Mood: okay
Posted on 2010-11-03 10:20:00
Tags: politics
Words: 175

First off, I'm glad I wasn't around last night to watch the results come in live. Losing > 60 House seats is pretty ouch.

But it wasn't all bad news. The Democrats held on to the Senate, and it looks like they'll have 52 or 53 seats. The Republican Senate candidate from Colorado, Ken Buck, who believes that being gay is a choice appears to be going down.

Sadly, the National Organization for Marriage managed to oust three Iowa Supreme Court judges who ruled for marriage equality (maybe those Iowans will stop being so smug...), but the judge who originally ruled for marriage equality kept his job, and generally NOM endorsed a lot of candidates that lost.

Our old state representative Donna Howard apparently won by 15 votes out of 100,000! (pending a recount, presumably)

Anyway, maybe now (or at least in January) we can get back to governing and fixing unemployment and all that. Or, maybe it'll be a giant mass of gridlock and nothing will get done. Which do you think is more likely?


on firing people for remarks made outside their job
Mood: contemplative
Posted on 2010-10-29 15:58:00
Tags: essay
Words: 334

Background: last week Juan Williams got fired from NPR for making some comments on Fox News about Muslims. I've kinda gone back and forth about what I think about this - the comments weren't terrible, but they do seem to indicate a bias and NPR is within their rights to fire people who don't represent them well. James Fallows at the Atlantic makes the point that NPR isn't just Fox but liberal - they do strive to report the facts and not let their opinions drive their coverage of the news.

Yesterday, some guy on an Arkansas school board made some really terrible comments about gays saying he wished all gays would commit suicide, etc. His comments were more private (they were made on his Facebook page, not national TV) but a lot more offensive, and certainly point to an inability to do his job fairly. I'm uncomfortable with people being fired for what they say in private, but I think the comments were odious enough to warrant it in this case. (postscript: He quickly resigned and was interviewed by Anderson Cooper, on which he sounded suitably contrite, although it sure sounded like his attitude hasn't really changed...)

Now that so much of our private lives is less private than it used to be, we're going to need to decide what's acceptable. If I'm polite to coworkers during work hours but am a raging racist outside of work, is that grounds for firing? What if I smoke pot, or go out drinking all night? I definitely learn towards the "if it's not affecting your work performance or environment, who cares?" school of thought, but these are going to be real issues. I kinda think that employers shouldn't even be allowed to look at an employee's Facebook page in an official context. What do y'all think?

Creepy Google CEO said that in the future everyone will be allowed a name change upon reaching adulthood in order to "disown youthful hijinks". Maybe it's not such a bad idea...


bridge update (or: programming is hard)
Mood: worried
Posted on 2010-10-27 14:00:00
Tags: bridge projects programming
Words: 477

After vacation and traveling and such, I've been working on the bridge program again. I'm at the point in the webOS client where I can now play a complete hand, bidding and all. It even looks relatively nice with cards sliding around, things fading into view, etc. Ask me to show it off if you're interested sometime!

So the next task is adding the AI for playing cards. I've decided to go with a rule-based system, where there are a bunch of rules that can decide if they apply. So I have "second hand low" and "third hand high" rules that go near the end (since they're fairly generic).

Last night I tried to sit down and really hammer out the rule that applies if you can determine exactly what will be played. If you're the last player on the trick, this is relatively easy - see if your partner is winning, if not win as cheaply as you can, if so (or if you can't win) throw some trash.

Even this is a little vague - what card should I throw away? Well, if there's only one suit I can play it's easy, but if not then it's hard. So I put this off with a TODO.

The tricky part is if you're the third player on the trick and the fourth player is the dummy. Then it's something like: look at all dummy's cards and the declarer's card that was played (if it's currently winning), then see if I can beat all these. If so, play the cheapest. If not....well, we are in the third hand and we'd like to force dummy's best card if we can. So find dummy's second best card and see if we can at least beat that. If not...well, at least we should try to beat the current high card played by declarer. If we can't do that, then just toss something.


This took a while to code up, and I need to test it thoroughly because I'm very much not confident in it. And it still leaves a lot of details out - what if dummy has AK6 and I have the 57 - under the algorithm I'd play the 5 which is pretty clearly wrong. It seems like to handle this case I should have been keeping track of which cards are winners in their suit, which is another layer of complexity!

And all this is for a (all things considered) pretty simple case where I can see all the cards. I'd also like to keep track of how many cards of each suit each person has (based on the bidding), which would help but would also add enormous complexity.

Maybe the AI should cheat and see all the cards? Is there some better thing to keep track of?

It could be a long time before the game seems to play intelligently...


Mood: calm
Posted on 2010-10-25 17:36:00
Words: 35

Voting is soon. You should do it.

League of Women Voters Austin voters guide (large .pdf)
Endorsements by the Austin American-Statesman
Early voting locations in Travis County (.pdf) - early voting is available until Friday.



Built to Last
Mood: happy
Posted on 2010-10-23 15:29:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 706

On a whim, I picked up Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business Essentials) at an airport bookstore. I had heard the name of it before, and it was better than I expected. (I'm also a bit of a sucker for business books)

The idea of the book is to examine "visionary" companies (premier in their industry, widely admired, etc.) and try to figure out what makes them different. So the first step is to identify visionary companies, which they did by sending out a survey to top CEOs. (they also set an arbitrary cutoff of founding before 1950) So they ended up with a list like 3M, GE, HP, Proctor & Gamble, Boeing, Disney, Johnson & Johnson, Philip Morris, etc. Then they searched for comparison companies in the same industry that were founded at a similar time and were successful but not "visionary". So HP got compared with Texas Instruments, Disney was paired up with Columbia, GE was paired up with Westinghouse, etc. Then with these comparisons, they looked for patterns to see what was different.

Their findings were interesting: a "great idea" at a company's founding isn't necessary, or even early success. You don't need a great or charismatic visionary leader for a visionary company. The visionary companies did not play it safe. And so on.

Then the book distills these down into what it takes to have a visionary company. The biggest thing is that a visionary company needs a fixed core ideology and a clear vision. By this they don't mean just having a vision statement, but having a purpose (beyond "make money") that is widely recognized and taken seriously within the company. For example, Sony was founded with a "pioneer spirit" (and the idea of raising the reputation of Japanese electronics - Sony was founded right after World War II), HP was founded to provide something that is unique and to make technical contributions, Johnson and Johnson focuses on aiding the "art of healing", Philip Morris focuses on freedom of choice and "the right to smoke".

This was probably the most interesting part of the book for me. Learning about companies core beliefs (especially compared to a lot of the comparison companies which boiled down to "make money") was actually kind of inspiring.

The book goes out of the way to point out that there's no "right" vision, but just that having one that is authentic and guides decision making is what seems to matter. Some companies focused on customers, some on employees, some on their products or services, some on risk taking, and some on innovation. Again, just having a vision statement is not enough.

The rest of the book talks about other things that the visionary companies tend to do. One is "Preserve the Core and Stimulate Progress", meaning always remain true to your core values, but don't be afraid to try different non-core things. Similarly, "making a profit" can't really be a core value, but you can't ignore it either. (this is the "Genius of the AND") Another is trying a lot of stuff and keeping what works. Yet another is home grown management which seems highly correlated with being a visionary company - that way your upper management has spent a lot of time in the company and learning and internalizing its values.

The authors spent a great deal of time on their methodology and trying to make sure that this was a scientific(ish) study. Ideally we would examine two companies that were founded at the same time, one with these principles and one without, and see how they turned out. Since we can't do that, we have to examine historical data, which can lead to various biases. For example, maybe embracing these principles leads to a 99% chance of failing in the first 20 years and a 1% chance of massive visionary success. This seems like a pretty big problem, and one that the authors touched on but didn't have a very convincing argument for.

Anyway, I enjoyed it a lot, and clearly it's something that's read at National Instruments because I recognized a lot of the terms used (BHAG, Profitable Core, etc.), which was kinda neat. It's available for lending and is a fairly quick read.


links on a friday
Mood: calm
Posted on 2010-10-22 10:31:00
Tags: links
Words: 171

Shameless self-promotion: I'm singing the Durufle Requiem as part of an All Souls Requiem mass at St. David's church in a few weeks. It's a beautiful piece of music and the choir sounds very impressive. You should come!

Now, for a somewhat subpar set of links:

Brits Stiffen Their Upper Lips, French Take to the Streets - even though the world is fairly globalized, national characteristics are still alive and kicking.

Helpful snapshot of what online TV services (Hulu, Netflix, etc.) have access to which shows. We've vaguely talked about doing the whole no cable thing for a while, but it sounds like kind of a pain to make it work with the shows we watch.

The legend of gay astronauts!

A very clever malicious page that disguises itself as the Firefox "this page is malicious" page.

President Obama did a video for the "It Gets Better" project. Of course the commenters are ripping him a new one for opposing gay marriage, appealing DADT even though he doesn't support the policy, etc.


productivity techniques (or: remembering stuff)
Mood: thoughtful
Posted on 2010-10-20 12:22:00
Tags: reviews essay
Words: 579

I have a terrible short-term memory. As such, I'm constantly afraid of forgetting something important - all of my open loops stress me out.

For events, keeping a calendar is a godsend. I use Google Calendar, which is accessible at home and at work, and automatically syncs with my Palm Pre so I can access it anywhere. Having constant access to my calendar makes me a happy guy! (before getting the Pre I had tried Google Calendar and gone through phases of disuse)

For a todo list, though, I've tried a number of different things without much success. My current theory why nothing has stuck is that a lot of my todos are things that I need to take care of in the next few months. So putting them on a list and staring at them until I finally decide to do them is almost as stressful as having to remember them.

One thing I've done that's worked well is putting time-based todos on my calendar. The easiest example is for checking on a rebate that I send in - after I send it I put a calendar entry 6 weeks from then to follow up on it. It means I have zero to remember, which is the goal. If I get more information about it (i.e. I get an email saying it's in processing with a URL) I can just add that to the calendar entry and resume forgetting about it.

I suppose I could do the same thing with general todos (pick a date for each one and add it to the calendar), but they're generally so flexible that I might want to do it early, etc.

Similarly, I'm terrible at dealing with email. I currently have around 25 emails in my inbox. (although it was up to 40 before I made a concerted effort to scrub them last night) Some of these are just general information that I need to capture somewhere. I tried setting up a personal wiki for this, but it never really got traction because I don't visit it enough. Many of these are reminders of things that should really be on my todo list. And just like todos, having a bunch of emails in my inbox with stuff that I should really do at some point stresses me out.

So I was excited to discover followup.cc yesterday (which is what prompted this post). followup.cc is a service that lets you forward them emails with a date, and on that date they will send you a reminder. This is brilliant for a few reasons:
- In Gmail, it shows up as the next thread in the conversation of the original email, so you have all the context you had when it was in your inbox.
- The way you specify the date is by where you forward it - if I want a reminder on December 17, I'd forward it to Dec17@followup.cc. There's a whole section of different formats you can use, including time from now and future day of week.
- The original message isn't gone, of course, so if you need to access it before the reminder fires you always can. I think I'll label them with a special label to make this easy in Gmail.

Anyway, I'm going to try integrating this into my daily email checking routine for a few weeks and see how it works. Hopefully it's as useful as it seems right now!

What are your techniques for keeping on top of things?


long-awaited links
Mood: cheerful
Posted on 2010-10-14 13:15:00
Tags: links
Words: 233

Wow - it's been a month and a half since the last one of these. In my defense, I was out of town for a lot of that time...

- A sample receipt from federal taxes showing what they go for. This is a great idea!

- A five minute overview of 200 years worth of progress in medicine and the economy. The video uses Gapminder which is a neat tool to plot demographic information. I like videos like this because I am a hopeless optimist :-) (most days, anyway)

- Malcolm Gladwell explains why the revolution will not be tweeted. This is one thing that bothers me a bit about Facebook in particular - if I get a reminder that it's someone's birthday and take 2 seconds to post on their wall, how much does that birthday greeting really mean? Very very little, in my view.

- OKCupid's latest data analysis is on gays vs straights. I'm a tiny bit skeptical of these sorts of data (people tend to lie about such things), but it's definitely very interesting.

- How to stack a deck of cards such that no matter where it's cut, you win the hand of poker. Clever!

- Report of a test drive of a Chevy Volt. Tempting but pricey. Maybe it'll be cheaper by the time we need a new car...

- The UK street artist Banksy (wikipedia) wrote the latest Simpsons couch gag, which is pretty dark.


San Francisco trip
Mood: happy
Posted on 2010-10-13 23:37:00
Tags: pictures travel
Words: 653

We had a great trip to San Francisco! Here are pictures:

This time, I didn't write up every single thing we did, just when I had something to say. So:

Monday, we drove out to Fairfield to visit the Jelly Belly factory. The tour was pretty interesting - we got to walk around the factory and saw a bunch of videos about the company's history and how they make Jelly Bellies. Along the way we got to try new flavors of Jelly Bellies (honey is good!) and sample beans that had only gone through part of the process. The scale of the place was pretty impressive. Also, one of the steps is putting the beans through a "sugar shower" which sounds really tasty! The store had free samples and a ton of Jelly Belly paraphernalia. I went a little overboard...

Afterwards we played Putt-Putt. I was a little ashamed because we were very hot, but the high was only in the 80s. Later I found out the high where we were was actually 97, so we hadn't transformed into California wimps. Yay!

The cable cars were neat but a little frightening - it looked like the driver had to grip very tight on hills to keep the car moving. Also, the brakes often took two or three taps to actually stop.

The Alcatraz audio tour was very interesting - the site is still relatively well preserved. There is a very nice view of San Francisco (it's only 1.25 miles away); apparently some nights inmates could hear chatter from parties there.

Pier 39 but had a lot of neat stuff, like an amazing sock store! I got a hot tea and then spent an hour on a ridiculously overcrowded and unventilated streetcar getting home...honestly was a little afraid of fainting. (lesson learned: hot tea is a "sometimes drink")

The Muni system is...interesting. Muni is the public transit system for the city of San Francisco (i.e. not BART, not CalTrain, not any of the 10 other mass-transit options) There are four(!) types of vehicles - cable cars which run a very limited set of routes, buses, streetcars that run on rails and attach to overhead power lines, and streetcars that also go underground like a subway. This was all extremely confusing for a day or so until we mostly got the hang of it. Stops were sometimes hard to see, and the payment system is kind of arcane. For street-level things, you pay at the front when getting on, unless you have a 1/3/7-day pass. (we bought a seven-day one...and then bought me another one when I left it on a bus our first full day here. Whoops!) The passes aren't electronic, so the driver's supposed to verify that it's still valid, which of course rarely happened. In the subway, however, you have to pay cash to get into the station, unless you have a pass, in which case you just...walk through the gates. The linchpin to the system is you can be stopped at any time by a Muni cop to show proof of payment (including a timed transfer if you paid cash), but we rode a lot and never saw one.

The California Academy of Sciences was pricey, but it had a good planetarium and enclosed rainforest environment. And a good museum shop :-)

We saw a fun show called Beach Blanket Babylon. It's a musical revue of, um, pop culture and stuff. Some of their jokes were fairly groan-inducing (bordered on the whole "referencing someone in pop culture=joke" philosophy), but usually either a joke or the music was good in each scene, so that's fine. Rule of thumb: the show isn't over until the big hat comes out. No, the really big hat. Seriously - biggest hat I've ever seen. Oh, and the plot of the 100 minute show could be described in 60 seconds. Just think of it as "Family Guy with music" and you'll be fine.


in the name of science
Mood: worried
Posted on 2010-10-03 11:09:00
Tags: dreams
Words: 318

Creepy dream: my mom wanted me to sign up for this medical study, so I said sure. I went in to the doctor's office and she explained she'd be cutting out part of my brain to see how that affected me. So her assistant used a giant spiny pizza cutter and she took out a slice. Afterward it didn't hurt hardly at all, although later she mentioned it would hurt like hell later.

Anyway, then all the people that were part of the study got in a group and talked about how what they had done to them made them feel. (I was the only one with a brain slice taken out, other people had different things) When it was my turn I said I felt slower, it was harder to think, and the people who ran the study kinda nodded.

Then we were walking back somewhere through my old neighborhood, and I had a lot of questions for the woman who ran the study, and I had a lot of questions about things that didn't make sense. Like, why wouldn't they do some sort of SAT test or something to measure the difference in intelligence instead of just asking me how I felt? The answer was that would exclude people who hadn't taken the SAT from being in the study. This made a little sense to me, but not much. The other question I really had was were they going to put the slice of my brain back or what? But that question never got answered, and I was getting worried by their evasiveness...

(the dream started by my playing Civilization 5 and getting crushed by the computer, and so before the surgery I was thinking about what techs to research first. One way I could tell the missing brain slice was making me slower was that I was having trouble remembering which techs lead to what...)


minnesota, civ 5, bridge
Mood: busy
Posted on 2010-09-20 12:07:00
Tags: pictures bridge projects programming
Words: 208

I went to Minnesota last week on a recruiting trip and took a few pictures:

Civilization 5 is releasing tomorrow! The full manual is available online (warning: 233 page .pdf) and it look spretty good. I do miss having a paper manual, though.

I've been working on the bridge program for webOS. It's coming along nicely - the framework is all in place to bid and play, and I've done some of the graphical stuff so you can almost actually play a hand on the webOS emulator. The next big thing to do is the AI for bidding and playing, which will probably be big tasks. We're going to be fairly busy over the next month or two so I'm not expecting much progress for a while. (also, Civ 5 coming out certainly doesn't help :-) )

Happily, since webOS is Javascript-based it was pretty easy to make a webpage version of the game, which will make testing out AI algorithms, etc. much easier.

Eric Fischer took census data on race and mapped where people live in major cities. (here's Houston, Austin, and San Antonio) Some patterns definitely jump out at you, but if you zoom in you can see there's nowhere that's exclusively one race, which is a good thing.

1 comment

tripline - decent way to plan a trip
Mood: chipper
Posted on 2010-09-11 17:35:00
Tags: reviews travel
Words: 374

David and I are going on vacation to San Francisco, so we went through a guidebook and marked a ton of possible activities. We've never been, so I was looking for a good website where we could put them on a map and organize our days. Actually my first thought was to roll my own, but then I thought surely someone must have thought of this. And behold - Tripline!

The website itself seems more organized around making presentations of places you've been or lived, but it works decently well for our purposes. I could enter in attractions or addresses and it would plot them on the map, or I could add a custom marker and drag it wherever. A few annoyances:

- Every time you mouseover a marker the info about it pops up, which is really annoying when you have a lot of markers.
- The markers you put down are in an order and it draws lines between the markers. This makes sense if you're talking about a trip, but if you're planning a trip it's very distracting. So I had to arrange the markers so that the lines were not zigzagging through the center of town all the time, which worked out to be a convex hull kinda shape.
- It seems to get slower when you add too many markers - drawing the map is fine, but when I add a marker all of them disappear and then show up one by one. Once I got up to 25 markers this was a noticeable delay. Similarly, reordering a marker took a little while when there were a lot and sometimes didn't correctly update the numbers so I would have to drag and drop it in place again.
- I'm not a huge fan of the Google Map view they use - it's a terrain one which is helpful to see parks, mountains, etc. but I found it a little difficult to find addresses just browsing around. (maybe it's just me?) Also, you can't zoom in past a certain point...one more zoom level would have been nice.

Anyway, it was very useful once I worked around some of the annoyances and it's definitely nice to see locations on a map rather than just writing down neighborhoods. Kudos!


Apple now less evil
Mood: busy
Posted on 2010-09-09 15:10:00
Tags: essay
Words: 232

Remember back when Apple put all kinds of crazy restrictions on how you could write apps for the iPhone, etc.? Well, they had a change of heart - they released a new license agreement that undoes some of that stuff. For example, now apps don't have to be originally written in C/C++/Objective C, and their policy on in-app interpreters and serving ads were loosened as well. As a bonus, there's a surprisingly direct list of reasons your app might be rejected, like

We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don’t need any more Fart apps.

If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you’re trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.

We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.
which read like they were written by Steve Jobs himself.

Anyway, I still don't agree with all of their rules, but they've retreated from ridiculous territory, so we can be happy about that at least!


bridge it is!
Mood: thoughtful
Posted on 2010-09-07 15:10:00
Tags: palm projects programming
Words: 107

After some thought and some more research about what webOS app to work on next, it looks like the mystery option is going to be somewhere between difficult and impossible, and it's going to be a while before I can tell which.

So, bridge it is! It's going to be pretty tough, but a few people have volunteered to help, and it's better to aim high, right? So far it can deal out hands and count points...

I can't decide whether the hardest part will be the AI for bidding, playing, or just making the graphics look nice (with pictures of cards, etc). I guess we'll see!


What webOS app to work on next?
Mood: curious
Posted on 2010-09-02 22:51:00
Tags: palm projects proandcon poll
Words: 347

Having finished We the People and done some small changes to earlier apps, I'm raring to work on a new webOS app for my Palm Pre. (partially feeling invigorated by the announced webOS 2.0 features)

So here are my ideas:

A client to easily browse Reddit.
- Pro: I've played around with it a little and gotten some stuff to work, which is promising.
- Pro: There's a real API which looks pretty easy to interact with.
- Pro/Con: There are already a few existing Reddit clients, although none of them are in the full App Catalog (one's in beta, I believe?)
- Con: It would be a lot of work to make pages look attractive, especially since I suck at it.
- Con: I'm not sure how much more useful it is than just going to the Reddit site in the browser.
- Con: I couldn't see charging more than $1.99 for it, and I'm not sure how many people would be interested in buying it.

A bridge game (probably single-player only, at least at first)
- Pro: There are no existing bridge games in the Catalog. Even in Apple's I only see two.
- Con: That's probably because it's a huge pain to write AI that bids well. And if it doesn't bid well, it's almost useless.
- Pro: I could see charging $5-$10 for it if I spent the time to do it well.
- Con: Bidding aside, it's still a lot of work to put in correct play, proper scoring, fancy card graphics, etc. I'm not convinced I won't give up or lose interest before I'm done.

Mystery option #3, which I just thought of
- Pro: Uses some exciting new features in webOS 2.0, like <redacted>!
- Con: It's not a very original idea, and I bet someone can beat me to it.
- Pro: But it would be kinda fun to write and play around with...and I would use it...
- Con: But I can't start working on it until webOS 2.0 releases, whenever that is.
- Pro/Con: Probably a 99 cent app, although a fairly wide audience.

What do you think? (open to other ideas!)


insert clever title here
Mood: busy
Posted on 2010-09-01 13:36:00
Tags: links
Words: 193

Palm announced some of the new features in webOS 2.0 - Stacks and Just Type are the most exciting to me, although I might spring for a Touchstone to play with Exhibition. As a developer, nothing jumps out at me in terms of ways to use these features in my apps, but I'm still thinking...

Re Sex at Dawn: a discussion of jealousy, someone who doesn't like the book and one of the authors responds to the criticism.

More conservatives are "coming out" for gay marriage, which makes sense but is so completely backwards to what I'm used to that it's hard to believe. Yay!

Depressing links: Building a Nation of Know-Nothings (yeah, it would be really nice if we could argue over opinions rather than facts), With Neighbors Unaware, Toxic Spill at a BP Plant, Reasonable Doubt: Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld on Being Wrong. (most depressing quote: "I'd say, just based on my own experience, that about half the time police and prosecutors bury their heads in the sand and insist that they were right no matter what the evidence says.")

Apparently tennis players should challenge more calls, like Roger Federer does.


Sex at Dawn
Mood: okay
Posted on 2010-08-29 17:34:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 471

My latest read was Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. Very interesting book.

The summary is a bit NSFWish, so here goes:
The authors' main thesis is that the standard narrative of human sexuality and how it evolved is totally wrong. The standard narrative goes something like this: A woman want to mate with a man who has a lot of resources and is monogamous with her, so when she gives birth the man will help her raise the child. Men want to mate with as many women as possible to spread his genetic material around, and he wants exclusivity with the women to be sure that the children they're raising are his. This results in a "mixed strategy" of pair-bonding - one man, one woman.

A lot of the book is dedicated to tearing down this narrative. They talk about the "Flintstonization" of prehistory - the tendency to take the culture of today and project it into the past. They also talk about some studies and books that have been written that support the narrative and tear them down a bit.

Of course, it's a bit hard to say what human culture was like before the advent of agriculture, but we can examine chimpanzees and bonobos (our closest ape ancestors), as well as primitive cultures today. In most models of human nature, chimpanzees are considered to be closest to humans, but bonobos (who were one of the last mammals to be studied in their natural habitat) are just as close. Bonobos and humans are the only species that have nonreproductive sex.

Anyway, I'll jump to the punchline: their model proposes that our prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies were not monogamous at all, or even polygynous (one male, multiple females), but there was a lot of multimale-multifemale mating. This helped to solidify social relationships within tribes. (no group-living nonhuman primate is monogamous) The parental involvement "problem" wasn't as much an issue, because if a women has a child and has had sex with a lot of men in the tribe, then they don't know which one is actually the father and they all feel responsible for raising the child.

Under this model, Darwinian competition for mates is replaced with sperm competition - some of the chemicals in ejaculate seem designed to kill/prevent other sperm from fertilizing the egg.

So their point is that monogamy is certainly possible for humans, but the way we evolved makes it "unnatural" and very hard to do. Which is no huge surprise, given the myriad examples of adultery we hear about.

I always feel like I'm selling a book short a bit when I write a review, and this is especially true in this case. It's very interesting, and has a surprisingly breezy and entertaining tone. (despite the fact that I knew nothing about evolutionary psychology) Highly recommended!

1 comment

link bankruptcy
Mood: busy
Posted on 2010-08-27 12:46:00
Tags: links
Words: 227

I've been accumulating these links, and then I kinda forgot about them, so here goes!

The LA Times just did a big investigation on teacher performance. I fully support using data like this (they use a "value-added" approach, where they compare students performance at the beginning and end of the year) as part of teach evaluations. Surely people can study what the good teachers are doing right and use that to help all teachers.

Comparing the tax plans - the graphic is a little confusing. What surprised me is that Obama's plan (which is to keep the Bush tax cuts for incomes < $250K and index the AMT to inflation) costs $3 trillion over 10 years, while just keeping all of the Bush tax cuts only costs $.7 trillion more.

In last week's Futurama episode, one of the writers (who has a PhD in math) proved a theorem that was instrumental to the plot - they even showed the proof briefly!

Did you know: the Blue Power Ranger quit the show because he was harassed for being gay by the producers, etc. In other news, Ken Mehlman (who ran Bush's campaign in 2004 and was head of the RNC) came out and is now supporting the legal challenge to California's Prop 8.

The evolutionary case against monogamy - I'm in the middle of reviewing their book. It is very interesting.


cordoba house, ricky gervais
Mood: relaxed
Posted on 2010-08-20 16:54:00
Tags: politics links
Words: 133

As Nate Silver pointed out, there are two ways to be "against" the Cordoba House (Islamic center near ground zero). If you think it's a bad idea, insensitive to 9/11 families, but that the government shouldn't step in, then I disagree with you but we can discuss it rationally. If you think the government should step in and stop it, then I would encourage you to read the First Amendment and get back to me. (if you call it the "Victory Mosque", then we're probably not on speaking terms to begin with)

Random videos: Ricky Gervais had this series Extras with famous people guest starring. Here is David Bowie embarrassing Gervais, Sir Ian McKellen teaching him the secrets of acting, and (mildly NSFW language) Patrick Stewart being creepy. Good for a Friday afternoon!


audition tonight
Mood: bored
Posted on 2010-08-19 13:58:00
Tags: reviews links
Words: 118

Tonight I'm auditioning to sing the Durufle Requiem and Handel's Messiah this fall with David Stevens. Luckily, my voice has finally recovered from talking/singing pirate-y. Wish me luck!

Hipmunk is a brand new flight search engine that's pretty darn cool. As you can see in this search page, it sorts by "agony" (a combination of when the flight leaves, number of stops, and price), and automatically hides flight combinations that are strictly dominated by others (i.e. arrives at the same time but you have to leave earlier). The main display is such a relief to read after doing searches on Orbitz, etc.

Here's a depressing article about how Washington sucks without any good answers how to fix it.


Last Call
Mood: happy
Posted on 2010-08-14 19:52:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 543

I just finished Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. It had some very interesting tidbits, but in the end was a bit long for me at 375 pages. Interesting stuff from it:

- Prohibition was only the second amendment to the Constitution that limited the activities of citizens (not the government) - the first was the thirteenth prohibiting slavery.

- The ship that brought John Winthrop to Massachusetts in 1630 had three times as much beer as water on it.

- In the 1820s liquor was cheaper than tea; in 1830 the average American drank the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of liquor per week. (roughly three times what the amount is today)

- Something I didn't realize was that the women's suffrage movement was connected to the Prohibition movement - women were generally against saloons so Prohibitionists wanted to give them the vote, and the suffrage movement needed the support.

- Another crazy thing was that even in the runup to Prohibition, the brewers and distillers were not allies - they argued that the other's wares were the "real" problem, not what they sold.

- The Anti-Saloon League, which was the main group that drove Prohibition, mainly consisted of racists (afraid of what blacks would do when they had alcohol), progressives (who thought banning alcohol would help the working man), suffragists, populists, and nativists (who were against alcohol because immigrants were for it).

- The tax on alcohol provided 20-40% of federal revenue. After the income tax passed, the ASL went after national prohibition.

- Best footnote ever? about Richmond Hobson:

Not that he was particularly enlightened about women in general: Hobson thought that any woman who experienced carnal desire was a "sex pervert," and attributed promiscuity to the effects of alcohol. He wasn't crazy about sexual urges in men, either, but accepted their evolutionary necessity.

- So how did Prohibition pass, anyway? The ASL was very good at getting "dry" congressmen elected. World War I brought anti-German sentiment, and most of the brewers were German. And finally, state legislatures were heavily weighted towards rural voters - "one man, one vote" was not law, and the legislatures were not reapportioned to account for the growing urban population. States like Missouri and Ohio voted in a legislature that ratified Prohibition while at the same time rejected a dry amendment to the state constitution.

- After Prohibition passed, alcohol consumption dropped to about 30% of the pre-Prohibition number, although by the end of Prohibition it was up to 60-70%.

- There were many loopholes in the law - if you bought the alcohol before Prohibition went into effect, that was legal. Altar wine for religious purposes was legal. Alcohol for medicinal purposes was legal. All of these provisions were heavily abused.

- Bootlegging was a very big industry - smuggling in from Canada was popular, as was rum running off the East Coast.

- Horatio Stoll (neat! related?) ran California Grape Grower magazine.

- Eventually, the ASL waned in influence (mostly because Wayne Wheeler died), Prohibitionists overplayed their hand by passing much harsher punishments for drinking (making it a felony), people got tired of widespread corruption and increased mob violence, and the reapportionment that didn't happen after the 1920 census finally did in 1929. (seriously, how exactly was that legal?) So Prohibition was repealed. And people drank again. The end.

1 comment

bizarro world?
Mood: impressed
Posted on 2010-08-12 12:58:00
Tags: gay politics links
Words: 159

Wow. A CNN poll came out yesterday showing a bare majority of Americans supporting gay marriage, the first (real) poll to do so. In fact, it looks like support for gay marriage is accelerating over the last 16 months. Most astonishingly, Glenn Beck doesn't oppose gay marriage. Wow!

On the ground at JFK airport, after a passenger stood up early to get his luggage, a JetBlue flight attendant named Steven Slater told him to sit down. The passenger refused, and opened the overhead bin as Slater approached, and his luggage fell out and hit Slater in the head.

Then Slater got mad - cursed out the guy on the PA system, deployed the emergency slide, grabbed a beer from the beverage cart, and slid away. The police caught up to him at home, where he was allegedly having sex with his boyfriend.

For your enjoyment: a firsthand account, lots of people rooting for him, and the Ballad of Steven Slater.


prop 8. musical done! joining a choir?
Mood: happy
Posted on 2010-08-09 14:14:00
Tags: asmc gay politics
Words: 556

Last week California's Prop 8 was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. Hooray! I read the entire ruling (warning: 138 page pdf) and it's pretty convincing - the judge ruled that laws that discriminate against gays are subject to strict scrutiny, while Prop 8 doesn't even meet the rational basis test.

I followed along with the trial and it seemed pretty clear that our side would win - David Boies and Ted Olson (i.e. the head lawyers for Bush and Gore in Bush v. Gore) are fantastic lawyers, and the other side called very few witnesses which were easily discredited. I'm not sure what the rules are on appeal if the other side can "substitute in" other lawyers, but if the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court (as many expect) I think we have a decent shot at winning!

Ted Olson was on Fox News this weekend and it was very much a Nixon going to China moment - he explained very succinctly the case for gay marriage. I know he's been a conservative stalwart but he earned a lifetime pass from me with his work on the case.


The musical is done! The shows went well despite the A/C mostly being gone the second weekend. I've never sweat so much in my life. My favorite moment was getting hit in the face with a book while we were supposed to be frozen. A few seconds later my glasses fell off my face and hit the floor, but I stayed (mostly) frozen until we "woke up" :-)

Performing in the musical reminded me that I like to sing and I kinda miss it - even singing the kid-focused songs was kinda fun. So I'm thinking about joining a choir. My ideal choir would be something singing good classical music meeting at most once a week in which I know people. Here are the possibilities I've found: (in decreasing order of probability I'll join)

- Austin Civic Chorus - I was in the Austin Civic Chorus when I first moved to Austin. I liked the kind of music they sing, but I don't really know anyone in it, and I vaguely remember not liking the director, although that was a while ago and maybe I'm misremembering. Also, auditions are very soon and I may have missed my chance already. The Civic Chorus itself requires $180 dues (!) and their concerts aren't free, which makes me a little unhappy.

- Capital City Men's Chorus - I know at least a few people in it from the summer musical, and it looks like a fun group. The music seems to vary wildly in genre.

- Austin Singers - never heard of these folks before, but they do music I like. Rehearsals are Mondays 7-9:30 - kinda long and downtown.

- Conspirare - good group but looks a little serious/"too good" for what I'm interested in. They have a professional choir as well as a volunteer one, so maybe the volunteer one would be OK? To audition you have to submit a resume and they'll let you know, which honestly sounds kind of intimidating.

- River City Pops - I know some people in it from the summer musical, but the music they sing is, well, pop, and there's dancing involved which isn't really my cup of tea.


Anyway...I dunno. Anyone in one of these? Or interested in joining one of them with me? :-)


The Checklist Manifesto
Mood: happy
Posted on 2010-08-02 21:48:00
Tags: reviews books
Words: 410

Continuing my love affair with Atul Gawande, his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right is an enjoyable and persuasive book. Summarized:


There are two types of failure: ignorance (not knowing enough) and ineptitude (not using what we know well enough). For most of history, ignorance has been the bigger problem in medicine; now ineptitude is. According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 13,000 different diseases, syndromes, etc. There are also 6,000 drugs that we can use and 4,000 procedures that we can do to try to help. Even with specialization, this is a huge variety of problems and solutions.

The average stay in an ICU is 4 days, and the survival rate is 86%. That's pretty good given how serious your condition has to be to get admitted to one, and according to a study done fifteen years ago, the average ICU patient required 178 individual actions per day...and two of these actions involve errors of some kind. Of course this is a 99% success rate, but two errors a day is still quite dangerous.

Ever since a Boeing Model 299 crashed during a test flight (the pilot was an Army air corps test pilot with loads of experience), aviation has used careful checklists to handle the complexity of flying a plane and responding to emergencies in midflight. The main thrust of the book is to extend the use of checklists to medicine.

In 2001, Peter Pronovost designed a simple five-step checklist to prevent central line infections. At the time, these steps were well known, but one-third of the time, at least one step was missed. They tried using it for a year at Johns Hopkins hospital, and reduced the central line infection rate from 11% to 0%. Statistically, the checklist saved eight lives and $2 million.

Checklists are also used in construction. When problems arise, a separate checklist is used to ensure that all people involved have communicated and the best course of action is agreed upon.

The culmination of the book is the development of the Safe Surgery Checklist. Eight hospitals around the world tried it out for three months, and surgery complications went down by 36% and deaths went down by 47%.


I feel that summarizing the book isn't quite doing it justice - it's a fascinating read. But the results are so amazing, it makes me want to stand up and scream for all hospitals to use the Safe Surgery Checklist!

1 comment

catching up
Mood: cheerful
Posted on 2010-08-02 14:18:00
Tags: pictures asmc projects
Words: 93

The summer musical went well this weekend, although I was losing my voice by the end on account of doing the pirate accent. Happily, today begins 3 days of no rehearsals/performances, which hasn't happened since we started rehearsals just under a month ago. So, I've been catching up on a few things:

- Pictures from Jonathan and Sarah's wedding are finally up:

- My PasswordHash thing now has a Google Chrome version. Unfortunately right now there's no support for adding things to the right-click context menu, so it just copies the password to the clipboard.

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