Sunday Judgment III

Today’s subject: nauseated vs. nauseous.

As I folded laundry this morning, trying to decide on a “Sunday Judgment” topic, I listened to some especially good moments in today’s special encore addition of Prairie Home Companion. In the “News from Lake Wobegon” segment, Garrison pulled a typically self-conscious SNOOT move: he used nauseated where most of us would use nauseous.

(SNOOT (n) (highly colloq) is [David Foster Wallace’s] nuclear family’s nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to look for mistakes in Satire’s column’s prose itself. This reviewer’s family is roughly 70 percent SNOOT, which term itself derives from an acronym, with the big historical family joke being that whether S.N.O.O.T. stood for ‘Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance’ or ‘Syntax Nudniks of Our Time’ depended on whether or not you were one.“)

My good friend Rachel, whose mom works for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was the one who first alerted me to this (faux?) faux pas. The SNOOTs claim that if you’re “nauseous” then you’re actually causing someone else to feel “nauseated” (that is, nauseous means just “causing nausea” and not “affected with nausea”). David Foster Wallace apparently agrees, both implicitly (he, or rather Hal in Infinite Jest, cares not for Webster’s, which issued the ruling that the SNOOTs “are mistaken” on this issue) and explicitly (Nauseous for nauseated” makes his list of grievances at the beginning of “Authority and American Usage,” aka “Tense Present”).

Let’s be clear: I’m a SNOOT, though perhaps not a very good one. I do a lot of yelling at the TV when people get expressions wrong, especially when they hone in or confuse run the gamut (I try to) with run the gantlet (I’d rather not). And I relentlessly adhere to the typical advice that, while it’s no longer necessary to use that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive ones, it’s best to just do so anyway, since there’s no harm in doing it in what used to be the only correct way, whereas someone might assume that you’re unaware that there’s even a controversy if you disregard the outdated rule.

All that said, I’ve never been able to get worked up about nauseated vs. nauseous.

Of course, the very idea of the “Sunday Judgment” feature is that we can all have our own preferences about such matters. However, on this particular day, I worry that I’m perhaps the worst kind of SNOOT, the kind who’s only SNOOTy about the things he’s always known to be SNOOTy about. Is it wrong to feel like I should try to be more of an asshole so that I’ll at least be a consistent one?

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On a completely unrelated note, I realized today that Garrison and DFW have another preference in common. They both favor abrupt and less immediately satisfying ultimately more thought provoking story endings over the superficially more witty one-liner types that bring the story full circle by making some reference to the introduction. Would that I had the insight and daring to attempt the latter more often.

This Algorithm Kills Fascists

There’s a great art-meets-science article in this week’s Science News (it turns out their “Math Trek” feature is usually killer). Julie Rehmeyer does a nice bit of science writing here, giving just the right amount of detail about how Howarth and Short’s algorithms were used to restore the only known live recording of the great Woodie Guthrie. There’s even a short audio sample.

News: Local and Blocal

Happy Saturday. I’m sitting in my pajamas listening to Michael Pollan on a “special encore edition” of Whad’ya Know and catching up on my online life.

First off, special encore editions can only mean it’s fund drive time at Wisconsin Public Radio. Fund drive time is many people I talk to’s reason for not listening to public radio. But, to borrow a phrase Michael Pollan just used (I’ve done that before), I don’t think that argument “passes the 60 Minutes test”; the lack of commercials and overall non-inanity of the programming the rest of the time more than compensates. So let’s all sign-up and pledge, especially in light of the now seemingly annual budget cuts (little shout out there to my old hometown newspaper, which just happened to have the first Google News hit on the subject). And if you take your public radio station for granted, don’t forget about Milwaukee’s formerly great Jazz 89 (RIP).

On a much more uplifting note, it’s International Writing Centers Week, and the UW-Madison Writing Center is celebrating. Among the events I’d heartily recommend are the Podcast Premiere (I heard some early drafts and think they’re going to be great), the Madison-Area Writing Center Colloquium video conference with Nancy Grimm (I’ll be there), and the Writing Fellows Program info session (I’m bummed I’m no longer a Fellow, since the stipend just increased like 400 bucks per semester). If you’re at UW-Madison and have never been to the Writing Center, you’re missing out. I’ve never been part of a more supportive-yet-scholarly community. At the very least, check out the event’s Web page (much to my chagrin, you might spy a picture of me with my old fellow Fellow Shivani).

To zoom in still further to this very URL, I wanted to update you on a few CSC developments. I pushed my web-language abilities to the limit the other day and pieced together (with some help) the code to get the sharing icons you see below each post added to my blog template in a format that hopefully isn’t too obnoxious. Please share any posts you find useful or interesting!

I’ve also, after reading my advisor’s comment on my “News Dump” post, joined del.icio.us and thus exited the dark ages of news sharing (where you just email articles to yourself and blog about them). You can see my del.icio.us tagroll at right, which includes the tag “ToBlog.” That’s where you’ll see the stories I’m thinking of blogging about. Don’t be surprised if the unblogged divergence through this node is pretty high, though; it’s easy to feel ambitious about what I’ll write about when I read the news in the morning but less so when I sit down to blog at night.

Finally, a couple of brief commercial-ish announcements for friends of mine:

(1) David Meerman Scott just announced a “free virtual book tour teleseminar” to promote his new e-book The New Rules of Viral Marketing (with editing by yours truly). It’ll take place Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 5 p.m. eastern, and I highly recommend you join David if you’re interested in learning about how to spread your ideas online. If you are but can’t make it, you should at least join the 42,810 readers who have already downloaded David’s e-book.

(2) My former Wisconsin Engineer partner-in-crime Marty Grasse, who has joined the throng of my friends who have up and moved to the Twin Cities, will be in town Monday and Tuesday to present with his design team at the College of Engineering’s Innovation Days. Stop by and hear about his and the other teams’ inventions. I’ll be there sometime between noon and three.

Update: Marty’s team took home first place in the (lucrative) Schoofs Prize for Creativity competition.

The Hacker Within II

Another useful thing about tracking THW projects is that it’s so easy to forget about Linux commands, utilities, etc. that I’ve used in the past. THW posts can serve as a record of such commands. Today I needed to capture a screen shot of some web images of the nuclear fuel cycle for a memo (each facility had a different image, so it was too much work to save each image separately). And of course I forgot to bookmark the site I used last time I needed help with this problem and couldn’t quite find it.

Here’s how I did it when I finally figured it out:

> xwd -out cycles.xwd
[clicked on open Firefox Window]
> convert cycles.xwd cycles.jpg

Easy as pie, right?

The Hacker Within I

I only blog from the office when I have something work-related to share. Now is one of those times.

Because code development is part and parcel of our work as computational researchers, my advisor encourages our group to unleash and cultivate “The Hacker Within” (THW). THW is always trying to improve his or her computing experience–customizing, automating, and navigating parts of the digital landscape in new (and hopefully more productive) ways. Plus, messing with THW-related projects is usually more fun than doing whatever work you’re supposed to be doing.

My THW project the last day or so has been switching over to using Emacs, which I have to say has already yielded some nice results. The learning curve on the key bindings is a little steep, but I’m getting better.

One of my long-time complaints with Emacs (or rather short-time, since I’ve only been using Linux for a year or so, which while I’m at it I should say that this and probably most future THW content will probably seem extremely lame to people who actually know what they’re doing) was that there is no single-keystroke way to switch between open files, at least none that I could find. That functionality is extremely important when you’re working with source code that’s spread out over a bunch of classes (and hence files).

Well, today my HW fixed that, or rather he found the code someone else’s HW had already written to fix that. I highly recommend Adrian Quark‘s Emacs customization buffer-stack, which brings Windows-Alt-Tab-like switching to Emacs buffers. I chose Ctrl-Tab for my key binding to his main function, as you can see from my .emacs file, which I include in the hope that it might be helpful to other new Emacs customizers-in-training.

Note: Other THW posts will be much shorter and to the point. I don’t take blogging at work lightly, but I do think that since I get so much help with code development from online sources, I have the responsibility to “give back” once in a while, to the pathetic extent that I’m able to. In this longish post, I just wanted to sort of establish the context of THW.

Wonderful Life

I haven’t talked much about faith on this blog. However, my faith is an important part of my life, so I’m sure that will change as time goes on.

Case in point: On the precipice of the great contemplative wilderness that is Lent, I couldn’t help but reflect a bit on Pursing Synthetic Life, Dazzled By Reality, from today’s Science Times. Whether we believe that it evolved or that it was created by God–or, pace Richard Dawkins, that those two positions are not mutually exclusive–I hope the diversity of life discussed in this piece fills us all with the same sense of awe, wonder, and mystery that motivates these researchers. In my opinion, prudential enthusiasm about the possibilities (for the betterment of humankind and the planet) that some synthetic life could offer is in order as well.

Cause for more light-hearted rumination appears in Feel Like a Fraud? At Times, Maybe You Should from same. It was nice to have some validation for the constant feelings of inadequacy that plague myself and my fellow grad students.

Sunday Judgment II

Today’s subject: punctuation.

Let’s demonstrate today’s bifurcate Sunday Judgment topic with a few interesting links from today’s Sunday Times: “Nuclear Leaks and Response Tested Obama Senate,” “A ‘Bold’ Step to Capture an Elusive Gas Falters,” and “It Really Takes Years of Hard Work.”

Let’s be brief.

(1) In American usage, commas and periods go inside the quotation marks. For cryin’ out lout, it’s not that difficult. I don’t necessarily agree with the rule (it introduces some ambiguity), but the alternative is aesthetically atrocious.

(2) The serial (or Oxford) comma is crucial for eliminating ambiguity in some cases. The AP Style-ists forbid it solely for space reasons, and even they admit that sometimes it’s necessary. Courtesy of the far superior (though admittedly harder to use) Chicago Manual of Style, here’s an example I tweaked a bit to better demonstrate my point:

The meal consisted of soup, salad, macaroni and cheese, and rice and beans.

The point is that when you’ve got simple and compound items in a list, we need all the commas we can get to impose a little order. There are no doubt more subtle and sophisticated examples out there as well. Holler if you have some.

Sorry to go all Lynne Truss on you. I’ve never agree with “zero tolerance” policies of any kind, but I admit that it’s easy to get worked up about some off this stuff. As I’ve said before, when you’ve worked as a copy editor, it’s easy to take some of this stuff personally.

By the way, the latter link above contains some crucial remarks on the hot subject of innovation:

“The most useful way to think of epiphany is as an occasional bonus of working on tough problems,” explains Scott Berkun in his 2007 book, “The Myths of Innovation.” “Most innovations come without epiphanies, and when powerful moments do happen, little knowledge is granted for how to find the next one. To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point. The goal isn’t the magic moment: it’s the end result of a useful innovation.”

Go With The (Nework) Flow, Part I

Some preliminaries:

(1) I couldn’t resist posting a link to this New York Times piece about eHarmony, et al. The “Algorithms of Love” in the headline alone made it worth it. (By the way, I love it when copy editors choose to force “EHarmony” and the like when these ridiculously capitalized words come up at the beginning of a sentence. It’s like a little “screw you and your trademark” from the folks for whom sloppy capitalization is almost an affront. Speaking of which, sorry for the up-style headlines on this blog. I abhor up style, but I somehow backed myself into this corner and am not about to back down now.)

(2) My friend Rachel just let me know that you can hear David Foster Wallace reading “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” from Consider the Lobster on “KCET Podcast: Hammer Conversations” (Episode 16), which is available on iTunes. I listened to it this evening, and it’s terrific. Copy snobs will love the little explanation about his use of em dashes, but anyone will almost certainly be moved by the story. Plus Wallace’s reading voice matches his “authorial voice” really well, in my opinion.

OK, on to the main event. I mentioned a couple posts ago that I hope to use this space as a sort of whiteboard for trying out ideas, and I’m expecting to need such a space in the coming weeks. I’m getting ready to start working on the algorithms for matching material offers and requests in GENIUS and as such am learning about solving network flows problems. Wanna learn a little bit about them with me? If so, read on.

We’ll start with the basic first lesson, which I sat through just the other day. The gist of flow networks is that you’ve got a collection of nodes with material traveling between them along directed connections called arcs. Nodes are either sources (supply nodes that create material), sinks (demand nodes that consume material), or transshipment nodes that simply send a material along.

What we try to solve for in these problems is an optimal flow vector, which is just a fancy name for a long list that says how much of the material flows along each arc. The vector is optimal in the sense that it represents the flow for which the problem constraints are met in the cheapest way possible (there’s a cost associated with moving a unit of material along each arc). The problem constraints are flow bounds (upper and lower limits on how much flow must move along an arc) and conservation of flow, which says that the outflow minus the inflow at each node must equal either zero (for transshipment nodes) or the supply or demand of the node (for sources and sinks, respectively). The second set of constraints are also called divergence equations.

Brief mathematical note for those who are interested: network flow problems are special cases of linear programs, albeit much easier to solve ones (via the network simplex method, rather than general linear programming’s modifier-less simplex method). There are also, apparently, special algorithms for solving various special-case problems that can be posed as network flow problems, including Euler’s famous Konigsberg Bridge Problem.

What does all this have to do with the nuclear fuel cycle? Stay tuned as I try to figure that out.

PSM PSA

Thought this article about MBA-like degrees for scientists was interesting. Here’s something you don’t see every day:

Sloan left engineering out of its grant specifications because, said Carol B. Lynch, PSM director at the Council of Graduate Schools, “engineers get it and already understand the value of a master’s degree.”

I actually agree with her opinion; it’s just a bit of a shock to the system to see a quotation that gives engineers this kind of credit.

The credit’s due, though. I tend to ignore the business side of engineering ed., but it’s something we need to be doing, and it’s something we’re getting right increasingly often, I think.