Brain Bar Budapest via blog posts

Brain Bar Budapest cover logo

An old friend of mine touched base a couple of months back, wondering if I’d like to do some writing for Brain Bar Budapest. My first question was: for Brain-what?

As freelancers tend to do, I said yes. They were looking for blog posts about the festival’s speakers – quick hits, mostly: some background, an interview, and (ideally) interesting copy.

I didn’t get to go to Brain Bar Budapest in early June, but they put on a great show, looks like. And I got to talk with (or email with), and then write a bit about, some fascinating and diverse people.

Among the posts included: writer and political analyst Virginia Postrel, on the essence and importance of glamour; the transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan; Johns Hopkins University scientist Alex Szalay, whose work in big data (and astrophysics) is helping usher in the fourth paradigm of science; Gabriel Hallevy, a legal scholar on the potential dark side of the rise of robots; “Undercover Economist” Tim Harford; propaganda-and-science-fiction scholar Etienne Augé; Harvard machine learning PhD candidate Victoria Krakovna on the existential risk artificial intelligence may pose; Austrian ceramicist and humanity-archivist Martin Kunze; Malaysian-born entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh; and MinecraftEdu cofounder Santeri Koivisto, among others.





Highest and best use of cassette tapes in 2016

Cassette tapes - Hill Campus of Arts & Sciences student project

I picked up my seventh-grade daughter at the Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences (nee Roscoe C. Hill Middle School) in Denver early today. Waiting in the lobby, I perused art. I am always struck by the creativity of the average middle-school kid.

In this case, the operative medium was what was once the mainstay portable-music storage device. Unlike vinyl, the cassette tape seems to have little hope of serious resurgence, its background hiss irrepressible despite the best efforts of the folks at Dolby.

Right Said Fred's "Too Sexy", Los del Rio's "Macarena"

Cassette singles

While the young artists knew what cassette tapes were, I wonder if they had any more idea of their ubiquity than my daughter had had when we had talked about it maybe a month ago, apropos a minor cleanout of my wife’s 2001 Jetta GL. Cassette singles of Right Said Fred’s “Too Sexy” and Los del Rio’s “Macarena” had made it to the kitchen counter. Also a mixtape of 1970s bands like the Eagles.

“What are those?” Lily had asked.

“They’re cassette tapes,” I had said. “It’s what we used for portable music before the iPod came along not long before you were born.”

She had noted the strange slot in the Jetta, sometimes home to an adapter that plugged into a phone headphone jack, but generally vacant in deference to radio advertisements and NPR reports on vital transgender restroom issues.

I had asked her if she knew what a Walkman was; she shook her head. And so I had explained the concept of tape, how it’s analog — whispering magnetic pulses that get amped up to audibility, not that different than a record needle scraping against imprinted ridges on an LP, which she’s never seen actually play, either. I had talked of the Walkman being the ur-iPod; and of mix tapes; and of how much these cassette singles had cost in modern dollars ($2.99 each in the late 1980s/early 1990s;  that’s $5-$6 now, or half a monthly Spotify subscription); and of how my $2,500 laptop back in 1998 had a 512-megabyte hard drive; and of how you wore headphones whose spongy pads tickled your ears; and of how, until later generations, you had to flip the tape. I had recalled skiing down a run called Heather at Boyne Highlands, looping over and over as Foreigner 4 did the same.

I had grown enthusiastic from all this reminiscing and interruptedmy dishwashing efforts to fetch my wife’s Walkman — from the mid-1990s, bought when we lived in Japan, a sleek model. I had used it maybe a year ago to digitize cassette tapes from which I’d rambled through audio journals, oblivious to how tedious extracting useful information from them would be. I screwed on the roughly cylindrical AA external battery case and marveled at the sheer number of mechanisms these little devices had — no such thing as a solid-state tape player. I set the headphones aside  and connected a portable speaker I’ve since replaced with a Bluetooth model. I pressed “play.”

Too sexy for my love
Too sexy for my love 
Love’s going to leave me. . .

“That sounds good,” Lily said.

And it really did.


$15 an hour is $5 a day (inflation adjusted)

Henry Ford

No less a business giant than Henry Ford was for the $15 movement (inflation adjusted) Photo Courtesy PBS.

While I’m personally all for a $15 minimum wage (economic theory be damned), I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. But just now, I was chaining away, mentally speaking, and came upon an interesting comparison.

The initial trigger happened this morning. I had dropped off my younger daughter at school and swung by the local Albertson’s for vital purchases (bananas, strawberries, and Ovaltine, which has gone from a red-dominant (angry Ovaltine) to a blue-themed (tranquil Ovaltine) design) and noted on a window adjacent to the automatic doors a help-wanted sign, for cashiers (courtesy staff? some pleasant acronym). $9 an hour.

I have seen this sign before and had shuddered at it.

This evening, I was pondering my own questionable earning status when the sign re-boarded my drifting mind. I make more than $9 an hour, thank God.

And I thought: how does anybody get by on $9 an hour — that’s, what, $72 a day?

And then the idea of $5 a day struck me. I’m from Dearborn, Michigan, so things related to Ford have an odd sway.

$5 a day (I’m not following Associated Press style, here, for the record. Five dollars a day would be how you’d start a sentence in this case) is what Henry Ford, apparently unbidden, decided to pay even his least-skilled worker – the piston-counters, the engine-crankers, the coal-polishers, the tire taste-testers, all of them – five bucks a day, minimum.

Then I thought about the U.S. Department of Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Inflation Calculator and wonderered a) when it was that Henry Ford made that unbidden gesture and b) what $5 was worth, inflation-adjusted, back then.


This is unfortunately file art. I don't typically have such sums at my disposal.

This is unfortunately file art. I don’t typically have such sums at my disposal.

For a), a Google search of “Henry Ford $5 Day” yielded 1914; for b), the inflation calculator came back with $5 back then equating to $119.07 today.

Per an eight-hour day, that’s $14.88. Which is damn near $15.

And what I also learned, courtesy of The Henry Ford, (that incomparable, eclectic, museum/village in my hometown (I worked there in high school — a “Cart Guy” in period clothing, selling fruit/candy from a wooden deal like a Mormon might have shoved along his westward march)): Ford workers did nine-hour days back until that very moment, at which Henry also trimmed the workday to eight hours.

So no less a capitalist than Henry Ford was all for $15 an hour, too. #fightfor15 indeed.


Political voyeurs in New Hampshire, 16 years back

Political Voyeurs in New Hampshire, February 2000

Political Voyeurs in New Hampshire, February 2000

With the New Hampshire primary happening today, I figured it’s time to dust off some of the only presidential political reporting I’ve ever done (I covered George W. Bush’s visit to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., also).

It occurred 16 years ago, before I wrote for a living. I was in grad school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University at the time, and had co-founded a digital student rag we called The Fletcher Ledger. It’s gone now;’s lead article, a placeholder, today reads: Hvordan at rydde plads på iPhone – Instant Svar.

It’s mostly a humor piece, but we did catch Steve Forbes, John McCain, Bill Bradley, and George W. Bush. The wrap-up’s kind of eerie. I didn’t have a digital camera at the time — shot film with a Nikon F7, then scanned and shrank them to dial-up-friendly size for posting with Microsoft Front Page 1998. I link here to capture it in its fully formatted glory.


Microsoft Band 2 and heart rate

2016-01-29 20.27.51I bought  Microsoft Band 2 a few weeks back ($200). I’d looked at the Band 1 a year ago and was a bit scared off by its extreme flatness; the Band 2 has a nice arch. I jumped on it.

This post is about heart rate monitoring accuracy, but before I go on, the Band 2 is quite a remarkable bit of technology. Comfortable enough to sleep in, not too large, clasp as magnificent (if less neck-saving) as my Shimano mountain-biking clips, vibrates with incoming phone calls and texts before my phone hints at intrusion, sleep tracking is pretty cool, the app and Web interfaces are deep and interesting… in all hard to complain. I’ve read a bunch of reviews and all the reviewers, doing their jobs, did find fault. But ultimately the good vastly outweighs the shaky. (The most shaky seems to be the UV sensor, whose utility I question anyway. But I live in Denver, where one doesn’t need a UV sensor to tell one to sunscreen up between dawn and dusk.)

So, the heart rate monitor. It works quite well. But it’s not as accurate as a chest strap. I have data as well as anecdotal evidence for this.

First, the data.

I went on a run around Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood Three nights ago, more or less a 10K as my daughter kicked around at the Bladium. I wore the Band on myleft wrist, a Polar FT7 on my right (plus chest strap, obviously), and to add a bit of spice turned on GPS and Endomondo on the HTC ONE phone.

The Band has GPS and heart rate plus my weight and age (170 lbs, 47).

The Polar has just weight and heart rate.

Endomondo has just weight and GPS.

Here’s what we got.

Band (from the lovely Web interface):

From the Microsoft Health dashboard

From the Microsoft Health dashboard

There are a couple of things to note. First is that during mile 2, at a 7’32” pace, I wasn’t probably averaging 126 beats per minute. If you look at the graph you can understand why. The Band, probably a bit loose (user error, OK), went out of contact/got unreadable. I was well over 160, maybe into the 170s during much of it. During mile 3, we cut out for a good while, though the heart rate estimate of 159 for the split is probably not too far off, though elevated because I’d killed myself in mile 2 and was on the high end coming into 3. Mile 6 is also quite perplexing, as I was pretty tired, but at an 8’49” pace probably not running quite 166 bpm hot. But maybe.

The Band said my average heart rate was 156 bpm and that I burned 794 calories.

Now for Endomondo on the phone:

Endomondo on the phone

Endomondo, using GPS and how much meat I schlep around our fair planet as inputs, pegged my calorie count higher (908). I started Endomondo slightly later than the Band and the Polar, hence the time and distance discrepancy. How it came up with a 5:09 max pace I don’t know, because I don’t recall having fallen down the stairs, which is the only time I achieve such velocity without some sort of mechanical assistance.

And finally, the Polar, which  knew heart rate and weight:

2016-01-26 19.48.562016-01-26 19.49.11

This post requires a lot of scrolling, for which I apologize.

The Polar and the Endomondo jibed as exactly as I’ve ever seen on the estimated calories (typically Endomondo is 5-10 percent more generous).

The Band probably underestimated the calories, largely due to losing contact with the wrist. It came in with a higher max heart rate (180 vs. 176). The average heart rate, according to the band, was 156. Pretty close, the discrepancy probably explained by the dropping out when I was running hot during mile two.

So here, the band looks pretty good, as long as one tightens it properly around one’s wrist.

But then a run today gave me pause. This was a slower-paced thing, with but one with a twist: at mile 4.6, roughly, I stopped at the westerly field-turf soccer field at the Lowry Sports Complex and did five sets of sprints (I play indoor soccer; call it training) — suicides, six yards and back, 18 yards and back, 32 yards and back. So 112 stop-start yards, times five. I didn’t wear the Polar and left my phone at home. From Microsoft Health:

MSFT Band-Jan 29 runThe striking bit is at about mile 4.6. Here we have complete connectivity on the wrist but strange numbers. While working far harder than the entire previous four-plus miles, my heart rate supposedly dropped 50-ish beats per minute. Between sets, gasping for mile-high air, it was telling me I was at like 135 bpm. Having worn the Polar on these runs, I would guess I was in the low to mid-170s. Perhaps the Band 2 gets in a groove, or is programmed to assume that this particular heart-rate pattern was too strange to take seriously. But something was clearly going wrong.

Why do I bother sharing this? Subjecting you so much tedious scrolling? I think the Microsoft Band 2 is a really cool product, and do recommend it if you’re looking for a fitness band/almost non-Apple Watch. And the heart-rate monitor is a cool thing and works pretty well (when I’m not exercising and check out of curiosity, it’s always plausible). But there appear to be limits to how accurate this particular LED-based technology can get. The wrist is a good distance from the heart, and is especially subject to the very motions that are the point of exercise. The chest strap’s sensor, in contrast, hangs out like two inches from the myoelectric dynamo itself. With that, the Band just can’t hang.