met, notme

See you later, LJ!

I'm moving everything to just one blog. Too many Russian Spam ads of questionable content lie here. You can follow me at for my ideas or follow me on Facebook at for life updates or follow me at for ephemera or at for photos or follow for bookmarks.

I'll still read other blogs here and respond, but I'm making my leave of this particular writing space official rather than just letting it continue to waste away making me feel guilty for not communicating.
met, notme

Impossible figures

Rather than ranting about the latest PhD drama (short version: no defense this month, but will defend this summer), I am instead posting about how to make impossible figures so that I can tell others and have it waste their time instead of my own.

Has a constructor which allows you to make wonderful impossible figures like

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met, notme

(no subject)

I am going periscope down. I will be offline until May to get done all the dissertation crap I need to do. If you see me commenting in some online forum or find me chatting online, a good response is "Stop this, Peter, because you need to be writing."

See you in May!
met, notme

Ada Lovelace Day

When you learn something about history, and you are kind of young, you tend to assume that the facts you are learning are things that everyone always knew. It's sometimes startling to find out how recently that was untrue, even among the people who should know. The example that drove this home for me was a professor of computer science in graduate school telling me excitedly about how Alan Turing and the Colossus project helped stop Hitler by being both tremendously smart and tremendously hard working. When I looked a little nonplussed, he went on to explain that this knowledge about Bletchley Park and the heroic efforts of nerds in glasses behind closed doors was only released in the 1980's — the role, and even the existence, of these heroes of WWII was kept secret for decades. I had heard a lot about it, both from people telling the stories and from the book Cryptonomicon, so I had thought it was and had been well known, but I was wrong. This fact had decades of celebration backlog!

In order to reduce this syndrome, before I launch into Ada Lovelace Day, I'd like to relate a little history of computer science that I hope everybody knows.

Fact one: The very first programmer was a woman named Ada Lovelace. Charles Babbage designed and spent the end of his life trying to build a mechanical computer called the "Difference Machine". He imagined all these awesome things that might be done with it. However, Ada Lovelace was the one who actually wrote down a program to actually accomplish some of these tasks. As a fun fact, the first program from the first programmer worked! Recently, Danny Hillis built a difference machine and ran Ada Lovelace's program and it executed both successfully and correctly. Excellent job Ms. Lovelace!

Fact two: the first programmers were women. Women had broken down some barriers and were finally managing to get PhDs in mathematics from high powered schools. But they weren't allowed to get high powered jobs in academia. They were smart enough to get a PhD from Harvard, incorrectly gendered to get a job deserving of their skills. So when designed the first computers were designed, and there was no stigma, male or female, attached to the job of programmer, the most qualified applicants were female PhDs in mathematics! So they got the job, and then got forgotten about for 40+ years. The one non-forgotten person was Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who invented the language COBOL and the first compiler(!), and so could not so easily be swept under the rug.

Fact three: The lack of women in CS is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until the mid 1980's, there was about a 2:1 gender balance in CS. Not parity by any stretch, but not the 5:1 (or worse!) that we see today. Something went sour in CS culture or in the perception of CS in the surrounding world or both. There have been many books devoted to the subject, but this is not the place to figure out the reasons.

Now, let me talk about a woman in computing who I admire. I could embarrass people and talk about fellow graduate students in CS who are hard working and awesome, but I think instead I'll talk about Professor Sarah Douglas, who is at the University of Oregon where I will, Insha'Allah, defend my PhD soon. She helped found the field of Human Computer Interaction, in part with one of the first dissertations on the subject. She had to fight for it to be considered computer science, because it was, apparently, too "squishy" to be considered CS. Now SigCHI is one of the largest ACM groups! She has studied lots of things, almost all involving a mix of people and computer science, and is the person in my graduate career I most strongly associate with the science aspect of computer science. She actually measures the results of actual computers interacting with actual people — a revolutionary concept in its time! She cares a lot about CS and a lot about broadening participation in the field, and because she cares about CS being a science and because she's extremely insightful, we end up at the following compliment:

Her questions are terrifying. Seriously, pants-poopingly, mind-crunchingly, terrifying.

It's important to note that that's a big compliment. Her questions are terrifying because every question or criticism I have ever gotten from her on my work has been all of pithy, insightful, correct, and direct. I've also seen her dish it up live. Colloquium speakers didn't know they should be worried about the white haired smiling lady, and then they get hit with a question that cuts to a flaw at the very heart of what they are talking about. But I don't think she would be the person I name on Ada Lovelace Day if she also wasn't unfailingly kind to her students and helpful in her criticism.[1] And I've never seen her ask hard questions of people who she did not feel could handle it.[2]

Even more than that, and more personally, she has been unfailingly nice to me, and we have had multiple long conversations[3] over the years. It's really nice for an internationally respected professor who isn't in your area to take time and treat you as a colleague worthy of conversation and intellectual respect even when you are just a wet-behind-the-ears graduate student. That kindness is not forgotten, and I intend to emulate it over the course of my career.

So, thanks Prof. Douglas! I hope you are doing well.

1. Note for any students in her classes: Do not attempt to bullshit her. If you do, then two things will happen. First, you will be caught and piss her off. Second, she will set the bozo bit and you will be completely unable to get useful criticism from her. Her kindness and willingness to think really hard and insightfully about what you are saying is predicated on you not jerking her around at all. This means that students who try to bullshit right off the bat think she's a bitch. A perception with which I'm pretty sure she is okay.

2. I'm still a little worried about what she might ask at my defense, however.

3. And here's the weird thing that really made us bond, I think: She's a Navy brat, too! Not only that, but her father retired, after a long career, as a Captain in the Naval Civil Engineer Corps. It seems almost impossible that her father and my father or grandfather or uncle or cousin[4] never crossed paths.

4. All four of these people were also in the Navy and were CEC officers.
met, notme

The economy is made up of real people

It turns out that unemployment is not funemployment for most people. For every percent increase in unemployment, 47,000 people die [1]. This is very very bad. This means that the increase from the 2006 low of 4.6 percent[2] to the current rate of 8.1 percent [3] our economy has killed more than 150,000 people. And the most optimistic economists are hopeful that the high water mark for unemployment will be "only" 10 percent, bringing the eventual total to just under 250,000 in the best case scenario.

Also way up? Domestic abuse![4] "Creative destruction" is easy to say and easy to advocate for ("just do nothing! the economy will balance itself!"), but let's be clear that we need a much better safety net if we want to avoid just sitting by while 100,000+ more of our fellow citizens die. Which brings me back to a deal that I think should be made more explicit:
They get a bailout, we get health care.
In exchange for bailouts and regulatory capture, we all get single-payer health care and high quality social services (including, but not limited to battered women's shelters). Seems fair to me. Also, if we could throw in massive infrastructure investment, I would appreciate it. Health care and healthy infrastructure would do a lot towards bringing us into the 21st century as a first-world nation. Also, as mentioned, it would save tens of thousands of American lives.

I'd also like to point out that 100,000 is not a small number of people. It's 10% of the Rwandan genocide, it's two years worth of American car fatalities, it's thirty 9/11 attacks, and it's the entire population of Berkeley, CA. It is not outside the realm of possibility that AIG has killed more people than Osama Bin Laden.


Just so this post is not a total downer, I'd like to point out a funny socialist surprise that I got from David Brin, which is that, thanks to pension funds and health care obligations, the workers already own the means of production. I wonder if anything will change?
met, notme


What is a ringtone for? Answer: it is for you to be able to hear your cellular telephone ringing.

What makes one cellphone ringtone better than another? Answer: annoyingness. Ringtones annoy by either being bad songs or by being overly loud or by being audible to anyone who is not the recipient of the call.

What is the ideal ringtone? Answer: A ringtone which is clearly audible by you, but remains inaudible, or just background noise, to everyone else.

Are there any noises which YOU hear better than everyone else? Answer: if so, make those noises your ringtone! You can then set your volume lower, be less annoying, and still get the same ability to hear your phone ring.

What if I don't know of such a noise? Answer: The cocktail party effect points out that you can hear your own name at lower volumes than other people will hear your name. In a crowded party, everything is background noise except you instantly notice when someone says your name.

What is the point of this? Answer: Your cell phone ring tone should be someone saying "Hey <your name>". It's an almost perfect solution. It allows everyone to know who's cell phone is ringing, and it allows you to hear your own cell phone at volume levels that won't annoy others. It means that a lonely ringing cell phone embarrasses its owner, rather than being a deniable event. And finally, unless your name is actually IN the song Mambo No 5, it means that I'll never have to hear that ringtone ever again.
met, notme

Computer science research.

Computer science is a very young field. This is sort of trivially true when you compare it to, say, philosophy and mathematics, but also has consequences for my daily life. One thing it means is that seemingly-obvious questions have often not been asked. With a BS in CS you are qualified to begin answering many of them, if the question is explained well.

This is manifestly NOT true in math, and is less true in the more mathematical areas of CS. But for much of it, we don't even know what the right questions are. In theory we have P vs NP as an overriding question and also concerns about quantum computation (yet another area that is intensely mathematical), but in networks, we don't even know what the right questions are. In software engineering, we are feeling around in the dark, and in user interfaces, we just keep throwing things against the wall and hoping they stick. (note that these are broad generalizations, and practitioners in each of these could certainly find counterexamples, but I think the broad gist is true).

If you know some computer science and come up with a question that combines concerns in disparate subfields, the chances are good that your question has never been asked before, much less answered, that both the question and answer may be interesting to more people than just you, and that you may have all the tools you need to solve it just from your undergrad education. Are there any other fields where this is true?
met, notme


They are selling upscale cars using songs and artists I thought were cool in high school and middle school. This feels like some kind of age milestone.
met, notme

(no subject)

When did LiveJournal start having ads everywhere all the time, even though I've never opted in to them? Note that these ads only show up when I am NOT logged in, so they may have been there a long time. I like the aggregation of content that livejournal provides, but 3 separate banner ads is too much for me to feel good about supporting.