30 August 2009

Marooned in Realtime

Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge, is a follow-up to The Peace War (which I haven't read yet).

The main driver for the story is the use of "bobbles," stasis fields that suspend the flow of time inside, while being totally impervious to outside forces. The plot is set fifty million years in the future, when a few small groups of humans emerge from their bobbles, surprised to find themselves on an otherwise uninhabited Earth. But now that it is incumbent upon these few to repopulate the planet, there are power grabs, and politics, and class warfare, and a murder mystery.

I enjoyed reading Marooned in Realtime. Vinge paints a world where a few people have incredible power over space and time (though they are far from omnipotent). I thought a couple of aspects were particularly interesting: humans becoming increasingly reliant on augmented cognition (ahem, internet access?), and what happens to people when they can live for decades— or millennia— alone.

(And yet, even in the bizarre new era of the story, some of the human conflicts are still very recognizable.)

However, I thought that the conclusion degenerated into a bunch of clich├ęs and didn't really leave me with anything satisfying. Still, the novel is an eye-opener.

26 August 2009

People who are not in our league III

Magic Cube 5D

Magic Cube 4D is software simulating a four-dimensional analogue of the Rubik's cube.

Magic Cube 5D is... I won't insult your intelligence. Like the 3-dimensional Rubik's cube, it comes in a variety of sizes. And Levi Wegner has performed an extraordinary feat:

Levi Wegner recently solved the 65 puzzle! This monster has 12,960 stickers, and it took him 24 days, averaging roughly six hours per day. It is a good thing that the program supports macros otherwise this 1.9 million twist solution would have been essentially impossible.

This is so awesome as to pretty much defy comprehension.

The 75 puzzle remains unsolved, if you want to make a name for yourself.

Or you can try the Magic120Cell, which looks like an explosion at a dodecahedron factory:

24 August 2009

Digital cameras getting even more awesome

David Pogue reviews some new digital cameras that do better image processing on low-light images. Which is already a killer feature, but there's more:

The Sony performs two other stunts that will make your jaw drop. From its much larger, zoomier cousin, the HX1, the WX1 inherits Sweep Panorama mode. As you whip the camera in an arc around your body, it quietly snaps 10 consecutive photos, figures out how to connect them, and spits out a finished 270-degree panorama. Talk about wide-angle!


The Sony's other great trick is capturing 10 images in a one-second burst, a capture speed that puts most other pocket cams to shame. Unfortunately, the camera locks up for 18 seconds afterward, as it processes all those shots.

22 August 2009

People who are not in our league, Episode II

The BBC has a feature on the history of Unix, in celebration of its 40th anniversary this month. In 1969, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie had been meaning to write a new operating system for a while, but it wasn't until August that Thompson got some time to himself. Then he hammered out the core of Unix in one month:

[In] August 1969, Ken Thompson's wife took their new baby to see relatives on the West Coast. She was due to be gone for a month and Thompson decided to use his time constructively — by writing the core of what became Unix.

He allocated one week each to the four core components of operating system, shell, editor and assembler.

20 August 2009

Buying CDs

I ordered a CD and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it came in a paper (biodegradable!) case. And not a simple sleeve, either— a pretty fashionable case with a cutout for the disc, and an album booklet glued in.

Of course, Amazon shipped this form factor in a bubble wrap envelope, while I believe they ship most CDs in a cardboard mailer. Oh well. You can't win them all.

18 August 2009

Lessons from freewriting

In high school I was taught that in order to keep the creative juices flowing while writing, you had to always keep your hands moving— either writing about trivialities or even just scribbling, if you were really drawing a blank.

Perhaps that is the reason I developed this weird habit of tapping Ctrl, Shift, Alt, and all the other no-op keys I can find on any given keyboard.

(If you were curious, and I really doubt you were, I also wave my hands around when I draw a blank while speaking.)

16 August 2009

Problems that policy can't solve

Phil Schiller responded to Daring Fireball after the controversy in which Apple pressured app makers to remove profanity from a dictionary app. Daring Fireball seemed impressed:

This is music to my ears. That Schiller was willing to respond in such detail and length, on the record, is the first proof I’ve seen that Apple’s leadership is trying to make the course correction that many of us see as necessary for the long-term success of the platform. The improvement I consider most important is a significant focus on fairness, consistency, and common sense in the App Store review process.

(Emphasis mine.) This optimism stems from what I can only assume is a colossal failure of imagination.

This sort of stuff doesn't happen every six months just because there is some misunderstanding about Apple's policies or some level of inconsistency in their enforcement. In the world of technology, policy is basically worthless because tech tends to change faster than policies can anticipate.

The decisive factor here is Apple's technological powers.

Apple will mess with your phone if (1) it has the technological power to do so and (2) if the expected present value of doing so is positive. It's hard to measure criterion (2) but easy to measure criterion (1). If you are the kind of person who doesn't want Apple to mess with your phone, buy a phone that Apple cannot mess with.

12 August 2009

Sarah Palin sounds better Auto-Tuned

Auto-Tune is software that can be used to correct/alter pitch in recordings of people singing.

Or speaking.

Behold, Auto-Tune the News:

Episode #6, featuring, among others, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, and Sarah Palin

The news is so much more entertaining when it has backup singers.

More Auto-Tune the News (as of this writing, there are 7 episodes).

11 August 2009

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan; Dark City

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is quite good. It's pretty clever and well-written. And unlike many of the Star Trek films that have come since, it has some memorable characters (even the villain!). William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy make a great pair onscreen.

Dark City is highly reminiscent of The Matrix (which it preceded, by a year). The story is fairly intriguing but the acting is so-so. The two things really worth seeing are the cool (and dark) visual style and Kiefer Sutherland playing a mad scientist type.

09 August 2009

The Supreme Court

On the 5th floor of the United States Supreme Court building there is a basketball court, nicknamed "the highest court in the land."

(New York Times, "As Clerk for Rehnquist, Nominee Stood Out for Conservative Rigor", 31 July 2005)

This is the 27th post on this blog!

08 August 2009


I got a new road bike a couple of months ago (a Mercier Galaxy), and I've been quite happy with it, especially because now it's just so fun to go outside and get some fresh air and exercise.

There is something oddly satisfying about getting into the "zone" and in proper bike pedaling rhythm (about 90-100 min-1, if you wanted to know). And the agility of the bike, when compared to the old mountain bike I've been riding around since grade school, is positively exhilarating.

(Tangentially related: 100 min-1 is also the AHA-recommended rate for performing chest compressions during CPR. It's easy to get this right because it's also the beat to The Bee Gee's "Stayin' Alive". Who needs a cadence meter?)

05 August 2009


One passage from Moneyball (review) really struck me. Bill James, one of the first real advocates of the statistical approach to baseball, remarked on the difficulty of getting traction with his ideas:

Seven years into his literary career, in the 1985 Baseball Abstract, James formally gave up any hope that baseball insiders would be reasonable. "When I started writing I thought if I proved X was a stupid thing to do that people would stop doing X," he said. "I was wrong."

Perhaps this is just the way we are wired to think about things, but it is what it is. Advocates for all causes would do well to remember that the most effective arguments are a mixture of not only evidence but also some combination of flattery, repetition, inspiration, subtlety, awe, live demonstrations, and/or fear.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis, is a book about Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics, and how under his management the A's became one of the top teams in MLB on a budget that was a fraction of that of many other teams.

Billy Beane's secret weapon is math. And this puts him at odds with baseball's conventional wisdom. The A's scouts are always second-guessing the work of Beane and his assistant, Paul DePodesta. The scouts travel around the country and recommend players on the basis of what comes down to good looks and wishful extrapolation. Beane and DePodesta, on the other hand, have accumulated massive amounts of data about potential players. They can characterize every aspect of a player's performance and they know how to put a price on it. But they can't explain this to the old guard:

No one in big league baseball cares about how often a college player walks; Paul cares about it more than just about anything else. He doesn't explain why walks are important. He doesn't explain that he has gone back and studied which amateur hitters made it to the big leagues, and which did not, and why. He doesn't explain that the important traits in a baseball player were not all equally important. That foot speed, fielding ability, even raw power tended to be dramatically overpriced. That the ability to control the strike zone was the greatest indicator of future success. That the number of walks a hitter drew was the best indicator of whether he understood how to control the strike zone. Paul doesn't say that if a guy has a keen eye at the plate in college, he'll likely keep that keen eye in the pros. He doesn't explain that plate discipline might be an innate trait, rather than something a free-swinging amateur can be taught in the pros. He doesn't talk about all the other statistically based insights— the overwhelming importance of on-base percentage, the significance of pitches seen per plate appearance— that he uses to value precisely a hitter's contribution to a baseball offense. He doesn't stress the importance of generalizing from a large body of evidence as opposed to a small one. He doesn't explain anything because Billy doesn't want him to. Billy was forever telling Paul that when you try to explain probability theory to baseball guys, you just end up confusing them.

The scouts (and the management of every team except the A's) were looking for personalities. They wanted players who were power hitters and would steal bases (and were, did I mention, good looking?), even though stealing bases doesn't win games. They looked at numbers like RBI and saves, even though RBI doesn't win games. Beane and DePodesta had sophisticated models and they attempted to maximize one thing, the one thing that actually matters: expected runs per dollar, and hence, games won per dollar. So Beane was highly effective in trading away his star (read: overvalued) players and replacing them with unknowns (read: undervalued) who were nearly as good. He knew what traits were important and what deficiencies could be ignored. (Good thing, because, the A's budget being what it was, Beane often had to settle for what were superficially "damaged goods".)

If you can picture all this, consider that Beane managed the team's training and strategy the same way he chose the draft picks. Under Beane's management, the A's had a phenomenal 2002 season, including a 20-game winning streak.

I don't even like baseball (full disclosure: I do like math), and I found this book riveting. Michael Lewis lays out the story very well— even though the book centers around statistics, there is no shortage of the human element here. Moneyball is an easy read, and highly recommended.

(Moneyball is being made into a movie, starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane!)