Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Bloodless Corpse

I knew that he was dead, tucked into a fetal position, stuffed under the instructor’s station at the front of room LAS 327.  I saw the tiny gray holes.  My spine chilled.  I left the room to call dispatch.  Later, the other patrollers in Safety thought I got out of the room because of the body, but it wasn’t that.  I knew that there was a vampire on campus. 

The medical examiner did not report the wounds – most likely for the same reason I did not mention them in my incident report.  The cause of death remained open. 

The school turned edgy, even in the daytime.  At night, people hurried to their cars in groups.

The sheriff lent us two deputies “to re-establish a sense of safety.”  Each walked halls during the day, and cruised the parking lots from 5:00 PM until 10:30 PM.  Our own patrols changed to a buddy system – at least in theory.  Typically, we hit the doors, split up, made our checklists, and met on the way out.  Some of the patrollers did not like it.  Long used to being on their own, they would take off and meet up a couple of buildings later.  It was all right with me.  I take a lot in stride at my age.  Campus safety patrol was the second job in the fourth career in 35 years.  The student’s death was hard– he looked like a nice kid – but I was not shocked.

What kept me awake was the vampire.  A man who does not believe in God cannot believe in the Devil.  I argued with myself, but no sophistry could contradict the observation.  That immutable empirical fact demanded its own logic.

After two weeks, campus life settled into a surreal imitation of itself.  Until someone was arrested and charged, we all waited for the next one.

When I saw her on the east third floor of the life sciences building, everything about her said “victim” – shoulders slightly dropped and pulled in, head down watching her shoes, backpack too heavy with books.  And she was being followed by Death.  The smell was not the pain of fetal pigs and dissected rats from the biology labs, or even cadavers from the biology core.  But it was.  It was in the air.  “Miss!” I called. “Miss!”  When she turned around, I knew that Death was inside her.  Her reptile stare lacked even the pleasure of a meal.  I wanted to be hers.  She was twenty feet away when I whispered, “Take me.” 

She flew to me in a stride, gripped me to her, her talons in my back, her hand grabbing my hair, pulling my head to bare my neck.  My hand leapt to my shirt pocket, yanked out the pencil and stabbed it into her heart, pressing the shaft home, my hand flat against her cold breast. 

Her eyes lit up with shock, then horror, … disbelief … hatred – and then release.  She died in my arms.  There was no blood.

First posted here October 29, 2012. Written for and rejected by Blood Orange literary magazine, Washtenaw Community College, 2007.

Monsters from the Id
Fantastic Voyages: Teaching Science with Science Fiction
Atheists in Foxholes
Kicking Nuns for Fun and Profit

Monday, October 26, 2015

Ahmed Mohamed Doesn't Live Here Any More

A good news story polarizes friends. Ahmed Mohamed and his family are moving to Qatar after his meeting the President of the United States following his arrest for bringing a clock to school. Apparently, the clock was old Radio Shack from the 70s. He took it from its housing and put it in a "pencil box" (metal art supply box). The third teacher who saw it called it a bomb and the principal called the police. It was easy for me to see Ahmed's point of view. My conservative comrades disagreed.

We did agree that no news story provided all of the same significant facts. Read Huffington Post, Breitbart, and Wikipedia to piece the story together -- and consider the sources.

Huffington Post 9/21: "The clock, which he invented, and built in 20 minutes using basic materials, led to his arrest ..."  
​Still on 10./22: "... arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school,..."​

​But putting "ahmed mohamed did not build clock" into Bing and Google returned a slew of articles from right wing sources.  Among those, though, was Mark Zuckerberg's interview in which he conceded that the kid spoke intelligently about electronics, but that he could hear Ahmed's sister in the background coaching him on the politics of the incident.
From Wikipedia:  "Some of Mohamed's teachers at Sam Houston middle school were surprised to learn that staff at the high school called police, as they have known Mohamed to bring more elaborate gizmos to their school."[7] [7]  Selk, Avi (September 26, 2015).Before Ahmed's fame: fantastic inventions and a fight with authority". The Dallas Morning News. Archived from the original on September 27, 2015. Retrieved September 27, 2015.
An "elaborate gizmo" is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. Last winter when Laurel wanted to build a security system for the house, I took out the Radio Shack project kit that she bought me one Christmas long ago. In a couple of weeks, we had integrated circuits on breadboards, and she was programming the controller.It is pretty easy to do.  But by comparison, I went to a computer security conference a couple of weeks ago, and one of the vendors had two motorized animals built from Leggos. I thought that was impressive.

Then, consider that this is about politicizing the behaviors of children. And the response of the police to an ignoramus.  The teacher who sounded the alarm teaches English.  Ahmed's technical teachers had no problem with what to them was obviously a clock.  
All of My Friends Got in Trouble in School

Texas law, it is said in an article, makes it illegal to possess a fake bomb. Well, OK, that's like robbing a bank with a fake gun, so I get that, but in order to fake a bomb (or fake a gun), it has to resemble the intended object.  In Iraq, they set off IEDs with cell phones.  So, are cell phones fake bombs?  The kid had a clock.  A clock is a clock -- unless you are an English teacher.

As for his having built a clicker to take control of the classroom projector, so what?  It's a prank for a moment.  Laurel had an uncle. When he was in high school, he brought a brown paper bag to class and told the girl next to him that it was candy for later....  knowing full well that the girl in front of him would put her hand in the bag... and find a snake. 

At our Model United Nations meeting in 1966, one of the delegations came with a "bomb" in a briefcase: a tape recorder that played tick-tock tick-tock .... and then boom!  

Of course that was before Columbine., 9/11, Homeland Security, and the militarization of the police. Those new conditions are real. For an insightful analysis of the sociology of mass violence, see "Thresholds of Violence" in a recent The New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell.

Also on Necessary Facts
World Peace Through Massive Retaliation: Educating the Gifted and Talented in Cleveland, Ohio
Nerd Nation
Teaching Science Through Science Fiction
The CSI Effect

Monday, October 19, 2015

Innumeracy at Macaroni Grill

Choosing any one of four entrĂ©es along with any one of three different garnishes gives you twelve choices, not seven.  If you decline the meat (vegetarian, or just not interested), you have 16 possibilities, the null set being an element of every set. 

My wife and I are fans of Romano’s Macaroni Grill.  She can avoid gluten by substituting vegetables for pasta with her fish or chicken dish. I like to build my own pasta by selecting pomodoro or bolognese sauce with different vegetables and meats to go with the spaghetti. 

I was washing my hands when I heard a commercial for their “Seven Dollars in Seven Minutes” lunch menu. “Seven pasta choices for seven dollars in seven minutes,” the man’s voice said.  He listed them: Spaghetti Bolognese, Sausage Rigatoni, Baked Ravioli, and Spaghetti Verdi. “That’s just four,” countered the woman.  The man replied that you could add your choice of grilled chicken, Italian sausage, or shrimp. “That’s seven!” the woman beamed.  She was wrong.

One of four entrĂ©es times one of three garnishes is twelve possible selections.  Add the no-meat option and you get sixteen choices for seven dollars in less than seven minutes. 

If you want to tweet about combinatorics, you can find an international Twitter group managed from Italy:


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as The [Bleep]

My wife and I have seen many shows that we did not like, both new and famous oldies that made us wonder why we liked them the first time.  De gustibus non est disputandum. The marketplace is agnostic. You do not have to drive through the order lane if you do not want the food. Obviously, millions of others do. That said, I have not seen a show so bad and so highly acclaimed as The Veep. We watched 20 minutes of the first episode and ejected the disk.

Emmy Awards 2015
The first challenge for the writers was to force as many expletives into each line as possible. Discussing Wiseguy (made into the movie Goodfellas), author Nicholas Pileggi says that the gangsters have a limited vocabulary in the first place, and they use profanity so often, that the only way to achieve emphasis in discourse is to resort to echolalia: "Why the fucking fuck did you fuck up the fucking job?" The people in The Veep are as erudite as the Goodfellas.  

The next challenge for the writers was to make politicians, especially our nation's leaders, look stupid. As a libertarian I can appreciate that.  But it takes some finesse. You have to have smart people as standards in order to portray lamebrains. The Three Stooges were the standard against which Nazis, gangsters, and other bullies were set. Writing from the post modernist school, The Veep has no standards: everyone is dumber than the audience.  On the other hand, in The West Wing, the dullards included Gov. Robert Ritchie of Florida (played by James Brolin), and Dr. Jenna Jacobs (Claire Yarlette).  Of course, we had a couple dozen smart people from both parties to compare them to.  The Veep could use one.

A Culture of Reason, Reality, and Freedom
The Science of Liberty
Why Democracy is Difficult
Nerd Nation 4.0

Sunday, October 11, 2015

InnoTech 2015

On Thursday, October 8, I spent the morning at the 13th annual InnoTech computer security conference. Seventy-nine vendors filled the floor. I only had time to meet a fraction of them. My tour was facilitated by a "passport" sheet that listed ten sponsors. Track them down, get them to sign their square, and drop the completed form in a box for a drawing.  It was "must be present to win" but I did not stay for that. I met some friends, colleagues from OWASP, and recruiters who sponsor our happy hours.

"Technology Navigators is a technical staffing firm,
specialized in recruiting skilled individuals
for project-oriented consulting and contract positions.
We’ve been firmly rooted in the Austin technology community since 1999,
and have been providing companies that
develop, build, and use technology
with the people they need to grow their business for over 15 years."
"Knight Security Systems has built its reputation over three decades
as one of the country’s leading providers of security system solutions.
With over 4,000 systems since 1983, Knight Security Systems has assisted
our customers in reducing internal and external, loss, legal liability,
employee liability, increasing productivity, safety compliance,
customer satisfaction and bottom line profits."
"Headspring is much more than a provider of
enterprise software strategy and development ...
We are motivated by our daily opportunity
to create a real impact in the world,
and to enable our employees, our clients
and our community
to achieve beyond their perceived potential."
"Bridgepoint Consulting provides
management consulting services
that help organizations optimize financial operations
and information technology
while mitigating organizational risks.
Whether a company needs assistance with strategy,
process improvement,
technology or regulatory compliance—
or simply has resource gaps,
our team of professionals deliver measurable results."
"By partnering with our customers,
Future Com []
can give them a competitive advantage
in terms of everything from implementation times
and resources required during deployments
to lowering the total cost of ownership
of technology and solutions as a whole."
PC Magazine Best Antivirus Software 2015.
Available for Macintosh.
Enterprise solutions also available.
"Bitdefender protects its users’ privacy,
as well as the as their devices.
Our award-winning security technologies protect against
all cyber-threats today,
from annoying adware
to dangerous malware
that infiltrates to steal data, intercept online payments,
spy, or hold your information for ransom."
"M-Files is document management the way it should be:
simple to install and learn, reliable, powerful and secure –
without breaking your budget.
Improve workflow, increase information reuse, eliminate redundancy,
securely control content, and avoid conflicts and data loss –
all in a single document management solution
that integrates with Windows Explorer."

"Everything transacts on the wire: 
from raw packets to the payloads of all application transactions. 
Wire data is a deep and rich source that contains 
every conversation occurring on the network. 
Wire data provides an objective, "outside-looking-in" view 
across the entire application delivery chain. 
It serves as the most unbiased source of truth about 
the performance, effectiveness, and security 
of enterprise IT environments." -- Extrahop Networks
"For thirty years,
New Horizons Computer Learning Centers
has provided practical and innovative
corporate training solutions
to help organizations overcome operational challenges
and take advantage of emerging opportunities."
"Advanced communications and cloud solutions
from Time Warner Cable Business Class
can enable your Enterprise to be more successful
in today’s market. ... 
Time Warner Cable Business Class
delivers reliable and scalable voice and data solutions
over our advanced, fiber-rich IP network."
"...Veeam has pioneered a new market of Availability for the Modern Data Center
by helping organizations meet
recovery time and point objectives (RTPO™)
of less than 15 minutes for all applications and data,
through a fundamentally new kind of solution
that delivers high-speed recovery, data loss avoidance,
verified protection, leveraged data and complete visibility."
"Keep your home connected
with powerful High-Speed Internet, Digital TV, Phone Service.
Services designed for business ranging from
home/small offices up to 50 employees,
including Internet Solutions, Phone Services,
and 24/7 Technical Support.
Enterprise-class data, voice, network and cloud solutions
designed to meet the unique needs of your business."
Available on Slideshare

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ruby Methods the Ruby Way

On Monday, October 5, 2015, Hal Edwin Fulton, author of The Ruby Way presented “Core Methods We Forgot We Have” to AustinRB at the Capital Factory. First published in 2001, and now in its third edition, Fulton’s book was the second English language guide.  It is available in Chinese, Japanese, and Polish.  My introduction to Ruby on Rails was in 2012 through a four-week class offered by CabForward. As a technical writer, my interest is in being able to work with programmers. Hal Fulton’s lecture was clear, concise, informative, and insightful. I enjoyed it so much that I stopped taking notes and just watched.

RubyRB starts at 6:30 with a sideboard. This month’s host was Netspend, who treated us to Qdoba. “Hurray! It’s not pizza,” said one of the 30 or so present.  As we ate, we introduced ourselves to the group.  Several of the attendees were enrolled at The Iron Yard, and looking forward to going to work as developers.   One of the other attendees said that his firm is hiring. That is pretty common. At the other Ruby group, Austin on Rails, employers looking for devops people sometimes out-number the unemployed.

A method in Ruby is like a function in Fortran or a procedure in Cobol: a little routine that someone created to do something useful. Some of them seem redundant: concat and append, for example. Hal Fulton explained that internally, concat builds a new array and fills it with the elements of the objects, whereas append actually does place the source object at the end of the target object, changing the target. append is computationally more efficient than concat.
Hal Fulton: Ruby Hacker and Author of The Ruby Way
The next day, via email, I asked Hal Fulton about this redundancy.  “… Ruby is community-driven.  So, you cannot stop people from creating new methods and publishing them, even when they do exactly the same thing as an existing method.”  He replied: “Well, anyone can write a method and use it (or even create a gem and publish it), but Matz [Yukihiro Matsumoto: the creator of Ruby] and his minions are still very picky about what actually gets into the core. My take on it -- better too much functionality than too little.”  
This book can be viewed as a sort of “inverted reference.” Rather than looking up the name of a method or a class, you will look things up by function or purpose. For example, the string class has several methods for manipulating case: capitalize, upcase, casecmp, downcase, and swapcase. In a reference work, these would quite properly be listed alphabetically, but in this book they are all listed together.
 We don’t often think of the etymology of the word way, but there are two important senses in which it is used. On the one hand, it means a method or technique, but it can also mean a road or path. Obviously these two meanings are interrelated, and I think when I say “the Ruby Way,” I mean both of them. So what we are talking about is a thought process, but it is also a path that we follow. Even the greatest software guru cannot claim to have reached perfection but only to follow the path. And there may be more than one path, but here I can only talk about one. 
That zen understanding explains the title of the book in Japanese: “… an invitation to the road.”

In his talk to AustinRB, Hal focused on arrays.  You can do three things to an array, he said. You can initialize or transform it; access an item or iterate; and search. Beginning with delete, delete_at, delete_if, and reject, he then rapidly produced examples for almost 50 minutes non-stop, working until his Macintosh warned him of a low battery, and still continuing until finally running out of power, at 8:03 PM.
  • Find Hal Fulton’s website “Rubyhacker” aka “I <heart> Ruby” here
  • You can download the front matter and “Chapter Two: Strings” from the publisher here. 


Monday, October 5, 2015

The Syrian Quagmire

If the United States ever sought to build a pro-Western, democratic government in the Arab/Islamic matrix, Syria could have been a good place to start.  The Assad governments have always been secularist. That was why Syria had no problem accepting military aid from the USSR. The Muslim Brotherhood was opposed to Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad, because he liberalized trade and commerce, opening up economic opportunities. (Wikipedia here).  Dr. Bashar al-Assad was practicing pediatric ophthalmology in London when his brother was killed in a car crash. (Wikipedia, here.) So, he returned home to take over the family business, running Syria. Instead of supporting his government, the United States made an enemy out of a man who had been dedicated to bringing eyesight to blind children by means of science. 

Apparently, the “strategy” from the U.S. State Department these past ten years has been to foster uprisings of democratic elements within Arab/Islamic nations to topple dictatorships, and bring those peoples into the global community of free trade and open borders.  For a while, the news media called it “Arab Spring.”  The failures are evident everywhere in the Middle East and southwest Asia: Libya, Tunisia*, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan … And no change has come to our good, close, personal, and very royal friends in Saudi Arabia where the few protests were brutally crushed (BBC here and BBC here).

 "President Reagan meeting with Afghan Freedom Fighters 
to discuss Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan. 2/2/83.” 
— Ronald Reagan Library C12820-32.
Just as the failure in Viet Nam was one consequence of a wider and deeper problem, today’s news from Syria demonstrates the results of bad philosophy.  Fifty years ago, the United States attempted to fight a “Cold War” without a specific ideology, and to do so against an enemy that had one.  Independent of President Reagan’s rhetoric, the ultimate failure of communism was an internal problem. Soviet socialism was unworkable. So, too, today, is the United States attempting to defeat a reactionary mysticism in the Arab/Islamic complex, while not identifying explicitly our own ethical virtues – or their metaphysical foundation. That was why, in opposing communism, the Reagan Administration hosted the Taliban in the White House. In hindsight (always 20/20), it would have been better to partner with the USSR to modernize Afghanistan.

As with Viet Nam, the first level of failure was the lack of a democratic tradition within the culture. People are people; and every village and every empire has its checks and balances rooted in popular approval. That is not the same thing as cultural individualism.

The famous Normam Rockwell propaganda painting for World War II, Freedom of Speech, exemplified the American political tradition. We used to say, “Stand up and be counted.” The secret ballot is the Australian Ballot. In colonial America, you could voice a different opinion without guaranteed reprisals from your neighbors.  It was not perfect. Speaking out can always be risky. But, largely, in colonial America, there came to be a tradition of open debate. It took about 150 years to develop. Through those five generations, local government at the village level and the colonial level were the warp and woof of civic affairs. When the British crown seized the colonial administrations, and violated the Bill of Rights of 1689, the fabric was torn.

The so-called “American Revolution” had taken place in the minds of the people in the generation before the Revolutionary War. That war began a year before the Declaration of Independence.

If the U.S. government had a plan or even a vision, it seems to have been that reading manifestos in the streets would rally people to throw off 500 years of isolation and stagnation in order to embrace multiculturalism, diversity, and fusion cuisine.

Since then, the immediate “strategy” of arming so-called moderate rebels in Syria also has failed. The American-sponsored Harakat Hazm surrendered itself and its American weapons to al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra (Telegraph UK here and USA Today here). 

Of course, no such vision existed.  We cannot even say the word “capitalism” aloud, though now we can say “homosexual” in most places.  We have yet to explicitly identify and endorse the cultural trajectory of the Enlightenment that gave birth to our Republic: reality, reason, self-interest, tolerance, initiative, and wealth-production.  Some of those have tendrils within Islamic culture, but nourishing them would take time, perhaps five generations, even after they were identified.

(See “Finding Common Interests with Russia in Syria” by Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, USN (Retired) on the US Naval Institute site here.)

(9 Oct '15: Four Tunisians received the Nobel Peace Prize. "President of the Tunisian employers union Wided Bouchamaoui, Secretary General of the Tunisian General Labour Union, Houcine Abassi, President of the Tunisian Human Rights League Abdessattar ben Moussa and the president of the National Bar Association, Mohamed Fadhel Mahmoud." -- Reuters. Demographically, illiteracy is high, calling into question the basis for democracy there, at least as we understand it. The nation has no democratic tradition.  Tunisia suffered two jihadi massacres, one at the Bardo National Museum, the other on the beach and inside the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel.)