Monthly Archives: April 2014

New Header Photo

Yes, you’ve come to the right place. I just changed my header photo. The previous one was a shot of the bat bridge in Austin, Texas, where my daughter lives. She took that one. This one I took in Sunnyvale, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. The water area is the southern part of San Francisco Bay. To the left are various high-tech businesses. You can just see the Moffett Field blimp hangar on the very left. The complex directly ahead is a major sports center. The picture was taken today, a Saturday, and all the cars in the lot suggest there are a lot of games going on there. I don’t know if they have Little League, but I do know they have softball leagues and various company events.

Review of Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Nature

Uncharted: Big Data and an Emerging Science of Human HistoryUncharted: Big Data and an Emerging Science of Human History by Erez Aiden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This nonfiction account of the creation of Google’s Ngram Viewer is fascinating. An Ngram is a word or phrase (N words long) and the Viewer measures how often that Ngram appears in books in recorded history up to 2008, at least in those scanned by Google. The authors devised the program’s basic features to view history and social change through a factual scientific lens, to see how our word usage changes over time and what that tells us. It begins with the example of illustrating when the United States changed from a plural to a singular noun. Popular accounts attributing that to the Civil War fully uniting the states into one entity once and for all turn out to be false. The trend toward the singular began before that and didn’t really take off until after 1880. If you don’t want to read the rather dry prose and the authors’ own speculations on social trends you can go directly to the appendix to see some of the charts that tell us how Santa compares to Satan, when data became more important (in books anyway) than God, and so on. They do touch on other forms of big data, but I wish they had spent more time and space on things other than Ngrams. What are the possible benefits and harm of all those photos being massively uploaded onto the Web? What about medical data – can it be used to identify causes or cures of diseases by examining massive trends. Google is now already quicker and better at predicting flu outbreaks than the NIH based on web searches for terms like”flu,” “influenza,” “fever,” etc.

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Google Ngram Mad Libs

Once upon a time there was a little girl who was not a member of the family. She was a very good friend of mine. When she was a child and I was a little girl in a white dress and a white apron and a pair of shoes, we had to do something. So we have to get out of the way of the world.  I thought I was going to be a long night of darkness and silence. Instead it was a matter of life and death of the son of the late King of Prussia. This seemed to be the only one who could have been a lot of talk. Despite this we have to be careful not to let the sun go down on our knees. Incredibly, it was not until the early 1980s that the government was forced to take a job in the city. That meant that the first two of these were in fact the same as the one in the middle. Neither of us had ever seen a man who was a stranger. Of course she did not know what to say to him. After a while I got up and went to the door of the house and the garden. Finally I said to him that he was not a man.

Do you remember that great party game Mad Libs, where you have a template of a story with blanks in strategic places and the host calls out parts of speech? The audience calls back with suggested fillers, usually wacky, suggestive, or ribald, which the host uses to complete story, and which is then read back to great hilarity. I have taken this further. The above story was written by Google. Yes, Google Ngram Viewer now has a feature where it will return to you the 10 most frequent words fitting in a phrase where you have placed a wildcard symbol (an asterisk), as determined by the millions of books and periodicals it has scanned. It can only go up to 5-grams, which means you can feed it the first four words and it will provide you the most frequent fifth word.

So I fed it the underlined phrase “Once upon a time” and here’s what I got. With each new word filled in I used the preceding four words to provide the next. In most cases I used the most frequent word that Google provided but I had to make a few exceptions. If the word had gender, and both genders were represented as top frequent words, I took the one that made the most sense. I also picked the correct tense once or twice to make the sentence grammatical, but I did not allow logic, plot, or style drive any exceptions I made. I had to choose the second or third choice a few times to avoid getting into a repeating loop (e.g. “a white dress and a white apron and a white dress and …”). Since the Ngram viewer no longer includes Ngrams that go across sentence endings, I had to choose a stopping point myself, sometimes choosing the third or fourth returned word in place of “and” to avoid one long run-on sentence. Then I had to provide a new seed phrase consistent with what came just before. I tried not to guide the story with these. I have underlined all the seed phrases. At times Google’s page could not find a fifth word to complete a phrase, even though it had found the preceding phrase frequent, so in those cases I would reduce the feed to the last two or three words instead of four.

You can play this game too. To get a bit more life in the story you can try some crazier seed phrases or just choose responses further down the list than I did.

The power of one book

This graph shows the frequency of the use of the words “cryptography,” cryptology,” and “cryptanalysis” in books and magazines for the period shown. The Codebreakers by David Kahn was published in 1967, which explains the peak at that time, but what brought about the steady rise, sharp peak in 2001, and then sharp decline of the word “cryptography”?

Cryptic Acrostics

Cryptic acrostics are one of my favorite leisure activities, but there aren’t many around. Yesterday I finished one that I particularly enjoyed in Simon & Schuster’s Super Crostics Book, Series #4. Many people don’t understand them, or at least don’t know how to solve them, so here is a short explanation with some examples from the puzzle I just did (puzzle by Thomas H. Middleton). First, in case you don’t know what an acrostic puzzle is, Wikipedia explains it here: Acrostic (puzzle).

It is the cryptic part I want to explain. The clues for cryptics are just that: cryptic, and at first unintelligible. But every clue actually contains a real definition or synonym along with secondary information which serves both to obfuscate the definition and to provide another way to identify the answer word, usually by describing characteristics of the words or letters in the word. Very often the information makes total sense when proper punctuation is added or changed. The best of them are witty and clever, providing a nice chuckle or smile when you finally “get it.” Here are some typical techniques used:

  • Anagrams: One or more words in the clue are anagrams of the answer.
    All the way, it’s deadly (6 letters) Answer: LETHAL. Deadly is the definition; All the is an anagram of LETHAL. Often anagrams are hinted at by words like strange, crazy, broken, awkward, etc. These indicator words area called anagrinds. “Strange times” might mean “EMITS”, for example. The example of LETHAL is a direct anagram, i.e. the letters of the word are the same as the ones in the clue. Other times it may be indirect in that you are looking for an anagram of a clued word such as Chew honeydew fruit (5) where Chew is the anagrind and the word to be anagrammed is MELON to get the answer LEMON. This is more common in British cryptics since it is considered bad form by many American puzzle fans.
  • Hidden word: The word appears in the clue, but is buried in another word, or across two or more words.
    Fixed part of Carmen dedicated to bullfighters (6 letters) Answer: MENDED. Fixed is the definition. The word mended appears across “CarMEN DEDicated”. Additionally, the phrasing “part of” tells you that what you’re looking for is contained in the word or phrase immediately following.
  • Double definition: The word is defined in two different ways.
    Stuff to count (6 letters) Answer: MATTER. “Stuff” defines matter as a noun; “to count” defines matter as a verb, as in “That doesn’t matter.”
  • Alternative letter use: The clue uses letters in the answer in a different way, such as a Roman numeral, an acronym, etc.
    Stuff of froth; for example, the wig is askew. (2 words, 8 letters). Answer: EGGWHITE. The EG is used as the Latin acronym “e.g.” meaning “for example”, and the GWHITE is an anagram of “the wig”. Egg white, of course, is the frothy stuff of meringue. Be alert for the letter O being used as a zero, especially when words like “nought,” “zip,” or “nil” appear in the clue.
  • Internal words redefined: A part of the answer is defined as a separate word.
    Hindu greeting sat awkwardly in title (7 letters). Answer: NAMASTE. Hindu greeting is the real definition; “Sat awkwardly” means “sat” (anagrammed as “ast”, i.e. awkwardly written) inserted in the word “name” (which is one definition for “title”). Prepositions are often key clues. Back, backward, comeback, etc. will usually mean to spell something backward.
  • Initials: The initials of words in the clue are used, almost always hinted at by using the word “initial” in some form.
    Teams stuck in depressing early slump initially (5 letters). Answer: SIDES. Teams is the definition, then the initials of the next 5 words.

You get the idea. There are no rules, although in my experience, all the published ones are fair. Once you finally get the answer, the clue makes sense, usually in two ways. For this reason, cryptics are sometimes easier to solve than regular acrostics because every answer has a built-in confirmation method. With regular acrostics, you might think of several possible words that could fit a definition, but you have no way to be sure which is the correct one until you’ve solved enough of the grid to provide feedback.

Drone Attack!

Be afraid. Be very afraid…

OK, I’ve gotten the new toy out of my system for now. I’ll go back to my usual boring book reviews and grammar harangues for a while anyway.

DJI Phantom with SJ1000 camera

Here are a few snippets from the first flight of my Phantom with the SJ1000 action camera mounted on it. I had to devise a mount from two brackets that come with the camera. Neither the Phantom nor the camera comes with a specific mount to connect these two. The Phantom comes with a GoPro mount, but GoPro cameras are about $300-$400 more than the  SJ1000 and have a different form factor, so that mount doesn’t work for me. I used the octagonal bracket with 3M mounting tape (enclosed with the camera) as a base to reduce the “jello” effect that would otherwise appear from the vibration. Then I attached the hinged bracket that has the camera holder to the octagonal bracket with a bolt. It is possible to just attach the hinged bracket directly to the Phantom with the tape, but then it is not removable. That same bracket is needed to mount the camera to the windshield if I want to use it as a dashcam or to a bicycle or helmet. Whether you use one bracket or two, it is then necessary to tie the bracket tightly to the body of the Phantom to take the weight of the camera off the tape. It would be foolhardy to trust the tape to hold the camera/bracket combo by itself. The result looks a bit funky, but it works great and the camera is both secure and detachable.

I flew this out in front of my house. I don’t recommend flying in residential areas since neighbors will object, but it was just a short test flight to see if the mount worked. Now that I’ve proven it does, I’ll fly elsewhere.

Edit 3/28/2016:
I continue to get hits on this blog entry, so I should let readers know that I don’t really recommend this combination except as a training set. It is an inexpensive way to learn how to fly a drone and get some pictures, but it is very low end. You can’t see what you are filming and you will be lucky to get usable footage. You also can’t easily use a gimbal with this setup, so the video you do get will mostly be shaky unless you hover in still air or fly slowly in straight lines, which is not the point of a drone. If there is a breeze of any kind the drone will tilt into it in order to fly straight, which means without a gimbal all the video will be slanted, too. Drones have improved so much since I made this video that it isn’t that much more expensive to buy or make something with a gimbal and first person view. I had fun with it but I sold my drone after the initial fun wore off. I kept the camera and still make videos with it, but the cable that came with it burned out. It is a cheapie, but it is so small and handy and the video is decent so I recommend it.



Limericks pack laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical

— Vyvyan Holland

Review of One More Thing by B.J. Novak

One More Thing: Stories and Other StoriesOne More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I will grant that:
1. Humor is a very, very subjective thing;
2. I only listened to the first two stories.
So my opinion should probably count for almost nothing and in any event is not a criticism of you if you really liked it.

Okay, enough disclaimers. My review is simple: If this is what passes for humor today then it is time for the sun to go supernova now and obliterate the human race as we do not deserve to continue in existence.

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Review of Identical by Scott Turow

Identical (Kindle County Legal Thriller, #9)Identical by Scott Turow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is vintage Scott Turow, with the usual strong and weak points. I found the DNA detail fascinating. It’s come a long way since I learned about RFLP in the FBI Academy. Turow is among the smartest and best educated of modern mystery novel writers. The writing is literate, and well-thought-out, if not particularly elegant or exciting. The mystery is complex and will keep you guessing. The characters are mostly interesting, likeable, and credible. Those who like a lot of action won’t be big fans of this book, but the more cerebral readers will enjoy it. Turow’s only real annoying habit is his tendency to treat sex so crudely that all the sexiness is taken out of it. That happens here, too, but he does less of that in this book than in his earlier works.

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