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Look to Windward

(This entry cross-posted from our media review blog.)

"Look to Windward" is the seventh (arguably) book in Iain M. Banks' "Culture series". Despite Wikipedia calling it a "sequel", I found it to be a self-contained story with about 5 main-ish characters that need no introduction and that are not important in later books. The story takes a while to come together, but it all makes sense in the end; as a result, I enjoyed the final 100 pages much more than the first 400. Hard to say more without spoilers. :)

As with other Culture books, the settings and worlds are the centerpiece of the text. But since most of this book takes place on a single world, the scenery is a bit less varied than "Use of Weapons" and "Surface Detail".

My strongest complaint of "Look to Windward" is about the hundreds of pages spent on how Culture citizens pass the time. There are pages upon pages of cocktail parties, hiking trips, hunting trips, hang gliding, concerts, and chit-chat. I think Banks is trying to convey the frivolity and existential emptiness of an immortal life without want in the Culture's idyllic future, but it is damned boring. Slashing 100 pages of descriptions of guided tours of beautiful landscapes would be a big help.

On the bright side, I enjoyed the complexity of the characters in this book: there were funny side characters, despicable protagonists, likable villans, tragic heros, and surprising but believable motives that carry the story to its conclusion.

Overall I would call this a lesser Culture book, but perhaps worth your time if you've read all the rest and are still wanting more. Just skim the hang-gliding scenes.

This summer I went to Yosemite National Park and took some pictures. The most remarkable thing (to me) in the park is the famous rock formation El Capitan. Two related facts:
  1. It is almost 1 kilometer tall.
  2. People climb it. On purpose.
I've done some basic rock climbing, so I can sort of imagine what it might be like: terrifying. The climb takes several days, so you have to lift your own water, poop into a bag, etc. No thank you. (But the people who do it are clearly amazing.)

To give you a sense of the size of it, and what it might be like to climb, here's a simple diagram showing the rock with climbers on it. The orange boxes are correctly sized to within a pixel, so the climbers in the inset would be about 3/4ths of a pixel tall in the scene.

Radar Detectors

I use a radar detector, and I get asked about it a lot. If you get speeding tickets, or if you routinely worry about getting a speeding ticket, you might consider getting one. Here are some notes on what it's like to use one in the state of California.

(Your mileage may vary in other states outside of California. Also, radar detectors are illegal in Virginia and the District. Also: never speed. Obey all local traffic laws.)

It's a lifestyle

It's important not to imagine that a radar detector will always save you from a speeding ticket. There are situations where you could be convicted of speeding without radar being used at all. You may also not react fast enough to avoid being observed doing something incriminating ("laser", instant-on radar, etc. See below.)

Instead, you should think of a radar detector as a tool that you can use to decrease, but not eliminate, the probability of getting a ticket. It will help you if you use it well, but it comes at a price and it may not always work.

For example, I have gotten two tickets in the past 4 years of using my Valentine One. I consider this to be (anecdotally) about half as many tickets as I used to get without it. (Trying to both break certain laws while also avoiding a ticket without a radar detector is what I lovingly refer to as "the rhythm method".)

Types of radar

First, a very brief education: the Valentine (and I assume most other detectors) detects 4 types of radiation. I have no idea what the physical differences are between 3 of the 4 types are, but they are:

  • X-band: An old type of radar that is rarely used in California. This type of radiation is common in the environment, but to date I have never seen it used by the police. See below.
  • K-band: Never used by the police in the bay area, but this is a common radar frequency used by robots and by rural police. (I've gotten used to ignoring K-band, and as a result I recently got a ticket in a rural town because the local sheriff was using K-band and I assumed it was a false positive.)
  • Ka-band: Exclusively used by the California Highway Patrol. Ka-band can be used while the police vehicle is in motion, so this is how they get you when they're passing you. In my experience, this type of radiation is almost always the CHP looking for speeders. (Except for this one spot around Moffett field.) When the Valentine alerts me to Ka-band radar, it is basically always the CHP, so I slow down. A lot. Fortunately, the CHP Ka-band radar guns are on constantly and blast a ton of this type of radiation, so the Valentine can see it from far away--- sometimes miles away. I have never gotten a ticket from an officer using Ka-band.
  • Laser: When lying in wait, local and state police use infrared laser to measure your speed. The Valentine can detect this, but because the laser is directional, I am not always alerted in time to slow down. (The laser cone is in some cases only a meter across, and the police need as little as 1 second to get a speed fix.) I have never gotten a ticket from laser without the Valentine noticing it, but that is cold comfort. On the bright side, the police can only use laser from a trap, stopped on the side of the road. When I see a police car in motion, I know that they can't possibly be using laser.

False positives

By far the Valentine's largest impact on my driving experience is that it beeps a lot. Maybe I'd get a few tickets a year without it, but I get a false positive several times per drive while I'm in the bay area. It's a bit annoying for me, and I'm sure it's very annoying for my passengers. This is not a failure of the device, it's just a reality of the EM spectrum in a large city. Examples:

  • Background radiation: The world is flooded with radar-like K-band and X-band radiation from microwave ovens, automatic doors, and radio stations. With very few exceptions (see below), these signals are not coming from the police. The Valentine can (mostly) be adjusted to not beep as much when it gets these signals, but it's still annoying. (The configuration is also annoying. Think DIP switches.) I don't encounter these signals in the countryside, but in cities they happen every mile or two.
  • Speed signs: In neighborhoods and near schools there are those "YOU ARE GOING XX MPH" signs which of course are real radar and set off the detector's K-band warning. Nobody's looking at the sign so you won't get ticket, but it is technically radar, so there's beeping.
  • Congestion radar: On freeways in urban areas, there is a K-band traffic radar robot every few miles. These never move, and they always use K-band (which the police never use in the bay area) so I have learned where they are and I ignore them as a matter of course. But they do still make a beep.
  • Luxury cars: A growing number of cars run lidar (range-finding lasers) all the time. The Mercedes S class and the Infiniti FX45 are the most common types. This is the same type of radiation as the "laser" radar that the police use, so it sets off my radar detector every time I go past one. (I am now so good at anticipating this that I see the FX45 coming before the laser hits my car. So more amusing than annoying to me, but it does result in some beeping.)

The Valentine has some nice features (although I wish it had more) for setting the volume of various types of alerts. It also has a dual volume control that allows me to easily set the volume of the high- and low-priority alert sound. And most importantly: it has a one-click "mute" button that silences the current alert. I use this feature frequently to avoid being driven crazy by the constant beeping.

Even if you can live with the beeping, your passengers may not. You could still use the Valentine with the sound turned all the way down so that it only flashes but doesn't beep; I sometimes do this. But of course, there's always a small chance that you won't notice a crucial signal, so choose wisely.

Learning the EM landscape

The main thing I have gotten from my Valentine is that i have learned a lot about the EM texture of the environment, and used it to become better at adjusting my behavior. For example:

  • Surveillance level: Having driven all over the city with my Valentine, I can tell you that the bay area is largely unsupervised. I encounter only a few speed traps per year on 101 and 880. Around my neighborhood there are only a few traps per year at the times I go through, and they're always at commute hours. (In Milpitas, however, there are frequently laser traps at night.) There are speed traps on Route 9 at night (I found this out the hard way) so I've learned to take my nocturnal urges to more rural areas.
  • Hot spots: It's surprisingly easy to memorize all of the false positive areas along frequently traveled routes such as my commute, 101, 280, and near my house. This allows me to only react to the unusual alerts, instead of all of them.
  • Police behavior: Whenever the flow of traffic passes a police car, everyone slows down. But because I have a Valentine, I know something that everyone else doesn't: they're not running radar, so I don't worry about it. Conversely: the CHP rarely turns their radar off during a traffic stop, so when I see someone pulled over, the Ka-band is still blaring away. This tells me that the person was stopped with Ka-band rather than laser, which I basically never have to worry about because it's so easy to react to. Here's another one: on rural roads away from towns, I rarely encounter officers other than the CHP. Although they never have laser traps out in the middle of nowhere, they do often drive around with their Ka-band on, hoping to catch me speeding as I pass in the opposite direction. So when my Ka-band fires as I'm coming up to a corner, I know that I'm about to encounter CHP on the other side of it and I slow down. This has been very reliable for me.
  • Common speed traps: The police are not super creative. For example, I know that there is a Ka-band speed trap on 280 at least 70% of the time that I drive through there. So I know to behave myself in that area, and I also see it coming from a long way away.
  • Head-on measurement: The Valentine comes with a little brochure that explains how radar guns work, and it's very useful. Here's something I didn't really think about until I got a detector: radar takes a while (several seconds) to get a reading, and only measures your speed along the vector of the gun. That means that the officer must be directly in front of you or behind you, and must paint you with the gun for several seconds before they have a fix. (I used to worry about the police hiding in a side street and zapping me from the side as I went by. Now I know that this would never happen--- it's the wrong angle and it's also not enough time.) This has given me a much better sense of where to look for speed traps.

Adjusting behavior

As I said, a detector is not a guarantee that I won't get a ticket. So I still have to change my driving behavior to reduce the probability of a ticket. Here are some of the changes I've made:

  • Avoid constant speeding: the most risky possible behavior for a speeding ticket is to set my cruise to 90MPH and then drive to Los Angeles. Being "bad enough" all the time guarantees that if there is laser anywhere along my long trip, I will get a ticket. Instead, I set my cruise control to a speed which is fast (typically 10mph over the posted limit) but still low enough that I'm within easy braking range of the speed limit if my detector goes off.
  • Brief indiscretions: When my Valentine says the coast is clear, I feel free to do things that are quite bad, but brief: passing someone at vastly above the posted limit and then slowing back down, for example. The probability of my choosing to do such a thing right in front of an officer is already low, and the Valentine makes it even lower.
  • Decelerations of innocence: When my Valentine's Ka-band or laser alert fires, I hit the brakes. If nobody is behind me, then I hit them even harder. These signals are rare enough that they're worth always reacting to, even though laser is usually false more often than not. (Exception: if I already see the FX-45, I don't bother slowing down for laser since it's probably a false signal.) This behavior has saved me from an unknown but probably large number of tickets.

    (Note: a lot of people online say it's not possible to brake in time to save yourself from a laser ticket. I have done it, so I think it's possible, although it is certainly not reliable. I brake anyway and hope for the best; it's saved me every time except one. It may depend on factors like the officer, the circumstances, and the type of car, so no promises.)

  • Slow down in town: Although the CHP is pleasantly predictable, the local sheriff of Wherever, CA is not. So when I'm out in the countryside, I speed ludicrously on the back roads as long as the speed limit is posted at 55 or greater. But as soon as I encounter a "Reduced Speed Ahead" sign, I slow down to no more than about 8mph over the posted limit until I'm through the town.

So should you buy a radar detector?

If you have been driving for years and you rarely get a ticket, then the answer is simply "no". It's expensive and noisy and you won't really benefit from it.

If you consider speeding tickets to be a problem in your life, you should probably try it. I've only tried the Valentine, so I can't give a strong comparison to other brands. But the Valentine has many nice features (target count, direction arrows, strength indicator, volume, mute) which have made me like it, which to my knowledge other detectors don't have. I don't know if other detectors have other superior features that would make them worth it instead.

My Valentine was $500, which is admittedly steep. But on balance I'm quite certain that it has saved me from at least 3 tickets in the last few years, which means that it has paid for itself.

Good luck!

The views expressed on this site are mine personally, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.