Saturday, October 8, 2011

Inside Macintosh

The web is currently flooded with eloquent tributes to Steve Jobs. I’ll chime in with a personal footnote.

In 1985, when I was a graduate student at Stanford, I bought my first Macintosh computer. Like so many others, I was stunned by its elegant graphics-based interface. Like fewer others (though quite a few at Stanford), I had to learn to program it.

The programmer’s manual, Inside Macintosh, was still a work in progress and hadn’t been officially published. But in response to the tremendous demand, Apple put out a “promotional edition” printed on cheap paper in a typewriter font, bound in a thick volume resembling a phone book. For a short time you could get a copy for only $25, and my check was in the mail as soon as I learned about the offer.

My original Mac is now long gone, but I still have that promotional edition of Inside Macintosh. Paging through it brings back a flood of memories.

Most of the manual, of course, is nuts-and-bolts technical details—what programmers would now call “API reference” material. But as you study it, a bigger picture comes into view: the exquisite care that went into the design of the Mac operating system, built from the inside out with the user in mind. The enthusiasm of the Mac development team occasionally bursts out in a word like “remarkable” or “amazing” amidst the manual’s otherwise dry prose. Even though this edition of the manual was hastily assembled and printed, someone made sure it had a full-color cover with that classic minimalist line drawing of a Mac.

The most important chapter of the manual, up at the front, is titled User Interface Guidelines. Rather than describing the operating system from a programmer’s point of view, this chapter instructs the reader on the underlying principles of Mac software, and firmly invites the reader to conform to these principles:
“The Macintosh is designed to appeal to an audience of nonprogrammers, including people who have previously feared and distrusted computers. To achieve this goal, Macintosh applications should be easy to learn and to use. To help people feel more comfortable with the applications, the applications should build on skills that people already have, not force them to learn new ones. The user should feel in control of the computer, not the other way around. This is achieved in applications that embody three qualities: responsiveness, permissiveness, and consistency.”
These words were revolutionary in 1985, and they made a lasting impression on me. Even today, most programmers need to pay more attention to them.

More generally, Apple has set an example for creative people everywhere: Don’t settle for mediocrity and mere functionality. Always strive for excellence, and be sure to incorporate the joy of the creative process into your work. Patiently refine every detail of your creation, while staying focused on its ultimate purpose.

That was the ethos that Steve Jobs brought to Apple, and to so much of the world.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Probability of Zero

Good news: Ogden has had zero homicides so far in 2011 (probably).

Bad news: Journalists don’t understand statistics (still).

“Killings down in Ogden,” proclaimed the headline across the top of Sunday’s front page, with a great big zero on one side. Pending a final ruling on whether a fatal July shooting was accidental, Ogden has probably gone for nine months without a murder or automobile homicide. This isn’t just great news; it’s historic.

The article falls short, though, in discussing the possible causes of this unprecedented drop in killings. Relying entirely on statements from the police chief and the county attorney, the article mentions three possible contributing factors: a new police “Crime Reduction Unit” created four years ago; a year-old injunction against the city’s oldest street gang; and a shift over the last several years toward handling gun-related crimes in federal court.

Of course, all of these factors could very well be contributing to a long-term reduction in crime, and the lack of recent homicides could very well be part of that long-term trend. But statistically, you just can’t tell.

You see, Ogden’s homicide rate was already pretty low. According to a data table printed on page 5, Ogden hasn’t had more than four homicides in a calendar year since 2001. During the last nine years, the average number in any nine-month period was only two and a half.

With this data and a simple formula from elementary statistics, we can answer the obvious question: Given this average rate of homicides, what’s the probability of getting zero homicides in any given nine-month period? The answer is one in e2.5, where e is the famous mathematical constant 2.718 (approximately). Do the math and you find that the probability is about one in 12. (Note that e2.5 means e times e times the square root of e, or about 2.7 times 2.7 times 1.6.)

I’m assuming, though, that each homicide is an independent event. In fact, some homicides occur in related groups. If the average number of independent homicide groups during any nine-month period is only 2.0, then the probability of getting zero in such a period is one in e2, or about one in 7.

If these probabilities still seem rather low, remember that the zero didn’t have to occur this year. Now that the average homicide rate has been at this level for about a decade, we’ve had ten one-in-seven chances so far to get zero homicides during the first nine months of a year. In other words, we were over-due.

It’s understandable that the police chief and county attorney would attribute the lack of homicides to their own efforts. It’s also human nature to look for simple cause-effect relationships. But at this point, the most natural explanation for Ogden’s zero homicides in 2011 (so far) is a mere statistical fluctuation. The article doesn’t even mention this possibility, and it should.

What can’t be explained by mere statistics is the long-term trend. Homicide rates across the U.S. have steadily declined for the last two decades, and Ogden appears to be following this trend. Social scientists have proposed a host of possible reasons for the decline, including better policing and increased incarceration rates, but also including our aging population, changes in immigration, shifts in the illegal drug trade, and availability of abortions (resulting in fewer unwanted children). The even more striking decline over the very long term is probably a result of improving economic conditions, gradually changing attitudes toward killing, and/or increased acceptance of government as the enforcer of laws.

Let’s hope these long-term trends continue, but let’s not jump to conclusions based on local short-term fluctuations.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Thanks to some prodding from my astronomy students, I've now seen my first supernova. Practiced finding it two nights in a row, then invited students and friends for a supernova party up in the mountains last night. Most worthwhile.

Oddly, I couldn't find a good image online that showed what it actually looks like through the eyepiece of a small telescope. (By small, I mean my 10-inch Newtonian reflector, or the 6-inch reflector that one of my students brought last night.) Most of the photos online are exposed to bring out lots of detail in the Pinwheel Galaxy, de-emphasizing the supernova itself.

So in an attempt to help others who are looking for it, I just whipped up this simulated image using Stellarium and Photoshop (click for a larger version):

The circle shows a 1.5 degree field of view, which is typical for a small reflector using a low-power eyepiece. The smudge in the center (which is actually much fainter than shown here, even from a very dark site) is the galaxy. Look for it with averted vision. The point of light closest to the center of the smudge, oriented at about two o'clock in the image, is the supernova. This is the orientation you'll see in a Newtonian reflector eyepiece at the best viewing time, soon after dark.

Other web sites, like this one, can help you point your telescope to the right part of the sky.

The supernova is already starting to fade, so hurry and look while you can!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Space Shuttle: Inspiration or Distraction?

The news sites are devoting quite a bit of space to this Friday’s final launch of the Shuttle. Perhaps the best discussion I’ve seen is Dennis Overbye’s essay in the New York Times.

The Salt Lake Tribune, understandably, is covering the story from more of a local perspective, emphasizing the Utah jobs and educational opportunities that have depended on the Shuttle over the years.

One of the quotes in the Tribune, though, was over the top. A Utah State University student, whose research has been tied to the shuttle program, said the following:
“Without having a space shuttle or have something that America can send Americans up in, we don’t have anything that can inspire the next generation. I’ve been watching a lot about the Apollo program, and it was awesome that we could build that and then the space shuttle. But now, we have nothing.”
Upon reading this, I left a comment suggesting that this student become just a tad more open-minded about what he considers inspiring. And as an example, I picked NASA’s most important scientific mission: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Most Americans have never heard of the JWST, because no humans will be flying on the rocket that launches it. But it will be an immensely powerful instrument, probing the early stages of the formation of planets and galaxies, peering billions of years back in time. Anyone who can think for even ten seconds should find that far more inspiring than a publicly funded billion-dollar amusement park ride, only a couple hundred miles above earth’s surface, repeated 135 times.

Then, a few hours later, I saw something on Cosmic Variance about the JWST now being in jeopardy. I won’t try to defend the cost overruns and mismanagement, which are rightly being compared to the SSC. But if JWST gets canceled it will be a genuine tragedy for this generation and the next.

I’ll be watching to see if the Utah newspapers even cover the story.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Corrupt or Incompetent?

That’s the question the world has been asking about the authorities in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was living not in a remote cave, but in relative luxury in a suburban neighborhood an hour from the capital and within walking distance of the military academy. Were the government and the military protecting him on purpose, or were they so inept that they honestly didn’t know he was there?

Similar questions come up continually in politics, and also in the corporate world and wherever else humans create institutions that are capable of being corrupted:
  • Did the Bush Administration lie to us about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, or were the intelligence reports honestly mistaken?
  • Did the SEC know for over a decade that Bernie Madoff was running a massive Ponzi scheme, or were its regulators too blind to notice?
  • Ogden’s mayor pulled off an audacious fraud prior to the 2007 election, but no public authority or mainstream journalist will say that it was wrong. Is the old boys’ network that corrupt, or are they all just too stupid or lazy or preoccupied with other duties?
  • Tens of thousands of Utahns regularly operate off-road vehicles on public lands where motorized travel is supposed to be illegal, but only a tiny handful are ever charged. Are the Forest Service and BLM rangers willfully looking the other way, or do they just lack the resources needed for enforcement?
  • Grade inflation runs rampant at America’s schools and universities, where a large fraction of the graduates lack even the most basic literacy and numeracy skills. Are the teachers and administrators incompetent, or do we maintain the status quo because all we care about is keeping our own jobs?
My answer is that these are false dichotomies.

None of these failures are completely due to corruption, and none are completely due to incompetence. Instead, individuals and institutions are typically afflicted with a mixture of both.

In Abbotabad, I would guess that local law enforcement knew about the suspiciously secretive compound but didn’t know who lived there. National-level officials must have suspected that bin Laden was in the country but they probably didn’t know where. Most information was in the form of unverified rumors, and nobody worked hard enough to sort out truth from fiction. Everyone had legitimate fears that bin Laden’s supporters would punish those who asked too many questions. As one former CIA officer put it, “Willful blindness is a survival mechanism in Pakistan.”

In Ogden, the stakes are lower but the attitudes similar. Local businesses and reporters need to stay on good terms with the mayor, so they don’t ask certain questions. Prosecutors don’t seek out evidence of government corruption, and can always rationalize that the evidence they already have isn’t quite enough to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Everyone has good reasons to choose the status quo over the risk of political turmoil.

In fact, the stability of our institutions requires that they be effectively blind to a wide range of crimes and injustices. Most of the human beings who are part of these institutions gradually learn the “rules” about what questions to ask and not to ask. Those who are too principled and too diligent rarely get promoted to positions of authority, and usually end up leaving to find other work—willingly or unwillingly.

Why, then, does justice sometimes prevail? Simply because the world is full of different institutions with different missions that can check and balance each other—and because all institutions must be somewhat responsive to public opinion. Bin Laden was held accountable because the U.S. military and CIA are more powerful than their counterparts in Pakistan (and because the U.S. ultimately decided that getting bin Laden was more important than working with our Pakistani “allies”). Madoff was held accountable when his scheme finally collapsed and too many other powerful people got hurt, triggering enforcement mechanisms that respond primarily to power. In Utah, the news media have embarrassed public land managers into taking some minor steps toward better enforcement of motorized travel restrictions.

My point is that these success stories are not business as usual. The same institutions—and even the same individual leaders—have spent far more effort maintaining the status quo than fighting it. Call it corruption or incompetence if you like, but it’s really an intricate mixture of both that has naturally evolved in the institutional ecosystem.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Back to Blogging

My time management has deteriorated to the point where personal blogging no longer fits into months when school is in session. But with grades turned in, tulips blooming, and the summer stretching ahead, it’s time for an update:
  • I’m extremely proud of my Modern Physics students for their awesome final project presentations.
  • Though all we have so far are tantalizing hints, I’m convinced that great discoveries in fundamental physics are just around the corner.
  • The Utah Transit Authority never did give me the data I requested regarding the proposed Ogden streetcar project. Fortunately, the city council seems to be headed in the right direction.
  • Our very silly mayor won’t be prosecuted for his fraudulent political fundraising, but he won’t run for reelection either, and his Wonder Dome seems to have collapsed.
  • The Ogden Sierra Club’s open records lawsuit seems to be winding down.
  • This year’s historic building scavenger hunt is underway.
  • The buffalo grass is getting a late start on turning green this year.
  • But the myrtle spurge is already blooming and ripe for uprooting.
  • Made the annual pilgrimage to the Selman Ranch to see the sharp-tail grouse do their dance. The snow on the ground didn’t seem to bother them a bit.
  • I don’t trust the stock market, so I’m investing some serious money in home upgrades.
  • Sadly, Ogden recently lost a colorful character and dear friend.
  • Also sadly, Dad is slowing down and no longer able to carry out his “ministry”. I’ll be going to see him again soon.