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Page last updated on 2016 February 05

This page was created in March 2009 as an outgrowth of the section entitled "Books Read or Heard" in my personal page. The rapid expansion of the list of books warranted devoting a separate page to it. Given that the book introductions and reviews constituted a form of personal blog, I decided to title this page "Blog & Books," to also allow discussion of interesting topics unrelated to books from time to time. Lately, non-book items (such as political news, tech news, puzzles, oddities, trivia, humor, art, and music) have formed the vast majority of the entries.

Entries in each section appear in reverse chronological order.

Blog entries for 2016
Archived blogs for 2015
Archived blogs for 2014
Archived blogs for 2012-13
Archived blogs up to 2011

Blog Entries for 2016

2016/02/05 (Friday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
Instructions written on a package of wet wipes (1) On precision in writing: Whenever you write instructions/directions for others, or in any other form of writing for that matter, put yourself in the readers' shoes and try to figure out if your intended meaning is the only possible interpretation of your words.
Let me give you an example from a recent personal experience. I had written "Do Not Flush" on a package of wet wipes in my guest bathroom, because the wipes are large and sturdy and thus can cause a clog if flushed down the toilet. A while ago, I had a man doing tile repairs in my house and he asked for my permission to use the bathroom.
After the man finished his work and left, I went to use the bathroom myself, when I saw that the toilet had not been flushed after use. You can probably guess that the qualifier "These Wipes" was added at that time!
(2) Spring equinox (Eid-e Norooz; saal tahvil): In California, the Persian New Year 1395 will begin on Saturday, March 19, 2016, at 9:30:12 PM (UTC – 8). In Iran, it will begin on Sunday, March 20, at 8:00:12 AM.
(3) Stand-up comedy: Ricky Gervais offers a brilliant routine on the Old Testament. [12-minute video]
(4) Superbowl's high-tech venue: The data center of Levi Stadium, site of Superbowl 50 at the heart of Silicon Valley, is gearing up for the big game. Attendees can download an app that allows them to shop, order food for delivery to their seats, and even locate the nearest bathroom, or the one with the shortest line, so as to miss as little of the game and the Coldplay/Beyonce halftime show as possible.
(5) Seeing Iran in 19 minutes: A brief tour though the country's nature, historic sites, and attractions.
(6) Quote of the day: "Owning a car that is not self-driving in the long term will be like owning a horse—you would own it and use it for sentimental reasons but not for daily use." ~ Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk
(7) Bank ATM stats: In 2014, there were 3M+ ATMs in the world and they were used for 92B cash-withdrawal transactions (roughly 13 withdrawals per year per living individual, adult or child). [Info from: E&T magazine, issue of February 2016]
(8) Image of a historic lotto ticket from Iran: The tickets were issued in the early 1930s to raise funds for building a monument worthy of the great Persian poet Ferdowsi. The new monument was completed in time for Ferdowsi's Millennial observances in 1934.

2016/02/04 (Thursday): Here are four items of potential interest.
Cover image of Adam Grant's book 'Originals' (1) Adam Grant's lecture tonight: UCSB's Campbell Hall was the site of a 7:30 PM free lecture by Adam Grant, a successful business professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and an acclaimed author whose latest book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, has just been released (Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg wrote the foreword). The idea for the book came to Grant in 2002 and it took him a decade of research to put it together.
The book's main focus is on how to bring your good ideas to your superiors' table at work or to potential investors in the market, in order to get support for them. Another angle is how to speak up when you see something in your organization that isn't right or that can be improved. I found the lecture and its Q&A period enlightening, entertaining, and educational.
Grant made three key observations about originals: they tend to be moderate, not extreme, procrastinators, they are mid-level, not top, experts in their fields, bringing instead a breadth of knowledge that helps them see things differently, and they are good at making unfamiliar familiar (the movie "Lion King" kept being rejected by Disney execs, until someone described it as "Hamlet in Africa, with lions.")
By far the most enlightening observation was one that Grant communicated via the following metaphor. He asked each person to think of a song and tap it on his/her seat's armrest to an adjacent person. Before doing this, however, the tapper had to estimate the probability of the other person guessing the song correctly. Then, as members of the audience revealed the results of the experiment, it turned out that very few people had gotten the song right and that the tapper had way overestimated the probability of a correct guess.
Here is the explanation offered by Grant. When we tap a song, we hear the melody in our brain. The other person hears only a series of disjointed taps, which likely sound nothing like the intended song. This is the fate of many new ideas. As we explain our idea to someone else, the full melody (our thinking process and the many hours we have spent with the idea) plays in our mind, whereas the other person is hearing the concept for the first time and needs more time to absorb it. Repetition helps. Be prepared to pitch your ideas forcefully and often!
(2) Quote of the day: "They just have a view of America that is largely disconnected from how America functions. It's a strain of paranoia that has been living in an echo chamber for 30 years." ~ Matthew Trevithick, the American aid worker recently released from prison in Iran, on the mindset of his Revolutionay Guards captors
(3) The largest known prime: Once in a while, advances in computational power lead to the discovery of a larger prime number than those known before. The record, as of January 26, 2016, is held by 2^(74,207,281) – 1, a Mersenne prime which has 22,338,618 digits when written as a decimal number.
(4) World Music Series: Yesterday's noon program at UCSB's Music Bowl featured Sphardic music from Jewish communities in Turkey, Greece, Spain, and other countries of southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East. The band Flor de Kanela (Flower of Cinnamon) performed. Featured instruments included ousted, daf, violin, cello, and clarinet. This Greek/Sphardic mix tells the story of a man's troubles because he had simultaneous relationships with two women (two wives, wife and mistress, two girlfriends; the person introducing the song wasn't sure). Like many Sphardic songs dealing with romantic relationships, the lyrics have a humorous tone; or so we were told!

2016/02/03 (Wednesday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
Neighborhood, with street and place names taken from rock-n-roll hit songs (1) Cartoon of the day: Rock-n-roll neighborhood.
(2) Phyllium: A leaf-like insect with a perfect built-in camouflage.
(3) How bread is made in an industrial-scale bakery.
(4) Bubble rooms: Spending the night immersed in nature, while staying warm and cozy.
(5) Students and teachers of a pre-Islamic-Revolution school in Iran reunite after five decades. Notice how formerly hijabless girls and teachers have chosen to wear chadors, which is way more than required by the current oppressive law.
(6) The for-profit DeVry University sued for deceptive practices: The feds have accused DeVry of defrauding students with misleading claims about their employment prospects and earning potential.
(7) On Iran's Fajr Film Festival: Decency police patrols were the first to arrive at the red-carpet entrance to ensure that actresses were properly dressed. Famed actress Gohar Kheirandish was stopped because she had covered her hair with a hat, instead of a headscarf.
(8) Obama proposes $4B for CS education: Citing skills needed to compete in an evolving economy, President Obama indicated that he will ask the Congress for funding to teach certain computer science skills that are no longer optional in the new economy, if the US is to remain competitive in the global marketplace.
(9) Putting a baby to sleep in less than a minute. [3-minute video]

Cover image of the book 'Resilience' by Elizabeth Edwards 2016/02/02 (Tuesday): Book review: Edwards, Elizabeth, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities, Broadway Books, 2009.
Having read Elizabeth Edwards' previous memoir, Saving Graces, I had been looking forward to reading her second memoir. The author, whose husband, John Edwards, was a US vice-presidential and presidential candidate, experienced three life-altering events that severely tested both her faith and physical strength. These events, and how Edwards dealt with them, are the focal points of this volume, which also contains narratives about her childhood and her parents.
Born in 1949, Edwards grew up in Japan and moved a lot with her Navy-pilot father. Her father was deemed brain-dead in 1990, but he recovered and lived another 18 years, though in poor health. "My father was an imperfect man in many ways, but maybe it was better that he was imperfect and that I knew he was, for I learned that perfection was not a requirement of resilience" [p. 9].
The first event that rocked Edwards' world was the April 1996 death of her first-born, Wade, 16, in a no-fault, single-vehicle accident caused by high winds. She and her husband were both devastated by this loss, and she came very close to full emotional paralysis. "What I had to face was not something present, it was something absent. And although we can escape something's presence, there is no way to escape its absence. There was no place to go where he would not also be absent" [p. 67]. Eventually, Edwards recovered from the devastation with help from friends and support groups.
The second blow came in November 2004, when Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatments seemed to work at first, but then the disease came back in 2007 with a vengeance, when the cancer metastasized and got into her bones. At this stage, it was clear that the cancer was incurable and that she did not have long to live.
The third and final strike was Edwards' discovery that her husband had carried out an affair with a woman who became part of his campaign as a videographer. Apparently, in 2006, John Edwards had fallen for the quaint line "You are so hot," uttered by the woman who doggedly pursued him and caught him off-guard on the street as he was returning to his hotel one night. What made the situation worse from the author's viewpoint was her husband's piecemeal revelation of the type and extent of the affair, first claiming that it was a one-night stand and then admitting that it was actually a relationship. Later, it became clear that he had also fathered a daughter with his mistress, something that he denied at first. Having seen the effect of her father's likely extramarital affair on her mother's self-confidence and well-being (as a girl, she secretly read her mother's journals), she begged John when they were newlyweds to never put her in that position. "Leave me, if you must, but do not be unfaithful" [p. 183]. For a while, she shunned campaigning and when she resumed, there were only certain statements she could make without feeling hypocritical. Eventually, she came to the conclusion that trust is unlikely to return to her marital life. "[W]hen I closed the door to the John of today, I also had to say good-bye to that sweet man whom I had loved for so long" [p. 220].
Edwards remembers fondly a game she used to play with her husband and children in the car. They would try to notice as many details as they could about a house as they drove past it, and they would then construct an elaborate story that would match those details. "A house with a newly constructed ramp was a soldier returning from battle; the now-untended vegetable garden the result of his wife's caring for him instead of it." She later did the same story-weaving about people who would send her encouragement or sympathy cards.
Near the end of the book, Edwards offers this observation: "I am the pieces of sixty years of life that once made a picture but no longer fit together, and I am trying to see what puzzle picture I can create from those pieces that remain" [p. 220]. She did not have much time to put the puzzle pieces together, as she died at age 61, in December 2010.
The book, which I highly recommend, does not offer a recipe for dealing with devastation or grieving a loss. In fact, Edwards insists that each person must shape his or her own method of dealing with adversity. Seeking support is very important, but beyond that there is no magic ingredient. For example, some would need, and take comfort in, visiting a loved one's grave frequently (perhaps daily), while others would do best by avoiding such visits. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

2016/02/01 (Monday): Here are four items of potential interest.
Birthday greetings from ASEE (1) A first during my 43-year professional life: American Society of Engineering Education, of which I am a member, has sent me a birthday e-card. This is the first time a professional body has sent me birthday wishes! Perhaps this is the start of a personalization trend, in lieu of cold mass communication via technical publications. Each morning, ASEE sends me "First Bell," an e-mail bulletin on new developments in science, technology, and engineering education, which forms a useful reference for my daily reading as well as blog and Facebook posts. Thank you, ASEE!
(2) Marvin Minsky [1927-2016]: Recognized as one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence research, Minsky was also a first-rate mathematician, roboticist, engineer, inventor, writer, poet, philosopher, musician, educator, and a tireless student of human nature and thinking. Minsky founded MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which was at the center of AI advances (e.g., in neural networks) for many years. He passed away on January 24, 2016, in Boston, MA, at the age of 88.
(3) Some ingenious uses for metal binder clips: I have been using the toothpaste-tube trick for some time.
(4) On-line course on advanced game theory: Last night, I watched week-3 and week-4 lectures and submitted homework assignments 3 and 4 in the Stanford/Coursera MOOC I am taking, thus finishing the course material. Week 3 covered Vickrey-Clarke-Groves (VCG) mechanisms, whose importance stems from the properties that they have truth-telling as a dominant strategy and make efficient choices. The week-3 material ended with the Myerson-Satterthwaite theorem, an impossibility result for the simultaneous achievement of efficiency, weak budget-balance, and interim individual rationality in VCG mechanisms. Week-4 lectures dealt with auctions and contained a number of interesting and practically important results on how to conduct auctions and bid at them. Most of us immediately visualize the selling of expensive artwork and other artifacts when we think of auctions. However, awarding contracts based on written bids, selling spectrum to wireless companies, and choosing ads to include on a Google search-results page are all interesting examples of auctions in our daily lives. Well-known auction types include English, Japanese, Dutch, 1st-price sealed-bid, 2nd-price sealed-bid, and all-pay. These auctions share some basic properties but are different in other respects. It was surprising to me that some deep mathematical results have been derived for such seemingly simple mechanisms. To friends who like math and have never studied game theory, I highly recommend taking a course or reading a book on the topic. There is a wealth of interesting and deep math whose discovery will delight you.

2016/01/31 (Sunday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "Speaking is hard for me. But come January, I want to say these two words: 'Madam President.'" ~ Gabby Giffords, former US Congresswoman, who is still recovering from a gunshot to the head
(2) The Oscars shine a spotlight on honor killings: A short documentary film about Saba Qaiser, a Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by her father, after a severe beating by him and her uncle, is one of this year's nominees. Saba survived and ended up forgiving her father. The film, "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness" (after Saba was shot, her body was placed in a sack and thrown into a river), is already making a difference, but it will become more effective if it wins. I am cheering for it.
(3) Sophisticated geometry was used 14 centuries earlier than previously thought: According to a new study, published in Science, Babylonians used sophisticated geometrical calculations to track Jupiter across the night sky, a method that was previously attributed to medieval scholars in Oxford and Paris.
(4) An all-Trump debate: Stephen Colbert's hilarious spoof, in which two versions of Donald Trump debate each other. The debate begins at the 2:30 mark of this 8-minute video.
(5) Modern Persian music: Parnaz Partovi and two unnamed musicians perform in an intimate outdoor setting.
(6) Persian music: A group of young musicians performs "Mi-Gozaram Tanha" ("I Journey Alone"), a song made famous by Marzieh, with lyrics by Rahim Moeini Kermanshahi. There are a couple of other musical pieces at the end of the same 10-minute video.
(7) Introducing the next singing sensation: Dog Groban
(8) Climbing one of the Giza pyramids: I wonder if this is legal. [1-minute video]
(9) Fake charities: Consider the names "Children's Cancer Fund of America," "Breast Cancer Society," "Cancer Support Services," "American Veterans Relief Foundation," and "Disabled Firefighters Fund." Before rushing to donate money to these seemingly worthy causes, be aware that every single one of these, and many more, have been investigated by the US government and found to be fraudulent, with their operators fined (unfortunately, none of them have served time so far). Even the fines are a sham. Some have been fined $3M, say, but ended up paying only $60K or so, arguing that they had no money, perhaps because they successfully hid their assets from the feds. All these "charities" either pocketed all the money they raised or spent a ridiculously small amount, say 2%, on the purported causes. In some cases, a single individual or family operated multiple "charities" that had family members and friends on their payrolls. Make sure you look up charitable organizations before donating. A nice-sounding name isn't enough.

2016/01/29 (Friday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
President Rouhani being entertained at a Paris cabaret Door signs for a Pedants Society meeting (1) Cartoon of the day: My reaction to this cartoon was that the sign could be misleading to members, because once they open the door, "behind this door" would not be inside the intended room!
(2) Second cartoon of the day: Iran's President Rouhani is entertained in Paris.
(3) An oldie but goodie: "Historia de un Amor"
(4) Barbie wants you to stop talking about her body: New body types and skin tones for the iconic doll are the focus of a Time magazine cover story in its issue of February 8, 2016.
(5) Modern Persian music: Sara Hamidi is the featured vocalist with Paris-based Bahar Choir and East Paris Philharmonic Orchestra (led by Arash Fouladvand) in this piece, named "Fetneh-Gar" ("Seditionist"), composed by Parviz Yahaghi, with lyrics by Bijan Taraghi.
(6) Two dozen Baha'is get prison terms in Iran: The city of Gorgan has sentenced 24 Baha'is, mostly women, to a total of 193 years in prison (average sentence of 8 years) on charges of membership in illegal organizations and advocating against the regime.
(7) Caro Emerald performs "Liquid Lunch" at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
(8) My solo hike today: I hiked Santa Barbara's San Antonio Creek Trail, that begins at the eastern end of Tuckers Grove Park (located at the intersection of Turnpike Road and Cathedral Oaks Road) and proceeds with a very gentle slope for 2 miles to meet Highway 154. The trail is shady, making it ideal for a hot day like today. I hiked for a total of 6 miles, counting some detours and backtrackings. Near the end of the trail, there is a cement dam that creates a pond under normal conditions; needless to say that the pond is dry at this time, owing to the sustained drought. Signs posted in the area indicate that the pond may have something to do with the operation of Goleta Water District. Despite the gentle slope of the trail, I got a glimpse of the ocean on one of the detours.
(9) Final thought for the Day: "Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you." ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

2016/01/28 (Thursday): Here are six items of potential interest.
Photo of Chateau d'Usse in France (1) The 15th-century castle that inspired "Sleeping Beauty": Chateau d'Usse in France.
(2) Santa Barbara City College leads the way: Rather than wait for national programs to be approved and implemented, SBCC has come up with a proposal, to be funded with donations from individuals and foundations, for offering free community college education to all residents of California's South Coast, from Carpinteria to Gaviota. While California's community college course fees are relatively low compared with those of the state's 4-year institutions, fees and textbook costs still add up.
(3) Armenian woman, 106, guards her home in 1990.
(4) Cartoon of the day: The Italian solution versus the logical solution. This cartoon pertains to the covering up of nude sculptures at a museum in Rome during a visit by Iran's President Rouhani.
(5) The man who spent 25 years digging man-made caves: Working in New Mexico's wilderness, Ra Paulette, works long hours, using only hand tools, to make art from the underground sandstone. [6-minute video]
Cover image of 'Arguably,' a collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens (6) Book review: Hitchens, Christopher, Arguably: Essays, unabridged audiobook on 24 CDs, read by Simon Prebble, Hachette Audio, 2011.
This book is Christopher Hitchens' swan song, in the sense of quite a few of its essays having been written after he learned from his doctor that he had less than a year to live (he died in December 2011). He states that because of this looming death, he felt he could be more honest and open in his writings.
Hitchens, an antitheist (which is different from an atheist), viewed the concept of God or Supreme Being as a totalitarian belief that destroys individual freedom. Becoming an American citizen in 2007, he had little patience for critics of the US for this or that minor problem. He believed that the country is built on the right principles and that any deviation from those principles is corrected in short order.
A wide array of essays, from literary reviews of Charles Dickens and George Orwell to ruminations on agonizing effects of anti-Semitism and Islamic jihad, are included in this book. Many of the 107 chosen essays have appeared over several years in publications such as The Atlantic, The Guardian, Newsweek, Slate, and Vanity Fair.
It took me several weeks to listen to this lengthy audiobook, but devoting many long car rides to a book by one of the best English-language essayists of our time was well worth it. I highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in taking a close look at culture, religion, politics, and their linkages.

2016/01/27 (Wednesday): Here are six items of potential interest.
Cartoon about the wierdness of reading a hard-copy book (1) Cartoon of the day.
(2) Abridged classics, according to cartoonist John Atkinson.
- War and Peace: Everyone is sad. It snows.
- The Grapes of Wrath: Farming sucks. Road trip! Road trip sucks.
- Don Quixote: Guy attacks windmills. Also, he's mad.
- The Sun Also Rises: Lost generation gets drunk. They're still lost.
- Moby Dick: Man vs. whale. Whale wins.
- Ulysses: Dublin, something, something, something, run-on sentence.
(3) Two powerful execs express support for Iranian women: Sheryl Sandberg (right) and Marne Levine (left) in this photo, chief executives of Facebook and Instagram, met with Masih Alinejad (center) to convey their support for the "My Stealthy Freedom" Facebook page, which advocates the abolition of mandatory hijab laws in Iran.
(4) Noon concert at UCSB's Music Bowl: Today, a subset of UCSB's Percussion and Mallet Ensembles performed Mexican (including "La Bamba"), Russian, and other musical selections, under the direction of Jon Nathan, as part of the World Music Series. Mallet instruments include marimba, xylophone, and the like.
(5) Getting close to discovering the cause of schizophrenia: New research, published in Nature, confirms that misguided pruning of the brain's neural connections, leading to sparse connectivity in the prefrontal cortex, is what causes schizophrenia. "People with schizophrenia have a gene variant that apparently facilitates aggressive 'tagging' of connections for pruning, in effect accelerating the process." Practical use in prevention and/or treatment isn't in the cards yet.
(6) Campaign to change the masculine face of the Iranian parliament: Of Iran's parliament (Majlis) members, only 3% are women, placing the country very near the bottom of rankings in this regard (world average = 22%). Some 1400 Iranian women decided to do something about this by registering to run in the upcoming February elections, but almost all of them were declared unqualified to run by Iran's Guardian Council.

2016/01/26 (Tuesday): Here are six items of potential interest.
Time magazine's cover featuring the story of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan (1) The poisoning of an American city: This is the title of Time magazine's cover story for its issue of February 1, 2016. It is a tale of incompetent, self-serving officials who betrayed the public trust by hiding information about contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, that could lead to allergic reactions, serious illnesses or even death.
(2) Living near a Trader Joe's grocery store increases the value of your home: Within 2 years of a TJ's store opening in a neighborhood, home prices show a 10% increase. Nationally, homes near TJ's stores have 50% higher prices that those in comparable neighborhoods. Of course there is a down side to this gain: you'd be paying higher property taxes for the same home if a TJ's store is nearby. [Source: ABC Evening News, January 25, 2016]
[Note: One should take the second stat with a grain of salt, as the 50% difference may be due to TJ's opening stores in more prosperous neighborhoods (that is, correlation, not causation). However, the 10% rise within 2 years is more likely to be statistically significant.]
(3) Quote of the day: "Parenting and running a country have a lot in common. There are days when you wake up and wonder how you got into this mess." ~ Kristin van Ogtrop, writing in Time magazine, issue of February 1, 2016, on the similarities between a lame-duck President in his last year in office and a lame-duck mom awaiting her 17-year-old's going away to college, quipping "My approval ratings are about as bad as yours, Mr. President."
(4) Iran's forgotten political prisoners: The release of five Iranian-Americans from Iranian prisons generated much buzz, raising hopes in some circles that perhaps Iran will start playing by international rules. However, hundreds are still in the Islamic Republic's prisons, most of whom are unknown even to their fellow countrymen. This slide show introduces some of the better-known political prisoners.
(5) Saudi Arabia is the biggest loser of the oil price drop: The Kingdom relies on oil for 80% of its budget and 45% of its GDP, so it will suffer more than Iran or Russia as oil prices continue to fall. Its $620 billion in reserves will provide some cushion, but only for so long. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia face succession proclems when their current leaders pass, so the oil price drop may prove highly destabilizing for both. [Adapted from: Time magazine, issue of February 1, 2016.]
(6) Italy covered up nude statues of Roman goddesses at a museum when Iran's President visited Rome. Will the US take similar steps for Rouhani's upcoming visit to New York?

2016/01/24 (Sunday): Here are three items of potential interest.
Salman Khan shown at his office desk (1) Talk by Salman Khan: This afternoon, I attended a talk by the creator of Khan Academy, a nonprofit on-line company that provides instructional videos on a wide variety of subjects. The talk, held in Santa Barbara's Granada Theater under the auspices of UCSB's Arts & Lectures program, was entitled "Education Re-imagined." Khan Academy has its roots in Salman Khan's long-distance telephone tutoring of his 12-year-old cousin in 2004, which led him to the idea of posting explanatory videos on STEM subjects on YouTube.
Around 2009, Khan's video lessons began to attract a lot of viewers, which led him to quit his day job with a hedge fund company to focus on creating free educational content. Later, Khan learned that Bill Gates had been using Khan Academy videos to teach his children. Gates ended up supporting the Academy financially, turning it into a real organization.
Today's presentation took the form of a moderated discussion during which Amir Abo-Shaeer, a highly successful local high-school teacher, McArthur Fellow, and founder of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, asked questions for about an hour and opened the floor to audience questions for an additional 30 minutes. Topics discussed included the Academy's history, mission, relationship with MOOCs and other forms of on-line instruction, impact on traditional lecture-based courses, and future directions.
Beginning from a one-man operation, the Academy now has a full-time staff of 100, with several times as many working for it part-time or as volunteers. The program provided an enjoyable and informative afternoon. To learn more about Khan Academy and its goals, watch this promotional video or go to its YouTube channel.
(2) How old engineers have fun in a garage! [1-minute video]
(3) UCSB's World Music Series: The free noon concerts on Wednesdays at the Music Bowl continue this quarter with the following program.
1/27: UCSB Mallet and Percussion Ensemble (led by Jon Nathan)
2/03: Sphardic music, with Flor de Kanela (Mediterranean, Middle East, North Africa, Balkans)
3/10: UCSB Brass Ensemble (led by Steve Gross)
3/17: UCSB Jazz Ensemble (led by Jon Nathan)
3/24: Gamelan (gong orchestra of Indonesia, led by Richard North)
3/02: UCSB Gospel Choir (directed by Victor Bell)

2016/01/22 (Friday): Here are four items of potential interest.
Cover image on Ashlee Vance's book on Elon Musk (1) Book review: Vance, Ashlee, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Harper Collins, 2015.
Elon Musk, a successful serial entrepreneur whose credits include an on-line payment system (PayPal), a private launch company (SpaceX), America's largest installer of photovoltaic systems (SolarCity), and an electric-car and battery manufacturer (Tesla), remains a controversial figure.
Like Steve Jobs, Musk is often criticized for leaving behind scorched trails of former business partners and employees. Yet, there is little doubt that his multidisciplinary talents and focus on larger issues (beyond immediate goals and devices/technology) make him a unique talent. His focus isn't on cars per se but on methods for correcting Earth's problems and on developing escape plans, should they become necessary.
Everything Musk does accompanies dramatic risks, which he uses to his benefit with brilliant marketing. Whereas detractors judge his Tesla automobile as "an utterly derivative overhyped toy for show-offs," many more praise his brilliance and ability to overcome technological barriers.
Musk grew up in South Africa, moving to Canada at age 17, where he attended Queen's University and made money on the side by selling custom-designed computers. He later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania to study physics and economics. Musk never ceases to amaze. In 2014, he stunned the industry by opening Tesla's patents and allowing everyone to use freely the company's electric-vehicle technology.
(2) On making America great again: When someone claims that he will take America back to its Golden Age, ask politely: "Which Golden Age did you have in mind (slavery, Civil War, Jim Crow, un-American activities, the Great Depression, Prohibition, WW II internment camps, Vietnam)?" Of course, there have always been, and will continue to be, many good things about America, as well as many bad things such as those I listed. There was never a "Golden Age" when everything was good. We have to learn to live with the good and the bad and work on improving the situation to the best of our ability. The notion of "American Exceptionalism" must also be retired along with "Golden Age."
(3) Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is celebrating its 100th birthday, with free admission on Sunday, January 24, 2016. The hours are 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
(4) TEDx CSUN: Cal State University Northridge will hold a local, independently organized TED event, with videos of key TED talks as well as talks by local experts, on Friday, April 29, 2016. Here is the event's Facebook page. There will also be a TEDx UCLA event on Saturday, May 21, 2016.

2016/01/21 (Thursday): Here are five items of potential interest.
The planets Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter will line up over the next month (1) See five planets in the early morning: For about a full month from today, if you get up 45 minutes before sunrise, you should be able to see with your naked eyes the planets Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter (from left to right, looking south). The accompanying image shows the planets' locations on February 1, when Mercury should be easiest to spot, along with the moon's location on various days. Venus will be the brightest thing visible looking toward southeast.
(2) Sheryl Sandberg to women of Iran: Facebook's COO addresses "all the amazing women on the My Stealthy Freedom page," assuring them of the worldwide sisterhood's support and encouragement in their quest for civil liberties and equal opportunities.
(3) Comical musings of an Iranian "expert" on nutrition: This guy claims that fast food constitutes a conspiracy by the West to rob Iranians of their identity and traditions; pepperoni, in particular, has been designed to prevent Iranian teams from advancing in international sports tournaments. This may be a comedy routine rather than an actual lecture. Note that the audience is never shown. If so, the performer/comedian has done an excellent job. [5-minute video]
Note added on 1/22: A couple of friends pointed out to me that this clip is by comedian Javad Razavian. Here's an example of junk "science" fed to uneducated Iranians by Islamic/alternative medicine "expert" Hossein Ravazadeh, who is apparently the target of Razavian's humor. YouTube is full of video clips of this expert's musings. YouTube is full of video clips of this expert's musings about how the British (more generally, the West) and Zionists are targeting Iranians' health and well-being through the manipulation of foods and drugs.
(4) Islamic clerics of Iran in the digital age: On his Web site, Grand Ayatollah Gerami answers archaic questions, pertaining to social conditions of 14 decades ago, using the latest Web technology. Here are four examples. [Example 1] [Example 2] [Example 3] [Example 4] The said Grand Ayatollah's "Towzih-ol-Massa'el" ("Guide to Problems," a sort of encyclopedia or solutions manual) provides hours of reading fun.
(5) The World in 2050: This is the title of a 46-page PDF report by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC, dated February 2015). It is an interesting read, if you don't take its predictions too seriously.

2016/01/20 (Wednesday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Please allow me not to say anything about yesterday's viral news story: Sarah Palin's endorsement of Donald Trump. On second thought, look what I found! [Cartoon]
(2) Simon & Garfunkel—"Songs of America" [52-minute film]
(3) Growing and harvesting saffron in Iran. [2-minute video]
(4) On sexual harassment cases that are often dismissed: Many men still think that by paying "unwanted attention" to a woman they are flattering her and are then upset when the woman does not play along. This Facebook post is a typical story. It can happen with the gender roles reversed, but that is much less common.
(5) A very disturbing case of fictitious rape: This Newsweek on-line report exposes 27-year-old former altar boy Daniel Gallagher as a congenital liar (more accurately, a person with a severe case of multiple-personality disorder) whose allegations and lurid testimony helped put two priests and a Catholic school teacher in jail. Some of those close to the case now think he had made the whole thing up. Like the recent hoax gang-rape case at University of Virginia, this unfortunate incident, aside from ruining the lives of three possibly innocent men (one of whom died in jail), makes other valid rape cases harder to report and prosecute. The doubt such hoaxes produce are extremely harmful to many real rape victims and their ability to seek justice against the perpetrators.
(6) Music and dance of Kurdish Jews in Iran.
(7) The Solar System's possible ninth planet: After Pluto, the former ninth planet in our Solar System, was demoted from planetary status, we were left with only eight. Not any more! Scientists believe they have discovered a true ninth icy planet, four times the size of our Earth, way out beyond Neptune; so far indeed that it revolves around the sun once every 10,000 to 20,000 years.
(8) Final thought for the day: "The number of foreign-born students enrolled in [American] graduate engineering programs almost doubled between 2005 and 2014, reaching 63 percent." ~ ASEE Prism magazine, based on survey data from the American Society for Engineering Education
[It is worth noting that a majority of these foreign-born engineering students end up staying in the US and contributing to our economy through their technical expertise and entrepreneurial spirit.]

2016/01/18 (Monday): Here are six items of potential interest.
Dr. Martin Luther King and his supporters at the Lincoln Memorial (1) Honoring today's MLK holiday: The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King is celebrated by Jewish and black a-cappella groups performing "Shed a Little Light" (a James Taylor song) together in front of Washington DC's Lincoln Memorial. The groups are the Maccabeats and Naturally 7.
(2) Dr. Martin Luther King's 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. [12-minute video]
(3) Israeli mother of six stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorist: Thirty-something Dafna Meir was killed at her home in front of her teenage daughter. The family has 4 children and fosters 2 more.
(4) Spirited Kurdish line dancing: One sees some similarities with Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Too bad women are not included!
(5) Last night's Democratic debate for the 2016 US presidential election: This 4th debate showed that the three candidates (Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley) are much closer to each other in principle than they would let on. Yet, they employed some of the attacks and smearing methods of their Republican counterparts, which was disappointing. Sanders stuck to his guns regarding breaking up the big banks, killing super-PACs, and enacting universal healthcare. Clinton continued to play the realist, advocating incremental change, with limited success. I think O'Malley should drop out and let the two leading candidates enter into a more substantive dialog.
(6) Advanced game theory (week 2): Today, I listened to the second week of lectures in the Coursera/Stanford course on advanced game theory and submitted the first two homework assignments. The first-week lectures were about voting schemes and this week the course focused on mechanism design, essentially strategies for devising voting schemes that have desirable properties with regard to outcome quality.
Voting is complicated enough to require a rigorous mathematical theory, that has been developed with contributions from mathematicians, computer scientists, political scientists, and sociologists. Arrow's Theorem and other impossibility results suggest that if we start with a list of common-sense desirable properties for voting, no voting scheme satisfies all of them and we have to compromise by focusing only on the most important properties. One of the desirable properties that we often give up to make things feasible is avoiding strategic voting. Strategic voting takes place when a voter dishonestly casts his/her vote for someone other than his/her truly preferred candidate in an attempt to influence the voting outcome.
Let me give you an example from the current Democratic field of US presidential candidates. If you consider O'Malley the most qualified choice but take his low chance of becoming the Democratic candidate into account and vote instead for one of the front-runners, you are engaging in strategic voting. This may appear harmless at first sight, but it is easy to show that once people consider voting strategically, many abuses can take place.

2016/01/17 (Sunday): Here are six items of potential interest.
Cartoon showing the word 'psychotherapist' written as 'psycho the rapist' on an entry door (1) Cartoon of the day: Psychotherapist setting up his office.
(2) Iranian Baha'i prisoner's song: Saeed Rezaie wrote "Khiaal-e Baaraan" ("Visions of Rain") as a wedding anniversary gift to his wife. Rezaie is one of seven Baha'i leaders arrested for their faith in 2008 and subsequently sentenced to 20-year prison terms.
(3) Quote of the day: "When will you make peace with the Iranian people?" ~ Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, in a letter to President Rouhani, in the wake of rapprochement with the US that led to the lifting of sanctions and release of four Iranian-American political prisoners held by Iran
(4) Classical music mashup: Ingeniously constructed medley from works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handl, Mozart, Schubert, and many more.
(5) Kazakh military marching band having fun with "Gangnam Style."
(6) Final thought for the day: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." ~ Mark Twain

2016/01/16 (Saturday): Here are four items of potential interest.
A public mass execution in Iran by hanging from cranes (1) Mansour Farhang's response to Javad Zarif's NYT op-ed: "When Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, criticizes Saudi Arabia's sectarianism and human rights record ('Riyadh's Reckless Extremism,' Op-Ed, Jan. 11), it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Iran is a notorious violator of human rights and promoter of sectarianism. In 2015, nearly 700 at least were executed in Iran. Mr. Zarif calls Saudi Arabia's execution method barbaric, but he serves a regime that orders lashing of teenage rape victims before executing them." [The image shows a public mass execution in Iran by hanging from cranes.]
(2) Iran releases four Americans in a prisoner swap: The four are Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, Pastor Saeed Abedini, and Nosratollah Khosravi (background unknown). A fifth American, Matthew Trevithchick, was freed separately. Seven unnamed Iranian prisoners held in the US on sanctions-related charges were freed in this swap. The US had excluded releasing anyone held on violence or terrorism charges. [On a Facebook post of this news story, someone asked: "Great, but when are the 70 million Iranians going to be freed?"]
(3) The 2015 movie "1971" is a must-watch: More than four decades after 8 anti-war activists broke into a Pennsylvania FBI office and stole documents that exposed the Bureau's illegal surveillance and wiretapping activities, the group is finally opening up about its activities, how dangerously close we came to becoming a police state in the 1970s, and how the disaster was averted by brave activists, journalists using the Freedom of Information Act to fight the FBI, and a full-blown Congressional investigation. The FBI program "cointelpro," short for counter-intelligence program, kept tabs on domestic activists (including the Women's Liberation Movement), produced anonymous letters and other documents to smear various groups, planted informants everywhere, and generally disregarded the US Constitution's First Amendment.
(4) Memorial for the late Sensei Kenji Ota: This afternoon, I attended a part of memorial ceremonies held in honor of the founder of the Dojo School in Goleta, California, who passed away in December 2015 at 92. The event was to continue with a barbeque and a dance later this evening. Numerous former students and others who knew Ota, as their Aikido or dance instructor and as a mentor, spoke about their memories of him and the school he founded and led for many years. Some of the speakers, now graying men, had started their association with the martial arts school as young boys. Others were second-generation members of families, whose parents also spoke. Unfortunately, the school's building has fallen into disrepair, necessitating a fundraising effort for structural improvements, including fixing a leaking roof. My son Sepehr has written a letter about Dojo School's fundraising to the editor of Santa Barbara Independent ("Living in the Moment," Issue of January 14-21, 2016). If interested in helping out, please use this gofundme link.

2016/01/14 (Thursday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Citizen involvement: One of the problems with the current political scene in the US is that each citizen thinks that s/he must have a say in every major domestic and international issue, from economic regulations and energy production to nuclear negotiations and refugees, regardless of his/her background and expertise. We have forgotten that our efforts can be much more effective if applied primarily to local politics and, even more so, to our own private endeavors. I, for one, pledge to become more involved in the sociopolitical scene at the campus, community, city, and state levels and to devote greater effort to making my own life and work more beneficial to those around me. New-Year resolution, a couple of weeks late!
(2) Fusion Turkish and Flamenco music. [4-minute video]
(3) Kurdish fashion show, from February 2014: Modest, but elegant and very colorful styles; no size-zero female models here! [12-minute video]
(4) Colors of Kurdistan: Another Kurdish fashion show, this one from Dubai (2011). [2-minute video]
(5) A Christian/Armenian woman's grim tale: Humiliation of Iranian women continues by the Islamic regime, with treatment so harsh that even family members, teachers, and other role models, whom young women must look up to, have become enforcers of the archaic and extremely unfair laws against women, for fear that their loved ones may be harmed by the regime otherwise.
(6) Was the US humiliated by Iran in the Persian Gulf? Not really. Being arrested is the minimum one can expect if one trespasses into a country's territorial waters, intentionally or by mistake. If you want to see humiliation of American military men, look at news footage of the Iraq war (mutilated bodies and the like). Here, Iran did a "show" arrest to flex its muscle, knowing full well that it did not want to mess with Uncle Sam at this stage of the sanctions-lifting process. No one would have believed them that a handful of young navy men had evil plans for Iran, so they exploited a day's worth of the news cycle, mostly for internal consumption, and let the Americans go, with "salaam o salavaat," as we say in Persian. This minor incident is being elevated to the status of an international crisis by those with political motives.
(7) Oscar nominees revealed for 2015 (ceremonies on Sunday, February 28, 2016):
- Picture: "The Big Short," "The Martian," "The Revenant," and "Room" nominated, along with 4 others
- Director: Adam McKay; George Miller; Alejandro G. Inarritu; Lenny Abrahamson; Tom McCarthy
- Actress: Cate Blanchet; Brie Larson; Jennifer Lawrence; Charlotte Rampling; Saoirse Ronan
- Actor: Bryan Cranston; Matt Damon; Leonardo DiCaprio; Michael Fassbender; Eddie Redmayne
- Supporting actress: Jennifer Jason Leigh; Rooney Mara; Rachel McAdams; Alicia Vikander; Kate Winslet
- Supporting actor: Christian Bale; Tom Hardy; Mark Ruffalo; Mark Rylance; Sylvester Stallone
(8) Iranian Studies Initiative at UCSB: Launched by Janet Afary last year, the program puts undergraduates to work online (roughly 1300 hours in 2015) with Iranian-American community organizations in the Los Angeles area, providing a wide range of social services.

2016/01/13 (Wednesday): Here are five items of potential interest.
A scene from UCSB Library's grand reopening today (1) UCSB Library's grand reopening today: Chancellor Henry Yang welcomes the standing-room-only crowd in a ceremony to celebrate our library's reopening following state-of-the-art renovations and expansion. Behind the Chancellor are USCB Librarian Denise Stephens and other campus officials. A few photos and videos follow.
Art installation made of 2000 altered books. [Photo 1]
West entrance seen from the 2nd-floor loft. [Photo 2]
Where old building connects to new addition. [Photo 3]
A campus open space seen from 2nd floor. [Photo 4]
The renovated library is green in many ways. [Photo 5]
Modern dance performance with drum music. [Video 1]
Music for 4 flutes and dance of the 4 birds. [Video 2]
Break dancing by a group of UCSB students. [Video 3]
(2) We have come a long way from 2008 (the last Bush year) to 2015: Some conservatives keep asserting that Obama is "the worst US President ever," as if repeating this statement makes it a fact. I invite these people to offer sourced corrections to the following stats, or add new lines at the bottom, to substantiate the claim above.
7.2 → 5.1: Unemployment percentage
3.24 → 2.31: Dollars per gallon of gas
15.0 → 9.2: Uninsured percentage
11.0 → 4.5: Millions of barrels of oil imported
40.2 → 26.5: Teen pregnancies per thousand
19 → 6: Thousands of centrifuges in Iran
–0.3 → +3.7: GDP growth percentage
(3) English translation of a Rumi poem: When I am with you, we stay up all night. | When you're not here, I can't go to sleep. | Praise God for those two insomnias! | And the difference between them.
(4) Women in leadership positions: As we begin the year 2016, three key Persian news services in the West are led by women. BBC: Rozita Lotfi; EuroNews: Maria Sarsalari; Voice of America: Setareh Derakhshesh
(5) A vicious campaign against Girl Scouts: Partnership with Planned Parenthood (a very natural alliance for an organization aspiring to train independent, self-confident young women) is cited by some right-wing activists who are leading a fight against Girl Scouts. I, for one, will buy more Girl Scout cookies this year.

2016/01/12 (Tuesday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
Map of the Persian Gulf region, with oil and gas fields (1) On the Saudi-Iranian conflict: This map, drawn by cartographer Michael R. Izadi, shows one of the reasons Saudi Arabia is so fearful of the rising influence of the Shi'i Iran. For historical and natural reasons, almost all of the oil in the Persian Gulf region is under Shi'i Muslims, even in the Sunni-majority Saudi Kingdom. The recently executed Shi'i cleric Nimr al-Nimr had threatened in 2009 that if the treatment of Shi'is did not improve, he would call for secession, thus depriving the Kingdom of its oil revenues. [Black: oil fields; Red: gas fields]
(2) Quote of the day: "Food Stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did." ~ President Obama, in his 2016 State-of-the-Union speech
(3) At least 10 dead near Istanbul's Blue Mosque: All those killed by the ISIS suicide blast were foreigners.
(4) Surprise announcement (business deal?) of the day: Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, 84, and actress/model Jerry Hall, 59, engaged to be married. [BBC News video]
(5) The many faces of David Bowie (1947-2016): An entertainer with whom I could never identify, despite being almost exactly my age.
(6) Confirmed by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry: The discovery of four new elements that complete the bottom row of the periodic table: Uut (113); Uup (115); Uus (117); Uuo (118).
(7) This dance performance in Rasht led to the arrest of the Iranian city's culture & arts official.
(8) The birth of a word: MIT researcher Deb Roy outfitted his home with video cameras and collected 200 TB of data in an effort to understand how his infant son learned to speak. [20-minute TED talk]
(9) Final thought for the day: "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them." ~ Albert Einstein

Cover image of Timothy D. Wilson's 'Redirect' 2016/01/11 (Monday): Book review: Wilson, Timothy D., Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, unabridged audiobook on 6 CDs, read by Grover Gardner, HighBridge Audio, 2011.
The main theme of this book is that psychological interventions (to prevent teen pregnancies, curb drug abuse, improve educational outcomes, and the like, often do not work, because they are improperly designed. They are often based on common-sense ideas rather than scientifically verified hypotheses, with random assignment of subjects to various intervention methods and to control groups. Without the proper use of controls, it is impossible to deduce causation from correlations. Some spectacular failures cited in the book include decades-long programs, costing millions of dollars, which were never vetted using scientific methods, and were subsequently discovered to be ineffective or even exacerbating the condition they were meant to reverse.
The title of the book is meant to represent the "story editing" approach to change the narratives we tell about ourselves and the world around us. Stories we tell ourselves can become distorted and destructive, leading to correspondingly harmful behavior. Breaking of this vicious cycle is precisely what psychotherapy does. But, it turns out, that similar results can be obtained without the time-intensive one-on-one sessions. Simple writing exercises and occasional feedback can achieve much of the benefits.
Wilson presents numerous examples of how story-editing and story-prompting techniques have been used successfully to make people lead happier lives, become better parents, or bridge racial achievement gaps. An interesting point about the latter intervention is that When students of different races took the same test, composed of exactly the same questions, but with different narrative introductions, black students who read introductions that made multiple references to testing and IQ did poorly, whereas those who had the test questions described to tham as puzzles with no mention of the words test and IQ did as well as the white students. This is because references to test and IQ raise fear in the test-taker that s/he might reinforce the stereotypical view of blacks as inferior in achievement or intelligence, whereas characterizing the questions as puzzles carried no such connotation.
Here is a very interesting example of intervention programs. College students often have an exaggerated idea of how much their peers drink, leading to higher alcohol consumption as they try to keep up with the "cool" kids. When information about the acutual drinking habits of the average student was disseminated to all students, those who had the exaggerated view began to drink less. However, a minority of students who underestimated the drinking level of the average student, started to consume more alcohol.
Wilson ends the book with a recap of effective ways to redirect our own narrative and those of our children. Here are 8 practical suggestions from the final chapter:
- Be skeptical of advice from self-help books about easy roads to riches, fame, and happiness.
- As parents, be mindful not only of what your children do but of the narrative they are developing about themselves, their relationships, and the world at large.
- Use "the minimal sufficiency principle," whereby you use the smallest level of rewards and threats to shake your children's behaviors; going overboard can backfire.
- Appreciate the power of the "do good, be good" principle. Engage in volunteer work and encourage your kids to do the same.
- Initiate interactions with people outside your comfort zone, such as co-workers of a different race, ethnicity, or social class.
- Putting people in situations where they fear they will confirm negative stereotypes about their group can be debilitating.
- Be a good consumer of information from sources such as What Works Clearinghouse or Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.
- When offered a new method of intervention, always ask politely, "But does it work?" We don't take new drugs unless they are fully tested and approved. The same standard should apply to psychological methods.

2016/01/10 (Sunday): Here are seven items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "Give a man a program and you frustrate him for a day. Teach him to program and you frustrate him for life." ~ Anonymous
(2) I wish there were no Heaven: Humorous Persian poem, written and recited by Khalil Javadi.
(3) The kids menu: Trailer and info for an upcoming film about encouraging and enabling kids to eat healthy.
(4) Amazing chase scene: Buster Keaton runs away from and dodges boulders in this hilarious chase scene from "Seven Chances" (1925).
(5) On-line course on advanced game theory: Yesterday, I began taking the Coursera/Stanford MOOC. Here are some details, in case you are interested. The weekly schedule is as follows: 1 Social choice; 2 Mechanism design; 3 Efficient mechanisms; 4 Auctions; 5 Final exam and final problem set. The reference material include the free PDF textbook, Multiagent Systems: Algorithmic, Game-Theoretic, and Logical Foundations, by two of the instructors (Y. Shoham and K. Leyton-Brown) and three sets of free PDF notes by the third instructor (M. O. Jackson). The first week of lectures, already posted, covers social welfare and social choice functions (essentially voting procedures, and the difficulties and subtleties therein).
(6) Charles Babbage pulls Alfred Lord Tennyson's leg in this 1842 letter: "In your otherwise beautiful poem ['The Vision of Sin'], there is a verse that reads — Every moment dies a man, Every moment one is born. ... If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read — Every moment dies a man, Every moment 1 1/16 is born. Strictly speaking, this is not correct, the actual figure is so long that I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry."
(7) Final thought for the day: "Our greatest pretenses are built up not to hide the evil and the ugly in us, but our emptiness." ~ Eric Hoffer

2016/01/08 (Friday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
Giant statue of Chairman Mao in China (1) Giant Mao statue: The gold-colored statue of Chairman Mao, just completed in the Chinese countryside, is 37 meters high.
(2) Brief news headlines of the day:
- ISIS member kills his mother for insisting that he leave group
- Rain in California! Is the drought finally over?
- Many companies show off new tech gadgets at CES in Las Vegas
- Female engineers publish in more prestigious journals, cited less
- Saudis won't allow war with Iran, says their defense minister
(3) Iranian poetess Hila Sedighi arrested again: The 30-year-old civil activist was detained at Tehran's Airport upon returning from abroad. The Islamic regime, which has been arresting artists and writers at an alarming rate, seems to have stepped up its crackdown on the opposition.
(4) Sunni vs. Shia (Shi'i): Another explanation of the two main sects of Islam, in view of the recent incidents between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
(5) Look who performed in NYC's Times Square: I had never seen Andrea Bocelli play the guitar.
(6) Some wonderful piano music: Bach's Partita No. 2 in C minor, performed by Martha Argerich. A different post of this video indicated that the performance won the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
(7) A wonderful cover of "Just Like a Woman": Charlotte Gainsbourg's sensual performance of Bob Dylan's classic from the 1970s.
(8) Timekeeping in computer systems: The simple question "What time is it?" is often answered by looking at a clock/watch that may be at best accurate to within a minute or so. In everyday usage, this accuracy suffices, as getting to class or a meeting a minute or so late is not disastrous. The situation is different in computer systems, where submillisecond or even submicrosecond accuracy is required for some application domains. Computer programmers deal with time by using available system calls that return the system's view of time (the so-called "wall clock"), maintained internally by means of a crystal oscillator. Again, this level of accuracy in time is adequate for most applications. Computers in a networked system may each have a slightly different view of time, thus creating a need for clock synchronization to prevent excessive clock drift. The network time protocol (NTP), first documented in the 1980s and last updated in 2010, was developed for this purpose. It provides a hierarchy of clocks of varying accuracies, all the way up to a reference clock that is highly precise. The lower-accuracy clocks imply lower overheads for access, so one should not use the more accurate versions unless absolutely needed by the application at hand. In 2002, IEEE defined the precision time protocol (PTP) that went through a period of obscurity but is now finding important uses in maintaining time across many thousands of servers in data centers, such as those of Google and Amazon. In financial applications, such as high-frequency trading, the ability to measure time accurately is indispensable. The same holds for systems that control robotic arms moving at 44 feet per second and electrical power network control systems, where imprecision in handing off energy from one block to the next can lead to catastrophic, fiery failures. [Adapted from "Time Is an Illusion," Communications of the ACM, pp. 50-55, January 2016; Wikipedia has good articles on both NTP and PTP.]

2016/01/05 (Tuesday): Here are five items of potential interest.
Kid with light saber offering to carve the turkey (1) Cartoon of the day. [From: E&T magazine, January 2016]
(2) Compensation for state-sponsored terrorism victims: After three decades of investigative work, including a trip by an undercover investigator to interview some of the principals involved in the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing of 1983, families of victims of state-sponsored terrorism may be a step closer to getting compensated for their losses. Iran has been clearly implicated in the Beirut and several other large-scale terrorist attacks. Exactly how, and from what sources, the victims will be compensated remain to be worked out, but the latest US budget includes a $1B fund for this purpose and another $1.9B in seized Iranian assets could become available after a US Supreme Court case has been resolved this month.
(3) Being pro life means shedding tears for senseless loss of life: Those who dismiss numerous mass killings as a necessary cost of respect for the Second Amendment cannot also claim to be pro life. [Obama's speech]
(4) On the latest international crisis in Iran: One of the positive effects of the lifting of sanctions was to be a diminished role for middlemen, the main sources of the corruptions we have witnessed over the past decade. Now, with the irresponsible act of attacking and torching the embassy of Saudi Arabia, those middlemen are celebrating, because they will get more business in trade with countries that have cut diplomatic ties with Iran. While the takeover of the US embassy in 1979 was chalked up to revolutionary zeal in the first year of the Islamic revolution, and the UK embassy takeover of 2011 was dismissed as the work of self-directed mobs (even though videos at the time showed police standing by and not interfering), this third episode of diplomatic irresponsibility was triggered, if not by direct orders from Khamenei, then by his rhetoric of "divine revenge." The problem with the Islamic regime in Iran is that it cannot survive in the face of peace and prosperity. It needs conflict to point its fingers at an external "enemy" for sociopolitical problems.
(5) Computer architect Gene Amdahl (1922-2015): Amdahl is best known for a law he formulated in the 1960s which states that the speed-up achieved through parallel processing would be limited to 1/f at best, if the program being run has a fraction f of its operations that are inherently sequential (unparallellizable). For example, if 5% of a program's operations are inherently sequential, speed-up can never exceed 20, no matter how many processors we throw at the problem. I have recently shown in my own work that what is known as Amdahl's Law for parallel processing speed-up can also be applied to system reliability improvement (IEEE Computer magazine, issue of July 2015). Lesser known, but just as important, is Amdahl's formulation of a set of rules of thumb for system balance that establish relationships between processing speed, memory requirements, and I/O performance. Amdahl worked at IBM for many years, where he was the principal architect for the famed System 360 series of mainframe computers. Later, his company, Amdahl Corporation, manufactured plug-compatible versions of IBM mainframes and introduced many software innovations to improve the performance and reliability of computer systems. Amdahl passed away recently at age 92.

2016/01/04 (Monday): Here are five items of potential interest.
Budgets and box office earnings for the previous six 'Star Wars' films (1) On the 7th "Star Wars" movie: No doubt this latest installment of what will likely become a nonalogy (a trilogy of trilogies) will be highly successful. If you don't believe this statement, just look at financial success of the previous six films. All have been very successful, but the highest box-office-to-production-cost ratio (yellow part of the bar in this chart to the red part) belongs to the original 1977 "Star Wars: A New Hope." [Chart from: E&T magazine, issue of January 2016]
(2) Printed airplane parts: Airplane manufacturers are increasingly incorporating 3D-printed parts into their designs. The latest Airbus plane, A350 XWB, has around 1000 3D-printed parts. Boeing indicates that 20,000 3D-printed parts will go into planes currently under construction. So far, 3D printing is used only for non-critical components. [Info from: ASEE Prism magazine, issue of December 2015.]
(3) An efficient killing machine that incapacitates its prey by going for the jugular.
(4) Pylones novelty gifts: One of the more interesting stores I visited during the recent France trip was Pylones, a chain carrying what can be described as novelty gifts distinguished by interesting and colorful patterns. You can get a sense of the kinds of items they carry by visiting the Pylone's Web site. The Web site for Pylones-USA is currently under construction. There is also a Pylones section at Amazon.com.
(5) Last week, during my trip to France, the cover image of Santa Barbara Independent celebrated the climate summit in Paris.

2016/01/03 (Sunday): Here are three items of potential interest.
CD box cover image for 'Word Smart & Grammar Smart' (1) Brief book review: Robinson, Adam and Julian Fleisher, Word Smart & Grammar Smart, Audio lessons on 6 CDs, read by various performers, The Princeton Review, 1997. `
The words part of this audiobook, spanning the first four CDs, covers some 200 less-commonly used words, which are arranged into 12 categories (each with 15+ words or word groups) for easier memorization through exposing their relationships. The words are also used in the context of personal narratives (some rather childish) for greater understanding.
The categories are labeled: All or nothing; I love you — I hate you; The naughty and the nice; The long and short of it; The mighty and the meek; You help me, then you hurt me; True or false; From the sublime to the ridiculous; Something old, something new; Alone or together; Now you see it, now you don't; The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The grammar part, spanning the last two CDs, includes useful rules about verbs, pronouns, modifiers, diction & usage, and parallel construction. I found this audiobook quite useful and plan on listening to it a second time. An example of words I learned from this book within the category "True or false" is "verisimilitude."
(2) Some people's facial features change as they grow up, but not in these two cases.
(3) Iran-Saudi relations enter a new phase: After Saudi Arabia's execution of 47 people, whom they characterized as terrorists, a mob took over the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which led to the Saudis kicking out all Iranian diplomats from that country and cutting political ties with Iran. Those executed included a prominent Shi'i cleric backed by Iran. This is a farcical scenario in which a country that has been executing opponents at an alarming rate for many years (Iran) accuses another dictatorial regime of human rights violations, both sides believing that God is on their side. The impact of these conflicts on the ability of Iranians to participate in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca is unknown. Take-over of the Saudi embassy is the third one of its kind. Previously, mobs supported by high-level Iranian officials had stormed and taken over the US and UK embassies, in 1979 and 2011, respectively.

2016/01/01 (Friday): Old blog entries up to the end of 2015 have been archived and a new Blog & Books page begins today with four items of potential interest.
What is special about the number 2016? (1) The special number 2016: Happy New Year to all readers of this blog! Well, the last day of 2015 has given way to the first day of 2016. At first sight, there seems to be little that's special about 2016. It's a leap hear, and that's about it. It does not begin a new millennium, a new century, or even a new decade. Yet, people everywhere are hopeful that it will bring peace and love to their lives and will restore sanity to our off-kilter sociopolitical system.
On second thought, there are special things about 2016. It is the difference of two powers of 2, that is, 2016 = 2^11 – 2^5. It is also a value of n for which n^3 + n^2 contains one of each digit. Can you add to this list? Also, can you insert math symbols in 2 0 1 6 to make an expression that evaluates to various numbers between 0 and 20? Here are the first five to get you started.
0 = 2 x 0 x 16
1 = [20/16], where square brackets represent rounding down
2 = {20/16}, where curly brackets represent rounding up
3 = –2 + 0 – 1 + 6
4 = 20 – 16
(2) Political polarization in America: This is the title of a study by Pew Research Center that looks at the way people get information about government and politics in three different settings: news media, social media, and discussions with friends/family. Somewhat oversimplifying, the study finds that conservatives tend to be tightly clustered around a single media source, have less trust in the media, and tend to associate with like-minded people. Liberals are less unified in their media loyalty, more trustful of the media, more likely to block/defriend someone, and tend to follow issue-based groups.
(3) Self-driving cars and the trolley problem: The trolley problem, a hypothetical dilemma where a person must decide whether to take action to kill one person instead of five people, has been a popular intellectual exercise for decades. Now, self-driving cars may have to be programmed with an answer to the dilemma.
(4) Natalie Cole dead at 65: The sultry, Grammy-winning R&B singer, and daughter of jazz legend Nat King Cole, has died after a long illness. Her most successful tune, a re-recording of her father's "Unforgettable" as a virtual duet with him, garnered multiple Grammy awards, including one for "Album of the Year." In this "Today" story, Cole talks about her comeback after a period of drug abuse and confides that heroin led her to hepatitis C.