Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sustainability StackExchange

I participate in several question-and-answer sites on the StackExchange network. They just created a new site for "Sustainable Living", and opened it for a small private beta, which I luckily get to be a part of.

Someone asked "why did you join this site". I thought about it for a while, and wrote this:

I believe that the word "sustainable" has been terribly watered down, largely by marketing departments looking to cash in on our desire not destroy the planet. Too bad: the laws of nature don't respond to greenwashing. We need to take the true meaning of "sustainable" seriously, if we want to survive.
However, I am not satisfied with even full, true sustainability. Mere survival is not enough - I want a rich, joyful, connected life for all.
I believe the environmental movement has made a big mistake here, harping on the convergence of crises around us today. "Global warming! Poisoned atmosphere! Genetic mutation!" - it's so scary, it's no surprise that most people run away and hide in the safety of the life that is offered to them. That life of comfort, convenience, and safey is a natural refuge when we are bombarded by prophecies of doom.
I believe that a future of joy and connection with for all beings is compatible with "sustainability". We feel the pain of planetary destruction every day, and it leads to a lot of anxiety and misery in our lives as currently lived. Only a truly joyous lifestyle can be sustained!
I am particularly excited about new technologies that offer true sustainability in a way that conventional technologies cannot. A perfect example is Permaculture. It doesn't require great sacrifice; in fact it offers to heal the ecosystem while producing a wide vareity of delicious, nutritious foods, with minimal energy required - the opposite of what conventional agriculture offers. 
And yet nothing in Permaculture is new: it does not require a quad-core CPU or genetic engineering or a jet engine. We could have invented Permaculture a century earlier, but we weren't ready yet, as a species. 
Today I think we are becoming ready for these new technologies. We will turn waste streams in to inputs for other systems. We will people together with each other and with nature.
I hope that Sustainability.SE will be a conduit for sharing these ideas more broadly than we have before. 
That is why I have joined this site.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Destination: Google Voice

We don't talk on the phone very much. The smallest monthly voice plans have WAY more minutes than we need. So a few years ago, I switched us to pay-as-you go. Even at $0.25/min, we saved money. Later they dropped to $0.10/min - an even better deal.

If you put $100 on the account, it won't expire for a year. (Small amounts expire much faster.) That's about $8/mo for minimal usage.

I also bought data on my account, so I could use a smartphone and get email, etc. You could buy up to 500MB for $25, but the smallest package was $5. They all expired after 30 days. So I bought a 500MB package once (much better price/bit than the other packages) and then signed up for automatic refresh on the $5 package, which keeps the existing balance from expiring. This was pretty cheap, too.

I use the data pretty lightly. Email & calendar mostly. Google Maps sometimes. 

I use Trello for my grocery list, which is awesome - my wife can add items to the list at any time, and I'll see them at the store.

Before we moved on to our land, I signed up for a MiFi as well. This is a 3G to WiFi gateway. It's 5GB/mo for $60. We didn't know how long it would take to get DSL, and thought this might be a suitable alternative. It turns out that one movie on Netflix is about 5GB, so we killed the data allowance really fast. I shoulda canceled the plan within the first 30 days, but because I didn't, I was locked in for 2 years. 

The MiFi has occasionally been really nice to have, like for road trips. We don't do those very often, though.

Recently they changed their rules so I can't buy data packages for pay-as-you-go. So it was time for something new.

I started carrying the MiFi with me everywhere. It provided data to my smartphone via WiFi. But carrying 2 devices was annoying.

Today I called the cell phone company and had them change my MiFi plan to be a regular voice + data plan. Now I am porting my old cell phone to Google Voice (GV). GV will forward calls to the previously-MiFi number. I have a GV app on my smartphone, so outgoing calls will come from the same number as before, although now through GV. International calls shouldn't cost anything extra now.

Eventually I'll bring the rest of my family along, using a family plan. I have calculated that it will cost about the same for the phones, but I'll be saving the $60/mo for the MiFi. And we won't feel pressure to keep phone calls short.

Thursday, June 07, 2012


I recently came to terms with being fat. It was quite sudden and surprising, especially considering how long I wished for that to happen.

I think of the change in terms of reason - what I learned, and what those lessons mean to me - but I suspect that's not what really happened. I've read that the way we make decisions is emotional; that we use reason to explain and justify the decision afterwards. If that's true, I can't explain why the emotional shift happened when it did. But the reasons are still interesting.

First, why don't I want to be fat? A lot of the pressure to be thin in our culture comes in two forms: thin is beautiful, and thin is healthy. 

The first (this is beautiful) is arbitrary - our ideas about what is beautiful change all the time. Fatness has been highly admired at times, when it demonstrated a person's ability to access to otherwise scarce food, for example. Furthermore, today's ideals of beauty are so extreme as to be absurd, and highly motivated by the conventional advertising strategy of making people hate themselves. I can reject that.

The second (thin is healthy) is not very reliable. Extremely thin people are often unhealthy, but they are often presented as an ideal. People restricting their diets to become thin often eat in unhealthy ways (I hear lots of stories of vegans getting sick, for example). Furthermore, I wonder if we are confused about causes. Causality is very difficult to get right. Consider this text from Wikipedia:

Obesity increases the likelihood of various diseases, particularly heart disease...

So, you look at a sample of people who have heart disease, and how many are obese. You compare that to obesity data from the general population. You find that heart disease patients have higher obesity rates. Or you do it the other way: look at a sample of people who are obese, and see how many have heart disease. Whatever. But you can point at your data and see that heart disease and obesity appear together (correlation) but you don't know why (causality). Here are some possible causal relationships:
  • Excess body fat strains the heart, causing heart disease.
  • The kinds of lifestyles that produce excess body fat (e.g. stressful office work) also cause heart disease.
  • The kinds of diets that produce excess body fat (e.g. sugars) also cause heart disease.
  • Some genes that cause fat accumulation also cause heart disease.
  • Certain environmental factors (e.g. exposure to toxins) trigger both.
  • Fat people receive a lot of criticism, producing a negative self-image, which causes heart disease.
  • A negative self-image triggers both heart disease and eating habits that make you fat.
  • The experience of early stages of heart disease causes a low level of discomfort that triggers eating as a distraction.
  • Fat people are more likely to diet. Somehow dieting causes heart disease. Perhaps the foods we crave are exactly the foods that prevent heart disease, and dieters deny themselves the foods they crave. Perhaps self-denial is a direct cause of heart disease. etc.
Of course, this is all speculation on my part. Maybe lots of medical scientists have studied the problem deeply enough to be certain that being fat causes heart disease, and that losing that fat (by any means) would reduce heart disease. I'm not done, though.

Aside: doctors tell us to lose weight by exercising more (even though the science says this doesn't work, because it increases appetite to match) and by eating less (even though the science says this doesn't work, because the body can prioritize fat storage over other uses of calories, even when the calories are scarce). Gary Taubes presents the science on this pretty well, and concludes that carbs cause weight gain or loss. He doesn't dig in to questions like "why do I crave carbs?". I suspect you need to answer that question, and the Why? behind it, and maybe a couple levels below that, before you can really get somewhere useful.

Anyway, losing weight is hard. Ask anyone who has tried. Even if you succeed, keeping it off is extremely difficult. People who lose weight usually gain it back not too long afterwards. I recently read a claim that there is no method scientifically proven to work at losing weight and keeping it off. If this is true, then it doesn't matter if being fat is unhealthy, or being fat is ugly - you can't change it anyway. In the meantime, you beat yourself up, deny your urges, create personal stress, etc., with no chance of success. Better to just accept that you're stuck here (for whatever reason), and get on with enjoying life.

Getting a little more radical, perhaps there's a very good reason for me to be fat. I don't know what it is, but I can acknowledge the possibility of some body wisdom that guides me towards fatness. Maybe fat is the healthiest way for me to be right now. If that is true, then ice cream cravings aren't the cause of my obesity, merely the mechanism by which my body guides me to foods that help it accomplish this important purpose of being fat. (Or perhaps cookies heal something in me, and fat is just an unfortunate side-effect.) To fight those urges is to wage a war against myself, producing great harm. 

Anyway, why are we so certain that we must be healthy and beautiful? Where is it written? The inherent worth and dignity of every human being is not dependent on those things. They are temporary anyway.

With all this in mind, I've decided to let myself be fat. If I crave pudding, I will eat pudding. There's nothing to be gained by fighting these urges, and all kinds of possible gain by following them. 

Now that I've had this change of heart, I have discovered some other things I I like about myself as I am. First, I am very strong. Consider the stories of soldiers in boot camp, made to carry a 50lb pack for hours on end. I weigh 100lbs more than those guys, and I carry that all day, every day. Quit your wining, grunt! 

A couple years ago I took a rock climbing class. There was one other student, who was in "good shape". He climbed the wall much faster than I did. Fine. Maybe I could have climbed a little with him on my back; no way he could have done that with me on his back. So there!

The strength is not just physical: I still live a rich, varied, and wonderful life in this body. How many skinnies would sink in to helpless despair if they put on this much weight, and were criticized so strongly by our culture? 

So here I am. Fat, and not going anywhere. For better or worse - and I choose for better.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Simplified Settlers of Catan

I had reason to introduce people to Settlers of Catan 3 times in 2 days. It's a great game, but wow are there a lot of rules. You can spend 1/2 an hour explaining the game to your new players, but none of it really makes sense until they actually play and see the rules in context.

Learning a language is a lot like learning to play a complex game. You can spend all your time learning the rules (grammar) and still not know how to play (have a conversation). Luckily, I have a bunch of techniques I use with languages that I can apply here, too.

The most important one is LIMIT. If I teach you German, I will start with only the present tense, with only a few objects (all of the same gender), and a few verbs. Yes, I realize this tiny subset of German is not nearly as interesting, beautiful, or powerful as you might find in poetry or speeches. That's OK. This is just how we get started.

With a game we can do something similar. We can pick a tiny subset of the game, teach it, play it, then add another BITE-SIZED PIECE, and repeat. Luckily Settlers is not nearly as complex as German, so it won't take long.

Another technique is PLAY NICE. People often feel vulnerable when learning something new, especially if they feel pressured to perform. Take gentle care of them.

Finally, make sure everyone quits while they're still having fun ("FULL"). Like eating, learning is only fun before you get full; if you keep going too long you'll vomit. Yuck.

I'm going to make this more concrete, but I'm going to do that by describing the rules that I'm cutting out. My list will only make sense if you already know how to play the game. If you don't, then skim for now, until you see the minimal ruleset below.

You can remove rules in the order listed; add them back in reverse.

8. No development cards. There's nothing wrong with development cards, but they aren't required for the mechanics of the game to play out. Set them aside for now. Also skip the Largest Army bonus. Since this reduces the possibilities for getting points, be sure to reduce the number of points required to win.

7. No robber. Without development cards, there are no Knight cards, so nothing depends on the robber. Robber is also a bit cruel. Out he goes.

6. No lost cards when rolling 7. This rule quite harsh, especially for new players who aren't sure how to use their cards.

5. No player trading. Trading is clearly an important part of the joy of the original game, but it's not necessary for the game to function. (Remember that we're not aiming for "great game" but for "easy to learn".)

4. No harbors. Flip the ocean pieces over so the harbors are hidden.

Do allow 4:1 trades with the bank, as this is required for the game to function properly. Without the risk of losing cards on a 7, players can hold as many cards as they need to trade for what they want.

3. No secrets. Since you can't steal resources from each other, and you're not trading, you don't need to keep your cards hidden. Everyone places their resource cards on the table face-up, so everyone can see. Then you can coach people on how to use their resources.

2. No roads. Now we're really getting lean! Players can place settlements on any intersection that isn't adjacent to another settlement. Remove the Longest Road while you're at it, and adjust the winning score. (Again, remember that the game doesn't have to be well-balanced, just easy to learn.)

1. Don't hand out resources when players place their starting settlements. It's just simpler.

So now the game looks like this:
Set up the board with the usual tiles, but with the oceans upside-down. Place number chits as usual. Give players the Building Costs cards as usual, but tell them to ignore the Development Card and Road entries.
Players take turns placing starting settlements, as usual. Don't give much attention to getting a great starting position; this game will be over soon.
A player starts a turn by rolling the dice. Distribute resource cards as usual. Player can build settlements anywhere, or upgrade to cities. Player can trade 4:1 with the bank as needed.
Not only do we reduce the winning score because there are fewer ways to get points, but we should reduce it further to get through the game quickly. In my experiments today, 5 points worked well.

You can probably only play this way once, unless you're playing with 4-year-olds. So it's time to add some more rules. It is possible to add all the remaining rules at once -- that's still an improvement over the usual way -- smaller steps are probably better. You'll have to decide based on your situation. How eager are the players to learn more? Is there a lot of background noise that will tire players out? Will young children get tired of waiting to play while you list rules? Is your voice tired?

If the step is too small, players will get bored with the overly-simple game, and annoyed at the work of setup/cleanup that each game requires. Much of the joy of games is learning how to play them. Give players enough challenge so they get to experience that joy.

If the step is too big, people will get bored listening to rules, or overwhelmed trying to follow them. 

Keep the winning score low for now. A small step of new rules combined with a high winning score means people get to know the game really well fast, and then get bored waiting for the game to finish.

It may not be a good idea to ask a new player to play the full game today. Help them quit while they are still having fun, and they'll ask to come back and play again another day.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Gift Wi-Fi

I believe in free Wi-Fi.

Specifically, I wish that everyone with an unlimited internet connection would open it up for anyone to use. The public good would be substantial. The cost would be minimal. I wish Wi-Fi equipment from the telco & cable company came configured this way by default.

What are the downsides to opening your Wi-Fi up?

The first is security: the most common home Wi-Fi setup includes a firewall, making your computer inaccessible to the internet. If you open your Wi-Fi, then someone near you can get past your firewall. It's not as scary as it sounds. Your computer probably has a built-in firewall running. If you install security updates, you're pretty well protected. If you plan to take your laptop to a a coffee shop's free Wi-Fi, you better deal with this anyway.

Most of the risk comes from strangers 1/2-way around the world, protected by distance, anonymity, and the difficulty of extradition. Your neighbors are less of a concern.

In my case, however, I have some unsecured network resources behind my firewall. Most people don't, but I'm an exception. So I want a mechanism to protect internal resources from guest users.

The other concern is speed. If guest users eat a lot of bandwidth, it can stop you from doing the same. If all you do is check your email, you'll probably never have a problem. In some cases you can use QoS to address this, although if your upstream bandwidth is unreliable, it's hard to make QoS work.

My first attempt at an open guest network involved double-NAT. My DSL modem had built-in Wi-Fi and 4 Ethernet ports. I left the Wi-Fi unsecured. I plugged in a Linksys Wi-Fi router to the Ethernet, and set its Wi-Fi to be secured. I gave the Linksys a static IP address, and set the DSL modem to DMZ to the linksys. UPnP port forwarding still works.

Now that I live in Rural, I thought there was no point in having open Wi-Fi. Demand for such things is pretty low even in densely populated areas; the chances of anyone around here ever using mine is even smaller. I was wrong: I have 1 neighbor in range of my Wi-Fi, and he wants to use it. He's off-grid enough that he can't get DSL like I can, so even a little of my Internet would be awesome for him.

He had a really hard time making a connection to the Wi-Fi, because of distance (about 200 feet) and obstructions (trees, brush, and the foil-face insulation in the walls of my yurt. He could see the Wi-Fi, but he couldn't stay connected. We tried moving equipment around, but the signal was not quite strong enough. He bought a cheap but modern 802.11n AP, in the hopes that it would do better than my ancient DSL modem's Wi-Fi, but it still wasn't enough.

I ended up swapping equipment - my Linksys for his AP. My Linksys runs DD-WRT, which supports repeater mode. I moved the Linksys in to another building closer to my neighbor, and now he can connect. You still with me?

There are a couple things I don't like:

  • My DSL modem is quite old. The web interface is clunky. The feature set is limited. I can't install DD-WRT.
  • Double-NAT is annoying.
  • I don't like the cheapo AP; its DNS is a bit buggy; it can't run DD-WRT.
I have a more modern DSL modem that is minimal - it's a tiny box with just a single Ethernet port. But I am relying on the old one's Wi-Fi for the guest access.

Some routers have a "guest access" feature built in. I picked up a refurbished Cisco Linksys E2500 router for $40, in part because it has this feature. I was disappointed with the implementation. When you connect to the guest Wi-Fi network, you have to type in a password. There's no way to disable this password. The prevents my repeater from connecting. Damn.

I like the power of DD-WRT, but I hate the risk of bricking a device. Finding answers about DD-WRT is hard. There's a web site with a router database, but the answers it gives are sometimes dangerously wrong. There's a wiki with a lot of useful information, and lots of bad writing, and some bad errors. Then there's the forum, where all answers can be found, if you like pain. Imagine many pages of forum posts, where page 1 says "do this" and page 3 says "don't do that thing you saw on page 1, or you'll brick your device." This is infuriating. This is why stackoverflow started, with the mission to "make the internet better".

I was hoping modern Linksys firmware would be rich enough that I didn't need to go to DD-WRT again, but alas: the guest access is sucky. So off to DD-WRT land I went.

Sure enough, there's an 11-page thread, with a title that says "look at page 9", where you can find a link to a usable DD-WRT build. It turns out that the build on page 4 will brick your device. Pity anyone who reads from the front.

Setting up guest networks in DD-WRT is a bit tricky. I found instructions online but they are incomplete, as they don't tell you to configure the firewall to completely isolate the private and guest networks. I worked on it for a day, and was never completely successful. I found that the power plug on this refurb device has a lose connection - if you push on it sideways, the device turns off. So I'm sending it back.

One additional barrier is the criticality of our network. You might say "it's just a home network" but we have 5 people who use the Internet all day, every day. If I bring the system down for maintenance, I hear a lot of complaints. I have to do it overnight. Just like an enterprise IT department, but I'm not getting paid overtime.

Will you open your Wi-Fi?

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sleep on it

Last Fall I hunted a little Mandarin. There was a class on Chinese language, culture, and food for homeschoolers that met for an hour each week. The instructor, a woman from Taiwan, told me she enjoyed the food and culture part the most, and wasn't sure how to teach her language.

I dropped in on a couple classes to see if I could help. I hunted her language with the kids in the class. I was there for 2 classes, and spent about 20 minutes each time on language.

I didn't have an opportunity to use that bit of Mandarin for a while. A few months later I got the urge to run through those conversations again. But I couldn't remember the words. I tried SIGNING to trigger the memory, but it didn't help. The words didn't come. I shrugged and let it go.

The next morning I found the words again. The conversations came easily.

I'm used to thinking of SLEEP ON IT as applying directly to a learning situation. You learn something, you sleep that night, and the next day you know it better.

But in this case, it was months later. It's funny how memory works - something I thought was gone was still there. It just needed a trigger and a night's sleep.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Elwha dam removal and language revitalization

I am far from being an expert on the Elwha, so please expect that I'm getting some stuff wrong here, and be patient with me.

The largest community of Klallam people is the Lower Elwha Tribe, near Port Angeles, WA. Their language is critically endangered. There are 2 fluent elders, who were sent to white schools and punished when they spoke their language (a tragically familiar story).

The Elwha river was dammed 100 years ago to generate electricity. They have started dismantling the dams, the largest such project ever.

I would like to help with the Klallam language, but sometimes I wonder if there's hope. When I first started learning about endangered language revitalization, there were 4 elder speakers, but 2 have died since. Those speakers have lived in English most of their lives. They may be completely fluent but not ACTFL Superior. With a language in such a delicate state, is it even possible to bring it back?  I wonder if it's even worth trying, as I sink in to despair.

My wife pointed out a parallel with the dam removal project. Congress approved funding in 1992, but they are still 2 years away from fully removing the dams. Even after that, it will take a long time for salmon to repopulate the upper Elwha, and it seems impossible for fish to return to the populations of a century ago. And yet it is worth doing.

If it's worth restoring the Elwha, then it's worth restoring the Klallam language. It may never be what it was, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

I'm not giving up.
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