Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This Eagle Feeds On Spam

When I got to Brown, I felt a grand opportunity to reclaim my mailbox from spammers. My Rice email address was all over the Internet, and this was in the era before even decent spam filters. So at Brown, I began to hand out unique addresses (using plus-addressing). At last count I had handed out over 202 distinct addresses, until I ran into too many sites that refused plus-addressing (and I stopped worrying so much about email in the first place).

Well, boy, was that a failure.

Over time, only one email address has ever been abused, and that too, only once. By corporations, that is. On the other hand, one group of spammers has made my mailbox hell by treating each of these addresses as distinct and sending me multiple copies of the same thing. Those spammers would, of course, be the most shameless hustlers of the Internet: academics trying to disseminate conference announcements. (I recently tracked down that the worst abusers are the logic programming community. And there seems to have been some innocent or malicious collusion with ETAPS 2006.)

So it was with some surprise that I recently saw spam addressed to a unique address I created all the way back in February 2004. And I was deeply saddened to see that it's the address I gave to my favorite hotel—the Adler—in one of my favorite cities, Zürich. That's right: a quality, discreet hotel in a city that pride itself on its discretion in a country that makes a living of discretion...sends spam!

For shame, Hotel Adler.

Next, my Swiss bank will be generating gaudy low-initial-interest-rate credit-card offers and selling my account information to florists.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Slouching Towards Slackerdom

It's official: Providence is a slacker town.

I'm increasingly of the view that the New York Times chooses content largely for blog-worthiness. How else to explain such a lackadaisical, listless, wandering...oh wait, those are the people the article's about. But the article in question, Towns They Don't Want to Leave, tells you just what you already know—that college towns are havens for hangers-on, some of whom do nothing and others of whom experiment and accomplish—in that special NYT kind of way, which is to spot trends so slowly that everyone's already forgotten about them. And to wrap them up in a top-k listing to give bloggers something to argue.

But, all that's neither here nor there. What (or who) is here is, for instance, a class act as a cheese-maker: according to the Providence Daily Dose, that's Louella Hill, who revolutionized the food sources and products at Brown. The article's central Providence slacker, Megan Hall, is one of the sharpest, liveliest Brown students I've ever had the pleasure of meeting, brimming with great attitude and incadescent energy. It's people like this make Providence a worthy competitor to Davis or Athens, GA. And while I disagree with some of these people about their politics or economics, life would be much, much poorer without them.

(Somewhat disturbing is a mutual friend's claim that the author is a friend of Megan's. A rather relevant fact that ought to have been in the article...if it were in a serious publication, that is.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Sky's No Limit

For many years now, we've had a silent running battle in the house. Kathi thinks the walls are too white; she finds them institutional, hospital-like. I say they have an “art museum” aesthetic—which is just a sophisticated way of saying, “Yes, they're white, perhaps even too white, but provided we have an easy justification we don't have to do anything about it”.

Well, we've been attacking the walls for some time now, and gradually reducing the whiteness. We've mostly just removed one white wall per room, but even that has made a dramatic difference (indeed the most, as any incremental changes would have diminished marginal value).

Our latest victim folly canvas has been a wall in the guest bedroom upstairs. We contemplated various blandly uncontroversial shades, but knew we were compromising. Ultimately we decided what we really wanted was to paint a sky: a night sky, fading into dawn, dark at the top and brightening as we go down.

This would be a good moment for an interlude pointing out that we have no painting skills whatsoever individually, and perhaps even less between us. We've painted a few walls with a roller, and even those were slightly touch-(up-)and-go affairs. The only reason we even contemplated this sky affair is because it was so outrageously beyond our skill that we were too ignorant to be afraid.

We knew we didn't stand a chance of any realistic sky-like look, so we abstracted. We would paint three bands in three distinct blues; that was easy enough. The problem was merging them. Kathi's Web reading implied that sponges were the way to go. But in a few moments, the paint lady at our fabulous local hardware store Adler's (may they live long and prosper) had convinced us this was a terrible idea.

Did she have an alternate suggestion? No, she didn't. It's always a bad, bad sign when all the staff in the paint department gather around saying, “Hmm, that's intriguing...I have no idea what you should do, but do let us know how it worked out!”, and that's just what they were doing here. But Adler's is a terrific store; the staff also went through several books with us, and finally, on page 128 of Decorative Paint Techniques & Ideas, we found something loosely like what we were looking for: a “graduated color wash”.

The book's suggestion hinges crucially around the use of glaze (indeed, in a 3:1 ratio to paint), applied with a 4" “good quality” paintbrush in long, lateral strokes. We tried a small sample on a piece of cardboard using a cheap, small brush, but we both knew we weren't really interested in how it worked out on cardboard; so we went at the wall.

It was terrible.

The glaze is supposed to slow drying (which it does), but it also streaks the paint. The result was an impressionistic set of lines, but hardly the sky we'd set out for. (To the book's credit, it looked pretty much exactly as the photograph suggested it would.) It wasn't bad, mind, just not a sky at all.

Worse, I'd missed a few patches while painting. Repairing this was painful. Wherever the brush begins applying, it leaves a broad vertical mark; you have to then go further in the same direction to cover up the mark, and then again, all the way to the wall's edge (and get the edging right, again).

Meanwhile, we were running out of paint-glaze mix, so we had to make some more. Since the lower-glaze ratio mixture was less streaky, we didn't add any more glaze, only paint. This produced better patches, but the entire process of applying patches was so frustrating we decided the wall was good enough, and left it to dry. Until we went back to inspect it an hour later, and saw a few more spots...

This time, I took the cheapo brush and tried to apply a little patch. Amazingly, there was no vertical brush mark! I tried another patch. Ditto. And another. And so on. Losing track of our careful markers (top 20% in deep blue, next 30% in middle blue, bottom half in light blue) I sort of just dabbed away wherever I found streaks. Well over an hour later, most of the wall had been painted over, this time in small patches with a small brush and with very little glaze mixed in.

The result:

The wall actually looks better than this photo suggests. From the other end of the room, even we find it a remarkably credible sky. All that random patching, it turns out, was just the ticket! And here's a little detail:

In moderation (and especially with patching), the streakiness of the glaze proves to be just the right thing to create a wispy sky.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dan Quayle's Secret Occupation

In Yahoo's translation service (formerly Alta Vista's Babel Fish), enter


and ask for translation from Portuguese to English. It responds with


Given that this problem does not occur when translating from, say, Spanish to English, it suggests that Babel Fish has a separate vocabulary for each pair of languages, rather than an intermediate semantic representation. This would also explain why the set of X-to-Y pairs is fixed.

Google Translate doesn't suffer from this problem. They allow a free choice of source and target languages. From what I can tell, the superior technology they employ to solve this translation problem is to avoid translating anything at all. (Seriously, whether it's their HTML parser or their core translation routine—I haven't invested time to investigate, and I suspect it's the former to blame—their “translator” routinely returns the input unchanged as output.)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

How to Climb Like a Champ

I have discovered the secret weapon behind Chris Carmichael's success with climbers.

Chris is the coach behind Lance Armstrong's magnificent performances in the mountains of France. Now that we've had two Tours in a row in which other extraordinary climbers have been thrown out for illegal substances, many minds wonder what Lance was on (besides, as his famous Nike ad said, his bike for six hours a day).

Fortunately, for the right sum, Carmichael will tell us. Let's look at his advertisement (Bicycling magazine, July 2008, page 113):

Gives away nothing, does it? Now look at it again.

First, you'll have to ignore the model on the left who has the posture of a squat toad and the expression of someone who has just swallowed one. The one on the right is the one we are all supposed to aspire to be.

Ignore the geological oddity of this place, where each hill seems to be composed of entirely different substances. If the hills you train on don't look like that, well, that also explains why you aren't winning any Tours de France.

Ignore the extraordinary sharpness of the bleached rocks in the middle distance. Why did they use a photograph where rocks, not bicyclists, were in focus? No doubt because the Carmichael-trained cyclists ride so fast, no camera can capture their movement.

Focus, instead, on what's between the “dancing on his pedals” rider's legs. No, no, not like that! Here's the detail:

It's extraordinary. Where you would expect to see the background (of rock and grass in unearthly focus), you see...the fragment of a yellow oval with the letters “MIC” in the upper half, looking exactly the same as Carmichael's logo. And just a bit lower is what appears to be a third wheel for the bicycle, with a tire of clearly different type, hovering in the air, as if ready to drop like landing gear on demand. And if you look further down this montage (not—it is now clear—ever to be confused with a montagne), to the left of Carmichael's corporate logo you'll see a profusion of chains and gears and drivetrains and other instruments of S-and-M. (And the typo in the URL——is just a bit of icing.)

When Lance won at Limoges, he said he rode with “the strength of two men”. Now, for a small fee, you too can have your second man.

Or, maybe it's possible that the secret to Carmichael's success is something else entirely.

It's Photoshop.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dutch Mountain → Kenyan Mountain?

Nicholas Leong has a dream: to turn Kenyans from Eldoret into professional bicyclists. Since they already vaporize marathon runners in their wake, this is a fairly natural next step. To make his point, he's recruited two riders to climb L'Alpe d'Huez and, hopefully, come close to the record time for the climb. It's a quixotic effort of the kind we'll look back on years later and ask, “Duh! Why didn't someone do that sooner?” So, good on you, Nicholas, and good luck, Zakayo and Mwangi. You'll roast my time, that's for sure.