Another reason to keep my degree from the University of Colorado a secret

It’s not so much that people at CU smoked pot, skied and climbed rocks, or that I have a problem with any of these activities in and of themselves, it’s just that from what I could tell, that’s pretty much ALL many of them ever did, professors included. While the grad students were, in some cases, the smartest people I’ve ever met, half-heartedly attending the school seemed to just be a way for people with a modicum of self-respect to legitimize what would otherwise be a lifestyle more commonly experienced by people living out of VW vans in the parking lot of the local tobacco accessories store. So it is with bittersweet nostalgia that I read a recent Daily Camera article about the annual 4/20 celebration on campus. A choice excerpt:

CU freshman Emily Benson, 19, of Kansas City, said she thinks the decriminalization of marijuana will become a hot topic in the upcoming political season and said she felt part of something bigger than just a smoke-out on Sunday.

“We’re at the starting point of a movement,” she said. “This is a big part of the reason I applied here — for the weed atmosphere.”

Although CU junior Max Lichtenstein, 21, isn’t into marijuana or smoking, he also felt Sunday’s event was a chance to do something “bigger” than himself. He passed out 126 Rice Krispies treats with messages attached asking that they act out against the injustices in Darfur…

“I just like being generous and doing nice things,” he said. “I’m like a good Samaritan.”

I should have known public image would be a problem when I found out that the school slogan was “Minds to Match our Mountains.” Publicly comparing their students’ brains to a mass of granite really makes one wonder if the administration knows what they’re doing. So does the fact that the last three major publicity events I’ve read about the school have been this story, hookers for the football team, and campus riots over beer policy. Thanks, CU, for continuing to ensure my degree continues to be so valuable in the market. Maybe your slogan should be “Minds to match the font size you’ll want to use to mention our school in your resume.” After this article, I’m down to 7 pt Helvetica, placed with an asterisk down at the bottom of the page.

The Great Hudson Arc: A 250-mile-wide mystery

Annotated satellite photo of Hudson Bay arc.
(Click for a larger view.)

It’s nice to find out that there are still mysteries left in this world, let alone ones that are visible from space. On the southeast corner of Hudson Bay, the coast line traces a near perfect arc, roughly concentric on another ring of islands in the bay. So, what caused it? The obvious answer, proposed in the 1950s, is that it’s the remnants of a large impact crater. Apparently, however, there is none of the usual geologic evidence for this, and over the past 50 years, there has been debate on its origins. From other sites I’ve read, many geologists seem to have concluded that it is a depression caused by glacial load during the ice age, though a recent conference paper (2006) argues that it may indeed be a crater. The current thinking is summarized nicely on this web page:

There is fairly extensive information on this in Meteorite Craters by Kathleen Mark, University Press, isbn 0-8165-1568-9 (paperback). The feature is known as the Nastapoka Arc, and has been compared to Mare Crisium on the Moon. There is “missing evidence,” which suggests that it isn’t an impact structure, however: “Negative results were . . . reached by R. S. Dietz and J. P. Barringer in 1973 in a search for evidence of impact in the region of the Hudson Bay arc. They found no shatter cones, no suevite or unusual melt rocks, no radial faults or fractures, and no metamorphic effects. They pointed out that these negative results did not disprove an impact origin for the arc, but they felt that such an origin appeared unlikely.” (p. 228)

I know next to nothing about geology, but in the spirit of rank amateur naturalists that came before me, I won’t let that stop me from forming an opinion. In physics, whenever you see something that is symmetric about a point, you have to wonder about what is so special about the center of that circle. Could it really be chance that roughly 800 miles of coast line are all aiming at the same point? If not, what defined that point? One explanation for how large circular formations are created is that they start as very small, point-like features that get expanded over eons by erosion; in other words, the original sink-hole that started to erode is what defines the center of the improbable circle. There are also lots of physical phenomena that makes circles, such as deposition and flow of viscous materials from a starting point, assuming isotropic (spatially uniform) physical conditions everywhere. However, the planet is not isotropic. In fact, you can see plenty of arc-like features on coastlines and basins visible from satellite photos, and I can’t find a single one that is even close to as geometrically perfect as the Hudson Bay arc. If you overlay a perfect circle on Hudson Bay, as I’ve done in the picture, you see that it is nearly a perfect circle. How would erosion, or a glacial depression, manage to yield such a perfect geometry? Is it really possible for the earth to be that homogeneous over such a large distance, and over the geologic span of time required to create it? To my untrained eye, at least, it screams single localized event.

If so, it would seem that it would’ve been a major event, on par (at least based on size) with the impact site that is credited with putting a cap on the Cretaceous Period and offing the dinosaurs. On the other hand, this fact only serves to heighten the mystery, as you’d think there would be global sedimentary evidence for it. Whether the arc is the result of one of the biggest catastrophic events in earth’s history, or an example of nature somehow managing to create a near perfect circle the size of New York State by processes acting over unimaginably long spans of time, its existence is fascinating.

Problems with video resolution resetting after wake in Vista?

Ah, the fun with Vista continues. For the longest, most infuriating time, my screen settings would completely reset after my Dell Latitude D620 laptop would come out of sleep. It appears that the problem was with the Intel integrated graphics drivers. Is that Microsoft’s fault for doing something dumb in Vista, or Intel’s fault? I don’t care. The problem has been fixed by a driver upgrade from Intel.

So, I thought I’d put up this quick post in case other people have been having the same problems with their laptops running Vista. Check to see if your laptop uses the Intel 945 graphics chip. If so, your problems might be solved by upgrading to the latest driver. For your convenience, here is a link to the drivers from Dell’s FTP server:

Intel 945 Vista 32 bit drivers

Sorry this wasn’t a very fun post, but sometimes you gotta pay the bills.

Dammit Campbells, what am I missing?

“Mmm, mmm, Campbell’s Soup–Possibilities.” That infernal commercials jingo has infected my mind and torments my soul. There is nowhere I can hide from its taunting refrain, nothing I can do to stop it from springing forth into my consciousness, uninvited, mocking me. Soup. Possibilities.

What the bloody hell am I missing? For years I’ve just been following a simple recipe when it comes to soup: Open can. Poor contents into pot. Heat. Consume. No matter how many times I go through the numbers in my head, I can’t come up with anything other than pouring it into a receptacle and eating it. What are these possibilities? Are they still talking food, or other stuff? Is there something kinky you can do with Clam Chowder that everybody knows but me? Is that why the lady in the commercial winks at the end?

In defense of Google’s Street View, and thoughts on Internet privacy

Quick Summary. Google’s street view is simply a representation of reality on a specific day, and they have not highlighted any aspect of the dataset, and furthermore the dataset is comprehensive. Given the mapping between reality and the dataset that is inherent in something like Street View, one’s privacy on the day your photo was taken and one’s privacy in the dataset are commensurate, because your relative anonymity is the same in each. Arguments pointing out that certain people and websites can highlight compromising pictures are missing the point, and are like blaming camera manufacturers for the actions of paparazzi. If a company decides to single out a certain picture on somebody on Street View on your website, that company is the party violating privacy, not Google. Google is producing an unbiased representation of reality; just as in physical reality, it is the choices and actions of others who decide whether or not privacy is violated.

Recently, Google has been driving around various metropolitan areas (including Boston) in a fleet of funky-looking cars adorned with eight cameras mounting on their roofs (see below) profligately photographing everything within view of the street every few feet, and linking the resulting panoramic shots to their respective locations in Google Maps. Their eventual goal is to have virtually every building on every street in every major city photographed, such that you can click on a street and see a picture of the surroundings from that location. You’d have to be Mr. and Mrs. Boring to not think that’s cool.

Car used by Google to obtain panoramic Street View data.
Car used by Google to obtain panoramic Street View data.

Right now, the resolution is sufficient to find that bar from which you stumbled home one night but whose name eludes, or to get a decent idea about whether or not the Lake View Retirement Home really has one. As it grows more complete, it will be a profoundly powerful dataset, and will doubtless result in all manner of unforeseen applications. This will be especially true if Google actually uses higher resolution pictures. Do you want to see when a favorite business is open, but they don’t have a website? You could, in theory, check out the hours posted on the front of their store with sufficiently high resolution imagery. If you’re wondering about the legal parking hours on the streets near a restaurant you’re planning to visit, you could read the parking signs across town from your computer.

Unfortunately, reactionary privacy concerns have plagued the service since its inception, and if the service survives at all, it’s likely that it will be limited to low resolution pictures. Some of the criticism has predictably come from people who have been photographed doing things they shouldn’t, but much of the ire has come from people who simply think that having a picture of them taken while they were in public shouldn’t be allowed online. And I have to admit, I took pause when I found our own car parked in our usual spot:

Our car, as found on Google's Street View.
Our car, as found on Google

However, upon further reflection, I realized that it is unreasonable to object to this as a privacy violation, for reasons that are especially clear in this particular case. Quite literally, there is going to be a nearly one-to-one correlation between the Google Street View dataset and the real world. Thus, while your image might be available to everybody, so are millions of other images. One might expect that at any given moment, the proportion of people interested in the Google picture of the specific place you were the day the google car spotted you is very roughly the same as those interested in that specific spot in real life at any given moment. Thus, for exactly the same reason you only saw a few people on the street with you at the moment the picture was taken, it’s likely only a few people are interested, at any one time, in that picture.

Continue reading “In defense of Google’s Street View, and thoughts on Internet privacy”

USB driver software for Motorola RAZR

If you want to connect your RAZR to your windows computer with a USB cable, at the very least you will need the following drivers. They will let you connect to the phone as a modem, and will allow the phone to be charged by the computer. It’s the first thing you should install should you wish to do more advanced things with the phone via the Motorola Phone Tools or PST.

handset_usb_driver_32_v340

Drop a comment if there are any problems with the archive.

“Why I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone”

One of the things I admire about my friends Ken, Scott and Dom is that they all seem to be the kind of balanced people who will raise kids who will be sensitive and thoughful, yet also not neurotic or afraid of taking risks. I don’t know if that’s as rare as I fear it is, but based on my informal children-i-see-wearing-helmets-for-activities-not-remotely-requiring-head-protection index, I’d say it might be. Obessing about safety and an abundance of precaution are not hallmarks of successful people, and I wonder if many companies are started by people who, as children, were hovered over by over-protective parents. I therefore enjoyed this story about an NYC women who indulged her 9-year-old son’s wish to be left alone in downtown NY to find his way home. From the article:

Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

If I had to guess, I’d say that in 20 years this kid will be doing something interesting with his life. Perhaps providing employment to the grown children of more obsessive parents. I hope he appreciates what a wonderful mother he has.

A tax tip for people with online investments

If you use E*TRADE or Ameritrade, be warned that they don’t provide correct cost basis information to online tax software such as TurboTax. I tell you this after I just spent four hours fixing the useless data they provided. However, despite being completely useless, they are listed in TurboTax as providing investment tax information, so you might be tempted to import the data from them. If you do, you’ll be amused to find that you may owe more in taxes than you made that year, because your cost basis for each trade will be entered as zero and each will be counted as a short term capital gain.

If you make a lot of trades, and use a brokerage that doesn’t provide cost basis information, your best bet is to just download a TXF file from your brokerage website and import that into the desktop version of TurboTax. (For some reason, the online version doesn’t accept this kind of file.) You can still import the 1099-DIV and 1099-INT data from E*TRADE or Ameritrade, but just make sure to disable the importing of brokerage sale (1099-B) data. Otherwise, you’re better off just entering each trade manually from your online history.

And in case you’re looking for an alternative brokerage, I can heartily recommend Fidelity. Apparently, they are fairly unique in managing to achieve the highly elusive technological feat of exporting correct cost basis information online.