August 21, 2003
what a way to go
Apparently nocturnal laughing is dangerous, too, though certainly less a threat than elevators. I really would like to know what was so funny.
August 20, 2003
the nerd vote
If you read this blog, you've probably seen this already, but Berkeley EECS' finest gubernatorial candidate is well on her way to locking in the nerd vote. Roll on you Bears...
I took one of those stupid web quiz-thingies after seeing an entry on metamanda's blog. Never knew that I was a screaming orgasm. I always considered myself more of the beer persuasion, but I suppose I must humbly defer to the superior judgment of the wise web quiz.
Congratulations! You're a screaming orgasm!!
August 19, 2003
earl warren? pretty dope
"It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive."
Despite his unfortunate, and later profoundly regretted, role in the immoral internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII, Earl Warren, California governor turned Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was a pretty interesting dude. Despite that particularly grievous blemish on his gubernatorial record, he did go on to lead the highest court in the land through a series of profound decisions promoting civil rights, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education.
I've been told that my grandfather (who was head attorney for General Mills), used to play Bridge (and take down some drinks) with ol' Earl, so he always peaked my interest. Describing this to someone else, I remembered that Warren somehow 'weaseled' his way into the Chief Justice seat. Searching for the forgotten details led me to this passage:
"Warren's successor as governor, Goodwin J. Knight, was to relate in later years that Eisenhower had promised Warren the first vacancy on the Supreme Court in return for delivering the California vote to him, but intended to renege when the first vacancy turned out to be in the office of chief justice. The court's leader, Fred M. Vinson, died on Sept. 8, 1953. Warren had the Viking spirit; he was ready to fight.
As Knight (the lieutenant governor under Warren) recounted it, Warren gave the president an ultimatum: appoint him to the first vacancy, as promised, or he would resign as governor and stomp the nation, denouncing the president as a liar. The following month, Ike nominated Warren to the nation's highest judicial office. Warren won easy Senate confirmation."
How bad ass is that? Ike liberated Europe for Christ's sake, and this man walked all over him. And he also got one of the coolest eulogizing statements I've heard:
A Warren biographer, Jack Harrison Pollack, wrote in 1978:
"High on the facade of the majestic Supreme Court building in Washington, four words are chiseled in stone: 'Equal Justice Under Law.' To a Scandinavian immigrant's son who became an embattled judge, this was no empty phrase nor architect's gimmick. Others — including perhaps the majority of today's Supreme Court — tend to emphasize the word 'Law.' Earl Warren stressed 'Equal Justice.' "
This is horrible. Your bad day doesn't seem so bad now, does it? So be careful... "Elevators and escalators kill about 30 and injure about 17,100 people each year in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission." Our mechanized stair replacements are a much bigger public health hazard than both vending machines and shark attacks. Good news for us diving folk. Bad news for you high-risers and mall rats.
In what little free surfing time I've had as of late (I even had to pass up a day at the horse races for work, much to the dismay of my seabiscuit-enamored friends), I came across an article on Michael Moore at kuro5hin, attempting to rebut an earlier article denouncing the film Bowling for Columbine as a series of lies, misrepresentations, and intentional deception through the use of "brilliant" editing. This in turn is followed by a somewhat coarse rebuttal to the rebuttal.
I found these all to be interesting reads, having greatly, albeit skeptically, enjoyed the film. Of course the film is biased (it makes no secret of that), and possibly even lopsided in its facts, and though there is plenty I could say in the matter, I think it's really not worth the trouble, so I will make my remarks quick.
Reading these articles is painful, because there are valid points being made on both sides that are sadly drowned in a sea of animosity and righteousness. In some areas of social discourse, it seems increasingly impossible to maintain a rational exchange. Nowhere is this more true than politics. Opposing sides quickly devolve into hateful, war-mongering bigots and weak, unpatriotic, treasonous worms (or whatever other pejoratives are currently in vogue). Engaging in a battle against people of this mindset with the goal of enlightening them is largely a fool's errand. The best one can hope to do is reach those open minds who may be listening to the argument. Winning these people over is the only true victory of such debates... all the more so since it often seems that closed minds and big mouths tend to be highly correlated. But if this conversion of opinion is achieved sheerly through emotional identification and/or manipulation, it is a hollow victory, waiting to be replaced by the next savvy speaker. I'm not so naive to deny the importance of anecdote, hyperbole, etc... we often want speakers and leaders to sway our emotions, to inspire and lead, but to do so on a foundation of persuasive logic, insight, and planning.
Where am I going with all this? I'm not quite sure. It's late, I've been working way too much, and I fear I may be degrading into rant-mode. But let me leave with this: truth is elusive, but at best we can seek it honestly, without half-heartedly pursuing it as a tool to stab our opponents. It would be wonderful if more public figures, and those who wish to comment on them, perpetuated that attitude.
August 18, 2003
Howdy y'all. Been a while since my last post, as I've been slaving away for the man this past week or so, trying to get a big demo put together for work. I've been working this summer on an architecture for building a wide range of interactive graph visualizations, and using the architecture to build new visualization tools to support intelligence analysts. On Wednesday, a bunch of folks from the intelligence community who have been funding this work are rolling into town and we get to show off our stuff. Exciting, but it has kept me rather busy. In the meantime, I'll post a few interesting tidbits when I can, and hopefully will be able to post more regularly by the end of the week (hopefully DSL has been turned on at my new place by the time I get back there).
August 13, 2003
faking out friendster
Here's an article (via Salon) on the rapidly expanding web phenomenon that is friendster: Friendster is beginning to crack down on "fakesters", artificial friendster members ranging from deities to comic characters to ancient conquerers to abstract social phenomena. How would you like to have God, Homer Simpson, Beer Goggles, Charlemagne, and Conan O'Brien in your social circle? Well, not for long, according to Friendster CEO Jonathan Abrams. Enjoy the craziness while you can, and, more importantly, enjoy fee-free friend-linking while it lasts.
The article got some of my geekier sensibilities going. I'd love to get a hold of friendster's database... not only for some wonderful visualization opportunities, but also to start doing some analysis and data mining. Just imagine computing a PageRank for people and performing collaborative filtering for friends. Don't be surprised if friendster starts rolling out such advanced features in the future... though, first things first, they really need to get their systems engineering going and speed up their site. It often takes over a minute just to follow a link these days...
August 12, 2003
While it seems that no one likes Gray Davis, a recent article on Salon provides a little perspective, reiterating some commonly known facts that so far have been strangely missing from much of the recall media coverage. Here are some quotes:
"Was Davis responsible for manufacturing spikes in energy prices that nearly bankrupted the state? Of course not -- but he took the political hit when the lights went out. It's a safe bet that Schwarzenegger and the other Republicans running will offer not a word of criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney's infamous meetings with top energy executives that excluded consumer representatives."
"Davis erred in paying too much to get the lights back on, but I dare any of the Republican candidates to step forward and say they would not have bailed out PG&E and Southern California Edison. They will not because they have no real solutions to the energy problems or any other problems the state faces. Certainly they will not curtail the heavy influence of the prison guards and other law-enforcement unions that are milking the state budget and that form Davis' most reliable base of support. Clearly Davis' fundraising is obscenely obsessive, but it's minor compared with Bush's nonstop money machine."
"If you think politics is all a joke anyway, then vote for whichever opportunist makes you laugh the most. But if you think that meaningful representative democracy requires the scrutiny of the serious primary and election process that Davis has twice weathered, then for a small "d" democrat, a "no" vote on the recall is an obligation."
August 11, 2003
I just got back the pictures from last month's dive trip. While the cheapo underwater camera I bought did stand up to the water pressure, it had a hard time standing up to the bad visibility and lack of light at the bottom of the ocean. Here's some of the photos that did develop:
I think next time I try this I will focus more on better-lit shallow water areas, or do close ups where the flash is more effective (like the starfish on the pipe). And hopefully next time will also be on a day with good visibility. On a bad day in Monterey you can only see 7 ft ahead, and eyes are much better at adjusting than disposable cameras.
August 08, 2003
Taking us one step closer to the diamond age, my undergraduate physics professor has just created the smallest motor ever built by man... a gold rotor on carbon nanotube shaft, 300 times smaller than a human hair.
"It's the smallest synthetic motor that's ever been made," said Alex Zettl, professor of physics at UC Berkeley and faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Nature is still a little bit ahead of us - there are biological motors that are equal or slightly smaller in size - but we are catching up."
speech: al gore
Al Gore recently gave an interesting speech. He has plenty of tough criticism for the Bush administration, but his thesis runs deeper than that, focusing on the lack of thorough debate, both in Congress and in the media, on contemporary political and economic issues. These passages summarize it quite well:
"It seems obvious that big and important issues like the Bush economic policy and the first Pre-emptive War in U.S. history should have been debated more thoroughly in the Congress, covered more extensively in the news media, and better presented to the American people before our nation made such fateful choices. But that didn't happen, and in both cases, reality is turning out to be very different from the impression that was given when the votes -- and the die -- were cast."
" Earlier, I mentioned the feeling many have that something basic has gone wrong. Whatever it is, I think it has a lot to do with the way we seek the truth and try in good faith to use facts as the basis for debates about our future -- allowing for the unavoidable tendency we all have to get swept up in our enthusiasms.
That last point is worth highlighting. Robust debate in a democracy will almost always involve occasional rhetorical excesses and leaps of faith, and we're all used to that. I've even been guilty of it myself on occasion. But there is a big difference between that and a systematic effort to manipulate facts in service to a totalistic ideology that is felt to be more important than the mandates of basic honesty. "
Thanks to Joe Conason's Journal for the link.
August 06, 2003
Arnold's going to run for Governor. Waiting in line to be terminated are Gary "what you talkin' about Willis" Coleman, Larry "the smut peddler who cares" Flynt, Arianna "the recovering Republican" Huffington, Darrell "but I paid for this!" Issa, Georgy "check out my thong" Russell, and that weird weasel guy. I think Conley may be on the right track. Perhaps we can turn this into a reality TV show, and put it on PayPerView. Then, as with any good circus, the rest of the world will have to pay to watch, and this stupid recall might fund itself, rather than coming out of the already empty state treasury.
In any case, hang on, fellow Californians. It's going to be a wild ride.
I just read this article at PC Magazine, and found it interesting enough to jot down some notes. Check it out...
metafilter had enough interesting blurbs today to motivate a post... Starbucks is under attack in SF, the magical combination of Google images and digital camera naming schemes can allow you to practice voyeurism from across the globe, and insects run police states.
August 05, 2003
georgy for gov?
Ah, California and its ridiculous recall. For only $3500 plus a petition signed by 65 qualified voters, you too can be a gubernatorial candidate. And people are answering the call, from Larry Flynt to Arianna Huffington. And while we wait for Arnold to make up his mind, the latest candidate of interest is fellow UC Berkeley Computer Science graduate, 26-year-old Georgina "Georgy" Russell. Her website, www.georgyforgov.com includes her platform (including clean energy, a balanced budget, and gay marriages), her blog (concerning both political commentary and obscure geeky license plates), and her merchandise (which ranges from t-shirts to thong underwear). She's even been picking up a little press recently.
Sadly, I have not had the honor of meeting the esteemed Mz. Russell, though rumor has it she graduated 2 years before me, and even received tutoring from a certain honor society I was once president of (did I mention that I am a dork?). Still, I wish her all the best and sincerely hope she meets her fundraising goals and pulls in more votes than Darrell "I could never win an actual state-wide election so will try to buy one instead" Issa. Though if push came to shove, I think my top left-field choice for governor would be metamanda. She could be both the first female governor and the first governor to give the state-of-the-state address in combat boots and a sex pistols shirt. Take that, stiff east coast types.
I just read this paper by my research group's principal scientist, Peter Pirolli, and former PARC employee Wai-Tat Fu. The paper, entitled "SNIF-ACT: A Model of Information Foraging on the World Wide Web", recently won the Best Theoretical Paper Award at the 9th International Conference on User Modeling.
The paper extends the existing ACT-R cognitive modeling infrastructure to computationally simulate users surfing the web, at a fairly fine-grained psychological level. The system models the user's goals, knowledge, memory, and abilities (in the form of production rules) and combines these with the findings of Information Foraging theory to create a successful model of web surfing and decision making. Information Foraging theory applies the metaphor of animals foraging for food to the task of humans seeking information. In previous work, Pirolli and Card have found that the equations governing the cost structures of the two are the same.
The SNIF-ACT model works by extracting the content and links of a web page and then using a technique known as spreading activation to propagate "activity" through an associative memory network of individual words. Activation proceeds from the modeled user goals through the terms in working memory and out to the currently observed web content. Link weightings between word associations are determined by using word occurence and co-occurrence rates extracted from AltaVista. By finding the highest mutual activity between user goals and available links, the system can compute an estimate of the information scent (much like the scent tracked down by animals in the wild), and use this to construct a probability distribution of the likelihood of following different links. Drop-offs in scent measures are also used to predict when a user will leave the current web site to look elsewhere for a richer information patch (analogous to an animal moving on to greener pastures or hunting an easier prey). The SNIF-ACT model is psychologically richer than previous foraging-influenced systems like Bloodhound, which primarily uses techniques from the information retrieval (IR) field and earlier flawed cognitive approaches.
For more details about information foraging theory and it's applications, check out this essay by pixelcharmer (it even cites my first research paper!), this copy of a talk by Pete Pirolli, and my research group's publication archives.
There are at least two interesting avenues for this work to follow. One is in applications, as successful user models can create better automated usability metrics and could learn from individual behavior to create personalized research and surfing tools. The second is to simultaneously move from the web to other domains, building user models for other content-rich domains (e.g., information visualization). Down the road, I think the integration of content-based and perception-based (e.g. computer vision and audition) analyses will be the next big research leap - creating richer, more realistic, models of user behavior and furthering artificial intelligence research.
stop piracy now!
Last night on television I saw my first anti-piracy commercial. My roommate and I almost laughed our asses off. Almost I say, because the commercial was just too painfully banal to be taken jovially. According to our esteemed friends at the RIAA and MPAA, music and video piracy is a leech on our proud capitalist society, threatening the livelihoods of millions of people, not just the artists (because it's the job of these corporations to rip off the artists, and we're encroaching on their turf), but all the staff behind the scenes: from producers, to tech support, to the stage hands. Now don't you feel bad for the misery you've incurred? Just like that one time you bought an eighth of weed and unwittingly funded the 9/11 tragedy? Give me a break.
It has become cliche now, but these are the same people who initially violently opposed VCRs, not realizing home video would become their greatest revenue stream. Commercials are all well and good, but when legislation passes that unfairly sacrifices personal rights for those of copyright holders, it is a whole other issue. If you have some spare cash, think about giving it to the EFF before handing it over to these wankers.
After receiving a clearly propagandizing e-mail about Hillary Clinton's alleged defense of murderous Black Panther members during her Yale Law School days, I decided to look a little bit deeper. I'm not a big fan of Mrs. Clinton, but the e-mail was way too vociferous to be believable. A little googling revealed (in addition to an apparent advertising google bomb of sorts around the story's keywords) both this article at about.com and this report at snopes.com, confirming my skeptical intuition. Snopes.com is particularly cool, featuring a large archive examining different urban legends. It has a nice treatment of a similar e-mail regarding Jane Fonda's involvement with the North Vietnamese, and it doesn't speak well for Jane. What I really appreciate at this site (and of all good journalists and researchers) is the one thing that is missing from all the e-mail propaganda: the list of sources and attributions at the end.
The thought of the political powers that be using misinforming e-mails like this to influence the populace seems both alarming and quite probable. But it is just another brick in the wall of our current climate of misinformation, ranging from Fox News ("fair and balanced" my ass) through factually-challenged pundits and wanna-be journalists/historians like (the still admittedly enjoyable) Michael Moore and (the unabashedly false) Ann Coulter. Is it any wonder that level-headed Americans may be turning to British broadcasting for their news? But even underneath the skin of the most ardent skeptic, we must admit: we tend to believe that which agrees with us.
August 04, 2003
movie: coral reef
Despite the logical and narrative structure designed for 8 year olds, this movie was incredible. I'm intensely interested in diving (I've been certified for about a year now), and this film is visually magnificent... showcasing amazing coral reefs and tracking aquatic life across the South Pacific. Some of the highlights include witnessing and learning the ecosystem of the coral reefs (the kind and number of symbiotic relationships between species is amazing), watching how an octopus scavenges along for food, discovering the difference between a standard island and an atoll (yes, I'm a dork), seeing divers descend over 350 feet (!) into reefs thousands of years old, and watching the divers find a school of over 300 reef sharks while caught in a current leaving them unable to control their trajectory!
I'm now all the more amped on upping my certification level to advanced open water diver.
Haven't posted in a while, as I was offline the past half-week, moving into my beautiful new home with a bay view. Life is rough :)
Here's an intriguing article on the future of RSS and syndication formats that should be of interest to many bloggers and content managers.