Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Audience growing

I was heartened this week when my wife said she was going to start reading my blog, as this brings my total readership up to 1. That may not sound like a lot, but, in percentage terms, it is enormous.

I used to think people had to be conceited to think that others would want to read their random thoughts on a daily basis. Some people work for years to publish finely-honed books of fact or fiction; bloggers spend thirty minutes or an hour a night writing essays and think they deserve an audience. On the other hand, they are partially justified by the fact that they have an audience. How conceited must I be to publish a blog that no one actually reads? Do I think that what I am writing is so valuable that it needs to be available for the public, as though someone is one day going to discover it and realize its value?

Actually, the truth is that I started this particular blog on my own web server, just because I had things I wanted to say and no obvious place to put them. I didn't think I would use it much, but I found I wrote in it compulsively. When I had to take my server offline, I wanted to continue the blog, so I decided to move it to a public server. Even though I write primarily for myself, though, I have to admit that I am interested in having an audience -- not with the aim of making money, but just because I want to share my thoughts. The irony of writing a public blog with almost no audience is never far from my mind.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Derek Mataratones

I've been thinking of changing my name to the title of this post. I saw "mata ratones" (=kills mice) on a mousetrap, and I thought it sounded cool. That, and the fact that I have become the scourge of mice recently. In the last week, I set out 4 traps and caught 5 mice. Yes, two in one trap. I don't think I'm done yet.

The choice of mouse-catching devices is interesting. You can buy mouse poison, which is probably very effective because the mice will take it back to the nest and share it with others, so it will kill all of them. On the other hand, do I really want a nest of dead, smelly mice somewhere in my house? With a regular trap, I get to dispose of them, which is preferable. It is unfortunate to have to kill the little things, but it actually seems more humane than the alternative. I tried a glue trap once, and came home to find a mouse struggling frantically to free himself. Who knows how long he had been there? It was really sad to see. I'd rather just break their spines instantly and get it over with. Plus, I freed the mouse in my backyard (the kids convinced me) and he ran immediately back into the house. The only good thing about that was that he helped me identify a hole, but plugging it hasn't kept other mice from getting in. I could take him out in a field somewhere, but would that be any better? Mice are social animals, and he would be cut off from his whole family. Also, house mice are different than field mice, so he wouldn't be equipped to survive. In all likelihood, he would die at the hands of some animal predator, probably more slowly and in greater pain than from a mousetrap. And if he didn't die that way, his only chance of survival would probably be to find another house to enter, in which case I would just have transferred the problem to someone else.

So I stick with old-fashioned mouse traps. The ones I've been using recently are really old-fashioned, like the ones in cartoons: just a wooden foundation, a spring, a pressure plate, and a catch mechanism. I was spoiled by more modern versions, which have two advanced features. First, to set them you just press down a lever. You don't have to try to get the catch to hold, and you don't risk getting your fingers caught in the trap (which has happened to me once already). Sometimes it takes a few tries to get it to set properly, but it's not a big deal. Second, the trap resides in a plastic shell. This means that you don't actually have to see the mouse once it is caught -- just a tail sticking out. You could argue that it is somehow morally better if you actually see what you killed and had to face a cute little creature caught in your trap, but I don't think so. I've seen them, and it hasn't done anything to deter me from catching them. If anything, it has made me less squeamish about it. I don't have anything against the mice; I just don't want them in my house, and I especially don't want them defecating in my house. If they're going to do that, I have to get rid of them, and this seems like the best option available.

I'm just curious about one thing: why haven't I been able to find the fancier traps in stores recently? I'm not aware of any regulations restricting their sale. It's true that the old-fashioned ones are much less expensive, about $1.50 for a pack of four, instead of $5 for a fancier one. But $5 doesn't seem like that much for a trap, and the new ones are easier to re-use, since you just press a lever to drop the dead mouse out; I haven't tried to pry the bar off of one of the cheaper traps to release the mouse, preferring to just throw the whole gadget away.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Van, van, is a used up man

Now that the Van Jones issue is completely over, I am getting around to commenting on it. There is something in the brazen way he lies about the issue that compels a certain admiration, the same way that I admire Alger Hiss for maintaining his lack of Communist ties until the day he died. Here is Jones's defense: "On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me." [Translation: I should get away with my views because everyone should be focussed on the issues.] "They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide." [Translation: they are telling the truth about my background, turning respectable Democrats against me.] "I have been inundated with calls -- from across the political spectrum -- urging me to 'stay and fight.'" [Translation: a few left-wing nutjobs have asked me to stay.] In his "apology," Jones also stated, "In recent days some in the news media have reported on past statements I made before I joined the administration – some of which were made years ago." [Translation: hey, I would never make those kinds of statements now that I have an important position, even though I still believe them.]

Probably the most blatant single lie concerned his signature of a "truther" petition in 2004, of which he said, "the petition that was circulated today, I do not agree with this statement and it certainly does not reflect my views now or ever." This is the kind of unbelievable statement you get from someone who has become famous by making outrageous statements. His radical views don't bother many Democrats; a large proportion of Democrats agree with the petition that Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance. But no one could ever get elected to office running on that sort of platform, and no one can stay in office if he has views like that and they become known to the general public. This is because, thankfully, most citizens -- even Democrats -- are still sane. When someone like Jones gets in a public office behind the scenes and is then outed as a nutcase (a process that he refers to as "a vicious smear campaign"), his only recourse is to pretend that he is someone that he is not. We can at least be grateful that he has that much shame -- when people like him start flaunting their crazy views and getting away with it, our country will have taken one more step down the road to destruction.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Homework

I may be the only adult in the country who thinks our kids need less homework, not more. I remember when I was a kid back in the 80's, one of the key ideas of education reform was that schools needed to assign more homework so we could keep up with the Europeans and East Asian countries. I hated the idea then, and I'm not too crazy about it now.

My kids spend 7 hours a day in school. I would think that that would be plenty to educate them in whatever they need to know. Maybe older kids who are targeting college need more homework, but I don't see how it could help 8-10 year olds. How much patience for study can they be expected to have? What is so important for them to learn that they need to spend more than 7 hours a day learning it, to the detriment of having a life?

I also don't believe in giving impossible assignments. My 5th-grade son came home last week with an assignment on the Bill of Rights: rephrase them in your own words and draw pictures of them. There is no point in rephrasing them; summarizing, perhaps, but even in a summary I would use exact quotations such as "cruel and unusual punishment," "right to a speedy and fair trial," etc. And how do you summarize or rephrase the 10th amendment? "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Even today, I have trouble understanding that language. I know what it is supposed to mean, but I'm not sure I could get from the text to its meaning. And what about drawing a picture of it?? There is no way, period, to draw a meaningful picture of the 10th amendment, or the 9th, or even the 5th, for that matter. I can see what the teacher is trying to do: he wants the students to think about the amendments in different ways, so that they understand them as more than just words. This works great for the 1st amendment, maybe the 2nd, 7th, and 8th, but it is a disaster for the others. My son was asking me how to draw a picture, and I had no idea. Maybe the teacher didn't expect them to come up with anything good on those amendments, but why assign it, then? Why give students something that baffles them and makes them frustrated? This was just a bad assignment.

You'll not be surprised to learn that I'm contrarian on many other things concerning education. For one, I'm not against "teaching to the test." I'll go further and say that I'm not sure what the argument against teaching to the test would even be. If there are certain facts that we want students to learn, we should teach them those facts, not throw a bunch of facts at them and hope that the right ones stick. Sure, you want them to be able to "think independently," as some people are always harping, but that's a different goal. When you're teaching multiplication tables, you most definitely teach to the test -- you drill on it, over and over. When you're teaching a foreign language, you teach to the test: specific vocabulary words and grammar rules. Why not teach to the test when you're teaching about the causes of the Civil War? You can give reasons on both sides and then ask the students to draw their own conclusions -- supported by the evidence -- on the test, but you need to teach them the reasons. It might be nice if, someday, the student could read historical works, infer the reasons on their own, and make an argument from that, but that is hardly appropriate for elementary-school children. In fact, I would suggest that even adults would normally be taught the basic reasons and then allowed to expand from there.

Here's my problem. In graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for a course in Western Civilization. The instructor would stand up and lecture in a fairly standard narrative way about one civilization after another. Then, on the test, he asked, "Compare and contrast the military organization of three of the following five civilizations." Students were baffled, because he had only made passing remarks about military organization all semester. Their essays were correspondingly bad, and I had to grade them. I went very easy on them, because I felt that it was the teacher, not the students, who deserved a bad grade. He was trying not to teach to the test, but he ended up testing on something he hadn't taught -- and that, to me, is not the point of a course.

There is a well-known sample from an 1890's textbook that has circulated on the web (I can't find it on snopes.com, unfortunately). It is for kids in about 8th grade, I think, and it asks a series of extraordinarily difficult questions -- ones that any adult would be stumped on. It is, of course, a hoax. In fact, if you look at older textbooks, you'll find that they are far simpler than modern ones. They're probably too simple even for me, but I think they had the right idea: teach some basic ideas, and let the students learn from there. Modern schools try to do too much, and end up doing less than they should. Rather than worrying about teaching students independent thinking, they would be better off concentrating on teaching main principles, and have independent thought as a parallel part of the curriculum -- not a replacement for fundamental learning.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Shortcuts

I am a "software developer." I don't know when or why this title became preferred to "programmer." Probably it sounds less technical and therefore more professional. Perhaps engineering school graduates called themselves "software engineers," and non-engineer programmers wanted a similar title. Whatever it is, I can't get used to being a "developer" instead of a programmer. I write programs; I am a programmer.

If you spend a lot of time on computers, eventually you pick up some shortcuts. The best shortcut I ever learned was how to touch-type, but that's in a different class, because you have to practice it to use it. The kind of shortcuts to which I am referring are the shortcuts that you just learn about once and keep re-using. Many of them involve using the keyboard instead of the mouse, because typing tends to be faster than moving a mouse, even if you aren't able to touch-type. For example, when you go to log into a web site, some people will enter their username, use the mouse to put the cursor in the password box, enter their password, and then use the mouse to click on the "submit" button. This is far slower than using the tab key to move the cursor to the password box and then just hitting the enter key, which you can do on almost any web site. Watching someone do it the slow way is kind of like hearing fingernails being dragged down a chalkboard for me: it is painful to see. I want to tell him the faster way, but I know that 90% of people will never use the shortcut after that one occasion; they are just used to using the mouse, so that's what they will keep on using.

Me, I'm kind of addicted to shortcuts. I like to learn them even if they don't save me time, or only a tiny bit of time. I install extensions for Firefox that allow me to use all kinds of shortcuts: things like LoL, which numbers all the clickable elements in a web page so you can type a number rather than using the mouse; All-in-One Gestures, which creates many kinds of shortcuts for using the mouse (for instance, right-click left-click goes back a page); and Easy Gestures, which pops up a pie menu of options if you click the middle mouse button. My favourite shortcuts, however, are undoubtedly the ones that use the keyboard. For years I have been using the spacebar to page through web pages. Pressing the space bar moves a page down exactly one screen, which suits me perfectly. What I've always lacked was a way of paging up equally easily. Sure, I can use the "Page Up" key, but then I have to take my hands off the keyboard, and I try to avoid that. Only this week I learned that Shift + spacebar will page up, just as Shift + tab will tab backwards through a form.

Usually, shortcuts only save a minuscule amount of time. Sometimes, however, they can be a lifesaver. For instance, on Windows, pressing ctrl-alt-delete used to bring up a task manager, where you could kill a program that was hanging. They seem to have gotten rid of this on certain recent versions (at least, it doesn't work on my Vista box); and, as anyone who has used Windows much knows, programs are bound to hang. Fortunately, I discovered that ctrl-shift-escape accomplishes the same thing, and still works on Vista.

I vividly recall one occasion when my wife had kindly agreed to copy the text out of my individual book chapters and paste them into a single file. It was taking her a long time, which seemed odd to me, so I asked her about it. Not knowing any better way, she was clicking at the start of a document and dragging the cursor throughout the whole thing -- often 30 or 40 pages. This was slow, and if she once let off of the mouse button, she had to start all over again. After I explained to her that ctrl-a automatically selects all the text in a document (or, in most cases, a textbox or other container), she finished the job in a few minutes, which had been taking hours.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sizes matter

Curse the person who first decided that it would make a product more appealing to rename product sizes from the logical small, medium, and large to something more catchy. First they got rid of small and started sizes with medium, which was annoying enough. Then they started renaming the "large" size. At Wendy's, you can't get a large order of fries; you have to get a "biggie." (Or at least, that used to be the case; I haven't eaten at Wendy's in a while.) I refuse to say biggie. Once I ordered a large fries and the cashier asked, "You mean a biggie?" "Yeah."

Then they started getting really crazy and just naming the sizes whatever they felt like. Starbucks was an early leader, with the famous "tall" drink being the smallest size on the menu (though I understand you can actually order a "short"). Then comes "grande," Spanish for "large," and finally "venti," Italian for "20" (the number of ounces in a cup). Who wants to have to figure out what size drink to order? Below is a clip from the movie "Role Models" in which a guy refuses to order using Starbucks's insane sizing system, which cracked me up. I also laughed at Burger King's coffee ad: "Comes in three easy-to-pronounce sizes."



I thought Starbucks was the worst until I ate at Coldstone's, where the sizes are "like it," "love it," and "gotta have it." Give me a break. I'm starting to think that companies do this, not in the relatively benign attempt to make their product sound more exciting, but simply to confuse the customer. Coldstone's wall menu shows pictures and descriptions for only the most expensive items -- you have to figure out that cheaper items (like normal ice cream, or ice cream with just one mix-in) aren't listed.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Star Wars II

I watched episodes three and four, "Revenge of the Sith" and "A New Hope," with my family this weekend. I hate the fact that the original movie is now "episode four" and has a new title. I didn't go watch "A New Hope" 30 years ago, and I don't know why Lucas would want to change the name. As for series numbering, if he wanted to be really geeky (and appeal to his primary fan base), he could have used -2, -1, and 0 for the first three. More realistically, he could have done something a little creative and called the first three episodes a, b, and c.

Add Darth Sidious and General Grievous to the list of Lucas's lame names.

Episode 3 was pretty good, but I found 2 to be my favourite of the prequels. Nothing really convinced me that Anakin would go over to the dark side. Saving his wife would have been sufficient cause, but it just wasn't carried out in such a way as to make me believe it. He was, after all, fiercely loyal to the jedi.

The transition from democracy to empire was handled very credibly, I thought. We only see it in the broad outlines, but the principles were there. The good side changes completely between episodes 2 and 4, from the central government to the rebels, and my kids took a little time to get used to that. I like it, because it will help them understand when I explain that the rebels were the good side in the American Civil War. The one problem with the whole transition is that there doesn't seem to be enough time. Luke only looks about 20 years old, but Obi-Wan seems to have aged far more. The Empire Strikes Back has a more serious problem, because it appears that Luke's entire jedi training occurs during a period of a day or two while Han Solo and company are fleeing from Darth Vader.

I still think the original Star Wars is the best movie of the series. I'm sure I'm biased because it was the first one I saw, and I was 8 and impressionable at the time. But I can make a case for it. There is something about beginning the story in medias res, with a hostile boarding, and figuring out the story as you go along. Also, none of the other movies had the talent of Alex Guiness (except for a brief shot in episode 5); he really made an impression in that movie. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were also excellent. None of the acting in the first three movies approaches their performances. Another winning feature of Star Wars is the attempt to destroy the Death Star. The shots of the rebel pilots as they approach the enemy, alternately determined and scared, are captivating.

My kids commented on the slowness of the light saber fights in Star Wars compared to the three prequels. They are right, but then, they also seem a bit more real -- more fighting and less dancing. The light saber is one of George Lucas's great creations. Here's one where he nailed the name perfectly. How much lamer would it be if it were called "light sword"? It's especially amazing considering the limited special effects Lucas had to work with back in 1975 when he started the first film. The crackling sound from crossed sabers came from magnetic interference that one of his colleagues accidentally discovered and decided to use.

The light sabers in the prequels all seem to be perfectly round, like the toy ones you can buy for kids, but I swear in Star Wars they have an edge. It's not a perfectly sharp edge like a real sword, but there is a distinctively thin side to go with the flat side, and you can see it as they turn. One good thing about light sabers: no blood, presumably because they cauterize the wounds as they create them. At least, no blood in the prequels. When Obi-Wan Kenobi kills the bully in the bar, there is definitely blood visible. I presume that George Lucas made a conscious decision to have no blood with light sabers, but he must have made it after the first movie.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Star Wars I

I watched Star Wars parts I and II with my family in the last week. I had seen part I years ago -- not too long after it came out -- and it was so bad that I didn't want to waste my time seeing part II. I only picked part II out of a video store because I was having trouble finding a PG-rated movie that the whole family would like. Actually, I was having trouble finding PG-rated movies at all. Browsing the shelves of a video store, anything outside of the "Family" and "Kid" sections seems to have about an 80% chance of being rated at least PG-13. I was actually grateful to come upon Star Wars.

Part II turned out to be better than I had expected -- quite a bit better. Then the kids wanted to watch Part I, which I was happy to do, because I realized how little I had remembered from it. On watching it a second time, I now understand why I thought it was so bad. It's because it actually is really, really bad. Let's start with the acting, which was incredibly wooden and uninspiring. In fairness to the actors, however, the script gave them virtually nothing to work with, and I'm sure George Lucas didn't help things with his directing. The plot was confusing, and I still don't understand why it's called "The Phantom Menace." Of course, there's also Jar Jar Binks, whom even my kids found annoying. In addition to being stupid (his most easily recognizable fault), Jar Jar is also very hard to understand when he is speaking. It's not just him, though; many of the characters in Part I speak indistinctly, which is part of the reason why I had such trouble understanding it the first time.

Jar Jar is also exemplary of George Lucas's utter failure at naming people and places in his fictional universe. Great writers can make up unique names that nevertheless sound appropriate in their setting. J.R.R. Tolkien was a master of this: who wouldn't recognize an elvish name from an orcish one, just from the name? He was a linguist, so perhaps that is an unfair comparison, but almost any writer is better than Lucas. I thought Frank Herbert's names were usually quite good. Lucas had a couple of big hits -- fortunately for him, involving major characters -- with Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. And then you have Greedo; I'm sure a lot of thought went into that one. And Lando Calrissian. And Schmi. And Count Dooku, and Darth Tyranus, and of course Jar Jar. Then there are the place names, like Naboo and (my favourite) Tatooine. Don't these names sound silly to him?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Awful Truth

Kudos to David Brooks for being honest, even when it is embarrassing. In an interview with the New York Times (cited in this article in The New Republic), he gives this account of one of his first meetings with the president: “'I remember distinctly an image of--we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant,' Brooks says, 'and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.'”

Brooks has fallen victim to sartorial determinism, a famous historical fallacy that holds that the best-dressed men make the best political leaders. Many profound thinkers have fallen to this fallacy in the past: Voltaire, for example, was inspired to write his book "The Age of Louis XIV" based solely on the king's plush robe and tights, and Carl Sandburg wrote his biography of Abraham Lincoln because he was infatuated with stovepipe hats. Most modern political theorists have moved on to more sophisticated forms of analysis, but you have to credit Brooks for owning up to his views, however antiquated.



Brooks also candidly admitted his chauvinism for like-minded intellectuals: “I divide people into people who talk like us and who don’t talk like us," he reported. I've never had much use for the concept of "the Other," but here Brooks openly acknowledges that people who don't talk like him -- and one would have to think Sarah Palin would fall very distinctly into that category -- are a different class altogether, apparently incomprehensible because they are different. No doubt a lot of other liberal intellectuals feel the same way, which is why Palin got such a harsh response out of all proportion to things she actually said or did. Most of them would not admit it in quite the terms that Brooks did, of course; but then, Brooks has some cover for his intellectual snobbism because he used to be on the other side (and maybe still thinks he is). It's one thing for a dyed-in-the-wool liberal to admit his disdain for non-intellectuals, and quite another for a thoughtful conservative who happens to have become liberal in recent years to do so.

The degree to which Brooks has become one of those knee-jerk liberals, however, is clear from a chart that Obama recently sent him, personally signed by the president with the words “Dear Comrade Brooks.” It's not that striking that the president would refer to Brooks in friendly terms, but that he would use Communist terminology like "comrade" just floors me. No anti-Communist conservative would want to be included among the comrades, but apparently Brooks didn't think anything of it.