Archive for the 'articles' Category

A rally with Barack Obama, Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, Bozeman, MT, May 19th

May 21, 2008

This piece represents a journalistic first for me: it’s the first article I’ve ever written in shorthand and then transcribed for public consumption. Next stop Hansard.

“I don’t belong to an organised political party; I’m a Democrat.”
– Tom Paxton

I guess you’d have to call it a Reich-roll: until a moment ago, if you typed ‘Obama’ int Wikipedia, it redirected you to the page for Adolf Hitler. Ha bloody ha. I can’t figure out if it was the work of a McCain supporter, a Clinton aficionado, or a canny Obama staffer, but the idea that someone would be redirected to the Hitler page and think “Oh my God! The black liberal really is just like the most racist, right-wing jerk the world has ever seen (well – not necessarily the worst, but if there were a premier league of genocidal arseholes, you’d expect him to challenge for at least a Champions League place)… no. They’d think “Another of our many enemies is sabotaging our champion” and redouble their efforts – I hope, at least.

In any case, we went to see Barack Obama speak at the Fieldhouse this evening. The speech was impressive; the organisation, not so much. I can understand giving out more tickets than the 7,000 places available in the main arena, kind of. However, I can’t understand the lack of a plan for what would happen if and when they all showed up. Yes, there was an overflow room in the gym – good enough, in a pinch – but you have to tell the throng that’s just been rudely shut out of the main event where the need to go, you need to tell them clearly, and you need to have the other venue expecting the crowd, rather than, say, closing the door. Also, is it really unreasonable to ask for a screen in the overflow room? I know you probably haven’t organised such a big event before, being red-state Democrats and all, but people, please.

Well, what did he say? He played up not being George Bush a lot, displaying his anti-war credentials, and pretty shrewdly differentiated between the war against Al-Qaeda and the war in Iraq. He made it clear that he would associate McCain with Bush at every opportunity. He was almost dismissively polite about Clinton, mentioning his respect and admiration for an ‘incredible public servant’, but focussed very quickly on party unity. The best joke was about “my cousin, Dick Cheney” and how he was so embarrassed when that came out.

He made a big thing about the environment (stressing the huntin’-n-shootin’ benefits of clean water and clear air), at one point promising to employ billions of people in the search for new forms of energy – a stretch, I think, even for the world’s most powerful man. He talked of healthcare, of the economy, tried to put things simply and relevantly, keeping things local, speaking like a preacher at times: making people enthusiastic by telling them about a future, an after-election, that he believes in, that he can make them believe in, but that looks a bit far-fetched for cynics like me.

He talked of tuition credits in exchange for volunteering or community service, but most of all about the power of ordinary people (people, in politicians’ speeches, are never people, but Americans, or even better: hard-working Americans. If you can mention family in there too, the sustained applause might give you time to fly out to another swing state for a photo-op and back to finish your speech). Where was I? Ah, Iowa. The power of ordinary hard-working-American-families to change things for the better. He wants to kick special interests out of Washington; I think that’s another big ask.

He’s a charismatic man, a man whose chief quality may be making people feel good about themselves, making people feel powerful, hopeful. He ended with his family history, and emphasised that he had live the American Dream – coming from relative poverty to become a teacher, a lawyer, a senator. He left unsaid that McCain and Clinton both come from relatively privileged backgrounds.

It’s difficult to dislike Obama, and almost anywhere else in the world he’d be a shoo-in. In the US, though, it’s tough to know whether the excitement he generates among young people and normally apathetic HWAFs will be enough to overcome the barriers of racism, conservatism and anti-intellectualism that prevail across the country. I like to hope he can.


My favourite software

February 21, 2008

I missed yesterday (bad Kensson, no banana). The last couple of days have been manic, which is no excuse.

One of the questions that came up in an interview yesterday was ‘what’s the coolest piece of software you use?’ My immediate answer was Aquamacs (Mac), a text editor based on emacs (a Unix editor) but with a more intuitive interface added. But I got thinking, is it really the coolest?

I would be very hard-pressed to function an ocean away from TCB without Adium (Mac), for instance, and a day of temp work systematically replacing links to one website with links to another has given me a whole new respect for bash (Unix). The temp assessments I’ve done recently have involved a flash-based version of Word and Excel which was clearly coded up by a team of poorly-trained monkeys-on-typewriters, perhaps trying to develop software for that play they’d always wanted to write about a Danish prince. All of which makes OpenOffice (cross-platform) and NeoOffice (Mac) that little bit more estimable.

Likewise, Internet Explorer has been developed to the point where it took more than three hours of intermittent use today before it crashed, which is a vast improvement over the last version I used. FireFox (cross-platform), on the other hand, is astonishingly good, and a clear front-runner in the ‘does practically everything’ category.

I’m going to give a shout-out to CyberDuck, QuickSilver and RapidSVN (all Mac), which I’ve only recently started to use but have suddenly become indispensable. With that bombshell, my list of cool apps has become the same top ten Mac apps list that everyone posts, for which I apologise. But I’m still going to leave it there without linking to Stellarium or Skim or Ventrilo or VoodooPad Light or even MailPlane, the only thing on this list that you have to pay for.


February 17, 2008

I thought I was being so clever. My habitual running method is to pick an album I’ve not heard in a while, or at all – Harvest kept me company the other day, Live 1975 today – and basically alternate between running and walking, switching at the track break. It’s enough to keep me moving, but gives me enough time to rest and stretch in between the running songs.

Anyway, I ran a double stretch first – Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You and It Ain’t Me, Babe, followed by walking to A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (To The Tune Of Highway 61 Revisited). The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is an ok one to run to, and I was hugely relieved that I’d chosen to run the first two tracks. When I stopped, Bob said “This is Scarlett Rivera” – and I knew that that signalled Romance In Durango and that I’d be walking one of the longer songs. Followed, with any luck, by a short one.

Alas, the hoped-for short one was Isis, short only in its title.

Just out of interest, I went to wikipedia to ask how long the tracks actually were. Surprisingly, at 5:11, Isis is the second-shortest (Tonight… is a shade under four minutes) of the first six tracks, so the damage was purely psychological – doubly so since I came home feeling virtuous at having run for such an extended spell. Next time I’ll take something poppier, by which I mean, having shorter tracks.

A sort of request…

February 16, 2008

Every so often (well, ok, daily) I check my wordpress stats to see how many people have found a link pointing at my ramblings, or have unwittingly found it using a search engine. Indeed, much of the entertainment I get out of this site derives from the search terms used.

One used yesterday was “program to see if a triangle is equilateral”. Obviously I’ve never answered that question here, an omission I should put right immediately.

There are several ways to tell if a triangle is equilateral: the two most obvious ones are to check that all of the sides have the same length, or to check that all of the angles are 60º; you can also check that two sides are the same length and that the angle between them is 60º.

The easiest one to implement is the same-length check. Let’s say you have three points – we need to see if the distance between each pair of points is the same. That distance is sqrt(x^2 + y^2 + z^2). Because we’re only checking for equality, we don’t even need to take the square root. Our python code is something like:

class Point:
# Class to keep the points tidy
def __init__(self, x,y,z):
  self.x = x
  self.y = y
  self.z = z

def distanceSquared(P, Q):
  dx2 = (P.x - Q.x) ** 2
  dy2 = (P.y - Q.y) ** 2
  dz2 = (P.z - Q.z) ** 2
  return dx2 + dy2 + dz2

def isEquilateral(A, B, C):
  ab2 = distanceSquared(A, B)
  ac2 = distanceSquared(B, C)
  bc2 = distanceSquared(A, C)
  if ab2 != ac2 or ab2 != bc2:
    return 0
    return 1

A = Point(0.,0.,0.)
B = Point(1.,1.,0.)
C = Point(0.,1.,1.)
D = Point(1.,0.,0.)
print isEqulilateral( A, B, C)
# should return 1
print isEquilateral ( A, B, D)
# should return 0

Where the apostrophes go

February 15, 2008

I’ve always been good with apostrophes. I once annoyed an English teacher by interrupting his lesson to ask about fo’c’s’les. I was genuinely interested.

Anyway, apostrophes have their own logic, and I’m not going to say it’s a good one. They’re mainly used to represent something you’re leaving out (like the “a” in you are) or something that belongs to somebody.

It’s and its is the one that always gets people. It’s is a contraction of it is. Now, its does denote belonging to it and that’s where the confusion comes in. His (only a short step from its) doesn’t have an apostrophe, so  neither does its.

Neither does your (belonging to you) or their (belonging to them). You’re and they’re are contractions of you are and they are. Easy. Any time you have an apostrophe crisis, think about whether you could use some form of ‘to be’ – in which case, throw the apostrophe straight into the mix – or not, in which case you leave it out.

One that stumped me for a while was figuring out where it should go with plural possessives – “seven years’ experience”, say.  It might not even be clear that that needs an apostrophe, until you think of what happens when it’s only one year: “one year’s experience”. The experience (according to English) belongs to the year. And, when there are several years, the apostrophe goes after the s.

There’s debate, too, about whether you should add the s after possessives that end in s. “The bus’s driver” or “The bus’ driver”? My rule of thumb is, if you say the extra s, you should write it (so, “the bus’s driver” but “the busses’ drivers”).

I remember seeing a copy of Alice in Wonderland in which words like shan’t were, quite logically, written sha’n’t. While it’s logical (we’re missing a couple of ls from shall not, as well as the o), it no longer seems to be correct usage.

It’s rare that misusing an apostrophe will completely change the meaning of the sentence. However, it does make (some? many?) readers think of you as less intelligent or more lazy and – in some cases – throws them for a total loop or causes severe mental distress. So think about it. Please. People will hate you if you don’t watch out for where the apostrophe goes.

Evolutionary computing

February 14, 2008

Those of you who know me will know that I’m always following some odd scheme or other, often with potential gambling implications, only to end up getting bored or frustrated.

One of these interesting ideas is that of genetic algorithms – instead of writing your entire program, you write a ‘fitness function’ that serves as a survival rating (e.g. a gambling scheme that makes money would score highly, one that goes bankrupt would score lowly) and allow the computer to evolve a program that does what you want.

I’m not very good at that yet, but some people are: this is a very neat youtube video showing the evolution of a watch. My only quibble is that they don’t really define what the fitness function is.

I also stumbled on this discussion,  in which Linus Torvalds explains that he believes Linux will become better than other systems because it has all the properties of an evolutionary system. I think there are similarities, but I’m not quite sure the argument stands up (it’s not that easy to create a Linux application, and there’s a definite element of design to it), but it’s an interesting proposition that I hadn’t considered before.

Another productivity post

February 11, 2008

Today’s new experiment has been to use a single index card to remind me of my to-do list. It’s divided into four parts by a horizontal line across the middle and a vertical line about two-thirds of the way over, so it looks like a flag for some minimalist Scandinavian country viewed from the wrong side. The top-left portion is for my Most Important Tasks – three things I really want to get done today, with ticky-boxes beside them. As it stands, I’ve abandoned one of those tasks, but the other two are nicely ticked.

Immediately below it are two themes – things that I want to be mindful of (this week’s themes are “Write the tests first” and “Watch what you eat”). They’re surrounded by boxes to highlight them.

To the right are regular and scheduled tasks. At the top, the things that are part of my daily routine (meditate, blog and generate ideas, plus run around on alternate days). Below the cut are appointments – for classes, library books due, interviews, that kind of thing.

I’ve used this system for one day, which is clearly not enough to determine whether it’s a workable system. However, it has kept me focussed on my themes (I did lapse and eat a doughnut… but then I didn’t have dessert after dinner, so I feel I made up for it), and been a constant reminder of what I wanted to get done. I think this one has legs.

The other thing is, it’s probably worth putting the card together the night before so you can get up and get running in the morning. Which is precisely what I plan to do now.

Meditative self-massage

February 10, 2008

I am no longer in possession of the body-ball I habitually use as a desk-chair. As a result, my posture has quickly degraded from “iffy” to “almost as bad as Richard III’s”. To make matters worse, TCB is an ocean and the bulk of a continent away so I can’t bug her to rub my aching, aging back.

So instead I’ve taken to trying to use powers of telekinesis to massage my own back while meditating. It’s surprisingly effective, and much less likely to result in the yelps of pain that attend any physical massage where the muscles are tight.

I’ve been meditating occasionally for years, but am trying to make a practice of it. Twelve minutes of mindful sitting, preferably daily. Of course, my mind wanders all over the place and it’s often hard to remind myself “this isn’t the time to be rehearsing the interview you don’t have, turn off”. However, it’s quite acceptable to mentally check in with every part of my body – methodically, starting with my toes. Lingering over any muscles that are tight, shifting slightly to relax them.

If nothing else, it keeps my mind off of the trivia that generally occupy it, and serves to soothe my pains a little. (It would be quite unZen to think of it as killing two birds with one stone). Naturally, it’s no replacement for a TCB massage, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

Want/Need + past participle

February 9, 2008

It’s a little unsporting of TCB to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. In any case, I have been demoted to a special circle of her grammatical hell for unwittingly (naturally) using the construction “needs turned in”.

To me, that’s a perfectly natural construction, and Bartleby agrees: REGIONAL NOTE: When need is used as the main verb, it can be followed by a present participle, as in The car needs washing, or by to be plus a past participle, as in The car needs to be washed. However, in some areas of the United States, especially western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, many speakers omit to be and use just the past participle form, as in The car needs washed. This use of need with past participles is slightly more common in the British Isles, being particularly prevalent in Scotland. To her, it’s how hicks speak – and sure, it’s not something I’d use in an interview (probably) – but in casual speech, of course, no question. I guess I’ll just have to mentally edit (are split infinitives ok?) myself from now on.

In other news, the fiction project is up, and called Ariadne. I’ve no idea how much load it will take, but I don’t figure that there’ll be a huge uptake. If you have extra ideas for rules, do let me know!

How much is a good night’s sleep worth?

February 8, 2008

So, I was sounded out for a job today, which – according to the ad – was perfect for me: needed strong maths qualifications, ability to do complex analysis and design algorithms, based in Cambridge, couldn’t ask for a nicer spec.

Unfortunately, it’s to design sensors for radar and would involve acquiring security clearance so I could work on UK defence projects. Leaving aside the question of whether they’d grant a hippy like me such a thing, the idea of working for the military seems utterly abhorrent to me.

But – I think it was Tom Stoppard said – every man has his price. I was wondering how much they’d have to pay me to force me to consider taking the job. I know I’d turn down £30,000/yr. But if they offered me £60k? I hope I’d still say no, but I’d have to think about it. Even though £60k is unlikely, what if they offered me £100,000 a year? That’s serious money, probably five times what I need to live on, and would likely set me up for life. Could I live with something I helped design being used for military purposes? Could I sleep at night? If there are moral philosophers around, let me know what you think.