Disintermediation of education

Posted in Technology trends at 3:33 pm by ducky

It’s happening!

Twelve years ago, I started talking about disintermediation of education. Today I read an article in The Economist that talks about a gentleman from India named Krishnan Ganesh who has set up a company to provide Indian tutors to American schoolchildren.



Torture propaganda

Posted in Canadian life, Politics at 8:58 pm by ducky

I don’t have a TV, so am not current with a lot of popular North American culture.

I knew that “24” was a very popular series, but was shocked to hear that torture is shown in almost every episode and that it is portrayed as being effective. If I were more of a conspiracy-theorist, I would suspect the U.S. military-industrial complex of being behind “24”. Maybe this would explain why Americans seem distressingly comfortable with torture. The Republican candidates (absent the one who was actually tortured) endorse “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

Some say that in the “ticking time bomb” scenario, torture is a good idea. I can maybe agree with my government torturing in the following circumstances:

  1. Nobody will ever ever find out that my government tortured the victim. If it becomes known that my government tortures people, then my life and the lives of people I care about get riskier. Not only will my enemies be more willing to torture in retaliation, but the torture will turn more people into my enemies.
  2. The victims are all guilty (i.e. is hiding secrets that will save many many civilian lives). If my government tortures innocent people, that will really piss off them their loved ones, their friends, their neighbors, their hairdresser, etc. It can also make allied countries less willing to cooperate with my government.  Furthermore, I am (and I presume you are) innocent.  If my government is willing to torture innocent people, what’s to stop them from torturing you and me?
  3. The victims will never give false or misleading information. If they fabricate information, that could lead to resources being spent unwisely.  And if you can’t be sure of what the victim tells you, why bother?

Point 1:  The only way that you might be able to hide the torture is if you kill them after you are done torturing them. You then have to figure out where to dispose of the body so that nobody finds it.  And, if you kill too many, people will figure it out anyway (witness the disappeared).

Point 1 is not possible.  You cannot have a systemic policy that encourages torture — or even one that only weakly punishes subordinates who torture — and expect people to not find out about it.

Point 2: Oh come on.  You can’t tell me that my government bureaucracy would never make a mistake?

Besides, they have demonstrated pretty convincingly that they can make mistakes — see the Maher Arer case.  So Point 2 is not possible.

Point 3: I am weak, I admit it.  It wouldn’t take that much beating to get me to talk.  However, I also believe that sadists gravitate to the job of torturer.  (If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do a very good job.)  I figure that it wouldn’t really matter what I said — that if they are going to hurt me they will either hurt me or stop with little regard for what I say.  And if I believe that I will give bogus information, why should I believe that people with stronger convictions than I wouldn’t do an even better job of it?

So Point 3 is not possible.

Let’s review: I’m only willing for my government to use torture only if all three points hold, and I believe that none of the points can ever hold.

No torture.  Ever.   It’s a supremely bad idea.


I'm not in California any more…

Posted in Canadian life at 5:42 pm by ducky

As Jim, I, and nine of our Green College neighbors tumbled out of the restaurant, Andrea groaned about a big blister on her foot. She was also carrying a violin case and a big bag, so I considered letting her take my place in our car and taking the bus home myself.

I hesitated for a moment, however, because it was after dark. It would be a bit slower, more lonely, and there was the chance of getting harassed traveling by myself. Still, being middle-aged but unblistered and unburdened, I would have an easier time on the bus than young, beautiful, burdened, and blistered Andrea. And this is Canada — the buses are pretty safe.

So Jim took Andrea and three other Greenies home. As we parted company, I gulped and squared my shoulders for the journey home alone. I took about two steps and realized that all six of the other Greenies were headed towards that same bus home!

I had assumed that I would be taking the bus myself because in California, everybody drove. In a similar circumstance in California, everyone else would have driven home. Not true here!


LOLcats are the new ethnic joke

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 9:22 pm by ducky

You are reading my blog, so you probably do enough web surfing to have seen the meme/joke/fad called LOLcats. (Unless you’re my mom. Hi, Mom! In the LOLcat genre, people put captions with a particular patois onto pictures of cats. Note that the language used for the captions is “bad” — incorrect by the standard rules of English — but relatively consistent.)

Why are they funny? Why are they popular? I think LOLcats are the new ethnic joke.

First, the cats are stupid, in much the way that the butts of old ethnic jokes were stupid. Having stupid protagonists makes it easier to set the audience up to form an expectation of “reasonable” behaviour, and then deliver a completely different behaviour. That’s funny.


Q: Why did the blonde scale the chain-link fence?
A: To see what was on the other side.

The joke is only funny because “to see what was on the other side” is not reasonable behaviour.

In a similar manner, the LOLcats can be stupid. Consider this one. There are lots of reasonable reasons why the cat’s leg is shaved, yet the cat comes up with a preposterous one.

Second, a lot of the appeal in both jokes comes from shared context. Recognizing shared context feels intimate, and that makes it easier for us to laugh. Consider:

Two black guys are walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, when they realize they both have to take a leak. There’s no place else to go, so they just take a whiz off the side of the bridge. While they are taking their leaks, one says to the other, “Dang! That water’s cold!” The other one says, “Yeah, and deep, too!”

This joke depends upon the audience knowing that there is a stereotype of black men having really long penises. Blonde jokes depend upon the stereotype of blondes being stupid; many also depend upon a stereotype of blondes being promiscuous and/or pretty; some also depend on a stereotype of brunettes being intelligent yet unattractive.

A lot of the LOLcats jokes are also only funny if you have shared content. We sometimes share recognition of the recurring form of the speech: “I’m in ur X Y-ing ur Z“, “Do not want“, or “Oh hai“. We sometimes share recognition of the recurring content of invisible objects, buckets, and cheeseburgers.

Why are buckets funny? Only because they are shared context. It doesn’t matter what the running jokes are, only that they are understood by everybody. (Why was JJ Walker’s “Dy-no-mite!” funny in the 1970s? Why was “NOT!” at the end of sentences funny in the late 1980s? Why was “Don’t have a cow!” funny in the 1990s? Because they were shared context that bound us together.)

Ethnic jokes could be really funny, but it is also clear just how damaging they can be. (I’m ashamed to say that when I first met a Polish boy in my youth, I was surprised that he wasn’t stupid.) I am glad that I don’t hear/read nearly as many ethnic jokes as I did thirty years ago.

LOLcats are a perfect substitute for ethnic jokes. The cats won’t get their feelings hurt if your jokes make them look stupid. No cat will mind if a shared understanding develops among us humans that all cats like cheeseburgers or like to play with invisible toys. We can make as much fun of cats as we want, and the jokes will be funny.

And that’s a good thing.


Yay! Stored Communications Act overturned at Appeals level!

Posted in Politics, Random thoughts, Technology trends at 9:23 pm by ducky

Yay!! Wired Magazine tells me that the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio has overturned the Stored Communications Act!

Basically, the Stored Communications Act made it possible for the government to seize your email records directly from your ISP, without a warrant, and without ever telling you. While I understand that many people are all in favor of violating civil rights of guilty people, I am really really against violating the rights of innocent people, and any time you make it easy to violate the civil rights of guilty people, you pretty much guarantee that some innocent people’s rights will be violated as well.

I thus see this verdict as a Good Thing.  Go EFF!  Go ACLU!


Email overload

Posted in Email at 10:37 pm by ducky

I’ve been watching the blogosphere “discover” email overload recently. Merlin Mann has recently posted about email overload on 43folders about Larry Lessig declaring email bankruptcy, and Itzy Sabo has an entire blog about email overload. Boingboing.net just posted that one of their authors will be interviewing Mark Hurst about email overload.

I’m a bit bothered by an implicit characterization that “email is the problem.” This isn’t fair to the medium. Your problem is that lots of people give you stuff to do. (“Read my message” falls into the category of “stuff to do”.)

People have been overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that other people give them to do since long before email. Before email, I would get overwhelmed by phone calls, memos about so-and-so getting promoted, packages from HR detailing the new benefits plan, people stopping by my office, presentations, meetings meetings meetings and more meetings. The fact that all of the stuff to do now arrives via email does not make it email’s fault.

Yes, it is true that more people send me things by email than used to send me paper documents. However, I don’t have to go to nearly as many presentations as in the days before email. Once upon a time, back when I started working in 1984, it was routine to go to a meeting where someone would present information in almost a lecture format. These were pretty boring because only about 20% applied to me, but I had to sit through the 80% that applied to the other people in the room.

The only alternative to presentations was for the presenter to instead write a big thick report and either make 20 copies and put them in everyone’s snailmailboxes or have one copy with a distribution list written on it. When the one person read it, he or she would check off his or her name and pass it on to the next person.

The big thick report would have to be big and thick because, like the presentation, only about 10% applied to me. Unfortunately, the big thick report had to cover not only everything that any of the readers might be interested in, but it also had to anticipate any questions that any of the participants might have, because it wasn’t easy to ask questions later. I couldn’t ask the bigthickreport, and I probably would have a hard time finding the author to ask a question. He or she was likely to be in a meeting, and in 1984, we didn’t even have voicemail. I could write a message, walk over to their desk, and leave it on their desk, but that was a pain. Now, with email, what reaches me tends to be more focused to me and doesn’t have to answer every single last question, so tends to be shorter.

Similarly, I save time from not having to prepare presentations or to write big thick reports. Instead of sending out a monolithic memos later, I send out smaller, more targeted messages sooner. I can also leave out things that my audience probably doesn’t care about. If they need clarification, they can send me email.

In addition, if you are an online celebrity (like Larry Lessig), of course you are going to get lots of email — just as you would have gotten lots of snailmail if you were a celebrity before 1994. Getting fan email is as much the dark side of being an online celebrity as it is the dark side of email.

Furthermore, the problem looks worse than it is because the people who are most widely-read are (by definition!) on-line celebrities, and who will unsurprisingly get more email than most people.

If someone doesn’t have a problem with email overload, they probably aren’t going to say so. I debated for about five minutes whether I was brave enough to say this: I do not have a problem with email overload. I hesitated before writing that because I was worried that

  • my friends might take that as carte blanche to forward me that stupid joke about the cat and the polar bear.
  • friendly strangers might feel free to ask me what the joke about the cat and the polar bear is. (There is no joke about a cat and a polar bear. I made it up.)
  • grumpy strangers might take it as an invitation to flame me for what they interpreted as me saying that they don’t really have a problem. (For them: you do have a problem, really!)
  • I wouldn’t look as interesting. If I admit that I don’t have a problem with email overload, then people might think that I must be a total loser with no friends, a slacker whose boss doesn’t give her nearly enough to do, and not at all famous or interesting.

(I finally decided as the author of a book on email overload, I really should be brave enough to admit that I don’t have a problem with email overload.)

Now, I will freely acknowledge that email programs are not good at helping you get through your email. There are lots of things email programs could be doing better. But that’s the program‘s fault, not the email messages’ fault.

(Side note: basically, email programs don’t realize that your email inbox is a to-do list. Mark Hurst advocates emailing your action items to his to-do tool gootodo.com, but that merely shifts your to-do items from your inbox to somewhere else. What I heard over and over again when I was doing research for my email overload books was that once a message moved out of the inbox, they forgot about it. I am concerned that messages you send to gootodo.com will be similarly out of sight, out of mind. The one thing that might save gootodo.com is that it is the one to-do list manager that will let you defer messages.)

I will also freely admit that there are idiots in the world who send you messages that they shouldn’t. But that’s your correspondent’s fault, not the email messages’ fault (and not your fault, either). Furthermore, those idiots were also the ones who used to call pointless meetings, ambush you at the water cooler, stop by your office and drone on and on, etc. If I have to choose between a meeting that turns out to be pointless and an email message that turns out to be pointless, I would much much rather have the pointless message. If I know someone is an idiotic time-waster, I can trash their message pretty quickly.

I am convinced that in balance, email has saved a lot more time than it has wasted.

(Props to Itzy Sabo, who also has a “don’t shoot the messenger” post that I didn’t discover until after I had written this.)

Review: Some basic determinants of computer programming productivity

Posted in programmer productivity, review at 4:08 pm by ducky

Some basic determinants of computer programming productivity by Earl Chrysler (1978) measured the (self-reported) time it took professional programmers to complete COBOL code in the course of their work and looked for correlations.

He correlated the time it took with characteristics of the program and, not surprisingly, found a bunch of things that correlated with the number of hours that it took: the number of files, number of records, number of fields, number of output files, number of output records, number of output fields, mathematical operations, control breaks, and the number of output fields without corresponding input fields. This is not surprising, but it is rather handy to have had someone do this.

He then looked at various features of the programmers themselves to see what correlated. He found that experience, experience at that company, experience in programming business applications, experience with COBOL, years of education, and age all correlated, with age correlating the most strongly. (The older, the faster.) This was surprising. I’ve seen a number of other academic studies that seemed to show no effect of age or experience. The Vessey paper and the Schenk paper (which I will blog about someday, really!), for example, have some “experts” with very little experience and some “novices” with lots of experience.

The academic studies, however, tend to have a bunch of people getting timed doing the same small task. Maybe the people who are fastest in small tasks are the ones who don’t spend much time trying to understand the code — which might work for small tasks but be a less successful strategy in a long-term work environment.

Or the paper is just messed up. Or all the other papers are messed up.

Gotta love research.

Update: Turley and Bieman in Competencies of Exceptional and Non-Exceptional Software Engineers (1993) also say that experience is the only biographical predictor of performance. (“Exceptional engineers are more likely than non-exceptional engineers to maintain a ‘big picture’, have a bias for action, be driven by a sense of mission, exhibit and articulate strong convictions, play a pro-active role with management, and help other engineers.”)

Update update: Wolverton in The cost of developing large-scale software found that the experience of the programmer didn’t predict the routine unit cost. It looks like he didn’t control for how complex the code written was.


Excel dorkiness

Posted in Art, Hacking, Random thoughts at 11:44 pm by ducky

I stumbled across this old post by Anil Dash where he mentioned that almost all of his geeky friends have at some point made an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of something really obsessive:

Perhaps the ultimate example of this sort of dorkiness is the fact that almost every one of my friends has, at one point or another, made at least one Excel spreadsheet to document some arcane aspect of their lives. The number of consecutive sunny days, the types and prices of the cups of coffee they drink, or just straightforward charts about their boss’s mood. There’s no end to the ways one can misuse desktop applications in one’s personal life.

I read that and thought, “Huh. I certainly haven’t done anything like that.”

Um. But then I remembered that I had generated a list of the world’s writing systems, with the likeliest start/stop usage dates, the lat/long of where it was first used, how many people currently use it, who created it (if known), and samples of characters in that system (if I could find them, and I usually could). Oh.

And then my husband pointed out that I also have enumerated various California prisons, their lat/long, the type of facility (state pen, federal pen, county jail, etc.), and how many inmates it has. Oh.

But I can honestly say that I have never used Excel to keep track of these obsessions.

I used gnumeric and oocalc.


Folate is really, really good for you

Posted in Random thoughts at 8:14 pm by ducky

I mentioned that vitamin D is really, really good for you. Folate — vitamin B9 — is also really, really good for you.

Taking folate significantly reduces the risk of bearing a child with neural tube defects (including anencephaly and spinal bifidia). It is so dramatic that many countries have started adding folate to grain products (in much the same way that vitamin D is commonly added to milk). In the U.S.A., for example, breads, cereals, flours, corn meals, pastas, rice, and other grain products have had folate added since 1996. Neural tube defects have dropped by 25% in the U.S.A. since fortification started.

Higher levels of folate intake also have been found to correlate with reduced risk of getting Alzheimer’s, reduced risk of stroke, and there is even some correlation (though not as strong) with reduced risk of cancer.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we got lower rates of Alzheimer’s, stroke, and cancer as a result of fortifying grains? Supplement that with a bit of vitamin D, and we just might get a lot healthier!

Vitamin D is really, really good for you

Posted in Random thoughts at 6:08 pm by ducky

[Note: a later study says that vitamin D, while good for colon cancer, isn’t the miracle that the study I report on here says it is.  Drat.]

Vitamin D — sunlight — turns out to be really really good for your health. “The one-fifth of premenopausal women who consumed the highest levels of vitamin D and calcium […] had a one-third reduced risk of developing breast cancer compared with those who consumed the least.” One third! That’s significant! Update: 60 to 70 percent lower!

There have been a number of other studies recently that have connected low vitamin D in heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes.

The easiest way to get vitamin D is from sunlight, but that doesn’t help people in northern climes like Canada and Scotland in the winter. There is vitamin D in milk, but if you don’t get any from sun (like in northern winters) you’d have to drink three litres per day to get enough. (I drink an unusually large quantity of milk, but even I only drink about a litre per day.)

Yes, it is true that more sun exposure increases the risk of skin cancer, but it turns out that skin cancer is much easier to notice, diagnose, and treat (being on the surface and all). It’s just not as big a problem “Fifteen hundred Americans die every year from [skin cancers]. Fifteen hundred Americans die every day from the serious cancers.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to give a blanket recommendation of how much vitamin D supplement you should take. It depends on the latitude, the time of year, how much you are outside, and how dark your skin is. The lighter your skin, the more vitamin D you can absorb from sunlight. Also, vitamin D is fat-soluable, so it is possible to get too much.

So lay off that sunblock!

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