Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Web surfing

Man, talk about the perfect conditions for a morning spent websurfing: all my officemates are working in different locations, it's a gray/rainy day, and I'm waiting on an email so that I can do my own work. I just realized that I'm surfing out of boredom when I found myself typing in the URL... of the page I was on. There are times when I wish I didn't need Internet access to do what I do -- I'm so much more productive without it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The one thing...

... about introductory violin lessons is, you get the weirdest songs stuck in your head.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Taking Back What's Lost

A long time ago, I used to do lots of creative things, mostly as a teenager. I used to write, I used to act, I used to sing. I once directed a public performance of a play I wrote. Before all that, I used to draw, and I played instruments, the saxophone and the violin. I was good at some of it, and bad at, well, most of it. Either way, these are things that I have mostly lost. College left me without a lot of free time or energy, and grad school had all that plus the "feature" of making writing into an abominable chore instead of something I enjoyed. My creative output today is mostly in the software I write, or in blog posts, or in sandbox-style video games like Dwarf Fortress.

I've decided to try to reverse course a bit. I've done a bit of writing (nothing terrific so far), and I'm taking violin lessons again. It's funny how much muscle memory remains after almost twenty years. I've put a fair chunk of money into it - like with the gym, I find that being able to say, "I've paid for it, I might as well put it to use" is a remarkably good motivator. So for now I get to spend a half hour or so per day (about all my wrists can stand) making the cats flee, but I really do feel like I'm picking it up quickly this time around. Being able to still (sort of) read music helps a lot, as does having the cash to pick up things I need (shoulder rests, rosin, tuners, etc) without having to think too hard about it.

This all makes me wonder. If expenditure is a motivation for me such that I really am going to the gym regularly and practicing an instrument regularly, how on earth do I motivate myself to write more?

Monday, June 15, 2009


I'm a bit perplexed by the reactions from a lot of people whose blogs I read, or on my Facebook friends page. They seem utterly, absolutely convinced that the Iranian election was stolen, and as far as I can tell, based on absolutely zero knowledge. Yes, the guy everyone wanted to win is alleging irregularities, and sure the Ayatollah is acting defensive. Ahmadinejad is certainly following the first rule of avoiding a coup detat (To wit, "Don't leave the country")

But let's look at this clear-eyed here. Sometimes the good guys (or less-bad) really do lose fairly. Is there really much evidence that Ahmadinejad doesn't have the support of 63% of the population? Mousavi's a good guy, and it sounds like he ran a very smart, very technically sophisticated campaign - just like Howard Dean. And it's the technical sophistication that makes me suspicious: Iran is not a technically sophisticated country, much of it is dirt-poor. It's not unreasonable to think that he simply didn't have access to large swathes of the population, swathes that Ahmadinejad spent the last four years busily bribing and pandering to with his "death to Israel" crap: and don't think for a minute that that doesn't play well back home. The English-speaking blogging Iranians may not like it, but they're a teeny, tiny minority in that country - and reading what they say, I get the feeling that it's more embarrassment over delivery than content.

Meanwhile, believing that this 63% win is a deliberate move requires one to simultaneously believe that Ahmadinejad is simultaneously a political genius and a dribbling moron. (Wile E. Coyote: Super Genius) Seriously: you're positing that he has the brass balls and political skill to manage a freaking 13+% cheat AND be dumb enough to think that that would fly? But more than that, this isn't Diebold bit-flipping here, this is pretty low-tech voting: you know, secure. You need organization to cheat a vote like that, boots on the ground and a lot of people willing (or eager) to look the other way. In order to believe that he could do such a thing, you have to believe that a large part of the country is too backwater and uneducated to prevent it... and yet not backwater and uneducated enough to actually vote for him in the first place? I don't buy it.

The way I see it, most of the country is poor and uneducated, which is exactly the way the Ayatollah likes them. They've been bribed and pandered to for years, came to identify with the guy. On top of that, it looks like Mousavi pulled an Al Gore: he let it be clear that he considers Ahmadinejad to be a stupid hick, and that just didn't play well with all the folks who thought he was just plain old folk.

Now, I'm not saying that old Ahmadinejad didn't try to pad the numbers. But given all this, what's more likely: that he padded and cheated 5-6% extra and got surprised by doing better than he expected, or knew he was going down, and bilked em for more than 13%, probably much more?

Nah. As far as I can tell, the primary basis that we Americans have for decrying this election as a sham is the refusal to believe that Ahmadinejad can win a fair election. It reflects well on you all to think that highly of humanity, but you've seen the kind of assholes who can win legitimate votes even in Western countries.

Now, that's not to say that I wouldn't like to see how far Mousavi can run with this, maybe even bring down Khameini. But let's not kid ourselves that he's a virtuous aggrieved party: plenty of good has been done by sore losers, after all.

I should admit that there are (at least) two scenarios that brush aside my objections:
First, if Khameini set up the vote-rigging but handed over the operation to Ahmadinejad, that would be a whole new ballgame. In that case, he doesn't have to be brilliant to have the machine, and he can easily be dumb enough to misuse it, thinking that 63% is totally reasonable. That would explain Khameini's performance: first seizing the moment so as to try to bulldoze his way through it and treat it as a fait accompli, then (potentially) stepping back and realizing that Ahmadinejad had either a) been a total idiot in a way that did not bode well, or (more intriguingly) b) been more reckless than stupid and had double-crossed him and grabbed for power. After all, Khameini can't just admit to being party to this and so HAS to do everything he can to make it stick, but at the same time a 63% majority gives Ahmadinejad unprecedented clout in his new government. It's an interesting idea, and I admit that I'm fascinated by the possibility that Ahmadinejad may have just made Khameini his bitch, but I still don't think it likely, and that level of recklessness really doesn't square with Ahmadinejad working alone.

Second, this could be a combination of multiple attempts to rig the vote such that the right hand didn't know what the left was doing, and possibly also combined with an unexpectedly strong showing in the vote. End result: a series of supposedly easily-covered boosts (possibly intended just to force a runoff) turns into an obvious error. Occam is shaking his head gravely as I type this.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Three-minute hate

I think I may finally have gotten the hang of Perl's regular expressions, at least to the point that I'm able to bang out some basic logreaders pretty quickly. We still hates them, precious, but I have to admit that it was the right approach: I was sorely tempted to use some manner of incremental tokenizing to grab chunks of the log piece by piece, and use nested if statements to deal with different formats, and... yeah, it sounds even worse when I write it out like that.

One of the big conceptual problems I have with regular expressions in general is that they nearly always result in write-only code. Sure, it can be commented, but in practice nobody ever does. Worse, once you get reasonably good with them, all of a sudden you're the go-to guy for regex (This is not as bad as, say, database expertise, but still) Yeesh.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Search Engine Bingo

Has Microsoft managed yet to come up with a marketing campaign for anything that doesn't reek of desperation? These Bing ads have been the worst so far - and maybe it's just because the service itself is so badly done that it feels like they're trying to put lipstick on a pig. Nevermind the name, just call up the site, and try it a bit. As far as I can tell, they're just trying to out-Google Google. Same basic stuff, with a couple annoyances (images and ads at the top, so that those of us without much vertical real estate have to scroll down to see more than one actual result) And really, that's a winning strategy for them: Bing plus Internet Explorer's default page = lots of people who won't bother with Google because they're already using something comparable.

Let's try some comparisons: Google, Bing, Wolfram Ego. The Bing page is a little more slick than the Google page, sure, but it sure looks to me that they put very little thought into it beyond "Make it like Google, only better". And then there's my own experience actually trying to use it: when I used it this afternoon to search for information on a Microsoft product (Netmon) the very first link, to a Microsoft page, was broken. WTF? To be fair, I get the same result with Google... but then, shouldn't the bar be just a tad higher for a Microsoft service searching microsoft.com?

Wolfram, on the other hand, is intriguing. I may mock the egotism involved, but I'm seeing the basis for some very interesting (and potentially useful) stuff there. Go look up your hometown on it. It's not quite as engaging as, say, Wikipedia, but it does a good job of laying out the sort of basic facts that might be useful

Monday, June 1, 2009

Celebrating the coffeehouse

There's a nice little post on the history of coffeehouses over at I Need Coffee. I have my own favorite penny university, of course. It's a shame that Hanover has such a lousy coffee shop culture. The two main places in town (I'm not counting the bookstore-bound Starbucks) just don't have the right atmosphere, and neither is open past 6pm.