Movie Review: Spiderman 3

Spiderman 3I went to see Spiderman 3 the day it opened. A longtime fan of the comic franchise, I’ve been more or less amused by the film versions to date. What follows is my reactions to the latest installment. Warning thar be (minor) spoilers below:

Overall rating: ** (out of 5)

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Ann Coulter’s Godless

Dust Jacket of Godless by Ann CoulterI was in Barnes and Noble the other day, and from a distance, I saw the cover of Ann Coulter’s newest book, Godless.
I don’t have a lot of love for Coulter, but I know she or the people packaging her, are very good – they sell grandstanding and posturing in a way that they could never sell reasoned or sensible. She says the most egregious, obviously idiotic and unthinkable things and it sells, because she says the unreasonable things a certain segment of the population wishes they could say, and which another (hopefully larger) segment of the population finds compellingly repellent.

So, I ask you, how the hell did she come up with the cover for this book? From a distance, all you see is “Ann Coulter [scribble scribble]” and a photo of Miss Coulter herself leaning on what appears to be a nice big label. Maybe she needs new image management. Maybe it’s intentional – maybe they’re playing up her negative reputation among the thinking masses. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s proof that the media package that is Ann Coulter is sheer parody. Imagine it. Could it be, I wonder, that Ann Coulter is a liberal satirist who has been trapped in the hell of having her lampoon of the worst of the other camp be taken seriously, and worse, turn lucrative? Surely you can sometimes see the glint of sadness in her eyes through the books signings and talk show appearances — a glimmer of repentance, perhaps? Or a plea for escape?

Then again, maybe she just is the worst of that camp and in these day and age, public opinion has given her the bullhorn. Maybe she’s just her own parody.

The Substance of Things

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A Plea For Temperance

If you know anybody who’s for living wage, against living wage, interested in any way, please send this link on to them. Even if you disagree with me – post a scathing comment, then send people a link saying “look what an idiot this guy is!” Free exchange of ideas never hurt anyone, right?

EDIT: Yeah, yeah – I forgot FICA. I still stand by my proposal, though the tangential tax issue is not quite as simple as I was thinking. Looking into some specific numbers now.

The lot of a graduate student is not easy. Buried in the halls of academia, it can be very easy to have blinders on and let events in the real world pass by unnoticed. So it was that when my friend called me around noon on Friday to come to the Living Wage rally at Madison Hall, I was unfortunately underinformed about the issues at hand. However, I had heard about the movement, such as it is, and I am in support of both living and being paid. So I felt that my support for being paid enough to live should be a pretty straightforward affair. I went to the rally, despite my general misgivings about rallies: particularly having been an undergrad here and seeing the debacle that was the UVA anti-Iraq war protests.When I got there, I was shocked – students inside, exercising non-violent protest against the administration’s refusal to pay people what they needed, were being denied food, and books! How could the administration be so cruel? After all, these students simply object to people being paid five bucks an… err, I mean $9.37 an hour! Well, even if UVA’s minimum wage of $9.37 is better than the pathetic federally-mandated one of $5.15,it’s still not enough to live in… now hold on. Doing math in my head, yes, hmm – it seems like my stipend is only slightly more than the equivalent of working full-time at UVA’s minimum wage. And I’m not allowed to have other income! Worse still, I know that I’m privileged – my compatriots in humanities have much lower stipends, and yet they manage to live, apparently. What was I missing… aha! Of course! Most of us don’t have kids to feed. (Also, we’re getting our tuition payed for and we’re getting a lot of value added, but none of that helps us eat right now, so we’ll ignore that for the moment.)

Now before I go on, I should state categorically – I believe that the administration was fully within their legal rights to deny the students whatever they wished, after all, they were not prisoners, they were on University property, and they were at least mildly disruptive to productivity. However, I think that the administration was wrong, both ethically and in terms of PR, to make this attempt to “smoke out” people who disagree with them. On the other hand, I am increasingly of the opinion that the Living Wage Campaign itself takes an entirely too simple view of the real issues, and that their cause is muddled by confusing irrelevancies. Further, just as a punishment should fit a crime, I’m a firm believer that the protest should fit the cause. Thus, I opposed the anti-war “walk out” (they were, after all, protesting war, not class), and I feel that a sit-in was more unnecessarily disruptive and less fitting than, say, a hunger strike. Worse still, the rally to support the sitters-in should have been held elsewhere so as not to compound the disruption and to lend their cause more credence – rallying on the Lawn, and encouraging people to, individually, attempt to feed the students inside seemed more appropriate. I have quite a handful of other complaints about the Living wage Campaign itself, but I’m going to talk ideas, and not politics.

The crux of the matter is twofold: first, does the university have a ethical obligation to pay people enough so that they can support themselves and their family if they work full time; and second, what’s the right level of compensation? The former is a question that we really cannot answer analytically without getting into a great deal of philosophy and economics. I find that interesting, but I’m not really qualified, and in any case it would probably be little more than an intellectual exercise. Let’s talk about the second question – what is a livable wage?The Living Wage Campaign has made their line clear — $10.72/hour is the minimum livable wage. Now, I like esoteric numbers as much as the next guy (in all likelihood more than the next guy) but $10.72 seems awfully specific. Going on to Living Wage’s website (, I found a “report” which, while containing outdated information about the UVA minimum wage, does include the source of their figure of $10.71. It is based upon the Economic Policy Institute’s basic family budget, adjusted for Charlottesville values. Their table, which summarizes EPI numbers is as follows:

Need Monthly Cost Hourly Cost
Taxes $349 $1.00
Other necessities $359 $1.03
Transportation $375 $1.08
Health care* $401 $1.16
Food $587 $1.69
Housing $744 $2.15
Childcare $904 $2.61
Subtotal $3,716 $10.72

Looking at this table, something jumped out at me – by far the largest budgetary sink was childcare. In fact, according to these numbers, for single people, or even two-income couples without children, UVA’s hourly wage even has some amount of comfort room.

But according to this model, what’s “comfortable” for a childless employee is still living pretty close to the edge for parents. Well, let’s look at where all that money is going – to taking care of the kids. After all, there are doctor’s visits, diapers, and of course we can’t leave them at home alone while both parents are out trying their damnedest to make this subsistence living work out. That and more come to a full $900+/month in the EPI model. What if we could make it cheaper? After all, it would be great if these parents who are just working to support their families could have some access to quality, low-cost childcare.

And so, I propose this — instead of screaming at an administration which may or may not have limited powers with regard to wage, and instead of steadfastly refusing to pour more money into personnel across the board, why don’t we look into the creation University-run day care and after-school programs for the children of wage employees? By giving free or cheap access to top-quality child care, the University could help those with the most need at the lowest end of the University’s economic spectrum without unnecessarily raising the salaries of those who can more easily live at those income levels. Personally, I spent a good part of my early childhood in day care and after-school programs provided by my parents’ employer, and it was a safe and educational environment for me to spend my time while my parents were still at work. The University has phenomenal access to experts in child psychology, child care, education, and more – surely it could create such a quality environment for the children of wage employees. This idea has the benefits of economy for the University; better worker focus, loyalty, and availability; and on top of all that, it has the benefit of being the right thing to do, from a humanitarian perspective.

So, please – to all parties involved, I would ask that you settle this fiasco thusly: have the administration commission a time-limited feasibility study of the best way to provide better child care benefits to employees, and Living Wage and their related protesters take this study as a good faith effort on the University’s part to help look out for those who need it. Remember, compromise is not weakness, and sometimes you can solve your problem without getting your way.

Poly Ticks

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On Humour

From Websnark via tailsteak: this thread on Truth and Beauty Bombs is a stroke of genius.  I like to consider myself something of a student of humour, even if my jokes are terrible.  I still like to see what makes things funny, and what people do correctly and what people do incorrectly when expressing humour.  Removing Garfield’s thought bubbles is just sheer genius – it doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence, and in so doing makes the joke that much more poignant.  Check it out.


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Steaming Java (or: A Nice, hot Cup of Joel)

First a quick note to my readers from the LJ syndicated feed – please post comments in the original article at . I don’t always see comments on the syndicated feed, and they disappear when the articles expire.

So, I’ve been saying it for years, but not that Joel on Software says it, everybody starts talking about it. Well, I’m going to reiterate because I feel that the article makes very good points, but misses a few, and doesn’t elucidate certain facets enough.

This is one of my favorite topics, as some of you may have heard. For the rest of you, pull up a chair. Let me start my argument thusly: I loathe the shift towards java as the language of choice in teaching intro computer science/programming. (For the 60% of you that are bored already, you’re excused – it just gets worse.) In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a big fan of Java in any milieu, though I’ve become much less rabid, even accepting, but I’m still praying for Ruby or something similar to take on Java in its own niche.1 I will write java code, and I certainly appreciate how much easier (and thus more bug-free) it can make certain tasks, but I still have irreconcilable differences with the language.

I feel that there are two pedagogically pure ways to teach introductory CS, and that Java is the ugliest in-between ever.

Approach 1: Bottom-up. This is how I learned, and probably the way a great many people learned, before this Java craze swept education. The idea being that you teach students the fundamentals of computers – bits, bytes, math. And then, you give them a language, like C++ which literally encompasses (almost) every concept in modern programming, even if it’s slightly ugly. C++ has the advantage that your first program can be three lines long, with each line having a simple explanation that doesn’t require knowledge of higher-level programming concepts. Compare a simple “hello, world” in Java – from the beginning, you’re forced to either explain what a class is (a difficult concept when you don’t even know what a function or even a variable is), or gloss over it and tell the students “we’ll explain that later”. In addition, the concept of “pass by reference” can be astonishingly confusing to students who have no context for it.

From that first C++ program, each new facet is an iterative growth, and each new concept can be added. One can easily write (I know because this is how I started) essentially managed C++ simply by not even knowing about pointers until one is comfortable without worrying about garbage collection. And then the progression becomes simple. We start with the basic structure of a program, the syntax of statements, procedural coding, the declaration and use of variables, the use of functions, the declaration of functions, etc. all before one even comes near pointers (and garbage collection), references, object-orientation (and everything that goes with it) or other advanced topics. Thus, each student can gain intimate knowledge of the concepts.

On the other hand, there is:
Approach 2: Top-down. The other approach, and the one I experienced when I took my first AI course in high school, is the top-down approach. Here, the student is started with pure, mathematical concepts, and gradually brought down into the nitty-gritty. Typically, you start in a nice functional, LISP-like language (I learned using Common LISP, but it seems Scheme is more popular), and thus you start out with something everybody hopefully understands – algebra and functions. With a little coaching, most people can start to adjust to prefix notation, and everybody will be on relatively even footing. From there, one can begin to explain things like side-effects, and start to shift to other languages. I feel, however, that while this technique can make the relationship between the math and the CS more clear, in the end it ends up being an acclimatization tool, and that eventually one has to revert the bottom-up technique.

However, both techniques have the important characteristic that they imbue the student with a solid framework for looking at all kinds of problems, not just the ones that a particular tool set solves. A student thus armed is well prepared to take on a wide variety of novel tasks in novel languages, which is, after all what higher education is really about (or should be). In graduating a student from a respected university, we are not trying to give them specific trade skills to do a job–after all, it’s well known that the tools of the trade in education are frequently years behind the tools in industry, a gap that’s simply unacceptable in such a quick-changing field. Rather, we are attempting to provide them with the requisite ability and basis to learn those skills that are necessary to do a job. A student with a basic understanding of how the underlying bits work can quickly and easily learn to program in Java, and may in fact be thankful for the eased burden it provides. However, a student without the slightest clue of how to manage memory will have a long and arduous task in front of him when asked to write a virtual machine, or maintain an OS kernel, or write a new language. In my experience, when we create Java kids, we create students who cannot easily adjust to not having certain things done for them, or to looking at non-OO paradigms.

None of this is by way of saying that knowing Java isn’t a valuable skill, or that writing good Java (or other OOP) is easy. I’m saying that teaching students Java is excellent training, but what universities should be doing is educating. The sad fact is that by teaching students in Java (and especially keeping them in pure Java curricula), we are locking ourselves out of innovation and deeper understanding. The irony is that most of the students formed by such curricula could never create a Java VM.

The last point that I want to address was a minor point in Joel’s article, but one that’s near and dear to my heart. He says that the reason that a CS grad from MIT is more respected than one from Duke is this difference – that the MIT grad comes out prepared to tackle any problem, while the learning curve for the Duke grad is much steeper, and there’s no guarantees that he/she can handle it. This problem of reputation is especially important to me, because I’m in what should be considered a top-tier department in what is considered a top-tier university. In four years as an undergrad, however, I worried that a disproportionate amount of time was spent in oversimplifying things to make them accessible to everyone, rather than challenging everybody to rise to the challenge of really understanding things. I don’t know whether there’s some drive to have more CS majors enjoy/pass (and thus stay in) their classes – department funding is probably tied to head count, after all. But as an alumnus, it is of interest to me to make sure that regardless of the number of students who come out of the department, that they all be of the absolute highest caliber–that the department has a reputation for creating students who are not one-trick ponies, but who can take on any job. To fail to uphold those standards will only cheapen my degree.

1Java to me (and to everybody – this is why it was created) is too much unnecessary compromise. In fairness, it did spark the mass movement of using VMs and byte compilation, and it still is the only language to adequately fill its cross-platform niche. But it’s been ad hoc from the beginning and thus is always playing catchup. It suffers from a lack of design purity, as well as closedness that compounds the problem. I don’t mean closedness only in that its compilers are closed-source – I mean that Sun Microsystems routinely extends or changes its software (the de facto standard) with only partial documentation. There is no definitive reference for what must and must not be implmented in a compiler or VM, and for a language whose only goal is cross-compatibility, that’s unforgivable.

Bits and Bytes

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Some of you may recall my earlier post about Tookie Williams, which sparked a small debate on the death penalty. Today, Gov. Schwarzenegger denied his lawyers’ appeal for clemency.

For those of you who don’t know, Tookie Williams was a co-founder of the Crips. Yes, those Crips, as in “Bloods and…”. He was convicted of four murders that took place in 1979, and has been in jail ever since. In that time, he renounced the gang he founded, the principles it stood for, and made himself an active proponent against gangs and street crime. There were rumours that he was being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize at one point, and he wrote a series of children’s books, promoting an anti-gang message.

In his statement, Schwarzenegger said:

“The possible irregularities in Williams’ trial have been thoroughly and carefully reviewed by the courts, and there is no reason to disturb the judicial decisions that uphold the jury’s decisions that he is guilty of these four murders and should pay with his life.”

This is the reason that I am opposed to the death penalty more than anything else. The concept that it is not worth the bother to “disturb” previous rulings to prevent a wrongful death is beyond me. However, I also accept that there comes a point where the justice system can only be abused by demanding repeated hearings. With that in mind, how can the death penalty be supported? I certainly respect that there is a point where justice must be considered as served as possible, but when you cannot give a person every last possible recourse before meting out such a final judgment, how can you prescribe that penalty?

Further, we live in a society where every life is given value – medical science keeps alive those with diseases that evolution selects against for a reason. We do not allow euthanization, even in voluntary situations. No matter how much of a lowlife the person you murdered was, you still murdered them, and that is (at least officially) reprehensible. I don’t agree 100% with these first two, but it underlines the difference – how can we refuse to take the lives of those who beg for death, but deal it freely to those who desire life?

We are not infallible – not our justice, not our judgment, not our morals. Freedom denied can be restored – breath denied, not so. We cannot commit ourselves so heinously in our youth to decisions we might regret in the sagacity of age.

Poly Ticks

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Alias Canceled – Tens Outraged

So, I know a lot of people who may or may not read this may be upset about this, but Alias was finally given the axe (use if you don’t have an account…)

It was bugging me that ABC will pick up a show like Alias and let it run for 5 seasons, while Fox will option shows like Firefly and Arrested Development and kill them all too prematurely. However, upon reflection, NBC kept West Wing alive through at least seven seasons, and now look at what’s happened to it. It just seems to me that short series are able to pack all their quality in high concentration. This is true almost across the board – in movies, books, TV shows – a good series that’s kept short is a lot less likely to run dry.

Think of the examples:
Harry Potter vs. The Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew, or The Boxcar Children
Star Wars the real movies vs. Star Wars including the extra lesser trilogy

OTOH, the good Star Trek series did well with their 7-year schedules, but that’s in large part because it typically took them 3 seasons to really hit their stride.

In any case, I’ve stopped feeling upset about the cancelation of Arrested Development, with the knowledge that all good things must come to an end, and I’d rather they stopped while still being good, rather than faded into mediocrity.

By way of postscript, I’d like to end with a choice extract sure to get the goat of my Alias-loving friends:

But, in a nutshell, what they said was:
“We’re devastated to announce the end of the longest running unsuccessful prime-time series on television.”
“Alias” is, let us not forget, the lowest-rated show ever to air after the Super Bowl.
And yet, as “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf so grumpily — and yet so accurately — pointed out at the most recent TV press tour, “Alias” got more hype per rating point than any other show in TV history.


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Why I’m Never Getting Another Motorola Cell Phone – A Case Study in Design

I own a Motorola V180. I hate this phone. I want to chuck it at walls so very often. I explain why here.

I’ve been meaning to post this, as undoubtedly some of you have noticed, I am very upset at my cell phone. It’s not just its abject failure to work as any stable form of communications, though that’s part of it.

Just to start out, I want to make a few clarifications:
First, when I say “never again”, I mean “until proven wrong” (this is in contrast with my “never use Sprint” policy, which is deep-seated and will last as long as it possibly can). Secondly, yes, I mean any Motorola phone – this includes the RAZR and the ROKR, because, despite these two phones’ respective sexiness factor, as far as I can tell, these design issues apply to all of Motorola’s current lines of telephones, including my friend’s RAZR I played with. Thirdly, this is not a vendetta agains Motorola – I had a StartTAC back in the day and loved that phone like a brother, even in the face of the new-fangled color screens, non-alphanumeric displays, and cameras. It’s just they don’t seem to have kept up with the pack (or at least Nokia). Finally, my next phone will probably be a Nokia. I have experience with Nokias, and loved my old one, even if it got dust inside the faceplate a lot – I put that thing through enormous abuse, and it never stopped delivering like a pro. Plus, the design decisions in terms of the software were so subtly useful, except for one, which I’ll get to in a bit. Anyway – on with the show.

For fairness sakes, I ought to start this off with Motorola’s successes with this phone in my eyes:

Things Motorola Did Right

  • Standard USB connectivity with a standard 5-pin mini USB connector built into the phone (of course, if you’re a Windows person, you have to shell out big buck for their accompanying software.
  • Having four different customizable functions a simple click away from the home screen is very nice.
  • Works with iSync. (I’m not sure this is Motorola’s doing, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • It uses a standard hands-free set connector
  • There is a microphone, and two speakers (one for speakerphone, one for the earpiece

That’s more or less it. Now for the meat:

What Motorola Did Wrong

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The Substance of Things

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Test 1-2-3

Anything but that


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