Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Who am I anyway?

If I were a normal, sane person I would have started with this. Anywho, it's been a while, and it's somewhat likely that whoever's managed to find this blog (that I haven't told anyone about, for some reason) doesn't actually know what I do any more. I'm assuming anyone still on the RSS remembers vaguely who I am.

Surprisingly, instead of a Stanford student I'm an alumnus. I graduated in 2009 with a degree in Physics. I halfheartedly applied to grad schools, thinking that that's what Physics students DO, but I didn't really want to go. (At some point Bob Laughlin asked me if I intended to go to grad school, and told me that I clearly didn't want to. It was weird, I didn't realize that yet, and he didn't really seem like he'd be that perceptive. I guess after some number of years doing this a person will pick up the types that won't do well...)

Well I didn't get in anywhere, probably because I spent about 0 effort on essays, studying for GREs, or any of it. I wasn't actually all that disappointed, because thinking about doing grad school, about being poor forever, and about having to leave the bay area made me realize it was stupid.

The thing was, this was April 2009. Employment prospects, even in the bay area, were not that great. I signed up to counsel for a summer camp I had done before, figuring it would give me time to find a job (plus it was lots of fun). I spent a lot of time scouring job sites, but the only positions for physicists were as quants, an area which had, shall we say, contracted somewhat.

The funny thing was, the answer was in front of me the whole time. I had been working with a new alpha counting instrument, the UltraLo-1800, made by a company called XIA. It was a new product for them, we were beta testers, and so they'd need more hands for testing/production. The fit was basically perfect, so they hired me. I started a few weeks after the camp ended.

So since then I've worked at XIA. My official title is "Junior Staff Scientist" (although I'm sanguine that will be changing somewhat soon). I call myself a nuclear physicist to be somewhat humorous, radioactive decay instrumentation is nuclear physics, but not really what people expect by that. We're close to actually producing the counters for general sale, going on 3 years later (siiiiigh). I also do lots of other things, like mechanical design (somehow I walked in as the most experienced mechanical engineer there, what with the 2 semesters of CAD I took in high school). I've gotten much more proficient at scripting, mostly in Ruby. I'm still terrible, but a lot less terrible than before. Also various other things, you learn a lot about general "dealing with shit" when you have a full-time job as a scientist/engineer.

I can go into the actual physics of the UltraLo if anyone cares, maybe I'll do that at some point.

Some thoughts about beer reviewing

Go read this article about wine, then come back here.

All done? Good. I want to make a few points about beer reviewing here.

First, I have to say I don't think this actually applies neatly to beer. There really is a difference between Pliny the Elder and the average DIPA. One can pick Pliny out of a blind sample, I've done it. There are meaningful differences in taste there. Enjoyment, however, is much more complicated. In terms of enjoyment, there's very little separating Pliny from, say, Heady Topper, or Duet, or most of the "world-class" DIPAs. At that level (and, hell, even between levels) personal preferences are going to completely determine what you prefer. This point is so banal that it's actually tautological, but I think it gets forgotten entirely too often.

The reason that I wanted you to read that post was because it touches on a lot of the reasons that I loathe beer rankings, and especially beer judging at events (such as the World Beer Cup). Fair warning, this post is going to be loooong. I've been wanting to write this for a long time, and now that I have a stupid blog again I have a place for it.

My problem with beer judging takes three forms, which I call Platonic Forms, Begging the Question, and Significance. I'll go over each in detail, then talk a bit about ranking in Objectification.

Platonic Forms

The idea of Platonic forms is that there exists a perfect "form" of certain qualities, such as Justice or Beauty. They don't materially exist, and can never be achieved per se, but they can be contemplated, and they are what one strives for in their realm (so when building a state you want to be as close to the form of Justice as possible). I'm butchering this a bit, but it doesn't really matter here. My point is that beer judging does the same thing, except without the admission that the form doesn't exist. Judging is done to a style, usually BJCP, meaning that beer is judged to some definition that a bunch of dudes in some room somewhere agree on.

The fact that this makes the whole endeavor pointless should be pretty obvious. Even if you can get enough people to agree on styles (which you actually can't, as anyone who has ever tried to talk about this with other opinionated people will know) you're left with a bunch of boundaries drawn on continua. It's the same problem that taxonomy has, except stupider because it doesn't matter for anything. You end up with a bunch of dudes arguing over where to place a thing while the thing itself just keeps on doing what it does.

So from the beginning the very idea is inane. Rating a beer as best to style isn't useful, it's arbitrary and pointless. (Of course, rating at all is arbitrary and pointless, but judging acts like it's not.)

Begging the Question

As a scientist this bothers me more. At its core doing an experiment is simply asking a question and figuring out the best way to get the answer. Ideally you want to design it such that minor changes in experimental design don't affect things much. So if I'm trying to figure out how much radioactivity is in a sample, if I count it for N hours or N+1 hours (or even 2N hours) I should get the same answer. If the answer you get is highly dependent on the input parameters, then it's clear that you have a bad experimental design or are asking a bad question.

As you likely guessed, beer judging has bad experimental design. The number of judges is small enough that changing out individuals can affect results, it's unclear how careful a given judging session is with sampling order (which can clearly affect things, palate fatigue is real), and the scoring system is completely arbitrary. It's the last thing that I'm most clearly referring to with "begging the question", because the conclusion assumes its premises. That is, they're not asking "what is the best beer of these options?" but rather "Which of the beers in this list is ranked the highest according to these judges and this formula?" And the answer to that is always "The one that's ranked highest according to these judges and this formula." If you change the formula, change the judges, change the order, change the snacks they ate beforehand, change who-knows-what-else, you can change the results.

Once again, this makes the whole thing arbitrary and pointless.


This also irks me as a scientist, no one in the beer judging/ranking world seems to understand statistical uncertainty. I don't think that BJCP competitions release their raw numbers, but based on the much larger samples at BA or RB it's pretty likely that the actual results are "we can't tell any of these apart". For instance, right now the BA #1 beer in the world, Pliny the Younger, is within one "pDev" of the #100 beer, Alpine's Great. It's not completely clear to me that pDev is the proper tool for this, but I'm lazy and it purports to be a measure of the variance so I'm using it. This is likely only a one-sigma measurement, too, meaning even if you want only a 95% CI the numbers are even bigger.

At least with BA/RB they provide this number so any intelligent person can see it and say "Oh, well knowing nothing but this score I can say that I would like these about the same." Which is true! BA also has very broad score ranges, which are really what you should look at. (That is, all "A" beers are pretty much the same as each other, all "B" beers are pretty much the same as each other, but there should be a real drop between A and B.) But with judging they award medals to the winners! Winners that likely aren't even close to being actually different from each other!

This alone makes the whole thing look like it's designed and run by morons, but combined with the rest you really have to wonder if the people at the BJCP have even thought about the pointlessness of this endeavor.


This is really my main problem with the whole thing, which is that it's trying to make the subjective into something objective. For whatever reason people love debating the undebatable, and beer ratings/competitions are simply a manifestation of that in the beer community. This is all well and good if you take it only as a frivolity, something to be laughed at, or something to debate while drunk. But some people seem to really care, to think that there's meaning behind the medals, behind the lists. There's not. It's all masturbation. Again, that's fine, but you can't do it too often and it's unseemly in public.

This is entirely too many words for the obviously banal statement "Beer judging/rankings are retarded." But there you go.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Apartment hunting sucks, but at least there's an end.

Becky and I found an apartment.

It's funny, because even though I read Matt Yglesias, who is constantly harping on how ridiculous the rental market is in the Bay Area, I didn't really expect finding an apartment in Oakland to be hard. I mean, it's Oakland! Who wants to live there?

Lots of people, apparently. The compounding difficulty is that I hate my current apartment complex's management so much that I didn't want to live in anything with more than 4 units. We also wanted something with at least a patio for grilling and for growing my hops (by the way, I have some hop vines growing, maybe I'll post pictures later, two of them are taller than I am). Basement storage for spillover beer storage (and for aging) would be ideal. Add in a nice neighborhood, BART-accessible, and you're looking at something like a few dozen places a month, with approximately "every professional couple ever" fighting for them.

The first place we looked at we loved, even though it was non-ideal in a few ways, but then the tenant decided not to move. The next few places we looked at weren't very nice, one was basically my apartment (so built in the 70's, fine but not nice) but dirtier and with an enormous deck overlooking a creek. It would have worked, but ehhh. Another one was a really nice apartment in a ridiculously dirty building right near the freeway, spitting distance, so loud as fuck. That wouldn't work.

We had an appointment to see a place Sunday at 3, and a bit after noon the woman called and said someone took it earlier. BUT she had another place, did we want to see that? Of course we did! We actually had contacted the owner (she was just a manager or something) so we were already interested. The craigslist post didn't have pictures, but we may as well look. We asked her for a viewing at 5, she said she'd need to talk to the current tenant and get back to us.

We saw a couple other places that day, including one we liked and applied for. It was nice, a bit small, but lots of character. The problem was that there were a dozen other couples at the open house, and it seemed unlikely that we'd get it. Oh well, we applied anyway, hoping for the best. We called the woman with the other place, and she still hadn't heard from the tenants, but because of our tenacity (and Becky's lovely voice and calm demeanor, apparently) she'd make sure we were the first to see it. We said we could do any point during the week.

So yesterday we went up there. I took BART, it's like a 8-minute walk from the station (it would be faster if it weren't for some construction). The outside is very nice, none of the dinginess that is so common in Oakland. The inside even nicer, all hardwood floors, tons of windows, master bedroom has a balcony, the other bedroom is fairly big, one-and-a-half bathrooms (although they're adjacent, which is kinda weird. Oh well, no bathroom collisions ever!), dining room and living room space, enormous kitchen that was recently remodeled and actually looks nice (it seems like every time I see a recently remodeled kitchen it looks either out of place or cheap-trashy, this was neither). And it got better, there's an enormous back yard, which the rental woman and the owner both really want people to actually use (I think we can manage). There's space for my kayak on the side of the apartment, fenced in. There's basement storage for cellaring.

The only downside is that it's hot a BALLS in there. I ask about that and the current tenant quickly answers that she just likes it hot. It's significantly cooler outside than it is at my place, and breezy, and since it's on the second floor we can just leave windows open. So after hearing that I'm not worried about it.

We put down the deposit and signed the lease right then. We move in on July 14th.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Wheels and Soap

My bike wheel is out of round. It's not that bad (I've ridden on worse), but it's bad enough that I'm actually excited about getting it fixed this weekend. (I don't know how to true a wheel.) It's fine left-right, so the breaks work, but there's one spot that's flat instead of round, so there's a functionally a big dip every revolution.

The way that this manifests while riding is basically the same as going over a bump in the road. When I am going over bumps in the road I can't tell them apart from the bump in the wheel. But what's interesting is how much more annoying the bump in the wheel is than going over a bumpy road. If my entire ride were on a bumpy road it wouldn't bother me at all, but when I have the cyclical "thud-thud-thud" from the bad wheel it's incredibly distracting.

I've been wondering why this is. Perhaps it's similar to the difference between white noise and periodic mechanical noise. Our bodies are used to chaotic and random inputs but when inputs become regular the brain assumes something's wrong. I'm not really sure, but I thought it was an interesting observation.

I sometimes wash my hands with soap, but mostly don't bother. I've noticed that how many paper towels it takes to dry them varies, and the most important factor is whether or not I've used soap. I hadn't ever given this much thought, but today decided to. It seems pretty obvious that the reason is that soap removes the oil from skin, and oil is hydrophobic and repels water. So removing the oil makes water stick to skin better, hence needing more paper towels to dry my hands.

As I said, this is obvious, I just hadn't really thought about it before.

Trying this Again

I've decided, for some reason or another, to revamp this blog so I can have a place to put random thoughts and such. It has the same URL as the old blog, but don't worry, that blog is gone and won't trouble you any more.

We'll see what happens.