Friday, February 29, 2008

Lethal Tasers and Bad Logic

Heard this on NPR this morning:

[The Taser] is not a lethal weapon. Nobody has ever proved it has caused a death. - Taser salesperson
Uh, gee, that's not a logical conclusion. You can't assert that something is a fact just because nobody has proved otherwise (...aliens from Alpha Centauri live among us -- nobody has ever proved they don't). At best it would be inconclusive.

But the second statement isn't even true. Google for taser death and here are some of the hits on the first page:
  • Canadian Taser death caught on camera
  • AlterNet: Rights and Liberties: Death by Taser: The Killer ...
    The county coroner found no evidence of alcohol or drugs in his system and ruled that Ryan's death could be attributed to the Taser shock, physical exertion ...
  • Taser shocks ruled cause of death
    A Chicago medical examiner has ruled that shocks from a Taser were responsible for the death of a man in February, marking the first time that the ...
  • Man's stun gun death caught on tape -
Apparently, hundreds of people have died from this "non-lethal" weapon. Is it safer for the person it's used on than a gun? Sure, but that's no consolation for those who have died.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What Language Do You Think In?

A question my daughter asked me:

If someone is deaf and blind, what language do they think in?

My father was a linguist. He was fluent in several dialects of Chinese, plus Japanese, Korean, and German. He also knew some Spanish, French, Russian, and a few other languages that I'm forgetting. I joke that I know more languages than he did (but they're computer languages). He used to tell me was that one of the hallmarks of fluency in a language was thinking in that language while speaking it (instead of thinking in one's native language and translating).

Sad to say, although I studied both Spanish and Russian, I never got even close to fluent in either language. But, occasionally, if I get asked a question in one of the languages, I will find myself responding in the language without first thinking of the response in English.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Forensic Science at Breakfast

The back of my kids' cereal box this morning was all about forensic science. Boy, cereal boxes have come a long way from when I was a kid!

One of the things mentioned was the "fact" that all fingerprints are unique. This is one of those facts that is right up there with no two snowflakes being alike and identical twins have identical DNA. Of course they're all true.

Actually, none of them are true. They are theories, not facts. Science doesn't call things facts that aren't observable or provable. And we're not doing our children any service by miseducating them about science.

Let's start with the identical or monozygotic twins (I happen to be one). How could you prove the theory? Well, you can't because you can't possibly test every past, present and future set of twins and we don't have a complete understanding of how twins happen (we have a pretty good understanding, but we're still learning). Over the years, there have also been cases where DNA testing showed identical twins to have different DNA. But these cases were viewed as exceptions, not the rule, and were generally explained away. Now there's a recent study (PDF) that many, if not all, identical twins have different DNA. Scientists have learned that all identical twins may actually differ genetically from their partners to some degree. See also

What about snowflakes? This "theory" was proposed by Wilson Bentley, a farmer and photographer, not a scientist. Again, you can't prove the theory, but you can disprove it and scientists have found small identical snowflakes. See also

And, finally, fingerprints. I'll leave this as an exercise for the reader. All you have to do prove the theory is explain exactly how fingerprints get created to the extent necessary to show that identical fingerprints cannot possibly be created. That there is some rule that means that a baby born today, in Seattle, cannot possibly share fingerprints with someone born fifty years ago, in Russia. That there is a mechanism that prevents that from happening. If you can't explain that, not only can't you prove the theory, but it's looking a lot more like it's false.

Or, you could just trust the cereal box.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Samite of Uganda

We're going to see Samite Mulondo, also known as Samite of Uganda, on March 1st at the Kirkland Performance Center! He is a Ugandan flute and kalimba player.

Emily and I have loved his music ever since her mother gave me this album (Pearl of Africa Reborn) after she saw him in concert. We're looking forward to introducing the kids to his music. Although he lives in the US now, this is the first time I've known him to be playing near me.

If you live in the Seattle area, I recommend it (there were empty seats).

Samite's web site is

Updated: Ticket information removed

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Blogging ... again

It's been more than ten years since my last blog entry. I never had a blog of my own, but I contributed a few entries for other people's blogs in the early days.

In those early days, I figured blogging would never catch on. I saw that a number of the earliest bloggers were very self-centered and I thought that nobody would ever want to read what they wrote. I certainly didn't want to be like them.

I was wrong, in a number of ways, but I was also right about one thing. All blogging, by definition, is somewhat self-centered. We write about what we know. But there's a difference between self-centered and self-serving. The best bloggers write to share -- not to tout -- and self-aggrandizing blogs usually don't survive. In general, blog readers don't want to spend their time reading about how great other people are.

Another reason that I didn't blog is that I was working on a couple of books, including one that I had tentatively called The Natural Interface, about user interfaces. But writing a book takes a lot of time. I've collected notes for years and haven't yet written the book. With a blog, I can just write one thing at a time. And I might as well share what I've written.

And that's my goal in blogging -- to share. I'll share things that I know and things that I don't know. I'll share things that I just learned and maybe things I wished I'd learned. I'll share things I'm thinking about and perhaps things I'd rather not think about. I hope you'll join me, I hope you'll find it interesting, and I hope you'll share back.

When I jump into things, I really jump in. So, I'm starting not one, but three, blogs. It seems readers are happier if a blog focuses on a single major topic, so I decided to separate the different things I wanted to write about into separate blogs. Most likely, not all of my readers will want to read all three blogs.

thisUseris a blog about user interfaces and human interaction(feed)
thisDevis a blog about software design, development, and architecture(feed)
thisTangent is a blog about anything else I want to write about, including (at least) puzzles, art, photography, ambigrams, cooking, and even politics.(feed)

If you like all three blogs, you can subscribe to thisMix, which mixes the three blogs into one feed.

Update: Removed the summary feed (everybody subscribed to the full mix).