Friday, November 30, 2007

Fuck you, Land's End

I was at Land's End's web site today, messing around looking at some coats they have. There's a button for "try it on" somewhere, and it took me to a site that appears to be run by "My Virtual Model" where you can set up a whole model of yourself to try clothes on with.

When I put in my actual height and weight, I got this message

We're sorry.

You cannot create a model with the height and weight combination you have entered. You may be able to create a model close to your size by adjusting one or both of these measurements.

Or, click "Cancel" to use our generic model.

I am fat, but not some freakishly sized person that it would be difficult to build a model for. So fuck you, Land's End, and My Virtual Model too if they are a different entity, for wasting my time so you could essentially insult me at the end of it.

I think it's really stupid to release this product with these limitations.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Presidential Candidates

A coworker sent me to Glassbooth, one of no doubt numerous sites that helps you choose between presidential candidates. I enjoyed this one because it includes the step where you indicate what your actual priorities are.

It's helpful to distinguish between different meanings of "priorities." I think the Iraq War is really important, but it's not something I'm likely to distinguish very much between candidates on. What I want the next president to do is to see what the actual situation is and respond appropriately. I care that their general attitude is not "we can solve our problems only by attacking everyone" (hello, Giuliani), and I don't think immediately withdrawing all of our troops is sensible (or even possible), but this is an issue where I'd be judging between candidates based on their credibility rather than their stated positions.

Civil liberties and domestic security, on the other hand, is a real issue of concern for me right now.

At any rate, these were my results, from best to worst.

Bill Richardson 79%
Barrack Obama 78% [my actual top choice]
Christopher Dodd 77%
Mike Gravel 74%
John Edwards 72%
Dennis Kucinich 72%
Joe Biden 72%
Hillary Clinton 69% [my actual 2nd choice]

Ron Paul 59%
John McCain 59%
Mike Huckabee 54%
Fred Thompson 54%
Rudy Giuliani 52% [my very least favorite candidate]
Mitt Romney 49%
Duncan Hunter 43% [who?]
Tom Tancredo 39% [I HATE this guy]

It's interesting that all of the Dems fell within a 10-point range for me, there is then a 10-point gap between them and Republicans, and then the Republicans cover a 20-point range of their own.

I didn't totally follow my own advice about priorities, or at least it wasn't possible to in all cases. One of my disagreements with Obama was on gay marriage, but IMO there are only two viable political positions for a presidential candidate: I'm against it, or I'm against it but civil unions are a good idea. I don't hold it against Obama that he takes the civil unions position. I think his stance on gay rights is actually peachy.

My breakdown on Obama is as follows:

Abortion: 100%
Medical Marijuana and Drug Policy: 100%
Environment and Energy: 100%
Health Care: 100%
Civil Liberties and Domestic Security: 88%
Trade and Economics: 75% [I’m less protectionist]
Immigration: 75%
Taxes and Budget: 75%
Iraq and Foreign Policy: 50%
Social Security: 50%
Gay Rights: 25% [I am in favor of gay marriage]

All of these types of quizzes have major limitations, of course. I think the 10-point gap between Obama and Clinton, and the fact that Kucinich came up higher than Clinton, makes me look a bit more liberal than I really am. I disagree with Obama on trade and economics more than this quiz thinks (because I think it only had one or two questions about it). And stated policy positions are only part of the picture.

Work Work Work

I'll have to be careful what I write here; a couple of my coworkers at least potentially read this blog.

But anyway, I've been getting behind at work for months. And what is bad about me and getting behind is (a) I am really good at getting behind under the best of circumstances, and (b) once I get behind, my natural response is to sort of hide under my desk and try to avoid thinking about all the stuff I haven't finished.

In my job, I get a lot of different tasks from different people. Some of them - the technical ones - I basically enjoy, and others - the administrative ones - I loathe and detest. I should point out that I'm not at all resentful of having tasks I loathe. They pay me a lot of money to do these things. Nevertheless, it's hard for me to get them done. And besides that difficulty, there is the fact that my job often turns into a stack, where anything I am doing is interrupted by the next new thing that needs to be done, and I can never burrow back down to the bottom.

I'd say 10% of this difficulty is the structure of my job, and 90% is me.

The week before Thanksgiving, I had a talk with my boss about how much I need to get caught up and some other things. My boss's boss had talked to her about me (among other things) and she felt I was in danger based on his attitudes. (I was not surprised to learn this, but again, head-in-the-sand thing.)

Since then, I have really caught up a lot. The week of Thanksgiving, I started with 17 items on my to-do list, and since then I have finished 13 of them and only 3 new ones have been added. (Some of the remaining ones are huge projects, but I am waiting on information from other people to be able to finish them.)

Part of what I've accomplished is updating a lot of information in my own databases, etc., that's been out of date for a while. I needed to take care of those things in order to finish some of the tasks, and when a task requires a bunch of back work to be done, I get intimidated easily.

This morning I spent an hour reorganizing some files for a due diligence guy who is coming in today. (I don't generally do filing, but we changed the organization of a few items and it was too complicated to hand over to our filing person.) Filing is something I detest in large quantities, but in small quantities, it's like solving a puzzle, plus it results in something very neat. I enjoy that.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I'm enjoying my job a lot more, having a lot less stress about it, and being a much better employee. Kudos to my boss for helping me get to this point.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Anesthetic Awareness

Slate has an article about anesthetic awareness today. "Anesthetic awareness" is when you are under general anesthesia, but accidentally awake, just unable to move. This can happen because patients are given a paralytic in addition to the thing that makes you unconscious. So, were the unconscious-making thing to fail, you might be conscious and unable to let anyone know.

It's the stuff of nightmares, obviously.

I felt sheepish asking about this, but before my surgery I did ask the anesthesiologist, "How do you know I won't be awake and just not able to say anything or move?"

I got the reassuring answer that I would not personally be receiving any paralytics, so if I were to wake up, I would in fact be able to move. This is because, since they were operating near my spine, they were going to hook electrodes up to my skull, arms, and legs, and pass signals in both directions (brain to limbs, limbs to brain) and see if they were received. There are minor risks from this procedure, he told me, but it greatly reduces the risk of spinal cord injury, because they can see right away if what they are doing is affecting your spinal cord.

I have no memories from my surgery at all. Of course, I suppose it is possible that I had some kind of experience during it and simply can't remember it, but I'm going to assume I was really out. It doesn't matter at this point, at any rate.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Outrage du Jour

In this "On Ethics" column, we learn that a graduate student who plagiarizes a paper may receive an Incomplete in the course.

An incomplete? Are you fucking kidding me?

The minimum penalty I can imagine for an undergraduate is an F on the assignment in question. (Penalties were much harsher at my original college, but I know that's unusual.) But for a grad student?

I am not usually one of those "where is this country headed" lunatics, but seriously, are there no standards at all? I bet there are plenty of people who would be happy to take that student's position at the school and write their own papers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New Debt Snowball

About a year ago, I posted the results of a debt snowball calculator that I ran on the debts I had at that time. I've just updated it for the debts I currently have, and I'm going to share the results.

I put in that I can pay $1090 per month to my debts (including minimum payments). This is based on the average of what I've paid over the past 11 months, so it shouldn't be an unreasonable figure.

Here are the results (click for an expanded view).

Eagle-eyed readers will note that I have paid off a little over $10,000 in debt over the past year, and I am paying about $86 less in interest every month. You can calculate your own debt snowball here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Creamed Spinach

Any combination of spinach with fatty dairy things is like my favorite food ever. (Saag paneer probably is my all-time favorite because it's also spicy.) So for the potluck we're having at work today, I decided to try making creamed spinach.

I found a recipe online, which is sometimes challenging. It is easy to find 100 recipes for something online; what's hard is finding the recipe for something. And, if you're like me, you often want the recipe. But the recipe for creamed spinach that I linked is quite evidently the recipe.

It was easy. Thanks to Sally teaching me how to make a white sauce, I wasn't afraid of that step. Then you just cook tiny onions in butter, add the frozen spinach and cook it, then mix together the spinach, white sauce, sour cream, and parmesan cheese. It came out as perfectly canonical creamed spinach.

I am very pleased with it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Flight Schedule Confusion

Next week, I am flying to Nashville for Thanksgiving. These are my flight details.

Wed, Nov 21, 2007 Denver International Airport, (DEN) to Nashville, (BNA)

Flight: Frontier Airlines Flight 232 (on Airbus A319)
Depart: 10:25 AM, Denver, CO (DEN)
Arrive: 01:53 PM, Nashville, TN (BNA)
Total Travel Time: 3 hrs 28 mins

Sun, Nov 25, 2007Nashville, (BNA) to Denver International Airport, (DEN)

Flight: Frontier Airlines Flight 231 ((on Airbus A319)
Depart: 02:33 PM, Nashville, TN (BNA)
Arrive: 04:27 PM Denver, CO (DEN)
Total Travel Time: 1 hr 54 mins

Now I find this a bit confusing. First of all, if you look at the total travel time, it's way longer on the outgoing flight. But it appears to me that they haven't adjusted for time zones in this calculation, which is weird. Denver and Nashville are an hour off. (It's an hour earlier in Denver.)

But if you do adjust, then another strange thing pops out, which is that my outgoing flight takes 1 1/2 hours, and my return flight takes...less than an hour? Really?

I remember Houston to New Orleans as taking about an hour. Can Nashville to Denver really be that quick?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Belief Systems

Today I saw a bumper sticker that said

If you fall for nothing, you fall for everything.

The best sense I could make of it was as an argument against having no foundation of beliefs because you are then open to whatever nonsense comes along. I can see someone like Orson Scott Card making an argument like that: choose your nonsense now before some other nonsense chooses you!

As a rationalist atheist, I do see some value to belief systems that are at least exclusionary. Once you're a Methodist you're probably not going to also believe in a bunch of other baloney. This is, in fact, probably what I don't like about New Age folks. Their beliefs aren't exclusionary and therefore they can believe all varieties of nonsense - even varieties that contradict each other.

I'm a fan of empiricism. It has the twin values of being exclusionary (in that whatever is not empirically supported should not be believed) and corresponding to observed reality (in that it is intrinsically designed to have that exact quality).

(Yes, I realize that this is approximately on the philosophical level of a bright 7th grader. Give me a break, it's just a blog.)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Katamari Damacy

I currently own exactly one functioning console game: Katamari Damacy.

In this game, you are the alien pilot of a small round thing (katamari), and you roll it all around a cartoon landscape (inside a house or around a town or whatever). If you roll it over something roughly smaller than itself, it will pick that thing up and grow. The point of various levels is either to grow the katamari to a certain size, or to pick up a number of objects that follow some theme.

The music is great.

I find this game really relaxing and just lovely to play. The controls are easy and there's nothing complicated.

If you'd like to know what it looks and sounds like, here is a rather poor-resolution video of the first level.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Open Letter

Via Language Log, check out this brilliant open letter by "eternally stressed semanticist." An excerpt to whet your appetite:

Dear [□ Sir / □ Madam / □ Representative / □ Journalist / □ Idiot],

I know you believe you know a great deal about [□ linguistics / □ children's literature / □ law / □ psychology / □ other (please specify)]

simply because you [□ use language / □ read Harry Potter and Goodnight Moon / □ watch Law & Order / □ have a mind],

or because you've read a newspaper article about [□ the lack of numbers in Pirahã / □ Dumbledore being gay / □ some Supreme Court decision / □ Prozac].

Besides being funny, the letter makes an important point - there is something to these fields. In fact, there is something to most fields, and you could write this letter about any of them.

Depending on the person's attitude, it is either annoying or an interesting opportunity when someone makes a pronouncement that is not just wrong, but wrong in some fundamental way, in a field about which one knows something. I find this happens to me with linguistics a lot, possibly because the combination of "I know something about it" and "People like to comment on it a lot" is so high.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Competitions vs. Grants

a robot car from StanfordThe Economist has an article this week about robot cars, which have improved a lot in the past few years, largely (it seems) as a result of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) competitions, which set out conditions and then award large prizes to the best competitors.

I say "large," but of course a few million bucks would be miniscule for a robotic car research program, and wouldn't even be a lot of money for grants.

This improvement in “autonomous vehicle technology”, as the jargon has it, is partly a result of prodding by America's defence department, which hopes a third of its ground vehicles will be robotic by 2015. To that end its research arm, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has scaled back the traditional process of handing out large research grants and getting nothing useful in return. Instead, it has been running a series of grand prix for such vehicles. The prix in the latest, due to take place on November 3rd, is $3.5m—of which $2m will go to the vehicle best able to negotiate its way round Victorville, a former air force base in southern California, with $1m and $500,000 to those in second and third places.

Competing are university research teams (some of which have big-name sponsors because of success in past years), amateur enthusiasts, and even a corporation or two.

I really like this idea. It seems to motivate (financially and psychologically) all the right people, and you only have to reward people who succeed. Obviously the money to fund the research has to be out there to begin with, and it will never be fully compensated, but it's great to be able to harness existing money and motivation this way.

Plus, the resulting competitions are really fun to hear about.