Archive for July, 2008

XKCD

Because this says what happens to me in so many of my math classes:

How To Shoot Yourself in The Foot

With apologies to those who will not get the joke, and with appreciation for those of you who will, herewith a purloined bit of prose created by a frustrated programmer.

How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot:

Java
You locate the Gun class, but discover that the Bullet class is abstract, so you extend it and write the missing part of the implementation. Then you implement the ShootAble interface for your foot, and recompile the Foot class. The interface lets the bullet call the doDamage method on the Foot, so the Foot can damage itself in the most effective way. Now you run the program, and call the doShoot method on the instance of the Gun class. First the Gun creates an instance of Bullet, which calls the doFire method on the Gun. The Gun calls the hit(Bullet) method on the Foot, and the instance of Bullet is passed to the Foot. But this causes an IllegalHitByBullet exception to be thrown, and you die.

MS-SQL Server
MS-SQL Server’s gun comes pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of Teflon coated bullets, and it only has two discernible features: the muzzle and the trigger. If that wasn’t enough, MS-SQL Server also puts the gun in your hand, applies local anesthetic to the skin of your forefinger and stitches it to the gun’s trigger. Meanwhile, another process has set up a spinal block to numb your lower body. It will then proceeded to surgically remove your foot, cryogenically freeze it for preservation, and attach it to the muzzle of the gun so that no matter where you aim, you will shoot your foot. In order to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, you need to unstitch your trigger finger, remove your foot from the muzzle of the gun, and have it surgically reattached. Then you probably want to get some crutches and go out to buy a book on SQL Server Performance Tuning.

¿Era diferent la vida? (Was Life Different?)

The title of this post refers to the chapter currently under study in our Spanish class. While learning to speak in the imperfect past tense (I used to drink a lot of beer), and learning to use the vocabulary and grammar that makes comparisons (I don’t drink as much beer as I used to, and I am fatter today than when I was 25), I have been forcibly marched down memory lane.

It is a source of some amusement to the class and the professor that people (like their parents) actually voluntarily wore bell bottoms. Several in-class recitations have drawn on the allegedly heroic amount of drugs consumed by the ‘older generation’ during the ’60s and ’70s as a source of humor and ridicule.

I write this with a semi-forced grin on my face. On the one hand, the behavior of my generation does, in retrospect, seem a little ridiculous, but I don’t recall any of us pushing back against the eternal tide of group behavior. And, in truth, I see the same forces at work on the generation that sits in my classes and flows around me on the campus sidewalks.

Just yesterday some chica flashed her underwear to several of us as she turned around in her chair. Her skirt was impossibly short and I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it must be for her to sit, get up, walk, etc. in such gear. Do you think her mother, who must have bought the skirt for her, was momentarily transported to the halcyon days on yon when she, too, slipped into her first mini-skirt? Are girls really all that different from their mothers in these days of “We’re best friends” or “what are you guys doing?” when speaking of the parent-child interaction?

When I heard one of my male classmates say to another PYT (pretty young thing in my generation-speak): “Like, I had to take an adderall last night to study for this test”, did I have a momentarily flash of revulsion for the scientifically approved medication of this generation, or did I flashback on the days, not that long ago it seems, when everyone knew the guy who had access to “black beauties” during exam time?

The more things change the more they remain the same.

Francis Fukuyama wrote about the end of history in 1992. I am not so sure that he is onto something. This generation, like all generations and those who write about generations, wants to believe that cultural evolution is a fact of the generational passage of time. But we may be living in a time that would be very familiar to our antecedents who lived before the industrial revolution, before the accelerated rate of change in the human existence; when generations had much more in common than not.

I’m not sure this generation is much different than mine…….and that’s pretty scary.

The Lowering of the Larynx

I love my small school. Here’s another reason: My professor for the second semester of Spanish also teaches linguistics. If I took this class during the regular school year I would not have a snowball’s chance in hell of having her as my teacher. She only teaches Spanish majors taking high level courses, who have an interest in linguistics.

So today, while explaining the past imperfect indicative, or simply, the imperfect tense, and walking us through the conjugation of the various forms, one of the students had some trouble with pronunciation. Or to be clear, your scribe stumbled badly while trying to say trabajábamos (we used to work…..no kidding!).

This led to a brief explanation about the role of the larynx in speech; who knew that the human larynx drops as we age, and that the dropping creates our ability to speak. And who knew that until the larynx drops, at a young age, the baby cannot choke…..the raised larynx acts to block food and water from the windpipe.

The details of this fascinating bit of infovoration* can be found here. A teaser:

The larynx works like a valve, opening and closing to let air pass. When it is shut, food can pass into the esophagus at no risk to the lungs. The best place for such a seal is right at the top of the trachea so that no food or drink accidentally goes even a little ways down it, but humans have a second use for the valve. We work it like a musical instrument shaping the sounds made by passing air as we speak. The musical valve works best if we pull it a bit down into the trachea so that the air wave shaped by the larynx can resonate before leaving the mouth.

At birth the human larynx is in the normal, animal location, enabling babies to nurse without risk of choking. The larynx typically begins to move lower at about three months of age and reaches its final position by age four. People familiar with children’s speech will notice that the start of the relocation is also when infants start to coo. The end is about the time the children finally become clearly intelligible to well-meaning strangers. The lowered larynx lets humans produce a much wider variety of sounds, particularly vowel sounds, than apes can generate.

I’m not sure I would have picked up that bit tasty morsel during the regular semester when my professor would be trying to teach 4 sections of unruly, disinterested freshman the rudiments of Espanol.

*Infovoration – Product which is consumed by an infovore

The End of Summer (Part I)

The first summer session is over. I have some slight command of the Spanish language, knowing about 200 words, have some rudimentary understanding of grammar, and possess a slight ability to discern words in a conversation if spoken slowly enough. I assume that I passed the first course, based on the e-mail from my professor who wrote that I “did a good exam”, and also based on the fact that, so far, I am still enrolled in the second course that begins Tuesday (that is, I have not received a communication from the school telling me that I can’t take the second course).

The mathematical sabbatical has been a very good idea indeed. The ‘A’ that I expect from the first session will certainly help the GPA regain some of its lost value, and there is a reasonable expectation of a similar result in part 2. Plus, the realization that I can still memorize material relatively quickly is an enormous confidence booster for the expected rigors of Biology that await in the Fall term. The brain still works, if not in an abstract manner.

Staying in the Spanish milieu for this post, here is a representation of how I felt at the end of the Spring semester:

I was being gored, tossed about like a rag doll, and receiving absolutely no respect from any of my courses……..

Today, with an all but certain victory in a class, and another likely to follow, my state of mind can best be expressed with this image:

¡patear el culo y algunos nombres teniendo!

A little confidence is a great thing……….

The Scientific Method Pushes Back…..

In my last post, here, I linked to a very interesting article by Chris Anderson, of Wired Magazine. Anderson posited that Google is fundamentally changing science and the scientific method.

Well, it didn’t take long for the scientific community to weigh in on the issue:

From Ars Technica, the other side of the argument:

Every so often, someone (generally not a practicing scientist) suggests that it’s time to replace science with something better. The desire often seems to be a product of either an exaggerated sense of the potential of new approaches, or a lack of understanding of what’s actually going on in the world of science. This week’s version, which comes courtesy of Chris Anderson, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired, manages to combine both of these features in suggesting that the advent of a cloud of scientific data may free us from the need to use the standard scientific method.

…Overall, the foundation of the argument for a replacement for science is correct: the data cloud is changing science, and leaving us in many cases with a Google-level understanding of the connections between things. Where Anderson stumbles is in his conclusions about what this means for science. The fact is that we couldn’t have even reached this Google-level understanding without the models and mechanisms that he suggests are doomed to irrelevance. But, more importantly, nobody, including Anderson himself if he had thought about it, should be happy with stopping at this level of understanding of the natural world.

Obviously, there is a lot more, so follow the link for the full post.

I’m not a scientist, I’m a student. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the dynamics of conflicting viewpoints that arise from the inevitable conflicts between orthodoxy and revolution. I suspect that the way forward in this discussion will bring us to a harmonic convergence of new research methods and a revision to the hallowed Scientific Method.


“Life’s hard, son. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” — The Duke.

Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate,no despotism can enslave. At home, a friend, abroad, an introduction, in solitude a solace and in society an ornament.It chastens vice, it guides virtue, it gives at once grace and government to genius. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage. - Joseph Addison
The term informavore (also spelled informivore) characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food. George A. Miller [1] coined the term in 1983 as an analogy to how organisms survive by consuming negative entropy (as suggested by Erwin Schrödinger [2]). Miller states, "Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy, so the mind survives by ingesting information. In a very general sense, all higher organisms are informavores." - Wikipedia

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