Sunday, October 29, 2006

Why I Should Start Watching Letterman Again

Letterman eviscerates Bill O'Reilly. Money quote:

O'Reilly:It isn't so black and white, Dave — it isn't, 'We're a bad country. Bush is an evil liar.' That's not true.
Letterman: I didn't say he was an evil liar. You're putting words in my mouth, just the way you put artificial facts in your head!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Life Imitates Art, part N+1

This time, it's this story of a 19-year-old who disabled a carjacker/kidnapper by crashing the car. (The kidnapper/carjacker was not wearing a seatbelt.)

I can't be the only one who immediately thought of Larry Niven's "The Deadlier Weapon", can I? And my wife, when I mentioned the story to her, immediately thought of the season 1 finale of Veronica Mars.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Paging O. Henry....

Does no one read O. Henry any more? I'm saddened that no one mentioned "The Cop and the Anthem" in this AP story, titled "Jobless man asks judge for jail time".

Trust Laundering

If there's any phrase I wish I could insert into the national political consciousness, it would be trust laundering.

It's the perfect way to tie all of the Republicans together into one neat package, so we can toss them overboard all at once. The Foley cover-up scandal is the perfect mimetic carrier for this.

This provides a simple rhetorical hook to allow us to talk to moderate Republicans and unaffiliated people who have voted Republican in the past:

"No matter how decent or moderate or reasonable your local Republican Representative or Senator is,", we can say, "they still vote in the Republican caucus, and elect as their leaders people like Dennis Hastert and John Boehner, who have been covering for a sexual predator. They take your trust, and then, just like money laundering, they hand it up to their leadership, who abuses it."

The trust laundering goes farther, of course: the Republicans in Congress further launder this trust to support (some might say lie down for, or even bend over for) a President whose handling of the country a large majority of the population disapproves of.

The list of Bush's faults isn't worth getting into here (and it's probably preaching to the choir), but if you know someone who disapproves of Bush's handling of the country, but still feels it reasonable to vote for a Republican Representative or Senator because that Republican is a decent person, ask them "would a decent person support someone who covers for sexual predators?"

Random does not imply Equally Distributed

Via Slashdot a few days ago: Steven Levy on the secrets of the iPod shuffle. Executive summary: the iPod "shuffle" feature really is random, but since our big hairless ape brains are supreme pattern finders, we see patterns where there are none.

Most interesting tidbit:

But the non-randomness illusion was so prevalent that ultimately Apple felt compelled to address it. In the version of iTunes rolled out in September 2005, there appeared a new feature: smart shuffle. It presents iPodders with a scroll bar that "allows you to control how likely you are to hear multiple songs in a row by the same artists or on the same album". If you pull the lever to the right, the iPod will mess with its usual distribution pattern, intentionally spacing out songs by a given artist. As Jobs explained it in his presentation the day the new iTunes rolled out, he gave what he hoped would be the last word on the Great iPod Randomness Controversy: "We're making it less random to make it feel more random."

This is something that's driven me nuts for years: random does not imply equally distributed. In fact, it's randomness that leads to us seeing patterns. To borrow an example from Stephen Jay Gould, think of constellations: evenly distributed stars would not have any patterns -- they'd be in a grid or something. It is, in fact, the bunchiness that comes from a random distribution that leads to patterns emerging.

An example:

While I was a grad student at Harvard, the Administration (headed by the Dean, who was a computer scientist [remember this]) decided to switch to pure random placement of non-freshmen into the Harvard Houses. The previous placement method had been a weird ad-hoc system of "non-ordered choice", with a random component to spice things up; this had in turn replaced "ordered choice", which had replaced "apply to the House and see if the upper class twits would accept you". Or some such wonderfully egalitarian system.

In any case, while I was there (and a Tutor in Leverett House, if you're curious), It Was Decided that non-ordered choice had to go. (My interpretation: under non-ordered choice, a significant number of black students managed to end up living in the same House. And that Was Not To Be Borne.) So they went for random choice. (Ironically, one of the major justifications for it was "It's the way that Yale does it", which strikes me as simply insane, since Harvard's justification for 95% of everything else it does is "We're Harvard, we're not like other places, and especially we're not like Yale.")

In the Random Choice method, each freshman would join a rooming group (of up to 20 students) and rooming groups would be randomly placed in a House. Details of The Placement Algorithm were tightly guarded. (Clearly it couldn't be pure randomness -- the Houses all had different capacities and whatever assignments were made had to fit the number of rooms.)

The first year after they implemented the Random Choice method, they ended up with Houses with drastically skewed gender ratios in their sophomore cohorts: the combination of the large rooming groups (which were largely single-sex) and the random placement meant that some Houses got a lot more men than others, and some few got equal numbers of men and women. (Harvard was one of the last universities in the country to reach gender parity in its student body, and it hadn't yet done so at that time, so no House got more women than men, as far as I know.)

There was a great kerfluffle. Perhaps even a hullaballoo. "How could the gender ratios gotten so far off?" came the cries, with much rending of garments. "It was random!"

Because, you see, random does not imply equally distributed. Especially for small numbers.

Now the Dean of Harvard at the time, you may recall (if you read carefully above -- you didn't realize there was going to be a quiz, did you?) was a computer scientist. One of the major problems in computer science is the generation of random (or more accurately pseudo-random) numbers. It undergirds all cryptography, after all. So my question for years has been: how the heck did Harvard's computer scientist Dean not understand this?

Clearly, being a Harvard professor may mean you're smart, but it doesn't mean you're wise.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Friendly Plug: Twenty Epics

John Scalzi blogged about Twenty Epics a couple of months ago. I thought it sounded interesting (the structuring conceit of the anthology is that each story tells an epic tale in 10,000 words or less), but this was in the middle of our two-weddings-and-a-funeral summer, so I more or less forgot about it.

A short while ago, I got back in touch with a friend I had fallen out of touch with, and it turns out he had a story published in Twenty Epics. When I found that out, I went and ordered the book immediately, read his story first, and quite enjoyed it. I then read the rest of the stories, and other than one or two which were a little too elliptical for my taste, I enjoyed them all.

So if you like epics you can read in less than half an hour, go get yourself a copy and enjoy. Or not. De gustibus non est disputandum.