Thursday, June 27, 2013

Journalism wanted: how on earth do fish die in a flood??

Mentioned in passing in an article about the exciting adventure of Calgary zookeepers trying to rescue giraffes from a flood with hippos the loose:
On Tuesday, several of 140 dead tilapia that zoo staff couldn’t save were still scattered on the muddy, wet floor of the giraffe and hippo building. Six piranhas and at least two of the zoo’s 12 peacocks also died in the flooding.
Tilapia and piranhas are fish!  How on earth do fish die in a flood???

It says they're scattered on the floor, which suggests that the water receded and left them behind.  Is that normal?  Does that mean that fish in the ocean have to follow the water when the tides move?  Why didn't the force of the water pull them along?

In any case, you can't just mention in passing that fish died in a flood and not explain.  It's a great big question mark, even if it's not nearly as exciting as rescuing giraffes from hippo-infested waters.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"What do you think you can do about it?"

From Carolyn Hax:

Dear Carolyn:
My second-grade son was upset yesterday because his best friend at school told him to toughen up (my son was crying over something) and also told him he was not one of his best friends anymore. What do I say to my son?
 Carolyn's answer starts with:

Next time — since they’re both probably over this already — it’s hard to go wrong with a 1-2 plan of acknowledging his feelings — “I can see you’re really upset, I’m sorry,” plus hug — and directing him to come to his own way of dealing with it: “What do you think you can do about it?” 

I've heard this parenting advice before - that you should ask kids "What do you think you can do about it?" - and it seems unhelpful to say the least.  My own mother has tried it on me (one of those times when you can tell your parent totally read something in an article), and I just found it infuriating.  If I had any remotely productive ideas what to do about it that I hadn't tried already, I'd be trying them!

I think this is even worse to say to a child, because when parents ask children leading questions like that, it quite often implies that the parent thinks the child is supposed to know what to do.  I'm old enough to be his mother, and I don't even have any idea what he should do.  Sitting here in adulthood, we have the luxury of saying "Okay, you're welcome to leave then," but that doesn't work when you're a kid and it's more difficult to function in the classroom and the playground when you don't have someone present whom you can claim as your best friend.  Actual friendship aside, the social logistics of school require having people you can call friends. (This is something I keep meaning to blog about but haven't gotten around to yet.)

I've seen Carolyn Hax give this advice to parents before, and I think it's even worse coming from an advice columnist.  The kid doesn't know what to do, so he goes to his parent.  The parent doesn't know what to do, so they write to an advice columnist.  And the advice columnist tells the parent to ask the kid?  How is that useful?

At this point, people usually ask me "Well, what advice do you expect her to give?  Do you have any better ideas?"  First of all, advice columnists (for whom this is their whole job) should be able to give better, more effective advice that gets better results than anything I could ever think of.  The fact that I don't know the solution doesn't mean an advice columnist wouldn't be able to come up with one, just like the fact that I can't make my hair stay curled doesn't mean that a hairdresser wouldn't be able to.

But, more importantly, advice columnists get a lot of letters.  If the columnist can't come up with a solution to one of the problems, they should run another letter where they can come up with a solution to the LW's problem rather than taking up valuable column inches being one of these people and telling the person who asked for help in the first place to think of the answer themselves.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Google's "unnatural link" detector is broken

I recently had a comment from a webmaster of a site I had linked to (who appears to check out as a real person) asking me to remove the link because they'd been hit by an "unnatural link penalty" from Google due to their being linked from my blog.

I did some googling around, and discovered that the "unnatural link penalty" is intended to reduce the page rank of websites that have spam posts linking to them, to render that kind of spamming useless.

The problem is, my link wasn't spam.  My link was a natural link in the truest sense of the word.

I'm not going to link to the post in question because apparently it causes trouble for this person's business, but it was one of my posts from during the financial crisis, where I was trying to figure out money-related stuff.  One aspect of what I was talking my way through would vary greatly from person to person, so I provided a link to an online financial calculator so everyone could calculate their own number for themselves.

This was absolutely natural.  I'm just a regular person who writes about what's on my mind. I was writing out my train of thought, partway through my train of thought I realized that everyone would have a different number and it was complex to calculate, so I googled up an existing online calculator and provided a link.  This is the very purpose of hyperlinks dating back to the earliest days of hypertext.  I had no interest in the particular business I linked to, they were just the first googleable result providing that particular kind of calculator.

The thing is, this is the very basis of Google's PageRank system - that people will link to thinks that are useful to them.  Google Webmaster Tools support says:
The best way to get other sites to create relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the Internet community. The more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.
The site I had linked to had created relevant content that was useful to me and valuable to my readers, so I linked to it.  And now they're apparently being penalized for it.  Why?  Because I'm a blog?  Because there are people who use blogs for spam?  I don't even know.

From a purely algorithmic point of view, Google should be able to tell that I'm a human being, not a spambot.  My blog has been around a lot longer than most spam blogs have.  I don't update on any particular schedule.  My posts vary greatly in length and nature.  Quite a few of my posts have no links in them whatsoever.  I change my template every so often, and there are posts with the word "template" in them around the time of these template changes.  There's a twitter feed in my right-hand column, and it's updated on no particular schedule with the majority of tweets not containing any links.

On top of all that, Google owns Blogger.   I'm sure they have access to information that will show them that I delete spam posts, I have drafts of posts in my drafts folder, and I hardly ever make scheduled posts.  They could probably also see that I use the account I blog with here to comment on other blogs.  That's not the behaviour of a spambot!

I know there has been a lot of blogger spam lately, but you have a system where a website creates useful content, a blogger thinks "That's just what I need!" and links to it, and then the website gets punished for this, your system is broken.  Google needs to fix this!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Things They Should Invent: tell the neighbourhood what movie they were filming after they finish filming there

I'm pretty sure they're shooting a movie in my neighbourhood.  I've seen movie-ish pylons and trucks and trailers, and some lighting and camera equipment standing around with people milling about.  I think they might even have redecorated the smelly alley.  (Although there were also about half a dozen cop cars there, one of which said "Forensics", so it's possible it was in fact a crime scene.)

The internet won't tell me what they're filming, and there's no indication on site.  Which makes sense - if you're filming something with big stars in it, you want to keep it quiet so people don't flock to your location and swarm around seeking autographs.

But it would be nice to let us know after the fact.  And it could even be used to promote the movie!  What if they distributed a little note to residences and businesses in the area saying something along the lines of:
Dear Neighbours,

Thank you for your patience and understanding while we used your neighbourhood to film Awesome Movie, starring Big-Name Actor and New Up-And-Comer. Watch for us in theatres in summer 2014, when you'll be able to see your neighbourhood in the zombie apocalypse scene and the big dance number!
It would assuage curiosity, create goodwill, and probably lead a certain percentage of people who receive the note to go see the movie even if they wouldn't have otherwise. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Building a Better Senate redux

I previously blogged some ideas for improving the Senate, building on the advantages of the existing model by making it less partisan.

While reading this article (although not directly related to its content), I came up with a simpler way to do the same thing.

First, we make senators non-partisan.  They can't be members of a party, they don't identify themselves as "Conservative senators" or "Liberal senators", there are no Senate party caucuses.  They're just senators.

Then comes the important part: government of the day cannot appoint any senators who are or have ever been members of its political party (or any of that party's predecessors).  It can appoint people who are or have been members of other political parties, it can appoint people who have never been a member of any political party, but it can't appoint from its own party.

Possible corollary, depending on what percentage of the people who are good senate candidates have ever been members of political parties: each government must appoint a minimum number of senators who are or have been been a member of another political party.  I can see pros and cons of this.

But, either way, it would be the political equivalent of having one sibling cut the cake and another choose the slice.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Zap2it vs. TV Guide online TV listings

For as long as I can remember, I've been using as my primary TV guide.  They could be customized to my TV provider so they'll tell me what's on the channels I actually get and they tell me the actual channel number (unlike the TV listings in the newspaper, where they say it's on channel 5 in the listings and then I have to look it up in the chart to see that channel 5 is really channel 6 on my TV).

However, Zap2it's advanced search function recently stopped working, which makes it significantly less useful to me.  For example, as you may have noticed, I'm an Eddie Izzard fan, so I like to know when Eddie's going to be on TV.  So I'd use Zap2it's advanced search function to search for "Izzard" under "Cast & Crew", and I'd get a list of every program Eddie's in for the next two weeks.  In the absence of this function, I'd have to either look up every single entry on Eddie's IMDB page separately (which is a wee bit inconvenient) or miss opportunities to see Eddie on TV (which cramps my style).

Fortunately, it turns out's listings aren't powered by Zap2it (as many TV listings are), and they have celebrity-specific listings (like this) that fulfill the function for which I'd previously been using Zap2it's advanced search (and with a much nicer interface too - TV Guide lists every appearance in chronological order, whereas Zap2it would only list the titles of the shows the performer appears in, and I'd have to click on each one to see when it's on.)  However, I've noticed a variety of pros and cons of each system:

- TV Guide lets you add movies, or even celebrities (which basically means anyone with an IMDB entry - Jane Austen is in there), to your watchlist, whereas Zap2it only lets you add TV shows.  This means that, on Zap2it, if I want to watch The King's Speech, I need to search for it every couple of weeks to see when it's on, while on TV Guide I can just add it to my list and they'll let me know.

- TV Guide's celebrity pages also show you episodes of TV shows that have that celebrity in it, whereas Zap2it's show you every episode of any TV show that has that celebrity in it.  For example, Wil Wheaton has been in a few episodes of Big Bang Theory.  If I look him up on TV Guide, it will show only the episodes of Big Bang Theory in which he appears.  However, if I look him up on Zap2it, it will show Big Bang Theory as a whole, even if the episodes he appears in aren't airing any time soon.

- Unfortunately, TV Guide's watchlist is set up so that it only shows you the next instance of each list item, which is problematic when the item added is a celebrity, who may appear in multiple movies or TV shows. So if Eddie's in one show tomorrow morning and another tomorrow afternoon, the watchlist will only show me the one he's in tomorrow morning (unless I click through to his individual page).  But it will still show me the next airing of King's Speech even if it's a week from now.  In comparison, Zap2it's "My Calendar" function is set up like a calendar, and tells me which things are on each day. (Unfortunately, it's only limited to TV shows, not movies or celebrities or other search results.)

- TV Guide allows you to add as many channels as you want to your "favourites", so you can have a grid that consists of all the channels you get.  Zap2it limits you to 100 (which is frustrating when you get more than 100 channels but nowhere near all the channels).  Note to Zap2it: it's not about wanting to watch my "favourite" channels, it's about what's on the channels I get in my cable package. If I just wanted to watch my favourite channel, I'd turn the TV on to that channel.

- However, TV Guide's watchlist shows you what's on all the English-language channels offered by your cable provider, even if you've meticulously set up your favourite channels list.

- The problem is the "English-language" part - TV Guide doesn't show non-English channels (even if they're part of a basic cable package) in those celebrity-specific page.  If Eddie is on a French channel, I'll never know unless I try to deliberately search for the French title of everything he's ever been in.  Note to TV Guide: some people who speak English do speak non-English languages too!

- Another advantage of TV Guide's watchlist is there's a checkbox that says "New Airings Only", so you can only see episodes that aren't reruns.  This is useful if you're interested in  new episodes of the Simpsons, for example, but don't want to be informed of every single rerun.

- A disadvantage of TV Guide in general is it doesn't show the end times of programs in search results - you have to look them up in the grid.  This is particularly annoying for movies.  It will tell you that the runtime of a particular movie is 120 minutes and it will tell you that the movie is on a 9:00, but it won't tell you whether it's on from 9:00-11:00 or 9:00-12:00.  As we all know, such things do vary because of editing for television and commercial breaks.

- I think both systems could use a more robust category function.  Zap2it used to have a particularly good one, where one of the categories was Fitness.  So I used this to find exercise programs on TV (my preferred method of exercising).  But they later eliminated the category.  (When I switched to Rogers I started using my on-screen guide for this, but lately it's less useful because they're putting entirely too many things in the Fitness category, like reality shows about people giving birth and programs about alternative medicine, so I have to click on every unfamiliar title to see if it is in fact a fitness show.)

Currently I'm using Zap2it's calendar and basic search results primarily but TV Guide's more advanced search results and celebrity pages.  I'd probably switch back to using Zap2it exclusively if they reinstated the advanced search function and let us add movies, celebrities, and search results (i.e. anything with Star Trek in the title rather than having to add each Star Trek separately) to the calendar.  I'd probably switch to TV Guide exclusively if the watchlist was truly chronological, if they included non-English channels in search results, and if they included program end times in search results.

I'm glad that the two systems complement each other and mostly fill in each other's gaps, but it would be awesome if one of the sites (or both, or a third, completely new site) could add the features it's missing so it meets all the needs I've listed here.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Machine translation FAIL

One of the things I like to test translation software with is formal French complimentary closings.  French uses long, gorgeous, wordy passages where we'd just say "sincerely" in English, so it's useful to determine whether the software recognizes the function of the text.  I was recently demonstrating this, and got the following result (click to embiggen):

For those of you who don't read French, the phrase input here is a French complimentary closing, appropriate to a formal business letter. With the exception of one serious error, the English is a reasonable literal translation.

There are two problems here, one macro and one micro.

The macro problem is that the French is a complimentary closing, and the English is not.  English complimentary closings are things like "Sincerely," or "Yours truly," and that's how this sentence should be translated.  The actual words don't matter; the message is "This is to indicate that I am ending the letter in the prescribed letter, and the next thing you see will be my signature."

And the micro problem is that, on a word-for-word level, it translated the French "Madame" (i.e. Ms. or Ma'am) with the English "Sir", thereby addressing the recipient as the wrong gender.  Not only is this clearly unacceptable, it's something even the most simplistic machine translation should be able to handle. Even if an individual text in their corpus got misaligned, they should have some mechanism to recognize that "Sir" is not the most common translation of "Madame". Even a calque of the French ("Madam") would be a better translation than "Sir", which is a sure sign of a particularly bad translation. I'm quite surprised to see this happening in 2013.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Happy birthday, same-sex marriage, happy birthday to you!

Today is the 10th anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Ontario!

I've already blogged the best tribute I can write to it here.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Dog euthanization ethics

In the Toronto Star's ethics column, a reader wrote in pondering the ethics of euthanizing a dog whose medical bills have become prohibitive.

I'm not going to presume to rule on the question itself, but I take issue with a couple of things in the columnist's answer:

The real question is: Is it ethical to spend so much money — and put yourself in debt — to keep a dog alive?
The answer is no.

I don't think you can go so far as to say it's not ethical, even if you can't afford the money.  It may be ill-advised, but ill-advised spending isn't unethical.  Mr. Gallinger previously wrote that Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike is perfectly ethical, because we're allowed to make self-sacrifices for what we consider to be a good cause.  If sacrificing one's own health is permissible, surely sacrificing one's finances is equally permissible!

But you still have to pay for housing and food, so where would this six grand come from? Money you might otherwise give to help other human beings?

OK, I take back what I said about sunshine listers. Regardless of economic status, anyone with an extra six grand does far more good spending on starving kids, AIDS research, a cure for cancer — rather than a dog unable to discern the difference between kibbles and a baseball.

Again, spending money in a way that does less good than it possibly could isn't unethical. At best, it's suboptimal, as are many things in life.  Holding people to the standard that spending money in ways that don't optimally help other people is unethical would be untenable.  It would even make charitable donations to all but the single most optimal charity unethical!

I'm not a person who would say that you must never euthanize a pet or must prolong its life über alles - I'm pro-euthanasia even to the extent that I want to it be available to me and those I care about - but you should be able to make a solid argument for why it's not unethical to euthanize in a particular case without fudging the definition of "unethical".

Also, I'm surprised that neither the columnist nor the letter-writer got into the question of trying to find another home for the dog.  If you're so uncertain about putting the dog down that you're writing to an advice columnist, why not post on Craigslist "Free to a good home: awesome doggie with an unfortunate habit of eating balls and then requiring expensive surgery" and see if you get any takers?  Worst case, you've still got the same decision to make, but you can feel better about having explored every possible avenue.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Why board up houses when you're going to tear them down anyway?

A group of houses on my street have been bought by a developer who plans to tear them down to build condos.  I have no objection to that - it's a highrise neighbourhood.  However, they've boarded up the windows of the houses, which makes them look run down and derelict and creates a dead zone on the street.  (This is particularly frustrating since they hadn't even submitted their development application to city hall when they started boarding the houses up, so they created this dead zone without making any progress towards renewal.)

Why would you board up houses that you're going to tear down anyway?  Are you worried that someone will break in and start wrecking them before you can start wrecking them yourself?  Why not just put plain solid white cheap blinds/curtains in the window (or even board them up on the inside with a piece of wallboard or something else white) so they won't look so conspicuously abandoned to passers-by?  That would actually probably reduce the likelihood that people would mess around with them - if you see a house with the blinds closed and no one going in or out at that exact moment, you assume someone is home and just not going in or out at that exact moment.  You'd have to pay close attention and perhaps even stake it out to notice that it's empty, whereas the boards make it look abandoned from a distance.

I don't care that they're tearing down houses or that they want to build a big condo tower, but I really resent that they're doing this in a way that makes it look so empty and abandoned.  My neighbourhood feels very safe at all hours of the day and night, and this is because it's alive. There are people walking around, going in and out of homes and shops and restaurants.  When I'm walking around alone after dark, if I ever feel unsafe, I can duck into any of the many businesses that are still open or even into another residential building if I can manage to follow someone in.  If a bad guy is following me, they don't know where I might be going, which door might have witnesses behind it who are expecting me.  But these boarded-up houses are clearly not where I'm going.  They clearly don't have someone inside waiting for me.  They're just a dead zone that doesn't contribute to the life of the street.

Why go to all the trouble of boarding up the houses and making them look derelict when you could just do nothing and leave them looking unremarkable?

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Diluting shredded paper

They make paper shredders that shred paper to different sizes, and the smaller it shreds the paper, the more expensive the paper shredder.  Presumably this is because it would be harder to reassemble the paper if it's shredded smaller.

I find myself wondering if you could also make it more difficult for someone who wanted to reassemble the paper by diluting the shredded paper.  What if only 10% of the paper you shredded was important documents that actually needed to be shredded, and 90% of it was random unimportant documents?

What if you physically mixed up the shredded paper before dumping it in recycling?  What if you put shredded paper from the same batch of shredding in multiple recycling containers?

Before I owned a paper shredder, I'd rip up sensitive documents and put parts of them (usually the parts with my name) in with my kitchen garbage.  I figurde if someone is going to dig through the dumpsters and try to reassemble my documents, I can at least make it as unpleasant as possible.  What if you put a portion of the shredded paper in the green bin?  (Apparently paper in the green bin is allowed - my parents use newspapers to line their organics garbage can, then throw the whole piece of newspaper in the green bin with the garbage enclosed.)

I don't know if the additional security gained from doing any of these things would be worth the effort, but it's fun to think of ideas.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Lesen auf Deutsch

I'm currently reading a book in German (Der Knochenmann by Wolf Haas, published in English as The Bone Man - no spoilers please, I'm only partway through).  This is noteworthy because I haven't done any long-form reading in German in 13 years, and even then German has always been a difficult language for me to read.  When I was in school, I'd be sitting there with my dictionary looking up every single word I don't understand, then using my grammar rules to decode how the elements in the sentences relate to each other.

But I was surprised to discover that now it's much faster going!  Not because I understand more German, but because I seem to know intuitively which parts I don't need to understand.  Based on the words I do understand and my knowledge of how a novel works, I can tell "Okay, this is a soccer game, these few paragraphs are describing gameplay, anything I don't understand is soccer-related, no need to look stuff up." So I skim over those paragraphs with little understanding except that the local team won and the goaltender was awesome, and don't reach for my dictionary until we're back into the main plot.

Similarly, I find I'm not analyzing the grammar to figure out how the elements in a sentence relate to each other.  I'm thinking "How would these elements relate to each other logically?" and only digging down to the grammar if the logical interpretation doesn't make sense in context.

Surprisingly, this works!  I looked up an English excerpt to make sure I haven't missed anything important, and I haven't! Everything I glossed over contained exactly what I expected it to! It could be I missed a gun on the mantlepiece, I don't know yet, but worst case I'm surprised by the ending rather than seeing it coming like I usually do in mysteries.

I think this is all a result of translation brain.  When you're translating, you have to render not the words per se, but rather the truth of what the text is saying.  The vast majority of the time, it doesn't matter whether the author of the text used a word that translates as "however" or "moreover", what matters is whether the relationship between the two ideas in question is "however" or "moreover".  (I've always thought fill in the blank exercises for linking words would be useful for translation students.)  It doesn't matter that the source text used the pluperfect, what matters is which tense most accurately represents the idea being expressed in the target language.

So after 13 years of thinking this way (coincidentally, the same amount of time since I last read in German - my last German class was the year before my first translation class), I seem to have developed intuition for which unknown words or syntax is ripe with meaning and which parts will end up saying exactly what I'd expect them to say.

So why isn't it acceptable to submit the same paper for multiple courses?

From The Ethicist:

When I was in college, I’d sometimes write a single paper that would satisfy assignments in more than one course. For instance, I once wrote a paper on how “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” expressed satire; I submitted it for assignments in both my poetry course as well as my completely separate satire course. I did not disclose this to either professor. When I share this with people, half call the practice cheating, and the other half call it genius. My niece told me it would certainly be grounds for expulsion at her college. In my mind, I was adding a level of intellectual complexity to my studies. Was this an ethical practice, or was I cheating?

The all my universities made it quite clear that this is not allowed, but I've never understood why. It's your own work, so why does it matter if you've done the work a little earlier before the deadline than perhaps they anticipated? 

Some people in the comments thread suggested that it's because schools want you to do a certain amount of work to get your degree, but I don't think that's actually the case. You get your course credits, and by extension your degree, by demonstrating mastery of certain material or skills. They evaluate this mastery through projects and exams, but the amount of work you put in is irrelevant.  If you can knock off an A+ term paper in half an hour, you have clearly mastered the material and deserve your A+.  Conversely, if you do the standard amount of work - even if you do twice the standard amount of work - but still can't produce a paper that meets the standards for a passing mark, you haven't mastered the material and don't get to pass. If you can prove to both professors that you have mastered the material of their respective courses by turning in the same piece of work, the fact remains that you've mastered the material.

Other commenters suggested that a single paper could not possibly meet the needs of two assignments, and, before we even get into the question of ethics, would need to be rewritten from the other perspective to be suitable for the other course.  This may well be true, but that doesn't make it a question of academic ethics.  If a student chooses to submit a project that doesn't meet the project requirements as perfectly as perhaps it could, they'll get a lower mark.  Voilà, natural consequences.  No need to bring the code of ethics into it.  

The professor who taught my humanities gen. ed. course, an older, bearded, sweater-wearing gent who called male students by their surnames and female students "Miss Surname", had a policy that you can go to the washroom whenever you wanted during the exam, unescorted.  His reasoning was that if you can find answers in the washroom, more power to you.  His exams were designed so students have to analyze and to make cogent arguments supporting their point - things you can't put on a crib sheet.

Similarly, the attitude should be if you can reuse work, more power to you.  If schools want to discourage this, perhaps they need a more robust anti-requisite system, or more stringent academic standards, or a system that permits students to test out of courses where they've already mastered the material. But if you have two courses that are asking students to submit similar assignments to prove similar bodies of knowledge, then there's no reason not to permit them to do the same work.  And manipulating the academic code of ethics to ban this so they don't have to address flaws in the curriculum is kind of, well, inethical.