Sunday, December 20, 2009

Renton Hooters

I finally got to sample the establishment that’s too classy for Renton; the newly opened Hooters.

Great concept. A Hooters, a casino, a full bowling alley, and arcade. Any one of those four could be my evening’s entertainment, and they’ve put them all under one roof. They executed well on all four aspects. The restaurant is larger than any I’ve seen, and served by a very talented staff. The casino hosts some friendly table games and dealers for Texas Hold’em cash games (though sadly 3/6 is too rich for my blood). Bowling alley has to be 20 lanes at least. Arcade has some good shooter games. Throughout, cheap beer to be had, as much as you can drink (and cheap if you’re playing cards).

The downside: it’s a Hooters. And a casino. Not a Hooters Casino. Nobody goes to Hooters for wings (though to be fair, the boneless wings are indeed full of win), so why would you go to a Hooters Casino to be dealt cards by some middle-aged dude? My daydreams of being dealt cards by Hooters girls sitting on stools just two inches below the felt were crushed. If not for the girls that didn’t quite make the cut for the restaurant proper collecting drink orders approximately once every 18 years, you wouldn’t think it any different than any other local cardroom.

Oh well. They have Pai Gow Poker, $2 local beers, and you trade the standard $25 casino buffet for a Hooters restaurant! I can hardly complain.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Failing of the Academic Process

The big news among climate change skeptics these days is “Climategate” – an incident where years of internal emails and documents from a well-known climate research group at a British University were leaked to the Internet. Skeptics claim that quotes from email and Fortran source code offer proof that the researchers regularly manipulated data to produce the desired conclusions of global warming, and aggressively attempted to suppress research in the academic community that did not agree with their views. Supporters counter that the quotes are being taken out-of-context and in fact just represent standard research methodology.

From what I’ve seen of the leaked content, the latter seems more likely. The quotes seem purposely misinterpreted by those with well-documented agendas, and while much of the leaked content is unfriendly and at times  sloppy, it is consistent with what I’ve seen of the world of academia. But that makes me sad.

(note: all of what I’m about to comment on comes from my fairly limited experience in the academic research world… feel free to comment if you know better)

The goal of the average researcher, particularly in a University setting, is to get published. The more the better – both your current and future bosses will judge you largely based on what you’ve published. Most useful publications comes in two forms – a journal article (think a magazine article but longer and more boring), or a conference paper (a shorter article, that trades the extended journal review process for a live presentation/Q&A). Which forum is favored depends on the subject area, and certain conferences or journals are more prestigious than others. For example, getting a paper you wrote published in ‘Nature’ could be the high point of your career, while presenting at a random conference in Maui may actually hurt your credibility.
Publish or perish,” the saying goes.

The determination of what gets published in a refereed scientific venue is called the ‘peer review’ process. The editor choose several experts in the field in question to review submissions. These submissions are usually articles submitted by researchers, but are sometimes just abstracts, with a promise to write the rest of the article later. The experts review the submissions and provide their opinion as to whether the research makes sense as described. The editor considers these reviews, and uses them to choose the most credible research to include.

Unfortunately, the process is, in all but a few cases, horribly broken. Reviewers have their own agendas, usually based around their own ability to get published, or simply their planet-sized egos. This means that the decision to accept or reject a paper is not based on the research itself, but rather the names of the authors, whether the research agrees with their personal opinions, or if their own work is referenced.

Even if you take as an assumption the basic honesty and competence of the reviewers, and only consider lengthy full-text journal article reviews, the fact is that the review is cursory. At best it would allow enough time to check for obvious logical flaws, or a few key related works that either duplicate or conflict with the research. There’s simply no time nor motivation to seriously examine and test the research claims as part of the peer review process.

Then the paper gets published. For the vast majority of published content, that’s the end of it. The paper’s popularity can be roughly is determined by how many other papers reference it (which, given the issues in the peer review process, doesn’t mean much), but otherwise nobody will care to critically consider the conclusions. Because, in the end, why challenge someone else’s conclusions when you can just publish your own?

My question is: given that the scientific method’s bread and butter is validating hypotheses, why don’t we bother to verify our own publications?

My thoughts to improve the system involve adding feedback from the research community at large. Realistically the research the average master’s student does is not going to significantly advance the curtain of knowledge… maybe at best poke it a bit. Rather than have them do bitchwork for PhDs and write nominally useful papers, why not encourage them to publish “verification papers”? 1) choose one specific paper to analyze, 2) recreate its conditions/technique, 3) verify that the results match the stated findings of the paper, 4) whether it matches or not, publish the findings in a refereed journal specifically designed for such content. The point is specifically NOT to introduce new evidence, but only to evaluate the existing evidence as presented. This gives even junior researchers something that they should excel at with light supervision, dramatically increases the number of refereed publications they author, and improves their understanding of the body of knowledge.

This verification in turn benefits every stage of the process:

  • Papers will necessarily have to be written with the details sufficient to reproduce the results. Any paper that doesn’t is liable to be set aflame by eager verifiers.
  • Reviewers have a level of accountability, as their recommendation of a paper is as much up for review as the paper itself. A reviewer that recommends a paper that gets discredited is unlikely to be a popular choice for reviewer in the future.
  • Readers can have confidence in a paper they read, knowing that others have evaluated and confirmed the results. While a body of research with similar conclusions provides similar confidence, this requires a level of analysis of its own (the source of the ever popular ‘literature survey’), and even then only confirms the common elements.
  • Authors have an avenue of publishing that allows them to discuss existing work, without the requirement to publish half-baked ideas or conflicting views. If they disagree with an idea, they have an ideal venue to voice specific concerns.
  • Authors are rewarded for thorough and well-documented research through positive public feedback.

For such a system to be effective, it must be extensive. It would reasonably require most publications to have multiple reviews within a year of publication. Insufficient feedback reduces the rewards for excellence and encourages the same ego-centric approach that plagues peer review.

If such a system were in place, Climategate would be a non-event. It wouldn’t matter what schemes the researchers were plotting, nor what shortcuts were taken in their methods. You’d have an entire body of independent research already in place validating the accuracy of every last number, and backing every conclusion, point for point.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Glory of the iPhone

As most of you know (from my incessant bragging), I have succumbed to the devil with white earbuds: a black iPhone 3GS 16GB. It’d be fair to say that life has been better for the week that I’ve had it. Is this how it feels to be one of those stoner hippie Mac users?

It would be hard to name one (or *just* one anyways) killer feature that makes the phone such a rewarding experience. More than anything, I think it’s just the polish of the entire experience. Solid performance, unwavering reliability, intuitive yet childishly simple UI, and a never-ending stream of “oh hey, that’s clever!” moments that make you really feel that a bunch of very smart people put a lot of thought into how people would use their creation.

First, it’s a 16GB iPod. That’ll hold my entire music collection easily. And unlike most phones, a real 3.5mm jack, so no crazy adapters. Special category and sync setup for podcasts makes listening to the BBC a breeze (a serious pet peeve of mine, if you recall). Plus, a sufficiently large screen to make video watching not just possible, but practical, be it Youtube clips, or a 2hr movie to entertain on a long car ride. If you want, you don’t even have to sync with a computer: you can access iTunes directly from the device.

It’s a full featured phone. Audio quality is great, if a bit quiet. Works perfectly with a bluetooth headset. Visual voicemail – no more touchtone prompt nonsense. Reception is top notch.

It’s a PDA. Exchange email and calendar sync, with push. The interface, while lacking some of the advanced features in Pocket Outlook, is arguably far more usable, and far less annoying (in particular, less fail from the notifications over WinMo). Notepad for the grocery lists. Facebook communications with an app. You can even become a Kindle, and read Amazon’s e-book titles.

It’s a gaming platform. Touch-enabled games, from the simple joys of cat-stacking to futuristic tower defense. Specialized apps for the Zynga Facebook games that are so popular right now.

It’s a camera. Not as good as a dedicated camera, but enough for clear pictures in all but the dimmest of light. Even video! Beats any other camera-phone I’ve seen to date.

It’s a navigation device. Google Maps built in, but that’s not the only way to use location. One of the most interesting GPS uses I saw was the AAA app, which can call for a tow at your current location with literally just the push of a button.

It’s even a web browser. Having seen the utter rendering failboat that is Pocket IE (even the newest one), and the 50lb slug that is Opera Mobile, I’ve been consistently impressed both with the speed and accuracy of webpage rendering from Safari. It’s the only mobile device I’ve seen where it’s actually practical to surf the web.

Even the common iPhone criticisms seem lacking. Soft keyboards are unpopular with many, but you’d be surprised how quickly one adapts. Many criticize that you can only run one downloaded app at a time. Yet this very limitation leads to a very consistent application design, where apps have to make the conscious choice of what state should be persisted. It doesn’t hurt that this keeps performance good as well. Finally, there’s a fundamental objection to the tight leash Apple keeps over its OS and the app store. While that does irk me from a philosophical standpoint, the reality is that Apple has served as exceptional gatekeepers for quality, keeping the worst of the cruft out of the app ecosystem, and to a similar extent preventing the worst crapware that the carriers love to add to otherwise working phones.

But more than anything else, the damned thing works. This may seem wild to those who haven’t suffered buggy phones before, but the fact that I don’t even know where the reset button is says volumes about the device’s reliability. Thus far, no hangs, no crashes, not even any slowdowns. I’ve never drained the battery past half-charge (though GeoDefense certainly does try). Not a single feature that did not work exactly as expected on the first try.

So yea, iPhone = win. Go get one!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Why I scrapped my WinMo phone

The context of the discussion: Kyna got me an iPhone 3GS. While an interesting topic of itself (coming soon), here I discuss what finally pushed me away from a more Redmond-friendly device.

I’m no stranger to Windows Mobile. I started eight years ago on a third-hand Compaq iPaq I bought from Lyllea, long before WinMo was even WinMo, let alone a phone. I’ve upgraded several times since then, including HP iPaq successors, up to my most recent device, an HTC TyTN. Next on my list, a brand new WinMo 6.5 device, the HTC Tilt2. But instead, I got an iPhone.

There’s a variety of reasons I defected from the WinMo brand (most of which I can’t discuss publically, given my access to internal betas). But one very specific scenario put me over the top.

I want to listen to the BBC World News during my drive to work. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request; the BBC offers it for free, I have a modern car stereo, hundreds of dollars of computing hardware strapped to my hip, and more internet access than your average developing nation. Why shouldn’t I be able to keep abreast of world news once a day?

First off, I subscribe to the BBC Global News podcast in Zune (which, if you remember, I consider totally awesome). Set it to download the latest episode, which true to Zune form, works flawlessly. But of course, the Zune app is too good for my clunky old TyTN… it only wants to sync with Zune devices*.

[* Some may observe that this entire scenario would work flawlessly with a Zune. Which is true; but a Zune isn’t a phone, and damned if I’m dropping hundreds of dollars EACH on a phone and a dedicated media player. Not to mention being an even bigger geek by having two devices on my belt. ]

So I fire up Windows Media Player on Windows 7. WMP can in fact sync directly to my phone’s memory card (my phone itself has a paltry 64MB RAM). But Windows Media Player won’t show me the latest version of my podcast… the library is outdated, showing me last week’s news. So I can just click refresh? No of course not, that would be too complicated. Even after waiting for the library update to complete, which takes upwards of 20 minutes thrashing on my DivX files, it’s not updating. No way to add it manually either.

Say, hypothetically, I actually get the latest file to show up in the library. I have to find the new content, and manually click on it to sync (no autosyncing a specified folder, that’d be too smart), and also manually remove the old episode I’m done with from the device. If I can’t get the file to show up, I have to use Windows explorer and copy the files manually.

Now, on to the phone. Fire up Windows Mobile. I have to manually build a new playlist. But, like its desktop companion, I have to first convince it to add my new content to “the Library”. On the plus side, unlike its desktop companion, there’s an explicit ‘update’ button. On the downside, the update is dumb and takes like 10 minutes to locate an MP3. Then locks up. You have to notice the UI freeze, and hit cancel. But the library, not being transactional, is in fact mostly built now. I then have to manually delete the old entries from the playlist, then find the new podcast episode and add it.

Now, I’m ready to drive, but of course have to restart Pocket WMP. It’s still running, but if the device is idle for more than five seconds, it flips back to the today screen. Using media controls while driving is out of the question, given the eight pen-target clicks one has to go through just to get to the pause button.

My phone, being too cool for a 3.5mm jack, needs an adaptor to plug into the car, which takes up the power socket. If you use the power splitter, you get feedback any time you rev the engine. Hope the battery is full… but it always is – I charge the phone nearly 24 hours a day, just to keep it able to receive calls anyways.

So finally, I’m ready to find out the latest from $ConflictedCountryDuJour, but ironically, in the 30 minutes I’ve spent fiddling with various bits of software, I could have just listened to the podcast at home, and let BJ Shea keep me company on the way to work.

Just to be clear, on my iPhone, my process: plug my phone into my computer, wait about 15 seconds. From my phone, press the “podcast” button, plug into my car using the convenient 3.5mm jack, and news happens!

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Virgin Airlines

Hanging out in LAX, stealing Wi-Fi from the OneWorld Lounge, and downloading as much Zune Pass content that I can (which is not much at this range) while waiting for RanmaSao and company to meet up with us. LAX is a bit wierd; inside security it seems nice, but the outward-facing parts are super budget and in stark contrast to the rest of what we've seen.

Our first flight with Virgin America was great! The most noteworthy aspect I think was the people - not the batik-clad models of Singapore Airlines, nor the disgruntled old women of domestic airlines. The best way to put it is that they're normal people; friendly and helpful, but still sharp and willing to tell you to get your butt back in the seat (as one embarassed passenger discovered during taxi). Their staff matches the expectation they set in their advertising communications... go marketing department.

At least for domestic, Virgin seems to charge for *everything* in economy (as do most domestic airlines these days); $20 a checked bag, even for the first! But I was impressed with the options available on the plane, even if they cost money. On-demand movies, wi-fi internet (yes, INTERNET on the plane!), a variety of food selections. Headphones even cost money, but it's a standard 3.5mm, so you can plug in your own (presumably much better) headphones into the system.

The in-flight entertainment system is pretty advanced. Google Map tracking of your flight. On-demand movies. Satellite TV was a nice feature to get 'real' TV, but had the same downsides as said real TV - ie. there's jack all on at 7am. You can order food directly from your screen. They had some online games you could play, but nothing particularly special. Sadly, the system was a bit laggy and not super reliable, which isn't good for channel-surfing, but fine once you've chosen your entertainment.

Overall though, the flight experience was good, and that's what counts. Everything was executed with clockwork precision with no hassle. Smooth takeoff and landing. Comfortable seats for coach with lots of legroom. And no stupid employees doing stupid things to make me mad.

So, I declare Virgin America as win. That is all.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Metablogging (and Zune stuff too)

Several of my Canadian colleagues at work recently asserted that Windows Live Writer, Microsoft’s blogging application, was “very much not wrong”. So, to verify the assumption, I have installed Live Writer and am using it for this post. A pressing need? Not really – the Blogger web UI is more than adequate for my once-every-few-months ramblings. But still, the assertion was one I felt compelled to verify.

So far, seems like a basic word processor. In fact, it seems almost identical to what Blogger offers in their web UI, except as a snappy lightweight client app. It allows you to save drafts either locally or directly to the server. Preview is instantaneous.

So yes, Live Writer is in fact not wrong at all. It’s at least as good as editing on the web, and is lightning fast. The integration, even with the enemy, is impressive.

To continue the pro-Microsoft propaganda, the Zune software 4.0 update. As I mentioned earlier, the Zune client is basically Microsoft’s answer to iTunes. Latest update has a bunch of quickplay features blah blah something about being way faster in searching (it’s true!) la la app store, but the one that really changes the game is the “Smart DJ”.

That was always my biggest problem with my Zune Pass. With Pandora, I could just leave the music running for days at a time without actively having to choose something to listen to. Zune, while allowing me to download any music I want, still fundamentally required me to choose every song I wanted to hear. They had the “Just For You” picks, but the channel only updated weekly with about an hour of music – not enough to last through a commute, let alone a 40 hour workweek. The Smart DJ fixes this – any band or song, just click Smart DJ and it makes a playlist for you (around twenty songs). Click it again, and it chooses new music.

At least for the few bands I’ve seeded thus far, it seems to choose well. The variety is quite good, and it does well at determining suitable related songs to play. I’ve already discovered a couple interesting bands (eg. ‘Another Black Day’), and have yet to have to skip anything I didn’t like.

The kool-aid. It tastes so good.

Update: Windows Live Writer handled this post admirably. And this edit too!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Acer Aspire One 10.1"

Despite the recent successful ressurection of Kiasumalice (the Dell desktop replacement that served me through college), I've been craving a new laptop. Something genuinely portable. So when Woot had an refurb Acer netbook up for grabs for $250, I couldn't resist!

I'm finally in possession of Kiasubitty - a blue Acer Aspire One AOD150. Not for lack of Fedex trying, who left the laptop laying right in the middle of my driveway. Good job, guys! But nevertheless, I have it, and it works exactly as advertised.

Here's the executive summary in way of review:
  • Sexy blue steel look. None of this silly white nonsense.
  • Removable 6-cell battery. Battery life is like six solid hours!
  • Respectable BIOS. In-BIOS support to recover to factory from a hidden partition. Solid network boot support. Boot from USB. Boots fast too.
  • Good ports: 3xUSB2, 2.0 audio out, mic in, card reader, VGA out, gigabit ethernet.
  • 160GB HDD, so you have room to install more than a barebones OS.


  • Trackpad isn't very good - the buttons in particular kinda suck. Though apparently old Acer netbooks were even worse.
  • Not quite enough horsepower for HD video. It can (barely) handle 360p from Hulu though.
  • No integrated bluetooth.
  • Using an HDD not SSD.

The default install has a ton of stuff installed by Acer. Nothing you'd particularly want (McAfee trial, Works, Office trial, some Acer in-house junk), but nothing outrageous for a default install. Pretty much the only offensive apps were the full Google Desktop and Toolbar suites, and some news aggregator free trial, which were quickly uninstalled.

Of course, none of that matters, since I installed Windows 7 on it right away. Windows 7 installed flawlessly - just click "Install Windows", and wait for the magic to happen. It automatically picked up drivers for all my hardware, and it honestly seems to perform better than the base XP install (albeit that may be due to McAfee and the other software that was pre-installed).

It's a nice little netbook! I won't be raiding on it any time soon, but being able to surf the net during a long presentation has already made it worthwhile.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


Zune is the rather bizarre brand name given to Microsoft's answer to Apple's iTunes/iPod/iWhateverThatCanPlayMusicThisWeek. The brand includes a variety of MP3 players, plus an online music store and PC music player similar to iTunes. The MP3 players are widely unnoteworthy - they'd be impressive five years ago, but now they're just yet another set of iPod clones. What caught my attention was the announcement of the Zune HD coming later in the year - 720p to TV, touchscreen, web browsing, wireless sync, and even an HD radio!

So I figured, now would be a good time to try the 'iTunes' end of the experience while I wait for Zune HD, and installed the Zune application on my computers at work and home.

Now Zune does things a bit differently than iTunes. Sure, you can still buy individual songs for 99 points (about $1.24 for a US user) just like iTunes. But the service is really optimized for the Zune Pass - a $14.99/month subscription which allows you to download just about any song in their collection, and keep it for as long as you're subscribed. You also get ten "free" songs a month to keep regardless of whether you keep paying or not. Thankfully, they have a two week free trial, so I gave it a try.

It was incredible! Free access to their entire catalog - and they have pretty much anything I could think of - minus the few money grubbing bands that insist that you can only buy full albums (Metallica, Seether, I'm talking to you). You can download any song to your collection, but there's really no need [when you don't have a Zune to copy them to], since on a Zune pass you can also just stream the songs directly from their servers whenever you want. Which I've been doing at work... all day... every day.

Their client app, while a bit hefty on the memory requirements (that's .NET for you), is a polished experience. Finding music is easy enough. Your standard search box. All of your Messenger contacts show up, and you can see what they've been playing and their favourites. A list of channels, which are basically updating playlists. A special channel updates weekly with 90 minutes worth of music it suggests based on your listening habits (basically, "Users who listened to this also liked..."); my first round seemed to favour the more popular end of the spectrum (eg. Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold), but still great selections for what I like.

To finish off the experience, they have podcasts, which are regularly updating audio or video content. This is great in particular for news - I've got CBC and BBC news clips already plugged in. Most podcasts are free, even without the Zune Pass, so you can enjoy them even if you don't want to shell out the moola.

Final assessment: OMG Zune Pass is incredible, I don't see why everyone doesn't have this right now! I'm not just saying that as a loyal Microsoft lackie either; my previous disdain for Zune is well-known. Even if you object to paying for music you can easily pirate... $15 a month to have no-hassle instant access to any song you want, even songs you don't know you want yet... seems like a no-brainer. They've gained a customer of me. Well played Microsoft, the first hit is free eh?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Twitter: the Conclusion

Mere days after starting out on the latest Web 2.0 phenomenon Twitter, I'm about ready to call it quits, and depreciate the Lownewulf feed.

For those who don't know, Twitter is similar to a blog, except posts are limited to 140 characters. Those who have Twitter "follow" people they're interested in, and can themselves be followed. News outlets, businesses, stars and others have all started 'tweeting' of late, allowing fans and interested parties to get up-to-the-second news about the people and events that interest them.

It's a nice idea. The simplistic interface is a reminder of the glory days of Google, where a title and a textbox is all a site needed to rule the web. The easy SMS integration encourages mobile use by a generation raised by text message. By limiting the length of messages, they encourage both brevity and frequent updates.

Unfortunately, it is also the delivery vehicle of the worst of what the blogging model had to offer. Its very design presupposes a desire to discuss the minutiae of one's life, and in turn hear the same from hundreds of others. While it's possible that wisest thinkers could say something more meaningful in 140 characters than I could present in a doctoral thesis, the more common case is John Smith telling the world that he's having meatloaf for dinner. This is exactly the anti-mission of my blog (though how well I've held to this is a debate of itself).

In the end, Facebook is a strict superset of Twitter; and some would argue with the latest update, like it or not, purposely mirroring Twitter's core concepts. The difference being with Facebook, that I can share pictures, have organized discussion threads... even post this blog post! All with a far more refined user experience than Twitter was able to deliver from their main website. Plus, I have a network of hundreds that I'm unlikely to ever match on Twitter.

So, back to Facebook, at least for now.

Monday, March 30, 2009

2007 Canadian Taxes are Done! Wait... what?

Those following the play-by-play on Facebook probably know by now that Canada has requested my 2007 taxes. Not my 2006. Not my 2008. My 2007. They sent me a very insistent letter asking me to file my 2007 taxes. Of course, they list a bunch of reasons why one might have to file a return, and one of the reasons is, literally, "We send you a request to file a return". Sounds somewhat circular - we're asking you to file a return because we've asked you to file a return.

Needless to say, I called them and told them that this was a very silly request. They suggested I send a fax with full contact information and tell them I no longer live in Canada, and that they'd drop the issue. Thinking the friendly lady is indicative of a human side of the Canada Revenue Agency, I did exactly that. Of course, that would be too easy - they simply took my letter, updated my address in their records, and sent me the same letter again. Except this time the ominous "second request" that I must respond to within thirty days.

Now this is particularly funny. They insist that I must file taxes within thirty days. But how, pray tell, will they enforce such a request? They can only fine me if I owe taxes - usually as a percentage of the balance owing. That $0.00 fine is going to be brutal, especially with the juice still flowing. On the other hand, I'm kind of a paperwork whore, and don't like to challenge authority, so I decided to bite the bullet and file anyways.

Final stats:
  • 1.5 hours
  • Forms: T1 General NR, Schedule 1, Schedule A, Schedule B.
  • Number of $0.00's: 37.
  • Most intrusive form: itemized declaration (in C$) of worldwide income.

You can guess how much I owed: $0.00.