Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for June 28th, 2008

BLU > MUTO

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Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 3:53 pm

Posted in Daily life

Taking notes on-line

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The Wife often attends meetings where she finds herself taking notes on-line. I don’t think she yet knows about this cool wiki, specifically designed for that purpose. Looks pretty cool to me. Have any of you used it?

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 1:46 pm

When the birthrate declines

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Interesting long article by Russell Shorto on the effects of a declining birthrate. The replacement fertility rate in industrialized countries (which have relatively low infant mortality) is 2.1 births per woman—in developing countries it might be 2.5-3.3 (see this Wikipedia article). In 1999 the fertility rate in the US was 2.0, but declines were offset by immigration—and immigrant families tend to have more children, at least in the first generation. In the second generation, the fertility rate drops sharply. Here’s a list of fertility rates by country. Those below 2.1 will decline in population unless they embrace immigration, a tough topic in some countries. The article at the first link begins:

It was a spectacular late-May afternoon in southern Italy, but the streets of Laviano — a gloriously situated hamlet ranged across a few folds in the mountains of the Campania region — were deserted. There were no day-trippers from Naples, no tourists to take in the views up the steep slopes, the olive trees on terraces, the ruins of the 11th-century fortress with wild poppies spotting its grassy flanks like flecks of blood. And there were no locals in sight either. The town has housing enough to support a population of 3,000, but fewer than 1,600 live here, and every year the number drops. Rocco Falivena, Laviano’s 56-year-old mayor, strolled down the middle of the street, outlining for me the town’s demographics and explaining why, although the place is more than a thousand years old, its buildings all look so new. In 1980 an earthquake struck, taking out nearly every structure and killing 300 people, including Falivena’s own parents. Then from tragedy arose the scent of possibility, of a future. Money came from the national government in Rome, and from former residents who had emigrated to the U.S. and elsewhere. The locals found jobs rebuilding their town. But when the construction ended, so did the work, and the exodus of residents continued as before.

When Falivena took office in 2002 for his second stint as mayor, two numbers caught his attention. Four: that was how many babies were born in the town the year before. And five: the number of children enrolled in first grade at the school, never mind that the school served two additional communities as well. “I knew what was my first job, to try to save the school,” Falivena told me. “Because a village that does not have a school is a dead village.” He racked his brain and came up with a desperate idea: pay women to have babies. And not just a token amount, either; in 2003 Falivena let it be known he would pay 10,000 euros (about $15,000) for every woman — local or immigrant, married or single — who would give birth to and rear a child in the village. The “baby bonus,” as he calls it, is structured to root new citizens in the town: a mother gets 1,500 euros when her baby is born, then a 1,500-euro payment on each of the child’s first four birthdays and a final 2,500 euros the day the child enrolls in first grade. Falivena has a publicist’s instincts, and he said he hoped the plan would attract media attention. It did, generating news across Italy and as far away as Australia.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Daily life

Must-have Firefox 3 extensions

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A very useful compilation. Check it out.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 11:47 am

Posted in Firefox, Software

Examination of procrastination

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One of the best books on software engineering that I’ve read is Principles of Software Engineering Management, by Tom Gilb. (Secondhand copies at the link from $3 up.) His most important principle: “Early!” For example, when you get a six-month assignment, sit down at once and start—do as much as you can that very day.

Of course the same idea has been told to me since… well, all my life, I suspect. But somehow Gilb’s single-word injunction really made a mark. Ever since, I have always started any assignment/project the day I received/conceived it. Generally I start with a free-associative list in an outliner, moving the entries around as I made them so that they are in an order and hierarchy that makes sense. This structure not only creates an implicit plan, it also breaks the task down into smaller chunks, and I keep at it until I get something that I can complete that very day. That breaking of the ice provides enough momentum so that I can usually do something each day, always making at least a small amount of progress.

The result is that normally I complete the task or project well before the deadline. I do not, of course, submit it at that point—for one thing, I would immediately be assigned another task/project and the speed expectations would be higher. I prefer to sleep on the completed effort for a day or two, and then look at it again. I generally find that it does indeed require more work—sometimes just polish, sometimes (as I look at it with a rested and critical eye) a substantial reworking. But I have time for that, and I have a better understanding of the whole thing, having done it once. This second (and third) look is vital.

If you’re a programmer, you may have occasionally had to improve the speed/size of your own or another’s code. As you look at it, you normally can find substantial improvements—the largest improvements generally not from small incremental improvements but by reconceiving the whole task and finding another approach that makes a quantum leap in efficiency.

Reflect that the improvement you found was available all the time, even at the time the original code was written. The original programmer—perhaps you—just stopped short. S/he was prematurely satisfied with the mere completion of the task and did not take the time to sleep on it and re-examine the premises and the implementation with a critical and imaginative eye. Indeed, unless they obeyed the Supreme Directive (“Early!“), they may not have had time to rethink their approach—they may have been in a race to completion by the deadline.

“Early!” Remember that.

Another principle, one that I discovered for myself when I first started programming in Forth: “Hindsight is your most powerful tool. Use it early and often.” By that I mean that after you finish a module or (in Forth) a word, look at with the benefit of the hindsight you have after writing it and sleeping on it. (You need a little distance to exercise hindsight—if you look at it immediately after finishing it, you’re still mired in your initial mindset.) After a day or two, look at it and think about it critically. Is it really as good as it should be? As clear, as tight, as easy to verify? Use your hindsight.

And as you compile those submodules/words into bigger entities, use hindsight again—repeatedly, at a higher level. By second-guessing yourself, by doing your own Monday-morning quarterbacking on your own work, what you produce will be stronger and better overall. Being able to achieve this benefit, of course, depends on “Early!”

And, BTW, I just went through this very post again—after a brief wait to provide a hindsight distance—and made several fixes.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 11:46 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Cool house

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Take a look. Photos at the link, with description that begins:

Moto Designshop recently finished schematics for this beautiful modern residence situated on Pine street in Philadelphia. The Grid House packs a highly efficient floorplan into tight quarters, maximizing daylighting and ventilation via an abundance of open green spaces. The entire front and back façades open to infuse interior spaces with fresh air while the home’s flowing floor plan ensures a seamless transition between rooms. An elevated front garden preserves the residence’s interaction with the street while concealing an underground garage.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 10:58 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

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CCTV provides surveillance, not safety

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Britain is heavily under surveillance, with CCTV cameras everyone—very like in the novel 1984, in fact. But although the operators of the cameras enjoy ogling women and prying into private lives, the cameras do nothing for safety. Bruce Schneier explains in the Guardian:

Pervasive security cameras don’t substantially reduce crime. There are exceptions, of course, and that’s what gets the press. Most famously, CCTV cameras helped catch James Bulger’s murderers in 1993. And earlier this year, they helped convict Steve Wright of murdering five women in the Ipswich area. But these are the well-publicised exceptions. Overall, CCTV cameras aren’t very effective.

This fact has been demonstrated again and again: by a comprehensive study for the Home Office in 2005, by several studies in the US, and again with new data announced last month by New Scotland Yard. They actually solve very few crimes, and their deterrent effect is minimal.

Conventional wisdom predicts the opposite. But if that were true, then camera-happy London, with something like 500,000, would be the safest city on the planet. It isn’t, of course, because of technological limitations of cameras, organisational limitations of police and the adaptive abilities of criminals. …

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 10:55 am

A test for Parkinson’s disease

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Parkinson’s disease is normally “diagnosed” by ruling out other possibilities—if nothing else is possible, it’s probably Parkinson’s. That may change:

A “metabolomic” profile of 1,860 molecules in the blood identifies people with Parkinson’s disease.

With further refinement and validation, the technique could become the first test for Parkinson’s disease. That would be a big boost for doctors, who need a test to diagnose and track the progression of this neurodegenerative disease.

A definitive test would also help researchers looking for Parkinson’s treatments. Currently, clinical trials of promising treatments are confounded by uncertainty as to whether all the patients actually have Parkinson’s.

“Metabolomics” is the study of molecules thrown off by the body’s many metabolic processes. The idea is that specific diseases cause typical changes in the body — and have a unique metabolomic profile, suggests study researcher M. Flint Beal, MD, chairman and professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

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Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 10:52 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Science

10,014th post

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I was all set to do a commemorative post, but just like the guy distracted by birds as he waited the lasts few miles to see the odometer turn over to 100,000, I blew right past post 10,000 in yesterday’s blogging. The first entry in this blog was 6/7/2006. So: 10,000 posts in 2 years 20 days = 13.3 posts/day, on average. Assuming 10% are interesting (Theodore Sturgeon’s rule, when told that 90% of science fiction was crap: “90% of everything is crap”), that’s 1.3/day worth reading. Not bad.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 10:19 am

Posted in Daily life

Old Albanian custom: women becoming men

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It’s fading nowadays, as Dan Bilefsky explains in the NY Times:

Pashe Keqi recalled the day nearly 60 years ago when she decided to become a man. She chopped off her long black curls, traded in her dress for her father’s baggy trousers, armed herself with a hunting rifle and vowed to forsake marriage, children and sex.

For centuries, in the closed-off and conservative society of rural northern Albania, swapping genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men. Her father was killed in a blood feud, and there was no male heir. By custom, Ms. Keqi, now 78, took a vow of lifetime virginity. She lived as a man, the new patriarch, with all the swagger and trappings of male authority — including the obligation to avenge her father’s death.

She says she would not do it today, now that sexual equality and modernity have come even to Albania, with Internet dating and MTV invading after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Girls here do not want to be boys anymore. With only Ms. Keqi and some 40 others remaining, the sworn virgin is dying off.

“Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing,” said Ms. Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of raki. “Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.”

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Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 9:39 am

Posted in Daily life

The Last Supper, by Charles McCarry

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I just finished the next in the series. I had started this novel some time back, and it was what made me decide to read all of McCarry’s Paul Christopher novels in order. So the beginning I knew, but the novel (which in a way is the sequel to The Tears of Autumn) was mostly new to me. It’s a complex story, in many parts, and it’s a mystery that you don’t realize is a mystery until most of the way through. Extremely good, as seems to be McCarry’s pattern.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 9:15 am

Posted in Books

Death of a President

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The mock documentary is now a well-established genre. It seems almost always to be used for comedy, but Death of a President is quite an amazing film that uses the form to explore the likely aftereffects of a presidential assassination. Extremely well done—you have to see it to see what I mean—and the aftershocks ring true. Well worth renting.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 9:12 am

Posted in Movies & TV

Yardley shaving soap

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Another vintage shaving soap, Yardley has a gentle lavender fragrance and once was a famous brand. It’s a London brand and a fine triple-milled soap that this morning produced an excellent lather with the Simpsons Emperor 3 Super, still a favorite brush. The Merkur Futur with a Black Beauty blade of some uses produced a smooth shave and Gentlemens Refinery shaving oil was very nice for the polishing pass. Parfums de Nicolaï New York aftershave—I suppose this also counts as vintage, since the aftershave is no longer made.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2008 at 9:08 am

Posted in Shaving

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