Monday, February 27, 2006


Orson Scott Card's books Shadow Puppets and Shadow of the Giant continue the Enderverse's Bean fork. Card continues to have good ideas at a reasonable rate. Have i mentioned that what seems to draw me to a story is the ideas? Dense is good. The story changes as the characters age. Bean had already saved the Earth in Ender's Shadow, and now helps the Hegemon unite the world under a peaceful democratic government. Don't expect a surprise ending - that is repeatedly telegraphed. The surprises happen during the stories, early and often. Though Shadow of the Giant has huge ties to some future story, which Card seems to have designed, i'm not aware of any such story. OK, so Shadow of the Giant came out in 2005, which wasn't that long ago. All I have yet to read of the series are Children of the Mind, First Meetings, and perhaps the short story version of Ender's Shadow. This last, since it is available in clear text, is something that my computer can read to me in the car. It has already been rendered as audio, and awaits a slot between podcasts.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Back Pain

My experience with real quacks had its crescendo when my wife was looking for relief from chronic back pain. She bought books, a very bright light, various medicines, etc. I wasn't too critical, since my HMO was paying for most of it. Finally, she got a membership in a health club and tried every exercise they offered. This, unfortunately, was NOT paid for by the HMO. After six months, it turned out that twenty minutes on a treadmill gave her 'good back days'. All other days were 'bad back days'.

When the membership was about to expire, she complained that it was expensive, and it consumed the whole morning. Drive to the club. Wait for one of the treadmills to free up, run, shower, drive home. Feh. It made me tired to just hear it. I asked how much the membership was, and decided to check treadmill prices at Sears. Sears was the low bid. A new treadmill cost less than a six month membership. It has been over ten years, we wore out the belt (it was replaceable). Amazingly, I recently picked up a completely working exercise unit that a neighbor left in the trash.

We never had a doctor of any kind suggest exercise.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Steve Martin's Shopgirl is available at the local library on audio CD. The cover says something about a movie. Perhaps they seeded libraries with the audio to promote the movie. You know, generate excitement, and word of mouth advertising. Word of mouth is very powerful. Did you know that Star Wars was released as an audio book before the first movie? I'm not sure that I know this still, but there is evidence that it played out that way.

The book is short. It comes on only four CDs, and of a possible total run length of over five hours, it comes to three hours, thirty seven minutes and nineteen seconds, give or take. By comparison, most of the Tarzan books are eight hours, and the Dune prequels total eighty hours. So this book will only yield a couple days entertainment. However, the book is mercifully short. Not because it is dull, quite the opposite. The humor comes at machine gun speed, every few seconds. The humor is all irony and biting sarcasm. The sarcasm bites all the harder because it seems impossible for the listener to avoid identifying with the worst aspects of each character in turn. Though, if asked if I identify with anyone, I'll deny it. And I've never told a lie in my entire life. If pushed, there's always plausible deniability - how would I know if I identified with it?

The story itself is mostly about character and relationship and sex. Despite graphic descriptions of intimate encounters, it manages to avoid being racy. That might be the sarcasm, or the constant pounding on the theme that these people are all nearly unbelievably pathetic. Only nearly unbelievable because, well after all, one must identify with just these traits.

Mr. Martin reads the book in an entirely competent way. Not a surprise, he wrote it, and he has demonstrated time and again that he is a competent actor. Though humor is everywhere, there are no belly laughs. While listening, I wear a vague smirk which could just as easily be interpreted as a smile or a wince. The whole thing would be preaching, but the humor just manages to prevent it from taking itself too seriously. The narration isn't full of life. The subject is pathetic, which prevents that sort of delivery.

So who would sit there and take it? I would. Show me cartoons lampooning the most sacred bits of my religion, and rather than riot, I'll likely respond, thank you. And who knows if Mr. Martin would take that as the compliment it is intended as, or if he'd be deeply insulted as if wounded in kind. It doesn't matter. I can't hear your response either, and I'm not bothered that I get so few comments on the blog. I don't care if it is because no one reads it, or if it is because no one thinks it is a conversation opener. If you think this is a review, know that I don't care if you like it, just that you know if it is for you. The surprise ending isn't here, so you are still free to read it yourself. In fact, i haven't yet heard the surprise ending, so i haven't accidentally given anything away.

Even I couldn't just sit there and listen to the whole thing at one go. At breaks, I imagine where the story will go, and some of my guesses are reasonably accurate, even when they completely miss the mark. It should be predictable, but fails. In this case, failure is a good thing.

I'm not offended. I take the book personally, but am not offended. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult to cause me offense. It is hard to imagine how that might be done. The amazing thing is that it has been done, once or twice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote this essay. I won't debate Richard here. He knows the problems with his arguments. He conveys sympathy.

In response, Gary Stix, at Scientific American wrote this less sympathetic one.

For me, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be - not half full or half empty.

One can blame the student for not working hard enough or being smart enough all one wants. One can blame the teachers too. One can blame the system, the President, the school board. It doesn't change anything. However, it turns out that there are superior teaching techniques. My math skills happen to be excellent, and as an engineer, I depend on them. But when I was a kid I took piano lessons for three years before dropping it. I had no idea why I was making so little progress. I didn't even know that was happening, I was just frustrated, and quit.

In my forties, it became partly my job to help my son with his education. When his arithmetic was falling behind, I taught him the Soroban (Japanese abacus) and a variant of finger math where one can add and subtract two digit numbers on one's fingers. His math came up to snuff in a couple months, and permanently. This is a technique that, when I was in high school, allowed me to perform twenty digit mental arithmetic - for example, it took about a minute to multiply two ten digit numbers and get a twenty digit answer. And, without the technique, I couldn't remember twenty digits.

My wife got my son into Suzuki Violin, and more recently Suzuki Piano. As a parent teacher for both, it has become clear that the general teaching methods and techniques are clearly superior to what I struggled through as a kid. There's nothing wrong with my dexterity or aptitude, and if I'd had the opportunity to learn music this way, I have no doubt I'd be considered a music savant now. Even now, it's clear that just a few years of study will improve my performance to much more enjoyable levels. It isn't too late, and I expect thirty or more years of enjoyment to come.

There are two keys to these teaching and performance techniques. And they are the same as each other. The first is that the material is broken down into very short consumable parts. That allows steady progress with minimal frustration. The barrier to entry is lower. More students will be able to get it. Everyone will get it faster, and learn it better. The second is that the techniques themselves are made up of these simple ideas, put together. They really work.

For example, in the Soroban, there are ten lessons to learn addition. Each takes about five minutes and can be explained in one or two sentences. There is then about a week's worth of practice, maybe twenty minutes a day. In the resulting addition, there is a simple set of steps. When there is a carry to handle, it is handled right away, and the procedure mechanically takes care of it. At any moment, there is only one thing to remember, and one next thing to do, and it is obvious. The result is addition that is quick and reliable. It isn't that important that it be quick. What is important is that it is reliable. If the answer is off by one, it is still wrong. The student knows if their answer is wrong, and it is frustrating, which leads to failure, which leads to more failure. So, this technique is simple, produces the right result every time that the procedure is followed, at least in contrast to doing arithmetic on paper as taught in school. So, it is easier to learn and less frustrating to use. So, fear of math vanishes.

Algebra is built on arithmetic. If the arithmetic is easy, algebra becomes that much easier.

These techniques have been available for more than fifty years. They are already in wide spread, but not universal, practice. They invariably show their superiority. By comparison, the teaching techniques used today for nearly all education looks like the teachers are doing whatever the first things that come into their heads. It's stupid. As great as these techniques are for subjects such as music and math, the general concepts are applicable to a wide variety of fields of study. If this has been done, I'm not aware of it. We need to be smart about teaching, and not just for math.

It is my opinion that algebra should be a high school diploma requirement. The diploma should mean something.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ipod Shuffle

Just recently, I've started listening to podcasts with an IPod Shuffle. This is a very low end device. I picked mine up for $80. I considered getting an iRiver for $150, that also has a microphone and FM tuner, but funds have been low. The device is tiny. It looks like a pack of gum. It comes with a cord attached to a USB cap, so you can hang it around your neck, but there is also a cap without a chord, making the chord optional.

The Shuffle has no display. Well, there is an led that glows green, yellow or red, showing the current battery state. Green for full charge, red for nearly dead, and yellow for in between. The non-replaceable lithium ion battery is supposed to last 18 hours on a charge. The battery is charged by plugging it into a computer USB port. The Shuffle goes from empty to full charge in three or four hours. The 512 MB should give you about ten hours of high quality mp3 music. I get more audio, because the books I listen to are in mono, and spoken text compresses better than music, probably because silence compresses so well. I've had 28 hours of podcasts on it.

The end of the shuffle comes off, revealing a USB port. Plug the shuffle into your computer, and use the computer to copy data onto it, and delete stuff from it. The shuffle mounts as a disk drive, and arbitrary files can be placed there for data movement. I still carry a USB drive for moving data, but have used the Shuffle for this once or twice. The upshot is that you need a computer for the user interface for putting stuff onto the drive and removing it. There isn't space enough on it to put your entire CD collection, so you'll need to do this fairly frequently. For me, there is something to do every day, as I'm not listening to a daily podcast.

There are some buttons on the Shuffle. There is the off/sequential/shuffle switch. The device is either off, plays tracks sequentially, or plays them in random order. There is a play/pause button. That is, if it is currently playing, this button causes it to pause, and if it is paused, it will play. Of course, you can't tell if it is playing or not if the sound file has silence. Many of the podcasts and audio book tracks start with a few seconds of silence, and therefore, it isn't clear if it is playing or not. You just have to listen longer. It helps if the volume is high enough to hear it.

There is a four switch circular button. Press left to go to the previous track. Press left and hold it for a second or so to rewind in chunks. The Shuffle plays little snippets, each chunk further back in time. Press right to get to the next track. If you are in shuffle mode, it goes to a new random track. Press right and hold for a few seconds, and the Shuffle fast forwards, playing little snippets. Press up and the sound volume increases. Press down and the sound volume decreases.

And that would be it for the pack of gum. But this totally trivial user interface has some hidden unexpected behavior. For example, you can not play audio on the Shuffle while it is connected to a computer. This isn't much of an issue. My Linux computer OS has a utility that can play the mp3 tunes from the Shuffle while it is mounted. So, while the Shuffle can't play, the host computer can play those tunes right where they are.

One typically pauses the audio, then turns the Shuffle off. Since I often listen to books sequentially, it is important that I get back to where I was when I turn it back on. Sometimes, it forgets where I ended up, and it starts at the same place it started the last time. This can be many tracks ago, and I have no idea how many tracks. In particular, if the tracks have no silence at the start or end, there is no break between tracks in playback. There can be no indication at all that you are now on a new track. Also, when it forgets where you were, it also forgets what the volume setting you had was. So, if you had it on loud for the car, it can blast you at your desk. The guess is that one should wait a few seconds between pausing the audio and turning the unit off. That seems to reduce the frequency of this odd behavior to acceptable levels.

Since there is such a limited user interface, it is not a good device if you have more than one thing to listen to. For example, if you have 100 tracks of a book, and three podcasts to listen to, it can be maddening to listen to a podcast, and then try to navigate to track 56. I periodically delete tracks from my current book so that this isn't a problem. I also arrange the tracks so that the book is all the first tracks, and the podcasts are at the end. There are usually only a few.

The fast rewind feature stops at the beginning of the track. It will not proceed to the previous track. This is good if you want to find the beginning of the current track. Finding the beginning of the track can be done by skipping to the previous track, then skipping forward to the beginning of the current track. So this isn't as handy as it sounds. Still, it isn't entirely redundant, especially, if you've never heard the tracks in question. It isn't so hot if what you want to do is get toward the end of the previous track. In fact, you must go to the beginning of the previous track and fast forward to near the end. But there is no way to know that you are near the end if you've never heard it before.

The Shuffle is an odd sort of duck. The user interface is minimalistic, and a computer is required. There is no A/C charger, a computer is required to charge it. It is incredibly small. Even ear bud headphones are bigger. What makes it awesome is that what it does, it does very well. The sound quality is great. You may take this for granted, but for example, typical PC sound cards vary from useless to pretty good, and even sound cards on name brand computers can have erratic quality. From Apple, however, the sound is good or it doesn't go out the door. I suspect that they perform some sort of quality control test. What a concept.

I plug it into my stereo and listen to it over breakfast. Then I plug it into my car stereo's aux port, and continue where i left off. Then I plug headphones into it and walk across parking lots to work. So why didn't I do all this with my Walkman? Well, mainly because it takes a few seconds to fill it with hours of audio, where it takes an hour to record an hour of audio on a tape. Yet, I never spent an hour writing about the Walkman. I did use the Walkman in the car, through the aux port in the car stereo. That let me listen to something other than CDs. And, it was more convenient than ripping the tapes to CD by playing the tapes into my computer's sound card.

The upshot is that I no longer want a CD or tape player in my car. A simple AM/FM radio with an Aux port for my shuffle will do fine. But, you say, what about the round trip from Michigan to Florida? That's 19 hours each way. Well. I guess I'll just have to hook up to a computer when I get there.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Diesel PT Cruiser

On the 9th of February, 2006, I had an opportunity to test drive a diesel PT Cruiser. This vehicle option is not currently offered for sale in the United States. The car is has the Route 66 bundle of options, which probably means that it is loaded with features I personally wouldn't order on a new car. These might include the Moon roof, electric windows, the five disc mp3 CD changing stereo, tilt steering wheel, and brilliant yellow paint. I'd go with a stripped car with A/C and cruise control. At this point, I'd go with an AM/FM radio with Aux in - so I could plug in my iPod. Then I'd stick a Velcro patch on the dash to hold the iPod. Still, 5 mp3 encoded CDs can give you a total of about 70 hours of high quality music without fiddling with it. Great for those road trips to Argentina. The glove compartment is very roomy, and could easily hold the audio cable when not in use.

This car has a 5 speed manual transmission that is very forgiving and easy to operate. The 2.2 liter turbocharged diesel generates 150 hp, which is more than enough to make this sized vehicle very responsive. The steering and suspension make it agile. Most of my real driving is highway, and the 42 MPG highway rating would be very welcome to my 35,000 mile per year commute. The long range of the car would allow me to fill the tank less often, which would be a real time saver.

The car started instantly. Though it was a cold winter day, the car had just been driven. It would be interesting to see how it behaves on a cold winter morning after sitting out in the cold all night. This is an historic problem for diesel engines, but it isn't clear that it is a problem for this one. In any case, my house has an attached garage, so even if this is a problem for this vehicle, it likely would not be much of an issue for me.

I left the moon roof open. The windshield glare which such systems often generate did not materialize. I have no idea why not.

The clutch engagement travel is slightly shorter than my own car, but the feedback was clear, and after that first engagement, I didn't have to think about it again. The brakes are slightly more sensitive than my own car, but again, driving was very natural after the first minute. We'll see how my own car behaves when I go home. In particular, my own car does not have power steering...

The route I used put me onto the highway almost at once. For a moment, I was startled to be doing 100 on the ramp! However, the big numbers are in Kilometers Per Hour, not Miles Per Hour, so all it meant was that it could get up to 60 MPH to match highway speed with a significant margin. Once I realized where the MPH numbers were, it was easy enough to read without further thought. This car is clearly built for Europe, so, of course, the big numbers are KPH. The car drives smooth enough that it isn't that clear if you are doing 100 MPH or 100 KPH. Acceleration at highway speed is smooth, and there isn't any doubt that the rated top speed of 114 MPH is achievable. One of the reasons I haven't gotten a traffic ticket in years is that I obey the law.

I coasted to an exit, and followed around to get back on the highway for the return trip. This gave an opportunity to check out steering, turn signals, visibility, brakes, shifting and suspension in turns. The car gets high marks everywhere.

Back on the highway, I checked out the cruise control. A dash light tells you it is engaged, and it was able to smoothly accelerate and coast. I reset the Average Fuel Economy (which, despite the European target, read in Miles Per Gallon), and the numbers quickly climbed. The trip was too short to show EPA estimates, however.

The route then included some stop and go, and turns you might find in city driving. Since I'd just reset the Average Fuel Economy gauge, I watched the numbers go lower while idling at a stop light. That's to be expected. My house gets really bad gas mileage too.

My biggest complaint would probably be that though the steering wheel is on the left, the fuel door is on the right. Clearly, the fuel door should be on the driver's side of the car, as God intended. That way people don't end up facing each other at busy gas stations. Speaking of which, several gas stations near my house sell diesel, so there would be no fear of not being able to find it. Also, the generous range is also a welcome feature. Since diesel is safer than gasoline, I might consider carrying a small spare amount in a sealed container in the hatch. This is not something I do with gasoline cars.

My youngest vehicle has 150,000 miles. With luck, it will hold out until the diesel PT Cruiser, or maybe the diesel Caliber are sold in the States. If not, the there's always the diesel Jeep Liberty.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Astronomical Gas Mileage

My new (well it is new to me) 2000 Saturn SL is proving to be more efficient than expected. The EPA mileage is 32 MPG highway, much less than the 37 MPG my 1988 Mazda 626 was getting before it started seriously needing a ring job. In the first few trips, this Saturn was getting about 31 MPG, and until the Mazda is repaired, it was expected that gas bills would be higher, and that would be that. Part of the reason that the vehicles perform better than the EPA estimates is that the vehicle isn't driven at 70 MPH, even if the speed limit sign says so. The speedometer seldom goes above 65 MPH. Tests on the Mazda shows that this can save 10% to 15% in fuel while costing 10% in time. That is, an hour commute might take an extra six minutes. However, given congestion, it is probably much less time than that.

Computers can do more than just allow one to write a blog and edit email. They can also assist in computing. So, it is somewhat of a surprise to find that this Saturn is clearly achieving 40 MPG, on average.

My commute is long, and mostly highway. Apparently, it simply required a small number of tanks of gas to learn how to drive it efficiently. Perhaps this young stallion is learning how it is being driven as well. It is gratifying to learn that not only was the acquisition of this vehicle cheap, but running it is cheap as well. That it will save the burning of 200 gallons of fuel a year is a bonus. A 10% savings is a significant amount of fuel and money.

It also solves the problem of why this Saturn, which is younger and smaller than the Mazda, with the same kind of 5 speed manual transmission, would not achieve better fuel economy. The answer is simple. It does.

The US president has declared that we have an addiction to oil. He called on technology to save us. Presumably he meant hybrid vehicles, solar and wind power, etc. He also seems determined to drill for oil in Alaska. Frankly, we don't need it. Drilling in Alaska will take more than five years, and could possibly contribute 6% of the US energy needs. Hybrids and light diesels are just starting to come on the market, and will take years to make much difference. On the other hand, driving a little slower has an immediate effect. Sizing your next vehicle a little smaller takes effect as soon as it is purchased.

So far, this Saturn has held up quite well. If it makes it to 250,000 miles (another 100,000 miles), it will have clearly been worthwhile. If the engine holds up that long without emitting blue clouds out of the tailpipe, then it will clearly have lived up to its name: The Lord of the Rings.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Comment Spam

Father Roderick doesn't like TypeKey because visually impared people can't post. His solution is to make his forum wide open to spammers. He has a big fan following, and a small army of volunteers from around the world check his forum for spam, approximately hourly.

On my own Yahoo Groups, I have moderated registration. In the registration, the prospective new member must pass the Turing test. They have to answer the question, "What is this group about, and why do you want to join it?". If they answer 'I love this group', then they don't get to join. Not all humans are able to act as if they are indistiguishable from a human at a teletype, and they don't get to join. Oh well. So I'm more restrictive than I'd like to be. And yet, I try to have more than one moderator on my groups so that if I get hit by a bus (or something) the group goes on. It's not an army, it's just another active group member or three.

My blogspot and LiveJournal blogs both have open comments. I've not had any spam, which suggests that no one knows these blogs exist. If you're reading this, you've found one of them.

My favorite spammer story is that when a spammer was taken to court and convicted, his home address became part of the public record. Someone (anonymously) wrote a little script to sign him up for 100,000 snail mail catalogs... poetic justice.