Supersonic Man

September 27, 2011

coops and kestrel

Filed under: birds,Photo — Supersonic Man @ 8:20 pm

Added two new birds. The sooty fox sparrow:

aaaaaaaaand… cooper’s hawks! We saw three of them. They were all pretty far off, though, so this is the best picture I got.  I think this is a young-un.

Also, a few days ago we saw a female kestrel at a wetland on the bay.

September 19, 2011

document formats

Filed under: computing,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 7:10 pm

Man, I wish there was a real open document format that was standardized, supported, and accepted.  As it is we’ve got .doc, .docx, .odt, .rtf, and .pdf, and every one of them is either too narrow and proprietary, too unpopular, or too slippery and variable in implementation.

Not having a real version of MS Word here (but having access to the online MS Live version), I’ve been discovering just how un-standard the .doc and .docx formats really are.  No two pieces of software seem to be able to load each other’s content without mangling it!  Some apps even fuck up when reading back their own output.  The end result is that there is no One Truth as to how a given .doc(x) file is supposed to appear on the page — it comes down to an argument between which piece of software has a bigger circle of believers.  And this applies even between different versions of the same app, not just between competing suites.

The .pdf format, which I have long regarded with distaste and mild loathing, may actually be the least bad of the bunch.  At least with that, you get an inarguable visual layout.  Too bad a lot of people still want resumes in Word format.  When I give them one of those, I never know what they’re going to see when they read it.

September 18, 2011


Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 5:12 pm

This post has been promoted to a permanent home on my personal website, here.

September 12, 2011

junco jump

Filed under: birds,Photo — Supersonic Man @ 9:16 pm

September 6, 2011

remember webrings?

Filed under: computing,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 6:57 pm

Time to update my creaky website a bit, if people who might hire me decide to google my name.

First step: take out all the old WebRing links.  I finally dropped all my webring memberships.

September 3, 2011

are search engines getting worse, not better?

Filed under: computing,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 12:35 pm

I think search engines actually worked better seven years ago than they do now.

Back then, search engines worked only with words, not concepts, and didn’t pretend any different.  And if a given search didn’t narrow down to the topic you were trying to learn about, you could use word-based techniques to make it more accurate: make this word mandatory, that word optional, this one exact, that one approximate, and avoid that other one.  And it wasn’t easy for everyone, but it could work pretty well.

Nowadays, the search engines still offer those options and techniques… but THEY DON’T WORK.  They’re useless.  You still get nothing but the mass consensus idea of what is most “relevant”, which generally means that you remain inundated by exactly the kind of material that you’re trying to get past in order to reach the good stuff.  The problem is most obvious when you try to narrow a topic down to some subtopic: you just can’t get past the pages that are all about the main topic, which are probably all the stuff you already know and don’t need to see.  Instead of being dumb but neutral, google and its competitors are now just smart enough to actively thwart you.

The algorithm they use has an unintended side effect of always favoring the broadly general and vague over the detailed and specific and narrowly focused.  (This in turn has the side effect of favoring promotional fluff over criticism, which might not be unintentional.)

The long term solution is, of course, for search engines to learn to understand natural language questions, so they can know the difference between actual relevance and mere similarity of vocabulary.  But that might still be twenty years away.  In the meantime, I suggest a simple change of philosophy.  Namely: when the user goes to the trouble to make extra input to try to constrain your results — for example, adding a phrase exclusion to a previous search — then take that input seriously, dammit!  If the user took the trouble to make a search term highly specific, then treat it as highly specific, without interposing a translation phase and going “if he mentioned X, then he may have meant the related concept Y instead”.  It boils down to the same advice I feel like I end up giving for every user interface issue — it just comes down to always giving direct commands from the human user precedence over everything else, without making exceptions and excuses.  This is easy to say but sometimes hard to carry out in practice.  For instance, in desktop apps, to always give precedence to the user may mean you have to use lots of multithreading, and make lots of operations abortable when they’re half finished.  Even when it’s hardest, though, it’s always worth it — it pays off in customer satisfaction.  Nothing annoys users more than giving them a command interface, and then refusing to follow the commands they put into it.

September 2, 2011

a possibly instructive historical parallel to what’s gone wrong with the GOP

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 2:22 am

What the right is going through now is something that the left has faced in the past, and overcome. Namely, an effort by a powerful but covert outside group to hijack their passion to serve an agenda not in the country’s interest.

The grassroots of the right are formed of people who believe in individual responsibility, hard work, entrepreneurship, limited government, and Jesus. And they’re now being led around by rich libertarians whose agenda is just to take all the money and not pay any taxes on it, and who care nothing for responsibility or hard work or The Lord. (Especially not hard work.) The propaganda resources and superior organization of this covert wing of the right is distorting the agenda of the entire conservative side of politics.

It might be instructive for both sides to remember that this has happened before… on the left. We faced the same challenge of a well-organized covert influence trying to distort our agenda.

The commies.

I saw them in action when I lived in the Berkeley area. The classical left always had Soviet influence behind it, and even after the Berlin Wall came down, there were still awfully well funded and well organized communist groups at work… many of them were Maoist. Any time there was a legitimate mass protest, they ran out to the front of the crowd, acted like leaders, and made the whole thing look like it was in support of a Red agenda. Some of them were antithetical to everything a progressive liberal really stands for — I ran into one in a laundromat once who told me right out in the open that she believed that once her party led the revolution, they would have every right as the “vanguard” to take over power without recourse to democracy.

The progressive left managed to shrug off most of this communist influence without losing anything of its heart and drive in the process. It is stronger and more honest now, I think, without that distorting overseas influence. I just hope conservative America can do the same, and return to its true base values, which are a legitimate part of America and deserve representation.

I just fear that the naturally greater tendency of conservatives — especially religious ones — to more frequently be followers instead of independent thinkers may undermine their ability to break free, and many of them may be doomed to follow a corrupt and failed oligarchic movement to its self-destruction.  Some might come out of it enlightened and converted to the other side, but if the mainstream of the Republican party stays stuck in the old pattern, a lot of people will just be hurt, confused, directionless, and without a home in the political system, because neither party can speak for them. That’s a dangerous and unstable ingredient in politics, ripe for misuse.

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