A Modest Proposal

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As I set my clocks back an hour and celebrate another ending of daylight savings time, I would like to make the following proposal:

Yay to falling back; nay to springing forward!

Adopting this proposal would result in a net increase of 72+ hours of sleep over the average lifetime. Yes, the position of the sun relative to the Earth at any given clock-hour would cycle full-circle over the course of 24 years. But night owls (such as myself) would finally gain equality with daylight ducks, who would have to learn what it’s like to want to sleep when everyone else is awake.

Write your Congressperson today.

Net Neutrality: Are All Packets Created Equal?

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I’ve often heard the catch phrase “net neutrality” and thought it meant something like “ISPs can’t favor some sites over others on the internet”, or “no censorship of internet sites by ISPs”. So I was all for it. However, a few days ago, after listening to the Joy Cardin show on Wisconsin Public Radio, I discovered that the issues are more complex than I’d imagined. Congress and the FCC are currently writing rules of the road that will affect every internet user, so it’s not a bad time to educate yourself on the broadband traffic situation, and the potential consequences of continuing to insist that the internet act as a “stupid pipe”. Just to take one example, there’s an argument to be made that as long as the net is going to be used to relay time-sensitive data like real-time voice or video communications, routers should be allowed to give those data priority over other data that would not suffer from a few milliseconds of delay between packets. More generally, perhaps ISPs and others should be allowed to discriminate not between sites, but between different data types. Cardin’s guest, Christopher Davies, wrote two columns, one on each side of the issue. You can read those here and here. Here’s the show in its entirety, which WPR members can also download from here.



Have You Checked Your Cable Bill Lately?

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I recently noticed that my Time Warner cable bill had increased by around 7% or so, so I took the time to actually look at the statement. I know that large corporations bet on their customers not carefully examining their bills over time (particularly in this age of electronic statements and automatic payments), and, let’s face it, it’s usually a very safe bet: generally speaking, it’s not worth the time it takes to study a statement every month. Like frogs in slowly heating water, we generally don’t notice small increases, or we do register them (barely), but they’re not significant enough to motivate action. Multiply this effect by several million customers, and we’re talkin’ some real money here.

Anyway, the relatively large recent increase managed to rouse me from my consumerist stupor, and I finally took a close look at what I was paying for. The company had recently rearranged its channel lineup, making it “theme based” instead of package based, and various promotional offers – which, of course, I had forgotten I’d accepted – had expired. For instance, HBO and Cinemax had been offered bundled together for a promotional price, and now they were separate (and more expensive). Other channels (now bundled together under the headings “Digital Variety” and “Digital Choice”) were mostly in those television wastelands above Channel 99 but below the HD channels we generally watch. There were also four channels bundled together under the “HD Plus Package” that we rarely watch. So, by dropping three optional packages and Cinemax (is there really any need for cable movie channels anymore, given streaming Netflix and the like?), we were able to save about $40 a month. I also decided to take Time Warner up on a digital phone deal that will allow us to drop our present land-line service, and that should result in about a $20 monthly savings, at least for the next year or two. So, by being a little more on top of my consumption, I was able to save over $700 this year (in return for an hour or two of work).

Now if I only remember to check my bill two years from now, when that promotional phone deal has expired…

Bring On The Ban

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Recently confirmed (according to a story in the New York Times): risk of heart attack decreases among non-smokers once smoking bans are in place-

The report, issued by the Institute of Medicine, concluded that exposure to secondhand smoke significantly increased the risk of a heart attack among both smokers and nonsmokers. The panel also said it found that a reduction in heart problems began fairly quickly after a smoking ban was instituted and that exposure to low or fleeting levels of secondhand smoke could cause cardiovascular problems.

“Even a small amount of exposure to secondhand smoke can increase blood clotting, constrict blood vessels and can cause a heart attack,” said Dr. Neal L. Benowitz, a professor of medicine, psychiatry and biopharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, and a member of the panel.

“Smoking bans need to be put in place as quickly as possible,” Dr. Benowitz added. “The longer we wait, the more disease we are accepting.”

In part because I lost both of my parents to smoking related diseases, I strongly support banning tobacco smoking in public places. Wisconsin recently passed a State-wide ban, but it doesn’t go into effect until July 2010. That’s not a day too soon for me. I’m really looking forward to being able to go out and enjoy some music in a local tavern without feeling the need to wear a gas mask.

Woohoo! More Nested IFs!

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Caution… you are about to enter a Geek Zone…

I just noticed that Excel 2008 (Mac version 12.2) finally lifted the arbitrary 7-level limit on nested IF functions. Previous versions of Excel restricted nested IFs in a formula to 7, which meant that, for instance, you couldn’t write a nested IF formula in a gradebook to input a numeric grade and automatically output a letter grade; you could do this only with the first 7 letter grades, and then you had to manually assign the rest. (There were purported workarounds published on the web involving string concatenations, but I only discovered them while working on this post, and I haven’t tested them to see if they work). This wasn’t much of a problem on my campus until this semester, when we switched from an 8-point (A, AB, B, BC…) to a 12-point (A, A-, B+, B, B-….) scale. With the 8-point scale, I could handle manually entering the 8th letter grade (F) into my spreadsheet, because there were relatively few of them. But on the 12-point scale the 7th grade is a “C”, and there are lots of grades lower than that in a typical Intro course. So, just on a whim tonight, while entering the results of the semester’s first exam into my spreadsheet, I wrote a 12-nested-IF formula and, totally unexpectedly, it worked! Thank you Microsoft for finally… finally… removing the silliest limitation in spreadsheet history.

Away We Go

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Intelligent comedies are hard to come by these days, and those that do get made often aren’t widely distributed. This is certainly true of Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go“, which didn’t get within 50 miles of Oshkosh during its theatrical rounds. But ever since his “American Beauty”, I’ve thought that Mendes is one of our better directors. “Revolutionary Road” certainly didn’t deserve the derision it received from many critics, but that’s another story.

“Away We Go” recently came out on DVD, and while it doesn’t rise to American Beauty standards, I’m happy to report that it is funny in the same sort of biting, satirical way. Like many “dramadies”, its tone is intentionally varied, but it’s also a little uneven, with several supporting players going way over the top while others play it more naturalistically. This is true even of the protagonists: Maya Rudolph admirably holds the film together with a straightforward performance of the pregnant Verona, while John Krasinski (her lighthearted and extraordinarily loving boyfriend) comes dangerously close to caricature with his Burt. But the film made me laugh, and its undertone of melancholy gave those laughs extra depth. Here’s the trailer (which, like most trailers, makes the film look more conventional than it is):

Does Obama Deserve It?

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Okay, I was as surprised as anyone this morning to discover that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. So I did a little googling around, and found this excerpt from Nobel’s will, which set up all of the Nobel prizes:

“The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Now, no one has been talking about the abolition or reduction of standing armies lately, and “peace congresses” no longer occur as such. That leaves “the best work for fraternity between nations” as the major criterion on which this year’s 200+ nominees were evaluated, and, without knowing who else was in the running, it’s hard to say whether our new president truly deserves the prize. There may well be some hard-working NGO that could better use the prize money. But I can’t think of another single individual who has done more over this last year to at least try to promote fraternity between nations than president Obama, even if only by making speeches around the world… And, let’s face it, if Yasser Arafat can win the Nobel peace prize, anyone can.