Friday, December 19, 2008

Year of the Jetpack


The Future (2008)


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Open Access (almost)

The journal Computational Linguistics has opted to join the movement of journals switching to the open access model, where academic articles are viewable in full for free without any membership fees. The idea is that publicly funded research should be available to the public. Anyway, now the punchline. Try to download the full article about this (outside of an academic setting) and you'll find that you can't without a membership account for MIT Press (of course, this is exactly the model we're moving away from, hence why this is only slightly ironic, I think).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Going somewhere?

Marge: But Main Street's still all cracked and broken...
Bart: Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken!
All: Monorail!
-- The Simpsons, Marge vs. The Monorail

I think this post pinpoints some of the problems with our transportation infrastructure very nicely. Short of the unnecessary Simpsons quote, I don't really have much to add except that I hope this article reaches a wide audience.

Dancing Deer writes back (again)

Those of you following this blog may remember my letter to Dancing Deer (see here and here). The story now has a new ending which is both surprising and happy. The president of Dancing Deer, Trish Karter, has added her two cents on the matter (read her comment here). I think she makes reasonable points in her comments and I very much appreciate hearing from her. Additionally, I'm glad that I was wrong about this whole issue -- it turns out that they ran a study with the intent of determining ways of minimizing petrol in their packaging -- and I would like to apologize to Dancing Deer for any negative press (though I assure them that readers of this blog are few and far between). In any event, I think more than enough digital ink has been spilled over what started as a minor discussion at a weekly tea and we can hopefully lay the issue to rest now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Food talk

Everything you are doing is wrong.
-- Janosh, Ghostbusters II

Over the summer, I tried to watch a lot of TED talks. I've been meaning to post a list of my favorites (real soon now...). I've also been reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food recently and while I'm only half finished, it has a lot in common with Mark Bittman's TED talk What's wrong with what we eat. Given the similarities, I'll cover both items here (though the book is fresh in my mind so my emphasis will be on it).

Neither author puts much faith in the nutritional authorities in this country. Pollan's book discusses how hard it is to run a nutritional study measuring the Right Things and blames scientific reductionism for giving us misinformation. To accurately study the dietary effects in complex systems like people is likely impossible (or at least extremely challenging with current technology) given the difficulty in actually measuring both the inputs and outputs. Worse, Pollan believes that nutrition science has not succeeded in making us healtheir but in fact has pushed us in the opposite direction -- ever since nutritionists have replaced parents as the authorities, this country has gotten less healthy along many dimensions. To be fair, some amount of this can likely be attributed to corporations like McDonalds and Kraft, but that's another post.

I've always been skeptical of nutrition science given its various flip-flopping studies on foods like chocolate and wine. In any event, my goal here is not to provide a review of these items, but to encourage you to read Pollan's book, or, if you only have 20 minutes and 8 seconds, watch Bittman's talk.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Wait, what?

Marge: I don't understand why we have to build a ray gun to aim at a planet I never even heard of.
Homer: Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos.
-- "Treehouse of Horror VII" [snpp]

McCain and Obama are looking more and more similar each day! Their automatic image picker seems to have some problems telling the two candidates apart... (seen on, emphasis not in original)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Steal this idea: Scratch paper printer

Somewhat counterintuitively, the Computer Science department at Brown produces a ton of paper (literally a ton if you choose the Right time scale...). A good portion of our printouts only use one side of the paper (though people are generally good about printing things duplex, 2-up, etc.). Much of this scratch paper is recycled immediately while some is put in a scratch paper pile. After trying to reduce our printouts, what we can do to lower our paper usage? Last year, I made a "notebook" out of scratch paper. a folder, and some clips which worked out very nicely for a course. While I like this method and would like to see it done on a large scale, it seems unlikely to reuse much of our scratch paper supply.

One idea that I'd like to investigate is a "scratch paper printer." This would be a printer stocked entirely with scratch paper. There are couple potential issues. The main issue is that I've been told that printers jam more frequently on scratch paper[1]. I want to find out if this is true for all or just some printers. Ideally, we can find a (potentially slower) printer which doesn't jam as much on scratch paper. A lesser issue is keeping the printer stocked since scratch paper doesn't come as easily as store-brought reams, but since this can be done on demand by users, I'm less concerned. Please contact me if you have any comments on this proposal, since I'll put pitching it to the department in the coming future.

[1] It might be interesting to try to design a printer which is more robust to paper jams (steal this idea, please) but beyond what I'm looking for at this point.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

These version numbers have version numbers!

This product that was on TV was available for four easy payments of $19.95. I would like a product that was available for three easy payments and one complicated payment. We can't tell you which payment it is, but one of these payments is going to be hard.
-- Mitch Hedburg

Version numbers in Ubuntu Linux can get pretty intense. Here is a list of 13 version numbers from Ubuntu packages in increasingly ridiculous order (that is, order of increasing ridiculous-ness (ridiculousity?)).
  1. 15 (just a number, possibly too simple)
  2. 1.2-2 (three numbers, reasonably simple)
  3. (standard Linux kernel version number, very simple)
  4. 2007-12ubuntu3.1 (year, month, and Ubuntu version)
  5. 1:8.04+20080630 (version with a full date in it)
  6. 3.0.28a-1ubuntu4.3 (version and Ubuntu version)
  7. 4.0.1ubuntu5.8.04.1 (package with version and a more complicated Ubuntu version)
  8. 4.4.0-1ubuntu4~hardy1 (version with Ubuntu version and Ubuntu distribution subversion)
  9. 3:0.cvs20060823-3.1ubuntu4 (version, CVS date, and Ubuntu version)
  10. 8.61.dfsg.1~svn8187-0ubuntu3.3 (version, SVN version, and Ubuntu version)
  11. 20080508+git20080601-0ubuntu0.8.04 (version and two dates in it -- okay, one is a GIT version number too)
  12. 3.0.1+build1+nobinonly-0ubuntu0.8.04.1 (version plus some tags then a complicated Ubuntu version)
  13. (no comment)
(document version: 1.2.62.cvs20080713~svn2942~17ubuntu2.43.1.3-5~binonly~rc7:1)

Friday, June 27, 2008

A story told through bullet points

Your order is in progress.

  • Jun 21
  • Order placed - Your order was placed with PC Universe. A confirmation email was sent to you by Google.

  • Jun 21
  • Order received - PC Universe received your order.

  • Jun 21
  • $53.00 charge - Your credit card (REDACTEDCARD xxx-XXXX) was charged for $53.00. "GOOGLE *PC Universe" will appear on your credit card statement.

  • Jun 24
  • Seller contacted - You sent PC Universe an email with the subject: What is the status of my order?
    Message: "Hi, just wondering what the status of my order is. Thanks! David"

  • Jun 27
  • Seller contacted - You sent PC Universe an email with the subject: I'd like to cancel my order
    Message: "This level of service is unacceptable. The item was listed as in stock when I ordered it, yet apparently has not shipped yet. I called earlier today and was told that it was pending an incoming shipment (meaning that the website was lying) and that it would ship today (which it clearly hasn't). Additionally, my earlier request for the status of the order was completely ignored. Please cancel my order and refund my money."

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Not necessary!

    Are they trying to get blocked?

    (see comments)

    Thursday, April 24, 2008

    Flying the Sarcastic Skies

    Some funny quotes from the pilot on flight UA830, (4.21.2008) to the best of my memory:

    (before takeoff)
    "Well, folks, the baggage handlers said that they were done loading, but they're clearly not. If you're sitting in the back right-hand part of the plane, you probably have a better idea what's going on than I do."

    (after departing about 30 minutes late and landing) "We were able to make up about 10 minutes in the air. Apparently no good deed goes unpunished as someone else has taken our gate."

    Tuesday, April 22, 2008

    Google Transit now in Rhode Island

    A semi-Earth Day related post for Earth Day:

    Google Transit now covers RIPTA buses in Rhode Island. I will use it for all my route planning needs. (In fact, I don't have a choice as the official RIPTA trip planner now simply embeds Google Maps.) Unfortunately, while the service is quite useful now, imagine what it would be like if it included systems that actually connect? Currently, the Bay Area appears to be the only area in the US which covers multiple systems (and it already has its own multi-system route planner). I think Google has an initiative to help transit agencies publish their information (which allows us to use alternative route planners).

    The trip planner passed my sanity check: I asked for directions to the airport and it was smart enough to know that one should never take the 20 (it always leaves earlier and arrives later than the 14 -- not sure what its purpose really is).

    Also, some tiny annoyances involving the walking direction. Walking directions currently lack detail (known bug) and you need to do more searches to get distances or routes for these (though strangely, timing information is given instead). There are also no controls on the preferred amount of walking distance.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008

    The Tea in Honesty

    No, this isn't an article about Honest Tea. Nor is it even a big deal, but as I sit here with my smoke detector having its second false alarm of the day, I thought I would share this.

    It's hard to say if this happens more often in the tea industry than others, but there's a certain lack of honesty for many of these tea flavors. Take Good Earth's Red Tea Raspberry. The front of the box (seen here) shows pictures of raspberries, which isn't surprising. Until you look at the ingredients:
    Rooibos, Chicory Root, Chamomile, Hibiscus, Ginger Root, Rose Petals, Spearmint, Licorice Root and Natural Flavors.
    As I see it, even if those "Natural Flavors" are raspberry, they're a bit too far down the list for that flavor to invoke raspberries.

    Here's another example: Republic of Tea's Wild Berry Plum (seen here). Again, the box shows what appears to be wild berries and a plum in the background. The ingredients read: China green tea, black currant pieces, natural flavors. At first glance, this might seem worse than the first case, but wild berry is another name for black currant, (in case you didn't know) so the only missing item is pear. Also, unlike the previous example, this tea actually tastes something like pear and black currant (I was told that I should add sugar if I wanted the raspberry tea to taste like raspberries).

    How widespread is this? Please post your mistitled teas to comments. Also, your thoughts on why the tea companies do this. I guess raspberry teas sell better than "Chamomile Hibiscus Ginger Rose" teas (or whatever the real name should be). Neverthless, I won't be buying it anymore since I was looking for something that actually had raspberries in it.

    Sunday, March 23, 2008

    Strange satirical dream

    I had a dream where a friend was having trouble breathing and needed medical attention so I tried to call 911. I've been told that when you call 911 from a cell phone, the cell phone goes into a sort of lockdown mode, though I'm not sure if this is true. In any event, after misdialing several times, my phone went into a strange mode and launched a tiny web browser rather than connecting my call. The 911 "website" was a disaster -- all I wanted was an ambulance, but the website had all of the most frustrating aspects of websites:
    1. It required registration ("New user? Click here!")
    2. It had CAPTCHAs which were very difficult to type on the telephone keypad. Apparently, the site was the target of fake 911 calls by spammers.
    3. The web page was extremely long and hard to navigate on the phone.
    4. I think it had advertisements.
    Obviously, this is not the future of emergency telephone services, but I find it sort of amusing in some ways. I woke up before things could get worse.

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008

    Laws, sausages, and misleading packaging

    Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.
    -- Otto von Bismarck

    The connection between laws and sausages is clear, but what about sausages and false advertising? While I don't eat pork, I do eat chicken and occasionally buy (what I thought were) chicken sausages. While I try to examine food items (ingredients, manufacturers, etc.) I clearly missed a thorough reading of these. Of the three or four brands of chicken sausages I saw in an overpriced health-focused supermarket (you know what I'm talking about), all but one use a pork skin casing. This bothers me since I bought the chicken sausages to avoid pork and have assumed that others do the same. Additionally, since there is one brand that doesn't use pork, that tells me that it's possible.

    Al Fresco or Aidells (pick "Chicken and Apple") for some examples. I'll update this post later when I determine which brand is the "good" one.

    Monday, February 25, 2008

    Cutting down on snail-mail spam

    Following up on this post: I got the nth credit card application in the mail and finally looked closely enough to see this phone number:

    1-888-567-8688 (1-888-5-OPTOUT)

    Searching for that phone number takes you to the FTC Privacy Protection Page, where you'll find several useful links for cutting down on junk mail from credit card companies and direct marketers.
    In related links, take a look at carbonrally where you can "compete" for carbon reduction by making various promises. One of the actions you can take involves going to CatalogChoice.

    Update (2.26.2008): A friend shares a link to GreenDimes -- a similar service, though this one seems to cost money.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008

    Copying links from Google search results

    You may have noticed that when you copy links from Google search results, you don't get what you expected -- when you hover over them, your browser says one thing, but when you right-click on them, it says another. For example, searching for snappletronics, Google gives you the code for a link like this: (emphasis not in original, obviously)

    <a href=""
    onmousedown="return rwt(this,'','','res','1','AFQjCNGxo5T82OPvPMIGpTmHTE3JzTBwzg','&sig2=vMD0Ey969KDVrwhFXwVgBw')">

    What does this mean? It means that when you right-click on the link, some Javascript function gets to run and change the link, so the link turns from Snappletronics to Snappletronics (watch the tooltip or your browser's status bar). The second link tells Google that I clicked the link and maybe other identifying information. I believe this surreptitious link-changing is a pretty strong violation of "Don't be evil."

    Fortunately, there's help if you use Firefox. If you have Greasemonkey, this script will remove their hooks and prevent them from changing the link on you.

    Update (11.12.2010): The above script is now outdated. Depending on when you read this, this script might be a decent replacement.

    Friday, February 8, 2008