Tuesday, September 30, 2008


A colleague of mine was having trouble sharing her photos in Flickr, and, since we weren’t too busy this week, we spent quite a bit of time working on it together. (I believe she’s got it all set up properly now, in case you were worried.) She made me a “contact”, and I’ve spent hours watching her pictures. (I say “watching” because when I’m in a conference call where I don’t have to do much, I go to one of her picture sets, and just turn on the slideshow, and let it go by while I listen to my call.)

So now that I’ve been watching all of her photos, I’m starting to think that I need to go on vacation again soon, so that I’ll have more photos to put up in my Flickr account—which, these days, is mostly consisting of book covers from the serna Book Blog. Not that I expect that to happen any time soon; no vacations planned for a while. Maybe I should finally go and scan in my wedding photos, and share those…

BBQ redux

I finally got a chance to use the side burner on my BBQ last night—or so I thought. We decided to make curry, the very thing I’d wanted a side burner for. I got everything prepared, and went into the back yard to start up the BBQ, only to find… that I couldn’t get the side burner to start. The main burners started fine, but the side burner wouldn’t. (I did test it, when I first put the thing together, and it worked at the time.)

The thing is, though, that I don’t know if it’s defective, or if I just didn’t hook it up properly. Either one, in my mind, is very possible. It’s a cheap BBQ, but I was never really sure from the beginning if I’d hooked up the side burner properly. (It seems like the venturi tube might not be connected correctly—there’s a big gap which may or may not be necessary, although I can’t see any other way to hook it up—but I can’t find any instructions/diagrams on the net to help me figure out if it’s connected properly or not.)

I tried using the main burners, but the pot was too far away from the flame, so the oil wasn’t getting hot enough. I had to resort to bringing it back inside, and doing it on the stove.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A shindig, and getting my writing analyzed

Andrea had a “thing” to go to last night, and I went along too. It was for some organization that works with non-profit organizations in Toronto; if they want a space to do a fundraising event, this group can provide a space for free, and hook you up with deals for food and drink. Seemed like a good deal, at first glance, although I’m not posting the name of the organization, in case it turns out that it’s a rip off.

The space itself was excellent. Top floor of a downtown building, with an amazing outdoor patio that goes all around the building. (Actually, now that I think about it, I think it was only three sides of the building. But still, it was really well done.) It was weird being there, though, because it was supposed to be for non-profit organizations, and everyone there looked… well… rich. They obviously weren’t grassroots organizations; they were the big organizations, that everyone has heard of. (The ones that have so much money they don’t need this type of service.) Just watching them all interact, and seeing how they were dressed, it seemed a lot more like a bunch of CEOs getting together than people working for non-profit organizations. So of course I was uncomfortable, because I’m never comfortable around rich people.

But one of the things they had set up was a woman who will analyze your handwriting, so Andrea and I gave it a shot. Of course, everything that she told me is what I’d expect to be told; I’m intelligent, I’m independent, I’m a leader not a follower, etc. I’m pretty sure she’d say the same stuff to everyone. (You’ll never hear her reading someone’s handwriting, and say, “Oh! You’re not very bright, are you?”) And, since she did both Andrea and I together, it turns out we’re perfect for each other. (Again, although I’d find it hilarious, I doubt she’s ever talked to a couple and said, “wow, you guys might as well just break up right now.”)

She did tell me one negative thing, though: The paper asked me to write my favourite saying or philosophy of life, and I put “Nothing is ever easy.” (If you know me in real life, you’ve probably heard me say that. Many times.) She thought that was too pessimistic, so she crossed it out, and wrote, “everything is always easy”—which is just silly. We all know that everything isn’t always easy.

Anyway, I hope that the organization turns out to be good for small organizations, and that Andrea ends up hosting some events there, because I wouldn’t mind going back.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The BBC Lost Land of the Jaguar series

Because Andrea and her family are Guyanese, every once in a while I get sent a link to some Guyanese-related site, or show, or whatever. We recently got sent a link to a BBC series, called Lost Land of the Jaguar, which someone has helpfully put up on YouTube. (The preceding link is to the BBC’s website, not YouTube.) It is absolutely fascinating, having to do with the Guyanese rainforest—perhaps the only above-ground place left in the world where nature is still untouched by modern-man. (If not the only, one of the only.)

Andrea and I watched the first two episodes last night, and will probably watch the third episode soon (schedule permitting). Unfortunately, YouTube limits you to about ten minutes per video (unless you sign up for a paid account), so the episodes are in ten minute segments; however, I’ve created a couple of playlists, which should make it easier to watch them in one contiguous group:

I haven’t yet created a playlist for Episode 3, because I’m not sure if it’s fully uploaded yet. When we’ve watched it, and confirmed how many pieces there are to that episode, I’ll create a playlist for that one, too. (I guess you can watch out at my YouTube profile page, for the next playlist to show up.) The first episode was seven videos, and the second one was six, so I’m not sure how long the third one will be.

I would have preferred to simply link to the BBC iPlayer—so that I could be sure that the videos wouldn’t get taken down, as they might on YouTube—but they don’t seem to have this show available online.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Quantum of Solace redux

There is another trailer online for QoS:

Unfortunately, based on the two trailers I’ve seen so far, it seems like a great action movie, but it doesn’t feel like a Bond movie. Hopefully I’m wrong—after all, I’m only basing these feelings on a couple of trailers.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Separating Programming Sheep from Non-Programming Goats

I found this blog entry to be very interesting. It’s about a paper that has been written on distinguishing those who can program from those who can’t. (The blog entry contains a link to the paper itself, too, which is here.)

I should say that the intent of the paper is not elitist. “We can program, and you can’t, so don’t even bother to try.” But programming is something that people seem to have either a natural ability for, or… well… don’t. As the authors of the paper say:

Learning to program is notoriously difficult. A substantial minority of students fails in every introductory programming course in every UK university. Despite heroic academic effort, the proportion has increased rather than decreased over the years. Despite a great deal of research into teaching methods and student responses, we have no idea of the cause.

It has long been suspected that some people have a natural aptitude for programming, but until now there has been no psychological test which could detect it. Programming ability is not known to be correlated with age, with sex, or with educational attainment; nor has it been found to be correlated with any of the aptitudes measured in conventional ‘intelligence’ or ‘problem-solving-ability’ tests.

That quote is followed closely by this sentence, which I rather enjoyed:

We point out that programming teaching is useless for those who are bound to fail and pointless for those who are certain to succeed.

The authors talk about three significant hurdles that students encounter, when learning to program: assignment and sequence; recursion/iteration; concurrency. They then go on to say this, which I found very interesting:

…. Assignment and sequence … hardly look as if they should be hurdles at all: storage of / remembering information and doing one thing after another are part of everyday patterns of life and thought, and you might have expected (as at first do most teachers) that students’ experience could be analogised into some kind of programming expertise. Not so: it is a real hurdle, and it comes at the very beginning of most programming courses.

I’m sure, when I was first learning to program, that I became frustrated with fellow students, when they couldn’t figure out how assignment works. I guess this paper explains both sides of the coin: why my fellow students couldn’t get it, and why it seemed so obvious to me.

But enough preamble. Let’s talk about the test itself. It consisted of questions such as the following (click to see a bigger version):
sheep and goats sample question
And the authors found these results:

We could hardly expect that students would choose the Java model of assignment … but it rapidly became clear that despite their various choices of model, in the first administration they divided into three distinct groups with no overlap at all:

  • 44% used the same model for all, or almost all, of the questions. We call this the consistent group.
  • 39% used different models for different questions. We call this the the inconsistent group.
  • The remaining 8% refused to answer all or almost all of the questions. We call this the blank group.

We did not interview our subjects to determine anything about their group membership, so we do not know whether students chose consciously or unconsciously to follow one strategy or another, nor how conscious choices (if any) were motivated, nor what any particular choice meant to a subject who made it. We have no information about how group membership correlates with earlier education, employment experience, age, sex, marital status or indeed anything else.

The great thing about the study is that the test was administered twice: Once before the students had had any computer programming studies, and once after they had completed their first course. (The authors aren’t really sure whether it was planned to give the test prior to instruction, or if it was a happy accident.) They found that the results were fairly consistent: People who fell into one of the three groups before taking the course tended to fall into the same group after taking the course.

Interestingly, the authors then talked about using these groups to predict who would be good programmers, and who wouldn’t. I would have expected that the “consistent” group would be the most successful programmers, but I would have been in the minority:

Speculation is part of science, though, and those to whom we have recounted this tale have usually been ready to try it. Told that there were three groups and how they were distinguished, but not told their relative sizes, we have found that computer scientists and other programmers have almost all predicted that the blank group would be more successful in the course exam than the others: “they had the sense to refuse to answer questions which they couldn’t understand” is a typical explanation. Non-programming social scientists, mathematicians and historians, given the same information, almost all pick the inconsistent group: “they show intelligence by picking methods to suit the problem” is the sort of thing they say. Very few, so far, have predicted that the consistent group would be the most successful. Remarkably, it is the consistent group, and almost exclusively the consistent group, that is successful. We speculate on the reasons in section 7.

And what do they feel are the results of this study? First of all, they feel that they have a predictive test, as to who will be a good programmer, and who will not.

[One of their graphs] suggests that it is extremely difficult to teach programming to the inconsistent and blank groups. It might be possible to teach them, if we concentrated on trying to persuade them to see a programming language as a system of rules (though the evidence in section 6 below seems to suggest otherwise).

The consistent group seem to be much easier to teach. We speculate that they divide into two groups: the very successful ones find programming easy and may perhaps be those who ought to follow a conventional computer-science education, with lots of formal content; the moderately successful perhaps are the software engineers, those who can program but can’t imagine that they will ever enjoy it, and are content to submit to management discipline and to be drowned in UML (ugh!).

As a side-note, why does everyone hate UML?

I don’t know how scientifically accurate this study will turn out to be, or if the authors will attempt to try it in a larger experiment with more subjects, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Quantum of Solace

The new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is coming out in November. I don’t know a whole lot about it, but the trailer is up on YouTube. (It was actually put up way back last June, but as always, I’m behind the times.)

It doesn’t grab my attention the way the previews for Casino Royale grabbed my attention, but I’m looking forward to it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Finding Parking in Toronto

Every once in a while I have to drive downtown, and my biggest hassle is usually “where can I park?” Unfortunately, my first impulse is to go to the Green P Parking website, but it turns out that their site is lousy. I’ve never satisfactorily been able to use it to find a parking lot near where I’m going. (It’s been a pet peeve for a while, and I finally sent them a long-winded email with suggestions to improve their site.)

However, just as my blood was getting its hottest, I found a great site: StopFinder. It’s a mashup that uses Google Maps; type in your destination, and even what time you’re going and how long you’ll be staying, and it will give you:

  • All of the parking lots in the area—something that the Green P web site cannot do, I can’t stress that enough—with the closest lot highlighted for you
  • Prices and hours of service for each of the parking lots
  • Colour-coded rankings of the lots’ prices
  • Bus and subway stops in the area, with links to the TTC schedule, so that you can figure out when the bus will arrive
It looks like this:
Of course, now that I’ve put up a specific destination in that screenshot, knowing my luck they’ll tear down the club that’s currently there, and build some kind of sex club or something, that will last for twenty years. And anyone who comes to this post will be wondering, “why did serna put up a link to a sex club?!?”

So there you have it. If you’re going somewhere in Toronto, and want to know where to park or how to take the TTC there, try StopFinder.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Grilled Asparagus

Wow, this is my third post of the day. I’m on a roll!

I’ve already posted a recipe for some great burgers. Now it’s time to post a link to a recipe for grilling asparagus on the BBQ.

Actually, there’s nothing revolutionary about it. I’m finding that when it comes to grilling vegetables on the BBQ, the steps are usually the same:

  • drizzle the veggies in olive oil, usually combined with lemon juice
  • grill them on medium heat, usually about two minutes per side
And this asparagus recipe is the same. (No lemon juice, in this case.) The only thing I did differently from the recipe was that I didn’t use as much salt as the recipe’s author had suggested—even though s/he said to “trust” him/her that it wouldn’t be too much.

Some day, I’ll post my instructions for grilling the perfect steak. Unfortunately, I tried it again last night, and, although it came out great, it still wasn’t perfect.


Since I’m always behind the curve when it comes to writing about new stuff, I guess I should mention—a day or two after everyone else has—that Google has introduced a new open-source web browser, which they call Chrome.

Now, you might ask yourself: Why has Google built its own web browser? Isn’t there already an open-source web browser, called Firefox, which by most accounts is pretty darned good? And if you want to do something interesting with the browser, couldn’t you do it by creating a Firefox plugin? (e.g. Ubiquity.) And Google expected that response, and put up a page saying why they did it.

But the thing is… I still don’t get it. I mean, I read the page, but it didn’t really answer the question, in my mind: Why did Google feel that they need their own browser? Why couldn’t they build on something like Firefox? I went through the little demo videos on their features page, and although it seems like a great browser, it also seems like it’s just a series of incremental improvements over Firefox or Internet Explorer 7. Not something revolutionary.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely not saying that I think this is a dumb idea. Most of the folks over at Google are a lot smarter than I am, and I’m betting they had a good reason for doing this. And I’m also thinking back to when Firefox first introduced tabbed browsing, and how I didn’t think it was such a big deal, because that was only an “incremental improvement” over having multiple browser windows open. (“You’re just trading multiple buttons in your Taskbar for multiple tabs in your browser,” I thought, “What’s the big deal?”) But now I can’t imagine not having tabs in a browser.

In any event, I’m downloading Chrome, and will give it a try. (I’ve written too many love letters on this blog to other Google products not to give it a try!) I’m prepared to be blown away, but expecting to find “just another browser”, maybe slightly better than Firefox. Time will tell.


I’d thought I’d posted about this before, but apparently I haven’t. So I’ll do so now.

I get a lot of coincidences in my life. (e.g. see this previous post, for a perfect example; I’m often thinking of a particular Simpsons episode, only to turn on the TV the next day and find it playing.) I’ve sometimes thought of creating a “serna Coincidence Blog”, to document all of the many coincidences I encounter.

Knowing me, the following will probably happen:

  • I will hesitate for a long time—mostly because I won’t be able to settle on a blog template to use.
  • I will finally do it, because for some bizarre reason I love creating blogs, and I just won’t be able to help myself.
So… yeah. Stay tuned for that.