Friday, July 27, 2007

Project Pages - Powerwheels Robots

I'm stoked because I just finished the first of the Project Pages on my website! I made a complete write-up about Hagrid, my powerwheels robot. Expect to see more projects up soon too.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Dearly Departed: My Poor Bicycle

This morning I awoke (at noon) to find my bicycle stolen. Ack! That's what I get for using a cheap Walmart chain to secure a valuable item. The thieves didn't even have to cut it; they just pulled and the traitorous links separated without protest. They left the chain, broken, on the ground.

That's my brother riding it in this picture. It was a 1962 Huffy; an English bicycle with a 3-speed hub. Completely irreplaceable - a collector's item these days. I liked it because I hate dérailleurs; with a 3-speed hub there's no chain derailing and you can change gears at any time, even at a dead stop. Despite half a century of age and neglect, the bicycle was in perfect working order. It had brand-new tires and I'd just installed all new cables.

I actually noticed the chain out of place a second before I put two and two together: "Hmmm... If I'm holding the chain... and the chain is broken... and it was on my bicycle last night... and today it was on the ground... Holy Crap! WHERE'S ME BICYCLE?"

It's a strange feeling one gets at this moment of realization. It reminded me of when I was three and let go of my balloon on accident. As I watched it disappear into the sky, I somehow understood that there was nothing that could be done to retrieve it. Something ought to be done - yet nothing could be done.

You let go of your balloon - it goes up and away. Simple physics. You leave your bicycle chained outside in a neighborhood of juvenile delinquents - it gets vandalized. Cause and effect.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Opinionated Review of the Orlando Presentations

As I said in my previous entry, the quality of the presentations varied widely. There were many presentations I thought were very good.

But it's more fun to attack the bad ones.

By far the worst presentation I saw was blue text on a lime green background. In ALL CAPS. Incredible. It was so bad, I couldn't look away. It was like a cheesy horror movie. I can't remember at all what the research was about, but I was so fascinated by the abomination that I just had to make a spoof of it. See it for yourself.

Oh but it wasn't just the slides; his presentation style was... unique. Picture this: this guy loads his slides up on the projector and you can tell from his title page that it's going to be a terrible presentation. He steps out in front of the crowd, and says... nothing. He looks at us through round coke-bottle glasses a gives that deer-in-the-headlights look that only public speaking can inspire. (Did you know some people fear public speaking more than death?)

So this poor guy steps out and just looks at us for two minutes and I'm thinking, poor fellow, he's going to die of pure fright right there in front of me. When he finally spoke it was barely more than a mumble through the whole presentation.

A different presentation that struck me as funny was not bad in the usual sense, in fact it was a polished presentation and the speaker was well-practiced. Problem was, it didn't look like a research talk. It looked like a coporate motivational presentation. Straight out of Dilbert. "In order to maximize your profits, you want to minimize your costs and maximize your revenues!" Complete with a histrogram showing costs that are down and revenues that are up, but the chart doesn't mean anything because there is no Y-axis and no units! It was also full of motivationally meaningless phrases like, "The future is tomorrow's now!" and "Today is yesterday's tomorrow!"

That presentation was supposedly about data mining - stick to your subject, please!

Another presentation was about the effectiveness of a new teaching method. This was a good presentation but here I consider the work itself questionable. The researcher gave a pre-test to a student on a subject they were doing badly in, spent one hour tutoring the student, and then administered a post test. Naturally the students did better. Based on this data, the researcher declared the teaching method a resounding success.

Wait, no way. How is this science? Setting aside the issue that he has hand selected his subjects (it is not random) the form of the experiment is also bad. He has an experiment with a variable but no control. I suppose he thinks the pre-test is a control. That's not a control, it's your baseline for your measurements. A control would have been to administer the pre-test and post-test with one hour in between in which you did nothing. Or to compare it to doing the pre-test and post-test with a different tutoring method for one hour. Only then can you get a real comparative analysis.

I told the presenter I personally liked his teaching method, but I can't consider it objectively if he doesn't compare it to anything else. He said that in all of the previous literature, the other researchers in this field are doing what he does - comparing pre-test and post-test only for their own method.

In other words, it's ok because everyone is doing it.

(How much science would a scientist chuck if a scientist could chuck science?)

Some other things I found hilariously bad in other presentations:
  • Slide transitions that make it take ten seconds for everything to finish. The speaker is trying to make her point but words are flying around like helicopters.
  • Talking with your hands in your pockets. Good: you don't wave your hands around like a madman. Bad: Makes you look sheepish. "Ah gee shucks Mr. Wilson, I didn't mean nuthin' by it."
  • Getting defensive over questions. The moment you get defensive, you've lost all credibility with the audience.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Paranoia and Computer Science in Orlando

I'm sitting at the hotel cantina, enjoying a beer with my new friend from Iceland. We are searching the internet, using our laptops to try to uncover the truth about the strange suspicions we share about the computer science event we are attending.

There is something odd about this conference.

I showed up Monday morning bright and early to check in for the conference right on time. I arrived to find nothing set up, and a sole conference organizer surrounded by unopened boxes. He told me "it was hot" so he "didn't feel like unpacking the registration materials." Come back later, he said.

It was on my way out of the room that I noticed the conference sign was written in magic marker. Like a lemonade stand.

To kill time I ate a continental breakfast in the hotel diner. Everything was stale. Usually continental breakfasts - especially at conferences - are complimentary; this one cost $4.70.

I was more concerned whether or not there was salmonella on the week-old boiled eggs.

I came back and registered for the conference. If you didn't have a receipt, they gave you a bank account number where you could transfer $ to attend the first day; when you find your receipt, they promised to refund your extra payment. But it was abundantly clear that it was very important that they get payment, and they wouldn't complain if someone wanted to pay twice.

Luckily I had my receipt, and a transcript of an email with Prof. J E which documented that I would be presenting a paper for my colleague. I was never to meet the mysterious JE, but I did get in to the conference with no trouble.

This is my first conference so I didn't know what to expect, but I was sure that I could expect a printed copy of the proceedings - that is, a printed schedule and a book containing all of the papers submitted to the conference. I got no such item. They gave us a CD, with the conference proceedings on it. Ok, this is the 21st century, I can dig this. Paper is dead. Long live digital media! Yet... it seems somehow an insult to hand us a mere CD when we were promised a book. Like they couldn't be bothered to print it out for us. What about a schedule? - they didn't even print that. It is a pain to pull out your laptop every time you want to know what's happening next, and I wanted to circle the talks I wanted to attend. You can't (easily) do this with a PDF.

The conference organizer (J E) did not show up; there was no explanation.

At least the rest of the proceedings began innocently enough. We had a guest speech called Forty Years in the Software Trenches. I love hearing stories about the early days of computing, and this guy's been around since the days of punch cards.

After the speech, BP, the assistant organizer, popped in to say that it was break time, and that there would be free breakfast food during the break times. (I'd just paid for breakfast. D'Oh!) I asked him if we could get our money back if the hotel erroneously charged us - he said, "Next time, if you're not so hungry, you can just wait until break time!"

I took break; what the heck, might as well snack again, since it's free. I loaded my plate with some petrified cinnamon buns and the archeological remains of a danish. "That'll be $4.70" I thought it was free! "No, not this - that. Only that side. The conference organizers only paid for what's on that side." D'Oh!

What was on "that side" of the buffet was: ice water, burnt cookies, and stale tortilla chips. Breakfast of champions, yes?

I considered coffee, but I'd made some in my room this morning. Good thing. A.B., from Tunisia, approached the coffee percolator. A hotel staff physically blocked her, dashing to place his body between her the percolator just as she reached for the spigot. "Can't have that," he said. WTF? "The conference organizers didn't want to pay for you guys to have coffee. So you can't have any. You can only have the ice water or the coke." (A fellow attendee later informed me that even the coke was cut with a great deal of water to make it go farther.)

AB and I sat at the same table and during the break discussed our disappointment in some aspects of the way the conference had been organized. BP, who you will remember was the assistant organizer, asked if he could join our discussion. I felt a little sheepish - had he heard us? - but AB took the opportunity to confront him (tactfully). "No coffee allowed at the coffee break? I never heard of such a thing!" she said. BP said, "No you see, different people have different tastes, yes? And you can't please everyone. So really, we can only give water." Amil said, "Yes, but no coffee? I've been to conferences in many countries, and this is the first I've seen that." BP said, "Yes but you see... in other countries, they are more hospitable. They are not so hospitable in America. So you see we cannot provide coffee."

Huh? That doesn't even make sense.

This wasn't getting anywhere, so I asked him my question: "You know, I was disappointed to not receive any printed proceedings, or a schedule." BP had a justification for everything: "Yes but you see this is better, because this way you can print out just what you want. You can go on the CD, you see, and click click click and get right to the paper you want to see."

Thanks. I know how a document on a CD works.

AB said to him, "Wait, he's got a point! Some of us don't even have our laptops here. How are we supposed to review the papers before the talks? It's not like you provided a PC available for us to use to at least view the CD." BP went on the offensive now: "Well I went to a conference in India and there they told us to bring our own laptops and I am not responsible if you didn't bring your own laptop. So you see it is really your own fault that you don't have your laptop with you." Amil countered, "But the rules for this conference don't say to bring your own computer!" BP had his story and stuck to it: "It is your fault!" he declared, "And as for us providing you a computer to view it on, that is not our fault either, ha ha, it's not like we can force the hotel to provide you with a PC."

Huh? Strange logic, these Indians have.

The content of the presentations varied widely in both quality and topic. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the selection criteria for papers.

There is a common scam involving books of poetry, in which gullible young writers are led to believe that their poetry is so good that a publisher wants to include it in their next book. Anyone will be accepted; as long as they buy a copy of the book. The book is expensive.

The basic concept appears over and over - short story contests, the who's who of students, etc. Might someone do that with a conference? Might someone have done that with this research conference? I haven't a bloody clue.

But I do know this: if they had, they would have made $400 - $800 off every person here.

Honestly this conference is not really a scam. It would be better to say that: it borders on scandalous. Hopefully the conference organizers learn to do better next time, and I know all of us attendees have learned an important lesson about being selective where we publish.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Thoughts from the Airport

I’m flying to Orlando to give a presentation on some research done by a Ph.D. candidate at OU. I love traveling and while I’ve been to half the 50 states, Florida is one of the ones I haven’t been to yet, and one I’ve most wanted to see.

Airport security, however, is one of the things I do not enjoy about traveling. The process of checking in through airport security gets more odious and invasive every year. I’ve traveled through many airports while I was in the Marines, but it has been many years since the last time I flew. I wasn’t sure what new pointless rules would have been added in my long hiatus from travel, but I knew to expect a sour experience.

As I stood in line waiting to go through the metal detector, it occurred to me that we didn’t feel the same way we feel when about to board a bus or standing in line to enter a public place. This was more like prisoners standing in line waiting for punishment. Why don’t they just make us strip naked and throw delousing powder over us like the scene at the beginning of the Shawshank Redemption.

I was of course picked for a bag search. I’m always picked for a random bag search, even though I have never done anything wrong. I don’t fit their racial profiling nor am I on a list, as far as I know; I am simply spectacularly unlucky. I know to also expect to be pulled out of the line for another random bag search when I try to board the plane, as if their first bag search was not enough. Perhaps I am such a geek that my body language looks wrong to former high school jocks turned security guards.

After searching my bag the security guard informs me that my toothpaste, hair crème, and shaving cream are potentially dangerous chemicals and that I will only be allowed to take one of them with me, and in a quantity no greater than 3 ounces. And it has to be in a plastic bag. He kindly offered to escort me back out of security, so that I can go home and retrieve a plastic bag to carry my three ounces of the gel of my choice.

And miss my flight.

I’m beginning to think there might be a market for 3 ounce bottles of combination shaving gel and hair crème that tastes like toothpaste.

If they are afraid of allowing these things on the plane, why allow 3 ounces of it? Why not just ban it? Nevermind that I can’t imagine what one could do wrong with these. Perhaps they are afraid I will shave the pilot, or give a pretty flight attendant a permanent bad hair day with my hair crème. I can’t even speculate what good the plastic bag does.