Monday, December 31, 2012

Don't Hold Your Breath!

Via my mom:
I met a fairy who said she would grant me one wish.

Immediately I said, "I want to live forever."

"Sorry," said the fairy, "I'm not allowed to grant eternal life."

"OK," I said, "Then, I want to die after Congress gets its head out of its ass."

"You crafty bastard," said the fairy.

Top 10 Reaons Why Men Prefer Guns Over Women...

#10 You can trade an old 44 for a new 22.

#9 You can keep one gun at home and have another for when you're on the road.

#8 If you admire a friend's gun and tell him so, he will probably let you try it out a few times.

#7 Your primary gun doesn't mind if you keep another gun for a backup.

#6 Your gun will stay with you even if you run out of ammo.

#5 A gun doesn't take up a lot of closet space.

#4 Guns function normally every day of the month.

#3 A gun doesn't ask, "Do these new grips make me look fat?"

#2 A gun doesn't mind if you go to sleep after you use it.

#1 You can buy a silencer for a gun

Ben Bernanke as a Child...

Via my mom, this rare archival footage:

The Dark Side of Saturn's Rings...

Taken by the intrepid Cassini robotic explorer.  Via APOD, of course:

A Favorite Passage...

This is one of my favorite passages, from one of my favorite books – Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman:
Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing - it didn't have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I'd see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn't have to do it; it wasn't important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn't make any difference. I'd invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything, I've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate - two to one [Note: Feynman mis-remembers here---the factor of 2 is the other way]. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it's two to one?”

I don't remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it's two to one is ...” and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, “Feynman, that's pretty interesting, but what's the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

“Hah!” I say. “There's no importance whatsoever. I'm just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn't discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there's the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing” - working, really - with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

U.S. Population Map...

Now this is just awesome: an interactive, zoomable map of the U.S. with a dot for every person recorded by the 2010 census.  The map has no other features to clutter the view; it shows population and nothing else.

This is a great tool for me as I look for a place for us to live!

Last Words...

Here's a morbidly fascinating collection of transcripts (and in some cases, recordings) of the last words from the crews of airplanes that crashed.

2012: Year in Review...

I don't usually enjoy this sort of thing, but...this one is by Dave Barry, who's emerged from wherever he's been hiding.  A sample, from part of his review of January:
Meanwhile the race for the Republican presidential nomination, which began in approximately 2003, continues to be a spicy political gumbo of excitement. The emerging front runner is Mitt Romney, who combines a strong resume of executive experience with the easygoing natural human warmth of a parking meter. Still in contention, however, is Newt Gingrich, whose popularity surges briefly, only to wane when voters begin to grasp the fact that he is Newt Gingrich. This opens the door for Rick Santorum, whose strong suit is that he has a normal first name, and who apparently at one point was a senator or governor of Pennsylvania or possibly Vermont.
You will definitely want to read the whole thing!

Read more here:

Sunday, December 30, 2012

AAA Wants E15 Gas Delayed...

Passed along by friend and reader Tom B.:

The American Automobile Association (AAA) is calling for legislators to suspend the sales of E15 gasoline (gasoline that is 15% ethanol) until concerns about vehicle damage and consumer confusion can be allayed.

I'd like to see sales suspended for a completely different reason: the utter stupidity of substituting corn-derived alcohol for gasoline.  Why is it stupid?  For starters, it's actually worse for the environment than using gasoline (though the environment is the excuse being used).  Secondly, it's an inferior fuel for the vast majority of internal combustion engines on the road today.

If you do the research that I have done, and convince yourself (as I have) that the above statements are true, you might wonder why on earth the federal government is mandating ethanol-polluted gasoline.  As always, just follow the money.  The corn industry is beside themselves with joy at this mandate, as it provides extremely high demand (and therefore high prices) for their product – and they don't even have to do any marketing to get it!  Naturally, they show their appreciation by showering the federal politicians with money (all very well documented).

Just follow the money.  As always...

Nice Collection of Free Web Site Icons...

In vector (.svg) format, no less...

10 Handy Unix/Linux Command Line Utilities...

It's billed as a “top ten” list.  I don't think it quite rises to that level, but still there are some good ones here...

You'll Never Think of an Egg the Same Way Again...

Artists who display almost inconceivable craftsmanship have always impressed me.  This is one of them.  Carving eggshells?!?!  What even made someone think of this?


Monbiot's Encounter with Reality... related by Rachel Lucas.

Where's the Economic Growth Happening?

Hint: not much in the U.S. (outside of Texas, anyway), none in Europe.  Asia and Mexico are blowing the barn doors off.

Interactive infographic of doom...

Mark Steyn on the David Gregory Flap...

If you haven't been keeping up with the news, here's the David Gregory flap in brief...

David Gregory is a “TV journalist” and moderator of NBC's Meet the Press.  On the December 23rd show, Gregory waved around a 30-round bullet magazine – an item that is illegal in Washington, D.C., where he was at the time.  It turns out that NBC asked the D.C. police for permission to display the magazine before the show aired – and that permission was denied.  Gregory waved it around anyway.  Now the police are investigating him for possible prosecution under the aforementioned law.

Journalists all over the U.S. are raising a stink about this.  “It's obvious he had no criminal intent!” is the basic line.  Now Mark Steyn:
David Gregory intended to demonstrate what he regards as the absurdity of America’s lax gun laws. Instead, he’s demonstrating the ever greater absurdity of America’s non-lax laws. His investigation, prosecution, and a sentence of 20–30 years with eligibility for parole after ten (assuming Mothers Against High-Capacity Magazines don’t object) would teach a far more useful lesson than whatever he thought he was doing by waving that clip under LaPierre’s nose.

To Howard Kurtz & Co., it’s “obvious” that Gregory didn’t intend to commit a crime. But, in a land choked with laws, “obviousness” is one of the first casualties — and “obviously” innocent citizens have their “obviously” well-intentioned actions criminalized every minute of the day. Not far away from David Gregory, across the Virginia border, eleven-year-old Skylar Capo made the mistake of rescuing a woodpecker from the jaws of a cat and nursing him back to health for a couple of days. For her pains, a federal Fish & Wildlife gauleiter accompanied by state troopers descended on her house, charged her with illegal transportation of a protected species, issued her a $535 fine, and made her cry. Why is it so “obvious” that David Gregory deserves to be treated more leniently than a sixth grader? Because he’s got a TV show and she hasn’t?

Anything involving guns is even less amenable to “obviousness.” A few years ago, Daniel Brown was detained at LAX while connecting to a Minneapolis flight because traces of gunpowder were found on his footwear. His footwear was combat boots. As the name suggests, the combat boots were returning from combat — eight months of it, in Iraq’s bloody and violent al-Anbar province. Above the boots he was wearing the uniform of a staff sergeant in the USMC Reserve Military Police and was accompanied by all 26 members of his unit, also in uniform. Staff Sergeant Brown doesn’t sound like an “obvious” terrorist. But the TSA put him on the no-fly list anyway. If it’s not “obvious” to the government that a serving member of the military has any legitimate reason for being around ammunition, why should it be “obvious” that a TV host has?
Just so, Mr. Steyn, just so.

If they'd arrest and prosecute me for waving a 30 round magazine around in Washington, D.C. ... then there's no good reason why they shouldn't do the same to David Gregory.

You want some indication of how this is going to play out?  Try this: yesterday David Gregory interviewed ... President Barack Hussein Obama.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Zeta Oph's Wind Wave...

From APOD, of course (full resolution):

Computers Are Almost Free...

The inexorable hardware march toward smaller size, lower cost, higher performance continues apace.  The board pictured at right is an ODROID-U2, half the size of a credit card.  It's powered by an Exynos 4412 1.7 GHz quad-core ARM processor, sports 2 GB of RAM, and includes 10/100 mbps Ethernet, an HDMI 3D accelerated video system, full digital audio, a serial port, an SD card slot, a eMMC socket, and three USB 2.0 ports.  All for $89.  Absolutely awesome!

The list of accessories is intriguing for anyone interested in building custom hardware – amongst the accessories is a board with a PIC 18F45K50-QFN microcontroller, with on-board 10 bit A/D, 5 bit D/A, and all sorts of other I/O capability.  The ODROID-U2 equipped with that board gives you a box roughly 2.5 inches on a side, fanless, that can run Linux and Java and talk to just about anything.  Also interesting: for $12 you can add WiFi to this thing.

Just a few years ago this sort of setup would have set you back over $1,000, and would occupy a large shoebox with a noisy fan.  What do you think it will be a few years from now?  I'm betting smaller than an iPhone, battery powered, and under $50...

Second Impressions...

Rod Hilton has second thoughts – more positive – about Scala...

LIke JSON, But Better?

MessagePack is a binary language-independent serialization format, whereas JSON is a textual serialization format.  The MessagePack designers went to considerable trouble to eliminate redundancy, unlike JSON where the emphasis seems to have been on simplicity and readability.  MessagePack bindings exist for over a dozen languages, including all the obvious mainstream languages.

I haven't tried it out yet, but I'm planning to include it in a couple of current projects.  I like it's design...

Warp Drive?

Maybe not quite as fictional a construct as once believed?

For those of you who are not science fiction readers, the “warp drive” (under whatever name) is one of two standard devices used by science fiction stories that postulate civilizations across multiple star systems.  The other standard device is the “worm hole”.  Both of these are used to get around the awkward relativistic restriction against traveling faster than the speed of light.  Readers are basically asked to accept these magical devices in order to make the stories' plots work.

Well, maybe the warp drive isn't quite as impossible as physics once told us it was.  NASA is working on oneReally!

One Time After Another...

Over and over again, the Israeli government impresses me with smart actions.  They seem to be the exception that proves the rule of bureaucratic ineptness. 

Now they've come up with a clever way to defeat the (very clever) Palestinian propagandists, who have learned to play the Western media like the fine “useful idiots” they are.  From Strategy Page:
Israel is placing more cameras (either fixed or in vehicles or aircraft) in areas where its forces confront angry, or armed, Palestinians. This is to get a video of what actually happened in situations where Palestinians get killed and then accuse the Israelis of war crimes. Often Israeli troops are being ambushed or otherwise on the defensive. No matter, if Palestinians get hurt the Palestinians have learned that the media is willing to believe some outrageous lies and blame everything on the Israelis. All these videos, aggressively distributed by the Israelis, are becoming a real problem for Palestinian propagandists.
Read the whole thing...

Why is it that I have no hope whatsoever of either the U.S. Federal bureaucracy or the California State bureaucracy of ever coming up with something so sensible and clever?


Friday, December 28, 2012

Hold Your Breath!

But it has a good ending, I promise:

Good Food Alert!

This is for my readers in Jamul.  If you like high quality unsweetened dried fruit, there's a treat waiting for you at the vegetable and fruit stand in Jamul, near the intersection of SR 94 and Steele Canyon Road.  Right now there's a pile of one pound clear plastic boxes full of some of the best dried fruits I've ever had, just next to the checkout counter.  They're $6.95 a box, which is a very good price.  Each box has an assortment of fruits: apricots, peaches, plums, apples, pears, nectarines, and more.  All are seedless.  The degree of dehydration is perfect for just eating.  The fruit is uniformly flavorful and of high quality.

I don't know if this is a new line they're going to be carrying more-or-less permanently, or if it is more of a one-time deal.  I didn't take any chances; I came home with five pounds!

Morning Walk...

Our morning walk was a little special today.  For starters, we “slept in” until just after 5 am – a rare occurrence in our household.  None of the dogs started barking, no cats jumped on our heads; just sweet peace and quiet.

When I did get up, the first thing I noticed was the frost alarm blinking.  This happens, generally, several times a year.  Usually it's on a clear night, as last night here was.  I got up and started to flip the outside light on, to see if we got a hard frost – but there was no need, as a full moon hanging low in the west was brightly lighting up the entire back yard (which slopes up from our house).  Everywhere I looked the ground was sparkling with little moonlit diamonds.  Just outside our bedroom window I have a small collection of twisted, gnarled cedar wood from the high Utah desert; it was thickly covered with hoarfrost and spectacularly lit up.

After my morning shower, I headed out with the dogs.  As usual, the three field spaniels were noses down, smelling out all the exciting things that happened last night, “talking” to each other the whole time with little grunts and low barks.  The border collie (leashed this morning) spent his time searching for a pine cone to torture.  I never let him near one, so he was a bit frustrated.

Race (the border collie) was leashed this morning because of a bad experience a few days ago.  While off leash, he got into some raw rice I'd put out for the ground squirrels.  Before people start writing me about exploding birds and so forth, let me just point out that the idea that eating raw rice is bad for rodents or birds has long since been debunked – in fact, for any animal that normally eats seeds, raw rice is good food.  This rice was perfectly good, but was some of the wrong kind that we'd purchased months ago.  Rather than just throw it away, we put it out as a sort of Christmas present for the wild things around us.

But it's not good food for dogs.  You'd think that a dog would know enough not to eat something that is completely indigestible to it, but sadly (at least for Race) this is not the case.  From later evidence, he ate perhaps a cup of this raw rice.  For the next two days our so, undigested raw rice blasted out of both ends of his alimentary tract.  The blasting occurred whether he was indoors or outdoors, at moments of his alimentary tract's choosing, and completely unpredictable to us.  That means I spent a considerable part of the past couple days cleaning up unspeakably foul messes.

The rice has been moved out of Race's reach.  But...Race is on a leash now while we're walking, at least until the memory of the past couple days fades a bit.  For me, I mean.

The moonlight this morning while we were walking was just spectacular.  It wasn't the brightest I've ever seen, but it was probably in the top ten.  Certain colors (especially reds) were easily distinguishable, even at considerable distance.  Blues were the hardest to make out.  My four dog leashes are all different bright colors.  Two were easy to identify: red and orange.  The other two I could just barely imagine their color: blue and green.  The blue one was actually kind of interesting – in the moonlight it actually appeared to be a lighter color (a kind of medium gray) than it appears in bright light (a deep cobalt blue).

The dogs seemed to be completely oblivious to either the moonlight or the frost.  I wonder if they have any sense of beauty or wonder?

Puya berteroniana, aka Chaqual...

From BPOD, of course...

Glowing Hydrogen...

From APOD, of course: NGC 6188 and NGC 6164Full res photo here...

DNS Tools and More...

A web site full of all sorts of DNS tools, plus a few more things besides (like a URL translator to get rid of the %xx encodings).  An nice geek tool!

Thursday, December 27, 2012


PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is an organization that bills itself an “animal rights” organization.  Their mission statement:
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the largest animal rights organization in the world, with more than 3 million members and supporters.

PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: on factory farms, in the clothing trade, in laboratories, and in the entertainment industry. We also work on a variety of other issues, including the cruel killing of beavers, birds, and other "pests" as well as cruelty to domesticated animals.

PETA works through public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement, and protest campaigns.
So you'd think that when PETA takes animals for adoption (which they do, regularly), they'd have a good record for adoption or no-kill shelters, right?  Wrong:
The organization, which claims to be dedicated to the cause of animal rights, can’t explain why its adoption rate is only 2.5 percent for dogs.

In 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) behaved in a regrettably consistent manner: iteuthanized the overwhelming majority (PDF) of dogs and cats that it accepted into its shelters. Out of 760 dogs impounded, they killed 713, arranged for 19 to be adopted, and farmed out 36 to other shelters (not necessarily “no kill” ones). As for cats, they impounded 1,211, euthanized 1,198, transferred eight, and found homes for a grand total of five. PETA also took in 58 other companion animals — including rabbits. It killed 54 of them.
I've written about this before. It is still just as astonishing to me as the first time I heard this. It's diabolical – PETA has constructed an organization that actually does the opposite of what donors would expect it to do...

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Day by Day on Gun Control...

Oh, exactly right, Chris!  Exactly right...

Penn & Teller on Gun Control...

Bullshit!, they say...

Is This for Real?

Simon M. passes this along, saying “If I'd read this on April 1st I'd have thought it was a joke.”  Here's the start of the piece:
Harvard University geoengineer and environmental scientist David Keith has a "plan B" in case of an environmental emergency.

Keith's unusual proposal is this: Force reflective particles into the Earth's upper atmosphere -- the stratosphere -- to reverse global warming.

"One approach is to disperse particulates at high altitude to reduce the effective solar flux entering the atmosphere," Keith and his fellow researchers report in the Nature Climate Change journal and Environmental Research Letters.
I'm guessing Simon would be very surprised to learn that many such schemes have been proposed, generally followed by a round of raspberries from the warmist crowd.  It seems that even if one accepts the notion of runaway global warming, proposing to fix it by engineering a solution is automatically bad – even if said solution is vastly easier and cheaper than the solutions being proposed by the warmists (e.g, carbon taxes, huge reductions in carbonaceous fuel use, etc.).  Several scientists who have proposed engineered global warming fixes have reported being harassed, having their funding threatened (and, in at least one case, actually withdrawn), and so on.  It's Mann's way or the highway, it seems...

The Bagpiper...

Via reader Jim M.:
As a bagpiper, I play many gigs. Recently I was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man. He had no family or friends, so the service was to be at a pauper's cemetery in the back country.

As I was not familiar with the backwoods, I got lost and, being a typical man, I didn't stop for directions. I finally arrived an hour late and saw the funeral guy had evidently gone and the hearse was nowhere in sight. There were only the diggers and crew left and they were eating lunch.

I felt badly and apologized to the men for being late. I went to the side of the grave and looked down and the vault lid was already in place. I didn't know what else to do, so I started to play. The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around.

I played out my heart and soul for this man with no family and friends. I played like I've never played before for this homeless man. And as I played 'Amazing Grace,' the workers began to weep. They wept, I wept, we all wept together.

When I finished I packed up my bagpipes and started for my car. Though my head hung low, my heart was full. As I opened the door to my car, I heard one of the workers say, "I never seen nothin' like that before and I've been putting in septic tanks for twenty years."

Science Breakthroughs...

It's that time of year again – time for the inevitable “Best of the Year” lists.  Here's our first one: best science breakthroughs of the year.

Blog Update...

Sorry about the light blogging, friends.  We've been a tad busy :)

First, on Christmas Eve, Debbie had her “two month” surgery followup – and the news was almost entirely good.  The joint is healing nicely, and the surgeon expects to release her for weight-bearing in four weeks.  Her flexion was good – good enough for him to accuse her of “showing off”!  The only thing her surgeon didn't like was her extension – it was not quite as good as on the last followup, mainly because she was so focused on the flexion.  Debbie left that followup in good cheer, a marked turnaround from last time...

Yesterday we watched the old version of A Christmas Carol (the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim); it's a Christmas tradition for us.  At the same time, I roasted a 22 lb. turkey, and for dinner we had a simple repast of fresh-roasted turkey, homemade gravy over rice, and peas.  Delicious!  The turkey came out surprisingly well (considering that I cooked it, instead of Debbie), and the gravy was terrific.  Yum!  Then later in the day, our friend and neighbor Jimmy brought down two dinner plates for us from their Christmas dinner – we're looking forward to devouring them today.  He also brought down some pieces of Michelle's awesome lemon cake, sprinkled with fresh berries – I'm afraid none of that survived past this morning.  Yum!

This morning I dismembered the turkey, producing a full gallon container of tender turkey meat and a lovely skeleton which is simmering on the stove as I write.  It will become the base for turkey variant of the traditional Mexican soup Caldo Tlalpeño.  We're not using any of the recipes at the linked page; I just wanted to give you an idea what this soup is like –most of you probably never heard of it.  We discovered it at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Chula Vista years ago, and have loved it ever since.  The cilantro and lime are vital components – if you choose to try this soup, don't forget them!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Saturn's Hexagon...

Here's a nice discussion of the strange gaseous hexagon at the north pole of Saturn, as imaged by the awesome Cassini probe...


These days when we have a candidate for a position at work, it's pretty much routine to a search on sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, as well as just a general web search.  Reasonably often something quite, er, compromising will show up – anything from diatribes about their current employer to NSFW photos.  You have to wonder what on earth was going on in the candidate's mind when they put that sort of stuff out there for public scrutiny.

This is a very logical extrapolation of what might be possible with such info:

Good Point...

Just Awful...

These really bad puns are courtesy of reader Simi L., who says “These are so bad I just had to send them...”
  • The roundest knight at King Arthur's round table was Sir Cumference. He acquired his size from too much pi.
  • I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.
  • She was only a whiskey maker, but he loved her still.
  • A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class, because it was a weapon of math disruption.
  • No matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.
  • A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.
  • A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart.
  • Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
  • A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.
  • Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
  • Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
  • Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway. One hat said to the other: 'You stay here; I'll go on a head.'
  • I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger. Then it hit me.
  • A sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center said: 'Keep off the Grass.'
  • The short fortune-teller who escaped from prison was a small medium at large.
  • The man who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.
  • A backward poet writes inverse.
  • In a democracy it's your vote that counts. In feudalism it's your count that votes.
  • When cannibals ate a missionary, they got a taste of religion.
  • If you jumped off the bridge in Paris, you'd be in Seine.
I thought some of those were actually pretty good :)

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Srinivasa Ramanujan.  Some 20 years ago, an Indian colleague and friend told me about Ramanujan, whom I'd never heard of.  He recommended The Man Who Knew Infinity, and I will likewise recommend that book to you.  It's an amazing story of a man whose mathematical talents approached magic...

What Does Randomness Look Like?

Excellent article exploring (and explaining) something that is counter-intuitive to almost everyone: truly random data doesn't look random (well, at least not to most people).

Something the article doesn't touch on, but is closely related: people are very good at visually identifying certain kinds of non-random data, by picking graphical patterns out of images similar to the ones shown in the article...

Real World Code Sucks...

Dave Mandl writes (intro):
There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance in most people who’ve moved from the academic study of computer science to a job as a real-world software developer. The conflict lies in the fact that, whereas nearly every sample program in every textbook is a perfect and well-thought-out specimen, virtually no software out in the wild is, and this is rarely acknowledged.

To be precise: a tremendous amount of source code written for real applications is not merely less perfect than the simple examples seen in school — it’s outright terrible by any number of measures.

Due to bad design, sloppy or opaque coding practices, non-scalability, and layers of ugly “temporary” patches, it’s often difficult to maintain, harder still to modify or upgrade, painful or impossible for a new person joining the dev team to understand, or (a different kind of problem) slow and inefficient. In short, a mess.
His experience matches my own, at least for any body of code that wasn't written by a single individual (that's nearly everything these days, as software keeps getting bigger and more complex).

But for the most part, it works anyway – which some might consider to be an inexplicable miracle...

A Gun Control Roundup...

Courtesy of the incomparable Rachel Lucas.  Read it, and send the links to your favorite believers in the efficacy of gun control...



A Measured Response the Sandy Hook Shootings...

Excerpt from Mark Steyn's piece:
It would not be imprudent to expect that an ever-broker America, with more divorce, fewer fathers, the abolition of almost all social restraints and a revoltingly desensitized culture, will produce more young men who fall through the cracks. But, in the face of murder as extraordinarily wicked as that of Newtown, we should know enough to pause before reaching for our usual tired tropes. So I will save my own personal theories, no doubt as ignorant and irrelevant as everybody else's, until after Christmas – except to note that the media's stampede for meaning in massacre this past week overlooks the obvious: that the central meaning of these acts is that they are without meaning. Herod and the Pennsylvania Indians murdered children in pursuit of crude political goals; the infanticidal maniac of Sandy Hook was merely conscripting grade-school extras for a hollow act of public suicide. Like most mass shootings, his was an exercise in hyper-narcissism – 19th century technology in the service of a very contemporary sensibility.
Read the whole thing...

An Opinion on Gun Control...

Best piece on gun control I've read in a while...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Icon/Graphic Sources...

A couple of good sources for free or cheap icons and graphic elements: here and here...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Big Science: Perverse Incentives...

This post in Nature is about the biological sciences, but it's just as applicable to climate science.  The old saw “Follow the money!” leads you to bad science – corrupted science – in both cases.

Systems of incentives are really, really hard to get right.  Just ask any manager if you'd like to understand the how and why of that.  I was a manager for more years than I care to think about, and putting the right incentives in place for those employees who weren't self-motivated (that would be most of them!) was always an enormous challenge.  The failures were much more numerous than the successes.

I've often noted to myself how easy it is to motivate our dogs.  Just give them a tiny hint that a dog treat is in the offing, and they're instantly prepared to do absolutely anything that they know now to do.  That leads directliy to a desire: for a box of “developer treats” that would work the same way on the developers working for me.  Never did find those damned treats...

The Dead Sea Scrolls...

They're all online now.  Awesome.

Curiosity: Another Close Look at Mars...

Curiosity is pouring science data down to Earth.  Here's a close-up look at a Martian rock, courtesy of the Mars Hand Lens Imager:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


The Cassini team created this composite from over 60 images filtered from infrared, red, and violet ranges:

It Could Be Worse!

Via reader Jim M.:
But not everyone is as lucky as I am...

The economy is so bad that I got a pre-declined credit card in the mail.

I ordered a burger at McDonald's, and the kid behind the counter asked, "Can you afford fries with that?"

CEO's are now playing miniature golf.

If the bank returns your check marked "Insufficient Funds," you have to call them and ask if they mean you or them.

Hot Wheels and Matchbox stocks are trading higher than GM.

McDonald's is selling the 1/4 'ouncer'.

Parents in Beverly Hills and Malibu are firing their nannies and learning their children's names.

A truckload of Americans was caught sneaking into Mexico.

Dick Cheney took his stockbroker hunting.

Motel Six won't leave the light on anymore.

The Mafia is laying off judges.

BP Oil laid off 25 Congressmen.

Congress says they are looking into the Bernard Madoff scandal. Oh Great! The guy who made $50 Billion disappear is being investigated by the people who made $1.5 Trillion disappear!

And, finally...

I was so depressed last night thinking about the economy, wars, jobs, my savings, Social Security, retirement funds, and our bleak future, that I called the Suicide Lifeline and was connected to a call center inPakistan. When I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.

An Oldie-But-Goodie Nerdly Christmas Artifact...

I first ran into this many years ago, when working for Xscribe (a now-defunct company that made computerized stenographic systems for court reporters).  I have no idea when or where it originated.  It's a takeoff on the famous poem Twas the Night Before Christmas:

Twas the nocturnal segment of the diurnal period preceding the annual yuletide celebration. And throughout our place of residence, kinetic activity was not in evidence among the possessors of this potential, including that species of domestic rodent known as mus musclus. Hosiery was meticulously suspended from the forward edge of the wood-burning caloric apparatus, pursuant to our anticipatory pleasure regarding an eminent visitation from an eccentric philanthropist among whose folkloric appellations is the honorific title of St. Nicholas.

The prepubescent siblings, comfortably ensconced in their respective accommodations or repose, were experiencing subconscious visual hallucinations of variegated fruit confections moving rhythmically through their cerebrums. My conjugal partner and I, attired in our nocturnal head coverings, were about to take slumberous advantage of the hibernal darkness when upon the avenaceous exterior portion of the grounds there ascended such a cacophony of dissonance that I felt compelled to arise with alactrity from my place of repose for the purpose of ascertaining the precise source thereof.

Fastening to the casement, I forthwith opened the barriers sealing this fenestration, noting thereupon that the lunar brilliance without, reflected as it was on the surface of a recent crystalline precipitation, might be said to rival that of the solar merdidan itself; thus permitting my incredulous optical sensory organs to behold a miniature airborne runnered conveyance drawn by eight diminutive specimens of the genus ragifer. Piloted by a minuscule aged chauffeur so ebullient and nimble that it became instantly apparent to me that he was indeed our anticipated caller. With his ungulate motive power traveling at what may have been more vertigiuous velocity than patriotionalar predators, he vodiferated loudly, exuelled breath musically through contracted lasia, and addressed each of the octet by his or her respected cognonen; Now Dasher, now Dancer, et al. Guiding them to the uppermost exterior level of our abode, through which structured could readily distinguish the concatenations of each of the 32 cloven pedal extremities.

As I retracted my cranium from its erstwhile location, and was performing a 180-degree pivot, our distinguished visitant achieved, with utmost celerity in animal pelts soiled by the ebon residue from oxidations of carboniferous fuels which had accumulated on the walls thereof. His resemblance to a street vendor I attributed largely to the planthora of assorted playthings which he bore exorsally in commodious cloth receptacle.

His orbs were scintillant with reflected luminosity, while his submaxillary dermal indentations gave every evidence of exgaging amiability. The capillaries of his molar regions and nasal appurtenance were engorged with blood which suffused the suboutaneous layers, the former approximating the coloration of albion's floral embelem, the latter that of the prunus avium, or sweet cherry. His amusing sub- and superalabials resembled nothing so much as a common loop knot, and their amdent hirscule facial adornment appeared like small, tabular and columnar crystals of frozen water.

Clenched firmly between his incisors was smoking piece whose gray fumes, forming a tenuous ellipse about his occiput, were suggestive of a decorative seasonal circlet of holly. His visage was wider than it was high, and when he waxed audibly mirthful, his corpulent abdominal region undulated in the manner of impectinated fruit syrup in a hemispherical container. He was as short, neither more nor less than an obese, jocund, multigenarian gnome, the optical perception of whom rendered me visible frolicsome despite every effort to refrain from so being. By rapidly lowering and then elevating one eyelid and rotating his head slightly to one side he indicated that trepidation on my part was groundless.

Without utterance and with dispatch, he commenced filling the aforementioned hosiery with various of the aforementioned articles of merchandise extracted from his aforementioned previously dorsally transported cloth receptacle. Upon completion of his task, he executed an abrupt aboutface, placed a singular manual digit in lateral juxtaposition to his olfactory organ, inclined his cranium forward in a gesture of leave taking, and forthwith effected his egress by renegotiating (in reverse) the smoke passage. He then propelled himself in a short vector onto his conveyance, directed a musical expulsion of air through his contracted oral sphincter to the antlered quadrupeds among the seed-bearing portions of a common weed. But I overheard his parting exclamation, audible immediately prior to his vehiculation beyond the limits of visibility:


How to Choose a Bottle of Wine...

Some seasonal advice, via reader, friend, and colleague Doug S. (full resolution):

Why Obama Won: a Parable...

This was sent to me in an email, allegedly a true story from a classroom in Nashville, Tennessee.  I'm doubtful of its provenance, so I'll call it a parable instead of a report:
The most eye-opening civics lesson I ever had was while teaching 3rd grade. The last Presidential election was heating up and some of the children showed an interest. I decided we would have an election for a class president. We would choose our nominees. They would make a campaign speech and the class would vote. To simplify the process, candidates were nominated by other class members. We discussed what kinds of characteristics these students should have. We got many nominations and from those, Jamie and Olivia were picked to run for the top spot.

The class had done a great job in their selections. Both candidates were good kids.

I thought Jamie might have an advantage because he got lots of parental support.

I had never seen Olivia's mother.

The day arrived when they were to make their speeches.

Jamie went first.

He had specific ideas about how to make our class a better place.  He ended by promising to do his very best.

Everyone applauded and he sat down.

Now it was Olivia's turn to speak.

Her speech was concise. She said, "If you will vote for me, I will give you ice cream."  She sat down.

The class went wild. "Yes! Yes! We want ice cream."

She surely would say more. She did not have to.

A discussion followed. How did she plan to pay for the ice cream? She wasn't sure.  But no one pursued that question. They took her at her word.

Would her parents buy it or would the class pay for it?  She didn't know.

The class really didn't care. All they were thinking about was ice cream.

Jamie was forgotten. Olivia won by a landslide.

Every time Barack Obama opened his mouth he offered ice cream and 51.4 % of the people reacted like nine year olds.

They want ice cream.

The other 48.6% percent know they're going to have to feed the cow and clean up the mess.

Decoy Spider...

Weird things happen in the Amazon, like this one: a tiny little spider making a much bigger fake spider from bits of dead leaves and other trash – then “animating” it, apparently to fool would-be predators into thinking twice about tangling with this apparently menacing monster spider.  It seems to be a newly discovered spider species, too...

Visualized: Pythagorean Theorem...

This is just awesome – the Pythagorean Theorem in a beautiful and intuitive visualization (a demonstration, really)!

A Bad Budget Deal...

That's the title of this Wall Street Journal ($) piece, and here's its intro:
It's clear by now that the budget talks are drifting in a drearily familiar Washington direction: Tax and spending increases now, in return for the promise of spending cuts and tax and entitlement reform later. This is a bad deal for everyone except the politicians who want more money to spend.
Well, yes.  Drearily familiar it is.  Depressingly familiar.  They conclude:
Mr. Boehner is certainly in a tough spot, with tax rates set to rise on January 1 if Congress fails to act. His fellow Republicans haven't helped by whining about their lack of "leverage" and publicly negotiating with themselves over the terms of their tax surrender.

We think they have more leverage than they believe if they are willing to fight on taxes into next year. But if they're not, at least they shouldn't associate themselves with a deal that increases spending and taxes with little or nothing tangible in return.

Let Mr. Obama own the tax increase and its measly 7.5% annual reduction in a $1.1 trillion deficit. Let the sequester take effect as planned, which at least means some spending restraint. Then engage Mr. Obama next year in trench warfare over spending and the debt limit as voters figure out that soaking the rich doesn't begin to solve the problem. A bad budget deal is worse than no deal at all.
They're saying that going over the cliff is better than the deal Obama and Boehner seem to be homing in on.  In past posts, I've agreed with that sentiment.  Nothing has happened to change my views on that, though I can't say I'm all that enthusiastic about the prospect (as it will affect my financial situation rather directly!).  Not so reader and friend Larry E., who writes me:
Yes, I'm actually hoping for Congress to fail to act. I'm rooting for going ff the so called "fiscal cliff" No, I don't want to go off slowly, tentatively, I want to take a giant leap.

Every deal I've heard about involves kicking the can down the road once again. The latest seems to be raising the debt ceiling for two years, increasing taxes and... incredulously, increasing spending! Not even just increases in existing programs but 10s of billions for NEW spending. We haven't had a Federal budget in how long? And CA just fakes it every year.

Any delay, any "deal" will not only push the problem down the road once again, but clearly Congress and the President are hoping for a miracle, another dot com or housing boom, to bail them out as happened for Clinton and essentially bailed out California. If, by some miracle that does happen, what will be the result? They will once again be emboldened, speaking of how they "balanced" the budget when the reality is that the next collapse will just be worse as at each one, spending up even more dramatically and therefore debt and obligations even dramatically higher.

I've had it. I want to get it over with. I will vote for every proposition, every ridiculous bond measure, every new program and every bit of new spending to help hasten the day. A new high speed rail that serves no purpose and will cost 50 times the original estimate? You bet. Solar panels to cover the desert. Absolutely and toss in some wind generators too. No matter it wouldn't be enough to power a city fleet of Chevy Volts, no, do it anyway.

Yachts for every teacher, police officer and firefighter.... they are all heroes after all and no amount of money is enough to reward them. Lets just keep throwing at them. Hey, maybe it we increase education spending to... lets say... a million/year per student... we'll be able to raise expectations for graduation from eight grade reading to... ninth grade level. Lets shoot high. and hey, while we are at it.... lets go for a 50% graduation rate.... no... that just crazy talk.

No matter how important the job it is an unsustainable system that adds more and more long term obligations and doesn't add the capability to pay for it. Why, in a terrible economy with revenues down and unemployment up, would our politicians continue to add new programs, new long term obligations, new boondoggles? Because out and out bribery is legal. Or maybe, like me, they just want to get it over with?

I wish very much that there had been no stimulus bills. They amounted to nothing more than political slush funds and at best kept things limping along without solving any issues. Kicking that can down the road and rewarding a bunch of criminals and any "deal" will amount to the same.

Lets just do this thing.
Now that's what I'd call an enthusiastic endorsement of sequestration! And also an American who's basically given up on America – and who thinks that the shock of full-on progressivism might wake up our citizens. I wish I could be confident of that, as then I'd share Larry's enthusiasm for this course...

Carol of the Bells, at Work...

Just enjoy it:

Optical Poem...

Here's an interesting attempt to visualize music, in this case Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody.  Watch it, then read below about why it's so surprising:

What's the big deal?  This: Oskar Fischinger made this film in 1937, before we had computers and software that made such things relatively easy to produce.  He did it with little bits of paper hanging on invisible wires, and stop-motion photography.  In other words, this took an enormous amount of incredibly tedious work to put together...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Patterns in the Snow...

One man – Simon Beck – creates these by walking around on fresh snow, in snowshoes.  Awesome...

Gun-Free Zones...

The very idea of “gun-free zones” as a method for reducing violence involving guns has always seemed completely stupid to me, for two reasons:
  1. It assumes that someone willing to shoot another person would meekly obey the law forbidding the possession of guns in such zones.  To which I say “Really?  You believe that?”
  2. It produces a pool of defenseless victims in a known place and at a known time.  Imagine you were evil enough to want to shoot a bunch of people.  Can you imagine a better place to target?  You know you can shoot a whole bunch of them before the cops manage to get there!
The statistics bear this out:
[John] Lott offers a final damning statistic: “With just one single exception, the attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011, every public shooting since at least 1950 in the U.S. in which more than three people have been killed has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry guns.”
I avoid “gun-free zones” myself, as I consider them to be dangerous places – the precise opposite of the intent.  I don't have a concealed carry permit myself (they are darned hard to get in California), but I'm confident that in any public place there are likely to be some law-abiding people who are armed.  I want them around me, where they can confront a criminal.  I don't want to be in an area where I know the only armed people are criminals.

Sandy Hook Elementary School is a gun-free zone.

Read the whole article...

A Love Story...

Reader Jim M. passes along this touching love story out of the frozen north:
Claude & Char lived by a lake in Northern Minnesota. It was early winter and the lake had frozen over.

Claude asked Char if she would walk across the frozen lake to the general store to get him some beer. She asked him for some money, but he told her "no, just put it on our tab". So Char walked across, got the beer at the general store, then walked back home across the lake. When she got home and gave Claude his beer, she asked him, "Claude, you always tell me not to run up the tab at the store.. Why didn't you just give me some money?".

Claude replied, "Well, I didn't want to send you out there with some money when I wasn't sure how thick the ice was yet!"

I Will Never Complain About My Job Again!

Politically Incorrect or Insenstive Humor...

Via reader Jim M:
I was devastated to find out my wife was having an affair but, by turning to religion, I was soon able to come to terms with the whole thing. I converted
to Islam, and we're stoning her in the morning!

The wife suggested I get myself one of those penis enlargers, so I did.  She's 21 and her name's Lucy.

Went to the pub with my girlfriend last night. Locals were shouting "pedophile!" and other names at me, just because my girlfriend is 21 and I'm 50.  It completely spoiled our 10th anniversary.

Just been to the gym. They've got a new machine in. Could only use it for half an hour, as I started to feel sick. It's great though. It provides me with everything I need - KitKats, Mars Bars, Snickers, Potato Crisps, the lot.

Question - Are there too many immigrants in Britain ? 17% said yes; 11% said No; 72% said "I am not understanding the question please."

The cost of living has now gotten so bad that my wife is having sex with me because she can't afford batteries..

A man calls 911 and says "I think my wife is dead". The operator says, "How do you know?" He says "The sex is about the same, but the ironing is piling up!"

I was explaining to my wife last night that when you die you get reincarnated but must come back as a different creature. She said she would like to come back as a cow. I said, "You obviously haven't been listening."

My wife has been missing a week now. The police said to prepare for the worst. So, I had to go down to Goodwill to get all of her clothes back.

I've heard that Apple has scrapped their plans for the new children's-oriented iPod after realizing that "iTouch Kids" is not a good product name.

There's a new Muslim clothing shop that opened in our shopping center, but they threw me out after I asked if I could look at some of the bomber jackets.

The Red Cross just knocked on my door and asked if we could contribute towards the floods in Pakistan. I said we'd love to, but our garden hose only reaches to the driveway.

The Wisdom of Luke the Drifter...

We Americans got so tired of being thought of as dumb asses by the rest of the world that we went to the polls this November and removed all doubt.


Quote of the Day: Cheap CEO?

Reader Larry E. (who used to work for HP, via its Peregrine acquisition) refers to this article, and says:
You know, after the Board of directors scandals, the mess by Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurds crazy acquisition strategy and managing to destroy any real R&D, Leo Apothothacer dodging a subpeona for his first 3 months and then promptly scraring the crap out of investors by indicating he wanted to sell off the PC division, and, of course the 70 day tablet debacle, and finally Meg Whitman at a loss to do anything but writing off ridiculous amounts...massive numbers laid off...a stock price that managed to go from 60/share to 11/share...

I'm telling you, I could have ruined HP at a fraction of the cost those fancy high priced CEO's charged.

It truly is very sad.  HP is an iconic high technology company, and used to be a place that any geek would have been proud to work at.  These days it's closer to a laughingstock, sort of like Nokia or Research in Motion...

Make Your Web Site Look Halfway Decent...

Just the kind of advice I'd need were I building a web site.  Which, come to think of it, I will be doing soon!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Let Him Go!

What'll It Be?

Via my lovely bride:
A Lawyer, an Illegal Alien, a Pathological Liar, a Muslim, a Communist and a Black Guy walk into a BAR.

Bartender asks "What'll it be, Mr. President?"
Ouch. That has enough truth to it to work...

Solid-State Memory Breakthrough...

The news on solid-state mass storage just keeps getting better and better.  The latest: voltage-switched magnetoresistive memory, much more dense and much lower power.

Old-fashioned magnetic memory (tape and disk) is doomed – the only question is exactly how long it will take.  I'm pretty sure I'll easily live long enough to see this...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

More States Ranking...

This time by Forbes, for the best states for business...

I Don't Know...

...what's making this girl (on the right) so happy – but whatever it is, I want some!

Something about that happy face of hers really makes me smile...

The Key...

Seen on Facebook:
A young girl came up to me in the parking lot this morning and asks, "Excuse me, sir, can I use your phone?  I'm locked out of my car."

I said, "Sure.  Is the car still running?"

She replied, "No.  Fortunately I have my keys right here.  But I think the battery in my unlocked died."  She said this as she showed me the key fob.

When I took her keys and showed her how they unlock the car door, she gasped audibly out of shock.  She had no idea that the ignition key for a car unlocked the door.

I wanted to show that girl a crank window so badly.  That would have blown her friggin' mind!

Hovering Paper Airplane...

It's not for real – it's an April Fool's joke...

AGW Watch: Leaked IPCC Report Admits Solar Forcing and No Recent Warming...

As Anthony Watts says, this is a major bombshell.

The IPCC is in the midst of its process for finalizing and releasing AR5, its next report on anthropogenic global warming.  Alec Rawls is one of the IPCC “expert reviewers”, and he decided to break his confidentiality agreement with the IPCC and released the working draft.  You can read all about his reasons, and download the working draft itself, from Mr. Watts wonderful site WUWT.

I know of two big pieces of news in the leaked report, though I'm sure there will be more, as more people get to chew on the data.  The first one is illustrated in the graph (from the report!) at right: the IPCC is itself reporting that observed temperatures have not trended upwards since the late '90s, in direct contrast to the upward trends predicted by all of the IPCC's climate models.  Skeptics have been reporting this for five years, and until now the IPCC has been denying it.

Probably even more relevant, though, is the discussions in the draft report about solar forcing.  The IPCC scientists (some of them, at least) are reporting strong evidence for amplified solar forcing, even though they don't know the mechanism.  This is precisely what many skeptical scientists have been saying for years: that there is strong evidence that climate variations are caused (in large part, anyway) by variations in solar radiance.  Much of the evidence is observational: high correlation between solar radiance and global temperature.  Some is experimental, most especially the recent experiments (and related observations) about solar wind, cosmic rays, and cloud seeding.  The IPCC has heretofore resolutely denied that solar forcing was playing any part at all in climate change – this represents a radical revision of that position.

This is the first time a draft IPCC report has been leaked.  The first thought I had upon reading the news (and the report) was this: has this same sort of information been in prior reports, but then removed before publication?  That would be precisely the sort of thing a corrupt science bureaucracy would do to protect its own funding...

1.9 Inches...

We've had 1.9 inches of rain since Thursday, and there's more in the forecast...

Sandy Hook...

Twenty innocent little kids (and six adults) killed in a horrifying way by an armed nut case.  The killer's mother murdered.  The killer committing suicide.  We've seen this movie before, and all too often.

Our minds recoil in horror.  We try to imagine what it must have been like to be one of those victims...and what it is like to be a survivor or someone who loved one of the victims.  It's terrifying, and more terrifying the more we think about it.  We wonder what the reasons might be.  And we see this latest mass murder as part of a pattern of increasing incidence, increasing danger.

On that last point: we're mostly wrong about the pattern of increasing incidence (though there's one small way in which we're right).  There are four main things that contribute to our mistaken pattern detection:
  • We're hard-wired to detect patterns.  Our brains can largely be thought of as pattern-detection machines, highly evolved to see patterns like threats and sources of food.  This pattern detection is completely subconscious; we can neither control or perceive it.  It's a nearly universal part of our daily experience: it lets us recognize faces, detect odors of rotten foods, see birds in the forest, hear one voice in a noisy room, and so on.  It's also a famously error-prone ability: we constantly perceive patterns where there are none at all.  One very clear and famous example has almost been rendered obsolete by technology - remember the “static” you'd see on the screen of an old-fashioned TV set?  Anyone who sits and stares at such a screen for a few minutes will think they see movement on the screen – a pattern in the noise.  In fact, careful measurement by scientists shows that there is no such movement.  It's our over-active pattern detector at work again, trying hard to find patterns amongst the noise.  In the case of mass murders, our pattern detector is also putting together recent memorable events (more on that below) to make a pattern – but examined objectively, that pattern is just barely there (see the last point in this post).
  • Proximity bias.  This is a very well-known perception bias: we remember the things most proximate to us (in either space or time) much better than the things far away.  Both space and time apply to our perception of mass murders.  How many Americans are aware of the mass murders that occurred in, say, India (and there were many)?  We might even have heard about some of them on the news, but they're far away so we don't remember then nearly as well as those that occur close to home.  More relevant here, though, is that we don't remember mass murders that happened in the past as well as the ones that happened more recently – even those that occurred in our own lifetime.  People of my age (60) will immediately remember Sandy Hook, Columbine, Gabby Giffords, etc. – but do you remember the Texas Clock Tower shootings, and the Chicago Student Nurse House murders?  Or how about a little further back in time, to 1927 and the Bath School Disaster in which a bomber killed 38 school children and 7 adults (the worst mass murder of children in U.S. history)?  These older mass murders don't hold the prominence in our minds that the more recent ones do, and they aren't being considered by our subconscious pattern detection.
  • Absolute vs relative numbers.  This is another perceptual bias, and one that is particularly difficult for many people to wrestle with.  In the year 2000 there were about 4 times as many mass murders in the world as there were in the year 1900 – the absolute number of mass murders went up by 400%.  Many people would look at that fact and say to themselves “See, there are more mass murders today!”  But combine this with the fact that the world's population increased by the same amount (from 1.6 billion to 6.4 billion, or 400%) and you get a different picture.  The rate of mass murders per capita (the relative number of mass murders) didn't increase at all.
  • Instantaneous worldwide reporting.  This is an artifact of the electronic age we live in.  In the U.S., we heard about the murders committed by Anders Breivik at the same time the Norweigans did, thanks to the pervasive nature of TV and the Internet.  We all saw the same photos and videos, and at nearly the same time.  Not so many years ago, it would be days before we heard about the incident, if we heard about it at all.  It certainly would not have been top of the news cycle for days on end.  This phenomenon of “connectedness” that is now nearly worldwide means that we're much more likely to be aware of contemporary mass murders than we would of those that occurred earlier within our own lifetime.
All of the above cause us to perceive that there are more mass murders today than in years past (and also, perhaps, that they are worse).  These are perceptual errors, and they are very difficult to remove. 

There is one actual increase in mass murders that I'm aware of, albeit one that's nearly impossible to measure (though its effect can't be very large, as the overall statistics show little increase in the mass murder rate over the past 200 years).  In the 1950s there was a broad push in many countries to stop the practice of committing and institutionalizing the mentally ill.  In the U.S., this culminated with the Community Mental Health Centers Act in 1963, which banned the practice of institutionalization except for very specific cases where the mentally ill person was a clear and present danger to themselves or others.  Before this act went into effect, it was relatively easy for a family (generally with the cooperation of their family doctor) to commit a mentally ill person to an institution for life.  After the act went into effect, commitments to a mental institution were difficult and revocable (in fact, regularly reviewed).  As a very direct result of this act, tens of thousands of mentally ill people who would have been institutionalized under the old system are now as free as everyone else.  Some of these people, one must presume, are amongst the perpetrators of mass murders since 1963.

However, we must be very careful contemplating this – and I want to be perfectly clear that I am not advocating a return to easy commitment.  First of all, the previous system was demonstrably rife with gross miscarriages of justice – people who were merely inconvenient to their families, and not mentally ill at all, were committed to a life sentence in those institutions.  Such abuse proved impossible to stop; it was just too tempting for the unscrupulous and evil.  Secondly, it's demonstrable that many of our modern mass murders would never have been committed, even under the previous system.  We often hear, with famous hindsight, that the perpetrators were “odd” – but that's very different than saying that they were sufficiently odd or disturbed that they would have been committed.  The vast majority of the time these perpetrators surprise those who knew them best.

It's no comfort to know that the rate of mass murders isn't actually dramatically increasing.  But maybe it will help us organize our fears a little better.  You (and your children) are vastly more likely to die of a car “accident”, lightning strike, bee sting, or cancer than as the victim of a mass murderer...

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mathematics and Programming...

Is knowledge of mathematics necessary – or even useful – for a programmer?  That's a long-standing debate, with bazillions of threads on usenet groups and blogs.  Evan Miller has some interesting ramblings on the topic.

Speaking strictly for myself, there have been only a few occasions when I needed any mathematics more advanced than simple algebra to do the programming work that I've done.  However...some of the most interesting and fun things I've done did involve some more advanced math.  The ones that come right to mind include: network traffic analysis and management (probability, statistics, sampling theory), teletype FSK modems (Fourier transforms and information theory), bond valuation (Monte Carlo statistical modeling), classic optic design, software servos (control optimization), astronomical and geographic calculations (can you spell spherical trigonometry?), algorithmic trading (big data analysis, pattern matching), and cryptography (really big numbers, modulo math, and trap functions).  For all of these programming jobs, I really could not have done the job without having learned some new mathematics.  Because I had only a high school education, all of these areas of math were new to me when I first encountered the need.  And for whatever reason, in each case I thought the need to learn these was a lot of fun.  Still, the programming that I've done that required this math forms only a small fraction of the total body of programming work I've done. 

I don't know where that puts me in this debate :-)

First Measurement of c...

In physics, c is the speed of light.  That's a very fast speed indeed, roughly 310,000 km/s (or 186,000 miles/s).  How and when was it first measured?

This is a piece of science history I'm very familiar with, but you may not be.  It's very clever how it was done – in 1676!  Dutch astronomer Ole Rømer made the measurements and Dutch mathemetician and astronomer Christaan Huygens did the arithmetic.  They came up with a value of 218,000 km/s (or 131,000 miles/s) – not bad at all considering the state of scientific measurement almost 500 years ago!

Earthquake Captured!

Early this morning (2:36:02 Pacific time, 10:36:02 UTC) there was a fairly large earthquake (6.3 magnitude) off the coast of northern Mexico.  The epicenter was 305 km (about 183 miles) SW of our home.  At that distance, of course we never felt a thing.  But...the USGS requested data from the seismograph they installed in our home, and the graph at right shows what it “saw”.

This is the first seismogram I've ever actually tried to read.  I found several articles about reading them; this was the most useful.  If I'm understanding this correctly, I'm seeing the P-waves reaching us at about 10:36:46 UTC, or 44 seconds after the quake actually occurred.  That works out to a speed of 305/44, or 6.93 km/s – fast for a P-wave.  Then I'm seeing the S-waves reaching us at about 10:37:17 UTC, or 75 seconds after the quake actually occurred.  That works out to a speed of 4.07 km/s – again fast for an S-wave.  From what I've been reading, these seismograms are very challenging to extract good information from – both the amplitude and the timing of them are highly dependent on the geologic structures and material types between the earthquake and the seismometer.  I think I'll leave that to the experts :-)

But I do think it's kind of cool to be able to see the earthquake on an instrument in my house!

Entitlement Reform...

Via reader, colleague, and friend Doug S.  This is gonna give my mom some ideas.  She'll have one big problem, though: how to get her list down to just four...


In the last 24 hours, we've had 1.2 inches of rain.  Winter is here!  The graph at right shows UTC time, which is currently 8 hours later than our local time.  Most of the rain happened between 8 am and 2 pm local time yesterday.

And the forecast is for more rain, through Sunday.  Woo hoo!

The narcissus are in bloom in our yard – they seem to think it's springtime...