Thursday, May 31, 2007

He's baaaack

Those of you who are non-Techers never got to meet Mason.
Heck, I should never have gotten to meet Mason.
Mason was a Caltech student who graduated in 1998, well before I arrived. Once or twice a year, though, he would appear on the couch in our house's gathering area known as Lower Crotch. Long after everyone he went to school with had moved on with their lives, I would walk down the stairs and find him sitting there in the same sweat pants, faded Lloyd shirt and sneakers with the same messy, curly hair.
But anyway, eventually I graduated and I didn't really ever think of him again. Except he keeps reappearing! Last month, it was in a friend of a friend's wedding pictures, and this week in a press release about Caltech's latest book of pranks (he's an editor).
"The Legends of Caltech series contains a collection of first-hand accounts
and remembrances of high jinks past, compiled by the Herculean efforts of a
handful of alumni. This latest installment, edited by alums Autumn Looijen
('99) and Mason A. Porter ('98), illuminates Caltech student life and the
schemes that often stemmed from late-night study sessions fueled by donuts
and caffeine. Colorful escapades described in Legends III include pranks
ranging from the elaborate to the simple: reprogramming fellow classmates'
clocks to run backwards; reengineering a building elevator to consistently deliver
passengers two floors below where they wanted to go; or freezing a dormitory
hallway floor to create a rink for "alley broom ball" (ice hockey a la Caltech)."

Anyway, this is a pretty long post for a pretty short purpose, which is basically to say: look guys, Mason edited a book of pranks, isn't that weird? Oh, and also the book is named Legends of Caltech III: Techer in the Dark.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bicycle Helmets

As I've often been told to wear my helmet more, I decided to do a little research, and thought I'd write a post on what I found. I browsed some websites and read some original research. Turns out though, I could have just read this amazing wikipedia article on the subject. It is chock full of information, referenced with many of the papers I read, and is completely reasonable in its conclusions.

The gist of it is that it's very difficult to tell if helmets do much or any good. From first principles, they should help if there is a low speed collision involving direct head injury. At high speeds a normal bike helmet will absorb very little of the total energy, and they offer no protection against rotational trauma.

Statistical studies, as is the norm with these things, are difficult and ambiguous. People who wear helmets seem to get head injuries less often, but they're different in many ways. Mandatory helmet laws have not been shown to have a statistically significant effect on the rate of head injuries.

Cycling is safer when more people do it - which is why cycling in the Netherlands, with little helmet use, is much safer than the US, with high use. Helmet laws that discourage cycling are therefore counterproductive.

Of course this doesn't necessarily answer whether I should wear a helmet (any more than the bozo who gets counted in condom failure statistics should impact my decision). My general rule - if I'm wearing sneakers, I'm wearing a hat. I'm traveling slowly, unlikely to fall over, and if I do I can react to prevent myself hitting my head. If I'm wearing bike shoes, I wear my helmet. I'm out for a real ride, up and down hills, and traveling at a higher speed. And given that I'm already going to go click-clack if I try to walk anywhere, it doesn't really matter that I'll have to carry a helmet too.

My final point is that regardless of whether you wear a helmet or not, cycling is not dangerous (by most people's definition). Conservatively, cycling is twice as safe as walking, per mile. Meanwhile, the benefits of cycling are obvious. I mean, obvious.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Arms to Lebanon and its converage in the US media

This is an email I received from my brother Kurt, posted here with his consent.

I know this is everyones favorite subject: politics and what the US does abroad (or at home for that matter), but this article kind of stuck out to me because I was happy that someone was answering the obvious question that comes up when browsing the headlines about whats going on in Lebanon these days: why does the US need to make emergency military arms shipments to the Lebanese army so it can fight a tiny militant group in a refugee camp?

I don’t know why I am sending it to you all in particular, I guess because its something interesting and a bit different maybe from what we usually think about as a family.

Is anyone following this at all? Is there any discussion in the news about why the US needs to send arms to Lebanon? I’m curious.

Everyone hates sprawl

Ask most people how the feel about sprawl and you'd get a generally negative response. The word has an almost exclusively negative connotation, at least from what I've seen.

The standard solution offered to eliminate sprawl is to drastically increase urban density. There are certainly many positive advantages to living in densely populated metropolitan areas---diversity, culture, increased public transport, and decreased reliance on automobiles.

Of course, if no one liked sprawl, there wouldn't be any. You can blame developers or local government, but it seems that it rarely occurs to sprawl opponents that some people actually like the suburbs.

It seems to me that the people that advocate against unregulated urban growth are the people that are negatively effected by it--namely people that already have somewhere to live and those that have no desire to exchange cultural vibrancy for extra space. Unfortunately for them, people like living in houses. People like having big yards. Many of them are willing to drive an hour to and from work every day to get it.

The question becomes what are the rights of individuals and communities to determine development? What rights do individuals and corporations have to build on unused land? Should everyone be required to either be farmers or live at urban densities of 100 households (not people, households) per acre (which is denser than Hong Kong) or 500 households (denser than the densest part of Macao, the densest municipality in the world)? Do we let the market take care of these problems? Is there some middle ground?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sodium Benzoate or Flash - Which is the Silent Killer?

New research indicates a possibility that sodium benzoate - a common preservative - has adverse effects on yeast mitochondria, with possible implications for humans. I'm normally not remotely alarmist about these sorts of things (I could be described as risk-tolerant, to say the least, as may be indicated in a future post). Of course it's worth looking into, and I'm curious to find out whether this is a real concern. It is a preservative, so it's purpose is to kill things, just hopefully not people.

After reading about this, I figured it was worth going to a few websites to determine which of my favorite sodas had sodium (or presumably potassium) benzoate. What amazed me is how little the Coca-cola and Pepsi websites had to do with drinks. Go to, and in addition to an annoying flash display, you see links to music, car culture, sports, entertainment, and fashion. Smaller links below include "brands and products", which is more than I can say for, which as far as I can tell contains no information on the Coca-cola product whatsoever. After 12 mouse clicks, through the corporate page and more annoying flash crap than I would wish on anyone but my worst enemies, I managed to find out that Sprite "has an honest, straightforward attitude that sets it apart from other soft drinks." I wish I were making this up, but I don't think I'm capable of it, unlike the moron that designed this website. Eventually I googled "Sprite ingredient list" and the first hit confirmed that it does indeed include sodium benzoate (as do diet drinks and Dr. Pepper it seems, but not regular Coke and Pepsi).

Saturday, May 26, 2007

I think I just self-plagiarized all over myself...

Plagiarism is something that I think about alot for a couple of reasons. One of them goes back to my first non-Tech honor code experience. During my first year at UVa, the student newspaper catapulted a physics prof to national attention for rosenwinkelling over 100 students in his class for plagiarism. Lou Bloomfield taught a very popular non-mathematical intro phys class called "How Things Work." The "final exam" for the class is essentially a paper that should describe how something works. Motivated by accusations from one of the students in his class, Lou wrote a simple text comparison program to investigate all the papers submitted electronically over the years. In the end, a bunch of students were asked to leave the school or had their diplomas revoked. That particular case was pretty cut and dry because, in most instances, large chunks of the papers had been copied verbatim.

That brings me to the another reason why I think about plagiarism: "Self-Plagiarism." Many of my talks and presentations and technical writeups are copied from each other. In other words, once I've found a way to describe a piece of equipment or a physical process, I simply recycle that piece of text without attribution. I mean, I wrote the damn thing in the first place, right? That should be okay, right? Well, if you google "self plagiarism," one of the first links that comes up is this website by Miguel Roig written for the Office of Research Integrity at US Department of Health and Human Services. Three of the things that Roig lists under self-plagiarism are "redundant or dual publications," "salami slicing," and "text recycling."

An example of dual publication is when the same work or paper is published in two different journals. I personally have never seen this and have trouble believing people try to pull this off. Ok, nevermind: my cubicle buddy just informed me that theorists (snicker) do this all the time. Salami slicing or to quote Roig "the segmenting of a large study into two or more publications" is considered "unacceptable scientific practice." Really? If I understand this correctly, then we do this all the time. Without getting too technical, let me explain: we measured quantities I'll call "A1" and "A2" as a function of another variable "v." One paper we published was essentially "(A1-A2)/v." We then published another paper that was essentially "(A1-A2)v^3."...And then three more papers were published that were literally different linear combinations of A1 and A2. I'm almost almost almost not kidding. The physics of these "derived" quantities are related, but different. Even though all the data came from one experiment taken over a single time interval, is this still self plagiarism and unacceptable?

Here's another situation that Roig talks about (called data augmentation): "when a researcher publishes a study and subsequently collects additional data, which typically end up strengthening the original effect, and publishes the combined results as a new study." Guess what, we've done exactly this as well (see first two links)! Again without going into the details, we count the number of electrons that hit the detectors after they bounce off the target. Being a "counting" experiment, the relative statistical uncertainty scales as the inverse of the square root of the number of electrons counted. We took data in three chunks over two years. Our preliminary results were published after the first year and our final combined results were published after the experiment ended. This appears to be an almost perfect of, in Roig's words, "old data that has been merely augmented with additional data points and that is subsequently presented as a new study." Roig calls this practice a "serious ethical breach."

Finally, he gets to the question that I originally had about text recycling: "a writer’s reuse of portions of text that have appeared previously in other works." Roig gives examples when this is acceptable and when it is "borderline or unacceptable." As you can probably guess by now, we've done it. I'll spare you the details. do i reconcile these things? Well, first of all, the things that I described are fairly common practice in the field I work in: nuclear physics. This is what I call the "cultural differences" defense. Roig makes many good arguments for why self plagiarizing is bad in the "biomedical and social sciences" arena...but can analogous arguments be made to be suited for other fields? I don't know, but maybe I've been "cultured" to believe that what we do is okay. When I think about text recylcing, I feel it's no different from using the same figure depicting an experimental apparatus over and over again. Should you have to make a unique diagram for each new publication if the experimental apparatus is the same? I would say no, but then what's the difference between that diagram and the text used to describe that diagram? And what about our salami slicing? Well, as my cublicle buddy argued, all of those articles were published in a journal that has a limit of ~4ish pages per article. There is no way that we could cover ~20 pages of physics results in ~4 pages. This is what I call the "It's not our fault" defense.

Finally, the trickist one is data augmentation. In the example I used for what we did, the two papers had a different emphasis. Our first year data was a "new" result in the sense that no one had measured it before and it could have been "zero." The fact the the result was not "zero" was a significant finding itself: it was consistent with what we call the Standard Model of Physics. In our second paper, we were interested in seeing if there was any small deviation in the quantity that we were measuring from the theoretical value. This question required more data so that we could achieve the desired statistical precision. (By the way, there wasn't a statistically significant deviation.) Because the scientific questions were different, I claim the two papers really stand on their own. This is what I call the "No, no they're really two different things (hands waving)" defense. My last defense and maybe the most relevant one is the general idea that at no point did we ever try to "decieve" the reader, which is the standard that Roig repeats throughout his document. But this leads to the question of whether an author's "intent" is relevant to the determination of whether plagiarism has occurred. The answer probably depends on what kind of plagiarism is meant by "plagiarism."

Let me attempt to clarify using the ideas of Erik Campbell: "hard" plagiarism is the copying portions of text verbatim. In his very amusing article at the Virginia Quarterly Review Campbell reflects on his run-in with "accidental" hard plagiarism in poetry. He also presents the idea of "soft" plagiarism: "pilfering another’s ideas." This turns out to be a very murky subject because one has to walk a careful line between "creative influence" and "stealing ideas." How does one draw the line when discussing an artistic endeavor?

Take the case of Bryony Lavery's Tony-nominated play "Frozen" as outlined in Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article. The play is about a killer, the victim's mother, and a doctor who is studying the killer's mental state to understand his motivation. As Gladwell recalls, the doctor is based on a real life person named Dorothy Lewis whom he had written about in a New Yorker article years ago. The play's author, Lavery, adapted many of the scenes for her play directly from events described in the original article. In some cases the dialogue was (verbatim ) quotes cited in the article. None of these things were attibuted to Gladwell or to the real life doctor Lewis by Laverly. Gladwell goes back and forth about it and ponders how different things that are the result of a creative process, particularly musical ones, are related to each other. Is the relationship one of "cut and paste" or one of transformation and change? Eventually he chides the "plagiarism fundamentalists" for "[pretending that] chains of influence and evolution do not exist, and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life."

Meghan O'Rourke at Slate goes into more detail about how originality and creativity are related to plagiarism. Her article is relevant to the case of Florence Deeks and H.G. Wells which is recounted in Jonathon Keat's review of A.B. McKillop's book "The Spinster and the Prophet." Whereas, in the Lavery case, Gladwell argues that the two works share a "parent-child" relationship, this one is more of a sibling rivalry: a single path bifucates into two different competing trails. The controversy surrounds H.G. Well's famous book "The Outline of History." McKillop argues that although Wells and Deeks appear to have come up with the idea of writing a "history of everything from the beginning" independently, Wells' books clearly borrows heavily from Deeks' book. However, for Keats, hard plagiarism takes a back seat to soft plagiarism. He argues that Wells' book provides evidence for the important and original idea that "the progress of society" is to be measured against the yardstick of democracy. On the other hand, Deeks had written a feminist tome which presented evidence for a different idea but similarly "deeply original for its time", namely that "civilization (as opposed to barbarity) is feminine" and that "peace and properity were characteristic of female leadership."

In all of aforementioned literary examples, care is taken to distinguish between questions of plagiarism, which in my opinion are resolved in the court of public opinion, and questions of copyright infringement, which is a legal issue. Along these lines Tim Wu at Slate produces a thought provoking article discussing the legal battle between Dan Brown (the Da Vinci code) and Robert Leigh, "a self-appointed grail expert." Essentially the historical and religious claims that Brown presents as fiction are the ones that Leigh and his coauthors present as non-fiction in a book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail." Wu addresses the following interesting questions (1) "Can one writer freely borrow someone else's wacky historical speculations?" (2) "When an author offers up a speculation like "space aliens killed JFK," does it really make sense to call that a fact?" (3) "How can dueling authors ever have a meaningful public discussion of who Mary Magdalene was, if, for example, one side claims exclusive ownership of the theory that she was a lowly prostitute?" The precedent for this case exists in American law and Wu summarizes the reasoning succintly: "If the author calls it a fact, you can steal it."

Finally here are some things that I'll save for another post by me or some interested party: (1) the many pieces of software that exist to uncover hard plagiarism, not the least of which is Google itself: Paul Collins at Slate discusses the impact that google book search will have on old and new cases of literary hard plagiarism. (2) Recent high profile cases of the two historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. (3) How the question of plagiarism is approached in a journalistic context. (4) John Fogerty's long and strange legal battle with Fantasy Records.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

First Annual Infodder/Virginia State Standards of Learning Quiz Competition!

JLab hosts a set of "Standards of Learning" tests for the fine state of Virginia. The questions are from science, math, and technology from the 2nd grade level to the 8th grade level. You can choose to answer 10, 20, or 40 multiple choice questions in random or fixed order from different subjects. At the end, you get a summary of your results. I got a 37/40 on a random selection of questions from all subject areas at all grade levels. The Algebra I portion of the test really killed me....on that note, I challenge you to a friendly competition! For a fair comparison, you'll have to select the same number of questions, same subjects, and same set of questions:

First Competition: 40 questions, Science 8, Technology 8, Earth Science => and then under "more options please": all years, all "strands", FIXED SET NUMBER 1

Second Competition: 40 questions, Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry => and then under "more options please": all years, all "strands", FIXED SET NUMBER 1

Highest number of correct answers per minute will prevail. Post your score and time in the comments. Enjoy!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Stocking a Home Bar

For quite some time now I've enjoyed entertaining, whether in my dorm room, apartment, or my parents' house. The major thing missing has been alcohol. While I enjoy being around people having a good time, whether that involves alcohol or not, I don't like to drink much myself, which makes it difficult to make drinks for others. However, I would like to throw a cocktail party or two in the future, and so I'm thinking about how to get started.

Some google searching has led me to, and specifically their page on tastings. I figure that's a good start in determining which brands are good values. I've also snooped around, which has a section on establishing a home bar. They have a rather extensive list of "essential spirits": bourbon, brandy, canadian whiskey, dark rum, gin, light rum, scotch, tequila, vodka, and rye whiskey. Then there are the liqueurs: amaretto, irish cream, creme de cacao, coffee liqueur, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth, and orange liqueur. That's a lot.

I've also seen the Good Eats recipe on cocktails, which unsurprisingly I found fit my style. He presented just three cocktails (martini, daiquiri, and julep) to make very well, with the idea that you should be able to adapt to others from there.

So given that I'm not going to drink a lot myself, what should I be stocking, and what are the most likely drinks that people will want to have available? What should I learn to make well? Any other good resources, with recipes, reviews, etc?

Why are Americans so Fat?

This article in the nyt last month makes a good argument as to one cause. Agricultural subsidies are primarily directed towards a few crops, including corn and soybeans. This makes the goods derived from these crops, such as high fructose corn syrup, cheaper, while making other produce, such as carrots, oranges, etc more expensive. This means that healthier food ends up being a luxury good.

So why are we subsidizing farmers at all? As technology advances, fewer people can grow more crops, which lowers demand for farmers overall. Of course this has been true forever, and job churning, while painful to the individual, is exceedingly good for society as a whole (or else 90% of us would still be farmers). These subsidies probably have an adverse impact on immigration also, as poorer countries like Mexico depend more on agriculture and can have difficulty competing with subsidized US crops, which pushes Mexican workers across the border.

Ah, the government, encouraging illegal immigration and obesity in one fell swoop. But hey, ban trans fats, because that's a lot easier than acknowledging where the real problems come from.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

High-Risk Jobs

You may or may not know about the movie "A Mighty Heart" that is being released about a month from now. It's about the life and kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and his wife Mariane's efforts to find and recover him. Mariane wrote a book by the same title, so that their then-unborn son would have a chance to learn about his dad; the movie is based on this book.

For the last couple of months I have been doing research on journalists that have been kidnapped and/or killed in the line of duty. You might not realize that this is such a big thing, but we really take our freedom of speech and freedom of the press for granted. Elsewhere in the world, journalists are regularly targeted for exposing crime and corruption, or simply for speaking out against policies they disagree with. Until the Iraq war, one of the worst places to be a journalist was in the Philippines; now, of course, insurgents specifically target journalists in Iraq so the number of deaths there has easily leapfrogged journalist deaths anywhere else.

If you are curious about this, go check out the movie website: The "In Memoriam" section lists all confirmed journalist deaths in the five years since Daniel Pearl's abduction. Of course, there were plenty before that too, but they really didn't get publicity until Pearl's abduction and subsequent videotaped beheading.

If you want some other links to explore on this topic, you can read:
There are other websites too, of course.

Some of the stories on these sites are pretty shocking. For example, check out this story about the murder of Brad Will; one of the photos actually captures his murderer in the act. Or this story about Venezuelan photographer Jorge Aguirre. After he had been shot, he took one last photo of his murderer fleeing on a motorcycle. The vast majority of these journalists were targeted specifically because of their work, not because they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This will probably give you a different perspective when you listen to your favorite acerbic, loud-mouthed radio talk show host.


Well, we're back, after a great weekend. We didn't have any incredible discussions, unless you're curious why you need to regress statistical projections to the mean. Still, it's political season (even though elections aren't for another 18 months) so you can take this quiz to find out who you should vote for. Answers to the questions are a bit limited, but in the end they nailed me pretty well (not that it's difficult).

Thursday, May 10, 2007


Congratulations Matt and Heidi!!!

Since I've moved to the Pacific Northwest, I've been waiting for the weather to get nice so I can enjoy this outdoorsy corner of the country. I've been loving it, but one bit aspect is missing...cycling. I want to invest some money and time into buying a bike and relearning how to ride one (the last time I was on a bike besides Alan taking me out once or twice, was when I was a kid riding around my neighborhood). Many people at work bike-commute, and I just think that is so awesome! So, any suggestion as to what I should get? Used/new? Hybrid? Any other things I should pay attention to?

And just for fun, here's an article about how global warming with affect sex trends, and here's a neat little story about tax returns.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Congrats to Matt (and Heidi)!

Posting is likely to be very light over the next few days (as if it weren't already), as both Alan and I will be out of town for Matt's wedding this weekend. So we know it goes:

1) Matt's wedding
2) Blogging
3) Work

A hearty congratulations to Matt, and hopefully we'll brainstorm something interesting to post about when we get back. Hey, we're nerds, and we don't drink much.

Also, I'm told Heidi reads the blog on occasion, so if for some reason that occasion is two days before your wedding, congrats to you too!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Funny Commercials: Mac vs PC and more

The Mac vs PC debate is practically a religious one; People have violently emotional beliefs on the subject with little evidence. For some reason I'm on the PC side and boy do I hate macs, but sure do I like their ads :-) You can watch them all here, even three new ones! This site also has a bunch of hilarious ads from the US and over seas. In light of my earlier post about birth control, I found this add particularly appropriate, but this one was my favorite cuase hey, there's nothing quite like watching a bear get kicked in the nuts.

On another note, this is the cutest thing I have ever seen!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds, perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time, is on pace to add the career record for home runs (755) to his trophy chest this summer. Unlike the home run race between Mark Mcguire and Sammy Sosa which saved baseball after the '94 work stoppage, there are mixed emotions this time around. A poll given by ESPN tried to determine why so many people dislike Bonds. In it they ask, "Overall, do you think Bonds has been treated fairly or unfairly?" and then the followup question asked to those answered unfairly: "Do you think he's been treated unfairly mainly because of his (race), mainly because of his (personality), or mainly because of his (alleged use of steroids)?" Certainly each of these factors has an effect, but which is the "main" effect? The results show that of the people who think Bonds is treated unfairly, 27% of Blacks vs 1% of Whites say it's "mainly because of his race". To me, this just doesn't make sense. I don't have any numbers to back it up, but the anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that people treat him how they do primarily because he did steroids and because he's a huge jerk. The fact that he's black seems to me to be a distant 3rd. Am I missing something? I'm certainly not an expert on racial bias so maybe I'm totally wrong.

Here's the evidence as I see it.

1) People were captivated by Bond's chase to hit 73 HRs, before the steroid scandal hit. Only after it become clear he used steroids has he really gained widespread hatred. (although people did think he was a dick before that) This supports steroids at the main cause of his treatment.

2) People loved McGuire, but as soon as he refused to say if he used steroids while testifying before congress people turned against him. Now people hate him. I doubt anyone would claim that people have treated Mcguire unfairly because of his race. Another point to steroids.

3) Bonds is widely regarded as one of the biggest jerks who has every played the game, and was already regarded as such before steroids was even on the radar. According to Jeff Pearlman, the author of the unauthorized biography Love me Hate Me, Bonds was even voted off his college team by this teammates but it was overridden by the coach. Somehow I doubt that was bcause he was Black. Point for "mainly because he's a jerk".

4) If race was the main factor for Bonds' treatment, even though Bonds is a steroid using d$ck, it would imply that even if bonds were a nice, steroid-free player he would still be treated with much of the hatred he is now, just because of his race. That certainly was the case in baseball at one time, and I'm sure race is still is a factor to this day, but clearly black players are no longer hated simply because they are black. (Ken Griffy Jr, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard)

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Some stuff you can watch online for free...

Reading is hard. Typing is not fun. I have nothing to say, but I *do* like to eat donuts and watch stuff:

The Collapse of Intelligent Design by: Kenneth Miller A seemingly emotionless almost robot-like journalist interviews scientists, philosophers, and theologians about stuff I pretend to be interested in.

Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics Blackboard Lunches: About 10 years of talks on a potpourri of topics with varying degrees of formality and technical details.

Beyond Belief 2006: A program put together by The Science Network on science, religion, reason, and survival.

Moving Image Archive at the Internet Archive: Of note are (1) The A/V Geeks Film Archive: bunch of old educational and industrial training videos from a simpler time, (2) Squeak the Squirrel, and (3) The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis.

Wholphin: A DVD magazine of "unseen films" from those McSweeney's people. There is some free "web-only" content. By the way, it's real.

EepyBird: Diet Coke and Mentos...what will they think of next?

Possibly stupid softball question

For the last few years I've been on softball teams made up partially of novice softball players---usually foreign student who have never played softball before. At least for their first year, they typically only reach base on errors. Along with these newer players there are usually a few really good players who almost never get out as well as a number of ok players who hit safely somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the time.
The question I have is what is the optimum lineup for such a situation? The rules in the league are that everyone at the game gets to bat. The two approaches I see most often are stacking the front of the order and interspersing the good players among the bad. I don't really have a feel for which works better, so I'm throwing the question out to anyone who may know "the answer" or at least have an idea. I'm wondering if the answer changes depending on the relative numbers of each set of player or if the final answer is that batting order doesn't matter at all.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Manny is Manny

There was an article in the Onion about Manny Ramirez that tipped the scales to me posting about him. Check out this article in the New Yorker which includes such quotes as:
When I asked his teammate David Ortiz, himself a borderline folk hero, how he would describe Ramirez, he replied, “As a crazy motherfucker.” Then he pointed at my notebook and said, “You can write it down just like that: ‘David Ortiz says Manny is a crazy motherfucker.’"
After the third such incident, Duquette ventured down into the locker room. “I said, ‘Manny, let me ask you something. I was just wondering why you get back in the batter’s box after ball four.’ He said, ‘I don’t keep track of the balls.’ He said, ‘I don’t keep track of the strikes, either, until I got two.’"

There's been a lot of talk about Manny's real value. No one contests that he's a great hitter, but his issues playing defense are also well-known. An article in the nyt (registration required) claimed that his defense made him a merely average player. Turns out, the metric was seriously flawed, as it was designed such that Manny was responsible for catching walls that hit twenty feet up the Green Monster (see post 27 - though the importance of that is still in some dispute).

All this being said, Manny signed a huge, long-term contract in 2000, and I think the most exceptional thing is that for every one of those years he's performed exactly as expected the day the contract was signed. Crazy motherfucker and all.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Identity Theft MySpace Style

To make a long story short, a random guy named Joe Anthony started a myspace page about Barack Obama. Initially he and Obama worked together to update the site but when the campaign decided it wanted total control, Anthony asked them for $39,000 in return. Obama's campaign decided to have MySpace intervene instead, and took control of the name (Joe Anthony got the 160,000 friends though). It's really interesting how politics is changing these days with the advent of myspace, youtube and blogging popularity. It reminds me of the episode of the Simpsons in which Lisa starts the Red Dress Press after Mr. Burnes buys all the mass-media outlets :-)

A similar thing happened to my brother, jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. A fan started a MySpace page about Kurt and was responding to people's messages as if he was Kurt. Eventually MySpace intervened there too, and transferred control of the site to Kurt's management team.

When are we really dead?

This is a really interesting article about what happens when a human's heart stops beating. It seems our cells don't really die when the oxygen is cut off, but rather when oxygen is restored to a previously starved cell. This motivates a much different approach to resuscitation than is typically used involving a slow and controlled restoration of oxygen supply and a lowering of the body temperature.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

NBA Refereeing Bias

An article in the New York Times about a academic paper written by Justin Wolfers (Wharton School of Business, UPenn) claims that there is a statistically significant bias in foul calls based on the race of the referee and the player. The actual paper has yet to be published, so it's impossible to say if they study was done correctly but experts who have read it (see NYT article) claim that it was. We can't really say until we see the actual paper, and nor can anyone else. That's why the response people have had to the article is so amazing. Here are a few:

Charles Barkley, NBA hall-of-fame player: "There are more black players so obviously there will be more fouls on black players" This is a popular sentiment which I've heard three times in the last 2 hrs on ESPN. Do they really think this Penn Professor hasn't though of this, an accounted for it? I guess it's possbile, but according to the three experts the NYT consulted he did, along with a bunch of other effects that these guys haven't thought of.

Kiki Vandeweghe, NBA analyst for ESPN: [Paraphrasing] "The refs get the majority of the calls right. If this were happening, we would have noticed" He also was not the only person to make this argument, and what a horrible argument it is. The entire point of doing statistical analysis is that "noticing" small statistical effects is really hard. Also, a huge fraction of the calls in basketball could go either way so in this case even "getting it right" is subjective.

Mark Cuban, Owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks: "We’re all human. We all have our own prejudice. That’s the point of doing statistical analysis. It bears it out in this application, as in a thousand others." Exactly! Thank you Mr. Cuban. The study is either done well, or it isn't. If it's done well, it either shows a statistically significant effect, or it doesn't. That's all there is to it.

The NBA: [paraphrasing] "We have better data that we claim does not corroborate your results, but we won't let you see it so you'll just have to trust us that what you are saying isn't true" I'll take less detailed data and peer-reviewed analysis (which this isn't yet but will be, mind you) over the best data and secret analysis any day.


A few days ago I discovered one of the coolest pieces of technology that I have seen in a long time. It is a powerful technique for dealing with spam e-mail, called greylisting. The basic principle has to do with how an RFC-compliant mailserver is supposed to respond to SMTP error codes. If an e-mail cannot be delivered due to a temporary condition on the receiving mailserver, the receiver can send a "temporary error; try again later" message to the sender, and the sender is supposed to respond when "later" actually arrives.

Greylisting servers employ this simple technique to great effect. When an e-mail arrives at a greylisting mailserver, it records some basic details about the e-mail, then sends an error message back to the sender saying that the destination address isn't available. "But try again in 5 minutes, okay?" Of course, most spam mailservers don't stick around for this kind of nonsense; they just go on to the next addresses they have in their list. But a normal, RFC-compliant mailserver will try again in five minutes, and at that point the graylisting server will let the e-mail through. The result? A nearly total elimination of spam e-mails.

Users of the postfix mailserver can use a project called postgrey. I installed postgrey a few days ago. Since I installed it, I haven't gotten a single spam e-mail. Go postgrey!

Alas, this great technology does have some negative effects, too. I am sad to say that I no longer hear from my harem of Russian girlfriends. However, since the flow of "male enhancement" drugs has also stopped, it's probably all for the best.

Seriously though, there are a few mailservers out there that aren't RFC-compliant when it comes to this behavior, so it is possible that one of your friends will suddenly get bounced e-mails from you with strange 45x errors. It is pretty unlikely though; the vast majority of mailservers in use are good about handling these errors properly.

I'm a female

So I've been reading this blog since it's inception and have been enjoying it thoroughly. Thank you to all you contributors have have made each day a little less boring and a little more enlightening.

But I've been rather intimidated to actually post anything myself in fear of sounding "dumb".

Now I'm none other than gender identity. I read this article a few days ago and found it truly fascinating. If you know me, you know that I'm very interested in the concepts of race and culture. I also sometimes find myself interested in the concept of gender. I'm beginning to think the common trend between these issues (and education, my field of work) is that of self-identity and human development.

Just for fun, I'll add a funny story to that....The Spanish teacher at my school found out last week that one of her students, Courtney, is a girl. Courtney, being a non-Spanish name, did not clue her in, and the student had short hair and always dressed in baggy t-shirts and jeans, so the teacher always referred to Courtney as a boy. School started in September. I wonder if Courtney would be offended if she knew...
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