Tuesday, August 31, 2004

You get what you pay for

Joy and I have talked a lot about how we decide what thing to buy when there is a choice. For instance, we bought mountain bikes before we were married and talked over all of the various options and choices. I think our philosophy is that you get what you pay for. We paid quite a bit more than the minimum for our bikes because we wanted bikes that would last a long time and have minimal problems. Joy hasn't used her bike much, but I've used mine to ride to work and so on. I'm very glad we paid extra to save a few pounds and get better components. I've had very few problems.

Now Lance Armstrong uses a bike (or rather several bikes) that is far more expensive with a carbon composite frame and the best components. Cost is really not a consideration for him, since the Tour de France is on the line and every ounce counts. But it would be ridiculous for me to buy his bike, since I'm mostly happy with something far less expensive.

I try to minimize the product of price and problems. For instance, I bought a cheap pair of binoculars at WalMart that got misaligned almost immediately. So I replaced them with Canon's 8 x 10 WP binoculars that are more expensive, but are much more durable. A more expensive pair wouldn't have enough fewer problems to offset the higher price. In fact, it's possible if I'd bought image stabilizing binoculars I would have had more problems, not fewer.

There isn't a magic way to find the optimum price point, but there are some rules of thumb:

  • Ask an expert for the one or two most important features and focus on those.
  • Don't pay for features you don't understand or care about.
  • Don't pay extra for a single, secondary feature.
  • Lighter, smaller and simpler tend to be undervalued traits.
  • When in doubt, go for the cheap models of a high-end brand.
  • Sometimes the off-brand will make really good models that get overlooked (and undervalued).

Joshua's latest picture

Isn't he cute?
Posted with Hello

Saturday, August 28, 2004


Materialists believe that only material things exist. Originally it seems that scientists proposed materialism as a sort of approximation. Since material things can normally be studied profitably without introducing non-material concepts, it turned out to be a very good approximation. For instance, Galileo was able to observe and study sunspots because he ignored the ancient assertion that heavenly bodies are perfect. In practice, material objects are measurable and non-material things are only accessible subjectively.

At some point, people wondered if there might not be anything except material objects. After all, the approximation was so good that many phenomena were yielding to scientific explanation. Perhaps, the reasoning goes, non-material things simply do not exist. Materialists often make exceptions for things like Justice (which is a goal or ideal and does not exist outside of the realm of thought), or scientific laws (which are observable, though not necessarily binding). But they don't allow for a spiritual world or anything more than a Deist god.

Arguments from popularity normally exhibit the bandwagon fallacy, but it is telling that most people have believed in some form of dualism. It's difficult to understand why dualism should be so deeply ingrained in our intellectual history unless people have some reason to believe it is true. The materialist explanation seems to be that people have a need to understand the world around them and when they don't understand something (for instance, why the sun rises every morning) they would rather invent an explanation (a sun god) rather than admit they do not understand. Now that we know how the sun (or rather the earth) moves, we no longer need a sun god.

I'm not really a philosopher, so I won't pretend to be able to refute materialism. But I do think I can show why we should be skeptical about accepting it at face value. Materialist reject non-material phenomena because they don't conform to the level of evidence that is needed for material phenomena. Souls don't exist, since they can't be measured, even indirectly. Material phenomena that can't be explained by a materialist are meerly considered challenges to be solved by newer theories, better evidence and more study. In this way, materialism can resist apperant contradictions.

But why should we think it true? I can construct a simular philosophy of spiritualism in which the material world does not exist. All experiences, no matter how vivid, are meerly the result of realistic dreams. Through meditation, it will be possible to transend the illusion of the material world and assume the true, spiritual form. Naturally, a materialist would object that this is counter-intuitive or is unfalsifiable. But the same arguments may be used against materialism.

Further, the materialist explination for why dualism entered human belief systems seems unconvincing. Why did Aristotle believe in the soul? What was he trying to explain?

Friday, August 27, 2004

Christianity of death

I ran across an interesting review of The Passion by a Jewish rabbi who finds fault with the movie's celebration of Christ's death. "The Christianity of life concentrates on what Jesus taught his disciples about to how to living virtuously, the Christianity of death distillates the Christian message into the single maxim that Jesus died for mankind’s sins." I haven't seen the movie, but my impression (and the reason I've avoided it so far) is that the suffering of Christ is portrayed without balancing it with His resurrection. If Jesus did not conquer death, He would have been a common criminal, not my King.

But I suppose I am an advocate of the "Christianity of death", because the Christian message really is that Jesus died for mankind's sins. Obviously Jesus had lots of things to teach us, and I wouldn't for a moment discourage anyone from learning them, but His work was not finished until He had given Himself over to death. A careful examination of what Jesus actually taught makes me wonder how anyone could expect to live up to His standards. Hope, for Christians, comes not from His life, but from His death.

I know why a modern Jewish rabbi would want to find common ground with Christianity, but the same differences that existed between Christians and Jews 2000 years ago are still separating us.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


Among the things I thought about on my vacation (while driving through Nevada and such), is that fish are the only predators that I even occasionally eat. I had sort of assumed that the reason was because the meat of a carnivore tastes bad, but I think it might have more to do with the difficulty in sustaining large populations. Fish are an exception.

I had a pretty successful trip in terms of catching fish in large part due to having a high quality rod and reel. Joy gave them to me as a second anniversary present. (Thanks, dearest.) Longer casts and fewer tangles meant that my lure spent more time in the water attracting fish and less time in the air attracting dragonflys.

Thursday, August 05, 2004


I'm vaguely involved with a pretty cool project, Gmane. Actually Lars Magne Ingebrigtsen, who rewrote Gnus, did all of the work and deserves all of the credit.

One of my earliest experiences with the internet was when AOL added newsgroups and mailing lists to their content. At the time, I remember being confused because it seemed like two different things that served the same purpose. Both required you to "subscribe", both were for talking with lots of other people and both consisted of threaded messages. AOL also had message boards, which are spiritual ancestors to web boards.

And of course, they do serve the same purpose. But since each one works slightly differently, people develop preferences about which is better. For instance, web boards offer the discussion owner the most control over content and presentation and newsgroups the least. It's possible to line them up in a series of spectra:

Control:         web  mail news
Ease of setup:   web  mail news
Ease of use:     news mail web
Universality:    web  mail news
Commitment:      mail web  news
Spam prevalence: mail news web
Centrality:      web  news mail
Archive:         web  news mail

This isn't set in stone of course and there are some subjective elements to the lists, but you can see how people would have strong preferences for one or the other of these methods. I really like using newsgroups now that I have a good newsreader, which means that when I come across an interesting mailing list or web board, I have to decide if I want to endure the pain of reading discussions that way.

The cool thing about Gmane is that I don't have to decide. Or at least there's a chance that I can read a mailing list with my newsreader. And if I need or want to use a web browser or search archives or avoid spam, I've got that too.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Defensive Win Shares

Thinking about the impact of the Dodgers trading away Lo Duca, I noticed how much of his value is on defense, at least by the Win Shares method. As of Saturday, he had 3.4 fielding and 8.9 offensive Win Shares. I just don't think of him as being a brilliant catcher.

The Hardball Times has been updated since then but it looks like Lo Duca is especially strong on the defensive side. Montreal's Schneider is the only catcher in the National League who has contributed more on defense. In fact, the Win Shares system shows him to be the best defensive player with (or rather, formally with) the Dodgers. That's right, better than Beltre, Cora, Izturis or Bradley. Which doesn't seem right.

I don't really know the answer, but I wonder if this indicates that catchers get too much credit in the Win Shares system for team defense. Bill James created Win Shares in part to help evaluate the defensive contribution players make to their teams. He explains it all better than I can in sample pages from the book. Basically a teams wins are multiplied by 3 and divided between offense and defense based on the contribution of runs scored and runs allowed to the teams wins. Then defensive shares are divided between pitchers and position players, and finally between individual players.

I really like this top-down approach and I suspect that the system makes pretty good approximations. But it is hard to evaluate since there are so many little details. For instance, on a team with several ground-ball pitchers, you can expect more double plays. So the system discounts the value of double plays for shortstops and second basemen on those sorts of teams. It's logical and fair, but complicated. And all of that complication is hidden behind an innocent little number.

Evaluating a catcher's defensive contribution is especially complicated, since the common wisdom going back to the earliest days of baseball is that the catcher is the defensive leader of a team. As a consequence, catchers get more credit for team defense than other players. They even get some credit for team pitching, since they usually help the pitcher decide how to approach the batters they face.

Needless to say, the Dodgers have had exceptional defense over the last few seasons. So if catchers are given unfair credit for team defense, it wouldn't be surprising if Lo Duca is overrated defensively by the Win Shares method. On the other hand, if he's as good as the system suggests, we should see a dip in the Dodger's defense, Florida's defense improved and Lo Duca's August and September Fielding Win Shares approximate the first part of the season.

We'll see.

Cubicle Cooking

For the last half-year or so, I've been expanding my lunch horizons a bit. I'd like to think I've invented the art of cubicle cooking. (Don't bother doing a Google search. Somehow the one of the hits was a porn site and the another was about "cooking the books".) Since I'm making it up, I'm defining cubicle cooking as the art of preparing food in an office environment. At a minimum, you need a microwave and a source of water. Hot water and a refrigerator are helpful, but not needed.

I started cooking at work after Joy got me a Small Micro-Cooker so that I can heat up ramen noodles. She uses it to make macaroni and other types of pasta. The pour spouts and strainer lid are really handy, but just about any microwave-save container should work.

If you've got a box of macaroni and cheese, you can cook it in the microwave by following the directions. But it's a hassle to take butter to work. Instead, I substitute plain yogurt, which is easier to transport. (This idea originated with a friend who uses sour cream. Joy uses yogurt instead because it has a bit less fat.) I really like the sour taste, but I can understand if you don't.

This week I brought eggs to work. Obviously they improve ramen, but today I added an egg to my oatmeal. I'm pretty pleased with the result, except I should have used less oatmeal. Cook the oatmeal first with a bit extra water, add the egg, and poach the egg in the microwave.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

The rest of the trade

The Dodgers completed their trades minutes before the trade deadline. The sent Tom Martin to Atlanta for minor-league pitcher Matt Merricks and Dave Roberts to Boston for a minor-league outfielder, Henri Stanley. The big trade was aquiring Steve Finley and Brent Mayne from Arizona for minor-league players Koyie Hill, Reggie Abercrombie, and Bill Murphy. Murphy of course just came over from Florida. Here are the Win Shares or the Major League players moved yesterday:

Rank  Player         Team   POS    Bat  Pitch Field  Total  ExpWS    WSP  WSAA
459   B Mayne        ARI    C      0.0    0.0   0.5      0      3   .089    -2
512   S Finley       ARI    OF     6.9    0.0   1.8      9     11   .396    -2

 90   D Roberts      LAD    OF     7.4    0.0   1.4      9      7   .621     2
434   T Martin       LAD    P      0.0    1.1   0.0      1      2   .348    -1

So the Doders gave up 10 and got 9 Win Shares, plus whatever effect the minor league players will have in the future. Mayne has been a backup catcher, so presumabely he'll earn more than 0 Win Shares through the rest of the year. It seems to me that these deals hinge on the long-term prospects of the minor league players gained and lost, but is likely to be evaluated on the Dodgers playoff results. I wonder if they should have stopped before getting Finley, who is nearing the end of his career.