What I'm Reading
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Sunday, January 30. 2005
I was watching TV coverage of the first democractic Iraqi elections (in a long time) for most of the afternoon, and it was amazing to watch. There were images from Iraq of people breaking out into spontaneous dance and song outside some of the polling areas. Cars were driving by honking their horns in celebration. Formerly repressed women were given the chance to vote. The scenes from Iraq reminded me of the euphoric celebration that broke out when Saddam's government fell.
I think the most impressive aspect of this vote is how many people came out to vote despite the threat of violence, and various boycotts that were declared. For weeks, the terrorists have been threatening to kill voters and their children if they dare participate. Despite this very real danger, the people defiantly voted. There was some violence however. From this article entitled, "Iraqis Defy Threats to Vote For Assembly", it talks about some violence that occured. The most troubling one I read was about a minibus carrying a group of voters to a polling station, and a suicide bomber got on the bus and blew it up, killing at least four people.
I found it very amazing how many people turned out to vote, and how important voting was to these people. The article says that entire families showed up to vote, wearing their best clothes. We in the West take our democracy too much for granted I think. Consider that voter turnout in the last Canadian election was at its lowest ever; we have become too lazy, too ill-informed, too uncaring to excercise our right to vote. We don't have to worry about getting shot at while travelling to the polls. Meanwhile you have people in Iraq who are literally risking their lives to vote.
The best picture I found that I felt personified today's events is the following picture. When an individual finishes voting, an election officer puts a stain on the voters finger which indicates the individual has voted, and it prevents the individual from voting again.
One of the most moving testimonies I saw was this Iraqi man who was saying, he can't imagine how much Iraqi, American, British, and Allied blood that was sacrificed so that he could vote, and that this stain on my hand represents their sacrifice.
Another interesting thing I saw on TV was about blogs on today's vote. Apparently there have been a lot of chatter on politically right-leaning blogs about the success of this election, while left-leaning blogs have been fairly silent. Some people on the left don't want to give George W. Bush any credit for what's going on right now in Iraq, and that this election is completely illegitimate. My personal opinion is that this issue shouldn't be a political game. The important thing is that Iraq is moving towards freedom, and this vote is an important step in the right direction. Yes this isn't the magic bullet that will instantly stop the violence in Iraq, but as democracy is being born, there will be birthing pains.
We are witnessing history...
Friday, January 28. 2005
Every Friday, all members of the software engineering research lab attends a colloquium which is intended to offer a free exchange of ideas. It also allows other people to get a sense of what you're doing for your research. The deal is, one person presents their research topic per week.
So today was the second time they had this colloquium this term. The topic of the day was about using a mathematical model of vectors to model software concerns. As the presentation progressed, I found myself completely lost about what the research was really about. The presentation was dabbled with scary math notation, foreign acronymns, big words, etc.
One thing that I observed is that some people need to learn some interpersonal skills when it comes to exchanging ideas. There were two people that were asking seemingly hostile questions to the presenter. One of the profs remarked, "I don't see how this is useful at all." I know if I was presenting and a professor said that about my research, I'd probably have an involuntary bowel movement right away. I think people should perhaps sugar coat their questions, or at least offer a suggestion of how to improve the research.
Anyways, after forty minutes, the presentation finished, and I retreated to my research office. The thought that kept going on my head was, am I the only one that doesn't understand this presentation? Did I forget to take the "mathematical model of vectors to model software concerns" course while I was an undergraduate? So, I asked one of the guys in my research group if he had any idea what was going on in that presentation, and he responded with a resounding no. Thank God I'm not the only one! I asked another guy, and he too said he had no idea what that presentation was about. They explained that there are many different research topics, and no one's expected to be knowledgable in everything. People in grad school tend to specialize on a few topics, so no one's expected to be the jack-of-all-trades computer scientist .... except maybe the profs.
In either case, I'm relieved and feel less stupid.
Tuesday, January 25. 2005
Today I gave my very first presentation at the graduate school level. At first I was sort of nervous as this was a thirty minute presentation in front of some very smart people. The night before, I was tossing and turning in bed so I did not sleep well.
In either case, I gave the presentation tonight and it went fairly well (although I haven't received feedback from my peers yet). I thought it was a good mix of content and humour, and some very good discussion came out of it. At first I was nervous as I had prepared 22 slides, and within the first five minutes I had already went through 6 slides. However, the intro was the more boring part of the presentation. Discussions started breaking out during the meat of my content as expected. My presentation lasted 35 minutes which is about right.
Anyways, doing a presentation at the graduate level is quite different from other presentations I had given in the past. This class is setup as a seminar style class, where students give presentations on research papers that they read. All students are expected to read the paper ahead of time, and the presenter is supposed to facilitate discussions. So, people are free to make comments throughout the talk which makes the experience more interactive and interesting. The conversation felt very relaxed, casual, and natural as we got into it. Everyone seemed quite supportive and respective of each other during the discussion.
A supportive audience is very different from my undergraduate experience. In business for example, the presentation is supposed to be very professional (ie you have to dress up), and you talk the whole time, and you leave time at the end for questions. The audience waits for the end like vultures circling its prey. During question period, you're hit with hard questions or opinions which are intended to poke holes in your business plan, and you pray to merely survive the barrage of questions. Usually before a presentation, I would have a group meeting with my team members to guess what questions will be thrown at us, and develop a strategy of how to answer. We had this one prof, Carter, who was sometimes able to decimate an entire group's belief in their business plan by using a single zinger question. So, the audience seemed very hostile in my business courses.
Presentations in computer science classes weren't much better. There's always some uber-geek who will ask some nit-picky question, or he'll give some obscure tangent question that's supposed to illustrate how stupid and ignorant you are. Once the uber-geek draws first blood, it's all over, all the lesser geeks swarm you with stupid questions as well. Question period is merely an ego building excercise for the uber-geeks. I'll admit I'm guilty of asking some really tough questions as well. In either case, I didn't get any zinger questions from the audience tonight.
The strategy I used for creating this presentation was kind of irrational. I spent a lot of time designing and perfecting a pretty look-and-feel for my Powerpoint slides, even though content is what really mattered. I rationalized it by thinking, even if I crash and burn in the presentation, then at least I have pretty slides. In the end, the content worked wonderfully with the design. I blame this on my web designer origins.
Anyways, the presentation was not as bad as I had imagined. It was actually quite an enjoyable experience. So, this is a small glimpse into grad school, more to come later. (Warning, my opinions are biased as this is the first grad level course I've ever taken ... the honeymoon could end very quickly and/or badly.)
Sunday, January 23. 2005
Today started out as any typical Sunday. I had breakfast, picked people up, and went to church. I always arrive an hour early because I have to setup the sound and computer equipment for the service. So the time is 9:30am and service starts at 10:30am.
10:00am - I'm informed that a missionary will be speaking today, and she will be presenting a slideshow of pictures at around 11:00am. I meet the missionary, and she hands me three CDs which I assume is a Powerpoint presentation.
10:15am - A laptop arrives, so I patch that into the video projection system, and boot it up.
10:25am - I'm browsing through the CDs for a Powerpoint presentation and realize there isn't one. The CDs contain around 150 large photo files and that's it. I can't project each individual photo onto the screen, so I open up Powerpoint on the laptop. I'm thinking, oh yeah, I can put together a Powerpoint presentation in half an hour .... no problem. To my horror, I find that the laptop's Powerpoint is disabled because the license activation has not happened, and you need to enter a serial number to activate it. Gah!
10:30am - I get someone to let me into the church offices in hopes of building a Powerpoint presentation. After playing around with Powerpoint, I figure that this isn't going to work. Powerpoint is trying to import each photo onto the hard drive. I don't want that, I want Powerpoint to just read off the CD. In addition, I have to manually resize each photo to fit the slide as these pictures are super large photos.
10:45am - I ditch Powerpoint and improvise. I open up a plain text editor and I start hacking together a website that will read photos directly off the CD. The beauty of a website is that you can automatically set the height and width of every photo by going height=600, width=800. In addition, webpages are relatively small in size, so you can easily fit them onto a disk.
11:00am - I got all the photos from CD #1 onto a webpage. I quickly save the webpage to disk and run upstairs to the laptop. Thankfully Tom (benevolent founder of Islandnet) was sitting upstairs, so I got him to help run the show while I finish the other webpages. I run back downstairs.
11:15am - I finish getting all the photos from CD #2 and CD #3 onto a webpage, and I run back upstairs. I take over running the show of pictures. Then I realize one of the CDs is missing ... gah, run back downstairs, find CD, run back upstairs. Lucky for me I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt which is optimal for running up and down stairs.
11:45am - On the last webpage that I'm showing, the pictures stop showing up because an error happens. Turns out the computer ran out of memory as there were too many photos loaded at once. Gah! Oh well.... at least people actually got to see the photos.
So, that is why I entitled today's blog entry as "A Poor Man's Powerpoint", as this was very adhoc and it was a huge hack. Thank God it all worked out ... it was pretty rushed.
**Technical paragraphs ahead, feel free to stop reading now.
I'm reminded by some wise words that I learned from Dr.Zastre. In a lecture, he said programmers should strive to be nomadic programmers. What that means is that good programmers should be able to program in any type of environment given a small set of tools such as a plain text editor and a compiler. This teaching definitely helped my specific case.
That is kind of why I am weary of using IDEs (integrated development environments) which is a tool that helps programmers generate code and what not. Some people grow too dependent on their IDEs, and are unable to write code from scratch. They also lose a sense of what's actually going on behind the scenes. An example is, some people know how to build webpages using Microsoft Frontpage or Macromedia Dreamweaver, but have no idea how to actually build them by hand from scratch. If they were in my situation, they wouldn't be able to build a website on the fly since Frontpage or Dreamweaver is not usually installed on every computer. However, every computer does have at least a plain text editor.
Anyways, that was my eventful Sunday. Nothing like last minute rush jobs.
Tuesday, January 18. 2005
My blog has been focusing too much on politics and current events lately, so I've decided to change things up, I'm going to talk about work.
In the field of software engineering, one of the ways/metrics to measure productivity is counting the number of lines of code in a project. I don't know how great of a measurement this really is, but it is an interesting statistic anyway. In either case, today at work we ran a program that counted the number of lines of code we had written.
The last time we ran this was in April 2003, and we had about 250,000 lines of code (LOC). As of today we have about 330,000 LOC. So in a period of about 20 months, an additional 80,000 LOC were added.
Looking at the rate of code production was also interesting. I calculated that by looking at the average LOC per month we generated.
Jan 2002 - Jan 2003: 6,700 LOC/month
Jan 2003 - Jan 2004: 4,200 LOC/month
Jan 2004 - Jan 2005: 3,400 LOC/month
*Figures are rounded to the nearest hundred.
Average number of full-time equivalent programmers
Jan 2002 - Jan 2003: 4.17
Jan 2003 - Jan 2004: 4.33
Jan 2004 - Jan 2005: 2.83
*Figures are rounded to the nearest tenth.
There are a number of factors that I think affects the LOC/month numbers. In the earlier years, the system was very new, so many new features and modules were still being added, which means lots of new code. As the project matures, maintaining code becomes more of an issue, so the rate of new LOC starts decreasing. In addition, we rewrite certain pieces of code that are deemed to be poorly written, or very slow, so that would decrease our rate as well. A theory I have is also that as our team learned how to program better, our code becomes more concise and reusable, which results in less LOC as well. I also believe that as the system gets bigger and more complex, it becomes harder to add new features in.
The most obvious factor in LOC production is human resources, as software depends greatly on the people who write it. As the years progressed, the number of people coding has decreased. People's programming experience is also a factor. In the earlier years we had people generally work longer for us, which means they have more experience. Since then, the people at work generally have stayed for shorter amounts of time. So, that definitely affects how much code gets written. In 2001-2002, it was quite common for a person to stay for 8 months to 1 year. For 2004-2005, a person would stay for 4 months. You're probably thinking, my goodness, you guys have high turnover at your work place. Well, yes and no ... we hire primarily co-op students, so they work for 4 to 8 months at a time.
In either case 330,000 lines of code is still quite the achievement. To put this achievement into perspective consider this. When I took SENG 365, the project was to develop an information system for a catering business. Our programming team consisted of two senior programmers (Loren and I), two juniour programmers, and two testers. In four months, we built the information system from scratch, and the thing was about 22,000 lines of code. So, the system at my work is 15 times bigger than this school project, and way more complex.
Anyways, the march towards 500,000 lines of code continues...
Sunday, January 16. 2005
Gay marriage is one of those touchy subjects that I'd rather avoid like the plague, but due to its urgency and importance, I will write on this subject. So, please keep the discussions civil and respect my right to express my views. If you're going to call me a homophobe, a religious right wing Bible thumping nut, an intolerant individual, so be it, you have proved that you cannot have an adult conversation. This article will probably come back to bite me in the butt.
So I was reading the newspaper today about how the Canadian Liberal Party is planning to introduce legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in January. They hope to have this matter concluded by Summer. That is when the alarm bells went off in my mind, as the Liberals are trying to rush this matter through parliament. The next thing in my mind was, crap ... it's already January.
This is one of those issues that I cannot accept. Let it be known that in the past, I had always been a supporter of the Liberal Party. Scandel after scandel in the past (prior to this election), I tolerated; the decimating of our military, I reluctantly swallowed. Let it also be known that I am a very loyal individual, I usually stick with the stores that treat me well, and I stick with my political parties. But the gay marriage issue was so unpalatable that I lost all faith and patience with the Liberal Party. I no longer could support this party. Shortly after this period, the sponsorship scandel broke, and that was the last nail in the coffin.
So what's my beef against this whole matter you ask? I'll skip explaining the most obvious of my rejections which stems from my religious beliefs as you've probably already heard it a million times.
Open The Floodgates
Legalizing same-sex marriage will weaken marriage that much more. How long do you think it will take before polygamists figure out that they too are being discriminated against, and demand that polygamy be legal again? Not possible you say? I don't think so. Consider that polygamy is probably more 'natural' than homosexuality is. Also consider that many countries in the world still permit polygamy. One of my professors was from Algeria, and he said his brother back home has two wives. Our marriage laws also prevent adults marrying children. Shouldn't we not discriminate against them? Our marriage laws prevents people from marrying relatives. The list goes on...
The other issue is how undemocratic the whole situation has been. I will cite a few things from this article. Firstly, parliament has already voted to preserve the traditional definition of marriage, not once, not twice, but three times already. When they voted on this in 1999, it passed 216 votes for, 55 votes against.
Now because gay activists didn't get their way in parliament, they took it to the courts. From the article:
Canadian courts are the most powerful and political in the western world. Despite the lack of public support, they have not been reluctant to use the vague wording of the Charter of Rights to make profound changes to the social fabric of this country. Unfortunately, many of these court decisions have been based on the judges’ own perspective rather than on that of the public or even that of clearly established law. Supreme Court of Canada Judges Claire L’Heureux Dubé and Rosalie Abella, strong advocates of homosexual rights, have expressed their opinion both in their judgements and in public speeches, that the courts must take the lead on same-sex issues because of the failure of the political process to do so.
But appointed judges have no special understanding of the issue. The reality is that judges are merely lawyers with political connections who are unaccountable in any way for their decisions. Because of this, they believe themselves free to turn on its head, the-thousands-of-years-old understanding of the institution of marriage,which transcends all cultures and religions, and is universal to mankind, since it is basic to the stability and continuance of society.
In either case, the Liberals managed to get a ruling that seemed to help their case to push same-sex marriage through. However, the ruling they passed never stated that same-sex marriage was a human right; it merely said that the government may redefine marriage, not that it must do so.
No Free Vote
The other thing that strokes me the wrong way about this is the lack of a vote which seems very undemocratic to me. This article brings up a few good points. It notes that other minority rights battles that had been fought previously in Canada, like allowing women to vote, was put to a vote, and the majority supported it. Yet, this time with same-sex marriage, this is not the case. There is no referendum on this issue. This seems like a very important issue that should be put to a vote.
However, Paul Martin is giving us the next best thing which he says parliament will be allowed to have a free vote where members of parliament can vote whatever they want. EXCEPT members of the Liberal cabinet MUST vote for same-sex marriage or else they will lose their positions. This doesn't seem free at all. Could you imagine if at work, your company says, you must believe in same-sex marriage or you'll be fired. This is definitely a huge test, vote for your principles, or vote to keep your job. It appears Paul Martin is stacking the deck as he has 37 members in his cabinet, so that's 37 votes he can count on for sure.
Write The Government
The best way to excercise your democratic rights is to tell the government what you think, and the best thing you can do right now is write a letter to the government. Even if you are for same-sex marriage, you should excercise your democratic rights and tell the government what you think.
I came across this template letter that should be useful:
[Your name and address]
The Right Honorable Paul Martin
Prime Minister of Canada
Ottawa ON K1A 0A2
Dear Prime Minister:
Re: Same-sex marriage legislation
The Supreme Court has decreed that Parliament has the authority, not the obligation to change the definition of marriage.
In view of the deep societal, legal, and religious implications of marriage, I ask that you derive your authority with respect to this issue from the will of the electorate. I ask that you hold a national referendum in accordance with the 1992 Referendum Act.
If such a referendum absolutely cannot be held, I further ask that you permit your Cabinet Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries to vote according to conscience, rather than along party lines.
[Your name here]
Sending a letter to government doesn't cost anything, Canada Post ships them to Ottawa for free. Spend a few minutes to write to those in power, and you can forever change the outcome of Canada. Be aware that those who receive your letters are legally required to read each and every letter they get. If you have time, you should also write to your member of parliament. If you don't know who your member of parliament is, or you don't know their address, you can find it here.
Whether you are for or against same-sex marriage, I urge you to write government and make democracy work. "Our democracy is gradually fading away under these leaders and so far the MPs and the Canadian people have allowed them to get away with it, but perhaps this will be the straw that broke the camel's back."
Thank you for reading, and respecting a matter that is close to my heart.
Saturday, January 15. 2005
I was watching a documentary the other night on the 1992 L.A. Riots. It was a fairly interesting documentary to watch as the events happened in my life time, but I was too young to understand what was going on. The video footage looked like a fictional story as Los Angeles looked like an urban warzone, it seemed all too unreal. Yet the sad thing is, it actually happen.
I remember during my high school grad trip, we went down to Los Angeles, and one of the teachers said we were driving through this intersection where a lot of the most infamous violence happened. My teacher had actually lived in L.A. during the riots.
In either case, the documentary frames L.A. 1992 as a city that was in decline and had many poor regions. The most poor of those regions had mostly African Americans, Latinos, and Koreans living in it. There had been a lot of racial tension already brewing before it. The whole thing exploded when an African American driver, Rodney King, was pulled over by the LAPD and beaten savagely. This beating was captured on tape showing four policemen using excessive force on Rodney King. The African American community felt betrayed when the courts ruled that the policemen did nothing wrong, and were acquitted. This court case became a symbol of injustice.
Another element that helped spark the riots was the tension between African Americans and Koreans which I never knew about. I had always assumed the riots were a Black VS White conflict, but it wasn't.
A lot of Koreans that immigrated to America decided to pool their money together so they could open up stores to support themselves. So, they were buying up real estate and opening various stores like grocery stores, dry cleaners, etc. This part of L.A. was quaintly named Koreatown. Apparently a lot of the other poor minority groups had misgivings for this "richer" property owning group of people.
Part of the grief was caused by cultural misunderstandings which I found the most interesting. The documentary interviewed a few African Americans asking why there was tension between them and Koreans. One man explained that they felt the Koreans didn't respect them. They said a lot of times when they entered Korean stores, a worker would follow them around the store as though they were afraid you were going to steal something. He also said that when he went to the counter to pay for something, he would talk to the owner, but the owner wouldn't acknowledge you, the owner wouldn't say anything or even look at you. In American culture, this was a definite sign of disrespect.
The interesting part came when Korean store owners explained their side of the story. They said that this was a cultural misunderstanding. Firstly, a lot of store owners did not understand English, therefore they could not reply when a customer made small talk. Secondly, in Korean culture, when someone talks to you, it is a sign of respect to not look up and make eye contact. You should act as if they were not there. In Korean culture when you make eye contact, it is a sign that you are challenging someone's authority.
Ironically both parties were trying to show respect to each other, one side would make small talk to be polite, and the other would not make eye contact to be polite, but this was misinterpretted by both sides.
The craziest part of the documentary was when the riots actually happened. A lot of Korean stores got targetted by mobs. Police didn't have the manpower or will to go in and disperse these mobs pillaging and burning these stores. A lot of times, Korean store owners would call the police, and the police said, if you have insurance then we're not coming, it's not worth the risk, you'll get your money back anyways. A lot of store owners didn't accept this response, so they took matters into their own hands. I saw footage of Korean store owners taking up arms and fighting back mobs with pistols. This probably didn't help the volatile mix of racial tension.
I asked my Korean co-worker about some of this just to see if the documentary was accurate, and she said a lot of it was true. She did mention that the not making eye contact thing was especially true, and they ingrain that teaching in you starting in school. If a teacher is disciplining a student, and the student looks up, the teacher will yell, asking why are you looking at me?!
In either case, all these cultural differences and misunderstandings can clearly cause a disaster. I am suprised that Canada is able to have all these different cultures living together and peacefully co-exist. Kudos to Canada.
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"Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens."
--J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), English Writer
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