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Friday, November 17, 2006


While you're waiting for the my next big post (whenever that'll be, although I do have one I'm "working on"), you need to go watch Death Note. Really. Even if you don't like anime. No ecchi (breasts, panties, etc.), no giant robots, no DBZish fighting scenes, no ridiculous comedy, no shooting machine guns out of Ferraris at 150 MPH; just pure brainpower and sometimes adrenaline-pumping suspense. Unless the quality drops off steeply before the end of the series (less than one third of the series has aired so far), it'll definitely make my list of best animes ever.

Go! Watch! Now!

Oh yeah, and the manga (graphic novel) version is out in English (well, about 2/3 of it, so far), if you prefer to read (Amazon carries it, and local book stores probably do, as well). I'll probably buy that around Christmas.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

& Bad Teacher Tricks

Warning: Rant ahead.

So, I just got my grade on my first test in operating systems class, and it was a three-fold disappointment (for three different reasons). The score itself was a 69% - an abysmal score for somebody whose straight-A record wasn't broken until the third semester of college. However, next to the score was a letter grade - an A. That's right, an A. To add insult to double-injury, the teacher showed the grade distribution. Out of the whole class, there were two As. That means that my grade of 69 was either the best or the second best grade in the entire class.

It shouldn't take much effort at all to realize that something is very, very wrong with this situation. How could a 69% possibly be even the second highest score in the class? There appears to be a certain mentality to it - the teacher seems to believe that curving the scores makes up for abysmal test writing.

Another example of a test I had with this teacher was a problem involving B+ trees, using variable length name fields. I can't remember what the exact problem was, but after looking at it for a couple minutes I called the teacher over to ask about it. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Is it just me, or is it theoretically impossible to solve this problem?
Teacher: It's possible
Me: How? This buffer is too small to store this much data
Teacher: Just assume that the average length will be less than [some number I don't remember] [note that this could - in theory - work because if the average name length was small enough it would fit]
Me: That assumption isn't realistic at all, and is never suggested anywhere in the problem. In fact the problem kind of suggests that it wouldn't be true...

A similar incident (actually more than one) occurred on this test, only it was after the test had already been graded. He had built an implementation-specific algorithm assumption into the answer he counted as correct (without ever mentioning this assumption in the problem). If, like I did, you gave a more general answer that would be true regardless of implementation, you got a 0. His excuse for this was that the typical implementation allows this assumption, never mind the fact that we also discussed in class an alternate implementation which violates this assumption. This annoyed me all the more because I got a later problem wrong for making an "invalid" assumption about the problem, based on the fact that that's typically how it's done in practice.

Then there are the enjoyable classes where the teacher thinks that they can get away with bad tests without curving, simply by making homework weigh more in the class total, relying on the homework grade to bring up the overall scores to acceptable levels.

Let me state it very clearly: if your first or second highest score in the class is a 69%, there is something wrong with your tests. If you consider the ability to ask the teacher questions to be a good alternative to making your questions clear, there is something wrong with your tests. If you have to make non-test things have a very high weight to compensate for very low test scores, there is something wrong with your tests.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

& Politics

So, after that last post, a lot of people (or at least as many as read this blog) might be wondering what my take on politics and differences in opinion are; how I can believe that people (on occasion) are totally wrong, without believing that there's something wrong with them. From my experience on political blogs and debates, ranging from far left to moderately far right, it seems to me that people like to pick up a single vice (or a couple) that explains the opposite opinion and run with it.

My take, however, is quite a bit different. While I certainly have run across people so caustic and annoying that I wish I could smash their skulls in with a ratchet, I believe that most of the time differences in political views are due to two specific factors:

1. Differences in assumptions. Assumptions usually arise when something cannot be proved to a satisfactory degree one way or another (or the person is simply is too lazy to learn about the evidence). Lots of examples of this in politics, because you usually can't tell a person's motive for certain; so some assume it's bad, some assume it's good.

Other times the cause of assumptions is more complex. People create a network of assumptions and conclusions based on evidence over their lives, which can color their input of new data, leading to new assumptions that would not have been made by a more objective analysis of the evidence. I wouldn't call this a vice per-se, as it's something everybody does, and is more based on chance (what assumptions the person already has) than being a good or bad person.

In either case, assumptions powerfully affect our logic. As assumptions are believed to be true, they are counted as facts in the reasoning process. Thus, two people might look at exactly the same evidence, and employ the same logic, yet come to two difference conclusions simply because they hold differing assumptions.

This reminds me of a comment I made on Juan Cole's blog. He couldn't understand why people persisted in taking the president of Iran's comment about "Israel's occupation of Palestine must fade from the pages of time" (his translation) "out of context", and thinking it meant Israel should be annihilated. He believed that the difference in perception was due to people reading too much into the "deceptive" "wiped off the map" translation. I pointed out that even his translation sounds threatening to anybody who doesn't, like him, hold the assumption that Iran's intentions are honorable (especially considering that the alternate assumption is usually that Iran has sinister intentions); a misunderstanding was not required to come to the opposite conclusion. His assumption that Iran's intentions were honorable prevented him from understanding the opposition, which were based on the opposite assumption.

2. Differing priorities. At least when I'm not emotionally involved (it's quite difficult for anyone to think totally rationally when you're emotionally involved), I always consider choices to be the evaluation of benefits and drawbacks. I actually consider it to be a weighted average - a math problem. Each consideration in making the choice is a variable, and each has an assigned weight. Different people weigh different things differently. Two people who evaluate exactly the same benefits and drawbacks may come to different conclusions simply because they have weighed one or more variables differently.

The example that most readily comes to mind is abortion. Just to list a few of the benefits (actually, they more take the form of arguments in favor of, but you should be able to get an idea of how you would construct a weighted average based on these):
- Difficult or impossible to get kids to always abstain or have "safe" sex
- The cost of making a girl have the baby even if she was irresponsible is too great
- The girl may have been raped, and not have been able to choose at all
On the drawbacks list:
- Killing of innocents is wrong
- Allowing abortion on demand encourages irresponsible behavior
- Blame rests with the parents (particularly the mother, for the purposes of this argument), not the child, and so we should not allow the blame and punishment to be transferred to the child (in the form of the abortion)

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I'm just giving you some ideas of the types of variables that appear in the evaluation of abortion. You alter the weight of one or more of those, and you can easily change the conclusion.

This is one thing that I do respect Neo-neocon for. Although I don't always agree with her conclusions (and, at varying times, her assumptions and logic), I do respect the way that she often attempts to come up with explanations for the other side that aren't simply assuming vices. Even if her analyses aren't always right, she makes a good effort (far above the average on political sites), and that requires respect.

& Partisan Politics and Logic 101

I love this class of "logic" employed heavily in... well, just about anywhere where there's an "us" vs. "them" mentality, particularly in politics:
Fact: Person X [on the other side] did Y
Assertion (assumed to be true without proof): Person X did Y for reason/objective Z [invariably bad]
Fact: There's no way Y could accomplish Z
Conclusion: Person X is bad, and an idiot, too

Uh huh. Maybe when you can come up with a reasonable explanation for your opponent's behavior other than a set of vices (greed, stupidity, cluelessness, just plain being evil, etc.) I'll take your politics seriously (note the subtle implication that I take few people's politics seriously).

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day Jitters?

Something is very unusual at Slashdot today. As of my writing of this post, 23 of the 24 articles featured on the main page have been tagged "itsatrap", and seven "itsnotatrap". Usually only articles that say that MS is doing something good (as rare as that is) get "itsatrap"; and I've never seen "itsnotatrap" before.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


So, that's one more thing I can scratch off the list of "things I need to see/do before I die". In a debate on another blog I ran across a guy that appears to be part of an atheist cult. By this I am using the term "cult" to refer to any group that dogmatically defines themselves such that they are the few, the proud, the enlightened, and everybody else that doesn't strictly adhere to their every word isn't a true believer.

As hard as that is to imagine, it actually happened. This guy refers to his as "true atheism", and "insults" others that don't adhere to his exquisite wording (which strangely tends to contradict the definitions found in dictionaries...) by saying they're not "true atheists". Is there such a thing as a false atheist? Is that like a false Aryan or false messiah? Do false atheists go to hell?

Excuse me while I go cry in the corner.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Late Night Psychosis

So, I'm sitting here thinking about Japanese and Korean, and a random thought strikes me. It's been hypothesized that Korean and Japanese are sister languages (though the divergence is fairly old). From what I've seen, I can imagine that. The basic mechanics of the two show similarity, although I've also seen some differences.

Korean has 14 consonants, roughly corresponding to h, n, k/g, l/r, b/p, m, ng, s, d/t, ch/j, kh, t, cha, p. It has 8 vowels, corresponding to ah, ou, oh, oh (don't ask me the difference, I don't know), oo, ee, ea, e. Note that there are additional characters (28 total, IIRC), but they appear to not be discrete sounds. Korean syllables can be very complex, like ours in English, having as many as 3 or 4 consonants and a couple vowels in a single syllable.

Now, Japanese is unusual (at least for us westerners) for having a remarkably simple syllable structure. A syllable is formed one of three ways: a vowel alone, a consonant followed by a vowel, and a consonant followed by two vowels (a diphthong). There are 16 consonants, roughly corresponding to k, s, t, n, m, y, r/l (something of a cross between those two; can also sound similar to 'd'), w, g, z, d, b, p, ch, j, sh; n is the only consonant that need not be followed by a vowel (although the vowel can sometimes be slurred/silent in some syllables). There are 5 vowels, which sound something like ah, eh, ee, oh, oo.

Native Japanese speakers have an inherent deficiency in the ability to pronounce more complex syllables. This is due to the fact that the brain develops based on the language spoken in very early childhood. Japanese children use very simple syllables (due to the nature of the Japanese language), and eventually their brains mature, and their old tongues lose the potential to learn new tricks (thus forming the stereotypical Japanese accent; actually, this is what forms basically all accents). You could call this a form of epigenetic inheritance (although that's not exactly what that term is typically used for) - in this case it's something which is inherited by culture, rather than by biology.

Now, a bit of evolutionary biology. The founder effect is a process of evolution where a small number of animals (I'm being general here; don't send me hate speech allegation) separate from the population and move to a new area where there isn't free exchange (breeding) with the original population. They thus form a new population that can evolve separately from the original.

My hypothesis is that this is what happened between Korean and Japanese (actually, it could also have been due to a bottleneck effect); but there's a twist. I think that the population where Japanese arose was in fact founded by members that broke off from the previously common population. Now, what if one of these founders had an unnatural (specifically, nongenetic) speech defect? A defect either in the language center of the brain, or the physical components of the voice system, such that they were unable to pronounce the more complex syllables? In theory, if this was taught to the children, it could produce the drastic simplification in syllable form seen in Japanese today.

Now that I think about it, there was actually a movie that had this idea in it - an isolated mother with an unnatural speech defect gave birth to two daughters and raised them alone. The daughters "inherited" the same slurred speech, even though they did not have the same physical defect.