Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reading for Programmers

My son the English teacher was asked by a student interested in computer science why he had to do all that reading. I had several answers, but the main one is that programming is a creative task of achieving with running code the goals and requirements expressed informally, in a natural language, by team mates and users. If programmers can't read closely, they cannot understand what they have to do, and they will not recognize gaps that need further discussion to fill in. Their code will not meet the need, and it will behave unexpectedly when the programmer fills a gap in a way that does not match the unexpressed desires of the user. As a professor of freshman CS, one of the most common problems for smart students who thought they knew to program already was their failure to read and interpret correctly a carefully crafted problem statement. They'd sometimes complain that the statement was confusing, but the reality was that the statements they complained about were for the most part complete and unambiguous. The same need for careful, analytic reading pervades practical programming, for interpreting requirements, protocol specifications, algorithm definitions, and language and API documentation.

But why to teach close reading with literature, rather than programming manuals? First, most programming manuals are not that well written, and are pretty boring unless one needs them for a particular task. Second, analyzing literature brings out the varieties of human expression and argumentation, which a programmer will face when dealing with nontechnical users, managers, and critics.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

New Toys

All-mountain skis mounted with Dynafit bindings (taken from another pair of skis) that I hope will work well in varied conditions; burly boots with interchangeable alpine and tech sole blocks for inbounds days and shorter tours (my trusty Dynafit Zzero 4Cs are still the shoes of choice for long backcountry days).

2M vertical feet

Playing with gravity: “The enjoyment is gravity,” Hill said. “There’s not many sports where you can just enjoy gravity.”

Greg Hill is close to his goal of climbing and skiing 2 million vertical feet in 365 days. That's on average 5480 ft/day, every day. My longest days have been a bit over 6k ft, so I know what it feels like to do one of those on its own; doing 365 of them back to back is inconceivable. Go Greg! (Via Wild Snow).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

gruber on android apps

gruber on android apps: It brings up some interesting points given mobile Internet is a way from being adequate and apps are important to a class of smartphone users.

Gruber is so deep in the Cupertino reality distortion field that he doesn't notice that many (most?) of us don't care about "killer" apps, we care about apps that do the work we care about. Besides the built-in mail and browser apps on my Nexus One, the apps I use the most are Listen (a Google Labs app, free), CardioTrainer (Android only, paid premium version), TweetDeck (Android and iOS, free), and Astrid (Android only, paid premium version). I don't care whether they are Android "killer apps" or they are out there on every smartphone OS. I care that they do for me something I value. Listen and CardioTrainer together made my workouts a lot more fun and organized, TweetDeck makes it really easy to manage my Twitter and Buzz streams, and Astrid fights a valiant battle to keep me a bit more organized. Maybe some "killer app" would change my life even more than Listen or CardioTrainer, but there's a limit to how much time I can devote to app hunting and evaluation.

Gruber and many other tech pundits seem too easily seduced by technology as a way of being, rather than the humbler but maybe more long-lasting technology as a way of doing.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Fourth Online-Learning Revolution

The Fourth Online-Learning Revolution: We can only provide quality online and distance-learning experiences today if we understand that what we are living through is not the first but rather the fourth online-learning revolution. [...] Let me back up fifteen hundred years [...] Then came the third online-learning revolution: the printing press of Johann Gutenberg, and the seventy-year explosion of print culture that followed. [...] Today we are in the middle of a fourth online-learning revolution. To properly understand and manage it, however, we need to understand something crucial about the third online-learning revolution. What is it about the institution of the university that allowed it to survive the third online-learning revolution? For the fourth will be a catastrophic bust and distance-learning will die—unless we figure out how to replicate online those features of the university which kept it alive in the post-Gutenberg years after the third online-learning revolution.

Read the whole thing.

First thought: the university stumbled upon a self-perpetuating mechanism by creating successive graduating classes whose interest is to preserve the distinction between them (and the university that taught them) and the rest of society. It's not what you learn, but what club you can claim membership in.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Light reading for a long flight

Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport gently enlightened me on the always present but rarely noted absurdities and mysteries of air travel on a long journey from SFO to LIS via ZRH.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

CardioTrainer v2.8.1: Split times on the map and bug fixes

CardioTrainer v2.8.1: Split times on the map and bug fixes: CardioTrainer v2.8.1 was just released to the Android Market, and it includes a very cool new feature, as well as some small bug fixes. [...] Split times on the workout map.

I'm pretty happy with CardioTrainer, I paid for the Pro version just to support them for a nice program even though the free version was good enough for me. RunKeeper still has better statistics features, but GPS tracking and pausing are much more reliable on CardioTrainer. And it's fun to see my times getting shorter on my favorite routes, 7.57 miles @ 7.54 min/mile today.

Friday, October 22, 2010

James Carter and friends

I wasn't sure what to expect. I think I had heard James Carter with Christian McBride in Philly some years ago, the set was technically stunning but rather cold, maybe the result of playing in the beautiful but distancing Perelman Theater at the Kimmel. The set at the Herbst Theatre for the SF Jazz Festival started slightly ragged: Adam Rogers's electric guitar seemed to be drowned by John Medeski's over-emphatic playing on the organ. But then Carter told us in his introduction to expect some live adjustments as that this particular ensemble had not played together since over a year ago. At some point in the first number, Rogers walked out and Carter followed him backstage and they walked back talking to each other a few minutes later. Maybe nothing unusual, but we couldn't really hear Rogers until then, and I know from his work with Chris Potter a few weeks ago that he's not showy but you can really hear his amazingly complex and subtle work when he meshes with the rest of the band. The set got steadily better after that, with Carter, Ralphe Armstrong on acoustic and electric bass, and Lee Pearson on drums working to stitch the team together and create space for Rogers to bring out his concentrated magic, which is never easy to follow but rewards with concentrated, unexplainably gripping harmonies and rhythmic complexity. As the set developed, it got increasingly more coherent, more surprising, and totally different from anything I've heard in the last several years. All in all, I didn't find Medeski as convincing as the rest of the band. Armstrong and Pearson were outstanding (I had never heard either live), Rogers confirmed the strong impression I had from the Potter Underground concert, and Carter did a lot more than just confirm his virtuosity. After the main set, Carter and Armstrong did a beautiful, full of heart and humor duet of a Don Byas composition.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

East Coast trip

Four states, four cities, eleven days.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Let's do more computer science

Let's do more computer science: [...] But I'd like to see young computer science students get up and present to their teachers some new computer science. [...] Example: Here's a group of researchers at ten universities scattered around the world. They're collaborating on a presentation they will do at a conference in eight months. Most of the research is done, they just have to assemble it in a convincing way, while giving each contributor proper credit for their work. Here's a list of the current tools they are using. At this hackathon each group will create a tool that in some new way helps them collaborate. The projects will be judged strictly on utility, not eye-candy appeal. [...] Don't worry though, eventually there will be money here. But by putting it first with people who are better at using the Internet than pitching venture capitalists, we all get a chance to have some fun, learn from each other, and actually accomplish something useful in the time we have together.
I really like this idea of Dave Winer's. His collaboration tool example is a favorite of mine. I've faced the problem many times, and none of tools around are even close to adequate for the task. We have either cloud-based or P2P doc systems that impose their common denominator document formats, or, at the other end of the spectrum, some version control system where we store document files plus some conventions to avoid stepping on each other while editing ("You have the token for Section 2").
As to Dave Winer's main point, he's right on the money. Current computer science education has too few opportunities for extended focused creativity. Class projects are most often dead-end reconstructions of old solutions for established problems rather than new solutions for unsolved problems. In part this is because school time is fragmented into many small slices, in part because organizing teaching and student evaluation around open-ended projects that are likely to fail (as most experiments do) is really hard. It's interesting to note that those two difficulties, fragmented time and the likelihood of failure, are also very serious issues within companies. We need to come up with better ways of framing collective learning, discovery and invention that encourage creativity, get value even from failure, and give fair credit to individual contributions.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


I've just signed up as @earnmyturns on Twitter. My excuse is that my friend Stuart Shieber signed up earlier as @pmphlt.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Another Chilean volcano for the to-do list

Trip Report | VOLCANOES OF NORTHERN, CHILEAN PATAGONIA, REGION DE LOS RIOS: Another report in the same series, it's hard to get any better than that.

A Chilean volcano I want to visit

Trip Report | VOLCANOES OF NORTHERN, CHILEAN PATAGONIA, REGION DE LOS RIOS: Great report on Volcán Mocho-Choshuenco and the Huilo-Huilo preserve. Makes me miss Chile even more after two years of not going there.

Lost Trail @ Windy Hill

It's been pretty warm (for the Bay Area) in the last few days, and I started late because of the Chris Potter show. But the Lost Trail from the picnic site parking lot on Skyline SW to the gate on Skyline, around 2.6 miles, was partly shady, with beautifully cool hollows where stream moisture still lingered after the dry summer. My there-and-back run 5.2 mile run was relatively slow, I didn't want to twist an ankle on the single track, but very satisfying for the alternations between huge ridge views and secluded treed gulches. I'll be back.

Now, I need to talk to the CardioTrainer developers about why the program lost the first half of my run as I paused to regain my breath at the top of the steep climb to Skyline from 1800 ft. The program is supposed to pause when the user stops, and it did. But somehow, after I unlocked my Nexus One to look at the display, it seems to have decided to start a new run and discard the run so far. CardioTrainer has some nice features such as Google Health uploading and it generally seems to handle GPS better than RunKeeper, which I was using before, but it's a bit harder to control and it does not provide statistics such as splits in a convenient form.

Chris Potter Underground

Chris Potter (with Adam Rogers on electric guitar, Nate Smith on drums, and Fima Ephron on bass electric guitar) explored a musical territory that was quite unlike anything I've listened to recently, even in Potter and Smith's roles in the Dave Holland Quintet. Their main dish on two hypnotic sets were fast, almost fractal sax and guitar variations on bluesy, African, and Indian themes emerging from a funk background anchored in Smith's very fast, precise, subtly unpredictable work and filled by Ephron's droning bass lines and just right responses to Rogers. Shades of Miles's funk period, and of some of Dave Holland's funkier compositions, but always original and a wonderful reminder of the many dimensions of this music, where I can listen to three great ensembles in two weeks, and be wowed by each in turn because they build so much that is unique on a shared inclusive musical culture. A delight.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Chris Potter Underground tonight

8pm, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Chris Potter was my favorite in the recent Dave Holland Quintet visit to Yoshi's, and I hope to find new facets of his music tonight.

Not a mellow summer hike

Skyliners Trailer from sébastien montaz-rosset on Vimeo.

Some perspective on my very humble mountain experiences.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Charles Lloyd New Quartet

Another outing to Yoshi's Oakland, this time to hear Charles Lloyd (sax), Jason Moran (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass) ad Eric Harland (drums). An absolutely mesmerizing set. The most precisely timed, emotionally complex ensemble work since Gonzalo Rubalcaba's quintet last year. Jason Moran was at times almost too much to take. Wow. I thought the Indo-Pak Coalition last week pretty much filled the cup, but this time, the cup overflowed. Lloyd's quartet is less surprising stylistically, but the wisdom and depth of their music are hard to match.

Update: Forgot to say, there's a new recording out by the Charles Lloyd New Quartet that I bought at the show. We listened to some of it on the drive home. More formal, contained than the live performance, but an excellent review of the ideas and feelings that they explored on Yoshi's stage.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Conditional Risk

Conditional Risk: 'Dude, wait -- I'm not American! So my risk is basically zero!'

Brilliant. It would be great for a probability class, but it is especially pungent for those of us who sometimes travel in avalanche terrain and who believe that our knowledge of statistics will help us avoid danger.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

No low-hanging fruit left?

Today's puzzle: maybe the reason why our social, economic, political, medical problems seem so intractable is that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked by social, scientific and technological progress, at least in the most developed countries. Less developed countries still have headroom, and they can avoid some of our mistakes too, but the problems of the most developed countries are hitting against our genetically-given cognitive limitations as well as the limitations of our history-dependent social wiring. The problems that we face are complex and require complex, difficult to explain solutions, while non-solutions sound attractive in their simplicity unrestricted by reality.

Does successful software development have something to teach our other processes? We denigrate software development (how could those *** not see that buffer overflow vulnerability?), but it regularly creates complex working systems that interact successfully with 100s of millions of users day after day. Unit testing, code reviews, iterative development, extensive monitoring. Related processes often work in other areas of engineering, and in medicine (read the Checklist Manifesto). Yet, any of these fail all too often, for reasons that are not so different from the reasons that kill rational discourse in policy. It's just too easy to kill a proposed solution (too many pages!) with simplistic pseudo-solutions.


After Indo-Pak Coalition, just got tickets for the Charles Lloyd New Quartet (with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and James Harland) at Yoshi's Oakland on Thursday, then our SF Jazz Festival flood starts, with Chris Potter Underground on Saturday. And there are several other great acts both at Yoshi's and at the festival that we won't be able to attend, just too much to schedule and absorb.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Indo-Pak Coalition

Rudresh Mahantappa on alto sax, Rez Abbasi on electric guitar, and Dan Weiss on percussion at Yoshi's Oakland last night. Playing mostly tunes from their Apti recording (one of my current favorites) but with many surprising variations and improvisations. A very satisfying set with each player building on and responding to the other players to create a whole that defied analysis.Dan Weiss on drums and tabla seemed especially inspired.

The next week brings an embarrassment of riches at Yoshi's: Charles Lloyd and Geri Allen bands play in Oakland, McCoy Tyner's in San Francisco.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

(Not) rewarding exceptional teachers

Rewarding Zenaida Tan: [...] as part of its big data dump on teacher quality in the LA Unified School District, the LA Times took the time to write a profile of one of the city’s most effective teachers, third grade English teacher Zenaida Tan. Her students show much bigger gains in both reading and math competency over the course of the year than do the average teacher’s students. [...] The LAT notes that the current system doesn’t allow Tan to be recognized as the brilliant teacher she is:
By the LAUSD’s measure, Tam simply “meets standard performance,” as virtually all district teachers do — evaluators’ only other option is “below standard performance.” On a recent evaluation, her principal, Oliver Ramirez, checked off all the appropriate boxes, Tan said — then noted that she had been late to pick up her students from recess three times. [...]
[...] Excellent teachers deserve to be paid enough money to keep them teaching, and they deserve acknowledgment for the crucial role they play in shaping the nation’s future for the better. But it’s impossible for them to get the acknowledgment they deserve if we assess them only on crude measures like “does she have a master’s degree?” and “did she show up on time for recess?” The main point of school is to teach kids stuff, so we need to measure what kids are learning.

Unions are typically criticized for this immoral state of affairs, but we should really look at administrators, school boards, and local politicians, who much prefer avoiding the complexities and conflict of true merit pay. It is very hard to take a limited raise budget and allocate according to performance. To reward exceptional performers, average performers will take a hit, and generate trouble for administrators in proportion to their relatively large numbers. Lake Woebegone-style, every teacher feels they are above average, and every parent feels that their child's teacher is above average. So, administrators stiff the exceptional performers to keep the peace. And they don't really pay the price, because exceptional teachers are more likely to love teaching beyond what it pays them, and stay even though they aren't earning more than their mediocre colleagues. Not a recipe to encourage extra effort from those who could be better teachers, but don't see the point. By stiffing the exceptional, the system sends the wrong signals to those who could become good.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Rosenberg on Carr on links

In Defense of Links, Part One: Nick Carr, hypertext and delinkification: [...] Links have become an essential part of how I write, and also part of how I read. Given a choice between reading something on paper and reading it online, I much prefer reading online: I can follow up on an article’s links to explore source material, gain a deeper understanding of a complex point, or just look up some term of art with which I’m unfamiliar. [...] So I was flummoxed earlier this year when Nicholas Carr started a campaign against the humble link.

Scott Rosenberg is too polite to suggest a more cynical reason for Carr's anti-link obfuscation: it's the latest episode in Carr's profitable series as Web-critic-on-call. Nevertheless, Rosenberg's piece is very worth reading especially for how it takes apart Carr's misleading "studies show" appeal to scientific authority. I'm dreaming of a new blog called Studies Do Not Show with Rosenberg, Mark Liberman, Andrew Gelman, and Cosma Shalizi as founding contributors...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Trail running

I had never understood what was so great about running until I started running trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I used to run a bit when I lived in Palo Alto in the 80s and in NJ in the 90s, but I never really took to it, and knee injuries (from skiing) made me wary of the impact. I hate running on a treadmill, the constant stride really bothers me. But now, I can't wait for my next trail exploration. I don't run as fast as on pavement, but it's still a much more engaging experience. Like backcountry skiing compared with lift-skiing groomers. Today I ran (and walked a couple of steep pitches on the way back) from the Monte Bello parking lot to the preserve gate to Stevens Creek, and back, just under 9 miles. It was slow (just under 12 minute miles) and demanding (almost 2000 vertical ft of climbing according to my phone GPS, but I suspect it's quite a bit less than that, GPS is bad for elevation changes, I should have used my altimeter watch but forgot -- next time). I'm a bit sore, but I can't wait for the next run.

A whiff of the season to come

Special Weather Statement - Sierra Nevada from Yosemite to Kings Canyon (California):

This is the hardest wait, the long months from the first dusting to something you can actually ski on.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A slow-motion academic train wreck

Altmann: Hauser apparently fabricated data: There's new information emerging from the slow-motion Marc Hauser train wreck [...] Gerry Altmann posted a statement on his weblog with a more detailed account: harvard misconduct: setting the record straight', 8/27/2010) [...] the facts and interpretations that Altmann provides go beyond, to a shocking degree, previously described issues of lost data or disagreement about subjective coding of animal behavior.

I have no special knowledge or insight into this disaster. The Language Log posts on the subject are very much worth reading for anyone who cares about scientific integrity, experimental method, academic governance, and the dangers of neat theory in the social and biological science.

As a researcher and former academic administrator, this is very scary stuff. It puts in doubt the work of a whole network of researchers, it makes us worry about what else we have missed, it puts academic self-governance in doubt, it adds to the distrust of science.

Trail running in the Bay Area

I really enjoyed running on the dirt trail along the river in Uppsala in the early morning when I was there for ACL in July, so I decided to explore the Peninsula trails when I got back, which with their slopes would help my conditioning for uphill skinning in the coming backcountry skiing season. I started with the popular trails of the Arastradero preserve, but I wanted more. First, I needed proper trail running shoes. I got some poor advice at REI for my first choice, but the staff of ZombieRunner hit the sweet spot with a pair of Brooks Cascadia 5. I loved these shoes on their first outing, 6.25 miles this cool morning at Arastradero. I also got Trail Runner's Guide: San Francisco Bay Area by Jessica Jage, ordered at Kepler's. It's a well-written, detailed guide. I did the Long Ridge loop (mostly, I missed one of the side trips) last Sunday, and I'm now studying options for tomorrow. I can't believe I've lived in the Bay Area a total of over eight years (in two widely separated chunks) and that only now I've started to taste the delights of running on these cool golden hills. Since I've started, I am looking forward to my Saturday and Sunday morning runs almost as much as look forward to a ski tour in the Sierra. It's addictive, I just hope my worn-out knees don't have other ideas.

I <heart> Etymotic

I distractedly left my Etymotic 6i headphones in the pocket of my gym shorts after a workout, and they went with them through the washer and dryer this afternoon. I feared they would be dead, but they are working as well as before, at least to my not-so-perfect hearing.

A good Apicomplexan

Malaria, Sea Grapes, and Kidney Stones: A Tale of Parasites Lost: If you’re looking for a gang of vicious killers, look no further than the Apicomplexans. These single-celled protozoans cause death and destruction across the animal kingdom. They infect everything from butterflies to people. Their diseases include Texas Cattle Fever, toxoplasmosis, and the scourge that makes Plasmodium the baddest Apicomplexan of them all, malaria. [...] Yet in the midst of this brutal dynasty, scientists have now discovered a peacemaker. For the first time, they’ve found an apicomplexan that bestows a biochemical gift to its host essential for survival.

I heard so much about the genomic, structural, and lifecycle subtleties of Apicomplexans from my friend David Roos and members of his lab that I shouldn't be surprised, but this discovery shows that these wily parasites are even more adaptable than the horror stories of malaria and toxoplasmosis mutation and drug resistance suggest. Very cool.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Backcountry skiing was different in 1962

Thank God It’s NOT 1962: It’s pretty wild to think that this is how they skied the backcountry and uncontrolled slopes back in 1962.

On the other hand, our fancy gear makes it much easier to get into dangerous situations without even noticing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Male and female ability differences down to socialisation, not genetics

Male and female ability differences down to socialisation, not genetics. (Via Brad DeLong)

Finally, a general press science writer wakes up to the flood of nonsense over sex differences, one of the main instances of the pseudo-scientific woo that our friends at Language Log have been fighting a lonely battle over. One question that the writer does not ask, though, is the following that seems to me obvious to ask. Males and females share genes except those in the Y chromosome, and genes from both parents get shuffled into a single genome during fertilization. Therefore, unless there is a strong selective pressure to make certain traits specifically male or female, the tendency would be for advantageous traits to be shared by both sexes. So, the sex differences advocates need to explain what specific selective pressures are operating to impart sex bias to traits that are obviously advantageous to both sexes like spatial reasoning or verbal competence.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Feeding the Snake

Tenure/Snake Dilemma: [...] A particular person, who is professor of a non-biological science, is extremely phobic about snakes. [...] This same person is very fond of cats. This snake-o-phobe, felinophile has a senior colleague who is also a neighbor. That is, these two people work in the same department at the same university and also live near each other. They occasionally trade cat-care when one of them is away. The snake-o-phobe adores the colleague's cat and is happy to take care of this very affectionate and charismatic beast. [...] Imagine that at a particular time in the summer, the colleague planned to go away on vacation and needed some cat care. The felinophile agreed to take care of the cat. [...] Then, almost as an aside, the colleague sends an e-mail that says: 'Oh by the way, we also now have a snake. You will need to change his/her water and you may also need to go to the pet store and get a freshly killed mouse to feed the snake.' [...] Question for discussion [...] Do you take care of the snake despite your horror of it? Does your agreeing vs. declining to take care of the snake have anything to do with your tenure status and your wish to be agreeable to your senior colleague?

Read the whole post, which is hilarious and also has some good comments, in particular:

From here on out, every inappropriate or crazy thing that assistant professors get asked to do simply because they are assistant professors should be known as "feeding the snake."

Friday, August 20, 2010

How do you consume media?

How do you consume media?: Reading Chris Hayes talk about his media diet is a good excuse to spend some time talking about my own. I'm dissatisfied with it. [...] But if I'm attracted to Twitter, I'm reliant on RSS feeds. Full RSS feeds, to be more specific. My information consumption is overwhelmingly biased toward outlets I can read fully in Google Reader. That cuts out a few blogs I'd like to read more of, but not that many. What it does do is bias me in favor of blogs and against newspaper articles, magazines and so forth.

I too am biased in toward sources that I can read fully in Reader, like Klein's blog. It gives me a very efficient way of scanning a lot of new material quickly, diving into the most interesting ones, following links if they look promising. I'd rather see RSS and Reader extended and improved than have all the current thrashing about media formats, channels, and monetization. Not surprisingly, many prefer to hype a new way of doing things over improving something that already works, but is for that reason unsexy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The High Cost of Copyright

The High Cost of Copyright: [...] The National Jazz Museum (who knew there was such a thing?) has apparently acquired a true treasure trove of early jazz recordings. The collection — nearly 1,000 discs! — was recorded in the 30s and 40s by William Savory from on-the-air radio broadcasts, and includes performances by Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, and many others of the great names of jazz [...] So needless to say I can’t wait to hear the reissues. But alas, that may never happen. [...] [T]he potential copyright liability that could attach to redistribution of these recordings is so large — and, more importantly, so uncertain — that there may never be a public distribution of the recordings. Tracking down all the parties who may have a copyright interest in these performances, and therefore an entitlement to royalty payments (or to enjoining their distribution), is a monumental, and quite possibly an impossible, task, and it may well be that nobody steps forward with the resources to (a) undertake the efforts required and (b) take on the risk of liability (Via Ezra Klein).

The increasing gap between what our technologies make possible and what our institutions permit is a huge missed opportunity: less learning, less enjoyment, less creation, less culture than could be. When politicians talk about the importance of education, new skills, new industries, they seem to ignore how our legal regime stands in the way of achieving those goals. Will we ever outgrow the laws of print, sheet music, and weaving machines?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Toumani Diabaté at Yoshi's Oakland

Diabaté came to Yoshi's with a small version of the Symmetric Orchestra, three sidemen (electric guitar and bass, drums) who were joined by three guests for some of the program (trumpet, electric guitar, and a string instrument from Mali whose name I can't remember). Unfortunately, I didn't manage to record the names of the other players except for Fanta Mady Kouyaté on the electric guitar, who was amazing. This ensemble sat somewhere between Diabaté's solos and duos in Mandé Variations and New Ancient Strings, and the full-bore Symmetric Orchestra of Boulevard de l'Independence: a bit less ethereal than the former, a bit less funky than the latter. The first set on Saturday, at 8pm, was intense fireworks. As is standard for Yoshi's, if the 10pm room is not full, they allow 8pm guests to stay on the back seats. We stayed, of course. The second set was a bit more subdued, even when playing the same theme, but displayed even richer improvisations. I loved the combination of kora and electric guitar, the way that clusters of notes flew like sparks from the undulating rhythms underneath. I liked this show better than the full Symmetric Orchestra I heard in Philly a few years ago, although for emotional punch, Diabaté's solo show in San Francisco in late 2008 is still unbeaten.

For such a professional place and players, it was just a bit distracting that some amplification glitch put out a steady 60hz hum for most of the two sets.

Cowen on Parking

Cowen on Parking: Tyler Cowen’s latest NYT column takes on the hidden scourge of free parking.

I haven't checked since the real-estate decline, but the extra cost of private parking for a townhouse was estimated at $50K in Philly's Society Hill neighborhood, where we own a townhouse. We just parked on the street, with a essentially free residents' permit. Most of the time, we could find a parking stop close to our home, and very rarely did we have to leave our car overnight in a pay lot. More generally, on-street parking pay parking in Philly is significantly cheaper than private pay-lot parking.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fifty-five Hundred Vertical Feet a Day (Self-powered)

I climbed and skied 5500 vertical or more in a day under my own power just few times. It was serious work. Doing it every day for a year? My only consolation is that I got to the summit of Villarrica before Greg did. And the conditions when I did were way better than what Greg had to deal with.

(Hat tip to Russ)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

buying happiness

buying happiness: notes on consumption in the NY Times

I wonder how much of stuff consumption comes from the fact that experiences require a lot of free time as well as some disposable income (for food, travel, services, gear needed for the experience). The "stars" of the article do not have kids and they are in exceptionally flexible occupations. It's much more common to be time-poor, so a big dollop of stuff consumption may be more viable than a time-consuming experience. Like swallowing sugar instead of chewing through complex carbs and fiber.

Rebooting the NYT Book Review

Rebooting the NYT Book Review: [...] It seems some of the answers are locked up in the New York Times Book Review, but so far I've been too lazy and too cheap to buy a copy of it. This is the one product where the Times change the way it pays, and give it away like the ubiquitous AOL disks a couple of decades ago, and get a cut of the revenue from every book they sell. Book reviews should be free, because the books they sell make lots of money. Probably the same with the collection of NYT movie reviews. [...] I've always felt that news organizations have certain very valid conflicts of interest, conflicts we want them to have. Lke the difference between good cholesterol and bad. Think of it this way. What would be wrong for the San Jose Mercury News thinking that San Jose is a great place, and doing things to promote it? In the same way, we know the NYT thinks books are great because they publish a book review. They're not saying you should buy just any book -- you should buy the books they like, and not buy the ones they don't. The reviews have that bias already, so there's absolutely no problem basing a business model on it. (But in this model they'd get a cut off any book you buy through the review, even if they panned it.)
Not just the NYT Book Review, but also Fresh Air, Radio Open Source, Science Friday, Planet Money, NPR Music, and other podcasts I listen to but that do not make a cent from my many purchases of books and music they feature.I want to compensate them for telling me about good stuff, but there's no mechanism in place to make that easy.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Cognitive Avalanche

One of my skiing friends forwarded this good summary on how our built-in decision-making heuristics can create risk-assessment traps. If you care about risk assessment, the paper it cites is very much worth reading. Another skiing friend, who has a PhD in the psychology of decision making and does a lot of backcountry skiing and mountaineering notes that such retrospective studies are interesting but have to be read with some caution as they may have limited predictive value. Nevertheless, until more controlled studies happen — unfortunately not likely, funding is hard to get — that's all we have to go on. Incidentally, much related territory has been covered with respect to economic and financial decision making in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Apple and the War for the Mobile Market

Apple and the War for the Mobile Market: The short history of the computer industry is dominated by two well-known stories: How mainframe makers failed to take the personal computer seriously until it was too late, and how Apple refused to license its innovative new operating system and ended up ceding the market to Microsoft. Unless Apple learns from its mistakes it’s going to end up with a Macintosh-like minority market share again -- in mobile.
John Siracusa, in his signature style, demonstrates more knowledge, thought, and insight than the whole rest of the tech punditry put together. Read the whole thing.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

New Avalanche Danger Scale for 2010/11

New Avalanche Danger Scale for 2010/11: "There is a new unified avalanche danger scale rolling out for the 2010/11 season that will create a common vocabulary between US and Canadian avalanche centers, according to Powder Magazine [...] It’s not immediately clear to me what the major differences are here. It retains the Low/Moderate/Considerable/High/Extreme methodology with similar explanations for each danger rating.
I prefer the new wording. In my opinion, the old United States scale did not sufficiently distinguish "Moderate" from "Considerable," and its description of "Extreme" was not extreme enough. The Utah Avalanche Center, excellent as usual, introduces the new scale, summarizes the discussions that led to it, and supplements it with important statistics and visual aids.

Incentives and the Environment

The Bellows » Innovation, and the Gas Tax: I’m not sure why anyone would argue that the imposition of a carbon price, even a relatively modest one, wouldn’t spur innovation. Price increases — the market’s signal for scarcity — lead to a range of human responses, among the most important of which is invention. The opinion that a price increase will likely lead to innovation is little more than a ratification of the idea that markets generally work. But Jim Manzi seems skeptical of this connection. And he cites variations in the gas tax rate as evidence:

Consider as an important example that most major Western European countries have had very high gas taxes – typically several dollars per gallon – for decades. But despite the efforts of lots of very smart engineers, the automobile has been a pretty stable technology for these same decades. [...]

If you look closely, you’ll find that Manzi has gone and made the case for a carbon price in as compelling a fashion as you’re likely to find. Manzi thinks about automobiles and gas taxes and pictures a certain kind of innovation — new cars with new engines that don’t run on gas. And when he looks at Europe he doesn’t see it. But does that mean that there has been no innovation in response to the higher gas tax rates? Clearly that’s not the case. In general, Europeans do drive different automobiles, which tend to be smaller and more efficient. Some of these have been innovative enough in their design to generate raised eyebrows from American tourists (see: the Smart car). In Europe, the scooter is far more popular and differentiated (the scooter with roof is a common sight). Bicycles are also more common and differentiated, and the institutional supports for cyclists are more highly developed (cycle superhighways are old news in Europe). (Via Brad DeLong)

And even cars that don't run on gas. When I was in Lisbon recently, I noticed an electric car plug-in station on Praça de Londres, a busy square in a mixed residential-commercial area. It turns out that Portugal, which has little domestic carbon-based energy, has been rapidly growing its electricity from renewables, and giving tax incentives for electric cars. Later in the visit, I noticed several electric cars driving around the city, which has also become much less congested in the last decade with improved public transportation, special bus and taxi lanes, and traffic-calming road redesign. Portugal does have a lot of potential for renewable power, but the big market signal from stiff gas and car purchase taxes is playing a major role in these changes.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Will open-access publication fees grow out of control?

Will open-access publication fees grow out of control? If you care about open access to scientific articles, follow this link for a subtle and important argument on author fees and competing funding models. It's really worth your time.

Summer skiing photos

I finally had time to sort and upload some photos of my 4th of July trip to Lassen Park and the South Sister. I realized again that I should take lots more pictures on those trips, I get so drawn into the effort of the moment and into the sensory flood that I forget to get out the camera. Fortunately, my guide on South Sister caught more of that ascent.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Carl Bergstrom - The Mathematics of Microbes

MTS54 - Carl Bergstrom - The Mathematics of Microbes: In this podcast I talk to Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington about the mathematics of microbes. Bergstrom is a mathematical biologist who probes the abstract nature of life itself. We talk about how life uses information, and how information can evolve. But in Bergstrom's hands, these abstractions shed light on very real concerns in medicine, from the way that viruses jam our immune system's communication systems to to the best ways to fight antibiotic resistance.

Another interesting podcast, this time on uses of information theory and game theory to understand evolutionary and adaptive processes in living systems. It included a good informal discussion of how to think information-theoretically about genomes and evolution, although it could have been sharper if they had been more explicit about the tradeoff between information about the environment and compression/distortion. Two papers that seem worth reading: The transmission sense of information, which could have some nice connections to the information bottleneck, and Dealing with deception in biology, which I think would be a lot of fun for my security colleagues.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bonnie Bassler - The Bacterial Wiretap

MTS53 - Bonnie Bassler - The Bacterial Wiretap: In this podcast I talk to Bonnie Bassler, a professor at Princeton and the president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology. Bassler studies the conversations that bacteria have, using chemicals instead of words. Her research is not only helping to reveal how bacteria work together to make us sick, but also how we might interrupt their dialogue in order to cure infections.
I'm trying to catch up with a huge podcast backlog from when I was traveling in Europe, this discussion of biochemical communication and quorum sensing in bacteria is the coolest stuff I've heard in a while. The following open access paper has some of the technical details, it looks very juicy.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Katla mongering?

(Late) Wednesday Whatzits: Hawaiian lava flows, more Katla mongering and a possible eruption at Ruiz?: [...] I would also like to derail some of this continued Katla-mongering, this time over at Cosmic Variance. This is not to say we shouldn't watch Katla, but all these swarms are still (1) too small; (2) too shallow and; (3) too short. I would place a safe bet that there are many more volcanoes worldwide that are much closer to eruption than Katla - and the connection between Eyjafjallajökull and Katla is tenuous at best. So relax!
Thanks Steve for the Eruptions link, they seem to be more relaxed about Katla.

Here comes Katla?

Here comes Katla?: Being kind of a volcano/earthquake geek, I regularly check in on [...] in the past couple months since the Eyjafjallajokull, the earthquake activity near it that might presage an eruption of Eyja’s big sister, Katla. Historically, eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull are followed by eruptions of Katla, which are an order of magnitude larger. [...] Since I have been watching, the number of earthquakes near Katla has been small, with a few periods of a dozen or so within a 24 hour period. Almost every time I have looked it’s been very quiet, perhaps one or two a day. I was away the previous two weeks, and apparently missed a day with 11 earthquakes on July 10. I checked again today, and I got the map below, with over a dozen earthquakes! [...] I bet it’s coming, though, fairly soon. The president of Iceland does, too.
I'm that kind of geek too, with also a propensity to try to climb and ski volcanos. Great stuff, although since I'm planning to get back to Europe in late October, I'm not sure I should be excited or dismayed.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Off to Europe

Sweden for ACL, Lisbon for family and João's thesis defense, return via Philly for Kuzman's thesis defense. My flight to London, my first stop, just called.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Volcano skiing road trip

This Spring's heavy snow on the Cascade volcanos provided exceptional snowpack into the summer. Following my Cascade inaugural on Shasta and the end of May, I arranged with Pete Keane of Timberline Guides to guide me on a climb and ski of the South Sister in Oregon over the long 4th of July weekend.
On my way there, I stopped at Lassen for an altitude warm-up hike and ski on Reading Peak, a secondary ridge on the East side of the park. I hiked on the Paradise Meadows trail, next to the road closure point at Emigrant Pass, until I reached snow line at around 7k ft, skinned from there to the ridge at 8,400ft to ski some 600 vertical of nice corn snow, followed by 800 vertical of sun-cupped, runneled, pine-cone covered glop to the hike down.
On Monday, we started just after 4pm from the Devil's Lake trailhead, hiked to more or less continuous snow on a gully at around 6k, and skinned from there to the crater's rim at 10,200 ft with just a short pitch of bootpacking a headwall. The weather was incredibly clear for July, and a stiff cold wind kept us cool on the climb and kept the top 1500 ft vertical in top condition for skiing. Pete took lots of pictures and a few videos of the climb and of the great corn skiing up top, and also of the almost 1.5 mi plateau slog (both ways) over sun cups and runnels. A beautiful close to my most record-setting ski season ever: most powder days, most days of self-propelled skiing, most self-propelled summits, highest elevation skied. No injuries, either.
Many thanks are due to a diverse crew of ski partners (the largest ever, too) and guides in California, Oregon, and British Columbia. You are the people that make this crazy pursuit possible, worth doing, and safer than most would believe. And more than thanks to Ana and the kids, who let me do this even though it worries them more than they let on.

Friday, July 2, 2010

I love NOAA and the USGS

Quietly, maybe too quietly, both NOAA and the USGS have been improving their free information access to the benefit of all of us who care about weather and topography. Point forecasts for the Sierra were a must for my backcountry tours this winter and spring. This long weekend, I am going to Oregon to ski (guided) the South Sister near Bend. I wanted a topo map to study the terrain before the trip. I bought a while ago the National Geographic TOPO program with California maps, but I could not find the Oregon DVD at REI in Mountain View, and they do not offer a map download service. I searched [download topo maps]. The top ads were for (pay) map download service with awful, useless interfaces if you don't know which topo quad you want. One of the top organic search results was for the USGS Store, which has a nifty integration with Google Maps: search for your interest point on Maps, and then click on the marker for your interest point to find which USGS maps cover it. Buy the paper map, or download a good compressed image of the map for free. Great mashup, just what I needed.

One more service that government does right, and private enterprise has neglected totally. I would have paid $49.95 for the Oregon TOPO! maps at REI or online (if available for download), or a fair fraction of that for the quad I was looking for. But none of those "services" were usable, while the USGS came through.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Facts matter

From Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life:
Induction and argument are the probity of liberal thought. Facts matter, logic counts, describing the stamen of the orchid exactly is worth six volumes on the metaphysics of being.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Anthony Lane is a genius

A writer who can cogently bring together the Eurovision Song Contest and the Thirty Years War, who can felicitously employ “the synchronized rattle of sabres” and “an elderly Cretan slapping an octopus against the side of a wharf” while comparing a Celine Dion outfit to “a naval officer trying to mate with a lampshade” belongs to a higher order of being. It's even tastier if you ever watched the contest, as I did growing up in Portugal in the early days of the contest. Read the whole thing, you won't regret it. It requires a subscription to the New Yorker, one of the very few print periodicals that deserves your support. Just this jewel is worth way more than the price of admission, so all of a year of Jane Mayer, Atul Gawande, Ian Frazier, Hendrik Hertzberg, George Packer, just to name a few, will come in better than free.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: “Striving is the Back Story…”

Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: “Striving is the Back Story…”: "Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk. He brings also — to his Birdland debut this Spring, and to his new CD, Historicity — bassist Stephan Crump and the drum prodigy Marcus Gilmore, who just happens to be the grandson of the last living drum giant of the Forties, the eternally experimental Roy Haynes. But the sum of Vijay Iyer’s gifts is more exciting than any of the parts. He brings to improvisational music, most of all, the aura of an art starting fresh, just beginning — not looking back, much less winding down.
I just tried to share this item from Reader but I didn't get quite the effect I expected. The item was shared only to my followers, it was stripped of a URL in the comment text, and I can't find how to post-edit it. I guess the default for more privacy is better than the alternatives, but I'd like a centralized place to edit and tweak access control for all items I post from any Google property (Blogger, Reader, Buzz). I hope it happens.
Now for the item. This was one of the best Chris Lydon interviews in a long while, the music snippets were wonderful, and it made me look forward even more to Iyer's trio visit to this Fall's SF Jazz Festival.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lazy Saturday

Sleeping late, working out, enjoying a long lunch, finishing reading Parisians. Which has many engaging parts, including the Juliette Gréco-Miles Davis romance as a screenplay, true and fake assassination attempts on de Gaulle and Mitterrand in the style of police reports, May 68 as a pompous academic paper with a twist and an edge, and the grandiose modernization of Paris under Pompidou and Chirac expressed in a language that parallels the drawings of Tardi or Bilal.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Juliette and Miles

I'm reading Graham Robb's Parisians, thanks to Chris Lydon's podcast interview with Robb. One of its chapters, in the form of a screenplay, is about Juliette Gréco, the end of the war, St. Germain, existentialists, and her affair with Miles Davis. Searching for more information, I just found a poignant interview with Gréco about her remembrance of Miles on the occasion of what would have been his 80th birthday if he had lived that long.

I'd heard of people like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir when I was 14 or 15, through my sister who was a student, but I couldn't ever have imagined that one day I'd be close to them. Sartre said to Miles, "Why don't you and Juliette get married?" Miles said, "Because I love her too much to make her unhappy." It wasn't a matter of him being unfaithful or behaving like a Don Juan; it was simply a question of colour. If he'd taken me back to America with him, I would have been called names.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dave Holland Quintet

The Dave Holland Quintet (in its "default" configuration of Chris Potter sax, Robin Eubanks trombone, Dave Holland Bass, Steve Nelson vibraphone, and Nate Smith drums) is playing this weekend at Yoshi's in Oakland. Alex and I and early (very nice) dinner before the Friday 8pm set, and then got a gift of the 10pm set because the room wasn't fully booked (same happened last time we were there for Joe Lovano). The first set was tight well constructed, with a couple of new compositions, but a bit "cold." More like one of the quintet's recordings than a live set. But on the second set, they seemed more relaxed, enjoying themselves, and letting go with mesmerizing bouts of improvisation. They all contributed great passages. While my favorite players of the evening were overall Potter and (as always) Nelson, a genius of rhythmic surprise, Eubanks led the widest ranging improvisations of the evening around his composition Full Circle from the Critical Mass recording that launched this lineup.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Over the Memorial Day weekend, I joined a guided ASI group trip to ski on Mount Shasta. On Sunday, two separate groups formed with the two ASI guides. Two of us, with the lead guide, had the goal of attempting to summit Shasta and ski down from as high as possible. Because of avalanche danger from the recent snow, we ended up camping at Horse Camp (7800 ft) rather than at Hidden Valley (over 10k). The good news on that is that Horse Camp has composting toilets, so we avoided the indignities of poop bags. The bad news is that the climb from Horse Camp is almost 6400 ft vertical, a tall order on a single push. We left at 1:30am under a beautiful late full moon, no headlamps needed. We skinned all the way past Helen Lake to 11500 ft, where skinning became too inefficient for the steepening slope. We were making very good time. We switched then to boot crampons, following the very well defined bootpack that the many climbers overnighting at Helen Lake on a great holiday weekend had created. The dawning day was glorious: cool, some cloud, great visibility, low to moderate winds. As we climbed towards the Red Banks, I started to feel a bit strange, nothing big or obvious, just different. We kept going still at a reasonable pace, but as we cleared the Red Banks and moved up to Short Hill, I was having a weird feeling around my stomach and chest, although my legs were fine and my breath steady. I managed Short Hill and then Misery Hill, at a somewhat slower pace, still carrying skis. We left the skis at the top of Misery Hill, and after talking with the guide, we agreed that we'd walk the summit plateau to the bottom of the summit cone, and if I wasn't feeling better, I should just rest there in the warm sun while the guide and the other client would to the last 190 ft to the cone summit, as the guide was concerned that I'd lose my remaining strength and then not be able to ski down safely. That's what happened. I sat against a rock, dozing, taking a few pictures, enjoying the warmth, while they got up and down in less than half an hour. It was a bit of a struggle to walk back to the top of Misery Hill and gear up for skiing down, but surprisingly, I felt better as soon as we started skiing and losing elevation. There was wonderful recrystalized winter windpack on the east side of Misery Hill, away from the rocky windblown ridge that everyone walks up. We crossed to the other side at the bottom of Misery Hill, and took another pitch, more variable in snow surface but still good skiing, down to the top of Red Banks. Feeling better again. Dropped through a slot in Red Banks (nothing as fancy as the Trinity Chutes, which appeared to be rime-encrusted) through variable, crusty snow, but then opened up into exceptional spring snow, sun-softened new snow on top of a firm base, especially on the very long pitch below the Trinity Chutes. We skied high speed turns until our legs screamed, and then we skied high speed turns again. And again. All the way back to camp, with softer and softer conditions, but never mashed potatoes. Back to camp in less then 11 hours and over 6000 ft of amazing skiing for May 30th. And I was feeling perfect, not really tired, as if more normal oxygen had totally rebooted my body. We hung out around camp until an early dinner, and I slept beautifully from 8pm to 6am.

It was totally worth it. Both the guide and the other client on the climb did exactly what was needed at every point. A bit of a bummer that I passed summit bragging rights, but it was way better to rest and ski down well, than any of the scary alternatives. Later, my companions told me about some weird things I said on the summit plateau that I totally did not remember. I didn't have the classic altitude sickness symptoms (headaches, shallow breath), but apparently I complained of blurred vision -- which I don't remember -- and they said my speech was a bit messed up. I guess I learned something about my body's response to being above 13k. Whether this is a constant of my constitution or was the result of a relatively fast ascent from sea level to high elevation, I won't know until the next time.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Flying and the Power of Podcasts

I may get back to SFO back on schedule avoiding volcanic ash and strikes, flight boarding now in LHR. Got two interesting books at WH Smith in Terminal 5, one of them prompted by a Chris Lydon podcast via Google Listen. Podcasts are the source of most of my reading tips these days.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Return from Europe

Lyon airport, on my way to London tonight and to San Francisco tomorrow. Many ideas, lots of connections made, a few wonderful hikes neare Zürich and Grenoble with very enticing Alps views. Need to come back when the snow flies again. Pictures will be uploaded soon.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Arms for Art

Yesterday in Zürich I went to the penultimate day of the Bührle Collection exhibition at the Kunsthaus. Outstanding 19th century and early 20th century (mostly) French painting, with some earlier Dutch and Italian delights. I had no clue about the collection's origin until I read the historical panels at the exhibition. Emil Georg Bührle was the owner of Oerlikon, famous for its antiaircraft guns that were supplied to all contenders before and during World War II, and later to NATO. The profits from that business paid for the collection's purchase. I don't know what more to say right now, but it's a conflicted feeling to enjoy peaceful Impressionist landscapes brought under one roof by the arms trade. Maybe I should have paid with an even closer look at the darker paintings in the show, like most of the van Gogh's.

(C) Fear Note: I was very tempted to include the image of one of the collection's works, maybe Pissarro's SThe Road under Snow at Louveciennes, but our European friends are touchy about copyright, especially in a not necessarily totally positive critical context.

Kafka on the Shore

I'm reading Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, and something in it resonated deeply with Ta-Nehishi Coates's writing on the confederate history month. But first, an observation. Everywhere I lived, and just now as I travel through Europe and hear the noise of anti-immigrant sentiment from the recent British election to the anti-minaret law just passed in Switzerland, and most lastingly in my experience growing up under Salazar and his successor: fear is a constant of life — biology rules — that forms an easily manipulable (by those who seek power) self-sustaining feedback with ignorance and lack of imagination. Social and economic instability, or their threat, form a favorable environment for that stable conformation. Now Murakami's character Oshima:

But there's one thing I want you to remember, Kafka. Those are exactly the kind of people who murdered Miss Saeki's childhood sweetheart. Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it's important to know what's right and what's wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive. They're a lost cause, and I don't want anyone like that coming in here.

Rebooting mon Français

Waiting for my bus to Grenoble at the Lyon airport, just arrived from Zürich. The airport coffee is as bad as I remembered it, unlike the good espresso you can find anywhere in Zürich and its airport (which, for weird reasons that may have to do with the habits of traveling Americans, manages to have a busy Starbucks even though you can find nice Segafredo kiosks everywhere). It's nice to be able to speak and understand the language, unlike in Zürich, even when some of it is an annoyed Ça suffit! from a mother to her screaming youngster.

The Atlantic's Observance of Confederate History Month

The Atlantic's Observance of Confederate History Month: Continuing, or in some cases reviving, long-standing but utterly unwelcome customs, several southern states declared April 'Confederate History Month'. The occasion redeemed itself by provoking a long series of posts from Ta-Nehisi Coates at 'The Atlantic', each of which "observ[s]e some aspect of the Confederacy—but through a lens darkly". These begin with one whose peroration is worthy of Mencken,
This is who they are—the proud and ignorant. If you believe that if we still had segregation we wouldn't "have had all these problems," this is the movement for you. If you believe that your president is a Muslim sleeper agent, this is the movement for you. If you honor a flag raised explicitly to destroy this country then this is the movement for you. If you flirt with secession, even now, then this movement is for you. If you are a "Real American" with no demonstrable interest in "Real America" then, by God, this movement of alchemists and creationists, of anti-science and hair tonic, is for you.
The whole of it is a moving, empathic, and thereby all the more devastating meditation on memory, pride, shame, racism, heroism, moral courage, myths, the great personalities of the Civil War, and the enduring legacy of one of America's two great founding sins; on just how it is that we can be a country where a month set aside to remember a heritage of treason in defense of slavery is intended as a time of celebration and not of soul-searching. (Via Three-Toed Sloth)

I have nothing to add, as this note and Coates's writing speak my mind much better than I could.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

In Zürich

In the last week:

Sunday, May 2, 2010

World’s most excruciatingly ironic conference?

World’s most excruciatingly ironic conference?: Could this be the world’s most excruciatingly ironic conference? The Second International Symposium on Peer Reviewing (ISPR 2010) is soliciting papers. Their call for papers emphasizes the sorry state of peer-review, calling for ”more research and reflections [that] are urgently needed on research quality assurance and, specifically, on Peer Review.” [...] The conference itself is part of the 14th World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics: WMSCI 2010, and organized by the same institution, the International Institute of Informatics and Systemics (IIIS). Here’s the irony: IIIS and the WMSCI conferences are notorious for their lax standards for paper acceptance, as a cursory web search testifies. (Via The Occasional Pamphlet)

They understand their market exceedingly well: authors who publish in WMSCI must have been pushed there because they couldn't get their papers accepted elsewhere, so they must have complaints about peer review.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Death or birth?

Death or birth?: The most recent IEEE Signal Processing Society Newsletter has an interesting article by David Suendermann, 'Speech scientists are dead. Interaction designers are dead. Who is next?' [...] His argument is that 'Commercial spoken dialog systems can process millions of calls per week', and therefore 'one can implement a variety of changes at different points in the application and randomly choose one competitor every time the point is hit in the course of a call', using techniques like reinforcement learning to adaptively optimize the design. As a result, 'the contender approach can change the life of interaction designers and speech scientists in that best practices and experience-based decisions can be replaced by straight-forward implementation of every alternative one can think of'. (Via Language Log)

Some comments:

  • Even with all that data — and I agree it's growing fast as voice interaction on smart phones becomes ubiquitous — randomized search will be swamped by the combinatorial possibilities of interface design.
  • The only way to manage the combinatorics is to impose intelligent biases on the search process. That is, we need engineers and designers who understand and know how to apply the relevant computer science and statistics.
  • Automated tools do not achieve good designs by themselves, because we do not know how to quantify good design as a mathematical objective function, even if the combinatorial problem could be tamed. We need human designers to steer the tools, evaluate the results, and recognize potential disasters. Their training may be different, but they are not 'dead'.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ice Creek Lodge

Ice Creek summary

Just returned from a backcountry skiing week at Ice Creek Lodge on the edge of the Valhalla range of British Columbia. Too many photos to organize and share, here's a small taste.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Literary Skiers 8

Literary Skiers 8: Hans Castorp found that one quickly gets readiness in an art where strong desire comes in play. He was not ambitious for expert skill, and all he needed he acquired in a few days, without undue strain on wind or muscles. He learned to keep his feet tidily together and make parallel tracks; to avail himself of his stick in getting off; he learned how to take obstacles, such as small elevations of the ground, with a slight soaring motion, arms outspread, rising and falling like a ship on billowy sea; learned, after the twentieth trial, not to trip and roll over when he braked at full speed, with the right Telemark turn, one leg forward, the other bent at the knee.
I read the Magic Mountain way before I learned to ski, and I had forgotten about this passage. It needs re-reading. Read Hemon's poignant memoir too.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fine Line……….

Fine Line……….: I was in Reno for dinner last night and it was a white out blizzard with several inches on the ground. The heavy snow band set up on the North side of Truckee into Reno and stalled there all night. Places around Reno received a foot of snow overnight. The band was forecasted to shift slightly South and bring us at least 6 inches overnight on the North end of the lake, but it has barely made it South if I-80. [...] torm still on track Wednesday to bring moderate amounts of snow in the 6-12 inch range. Stronger storm for Saturday approaches the coast.

Tahoe skiers are all anxiously wondering, is this season going to fade like the last one, or is it going to bounce back with another two months of freshies? Gnawing doubt...

Reading list

Books I'm currently reading:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Newspapers are boring

I stopped subscribing to the NYT when I moved to CA over two years ago. Today, flying SFO->PHL, I bought a copy at the airport newsstand, just to recall the experience. I spent some 90 minutes on it during the flight, but I didn't enjoy it. The experience was the same that made me give up the NYT in print: slow, too much nondescript conventional wisdom, a structure that lacks vitality and the ability to make important information stick. In contrast, the book I am reading, From Eternity to Here, is full of interesting stuff, both main points and asides. The problems with newspapers are attributed to technology changes, but the real cause seems to me that they no longer meet the needs of the day, the form is stale for a culture where so much is happening so fast with all sorts of overt and implied connections.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Too much backcountry fun

From Backcountry Tahoe with Johannes
Over the last three weeks I went on Tahoe backcountry tours with three different sets of Google colleagues. I forgot my camera last week, but I had it the week before and this long weekend. The snowpack has been stable and the weather friendly. Today (Monday) was especially beautiful, a calm warm winter day with powder still lingering in the shade. The run down from Jake's Peak was excellent for most of the top half, a bit of corn followed by smooth settled powder; the bottom half was softening in the sun and could turn into glop in the next few days, but it was still good except for the beginning instability (rollers) on a sun-exposed face.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Linked to Buzz

Buzz is out, and I linked this blog to my Buzz profile so that anything I post here generates a buzz from me. I better get posting again ...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sam's ideas

Earlier today, I was discussing with colleagues a problem in feature selection for logistic regression. I recalled that I had discussed the problem with Sam some months ago, and that he had a clever suggestion on how to approach it. I searched my email, and there it was. I read it, I read it again. I thought I got the main idea, but I was missing something. I wanted to ask Sam. He seemed to have seen farther, as he so often did. I needed his help. But I couldn't call him.

I fear re-reading Sam's messages. They are stolen rays from a receding star that I can never reach.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sam Roweis

As I left the gym this morning, I learned that my friend and colleague Sam Roweis had died. I had a busy day of meetings ahead of me, which thankfully provided a pseudo-normalcy. In the gaps, we tried to console each other, we tried to think of useful things to do. I grieve deeply for him and the family he left behind.

Sam was a wonderfully creative, perceptive, warm, funny scientist. I met Sam at a NIPS conference in Denver in the mid-90s. I don't remember the year, but I remember vividly his enthusiasm and sense of humor as we talked about research and many other things at a busy food court near the NIPS hotel. Sam brightened every encounter with warmth, imagination, and humor.

We kept up with each other through the twists and turns of our research careers. We talked about many interesting ideas over the years. We got lost together in Whistler fog. I learned hugely from him, maybe he learned a teeny bit from me. He never dismissed my crazy ideas.

Sam encouraged me to come to Google, where he was already, and soon after I started there, he joined my group. We made plans to work together on several research problems, but life threw at Sam a much bigger problem than any of our scientific questions. We never wrote those papers, although just yesterday I noticed his writing on a whiteboard from the last time we had a detailed technical discussion.

To be closer to the support of family, Sam, his wife Meredith and their twin daughters moved to New York, where he took a faculty position at NYU while maintaining a part-time position with my group at Google. Just last week, he sent me a long message on possible directions for his work. I was very busy, and hoped to reply today. It will never happen.

Sam gave generously his ideas, his energy, and his spark to many friends, colleagues, and to his field. How could someone who gave so much of himself be running dangerously low on what is needed for living, I ask dumbly.

John Langford on Sam.