Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The zen of Luke

If you stare at the squirrel long enough, you may catch it.
If you stand halfway through the dog door, you’re invisible.
Toys like to be outdoors.
Other dogs are interesting for a few minutes.
People are more interesting than other dogs.
If you follow Lisa around the house in the morning, she will give you a treat.
If you find Michael when he is eating a banana, he will give you a treat.
The dog bed needs to be fluffed up. Repeatedly.
Running is the best activity in the world.
Walks are the best activity in the world.
Chasing squirrels is the best activity in the world.
Naps are the best activity in the world.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

200 billion hours

Clay Shirky has posted a marvelous comparison of the time people devote to watching television to the time people devote to Wikipedia. Television is a stunning amount of our collective downtime, 200,000,000,000 hours every year just in the United States. 200 billion hours. Next time someone asks where we’ll find the time to do something, hide their remote control.

We could translate 200 billion hours of television into all sorts of measures. Television is a huge percentage of our electrical consumption, and hence a huge percentage of our CO2 output, our mercury pollution from power plants, our strip mining and nuclear waste generation, and our household budgets. 200 billion hours of television is a displacement of other modes of media and entertainment, a successful approach to social control, and an insanely effective propaganda tool. But the biggest cost may be the opportunity cost, which is the hardest cost to quantify. What could we do with 200 billion hours? On a personal level, what could you do with an extra 500 or 1000 hours per year? What could you do if you reclaimed half of your workday?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pancakes for Passover

4 eggs
2 T honey
1 t vanilla
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1/4 t cinnamon
1 banana
1 T yogurt or 1/2 cup uncreamed cottage cheese (dry curd)
1.5 cup almond flour (very finely ground blanched almonds)

Mix all ingredients together, adding almond flour last. Use a pan on low heat with plenty of butter to cook on each side until crispy at the edges. The pancakes may break apart when you flip them, so make them small enough for your spatula. These take a while to cook, because they’ll burn on medium heat, but the result is wheat-free pancakes that taste like regular pancakes.

Passover is a lot easier when part of your family has had to learn to cook without any grains or starches at all.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Advice for parents

If you take your child to a playground in a neighborhood that isn’t yours, and you see an adult you don’t know (a stranger) who is talking with other adults in the playground, you might decide that the best way to keep your child safe is to casually threaten the stranger. Anecdotally, this seems to happen with alarming frequency, especially if the stranger has a camera. It happened to me today. But aside from encouraging paranoia and hostility among children and other adults, it’s not clear that you’re accomplishing anything good. Neighborhoods that aren’t yours are naturally full of strangers, and here’s the really mind-bending part: when you’re in a new neighborhood, you are actually a stranger. You see, there are other people in the world, and most of us have unique senses of self.

It’s a delight to see our local playground being used by toddlers, and to run into an old friend there. But the preschool network that has decided to flash mob local playgrounds over the next two months really should consider whether they’d rather be teaching their children hostility or civility, because those are different. Children absorb a tremendous amount from adult interactions, and those children will probably grow up happier and will probably be greater assets to their communities if they learn what communities are about.

So my suggestion would be to either talk to the stranger by introducing yourself or don’t talk to the stranger. But freaking out because you ventured beyond your darkened living room and saw other people in the world? Try not to do that. Not everyone unknown to you is a bad person who deserves to be threatened. And if the mass media has convinced you that everyone you don’t know is a terrorist or a child molester, stop watching television.

Update: I’ve noticed that this never happens when parents are alone or in small groups; parents only start threatening people or calling the police when the parents are in large groups and are the least vulnerable. (Law enforcement tends to behave the same way: individually, they are generally reasonable; in large groups, they are more likely to become aggressive.) The threats are about power, not safety.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I have been young, and now I am old

So begins what is probably the most controversial line in the traditional Passover haggadah, right before the third cup of wine:

I have been young, and now I am old; and I have not seen a righteous man forsaken, nor his children begging for bread.
This is part of the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals. It’s Psalm 37, verse 25, and a literal reading of the verse is unkind. Perhaps God does not forsake the righteous, or perhaps the righteous do not feel forsaken by God even if they are forsaken by people. But their children all too often must beg for bread, and it feels particularly wrong to deny that after partaking in a festival meal.

The paragraph that surrounds the verse appears to be disconnected verses from various psalms, and I’d love to understand how those verses hang together. In perusing a 1912 haggadah, Lisa noticed that the verse is missing from that paragraph both in Hebrew and in English. (Well, she noticed the English, and I confirmed the Hebrew.) The haggadah text has been remarkably stable over the past 900 years, but how much has the birkat hamazon changed? An extensive two-volume set of commentary on the haggadah that I just acquired has no discussion at all of the lengthy birkat hamazon, going straight from the afikoman to the third cup. The inclusion of the birkat hamazon is treated as simply a pointer, implying that as the birkat hamazon changes in regular practice, so should it change in the haggadah.

Over the years, I’ve heard various ways to try to understand this verse other than simply rejecting it. The most heartening is that we should treat the verse as a reminder that we must never leave a child begging for bread. The only way we can truthfully say that verse is if we have responded to hunger whenever we have encountered it. But regardless of the interpretation, some explanatory note should be added to the haggadah if the verse is included. The haggadah is far more widely read than the birkat hamazon, and it is important to provide some explanation of this verse other than the simplest and cruelest one. So, a new version:
I have been young, and now I am old; and I have not turned my back on the forsaken, nor ignored a child who was begging for bread.
Or as Siddur Sim Shalom puts it:
I have been young and now I am old, but never have I looked on at one righteous and forsaken, and allowed his children to go begging for bread.
Though a closer and completely different reading of “I have not seen” might be more appropriate as a confession for Yom Kippur (and quite at odds with the surrounding paragraph):
I have been young and now I am old, and I have been blind to the righteous who have been forsaken, and their children begging for bread.

Finance charges

I normally pay off my credit card in full, so I normally don’t pay any finance charges. But due to some distractions, I ended up with $450 carried over for four days last month. For which I paid $22.95 as a finance charge (no late fees). Citibank claims this is based on an annual interest rate of 7.99%.

There are lots of games that banks play to make sure the finance charges are as high as possible. Averaging daily balances, two-month averaging, posting payments late, applying all payments to the balance with the lowest interest rate, and raising interest rates at the drop of someone else’s hat. Most of this is less than transparent. But $22.95 is 5.1% of $450. If that $450 balance was around for a full month, then that would be an annual interest rate of 61.2%. Since that balance was only around for four days, it was actually an interest rate of over 465%. That seems high. And that’s why they call it a finance charge rather than calling it interest.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Getum Luken Hoops (aka Luke)

I found my copy of Luke’s undated racing lease. His full name was Getum Luken Hoops, a black greyhound with a left ear tattoo of 54463 and a right ear tattoo of MC 16D. He was leased to a kennel or person in Wisconsin by Joyce Weil with a starting date of “now” and a termination date of “racing life.” The owner received purse commissions of 35 percent on regular races and 50 percent on stakes races on a weekly basis. She also agreed in advance to have him placed in a pet adoption agency approved by the track following the completion of his racing career.

Greyhound Friends told me that he had raced in Texas; I’m not sure how he got from Wisconsin to Texas to Massachusetts. People sometimes asked me how he did on the tracks; the only answer I have is that he did well enough to survive until almost 4 years old as a racer, and greyhounds only continue racing as long as they win often enough. None make it past 5 on the tracks. He never showed signs of having had a serious racing injury, and we suspect that he spent at least a little time in a home before reaching Greyhound Friends. He wasn’t as skittish or shy as a lot of greyhounds are when they first come off the tracks.

He traveled with us sometimes, visiting our families in New York and Maine. We also took him on short adventures in the area, and once to a reunion at Greyhound Friends. But his 4th through 12th birthdays were spent right here with us in a home he loved.

I found the old Uniform Greyhound Certificate Of Lease Or Joint Venture as I was trying to confirm his birthday. I had just noticed that the receipts from his regular vet still list his birthday as 1/1/1995, which would have made him 13. But his birthday was 1/1/1996, because those ear tattoos don’t lie. The 16D in his right ear is the month he was born (January), last digit of the year (1996), and litter order (fourth). The confusion on his birth year is why he spent two years being 10 and no years being 9 in our minds. But no matter what his chronological age, he was always our puppy.

The remains of Getum Luken Hoops are being transported to Pet Memorial Park in Foxboro today for cremation. We did not ask for his ashes. We have his collar; we have this certificate; but mostly we have our memories. We were blessed to know Luke’s boundless and bounding spirit, and anything else is simply a touchstone.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Data in the neighborhood

I’m trying to read, to see if distractions will help. And up pops yet another story about Comcast disconnecting an Internet customer who is using too much bandwidth. I would be sad if Comcast did that to me, since there is currently no other broadband option to our house. While the AP may lament the Internet being clogged with “bandwidth-sucking data,” I think the Internet would be somewhat less interesting without data.

Some salient features of Comcast’s actions in these sorts of stories as they play out: Comcast’s approach to informing you that you’re using too much bandwidth is to disconnect your Internet and wait for you to call in to complain that it’s not working. Comcast won’t tell you how much bandwidth you’re using, nor what their limits are (and their limits are apparently relative rather than absolute). Most customers have no way to tell how much bandwidth they’re using in absolute or relative terms, and Comcast offers no access to that information. And Comcast offers no options: you cannot pay more for more bandwidth, and you cannot ask for your bandwidth to be capped on an hourly or daily basis. After your first opaque and confusing warning that customer service reps often deny even happened, your next explanation from Comcast is them telling you that they have turned off your account for 12 months, and there is no way to have it turned back on before then.

There are interesting game theory problems embedded here. How do you ensure that you are not one of the highest bandwidth users in your neighborhood without any information about either your usage or your neighbors’ usage? If your Internet connection is slow, is it worth complaining to Comcast when they might then decide that it’s easier to disconnect the highest users (which might include you) rather than add nodes? How does the tension resolve between Comcast wanting to use FUD to convince customers to aggressively limit their own usage and Comcast wanting customers to believe that broadband Internet is worth $54.95 per month? And should you try to convince your neighbors to use more bandwidth, which will slow down your connection, or less bandwidth, which will make it more likely that you are the highest bandwidth user in your neighborhood?

Comcast’s world is more The Prisoner than the prisoner’s dilemma, replete with surveillance, monitoring, and traffic shaping. But really, would it hurt to offer a metered service, or at least a meter and some fixed limits? You and I understand that recursively banning the “worst” 1% of your customers does not have a viable stopping point. But I can just imagine the frustrated Comcast executive looking at the monthly reports, saying “But we banned the worst 1% last month! And now there’s another worst 1%!”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Our greyhound Luke died this evening. It was very sudden, and we are devastated. He was a wonderful, gentle, and playful creature, and he lived a healthy and happy and long life. And he brought us a lot of joy. May he rest in peace.

Luke was a very big part of our lives over the past 9 years. We were blessed to share our home with him, and grateful that we could provide a good life for him. I’ll probably post some stories about him here, because those stories mean a lot to us. I know the grief and confusion we feel now will fade with time. I hope our memories of him don’t.


In a Wired column last month, Bruce Schneier nicely describes the security mindset and completely misrepresents engineering. The heart of his column:

Good engineering involves thinking about how things can be made to work; the security mindset involves thinking about how things can be made to fail.
The description of engineering is catchy, but false. Good engineering involves thinking about how things can fail, designing to prevent failures, planning on how to mitigate the damage caused by failures, building in warnings of impending failures, and calculating usage limits to avoid failures. Engineers have to figure out how to make sure the bridge won’t fall down when trucks drive across it, or when the wind blows, or when a support fails. Engineers also have to figure out how to make sure that structures and systems will withstand the threats that security consultants warn them about. Security consultants, on the other hand, tend to worry only about problems that are deliberately caused by people, rather than the full range of problems. Thinking about security certainly contributes to good engineering, but too much of a focus on security leaves us vulnerable to nature (Katrina), entropy (crumbling infrastructure), and accidents (40,000 highway deaths a year). The cult of security says that if people didn’t cause the problem, then people don’t have to solve the problem. Engineers know better.

Of fish and flowers

The Harvard Museum of Natural History has a remarkable display of glass botanical models by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. These true-to-nature models of flowers, fruits, leaf systems, seed pods, and entire plants are unlike anything you might see elsewhere, and it hardly seems possible that they could all be made of glass. (It would apparently be impossible for them to be created today, because nobody can replicate the Blaschkas’ techniques.)

There’s currently a small special exhibition at the museum of glass models of marine invertebrates created by the Blaschkas. We went a week ago, on a Sunday morning when admission and street parking are free. I now know far more about the varied appearance of sea slugs that I’ll never encounter in the wild. I’ve been trying to figure out why the special exhibition was less interesting than the glass flowers, aside from having far fewer models and all the models being small, and I think familiarity with the subject matter is a big factor. There were some beautiful sea creature models, but their faithful execution in glass was not impressive because I don’t know how faithful the models were. I’ve had a similar reaction to the still life paintings at open studios, where the only ones I’ve really appreciated were the ones that still had the actual arrangements displayed at the studio along with the paintings. Perhaps that’s also why I’ve never found portrait galleries all that engaging—since they are hardly ever portraits of people I know—and part of why so many more people enjoy Madame Toussaud’s wax models of celebrities. We can’t say that something is true to life without a reference, and personally, we spend more time tending our garden than we do deep-sea diving.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A calm Sunday

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford

Thank you to everyone who has called and written and visited. You have given both of us much-needed strength and comfort.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Last meal before Passover: comments

One week until Passover, and shopping becomes harder. I don’t want to throw out tons of bread and other chametz next Saturday, so I have to pay attention to how much I put in the grocery cart. But almost as important as planning the seder dinner is figuring out what to have for my last non-Passover meals.

This isn’t a familiar problem for everyone, I know. Some people don’t keep kosher for Passover. For others, dietary restrictions mean that it’s Passover the whole year. What about you?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Carbon tax

I ran a poll for a while asking what structural alteration to the economy you would most like to make. 6 of you voted for nationalizing health care, 3 for nationalizing education funding. Nobody thought that a high carbon tax was the most appealing.

A carbon tax made the list because of a New Yorker piece by Michael Specter six weeks ago and a related NPR interview with Specter that I had listened to the week before. The short story is that calculating carbon footprints is very difficult and results are often counterintuitive. But even learning that it may make sense for Britain to import lamb from New Zealand (because the transportation carbon cost from New Zealand is far less than the carbon cost of the much higher fertilizer use for pasture in Britain) does not tell us the relative carbon load of lamb vs. fish. And it certainly doesn’t tell us the relative carbon savings of choosing lamb from New Zealand versus choosing to take the train for a week instead of commuting by car. In order to prioritize our lifestyle changes, we need to know which changes are 10 times more important or 100 times more important.

A carbon tax, if implemented in a broad and balanced way, would be an important step. Sellers have to take their costs into account as they set prices, so translating carbon costs into dollar costs would create a bigger price spread between products and services that have higher carbon costs vs. lower carbon costs. If the dollar costs of fertilizer and fuel are increased to take into account their carbon costs, then the lamb from New Zealand will be priced less than the lamb from Britain.

The rising cost of fuel is already forcing people to make different decisions. In my business, the shipping cost of a print run as a percentage of the total print run cost has more than doubled in the past five years, and the shipping cost of sending out an individual book has become comparable to or greater than the printing cost of the book. I have to take these facts into account as I choose whether to have my books printed 100 miles away or 1000 miles away, and as I set my shipping rates for my customers. The Boston Globe recently ran an article by Robert Gavin exploring how much less people are driving because of higher fuel costs, and last week an article by Noah Bierman crediting higher fuel costs with sparking a surge in public transit use. People can decide whether to pay attention to labels, but they have to pay attention to prices.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Of data and metadata

Anand Rajaraman on Datawocky writes about improving the sorting of database search results in contexts such as Netflix recommendations and Google search results. He concludes that adding independent data is much more important than improving algorithms; Netflix recommendations are improved by adding movie genre information from imdb, and Google search results are improved by adding links and anchortext. This has been bearing out in linguistics as well, where brute force statistical analysis (data) has defeated sophisticated theoretical analysis (algorithms) in allowing computers to process speech and text, and corpus linguistics has grown rapidly.

Rajaraman’s specific examples are really about adding metadata rather than adding data. When choosing among a set of movies, it makes sense that it would help to know more about the movies. Google uses in-bound links and the text used in those links to learn more about a web page. Google has also succeeded by increasing the size of the database (indexing more web pages), but a useful ranking of search results is even more important when the set of search results is larger. Simply adding data to the database has made searching Amazon far more frustrating in my experience, because the set of search results is now far larger and Amazon’s ranking of those results rarely matches what I’m really looking for. When I’m looking for information about a particular book that I’ve already found, it’s great to have metadata, descriptions, reviews, and the full text of the book. But none of that helps if I can’t find the book in the first place.

It got me thinking in several directions: Could we have Netflix-style personalized recommendations for YouTube? Isn’t this all an argument in favor of Total Information Awareness and its spawn? Wouldn’t spell-checking be better if the data on corrections were aggregated the way that Google adjusts search results and ads based on click-throughs? How user-friendly and transparent could we make privacy trade-offs, so that people could decide in a reasonable way what data to pass along to Netflix and actually understand what will happen to that data? And when are we going to stop using terms like data mining and start talking about database smart growth strategies?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson is an incredible performer. When Rob and I saw his Blaze of Glory tour in August 1989, he played all of the music from that sequential album without a pause between songs, piano and vocals, and then continued with a full concert set of other music. I’ve seen him several times since then, most recently this evening, and he’s never disappointed. For me, there is something magical about a musician singing while playing a real grand piano, and it puts Joe Jackson, Billy Joel, and Tori Amos in a common category despite their different styles. Tonight Joe was backed by Graham Maby and Dave Houghton from the original Joe Jackson Band, and the three of them did a wonderful hopscotch of new and old songs covering a span of more than 25 years. Joe happily uses both Latin and pop rhythms and adds occasional jazz riffs in performance, but the band has a consistent sound that makes it all work together. And as much fun as it’s always been to see Joe Jackson in concert with various friends over the years, when they wrapped up the encores tonight with A Slow Song as they often do, this time I was standing right in front of the stage with the woman I love. And that made this his best concert by far.

Friday, April 4, 2008

To and fro and to and fro

Drove to Davis Square yesterday to meet Lisa, and arrived a few minutes early. So I ordered spring rolls at Taipei Tokyo, asked at the Somerville Theater if they had any tickets to the long-sold-out Joe Jackson concert on Monday, found out they were just about to release a few tickets, ran around to find a working ATM to pull cash out of, back to the theater to buy tickets to the concert, back to Taipei Tokyo to pick up my spring rolls, and back to the car with time to spare before Lisa arrived on the T.

In CS terms, a LIFO stack (car, restaurant, theater, ATM, theater, restaurant, car) and the world’s worst traveling salesman solution. In business terms, productive use of unexpected downtime. In personal terms, we’ve got front row tickets to see Joe Jackson!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Our first crocus opened today. A deep purple, tucked in near the porch. We knew its color a few days ago, but continued nights around freezing were not encouraging the crocus to open. Now that one has shown the way, I expect we’ll have quite the cluster by next week.