Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Interesting legal issue of the day
I won't try to summarize this, so I'll just give you this link.

Caution: Contains descriptions of pornographic acts.
And now, the other side of the below entry
Apparently, some conservative sites, like Free Republic, do this kind of thing too!

*pause for surprised reactions*

Yeah, that's what I thought. Anyway, I'm certainly not going to attack their right to do so, either.

Friday, December 19, 2003

My two cents on comment "censorship"
So I was going to post this as a comment on Matt's blog, but I figured I had enough to say that it deserved my own entry. Plus, I haven't posted anything here in a while, so this gives me the chance to kill two birds with one stone.

Anyway, apparently the official blog of the DNC, Kicking Ass, will delete comments with opposing viewpoints. This has got some people all hot and bothered. As you might have guessed from the scare quotes in the title, I'm somewhat less concerned about it. My dismissal rests on two points, one practical and one theoretical:

1) Practially speaking, what exactly do these Republican commentators hope to accomplish by posting argumentation on Kicking Ass? If their goal is to convince the blog writers that they're wrong, then they're idiots. This is not going to happen. Perhaps they would claim that they are trying to convince undecided centrists. If so, they should convince me first that there are really any undecided centrists reading Kicking Ass; if I were an undecided centrist, I certainly would not expect the official blog of the DNC to be a source meeting my political needs. Really, the only thing that they're doing is engaging in argumentation for argumentation's sake, and I have no hesitation in calling that completely unproductive.

2) On a more theoretical note, why would they expect any different? Comments are under no obligation to always be a forum for free exchange of ideas. The main purpose of Kicking Ass, at least as I would see it, is not to be a place for equal discussion among all political viewpoints; it's a place to mobilize people who already have one particular viewpoint. Why should they be under any obligation to entertain others, then?

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Restaurant recommendation
So we used to eat at the Hot Pot City on University every so often (it was even a tradition, for a while, to eat there after a Simbase draft), so I was a little disappointed when it went under. Then a new Japanese restaurant, Tanaka, sprang up there, and I decided that I wanted to try it to see if it was a worthy successor to HPC. When we took everyone out to dinner who had helped us to move (and thank you, everyone!), I thought this would be as good a time as any to try it.

Anyway, to say that the atmosphere inside was a little different from the old Hot Pot City would be a minor understatement -- Juliana even wondered if we were dressed well enough -- but we were all very pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity of the food (the latter often being difficult to get at a Japanese restaurant without paying a lot of money!) And despite all of that, the prices were less than I would have expected.

Plus, it's very near our new place. This is good.
An accumulation of random things from the past couple of weeks
1) Where does the thing where a person looks at his face in a mirror after surgery, laughs maniacally, and then smashes the mirror come from? I've seen it parodied a million times, but I have no idea what the source is.

2) For some reason, there's been a number of articles on Wal-Mart lately. One of them had a comment at the end (I'm too lazy to look it up at the moment) which said something like, "We all want someone else to buy the more expensive goods." And this is really what it all comes down to, isn't it? It's one big Prisoner's Dilemma. If everyone were willing to pay a little bit more for goods, then the economy would probably be in better shape overall, since stores would be able to afford things like keeping production in America, but each individual customer feels that they're better off buying at Wal-Mart (true), and so we end up in the Nash equilibrium.

3) I know I've commented on this before, but I find this really puzzling. The suffix -let is normally a diminutive (eaglet, wavelet, etc.) But when used to apply to professions, it usually means not only young, but also female. I can call Britney Spears a pop starlet, but I certainly can't call Justin Timberlake a starlet. I can call Kate Bosworth a movie starlet, but not Hayden Christensen. Yet an eaglet doesn't have to be female...

4) You know that your monitor emits radio-frequency emissions, right? (This is actually, theoretically at least, a potential security concern -- it's not inconceivable that someone could read what's on your monitor with a sufficiently sensitive radio receiver.) Well, this program can use those emissions to transmit music by putting the appropriate patterns on your monitor.
Public service announcement
All right, if you're wondering why the lack of updates lately, it's at least partially because I've been busy moving. And it'll still probably be another week before I get broadband (whine!) so I'll probably be intermittent at best.

Thank you for your patience,
The Management

Thursday, November 13, 2003

The things I have to deal with at work
Mostly I'm just writing this out for my own benefit, so I can see its awfulness with my own eyes.

In order to run the main hybrid test program I use here at work, I
1) run a Perl script, which nicely generates the arguments and passes them to...
2) a shell script, whose main purpose is to call...
3) another shell script (written in tcsh), which checks that everything is in order and then calls...
4) a C program with an embedded Tcl interpreter, whose first action is to call...
5) a Tcl script, which again checks that everything is in order and then calls....
6) a C routine within (4) to run the main testing program.

Just to confuse things more, (2) and (5) are actually the same file, with some cleverly-written half-commented shell at the beginning so that it'll go to (3) when called as a shell script and (6) when invoked as a Tcl script.

Needless to say, if I had my druthers, I'd rip out 90% of this labyrinth. Sadly, I don't...at least for now.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Literary game #2
This question seems surprisingly hard: What book titles can you think of which are also complete sentences?

So far I can come up with two: Atlas Shrugged and No One Writes to the Colonel. You'd think that with all of the literature out there, I'd be able to come up with more, but it's just that they're all noun phrases (or, in a few cases, prepositional phrases, like Around the World in 80 Days).
Literary game #1
Here's a question I've been turning over in my mind for a little while: What words sound like they should mean the opposite of what they actually do mean?

"Temerity" is the big one here. It always seems to me that it should mean "timidity", rather than the opposite. The other one is "truculent", which I feel should mean something more like "obsequious".
So I had another quizbowl tournament this weekend, the combined TRASH regionals/Technophobia at Caltech. Overall it was a good experience, and I certainly can't complain about our performance, but it was a lot of quizbowl -- we ended up playing well past 1 on Friday night, and then twelve more rounds on Saturday.

I think every time I have to drive back from LA, I enjoy it a little less. And given that I didn't exactly love the drive the first time around, I wouldn't complain too loudly if we never went to any more tournaments down in the southern part of the state. Of course, this time was bad just because I was so tired and it was rainy, which made driving just that little bit more difficult. In better circumstances, I probably wouldn't have minded too much.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

My 2 cents on the Confederate flag uproar
Not much to say that hasn't been said elsewhere, but to me, this tells me two things:
1) The other Democrats are desperate to blunt Dean's momentum. The way that they've seized onto this issue, it looks like they're desperate for an angle with which they can gain an edge (to ruthlessly mix metaphors).
2) Fundamentally, Dean is right, even if he didn't exactly express himself in the best way possible. However, I can't see the Democratic party reversing its losses in the South in the near future without a major sea change.
Two political links of the day
First, the most distinctive ballot measure you're likely to see (not counting San Francisco's Proposition BB of about ten years back, which is a close contender): this measure in Bolinas.

Second, apparently the Democratic party switched from winner-take-all primaries to proportional representation. Yes, really. This should make for an interesting convention. Read about it in CalPundit.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Political question of the day
There's no shortage of actors who have become Republican politicians. There are the obvious examples (Schwarzenegger, Reagan), and I'm sure without too much difficulty you could find a bunch more minor people (Fred Thompson, Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, etc.). However, when Juliana and I were searching on this question the other day, we were able to find one actor who became a Democratic politician: Ben Jones, who played "Cooter" on the Dukes of Hazzard. He served two terms in the House (winning his first term after the incumbent was indicted for perjury), and made a few more unsuccessful House runs. As far as profile goes (both as an actor and as a politician), it's considerably lower than the Republican side of the ledger. And according to this article, he's only the third ever, after Helen Gahagan Douglas (who was a theater actress) and Shiela Kuehl, a California State Senator with a rather undistinguished acting career. Hardly an impressive slate.

To me, at least, while some of the reasons are obvious, it seems surprising that the disparity would be that large. Anyway, this post was inspired by seeing this article.
Technical note, concluded
Okay, I think I've fixed the issue with the comments. Let me know if there appear to be any problems.

For those interested in the details: At some point when I wasn't looking, probably when Blogger changed their engine, they moved from 8-digit post ID numbers, which are reasonable, to 18-digit post ID numbers, which strike me, personally, as just a little bit of overkill, but what do I know? Anyway, in the past, the post ID numbers were passed to the comment script as numbers, and everything was fine. But now, passing an 18-digit number as a number gets it truncated. So I changed things to pass their numbers as strings, and it should work happily.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Technical note
For some reason, the number of comments for new entries isn't properly displaying (at least, not in my browsers). My teams of top scientists are working on the problem. But if I don't acknowledge your comment, it's probably because I haven't even noticed it's there.
Interesting legal issue of the day
So, I'm not an expert on copyright law, but I have read enough to have heard of Feist v. Rural Telephone (though I don't think I would be able to remember the name offhand). To make a long story short, a white pages publisher used information from a rival company's directory; the other company sued for copyright infringement, but the Court ruled that the information in the white pages, being factual, was not entitled to copyright protection, and the presentation, being merely alphabetical, was not sufficiently original to warrant protection either.

Now, it appears possible that these actions might be made illegal. I'm actually of a very mixed opinion about this. I suppose the sticking point is that after a company has put all this work in to create a database of information, it doesn't seem fair to me (for lack of a better term) for another company to be able to take it and make money from it. It's the last point which is key, at least in my own personal ethical system. (It's also why, of the two bills mentioned in the article, I would vastly prefer the spirit of the Bliley version; I obviously benefit from having directory information available online for free.)

I learned of this initially when reading about baseball-reference.com. b-r is simply the best baseball reference site there is, and I frequently use it and am very glad to have it as a free resource. (I believe it's also the only website I've outright donated money to -- this was well before their sponsorship system, and though there was an offer to use old donations towards sponsorship, I didn't really want to bother.) b-r gets a large (though declining, these days) percentage of its information from Sean Lahman's baseball database, which is also free. But what I didn't know is that, apparently, much of the original information in the Lahman database was extracted from a CD-ROM version of Total Baseball, which is not a free product. And, oddly, though I know that this process was (and is, for now) perfectly legal, it still makes me feel a little uneasy. I know it doesn't make sense.
On a more pessimistic note
Despite my ill-founded optimism below, I have to admit that now is not the best of times to be a Bay Area sports fan. Not counting the minor teams (which actually have done quite well, with the Earthquakes and CyberRays both bringing home a title in 2001, and the Sabercats winning in 2002), none of the area teams has won a title since the Niners won the Super Bowl in '94 (well, technically the Super Bowl itself was '95, but it was for the '94 season), and none seem particularly well-positioned to in the future. I don't need to tell anyone here how close the Giants came in 2002, but they probably can't win with their current personnel (especially given the age of a lot of the team) and they don't seem to have the money (and definitely don't seem to have the minor-league talent) to replace them, with Magowan looking to cut payroll. The A's are probably going to stay in contention for a few years, but it'll require a steady stream of shrewd dealings and good minor-league developments just to keep them treading water, given their financial constraints; it's hard to see them getting noticeably better in the near future, so essentially they'll need a healthy dose of playoff luck to get a title, and they haven't exactly been showing that in spades. The 49ers are in a similar situation: while it looks that the team they'll have is going to be at least competitive, I can't see it getting measurably better in the near future, and I can see it getting a lot worse if they fail to retain a lot of their current players. York's performance as an owner has not exactly inspired confidence so far, either. The Raiders, like the Giants, came close in 2002 (though the '03 Super Bowl was much less close than the '02 World Series), but they also were looking at a very short window of opportunity, and judging by their performance and injury record this year, it looks like it's already closed. The Warriors, though I might be optimistic about their relative performance, are not going to contend for a title any time in the foreseeable future. And finally, the Sharks, which were a trendy pick for a Stanley Cup winner a year ago despite never even reaching the conference finals, instead sunk straight to the basement, traded away all of their talent, and saw the one player who looked like he might be a franchise cornerstone (Nabokov) instead revert to mediocrity. Since they're also cursed with penny-pinching ownership, the outlook here is not so good.

Well, at least I have all these past memories to console me...of course, they only apply to the Niners anyway.
Minor annoyances at work
There are two things which happen at work which annoy me disproportionately:
1) People taking the elevator for one floor. I always take the elevator in the mornings from the basement to the sixth floor, and in the evenings I make the reverse trip. I'm always astounded by the number of people who will hop on the elevator to go up or down just one floor. I frequently have to go down to the 5th floor, and I always use the stairs. What's the point of taking the elevator?

2) People who don't run for the bus. If the bus is sitting there, and you're late (I can understand not making an effort if you know the bus isn't going to leave yet), then it's more than a little inconsiderate to nonchalantly stroll to the bus and expect everyone to wait for you. Show some hustle!

Yes, I know that not everyone at the Lab is in as good physical condition as me (not to say that I'm in great condition, but at least I'm young and healthy). But these are perpetrated by all sorts of people.

Monday, November 03, 2003

I know I'm a fool to type this...
...but I'm actually moderately optimistic about the Warriors. Oh, don't get me wrong; I'm hardly expecting them to make the playoffs, but I think they could actually be decent this year. Starting the season with two of their top players hurt and another suspended, they managed to pull out a victory over a decent team and hung in against two of the best teams in the league. And that's all I need for unsupported early-season optimism!
Very random link
Hey, I think it would be cool to have one of these.
Lyrics quiz!
This is a very amusing variant on the old lyrics quiz (it's fill-in-the-blank, rather than just name-the-song). The comments in the scoring were also good. Overall, though, my score was pathetic (32). See if you can do better!

Saturday, November 01, 2003

How I spent my Saturday
So today was the first major quizbowl tournament of the fall that I actually participated in (unlike WIT, two weekends ago, where I merely staffed). Now, the Berkeley team has been thriving lately; overall, we fielded five teams, each with a full complement of 4 team members. This was good! Of course, this also meant that we thus comprised 5/8 of the teams and 20/29 of the people, so a lot of the matches were intra-Berkeley matches. Still, it's a good way for the newbies to get tournament experience.

We figured if we concentrated all of the good players, then the newbie teams would just spend all of their time getting whomped; given that this tournament was 14 rounds and, total, took over 7 hours, this is not exactly a fun way to spend your day. So, instead, we spread the strength around -- with the exception of the Bastard Team, which had the two people not currently enrolled (Juliana and Ray), Nick, and David Farris (who just decided to play at the last minute). This had the very beneficial effect of making the overall field very even -- no team had fewer than 3 losses, and only one team (with 2 wins) had fewer than 5 wins. So, I certainly hope much fun was had by all.

Overall, my team was 5-9. That looks worse than it is, I think; we had three rounds which were decided on the last tossup, and we lost them all. I definitely was very streaky; there were some rounds where I did excellently, and there are some rounds (and some particular buzzes within those rounds) where I did poorly. The newbies on my team also acquitted themselves well, so that was definitely a good sign, especially since at Technophobia (next weekend) we are tossing them onto teams by themselves, since we figure it'll have to happen sooner or later and it'll be as good a tournament as any to start with.

Anyway, after a marathon like that, I think I could use some sleep.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Sports observation of the day
The economics of sports just keep getting weirder and weirder.

Basketball, with its odd soft salary cap, still leads the league in bizarre transactions for financial reasons. For example, this past offseason, the Atlanta Hawks participated in a trade in which they traded away someone who had scored more than 20 points per game for them that year (namely, Glenn Robinson), in order to obtain a player who was on the injured list with injuries that were likely to prevent him from ever playing again and had announced that he was retiring (Terrell Brandon), solely for the purpose of obtaining salary-cap space. (To be fair, the Hawks also did move up a bit in draft picks, but that part is unlikely to matter. All of the quotes from Atlanta officials indicated that they were interested primarily in obtaining the cap room.)

I believe at one point (though I don't remember enough details to find it via Google) that the Clippers, owned by notorious cheapskate Donald Sterling, once obtained some players in a trade which they then promptly waived, just in order to meet the salary floor. But I could be misremembering on that.

Now, baseball, despite not having any official salary caps and floors, has been seeing more and more economically-driven transactions of late. The Rockies, for example, practically gave away Mike Hampton just to be rid of his contract (hey, the faint voice in my mind is telling me that I already wrote something about this), but at least they got something in return. In general, teams trading away good players with overinflated contracts have gotten less back then if they had a reasonable contract, and bad players with big contracts are essentially of negative value in trade discussions, but it's not the case that a good player with an overinflated contract has actually been a negative.

Until now, that is. The Red Sox placed Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers on Wednesday, meaning that anyone willing to pick up the 5 years and $101.5 million left on his contract could have him without sending anything back to the Red Sox in return -- and no one was interested. Now, no one doubts that Ramirez is one of the top hitters in the league; he's been in the top 10 in MVP voting for five years running, and this year is extremely likely to be a sixth; it's just that no one wanted to pay that much money. Is that weird?

Well...maybe not as weird as it might seem at first glance. You see, at the end of 2000, Manny Ramirez was a free agent. Thus, when the Sox signed him, they were, pretty much by definition, the team that had the highest valuation of what his services were worth. So, given that Ramirez hasn't improved substantially over the past three seasons (not to say that he's been a disappointment, either; his production has pretty much been in line with reasonable expectations), it stands to reason that the Sox' valuation would still be higher than anyone else's; that is, that no one else would want to have him for the price that the Sox were paying him.

There's been a lot written about how free agency creates a "Winner's Curse", in that the team that signs a player in free agency is always the team that overestimates the player's value by the greatest amount, so I won't bother rehashing that, but I wonder if people realize that this is essentially the same thing, just three years later.
The die is cast
In other news, I went in and gave our landlord the obligatory written notice that we'll be moving out at the end of November, so I'm now officially committed to moving out. I'm hoping that the housing search will go somewhat more smoothly than the last time I did it (and was that really three years ago?!), especially since, well, I only have a month to find somewhere new.

The place itself I have no particular regrets about leaving; after all, you don't need me to tell you its negatives. If anything, I'm mostly annoyed that I didn't leave a while ago. However, finding somewhere new and then going through the whole process of actually moving there is still not something I'm looking forward to. So if you're reading this, it's highly likely I'm going to draft you to help me move at some point.
So, over the weekend, we were enjoying the proverbial Bay Area Indian Summer -- it more commonly is around in late September/early October, but I guess it was a little late this year, because all of a sudden it was nice and warm. Then, it just went away, and all of a sudden it's really cold. And today it was raining!

Boo. Lousy winter.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

And now, back to sports
Or more specifically, fantasy sports.

It might surprise you to learn that, for all of my baseball fanaticism, I've never actually played a season of real, old-fashioned fantasy baseball. Back in college, I used to play ESPN's Baseball Challenge regularly; in 1999 (I think), I was even dedicated enough to employ the tactic of changing my lineup every day to take advantage of matchups, Coors Field, doubleheaders, and so forth, which was enough to get me near the top, though I never got the extra burst of good fortune which would have put me in the top 50 or so. Of course, that way was less fun, since you never got emotionally attached to your players (although certainly, emotional attachment is usually a bad thing if what you're trying to do is win). There is, or at least was, Simbase, which was kind of an outlet for many of my fictional baseball needs, but it's nowhere close to fantasy ball.

This last year, I was dragged into Scoresheet, which is an excellent form of baseball, but it's also quite different. And, to be honest, this year was pretty boring after the draft -- it was readily apparent that the 37 good things that needed to happen for my team to contend weren't going to happen, so mostly I just prepared for next year and was careful not to trade Bret Boone for Chris Hammond because I needed to fill my hole in the bullpen. (Actually, this league is pleasantly free of insultingly bad trade proposals. Of course, it's largely free of trade proposals entirely, which is perhaps not as good.)

With Scoresheet firmly in its offseason, this means that the only fantasy league I'm currently involved in is the LZA, our long-term keeper fantasy basketball league. However, it seems like the fantasy basketball aspects of the LZA are dying (well, actually, have been dying for a while). By its very nature, the LZA requires pretty close involvement from its players to succeed. Being a keeper league naturally requires more care, since every transaction has to be evaluated not only by its impact on this season, but many seasons down the road. And the LZA is also an extraordinarily deep league -- the NBA has 29 teams, with each team having a 12-man active roster and 3 on IR. The LZA has 28 teams, with each team having a 15-man roster with 10 starters. This means that practically everyone in the NBA is going to be seeing playing time in the LZA, so you have to keep track of even the scrubbiest bench players if you're playing to win. When it started out, the LZA certainly drew that level of involvement, but now most people don't seem willing to keep up with it (and my own interest has been flagging over the past few years, too).

This means that, unless Simbase is unexpectedly resurrected sometime soon, it's likely that Scoresheet will be my only fantasy outlet. And that's just fine with me.
Usenet sociological note #25831
I still read a surprising amount of regular Usenet -- not as much as I did in past days, but probably still more than I ought -- but I still post very infrequently. Mostly, this is because I have to meet three criteria before I'll actually bother to post something:
1) No one else has said it
2) Saying it will actually be worthwhile
3) I know what I'm talking about
Mostly, this is because posts violating any of these three criteria irritate me immensely. Repeating what other people have already said (1) is annoying, arguing with trolls or idiots or other people who aren't going to change their mind (2) is really annoying, and getting something wrong that you can easily look up (3) is the most annoying of all.

Of course, given the volume and the nature of Usenet, the likelihood that something I want to say will pass these tests is quite low. So mostly I just content myself with absorbing information.
So apparently Matt either has much more persistence in checking my blog than I would, has an incredible sense of timing, or is watching me at work, since he managed to spot the fact that I had resumed posting here practically instantly. This, of course, eliminates my option to sneak away quietly if I decided I didn't have enough things to keep my recent spate of posting going. But perhaps that was Matt's devious plan all along...

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Reopening old wounds
So, most of the time I'm a regular reader (though infrequent poster) at the Giants newsgroup (that's alt.sports.baseball.sf-giants for those of you who care). Around playoffs, though, a combination of several factors (namely, increased volume, decreased quality, and very strongly decreased desire to read even more about what I had just seen altogether too much of) led to my abandoning the newsgroup. Well, being the compulsive type that I am, I can't just mark all those read and done with and move on to the new stuff; I feel the need to read all of it. It's not that much more pleasant to do so; time has dulled the horror of it all, but it still makes me tremendously disappointed.

It continues to appall me just how easily many of the people in the newsgroup wholeheartedly embraced rooting for the Marlins. I could never bring myself to do so, yes, even though their opposition was the Yankees -- it's at least more excusable to embrace the Marlins under such circumstances, but many of the people had chosen the Marlins before either of the League Championship Series were done, which is just awful, in my opinion. When a team crushes your dreams like that, in such excruciating fashion, I sure as hell am not going to turn around and root for them.

To tie another thread to this skein, it suddenly became cold around here, so I put on my 1997 NL West Champion sweatshirt. I will freely admit that in 1997, things were different. In 1997, the Giants were a surprise team -- no one expected them to do well, and merely making the playoffs was a delightful achievement, after eight years of drought with one particularly painful near-miss in the middle. Sure, I would have been ecstatic if they had managed to do well in the playoffs, but after such a wonderous season it wasn't hard to accept their playoff loss. Under those circumstances, I could have rooted for the Marlins, especially since their ownership hadn't yet been proven evil (though I did actually root for the Indians, since they were more deserving in my opinion, and also had Matt Williams). But the fundamental difference is expectations. In each of the Giants' last three playoff appearances, I've actually hoped that they could win the World Series, and so when they fall short, it's always a bitter disappointment.
Picking on everyone's favorite target
I nearly wrote this to Gregg Easterbrook himself, but decided that he'll probably have enough mail saying the same thing (so why, you might ask, do I feel the desire to post it here, when no one's even reading? Well, mostly as a therapeutic thing. Thanks for reading -- hey, where are you going?)

Anyway, the Easterblogg has this entry. For those of you too lazy to follow the link, he basically says that no one has a problem when science postulates all sorts of invisible, unseen dimensions, but if religion goes and theorizes that there's an unseen spiritual dimension, everyone will think that you're crazy.

Fundamentally, there are two big problems with this argument:
1) It is true, so far, that there is no experimental evidence to support the hypotheses of string theory (specifically, the ones about the number of dimensions lying around). This does not mean that scientists are blithely ignoring the need for experimental evidence sooner or later. Easterbrook references research by Maria Spiropolu; the specific article has made its way into the NYT archives, but other things I've read about her have indicated that what she's looking for is precisely that -- evidence of missing energy in certain reactions which could be explained by additional spatial dimensions in which particles could escape. A couple years ago, I went to a colloquium on possible experimental tests of string theory, and the place was packed. It's an issue of great interest, and to imply that physicists don't care about whether string theory can be verified or falsified is simply not the case. Most of the predictions of string theory, unfortunately, are currently well beyond our experimental reach, but as the theory matures and our experimental abilities (hopefully!) increase, the experimental tests will determine whether the theory enters the realm of generally-accepted scientific fact, or is relegated to the proverbial Dustbin of History.

2) To say that bringing up religion among scientists will get you "laughed out of the room" is patently not the case. It is true, however, that attempting to place religion on an equal footing with science will get you a fair share of scorn, and rightly so. Religion is not science, and by its fundamental nature it is extrascientific. It, by definition, can not ever be verified or tested using the scientific method. This is not to say that it is wrong to believe in it, just that such a belief can never be a scientific one.
Grr, argh
Just in time for Halloween, I'm going to attempt to resurrect this thing from the dead. Be warned, though, that my main motivation for this is a momentary quiet spell at work. I offer no guarantees that this motivation will persist, or even that I'll tell anyone about it. So there.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Well, that was helpful
Headline of the day:
7-foot-5 NBA prospect has pituitary disorder
You don't say.
So for the past week or so, there's been a rather large herd of goats peacefully grazing on the hillsides of the lab. This is actually a pretty clever idea, since the hillsides are pretty steep (although when I actually took a close look at the goats one day while walking to work, it looked like the vegetation was at more risk of being slept on and crushed than actually eaten).

According to the lab e-mail newsletter, the herd is provided "by Goats R Us of Orinda". I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that such a thing exists, but I am amused.
Oh, by the way, you're all cowards
Since no one is apparently brave enough to try my Simpsons quiz, I'll post the answers. See the comment box.
Tinker, tinker
I think my archives should be fixed now; if you're still having problems, let me know. External links should also be fixed, too (I noticed that Matt's link here was broken). The ants link is properly posted in the appropriate post.
Sports rant of the day
So I was reading this game recap, and I happened to notice this quote:
"The shell-shocked right-hander was safely back in the dugout by the time center fielder Jeromy Burnitz misplayed back-to-back line drives by Tim Salmon and Anderson with one out in the fourth, when the Angels scored three runs off Jeremy Griffiths to pad their lead to 10-3.

Salmon's drive went off the glove of the charging Burnitz for a two-run triple, and Anderson's deflected off the beleaguered outfielder's glove for a double as Burnitz tried to one-hand it on the run in right-center. Burnitz, who lives about a 1 1/2-hour drive south of Edison Field in Poway, Ca., has been charged with only one error this season."

Does it strike anyone as just a little bit wrong that an outfielder can "misplay" two balls, and yet both of them get scored as base hits and he escapes with not a single error? This is why the concept of "error" is essentially a completely meaningless one.
I shouldn't even dignify this by linking to it
So, the other day, I was reading Slate, and I was bored -- but I repeat myself. Anyway, I noticed in the margins an ad for this Emode IQ test, and being bored, decided to try it.

Well, let me tell you: I've seen a lot of bad things purporting to measure one's intelligence over the years, but this one is awful even by those standards. Let's start with an example:

8. A fallacious argument is: Disturbing, Valid, False, Necessary

This question would be fine (if vacuous) on the SAT. It has absolutely no place on a test purporting to measure "intelligence". It's pure knowledge. But it gets worse. Consider, for example, this question:

2. Which one of these five is least like the other four? Mule, Kangaroo, Cow, Deer, Donkey

This is far, far worse. Not only is it also another pure-knowledge question, but like any really bad question, you can make pretty persuasive arguments for more than one item in the list: is it a kangaroo, which is a marsupial? Is it a mule, which is a sterile crossbreed? For that matter, is it a deer, which has antlers? Who the hell knows?

But the question that really set me off was this beauty:
25. A cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the ________ of nothing. Emotion, Value, Meaning, Color, Quality

An intelligence test is not a complete-the-proverb exercise. What were they thinking?!

Saturday, June 14, 2003

A digression on music theory
So you've probably noticed that Coldplay's "Clocks" is pretty much omnipresent on the radio stations at the moment. Despite this, it's a surprisingly good song.

I'd like to talk about why I think this is an excellent song. This generally proves to be a frustrating exercise for both me and whoever I'm trying to talk to, since I always find myself unable to articulate exactly what I like and dislike in songs. I think that this is partially because, after years of listening to and playing classical music, I've developed an ear for the kinds of harmonies, cadences, and such which "sound good", but despite the rather surprising amount of music theory I've picked up, my pitch recognition skills are inadequate to say "oh, that was a very nice V-ii-I sequence" or somesuch. Heck, most of the time, without thinking about it extensively, I have difficulty picking up the key of a given song. Anyway, I'm sure what I'm going to say is probably somewhat wrong in the details (my music theory skills being quite rusty), but I hope it conveys the feeling well.

But anyway, what I like about this song:
1) It has a very nice sense of motion. This is the quality I most often look for in a song, and yet it's often very difficult for me to explain just where it comes from. Here, though, it's not too difficult: the arpeggiated chords (really, an underappreciated device in my opinion; another example of a song which uses this to great effect is the Doves' "Sea Song") keep the song moving forward, and do so in a very harmonious way. Something you also won't see very often in a song on the radio is this 3-3-2 rhythm (which I guess would be best classified as 8/8), which I think also lends itself to a feeling of motion.

2) It's very harmonious. Like I said, I can't really elaborate on this too much, but the chord progressions are, fundamentally, pretty. Since the harmony is a little more prominent than normal (the melody being pretty nondescript, when it comes right down to it), it's important that it fit together nicely for the resulting product to sound good.

That's really all I have to say. I'm going to go off and listen to it again now.
Irony of the day
So, as many of you know, I recently switched research groups up at LBL, moving me from ATLAS to CDF (if you actually care what those acronyms mean, feel free to ask). My new lab is almost directly across from my old boss' office, with the amusing result that I now see him much more often than when he actually was my boss. (Also, it surprises me just what a small percentage of the time he's actually in his office. It always surprised me when I went to his office and he wasn't there, but apparently that's just par for the course. I suppose particle physicists are very often not around, since they're often visiting, or at least videoconferencing with, a remote site.)
Behold the power of the Internet
So I was just engaging in some ego-surfing the other day, and was pleased to note that I have now achieved almost total domination of the top 50 or so hits (I don't remember exactly at which point I got bored, but it couldn't have been too far). What surprised the heck out of me was just how many of those hits came from this piece I wrote about ants infesting my hub. It kind of makes me wish I had crafted it a little better to withstand the ravages of posterity, but I'm still amused at just how much it got forwarded around.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Sosa update
So, apparently, the 76 of Sosa's bats that were confiscated after the game were tested and found to be clean. I find this a tremendous relief, not just because it makes sense (after all, if Sosa had more corked bats, you'd think that one of them would be noticed earlier) but because it raises my hopes that it won't end up tainting his whole legacy. It's possible that Sosa's explanation was legitimate; or perhaps, as I've seen suggested, he was just depressed by his slump and resorted to desperate measures, but either way, I'm hopeful that this was just a short-term thing.
Depressing link of the day
So, apparently, the average Ford of today has a worse fuel economy than the Model T of nearly a hundred years ago. Of course, Ford defends itself by pointing out that they can make more fuel-efficient cars (and some are indeed quite impressive), but the fact that the poor fuel efficiency is driven by marketing, rather than technology, is in itself more than a little bit depressing.
Scandal of the day
So, apparently, Sammy Sosa was caught using a corked bat.

Despite the fact that I've never been the biggest of Sosa fans (still bitter from his 1998 MVP win, I suppose), I really do hope he turns out to be innocent. His explanation is certainly plausible enough (though maybe that's just because I want to believe it), but who really knows? I guess they're going to look at the rest of his bats which they impounded, and hopefully they won't find anything more incriminating.

The question of just how beneficial the cork is is, of course, another matter. The physicists claim that cork provides a negligible benefit to the actual power you can impart to the ball, but it's of course quite difficult to measure the impact of a lighter bat in a game setting. And the sample size for corked bats being used in MLB is quite small (well, at least that we know of -- I have no doubt that it's noticeably higher than has been measured so far). Norm Cash produced arguably the greatest fluke season in baseball history (I'll bet even the most baseball illiterate fan can find it on that page) with what he later admitted was a corked bat; on the other hand, it didn't seem to help Wilton Guerrero much. Albert Belle certainly hit fine after his big corking scandal, though if Omar Vizquel is to be believed that's because all of his bats were corked. The other cases I don't know enough about to say anything useful, but it sure seems like the evidence is inconclusive.

In light of this, I guess I'm just disappointed that a player like Sosa -- who I think everyone can agree doesn't need cork to hit the occasional ball out of the park -- risked tarnishing his reputation (which, sadly, has pretty much irreversibly happened now) by trying this, even if his intentions were the best, as he claims.
Simpsons Quiz of the Day
Simpsons characters sure are a thankful bunch. Identify the source of each of these quotes (speaker and context):
1. "Thank you very much, State Supreme Court."
2. "Thank you very much, Warren Christopher."
3. "You're screwed, thank you, bye."
4. "Ja, thank you, ja, that's nice."
5. "Oh, thank you, kind innkeeper."
6. "Thank you, NASA."
7. "Thank you, door!"
8. "Thanks a lot, Steve!"
9. "Thank you! You have fulfilled our dreams and the dreams of our ancestors!"
10. "Thanks a lot! Now *I* look crazy!"

You can email answers to me, or just post them in the comments. Enjoy! Answers later.
Rant of the day
After working with code on physics projects for three summers now, I've come to a very simple conclusion: 95% of all physicists can't write good code to save their life. This is undoubtedly because they're just unfamiliar with the rules of good programming, so they tend to be extremely overly cautious in some areas and just plain sloppy in others. Physicist coding seems to follow a few simple rules, enumerated below. (All rants apply to C code. I could rant about the Fortran code too, but I think its mere existence is really all I need to say on that front.)

1) The purpose of -Wall is to produce all those pretty warnings. That gives you an impressive feeling of just how long your program is. (Seriously. I don't think I've ever compiled another person's code with -Wall which didn't produce at least two screenfuls of warnings. This is true even when their own makefile included -Wall.)

2) All functions must be declared "int", but if you don't really need to return anything, then don't bother with those pesky return() statements! Conversely, when calling a function that returns a value, you must always carefully save that value, even if you have absolutely no plans to ever do anything with it.

3) Code should never actually be deleted. If you need to take out a particular piece of code, always comment it out. After all, even if the old code is flagrantly wrong or outdated, you'll never know when you might need it again!

4) Loop variables should be given descriptive names such as "loopvar", thus freeing up the precious single-letter variable names for more important variables. The capital single-letter variables are used for strings, of course.

5) Comments of the form
i += 2; /* adds 2 to i */
are perfectly reasonable. Under no circumstance should a comment attempt to explain why one might want to add 2 to i, however.

6) Function prototypes should be strewn throughout the source file, preferably right in front of the function that needs to use the prototyped functions. Under no circumstances should they be placed in a header. Similarly, one never needs to include the header files for library functions -- the compiler knows what they are, right?

7) A char array that you're planning to use as a string should be as big as the number of characters in the string. (My favorite!)

8) The word "const" does not exist. (This might seem like a petty gripe. It's just that I always cringe when I see declarations like
char *filename = "some hardcoded filename";
and not just because of what's on the right side of that assignment.)

9) It's perfectly okay to name an ordinary variable LIKE_THIS, as long as you don't really plan on changing it. Similarly, a #define'd value you might want to name like_this, in case you want to change the value later.

10) Indentation, placement of braces, and so forth should be done as inconsistently as possible. To ensure the best possible performance in this area, maximize the number of people, each with their own programming style, working on a single source file.

11) Source code management does not exist. As per (10) above, have as many people as possible working on a single file at once. However, should you need to branch the code, make as many copies of the original source code as you need for each situation you might have to deal with and modify each one independently.

I'm sure I'll think of more items to add to this list as time goes on.
Much ado about QuesTec
For those of you non-baseball-followers reading this, you probably haven't heard much about QuesTec. (Those of you who have can skip this paragraph.) QuesTec is a system introduced by baseball last year, which uses computers to judge balls and strikes. Umpires who don't agree with the computer's calls at least 90% of the time can be disciplined by MLB. Needless to say, the umpires are hopping mad about this; perhaps slightly more surprisingly, the pitchers are equally irate. Curt Schilling, angry after a poor start, destroyed a QuesTec camera (in a karmic retribution thingy, he later broke his hand), and several members of the Braves also expressed unhappiness with the system after blowing a lead.

Perhaps much less surprisingly, the pitchers who were complaining were pitchers who did badly; I certainly haven't heard a pitcher who pitched a good game saying the first thing about QuesTec (nor, for that matters, have I seen any comment from the hitters). And this is pretty much human nature -- after all, a pitcher will naturally look for a scapegoat, and the QuesTec system is an obvious target -- a nice inanimate object to take out your frustrations on. Pitchers destroying hapless water coolers have been a fixture of baseball for years; why shouldn't QuesTec, which in a pitcher's mind can easily be responsible, be any different? And as Schilling himself admitted, his opposing counterpart on his day of destruction was pitching a two-hitter, so it's hard to argue that he was suddenly terribly hurt by QuesTec.

I don't mean to say that QuesTec is perfect, but I have to ultimately side with this quote from Sandy Alderson: "What this is about is Curt Schilling wanting pitches that are balls, called strikes... If that's what he wants, he should go to the rules committee. Otherwise, he should stop whining and go about his business."
I have this weird paranoia about people's names -- I'm always afraid that I'll call someone I don't know all that well by the wrong name, and they'll think I'm a complete flake. This manifests itself especially strongly with my students; I usually pick up most of their names pretty quickly, but I'm extremely hesitant to actually use them. When I hand back labs or quizzes for the first time, I always have this fear that I'll give the wrong one back to somebody and they'll look at me disapprovingly, and even after that goes successfully (as it always has) I still feel wary.

The other day at LBL, I saw one of my former students. I remembered his name immediately (he was one of the more memorable people in the section), but I still didn't actually get around to using it. It's all very silly, I know, but I wish I could break myself of this habit.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

I have the bestest timing ever
So I began work today. Work definitely looks like it's going to keep me busy for the near future, and my need to be productive means I'm not likely to be doing extensive blogging from there, either. So I may have to scale back my grand plans. Fortunately, they weren't actually that grand in the first place.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Forgiveness vs. responsibility for one's own actions
So I was just reading this article, "The Virtue of Hate". It argues that the main difference between Christianity and Judaism (aside from the whole Jesus issue, of course) is that Christianity belives that any sinner, no matter how awful, can ultimately be forgiven and redeemed if they accept Jesus, while Judaism believes that people should and must be punished appropriately for their misdeeds.

The article itself is very interesting, but I also find it fascinating that the Right (which tends to be Christian) tends to espouse the latter view, while the Left (which probably has the majority of Jews, and certainly has the majority of non-religious people) is much more strongly on the "forgiveness" side of the fence.
I'm not making any promises...
Before, I tried to make a conscious effort not to let my posts be just links to interesting things. There was no real rational reason behind this; it was mostly just a desire to be different for no particular reason (there's that perfectionist impulse kicking in again; if you want a reason why it took me so long to finally punt the offending post and get things started again, you need look no further).

Anyway, I think that it's probably more interesting to have a post which contains only a link to an interesting thing than no post at all (and hopefully you agree; if not, well, feel free to disagree!) So I'll probably be attempting to increase the quantity of content at least somewhat via this method.
A completely useless announcement
So this weekend we're hosting BANG 3, a puzzle hunt. BANG is pretty low-key, at least compared to ridiculous extravaganzas like The Game, which probably require months of planning, thousands of dollars of expenditures, and a cast of dozens if not hundreds. Ours is just a little simpler -- and cheaper -- but I'm still quite excited about it. All of this activity and effort I've been putting into it makes me regret the fact that I missed the couple of opportunities to go hunting this last semester -- a combination of too busy, too expensive, and too little interest from teammates -- but on the other hand it looks like there'll still be fun stuff this summer.
Catching up...the short version
So it's summer already -- my favorite season of the year, as I will generally tell anyone within earshot. Often mid-spring (early April or so, before final stress begins to weigh in) will compete for these honors, but this year the weather was really quite unimpressive up until about the beginning of May, so summer is the clear favorite for this year, barring meteor strike or somesuch.

Anyway, Mike's graduating, I'm moving on to a new research group (and very much looking forward to it), and I'm probably happier than I've been in quite a while. This is a good thing, I suppose, though I do wish I was a little closer to graduation myself.
Bet you weren't expecting this
All right, I've decided that it's time to brush the dust off of this thing and get to writing again. If you're wondering why the extremely long delay, it's because I got about halfway through the next installment of Sports Philosophy, got bogged down, and then never actually got around to finishing it, and then just kind of let things lapse, as you probably were able to figure out.

Anyway, for obvious reasons, I'm going to not announce a proud resurrection quite yet. If they're not obvious, it's because (a) if this burst of energy turns out to be fleeting, I don't really want to look like an idiot, and (b) it's more fun for me to tell people that this is back once I have 10-15 posts up to read, rather than just this one post telling you that this is back. Or maybe you'll just see this by accident and it'll be a pleasant surprise.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

On comfort reading
A sure sign that I'm feeling in better-than-normal condition is when I get around to actually reading things. Normally, reading is one of those activities that I keep meaning to get around to but rarely actually do, since I always feel that I have work I should be doing instead of lazing around with a book. So when I can actually get myself to sit down and curl up with a good book, it makes me happy.

Of course, in these times I don't always have new things to read lying around, so often I'll find myself looking on my bookshelf. Peculiarly enough, this more often than not leads me to Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books. I first was recommended to the series on rasfwr-j (that's rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan for those of you not familiar with the acronym -- yes, I did read Robert Jordan once -- no, I don't see why that's relevant to my past -- can we please stop asking questions about that now?), and darned if I can remember who it was (Kate Nepveu, maybe?) who said that they were good comfort reading. And it's really true -- they're light enough that they're a pleasure to read, Brust has a delightful writing style, and the plot is sufficient to keep me entertained even though I know how it's all going to end. All in all, the perfect combination for something to read when I just want a nice break from the rest of the world.

(Whee, I sound like a back-of-the-book blurb.)

Monday, February 17, 2003

Sports Philosophy II
(Part 1 of a 3-part series, time permitting)

Ultimately, the goal of any sport is to determine who the best team is. Now, of course, the question of what the "best" team is a difficult philosophical nut to crack in the first place, and often you'll see heated arguments on this subject when the participants don't even agree on the fundamental goals they're trying to prove. So I'll try to tackle the question of what makes a better team from several different angles. In the scientist's way, I'll start out with a deliberately simplified model.

Consider three teams (which, for lack of imagination, I'll call A, B, and C). They play a round robin, at the end of which each team is 1-1. This is the classic Circle of Death you'll see in quizbowl tournaments all the time. To make the example a little more fleshed-out, add, say, five more teams which always lose to A, B, and C, so we have a eight-team division with three teams at 6-1 and three teams at 2-5. Now, let's make an assumption that these results fairly reflect the quality of the three teams. This is arguably not a safe assumption, but we're not going to get interesting results without dong something, so we'll make it. And I can certainly think of quizbowl tournaments where this would be an accurate thing to say. Okay, now it's pretty obvious that we can say that A, B, and C are of the same intrinsic quality (assuming that it's meaningful to speak of an "intrinsic quality" in the first place; again, without making this assumption we're not going to get very far, so I'm just going to say it and move on).

Now, let's conduct a little gedanken experiment. Suppose team C's bus gets stuck in snow, or they forfeit all of their games due to their star player accepting throwback jerseys, or something else happens to take them out of the picture. All of a sudden, we have a pretty surprising result: team A is now 6-0 and team B is 5-1, so pretty much anyone sane would say that team A has done better than team B, despite the fact that our assumption that their intrinsic qualities are the same still holds.

All right, this might seem a little excessively contrived, but let's add another little wrench into the gedanken experiment. Let's say team A suffers a loss to team F somewhere along the line, so now team A and B are both 5-1. Now, we've made team A worse than its previous baseline, so if our previous assumption still holds true (and I sure haven't done anything to change it), then team B's intrinsic ability is actually a little better than team A. And yet, based on the fact that team A has beaten team B head-to-head, you'd see most people agree that team A is the better one.

At this point, I suppose you're going to say that this experiment is arguably a little silly. And so it is -- after all, just because our mythical team C exists in this case doesn't mean that we can always add a mythical team C to any given setup like the one above. Nevertheless, I think this serves to illustrate a broader point: many people, given two teams with equal records, will value a "good" win over a "bad" win, especially in the case of a head-to-head tiebreaker. But the team who loses the head-to-head tiebreaker has suffered a "better" loss than the other team, by definition. Why should we believe there's any a priori reason that a "good" win plus a "bad" loss is somehow indicative of a stronger team quality than a "bad" win plus a "good" loss?

This is not to say I oppose looking at indicators like strength of schedule -- in fact, I think it's something all-too-frequently overlooked (I'll talk about this more in the next part). But unfortunately, a lot of the time, strength of schedule is used by boosters of a particular team who will say things like, "Well, our team beat X, Y, and Z, and they're all good teams, so that must mean they're good!" while completely overlooking that the team also lost to J, K, and L, which were pretty bad teams. There are two sides to every coin, and if a good win is accompanied by a bad loss, then there's no basis to judge it better than a good loss and a bad win (in the absence of other information, of course). Trying to get further rankings out of this basis is merely trying to get something from nothing, and is essentially circular reasoning.

In the next part, I'll try to actually accomplish something productive.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

A digression on the scientific method
I'm sure you've all seen this in some form, but I like laying it out clearly.

Suppose I have two coins. One of them is a two-headed coin; the other one is a normal coin. I choose one of them at random and flip it; it comes up heads. What is the chance that it is the two-headed coin? Well, this is a pretty simple exercise in using Bayes' Theorem. The total probability of getting heads is 3/4, and the total probability of picking the two-headed coin and getting heads is 1/2 x 1 = 1/2. So, by Bayes' Theorem, the probability of it being the two-headed coin given that it came up heads is P(2-headed given heads) = P(2-headed and heads) / P(heads) = (1/2)/(3/4) = 2/3. No problem.

All right, let's move on. I have a coin, and I flip it. It comes up heads. I say, "I have a theory: that this happened because this is a normal coin." My friend comes into the room and says, "Oh yeah? I have a better theory. Your coin came up heads because it was a two-headed coin. And look! You just proved that my theory has a 2/3 chance of being correct." Well, yes and no. If we assume that, a priori, the coin was equally likely to be a regular coin and a two-headed coin, then yes, it's true that the coin has a 2/3 chance of being two-headed. But we have a better knowledge of the a priori distribution than that -- we know that normal coins are far, far more common than two-headed coins, so the probability of it being a two-headed coin is still very small, even given this one piece of information.

But notice the key feature of this: the experiment (such as it is) can't give us a full picture of which hypothesis is more likely without some a priori assumptions about which hypothesis is more likely in the first place.

So, I'll bet you can see where this is headed. I have a coin, and I flip it. It comes up heads. I say, "I have a theory: this happened because this is a normal coin." My other friend walks in, and says, "Well, I have a theory that this happened because invisible angels manipulated the trajectory of the coin to make it come up heads." The scientific method is completely helpless to resolve this dispute; you have to use your own a priori knowledge to adjudicate it. This is where we like to talk about what makes a theory "scientific", but all that really means is setting out an objective framework for deciding what's likely in the first place and what's not. It's a big mess.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

On the Commodification of A Priori Egalitarian Systems
(Why yes, I am feeling in an academic mood today. How could you tell?)

So, I'm sure you've read this study of the economy of Norrath. (For those of you who haven't: Norrath is the virtual world in the game EverQuest, and this paper is a fascinating analysis of its economy. Possessions in the virtual world are often bought and sold online for real money; you can even establish an exchange rate given these transactions, in which the Norrathian platinum piece comes out as stronger than the lira or yen. But if you haven't, read the article. It's fascinating stuff, and humorously written.) Now, as you might expect, all characters are created equally; everyone starts out as a Level 1 weakling with nothing to his, her, or its name. In EverQuest's many predecessors (note: I've never played EverQuest itself, but I'm familiar with MUDs, the ancestor of MMORPGs like EverQuest), the only way to build up your character was by expending time in the virtual world -- time spent improving your character's abilities, obtaining equipment and money, and forging friendships and alliances with other characters. But now, with the ability of outside wealth to influence a player's ability, one can substitute cold, hard US cash for expenditure of time in the world of Norrath. As Castronova notes, "Unfortunately the equality of opportunity is beginning to erode...It has become possible to start a new avatar and use US currency to instantly endow it with vast virtual riches and expensive equipment." (p. 15) I've seen enough complaints about rich kids buying their way to success to figure that this is an issue which makes people unhappy, and with good reason. (If you want to get all Marxist, you can insert the appropriate rhetoric: the bourgoisie, with their capital -- capital not even acquired within the world of the game! -- can use this capital to take advantage of the labor of the proletariat. Wasn't that fun?)

Now, Sony has attempted to prevent this kind of trading (not, of course, for any kind of socialist utopia reasons, but because they believe -- arguably correctly -- that the game's property is their intellectual property), but although they've tried to stamp out auctions in eBay and Yahoo, it's awfully hard to prevent the black market. Castronova says, "My impression is that the ban has had little impact on trading. Sony, effectively the government of Norrath, is fighting a war of trade restrictions that no government has ever won." (p. 19) The truth is, as long as these commodities have value to people, they will be bought and sold, regardless of what Sony wants to enforce.

It's hard to feel too worked up about this issue, since it is a game I don't play after all (although I suspect I might be a little annoyed if I actually did play the game). But an issue that hits a little closer to home is the Google vs. SearchKing issue. Now, of course I fully support Google; it's hard not to feel that businesses like SearchKing are a little sleazy. Google has always cast itself as the promoter of egalitarianism; their description of PageRank touts itself as relying "on the uniquely democratic nature of the web" and strongly emphasizes that only a page's merit will determine its PageRank. But reading through this article, and then James Grimmelmann's article in LawMeme (another excellent read), brought me to this open letter from SearchKing CEO Bob Massa. The letter, of course, portrays SearchKing as a company just trying to help those struggling little mom-and-pop web sites; you can make your own decisions about just how truthful it is, but Massa makes a very troubling point in his letter: "People are going to start selling PR [PageRank] regardless of what Google does. If there is value in it, someone is going to sell it."

And the simple truth is, regardless of whatever the truth may be about SearchKing's real mission, Massa is right. In the world of Google, a high PageRank is valuable, and, well, if a less-reputable site wants to offer money to a site with a high PageRank to get them to link to them...Google can try to go after the SearchKings of the world, like Sony can go after the obvious auctions on eBay and Yahoo, but on a practical level, there's no way to stop it. You and I might find it distasteful, and Google almost certainly has an interest in quashing it, since it reduces the value of their rankings without any compensation to Google, but that can't stop it from happening. Does this mean that I think PageRank is ultimately doomed? I have confidence that it's currently too impractical to significantly boost one's ranking this way, especially when the alternative of making a higher-quality site is available, but the fact that SearchKing had succeeded in improving the reputation of itself and its clients does indicate that it can be done. The invisible hand is just too powerful in these situations; a black market will always spring up even if the government tries to prohibit commerce in these goods.

Monday, February 10, 2003

J-Lo, and how we know what isn't so
(apologies to Thomas Gilovich for stealing his title, and my readers for inflicting this rhyme, but I couldn't resist)
So, it's a well-known fact that Jennifer Lopez has a large butt. It's been the (ahem) butt of a thousand remarks (the majority unflattering; although I can believe that at least some of them are in a positive spirit, there's certainly a fair amount of meanness in a lot of what I see, too), but they say any publicity is good publicity, and it certainly hasn't hurt her. After all, if you were to walk up to a random stranger on the street and ask them to name you someone with a large butt, they'd almost certainly put her near the top of the list. I could go on about how this is some reflection of how America always wants to find fault in its celebrities, but that's not really my point here.

The point is that the emperor has no ass. That is, if you actually ask anyone reasonable, they'll agree that her butt is by no means larger than average. It might be slightly above the average of Hollywood, but it's hardly large, even taking Hollywood as a norm, much less the American populace, where it's still definitely below average (to state the obvious). Why does this happen, then? Well, it got started out somehow, and people liked to talk about it (for whatever reason), and since no one was particularly interested in arguing the other side (what's the point, after all?), it just spread to the point where, if there's anyone in America who hasn't actually seen J-Lo, they're probably convinced she must have a butt the size of Refrigerator Perry.

Now, in J-Lo's case, this is pretty harmless (and, despite the meanspiritedness, probably beneficial, on the whole). But the way with which something with such a tenuous basis in fact can spread to the point where it becomes accepted as common knowledge, simply by virtue of being constantly repeated, is more than a little alarming.

Tom Tomorrow can tell where I'm headed with this.
Thoughts from the road
As you probably know if you've ever driven on an interstate, usually whenever there's an exit sign on the right, there's a corresponding sign on the left telling you where the continuing freeway goes. "280 San Jose", or whatever. When I was driving in Southern California this weekend, I was inordinately amused when I found myself on 605, and those signs read "605 THRU TRAFFIC". The freeway wasn't actually notable for going anywhere, it was just there to carry traffic. I think there's some kind of deep social commentary to be gleaned from this.

On another note, my luck finally ran out and I got a speeding ticket. Oddly enough, despite my having pondered this very question often while driving, I still was momentarily stymied when the officer asked me if I knew how fast I was going. Part of it was that I actually didn't, since I didn't have my eye on the speedometer at the moment, and part of it was that I was trying to figure out what the best answer was. Finally, I figured that I probably shouldn't say anything over 90, and I wasn't sure anything under 90 was plausible, so I settled on that and hoped it was actually accurate. He seemed to agree, so I guess I was right.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Sports Philosophy I
The team that you normally root for is in the conference championship (or league championship, or whatever), and loses. When the Big Championship comes around, assuming all other things equal, do you:
(a) root for the team that your team lost to, so you can say that you lost to the best team?
(b) root against the team that your team lost to, out of revenge?
(My own answer, somewhat cowardly: it depends on exactly how they lost, but normally I trend closer to (a) than (b).)
Obligatory (somewhat belated) Columbia post
First of all, my condolences to the astronauts' families, and really everyone in the space program. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about, since many people have trod that ground already. My concern is really: where does the space program go from here? The Shuttle is (was?) an incredible feat, reducing the feat of going out into space from inconceivable into something we thought of as nearly routine (with this a rather rude reminder that it wasn't, after all). But I felt that after Challenger, NASA became a little more timid in its approach. Rather than continuing to push the frontier into new and exciting missions, they contented themselves with staying what they already had and were comfortable with. Not to say that there wasn't an awful lot of valuable science done on the Shuttle missions (John Glenn aside) -- but it really represented to me a failure of the will to explore new frontiers, and this disappointment only got more acute as I saw the new and truly innovative programs (X-33, for example) die for lack of political will over the Shuttle. Gregg Easterbrook presents a much more forceful case that the Shuttle should have been scrapped long ago; I can't say I completely agree with it, but the fact that the Shuttle has pretty much precluded NASA from undertaking other large projects is quite unarguable.

My hope is that this will finally kick NASA into expanding into things we should have done years ago. My fear is that NASA will become increasingly timid and we'll become even more reluctant to expand the limits of human knowledge.
I'm baaaack!
Okay, I've designated January (retroactively) as my official Month of Hiatus, and now that that's all done with, I can go back to working through this rather alarmingly large (and, in some cases, unfortunately outdated) backlog of ideas. Enjoy! That is, if you haven't wandered off to greener pastures already.