Washington DC vs. Pittsburgh

Going back to Washington DC reminded me that Pittsburgh is a small city. That’s one of the reasons I like it here. I really enjoyed some aspects of DC and wish we had them here, but Pittsburgh is also better in some ways.

Here’s a bit of a comparison.

Public Transportation: DC Wins

The Metro just kicks butt. It’s convenient, goes “everywhere” (it seems), it runs regularly and tells you when to expect trains to come, and it’s very clean compared to most subways I’ve been on. There are also buses to get you where the train doesn’t.

Pittsburgh’s mass transit, on the other hand, is primarily bus-based. The buses are slow, usually late but always unpredictable, they drive poorly, and they almost never go where I want to go without transferring in downtown first. Believe it or not, we do have a few actual subway stops downtown, but most of the light rail is above ground and used for a few distant routes, instead of covering a wider area within the city. I won’t even get into the funding issues and periodic strikes.

Museums: DC Wins

DC wins primarily because all of the Smithsonian institute museums are free. It’s difficult to compare different collections of unique items, so for the most part I won’t try. But having the ability to walk into any museum any time is quite nice.

Pittsburgh has great museums with great collections, but apparently Andrew Carnegie was more interested in letting everyone into libraries for free, than museums.

Dinosaurs: Pittsburgh Wins

I said for the most part I wouldn’t compare museum collections, but in some areas there is a difference worth noting. DC has a much better collection of spacecraft and aircraft, for example. But the National Museum of Natural History’s collection of dinosaur fossils isn’t as large or well presented as the collection at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. DC has more mammal and non-dino fossils, but Pittsburgh wins in the dinosaur category.

We just opened a brand new dinosaur wing within the last few years, with some really nice, large displays. It’s a lot better than I remember from 15 or so years ago. We have at least 3 T-Rex’s, including one juvenile, and several huge plant eaters. The dinosaurs are displayed in appropriate chronology, not predators eating prey that’s been extinct for 10 million years. There’s also a large window into the actual fossil lab in the museum, where you can watch the technicians accidentally destroy irreplaceable specimens.


Ha, just kidding! Same with newspapers.

Beer bars: Pittsburgh wins

See also my review of the Brickskeller. Maybe I just didn’t find the right place to buy beer in Washington DC, in which case I’d definitely accept a rematch. However, Sharp Edge is world class when it comes to Belgian beers on tap: I haven’t found anywhere else in any city with as many different good Belgians on tap.

Zoos: DC wins

The National Zoo is also free! You can walk in off the sidewalk like you’re entering Frick Park. Frick Park with Pandas, that is. People go to the zoo to jog or just generally hang out as you might do in any public park, it’s not just a trip destination. This would be a lot more convenient than the Pittsburgh Zoo, where you have to spend the whole day there just to make it worth the price of admission.

I generally don’t like zoos, but both the National Zoo and Pittsburgh Zoo are a lot better now than I remember zoos being when I was a kid. From outside appearances, at least, the old school “stark concrete enclosure” look is gone. Now they’re all “well-landscaped concrete enclosures.”

Transportation Bicycling: DC wins?

I seemed to see a lot more bicycles ridden and parked on the streets in DC, than I generally see in Pittsburgh. This seems to suggest more people in DC are riding for utility/transportation purposes instead of just recreationally. However, I really didn’t see enough to be sure, and I’m not sure how their cycling infrastructure (lanes, signage, driver awareness etc) is. They seemed to have a bike sharing/rental type program there, but I didn’t get any info on it.

Recreational Bicycling: Pittsburgh wins?

Okay, so maybe I wasn’t kidding about the sports.

Pittsburgh might win in the recreational department, for the same reason that DC might win in the Transportation department: Pittsburgh has more hills and is a smaller city. It’s a lot easier to get around in DC, but I’d expect it to be harder to find a long scenic route (meaning “all trees, no buildings”) in DC than in Pittsburgh. I’m not even sure where to start looking for a winding, hilly road in DC.

Both Pittsburgh and DC seem to have a lot of rail-trails down by the rivers. I’m not sure how DC’s in-city mountain biking opportunities are. We’re each on one end of the Great Allegheny Passage trail, but I’d guess DC wins for trail access due to our sections of missing trail before the Boston Bridge. DC also seems to have a larger, more visible tourist bike rental trade as well.

I’d really like to spend more time cycling around DC, because I think I’d get a much better idea of the place. We were only there on a weekend, but the traffic didn’t look that bad (except at the circles) and the streets seemed pretty wide.

Build a Wheel

Building a bicycle wheel is one of those endeavors which seems complicated to the uninitiated. It looks difficult, and seems like it would be dangerous if you screw up. It’s actually pretty easy to build a wheel, if you can follow step-by-step instructions. There are hundreds of machines in Taiwan doing that very thing, as you read this.

Building a good wheel may be slightly more difficult. I’m a Jack, not a Master, so it may be the case that I’ve never actually built a good wheel. But it’s easy to tell when you have an unridable wheel, and any wheel which is ridable probably passes quality control for a machine-built wheel. So if you’re satisfied riding on machine built wheels, then no worries: build a wheel! It’s fun!

Sheldon Brown has very good instructions on how to build a wheel, so I won’t try to bore you with the step-by-step. Instead, I’ll provide the background thought-track I used while I was building a wheel tonight.

The reason I’m building this wheel is because I bought a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub: just like the ones on the bikes of our parents’ generation (or: your generation, mom and dad) when they were young, a decade or so before the big bike boom of the early 1970’s. In fact, this hub was built in 1966: not the best year, but it should have a lot of life left.

The hub came with spokes and nipples, so I only had to supply the rim. I chose a Sun CR-18, which is a nice, strong, inexpensive rim which supports wide tires and looks nice on “retrogrouch” bikes. I also have Sun CR-18’s on a few of my other bikes, so I can swap wheels without mismatching anything. (I’m sure it’s not worth pointing out that I didn’t describe the rim as “light” or “aerodynamic.” At least it isn’t chromed steel.)

Lacing the wheel comes first. This seems like it should be the hard part, but it’s not!

Oops. I’m sure it’s impossible to tell, but all of the spokes in this picture are off by 2 spoke holes on the rim. If you put them in the wrong place, the valve stem will be obstructed by spokes and it’ll be hard to pump up your tire. The fewer spokes you have in your wheel, the more wrong places you have left to put them. Just like when weaving baskets, the key is to find your mistakes and fix them as soon as possible, to avoid taking apart anything you don’t absolutely need to.

I vaguely remember the first time I built a wheel. When I was a kid, I built a set of wheels for my BMX bike, with Dad’s help. I’m guessing I was around 13 years old? I’d guess we bought all the parts at Bike Nashbar, back in the days when it was an interesting enough store to sell things like frame building lugs, instead of just being a discount/clearance outlet. If I remember correctly I bought some kind of plastic rims? What the heck was I thinking?

I don’t know why I remember this, but I’m pretty sure we laced the wheel incorrectly. I think I interlaced the spokes over each other too many times. It was pretty tight, working on a small 20″ wheel. In any case: it didn’t matter. I wasn’t the hardest BMX/freestyle rider around, but I did certainly beat up those wheels; but I never had any broken spokes (though it may have gone out of true, I really don’t remember).

Eventually, I traded the wheels with a friend who had some solid-spoke “mag” wheels (they were plastic, not magnesium, but that’s what we called them all) which I put on my freestyle bike. (No more BMX for me!) It was a 1984 Haro Freestyler frame and fork, which I got cheap because it was a year or so out of date.

I rode that bike basically everywhere, at least until I got a driver’s license. When I was on an internship in Richland Washington after college, I had my parents mail it out there so I could ride with the other 13 year olds, because there was literally nothing better for a 23 year old to do in that gods-forsaken desert (so say we all). I left the bike there when I left; hopefully the neighborhood kids appreciated it, or at least made some money on ebay. (The family I stayed with lived in a type A converted to single-family use.)

When the wheel looks done, the fun has just begun!

Putting the spokes in properly is necessary, but not sufficient, to build a proper wheel. The next phase, which can be a lot trickier, is making sure the wheel is “true” and that the spokes have enough tension. The rim can’t wobble back and forth, and must be round without any any “bumps” in it. It also must be centered left-to-right with respect to the hub.

At this point, you’re basically debugging: identify the place where the wheel is the most out of spec, and correct it (preferrably without affecting any other adjustment in the process). Repeat
until you’re finished. (How close to perfect is “finished,” anyway? Sheldon doesn’t say.)

Wheel building machines are really good at making wheels perfectly straight and true when they come off the machine. The problem is, the wheels are often undertensioned: without enough tension in the spokes, wheels go out of true, and spokes fail prematurely.

Bicycle wheels work in a counterintuitive way. To most people, it seems that when riding a bike, the hub must “hang” from the spokes between the hub and the upper part of the rim. If that were the case, then when weight was added to the bicycle, those spokes would increase in tension. In fact, that’s not what happens at all for properly built wheels. Instead, the spokes between the hub and the ground decrease in tension: a bicycle wheel works as if it had thick spokes under compression, and the weight is borne by the lower spokes. This is why high tension is so important in bicycle spokes- weight on the bike reduces the tension in the spokes, it doesn’t increase the tension.

Improperly built wheels with tension that is too low do work as if the hub was hanging from the rim. In those wheels, the spokes fatigue and break much more quickly than in a properly tensioned wheel.

Machine built wheels also generally don’t stay true for very long, because machines can’t tell the difference between twisting a spoke, and turning the nipple on the end of the spoke. If a spoke is twisted without the nipple turning, eventually that stress will relieve itself, and the wheel will go out of true. You can reduce that effect by lowering spoke tension, but then you’ll have an undertensioned wheel: choose your poison.

I haven’t built many wheels from scratch, but I have rebuilt, repaired, and retrued many more machine built wheels. Machine built wheels are really inexepensive: cheaper than buying the parts reqiured to build the identical wheel, and far less expensive than a hand-built wheel. So, why not just buy a machine-built wheel, and finish it by hand? In fact, this is what a good bike shop should do for every new bike they send out the front door. Not many shops actually do this, unfortunately.

I think it’s a great deal to buy a machine-built wheel, then retension it myself. I’ve had much better luck with wheels I’ve finished this way, than with wheels I’ve ridden straight out of the box.

“Department store bikes” are ridden, on average, less than 20 miles over their entire lifetime. Yes, I ride more in 2 days than the average Wal-mart bike is ridden ever! The bikes are built with this in mind: most of them can’t ever be adjusted properly, or won’t stay in adjustment. Mike had a Wal-mart road bike. I built him a replacement, a 25 year old Schwinn with a handful of parts I had lying around the basement, and it worked better and he enjoyed it more than his brand new Wal-mart bike.

(Mike, are you still riding that World Sport? Do you still like it? Daniel has another World Sport from the same year, and he seems to be enjoying it as well. I think they must have been on sale that year.)

This is my truing stand and dish stick. I don’t have a multi-hundred-dollar Park Tools professional truing stand. I have a fork stuck into a hole in an ugly coffee table. It works just fine, and it was free. The truing stand is used to identify high and low spots on the rim, and locations where it is untrue from side to side. I used a few scraps of masonite and a nut and bolt attached to the fork’s cantilever post, as a feeler gauge. Although this is a completely adequate substitute for a proper truing stand, it requires understanding how a truing stand should be used, before you can build and use it effectively.

I also built my own “dish stick” out of plywood and masonite instead of paying for the real thing. A dish stick, or “wheel alignment gauge,” is used to make sure that the lock nuts on the hub axle and the sides of the rim are centered in relation to each other. If they aren’t centered, you’ll need to misalign your brakes to compensate for the crooked wheel.

At this point, my new wheel is “almost done” and only requires a bit of fine tuning before I put it on a bike and try it out. It took me about an hour and a half to get to that point on the wheel, and slightly longer to write about it (or, to write about what I was thinking while I was building it).

I Like Hills

Last year, a cyclist from one of the mailing lists I read visited Pittsburgh from somewhere in the midwest*, and we took him on a ride. He explained his experience riding in hills: “I rode the Hilly Hundred.” This was a century (a 100 mile ride) with the route chosen especially to hit as many hills as possible. “It had 2000 feet of elevation gain!”

I nodded and smiled, but didn’t really think that sounded very hilly. Our 20 mile ride that day turned out to have about 1800 feet of elevation gain, without really trying very hard. It wasn’t his fault- there just aren’t very many hills out there.

In the midwest, you need to go out of your way to find any hills at all, but in Pittsburgh it’s difficult to avoid them. You can stick to the river trails and rail trails, or stay in the flats around Oakland and Shadyside. But if you want to bicycle to go somewhere, instead of going somewhere to bicycle, you’ll eventually encounter hills of the “up” variety.

Maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome, but I have come to enjoy hills.

Hills are certainly a physical obstacle, but they can be an even greater mental obstacle. In the worst case scenario, you can always walk your bike up any hill you could walk up. But most often, stopping for a rest is all that’s really needed: today’s mountain bike gearing goes almost as low as walking. At that point, it’d be a greater challenge to maintain balance at such a slow speed, than to provide enough power to get up most hills. It seems natural to stop for a rest when you’re walking and become tired. Why not do the same on a bicycle?

For fast riders, wind resistance slows them down more than hills do. This is why racers make a great effort uphill, but coast downhill. If you waste your effort pedalling downhill, everyone else will just get behind you, easily keep up with you, and pass you well-rested at the bottom of the hill.

For the rest of us mere mortals, headwinds can be at least as bad as hills, even when your ground speed is relatively slow. There’s nothing worse than having to pedal down hill to maintain a reasonable speed.

Hills provide several benefits. The most obvious is that without hills, you never get to go down hill either! I like going fast, and “downhill” provides my best opportunity. I’m comfortable descending at speed, especially on hills I’m familiar with. Descending safely but quickly is a skill well worth striving for, and very attainable to anyone with a well-tuned bicycle.

When I first commuted by bicycle to and from work, I chose routes which had long shallow ascents, and relatively steeper descents. These are longer but less steep than the more direct routes. Eventually, I started riding a steeper, more direct route when I needed to get home quickly. Now, the longer, less steep routes don’t provide enough challenge, so I end up searching for longer, steeper routes home. This lets me get in more exercise in a limited time. It doesn’t extend my ride home very much to take a hillier route, but I put in a lot more effort going up steeper hills. On weekend rides, I can stay a lot closer to home with more exercise, if I choose a hilly route.

Hills provide a good way to judge your progress as a cyclist. Riding up a difficult hill is a memorable experience, whether you succeed or fail. The key is to turn your bad memories of the past into success in the future. The first time I rode up Swinburne street, before I started commuting to work, I nearly died in the Sestili nursery parking lot (at least it felt that way). Now, I make it up that hill easily, and it’s not the steepest route home I regularly ride. It is fun to go back to a hill that “beat me” and make it up without stopping for a rest. You can do this even if the hills that beat you now aren’t very steep.

Hilly terrain is a lot more interesting to me, than the “flat, straight” rail trails I’ve ridden in the midwest. We went to Mill Creek Park in Youngstown this weekend, which had some interesting hilly roads. The nearby MetroParks Bikeway, shown here, is considerably less interesting to me, personally (Ezra would’ve been happy to sleep anywhere).

My favorite hills are “rollers” which are matched well with my pace. On rolling hills without stop signs, you can carry most of your downhill speed up the next rise. With a minimum of effort, you can reach the next crest and continue your descent down the next hill. I haven’t encountered many rolling hills around here which match my speed well, but they’re a joy when I find them.

Although Pittsburgh has steep hills (the steepest paved street in the US, in fact) we don’t have many long ascents. I’ve heard stories of the mountains out west, where you can climb for an entire day’s ride, and then go down the other side the next day. That sounds like a good challenge, but not one I’m likely to face any time soon.

I would like to ride up “Mount” Davis some time, though. It’s the highest point in Pennsylvania, but it’s the high point on a ridge and not a true peak. Apparently there’s a long ascent to the top from Confluence, PA. That might make a nice day trip this summer…

* Pittsburgh isn’t in the Midwest
(in the same way that New York is definitely not a part of New England). It may be the “gateway” to the midwest, but it’s at the edge of the East. However, I’m from New Hampshire. So even though Pittsburgh isn’t in the Midwest, it is in the West. Relatively speaking, anyway.

Brew What You Like

My homebrewing experience and skills are limited to extract brewing. It’s easier and faster than all-grain brewing, but it’s more expensive, and places limits on the kind of beer you can brew. I’d like to try all-grain brewing, but I lack the longer blocks of free time it requires. In the mean time I do the best I can within the limits of my techniques. My main goal is brewing beer I like to drink.

Beer is brewed from sugars which are extracted from barley grain. In Extract Brewing, a homebrewer purchases sugar which has already been extracted from the grain, adds other ingredients, and ferments it into beer. In All-grain Brewing, or a “full mash,” a brewer starts with malted barley and other grains, and extracts the sugar in process called mashing.

There are many varieties of malt extract available to the homebrewer: lighter or darker in either liquid or dry form, with different amounts of fermentable and unfermentable sugar, and extracts made from wheat or other grains. Even with all of these options, mashing the grains yourself can provide a much wider variety of results (along with a wider variety of possible mistakes). Using only malt extracts limits the styles of beer you can make accurately.

My equipment also limits what I can do easily. On my stove, I can only boil about 3-3.5 gallons of water: only part of the wort, for a 5 gallon batch of beer. Doing a partial boil with a higher concentration of sugar in the wort makes it more likely to carmelize the sugar in the wort. This darkens the beer, and makes it impossible to create really light, pale colored beers.

If I were to use an all-grain process and boil a full 6 gallons of wort, I could make any style of beer I wanted. But choosing to brew a particular style of beer would be self-imposing a different set of limitations on my process.

So instead of limiting myself with my process and by conforming to the requirements of a particular style of beer, I generally don’t brew beers to a style anymore. Instead, I determine the qualities in a beer that I care about, and try to brew beers which provide those qualities.

It seems to me that beer styles are similar to dog breeds. If you buy a full-breed dog, you pretty much know what to expect. But there are some really beautiful mutts, and they’re one of a kind, which makes them a lot more special when you find a really goodo one.

In the beginning, there was only “beer.” Eventually brewers came up with recipes they liked, so they kept brewing them. These brews were named, often after the places they were made (K├Âlsch, Pilsner, German Wire-Haired Pointer). Once styles had names, it became easier to exclude beers which didn’t conform. Beautiful dogs are easier to reject, when they don’t conform to the breed standard. Similarly, really good beers might not be accepted unless they are labelled with a style, and conform to the standard meaning of that label.

After generations of inbreeding, some dog breeds have become prone to genetic disorders. Similarly, some styles of beer tend to become uninteresting or run-of-the-mill, when so many microbreweries create nearly identical brews just for the purposes of meeting the customer’s expectations.

So, how do you brew what you like? If you like “free beer” then you’re pretty much out of luck. Otherwise, you first need to learn what you like, and learn how to brew; then, you can learn how to brew what you like.

Start by finding specific beers you like. Then try other beers of the same style. If you like other beers in the same style, then that style may provide clues to your tastes. If you don’t like other beers in the same style, then find out what makes the beer you like stand out from other beers of the same style.

At this point, styles can be very useful. The definition of a style and sample recipes can help you determine the important aspects of the beer: what makes it different from other styles, and what makes it a beer you like to drink. Now you’re looking for specific ingredients and flavor components. Give names to the flavors you like. Do you like the beer because it’s sweet, dry, bitter, spicy, fruity, clean, musty, smoky, or hoppy? Look at recipes, and find ingredients or processes used to make this style of beer taste the way it does.

You should also brew beer. You gain valuable experience by following recipes exactly, smelling and tasting the ingredients, and tasting the results as they change over time. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my first round of homebrewing was not taking notes on the way a beer tasted when it was finished. I had complete instructions on how to reproduce any of my past beers, but I had no clue whether I wanted to or not!

Once you know what you like, and are comfortable with general brewing processes, feel free to start experimenting. If you know the parts of the beer that provide the taste you like, maybe try changing some of the ingredients that aren’t as important to that taste. Don’t worry about whether your recipe fits a style, and don’t bother trying to find a style which fits what you want to brew.

Extract brewing is fairly forgiving, because you’re starting with sugar, and sugar is fermentable. As long as you maintain proper hygiene standards, the worst case scenario will still be considered “beer.” It might not end up tasting as you planned, but that’s the risk when you start breeding mutts.

Keeping Score

I try to subscribe to the philosophy “Don’t Keep Score.” Don’t measure your progress and use the numbers as motivation; instead, be motivated because you enjoy what you’re doing. Depending on the endeavor, this doesn’t work for everyone, or even for me. And sometimes, it’s useful to keep score over the long run, without bothering yourself with the details as you go along.

I don’t use an odometer/speedometer (cyclometer) on my bicycle. I’ve had a number of problems when I tried using them. Sometimes they’d stop working, or measure results incorrectly (as much as I’d like to believe it, I don’t go 65mph down the hill through Schenley golf course). But the bigger problem is, if I have the numbers I do look at them: they motivate me too much. I pay attention to the numbers, instead of to enjoying myself.

I’m a very competitive person, but I am not very good at most sports (generally speaking, the ones with teams or dynamic movements). Combining these factors means that in a team or competition environment involving sports (and generally, keeping score), I often try to compete, but fail. Actually, I often hurt myself or make a fool of myself in the process. So, I generally avoid those situations.

This is one reason I don’t prefer organized group bike rides. I already have a hard time pacing myself, but when there’s someone going faster than me, I almost always feel compelled to try to catch up. (Of course the other reason I don’t prefer group rides is the whole “people” issue, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Although I don’t like numbers while I’m on the bike, I do generally like to get an idea of how far I’m riding in the long term. Some people mount their cyclometer in an inconvenient spot: it allows them to track their mileage, without letting them obsess over their current speed, maximum speed, average speed, cadence, heart rate, and/or power output (to name a few). Other folks prefer the good old fashioned Huret mechanical odometer to track their mileage (approximately) but not their speed.

But I don’t even go as far as tracking my annual mileage. At this point, my goal isn’t to increase my bicycle miles, but to decrease my car miles, and a cyclometer won’t help with that. I do have a general idea: at around 70 miles of commuting per week and additional recreational/errand rides on weekends, that gets me into the 3500-4000 mile per year range. I like to think it’s closer to 4000, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a lot more miles than I drive, and enough that I need to consider regular bike maintenance; but not enough to get rid of my beer belly.

At work, we’re keeping store in a different interesting way: we’re participating in the “10,000 step challenge.” Employees wear pedometers to track their steps throughout the day for a period of 12 weeks, with the ultimate goal of increasing their steps to 10,000 per day (around 5 miles of walking) by the end of the 12 weeks. We’re split into teams, and the team with the most steps will win a massage and a free lunch or something like that.

For cyclists, they let us count steps with the pedometer while we’re on the bike. I seem to get around 500 steps or so per mile on the bike, compared to 2000 for walking. I’ve found a relatively good setup for this, but on occasion I get complete failure: if the pedometer opens itself up or shifts into the wrong place, it stops working. So more often than not, if I’m checking my steps, it’s to make sure the darn thing is working, not to motivate myself. (My current average is around 11,000, up from maybe 8000 the first week. The biggest variable is my weekend step count.)

Last year, for my longer bike rides, I started using a handheld GPS device mounted on the handlebars. I can upload complete topographic/road maps for the area I’m riding in, as well as my planned route. Or, I can just ride wherever I want, and when I’m finished, download the route onto the computer. I’ve found this to be really useful for long rides in unfamiliar territory. It’s a lot better than a map or a cue sheet and cyclometer for finding my way. But it does suffer from the “too much information” syndrome you get with cyclometers, so I tend not to use it regularly.

One of my favorite techniques for tracking shorter rides is to use Bikely. This web site provides a Google Maps based interface for exploring and editing cycling routes. You can draw a route manualy on the map, upload a GPS file, or even download someone else’s route and put it on your GPS to follow it. It can also show elevation maps for all routes, and generate cue sheets if the route maker provides turn information.

Often after taking an unplanned recreational route, I draw my route on Bikely when I get home. This lets me see how far I’ve gone, without keeping score while I’m on the road. For example, Sunday we had beautiful weather, so I rode a 30 mile or so loop around Pittsburgh. Although there were a few nice roads, overall the road choices weren’t that great: I should probably spend more time investigating the hills in Fox Chapel and Sewickley instead.

I think cyclometers can be very useful to motivate cyclists to “keep at it” early on, but it is easy to get sucked in and become a slave to the numbers if you aren’t careful. At some point, everybody’s numbers will stop going up, and you’d better hope you’ve stopped looking at them by then: if increasing numbers work as a motivator, then decreasing numbers may be a demotivator. In this case, it’s better to rely on your enjoyment of the activity as motivation, instead of the numbers.

Change and Technology

I learned at a fairly early age that I “fear change.” I had a lot of stress entering new schools or changing jobs, for example.

Eventually I also learned that I’m “risk averse,” especially with respect to finances.

But some of my other characteristics do not seem to fit these labels. While I don’t generally consider myself an “early adopter”, I am very comfortatble with technology, gadgets, and the change that is propelling our increasingly “digital lifestyle.” This doesn’t seem consistent with my “fear of change.”

I recently found the name for a pattern which is consistent with all of my self-observations. I hate to admit it, but just like almost everyone else in the world, I have a fear of the unknown. The difference is, the things which are unknown to me are different than what is unknown to many other people.

Although I’m very comfortable with the predictable nature of computers, I am very uncomfortable with social interaction with other people. I don’t know how other people will react in a social situation, and when people start behaving aberrantly I don’t know how to to debug them. The fact that I call it “debugging” is probably another indicator of where I’m coming from. Some of the strongest negative memories I have are related to social fauxes pas I’ve made in the past. The unknowns I’m afraid of almost always have to do with people and social situations. The fact that I fear failure in a social situation means I must care about this; I’m just not very good at it.

On the other hand, I know that many other people are afraid of the unknowns related with technological change. I know this, because businesses are throwing millions of dollars trying to stifle certain forms of technological innovation, and lawmakers are trying to pass laws against certain previously unanticipated uses of technology, even when the constituents I’m most familiar with and most sympathetic with disagree with these policies. From my perspective, there must be a very great fear of the unknown or fear of change driving these dangerous trends.

I don’t remember exactly who made this observation, but it stuck with me: Generally, when businesses imagine potential uses of technological innovations, they tend to frame things in a way which benefits the business, but doesn’t harm or significantly change their current business model. They imagine the current industry leaders will be able to take advantage of the benefits of new technology without significantly changing or impacting their current business practices.

The biggest current example of this is the electronic distribution of content (of any form), versus the incumbent physical object distribution industries: The Internet vs. Everyone Else. Making a copy of electronic content is essentially free, and that copy can be made at almost any remote location just as easily as where the original resides. On the other hand, books, magazines, photographs, movies, and even audio CDs have huge costs associated with them, both in making the copy, but also in moving, storing, promoting, and selling the physical objects themselves.

The incumbent content distribution industries saw the Internet from a long way away, but they imagined a world where they would benefit from the reduced costs of making copies for free, while still acting as a distribution oligopoly. Step 3: Profit!

The reality is somewhat different: reducing the cost of a copy to zero lowers the barrier of entry so far that it’s a risk to incumbent businesses. Many middleman companies have become irrelevant, because content creators and the end users of content can now connect directly and bypass them completely. In my mind, this is a good thing, and we should embrace it. Unfortunately, the industries which no longer need to exist are bleeding money in an effort to resist change, instead of finding a successful place in the new world which is to come.

In recent months I’ve read some very good articles describing the changes which are currently going on, and some of them have positive suggestions for how incumbent industries might change to survive in the new reality.

Clay Shirky recently wrote an excellent article about how the newspaper industry has been dealing with technological change (or not dealing with it, as the case may be) in the last few decades. One quote (about the syndicated newspaper column, specifically) which really stuck with me, from the early 90’s, rings as true today as it was then, but unfortunately no one was listening: “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.”

Ian Rogers gave a talk to the Record Industry basically about how they need to get over it, and either change (with suggestions on how to do this) or die. Seth Godin gave a similar talk about the future of the music industry, to a bunch of music industry execs a year ago. They both seem to agree that the music industry is not failing, but the recording industry is; and, that this should not matter at all to the primary parties involved: the artists, and their fans.

I understand the Internet and the change it has brought, so I do not fear it. What I do fear is the reaction other people (or industries) are having to that change. It may be a painful change, but in the long run I think it’ll be better for all people and the welfare of the planet itself, when we can all access the content we want to access, without the waste associated with the creation, distribution, and disposal of physical objects.

Order vs. Chaos

12: 45 Restate my assumptions.

  1. Mathematics is the language of nature.
  2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
  3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge.

Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.

Max Cohen, in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi

It all started with a simple observation

My friend Daniel enjoys abstract strategy games, but this is one of the few types of game I just can’t seem to enjoy very much.

Next came an exception which clarified the rule

Mike and Elly introduced me to Zendo. This very interesting game is a pure distillation of an inductive logic puzzle, in a multi-player format. I enjoyed it very much, even though it was an abstract strategy game.

In Zendo, the master decides on a rule which distinguishes between “koans” (sculptures built of the plastic pieces shown here) which have the buddha nature, and those which do not. An example rule: “Only koans which contain an orange piece have the buddha nature.” The students (other players) try to discover the rule, by observing previous examples and constructing koans to test their hypotheses. Technically, the first student to induce the correct rule “wins;” but as in most good games, “winning” provides a convenient stopping place more than a reward for good performance.

Reconciling my enjoyment of Zendo with my general distaste for abstract strategy games ended up being a bit of a realization. The games I don’t like tend to have simple rules which result in complex gameplay (if you’re lucky). The games I enjoy tend to have a larger, more chaotic system, and part of the fun for me is to find the order behind that chaos.

Zendo is a crossover. It has simple rules with interesting emergent properties, which I don’t tend to lke. But the game creates a chaotic-looking system with the goal of discovering the rule which generates those seemingly chaotic results: exactly matching my preference.

Trying to find a rule which explains a set of observations is called “inductive logic.” In contrast, “deductive logic” starts with the rules, and generates outcomes consistent with the rules. To me, the difference between inductive and deductive logic seems to mirror the sort of games I enjoy.

The problem with inductive logic in practice, is that it is easy to get stuck on a false rule which is consistent only because not enough observations have been made. Inductive logic can be applied with a greater degree of success, in cases where you know there is a simple rule which explains the chaos, such as in Zendo.

To be useful, inductive logic must be combined with a strict process to weed out the false rules. The game rules of Zendo define the process used for this during the game. In real life, the process typically used is something like this:

  • Make as many observations as possible
  • Hypothesize a rule which explains and is consistent with all observations
  • Test the hypothesis by trying to find counterexamples
  • Revise the hypothesis to match new observations

When applied to observations made about “The Real World,” this process has a name: The Scientific Method.

Finally, a pattern started to emerge

Once I settled on this explanation for my preferences within the realm of board games, it became evident to me that not only do these preferences match my abilities, but they also apply to many other aspects of my life. I’m relatively good at finding the patterns behind chaos, and I also enjoy it.

As I said before, there are problems with getting stuck on invalid rules (superstitions and myths), or finding patterns where there are none (paranoia). The movie A Beautiful Mind tells the true story of mathematician John Nash, who was both a mathematical genius and a paranoid schizophrenic. This correlation between madness and genius has become almost stereotypical, but most normal people end up with the problem of superstitions, instead. Without thinking much about it, they attach themselves to simple explanations for their observations which do not hold up to tighter scrutiny.

I tend towards paranoia, and constantly questioning other peoples’ explanations, rather than settling on inconsistent rules. I’m no genius, but at least I don’t have the madness which goes with it.

I’ll write more in the future, indirectly related to these concepts, but I wanted to describe my general thoughts first so I could refer to them later.