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Yonatan Zunger's Journal
25 most recent entries

Date:2010-07-08 18:07
Subject:This Blog Has Moved

This blog is moving to www.yonatanzunger.com. All future posts will go there; all future comments will go there. The existing blog's contents have been migrated.

For those of you who want to keep following me via LJ, I've created zunger_rss.

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Date:2010-07-08 12:37
Subject:New reading material

Amy has a new blog, The Practical Free Spirit. It's all about doing big, crazy things (having a career in the arts, trying to change the world, etc) from a very practical perspective, and I recommend it. Today's post, for example, is on dealing with disappointment.

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Date:2010-07-07 11:14
Subject:Oh, this is going to be awesome.

Sharron Angle is running against Harry Reid (the Senate majority leader) this November. During the primary, she ran as a hard-line ultra-conservative, playing to the Tea Party. Once that ended, she took down her web site and replaced it with one suggesting that she's a moderate.

Reid decided to put up a copy of her old web site, on the theory that such data should be preserved and publicly available.

Now Angle is suggesting that she wants to sue Reid for copyright violation.

Yes, definitely. Suing someone to make them stop repeating what you said in the middle of a highly-publicized election is an excellent strategy for burying the story. Please, go ahead and do this. I will make popcorn.

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Date:2010-07-06 15:18
Subject:Fallingwater, further thoughts

One interesting aspect of the structure of Fallingwater which I'm seeing much more clearly after building this model is how each level of the building has the logical structure of a "pool." The floor layouts are open and in slightly irregular shapes, with edges and patterns which mimic the flow of water; the connections between levels, both inside the building and outside (through the various paths and balconies) indicate the natural way in which water would fall from one level to another in a natural system of pools on a cliffside. The windows serve to both open up the space and let in light, and to highlight this building / water relationship. (The model designer nicely used the same brick type for the water and the windows, which really makes this vivid) The river at the bottom simply seems to be the lowest level of this stacking. The overall effect is that the house is like a permanent (but oddly well-sheltered) camp in the hills.

I think I need to get out to Mill Run sometime and see this in person.

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Date:2010-07-05 15:02
Subject:Organic architecture

I'm spending part of this Fourth of July holiday building a Lego model of one of the great works of American architecture, Fallingwater. Building this is a fascinating process; it's from a plan worked out by a professional, and he did an excellent job of conveying a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright's key ideas in the building process. For example, one begins by building up the landscape; the point at which you begin building up the house proper is only clear in retrospect, the house grows out of the environment so seamlessly. Then you assemble a construction which is unambiguously "house;" but when you attach it to the already-laid foundation, the boundary again becomes confusing. The wall of the house could just as easily be a rock escarpment; the window, a waterfall.

It's giving me a real appreciation for FLW's work on this house. I need to walk around and look at some other houses and see how they handle the relationship of the structure to its environment; I suspect that a big part of the reason that so many suburban houses look, well, so suburban is that they have no clear relationship to it at all, and look rather like they got dropped on an otherwise empty lawn by aliens.

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Date:2010-06-17 08:25
Subject:Economics thoughts

Technical rambly post.

So last night I started reading MWG on microeconomics. One of the things which struck me was their use of a rather artificial-feeling mathematical framework, with consumption being a function of prices (a vector in an L-dimensional space) and of wealth (a single real number). Various bits of math follow from the statement that consumption is homogenous of degree zero as a function of these two sets of variables, which is just the statement that prices are only meaningful relative to overall wealth.

What's a bit unnatural is the division of price and wealth into two separate variables, and the equations all reflect this. It seems a great deal more natural to merge these into an L+1-dimensional vector, with "commodity zero" being money. This is nice both mathematically (the equations are suddenly a lot more compact) and conceptually (it makes it a lot easier to think about, say, multiple kinds of money flowing around in a system) The Walras axiom then takes the form that the aggregate consumption of money over time is equal to total wealth, i.e. ultimately people spend all of their money.

But this led me to two questions which I think still need some pondering.

  1. In this context, the Walras axiom no longer seems so obvious, especially when you consider that there could be multiple "money-like" commodities in the system. What is special about money that causes people to ultimately spend all of it? In a utility model, I could see that money would be a utility-zero commodity, so if there's anything with positive value to spend it on you would probably do so. (At least, so long as all interactions are linear -- but I think that you can prove that they always are) But this non-obviousness suggests that there may be a more interesting way to phrase the axiom which ties more directly to the way that people relate to money.

  2. Once you start to treat money as Yet Another Commodity, the arbitrariness of using it as the scale for all the other variables seems significantly more obvious. Not in the moral sense, where it was pretty obvious to begin with, but simply mathematically; the choice of a preferred axis in commodity space seems almost perverse. One interesting alternative way to model things (which fits more naturally with choice models) would be to think about pairwise exchange costs rather than overall numerical costs -- i.e., to think of everything as barter, with money simply a highly fungible good. What's interesting is that this is significantly more general than numerical costs, in the same way that choice models are more general than preference models; it lets you model things such as nonfungible goods. (Money can buy time, but can't necessarily buy loyalty; on the other hand, loyalty can buy loyalty) I suspect that there are some interesting techniques possible here -- has this area been explored?

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Date:2010-06-13 21:26
Subject:Well, crap.

It looks like the US may have actually managed to do something which will change the situation in Afghanistan in the long term, not just the short term: discovered large mineral deposits.

It's going to take a while to process the potential implications of this. Afghanistan has been an isolated place, ruled by tribal warlords and resisting any lasting change from foreign invasions for the past 2,300 years, in no small part because it has so little value to a conqueror; its positional strategic value is limited by the fact that it's so damned difficult to hold and to cross, its natural resources were nil, and it had little population. People would invade it as a buffer zone (Brezhnev), or to get from one place to another (Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane) or to deal with some group causing trouble (Auckland, Lytton, Bush), but nobody ever held it for a long period of time.

But now there's an estimated $1T of resources in the ground. On the one hand, local warlords are going to want to get in on the action; but they don't have anything like the technical or logistical capability to extract resources effectively and sell them on the market. That suggests "large foreign investment," which would normally be a euphemism for large companies setting up shop and extracting whatever they can, leaving behind as little as possible... but in an area quite as heavily-armed as this one, the normal techniques of this won't work. I could imagine Western companies coming in if they were backed by a heavy mercenary force, or Chinese companies coming in backed by government troops. Western forces would be backed by governmental forces too, primarily US, assuming that the US had any sense in this -- because if there are that many resources in the area, on top of its location, this place suddenly got a great deal more strategic, and keeping it out of the wrong hands (such as China's) is an important policy goal. Russia is obviously going to want in as well, and I'll bet that they're going to use their other resources in Central Asia (e.g., their ability to secure countries where the US needs to maintain military bases to support operations in Afghanistan) in order to ensure that they get it.

Looks like it may be time for another Great Game in the area. I do wonder exactly when people realized the extent of resources available — it may shed some interesting light on the decisions people have been making over the past several years.

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Date:2010-06-11 17:18
Subject:Fascinating medical research

Physical gender is apparently more fluid than we anticipated. New paper from NIMR: they showed that knocking out the Foxl2 gene from the ovaries of adult mice not only made the ovaries stop working as such, but they switched over and started to become testicle-like. Not actually manufacturing sperm, but they do start manufacturing male rather than female hormones.

NB that was in adult mice; apparently some of the key sex-differentiation pathways don't shut off after the basic organs are built. Which isn't entirely surprising given the existence of sex-changing fish, but still pretty damned surprising given that these are mammals.

This has some very interesting potential applications, especially for those with gender dysphoria. (Imagine being able to switch some parts over in situ rather than needing regular hormone injections?) It also really increases my curiosity about gender dysphoria; now that we're starting to get a clearer picture of the various stages involved in determining physical gender, it would be really interesting to see if anomalies in any of these stages were correlated with dysphoria later in life.

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Date:2010-06-09 14:57
Subject:Analyzing proposition 14

(Paraphrased, with some modifications, from a comment in jlassen's journal)

Prop 14 has been characterized -- I'd say mischaracterized -- as opening up the primary system, or allowing people to vote in primaries other than their own. It really does something much deeper: It replaced the primary / general election system with a general / runoff system. The round 1 election is now not a party matter, but rather a general election; the top two finishers meet in a November runoff.

My thoughts on where this will lead, quoted from the thread:

But the measure isn't about allowing non-party-members to vote in party primaries; it's a wholesale conversion of the primary / general system to a general / runoff system. It means that we no longer have a phase 1 election which has a low turnout and is dominated by party bases; an interesting open question is whether the new phase 1 election, which is the one which behaves a lot more like a many-way general election, will start to draw the same participation levels that old general elections used to pull.

It's definitely true that this will reduce the number of minor candidates; absent a cheaper primary phase, people need to run a working general election campaign in the first phase, and fewer people will do that. For candidates who are running inside a party infrastructure, that probably increases the effective power of party bosses, since their choice of which candidate to back is now being done before a primary season which could have given a seemingly minor candidate a chance to make a visible impact and garner attention. For candidates running outside of any hope of getting party backing, this just further marginalizes them, but to be honest they weren't ever going to be major players in the general election, so that's a smaller change.

So what I would expect to see now is: pre-election, there's more internal party politicking over which candidates will get party backing. The first-round elections will be dominated (as in current general elections) by people with party backing or people with sufficient independent resources to mount their own campaigns. There will be a lot more noise around these elections, and probably turnout somewhere between current primary and general numbers. In most cases we'll probably see the top two be from the two major parties, but the big exceptions will probably be when a big-money candidate comes in and challenges the party picks; those are going to be Interesting Years.

Then we'll have a "general election" which is really a runoff election. Not yet sure what those are going to look like, since we don't have much experience with those in California.

There's a Washington Post article arguing that this won't do much to moderate California politics. I think this is actually wrong; if the power of party insiders goes up at the expense of base voters, parties have an even stronger incentive to pick a candidate who has a strong chance of both making it to the runoff and then winning in a two-person general election. Candidates on either fringe will both have less ability to influence their own parties and less ability to run on their own effectively.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Honestly, I'm not sure. I've generally suspected that, in a country of this size, there are benefits to moderate governance; on the one hand this slows down reforms that I'd like, but it also slows down crazy people that I don't like, and having seen what happens when crazy people end up in broad power, I'd say that avoiding this is a reasonable tradeoff. California has a slightly different calculus than the US as a whole; the state is traditionally a testing ground for new political ideas from both left and right, and so letting crazy people from all sides run the state is... well, the status quo. That has its merits and flaws (as seen in our lovely state budgeting process) but it does give the country a good way to field-test experimental ideas on only 1/8th of its population.

On the other hand, what better place to field-test a new election system? I say we give it a run and see what happens. Cthulhu knows, this state won't be afraid to change it to something else if it doesn't work out. Or even if it does.

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Date:2010-05-13 14:26
Subject:WisCon 34 Schedule, or, Gods! Money! Artificial Minds!

I'm going to be attending WisCon this year, and have a fairly interesting schedule -- two panels and a talk:

Defining God (Panel; Sunday, 1 - 2:15 PM, Room 634)
Moderator: P. C. Hodgell; F. J. Bergmann, Chibi-Evil, Richard S. Russell, Yonatan Zunger

Atheists are often asked, "What would it take to get you to believe in God?" The stock response is "Well, you'd need to start with a good definition, so I’d know what to look for." OK, let's get started. What sort of superpowers does it take to rise to the level of godliness? Would a really smart computer qualify? If you just had a creature who could create a whole universe, but was pathetic in many other respects, wouldn't that still be pretty godlike?

Economics of the Future (Panel; Sunday, 4 - 5:15 PM, Conference 5)
Moderator: Benjamin Rosenbaum; Fred, Christopher Davis, Gayle, Yonatan Zunger
Science fiction has posited a wide range of economic models, from total abundance to mean scarcity, from plutocracy to collectivism. What happens when goods are freely available to all? What happens when long–lasting food rations are worth killing for? Which books actually talk about economics (whether capitalist or socialist or some other sort) without handwaving it all away?

AI's: The Current Reality, the Future Possibilities (Talk; Monday, 10 - 11:15 AM, Room 629)
AIs have the possibility of being very interesting from a narrative perspective because they can be a fundamentally different kind of intelligence that nevertheless shares a world with us. The basic evolutionary pressures that drove our brains to work the way they do are completely different from those that would act on them. And indeed, the AIs that we're starting to see in the real world—from search engines that understand our intentions to cars that drive themselves—look very different from the positronic brains we once imagined. In this talk, Yonatan Zunger will discuss the ways in which AIs are developing today and various possibilities for future directions.

I think this should be a really interesting con; the panels look ripe for spirited, and intelligent, discussion, and the talk should be fun. I guarantee mention of BrainPals and of the religious tendencies of artificial intelligences. Because that's the real future of AI: theologically-minded brain implants.

ETA: Dates, times and rooms are kinda useful information. Added!

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Date:2010-04-30 10:39
Subject:A complete waste of time!

So a few days ago, I got an amusing idea for an interview question which I realized was totally pointless as an interview question, because it has no practical value whatsoever. So instead, I'm going to post it on my blog, as a way to help waste the time of all my CS friends. There is no prize whatsoever for a correct answer, except for the satisfaction of having avoided work for a while solved an amusing problem.

Here are two really bad ways to sort an array:

  1. Random sort: Repeatedly select a random permutation and apply it to the set. Stop when it becomes sorted.

  2. Brute-force sort: Iterate over the set of all permutations of N elements. Apply each in turn. If the list is now sorted, stop.

The question is: which of the two is less efficient, and (the trickier part) by how much?

(Clarification: For the latter, "how much" in terms of average [mean] time to sort. You can also average over a large number of possible inputs)

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Date:2010-03-18 20:45
Subject:A note on interface design

While reviewing some code today, a principle of software design somehow distilled itself to clarity in my head.

When designing your system, think of every major system1 upon which your own system directly depends2 as a bug.

By "think of it as a bug," I mean that sooner or later, you are going to come to truly hate this dependency. It won't do what you want, or it will turn old and crufty, or it will get outdated, or your system will outgrow it. Perhaps it already stinks. And therefore, think about what you are going to have to do to take it out and replace it with something better, and possibly not even having similar API's.
Yes, you should have your code sufficiently factored and modular that such a replacement will be minimally invasive. But more importantly: if that replacement requires any change in the API's3 by which the outside world is using your system, then there is something wrong with your design. Stop and fix that immediately.

1Both external dependencies and major subsystems of your own code. Both will suck in time, I promise you.
2If the systems upon which you directly depend have done this properly, you don't need to worry about your indirect dependencies. If they haven't, then you should consider replacing them now, because you are obviously dealing with the work of madmen.
3Or UI's, if your software is at the top of its software stack. UI's are just API's for communicating efficiently with humans. (Or perhaps API's are just UI's for communicating with computers?)

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Date:2010-03-03 11:52
Subject:Now that's hardcore.

Washington DC just legalized gay marriage; the local archdiocese responded by ending all spousal health benefits to its employees.

Now here's an organization with the courage of its convictions. Rather than let a single gay partner get benefits from them, they will let each and every one of their people's spouses die. None of this Christian charity bullshit for these guys!

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Date:2009-12-30 17:46
Subject:A stupid quote

From the Washington Post today:

Authorities and people familiar with the drug trade say violence in Mexico and increased enforcement -- symbolized by the Flores case -- are having a dramatic effect on Chicago street sales, at least for now. The wholesale price for a kilo of cocaine -- about 2.2 pounds -- has spiked over the past 18 months, from $18,000 to $29,000 and often more, according to authorities.
I wonder if the unnamed "authorities" in question are being deliberately misleading, or if they simply lack the sense to notice what they just said. The increase in the wholesale price of cocaine ends up, as such increases normally do, in the pockets of the people selling it.

What they have just said is that increased enforcement has increased profits for drug lords dramatically.

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Date:2009-08-11 15:01
Subject:Read this book!

Back from Montreal. No energy to try and write a con report right now... but it was a hell of a Worldcon. Paul Krugman's two talks were definitely high points, as were several panels, and a great deal of meeting some very interesting people.

But something better than a con report is a book report! Paolo Bacigalupi has a novel out (released just this Friday, Amazon doesn't seem to realize it yet) called The Windup Girl. This is the best new SF (not fantasy, not spec fic) novel I've come across in the past few years. It takes place in an intricately thought-out near-future Bangkok, where the consequences of genetic engineering of crops, climate change, and political shift have all taken their toll. It follows four different protagonists: an American expat working for an agribusiness conglomerate, trying to get access to Thai seed stocks; a Chinese refugee of a Malaysian genocide, working for this American while trying to build a life for himself; a captain of the Thai environmental ministry, which is locked in a complicated war with other factions of the government; and the title character, a genetically engineered "new woman" created to be a personal secretary, now abandoned in Bangkok and living in a brothel.

This book works out the consequences of the SFnal ideas in it as thoroughly as Charles Stross works his out; but what will grab you about this book are the rich characters, their deep and conflicting motivations, the depth of realization of the world. It has one very interesting structural feature: although there are four protagonists, and the chapters cycle points of view, this book doesn't do the usual (and IMHO, slightly annoying) multi-PoV thing of having four separate stories that one is bounced between. Instead, each chapter leads seamlessly into the next; the camera simply moves to follow one character, and then the next, as they all move through the same (very gripping) plot.

If you're at all in to serious SF, this is a book worth picking up. It manages to combine the conceptual rigor of the best hard SF with the characterization and writing of... well, of a really damned good book. Go read it.

P.S.: The publisher, Nightshade Books, is putting out a lot of other interesting stuff lately. For example, if you are interested in vampires, or post-apocalypses either with or without zombies, they can set you up.

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Date:2009-06-17 14:56
Subject:Get out and vote!

America just doesn't take its elections seriously enough. Our last two elections, we got about 55% of the voting-age population going to the polls, and that was unusually high.

Now take a look at Iran. Why, in some towns, their voter turnout was as high as 141%. Now that's a country that takes its democracy seriously.

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Date:2009-06-04 16:13
Subject:Fiat 500 coming to America.

The Fiat 500 will soon be sold in the US. (Well, "soon" by auto industry standards, a mere year and a half from now. I have no idea what takes this much lead time.) And they're planning on reintroducing Alfa Romeos, as well.

But they've hastened to reassure people that the new Chrysler acquisition doesn't mean that we'll be seeing lots of Fiats; we can keep expecting Chrysler design and engineering:

“Chrysler will not be producing Fiat models, but new Chrysler models based on Fiat technology (platforms, drivetrain, suspension) clothed in a pure Chrysler style,” [Fiat spokesman Richard] Gadeselli explained. Chrysler will design and engineer up to six of its own small or midsize vehicles based on Fiats.

“There is a misconception that Chrysler is going to build cars like the Fiat Bravo and just stick a Chrysler badge on it,” he added. “Actually, the vehicle architectures will be based on our stuff, and there will be some shared powertrains. But the vehicles will be U.S. vehicles, designed for U.S. customers by a U.S. company.”

I've seen Chrysler's design and engineering. I'd rather have a Fiat.

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Date:2009-03-10 19:58
Subject:Freedom of speech

From the WP: In China, Would-Be Protesters Pay a Price.

Summary of the article: China made a lot of noise during the Olympics about how it would allow peaceful protests in three special zones. A total of 77 applications were made to protest; none were actually approved. Those who didn't withdraw their petitions quickly enough are now in jails, mental hospitals, and so on.

An interesting, if little-known, fact is that China's laws guarantee absolute freedom of speech. However, they don't guarantee freedom after speech.

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Date:2009-02-10 13:30
Subject:What a show!

If you have some free time, you need to read this. It's an article from the Angelus, journal of the Society of St. Pius X, titled Defense of the Inquisition.

What's fascinating about this article is that it isn't what you think it is -- if you're expecting a modern historical reexamination, showing that the Inquisition wasn't what we thought it was, you're going to be mistaken. This is a modern historical reexamination showing that the Inquisition was exactly what you thought it was, and a detailed argument that this is a good thing, and ought to be reinstituted.

I wasn't expecting that.

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Date:2009-01-03 16:28
Subject:Another Gaza post

Another joint analysis of the developing Gaza situation with amysun. Read and enjoy!

(And those of you who follow my blog for politics may want to start reading hers, as well. We're probably going to do many more of these joint posts in the future.)

It's an interesting developing situation. I mispredicted: I expected that if Israel rolled into Gaza on the ground, it would do quick deep-penetration manoeuvers to wipe out selected "hard targets" which couldn't be hit from the air. Instead, it appears that this is a massed-force invasion. Part of this probably means that intelligence wasn't quite good enough to really wipe out the bulk of Hamas' military capability from the air. (DEBKA reports that the first day of bombing eliminated about 1,800 of Hamas' 8,000 Qassam [short-range] rockets, and the campaign so far has eliminated about 50% of their Grad [longer-range] rockets. At Hamas' new reduced rate of 80 rockets per day, they are still armed for about 2 months of firing, which is long enough for a war to end and for them to resupply.) Another thing this means is that Israel is probably going to go after Hamas' built-up infrastructure more thoroughly, including their enormous network of underground bunkers and facilities. That's going to be a particularly brutal sort of warfare, but it's probably necessary since the Gaza Strip is one of the most heavily tunneled places in the world.

I'd still conjecture that the invasion is meant to last on the scale of weeks rather than months, but there's now the distinct possibility that Israel will still be occupying significant ground positions within Gaza when Obama is inaugurated.

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Date:2009-01-02 20:22
Subject:The situation in Gaza

Ah, a new year. A perfect time to start posting about things going "Boom" in the Middle East.

This time, though, the post isn't going to be here. The lovely and talented amysun and I have been sitting together over the past few days and discussing the situation in Gaza in great depth, and she's posted her summary of the situation, together with a good backgrounder for those who are just joining, over on her blog. So head on over and take a look.

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Date:2008-12-02 10:36

Thanks to a number of music-loving friends, and their friends as well, the mysterious music has been identified. It's Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D. The mysterious theme I remembered was the entry of the full orchestra at measure 127 of the first movement.


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Date:2008-11-20 11:45
Subject:How to identify music...

I really wish there were some systematic way to identify music that you can partially remember.

I've got a bit of music that's been stuck in my head, quite literally, for several years. It's symphonic, with strings leading the melody and some fairly serious horns backing them up. I'm fairly sure it's late 19th- or early 20th-century Russian; it's fairly classical in its style, but has that special bombast of Russian nationalist music. More Tchaikovsky than Rachmaninoff. It sounds like the final movement of a string concerto or (more likely) a symphony, but I'm not sure if it's the main theme or a secondary theme. It's in a minor key -- I think f minor, but I don't really trust my ability to remember an exact pitch after this many years.

Now the question is... given all of this, and the ability to hum the melody (or even transcribe it, I suppose)... how the hell can I figure out what piece it is?

(I've tried going to Amazon and listening to as many samples of pieces as I could find that might match this. Not much luck. There's a lot of music out there.)

Anyone have any ideas?

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Date:2008-11-04 22:38
Subject:Proud to be an American

I've gone through an enormous emotional roller-coaster today. This morning, halfway through filling out my ballot, I was struck hard by a sense of civic pride, hard enough that I had to pause for a moment before continuing. I had just voted for a man named "Barack Hussein Obama," who is black and half-Kenyan, and I was allowed to vote for him, and there was a reasonable chance he would be elected president.

Do you know what this means? It means that all of the stuff they taught us in elementary school, about how democracy is supposed to work, is actually true. Despite all of the cynicism we've acquired over the years, it turned out to be true for the simple reason that enough people thought it was that it happened that way.

That's not to say that this country doesn't have flaws; but systematically, as a people, we see them as flaws to be corrected, not the way that they should be.

A few weeks ago, I read an article in the Washington Post interviewing people in Virginia about how they planned to vote. One man that they were interviewing told the interviewer (angrily) what his plans were: "I'm voting for the nigger."

No, I'm not going to bleep that word out. I want you to read it and realize all the things that sentence means. This is someone who by his own admission is racist; who is not well-educated, who does not live in a big city, who would call someone that in front of a journalist without being ashamed of it.

And this person thought about the country, and thought about his choices, and decided that he would, nonetheless, vote for him. The interview made it clear; he was thinking about the candidates' economic and foreign policies, and made a decision based on his feelings and the issues.

Know what that means? That the American people aren't stupid at all. They can have feelings and even prejudices, and still think about things and make decisions based on more than just that. The average American actually seems to understand the issues of this election pretty well. And I find that inspiring.

Today I saw some editorials interviewing people around the world. I was struck by interviewees in places like Egypt and Venezuela expecting that if Obama actually tries to govern, he'll be stymied or possibly even killed by "them," some shadowy force that actually runs the country. I know why they're assuming this; it's because that's how it works in most of the world. "They" might do all sorts of things for display, but "they" keep a permanent grip on power.

I suspect that over the next six months, the world is going to change just because of that one thing. Because in most of the world, people look at America and assume that it works just like their countries; that ultimately, everything is run by corruption. And they're going to see that no, Obama really is in control, and really does run the country -- which means that all of their beliefs and hypotheses about how everything bad is inevitable are going to run up very visibly against reality.

And I suspect that al-Qaeda's recruiting is going to fall through the floor, because suddenly the old spiel about how America is the great Satan and is really secretly plotting against you just doesn't ring as true when the president's middle name is Hussein and his skin is darker than yours.

And most of all, what I'm thinking about tonight is Martin Luther King's last speech, when he said that though he may not get there with us, our country will reach the promised land.

You know what's the most amazing thing of all about that speech, for someone who has one foot in this country and one foot in another? It's that that speech was one generation ago. In one generation, we've gone from lynchings and civil rights marches to a black man being elected as president. Ultimately, there seemed to be more fooforaw about Obama's race in the media than there was among the public; Americans, especially younger Americans, seemed to think that it was just a normal thing. In one generation, the country changed what it believed because it was genuinely convinced.

If this doesn't shake you deeply, you don't know what this is like everywhere else.

In Israel, the same time ago takes us to the Six-Day War. Twice that distance takes us to the Holocaust, and ten times that distance to various pogroms. And those things might as well have happened yesterday; everyone is still as rawly aware of them as they are of things that happened last year.

In Europe, in the Middle East, in all of the world, things simply don't change on the scale of a generation, not without an enormously bloody war.

But in America, they do. Because ultimately, when all is said and done, we actually believe in what we preach.

That democracy is the best way to run a government, and elections should be free and fair. That people should be able to rise to the level of their ability, not just on the basis of their contacts and their power. That, ultimately, we are a single nation, no matter what we look like or disagree about.

My God. I still can't type these things without crying.

Yes, we can, America. We just did.

ברוך אתה יי, אלוהינו מלך העולם, שהחיינו, וקיימנו, והגיענו לזמן הזה.

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Date:2008-09-10 21:12
Subject:Side thought

Where I work, I'm considered fairly senior. I've got a good deal of experience, and people generally respect my opinion.

This has had an important consequence which I didn't expect. I have the power to make people feel good about themselves professionally. For example, when someone comes to me with a design - especially if they're feeling insecure about it, especially if they're fairly new or junior and are nervous about coming forward with it - by getting excited about their work and encouraging them, I can lead them in turn to be excited about their own work.

One of the wonderful things about this is that it doesn't require that their design be excellent in order to work. Even if the design is deeply flawed, the conversation that results will reveal the ideas which led to it, and will encourage them to think more about it, and by the end of it they wil have something that they're excited about.

Another one is that oddly enough, this seems to work for good but not for evil. Having a senior person - one you respect but don't necessarily know personally - praise your work has a much more positive impact, overall, than having the same person deride it would have a negative impact. Not that I would want to do that, but it's very pleasing to me to think that there is a benefit which can come in life from a form of power which isn't immediately translatable into its opposite.

There wasn't any particular recent event that inspired this post. It just occurred to me that at various times in the past, I've spoken with people who were unsure about their work, and when they left they clearly felt really good about it; and those have been some of my favorite moments.

Working with people is neat.

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