Tuesday, February 17, 2009

About the Jake

Every week, L. and I go to salt hill, the local Irish-style pub. There's live music, a handful of friends periodically join us, and they have very good food. On the menu is a particular item, the Jake -- a bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg on top, with hand-cut fries on the side and mustard for dipping. Oh, it's good. It's damned good.

But the best thing about it is that I almost never order it. I make up my mind before going, nearly every week, "Tonight, what sounds really good is the Jake. I will have that." My arteries then groan in protest, but I ignore them. But then I sit down, and I have a good Irish beer, and I start to think to myself, "Self, maybe I'll be good tonight. Instead of splurging and having the Jake, I'll show virtue and restraint and instead have..." and then order fish and chips, Irish stew, cheesesteak, or any number of other things.

As good as the Jake is, then, its primary virtue is in being the worst thing on the menu, and yet an object of great desirability. It absolves guilt by its very presence on the menu, so long as you first give it its due respect - it would not do its job nearly so well if I did not walk in the door intending to order it every Tuesday.

This post is brought to you by the number 5: 5pm, that is, the time at which I started feeling hungry and remembering that it's Tuesday, and salt hill day. And what sounds really good tonight is the Jake. I will have that.

Surfing the Stimulus

Now that the damned thing is signed, the White House has finally set up its Simulus-tracking website. I have to say, I'm unimpressed.

In order to get to the text of the thing, you have to click through to at least two external sites, each click popping up an obnoxious "You're leaving our precious site!" window, and the last (promising the actual text) is overloaded and is timing out.

So I'm left to look through the handful of things on the site. First thing that grabs me: numbers! And hey, tax breaks are the top item... right? What's the asterisk say? "* Tax Relief - includes $15 B for Infrastructure and Science, $61 B for Protecting the Vulnerable, $25 B for Education and Training and $22 B for Energy, so total funds are $126 B for Infrastructure and Science, $142 B for Protecting the Vulnerable, $78 B for Education and Training, and $65 B for Energy." So, does that mean that there's not actually as much "tax relief" as the number more than implies? Or merely that they tried to be as multi-purpose with it as possible? This ambiguity strikes me as dishonest and lazy. The technology and bandwidth both exist to explain this, in text and visually, in an intelligible way. When an administration that has proven to be adept at communicating suddenly falls down like that, I get suspicious.

OK, whatever. Hey, a timeline! I don't know why, but I'm irritated that they didn't do this as a Gantt chart.

Well, it's plainly a work in progress, and I'm gratified that the FAQ mentions that they might eventually have actual user-readable data on the site instead of pre-digested mush. I would love to get my hands on the text itself, but that'll have to wait until they get their act in gear bandwidth-wise. (Oh, and it's not an "unprecedented effort". The oft-repeated precedent would be the New Deal.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ten Thousand

I just attended a talk on a technical subject, the details of which I won't bore you with. (I will also decline to name the individual for various reasons. My apologies.) But part of that talk was about the natural of technical education. There were two points that I found particularly interesting. First, the assertion (which I had heard before) that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master something or to become an expert in a field. I came back from the talk to read a few blog posts, and note that John Scalzi has (in a roundabout way) said roughly the same thing, and gotten some flack for it.

This is connected, I think, to the second point he made, that it's important to draw a distinction between education and training. Education, he says, is cognitive learning -- you're learning the logic and formalisms, and basically picking up the tools that you need to think through a problem. (I'm going to call this "instruction", since I think the term "education" is counter-intuitive here) Training, he says, is psychomotor learning, but let's generalize it to reflex. Whatever you learn through repetition, you've trained on. Any field is learned through a combination of the two, and I would add that the general consensus is that the best learning occurs when you bounce back and forth between them. This is true of just about any human activity that can be both learned and taught, I believe: whether it's painting, calculus, martial arts, programming, whatever. Now, the optimal balance between the two may be skewed one way or the other. To learn the basics of calculus well, you probably need more instruction than training, but you definitely need practice sitting and doing it and playing around with it to hammer home what's useful and what isn't. (Yes, we teach the chain rule for a damn good reason, tricky or not. There are other similar tricks that nobody teaches because they're not that useful and amount to little more than algebraic origami.) Painting, on the other hand, is all about training and practice, with instruction probably being limited to mechanics and ideas like symmetry and perspective)

Instruction and training have an important role in learning any profession. In engineering I feel that this is sometimes particularly poorly done. The instruction can be top-notch, with lectures by some of the most intelligent professors... and then the homework and labs are examined and conducted by TAs, often grad students and sometimes undergrads. The students then lag behind in following the instruction portion because they do not have the context for what they're being told. Nor do I think that these kindergarten-style 'hands-on learning" classes are all that useful for many topics in engineering. Yeah, it's fun to jump right into building robots and writing programs, but you're over-training there, and in my experience those sort of classes simply do not provide the tools for general problems solving - there are just some problems that need to be reasoned out from first principles, and many more for which the common tools result in inelegant solutions.

Now, let's get back to those ten thousand hours. I've never heard anyone suggest, when repeating this idea, that they intend ten thousand hours of instruction. (In fact, a number of stories from Zen Buddhist tradition are centered around the notion that it is impossible to master Buddhism by sitting and being told about it; it is much better to be beaten about the head and neck) But are those ten thousand hours pure "doing"? If I spend ten thousand hours writing, with no instruction, will I end up a master writer? (Will I end up a good writer? Are the two questions identical?) What's the role of instruction here?
My answer, to which a number of you will probably disagree, is that you will master some kind of writing. It will be highly idiosyncratic (remember, self-education by sitting and reading and picking your favorite books is still instruction) and may not match what other people consider "good writing" but you will have mastered something. You may even make James Joyce proud. The role of instruction, then, helps guide those ten thousand hours toward a particular kind of writing, helps determine what the rules of the road are in terms of what people expect.
Mystery novels are a good example of this, since they so often travel in "schools". Most people would not hit on the British Golden Age style of novel (think Agatha Christie's Poirot, or Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey, or Margery Allingham's Albert Campion) on their own, but after reading a few, the style seems pretty easy to reproduce - but only experience and talent would lead one to produce a mystery plot that's both "fair" by the definition and baffling.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Well, would you?

So, would you eat a glowing lollipop?  

When you're done with that link, I recommend looking through the rest of the site.  Lersch is an engaging writer with a good sense of what's interesting and a strong science background.  His discussion of the sous vide process is worth reading.  I've tried it and it is fantastic.  However, I would show caution in selecting a plastic bag for the recipe -- use something that is intended for high temperatures, like the ones they sell for roasting fowl.  (Who the hell would roast a turkey in a plastic bag anyway?)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

a.k.a. "crazy Irish football"

So, I was out last night, as every Tuesday night, having dinner and a few drinks at the local Irish-style pub, salt hill. (Great place, I studied for quals there) Maybe it was just because I had a wee bit more to drink than usual, but I became fascinated by the sport being played on television. It looked like soccer... right up until one of the players (on the Dublin team, I believe) picked up the ball (which looked like a volleyball) and ran with it, and then did an extraordinary thing: dropped it and kicked it way above the net, then celebrated. He had in fact scored a point. And then it looked like someone shoved him. I watched as long as was polite (at least one person at the table had her back to the screen, so it wasn't exactly a social pastime) and then jotted down "crazy Irish football" in my notebook and put it away until this evening.

Searching a bit on this (remarkably close phrase) I came up with Gaelic football. It's a bit like soccer, a bit like rugby. And really, it seems to be a fascinating game. A bit rougher than soccer, but not the focal point of the game (I was once remonstrated by a freshly-pummeled rugby player, when I asked "who won?" for "missing the point") And as many geeks have discovered, it's much easier to feel at home being a sports fan with existential geek angst if the sport in question is bizarre, not widely known, or simply Not (American) Football.

Also in my notebook is a note, "crazy Irish lacrosse", which turns out to be Hurling. (Wikipedia link there, because there is no way in hell I am doing a video search for "hurling") I don't actually recall much about that one, as we were getting ready to go at that point.

Auto Audiobooks

So, the new Kindle has text-to-speach capability, and the Author's Guild is all upset about it infringing their rights. Cory Doctorow has the neatest summary. It's being pretty roundly dismissed, but, I feel, for the wrong reasons. Nearly everyone is complaining about the robotic speech of modern TtS, but I think that's the wrong approach.

I talked about this a bit in a comment on Whatever (John Scalzi's excellent blog). The upshot is, while text-to-speech sucks today, it won't always. In the future it is not ridiculous to imagine that a computer reading a text will not just speak fluidly with reasonable intonation, but could use different voices for different characters, even the voices of famous actors. (On a side note, I wonder whether public figures, who do not need to be paid for likenesses, will also not need to be paid for voice-likenesses. Could I do an audiobook of, say, "A Confederacy of Dunces" using only voices from, say, the 110th Congress?)

For that matter, it would not be terribly difficult to do something like this already, if one is willing to put some work into it. An audiobook markup language could do the job admirably. It would need to have several things:
  • The ability to mark particular characters, and a table of voices to match characters to voice "actors"
  • Markup for pauses, emphasis, volume, and speed (like music)
  • Either markup for or a glossary for pronunciation
This would not be difficult to do, actually.

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Good" != "Belongs in Stimulus"

I'm seeing a lot of wailing and moaning about proposed cuts to the stimulus package, and it's starting to get ridiculous. "Oh, you can't exclude education! It's vital to our future!" "Oh, you can't cut out health programs for the poor, we need those!" Yeah, we do need those things, and you know what? We'll get those things. I think the people complaining just don't understand that the stimulus package is not the same as the federal budget. There is still plenty of room and (perhaps less than plenty of) money for these programs -- but in the regular budget, not in this separate spending bill. Just because they're important doesn't mean they have to be pushed through on an emergency basis. Nobody's starving because they didn't get money from the stimulus bill, they're just going to have to wait for the normal budget. And half the things people are screaming about aren't even remotely relevant to the purpose of the bill: I'm a strong supporter of NASA, but it doesn't bother me that they're probably not going to get any extra money in this bill. NASA itself isn't getting cut here, they're just not getting a bonus, because that bonus wouldn't be an immediate stimulant to the economy.

In a way, the problem is that Obama was a little too responsible when planning this bill. He talked a lot about spending on projects to build infrastructure. But building infrastructure is not the point of the bill -- it's just a side benefit, to help alleviate the long-term problems with spending this much money. The direct benefits are necessarily short term. It would be a BAD thing to fund NASA or Head Start or other necessary programs through a one-time funding bill like this, because all those people would have to be laid off next year. It's far, far better to pay for those things (even new projects) in the regular budget, so that you can plan to continue them after this year. I'm not sure I like using it for public transportation -- I'm a strong supporter of public transportation, but once the stimulus money runs out and we're all used to taking the bus... where do the funds to keep the buses running come from? (And do NOT start talking to me about writing long-term funding into the stimulus bill, as that would be not merely missing the point, but aggressively so)

This stimulus package is turning into the Democratic Party's PATRIOT Act -- they're using a crisis to push through a lot of stuff that might be good for the country, but is not directly related to the crisis at hand. And as you recall, the PATRIOT Act turned into a focus for anger and resentment against the Bush administration. No, the analogy isn't perfect: Obama has been good about being willing to negotiate, and despite some somewhat shrill "This has to be done quickly!" rhetoric, has appeared to be reasonably willing to tolerate delay in the name of getting it right. But it's starting to look very similar.

Monday, February 2, 2009

, the Hunting of

Is snark a good thing or a bad thing? It's certainly entertaining, but is it, as Denby suggests in that interview, purely a destructive force? When we snark, are we exposing weakness in logic/rhetoric/belief, or are we merely snickering while Rome burns?