Well, Scratch That

An interesting condo was listed for sale on Monday. I immediately contacted my agent up there and requested we do a walk-through via Skype. That happened today, and it still looked interesting enough that I made plans to see it myself the next business day (i.e. Friday).

And now we learn that it has sold already. So be it. I’m unwilling to buy anything sight unseen, particularly after that experience with the mold-infested unit that looked so nice in pictures. Plus while the location was beautiful (on a dead-end street adjacent to a greenbelt), both the street network leading there and the complex itself were bicycle-hostile.

Exactly how hostile was a matter of question, and part of my due diligence on Friday was to ride around on my bike and get some feel for how bad the trip downtown would actually have been. I’m still planning on doing that, simply in case anything else in that area comes up for sale (there’s lots of condos in that part of town).

Ah, well, the search continues.

Correction: Greyhound Is Not Reliable, Either

Let’s just cancel it and blame the weather!

After his first bus was cancelled before it left Seattle (Greyhound lied and claimed I-5 was closed even though the ODOT TripCheck site clearly indicated it had reopened), and his second bus was cancelled in Portland (Greyhound lied again and claimed it was so they could drive through snow areas in daylight, even though in the present cold pattern the snow zones start in the southern Willamette Valley, where his new bus will be traveling in the predawn darkness), I think it’s safe to say Greyhound isn’t reliable either.

I rather suspect Greyhound is choosing to tell lies about the weather and road conditions so they can summarily cancel lightly-booked buses.

That said, it still beats Amtrak (which won’t be resuming travel in southern Oregon and northern California until Friday) in the reliability department

Amtrak Is Not a Viable Long-Distance Travel Option

Sorry, railfans. It’s just not. Certainly not in the wintertime between Oakland and Seattle.

I just saw off a visiting friend from the Bay Area. He’s taking the bus back home. To get here, he carpooled. He had planned to take Amtrak both ways, but both trains were cancelled due to heavy low-elevation snow bringing down trees on the tracks.

In Europe or Japan, that would simply not have happened. Those trees would have been recognized as threatening the tracks and dealt with (i.e. either logged or pruned) a long time ago. Just in case that failed, there would have been safety procedures in place that allowed them to be promptly cleared and the flow of rail traffic restored.

That’s not how things work in the USA. First, the trees were left to grow, unlogged and unpruned. Then when they came down, there were no procedures in place for dispatching emergency track crews to promptly clear the right-of-way. Even if there had been, there were no modern regulations in place that would have allowed rail traffic to resume promptly.

And really, why should there be either? Amtrak doesn’t own any track in the Western USA. It’s all owned by freight railroads, who specialize in low-priority bulk cargo. It doesn’t much matter if low-priority bulk cargo gets delayed by weather for a day or three. If it did, it wouldn’t be low-priority bulk cargo and it would be shipped by truck.

Truck shipping actually does cost a fair bit more than rail shipping. As, logically, it should: labor cost is much higher. A crew of two can man a freight train of a hundred cars of more. Each of these cars can carry more freight than a single truck (and each truck needs at least one driver). Rail’s labor costs are thus much lower, and that’s before bringing fuel costs (also lower for rail) into the picture.

So why do people ship by truck? Simple: speed and reliability. It’s worth paying a premium for shipments that arrive quicker and with more predictability. Rail is where the less-urgent shipments go, and those tend to be large quantities of low-value-per-unit-weight bulk commodities. The two freight modes have specialized themselves to cater to two separate market segments.

And it is freight modes, because the railroads themselves don’t transport passengers. They have delegated that money-losing business proposition to the nationalized Amtrak.

In Europe, the railroads themselves tend to be nationalized, and to have a public mandate to carry passengers. They control the tracks, and maintain them to significantly higher standards than the US freight railroads do. Passenger rail in Europe is therefore a viable, reliable transport option. Plus, Europe is smaller and more densely-populated than North America, making distances shorter (another factor that works in factor of rail there).

By contrast, in the USA, rail passengers are stuck with a skeletal network typically offering only once-daily service, on lines run by railroads that view renting rail space to Amtrak as at best a necessary evil and more typically as an archaism to be discouraged by being as uncooperative as possible.

Even the much-maligned Greyhound is more reliable than Amtrak. Why? It relies on the highway network, and the latter is publicly owned and does have a public mandate to open promptly and provide reliable service to both private motorists and to motor-freight companies.

The recent snowstorms have been exceptional, and did close I-5, too. The difference is that I-5 reopened within ten hours. The delays for buses, trucks, and private automobiles were much more manageable than the delays for trains.

So, while rail easily can be a reliable mode, in the USA, alas, it is all-too-often not.

“Dark Matter” Probably Does Not Exist

For many years, the basic principles of thermodynamics stumped physicists. John Dalton hadn’t propounded his atomic theory yet, so the mountains of evidence in favor of atoms and molecules had not been convincingly compiled, thus the alternate (and correct) explanation of heat being the kinetic energy of atoms and molecules rattling (or in the case of gases, ricocheting) around didn’t exist. Therefore physicists hypothesized the existence of a mysterious substance called caloric, which was said to embody heat; heating and cooling was interpreted as a flow of caloric.

For many years, the propagation of light and radio waves stumped physicists. Such radiation clearly took the form of waves, yet what was waving? Sound waves and water waves involve matter making waves. Yet light travels just fine through interplanetary space. Therefore, they thought, the universe must be pervaded with a luminiferous ether, the oscillations of which caused light to propagate. Eventually Einstein’s theories of relativity obsoleted the need to hypothesize an ether into existence.

Numerous experiments were performed in attempt to detect both presumed substances, all to no avail. Eventually, alternate and better explanations for both phenomena were arrived at, ones that did not involve the conjuring into existence of hypothetical types of matter. However, the critical point is that for some reason, people seem to prefer imagining matter into existence over revising their theories of the rules for the behavior of observable matter.

This predilection explains religious mythology as well as scientific dead-ends. Dating back to prehistory, invisible realms were conjured from the imagination to explain the holes in our understanding of the natural world. Can’t understand storms, the change of seasons, or the apparent motion of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars? Invent gods and a realm in which they dwell to explain it all.

It is reasonable to assume that this aspect of human nature is still with us today. Which brings me to dark matter: it has a lot in common with the earlier caloric or luminiferous ether. There is absolutely no evidence in its favor save how our current understanding of the laws of physics fails to explain the behavior of galaxies and other very large-scale phenomena. Nobody has ever actually detected so much as the smallest iota of this “dark matter.”

The most logical explanation is that dark matter simply doesn’t exist. It is a scientific dead-end that our human nature has conned many of us into chasing. There are in fact some astrophysicists who have come to this very conclusion.

The rub is, so far, none of the known alternate explanations (that do not involve dark matter) have yet proven sufficiently convincing. This may be because the correct explanation has yet to be arrived at, or it may be because prejudice is preventing an existing (albeit not well-known) correct explanation from being well-accepted. I will freely admit I do not know enough about the subject to offer any informed opinion as to which of the two is more likely.

But, based on what the history of not just science but all of human culture tells me about human nature, I strongly suspect that dark matter will eventually be consigned to the same dustbin of scientific history that caloric and the luminiferous ether currently are in.

Lane Splitting Should Be Legal Everywhere

For those who don’t know, lane splitting is when motorcycles ride in the gaps between lanes of stopped or very slow cars in heavy traffic. It sounds intrinsically dangerous, yet is legal in California, and there is no abnormally high rate of crashes involving motorcycles there.

It should be legal everywhere not only because it enables motorcyclists to commute faster (thus rewarding people for using vehicles that burn less fuel), but because it enables better traffic flow for all vehicles.

Motorcycles, you see, can cause inefficient flow in heavy traffic. This is because motorcycles rely on the angular momentum of their wheels for stability, which in turn means motorcycles have a minimum speed, below which they become unrideable. When this happens, the motorcyclist is compelled to stop, which compels all following vehicles to stop. Slow traffic has now been turned into erratically-flowing, stop-and-go traffic.

Letting motorcyclists split lanes prevents them from being compelled to stop and mess up the traffic flow in these lanes. Thus it is a win for all road users.

Junk Statistics

The article alarmingly titled Study: Only two-thirds of Millennials fully believe the Earth is round is junk news. Why? Just look at the question and the choices for answers offered:

Do you believe that the world is round or flat?

  • I have always believed the world is round
  • I always thought the world is round, but more recently I am skeptical/have doubts
  • I always thought the world is flat, but more recently I am skeptical/have doubts
  • I have always believed the world is flat
  • Other/Not sure

How would someone who has a good childhood memory (such as yours truly) answer this question? “Other/not sure” in my case: when I was a young child, I believed the Earth to be flat, because to such a child it obviously does appear to be so. Later on, I learned otherwise, then learned the mountains of evidence that indicate so.

It’s the only accurate answer available. I have not always believed the world to be round, I have certainly not become skeptical the earth is round recently, I have not recently become skeptical the world is flat, and I have certainly not always believed the world is flat. It’s an elementary process of elimination (as arriving at any “other” category must be). I doubt I’m the only one who arrived at “other/not sure” this way.

Paper Matters

Apropos this, it also really helps to spend a bit more per page and opt for a smoother, higher-grade paper that can take toner more evenly. It is not necessary to splurge and use the finest grade of coated paper; simply spending 2¢ more per sheet and getting the next level up from the default paper grade was enough to make for a dramatic improvement.

I was hoping it might, and today I was pleased to learn it does. I’m finally getting the print quality and overall effect I envisioned on the trees booklet I am putting out.

It’s really no big surprise, as advances in paper quality (and the resulting image resolution) were one of the things modern serif fonts were designed to show off.

Finally, the Right Font?

I think I may have found it: TeX Gyre Schola, a free Century Schoolbook clone. It’s been around for years, which hopefully has given people plenty of time to work the glitches out of the thing. (Glitches being the bane of open source fonts, and one of the reasons people still pay for commercial fonts.)

Century Schoolbook, like most of the serif fonts in the Century family, is a modern serif font. It’s not exactly the sort of modern serif font I typically really like; glyph sizes tend to be wider and the variation in the font weight less than in typical 19th century typography. Both were of course deliberate design decisions made in the name of creating a font easy for children to read (it’s not called Century Schoolbook for nothing).

However, those minuses tend to become plusses on the Web. Even the best screens pale in comparison to the resolution a low-end laser printer (much less a printing press) can deliver. That makes reproducing the fine details in most modern serif fonts tricky. So the very same features that make larger sizes of this font easy for beginning readers tend to improve on-screen legibility for smaller sizes of it.

Being a TeX font, it has a lot of glyphs, which makes for larger font files and slower web download times. If anything makes me dump the new design, that will probably be it.

An Election with Real Consequences

I think Jones’ victory in Alabama will prove to be as described in the subject in this post. Presidents are term-limited, so even if he weren’t historically unpopular, Trump’s days would be numbered compared to Representatives and Senators (who can serve for decades).

The Jones victory shows that Trumpism is having increasing difficulty attracting popular support. Republicans who want to serve the long careers in Congress they envisioned are now on notice that their own self-interest may well be better served by taking a political stance that’s independent of the White House.

At the very least, the influence of fascists like Steve Bannon over the the Republicans just suffered a big setback tonight.

Remembering Muhammad Ali

I don’t follow sports much (never have, probably never will) but I came of age in the 1970s when Ali was making his comeback and it was hard not to be aware of him unless you were living under a rock.

But even then, the media mostly portrayed him as this talented boxer with a huge ego. (Both of which were aspects he indeed had, but which alone were an incomplete picture.)

It was only much later that I became aware of how much an amazing fighter he really was, both inside and outside the ring. He literally gave up the best years he could have had in his career as a professional boxer for his principles, principles that were based on fighting for a better world for the oppressed.

It’s a commitment to personal honor exceptionally rare in this world. (The only comparable example I can think of is Paul Robeson.)

Yes, he was in a sport that is now looked down on (in part because of outcomes like the early-onset Parkinson’s disease that Ali himself eventually succumbed to). Yes, in his early years he aligned themselves with the Nation of Islam and embraced their sometimes hateful rhetoric.

That just makes him a real person with real-world flaws who still achieved the greatness he did, which just makes me admire him all the more.