Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Are We There Yet?

Meant to put this in with the prior item on the risibly erroneous Roger Kimball, but it was hard to find. Here's what he had to say about Covid-19:

In about three weeks, maybe four, it will all be over and many people will feel sheepish about their overreaction.

That was Kimball on March 12, 2020. Guess he was off, a bit.

Why do I obsess over this small man and his small ability to know what he's talking about? Because he, and a few of his clones, keep popping up next to credible reporters on sites like Real Clear Politics. That gives people a reason to take him seriously, when there really isn't one. He's a fool, he writes like a fool, and he has the credibility of a fool.

But he won't go away.

So, up there, for the record, is a link to proof that Roger Kimball is a fool.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Mark Peterson, RIP

Dr. Peterson was one of my first teachers at Amherst. None ever surpassed him in his patience, empathy, or ability to create understanding. He also had a quiet wit that created a moment I will never forget.

After literally every other member of the physics department had declined to do so, I walked into Mark Peterson's office in 1979 and said, "Professor Peterson, you are my last chance. No one else will do a thesis with me. Will you?" He said, "Of course I will, but I get to pick the topic." It was a deal.

The topic he picked involved scattering laser light off microscopic glass tubes. Making the tubes was hard. Before our first success, I wrote computer programs that predicted the scattering pattern. At a mid-thesis presentation, most of the physics faculty looked at them rather skeptically, as those predictions showed highly erratic blobs of light, encircling the tube.

Towards the end of spring, 1980, we finally made a microscopic glass tube. Dr. Peterson watched over me as, ever so gently, I mounted the tube in a stand where the laser could light it up. We dimmed the room, switched on the beam and saw, all around on the walls, highly erratic blobs of light, encircling the tube.

I will always remember, in the darkness next to me, my advisor, Mark Peterson, saying, "Well. This ought to silence those doubters."

He was the kind of person who found a reason to have faith in you, when no one else could. I teach at a university myself, these days. With every student I meet, I try to do for them what Mark Peterson did for me: find something to have faith in. Thanks for teaching me that lesson, Doc.

Stevens R. Miller, '80
Lecturer, Computer Science
University of Maryland, College Park

But for these...

I'm pretty happy with my life. It's not over yet, but I'm in my 60s, so the bulk of it is past. How I got here is an interesting mix of unlikely events. To what do I owe my happiness? Well, a lot of hard work should be on the list, because American ethics are pretty clear that you're supposed to earn your joy that way. But I'd be lying if I put it near the top. There was some hard work, but not a lot of hard work.

Here's the most important stuff, in chronological order:

1958: I'm born to a couple of smart parents who take excellent care of me.

1972: Langley High School has dial-up access to a computer. I teach myself to program it, and stop hating school, a little.

1974: My parents move me into the "alternative learning program." I stop hating school, a little more.

1976: Explicitly because he "might want a military brat," Dean Ed Wall accepts me into Amherst College. Years later, I will realize I was a diversity admission.

1977: Amherst replaces its antique IBM-1130 computer with a VAX 11/780. As the school's sole "computer consultant," I get unlimited use. Everyone tells me I am wasting my time, using it to make abstract computer animations and mysterious synthetic sounds. 

1980: I graduate with a physics degree, cum laude. The Latin words are solely because Mark Peterson was willing to do a thesis with me after every other member of the department turned me down.

1982: A nearby business asked us to copy an eight-inch data tape onto five-inch reels for their smaller machine. My boss thought they made porn so he pushed me to make friends. Turns out they made computer graphics for TV ads. Quit my job, started with them.

1984: Living in Hoboken, was able to start a graduate degree in computer science, at night. This was not hard work, as I already knew everything they covered. Got the degree in only four years. 8-)

1988: Kind of on a lark, took the LSAT. New York Law School got my score and accepted me without application. With a scholarship. And a night school. Started a law degree, in New York, for free, while keeping my day job.

1991: Finished law school a little early. Yeah, that actually was hard work.

1992: Passed the New York bar without taking a bar review (I was too broke to pay for it).

1994: Met a stunning young woman who loves to read science fiction and play computer games. She works in a book store, and is utterly out of my league. Also, I'm sure she's a lesbian. We get married two years later.

1996: Faxed famous defense attorney Jack Litman to offer my help in the first big press case of a "cybersex" offense. He takes me on. No pay, but it's Jack Litman.

1999: Litman's old partner takes me on as computer forensics expert for his intelligence firm.

2001: Went solo as an expert witness.

2002: Passed Virginia bar exam without a bar review (well, took one by mail). Also, a stunning young woman delivers our son who, as it turns out, ends up being a really decent fellow.

2007: Won election to the Loudoun county board of supervisors, defeating the incumbent.

2020: Heard University of Maryland has a sudden need for a game programming teacher, online. My degree is a master's, not a doctorate, but I apply. They take me.

2021: Maryland starts a new department of "Immersive Media Design." Something about abstract computer animations and mysterious synthetic sounds. I apply for the spot. They take me.

Nobody really plans a path like that, so I recognize that most of what has happened to me has been a mix of modest effort on my part, substantial good will and help from others, and a lorryload of really good luck. Never made a billion dollars, but I'm not complaining. (Well, never made a billion... yet.)

Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Eight Days of Winter (is almost over)


I am not a fan of the cold months. I do not ski. I hate snow. My skin gets dry and cracks. There's also this rash I get that does not bear a detailed description.

So, every year at this time, I prepare the schedule below, which consists of events marking the coming end of winter (or, if you prefer, the coming start of spring). No two of them are as much as four weeks apart, so whichever one is pending next can be thought of as, more or less, "not that far away." Each marks another opportunity to say, upon its arrival, that winter will be over soon.

I posted it to F__book a few years ago and got a surprisingly warm response. (Heh, see what I did there?)

So, since I am off of that service (and also off of Musk's train-wreck, preferring the revolutionary Mastodon instead), here it is on my personal blog. Hope you find it useful.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Where I Got The Question

I recently wrote that, when evaluating candidates for elected office, I only need them to answer a single question. It's not that I'm a single-issue voter, it's that a single issue correlates reliably with the other issues that I care about. (Reminder: candidates who are pro-choice swing my way on the other issues, while anti-choice candidates don't.)

To give credit where it is due, I connived the Just Tell Me This approach to political assessments from the writing of mediocre science fiction author L. Neil Smith. He was a lunatic about a single issue: guns. Here's his take:

If a politician isn’t perfectly comfortable with the idea of his average constituent, any man, woman, or responsible child, walking into a hardware store and paying cash — for any rifle, shotgun, handgun, machinegun, anything — without producing ID or signing one scrap of paper, he isn’t your friend no matter what he tells you.

If he isn’t genuinely enthusiastic about his average constituent stuffing that weapon into a purse or pocket or tucking it under a coat and walking home without asking anybody’s permission, he’s a four-flusher, no matter what he claims.

What his attitude — toward your ownership and use of weapons — conveys is his real attitude about you. And if he doesn’t trust you, then why in the name of John Moses Browning should you trust him?

Um, Mr. Smith? Since you trust everyone, why do you carry a gun?

Asking dead people questions is pointless and, really, kind of unfair. So let's put that one aside. The answer doesn't matter anyway because, of course, it is based on a false premise: Smith didn't trust everyone. That means his comparison of the voter to the politician is a classic example of the false equivalence. Smith asserts the voter should be given the unreviewable right to acquire deadly power over everyone around him, while ignoring the fact that the politician is asking for the consent of those over which he seeks to wield power. Smith's voter just buys power, while Smith's politician needs the voter's permission to get it.

It's a false equivalence to say the voter is being asked to trust the politician while the politician refuses to trust the voter, because the politician is presenting themself to the voter for the voter's evaluation. The politician has no access at all to power over the voter, unless and until the voter (and at least another 50% of the rest of the voters) finds the politician fit to have that power. A true equivalence would have the voter willing to condition their access to deadly power on the same review: are they fit to have it?

Returning, briefly, to the question I set aside: there is a difference between trusting one person and trusting everyone. Maybe Smith even knew that, as he referred to the "average constituent" being armed, rather than the outliers. Average folks don't commit mass murder. Outliers do that. So, sure, anyone who can show they are fit to have a gun, should be able to have a gun. Those who can't show it shouldn't have one.

I suppose Smith may have thought letting someone unfit to have a gun, have a gun, was still okay, since he may have been a quick-draw artist or something. But note that even Smith couldn't quite bring himself to say truly "everyone" should have a gun, because he qualified "child" with "responsible," which opens a can of worms Smith just ignored. For example, if he didn't think an irresponsible child should have a gun, was he okay with irresponsible adults having them? Again, was that because Smith thought he could shoot the irresponsible adults before the irresponsible adults shot Smith? I don't know. I just know I don't trust everyone, and neither did he or else, again, why did he want a gun?

Don't be a victim of a false equivalence. Smith didn't trust everyone, nor does any candidate for office. Nor do I. You don't either, I'd wager. Candidates must prove they're fit to hold power over others before they get any. Seems only reasonable that the rest of us ought to be held to that standard too.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Best Not To Go There

 From an interview with some flight attendants:

What strange things do people leave behind in the cabin?

It's best not to go there.

Everything your imagination can drum up, we'll have found it.

Many years ago, I did an assignment for an airline. I was in the office of their head of security and needed to do a quick math calculation, but I didn't have my calculator (this was before iPhones). He asked me, "Do you prefer HP or Texas Instruments?" I answered and he handed me a device from a drawer in his desk.

"Do you have one of each?" I asked him. "No," he said, "not one." Then he pulled a box out of that drawer and showed me that it contained about a hundred calculators.

"I have at least one of every calculator, cell phone, PDA, and pager that's ever been made. If it can fit your pocket, it's been left on our planes." They do try to return them, he said, but if no one asks about a particular type of gizmo on a particular flight within some number of days, it just goes into a big pile where the employees take what they want. There are just too many of them to keep track of each one's origin for very long.

And here I thought I was a clever boy for realizing my dad left nickels underneath the couch cushions.

Mastodon Rocks

Just FYI to anyone passes by: I'm three weeks into Mastodon and loving it. The whole "fediverse" concept is cool and solves a lot of the problems Twitter (and Facebook) have had (strikethrough there because I terminated my Twitter account and I haven't used Facebook in almost three weeks).

Mastodon is not a service. It's a software package anyone can use and run on a server of their own. A  Mastodon server is called "an instance." An instance can connect via the internet to others, allowing anyone on any of them to follow and be followed by anyone else. It works rather well, which each instance having its own local culture and policies. To follow someone on another instance you need to know their full Mastodon identity, but that's no harder than knowing an email address. Mine, for example, is this:

You can use that to follow me from any Mastdon instance that is part of the same federation of systems (which, as far as I can tell, is any of the ones you might want to choose to use, unless you are a racist gun-nut, which means you'll likely use an instance that is connected to other instances with people, uh... such as yourself).

I do believe the decentralized, local-culture/global-connectivity model Mastodon uses represents the future. This may be a real turning point in the history of mass social media.