Thursday, 26 February 2004

Designing the perfect remote

From Martin Devon a few days ago: a New York Times article on how TiVo designed their signature “peanut” remote control. I agree with Martin—it’s by far the best remote control I’ve ever used, and the only reason (besides the cost) I haven’t ditched my array of remotes for a universal all-in-one solution.

The only problem I’ve seen: the little plastic thingy on the TiVo button comes off after several years’ use—so far, it’s happened to two of the three TiVo remotes I’ve had. Oh, yeah, and it eats batteries like no remote I’ve ever used—probably because it gets far more use than any remote I’ve ever had before.

Propositioning Californians

Steven Taylor, who is apparently still recovering from some sort of flashback experience, points out that the real ballot-box news next Tuesday is likely to not involve the relative fortunes of 'Nam-John, Hick-John, Al, Dennis, and Lyndon.


These are just random, lack-of-sleep thoughts; I have no particular point, in case you were wondering.

Central tendency

Vance of Begging to Differ takes issue with’s claim that the Bush administration’s claim that the average tax cut is $1,586 is “misleading,” because using the mean instead of the median† is improper. Vance writes:

I can think of a valid justification for either measure. If you’re trying to understand the overall economic effects of the tax cuts, for example, an average is entirely applicable.

In the case where data is “normally distributed”—following the “bell curve” known to statisticians—the mean and the median are essentially the same.* When they differ, the data is said to be skewed, and measures of central tendency and dispersion that assume a normal distribution (like the mean) are generally misleading, as they don’t properly describe the distribution. The income distribution, for example, is skewed right.‡

To cast things in non-mathematical terms, when people think about averages they are thinking in terms of things that are most typical, rather than in terms of distributions. And, in general, the median better reflects this perception of average than the mean. While there may be technical value to the mean for specialists and those who want to engage in further analysis, I think the median does a better job of reflecting the “most typical” observation in most data patterns.

Draft Virginia!

Robert Prather is continuing his semi-quixotic effort to get Virginia Postrel back as editor of Reason; I wholeheartedly support any and all efforts in this regard.

Emotional ties

My daily routine now goes something like this:

  1. Visit the Chronicle jobs web site.
  2. Visit
  3. Fight with APSA’s eJobs system to get it to show me the last few days’ postings—bearing in mind that the “show jobs posted in the last two days” function doesn’t actually work because their website’s database isn’t synced with the actual jobs database, so jobs actually “posted” today may have been entered into the system several days ago. Also bear in mind that the “Full Professor” job at Rockford College (that I didn’t apply for, hence why I’m mentioning it by name) is actually a junior-level position, that jobs that don’t list your field on the main list may actually be looking in your field when you get to reading the actual text of the posting, that the same job at one college is in the database twice. Oh, the “print” version of the page actually takes up more paper than the non-print version. (Did I mention that eJobs sucks?)
  4. Write cover letter(s) as needed.
  5. Make pretty mailing label(s).
  6. Stuff cover letter, vita, and other requested materials in big manila envelope(s).
  7. Weigh and put stamps on envelope(s).
  8. If before 1 pm, stick envelope(s) in mail box. If before 4:30 pm, get in car and go to post office to stick envelopes in mail box.

Writing cover letters at this point is a simultaneously easy and hard process. It’s easy in the sense that after you’ve written 50 of the damn things, one you’ve already written is pretty close to the one you “need” for the particular job. It’s hard in the sense that you have to remember which of those 50 letters is the right one to massage for the particular job in question.

It’s also hard in the sense that you have to show some enthusiasm for the job on paper—which for me entails doing some basic research about the college and putting in some thought as to I’d fit in there, something that makes me a bit more emotionally invested in a process that more closely resembles a meat market than anything a reasonable person would want to be emotionally attached to. It’s hard not to go from “I’d enjoy the opportunity to teach at X because I can contribute in ways A, B, and C” to actually feeling like you’d enjoy going to college X—and thus running the risk of being disappointed if you don’t get to go to college X for whatever reason, even if it’s not the “dream job” you expect to be doing when tenure time rolls around.

Shouldn't this disturb us?

I’m feeling terribly conflicted this morning. The Baseball Crank has a lengthy post on the same-sex marriage issue, in which he makes—and highlights—the following prediction:

Gay marriage will become the law of the land without any state legislature ever having voted it into law, without a majority of either house of Congress ever having voted in favor of gay marriage, without any statewide popular referendum ever having voted in favor of gay marriage, and without any state or federal constitutional provision ever having explicitly authorized it.

I think the first part of the Crank’s premise is incorrect—Massachusetts’ legislature will probably vote it into law later this year, albeit under court duress—but otherwise, there’s not a word there I’d disagree with. And efforts to analogize this “struggle for equality” with those of racial minorities don’t track—those groups were deliberately and systematically excluded from political participation through ordinary legislative channels, against the plain text of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution and numerous federal statutes, and thus their recourse to the judiciary was justified. Tyranny and oppression is being confronted with policemen on horseback, unjustly imprisoned, blasted with fire hoses, and lynching; being deprived of legal recognition of the fact you’ve set up housekeeping with someone of the same gender doesn’t quite fit into that category.

Is the only justification needed for anyone to get a victory in the courts something along the lines of “we couldn’t get the legislature to vote for it“? I find this a profoundly disturbing question. And I say that as one of the tiny minority of people in my state who would support legal recognition of same-sex marriages. What am I supposed to tell my students? “Well, the Supreme Court doesn’t trust your representatives to do what’s right, so they’ve decided to decide on everyone else’s behalf what your laws should be.” I don’t remember seeing that in Federalist 10.

On the other hand, I think Kate Malcolm is probably right that the judgment of history may well see those who oppose same-sex marriage today in much the same light as we (well, most of we at any rate) today see the segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s. So in the end I end up just feeling conflicted about the whole thing.