Friday, June 12, 2015

Math is Hard

Every year at work I am required to take a refresher training course in the often-bewildering ethics rules. For two out of every three years, the training consists of certifying that I have looked at a web page. However, every third year the training is in person. This is such a year for me.

In order to keep attendees paying attention, the ethics folks organize some kind of a game. One year it was “football,” in which correct answers would move the ball some random number of yards down the field. Another year it was a version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” I seem to recall a version of “The Weakest Link” as well. This year it was “Deal or No Deal.” For those who haven’t seen the game show, the key feature is that the contestant selects an object of unknown value and he or she can play for the value of the object or can take the offer of some known amount of money. The offer is usually somewhere around the mean value of the remaining objects. (As an example, if the contestant knows that his object is worth either $100 or $1000, the banker might offer $525, slightly under the mean value of the two choices.)

Frankly, my aim is to get out of the room in no more than an hour, and I don’t care about the outcome of the game. My colleagues, however, are so competitive they are constitutionally unable to help themselves. This year they even argued about some of the answers in a legalistic, hair-splitting manner. As a result, one would think everyone should be strategizing about both the answer and the bet - taking the “deal” or not.

As we got to the last two questions, my team was up by about $900 and would get the last question. All of the objects near the average value were gone - all that remained were some low-valued objects ($100, $200, and $600, if I recall correctly) and some high-valued ones (three more in the $2000 range). The “banker” offered around $1000 - enough to get ahead of my team if the other team answered the question correctly. Take the deal? There was a 50% chance that the object would be worth less than $900, and thus the team would lose regardless of whether it got the question right. There was a 50% chance the object would be worth a lot, although the team would still have to get the question right to climb ahead of my team. At that point, we’d still get a chance to answer one more question for the win, and we would know whether we’d have to roll the dice on the object in order to get enough money to win.

Taking the $1000 offer by the banker is straightforward: to win, the other team needs to answer the question and hope we blow our question. If the probability of answering correctly is 50%, then the odds of the other team winning are 25%. Rejecting the offer is more complicated. Half the time the object will be worth too little, and the team loses with certainty. Half the time the object will be worth more than enough to get ahead. Depending on the draw, we might be able to win by taking the banker’s offer and answering the question - the same odds as if the other team took the $1000 banker’s offer. The rest of the time we’d be forced to reject the banker’s offer and hope for a good outcome. We don’t know the odds of this outcome, but if we’re in that branch of the decision tree there’s some chance the other team will win regardless of how we answer the question; otherwise, it still comes down to whether we can answer the question correctly. In short, the only way this choice is better is if the odds are high the first team gets a good draw and the second team gets a bad draw from the remaining objects, because all the other possible outcomes are no better (and some are substantially worse) than just taking the banker’s offer. Yet we could all see the distribution of remaining objects, so the “first team’s draw is good, second team’s draw is bad” outcome is unlikely.

Naturally, the economist-free team rejected the banker’s offer and got an object worth $600. Game over. In the end, I’d like to think I re-learned some of the ethics rules and the other team learned a little about probability theory.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Farewell to Venexia and Goatswood

From Ziki Questi’s blog, I see that two photogenic role-playing sims are about to fade from the grid: Venexia and Goatswood. I never made it to Venexia, despite some good intentions, or if I did I neglected to memorialize my visit in this Journal, but I did report on my visit to Goatswood here.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Journey to the Ninth Circle of Hell

In Dante’s Inferno, the Ninth Circle, the lowest level of Hell, is reserved for the traitors. Frank Lefravre has re-created Dante’s vision in Cocytus: the Ninth Circle of Hell. (My thanks to Inara Pey for chronicling the exhibit.) A latter-day Virgil starts by crossing a wooden bridge and then descending into the caves.

Ninth Circle of Hell 001

The circle has four concentric rings, starting with the Caina, named after Cain, and containing the traitors to relations.

Ninth Circle of Hell 002

The next circle is Antenora, after a Trojan nobleman who betrayed the city to the Greeks, and contains political traitors.

Ninth Circle of Hell 003

The third circle is Ptolomaea, after the governor of Jericho in the second century BC, who killed his dinner guest (and father-in-law), and is reserved for traitors to their guests.

Ninth Circle of Hell 004

The fourth area is named Judecca, after Judas Iscariot, and contains traitors to their benefactors. These traitors are completely encased in ice.

Ninth Circle of Hell 005

At the center of Hell is Satan, condemned for treachery against God. Satan stands waist-deep in ice, beating his wings but unable to escape.

Ninth Circle of Hell 006

Dante and Virgil escape Hell by climbing down Satan and through the center of the earth, before emerging in Purgatory. Fortunately, one need not take that particular perilous journey; a teleport is all that is needed to escape this particular Hell.

Dante’s Inferno is a popular theme in Second Life, it appears. Back in 2011 this Journal commented on such an exhibit.

Thursday, June 4, 2015


I don’t put that many miles on my car over the course of a year, but I do have a consistent weekday driving pattern to and from the nearest Metro station parking lot. It’s about 10 miles each way, usually under 20 minutes, depending on how I catch the traffic lights and how much congestion I run into. This gives me the opportunity to observe my fellow drivers in their natural habitat.
I’ve noticed some behavioral quirks among many of these drivers. First, and most irksome: far too many people sit in the left lane, often matching speeds with the car in the right lane. Most of the traffic on my route eventually turns left, but c’mon, guys, a left turn give miles down the road is no reason to move to the left lane now. These rolling road blocks are time-consuming and dangerous. Traffic builds around them and drivers become impatient. At the first sign of a passing opportunity - boom! - someone will take the chance.

A second pet peeve involves people who brake for no apparent reason. I drive a small car, and can’t see around the behemoth SUVs, pickups, and minivans ahead of me. When someone brakes, I anticipate slower traffic ahead. When someone brakes repeatedly, for no particular reason, the brake light starts to lose its ability to communicate useful information about road conditions.

I’m convinced many of the people engaged in spontaneous braking are using the brake to make small speed adjustments. Normal drivers would slow down one or two miles per hour by easing up on the gas and letting friction do its thing. Instead, I get the constant barrage of brake lights from drivers who must believe a car in motion has only two available modes, gas and brake, and stopping one activity involves starting the other.

And don’t get me started on the people yapping on the phone, texting, reading a map, reading the newspaper, performing personal grooming chores,...

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Hazards of a Good Walk

Tourists. God bless 'em.

I'm fortunate to be working a mere stone's throw (or within easy looting distance, for anyone who measures distances that way) of the National Mall, with its numerous museums and mostly car-free walking. Although I would take daily walks when I worked further up town, and that area gave me a more varied set of routes, it's really delightful to take 30 minutes, once or twice a day, to get out of the office and stretch my legs. Less delightful when the temperature is below 35 or above 85, but that's still a good chunk of the year to spend communing with Mother Nature - or at least zipping through the great outdoors before the office beckons. Three things put a bit of a damper on my enjoyment.

First, the drivers of cars, trucks, and, most especially, buses who don't obey traffic controls. I don't mean cruising through a light that's been yellow for a while, I mean people who refuse to believe that right turns on red are to be done *after* a stop, that "no left turn" means it, and, most importantly, that pedestrians in a crosswalk with the light have the right of way. I know it's congested, I know you're in a hurry and want to make the light, but sheesh, you're in a climate-controlled vehicle. Besides, your day would go downhill rapidly if you were involved in a pedestrian death.*

Second, bicyclists who ride, generally illegally, on sidewalks as though pedestrians don't exist. Yes, I know it's dangerous for cyclists to be on the roads with cars. When the sidewalks are largely empty, I'm all for looking the other way. When the sidewalks are choked with pedestrians, however, walk your bike or pedal very slowly. Zipping along ringing your little bell does nothing to improve safety. 

Third, hordes of tourists, especially group tours, especially school groups. I have nothing against tourists: I like going places, so I know what it's like to be in a strange city trying to enjoy the sights. Furthermore, tourists spend money, which is good for the city's economy. But let's all play nicely. If you want to take a picture, I'll walk behind you. In return, don't stand on one side of the sidewalk taking a picture across the sidewalk so that I have no chance to walk behind you. (And no, I'm not walking in the street.) If you're ambling along, I'll go around you; no need to change your speed or direction. But if you're in a group of four or more, please don't spread yourself across the sidewalk so that no one can get by. If you're in a group of 20 waiting for your tour on a crowded sidewalk, please stay to one side, rather than milling across the entire sidewalk. (The Crime Museum on 7th Street is particularly bad for this.) And school groups on the Mall should take up some reasonable amount of space - let's say 95% rather than 100% of the width of the sidewalk, leaving just enough room for one crotchety middle-aged person to get by.

Ah, who am I kidding? Bad drivers are going to drive badly, some cyclists are going to ride unsafely, and tour groups are going to do whatever the heck they want to do. Some days I even remember this, and try to smile as I make my way through the throngs.


* Always look drivers in the eye if possible. That way you might be able to tell if one is already having a bad day and just doesn't care any more. Let that driver go.**

** The other day I was driving down the highway and passed a car that was moving a little erratically. It turned out that the driver was sobbing uncontrollably. Not good.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Little Schoolhouse

The lot next to my spot in Caledon Mayfair now has on it a small schoolhouse. Although the building may have once housed a chapel, one look inside shows that the structure has been repurposed.

This brings back memories... not all of which are pleasant. Ah well, brave heart, Rhianon.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Forests and Trees

I sometimes think it must be exhausting to be a young person with liberal tendencies. So many minefields, so much to remember in order to be sufficiently sensitive. A case in point is the most recent Accidental Tech Podcast (No. 116, "Women Aren't a Minority"). ATP has three guys in the tech industry talk about Apple news, software development, file systems, and whatever they feel like. (The start of episode 116 concerned the relative merits of raccoons versus ducks.) It's generally fun to listen to, even if I don't fully follow the technical details of some of the topics. (I was fully on top of the raccoons versus ducks discussion, I must say without false modesty.)

A big chunk of the episode was devoted to a reasonable enough question: what can the podcast do to attract more women listeners? Co-host John Siracusa acknowledged that the gender breakdown of listeners was just an educated guess. He also postulated that the best way of increasing listenership was to go after the relatively underserved market, i.e., women. I'm not sure that's true - as an obvious example, suppose there were a podcast called All Things Left-Handed, and consider whether the best way of increasing listenership was to attract a bigger share of right-handers - but there's nothing inherently wrong with trying to increase listenership, or even to target a particular demographic.

Siracusa (and co-hosts Marco Arment and Casey Liss) also get credit for rejecting the obvious suggestions, such as having women co-hosts. In their view, that would change the show sufficiently that it would be a different show. (I couldn't help but be reminded of the view of some Doctor Who fans that the next Doctor needs to be a woman. Nothing wrong with a show about a Time Lady, but it would be a different show. I suspect I will one day be on the losing side of that argument, however.)

Then the conversation devolved into the usual blather of more-sensitive-than-thou political correctness. The three hosts started discussing whether they should reject advertisements about products that are targeted toward men, such as Harry's razors. (My reaction to that: I don't drink beer, but I still watch the Super Bowl and even manage to enjoy some of the better beer ads.) They then discussed whether ad reads should be more "gender inclusive." My eyes rolled and I could feel my fingers twitch toward the fast-forward button.

The final straw was when a listener complained that the hosts of the podcast should not presume to "speak for all women." That's the kind of bullshit statement that makes me stop taking a topic seriously. To give Arment, Liss, and Siracusa credit, they never came close to suggesting that they spoke for any women, much less all of them. However, even acknowledging the comment cheapened the discussion to the point where I had to fast-forward until the segment was, mercifully, over.

I don't think I'm out of the mainstream when I make the following statements:
1. Criticizing a female or minority politician's policies is not misogynistic or racist. (It *is*, however, beyond the pale to suggest that a female candidate is a "serious" candidate only because of her gender, as Washington Post columnist wrote about former H-P CEO Carly Fiorina.)
2. Stating an opinion generally carries with it the implication that the opinion is that of the speaker, and not of an entire group of people, such as an entire gender. If the speaker prefaces the remark with "all [group] believe," then the foregoing statement does not apply.
3. A man who states an opinion is not "mansplaining." A statement can be condescending in either words or tone, but, without more information, I will take statements at their face value.

Relatedly, the idea that groups of individuals are, collectively, fragile flowers that need special protections from the mean world, is itself an insulting one deserving of mockery. The feminists in the UK who needed "safe spaces" and found that clapping was alarming and therefore suggested the use of "jazz hands" to indicate appreciation were deserving of mockery. Campus liberals who demand "safe spaces" when conservatives speak on campus or the school screens the movie "American Sniper" are deserving of mockery. The First Lady, who recently said that blacks don't go to museums because they don't "feel welcome," is most certainly deserving of mockery. (Has she ever been to the Smithsonian museums on the Mall in Washington? Lots of minorities, many of whom are children, don't seem to feel that they're not welcome.) Back in the real world, your boss might give you a bad performance review, or a peer might object to your ideas. Some people may react poorly to criticism, but it is insulting to think that entire *groups* need coddling.

My advice to the ATP guys: keep making a good podcast, don't worry about the composition of your listeners, and you'll increase the size of your audience. Let the discussion devolve into who best passes some test of political correctness, and listeners will go elsewhere.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Soliel's Garden

A few pictures from the memorial garden in memory of Soliel Snook. What an amazing job done in such a short time!

Sal Island  Soliel Snook memorial 002

Sal Island  Soliel Snook memorial 003

Sal Island  Soliel Snook memorial 004

Sal Island  Soliel Snook memorial 005

Sal Island  Soliel Snook memorial 006

Sal Island  Soliel Snook memorial 007

Sal Island  Soliel Snook memorial 008

Sal Island  Soliel Snook memorial 001a

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Get Off My Lawn

Yes, this is going to be a Cranky Old Person Rant.

I work in a federal agency with about 1,000 employees, give or take. My little brain can’t possibly remember 1,000 names. Fortunately, I work in a smaller group that has about 100 people, most of whom are now on a single floor of our building. I know a lot of those people: everyone in my division, everyone in senior management, and pretty much everyone over 40 years old in the other divisions. Call it 60 people I know by name. When we meet in the hallway, I say hello to them, they say hello back.

Of the people I don’t really know – maybe I’ve seen them around, maybe they were recently hired – I still say hello in the hallway, but most of them say nothing in return. Nada. They don’t acknowledge my existence. When this happens, I’m sorely tempted to ask to see the person’s identification. “Say, I haven’t seen you before. Do you work here? Could I see an ID?”

The thing about it is that almost everyone who refuses to say hello is under 35, maybe even under 30. Is this a generational issue? Do young people not bother to acknowledge the existence of (a) colleagues or (b) older colleagues? (A friend of mine of similar age says that the kids know we’re has-beens and see no percentage in talking to us. Cold, but perhaps right.) What gives, kids? Have video games robbed today’s youth of social graces?

While I’m on the subject of antisocial behavior, here’s a picture of one of our two refrigerators, taken at 7:30 a.m., when almost no one is in the office. Somewhere around 50 people need to share this thing. What do we see? A pitcher of water, a big orange juice container, a bottle of water, and some large object wrapped in a plastic bag, all taking up space on the top shelf. Another big bag o’ stuff on the bottom shelf, sharing space with a container of Greek yogurt and several containers of berries on the right. The bottom drawer is also filled. The door has a blue Gatorade bottle, several bottles of salad dressing, and several containers of milk (some are out of the frame), with a big ol’ bottle of milk lying down on its side on the lower shelf of the door. Egads, people! This stuff sits there for days. Play nicely, children.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Remembering Soliel Snook

As Caledonians (and former Caledonians, and…) know, long-time resident (and Radio Riel presenter, and creator of gardens, and…)  Miss Soliel Snook passed away in real life on April 23.

Her friend, Miss Gabrielle Riel, has organized a memorial to Miss Snook for tomorrow, May 12, starting at midnight SLT in the Sal Island region, on what would have been her eighth Rezday. What a lovely and thoughtful tribute!

I can’t claim to have known Miss Snook well, but I have chronicled her skills several times in this Journal, from a whimsical garden (way back in 2009!), to Clos Normand, next to her home sim of Giverny (2010), to Caledon’s Highlands (2011).

My prayers go out to her family and friends, both in real life and Second Life.

Highlands 8 11 11 007
Snook’s Garden Center in Caledon Highlands, August 2011