My Zunivers

22 January 2009

Lazy Slacker!

Yeah, that's me, with posting here anyway. I have been spending hours every day staring at a computer to do research. I can only take so much of it.

I came across a fun blog recently, and I thought I should share it. The Aesthetic Elevator is about as far as most people would expect from my interests. I take that as proof that people just don't know me well enough. I've had my problems with stubborn literature-heads bellowing mindlessly about how written works X and Y are blah-blah-blah, but art is one of my interests. Let me approach it in my own way and I won't bite you head off for being a git.

08 January 2009

We got the ice storm up here. Kind of cool. It was fun to see trees covered in a thin layer of ice. I'd like some nice snow, which would be fun because then I could ski the bike trail. But sadly I seem to be doomed to another winter of skycrap. At least up here the trees can hold half an inch of ice and not break in half, like that tree did when I was out taking pictures in the freezing rain in Whitehall last winter. That was scary! I didn't get any good pictures of this ice because there was no sunlight. We're trapped in lake effect snowclouds.

I did get to work to do some things today, which is useful. I have more to do, though. In fact, I have more data coming in than I can process. I might have some simulation results that match with some new experimental results that another research group is going to be presenting at the same conference where I am going to present mine. If my results do work out, that would be nice. So would a vacation to New Hampshire right about now. They have real snow.

I've started trying to get The Kid to talk by being exceptionally encouraging. In other words, I ask her to say things, and I lavish her with praise for getting at least some of the sounds. She has responded well to this, including spontaneously saying "I love you" to me and giving me a kiss before toddling off to see what her mother was doing. Totally adorable. She has also started babbling more to herself, which is in the right direction.

Today we packed some of The Kid's toys into a box in her closet. This serves two purposes. First, it keeps the mess level low. Second, it keeps the toys from being a familiar sight, so she is more likely to play with them. She is also interested in showing me the new books that she got for Christmas.

Speaking of new books gotten for Christmas, I got a few. Of note are Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle (with original illustrations!), Overtreated by Shannon Brownlee, well neigh everything Poe ever wrote, Butt Rot and Bottom Gas: A Glossary of Tragically Misunderstood Words, and a shiny copy of Walter le chien qui pete. (For anglophones, that is Walter the Farting Dog.) We got other things, too. In a fit of restraint, I am not going to gloat over this year's take.

My fish Rufus is On The Way Out. Yep. He's packing up to buy the salmon farm. If he is fine spending his last days not eating and just sitting on top of his tall plant with his mouth near the surface, so be it. I tried giving him fish antibiotic, but after a few days he has not responded. (Granted, he could have a gram-negative infection, but I don't have that kind of money.) So I'm going to let him rest in peace. He looks comfy and calm. I do need to figure out where to bury him when he goes. When I asked him, he had no opinion on the matter. He just puffed up his gills and wiggled his fins at me sleepily.

I don't think there is anything good on TV anymore.

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02 January 2009

Reading a book about American industry, I came across an interesting section about steel. The book had very good descriptions of various iron and steel processes. But I found a couple of errors. The book said that steel mills no longer static cast. Ever. My dad has spent 20 yeas doing just that, so somebody should tell him his job isn't real. Also, the book said that mini-mills make only low grade steel. The company my dad works for isn't mini, but they do scrap metal and additives cooked in electric arc furnaces just like mini-mills. And they don't make junk. People buy re-bar and i-beams and even auto frame steel from other places. The company my dad works for makes surgical steels, airplane compressor blade steel, steel or high temperature bearings, and that sort of thing.

These two mistakes are actually related. Specialty steel of some stocks is still static cast. The amount of static cast specialty steel around is quite small. On the other hand, the big steelmakers who do lower grade steel for beams and car chassis (some of which is still pretty high grade, mind you, and always a high enough grade for its purpose) would never cut a profit without continuous casting. Where does a person writing a book on industry go to learn about steel? Big companies. But if you go to ISG or Nucor, they probably won't even mention the small specialty companies or the specialty processes. Those companies are profitably involved in specialty work, but it is not their primary output. To hear about department or different companies who use different processes successfully or even out of necessity, you would need to think of it on your own and ask specifically, or happen to come upon an overworked PR department that passes you to an engineer with knowledge outside his box, or something like that.

The lesson here is that experts and generalists both matter. I know what I know about steel only because I know someone with firsthand experience doing it every day. I know a lot more than I did yesterday about industry overall only because I found a book by someone who knows a little about a lot.

Reading books, as well as the internet or newspapers, is interesting and usually quite informative, but the small details can get lost. If the author of the book I was reading was an expert on steel, rather than generally knowledgeable in industry, he wouldn't have made the mistakes he made about steel. On the other hand, if his interest were focused only on steel, he would not have been able to write such a sweeping overview about water works, mining, utilities, transportation infrastructure, and the like.

Of course, the answer to the inevitable question about who to believe is much stickier. It can even get downright scary. I am no longer a young earth creationist because I stopped getting my science from pastors and lawyers without a real hobby and started getting it from scientists who make such things their work. But I also fume when I hear stories about doctors-- experts and often very good overall-- who then downright completely and rather obviously are screwed up on subjects like thyroid treatment, invasive coronary artery care, and childbirth procedures.

My experience has been that not every expert is right, but that most knee-jerk anti-experts would have trouble passing a Turing test. So I will not ignore the expert and I will not discount them without a very good reason. One of the best reasons I often find is that the person actually is not an expert, just someone hiding behind a web of complex babble and long lists of citations and footnotes, but that's a rant for another day.