Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In which I complain about the TSA on my blog

I don't post here much these days, but I did want to mention John Pistole's recent testimony before Congress. Let me highlight this bit from yesterday's transcript:

"That being the case, I think everybody who gets on a flight wants to ensure and be assured that everybody else around them has been properly screened and, oh, by the way, everybody else on that flight wants to make sure that I have been properly screened or you have been properly screened."

I don't actually think so highly of my safety that I feel the need to be sure that my fellow passengers are either molested or digitally strip-searched. We're talking about hurtling through the sky in an aluminum tube here. There's a lot that can go wrong, resulting in my fiery death, and terrorists are actually pretty low on the list.

You want me to feel safe in the tube? Show me the pilot's credentials and record. Show me the plane's maintenance records, and your procedures for screening and monitoring mechanics. I'm far more interested in whether the engines are going to fail than whether some fuckwit has a bomb in his panties. Passengers know enough now to watch for and try to stop the latter; we've got a fighting chance at all stages (though, more of a chance if we're not lulled into a false sense of security). The former, we can only watch the pretty sparks. But I guess terrorists make a bigger splash on the news than pilot error or mechanical failure, so that's what the TSA is worried about.

I'm not against taking reasonable precautions, but just remember there is no such thing as "safe". Just more or less likely to die. We can get the best pilot in the world in a brand new plane with no passengers at all, and it can still go down from a bird strike. All we can do is raise the bar and ask ourselves whether a given procedure makes us safer in proportion to the cost to our comfort, dignity, sanity, time, wallet, and honor.

That last bit, to me, is what this is really all about. Bickering about whether digital strip searches and grabbing peoples' crotches makes us "safer" or not is beside the point: This is a dishonorable way to try to make ourselves safer, full stop.

(Finally: Remember, folks, complaining about the TSA on Twitter and your blog does nothing. Worse than nothing if it satisfies your anger and prevents you taking further steps to make things right. I've written to my Congresscritters on this subject. Have you?)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Thesis as localized repulsor

This PhD comic was doubly true for my thesis. First, the phenomenon he describes: every time I started to do anything else, the thesis beckoned. There was a constant refrain, "must work on thesis." But actually sitting down, I found the text physically repulsive. Once at the keyboard, it was constant work just to force myself to type.

For me, it was true in a second way: that local repulsor model describes the control scheme I used for multi-robot formation control, based on Leonard's work at Princeton. (That is, the robots were all attracted to each other from a distance, but were repulsed when they got too close)

I am highly amused.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sentence of the day

Tyler Cowen says,
‘Overall I seek to narrow rather than widen the following category: "cannot be praised without accompanying symbolic denunciation.”’
Can’t possibly agree more.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Livescribe pen

So I broke down and bought the Livescribe Echo, which I mentioned on my other blog. I’m really impressed. It does a lot of things, right, particularly its choice of demo apps. It’s the first piece of technology I’ve owned in a long time that I just don’t know how it works.

Well, that’s a little bit of an overstatement. The pen has a camera pointing down the barrel of the ink cartridge, and when you press down, it looks at the pattern of dots and determines from that where, on what page, in what pre-saved notebook it’s looking at. It only records what’s written when it’s on: I tried writing a bit with the pen (with power off) then turning the power on and drawing a line through it, and it only recorded the line. I suspect from that, and looking at how it picks up the lighter strokes in my handwriting, that it’s not actually recording the sight of a line being laid down, but the position of the pen relative to the dots while pressure is on. (Which means that I really need to press down more firmly while writing!) But I don’t know what it is about the dot pattern that makes it recognize where it is so well.

As for usage:

I doubt I’m often going to use the recording feature: lectures and meetings, most often, so maybe once or twice a week, depending on whether my coworkers are leery of it. It would be nice to bring to Viable Paradise in the fall, but I’m not sure whether recording devices are allowed. I’ll ask at some point. (Did I mention I got in? I got in! It gives me hope that I might actually manage to publish something, and thereby become an author instead of merely a liar!)

I’ve also found that the handwriting recognition does a very poor job with my exceedingly poor handwriting. I can’t decide whether editing the results of OCR would be better than simply retyping what I write. So, I probably won’t be jotting down blog posts or anything.

However, even without those features, I really like the pen: I constantly lose notebooks (and pens, actually...) and the idea of having my writing backed up greatly appeals to me. I had been taking photos of my notebook and storing them in Evernote, but it’s a cumbersome process and I have issues with proper rotation.

I’m also intrigued by its SDK, the ability to create my own applications and my own paper. It would be pretty cool to be able to print up maps that it recognizes, and then plot out character movements from room to room, then go back and ask it where certain characters were at particular times.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bento Boxes

I've been trying to be better about packing my lunches lately, and it occurred to me that having a set of bento boxes might make my life easier. I've looked around online and seen a lot of plastic ones, but it's hard to judge size and shape from online pictures. Does anyone have one they like?

For that matter, does anyone have any packing-lunch suggestions? I'd really like to be able to pack a week's worth in advance, as I tend to be only semi-functional in the morning...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Celebrity Juries

I’ve been thinking a lot about high-profile cases like the Mehserle trial. People are really upset over that one. I don’t claim to be an expert on it, having not watched the trial, nor even learned about it until the jury was in deliberation. But one thing that strikes me is that the folks who are angry don’t seem to really have trusted the jury.

Well, that leads me to ask: who do Americans trust? Celebrities. We need celebrity juries.

This has been done before, to great effect, in the investigation into the Challenger explosion. (Remember Richard Feynman with the O-rings?) People trusted that result, it worked. I don’t know if the members of that committee really were experts, or if it even mattered.

Here’s what I propose: Go through the list of people applying for Dancing with the Stars or similar reality shows. (That, or hang around the back lots of Hollywood studios looking for child actors rummaging the dumpsters.) Offer these people a hot meal and some amount of legal training, and then let them continue their publicity-hungry ways.

Then, when there’s a major trial, call them in. Use focus groups as part of jury selection: go out and pick up the angriest-looking people picketing, and anyone they ask for an autograph is in. Obviously, a lot of them will be disqualified for drug or drunk-driving offenses, but there should be a sizable pool left over of celebs who never got caught.

Things go on normally from there. Celebrities may not be the brightest people, but they’re certainly no dumber than your average person. And they have enormous egos -- they’re less likely to be awed by police officers or expert witnesses.

Then when the trial is over and the jury comes back from deliberations, you trot them all out in front of the cameras. They smile and wave, and deliver the verdict. It may very well be the same one that an ordinary jury would bring back, but people will trust it more if it comes from celebrities.

Now, I’m not only saying this because I think that people are stupid. The point of the jury system in the first place was that a person should be tried by their peers -- not only for their own sake, but so that the community would trust that the result was the same as if they had personally been there. It’s not merely or even primarily about fairness, but about confidence. I don’t think that we have that anymore, our cities and communities are just too big, and we don’t know each other. But we do feel like we know celebrities, probably more than we feel like we know our neighbors in many cases. Ergo, in order for the public to have confidence in the results of jury trials, those juries need to be filled with what passes for our neighbors today. Sad, but possibly necessary. Maybe we can get away with just having celebrities as jury foremen.

(I was going to insert a Paris Hilton joke here, but I’m reminded that she’s actually the only person in her generation of her family to *make* money rather than just spend it. The jury, if you’ll pardon the pun, is still out on her, I think)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Psst! Over here!

Just a friendly reminder that I’ve moved discussion of my writing over yonder. Recent posts include discussions of the outlining process, an experiment with ‘interviewing’ my characters, and some of the lessons I’ve learned from the Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Doing Homework or Excluding the Hurried?

I was recently reading a blog that I follow, written by someone I respect. (I’ll refrain from naming him here, as his identity isn’t actually germane) I frequently do not read the comments on this blog: I don’t have a lot of time, and frankly, I go there to read what he has to say, not his commenters. (Dangerous to say, given that I’m curious what my readers think, but I tend to think of Internet comment threads as a pox on civilization)

This morning, though, the post was specifically about the response to an earlier post, so I skimmed the comments a bit. In them, someone asked a (I thought) relevant question about a somewhat unwise use of slang in a quote from an older post that was relevant to this one. The blogger responded, answering the question, but then taking the commenter to task, saying “Forgive my annoyance, but this was explained many times in the comments for that post. It's just a matter of scrolling down and reading the conversation, if you are confused.”

This struck me at first as patently unfair. In the post being referred to, there are pages of comments, more text than the original post. And frankly, I find that many comment threads put me off my feed: there’s a lot of stupidity out there on them thar interwebs. It’s usually safer not to read them. However, this is someone whose courtesy and thoughtfulness I have rarely had cause to question.

So now I’m wondering: what’s the etiquette here? To what extent is it reasonable to expect someone to read through a comment thread before asking a question? To what extent is it OK to chide someone for not doing so, versus simply not answering the question, or answering the question without further comment?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Open Tabs 5: The Clever Sub-Title

I seem to have accumulated a couple of interesting links, mostly about food, recently. Allow me to share them.

* The Ka-Pow bar! This is awesome. So, chocolate bars are made by grinding cacao beans, extracting cocoa butter, then remixing them in a different proportion, with added sugar, milk solids, vanilla, almonds, whatever. These geniuses substituted finely-ground COFFEE for the cocoa in the remix stage. I am in awe. But it’s been 80 degrees in the shade here, and there’s no way I’m going to have them shipped to me from OR right now. So, I will either wait, or track down a source of food-grade cocoa butter for my own nefarious purposes.

* Making perfect french fries. Basically it comes down to using acidulated water to strengthen the pectin in the potato, holding it together better during cooking. Also useful for potato salad, actually. They do a similar investigation with potato chips (you may call them “crisps” if you prefer being wrong)

* Speaking of french fries: Cooking Issues also takes on the quest for French Fry Supremacy (Part 1, Part 2)

You’d think that after reading all that about french fries and seeing electron microscope pictures of french fries and even seeing some dude *sand* a french fry, that I’d know how to make the perfect fries. Sadly, I don’t. But that’s OK, I need to be doing less deep-frying.

But it’s not all about food!

* Abandonware by An Owomoyela is an awesome spec-fic short story up on Fantasy Magazine’s site

* Speaking of fiction, Chuck Wendig, esq posted Part One of Codpiece Johnson and the Hamsters of Anamnesis, part of an ongoing saga of being careful what you say online.

* Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, interactive fiction by Andrew Plotkin. I haven’t actually played more than a minute or two of this one, but it looks fascinating.

* NYTimes article on pot shops in Colorado. This subject is interesting to me: I don’t really have any interest in the drug itself, but I do think that a looser set of restrictions would do a lot of good for US society. The country’s various stabs at Prohibition have been uniformly bad for us, and this time our country’s drug habit is in the process of destroying Mexico. Finding another solution seems incumbent upon us.

* This is an older Times article on the various custom-order items available on the internet, including custom-tailored shirts. I’m really hoping to be able to buy shoes this way. I can walk into a shoe store, state my size, and be presented with at most two pairs of shoes that fit me. There are those reading this who are snorting at my broad spectrum of choice compared to the waste land that shoe stores are to them. Vans’ is among a number of stores that come close, but they don’t let you specify width! The “customization” is all about selecting color. I suspect that the answer is likely to be a machine that makes them on demand.

* On a related note, I keep trying to remind myself to visit the Harvard Book Store’s books on demand machine.

Monday, June 28, 2010

There Goes My Appetite

I admit that many of my food choice decisions are made on the basis of “Awesome” as opposed to “Good”. Friendly’s has a cheeseburger now where the bun is a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches. So awesome. I should have known better than to look up the nutrition information *sigh* (1500 calories, not including the side of fries)

On the other hand, if I skipped lunch and split it with someone else, it might actually be reasonable. Or, if I didn’t eat anything else all day except coffee and celery...

No, no. I must focus. The Double Down, by contrast, looks practically like a salad with its 540 calories!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Getting Back Into (Mathematical) Shape

I've recently been reading a fascinating article entitled, The Mathematician's Lament. By coincidence, I also had an article about solving Boltzman's equation up in another tab. Both of them have started me thinking: back in grad school, I had to do a reasonable amount of math on a regular basis. Calculus, algebra, geometry. Nothing really difficult, but it kept me in practice.

Now, though, I don't use much of it. A lot of statistics and some discrete math, but not much else. I'd like to keep in practice, but it's tough to find a place to get interesting puzzles to play at. Googling mostly turns up stuff aimed at kids: the "make math fun!" dreck that the Lament laments. I have all my old math textbooks (especially discrete math)  Anyone have any suggestions? (feel free to pass along the link to this post to anyone who might)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Farmer's Market

L. and I went to the farmer’s market this evening, and there was a stand selling seafood -- the proprietor drives down to the coast in the morning, then drives back with a haul of fresh cod, scallops, and lobsters. I bought a 1lb bag of scallops, which smelled absolutely delicious: sweet, really, and very faintly of the sea. I grilled them on skewers with just a brushing of canola oil and a sprinkling of salt. Fantastic. That plus a loaf of garlic bread, a bunch of carrots, and a jar of pickled beets, makes for a nice haul.

We’ve been impressed by how well the market is doing this year. The samosa stand in particular is just doing phenomenally well. Thanks to the warm weather, all the stands already have lettuce and other greens. Hell, we’re already a couple weeks into a very early strawberry season!

Looks look we’ll be eating very well this summer...