Monthly Archives: August 2012

Gyms and personal training

So I have a dilemma with exercise that I suspect a lot of people share: I’d ultimately like to have access to the facilities that many gyms offer, both the weights and the exercise classes, but the whole surrounding consumer setup is completely offputting to me.

First of course is the price structure, where they take money whether or not I use the gym. Smooth, gyms, smooth. (Yes, I am aware that they make more money — I assume far more, given how bad it is for customer perceptions of their industry — that way. But I am not interested in gyms’ profitability, in capitalism I highly value my right to be an utterly selfish consumer in that respect.) So, yeah. Is my (realistically) once-a-week-with-occasional-skips use of a gym worth $30 a week to me? No.

Assuming I got past that, here’s what needs to happen, for example, for me to join Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre’s gym, which is most likely because I’d like access to their pool rather than paying for a gym and a pool. First, I need to go there with my husband, because it would be a joint membership. OK, there go about ninety-five percent of my trips there. Secondly, my husband must either not be in a hurry to get back to work, or we must not have our bored toddler fussing at us. So, that’s the remaining five percent of trips. Then, once I did sign up, there’s compulsory personal training sessions focusing on my fitness goals. I can’t think of anything I find less inspiring, than to discuss my fitness goal “I enjoy moving my body sometimes” with people who are trained to equate fitness goals with either “I want to achieve top percentile cardiovascular or strength performance” or “I want to lose a fair chunk of weight”. I rather suspect this mismatch is deliberate too, because there’s no better customer than one who has been persuaded that they really need to keep this gym membership… for the far-away day that the sense of being too inferior a body to use the gym goes away.

Sunday spam: French toast with bacon

The Myth of Looming Female Dominance

[One] should always be wary of raw numbers in the news. In fact, when you look at the trend as published by the Census Bureau, you see that the proportion of married couple families in which the father meets the stay-at-home criteria has doubled: from 0.4% in 2000 to 0.8% today. The larger estimate which includes fathers working part-time comes out to 2.8% of married couple families with children under 15. The father who used the phrase “the new normal” in [the NYT story] was presumably not speaking statistically.

Miley Cyrus haircut shocker: Short hair isn’t a cry for help

So just to remind you: A young woman changing her look in a way that doesn’t scream, “Please, world, love me because I am a Victoria’s Secret model,” right now, in the year of our Lord 2012, freaks people out. It actually makes them wonder if she’s lost her mind.

Scientists Claim To ‘Block’ Heroin, Morphine Addiction: One Skeptic’s Reaction

THe “one skeptic’s reaction” is actually along the lines of “this is very interesting research, that appears to have not much application to blocking existing addiction, but might to making opiates more effective for pain while being less addictive.”

Tribalism and locavorism

Why does the idea of “food miles” bug (some) freemarketeers while (some) environmentalists resist evidence that it’s not environmental friendly? This appears to be against both their stated ideological positions.

Why Aren’t Female Ski Jumpers Allowed in the Olympics?

Dating to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says the women’s exclusion isn’t discrimination. President Jacques Rogge has insisted that the decision “was made strictly on a technical basis, and absolutely not on gender grounds.” But female would-be Olympic competitors say they don’t understand what that “technical basis” is. Their abilities? They point to American Lindsey Van, who holds the world record for the single longest jump by anyone, male or female.

The foibles of flexibility

Since the average age of those studying for a PhD is 37 most of you will have some kind of family commitment, and yes – pets count. I find it mystifying that so many of the ‘how to get a PhD’ books offer precious little advice on how to cope.

Am I Black Enough For You?

I watched this case unfold with particular interest. Why? Because I am married to an Aboriginal man and I have an Aboriginal daughter (they are of the Ngarigo people and the Gunditjmara people). And my daughter has fair skin, dark blond/light brown hair and very blue eyes. She is one of these “white Aboriginals” that Andrew Bolt decries.

We’re not here for your inspiration

And there’s another one of a little boy running on those same model legs with the caption, “Your excuse is invalid”. Yes, you can take a moment here to ponder the use of the word “invalid” in a disability context. Ahem.

Then there’s the one with the little girl with no hands drawing a picture holding the pencil in her mouth with the caption, “Before you quit. Try.”

I’d go on, but I might expunge the contents of my stomach.

Let me be clear about the intent of this inspiration porn; it’s there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, “Oh well if that kid who doesn’t have any legs can smile while he’s having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life”. It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think “well, it could be worse… I could be that person”.

Did I miss the Amara memo? Easy subtitling!

Amara (Universal Subtitles) is great stuff! Apologies to everyone for whom it is old news: I had heard of it before but not bothered to check it out, assuming it would be super-hard and fiddly. I really didn’t find it so.

How it works: you find a video on a popular video website (Youtube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, or several codecs downloaded directly for that matter) that doesn’t have subtitles. You submit the URL into the Amara website and a tool opens up that lets you enter subtitles for the video, in three steps:

  1. type in all the subtitles a line at a time as you pause and restart the video (assuming you need to, professional closed captioners may not need to)
  2. sync the subtitles with the speech (by pressing a single key every time it’s time to start a new subtitle)
  3. review and publish

I am especially amazed at how easy it is to get a good-enough (I think?) sync of subtitle and speech when playing the video at full speed and just hitting the down arrow to advance to the next subtitle. Amara also provides embed codes that allow you to embed their subtitles with the original video in another webpage, which is crucial because I want to embed videos more often than I want to link to them. Finally, you can pull your subtitles out afterwards in text format, which means you can create a more complete transcript for separate publication.

Last of all, it is not a for-profit enterprise, it is a product of the Participatory Culture Foundation and the Amara code is itself open source. So it is not hostage to a commercial motive but is genuinely created with the central motive of providing more subtitled video on the web.

It does have some limitations: most noticeably for me, the controls over rewinding are a bit coarse-grained (go back 4 seconds and… that’s about it) and they don’t seem to have a facility for slowing the video down, which can help me transcribe fast speech.

They have a short introduction video about themselves (subtitled!):

{“video_url”: “″}

As a demonstration of what user subtitled content looks like, here’s a subtitled version (not by me) of Karen Sandler’s keynote at 2012, about medical devices and source code (in her case, trying to get the source code of her pacemaker):

{“video_url”: “”}

The text version of the subtitles is also available.

Why subtitle stuff? You can provide a translation into other languages, as most people are familiar with. But subtitling things into the written form of the language they’re spoken in is also very useful. Several reasons:

  • it makes the video accessible to hearing-impaired people;
  • it makes the video accessible to anyone who can’t listen to the sound right at that second; and
  • the existance of the text version of the subtitles makes the video at least more accessible to readers who can’t watch video or don’t have time to.

Sunday Spam: bagels, lox and smoked salmon

In belated honour of my breakfast in New York, Sunday July 8.

Baby Loss and the Pain Olympics

Warning for baby loss discussion.

I really have to question why seeing someone else processing their emotions is her pet peeve.

Do I believe a miscarriage and neonatal death is the same thing — of course not. If they were the same thing, they would share the same term. But just because I see them as apples and oranges doesn’t mean that I don’t also see them as fruit. They are both loss.

The deadly scandal in the building trade

Readers would not guess from the “national conversation” that the construction industry is sitting on a story as grave in its implications as the phone-hacking affair – graver I will argue. You are unlikely to have heard mention of it for a simple and disreputable reason: the victims are working-class men rather than celebrities… The construction companies could not be clearer that men who try to enforce minimum safety standards are their enemies. The files included formal letters notifying a company that a worker was the official safety rep on a site as evidence against him.

On Technical Entitlement

By most measures, I should have technical entitlement in spades… [and yet] I am very intimidated by the technically entitled.

You know the type. The one who was soldering when she was 6. The one who raises his hand to answer every question–and occasionally try to correct the professor. The one who scoffs at anyone who had a score below the median on that data structures exam (“idiots!”). The one who introduces himself by sharing his StackOverflow score.

Puzzling outcomes in A/B testing

A fun upcoming KDD 2012 paper out of Microsoft, “Trustworthy Online Controlled Experiments: Five Puzzling Outcomes Explained” (PDF), has a lot of great insights into A/B testing and real issues you hit with A/B testing. It’s a light and easy read, definitely worthwhile.

Selected excerpts:

We present … puzzling outcomes of controlled experiments that we analyzed deeply to understand and explain … [requiring] months to properly analyze and get to the often surprising root cause … It [was] not uncommon to see experiments that impact annual revenue by millions of dollars … Reversing a single incorrect decision based on the results of an experiment can fund a whole team of analysts.

When Bing had a bug in an experiment, which resulted in very poor results being shown to users, two key organizational metrics improved significantly: distinct queries per user went up over 10%, and revenue per user went up over 30%! …. Degrading algorithmic results shown on a search engine result page gives users an obviously worse search experience but causes users to click more on ads, whose relative relevance increases, which increases short-term revenue … [This shows] it’s critical to understand that long-term goals do not always align with short-term metrics.

Angels & Demons

One of the various Longform collections, and like many of them, a crime piece:

On June 4, 1989, the bodies of Jo, Michelle and Christe were found floating in Tampa Bay. This is the story of the murders, their aftermath, and the handful of people who kept faith amid the unthinkable.

On Leaving Academia

As almost everybody knows at this point, I have resigned my position at the University of New Mexico. Effective this July, I am working for Google, in their Cambridge (MA) offices.

Countless people, from my friends to my (former) dean have asked “Why? Why give up an excellent [some say 'cushy'] tenured faculty position for the grind of corporate life?”

Honestly, the reasons are myriad and complex, and some of them are purely personal. But I wanted to lay out some of them that speak to larger trends at UNM, in New Mexico, in academia, and in the US in general. I haven’t made this move lightly, and I think it’s an important cautionary note to make: the factors that have made academia less appealing to me recently will also impact other professors.

Ethics, Culture, & Policy: Commercial surrogacy in India: A $2 billion industry

Since its legalization in 2002, commercial surrogacy in India has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry, drawing couples from around the world. IVF procedures in the unregulated Indian clinics generally cost a fraction of what they would in Europe or the U.S., with surrogacy as little as one-tenth the price. Mainstream press reports in English-language publications occasionally devote a line or two to the ethical implications of using poor women as surrogates, but with few exceptions, these women’s voices have not been heard.

Sociologist Amrita Pande of the University of Cape Town set out to speak directly with the “workers” to see how they are affected by such “work.”