Grave Considerations

Today was another exercise in hieing off to submit to the ministrations of the medical apparat, so I combined my weekly visit to Huntsville, Nawth Alibam’s Shining City on the Hill to procure foodstuffs with the ultimate realism of the wellness of the corpus. That realism continued when I returned to Castle SCP and embarked on getting caught up on the daily reading.

The high point of this was running across a blot by Matt Asay [Link] on whether there is any substantive difference between MegaHard Office and Open Office (e.g.,) and more specifically if the office suite continues to be relevant. Quite apart from his discussion, which as usual is very much more than we expect from a magazine blog, I was struck by how fundamentally human this question is in its basic form. No, not whether an office suite (in particular) is worth carting about, but whether any tool is worth owning and carting about.

This question is a old as tool making and using, and thus not only predating homo sapiens, but probably homo as well. Nothing however, epitomizes this question more than sapiens. For most of our history as a species we were hunter-gatherers and the question of whether something is worth carrying about is nowhere more central in ordinary life than for a nomadic people who have no beasts of burden (except the dog) and scant technology for bundles, much less pockets or even trousers. Indeed, it may be argued that our adoption of sedentaryness, agriculture, civilization, and technology is just so we may possess more stuff.

There are many technical formulations of this problem, spanning many dimensions, but one of the clearest is what is sometimes called the ‘Swiss Army Knife” (SAK) problem. This problem has to do with how many blades and of what form and size should be made into a pocket knife. The formulation of the problem is very simple, a computation of the difference of two factors. One factor is the expected value to be realized by carrying the SAK. One way to obtain this factor is to compute the expected value for each blade in the SAK in terms of how often tasks using this blade will be encountered, how likely the task can be accomplished by the blade in its form, and what the value of accomplishing the task will be.

The second factor is the actual burden of carrying the knife. One way to compute this factor is by adding up the energy/time/cost of carrying the knife and maintaining it. Then the ‘usefulness’ of the SAK is the difference between the two factors. So long as this ‘usefulness’ is large enough for the individual, then carrying the SAK is expected to have more benefit than not carrying the SAK. That ‘usefulness’ depends on the individual, so an elaboration of this for the manufacturer of an SAK is how many people have what scale or level of ‘usefulness’. In general however, the ‘usefulness’ of an SAK is negative of no blades since there is a burden to carrying the non-blade pieces of the knife, becomes positive for each blade added with varying value until the second factor overwhelms the first and the ‘usefulness’ again becomes negative.

Most practical people who carry a SAK select the knife based on their perception of where the maximum of the curve occurs for them moderated by the models available that they can afford.

Anyway, the same thing applies to office suites, or any software or possession whose ownership is optional or even presents a risk. Matt Asay’s argument is that office suites are rapidly becoming irrelevant because the tasks to be performed with the pieces of the suite have no expected worth, or at least inadequate worth to compensate for the burden of lugging the suite around. I shall not argue that most office suites, including MegaHard and Open Office have long since reached the point of those exaggerated fifty or one hundred blade SAK whose only attraction is egotistical or social but not functional. I fear that these office suites have been carried around simply because they are the only models produced by their manufacturers – no five blade SAK here! – and the burden is small on even a netbook.

But I will offer that the individual user has relatively little influence in this marketplace because their requirements are so fractionated. Rather, the office suite marketplace has its requirements set by large organizations and these organizations, in direct proportion to their directiveness and size, define the tasks and their value. At the risk of being reactionary, I will argue that while this environment is changing, it is changing slowly and hence the eminent demise of the office suite is as exaggerated as the eminent demise of the desktop.

Such a wonderfully complex thing to consider, though!

Fun and Games

Absent yesterday. Had to retire to Scant City, the Medical Metropolis of Nawth Marshall County, for an inverse or anti-George S. Coffey adventure. The inversion took two forms: I was exterior rather than interior, although the gun and camera were not; and the direct was reversed as well. The results were relatively positive; I do indeed have the TOE authorization of lower metabolic organs with only slight damage due to normal wear and tear.

But as a result of this, I was mentally, and, to an embarrassing extent, physically discombobulated for much of the day. And hence, to the great and noisy lament of those who frequent this blog daily, nothing new was presented, not that much of what I ever present can be considered new.

This morning however, I was able to return to some of my usual want, and was off to Scant City to perform exercise. That was a welcome change from yesterday, in several instances. As is usual for Tuesday I occupied much of my attention span – pedaling a bicycle is hardly intellectually taxing although occasionally emotionally terrifying given the way I pedal – with science podcast episodes. Over all they were rather blah, the highest level reached by a discussion on the Guardian’s science podcast, [Link] which dealt with a research to find the ‘world’s funniest joke’.

As part of this I had to listen to about ten jokes and found one of the major problems with the research. It seems that the researchers amassed a database of jokes, selected from it and told these jokes to the sample population to rate, individually. The problem is the unstated assumption that the ‘world’s best joke’ was indeed a member of that database. I have to admit that I have not figured out how else to structure the experiment so that it would be more likely to find the ‘world’s best joke’, but in the best tradition of cynicism, critique, and blogging, I can point out gotchas, even when they are stochastic.

I also was reminded that jokes are very dependent on many factors but the glaringly obvious one here was society and culture. In this case, I was reminded that the English and the citizen-consumer-serfs of the Yankee republic do not speak the same language. Of the ten jokes, seven were unfunny because they relied on some bit of English english that is absent from American english. The other three, incidentally, never got beyond mildly amusing. The one that was supposed to be the ‘world’s best joke’ was the one about Holmes and Watson going camping, which is at best a groaner and not a very intense one at that. I did however gain a new appreciation for the efforts of Spider Robinson. Also, light bulb jokes were absent, so herein is a light bulb joke

How many quantum physicists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Only one, but he has to keep looking at the socket until the light bulb wave function collapses in it.

Next, courtesy of Stonybrook U researchers, [Link] an indication that being a nerd is healthy. Seems that these folks found out that college graduates get colds much less often than high shul dropouts. And folks who make less than $12K per annum feel pain twice as often as the mean. Now, since the incidence of college degrees increases from bogs to geeks to nerds, it somehow stands to reason, assuming the two things are actually functional and not just correlations of some other cause, that nerds have better health than bogs.

Really makes you wonder why anyone would want to be a bog, doesn’t it?

Computer Attraction

Once more into the lees of the week, whether you consider Sundae to be the first or last day. I fear I consider it the last – most of the time – probably because I prefer the promise of Monday to the introspective nastiness of today. In keeping with that comes the tidying of the browser tabs, mostly the result of RSS feed instances and items sent by colleagues and items included in eNewsletters. Today is no different in that respect.

First, and strongest – in a sense that probably verifies our physicist-ness, is an article [Link] that talks about the suggestion by theorists that gravity is emergent (ala complexity) from information, likely quantum information. My first response here was the humor of the thing since information, at least in the artificial world of computers is inherently and implicitly quantized (it´s masticated also – bad pun!) then quantum information must be doubly quantized -> doubly masticated -> baby food -> elementary -> fundamental.

You can tell this is going to be a strange day.

The other thought is that since gravity is attractive only, no repulsive form, and if it emerges from information, this could explain why computers and their use seem to be so attractive. What isn’t quite clear is why the force should be stronger at night? After all, we seldom find people with their heads drawn down to the keyboard during daylight.

While the azimuth is on physics, the folks at the wonk shul on the Charles have published a study [Link] that indicates that physics students who do their own homework do better on exams. While it would be nastily attractive to point out just how lame this makes the wonks look, with a study that does nothing more than validate what every physicist already knows, it has to be acknowledged that this silly behavior among academics of ´proving´ common knowledge has become ubiquitous and raises general, rather than specific, questions of just how productive academics are.

Anyway, what every physicist, and, I suspect, every science nerd, knows is that if you don’t do your own homework problems you won’t do very well on the exams for the simple reason that the exams are mostly made up of problems. And however much lectures and tutorial/work sessions and Schaum’s outlines assist, the only way you learn how to work problems is by working problems. As I have maundered before, physics, and I suspect the other nerdish disciplines, consists of learning, using, and advancing the four T’s:

  • Terms;
  • Tools;
  • Techniques; and
  • Thoughts.

Of these, all but the first can only be substantially be learned by doing problems. And in honesty, I should acknowledge a bit of resonance or correlation (but with causality, I think!) with that Olympian of Education, Alexandra Harrington, ‘Educated Nation‘, who yesterday (Friday actually but I did not observe it till yesterday so I cannot to its previous existence in all physicist honesty) had an absolutely smashing (as in one hammer blow to completely drive in a large structural nail in a beam) blot on the difficulties of learning from computer learning instrumentality – web sites in particular – for those who go deeper than the terms level.[Link]

This, of course, does raise the question of whether copying homework has a similar effect in the non-nerd disciplines (the Capellan ones?) Like most who attended college in the Yankee republic I had to take some non-nerd courses so as to obtain some semblance of a liberal education.[1] And I must admit that I did everything I could to minimize the number of non-nerd courses I had to take to obtain a baccalaureate degree so that I could go really study nerdery. The primary reason for this is that the courses, and in particular the homework, made scant sense.

Simply put, the homework, and the exams for that matter, had nothing to do with problems. Take as an example courses in literature. The homework (dormwork?) usually consisted of writing some sort of essay or other short piece of a pseudo-analytical and/or disputatious nature. I will concede that the exams were to some limited extent based on these lines, but the key here is that the ‘analysis’ was subjective and the conclusions had to agree with the instructor’s, which were also subjective and fundamentally untestable. So, bottom line, I went out of my way to find ‘required’ elective courses that were as nerdish as possible.

Enough about homework! Besides, for all we know it only applies to our species anyway, which is rather rapidly being demonstrated to be less unique than we thought. In the wake of all the grrr brrr about homo florsiensis we seem to now have added what may be homo denisoviensis? [Link] First thought here is that the Altai mountains in Siberia would have been pretty low in temperature even in the warm phases so denisoviens would have been better suited to ‘cold’ than would have been neandertals, a point that is sometimes cited as significant in the latter’s extinction. Second thought is what mechanism will now be suggested for how sapiens did in these folks. Amazing what can be done these days with a single finger bone.

While we’re on humans, the question has been raised over whether Ronald McDougal, the iconic mascot of the fast food megaorg, should be extinguished. [Link] The issue seems to be whether the entity is a detrimental influence on children. Having been a parent I can attest that there was a substantial – entirely too lengthy – period when food could not be consumed at a restaurant other than McDougal’s without loud and antisocial altercation with SCPdatter. Since then I have learned much more about the deleterious effects of the foodstuffs they purvey which cause shudders of memory and a bit of thankfulness that I did not know of such when any outing entailed a visit to the fool’s-gold arches. So I would offer we should let Ronald live but let us extinguish his organization.

And while we’re on things harmful to health, I note [Link] that a pharmaceutical company (?) has begun to market computerized tops for medicine bottles. As I grasp it, these tops are supposed to do two things. First, they light up when it is time to take the medicine in the bottle. Second, they report to some Big Brother server somewhere. What is not completely clear is whether they report all instances or just missed ones.

As with all change from beyond my control – hear that, current administration? – I have some difficulties, potential or otherwise, with these. First of all, I object to having Big Brother just on basic principles. I also question their efficacy. The problem they are supposed to address is folks, especially seniors like SCP, who miss taking their meds. The implication is that we seniors are too forgetful, or simple minded to remember to take our meds. The problem with these devices solving that supposed problem is that they don’t report that a medicine was taken, only that the top was taken off the bottle. Even if they could measure how many pills are removed (added to?) the bottle, they do not measure the pills being ingested! So someone who dislikes the medicine for its effects can just remove and replace the top to fool (?) Big Brother. And what is Big Brother going to do? Send a jack booted Storm-trooper to administer the pill?

More insidious is the question of when? I am told by the medical media, who, like most mediasts, are about as trustworthy as a cardboard wrench in a rainstorm, that I should take my meds at the same time every day. (They are absolutely vacant of what to do about daylight savings time. Maybe because the adjustment is too much for them?) In all fairness I acknowledge that no physician has ever commented on this. I know enough about chemical processes and general rate theory to recognize why this is, but I also recognize that there is substantial variation from what my activities have been during the day. And sometimes I have things to do that mandate I take meds early or late.

I hate to say this, but what I want is a simple reminder thingie. Back when I had my HP Journada PDA that had a Popeye alarm noise, I could program it to remind me every day at the appointed time to take my meds. If I wanted to delay for an hour because I was away from home, the snooze was built-in. If I did took them early I could acknowledge and go on. PDAs are defunct now and my cellular phone is too whacked to do this well, but that is what I need, not technotops on the bottles. Besides, I have to open the cabinet and look at the bottles to see the lights, which means I have to remember to go open the cabinet to take the meds in the first place. Duhhhhhhh!

Now lastly, geologists at U Leicester have decided that we have entered a new geological epoch. [Link] This new epoch, suggestively dubbed the Anthropocene, is supposed to reflect the effects on Tellus wrought by homo sapiens. I should comment here that FD SCP watches some of those television programs where people refurbish houses or redecorate rooms or houses, which may explain a bit my first thought here was that this will give rise to a series of ‘reality’ programs such as ‘This Old Planet’ or ‘Continent Improvement.’ I also have to admit to a great dislike for these programs because the people who are the staff of the program are putzes, the occupants inflicted upon are shmendricks, and the improvements almost always (0.994) aren’t. Invariably in the redecorating a perfectly utile environment is rendered ugly and ineffective.

Lesson to be learned for the future of the planet.

[1] I remind the readership that this use of the term ‘liberal’ is non-political. It refers not to social engineering or socialism or any such but rather to the idea that one must have a diversity of knowledge that gives insight into the complexity of human society.

More Commercial

OK, back on the azimuth of bashing bad commercials and advertisements, I have to add to the list those ‘dummy’ pieces about high Fructose Corn Syrup, although my reasons are a bit more subtle. But before we get to that, I have to note a bit of research done at Princeton U on rodents.[Link]

As a bit of background, regular sugar and corn syrup are both mixtures of glucose and fructose. You can tell they are both sugar compounds by the suffix ‘ose’ on both words, which convention is one of the reasons for the suggestion that we refer to humans who are overweight from sugar consumption as obose rather than obese. Anyway, one of the primary differences between regular sugar and corn syrup is the glucose to fructose ratio; one in regular sugar, considerably smaller in corn syrup. For a long time this was not thought to be a big deal nutritionally since the two are energetically equivalent but now courtesy of the folks at Princeton we know that mice who consume corn syrup gain more weight, energy ingested held constant, than do mice who consume regular sugar. This makes those commercials with the dumdum claim of equivalence so much prevaricative propaganda.

My objection – previously – to corn syrup sweetening of things like soda pop is that they taste blah. Indeed, one can bemoan the use of corn syrup by the foodstuffs industry as the banalization of taste for the sake of production and cheapness, both of price and cost. What is less clear is whether this was also a conspiracy on the part of the same foodstuffs industry to split the products in two lines: a cheaply priced one of flat tasting corn syrup sweetened foods; and an expensively priced one of normal tasting regular sugar sweetened foods.

Regardless, the fact is that soda pop is now either sad tasting and cheap (well, sorta) or fair tasting and expensive. I tend to opt for the latter since I am only supposed to consume a small number of soda pop per week but that only works if I can go to a high end grocery store that sells soda pop made with real sugar. If I happen to go to a restaurant I have to opt for water or premise brewed beverage.

On a somewhat more confusing side I not [Link] that the fraction of consumer-citizen-serfs of the Yankee republic who have cellular telephones is 0.91. I don’t think this surprises me but I do have a tough question for the Yankee government. Given all the nastiness and moaning over the instrumentality and cost of the ongoing census why didn’t the data collection go through the cellular telephones rather than the mail? The fractions are very close and despite the exorbitant prices charged for text messages, my back-of-the-envelope cost estimate is about an order of magnitude less. And while I’m asking, are you still using Hollerith cards too?

And it seems that the Commodore 64 is being resurrected.[Link] My reaction here is a resounding ‘huh?’ The big thing with the C64 was a computer built into an over sized keyboard, as opposed to a computer in a box with a keyboard attached. The model skidded along a bit after the C64 suffered obsolescence from inability but the box model has been pretty fixed since. Yes, there have been attempts to change the form factor – computers built into monitors and even the occasional keyboard inflation – but aside from the haut couture of Apple most of these have disappeared in months.

Not that the idea is not appealing, but it also has strong flaws. One is that when you package all this stuff in a little box you can’t get into the box to make changes in contents or to fix stuff. The same argument can be made about laptops, but I don’t recall seeing very many folks lugging an overgrown keyboard and a monitor about between meetings and work sites. And yes, I know that point is poorly posed but I do think this is a case of the center being unable to hold.

Arguments of its demise aside, there are still enormous advantages to having a box whose contents can be changed. As a result, the two peripheral solutions: laptop and desktop; are stable. The center, a laptop without monitor is not except as some piece of iconic eye candy.

So I do not wait with bated breath for this return of the C64. I wait to see if it offers anything other than kitsch.

Disease and Discontent

In considering the matter of the recent passage of the ´health´ bill, I had occasion to recall

As long as the Union was faithful to her trust

Like friends and brethren, kind were we, and just

But now, when Northern treachery attempts our rights to mar

We hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.


Having observed the antics in thee Yankee congress over the past year or so I am entertaining the hypothesis that one of the requirements for being able to hold political office should be that one does not want to hold political office.

IOW, anyone who wants to be a Congress Critter (e.g.,) is disqualified from being such.

I shall not even comment on the idea that anyone with a degree in law or who has ever been a member of the bar – anywhere – should be disqualified from elected office.

Selling Stupidity

This morning I ran across an article in the feeds about some research on the relationship between advertisement/commercial and peripheral context.[Link] This research was done by academics from a whole buncha shuls so my willingness to give organizational credit is stretched past the limits of Young´s modulus. I will reproduce a quote of a quote:

“Consumers routinely encounter and consider products within a surrounding context, whether that context consists of other products in a shopping mall or from media or personal experience,”

What this triggered was the context within the commercial presentation, in effect das drang in sich.

One such is that series of Home Depot commercials that have all manner of meaningless but inspirational statements. What, prithee, is a ´doing dial´ and why does one ´wind it up´? Dials are generally associated with clocks or gauges but they are displays of some amount, not some spring to be wound on a clock or such. And what is ´doing´? Is this an activity or something measurable? And if not how can it be displayed on a dial.

The overall impact is that I am being hoaxed by these folks, my intelligence almost surely insulted, and the firm removed from my list of vendors to be considered when I require some goods they purvey.

Similarly there is that Ford commercial that rags Honda and Toyota about quality and then belittles maths. This may be an uplifting message to bog but for those of us who consider maths to be more important that literature, and definitely than your insulting commercial, Ford is now a brand of automobile not to be considered when a new vehicle is needed. Especially is no maths were used in its design or manufacture. And if maths were used, why should I trust a conniving liar?

And lastly there is that commercial about turning a ten pound bag of flour into a biscuit. Quite apart from the fact that most people have never seen a bag of flour more than five pounds, the biscuit shown is entirely too large to have ever been baked in any home oven, In fact, its too big for most bakery ovens.

So why are all you folks making commercials with these distractions? Is insulting my intelligence and proving how whacked you are supposed to instill confidence in your product or service? Or are you just trying to tell me you think Americans are stupid as pond scum?