Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Internet was built by sci-fi fans ( progress report) has been in beta for a couple of weeks now, and has gone through quite a few struggles.  Although I’ve been a StackOverflow user since the very early days (2 years, 4 months now), this is my first experience with a StackExchange site in the beta stage – it’s possible that all of the sites have these troubles, although it does seem like they are particular to a topic like “science fiction” more than more concrete topics like mathematics, cooking, or theoretical computer science.

Most of the issues boil down to two: how should the moderators interact with the site, and exactly what is on-topic.

In an effort to save the site from its community, the (SE employee) moderators have chosen to take a very hard line.  Rather than let the community police itself, they’ve decided that it’s better to act as quickly as possible to remove any questions that aren’t suitable (in their opinion) and hope that if there’s any disagreement that it will be take up on meta.  This policy does appear to be working, so perhaps that’s enough validation.  In my opinion, letting the community close the bad questions would be better in the long term (and only slightly slower in the short), and the moderators’ time would be better spent educating the community leaders in the meta site.  Hopefully, this will become less of an issue as the more major question of what’s on topic is answered, and pro tem moderators are elected from the community.

I’m not sure exactly how much of the graduation of a site from definition to commitment to beta in the Area51 system is automated.  It’s possible that no human was involved in the progress.  I think if there was, that would help – the majority of the example “on topic” questions for the site are, in fact, deemed off topic, and it seems likely (given their comments) that the StackExchange staff would have been able to point that out before the site opened.  Perhaps the 5 “on topic” examples for each site could be examined when “commitment” is reached, and if the StackExchange staff can see questions that just won’t be acceptable in the StackExchange model, the proposal can be bounced back into definition (with an explanation).

The much more pressing issue is to decide what’s on topic for the site.  There seem to be some clear-cut decisions: questions about writing are out, questions that could be answered by a basic check of IMDB are out.  There are many more that are unclear.  There’s a meta question asking to define the “elevator pitch” for the site, which will help a lot.  Unfortunately, the answer that’s voted highest at present isn’t one that I think would make an interesting site (and it’s certainly not one that I’d be interested in spending much time on).  There’s another answer that’s much closed to a good site – I think one of the main weaknesses of that answer is that it’s not “pitchy” enough.  I’ve considered having a go at a pitch myself, but the pitch has to be concise (by definition), and conciseness isn’t a strength of mine, which means that even if I got the topics right, it wouldn’t be a good pitch.

What I’m hoping to see become involves these sorts of questions:

Story identification. These have gone through a rough ride: one of the (SE employee) moderators mistakenly thought that these were outright-banned, when in fact they are merely held to a higher standard than average questions.  This lead to a lot of confusion that was only resolved in the last couple of days.  It’s clear now that the community can choose to allow them (again, assuming they are well asked), although it’s not clear whether everyone agrees that they should be.  I think they will form an invaluable and essential part of the site.  Reading the questions and the answers is an excellent way to find new material (without opening up poll/recommendation questions), and is the way to entice new users into the site/community.  Once these questions are indexed, identifying the material will be simple via a search engine, as well.

“Trivia”. The problem is that it’s hard to define “trivia”; literally it’s something of small importance – this is of course, extremely subjective (the majority of StackExchange questions are probably of small importance to most people – that’s what addressing the long tail is all about).  Questions that only allow for uninteresting answers clearly aren’t of value (although uninteresting is again subjective).  The voting system provides a good mechanism of determining this – especially combined with reputation and tags.  A good metric is that good answers are generally long answers.  I do think it’s possible to have something that some people would call “trivia”, but be long and interesting.

Answers found elsewhere: one of the reasons that StackOverflow was such a success was that there was a huge vacuum that it filled.  This isn’t so much the case with a science fiction Q&A site (although hopefully there is some vacuum).  Practically every Science Fiction TV show, movie, or popular book series has some sort of wiki site dedicated to it, usually filled with encyclopedic quantities of information about everything to do with that series.  For those few that don’t have their own site – and those that do – there’s Wikipedia entries on everything as well.  The Internet was built by scifi fans – this shouldn’t be a surprise.  I hope that the eventual consensus is that there’s no way to draw a line here, and questions have to be judged on their own merit.  If you can figure out the answer to your question with a single Google search and skimming a wiki page, then there’s no real value duplicating that content.  If you have to read through a lot of wiki pages, or they’re really hard to find, or if you need more conjecture or opinion than a wiki page allows, then that should be ok.  I would like to see these questions left alone, and (e.g.) if they get go below -1 votes, then vote to close.

Something in the source material: related to the previous, obviously. Here you can’t find the answer online (or at least it’s very difficult to), but if you had the source material (the book, the TV episode, the movie), then you’d be able to figure it out.  I think these are borderline, too.  What if the book is out of print (or otherwise rare), or the TV episode isn’t available on DVD (or purchasable online)?  Not everyone keeps everything that they watch/read.  I think that makes it too hard to create a blanket rule about this sort of question.  If the question’s not good, then it’ll get voted down (e.g. if anyone that has every read the book would easily remember and could explain in a sentence).  If it is good, then it’ll get voted up.

Real world: questions that relate sci-fi to the real world are interesting, but to be useful I think they need to be very specific, otherwise it’ll just degenerate into discussion/argument.

Sci-fi for dummies: not what I’d call it on the site, but face it – sometimes the science in the science fiction is complex (especially in ‘hard’ sci-fi).  Getting a bit of help figuring a plot point or allusion out seems like a great use of the site.

Industry information: questions about writing are apparently out (go ask on  However, there’s still industry specific questions that could be useful – although it’ll be hard to ask a truly interesting question (e.g. “how do I contact author X” is answerable by a single link to a website generally, and “what convention is good” is considered bad form on StackExchange sites).  I haven’t seen any questions like this yet, but I suspect they will turn up eventually, and perhaps be rare gems.

I think a good elevator pitch would start with: a place for fans of all science fiction, not just one series, to help each other out, with … Perhaps I’ll manage to figure out the rest of that and submit it as an answer in the next few days.

The Science Fiction StackExchange site came out of private beta today.  It’s not the first proposal that I committed to that has made it to beta (that was Card/Board games), I’ve found it more interesting (so far) – Card/Board games has so far focused on a lot of games that I have no interest in (and I’m not so interested or have enough time to ask a lot of questions myself).

Awesome looking stuff.  Go buy some :)

The current state of scifi.stackexchange is a little worrying – as might be expected, there are a lot of list/opinion/subjective/discussion questions, which aren’t really a good fit for a SE site.  A lot of questions are “community wiki”, which reflects this, and that means that reputation is hard to come by for many users.  It seems like there might already be a lot of ‘definitive’ factbook-type sites for many of the major scifi stories (e.g. wookiepedia for Star Wars), and there’s little point just duplicating that information (even Wikipedia has a lot of data, presumably because of a sci-fi bias among many of the editors).

However, there does seem to be a lot of potential for the “long tail” type of questions that SE is designed to address.  There’s certainly a lot of lesser-known scifi novels/TV shows that don’t have a lot of information about them online.  It looks like “identify this book” type questions will be acceptable as well, which definitely seems like it would be valuable (even when coming from a Google search).  Overall, I’m hopeful – so go check it out!

I’m still waiting for the Parenting StackExchange site to reach the beta phase.  It might end up being a huge mess of subjective opinion, but it might also end up being a truly valuable resource.  If you’re interested, commit!

Sleep Cycle Alarms for Two

My body clock works well – I almost always wake up each morning on time, feeling refreshed and well rested.  I only use an alarm when there’s something I absolutely can’t be late for, and even then I set the time to be the last possible moment because I’ll always wake up before it goes off [1].

If this was also true for Olyvia, there would be no problem.  If I wake up before her, she doesn’t wake up – I quietly spend 30 minutes or so going over email, news, FaceBook, Twitter, work, etc in bed, and even if I get up before her it’s unlikely to wake her up.  Unfortunately, Olyvia does not wake up well naturally, and so she does use an alarm whenever she needs to get up at a particular time (which is often at the moment).

Recently, she has started using an iOS app to wake her (with an alarm) at the ideal point in her sleep cycle (i.e. the app is helping her do what I do naturally).  She says that this works extremely well for her.  Unfortunately, I believe it does work, because it’s waking me up too and I feel terrible (I’m clearly not in the right state to be waking up).

It seems a significant flaw in these sorts of applications – whenever you wake up the user, it’s quite likely to be a poor time to wake up whoever they are sleeping with (unless there’s some sort of odd synchronising of sleep cycles that I am unaware of).

However, this seems easy to solve (and if anyone can take this idea and implement it, please do so – free! – so that I can sleep well again).  iOS provides simple-to-use APIs for communicating with other local iOS devices.  I, like many people, have many iOS devices lying around.  If you can solve the “when to wake” problem given a fixed point and a sleep state, it seems likely that solving the problem given two sleep states (presumably overlapping somewhat at times) and a fixed point cannot be too difficult (probably less optimal, but better two near-winners than a winner and a loser).

This would be simple to use – you set the alarm to coordinate with another local device, and when it is ready to wake you up, it confirms with that device first.  They negotiate the ideal time given the two sleepers, and the alarms go off simultaneously (I’d set my alarm to silent since I don’t need it).  They can communicate with Bluetooth or WiFi, whichever is less likely to fry my brain by having it under the pillow.

D520 Week Three – 2010

Last year Chapter Four of IronPython in Action was covered over two weeks (the lab is also a two-part exercise), and I felt that worked fairly well, so kept the same plan for this year, although the exact parts that were covered each week changed.  As usual, the students received notes [PDF], and a lab exercise [PDF], and two recommended reading items, both by Brent Simmons: one on how improving quality is non-linear, and one on how your own code is always improving.  The notes again cover the textbook, key points, and example code (although most of the example code is MultiDoc, so just links to the online copy. Continue reading

D520 Week One – 2010

There are not too many changes from last year, and those are mostly for the better.  The overall format for the course is the same – 4 hours a week (all in the lab) for 15 weeks, with a two-week break about two-thirds of the way through.

I did make a slight change to how I’ll use the 4 hours – the course used to be 6 hours per week, which was roughly divided into two hours of lectures, two hours of tutorials (i.e. going over code as a class), and two hours of lab exercises (i.e. students working on code alone, with one-on-one help from me).  With the change to four hours, my plan was to keep the two hours of labs, and work the tutorial content (considerably reduced) into the lecture hours.  This didn’t work particularly well – it took the students longer than I anticipated to grasp the new material and IronPython in general, and so we spent a lot of time working through the lab exercises together (either the week after they attempted it alone, or as the first attempt) – essentially the lab hours were reduced (nearly eliminated, although they still worked on the projects alone) and replaced by tutorial time.

For 2010, I’m keeping it this way: around 2 hours of lecture-style delivery, followed by around 2 hours of tutorials (e.g. we’ll walk through building MultiDoc from IronPython in Action together).  The students still have weekly lab exercises, but they will need to complete these in their own time (an added benefit is that this forces them to spend time out of class on IronPython, rather than hoping they would work through the textbook alone).  I expect we’ll spend 20 or 30 minutes at the start of several classes going over the previous week’s lab exercises.

I again gave the students a set of revision exercises [PDF] (example answers next week), a course outline [PDF], and some brief notes [PDF].  The revision exercises are pure Python, and there are some additional ones from last year – I hope that all the students can complete the first 6 or so fairly easily, the next 3 or 4 with some effort, and will probably find the final two somewhat tricky.  The notes have only three sections this year: which chapters of the textbook (again the excellent IronPython in Action) are covered (and a couple of sentences that summarise them or point out which parts are important to us), key points, and example code.  Last year the notes had a “Tools” section each week as well – as outlined below, this is simpler this year, and so I walked everyone through the first install, and will make a one-file summary of tools available in the next couple of weeks (e.g. including alternative editors).  Just as with last year, none of the students had obtained a copy of the textbook in advance, so we started completely fresh.

I’m still providing recommended reading (two links each week – a lot of changed material from last year – particularly shorter content, and I’ve tried to group it together in logical sections more this year).  This week it was “How I Hire Programmers” (Aaron Swartz) and “Hardware is Cheap, Programmers are Expensive” (Jeff Atwood). Continue reading

Forced Materialism

Fewer people than normal (is there a “normal” after only three?) asked what to get Samuel for his birthday this year – perhaps they all asked Olyvia and she didn’t mention it, or perhaps people know him better, or perhaps it’s just easier to buy for a three-year-old.  My stock response (which I tried, fairly successfully, to get Olyvia to use as well) was as follows (this didn’t apply to parents or grandparents):

Sam has so many toys that he just doesn’t have time to play with everything.  He has toys in his toy box that he hasn’t even played with yet.  He really doesn’t need any more at the moment.  He also has heaps of books and clothes.  If you want to buy him a present, then you are, of course, welcome to do so.  In that case, our suggestions are:

* Make him something.  He’s a bit of a fussy eater these days, unfortunately, so food might not be a good choice.  If you can think of something else to make, then that would fine.
* Something to do.  e.g. an IOU for a trip with you to somewhere. This could be as simple as a picnic at a park somewhere – he loves being outside.
* A donation to a charity and a card (he likes opening mail) saying what you did.  He’s not going to understand it now, but when he’s older, he’ll hopefully think that was really cool, and right now he already has so much stuff.

My hope was really for the latter – we actually do quite a few things already, so there isn’t a pressing need for the middle choice.  Making him something is great, but it seemed unlikely to appeal to many givers.  We did actually try this once before – suggesting a donation to a charity (Starship, I think) as a Christening present.  If I recall correctly, we didn’t get a single bite that time. Continue reading

“Santiago” (Mike Resnick)

This was in the collection of second-hand books that I bought a few years back, and which form the bulk of my unread stack.  To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much, judging by the age and the cover (yes, I know the cliché, but without the cover, what’s left to judge by?).

However, I really enjoyed this novel, and thoroughly recommend it.  It’s a fairly typical setting, but there are interesting characters, especially the central character and the title character.  I quite enjoyed the way that the focus changes from section to section.  I also felt that it ended reasonably well – it wasn’t a super obvious ending, although it wasn’t a surprise either.

“The Healer’s War” (Elizabeth Ann Scarborough)

I wonder if stories about Vietnam are only of interest to Americans.  I certainly can’t recall any that have been interesting to me.  This started out reasonably promising, but trailed off into a rather dull story that didn’t go anywhere.  Characters come and go, and none are particularly captivating.  Can’t really recommend this one.

“The Return of Santiago” (Mike Resnick)

I really enjoyed “Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future”, so I was quite hopeful about this sequel.  However, while this was a good story, this wasn’t great.  It was pretty obvious how it would turn out all along, and the characters weren’t as interesting as in the original Santiago story.

I would still recommend reading it, but definitely check out the previous Santiago book first (especially since the sequel has spoilers for the first book).

Back to the short reviews/comments: that’s it!

“The Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch” (Pratchett, Stewart & Cohen)

I really liked the first Science of Discworld, and enjoyed the second as well.  I’ve always liked the idea of mashing up educational material and fiction – here it’s loosely interspersed (odd chapters are lightly educational, even chapters are a related Discworld story), and I thought these were fairly well done.

This one, however, wasn’t that interesting.  I chose to read it now because of the Darwin anniversary stuff that was hot recently, so it seemed somewhat relevant.  The history was interesting, but the science wasn’t really.  The Discworld story was ok, but that part of the Science books has never been stellar (certainly not as good as a regular Discworld novel).

It was good enough that I’d still check out a Science of Discworld IV, but I’m not hanging out for it or anything.