28 February 2008


First, some Sunday Judgment bonus content: ambivalent does not mean apathetic. It means you have mixed emotions, not none. That drives me crazy.

Here are two stories I'm ambivalent about:

(1) "Nielsen Looks Beyond TV, and Hits Roadblocks" -- This article kinda scares the hell out of me. On the other hand, I think a more holistic picture of exactly what media people are consuming will help us better vote with our dollars and eyeballs. In the end, I think it's good news for fans of good content. For instance, I think Aaron Sorkin suggested that Studio 60 would have had a better shot at sticking around if Internet viewing (and re-viewing) stats had been more important to NBC. If it means Aaron Sorkin shows will have a better shot at surviving, I'm all for it--pretty much regardless of the consequences, I think.

(2) "Fewer Youths Jump Behind the Wheel at 16" -- Part of me was thinking "what the hell is wrong with these kids?" But part of me was thinking that a little un-romanticizing of this rite of passage, and the main activity that goes with it, is probably just what the atmosphere needs.

24 February 2008

Sunday Judgment V

I don't have much ire left after two straight grumpy posts, so I thought in this installment we could just all meditate on an increasingly divisive issue: "'They' as a third-person singular gender-free pronoun." It sounds as if Randall Munroe is "all for it," as is my friend Scott, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology who studies developmental linguistics. I don't think it will ever sound right to my ear though, so I guess I'm doomed to further hours of toil figuring out ways to avoid "he or she" without being sexist or unnecessarily pluralizing the whole sentence. If you're able to embrace the singular they, though, more power to you.

Speaking of xkcd and language, I highly recommend LimerickDB.com, which Munroe created and which has some hilarious stuff in the Top 150. (I should probably warn you that some of the content there is sexual--though also textual.)

I also recommend this delightful little riff on semicolons from the New York Times. I missed it originally; thank goodness my friend Liz sent it along. I especially like the little celebrity interviews. It is hilarious, though, that they mispunctuated the title of Lynn Truss's book (see the correction). I guess they've never heard the joke.

(N.B.: The they in each of the two proceeding sentences is meant to refer to the author and various editors of the piece collectively and is not an attempt at singular they usage in response to the gender-ambiguity of the author's name. Just to be clear.)

Mostly Talk

I went to see Girl Talk on Thursday with some friends. I was excited about the show--I don't go to enough of them anymore--but something just felt wrong.

It's not that I'm against mashup artists--far from it. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that one of my old bosses gave me a copy of West Sounds before I'd really gotten into Kanye, and I'm consequently always a little sad when there's no "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" sample along with sped-up Aretha in the real "School Spirit."

No, my trepidation had a more specific cause: I wasn't sure what a mashup artist had to offer as a live performer. I like going to see DJs, and I think they can be gifted musicians both solo and as part of a larger act (DJ Dummy is one of my favorites; don't tell me he's not a performer). Even if you can't or don't tear it up on the ones and twos, it's still not an insignificant musical skill to be able to tell what people are feeling at any given time and to choose the next tune accordingly.

But if you're only performing your own mashups (a limited repertoire, surely, and perhaps one that lacks the next perfect track for this place and time), and your instrument is your laptop, why do I want to come see you? I was worried that this Gregg Gillis guy was basically gonna just get up on stage and push play. This was before I'd heard about his penchant for "exhibitionist antics," which could have at least been funny.

The reality was worse. I have no idea what he did, because every jackass from the WUD music committee (and probably a good number of their friends) was up on the stage in the Great Hall dancing (some of them hilariously, but still), so every once in a while you just got a glimpse of Gillis's laptop-lit face. And he barely, if ever, said a thing.

I had a good time dancing with my friends, but, as a live music performance, this show was seriously disappointing. I wish we'd gone to see Galactic and Chali 2na (aka "The Verbal Herman Munster" from J-5), who were also in town. (And this is coming from a guy who once walked out of a Galactic show midway through the second set because the band had gotten wrecked during their break and went from killin' it to basically screwing around on stage. Most of the audience was too wasted too notice, so the band didn't catch any hell for it.)

In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer was a little more generous. It also seems he may have had a run in with the woman who was obviously the drunkest dancer on stage, about whom my friend Steve remarked, "She's got one dancing speed: intercourse."

23 February 2008

"The Proof" That I'm a Nerd

Well, once again, one of my Saturday posts is just going to be me telling you about whatever Julie Rehmeyer's written in the Science News "Math Trek" feature this week. This time around, it's Sophie Germain. She's a really interesting figure in the history of math (and especially the history of gender bias in STEM fields), so I encourage you to check out the story for that very good reason on its own merits.

That said, I felt particularly compelled to point this article out because one of the interviewees is a bit hard on Legendre, Germain's supposed mentor. I spent the entire frustrating day Friday solving a neutron transport problem using a method that Legendre is in small part responsible for, albeit very indirectly (the P-N method expands the angular neutron flux in Legendre polynomials), so I couldn't pass up the opportunity stick it to him in my pathetically insignificant way. (I wonder what portion of all blog content has that general M.O.? You gotta assume it's a pretty decent chunk.)

Anyway, if you check out that article, you'll see that it involves Germain's efforts to tackle Fermat's last theorem. And I can't mention Fermat's last theorem without pointing you toward my favorite episode of Nova: "The Proof." Seriously, if you want to find out (or be reminded) that math can be full of drama and intrigue and heartache, please check it out.

Here's a little taste. I admit that it doesn't make thrilling reading, but I swear these guys are captivating when they tell the story. I don't know who any of them are (well, except Wiles, and only because he proved the theorem), but it's fascinating to watch people with such a depth of passion talk about their trade. Honestly, sometimes it's even funny. You've gotta picture this as a series of talking heads interviews being cut in and out of:

JOHN COATES: The name of the lectures that he announced was simply "Elliptic Curves and Modular Forms." There was no mention of Fermat's last theorem.

KEN RIBET: Well, I was at this conference on L functions and elliptic curves, and it was kind of a standard conference and all of the people were there. Didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary, until people started telling me that they'd been hearing weird rumors about Andrew Wiles's proposed series of lectures. I started talking to people and I got more and more precise information. I have no idea how it was spread.

PETER SARNAK: Not from me. Not from me.

JOHN CONWAY: Whenever any piece of mathematical news had been in the air, Peter would say, "Oh, that's nothing. Wait until you hear the big news. There's something big going to break."

PETER SARNAK: Maybe some hints, yeah.

ANDREW WILES: People would ask me, leading up to my lectures, what exactly I was going to say. And I said, "Well, come to my lecture and see."

KEN RIBET: It's a very charged atmosphere. A lot of the major figures of arithmetical, algebraic geometry were there. Richard Taylor and John Coates. Barry Mazur.

BARRY MAZUR: Well, I'd never seen a lecture series in mathematics like that before. What was unique about those lectures were the glorious ideas, how many new ideas were presented, and the constancy of its dramatic build-up. It was suspenseful until the end.

21 February 2008

The Hacker Within IV

Today's subject: Emacs matlab-mode, THW III update

Just a quick one right now. I needed to take a look at a MATLAB function today but didn't want to have to look at it in MATLAB to get the syntax-highlighting right. Check out this link if you've had the same problem and want a matlab-mode customization in Emacs.

Also, someone on the Internet was wrong: me. Special thanks to Rob Kennedy for catching a bug in my SQLite sample application. Turns out I'd made a similar error in my "real" application using SQLite as well. Score one for the idea of blogs as a productivity tool, at least if you're lucky enough to have smart friends and readers.

18 February 2008

The Hacker Within III

Today's subject: SQLite

I'm a novice programmer. As such, I often find that a lot of the sample code and documentation I find online goes over my head. I can't be the only one for whom this is true.

Thus, I thought I'd post a little sample application I wrote that demonstrates some of the basic functionality of SQLite, the "self-contained, serverless, zero-configuration, transactional SQL database engine."

We're using SQLite to track materials data in our GENIUS application, but this sample program, which I wrote for practice, creates two music-related tables: an iTunes-like table of song information and a table of phone numbers of Madison-area clubs (stored as arrays of integers to demonstrate how to handle blobs).

It doesn't do much and certainly shouldn't be used for any real applications, but I nevertheless hope that you find this program helpful if you're trying to learn SQLite. I try to explain things as completely as possible, but I didn't want to annotate the arguments for every function call, so you'll need to consult the SQLite documentation as well. Finally, special thanks to the author of this example, which I unfortunately found much too late.

New Wisconsin Engineer Online

While I'm no longer an editor at Wisconsin Engineer, I still try to keep abreast of its goings-on, so I wanted to mention that the February issue is now online. I was interviewed for one of the articles, which experience was a bit strange. It's funny going from having darn-near final say on an article's contents to none at all.

By the way, did you know that Wisconsin Engineer is three years older than the self-proclaimed "oldest technology magazine in the world" (Technology Review)? I buy their claims against Scientific American and Popular Science, but for a different reason--those are science magazines, not technology magazines. But Wisconsin Engineer, established 1896, is a technology magazine through and through. Take that MIT.

17 February 2008

Sunday Judgment IV

Today's subject: the naked this.

My copy editing habits for any particular usage issue tend to go in cycles:

  1. Depend on logic, intuition, and sound before taking time to do research on the issue or to realize it's even an issue at all.
  2. Research the issue or be told about it by someone else.
  3. Develop or steal a means of explaining the issue and its prescription, and abide by it with dogged consistency.
  4. Chill the hell out and go back to basically doing whatever functions well and sounds best, only this time armed with argumentative material accumulated in steps (2) and (3).
This whole cycle is a pretty good illustration of the common know-the-rules-before-you-break-them phenomenon.

I just arrived at step (4) regarding the "naked this," a subclass of the often deadly ambiguous antecedent. The naked this (and its fraternal twin the "naked that") is a pox on much college writing. It happens when the author doesn't realize he or she has expressed a complex series of ideas and then ambiguously referred to one of them as "this." Often times, "this" idea has never been discretely and explicitly defined at all. I'll refer you to the MIT Online Writing and Communication Center for a couple of examples.

A moment of clarity regarding my overzealous enforcement of the naked this came for me when reading Lance Williams's most recent coverage of the Roger Clemens circus in SI:

The YouTube clip and the 60 Minutes interview, the infamous press conference at which he and his lawyer Rusty Hardin dramatically presented a recorded phone conversation with McNamee that proved maddeningly inconclusive, the statistical analysis of his pitching career that landed with a thud, the tour of congressional offices so he could meet with the politicians who would be posing Wednesday's questions--none of this helped, and much of it hurt, his cause, and to a degree that has yet to be calculated (emphasis added).

When a naked this follows a list, it's assumed that it refers to the items in the list. Williams could certainly have clothed this this, but he needn't fear indecent exposure charges for choosing not to.

Thus, my editorial judgment for today is this: stick with the rule of thumb that most every this or that should be paired with a noun (in the Clemens example, "none of this nonsense" or "none of these boneheaded moves" would work), but there's no need to be too draconian about it in cases where there's no risk of ambiguity.

Here Comes the Sun (Again)

There's an interesting article in today's New York Times that talks about how Silicon Valley has caught solar fever. If it sounded familiar to you, you're not alone; they ran a similar article about a year ago. Not sure how I remembered it; it just rang some sort of vague bell and I ran a search. (I guess the Times stopped restricting Web access to stories more than two weeks old. Anyone know when that happened? It's a good decision, I think, especially in light of the sharing culture that's developed in the blogosphere. It probably happened years ago and I just didn't notice.)

Anyway, this new article brings us up to speed and discusses the idea of Moore's Law being instructive in the case of solar power prices. To be honest, though, I'm feeling goofy today and was more amused at the involvement in the story of a Sun Microsystems cofounder (the author showed more restraint than I could have in playing it straight) and how the Times's style guide forced them to refer to the chairman of SunPower as "Mr. Rogers."

Speaking of energy costs, I'd be negligent if I didn't also link to this story about nuclear waste storage costs. I thought the piece was generally pretty well done, which is always refreshing when nuclear's involved. It seems to me that DOE gets blamed for what are at least partially Congress's mistakes [full disclosure: DOE pays for my research], but, in fairness to the author, the NEI lawyer is really the one who gives that impression.

I was a bit confused by the part about DOE's "initiative to gather the waste and run it through a factory to recover re-usable components." Are they talking about reprocessing and the domestic parts of the GNEP plan? If so, this seems like an odd way to say it (and not just because only dinosaurs still hyphenate reusable in the middle of a line).

(By the way, nice Web site redesign, NEI.)

16 February 2008

Pitchers & Catchers!

It's a great weekend in Wisconsin sports. The Badger men's basketball team overcame a sluggish start to beat Minnesota this afternoon (consider watching the next game at the west-side Rocky's; the big screen room there is awesome), Marquette routed Pitt last night...and the Brewers' pitchers and catchers reported for spring training!

Let me apologize now--you're probably going to hear a lot about baseball on this blog. I love baseball. Before we moved to Wisconsin, I lived in Bradenton, Florida, which is where the Pittsburgh Pirates spring train. I used to listen to games on the radio when I went to bed, including (occasionally) the dreaded West Coast games, which are tough on a first-grader living in EST. I once dragged my dad to a Sarasota White Sox minor league (A) game the night that we'd arrived back from some trip from New York, after spending the entire day in the car. I went to seven straight opening days at Milwaukee County Stadium. Moneyball is one of my favorite books. I keep score at games. A League of Their Own is one of my favorite movies. I think I watched or listened to significant portions of at least 100 of the Brewers' 162 games last year, possibly quite a few more. The dates of the three televised Brewers spring training games this season are already marked in my calendar. I still talk about the 2004 game where Matt, Greg, and I saw Ben Sheets pitch 18 strikeouts.

You might know that, at any given time, I'm working on a grab bag of informal theses about (usually inconsequential) subjects. For instance, I'll probably share with you soon my Alison Krauss thesis, which I've been working on since I saw her at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival last summer (don't worry, I brought my radio so I could monitor the status of the Brewers' doubleheader at St. Louis that day). Well, I've got a lot of baseball theses. There's the "why baseball is more exciting than other sports" thesis, the "why baseball strategy is less immediately obvious than in the other major sports" thesis...you get the idea. I'll probably share a couple of them as time goes on. For now, I mostly wanted to just put up a celebratory post marking this glorious day.

But I also wanted to say thank you to. You see, I spent most of last July and August studying for qualifying exams, usually about 40 hours per week. The quals are pretty tough in my deparment, and you only get two chances to pass. And I was afraid I'd want to drop out if I didn't pass the first time. So I studied nuclear engineering, fluid mechanics and heat transfer, and modern physics for two months. And I listened to Brewers games. Seriously, that's pretty much it. Looking forward to a baseball game was what got me through some of those days. And even though we didn't quite make the playoffs (I was at the game where the Padres eliminated us), I'm so grateful for the pennant race that saved my sanity during my qual summer.

If you'd like to get your baseball excitement juices flowing (or if you'd like some evidence that the one-on-one, pitcher-to-hitter nature of baseball creates storylines way more compelling than anything, say, football can muster), check out this article my baseball-loving friend Matt came across. Most intriguing at-bat, indeed.

Let's play ball.

(Belated) Grammy Thoughts

Sorry I've been absent this week; a combination of homework woes and various evening commitments kept me pretty busy. Nevertheless, I wanted to reflect briefly on Sunday's Grammys (I didn't watch the broadcast, but I tried to hit the highlights on YouTube on Monday).

Most of the serious music fans I know dismiss these awards in much the same way Dan does on Sports Night:

Casey: Can I just say one more thing about the Starland Vocal Band?
Dan: Sure.
Casey: 1978, they win the Grammy for Best New Artist. You know who they beat? Elvis Costello. Now is it your belief that Elvis Costello isn't cool?
Dan: No, it's my belief that the Grammy voters aren't cool.
Casey: Now they tell me.
Now, I'm not some kind of Starland Vocal Band fan, and they're obviously no Elvis Costello. For that matter, I agree that the Grammy voters aren't cool; of course they pass over all kinds of worthy music. But that doesn't mean the Grammys aren't important or that the voters don't often get it right.

Crass commercialism and assorted no-talent ass-clowns (her, not him) not withstanding, hits are, to paraphrase Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul, what everyone goes around humming. He continues

Singles are the essence of rock and roll. They occupy the center of all the pop music that came after it. They're the stuff of our everyday conversations and debates about music, the totems that trigger our memories. Everyone who listens with half an ear must know this.
Pleny of people are still writing hits that matter, singles that you go around not only humming but also pondering. You probably don't need me to tell you that Kanye West is one such artist. Now, I'm not a huge fan of that "Stronger" tune from his most recent album (partly because I heard it dozens of times in the otherwise awesome hostel I stayed at in Toronto over Thanksgiving), but I thought his performance of "Stronger" and "Hey Mama" was pretty fantastic. The latter was of course touching given his family's recent tragedy, and having Daft Punk there in person really added some drama to the former. (Incidentally, does anyone have any Daft Punk recommendations for me? I kinda hate most of what I've heard by them, but they seem too interesting to give up on.)

Anyway, I think anyone who's listened to Kanye "with half an ear" realizes he's worthy of most of the accolades, is my point, and that doesn't become less true just because the Grammy voters like him. Diddo Amy Winehouse, although her appeal is more purely musical, whereas Kanye forces us to think as well. I can't get enough of that hair, though.

For more Grammy commentary, check out this thoughtful piece by Ben Ratliff. His comparison of River to Getz/Gilberto is illuminating, plus "some kind of strange, subconscious vernacular" is the best way I've ever heard Wayne Shorter's playing described.

10 February 2008

Sunday Judgment III

Today's subject: nauseated vs. nauseous.

As I folded laundry this morning, trying to decide on a "Sunday Judgment" topic, I listened to some especially good moments in today's
special encore addition of Prairie Home Companion. In the "News from Lake Wobegon" segment, Garrison pulled a typically self-conscious SNOOT move: he used nauseated where most of us would use nauseous.

("SNOOT (n) (highly colloq) is [David Foster Wallace's] nuclear family's nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to look for mistakes in Satire's column's prose itself. This reviewer's family is roughly 70 percent SNOOT, which term itself derives from an acronym, with the big historical family joke being that whether S.N.O.O.T. stood for 'Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance' or 'Syntax Nudniks of Our Time' depended on whether or not you were one.")

My good friend Rachel, whose mom works for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was the one who first alerted me to this (faux?) faux pas. The SNOOTs claim that if you're "nauseous" then you're actually causing someone else to feel "nauseated" (that is, nauseous means just "causing nausea" and not "affected with nausea"). David Foster Wallace apparently agrees, both implicitly (he, or rather Hal in Infinite Jest, cares not for Webster's, which issued the ruling that the SNOOTs "are mistaken" on this issue) and explicitly ("Nauseous for nauseated" makes his list of grievances at the beginning of "Authority and American Usage," aka "Tense Present").

Let's be clear: I'm a SNOOT, though perhaps not a very good one. I do a lot of yelling at the TV when people get expressions wrong, especially when they hone in or confuse run the gamut (I try to) with run the gantlet (I'd rather not). And I relentlessly adhere to the typical advice that, while it's no longer necessary to use that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive ones, it's best to just do so anyway, since there's no harm in doing it in what used to be the only correct way, whereas someone might assume that you're unaware that there's even a controversy if you disregard the outdated rule.

All that said, I've never been able to get worked up about nauseated vs. nauseous.

Of course, the very idea of the "Sunday Judgment" feature is that we can all have our own preferences about such matters. However, on this particular day, I worry that I'm perhaps the worst kind of SNOOT, the kind who's only SNOOTy about the things he's always known to be SNOOTy about. Is it wrong to feel like I should try to be more of an asshole so that I'll at least be a consistent one?


On a completely unrelated note, I realized today that Garrison and DFW have another preference in common. They both favor abrupt and less immediately satisfying ultimately more thought provoking story endings over the superficially more witty one-liner types that bring the story full circle by making some reference to the introduction. Would that I had the insight and daring to attempt the latter more often.

09 February 2008

This Algorithm Kills Fascists

There's a great art-meets-science article in this week's Science News (it turns out their "Math Trek" feature is usually killer). Julie Rehmeyer does a nice bit of science writing here, giving just the right amount of detail about how Howarth and Short's algorithms were used to restore the only known live recording of the great Woodie Guthrie. There's even a short audio sample.

News: Local and Blocal

Happy Saturday. I'm sitting in my pajamas listening to Michael Pollan on a "special encore edition" of Whad'ya Know and catching up on my online life.

First off, special encore editions can only mean it's fund drive time at Wisconsin Public Radio. Fund drive time is many people I talk to's reason for not listening to public radio. But, to borrow a phrase Michael Pollan just used (I've done that before), I don't think that argument "passes the 60 Minutes test"; the lack of commercials and overall non-inanity of the programming the rest of the time more than compensates. So let's all sign-up and pledge, especially in light of the now seemingly annual budget cuts (little shout out there to my old hometown newspaper, which just happened to have the first Google News hit on the subject). And if you take your public radio station for granted, don't forget about Milwaukee's formerly great Jazz 89 (RIP).

On a much more uplifting note, it's International Writing Centers Week, and the UW-Madison Writing Center is celebrating. Among the events I'd heartily recommend are the Podcast Premiere (I heard some early drafts and think they're going to be great), the Madison-Area Writing Center Colloquium video conference with Nancy Grimm (I'll be there), and the Writing Fellows Program info session (I'm bummed I'm no longer a Fellow, since the stipend just increased like 400 bucks per semester). If you're at UW-Madison and have never been to the Writing Center, you're missing out. I've never been part of a more supportive-yet-scholarly community. At the very least, check out the event's Web page (much to my chagrin, you might spy a picture of me with my old fellow Fellow Shivani).

To zoom in still further to this very URL, I wanted to update you on a few CSC developments. I pushed my web-language abilities to the limit the other day and pieced together (with some help) the code to get the sharing icons you see below each post added to my blog template in a format that hopefully isn't too obnoxious. Please share any posts you find useful or interesting!

I've also, after reading my advisor's comment on my "News Dump" post, joined del.icio.us and thus exited the dark ages of news sharing (where you just email articles to yourself and blog about them). You can see my del.icio.us tagroll at right, which includes the tag "ToBlog." That's where you'll see the stories I'm thinking of blogging about. Don't be surprised if the unblogged divergence through this node is pretty high, though; it's easy to feel ambitious about what I'll write about when I read the news in the morning but less so when I sit down to blog at night.

Finally, a couple of brief commercial-ish announcements for friends of mine:

(1) David Meerman Scott just announced a "free virtual book tour teleseminar" to promote his new e-book The New Rules of Viral Marketing (with editing by yours truly). It'll take place Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 5 p.m. eastern, and I highly recommend you join David if you're interested in learning about how to spread your ideas online. If you are but can't make it, you should at least join the 42,810 readers who have already downloaded David's e-book.

(2) My former Wisconsin Engineer partner-in-crime Marty Grasse, who has joined the throng of my friends who have up and moved to the Twin Cities, will be in town Monday and Tuesday to present with his design team at the College of Engineering's Innovation Days. Stop by and hear about his and the other teams' inventions. I'll be there sometime between noon and three.

Update: Marty's team took home first place in the (lucrative) Schoofs Prize for Creativity competition.

07 February 2008

The Hacker Within II

Another useful thing about tracking THW projects is that it's so easy to forget about Linux commands, utilities, etc. that I've used in the past. THW posts can serve as a record of such commands. Today I needed to capture a screen shot of some web images of the nuclear fuel cycle for a memo (each facility had a different image, so it was too much work to save each image separately). And of course I forgot to bookmark the site I used last time I needed help with this problem and couldn't quite find it.

Here's how I did it when I finally figured it out:

> xwd -out cycles.xwd
[clicked on open Firefox Window]
> convert cycles.xwd cycles.jpg

Easy as pie, right?

06 February 2008

The Hacker Within I

I only blog from the office when I have something work-related to share. Now is one of those times.

Because code development is part and parcel of our work as computational researchers, my advisor encourages our group to unleash and cultivate "The Hacker Within" (THW). THW is always trying to improve his or her computing experience--customizing, automating, and navigating parts of the digital landscape in new (and hopefully more productive) ways. Plus, messing with THW-related projects is usually more fun than doing whatever work you're supposed to be doing.

My THW project the last day or so has been switching over to using Emacs, which I have to say has already yielded some nice results. The learning curve on the key bindings is a little steep, but I'm getting better.

One of my long-time complaints with Emacs (or rather short-time, since I've only been using Linux for a year or so, which while I'm at it I should say that this and probably most future THW content will probably seem extremely lame to people who actually know what they're doing) was that there is no single-keystroke way to switch between open files, at least none that I could find. That functionality is extremely important when you're working with source code that's spread out over a bunch of classes (and hence files).

Well, today my HW fixed that, or rather he found the code someone else's HW had already written to fix that. I highly recommend Adrian Quark's Emacs customization buffer-stack, which brings Windows-Alt-Tab-like switching to Emacs buffers. I chose Ctrl-Tab for my key binding to his main function, as you can see from my .emacs file, which I include in the hope that it might be helpful to other new Emacs customizers-in-training.

Note: Other THW posts will be much shorter and to the point. I don't take blogging at work lightly, but I do think that since I get so much help with code development from online sources, I have the responsibility to "give back" once in a while, to the pathetic extent that I'm able to. In this longish post, I just wanted to sort of establish the context of THW.

05 February 2008

Wonderful Life

I haven't talked much about faith on this blog. However, my faith is an important part of my life, so I'm sure that will change as time goes on.

Case in point: On the precipice of the great contemplative wilderness that is Lent, I couldn't help but reflect a bit on Pursing Synthetic Life, Dazzled By Reality, from today's Science Times. Whether we believe that it evolved or that it was created by God--or, pace Richard Dawkins, that those two positions are not mutually exclusive--I hope the diversity of life discussed in this piece fills us all with the same sense of awe, wonder, and mystery that motivates these researchers. In my opinion, prudential enthusiasm about the possibilities (for the betterment of humankind and the planet) that some synthetic life could offer is in order as well.

Cause for more light-hearted rumination appears in Feel Like a Fraud? At Times, Maybe You Should from same. It was nice to have some validation for the constant feelings of inadequacy that plague myself and my fellow grad students.

03 February 2008

Sunday Judgment II

Today's subject: punctuation.

Let's demonstrate today's bifurcate Sunday Judgment topic with a few interesting links from today's Sunday Times: "Nuclear Leaks and Response Tested Obama Senate," "A 'Bold' Step to Capture an Elusive Gas Falters," and "It Really Takes Years of Hard Work."

Let's be brief.

(1) In American usage, commas and periods go inside the quotation marks. For cryin' out lout, it's not that difficult. I don't necessarily agree with the rule (it introduces some ambiguity), but the alternative is aesthetically atrocious.

(2) The serial (or Oxford) comma is crucial for eliminating ambiguity in some cases. The AP Style-ists forbid it solely for space reasons, and even they admit that sometimes it's necessary. Courtesy of the far superior (though admittedly harder to use) Chicago Manual of Style, here's an example I tweaked a bit to better demonstrate my point:

The meal consisted of soup, salad, macaroni and cheese, and rice and beans.
The point is that when you've got simple and compound items in a list, we need all the commas we can get to impose a little order. There are no doubt more subtle and sophisticated examples out there as well. Holler if you have some.

Sorry to go all Lynne Truss on you. I've never agree with "zero tolerance" policies of any kind, but I admit that it's easy to get worked up about some off this stuff. As I've said before, when you've worked as a copy editor, it's easy to take some of this stuff personally.

By the way, the latter link above contains some crucial remarks on the hot subject of innovation:
“The most useful way to think of epiphany is as an occasional bonus of working on tough problems,” explains Scott Berkun in his 2007 book, “The Myths of Innovation.” “Most innovations come without epiphanies, and when powerful moments do happen, little knowledge is granted for how to find the next one. To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point. The goal isn’t the magic moment: it’s the end result of a useful innovation.”