It is so ordered

Everyone is posting the same final two paragraphs from Justice Kennedy's majority opinion (page 33 in this PDF) affirming marriage equality. I will as well, because sometimes legalese rises beyond the mundane and ascends to the lyrical.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered. 

The efficient tourism problem

Everywhere I travel, I hear a common lament. Such and such a place is overrun with tourists. Everyone tries to discover the undiscovered gem of a spot.

However, the internet makes information flow so efficient that all travelers have easy access to the list of the top sites, restaurants, and hotels in every destination, just one mouse click away. Today's undiscovered gem of a beach is dotted with hundreds of pale white American bodies tomorrow.

A tourist complaining about other tourists is travel's version of NIMBY-ism, except it's not “my backyard,” it's someone else's. In a perfectly efficient travel market all the best sites will be overrun. Hotel vacancy rates might act as an artificial limiter, but the ability for massive cruise ships to dock in a port at noon and disgorge thousands of tourists each afternoon has long since rendered such ceilings meaningless.

[Everyone will complain about the tourists until virtual reality suddenly depresses tourism, and then everyone will complain that the local GDP has cratered and that no one bothers visiting places in person anymore. Perhaps cities will try to trademark their physical sites so they can collect a vig on any sale of any virtual reality experience based on their location.

And of course, some tourists are obnoxious and boorish. For this piece I'm setting those barbarians aside, no one likes them.]

Even docile, respectful tourists can alter one's experience of a place when they amass in great enough numbers. Yet how can I complain when I'm one of them? This is the traveler's conundrum.

I've learned to have a certain zen about it all. Some sites are great and will always draw a crowd. I revisited Michelangelo's David in Florence a few weeks back, and it is always surrounded by dozens of tourists snapping photos. It's still a fucking masterpiece, and it still stuns me.

If you're lucky enough, the most exploitable inefficiency remains visiting places in the offseason or in off peak hours. It's not just how much free time you have, but when you can call upon it that determines its value.

Why you should buy wine from Costco

Jon Thorsen on why you should buy wine from Costco:

Costco's average margin (per their financial filings) is about 12 percent. Costco has stated that the highest margin they will take on a non-Costco brand is 13 percent and they strive to keep it closer to 10 percent. On private label items (Kirkland Signature) they will go up to 15 percent margin but of course the price is still lower than other brands because they cut out the middleman. It's an amazing business model—their stores average about $160 million each in annual sales. Their total revenue is around $90 billion and they make several billion in net earnings, yet investors complain because they think their margin is too low and they pay their employees too much!
So what does this have to do with buying wine? I believe the 10–13 percent margin is similar for alcohol. No wonder Costco is the largest retailer of wine in the United States. I talked to a local store manager recently and commented on how a local upscale restaurant was advertising a wine for $12 per glass and $46 per bottle. At the time my local Costco was selling this wine for $9.99 a bottle. He stated Costco's markup on that item was 12 percent, which would put their margin at just under 11 percent. This means that unless you're dealing with a special buy/closeout type situation, you really are not going to find wine much cheaper than at Costco.
The other nice thing about Costco is that in my experience their buyers do a fantastic job picking out high-quality products. If they stock it, you can be fairly sure it's good, unlike some of the other big chain stores. Since Costco is the largest retailer of wine in the United States, products tend to turn over quickly so there is quite a variety over time. The downside of this is that a wine you loved may be gone the next week, so if you like it you better buy a bunch.

I wish I could chat with the wine buyer for my local Costco and make some requests. And I'm with the author. We complain about companies like Costco and having margins that are too low, yet perhaps we should more often praise companies that generate so much consumer surplus for the world (as long as they compensate their employees fairly).

It's humorous to see the variation in wine selection from one Costco store to another. I was at a Costco in Novato, up north across the Golden Gate Bridge, helping to pick up supplies for a party, and saw half bottles of 2006 Chateau D'Yquem and a bottle of 2009 Screaming Eagle in their glass-case secured wine display. The Screaming Eagle was selling for $2149.99. You can likely deduce the average income of residents in the area (my local San Francisco Costco doesn't carry such fare, though given real estate prices in the city, perhaps they should).

Another useful tip from the piece:

One other note on Costco is that typically any price that ends in .97 is a markdown. Furthermore, if there is an asterisk on the label that means it is a closeout and is not coming back.

Hiatus, Italian style

Sorry for the light posting here recently. I'm in the midst of a vacation trek through Italy, and it's been surprisingly difficult to get online. The bulk of my trip so far has been an 8 day bike trip through Tuscany, and while many of the hotels we've stayed at claim to offer wifi, that's about as genuine as their offer of air conditioning, which is to say a complete lie. I did want to come here to get off the grid, but perhaps not so literally.

I have not experienced the information withdrawal shakes, though I have been nervous about stumbling upon Game of Thrones spoilers since I can't watch the last two episodes over here (Twitter is the worst offender on the spoiler front, so I've been especially wary of checking it, even though I'm on it all the time at home). The mental serenity of stepping out from under the information waterfall has lowered my stress. Living here feels healthier.

And yet I'm not sure I'd want to go back to a world of such slow or unreliable internet access. I miss the mental stimulation of being plugged in, as wearying as it can be. Being without internet access can feel like being Tony Stark without his Iron Man suit. Having an internet-connected smartphone is a modern superpower, but having one that isn't, one that's just a plain old phone, must feel like being Spiderman in the countryside, without tall buildings to swing from. Maybe he just hops a ride in an Uber or rents a car for those situations.

And I miss writing, if for no other reason than to organize my thinking (I lost my power adaptor the first week in Italy, and I've yet to track down another, so for a couple days my laptop was just dead). I need to find a better way to combine the healthy, active life here with the sedentary but mentally stimulating life back home.

One of my biking buddies loaned me his power adaptor for the rest of my trip here, so I'm back in business, in a way. I was scanning through my blog draft folder and realized I have over 2,000 unpublished, unfinished posts! When I'm not out seeking out gelato or sightseeing under the Italian sun, I'm going to try to clear some of those out.


Why do we assume everyone can drive competently?

A reader of Emerging Technologies Blog and Mountain View resident writes to them about the Google self-driving cars they see on the road regularly. It's well worth a read.

Anyway, here we go: Other drivers don't even blink when they see one. Neither do pedestrians - there's no "fear" from the general public about crashing or getting run over, at least not as far as I can tell.

Google cars drive like your grandma - they're never the first off the line at a stop light, they don't accelerate quickly, they don't speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).

During the years I was commuting down to Palo Alto or Menlo Park from San Francisco, I often took the 280 instead of the 101. It wasn't necessarily faster, but it was more scenic and the traffic tended to move more quickly even if my route ended up longer. On the 280 I often saw the Google Lexus self-driving cars on the road. After the novelty of seeing them on the road wore off, I didn't think of them any differently than other cars on the road. If you had taken me from ten years ago and told me that I would be driving on the freeway alongside a car driven by a computer, I would've thought you were describing something from Blade Runner. Now we speak of the technology as an eventuality. Such is life in technology, where we speak with the certainty of Moore's Law. 

I cycle a lot in San Francisco, and this weekend on the way back from a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, I was cruising in the bike lane along the Embarcadero towards SOMA next to deadlocked traffic. Without any warning or a turn signal, a car in the right lane suddenly cut into the bike lane in front of me, apparently deciding to horn in to wait for a curbside parking spot. Road bikes have terrible brakes, and regardless, I had no time to stop in time. I screamed reflexively, adrenaline spiking, and leaned my bike right, just barely missing the right front fender of the car, then leaned hard left and managed to angle my bike and body around the left rear fender of the parked car along the curb.

For the next two blocks, I played my near collision on loop in my head like a Vine, both angry at the driver's reckless maneuver and relieved as I tallied up the likely severity of the injuries I had just managed to escape by less than a foot of clearance. This is not an unusual occurrence, unfortunately. When I bike, I just assume that drivers will suddenly make rights in front of me without turning on their turn signal or looking back to see if I'm coming in the bike lane to their right. It happens all the time. It's not just a question of skill but of mental obliviousness. American drivers have been so used to having the road to themselves for so long that they feel no need to consider anyone else might be laying claim to any piece of it. Though the roads in Europe are often narrower, I feel a hundred times safer there when biking there than I do in the U.S.

All that's to say I agree wholeheartedly with the writer quoted above that self-driving cars are much less threatening than cars driven by humans. As an avid cyclist, especially, I could think of nothing that would ease my mind when biking through the city than replacing every car on the road with self-driving cars.

We have years and years of data on human ability to drive cars, and if we've learned anything it's that humans are lousy drivers. For some reason, I don't know the history behind this, we've assumed that just about every person is qualified to drive a car. I can't think of the last time I met someone who didn't pass their driving test, who didn't have a driver's license. I can think of plenty of times I've met people I'd be scared to see behind the wheel.

Humans drink and drive. Humans text on their phones when they should be looking at the road. Humans, especially Americans, where drivers feel a great sense of entitlement, exercise aggressive maneuvers in fits of road rage, or drive at unsafe racetrack speeds on public roads. They run red lights, cut other drivers off, tailgate, drag race, and so on. You regularly hear that cars kill more humans in the U.S. than, well, just about anything else for the better part of a century now. The less people drive, which can be caused by a rise in gasoline prices, the fewer people die.

Why do we assume driving is something everyone is not only capable of but skilled enough execute at a level that doesn't endanger others? I venture to guess that it's no easier to learn to to drive a car than it is to cut hair, but our test to get a driver's license is much easier, despite the fact that the worst a bad stylist can do is give you a bad haircut while the worst a lousy driver can do is kill other human beings. Perhaps our romance with the American road is so deep, our conception of American freedom so intimately associated with hopping in a car and taking ourselves anywhere, that the thirty to forty thousand fatal crashes each year are seen as an acceptable error rate.

Whatever the reason, and whether you agree or disagree, it is something unlikely to change in the U.S. unless something comes along to force a serious reevaluation of our assumptions around driving quality. That something just might be self-driving cars which will be held to a much higher standard of driving safety than we've held humans to all those years. You might say that self-driving cars will be held to the standard we should've held ourselves to since the beginning.

Autonomous cars may be so well-behaved that they need protection from more ruthless and unscrupulous bad actors on the road. That's right, I refer to those monsters we call humans.

It's safe to cut off a Google car. I ride a motorcycle to work and in California motorcycles are allowed to split lanes (i.e., drive in the gap between lanes of cars at a stoplight, slow traffic, etc.). Obviously I do this at every opportunity because it cuts my commute time in 1/3.

Once, I got a little caught out as the traffic transitioned from slow moving back to normal speed. I was in a lane between a Google car and some random truck and, partially out of experiment and partially out of impatience, I gunned it and cut off the Google car sort of harder than maybe I needed too... The car handled it perfectly (maybe too perfectly). It slowed down and let me in. However, it left a fairly significant gap between me and it. If I had been behind it, I probably would have found this gap excessive and the lengthy slowdown annoying. Honestly, I don't think it will take long for other drivers to realize that self-driving cars are "easy targets" in traffic.

Overall, I would say that I'm impressed with how these things operate. I actually do feel safer around a self-driving car than most other California drivers.

Creating order out of the chaos of Mad Max: Fury Road

An informative piece by Vashi Nedomansky on the craft that went into giving the audience a clear spatial orientation of what was happening where amidst the furious action sequences in Mad Max: Fury Road.

One of the many reasons MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is so successful as an action film is the editing style. By using “Eye Trace” and “Crosshair Framing” techniques during the shooting, the editor could keep the important visual information vital in one spot…the Center of the Frame. Because almost every shot was center framed, comprehending the action requires no hunting of each new shot for the point of interest. The viewer doesn’t need 3 or 4 frames to figure out where to look. It’s like watching an old hand-drawn flip book whiz by. The focus is always in the same spot!
This was an edict passed down directly from director George Miller. Over the walkie talkies during every scene he could heard saying “Put the cross hairs on her nose! Put the cross hairs on the gun!” This was to protect the footage for editorial and to ensure that the entire high speed film would be easily digestible with both eyes and brain. Every new shot that slammed onto the screen must occupy the same space as the previous shot. This is by no means a new technique, but by shooting the entire film in this way, Margaret Sixel could amplify and accelerate scenes, cut as fast as possible with the confident knowledge that the visual information would be understood.

Great video: succinct, clear.

It's an under-appreciated skill, giving the audience a clear sense of arrangement amidst chaotic action, especially when so many directors just resort to lazy chaos cinema action filmmaking technique. Most filmgoers probably didn't even notice the center framing during Mad Max, but they likely felt the spatial coherence in a visceral sense.

Most photographers have probably heard of the rule of thirds, but here is one time it made sense to go away from it. Knowing when to break rules is one sign of mastery.

This is also telling:

As they prepared to shoot the film, George Miller had no script. He did have over 3500 storyboards created by Mark Sexton. The Studio of course asked for a script and George said there wasn’t one. He offered the 3500 storyboards as it had taken him more than 10 years to get the story mapped out with this precision. The Studio said they NEED a script. George apparently had one cranked out but said it was “not good”. It didn’t have to be. He already knew how the whole film would look and feel. Visually center framed and barreling right at the audience.

I've heard a few people say they found the movie underwhelming after all the hype. I suspect many of them found the story too lean, but that's not so surprising for a post-apocalyptic allegory, and even less surprising given that Miller was working not off a script but storyboards.

I enjoyed the muscular simplicity of it all. A Google Maps route of the movie would show Imperator Furiosa driving straight out and then making a sharp left turn, and then driving back on the same route.

When Max tells Furiosa that “out there is nothing but salt,” he's speaking literally, but he's also saying that humanity's best chance for survival is with everyone working together, and perhaps only with women at the helm. That survival is also meant literally since a group of women living together wouldn't be able to procreate and continue the human race (Nux was along for the ride, I suppose, but he seemed sick and approaching death even as the movie began).

Filmmaking craft is often under-appreciated in action movies, so here's a toast to Miller, Searle, Sixel, and the whole crew. 

The Colle delle Finestre

Alberto Contador just won the Giro D'Italia today, but in the penultimate stage yesterday, he finally showed a sign of weakness, allowing his main competitor Fabio Aru to drop him on the climb up the Colle delle Finestre. Aru ended up the stage winner, clawing back over two minutes on Contador, but after Finestre Contador regrouped and limited the damage on the climb to Sestrieres to end the stage. That left today's concluding stage as largely a ceremonial one, as is so often the case in the grand tours.

The climb up the Colle delle Finestre one of the epic, unique climbs left in road cycling because it occurs on dirt and gravel. Even though they're riding the most advanced carbon fiber bike frames, the professional racers looked like cyclists of yore, when the Tour de France was contested largely on dirt paths through the Alps and Pyrenees.

One of the rare times Contador has been dropped on a climb, this time up the gravel path of the Colle delle Finestre.

Contador is trying to win both the Giro D'Italia and the Tour de France this year, something not done since Marco “Il Pirata” Pantani did it in 1998.

The Robin Hood morality test

The Sheriff of Nottingham captured Little John and Robin Hood and imprisoned them in his maximum-security dungeon. Maid Marion begged the Sheriff for their release, pleading her love for Robin. The Sheriff agreed to release them only if Maid Marion spent the night with him. To this she agreed. The next morning the Sheriff released his prisoners. Robin at once demanded that Marion tell him how she persuaded the Sheriff to let them go free. Marion confessed the truth, and was bewildered when Robin abused her, called her a slut, and said that he never wanted to see her again. At this Little John defended her, inviting her to leave Sherwood with him and promising lifelong devotion. She accepted and they rode away together.

How would you rank the four people in terms of their morality and honesty? This is the Robin Hood morality test, written by a Sydney marriage expert. Submit your answer and then see the distribution of answers from others, as well as an analysis of what your ranking says about you.