Archive for January, 2008

Edwards

So, John Edwards dropped out of the Democratic primaries today.  It’s a shame.  In one sense, I was more excited about Obama or Clinton as president(ial candidates).  Their candidacies would be a) history making for their race/gender respectively; and b) about freaking time!  Hell, Turkey and Pakistan have had female heads of state for well over a decade, it’s just embarrassing that the United States hasn’t had a viable black or female candidate until now.

But in spite of the history making potential of these two candidates, I’m just not as excited by the policies/rhetoric of either Clinton or Obama.  Don’t get me wrong.  In a coma, either would make a better president that any of the republican candidates; however, their positions are still very mainstream (I would use “conservative,” but I don’t want to suggest Republican).

The fascinating thing about the Democratic primary this year is that the policy framing and the best ideas came from the two middle aged white guys: Chris Dodd and John Edwards – both of whom are out of the race.  On issues from health care (Edwards), to care for the poor (again Edwards) to preventing illegal, warrantless surveillance (Dodd), these guys were leading the discussion on what it should mean to be a Democrat.

So both Edwards and Dodd are out of the race now.  I just hope their ideas continue to influence the remaining candidates and the country as a whole.

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Diagnostics

An interesting conversation at work today. I was talking with the guy, L (no – a different one), who has been responsible for our IT for the past 3.5 years. L isn’t the guy that always does the work, although he can. His real job is as an engineer in the company and that’s his primary focus. However, he does handle the technology strategy and monitors the folks that do the IT work. (He and I are talking quite a bit since I’m trying to take some of the load off in this area).

Anyway, L made the observation that he is often frustrated by IT people in their approach to diagnosing a problem. His experience, both with our ISP and sometimes our desktop support, is that IT people will poke at a problem system in a non-systematic way, replacing components, etc., until the problem disappears. They may never identify the problem, but they did make it go away.

In my experience, this is not true across the board, there are many IT folks that do a post-mortem on problems, that diagnose issues methodically to pin-point the problem, etc. But he’s right – there are many that don’t.

The funny thing is that the methodical approach comes naturally to L, with his engineering background, but doesn’t come naturally to many other people and particularly people without any training in methodical testing. I recognized some of this back in high school. One thing that separated fair computer users from the great (and yes, this was back in the 80s) was diagnostic ability. My college roommate, for example, was lousy at diagnostics. He knew a fair amount about computers, but didn’t have a methodical approach for diagnosing problems.

KL was suggesting that people should identify experiments, knowing in advance what the different results would indicate. As an engineer, he called them experiments. However, many people with natural diagnostic ability do this instinctively. For example, the symptoms of the problem are known and could be either hardware or software. Some people naturally recognize this and do tests to rule out one or the other. Okay, the problem is in the hardware. Can we tell if it’s system or network? etc.

The funny thing is that I don’t think universities ever teach this skill. Computer Science does in a sense. If you can’t diagnose problems in your program in a rapid, methodical way, then you’ll probably fail out. But this seems to be more weeding out than teaching. IS courses and Engineering courses aren’t any better to my knowledge. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “Debugging” course offered. So we’re left with people that can either perform diagnostics instinctively or people that can’t and replace/test parts randomly.

Am I missing something, are there courses in debugging? If not, should there be? I tend to think of debugging/diagnostics as a skill separate from coding or engineering. If that’s the case then it can and should be taught. Hell, there’s a whole television show (“House”) based on medical diagnostics – the least we can do is to teach future programmers, engineers and IT people the same skills.

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Macro photography

I was talking to hunter last Friday about macro photography and a great, relatively inexpensive, device to take macro pictures with almost any lens.  Essentially, the ability of a lens to focus on a close object is related to the focal length and the distance between the inflection point of the lens (point inside the lens where the image flips) and the film plane.  It’s something of a funny relationship for modern lenses with multiple internal pieces of glass.  However, the important thing to remember is that your ability to close focus depends on those two factors.

So, the great little device to help with macro photography is an extension tube.  It has no glass, all it does is to increase the distance between the lens’s inflection point and the film.  Assuming that the focal length is constant, you can focus more closely on the subject.

For example, consider the picture below:

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That’s about as close as my 18-135mm lens can focus on that quarter.   If I attach a 25mm extension tube, I can get as close as:

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I could probably get a little closer, but only if I put the subject inside the lens!

There are some down sides.  The biggest is that my flash can’t actually reach the object – the lens is in the way!  What I need is either additional lighting or better yet a ring flash that sits around the end of the lens to light the object.  Adorama seems to make one for about $140.  I might check that out.

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Possum pictures

Back in August I wrote about a rehab possum that K was taking care of – she was very much a cutie.  I was looking through some pictures on the camera and realized that I had a few more of her.  Now that she’s all grown up and has been released, I thought folks might like to see them:

Here she was back in August:

A month later, in September:

And then after she had been outside and right before release in December:

  

The last two were from the night we started leaving the outdoor cage open so that she could leave when she wanted to.  It took her a bit before she left.  Hopefully she’s doing well.

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Work blogging

Last week at work was pretty interesting. On Tuesday, L and I flew up to Dayton for the day to meet with our sponsors. That meant a 6am flight out and originally a 11pm return flight. Fortunately, we wrapped it up a bit early and landed home back around 8:30pm. The meeting went well. We were presenting some ideas that I had to the sponsors and they seemed to like them. Strangely enough, in talking to L, he said that he hadn’t really understood what I was proposing until the meeting. Not bad for a guy who wrote a short paper for the sponsors that described what he didn’t understand! But then, I guess that’s why L’s a full professor 🙂

Wednesday was largely recovery. Thursday, I met with the other modeling guy on the team who was in from New York. We discussed what I wanted to do and he seemed to have a good handle on it which was good because later in the afternoon L came in and wanted to discuss it in more detail. He had been stuck in an airport and had time to think through some things. The bad news is that he didn’t think my proposed modeling would work. The good news is that he thought he had a fix.

Turned out that I had forgotten that the underlying model we are using is a Markov model. The basic requirement of the model is that the software agent can only be in one state at a time. I was essentially proposing that the agent could be in multiple states simultaneously. As we talked more, I realized that L’s proposal was to generalize what I was getting at. Essentially, I described the special case of m=1. Before my proposal, we had been working with m=n. L’s proposal was to let m vary between 1 and n. This bugged me at first since I thought m>1 wasn’t necessary. I was also concerned since L and the other modeler, N, had theoretical objections to m=1. I pointed out that really for any m<n, their theoretical objections held true, so nothing was really more wrong with m=1. Everyone agreed with that and we further agreed that a varying m would still have some theoretical problems, but would be more effective, more realistic and more tractable than m=n or m=1.

Wrapping that up, I received a short email from L on Friday thanking me for the work, saying that was a good white board session and that he could see how my thinking was influencing his for the better. That was nice 🙂

p.s. if y’all are really nice, I promise not to write a blog post on Markov decision processes

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K wins!

Okay, slight confession time.  I’m something of a closet political junkie.  Not so much the “who’s up, who’s down” campaigning politics, but the questions of policy, who supports what, what makes sense kind of thing.  If I were involved in politics directly, I suppose that would make me a wonk, not a hack.

Anyway, K and I were having a discussion last week about the presidential primaries.  K’s position was that if Huckabee wins the GOP primaries, we’re all in serious danger because the man holds positions that are bad for women, minorities, basically everyone that’s not a middle class white heterosexual male.  I, on the other hand, maintained the position that a Huckabee win in the primaries would be hysterical.  🙂

To a large extent, our positions were based on different contexts.  K is concerned that the republican would win the general election since, hey, it’s been a while since they haven’t – no matter how bad their candidates and policies are.  I was thinking “hysterical” since it would break wide open the GOP coalition of money, guns and religio and I have a hard time picturing any republican winning this time, since they are all so awful.

So, that said, I think K wins this one based on this short article:

“[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it’s a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that’s what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards,” Huckabee said, referring to the need for a constitutional human life amendment and an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman

I’m more than a little terrified that a presidential candidate would talk about amending the Constitution in order to suite his own religious beliefs.  Where do you even start with this?  This country was established to intentionally and explicitly keep religion from controlling the government.  While the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the constitution, the concept is one of the founding principles of the constitution as a whole and of the first amendment in particular.  The founders saw first hand the damage that could be done when a particular religion dictated to the government.  This is why the establishment of religion was explicitly forbidden.

Beyond the 200+ years of tradition, beyond the very heart of our government, there’s the whole other issue of which “word of the living God” to you plan to establish? There are over a dozen major religions represented in this country.  Even within the largest, there are literally hundreds of Christian denominations (side note, why are splits among Christian beliefs called denominations and those of non-Christian beliefs called sects?) each of which has there own special interpretation of the god’s word.

Perhaps Huckabee was just pandering to republican christians, many of whom can be counted on to support certain positions.  But to make the claim that these republicans speak for all christians, let alone for god or all religions is crazy.

So, yes – K wins: Huckabee winning the GOP primary would not be hysterical, it would in fact be scary.

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Is this thing on?

<thump> <thump> Is this thing still on?

Okay, it’s been about three weeks since I’ve blogged anything.  As I’ve stated before, this tends to happen when I’m too involved in living life to actually write about it.  Fortunately (unfortunately?) it’s nothing terribly exciting.  Let’s see:

  • Guitar: my guitar playing has been scientifically shown to have 10% less suck than it did a month ago.  However, with such a large amount of suck to begin with, we’re still not at anything that looks like good.  I’m getting more fluent with the open chords and can switch between them reasonably well.  I’m just starting to learn barre chords – the E barre chord to start with.  There are still vast tracts of untouched suck in the barre chords.  Also, I’m actually thinking of picking up some lessons – the ones at jamplay.com seem pretty good.
  • Work:  still going well.  There’s enough to do.  I’m still not entirely used to billing by the (tenth of an) hour.  Also, not really looking forward to flying to Ohio next week.  I’ll only be gone for a day, but, ugh – who wants a 6am flight to Dayton!
  • Break-in update:  nothing much new here.  Still looking to make it harder for someone to break in.   Had a neighborhood watch meeting last weekend – that’ll be good.  Turns out this may be neither contractors nor kids.  There are apparently some professional (stretching that word a bit) thieves working this area.  There have been some eight different break-ins near by.
  • Non-profit work: I’m convinced that whomever coined the phrase “academic politics are so sorted because the stakes are so small” never worked with a non-profit.  It’s just amazing the degree to which politics enters into the smallest damned thing.
  • New year’s resolutions: didn’t make any – never do.  That said, I am trying to exercise more and cut down on my use of vulgarities.  Profanity and cursing can wait until another year 🙂

I think that’s about it for now.

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