Saturday, February 28, 2015

If you know us...

If you know us ... then you know that Debbie and I are basically Amazon groupies.  We've been Amazon Prime members since (literally) the first day it was offered, and a significant percentage of our total purchases are made from Amazon.  While it started with just books, Amazon now dominates many kinds of our purchases – only a few categories do we buy mostly elsewhere (food, cars, furniture, and art, mainly).

Why are we such Amazon devotees?  Broad selection, the buyer reviews, good prices, an overall convenient and pleasant experience, and great customer service are the main reasons.

This morning I had another example of Amazon's great customer service.  About a week ago, I ordered a 4 pack of vacuum cleaner backs for our monster “shop” vacuum.  A couple days later the box showed up – but only had a 2 pack inside.  So I returned the box and asked for a replacement – a very simple process, because the UPS man picked up the return.  A couple days later, the replacement showed up – and it was another 2 pack!  As I'd paid for 4, I wasn't terribly pleased about this.  So I went online and started a chat session with a customer service representative.  This took just a couple minutes.  Here's a transcript of our chat:
Amazon: Good Morning, I am Chris.  How may I help you today?

me: I ordered this item, received the wrong one, returned it, got the replacement, and it was the wrong one AGAIN.  I'm wondering how I can get the right one :)

Amazon: I'm sorry to hear you have received the same wrong item twice but I'll be glad to help you on this.  Tom to be honest, if you are telling me that the replacement is wrong again, that means that our whole inventory probably is wrong. I will file a ticket, the item will be removed from the webpage until this is fixed.  So I can offer you a full refund of the original order.

me: What I ordered was a 4 pack (2 packs of 2).  What I got was 1 pack of 2.  Could you send me the second pack of 2?  I'd rather have the bags than the refund :)

Amazon: Sure Tom I understand that, and I want to help you. :) but if I create a replacement I am afraid you will get the same problem again.  So it does not make any sense.

me: Ok, then I guess the return/refund is the only way to go.  Dang.  I can do that from the web site directly.

Amazon: Well, lets do this Tom. Keep that replacement, I will create a returnless refund as an exception for this inconvenience. And then when the item is corrected and available back in the web page, you can order them with the refund money.

me: Well, that's very nice of you - thanks!

Amazon: Not a problem at all. I mean this is completely our fault, so I want to at least compensate you, you already had to go through the hassle of returning the original order. So, no worries, this time feel free to keep them. An email confirmation of the returnless refund will be sent.

me: Thanks, Chris!
Now a couple of free vacuum cleaner bags isn't exactly a big thing – but the attitude and pleasant handling of the issue sure is.  There are a lot of companies that really ought to study what Amazon does, and apply some of what they observe to their own business.

Meanwhile, we'll continue our happy shopping experiences at Amazon!

Magnolia sprengeri...

Magnolia sprengeri...  Via BPOD, of course.  The text of today's entry contains this, which surprised me:
I chose today's image for its illustration of how cameras capture colours, and why it isn't always useful to rely on photographs if one wants to know the "true" colour of an object. It's a contemporaneous subject, as there seems to have been much debate about a dress the past couple days: "The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress" (via Wired).

In today's photograph, those parts of the unfurling flower in shadow have a bluish-cast, including not only the tepals but also the fuzzy hairs on the distant perules (or bud scales). Those parts exposed directly to the rays of the sun have a daytime "white" light to them, which is most noticeable on the forefront line of those fuzzy hairs, though some tepals have a bit of daytime light on them as well. To make matters more confusing, some of the tepals are side-lit so that they are glowing with the light that has diffused through the tepal. For another photograph of a flower from this particular plant, this time in late-evening golden light, see this previous entry on 'Eric Savill' magnolia. Different lighting conditions, different colours.

For scientific photographs and scans, colour calibration charts or cards are often inserted into the images to permit later correction to standard colours under standard conditions. For example, see this specimen of Corydalis aurea from the UBC Herbarium, but do note that while the colour calibration chart is present, the image is not yet calibrated--e.g., the black in the chart is not a true black.
Most botanists I've met wouldn't know an Internet meme if it smacked them upside the head :)

Comet 67P, up close and personal...

Comet 67P, up close and personal...  A recent photo returned by Rosetta, from its Valentine's Day low pass.  As I was perusing it this morning, it occurred to me (for about the 10,000th time) just how monochromatic most things in the solar system are.  The few bodies that have significant color variation (Io, Jupiter, Earth) really stand out.  Even red Mars is mostly, well, red...

So my mother sent me...

So my mother sent me ... a collection of the most horrible illustrated puns I have ever seen.  It included some that even my father would have rejected as cringe-worthy (and believe me, his pun standards were extremely low).  For the sanity of my tiny band of readers, I refuse to publish them.  But ... buried in the midst of that collection was the photo at right (click to embiggen).  When I got to the line about politicians, I laughed until I hurt...

Soviet space photos...

Soviet space photos...  These are hard to find, but now hundreds of them have been collected in one place.  The one at right was taken on October 20, 1975 by the Venera 9 spacecraft, shortly after landing on the surface of Venus.  This was in the days before CCD camera photosensors, so the picture was made with a mechanical scanner moving the image over a single photocell...

Rice paddies...

Rice paddies...  Really!  This is a photo of terraced rice paddies in Yunnan, China.  As usual, click to embiggen...

Street art...

Street art...  A delightful collection, passed along by my sister Holly.  One of these (the one dependent on shadows, from Lithuania) reminded me strongly of several similar works I've seen in Estonia.  The two countries are quite close together, and this makes me wonder if there's something cultural going on there.  I saw quite a few pieces of sculpture in public places of Estonia that depended on some sort of optical illusion – usually either shadow effects, or requiring you to stand in a particular spot to see it...

A red iguana and iPhone kind of afternoon...

A red iguana and iPhone kind of afternoon...  Debbie and I drove down to Salt Lake City yesterday, to enjoy another fine meal at the Red Iguana.  Once again, I forgot to take photos.  Apparently I lose my mind in the presence of such great food!

We got the mole sampler plate again, to help us choose what we wanted.  We both settled on the same thing: Lomo de puerco en mole de almendras.  What's that?  Here's the description, from their menu:
Almonds, chile guajillo, chile guero, yellow zucchini, milk, peanut butter and onions, served with a roasted pork loin stuffed with dried fruit, sun-dried tomatoes, Swiss chard and pine nuts.
It was brains-fall-out-on-the-table good.  I also had their flan for dessert (superb!), and Debbie had their hot rice pudding.  We have about 5 pounds of leftovers we'll force ourselves to eat later today :)
On the way down to the restaurant, we stopped in at the Apple store in Farmington.  We wanted to take a look at the iPhone 6 – our current contract runs out next month, and we're wondering if we want to upgrade.  The two sizes available had us wondering which one we would prefer.  We both liked the iPhone 6+ – the screen is very easy to read (mainly because of the increased size), the keyboard is easier to use (for the same reason), and the camera is optically stabilized (Debbie wants that for videos of dog runs; I want that for long exposures).  The thing is so big that it won't fit in a normal pocket, though.  I'm likely to opt for a belt clip.  I'm not sure what Debbie will do...

Friday, February 27, 2015

Megan McArdle is a serial clear thinker...

Megan McArdle is a serial clear thinker...  Which means, of course, that you should pay attention to her musings.  From a recent post:
Most of the people who "believe" in evolution don't have much more scientific foundation for their beliefs than a young-earth creationist does for theirs. I would be slightly surprised to learn that the reporters asking the questions -- or, for that matter, President Obama -- could deliver more than a few vague sentences about how evolution works, desperately dredged up from the Life Sciences module of their seventh-grade science class. And many such "believers" will conveniently discard their support for evolutionary models if their own closely held moral beliefs are threatened -- witness the outrage when Larry Summers suggested that biology might have produced different distributions of mathematical ability between men and women. We're talking about a process that determined that male black widow spiders should be eaten after they mate. Of course it could have.
Read the whole thing...

And then everybody died of pneumonia...

And then everybody died of pneumonia...  Just go read it.

A morning ponder...

A morning ponder...  Ran across this story:
Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute tells a story about Julian Simon, the late and great economist.He was at some environmental forum, and he said, “How many people here believe that the earth is increasingly polluted and that our natural resources are being exhausted?” Naturally, every hand shot up. He said, “Is there any evidence that could dissuade you?” Nothing. Again: “Is there any evidence I could give you — anything at all — that would lead you to reconsider these assumptions?” Not a stir. Simon then said, “Well, excuse me, I’m not dressed for church.”

I love that story, for what it says about the fixity of these beliefs, immune to evidence, reason, or anything else.
Think about how pervasive these fixed beliefs are in today's society.  Think anthropogenic global warming, the welfare state, affirmative action, progressivism, conservatism, etc.  How many people holding such beliefs couldn't be persuaded to change their views by any evidence whatsoever?

And what beliefs do I hold that I couldn't be persuaded to change?

Laugh line of the day...

Laugh line of the day...  By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, in The Week, in an article titled “The terrifying vulnerability of the U.S. military”:
What are the signs that an organization has become a bureaucracy? The first is excessive PowerPoint.
Hah!

And he has an excellent point...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Posted without comment...

Posted without comment ... as my wife reads this blog.  My mom sent this to me.  You may infer what you wish about my family.  Trust me, it won't be anything we haven't already thought of...
A group of women were at a seminar on how to live in a loving relationship with their husband.

The women were asked, "How many of you love your husband?"

All the women raised their hands.

Then they were asked, "When was the last time you told your husband you loved him?"

Some women answered today, a few yesterday, and some couldn't remember.

The women were then told to take out their cell phones and text to their husband: "I love you, sweetheart."

The women were then instructed to exchange phones with another person, and to read aloud the text message they received, in response.

Below are 11 replies; some are hilarious.  If you have been married for quite a while ... a sign of true love ... who else would reply in such a succinct and honest way?
1. Who the hell is this?

2. Eh, mother of my children, are you sick or what?

3. Yeah, and I love you too. What's up with you?

4. What now? Did you crash the car again?

5. I don't understand what you mean?

6. What the heck did you do now?

7. Don't beat about the bush, just tell me how much you need?

8. Am I dreaming?

9. If you don't tell me who this message is actually for, someone will die.

10. I thought we agreed you wouldn't drink during the day.

11. Your mother is coming to stay with us, isn't she?

Wandering minds perform better?

Wandering minds perform better?  If that's true, then I'm in great shape – my mind wanders all over the damned place!

Only in the U.S...

Only in the U.S. ... are male babies routinely circumcised for non-religious reasons.  Why?  What are the pros and cons?  Jessica Wapner has a good piece on the subject.  There are a few more angles to this than I was aware of...

Curiosity is looking closely...

Curiosity is looking closely ... at those rippled rocks I pointed out recently.  It's using MAHLI, the MArs Hand Lens Imager.

Bright spots on Ceres...

Bright spots on Ceres...  The Dawn robotic explorer is approaching the asteroid Ceres, and as it draws closer the images it's returning get better and better.  One recent image (at right) shows two bright spots at the bottom of a basin (or crater).

NASA scientists don't know what the bright spots are.  Two speculative explanations: some kind of volcanic activity (possibly involving water), or some sort of shiny surface that reflects more sunlight.  The UFO crazies are of course all over this, with some claiming this is clearly an alien spaceship. 

Personally, I think it's most likely some litter left behind by some alien tourist who took one look at Earth and ran away screaming after seeing a political TV ad...

Bad customer service is not a new thing...

Bad customer service is not a new thing...  Some Babylonians were complaining about it (on a clay tablet, seen at right) nearly 4,000 years ago!  Here's the conclusion of the tablet's translation:
Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.
That's not much different from the conclusion of some complaint letters I've written :)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Geek: Oopsie. Major oopsie!

Geek:  Oopsie.  Major oopsie!  The basic sort library functions in Java (including Android) and Python are broken.  Broken as in they can sometimes crash, given the right inputs.  Java's sort implementation is over ten years old, and (to the best of my knowledge) this bug hasn't been reported before.  One particularly interesting aspect is that the bug was found during an attempt to formally prove the algorithm's correctness.  If you're not a computer science geek, you might not realize just how difficult proving correctness is.  In fact it is so difficult that almost exactly zero of the software you use everyday is proven to be correct...

The consequences of affirmative action, part 72,663...

The consequences of affirmative action, part 72,663...  This isn't really a new story, but more a recent example of an old and familiar one.  The so-called “affirmative action” programs are really about dictating college admission and graduation outcomes in a race-neutral way.  I'm over-simplifying here, but the general idea is that if 15% of the population is black, then 15% of the admissions to a university should be black, and 15% of the graduates should be black.

If, in fact, the qualifications of applicants were race-neutral, then this would make perfect sense.  However, the reality is that blacks on average are less prepared for university than whites.  There are a variety of reasons researchers have put forward to explain this, and many of them aren't based on genetics at all.  For example, some postulate that black culture de-emphasizes the importance of education, and even stigmatizes it.  Whatever the reasons actually are, the reality is that blacks of college-admission age are less prepared than whites.

Both blacks and whites are less prepared than Asian students (or Jewish students, from a religious perspective).  Once again, most researchers postulate non-genetic, usually cultural, explanations for this.  But whatever the reasons, Asians of college-admission age are, on average, more prepared than either blacks or whites.

To implement an affirmative action program that dictates admission and graduation outcomes when preparedness isn't race-neutral, obviously the standards for admission (and graduation) also cannot possibly be race-neutral.  There is no other way to get equal outcomes when the “inputs” are unequal.  Therefore admission standards under affirmative action programs are most difficult for Asians, and least difficult for blacks.  That's pretty simple and straightforward – but it leads to outrage amongst the students held to a tougher standard, and amusing denials from the affirmative action crowd (who don't like to admit that they're fighting racial discrimination with more racial discrimination).

The solution seems obvious to me, and it's the same solution propounded by both Martin Luther King and Clarence Thomas: end discrimination of all kinds.  As Thomas famously said:
...there is a 'moral and constitutional equivalence' between laws designed to subjugate a race and those that distribute benefits on the basis of race in order to foster some current notion of equality. Government cannot make us equal; it can only recognize, respect, and protect us as equal before the law. That affirmative action programs may have been motivated, in part, by good intentions cannot provide refuge from the principle that under our Constitution, the government may not make distinctions on the basis of race.

Extortion trumps cooperation?

Extortion trumps cooperation?  This article talks about a new solution to the classic game theory problem usually dubbed “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.  This new solution says that in some cases a strategy they dub “extortion” can beat the traditional cooperative solutions.  This is an interesting result, and the piece is fun to read – but that's not what caught my eye.

One of the authors of the new solution is Freeman Dyson, the famous physicist with a fascinating career.  He also happens to be 91 years old, and it still (obviously) a productive scientist.  In the last decade or so he's been a vocal skeptic of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, and his skepticism was one of the factors driving my own.

Now here he is publishing a paper that's rather far afield from his usual haunts.  I'll take that as evidence of a curious mind, a health skeptical outlook, and of those little gray cells still working just fine despite his advancing years...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We took the day off today...

We took the day off today ... and drove (with our three dogs) down to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, which is about 40 minutes from our house.  There's a 12 mile long loop road through the marshy refuge, and we spent almost three hours exploring it.  The temperature was just above freezing (37°F), and many of the shallower areas were iced over.  We saw thousands upon thousands of tundra swans, innumerable ducks (some of the quite beautiful) that we couldn't identify (our bird book is still in a box somewhere!), four great blue herons, many cormorants,  a bazillion Canadian geese, one cheeky marsh wren, several dozen hawks, a bald eagle, grebes, and lots of coots.  In other words, we saw a lot of birds!

I took some photos to try to give a flavor of the place, and in one of them you just might be able to pick out the hundreds of white dots – tundra swans, as photographed without a telephoto lens :)


Comet 67P is outgassing...

Comet 67P is outgassing ... and Rosetta captured this beautiful photo of it...

Food models...

Food models...  When I visited Japan in the early '70s, one of the more delightful things I ran into was the display of food models that could be found in a glass cabinet in the entrance of every restaurant, like the ramen models at right.  Without speaking a word of Japanese, I could learn a great deal about the food served by that restaurant.  I had quite a few meals that were obtained simply by pointing to what I wanted.

At the time I was in Japan, these models were made of wax.  In one of the shopping districts, I ran into a shop that made and sold them, so I got to see a bit of the process, which was fascinating.  These days the models are made of plastic, and the process of making them is a bit different...

On the relative dangers of recreational drugs...

On the relative dangers of recreational drugs...  I find these results completely unsurprising, but I don't know if that's how most people would react.  Over a lifetime of managing hundreds of employees, I've dealt with far more human problems caused by alcohol than with any other drug.  I have, quite literally, never had a problem I had to deal with that was caused by marijuana – even though amongst the young people I managed the use of marijuana was very widespread (nearly as widespread as alcohol use, I believe).  I've had to deal with a few problems caused by meth, cocaine, or heroin use – but I will also observe that these were all behavioral problems, not problems with the ability to perform at work.  Alcohol use, on the other hand, has caused numerous issues that affected both performance and behavior in the workplace.  I would think it is obvious to any manager that alcohol is a vastly more impactful and dangerous drug than marijuana.

Funny how the law treats alcohol use so much more benignly than marijuana use...