I have a midterm today...

... so I'll be lazy and put some jokes.



Q: Why don't vapires play poker?
A: They get nervous when the stakes are raised.

Q: Why isn't there a varsity golf team?
A: Because golf is a club sport.

Q: What's a will?
A: That's a dead giveaway.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: Because all the English majors wanted to see poultry in motion.
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Good People, Bad People

Last week's question: How are rain, sleet, snow, and hail formed respectively?

In general, all precipitation is caused by ice crystals forming and growing in the upper atmosphere, until it's large enough to overcome gravity and fall (the Bergeron process). For rain, it passes through a layer of warm air underneath, thus melting the ice. If there's another layer of cold air after that, whether near the surface or not, the rain may freeze again into sleet. For both of these, the ice crystals form around ice nuclei; for snow, however, the ice itself is the nuclei. In an environment where there is a lot of water droplets and not a lot of ice, the droplets contact the ice and add to it, building a larger snow flake.

Personally, I find hail the most interesting one. Only able to form in storm clouds, hail starts off as ice crystals like everything else. However, the updraft of the storm lifts the ice crystal back up, so it falls again and more water can freeze on the surface. This happens again and again until the updraft is not strong enough to lift the crystal, and a ball of ice falls as hail.

This week's question: A common question to religious people is why bad things happen to good people. The answer is usually something along the lines of it being a test, to see if people will remain faithful. Until I thought of it, however, I have not heard anyone ask the other question: why do good things happen to bad people?

PS. jrscheung asked me where these questions come from. Some of them, like this one, are things I've always wanted to know but never took the time to find out. Posting them here is a promise to find the answer. Some are questions that other people have asked (such as the insane voter one: Q/A) which piqued my curiosity. Others are thoughts I have, like this week's, and the rest... are usually just things I found out which I find interesting.
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Social Search

For one of my classes I recently had to suggest a new search engine feature then make a pitch about it. That was what started the cree.pr project. Most of the pitches weren't that interesting (no offense to anyone in the class reading this), but after hearing a whole bunch of them I had a revelation: Social search is a crappy idea.

Here by social search I mean something where the results shown are somehow influenced by what previous users have done. Now, it's not the case that social search is useless. There are entire communities built upon finding out what other people have done, and using the "wisdom of the crowd" to just take the cream of the cream.

But aggregating social information to make search results better is a crappy suggestion, because it's one of the defaults things you can do to improve search. It is the same thing as saying in a science experiement that "more data would have made the results more accurate". Well, duh. Similar suggestions would be to use more CPUs or build more datahubs.

So people, please actually think of something partially innovative next time.
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Meritocracy vs. Diversity

I recently finished Daniel Golden's book Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges. The main thesis of his book is that colleges, instead of admitting people based purely on how strong they are academically, are instead giving an advantage to those with "hooks": athletes, children of big donors, alumni, faculty, or celebrities (in both popular culture and politics). The ideal admission policy is a meritrocracy - if you can demonstrate that you are good at school, then you get in.

At the same time, Golden is also a proponent of diversity on college campuses. That is, the student body of colleges should have the same distributions of race and social status as the nation at large.

Here's an uncomfortable truth: meritocracy and diversity, in the current social state of the nation, cannot coexist perfectly.

What do we mean by merit? The problem is that the demonstration of merit often times requires opportunities, which unlike intelligence is not distributed evenly across the population. Let's say someone has a lot of potential at computer programming, but happened to be born into a household that could not afford computers. There is minimal computer training in schools, and so this person never develops this potential, despite being better at it than a lot of other people. Should this person be admitted to a top computer science program? In theory, yes, although of course the admissions officers see nothing to indicate this person's competence in the field, and therefore in practice, no.

Here's another uncomfortable truth: there are objective truths to steorotypes.

Due to the unequal opportunities given to people of different races and social statuses, it is true that white Americans have a much higher graduation rate from high school than black Americans. Ideally, social policies would eliminate this difference, but so far it has failed to do so completely (though I'm sure it has made big steps in that direction). Because of this measurable statistic, it is scientifically valid to have a priori assumptions about someone's education level depending on their race/background.

This about it this way. If I tell you that in a bag of marbles, 67.4% are striped. In another bag, 44.7% are striped. If you draw a marble from the first bag and had to guess whether it was striped, you would probably say yes. Draw from the second bag, however, and you'd probably say no.

67.4% is the percentage of Asians 25 and over with some college experience; 44.7% is the percentage for Blacks (source). Just because the objects are now people, and the attributes are now education level, doesn't change the way these probabilities are analyzed.

Back to diversity. If Golden's idea of diversity is to be realized, then colleges should take, say, the top 15% of its applicants of each race. Factor in socioeconomic diversity, and it will be the top 15% of each race-status group. This process is a rough equivalent of giving "admission points" to applicants who come from challenging backgrounds; there's an assumption here that people of the same economic status has the same (or lack the same) opportunities. Of course, it's possible to do this on an individual level, but whether there are resources available to evaluate each applicant that carefully is questionable.

In either case, it is clear that this group is not equal to the top 15% of the entire pool of applicants. Any kind of standard of merit can be used; as long as race and socioeconomic status influences the opportunities a student gets (and I fear it always will), meritocracy and diversity are not mutually compatible.

The question is, which one do we value more? Politically, of course, we want to say that our colleges give the same chances to everyone, that we are race and wealth blind; educationally, colleges want the brightest students, so when they graduate they will add to the list of alumni with high accomplishments. What societal factors are making colleges choose the first over the second?

I am personally in favor of a pure meritocracy, racial and economic diversity be damned. But then again, I am Asian, I come from a well-off family, and I consider myself (pretty) above average.
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All Hail Rain, Sleet, and Snow

Last week's question: are patients in mental institutions allowed to vote?

This is actually a rather touchy question, and its answer has changed over the years as our understanding of the human mind has grown. It used to be that there was really vague language describing who could and could not vote. As far as I can tell, this decision is given to the state. The constitution says nothing about the right to vote of people who are insane, but only that people cannot be barred from voting by reason of their gender or their age (as long as they are above 18).

One example of vague wording is in the New Jersey State Constitution. Before 2007-11-06, Article II Section I Paragraph 6 of the constitution read:
No idiot or insane person shall enjoy the right of suffrage.
However, an amendment passed to change it to the current:
No person who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting shall enjoy the right of suffrage.
There is a difference in the wording of the two, in that someone who is insane may still have the capacity to understand the act of voting. I have not done any searches, but I suspect there are similar clauses in the constitutions of other states.

For those interested, here's a case where the state tried to bar people from voting.

This week's question: What atmospheric variables cause the formation of rain, snow, sleet, hail?


Some of you may recall I did a project last year where I had to design a toy for the dolphins at Shedd Aquarium (for those who don't, here's a magazine article about us; I look absolutely horrible in that picture). Another team recently finished that project, with a working apparatus. It's a little weird knowing that I came up with an idea, and a year later it's in physical form.

Anyway, during those two quarters I learned to sketch dolphins, and did a few sketches in my notes. I've forgotten how to do them already, but when I was reclaiming an old notebook I found the sketches, so I thought I'd put them online.

They're on my DeviantArt gallery:
There's also a quick sketch which I did at Canyonlands, my only personal souvenir (I have 4.5 GB of pictures and videos from other people on the trip).

I challenge you to find time and create some art, however bad it is.
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Picture Week!

Lately I've been getting lazier about actually writing content. Every so often I have artistic urges, and so why not do a picture week (= this and the next post)?

I drew this last week:

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Insane Voters

Last week's question: at what level of anthropomorphing can animals take over the world?

I think we should first look at how animals are most often anthropomorphized. From personal experience:
  1. Speech
  2. Motivation
  3. Reasoning
And really, I think that's enough. The "anthropomorphing" of speech is really a way to express the assumption that animals cannot communicate with each other. It is clear that at least some animals do - whales, dophins, dogs (to an extent). Of course, these are never cross-species, and speech allows them to do that.

In fact, all three traits are somewhat amplifications of what animals do naturally, or rather, without being aware of them. And what does giving animals human motivations and reasoning do? It lets them inspect themselves, to think as we think.

That's all it takes. Humans survive because of our brains, and to support that we have become physically weak, much weaker than other animals. And if athropomorphic animals get that brain power for free... we're doom.

This week's question: Are patients in mental institutes allowed to vote?

PS. Thanks Yvonne
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Stranger Appeal

The xkcd blag recently introduced me to Omegle, a chat service which connects you to another stranger. The idea is intriguing, and looking at the comments for the post, many xkcdians have found meaningful conversations through the site.

This is my latest find in the category of sites which connect you to people, which I think has the potential to forge deeper connections. These include:
Really only BlogTV and Omegle is active; the other two you learn about people, but they never learn about you.

There is something carthartic in learning about strangers, and telling your deepest secrets. In some sense it's like a one-night-stand - you have no obligation to do anything with their secret, and it's just for the release of lifting a burden.

I'm actually working on a search engine for a course this quarter, which I've titled cree.pr. As can be imagined, it's a people search engine, and it aims to automatically compile as full a profile as possible of someone's online activity.

But sometimes talking to a stranger is not enough. There is something to be said about meeting someone in person, having them in front of you. But then it takes courage to say what you mean. I used to not have that courage, but I do now.

Although, none of the above has worked out to well so far. I'll keep trying though.
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I really know nothing about politics. This is more a play on words than anything else.
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The World Without Us

Last week's question: How are the arches at Arches formed?

You can tell I'm running out of ideas when the questions are so straight forward. The arches are actually formed the same way as any other rock formation - through wind and water erosion. It's just that the rocks on top have the correct hardness and weight to withstand the erosion while the center crumbles away.

Boring, right?

This week's question is more interested. Literature has featured anthropomorphic animals for a long time. What spieces, and at what point of anthropomorphing, can animals take over (ie. extinguish, possibly drive to extinction) the human race?


But it's really the title text I like: "When I say we should do something sometime, I'm secretly hoping you'll say 'Why not now?'"
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Wizard's First Rule

Recently the developers have been discussing the possibility of adding some additional optimizations to our i686 port to improve multimedia support. This would involve reducing the compatibility with older systems. As some of you may have heard, this discussion has resulted in the decision to focus exclusively on the x86_64 port. The overall opinion of the developers is that the x86_64 port is now complete enough to justify this decision and that this is in keeping with Arch's philosophy of supporting current generation hardware. The x86_64 architecture has been available since 2002 (compared to i686 which is from 1995), and we believe most of our i686 users have x86_64 compatible hardware.
-- Arch Linux Team
I got this in my RSS feed (from Arch Latest News) on Tuesday night (around 23:00), and I was really annoyed for the next hour after that. Arch Linux dropping i686 support? What am I going to do with my laptop? I don't want to reinstall everything on a completely different distro, especially since that practically promises to slow down my computer and make it less customizable. I forwarded this Genia (who has been planning to switch over to Arch after trying out Ubuntu for a while), telling her to reconsidering the switch.

It was only until Wednesday night around 22:30 did I realize it was Arch Linux's April Fool's joke. I have never fallen for something as big as this (although I was Rickrolled twice by Ryan - I just click on links by instinct, and if it's not what I want I close them. Thanks mouse gestures). I recognized Google's joke right away - Google CADIE is so far ahead in the AI curve that it can't real. Also around the Northwestern campus there were posters about Jon Stewart coming to campus, which turned out to be a hoax. I did not see the posters myself, but was told this by a friend. My first question was on the organization which is bringing him to campus, but since my friend didn't know, we switched topics to comparing Stewart and Colbert instead.

So Arch dropping i686 support is the only hoax I really fell for. Why? Wizard's First Rule.
People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it's true, or because they are afraid it might be true. People’s heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it all true. People are stupid; they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to fool.
-- Wizard's First Rule, by Terry Goodkind
Or, in a one sentence summary:
The first step to believing something is wanting to believe it is true, or being afraid it is.
The only hoax I really had enough knowledge to dispell is Google's, because of my background in computer science. For Jon Stewart coming to speak, I had no immediate interest. I used to watch The Daily Show, but have stopped since the middle of last quarter. My lack of preference allowed my rationality to kick in, and ask who was bringing him to campus. For Arch though, the idea of them dropping support for i686 is not out of the ballpark - they've dropped support for popular things before (for example, the official Sun JRE and JDF packages). The post even had links to forum discussions, and knowing that Arch is a fairly international distro, that the discussion was not in English did not surprise me. Since this was plausible, and after reading it I was afraid it was true (and didn't bother visiting the Arch forums, because I was sure there would be a lot of complaining - again, April Fool's completely out of my mine), I took the joke hook, line, and sinker.

The funny thing was, for most of the day I was pretty aware that it's April Fool's, and took a lot of things with a grain of salt. And still Arch took my completely by surprise.

I have to say, good job Arch Team. Keep up the good work.
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Spring Break

I hope you all enjoyed my lolcat last week. I'm glad to say that the broken spring has been fixed:
So we can go on.

The group has uploaded a shit ton of pictures on Facebook, but since I'm compiling them into a giant (3.5Gb+) file for download anyway, I've selected a few which I think represents the best of the trip.

Please note that I did not take any of the photographs - all the scenery and framing belongs to the respective owners.

Welcome to spring quarter, everyone.