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May 31, 2007

If I vote for you, will you learn to use the English language?

I got a mailing this week, like (I assume) every other registered voter in Medford, inviting me to a “complimentary Old Fashioned Barbecue” at which Mayor Mike McGlynn will announce his candidacy for re-election.

Other than various municipal websites and the lifeguards at the local pool, I don’t really have any issues with Medford city government, but I do have to wonder about the all-caps, underlined, boldface title on the card, which reads


What is my invited, anyway, and what does Mayor McGlynn want to know about it?

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Posted by pjm at 8:08 PM | Comments (0)

Food bloggers?

Despite my sparse posting, I have not disappeared. Right now I’m waiting on a long file download.

  • I don’t flatter myself that I know much about (m)any of you who read this, so I’ll just toss this out: if you keep a weblog and write on a fairly regular basis (i.e. once a month or more) about cooking, restaurants, etc., please visit Common Kitchen and drop Audrey a line. Spasebo.

  • I don’t have time to implement this trick right now, but it amuses me: replace the “Frequently Searched Posts” with a list, updated monthly, of the top five or ten search terms which found this site in the previous month, linked to the post(s) they presumably found. Could get recursive. (Pool Running is my current #1.)

Now Playing: Turn the Lights On from Into the West by Pilot Speed

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May 28, 2007


There are many advantages to cities which I haven’t taken advantage of since we moved here. Tonight we finally hit one; we saw a movie which, so far as I know, is in pretty limited release. (Despite being a winner at Sundance, Yahoo! Movies links a 197x movie of the same name when theaters are showing it.)

I picked Once out of the lineup because the leading actor, Glen Hansard, is also the frontman for The Frames, who opened for Josh Ritter when we saw him at the Somerville Theater. That’s a reach, but it sounded like a good enough reason to pick the movie. (Hansard’s previous movie work is long ago: he was the guitarist in The Commitments.) The short synopsis is that Hansard plays a busker and sometime vacuum-cleaner repairman approached on the street by a Czech immigrant cleaning lady (Hansard’s sometime collaborator Marketa Iglova); she plays piano. As they tentatively get to know each other, it is mostly through music; their conversations cautious and guarded, the songs much less so.

The marketing for the movie is clearly pitching it as a parallel to Before Sunrise (which I admit I haven’t seen) but it’s really a musical in the way of a lot of old-time movies—with the characters breaking into song about every five minutes. That makes it sound incongruous, but the music fits the movie as though it was written for it. (I think some of the songs are longtime Frames songs, some are from Hansard and Iglova’s collaboration, “The Swell Season,” and some may have been written for the movie—but it’s not clear which are which.)

There are dozens of silly little moments which make it endearing—Iglova towing her Hoover around Dublin behind her, or the band which eventually backs their demo tape (They’re playing by Phil Lynott’s statue, and say cautiously, “We really only do Lizzy.”) Hansard’s Takamine (a very nice guitar for a busker) has clearly been played long and hard: he’s worn right through the deck below the sound hole, and the ribs show through.

I’ve never seen a musical movie work this well, particularly given the contrasting film of the year (Music & Lyrics.) It’s understated and underacted, with wobbly cameras and dark nighttime shots (hooray for daylight) but if it shows up near you it’s worth making time for.

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May 27, 2007

The danger of expectations

I probably would’ve been happier about today’s race if I hadn’t picked a time goal for myself. There are any number of reasons, ranging from an unfortunate lack of sleep in the prior three nights to poor race-morning planning, why I would’ve been “off” today, but probably the biggest problem was that I warned myself not to run my fastest mile in the first mile.

Instead, I was 24 seconds off my hoped-for average pace, a challenging but not impossible time debt. I had already started passing more optimistic starters (I continued passing runners throughout the race, and was only passed—twice—by one, who finished ahead of me by virtue of one of those scorching kicks that makes me wonder about the kicker’s pacing abilities.) But despite a conscious effort to push in the second mile, that one was my slowest (in my defense, it did include a serpentine climb about halfway up Beacon Hill.) Now almost a full minute behind, I had to accept that my goal time was out the window and just try to salvage a good race. The remaining three miles were both under my eventual average pace, and the third was pretty much what I’d hoped to do all five in. If I hadn’t been thinking about time, maybe I would’ve been enjoying myself.

The race was, after all, there to be enjoyed. It was a great sunny day, with a breeze and lots of morning shadows to keep it from being too hot. (I worried about sunburn in my singlet.) I raced in a shiny-new pair of road flats, the orthopedic equivalent of a ridiculously dangerous motorcycle, and they felt pretty good, light enough to feel fast but despite my fears not so epehmeral that I felt damaged after five miles in them. (I’ve had road flats which felt like a thin slipper of Tyvek stapled to a thin kitchen sponge. These are much nicer but nearly as light.)

I turned down a finisher’s medal (for a five-miler? What am I going to do with that?) but did take about two liters of “VitaminWater”, which manages the difficult feat of making original-formula Gatorade taste good, and jogged down to watch the half-marathon finish. My speedwork training partner finished a fairly close second, but well off his own time goal. (His per-mile pace was significantly faster than mine.) With five-milers still streaming in, nobody seemed to register the half-marathoners except me, and I got some weird looks yelling at him like a madman.

Anyway, still not there. I’d say, “I need to work harder,” and I probably do, but when am I going to find time for that? I need to sleep first.

Now Playing: Easy Baby from Monday Morning Cold by Erin McKeown

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May 25, 2007

Everybody's got advice

That’s the problem with telling people you’re working on a start-up.

Of course, a large portion of this advice is in areas we’re legitimately concerned about, e.g. patents (necessary or not? Affordable or not?) or money (should be obvious.) But sometimes I feel like I’m being given a pop quiz. Which database are we going to use? What technology stack? Web server? There are a lot of IT geeks who want to know if we’re using their favorite technology mix (databases are a favorite holy war, but source code management packages are another area where this happens) and are perfectly happy to tsk tsk and shake their heads when they hear we’re not. Sometimes I can shrug it off, like when I know we have circumstances which dictate doing things our way and not theirs. Sometimes I have to wonder.

My impulse is to resist going into too much detail in this sort of situation, and avoid the discussion, but in a lot of cases it’s good for us to get the advice. It’s just so tough to know which advice is good.

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May 24, 2007

Code Monkey

I think have a new favorite song.

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Posted by pjm at 11:04 PM | Comments (2)

Milgram was right

On an online community centered around (but not limited to) alumni of my college, I ran across the author of an interface library I’m attempting to use for this project. Finding him out of context was a little disconcerting, but the more I think of it, not too surprising given the level of interconnectedness we reach now.

Now Playing: Dying For More from Be A Girl by The Wannadies

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Posted by pjm at 9:51 PM | Comments (0)

Missed a chance

Academic regalia always seems like a costly investment; Bog knows what’s going to happen to that cap/gown/hood now. I suppose there’s at least one possible future career path where it will come in handy.

I sort of envied the undergrads with their brown and blue tassels on their caps. (Not that I would trade my hood for one, of course.) I just had the anonymous black one, with an “07”, which I actually found faintly annoying—graduate students don’t really identify with a class-year cohort the way undergrads do. I wished, briefly, that I had thought to snag one of the tassels still hanging in my bedroom in my parents’ house. The “extra” one which I actually wore at high school graduation would’ve been a diplomatic faux pas at commencement, since only PhD graduates wear the gold tassels we had to indicate honors in high school, but the blue one I didn’t use at the time would have done just fine, even if it was the wrong blue.

And I probably would’ve been the only “92” there. My parents found a phone message about my 15th reunion when they got home.

Now Playing: I Turn My Camera On from Gimme Fiction by Spoon

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May 22, 2007

Why you need a software engineer

I spent three hours this afternoon in the office of a professor from another department, along with that professor and a senior IT manager. I’d worked for the IT manager in my first campus job, where I did a fair amount of software configuration and installation, and he knew I was a Mac user.

The mission: build this bundle of quirks and source code on a Mac G5. If you can’t immediately figure out what it does, don’t worry; I can’t either. (I recognize several of the terms used in the description, but I can’t be certain I know what they mean.) Needless to say, it is unique on the face of the planet, so far as we can tell, and based on several comments both on the main software page and in the documentation included in the package I suspect the author scores a few points higher on the crackpot index than the average faculty member. (Probably less than a standard deviation from the mean, though.)

Unfortunately, this groundbreaking and interesting piece of software suffers from some crippling flaws. I’ll quote from the installation documentation, emphasis added:

Qubiter 1.1 was written using CodeWarrior (CW) for the Mac. CW is a C++ Integrated Development Environment produced by MetroWerks Inc. CW is available for the Mac, Win95/NT and some Unix flavors. Since Qubiter 1.1 is pure C++, you don’t need CW: you can run Qubiter on any platform for which you have a C++ compiler. However, if you don’t use CW, you will have to write your own makefile. I’ve used CW Pro 2, with the “Old ANSI Libraries”. If you want to use the MSL libraries or a more recent version of CW, you’ll have to convert the project yourself.

This probably made some sense six or seven years ago, when it was written, but it’s 2007 now. Let’s tally up the problems here:

  • Whatever version of CodeWarrior was used, it’s now long past End Of Life. Our version of CW insisted on “updating” the project file, in the process scrambling it.
  • “You’ll have to convert the project yourself,” when it comes to software, translates directly to, “Despite being publicly available, this software is unusable.” (Or, more kindly but more specific, “It works for me and I haven’t tried any other way.”)
  • “You will have to write your own makefile.” This is one of the most ridiculous phrases I’ve ever seen regarding software installation. This is like saying, “We’re having pizza for dinner, but if you’d like some, you’ll have to write your own recipe.” Without knowing how the package is supposed to be built, how on earth are we supposed to figure out how to write the makefile? We have a pile of source files, in some vague organization, but having a list of ingredients is not the same as knowing how to cook.

We did some searching to try to find documentation from others, but all we found was a mailing-list post from someone else reporting exactly the same errors we had, and complaining that the author had not responded to requests for assistance.

This is not a viable software package. This is a bizarre sort of vaporware, and although the author is a better C++ coder than I’ll ever be, he’s written a lousy program, because he didn’t take any of the steps needed to make it usable to anyone else. The code is essentially undocumented, unbuildable, and has crippling dependencies. Fix those things, and it might be interesting.

Now Playing: The Way the Light Falls from Devil Hopping by Inspiral Carpets

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May 21, 2007

Battle Road

A and I ran this morning on Battle Road in Lexington. For a runner, Battle Road is exactly what Boston doesn’t have enough of: five miles of rolling trail, groomed pretty flat (translation: few roots and rocks) but with rolling hills, turns, and lots of good scenery. The Winchester Fells could be like this if anyone cared to take good care of the trails, but instead we wind up running on a lot of concrete sidewalks.

The “road” itself follows pretty closely the route taken by the British soldiers returning from Concord, via Lexington, to Boston on April 19, 1775, and the surrounding land has been kept in (or restored to) pretty much the same configuration it had in 1775. In addition to the usual park-service signs illustrating various events and helpfully explaining how long it took a British grenadier to load his musket, there are numerous smaller markers, saying things like, “Several British soldiers are buried near here,” or, at the far end of the trail at Meriam’s Corner, “Boston Harbor 16 miles.”

It’s one thing to run those miles in light clothing on a pleasant May morning, carrying nothing but your clothes and moving briskly. But these little reminders make it easy to think about what a different thing it would be to march sixteen miles in heavy wool clothes, carrying a sixty-pound pack, keeping step and keeping the column dressed, and with other people shooting at you. (This point is brought home particularly when rounding a stone-walled corner and seeing the sign labeling it “Bloody Angle.”)

(Kenneth Roberts made the point quite neatly over fifty years ago in Oliver Wiswell, that one of the reasons the British lost was that their military leadership was, on average, pretty dim; why did the regulars have to carry their full packs to Concord? Similarly, why did they march on Bunker Hill with full packs?)

It’s also sobering to consider the families living in the various houses along the route, and imagine what it may have been like for them to see the British column marching through their yards—assuming they were still there when the column came by.

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May 18, 2007

Marathon schedule

If you’ll indulge me for just another minute of Osaka talk:

Looking through the schedules yesterday, I noticed that both marathons are scheduled for 7 AM. This is a good decision for the athletes; early in the day, it’s cooler (word is Osaka will be hot and probably humid in late August) and the pollution is reduced. I remember that the womens’ marathons at both my previous World Championships (Seville ‘99 and Edmonton ‘01) were similarly early.

The tradeoff is that the women then finish in a nearly-empty stadium. A few hundred dedicated fans and a few dozen reporters, plus whoever was out on the streets. At both meets, the men ran in the evening; in Edmonton, the marathon finish was part of the opening ceremonies (and appropriately dramatic) and in Seville, the finish was part of one of the biggest nights at the stadium, and when Abel Antón showed up in the lead things got very loud.

(Antón’s victory party was about four floors directly below my hotel room; not being able to sleep, we crashed it. I remember having more cervecas than I probably should have, considering how tired I was, and watching a man who had won a marathon just a few hours before dance a very good flamenco.)

I expect that the local organizers have a little to say about the schedule, and the women’s marathon (leading the last day) is one of Japan’s best medal hopes. I wonder if they’re so confident in the crowd turnout—both along the course and in the stadium—that they’re ready to make concessions to give the athletes the best possible conditions.

Before anyone asks, both 10,000m finals (no rounds) are late-evening races, starting at nearly 10 PM.

Now Playing: Your Redneck Past from The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner by Ben Folds Five

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May 17, 2007

100 days

It’s probably less than that, actually, because of the time difference; Osaka observed 100 days to the World Championships yesterday, to us, but with today’s date. That seems simultaneously like a long time (when I consider everything else happening first) and not very long at all.

I’ve shifted my assignment a bit. I took an offer from the IAAF to “blog the championships.” This would come with a not-insignificant raise over my previous assignment (writing profiles of winning athletes,) so after considering whether it would impair my ability to do other freelance jobs I had arranged (including one which specifically mentioned writing a blog), it seemed like a good idea. I’m concerned that it may limit my outside-the-stadium time, but it’s likely that I’m over-thinking this a bit. There’s at least one day with no morning session, and on the last day the only morning event is the women’s marathon.

The work sounds a lot like the “mile by mile” marathon updates I’ve done several times for the NYCM and, before that, as part of my job at several marathons for RW. The difference is that I’ll be writing about everything at both morning and evening sessions for eight days; I’ll need to slow down the update pace significantly. I am allowed some latitude to express opinions or go off the main thread, with the caveat that, as at NYCM, I’ll be speaking with the implied voice of the event organizers, so I will need to step lightly. There’s a lot of undefined space here, which is a challenge and, as all challenges are, also an opportunity.

I’m trying to hunt up the analogous blog from Helsinki ‘05, but all I’ve found is a masthead-type credit that it was written by a member of the IAAF Media staff who held the IAAF job parallel to mine when I was at RW. I once told him he was one of the few people in the world I would trade jobs with, back when I thought I had the perfect job.

Now Playing: Ocean Breathes Salty from Good News For People Who Love Bad News by Modest Mouse

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May 16, 2007


There is a bug in Eclipse, apparently, that keeps it from properly compiling and running Swing-type Java apps on Intel Macs.

Instead, I am running Eclipse on WinXP, in Parallels (virtual machine software for Mac OS), in “coherence” mode (which means the Windows windows share space with the Mac OS windows, to grossly oversimplify things.) It’s a close second best… but whatever part of my subconscious is synched to operating system user-interfaces is context-switching so much I feel like my whole brain is slowing down. It’s also bizarre to see the (maximized) Eclipse switch to screen-saver in the background while I’m working in a MacOS app in the foreground.

Now Playing: Only Now from Carnival Of Light by Ride

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New and improved

The City of Medford has dramatically improved their website since I last complained. It’s not perfect; I can find out how to recycle a television with only two clicks from the front page, but I need to make at least one good guess. First, I click “Recycling Information,” but then I need to try “Frequently Asked Questions” to find out that I need to buy a $20 recycling sticker and arrange pick-up of the stickered television. I discovered that only after trying “What can be recycled?”, “Ten Ways to be a ‘Trash Terminator’”, and “Household Hazardous Waste” unsuccessfully, plus a diversion into the Public Works Department’s “Trash Talk” page.

They’re definitely improving, and this new page is about fifty times more useful to me as a Medford resident than the old page. (I was able to print a schedule of recycling days, for example; I spent all of 2006 putting out the bins based on whether I’d done it last week and whether the neighbors did.) I’m still the number one search-engine hit for “medford parking sticker” and number two for “medford parking permit,” though, and that question still isn’t answered anywhere on the city site.

Now Playing: You’re Not Very Well from Some Friendly by The Charlatans

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May 15, 2007

Stop me before this continues

The source is the source, of course, of course
and no one can code without source…

Posted by pjm at 3:47 PM | Comments (2)

May 14, 2007

You know you're a hopeless web geek when...

…you find one of those pages where an improperly-closed <strong> tag means two-thirds of the page is in boldface, and you can’t read it unless you download the source and fix the tag in your local copy.

Now Playing: Circus Envy from Monster by R.E.M.

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Posted by pjm at 3:29 PM | Comments (0)

Wrapped up

I haven’t yet written the triumphant “semester’s over” post I did for the last three semesters. That’s because this semester wasn’t one of those put-down-the-pencil-exams-are-over sorts of semesters.

My one class-for-grade was over on the last day of classes, and I expect to be hacking on my “masters project” for several days beyond Commencement. (Nobody is bothered by this, since I will technically continue to be a grad student here for at least a year of “leave.”)

On Friday, we wrapped up grading final exams for Programming Languages, a week after the exam was given. We poured the grades into a spreadsheet, generated semester numbers, translated those into letters, and put them in the online system. (I got a question about one of those within two days.)

We had two anomalies which I can safely discuss because I doubt I even have enough information to identify the students in question. First, one student who did all the homework and sat for the midterm, but didn’t take the final exam. I thought this was a bit unusual until we discovered that they weren’t listed on the class roster—not even as having dropped the class. As far as the registrar is concerned, this student was never associated with the course. We can’t figure out why they would bother doing as much work as they did.

Second, we had a student enrolled who didn’t hand in any work—no homework and neither exam. My guess is that they registered and somehow neglected to drop the course. There was no photo with the class roster, so we’re not sure if this student ever came to class.

Having willfully ignored all pleading from the registrar to register for courses next fall, I think I have only three interactions left with the University: commencement, my final paycheck (which may have already happened) and the completion of this project.

Now Playing: Deacon Blues from A Decade of Steely Dan by Steely Dan

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May 12, 2007

Train Man (Densha Otoko)

It’s a self-proclaimed tradition around here that when A is away overnight (e.g. at a multi-day track meet) Iz and I have a Boys’ Night. This generally involves action movies and pizza, although if Jackie Chan is involved we substitute Chinese take-out for the pizza. In all fairness, Iz generally sleeps through the movie, nor is he terribly fond of pizza (or Chinese take-out) which means it’s not very different from any other night for him, other than that he’s getting by with a reduced staff, and I often stay up too late (note timestamp.)

Usually I wander around the new releases, but tonight I was thinking I’d fill in some of the “I ought to have seen this by now” holes and get The Seven Samurai. However, there was no Kurosawa to be found, not even Rashomon. Instead, I found myself holding a copy of train_man (Densha Otoko).

The plot is not too unique: cripplingly shy geek (the titular train_man of the title—that’s his online handle) meets, and attempts to court, pretty girl, while hampered by his inability to relate to real people. The poor otaku can barely talk to her without nearly hyperventilating; he cribs lines from his PDA and rehearses his phone calls, but is still painfully awkward to watch; this was hard for me, because I hate stories which trade on the embarrassment of a character for entertainment.

The thing that makes the movie is his literal supporting cast: hundreds of users of a bulletin board where he spills his story and asks for help. They tell him where to go for dates, how to dress, what to say, and (crucially) encourage him. The movie focuses on seven in particular: a trio of otaku using a public terminal for message boards and auction sites, another cynical and bitter young male who never leaves his room (an unseen mother leaves food outside his door, pleading with him to eat,) a nurse who carries a photo of her own (apparently past) romance, and a middle-aged man and woman (who turn out to be, apparently, husband and wife—but for much of the movie, they are as far apart as any of the others.)

Watching them follow train_man’s story, and how it affects them, is as intriguing as watching this 22-year-old introvert on his first-ever date. According to the box, the movie is based on a true story—or at least, on a real bulletin board thread which was hugely popular at the time.

One wonders if train_man would’ve had a blog. Or, I suppose, a LiveJournal?

(And, considering that I can’t find Kurosawa, for pity’s sake, in the video store, why did I find this? Did I win some kind of lottery?)

Now Playing: Reprieve from After Everything Now This by The Church

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May 11, 2007

When it matters

Today I finally determined that I belong to the University’s School of Engineering. I think I probably could’ve reasoned this, but it’s not immediately obvious. The major divisions of the school appear to be between things like the med school, law school, vet school, sundry smaller institutions, and the “School of Arts, Science and Engineering,” which contains the majority of the local population of undergraduates, among others. I was pretty certain I fit in that, based on various bureaucratic clues.

The confusion comes when that subdivides into “Arts and Sciences,” which is basically the section most like my undergraduate experience, and “Engineering.” To further muddy the waters, Computer Science has undergraduate majors from both schools, unlike any other department on campus.

However, I confirmed that all our graduate students are under the school of engineering. (Otherwise, I might turn up too late to collect my degree.) Which is good, because as of this afternoon I am equipped for next Sunday’s ceremonies with an orange-trimmed hood. The interior is pale blue and brown, which does not look nearly as bad as one might expect.

Posted by pjm at 10:15 PM | Comments (2)

May 10, 2007

Alpha testing, an announcement

It’s long past time I stopped talking about our company here, other than as it relates to me. We’re in the process of setting up a company weblog; I’ll post that address once it’s working (it’s generating interesting errors right now).

However, we do have a “coming soon” at our domain now, and we’re soliciting for guinea pigs alpha testers. If what’s there looks interesting to you, drop us a line, and we’ll start asking questions about how we can make a site that works for you. When we have working features worth showing you, you’ll get early access before the site “goes public,” and you’ll help us fix our bigger gaffes before we open up to the whole world.

So if you’re curious, or otherwise interested, stop by.

Now Playing: Soaked from Summer In Abaddon by Pinback

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May 9, 2007

Working in translation

I think the reason I have put this project off as long as I have is that I am not comfortable working in Java.

One of the things I’ve learned from TAing the Programming Languages course this semester is how some languages require the user to think in a particular way. Prolog is perhaps the best example of this; students are used to thinking of functions as something which does something, and Prolog rules don’t really do anything. To write good Prolog, we needed to shift to thinking about conditions—X is true under the following conditions—rather than actions.

Java is not quite as dramatic as Prolog, but it does require the programmer to rearrange the way they think about the problem. I’ve spent more time in languages like PHP, or even C, where once I’d conceived of a means to solve the problem, the translation into code was fairly straightforward. Java’s object-orientedness forces the code into an organization I might not otherwise have used; beyond that, it makes it harder for me to read others’ code and make sense of how to use it. There have been times when the way I conceived of a problem made it easy to code up in Java, but not many of them.

This is not (necessarily) a shortcoming in a language. But it does mean I’d avoid Java in most cases. Maybe if I’d been taught Java in intro CS, the way the Shipwright was (in my day, it was taught in Pascal), I would think differently.

Now Playing: Everything’s Not Lost from Parachutes by Coldplay

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May 8, 2007

Name that network

Anyone who has gone war-driving, or searched for free wireless from odd places, knows that the best suspects are networks named “linksys” or “NETGEAR”, either of which suggest network hubs running the (insecure) default settings.

We’ve never had a default network name. Our first wireless network was given the name previously applied to the building our apartment was in: Hawley Middle School. When the owners opted to do a condo conversion, I renamed the network “Hawley Exiles”, and kept that name through the move to Amherst and now out here in Medford.

In Medford, we’re in a denser neighborhood than I’ve ever lived in before, and there are a lot of other wireless networks in the menu when I look around. “linksys” and “Belkin54g” are out there, of course, but when we’re all overlapping, people start paying attention to which network is theirs. Most of the networks require passwords. (I described our access control scheme some weeks ago.) There are some uninspired names (“Jane’s Wireless”) but some which must be unique to this area—“best internet evah”, for example, and “Red_Sox_Nation”.

I finally got a new base station, which supports both a password/encryption protocol we can all use, and allows me to add USB disk drives to the network as well. For the time being, while I break it in, we have two wireless networks, so I couldn’t use the same network name. Perhaps influenced by the fact that I’ve had mail solicitations from both Alley Cat Allies and Alley Cat Rescue in the past few weeks, I opted for “Brown Tiger Support Network”.

None of this, however, excuses the fact that I had a shiny new wireless base station in the apartment, still shrink-wrapped, for over a week before I got around to installing it. You’d think I was ill, or something.

Now Playing: Battle of Who Could Care Less from Whatever & Ever Amen by Ben Folds Five

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May 7, 2007

I want to give you a good grade

An itch is a curious thing; it’s a little pain which drives you to inflict more pain on yourself. The things I’ve been itching to talk about lately are things I shouldn’t talk about here; little soap-opera dramas I’m only an observer in, or the travails of a TA at the end of a semester. I won’t even detail the grading dramas with pseudonyms; it’s easy enough to make the connection from who I am, to my class, to a pretty small set of students.

A TA in another department observed, recently, that she doesn’t think students know how much their TAs are pulling for them. It’s really easy for the students to see grading as something that’s adversarial, student vs. assignment, with the grader as a hostile judge. It’s also too easy for them to consider the purpose of grading as ranking, or somehow assessing a quality of the student.

It’s neither, of course; the TA knows that well-done assignments are easier to grade (“Happy families are all alike…”) and that well-written assignments lead to well-done assignments. The hours of office-hour help sessions and group reviews are, in that sense, an extension of the assignment sheet itself; they’re intended to clarify the assignment and help the students understand what’s expected of them, to better enable them to produce a good answer.

The entire teaching staff wants the students to do well, if only because it makes them look good; we want the sheer blinding force of our teaching skill to deliver knowledge like an electric spark to the students. (N.B. Having only lectured once, any discussion of my personal teaching skill takes place largely in the hypothetical plane.) Less dramatically, we want to pull them up the learning slope so they’re better able to engage in “interesting” discussions in higher-level classes.

But the students are conditioned to see class requirements as barriers and grades as battles. Their determination to emerge victorious is fine, but this conditioning can be counter-productive sometimes.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Now Playing: There’s No Other Way from Leisure [US] by Blur

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Posted by pjm at 12:38 PM | Comments (0)

May 4, 2007

The missing story

Coach Squires told a story Wednesday night (ultimately inconsequential) which made me think about what’s missing from today’s coverage of the major marathons.

We tell the stories of the races now much the way they happen. That is, we start with a few days of press conferences and build up wherein nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Then we describe the races as they’re happening; then, on race day, we write a few wrap-up stories describing how the race went. There may also be some story-of-one-runner stories which go back and trace one athlete’s build-up and race; usually those cover someone who is otherwise out of the main story, such as the top Americans.

The story that’s missing is the one that’s written weeks after the race for a monthly deadline, the chapter in the long book of This Race which describes this installment of the annual showdown. That story has many of the same pieces, but with greater hindsight, the reporter is able to indulge their pseudo-omniscient viewpoint and change the focus. The pre-race build-up can ignore the runners who ultimately played only bit parts, and focus on the ones who turned out to be protagonists. The story of Coach Squires and Robert Cheruiyot is a curiosity before the race, when we would report it nowadays (if at all); after the race, it’s part of the great drama.

You could say this is false drama; after all, if Cheruiyot had lost, Coach Squires would not have behaved differently. (Maybe he wouldn’t have told us the story, I suppose.) Maybe it is. But it’s not inventing anything that wasn’t there; it’s simply selecting the most dramatic, most colorful way to tell the story of the race. And I can’t figure out why, if you’re reading a story about a marathon, you wouldn’t want to read the most entertaining one available, all other things being equal.

Consider, for another example, my colorful little tale about last week’s track meet. It’s probably the case that others at the meet—I can think of three, maybe four coaches, based on stories I heard later—who weren’t quite as swept up as I was, and would certainly tell the story of that last relay differently. I could tell it differently myself, but I deliberately chose the most dramatic possible framing for the story. Team scoring at a twenty-one event track meet is a bit more sophisticated than individual placing in a marathon, of course, but that’s what makes it a useful illustration of the same point. We can choose the way we look at things; we can choose the stories we find and remember.

But by a week after the marathon, the stories we’re telling have moved on to another event. By now, three weeks later, Boston is ancient history. Is anyone writing the history-book story?

Now Playing: Fortunate Son by Bruce Hornsby

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Posted by pjm at 10:37 AM | Comments (2)

May 3, 2007

Pocket power

Two evenings ago, I sat down with a soldering iron and made one of these. If it’s not immediately clear what this is, it’s a tiny circuit which allows you to hook two AA batteries to a USB jack and thereby charge anything which can be charged that way—most iPods, for example, but also, as it happens, my new phone. The whole thing fits in the tin from Altoids gum.

I’m interested in this because it may allow me to reduce the number of wall-wart chargers I take with me when I travel. AA batteries are almost as easy to find as cigarettes, at home and abroad, and they aren’t subject to unusual voltage or AC issues. Based on a post Steve Frank made last week, I’m wondering if my phone, which is supposedly an “unlocked, tri-band” phone, might be usable in Japan (albeit with a different number) if I get a pre-paid SIM or something like that.

I’ve never done soldering of this type before, but the instructions linked a few helpful pages, and I got the hang of it. My previous metal-joining experience was some years ago, hanging around the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, where the museum exhibit staff were doing demos. Things were quiet, so they invited me behind the protective glass, put a mask on me, and showed me how to weld. I had the two slugs of steel I joined on my bureau for several years; I may still have them kicking around somewhere.

Soldering with a pressed circuit board is nothing like that; every component has a socket, some number of metallic collars around holes in the PCB. You run the component’s contacts through the holes, flip the board, then solder from the bottom. After you’ve heated both the collar and the contact for a second or two with the iron, you touch the wire of solder to the joint. It becomes a drop of metallic liquid, and if you’ve done it right, some kind of capillary action sucks the drop into the hole, cementing the contact in its socket and joining the component semi-permanently with the board.

I got out the multimeter I got for Christmas and checked input and output voltage, and it appears to be working as advertised. It doesn’t charge my phone yet, but there’s a particular resistor with two different options, and I may need to re-solder it in the other option to get my phone to like it. I also need better wire cutters so I can trim the excess contact wire from the back of the board; right now, it doesn’t sit down close enough to fit in the tin.

Update, 5/7: Thinking through the changes, I realized that the laptop should be sufficient for charging the phone; the battery pack is going to be most useful for charging an iPod on a lengthy plane trip. So the excess leads are clipped, and the PCB is stuck down in the tin; no more soldering on this one. Maybe I’ll try another one for the phone, for fun, someday.

Now Playing: Block from Uninvited, Like the Clouds by The Church

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Posted by pjm at 9:43 PM | Comments (1)

May 2, 2007

Swimming Across

I recently read Andy Grove’s (yes, that Andy Grove) memoir, Swimming Across. It’s an interesting book, but not necessarily one I would give an unqualified recommendation to.

The “problem” is that what made Grove remarkable was his career at Intel, and this book is about everything but that. There is, of course, plenty that was remarkable about Grove’s life; after all, he was born a Jew in Hungary in 1936. In the span of life covered by this book, Grove and his family were threatened by Hungarians (since the Hungarians avoided German occupation by allying themselves with the Nazis against the Soviet Union, his father was sent to the Russian front as part of a forced-work battalion, and barely survived,) Nazis (who occupied Hungary after all, late in the war,) and Russians (first sweeping out the Nazis, then returning to put down the “Hungarian Revolution” in 1956.)

The two things I found most remarkable were Grove’s taste in literature—he was a great fan of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series—and his honesty when he finally fled Hungary in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution. Asked repeatedly in Austria and elsewhere if he had participated in the revolution, he said, truthfully, no, I just marched in a few demonstrations. And the questioners were always shocked: all the other Hungarians they had talked to had claimed participation. Grove said nothing at the time, but he vents some anger here: if all those who had claimed to had really fought, he thought, we would have won, and I wouldn’t be here!

Grove notes that one of his motivations for writing the book was to preserve the stories for his grandchildren, and the tone of the book is indeed reminiscent of a tale being told for middle-school students. There’s not a lot of subtlety, and it’s very easy to skim. While that made for fast reading, I also found it made it harder for me to immerse myself in the story.

Now Playing: Joey from Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde

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Posted by pjm at 12:36 PM | Comments (0)

May 1, 2007

No, really, there are applications for Prolog

I mentioned neutralizing the classroom distraction value of Sudoku a few weeks ago. Today, I discovered a Prolog program for solving Sudoku puzzles, which not only suits my initial application, but provides me with a handy answer to the question, “Is there any real application for this language?”

Of course, they asked that about ML as well.

Now Playing: Is It Like Today? from Bang! by World Party

Posted by pjm at 2:25 PM | Comments (0)