Non-Computer

  • The Old New Thing

    Hello Kitty takes a rather inefficient trip to the United States

    • 31 Comments

    In the book Hello Kitty Takes a Trip, the title character travels to New York, Florida, Vermont, and Hawaii, in that order.

    Now, sure, the Traveling Salesman Problem is NP-hard, but you're not even trying.

  • The Old New Thing

    The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome

    • 19 Comments

    I draw your attention to this research paper from Professor Mike Adams from Eastern Connecticut State University titled The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome, also published in The Annals of Improbable Research. In the paper, Adams investigates the phenomenon he summarizes as follows:

    A student's grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam than at any other time of the year.

    He takes twenty years of historical data and confirms the existence of the phenomenon, thereby drawing attention to an important but overlooked national health problem: Increased mortality of women with grandchildren in college during the weeks leading up to exams.

    • If there is no exam imminent, the death rate is independent of how well the student is doing in class.
    • As a midterm nears, the death rate goes up by a factor of ten. As a final looms, it goes up by a factor of 19.
    • The effect is strongly dependent on how well the student is doing in class. Grandmothers of students doing poorly are at much greater risk. A grandmother of a failing student is 50 times more likely to die in the week prior to a final than a grandmother of a top student when there is no examination imminent.
    • Grandmothers are 24 times more likely to die than grandfathers.
    • The effect is independent of family size.

    Adams develops theories which attempt to explain these phenomena and also has some proposals for addressing the effect.

    A follow-up study by professor Lee Jussim of Rutgers University examined ways of addressing this enormous danger posed to grandmothers. In A Preliminary Report on an Intervention Designed to Reduce Grandmother Death Resulting From College Exams, Jussim found a way to save the lives of 4 out of 5 grandmothers during the lead-up to exams: Inform students that the make-up exam will be brutally difficult.

    Bonus chatter: The articles are written tongue-in-cheek, but other less whimsical explanations for the observed behavior include

    • If a grandmother passes when no exam is imminent, the student will miss class without explanation.
    • Good students are less likely to ask for assistance with exams even if they lose a grandmother.
    • A student with an ill grandmother is more likely to have poor grades due to stress/worry.

    Note also that the predicted grandmother popular collapse did not come to pass. One theory is that this was prevented due to another phenomenon: Grade inflation.

  • The Old New Thing

    Excuses college students use for missing assignments

    • 28 Comments

    My father recently retired after over 40 years as a college professor. During that time, he has seen all sorts of lame excuses students offer for missing homework assignments. Eventually, he got tired of dealing with them, so he instituted the following homework policy:

    There are nine homework assignments in this class, broken into three groups of three. I will take the best score from each group and drop the other two. Therefore, you can turn in as few as three homework assignments and still get full credit for homework. Late homework will be graded so you can learn from your mistakes, but the score will not count. No exceptions.

    He then explains to the students his rationale for this homework policy:

    I have learned from my years of teaching that students are terrible drivers. Now, I know that you personally are probably an excellent driver, but trust me, your classmates are horrible. Every year, countless students come up to me and say, "I'm sorry, but I did not turn in my homework on time because I got into a car accident." I'm tired of dealing with all these excuses, so I'm going to save everybody the trouble of making them up. Whatever excuse you come up with, I accept it, and the score will not count towards the group. That way, you can get into two consecutive car accidents without penalty. If you somehow manage to get into three consecutive car accidents, then I think you have more important things to deal with than this class.

    One year, one of his students gave as an excuse for missing an examination, "My wife gave birth." This excuse may have garnered some sympathy if he hadn't used the exact same excuse three months earlier.

  • The Old New Thing

    There's no seating up there, so you just have to hang on for dear life

    • 5 Comments

    I dreamed that through a friend, I got to join a handful of other people atop Prince Charles's carriage as it wound its way through London. There was no seating up there, so you just have to hang on for dear life. When we reached Buckingham Palace, the assembled crowd and reporters swarmed the carriage for an opportunity to meet the Prince. This provided a sufficient diversion to allow us to climb down from the roof and sneak into the palace undetected.

    We've come to the end of the year, so that's all for Monday dream blogging. For those of you who hated it: You can uncover your eyes now.

  • The Old New Thing

    I think we're going to be getting frozen leftovers for lunch today

    • 10 Comments

    There are a few times a year when a large fraction of employees are out on vacation at the same time, such as a single work day wedged between a holiday and a weekend (as happened this year on July 5). The most extreme case of this is the week between the Christmas holiday and New Year's Day, where the offices are practically empty. On these days of low demand, many services are scaled back and some choose to close entirely so that they can do inventory, perform routine maintenance, or upgrade equipment.

    One of the most visible service reductions is in food service. Smaller locations (such as snack bars) are closed, and the kitchens which remain open offer a reduced menu. But just because most people are on vacation doesn't mean that nobody is watching. Here's a menu from one kitchen that was posted almost exactly one year ago:

    Breakfast Roberts Waffles
    Breakfast Burrito
    Warm Tortilla filled with Scrambled Egg, Golden Hash Browns, Onion Green Chiles, Monterey Jack Cheese and Salsa.
    Today's Soups Clam Chowder
    Tomato Basil Bisque
    Exhibition Station Closed for Holiday
    Shanghai Shanghai
    Greek Potato Salad
    A delicious blend of potatoes, tomatoes, red onions, flavored with mustard, parsley, dill seed, mint and lemon juice.
    Wild Greens Grill and Greens
    Chef's Table Station Closed for Holiday
    Pizza Specialty Pizza by the Slice
    Deli Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil Panini
    Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil Panini
    Spcied [sic] Cranberry Turkey Salad Served on a Flaky Crossaint [sic]
    Entrée Check Freezer
    Grill Tuna Melt
    Steak Frites
  • The Old New Thing

    The chain of stories triggered by seeing a package of Ahoj-Brause

    • 12 Comments

    While surfing the Web aimlessly doing valuable background research, I happened across a page that had a picture of a package of Ahoj-Brause (pronounced ahoy browse-uh). Seeing that package triggered a bunch of memories.

    My emergency vacation from several years ago included a visit to a friend spending the year at Uppsala University in Sweden. The following year, he invited one of his classmates (a student from Germany) to the United States to join his family for the Christmas holiday season.

    She brought with her some small gifts, among them a package of Ahoj-Brause. On its own, Ahoj-Brause is just a drink mix powder, but those in the know consume it by dumping the contents of a packet into your mouth, then adding a shot of vodka.

    (When written by hand, it looks like Ahoj-Braŭse with a breve over the u. That's a trait of German handwriting: A breve is written over the u so that it isn't confused with a handwritten n. Compare putting a slash through a 0 or a crossbar through a 7 to avoid confusion with O and 1, respectively.)

    During her visit, I got to practice some German, telling her the story of Bill Gates and the hotel next door. Her conclusion was that my German was fairly good, and with one month's immersion, I could become fluent. Unfortunately, it's not practical for me to spend a month in Germany just to bring my German skills from "fairly good" to "fluent". For one thing, my wife would be pretty annoyed. (And this is completely setting aside the question of "Why would you devote an entire month of your life to becoming fluent in German? If you're going to devote an entire month of your life to becoming fluent in another language, shouldn't it be Chinese?")

    Man, that's a lot of digressions before getting the story I actually wanted to tell.

    My friend's classmate wanted to head into downtown Seattle to do touristy things, so she was taken to the neighborhood bus stop and given instructions on which bus number to take and where to get off in downtown. That part of the plan worked great. The part that didn't work so great was returning home.

    When you're unfamiliar with an area, traveling a road in the opposite direction doesn't quite trigger the memory cells. My friend's classmate got on the return bus, but couldn't quite remember where to get off to get back home. She got off somewhere close, but the houses didn't look familiar. "Okay, now I'm lost. What do I do?" She had my friend's address and phone number, but she didn't have a mobile phone or a map of the residential neighborhood.

    She walked down the street and saw a house with the sign Mi casa es tu casa hanging by the front door. She considered this an indication that the people in the house were friendly and welcoming, so she knocked on the door. She was okay with the possibility that the people in the house spoke only Spanish, because she had been learning Spanish in anticipation of studying there the following semester. (For those who are keeping score, this means that my friend's classmate speaks at a minimum German, Swedish, English, and Spanish.)

    The assumption that they spoke Spanish was correct. (They also spoke English.) The assumption that the family was friendly and helpful also held up. What she didn't expect was that they spoke German, too! Apparently, the family spent a few years in Germany because the father was assigned there by his work.

    It so happens that she was only two blocks or so from my friend's home; the hard part of course is knowing which two blocks to go.

    The family was so enamored of their unexpected German-and-English-and-Spanish-speaking visitor that they invited her to stay for dinner, but she had to decline due to other plans for the evening.

    Bonus chatter: When my friend sent back some photos from Uppsala, he didn't include any description with the photos, so I made up my own narrative. I had to make up names for all the people in the photos, and Astrid was the name I chose for the subject of today's story. She liked the name so much that she adopted it as a secret nickname.

  • The Old New Thing

    That doesn't sound like South Frisian to me

    • 4 Comments

    I dreamed that I was back in college taking a course in South Frisian, but I suspected something was up because the words didn't sound Germanic at all, and we were taught the words to a Christmas carol as Nom Yom Hear What I Hear?

    Also, because the course was taught by known prevaricator/exaggerator Robert Irvine.

  • The Old New Thing

    Tales from "The Box": A survey of crackpots in physics

    • 11 Comments

    David Dixon, assistant professor of physics at Saddleback College, gave a presentation while he was at California Polytechnic State University titled Tales from "The Box", in which he presents selected contents of The Box, an archive of what is charitably describe as "unsolicited materials", but which is in more plain language "stuff sent to us by crackpots." (Warning: Sound quality is terrible.) He describes the various types of crackpots, common themes, behaviors that set off red flags in professional scientists, and how crackpot theories can be used in instruction.

    In the talk, he excerpts A Little Bit of Knowledge, an episode of This American Life. He also wonders why crackpots are frequently retired engineers.

    (For some reason, the video is doubled, so ignore the second half, unless you like watching it a second time, but with the sound off.)

    Things I learned:

    • A subgenre of physics crackpottery is deriving physical constants from other physical constants in dubious ways. (Time code 29:00.)
    • You need read only the first few pages of any manuscript. That's where the theory is laid out and where you can find the error, assuming the manuscript is comprehensible to begin with. (The rest of the manuscript is just a series of examples of how the theory can be applied to everything under the sun.) One example given was a manuscript that showed that the generally-accepted formula for centripetal acceleration is incorrect by a factor of 2/π. (Time code 37:00.) You would think that an error of this magnitude could be confirmed by experiment, but that never occurs to them.
    • There are crackpot conferences. (Time code 44:00.) Crackpots tend not to criticize each other's work. And there is a pecking order of crackpot specialties.

    During the Q&A, a person from the audience remarked that he worked for a government agency which was required to respond to all communications, even the ones from crackpots. That must really suck.

    Bonus reading: How does a layperson grab the attention of research scientists (without looking like a crazy person).

  • The Old New Thing

    That fee was so that we wouldn't have to raise our prices

    • 18 Comments

    I dreamed that I got screwed by Ticketmaster. I was relieved when I woke up and found out it was only a dream.

    Bonus chatter: The economics of Ticketmaster.

    It reminds me of a company who added a service fee to an existing rate plan, and in their FAQ for the service fee, they explained, "That fee was so that we wouldn't have to raise our prices." This is some sort of bizarro-world logic.

    Yes, I know that this is so that the company can continue to advertise an artifically low "price" in all their marketing materials, and then make up the difference by tacking on a boatload of fees.

    A colleague of mine was purchasing event tickets online, and in addition to the ticket's face value, there was a processing fee, a facility fee, and an order fee. On top of that, it said, "Total does not include shipping and handling or order processing fees." Because apparently an order processing fee is not the same as a processing fee and an order fee.

    Eventually, they will also add a convenience fee, a 9/11 surcharge, a mandatory gratuity, a fee fee, and a fee collection fee.

  • The Old New Thing

    Mysterious email, possible social engineering, whatever it was, it didn't work

    • 16 Comments

    A colleague of mine got a strange piece of email. It went something like this, although I've substituted a fictitious nation and fictitious company name to protect the guilty(?).

    Subject: St. George's Island Embassy Trade Mission: Meeting request on behalf of Contoso Corporation

    Dear ⟨name⟩,

    I am contacting you following the advice of ⟨senior executive⟩, CTO of Microsoft Pangaea.

    The St. George's Island Embassy Trade Mission is currently assisting a local company, Contoso. Contoso would like to present ⟨technology⟩ to Microsoft. Details are in the attached document.

    Would you accept a conference call with the CEO of Contoso, at a time at your convenience?

    Looking forward to a fruitful collaboration,

    Sir Humphrey Appleby,
    Director, St. George's Island Embassy Trade Mission

    My colleague has no connection with St. George's Island, nor had he ever met the named senior executive (or anybody else from the Pangaea division), and he asked, "Is anybody else getting messages like this?"

    I suggested that they might be trying some social engineering: "Send an email to an employee saying that a senior executive told us to contact them. They will do whatever we ask because they think we are operating under the instructions of the CTO."

    This sounded plausible, so my colleague contacted said senior executive, who replied, "I had invited Contoso to participate at a large event we held on St. George's Island last year, but just as you don't know me, I don't know you either. This is definitely suspicious. Thanks for taking the time to send me this warning."

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