Non-Computer

  • The Old New Thing

    Jan-Keno Janssen decides to rent a bicycle to get around Las Vegas; this is what happens

    • 40 Comments

    Jan-Keno Janssen writes about technology for German computer magazine c't. He covered the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. And that means horrific traffic that turns a trip from the hotel to the convention center into an hour-long ordeal. But he had an idea: Everywhere he needs to go is within a five-kilometer radius. The terrain is flat. The weather is cold but nothing a coat can't handle. Solution: Rent a bicycle and use that to get around.

    This was not as simple as it sounds.

    Uneasy Rider: Radfahren in Las Vegas chronicles his absurd experience trying to execute on his simple plan, through the lack of comprehension, the blank stares, the offer of a mobility scooter, the hotel employees privately talking about the crazy European, the impossibility of finding a place to lock his bicycle, and a video of his triumphant bike ride. (Article is in German, which you should read if you can because the attitude may not survive translation. And because stories of the absurd naturally belong in German.)

    Maybe he should've asked this guy for tips.

    A friend of mine who is more clued in to the bicycling scene says that at Interbike, a bicycle conference held in Las Vegas, a common solution is to buy a cheap bicycle at a local big-box department store and abandon it at the end of the convention. Maybe he could try that next year. (If abandoning the bicycle offends his sensibilities, he could always donate it.)

    Bonus content: Here's my translation of the article into English.

    Uneasy Rider: Bicycling in Las Vegas

    Media coverage on bicycle? In Las Vegas? To Americans, this is about as absurd as using a jet-pack to get a loaf of bread. A report on my experiences at CES 2014.

    The traffic situation in Las Vegas at CES is a catastrophe. Whether by taxi, monorail, or bus, there are annoying queues of people everywhere. For six years in a row, I have tortured myself through the crowd of chaos to report on technology for c't and heise online, and every year, I think, "There must be another way."

    On the opening day of the conference, it can take an hour to get from the hotel to your next appointment. The distances to be bridged are fairly short: The convention takes place within a radius of about five kilometers, including hotels. A European doesn't have to think very long to come up with a way out of the interminable waiting: This year I will try to get to every appointment by bicycle, not handing over a cent for taxi or public transportation.

    This notion strikes an American as if you had said you wanted to take a jet-pack to get a loaf of bread. The reactions of the locals left no doubt about that. Before the conference, I sent a few messages to businesses which rent bicycles. That's right. Bike rental companies. They actually exist. However, they aren't what I had imagined: From the email replies I got back, I gathered that bicycles here are used exclusively for sport and exercise, not as a means of transportation.

    The customers of the bike rental companies drive up in their cars, toss in the rental bike, and drive off somewhere into the desert. As a result, I also was offered a high-tech mountain bike with full suspension for $100 a day. My relatively simple request (renting a simple bicycle with a light and lock for a week) seemed so absurd that the proprietor simply ignored it.

    Wheelchair instead of a bicycle

    Upon arriving in Vegas, I inquired at the hotel. The concierge of the MGM Grand can help with any request, or so it says in the brochure of the third-largest hotel in the world. But when I asked about renting a bicycle, I got the same story the bicycle rental gave me via email: You can rent expensive mountain bikes for desert riding.

    Me: I don't want to exercise. Just use the bicycle as a means of transportation. It is very practical, because at CES I have meetings all day in different hotels.

    Concierge: <blank stare>

    Me: It's so easy to bicycle here. Everything is flat!

    Concierge: You can rent a mobility scooter here in the hotel.

    Me: Isn't that intended for handicapped people?

    Concierge: Well yeah, but anyone can use them.

    Me: I would rather rent a bicycle.

    Concierge: Please wait a moment.

    The concierge called somebody on the phone. Unfortunately, I could not hear what he said, he had taken a few steps back and turned away from me. I could barely make out a few fragments of conversation. "European." "Crazy." As he turned back to me, he informed me that there is a bicycle shop named McGhie's "nearby". I could try my luck there. I knew about McGhies already. That was one of the businesses that didn't answer my emailed questions.

    Me: Okay, thanks. Assuming I can rent a bicycle, may I take it with me to my room? Or is there somewhere a place to park a bicycle? I haven't seen one.

    Concierge: Please wait a moment.

    And again he picked up the phone, turned away from me, and called somebody. The phone call lasted a very long time, but ended apparently with a positive result: Yes, I may take the bicycle to my room. But I was strongly advised against riding a bicycle in Las Vegas. It was far too dangerous. Aha.

    Okay, so off to McGhie. Apparently it is the closest bicycle shop to Las Vegas Boulevard (commonly called "The Strip", the location of pretty much all the city's hotels). Around 15 kilometers and taxi fare of over $50 later, I stood in a large store for mountain bikes and snowboards. And here too, people understood me only after prolonged attempts at explanation. The salesman asked if I really wanted to do it. He said it was very dangerous, lots of traffic, and furthermore the drivers are not accustomed to seeing bicyclists. I replied that I didn't have to go on the eight-lane Strip, but rather could take the smaller side streets.

    "This is America"

    Shaking his head, the salesman gave me a bicycle helmet, included in the price of $150 per week. 150 dollars? Yes, because McGhie doesn't rent simple street bicycles. The simplest model was a crossover bike from Trek. Does it at least come with a clip-on light and a lock? No. Our customers don't ask for lights, and we don't rent locks for insurance reasons. "This is America," the salesman insisted. And speaking of insurance: There wasn't any. If the bicycle got stolen, I would have to replace it. For $1250. I swallowed hard and bought myself a $50 lock and a few simple LED lights.

    Now the salesman wanted to know whether I had my own car or whether I would like the bicycle delivered to the hotel. When I answered that I just wanted to ride the bike to the hotel right now, I earned another shake of the head. "Good luck."

    Somewhat intimidated and slowed down by the thought that I'm about to do something forbidden, I head out. And then it happened: Nothing. It was pleasantly warm, little traffic, I could travel on the sidewalk most of the time. When the kitchily and bombastically-lit Strip emerged at dusk, I had for the first time the sense that my bicycle riding idea was maybe not so preposterous.

    This feeling held up until the next day. The ride from the MGM Hotel to the meeting at Mandalay Bay was admittedly trouble-free, but where the hell was I supposed to put this expensive bike? There were (obviously) no bike racks, and on top of that there was nothing I could chain the thing to. So I asked at the hotel lobby. There I was met with the usual skepticism, but they offered to store it in the baggage room. Good idea, great. So for the next few days, the baggage-room-as-bicycle-rack strategy worked great. Only at the LVH Hotel at the convention center, the very place I had to go most often, did the people in the baggage room put their foot down, even though the hotel was one of the official CES venues. I was not a hotel guest at all, and on top of that was some sort of problem with the insurance again. When I asked where I could store my bicycle, the answer was merely a shrug. Ultimately, with my CES press pass, tips, and tenacity, I finally succeeded.

    Fear and Cycling in Las Vegas

    After five days of putting the cycling plan into practice, the result is clear: The whole fear-mongering was unjustified. You can ride your bicycle in Las Vegas quite decently. There are the fewest problems on the side streets, the sidewalks are practically always free. (In Las Vegas, one travels by foot only in explicitly designated areas. Under no circumstances is this rule broken.) Now, on the large multi-lane roads like the Strip, riding requires considerable concentration because the drivers employ an, er, original driving style. But that also makes it rather enjoyable to whiz past the rows of cars by the Bellagio fountains, the Mirage volcano, and the neon signs.

    Also, you can see places where tourists and convention attendees rarely go, and for good reason: The mini-supermarkets beyond the Strip often sell groceries and drinks a full one third cheaper than at the kiosks of the hotel monopolists. In the stores away from the tourist stomping grounds, you meet the alcoholic and/or mentally ill people who were spit out by the glossy gaming industry. If you talk with the people here, you learn sad stories about the downsides of the American dream and a de facto non-existent social system.

    At one point, I also came to understand why the locals warned me about being stopped frequently by the police. Anyone not riding in a car is a priori a suspicious person, just like for example in Los Angeles. "Only the homeless ride bicycles in the city," I heard more than once. I cleared the police screening probably only because I was wearing a suit most of the time. Sad.

    The efficiency-loving Americans should at least see that you can save huge amounts of time with a bicycle. From the hotel to the convention center, for example, it took me only twenty minutes. At rush hour on the first day of the convention, it was easily an hour by taxi or monorail. That's what I told the man I met in the hotel elevator: He had seen plenty of things in Vegas, but a guy riding around the hotel hallways on a bicycle? Never. He acknowledged my story of the time savings with a shake of the head. Like I said, a jet pack probably would have confused him less.

    Photo captions

    1. Bicycling in Las Vegas: To a European, this sounds completely ordinary, but in practice, it requires a lot of discussion. But it's worth it because...
    2. ... during CES, a person on a bicycle is significantly faster than a car: In a car, you spend most of your time stuck in a traffic jam.
    3. If you go for the shuttle bus, first and foremost, you must wait...
    4. ... same goes for the taxi stands in front of the hotels.
    5. Here is the end of the taxi queue. From here to finally sitting in a taxi, it'll take up to an hour.
    6. With a bicycle, you simply ride past all the traffic chaos. However, since there are (almost) no parking facilities, you have to put the bicycle in your room. At least in the MGM Grand it's allowed.
    7. Not allowed is riding down the extremely long hallways. Purely theoretically speaking, one could save a lot of time by doing so.
    8. The elevators in the hotels are, fortunately, roomy enough. The bike came along with me without a problem. On top of that, it is a safe "conversation starter" in the small-talk-friendly USA.
    9. Although riding along the at-times eight-laned Las Vegas Boulevard falls into the category or "extreme sports", you can take a relaxing ride on the sidewalks of the quiet side streets. Also, the traffic is easy to negotiate here.
    10. Here, right at the beginning of Las Vegas Boulevard, at the famous sign, the traffic is not quite so relaxing. Two kilometers to the north, traffic gets confusing. (See videos.)

    Video caption

    First-person view of bike riding in Vegas: To get from the MGM to Treasure Island, you have to cross a number of overpasses and escalators. Logic would suggest otherwise. The video was designed by the Amsterdam multimedia artist Christopher Holloran.

  • The Old New Thing

    Commissioner Bud Selig was named the first recipient of the Commissioner Bud Selig Leadership Award

    • 12 Comments

    In what was sure to have been a stunning surprise, last night, the first annual Commissioner Bud Selig Leadership Award was given out. And the winner was... Allan H. "Bud" Selig!

    I wonder who will win next year.

    Or who will win the Bud Selig Lifetime Achievement Award.

    Perhaps just to save time, they will name Bud Selig the Bud Selig Leadership Award Recipient For Life.

  • The Old New Thing

    Hello Kitty takes a rather inefficient trip to the United States

    • 31 Comments

    In the book Hello Kitty Takes a Trip, the title character travels to New York, Florida, Vermont, and Hawaii, in that order.

    Now, sure, the Traveling Salesman Problem is NP-hard, but you're not even trying.

  • The Old New Thing

    The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome

    • 19 Comments

    I draw your attention to this research paper from Professor Mike Adams from Eastern Connecticut State University titled The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome, also published in The Annals of Improbable Research. In the paper, Adams investigates the phenomenon he summarizes as follows:

    A student's grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam than at any other time of the year.

    He takes twenty years of historical data and confirms the existence of the phenomenon, thereby drawing attention to an important but overlooked national health problem: Increased mortality of women with grandchildren in college during the weeks leading up to exams.

    • If there is no exam imminent, the death rate is independent of how well the student is doing in class.
    • As a midterm nears, the death rate goes up by a factor of ten. As a final looms, it goes up by a factor of 19.
    • The effect is strongly dependent on how well the student is doing in class. Grandmothers of students doing poorly are at much greater risk. A grandmother of a failing student is 50 times more likely to die in the week prior to a final than a grandmother of a top student when there is no examination imminent.
    • Grandmothers are 24 times more likely to die than grandfathers.
    • The effect is independent of family size.

    Adams develops theories which attempt to explain these phenomena and also has some proposals for addressing the effect.

    A follow-up study by professor Lee Jussim of Rutgers University examined ways of addressing this enormous danger posed to grandmothers. In A Preliminary Report on an Intervention Designed to Reduce Grandmother Death Resulting From College Exams, Jussim found a way to save the lives of 4 out of 5 grandmothers during the lead-up to exams: Inform students that the make-up exam will be brutally difficult.

    Bonus chatter: The articles are written tongue-in-cheek, but other less whimsical explanations for the observed behavior include

    • If a grandmother passes when no exam is imminent, the student will miss class without explanation.
    • Good students are less likely to ask for assistance with exams even if they lose a grandmother.
    • A student with an ill grandmother is more likely to have poor grades due to stress/worry.

    Note also that the predicted grandmother popular collapse did not come to pass. One theory is that this was prevented due to another phenomenon: Grade inflation.

  • The Old New Thing

    Excuses college students use for missing assignments

    • 28 Comments

    My father recently retired after over 40 years as a college professor. During that time, he has seen all sorts of lame excuses students offer for missing homework assignments. Eventually, he got tired of dealing with them, so he instituted the following homework policy:

    There are nine homework assignments in this class, broken into three groups of three. I will take the best score from each group and drop the other two. Therefore, you can turn in as few as three homework assignments and still get full credit for homework. Late homework will be graded so you can learn from your mistakes, but the score will not count. No exceptions.

    He then explains to the students his rationale for this homework policy:

    I have learned from my years of teaching that students are terrible drivers. Now, I know that you personally are probably an excellent driver, but trust me, your classmates are horrible. Every year, countless students come up to me and say, "I'm sorry, but I did not turn in my homework on time because I got into a car accident." I'm tired of dealing with all these excuses, so I'm going to save everybody the trouble of making them up. Whatever excuse you come up with, I accept it, and the score will not count towards the group. That way, you can get into two consecutive car accidents without penalty. If you somehow manage to get into three consecutive car accidents, then I think you have more important things to deal with than this class.

    One year, one of his students gave as an excuse for missing an examination, "My wife gave birth." This excuse may have garnered some sympathy if he hadn't used the exact same excuse three months earlier.

  • The Old New Thing

    There's no seating up there, so you just have to hang on for dear life

    • 5 Comments

    I dreamed that through a friend, I got to join a handful of other people atop Prince Charles's carriage as it wound its way through London. There was no seating up there, so you just have to hang on for dear life. When we reached Buckingham Palace, the assembled crowd and reporters swarmed the carriage for an opportunity to meet the Prince. This provided a sufficient diversion to allow us to climb down from the roof and sneak into the palace undetected.

    We've come to the end of the year, so that's all for Monday dream blogging. For those of you who hated it: You can uncover your eyes now.

  • The Old New Thing

    I think we're going to be getting frozen leftovers for lunch today

    • 10 Comments

    There are a few times a year when a large fraction of employees are out on vacation at the same time, such as a single work day wedged between a holiday and a weekend (as happened this year on July 5). The most extreme case of this is the week between the Christmas holiday and New Year's Day, where the offices are practically empty. On these days of low demand, many services are scaled back and some choose to close entirely so that they can do inventory, perform routine maintenance, or upgrade equipment.

    One of the most visible service reductions is in food service. Smaller locations (such as snack bars) are closed, and the kitchens which remain open offer a reduced menu. But just because most people are on vacation doesn't mean that nobody is watching. Here's a menu from one kitchen that was posted almost exactly one year ago:

    Breakfast Roberts Waffles
    Breakfast Burrito
    Warm Tortilla filled with Scrambled Egg, Golden Hash Browns, Onion Green Chiles, Monterey Jack Cheese and Salsa.
    Today's Soups Clam Chowder
    Tomato Basil Bisque
    Exhibition Station Closed for Holiday
    Shanghai Shanghai
    Greek Potato Salad
    A delicious blend of potatoes, tomatoes, red onions, flavored with mustard, parsley, dill seed, mint and lemon juice.
    Wild Greens Grill and Greens
    Chef's Table Station Closed for Holiday
    Pizza Specialty Pizza by the Slice
    Deli Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil Panini
    Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil Panini
    Spcied [sic] Cranberry Turkey Salad Served on a Flaky Crossaint [sic]
    Entrée Check Freezer
    Grill Tuna Melt
    Steak Frites
  • The Old New Thing

    The chain of stories triggered by seeing a package of Ahoj-Brause

    • 12 Comments

    While surfing the Web aimlessly doing valuable background research, I happened across a page that had a picture of a package of Ahoj-Brause (pronounced ahoy browse-uh). Seeing that package triggered a bunch of memories.

    My emergency vacation from several years ago included a visit to a friend spending the year at Uppsala University in Sweden. The following year, he invited one of his classmates (a student from Germany) to the United States to join his family for the Christmas holiday season.

    She brought with her some small gifts, among them a package of Ahoj-Brause. On its own, Ahoj-Brause is just a drink mix powder, but those in the know consume it by dumping the contents of a packet into your mouth, then adding a shot of vodka.

    (When written by hand, it looks like Ahoj-Braŭse with a breve over the u. That's a trait of German handwriting: A breve is written over the u so that it isn't confused with a handwritten n. Compare putting a slash through a 0 or a crossbar through a 7 to avoid confusion with O and 1, respectively.)

    During her visit, I got to practice some German, telling her the story of Bill Gates and the hotel next door. Her conclusion was that my German was fairly good, and with one month's immersion, I could become fluent. Unfortunately, it's not practical for me to spend a month in Germany just to bring my German skills from "fairly good" to "fluent". For one thing, my wife would be pretty annoyed. (And this is completely setting aside the question of "Why would you devote an entire month of your life to becoming fluent in German? If you're going to devote an entire month of your life to becoming fluent in another language, shouldn't it be Chinese?")

    Man, that's a lot of digressions before getting the story I actually wanted to tell.

    My friend's classmate wanted to head into downtown Seattle to do touristy things, so she was taken to the neighborhood bus stop and given instructions on which bus number to take and where to get off in downtown. That part of the plan worked great. The part that didn't work so great was returning home.

    When you're unfamiliar with an area, traveling a road in the opposite direction doesn't quite trigger the memory cells. My friend's classmate got on the return bus, but couldn't quite remember where to get off to get back home. She got off somewhere close, but the houses didn't look familiar. "Okay, now I'm lost. What do I do?" She had my friend's address and phone number, but she didn't have a mobile phone or a map of the residential neighborhood.

    She walked down the street and saw a house with the sign Mi casa es tu casa hanging by the front door. She considered this an indication that the people in the house were friendly and welcoming, so she knocked on the door. She was okay with the possibility that the people in the house spoke only Spanish, because she had been learning Spanish in anticipation of studying there the following semester. (For those who are keeping score, this means that my friend's classmate speaks at a minimum German, Swedish, English, and Spanish.)

    The assumption that they spoke Spanish was correct. (They also spoke English.) The assumption that the family was friendly and helpful also held up. What she didn't expect was that they spoke German, too! Apparently, the family spent a few years in Germany because the father was assigned there by his work.

    It so happens that she was only two blocks or so from my friend's home; the hard part of course is knowing which two blocks to go.

    The family was so enamored of their unexpected German-and-English-and-Spanish-speaking visitor that they invited her to stay for dinner, but she had to decline due to other plans for the evening.

    Bonus chatter: When my friend sent back some photos from Uppsala, he didn't include any description with the photos, so I made up my own narrative. I had to make up names for all the people in the photos, and Astrid was the name I chose for the subject of today's story. She liked the name so much that she adopted it as a secret nickname.

  • The Old New Thing

    That doesn't sound like South Frisian to me

    • 4 Comments

    I dreamed that I was back in college taking a course in South Frisian, but I suspected something was up because the words didn't sound Germanic at all, and we were taught the words to a Christmas carol as Nom Yom Hear What I Hear?

    Also, because the course was taught by known prevaricator/exaggerator Robert Irvine.

  • The Old New Thing

    Tales from "The Box": A survey of crackpots in physics

    • 11 Comments

    David Dixon, assistant professor of physics at Saddleback College, gave a presentation while he was at California Polytechnic State University titled Tales from "The Box", in which he presents selected contents of The Box, an archive of what is charitably describe as "unsolicited materials", but which is in more plain language "stuff sent to us by crackpots." (Warning: Sound quality is terrible.) He describes the various types of crackpots, common themes, behaviors that set off red flags in professional scientists, and how crackpot theories can be used in instruction.

    In the talk, he excerpts A Little Bit of Knowledge, an episode of This American Life. He also wonders why crackpots are frequently retired engineers.

    (For some reason, the video is doubled, so ignore the second half, unless you like watching it a second time, but with the sound off.)

    Things I learned:

    • A subgenre of physics crackpottery is deriving physical constants from other physical constants in dubious ways. (Time code 29:00.)
    • You need read only the first few pages of any manuscript. That's where the theory is laid out and where you can find the error, assuming the manuscript is comprehensible to begin with. (The rest of the manuscript is just a series of examples of how the theory can be applied to everything under the sun.) One example given was a manuscript that showed that the generally-accepted formula for centripetal acceleration is incorrect by a factor of 2/π. (Time code 37:00.) You would think that an error of this magnitude could be confirmed by experiment, but that never occurs to them.
    • There are crackpot conferences. (Time code 44:00.) Crackpots tend not to criticize each other's work. And there is a pecking order of crackpot specialties.

    During the Q&A, a person from the audience remarked that he worked for a government agency which was required to respond to all communications, even the ones from crackpots. That must really suck.

    Bonus reading: How does a layperson grab the attention of research scientists (without looking like a crazy person).

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