mostly politics links, plus a good list of board games
Mood: okay
Posted on 2011-11-30 15:54:00
Tags: politics links
Words: 170

BoardGameGeek has a holiday gift guide full of good games. I think we own (and like) half the games on the list :-)

- Why we need an individual mandate for health insurance - a short explanation by comparing it to the used car market. Adverse selection is a big problem! (thanks David!)

- Why conservatives can't get people to work hard is a good look at how hard it is to motivate people, and why building a strong middle-class seems important. (thanks David!)

- The Era of Corporate Profit - corporate profits (after tax) are the highest in the last 50 years, while wage income is at its lowest over the same period (both as shares of GDP). And (surprise, surprise!) corporate taxes are way down.

- A former conservative asks When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?

- The Tuesday Birthday Problem is a long article about a tricky probability question. (the answer depends on how you ask it) I like probability questions, but I tend to steer clear of not-entirely-well-formed ones like this one.


FlightPredictor for Android followup
Mood: hopeful
Posted on 2011-11-29 14:33:00
Tags: projects android
Words: 231

After my last post about FlightPredictor for Android (thanks for the feedback, everyone!), I've decided to take the following steps:

- Submit it on the Amazon Appstore - the terms aren't great, but the more exposure, the better. The app makes much more sense to me on smartphones than it does on tablets, but it's sold pretty well on the TouchPad so I want to give it a chance on the Kindle Fire. It's currently going through the approval process and will be available...well, at some point.

- Free version: Last night I finished up FlightPredictor Lite, a free version with ads and a limit of 6 flights to add. Hopefully this will give people the confidence to upgrade to the real one.

I'm going to wait a bit to let things settle in (and make sure there are no more major problems to fix), make a few improvements, and then go on the attack trying to market it. The "build it and they will come" approach isn't really working - I've sold around 16 so far, and two of those were to family members :-)

Speaking of which, it is kinda cool having an app that people I know in real life can use. (well, more than one person) I guess that's one advantage to writing apps for a more popular OS...

Probably going to move on to Windows Phone stuff soon, modulo holiday goings-on.


FlightPredictor for Android sales: not good. Maybe Amazon App Store?
Mood: disappointed
Posted on 2011-11-23 14:54:00
Tags: projects android
Words: 228

I released FlightPredictor for Android on Saturday. Since then, I have sold a grand total of...6 copies. (although it did get a 5-star review!) This is *ahem* a bit disappointing, and I've been considering some options.

- Marketing: the Android market is such a big place I'm sure it's easy for apps to get lost. Android users: where do you go to hear about cool new apps?

- Free version: I've heard that Android users are much less likely to pay for apps than those on other platforms. Maybe I should make a free version that has ads. I'm not a huge fan of in-app ads, though, and I can't imagine they'd make that much money. Plus, that's potentially a bunch more users to support. And other flight-tracking apps aren't free...

- Amazon Market: I'm also deciding whether or not to submit to the Amazon App Store. The terms are not favorable to developers, as Amazon can set your app to be any price they want. (hopefully not less than 99 cents?) But it's the only way to get on the Kindle Fire, and while I didn't optimize FlightPredictor for that big a screen, a beta tester used it on a 7" tablet and said it worked fine.

Maybe part of the problem is neither Google nor Amazon care that much about app sales?

Anyway, I'm more than open to suggestions.


Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy review
Mood: content
Posted on 2011-11-22 19:50:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 509

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the PapacyAbsolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was interesting in parts but very long. I guess I'm not as interested in early history, because I enjoyed everything from 1600 on more. There were definitely some good popes, but there were also a lot of bad ones - it was surprisingly common to use the position for personal gain (making nephews cardinals and such), although this stopped around the 1800s.

While Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) was against Nazism by the start of World War II, the author presents pretty good evidence that he was anti-Semitic, and he spoke out against the Holocaust much later and more mildly than he should have. Indeed, when the SS sent some Jews from Rome itself to Auschwitz he did not speak out against it, nor did he ever apologize.

It sounds like John Paul II was a pretty good pope - he certainly did a lot of good for Catholicism's image, although he missed an opportunity to review old Catholic teachings on the ordination of women, birth control, and gays. Sad.

Some highlights:

- Best part of the book - the papal conclave of 1159. All but three of the 30 members voted for Cardinal Roland. One of the three, though, was the pro-imperialist Cardinal Octavian. Just as they were about to crown Roland with the papal mantle, Octavian lunged at him, snatched the mantle and tried to put it on himself. A scuffle ensued, during which his chaplain produced another mantle (clearly indicating this had been planned), and Octavian put it on (backwards), ran to the throne, and proclaimed himself Pope Victor IV. He then ran off and ordered some clergy to acclaim him as Pope.

This lead to a schism for a good while. There were 30 such "antipopes" throughout history...although it's been over 500 years since the last one!

- One of the only popes to abdicate (in 1292), Celestine V was encouraged to do so by Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who "introduced a secret speaking tube" into Celestine's cell and "simulated" the voice of God telling him to resign or face eternity in Hell. Then Caetani became the next Pope (Boniface VIII) I guess that worked out for him!

- In 1329, supporters of German King Louis IV (who opposed the pope) formally condemned a straw effigy of Pope John XXII (attired in full dress). As the author dryly notes, "This bizarre performance did little to enhance the reputation of either emperor or antipope"...

- For a brief while in 1409 there were three popes! The successor of one, John XXIII "reduced the Papacy to a level of depravity unknown since the days of the pornocracy in the tenth century". Apparently he seduced at least two hundred women, "to say nothing of an alarming number of nuns"...

- Pope Alexander VI (1492) fathered eight children by three different women. And he made five family members cardinals!

I enjoyed the book on balance, but 2000 years of history is really a lot to cover.

View all my reviews


links: supercommittee, budgets, webOS, Fox News
Mood: cheerful
Posted on 2011-11-22 10:49:00
Tags: politics links
Words: 186

The supercommittee failed to reach a deal on reducing the deficit. Reports are that the Democrats on the committee offered the Republicans a "fair deal" roughly in line with the Bowles-Simpson bipartisan deficit reduction plan. They agreed to cut entitlements, but the Republicans refused to raise taxes. Remember this the next time you hear about "fiscal responsibility" and such.

The latest xkcd is a cool graph of money. I wish I had a wall at work to put a poster of that or Death and Taxes on. Budgets are fun!

HP had their conference call and remarked that they've lost $3.3 billion on webOS this year...considering they also paid $1.2 billion to buy it in the first place, that starts to add up. I can understand why they might be hesitant to continue with it. It sounds like they're planning to make a decision in December, and one sticking point may be getting to license webOS for printers. Sigh.

I've seen studies saying that Fox News viewers are less informed, but here's one showing they're less informed than people than people who consume no news!


FlightPredictor for Android published!
Mood: proud
Posted on 2011-11-19 16:00:00
Tags: projects android
Words: 43

FlightPredictor for Android is now available!

alt="Available in Android Market" />

Thanks a ton to my beta testers - caught a lot of bugs that way! If anyone downloads it (hint, hint! :-) ) and has problems or questions, don't hesitate to let me know.


CrashPlan and a few links
Mood: calm
Posted on 2011-11-17 10:22:00
Tags: reviews links
Words: 204

I checked in on The Wirecutter and noticed they said good things about CrashPlan, a backup service, including the fact that they have an honest-to-goodness Linux client! After installing it and reading more about it, I signed up and couldn't be happier. Prices are cheap, it seems to just work, and you can encrypt your data with a password so even they can't recover it (this is a good sign they're doing it right). $25 a year for 10 GB of storage sounds just perfect for backing up my source code! (they also have an unlimited plan...)

In this month's Atlantic, there was a long and scary article about Pakistan, probably our least friendly "ally".

A reminder: Obama says waterboarding is torture, and he's against it. (unlike some of the Republican candidates)

A beautiful five-minute time-lapse video of Earth from the ISS.

Life without stimulus - when the UK took austerity measures instead of a stimulus, their GDP is still way below where it was pre-recession (while ours is around the same). (thanks David!)

A new Rick Perry ad is both inaccurate _and_ grammatically incorrect!

The story of a last minute trip to St. Louis to try to see Game 7 of the World Series.


finishing Android, starting Windows Phone 7. And happy car milestone!
Mood: stressed
Posted on 2011-11-14 10:40:00
Tags: car windowsphone projects android
Words: 320

I'm basically done with FlightPredictor for Android. I started almost three months ago, so one major takeaway is that apps take a long time to write. It took a bit longer since I hadn't done any Android work before, but most of the design was just copying the existing apps, so maybe that balances out?

To set the record straight, some of my Android complaints were unfair, and once I got into the swing of things I got things working in fairly short order. (although some still stand) So it's not a terrible environment to develop in, although Java isn't my favorite language, but having to design for a ton of different screen sizes with a ton of different OS versions combined with the fact that there doesn't seem to be many standards for interaction really made it a drag.

Oh, and I tried filtering a list on David's phone and it was very fast. I'd estimate the emulator is something like 20x slower than running on a phone. Which worked out nicely since I didn't have to optimize anything further, but it sure does make testing on the emulator painful!

Next up is a Windows Phone 7 version, which I've just started. I'm guessing with the holidays it will take a bit longer than three months, but since I'm already moderately familiar with WPF/Silverlight/C#, perhaps it will go faster.


My Prius hit 100K miles last week! I've been pretty happy with it - since I bought it 7 years ago it's only had a few problems. It's averaged just under 43 MPG over that time. A quick comparison with a Camry (which gets ~28MPG):

Gallons per 100K miles23253571
Price for gas (at $3/gallon)$6975$10713

So I've saved more than $3500 on gas already, which is a bit less than the premium I paid for the car, but it's pretty close. Here's to 100K more miles!

1 comment

pretty music video links, and FlightPredictor for Android beta testers!
Mood: busy
Posted on 2011-11-11 13:41:00
Tags: projects links
Words: 86

Busy week, so just a few links. But first:

Hey Android users! Want to beta-test FlightPredictor for Android? It should be ready some time next week - send me an email!

- An awesome music video made out of lots and lots of Jelly Bellies. The music is nice too. (thanks Adam!)

- A montage of classic video game deaths.

- A visualization of which words Republican presidential candidates used during debates, also broken down by policy. Neat idea but I wish there was more information here (quotes, or something)


More irritations with developing for Android
Mood: irritated
Posted on 2011-11-05 16:32:00
Tags: rant programming android
Words: 593

I'm nearing completion of my port of FlightPredictor for Android. While things aren't as bad as they seemed when I started learning Android development and I'm able to make progress at a reasonable rate, two things popped up over the last few days:

- One of the activities in the app is choosing an airport. There are more than 900 to choose from, so I put them in a big list with a TextView on top so you can type to filter. On the emulator, filtering is very very slow (it takes around 5 seconds from typing something until the results change), and while it won't be that slow on an actual device (please?), it will probably be noticeable. So I wanted to put up a loading indicator that goes away when it's done.

Calling the filter to do its filter-y thing is pretty simple, something like

where s is the string that's in the TextView. And you can pass another parameter to get a callback when a filtering operation is done.

But! If the user types in something like "bwi" in rapid succession, it will immediately try to filter on "b". (I tried to fix this problem for a while: the Filter class even has a setDelayer() method that does exactly what I want, but it's hidden...) While that's going on and the "w" is pressed, I call to filter "bw", and assuming the first request is still going on when "i" is pressed, I call to filter "bwi". When the "b" filtering is done, the filter (intelligently) then goes on to just filter "bwi". So this means I only get two callbacks that filtering has been done. So I have to essentially write a tiny state machine to keep track of, when I do a request whether there's one already pending, and if I've already done another one when there's one already pending.

I will agree that the code didn't take that long to write - most of the time was spent looking for some easier way because someone must have wanted to do this before, right? But no luck...

- FlightPredictor includes a bunch of maps of airport terminals. These are saved as image files, and there's around 20 MB worth of them. Unfortunately, as best I can tell, some (many? most?) Android phones ship with very limited space on the device itself, but come with a big SD card to store stuff on. (this is the case on David's Galaxy S phone, anyway) You can tell apps to install on the SD card, but this won't work in my case because I have a Service that runs in the background (to update flights), and you aren't supposed to let those kinds of apps install on an SD card because apparently any SD card apps get killed when the phone gets plugged in.

What I really want is to just keep the image files (stored in assets/) on the SD card, but as far as I can tell there's no way to do this. My options seem to be:
* Take the images out of the main app and make them a separate app that users would have to download. This is a terrible user experience.
* Take the images out of the main app and, the first time it's run, add logic for downloading the images and saving them to the SD card. This is what I'll have to do, I guess, but it's quite irritating to have to write and test all this extra code to work around limitations in the OS...


Scare for a Cure
Mood: tired
Posted on 2011-11-01 17:09:00
Tags: essay
Words: 1125

Last week a friend at work mentioned that he was volunteering at Scare for a Cure, and they were generally short people on Halloween night (since it's a school night), so he was looking for volunteers. I've been feeling a bit guilty lately about not volunteering much (especially since I'm probably not going to be doing the tax center stuff I've done in previous years), so I decided to go for it. The downside was that he said it would last until 1 AM or so, but it's only one night so I figured I could deal. (I'm much more willing to do one-offs than things that tie me down for months on end...)

Anyway, I knew almost nothing about it (except that the money went to charity), so when we left work yesterday I tried to put myself in a "leaf on the wind"-type mood, to roll with the punches and other appropriate metaphors. Only issue was that I wasn't feeling great and had a somewhat sore throat. He explained that the haunted house was right next to NI's cofounder's big house, on Richard Garriott's land which he generally lets them use. It was off of 360 in the very nice part of Austin, of course - scenery was beautiful!

We parked and walked down to the site, where I was introduced to Susan, who seemed to be in charge of checking people in and running things to some extent. It became clear that this was a pretty big operation - lots of people wandering around, a costume trailer and a makeup trailer, the whole works! I ate some quick food that was catered by Southern's Fine Dining and reported back to Susan to figure out what I was going to be doing, and she ended up sending me to the Freak Lab, which sounded like fun. Got my costume (muscles bursting out of a shirt) and waited in line to get makeup (scars on my face!). By the time that was done it was getting late - I was done around 7:10 and group 0 was scheduled for 7:30. Of course I had no idea where to go or what to do, but Susan found someone to walk me down to the actual site. (it was pretty dark by this point...luckily I didn't kill myself, as I have terrible night vision)

The whole environment really felt like a mix between backstage at a show and a carnival (owing to the large number of clowns that were wandering around), which was kind of neat. I mostly observed and tried to stay out of people's ways.

It was dark, so this was the only good picture I got - unfortunately you can't see much of the muscles down both arms...

The house itself is (I learned later) on a concrete slab that was going to be an addition to Richard Garriott's house, but it got canceled or something and now the iron bars are rusted through so it's not good for much. Except being spooky - there's something unsettling about plain concrete walls and floors. I was pointed in the direction of Freak Lab, where I met up with the Freakmaster (who I had met before), and he explained how the scene worked. The gist was that some member of a group had already been kidnapped and was led to a cell in the Freak Lab - when the rest of the group got there, they'd let him/her out. But they wouldn't let out another actor in a different cell, who would get angry and call for the Freakmaster, who led them into the lab. There...some stuff would happen (this was out of my sight), usually involving spraying them with blood and someone's face being ripped off. At some point the Freakmaster would realize that they had let his captive out of the cage, and call for the guards. That was my cue to appear and scare them into the next room.

So really I had about 10 seconds of being visible, which was fine with me. I gotta say, the Freakmaster and company did a pretty good job of acting on their feet - he'd usually ask some questions and respond to answers in a creepy way. Groups started coming through around 8, and we got a 15 minute break around 10, then the last group came through our part around 12:20. Our scene lasted 3-4 minutes, and groups came through every 5 minutes or so, so there wasn't a whole lot of downtime. (and sometime there was less than zero!) I decided to kinda growl/yell at the guests as they were on the way out - otherwise they wouldn't see me at all, which seemed like a waste of a creepy costume. This meant my voice was not in good shape by the end of the night - luckily some kind soul had brought Ricola drops, which I downed every 30 minutes. I felt bad for the Freakmaster (who did a lot of talking) and the people that had to scream every single time. Is my voice just much weaker than everyone else's?

I've been in a reasonable number of shows at this point in my life, and there's a certain monotony in doing the same show three times in a day (for the summer musical, day). But that's nothing compared to doing the same scene ~40 times in an evening - by the end it was fairly Groundhog Day-esque. It helped some that we were directly interacting with the audience, but still...yikes.

Anyway, afterwards I was tired and such, but there were some last night traditions to attend to - walking through the house (which was kinda cool since I hadn't seen anything but our lab), a few speeches, a group picture, etc. I of course felt a bit out of place since these people had been doing this for quite a while together, and I was just a Johnny-come-lately. (also: I was tired) But it was fun and they seem like good people, if a little weirder than even other theater people I know :-)

The sad aftermath is that I was exhausted today (of course - got home around 1:30 but was sufficiently wound up/sore throat-y and stayed up for another hour), and I realized that I am apparently allergic to the foam or whatever that the bulging muscles were made of. Nothing too serious, but my arms are blotchy and itchy today.

Summary: If you like haunted houses, you should really check out Scare for a Cure - it's for a good cause and looked to be pretty scary, and they did a lot of work with costumes and scenery and such. (and get the red ticket so you can be covered with blood and such - way more fun that way!)


Baseball is awesome! (so is Ken Jennings)
Mood: impressed
Posted on 2011-10-28 13:45:00
Tags: baseball links
Words: 209

Game 6 of the World Series was last night, and it was pretty amazing. Twice the Cardinals (boo!) were down to their last strike (in the 9th and 10th innings) and twice they managed to tie the game up before winning on a walk-off home run in the 11th. And after watching the replay, the David Freese triple to tie it in the bottom of the 9th really should have been caught by Nelson Cruz - not quite Bill Buckner, but pretty close.

Here is the win percentage graph, which is pretty dramatic when you compare it to, say, Game 5's graph. It also amuses me that David Freese's WPA was .95, meaning he basically won two games by himself! (not far behind is Rice and Astros alum Lance Berkman with .82 - he hit a home run in the 2nd and drove in the tying run in the 10th) Poor Josh Hamilton (.53) only won one game by himself (mostly by hitting a two-run homer in the top of the 10th), which wasn't enough...

Unrelated: Ken Jennings posted this awesome "I am the 99%" parody, then after it went viral made it clear he was supporting the protests, not mocking them. He's a stand-up guy. I need to buy Maphead...


mobile OS's and updates
Mood: curious
Posted on 2011-10-28 10:42:00
Tags: palm links
Words: 185

The impression is that Apple is very good about updating older phones to newer versions of iOS, while manufacturers that make Android phones are not as good. Michael DeGusta did some research and produced this lovely chart that absolutely confirms that theory. Although it looks like HTC is a little better than average, while Motorola is worse than average (although hopefully that will change since they're owned by Google now).

Happily, the Windows Phone update will be delivered to all (or nearly all?) phones.

In the increasingly sad webOS world, some people are still "all in", although sadly that group does not include HP which will make a decision on the coming months. I hope it finds a nice home somewhere, but I will be very surprised if it ends up on phones in the future. Sigh.

Unrelated: I am instinctually a bit skeptical when I hear about teaching kids to be entrepreneurs (probably because of Rich Dad, Poor Dad), but this story of learning about cash flow through running a vending machine is kind of awesome. I want to own a vending machine!


FlightPredictor HD featured in October webOS Pivot magazine!
Mood: pleased
Posted on 2011-10-26 19:55:00
Tags: palmpre projects
Words: 41

Well, this is a bit bittersweet since the October issue still hasn't been pushed to TouchPad's, but some clever folks at webOSRoundup found it anyway, and FlightPredictor HD is featured! I've posted the thumbnails below - click through for the full pages.


Nokia Lumia 800 - probably my next phone
Mood: excited
Posted on 2011-10-26 13:48:00
Tags: palm
Words: 80

Nokia announced the Lumia 800, their new flagship Windows Phone, and it looks pretty sweet. Unfortunately it's not coming to the US until "early next year", but I think I can wait that long.

Why Nokia? Well, they make nice phones, and I have a soft spot for formerly big mobile companies (my first phone was a Nokia!) who have fallen a long way but are now starting over with a new mobile OS. (or: Nokia's Palm moment has arrived)


occupy wall street via cookie monster, scientologists, etc. links
Mood: stressed
Posted on 2011-10-25 10:37:00
Tags: politics links
Words: 481

Cookie Monster explains Occupy Wall Street. No, really, here's the text:

Yes, there always going to be rich and poor. But we used to live in country where rich owned factory and make 30 times what factory worker make. Now we live in country where rich make money by lying about value of derivative bonds and make 3000 times what factory worker would make if factories hadn't all moved to China.

Capitalism great system. We won Cold War because people behind Iron Curtain look over wall, and see how much more plentiful and delicious cookies are in West, and how we have choice of different bakeries, not just state-owned one. It great system. It got us out of Depression, won WWII, built middle class, built country's infrastructure from highways to Hoover Dam to Oreo factory to electrifying rural South. It system that reward hard work and fair play, and everyone do fair share and everyone benefit. Rich get richer, poor get richer, everyone happy. It great system.

Then after Reagan, Republicans decide to make number one priority destroying that system. Now we have system where richest Americans ones who find ways to game system -- your friends on Wall Street -- and poorest Americans ones who thought working hard would get them American dream, when in fact it get them pink slip when job outsourced to 10-year-old in Mumbai slum. And corporations have more influence over government than people (or monsters).

It not about rich people having more money. It about how they got money. It about how they take opportunity away from rest of us, for sake of having more money. It how they willing to take risks that destroy economy -- knowing full well that what could and would happen -- putting millions out of work, while creating nothing of value, and all the while crowing that they John Galt, creating wealth for everyone.

That what the soul-searching about. When Liberals run country for 30 years following New Deal, American economy double in size, and wages double along with it. That fair. When Conservatives run country for 30 years following Reagan, American economy double again, and wages stay flat. What happen to our share of money? All of it go to richest 1%. That not "there always going to be rich people". That unfair system. That why we upset. That what Occupy Sesame Street about.

After the South Park episode that mocked them, Scientologists tried to "infiltrate the writers room" and get dirt on Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

A former skeptic agrees after doing his own study: global warming is really and truly happening. (thanks David!)

The Wirecutter is a "list of the greatest gadgets". (written by a former Gizmodo writer) Obviously if you're interested in gadgetry, you should do more research, but if you just want a good camera or TV or whatever, this is a great resource!

The Venn Piagram!


mostly politics/economics links
Mood: tired
Posted on 2011-10-21 13:41:00
Tags: politics links
Words: 296

Politics/economics: (more economics towards the top, more politics towards the bottom)

Back in 2000 (i.e. when we had a surplus, before the Bush tax cuts), the government wrote a report on why getting to 0 debt isn't a great idea.

Why Greece, Spain, and Ireland Aren’t to Blame for Europe’s Woes - they were invited into the eurozone so they could provide a good return on investment to the more developed countries. Then when the financial crisis hit, other countries cut back on foreign investment., meaning giant deficits. (although this wasn't the only thing going on, but it was a big factor)

Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks) has a plan to let Starbucks customers lend money to small businesses through Community Development Financial Institutions. Kinda crazy but I'm interested to see how it turns out!

Robert Reich's seven biggest economics lies - trickle-down economics doesn't work! and so on. And as a reminder, just because 47% of Americans don't pay any federal income tax doesn't mean they don't pay other taxes like payroll taxes, which are somewhat regressive.

Biden Takes Senate Republicans To School On Tiny Millionaire’s Surtax - or, this is how marginal tax rates work!

Lemony Snicket on Occupy Wall Street

The Untold Story Of The Actual Obama Record - hopefully Obama's campaign brings these points up close to next November...


Michael Winslow does a pretty convincing electric guitar!

The coffeeshop fallacy for startups - just because you like hanging out at coffeeshops doesn't mean you'd like running one.

Adobe's deblur plugin which doesn't ship yet (and there are still big technical challenges), but nice!

Rick Santorum is still really really really anti-gay marriage. (I think when he said "he'd die on that hill" fighting for a federal same-sex marriage ban, he didn't mean it literally, but still...)

1 comment

The Decision Tree review
Mood: okay
Posted on 2011-10-21 13:04:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 168

The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized MedicineThe Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine by Thomas Goetz

This book was...OK. It covered a few topics: we need to take more control of our health and have more access to our medical records/data (including our DNA) so we can make our own decisions, it's better to catch diseases early but the health care system in the US isn't correctly incentivized to encourage that, we need to change the pharmaceutical industry so they don't have to focus on blockbuster drugs. All was mildly interesting, but mostly stuff I had heard before, and tying all of this to a "decision tree" seemed shoehorned.

They did mention Quantified Self, which I appreciated, and there was an example of a Drug Facts box for prescription drugs that is much clearer than what we have today (a PDF example). I also learned about PatientsLikeMe, a website good for people with chronic illnesses to share what treatments work for them.

View all my reviews


a dream, Steve Jobs, and some armchair psychoanalysis
Mood: pensive
Posted on 2011-10-20 10:23:00
Tags: dreams essay projects
Words: 320

I spent most of last night working on FlightPredictor for Android. I was happy to be working on it (paying off some technical debt!) but a little dismayed as I looked through the code and realized how much there was left to do that I had conveniently forgotten about. It's coming along though, probably about 65% done. (pending any new issues that come up when I test on a real device)


Then I had a dream about Steve Jobs. (maybe brought on by the Apple tribute website I visited yesterday?) Jobs had already died, but I was back in time somehow the day before, and he was answering questions in a town meeting of sorts. I don't remember the other questions, but when he called on me I just said "Thank you", and he looked back at me with sadness on his face. He knew that he was going to die the next day.

I left the meeting (maybe it was the next day) and sat down outside, and was overcome with tears for a while. Then I woke up, feeling sad and being a little creeped out.


One of the reasons Steve Jobs was so good at what he did is that he was (from what I've read) is that he was insanely dedicated. I don't know about his family life, but he clearly devoted much of his time to Apple. I think last night I was feeling guilty that I don't have more time to work on my non-work programming projects, and there are definitely times where I have a very strong urge to create something. (actually, these days most of my non-work time I feel like "accomplishing something", whether it be finishing a book, writing a review, etc., etc.)

But I need to back off a bit, because I don't want my projects to consume my life. And I need to learn to be OK with that.


New Mexico vacation
Mood: content
Posted on 2011-10-16 21:36:00
Tags: pictures travel
Words: 709

David and I took a mini-vacation this week to New Mexico. Here's all about it!

We left Saturday morning and drove through to Carlsbad. The drive was fairly uneventful, except that I had forgotten that the speed limit on I-10 in West Texas is 80! That made things go faster than planned, and made the 55 mph limit on some roads in New Mexico feel ludicrously slow.

We arrived in Carlsbad around 6, so we had time to check in to our hotel before heading to dinner. Based on advice in the AAA guidebook, we went to The Flume for dinner, which we never would have done otherwise since it was (we discovered) located in the Best Western down the road. It was nice, though, and we relaxed and shook off the drive while being served by a rookie waiter. After dinner we spent the evening in the hotel room and read and watched TV. For food timing reasons, we decided to stay on Central time (after discovering NM is on Mountain time by seeing the alarm clock in the hotel room!) so we went to bed on the early side.

Sunday morning we got up earlyish, checked out of the hotel, and headed to Carlsbad Caverns. The drive down there was slow (darn 55 mph roads for no reason), and we saw mention of "cherry cider" which sounded intriguing. After getting in the park we drove the 7 miles up to the visitor center, stopping at a few sights along the way. Unfortunately, it was pretty clear there had been a recent fire of some sort, as a lot of the vegetation was heavily burned.

At the visitor center, we had a bit of time before our Left Hand Tunnel tour started, and we learned about White nose syndrome, which luckily hasn't spread as far west as Carlsbad yet.

The tour was neat - there were only 11 of us plus the ranger guide, and we got to carry candle lanterns to light the way. The caverns are very impressive in terms of scope, although in terms of formations we had seen more elaborate ones at Natural Bridge Caverns.

After the tour, we went back up to the surface, had lunch, and then went back down to the aptly-named Big Room. It's 1.25 miles around the outside of the cavern, and it's easy to get blown away by the sheer size of everything. The path around the room ends back at the underground visitor center, so we took the elevator back up, did a little souvenir shopping, walked along a nature trail and called it a day after trying a cherry cider. Which tasted good in small amounts.

We drove to Roswell and made pretty good time again, so we did the usual have dinner and relax in the hotel room thing. We've been bad on previous vacations about not taking enough time off to relax, but I think we did well this time. (especially since my feet were killing me after Carlsbad...)

Monday morning we toured the International UFO Museum. It was pretty well done - lots of eyewitness accounts about the infamous Roswell incident with some competing theories about what happened. It seemed clear to me that the Army covered up something, but what that was we may never know. (although one recent theory is that it was an experimental Soviet craft with a midget pilot!)

We looked at some gift shops, then went to the very small Walker Aviation Museum at the old base (now the Roswell Airport) where the "alien" debris was brought.

Honestly, at this point we were mostly out of things to do in Roswell. We read in a coffeeshop in the local Hastings, and after dinner tried to go bowling but it was a league night. The next morning we had planned to spend the whole day in Roswell, but decided to head back early. We did see two interesting art museums before we left, though. Spent the night in Fort Stockton (after cancelling our last night's reservation at the hotel in Roswell) and then drove back to Austin on Wednesday.

All in all it was a quick trip, but we got a lot of reading time in and it was quite relaxing!


Macroeconomics review
Mood: tired
Posted on 2011-10-12 16:55:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 49

MacroeconomicsMacroeconomics by Paul Krugman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This textbook helped me understand interest rates, inflation, and currency exchange stuff. It's a bit dense (it's a textbook!) but interesting, and it's broken up nicely with real world examples.

Paper book, available for borrowing.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review
Mood: tired
Posted on 2011-10-12 16:54:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 45

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Decent book - a bit meandering (like, say, the first half of it) but I liked it better by the end. (fair warning: also a bit grisly)

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Boomerang review
Mood: tired
Posted on 2011-10-12 16:53:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 192

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third WorldBoomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm becoming somewhat of a Michael Lewis fanboy, and I enjoy reading about the recent financial crisis. So why didn't I enjoy this book more?

One reason is that it felt pretty disjointed. There are five chapters, each covering a different country. (and California :-) ) Lewis's thesis is that what each country did with mountains of cheap credit is a reflection on what they really wanted as a country. This is interesting, but it means that each chapter only relates to the previous one as an example in contrast. Plus, I had read almost three complete chapters in excerpts in various magazines, so not a lot was new to me.

I liked The Big Short because it helped me understand (part of) what caused the financial crisis, but this didn't do the same for me. I guess I understand some countries a little better, and the book is relatively entertaining (Lewis is definitely a good writer), so I don't recommend against reading it...just don't get your hopes up.

(paper book, available for lending)

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Willpower review
Mood: happy
Posted on 2011-10-04 14:15:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 818

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human StrengthWillpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a big fan of this book. The authors (one research psychologist and one science writer for the New York Times) start by describing the famous marshmallow experiment (kids who were able to resist eating a marshmallow were generally more successful in life) and say that willpower is one of the only traits that corresponds well to success (the other is IQ, which we don't really know how to improve).

Willpower is an idea that was very popular in the Victorian era, but in more recent times has fallen by the wayside. But a series of experiments have shown the following fascinating things:
- When you start the day, you have a finite amount of willpower, and it can be used up. Students who were told to eat radishes instead of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies (and were left alone with the cookies for a while...what a cruel experiment!) were less persistent in a standard task (working on an impossible problem) than the students that were allowed to eat the cookies.
- Suppressing emotions (when watching a sad movie, for example) has a similar effect of draining willpower.
- But, eating food or raising your glucose level can replenish your willpower. Similarly, people who have used up their willpower show lower glucose levels.

Another random thing the book mentions - doing the Stroop task (saying the color that a word is printed in, rather than reading the word of a different color) for words in Russian was used during the Cold War to try to find covert agents who claimed to not speak Russian. If you don't know the language the words are printed in, the task isn't hard at all, but if you do you're generally slower. Nifty!

Making choices also drains willpower. Interestingly, it seems that weighing options and looking at pros and cons doesn't drain willpower nearly as much as the action of making a decision. When your willpower is low, you'll tend to take the recommended option, or decide on one dimension alone. ("Just give me the cheapest!")

To develop willpower in children, it's important to punish them when they do something wrong - the harshness of the punishment doesn't matter much, but consistency and the delay between the bad action and the punishment are very important.

There's also a chapter on dieting, which is very difficult because willpower is driven by glucose in your bloodstream! They did mention two interesting things:
- The "what the hell" effect is common in dieters, where if you've already gone over your calorie limit (or whatever) for the day, you'll tend to indulge more since you've already "failed". Of course, this is massively counterproductive.
- Seeing a treat and saying "no, I won't have this" is draining of willpower. But saying "I can have this, but later" doesn't drain it as much, and when "later" rolls around you're less likely to actually eat it.

Finally, some tips for increasing willpower: doing certain kinds of exercises can help. For example, reminding yourself to sit up straight, or recording everything you eat in a food diary have been shown to increase willpower stamina. The key point is that you're trying to change a habitual behavior. And it seems to be the case that you only have one type of willpower, so working on posture, for example, should help you resist other kinds of temptations better.

The book covers a bunch of different facets of willpower, and so it can feel a little disjointed from chapter to chapter, but I didn't mind since they were all pretty interesting. It also looks at some celebrity examples - David Blaine, for example, has tremendous willpower (when it comes to his stunts, anyway), and Drew Carey hired David Allen to personally come help him use the Getting Things Done system.

Some closing tips:
- Watch for the symptoms of "willpower depletion" - they're a little hard to spot, but a big one is "emotional volume". If your emotions are more intense than usual (e.g. being unnaturally upset at trivialities), that's a good sign to try to avoid making any binding decisions.
- If you're trying to make changes in your life, make them gradually, and don't try to do more than one at a time - you're more likely to fail at them all.
- When working on a goal, monitoring is very important, as is rewarding yourself when you reach milestones. There's an interesting mention of a group called the Quantified Self who are interested in automated monitoring of their body - pedometers, FitBit, and the like. Sounds right up my alley - I should check them out!

As I said, this is a very interesting book - I took notes and left around half of them out of this review because there was so much good stuff! I got a paper copy, so it's available for borrowing.

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Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico review
Mood: busy
Posted on 2011-09-29 11:32:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 63

Fire and Blood: A History of MexicoFire and Blood: A History of Mexico by T.R. Fehrenbach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a very thorough history of Mexico. It's also quite long (~600 pages of small print), and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It starts in prehistory and ends up in the 1980s with the PRI. Very informative!

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