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February 28, 2007

Now I can reclaim that stack space

Two years after I first started wondering, it has finally dawned on me that the reason race directors don’t print their results with a larger typeface and/or bigger line spacing is that they’re all using Meet Manager and that doesn’t offer those options—it just spits out the page. So we can blame Hy-Tek for all the tiny print.

Now, whatever tiny part of my brain has been worrying that problem for the last two years can be devoted to something else…

Now Playing: English Beefcake from Pleased to Meet You by James

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Posted by pjm at 5:59 PM | Comments (0)

Sweetest wasabi ever

I’ve discussed the weekly colloquium before. Starting in the fall, we’ve had grad students volunteer to take a fixed budget and provide the food. We have just inventive enough grad students that things can get out of hand very quickly; I’ve reached a point where I don’t volunteer because I have no hope of measuring up to previous performances.

For example, today we had candy sushi. With green cake frosting for wasabi, some kind of red licorice as ginger, and chocolate sauce instead of soy sauce. And, of course, chopsticks. It was both very sweet and somewhat disturbing.

Now Playing: My Delusions by AMPOP

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Posted by pjm at 5:44 PM | Comments (0)

February 26, 2007

How to revive an indoor track circuit

I’ve had critical words to say about the Boston Globe’s coverage of track in the past, but last Friday they ran a story about the changes to the indoor track circuit in the last 20 years which is absolutely stellar and should be read—carefully—by anyone who cares about the sport.

The thesis is, roughly, that in the “old days” when there was a vibrant indoor track circuit in the northeast and the B.A.A. and Knights of Columbus meets were held in Boston Garden, there were dozens of events, many happening at once, and meets lasted ten hours. This is where track got its cherished “three ring circus” reputation, and with the exception of the Millrose Games, all those meets are now gone. But there is once again a successful indoor track circuit, going from Boston to Millrose to Tyson (in Arkansas, of all places, but if you’ve been reading here for a few years you know why that works) and back to Boston for Nationals.

But excepting the two-day Nationals, all the meets are now “showcases,” a very limited slate of events, stage managed to allow the spectators to concentrate on one event at a time. The article quotes, extensively, the team which puts on both the Boston Indoor Games and now Millrose, and they point out, “The spectators only have one set of eyes.”

What’s behind the resurgence? Well-packaged and promoted meets held during a monthlong window in compact buildings, featuring top names in marquee events and points-based bonus cash at the end. “Indoor track has completely changed over the last 12 years,” says Mark Wetmore, president of Global Athletics & Marketing, which created the Reebok meet and now organizes the Millrose Games.

The trend now is “boutique” meets such as the Boston Indoor Games, which offer a fast-paced program built around several events designed to produce world records. “It’s bright-lights-big-city-in-your-face entertainment for three hours,” says Rich Kenah, the former 800-meter world medalist who handles Global’s marketing.

Nationals isn’t like that at all. I was sitting at the track yesterday wondering why I was so unexcited about anything I had seen so far, or anything coming up; I was wondering why the NCAA meet, the other two-day championship meet, is so much more exciting than USATFs. This article provides the answer: it’s because USATFs is a throwback to the old days, before track became truly professional. They’re struggling to figure out how to make track more appealing, but the answer is already there: it’s been done indoors, and it requires steps USATF can’t take. It requires severe constraints on the number of events. It requires competitive fields; I don’t think the five-woman 800m field yesterday really cuts it.

Maybe USATFs will stay unchanged as our “what not to do” example?

Now Playing: A Question Mark from XO by Elliott Smith

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Posted by pjm at 8:04 PM | Comments (0)

Toughen up

One of the bright ideas my brother had for this swim meet was the “toughen up challenge.” Last year, this was essentially a sprint meet—I think they called it “the churn”—with all 100s and 50s. This year, he introduced two five-event series: 200y in each stroke, plus a 400 IM, or 50y in each stroke, plus a 100 IM. In each event, times were age-graded (according to the world records in each age group, apparently, but age-grading is a black art to me) and summed. Lowest resulting time wins.

Of the 78 people who entered (nearly 40 deck entries! No wonder we were busy at the start of the meet,) almost half entered one of the challenges. As a result, we had some event imbalances. It’s not unusual to have three or five heats of a 50y race; it is unusual to have four heats of the 200y butterfly.

I had fun with the meet manager software generating the heat sheets, results, etc. This is the same package used for many track meets, and the same one I used for the Amherst Invitational, and there are a number of good reasons. It slurps up results directly from the timing system, it understands all the age groups and paper needed, and it “sanity checks” numbers (if you try to seed someone for one event using a time from another one, e.g. a 50y event using a 200y time, it catches your oversight almost before you do.) There are a lot of annoying UI quirks—a lot of menu items don’t produce menus, but act like buttons, for example, and lots of windows “lock out” other windows until they’re closed—but the things it gets right make people willing to tolerate the quirks.

Swimming has advantages and disadvantages over track racing. One advantage is lap counting; with touch pads at the end of the pool, not only do swimmers get lap times to the 100th of a second, but the timer can see how many laps they have completed and how many are remaining. (The timing system knows the event distance and shows a lap countdown for each lane.) The timer just has to keep an eye on the swimmers to see who misses the pad, which happens sometimes in events with open turns. This can’t be done on the track; you can’t use the camera to clock every lap.

The disadvantage comes from the need to line up every swimmer with a heat and a lane. If someone leaves the meet early, or if you don’t have the time and personnel to enforce positive check-in, you have to re-seed the entire meet if you want to avoid leaving empty lanes for every event that swimmer entered. And re-seeding means everyone who is there gets confused about which heat and lane they’re actually competing in; unlike on the track, the officials don’t take responsibility for getting athletes properly set up for each heat. (There aren’t enough officials.) Swimmers are expected to know their lane and heat, and be there ready to compete, and re-seeds make this difficult for them… so even though we were using seven lanes (with the eighth reserved for warm-up) we had some heats go off with only four swimmers. We probably swam three or four more heats than were needed, just because we couldn’t re-seed to account for no-shows and scratches.

Now Playing: Mercy Of The Fallen from The Beauty Of The Rain by Dar Williams

Posted by pjm at 10:49 AM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2007

Your own personal monster

I was getting tired of the blue Gravatar icon coming up for the many of my commenters who never signed up with them. So I installed MonsterID, and made a few little hacks to my local copy of the Gravatar plugin so that if you don’t have a Gravatar, you’ll be assigned a monster.

To expand a little bit, MonsterID randomly constructs a monster from a set of eyes, arms, legs, bodies, and colors. However, the “random” generation has a seed value, and if you give the same seed, you get the same monster. Just like Gravatar, I’m using a hash of the email address provided with the comment, but instead of using it as the database key, I use it as the seed for MonsterID. This means that if you provide the same email address, you get the same monster, and odds are microscopically small that anyone else will get an identical one. (If you don’t leave an email address, it will be truly random, possibly even across multiple views of the same comment.)

I’m still tinkering with the sizes a bit, but for now, enjoy the wonders of whimsical combinatorics.

Now Playing: So Much Water from End Of Amnesia by M. Ward

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Posted by pjm at 9:54 PM | Comments (0)

29.41 and 1:05.02

I scored a swim meet yesterday. I’ll write a bit more about that experience later, if I can organize the observations into something worth reading. (I have a love-hate relationship with Meet Manager.) This is about the swimming part.

I meant to swim the 200y free, but the combination of a nasty cold this week (my third in six months, which I’m really unhappy about,) and a plethora of deck entries (72 entered swimmers, a pretty big crowd) led me to scratch out of that event, which was early on the program, and go for the 50y/100y option instead. After all, if breathing deeply makes me cough, why shouldn’t the solution be entering races which don’t require breathing?

That was pretty much how the 50 went. I got a fair start (goggles on) kept my head down, kicked hard, and tried to bring on tunnel vision. It turned out to be a fairly effective mind set; 50y is credit-card spending, with the payment not due until well after the event is over. I’d say that the time was a PR, but I don’t think I’ve played at sprinting before so I think it’s my only time for the event anyway.

Another safe start in the 100y, and the published splits tell me I hit the first 50 of that one in 31.78—not too shabby. The most memorable part of that race was how little I had to think about what I was doing. I didn’t remind myself how to turn most effectively, how to kick, anything. I just got in and raced. What I remember was looking across the pool and trying to beat the people in the other lanes. (I did, too; I won heat 3, not that anyone’s counting.) 33.24 for the second half for a 1:05.02, just off the 1:04 which my brother reminded me I swam last year in Exeter. (How does he remember my times when I have to look them up?)

Then I hopped out and slithered over to the scoring table to announce the next heat while trying not to drip on anything significant and not to wheeze too audibly into the mike.

Now Playing: A from Maybe You Should Drive by Barenaked Ladies

Posted by pjm at 1:16 PM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2007

Win some, lose some

Another grad student, on the eligible bachelor she recently met: “But he’s 31! That’s so old!

Guy in the pizza shop, as I head out the door: “Have a good weekend, kiddo.”

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Posted by pjm at 10:33 PM | Comments (0)

Crossing in the mail

I got email this morning (late last night, actually) from the NEM-SCY meet management, warning me that today is the last day for regular entry, and I should register online if I didn’t want to pay late entry fees.

I mailed my entry last week—Thursday, if I remember rightly, well before this Tuesday’s postmark deadline—and since it’s only traveling to Arlington, I expect it has been delivered by now. According to the website, they’ve only actually processed what they received as of a week and a half ago, and have “hundreds” of unopened entries. Who knows how many people like me are going to get that email, assume their entry has been lost in the mail, and re-enter online? I wonder if, by attempting to encourage pre-entry, the meet management has created a lot more duplicate-entry headaches for themselves.

Now Playing: What Do You Want Me To Do from Bring ‘Em All In by Mike Scott

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Posted by pjm at 2:40 PM | Comments (0)

February 22, 2007

If you don't play, you can't win

The Engineering Management program here at the University runs an annual business plan contest, and we submitted one. Since the University don’t have a full-on MBA program, and the contest is only in its third year, the winning plan earns “only” $50,000, not the $100,000 awarded by a similar contest at MIT, or the $60,000 (or so) at Harvard. For similar reasons, the competition hasn’t, historically, been quite as fierce as it is in Cambridge, but $50k is a lot of change for a cash-starved startup, and that number is apparently drawing a lot of entrants out this year. (Before you all get excited for next year, at least one member of the team must be from the University, so it’s not a wide-open contest.)

We couldn’t get any details from the program about the level of competition; sometimes they hinted that there were biotech and bioengineering entries from the medical school and/or engineering schools, and sometimes they suggested that most of the entries were from undergrads and we, as experienced graduate students, would have an edge. Maybe those are both true. As we got closer to the deadline and pushed our document through revision after revision, we stopped worrying about things like that which are fundamentally outside our control.

One of the drawbacks of these contests is that they tend to be winner-takes-all. There’s one first prize, and everyone else goes unfunded. But as it happens, the closer we got to completion, the less we thought about winning. Going through the rigor (or wringer?) of preparing the plan for close scrutiny may have forced us into clearer and more detailed thinking about exactly what we expect to get done, how much investment we’ll need, and when it will happen, than we might have done at this stage without the spur of a contest. The idea kept evolving, even after we said, “Look, we need to stick with this concept if we’re not going to be rewriting this plan every week.” We’re in a better position now, even if we don’t win. Even if I did utter the words, at least once a day, “When can we stop inventing plausible numbers and start coding?”

It was an interesting underline to all the software engineering principles I’d gone through in the fall semester: much as I think we could just sit down and code, we will have to put a lot of planning on paper before that happens, too. We’ll have to plan to ensure we have the hardware and software ready at the right times, plan to make sure we hire coders soon enough to make our schedule but not sooner than we can afford them, plan to make sure all our pieces fit together and talk to each other. And considering the changes our basic idea of just what we’re doing went through in the course of writing, if we’d just started coding, we would’ve wasted our work when we discovered we were in an entirely different market segment.

When we walked the submission-ready document (I stopped calling it “final”) over for entry, my partner said, “Now we get our lives back!” I replied, “No, it’s just a loan; we’ll have to return them in a few months.”

As it happens, that’s happening sooner rather than later; we were notified yesterday that we’re “finalists” in the competition, and we’ll need to prepare a revised plan for re-submission. We’ll also need to make a 20-minute presentation, with the other finalists, in late March, before the winner is announced. I don’t know how many finalists there are, but I suspect there are at least three and probably not many more than five.

I think the message we’re getting is, “We’re not ready to give you money yet, but keep talking.” And that’s a pretty good start.

Now Playing: One Of The Three from Laid by James

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Posted by pjm at 1:43 PM | Comments (4)

In which programmers in glass houses throw stones

Our home-grown grade-tracking software (written, according to department folklore, in some thousands of lines of Lisp,) was retired at the end of last semester in favor of a department installation of Moodle. (The perfectly rational reason for this was that the only person in the department who really understood the old system died last spring. Considering the time I and others spent wrestling with Sakai last year, there’s some irony in the choice of Moodle.)

We’ve decided that Moodle is too much solution for us in the class I’m TAing this spring, so we went looking for a simpler way to keep students up to date on their progress. (In any other field, handing back paper with written comments ought to be enough, but this is CS and most of the assignments never exist on paper in the first place.) It turns out that our widely-used perl utility for collecting assignment files, provide, has matching components for recording grades (profess) and displaying them to students (progress).

There’s also a utility written for checking to make sure configuration files, etc. are all set up properly. It’s referred to as a “sanity-checking” utility and is called, of course, prozac. From the manual page:

Like the real prozac, it makes provide happier in 95% of all situations, and otherwise becomes homicidal.

Now Playing: Nothing Like from God Fodder by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin

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Posted by pjm at 9:37 AM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2007

The Great Undergrad Empire

Writing assignments for this spring’s class is turning out to be the biggest brain drain. Grading them is tedious but not unmanageable; coming up with good questions is a colossal headache, particularly since one of my complaints about other undergrad courses in the department is the uninteresting and un-engaging quality of most of the exercises. (Really, who wants to write a business expense tracking system? Practically nobody.)

We’re throwing them into ML now (a few weeks ago it was Scheme) and I’m coming up with types and functions. I had the bright idea of basing this assignment around a text-adventure theme. What kinds of objects can be found and picked up in, say, Zork? What different qualities do they have?

The original Zork just has some kind of count limit on how many objects you can carry, be they matchbooks and keys or teapots full of water. Say we define a series of artifact types, e.g. containers, weapons, tools, treasure, and miscellaneous (there’s a use for a placemat, for example, but it’s not obvious.) What’s the distinction between them? They all have names, possible numeric weight and/or numeric value, but what qualities distinguish the groups—say, range of weapons, or uses of tools? Any ideas? How do you build the type structure of Zork? (And then, how do you describe the constraints to the students without simultaneously giving them the solution to the problem?)

Now Playing: Попробуй спеть вместе со мной from Группа Крови by Кино

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Posted by pjm at 9:53 PM | Comments (1)

When you least expect it

It was lousy running on the roads of Amherst on Friday afternoon. In the two days since the storm, some of the sidewalks were cleared, but others weren’t, and there were still those little patches of loose snow that make you chop your stride and tiptoe through. Not exactly conducive to getting into a groove and feeling the flow of the run, though at least they didn’t have the ice that (still) coats most of Medford’s sidewalks.

And yet for some reason the last two miles or so were some of those miles which, if you could’ve inhabited my skull for that time, would explain perfectly why I’m still dragging my tired old carcass out the door. I wish I had races that felt that way. I felt like I could ask my legs for anything—more speed, more speed, no problem. I was almost afraid to ask for fear I’d find the point where it stopped.

I can’t say I feel quite that good today, but it’s nice to remember.

Now Playing: Cantilever from Forget Yourself by The Church

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Posted by pjm at 9:25 PM | Comments (0)

February 19, 2007

The sequel

Thursday morning, we had no hot water in the bathroom. Plenty of cold, but move the faucet to the hot side, and it trickled, then stopped. Hot water, however, is served as usual in the kitchen. Conclusion, based on these facts: the hot water pipe (but not the cold) is frozen somewhere between the fork in the bedroom closet which splits the kitchen/laundry supply from the bathroom supply.

This is a bit of a surprise, because while cold (and quite icy—the landlord spread a full bag of rock salt on the sidewalk on Thursday), it has been colder around here this winter.

When I got home from the University on Thursday afternoon, the landlord was waiting, and shortly afterward, two plumbers showed up with a contraption that looked like a small jet engine. Plugged in, it generated some smoke and significant noise, scared the daylights out of Iz (which was good, because the apartment door was standing open), and directed a stream of heat at various walls they suspected of harboring frozen pipes. Eventually, they stripped the fixture off the shower pipes, so we could feel how cold that pipe was as opposed to how hot the pipe in our closet was, but their heater contraption was only heating the bathroom tiles (and the air—I saw 78 on the thermostat, which is usually set somewhat lower.) Eventually they gave up and went home.

The landlord, who used to live in this unit, thinks the culprit is the wind; it can get plenty cold, but if the wind is coming from a certain direction that chills the pipes more easily. He says it happened at least once when he was here as well.

Friday morning, they all returned, this time with a much smaller box with what looked like jumper cables attached. They hooked one contact on just above the split in the closet, the second behind the shower faucet, plugged in to a wall socket, and turned it on. Five minutes later, running water in the bathroom; the pipes had been frozen but hadn’t burst, and we were good to go. Plumbers departed, to be replaced a few minutes later by contractors who opened up the wall on the other side of the shower and put insulation on the pipes in hopes of preventing another freeze.

No problems over the weekend; we’re OK on water Sunday night. We get email from the landlord: “It’s going to be unusually cold and windy on Monday/night. Just to be on the safe side, could you let the hot water drip slightly.” OK, no problem, Monday night.

Monday morning, 8°F and windy: Just a trickle from the hot water taps. We’re too late. Still, this is a trickle, not a stop. I have the taps open hoping we can draw heated water up into the pipes and thaw the block without calling the professionals.

Evening update: We called the professionals. The water is thawed and now trickling.

Posted by pjm at 9:38 AM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2007

My usual approach is worthless here

Apparently, whenever I join this particular wireless network, it brings down the whole network, necessitating a power cycle on both the router and the cable modem. This does not happen if I make a cabled connection to the network. I think it had happened with my old PowerBook; it does not happen to other Macs joining the network.

I am baffled.

Posted by pjm at 10:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2007

Don't diss the storm

So, despite the sensationalized coverage from the local meteorologists, we only got, what, two, three inches? Hah! The storm missed us!

Well, yeah, it did, but I just came in from clearing our sidewalk, and let me tell you, I’d rather have shoveled eighteen inches of powder.

The snow shifted to rain in the early afternoon. This meant slush in a lot of places for the bulk of the afternoon, but now, with temps dipping back under freezing, any place where the snow was able to soak up water is now setting up like concrete.

Let’s assume it hasn’t frozen yet. Those two or three inches are thoroughly saturated with water; it’s still concrete, just the wet variety. It’s heart-attack snow. I did a first pass of our neighbor’s sidewalk, because if he tried doing it himself (unlikely) he’d die on the sidewalk; otherwise it’s going to set up and be unwalkable until St. Patrick’s day.

I actually broke the handle off one of the shovels, hacking through the frozen crust and chipping the stuff off the sidewalk. There’s a storm drain in front of our house; it was snow-clogged early in the day, and now the water running off our roofs and off the street is pooling where it should be draining. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to skate out there. It will take someone with a pick (or a mattock, but a sledgehammer or splitting maul will do in a pinch) to clear that storm drain now.

While I toiled, I listened to police cars creeping up and down Main Street, with their speakers squawking: “There is a snow emergency in effect. All cars must be removed from both sides of Main Street, or they will be tagged and towed.”

It’s a disappointing storm for kids at the sledding hill, no question, but the trouble created by a winter storm can’t be measured in inches.

Now Playing: Lullaby 101 from Five Stories by Kris Delmhorst

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Posted by pjm at 10:01 PM | Comments (1)

February 13, 2007

Manifesting the audience

Tying a few things together: I’m re-reading this New York Magazine article about “the younger generation” (Bog, I’m old) and the gap between how they view online “privacy” (they don’t even have the concept) and how people my age do. On one hand, I’m thinking about how this matches with my mental decisions not to write here about classes of things that happen at the University—about “my” students, “my” undergraduates, etc.—because, hey, maybe they don’t even care.

The bottom of the cup But I’m also thinking about this software I grabbed last week, and ran for most of a day. It connects to an available digital camera (e.g. the one built in to the lid of this laptop) and grabs a photo every thirty seconds or so, saving them as a giant time-lapse movie. I wound up with a record of what the laptop sees in a day, about thirty seconds of me grimacing at the screen, or just slack-faced in contemplation. It has the same quirky feel to it as a photo of yourself, because unlike PhotoBooth it doesn’t reverse the image (showing you the same image you’d expect from a mirror) but shows the straight image.

There are some odd frames—a few shots of me eating breakfast, one with the cat walking in front of the screen, a long morning segment displaying how badly I needed a haircut (and how the pool chemicals combine with my habit of running my fingers through my hair to make it stand up straight in a decidedly terrifying manner.)

This screen (actually, one quite like it) has been my audience for the best part of the last two years. It was quite revealing to see what it sees.

Now Playing: Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) from Pleased to Meet You by James

Posted by pjm at 9:21 PM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2007

The Places In Between

I recently finished Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, which is a sort of travelogue of Stewart’s walk, in the winter of 2002, from Herat in western Afghanistan to Kabul in the East.

When I read a book like this, a “one person’s adventure” sort of story, I hope that I’m going to take something away from the story that I didn’t know before. I’ve read a few books which don’t reach this level at all—one about a young girl sailing around the world (mostly) solo which was barely about sailing at all and more about the various mechanical difficulties she had with her boat, and a few Antarctic-type books which can be boiled down to, “It was so cold it hurt.”

I think a lot of the sales Stewart’s book is enjoying (I’ve seen it cover-out in a few bookstores, so it’s evidently popular) are due to people hoping or expecting to learn a little bit about the current state of Afghanistan; the cover photo of Stewart setting out from Herat with the curious company of two gunmen and an extraneous relative certainly does carry some political implications. I did learn quite a bit along those lines; one of Stewart’s messages is that most of the policies the developed world has adopted towards Afghanistan demonstrate a lack of understanding of the way the country works, blinded either by well-meaning ignorance or an arrogant “neo-imperialist” desire to re-mold the country’s culture closer to that of Europe and America.

But there’s a lot more than that. Stewart followed the path of the 16th-century Afghan leader Babur when he made his own return to Kabul from a visit to Herat; the book is liberally sprinkled with excerpts from Babur’s diary, reflecting on what has changed and what has not in the intervening five hundred years. (More hasn’t changed than has.) I learned about the ancient Ghorid empire and its capital, the Turquoise Mountain, one of the very few empires in recorded history which sprung from a mountain culture instead of the agricultural plains. (The Ghorid state was eventually erased from the earth by Genghis Khan, and at the time of Stewart’s walk the actual location of the Turquoise Mountain was unknown to the outside world.)

Apart from a few specific criticisms, Stewart offers little in the way of political commentary, but it is clear from his observations that the “problem” of Afghanistan is deeper and more complex than simply removing the Taliban, mouthing platitudes about the Koran, and attempting to impose a Western-style democracy with civil rights and universal suffrage. Why we opted for another war of convenience when we’re so far from figuring out what we’ve wrought in Afghanistan, I’ll never really understand.

The title comes from Stewart’s method of navigation from village to village. Without carrying detailed maps (which he feared would bring suspicion that he was a spy,) Stewart would ask in each village for the names of the villages and head men between there and his next significant destination (e.g. Bamiyan.) The villagers would list places they had never seen, with walking times which grew progressively less accurate as the distance from their home increased, but this was how they knew how to get anywhere else—through a list of the places in between.

Now Playing: Secret Handshake from Green Eggs And Crack by Too Much Joy

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Posted by pjm at 7:30 PM | Comments (0)

February 11, 2007

The one thing wrong

I’m not going to argue with the many newspaper articles pointing out what a great job the Boulder organizing committee did with this year’s cross country championships. I’m certainly not going to argue with the fact that there were more people out for the race than I’ve ever seen at a cross country meet which wasn’t the NCAAs; this made even World Cross look pretty paltry.

The thing they didn’t get right—perhaps the only thing—was that they didn’t make any provisions for having the athletes talk to the media after their races. The runners were whisked up on the stage for awards, and then they returned to a crush of fans where they could more or less evaporate if they wanted. There was no mixed zone and no media working area, nor any provision for post-race press conferences.

These are hard things to do at cross meets, of course, but the NCAA somehow manages to get it done every year, and brings in the top three finishers plus the winning coach as a matter of course, plus others by request. The NYRR did a fair job of getting everyone in to the tiny little press tent in Van Cortlandt last winter. Even the Portland crew had a post-race pen where the athletes and media could mix, and the crowd at Fort Vancouver was probably less than 10% what showed up in Boulder, so there wasn’t a big crush to contend with. What we had yesterday was a mob and a zoo. It was ugly and nearly impossible to deal with if you expected to talk to more than one or two athletes after each race. (After the junior races, nobody had figured this problem out yet, and as a result I haven’t seen (m)any quotes from any of the juniors, anywhere.)

This is whining, considering what a well-run meet this was, and it worked very well for the athletes, officials, and spectators. In essence, we reporters were the only ones with anything to complain about, and that’s a pretty good job. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to complain about.

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Posted by pjm at 12:29 PM | Comments (0)

February 9, 2007

Talking it up

A and I have remarked that tomorrow’s USA cross-country championships isn’t actually as tough a race as everyone’s talking it up to be. That isn’t to say that it won’t be deep, tough, competitive, etc.—that’s to say that it’s always like that, the more so now that the short course race is gone. What’s different this year is that we’re in Boulder, and the local organizers seem to be raising a lot more media buzz than anyone else has in the past. They’ve been spoon-feeding athletes and stories to a few key outlets for a few weeks now, and as a result, more people are paying attention.

There is an undeniable good to this, of course: the USA XC championships is one of the toughest national championships in this country, barring only perhaps certain Olympic Trials events, and people should be aware of that. But there’s some dissonance in the ears of those of us who’ve been paying attention for years, because, hey, this race has always been tough to win. Remember Lynn Jennings?

In a not-entirely-unrelated anecdote, my watch keeps two times, which is useful for leaving it set to US-Eastern when I travel. This evening I went to switch to “time 2” and was surprised to find it almost all ready—two hours behind. Something made me double-check: Nope, not two hours behind. Fourteen hours ahead.

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February 7, 2007


At the end of tonight’s track session, the coach deemed it too cold for outdoor cool-down, so we early finishers cooled down on the outside lanes of the track. As we got started, I suggested to the other guy that we go clockwise (i.e. “backwards”). He gave me an amused and disgusted look. “I don’t think I could turn right at this point, anyway.”

Then, after we’d made it a few strides, he continued, “I guess this is just the direction I’m threaded.”

Posted by pjm at 10:25 PM | Comments (2)

Nobody's paying attention

After some minor wrangling, I managed to get my image-hotlinking prevention access rules (based on these instructions) working properly sometime last week.

I still see the dozens of requests referred from various myspace.com profiles in my logs, but the percentage of total traffic by byte is way down relative to the number of requests. It’s obvious that nobody is paying attention to what happens when they try to include the images. I’m seeing profile after profile with broken images in the comment boxes where they’d hoped my images would be.

Ha. I win.

Now Playing: Mesmerise from Mesmerise by Chapterhouse

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February 6, 2007

However you slice it

I’ve never been satisfied with the results when I try slicing my pizzas radially (that is, the way normal pizzas are sliced.) A while ago, I realized I could do much, much better by making one slice to cut the pie in half, then two more perpendicular to the first (and parallel to each other) which cut the halves into thirds. The result is four “corner” pieces which are sort-of quarters of a disc, and two “middle” pieces which are almost rectangular. The advantage is that it works perfectly well on irregularly-shaped pies, and since I’m hand-stretching the dough, “irregular” describes nearly every pizza I make.

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Posted by pjm at 8:51 PM | Comments (1)

Another reason to dislike micro-caches

Family email this morning, originating with my cousin the cop, brought my attention to the geocacher who is wanted in Portsmouth. (I love how “geocacher” is in quotes in the article headline.) It seems he left a micro-cache made from an Altoids tin and a magnet on an electrical circuit box behind a grocery store. The store found it before anyone else did, and called the police—“suspicious item on our electrical box,” of course.

Overreaction, in the light of the lite-brite hysteria in this area last week? Not really; the store wasn’t evacuated, and the fact is the cache was on store property without permission. It’s a silly place for a cache, no better than if it was actually attached to something inside the store. Which has been done, no doubt, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

The thing that really frosts me is that the game (which, I’ll admit, I’ve had little to no time to participate in over the past year and a half,) doesn’t need another lame parking-lot micro-cache.

There are three of these in the Amherst area, which appeared either shortly before I left, or right afterward. They drive me nuts, because they fail on every point of what I consider fun about geocaching. The hunt should (a) take you somewhere you wouldn’t ordinarily go, or show you something unusual about a spot you do know, and (b) should include a hunt which requires a certain (perhaps low) level of dedication and involvement. A micro in a parking lot does none of those things; it’s just mindless thumb-twiddling, an expense of energy which could be better used in planning, preparing, and placing a good traditional cache, a challenging puzzle, or even a multi-cache. The lure of an easy find draws people away from the really pretty, rewarding locations and into a dash to find as many bits of semi-hidden litter as possible.

In the article, the hider is quoted saying, “[I]t’s hard, in an urban setting, to find good hiding places.” Right. That’s not an excuse for using bad ones, is it?

It also leads to negative interactions with the non-caching world, as this shows. Nice job, bub. Way to make us look good.

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Posted by pjm at 10:21 AM | Comments (0)

February 4, 2007

We don't mess around

I was sealing up my hour swim entry and cast my eyes over the rules again. I noticed that since the race is open for the entire month of January, there is a provision for swimmers who change age groups (“age up”) during the race. Specifically, they are allowed to enter twice: if they swim twice, once in each age group.

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February 3, 2007

How much do you really need to know?

The more I learn about computers, the more things I discover that I really don’t know. (This is related to the theorem that there’s always someone who knows more than you do.) But it seems like there’s really a pretty small core of tools a student needs in order to explore Computer Science; knowing them well (and being willing to apply oneself to learning) is probably 80% of doing relatively well in the field.

The tools are sometimes surprising. One of them, the Theory Tool, I didn’t really grasp until this past summer; it boils down to the idea of proof by induction.

Proof by induction and construction through recursion are the same process running in different directions; this is the means we use to take ones, zeros, and the concept of time, and build everything that can be done with machines and electrons. It’s a hairy topic; we’re taking the Programming Languages students through the “recursion” aspect of it now, and sometimes you can see their minds double-clutching.

I only recently bumped into an article suggesting that some people will simply never learn to program. It cites a paper arguing three things make up the primary hurdles in CS:

  • assignment and sequence
  • recursion/iteration
  • concurrency

There’s induction/recursion in the second spot. The third, “concurrency,” is what my advisor describes as the “too much milk” problem: say you notice in the morning that you’re short on milk. On the way home from work, you stop at the store to pick some up. But wait: did your roommate just do the same thing? Buy the milk, and you may have twice as much as you can use before it goes bad. Don’t buy it, and you may have to go without. You have a concurrency issue. Modern humans invented cell phones as a solution for this problem; computer scientists have some tricks for it too, depending on the context (and it’s a major headache in some contexts.) Concurrency still gives me headaches, which is a bit of a problem considering that parallel processing fascinates me.

It’s the first hurdle which is sort of staggering. Assignment. It’s where you take a labeled container and put a value in it. The authors of the paper suggest that success in introductory computer science courses can be predicted by a simple test of a dozen questions or so. Here’s the first question:

Read the following statements and tick the box next to the correct answer.

int a = 10; 
int b = 20; 
a = b;

The new values of a and b are: 
[ ] a = 20 b = 0 
[ ] a = 20 b = 20 
[ ] a = 0 b = 10 
[ ] a = 10 b = 10 
[ ] a = 30 b = 20 
[ ] a = 30 b = 0 
[ ] a = 10 b = 30 
[ ] a = 0 b = 30 
[ ] a = 10 b = 20 
[ ] a = 20 b = 10

Easy, huh? Well, if you thought so, you may take to programming. If you didn’t, the second option (a = 20, b = 20) is the answer.

It would be cool if we could just teach those three things, then spend the rest of our time investigating the fun stuff, but there’s a lot of detail and ramification that needs covering as well. (I’ve heard it said that the goal of our entire Data Structures course is to make sure undergraduates understand the concept of a pointer.) We can let our machines build a lot with recursion, but we still need to pick the base cases and specify how to make them step, and doing that properly takes some care and practice which take time to learn.

But it is a little humbling, and perhaps inspiring, to think of all the work one can do just to fully understand those three ideas.

Now Playing: Orange from Come Down by The Dandy Warhols

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