The Safety Country

About half my graduating class came to graduate school in the United States. Most of them stayed, but there's been a steady trickle of classmates going back to India. With a 8.5% growth rate, there is a pretty good chance of striking it rich there. With major companies opening research centers in India, the work can be challenging. The chance to be closer to family is quite appealing. So, over the years, about half of those who came here to study have gone back.

This week, the next stage of the story started. One of my classmates sent us an email telling us that he is leaving for Bangalore. What makes him different from the people who went back to India in years past? He waited until he became a U.S. citizen. If things don't work out in India, he figured that he could always come back.

Something that much of the immigration debate in the US misses is that immigrants are rational people who exercise their choices.  So, paradoxes abound. For example, the tougher border enforcement gets, illegal immigrants who make it past the border are less and less likely to go back. They don't want to run the gauntlet again. The other paradox is illustrated by my classmate: the easier you make it for highly skilled immigrants to become citizens, the greater the chance that they will leave to try opportunities in their native lands.

Helvetica to Arial to Helvetica

Helvetica was my favorite font for a long time -- I used it in articles and presentations, and then suddenly it wasn't there any more. In general, a 10-pt san-serif font is just as readable as a 12-point serif font (like Times) and you can pack more words on a page or slide. So, I looked for a sans-serif font to use and discovered Arial which is my new default font.

But is Arial as good as Helvetica? Not quite. Look at the word "Rates" in Helvetica and Arial . Helvetica just seems friendlier, doesn't it?

Arial started life as simply a knock-off of Helvetica, used by Microsoft to avoid paying a license fee to the Swiss foundry that owns the original font. Apple and Adobe, on the other hand, licensed the real thing. So, when you use Microsoft software to write a document in Arial and print it using an (Adobe) Postscript printer, the printer will often replace the knock-off Arial with the real-thing Helvetica. And in yet one more instance, the rest of the computer industry skates around Microsoft's poor behavior.

Vegan diets

Vegans never cease to amaze. I understand vegetarianism; mostly, we are vegetarian at home. But the idea of making half-assed soy substitutes for milk, hamburgers and sausages is incredibly stupid. Hindu and Buddhist societies that have integrated vegetarianism into their way of life have found ways of making vegetarianism both healthy and tasty. In other words, cook and eat good vegetarian meals. With milk and eggs.

The reason I bring all this up is that the dad of one of our vegan friends was relating the latest phase of his son's veganism. B. is a vegan out of a moral disgust at the treatment of animals by the food industry. But deciding that soy is not enough of a protein , he had decided that animals that hadn't been killed on purpose were ok to eat.

So, what's B. eating now for protein? Road kill! Squirrels.

Smoky Hotlanta

It's extremely smoky here in Atlanta with wildfires on the Florida border blowing smoke the couple hundred miles north. From my 11th floor window, I could see only a few hundred feet this morning. It reminds me of our smoked-out honeymoon. We'd flown to Kuala Lumpur, enroute to Tioman island but found that the island was essentially covered in smoke from forest fires in Indonesia.

Delhi and Kolkota, where I was a couple of months ago, were quite smoky too. But it was not a one-time phenomenon there, simply an every day problem caused by the diesel burnt during the morning rush hour. We sometimes forget how lucky we are to have clean air -- thank Nixon for that, if for nothing else!  An EPA rating of cities by air pollution (0 is worst and 100 is best) gives Norman a 38.  By contrast, Houston gets a 1 and Atlanta gets a 12 . The US-wide average is 48, but I suspect you'd have to live out in the country to get that.

Children walking to school

An Atlantic writer notes:

But in this one afternoon in Mumbai we came across many scenes of what can only be called roving bands of kids. They were playing cricket in dirt lots. They were throwing stones. They were playing tag. They were running around without watchful adults immediately in sight.

I was in Delhi recently, visiting the India Meteorological Department as part of a USAID project.

Well, the first thing that struck me was the smell of diesel , but the sight of children by themselves was not far behind.

Here's a photo I took of children going to school my first morning in Delhi. Note that they are walking to school by themselves. No watchful adult shepherding them along.


The five-year old has been hankering to see Washington DC for a couple of years now. He has a couple of books about the city and since I travel there often, he's got an intense desire to go to the nation's capital. I'm teaching a class there in July, so we're planning a family vacation around it. There's also a conference in Australia that I may go to. It's in Cairns, near the Great Barrier Reef. The wife of course wants to come. The problem? Vacation time. She gets 10 days a year and her employer won't even let her take unpaid time off.

Although this graph is pretty misleading -- it shows legislated time off, rather than actual vacation time taken -- it is quite telling of Americans' attitude to vacations. Americans do take far fewer holidays than citizens of other developed countries. Americans typically get 8-12 days of vacation depending on where they work and their seniority.

Vacation time for me is not a problem -- since I officially work for a university, I get more than 30 days a year plus 8 or so paid holidays. Makes me Finnish.

Friends' blogs

Three of my friends, to my knowledge, have blogs ... and in the month that I've been blogging, they've each referred to my posts.  Interestingly, different topics scratched their itch.  Inertial Mass links to my post on the fairness of patents without comment, but tags it "freedom", so we know where he is coming from.  Darwin's Theories uses a 1999 post to make a point of how far the mighty Microsoft has fallen.  58thCustomer is disturbed by a web test that wouldn't recognize from her doctoral thesis that she is female.

Precision to Standard

It's been years since I played bridge -- we played obsessively when I was in college, often starting after dinner (7pm) on Friday and continuing till breakfast (7am) on Saturday. But haven't played since then, unless you count a few times when the four of us got together on the internet to play for old-times sake.

Thursday, I went to the Norman bridge club. The director was kind enough to ask D. to come, so that I had a partner.

When we played bridge (back in the 80s, as D. helpfully reminded me a couple of times), we used the Precision bidding system where 1-club is an artificial bid made by someone with a strong hand and 2-clubs is a natural bid made by someone who has a lot of clubs. The Norman bridge club however insists on Standard American, where 2-club is an artificial bid with a strong hand. My memory of Standard American was quite sketchy to begin with. And I've forgotten half of what I knew.

So, the first hand. I have 5 clubs, reasonable points. I bid 2-clubs, thinking "natural clubs bid". My partner understands it as "strong hand" and responds "2-diamonds" (meaning "I have a weak hand"). I of course assume that he has a lot of diamonds and a reasonable hand (after all he pushed up the bidding, right?). To cut the bidding story of misunderstandings short, I ended up in 6 diamonds. Big oops. We went 3 down.

We did recover from that disastrous start though, finishing third overall. So it wasn't too bad.

But I'm going to review SAYC this weekend. Maybe even take a cheat sheet with me the next few times.

Tornado Lead Time

Radio has a way of making voices sound subtly different, probably because it chops off some frequencies, so I had a hard time placing the interviewee's voice on radio today. It was awfully familiar, and the topic was storm warnings, so it made sense that I would know him. The wrap-up cleared it up: it was Don Burgess, talking about the 30-minute lead time that the Greensburg, Kansas tornado warning sported [Listen to the NPR audio here]

The lead time statistic (increasing from an average of 2 minutes in the 1970s to about 13 minutes now) is flawed. The way the National Weather Service computes it, it assumes that tornadoes that are not warned have a lead time of 0 minutes. This sort of makes sense on a tornado-by-tornado basis, but computing an average where some tornadoes have an actual lead time and others have an presumed 0-minute lead time causes anomalies that make the lead time statistic hard to interpret. Most of the "increase" in lead time is really because of an increase in the likelihood that a tornado is warned -- that has increased from about 25% range in the mid-1980s to about 75% now (due primarily, as the NPR piece notes, to Doppler radar research at NSSL). The average lead time of warned tornadoes, however, has remained relatively constant, at around 18 minutes.

Knowing this background, I found Don's performance impressive. He answered the interviewer's questions about the 30-minute lead time but took care to explain it in terms of actually being able to predict the tornado. And in the end part of the segment, he put lead time in context. The amazing thing is that without my commentary on the lead time (unless of course you are knowledgeable about tornado warning statistics), you would be hard-put to see that Don was walking a fine line between keeping it simple (while giving the reporter the story she wanted) and remaining on the side of the angels as far as the science was concerned.

Stacking Murphy's Cups

One of the first things you learn when you give presentations is that a canned demo is much, much safer than a live one. As in Murphy's law (Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time). Our five-year had to learn it all by himself though.

He was playing with stacking cups this weekend.  "I can stack all the cups with the small cup at the bottom," he claimed.

"OK," I said, "show me."

He proceeded to place the smallest cup on a nearby table.

"Why don't you do it on the carpet?", I asked.

"If I put the cups on the carpet, then it will fall down," he replied and proceeded to explain the reason. "Because the carpet is bumpy."  (His rationales, when wrong, are usually interesting)

Unable to quit while he was ahead, though, he continued, "Let me show you."

He moved the smallest cup from the table to the carpet and then placed the next larger cup on top of it.  And wouldn't you guess? The tower didn't tilt.  "Two cups won't fall," he recovered smartly, "three cups and it will fall."

I have been there before (haven't you?), so I was curious about how he was going to handle the situation.

He placed the third cup on top. The funnel stubbornly remained standing. "With four cups, it will fall," he said and put the fourth cup on top.  Still no go.

"It will fall," he said emphatically, "that's why I'm going to do it on the table."

I'm going use to use that the next time a demo fizzles out -- "It will work," I'm going to say emphatically, and move on.

Can a Viking be a Maytag?

"Adrian Peterson is going to be a Viking", announced one of my colleagues, an ardent Oklahoma football fan from Minnesota.

And the first thing that popped into my head was this slang dictionary written by a fellow in his down time in prison. A review of the book (which is all that I read: what would I do with a hip-hop urban slang dictionary?) mentioned two of the slang words in the book: Viking and Maytag.

Viking, as in "going Viking", to not take a shower for a while.

Maytag, as in "to maytag for someone", to do menial work such as cleaning and washing for a protector or bully.

Somehow, I don't think the Minnesota Vikings or the Maytag corporation would be too happy if the usage caught on.