Friday, September 19, 2008

The Garden Weasel

Or, how you know the economy is in trouble:

I saw a live commercial for Maytag on Jay Leno, and for Samsung on Jimmy Kimmel. Letterman's on re-runs, so it doesn't count.

I don't believe I've ever seen a live commercial in my life on a show of this sort, excluding Intel's sponsorship of Conan in San Francisco (which was always counterbalanced by a larger sign for Sam Wo Noodles as a joke). Of course, I've seen them on re-runs of old-timey (think 1950s Flintstones tobacco ads) TV. The first episode of the Larry Sanders Show was also about the host's reticence to do such an ad for the "Garden Weasel".

Seriously, watch it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One of these ads is not like the other

One of these ads is not like the other. Can you figure out which one?

Bob Shamansky: ad 1
Dave Loebsack: ad 1
Alice Kryzan: ad 1 and ad 2

Give up? The difference is that Bob Shamansky lost 57%-43%, while Dave Loebsack won in a major upset over Jim Leach in 2006, and Alice Kryzan won her primary in a moderate upset against Jon Powers and Jack Davis yesterday.

While most of the time, ads aren't necessarily that effective, the right ad can in fact be devastating. However, no matter how snappy or funny it is, you have to have the right opening. Apparently, a humorous ad tying Pat Tiberi to George Bush didn't cut for Shamansky.

While most of the political pundits dismissed Loebsack's ad as "A race so civil the challenger's ad calls the incumbent a good man", as someone living in IA-02 in 2006 I thought it was a brutally effective ad. Jim Leach was an incredibly well-liked incumbent, and George Bush was incredibly unliked. It tied the two together in a way that would be nearly impossible to rebut. For other context, Jim Leach threatened to bolt the GOP if they came in with 3rd party ads, said "This is the happiest day of my life" in his concession speech, and endorsed Obama at the DNC.

And in a race as horribly nasty as NY-26 this year, it's very effective to push through with one or two showings of an ad to get people to do something else. When you're running against someone as horrible as Jack Davis, and Jack is determined to destroy your other opponent, it's pretty easy to get through this way.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Stock Market is Not News

A sizable fraction of the news coverage in the United States is focused on the day to day fluctuations of stock prices. Most major newspapers have at least a full page of stock quotes, and many have 4 or 5 pages of coverage. The nightly news on TV gives a summary of the days action, with the change in the Dow being "a summary of the day in the financial markets". The radio updates "In moderate volume, the Dow is up 21, while the NASDAQ is down 6". However, this is in opposition to the fact that none of the aforementioned should be considered news on a day-to-day basis.

First, the day-to-day fluctuations generally aren't very large. What does it mean if the Dow is up 50 today? It means that the 30 stocks in the Dow cumulatively have a price around .4% higher. It's the equivalent of saying that gas prices have gone from $4.21 to $4.23 . And if tomorrow, the Dow is down 50, well, now absolutely nothing has happened from two days ago in prices. Hardly news.

Second, even when they do go up or down 5% in a day (which is significant), the price of stock in and of itself isn't really news either. Unless you're day trading, it's hard to see how it will affect you in any way. And if you are day trading, you certainly want more details than you could get in mass media news. Even here, the change in price isn't the news in and of itself; it's supportive evidence for other events. "Financial stocks were down 10% because of another failure in the mortgage industry" is inverted; the correct sense of the news is "Another major failure occurred in the mortgage industry. Investors are concerned that more failures may occur and pushed financial stocks down 10%."

Third, looking at the day to day fluctuations misses the big picture. "GM stock up 10% on improving financial situation" may sound good, but if you don't explain "GM stock is still down 58% on the year", you miss the entire point. "Intel stock was down 5% on the earnings report" would sound better if it was up 20% in the 3 weeks leading up to the announcement.

Finally, the stock market is generally treated as a numbers game. In this respect, it's no better or worse than sports coverage or the lottery, where undue attention is payed to minute details either only somewhat luck-related (were the two home runs last night luck or skill), or completely luck-related (7 hasn't come up for 3 weeks in the Daily Millions; it's due!). But most major newspapers will relegate the lotto and box scores to back pages of separate sections, while the fluctuations in stock prices are given far more prominence and respect.

My advice to struggling newspapers: Cut the stock quotes. Drop the separate "finance" section. Put business news in the same place you'd put any other news, don't emphasize day-to-day stock swings, and put "personal finance" stories in the lifestyles section. If you really feel you have to be in the stock quote business, tell people to go to your website to find quotes. After all, who do you think reads these quotes anymore on news print anyhow? You'll save space, cut costs, and have a more useful and news-filled product.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Really Bad Jokes

Some "choice selections" from :

Why are crocodiles brown and flat? - Because if they were yellow and round, they'd be lemons.

What did the big chimney say to the little chimney? - You're too young to smoke.

What do you call a tree from Tulsa? - An oakie.

Where do mentally unstable trees go? - The insane a-xylem.

What did the boots say to the cowboy? - You ride -- I'll go on foot.

Once there were three Indian women. They were all pregnant, and they slept in their husbands' teepees on animal skins that they had killed or traded for.

The first slept on a deer skin.

The second slept on a bear skin.

The third slept on a hippopotamus skin.

All three had their children on the full moon. The first had a strong baby boy. The second also had a strong baby boy. The third had twins.

This just proves that the sons of the squaw of the hippopotamus are equal to the sons of the squaws of the other two hides.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

News Digest

Gosh, today was a busy day. Lots of stuff happening in the world. Enough, in fact, that it's worth an actual blog post (*gasp*) rather than just Reader notes to run down them.

Supreme Court decisions - 3 of them today, two of note. First, the "millionaire's amendment" to campaign finance got struck down, so the limit for campaign contributions doesn't increase against self-funders. Campaign finance law will continue to be a mess; film at 11. Also, the DC gun law was struck down, in what was generally a good decision in my opinion. I think it's pretty clear that the federal government can't make such a law prohibiting handgun ownership based on historical precedent and common-sense reading of the 2nd amendment.

ICANN releases domain names - We will now have virtually any string be a potential FQDN (fully qualified domain name), which will wreak havoc on many things. There are two parts; the first is allowing non-ASCII characters, which should be fine, except for standard i18n concerns; the second is allowing anybody who will pay $50-100k to get a TLD, which might be any arbitrary string (excluding trademarks), so http://mail./ might be a valid domain. (The ending . is to prevent browsers from, naturally, doing all sorts of things with the string that would make sense, and ensuring they treat it as a FQDN)

Microsoft to buy Powerset? - At $100 million (or even more) for what is essentially vaporware that can search Wikipedia only moderately worse than Microsoft's existing search engine, I think it's fair to say that Microsoft is trying to make Yahoo! jealous by buying a bunch of other search engine companies.

Oil at $140 - No link, but it seems to be going up and up ... at some point, both supply and demand will become inelastic, and substitutes will increase; but there's no saying where that point will be.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fear and Loathing on Daily Kos

The backwaters of the Daily Kos diaries can tend to have content that is somewhere very near Youtube comments in the level of sanity and balance involved (at least the spelling is better at Kos). Most of the time, these comments and the resident troll population are easily ignored. However, occasionally they invoke enough "false outrage" which gets plenty of attention, and it cannot be ignored.

Breaking: Des Moines floods, Evacuation: Where is Anderson Cooper?. The lack of facts, misfacts, and truly pathetic attempts at political grandstanding in this article are incredible. With regards to the Iowa flooding, there are a few facts that first need to be considered:

  1. No amount of levees and other flood protections could have prevented there being catastrophic flood damage in Cedar Rapids. It is completely impossible to design a city around a river and to expect to be able to hold back the amount involved.
  2. The flooding is not nearly as bad in Des Moines as in Cedar Rapids. In many areas, the floods only are covering a few neighborhoods. In Cedar Rapids, it is at least 400 city blocks in downtown.
  3. This is not Katrina. While parts of the devastation may be that bad, it is important to keep in mind that everybody was within at most 5 miles of complete safety. With Katrina, there was at least a 50 mile swath hit by a hurricane, and the corresponding winds. Also, Cedar Rapids is not nearly as densely populated as New Orleans, and it is not under sea level.
  4. There is nothing that having more resources on the ground could have done to mitigate the damage. There seemed to be almost as many "We have too many volunteers, please do not go to this area" announcements on the news as "We need volunteers at this area". The national guard, FEMA, etc. could not have done anything more.
  5. There is no major risk to human life. As mentioned above, there was no hurricane associated with this storm. Virtually everybody in danger was evacuated before floods hit.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Presidential Race Projection: June 9 Edition

I'm going to use a few more categories than the standard "Solid/Lean/Tossup" breakdown. I'm adding "lock" for a drop-dead 100% sure bet, and "likely" in between solid and lean. (Note: Nebraska divides its electoral votes by CD, with 2 going to the state winner)

Obama Lock - DC (3), HI (4), IL (21), MD (10), MA (12), NY (31), RI (4), VT (3) - 88EV
McCain Lock - ID (4), NE-3rd (1), TN (11), OK (7), UT (5), WY (3) - 31EV

Obama Solid - CA (55), CT (7), DE (3), ME (4), MN (10), WA (11), WI (10) - 100EV, cum. 188EV
McCain Solid - AL (9), LA (9), NE-AL (2), KS (6), KY (6), SD (3), WV (5) - 42EV, cum. 73EV

Obama Lean - CO (9), MI (17), NJ (15), NH (4), OR (7), PA (21) - 73EV, cum. 251EV
McCain Lean - AK (3), AR (6), AZ (10), GA (15), FL (27), IN (11), MS (6), MT (3), ND (3), NE-1st (1), NE-2nd (1), SC (8), TX (34) - 128EV, cum. 201EV

Tossup - IA (7), OH (20), MO (11), NC (15), NV (5), NM (5), VA (13) - 76 EV

What's obvious here is that Obama is in a lot better shape than McCain. "Serious" people have suggested that he may win any of the states in the "McCain lean" column, including Texas, Alaska, North Dakota, and Mississippi, none of which would generally be considered "Swing states", but certainly should be considered as such this election. McCain certainly has a shot at the Obama lean states, but there are a lot fewer in that category. Most are at least "Solid", which means it would take significant effort, luck, and national swing for McCain to win them.

As far as strategy suggested by this setup, we have the following:
1) If Obama wins Texas or Florida, he definitely wins. The punditry generally look at Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania as "key battleground" states, with Florida generally included as well. However, even if Obama lost 2 of MI OH PA, Texas or Florida would likely ensure he had enough EV to win.

2) McCain needs a base. The general Republican bases are in the west and the south. In the south, evangelical dislike of McCain plus an expected huge black turnout makes a lot of states possibly competitive. In the west, Obama has very strong popularity, and the Democratic party overall is on the rise. McCain has no shot unless he can establish early (before the conventions) that either Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas are safe (and FL NC VA are lean McCain); or that Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, and the Dakotas are safe (and CO NM NV are lean McCain). Texas, once again, would be useful for either group.

3) McCain and California - As I mentioned above that Obama winning FL or TX would make things very easy, McCain could probably do the same thing in California. The state is probably the friendliest of the "Solid Obama" states to McCain. It's also the only way he could win if he lost MI PA OH.

4) GOP VP selection - I see three possible paths to victory for McCain. Strategy 1 involves focusing on the 55 EV of California as much as possible. Schwarzenegger would be the obvious VP choice, even though it might not help; but he's not eligible; maybe something like Carly Fiorina. Strategy 2 is the 58 EV of MI OH PA. Here, there once again aren't any governors or senators of note (Voinovich is unlikely), and I doubt Rob Portman is going to get consideration; maybe Mitt Romney's Michigan connections are the best regional tie he could get. Strategy 3 is the "We're tough and macho and Obama is an evil wimp that will surrender to the terrorists", and that can take virtually anyone, though Joe Lieberman would probably be the most likely candidate for that strength.

Friday, May 30, 2008

I Hate Bank of America

More specifically, I hate their branding and promotions, but that's a large enough portion of my overall view that I'm not going to bother with any nits along those lines.

Exhibit 1: "Risk Free CD" - It's a short term CD, only you can take your money out early! Normally, you can do this with a small penalty. Right now, it's 2.80% APY for 9 months, while US Bank offers 3.00% for 11 months. It's a comparable rate to other big banks I suppose, but ING savings is at 3.00% and has 9 months at 3.30%, and is probably a better option for savings.

Exhibit 2: "Keep the Change" - Seriously. "We automatically transfer money between your accounts" has got to be the stupidest idea ever. It's a program designed for those people who are too spendthrifty, poor, or stupid to save even $10 or $20 per month without a gimmicky program run by someone else to help them. In that regard, it's probably a good idea from a business proposition, but still. It falls very close to "evil".

And the worst part of both of these is the ads. "What if you couldn't kiss your kids for 9 months, or go outside? Why should it be different with your money. This is America. You deserve a risk-free CD". or "We save everything in America, the whales, jam, everything. Why not your money? This is America. You deserve to keep the change." It's both the moronic jingoistic patriotism, the horrible metaphors, the annoying narrator, and really the entire thing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Book Review: The End of Science

John Horgan summarizes his conversations with dozens of top physicists, philosophers, and other scientists, trying to get an answer to the question: What will happen once we have "The Answer" to everything?

Of course, this question presupposes that there is such an answer (or a collection of answers), and Horgan makes no attempt to be anything but biased in his view that there is such an answer, and that the peak of scientific progress has already passed. He claims that since the discovery of quantum mechanics and relativity, and to a lesser extent evolution, the double helix, and a few other developments, very few has occurred in science. Furthermore, that which has occurred has mostly been "minor details". There has been no Grand Unified Theory in physics over the past 50 years.

However, his examples of "the end of science" are carefully cherry-picked and calculated to be able to support his hypothesis. The data for relativity and quantum mechanics came as a result of the massive increase in the scale of observations caused by improvements in telescopes and microscopes, which are a continuous trend from Galileo to around the 1940s, where we hit Heisenburg uncertainty limits on one scale, and a sheer lack of observable data on the other scale. At some point, Moore's Law will break, and computer capacity increases will taper off. However, he generally ignores mathematics and social sciences, and says very little about chemistry as well. While these can be chalked up to the specific interviews he has conducted, it is more than coincidental that he focuses most on the few topics where the end of science may come sooner rather than later or never.

Horgan claims that there are no "surprises" forthcoming in science. He cites relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution as "surprises", but doubts that these will be forthcoming in the future. This is the silliest of logical errors; if it were expected to occur, it wouldn't be a surprise. He dismisses out of hand that the solution to "dark matter" might be something unexpected, though I cannot imagine how it could be explained purely by "details".

The book doesn't support the end of science very well, and some of his claims on where "the end of progress" lies seem out of date after only about 10 years (especially relating to AI and computing). However, the discussions with various scientists are generally fascinating. One scientist suggests that while bacteria and viruses come from the fabric of the universe, AIDS must come from a research lab, while another suggests that environmentalism is a plot to impoverish black children. Many of them are based on his interviews with Scientific American, and this book is worth reading solely on these accounts.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Modest Proposal on Gender in Language

There are all sorts of half-baked proposals to develop a new set of "gender-neutral" pronouns and other relevant gendered words (co, zie, jhe, te, hir, che, and many more). However, most of them are generally silly-sounding words, and all of them have a very high barrier to start being used.

How about this approach:
Step 1) "She" ("her", etc.) is the new gender-neutral pronoun, as well as referring to females. "He" refers specifically to males.
Step 2) "She" ("her", etc.) is the pronoun used to refer to anyone, either male, female, or of indeterminate gender. "He" is abandoned as an abandoned linguistic relic.

This has the advantage that even if someone thinks you sound weird, she will still understand what you are saying. It should also provide a jumping point for a single neutral pronoun that using "he" for just won't work.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

What's up with Firedoglake?

A common claim of the right-wing is that they are the "real" friends of Israel, and that Democrats hate Israel or are anti-semitic, or whatever else they claim.

Of course, this is normally bogus. In general, this is either meant to mean "I hate Arabs, and thus I must support Israel", or "I support Israel because the Bible says I should, though if the situation changes I probably wouldn't", or even "I hate Israel, but I'll claim you do".

However, I found this recent post at Firedoglake God Bless Jimmy Carter, the Best Friend Israel Ever Had to be one of the few examples of somebody on the left that isn't a certified racist nut to be actually and blatantly anti-Israel. It's generally weak on logic and facts as well, so I won't go for a point-by-point breakdown. It also seems to vacillate between "Israel has lost" and "Israel will lose", and I don't see how Jimmy Carter comes into play anywhere other than "He's kind of on my side, so he gets the lede".

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Veep-Stakes, Part 1

So, since the Presidential nominations are winding down, it's time to start looking at the Veep-Stakes. There are 3 schools of thought for this: Pick the best available without regards to "balance", pick someone who bolsters your strengths, or pick someone who helps shore up your weaknesses.

First, for the Democrats, since they have to announce their nominee first.

For the best available, my choice would be 1) Brian Schweitzer, governor of Montana; 2) Russ Feingold, Senator of Wisconsin; 3) the loser in the presidential race.

For the "bolsters strengths" and "shores weaknesses", it is different per-candidate. These aren't quite mirror images, but they're close. and the other images on are very useful images of the primary results to get a sense of strengths.

For Obama, this is the West and the coastal Southeast (Virginia and the Carolinas). For the west, someone like Schweitzer or Kathleen Sebelius, governor of Kansas, seem like good picks. Even Texas is possible, but I don't see any good candidates from the state. For the southeast, John Edwards, former Senator from North Carolina and VP candidate, Jim Webb, Senator from Virginia, or Tim Kaine, governor of Virginia are the obvious names. Edwards seems like a poor choice given his history on the ticket.

For Clinton, this is Hispanic areas and Appalachia (Tennessee, Kentucky, WV, Ohio, Pennsylvania). For Hispanic areas (Florida and Texas(!) are both winnable), Bill Richardson (governor of New Mexico) is the obvious name. Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, strikes me as another good possibility. None of the statewide officeholders in CA, FL, TX, or CO seem likely. For Appalachia, Ted Strickland (governor of Ohio) is the obvious name, and pretty much the only viable candidate. Phil Bredesen (governor of Tennessee) is plausible except for the echoes of another Clinton picking another Tennessean (Al Gore). Ed Rendell (governor of Pennsylvania) isn't plausible, and most of the other prominent Democratic officeholders in these states are newly elected (Steve Beshear, governor of Kentucky), anti-choice (Bob Casey) or old (Robert Byrd).

As far as weaknesses, for Obama it is specifically Appalachia (Ohio, Pennsylvania) where he is weak (he does OK in Hispanic areas, just not as good as Clinton). As above, Ted Strickland is the obvious choice here. There's also the gender factor, and besides Clinton, Sebelius is the only female mentioned. Debbie Stabenow (Senator from Michigan) and Patty Murray or Maria Cantwell (Senators from Washington) seem to be the only other plausible options. Janet Napolitano (Governor of Arizona) seems less likely with Arizona being a likely lost cause in the general election.

For Clinton, it is Democratic states in the upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan somewhat) and Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington). For the Midwest, Russ Feingold is an option, as is Obama. For the Pacific Northwest, I don't see too much. None of the Senators or Governors or Representatives strike me as particularly charismatic or popular. There's also the race factor, but aside from Obama I don't see many other options. John Lewis and John Conyers are both too old, and I don't see any other people who'd fit.

Now, for McCain. He needs help in parts of the South against either candidates, and in the West against Obama. Huckabee would be a disaster in any swing state (I know multiple Republicans who would rather vote for the Democrat than let Huckabee near the White House). Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina, has been a name with buzz for a long time. Shelley Moore Capito, representative from West Virginia, could help, as well as guard against "Republicans hate women and minorities" claims. As far as the West goes, Mitt Romney is the obvious choice. Former Governors Bill Owens (of Colorado) and Kenny Guinn (of Nevada) had buzz several years ago, but seem to have faded away, in Owens' case because of ethics issues. John Thune (Senator from South Dakota) and Kay Bailey Hutcheson (Senator from Texas) are the only other officeholders in the West I see possible.

As far as strengths, this would be rust belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan. Romney once again is the best choice for Michigan. Santorum has the same problem as Huckabee. Ohio Republicans have uniformly been run through the mud on a state level, so an Ohio Republican might actually hurt them on the ticket.

It's important to note that the last Republican nominees for VP have been a retired Congressman (Cheney), a retired Congressman (Jack Kemp), a useless Senator from Indiana (Quayle), the runner-up for the nomination (HW Bush), and Bob Dole (in 1976). Romney seems to fit the pattern rather well; Rob Portman, a retired Congressman, has also had buzz.

In conclusion, it seems that the Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton superticket is actually a likely possibility on the merits, even if it isn't forced at the convention. I could see Clinton going with Bill Richardson or Villaraigosa, or Obama with Ted Strickland, but that's about it. For the Republicans, Romney seems like the heavy favorite, though I can imagine many possible options.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Give 'em Zell, Joe

Apparently Joe Lieberman is planning to attend the RNC if John McCain is the nominee (as barring a catastrophe is inevitable). I wonder if he's going to challenge any TV pundits to a duel as well.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The $99,000 Answer

"Anything large and impressive, if it was reasonably new in appearance, was automatically claimed as having been built since the Revolution, while anything that was obviously of earlier date was ascribed to some dim period called the Middle Ages. The centuries of capitalism were held to have produced nothing of any value." - 1984, George Orwell

Watching The Honeymooners (or any 1950s TV show), there are two things that stand out. First, the episodes are much slower paced than anything on TV today; a scene that might get 30 seconds today gets 3 or 4 minutes back then.

Second, the differences in culture are striking. Have you ever heard of "Captain Video", or the DuMont network it was on? Specifically for "The $99,000 Answer", it's striking to note that none of the songs mentioned as "Popular Songs" are songs that anyone will have heard of today. "Don't Fence Me In", Cole Porter? "Shuffle off to Buffalo" from 1938? "Just Too Marvelous for Words" from "Ready, Willing and Able" from 1933? "Take Me Back to Sorrento" from 1898? "I'll Be Seeing You", Irving Kale, 1938? "It's All Over Now", Bassy Simon, 1927? "Goodnight, Irene"? "Goodnight Sweetheart", Ray Noble? Of course, I can recognize Stephen Foster, which as the punchline is the only song Ralph doesn't recognize.

I'm not sure if this is normal cultural drift, if it's related to the dawn of records as a popular medium, or if it is because Elvis, The Beatles, and "Rock and Roll" made any popular music from before that time completely obsolete. It's almost that any music obviously from before the rock era is considered "classical", and demoted to an existence solely of folk music concerts and symphony orchestras.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

News from Africa

Malawi ends ties with Taiwan in favour of China - The war of economic bribery between Taiwan and China continues to be won by China. The most recent change in diplomatic relations: Malawi, a small, poor country in Southern Africa bordering Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. "Taiwan's hopes of maintaining relations with the Southern Africa nation were dealt a blow recently when the government in Taipei said it could not match a Chinese offer to provide $6-billion in aid to Malawi, one of Africa's poorest countries." The only countries that still have formal relations with Taipei are the Holy See, some heavily Catholic Central American countries, and some poor island or African countries (full list at Wikipedia).

An optimist might have hoped that the end of the colonial era, and then the end of the cold war, would bring a close to some of these shenanigans. Yet economic battles still rage across the African continent. Deals such as this one from yesterday "Tanzania: U.S. Firm Acquires Copper Concession" are routine. Most of these deals are a lot more boring than Mark Thatcher's involvement in a coup in Equatorial Guinea over oil rights, but the sum total of all the deals is a large numbers of foreign companies and governments trying to find the best way to make money and install friendly governments in Africa.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Theory of Computer Science

Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror wrote a recent post on how we teach computer science (although "How we teach software engineering" would be a better title). His basic premise is that teaching quicksort, A* search, and Donald Knuth isn't enough to make a software engineer in the real world. There needs to be some mention of issues with deployment, source control, dealing with bug reports.

However, I find his conclusion pessimistic beyond the point of reasonability:

"Half of software engineering is pain mitigation. If you aren't cursing your web hosting provider every week, fighting with your source control system every day, deciphering angry bug reports from your users every hour-- you aren't being taught computer science."

No, this shouldn't be what software engineering is. Software engineering should teach ways to avoid dependencies and problems with your web hosting provider. A bad source control system is just that, bad, and should be fixed, not fought with on a daily basis. And dealing with angry bug reports isn't really a software issue at all, more an inter-personal issue to figure out what is broken.

Software engineering education should teach how to design software well in the real world. It shouldn't be about dealing with minor inconveniences that are best dealt with from common sense, that in many cases aren't related to software at all.

Obama on Iraq in 2002

I think the Democratic race is going to come down to the question "Do people feel Barack Obama can execute on what he promises?" Hillary has made the case that she can do what she is going to set out to do, but it frankly isn't a very ambitious agenda. She's also suggested that Obama is promising too much, which seems like a weak criticism. It is better to promise too much and fall short, than to promise too little and not come close to doing what should be done.

Via the Carpetbagger Report, I came across this extraordinary speech from Barack Obama in 2002 on the war in Iraq.

"I don't oppose all wars. My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton's army. He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil. ...

I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics."

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

How To Find Interesting Blogs

So, you've got a bit of free time on your hands, and want to find more interesting stuff to read about. You want to read more blogs. But the internet is a big place, so you're not sure what to look for.

1) Use an RSS Reader. This will literally double your productivity immediately, and increase it significantly more once you are used to some of the tricks of how to skip over posts. There are three advantages to having an RSS reader. First, you can't forget about blogs that are updated infrequently. Second, you only have to load one page instead of dozens or hundreds of pages to see all the new posts. Third, you get a "push" update system, where you can see what updates there are without having to check each blog separately. Nearly every website you visit has an RSS feed these days.

2) Focus on quality over quantity. This goes along with #1. If you have to check each page independently, it is easier to just read a few high-volume blogs than to read 50 that have 2 posts per week. But the right 50 low-volume blogs are likely to be multiple times more interesting and useful than one high-volume blog.

3) Don't get caught up on the word "blog". There's still a lot of buzz about blogs, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you care that it's a blog. A feed from CNN or the Wall Street Journal of the day's news stories may be more useful than a blogger's take on them. Slashdot was around before the word blog was, but that doesn't mean you would ignore it.

4) Start with a few high-volume popular blogs. In general, blogs tend to link to other blogs a lot. The advantage of this is that once you develop a critical mass of blogs, you can find more blogs relatively easily. The best way to do this is to get a list of "most popular" RSS feeds in a category, or to just do a search for interesting keywords plus blog.

5) Look at lists. The "Techmeme Leaderboard" may be gamed by Jason Calacanis and Robert Scoble, but it's a pretty reasonable list of the top "Silicon Valley/Tech Industry" blogs. The "Truth Laid Bear ecosystem" may have problems dealing with the fact that liberals and conservatives don't interlink (and by ignoring DU and FReep), but it's a great list of the top political blogs.

5) Start looking old school. One easy sign of quality in a blog is how old it is; if it existed in 2000 and still exists, it must be doing something right. There's also a lot more history to see whether it's worthwhile, and possibly a healthy community of commenters. With a new blog, it's a lot harder to tell whether it will be worthwhile or not, and in fact there's a better chance it will simply disappear.

6) Add link blogs. These are a great way of finding out what other people think are interesting.

7) Seek out detailed topics. If you are looking for a "technology blog", you're not going to find that much beyond Engadget and Gizmodo just from a basic search. However, if you're interested in developments on voice recognition in GPS units, you can do a more detailed search, and find out what people were saying last year. Past performance isn't a guarantee of future results, but people who predicted the present in the past are a good bet.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

5 Missed Trends From The Iowa Caucus

The 2008 Iowa Caucuses have come and past, with Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee the big winners. There isn't good news for everyone, with both Joe Biden and Chris Dodd dropping out. Here are some angles on the caucus that aren't getting as much coverage:

1) If Mike Huckabee ends up winning the Republican nomination, this ad should be put with LBJ's Daisy ad and George HW Bush's Willie Horton ad as one of the most effective political ads ever. You can claim that FairTax proponents and evangelicals are responsible for Huckabee's support, but the media seems to completely discount the enormous popularity Chuck Norris has. As far as endorsements go, only Oprah Winfrey is even close to having the same appeal as Norris.

2) The big story is that the youth vote came out in substantial force for Barack Obama, with him getting an astonishing 57% of 17-29 year olds. A less-reported story is that Ron Paul received 21% (about double his overall support) of the Republican 17-29 vote, putting him in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney for 2nd place. Ron Paul certainly has a base of core supporters that are generally dismissed as extremists, but he also has an astonishing amount of youth support.

3) I'm glad that nobody has tried to claim that Obama is from "Iowa's backyard" this election cycle. In 2004, everyone made sure to point out that Dick Gephardt is from Missouri, and that supposedly he had a significant advantage from being local. It was a silly argument then, and it would be a silly argument now. I hope this is a sign of a better press corps than in 2004.

4) The entrance polls have cross-sections by income, and the most interesting results are on the Republican side. Romney had plurality support among voters with household incomes of above 100k per year. However, both Huckabee and Ron Paul have substantially higher support among poorer voters. This may be related to their higher support among evangelical Republicans and young voters. However, this theory is discounted by the Democratic results, where there are no significant differences by income despite Obama's higher support among young voters. It's interesting to see that class is the big differentiator on the Republican side, but not the Democratic side.

5) The popular meme in 2004 was "electability", a word which has only a vague meaning. In 2008, electability wasn't a popular term, but some people still picked it as their most important issue. Among Republicans concerned about electability, Romney is the most popular candidate. Among Democrats, Edwards wins electability voters. I'm not sure whether "electability" is supposed to mean "presidential looking establishment white male", but that looks like what it may mean to voters.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

8 Predictions for 2018

It's the new year, the time for making predictions. Some interesting predictions for 2008 I've read include those of John Battelle and Joseph Weisenthal. Since there will be plenty of posts making predictions for this year, I decided to look a bit farther into the future, and make predictions for over the next 10 years; what the world will be like on January 1, 2018.

1) Moore's law will start to slow down; instead of computers increasing 35-fold in computational power over the next 10 years, it will be closer to 15-fold. However, computers will use substantially less power. There will not be "AI" as envisioned in the movies, but computers will solve a lot more problems than they would be expected to do today.

2) For at least one year during this time period, Microsoft software will not be on a majority of new consumer PCs. In response to this, Microsoft will retool and finally come out with an OS that is secure, not bloated with features, and has a simple licensing scheme. Desktop computers will still be in similar form to what they are today, but they will be significantly cheaper, and displays will be larger. The "smart house" will not exist as prophesied where everything is on the network, but there will be, for example, wireless-enabled washing machines that broadcast when your laundry is done (Random Hall had something like this in 1999).

3) The continually increasing number of legal issues related to content creation (like indefinite copyright extension, excessive copyright issues and patent trolls) will cause the current system to break at some point, with a significant retooling of laws allowing for more usage, not less. File sharing will cause the RIAA and MPAA to have to retool their business models significantly.

4) Passive data collection and sharing will increase substantially. There will be a "Web 3.0" bubble based around allowing you to take advantage of data in your life in new ways. You will be able to track everything you do in minute detail. This will cause concerns of "Big Brother" to explode into the national consciousness. However, problems will arise not from the government, but from stalkers and extremists. These will generally be solved by privacy restrictions and decentralization, but there will be a significant portion of the public that avoids these types of programs completely.

5) The transportation grid will look substantially the same as it does today; there will be no flying cars, computer-controlled cars, or cars that go 200 miles per hour. The car will not be abandoned for travel by rail, on bicycles, or by foot. Congestion in cities will continue to worsen, even as taxes such as London's congestion tax become more popular. However, there will be flights from New York to Sydney that take only half as long as the flight does today.

6) The price of oil will be, after adjusting for inflation, around twice what it is today. At some point, perhaps not within 10 years, but certainly within 20, there will be an actual shortage in the US with gas lines, factories shutting down, etc. (This will not be a full-blown energy crisis, just a lack of petroleum.) Political concerns will prevent the government from doing anything significant to ameliorate the situation. There will not be a push to the electric car. The hydrogen car will be promoted, but it will not be economical because of systematic issues in the auto industry.

7) There will be substantial developments in solar panel technology. A solar panel using technology similar to photosynthesis will be in development. There will also be cheaper options to produce wind power. There won't be fusion power, though it will be "15 years away" instead of the "20 years away" it has been for the last 50 years. This will be sufficient to push the upcoming energy crisis at least 20 years farther into the future.

8) The US will have at least 15,000 forces in Iraq throughout the next 15 years. There will be a declaration of "victory" in Iraq (again). However, there will not be peace in the Middle East in general. The threat of "Islamic terrorism" will stop being the primary international concern in American politics. It will be replaced by either Mexico, China, or the UN.


My name is Alex Power, and this is my (new) blog. It is primarily about technology, politics, philosophy, and anything else that seems interesting.

About Me: I attended Cedar Falls High School in Cedar Falls, IA and Iowa State University, majoring in mathematics. Now I am living in Silicon Valley and working at Google.

Disclaimer: I am employed at Google. This blog does not in any way reflect on the views of Google. I will not directly comment on any product releases of Google. I will not comment on any actions related to the stock prices of Google or any of its competitors. I will also not discuss anything related to the upcoming wireless auction. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball. No statements should be taken to imply anything related to any confidential information or upcoming product plans Google may or may not have. Void where prohibited by law. Some restrictions may apply.