Author Archive

No, this was a mandate

November 7, 2008 15 comments

There has been some argument about whether the election on Tuesday was a mandate.  But after viewing this image (from the New York Times), it’s a bit hard to view it any other way:

Hey!  It's a mandate!

The rest of the graphic in the link is pretty interesting as well.

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Wired’s collection of science videos

September 7, 2008 1 comment

Wired Science has a collection of amazing physics videos.  There are a few duds, but most of them are really cool.  The best one is this demonstration of sound waves made visible through fire:

BTW, for those of you out there who might be interested, here’s a link to my shared items on Google Reader.  Thus far, more than 140 links to cool science stuff, politics, funny videos and general miscellany.


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Continuing the Trend…

September 6, 2008 1 comment

John McCain, massive flip-flopper.

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McCain: a Great Man

September 5, 2008 1 comment

I used to label myself a libertarian, but now I think that this label hides some of subtleties of my views in a chorus of “I like my roads and fire departments, thank you very much!” from any who might be listening.  I now describe myself as an economic pragmatist or someone who leans libertarian—by which I mean that I take the libertarian view by default and need convincing to change it.  I suspect that the McCain campaign thinks they have votes like mine in the bag.  After all, he’s a “rugged individualist”, a famous opponent of pork-barrel spending, and an opponent of tax increases.  Why, I am also against pork and don’t like tax increases!  We’re a match made in heaven.

However, I see a number of problems with McCain:

  1. Campaign finance reform.  McCain favored unconstitutional parts of his law, and then essentially said that the first amendment should be altered to fit his worldview:  “I would rather have a clean government than one where quote ‘First Amendment rights’ are being respected that has become corrupt.”

  2. Nationalism.  McCain seems to favor any policy which makes the US more “great” in his world view.  This includes invading other countries, and advocacy of “national service” (which in the McCain family has always meant military service).  This hasn’t lead to uniformly bad policy—for example McCain’s high environmental standards (for a Republican) are probably rooted in the idea that our country is stronger when it’s not polluted, but it means that he is essentially opposed to individualism.  As long as anyone does something that McCain views as making the country “less great”, then he seems to think they shouldn’t be allowed to do it.  Matt Welch has more here.  His drive towards military intervention also completely outweighs all of his other fiscally conservative virtues to me.  What was the biggest money sink of the last 8 years?  What was McCain’s position on it?  How will we pay for it without breaking his vow to never raise taxes?
  3. His narcissism.  Obviously, only extreme narcissists run for president in the first place.  Who else would think (s)he should be the leader of the free world?  McCain’s strikes me as a step above.  His campaign isn’t just saying “My policies are better than the other guy’s, and I’ll implement them effectively,” he’s made John McCain’s Personal Greatness the central policy pillar of his campaign.  John McCain is a hero, He devoted himself to “a cause greater”, He is strong,  etc.  The key point here is that whatever policies he decides will be the right ones for the nation.  Now Obama says many of the same things about himself, but self-obsession and nationalism are a dangerous combination.  They can get people killed.
  4. His lurch towards socially conservative values.  Being anti-choice by itself is almost enough to make me vote against a candidate.  Being quasi-endorsed by James Dobson et al cements the deal.

One of the key arguments of the McCain campaign is that he will be a great and effective leader, unlike that inexperienced celebrity Obama.  He’ll tell it like it is, and do whatever he wants, no matter what the polls say.  Even if you disagree with him, at least you’ve got experience at the helm.  Let’s assume that McCain is a super-competent genius who implements all of his stated policies, and that Obama is a dullard who is all flash and no substance.  Is it better to have someone competently implementing policies you hate than to have a poor politician poorly implementing policies you love?  There’s a strategic argument to be made against the latter (think about why republicans ruled for 12 years after Jimmy Carter), but I don’t think that the argument points in McCain’s favor, especially for former Clinton supporters.

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I guess it figures

August 25, 2008 6 comments

At the grocery store today (the first day of clases), I noticed one category of item that was completely sold out: generic dish soap.  It makes sense if you think about it.

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A Rejunenated Classic

July 25, 2008 5 comments

I hate my Mac’s keyboard.  I find I end up uncomfortably holding my fingers so as to produce no pressure on the keys.  This causes strain on my wrist, and also some keys don’t reliably click unless you press them at the right angle.  So I wasn’t too torn up about it when I accidentally spilled a glass of water on my keyboard a few days ago.  They keyboard mysteriously stopped working, even after fairly extensive drying.  I needed a new keyboard

I knew I didn’t want another Apple keyboard, and the choices of other keyboards seemed uninspiring.  I could take a risk on some kind of ergonomic keyboard that some Amazon reviewers loved and others hate, or I could buy a cheap keyboard, and be done with it.  I was paralyzed by indecision and too many mediocre choices.  Then I thought back to what keyboards used to be like when computers cost $8000, and an expensive keyboard didn’t add much to the price point.

There will always be a soft spot in my heart for the ancient IBM model M keyboard.  For me, modern keyboards aren’t fun or comfortable to type on, while my old IBM keyboard (probably still in DOF’s basement) had a very satisfying click to it and was quite pleasant.  I could actually rest my fingers on the keys without worrying about accidentally depressing one, and I could always tell by the auditory cue whether the key had actually been pressed.  After a few minutes, I discovered that there is a company that still makes old-style IBM keyboards (they bought the technology from Lexmark).  A quick look around, and I was sold.  For any DOF readers who have been longing for a modern update to a long-loved keyboard, now you can have it…

UPDATE:  The keyboard arrived last week, and I like it quite a bit.  It’s been several years since I’ve used a Model M, but this seems to be a good facsimile of my old keyboard.  I’ve found that I can type quite a bit faster and more accurately than before.  Highly recommended!

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How to sabotage corporations

June 11, 2008 2 comments

Via Slashdot, I found this article about the internal use of wikis in the CIA and other intelligence organizations.  The article is standard “Web 2.0 is totally changing everything!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” filler, but includes the following wonderful quote:

Intellipedia includes instructions from a 1944 CIA field manual for sabotaging companies. The manual suggests that agents encourage companies to use channels to make decisions, and when possible refer matters to committees for further study and consideration. Companies will face further strife when spies within encourage haggling over the precise wording of communications.

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Theory is practical in practice

April 28, 2008 4 comments

Regarding DOF’s recent post Theory is Practical, I had a real life example of this today.  This week’s problem set in my class was about graphs, and one of the problems reads

Whenever groups of pigeons gather, they instinctively establish a pecking order. For any pair of pigeons, one pigeon always pecks the other, driving it away from food or potential mates.  The same pair of pigeons will always choose the same pecking order, even after years of separation, no matter what other pigeons are around. Surprisingly, the overall pecking order in a set of pigeons can contain cycles – for example, pigeon A pecks pigeon B, which pecks pigeon C, which pecks pigeon A. If A pecks B, we say that A is dominant and B is submissive.
(a) Prove that any set of pigeons can be listed in some order so that every pigeon pecks the following pigeon.
(b) Prove that any set of n pigeons can be listed in some order so that the number of pairs of pigeons where the dominant pigeon appears before the submissive pigeon is at least [some expression]

The concreteness of this problem was designed to help the students understand not only cases where graphs can be applied, but to make the problem easier to understand.  I certainly thought that it would have this effect when I read it, and it seems much less intimidating than “Prove that every orientation of a complete graph has a Hamiltonian path,” which is what the question is “really” asking.  My office hours indicated that it did not succeed in these goals.  This was the question I got asked about much more than any other question, and most students seemed really confused by what the pigeons had to do with the problem, or even what the problem was asking.  It’s interesting to me the amount of confusion which this caused.  The students are still struggling with the basic concepts of graphs, so they had a lot of trouble thinking of the “right” way to abstract the problem, and then on top of that prove things about it.

I’m not sure what the best solution is for all this.  Throughout much of the course, I’ve heard about how the material seems irrelevant to computer programming, and that the material is too abstract.  Should we ignore complaints about the material, and give the students a heavy dose of abstraction, give the applications after students have done the homework (which might lead to frustration when students don’t know what theorems are “for”), or perhaps keep using problems like this.  I don’t know, but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

(This is not to harp on the author of the question, who is a very good teacher.  I think these issues are difficult, and there is no right answer.  I just found the students’ response interesting and noteworthy.)

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New Laptop & Linux Installation

April 20, 2008 6 comments

I bought a new laptop, which arrived last Wednesday.  It’s a Dell Vostro 1400; the specs are: Intel Core II duo 1.4ghz, 2gb ram, 120gb hd, and a 9-cell long-life battery.  This machine was quite a deal, or so I thought.  The next day, Dell sent me an email saying something like “You’ve expressed interest in our Vostro line of computers.  We’re running a sale for [$100 less than I paid for the same computer].”  Grrr…  From what I read online, Dell wouldn’t have been receptive to giving me a rebate, so I decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

Oh well.  The thing has a nice screen, very long battery life, and seems to work just fine.  I installed WinEDT to edit LaTeX files (a mathematical typesetting markup language), and it had a number of neat features lacking in TeXShop (the Mac equivalent).  It sucked in a variety of other ways, notably that the computer slowed down if I didn’t reboot periodically.  This sort of poor performance is new to me—I’ve been exclusively using OS X since July of 2002.  I wanted to install Linux, though Webs05 advised that I wait until the new version of Ubuntu comes out.  Never one to follow advice, I decided to try the release candidate for Hardy Heron. 

The install went fine, but WiFi didn’t work.  Several hours later, I decided that since all the advice I saw online related to Gutsy Gibbon, I should try installing that.  After much more Google searching, I discovered the solution, something which I should have found much sooner.  (I didn’t think to check in Windows what chipset is actually in my computer; the Dell documentation was just plain wrong on that point.)  Admittedly, I was stupid in various ways, but I doubt that the “average user” would have been able to fix this.  On the other hand, the average user probably couldn’t fix a similar problem under Windows, even if the solution would have been easier to find.  There was also a problem with the sound, whose solution I found quickly, but it involved editing a config file by hand.

First impressions of Ubuntu:  much faster than Windows XP on identical hardware.  Install (modulo the driver problem) was much faster and simpler than installing Windows (at least as I remember it).  Installing programs is actually quite a bit easier than installing them on either a Mac or Windows.  Ubuntu has a neat utility to automatically find supported programs, and download/install them at the click of a button. 

I installed TeX/LaTeX, and two integrated LaTeX editors: Kile and TeXMaker.  Both were substantially better than anything I’d seen on either Windows or Mac, Kile being the better of the two.  It includes a number of features which made me slap my forehead and go “Why doesn’t everyone else do that?”, including templates for common document types, and pulldown menus to find uncommonly-used symbols.  Given that LaTeX is my most commonly used non-web application, I think Linux and I will get along just fine.

The video player that comes with Ubuntu is very good, and it actually successfully found codecs online automagically for the video file I wanted to play.  Realplayer and Quicktime almost never succeed at that (I still haven’t gotten the AC3 codec working on my Mac).

I had previously used RedHat Linux in the late nineties, and things have gotten a lot better since then.  I only had to edit one config file, it found networks automatically, drivers actually existed for all the hardware I wanted to use, I didn’t have to recompile the kernel, there was no obnoxious “screen calibration” thing, etc.  After it was installed, I think it’s probably about as easy to use at Windows XP.

The only cons I’ve seen so far are the difficulties in setting up drivers, and that the computer takes a long time to hibernate.  Also, that if anyone finds out that I use Linux, then I’ll be branded as some sort of uberl33t jerk that everyone loves to hate.

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Will the first pass on a Turing test come from spammers?

April 15, 2008 1 comment

CAPTCHA stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.”  Well, OK, Turing test may be a bit strong for what is essentially really hard OCR, but passing a good CAPTCHA shows at least some proficiency with pattern recognition. Now that the GMAIL and HotMail CAPTCHA’s have been cracked*, CAPTCHA’s will presumably become harder still.  Eventually, you might get a brief reading comprehension test, or more probably be told to identify a picture.  What happens when spammers crack these?  Eventually, computers may become indistinguishable from humans in automated tests.  Of course that’s a long way from passing a true Turing test, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some advances in AI are made by malware developers. 

* Of course, the spammers haven’t really “cracked” these in the sense of being able to do them well every time.  They only need to succeed a significant minority of the time for their goals.

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