Friday Four

Friday, January 30, 2015

1. As I continue learning more about Emacs, I keep running across users who describe it as "insanely useful".

I completely agree with them, but getting things to work is sometimes pretty hairy for people such as myself, who like computers, but aren't focused on programming or system administration for a living. Yesterday was a good example. After attempting several times over the past week to get MobileOrg to work, I finally did.

For anyone who may be interested in trying this, the below is how I finally got MobileOrg to work:

  1. Create a directory for those .org files you wish to access on your mobile device. (e.g., ~/Dropbox/Org/)
  2. Move a couple of .org files to that directory.
  3. Designate these files as "agenda files" via the appropriate command within org-mode.
  4. Create a different (!) directory for the mobile application to store file manifests, checksums, change logs, etc. (e.g., ~/Dropbox/Apps/MobileOrg/)
  5. Within your emacs configuration file, add the lines in the Note below.
  6. Restart emacs, then execute the following command within emacs: M-x org-mobile-push.
  7. Install MobileOrg, walk through its "setup wizard", and sync.
Remember to execute M-x org-mobile-push or M-x org-mobile-pull before or after using MobileOrg, respectively.

Now, I can very easily use the superior to-do lists made possible by org-mode on my phone. Nice!

2. Thanks to a bumper sticker for the station and a Saturday evening trip to the grocery store, I now have the kitchen radio tuned to FM 88.1 on Saturday evenings for "The Ska's the Limit", hosted by J.J. Loy:
We follow ska down every path of its long and winding history. You'll hear classic ska, two tone and third wave ska, as well as groovy rocksteady and early reggae. Plus any soul, punk and calypso that we have lying around.
And yes, my little boy dances to most of the music.

3. I personally file the call to abolish time zones in the same  drawer of out-of-touch crusades as English spelling "reform" and the artificial language movement. Needless to say, I enjoyed seeing someone attempt to apply this ridiculous idea to the common problem of making an international call:
"We don't centre our waking/sleeping cycle on solar noon, fool nephew," Uncle Steve explains. "We centre the school day on solar noon. In countries above and below certain latitudes, where seasonal variation in the amount of daylight is significant, it's important for there to be the maximum amount of light when children are going to school in the morning, and coming home from school in the afternoon. Here in Melbourne, solar noon is about 10:30 Standard Time, so the average school day is timetabled from 07:00 to 14:00, and a typical working day runs from about 07:00 to 15:00. That means that on a working day, I get up at 05:00, at the earliest."

"Ooogh. Sorry. That's about two hours later than I reckoned," I tell him.
On top of the thought experiment, the author lists quite a few other reasons we should appreciate time zones.

4. The below quote comes from someone who commissioned a design for a rainbow factory for a computer game.
Why is the rainbow factory on the ground? And why does it have smoke stacks? It's supposed to be in the sky and if it creates smoke then it's polluting the planet. And why is there a rainbow coming out of it. I didn't tell you to do that. Now do it again and do it right.
The designer notes that his "[c]lient was an adult in his mid 30s, not 12".

-- CAV

Note: Insert the below lines into your emacs configuration file (e.g., .emacs or init.el) before attempting to use MobileOrg:

;; Set the name of the directory that will hold the .org files for MobileOrg.
(setq org-directory "~/Dropbox/Org/")
;; Set the name of the file where new notes will be stored
(setq org-mobile-inbox-for-pull "~/Dropbox/Org/flagged.org")
;; Set root directory for MobileOrg.
(setq org-mobile-directory "~/Dropbox/Apps/MobileOrg")

The above assumes (1) You will use Dropbox to sync the app to its home directory; and (2) You already have org-mode working to your satisfaction. It is not necessary for the org-directory to also be in Dropbox.

Updates

Today: Fixed a hyperlink.


An Interesting Scheduling Hack

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Brad Feld has an interesting idea for scheduling the day:

30 minute schedule slots: I’ve tried it all. 60 minutes. 15 minutes. 5 minutes. 45 minutes. 37 minutes. The only thing that I’ve found that works is 30 minutes. If I schedule for 15 minutes, I inevitably have too many things in a day and get completely exhausted. If I schedule for more than 30 minutes, I find myself twiddling my thumbs and trying to get finished with the meeting. 30 minutes seems to be the ideal amount to get any type of meeting done.
Feld's reasoning and flexible implementation make compelling reading for anyone with control over large blocks of time. (Implementing his advice will be more challenging for people whose employers schedule much of their time.) I particularly like his use of walks for meetings he thinks might take longer: He has made himself able to adjust their lengths on the fly.

Interestingly, his advice seems to me like it might dovetail well with the Pomodoro Technique (scroll down) for those on what Paul Graham calls a "maker's schedule", although for reason Graham discussed, the thirty minute slots for creative work would best be consecutive.

-- CAV


(Not Quite) Taking It to the Streets

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A news article about a home-grown (but apparently self-surveiling) computer network in Havana raises some interesting questions about the effectiveness of our longstanding trade embargo against the communist regime as well as the wisdom of ending it. Early in the article, we learn that the powers-that-be there blame the embargo for the unavailability of Interent access to most Cubans. Our own Nomenklatura wanna-bes seem to agree with them, as do their media lapdogs, as we see in the first and third paragraphs of the below excerpt:

Cuba's status as one of the world's least-wired countries is central to the new relationship Washington is trying to forge with Havana. As part of a new policy seeking broader engagement, the Obama administration hopes that encouraging wider U.S. technology sales to the island will widen Internet access and help increase Cubans' independence from the state and lay the groundwork for political reform.

Cuban officials say Internet access is limited largely because the U.S. trade embargo has prevented advanced U.S. technology from reaching Cuba and starved the government of the cash it needs to buy equipment from other nations. But the government says that while it is open to buying telecommunications equipment from the U.S., it sees no possibility of changing its broader system in exchange for normal relations with the U.S.

Outside observers and many Cubans blame the lack of Internet on the government's desire to control the populace and to use disproportionately high cellphone and Internet charges as a source of cash for other government agencies.
What the Cuban government claims, some opponents hope, and its imitators here claim to hope is put to the sword by a quote buried, epitaph-like, at the very end of the article -- just as the "outside observers" (Cuban diaspora?) would expect (in more ways than one):
"It's proof that it can be done," said Alien Garcia, a 30-year-old systems engineer who publishes a magazine on information technology that's distributed by email and storage devices. "If I as a private citizen can put up a network with far less income than a government, a country should be able to do it, too, no?"
Translation: The line about why most Cubans lack decent Internet access is a lie. The government publishing this lie will be the main beneficiary of any increase in wealth a lifting of the embargo will bring, and will do what it can to control the flow of information, should the embargo (aka, its favorite all-purpose excuse) come to an end.

Our sanctions plainly haven't driven the Cuban regime out of power, but they obviously haven't inspired a revolution, either. (People have free will, and deprivation will not make them pursue any particular course of action. Plenitude, as if that would happen, won't, either.) What the sanctions have done is prevented a nearby country with such a ruling class, whose people tolerate it to a degree, from becoming any more powerful, at least with our help. At the same time, Cuba's rulers, haven't been able to line their own pockets quite so effectively.

It is not the proper purpose of our government to spread freedom around the world, but to protect it here. (This could include aiding a rebellion in Cuba, should that ever come to pass.) I don't regard embargoes as a substitute for war, when it is called for. However, embargoes can be a proper response to tin-pot dictatorships that don't respect individual rights and would cause us problems if we were foolish enough to treat them like ordinary nations.

-- CAV


Blub and Context

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Writing about the value to programmers of knowing the Lisp computer langauge, venture capitalist Paul Graham introduces his readers to the "Blub Paradox":

Programmers get very attached to their favorite languages, and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, so to explain this point I'm going to use a hypothetical language called Blub. Blub falls right in the middle of the abstractness continuum. It is not the most powerful language, but it is more powerful than Cobol or machine language.

And in fact, our hypothetical Blub programmer wouldn't use either of them. Of course he wouldn't program in machine language. That's what compilers are for. And as for Cobol, he doesn't know how anyone can get anything done with it. It doesn't even have x (Blub feature of your choice).

As long as our hypothetical Blub programmer is looking down the power continuum, he knows he's looking down. Languages less powerful than Blub are obviously less powerful, because they're missing some feature he's used to. But when our hypothetical Blub programmer looks in the other direction, up the power continuum, he doesn't realize he's looking up. What he sees are merely weird languages. He probably considers them about equivalent in power to Blub, but with all this other hairy stuff thrown in as well. Blub is good enough for him, because he thinks in Blub.

When we switch to the point of view of a programmer using any of the languages higher up the power continuum, however, we find that he in turn looks down upon Blub. How can you get anything done in Blub? It doesn't even have y.

By induction, the only programmers in a position to see all the differences in power between the various languages are those who understand the most powerful one. (This is probably what Eric Raymond meant about Lisp making you a better programmer.) You can't trust the opinions of the others, because of the Blub paradox: they're satisfied with whatever language they happen to use, because it dictates the way they think about programs. [bold added]
I think there's a lesson to be learned here for anyone, in the vein of knowing what one does and does not know. When considering any question, especially particularly complex ones like the above, it pays to be sure that one really has a grasp of the context in which his decision is being made. The idea that some tool/method/software/theory other than that with which one is most familiar is similar but for some fuzzy difference should be a flag that one's knowledge is incomplete. It may well be that expanding that knowledge is not the proper course in a given situation, but one should at least be ready to admit a knowledge gap rather than taking false comfort in the assumption that the gap is necessarily inconsequential.

Human beings are not omniscient. It amazes me that so few people are comfortable with that that idea, and yet are happy to pretend they know enough, rather than any of (a) confirming that they know enough for the particular purpose at hand; (b) determining that they don't (but can remedy the problem) and acting accordingly; or (c) determining that they they don't know everything about some problem, but at least satisfy themselves that the risk posed by this gap is acceptable and proceed anyway.

-- CAV


Obama's Joke Writers

Monday, January 26, 2015

Last week, the Senate farcically and near-unanimously voted that "climate change is real and not a hoax". The absence of a spine on the part of the GOP -- and the reason for it -- are painfully obvious from several aspects of this story.

For starters, the climate is always changing, so, to a Martian, this would be about as ridiculous as the Senate wasting time and money voting on a resolution like, "The sky is blue." We Earthlings know that "climate change" is code for "scientific-sounding excuse for government intrusion into the energy sector cum cover for global temperatures eventually heading in a direction the excuses models don't predict". So the GOP members of the Senate have, at the outset, failed to question the propriety of said intrusions.

But the fun isn't over, yet. We soon learn the following:

Republicans backed [James] Inhofe's stance in a second vote, rejecting an amendment from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that stated, "climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change."
This can be taken as a reasonable expression of uncertainty about the origins of a change in climate, except, again, the wording of the resolution makes speculation about causes a complete joke. Why not vote that there will be a winning team on the Super Bowl, with a resolution about any one fan (the side doesn't matter) in the stands "contributing significantly" (whatever that means) to that outcome (whatever that might be)? Word something flexibly enough, and you're never wrong. So far as I can tell from this story, everyone went along with this kind of idiocy. But why?

Perhaps Barack Obama's exploitation of a common Republican refrain on the issue of Massive Government Meddling in the Name of Global Warming or Cooling can give us a hint:
... President Obama, who has made climate change a central focus of his second term, turned the "scientist" response into a punch line in his State of the Union address.

"I've heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they're not scientists; that we don't have enough information to act," Obama said. "Well, I'm not a scientist, either. But you know what -- I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities."
Let's be clear about a couple of things here. First, it is honest to admit being uncomfortable with the idea of making pronouncements about questions requiring knowledge outside one's expertise. But second, some political decisions -- even about matters a government might legitimately concern itself with -- do require consultation with scientists. So, anyone who refuses to take a stand -- on the basis of a lack of expertise -- on the Political Agenda Being Excused in the Name of Warming or Cooling, is not only refusing to question whether this is a proper concern of government, he is also playing into the hands of his opponents by looking irresponsible.

On top of all this, our Senators may not be scientists, but they are lawmakers. It is revealing that none spoke up against the propriety of our government dictating the actions of so many people regardless of what "the science" says.

I am no parliamentarian, but it seems to me that someone could have proposed an amendment further defining "climate change" or even acknowledging that there are moral and constitutional limits on what a government can and ought to do about it (or anything else). But that would have entailed someone with a spine, and that would have demanded the moral certainty that could only come from truly understanding why he is there in the first place. All the talk about science in the world will do good among our leaders if there isn't even a peep about why they should do anything and, if so, what they ought to do. Indeed, great harm can and will result.

Our new Congress isn't even starting off on the wrong foot. It is lying flat on its face.

-- CAV


1-24-14 Hodgepodge

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Beaten Into Submission by Syllables

I haven't personally been subjected to the particular term under discussion, but I am familiar with the all-too-common ruse:

"See? Ban-gla-desh! It's a long word I have mastered, so I must definitely know what I'm talking about!"
The author is generous to call this rhetoric. It's more like an attempt to intimidate others with a show of erudition. Often, the people who do this don't really know what they're talking about; so for them, it's also an attempt to hide ignorance by means of referring to something they hope their listeners also don't know anything about.

Weekend Reading

"It's perfectly fine to move on -- but to what?" -- Michael Hurd, in "Faulty Retirement Thinking" at The Delaware Wave

"When done properly, therapy is a rational, scientific process that does not require 'belief.'" -- Michael Hurd, in "So You Don't 'Believe' in Psychotherapy..." at The Delaware Coast Press

"If the machines that move modern medicine don't have energy, they are useless." -- Alex Epstein, in "The Baby Who Lived: How Energy Saved My Friend's Son" at Forbes

My Two Cents

In a day and age when so many people are astoundingly ignorant about the economic and industrial infrastructure on which their lives depend, Alex Epstein does a great job of reminding us of this part of our Western heritage. I am only half-joking when I say that the next time I have to engage an environmentalist in conversation, I will have to resist the urge to call him a baby killer. (I don't blame Epstein for this!)

The bonus lesson here? Another part of the battle to win minds remains another kind of perspective: Remembering to give others the benefit of the doubt as a starting position. In the cases of economics and industry, it's not like our educational system has taught much of either to anyone for at least a couple of generations.

Snicker!

McSweeney's Internet Tendency has been a rich vein of humor lately, as we see when Michael Mayberry "mansplains" "mansplaining":
That's why I think Mansplaining should be called by its actual name, which is didacticism.7 And news flash, wimmin:8 a supposedly inclusive feminist often times becomes the didact in her conversations with the plebeian9 masses when she straightsplains to her gay friends about lesbian rights, cisplains to her trans friends about the stigma associated with transgendered identification, when she whitesplains to her black friends about the oppressive administration, skinnysplains to her fat friends about healthy eating, omnivoresplains to her vegan friends about the evils of the factory farm industry, blogsplains to her print journalist friends about the merits of indie-electro writing, or humansplains to her cat that sometimes sex can be both pleasurable and painful.10 [footnotes in original, minor format edits]
Marxian polylogism, anyone?

-- CAV


Friday Four

Friday, January 23, 2015

1. The kids keep on cracking me up. This week, Little Man has taken to grabbing adults by the hand and leading them to things he wants or places he want to play. Pumpkin, on the other hand, continues speaking her mind, although not using my own words against me for a change. Her latest complaint about something she doesn't want to hear from me: "You're being a bad boy!" I couldn't help but laugh the first time she used that one.

2. FDR is famous for saying, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." One subject of a scientific study, "The Woman Who Can't Feel Fear", might beg to differ. "SM", as she is known in the literature, does not have a functioning amygdala:

"It's a little bit as if you would go to this region and literally scoop it out," Antonio Damasio, another neuroscientist who studies SM, told Invisibilia hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel. [minor format edits]
At least one close brush with a thug might tempt you to see an advantage to her condition -- but for the fact that it got her into that encounter in the first place.

3. No sooner do I write about overcoming the limitations of blogging with a virtual keyboard than I hear about TextBlade, by WayTools, "a folding QWERTY keyboard the size of a pack of gum". For ninety nine bucks, you, too can have one by March.

4. Speaking again of time management for writers, a commenter pointed me to a post on the subject that I found to be both practical and encouraging.

-- CAV

Updates

Today: Fixed a formatting glitch.