Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Snow donuts

It seems Washington was (once again) producing snow donuts today!

Or at least so said NPR this morning. And I said in reply, "What the heck is a snow donut?" Well, ask and the internet shall provide:

snow donut

Snow doughnuts are a natural occurrence in nature. They form when there is a hard layer in the snow [which] is then covered by several inches of dense snow. Then you add a steep slope and a trigger, such as a clump of snow falling out of a tree... As gravity pulls the clump down, the snow rolls down the hill, and 99.9% of the time the center of the rolling snowball collapses in on itself and creates what we call a "pinwheel"... But, if the snow is the perfect density and temperature, it rolls around onto itself leaving the hole in the center, creating the doughnut-looking shape.
-WSDOT blog

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

NPR Fighting the Man: "Kicking Butts and Taking Names"

It seems as if the Copyright Royalty Board is trying to raise the rates online radio stations have to pay when playing copyrighted, commercial music. The way they're doing it hits non-profits especially hard which have, up until now, been protected to some extend (because they're NON-PROFIT).

NPR argues that [a survey they conducted] says that 79 percent of Internet radio stations were unable to report a weekly aggregate [of listening hours]...This is only compounded by the fact that not all Internet radio stations are playing commercial music all the time. Stations like NPR broadcast a wide variety of music—some of which is not copyrighted—as well as news and other talk shows during their time on the air, making it even more difficult to attempt to calculate how many users were listening at the exact time that a commercial song was being played

Cantilevered over the Grand Canyon: What a bad idea

The Hualapai Nation has built a "sky bridge" 4,000 feet over the Grand Canyon at a site called "Grand Canyon West".

...the price of admission is $25 per person. (No word on whether that price includes an airsick bag.)
It goes from one side, 70 feet out, and back to that same side. So I'm not sure where the "bridge" part comes in; you're not crossing anything. Maybe it's a compromise: someone realized no-one actually wants to cross a quarter of a mile 4,000 feet up (at least), so they give you 70 feet to turn back.
As many as 120 people will be allowed...each will have to wear special shoe covers to prevent slipping and scratching.
I have to wear special shoe covers or else I fall off? I...don't...think...so.
...2-inch-thick glass floor...the [ed: multimillion-pound] U-shaped structure is rated as safe even in the face of 100 mph winds.
Safe is such a relative term...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

John Backus Dies at 82

John Backus, Turing Award winner, father of Fortran, Backus-Naur form, and perhaps modern high-level programming languages everywhere, dies at age 82.

He was awarded the Turing Award for his "profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems, notably through his work on FORTRAN, and for seminal publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages."

In his Turing lecture of 1977 he said:
Programming languages appear to be in trouble. Each successive language incorporates, with a little cleaning up, all the features of its predecessors plus a few more. [...] Each new language claims new and fashionable features... but the plain fact is that few languages make programming sufficiently cheaper or more reliable to justify the cost of producing and learning to use them.

Read more about John Backus's life and death.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A profusion of Glasses

Y'all are familiar with the story of Stephen Glass, right? Subject of Shattered Glass (a great movie, by the way), the journalist who fabricated at least 27 stories while writing for The New Republic... (No relation to Ira Glass, by the way.) Well, my interesting discovery of the week is that in 1997 he did a piece for This American Life! That was the year before his journalistic fraud was discovered. It makes one wonder what he could have become (he was running in some pretty hip circles!).

Too bad he didn't just decide to be a fiction writer; why waste your time on journalism if you just want to make stuff up?

Edit: also check out the web page he created to fool the fact-checkers at The New Republic. This is supposed to be the homepage of a big technology company?? Perhaps it was par for the course back in 1998, but it wouldn't fool a two-year-old these days, it's so obviously fake. I mean, members.aol.com? j_u_k_t@yahoo.com?? Isn't it weird how far the internet has come?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The power and beauty of T and F

Today I've been working on some statistical analyses for very top secret stuff. I can't say much, but I can say that I have experimentally observed the T and F distributions (shown below). And I've amazed myself by being able to apply these esoteric statistical relics to a real-world problem.


And so I've come to appreciate their power and beauty. You too can discover the power and beauty of T and F in such situations as the t Test and the f Test. I'm not sure what the deal is with Wikipedia's entry on the f Test, but I like the description from NIST or my stats textbook ("Engineering Statistics" by Mongomery, Runger, Hubele from Wiley press) a lot better.

By the way, copying all those T and F critical value tables into code kind of sucks.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Ahh, whiling away another quiet weekend. We saw Breach last night (good, aside from some uninspired acting from tumor-head boy); I got measured for my wedding dress this morning; we did some shopping. Ended up in the Borders stationery section at Redmond Town Center.

My god, what a stationery section!!

I am quite partial to paper products, but my other stores never had a section like this. I could get lost in there. The one thing I fail to understand is why Borders continues to stock so many awful Paperchase products. Their designs are fairly juvenile, and the quality of their journals is very poor, especially the bound journals. They use cheap paper, and the binding on the last Paperchase book I bought fell into several pieces before I was even done filling it. And these are books that are supposed to hold your memories for a lifetime??

No sir, get me Paperblanks any day (Borders also stocks these). Their products are gorgeous. Their design is inspired, functional, their materials feel great to the touch (thick paper, silky covers...). And their bindings are great—durable, and they lay flat on every page (a quality which one often fails to consider when purchasing a journal). As far as I'm concerned, they're the Rolls Royce of journals. And they're in the exact same price range as Paperchase. So why stock crap when you can have art??

I must admit that the store we were in today had a lot of other Paperchase products that I hadn't seen before, which looked okay... Their spiral-bound journals, for example, avoid the problem of bindings (though their paper is still cheap); and they had a lot of cool-looking note cards and photo albums and such. And I guess there's no harm in having too many choices rather than not enough. But still, who would want a Hello Kitty rip-off when they could have Tiffany stained glass? Or pink butterflies (didn't I have pyjamas in this pattern when I was 6?), when they could have Chinese paintings w/ hand-stitched bindings, mother-of-pearl inlays, or 14th century jali (stone lattice window) artwork? The mind boggles.


This past Wednesday we saw This American Life live at the Paramount in Seattle.

Ira Glass was walking around in the foyer before the show, and we got to meet him!
And talk to him!
And shake his hand!
Holy crap!

Of course I had absolutely nothing redeeming to say because I was completely star-struck. We even forgot to tell him that we named our kitten after him. But I got to cut in the bar line and buy a bottle of water for him! (I'm such a hopeless fan.) And he was (as is everyone) amused by the fact that Nick and I work for Microsoft and Google.

Oh my god, I bought him water! I am so 13 years old again.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

They're not biased at all...

Later, reading more that the internet has to offer, I came across this quote from Microsoft Associate General Counsel Thomas Rubin. I thought I'd add it to be fair and balanced

Companies that create no content of their own, and make money solely on the backs of other people's content, are raking in billions through advertising revenue and IPOs

It seems like politics and meaningless rhetoric is endemic. No way around it, everywhere I turn someone is trying stab someone else when they're not looking. It's demoralizing at best. Outrageous at worst and unethical somewhere in between.

What happened to looking to the future? What happened to "Think, Innovate". What happened to a focus on quality and customer satisfaction? Have we already done all there is to do, leaving us fighting over a fixed pie of market share? I'm very disappointed.

Read more in the article.

Those poor ultra-successful high-tech companies...

I was just perusing all the web has to offer and I come across this quote by CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt:

One of the problems in high-tech industries is that successful companies tend to generate cash pretty liberally (but) they don't have good places to put it."

<sarcasm>I really know what he means. It must be hard being the 52nd richest American in the world, with a net worth of $4 billion dollars and growing. And he's the CEO of the (currently) most popular software company ever, driving the information age into whatever comes next. With so much wealth (personally and in business), he really carries the burden for all of his employees, stock holders, and the public as a whole. Thanks for taking one for the team Eric!</sarcasm>

If he's having trouble figuring out what to do with that money, I can think of a few things :)

Sunday, March 4, 2007


Last Wednesday I participated in the Kirkland Adult Spelling Bee. Unlike the traditional 'individual' bees that you may remember from middle school, this bee was played in teams of three, and you could confer on the spelling of the words with your team members. My teammates were Brian (a Googler) and Gretta (girlfriend of a Googler). Both were way better spellers than I; we quickly came to the end of the words I recognized (these weren't middle school words!), though I did manage to save us on fetial.

We ended up getting spelled out in the first half on the word regnant (French origin! Shame on me for not knowing that!), but the whole evening was a lot of fun. The team play and the generally laid-back atmosphere of the event made it a lot more relaxed and fun than the middle school bees I remember. And it turns out there's a monthly bee in a Seattle bar... Maybe this is my new subculture. :-)

The Six Month Rule

I've had my fair share of changes in life—moves, changing schools, foreign exchanges, etc.—and as such have had a lot of opportunities to meet new people. In general, I like this; I like the opportunity to start fresh, to leave behind the parts of myself I didn't like, to reinvent myself if I so choose.

But the hardest thing about a new environment is making new friends. It always kind of amazed me that a newcomer could make friends at all; where do other people find the space in their lives to make room for you? But that's a thought for another day. Today I'm sharing with you the result of 25 years of de facto research in displacement and acclimation, which can be summed up in The Six Month Rule:

It takes ~6 months to start making (significant) friends in a new place.

If you want to go ahead and prove me wrong, to show how cool and sociable you are because you make friends in two weeks, good for you. But it's been my repeated experience that it takes about six months to really start connecting with people—showing them your personality, learning about theirs, sharing more than passing experiences with each other. There's often the one or two individuals that you meet early on, because they have something obviously in common with you (the girl who just moved here at the same time you did, the only other person who shares your native language, etc.); but for things to really start coming together on a larger scale, I've found it always takes about six months.

I started developing this theory in high school, after 1) starting at a new magnet school, 2) transferring to the neighborhood school, 3) starting high school, and 4) moving to England, all within a few years; and it's eerie how accurate it has proven itself. Last Wednesday marked six months that I've been working at Google, and in the past few weeks I've really felt like my life in WA and at Google has coalesced into something more interesting and less empty than what it's been since we moved here.

I now have friends at work. I find it easier to make small-talk with people (one of the things I hate about being new is trying to force yourself to spend time with people you don't know (in order to make friends) and with whom you have no common ground, so you end up talking about vapid and uninteresting things). I have interesting conversations on IM with my coworkers throughout the day. I now have more lunch engagements than I have time for, and I can't remember the last time I ate alone (I used to eat alone every single day). I'm making friends in roller derby, getting to know people and also getting more exercise than I've gotten for years (it's exciting to be actively making this change in my life that I've often "promised" myself, but never really followed through on!). I've been attending yoga classes and talking to people at the studio. And I'm co-founding an a cappella group at our office. How did this all happen!?

Mark my words, it's The Six Month Rule...