Dan Appleman: Kibitzing and Commentary

My personal blog

Funniest Election News Ever (or how to tell if you're an extremist)

Ok, I admit I am jet-lagged, which certainly explains why I’m awake at 5:00am in a London hotel room. But it doesn’t explain why today’s election news isn’t the funniest thing I’ve heard yet. And if you don’t find it funny too you’re probably way too extreme (in either direction), are a conspiracy theorist, or have no sense of humor.

Today’s Donald Rumsfeld was quoted as saying:

“Let’s say you tried to have an election and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country — in some places you couldn’t because the violence was too great,” Rumsfeld said. “So be it. Nothing’s perfect in life. You have an election that’s not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet.”

and

“Will there be elections? I think so. Might there be some portion of the country where the terrorists decide they’re going to mess things up? Possibly. Does that mean that there won’t be elections? No.”

Reports left out that this is the map he was pointing too at the time:

Picture of map illustrating areas where elections might not occur.

Hurricane Ivan and the X-Rayed Water Bottle

The other night I was watching the Hurricane Ivan show on CNN. It consisted mostly of newscasters standing in the rain and wind right outside of their hotel room, while waiting for a large planter to blow over (I’ll avoid comment about reports being smart enough to come out of the rain, and observe that the individual covering Hurricane Ivan for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show also stood in blowing mist – outside a carwash – thus fulfilling the journalistic obligation to be soaked while reporting on a storm).

Today, on my way to a conference in Germany, I saw someone carry a clear plastic water bottle through security – only to have it taken back through the metal detector and run through the X-Ray (I confess to being at a loss to imagine what an X-Ray might see in that bottle that we couldn’t).

This got me thinking. We all know that we’re spending lots of money to defend against terrorism and to X-Ray water bottles. About 40 billion in 2003 (not counting the war in Iraq, whose relationship to homeland security is an interesting question in and of itself). I wondered how it compared to what we are spending on various other threats – like hurricanes.

This is certainly a bad year for hurricanes, though we don’t know yet how much they’ll really cost. But looking at NOAA data, it looks like hurricanes and other storms typically cost 5 to 10 billion each year. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was 27 billion (about the same as the direct costs of the 9/11 attacks). The NOAA budget is about 3.3 billion – that’s on all their activities, not just hurricane and storm tracking.

Terrorism though is worse than Hurricanes though. Why? Perhaps because it can strike at any time without warning.

So let’s consider earthquakes – they also can strike at any time without warning. I’m a California boy, and I got to ride the Loma Prieta quake (and trust me, “ride” is the operative word). That one cost about 6 billion. The Northridge quake cost 20 billion. The USGS annual budget is about 1 billion, of which 100 million or so goes to earthquake and volcano research and prediction.

But Terrorism is worse than earthquakes. Why? It kills more people (and why are we talking damage costs when lives are at stake anyway?)

World wide deaths from terrorism have been running under 4000/year (though increasing). The 9/11 attacks cost 2700 lives. Definitely more than have been killed by hurricanes are earthquakes (at least in the U.S.)

So let’s consider traffic accidents. In 2003 there were 42000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. (2.9 million injured). That’s more than killed by terrorism in the past decade. How much are we spending on high way safety? How does 3.6 billion sound?

But terrorism is worse than traffic accidents. Why? Because it has a greater risk of mass casualties due to possible use of weapons of mass destruction. But how much of that 40 billion is going towards controlling spread of nuclear weapons and detection, prevention and preparation for biological attack? I can’t help but wonder if that 40 billion is really being spent wisely.

There are some other things I wonder…

For example: I recently read that Afghanistan has become a leading export of Heroin and other drugs (70% of the world’s opium comes from there). I realize that the war on drugs has been preempted by the war on terrorism, but still, it’s hard for me to see that hunting for Bin-Laden is incompatible with getting a country out of the drug business.

And it does seem curious that Iraq seems to be developing into a new home and school for terrorists. I mean, freeing the Iraqis from Sadaam Hussein is all very nice, but exactly how did that make us more secure?

Anyway, these are some of the questions I’ve been wondering about. Not that I have any answers, but it did lead me to one thought I’d like to leave you with. Virtually all of the political discussion has related to Bush vs. Kerry as individuals (and what they may or may not have done 30+ years ago). Let’s remember that we aren’t just hiring a president – we’re hiring their staff. If you rehire Bush you get Cheny, Rumsfield, Ashcroft, Rice and maybe Powell in the bargain (it’s not clear if Powell’s staying on) – not to to mention the likelihood of a Supreme Court justice or two. With Kerry you get… Hmm… who do you get? Hopefully we’ll hear soon.

Ok, I’m out of questions. It’s raining outside, but I’m safe and warm in my hotel room, drinking water from a nice, safe, thoroughly X-Rayed bottle.

(P.S. it’s not really raining outside. That part is poetic license).

Sources:

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
Center for Contemporary Conflict – U.S. Navy.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
US Department of Transportation.
Congressional Hearing: Afghanistan Drugs and Terrorism and U.S. Security Policy Feb 12 2004.

Lies and Truths

Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me… well, so says the quote. But honestly, with so many conflicting claims and lies, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by my own inability to figure out what’s actually true. Whether it’s lying through omission, lying through misdirection, or outright lies, it’s awfully hard to extract nuggets of truth from the noise.

So, being a civic minded individual, I did some extensive research, and am pleased to offer this guide to detecting who is lying during this joyful campaign season:

  • Anyone who explicitly claims to be telling the truth – is lying. Groups with “truth” in their name, lie. “Swift Boats for Truth” – dead giveaway. If they weren’t lying, they wouldn’t need to convince you otherwise.
  • Every political advertisement lies (by omission- obviously).
  • All issues ads lie (you know, the kind that aren’t sponsored by the candidate, but rather by their best friend, leading contributor, ex college roommate, etc.)
  • All news broadcasts lie. The one exception: Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, which claims to lie, has a higher degree of truth than any news broadcast. This is not surprising because all comedy is ultimately based on truth.
  • Anyone claiming the other side is lying, is lying (Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, you know the type).
  • All the candidates and their spokespersons lie. You see, if they actually said anything truthful the media would squeeze it of any ounce of subtlety and portray it as a mistake or gaff. So the campaigns must stick with carefully polished and scripted sound bites – lies.
  • Anyone who mentions 9/11 in a political context more than once in a speech or conversation is lying (it’s the ultimate misdirection). Oh, except for Rudolph Giuliani, who’s the only guy who’s earned the right to say it twice in a speech before it’s a lie.
  • Anyone who talks extensively about how great America is, is lying. Real patriots know America is great – we don’t need politicians going on about it. We’d rather hear them explain HOW they’re going to keep America great. And how we’ll pay for it. Specifics please?
  • There are probably more – comments are welcome.

Finding the truth is clearly a greater challenge than I ever imagined. And it poses some fundamental challenges when it comes to voting this November. But since it is clear that lies far outnumber the truth, the following axiom, stripped of spin and manipulation, must be fundamentally true:

Since all politicians and media are lying (either through omission, misdirection, or outright), you cannot predict their future actions based on what they say. This implies that you can only anticipate their future actions based on past actions of themselves and their supporters.

Ok, we’re making progress. Having written off the media, the candidates, the ads, the campaigns, and statistics (which are also subject to manipulation and later correction), it becomes remarkably easy to choose a candidate. Let’s consider the major topics:

  • Iraq & Terrorism:
    Both sides now agree that the arguments for going into Iraq were either outright lies, or the results of gross incompetence. Frankly, I supported going into Iraq because I could not imagine our government either lying about WMD, or being so grossly incompetent as to go to war without an incredibly high degree of certainty on the issue. Spin aside, the buck stops there: It was either a lie or gross incompetence.
    If you believe the current administration has learned from their mistakes, and has become highly competent at intelligence and foreign policy, you should stick with Bush. If you’re one of those people who, if you had an employee who lied or was grossly incompetent, would fire them, you should choose Kerry.
  • Taxes:
    This one is simple. You either choose a Tax and Spend Democrat. Or a Borrow and Spend Republican. Sorry, you can’t have a true responsible economic conservative (control spending and balance the budget) – that was Clinton and he can’t run again.
  • Economy:
    If you’re making more money, have better job security, and your friends and family are happily employed, the economy is good. If your economic status is uncertain, and you know people who are out of work, the economy is bad. Since the media and statistics lie, all you can base it on is what you see around you.
  • Social Issues:
    If aborting fetuses and gays getting married is more important to you than security, taxes or the economy, you know who to choose.
  • Health Insurance:
    If you don’t have health insurance or can’t afford it, and want it, choose Kerry. It’s virtually certain the Democrats will do more than the Republicans on that score.
  • Civil Liberties:
    If you’re willing to give up more privacy and civil rights in the hope of gaining more security, stick with Bush. If you’re willing to accept more risk in order to keep privacy and civil rights, choose Kerry.

Those are the big ones. There are lots of other issues, but it’s much harder to distill the truth out of lies on those, or to figure out which “experts” might be closer to the truth. But I’ll keep working on it.

Weapons of Mass Distraction

The ongoing flap about Kerry’s service in Vietnam is an all too typical example of the media (and others) focusing on triviality and completely missing the bigger picture. Were there bullets flying? Did Kerry bleed on his Purple Heart?

Who cares?

The bottom line is that Kerry did serve in Vietnam. And if he didn’t get shot at in this particular instance, there’s no doubt he was shot at other times. Those boats sailed dangerous waters. Even if he exaggerated the danger on some report 35 years ago, the idea that this should influence today’s election is ludicrous.

But unfortunately our political system is all too often based on the big lie and distraction – shout a lie long and loud enough and people start to care and to believe it.

Or how about flip-flops?

“Flip-flop” is a common insult in this political season. I think it’s overtaken “liberal” as a dirty word (in part because more Democrats are willing to stand up and proudly claim the term, a common schoolyard technique for shutting up a bully). Could the same approach work for “flip-flop?” Absolutely. Why, I myself flip-flopped recently. Just a few months ago I explained why I had no interest in blogging. And here I am, blogging furiously. Flip-flop is a childish way of saying “changing your mind.” If someone learns something new, and has the courage to acknowledge that their previous opinion was wrong and to adopt a stance based on their new knowledge – that’s something to be admired, not condemned.

Is there hope?

They say that California leads the nation, and a recent flap with our Governor gives hope. You remember him, governor Schwarznegger. Just yesterday we were the laughing stock of the world with an open ended recall election that had 135 people running for the office. They laughed harder when we chose an ex-body builder movie star with a thick accent. But guess what – most Californians are absolutely thrilled with the job he’s been doing. But there’s one recent incident that gives true hope for the future.

The legislature was in the midst of their usual annual deadlock on passing a budget. In frustration, Governor Schwarznegger called those who refused to act “girlie men.” The media went into a frenzy: he was sexist, he was homophobic, he was….

Meanwhile, the reaction of most of the population seemed to be “yeah, he was funny. Now pass the d#*# budget!”

In other words, by and large the electorate did not buy into the media distraction, and stayed focused, maybe even appreciated the humor of the Governor using a phrase that was originally used on Saturday Night Live to parody him. And we got our budget.

Weapons of Mass Distraction is also the title of a wonderfully wicked movie. Though a bit hard to find, I highly recommend it. Might be available from Barnes & Noble

A Tale of Two Nerds

Ever since the movie “Revenge of the Nerds,” the word “nerd” hasn’t been so much an insult, as a promise; or at least a suggestion that those kids who spend their time in geeky pursuits will one day employ the cool kids (or at least cash in some nice stock options along the way).

Well, stock options aren’t what they were (unless you work for Google), and jobs of nerds and former cool kids alike are finding their way to India and Asia, but geeky pursuits continue among both kids and adults.

Today I’d like to tell you about two teenage nerds I met recently. Wait, I mean two teenage geeks. Nowadays, around here at least, geek is much more complimentary than nerd. But since it may vary where you are, I’m just going to alternate between them – you’ll know what I mean.

Anyway, I want to tell you about them, because their pursuits today may give us some insight into the future. More important, I think their stories may shatter some misconceptions adults often have about what it means to be a nerd today. Consider this a plank in bridging today’s digital generation gap (something I’ll be writing more about).

When I was a young nerd, my main hobby was Amateur Radio (or Ham Radio). I had my advanced class license by 14, and passed the technical requirement for first class by 15 (didn’t quite make it on the morse code). I could tear apart and repair a short wave radio, build Heathkits for fun, and spent weekends participating in contests and sometimes T-Hunts (first generation geo-caching, done the hard way).

We all know those kids have vanished. Heathkit is but a fond memory. Ham radio largely relegated to senior citizens. The computer took over, and everybody knows that it’s on computers that you’ll find today’s young nerds. But let’s take a closer look at what everybody knows.

In “Revenge of the Nerds,” the technology nerds played with computers and build robots. In fact, any kid who used a computer was by definition a “computer nerd.” That is no longer true.

Almost every kid and teen today uses computers routinely, most are on the Internet as well. And while it might feel nice to interpret this as a victory of sorts (yeah! all the kids are geeks now), it’s just not so. For most kids and teens the computer is a tool. They have little or no interest in the computer itself – just in what they can do with it. From using wordprocessors for reports, to presentation software for classroom presentations, to online gaming, etc., the computer is a means to an end.

So how did I recognize these two “computer nerds?”

I spotted the first one when we were having a casual conversation about computer monitors. This alone is not a mark of a nerd – monitors are a fact of life nowadays, but he used the term “frame rate,” which is not in the vocabularly of the average teen. Later we were discussing a dynamic state machine based AI he’s developing for a game he’s writing, and two things became apparent: First, that I’d forgotten more than he knows about state machines (with an emphasis on the “I’ve forgotten” part), and second, that he definitely qualifies as a nerd (oops, I mean a geek).

The second one I met at a LAN party. When not in school he runs his own part time business, charging friends and neighbors $25/hour to clean their computers of viruses, set up security, and install software. Yep, that definitely qualifies.

My nephew and his group of friends have quite a few geeks among them as well. In fact I had the pleasure of watching them participate in a STRUT contest last year in which their team field stripped a computer to its component parts, then reassembled it in a shockingly short time.
Ok, this isn’t enough to play “spot the nerd,” but the key thing to remember is this: just because a kid is using a computer doesn’t make him or her a nerd. You have to look further.

Oh, one more thing.

Both the two teens I mention here, and most of the others in this group have one other interesting thing in common: they spend much of their time using and playing with Linux. Today, that is definitely the mark of a geek. Tommorow? Who knows….

Advice for future Computer Science Majors

Like many computer professionals, I?m often asked for career advice for those considering entering this field. Given the recent drop in the number of students entering college with computer science majors (see the May 2004 issue of Computing Research News), offering good advice is more important than ever. Here’s my version.
You had better like change.
Many careers require that you keep studying to remain current. Doctors and lawyers have to stay on top of he latest treatments and legal precedents. Realtors study the latest regulations. Contractors their building codes. But what makes computer science intense is that not only do you have to keep learning technology that is changing at a rapid clip, what you previously knew becomes obsolete.
Most developers like to learn new technology, or at least play with the latest toys. Sometimes we get so hung up on new technology that we don’t think clearly about the consequences of that technology (a topic for another time). But it is important to consider some of the consequences of the rapid change that occurs in this industry.
Because what you know will soon be obsolete, you’ll spend much of your career under intense pressure to stay up to date, the underlying fear being that if you don’t, you’ll end up unemployed and pathetic. This fear, though rarely admitted, is quite common, and can be a source of stress, which may not matter to you now, but is one of the reasons people leave the field. It’s like the Red Queen says in “Through the Looking Glass” – you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in place. You have to run even faster to get anywhere. Burn-out is a problem.
Being technologically savvy isn’t enough.
Being an extreme programmer is all very nice, but if you want to succeed in this industry it’s not nearly enough. You may have heard the political and economic pundits on the news talking about the “jobless recovery.” Bush is stressing because corporate profits are rising but employment is not. Kerry promising to create jobs, but it’s not clear what he can do. Why? Because our economic system demands that businesses become more productive, and more productive means (among other things) doing more with fewer people, or doing more with cheaper people. We’re all familiar with how technology eliminates some jobs – ATM machines reduce the need for bank tellers, self service pumps allow gas stations to be staffed by a single person. There’s no clear sign of this happening to software developers, in the sense that few software development tools are so sophisticated as to replace programmers (though it’s coming – automatic code generation is a fascinating topic). But it is possible to replace expensive software developers in the U.S. with less expensive software developers in other countries. How big an impact this is having, and how big an impact it will continue to have is subject for debate. But it’s too significant to ignore.
And even if productivity isn’t an issue, the inevitable tides of our economy will be. You will at some point in your career be dealing with a tight job market. And it’s not your technological skills that will determine how well you succeed at those times.
It’s your personal skills that will count. How well do you communicate? You should know how to present your ideas both to individuals and small groups. Can you write clearly and somewhat grammatically? Do you come across as confident in yourself and your abilities? Do you have leadership skills (that often translate into management skills)? Are you responsible? Are you a nice person to have around (or at least not completely repulsive)? Yes, there are those who are so technologically brilliant they can get away with caring just about technology, but for most of us these other skills are essential.
So, as you go off to college, don’t let your technical classes get in the way of getting a good education. Take a writing class. Take a class or get involved in an activity that forces you to do some public speaking. Do some drama or improv. Join a club. Do some volunteer work. Do some tutoring. This kind of experience will have long term benefits to your career that you wouldn’t believe.
Take CS for the right reasons
The best technology professionals are almost without fail the ones who entered this field because they are fascinated with technology. We like to play with the latest and greatest toys. We share an underlying faith that technology can be used to solve problems and make the world better. In fact, we’re sometimes so blinded by technology that we fail to consider other factors in our decisions (like business and economic factors, social consequences, etc.) – but that is a subject for a later time.
The important thing is not to go into CS just because you think it’s going to make you a lot of money. Sure, some software developers got rich in the dot-com boom, but even then most of us ended up with at least some stock that ultimately became worthless. Choose this major because it’s fun, and you’ll end up having a great time. You’ll meet lots of smart people, most of them pretty nice. And when the inevitable stress and problems occur, you’ll at least know that you’re spending your days doing what you enjoy the most.
Do you have additional recommendations for future CS majors? Please post them (remember, comments on this blog are moderated and won’t show up right away).