Tuesday, May 30, 2006

How I am related to Genghis Kha

How I am related to Genghis Khan - World - Times Online : the fascinating proof from genetics that an accountant in Florida is a descendent of Mongols.

This is less interesting than it sounds. I too, am almost certainly descended from Ghengis Khan and Mohammed and just about any major figure in history who had lots of children.


The accountant can show that he's (probably) a direct male descendent, which is kindda neat, but not very relevant genetically. You are just as much descended from your mother as from your father, so it could easily be the case that your mother is a direct descendent of Ghengis Khan's daughters. Due to a quirk in the Y-chromosome, it's possible to prove the male descendency but not the female.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Test-driving a Kia

My wife and I are not car people. We just want reliable transportation from one place to another, and our 1999 Ford Windstar easily meets our needs. Or at least it has until its engine light developed an expensive habit of illuminating itself to the tune of thousands of dollars of repairs in the past year. Still, the car is just fine, and at only 57,000 miles we're happy to continue driving for many more years.

But when does a used car become more hassle to repair than it's worth? That’s what's bothering me, and so recently we've started looking around. We're okay with a used mini-van, and Consumer Reports says the 2003 Sienna is the best. But even the pre-owned ones are over $20K -- sometimes over $30K -- not that much cheaper than the brand new ones!

But what if we could get a brand new one that was just as good? That's what Consumer Reports thinks about the Kia, and today we went to Lee Johnson Kia in Kirkland to give it a test drive. Our conclusion: it's nice, very nice--certainly better than our Windstar on just about every dimension. It's quieter, with more power, better turning radius, better breaking. More interior room, etc. etc.

They are apparently trying hard to convince people of their reliability, so they throw in a 100K 10-year "limited powertrain warranty" and a 5-year basic and anti-perforation warranty plus roadside assistance. I've looked through the fine print and I don't see any obvious catches. It looks like you really don't need to worry.

So what do you think? Anybody have experience with the Kia? Which is better, the Kia or a used Sienna?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Get rid of pesky teenagers

Our hearing gets worse as we get older, especially our sensitivity to high-pitched sounds. UK entrepreneur Harry Stapleton turned that problem into a product, called Mosquito, that emits an annoying sound that only teenagers can hear. The rest of us can't hear a thing, so if you have a problem with pesky teenagers hanging out near you, just turn on the mosquito and watch them all run away.

You can buy it online for about $1000.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Brain UI isn't as cool as you think

My buddy Paul pointed me to this week's NYTimes article about how Honda Says Brain Waves Control Robot . Somebody at their car labs has a demo of a person controlling a robot through brain waves.

One of our employees is really into this stuff -- calls it BUI (Brain UI). Ray Kuzweill takes it for granted that this will be a reality by the Singularity, which is all set for 2045, although the brainwave stuff happens sooner, like in 10 or 20 years.

I'm not convinced this is terribly interesting. Maybe it's nice to not have to physically interact with a computer, but you still have to think. Brainwaves are an unstructured mess until you focus them into a unified thought. But that's exactly what language is. Our vocal cords, hands, eyes -- they're extensions of our brain's thought-focusing machinery. I bet you'd find that in most situations it's easier to simply do what you do right now: use speech or hand gestures.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Donald Knuth - Stanford Computer Scientist

A nice feature about one of the heroes of computer science, Donald Knuth, in this month's Stanford Magazine. When I was an undergrad, a friend introduced me to him as "the god of computers", but it wasn't until later that I realized how influential he was. He wrote Tex and Metafont, two early typesetting apps that got me interested in fonts.

Two important facts about him that explain everything: he's from Wisconsin and he's a devout Lutheran. The article adds some more facts, like that he (still) writes several computer programs each week. I wonder what kind of computer he uses?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Marriage of Bill and Hillary

Clintons Balance Married and Public Lives - New York Times:
Since the start of 2005, the Clintons have been together about 14 days a month on average, according to aides who reviewed the couple's schedules. Sometimes it is a full day of relaxing at home in Chappaqua; sometimes it is meeting up late at night. At their busiest, they saw each other on a single day, Valentine's Day, in February 2005 � a month when each was traveling a great deal. Last August, they saw each other at some point on 24 out of 31 days. Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together. The aides declined to provide the Clintons' private schedule.

Monday, May 22, 2006

sprague channel: Live on the PiXPO Network

I just created a new video channel, Richard Sprague's Kids, on a new site called PiXPO.

It's like YouTube, only it streams directly from my PC. That means no mess with uploading to a central server, although my PC must be turned on for you to view content.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Safari Online book sales

Sunday, May 21, 2006

2:33 PM


  • 'Long tail' of online book sales: A recent study by O'Reilly Research provided data, some of which came from Google Book Search, to support the assertion online access drives usage of content that is generally not available in print. The results provided support for the "long tail" theory. The top 10% of print titles delivered 53% of all unit sales. Those same titles provided 25% of Safari page views. By the second 10% of print titles, the relative level of access is close, at 19% and 18% respectively, and by the third decile, there is a greater percentage of Safari page views for the titles than the percentage of books sold. At the end of the tail, the data showed substantial Safari usage of books that didn't sell any copies in print. The results showed how steep the print sales graph is and how much flatter the online access graph is. With Google Book Search, which has older books, 27% of page views come from books generating only 2% of unit sales and fully 47% come from books generating only 9% of unit sales.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

How to lower oil prices

Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek says what I've been saying for a long time:
"As consumers, we do not pay for the enormous expense involved in policing the Middle East, an expense we would almost certainly not incur if its chief export was carrots. We do not pay for the environmental fallout from burning gasoline. We get free roads and a free ride.

If the president and Congress were to propose a powerful package of measures—higher gas taxes, fuel-efficiency standards starting at 30 and rising to 40 miles per gallon, tax credits for new technologies—it would begin to wean the United States off its addiction to oil. And, it would signal to the market that demand for oil in the United States was likely to slow and

I disagree with the part about higher fuel-efficiency standards, though. People and car-makers should be allowed whatever cars they want; but tax them for the extra guzzling. If SUV drivers had to pay their fair share for the war in Iraq, maybe we wouldn't have a war there.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Cool Tool: Home Staging

My favorite advice site, Cool Tools, reviews a book about Home Staging. 212 pages of suggestions for how to make sure your house is fit to sell. For example: replace all worn carpet now--buyers don't want to go through the effort of guessing what it will look like with new carpet, even if they intend to replace it later.

I'm not interested in selling anytime soon, but someday I'm sure I'll move again and I hope the people who own my next house don't bother following the advice from this book.

How to Find Lost Objects

How to Find Lost Objects is available from Amazon, but it's also free on line (so you can't lose it).

Twelve tips for how to find something that's missing. My favorite is #9: Look once, look well. Once you've thoroughly searched an area, don't go back and search there again.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Freakonomics thoughts on red-shirting

My kindergarten boy seems to have a terrible memory. He can't remember names of classmates he's known for a year, forgets when his birthday is, or even what he had for lunch two hours ago. Does he just not have a "talent" for memorization?

The Freakonomics authors writing about the work of The Expert Performance movement led by Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, make me suspect that my boy might be a lot smarter than he may seem. Consider these results from Ericsson's experiments:

Memory ability is not genetically determined. Even somebody with a "bad memory" can, with training, become extremely good.

Soccer stars usually have birthdays at the beginning of the year. Why? Possibly because the age cut-off for team sports rewards kids who are older and bigger. This seems to endorse the practice of "red-shirting", letting a child wait an extra year to start school thus making him more mature, and likely to enjoy the game, more than other kids.

The point is that expertise (in anything -- memorization, soccer, or other things) comes less from pure talent than from focus. If you enjoy something and focus on it, you are more likely to be good at it. If you don't care about birthdays (or people's names), or you know others will remember those things for you, why bother memorizing it yourself?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Watch not, want not? Kids' TV time tied to consumerism

Surprise, surprise: kids who watch TV nag their parents for more stuff than kids who don't. Good thing our kids never watch TV.

From a Stanford study: Watch not, want not? Kids' TV time tied to consumerism:

"On average, the children reported spending more than 22 hours of screen time each week, about 10 of which was spent watching television. The remainder of the time was mostly spent playing video games online or on home video game machines, both of which incorporate increasing amounts of advertising targeted to children.

The children fessed up to about one request each week for toys and two requests every three weeks for food or drinks. These numbers are similar to those reported in other studies."

Saturday, May 06, 2006

No Two Alike [Book]

[my thoughts on a recent book by Judith Rich Harris]

This author’s first book, The Nurture Assumption, has dangerously influenced all my opinions about child-rearing. She convinced me that there is no magic formula for raising successful kids: those studies that claim otherwise are, upon closer scrutiny, all within the margin of statistical noise. Your kids are influenced mostly by their genes, and secondly by the sets of relationships they form with their peers—parents matter less than you might think. It was the consequence of this observation that caught the attention of Steven Pinker and others who have long puzzled over problems like why the children of immigrants don’t have accents. You learn to talk from your parents, right, so why don’t kids’ accents mirror their parents? Because kids learn language in order to communicate with other kids.

Her logic is so persuasive, yet it contradicts almost all the mainstream parenting advice literature out there, so I keep asking what’s the counter-argument? Over the years I have found precious little direct criticism of her arguments, so thankfully she has published a new book that is worth reading just for the nice summary of what has happened since the first one.

Most of whatever consistency there is between the way kids behave at home and how they behave elsewhere can be explained genetically.

  • Robin Dunbar: two-thirds of conversation time is spent on matters of social import (p.18)
  • Talking about childhood experiences has little therapeutic value. It’s far better to talk about current experiences. (p.138)
  • Kids aren’t designed to be dependent on two-parent families. In the wild, there is only one chance in three that both parents are with you at age 10 anyway. ( P.154)
  • P161 Joshua 6:12 where the Israelites destroyed somebody based on their accents.
  • Your personality is formed by the interaction of three modules in your brain: Manage relationships, socialization, competing on status.
  • Managing relationships
    • People have a lexicon of people, facts about individuals.
  • Socialization
    • Allik & McCrea claim there are systematic differences in personality between cultures. (e.g. Europeans are more extravert than Asians or Africans)
    • The most attractive people tend to have looks that are average.
    • Episodic (alzheimers) vs. procedural (Parkinsons) memories are stored differently.

One interesting consequence of her theory, I think, concerns cloning. What would happen if you suddenly cloned yourself? Your double would eventually acquire a distinct personality, even if you held the environment completely constant.

1491 (book)

[my thoughts on the recent book by Charles Mann]

An expanded version of his March 2002 Atlantic Monthly article, this book makes many incredibly interesting claims about life in America before Columbus arrived:
  • The continent was teeming with people. Its population was probably greater than all of Europe. The native populations were destroyed, not by superior weapons or technology, but by disease. In many cases, the native technologies were superior.
  • Tenochtitlan, the capital of Aztec Mexico, was a bigger and more impressive city than anything in Europe at the time.
  • Tisquantum (aka “Squanto”, the Indian who helped the Pilgrims) had already traveled to Europe (possibly multiple times), and was sent there by the local leader, Massasoit, who wanted to befriend the English in order to defend his smallpox-ravaged tribe against his long-term enemies further inland. [Salisbury, N. 1989]
  • Maize is the only major cereal that can’t reproduce without human help. So where did it come from? Some Indians must have created it as a hybrid through deliberate and rigorous genetic engineering over a period of at least ten years.

The book would have been more of a classic, in league with Guns Germs and Steel, if it had been more carefully edited and compressed. The author tends to go on tangents, which though interesting, don’t add much to the story (like his discussion of “estate tortillas” or the taste of hickory milk). But that's a nit. After reading this book, you won't trust anything you learned in school about the history of pre-Columbian America or the people who were here first.

Mercer Island: 38% of homes sold over $1M

The Seattle Times: Business & Technology: Even the high-end homes get snatched up quickly: "How good? A Windermere analysis revealed that 47 percent of all homes sold in west Bellevue this year cost at least $1 million. The same is true of 38 percent of Mercer Island's transactions."

Friday, May 05, 2006

WSJ.com - How to Buy a Cheap Seat in First Class

WSJ.com - How to Buy a Cheap Seat in First Class:

"Q-up, Y-up and Z fares aren't hard to find or buy, requiring just a few extra clicks of a computer mouse. Online travel Web sites such as FareCompare, Expedia Inc.'s Expedia.com, Sabre Holdings Corp.'s Travelocity and Cendant Corp.'s Orbitz let users search by specific fare type. While known as Q-up or Y-up fares, the codes airlines use to identify them sometimes contain additional airline-specific characters, as in one recent Delta fare labeled QUPBV.

At FareCompare, for example, bargain hunters can click 'Trip Search,' then enter the desired route and 'business/first class.' Using Expedia, select 'Additional Options' and then check the box to search for seats in business class or first class. Both sites search for the lowest fare in the chosen seating cabin. If a discounted first-class seat is available, 'QUP' or 'YUP' will pop up in the fare-class box shown by FareCompare. Otherwise, regular first-class codes such as 'F,' 'A' and 'P' will appear on the screen.

Expedia's Q-up fares can be seen by clicking on 'Rules and Restrictions.'"