# Technology

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## Grassy Field

Since all I do these days is post my school projects to my blog, here’s another one for you. This week we had to create a collage. The requirements were pretty bare: at least five instances of the picture, one rotation, one rescaling, and at least one color modification. Try to spot each of the requirements in the final product below. (Maybe you’ve seen the original image before.) I had planned on using longer strips than the squares I ended up implementing, but I got lazy. The checkered effect is a little busy for my tastes; hopefully it’ll make the grade.

I tried for freakin’ ever to get the sky to soft clip to the hill top. I was able to adapt the intermediate image technique described in this article to create a tacky sun (not shown for art’s sake), but not for much more. Instead, I used the built-in, jagged setClip() method native to the java.awt.Graphics2D class. In case you were wondering, the clip was made with about six straight lines. I hate spline fitting, and try never to use curves—especially if line segments will do just fine. File that little tidbit away, it could be useful someday.

But convolutions rock. I’ve always thought so. Ever since I started using them to do signal processing in astronomy class. Our professor made us do a lot of convolutions using a visual calculus that really changed the way I thought about calculation in general. Drawing it out refined my sense of geometric interaction and avoided a lot of messy integrals. Here’s to qualitative methods: hurrah!

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## Books

I’ve spent part of tonight cataloguing my books. This is only the beginning. I need to differentiate among books I own, I’ve read, I’d like to own, and books I’d like to read. Also, I needed to figure out a work-around for the Library Thing blog widget since the Law School server doesn’t allow me to execute scripts. (First pass hack shown below.)

## The State of Grafitti: Yuppie as Mascot

About a year ago, I was at the Park Street station on my way back to Cambridge. As I waited for the train to come, I did what I always do when I’m waiting without a book: I paced the end of the platform. Rather than slowly pass my foot over the knobs of the textured, yellow safety strip,—a favorite pastime of mine—I kept to the flat brick on a well-defined route that visits the supporting columns which dwell nearest to the tunnel’s opening.

Normally I’m not struck by public graffiti, but every once in a while something unexpected crops up. This time one of my columns read: “Kill all yuppies.”

I was very excited by this message. No, I’m not in favor of killing all the yuppies. That suggestion’d put me too close at risk. There’s a very good chance, indeed, that I’m a yuppie. So, no. Please be kind to the yuppies. But here’s what’s different. Normally the graffiti that I’ve encountered are either some sort of tag—you know, a personal statement of existence and potential ownership, “Kilroy was here” or “AlL St*R” or something along those lines—or alternatively they are some commitment of love or hate (often accompanied by a slur or two). You seen them, something like “Joe is a fag” or “I love Tiffany.” Anyway, all of these examples are personally directed. They don’t extend beyond an individual. Sometimes I’ll find one that condemns a whole group of people, like my yuppies example, scrawled on a public alleyway. But those even those are gang-related or race-related. Yuppies represent something new.

Whoever wrote it got my attention because his hatred was not race-directed. It points to a larger social movement. The new segregation, if it is really new, will be intellect. And these upwardly mobile persons are central enough to earn the distinguished role of spokesperson. But what exactly are yuppies mascots of? Well, that sort of brings me to some more recent graffiti.

The Ashmont train station is undergoing some pretty hefty repairs. Officials have suspended the Mattapan High Speed Line service for a year, and the train station is hidden from plain sight by several, several ton mounds of dirt. Like most other forms of transportation in the city, the Ashmont station is going underground. It’ll take some time before things are back in order. For now, there are lots of make-shift wooden structures to take the places of the bus depot and station entrance. And that means there’s plenty of board space for community art—I mean graffiti.

The last time I was at Ashmont I noticed some of the newer pieces as I walked by one of the wooden panels. This time a website caught my eye. I haven’t seen many hypertext tags outside of the internet, but there it was: a link to someone’s myspace page. Kilroy has entered a new age and he’s updated his message. Now the statement is “I am not here, I’m here. Come find me.” It’s a revolution. Personalization on the web is at an all-time high, and movers in the field want more of it. Collaborative filtering, social navigation, blogs! They’re all in style, and they don’t look like they’re going to go away any time soon. I can’t say I mind it, either. In fact, I want to be more a part of it.

This is not the same technological revolution that your slightly older brother talked about only decades ago. No, the paradigm is different: we can read the writing on the wall. Literally. Before technology brought with it an increased level of impersonality. The assembly-line metaphor bled into everything—it’s still around, of course. Don’t worry, the transactional framework driven by the glory of mass manipulation of raw goods to form an endless supply of identical product is still very much alive. And people are still applying manufacturing-inspired methods completely out of context. And the effect is still very isolating. But lo! the very same push to maximize profit that once aimed to cut time and kill interpersonal relationships has turned a corner. Personalization is the new rage.

But will personalization help build bridges among people; won’t it keep us even more securely glued to our seats in front of our computers? I’m afraid that it can. Technologically-backed social ventures, like AOL Instant Messenger and other chat programs, have made it easier for the quiet kids to remain quiet and alone. Chat tools give the user the appearance that they’re interacting with other people. But some researchers suggest that the analogy is only that: apparent. The real satisfaction one gains from honest-to-goodness, face-to-face conversation is so much greater than its virtual manifestation that it’s almost silly to make the comparison. So, what’s going on?

The invitational nature of MySpace is different than AIM. A person’s page is like his home. Each click to that site is really a visit. That’s why it makes the news so often. Sometimes the visits aren’t just virtual. And everyone uses it: college kids, little kids, married couples. The range of demographics represented by MySpace’s users is enormous. Unlike Friendster, which originally withheld a user’s access to a stranger’s page by default, MySpace let everyone see everyone else from the get-go. Friendster was a place for people who were already friends. MySpace, I believe, was built to get people to go to and listen to new bands in concert. The idea that you’d actually meet strangers was the founding idea. Now it’s just a place find others you’d like to bone à la Craig’s List’s personals but less so. But the idea that you might meet the person attached to the website is still very much there. Isn’t that exactly what that graffiti from Ashmont Station was all about? The internet takes all the scariness out of meeting a stranger, because you don’t physically meet, and the meeting is still completely anonymous. (There’s a trade-off, though. The relationships that form are even more tenuous than those so-called and ever important “weak bonds.” Online relationships tend to be superficial and sometimes socially damaging. Like I said before, they permit the loners to find each other and stay alone. Even those of us who aren’t loners end up as loners the longer we stay online rather than outside.)

So we’ve found a cause for our mascots. Like the term itself, today’s yuppies herald the dawn of a new form of impersonalization: isolation through personalization. Technology is poised to use what it knows about you and your preferences to make a friendlier, easier experience. In the process, you get to interact with others—real or not. The interaction is deep enough to convince you that you’ve done something meaningful. You’ve made a friend or learned a new fact. (Wikipedia is a blessing and curse.) But have you really; can you rely on your friend or apply your fact?

Your iPod list has exactly the music you want to hear. And so now, people go through life not listening to each other but to themselves, plugged into a clean, white box whose world revolves around the most important person—its only person: its master is me. Time Magazine got it wrong. The person of the year is not You; it’s me. This is the society recorded in graffiti today.

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## Back to the Fun Stuff

I’ve started doing what I like to do again. That’s right. I’ve decided that it’s been long enough. Why don’t I have a tag-driven, database-backed website up and running yet? I’ve been meaning to collect funny and meaningful quotes—Lord knows I run across so many good ones everday. But for some reason I have forced myself to sit down and set up the site. Rather than using some out-of-the-box, I’m going to take this as an opportunity to learn some skills. I’ve taken out three books that may or may not prove useful: two on data mining, one on interaction design. Because of the hype, I should probably get one that covers AJAX, too.

I’ll let you know where and when you can see what I’ve cooked up.

I consider this a living exercise in computer science and philosophy. I’m fascinated by these folksonomy things and what it means for information architecture. I think that these user-authored category systems are going to propel the semantic web in the immediate future. But then again, I’m not sure really I know what I’m talking about. Please don’t trust me. I need to do some more reading and thinking about distributed cognition. Please let me know about your insights on these subjects.

The bloodgood shed all its foliage. The core stem is green. I keep tricking myself into finding what are not new buds. Still, it looks healthy. And it’s beautiful, what with its sterile dignity. Maybe I’ll go purchase some clunky, black frames to match it.

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## The Writing on the Wall

I have some spare time in between my summer job and my fall classes. So I’ve spent the past five days learning to program in PHP and MySQL. My focus has been on the development of so-called large scale web applications. Luckily my dad has agreed to accommodate my unemployment, taken me back in, and even found me a room in the apartment so that I no longer have to sleep on the couch in the living room. In process of learning good organization and coding practices, I came across the idea of templates. And then I realized why graffiti never became an art form, despite its introduction into high-class New York galleries in the early 90s. Stephanie, this post is dedicated to you.

Templates are pretty natural and, nowadays, pretty common. Anyone who has used Microsoft Word or Excel has probably seen a template, some have maybe even used one. They’re empty containers which you can fill in with your own information to produce a finished product without too much effort. What they do, though, is subtle. I hadn’t realized just how subtle they are until last night. Templates allow you to separate content from presentation. This is important. The same thing works in programming, except in web development it’s a little bit more complicated.

A web application has three parts: the content, the presentation—both of which you, the user, see—and the business logic—the code which does the actual heavy-lifting in the silently backroom in the dark. It’s a good idea to keep these guys as far away from each other as possible. You enter the content, more or less, in HTML. Fortunately and unfortunately, the paragraph tag < p > is blind to your content. You wouldn’t format the address in a letter the same way you format a recipe, for example. HTML, however, can’t distinguish between the two. It treats everything similarly. Luckily, that’s where another standard, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), comes in.

CSS allows you to tell the browser exactly how you’d like a certain type of text to look. You can control placement, font face, font weight, behavior in response to events (like when the mouse cursor hovers over a link), and more! This is the presentation part of it all.

A clever little package, aptly named Smarty, lets you keep your PHP scripts from mingling with your HTML and your CSS. That way you can redesign the look of your pages without having to update the guts which control the functionality, too. Your copy editors and content managers stay happy, too, because they aren’t effected, either, and can continue doing what they like to do best: write content.

And all this got me thinking about my friend Stephanie and her undergraduate honors thesis. It straddled the divide between literature and art history; she wrote about the rise and subsequently fall of graffiti in the art world. She argues that the art world rejected graffiti, actually, a particular type called Writing—writers would never call their Writing graffiti, so why should we?—because it was written and people got caught up in trying to read it. And that makes sense. Try to take in the artistic value of the following:

You can’t. If you know how to read in English, then you read and processed the above statement, even though I intended it as a purely visual object. Writing is a little bit more subversive. A single author didn’t always tag with one name, and often the script was so stylized that it was impossible to read in the popular sense of the word. Yet other Writers had no problem identifying authorship. The trick is, they were able to distinguish between the presentation and content of a Writer’s tag. Critiques strove to find meaning in the words the Writers presented—meaning that was never there. And the style discovered its author, not the name. Writers had deconstructed the written word, extracting only a visual idiom while leaving the word’s referent alone to fend for itself fully detatched from its referrer.

Few people in the academia of literature, it seems, study the effects typography and layout have on a written work for better or for worse. Perhaps it is more important to distinguish the two when investigating Islamic writing (and its calligraphy) or medieval, illuminated texts. Too bad, though, that presentation has been relegated to the design world. Everyone interacts with layout. It affects so much of what we do everyday.

What are the implications of my scheme?

I don’t even want to mention what a meta-language like XML might mean to literature academes. At least not now.

Mentioned last time, it’s worth seeing:

Seeing as I’m here, and you’re probably not, I just opened a Flickr account so that we may share my experiences more fully. You can even subscribe to its RSS feed. I will try to update it frequently enough to make things interesting.

## My New Toy

I’ve been using growing up as an excuse to buy more and more expensive toys—that’s both more toys and more expensive toys, not just super expensive toys. My latest, emergency purchase was this sexy GPS/Palm device produced by Garmin, a respected name in GPS technology. Behold the iQue 3600.

It’s a fairly old technology by technology standards, and I would’ve prefered its updated, sleek cousin the M4, but I couldn’t stomach the price. After all, I can’t even afford the street price of the iQue 3600. Luckily, these things have been around long enough (read: a year) that they’ve shown up on ubid.com. Go quick and you’ll beat my winning bid by two dollars.

I totally would’ve rocked everyone else at those boy scout orienteering competitions if I had this bad boy instead of my crude but trusty compass.

Also, on the less expensive more toys front, I received A Primer of Algebraic D-modules in the mail today. “This book introduces D-modules and their applications avoiding all unnecessary over-sophistication.”

It’s like Christmas in July. In June!

## Going to Camp

Today I received an email alerting me to an upcoming, free camp on OPML. Having no idea what in the world OPML might be, I hit up the website and signed up. Now that I’ve poked around a little, I figured out what this new, reputedly hot technology is about: it’s mass RSS! Some of you still might not use the Really Simple Syndication standard yet—by the way, the Berkman Center maintains the RSS standard. Small world.—but if you did, you could check to see if a blog (or podcast or other feed) had been updated without actually having to go there. Microsoft tried doing this sort of thing a long time ago when it first came out with IE 4.0 and its internet channels. Despite the massive amounts of money and time poured into the project, it never really took off with users. [My guess is that bandwidth wasn't up to snuff yet and Microsoft had you download all the pages in the background, resulting in a slow update speed.]

Anyway, OPML lets you make, among other things, neat looking trees that you can fill in with text, RSS feeds, podcasts, and other things I haven’t figured out yet. It’s a general, all-purpose container for stuff you’d find on the internet. OPML, like RSS, is a subset of XML, so all you have to do is match tags. Here’s a sample I made without too much trouble:

Today I am writing because the internet is rife with ways to waste your time and I want to make sure you are abreast of one of the latest from Google: it is Google Trends. View the approximate waxing and waning of a subject’s celebrity by searching Google’s history. This new, meta-search engine will spit back a timeline, label a few of the peaks, and report the geographies where the keywords were most popular, and in which languages. [This feature is normalized, of course.]

Use the comma (,) to compare the popularity of two or more items against one another. For instance, you might want to check out the Yankees versus the Red Sox. Do so by typing “Yankees, Red Sox” into the search box. Use the pipe (|) as a logical “or,” as in “this | that“; and a minus sign (-) to exclude words. Maybe you’re looking for “(-intelligent) design.”

I like to look for obvious spikes jutting out of periods of relative nonactivity. For Susannah, here’s a search for Lawrence Summers. I think ones that are cyclical, unlike the GRE and MCAT themselves, are fun, too.

## Applied Math Curricula

This article from a 1993 edition of the Phi Delta Kappan somehow summarizes hundreds of pages of a digest of hundreds of research studies that wasn’t written until 1999 in only seven pages—and a drawing takes up most of the space of the first one. I agree with almost everything in it, except the bit about math movies at the end. Also, I might take issue with some of the suggestions curriculum reform. For example:

In addition, topics not previously explored in traditional curricula must be added. Changes from an agrarian society to a technical/information society demand the literate citizens be familiar with such concepts as mathematical modeling, discrete mathematics, and data analysis. An example of discrete mathematics would be the decision process whereby a street sweeper is routed through a town so that the fewest number of streets possible will end up being swept twice.

Now, sure, we ought to rethink what we teach our kids. The author is absolutely correct. The standard American math curriculum hasn’t budged much in the past century despite radical changes in American society, culture, and technology. To ignore the passage of time is stupid. But I’m not entirely sure what the author is proposing here. To me, she’s suggesting we load up our kids with graph theory and Fourier analysis. This is great if we want all our kids to go into algorithmic optimization, data compression, and signal processing. Maybe that wouldn’t such a bad thing. In my experience, Fourier analysis can be hard. But such a suggestion presupposes that everyone, everywhere will end up in the high-tech sector. Even then, my friends who do lots of computer science [most of whom actually work in finance] don’t rely on mathematics proper so much as things in computer science, and then, that they picked up in college.

Also it’s worth mentioning that we can’t just continue to add things to the curriculum and expect a change in our students’ abilities or understanding of the subject matter. Right now the curriculum is too broad and lacks substantial depth. As is, kids have to memorize lots of seemingly unrelated, mathematical facts. They’re presented in isolation and learnt in isolation. If you’re going to revamp the curriculum, fine: just don’t tack on more and more things and then look for a miracle. But moving on.

The author cites a statement by the Mathematical Sciences Education Board. Following fold, it’s reproduced for your benefit and my scrutiny in part below:

Almost no time is spent on estimation, probability, interest, histograms, spread sheets or real problem-solving, things which will be commonplace in most of these young people’s later lives.

I agree. We pay little attention to any of those things; it’s a shame, too. Probablility and statistics are perhaps the most important “real-life” mathematics we could be teaching. I’ve always found it funny that calculus has dominated as the capstone math course at many high schools. College freshmen use it as a measure of their peers mathematical prowess. You’re especially frightening if you took a multivariable calculus or linear algebra class. Statistics isn’t as nearly frightening. Too bad, because if it were, maybe more people’d offer and take it. I routinely run into Ivy-league educated people who don’t know “correlation is not causation.” I’m a bit worried and confused by their inclusion of “real problem-solving.” I don’t know what it means, but I can guess.

They want our kids to pretend that they’re the CEO of a juice company, and they need to figure out whether to make more cranberry juice or more grape juice according to a number of contraints. Maybe they’ll do the linear programming themselves, or maybe they’ll plug it into a computer. In any case, these sorts of highly contextualized, so-called real world problems are, in researched fact, a bad, bad, bad idea. Not only do they not interest most children—most children are not, nor do they dream of being the CEO of a juice company—these sorts of problems actually hinder transfer of abstract principles and problem solving structures to other types of problems and disciplines. What does go, however, are abstract relationships.

With a little practice and a lot of thought, it’s not hard to come up with motivating questions that live soley within the realm of mathematics. There’s no need to introduce confusing and distracting details from the physical world.

But, if you must, I could see the addition of more mathematics into the school day. What if we had two math classes, but disguised one of them as “real-world problem solving”? Then we wouldn’t have to compromise learning how to think through problems in an abstracted way that promotes the formation and understanding of relationships, and we’d have a venue for an integrated approach science, math, and technology with applications that is so hot nowadays.

Anyway, I’m meeting with the author sometime next week to talk about these sorts of issues in person. I’ll let you know how it goes.