Unusual things to do in New York

In the near future, I will be spending some time in New York City. I have been there twice before and already seen many of the obvious sites (Times Square, most of the museums, the Staten Island Ferry, Ellis Island, the Empire State Building, etc).

Is there anything less obvious that people would recommend? I would be especially interested in things like excellent and unusual geeky shops and hangouts, good places for photography, and anything random and unexpected.

Inundated in books

In order to get free shipping from Amazon.ca, I always order three books at a time.

Combine that with work, my Economist subscription, and other demands upon my time and the consequence is that I have several dozen books either ongoing or not yet started. Indeed, stacks of books now occupy my entire kitchen table.

My latest acquisitions are Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, which was named by the Royal Institute as the best science book ever, and Bill McKibben’s edited collection of key environmental writings: American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau.

Open thread: the future of Russia

After the collapse of communism, many in the West assumed that democracy and free market capitalism would triumph in the former Soviet Union. Instead, it seems the chaos in the post-communist period permitted the emergence of economically powerful oligarchs, as well as massive growth in the wealth and power of organized crime groups. Now, former members of the security services, led by Vladamir Putin, are continuing to cement their own control.

There is much about Russia that is worrisome: the suppression of the free press and murder of journalists; continued appalling conduct in Chechnya; ongoing attempts to dominate neighbouring states, including through war; the exploitation of Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels; and more.

What do readers think might happen to Russia in the next 25 or 50 years? What are the most desirable and undesirable plausible outcomes, from the perspective of the Russian people, the world as a whole, central European states, the European Union, and the United States? What effect would different potential outcomes in Russia have on Canada?

Competent, with direction

Lately, I have been feeling like it would be excellent to work for an organization that is both highly competent and structured to help people reach their potential: somewhere where management was good at identifying what each person was capable of doing, putting them to it, and then coordinating those efforts into the achievement of important outcomes. While I certainly admire people who have the self-direction necessary to make the most of their talents and skills, I don’t think I am really ready to do that myself. I think that was indicated by the relative weakness of my M.Phil thesis, which was the least successful part of my time in Oxford. Indeed, the largely undirected character of doctoral programs is one of the things that makes me most hesitant about undertaking one.

Most of my non-career jobs have been at places that generally struck me as non-competent. They muddled through and achieved success in their basic goals, but they didn’t do notable things or make the best use of the resources they had available. A few didn’t even meet that bar, and were clearly on track to eventually fail. In academic institutions and career-type jobs, I have certainly seen a lot more competence (though there are patches of incompetence everywhere). What exists less there is direction, and a willingness to try and cater tasks and an environment to what each person can do.

Perhaps there aren’t any places that strike the balance I am looking for, where each person is placed within the portion of the spectrum between direction and independence, and where the purposes being served are important and effectively met. Maybe it is just too thought- and labour-intensive to set things up in a way that makes the most of people. Alternatively, perhaps managers don’t generally have the incentive to do so. Also, there are certainly situations in which well-managed groups of people simply aren’t placed to achieve things that would be personally rewarding to those inside them – perhaps because the group is embedded in a larger organization with clashing goals.

All that said, it does seem sensible to try and seek out such a place, especially at a time in my life when I remain free of major financial or interpersonal obligations.

Materialism and free will

I have written before about the apparent contradiction between free will and materialism (the idea that the universe is exclusively comprised of particles that obey physical laws). The problem is easy enough to state: if every particle in the universe behaves in a manner governed by a combination of random chance and predictable laws, how can a physical entity like the brain respond to stimuli in a way that is neither random nor determined?

Joshua Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington recently summarized some experiments on monkeys that illuminate this issue. They found that they could use a computer to predict how monkeys will respond to visual stimuli, suggesting that such mental functions are automatic.

Of course, there is a big difference between parts of mental life like maintaining a steady heartbeat and tracking a moving object visually and those like making ethical decisions. That said, I continue to be unable to see what mechanism could exist between the former and the latter, and which could square our intuitive belief in free will with what we know about the functioning of the universe. That being said, we do not have any reason to act as though free will does not exist. The reason for that is simple: if free will doesn’t exist, we don’t have any influence over what we believe or how we act, while if it does exist we certainly want to behave appropriately. As such, if we do have any scope to choose, we should choose to believe in free will.

Better two-stroke engines

Apparently, it might be possible to make efficient two-stroke engines that are less polluting than their predecessors.

Improving the efficiency of gasoline and diesel engines is an important undertaking, both because it will be a while before electric vehicles are ready for near-universal urban deployment and because there will be rural vehicles running on fossil fuels for quite a while yet.

Renting lenses in Ottawa

Photographic lenses are expensive things, especially professional grade ones. For example, Canon’s 24-70 f/2.8L costs $1600. Their 70-200 f/4L costs $1480, with image stabilization.

And yet, the 24-70 can be rented for a weekend for just $25, and the 70-200 is $30. Renting makes even more sense with esoteric lenses which are useful for certain projects or for producing a novel effect, but which it doesn’t make that much sense to buy. A good example is the 14 f/2.8L, which costs $50 to rent for a weekend but $2790 to buy. There aren’t a lot of people out there who will shoot more than 56 weekends worth of fisheye shots.

Located at 499 Bank Street, Vistek rents all of these lenses, as well as lighting equipment and other photo gear. My experiences with them have been very good, and they charge the same amount for a long weekend lens rental as for an ordinary weekend. They also have stores in Toronto, Mississauga, Calgary, and Edmonton.

I have already tried renting the 10-22 3.5-4.5 for some day and night photos of Montreal. Some other lenses I want to rent are the 50 1.2L, the 24 3.5L tilt-shift, the 100 2.8L macro, the 100-400 4.5-5.6L, and maybe the 14 2.8L.

How to shift the US Congress?

Writing for Grist, Randy Rieland has come up with a summary of arguments about why cap-and-trade is dead in the United States for now. He is right to say that the blame lies primarily with Congress, rather than with the Obama administration. Congress is the most powerful branch of government, and has been highly effective at blocking environmental legislation in the past. While the Democratic leadership in Congress is theoretically allied with the administration in the White House, even the two together clearly haven’t been able to overcome the wall of opposition to meaningful climate policies that has been constructed by Republicans, or the cowardice of moderate Democrats who are unwilling to fight to address this key problem.

The stragic question now becomes how to change Congressional behaviour, and do so before climate-related disasters become so frequent as to finally discredit climate change deniers completely. We cannot afford to wait that long, both because of the physical lags in the Earth’s climate system and the lags in our own infrastructure deployment. By the time the full danger of climate change is unambiguously on display, it will be too late to avoid some terrible effects. It will also be too late for the relatively unintrusive policies being proposed today to work. Sterner stuff will be required.

Age and openness to new ideas

I wonder whether there is a time in life by which our aesthetic and political preferences have been essentially locked in, after which we are no longer fully capable of integrating new ideas. It certainly seems plausible that this could be true. It could also help to explain the broader pattern of social change in society; as each generation rises to positions of influence, they bring with them the intuitive assumptions about politics and ethics that they absorbed when they were younger. Often, that means being willing to accept things that were outside the bounds of what was acceptable for the generation before, but which are less radical than what will be accepted by the generation after.

If true, this dynamic could also be a major reason for which people dying is an important form of social progress. To take one example, as there have been fewer and fewer surviving parents who would not tolerate having their child in an inter-racial relationship, the less taboo such relationships have become within society generally. I have also read about how scientific progress depends to some extent upon the death of highly respected individuals who have become overly wedded to new ideas in their old age, and who are now keeping the mainstream from accepting what the latest research has shown to be true about the universe.

Obviously, not everybody has their preferences and instincts ossified at exactly the same time, or to the same extent. That said, if there is evidence for such a phenomenon existing generally, it could have political and sociological importance. For one thing, it would highlight the importance of the education system and the overall collective of information available to youth, when it comes to determining what society is going to look like a few decades from now.

Do people think such a phenomenon is real? If so, what would the most important consequences be?


This past weekend, I saw the film Inception. To a large extent, it felt like an updated version of The Matrix with dreams in the place of computers and less automatic weapon fire. It was also a pretty well constructed jewel heist type movie. It included some neat things conceptually and visually, and didn’t contain much that was frustrating or perplexing.

The image of a beach as where you end up when trapped at the lowest level of dreaming may have been inspired by what artificial intelligences can do to unwary hackers in William Gibson’s Neuromancer universe. It was also interesting to see who head related devices seem to be out, when it comes to mind-machine interfaces. Now, people connect tubing to their inner arms, probably to evoke the addictiveness and danger of intravenous drug use.

All told, I thought the film was well worth seeing.