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Thu, Jan 15, 2015

Failure in Complex Systems

After listening to the hosts discuss probability on ATP this week, I was most of the way through writing something that, had I finished it, would have been this Dr Drang post only not nearly as good. (I will confess that my motivation was exactly the same as his: “People believe John”.) In fairness I don’t blame them for getting confused, because probability really is confusing and I’m terrible at it myself.
Wed, Mar 26, 2014

Silver vs Krugman

Nate Silver’s relaunched FiveThirtyEight has been getting some flak from critics—including many former fans—for failing to live up to expectations. Specifically, critics have argued that instead of foxily modeling data and working the numbers, Silver and his co-contributors are looking more like regular old opinion columnists with rather better chart software. Paul Krugman has been a prominent critic, arguing that “For all the big talk about data-driven analysis, what [the site] actually delivers is sloppy and casual opining with a bit of data used, as the old saying goes, the way a drunkard uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination.” Silver has put his tongue at least part way into his cheek and pushed back a little with an article titled, in true Times fashion, “For Columnist, a Change of Tone”.
Mon, Feb 24, 2014

Powered by Hugo

I was sick as a parrot with a head cold over the weekend. Being unable to do any proper writing, naturally I started messing around with my website. I’ve had some sort of website since around November of 1995, and have kept a more or less regular blog since 2002. Content accumulates, as it turns out. I have about 450,000 words of the stuff here, spread out over about 1,400 separate pages.
Thu, Jan 23, 2014

Plain Text, Papers, Pandoc

Over the past few months, I’ve had several people ask me about the tools I use to put papers together. I maintain a page of resources somewhat grandiosely headed “Writing and Presenting Social Science”. Really it just makes public some configuration files and templates for my text editor and related tools. Things have changed a little recently—which led to people asking the questions—so I will try to lay out the current setup here.
Tue, Jan 7, 2014

An issue in Mavericks with com.apple.IconServicesAgent

Executive Summmary: If you are having an issue with IconServicesAgent consuming all your CPU time, open a terminal window and do this: mkdir ${TMPDIR}/com.apple.IconServices This will resolve the issue. Read on for more details. Recently I started having an intermittent problem with a process called com.apple.IconServicesAgent on my Mac. Google tells me that I am not alone, but diagnosing the issue and solving it has proven quite annoying. The symptoms are straightforward.
Tue, Jun 11, 2013

Following up on Paul Revere

Yesterday’s post on Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere really caught fire. It’s still going, in fact, and it will probably break a hundred thousand unique pageviews some time this afternoon. It’s always exciting and a little anxiety-making when something like that happens. Overall, I’m delighted that the response has been so positive. By way of follow-up, I’d just say that it’s a single post that was meant to make a point in an accessible and hopefully entertaining way.
Sun, Jun 9, 2013

Using Metadata to find Paul Revere

London, 1772. I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the new-fangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects. This is in connection with the discussion of the role of “metadata” in certain recent events and the assurances of various respectable parties that the government was merely “sifting through this so-called metadata” and that the “information acquired does not include the content of any communications”.
Tue, May 28, 2013

Updates to the Social Science Starter Kit

The Emacs Social Science Starter Kit is a drop-in collection of packages and settings for Emacs 24 aimed at people like me: that is, people doing social science data analysis and writing, using some combination of tools like R, git, LaTeX, Pandoc, perhaps some other programming languages (e.g., Python, or Perl), and plain-text formats like Markdown, and Org-Mode. More information on the kit is available here. Some of its highlights are listed here.
Mon, May 6, 2013

Google Glass and the need for XU Design

I was reminded this morning of an old Dotcom Era commercial from IBM. With some helpful prompting on Twitter, I eventually tracked it down. As you can see—pixelated video notwithstanding—IBM had some of the main concepts of Google Glass covered back in 2000, notably the clear presentation of the wearer as a jerk. One of the standard jobs in software development these days is UX Design. User Experience covers “any aspect of a user’s experience with a given system … addressing all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users.” Products like Google Glass make it clear that we should formalize the development process further to include what we can call “Experience of User”, or XU Design.
Mon, Mar 18, 2013

We have Changed the Wording in the Workflow Drop-down Box

We have changed the wording In the workflow drop-down box at the bottom of the Research Output entry screen Validation is carried out by Editors of Content They check the metadata fields in the Pure record Old, New Entry in progress Entry in progress Entry completed by User Validate The workflow statuses are visible The new wording has been chosen The actions behind the scenes are unchanged. (With thanks to
Sat, Jan 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz took his own life yesterday. He was twenty six. Like many millions of writers and internet users, I use things every day that he had a hand in creating, improving, or catalyzing, whether directly or indirectly, well-known or less so: RSS, Markdown, JSTOR, other things. Like many thousands of people, I had some contact with him via email, blogs, and twitter over the years. I gave him some data he asked for once.
Sun, Dec 2, 2012

Goodnight Hypercritical

In the great Mac Pro there were Channels of Control and a Naked Robotic Core and a picture of ... Just a Dinosaur And there was the Tortise and Hare, and Invisible Software And Grandpa Uncle Joe who Ran Out of Bombs Long Ago And Patent Hands, and an iLife island And Blue Ocean, a Wedge, and Objective-C And all the Housewives of Siracusa County Goodnight Pro Mac, Goodnight Brute
Sat, Jan 28, 2012

No-One Cares About the College Bookstore

On yesterday’s Hypercritical, John Siracusa discussed a recent post by McKay Thomas which argues that Apple is following a “brilliant strategy” in education of “going high school first [and] applying the heat to university textbook publishers and bookstores”. John Gruber linked to it as well. Here’s Thomas: The new iBook textbooks are being marketed in a way that circumvents the university bookstore. Brilliant. Go right to the student in high school.
Thu, Jan 19, 2012

Apple for the Teacher

Yesterday Apple launched some new applications and services aimed at the education market. They extended the iBooks app to include a textbook store; they announced some deals with major textbook publishers; and they released a free application you can use to write textbooks, and which allows you to publish them on the store. They made their iTunes U service a separate application. The app replicates what’s already available on iTunes, but also seeks to replace some or all of what’s offered by course management systems.
Wed, Nov 30, 2011

Is Carrier IQ a keylogger installed on 145 million phones?

While you have to ask carefully if you want family-planning advice from Siri, owners of Android, BlackBerry and Nokia phones may be facing other problems. According to this report in Wired, Trevor Eckhart, a security researcher in Connecticut, has found that third-party performance- and usage-monitoring software installed by default on millions of Android-based handsets sees every user action and—possibly, because I’m not sure based on the video whether this part has been demonstrated—logs and transmits it to the software maker, Carrier IQ.
Sat, Oct 15, 2011

Siri in Practice

Some quick comments on using Siri in practice—for things other than asking it to open the pod bay doors. Siri’s voice recognition is very impressive, and the scope of what it understands is very good given the difficulty of what it’s doing. But it has a lot of trouble with certain sorts of proper names, and certain kinds of contexts. On the first issue, take Irish names, for example, which are completely intuitive to someone with a bit of a blas, but admittedly are often not spelled in the way a naive English speaker would pronounce them.
Mon, Oct 10, 2011

A Sociology of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs had charisma. What does that mean? Narrowly, it means something about the force of the man’s personality and its effects on those who worked for him at Apple. More broadly, it has something to do with his gradual emergence as a cultural icon over the past decade. The wave of emotion that washed across the Internet following the news of his death is evidence of how important he was to many people.
Thu, May 19, 2011

Academic Journals and Copyright Control

Via Duke Library’s Kevin Smith, an update on what academic publishers want from the Georiga State Copyright Case that’s now coming to trial: … amongst that deluge of paper is a truly frightening document, the proposed injunction that the plaintiffs are requesting if they win the case. I have always known that there was a lot a stake for higher education in this case, but the injunction the publishers want would be a nightmare scenario beyond even my most pessimistic imaginings.
Tue, Mar 8, 2011

Content Strategy and the Birth of Occupations

This morning I listened to an interesting interview on one of Dan Benjamin’s shows. He was talking to Erin Kissane about her new book, The Elements of Content Strategy. Say you are using a website to communicate something to someone, or enable communication between a group of people, or both. The something you are conveying or facilitating is your content. According to Kissane, the job of a “content strategist” is to figure out how best to make sure that content is assembled, presented, and maintained in a way that’s appropriate to its audience.
Thu, Jan 20, 2011

Seeing the Market

Via John Gruber, Horace Dediu looks at how poorly analysts fared when it came to predicting the size of the market for the iPad. Apple sold just shy of fifteen million iPads in 2010. (starting in April, when it launched.) Every pundit with any kind of audience underestimated how successful it would be, usually by a long ways. Moreover, Philip Elmer-DeWitt notes that professional analysts (employed by investment firms and so on) did much worse than “unaffiliated” analysts with blogs, even when it came to just the previous quarter: In our ranking of the best and worst Apple (AAPL) analysts for Q1 2011, which lists them based on how accurately they predicted seven key numbers—revenue, earnings, gross margins and unit sales—the unaffiliated analysts … took 9 out of the 10 top spots.
Tue, Jan 18, 2011

Workflow and the Emacs Starter Kit for the Social Sciences

Because the next official release of Emacs will finally have a built-in package management system, I’ve been able to update the Emacs Starter Kit for the Social Sciences to make it easier to set up. AucTeX is now installed directly as a package, and so is ESS. While the AucTeX package is official, I host the ESS package myself. I haven’t made any changes to ESS, just added a short .el file that the package manager needs.
Thu, Jan 13, 2011

A carpet?

Actually they do a pretty good job. I particularly like the kid who not only establishes the function of the record player, but also immediately discovers scratching.
Tue, Jan 11, 2011

Emacs Starter Kit for the Social Sciences now gets ESS via ELPA

More starter kit stuff. Up till now, the Emacs Starter Kit for the Social Sciences included ESS, but bundled it with the git repo. A better option would be to have it installed via the package mechanism, like AucTeX is now, but it’s not included. The ELPA system is allows you to specify repositories besides the official ones, so I’ve created a repository on my own site containing just ESS. I’ve updated the starter kit to include a pointer to it, so now on first install the kit will pull in ESS from there, and compile it for you.
Tue, Jan 11, 2011

Emacs Starter Kit for the Social Sciences: Now Easier to Install

New in nerdery this week, it’s now a bit easier to install the Emacs Starter Kit for the Social Sciences that I put together (based on lots of great work by Phil Hagelberg and, more recently, Eric Schulte). In the past, the fact that AucTeX was both necessary and had to be compiled locally made for some awkward steps in the installation. But AucTeX is now part of the new Emacs Package Manager, so it’s possible to install it automatically.
Tue, Jan 4, 2011

Testing MathJax

Suppose the true relationship is $$y=f(x_1,…,x_k),$$ with $(x_1,...,x_k)$ factors explaining the $y.$ Then the first order Taylor approximation of $f$ around zero is: $$f(x_1,...,x_k)=f(0, ... ,0) + \sum_{i=1}^{k}\frac{\partial f(0)}{\partial x_k}x_k + \varepsilon,$$ where $\varepsilon$ is the approximation error. Now denote $\alpha_0 = f(0,...,0)$ and $\alpha_k = \frac{\partial{f}(0)}{\partial x_k})$ and you have a regression: $$y=\alpha_0+\alpha_1 x_1 + ... + \alpha_k x_k + \varepsilon$$
Sun, Oct 17, 2010


I have an interview over at The Setup, for those of you who are interested in cursor-gazing.
Wed, Sep 22, 2010


The application you’ve been looking for: While some so-called environments that are less free of distraction may display one, three, or even more lines of text—all at the same time—we understand that if you could only achieve the theoretical removal of all theoretical distractions, you would finally be able to write something. And we want Å«— to help you almost do that. I think what makes Merlin Mann compelling is that he knows he has something important to get across about work and creativity, but what he has to convey is a kind of non-demonstrative non-formula, and trying to say it more than once puts him in the same business niche as a legion of people he rightfully despises.
Mon, Mar 1, 2010

Gained in Translation

Brad DeLong: DragonDictate for iPhone had better learn not to write “Martian” when I say “Marshallian”. Just saying. It’s not often you see a case where the jokes literally write themselves.
Tue, Feb 16, 2010

Easily display information about R objects in Emacs/ESS

I found this post that provides a nice function for conveniently showing some information about R objects in ESS mode. ESS already shows some information about functions as you type them (in the status bar) but this has wider scope. Move the point over an R object (a function, a data frame, etc), hit C-c C-g and a tooltip pops up showing some relevant information about the object, such as the arguments a function takes or a basic summary for a vector and so on.
Sat, Jan 9, 2010

Biblatex and the Textmate Latex bundle

I’ve been using Philipp Lehman’s biblatex package to manage citations in (xe)latex documents. When compiling in TextMate using cmd-R (with latexmk.pl enabled), the bibtex files are not processed properly. BibTeX cannot find the citations and exits (in the html window) with Found 0 errors, and 0 warnings in 0 runs bibtex exited with status 2 Biblatex works in part by generating an additional bibfile called file-blx.bib in the same directory as the file.tex being processed.
Wed, Jan 7, 2009

R in The New York Times

Funny to see the virtues of R extolled in The New York Times. Although I did wonder whether Professor Ripley spilled his tea when he read this effort at introducing Times readers to it: Some people familiar with R describe it as a supercharged version of Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet software that can help illuminate data trends more clearly than is possible by entering information into rows and columns. On second thoughts, though, I imagine no tea was spilled.
Sat, Dec 20, 2008

A Nightmare from which I am trying to Awake

Signs that things are very bad: Emacs 23 from CVS + ESS + Auctex, + a custom color theme. Brought back from the dead because while TextMate has many virtues, Emacs still, unfortunately, beats all-comers for coding with R.
Fri, Oct 31, 2008

This might be nice

Embedded gists from github. library(lattice) data <- read.csv("cities.csv",header=TRUE,row.names=1) quartz() stripplot(log(data$Population),groups=data$Outcome) dev.off() pdf(file="cities.pdf",height=8,width=8) dotchart(log(data$Population), groups=data$Outcome,xlab="log Population") dev.off() pdf(file="cities-rank.pdf",height=8,width=8) dotchart(-data$Rank, groups=data$Outcome,xlab="Rank Population") dev.off() pdf(file="cities-media.pdf",height=8,width=8) dotchart(log(data$Population), groups=data$Media,xlab="log Population") dev.off() And so forth.
Thu, Oct 23, 2008

Apple hires Joel Podolny

Via John Gruber comes news that Apple has hired Joel Podolny away from his position as Dean of Yale’s Business School to lead a project called “Apple University”. The Wall Street Journal says: The Cupertino, Calif., computer maker said Joel Podolny, the dean of the Yale School of Management, will join Apple as vice president and dean of Apple University. The company declined to provide details about the university or the position.
Wed, Oct 1, 2008

Google 2001

Though it may have seemed impossibly far off in our hazy youth, these days we fondly look back at the turn of the 21st century and think that was when the world was new and fresh and everything seemed possible. Or searchable, anyway. For one month only, here is Google’s index, c. 2001. It shows that we were present individually though not collectively. Besides nostalgia for this distant past, consider
Mon, Mar 17, 2008

It was nice while it lasted

In my Inbox this morning, a message sent at 1:05am: ∗ Important Notice Concerning Your UA Email/Computer Accounts∗ Our records indicate that you may no longer be associated with the University of Arizona as a student or employee. Therefore, your UA Email, Computer Accounts, and/or Super computer account hosted by UITS is scheduled for deletion on April 7, 2008. Make sure to save any important email or data files to an alternative location, and notify those individuals with whom you communicate using this email address.
Mon, Mar 17, 2008

No Deletion for You

Further administrative processing has resulted in your previous identification being reidentified: You have been identified as having received an erroneous account deletion notification message. The problem that caused you to receive that message has been resolved and your account has been removed from the list of accounts that are scheduled to be deleted on 4/07/2008. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you. Excellent. If you could hire a cash machine to write your email, this is what it would sound like.
Mon, Jan 14, 2008

Moral Hazard

Activated “Time Machine” backup feature on office Mac: Friday afternoon. First need to use Time Machine due to inadvertently deleted file: Monday morning.
Fri, Dec 21, 2007

Workflow Update

Following on from our discussion of editing tools the other day, and in response to a couple of requests, I have updated and somewhat expanded my note about Choosing Your Workflow Applications. The revised version talks about which operating system to choose (to a first approximation, these days I’m agnostic), focuses on Emacs+R+LaTeX as an integrated set of high-quality apps available for free across all the major platforms, and then points to some alternatives (like Stata and various editors).
Thu, Nov 22, 2007

Appalling Vista

This ad has been playing on various PC websites, such as CNET’s Windows Vista Overview page. It’s a very clever use of sidebars and ad banners.
Tue, Oct 30, 2007

Leopard Oddity

So naturally I upgraded to Leopard a few days ago. Generally a smooth process, with the occasional headache (reinstalling stupid HP printer drivers, grr) balanced out with the occasional pleasant discovery not hyped beforehand (Terminal now aware of the Keychain, hurray). But here’s something that looks like a bug a slightly counterintuitive feature in OS X’s otherwise very nice PDF-handling abilities. Open a PDF file in Preview. Select a section of it and copy it to the clipboard.
Sun, Oct 28, 2007


In Leopard, the Terminal is Keychain-aware. That’s very convenient, and does away with the need for sshkeychain.
Wed, Jul 11, 2007

Sparse Small-World Graphs are Disturbing

Read Henry’s post on Facebook. Signed up out of curiosity and masochistic desire to have smallness of social network confirmed. Joined the University of Arizona network. Noodling around, saw the profile for Joe Grad Student from my department. Looked at his list of friends. Noticed that one of Joe Grad Student’s friends looked familiar. Realized I knew him. He had been a year ahead of me in Secondary School in Ireland in the late 1980s.
Thu, Jun 28, 2007

iPhone Watch

I was able to pick up an iPhone early through a local contact at Apple, and I have to say it’s really something. No of course I wasn’t able to do that—who do you think I am? Besides, I already have a phone on a relatively new contract. But I was in the Campus Bookstore here at the U of A and, while briefly down in the computer section, I heard store employees field two calls from people asking whether it would be possible to buy an iPhone there tomorrow, and whether there would be an educational discount on them.
Mon, Jun 4, 2007


I know I speak as a Mac user and thus by definition in thrall to the Steve Jobs RDF —though I am not in the market for a phone right now—but looking at these new commercials, it does seem as though the iPhone is going to be a license for Apple to print money. When was the last time you saw a cellphone ad that just went through some of the things the phone could do?
Sat, Apr 21, 2007

Don Knuth

Via 3QD, a nice profile of the great Don Knuth who—amongst many other things—gave the world TeX, which, together with its various descendants, helps make technical writing beautiful and encourages amateur typophiles to waste their time formatting their work.
Tue, Mar 27, 2007


John McCain’s MySpace page “borrows” Mike D.’s page template and also hotlinks to images on his server. So he makes a few changes to them. Via John “You’re having a membership drive but you still haven’t mailed me my t-shirt, it’ll be three months on Friday” Gruber.
Tue, Mar 13, 2007

Twitter Curve

Becks at Unfogged is justly skeptical of Twitter yet fears its inevitability. Kathy Sierra’s Asymptotic Twitter Curve is a sharp summary of the problem: One question is whether the curve describes some kind of cognitive limit or is a rather more cohort-specific representation of the dangers of adopting technologies developed an increasing number of years after your own core work patterns are established.
Mon, Feb 12, 2007


Jeff Han works on multi-touch interfaces: touch screens that can recognize more than one point of input, and thus combinations of gestures and so on. Here’s a cool video showing some of the interface methods his company is developing. (Warning: cheesy music.) You can see some cool possibilities for educational bells and whistles, such as the taxonomic tree one of the operators is seen navigating. The possibilities for high-dimensional dynamic data visualization are also obvious.