25 Apr 2005

Poker

I’ve had poker on my mind since last Thanksgiving, specifically Texas Hold’em. At this point, I have special hold’em software, four poker strategy books and one nonfiction book about poker. I mostly study the books and play a bit with the software, but eventually I want to start a real-money account on one of the online poker sites. I feel that if I apply what’s in the books, then I can win money, which would be a very fun goal to shoot for. Of course, to avoid having a gambling problem I have to tread very carefully and lower my expectations within reason for the early stages. I have been procrastinating setting up a new checking account for my poker money both because I truly hesitate to take this step, and because I don’t feel I’m good enough yet.

The poker sites all offer games with pretend money, but the problem there is the opponents are so crazy and bad that you can hardly apply any real strategy. The poker software offers a good challenge, but it’s almost to the other extreme — it’s designed to provide challenging opponents. This is a good thing, but the kind of opponents I’m aiming to win money from are inbetween: they’re better than lunatics, but they won’t play like a typical strong opponent. They’ll play too many hands and go too far with them. If I can tune my poker software to simulate this, maybe I can grow more confident and eventually open that bank account. I’m sure my friends and family will all be equally horrified by this (my wife doesn’t like to discuss it with me), but I still feel like it’s something I should try.

24 Apr 2005

ShelfCentered.com

For the last couple of months, I’ve been working on a new side project that my wife, brother and sister and I came up with, called ShelfCentered.com. I haven’t posted about ShelfCentered.com as of yet, because honestly I suspect it might be a good enough idea to really become something good, and I want to protect us from competitors! For example, there are a couple of shareware programs out there already that do what we’re planning, and they’ve created some limited buzz, but so far no one has thought to put the idea online in a nice web site. I won’t go into detail just yet, but it’s hard to maintain a blog without mentioning the thing that’s my primary occupation outside work!

The burden has been on me to get the site off the ground, but once it’s to a certain point the rest of the family will be able to help out more. I’ve been struggling to get enough mental traction, but now I think I’m getting somewhere. As always, it was a combination of gathering the right set of tools, and being organized enough to start drawing some specifications. There was a longish period of experimentation with a particular application of Web Services as well.

Here are the tools I’m using:

  • My PowerBook is the primary development machine, because it has the Unix environment that imitates our web host, and I can develop around the house. All the items below are installed both on my ‘Book and on our server.
  • Apache (comes with Mac OS X)
  • PHP (comes with Mac OS X)
  • MySQL
  • Smarty. This is the most interesting part. It will let me separate the display of the data on the site from the PHP code that fetches it from Web Services or the local database.
  • TextWrangler. (This is only on my Mac.) This is the free version of BBEdit. It can parse PHP to give me a function popup, and has a great drawer feature where the files I’m working with are listed without window clutter.
16 Apr 2005

MathML

My friend and former coworker, Robert Miner, has written an article about MathML in the latest issue of Notices of the American Mathematics Society, which you can read online [pdf]. MathML is a standard XML representation of math notation and semantics, and has been adopted steadily ever since Robert co-created it in 1998. When I worked at Design Science with Robert, MathML was becoming a major focus for the company.

I was happy to see this article, because the academic math community is still very focused on TeX/LaTeX, which are fine as far as they go, but somewhat old-fashioned and limited compared to MathML. TeX is strictly for presentation, for example, and conveys no semantic content. You couldn’t paste TeX into a computer algebra system, for example, and expect it to compute anything. MathML is a better, more general solution, and has other benefits Robert covers in the article. One likely future application is the ability to index and search math formulas, something I began working on with Robert towards the end of my tenure at Design Science.

I hope the math community becomes more aware of this technology and begins to adopt it. Nice work, Robert!

07 Apr 2005

Daylight Savings Time

I don’t understand daylight savings time. No one I talk to has a clear idea of when and why it was invented. What country started it? What countries adhere to it? Why is Europe still doing it a week before the US?

It seems clear to me that having extremely accurate measurements of time has become an indispensible part of our society. Computers and many other timekeeping devices are synchronized regularly with servers maintained by (or synchronized with) our standards bodies’ equipment, so that their inherent inaccuracy can be overcome. Very nearly, there is one nearly standard idea of time.

Why, then, do we have this sloppy period where times start changing all over the world. At the company where I work, we have employees everywhere with whom we meet regularly by phone. One of them works from Morocco, and we missed a meeting with him last week because he had already gone to daylight savings time and we hadn’t, and we all forgot.

It’s not so much that this really bothers me, because I don’t care if we have a somewhat loose notion of time &emdash; when we make it too strict, I start to feel a bit dehumanized. Rather, what I find interesting is that we’re so inconsistent. We seem obsessed with the exact microsecond of time, and we do all we can to get univeral agreement among our devices, at least locally, while at the same time we don’t keep very good track of the hours.

All this was an overly elaborate way to link to a CNN story (via Slashdot) about Congress considering extending Daylight Savings Time by a couple of months. That would make eight months of DST out of twelve. Doesn’t that sound strange? It drives home how arbitrary time is anyway — why not call the other four months “Daylight Wastings Time”? When I saw the headline mention changing DST, I assumed they were trying to do away with it! I assumed that the confusion and loss of maximal human efficiency caused by the change would be declared to be a drag on our economy or something.

Of course, there are reasons it seems DST is a good idea. I guess it saves energy to move the daylight hours around. That’s all fine and good, but do it everywhere in the world at once, or else let’s just admit we don’t really care what time it is.