarly competitive national elections, only about one-third lived in landslide counties. “The nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups,” Mr. Bishop writes. One 12-nation study found Americans the least likely to discuss politics with people of different views, and this was particularly true of the well educated. High school dropouts had the most diverse group of discussion-mates, while college graduates managed to shelter themselves from uncomfortable perspectives. The result is polarization and intolerance. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor now working for President Obama, has conducted research showing that when liberals or conservatives discuss issues such as affirmative action or climate change with like-minded people, their views quickly become more homogeneous and more extreme than before the discussion. For example, some liberals in one study initially worried that action on climate change might hurt the poor, while some conservatives were sympathetic to affirmative action. But after discussing the issue with like-minded people for only 15 minutes, liberals became more liberal and conservatives more conservative.

I find this trend very disturbing, but am not sure it is substantially the result of changes in how we get our news. That is simply one facet of the democratization of information that the Internet has brought about. But the enormous welter (relative to the past) of opinions and viewpoints that we are now all exposed to has no doubt caused an increasing retreat into ideological subcultures in a search for foundational worldviews and certainty. This also has factored into the great growth of conservative religious movements (yes, like Mormonism).

I'm one of those strange people who really likes to be challenged by alternative cultural perspectives. I find it invigorating. Homogeneity, for me, is anathema. But I do not think print media inherently promotes a greater diversity of perspective. Newspapers are products, after all, that their publishers are trying to sell. They serve their readership, necessarily. But in that respect, true enough, they can never compete with the infinite alternatives available on the Web.

19 March 2009

Good News for Your Prostate

Some very important research on prostate cancer screening and treatment was just concluded and published. NYT has a good writeup.

The fact is that if you get prostate cancer it will kill you, or not, at whatever stage it is diagnosed. Say a man has a PSA test today and it comes back positive.

    It leads to a biopsy that reveals he has prostate cancer, and he is treated for it. There is a one in 50 chance that, in 2019 or later, he will be spared death from a cancer that would otherwise have killed him. And there is a 49 in 50 chance that he will have been treated unnecessarily for a cancer that was never a threat to his life. Prostate cancer treatment can result in impotence and incontinence when surgery is used to destroy the prostate, and, at times, painful defecation or chronic diarrhea when the treatment is radiation.
So, each year more than 180,000 men receive a diagnosis of prostate cancer, but of those only 3600 will truly benefit from the traumatic treatment. And there is no way to tell who those are.

The good news, then, is that it now appears pointless to get screened and treated for prostate cancer. You may be that one in fifty men who will benefit. But the odds are not high and the downside risks are very substantial.

And in fact, these studies are also significant for women with respect to mammograms and breast cancer:

    Screening is not only an issue in prostate cancer. If the European study is correct, mammography has about the same benefit as the PSA test, said Dr. Michael B. Barry, a prostate cancer researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital who wrote an editorial accompanying the papers. But prostate cancers often are less dangerous than breast cancers, so screening and subsequent therapy can result in more harm. With mammography, about 10 women receive a diagnosis and needless treatment for breast cancer to prevent one death. With both cancers, researchers say they badly need a way to distinguish tumors that would be deadly without treatment from those that would not.

Update: There is a follow-up article in the NYT on the results of these studies that is a little more nuanced in interpreting them (for another counterpoint, see also here). Clearly further research may modify their conclusions. But it also summarizes the present results in clear and simple terms: "The [PSA] test is about 50 times more likely to ruin your life than it is to save your life."

18 March 2009

2nd Class Citizens

I'm looking forward to the new iPhone/iPod Touch OS (3.0) and am glad that my Touch will support it. (See officially here and unofficially here.) Some highlights for me are landscape keyboard support across all apps, more sophisticated app support and in-app purchases, and most especially, greatly enhanced YouTube support. I love YouTube and love using it on my Touch, but the current support for it blows.

But while iPhone owners get this update for free, Touch owners will have to shell out $9.95. Why? Because there are competitors to the iPhone but not to the Touch. And trust me, we Touch owners have no practical choice but to upgrade. All apps from here on out will be coded with the OS 3.0 SDK. Do not upgrade, and your Touch is hastening towards obsolescence. Isn't it great that now even our music players are on the software upgrade extortion merry-go-round? You just gotta love being the willing victim of a monopoly.

Update: DailyTech just noted that Apple has fessed up that the Touch does indeed contains a bluetooth chip (Apple in the past denied it). It was used originally for its lame Nike+ service. BUT, if you want to use it for bluetooth headphones, syncs, remotes, etc., you will, no surprise, have to cough up 10 clams for the OS upgrade. Grrrr.

17 March 2009

Porcine Superbugs

Just a quick shoutout to a recent NYT column by Nick Kristof on MRSA "superbugs," staph infections that are resistant to antibiotics. These seem to be transmitted from pigs to humans and are near-epidemic among people who work with hogs. I was shocked to read that 18,000 people a year die from MRSA infections, more than die annually from AIDS. The pig MRSA problem is probably linked to the extreme overuse of antibiotics with industrial-farm pigs, as with all industrial livestock. After reading about "pig brain infections" a while back, I personally am feeling even more put off by pork. Risk of parasites is bad enough. It really is a high-risk meat.

Update: If Kristof's first column wasn't enough to put you off pork, this follow-up may do the trick.

13 March 2009

Enrichment Night Activity?

My High Priest group leader sent this around to all of us, bearing the caption, "Wyoming Relief Society Meeting," without further explanation. I'm not sure what official source this came from, but he is my priesthood leader and I'm sure his description must be accurate. Is this some kind of church pilot program? Will sisters in Utah also be having NRA-themed Relief Society functions?

Unfortunately, this is a prime example of unsafe gun handling. One woman has one forefinger on the trigger and is pointing her gun at the other. Another is loading her gun while pointing it at her friend. I support RKBA, but I must reluctantly admit that perhaps guns should kept out of Enrichment Night.

(Just to give you an idea of the kind of ward I live in. As I've said, I remind ward members occasionally that I like guns, which is both true and an effective smokescreen for my liberalism. And yes, if you're not a Mormon, none of this makes sense.)

12 March 2009

Warning: Long Rant

Listening to NPR this morning on manufacturing in the US, I experienced a moment of insight on just how badly managed our country has been, especially under Republican leadership. Apologies in advance, but I need to vent, which is why blogs exist.

Here are some facts. We basically have the highest corporate tax rates in the world, one of the main things driving corporations and jobs overseas. Other countries use value added taxes (VAT) on goods to pay for things like government services and health care. These costs, then, are borne by consumers. We use corporate payroll taxes, which are almost half of all tax dollars, to pay for government, and then we make employers bear most the cost of worker health care besides. Or not, as companies continue to roll back or drop coverage, or pass costs on to workers.

We have the highest health costs and lowest health care coverage among first world nations, and ranked last in heath care in a recent international study. In healthy life expectancy (HALE), we rank behind 27 other countries, tying with Slovenia. Given that practically everyone over the age of 8 in Slovenia smokes, yet their infant mortality is less than half of ours (very significant to this metric), Americans are by any measure very unhealthy. But get the government involved in our health care? Why, it would ruin it!

Back to taxes. The very "unamerican" VAT of virtually all other countries saddles us with a huge trade disadvantage, because foreign VATs are not levied on trade goods. US manufacturers pay steep taxes on goods they produce, taxes which foreign manufacturers do not pay at all, and must price even their trade goods to cover those taxes. The US government also offers just a bare fraction of the tax incentives other nations offer to manufacturers. These are the major reasons American consumer manufacturing has effectively disappeared.

I challenge you to go to Wal-mart and find anything there made in America, except cans and boxes of processed food, which is of course to Americans what smoking is to Slovenians, a slow death by self-administered poison. Most stimulus money spent on consumer goods will simply leave the US. We only retain a major presence in capital manufacturing (e.g., airplanes and hydroelectric generators) because of our historically superior education and vocational training, which since the '70s has been in steady decline. We now face a serious shortage of skilled workers. Look for these jobs to go next.

Republican economic policies have of course fostered the concentration of wealth into the hands of the few, broadening the income gap. The GOP's paradigm is based on supply-side, trickle-down economics. Basically, keep taxes very low on the wealthy, and their ever-expanding wealth will trickle down and raise up everyone else. Hence, e.g., the GOP has rolled back sharply taxes on capital gains and stock dividends, leading the richest man in the world, Warren Buffett, to marvel that he only pays 17% of his income in taxes while his secretary pays 32%. Yet Republicans are screaming about the unfairness of Obama wanting to roll back the Bush tax cuts for top earners, employing their best "you'll be next" fearmongering as a smokescreen.

In the place of manufacturing jobs for low- and middle-income workers, our economic policies have erected a financial services empire for the wealthy. Kind of like England and Iceland. And now that that industry is devastated, with about ten years of market gains wiped out, $50+ trillion gone and no end in sight, all three of these countries are in deep trouble. And their rich are less rich, though to be sure, still very rich. (The retirees who have lost trillions, however, are mostly not rich.)

On the other hand, middle-class wages have been effectively stagnant since the '80s. The middle class has kept apace with inflation first by become two-earner households, then by becoming deeply leveraged, thanks to cheap credit and inflated home values. Now that joblessness is headed to double-digits (already there in five states), home values have collapsed, and credit is scarce and costly, the middle class is in deep $*&!. Where the poor have always been.

These policies and economic ideology have been insufficiently opposed by most moderates and progressives, due to these ideas' notional popularity and to the power of K Street, advocates of the wealthy. Republicans continue to be masters at reductionism. They have no good ideas right now, but are great at populist spin. How could low taxes not be good? Indeed, low taxes on the middle class and corporations would be good. On the other hand, high taxes on fuel, consumption, and the wealthy would also be very good. Likewise one could deconstruct similar spin on small government, deregulation, etc.

So today I'm in a testy, "we've been sold a pack of lies" kind of mood. Bless Obama, curse Reagan and all his offspring. Obama is not getting everything right, but at least he understands all this. His plans for health care, education, tax reform, etc., may be too ambitious in this dire moment, but I understand the urgency he feels. I feel it too. And if his policies remake America into an European-style socialist republic, color me a socialist.

11 March 2009

The Anti-Touch

Apple has revised its Shuffle, perhaps to ensure that it really is the polar antithesis of the Touch. While the Touch does so much that its ability to play music is almost forgotten, the Shuffle only plays music, and that just barely. The Touch is highly configurable, with numerous bells, whistles and gewgaws, and multiple controls. The new Shuffle has one switch on it and no buttons. It still shuffles, naturally, and you can change the volume and skip tracks with headphone cord-mounted controls. But that's about it.

It's "hot new feature" is an artificial (vocoder-like) voice that tells you the name of the song and artist you're listening to. Yawn. It also supports multiple playlists. That is more useful. But you can't buy a player today that does not support playlists. So yawn again.

And the new Shuffle comes with multiple downsides. First, $80 is a premium price, even for a 4gb player. And the smaller size is not useful. They've gone from a player that is slightly larger than my thumb to one slightly smaller. I don't need something that small. As a NYT article said, "Of course, at this size, Apple may want to consider adding another feature: a locator beacon. The new Shuffle’s so small, it’s only a matter of time before you lose it."

But the real deal-killer is the fact that you have to use the Apple-supplied earbuds with it, since it requires the integrated controls to operate. Some of us just cannot use the Apple buds (ouch!) and their sound quality is terrible. Doubtless Apple (and perhaps some 3rd parties, too) will introduce upgrade earphones. But Apple's earphones are never a good value, and in any case, you simply cannot use your 'phones of choice.

Of course, Apple is trying to hold onto a profitable niche. I expect these cost $20 or less to produce. I personally was hoping Apple would take a cue from Chinese Shuffle knockoffs (see left) and put a little screen on it.

But if you want something like that, with much better sound besides, just get a Sansa Clip.

06 March 2009

Foodie Mags

Another throwaway post, I know, but I liked this writeup on some changes afoot in food publishing. All positive, I think. One of my main complaints with most food mags is that they are aimed either at soccer moms or economically unconstrained super-foodies. I'm not interested in either more creative cupcakes or truffles and fois. But it looks like Gourmet may take a step towards the proletariat. Smart move, I say.

    Reflecting the bad economy, Gourmet, which usually writes about expensive restaurants and faraway travel, has added a feature about what to do with leftovers, and put a ham sandwich — albeit a fancy one — on its March cover. . . . “There is an incredible opportunity,” said Ruth Reichl, the editor in chief of Gourmet. “People need help learning to cook again, and they need advice on less-expensive ingredients, and we’re trying to give it to them.”

05 March 2009

Rise of the Dittoheads

This has been dismal week, and that fact was probably behind a post I wrote and then deleted (too grim) about the whole AIG boondoggle, which will probably cost every family in America about $3000 each. Then I hear today that the $13 billion we just gave a very badly mismanaged GM has already disappeared, and they need another $16 billion to keep the lights on next week. As Gail Collins just observed of the PennyMac swindle, "Once again, we are reminded that life is not fair. Lately these unfairness bulletins have been coming so fast and furious that there isn’t time to get upset about all of them. Prioritization is essential." I'm about to stroke out with rage at the trillions we taxpayers are just handing, after the fact, to greedy and feckless bankers and execs. I don't even know where to direct my spleen first. So I'm just going to breathe deep, leave the unfairness bulletins to other people, and instead turn to some political comedy.

Rush Limbaugh. Now, there is someone truly funny. Not his jabs and jibes, but the man himself. Just thinking about him makes me smile. If you do not know why, well, it would take too long to explain (start here for bio and here for his warped reality). But I see him as a one-man vaudeville act. I smiled even wider today at Timothy Egan's column. I realize that Republicans are headless and desperate, and the turn to Newt Gingrich I understand, but the rush to Rush leaves me really bemused. I liked (and agreed with) Letterman's comment that at his much ballyhooed CPAC address he looked like an Eastern European gangster. And he raved like a madman. If I could take him seriously, he would frighten me. And I am frighted that there are millions of people who do take him seriously, including (at least in appearance) some Republican leaders.

In a saavy move, the Dems are in fact championing El Rushbo as the face and voice of the Republican party. The GOP is drowning and the Dems are throwing them an anvil. This too makes me smile, but it somewhat disappoints me as well. I think government is better when both parties are strong, and as I've said before, I am at heart a disaffected Republican who wishes the party would come back to me. Not looking like that will happen anytime soon.

04 March 2009

Big Pharma Exposed Again

If that title sounds a little tabloid, well, I really wish this issue would hit the scandal rags. Few things fill me with more pure outrage than than Big Pharma's takeover of American medicine. Most doctors, many unwittingly, are Pharma pawns. Some of course are not. But how can you tell which from which?

This problem has long been known. But now, students and some faculty at Harvard are taking the ethical highground and demanding reform at their own institution.

    In a first-year pharmacology class at Harvard Medical School, Matt Zerden grew wary as the professor promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who asked about side effects. Mr. Zerden later discovered something by searching online that he began sharing with his classmates. The professor was not only a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, but a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments. “I felt really violated,” Mr. Zerden, now a fourth-year student, recently recalled. “Here we have 160 open minds trying to learn the basics in a protected space, and the information he was giving wasn’t as pure as I think it should be.” . . . The students argue, for example, that Harvard should be embarrassed by the F grade it recently received from the American Medical Student Association, a national group that rates how well medical schools monitor and control drug industry money. . . . “Harvard needs to live up to its name,” said Kirsten Austad, 24, a first-year Harvard Medical student who is one of the movement’s leaders. “We are really being indoctrinated into a field of medicine that is becoming more and more commercialized.” David Tian, 24, a first-year Harvard Medical student, said: “Before coming here, I had no idea how much influence companies had on medical education. And it’s something that’s purposely meant to be under the table, providing information under the guise of education when that information is also presented for marketing purposes.”

03 March 2009

Mormon Fiction

The success of Mormon fantasy authors (notably Card, Wolverton and Hickman) has long fascinated me. Likewise with the new inroads by Mormon authors into youth fiction, in both the spawn of Rowling and teen romance genres. Brandon Mull well represents the former and of course Stephenie Meyer the latter.

I honestly don't know where this is coming from, but the Boston Globe takes a good look at it. Worth the read.

02 March 2009

A Radio Patriarch Passes

I loved Paul Harvey as a kid. His conservative politics went over my head, of course, but in some small way I'm sure he contributed to my formation. The conservative media celebrities of the present, the Hannitys and O'Reillys and Limbaughs, have nothing like his power (except Glen Beck, who has a small touch of his magic). They're all shock-jocks. They love to make critics. Harvey made everyone fans. He had unparalleled gifts for making everything sound like common sense, and the inspired delivery of a born entertainer.

I was sad to read of his passing on Saturday. There may be a few Garrison Keillors out there (though I only know of the one) who will keep alive his folksy flame, with or without his conservatism. But with all the pandering and snark in today's conservative media, I'm afraid Harvey belonged to a bygone era. We'll never see a broadcaster quite like him again.