Saturday, December 23, 2006

Letters from high school

Every year since my senior year in high school (about 14 years) my father has spent a day with the Humanities classes at Los Alamos High School. During the course of the year they bring in representatives from a variety of religious perspectives -- fundamentalist Christian, orthodox Jew, Unitarian, etc. My dad is their token atheist speaker.

The students are required to send letters to him expressing their thoughts about the talk, and he forwarded these letters to me. They are handwritten, so it would be a lot of work to copy them all, but here are a few choice comments.

"Everything you said made complete sense to me. I really liked how you asked us to challenge you. It seemed like you really wanted to know what we thought. You answered all our questions in depth and really thought about them. Thanks so much for all the information you gave us. It was fascinating!"

"It is a common misconception that atheists are immoral people. We are glad that you could show our class that. We liked how you explained that morality can come from human nature not just the supposed word of God."

"Even though I am a Christian, I was glad that you accepted everyone's beliefs and you explained your view on sensitive subjects like abortion and homosexuality. Overall I believe that your presentation, though not as flashy as the others, was the best one our Humanities classes had visit them."

"Our class seemed to greatly enjoy your presentation as many other speakers had Q&A but yours by far had the least empty space."

"Dear Dr. Glasser,
You have changed my life for the best. I will always look at religion and life in different ways."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction (movie, ****)

I think it's time for me to just grit my teeth and declare that I am a Will Ferrell fan. I hated him with a passion when he was a hyper cheerleader on SNL. But I just have to say that everything he's done recently has been getting consistently better and better.

Stranger Than Fiction is very funny. Also extremely different from his last movie, Talladega Nights, which was also very funny. Whereas Ricky Bobby went for broad, obvious, Mel Brooks-style satire, STF is a very witty romantic comedy you just watch with kind of a goofy grin on your face most of the way through.

I love movies and books that screw with the narrative structure. It's one of the main reasons why Memento is among my favorites. I also very much enjoy stories which have characters who become aware of the story they are in. I admit to loving Last Action Hero as a guilty pleasure, and I've re-read The Neverending Story (enormously superior to the movie version) many times.

Most everything in the movie just worked for me. The reactions of all the characters to Will's narrator. The chemistry between Will and Maggie Gyllenhaal. (She is a major hottie, but who the hell knew that Ferrell could play a successful romantic lead?) The cleverly placed computer graphics that highlight the tedium of Will's life. The fake-out scenes that take place in the author's imagination. The fake literary analysis.

I can't remember where, but I recently heard a critic say that comic actors make successful transitions to drama far more often than serious actors make successful transitions to comedy, because doing comedy is harder. I would not call Stranger Than Fiction a drama by any means, but it is a thoughtful comedy different in nature from anything I've seen Ferrell do before, and it bodes well for his future career.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Odd feed behavior

By the way, I noticed that my blog feed was exhibiting odd behavior and showing very old posts as if they were new. The reason for this is because I've been going back and re-editing all of my old posts. Blogger just installed this nifty new feature where each post can be assigned to one or more categories, and if you click a category at the bottom of the post, you can see all posts in that category. So if you want to see everything I've recently blogged about, say, atheism, or grad school, just click the label and it's all neatly sorted. I like it.

Actually, more like a war on Hannukah

We celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah fairly loosely. Ginny laid out both a tree and a menorah, but didn't bother buying candles. On the fourth night (Monday), I decided I ought to go get some. I went to the nearest grocery store, combed the candle aisle thoroughly, but couldn't find any that were clearly labeled for menorahs. Since I'm typically an extremely unobservant Jew, I figured I should call my sister, who is up on these things.

Me: "Hey, do you know where I'd find Hannukah candles?"
Keryn: "Check the kosher market on so-and-so street, that's where I got mine."
Me: "I'm in a grocery store, I figured they'd just have them there. Am I crazy?"
Keryn: "In past years I found them easily. This year I couldn't find any in grocery stores at all."
Me: "Huh. What happened?"
Keryn: "I think it's part of this backlash against the war on Christmas. You know, Wal-Mart greeters are actually being told this year that they HAVE TO say Merry Christmas to people. In previous years there were smaller displays devoted to Hannukah and other holidays. No one says happy holidays now and you can't get Hannukah stuff."

You know, if I didn't know better, I might think that this anti-war-on-Christmas stuff is actually a thinly veiled "fuck you" to the other holidays that millions of people celebrate in this country.

Of course, as PZ Myers says, the best way to conduct the war on Christmas is to celebrate it.

My personal war on Christmas is fought in a way the Bill O'Reillys of the world don't even recognize: I blithely wish people a Merry Christmas without so much as a germ of religious reverence anywhere in my body. I take this holiday and turn it into a purely secular event, with family and friends and food and presents. I celebrate the season without thought of Jesus or any of the other myths so precious to the pious idiots who get upset when a Walmart gives them a cheery "Happy Holidays!".

Of course, it's easier for an atheist Christian than an atheist Jew to appreciate the Christmas traditions in their own right. I'm somewhat lukewarm on the notion, and Keryn doesn't like Christmas at all. She says that the only people who dislike Christmas as much as she does are devout Christians who are mad about the commercialization of "their" holiday. Scrooginess makes strange bedfellows, no?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Worst part of being back in school? The nightmares

For many years after I got my Bachelor's degree from UCSD, I had nightmares about being back in school. But I haven't had them for a while... until this weekend. Now they seem to be back with a vengeance. Oh joy.

So I'm in class taking a final exam. The final exam has a very weird format: there are two questions, and you get ten minutes for each of them. Not twenty minutes for the test, but you actually are given one question, then you turn it in at the ten minute mark, then you are given the other question. Furthermore, the questions themselves are pretty ugly. You have to write code, on your paper, without a computer, and it has to compile and run correctly when the professor types it in later. For you non-coders, I should mention that writing code that runs perfectly with no testing is not a skill many normal people have, even very experienced programmers. It is often largely a matter of luck.

A few minutes into the test, I have written one line, and suddenly I lose a contact lens. I go to the bathroom, and for some reason I cannot get it back in for a long time. When I get back, the test is over.

I plead with the professor: come on! This was beyond my control! I need more time to finish! The professor finally says, "All right, you can have four more minutes to finish both questions."

One minute in, I wake up. I immediately panic: No! I can't leave the classroom! I have to go back to sleep and finish the test! It takes me several more minutes to calm myself down and convince myself that the test was not, in fact, real.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Pre-post-mortem on Fall 2006 semester

I'm sitting in Mobile Computing with one hour to go before my first year of grad school officially ends. I realize I am being unkind to my fellow students by blogging while they give their extremely important presentations that they worked on so hard. Well, sorry students. I want to go home, spend time with my family, watch some movies, and then maybe gird my loins for some early Christmas/Hannukah/Solstice/whatever shopping.

In my humble estimation, my class projects both turned out pretty well. As in Spring, I'll post the term papers on my web site in a few days or so. One of my projects was about writing a distributed program to calculate whether very large numbers are prime. (For more information, the basis of our project is I wrote an entire peer-to-peer application from the ground up in Java, which is a very cool thing to know how to do. My other project was a neat little graphics program -- I often miss writing graphics -- which simulated a network of sensors that can detect when a car drives past it. Since the sensor network is fun to play with, I would like to turn it into a Java applet and post it on my project page, but that will take a little work to convert.

I was quite proud of my 4.0 average through the summer, but I predicted that it wouldn't last and I think I'm ready for my prediction to come true now. I won't be completely shocked if I pull an A in either of these classes, but if I do then it will be by the skin of my teeth. Distributed systems was HARD, and while I studied for the final as much as I could, I know there was one question that I completely botched, and a few others that I struggled with. As for Mobile Computing, about 40% of my grade hangs on my performance in three quizzes. I screwed up the first one badly, did well on the second, and mediocre on the third. So I think my performance there is a bit below average. I'm going to guess that I'm getting both B's, and I'll be happy with it. I've honestly never been a straight A student, and I think I'm just satisfied with the fact that I got in here and am lasting.

Next year will be tougher, because I have to write a Master's Thesis while still taking the same full course load that I did this year. Fortunately, there are two classes which I've deliberately lined up, one per semester, which people tell me are easy.

The last day of class is always excruciating, because I've finished a grueling month of work and I frankly don't care that much about other people's projects. Unfair, maybe, but they probably don't care about mine. Some of them are somewhat interesting as explorations of side topics we covered in class, but the problem is that they're explained by computer science grad students who, as a whole, are not known for their public speaking abilities.

There are a few happy exceptions, and I like to believe that I am one. I try to begin or end on a good joke and scatter in some pop culture references, and I often throw in some wacky things in my slides just to keep people awake. I know they'd rather not be there, but I try to make it as painless as possible. Video game references are often a winner in this crowd.

Oh, while I'm on the subject of slides, let me say a few words about Powerpoint presentations. I'm pretty much a Powerpoint novice, but in the last year I've worked on four presentations and observed way too many presentations by others. Here are my words of wisdom, limited in experience as they are:
  1. Please oh please don't include large amounts of text on your slides. I don't want to hear you recite things straight off the slide. The bullet points in your slides need to be short, punchy, and highlight what you are saying, rather than repeat it. See, the thing is, I am not reading your slides. I am glancing at them to see if they say anything I need to know beyond what you are telling me.
  2. Give me pictures! We're writing computer programs; if you can't show me how your program , I want to see screenshots. Or diagrams. A picture is worth a thousand words, you know, and if I can visualize what you're talking about then I might be more eager to know how you did it.
  3. If your slides get your point across enough, you don't have to switch slides every 30 seconds. If your going to be talking about one major theme for three minutes, one slide that captures the central issue and hits the big topics can sit on screen for three minutes. Unless you want to break it up with a picture. Did I mention pictures are good?
Anyway, I have no plans tonight except to go home and relax. I have about six weeks till my next class starts. Yay! Six weeks of NOT thinking "Can't relax... must do homework..." Going to the office is going to be a piece of cake without school hanging over me.

By the way, this last guy who is talking is doing everything right. He has pictures, he's explaining what they're for, he includes minimal terminology on screen to identify the important development issues, and he even made a silly analogy to explain the issue he tackled.

Ten minutes now! Freedoooooooommmmmmm!