Monday, June 26, 2006
Here's another solution: buy veggies from local farms, not from California. Do I need to eat under-ripened strawberries in January? Don't they grow those things in greenhouoses somewhere in the Northeast, if I'm that desperate? Yes, it costs more up front. You're helping pay for some farmer's passive solar heating project, rather than the energy-intensive process of transporting produce cross country in climate controlled trains, trucks, warehouses, and grocery stores.
Ride the bus? Yes, when it makes sense. I live on a major bus route that's a direct ride to a few destinations-- work, school, and the mall, so we're getting by with one car at home. It's still a hassle to keep track of the schedule, since I never seem to have it on hand when I need it. Some day, I'd like to sit down and enter it into a program I have for my PDA, but I haven't done it in almost two years of thinking about it, so I'm guessing I'm never going to do it now that classes are mostly over for me...
So here's me doing my part: installing compact flourescent bulbs where it makes sense to, because they don't burn out as often, use about 20% of the power of the equivalent incandescent bulb, and the electricity savings pay for the extra cost in a few months, while the bulbs can last for a while—two years or longer for most of them so far. I’m guessing it’s an annualized return in the ballpark of 300%. Not that I have all that many sockets in my house, and the net savings is probably under $50 a year, but it's something. At least it's that much less heat for the A/C to get rid of. Factoring that in (1.7 watts to remove each watt of heat) and the savings really add up even more.
It would be even nicer if window A/C units could somehow be controlled centrally, communicate with each other, or allow some other kind of feedback. I do have a handy-dandy computerized thermostat that I installed shortly after moving into the house, with control systems for centralized A/C. Got window units? Out of luck, since I have no plan to tear out walls to run ducts. And I'd guess that there are far more window A/C units out there than homes using central Air. They already have infrared remote controls for each unit... too bad you can't just convert it to some other kind of RF system, or just put an IR controller into each room to beam changes to each unit.
Heck, if you go that far, you could tie these into a programmable thermostat just like the furnace. Or, geez, tie in some kind of weather feed so that you adjust your heating or cooling plans for the house using actual temperature changes outside, with more sophisticated decision systems for your house, letting the temperature drift a little if you are trying to save energy. Really, the lousy little temperature sensor on the A/C unit doesn't do as good a job as it could, with a smarter central controller. Then you could start looking at things like your water heater, and other kinds of energy users in your home that suck down power with their 1960's controller technology.
After all, something like 30% of your home's energy usage is allegedly from heating and cooling, though I'd guess it's a lot more than that in Albany. Might be a relatively painless way to cut 10% off your bills, permanently, without having to fool around with solar cells. It's Albany. We're lucky to have three consecutive days without rain this summer. :)
Thursday, June 22, 2006
I'm again thinking about SCORM, my day job. (During the day, I guess you could say I'm all about the SCORM, but I'd rather you didn't.) At its very heart, it could just be an elaborate output of a series of XML transformations, the kind you'd do via Apache Ant (yes, that's the real name for the project.) Imagine you'd have some source stuff, in XML format, in a Content Manager, a database, or just a whole bunch of scattered files. Then you organize it in some coherent way with XML pointers, wrappers, etc, just 'cuz there are lots of tools for XML that saves you from inventing your own text parsing scheme. (I've written more than I care to think about. XML is easier for any non-trivial job, believe me.) You can have scripts or just plain XSLT to mush it around, ultimately outputting both HTML pages (in the correct directories) and the XML manifest files that SCORM wants. It'd be a large, multistage affair best managed by Ant, which, you guessed it, is a configuration program in XML, which also has lots and lots of tools for management.
The goal here is to build a whole bunch of sophisticated infrastructure with just pushbutton interfaces, rather than large scale, unbelieveably tedious web development staff time to accomplish the same tasks. Heck, you could even just capture content over the web, and automate the process of converting it into a training class, if so inclined, with only a person to shape its presentation and content.
Yea, I'm all about the gee whiz part of computing. ("A talking frog? Now that's cool.") And the mapping. And just the interplay of ideas, and the idea that the world can be a better place, despite the best efforts of some people, if you're not afraid to put in the effort and still fail once in a while. Yea, I'm all about the optimism tonight. :)
And, I'm really, really tired of all the music on my MP3 player. I lost one adapter on the bus, and another adapter is home-- I just never get around to updating the playlists when I'm at home. I've had about a liter of Blendy ice coffee mix today, on top of the two cups of coffee I had this morning, and yet the caffeine-enabled IQ boost has yet to materialize. Something about the incessant droning of the 2000 BTU AC unit behind me (and that's no typo), the stifling humidity, and the overall tedium of endless tests and alterations on an XML configuration file seems to tire me out by the end of the day.
Trial and error, my favorite development strategy.
No wonder that the last thing I want to do when I go home is to sit in front of my computer and work on my research paper and study for my General Comp exam. At least there's still July...
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Pass me some Blendy, please.
At the heart of it is another XML document format regarding structure and internal, somewhat recursive references to other parts of the document. Why not just go for a straigh hierarchy? Was the code going to run too fast? I'm running a Tomcat server on my work-issued laptop (no point making a difficult job too legible) and to run a test "class" of one single HTML page takes about 20 seconds. To load it directly from disk: immeasurably fast. (Ok, it's measurable, but at a blink, it's fast enough.) Yes, yes, there's a whole bunch of startup costs, made worse by running a mini web server off my local PC, as is common practice for a lot of Java web development. But note the use of three words in close proximity: Java, Web, and XML. 'Nuff said. :)
SCORM just seems over-engineered. But it's by the DoD, and again, that says it all... And I think I can't see straight anymore, at 4 pm.
This would be a good place to thank intrepid users of del.icio.us, the social bookmarking site. Using that, I was able to look for other SCORMers who shared the same bookmarks as me, and find a lot of other interesting stuff that made the research part of the task a lot easier. Social Bookmarking is really underestimated when foraging for information in a hurry!
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Ah, blendy. The summer favorite. It's japanese instant coffee that mixes in cold water and milk. Oddly better than a lot of ice coffee in stores here.
This message was sent from a T-Mobile wireless phone.
Monday, June 19, 2006
I realized that I've lost contact with almost everyone I've ever gone to school with, with the exception of the one I married. (Yes, we met in Grad school, in Albany no less, about 13 years ago.) Over the years and succession of jobs, work buddies, moves, kids, etc, it's hard to put that much time into outside relationships anymore. Kids are a 14 hour/day job, work and school take up a lot of time, and eventually it all comes down to occasional chattering over coffee between outside commitments. I guess that's what getting old is all about. :)
It finally occurred to me yesterday, on Father's Day, how life sometimes just goes full-circle. As if moving back to Albany, getting a PhD in the building next to the one I got my Masters in, seeing former professors, meeting with old friends and colleagues, and even more jarring episodes of deja vu from time to time weren't enough. Now my 3-year-old son is starting to lecture me just like my Dad used to, despite that they've only met once, and were born more than 70 years apart. I should have listened in to that conversation a little more closely. Suddenly, Scott has started lecturing me about my driving, where I park, my music, and damn near everything else I can think of. Maybe some things really do skip generations.
It turns out my allergy attack from last week was just a cold. How do I know this? My wife now has the same symptoms, and she wasn't pulling any pile of mold off the basement floor. It would have helped a little had I not been in denial of having a cold and been a little more careful in not spreading germs around the house. Sorry.
But at least the basement is cleaner, and I'm actually getting more work done. Not having an internet connection on my desktop isn't quite as bad as it sounds, and might even be a good thing, since it reduces any pointless emailing and web surfing I might be tempted to do, and also greatly reduces my virus exposure. All in all, it hardly seems worth all the rewiring I'd have to do to hook up again...
Saturday, June 17, 2006
I'm quickly realizing that I needed my work area in the basement all semester. Bouncing around from place to place with my little laptop is fun, but not for projects that require heavy lifting, like what I'm looking at this summer, between wrapping up my indie study and getting ready for the General Comps.
What to do with all the junk? Can I toss all the notebooks from my specialization, now that the IDS Comps is safely behind me? Sell the books? :) Heh, now I feel like I can just wrap up my secondary, get through the general comps, and then get back to doing what I'm here for, with a two year diversion almost out of the way.
If not for the classes, school would be so much more interesting... I seem to remember my roommate from my freshman year in college saying something like that, but for other reasons.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Tough guy I am, I decided that I didn't need no stinkin' facemask to scrape up a pile of dried mold off the floor, and then to vacuum the rest of it up in the shop vac. Heh. Now, four days later, my sinuses are clear again, I'm no longer coughing, and my eyes don't itch anymore. Yea, not my smartest move in a while.
Another week behind schedule resolving my Incomplete, and no studying for my General Comp exam to take place in 9 more weeks. I'm an idiot.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
But despite the fact that I'm writing stuff that will never again in the history of civilization be read (and I'm referring both to my paper and this blog here), I do it anyway. Why? It's my time, and at least I'll know it was done and I can move on, I guess. The blog does help get the brain moving, and ready to start writing other, less interesting things, not to mention to blow off a little steam. Did I mention how isolating PhD life can become? How about spending all your time working on research that only a handful of people you see are going to understand, and even fewer find interesting, none of them are going to be available to discuss it with you on a daily basis, for bounding ideas, making suggestions, or even focusing on what you might have to say about it.
Let's face it, the dissertation is going to suck. The independent study really was proof of that. Even so, I highly recommend the indie study before starting a dissertation. It's quite the eye opener.
And at the moment, everyone else in the house is fast asleep, at 10:30 pm. Including my cat, which is making a freakishly weird noise as it snores. Once again, break's over, and time to get back to the paper...
Saturday, June 10, 2006
It's been a long day of housework. I'm in the process of going through papers, projects, books, etc, all with the intent of preparing for the General Comprehensive exam in mid-August. There's a lot of leg work left to do, though I'm trying to compile things like reading lists, etc. I'm still going to the study group, though I'm a little wary of falling into a "groupthink" mode, or any of the varying other known failures of the group process. (Given that my secondary specialization is Group Decision Modeling, I might have an idea or two about this.)
Somehow, I'm just not engaging in my independent study the way I would with a normal course. In a way, it's a little disturbing when considering that I plan to start my dissertation in September (though the formal start may be a bit later than that.) After four semesters of classes, three semesters as an adjunct. it's getting hard at times to keep focused. It's the 12 to 16-hour days of kids, classes, work, and homework before having a chance to just sit down and think, if I do at all, before just crashing for the night. No joke that during the semester it takes me all of 30 seconds to fall asleep at night. Now that it takes me more than five minutes, I started to think I had insomnia. :)
Ugh, back to work. My minimum goal is a page a day. No sleep until I write one page, regardless. Blogging doesn't count in that!
Friday, June 09, 2006
One, from my professor. He didn't finish grading about four of the last six papers we turned in (oh, maybe 40 or 50 pages worth), so he gave everyone in the class an incomplete.
The other, from my independent study. It was pretty slow going, and a lot of the material I needed, I didn't get until the semester was almost over and I was working on about 40 or 50 pages worth of papers from another class (see above).
I guess in an ideal world, I would have just finished my independent study on time and put myself closer to some grants, and then just finished my other papers at about the rate that the papers were going to be graded, then everyone would be happy. As opposed to the current situation, where absolutely nobody is happy.
This would be the point where I'd say that I hate school. But that's a little extreme. It's just really annoying, that's all. Hey, at least I passed the IDS Comp, which makes graduation just a little closer than merely knocking off another semester. (I could take courses forever and never graduate.) One more comp, another paper, and a dissertation, and I might really be able to graduate.
But the project is about Open Source software and public transportation customer information systems. The state project looks a little shaky, so I may just be going back to my old Transitcat system after all. Which may be a good thing, since it's a lot of ground already covered that I may yet get to put into use. A prototype dissertation may not be so bad (or so I say now) when the core part of it is already done. At the very least, the parts I've already done will have to be translated into another platform and language, since it's about turining it into an open source project. This might actually be a good thing.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
It reminded me, inadvertently, that as an inane blog, I have yet to talk about my cat here. Then I recalled writing a brief obituary for my former cat, Biggie, who was the mascot of my old website, Transitcat.com. Well, the website has gone the way of Biggie. But it brought me back to school finally to finish doctoral coursework and move on into academia. In some small way, Biggie contributed to that. So did an enormous amount of hard work, self-study, research, support of family, and dreams of my children growing up in academia, but the likeness of that cat adorned the project that inspired my return to school.
I still have another cat. It's grey, and named "Kiki". I really don't have much else to say about it. I can't remember the last time I took a picture of it intentionally. I have kids now. Pets are no longer terribly interesting or useful.
I have a paper to write now, too. That may not be terribly interesting or useful either, but it must be done. Now, apparently. End of Cat Blog Entry...
The group is too large, at a dozen. For me, any group with more than a few members is asking for trouble. I don't want my personal efforts turned into a bureaucratic process. I'm a little more in favor of just getting a few people together, offering up my house for a meeting place, and just working as we need to, without the 15-minute debate on meeting times. All that distracts from the real issue.
The real issue is this: it's a brutal 4-day (read: 80 hours) take-home exam where you aim to write a ballpark figure of 50 pages on 5 questions. Last year, 2 out of 8 people passed it. This year, we have about 15 people going into the exam, everyone hoping to beat the 25% odds of passing. In balance, the group is a great way to share the burden of consolidating at least the tedious tasks of organizing study materials for the 3/4 of courses which didn't just give us a CD of the course ahead of time...
Granted, half of the point of cleaning my basement was to start organizing for the exam ahead of time, getting papers and notes together, debris out of the way, and making a nest I can live in for 80 hours, largely uninterrupted, to crank out the aforementioned 50 pages. I've even stockpiled a few new toys to give to the kids in that time for a little more quiet time. I just have to wire a new phone jack down there and move my DSL / hub into the basement so I can run a couple more machines down there for PDF, search, and other functions. It's going to look like Mission Control by July.
And, oh yes, I have to actually study, too. But that's ok, I really started reviewing half of the material last summer... After all, passing the General Comprehensive Exam is my gateway to Candidacy, where I can at least take on the acronym of ABD, until I get around to cranking out an acceptible 300-page research paper that makes me a PhD. Then I can move to Austin, TX and drive a cab... :)
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Note to self: never fly American Airlines again.
I'm a little surprised at the changes in Albany Airport. I haven't set foot there since 1994, and almost all my air travel since then has originated at Newark. I have to admit it's far easier to drive, park and show up at the baggage gate in Albany than it is to buy a roll of paper towels at Target. Or, I left the house, picked her up with luggage dripping with sake, dispensed of it, wiped down the other contents of the bag, loaded everything into the trunk, arrived home, and unloaded the car, all within the space of an hour.
In NJ, I could drive, park and arrive at the gate in Newark (from Jersey City) in under an hour in the absence of traffic, which occurred between about 10 pm and 6 am...) and the distance was about the same.
Life today is a bit back to normal, though the house is a bit dirty. I didn't do a whole lot of cleaning in the past two weeks, despite that Scott aims no better than any other 3-year-old in the bathroom). Now to catch up on my papers and research projects!
Sunday, June 04, 2006
(Buying a laptop meant that I no longer have to keep my desk clean-- I can just move to another clean area until that too becomes a jumble of papers, books, and M&M wrappers.) To be fair, I also switched to DSL even though there's no phone jack near my old computer, and the wi-fi card I bought just doesn't work down there. So, no internet down there without lots and lots of drilling and running cable. I've located one live phone wire and set up a junction box near it, out of four or five old sets of phone wires that are apparently not live anymore. So the plan is this: to cut the wire, crimp leads onto the wires, hook them to the junction box, and splice another wire off the junction box to my desktop computer, and move the wireless router down there. So far so good, except that I still haven't unpacked any of my electrical / electronics stuff from New Jersey.
Naturally, that has meant over the past week a lot of unpacking the remaining cardboard boxes from the move, throwing out at least four big boxes of crap that I should never have moved up here in the first place. Then I found a whole bunch of mold in one box, which I immediately stuffed in the garage. A little while later, I notice my throat itchy, lungs burning, a little nausea, and some dizziness, right after I read those as symptoms of Mold exposure on the Internet. My self-help cure? Take the kids out to Kurver Kreme for ice cream and let the fresh air and heavy cream settle my system. It seems to have worked, though I think I'll wait a day or two before going back into the basement to find my wire strippers and crimping tools. I think I could find something good enough at Buck-o-rama at Westgate Plaza in the morning, too.
The kids are fine, though it's been a little like Lord of the Flies at times. I set up a couple of play tents in the house, complete with flashlights, toys and books, and they've had some fun. We went to Matt's Dad's church in the morning (he's the minister) for the first time in their lives, and my first non-Christmas, Wedding or Funeral service since 1991 I think. The kids stole the show, in a good way, but that might be a blog for another day.
Saturday, June 03, 2006
The part I focus on is really the chapter regarding child rearing and educational outcomes. Despite my initial take on the findings, that this massive study of the Chicago School District that failed to correlate factors such as hours of TV watched, or number of books owned with educational outcomes is both understandable and troubling at the same time. Yes, fussy parents do not yield differing outcomes from more laid back ones, which my gut instincts back up (or find relief in?).
But it goes to the very heart of my issues with statistics and econometrics, which the authors do not attempt to deny: correlation is not causality. Upper crust economists preface all their findings with that point. The run-of-the-mill researchers do not, nor does the average public, nor at the bottom of the intellectual foodchain do politicians get this.
My years as a database application developer confirmed that data outside of the context of an analytic framework are meaningless, or even counterproductive, as numbers are vetted only to provide support for current biases and suspicions for the people in charge.
Managers and other decision-maker-wannabees demand patch after patch, highly nuanced changes to business rules, report filters, and data entry validation rules without the slightest idea what the overall rules are, or even what the input data really represents. The result is often an undisciplined hodgepodge of exceptions with only a vague conception of system goals.
It's a procedural nightmare when the only real understanding of the actual accounting rules of an organization are a couple of programmers with only a marginal understanding of both code and financial intent. While I'd buy that some accounting irregularities are due to outright white collar fraud, I wouldn't doubt for a second it has a lot more to do with thisw mishmash of duplicate systems, convoluted and confused processing rules, ad hoc procedural changes, and other kinds of ill-conceived changes. I've lived through a few ERP and Human Resource IS installations, and there's always a phase of shock and revulsion when management "discovers" their custom tweaks and how they impact the system. (Let's not get into accountability-- or scapegoating-- here.)
What's the point of all this? If you implement something you haven't really thought through, you'll live to regret it. You can't hide behind the excuse of just doing what you're told to do. Unless you have signed orders with clearly stated sanctions (which will absolutely never happen in business), you're ultimately acting on your own free will. So whether you act on the data at hand without question is up to you, and part of the responsibility of the outcome rests with you too.
Back to Freakonomics, you can just act on the suggestions of these analyses without question, and blame the outcome on bad data from the book. You can reject it outright, and just do whatever you think is best. Or, you can question "established" wisdom and your own beliefs in an attempt to find "truth". But the answers to life don't come from a regression analysis, no matter how clever. The fact that, in general, kids who are read to at night do just as well in Chicago schools as kids who are not, does not mean that you don't need to read to your own kids; whatever the independent variable under study (presumably exam scores), life is more than a single digit outcome. Scoring well on standardized exams doesn't necessarily predict intelligence, happiness, good citizenship, or any other kind of future success in life.
And, by the way, I'd trust a System Dynamics causal model a lot more than an econometric study of a social policy issue, but that's a whole 'nother story. Econometrics isn't even that good at economic forecasts.
Thursday, June 01, 2006
First thing this morning, I received news that I passed one of my 3 comprehensive exams, the IDS Comprehensive Exam.
Next thing I know, I receive an email that my trip is cancelled. Two days ago, I was asked by a professor to sit in on a conference in Milan and present his paper for him. But, once I saw how much a last-minute plane ticket to Europe cost, I had to ask for an advance on the fare. But, just as well, my wife will be back from Japan in a few days, and I would have had to leave about 12 hours after her return, so not necessarily bad luck.
But now the building I'm working in is shaking like crazy. It's a little unnerving, even though there are at least 3 big construction projects within 100 yards of here. At first we all thought it was an earthquake, but more likely the pile driver across the street. Hard to believe I was involved with construction back in the day.
The important part: I passed the IDS Comp!
Thank God for labor unions. They must be on break. The building stopped vibrating at 3:00 pm, almost to the second.
Did I mention that I passed the IDS Comp?