September 23, 2009

Best Spam I've Gotten This Year

I got some spam this morning that was non-offensive. It was such a refreshing change from usual spam that I thought I would share it.

From: Mr. Dany

Hi Sir,
How are you.
I make a new bollywood movie and I want a actor. If r u interested please reply me immediately.


I don't want to encourage spammers, but I would love to write this back:

To: Mr. Dany

Hi Sir, right back at you!
I am fine. How are you?
I would love to be in a new Bollywood movie! However, I am a little busy at the moment with school and work. Also, I am nowhere near India, so commuting might be a problem. Other than that, I am pretty keen and so I would wonder if it's OK if I get back to you on this after June of 2013?

Warmest regards,

Posted by James at 12:24 PM | Comments (4)

September 17, 2009

Late Merge Studies Indicate It Is Faster and Safer

When you are driving on a highway and your lane is closing, do you merge as soon as you see the signs or do you wait until the last second to merge?

It turns out that this is a very contentious question with strong feelings attached. When I brought it up the last time on my blog over 2 years ago I found that while I believe that it is more efficient to merge at the last second (in a zipper fashion with each lane taking turns) close friends of mine had contempt for late merge behavior. Unfortunately for them, I did not find early-merge arguments convincing. While I completely understood that perception of late merge behavior was at the least, a black mark against it, I am one who has trouble letting go of a better solution just because other people are not convinced.

Yeah, these things stay on my mind for a long time.

The issue came up on Reddit today. it prompted me to read some responses and I was happy to see some of my same arguments used. But there were also references to scientific studies done, so I tried to look some of those up for you. Here's some info I encountered, for you to read or ignore at your pleasure:

  • Here is the Reddit thread where you can see people mentioning that late merging eases a backup by making more use of the roadway. It appears that in light traffic it doesn't matter when people merge, but in heavy traffic, late merging is better.
    • The rules in Germany are cited: "Heavy traffic rules: Whenever traffic is heavily congested, normal right-of-way rules go out the window and the "zipper rule" (Reißverschluß) goes into effect. This means that cars feed one at a time alternating from each direction, regardless of who has the posted right-of-way. The "zipper rule" also applies when one lane ends and merges into another. Each vehicle in the through lane must allow one vehicle from the truncated lane to merge in." (The zipper rule occurs at the point of forced merge.)
  • Systems have been adopted in Minnesota and other states to referee the zipper system. [PDF] Based on what they refer to as traffic science, late merging is recognized as better, and so they are attempting to train people to expect late merge behavior and to make it even more efficient.
    • "When traffic is heavy and slow, it is actually much safer for motorists to remain in their current lane until the point where traffic can orderly take turns merging which is generally near the "MERGE" sign. Unfortunately, while the safer procedure is legal, it is not what has been taught."
  • This columnist at the Oregonian found people reacted quite violently to his suggestion that traffic science supported late merging. "I hope you die"
  • If you're so inclined, here is a research study on the development of a system to take advantage of the benefits of late merging. [.DOC format] It's got references to support a number of claims about late merging (known as "static late merge":
    • increases work zone throughput
    • decreases travel time
    • reduces road congestion
    • reduces queue length
    • decreases potential of rear-end collision
    • decreases lane-straddle conflicts

Perhaps this will convince nobody and states will have to continue to think up ways to force people to merge at the last second. In the meantime, at least I've got science on my side while the early merge folks are cursing at me. But instead of cursing, why not consider just staying in your lane and merging at the last moment, like a zipper? I promise to alternate and let you in if you're next to me.

(I will be happy to browse any research that supports early merging. I would like to know the rationale behind any such research.)

Posted by James at 7:23 PM | Comments (2)

The Perfect Enemy

It is said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. That's a lesson that many perfectionists have a problem internalizing.

One of the hallmarks of perfectionism is low productivity; a perfectionist is often someone who has trouble starting projects, works hard and then doesn't get much done in the end. How can someone work so hard and have low productivity? Because they're not happy with the work that they're producing.

I don't think I'm a perfectionist, but this brief blog post on the Harvard Business Publishing website offered some solutions for perfectionists. these points made me realize that I fall into some of the same traps. And since some people I know have complained about perfectionist tendencies, I thought I'd bring this to their attention.

Some important points from that post:

  • Folks who undervalue their expertise have trouble starting projects.
  • The same folks have trouble finishing projects when they transfer the feelings of inferiority to their product.
  • Just get started (it's better to produce something and overcome inertia)
  • Do what feels right to you (help yourself avoid being sabotaged by the real or imagined criticism of others)
  • Choose your colleagues wisely (you want encouraging and honest feedback, even when it is critical. Jealousy, insecurity and arrogance from your trusted colleagues, or your boss, are dangerous to your success)

Two big ideas that resonated with me:

The world doesn't reward perfection; it rewards productivity.

This is a huge idea. The perfectionist will respond: "yeah, but who wants to produce a whole bunch of crap?" or "Who will want the whole bunch of crap I produce if I lower my standards?" This is where you have to rely on others to support you and trust them to tell you when your stuff is crap. If you write 4 novels and one of them is crap, then you have 3 good novels.

This idea is built into Agile programming methods which strive to get programmers producing solutions to problems and avoid them getting mired in perfectionist traps, or adopting super-rigorous approaches that set the bar far too high for anyone to get anything done.

Catch someone doing seven things right before you point out one thing they're doing wrong.

This advice is for managers. I've seen it happen before: managers can sap the life and confidence right out of a worker. There is nothing more sad than someone who is working hard and producing to get the wrong kind of feedback and have the rug pulled out from under them. Yes, workers need to be managed and corrected, but worker enthusiasm is like the goose that laid the golden egg. Kill that goose and suddenly you're out of a renewable resource that is vital to the productive workplace.

Unfortunately, not everyone can choose his boss, so workers whose managers have not learned this lesson are the ones who really need some good advice. The only thing I can tell you, from previous experience, is that if you're not getting support from your manager, build your own resolve and confidence by banning closer together with friends and coworkers. Don't avoid criticism, but seek out the most constructive criticism.

Posted by James at 9:31 AM | Comments (1)

September 14, 2009


A coworker was telling me that it creeps her out when some random stranger tells her to smile. I've never had this happen to me, but I have had other women tell me that it happens to them, and that they don't really enjoy being told that. I don't blame them. It's somewhat intrusive. Telling someone to smile is not the same as trying to do something for someone to make them smile. There are often legitimate reasons for not smiling, and I think people should be allowed to express whatever emotion they're feeling, not what emotion those around them would rather see.

This may not be the most civil suggestion, but I offer the following:

The next time some random stranger tells you to smile, you could punch him in the nose and then say:

"The next time you see me, you're not going to say 'smile,' you're going to say 'don't punch me in the nose.' And then I might smile."

As always, let your own conscience guide you.

Posted by James at 2:23 PM | Comments (4)

September 12, 2009

Zotero Tips

I found this post on Zotero tips on another blog and thought it might be of interest to my researching colleagues:

12 must know Zotero tips and techniques

Some of the tips are probably already familiar to you, but one in particular was completely new to me: Zotero can index your PDFs and make your whole library searchable. (Tip #4)

Have Zotero index your PDFs
Zotero can index your PDF attachments and make them fully searchable, turning your library from a mere linked catalogue into a Google Books of sorts. The option is turned off by default because it relies on an external open source program (pdf2txt) which is not distributed with Zotero. However, Zotero can automatically install it and enable fulltext indexing: simply go to Preferences > Search and click on the 'Check for installer' button. For more info see pdf fulltext indexing in the Zotero documentation.

Thank you, Mark at The Ideophone, for that tip.

He also suggests a saved search to keep track of recent additions. I just sort the references by Date Added. But having a "new" group folder for papers that need to be read or have their metadata cleaned up ("ingested", in his parlance) is a great idea. It's like a reference to-do list.

Check it out.

(Zotero is a tool for keeping track of research papers.)

(Crossposted toIndentured Academitude)

Posted by James at 10:40 AM | Comments (0)

When Children Ask the Hard Questions

Kids come up with questions you can't answer as a parent. You can try to be prepared, but you're going to get those tough questions, and often there really isn't an easy answer. Or the real answer is too complex for them.

For example, my daughter just asked us:

"Why did they cancel Arrested Development when the third season won an Emmy?"

Sometimes it's tough being a parent.

Posted by James at 8:45 AM | Comments (3)

September 11, 2009

Diacritical Marks and Windows

For years I've been using Windows and thinking you couldn't type diacriticals with an English keyboard.

When I needed a word with an accented character, I would copy and paste it from a web page. For instance, if I was writing about chouriço, I would just copy the word from the Wikipedia page. People told me there were alt-code sequences that would generate the characters, but who is going to memorize all those character codes?

Previous searches for a better way failed me. It remained one of the few things I still missed about the MacOS from back when I was a Mac-only user.

Turns out there is a much better way! Windows (XP, Vista and 7) support an international English keyboard that allows you to simply type the characters you want with easy-to remember combinations similar to the way the MacOS has always done it.

This page will tell you how to install the United States-International keyboard.

This page explains the key combinations for the diacriticals.

If you don't like keeping the international keyboard active all the time, it's one click to switch back and forth at will. Awesome!

Here's an excerpt on how to install this keyboard driver in Windows XP:

  1. Click Start, type intl.cpl in the Run box, and then press ENTER.
  2. On the Languages tab, click Details.
  3. Under Installed services, click Add.
  4. In the Input language list, click the language that you want. For example, English (United States).
  5. In the Keyboard layout/IME list, click United States-International, and then click OK.
  6. In the Select one of the installed input languages to use when you start your computer list, click Language name - United States-International (where Language name is the language that you selected in step 6), and then click OK.
  7. In the Regional and Language Options dialog box, click OK.

    Notice that the Language bar appears on the taskbar. When you position the mouse pointer over it, a ToolTip appears that describes the active keyboard layout. For example, United States-International appears.
  8. Click the Language bar, and then click United States-International on the shortcut menu that appears.

    The United States-International keyboard layout is selected.

Once you've got the international keyboard activated, hit ' for an accent, followed by the desired letter to get your accented letter. For example ' + a = á. ` + a = à.

The c cedilla is a little more complicated. Ctrl-Alt , = ç

All the combinations are listed here.

This is the best thing I've learned all day.

Posted by James at 1:23 PM | Comments (7)

September 7, 2009

This Labor Day

Nazis are the preferred group of comparison for your political opponents. It is a cheap shot to just call one's opponent Nazis. And it hurts efforts to learn from the horrible period of time when Nazism had taken hold in the world.

But it is important to remember actual lessons from that time.

One such lesson overlaps with the point of Labor Day, a day we consider the good that the labor movement has done for us and our fellow citizens. Where is the overlap?

You may have heard of a poem by the Pastor Martin Niemöller about his experiences when he and others did not speak out in defense of groups as the Nazis ratcheted up their rhetoric, political attacks, scapegoating and ultimately atrocities. The poem varied over time, and other people have changed it to suit their liking, but this version is considered to accurately reflect his insistence that certain groups be included, even though no definitive written record exists.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

-- Pastor Martin Niemöller

I do not feel we're in imminent danger of anything like an American Nazi party. We do not have Nazis hiding among us. Instead we have people with recognizable drums to bang on that we have heard before in history.

I do think that political discourse is in danger of being hijacked by a sensationalist, hyperventilating, anti-intellectual, loud minority. I think they are easily convinced to scapegoat groups that, not coincidentally, distribute power away from the consolidating effect of corporate profits. I believe there are people who hope to ride that wave to political and media success regardless of the cost to the national interest. And I believe that the antidote to this, even though there is a lot of lung capacity and money backing the mob mentality, is to let them have all the freedom of speech that they are entitled to. And then it is up to the rest of us to look at them and call them out.

Someone has draw a line and say "Have you left no sense of decency, sir?"

To those who thrive off attacking unions, bandying about the term "socialist," and worrying about Obama's birth certificate and whether his "stay in school" message will indoctrinate children into ideologies, I further quote Mr. Joseph Welch:

Senator, I think it hurts you, too, sir.

Posted by James at 7:39 PM | Comments (1)

The Gang

The gang

These are the gang who hang around my desk. Many of you can probably name them all.

Posted by James at 1:16 AM | Comments (5)

September 6, 2009

Comments on a Reference to Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

I came across a reference to Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences yesterday and it reminded me that I am wading into a world with many theories and beliefs, some based in empiricism and some less so. And also of my ignorance. Opinions about education are everyone's right, but in research, theories need to be about a lot more than opinion.

The article is in support of viewing the President's upcoming televised message to students on the occasion of their return to school, September 7, 2009. The passage comes as the author makes a point about why President Obama's history gives him a unique perspective and credibility on the subject of personal advancement:

"He rose to the presidency because he can THINK. He is a reader, a writer, an orator, a lover of art and music and people. He is a leader. Spiritual. Self disciplined and self made. He is the embodiment of Gardner's Multiple Intelligences." (Riley, 2004)

In my quick review of MI (Multiple Intelligence) theory, I do not think that this reference makes sense.

In a Scientific American article which Gardner later updated, Gardner (1998/2004) makes his case in opposition to familiar intelligence tests which force students to do unusual and difficult tasks for the purpose of determining an IQ or "g" - a measure of general intelligence.

In contrast, Gardner believes that there are multiple forms of intelligence (eight in all) and that even if we had no tests for g, we would recognize these intelligences in the activities of students. His interest was also to work cultural context into the understanding of intelligence as can be seen in his definition: "an intelligence is a psychobiological potential to process information so as to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in at least one cultural context" (Gardner, 1998/2004, p.3)

Gardner's initial insights came from his work with children with certain exceptional abilities and people with neurological damage who had left some abilities in place but others intact. He refers to people with scattered profiles of strengths and weaknesses.

My biggest question for Gardner's MI is why a new definition of intelligence is necessary,especially if there are correlations among some of the intelligences he identifies. Might a theory of manifestations of intelligence suffice, which would preserve the possibility that there is a general intelligence that boosts many abilities? And, if so, that general intelligence might be somewhat useful and predictive? My observations of classrooms tell me that students can employ different abilities in the cause of learning, as when social interaction in the classroom turns toward debating mathematical concepts. But is that ability itself an intelligence?

I'll have to read a lot more to answer my questions, and it was not my intention to pronounce judgment on Gardner's theory.

Defenses of Gardner's theory refer to how teachers have adopted the notion, but also how it has not always been translated into practice in an accurate or useful way. (Kornhaber, 2004, pp.4-5) Out in practice, theories can lose coherence and teachers can adopt the language to represent their own ideas.

In the Riley's quote above, he is referring to Obama's many talents. If we assume this has some relationship to Gardner's Multiple Intelligence, it's not clear to me whether he is considering these talents to be innate intelligences which Obama used to succeed or whether he is saying that Obama has worked hard to somehow increase his own intelligences.

The best embodiment of a theory of MI would be a person who is able to excel in one or two areas because that is where his intelligences lie. He may or may not be a good example of a successful student, but he would exemplify a separation of intelligences. This meshes with Gardner's "scattered profiles."

A person with success and accomplishments in many areas would embody a theory of general intelligence; coupled with varied interests and hard work, he was able to apply his intelligence in many areas and excel.

Of course, Obama's success is not meant to embody anything, and his specific case supports no theory. MI theory doesn't rule out a person being gifted in many areas.

I wonder, though, whether Riley is only concerned with the cultural context of Gardner's ideas: that intelligence's wider definition should reflect skills that are valued in society. If this is the case, Riley may not be saying that Obama's success tells us anything about the theory of MI, but rather that Obama's attributes happen to be a laundry list of Gardner's intelligences.

This may be a result of my imperfect understanding of Gardner's intelligences, but for such a theory to be useful I imagine that it would have to embrace a notion of the stability of intelligence(s) over time. In other words, Obama earned his success and his expertise, but did not earn his intelligence(s). Calling Obama the embodiment of multiple intelligences implies that he has these intelligences at his disposal, drawing attention away from the message of hard work.

If we are teaching school children to strive and work hard, to make sacrifices and to be persistent in trying to reach their goals, I think it's better to relate the challenges a successful person faced rather than the advantages he started out with.

Gardner, H. (1998/2004). A Multiplicity of Intelligences: In tribute to Professor Luigi Vignolo. Retrieved September 6, 2009, from

Kornhaber, M. (2004, August 15). Psychometric Superiority? Check the Facts - Again. Retrieved from

Riley, K. (2009, September 5). WHY PRESIDENT OBAMA WILL BE OUR GUEST SPEAKER AT EL MILAGRO. El Milagro Weblog. Weblog, . Retrieved September 6, 2009, from

Questions resulting from reading Gardner (1998/2004)

  • Gardner describes g (general intelligence) as "difficult to change." (p.1) Is this intended to contrast it with his own view of intelligence, meaning that the individual's multiple intelligences are subject to change over time?
  • How do we distinguish intelligence from specific aptitude and ability?
  • If MI theory acknowledges that there may be correlations among different intelligences, why should it not be a theory of the application of general intelligence to multiple abilities rather than a splitting of the concept of intelligence.
  • Gardner states intelligence shouldn't be conflated with creativity, wisdom or morality. Why the distinction? Is musical creativity not part of Gardrner's musical intelligence? In what way should wisdom be distinct from intelligence? Why is morality exempt?

Note: crossposted to Indentured Academitude

Posted by James at 4:28 PM | Comments (0)

September 5, 2009

Books Loophole?

I had come to the conclusion that I had too many books and was not spending enough time reading them. So I decided to slow way down on buying books and asking for books as gifts, essentially placing a moratorium on my own book-buying.

Then I returned to school. And I am buying a ton of great books.

I wonder if this school thing is, in part, an effort to get around my moratorium on a technicality.

Posted by James at 4:02 PM | Comments (2)

September 4, 2009

Unexpected Shotgun

Posted by James at 6:46 AM | Comments (0)

September 1, 2009

The Future

Hey folks.

Tomorrow is my first day of class in my new endeavor; I am studying toward a Ph.D. in Mathematics Education. It feels odd, but I am officially a college student again, and it is my first time in a graduate program.

The purpose of a Ph.D. program is to study toward mastery of a subject and then to add to the body of knowledge on that subject through your own research -- to become a "steward of the discipline." The specific purpose of the program I'm in can be found here.

It's an exciting change, and I'm eager to begin.

Part of the process is an immersion in the subject matter. Browse the program structure, particularly the plans for years 3 and 4, and you will see that I have made a crazy serious commitment by starting this process. I am excited that I have gotten accepted to this program, but the truth is that I am going to have to prove I am up to this challenge through hard work that intensifies with each passing year.

And this is where we come to this blog. Obviously, my posting here has dropped off lately. My brain is going to be full of readings related to mathematical thinking and learning. And my time will be taken up with reading, understanding, absorbing and then synthesizing and writing.

The original purpose of this blog was to post stories and links and stay connected with Friends near and far. later, I felt the urge to write more extended commentary, host small games and other goofy fun. Nowadays, I do most of that sort of communication on Facebook, where I'm talking directly to friends and family rather than the whole world (who are largely not interested in me). For more instantaneous stuff, there is also Twitter.

I still have a need for this blog, so it is not going anywhere. But I wanted to tell you, the remaining reader (if you exist) that whereas this blog used to be the absolute hub of my communications, it is now only one contributor. And even this blog's content gets funneled automatically into Facebook.

I have found in the past that I cannot predict when I will have the urge to post to the blog. Sometimes it becomes very strong right after I say I am not going to be posting. But this time I simply may not be able to afford the time to post, and/or what is on my mind might be of very limited interest.

In any case, if you are my friend and wish to connect on Facebook, I am

Thanks, as always, for sticking around!

Posted by James at 8:22 AM | Comments (9)