24 February 2010

Tab Clearing

I'm having enough trouble as it is drumming up serious thoughts for work today, so there is zero surplus for blogging.  However, various neat or interesting or educational stuff has come to my attention on the internet.

First up, RamenBox — a mix-and-match service to order an assortment of hard-to-find-in-America ramen.  Where was this when I was in college?  Oh, who am I kidding.  I still eat tons of ramen in grad school.  (Via World's Best Ever.)

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I've seen more than a few re-designed movie posters in retro styles lately, but these Tavis Coburn pieces are some of my favorites. Here's his take on An Education. (Via Kempt.)

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Read this New Yorker article by Louis Menand entitled "Head Case: Can psychiatry be a science?" As someone who has been diagnosed with depression, and someone who has presented a paper at a scientific psychology conference from the perspective of another scientific discipline, these are issues I've wrestled with. Suffice it to say that I have various and often conflicting opinions about the rigorousness of psychiatry and psychology as sciences, the definition of mental illnesses, the treatments and "treatments" offered for them, and the general societal outlook regarding them. (Via Russ Roberts)

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How have I not blogged anything about the Lower Merion School District laptop spying thing? I have no idea. It's like a perfect storm of things I'm interested in: government overstepping their bounds, foolish school administrators, moral panic about drugs, privacy & technology, and on and on. To top it off it was a school disciplinary action I got hit with for actions outside of school grounds, time or activities which put me on a course to libertarianism, and the school where this happened is a handful of miles from Special Lady Friend, whom I was visiting when the story broke.

We need a word for something that is unlikely enough that you would never have predicted it, and yet makes enough sense that you aren't really surprised by it. That's how I would describe this situation. If I was a parent I would never suspect in advance that a kid's school-supplied laptop, which they are required to use, would be used to record me in my home. But hearing about this story I am not at all surprised that's what happened.

Oh, and as if it needs to be said, whoever participated in this foolishness needs to lose their job and their pension at all possible speed.  Not that I'm holding my breath for that.

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Here's another good Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal that has a lot of truth about computing: computers do what they are told to do. It sounds obvious, but it's something a lot of beginning programming students have tons of trouble with in my experience. Conversely, it's exactly what I love about programming and why I think it helps to make your own pattern of thought so rigorous. If you want something to happen, you need to make it happen. And if you describe how to do it incorrectly, or sloppily, you don't get what you wanted. Your intention is irrelevant, only the instructions you give matter. It's a lesson I wish regulators would learn. Maybe we'd have fewer of them shocked! shocked! to find out there are "unintended" consequences happening.

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I haven't gotten to it yet, but this Steven Levy article about Google looks like a must-read. Levy is one of the best popular science authors out there when it comes to computing science. For students or the more technically inclined, you should really read Brin and Page's seminal 1998 paper on PageRank, and Dean and Ghemawat's 2004 paper on MapReduce if you're interested in how Google works.

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PLoS Medicine formally announced it will not accept papers from researchers who derive funding, even for research unrelated to the paper in question, from tobacco companies. I think this is a little silly because, as the editors of PLoS Medicine admit, there are innumerable sources of bias besides tobacco companies. They single out food and pharmaceutical companies as biasing agents, but bias extends way beyond for-profit corporations.

NIH, for instance, banned outdoor smoking on their campus two years ago and admitted it was an attempt to influence their public image in spite of evidence that outdoors second-hand smoke isn't dangerous. I'd say that any tobacco-related research funded by NIH could be suspect, since they have obviously allowed a moral and aesthetic agenda to trump their commitment to science before.

Another instructive example is all of the muddled science, much of it biased, surrounding the Great Salt Ban Debate. John Tierney lays out the situation here, and further discusses possible sources of bias here.

People are influenced by way, way more than just desire for profits. I wish PLoS did more to recognize that.

(Via Seed's Daily Zeitgeist.)

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On the political front, this is a pricelessly naive quote from Danny Williams, the Premier of Newfoundland, who recently traveled to Florida for heart surgery rather than using the semi-nationalized Canadian health care system:
"It's my health, it's my choice."
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Finally, Glenn Greenwald takes the GOP out behind the woodshed for their "'small government' tea party fraud."
When in power, they massively expand the power of the state in every realm. Deficit spending and the national debt skyrocket. The National Security State is bloated beyond description through wars and occupations, while no limits are tolerated on the Surveillance State. Then, when out of power, they suddenly pretend to re-discover their "small government principles." The very same Republicans who spent the 1990s vehemently opposing Bill Clinton's Terrorism-justified attempts to expand government surveillance and executive authority then, once in power, presided over the largest expansion in history of those very same powers. The last eight years of Republican rule was characterized by nothing other than endlessly expanded government power, even as they insisted -- both before they were empowered and again now -- that they are the standard-bearers of government restraint.
Speaking of people who only have principles when out of power: how are all the pacifists and civil liberties types enjoying the Obama administration so far? I haven't heard much from you all.  What happened?

(I've got to say though, I typically can't stand Xeni Jardin but even she admitted a couple of days ago that she agrees with criticism of Obama for his ramped up use of UAV-executed assassinations.)

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