Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The man in the mirror

I am of the opinion that government-run welfare is inefficient, curtails financial freedom, encourages laziness, and sometimes has the effect of exacerbating the differences between socioeconomic classes. By allowing themselves to be taxed instead of giving themselves, people lose the opportunity to actually serve others (which is extremely beneficial to both parties). They also rely on underpaid government employees to make decisions about how to use resources instead of using the intelligence and good judgment of billions of people around the world to make those decisions independently and wisely.

But, at least for the moment, we're much better off with government welfare. There are far too many people with far too little and if we cut the government programs, they'll starve and go without other necessities. Yes, there are many people who cynically take advantage of the system. But there are many people who depend on welfare for good and sufficient reasons.

I have similar feelings about gun control. The Second Amendment doesn't exist so we can hunt. It exists to guarantee that the country's military power rests with the people and not with a central government. The more restrictions we have on gun control, the further we are from that ideal. I'd like to get rid of guns entirely, but committing absolutely to nonviolence in any form ensures that those who don't have the same scruples are guaranteed to win as long as they're willing to start a fight.

The fact that the military has access to weapons that citizens may not own scares me. On the other hand, I don't believe that we have the moral maturity as a culture to use such weapons wisely. We're too unwilling to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the use of our weapons. More subtly, we're too unwilling to hold ourselves accountable for our angry words and for our unrealistic expectations. We're unwilling to do inconvenient things to ensure our own safety and unwilling to pay for outsourced security. And we're unwilling to come up with a viable solution for the mental health problems that exist in our country.

For the time being making some kinds of guns inaccessible is a reasonable compromise. But it isn't good enough. We need access to guns, but we need to change ourselves first.

All of this reminds me of a piece that Seth Meyers did on Saturday Night Live. His joke about the Facebook Like button hits close to home. Apparently, many of us believe that we can support candidates who promise to change the country for us. But they can't. We are the country. If the country is going to change, we have to do it. Each one of us. We can't wait for our elected officials to do it for us because that's simply not something that people can do. We need to give until government welfare becomes redundant. We need to elevate the way that we interact with each other so that violence, with or without guns, becomes unacceptable. We need to make wise, intelligent decisions on our own. We need to become so good that our government doesn't matter.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Stand still

I have a confession to make, which may compromise my nerd cred. I don't particularly care for Legos and I never really have. I could cite several reasons that I never cared for them, but I'm going to focus on the one that's applicable to this article. I'm about setting and achieving goals, but Legos aren't about building according to the instructions. They're a creative exercise and that has never really appealed to me. So even as a kid, I was fairly incapable of just playing for the sake of play.

My name is Petey and I get stuff done.

In years past, the things I hoped to accomplish were simple tasks. I could think of a goal, plan to do it, and do it before losing interest. My attention span has grown a bit, but the length of time it takes to accomplish something worthwhile has grown much more.

What's more, many of the things I hope for now are at least partially out of my control. I can save up to buy a house, but I can't control when a house that I actually want to buy will be on the market. I can go on dates but my actions won't necessarily instill interest in me (although they could certainly dispel that interest). I can drive carefully but can't do much about the other drivers who don't. The list goes on and on.

Working towards goals that are outside of my control is nothing new to me; to some extent or another, the success of our endeavors always depends on circumstance. So I've contented myself with working as hard as I can to do what I can do to encourage circumstance to cooperate with me and simultaneously trusting God to provide whatever is necessary. I also choose to trust that when I don't get something I've tried to achieve that I'll be better off without it.

Usually, I can do both of these things at once. In fact, I've become dependent on my ability to work towards goals. Most of the divine intervention that I've seen as I've tried to achieve things has been subtle direction towards things I can try to get where I'm trying to go.

But I've had a very frustrating week. I was talking about it with a friend and realized that, for at least one of my goals, there may be nothing I can do at the moment. This is only a small step up from giving up, which is completely out of the question.

Please forgive me if I seem melodramatic. I'm currently trying to cope with the fact that my primary method of dealing with the world isn't effective.

Fortunately, the way ahead is clear. I just need more faith. The best summary I know is in the Doctrine and Covenants, which I accept as scripture: "let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed" (D&C 123:17).

For me, the current application seems clear. I have done, for the time being, all that I can do to achieve some of my goals. In these facets of my life, it is now time for me to stand still. Standing still doesn't mean that stop trying entirely; I still need to give God every chance to bless me that I can. But it does mean that I stop beating myself up about it. And it absolutely means that I need to trust Him. In the past, trusting Him has always meant that I did what I could and believed that He would bless me. But now, I need to trust Him without some of that effort. And with that effort, I must also sacrifice the illusion of control. I have to square with the fact that it is not my efforts or abilities or determination that will provide the outcomes I seek but that, to the extent that I get what I want, it is due to His goodness.

This is going to be a big transition.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The times they are a-changin'

It's autumn in Utah. For weeks, I've been observing the colors as I've hiked, commuted, and lived. The colors are beginning to become muted and drab and will soon become wintry. The snows will come and most of the world's hue will be lost for a while.

Several of my favorite songs seem particularly appropriate for the season, so I made a few minutes to make a playlist for each of the seasons. I was surprised to find that the process of creating these playlists was a deeply introspective one. I now understand my own feelings towards the seasons better than ever before. I've included my playlists at the bottom, in case you're interested in seeing them.

When I think about life, I think of summer. I don't mean that things grow in the summer or that there's more greenery (although there is). I mean that, in my mind, summer is normal and the other seasons are the exception to the rule. Summertime is characterized by music that is upbeat and energetic. A lot of my upbeat dance music ended up in this playlist. Love stories in this playlist seem to be going well – or, at least, there are good prospects. My summer playlist is the longest of them, perhaps because I love summer so much. Or maybe it's because I love dancing.

In autumn, the world changes. Green turns to red and yellow. Heat fades. Clear skies become cloudy and it begins to rain. The music of autumn is reflective. It recognizes that not every good thing lasts. Some of the more acute breakup songs are in autumn, but so are some hopeful songs about change. There is brightness and color in the music, but the energy of summer is mostly gone.

Then the world fades into whites and browns. The sun hides and so do the people. For months, it seems as if there is no life or hope anywhere. There is nothing abrupt about winter, so it doesn't have sharp pains; instead, it has chronic ones. It is a time of longing for what was and wondering what might have been. There is hope for what might be, but it is marred by uncertainty about when or if the change will come. Although most of my dance music was in the summer playlist, there are several waltzes that found their way to my winter list.

Eventually, every winter begins to end when spring comes. The sun peeks cautiously from behind the clouds. The clouds are used to ruling the skies and fight back vehemently. Their efforts ultimately fail and, as the sun reasserts its preeminence, it brings new life to the world. Spring is a time of transition. There are somber days and setbacks, but there is always progress. Once spring begins, summer is no longer a distant, desperate hope but a certainty. The buds and leaves on every tree serve as constant reminders of what is to come. The music of spring is about new things, especially about new love and the hope that a budding love will mature into a deep, dependable one.

I'm not sure if I'm really being fair to some of the seasons. Actually, I'm more okay with winter than I ever have been before (yes, my feelings used to be stronger about it). But I tolerate winter at best. Maybe I'll be able to mature to the point that I can actually appreciate all of the seasons as they are.


  • The Archies - Sugar, Sugar
  • The Beatles - Golden Slumbers
  • Bob Marley - Three Little Birds
  • Boys Like Girls - Thunder
  • Carl Douglas - Kung Fu Fighting
  • Carly Rae Jepsen - Call Me Maybe
  • Cupid - Cupid Shuffle
  • Collective Soul - Heavy
  • Daniel Bedingfield - Girlfriend
  • Queen & David Bowie - Under Pressure
  • Don Henley - The Boys Of Summer
  • Duke Ellington And His Famous Orchestra - It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) (1999 Remastered)
  • Duran Duran - Hungry Like The Wolf
  • Eagles - Hotel California
  • Louis Armstrong - Summertime
  • Ellie Goulding - Lights
  • Green Day - Oh Love
  • Herman's Hermits - I'm Henry The VIII
  • Herman's Hermits - Silhouettes
  • Imagine Dragons - It's Time
  • Iyaz - Replay (Album Version)
  • Jimmy Eat World - Sweetness
  • Justin Bieber - Baby
  • Kansas - Carry On Wayward Son
  • Katrina & The Waves - Walking On Sunshine
  • Kate Voegele - Only Fooling Myself
  • Led Zeppelin - Fool In The Rain
  • Louis Armstrong - Hello Dolly
  • Loverboy - Working For The Weekend
  • The Lovin' Spoonful - Summer In The City (2003 Remaster)
  • Michael Jackson - Beat It
  • Michael Jackson - Bad
  • Miley Cyrus - Party In The U.S.A.
  • Miley Cyrus - Hoedown Throwdown
  • Natasha Bedingfield featuring Sean Kingston - Love Like This
  • Owl City - Alligator Sky (No Rap Version)
  • Owl City - Air Traffic
  • Owl City - Deer In The Headlights
  • Owl City - Fireflies
  • Owl City - Good Time (Feat. Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen)
  • OneRepublic - Stop And Stare
  • Owl City - Hello Seattle
  • Owl City - On The Wing
  • Prince - When Doves Cry
  • Paul Simon - You Can Call Me Al
  • Paul Simon with Los Lobos - All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints
  • Phil Collins - True Colors
  • Phil Collins - Dance Into The Light
  • Rick Astley - Never Gonna Give You Up
  • La Roux - Bulletproof
  • Sam Cooke - Another Saturday Night
  • Savage Garden - The Animal Song (Album Version)
  • Simon & Garfunkel - The Sound of Silence
  • Starship - We Built This City
  • Stevie Nicks - Edge of Seventeen
  • Sting - Desert Rose
  • Taylor Swift - Long Live
  • Taylor Swift - You Belong With Me
  • U2 - Pride (In The Name Of Love)
  • War - Low Rider
  • Weather Report - Birdland
  • Weezer - My Name Is Jonas


  • Sting - Fields Of Gold
  • 3 Doors Down - Away From The Sun
  • Annie Lennox - Into The West
  • Collective Soul - Run
  • The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Take Five
  • Don McLean - American Pie
  • Earth, Wind & Fire - September
  • Fergie - Big Girls Don't Cry (Personal)
  • Fleetwood Mac - Landslide
  • Gladys Knight & The Pips - Midnight Train To Georgia
  • Jimmy Eat World - Hear You Me
  • Led Zeppelin - Ramble On
  • Kate Voegele - Chicago
  • Nelly - Just A Dream
  • Oasis - Champagne Supernova
  • Oasis - Wonderwall
  • Timbaland/OneRepublic - Apologize
  • Owl City - Meteor Shower
  • Owl City - Vanilla Twilight
  • Sarah McLachlan with Bryan Adams - Don't Let Go (with Bryan Adams)
  • Savage Garden - Hold Me (Album Version)
  • Seether feat. Amy Lee - Broken
  • Simon & Garfunkel - April Come She Will
  • Simon & Garfunkel - Leaves That Are Green
  • Stereo Fuse - Everything
  • Taylor Swift - The Best Day
  • Taylor Swift - White Horse
  • TLC - Creep
  • The Tony Rich Project - Nobody Knows
  • Train - Hopeless
  • The Verve Pipe - The Freshmen
  • The Weepies - World Spins Madly On


  • The Beatles - The Fool on the Hill [from the Film "Magical Mystery Tour"]
  • Billy Joel - And So It Goes
  • Ella Fitzgerald - Dream A Little Dream Of Me
  • Evanescence - My Immortal (Band Version)
  • Jimmy Eat World - My Sundown
  • Josh Groban - February Song (Album Version)
  • Josh Groban - So She Dances (Album Version)
  • Josh Groban - Remember When It Rained
  • Kate Voegele - Kindly Unspoken
  • Lighthouse Family - Ain't No Sunshine
  • Lifehouse - Simon
  • Owl City - January 28, 1986
  • Phil Collins - One More Night
  • Sarah McLachlan - Answer
  • Simon & Garfunkel - Bookends Theme
  • Taylor Swift - Back To December
  • Sting - Shape Of My Heart
  • Taylor Swift - Last Kiss
  • Simon & Garfunkel - I Am a Rock


  • Annie Lennox - Walking On Broken Glass
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim - Garota de Ipanema
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim - Samba de Uma Nota So
  • Association - Windy
  • Starship - Sara
  • The Beatles - Here Comes the Sun
  • Billy Joel - The Longest Time
  • Coldplay - Paradise
  • Daniel Bedingfield - Without the Girl
  • Ella Fitzgerald - Let's Call The Whole Thing Off
  • Ella Fitzgerald - They Can't Take That Away From Me
  • Jesse McCartney - Beautiful Soul
  • Louis Armstrong - What A Wonderful World
  • The Lovin' Spoonful - Do You Believe In Magic?
  • Mandy Moore - Crush
  • Mandy Moore - Cry
  • Marc Cohn - Walking In Memphis (LP Version)
  • Miley Cyrus - The Climb
  • Miles Davis - So What
  • Norah Jones - Come Away With Me
  • Owl City - Honey And The Bee
  • Owl City - Hospital Flowers
  • Owl City - The Real World
  • Owl City - The Saltwater Room
  • Paul Simon - Under African Skies
  • Savage Garden - Crash And Burn (Album Version)
  • Seal - Kiss From A Rose
  • Seal - Love's Divine (Album Version)
  • Simon & Garfunkel - Scarborough Fair/Canticle
  • Sixpence None The Richer - Kiss Me
  • Starship - Sara
  • Taylor Swift - Fearless
  • Taylor Swift - Today Was A Fairytale
  • Train - Drops Of Jupiter
  • U2 - I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hedges about the law

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation at a TED-inspired venue called MITE Night (Most Interesting Thing Ever Night) about the challenges in communication that are specific to geeks (or nerds – I don't distinguish between the two). After some deliberation, I chose to present with slides as visual aides, using pictures instead of text (except when quoting someone). In the process of preparing, I came across some video clips that I thought would fit well with my presentation.

The first video clip I wanted to use was about ten seconds of a video entitled An Engineer's Guide to Dating by An Engineering Mind. As far as I can tell, this video was created just for fun and was strictly not for profit. The second was a 16-second clip of The Big Bang Theory – just long enough for a single joke. And the third video was the first few seconds of Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up music video (because rickrolling is a sort of online sport).

Of course, these materials are all copyrighted, so I needed to be sure that my use of them was legitimate. The legal doctrine of fair use attempts to describe some common exceptions to copyright law. These nebulous guidelines fail entirely to make clear what is and is not acceptable but give some guidance. But, as my use was of a small portion of each work, as it was for a noncommercial and educational purpose, and as my use of each work would either not affect the markets at all (except perhaps by advertising for the works), using these clips in my presentation is a textbook case of fair use.

I'm somewhat experienced with public speaking and I anticipated some of the common problems. Accordingly, I didn't want to rely on an internet connection, so I tried to put the video clips into my slides. The problem is that although my use of these copyrighted materials would be protected by the doctrine of fair use, I had no legitimate way to download them and embed them in my slides.

As I'd found the video clips I wanted on YouTube, the easiest way to download them would have been from the site itself. But YouTube doesn't provide a way for people (except for the people who uploaded the videos in the first place) to download videos. One reason might be to encourage traffic to the site. Another is clearly copyright protection. If copyrighted materials could be posted and downloaded at will, YouTube would be responsible for being the means by which people pirated countless copyrighted videos. By forcing people to go to the site to watch videos, a video whose legitimacy is called into question can be immediately suppressed. Using one of the many tools that downloads videos would have been a clear violation of YouTube's terms of service, regardless of the fact that my use of the materials in question would have been protected by fair use.

Another way I could have gotten the videos would have been via a DVD (well, two of the three, as I don't think An Engineering Mind has ever made DVDs). I could have ripped (extracted) the video files from DVDs and then I could have selected just the few seconds of each that I wanted and put those videos into my slides. But DVDs have a copy protection mechanism on them. It isn't effective at protecting anything, but it does make the act of ripping a DVD illegal because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (see the External Links section for the full text). As before, my use of these videos would not have violated copyright law but would have been a violation of a measure whose sole purpose for existence is to enforce copyright law. I should add that neither the current list of exceptions to the DMCA or the list of exceptions that will take effect in January 2013 allow this action, as I'm not a university professor or a student of film.

I could have, of course, simply found video clips on some torrent site and downloaded them. Torrents aren't illegal in the same way that websites aren't illegal, but downloading an entire episode of Big Bang Theory, whether or not I only ever used 15 seconds of it, could have caused legal trouble.

There is also the issue of enforcement. If I ever went to court over my use of copyrighted materials, the decision about whether or not it was fair use would be decided arbitrarily by some judge. I might get lucky; I might not. What's more, I can't afford legal counsel on the scale that the RIAA and MPAA already employ. I'd have no reasonable hope of winning the case, even if I were clearly in the right.

As for preparing slides that would work offline, I was out of ideas. Especially in the short amount of time that I had to prepare, there wasn't a way for me to store these videos on my computer and embed them in my presentation. I was unable to get either Keynote or PowerPoint to embed YouTube videos directly and I eventually went with a Google Presentation.

Of course, I had trouble getting online when I arrived. Since all of my slides were online, the presentation started late and the videos didn't work even after I got online. The presentation wasn't ruined, but it was disappointingly unpolished.

As I thought about these laws and behaviors that we use to enforce copyright law, I was reminded of the Pirkei Avot, which contains the instruction to "make a hedge about the law" (see this translation, which renders the phrase "make a safety fence around the Torah."). The purpose of this hedge was to help people be sure they never violated the law, which was of paramount import. I think this has great theological value; in fact, there are ways in which I hedge about the law in my personal behavior. But when we make hedges that prohibit others from doing otherwise legitimate things – in religion or in anything else – we must be extremely cautious.

We've clearly passed the point of reason with these laws. These hedges have taken the already crippled doctrine of fair use and rendered it completely useless. My troubles presenting when I was clearly doing something legitimate are not the only example of consumers' rights being ignored. It's time that we reformed our laws and our enforcement of them. The doctrine of fair use needs to be well enough defined and protected that ordinary people can exercise their rights in its regard without fear of unjust repercussions.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Making happiness in the lab

I spent a month in the summer of 2006 working in Kent Pinkerton's lab in the Center for Health and the Environment at UC Davis. The students and postdocs in the lab who worked with Kent were intelligent, articulate, and kind. They supported each other and helped me considerably. Despite feeling underqualified, I felt welcome with all of my colleagues (although I feel that I'm arrogating myself to call them that).

It didn't take long for me to realize that Kent's influence over the lab was considerable. He was respected for being very capable in his work, but he was loved for being a kind tutor. He communicated effectively and did an admirable job of helping people feel good about themselves. Before my month in his lab was over, I found myself observing him to learn what I could about the art of building others up. I've practiced what I learned over the years and, although I don't claim to be a master of this art, my ability to build others has improved greatly.

With this post, I hope to simultaneously thank Kent for this significant contribution to my life and to pass on some of what I've learned about this important skill.

I think that the first thing I noticed about Kent is that he's sincere. It's simply impossible to not believe him, even when he says incredible things. I still remember meeting with him at the end of my time in his lab. I'd done some simple analyses of some slides and remember that he exclaimed, "You were worth every penny!" I certainly hadn't thought I was worth every penny; I actually had thought of myself as something of a charity case. But the way he said it made it impossible for me to disbelieve him. Sincerity was not a new idea to me, as I'd been taught to be sincere all my life – but Kent's sincerity was so apparent that I was able to see why it mattered.

As I attended lab meetings and watched Kent doing research with the others, I also realized that he was very specific in his compliments. He would isolate exactly what someone had done or a characteristic that someone had and talk about it. Specificity matters because it communicates sincerity and because it doesn't sound like a platitude. I blame my egocentricity for the fact that I don't remember any specific compliments that Kent gave to others in the lab, but I do remember that he told me that, "We'll make a scientist out of you yet." At the time, I was planning to become an electrical engineer and Kent recognized specific aptitudes and abilities that would make me valuable in research. Without this comment, made in passing, I may never have considered a career in research.

The two compliments I've mentioned were effective because I could tell that Kent really cared. It wasn't that he cared about me (although I have no doubt he did and does), but that I could tell that the things he talked about really mattered to him. His enthusiasm made compliments that would have been nice into great compliments. The first compliment showed his enthusiasm for good evidence to inform the community. From the second compliment, I inferred that Kent values his field and wants it to do well – and that he wanted me to be a part of it because he saw that I could contribute.

I appreciated his comments particularly because they addressed insecurities of mine – things that kept me up at night. At the time, I was not at all confident that I was worth the hassle and the pay that I'd cost the lab. And I wasn't confident that my abilities were up to par. Such emphatic, unsolicited validation eased the burdens that I'd been trying to carry without addressing them externally.

It is crucial to note that these compliments described essential, not superficial, characteristics. They complimented who I really am on the inside and not something ancillary to my character, such as my appearance or a first impression of me. Addressing people's identity raises the stakes; the insults that sting the most and the compliments that provide the largest preponderance of warm, fuzzy feelings are the ones that describe the soul.

Of course, my listed generalities only help so much. It can be difficult to find useful and effective compliments for other people, especially on demand. Over the years, I've discovered that a few habits have greatly improved my ability to give compliments.

I've learned to observe people carefully. I'm not content to know what people are doing because understanding why they do what they do gives important insight into who they are. It helps to never assume that I've achieved my goal of understanding people. They are infinitely complex, which makes them interesting and which gives me cause to keep observing. Of course, passive observation has its limits. I have found it useful to combine careful observation with good questions.

I've also learned to believe the best of people. It's easy to assume that people do what they do because of some character flaw or other, but I've found that there is a deeper understanding to be had of virtually every person's motivation for any action. Assuming the best allows me to stop judging and to keep looking for others' good qualities. As I do so, I'm able to see specific characteristics of other people that I wouldn't see were I judging them.

Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned to do to build people up is to care about them. When I care about people, it shows. They respond with trust, which allows me to understand them better and therefore to build them up more effectively. As I have chosen to serve others, especially those to whom I'm not naturally drawn, I've found it easier to love them. This increased love has enabled me to build them up as I could not do previously.

One of the principal joys in life is sharing a sincere smile with someone else. Giving good compliments makes me happy because it makes my friends happy. I hope it does the same for you.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Apple's patch Wednesday

Apple released several updates yesterday. Most talked about was iOS 6, but there were also upgrades to Mac OS, Xcode, and other Apple software.

I'd heard about iOS 6 but don't have a device that will benefit much from it, so I didn't bother with it.

I use my Mac for school. It's basically a Linux laptop with shiny hardware and an aesthetically pleasing (if space-wasting) window manager. I use homebrew to manage the software I use from the FOSS ecosystem. So when I checked for updates last night it told me that my Xcode command line tools were out of date. This typically means that Xcode itself is out of date. I'd expected to see the update notification from the App Store, as Apple had just forced me to upgrade a few months ago to get a version integrated with the App Store.

It turns out that although the update was available, the App Store hadn't yet notified me. This isn't a huge problem; it just means that I can't trust Apple to notify me as soon as critical security updates are available. And, of course, I love the irony of being notified by a third party application that my Apple software needed to be updated.

I opened the App Store and checked for updates. I told it to upgrade everything (Xcode and iPhoto) and typed in my password to authorize the process. I quickly noticed that the update was over a GB. Having just been released, this patch was in high demand among developers and the download was painfully slow. I was only somewhat surprised that Apple doesn't use something sensible like BitTorrent to distribute its patches; after all, Apple maintains tight control over its products – even after the products have been sold to customers.

Hours later, I checked to see if the download had finished. For some reason, it was still listed and I instructed the App Store to update everything again. I typed my password again. For some reason, the patch was larger. It's possible I missed a detail somewhere, but I'm quite sure that 1.6 GB is larger than 1.3 GB.

The next time I checked, iPhoto had still not been upgraded. I told the App Store to install the update and authenticated a third time. It quickly reported that it wanted to upgrade but that it couldn't until I updated my operating system. Apple, of course, hadn't notified me that an update was available.

So I opened Apple's update tool and installed the upgrade, which forced me to authenticate (I think – at this point, it was late enough that I may have missed something) and then restart.

After restarting, I told the App Store to upgrade a fourth time and authenticated yet again and it happily complied.

When I launched Xcode, it had an update waiting inside of itself that I had to install before doing anything else. Then, finally, I dug my way through the preferences menu to find a way to upgrade the software contained within Xcode, including the command line tools. It listed four updates but said at the top that no updates were available. After ignoring the message at the top, I tried to install one of the tools. After authenticating (twice), I was told that my Apple Developer account doesn't have access to iOS 5. I have no idea why Apple maintains farcical security around its developer tools, as they're certainly available on the Internet without Apple's red tape. And it wasn't immediately obvious how I could convince Apple to give me the software. So I ignored the iOS 5 emulators and moved on to what I really needed.

The other updates didn't hassle me (although I think I had to authenticate again for each one). I was finally done. The experience left me thinking of the years I spent working in technical support for my department as an undergraduate, installing OEM copies of Windows XP on professors' laptops and doing battle to find and install the drivers they needed in order to operate properly. Apple had actually succeeded in creating its own Patch Tuesday (except that it was a day late, as it all came out on Wednesday).

So, Apple, I pose my questions to you: how do you justify such a horrific experience? Are you willing to own up to the fact that your developer tools are clearly an afterthought? Are you even bothered by the fact that third-party tools notify your users about updates (which could be security-critical) before you do, despite the fact that you control the operating system and applications that can deliver these notifications? And we all know that stealing ideas is how the computer industry works, but didn't anyone tell you to steal the good ideas?

Monday, September 17, 2012

A rock feels no pain

I recently experienced a significant disappointment. It didn't come as a surprise but it wasn't really what I wanted, either. Since that experience, I've paid careful attention to my emotions and have been surprised at how gentle they've been. I feel fine. I'm not sure that I ought to feel fine, though, and I've been wondering if there's something wrong with me and my emotions.

I'm sure it will come as no surprise to my friends that I took a while to question what the ideal of emotional experience is, what my current experience with it is, what difference exists between them, and what I can do to close the gap. I had an interesting thought yesterday: what price would I pay to experience more emotion?

This question probably deserves some background. As I've discussed previously, I decided long ago that anger would not be a part of my life. Since then, I've chosen to avoid acting on feelings of anger and have learned to process those feelings. I've learned to give others the benefit of the doubt and to be patient. Years later, I sometimes experience frustration and occasionally indignation but anger really isn't a part of my life. When I do experience a feeling like anger, I'm able to arrest its development, remove myself from the situation, and deal with it on my own without expressing it at anyone else. I've cultivated this control carefully over the years. I've considered it to be a part of the ideal that I call emotional maturity for some time. My conception of this ideal, in summary, has been that a person ought to use reason and emotion together to make decisions without allowing either one to dominate the other. Anger should be avoided because it's specifically condemned in the Sermon on the Mount and because it is so strong that it overrides reason.

Yesterday, I questioned that ideal. Specifically, I asked myself if I would be willing to sacrifice the control I've cultivated for more than half of my life if it meant deeper emotional experience.

I thought about it and discussed it with some close, trusted friends. I concluded two things: if there were something wrong with me emotionally because I've been controlling myself too tightly and if it were possible to remedy the situation by letting go, I ought to do so. My experience has been that when I've gravitated to one extreme, I have to release the fear of the other extreme in order to progress towards a proper balance between them. I also decided that I don't think there's anything wrong with my emotional state. I'm not hiding from my emotions and I'm not suppressing them; I just don't happen to have a strong emotional response to some things and that has surprised me but simply is the way it is.

This morning, I was flipping through Preach My Gospel as part of my daily scriptural study. I came across the section about hope in chapter 6. As I read, a strong feeling of peace came over me. I realized that I have learned hope. I live it. I believe that good things are coming. I believe that, no matter what happens, my life can be happy – and that other lives can be happy, too. I realized that when, as the saying goes, the Lord shuts a door, I don't stand there and look at it as darkness closes around me; I simply locate the best open door I can find and move towards it. I was grateful to be reminded that I can, in fact, feel emotion and more grateful for the divine approbation that this communication implied.

Now, dear readers, please excuse me. I have worlds to conquer.

Monday, September 10, 2012

All is not as it seems

Philip Guo recently published a memoir of his experience as a PhD student in computer science. His is a story of self-discovery and triumph. Getting a PhD is hard, especially for someone who hasn't already discovered a burning passion for a subfield, which Guo had not done when he started his PhD.

Having completed two years of PhD school in computer science myself and not having identified a subfield for which I have a consuming passion, I strongly sympathized with Guo as I read his memoir. Accordingly, I read closely and imagined myself in his situation. I came away hopeful that my experience would be similarly serendipitous. I also came away more acutely aware of the problems with the academic peer review system. Of particular note is the fact that Guo submitted papers that were rejected because his writing didn't meet the arbitrary expectations of current experts in the field, not because his research was unoriginal or uninformative. I believe in good writing and recognize that good writing necessarily reflects familiarity with an audience. I'm not taking issue with the need for good writing, but I believe that some of the requirements for publication are detrimental to the academic community as a whole.

Allow me to explain.

Early in his graduate career, Guo submitted a paper to a conference and was rejected. His research was, as the memoir tells, of a similar caliber to other research that was published. Guo's failure was in convincing the entrenched researchers in that community that his work was original and useful. That is, it wasn't the quality of work that mattered for publication. What mattered was the apparent quality of his work. Guo's paper went unpublished because the system evaluates whether or not research seems to be good, not whether or not the research is good.

To be fair, this is a scientific community and it strives to be objective. There isn't a way to determine if research is good objectively, so the community makes do with the best solution that it has found to date.

The problem with peer review is compounded by the fact that the quality of a scientist is estimated by his or her publication record (see, for example, h-index). This leads to problems such as this, where a scientist manages to falsify peer review in order to seem like an effective scientist.

Unfortunately, problems of this kind are found everywhere. We get a job not by being the best candidate for a job but by seeming to be the best candidate. Dating works along the same lines. Sports revolve around what the officials perceive, so they have precisely the same issue. Political discourse clearly emphasizes seeming over being.

Being something allows us to act. Other people's behavior towards us, however, depends on what we seem to be. It isn't possible (or desirable) to avoid seeming to be something. Instead, we should all try to seem to be what we are and to avoid seeming to be what we are not. If you find yourself trying to seem in a certain way, check to make sure that it's actually true. Are you really confident or do you seem that way? Are you actually good at what you do or do you just have a killer resume? Keep in mind that self-deception is not just possible but commonplace.

This is not to say that we should not aspire for greatness beyond what we have yet attained. And reaching for greatness requires emulation. We should try to improve by emulating the best that we see in other people. The purpose of this emulation must be for us to acquire positive characteristics, not to seem better than we are. And when others try to improve, we should encourage them instead of calling them hypocrites.

Since we interact with others, the question of our own characteristics is insufficient; we must also question our perceptions of others. Do you and I assume that the things we perceive are reality? When someone seems to be self-absorbed or quiet or happy, do we assume that this is generally the case? Do we disregard others' ideas when they aren't presented as we are used to hearing ideas or when they come from unusual or unproven sources? Do we assume that people remain the same or do we believe that people can change for the better?

The most important thing that we can do is personal: each of us can work at becoming better. We can concern ourselves less with how we seem and more with how we are. And we can give others the benefit of the doubt. We must also encourage societal change to value actuality over mere appearance. We must consciously choose to value genuineness over the appearance of virtues. We can expect people to be good but not extraordinary, freeing them from the pressure to seem to be good enough for our unrealistic expectations. Relatedly, we must put less pressure on people to be something that they are not; introverts and extroverts and everyone in between are good people. The same goes for scientists and liberal arts majors. In other words, we should encourage people to grow but not to be untrue to themselves. We also need to encourage virtues, such as honesty, industry, and kindness – but never assume that we see them clearly in others. Hardest of all, we must strive as a society and especially as individuals to acquire these virtues.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A few thousand words, take two

Author's note: I wrote this blog post a few days ago. Soon after posting it, I felt as if I shouldn't have and reverted it to a draft. I figured it wouldn't do any harm to remove it as it had only been up for a few seconds. It's been interesting to see the reaction of my friends and readers, some of whom disagreed with any revision after an article had been posted.

I believe in transparency. I don't intend for this to happen again; I'll be more cautious than before about what I post. I'd like to make it clear that the primary reason that I'm posting now what I did before primarily because my conscience is clear regarding it, not because of pressure.

I attribute my unsettled feelings to the fact that as I looked for images suitable to make into posters, I came across many unsavory images, despite my best efforts to avoid them. The effects of these images has diminished over the intervening days, but was intense. This experience has served to remind me how acutely dangerous pornography is. Needless to say, I'll be even more careful than before to avoid it.

Below this line, this post is identical to what I posted a few days ago.

I hope my readers will enjoy the little posters I made. I don't mind if you take my ideas and modify them, but you might want to check with the owners of the images (listed below).

Yes, a healthy glow looks good. But all you need for that is to emerge occasionally from your cave.

I think that too many of us believe that we're actually more productive when under the influence. I don't buy it.

It has always mystified me that people extol alcohol for making social interactions easier. I think we'd be better off if we actually learned to face our fears. Also, ethanol reeks.

Secondhand smoke is vile. Please stop.

NYC is full of people who clearly spend time exercising – and who smoke. Clearly, their objective is not long life.

I'm not sure if I can think of anything that would send me running faster than a girl who smells like smoke. Gross.

But buying on credit seems to be normal. Why would you do that?

This one kind of sums up the rest of them.

Original image sources:



tanning bed



ripped guy smoking

ostrich sign

credit cards

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Switching gears

This weekend, I wrote a post. It was a little snarky and maybe that's why I had second thoughts about posting it. So I reverted it to a draft and removed all external links to it.

It didn't take long to discover that my feed still had the article. Anyone who follows my blog using a feed aggregator (like Google Reader, Thunderbird, or Outlook) can still see it, although the pictures in it are now gone (after I went to Picasa to delete them myself).

I've been a little bothered by the complication of blogger. The HTML it produces is ridiculously decorated. And there's the issue of Google Analytics; I trust Google to be responsible with the data its analytics tools collect, but I don't know that I want my readers to have to be tracked to read my postings. And there's the simple fact that it isn't my server and it's not under my control. Most importantly, conversations go to blogger to die because the default is for no email notification to be sent for follow-up comments. So people comment and then never know that anyone responded.

On the other hand, maintaining my own server is no trivial task. It'd cost money, even if I only wanted a domain name registration – and that would mean paying for power and cooling for my own server. I'd be responsible for updating it. It'd take time.

But I sure would learn a lot writing my own blog.

So I will. But I'll probably end up just using wordpress in the end. Incidentally, keep your eyes open for a change of location.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sometimes I dance and philosophize at the same time

I hope this post won't offend any real philosophers out there. I just think about things. A lot. And I try to get to root causes.

I went dancing tonight. I knew it was a swing club. I wasn't sure what exactly to expect, as there are a lot of variants of swing. It turns out that it was a lindy hop club.

For those unfamiliar with dance and with my background, I've danced lots of different styles. I'm not bad at standard ballroom (waltz and foxtrot, for example) and I'm good at Latin (samba, cha cha, etc.) – I'm no pro, but I definitely get by. I'm mediocre at swing. Within swing, there are many variants. West coast swing is easily the one I'm best at. Lindy hop is easily the one I'm worst at (of the ones I've tried, which are several). West coast and lindy are similar rhythmically but their styles are worlds apart; west coast swing is smooth and lindy hop is grounded. So when I try to dance lindy hop, my west coast swing kicks in and I do it wrong – very wrong.

Not having gone dancing anywhere west of Salt Lake City – ever – I took a minute to observe what was going on around me. It was easy to see that there were lots of novices who still struggled with things like rhythm and leading. There were several people way more advanced than I. They dance the way some people play soccer or paint: they made something beautiful with the skill they've developed.

I went back and forth between observing from the edges (hoping to learn) and dancing. Everyone I danced with was nice, but some of them were clearly underwhelmed. As they always do when I'm faced with my own incompetence, the gears in my head started turning. Turning isn't the right word – fast enough; these gears were threatening to melt.

I realized that I'd never really gotten into self-expression through dance. After all, I use my words for self-expression. I like words because they can be used precisely. Dance, as is the case with many art forms, can express very effectively from the perspective of the expresser, but it is often ineffective at clearly communicating to observers. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this sort of expression; it's just that I feel no need for it.

Another reason people love swing is its low barrier of entry: relative to other dances, it's easy to show up and learn and have fun without much practice. I've often been frustrated with people who dance swing because they often don't learn the other styles that I love so much. I don't begrudge them swing, but it irks me to see that they are talented but that they don't use that talent for other dances. I feel like they're missing out and I feel like I'm missing out on the chance to dance with them – to really dance with them.

Another factor is that swing's culture is generally one of showing up and learning by experimentation and observation. I've found that I learn better when I'm being instructed precisely. I'd like very much to know where each toe is supposed to point and I learn it better when people just tell me. Such exacting technique certainly exists within the swing world, but many casual swing dancers love swing because they can get away without it.

Tonight, I realized that I enjoy dancing because the way I move is different. Waltz is smooth but surprisingly athletic and the spinning is fun. West coast swing requires control and finesse with some flair. Samba looks like it's all over the place but also requires precise control in every part of the body. I have fun when I dance them because of the challenge of being technically precise and because of the beautiful and distinct feeling that each one affords. I'm sure that the other variants of swing have their own feel – I know that lindy does – but I've never done enough of them or been interested enough in them to experience them in that way. And I don't know if I can really get into swing if I don't find a way to express myself as freely as swing dancers do. It's like I get to a dance hall and I don't know what to say.

Because I approach dance from such a different perspective, it's no small wonder that swing does little for me and that my own favorite dances aren't as widely known as I'd like. It's simply the end result of different motives.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Boys and girls are different

I was talking with a friend about gender relations once. I said that I have little use for reverse sexism, although I think that women deserve much more respect than they currently enjoy. She said that reverse sexism has a place because there is so much sexism in our society today.

This floored me. It's not that I don't see the rampant sexism in our world. It's that the women in my life (my sister and mother) have always been strong. They have expected and deserved respect and they have had it. I respect women greatly and I credit them for it (and I wish them a happy Mothers' Day).

There are many common errors made about the genders. I'll identify some of them and then express, to the best of my ability, some truths about the genders.

Please feel free to disagree – especially if you can explain your reasoning.


Men and women are exactly the same, except women are better

I don't think this one needs much explanation. Second-wave feminism was ridiculous and we all know it. Let's move onto more plausible and interesting topics.

Women are valuable primarily because they're beautiful

Women, it turns out, are worth far more than their looks. I'll be the first to say that I appreciate women's looks. But there is much more to them and we often fail to recognize it. This is particularly true in a few subtle ways.

Many depictions of women emphasize their bodies more than their faces. I don't think there's any doubt but what this objectifies women, but we're very used to it. To illustrate the fact that this is so prevalent, Kevin Bolk made his own version of some promo art for the recent Avengers movie. There's also Jim Chines, who has a whole blog post of himself doing the poses that women do in fantasy novel cover art.

In contrast, men tend to have far more natural poses and their artwork tries to show strength more than allure (although strength and allure may, in fact, be the same thing).

Many of us don't notice this, even though it's clearly not subtle.

Slightly more subtle is the facial expressions that men and women wear in similar art. Men tend to have stolid, determined expressions. Women tend to have one of two faces: determined or mentally vacant. Determined isn't so bad, but the fact that we're okay with artwork that shows appealing women who seem to have a light switched off in the attic sickens me. It's like we're celebrating the idea that women are something pretty to look at, but that talking with them is a waste of time.

Another way this idea is manifest is in some women's interest in fashion. I will not say that all interest in fashion is misguided, but I fear that some women are interested in fashion because it's how they see themselves getting value – by getting attention from men, yes, but also from getting the approval of their similarly fashion-minded peers.

In summary, if you believe that your self-worth comes from your fitness or your fashion, you're doing it wrong. You're valuable because you're human and because God is your father.

Men are insensitive

Men aren't stupid. Men have feelings.

Of course, our culture tells them that their feelings aren't okay. It tells them not to express them. No one seems to have noticed how similar we all are; it's just that modern girls tend to talk about their feelings before they bury them and that girls tend to use ice cream and chick flicks, while guys use video games and/or movies that feature explosions.

When men grow past adolescence, they start to open to the possibility of expressing their feelings. But the lost years of practice haunt them; they feel awkward as they do so and often have trouble articulating their feelings. In fact, they've spent so long hiding from their emotions that many men can't identify them in the first place. Failed attempts can drive men into deeper emotional solitude.

Fearing emotion, men often don't know how to help others with their emotions. It's time we changed our culture and allowed men to talk. This means that men need to talk about emotions with their sons and with others who look up to them. It must be the role models of masculinity who show examples of emotional maturity so boys can look up to them.

Men are stronger than women

Yes, actually, men tend to have more muscle mass than women do. They usually win if they ever arm wrestle. But we tend to think that men are stronger because we ignore other types of strength. What about the strength to endure the pain of childbirth – repeatedly? What about the strength to sacrifice something important for something else that matters more?

Of course, it shouldn't matter much. When a man hits a woman, he commits a despicable act.

Some people try to compensate by depicting strong women. Yes, there are women who train hard and can do amazing things. Yes, there are women who could beat the daylights out of me. But creating a fictional female character who fights with a sword against creatures with triple her weight just makes the problem worse; if a girl feels helpless because she isn't strong enough, this is more likely to cause further discouragement than to inspire her to greatness in martial arts. And no one should pursue any skill or education to fill a gap in self-worth.

Instead, we ought to celebrate the characteristics that women have. They don't have to have massive upper body strength to be valuable. We need to identify and vociferously congratulate women on the strengths that they have.

A woman dominates a relationship with "feminine wiles"

If a guy falls for you for your looks, know that you will age and that younger women will come of age.

A man dominates a relationship with his strength

This is called abuse. Don't ever let me hear about this happening.

Of course, this can happen in subtler ways than physical abuse. Men should be strong, primarily for the benefit of their wives.

A woman dominates a relationship with her wit

Lots of women in recent mass media (especially sitcoms) are sarcastic and condescending to their idiot husbands. They always get the final words and their husbands never quite catch up. As is the case with the previous two sections, this doesn't describe a real relationship.


Men and women are different but of equal value

Yes, boys and girls are different. No, one group isn't inherently better than the other.

We should value these differences

The characteristics of each gender are beautiful. We're designed to be together. We ought to celebrate our differences and use them to build a family that's better than either spouse is on his or her own.

Relationships bring different people together

It wouldn't be a relationship if the two members of it were the same. Relationships are about using our differences to improve ourselves and each other. They are built on complete trust and fidelity, one day at a time. The battle of the sexes has no place in true love, because each spouse is concerned only with the other's needs. This sort of marriage is the pursuit of a lifetime. I'll get there, but it will probably be long after my darling and I have slipped the bonds of mortality and gone on to a better life.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A few thoughts from my first days in New York City

I live a couple of blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel, but haven't yet found the sea of swirly twirly gumdrops.

When I walked through Central Park, I remember thinking that there was no snow, so Buddy's skill with snowballs was moot.

I love the attitude that The Metropolitan Museum of Art has: this art is to be shared freely.

People come to the Met from all over the world. Trying to understand languages is even better than the artwork.

The bust of Caligula wasn't as great as everyone else seems to think.

I really like Monet.

Van Gogh really likes swirlies.

Rodin (who sculpted The Thinker) was one weird cookie.

People in NYC aren't hostile, as their reputation would indicate. They're just in a rush. They actually try to accommodate each other while making sure that they hustle from one place to another.

I don't really like Times Square, but I'll take it over the Strip anyday.

The blend of languages and cultures is amazing.

I love it when there's a train that goes almost directly to where I'm going because the subway is so fast.

Mormon culture shows up when Mormons (more properly, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) get together, no matter where they are.

I find myself observing more and talking less when I'm in new surroundings. It still wouldn't be fair to call me shy, but I haven't been as overwhelmingly talkative.

I haven't seen much weather yet, but it seems pretty temperate.

Lots of people smoke here.

It seems that no one cooks in midtown – ever. Fortunately, there are ways to order groceries online.

I've been good about getting up in the mornings, but it's boring when everyone you know is still asleep. The jet lag could be a lot worse.

I'm pleasantly surprised by how clean the air is here, despite the prevalence of smokers.

My apartment is really nice. And it has a washer/dryer!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Making the world worse: sharing passwords

The Associated Press and at least one other periodical have reported that some employers are asking for Facebook credentials – usernames and passwords – in job interviews. The ACLU has commented on it, calling it a gross violation of privacy.

Privacy aside (privacy is an important issue, but not my topic here), there's something that needs to be addressed here. I'll sum it up in a single sentence:

Never share a password with anyone – ever.

You may say I'm a dreamer

I think the valedictorian at my high school had a GPA of over 4.5. I remember that I had friends who would avoid taking a class because it wasn't honors or AP and would bring down their GPA, even if they got an A. My approach was to take the hardest (and therefore most beneficial) classes that taught things I wanted to learn. Needless to say, I did not have a 4.5.

But when I went to college, my GPA was too low to even apply for the scholarship I wanted. I worked hard to get good grades. Towards the end of my undergraduate education, I started to realize that I'd made a huge mistake: I was trying to get good grades instead of trying to learn. I began focusing on internalizing the material instead of just succeeding. I learned more, enjoyed it more, and my grades were at least as good as before.

I'm glad I learned that lesson as early as I did but wish I'd learned it earlier. Since then, I've learned a lot about how I learn and about how others learn. I've also learned about how our educational systems could improve. This post describes the problems as I see them and my suggestions for how to improve them.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I'll start a summer internship in a month and a half across the country from where I live. Since it will take me so far away from the people I love, I've been thinking a lot about friendship in general and my friends in particular. I've been thinking about the times that I have entered a new setting (by moving or starting a new job, for example) and about the joys and sorrows this has brought to me. In this post, I'll endeavor to describe what friendship means to me. I hope that my friends who read this will have a deeper understanding of their significance in my life – something I try to communicate daily but something that I fear is not generally understood.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Following a choir director (or how not to date)

I've been practicing with a choir for a few weeks in preparation for a big performance. The choir has a different director for each of the three songs we've been practicing and each of them has a unique style of directing. As is to be expected when styles differ, there are things that I like and that I don't like about their different conducting styles.

Since conducting music is essentially communicating, I realized that the things that I don't like about their styles typify some common problems in interpersonal communication. So I'll describe what I dislike about each one's style and why and then relate it to interpersonal communication, especially in dating.

I'd add again that I like these men. I appreciate what they've taught me and hope they won't take offense at this, particularly in light of the fact that each of them is a more qualified conductor than I.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Of all the gin joints in all the world

A few years ago (almost to the day), I was taking a social dance class. We were preparing to perform a mambo for a university function and so we had dance partners assigned, as opposed to our usual pattern of rotating every few minutes. My partner (her name is Michelle) was fun to dance with and talk with. She also happened to be gorgeous - and she seemed interested.

But social dance classes make asking out a little difficult. As a rule, I don't ask girls out in front of other people. It has less to do with the fact that I might get shut down in front of others and more to do with the fact that she's likely to be uncomfortable with it (yes, I plan to propose in private). Since everyone leaves class at the same time, it can be a little difficult to catch someone and ask her out - especially if you go in different directions.

Friday, February 3, 2012

When I grow up

I started writing a blog post about different fields of study and jobs that I've tried or thought about and how none of them has worked out. I realized that much of my introductory material is essentially the same as this post, which I wrote 16 months ago. There are, of course, some differences in what I would emphasize or how I'd phrase things, but it's mostly the same.

The bottom line is that I'm still not really into my research. I suppose it might be a little different if I were in another job. If I were on an assembly line, I could do good work even though I didn't think much of it. But as a researcher, I can't do high-quality work without being fully invested in it. So far, I haven't been fully invested and it's crippled my ability to perform.

Friday, January 27, 2012

This has gone far enough

Author’s note: I am biased. For religious and philosophical reasons, I reject the idea that any person is incapable of anything. Some people have predispositions towards or against certain ways of thinking or performing and some people have disabilities. But I still believe, at least in general, that anyone who wants to learn something can learn it.

There’s a paper that has been quoted and linked quite a bit for the last little while. It describes an attempt to understand the bimodal distribution computer science teachers have found, no matter how they teach, for many years. All of the evidence seems to indicate that some students can program and some can’t.

The authors designed a test, showing a very small, very simple excerpt from a Java program, like the one that follows:

int a = 10;
int b = 20;
a = b;

The test essentially consisted of recording students’ responses to questions about the effects of the program. Of course, the authors were not so simple as to try to test students on their programming abilities to determine if they could become capable programmers. Instead, their conclusions stated that students who demonstrate consistency from question to question were more likely to succeed in an introductory programming class after the fact. By consistency, the authors mean forming a mental model for what each statement does and using that same model for each statement in each program, in order.

The paper shows tabular results from several different tests. The tables validate the authors' conclusions - and several other conclusions. Importantly, they show that students who have prior programming experience are likely to do very well on the test - much more likely, in fact, than those who have no such experience.

Since the test includes no instruction about programming, students are left to wonder how the statements interact with each other. Most students who have no experience in programming are likely to use algebraic rules to interpret the program; after all, algebra is the only system most of them would know that uses notation that looks like this. An algebraic evaluation, however, leads to a contradiction for our sample program (as 10 is not equal to 20). There is also no reason to assume that students who have no prior experience would assume (correctly, in this case) that the statements take place in sequence and not all at once. It is likely, but not certain, that students who do assume sequence will assume (again, correctly) that the sequence occurs in top-down order.

In short, the test seems to favor those who already know the answers. Those who don't are unlikely to succeed in programming classes.

It seems likely that a host of factors play a part in these findings. Students who do well in math are generally less intimidated by mathematical notation and so can think more clearly on the test and in the class. They also are more likely to have prior experience. Those who have prior experience are more likely to have habitual thought patterns that match other programmers; as long as programmers typically come from some demographic, their work will reflect their polity. This means that language design will favor those who use it because it has to make sense to them. This also means that professors in computer science, who are themselves successful programmers (we assume), are likely to think along the same lines. They are likely, then, to teach in a way that reflects their habitual thought patterns. This favors like-minded students and makes life more difficult for those who approach things differently.

To be sure, programming requires people to learn to think in new ways. It's hardly as if people are born with the right thought patterns in mind. But some students have a head start because of predisposition and prior experience. Those who don't, it seems, tend to do poorly in their classes.

There's quite a bit of irony here. Programmers are, by necessity, logicians (some better than others). We ought to be able to spot logical fallacies easily. But no one seems to have noticed that this study essentially begs the question: if students know programming, they'll do well in the class that ostensibly teaches them programming. If they don't know it, they won't do well.

It seems obvious to me that the problem is in the way we teach; after all, the students who don't know programming but sign up for an introductory class are really the ones the class should target. For example, do we make enough time for the students who don't know about programming to learn? Do we assume that all students will make the same assumptions we make (after decades of training) about sequence? Do we make other similar assumptions? Do these assumptions detract from our teaching? Does the large number of students in an introductory lecture make it impossible for the students who don't know how to program but who want to learn to ask questions and get answers?

In short, does our educational system fail to help those who need its education most?

I think it does.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Chew on this

If we chew food thoroughly, we digest it better. We can swallow it just fine in larger chunks, but it can occasionally cause indigestion and frequently causes our body to avail itself of only some of the proffered nutritional benefit.

Something similar happens when we learn - intellectually or spiritually. Some of us digest our food but do so quickly. We can't be bothered to think about it more than is necessary. We learn what we must in a class to pass the test. Spiritually, we may learn the lessons that are taught to us explicitly but fail to learn the lessons that are available to us but that aren't called to our attention.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why you can't control the Internet

There's a lot of talk about SOPA, PIPA, OPEN, and other proposed legislation regarding the Internet. There are lots of strong opinions and a lot of information - and much of the information is wrong. My purpose is to explain why I believe that governments can destroy the Internet but can't control it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What ancient Greeks knew about cybercrime

In Greek mythology, the Teumessian fox could not be caught. It caused enough mayhem that Cephalus used Laelaps, a dog that never failed to catch his quarry, to hunt it. The abilities of the fox and of the hound were contradictory, so Zeus turned them into stone and made them constellations.

Cybercrime is remarkably similar to this fox. Of course, individual criminals are caught and individual techniques  are identified and solved by security products. But cybercrime as a whole seems to be impossible to catch: with the creative abilities of countless intelligent people, someone always comes up with a new way to exploit other people and their computers.

Those of us who do research in security are like Laelaps; if we pursue something long enough, we're bound to find it. Researchers have accomplished wonderful feats and have made great leaps in securing computers in homes, businesses, and in governments and military organizations. And yet we continue in our endless pursuit of the fox that cannot be caught. (I have ample job security. So did Sisyphus.)