I ride the Segway

Last week a group of Segway engineers came to visit the company where I work. They brought along three scooters and were generous in giving the entire crowd a chance to try them out. Here’s a picture of me riding. I like this picture because all three demo scooters are in view, making it look like a typical downtown scene from the World of Tomorrow where everybody has a Segway. It was indeed easy to control moving forward and backward, but turning was a little odd. There’s something very comical about watching somebody scoot around, which has got to be tough for their marketing department. You spend $5000 and you end up looking like a moderately cool techno-savvy fast-moving dweeb. I was also surprised by the how wobbly I felt once I hopped down off the Segway. Several other people also mentioned this effect. I imagine you’d get used to that if you owned one, but it’s similar to the feeling you get after you’ve been rollerblading for a while. You still feel about four inches above the ground somehow. Still, it was a lot of fun.

If you want to buy a Segway, Amazon is the place to go. They’ve got a surprisingly detailed page that talks all about it. If you’re not going to buy a Segway, you may as well stay here and read this.

The word for today is…

Two friends sent me Wednesday’s word of the day from A.Word.A.Day. The word was, or rather the phrase was STAR CHAMBER, which is defined as “a court or group marked by arbitrary, oppressive, and secretive procedures.” It continues

After the Star Chamber in the Palace of Westminster in London. It was the site of a closed-door court appointed by King Henry VII of England in the 15th century. Notorious for its abuse of power, it was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641. The chamber was so named because its ceiling was decorated with stars.

The poor vilified Star Chamber originated as a court open to the public, employed by the Tudors as a royal counter-balance to the chaotic common law courts. It was those nasty Stuarts that drove it into the ground and gave it its enduring reputation. As we read in the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Its procedure was not according to the common law. It dispensed with the encumbrance of a jury; it could proceed on rumor alone; it could apply torture; it could inflict any penalty but death. It was thus admirably calculated to be a support of order against anarchy, or of despotism against individual and national liberty. During the Tudor period it appeared in the former light, under the Stuarts in the latter. […] The need for a strong central court directly inspired by the king, which could administer justice without respect of persons, was so great, that the constitutional danger of establishing an autocratic judicial committee, untrammelled by the ordinary rules of law, escaped notice at the time. It was not until much later that the nation came to look upon the Star Chamber as the special engine of royal tyranny and to loathe its name.

Sounds pretty contemporary, eh? One of the morals here is that secrecy and power are a bad mix (Total Information Awareness), but beyond that it illustrates one stretch of the long sordid path the enlightened West has taken on its way to liberal democracy and capitalism. Democracy is often at odds with the defense of individual and national liberty; a strong wise hand is sometimes needed to play the one against the other. Henry VII could pull it off. Charles I could not, and consequently got his head pulled off. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek writes engagingly on the troubles of nascent democracies in a series of recent articles, with an emphasis on our newfound friends in Iraq. Will they get Henry or Charles? Or will they defy the odds and jump straight to the final stage of an advanced modern liberal democracy? Stay tuned.

A palindrome is born

I have a new niece named Hannah, born only this week, and in honor of her palindromic name I have written an entire palindromic story. Actually I wrote it some time ago, but this gives me a good opportunity to dust it off and toast the new addition to the family. Here’s a bonus Hannah-based palindrome: Did Hannah say as Hannah did? Pretty cool, huh? I have to admit that I found that one over yonder at Jim Kalb’s Palindrome Connection, a.k.a. palindromes.org. While you’re there, you can check out the helpful advice for French movie stars (“Depardieu, go razz a rogue I draped”) as well as the philosophical question “Do geese see god?” (answer: yes, but it’s a sort of goose god).

Nevertheless, you haven’t seen anything (anything palindromic, that is) until you’ve seen my 100% palindromic story, Mr. Nym Goes Adventuring. I have a daughter on the way, and I’m thinking of naming her Yellug so she can be Yellug Gulley. With a name like that, won’t she just be the coolest kid in third grade? How I envy her, so fortunate in her choice of father.

The return of Industry

Mad scientist Mike Onken is back online at his Industry! blog. When asked why he named his blog Industry, he replied that he would have taken Michigan’s state motto Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circumspice (“if you seek a beautiful peninsula, look around”), but he was afraid it was copyrighted, so he decided to go with Utah’s. My new motto for this site is going to be “if you seek a clever Latin motto, choose random words from a Latin textbook.” Rident stolida verba Latina.

As a certifiable Mad Scientist for MadSci.org, Mike has answered many science questions over the years. For instance, did you know a typical human has enough iron to make one medium-sized (rusty) nail? One of my personal favorites was this one: why are the short and long arms of a chromosome designated p and q respectively? My web research turned up nothing. Mike’s answer: p stands for petite (makes sense) and q stands for the letter after p. Strange but true. Naming is a funny business.

Timing and the Times

The New York Times has a generous policy of letting you look at the entire paper online for free, assuming you’ve registered, of course. But after a certain amount of time (a week?) all the articles go into an archive mode, and you have to pay to read anything more than a quick summary. For instance, if you’re reading this soon after I post it, you can link to and read this nifty article on the uses of GPS receivers during the war in Iraq:
On the Ground in Iraq, the Best Compass Is in the Sky.

On the other hand, there’s a much more interesting article I wanted to share with you about the relationship between computer gaming, army training, and actual combat. But if you go there now, you’ll just find a lame lead paragraph: More Than Just a Game, but How Close to Reality? I have wondered for some time what will change in the world given the incredible capabilities of computer games, and the effect on the army looks to be enormous. There have been, for example, 800,000 downloads of the U.S. Army-backed computer game America’s Army, a game whose explicit goal is to train gamers in realistic and effective combat techniques. And indications are that people do better in combat who have played, er… been trained on, these games. The reasoning goes like this: By God, if they’re going to play shoot-’em-up games, they may as well be learning how to be good soldiers! It’s easy to mock, but it seems to be working like a charm.

Unfortunately I can’t show you that article in the Times, because I waited too long to blog it. I would swear that the Times changed its policy recently, but I went Googling for news about it and drew a blank. So I’m guessing I’m just getting slower to blog. The moral of the story is, at least as far as the New York Times is concerned, if you don’t blog it fresh, don’t blog it at all. And I have to admit, it’s hard to blame them for wanting to make some money off the site.

Hokey pokey hocus pocus

I’m a sucker for the Hokey-Pokey, but I’m not sure why.

The Hokey-Pokey’s enduring influence on our culture is hard to explain. Why is it still around? I think its strange charm stems from its unabashed goofiness combined with its open-ended mystery. For instance: first you put your right foot in, then you take it out. You put your right foot in again, then shake it, and only then, just before turning yourself around, do you actually do the Hokey-Pokey. So what is the Hokey-Pokey, exactly? It happens between the shaking and the turning, but the song doesn’t provide any clues. My friend JMike is convinced the Hokey-Pokey refers specifically to the screwing-in-a-lightbulb motion you do with both hands before turning yourself around (or as he put it, “rotating your hands thusly around the long axis of your arms”). This sounds like plausible guesswork, but I do not consider it authoritative. What do you think the Hokey-Pokey is?

It is the closing line that moves the Hokey-Pokey from mediocrity to greatness: “That’s what it’s all about.” Ambiguity is everywhere. What’s “that”? What’s “it”? Truly, the Hokey-Pokey is a mirror in which every age sees its own reflection. We might ask, for example, what William Shakespeare would have made of the Hokey-Pokey. As luck would have it, the Washington Post’s Style Invitational recently invited readers to “rewrite some banal instructions in the style of some famous writer.” The winning entry, by Jeff Brechlin of Potomac Falls, Virginia, gives a sonnet version of the Hokey-Pokey in the style of William Shakespeare (you have to scroll down a bit to find it). How might the bard have styled the song that launched a thousand skate-themed birthday parties? Ahem…

O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
The Hoke, the poke — banish now thy doubt
Verily, I say, ’tis what it’s all about.

Hacking MATLAB for glory

The seventh semi-annual MATLAB Programming Contest is in its final lap before finishing up tomorrow. This contest’s puzzle is based on the well-known traveling salesman problem. The contest has been running for a week and so far we’ve had more than 1400 entries. It’s hard to explain the visceral appeal of an online programming contest to those who’ve never tried it (and never plan to), but I think it has something to do with making a real-time performance out of something that is generally solitary and hidden. A virtuoso programmer can perform a dazzling cadenza of insightful codework and leap into the lead before a large and appreciative audience. Programmers don’t generally find themselves in this situation. Those that do can get sucked in deep. As one contestant said (in the MATLAB newsgroup)

Well, this is my first matlab contest and it is giving me far too
much enjoyment. It’s one of the most addicitve and compulsive things
I have tried. The exercise is improving my programming skill – true –
but in return I have neckache, backache, a terrible diet, no social
life, and not much of a work life either. Also, I have experienced
physical trembling while making the final preparations to send a code
into the pit. Is that normal?

See Saddam’s house (reprise)

A few days ago I remarked that downtown Baghdad was probably going to look different soon. I didn’t suspect that DigitalGlobe would go on publishing free images of the changing face of Baghdad, but they have done just that with this Baghdad Region Image Gallery. It’s really pretty remarkable the kinds of things you can see. For example, here’s something you couldn’t easily do in any other war before this one: independent verification of bombing accuracy. We say our bombs are accurate. Are they?

precision-bombing-small.jpg This close-up view of the region across the river from the al Sijud palace shows at least one impressive example of accurate targeting. Click on the small picture to the left to see a bigger view. You’ll see two rows of buildings, eight of which have been reduced to rubble-strewn craters, punched out of existence as though with a paper hole-punch. We are entering an era when bombing inaccuracy will refer almost entirely to faulty designation rather than faulty delivery. No matter how good a surgeon you are, you can still take out the wrong kidney from time to time. Oops!

As Matthew noted in a follow-up comment to my last post, Space Imaging hosts similar pictures at their site. Here is a shot of Baghdad on April 1st with oil trenches smoking away. Elsewhere on their site you can see pictures of the (former) Saddam International Airport. Just think, all the Iraqi Information Office would need is a web browser and a high-bandwidth connection to verify that the troops on the ground are not actually theirs.

War flutters and self-flattery

Charles Paul Freund writes about War Flutters on the Reason website. War flutters are the predictable anxieties that appear when a conflict becomes scary, real, and unpredicatably dangerous. Freund makes the point that scandalizing comments like those made by Peter Arnett are part of a larger process that serves us very well, whereas Al-Jazeera is not serving its own constituents well. As Freund puts it,

The debates that emerge from negative press stories are not a distraction, they are a necessity. If you want to see a medium that is, by contrast, largely failing to do its journalistic work, then you should find a way to catch Al-Jazeera’s coverage. Anyone in the Arab world depending on Al-Jazeera for an understanding of the conflict is not being well served.

Tantalizingly, he goes on to quote Michael Young of Beirut Calling that Al-Jazeera is the beginning of a brand new phenomenon in the Arab world that will itself mature. I’m quoting Young directly here:

It’s important to understand that while Al-Jazeera does indeed often act like a propaganda outlet, it has been a liberating experience for the Arab publics, providing them with higher expectations from their own media. Already, Al-Jazeera has to look over its shoulder at Al-Arabiyya, a Dubai-based station, and at Al-Hayat-LBCI, a venture between Lebanese LBCI and the Saudi daily Al-Hayat. This could explain the station’s penchant for sensationalistic atrocity reporting. In time, however, Arab stations will understand that accuracy is a better magnet, and the standards by which Al-Jazeera (and others) are judged inside the Middle East will be raised.