Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why is Coastal Unified School District Experimenting on our kids?

We were at the Back To School day at Teach Elementary today. Between the teacher's presentation from our 10-year old's teacher and the principal's presentation afterwards, a couple of things emerged that attracted attention.

The short version is this: the school district decided to continue its strange experiments on how to keep the kids in mediocrity.

Here is the slightly longer version. Last year, the middle school decided to stop offering Algebra. If one counts carefully, it means that the high achievers just lost their path to AP Calc by the end of senior year of high school. Unless summer school. The decision was apparently supported by someone in Cal Poly's Math Department. My sincere hope that the person quoted in support of this decision did not honestly understand the implications. I prefer to think of someone as ignorant rather than willfully evil.  So, "horizontal acceleration" (whatever these people mean) it is for all the kids who did not reach high school by this year. Also, too... say good bye to those UC hopes for the kids.

 But apparently, middle school is too late to do significant damage to the kids. Everyone knows, we gotta start it early... So, enter the new school year and the new set of decisions...

 Now, before going further, this is actually not about Common Core. I have serious issues with how "exposing children to multiple perspectives" is interpreted as "hey, let's teach the kids 17 ways of dividing numbers, 16 of which include props they will never see anywhere else in their life". But I actually don't mind the general idea that solving a problem about two trains moving towards each other beats 20 repeats of the 5x8 multiplication fact.

 No. What we got handed today has nothing to do with the actual Common Core, except for the fact, that the school district apparently thinks that repeating "we are switching to Common Core, therefore..." gives them the blank check to experiment in other ways.

We almost missed this in the teacher's presentation at first. She mentioned that the new grading standards do away with the standard A,B,C,D,F letter grading for academic achievement and introduce instead a 4,3,2,1 scale. Well, since I personally was graded most of my life on a very similar 5,4,3,2 scale (and turned out ok), this did not seem like a significant innovation - after all, losing a grade (1 looking like a D/F combined) is hardly an issue in a school that is supposed to train advanced students.

 Next came the explanations from the school principal. On one hand, I am thankful to him for the sufficient honesty (quite possibly inadvertent) in describing what exactly is going on with the grade scale. Had he said nothing, most people in the room would probably walk out with exactly the same thoughts on the matter. But he did describe quite honestly how the new scale works (although it is possible that he is secretly very much against it, and this is his way of alerting the parents...)

So, starting from the top... The grade of 4 is awarded for achievement one grade above grade level. The immediate comment by the principal was "We will not be awarding these because for the most part your kids will not have a chance to demonstrate achievement one grade above grade level". (gone are the days when my older one took math one grade above...)

So, since 4 is no longer really in use,  the scale now shrinks to 3,2,1.

The next step, was to explain to us what 3 really meant.  On paper, 3 is "achievement at grade level". Apparently, in the currently existing A,B,C,D,F grade scale, achievement at grade level is mapped to three letter grades: A, B and C.  This means that, when awarded based on the results of tests/graded work, a score of 3 is awarded for anything that would otherwise get 70% or above (C or above).

Which relegates 2 (developing) to map to 50-60%, and 1 (needs work) to 0-49%.

There is also something about a second scale of N,S,U,C for behavioral evaluation categories.

This is what I do not like about it. As presented to us, this is essentially a one-value grading scale. At the end of the year, every single Teach Elementary student will have a report card with all 3s.  Everyone will be an achiever! Yay! We won! Right?

Except... uhm, no!   We are essentially looking at a grading scale, where grades no longer mean anything.

At a school where a reasonable percentage of kids require help (would have routinely received Ds and Fs), this grading scale is a binary system that segregates those kids from everyone else.

At a school like Teach Elementary, I do not know what percentage of grades (trimester grades) were Ds and Fs, but I expect a VERY SMALL ONE, if any.  This means that the segregation part of the system won't work, and the grading scale turns into a one-grade one - everyone will get a 3 in everything. 

So, dear Coastal Unified School District, riddle me this: (remember - Common Core insists on developing independent reasoning skills, so let's see how you exhibit them)  if 100% achievement earns you a 3 and 70% achievement earns you a 3: what possible motivation do kids have to rise above a 70% level?   Or, to translate it into Common-Core speak: if an average mastery of a skill earns you the same grade as a perfect mastery of a skill, what possible motivation are you giving the kids to go beyond average mastery? 

(in fact,  this is something that kids understand immediately... My 15-year-old, upon learning of the new grading scheme immediately said "Now no one needs to study hard at all".)

Now, I understand the general desire to tell every kid in the class that they are doing great, and they are learning a lot. But what message is being sent to the kids who work their hearts out on schoolwork if their effort and their achievement find no recognition because the grade scale no longer allows the teachers to acknowledge that?

 No matter what everyone else is saying, remember that grades are units of information.

Grades are for teachers: teachers need to understand achievement and understanding levels of individual students, and be able to see what each of them is good at and where they could use more help.

Grades are for students: honest grades tell students how they are doing and what they need to do better.

Grades (in case of K-12 education) are for parents: we are not present in class, we do not get a play-by-play of what happened at school... grades are our snapshots and our window into what is going in the classroom, and whether what is going on in the classroom is actually benefiting our kids.

Grades are not for reporting and aggregation purposes to satisfy federal, state and district regulations and establish compliance with no child left behind acts. Some of those laws and regulations may have good intents, and are crucial to the success of public education system, but grades assigned to students for their work should not be assigned in the name of these rules and regulations. 

The one-grade scale resulting in a grade of  3 being awarded to every single student for every single subject, is extremely convenient for reporting and aggregation. It is absolutely and totally HORRIBLE as the means of giving the teachers, the students and the parents the feedback about what is going on with the education of individual students.

Therefore, it becomes really clear why this system was introduced.

The question though, remains. Why does Coastal Unified School District feel it can experiment on our kids in order to simplify their reporting?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Vision 2022

Try it as I might, I actually find myself with no significant objections to the Vision 2022: The Future of Cal Poly presented today by President Armstrong. I did not attend the presentation (team meetings all day), but I did read the bullet points (pdf).

While the vision is not without scale, what  strikes me is how gentle and not really controversial it really is.

Point 1. Vibrant residential campus, balance enrollment, students in dorms, demolish building 52.

From a pedagogical point of view, I am somewhat agnostic about where students live. But as a resident of the town where student rentals create a truly nutty residential housing market, I am extremely supportive of housing a significantly larger proportion of the student body on campus. Anything that shrinks the student rental market and the number of houses that are being sold with the explicit idea that students will live in them, makes housing market in SLO less outrageous and more meaningful: fixer uppers have to be sold at fixer-upper prices, not at "I can charge HOW MUCH per month for it?" prices.

Early this year, we heard a distinct growth number - "let's get 25 thousand students on campus". I am pleased and surprised that this particular line item now reads "balance enrollment growth with the ability to maintain excellence and completion as the standards", which is inoffensive to the extreme. Also, too, absolutely the right sentiment, given (a) a significantly higher students-per-faculty ratio now than in 2007 when I joined Cal Poly, and (b) the intent on having faculty do more "scholarly activities".

Finally, the specific idea of doing away with the remnants of the Spider building.... Well, if we can build a building with a similar footprint but the height of the new COSAM building, we'd be getting four times the space. We need space. Classroom space. Lab space. Faculty space. Research space... commons space. Pub. Pub. Pub.

Point 2. Enhance student success. Moar graduation rates. No moar achievement gaps.

I do not know where the specific numbers come from. One the face of it, of course, we want to improve graduation rates. On the other hand, we need to recognize that in science and engineering, the disciplines aren't getting smaller - they are getting larger. If architecture can be a 5-year degree, why shouldn't Computer Science - which over the past 30 years became much more complex not be a five-year degree.

Also, too - stop counting 4+1 (sorry, BMS) students towards 4-year graduation rates. Might look like a drop in a bucket, but it will add a few percentage points to that 40% number.

Point 3. Teacher-scholar good. More money for faculty/staff, more housing, more research time, more undergrad research...

All good things. Basically, the fact that "we need to pay our faculty more" and "we need to make certain our faculty can buy a house in town" are recognized side by side with "let's improve student graduation rates" is an important achievement of whoever from our faculty was working on this document.

Research may be controversial with a lot of people on campus, but I cannot object to it, because, first and foremost, the only way to do research on this campus is with students, and quite literally almost nothing is better for students in terms of learning opportunities than participating in research. The fact that we cannot easily pull off $5-million projects that require 20 Ph.D. students and seven post docs to run (not a disparagement - I have nothing against being able to run such a project, but I am being realistic about what will and will not work at Cal Poly), actually makes it easier to engage in one-on-one research with individual students, and lowers the entry barrier for research. Which surprisingly means that our B.S. and M.S. students are in position to actually see more research than their counterparts in Ph.D.-granting schools (albeit, of course - significantly less than actual Ph.D. students) - for as long as the faculty has the time and the desire to engage in research projects. To date, research on campus is essentially a grassroots affair. I am still in favor a keeping it that way, but actually making appropriate adjustments to our teaching loads and department staffing levels to accommodate scholarship can do more to improve four and five year graduation rates than just about any other action.

It is simple! Hire more people! Pay them well! Acknowledge their real workload (20-30% scholarly activities, rather than the 80% teaching - 20% service load, and btw,  what do you do for your professional development to get tenure?)  Reap results (a.k.a.:Profit). There isn't even a "?" anywhere in this scheme.

Requires money, of course. But this is the right way to invest this money.

Point 4. Create rich culture of diversity...

This may actually be even harder to fulfill than the graduation rate pledge. As I perceive it, the core reason why, e.g., women are underrepresented in engineering and some science disciplines is because places like high school robotics clubs - which are basically the incubators for future engineers, computer scientists, etc. boast the 30:2 ratios of men to women. One of the biggest revelations from reading NCWIT applications a few years back for me was the fact that applications (from female high school students for an award for achievements in a computing-related activities) came not from "members of the Robotics club" but from students with extremely diverse, non-science related interests, largely centered around artistic talents (photography, performance, etc.), which were enhanced by the use of computers.  So, there is opportunity, but still, Computer Science (and perhaps engineering in general) is the most attractive discipline primarily for people who understand what it means to solve computational problems, and who want to do it (or who want to build things).

Point 5. We will get a lot of money from people!

Sure! Let's do it.  Most of the ways of doing are rather benign, except perhaps for the "enhancing the cal poly brand in athletics".  One of the biggest advantages of Cal Poly is that our athletics is significantly more "student-athelete" than, say, at places like University of Michigan, or Duke, or (the places I know reasonably well) Alabama and Kentucky. The fact that we have one of the most rabid followings for a college soccer team, and somehow have fielded a stellar baseball team this year still completely baffles me. But one of the things Cal Poly got absolutely right is this:  our alumni donors like us for the academic programs that helped them make their millions, NOT for the successes or failures of our football or basketball teams.

Let's not try changing this.

Point 6.  transparency, collaboration, synergy, .... + make SLO town like us again.

 If point 3 came directly from the mouths of the faculty, then phrases like "include strategies, tactics, objectives and metrics to ensure alignment and connection with other entities on campus", "incorporate shared leadership model and philosophy", "leverage synergies and create opportunities through greater interaction"  clearly came from some Dilbert-inspired nightmare and were written by corporate consultants.

Most of this will simply turn into standard committee work, so it's basically a wash. The two actually discernible and meaningful thoughts here are: let's do more stuff across colleges and let's make nice with the city.

Neither of the ideas is objectionable. "More stuff across colleges" is what I do on an everyday basis anyway. Dealing with the town - well, for a city that is called the "happiest place in the US", it is surprisingly populated by a lot of seriously disgruntled people, who view Cal Poly as a nuisance  without recognizing that the reason they can have good things in this town is because Cal Poly students spend their money downtown.

And this just about completes the vision. If the promise to improve athletics is the one thing that brings the highest level of objections in me, then, hey, it's actually not a bad document.... Now, let's get working on that part 3.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Raspberry Bioinformatics: what's wrong with it?

I rarely get upset about someone being wrong on the Internets, because, well my patience is finite and if I spend it on trivial things, I will run out of it pretty fast.  However, sometimes one needs to react.

While the article I am going to quote has been published last August, a colleague has pointed it out to me today.

 Simon Harold, writing at Biomed Central blog   about the coming revolution in bioinformatics education, all because of the mighty Raspberry Pi (at the moment of this writing, the RPi site is still in the thores of its April Fool's Joke, but hopefully it will recover):

"Now, an open access, open learning method developed by Daniel Barker and colleagues aims to strip this teaching back to basics by using the newly-developed Raspberry Pi computing system to let students experience full administrator rights and gain valuable insights into real-world bioinformatics. The low-costs involved (each computer typically costs around £30/$40/€35) also means that large-scale teaching may be achieved without university costing departments having to worry about whether their laptops will be returned in full working order at the end of the semester."
Elsewhere in the text, the article identifies the actual issues with bioinformatics education, specifically, with teaching Computer Science to biologists. Few courses, hard to fit necessary content into a single course (actually - impossible - if we cannot teach future computer scientists the entirety of computer science in one course, why would it be possible for biologists), lack of faculty with the right set of skills - these are all actual issues.

None of which is addressed by using Raspberry Pis as the computers of choice for teaching bioinformatics. The two features of Raspberry Pis listed in the quote above: their price point, and the immediate admin privileges they confer are not actually relevant for training biologists in computing sciences. Let me break it down:

  1. Cost. First and foremost, I do not buy the premise that biologists do not have access to better computers. If we are talking universities, every student, or almost every student has access to either a personal laptop or a desktop (or both), regardless of their major. Similarly, universities feature computing facilities - be it CS labs, or university-run computer labs, in which computers are perfectly adequate for the amount of software development that needs to happen in any bioinformatics course. 
  2. Cost revisited. The way Raspberry Pis are postulated to be the next best thing in bioinformatics education also raises the actual end cost of the computing environment significantly. Yes, the Pi board itself is $35 or so, plus another $10 for a nice looking enclosure. Yet, if you actually want to use the Pi as a desktop, here are some other things that need to be purchased to make it work:

      • a monitor ($150 - $200)
      • a keyboard ($20- $40)
      • a mouse ($15 - $30)
      • various cords and wires ($10-$20)

    Optionally, there may be a need for a wi-fi dongle and a few other accessories to turn a Pi board into a desktop computer capable of doing what is implied in the article.  So, you are looking at at least $200-250 worth of investment. That's only a $100 lower than some pretty reasonable, and certainly more powerful laptops. 
  3. Privileges. Yes, popping an SD card and booting a Pi gives you root.  This is a great way to train budding Unix system administrators. How is this relevant to my ability to teach a group of biologists to implement Smith-Waterman algorithm in (say) Python?  Now (that everyone and their grandmother are spinning off AWS instances) somewhat fewer than before, but still, a sizable percentage of computer scientists and software developers go through their professional careers without ever having root priveleges or sudo on anything other than their home machine (if they have one that runs Linux). Why in the world would we start teaching computer science to biologists with Unix administration?
More important and more glaring in all of this to me is the underlying assumption that the computer you are using is the deciding influence in how you are learning Computer Science. It is not and never should be. While clearly we don't want to teach "would-be bioinformaticians" (to quote the author) programming single-tape Turing Machines, the actual conventional hardware they will be using to run their programs written in conventional programming languages is irrelevant. Pi is no better for this purpose than any other machine running Linux - or, perhaps even any other machine running any other conventional OS. Python and Java are ubiquitous these days.

I have my own set of strongly held opinions about bioinformatics education, having been on the front lines for a while. These opinions boil down to the following two observations:
  1. Trained computer scientists and software engineers are better in designing and implementing any software, including software for bioinformatics purposes. If you need software written, use professionals in the field of computing if possible.
  2. It takes at least the equivalent of a CS minor for someone to be a competent software developer. If biologists want to be competent software developers, they need to go through about that much CS education.
There is no magic bullet here, and even if there was, Raspberry Pis ain't it for bioinformatics education.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Amateur Photography Part V: Tripod Tryouts!

My cheap lightweight tripod arrived in the mail yesterday and has been put to initial trial over the past two nights. Here are some quick results and comments.

0. Overall notes. The tripod is far from perfect. It does what it is supposed to do - holds the camera, but the operation is far from smooth - framing a shot takes a while because precision ain't this tripod's thing. But, it is a great improvement over my previous state of affairs.  One good thing about it - the screw-on attachment is removable. Since I only have one camera and one tripod, I screwed it onto the camera, and inserting the camera into a tripod is a matter of three seconds. The lock is plastic, so when it breaks, I am in trouble, but until then.....  I will only mention one more annoying part. There is a level to show whether the front and the back of the tripod are in line with each other. But that's a degree of freedom that is easy to fix via camera rotation up and down.  The dimension that is harder to deal with is across - I can move the camera from landscape to portrait, but that is only 90 degrees - I cannot move the camera itself to set it straight if the tripod is crooked in the other direction. The only thing that works is fiddling with the tripod legs. So ... not the best design, but we will classify my complaints about it as a type of a first world problem.

Now, onto results.

1. Macro.  

My new screw-on macro lenses work much better with a tripod.  This is the before tripod picture of a screw top (I needed a target that was small enough but also static) shot with a handheld camera with a 55-200mm zoom lens at close to max zoom, with the 10x macro on.

The depth of field is probably in millimeters. I had to hold the camera just out of focus, and press the shutter release while moving slightly forward to get anywhere close to focus. This is the best shot out of five or six, and it is nowhere near focus.

Here are the results using 12x macro (a combo of a 2x macro and a 10x macro screwed on top) - so, even higher magnification factor. The same zoom lens, shot at 150mm.

The camera is just below the screw top, and you can see the artifacts of shallow depth of field - top of the screw is in focus, but it gets softer at the bottom - the physical length from the lens to the points in and out of focus is different by a couple of millimeters.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Amateur Photography Part IV: Trees and Stairs

One more assignment from Langford's book: make a series of three pictures of wheels, doorsteps or trees. One photo to emphasize shape, one to emphasize color and one to emphasize pattern.

 On the hike to the P I have covered the tree and the doorsteps (for a certain creative definition of the word "doorstep").


The steps leading up along the side of the P qualify as doorsteps, except for the lack of door.

1. Shape. The rickety, crumbling state of the steps can be seen below.


Friday, January 10, 2014

Sabbatical bucket list: Hiking the P

One thing to scratch off the sabbatical bucket list (and the Cal Poly bucket list too): I hiked the P today for the first time since coming to San Luis.

The first part of the trek is the discovery of the numerous layers of student parking behind the dorms. Terrace upon terrace until one arrives to this strange building at the top without visible windows or doors (technically, two buildings - there is a gap between them)  The trailhead is far from obvious. I had to pull out the phone and discovered that you were supposed to jump the fence to start the trail.  Lots of horse manure on the other side.

Well, I am finally doing this.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Amateur Photography Part III: squares

I only had a few minutes in the morning while walking from the car to the office to do the next assignment from Langford's book: shoot some images for a square frame.  The close-up shots wound up out of focus - I should've paid more attention to what was going on when taking those shots. At any rate, here are the attempts. Original image followed by the square crop.

Engineering building:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Amateur Photography Part II: Height and orientation of the camera

Two more exercises from the first chapter of Langford's book: (a) take six shots of an object with a camera held high or low, and (b) take some shots of the same scene in both portrait and landscape. 

Easy enough. We go to the downtown Mission plaza.  The original intent was to attack the bears poaching for fish in the water, but there was a family there, so instead we go to Father Junipero Serra.

This is the setup shot with camera held at the eye level. Below is the same shot (left), plus the camera held high (center) and the camera held low (right) shots taken from the same position.  Nothing too exciting.

Amateur Photography Part I: Letter Shapes

Langford recommends an exercise of picking five letters from the Latin alphabet, and then taking pictures of the shapes of these letters found around.

 We select letters using the following Python script:

import random 
maxLetters = 5
letters = ['A', 'B', 'C', 'D', 'E', 'F', 'G', 'H', 'I', 'J', 'K', 'L']
letters = letters + ['M', 'N', 'O', 'P', 'Q', 'R', 'S', 'T', 'V', 'W', 'X', 'Y', 'Z'
for i in range(0, maxLetters):
    l = random.randint(0,25)
    print(letters[l],end=" ")
(yes, yes, I know, it does not remove duplicates).

The first output produced by the script included the following letters:

Part 0: general notes

Not all letters are born equal. Quite surprisingly, the harder it was to find the appropriate shapes, the more pictures I wound up taking. "T"s and "Y"s are abound, I only took a few pictures of each shape. "K", "S", and "W" required some looking for, so I took pictures whenever I saw an appropriate shape.

For the record, my camera is Sony Alpha 330. For this particular task I used the 55-200/f 4-5.6 kit lens topped with a UV and a CPL filter. Somewhere closer to the end of the day I put a hood on it.

Part 1: T

"T" wound up being very easy to find. A lot of man-made constructs contain T-intersections. I wound up not bothering too much. 

Monday, January 6, 2014


Starting today and ending sometime in September, I am officially on sabbatical. The short to-do list looks is as follows:

  • work on three funded research projects 
  • complete work with two M.S. students (and work with another three + two halves)
  • supervise two senior projects
  • get four papers based on already defended M.S. theses written and submitted
  • write another one or two papers based on work already completed
  • work on a Data Science minor proposal
  • complete three new course proposals
  • possibly guest teach abroad for a few weeks
  • learn R
  • get up to speed with NoSQL DBMS
  • retool DBMS organization course project
  • learn more statistics
  • create a watchface and an app for Pebble
  • work on younger kid's math skills
  • Take up amateur photography
  • Complete the Bioshock sequence
  • Read more books

There are a few other optional things, but the above is a start.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sci-fi and Fantasy roundup

Recently read:

Rothfuss: The Kingkiller Chronicles, parts 1, 2. As far a world-building goes - a fairly compelling piece of work, with the second book, perhaps being even more interesting to read than the first. I really dug the idea of a society where no one believed the role of men in procreation, although I suspect that any society that domesticated animals would eventually put two and two together. The love story has a lot of Charles Dickens in it. Some secondary characters were not well-characterized in the first book, a bit better in the second. I would be very surprised if it turned out to be just a trilogy. While there is only one day left in the present tense narrative, the first two books went up to Kvothe turning 18 or maybe 19. The present character is in his mid-30s, so there are still about 15 years of narrative. Or maybe 10. Plus, whatever has to happen in the present.

Stross: The Trade of Queens. I, of course, think that Amber Chronicles is one of the best pieces of fantasy, so I really dug this series. The break happened in the previous book. It went from one cliffhanger to another in one fell swoop. The last book though - it almost looked like it was written by a different person. Much more exposition and soap-opera-style rehashing of events from previous books - in some cases awkward (defined as: it is obvious that the text is there to help the reader remember what was in the books before, NOT for any in-story reasons). Also, details aside, at least one ending of the book obvious from the beginning (the other - the carpet bombing of a medieval country is kind of cruel - it was clear that some form a military action will take place, but I did not expect the 100 H-bombs.) More importantly, the books had a number of really great characters in them, who, in the last book have a total of zero moments of awesome.. Individual parts - e.g., the bombing scenes - very well written. But Stross can do much better. I need to start reading his other books....

Sawyer. Hominids. This, on the other hand, was a great read. I dig books that mostly deal with alternate societies - these days, it almost invariably means reading fantasy. While the "science" part was probably the weakest link in the book - one just assumes there has to be an in-story explanation of how a transfer between two worlds is possible, the aspects of Neanderthal society as presented were great... Reading Humans now.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Apropos of Nothing

Random number generator played this song for me in the car today.
As a result:

Go Away /Victor Tsoi/

Go away.., but leave me your number
And maybe I'll give you a call
At the same time, I don't know, why
I am keeping these digits.
And I do not even remember,
What you said was your name
And at this point for me
Phone numbers are just pretty much cyphers.

Go away... leave me your number and go...

We had met by a pure accident
Where, I just cannot recall
The chance of our second encounter is
Pretty much nil
And now you don't want to leave
You say that you cannot leave
Go away, I do not love you!

Russian lyrics

Thursday, July 8, 2010

On the fate of Aveeno Shave Gel

Aveeno's shave gel, which I use with no substitute for the last 13 years is off the shelves of all major department stores and is nowhere to find on-line. When a product is discontinued, it disappears from various stores at different times. So, I inquired with Aveeno.

Here is part of the response. "The product" is the shave gel.

Dear Dr Dekhtyar:

Thank you for contacting the Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc. Information Center. It is always important to hear from our consumers, and we appreciate the time you have taken to contact us.

Thank you so much for your loyalty to our product. Unfortunately, due to problems with the dispensing components, we have decided not to ship the product until we can correct the problem and bring you the high quality product you rightly expect. We are working diligently to bring this product back to the marketplace by the end of this year.

I am cautiously optimistic. In the meantime, Rite Aid has a copycat gel. For reasons beyond my understanding, they don't seem to have it in the on-line store, but it is on the shelves.

Now, back to scheduled procrastination.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Maui has a shrimp truck too

Oahu's shrimp trucks are the famous hidden gem of the North Shore. Three years ago we have sampled the fares from three of them, and decided that it was the best food we had in Hawaii.

Now, we are on Maui. No North Shore shrimp farms, but, fortunately, there is a shrimp truck:

Found it by googling "Maui Shrimp Truck". Yelp has a bunch of reviews and an address. Google Maps screws the "address" (how can a actual moving truck, and this one is an actual moving truck, have a street address)... The truck is located a couple hundred meters north of the intersection, right next to the entrance to the harbor.

We had two shrimp dishes of the four on the list: the scampi and the spicy pineapple (the other two are hot and spicy and lemon and pepper). The proprietor made the spicy pineapple not too spicy at our request.

The key drawback of the place is the lack of any tables to consume the food. The harbor has two tables next to the boat drop-off point. It is quite windy there though, we had to hold the food boxes with cans of soda.

The shrimp is cooked in the same style as in Oahu: each dish is a dozen non-shelled shrimp, but the recipes were different. The scampi sauce did not have the mass of bread crumbs and garlic chunks like the Oahu scampi. The sauce was clear, a bit caramelized and, I guess, somewhat healthier than what you'd get a Giovanni's or Famous Kahuku... (-: Spicy pineapple sauce was similar in structure, had pineapple chunks in it and had a slight kick - I am guessing it'd be much spicier if ordered unmodified. The shrimp in both dishes was juicy and extremely tasty. The rice was ok, but became tasty only after being soaked in the sauce. The crab macaroni salad was excellent in my opinion, although I was the only one who ate it.

Overall a good experience. A very nice proprietor (asked us where we were from and how we found out about him), decent prices ($11 per main dish) and great food. Skip the luau, get some some Geste shrimp!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Google I/O thoughts.

Conference page here.

Google's own postmortem here

Brief Impressions.

Keynote #1. Relatively low-key, with only one truly major announcement. However, they have very clearly staked out their position and pointed a big fat arrow in the direction they intend to go. Empower the browser. Make it the main environment in which everyone works. Take care of (1) all the pipework and (2) delivery mechanism. Leave to others content/app generation.

The latter appears to be a theme for a lot of things Google does. Google provides the unified, open and accessible platform, and builds the low-level, and leaves the top level of the hierarchy for others to fill.

WebM. In my view, the only really big announcement of the first day. Everyone's collective life is made easier by open-source video encoding standards. Hence a good way to start the conference.

Chrome. No Chrome OS announcements at all. But Chrome played a big role during the first day's keynote. Google has drawn a big fat arrow pointing in the direction they want to head: delivery of all standard applications over the web. Chrome and its facilities essentially serve as the backdrop of this particular goal.

GWT and Roo. Of all the techy demos during the first day this was the one I appreciated the most. Roo looks like a great tool for development of simple database applications as it stresses the design part of the process. This will be a summertime project.

Venture capitalists have peculiar insight into things.

Ignite. An excellent experience. We should run something like this here at the department.

HTML 5. Gotta learn it now.

Keynote #2. That's where they dropped the bombs.

Android. Total lack of Android mentions during day 1 official festivities and the wink-wink "there's going to be something big tomorrow" gave way to Android being the star of day. Froyo demos were quite convincing. They did well both in terms of speeding up the system (as a G1 owner, I can vouch that slow-running Android is much less fun than fast running one) and in terms of expanding the features.

Apps to SD cards. Was sorely needed for Android phones. G1 has 64 Meg of memory. I do not know if it will ever get the Froyo update, but if it is at all possible, this feature alone (along with the JIT compiler) can extend its life for at least another year... (not that this is in the interests of HTC, but G1 is a special phone...)

Tethering. Yay!

Push notifications. A not-so-subtle dig at Apple (one of many), and an impressive demo: study something on your desktop, send it as an intent to the android phone.

HTC Evo. Two free phones?? Great phone, a pleasure to hold in your hand and use. I was hoping it'd come with Froyo on it - this would have been really inspired. As it is, though, let's hope for an upgrade shortly... And Sprint... I am temped to find out what those "special terms" for I/O conference attendees are...

Google TV. I want one. 'nuff said.

Go. On a more serious note, Go may wind up being a good development language for various data mining/machine learning algorithms, and for various data analysis code with interchangeable parts.

Other notes. The drone was fun to watch. Held Joojoo pad in my hands (ha!). Saw Nvidia's tablet in someone else's but did not get to see it close by. Sloppy Joe's? The Android phone stand was impressive. Of the non-Evo models, two, Samsung's Android iPhone clone and Sony's XP10 looked like fun phones. I have Square's square (although have not installed the app yet). A randomly selected person in the crowd either graduated from Cal Poly, or has kids attending Cal Poly. New category of swag: beach chair for your cell phone.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Raleigh: no urban revival in near future

Downtown Raleigh is rather disappointing, although, I should have known what to expect. The similarities with Lexington (KY) are rather striking.

At 7pm on Monday, the downtown is dead. The only people around are the
WWW'2010 attendees, who stick like sore thumbs in the otherwise empty place.

Essentially, it's a typical southern affair - office towers with little retail underneath, block-consuming posh hotels and a monstrous convention center, interspersed by parking garages and lots. All surrounded by blocks of light industrial zoning. Nobody lives here.

After a bit of wandering around, two convention center hosts pointed me in the general direction of "The Pit", which appears to be a local Caroline-style barbeque joint. It was very easy to pass by on the side street, nestled among a bunch of one-story somewhat run-down buildings and across the street from some no-name watering hole (the no-name part probably means that it is totally awesome and a local favorite). The dinner was excellent, but the walk back to the hotel along empty streets. The closest to urban life I saw was a condo complex across the street and a parking lot from the hotel, which had a corner bar built into it with people actually sitting outside... (the complex is pictured above).

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ebook Nostalgia redux part II: defeating the beast

Turns out that the key to overcoming the overbearing nature of REB 1100 w.r.t. our previous report on its behavior when a card is inserted is to simply press the CANCEL button.

This kills the misguided attempts to read the contents of the card, and keeps the ebook in its previous state: looking at the correct location of the correct book. Crisis averted!

Citizen Journalism!

It's actually more of a weather post. It's been windy starting the morning, although not sufficiently windy to preclude me from cooking up some special recipe chicken and grilling a tri-tip. But by 2:40pm, the wind's gotten worse.

The baggage cart at the train station was overturned by a gust of wind minutes before the rain has started.
Posted by Picasa

Monday, April 5, 2010

Ebook Nostalgia redux

After 24 hours of using REB 1100 with the installed card, the following two things became apparent (and, in short term, effectively, deal breakers):

  • Each time REB 1100 is turned off and then on, it rereads the contents of the media card. Takes about 1-2 mins.
  • It "forgets" the current book and the current location in it, and restarts the device "looking" at the beginning of some book it thinks to be the "first".

The former is tolerable. The latter makes use of media cards almost infeasible.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ebook Nostalgia

RCA REB 1100 is probably the oldest mass-market Ebook reader (its immediate predecessors, to my knowledge were not spread widely). It was also not a very commercially successful device. However, as the first, and, for quite a long time the only open (read: amenable to firmware modifications and upload of user-generated content), it has acquired quite a cult following.

My family owns quite a few of these devices and until today, whenever we needed to put a new set of ebooks on them, we used the old (distributed with the device) program Ebook Librarian. The latter has one nasty feature: it does not work under Vista. In fact, it does not even install an executable under Vista. I have not tried it, but I am assuming that neither will it work under Win7.

Turns out there is a way out of this conundrum. REB 1100 has a SmartMedia card slot, and it is supposedly good for cards of up to 128 Mb. Not too much by current standards (of 64Gig SD cards), but sufficient to put a few dozen books in RB format on. The instructions for how to do this are quite scarce, so here is my straightened version:

  1. Plop the SmartMedia card into your PC's card reader. (on my machine it coinhabits the xD card slot).
  2. Create a directory called Books on the card.
  3. Transfer the books in the RB format into this directory.
  4. Power REB 1100 down.
  5. Insert the card into the card slot for REB 1100.
  6. Power REB 1100 up. You should see a message saying "Reading titles from memory card" or something to that extent.
  7. Wait. At some point the message disappears and you are all set.

  8. To take the card out, power the device down, remove the card, power it up, then power it down again. This way, REB 1100 establishes that it no longer has the card.

The really good news is that there is no longer any need to hold onto the old, and almost broken, WinXP laptop that we have.

PS. Most of smartmedia cards run anywhere between $25 and $40 on Amazon etc. However, Amazon did have a place that sold me a 32Mb card for $7.99 + $1.99 s&h. Very decent, all other things being equal.