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Just Rolling Along

My friend Clark Smith coined the best spontaneous witticism I ever heard: a person who is slow to pick up a bill is suffering from shellout falter (I think you have to be over 45 to get that).

As close as I came this week was complimenting myself on a Pity With-it-cism (when I meant pithy witticism)

The witticism in question? I was talking about one of the numerous ironies of my wasted MIT education. I knew people who were working on Arpanet (or, for that matter, Unix, and its predecessor Multics), and who tried to explain it to me. Later, this little government system grew up to become the Internet. Despite my stubborn ignorance about the mysterious inner workings of TCP/IP and such, I've had a pretty good run as on the content side of the Internet, which led me to comment to my wife Vicki:

You don't have to know anything about plumbing to flush the toilet.

That's the best I've got this week.

(Ironically, again, during my term as house manager of MIT Student House, every single one of the house's seven toilets failed, and I fixed them without the help of plumbers, despite knowing nothing at all about toilets or plumbing. But that's another story).

Speaking of MIT, the Smoot who won the Nobel Prize last week is the cousin of MIT's LCA fraternity member Oliver Smoot, who was rolled across the Harvard Bridge in the 1950s, when it was discovered that the bridge is 364.4 Smoots "and one ear" long. Smoot marks still adorn the bridge, despite its complete reconstruction.

Not Piling Onto Foley Here, Condi Rice Meeting

What more can I say about Foley. I don't allow my students to gloat in class, so I won't gloat about the world of hurt that the Republican'ts are in for their world-class hypocricy. My only comment: Coach Hastert knew. Dan Grobstein and I enjoyed this list of political scandals.


Read this New York Times article about Rice and the CIA carefully. If it turns out that Ms Rice DID know what she's denying, then GWB may have to knife her in the back to keep from being linked to this. This is really beginning to feel like Watergate, something that I'm sure Woodward is chortling about.

From Dan Grobstein:

American Progress: The various takes on the CIA/Rice briefing on an imminent attack that Rice is supposed to have brushed off. The Rice briefing was July 10, 2001. Absolutely coincidentally (and without a briefing), Ashcroft stopped flying commercial as reported by CBS News on July 26, 2001. Within "a week" of July 10 brings us to July 17. Pretty close to the 26th for me.


There's a note or two on polling in Technobriefs this week.



World Teacher's Day

Marlow, who has lived in both China and Taiwan, told me about the reverence for teachers in Confucian society, and was there for Teacher's Day one year, a Sunday upon which everyone was expected to honor their teachers and give them gifts. So it wasn't a complete surprise when Peggy Coquet sent me this, from

Millions around the globe will celebrate World Teachers' Day on October 5. Growing up in India, I came to regard my teachers with the highest respect. Kabir, a mystic poet in 15th century India, wrote in one of his couplets (in Hindi),

"Guru Govind dou khade, kaake laagoon paye
Balihari guru aapki, Govind diyo milaye."


I face both God and my guru. Who should I bow to first?
I first bow to my guru because he's the one who showed me the path to God.

The word guru is from Sanskrit via Hindi where its literal meaning is venerable or weighty. Ultimately the word is derived from the same Indo-European root that gave us the word gravity.

When I came to the US to attend graduate school, I was horrified to hear students addressing the professors by their names, even first names. Eventually, I persuaded myself to call my professors Dr. White or Dr. Kennedy but I could never address them Lee or Miles.

Teachers' Day is observed on various days in different parts of the world. In India, it's celebrated on September 5; in the US it's on the Tuesday of the first full week of May. World Teachers' Day is [was] on October 5: Whenever you celebrate it, to all the world's teachers: I bow to you.

The column then discussed the word of the day. It concluded with a quote from Lee Iacocca: "In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have." I always knew there was a reason I liked Lee Iacocca so much.


by Craig Reynolds

Tech and politics: imagine a web-based fact checking system that will (among other things) allow voters to quickly determine if a politician is telling the truth: Google boss warns politicians about Internet power. See the very cool "robo-poll" technology developed by Constituent Dynamics, as nicely visualized at Majority Watch. Some background here: About those Majority Watch Congressional District Polls... (via). E-vote news: remember my snarky "we'll see" last week about Diebold's claim of a fix for problems with Maryland's voting machines. Par for the course, they were wrong: Diebold says: please don't touch the touchscreens and E-poll results undecided. See also: Diebold: Criticism Off-base, Play chess on your nearest e-voting machine and Pennsylvania Voters on E-Voting: Trust, But Verify.

Single-Pixel Camera: when the race has been toward digital cameras with more and more pixels, why the interest in a minimalist single pixel camera?  Its all done with mirrors! The basic win is that it is cheaper to make an array of mirrors than an array of multi-spectral light sensors. And this techniques works just as well with infrared, x-ray and other types of radiation as it does with the visible spectrum. Press reports from Photonics: Single-Pixel Camera Takes High-Resolution Images and Live Science: Researchers Aim for Single-Pixel Camera. Here is the abstract of the technical presentation.

Google code search: Google rolled out a search engine for software geeks. Google Code Search offers a whole new way to find sample code and potentially many other kinds of large scale software analysis.  You need to be a geek to make use of it -- or maybe even to know why a search for hello world gets 50,000 hits. This may have a profound effect on how software is developed, think of how Google search changed the way we use the web. Like other kinds of data mining, Google Code Search shines a light on information that was out there, but essentially hidden in the dark shadows of the web. See SecurityFocus on how Google Code Search peers into programs' flaws and kottke's take on the kind of things you can find with it.

Robot roundup: selections of the A Teams for the next DARPA Grand Challenge: Robot cars will race in real traffic, this time there will be grants, not prizes: 2006 DARPA Grand Challenge teams announced, prize plummets to zero dollars. Elsewhere in robotics: Musical robot composes, performs and teaches, orbiter takes picture of rover taking picture of giant Martian crater, Robot whiskers sense shapes and textures and Attack of the killer prototype robots.

Beetle juice: drinking water from humidity: last month I mentioned "Beetle spawns new material: a super-efficient biomimetic vapor collector" and then saw Air alchemy: Can humidity solve post hurricane drinking water problem? (also also). It described condensing emergency drinking water from humid Gulf coast air for post-hurricane recovery needs.  It also touches on using this approach in the third world where drinking water is often unhealthy. But in both cases lack of power/fuel is a significant problem. The passive beetle-inspired condenser developed at MIT seems well suited for this application, once it can be manufactured in significant quantities.

Recommendation systems: collaborative filtering systems continue to be a hot intersection of commerce and engineering, as has been covered previously here at TB. The ability to tell someone which new music or movies they will like has enormous commercial value. It increases sales volume and satisfaction. It is also a deep research problem, since current systems are only OK and improvements have slowed down.  Now Netflix has decided to jolt this impasse with a competition: And if You Liked the Movie, a Netflix Contest May Reward You Handsomely. The same approach has been used lately to spur research on autonomous vehicles (DARPA Grand challenge) and commercial spaceships (Ansari X Prize). The Netflix contest include both a cash prize and a valuable database of 100 million real user rating histories for contestants to verify their techniques. Winners will be judged by an objective measure comparing their systems to the current Netflix standard recommender. (Its worth noting that I find a lot of the news for TB via a news/blog recommender system: Findory.)

Technobits: $1.6 billion?!: Google in talks to buy Web video site YouTube: report --- tech sidebar on Brazilian midair crash: How Do Planes Avoid Colliding? --- Ceramic Microreactors Developed For On-site Hydrogen Production --- Quantum information teleported from light to matter --- Sketch-recognition turns doodles into websites --- old tech: Scientists piece together a US Navy zeppelin's past --- giant animal fossils: Dino-Era "Sea Monster" Found on Arctic Island and Remains of giant camel discovered in Syria --- Edward O. Wilson ("the father of biodiversity") warns half the world's species may be extinct by 2100 --- 3d animation fatigue? I remember when the computer animation community looked forward to that great day when a fully 3d animated film would be made, now we are up to our keisters in them: Is Th-Th-That All, Folks? --- two web based interactive animated toys, both based on simulated physics: Line Rider (via Lisa) and Drag the circles, have some fun (via).

School for Scoundrels

2.5 Stars

This movie stars the ever-impressive Billy Bob Thornton as the nefarious Dr. P and Jon "Napoleon Dynamite" Heder as the hapless Roger. It was written by Todd Phillips & Scot Armstrong and directed by Phillips (the team "responsible" for Starsky & Hutch, Old School and Road Trip).

Let me digress a moment. I don't know if Jon Heder is the world's best actor, or if what we see on the screen is his natural affect (I have never seen or heard him interviewed), but in either case, he's a genius, the inheritor of a long line of letter-perfect character actors. Long after pretty boys and action heroes are forgotten, these unsung second bananas and sidekicks will rule our memories of the movies. Heder is ready to join William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the pantheon of the modern greats. Of course, he needs a middle initial or name, like the great character actor of the 40s, Franklin X. Pangborn--the man behind the desk or counter in a million films in the 30s and 40s whose distinctive delivery was instantly funny.

And, for that matter, Billy Bob Thornton may be the best evil person of his generation. He certainly does a remarkable portrayal of evil in this movie.

You know how sometimes a movie seems to be more than the sum of its parts, and sometimes less? This one seemed to be less. There was one genuinely hysterical scene, on the airplane and the end. I was guffawing to the point of disturbing the other patrons in the local multiplex.

It was hard to assign stars to this. I enjoyed it, I wasn't sure, it isn't exactly Academy Award material, I looked at the other films that got three stars, and wondered "is this as good as them" But in the end, the deciding factor was the length. It was 105 minutes. Now, thank god, that's not 120 minutes, but it's still 15 minutes too long for a comedy. Get a clue, Hollywood!

Open Season

2.5 stars

Yes, there are a few funny double entendre lines ("We need your nuts. And your acorns too." And the whole joke about a bear who is unable to …. in the woods). And a few more I've forgotten. But that's the problem with this film: it's forgettable. It touches nothing, changes nothing. It takes nothing but pictures and leaves no footprints on your mind.

The computer animation is technically amazing and brilliant, the voices are top drawer (Martin Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher, Jon Favreau, Gary Sinise--God, that man makes a good villain, Debra Messing, Billy Connolly). But once again we are reminded that it's the story, stupid. All the visual, acting and artistic talent in the world cannot make us care about a lackluster story. Apparently, there are actually very few storytelling geniuses in the world, and they don't work for Sony Animation. Disney plundered the literary past or sang its way into our hearts, Pixar struck the perfect balance between whimsy and humor--or maybe just beat us to death with the voice of John "Cliff the Mailman on Cheers" Ratzenberger. Sony needs… well, a clue to go with its technology.

Lasusa Links, An MIT Education, Dan Grobstein File

Tom Lasusa surfs the web so you don't have to: Daniel "Harry Potter" RadcliffeWonder where your money's going...literally?Fun facts about the Harvest Moon this October 6When the Lights Went out In IcelandRussia: Where old Sitcoms go to live once more

A former friend of my wife's, also an MIT grad, wrote last week:

Did your studies help, or were they mainly a basic education that served you to carry conversation in many circles throughout your life?

I responded: That is amazing. For the 32 years since I graduated, I have prided myself on being able to conduct an intelligent 10-minute conversation with anyone who speaks English, regardless of what they do for a living. I read omnivorously (I was on the Jeopardy! television quiz show), but much of my ability to ask intelligent questions and vaguely grasp the meaning of the answers I owe to my MIT education. I owe my career to it as well; editors choosing between two candidates were always impressed by the credential, particularly in computer journalism. Ironically, I didn't have to show my transcript to anyone until I applied to become a teacher. Since my GPA did not meet California standards, I needed a special letter from [a professor] which elevated some of my pass credits to A grades. Anyway, you succinctly summed up the value of an MIT education to me.

Dan Grobstein File

(Dan also has a couple of links in politics this week)

The Disconnect Between "Causes" and Effects Plus No Child Left Behind

One of the things I am trying to teach my 8th graders is that some apparent cause and effect links are not real, because we mistake proximity for causality. That is, sometimes the observed cause that immediately precedes the effect has nothing to do with it, while the actual cause, because it occurred a long time ago or far away (was not proximate in time or space), is invisible on a human scale. I assure you I do not use the words proximity and causality when I try to teach the concept.

Anyway, a few things stuck with me over the years since I graduated from MIT with a B.S. in Management. One was the idea that human beings (including managers) are really pretty awful at predicting the consequences of their actions in complex systems.

Another was the law of unintended consequences--your action may or may not have the effect you intend, but it will certainly have effects you didn't intend or foresee. Frequently, actions result in effects that are the opposite of those intended. Often, this is because people fail to recognize that systems are complex

Finally, optimization of individual decisions does not necessarily produce a globally optimized result. The most famous example is commuting to work by car. For every individual commuter, driving a car instead of riding mass transit is an optimized decision (in terms of convenience, and, theoretically, time). But the global effect is sub-optimization, because the roads become so crowded that the time convenience and time advantages are wiped out, or even become negative. The same thing happens in industry; each department optimizes its own operations, but sub-optimizes corporate performance (read Dilbert for a month to see what I mean).

Jay W. Forrester, Professor of Management, Sloan School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently shared his ideas on these topics with a mailing list of which I am a member. I am not in the habit of running lengthy expositions on management, but I was struck by the clarity, and clarity of expression, evinced in this essay, and Prof. Forrester asked me to print it in full, rather than excerpting it. He concludes with a highly accurate speculation on the No Child Left Behind Act.

There have recently been several communications related to the objective of a system. I think most of the discussion is not anchored in the structural nature of systems. A company may have an "objective" of increasing profit, or a school system may have an objective of providing better education, but these so-called objectives are not connected to the system behavior.

In a model of one of these systems, every flow, of which there may be large numbers has imbedded in it an objective. The person ordering replacement parts has an objective of maintaining a certain level of inventory. The school superintendent has various objectives arising from the various flows that are being controlled--hiring teachers to fill vacancies, communicating with the public to limit criticism, putting pressure on teachers when discipline falters. Every flow has some kind of explicit or implicit goal embedded in the statement that describes the control of the flow.

Super goals of better performance, happier students, or higher profitability, have no systems meaning or significance except to the extent that they lead to altering local goals at specific flow-controlling points. Often the super, or grandiose, goals have no effect. Frequently, such general goals have the opposite of the desired result because they create pressures on the operating flows that are counterproductive.

The global goals that the discussions have cited are often meaningless or produce the opposite of the desired result because there is usually no grasp of where the high-leverage flows are located. It is only through actual model simulation that one discovers how the multitude of local flows, and their separate goals, cause the total system behavior.

When the behavior of a system is not what is desired, one should start by assuming that the deficiency is because of the policies being followed and often because of policies that people are actively pursuing in the mistaken belief that those policies lead to improvement. One sees corporations, and school systems, in which the known policies that are thought to be a solution are, without people being aware of the consequences, causing the problem. This is a treacherous situation because the favored policies cause increasing difficulty and the greater difficulty provides more incentive for doing the very things that are causing trouble. Is "No Child Left Behind" one of these?

And from a second message to the same group:

I believe we are dealing here with a fundamental nature of systems and how they interact with people. A person's intuition and judgement are conditioned by experiences with simple systems. Simple systems are the only ones that we clearly understand. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from simple systems are contrary to the behavior of complex systems and those inappropriate lessons lead people in the wrong direction when faced with the complexity of almost all of the important systems in our lives.

As one of several classes of misleading teachings of simple systems we learn that cause and effect are closely related in time and in space. If one touches a hot stove, the pain is now and the location is here; cause and effect are obvious and close together in both time and space. But this lesson is wrong in more complex systems. In larger real-life systems, the cause of a symptom may be far back in time and may come from an entirely different part of the system. However, to make matters more misleading, the complex system will present what appears to be a cause that is close in time and space, but that apparent cause in only a coincident symptom of the real cause. People are then led to deal with what they see as the apparent cause rather than finding the true cause.

To suggest, without being sure because I have done no modeling in this area, examine the national preoccupation with low standards of performance in our K-12 schools, especially in mathematics and writing. The solution appears to be more pressure on teaching the material. But is the teaching the cause, or is the material the cause. Several writers have commented on how the problem in education arises from the students being bored, but without followup to determine why it is boring and how to eliminate boredom. Does one solve the problem with more pressure to learn what is boring, or is the challenge to have an education process that is exciting and relevant and which students want to penetrate deeply?

In addition to the above matter of causes shifting from immediate in time and space for simple systems to being remote in both time and space for complex systems, there are several other kinds of ways that systems mislead people.