Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Acquiring proficiencies by oscilating centralization

I still have to work on the title but it goes something like that. It is about the way I learn, and probably most other too. It applies to getting good at complex tasks. Say driving, relationships, or brushing your teeth. Any task could be seen as complex, I guess. It doesn't work much for achiving perfection, but rather proficency (or the hyperbole of proficency).

Oscilationg centralization means to swing back and forth between centralization and decentralization. How does that apply to learning.. Ummm.

Say the first part to getting good at something is to do it the first time, by any means necessary. If you need to get from A to Z, at this point the important part is getting to Z, not that it took you 56 steps or that you happened to pass by R eight times.

Now consider that you have just done this for the first time and it took you 56 steps. Now you are asked to race against others to get from A to Z. What are you going to do? Probably the same 56 steps, only faster. That is the centralized effort. Centralized in the sense that all of you is centered on this one problem.

If you only attack this problem with a centralized effort the algorithm probably won't get much below 56 steps, which is why you need the decentralized effort.

The decentralized effort is not simply to be dealing with more than one problem, but when different parts of you are dealing with their own problems. Sleep is the ultimate in personal decentralization which is why we get tripped out imagery and thoughts we normally don't. As the different centers do their own thing and communicate casually with each other new elements connect that perhaps never have before. Like, say, microwaves and cooking.

So as part of you is working on this problem you have solved before, though crudely, parts of you are solving other problems and your mind may wander. As this happens interconnections do their thing and you get ideas about how to go about the problem differently. You will get lots of ideas, some bad ones, but some fraction greater than zero will help make the solution easier.

So then perhaps you ween your A to Z task down to 40 steps. Sounds good. Time to test it. How? Centralized effort. You do the same 40 steps faster. The new algorithm may have fewer steps, but some or all of the steps may be harder or cause unanticipated bottle necks and such. Good thing you tested it.

Now you will have new information to use when you return to your decentralized effort. But what if you stay decentralized? Wouldn't you get more and more ideas? Yes, but.

Decentralization is a safehouse free of judgement so that ideas can be generated. Centralization is the reality check so that you know which ideas are worth keeping. It is important to do this periodically so that you know what you need ideas about, ie which parts of the algorithm are tripping you up.

Visualization can play a big role in both identifying problem areas and dismissing bad ideas, thus eliminating a lot of testing, but not all of it. Reality always has surprises for us.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

In love with my potential

I've put a fair bit of attention lately into blogging. Researching hacks and fixes; cutting, pasting, writing code; planning, preparing, writing material.

In my labours I found out something. Not something shocking. Or even counter-intuitive for that matter. (But it is always good to work with empirical data.) I found that the successful blogs, those that were consumed and internalized, offered a service and were usually part of a community. I know, shocking, eh?

But slightly, only slightly, more shocking was that I found I had not raised myself to be someone who could offer a service in a community. And I think I would like to be such a person.

To offer a service you need to merge your identity and your work. I've never done this. To date asking me what I did for work was always a bad way to get to know me. It's been difficult to commit to a field, or a line, or even a job.

I hated specialization. Still do to some degree, but that is the transition. I've been in love with my potential like the miser who hoards his money dreaming of what he could do with it though never spending a penny.

In the reserves most most of the members at my level have pictures of them in uniform floating about. They post their rank tell the stories. I tend not to do that. To know I am in the reserves you would have to see the pile of gear in my basement or follow me around on a Thurday night. It feels like a small part of who I am. It's going to stay that way.

The other project I am working on could very well define me. I'm due to graduate from college in a few months. I can see myself being an administrative assistant, as opposed to doing the job of an administrative assistant. I can even thing of a few things I would like to do to encourage it. Maybe there is some work to be done before that happens...

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Raven

The Raven
By Edgar Allan Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'T is some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door--
                               Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow:--vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow--sorrow for the lost Lenore--
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore--
                               Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'T is some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;--
                               This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"--here I opened wide the door;--
                               Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
                               Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping, somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore--
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;--
                               'T is the wind and nothing more!"

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door--
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door--
                               Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore,--
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
                               Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning--little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door--
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
                               With such name as "Nevermore."

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered--not a feather then he fluttered--
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "Other friends have flown before--
On the morrow _he_ will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
                               Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore--
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
                               Of 'Never--nevermore.'"

But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore--
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
                               Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er
                               _She_ shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee--by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite--respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!"
                               Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!--prophet still, if bird or devil!--
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted--
On this home by Horror haunted--tell me truly, I implore--
Is there--_is_ there balm in Gilead?--tell me--tell me, I implore!"
                               Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil--prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above, us--by that God we both adore--
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore--
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
                               Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting--
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!--quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
                               Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                               Shall be lifted--nevermore!

Project Gutenberg

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

One Laptop per Child Foundation hands out first laptops

This week the One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) realized its mission. The foundation handed out about one hundred laptops to the children of Nigeria.

To put this milestone into perspective those are one hundred out of several million that will be delivered over the life of the project. Amazing though it may be it still taps only a small fraction of the awe-factor of the project.

These are no ordinary laptops. They are engineered to a staggering sophistication with the soul mission of educating the world's poorest children.

How do they do that? Every laptop is a terminal and a router. This allows for adhoc mesh networks to allow for interactivity between users and to relay a single Internet connection to an entire community. How cool is that?

The screen can fold like a normal laptop but it can also swivel so that it can be better used for gaming and reading. It has two lighting modes-one for indoors and one for out doors-so it can be used in the sunlight. The keyboard is rubberized and sealed. All of the memory is flash so there is no hard drive to crash. The antennae double as covers for the USB ports. They use about one-tenth the power of regular laptops and can be recharged by hand. They have a built-in directional pad, camera, speakers, microphone. And the kicker... they cost just over $100!

I want one too, but too bad for us. They are being distributed exclusively through national governments and education ministries millions at a time. Fortunately all of the technology is open source so it is possible (and even encouraged by OLPC) that some company may market a commercial version. Until then we will simply have to cheer the OLPC on.

OLPC homepage
OLPC chairman Nicholas Negroponte discussing OLPC at TED
Children's Machine - Wikipedia

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Laptop NumPad

I don't think I know anybody who can use the numpad on their laptop any more effectively than they can the top key row. If you have to do number crunching it is useful to be able to do all you input with one hand but you quickly find it is either not very fast, or if you do it fast it becomes quite painful.

Enter the USB calculator/numpad. This (Canon DK-100i CP Mini Handheld Laptop Calculator) is the one I got and it has paid for itself a few times over. I would recommend this model only for casual use. It is lacking a few things that would make it more useful. Namely a tab key. Also the keys are a little too soft to press and the reference nub on the '5' is a little elusive.

Anything more intense than casual use and you should look to something a little more expensive.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Bookmark management

Tidy your toolbar .

You really don't need any text to identify your links. You have two other tools that should do just fine, the tool tip (box that appears when you hover) and the icon. And really, once you learn a little trick all you need is the icon.

The icon for partypoker.com just won't load in the bookmarks bar. What can you do? Steal somebody else's. Find a site that has an icon you like and dragged the icon from the address bar to your bookmark bar. The icon won't manifest until you reload the page. Then copy the url from partypoker.com. Right click the other bookmark and go to properties. Delete the name and the location, then paste the partypoker url into location.

Now you have an icon for your poker bookmark with no need for text taking up precious space.

Embrace the search bar

Eventually I will write an ode to the search bar, but until then I will suggest how it relates to bookmarks.

Firstly you get a web bookmarking account. The most acclaimed are delicious and google bookmarks. Then you add the related search plug-in to your search bar.
Now you have your very own personal customized search engine accessible where ever you go.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Great things (or: This isn't a post about video games)

Dave just got a Wii. But this isn't a post about video games. He has a few standard games for it, and though I am not a video game person I faired pretty well. So well that Dave felt the need to practice so that he could beat me. I don't quite understand that, but the thing is that has happened before. An entire group got together to practice to beat me in Tetris.

I told them both the same thing: "I'm glad I inspired you to excel at something, too bad it was gaming." The question that lingers in my head is why is it that console gaming is the place where people step up.

I excel at a certain types of challenges. A challenge where I can see the ideal and only have to consider a limited number of variables is a challenge I can usually meet. Like tetris. And yes, I suck at some of the more organic problems that are not so easily abstracted.

Of all the things both of these groups saw me excel at -math, tech, finance- why was video gaming the call to arms? How can I encourage people to do great things?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Web 2.0 Wish List

This might be updated occasionally.

- My Delicious Lucky search plugin. Like google lucky but for searching my delicious bookmarks.

- A speed reader that breaks chunks based on characters or string length. spreeder.com zapreader.com

- Google Reader email subscriptions. It seems so simple. Bloglines has it, but Google has many other things I like. Or equally, if I could get an rss feed for Gmail searches.

- FireFox copy url Extension. Right click a tab and an option to copy the url. Tab to Window is a good step forward. (Why use an address bar when you can have the google lucky search plugin)