Browse Month: September 2008

09/25/2008

It’s child’s play to mock Bush’s complete lack of public speaking skills– he’s made so many inane gaffes in his various off-the-cuff speeches it makes one think no one could be such a poor wordsmith.

One would be wrong. Sarah Palin may be more vacuous and a worse speaker even than Bush. Take this transcript as an example, from her recent appearance on CBS with Katie Couric:

Katie Couric: You’ve cited Alaska’s proximity to Russia as part of your foreign policy experience. What did you mean by that?

Sarah Palin: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land-boundary that we have with Canada. It’s funny that a comment like that was kinda made to… I don’t know, you know… reporters.

Couric: Mocked?

Palin: Yeah, mocked, I guess that’s the word, yeah.

Couric: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials.

Palin: Well, it certainly does, because our– our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of. And there…

Couric: Have you ever been involved in any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?

Palin: We have trade missions back and forth, we do. It’s very important when you consider even national-security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right next to, they are right next to our state.

Holy. Cow.

Look out! It’s Putin, rearing his head into the air space!

09/25/2008

It’s good to know that– at least at some level– Congress still listens to the people who elected them.

From a New York Times article today about the stalled bailout negotiations:

It has become abundantly clear that members of Congress are hearing from their constituents, many of whom are furious about the proposed rescue.

I was one of those constituents– I wrote to my Senators and told them the bailout was a lousy deal. I received a nice boilerplate e-mail response (“Thanks for your concern… I take all of these e-mail messages very seriously… yada yada”). Although I’m sure they didn’t actually read my message, I hope the sheer volume of people like me gave them a clue that they’re treading in dangerous territory.

09/24/2008

Woo hoo, here’s a fun e-mail from another satisfied customer.

09/24/2008

Whee, sign me up for a $17,000 bill to help the rich guys on Wall Street and the morons who picked up mortgages they couldn’t afford.

09/24/2008

So Digg just raised $28 million in venture capital.

I’m not really sure what the heck they’re going to do with that… I mean, Digg is basically a web site with a database and a comment system where tens of thousands of people go to discuss interesting news items. The hosting and bandwidth bills are probably pretty steep, and of course you’d need a staff (half a dozen?) of server administrators, but beyond that it’s kind of nebulous what $28 million would do.

I guess I’ve been running on a shoestring budget far too long. I’m going to see if I can raise a few mil in venture capital to keep cyberschroeder.com running.

09/23/2008

Tom and I spent four days backpacking in the Wind River Range, part of the Teton mountains in northwest Wyoming. What a spectacular trip.

We had some interesting adventures involving blowing out a tire and almost getting stuck fifty miles from civilization in the sagebrush, pouring rain and lightning above treeline, and of course a night in the tent while the rain lashed at the fly and thunder boomed overhead. And by our calculations we hiked around 27 miles, both carrying 50-pound packs up steep grades and across boulder fields where the rocks were the size of cars.

A good time all around.

09/23/2008

The Department of Homeland inSecurity has unveiled its shiny new terrorist screening system, which will scan people walking through the airport and identify those who appear to be suspicious. That’s right: it will analyze pulse rate, breathing, skin temperature, and even “fleeting facial gestures”. People who are flagged as suspicious will be pulled aside for “enhanced screening”. Hoo boy.

DHS is bragging about this system because in tests with 140 people, some of whom were told to “act suspicious”, it correctly identified 78% of them. 78%! And they act like it’s some kind of triumph that people who were intentionally acting suspicious were flagged as such. A trained police officer– or possibly even an untrained clown from the street– could probably have identified every one of them.

Leaving aside the horrendous implications of a system designed to basically analyze our thoughts and intents, the mind reels to consider how colossally ineffective this system will actually be. I think Cory Doctorow’s analysis of such a system (written prior to this announcement) sums it up quite nicely.

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here’s a math lesson you need to learn first. It’s called “the paradox of the false positive,” and it’s a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-AIDS. Only one in a million people gets Super-AIDS. You develop a test for Super-AIDS that’s 99 percent accurate. I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result: true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy. You give the test to a million people.

One in a million people have Super-AIDS. One in a hundred people that you test will generate a “false positive”– the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn’t. That’s what “99 percent accurate” means: one percent wrong.

What’s one percent of one million?

1,000,000/100 = 10,000

One in a million people has Super-AIDS. If you test a million random people, you’ll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS. But your test won’t identify one person as having Super-AIDS. It will identify 10,000 people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent inaccuracy.

That’s the paradox of the false positive. When you try to find something really rare, your test’s accuracy has to match the rarity of the thing you’re looking for. If you’re trying to point at a single pixel on your screen, a sharp pencil is a good pointer: the pencil-tip is a lot smaller (more accurate) than the pixels. But a pencil-tip is no good at pointing at a single atom in your screen. For that, you need a pointer– a test– that’s one atom wide or less at the tip.

This is the paradox of the false positive, and here’s how it applies to terrorism:

Terrorists are really rare. In a city of twenty million like New York, there might be one or two terrorists. Maybe ten of them at the outside. 10/20,000,000 = 0.00005 percent. One twenty-thousandth of a percent.

That’s pretty rare all right. Now, say you’ve got some software that can sift through all the bank-records, or toll-pass records, or public transit records, or phone-call records in the city and catch terrorists 99 percent of the time.

In a pool of twenty million people, a 99 percent accurate test will identify two hundred thousand people as being terrorists. But only ten of them are terrorists. To catch ten bad guys, you have to haul in and investigate two hundred thousand innocent people.

Guess what? Terrorism tests aren’t anywhere close to 99 percent accurate. More like 60 percent accurate. Even 40 percent accurate, sometimes.

What this all means is that the Department of Homeland Security has set itself up to fail badly. They are trying to spot incredibly rare events– a person is a terrorist– with inaccurate systems.

I can hardly wait to go to the airport this Friday to fly to St. Louis.

09/16/2008

Sunny.
No clouds.
No wind.
77 degrees.

An awesome time for ultimate. Game on.

09/13/2008

Charles Gibson interviewed Sarah Palin on Good Morning America and her answers to some of his questions were astounding.

For example, take this exchange:

PALIN: We’ve got to keep an eye on Russia. You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.

GIBSON: What insight does that give you into what they’re doing inside Georgia?

PALIN: Well, I’m giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relations with all of these countries, especially Russia.

Wow. Does she even know where Georgia is? Does she have any idea what’s been going on there for the past month? Her answer had absolutely zero content.

I’m not a foreign affairs expert, but even reading the occasional Yahoo News story gives me enough information to have an intelligent conversation about the situation. It sounds like our possible future vice president figures that since she can see the coastline from some point in her home state, she’ll be able to handle all of those silly men with their tanks and planes.

09/13/2008

People are dumb.

Hurricane Ike has been cruising toward the Texas coast for several days, and emergency planners issued mandatory evacuation orders for everyone living on Galveston Island, the low-lying area where Ike would hit first with full force. They used terms like “certain death” for those who refused to leave.

But, of course, people ignored them. Estimates currently say that upward of 100,000 people might still be in that area, and it’s likely many of them are dead. I’m all for free will and choosing for thyself, but sometimes you just have to see that your defiance of a hurricane the size of Texas isn’t really going to change the reality that it’s going to flatten your house and wash you away in a thirteen-foot wall of water.

Here’s a classic quote from a guy named Steven Rushing, who lives on Galveston Island:

My family is traumatized. I kept them here, promising them everything would be alright, but this is the real deal and I won’t stay no more.

I guess that’s the last time your family listens to your promises, Steven.

Worse than those who choose to foolishly “brave” the storm are those who stay and then, at the last minute, decide it’s not going to turn out so well and try to leave. They call– nay, demand– help from emergency personnel, and then we have noble police and firefighters who risk their own lives to save the dolts who refused to leave while the leaving was good.

I’m sympathetic to those who were hurt or killed in the storm, and clearly it’s a huge tragedy on many levels. But it’s hard for me to conjure up sympathy for the idiots who refuse to listen to the experts who are telling them it’s going to be a big deal.

09/12/2008

I managed to get a Super Nintendo emulator running on my hacked Xbox, which means I can play all of those cheesy arcade games I played at Dirk’s house when I was fourteen or whatever. I still remember when Tetris was the newest craze, when Super Mario World seemed unbeatable, and when Zelda’s quest was the coolest thing. I even remember Super Bomberman and Starfox from– I’m a little ashamed to admit– my college days.

But my favorite was Gradius, and now I’ve got it on my bigscreen in all its glory. Too bad I can’t beat the first level– clearly my skills have become rusty over the past twenty years.

Ahh, good times. Now my kids can see these games and tell me how much the graphics suck compared to today’s games.

09/12/2008

Every Friday evening we have Pizza and Movie Night, where we make homemade pizza and watch a movie that’s appropriate for the fam. Tonight we thoroughly enjoyed the Rifftrax version of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. Rifftrax is the brainchild of Mike Nelson, famous for creating the 90’s TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. Basically it’s an audio track that you play while you watch a movie on DVD, and it’s Mike and a couple of his buddies cracking jokes throughout the movie.

What an absolute riot. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in a long time. Tears were rolling down my cheeks, and the kids were howling. Next time I think we’re going to take a look at the Rifftrax treatment of Lord of the Rings, which should be a real hoot as we laugh at The Dark Lord Sauron.

09/12/2008

Wow, it’s so wonderful having an account rep over at Dell.

Okay, not really. I’ve been ordering servers from them for about six years, and have spent tens of thousands of dollars. I’ve been assigned to three or four different reps over that time, as people come and go from the company. And every time I need to order a new server I call whoever my latest rep is, and ask if there’s any kind of deal they can offer me.

Keep in mind that I can go to the Dell web site and order a server any time, but I go through my account rep because I hope (foolishly, as it turns out) that they can beat the price offered to the unwashed heathen of the general public. But every time, I get the same line: something about “Well, gosh, Mr. Schroeder, those servers are priced so competitively that I can’t possibly beat the price! We’re actually losing money on them!”

Yes, that’s right– I’ve heard that last line more times than I can count. Dell is losing money on the servers they sell. For years. It’s amazing they’re still in business, since apparently their business model includes selling things for less than their cost. I’m no financial wizard, but that just seems like a dead-end route.

So anyway, I’m going to pick up one of their new Inspiron Mini laptops, which are spiffy little machines you can tuck in your back pocket. Okay, admittedly your back pocket would have to be unusually large, but it’s still about a fourth the size of my current Inspiron 8600 beast.

Because I was feeling particularly optimistic today, I called my newest rep, whose name is Ryan (no kidding) Krszjzaniek. And I was underwhelmed once again when he told me that he really can’t beat the price on the web site. “Those are brand new items,” he told me. “The pricing is very aggressive right now.”

Sigh.

So I find myself wondering what the heck those account reps really do. He must get some kind of commission on his sales to me, because he’s constantly sending me e-mail offers that include incredible deals like “buy three laptops, get one free!”. Whee. And every time I talk to him and find out he can’t help me at all, he’s asking whether there are any “upcoming projects” that might require me to call him and buy still more stuff at non-discounted prices. At least he doesn’t call me every other week like one of my old reps (despite repeatedly telling the guy that thanks, but I’ll call you when I need something).

Hopefully this little laptop will be as cool as it seems… should be fun.

09/09/2008

So tomorrow the smart guys over at CERN are going to fire up the Large Hadron Collider, which is the biggest particle accelerator ever built. There are some really cool experiments they can run with the kind of beam energy it produces, but there’s a huge hubbub right now because tomorrow morning (September 10) they’re going to “turn it on”. And some people think it’s going to create a black hole that will destroy the planet.

Of course, these are people who not only don’t know the facts, but aren’t terribly well-versed in science. The facts include such tidbits as:

  • The LHC has already been “turned on” and in fact has been undergoing testing for a few months now.
  • Tomorrow’s run will be at around 7% of its full operational level.
  • The Tevatron at Fermilab has been running at energies far higher than that for years, with no observed planet-destroying black hole activity.
  • And the science:

  • Even if a black hole was produced (an occurrence whose likelihood makes the lottery look like a good bet) it would be so small it would almost instantly evaporate in a burst of Hawking radiation.
  • Even if it didn’t evaporate– which would require Stephen Hawking, the smartest man alive, to be wrong– it would be so miniscule that its event horizon wouldn’t be more than an atom’s width.
  • And with an event horizon like that, it most certainly wouldn’t be able to destroy the planet.
  • But hey, sensationalism is much more fun, so there are people making death threats against the scientists, and of course a flurry of lawsuits intended to shut down the whole experiment. It’s laughable, really, but I suppose it underscores the fact that in general people are pretty ignorant of science. Or at least high-energy particle physics.

    Had I been planning ahead, I would’ve arranged an End of the World party last weekend or something. That would’ve been fun.

    In the meantime, someone thoughtfully created a web site that will tell us the current status of the LHC’s planet-busting mission. It’s hosted at www.hasthelhcdestroyedtheearth.com and currently says

    So if the earth is indeed destroyed, remember to check the web site to confirm it.

09/08/2008

“What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is a collection of books.”

— Thomas Carlyle

09/07/2008

My friends the Wyziks celebrated the first birthday of their son Simon today, so I sent them a little note along these lines:

I don’t know if this happened to Simon, but it happened to EVERY ONE of my kids: on their first birthday we’d give them a cupcake or Rice Krispie Treat or whatever with a candle on it, and they’d be fascinated by the candle. So, naturally, being one year old and having the brainpower of cabbage, they’d reach out to touch the magical flickering light.

The results were pretty predictable, and of course we’d all laugh. I’m sure we’re going to Parent Hell for it, but I figure it teaches the little tykes a good lesson.

So if Simon didn’t get to experience his own journey of discovery about fire, I recommend it. Do it now before it’s too late and he’s a 14-year-old pyromaniac lighting M-60’s in your back yard.

Ahh, good times. The sequence below is Zack, circa 2002.

09/04/2008

So last night I was driving down I-25 and there was an amazing sunset over the mountains. Gorgeous.

Since I have this spiffy new e-mail capability, I thought how cool it would be to send a quick message from my cell phone to my blog. So I flipped open the phone and started texting.

driving down i25. beautiful.

It took me about three miles to get that in, because of course I’m flying down the road at 80mph and have to keep at least half an eye on my driving. Then I had to enter the e-mail address for the message, and wow is it tricky to do that when you don’t know how to create an at-sign on a teensy phone keypad.

In the end I decided that mentioning the beautiful sunset could probably wait until a time when I wasn’t careening along at 80mph.

09/02/2008

More updates to the ol’ blog software… I fixed the RSS feed (which has been broken for years) and updated a bunch of programming and URLs so things are more organized and have nicer links.

One of these days I’m going to redesign it and (drumroll please) add commenting capabilities, which all three of my fans have requested.

09/01/2008

“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”

— Thomas Huxley