Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Um...Where'd My Bank Go?

It was odd enough that my banking website didn't load--no "Under Construction" sign, no "We're having problems, come back later." Just a "UCCU-who?" from Firefox.

But when calls to any of their half-dozen numbers returned the same message, "All sockets are busy, try later," I started wondering. This is, you know, like, my BANK. It has all my money in it! Do my debit cards still work? Should I start looking up the details of the FDIC insurance?

Since I already had errands to run in that part of town, I swung by and asked what was up. Apparently they hadn't been robbed or gone out of business or had a run on the bank, just all their computerized systems were down.

Two questions come to mind:

1. Is there no backup system in place? A bank seems like a pretty critical place to have not working.

2. Why are ALL their systems (phone AND computer) on the same network? You'd think a bank would understand the concept of "not having all your eggs in one basket."

Anyway, we'll see how long it takes to get working again...

Friday, October 26, 2007

NaNoWriMo Google Gadget

I create a Google Gadget for NaNoWriMo (an event where writers get together and try to write 50,000 words during the month of November.

Here's a screenshot:

If you want to add the NaNoWriMo Google Gadget to your Google homepage, click the button:

Add to Google

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Prof IDs Types of Ticked-Off Customers

...which kind of customer are you when a company does you wrong? KSL had an article about a professor that identified three different kinds of ticked-off customers.

Utilitarian: just wants the problem fixed. Don't bother saying "Sorry," that might even be construed as trying to buy off the customer with emotion.

Oppositionals: aggressive, see the interaction as a battle. Give them options, let them feel victorious.

Relationals: all about the relationship. They want the "I'm sorry," save the compensation for after the apology.

Thinking back to three (more or less) recent experiences with big-name companies (T-Mobile, Comcast, and USAA Insurance), I think I fall into the Utilitarian category. Each time, I simply wanted them to refund me a incorrect charge, a month's payment for the month I was without service, and an incorrect late fee (respectively). I measure how sorry a company is by how willing they are to correct their mistake.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Post 100! Thesis Proposal Defense Successful!

Well, the thesis proposal defense was a success...not that it was ever really in doubt. Dr. Goodrich is a good adviser and I was pretty prepared. Next step: the thesis itself.

I don't know if I've ever mentioned it here, but my thesis is on showing that using mixed initiative results in better performance from a massively large number of heterogeneous robotic agents in a wilderness search and rescue domain, than using either adaptive or adjustable autonomy.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Prime Reporting

Here's a prime bit of reporting from an article on ksl.com, referring to a man found murdered:

"In fact there are no witnesses and therefore no suspects."

So I gather two things from this: the only possible suspects are people who are witnesses, and all witnesses are instantly suspects. "Well, that wraps up THIS case! We don't have any witnesses, so we don't have any suspects. Too bad someone wasn't watching out the window when the crime was committed, so we could have suspected them."

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Proving Tautologies

Several years ago I took a computer science class, where I seem to remember my teacher saying something about there being no easy way to prove tautologies (a tautology is a Boolean equation that is always true). I'm no expert in the field, but looking online it seems like there are two main techniques for proving that an equation is a tautology: using a truth table (brute force method) or doing a proof.

However, it seems to me that you might be able to use a probabilistic technique as well. If you have a Boolean variable named "A" (a Boolean variable can have two values: true and false) then it has a 50% chance of being true, and 50% chance of being false. "A" is therefore not a tautology, because half the time it would be false and a tautology must always be true.

But what about A & B? If A is true and B is true, than A & B is true. If either or both A and B are false, then A & B is also false. Here is the truth table technique:

A B | A&B
F F | F
F T | F
T F | F
T T | T

Note that A & B is always false, except where A and B are both true. Therefore, A & B are not a tautology, because a tautology must always be true.

But here's where the probabilist method comes in. If there's a 50% chance of A being true (note how half the rows have A as True), and there's a 50% chance of B being true (note how half the rows have B as True), then there's a (1/2) * (1/2) chance of A & B being true. That's a 1/4 chance of A & B being true, and we can double check against the right-most column in the truth table above: 1 out of 4 results are true.

So that's & ("and") but there are a lot more logical operations.

  • And / conjunction ( & )
  • Or / disjunction ( | )
  • Not / negation ( ~ )
  • Implication / if-then ( --> )
  • Equivalence / biconditional / xnor / if-and-only-if (<--> )
  • Not equivalent / exclusive disjunction / xor ( <-/-> )
Plus several more, but these are the basic ones.

Since this post is already getting long, I'll just list the probability equations for those logical operations, without explaining how they can be derived (in my case, from the Venn diagrams).

e.g. "Pa" means the Probability of "a".

  • And: Pa*Pb
  • Or: Pa + Pb - Pa*Pb
  • Not: 1 - Pa
  • Implies: 1 - Pa + Pa*Pb
  • Equivalence: 1 - Pa - Pb + 2*Pa*Pb
  • Not Equivalent: Pa + Pb - 2*Pa*Pb
So let's take a look at a sample equation and prove whether it's a tautology or not.

(a & b) | (~a) | (~b)

Truth table:

a b | a&b | ~a | ~b | (~a | ~b) | ((a&B) | (~a | ~b))
F F | F | T | T | T | T
F T | F | T | F |
T | T
T F | F | F | T |
T | T
T T | T | F | F |
F | T

All the rows have a True in the right-most column, so that is a tautology. Now let's try the probabilistic method.

(a & b) | (~a) | (~b) =
(Pa*Pb) | (1-Pa) | (1-Pb) =
(Pa*Pb + 1 - Pa + Pa*Pb + Pa*Pb*(1-Pa)) | (1-Pb) =
(Pa*Pb + 1 - Pa) | (1-Pb) = (note that as we distributed Pa over (1-Pa), Pa & Pa simplifies to just Pa, and we can cancel terms out)
Pa*Pb + 1 - Pa + 1 - Pb - (Pa*Pb + 1 - Pa)*(1 - Pb) =
Pa*Pb + 1 - Pa + 1 - Pb - Pa*Pb + Pa*Pb - 1 + Pb + Pa - Pa*Pb =
= 1

"1", or 100% chance of being true, proving it's a tautology.

Is that better than a truth table, or a formal proof? It sure looks longer than a truth table, and a formal proof would probably only have a half-dozen lines at the most.

Well, a formal proof requires you to memorize various laws and rules. This technique just took basic algebra. And a truth table grows very quickly: there's 2^n rows, where "n" is the number of distinct variables. In this example, there were two: "a" and "b", so there were 2^2 or 4 rows. This probabilistic method, on the other hand, grows nicely. Let's look at another simple example:

a & b & c & d & e & f & g & h & i & j

How would this proof play out formally? With 10 different variables, there would be 2^10 or 1024 rows in a truth table. That's a big table (we're ignoring shortcuts that we can sometimes take when making a truth table, since we can only "sometimes" take them and we want a method that is always fast). Using our probabilistic technique, though, the proof is this:

Pa*Pb*Pc*Pd*Pe*Pf*Pg*Ph*Pi*Pj =
(1/2)*(1/2)*(1/2)*(1/2)*(1/2)*(1/2)*(1/2)*(1/2)*(1/2)*(1/2) =
= 1/1024

So this particular proof is only three lines, and it shows that there's a 1/1024 chance of each row being True. We need 1024 / 1024 or "1" or 100% chance of each row being True, so we can see we're a long ways from having a tautology.

With this massively long post written, I have to say that I have no idea if this is really unique, or even helpful. It seems like it might be, but I don't know enough about the problem to know if my insight is really an insight. Come Monday, I'll ask around the lab and see if anyone knows whether this way of proving tautologies has been done before.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Poor Neighbors of Newlyweds

I feel for the neighbors of newlyweds (such as the other tenants of the four-plex Child and I live in), and Child isn't helping. A couple mornings ago, she yelled at the top of her lungs, "Stop biting me!"

Of course, she was talking to Acouchi, her cat, but I'll bet the neighbors didn't know that. Since the other three tenants are all single middle-aged women, I'm going to get some glares next time I see one of them...

Macs (*spit*)

Child's MacBook has a warranty, and let's just say it's a good thing.

A couple weeks ago, it died with a gray screen, and an icon of a folder with a question mark on it. Not being a Mac person, I had to go online and find a few websites, but nothing they suggested helped. Child took it into the store, where they told her it was a crashed hard drive. Unless we wanted to pay $1500, all her stuff was lost.

She finally got back her computer, and a few days later, the same thing happened. Identical crash screen. We took it in again. This time, it was a simple corrupted file, and they were able to back up all her data, fix the disk, and restore the data.

Now out comes the suspicious side of me. Was it really a crashed hard drive the first time? Or was it just simpler to SAY that and toss in a new hard drive? A lot less work for the employees, and they weren't getting anything out of it because it was under warranty.

I understand that different problems can result in the same "error message," but a software problem is a lot different than a hardware problem, and I would think would result in a different crash screen. Not being hugely familiar with Macs or hardware problems I don't know for sure, but until then, I'm going to remain suspicious.

If nothing else, if it had been a PC, it wouldn't have cost $1500 to recover Child's data.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Well, while we're on the subject of lists, here are my favorite webcomics, excluding popular print comics like "Dilbert" that I also enjoy reading. Looking for a bit of humor in your life? Check these out.

By the way, I decided to add a "favorites" link to each comic, then realized it would be almost impossible to pick a favorite comic from some of them. So instead of a "favorite," I'll just post a "good" one. But...I'll still call them "Favorite Strips." Because they are. I just have...multiple favorites. I'll post a couple now, the rest later.

  • Schlock Mercenary - Science fiction, including "hard" sci-fi at times. Famous for its unfailing update schedule and vast archive. The drawing starts out crude (I speak comparatively, since it's still far better than my stick figures), but quickly improves. Early storylines are more "laugh-a-minute," while later storylines (in my opinion) sacrifice a little humor for more depth. Still one of the best webcomics out there. Favorite Strip (Eat hot suppression, psycho-bears!)
  • Ozy and Millie - Probably my next favorite webcomic after Schlock Mercenary. Also quite a large archive. If you like Calvin and Hobbes, you'll probably like this; it also shows the world through a child's eyes while giving them grown-up understanding. Throws an occasional political joke into the mix, although it's usually not very heavy-handed and I always enjoy them. Fairly regular update schedule, although after Schlock Mercenary's impeccable update record, you have to add that "fairly" qualifier to other webcomics no matter how often they update. Favorite Comic (Read the one before and after as well)
  • The Whiteboard - Paintballing-focused webcomic, but you don't have to be a paintballer to understand most of the humor (I'm not a paintballer either).
  • Dr. McNinja - He's a doctor. And a ninja. Sometimes random (Banditos! Riding raptors!) but almost always funny.
  • Faux Pas - Usually pretty funny, and the artwork is high-quality.
  • Freefall - Hard to classify this one. You can probably call it science fiction, although it fluctuates from very good humor and some very good science, to a very slow stretches where the humor is slim. Overall, definitely worth a read through the archives and keeping up to date on, but don't expect a consistent humor.
  • Starslip Crisis - Science fiction, although not as "hard" as Schlock Mercenary. Usually black and white.
  • Digger - Black and white webcomic about a wombat. Very well done, and the author has won awards for her style of black and white artwork. Unfortunately the archives are behind a payment gateway, so I can't recommend this one unless you don't mind paying or don't mind picking up in the middle of the story.
  • PhD - Life as a graduate student. As a grad student I find it hilarious (it's funny 'cause it's true!), and I think non-grad students would also find most of it funny.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Short Story Markets

Alright, I'm slowly going to get around to sending my Writers of the Future-rejected stories to other markets. Going through the list of SWFA-qualifying venues, here's what I've found:

These are either science-fiction-only or mixed venues, mostly focused on short story. Perhaps this list will be added to in the future.

Monday, October 08, 2007

High Spur Canyon

On September 29, Child and I, along with a couple other friends, went through High Spur Canyon. For a last-minute decision ("Spur" of the moment? Ha ha!) it was an amazingly fun canyon. It was in the Robber's Roost area, which I've always found to be rather drab, but this canyon was surprisingly pretty.

Below is a picture of us in the "Corkscrew" section of the canyon; a red staircase of rock that spiraled downwards in giant wavy steps.

Unlike some slot canyons, High Spur would open up at frequent occasions, before quickly closing into slot again.

To my surprise, we also encountered water. More exactly, we encountered mud, covered with a thin layer of water. See the further pictures for an illustration.

This mud was interesting. It was incredibly slick: one of my friends stood on the shore of a wide, knee-deep pool, and the mud was so slick that he simply slid downhill until he ended up in the middle of the pool. The banks of the pool weren't even that steep! It made very tricky going, however, especially since I hadn't brought my "sticky-shoes," not expecting any water.

At least the mud smelled nice. Sometimes, the mud smells like stale water and rotting animal carcasses (and for good reason: the water is stale and has rotting animal carcasses floating in it). This canyon, however, had collected enormous amounts of pine needles (see picture below) which not only solidified the mud slightly, but gave a nice scent to the air and a nice tickle to bare feet wading in it.

At times, however, even the solidifying power of the pine-needles wasn't enough. There was a point where my feet would touch ground under six inches of water, then continue to sink until I was mid-thigh deep in mud. Walk fast and think light thoughts! ...and pixie dust would be handy also.

The trip was a little cool and incredibly windy, although nothing I couldn't stand in a short-sleeve trip for most of the hike. However, on the drive home through the mountains, we ran into the first snowfall I had been in this year. I wish we had had the inclination at the time to stop and get some more pictures, because it was pretty. The windward side of the pine trees turned white with blown snow while the lee sides stayed green, with the whole scene interspersed with small patches of brilliant gold deciduous trees.

At this point, however, my camera was full and I was scrambling to delete pictures of Child's mother's 50th birthday-party cookies to make room, but we were past the prettiest parts by the time I finished. It's hard to get good pictures through a moving car window anyway.

Overall, a wonderful camera and one I'd definitely do again. Watch out for the drive there, though. Once you get down to the area, it's still another two or three hour drive over four-wheel drive roads to get to the actual canyon.

Motorcycle Stuck in...Parking Spot?

I've always thought it would be nice to have a motorcycle. Cheap on the pocketbook, fun to drive, easy to find a parking spot.

Apparently, not as easy to get out of a parking spot.

Walking to school, I cut through the motorcycle parking section of a campus parking lot. There I saw something rather amusing: a person on a motorcycle couldn't get out of their parking spot. They had parked right against a row of cars, which blocked him/her from going forward. The two motorcycles on either side were parked so close, however, that he/she could only back straight out. However, the row of motorcycles behind him/her was so close that they couldn't turn to either side as they backed out.

The person was sitting there, half out of the parking spot, with the back tire already hitting the motorcycle behind them, with a presumably-puzzled look on their helmeted face.

I found it amusing.

A New Low in Family Communication

It's always been a standing joke in our family that the children who are off living on their own never get the family news. Want to visit a relative? Better call first, they may have moved. And gotten married. And had a baby.

Anyway, today I received an email from a canyoneering buddy, expressing his condolences at my grandmother passing away.


Granted, I knew she wasn't expected to last the weekend, but this was the first solid (?) news I'd gotten. Apparently this guy had gotten a mass-email sent out by my dad's work, also expressing condolences (they both work for the university), then emailed me. Let's see...Dad --> Dad's Work --> Friend --> Me.

You think that's bad? The forwarded email says she passed away on October 5. Today is the 8th. We have GOT to work on our communication in this family!

But mostly I find it amusing. :) I guess you have to understand our family; we're all so close that it's just assumed that news sort of "flows" out to everyone. And it's not like I wasn't expecting it anyway. So here's to the next life, and the doctrine of eternal families. See you soon, grandma!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

General Updates...

Been a while since I posted, so I thought I'd give a general update.

In positive news, I learned a few days ago that my last entry to Writers of the Future did actually get an Honorable Mention. Yay. But not good enough. I even know what I'm doing wrong: my stories aren't short, succinct, and sciency-enough.

I really just need to find a new market for my stories, but WotF is such a prestigious contest that it's hard to give it up. Either find a new market, or change my writing style. And I'm tempted to attempt to write a story that's more in line with the style they like publishing, just to see if I can do it. Not giving up my artistic integrity, of course...

Halloween is approaching fast. It's Child's favorite holiday, so I'll be dressing up. As something. Anyway, I can't remember if I mentioned that I already got an inmate-grown pumpkin (connections in low places), and just acquired a gourd with a painted face a couple days ago. (singing) "It's beginning to look a lot like Halloween!" (/singing)

The Quark writing group has been going well. The new leader (onelowerlight) is very dedicated, and a good writer to boot. As with the beginning of each semester, we have a lot of newcomers to the group, and they still have a lot to learn about being in a writing group. At the last meeting, I realized there were two big things that people in a writing group need to remember.

1. Don't defend your story. Don't explain your story. As a matter of fact, while your story is being critiqued, you shouldn't say anything at all except to ask for clarification of a critique or to say "thank you." The critiquer isn't interested in your explanation of why you wrote something the way you did, they just want to tell you what they had problems with. Later, on your own time, you can decide what critiques to accept and which to reject.

2. Stay on target. Keep your critique succinct and to the point. Don't feel you need to rationalize your critique by listing or describing other books you read; that just wastes valuable time and does little to increase the credibility of your critique. If the person is smart, they'll accept or at least consider your critique without a list of references. If they're dumb, they'll reject your critique regardless of your list of references. Even more important, don't stray into unrelated topics. "Your character's name is Julius? That reminds me of a totally unrelated book I read about Julius Caesar that yada yada yada..."