June 30, 2003
Getting through security at the airport was pretty painless, and everyone was clearly dedicated to moving things along. One piont, though, worries me: When looking at my ticket and ID to get on the actual plane, the person said “Thank you Mr. Iran.” Not sounding like the country, but like it would sould if you unnecessarily infused my name with an R. Plus, she said “Mister,” and that’s my first name! Clearly no one’s getting through there without authorization, or at least an ID that looks like one of the names on it might appear somewhere on the ticket. All someone needs to do is get a fake ID in the name of “United Air.” “Thanks for flying, Mr. United” is what they’d say as you cruised through the security checkpoint.
While walking through the airport terminal to pick up Adrian’s luggage (none of us had planned to check it, but he was forced to because he make the mistake of taking along a nail file) And you want to joke about it too. I do, anyway, and it’s so hard to sit there and see such blatantly illogical idiocies and not point them out. But I restrain myself. Mostly because I don’t want to be questioned in an intimate manner by large humorless airport officials.
Anyway, while walking through, I noticed a sign directing us to see a display of “Yesterday’s Airport of Tomorrow.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t on our way, so I didn’t get to see. But it’s really too bad; I would have loved to see the sleek private jets, the helpful robot servants, the plasticly saccharine architecture that would certainly have characterized an artist’s depiction, from the 60’s, of what the airport of the “future” would hold. It would have to be a bit depressing, though, to see the crumbling and faded dreams of progress, especially as we passed by the ever-growing security checkpoint. They envisioned rounded corners. We got armed guards.
When we got to the hotel, it turned out that instead of having to share rooms, we each got our own room at the hotel. For four days. Oh yeah.
During the conference, we heard speakers on some really interesting topics. The group that put on the conference is the ALADDIN group at Carnegie Mellon (pronounced Carnegie, not Carnegie, as I had thought), which stands for ALgorithmic ADaptation, Dissemination and INtegration. So, already, you know there were going to be some pretty painful acronyms involved here. The first one is CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of a Turing test, it comes from an idea about artificial intelligence proposed by Alan Turing, who said that attempts at artificial intelligence would have succeeded when a machine is indistinguishable from a human through a text-only interface. The idea of CAPTCHA, and you’ve seen this if you’ve signed up for a free email account in the past year or so, is to come up with a test that humans can pass, that computers cannot, and that can be automatically generated by a computer. Currently, the common choice is to choose a random word, or string of letters, and use some process to tweak and distort them or add noise. A human can still read the twisty pictures, but computer image recognition has real trouble with it. The cool part of this is that, if people who make email bots do figure out how to beat it, then the technology for Optical Character Recognition will have gotten better. There are other ideas for making a CAPTCHA, and we spent most of the lunch the first day talking about the possibilities, and how we could beat the current system.
We heard another talk about privacy and anonymity in public data, which was really interesting. It turns out that publicly released data is often not as anonymous as people would like you to believe. A shocking 87% of the population of this country is uniquely identifiable by only three data, which are commonly included in “anonymous” data: gender, date of birth, and zip code. There’s a class at CMU about how to use perfectly legal public information to find and corrolate all kinds of private information about people. The other part of the class is how to truly anonymize data, but retain the usefulness of it to government, industry, or whoever was getting the data before.
We also heard this awesome lecture about, well, about computer dating, and the surprising mathematical conclusion that traditional dating favors men. It was really cool, and I will totally show it to you if you want sometime, but it’s pretty complicated to do without graphs and stuff.
On Thursday night, there was a party at the house of Lenore and Manuel Blum, some faculty at SCS who were involved with the conference this week. They have a beautiful brick house within walking distance from the campus, and on this little cobblestone road that you’d miss even if you knew it was coming. The party was quite nice. I met Danny Sleator, who is this really huge name in algorithms (He came up with Splay Trees). I spent most of the time talking to this cute CMU undergrad Lindsey. Near the end of the party, Steven Rudich, the man who gave the lecture on dating, put on a magic show. It was pretty cool. He does close up magic, card tricks and hiding marbles and other things. Some of the time I could see a slip every once in a while, some of the tricks I could figure out how it could be done, but didn’t figure out how I didn’t notice it, and some I have no idea how it would be done, or what happened. The really amazing thing is that Rudich is almost blind. He dealt with it pretty well, and memorized where people were standing, but the first time I was introduced to him there were multiple people around the circle, and when people shifted, he had to reconfigure his mental map.
Saturday afternoon we were free to do whatever, because the conference ended at noon. I spent some time with Lindsey, who I met at the Blum’s party. We went to the park to the south of campus, to the botanical gardens they had there. There was a butterfly exhibit there, with hundreds and hundreds of butterfiles and flowering plants in a small area. It was really neat to be in there, and the butterflies were very tame. Even when we were close and moving, they didn’t seem to startle. I wonder if they just figure out that we aren’t a threat, or if they just don’t have many natural predators in the wild. We got to see them in different stages of hatching from the chrysalises (chrysala?). The monarch butterflies have the most amazing cases. There is a little gilded rim around the top that looks like it was carefully stamped in with a little spiked roller or something. It’s like a dotted line of gold leaf forming a crown.
After that, I met up with Adrian and Ed and Erica, who happened to be in Pittsburgh for the summer doing research, and we went out to dinner and a movie. I cannot tell you how liberating it is to be on an expense account. All our food and travel was taken care of. So we went out to dinner and we saw Finding Nemo, which was great. We had taken a cab there (because there are no movie theaters near CMU), but after dinner, we couldn’t get a cab back. They were all “busy.” So, the waitress told us that there was a bus stop just around the corner, and a bus that got back to CMU. So, we wandered out to the bus stop, and there had the unfortunate experience of meeting the World’s Most Annoying Human™ This guy would just not shut up, and the most inane crap too. It took me about three minutes of all of us being mesmerized with his inability to catch my really obvious hints that I didn’t care for the jokes he was telling (during which he interrupted me to start another ::sigh::) until I grabbed Erica, said “Hey, Erica,” as we turned, “pretend like you’re talking to me.” Thus, we escaped, leaving Adrian and Ed to his torments. They later said that after we had gone, they could hardly just turn around and leave, with him (continuing, certainly) talking to their backs. I told them that that’s exactly what I would have done.
So that, in a nutshell, was my trip to Carnegie Mellon. I’m sure I’ve forgotten stuff, but I’m tired of writing.
Currently in progress. It’ll probably be up sometime tonight or late afternoon. Check back then.
June 25, 2003
I’m off to CMU in Pittsburgh for an algorithms conference for a few days. See y’all again on Sunday.
June 23, 2003
Ok, this is totally the last one, and then I’m getting back to work.
I swear I just ate a pistachio that tasted like raspberry cream!
Turns out that chicken broth doesn’t go over with vegetarians, a group which includes a startlingly high number of my friends.
Let it be hereby known that I am an evil person for knowingly and willfully wresting from one (1) chicken (hereinafter, “the victim”) an entire quart of “broth” (hereinafter “the stuff”) for use in an arcane and unwholesome heating, stirring, and spicing ritual. My only recourse is to claim that youth and inexperience led me astray, and to request that my long and faithful record of service be taken into account before passing judgment. For I am truly sorrowed, and will serve to make amends. Firstly: by casting so unholy a concoction as this into a bitter and chilling environment, and then unto the inferno of an electro-mechanical monstrosity. Only when it has been purified with ice and fire will it then be peacefully escorted, amidst strains of requiem to its final resting place. Secondly: by requesting your presence at a later date, with more fitting fare.
I just figured out why everyone’s comments were so boring.
They weren’t html enabled. Now, you can italicize, bold, and
your comments, as well as include links to porn sites and stuff.
June 22, 2003
The last part of what I’ve been playing recently is Old School Nintendo. They actually, for a little while, made a top-loading Nintendo system, which is now highly prized by classing gaming nuts and, increasingly, anyone at all who has a desire to play Nintendo games anymore, given that the original design was (for lack of a better word) stupid.
The way that the original Nintendo games make electrical contact between the cartridge and the pins in the console is by physically pushing the game into the bent pins. This may have worked well for a little while back in the 80’s, but twenty years later, it leaves something to be desired, as the 10¢ connector becomes brittle and irritable with age, leading to the blinking light and buggy operation that Nintendos have become known for.
The top-loaders solved this problem, and are now so popular that they are generally worth around twice what they cost in 1993, when they came out. But the second that I plugged the first game into it and flipped the switch, to see the title screen pop up, it was worth every penny.
Matt Livianu came to hang out this afternoon, and we played some games for a while. After we beat Contra, he was astonished to find that I’d paid $80 for it: “Contra is great! That’s one of the games I used to spend hours playing… You spent how much?!” he said, “Oh, what other games do you have. Dude! Tecmo Bowl! We gotta play this!”
I was quietly smug.
This afternoon, I tried my hand at some gourmet cooking. One of the magazines I picked up was Food and Wine, so I busted out with some saucepans and got my soup on.
I made Creamy Asparagus Soup with Lemon Dumplings. Took about 3 hours in total, but I tasted some of the soup while I was cooking it, and it will be well worth it (I’m having people over tomorrow for dinner). First, I made the lemon gelatin stuff to put in the dumplings. Then, I had about two hours while it set to go in search of a sieve, which I would need for making the soup. It took me only three suites to find one, but I think it may have been too small, ’cause it took, like, four years to filter through there.
The instructions said that you were supposed to (after cooking it, of course), run the soup in batches through a food processor and then the sieve, returning it to the pan to cook a bit more. What it really ought to have said is to run it in very very small batches through the food processor. I filled the blender with soup, turned it on, and discovered that asparagus, in it’s liquid form, is not a vegetable to be trifled with. There was some kind of explosion in there, and then there was hot hot hot everywhere, and I was frantically jabbing at the stop button. I then put about half that much in, and it did it again. Only this time, because the soup had more space to accelerate in, it went even farther. I would conservatively estimate that about 20-25% of the surface area of the kitchen, including me. It got on my glasses and in my hair, and all over the floor.
The next time I put maybe four drops of soup in there, and worked up from there.
While the soup was cooking, I made the dumplings. I had the singular experience of dicing jello, the lemon filling that I had made. Then I wrapped them in won ton wrappers, which are funny little squares that stick to every wet surface except themselves.
When it’s all done, though, it doesn’t seem like that much soup. It says it serves six, but I’m thinking that with just bread and salad, perhaps it doesn’t serve that many. Plus, I have to factor into the fact that, even spread pretty thin, 20 square feet of kitchen absorbs a lot of soup. Maybe it’ll be sort of an afternoon tea or something instead.