Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Scandalous toes, revised and expanded

Earlier this month a plea for faculty to dress better (“There is something about the combination of denim and tenure that is inherently preposterous") reminded me of other fashion brouhahas, like flip-flops at the Whitehouse or Marc Andreessen's bare feet on an April 1998 cover of Time, or 60 minutes' Mike Wallace's "pterodactyl-like bare feet" on the cover of the Times.

More recently I was thinking about how folks at Fast Company's top 50 company dressed for their photo shoot -- they're pretty casual at Google.

I forgot to mention two other things the first time I posted this:
  • Calpoly SLO's troubled proposal for an engineering program in Saudi Arabia:
    Over five years, Cal Poly would receive $5.9 million from the Saudi government to create an engineering curriculum, build labs and train teachers in Jubail, a sprawling oil center on the Persian Gulf. Only men would qualify to take or teach engineering classes, although the campus has separate classes in other disciplines for women.

    "No matter how you cut it, we're supporting the oppression of women," said Jim LoCascio, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cal Poly since 1981.
  • and more from UCSB Oceanographer Halpern about human impact on oceans. Syvia Earle (saw her downtown six years ago) says:
    “We learned more about the nature of the ocean in the latter part of the 20th century than during all preceding human history,” Dr. Earle said. “But we also lost more.”

    Much as she knows about oceans, she was not a big fan of the Fresno Sanitary Landfill being designated a national historical landmark:
    It also was made public that the Park Service's advisory board had voted 10-1 to place the landfill on the landmark list. The lone dissenter, ecologist Sylvia Earle, stated, "Being designated as a historic landmark connotes a certain distinction that implies honor. It just doesn't measure up."
    Why would "a dump" be considered for historical designation? Famous garbage anthropologist William Rathje explains:
    You might read that the first sanitary landfill opened in England. Wrong. As the nomination papers document, the first working sanitary landfill was opened in the real world of Fresno by Jean Vincenz, a man with vision–a vision tempered and sustained by his travels throughout the US to learn from what others tried that worked and what they tried that didn't. It wasn't rocket science, but it was extremely creative for its day–with carefully structured draglines to position refuse, techniques to compact the refuse, and at the end of the day the same draglines to spread soil as daily cover that had been dug out to make room for the next day's refuse. This was Vincenz's "sanitary landfill" system, created at the same time that virtually all of the rest of the country and the world were feeding the fires and rats in open dumps or unleashing a black rain of cinders, soot, and ash from the chimneys of refuse-burning facilities appropriately called destructors.
    Dr. Earle must have missed that part.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

It's time to git yerself one, or two

If you are an OTA (over the air) television watcher and don't want to replace your analog TVs before the March 2009 official switchover to digital broadcasting, it's time to get your $40 coupons from the federal government, and buy a set top converter box. I went to Wal-Mart today and picked up the RCA DTA800 for $49.87 (so less than $10 after coupon). It's easy to hook up, and has RF (coax) and composite video-left/right audio output. Why no S-video or other output, you ask? Because to be eligible for the $40 coupon the box has to be minimally functional.

Just hook it up between your existing antenna and TV (or recorder). You don't get HD quality since you are still using your old TV, but you do get to watch the multiple digital stations (instead of just one analog signal per station you will probably get two or more) that are already available over the air, and you'll get simple on-screen TV schedule description.

What's available -- analog and digital -- in your area? Use Antenna Web to find out. You don't need to input your personal information, a zip code will do.

So join the 20th century before the first decade of the 21st is over :)

Unrelated trivia: What is the source of the electricity to run your converter box and old TV? See PG&E's "power mix".

Friday, February 15, 2008

Innumeracy, cats, and performance evaluations

Researchers from UCSB helped develop the Ocean Impact Map showing human influence on the oceans. The map is interesting. What really got me thinking is Ben Halpern's oft-repeated oceanographer's lament:
"The deep water is such a vast, relatively unexplored area, we just don't know what kinds of impacts we're having on those ecosystems," Halpern says. "We spend trillions of dollars going to the moon and we don't really know what's going on in our own oceans yet."
Trillions? Really? After poking around on the web a little, it looks like $25-28 billion in late-1960s dollars was spent on Apollo. Throw in another $2 billion to make an even $30 billion 1969 dollars. What's that worth today? About $176.24 billion (exercise for the reader: how does that compare to the cost of the second Iraq war?). What's an order of magnitude or so among scientists? One nice introduction to innumeracy I used in freshmen critical thinking classes was Hofstader's "On number numbness", a column he wrote for Scientific American and reprinted in the book Metamagical Themas.

The space-fans have their own oft-repeated "fact" (but I haven't had time to check the numbers):
During the same time period, [Americans] spent as much money on cosmetics as was spent on Apollo.

A couple other interesting bits of trivia about Apollo: how the Apollo 11 flag was engineered (much more interesting than it might sound), and how much better those awful black and white slow scan television pictures actually looked to the folks in Australia seeing the feed from the dish (a movie that you need to see :)

Two unrelated things: At LAX Thursday I saw several people reading Save the Cat. It's a book about screenwriting that I am thinking of reading to see if any of it is relevant to software engineering. Finally, Bob Sutton has another interesting take on annual performance evaluations of employees. Here's a great quote:
Then there is another, more extreme argument, that the performance evaluation process is fundamentally flawed. That doing it well is like doing blood-letting well -- it is a bad practice that does more harm than good in all or nearly all cases. This is the position taken by the famous quality guru W. Edwards Deming -- he was vehemently opposed to using them at all.

Friday, February 08, 2008

No need for GPS

This post via Steve got me thinking about the old strip maps I have from the 1920s and 1930s (Fresno to Huntington Lake, etc). USC has a nice collection of AAA strip maps from that era. Here is LA to Bakersfield, and LA to La Canada and Sunland.

Strip maps are an old idea, check out this one from over 300 years ago.

Strip maps have been extensively studied, such as in "A linear view of the world: Strip maps as a unique form of cartographic representation". This discussion of cognition:
One reason for the success of strip maps over time and across cultures is the advantage of process over state descriptions for route following. In addition, continued popularity of the format and potential for its expanded use may also relate to advantages of such maps in helping people develop a cognitive map of an unfamiliar environment.
reminds me of Edwin Hutchins' book Cognition in the wild, which you should have read by now.

David Rumsey let you play with his collection of historical maps online way before Google maps. We've looked at the user interface as part of the graduate HCI class.

About ten years ago I picked up one of the 1000 copies of California 49:
California was an unusual corner of the world. The Spaniards kept what little information they had under tight wraps. There were few reasons to visit today's California - little water, no obvious gold, and few people to exploit, so it remained a backwater for centuries. European mapmakers tried filling the vacuum, struggling with a lack of accurate information but always ready to copy from one another. This is how "the island of California" was born.

This intriguing anomaly has fascinated map collectors for years. The California Map Society decided to pull together important historic maps as a state sesquicentennial project. Their 1999 publication, "California 49," included forty-nine such maps. Printed in only 1000 copies, it quickly sold out. You might look for a copy in your local or University library.
Finally, sometimes I occasionally turn a map upside down, but I find this disturbing.

It's full of stars

Two quick things:
  • Some amazing astrophotography (scroll down after clicking) taken from Bear Mountain near Meadow Lakes (famous for TV and radio transmitters). I thought their description of why and how they picked the site was interesting.
  • What happens with all that stuff you leave curbside for the recycling service to haul away? It goes into athrough an eddy current separator, of course.
    ... a magnet pulls out any ferrous metals, typically tin-plated or steel cans, while the non-ferrous metals, mostly aluminium cans, are ejected by eddy current. Eddy-current separators, in use since the early 1990s, consist of a rapidly revolving magnetic rotor inside a long, cylindrical drum that rotates at a slower speed. As the aluminium cans are carried over this drum by a conveyer belt, the magnetic field from the rotor induces circulating electric currents, called eddy currents, within them. This creates a secondary magnetic field around the cans that is repelled by the magnetic field of the rotor, literally ejecting the aluminium cans from the other waste materials.
Now you know.