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.)

18 March 2008

Five Minute Posts: Shananananana knees, knees

My run this morning was a good deal more pleasant than it usually is when I'm visiting back home. My parents live in Pewaukee now, so there of course aren't any sidewalks in our neighborhood. However, it's a lot more pleasant to run in the road when there's a veritable beach of sand piled up at its edge. My knees certainly appreciated it.

That's the only lemonade I've been able to make from the frigid lemons winter has handed us this year. Anyone else got ideas?

17 March 2008

Five Minute Posts: Thriller

My "spring break resolution" is to try to get my posting times down. So I'm going to try to do a five-minute post each morning during spring break.

Today's topic is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Thriller. I'm pumped about dancing Superbowl lizards and spontaneous dancing Chinatowners (thanks NYT). One thing I'm not really pumped about? All the remixed on the reissue. Carl and I listened on the way back to Milwaukee the other day, and I gotta admit, I'm not impressed. Anybody heard it?

Still, do yourself and favor and listen to Thriller today. Most of why the reissue is such a disappointment is that the original is such a masterpiece.

16 March 2008

Special Combined Sunday Judgment/Hacker Within: March Madness

Today's subject: the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

First, a couple of confessions.

(1) It's a bit of a stretch to throw the Hacker Within label on this post, but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to integrate my two regular features in one post.

(2) Since I have picks to make, and also fair number of goals for genuine productivity during this week (which is spring break at UW-Madison), I'm totally half-assing this post with respect to both the commitment-to-quality-science-writing and commitment-to-meaningful-integration-of-technical-
and-non-technical-material ambitions of this blog. Thus, the whole integration thing in (1) is also a stretch.

So here we go. First, Sunday Judgment. If you've been watching Sports Center or listening to any sports talk radio this week, you know that the trendiest game in NCAA basketball journalism is coming up with clever synonyms for bubble team. (See especially this week's Mike Tirico Show.) Not surprisingly, this trend makes for good radio and plenty of fun armchair etymology (or maybe reverse-etymology?).

However, this seemingly harmless game reminded me of a serious problem that mars a lot of college writing. Call it synonymic hyper-proliferation. Or restless diction. Or mythesaurus rex.

Actually, please call it only one of those things.

I can't tell you how many student writers feel pressured to substitute synonyms when repeatedly referring to an important theoretical construct or technical term. Of course, variety is an important attribute of all good writing, and it's often a bad idea to use the same word twice in one sentence, in the same position in subsequent sentences, etc. But, more often than not, if you're writing a paper about, say, disciplinary matrices, it's a mistake to give in to the urge to come up with a million different ways of saying disciplinary matrix. These precise terms come about for a reason; don't feel pressured to over-substitute.

OK, onto some quasi-Hacker Within material. For reasons of, well, basically realizing it was a huge waste of time, I've abandoned draft.gms, my probably futile attempt to turn my fantasy baseball draft into a huge assignment-problem-like GAMS model. Naturally, I've re-channeled my silly interest in applying mathematical programming to, say, sporting events and dice games in bars, and so I wanted to point you in the direction of resources for using the power of science to make better March Madness picks.

You may have heard last year about some professors at Georgia Tech who published a paper in Naval Research Logistics called "A logistic regression/Markov chain model for NCAA basketball." If memory serves, the UW-Madison libraries don't carry this one, but it looks like Kvam and Sokol have posted a manuscript of the paper here. There's also a kinda funny "powerpoint style equivalent" to the non-mathematical summary they wrote, presumably for all the media (I heard about it via some ESPN article last year that also included an "insider look" at how the oddsmakers go about their business). I haven't read the whole thing, but even checking out the first few pages gives you an appreciation for their methodology. If you need some help with Markov chains (I certainly did), this AMS primer is pretty comprehensible.

Not interested in Markov chains? No problem. Profs. Kvam and Sokol make the output of their model, applied to this year's game results, available here. You can choose between three versions of the model that take one of the types of input data, margin of victory (MOV), into account in various ways. Not surprisingly, the "pure" strategy (which doesn't cap the contribution of MOV) is best. Nevertheless, the selection committee, which at least last year had access to the LRMC, won't use tools that consider MOV (for sportsmanship reasons, presumably). Anyway, if you're interested in trying this, just choose a model and use the rankings to pick each match-up. And remember: the pure LRMC is the most successful systematic ranking system available.

Couple of thoughts:

(1) Check out the top eight teams for each of the three rating schemes--
Pure: Kansas, Memphis, UCLA, Duke, North Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Clemson
Capped MOV: Kansas, Memphis, Duke, UCLA, Tennessee, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Stanford
No MOV: North Carolina, UCLA, Memphis, Duke, Tennessee, Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin

This is kinda neat. You can see the effects of all those close games North Carolina won reflected in their placement under each model. Are they actually overrated? I dunno, but I like the sound of it.

(2) See, Wisconsin, shoulda been a two seed, no matter how you look at it (or, rather, no matter how these two industrial engineers looked at it).

(3) Pull a Joe Morgan if you like, either by criticizing the very idea of using stats to predict this stuff or by gloating when the inevitabilities of statistical randomness play out and the models break down from time to time. But please don't say that this kind of analysis sucks the life out of playing or watching these games. That mentality totally missed the point. Of course we shouldn't reduce sports to mechanical calculations. Of course what's really exciting is watching people overcome their mathematical destiny and do something special. Of course these methods overlook all kinds of intangibles.

But the point of doing brackets is to get the most picks right, right? There are all kinds of arguments against using the LRMC method to make your picks, but wanting to give yourself the best chance to win isn't one of them.

Kvam and Sokol humorously observe, "With so much money on the line, a model that predicts outcomes more effectively than standard ranking and rating systems can be useful." I myself am risking a total of two beers, so I'm going to let pride cloud my scientific judgment and tweak the pure LRMC rankings a bit. To my detriment, no doubt.

13 March 2008

Dawkins v. Heller, and Other Things I've Read, Heard, or Thought About This Week

Priest-Cosmologist Wins $1.6 Million Templeton Prize -- Richard Dawkins was in Madison Tuesday promoting The God Delusion. Suffice it to say, reading about Fr. Heller this morning was a significant change of pace from Wednesday's news. I'm grateful for the juxtaposition though, because in investigating it this evening I found a totally fascinating, though aging, Heart of the Matter called "God Under the Microscope" (1 2 3 4). Dawkins and Heller are both on the panel.

Three thing are certain:

(1) Dawkins has definitely gotten more combative since this special was produced almost twelve years ago. More specifically, he's taken aim at non-fundamentalists, seemingly abandoning his earlier comment that "It may be true that among sophisticated modern theologians, there is no conflict [between religious and scientific ideology]." As that last link (the Onion AV Club review of The God Delusion) suggests, what's most obnoxious to people in mainstream denominations (or at least to me) is that while he claims to be preaching to us now, he nevertheless can't lay off the occasional "'You're either with us or you're with the abortion-clinic bombers' dualism." It's as if he fought the fundamentalists for so long that he keeps forgetting he's moved on to other targets.

(2) I love the BBC. I shudder to think what a special like this would turn into on, say, CNN, especial twelve years later.

(3) I miss the old Richard Dawkins. The one for whom teaching people about evolution was the primary goal and arguing against religion still at least seemed like a secondary, though admittedly titular (or maybe sub-titular?), goal. Seriously, he's one of my favorite science writers. I just wish he'd get back to it.


For an Aspiring Singer, a Harsher Spotlight -- In continuing New York Times coverage of the Elliot Spitzer story, two staff writers for arguably the world's best newspaper spend half an article basically just reading us Dupré's MySpace page. Hey, everybody standing at the Engineering Hall e-mail kiosk: get your résumés together.


What's Behind the Gender Gap in Education? -- My friend Ryan's back in action on the Freakonomics blog. He got an interesting discussion started today, though I'd perhaps skip the comments if you can't afford periodic blood pressure spikes.


Episcopal Church Votes to Oust Bishop Who Seceded -- I'll confess to not understanding all the political and religious subtleties involved here (not to mention the legal ones), but what exactly was the point of this decision? It just feels like sort of a "screw you" to a guy who's already gone anyway. Don't get me wrong: a part of me I'm not exactly proud of definitely doesn't want him back, but wouldn't just leaving well enough alone have been a better option for the House of Bishops?


Researchers Show Off Laser-Guided Robot -- Best line of the day. So, what does this fancy-pants robot do? "It simply grabs stuff you point at with a laser." Wow, a robot that can grab stuff and detect what a laser is pointing at?! (I don't mean to make light of this story, though, since this robot stands to help a lot of people. I just thought the prose was funny.)

Editorial note: I managed to resist publishing a drafted four sentence rant that was basically a dangling modifier joke disguised as an editorial quibble involving the word
that--or rather the absence of it--in the quoted sentence. As you can see, though, I was unable to resist at least pointing out that there's a dangling modifier joke to be made. I swear, Aaron Sorkin has turned me into frickin' Roger Rabbit when it comes to dangling modifiers. Gotta be strong. [Deep breath.]

Will wavering...
aggh...powerless to resist...

But how can the robot grab stuff with a laser??!!

Proof That Programmers Write the Coolest Master's Theses

You've got to check out Phun, a wickedly cool piece of software written by Emil Ernerfeldt at the VRlab. Phun was his Master's project in computing science, and it's a terrific 2-D multi-physics simulation.

It's no coincidence, though, that Phun is more commonly described as "the greatest computer toy in the history of the universe" or, by Ernerfeldt himself, as "a playground where people can be creative." Steven Hawking jokes in A Brief History of Time about his publisher's admonition that, for each equation he used, he'd lose half his audience (I'll let you guess which one he went with). I wonder how much of your audience you lose by using the phrase "2-D multi-physics simulation" (or, come to think of it, "Coolest Master's Theses"...).

(Hat tip: ASEE's Engineering &...)

11 March 2008

Starship Obvious

This just in: rich people think space is cool too!

09 March 2008

Off Today

I'm gonna take a break from the Sunday Judgment column, and posting in general, today. If you really need a language fix, Safire's got the etymology of waterboarding. An added bonus is that it's a vicious, though typically subtle, indictment of this horrifying practice.

Also, congrats to Wauwatosa East, my alma mater, for winning the WIAA boys basketball tournament last night (seriously, I'm not that into basketball, it's just that time of year). They beat Madison Memorial in overtime. I wish I'd have gone down the street to watch it, although we watched American Astronaut (trailer) instead, and it's hard to regret that decision. Seriously, this movie is bizarre and brilliant. Here's a taste:

08 March 2008

Music To My Ears, and Eyes

I'm telling you, Julie Rehmeyer is fast becoming one of my favorite science writers. Her Science News Math Trek piece this week follows up on a paper by music theorist Dmitri Tymoczko that represents musical chords in hyperdimensional geometries. Even cooler than Rehmeyer's very accessible written description of the work, though, are the accompanying videos (1 2). It turns out that Tymoczko's techniques explain some of what goes on harmonically in Chopin's E-minor prelude, and the videos capture the effect beautifully.

Still, I was initially skeptical about Tymoczko's ideas in the last graph:

What's particularly amazing, Tymoczko says, is that the mathematics needed to describe these spaces wasn't even developed in Chopin's time. Nevertheless, he says, "it is unquestionable that he had some cognitive representation of the space. So there was this period of history where the only way Chopin could express this abstract knowledge was through music. His knowledge of four-dimensional geometry was most efficiently expressed through piano pieces."

I'm not sure I share Tymoczko's certainty that Chopin knew anything about what we would call four-dimensional geometry, abstractly or otherwise. But the more I watch these videos, the less I doubt that he "had some cognitive representation" of some idea that Tymoczko's merely learning another way of exploring. I doubt he'll be able to fully grasp whatever that idea is any more meaningfully than Chopin could, but it's hard to fault either for trying, and in the meantime we all get to bask in the beauty.

Sorry to get all heavy on you. I think today's Daily Office reading sort of puts you in the mindset to want to ponder these things: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."


I've been warned by a psychologist friend about the strength of the science in some of these fMRI studies, but I nonetheless thought this piece was also interesting. Douglas Adams would be pumped about the music & math/science vibes in this week's Science News coverage.


Congrats to the Badgers for clinching sole possession of the Big Ten Championship today at Northwestern. Speaking of Northwestern, I stumbled across this post from a Northwestern student giving online dating a go. Good writer, interesting stuff.

06 March 2008

Acronym Ambiguity? Nope. Acronym Confusion? Nope...

I've been thinking a lot about acronyms today, specifically conflicting ones. For starters, I was interested to read this morning about the test flight of a plane powered by a pulse detonation engine. My enthusiasm was dampened, though, by (minor) confusion each time I read a subsequent reference to the aircraft, which sounds--when the acronym is applied--as if it's powered by partial differential equations. That's only figuratively true.

I'm not sure there was a better alternative, but it's still a little irksome to me that whoever named this technology didn't work a little bit harder to come up with a name whose acronym was not identical to one used by a significant portion of the community that might be interested in the technology. I have a similar complaint about portable document format acronymicly conflicting with probability density function. I'll admit I'm on shakier ground there, since the connection is much more tenuous between these two terms, and therefore confusion less likely. (More about the latter type of PDF soon, when I unveil the program I've been working on occasionally to brush up on my Java skills and learn applets.)

If I'm honest with myself, I have to concede that we should name engines, equations, formats, and functions as descriptively and unambiguously as possible using real words first. I guess it would just be nice if trying to avoid repeat acronyms could be, say, a secondary consideration. A tiebreaker. After all, what's wrong with "universal document format"? Well, this is what, apparently. Hey, I didn't say it was going to be easy.

It's not as if there can't be consequences of these mix-ups. One funny though hardly earth-shattering instance came last semester in my linear programming class: One morning, somebody asked what breadth-first search had to do with the revised simplex method. In the process, he more or less shouted to the professor that he'd skipped the previous lecture on basic feasible solutions.

If only life, like Wikipedia, came with disambiguation. Or in this case acronymbic disambiguation.

By the way, do you prefer acronymbic or acronymic, which I used adverbially earlier? I think I like the former. Either way, we need a word for this. Is there one? A quick search didn't yield any leads, although I found out that andrw313 is pissed about them (though he apparently doesn't know the George Clinton tune "Chocolate City"), and some dudes at the Mayo Clinic thought they were annoying enough to apply some machine learning algorithms in the name of clarifying them. It's the funniest paper I've read in quite some time (well, since this one, as a matter of fact). As you'd expect, the authors just couldn't help themselves: "For example, according to the UMLS 2001AB..." And later: "This paper presents preliminary results suggesting that using the WWW in conjunction with clinical corpora can be used for generating training data for acronym disambiguation."

Out of leads, I tried on my own to come up with something clever, like backronym or recursive acronym. The problem is, ambiguous acronyms are homonyms. Acro-homonym? Eh. Homo-acronym? Surely not. I'm stumped. Anyone got any ideas?

I guess we could resort to an acronym that describes the problem or solution. In addition to the ideas in this post's title, we might also consider Acronym Disambiguation (of course, it's ambiguous with Athletic Director) or Disambiguation of Acronyms (ambiguous with District Attorney). I'm beginning to believe there's a complementarity relationship between acronym ambiguity and acronym length, so we're probably going to need to describe the problem with more words in order for this acronym not to be all snarky and self-referential, not that I'd have a problem with that.

After thinking about this stuff for over an hour now, I'm beginning to understand why my friend Milad got fed up with acronyms and just named his inertial confinement fusion code "Cooper," after his sister's dog, I think he he told me.

So...what prompted me to recall the BFS/BFS vignette that finally gave this idea the mental critical mass necessary for me to actually want to post on it (a post that, as you can see, has just totally spiraled out of control)? Just a little acronym overload from my network flows class this morning. Don't get me wrong--we all knew what he was talking about, and there was nothing annoying or especially ambiguous about it, but I couldn't help but chuckle internally when my professor wrote this on the board: "Every BFS produced by NSM is SFB." With suitable out-arc choice, of course.

On the off chance that you've made it to the end of this post and are scoring along at home, that's "Every basic feasible solution produced by [the] network simplex method is [a] strongly feasible basis."


By the way, this kid rules.

05 March 2008

Big Ten Champs!

Thanks to my roommate's awesome soon-to-be in-laws, I got to see the Badgers clinch a share of the Big Ten Championship tonight. It was a pretty serious blowout (not a word to all my Penn State alum coworkers, I promise), which was great fun on Senior Night. I've got no real insight here, I'm just psyched.

Go Badgers!!


Also Keith Law expects a big year from the Brewers' Rickie Weeks. Join the club, Keith.

04 March 2008

The Hacker Within VI

Today's subject: another cool Emacs mode

Just stumbled across an Emacs mode for editing input files for Los Alamos's MCNP Monte Carlo radiation transport code. Since I'm now addicted to syntax highlighting, I definitely snatched this one up. Turns out it was written by Tim Bohm, who works right down the hall from me.

Anyway, check it out. Tim gives instructions for getting it working.


03 March 2008

[Insert Puppet Joke Here]

It's been more than a year since something I actually wrote got published anywhere but on this blog, so I couldn't help but post a link to my short write-up of an engineering-education-related talk Professor Greg Moses gave at a recent department colloquium.

If you've got a second, you should also check out some of the other stories in Teaching and Learning Insights, one of our college's "COE 2010" projects. I think Alecia Magnifico's been doing a really nice job with it.

"Hey Jesus, You Want Pizza or What?"

Part of our Lenten discipline at St. Francis House this year has been a weekly Movies with Meaning series. Admittedly, eating free food and watching movies on Monday nights hasn't felt like much of a sacrifice compared to the usual "oh shoot, I didn't do enough homework this weekend" tone of a typical Monday night. Still, we've had the struggling and contemplating part down the last two weeks as we've tackled Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the book of same name by Nikos Kazantzakis (which latter was apparently a big reason why a friend of mine went to seminary).

After finishing up the movie this evening, we did a little amateur film criticism in addition to the theological discussion you'd expect. As a bit of a follow-up, I tracked down this post from from Matthew Dessem, a fellow user of the exceptionally clean Minima template by designer Douglas Bowman.

I love the "separation between Spiderman and state" bit at the beginning of Dessem's post, and I thought both his theological and filmic discussions were well worth reading, though when it comes to the theology he cleverly warns us "I don't really have a dog in this hunt, so take my opinion with a pillar of salt."

Let me quote at some length his discussion of the apostolic accents, which our group discussed in depth (and came mostly to the right conclusions, from the sound of it). If you've seen the movie, feel free to chime in with your own thoughts on the film's dialog and how it was delivered, or about anything else.

So that's the theology; what about the film? Many people had problems with the casting and the accents. Harvey Keitel speaks like, well, Harvey Keitel, with a pronounced New York accent, as do the apostles. This may seem crazy, and the movie took a lot of heat for it, but it was a conscious choice. Scorsese says on the commentary track that the traditional approach here here, using the language of the King James translation, wouldn't work because, "if the audience heard that language, and heard a British accent, they could be safe, they could turn off. it's just a Biblical movie." Scorsese, Schrader, and Cocks wanted to engage the audience more directly. That's why the dialogue echoes the Bible but almost never quotes it directly [Good call, Scott. ~KMO]. And as Schrader puts it, colloquial English is "as appropriate as King James's language. It's not as appropriate as Aramaic but you're not gonna get Aramaic." I like to think Mel Gibson heard this commentary track and said to himself, "Oh, yeah?" For the most part, for me, the colloquial English worked the way it was supposed to. For one thing, giving the lower-class apostles New York accents sets up a nice contrast when the Pontius Pilate shows up, with a British accent. It creates the same cultural divide that Aramaic and Latin do in The Passion of the Christ. It's the Rebel Alliance/Galactic Empire school of dialogue coaching, and it works very well here.

02 March 2008

Shake a Tail Feather

So I'm up doing some work and watching a little PBS, and I just saw something I simply had to share. The special I'm watching is on evolution in rain forests and how a few pieces of new technology have affected some studies of same.

Thus, thanks the wonders of high-speed (and regular-speed) camera equipment, I give you the best moonwalking that the animal kingdom (and ornithological research community) has to offer:

Sunday Judgment VI

A couple of years ago, my one-a-day usage errors calendar (yes, I had one) went off mission for a page to tackle a pronunciation issue. I'll take that as license to do likewise. To be honest, though, I think the author and an awful lot of other people make too big a deal about this particular mistake.

Who cares if people say "nucular" instead of "nuclear"?

Aren't there tons of other words that get mispronounced all the time that no one cares about? Why do we reserve special condemnation for this one in particular? Hell, I've heard professors and industry professionals say "nucular." I dislike George Bush as much as the next guy, and I agree that no one's going to confuse him with George Plimpton, but can we just let it go?

Turns out I'm not the only one who's thought about this. And, actually, the "army of coal-powered zombie dolphins" bit notwithstanding, I think this video might be on to something regarding what quite probably is a rhetorical move on Bush's part:

In other nuclear news, my old friend Ryan Hagen just sent me a link to a video he came across. He sums it up pretty well: "It's not even really fair to say it's an intellectually lazy guide, because it's on a whole different planet--but it's an interesting look into the way nuclear energy continues to be perceived." The subject of the video? "Hunting the Radioactive Beasts of Chernobyl," apparently.

I won't insult your intelligence by discussing what's wrong with it, although I'll share that my favorite line was "This is what happens when we play with technology we don't understand." You can say that again.

Warning: This video contains foul language. Like, a lot of it. And also booze.

01 March 2008

The Hacker Within: Baseball Edition

With a little help from geek and proud, I'm now able to listen to MLB.TV radio broadcast streams on Kermit, the Linux machine I work at. Using the MediaPlayerConnectivity plug-in Alan suggests and choosing Totem as the default player in the configuration wizard seems to do the trick on my system ("i686-redhat-linux-gnu" according to configure).

I couldn't get the video to work, though. I don't view much MLB.TV video at work anyway, so you'd think I'd have been able to leave it at that. I couldn't. I spent much of the afternoon reading up on Silverlight and Moonlight, GStreamer and Pitdll. I battled with autotools and Mono distributions. I was defeated. Hopefully the Moonlight people get a Firefox plug-in finished soon. They're working pretty hard, from the sound of it.

Speaking of computing in the name of baseball, stay tuned for a report on draft.gms, my network flow model that will hopefully let GAMS choose my fantasy baseball draft picks. I think I can do it as a modified assignment problem with the help of little tuning trick I learned about in a breast cancer diagnosis project I learned about in linear programming last semester. I'm sure you're on the edge of your seat.

Some Notes On Movie Reviewers I Like and Technologists Whom I Fear Will Bring About the End Humanity As We Know It

Couple more items to share from the last week or so...


Manohla Dargis writes the funniest movie reviews this side of the AV Club. In fact, I think in the case of The Other Boleyn Girl, her review tops Tasha Robinson's. Then again, the latter is definitely my least favorite AV Club regular. (C'mon, she doesn't even like The Big Lebowski.) A.O. Scott's your man if you want to be reminded of just how wonderful the cinema can be, but if you're looking for tongue-lashings, it doesn't get any better than Ms. Dargis, at least in my book.


Everyone should take a quick look at Andrew C. Revkin's commentary on the "Grand Challenges for Engineering" report unveiled at a AAAS meeting a couple weeks ago. Revkin's main point is that many of these challenges are really "opportunities waiting for shifts in policy and/or spending." I think his line of thinking is related to my standard job/scholarship interview riff on why one might bother complementing a nuclear engineering degree with technical communication, editing, and writing tutoring work: because most of the nuclear industry's serious problems are more rhetorical than technical.

I kinda shivered when I saw that Ray Kurzweil was on the committee that came up with these goals (the reverse-engineering of the brain thing is obviously at least partly his). Prescient and brilliants as he may be, and as bitchingly realistic as his keyboard sounds are (believe me, I've got an SP-76), the guy scares the hell out of me. Listen to Bill McKibben! Kurzweil's thinking is dangerous.

...Seriously, go out and buy Enough right now. You wanna talk about clear thinking? McKibben has done something I didn't think was possible: drawn an unambiguous line in the technological development sand without the usual neo-Luddite hand-wringing.