The Laboratorium
May 2005

Happy Birthday, Dear Lab


Today is the fifth anniversary of my first post to the Laboratorium. (There are a few posts dated further back, but those are things I wrote without intending them as blog posts, or, occasionally, pages I back-dated for some other reason.) Oh, the memories. How young I was, and how ignorant, when I wrote:

I don’t really mean for this to be just another clip-n-comment weblog, but I need to bootstrap myself into action, and most of the bees in my bonnet at the moment are there at the instigation of one thing or another I saw on the web somewhere.

Stay tuned for another exciting Lab landmark coming up soon.

Moving, Moving, Moving


I’ve noted previously how unpleasant an experience moving is. Having just done it again, I reaffirm my previous statements and endorse them fully.

I will say, however, that having the thing that absolutely must not go wrong go wrong right of the bat makes things substantially less stressful. After all, you really do know that things can’t get worse. If you can recover from a missing truck, you can recover from anything.

Shades of the Volcano Planet?


Another strange dream last night. Somehow I started a grease fire, and then tried to put it out by smothering it with t-shirts.

Economies of Scale in Everything


While cleaning out my desk, I came across old gift cards to a number of fine retail establishments. Since I’d forgotten whether I’d spent them all, I called up the appropriate 800 numbers to learn what the unspent balance was.

(No, that I’d bothered to hang on to a card was not sufficient evidence that it still had value — I found one with a balance of $0.00. Yes, I’m a packrat.)

Interestingly, several different companies’ gift card hotlines had the same automated voice. It was obviously the same recording of the same person. Even more interestingly, she wasn’t always reading the same exact script. On one hotline, she also provided Spanish directions. On another, she didn’t. My best guess is that American Express provides gift card implementation services for major merchants (some of the cards have the AmEx logo on the back) and that those merchants have some flexibility to customize what their customers hear when they call up.

There is Another


I have revised my beliefs in light of new evidence.

There are four Star Wars movies.

Perimeter Update


This morning, on the porch I found a very surprised-looking sperm whale.

(This joke brought to you by Douglas Adams.)

Perimeter Alarum


This morning, somewhere between sunrise and the time I intended to wake up, I heard some kind of a thump from the direction of my living room. My eyes flicked open just in time to see something moving, also in that same general direction. There may have been a follow-up thump, but by this point the adrenaline was drowning out all sound and most rational thought.

I didn’t hear any further noise, and I figured that if there were a burglar about, he was unlikely to have heard my eyes flicking open (and thus was likely to have continued his thumping ways, if he’d been the thumper). So I got up and looked around my living room, which seemed undisturbed.

Outside, however, on the porch, I saw a large smashed flowerpot. It wasn’t clear whether it fell from above or was tossed onto the porch. Not that the latter makes much sense, but hey, it was possible. In any case, since there didn’t seem to be any immediate threat, I went back and got the rest of my sleep. By the time I woke up for real, all traces of the pot and asociated scattered dirt had disappeared.

Done Done McDone


By my estimation, I have taken something like sixty tests of two hours or more. It makes me happier than I can say to say that I believe I only ever need to take one more.

From New Haven, that’s the news, and I am outta here.

The Betting Markets Speak Geometrically


At the moment, the Tradesports betting market overwhelmingly predicts that Paris will be the host city for the 2012 Olympics, with a 75% chance of winning.

More interestingly to me, however, is the sequence of numbers you see if you read down the list of candidate cities: * Paris: 74.5 - 75.0 * London: 13.3 - 16.5 * New York: 5.3 - 6.4 * Madrid: 1.2 - 3.3 * Moscow: 0.3 - 2.1 The first set of numbers is the “bid” price — the price the market is willing to pay for a chance to win $1 if the specified city wins. The second set are the “ask” price — the price at which the market is willing to sell you that $1 chance. Of course, “the market” here is just the aggregation of the individual members bidding on these bets.

If you look at the numbers in the “bid” column, they’re pretty close to a geometric series in which each successive term is 1/5 of the previous one. (This nice relationship is all shot to hell in the next column, in which the ratios range from 5:1 to 3:2, and decrease monotonically.)

Does this mean anything? It’s not a power law (since the falloff is exponential, rather than polynomial), which kills my favorite explanation that everything is a power law. Is this just a meaningless coincidence, or is there a reason we’d expect to see a geometric series?

Correlation or Causation?


I’ve noticed that times when I am tired seem often also to be times when I get music stuck in my head.

A Brief Moment of Geekery


Flickr is moving from Flash to Ajax for its photo-management UI and gave a presentation on the changeover at the recent. Reporting on the event, the Ajaxian Blog passed along the following description of one technique Flickr is using:

Getting around the browser cache problem

When change anything on a Flickr page with Ajax, it sets a cookie, and the cookie is set to a timestamp that is inserted into the JS when the page loads. Whenever the page is reloaded (e.g. from cache), and if the cookie value is the same, then a change has happened, and I callback to get the new information.

So in the new Flickr, you can BACK and FORWARD all day, and the original title doesn’t come back to haunt you. Nice hack Eric!

“Nice hack Eric” is an understatement. I’m four years out of this game, and I’m rusty on my browser models and may be missing key details, but I predict that this “nice hack” is going to have quite a career. It makes Ajax play nicely with manual navigation — which makes this one of the final pieces in a very satisfying puzzle. That two sentences suffice to enable anyone to understand it well enough to implement it only adds to the charm.

Those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about shoudln’t worry about it. It’s just something that’ll be making your web-browsing experience better.

Ad Hoc Breakfast Balancing


After getting to sleep at three, I wasn’t, shall we say, especially eager to get up for class at nine. It also didn’t help that today we’re covering a topic we spent several weeks on in one of my other classes. Still, it’s the last class of the semester, and thus my last class ever, so I took my sorry-ass five hours and dragged my sorry ass out for class.

Well, now I’m glad I did, because somoeone brought Krispy Kreme, still warm from the oven.

Spacetime Justice


Last night’s dream was equally surreal. Paula dragged me to a lecture by (the late) Nicholas Kaldor on questions of economic justice and efficiency. Apparently, in previous classes he’d introduced both the theory of efficiency that bears his name and the more familiar Pareto efficiency, and now he was adjusting them to take account of Einstein’s general relativity.

The details were quite interesting, if incoherent, in that way that dream-theses tend to be. After describing a distribution of resources at every point in spacetime, we then had to look to see which points were conntected along timelike paths. Apparently, somehow, this changed the question of the distribution of resources from being one about allocating goods to different people to being one about allocating goods to different times.

In hindsight, if I were consciously trying to construct a joke about economics and relativity, I think I would have gone for the more obvious question of how travelling at relativistic velocities affects exchange rates — after all, everyone sees everyone else’s currency (literally) contract.

The 5000 Questions of Dr. T.


Given the volume and triviality of the material the bar exam tests, not to mention the high stakes, people take studying for it quite seriously. I’ve recently come into possession of a cache of study aids; it appears to be the agglomeration of several people’s test prep materials. (I’m just a temporary beneficiary; after I take the exam, I’m expected to pass them along to another student in need. Fee tail, anyone?)

In addition to two kinds of flash cards, an overall textbook and separately bound mini-books for each subject area, CDs, xeroxed lecture notes, and laminated subject-at-a-glance binder inserts, the box is filled with book after book after book of sample bar-exam multiple-choice questions. I have nine books (from seven different publishers) with just over 5,000 sample questions. By way of comparison, the actual exam has 200. Just in case, you know, I decide to take twenty-five practice tests.

With this much material, I could just about construct a mechanical man to go in and take the exam for me. The hardest part would be getting it to pass the fingerprint check.

They Do Have Good Pizza


My dream last night starred the new Pope. I showed him around New Haven for a while, and then he wanted to know if I could get us in to Frank Pepe’s. I had to tell him no, it’s graduation season, so with all of the students and parents, there’s no way we could beat the crowd there.

Noisy Withdrawal


As I have noted previously, next year I’ll be working as a law clerk. While my judge will be the one calling the shots, I and my co-clerks will be doing a lot of the important research and editing that goes into preparing the thoughtful and impartial legal opinions she strives to produce. It’s important that she be free from any perceived taint of bias as she goes about her work—which means that it’s also important that we be free from any such taint.

You may have noticed the comparative quiet on this blog lately, and, well, these two things are connected. With the end of my time in law school approaching—together with all of the assignments hanging over my head that that implies—I haven’t had the chance to write up this statement. But the policy that I’m announcing with it has actually been in place for a while.

That is, in the interests of maintaining confidence in my impartiality, my judge’s impartiality, and the impartiality of the United States courts, I’m not blogging about political or pending legal questions. Any legal analysis I generate will be for the exclusive and confidential use of my judge; my political opinions I’ll be keeping to myself. The bad puns, the odd sightings from my daily life, and the musings on technology will continue.

In hindsight, I should have taken this line from the day I accepted the job. But what’s done is done, and the best I can do is to uphold the appropriate standard of propriety from now on. Lest anyone try to abduce too much from my past posts, let me restate explicitly a few things that ordinarily should go without saying: My judge is not me, and she has both far more wisdom and far more knowledge of the law than I do; my opinions have been known to change substantially over time, as a detailed inspection of my archives shows; almost all of what I say here is offered as a tentative suggestion, something I put forth to see what counterarguments one could make;—and as a clerk, I will be taking very seriously my responsibility to give my judge unbiased help.

As for the Lab, well, check out the new mindless links and I should have some real content up soon.