Monthly Archives: March 2009


This weekend was my grandfather’s birthday, and to celebrate I drove down with them to Westport, where my parents live, and we had a family dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant. For a present, we bought him an Amazon Kindle 2, and after they charged it last night, I spent the ride home getting it set up. We learned a few things along the way.

The Kindle comes with “free” EVDO internet access, but it doesn’t work until you enter your Amazon account info. Once you’ve done that, you have instant access to the entire Kindle store, including 250,000 titles, some of which are actually worth reading. Most are priced at $9.99, which is a bit less than a new paperback at full price (typically about $15). The newspapers are about $10 a month or more, which seems a bit overpriced, and the magazines run about $1.50 a month, which seems extremely reasonable.

The first thing we learned about the Kindle is that its input devices are not quite ideal. Without a touchscreen, it relies on a pressable joystick of the sort that’s become so popular in the past few years (my cell phone from 2006 has one). These are easy to click accidentally… for example, in the Kindle store. Amazon knows this, which is why they provide an “are you sure?” confirmation after each purchase, but if you miss that button, you’re stuck.

The second thing I learned is that the Kindle is not well-integrated with its support services, or with anything, really, except the Kindle store. There’s nowhere in the Kindle UI that lists the support phone number. Amazon even provides an online callback service, where you give them your phone number and they will call you when a representative is free (no waiting on hold)… but there’s no way to access that service through the Kindle. The Kindle includes a web browser, but the web page for requesting a callback doesn’t work.

Ultimately, we just had to call their support hotline. Service was courteous and fast; we were able to “unbuy” the book in less than a minute.

The Kindle’s browser is definitely severely limited. There are special search functions for a dictionary, Google, and Wikipedia, which all work beautifully, but navigating to any of Google’s search results is a disappointing experience, as many pages are reflowed in ways that make them hard to navigate. is actually particularly bad; we were entirely unable to shop for a Kindle carrying case from the Kindle’s own browser. This was shocking to me; I’ve begun to wonder if the difficulty of using on a Kindle is deliberate, so that Amazon can’t be accused of attempting monopolistic integration.

I was disappointed to realize that there are no free books in the Kindle store. There are a dozen variations on the complete works of Mark Twain, but they all seem to cost $5 or more. Perhaps there are free items buried in their somewhere, but if so they are certainly well-hidden. Thankfully, it seems that Kindle can handle direct download in Mobipocket format from its internal browser, and so there are sites like, which have thousands of free books available. That site even has, a deeply simplified version that works well on the Kindle and similar browsers. seemingly contains the entire Project Gutenberg archive, as well as the works of Cory Doctorow and other authors who place their work in the public domain.

I was initially a bit unhappy with the Kindle, though its industrial design is very impressive. I still don’t think I would ever buy one, due to its extensive use of DRM, which I find unethical and dangerous. However, with unlimited Wikipedia access (do you know what a tourbillon is?), instant free download of almost every digitized public-domain book (even audiobooks), arbitrary MP3 playback over headphones or built-in speakers… I can see why it would be nice to have, even for someone like me who would never buy a book.

Maybe one day they’ll have some competition. I hear OLPC’s coming out with some new hardware…


The New York Times has an article about neurological observations associated with depression.

This article makes me very happy. You might reasonably ask “Ben, why are you so happy that cortical thinning, and particularly left-hemisphere cortical thinning, is somewhat correlated with clinical depression? After all, isn’t this just yet another article in the popular news media about some inconsequential brain/behavior study?”

The answer lies in this quote:

The scientists’ brain imaging study found the thinning in descendants of depressed parents and grandparents, whether or not the individuals themselves had ever suffered a depressive episode or an anxiety disorder, researchers said.

“That’s what is so extraordinary. You’re seeing it two generations later, and you’re seeing it in both children and adults,” said Dr. Bradley S. Peterson, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and the paper’s first author. “And it’s present even if those offspring themselves have not yet become ill.”

While people may assume that a familial trait is genetic, that is not necessarily the case, Dr. Peterson added. “We don’t know if this has a genetic origin or if it’s a consequence of growing up with parents or grandparents who are ill. Studies have shown that when parents are depressed, it changes the environment in which children are growing up.”

That’s right. What we have here is an article about a multigenerational psych study, in the popular press, in which they did not immediately assume that the results come from genetics! This might be the first time I have ever seen them not make that mistake.

Kudos to the journalist, Roni Caryn Rabin, for presenting science instead of speculation, and to Dr. Bradley S. Peterson, who must have emphasized this issue rather strongly. Maybe we are entering a new era, in which social correlations are not totally ignored.


The equinox just passed. What’s remarkable to me about the equinox is not the balance of day and night, though that is the technical definition. The equinox is also the time of year when the amount of daylight is changing most rapidly, as is intuitive given the derivative of a cosine. This is what I can really feel. Every day I can sense the growing daylight.

I am so ready for spring.


When observing court cases, I’ve often been irritated by the doctrine of judicial precedent. This doctrine, centuries old and inherited from the British, says that once a court has decided a case in a particular way, all future courts faced with similar cases must follow the original decision. The doctrine of precedent is not perfectly strict, of course, and no two cases are exactly alike, but it is remarkably powerful nonetheless. For example, American lawyers routinely cite precedent from British courts of the 1600s, as they are considered part of a continuous legal stream with the current judicial system. (There was even a kerfuffle a few years ago regarding citation of international precedents, but never mind.)

Precedent has always bothered me. I’ve found myself increasingly angry with court decisions that seem to use precedents, including deeply problematic ones, to avoid facing up to critical aspects of the case at hand. I’m particularly thinking of intellectual property cases (something that affects me a great deal as a computer programmer), which seem rarely to be decided on their own merits. The landscape of information technology has changed so entirely in the past twenty years that all prior precedents may as well have been written in an alternate universe. This has caused me to wonder: “what is the purpose of precedent?”

Cynically, I sometimes suspect that the purpose of the doctrine of precedent is to make life easier for judges, by allowing them to avoid intellectual responsibility for determining a verdict. However, I’ve recently come to another conclusion: the doctrine of precedent is estoppel on the courts.

Estoppel is another legal doctrine, much more broadly applicable and extremely commonsense. It says, in its simplest form, that if I “induce an expectation” in you, then I cannot sue you for actions you take based on that expectation. For a trivial example, if I put out a table full of oranges on the sidewalk with a big sign that says “FREE ORANGES COME GET SOME”, then I can’t sue you for damages when you take an orange without asking. In this simplest form, almost every legal doctrine has some basis in Estoppel. (Estoppel actually goes much further: the sign’s message could be much more ambiguous, but as long as reading it would induce a reasonable expectation that they are free for the taking, there can be no liability.)

When attempting to determine whether an action I wish to take is legal, the best answer I can get is to see if anyone has ever been found guilty/liable for a similar action in the past. If someone has taken a similar action, and been cleared by a court, then I have a reasonable expectation that I may safely take the same action myself. If my action led to a court case that came to the opposite conclusion, this would be unfair in a rather serious way… and in precisely the way the Estoppel seeks to prevent.

So now I have a renewed appreciation for the doctrine of precedent (which is not to say that I’m any happier about modern intellectual property law).


Last night was the ICCA Northeast Region Semifinals at MIT, and I went to support the Chorallaries with a bunch of other alumni.

The groups were all really very good, and many of them were distressingly good. First place went to the Dukesmen of Yale, which was a foregone conclusion after their first song. Later, the hosts ran out of things to do to kill time while the judges were deliberating, and so there was a “perc-off”, a demonstration of vocal percussion from all the groups, which was even more depressingly impressive.

I feel low in talent compared to these people.


VoiceLab’s internal solo auditions are a bit different from what I’m used to. One interesting difference is that for each soloist, VoiceLab also selects an understudy.

At rehearsal this Wednesday, I got the understudy part for John Legend’s “Save Room”. So if you come to my concert at 8 PM on Friday, May 1st in Paine Hall at Harvard you will almost certainly not hear me sing “Save Room”.

But there is an outside chance.


A friend at Simmons College advised me of an interesting talk there by Charles F. Dunbar, who has been the Ambassador to a bunch of countries and has now sort of retired into a professorship at BU. He’s an expert on Afghanistan, and the talk was about the increasingly intertwined problems across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

For the most part, Dunbar said things that were not unexpected. It was a decent introduction to the history of the region. He did make some recommendations though, and a few stood out. Paraphrased, from memory:

One of the things that worries me most is that our many allies — the Europeans supported this war, remember, and also Canada and Japan — are beginning to pull out. They’ve taken substantial casualties, and they no longer have the patience for it. Also, some of the ones who are staying are saying that they won’t go where the loud sounds are.

It’s important to at least appear to be acting internationally, not just as a single country. I think we really need a UN Task Force on Afghanistan (and Pakistan) to provide that international backing.

One of the greatest problems in this region is the dependence on poppy cultivation. One major option, often considered, is eradication, but you can’t do that if you’re trying to win a counterinsurgency. It says it right on the first page of FM-3-24: if you’re trying to put down an insurgency, you can’t take away people’s livelihoods. You can’t alienate the people.

People have suggested lots of possibilities, like substituting other cash crops that could generate similar income, but realistically, it would always be less. One option I find tempting — maybe in the way that opium is tempting — is to simply buy up the whole crop. I don’t think that’s likely, unfortunately.

An important thing to remember is, even where the Taliban are now gaining in strength, there is no enthusiasm for them. They’ve lived under Taliban rule before; they know what it’s like. The Taliban are really not nice people. They’re not fair.

To have a chance at winning against the Taliban, we have to provide jobs for young men in these tribal areas. Currently, many of them are signing up with the Taliban for careers …. very short careers, that end abruptly.

What we need to do is to create some economic development projects, to give young men the feeling that they have a chance at a career. Now, these projects wouldn’t pass muster in any of our usual economic aid organizations, because there’s no way they’ll be able to pay for themselves. The region is terribly poor in natural resources, so any such projects would need some help, maybe a lot of help, from outside to keep running. That’s ok.

Now, the area is virtually undeveloped at the moment, so we’re fairly limited. I think heavy industry is pretty much out of the question. In fact, the US tried an agricultural development project here in the 1950s, using better irrigation to try to improve the farming, but it didn’t work, and shame on us for not having done our homework on that one. The Soviets actually ran a similar project nearby, growing citrus, which worked quite well in that climate. (This was at a time when we and the Soviets were competing in the arena of international aid.)

Anyway, to give you an idea of what I’m thinking of, maybe you could grow sugar beets, and then build a basic refinery to produce refined sugar. Then you could use the sugar for canneries and such, the beginnings of an industry. If you keep going like that, maybe eventually you can do an electric power plant, since there’s no electric grid yet in this area.

[At this point a discussion ensued between several former Ambassadors and other diplomats regarding the expected cost of the Obama administration's proposed "troop surge" of 17,000 additional soldiers in Afghanistan. They concluded that the total additional cost, over a period of a few years, would be about $15 billion.]

The cost of subsidizing these projects would be something like $2 or $3 billion … that’s like the interest on the cost of a troop surge.

["It's also about three weeks for AIG!" shouted someone in the audience.]

Dunbar: Ugh. Thank you for reminding me¡

After the talk, it turned out there was dinner, and my friend at Simmons seems to know the right people, because we somehow wound up there, eating dinner with all the bigwigs. The talk there (still quite formal, with a podium and microphone) shifted to be more “inside baseball” (to use their own term), debating issues internal to the State Department. The whipping boy of the evening seemed to be Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the experts said:

He’s just the least self-effacing of diplomats, so one can’t expect much in the way of quiet diplomacy.

This became a much more general debate on the value of Special Envoys, concluding that they can have a positive effect, so long as they remember to make use of the Foreign Service officers who have deep knowledge of the region. I found the whole session a bit mystifying, but also a pretty cool introduction to the way that this stuff actually gets done.

After dinner, as I was taking my bike down through the elevator, we ran into Dunbar again, on the way out. It turns out he biked there too, and so we talked for a bit about bicycles. He rode away in a suit on a classic black 10-speed roadbike with drop handlebars and an all-chrome fork.


Apart from the ill-fated bicycle adventure, I spent the entire weekend sitting in my apartment scribbling equations and writing code. I’ve been bothering the developers of CELT to tell me everything they know, and one of things I learned about is Pyramid Vector Quantization. I now know far more than I ever expected to about rhombic dodecahedrons, rhombicuboctahedrons, and their arbitrary-dimensional cousins like the 24-cell.

I have had one of my best ideas ever. It involves an octagon.

I just finally got canonical PVQ encode and decode working, which was very satisfying. It was a fun weekend.

At some point, I may have to give up on this idea that I am a normal person.


I left my laptop power cable at work yesterday, and since the weather today was so nice, I thought it seemed an opportune moment for a shakedown run of my new bicycle. I’m glad I didn’t pick a longer trip for the test, because just before I got to Longwood I noticed (1) the rear derailleur seemed not to be working and (2) the left-side pedal was getting wobbly. Closer inspection showed that (3) both bottom bracket hubs were loose.

In each case, I simply hadn’t wrenched things quite tight enough. Unfortunately, tightening the bottom bracket hub require special tools, three- and five-point pin spanners of particular dimensions. In fact, I built matching spanners to do the initial reassembly, but I left them in Connecticut. So now I have to (a) take the bike back to Westport, (b) go back to Westport and bring the tools back to Boston, or (c) find someone in Boston who has the tools.

Thankfully, Harvard runs a shuttle from Longwood right back to my block in Central Square, and on the front of every bus is a bike rack. My timing was lucky; I was able to get my power cord and immediately catch a bus home.


I’ve lived in Boston since 2002, but I don’t think I’d ever been to Northeastern University until today. There was a guest lecture on image registration, and I went with another researcher from my department. Walking, from my office, it took about 15 minutes. Maybe less.

It’s nice to know where things are. Sometimes they are unexpectedly close by.