Archive for the ‘miscellaneous’ Category.

How not to get a summer internship

I recently received the following email, sent to a non-work-related account I have. Except for removing this person’s name and city, I have not changed the text or formatting (size, boldness, line breaks) at all.
A cover letter looking for an internship →

XKCD: an inside perspective

Randall Munroe, creator of the hilarious webcomic XKCD, gave a talk at work last week, and it was pretty interesting. I bring this up because he discussed the current comic in his talk. When the Google Labs Aptitude Test came out, Randall decided he was going to apply, but he didn’t want to turn it in until he had gotten all of the questions. He couldn’t get the resistor question, and eventually asked his physics professor about it. They filled up an entire blackboard without getting anywhere on the problem (see the alt text in the comic). Randall gave up on the GLAT and never turned it in. However, he eventually looked up some literature on the resistor problem: it wasn’t actually solved until the 60’s, and wasn’t solved elegantly until the 90’s. Both proofs required math so complex that he didn’t recognize it. He no longer feels bad about not solving the problem, though.

One of the other things he mentioned in the talk is that now that people read his comic, he has nothing new to talk about at parties; everyone has heard all of his stories and jokes already.

Citizendium: Wikipedia++

Regular readers are no doubt aware of my distrust of Wikipedia. It’s great for untrusted knowledge, the sort you get from a friend of a friend of a friend. However, I wouldn’t trust it for anything important, controversial, subtle, or tricky. Whether it’s Stephen Colbert fans changing the elephant populations or Fox News adding libel to its competitors’ entries, whether Diebold is removing the sections about how its voting machines don’t work or just minor details gotten totally wrong, Wikipedia has more misinformation, disinformation, and lack of information than I think its proponents realize. There is now a way to track such edits, but frankly I don’t have time to babysit the internet.

Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, has pointed out these faults in the system, too, and has tried to remedy them with his new project, Citizendium. It’s similar to Wikipedia, but with several problems fixed. There is no anonymity, so it’s easy to tell what was added by a person with a particular agenda. Misuses, vandalism, and libel get you banned for life. There are experts on particular topics who act as editors and settle any disagreements that arise from the authors (anyone can edit a page, but if an edit war breaks out, the expert steps in and stops it).

The whole thing looks much more accurate and relevant (I haven’t found a random page I wasn’t at least mildly interested in). However, I fear that the project will be doomed to failure because the barrier to entry is too high: before editing any page, you actually need to sign up for an account, which involves convincing a real person that you’re a real person, too. This is as simple as pointing to a website that contains your name and email address in the same sentence, but it means that the vast majority of netizens won’t bother signing up. I hope the project pans out, but it’s been a year and they haven’t yet broken 10,000 pages or 10,000 users. We’ll see if this takes off.

Protected: The Height of Just-Too-Muchery

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Observations made while driving back from Defcon

I often listen to the radio station 93.1 JACK FM, which plays a lot of kinds of rock. In Las Vegas, however, 93.1 is The Party and plays dance music. Driving from one city to the other, there was a part in the middle where I could pick up both stations, which was pretty strange. I only got one of the stations at a time (with intermittent static), but they would switch off. I believe that when driving uphill I could get the Las Vegas station, but driving downhill I picked up the Los Angeles one. Can any physicists/electrical engineers explain why this might happen? It sounded like a bad DJ with poor taste was trying to make a remix of Independent Woman by Destiny’s Child and Poison’s Once Bitten, Twice Shy. It was bizarre.

I spent a lot of the trip on a two-lane highway through the desert, stuck in all the traffic commuting from Las Vegas back to Los Angeles. The heavy traffic displayed an unusual phenomenon, however, which I found fascinating. All of the trucks were in the right lane, as is their custom. All of the speed demons were in the left lane, as is theirs. However, due to the heavy traffic, no one was going much more than 20 mph at the most. However, the trucks, which, due to their weight, had trouble accelerating and decelerating, were trying to stay at a constant speed: they would keep a lot of space in front of them, and close this gap when the traffic in front of them slowed down (and then increase the gap as the traffic sped up). The left lane, however, vacillated between going 40 mph and being at a standstill. After the traffic in front of a car picked up, however, it would take a moment for a car to pick up and start moving again (the same problem the trucks would have had, but on a smaller scale). Consequently, the right lane, with its slow-but-steady trucks, was actually moving faster than the zippy sports cars in the left lane. I noticed this, switched to the right lane, and was amazed at how quickly I passed cars in the other lane: 4 of them would pass me, then their lane would come to a stop, and I would pass 10 of them, and this cycle repeated through the whole desert.

This behavior reminded me of Robert H. Frank’s book, The Economic Naturalist. In it, he applies economic principles to non-economic parts of life to make sense of the world around us. He describes many situations in which a certain behavior gives an individual a benefit but detracts from the group as a whole. For instance, male elephant seals compete for dominance in their territory, and then mate with the females in the area. Typically the larger male wins any dispute over territory, so the males have evolved to be larger and larger over time. They have now gotten so big that they must mate on their side, since a male would crush a female if he tried to mount her. The cars in the left lane were another example of the tragedy of the commons, and I was proud that I recognized and avoided the situation.

A nicer story

Rob pointed me towards an interesting experiment that the Washington Post did: they got a world-class violinist to pose as a busker outside a D.C. subway. It turns out that almost no one stopped to listen or give him money, although several people realized that he was better than a typical street performer. You can listen to the whole 45 minutes of music, and it’s pretty nice stuff.

Improve your mind, rot your brain

I’ve recently been watching several shows about the wildlife in other parts of the world, and it’s been absolutely fascinating. Last week there was a 3-hour special on the National Geographic channel about the Galapagos Islands which was amazing. I just finished watching Expedition Borneo on the Discovery Channel. There was another program on PBS about Galapagos earlier this week, too. I don’t want to go to Borneo (too many insects, leeches, venomous creatures, and diseases), but it would be really cool to go to Galapagos someday. In the meantime, I’m thrilled to see these things on TV.

StumbleUpon: extend your horizons

There’s a really cool plugin for Firefox called StumbleUpon that I recently got into. The idea is that you tell it topics you’re interested in, and it then shows you websites about those topics. You can rate sites (“I like it” or “I don’t like it”), and it then refines its ideas of these websites based on your recommendations (so that it can choose whether or not to show them to other people with similar interests). If you’re looking for some interesting new websites to play with, give this a shot.

Go make someone’s day!

Over the weekend, I had a friend tell me (mostly) out of the blue how much he admired my honesty and forthrightness. I never expected anyone to say something like that, and it totally made my day week. The world would probably be a better place if we all said things like that, and complimented people on things they never hear about but which you really appreciate. It would be neat if you all found someone and praised them in this way.

I’m not fishing for compliments; my week has already been made. Go find someone else.

Google knows how to throw a party

I just flew in from Reno, and boy are my arms tired. The ironic thing is that it’s totally true. Here’s what’s happened in the past 48 hours:

The first party →