23 December 2008

Give Us Some (Ecumenical) Music

If you're looking for a Christmas music special to watch tomorrow night, let me recommend "Voices of Christmas" on CBS at 10:30 Central. It was produced by the National Council of Churches and hosted by Michael Kinnamon, who I met a couple of months ago and who's a brilliant, caring teacher and theologian (I'm standing next to him in this picture in the back row at right).

In fine NCC fashion, the special presents music from a number of member communions, which I think will be a nice change of pace from more monolithic specials from a single tradition. I've been a little down on the church these past weeks (and it always gets worse when I get home and start getting sucked into watching cable televangelists--just change the channel, Kyle), so Kinnamon's closing remarks in the preview below were like a breath of fresh air. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to see my friend Cassandra pop up in the interviews. Nicely done, Cassandra!

20 December 2008

Two Beer-Related Recommendations

I met one of the hosts of WSUM's Beer Talk Today last night at a friend's housewarming party. Really interesting guy with fascinating insight into the local beer and food scene. Anyway, I checked out today's Year In Review episode and really enjoyed it. Consider it recommended; I've added a link to their blog at right, and you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. FYI, their timeslot is apparently moving to Tuesdays at 9 p.m. when they return after the holiday break.

Speaking of recommendations, the beer that got us talking last night was New Glarus Brewing Company's new "Alt," a German altbier. A friend of mine happened to mention it to me a few days back, and the convenience store I stopped at on my way to the party happened to have it. Everybody at the party who had some raved about it, and I defnitely suggest that you add it to your holiday to-drink list. It's apparently not expected to last through December, so make haste.

19 December 2008

Another Ad: Be Like This Guy!

I was reading an article on yellowcake today in an old issue of the Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, and I just had to pass on this hilarious advertisement for becoming a professional engineer (PE). Granted it's ten years old and directed at folks who already have engineering training, but I couldn't help but think it's small wonder that we're having a hard time getting people interested in being PEs if ads like this are thought to be a legit recruitment tool.

By the way, Samuel Florman writes about the issue of PE licensing and much more in a fascinating book called The Introspective Engineer that everyone with even a passing interest in the field should definitely consider reading. I found it helpful to have a historical perspective on why engineering school is as unpleasant as it is (speaking of poor recruitment strategies...).

Florman's also a PE, albeit a (slightly) cooler-looking one. What he really looks like, though, is Ed McMahon.



18 December 2008

Another Hacker Within Ad

I know this doesn't make for a very exciting post number 100 here at CSC, but please help spread the word about this software carpentry training we're doing the week before UW-Madison classes start. Join us if you can!

09 December 2008

Hacker Within Meeting Friday

I doubt I have too many UW-Madison computer geek readers who don't already know about this (if indeed I have any at all, which is also doubtful given my dire posting record of late), but on Friday at 2:15 in 414 Engineering Research Building, the Hacker Within computational science interest group that a few of us started this summer is going to be hearing from Tim Tautges:

Component interfaces or APIs should a) have the right level of abstraction, so they can handle new kinds of data without needing to be modified, and b) should be callable from multiple languages, and c) should not get in the way of good performance. I'll describe the ITAPS mesh interface, which has been designed to meet these constraints.
Sound cool? More importantly, does this look cool?:

If so, you should come by. What better way to celebrate the end of the semester? ;)

19 November 2008

Worlds colliding

So, my friend and colleague David Meerman Scott has a new book coming out. As you can see, he's collecting pictures of the promotional poster hanging in people's offices, etc. I sent him my contributions today and just had so share, such was the glory of the juxtaposition. The first is boring old me sitting in my boring old office, computer screens ablaze (surprisingly enough, it looks like I'm actually getting some work done). The second one is me in the lab that a bunch of my classmates work in. That's the Inertial Electrostatic Confinement experiment behind me, a project of our department's Fusion Technology Institute. The IEC group does not endorse the content of World Wide Rave; they were, however, nice enough to let me get a shot with their gear. Anyway, I can't wait to see what David's got up his sleeve. Should be exciting.

Office photo

Lab photo

If you're surprised to see me in decent clothes, you're not alone. The reason is that I had to give a talk earlier in the day to some visitors from the University of Tokyo. I haven't talked much about my research here lately, so I posted the slides, IYI. Please note that although they should stand alone (legitimate thanks, Michael Alley and Co.), these slides do look a little mangled depending on what you're viewing them with (sarcastic thanks, PowerPoint 2007). Rest assured that I'm not a total moron when it comes to font choice.

As a general PowerPoint PSA, I suggest you also check out Tufte's rant about it--mostly because it's hilarious.

Update: Here's the photo on David's WWR page.

04 November 2008

It's hip to be genuinely square

Just in case the blogosphere fails to produce any non-election-related material today (an absurd notion, of course, but do me a favor and grant the damn premise), I wanted to pass along an article my friend Erica posted recently: "Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization."

Don't get me wrong, I hate the "oh, kids these days" mentality. I hate it in the middle third of Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, I hate it when it rears its head periodically in the composition literature (every ten years or so, if I remember a couple of writing center scholars' talks correctly), and I hate it because I hate being referred to as a kid.

So apologies in advance for sending along what is essentially a "kids these days"-style rant. That said, it strikes me as pretty much the most wickedly fun rant I've read since Jon Pareles declared Coldplay "the most insufferable band of the decade." It also strikes me as true, but I would appreciate some insight from anyone who understands the situation better and can deliver me from what I suspect is an oversimplified view. Genuineness and originality are out there somewhere, right? Hipsters, help an engineer out.

19 October 2008

Miscellaneous Updates

Let me surface from my digital dormancy (which one of these days I'll get around to writing a post to explain) for a couple of quick updates.

First, I went with some other UW-Madison folks to UW-Platteville Friday for a conference of the North Midwest region of the American Society for Engineering Education. We didn't stay for the evening banquet and keynote (nor obviously for the second day of the conference), but a lot of what we saw was interesting and encouraging. I was especially intrigued by Haiyan Zhang's paper "A Model-Based Multidisciplinary Correspondent Methodology for Design-by-Analogy" and frankly touched by the important work reported in Dale Buechler's fascinating "An Electrical Engineering Program for Place-Bound Students: The First Two Years." If you're interested in our paper, which was about ASEE student sections, you can read it here.

Second, you may notice that the above URL points to a non-UW-Madison domain. I'm trying to get untied from doing all my hosting on UW computers, and as a consequence you can now find this blog at blog.kyleoliver.net. I gotta admit, it's going to take a little getting used to being a domain owner. One early bummer: Blue Host servers don't have svn installed. Still, I'm excited to have a reasonably sustainable option for implementing that Holy Grail of personal file organization: putting your entire electronic life under version control (which, as my friend Matt points out, gives you superpowers).

15 September 2008


Clark Terry apparently once said "Count Basie was college, but Duke Ellington was graduate school." I've felt the same way, since being introduced to the latter by a teacher and friend of mine a few years go, about Douglas Adams and David Foster Wallace.

In Wallace I found another author unafraid of the bold, if self-conscious, aside; he takes the sentiment in Adams's "if you don't want me to digress, then you may find that you are reading the wrong column" and compounds it to a state of near-manic (and hyper-honest) thread exploration and playful formalism. Fans of, in particular, Everything and More's "Small But Necessary Foreword" will know what I mean.

In Wallace I found another post-Snow polymath whose rangy prose didn't so much interpolate disparate disciplines as span them. These guys display first-class knowledge of a sickening variety of really challenging technical fields in addition to their obvious literary prowess. Ask Cory Doctorow or Richard Dawkins or James Gleick if you don't believe me--or just reread the middle third of The Salmon of Doubt or Infinite Jest's footnote 123, which are of approximately the same length.

In Wallace I found another thoughtful writing tutor and pointer-out-of-the-sublime. Wallace on Garner, Dostoevsky, and Federer and Adams on Rendell, Wodehouse, and Bach seemed at times to single-handedly (or would it be double-?) save me from the verbal and spiritual wasteland that is a college curriculum with only six humanities credits.

As I had with Adams, when I read Wallace I always thought: here's an author with whom I don't always agree but whose mind, though orders of magnitude more sharp, agile, playful, and generous than mine, at least seems to be organized in more or less than same way. Whose achievements, though light years beyond my reach, were somehow still embracing and empowering rather than intimidating and doubt-inducing.

The final parallel, of course, is that David Foster Wallace is, heartrendingly, also now gone. I somehow only found out a few hours ago. After my Douglas Adams mourning mostly ended, but as sadness that we'd never have new DNA books again remained, I'd occasionally console myself with the thought that at least the prolific Wallace seemed to have so much more to contribute. I have no doubt that he did. But this was a man who was chiefly concerned with forging unironic emotional connections with his readers, and, once you learned that, you didn't have to read very far to guess that he spent a lot of time in pain. To be honest, as someone who's grateful for both the joy and the sadness he shared with the world, I now take consolation mostly in the knowledge that he's free of that pain.

24 August 2008

They Can Fly Under Doors!!

I improved my batting average/Graydon Number/bat wrangling quotient to 2 BW in 4.5 BE (0.444) tonight. However, the incident was not without some startling revelations:

(1) My bedroom door is not protection enough. Seriously, I knew one was out in the hallway earlier, but I cleared its escape route (the bathroom opens out onto a fire escape) and closed all the other doors, so I figured I could get back to a few minutes of editing while I waited for him to exit. All of a sudden, the damn thing is back in my room! And now I'm alone with the bat in a small enclosed place. Awesome. I couldn't help being reminded of Question 3 ("Remember, bats fly at 10 m/s and they do not know fear").

I also learned that while they indeed seem to be very stupid, they apparently start to fly lower and lower as they exhaust their (still pretty ineffective) search for high altitude escape routes. How are we supposed to evade them if they're flying at crouching-level? As Colette pointed out earlier, we can't fly.

(2) Leaving the fire-escape door open apparently varies as an effective wrangling technique. It worked like a champ the other night, but tonight--despite not seeming to have had it open any longer than last time--I returned to the bathroom when the coast was clear to find it bat-less, but also an entomological menagerie. I've got so many damn bugs in my bathroom, I need to track down another bat just to get rid of them all. I feel a little like the old lady who swallowed a fly (what is the point of this video, incidentally?) but kinda in reverse. There's going to have to be a mosquito massacre in a few minutes.

Speaking of massacres, I'm seriously considering starting to take swings at them (the bats, not the bugs). I'm told that if you hit them you can stun them and then carry them away to safety in a plastic bag. The key, apparently, is to not swing too hard. But one bared its teeth at me yesterday when I was trying to shoo it away from its perch, so I'm not really interested in turning a swooping but seemingly non-combative flying mammal into one that perceives me to be attacking it. Frazzled and fanged is not an attractive combination, in my book. Thus, I'll be employing the Dan Uggla philosophy: swing hard in case you hit it.

Note to potential St. Francis House residents (or anyone who's afraid Colette, Hattie, and I are going to get rabies): We'll get to the bottom of this chiropteric conundrum. These bats have to be getting into the house more easily than in the past. We should be able to find the entry points and secure them.

Image: xkcd #135. Used by permission.

19 August 2008

Kyle Oliver: Bat Wrangler

For those of you who don't know, I now live at a church. An old church. One with bats.

I've decided the best way to cope with this less-than-ideal aspect of my otherwise wonderful living situation is to have a little fun with it. Watch my Twitter feed (reproduced at right and on my Facebook status) for updates to the bat wrangling quotient (aka Graydon Number or simply batting average), which is calculated by dividing the number of bats I manage to wrangle out of the house (bat wrangled, BW) into the number I encounter (bats encountered, BE, aka at bats).

Some notes:

(1) I've already learned that bat wrangling is (often necessarily, and I suspect also to our mutual advantage) a team sport. BW and BE numbers will be split among all participants in the encounter/wrangle. Thus my current bat wrangling quotient is 1 / 2.5 = .400, because tonight I added two solo encounters and one successful wrangle (don't know where the other one got off to) to my previous 0/0.5 record after Carl and I had an unsuccessful bat run-in last week. As you might expect, I'll report my stats baseball-style, i.e. "Current bat wrangling quotient: .400 in 2.5 at bats."

(2) Despite all the baseball language, I want to emphasize that all the blunt instruments (they're badminton paddles actually) on our floor are for self-defense only, and I'm not actually taking swings at them (the bats). The goal is to guide them out of the house, not knock them into oblivion Dan Lin-style.

(Sorry for mixing metaphors here. I've so far avoided bat-transmitted rabies, but I do have Olympic fever.)

Stay tuned for bat wrangling advice and tales of heroics...and probably also anti-heroics, as in my second at bat this evening, wherein I just shut the door to the TV room and went on watching hurdles and gymnastics.

Ned Yost Is A Big Honkin' Doofus

What the hell was C.C. doing batting in the eighth (and then pitching a long ninth) with such a huge lead last night? I know we're probably not going to be able to keep him, but we still gotta get him through hopefully a couple months' worth of baseball yet. Don't get me wrong, the guy has every right to keep himself in games and risk flushing millions of dollars down the drain in a contract year. But, rental player or not, we shouldn't let him be so hasty with his future, because it's our future too until after the season. Grrh.

10 July 2008

Writing Center Summer Institute

I got an email yesterday that the Writing Center Summer Institute, which is being held at UW-Madison this year, has a blog up and running. If you're familiar with writing center scholarship, then you know those names over in the "contributors" column are some of the best and brightest in the field. I've been exceedingly lucky to have briefly interacted with a couple of them at conferences and colloquia, and I'm excited that I'll get a chance to duck in and say hello in a couple weeks (my friend Erica and I are moderating a panel together during the Thursday session).

If you want to read what some really sharp, thoughtful people have to say about writing center work, check out this blog once the institute gets rolling, if not before.

06 July 2008

Gainin' On Ya! All Up Around Your Neck

The Cubs are in first place, in case you haven't heard. The Brewers are in second, "but that's a temporary condition too":

To each his reach
And if I don't cop, it ain't mine to have
But I'll be reachin' for ya
'Cause I love ya, CC.
Right on.
Ain't it funky, Chicago?

(Or how about "J.J.? C.C.; C.C.? J.J.")

All kidding aside, the Brewers now have arguably the best one-two starting pitching punch in baseball with, in no particular order, Ben Sheets and C.C. Sabathia. (Who am I forgetting? Surely a pair in the AL?) Sheets' ERA and WHIP are a little better this season, but Sabathia pitches in the AL, leads baseball in strikeouts, and is the reigning Cy Young winner (he also got off to an unusually bad start).

It's gonna be a fun second-half!

03 July 2008

Fade to Uninterestingness

Its overly reductive headline notwithstanding, this article from yesterday's New York Times basically sums up why I'm no longer so jazzed about a career in academia. I think the overarching theme emerging from these observations is less about a shift from liberal to conservative (or politically driven to "less explicitly political"), but rather from theoretical and big-picture-centric to relentlessly empirical and data-centric.

(Am I implying that the latter attitude obscures one's ability to see the big picture and actually say something interesting? Well, not necessarily, but it does for me personally. Do I especially care that the former attitude runs the risk of being less rigorously scientific? No, I do not.)

Anyway, here (for me at least) are a few particular sources of despair:

At the same time, shrinking public resources overall and fewer tenure-track jobs in the humanities have pushed younger professors in those fields to concentrate more single-mindedly on their careers. Academia, once somewhat insulated from market pressures, is today treated like a business. This switch is a “major ideological and philosophical shift in how society views higher education,” Mr. Schuster and Mr. Finkelstein write in “The American Faculty.”

Ms. Goldrick-Rab has embraced such experiments. A graduate course she created — partly based on her research of community colleges — focused on “educational opportunity and inequality” at community colleges, with an “emphasis on the critical evaluation and assessment of current up-to-date research.” [Admirable, but sadly boring to me in the absence of "grand frameworks": see below.]

Another Wisconsin professor, Erik Olin Wright, a 61-year-old sociologist and a Marxist theorist, described it this way: “There has been some shift away from grand frameworks to more focused empirical questions.” [Isn't the grandness what makes higher education exciting? Isn't it what teaches us that there's more to life than making money? Isn't it what helps us grow during these hopefully enriching years of our lives? Can we really be sustained by focused empirical questions alone?]


Wisconsin is part of the state’s university’s system, for example, but it receives only 18 percent of its total budget from the Legislature. The rest comes from donations, foundations, federal research grants and corporations. Mr. Wright and Mr. Olneck worry how constantly having a hand out — particularly to corporations — may affect attitudes and policies. Mr. Olneck mentioned the long list of labs and classrooms named after companies like Halliburton, Pillsbury and Ford Motor Company.

The market sensibility may account for what Mr. Olneck and others call an increasing careerism among junior faculty members.

Part of why I find the headline a little unsatisfying is because of my personal position on this issue. Unlike so much of what's described in this article, I'm totally down with the trend away from polemics:

The authors are not talking about a political realignment. Democrats continue to overwhelmingly outnumber Republicans among faculty, young and old. But as educators have noted, the generation coming up appears less interested in ideological confrontations, summoning Barack Obama’s statement about the elections of 2000 and 2004: “I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.”

Another part of why I think the political theme here is confusing is the stuff about Allan Bloom:

Yet to some traditionalists, preoccupations like Mr. Olneck’s grated. The conservative philosopher Allan Bloom captured the bitter splits — better known as the culture wars — in his influential best seller “The Closing of the American Mind” in 1987. He detailed fights over the scarcity of women and people of color in the curriculum, the proliferation of pop-culture courses, doubts about the existence of any eternal truths and new theories that declared moral values to be merely an expression of power. These rancorous disputes often spilled into the nation’s political discourse.

Even though he resented and disagreed with many of the fruits of old-guard liberal academic thinking ("old-guard" as defined in this article, of course, i.e. the baby boomers), I can't help but think that the part of Alan Bloom who was so concerned with the beauty of eternal truths would be unhappy about what Wright called above the "shift away from grand frameworks." I mostly hated COTAM, but I think Bloom and I could agree about the impoverished-ness of a purely data-driven academe. We need facts and the frameworks to understand them.

The absence of that balance reminds me of an interesting point of agreement between mathematical physicists Henri Poincaré and E. A. Milne that I wrote a few years back. I'm worried that what they describe sounds awfully familiar:

...both writers quickly dismiss the criticism that the essence of the scientific enterprise is mere fact gathering. Poincaré does so with an oft-quoted analogy to building: “Cannot we be content with experiment alone? No, that is impossible; that would be a complete misunderstanding of the true character of science…Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” Milne also subscribes to this viewpoint. He similarly denies the notion that science “adopt[s] the spirit of the collector, and glor[ies] most in the increase in the frontiers of our knowledge of facts, in the assemblage of fresh phenomena in a tendency to completion and exhaustiveness.” He later notes the “deleterious effect” of such an attitude, claiming “It gives rise to sneers such as that of H. G. Wells, when he pictured the large majority of scientific workers as each of them merely ‘adding one or two to that large stock of little papers with blunted conclusions of which the world is already too full.’”

Finally, I'd claim that we can see the migration described in this article reflected in what I'll call the Comic Wars. Don't get me wrong, I love PHD, but I think the attitudes it usually reflects are symptomatic of the changes this NYT article is getting at. See, for example, this post from Natalia Cecire:

Piled Higher and Deeper appears to be the grad-student-centric web comic of choice. Unfortunately, PHD is all about engineers. The recent addition of a humanities grad student (Gerard, the medieval Scandinavian philosophy student) only drives home that the author of the comic knows almost nothing about the humanities, and considers disciplines legitimate only insofar as they are quantitative.

On the other hand, there is Dinosaur Comics, which is pure brilliance.
Although I would have said "scientists and engineers," I'm totally with you, Natalia. In fact, one reason why I love xkcd is that it represents what to me is the ideal middle ground between and PHD and Dinosaur Comcis. That is (if I'm not stretching the analogy too much) between the idealistic, though ultimately perhaps a little naive previous model and the data-driven, capitalistic model that we seem now to be stuck with. To me, the old framework begs the question "Whither verification and quantification?", the latter, "Whither significance and inspiration and playfulness?"

As xkcd so often reminds me (here and here, for instance), I need both, for wholeness' sake. Let's hope academia realizes that it does too.

25 June 2008

You Don't Mess With A.O.

A couple of friends and I have been engaged in a little conversation (and email follow-up) about the New York Times movie critics. It's funny, I see very few movies, but I'm a voracious review reader, especially from the Times and The Onion (though not the latter so much lately because I get sucked into reading the whole thing, which, sadly--summer be damned--I just don't have the time for). While I, like my friend, prefer A.O. Scott, I've really been digging Manohla Dargis lately. (Incidentally, I went to write out my "Dargis thesis" this morning and realized I already had.)

Anyway, this is just a brief PSA: You should check out A.O. Scott's hilarious review of You Don't Mess With the Zohan (aka "the finest post-Zionist action-hairdressing sex comedy [A.O. Scott has] ever seen"). But my sources tell me you shouldn't actually go see it, his advice notwithstanding. I was beginning to think A.O. seemed a little vulnerable to the crazy sex comedies lately, but then he skewered The Love Guru, or (as The Onion cover called it this week, the "Latest Austin Powers Movie").

If you want to watch something, I'd recommend the Zohan Movie Minutes (halfway down the review, at left). The conclusion:

"All in all, it offers a kind of ... a utopian picture of what would happen if people stopped blowing each other up and started just concentrating on the things that really matter, which are money, sex, nice haircuts, and hummus."

18 June 2008


Well, in its 69-year history, the Baseball Hall of Fame Game has been rained out five times. My dad and I have now had tickets to two of those rain outs (including one back in the '90s when I was a little boy). The "good" news: we won't miss another. The bad news: that's because this was going to be the last one. Ah well.

Despite the lack of baseball, my dad and I had a great little Father's Day trip out east. We stayed at a camp on Great Sacandaga on Saturday (my mom's side) and hung out at another on Goodyear Lake on Sunday with a bunch of relatives I haven't seen in years (my dad's side). Many clams and beers were consumed, stories told, etc. (For those of you without any roots in upstate New York, "a camp" is what we'd call "a cabin" in Wisconsin).

As for Cooperstown, I think the locals lack a certain perspective on why this game is being discontinued, but I'm sad to see it go nevertheless. I hope they go to a "Legends Game" format or something in the future--in my opinion, that might actually be more interesting than watching a bunch of minor leaguers play for the disinterested major leaguers sitting on the bench griping about having to make the trip for an exhibition game (then again, I never got the chance to see even that, so I can't know for sure). Either that or make the game count, but that's never going to happen, since it would mean ridiculous lost revenue (historic Doubleday Field holds like 10,000 people). Anyway, it's always a good time when you get to go to Cooperstown, so I'm grateful for the trip, regardless. Plus, I'm going to four Brewers games in the next two weeks, so I should get my fill of live ball.

Sorry for my continued absence on CSC. I'm still having a strange but very busy and rewarding summer, the details of which I'll share when the time seems right.

30 May 2008

Missing, Presumed Fed

It may appear that I've pulled a succession of Lig Lury, Jr.'s these last two weeks' worth of evenings. However, this editor hasn't been out grabbing food every night. I've actually just been trying to recover and catch up a bit from the semester, to get moving on summer research, and to take care of some business I've been putting off for a long time. More to come on that final front soon, I expect.

In other news...

This editor, I just discovered, is awesome. You should read his blog, especially in light of the sad track record of Sunday Judgment recently. All the magnificently nerdy copy-editor talk notwithstanding (my favorite line, regarding Myanmar v. Burma: "In any event, the State Department does not hold sway over our house style."), perhaps the most compelling reason to check out McIntyre's blog is here.

And this is so cool I won't even bother with an introduction, though I'll mention that I was sad it didn't get mentioned here. Friends of mine and I have been talking about taking a "spontaneously generated adventure" one of these days; let me know if you want to join in.

15 May 2008

Toy Story -- Or -- A Radiation Therapy Treatment Planning Code From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed

A few days ago, I handed in my last paper of the semester, a report on my development of TOLSTOY: Treatment Optimization with Linear Scoring TOY. I figure we need more codes named after famous writers (see, for example, CAFCA).

TOLSTOY's not going to answer any pressing research questions. It's a toy code for performing radiation therapy treatment planning calculations, a task I know laughably little about (especially considering I was once on track to become a medical physicist). But that's kinda the point. I think to really teach the concepts involved in doing any sort of complex calculation, you have to radically simplify the task. When we're not willing to do that, we risk spending so much curricular time laying theoretical foundations that we never help students see the forest for the trees.

I've always been especially bothered by this phenomenon, which David Ollis (whose work I've always admired) and some other folks at NC State describe here:

"Virtually all writing guides emphasize the importance of defining at the outset the direction and nature of the story to be told. Paradoxically, engineering curricula almost universally neglect this time-honored advice. Instead, most sentence the new student to math, physics, chemistry, humanities, and social sciences. Thus, one to two years pass by before any engineering courses of substance and example are offered. The student is launched upon a journey without clear definition of the voyage or description of the port of arrival. One result is found in the too-often heard remark, 'I didn’t see what engineering was all about until my final semester, when it all came together in the design project.'"

Thankfully, engineering educators increasingly seem willing to let first- and second-year students get their hands dirty with projects that try to strike a balance between authenticity and accessibility. That's what I was going for with TOLSTOY--a tool that a student could play with to learn something about treatment planning without having to understand every detail of radiation transport and optimization.

One of my favorite David Foster Wallace essay titles involves the CAFCA code's namesake. The essays is called "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed," and I kinda feel like those last eight words should get tacked on to pretty much everything I write. But it should also serve as a guide for how we design teaching tools in the computational sciences. Without a kind of pedagogical Occam's razor to shave away as many of the befuddling details as possible, we don't have much hope of actually teaching anything at all.

Anyway, here's the paper. Sorry about some of the formatting; RefWorks wasn't kind to the citations, for some reason, and in my rush to finish my semester I didn't catch all the errors. By the way, the image above plots the dose distribution from a five-x-ray-beam treatment plan for --ridiculously--a spherical tumor in a cubical patient with no sensitive tissues to try to spare. It's a totally trivial example, but I thought it looked really cool.

13 May 2008

Triple Take

In case you haven't heard, there was an unassisted triple play in the Cleveland-Toronto game last night. These have always been really, really exciting to me; I remember watching highlights of one when I was a seven-ish-year-old baseball nut living in Bradenton, FL (where the Pirates spring train, incidentally). I have the nagging sense that someone on the Reds turned it, and that it happened in a dome, but I haven't done the research to confirm either fact.

To give you some sense of how rare these things are, note that this was only the 14th such play in major league history. If I manage to track down some good video, I'll pass it along.

OK, I've been doing runs on TOLSTOY (more on this most recent project of mine soon) all morning and am ready to put myself into exile until the associated paper is finished. Catch you on the flip side.

Thanks to my friend Matt, by the way, for calling me last night with the news. I happened to be in a bar watching the Brewer game with his parents and fiancé at the time, but I never caught the highlight. Soon.

Update: Matt just sent me a little info that I thought I'd pass along:"You were right, the Unassisted TP has only happened one way, every time. It was usually catch, bag, and tag... but a few were catch, tag, and bag. Interesting stuff. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unassisted_triple_play"

Incidentally, I think we need a commonly accepted word that allows you to credit someone with doing some research but that also connotes a bit of flimsiness to that research because, in fact, it just involved finding the right Wikipedia article. How about wi-search? My only problem with this choice is that I'm worried about possible confusion with Nintendo-Wii-related words (e.g., Wiimote). Any thoughts?

Another update: I just did a little wi-search of my own and figured out why I remember that unassisted TP of yore so vividly--it came at the expense of my Pirates: "September 20 - Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Mickey Morandini completes the first unassisted triple play in the National League in 65 years against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Morandini snares Jeff King's line drive, steps on second to double off Andy Van Slyke, and finally tags Barry Bonds out before he can return to first. It is the ninth unassisted triple play since 1901, but only the second to be pulled off by a second baseman."

And since I'm on a role:

I was just shattered to discover that my mind apparently created what I always thought was a sweet fact about two of those same Pirates. I had in my head that Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke comprised the starting National League outfield as Pirates in at least one All-Star Game. However, if my wi-search is to be believed (1 2 3), it looks like the intersection of their respective all-star season sets is {1993}. However, by that year Bonilla and Bonds had moved on to the Mets and Giants, respectively. It also turns out that Van Slyke sat out the game with an injury. So much for that special memory from my childhood.

OK, back to TOLSTOY.

07 May 2008

Cleaning House

I'm trying to clean up my del.icio.us tags a bit. Here are a couple links I've been meaning to pass along:

CO2 Saver -- I'm in firm agreement with those who believe guilt isn't going to get us anywhere in solving environmental problems. I think the truth of the matter is that we start to make a difference when we stop feeling guilty and start trying to do what we can (thanks, Natalie and Casey). Here's one thing I think we can all do: install this small power management utility. Of course, we all probably could have handled this task on our own, but the CO2 Saver application does the work automatically. I just installed it and will keep you posted about whether it turns out to be a pain. It seems pretty unintrusive.

In Shift to Digital, More Repeat Mammograms -- A few years back, I wrote a paper on the migration to digital mammography, and when I saw this article I thought it was interesting to see how things are panning out. As you might expect, the transition from film to digital has been a little rocky, but the experts still seem to think it's gonna be worth it in the long run. Anyway, I've been thinking a fair bit about my radiation sciences days lately (partly because I'm trying to finish up my TOLSToy treatment planning code so my semester can be over), so I felt compelled to pass this along.

Pangramaday -- I noticed today that my friend Ryan is taking a week off from his daily pangram-composing discipline. What better time to check out his site and get caught up? I've always admired Ryan's verbal dexterity and have been enjoying this fun, easy read. I thought last Monday's entry was especially graceful.

Poor Union South

Hehe, those of you familiar with the UW-Madison campus may find this amusing:

"For 37 years, Union South has turned a cold shoulder to the campus. And the feeling, unfortunately, has been mutual. Unloved and underutilized, Union South's quirky design, and uninviting Soviet-style architecture will give way to a new South Campus Union that planners expect will be a "people magnet" that will invigorate the area.
Read more: http://www.news.wisc.edu/15204 "

03 May 2008

Taco Town

This New York Times story about taco trucks in LA is just brilliant. A really carefully crafted feature story that's funny but hits on some serious socio-economic issues as it builds momentum. Any article that contains the expression "taco-loving public" should be shooting up the most-emailed list. It's currently at number 10, I noticed.

OK, back to work, but only because I don't have a car to go driving in search of the best carnitas. Seriously, I love carnitas.

I also love "Taco Town."

Update: Man, I'm having a bad couple of weeks w/r/t providing promised links. Should be fixed now above, or click here.

30 April 2008

Wiscmail Down

The campus-wide e-mail servers here at UW-Madison seem to be down right now. If you're trying to get in touch with me via my main account and have somehow found your way here, note that you can reach me via my gmail account, a link to which appears in the second box on the top RHS of this page.

29 April 2008

Non-Secular Programming

First, a Sports Night scene to set the mood:

CASEY: Finish the story.

DAN: The story is, we had a conversation. Seriously. Someone had clearly briefed her on my stuff with the public schools and I told her about my opposition to secular programs that are publicly financed. I really spoke up and she seemed to listen.

CASEY: You mean non-secular.

DAN: What do you mean?

CASEY: You don't oppose secular programs that are publicly financed. You oppose non-secular programs that are publicly financed.

DAN: Yes.

CASEY: Go on.

DAN: Wait.

CASEY: I'm right.

DAN: Are you sure?

CASEY: Non-secular means bound to religious guidelines. Secular means free of religion.

DAN: (Thinking.) Okay. I'm sure I got it right at breakfast.

CASEY: Fifty-fifty chance.

(DAN is still pondering the odds that he got it right.)

CASEY: So go on.

(A distracted DAN reaches for a change of clothes.)

DAN: I'm gonna go and change my clothes.

CASEY: Okay.

(DAN drops the clothes to the floor.)

DAN: I didn't get it right.

CASEY: I know.

DAN: I blew it.


DAN: I mixed up! I inverted the definitions of secular and non-secular!

CASEY: Looks like that might be the case.

DAN: Hilary Clinton thinks I'm an idiot!

CASEY: Either that or a religious bigot.

I wanted to open with a little levity as a heads up about some decidedly non-secular programming. I've talked about God and science previously on this blog, but the link below steps things up a theological notch, I think.

I was asked to preach at St. Francis House a couple Sundays back, and I decided that what I came up with was too CSC-ish not to post here. Of course, this blog isn't publicly financed, and I'm not a religious bigot (in fact, I've danced around some wording to avoid confronting a tough passage that one author calls "disturbing [] to our pluralistic ears," which mine decidedly are), but I nevertheless just wanted to mention the original context of the link below.

Anyway, feel free to have a look if you're so inclined (here).

Update: The link should be working now. Sorry, I thought I'd thoroughly tested that the place I'd posted it before was publicly accessible, but apparently it wasn't. Thanks to whoever brought it to my attention.

28 April 2008

Local News of National Import

It's weird when you get news about your community from a national news source. Sadly, that happened today to this Madison, WI resident:

Reluctantly, a Daily Stops Its Presses, Living Online (New York Times)

Was I the only one who hadn't heard about this? I'm not a very good local news consumer, so I guess I'm part of the problem at work here.

We'll miss you, Cap Times.

27 April 2008

Sunday Judgment VII

Today's lesson: not all copy is created equal.

If you have the final responsibility (or even part of it) for the copy in some publication, I submit to you that it's a good rule of thumb to spend twice as much time copy editing the text in headlines, captions, etc. than you would on the same volume of text in some random paragraph. Why? Because everyone loves pointing out mistakes, and there's a much greater chance of others finding them when they're in conspicuous places. Cruelly, there's also a decreased chance of you, the copy editor, finding them, since it's easy to take their correctness for granted ("oh, I would have noticed an error in that cutline already").

It's 8:52 a.m. CST, and an online caption for a photo in the New York Times Magazine's "Young Gay Rites" article still has a pretty whopping error. Can you find it before they do?

23 April 2008

Can This Just Be My Career?

My baseball partner-in-crime Matt sent me this awesome link to a New York Times story I missed about a month ago.

If you want to know how tons of nuclear engineers spend their time, look no further. We run simulations like the one in the article. Except instead of flipping these virtual weighted coins to see how simulated batters fair over the course of their careers, we're trying to see how simulated neutrons (or x-rays, or electrons, or whatever) fair over the course of their lifetimes (from their creation in the reactor or whatever until their eventual absorption or leakage from the system). Of course, for a binary process (e.g., DiMaggio either gets a hit or he doesn't) it's OK to visualize coin-flipping, but I think it's better to think of the "randomness driver" as the roll of a many, many-sided die--which is why the Men from Mars referred to this clever trick as a Monte Carlo method. (In fact, I used Monte Carlo to write this absurd little simulation, which happens to be about rolling dice.)

Man, writing baseball simulations for a living would maybe be my dream job. Hey, Baseball Prospectus: need any more modelers?

21 April 2008

Playing Catch (-Up)

In honor of yesterday's beautiful weather and the associated (and long overdue) first game of catch, I checked out a couple of baseball blogs today.

Perhaps I'm too much of a Turnbow apologist, but I think this guy is partially misplacing the blame for today's Brewers loss. I was only listening to it on the radio, but it seems like base-running mistakes really cost us a chance to take the lead in the bottom of the eighth, which could have kept us in it. Nevertheless, I think Brewers Bar looks worth reading, so I've added it to the new Sports links at right. (Speaking of sports blogs, did you see this? I'd like to hear more about Cuban's viewpoint, which sounds a little hypocritical but is perhaps only superficially so.)

In other news (since I'm still just getting slammed at work and need to knock at least one story off the old ToBlog queue before I lose all my momentum), congratulations to Professors McMahon and Murphy on their recent teaching awards. Watch for Insights' interview with Regina Murphy in the next edition. I was there for the brown bag and thought she covered some really interesting stuff.

In the meanwhile, here's some wisdom from McMahon:

"He inspired me to think of students as 'candles to be lit, not vessels to be filled,'" she says. "I think of myself not as a conduit for facts, but as an exuberant tour guide introducing students to the joy of problem-solving and learning about the world around them."

We need more exuberance.

17 April 2008

What I Did All Day

As it turns out, only this (click to enlarge):

It's getting to be that time of the semester where scheduling and time management become both more difficult (because the time-uncertainties in end-of-semester-type activities are so much greater) and more important (because of the number and importance of said activities). Case in point: the above plot took me all day to make, and I really only had to generate the dotted line today. It turns out that every time I've solved this particular two-region reactor physics problem (at least twice while studying for my qualifying exam), I've done it wrong. It took me about two hours to realize my mistake, another two to find and fix it, and another hour to find the additional mistakes I incorporated in moving my solution from one piece of software to another. I can't tell you how many other items were on my todo list today (including--I'm just realizing--eating lunch), which tasks of course I'm scrambling to do now (well, in about another two minutes, obviously). I'll try to explain this problem and plot some other time, since they're kind of interesting and have some bearing on the "What have we got to lose?" modeling question.

Anyway, I just wanted to sort of explain my absence from this space this week and see if anybody had suggestions for dealing with this problem of how you can manage your time when the tasks you're juggling are both more important and more unpredictable in terms of how much time they take to finish. As far as I can tell, the standard answers include "sleep less" and "forget to each lunch."

OK, back to work.

13 April 2008

New Insights Online

I linked to the March edition of our College of Engineering's Teaching and Learning Insights newsletter last month, mostly because I'd written a piece for it. But it would be a shame if I didn't pass the April link along as well. This issue rules.

In particular, check out the feature about my friend and sometime collaborator Laura Grossenbacher and her work on WAC (that's Writing Across the Curriculum, not Western Athletic Conference) in engineering. This project's got it all--interdisciplinarity, technical writing, authentic learning, and more. So I guess by "it all" I mean "stuff I'm interested in." If you are too, check it out.

There's also a write-up of our journal club's most recent article and a piece on using blogs for assessment. Geez, they're productivity tools, assessment tools, brainstorming tools...makes me wonder why it took me so long to get back in the blogging game.

12 April 2008

Science News: Patterns

All the stories that caught my eye in this week's Science News digest had to do with violated patterns.

(1) I was checking out the videos of the big Intel young scientist competition finalists and was pleased to see a few non-biological scientists getting some recognition. It seems like almost all of the elite young science students you hear about are heading toward bio-related fields (and who can blame them?), so I'm glad to see that some de facto traffic and materials engineers made the cut.

(2) This week's Math Trek discusses the inherent statistical noisiness of individual performance in baseball:

"In fact, according to a new analysis by Lawrence Brown of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, predicting that a player's batting average will be the same in the second half of the season as the first half is about the worst plausible method out there."

Fair point, but I think it's a bit misleading to call baseball a noisy sport, since it's a mere pin-drop compared to the deafening statistical roar in team sports like football, where the variables are so hard to isolate and control that nobody seems to bother much. (Well, except for these guys, from the looks of it.)

In any event, though you don't need to be an Ivy League professor to realize that two weeks' worth of baseball is a minuscule sample size, this story was still a soothing balm as I contemplate the early struggles of several of my very high fantasy picks: Jose Reyes, Russell Martin, and Hunter Pence in particular. C'mon guys, TeamGuido needs you!

One non-violated pattern involving this story: my continuing professional crush on Julie Rehmeyer.

(3) I don't pay much attention to elements with atomic numbers higher than about 98, but apparently element 114 is giving some physical chemists a little trouble. If their results are correct, ununquadium seems to violate over 100 years of unflappable electro-numeric periodicity. (Man, there's no way that's the right term, but I like the sound of it.)

Why? Well, "nuclei with more protons attract electrons more strongly. Those electrons orbit faster, and according to Einstein's special theory of relativity, time for them stretches out. As a result, some of the electrons' orbits are tighter than in lighter elements, affecting that element's chemistry."

There seems to be some debate about whether such relativistic effects, which have been observed before, should be great enough to significantly alter the-element-that-would-be-Atlantisium's chemistry. This work is worth keeping an eye on, to the extent that any artificial material with a half-life on the order of seconds is worth knowing anything about. (Full disclosure: I'm being a little flippant here, but the prospect of 114-298 being stable is pretty exciting, the difficulties of cramming nine more neutrons into 114-289 notwithstanding.)

Well, unlike the subjects of these stories, I don't tend to violate a lot of patterns. Case in point: I just burned another Saturday morning doing armchair science writing despite boatloads of real work ahead of me (and, also as usual, I didn't get past the Saturday morning Science New digest in order to get to all the other interesting stuff I'd saved up all week). Ah well. Happy Saturday, everyone.

P.S., I've been getting a lot of nice feedback about this blog lately. Thanks very much for reading, everyone! I hope the rest of you are enjoying CSC as well, and I hope you'll all consider leaving comments, dropping me some email, blogging about interesting posts you find here, etc. I'd love to make this space more of a conversation; if there are ways you think I can better facilitate that goal, please let me know.

11 April 2008

Strange Indeed

One of the very, very few reasons I regret not having a car is that getting to Madison's east or west sides for movies hardly seems worth the investment in bus-riding time (we miss you University Square, you of the $4.75 student admission and reasonably priced beer).

This week I'm doubly bummed due to this weird convergence:

"If you are in the mood for a movie about the rejuvenation of an aging, widowed college professor — and don’t pretend you aren’t — then this is a weekend of rare and unexpected abundance. By some miracle of film industry serendipity, two such movies are opening today in limited release. Even more bizarre: each is pretty good."

Of course, The Visitor isn't even playing here, and Smart People is at the slightly-easier-to-get-to-(though-astronomically-priced) Sundance Cinemas, so I may very well get a chance to catch it. I miss seeing movies easily, is the general point here. Would someone please open another student-oriented theater downtown?

Thanks, A.O.: Smart People, The Visitor

08 April 2008

News Wire: (Mostly) Underwater Edition

Three of the four science stories that caught my eye this morning take place under water:

"Case study: Making waves with new power generation technology" (Financial Times)
"What's Making That Awful Racket? Surprisingly, It May Be Fish" (New York Times)
"Growing Pains for a Deep-See Home Built of Subway Cars" (New York Times)

Not content with those choices? The last story involves the Monty Hall problem applied to psychology experiment:

"And Behind Door No. 1, a Fatal Flaw" (New York Times)

The answer to the MHP is pretty neat, a great example of the kind of reasoning you can do when you're willing to consider the counterintuitive.

(Full disclosure: the MHP, along with the Birthday problem and the Shake of the Day problem, have all been covered by what we might as well call the Society for Spontaneously Arguing About Math in Taverns. I originally got it wrong.)

07 April 2008

Final One

Well, the unscientific verdict ("unscientific" because saying anything based on one tournament or especially one game is foolishness) is in: if you're looking to win some money or whatever, you can do a lot worse than to start from the pure LRMC rankings and go from there to make your bracket picks, at least given this year's result.

Unfortunately, by the end of the tourney I was rooting against my brackets, partly because I have a friend from Memphis, and partly because I thought maybe we'd stumbled across a Moneyball-style inefficiency (full disclosure: I also have to admit that watching a fast, "exciting" team that you actually kinda like is pretty sweet, my love for Bo Ryan's teams notwithstanding). Just like speed is overpriced in baseball, at least some of this year's tourney suggests that maybe free throw shooting is "overpriced"--great if you can get it, but you can win without it if you're good enough in other areas. That's a rhetorically unsatisfying conclusion to reach, though, given tonight's result.

By the way, despite the great race in the West and all the Celtics intrigue, I'd like to put in a request to just cut the NBA season off right here so we can put basketball behind us and get on with the real business of watching baseball. Who's with me?

04 April 2008

I Didn't Know We Could Do That

Two fascinating stories off the morning science wire today:

Paper planes tested for launch into space --What have aerospace engineers got to lose? Everything but a single sheet of spray-coated sugar cane paper, apparently. I mentioned this project a while back, and I just can't get enough of it. I hope it works.

10 impossibilities conquered by science -- I like all the decisions except the one to begin the title with a numeral. "Harnessing nuclear power"comes in at number five.

Funny story about number three (heavier-than-air flight): Apparently whenever one of my professors sits next to someone on an airplane who's complaining about a delay due to technical problems (you know, the whole "in this day and age" bit), he just looks at the person and says "Well, I'm a professor of engineering physics, and I'm amazed they work at all. Let me tell you about what can go wrong..." I guess that usually shuts the person up.

I'm gone this weekend at a church retreat at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. Beautiful place, should be a nice weekend.

02 April 2008

...What To Leave Out

I got a hat tip from the Freakonomics blog today in reference to a recent post about the Wikipedia article for "real life." The post accepts the premise that fantasy and reality are complements rather than substitutes (a position Contraria Sunt Complementa naturally supports), and it zeros in on Robin Hanson's pro-complement point that "fiction can suppress irrelevant detail and emphasize important essences, like a math model" (hyperlink added).

Of course, such suppression is a big part of the game for us researchers who write simulation software. In fact, I'd argue that it's the game. Not because implementation is trivial (it's not), but because fantasy has to start from scratch, so to speak; without "suppress[ing] irrelevent detail," even the fastest model builder never has a chance to catch up. There's just to much detail to try to capture.

I talk a little bit each week here at CSC about editorial judgment, a subject that--despite going-on six years of engineering training--I have much more real-life experience with than its engineering analog. I'll make an effort to rectify my recent lack of engineering-judgment coverage in the coming weeks, especially as I try to summon some myself in order to finish up my work on GENIUS by the end of the summer.

I admit to occasionally succumbing to the need for a motivational Post-It note above my workstation. "Simplify, simplify" wouldn't be a bad motto in light of the addition-by-subtraction nature of modeling. But I'm going to go with the titular reference from the Douglas Adams piece that--almost four years ago now--first got me thinking about the importance of teaching engineers how to decide what to leave out:

"What have we got to lose?"

01 April 2008

Long Time No Hear, Here

Just a quick announcement: Natalia Zukerman is finally coming back to Madison! She'll be playing at Cafe Montmartre (it's still gonna be there, right?) on April 23, according to her mailing list. Time, cost, and opening act are all TBA.

Zukerman is one of my favorite artists, despite my general lack of interest in acoustic singer/songwriters. Why? Well, because she's a great instrumentalist (her dad is Pinchas Zukerman, not that I'd guess he taught her much about slide guitar); her songs are clever, sophisticated, and harmonically interesting; and her genre-mashing choices are right in my sweet spot.

Zukerman is a terrific live performer (funny, warm, great voice), and she recorded her new album at Willie Porter's studio (my friend Patrick and I discovered her when she opened for him a while back), so I'm especially pumped about its release as well. Let me know if you're interested in coming with me.

31 March 2008

The Hacker Within VIII

Today's subject: Mozilla Thunderbird Templates

Greg V. Wilson of the University of Toronto has a great talk on nanoHUB called "Software Carpentry: Essential Software Skills for Research Scientists." In it, he makes the claim that any task that you need to perform more than once is worth automating.

My computing life has improved in direct proportion to my willingness to heed his advice.

A recent example: I'm the chair of the UW-Madison College of Engineering's New Educators' Orientation, a series of required workshops for first-time COE TAs. Being the chair is not at all glamorous; it mostly means sending out lots of emails to recruit volunteers to help out. And if they're not customized, no one replies.

Using Mozilla Thunderbird or a similar email program obviously makes this task quite a bit easier--my de facto algorithm last semester required one New Message and three Copy-Pastes, into three different boxes. This semester, I've automated out a few steps to get it down to one New Message (well, an equivalent) and one Copy-Paste with Thunderbird Templates. I know it doesn't sound like much of an improvement, but this process offers a significant time-savings, is much less error prone, and can keep you more organized.

How do you use Templates? Easy. First, create a new message, with subject line and easy-to-find placeholders in the message. Then click File > Save As > Template. A folder called "Templates" will appear in your folder window. Click the folder, and then right-click on the Template you want to use and select Edit As New... (or, better yet, use Ctrl+E with the Template selected).

A copy of that Template will then pop up, all ready for you to replace the placeholders and enter a recipient email. Not for nothing, you'll also never have to dig through your Old Sent Mail to find the message you need to resend.

I wish I'd looked into this sooner. Thanks to Heinz Tschabitscher and his About.com entry for being there when I did (though note that, at least with Thunderbird/Ice Dove version, I couldn't double-click on the Template to Edit As New as he suggested).

29 March 2008

Back To Macro-Blogging

Greetings! Sorry for my absence this week; I had a big midterm on Friday, and since I've apparently lost my exam-taking mojo, I didn't want to risk under-studying.

I haven't been entirely absent from the blogosphere, though. You may have noticed that I've begun micro-blogging with Twitter (kmoliver). As with most of my forays into new technological territory, I was motivated by my colleague and Web Ink expert David (dmscott) and my advisor, Paul (gonuke). It is, after all, handy to know what those two are up to. Once I got going, though, I realized that Twitter isn't just like a webified instant messenger but rather an improvement. Am I the only one who was in the AIM craze mostly for the away messages anyway? There's a real opportunity for creativity and reflection in trying to sum up large swathes of your day in 140 characters. In any event, feel free to follow along if you're interested, either by joining up and becoming a "follower" or via the new widget at right in CSC proper. (All kinds of connotations in that word choice, isn't there? "How many followers do you have?")

I've got a couple of Hacker Within- and Sunday Judgment-related Twitter thoughts to share tomorrow. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are a few of the stories I'd have shared with you this week had I been macro-blogging. As always, you can find them as I add them in my del.icio.us links under ToBlog, which tag has turned into the FIFO data structure that organizes my news-blogging agenda.


The Fortune Cookie Chronicles blog and open-source Chinese restaurants -- One of David's recent posts over at Web Ink Now. I agree that the Windows:Linux::McDonald's:Chinese Restaurants was interesting. I stopped into a McDonald's on the road over spring break and was delighted to realize that it had been so long since I'd been in one that I couldn't remember what I used to order. I wish I could say the same about using Windows, but at least Cygwin provides a nice compromise. It's kinda like having a tasty Chinese food cart located inside your neighborhood McDonald's for when you absolutely have to go inside one to use the bathroom or view a complexly formatted Word document. By the way, I have it on good authority that Chinese restaurants outnumber McDonald'ses in Opelousas, Louisiana three-to-one. That's not just a ratio; it's the actual count. (Godspeed, Rachel.)

Regarding David's most recent post, I'd just like to add a loud amen to his point about the annoyingness of blogger pitches from PR firms. Even I'm getting them (thanks, no doubt, to David's kind mention in the new e-book, which has also gotten me one legitimate job offer, though I didn't take it). The annoying thing is, if these people looked at my blog for two seconds, they'd realize I have very little expertise in the field from which they're offering to send me review copies of new books and that I worked with David because I'm a freelance editor and not because I know anything about marketing.


Are We Ready To Track Carbon Footprints? -- Mentions a really interesting new book called Nudge. Next time someone preaches to you about how this mysterious, presumably benevolent force we call "the market" is going to save us from self-destruction, you might want to make the point Thaler makes here: “Getting the prices right will not create the right behavior if people do not associate their behavior with the relevant costs...When I turn the thermostat down on my A-C, I only vaguely know how much that costs me. If the thermostat were programmed to tell you immediately how much you are spending, the effect would be much more powerful.”

The market's only as smart as its actors' access to information allows them to be.


5 Cooks, $40, 5 Dishes, 3 Desserts -- Worth a read for the first couple of paragraphs alone. And also for the picture of Eric Ripert, who I've been intrigued by ever since I read the chapter about him in Kitchen Confidential. He's kinda goofy looking.

This seems to be a trendy subject right now; I heard a pretty similar story on NPR last weekend.


A Political Comeback: Supply-Side Economics -- Posted here solely as an excuse to also post this:


An Outsider at the Center of a Musical Universe -- Really beautiful article. I think Pareles gets Paul Simon exactly right here. I was afraid for a second that he was veering toward the usual colonialist arguments, but, on the contrary, he says,

"Those arguments can seem quaint now that the world’s music cruises the Internet and countless songs are built by cut-and-paste. The decades proved Mr. Simon’s instincts were right. Just as he had used English folk songs, doo-wop and gospel, he used African music — and later the Brazilian music that fueled “The Rhythm of the Saints” in 1990 — but by no means used it up. The sounds he drew on were far more durable than that. And his African collaborators, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, found new, eager listeners for their own material worldwide."


With Assist From Greed, Money Makes the Man -- Another reason to love NYT film reviewer Manohla Dargis: her fearless use of parentheses for efficient asides. It's the same thing David Foster Wallace does with footnotes, but the Dargis approach is a little more, well, approachable to the average person, I think. Either way, I've long contended that there's an intense intellectual honestly (not to mention an addictive playfulness) in not backing down from making important though tangential connections solely to preserve prose fluidity. You just have to work harder to make such text readable. The fun of writers like DFW, Douglas Adams, Chuck Klosterman, and Dargis is proof that it's worth it.


Speaking of connections, my friend Evie posted a link to this hilarious video the other day. I'll leave you with it:

24 March 2008

Amusing Wikipedia Articles: "Real life"

I love it when Wikipedia editors thoroughly cross-reference their entries. Although such dutifulness can be a problem, it also helps you find pages you'd never have guessed existed. As a case in point, when reading today about magic cookies (I was passed there by reference), I came across the following sentence, complete with what I thought was a surprising link:

"A magic cookie is analogous to, for example, the token supplied at a coat check (cloakroom) counter in real life."

Of course, there are all kinds of albums, books, etc. of that name, but the entry you're taken to is actually about, you know, "life or consensus reality outside of an environment that is generally seen as fiction or fantasy."

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought of Russell's Paradox when contemplating the seemingly transfinite size of the set of all Wikipedia articles. Of course, its actual cardinality (right now) is a paltry 2,301,678, at least according to this.

Anybody have favorite humorous articles? Leave a comment.

22 March 2008

Five-Minute Posts: Sour Apples

This article from today's New York Times is kinda interesting. I'm fairly Apple-neutral, but I enjoyed seeing the fanatics get called out a bit.

We talked about something similar to "hostile media phenomenon" in the DOE weapons non-proliferation seminar I went to a couple of years ago at Mizzou. No matter how neutral an article about nuclear technology is, someone is bound to think it biased. I'll probably post on this issue later--it poses interesting problems for journalists, as you'd expect.

20 March 2008

Five-Minute Posts: Five March Madness Thoughts

Editorial note: First off, I realized today that my titles for the first three of these short posts contained a common error. I wasn't planning on writing five minute posts, but rather posts that took me five minutes to write (by the way, it's usually been more like ten, but I haven't done too bad so far). Please accept my apology for the absent hyphen.

On to the list:

(1) I'm terrified of the Badgers' draw. Who am I rooting for in the K-State/USC game? Well, O.J. Mayo is 6'5'', and Michael Beasley is 6'10''. Michael Flowers is 6'3''. I'm rooting for USC. That's who I picked as well, even though LRMC gives the edge to K-State.

(2) For me, Tyler Hansbrough is the new Tom Brady. The annual UNC love fest is driving me crazy. I've got them losing to Kansas in the Final Four, but I'd gladly sacrifice the points for an early Tar Heels loss.

(3) A statistical quibble: Just because it seldom happens that all four one-seeds make it to the Final Four doesn't mean that configuration is a bad bracket pick, even though it's not a daring one. Unless you're playing in a huge pool that will have most of the likely Final Four combinations represented, your best chance to win is to get as many of them as possible (well, depending on how your pool assigns points, I suppose). If you think the top teams have been seeded correctly, then of course it's a good idea to pick those four teams. I usually don't take all the one-seeds, but I usually get burned for that choice and only get one or two teams in the Final Four. You've gotta decide if you want to win or if you want to have bragging rights if something extremely improbable happens. I think either choice is legitimate, of course, but just like in writing (and design), it's important to be aware of the choices you're making. They may not be the ones you think.

(4) I love the way the tournament takes over our lives for four days (two of them workdays). Don't we all need to be reminded that there are more important things than work? I'm not saying college basketball is necessarily one of them, but I'll take any reminder. Plus, there's another issue, although I suspect this is more true in academia than in at least some other fields: productivity rarely scales linearly with time spent at your desk not reading joke emails, checking out hilarious videos, or watching basketball. Some days I'm totally focused with my nose to the grindstone for ten hours and accomplish next to nothing. Other days I'm in and out of meetings and totally distracted and yet get a ton done in the four hours I'm actually at it.

(5) OK, I'm way over time on this post, so I'm gonna have to call it quits here. Check out this Badger love from Seth Davis.

Go big red!

19 March 2008

Five Minute Posts: The Hacker Within

Today's topic: compiling in Emacs

Dude! Why didn't I learn to do this a long time ago? I can't believe how much it's helped my productivity. I thought it would be all kinds of work, but that's not so.

"M-x compile" will open a shell (in your present working directory) and let you edit the default compile command, which is "make -k". (That's an intentional outside-the-quotation-marks period, by the way. We're talking syntax, after all.) Just edit that compile command (something to your compiler if you don't have a Makefile) and press enter. Your code will be compiled in a special window called "compilation". Now the super-exciting part. You can use the next-error and previous-error functions to move between the different compiler errors (and warnings). Your cursor jumps automatically to the place in your source code where the compiler's reporting the error is located. As usual in these situations, I shudder to think about the cumulative time I've lost over the last year or so jumping between source code files manually in all the programming setups I've tried.

Here's a screenshot and a link to my new .emacs file. I've bound the compile, next-error, and previous-error commands to Ctrl-o, Ctrl-p, and Ctrl-Shift-p, respectively.

(Click to enlarge.)