Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Google Voice Search and the Quest for a Tricorder

Let's face it, Gene Roddenberry invented the perfect universe. Right there, back in Star Trek TOS, they had everything we could ever want.

Matter transport: check
Faster-than-light : check
Flawless communications: check
Magic sensing devices: check
Voice activated computer: check


images.jpgWe're not doing bad on a few of those. Stephen Hawking's leading up the warp drive effort, so I know that is in good hands. Quantum entanglement is getting us some openings into the matter transport, at least of a sort. If you are a single photon, at least. The communication thing is going OK, as long as you are a Verizon customer, and with the iPhone (or G1 or whatever pretender to the throne you want to evangelize), we've got a device that has at least the look-and-feel of a Tricorder.

Though I still find that my iPhone is unable to detect the presence of aline life forms, no matter what combination of buttons I press.

images-1.jpgSo when I downloaded the new upgrade of Google.app to my Tricorder/iPhone, I was curious to see just how it handled. The big news was voice activated search. And, granted, having a small handheld device show you a map to the nearest market where you could buy some nice bulk tea leaves is not quite the same as saying "Tea, Earl Grey, Hot" and having a cup of the stuff magically appear, but it would be a start.

And yes, I know that I just mixed my generations. Back off, fanboy.

I saw the news -- it was available -- went to the AppStore and downloaded -- and promptly had to deal with the beginnings of a very busy week for a few hours. But then, the moment of much excitement arrived and, while coming back from checking out the setup in one of the training rooms here at the office, I paused, tapped the Google icon, pressed the little microphone image, held the phone to my lips and said:

"Calories burned climbing stairs."

A neat little waveform appeared on the screen. Apple's sleek circling dashes icon appeared for a moment.

Search Results: "Chlamydia."

Woah there, Google, woah! Do you know something I should? Becuase I've got to say that that result was definitely NSFW.

I proceeded to climb said stairs (eleven flights worth) without knowing how much good I was doing my self for the act (a number I actually continue to remain ignorant of because I'm fairly convinced that it will prove to be much smaller than I hope it to be and therefore the knowledge would actually prove entirely dis-motivating). I was disappointed, but resolved to try again later.

And, later, I had another chance. I figured that perhaps the clever developers at Google had intended this thing to be used for more typical phone searches, the sort of things that you'd search for while driving hands-free.

"Red Robin"

There is a dirty bird just across the street, actually, so I thought this might be throwing the app a nice, easy underhand ball. This time the results were beautiful. Red Robin's corporate site, directions to the one across the street (it linked in with the location services to know where I was -- take that, Roddenberry!), phone number ready to go.

So is Google Voice Search biased towards weight gain rather than a healthier lifestyle? Or was some other force at work. In any case, it was all rather disappointing. Oh well, we are even further from the Tea-Earl-Grey-Hot stage of technology than I expected. Unless you want a burger, and in that case we're fine.

I hid. I sulked. I typed all my searches. I made tea using bags taken from cupboards and hot water from sinks.

But you know time passes -- and time heals all wounds. Even those deep cutting injuries caused by disappointment in an overhyped new product.

So this morning I fired up Google Voice Search. Just to reassure myself of its inadequacy.

"Calories burned climbing stairs"

Search Results: "Calories burned climbing stairs"

You've got to be kidding me, right?

"Cosmic microwave background"

Search Results: "Cosmic microwave background"

Whoa, there, what are you guys at the Googleplex up to? Rolling out a revised backend, perhaps? In any case, I had to take my hat off. A tool that I was about to consign to the dubious utility of enabling hands free searches while driving -- a convenience that would still leave the technique of viewing search results undefined and unrefined -- suddenly grew into an interesting and potentially powerful interactive device. Now I can sit alone in a corner, mumbling to myself, learning about astrophysics!

Now if we can get those folks over at Google working double time on the rest of the situation, perhaps get Hawking to join the staff even, we should really start making some progress. And once that gets underway, paltry tools like voice search will seem like noting.

Particularly when you'll be able to just slingshot the Enterprise back in time and go fiture out exactly what WAS going on back there in the epoch of reionization.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Does this surprise anyone?

Eclipse Aviation Files Chapter 11

Well, does this surprise anyone?

Naturally, they are blaming the current economic crisis. Now I don't want to go saying that aforsaid economic crisis is some sort of small time setback, but I'd like to make the point that when the going gets tough, the tough had better have decent business plans. And when you have a fundamentally flawed model -- and are selling a fundamentally flawed product -- and have fundamentally flawed management and customer relations practices -- you are basically screwed no matter what happens.

Eclipse1.jpgEclipse was a company that might have survived a few more years had the original timing worked out. They'd have launched towards the beginning of the boom and managed to get a few hundred products delivered before the carpet was so cruelly yanked out from under them. Odds are a lot of those little jets would have been repo'd, but that's another story. But I think that a longer life (and more sales) would only have lead to their death by other means -- the fundamental design, production, QA, QC, and customer services issues would have had enough time to come (further) to light and killed Eclipse off just as surely, all be it more slowly, than the economy tanking appears to have.

It is a bit like the arguments that circulate around assisted suicide or on nighttime crime dramas: if you take a life of someone who is going to die soon enough anyway, how much of a murder is it, really?

The missed payroll two weeks ago was the final warning bell, the tocsin announcing that the end was mere days away. I am sad for those employees of Eclipse who were toughing it out until the end, hoping that the dream had been built upon firmer footings. But I've been part of a business plagued by systemic strategic, ethical, operational, and managerial issues just like Eclipse. And you could sort those of us at that operation into two camps: those of us who knew the place was a s&*% hole and were looking for a way out and those of us who knew the place was a s&*% hole and were too scared to take action. Either way, each person's destiny was came down to their own active or passive decisions and pointing at the company's flaws will only get you so much pity, not when the writing is on the wall for anyone to see.

So my best wishes to those of you at Eclipse who were trying to keep the dream alive -- and when things rebound and lessons are learned, I hope to see a new product of your efforts in the air. And before anyone goes pointing this out to me -- I know that Chap'11 isn't the true death of a company. Many concerns have emerged, successful and vibrant, from protection. But it is such a dramatic indicator of failure at so many levels that in this case, I do think, it spells the end of Eclipse as we have known it.

But in the meantime, as ever, aerospace remains a harsh mistress.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The fun of bringing light to the dark -- metaphorically

So I decided it was time to give politics a rest. This isn't, after all, a political blog. It is a blog about odd, rambling things like wind tunnels and cocktails and cipher systems. And so, after the quiescent period following the election, as I slowly bring The Noodlebook back to life, I thought I'd get it going with a little science.

Dark energy, to be precise.

And not even dark energy as such because, let's face it, both my own small skill as an elucidator and the period of time I have available for this endeavor are dramatically inadequate for tackling so deep a mystery. Instead, in the classic talk-about-the-talking postmodernism of blogs, my attention turns to the investigations seeking to understand this phenomena rather than the phenomena itself.

I have, after all, always been much more of an experimentalist than a theoretician.

But to recap, dark energy is a postulated force that would explain some rather odd behavior of the universe. The oddity in question (for there are several oddities about our universe that require postulated things to explain them) is that the universe seems to be expanding at an ever increasing rate. Now that the universe is expanding is not at all odd. We've known about this since Edwin Hubble, a man brilliantly characterized as a "large mass of ego" by Bill Bryson, noticed that all the galaxies in the universe are expanding away from each other. Subsequently, a series of theories beginning with the "big bang" and moving on to modern inflationary cosmology have homed in on the idea of the universe originating at some sort of very small beginning (there are a few variations) and expanding outward from some sort of initial impulse (again, there are a few variations).

This is all fine and good and if you want some ideas about the how/why on that it won't surprise anyone that I now recommend Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos. But this expansion should be slowing -- as the shared gravitational attraction of all the, well, stuff in the universe gathers together and pulls on itself. And for a few billion years, it appears that it did. But then a few billion years ago, the rate of expansion began accelerating again. There is no good reason for this, not with the rule that we've been playing by.

dark_energy_diagram.jpg


It is as if, to invoke a classic Feynmanism, we were watching a chess game, thought we'd got the rules and moves pretty much figured out, and then someone castled. Uh-oh, what the hell was that?

Since then, cosmologists, astrophysicists, particle physicists, and plain old ordinary physicists have all gotten in on the bandwagon to try and explain why. The lure of being the first to explain a new (or dramatically revised) physical force is a pretty big one!

Alright, enough of that back-explanation. I said that actually trying to explain dark energy was beyond me. Oh, but it is different from dark matter. I know. They could have come up with some more varied names. Like "The Smuckers Effect" or perhaps "The Universal Choo-Choo." Either one might have been better.

So this dark energy stuff, whatever it is, is suddenly pushing the universe apart faster and faster. Or not so suddenly. Or it remains constant or decreases as a quadratic function while gravity decreases as a cubic function. Sorry. Got distracted again. The point is, we have no idea what this force, this dark energy, is. We can only observe what it does. And that makes it a wonderful place to study and understand the interplay between observation (experiment, if you like) and theory.

Science proceeds, in an idealized and perfect world, as a series of iterative steps. Someone observes a phenomena (say the increased rate of expansion of the universe). That person (and a few others) say "Damn, we didn't expect that!" Everyone then retires to their chalkboards and starts thinking of theories to explain what is causing this phenomena. The theories will span a broad range. Some might involve zero point energy, others extra dimensions, still others giant turtles. As the theorists theorize, the experimenters begin to contemplate the next round of experiment or observation (I think of experiment as an active act -- where we do something, such as at a particle collider -- while observation is a passive act where we take data on what the universe is already up to -- as with a telescope).

Theorists and experiments/observers are different. The former are the ones with the unkempt hair, the latter the ones with the dirty clothes and coffee addictions (particularly in astronomy).

Anyhow, while the theorists are using their imaginations and running the numbers, the experimenters/observers are doing their thing and building the next generation of machines. What proceeds then is something like a lottery. Or perhaps a reality TV show, though I doubt "Survivor: CERN" or "America's Next Top Scientists" or "Theorizing with the Stars" will take off anytime soon.

Any good theory brings a few ingredients to the table. It must offer an explanation for why the phenomenon under consideration occurs. It ideally should offer a mechanism to explain how it occurs. And it should provide some sort of mathematical formula that can fit the observed data to a high degree of accuracy. Lastly, that mathematical rigor should allow for some degree of prediction of as yet unobserved phenomena that can test the accuracy of the theory. This prediction might simply involve taking the measured predictions to a few orders of magnitude more precision. Or it might involve a wholly new physical manifestation. Either way, it provides some way of telling if the theory will have the winning number come lottery time -- the return of experimental results.

We go round and round like this. The results from each round of experiment feed the next round of theory. The predictions of a given round of theory guide the direction in which the experimenters/observers turn their searching. Rarely, however, are things so precisely beautiful as this, like turns in a board game. Usually, after a while, everything gets all out of synch and the experimental and theoretical processes get all overlapped.

But dark energy is new. It was accidental in a wonderful way, and the demands of further experiment have allowed for a long and fruitful phase of theoretical contemplation. And now the experimenalists are about to have their day. And by now I mean in about eight years, because that is how long it takes to get a space mission from budgetary contemplation to launch pad. And then a few more years of taking data.

Science is for the patient, these days.

This whole process of theory-experiment (or observation) is crucial to the scientific quest for understanding. It always galls me when people talk about how scientists don't actually know anything -- they just have a bunch of guesses. This points to a fundamental misunderstanding of what a theory is. It isn't a guess. If it was, there might be some credence to the idea of giant turtles playing a role in dark energy. Rather, a theory is an educated attempt to explain a phenomena. It is a look by a very experienced observer at a set of behaviors, an assessment of what those behaviors might mean, and an attempt to predict what they might mean for the future.

We all form theories all the time. When we spot a car swerving erratically while driving at 2am, we say "Woah, look how that dude is driving. I betcha' he's drunk. Look out, he might miss that turn..." We observed phenomena, offered an explanation, and attempted a prediction. The depth of prediction can be tricky. If we only say "This driver will keep swerving around" it may not eliminate other possibilities such as looking for something he dropped, having an epileptic seizure, or making out with the passenger. But it is entirely possible that a drunk will in fact make that next turn too. Or never intend to take it.

The scientific process is nothing different. It is not (and does not pretend to be) a fixed rulebook. It is an evolving set of understanding of the universe. Science is not a set series of answers as it is so often (and so wrongly) presented. Rather it is a process, a pursuit of those answers.

And so when more accurate measurements gave rise to results that disagreed with the predictions inspired by Hubble's results, the result was not joy and frustration, but excitement at the opportunity to solve a new puzzle. An Asimov quote that those who have read email coming from my work address will recognize summarizes this mood better than anything:

The most exciting phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny..."


And now the prospect of dark energy is out there, proposing a grand enough prize and an exciting enough pursuit that seemingly everyone is getting into the game. Established scientists, cranks, those hawking ideas from the fringe, conspiracy theorists, random posters on the Internet: each one has some idea, spun slightly to reflect individual specialities and biases, for what might be at work.

The observational guys have been at it just as enthusiastically, constantly devising new approaches to reflect the latest ideas of the theorists and the latest technological developments in measurement apparatus. Dark energy isn't something we can test in a laboratory with a dark-energy-ometer or create with a steel cased apparatus connected to several thick cables. It acts, by all accounts, over vast distances and only manifests to a measurable degree when other forces (namely gravity) are at their most feeble. And so an earth-bound measurement (even if we knew what to look for) seems doomed to be swamped by noise.

This results in observatories. For various reasons, these would be observatories best sited in space, at the L2 point about a billion miles from earth, where it is dark and cold and not much gets in the way. The idea would be to observe, with great precision, the distances and recessional velocities of several thousand (or million) objects in the middle distance of the universe, the distances over which dark energy starts to manifest -- out to about twenty billion light years (117,580,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles).

A few approaches have shown up. The first involved hunting for something called Type 1A supernovae. These moderately rare explosions function through a well understood mechanism that has the handy feature of producing a reliably predictable brightness. The result is something called a "standard candle" -- an object of known intrinsic brightness which allows the estimation of its distance by comparing that source brightness with the observed brightness. That's good -- and Type 1A's are how this whole dark energy thing got started -- but it turns out it is not good enough.

Clouds of gas and dust can get in the way and it always is possible that we don't understand the Type 1A quite as well as we thought we did. So more recent approaches to understanding dark energy have tried to invoke several different techniques of measurement. Acoustic Baryonic Oscillations (I'm still trying to figure out what those are, but they sound really interesting), weak lensing, and a few others have all surfaced. The result is that any dark energy space mission that actually gets flown will end up as a fantastic multi-disciplinary observatory, quite different from the specialist that was originally envisioned.

Picture 14.jpgThe glory of all of these approaches, and of all of the missions that seek to imlement them, is that they will conduct their work through massive "wide and deep" surveys. Taking vast numbers of long exposure images across a large area of the sky, in other words. This is the advantage of a dedicated mission -- Hubble or the James Webb could do the same science, but are general purpose instruments contended over by the entirity of the vast astronomic (and astrophysic) community. But a dedicated mission, running a pre-planned scheme of observation, can produce the staggering amount of data that is necessary for the statistical analysis upon which dark energy studies must be based.

But this vast survey, while intended to specifically test a signle scientific concept, will also have enormous implications for the rest of the community. Currently, we stare through straws, looking across the vast night sky to find things that are interesting. Sometims we do so by chance, but more often we do so by looking at areas that we've already identified as interesting. The terabytes of data coming back from SNAP, DESTINY, ADEPT, JDEM, SPACE, Euclid, or whatever mission or missions end up flying will end up producing an astronomic and astrophysic legacy ready for the picking. A generation or more of astronomers and astrophysicists will mine this legacy to confirm and clarify their theories and hypotheses. And, here and there, they might discover something completely new, something entirely unexpected, something funny, and start the whole glorious process over again.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Final Bumper Sticker Poll

Obama: 8
McCain: 1

Actually, it was looking like an 8-0 blowout until I decided to include the delivery truck with "N0BAMA" written in the dust of its roll-up rear door.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Election night playbook

So in about 48 hours, I'm going to start watching presidential election returns come in. American elections, what with the state-by-state system are so wonderful to watch in the "sporting event" sense. The discreet nature of things (win/loose a state) is so much like the quantum units of innings or downs or holes or whatever sporting analogy you want. Much more fun than just watching a direct volte tally increment like some national odometer.

Problem is, I'm working Tuesday night. Filling in to teach a class. I'l have a couple of hours to watch between job-1 and job-2, sitting in a bar (really) watching the election on the TV while eating a pizza and (probably) drinking a beer. I have this all planned out.

But I wanted some way to organize my thoughts, to know what is going to go down. Because well before the polls have closed nationwide, I'll be in class with a much reduced capability to watch the big show. So to minimize the effort needed to keep track of the election, I've put together my own system for analyzing the election -- and guessing how the end will go.

I ended up sorting states into three categories: the Leaners, the Comebacks, and the Undecideds.

The first category consists of the states that are colored either pink or baby-blue in a couple of predictive maps. They are the close-but-leaning states. Their performance on election night is primarily as a predictor of the accuracy of the predictions themselves. If the baby-blues turn dark blue and the pinks turn red, then the models are pretty accurate and we can expect that other things will go as forseen. That doesn't mean an Obama victory -- but it means that the predictions of McCain's must-win states will be accurate and we can probably shift our attention there.

One or two Leaners going opposite the prediction isn't necessarily a cause for hope or alarm, particularly if there are a couple trading places. But a big sweep of pinks into blue says possible slam-dunk, a big sweep of baby-blue into red says possible upset, and too much back-and-forth could say the whole model is off.

McCain Leaners
Georgia
West Virginia
Arkansas
Arizona
Montana

Obama Leaners
Maine
New Hampshire
Wisconsin
Minnesota
New Mexico
Iowa

The second category are the McCain Comeback states. These are the must (mostly) wins for McCain. A strong showing in these guys (assuming that there isn't some counter effect of a bunch of the pinks going blue which is a highly unlikely combination) is what McCain needs to win. Once two many (probably about 50%) go Obama's way it is probably game-over for McCain.

Comebacks
Florida
Virginia
Ohio
Pennsylvania
Colorado
Nevada

Finally there are the Undecideds. These are just the states that are too-close to call right now. 'Nuff said. Obama doesn't need them -- but if he gets them, he gets to talk about a "big mandate" or something. On the other hand, McCain pretty much does need them. Necessary for one, icing on the cake for the other.

Undecideds
Indiana
Michigan
Missouri
North Carolina
North Dakota

The rest are the almost-guaranteed blue or red states. I'm not worrying about them. Unless things get Truly Strange, they will go in the direction forecast. If the Leaners end up way off -- I might have to start paying some attention here, but probably not.

Based on all that, I can see five scenarios for this election to play out. In (roughly) decreasing order of likelihood, here they are:

1) Obama By-The-Book

Things go more-or-less as the predictions forecast. Obama carries most if not all of his leaners, McCain does the same with his. Obama carries enough of the Comeback states to seal the victory. We'll see this one coming if the pink and baby-blue states end up as forecast and we see Obama starting to pick up the Comeback states.

2) Obama eeker

This one is where there is some degree of Bradley effect (or else a real November Surprise -- and that aunt-as-illegal-alian thing doesn't count). Some of the baby-blue states go red, most of the Undecideds do as well, but there is enough of an Obama lead in the key Comeback states that he carries the two or three that it'll take to win.

3) Obama slam dunk

This scenario is primarily about momentum -- if a few big states go blue early in the night, all of the Comebacks and a few of the Undecideds or pink Leaners -- then there will be a real "why bother" attitude going on for some folks out West. That doesn't make a difference in the far West Coast (we go blue anyway) but it could put states like Montana and eve Arizona in the Democrat column. So if Obama grabs some surprisingly strong early returns, look for a rich-get-richer scenario to unfold regarding his delegate count.

4) McCain eeker

This is much like the Obama eeker -- just a little stronger. He'd need to capture pretty much all of the Undecided states plus a few of the Comeback states. So watch for red results in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc. to set this one up. Chances are slim -- even if there is a percent-or-two of polling error, there are a lot of blue boxes that'd need to turn red.

5) Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot

This isn't really a viable option -- but I always include the possibility of the bizarre. Some real misread by the polls could lead to a strong McCain victory, but it would be pretty obvious right away. Like if New York goes red. If things like that start to happen, then all bets are off: Texas might go blue, California might secede, and it would certainly be an interesting night. I leave this option open just to hedge my bets. But I don't really think it has a chance.

So here's the plan:

Keep an eye on the Leaners. If they are acting as predicted, keep an eye on the Comeback states. Once three or more of them are called in Obama's favor, his victory becomes highly likely and the interest comes from observing the degree of victory (we're choosing between outcome 1 and outcome 3, essentially). If McCain is playing strong there and in the Undecideds, then the result will be tougher to call and upset could be in the cards (the results will fall from outcome 2 or outcome 4).

If the pink-blue count (the Leaners) ends up pretty far off what is expected, then we are going to be looking at outcome 2, 3, 4, or 5. If a lot of them are going Red, that sets up outcomes 4 or 5. If a lot of them are going blue, it sets up option 3. If they are all over the map it probably means number 5 -- and no guesses beyond that!

So there you have it -- a decision tree of sorts, an election night checklist to help monitor what is going down. Now go out and vote, order a pizza or some sushi, pour yourself a beer or a glass of wine, and enjoy watching.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

842 lbs. of Carbon

I was originally going to call this post "Nick's Adventures in a Red State" or something similarly political. But in reality, my recent adventures in the lone star state turned out to be surprisingly un-political. Except for this moment when I was in an elevator, going down, with a group of VERY texan women who were discussing whether or not they were willing to gut and clean the deer their husbands shot. Those who wouldn't regarded those who would with a sort of superstitious awe. "Sarah Palin," I thought, "this is your constituency!"

But they were the exception. I was, after all, in a giant mega hotel surrounded by a comfortable bubble of business analysts. By and large, I've noticed these are a relatively apolitical lot, more prone to discussing analytical techniques, R^2 values, and the hideously complicated version landscape of the software package were were all there as users of.

Wait, though, I get ahead of myself. Where was I, and what was I doing here? And what does any of that have to do with 842 lbs. of Carbon? Time machine, back a few months. My company decided to send a couple of representatives off to the annual user's conference for a software package called "Business Objects." They make, as you might have guessed, analytics software used for data mining, business intelligence, and various related fields. My manager and I were the lucky attendees. There were supposed to be more of us, but clever budget hoarding meant that, when the call came down to save a few bucks coming in to Q4, she and I were the only ones to actually go.

It is a flattering thing, to a neophyte like myself, to be sent to one of these things. The whole trip cost a couple of thousand dollars. That's a flattering investment to have made in you. And then I took a look at my Alaska Airlines e-ticket and noticed an interesting line: each leg of my journey would produce 421 lbs. of nasty globally warming, debt incurring carbon. What was I to make of this? Should I have used carbon debt calculations in planning my trip? Chosen another airline that, through better routing or more ecological hardware choices, managed to only drop 411 lbs. of carbon into the upper atmosphere? I decided this was probably some vauge and general estimate, so no excess of detail should be ascribed to it.

Instead, I took it as a note: not only was this trip costing my company a few grand and me four days away from my family, but it was costing our plant too. So listen up, the e-ticket seemed to say to me, you'd better get something good out of this, because a lot of people are putting something down so you can get your corporate junket ya-ya's off down in Dallas.

Which is how we get to Dallas. For reasons I'm not privy to, the conference was in Dallas. Warm, central, and probably cheap. Not Vegas or Orlando, where the last couple were. Dallas. Flat. Hot. Red state.

Rather than trying to tell you some sort of play-by-play note of the conference (which you probably don't care about), I will try to distill the whole experience down into my personal observations and reactions. I really did go into it thinking of this as a serious work event. And it wasn't just the carbon. I'm out of the office for three full days (plus a day of free semi-vacation to make up for my Sunday spent in the air). I'm away from my family for four days. And so I wanted to replay those who sent me on this outing by getting everything out of it I could.

Learning experience the whole thing was great. But you don't probably care about the new software I saw demo'd or the techniques for multi-axis data analysis that I learned. I will tell you about one software package, though. Very interesting, and actually quite applicable to some work people on my team are doing. It analyzed text in a quite holistic and linguistically derived way to generate summaries of text document, searchable breakdowns of text content, and gestalt assessments of mood and tone. The demos all involved an analysis of product reviews. It was pretty start stuff -- able to understand that "though I usually don't like Mazda's styling, the mew MX-6 is anything but stayed" is actually praise, despite the preponderance of negative words.

But the thing that made this interesting was the occasional mention of "government clients." Un-named, non-specific government clients that usually caused the speaker to trail off a little. So I've got this to say: I don't know if the government is reading your email, your blog posts, your newsgroups, or whatever. But if they do, I suspect that I might have a lead on some of the software they are using. I don't want to launch a thousand conspiracy theories. We many not be talking about anything so exotic as some NSA glassbox scheme, it may just be for entirely reasonable analysis of the massive quantities of subpoenaed documents that so often feature in high profile federal litigation. But it was interesting stuff.

The rest of it all was pretty dry.

I will tell you about Texan buffets, though. I don't know what the food safety laws are in this part of the country, but there were some downright Texan sized time/temperature hold violations going on. Erica could fill me in on the actual values, but let me leave you with this quick summary: in no situation should a breakfast sausage patty and yogurt be held at the same temperature for an hour. Like I said, the laws may be different down here, and so may the gastrointestinal systems, but I tried my best to stay away from both, helped by the fact that I just don't like yogurt, even when held at a safe temperature, and that the breakfast sausage had apparently been slowly brought to temperature in a solution if old grease. Nasty stuff.

In fact the food was the biggest disappointment. My expectations were good -- the registration form had displayed an astonishing sensitivity to dietary preferences, with check-boxes for vegetarian, vegan, Kosher, shellfish allergy, wheat allergy, and a few others. Somehow, though, the buffets were the same old (uniform temperature) standards. I did see a few specially marked plate covers going around, though, so I think that next one of these I go to, I'm going to be Kosher for a week. At least the food should be hotter.

Finally we broke down, my manager and I, and skipped second of two free "evening socials" with beer and passed appetizer platters. We headed for the hotel's Mexican restaurant, figuring that while in Texas, go for a form of cuisine that they probably do well. Remember how the massive hotel sort of insulated me from Texan politics? It also apparently insulated me from Texan cooking. The tortillas were ill-heated and probably Cisco. The shrimp were probably imported frozen from the Philippines. The fajitas were very much lacking in veggies. The rice was under seasoned. There was a damn good pinto bean soup, though, that had some real nice heat to it. But the rest? Well, better than another round of snacks.

Now you are probably wondering how I did (am doing -- I'm writing this from DFW) away from my wife and daughter for so long. For this part, I will write a brief journey. For dramatic emphasis, I will use the present tense.

Sunday: So far, so good. This day has been an adventure of travel and, thanks to the two time zone skip, not all that long. By 10pm in Dallas, I've only been away from Erica and Bella for eleven hours -- no longer than I would on a typical workday. And those hours have either been the action of travel or a pleasant chance to do some quiet reading. I've got Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke's interesting alternate history novel of magic and fantasy going on the iPhone and have nearly figured out the Concorde's fly by wire system -- yet again testing my belief that a thorough understanding of an analogue system can often provide a powerful insight into it's more obfuscated digital counterparts. The hotel is decent, kind of dull, and I get a nice chance to talk to Erica before bed.

Monday: First day of the conference -- so much going on! I hardly miss my family at all, I've got so much going on. Sure, I awoke alone, but I usually get up a couple of hours before Erica and Bella, so I'm used to sneaking around alone and in the dark. After that -- hey, it is just like a day at the office if you think about it. Seminar sessions from 8am to 5pm, no different from the workday. Until, oh, about 5:30pm and then suddenly it seems like I should be home. Instead I'm drinking a beer at the first reception party and chasing down platters of sushi in a vain effort to get full. After that comes the after-party. No strippers, not like at those hip-hop after-parties I have never been to, but a fortune teller who tells me the following things:

I am sleeping poorly.
I have back pain.
I am learning a lot at work but it will lead to stability.
There is some stagnation in my relationship and I should "give in" on something to bring the novelty back.

She also turned over a death card, which I found interesting, but never really addressed that, which I found disturbing. Now I figure that from obvious clues (wedding ring, in town for convention, etc) she could probably have made some good guesses, but it was fun none the less. Called Erica and and told her that she has one free "give in" card that she can play, and that she should spend it wisely. But tonight the loneliness is starting to creep in. Barely saw the family yesterday -- but I have three nights a week that are just as bad. But now it is an entire day without seeing either Erica or Bella. Perhaps because I am not aided by as pointed a combination of alcohol and Benadryl, sleep comes a little harder tonight.

Tuesday: I awake to the best email I've seen in a long time. Well, good in the sense that it makes me feel good. Erica missed me and had a hard time falling asleep. Bad for her, though, so I feel sort of sad and wish I'd been there to tell her a story. Now I miss conversations. The morning sessions are pretty dull -- nothing as fun as discovering potential not-so-secret text analysis software. The keynote was very corporate-speak laden. Words like "monatize" (or is it "monitize"?) and "accelerate capitol velocity" and "open partner fabric" and "hire-to-retire process."

I try calling Erica a few times during the morning but can't get through. Its frustrating. Conversation is surprisingly rare here. Everyone you meet at a session is a single serving friend (thank you Fight Club!), and the conversations we had at the after-party were pretty single serving too. So I'm yearning for a conversation with someone where it is just free flowing and casual. Where I'm comfortable talking about any topic and freely expressing myself. While I'm at it, I'd like to know what Bella's up to. I'd like her wonderfully childlike perspective, to tell her about what I'm doing and hear her, doubtless, wonderfully fresh take on it all.

Finally Erica and I do talk, for a while, which is nice, but actually just serves to remind me how much I like her. The afternoon sessions aren't particularly exciting -- there is actually a lot of very good information but it all pertains to a version of the software that, if I'm lucky, we'll be running sometime around the next election. The one after this one, I mean. And I mean presidential elections here, not some little in-between state representative thing.

But the evening gets good -- my manager and I skip out on the reception to get the previously mentioned Mexican dinner. Based on stories she tells, me, I calculate that I have a 7% chance of going insane. By now I have also named several of my fellow convention attendees:

Abe Lincoln
Jim Furyk
Sweater/Thong Woman
Three-Beers Woman
Friend of Three-Beers Woman
Boring Obama (looked, but did not speak, like a young version of the candidate)
Limping Lin

I'm noticing something interesting about this time zone, two hours earlier than Seattle but still one short of the East Coast. It might be that, emotionally and in some ways professionally, I am still on Seattle time, but it seems like world events happen more slowly here. I suspect the reason is this: Like it or not, the news-making-and-reporting center of this country is the East. So most days, when I get in to work and start checking online around 7am, there have already been two hours of news-making business day going. Here, if I check online at the same time, the business day is just beginning. So I don't start with a backlog of news to catch up on. And then checking on events back home, at the office or with my family, I have to wait two hours for them to happen -- or so it seems. So it is as if there is a buffer placed around me, and everything is happening two hours later than it should. Is this why Texas have that slow, easy going drawl?

Second City gives a pretty good improv performance for us. The bad part was the audience suggestions:

Improver: "May I have the name of a profession?"
Audience member: "Business Analyst!"

Later

Improver: "May I have the name of a location that would fit on this stage?"
Audience member: "Trade show!"

You guys get out much?

But then we met up with a fellow who works with us a lot as a consultant and trainer, got some drinks, and got some really fantastic social bonding time. Getting to know the people you work with every day -- in a non work environment -- can be very rewarding. You learn their values, histories, what makes them tick. It is fun but also, frankly, politically astute. Like I know that I have a 7% chance of going crazy.

Wednesday: I slept poorly last night. I talked with Erica a while and that got me all second winded -- not just from talking to her but because she's on Seattle time, two hours more perky than I am. So then I ended up packing up, getting everything ready to go in the morning. Net result, now I am short on sleep.

And my loneliness is now a visceral thing. It is no longer just being bored or wanting a conversation, but it is a true longing, an emotional and, dare I say, hormonal longing to be back with my wife. And my family, lest it sound like I am giving dear Bella some sort of second billing. I miss her energy and enthusiasm and, again, those childlike but brilliant insights, distilling situations down to their essentials. Her snuggling, her creativity, her drawings of pet rockets to take dogs and cats and fish to astronauts in a space station, her emotional intensity, her moments of complete weakness and remarkable strength.

But there are four more presentations, ending with a whimper as a mumbling frenchwoman narrates Quicktime movies of unreleased software. So we skip out early, catch a shuttle, get to the airport. On the way, I count bumper stickers, engaging in my favorite ad-hoc poll. The count, on the President George Bush Turnpike (again I ask -- which one?), the count is Barack Obama: 1, Ron Paul: 1, John McCain: 0. I don't know what that means, but it surprised me.

My boss is taking a nap and I've gone exploring, to a pseudo Irish pub in the international terminal that serves chicken strips and hamburgers. The beer, however, is Irish. A Smithwick's Ale -- a damn nice, solid, full flavored but easy drinking beer. Soon I suspect it will be augmented with that most Irish of dinners, the bacon cheeseburger. And then I'll be back in our terminal, waiting for the last flight of the evening out to Seattle.

And, with a suitcase full of powerpoints and a brain full of new knowledge and new contacts, I will return home.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Watching the Debate Watchers

So one of my favorite books (don't laugh, but if you are reading this, you probably won't) is Alan Moore's classic graphic novel (that's arugula-eater speak for comic book) Watchmen. It often repeats the phrase "who watches the watchmen?" Meaning, in this case, when a group of people consider themselves to lie above (or outside, if you are Dr. Manhattan) the normal bounds of law and restraint, who is to maintain any sort of code of conduct or behavior to which they must answer?

This is not about that graphic novel (yes, I am again using the "But this is not their story..." device). Rather it is about these multiple online streaming thingies that CNN has got going during the final presidential debate of 2008. I almost said "final presidential debate," but one does have to hope that we will have other presidents elected during other elections and that there will be, in some format, debates during these elections. But I am starting to sound rather too much like Samuel Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction. And I am definitely pulling out a Tarantino-esque level of pop culture referentiality.

These little streaming video bits focus on allowing us multi-taskers out there to watch other people watch the debates. In my case I am not actually multitasking with a dozen TV screens going at once, Ozymandias like (and yes, I did manage to work in another Watchmen reference. Why don't I go for broke and ask if anyone else out there finds themselves thinking so strongly about Dr. Manhattan every time Heroes brings up Silar's watch infatuation?). I actually am trying to find a balance between the fact that Erica is working tonight and I am home. I've got the debates Tivoing in the other room so we can watch it together when she gets home. But I feel my Internet generation addiction to continuous connectivity tugging at me and find it almost impossible to let a potentially history-impacting moment go by without at least some awareness of how it is going down.

So I found a happy compromise. I'd watch the watchmen. There are two windows I've found interesting (the one where two bloggers sit at their respective Macs and argue while Obama and McCain bicker in the background appeals to me only in so far as they are both using Macs which is why my screen capture is actually from the Palin/Biden debate because in the current one I notice the monitors are a lot less prominent).

Picture 2 08-15-53.jpg


The first one I find interesting is CNN's live measure of voter response. It has this intensely medical look, doesn't it? Enough that I quite seriously wonder, "How is CNN doing that?" I picture a panel of a dozen voters of each faction (Rep, Dem, Ind) strapped to hospital beds, with electrodes attached to their foreheads, blood pressure cuffs on their arms, heart rate monitors across their chests, and perhaps even a respiration monitor to capture rate and volume of breathing. All, of this, is overseen by Hugh Laurie at his most scruffy and contemptuous.

Picture 11.jpg


Incidentally, the fact that I got this capture while Obama was saying something that clearly everyone liked really was pure chance and not some attempt to send a little subliminal signal. But don't think I didn't find it interesting that my pure-chance effort ended up that way.

In reality, I suspect that what we have going on is a few hundred homes holding a Nintendo pad and furiously toggling through some internet connection that their state is "happy," "neutral," or "unhappy." Given how often I get confused when using those game controllers and end up running to the left when I mean to shoot the werewolf or whatever I'd tend to give a pretty low factor of reliability to that approach. Now that I think about it, you could also do something clever with a volume meter, much in the way sports broadcasts often do some bogus pseudo-VU meter thing to show crowd enthusiasm at big games. Given that (in my totally unscientific appraisal of the situation) people tend to make noise after the people they like (cheering or shouting "yeah, you tell him!" or such) but to talk over the people they don't like ("you lying sack of shit!") you could probably gather some information that would have exactly as much validity as any of the other little line-drawing routines. Probably, for that matter, you could have hamsters walk on the mousepad of someone's laptop and generate a graphic sufficiently compelling for people to tune in and stream it.

Now the other little instant feedback display, and the one I actually found more interesting because it reflects not the belief of people I don't know being measured in a way I don't know but rather people I don't know being measured in a way that I do know, was CNN's pole of analysts. Six people, distributed fairly well among liberals, conservatives, and independents on and off of CNN's staff. They register a "point" for or against either debater as they feel that person either made a good move or possible gaffe. Simple. Kind of like at the Olympics or boxing, but more real time.

I also have this technique of "seeing through the haze" of conflicting opinion and commentary that is to quite simply take a gestalt survey of what many people are saying and average it out. I'm no Greg House and am not willing to go so far as to say "Everybody lies," but I do firmly believe that everyone, even the most superficially selfless person in the world, takes actions according to some sort of internal logic of self-interest. It may not be self-interest that is clear, well planned, or even makes sense to an outsider (or even to the person taking the action), but that specificity is for another day.

In this context, I mean that every organization out there, even those that profess disinterested neutrality or an objectively alternative viewpoint, is getting tugged in some direction or another by forces of their own interest. Take NPR, generally regarded as a bastion of objective (or at least alternative) journalism. Now the honestly do a pretty good job of putting out objective coverage, but let's face it, how long do you think the pledges would keep coming in if, all of a sudden, NPR started putting out the same viewpoints as Fox News? Even if the actual events of the day supported Fox's analysis, NPR has a market position to maintain and a certain constituency to play to. Just take a look at Chris Buckley who, in addition to penning some of the best political commentary on this election (in terms of the "what in the sam hell happened to John McCain?" factor), is now out of a job.

Anyway, my point is. People are biased. Even people who are trying really hard to be unbiased might find themselves with an urge to either conform with the masses or to stand apart from them.

So I take the average. I weight the institutions with known biases (Huffington Post and Fox News cancel out nicely), the ones I consider pretty neutral based on past performances, and see where the middle lands. That, I guess, is where (depending on the sort of issue) the truth, the most commonly held belief, reality, or some facsimile of it would, should, or could lie.

And so I like viewpoints that allow me to quickly scan a range of viewpoints, to get the gestalt view of what is afoot. So I like maps that show me pretty colors of how strongly states are registering in pre-election poles, even if it is cheesy and runs enough badly coded Flash to suck my battery capacity down at an absurd rate.

Picture 10.jpg


So now take a look at this. At the point I took this capture, perhaps 40 minutes in to the show, things are looking pretty close to tied. 1-McCain, 3-Obama, 2-Tie. Now that we've wrapped up the show the score has leveled out to 3-3 with no ties left on the board (sorry about the spoiler, but since I'm spoiling a live event, I don't feel too bad).

But at another level, I'm interested in how the different pundits scored the candidates. No, not whether they scored Obama or McCain the winner, but how they choose to define "score." Take a look at Gergen. Clearly we have a soccer game going on here, with nthree "scores" on McCain's side and two on Obama's. Now just as clearly, Martin is watching a basketball game where, not even to the first half, there are a total of 73 points on the board among the two sides. As a factor of scoring, King doesn't like to think negative thoughts about other people's performance, with only one negative point out of seventeen (at the time this shot was taken, the end total would be 33 positive, with still only one negative!). Castellanos appears to be watching football, the numbers even working out to reasonable football score values. Presumably the rest are at a baseball game, relying on that perennial source of political catch phrases and trite sports analogies.

Picture 14.jpg


But returning to an examination of the numbers, now in their final form, what might I be able to find about the reaction to this debate. Which, I'd like to mention, I have still not seen or heard in any significant quantity. Clearly McCain did better than at the last one, at the very least there was none of the distracted wandering around problem going on. It also seems that both candidates managed to avoid committing too many faux-pas. I'd say that McCain was probably the more aggressive -- partially because I expected him to be so and partially because he, even in the minds of his supporters (except for Bennett, who had the most notably lop-sided evaluation -- and I tend to find that the person with the most lop-sided evaluation is often the one with the most biased evaluation) scored more negative points than Obama. An aggressive strategy is usually one that is likely to involve greater risks and greater chance of error -- even if the gains outweigh the losses.

If we look just at the positive numbers, we see that the score worked out to be Obama-2, McCain-3, Tie-1. I'm doing this by comparing each commentator's ranking a-la match play, because Martin (and to a lesser extent Castellanos) have such high numbers going that they'd skew the whole thing). If we look at the negative numbers only, we see that the score was Obama-5, McCain-1 (keeping in mind that you win this match by scoring fewer points. So yeah, McCain was definitely going for it, and definitely taking some losses in the process. Obama was probably playing it cool and probably on the defensive a few times -- which makes it hard to score points unless you decide to go on the counter-attack. I don't expect there was too much "best defense is a good offensive" action from Obama, though, since I bet that would have brought up more negative points, what with the fact that attack-counter-attack quickly starts to look like bickering.

Now how did it actually go? I'll have to see. Erica's home now and I've got one kiddo to put to bed and then its time to roll the Tivo. So let the final act begin. And we'll see how the analysis worked out...

UPDATE

Well, now I've watched the debate and have to say I think I did a decent job with analyzing a debate that I hadn't seen. Actually watching the thing, I got pretty sick of ol' Joe the Plumber, but it was a nice break from "My friends..." which seemed, now that I think about it, notably absent. Obama was a little defensive, McCain definitely attacking. Obama more issues focused, McCain more personal. I'd say I agree with those who's cards scored Obama with the win.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bumper Sticker Politics

So I had a long and kind of tedious commute this evening. But I was having a great time, listening to the radio and rocking out to everything from Carly Simon ("You're so Vain") to The Beastie Boys ("Intergalactic"). Oh, and before I get started, I have something in the odd-observation category to point out. Despite living in Seattle, I haven't heard Pearl Jam played on the radio for months. All of a sudden I hear one song played ("Daughter"). I rock out for a while, get bored, change channels. Right into the beginning of "Even Flow." Couple minutes later, on yet a third channel, I hear "Jeremy." What's up with that? I've noticed it before -- you don't hear a band for a while and then suddenly, in the span of twenty minutes, you hear it on three different stations.

Anyone who happens to work in radio and who reads this -- let me know if stations listen to each other or communicate or something. "Hey, KZOK has broke out the Pearl Jam...let's dust 10 off ourselves!"

But alright, back to the politics. To entertain myself, I thought I'd celebrate the eve of the veepsidential debate with a quick poll: bumper sticker counting. It ended up 8 for Obama 2 for McCain (plus one additional giant flag for Obama but it wasn't technically a bumper sticker and so I didn't count it). Now these numbers should hardly be surprising, being as Washington is about as much of a blue-state as you can get. And the population of Seattle is pretty think with that liberal intellectual/professional demographic that I'll freely admit is part of Obama's core support group and I drove by a PCC Natural Market (one of the Obamas was exiting their parking lot) that probably has a certain predictable voting clump among its patrons. That said, however, I happen to know at least one of those Obama cars belonged to a tile setter, so don't get too focused on my self-selected sample.

Now I was paying really close attention to the cars I was passing and being passed by so that I didn't double count any bumper stickers, to either candidate's advantage (because I'm sending my results off to CNN now -- read about it in the morning, I tell you!). I passed one McCain car (a Buick driven by an old white guy who looked, I kid you not, shockingly like McCain himself) twice, and one Obama car about a half dozen times. Its that thing you get on the freeway in moderate traffic, going back and forth as lanes gain or lose advantage. Now this Obama car that I passed and re-passed had another bumper sticker on it that said, in big Republican party letters "McCain" and then had some smaller letters below that would probably have said "Palin" or something. So on one of our close encounters I looked more closely (and got lucky with a gap in the traffic) and saw something that looked more like this:

mccain_bushs_third_term_v2[1].jpg


This particular version was a little better, or at least more current, had the blue font and looked considerably more official at first pass. Now when I first passed this car I was kind of excited. A car that supports both candidates? Multiple personality disorder? Two owners with different politics? Someone who changed their mind? I always love it when I see a bumper sticker collection that doesn't quite fit up against the simple and obvious types we expect to see: "Hey, you're a Marine and support Green Peace!" or such.

But it wasn't. Instead it was an example of what I consider the very (or at least mildly) irritating trend of the sarcastic bumper sticker. The satirization of a sticker or slogan of your opponent. I've been seeing these more and more over the past few years, roughly through Bush's second term. I usually see them heading in a liberal direction, though that could be as much a product of my local (and the fact that it is easer to satirize the in-power group) as is the 4:1 Obama:McCain ratio I observed.

Now the "third term" slogan is pretty clever, regardless if you agree with it or not. But does it translate to the fast moving pattern recognition world of the freeway? I think not.

Bumper stickers are as much about peer pressure as anything. You are making a statement, to those you know, park near, happen to drive around, or who look at your car in a parking lot, that you believe in (or oppose) a certain person or cause. They work (and I admit this opinion has no basis in science or anything, not any more than believing that the dinosaurs were still hanging around 6,000 years ago) in an nearly subliminal manipulation of our gestalt sense of our peer's beliefs.

I may not know what I'm talking about, but I know how to sell it with the words...

But anyway, my idea is this. You're driving along, undecided or at least unsure of your candidate. You see a bunch of car's sporting stickers for one guy and think, with or without realizing it, "Hm, he must be pretty good to have so many people believing in him..." That thought is exactly why polls can have such a "momentum" effect. Lots of people siding with McCain? More people might take a moment to reconsider. Lots of people switch to Obama? People will take a moment to reconsider in his direction.

Bumper stickers also have an appeal through peer pressure. See a car that you like, that is similar to yours, or that somehow implies a value system you support? You're going to give extra cred to the view espoused on its back side. See a driver with a similar match? It is going to have a similar effect of reinforcing the impact of that endorsement. Think of the McCain supporting Buick I spotted -- fits right into the target audience of that campaign. 'Round here, in 'Bama country, you see his stickers on so many different kinds of cars that it is actually tough to generalize into a particular group: compact import pickup truck, Impala SS, new Mercedes, tired old Honda Civic, as well as the obvious like an outdoorsy Subaru or a hipster VW.

Like I said -- I have no evidence for this, but it sounds good.

The important thing is that bumper stickers act fast. They act on a glance. No one has time to read them -- you shouldn't at least! You see that round Obama swooshy thing. Or the martial samll-caps of McCain. And you register that car's vote. The pun-sticker runs the very serious risk (and I use the term seriously loosely here) of appearing as a vote for the opposite candidate. If there hadn't been the clear and straight forward Obama sticker on the car that sparked this whole thing (it was the tired Honda Civic, by the way, and also had a "Free Leonard Peltier" sticker, and I haven't seen one of those in a long time), I might have registered my count as 7:3, not 8:2.

The fun, the politics, the wit, all make sense if you are Saturday Night Live or John Stewart, but at 75 miles per hour on I-5 (and I again admit that I didn't get anywhere close to 75 miles with the traffic tonight!), you've got to keep it simple!

Oh, and by the way, there were also a bunch of Nader people waving and holding signs and banners from an overpass, trying to get people to honk in support. No one honked.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cool Hand Luke

Goodbye, Paul Newman.

But the way I look at it, if you're live into your 80's and are racing Porsches at Le Mans in your 70's, you've done pretty well.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Debate

So I'd start by sitting the two candidates down at a bar. Yeah, a bar. Sitting at the barstools -- and you know about my thing with barstools. And ordering each of them a drink. On my tab.

I'm not sure what Obama drinks or what McCain drinks -- I see the former either as some sort of designer martini or straight bourbon, the latter probably as a beer kind of guy. But that would actually be the first question of my debate -- "Senator, what would you like to drink?"

The next question? "Why?"

After that:

"Senator, what is your favorite book?" and "why?"

"What is leadership?"

"Explain, in as much detail as you can, string theory." Not technically a question, I know, but an interrogative statement, and not my first.

"A NASA experiment reveals microbial life exists on Mars. How do you respond?"

"You and your wife are going out for a date. What's your ideal?"

"Dream car?"

"What is the golf course you've most wanted to play but never have?" "Why?"

"Who was the best boss (including military commanders) you ever had and why?" "The worst?"

Somewhere a few questions ago, we'd have ordered the second round.

"Favorite movie?"

There's a certain James Lipton quality to this -- and that is intentional. I don't care about issues. I care about people. I care about the little things, the second and third derivatives of a personality that can really tell you about the personality, where it is going, and where it has been.

"Who cuts your hair?" "How often?"

"How do you like your steaks cooked?"

I'm not trivializing the process. We don't ask our future spouses to answer expected stock phrase questions. We ask them if they think that is a beautiful sunset.

"Favorite season?"

"If you had to throw it all away and start over, what would you do for a living? And no cheating!"

I ask that one of my students -- and they are not allowed to say "fighter pilot" or "1st baseman" -- it should be "bartender" or "gardener" or "cabinet maker" (all answers I've heard -- I let one guy say 1st baseman, but he was already a Navy flier so I figured it was cool.).

"Favorite element?"

"Swim, bike, or run?"

"Favorite vacation destination?"

"Why do you love your wife?"

"What is the greatest thing your children have taught you?"

"What is the most significant event in the history of the 20th century?"

"TOS, TNG, DS9, or Voyager?"

"Is that a beautiful sunset?"

"Would you like another drink?"

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Has John McCain lost his mind?

Ok, so it is time for another political blog post. I've actually been planning a political post for some time, one titled "The Vilification of Arugula." It was supposed to be about my irritation at the use of "arugula eating" as a negative character description not too far removed from, say, "crack smoking." That and how this whole irritating Sarah Palin bubble and the bad-Disney-movie "Hocky Mom VP" story line was, well, like a bad Disney movie. Possibly even about how undeserved her MILF label was and how completely non-MILF-able I found her, probably not least because I find her stultifyingly not-intellectually-interesting-at-all and have some serious issues with her Jesus-in-our-lifetime belief and her understanding of the physical laws which govern the universe. But mostly about how the whole evil-arugula thing and the Palin thing both pointed to what I find to be a depressing over-appreciation of mediocrity and rejection of excellence that seems to be sweeping our country. Oh no, let's reject people who try too hard, because they might make us feel like I could be doing something challenging or interesting instead of (literally or figuratively) sitting on my ass...

images.jpgBut that's not what this is about. This is actually somewhat more pointed (though I managed to sneak in a summary of the planned post quite nicely). This is about the interesting choices being made by the McCain campaign and/or the Senator himself. It's about this campaign-on-hold/skip-the-debate thing. Now I'm sure that, just as, as an Obama supporter, I am predisposed to see this move entirely in a tactical light, there are plenty of McCain supporters who see the Senator's decisions as those of a selfless patriot willing to put aside his own ambitions and instead do what the nation needs in a time of crisis.

Balderdash, I say! But if you disagree with my call of balderdash, so be it. I have a separate line of reasoning should my initial judgement call be false. It comes later.

For the moment, assume that this is a tactical decision. "I know," says Karl Rove, John McCain, or some unnamed strategist, "We'll sit out the debate and stop running ads and play the moral superiority card!" There is something to be said for that -- it is certainly an act of differentiation and in line with McCain's image as a hip-shooting rogue. And never mind that I feel like we've had quite enough hip-shootery around this country of late. It is a strategy, if strategy it is, that lies so far outside of the normal conduct of electoral politics as to constitute very nearly an ace of desperation. Remember that Palin thing? I also viewed that as an almost-act-of-desperation move. And coming from a guy who, at the time of both of these decisions, was not exactly running away with the race but was far from out of touch with the lead.

So, if you are still in touch and don't need to pull out the desperate rogue strategy, why do so? And what does it say of your decision making that, with 40 days to go and a yet close race, you opt to make this sort of move?

Now let me return to the more charitable viewpoint that John McCain really did make these decisions based solely out of concern for the financial well-being of his country. That this is a selfless gesture, a unilateral move aimed only at helping fix a trillion-plus dollar cluster f*&%. That there is no intention of stealing some press attention, reinforcing the "rebel" image, or scrubbing the VP debates and keeping Palin under cover or of forcing the Obama camp into a potentially loose-loose situation.

What selflessness. But, and I'm going to go back to that hip-shootin' thing again, why? If you, Senator McCain, really do believe that you are the best (or at least better) man to run this country, shouldn't you be devoting a good portion of your attention to that pursuit? The presidency is not just a vanity prize and a ticket to a recording contract (by the way, Clay Aiken's coming out -- the only thing less surprising would be Jodie Foster's. Yawn. But I digress).

If you want to be president you must believe (or should -- and should project the image that) you are the best man for the job. You should, in my mind, therefore think strategically and recognize that your campaign is not just a foolish act of vanity but something vitally important to the future of our nation. And you should know that pursuing that goal is a strategic necessity. In other words, you should not drop your campaign at the drop of a hat and rush (almost eagerly) to the first emergency that comes along.

I know that I occasionally see this sort of opportunity at work. You're running behind on a project, things aren't going well, you can't get buy-in from your supposed "enterprise partners" (that's a phrase word 'round the office these days) or vendors, and then all of a sudden the database crashes in flames and you get to (oh, I'm sorry, I mean "have to") spend the day managing recovery efforts and can (I mean "have to") push back whatever it was that was giving you fits in the first place and take a fresh start at it. And I'll certainly admit to having had a few "convenient crises" in my time.

Convenient from what? Convenient to revitalize a campaign that might have been loosing some momentum (though, and see above for more, not enough to warrant such drastic action). Convenient to delay a debate that the McCain camp appeared to have less optimism about lately (recent comments seeming to downplay his expected performance against the admittedly streaky Obama). Convenient to push the presidential debate back into the slot reserved for Palin vs. Biden (and don't forget how dramatically media sheltered Palin has been).

But, again, what if this is an honestly motivated reaction -- exactly as it is claimed to be? A drop-it-all-to-deal-with-an-emergency reaction. That might be a fine way to handle things when your toddler spills a glass of milk on the hardwood floor and you have to put down whatever it is you're doing for five or ten minutes of wiping. But when you want to be president, that ain't cool. Stay on target, multitask it out between the strategic vision and the immediate emergency. That is, after all, what you will have to do when you are president -- at least if you want to do well or even excel. You can't afford to sacrifice this goal -- that you are (or should be) convinced is the best possible thing for the nation you love.

So in a whole different way, I find this version of McCain's actions equally questioning of his ability to serve as president. Reflexive reactions, hip shooting, and instinct trusting are something that I'm very, very tired of. The last guy to try "suspending his campaign" or anything similar was Ross Perot -- who will surface in this post again later -- and we all know how well it did him. Ross was a different, and larger eared, situation and was already facing the stiff challenge of running as a third-party candidate. But there while maverick can be a desirable trait, so can direction, discipline, and consistency.

Three months ago I had quite an appreciation for John McCain, Senator, pilot, war hero. I respect the hell out of that kind of background. He was, at the very least, the most attractive of his Republican counterparts and I approach the primary season with the goal of supporting the best candidate of each party so that, regardless how things turn out in November, I'm left with, at the worst, the best-of-the-bad. Unfortunately, since that time he seems to have begun running a very enthusiastic smear campaign against himself. Three months ago I supported Obama because I welcomed his vitality, intellectualism, and spirit of change. Increasingly, however, his merits matter less and less to me as I find McCain's erratic and questionable decision making -- and therefore capacity to act as president -- more and more of a real and palpable concern.

Either way I look at it, McCain's actions increasingly remind me of the brilliant Saturday Night Live satire, performed, I believe by the late, great Phil Hartman, of Ross Perot's one-time running mate and McCain's fellow former naval aviator and POW, Admiral James Stockdale, and Stockdale's very nearly incoherent performance at a vice presidential debate during Perot's ill-fated and, perhaps significantly, at times bizarrely and indecisively managed, campaign of 1992.

For the record, coming at the conclusion of a post where I've managed to outdo even myself for comma use and intricate constructions, that might be the most complex single sentence I've ever written. Draw, from that, your own conclusions about my politics and my opinion of arugula.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Today, Phil Gets to Be The Big Man...Sort Of

In golf, there are two kinds of people:

People who like Tiger.

And People who like Phil.

It is truly one of the age old conflicts: cats vs. dogs, vampires vs. werewolves, Mac vs PC. There are those who successfully end up taking the middle road or remaining apart from the fight (iguana owners, zombies, Linux users) but, in the end, even those who are not directly enmeshed in the fray find themselves with an opinion.

Phil fans find Tiger aloof, arrogant, and overly polished. Tiger fans find Phil false, arrogant, and erratic. I could try to draw some parallel with how Obama and McCain fans feel about their respective foes, but the thought isn't fully formed yet and this is about golf and not politics anyway.

I'm in the Tiger camp, I'll say that clearly and fervently. So if you are a Phil Phanatic (a phrase that always makes me feel like I'm at a Phish concert) you may find a lot of what I have to say offensive or the inaccurate ravings of someone who has swallowed the Tiger Kool-Aid. But then again, consider reading on, you may find a grain of truth.

When Tiger announced his year-long leave of absence to heal (and make more babies -- that's what I'd do if I was stuck at home with Elin all day) golf viewership tanked worse that WaMu stock. And, I secretly think a lot of the fighting-for-second crowd secretly made sacrifices at their little voodoo shrines for the chance to possibly be number one for a year. Number one among those who are not the best golfer in the world, that is.

Picture 2.jpgAnd now we're going to get to the Ryder Cup, that international America vs. Europe contest that has, for so many years, been the province of the European teams. And why, this year, without the participation of the finest golfer in the world (Tiger), the US finally managed to win the thing back. You'd think, naturally, that with its star player wounded, the US team should have been a walkover for Nick Faldo's Euro-squad. But it proved anything but -- a stunningly strong opening, a passable second day, an up and down but ultimately highly successful third day, and the Ryder Cup came back to the USA squad for the first time since 1999 and only the third time in 25 years.

How'd it happen? Was this some spectacular "Win one for Tiger!" moment, complete with stirring music (I'm picturing either Also Sprach Zarathustra, something from Howard Shore's score to Henry V, or possibly something by the Beastie Boys), emotional choked up speeches, and silent vows? Or was it something more psychologically intricate and subtle? A few thoughts, then, on teams, motivation, Phil, and the Ryder Cup.

For starters, Team Europe has long played an "underdog" card. And that was fine, for a long time. Golf's Bright Lights were from the USA, and the Europeans could very rationally claim to be in the disadvantaged position. Anyone knows that an underdog team can come together and pull of a great collective performance when well lead. But after how many years (or decades) of dominance, that downtrodden underdog position gets harder and harder to claim. Not only in the press but also internally, motivationally. Toss in Tiger's outage and Team Europe had to feel that they were the favorites going on this year. And perhaps my virtue of feeling like the favorites, the players of Team Europe may have tasted some of that complacency that everyone will acknowledge was part of the undoing of past American squads.

So perhaps something changed in Team Europe. But something must have changed in Team USA. What? Just as Europe may have finally gotten bit by "expected winner's syndrome" perhaps USA might have finally dodged "expected looser's syndrome." Just as being in the underdog position can give some individuals or teams the devil-may-care, damn-the-torpedos attitude to reach in and grab victory in the most improbably of situations, it can give others a happy reason to not risk it and play it safe and perform exactly as well as is expected of them.

I see this occasionally with students of mine -- instead of going balls-out and really pushing themselves, they opt to settle for doing about as well as they have previously done. Of course they don't come out and say "Hey, Nick, I'm scared of excelling because excelling requires that you set expectations that you might fail to meet. So instead I'm going to tell myself that I can do OK and really am not ready to do better than that." Instead they construct carefully (all be it subconsciously) planned, internally consistent systems of excuses and apologies for why they can't take my instruction, advice, coaching, etc.

And I think that Team USA was settling into that trap -- everyone knew that they were going to loose, so they didn't really go out there and take risks that could appear as really failing. It is a defense mechanism -- if you expect to fail, you distance yourself from the event so it doesn't matter as much and you aren't hurt when you do fail. And of course this effectively guarantees that you will fail. Ok, I over explained that enough.

Perhaps, with the big star gone (or possibly Paul Azinger's captainship has something to do with this too) they were finally willing to take those risk and push themselves. Perhaps they were frustrated. Perhaps there was less of a sensation of diffusion of responsibility ("Tiger will carry us through!"). Perhaps the relatively high rookie fraction helped break the miasma of expected failure. Who knows, but watching Anthony Kim fist-pump his way through the opening holes of his singles match has to have started a few motors running and got the team's motivation moving.

Past American teams have been criticized for playing not, as a team, but as a collection of superstars who happen to dress alike. Its a lesson that the "Redeem Team" could well remember, since it is a challenge they had to overcome a couple of months ago in Beijing. And they did. For at least the past two Ryder Cup's, however, all the pre-event press was full of promises to play as a team, to not fly in their individual jets, to drink the same beers, whatever. But saying such things is not the same as playing or acting that way. The difference between words and actions, as we all know, is the difference between cheap and expensive.

But here we get to that cats vs. dogs thing. Phil and Tiger -- the two best American golfers and the natural on-the-field leaders of the American team -- are not broadly compatible people. I've always had the feeling that, in the PGA locker room, you line up on Phil's side or on Tiger's side. Possibly you line up somewhere entirely different, but that's only if you are a genuinely out there dude like Rocco Mediate. So you put the two guys in the same room and, well, guys are going to line up. You are, at best, going to have two teams there.

So, oddly, being missing a top player might have made the team stronger.

Picture 1.jpgAnd then there is Phil himself. Every team needs a leader -- a guy on the field who brings the spirit. A sergeant who leads from the front, inspires by example. The guy who the crowd cheers for and the players play for. Anthony Kim looks like he might be the new darling/hero of the event, stepping up to put away Sergio, fist pumping away in the opening holes, getting the crowd and the team in to it.

But before the start, before the accidental or unexpected hero emerges, there is the expected leader. Phil. The senior member, the top ranked member of either squad, in a lot of ways the senior statesman of the PGA. Phil's a great golfer. He was supposed to be the greatest golfer in the world. I have a book, written in the early 1990's that describes him this way, as the heir apparent to the throne of Nicklaus and company. Then that Tiger guy sprung fully formed onto the scene. And Phil went from number one (expected) to number two (perpetually). Ouch.

Picture 3.jpgI'm not sure if having the carpet yanked out from under him is what did it, but Phil's a weak guy. He's a solid golfer, a master of the trick shot, the most profoundly analytical player of any sport (except possibly chess, which is a game and not a sport anyway) I've ever seen. But he's emotionally un-solid. He doubts, he frets, he thinks (and thinks and thinks and thinks and thinks and thinks). I don't think he actually has the belief in himself that he projects. And golf (along with trauma surgery and air-to-air combat) requires complete belief in self. You make your plan, choose your shot, and from that moment on, any doubt or debate in your head is going to do you in. Half way between shots, pick the longer club and hit it soft and you MUST commit your head, heart and muscles to that decision or you'll overswing and drill that damn dimpled sphere fifteen yards beyond the green and into the baby back grilling on someone's Weber.

When self-doubters are faced with a threat (by which, in Phil's case, I mean Tiger) they do one (or several) of several things. They hide away, don't take the chance of putting themselves up against the threat (and therefore face the threat of being found wanting) and so don't perform to their full potential as leaders or individuals. Or they overcompensate, push it out to stand above, take unnecessary risks and make marginal choices because they feel they need to over achieve in order to rise above the threat. Or, and this is Phil, they doubt themselves and second guess their decisions and vacillate between strong and bold decisions and the indecision or analysis paralysis.

There is a brilliant line in a terrible movie (Balls of Fury -- don't ask, it was free): "You suck when you are nervous." That's exactly what this is all about. Feel confident, play like a rockstar. Doubt yourself, choke up and get unnatural. Phil.

No Tiger, to threat, strong Phil.

No Tiger, no conflict, solid team.

No Tiger, no excuses, inspired performance.

So sometimes weakness can lead to strength. I'm not sure if this reverse-Tiger-factor is the sole or even dominant factor in Team USA's victory. But the analyst in me always thinks like this: when you have a different result, look at what "ingredients" were different. Odds are that any connection you see isn't a coincidence. I'm not sure that had Phil broken his leg and missed the tournament the same factors might not have come in to play (though I do suspect that Phil, with a broken leg, would not have concealed his injury and proceeded to win a major!).

And I'd like to wrap up with the point that, despite having all of these roads paved for him, Phil has failed to actually metamorphose into the superstar leader that he had the opportunity to become. Other, younger players ("Boo...Boo...Boo...") have done so. Phil's played workmanlike and well. Ish. He's struggled to close the deal out (day two, final hole, final putt). But that's where the analysis paralysis comes in -- regardless of what else goes on -- as the stakes get higher, the fear of risk and error grows to overwhelm the possible promise of success. And then the indecision, the doubt, and the meltdown. We never got a meltdown, we just got workmanlike. From number two in the world, we should have gotten better. Particularly with all the cards lined up to set Phil up for a ticker tape parade and a new Gulfstream. But enough of that.

Now Tiger, in case you are reading this (which is unlikely, if you remember that earlier comment about being stuck at home with Elin), get well and get your game back on. I miss you, golf needs you, and despite their voodoo shrines, I'm sure all those fighting-for-second-place guys would really prefer to be out there measuring themselves against the best in the world.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Beamlines and Black Holes

Collisions happen -- world fails to end.

180px-SLAC_entrance_sign.jpgThat's pretty much all the fame and fortune that the most powerful (and expensive) single high energy physics experiment in history has received. I'm not going to go into the whole history or controversy surrounding the amazing new atom smasher (I love that phrase!) down by Geneva, LHC. But rather to relate the events at the Large Hadron Collider to some of my own experiences working at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center -- SLAC. Everyone's favorite string theorist, Brian Greene, wrote a wonderful piece for the New York Times that better explains the search for the Higgs and the whole tiny-black-hole scare way better than I could.

My time at SLAC, to move on, is one of those crazy things on my resume that has, unfortunately, rolled off below the fold and so I don't get to talk about it at job interviews anymore. Along with my time at Amazon, my time at SLAC has the feel of being part of something more than my immediate job. At one, we changed the way people looked at business and commerce. At another, we added to the depth of our understanding of the universe.

180px-SLAC_long_view.jpgWhereas at Amazon we may all have been acolytes following the word of The Bezos, at SLAC we were all acolytes performing arcane rituals of devotion and sacrifice to a multi-mile long vacuum filled tube and a collection of magnets, giant RF amplifiers called klystrons, and the associated cast of power supplies, measuring systems, controls, pumps, and all the rest. Electrons were hurled down the pipe, hammered along my enormous amounts of radio energy, looped through a heart-shaped half-circle and slammed into a corresponding beam of their antimatter counterparts, positrons. When these teensy particles are accelerated, thanks to some clever connections in the fundamental ground rules of the universe, they actually increase in mass/energy. So the resulting collision released an enormous amount of energy -- and in all kinds of interesting particles. A massive cryogenically cooled detector could track these heavyweight fragments and provide data on their behavior.

These behaviors served to confirm, refute, or inspire the work of theorists. Science works (in theory) like this: a phenomena is observed. Scientists devise a theory that explains the cause and behavior of the phenomena. Scientists use this theory to predict some as-yet-unseen phenomena. Experimenters then go looking for this new phenomena to verify the veracity of the theory -- or to force a re-examination.

At SLAC, we were poking at some odd asymmetries in particle production. Simple theory says that at the point of the creation of the universe -- the big bang -- equal numbers of "conventional" and "anti-matter" particles should have been produced. Anti-matter is nothing like as weird as they make it sound in Star Trek. Any given particle just has the opposite charge of its normal partner (incidentally, this means there are no anti-neutrons). And if examples of the two ever meet, they annihilate each other in a total conversion of mass into energy, but that's no big deal. When we talk about "massive" amounts of energy we are talking about massive for the scale of the objects colliding. SLAC collisions produced less energy than the impact of a settling grain of dust. LHC collisions are on par with two mosquitos ramming each other head on.

Remember Churchill's classic quote that Russia was an enigma wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside a pierogi or something like that? SLAC was much the same way -- though the wrappings were not nearly so clear cut or tasty.

The old 1960's vintage technology has been updated countless times in 40 years of physics life. And when I say "updated" I don't necessarily mean "replaced." When I was working there, at a facility merely thirty years old, traces of the original control system remained. Buried in a dusty room somewhere was the original control console for the two mile linac. The console was dusty too -- but an amazing artifact of that era of engineering that I find so fascinating. Entirely electromechanical it had some absolutely crazy things going on -- one that I remember was a series of potentiometers (knobs) about 2/3 of an inch around that had the readout gauge for some corresponding parameter built into the face of the knob. My undergraduate brain marveled (and still does marvel) at the complexity of creating such a system. No touch-screen-and-slider back then...

But back to this console, it a dusty room. It was a big room, stacked with semi-discarded gear, and the console had been shoved over to one side of it, pretty much out of the way. But it was clearly still active -- several fat bundles of cable came out of the back and snaked across the short distance from floor to wall. Turns out that when the SLAC control system had been updated as part of the SLD project (or perhaps sooner) the hadn't actually replaced the old control system. They'd just spliced the new computerized system onto it. This control panel was still active! Inputs came in to it from the computerized system and then back out again to actually run the system.

I pictured the machine running something like this: engineer makes parameter changes on a DEC Station or whatever kind of UNIX boxes we were using for the front end. That uses our 10BASE2 Ethernet to talk to the big VAX 11/780 that was sitting in a glass-paneled room in the Main Control Center looking very much like the WOPR from Wargames. That communicates by some arcane variable voltage or pulse counting analogue signal to the mysterious control console which passively relays the engineer's request out to the actual magnet or power supply or pulse generator.

From what I remember, that old console's gone now, junked alongside the SAGE consoles and all the other detritus of 1960's engineering. And SLAC is undoubtedly better for it: more reliable, simpler, and easier to keep running.

But the point is that that old machine was a living thing. And I'm not talking about the mutant cockroaches that would sometimes call up from the higher rad parts of the beamline. The machine was moody, irritable, frustrating, and occasionally satisfying. When people in the Sacramento Valley turned on their air conditioners in the summer and our power supply wiggled about, parameters on the machine would start to waiver and falter. When large trucks drove by (or for that matter tiny earthquakes -- we were a more sensitive seismograph than anything the USGS possessed) the beam would waver. Actually the beam didn't waver -- it kept going still -- the machine wavered around it.

My point is that we needn't expect the universe to end anytime soon. I'm sure that CERN has, with the LHC, put together an extremely well engineered and carefully planned machine. One that will, I hope, suffer from few of the artifacts of kluging that beset SLAC. That said, the LHC does rely on the existing SPS for initial acceleration, but in a much less critically integrated way. Instead I'm sure they will face the challenges typical of an entirely new system -- challenges of converting the theory and plan of operation in to practice.

300px-First_Gold_Beam-Beam_Collision_Events_at_RHIC_at_100_100_GeV_c_per_beam_recorded_by_STAR.jpgAt SLAC that moment finally happened late one night when an operator off the late shift decided to experiment with some beam parameters in an unconventional way. For months the LEP collider (footnote -- the LHC is built in the tunnel originally constructed for LEP) had been providing a good deal more luminosity than us -- working in the same energy range but producing a LOT more collisions. Particle physics is, to a very great extent, a statistical science and it takes a good sample of behaviors to understand how you need to plot the graph. Our individual collisions produced cleaner data, but they were winning in a quantity-over-quality fight.

We'd been struggling to get the machine to do what it was supposed to be doing. On paper, our luminosity figures were good enough to return some really nice science -- but reality wasn't corresponding with paper. I don't remember the exact story anymore, but for some reason, one night, this operator had an excuse to get a little creative with the settings on our two-mile-plus electron gun. She tweaked things in a way that I recall being, in retrospect, very intuitive but entirely opposite of the "party line" for how the thing was supposed to be set up. Suddenly we got a spike in collisions and the luminosity figures were trending towards what they were supposed to (and needed to) be.

From nightshift operator to hero, in just a few key parameters.

I'm sure that LHC will have its similar moments where you realize that either the individual protons or antiprotons aren't quite doing what you thought they would (and wrangling protons offers a whole host of different challenges from electrons). Or moments where it is realized that the phenomenally complex system of machine and detectors interacts in ways that no one quite expected them to.

In the meantime, I hope that the ignorant doom-criers will take a break. I understand that the ethereal reaches of physics are neither easily comprehensible nor of immediate appeal. But I find the fact that every single article I've read on the LHC startup has focused on the fringe element's efforts to spread fear or to shut the project down.

People repeat the overused phrase "God particle" like physicist are either a bunch of blaspheming heretics or else expect Yahweh to a appear over the CERN campus near Geneva in all of his billowing-cloud Old Testament wrath. People talk about the whole black-hole thing in a way that implies their only knowledge of a black hole is from the Disney movie and that they expect Maximillian Schell and a homicidal robot to pop out of the beams and start sucking the entire planet, Anthony Perkins, Earnest Borgnine, and all, to their doom.

To get slightly political, I find this yet another symptom of a creeping acceptance of ignorant mediocrity that has spread to the point that we, at least in this nation, appear to consider flawed normality more valuable and noble than educated eloquence. This anti-intellectualism may well be a globally creeping trend, for all I know, and the anti-LHC ranters are certainly not confined to this nation and much of the outcry over the "Deep Impact" comet probe arose from outside our borders.

But this is all beside the point -- if you've been reading this for any time you know my feelings about the conservatism of space exploration (read the New Horizons blog!) and pursuit of "safe" solutions rather than ones that run the risk of producing dramatic advances.

I want to end on a cheerful and optimistic note so, as I wrap up, let me say this. To all the scientists and engineers at CERN, now the undisputed world center of experimental high-energy physics, I have to tip my hat for your perseverance in getting this thing built and wish you the best of luck in getting it tuned up, fully operational, and producing vital science. I'm very curious to see the results start coming out and, even more, to see Brian Greene write another book about it!