Monday, December 31, 2012

Riding the range at the Ponderosa

We've recently been watching reruns of the old Bonanza TV series from the 1960s. The story concerns the Cartwright family, who supposedly lived in the 1860s on a huge ranch called the Ponderosa near Virginia City, Nevada. Many episodes refer to the awesome size of the Ponderosa, and finally I couldn't resist working out exactly how big the ranch really "was".  It helps that this map appears in the title sequence of every episode, as well as on the wall behind Ben Cartwright's desk (click the map to see it in a separate window):

By comparing that map to the real one below taken from Google Maps, I had a scale by which to estimate the size of the Ponderosa. First I had to rotate the real map to match the odd angle of the one above. I also had to work around a few liberties the old map had taken with the positions of certain landmarks, such as Washoe Lake:

Google's scale tells me that Lake Tahoe is about 20 miles long. Using that as a ruler, I estimate the area of the Ponderosa as 150 square miles, which is 20% larger than the entire city of Surrey, BC where I live.

So yes, the Ponderosa was really big, but not unimaginably so. There was also plenty of room for the Ponderosa to contain mountains, forests, deserts, green valleys and small lakes the show portrays. The island of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, which is only about half the size of the Ponderosa, has all of those, including every kind of environment from tropical rain forest at the west end of the island to tumbleweed desert at the east end, as well as two major factories and at least three towns.

But knowing the true size of the Ponderosa does cast some doubt on the speed at which people could apparently travel between Virginia City and the Ponderosa on horseback!

Friday, November 30, 2012

A simple, effective approach to electoral reform

After recent federal byelections in Canada there is fresh talk about electoral reform to prevent vote-splitting and strategic voting.

Vote-splitting happens when the majority of voters are forced to choose one of several similar candidates, resulting in none of those candidates getting enough votes to be elected even though their policies are the most popular.

Strategic voting happens when voters, trying avoid vote-splitting, vote for the strongest acceptable candidate instead of the candidate they prefer.

Both vote-splitting and strategic voting arise from our 'first past the post' electoral system which imposes the illogical restriction that if there is one position to be filled, voters can vote for only one candidate. Clearly, this system can only be democratic when there are just two candidates. When there are several candidates most voters might find more than one candidate acceptable, but the system makes no provision for that.

Other jurisdictions address this issue using various complex schemes, such as proportional representation, transferable votes, ranking candidates, and runoff elections. A much simpler solution is what's sometimes called consensus voting (also known as approval voting), where everything is exactly the same as our present system except that voters can make as many Xs on their ballot as they wish. Ideally, they vote for all the candidates they find acceptable.

For example, one voter might vote for the Conservative, Liberal, and Family Values parties while their neighbour might vote for the Democratic, Green, and Socialist parties. The candidate with the most votes would still win, but there would be no more vote-splitting or strategic voting, and the winner would almost always have the support of more than 50% of the voters.

Under this system, smaller parties would get several times more votes than they do now, and therefore would wield influence even without getting elected. Imagine that you have just been elected because 64% of the voters voted for you. If you see that 51% of the voters voted for the Family Values party and 55% voted for the Green Party, you will certainly take those views into account when crafting your positions on families and the environment.

Consensus voting is more democratic because it brings more of the voters' opinions to bear on the outcome of the election. And it has one major advantage over complex schemes: everybody will understand it. That's an important consideration in a country where one province has rejected (twice) a proportional representation system that few voters felt they fully understood.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

How many squares?

I keep seeing this puzzle on Facebook, so I'm posting my systematic solution here.

There's a pattern of 16 basic squares in a regular 4  x  4 grid, plus two more superimposed on that grid to create 8 small squares.

First consider the basic squares.  There are 4 x 4 = 16 of them.

Now group them into 2 x 2 squares. There are 3 of those across:

and there are obviously 3 of them down also, so there are 3 x 3 = 9 of them.

If you do the same using 3 x 3 squares, there are 2 across and 2 down, so there are 2 x 2 = 4 of them.

And of course if you group them into a 4 x 4 square, there's just 1 of those.

Now if you do the same with the two superimposed squares, there are 8 small squares and 2 large squares:

So the total number of squares is:

16 + 9 + 4 + 1 + 8 + 2 = 40

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Your life in 5-year snapshots

Here's something new: describe your life on a single page by writing single-sentence snapshots of your life at 5-year intervals. Here's my one-page history:

5 years ago: Teaching math, science and information technology at an independent school in British Columbia.

10 years ago: Independent consultant doing functional specification documents for industrial software development projects in Georgia (US).

15 years ago: Staff consultant at software company in Seattle, applying their products to customers' needs and designing software to fill any gaps.

20 years ago: Selecting computers, designing networks and implementing process management software at large new pulp mills in northern Alberta.

25 years ago: Teaching computers, electronics and logic to engineering technologists at a new division of a college in Surrey, British Columbia.

30 years ago: Developing software to automate the startup of a process plant in British Columbia.

35 years ago: Overseas resident control systems engineer for a project to design and build a large pulp and paper mill in Poland.

40 years ago: Owner/operator of an business doing recording, editing, and duplication of radio programs and educational material in Vancouver, BC.

45 years ago: University student and anti-apartheid activist in Durban, South Africa.

50 years ago: At boarding school in Lusaka, Zambia completing A-level university entrance requirements in math and science.

55 years ago: Completing elementary school and editing the class annual.

60 years ago: Leaving the UK and flying to my new home in Northern Rhodesia.

65 years ago: Learning to hate the daily spoonful of cod liver oil all British kids got from the National Health System!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Servant Leadership

I just found in my archive the talk I gave on Wednesday 26 October 2005 at Heritage Christian School's Grade 12 Leadership Retreat. I thought others might like to read it. The quotations from the Bible are from the New Living Translation.
_ _ _ _ _

There are 13 people here tonight - the same number as Jesus and his disciples. This must be how it felt for them to be together.

I have friends in Israel, so I keep track of Jewish holidays. Today is Simchat Torah, when the Jews celebrate the glory of the Law. Not the giving of it - that's celebrated at Pentecost - but its glory. Yet in the New Testament, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6 "[God's] new not one of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old way of the Law ends in death; in the new way, the Holy Spirit gives life." Paul didn't say the law was bad - on the contrary, he says several times in Romans that the law is good - but it doesn't bring life. Only the Holy Spirit does that.

Here are some thoughts about Servant Leadership:

1.  The need for leadership is a consequence of sin.

Who led the first humans? God did. When did God first put one human in authority over another? After the Fall. When did Israel first get a king, and why? See 1 Samuel 8:4.

2.  Leadership is hard work!

In today's Leadership exercises, one group put "lazy" in their list of characteristics a leader should not have. That's right!  Leaders work hard, long hours, and their work is emotionally draining. And it's absolutely essential! A recent book studied the failures of many large American corporations and concluded that it's not particular styles of management that cause failure, but simply the failure of the CEO to execute the plan. So basic, and so essential.

3.  Leadership, like electricity, comes in positive and negative kinds

I looked up the verb "to lead" in the New Testament and - surprise - found almost every reference was to someone leading others astray, or leading them into temptation.

Almost the only positive use of this word was in Revelation 7:17, which is beautiful: "For the Lamb who stands in front of the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe away all their tears."

Bad leaders are everywhere. They may only influence a handful of people, but if they can corrupt those, evil spreads. Note the second part of Romans 1:32: "Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too."

I had an experience during my teen years when a bad leader tried to encourage me to be like him. I sensed something was wrong and found an excuse to get away from him. It was only years later that I discovered what he really had in mind, and what a narrow escape I'd had.

A godly Christian servant leader will be a Shepherd, leading people to life, and wiping away their tears.

3. Leadership can be learned

Think about physics; we all do it instinctively - even a dog can catch a thrown ball in its mouth! - but we can't explain how we do it, and as a result we often get it wrong. This is why we study physics, to master the subject!  It's the same with justice, truth, mercy and all the other virtues; scripture tells us to study these. Yes, leadership can be learned!

4.  Leadership must be done with integrity!

We recently watched the movie Hotel Rwanda. It has been said by a church leader in Africa that Africa has no shortage of gifted leaders - but very few good ones.

The leader, especially the servant-leader, must have the good of the followers at heart - not his or her own profit or image.

A counselor working in an anonymous cubicle at the Billy Graham headquarters was seen to have posted this sign on his wall: "There is no limit to the good you can do, if you don't care who gets the credit." This is worth thinking about and adopting for ourselves.

As a leader with integrity, you will both gain and lose friends. C.S. Lewis wrote a whole essay called "The Inner Ring" about how the in-group demands that you compromise your integrity to join their circle. Instead, you should act with integrity and you will find yourself part of another circle, one of virtue.

Sometimes when you act with integrity, you will face consequences. I once saw a cartoon that showed a fired executive explaining to his wife: "I told the truth, and they set me free!"

Not everyone is a so-called "natural-born leader" who instinctively draws people to follow him or her.  But everyone gets called upon by circumstances to exercise leadership, and when that call comes your way, you MUST lead.

5. Leadership within this group

  • Among you I have seen many words of encouragement given. That's a good form of leadership.
  • I've seen you working together for the common good, and helping one another spontaneously. That's servanthood.
  • I've seen you honour one another with the precious gift of paying attention. That's love.

Don't ever let anyone persuade you you're missing out by not doing what others do. I was 20 when I became a Christian, so I remember how empty my former life was. I actually became a Christian at a camp like this one, because I could see the love these people had for one another, just as I see it here. The way I expressed it to myself was, "I've never seen people having such a good time, sober." This is not so unbiblical as it sounds. The very first Christian sermon, delivered by Peter right after the Holy Spirit came upon the church at Pentecost and recorded in Acts 2:15-36, begins: "No, we're not drunk -- it's too early for that, the bars aren't open yet!" People saw the joy and excitement of the Christians and attributed it to drunkenness; we know better.

I want to commend you for your love for one another. Now take that love and extend it in service to others. They are like sheep without a shepherd, and that's where all of you become servant leaders.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Moore's Law and the ever-shrinking computer

A friend sent me this 1956 photo with the heading "Guess What This Is?"  I recognized it immediately as some kind of data storage for an early computer.

It's the hard drive for IBM's model 305 RAMAC computer.  It weighed around 1 tonne and stored 5 megabytes of data (equivalent to one JPEG photo from a modern camera).

About 25 years after that photo was taken, I was writing software in an early attempt to automate the complex task of starting up a paper machine. The chosen computer had a 24-bit processor and held 48 megabytes of data on huge interchangeable disk packs. The computer room looked like a kitchen: the computer was the size of a refrigerator, the disk drive the size of a dishwasher, and each disk pack resembled a very large cake cover. The price of the whole system would have bought two 3-bedroom townhouses.

The computer had only one programming language, a crippled version of FORTRAN that limited each  compiled program to 1500 bytes and did not allow subroutines. We got around that by using hundreds of programs that called each other as they terminated.

The budget was limited, so we had to perform tests to determine process conditions for which no sensor had been purchased. The tests took a long time, so in the end our automated approach was no faster that an experienced operator. Still, we managed to publish a paper about our experiences!

Around that time the movie "War Games" was released, about a teenager who accidentally comes close to starting World War III while hacking into what he thinks is a new computer game, but is actually NORAD's war strategy simulator. I show this exciting movie to my students to demonstrate the progress we've made in the past 30 years. 

The War Games sets are packed with early 1980s computer systems.  In one scene, the actors walk through NORAD's computer centre, a cavernous room filled with huge tape drives and computers.  I make my students count the items and estimate their approximate volume.  Then I have them apply Moore's Law to answer the multiple-choice question: "Today, all that computing capability would fit inside a...".  Six years ago, the correct choice of answer was "backpack."  Last year it was "smart phone"  By next year it will be "wristwatch."

Postscript, 2015-01-26: We recently found the "backup logbook" we kept for our home computer, starting in early 1994. We paid $342 for a tape drive and $102 for three tapes, and made backups faithfully once a week. After several years we switched to CD-RWs. Today we back up over our home network to a mirrored server. I'd like to think that our future systems won't have any moving parts, but we've seen a couple of solid-state drives fail badly, so we'll always need backups!