Sunday, October 31, 2004

In just a few more hours...

... just over 48, to be precise, the result of the 2004 U.S. Presidential elections will be known. Assuming, of course, that the election doesn't have to be decided by the Supreme Court again; a state of affairs that I'm sure nobody would like. I'm not going to comment further now, though; I'll be up all night on Tuesday as the results come in and will post any thoughts then.

Oh, and a Happy Halloween to all my readers!

Monday, October 25, 2004

Seen in a Slashdotter's signature

"With Microsoft, you get Windows. With Linux, you get the full house" - original source unknown.

Enough said. :-))

Sunday, October 24, 2004

More Bad News in Iraq

The New York Times is carrying two stories from Iraq. The first covers the loss of 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives from Al Qaqaa, a former Iraqi military facility now (at least nominally) under American control. From the article:
The bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 used less than a pound of the same type of material, and larger amounts were apparently used in the bombing of a housing complex in November 2003 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the blasts in a Moscow apartment complex in September 1999 that killed nearly 300 people.

The International Atomic Energy Agency publicly warned about the danger of these explosives before the war, and after the invasion it specifically told United States officials about the need to keep the explosives secured, European diplomats said in interviews last week. Administration officials say they cannot explain why the explosives were not safeguarded, beyond the fact that the occupation force was overwhelmed by the amount of munitions they found throughout the country.

After the invasion, when widespread looting began in Iraq, the international weapons experts grew concerned that the Qaqaa stockpile could fall into unfriendly hands. In May, an internal I.A.E.A. memorandum warned that terrorists might be helping "themselves to the greatest explosives bonanza in history."

The explosives could also be used to trigger a nuclear weapon, which was why international nuclear inspectors had kept a watch on the material, and even sealed and locked some of it.

"After the collapse of the regime, our liberation, everything was under the coalition forces, under their control," Dr. Omar (Rasheed Omar, the Iraqi minister of Science and Technology) said. "So probably they can answer this question, what happened to the materials."

Officials in Washington said they had no answers to that question. One senior official noted that the Qaqaa complex where the explosives were stored was listed as a "medium priority" site on the Central Intelligence Agency's list of more than 500 sites that needed to be searched and secured during the invasion. "Should we have gone there? Definitely," said one senior administration official.

Granted, it might not have been possible to secure every pound of arms and munitions in Iraq, but 380 tons of HDX and RDX? Assuming that the looters used 10-ton trucks to carry the explosives away, they would have needed a convoy of 40 trucks! And no-one noticed? (Perhaps they took it away in smaller chunks at a time - ed.) That's even worse; it implies that they waltzed in and out of the facility on a regular basis! Incompetency doesn't begin to describe this. One can only shrug in wonder at his capacity for self-delusion when President Bush portrays himself as the only candidate capable of winning the 'War on Terror'.

In the second story, Edward Wong reports that fifty freshly trained Iraqi soldiers were ambushed and killed by insurgents dressed as police officers in eastern Iraq. He writes
The executions of the Iraqi soldiers on Saturday evening - and what may also have been three civilian drivers in their convoy - raised disturbing questions about the training process and the recruits: Why were the guardsmen allowed to travel unarmed and without protection, given the frequent attacks on the Iraqi security forces? Why did men trained as soldiers not put up a fight, especially when there were so many of them? How did the insurgents get police uniforms and information on the travel plans of the soldiers?

Iraqi and American officials said they had no immediate answers.

One can't invent this kind of story... and there's no need to comment on it. In other news from Iraq, Edward J. Seitz, a 16-year employee of the State Department was killed this morning in a mortar or rocket attack on Camp Victory, near Baghdad International Airport. Camp Victory is the U.S. military's operations center in Iraq. Mr. Seitz seems to be the first American diplomat to be killed in the war.

After a day filled with bad news, a little thing can sometimes make a huge positive difference. This statement in a Washington Post article on voter rights and harassment moved me nearly to tears.
"I'm excited to cast my first vote," said Heidi Carrillo, 24, a new registrant who was born in the United States to illegal immigrants. "They can ask for ID. They can make me last in the line. I don't care. I'm voting!"

Isn't that what democracy is all about?

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Biological Nomenclature

Slashdot ran a story on Taxonomy and amusing nomenclature today. Mark Isaak collected some names worth a second look. The page is fairly detailed, but here are some of the more amusing names.

Ba Humbugi (endodontoid snail) from Mba island, Fiji.
Eubetia Bigaulae (tortricid moth, pronounced You betcha, by golly)
Pieza Kake, Pieza Pi, Pieza Rhea (mythicomyiid fly)
Strategus Longichomperus (Honduran scarab with elongated mandibles)
Ytu Brutus (water beetle)
Eristalis gatesi (a flower fly, named after Bill Gates. Someone decided he deserved a bug named after him!)
Montypythonoideriversleighensis (An extinct python whose remains were found at Riversleigh in Queensland, Australia, it was named in a tribute to comedy)
Fiordichthys slartibartfasti (a fish named after Slartibartfast - the award-winning Fjord designer in the HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
Commelina (day-flower, named after the three members of the Dutch Commelin family, two of whom prospered. The flower has three petals, one of which is small, pale, and shriveled.)
Mephitis mephitis (common striped skunk, variously translated "noxious vapours noxious vapours", "stench stench" or my favourite, "smelliest of the smelly")

Scientists with a sense of humour... my favourite form of life!

Photographs of Champaign-Urbana

Champaign-Urbana is a beautiful town, and Fall is one of its best seasons. I've been meaning to capture some of my favourite views, but never seemed to have the time. I dug my camera out this weekend and finally took a few photographs. I didn't intend to photoblog, but since Faraz and a couple of other people asked for photographs, here they are:

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.
Photographs of our apartment.
Fall in Champaign-Urbana.
Siebel Center for Computer Science. This is very much a work in progress; my snaps of Siebel are very sketchy at the moment.

I uploaded them to Ofoto, but suspect that eventually I'll host them myself at UIUC. Another task for my to-do list. Sigh!


Ditch (Deepak Ramachandran for the non-cognoscenti) has launched a blog of his own. As you can tell from its title, it's meant to be a weblog about AI research.
... (M)ostly this blog is about the discipline of AI as a distinct subfield of Computer Science - The effort to build machines that think, know, learn and are aware. Along the way, if we could define what these terms mean exactly, well that would certainly help. I hope to take it in the same direction as Lance Fortnow's Computational Complexity Blog.

Ditch was an occasional contributor to Pseudo-random Thoughts; with luck we'll hear more from him now. I hope he'll continue to grace us with guest posts here, though.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Cost of War

The National Priorities Project documents what federal tax and spending policies mean to America. Among other things, they describe the dollar cost of the war in Iraq. The war has other, more important costs such as the apalling loss of life (mostly Iraqi, and to a lesser extent, American soldiers), the harm to America's credibility and reputation, and so on. They describe these as well, but they are well documented elsewhere (see Iraq Body Count, for example) and often speak for themselves. I'm going to focus on the money, then.

The Cost of War maintains a counter showing the expenditure on the war in Iraq. As of this afternoon, it had reached $138,693,576,310 and was climbing rapidly (yes, that's 138 billion dollars!). This amount could have been used for any of the following:
a) Completely insuring the health of 83 million children for a year
b) Hiring 2.4 million public school teachers for a year
c) Building 1.2 million additional housing units
d) Fully funding global anti-hunger efforts for 5 years, or global anti-AIDS efforts for 13 years.
e) Ensuring that every child in the world would receive basic immunizations for the next 46 years.

What really makes the site stand out, though, is this wonderful statement by President Eisenhower. He was a Republican, and (having been Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and Supreme Commander of NATO) knew war first-hand; no-one could accuse him of being a 'bleeding-heart liberal'. He said, on April 16, 1953:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

Food for thought.

UPDATE: This might help you appreciate how rapidly the costs are increasing; in the time it took me to write this, over 2 million dollars have been spent!

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Selecting a Research Area

The Computer Science department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign requires all new Ph.D. students to attend a seminar in their first semester. As part of the seminar, various faculty members from different research groups describe the work they are currently engaged in. This is a fantastic idea, as it gives students the opportunity to learn about all the research being conducted in the department and helps us choose which area we would like to work in.

There's one thing I dislike, though; so far, some of the presenters (and almost all the students who I've spoken to) appear to believe that one of the primary reasons to select a research area is the potential impact that your work can have. Don't get me wrong; I completely understand that this could be a motivating factor for many people. Should it be the most important, though? What about research because you enjoy it? Is creating (or discovering) knowledge for its own sake not the most powerful motivation for a researcher? Sure, it must be incredibly gratifying to see your work in daily use. But if that's your reason for research, you might have done better to join a software company and work on products which are used by thousands of people. You could have even joined Microsoft!

Note: I'm not denigrating people who choose such careers; where would the world be if we all spent every waking minute wondering about the precise relationship between NP and BQP? Sure, there are people who would love to work at Microsoft; I'm not one of them. (What about Google? - ed. Ok, you got me!) What irks me is that there isn't anyone presenting their research area and telling us that we should choose it because it's beautiful; because we might love the field, its techniques and open problems. Now that would motivate me. I get a little tired of "Join us because we're relevant!" and "Join us because we're hot today/this week/year!". That's not what I hoped for; it's not what one would expect from people as deeply in love with their field of study as many of the faculty here are.

To be fair, though, even if that's what motivates the faculty, it might be difficult to convey it to students. I wouldn't be able to explain why I love algorithms and not databases to someone who had never taken a theory course. So perhaps this isn't a good way to attract new students to your field. Still, it would be nice to hear it once in a while. And the theory group is presenting their research next week; there's hope yet!

One final comment; what good research does not have an impact? For years, number theory was considered the "purest of pure" mathematics with no practical applications. Today, computational number theory is the basis for cryptography; its impact cannot be denied.