Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Quote board

I usually write notable quotes on the whiteboard in my office, which over the course of the semester accumulates a border of these snippets of wit and strangeness. This semester we transferred to a remote-everything model in which people still say strange things. So the metaphorical whiteboard has still been accumulating quotes; I copied down all the actual whiteboard quotes before abandoning my office for plague-avoidance reasons.

D: "This head's got a lot of other s*** in it."
L: "It really doesn't."

L: "Where those ninjas at"

A: "Life is an endless series of we trying to entangle things"

Z: "That sentence is surprisingly technically correct."

Z: "It is oftentimes the case that if people in my class don't learn what I'm teaching, they learn a valuable lesson instead."

D: "Dude, our network can't support five baboons!"

M: "I promise I'm not evil, but I do blame you for the development of my evil thinking skill!"

K, on our first Zoom call: "I just think that it's a lot easier to get things done if we're in-person." DUH

Z: "It's not an instructional cooking show. It's a show of me, cooking."

D: "saber-tooth tigers or gtfo"

I: "Damn you, linguistic prescriptivism. I cannot be free."

Y: ""It's never been written down.  It was just kind of something I was told.": every long-standing Swarthmore College policy"

I: "This is the co-recognizer sleight-of-hand where you make the looping go into the co-recognizing part." (I'm charmed by the idea of co-recognizable sleight-of-hand, where it sometimes fails and that's all you care about, not the successes! It's a magican's trick that is broken!)

L: "Sounds like a corner store in Mordor."

Q: "Quarantine is the perfect time to take up falconry."

O: "I had a lot of thoughts, but then I came up with a proof and the thoughts went away."

Q: "I started eating it as a power move"

S1: "Imagine a room that is a perfect cube..."
S2: "I can't imagine anything! I've been inside too long!"

I: "the dangers of emerging from my small, hegemonic area of dominion"

K: “I picture you as a birdlike person with twigs for bones”

Q: "my main photo editor is Microsoft Word... graphic design is a passion"

S: "I think we're a department of pretty reasonable people. Externally."
Q: "Internally, all bets are off."

I: "You don't have to share my feelings about math, but... nothing you've done is wrong. Yet."
L: "That's what we love to hear."
C: "It's been years since I saw this many numbers."

L: "This is so much worse than proving that something IS big O of something."

O: "I'll just be a Piazza fool."

K: "I accept that your answer is unconventionally correct."
I: "That's the best kind! [maniacal laughter]"

Z: "I had mistakenly thought that in our whole system, the section with the most history would have their... act together. [But instead they have] The most trash fire!"

S: "We should not be planning to kill ourselves to this extent."

Z: "I should've been thinking..."
J: "We should get that on a shirt for you."
Z: "Cruel but justified."
Q "... and that's on the back."

I: "I obviously shouldn't be in charge of the world's supply of moon rocks."

It's been a long and strange semester, conducted half in isolation and yet with much more explicit acknowledgments of the Interactions That Matter. Thanks everyone for sticking with it this long, and for chatting with me even though I am badly-surreptitiously taking notes and writing down your quotes as we go.


This post's theme word is kythe (v tr), "to make known; to manifest; to show; to declare." I kythe that the spring 2020 semester is over!

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Not enough flamingos

There were a lot of landscapers cleaning up this yard, but I walked by too late to see what must have been an incredible Flamingo Setup Period.
an unlikelihood of flamingos

This post's theme word is homochromatic (adj), "having one color." The hovering flamingos provided an ambient homochromatic layer of unlikely pink.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Reality dissonance in POV

One of the continually fascinating and renewed interesting things about being... alive? Just about being a person, just about being, is of course that my first-person experience is incredibly different from everyone else's impression of me.

Obviously yes: how could it be anything else? I have access to lots of extra internal state information, plus the impression of free will to affect my actions. And on the other hand, everyone else can see information hidden from me, for example bugs crawling on the back of my head, or involuntary nervous tics.

Obviously no: whoever I am, that's who I am. Who I feel I am is who I appear to be, it's just that there's a change of perspective. How could they be different? There's only one objective reality, and we're in it. I'm myself and you see me; when I take an action, you see it. This is consensus reality, and no one has yet been able to escape it (as far as we know).

Every once in awhile the contrast of perspectives is thrown into sharp relief, and I just had one of these moments of reality-dissonance.

Here I am, innocently tootling along and doing a language-learning exercise which is trying to teach me new Japanese vocabulary. It brought up a word I definitely think I do not know --- "stylish" (adj), "oshare(na)" --- and I look it up. As soon as I pronounce it aloud, I start to rap in Japanese in my head. Why? Well, it turns out that 15 years ago I memorized some Japanese pop-rap entirely phonetically, with no regard for word breaks, grammar, or in fact content, and not only does my brain still have that stored somewhere (team: Never Garbage Collect), but it is still indexed by phonetic lookup and also immediately available. And also, now that I am hearing the sounds I memorized in my head, my brain is cross-referencing with a lot of new vocabulary I've learned in the past year and translating the rap.

I look down. My phone screen has not yet timed out, so this entire revelation - realization - translation phenomenon has taken < 30 seconds. And now I just know a verse, in English, of a series of noises I memorized without linguistic structure 15 years ago.

This just happens, sometimes.

I have been told that I give the impression of being "quick", very clever, very smart, always ready with an answer and a call-back reference. Intelligent. The first-person experience of this is that I am strapped in to an involuntary rollercoaster, my brain whipping me through tangentially-relevant memories in a barely-controllable whirlwind. It's just lucky that I set myself up in situations where "here's a  related memory" so often contains the nugget of truth that I need right now.

Also possibly I am dissociating because it feels very unreal to be still performing my extremely socialization-based job but also to be completely isolated from all other humans.

Hello from my isolation to yours!


This post's theme word is mimsy (adj), "prim, feeble, affected." This blog post gives the impression of a mimsy humblebrag: oops.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Jokes about finite automata

I try to lighten test anxiety by making my exams (1) feasible in time-constraints, (2) interesting, and (3) fun.

Yes, that's right, actual students (many of them!) have reported after taking them that tests are fun in my classes.

One thing that I do fairly consistently is to offer 1 bonus point at the end of the test if the student writes a joke. Usually I ask for a joke that is about the content that was being examined in the test, but I accept even the weirdest CS-themed puns.

The prompt was: Write a joke about finite automata.



Actual jokes according to my own peculiar sense of humor:

  • How much does an automaton weigh? An automaTON
  • Why did the NFA go to 4 corners? So it could be in multiple states at a time.
  • How did the NFA choose which classes to take? It took all of them, and then picked the ones it liked best.
  • We're all computers (b/c we answer yes + know)
  • Q: What do you call a robot working in the winter coat department? A: A push-down automaton.
  • "Want to hear a joke? DFA" - a rather mean-spirited Turing machine, probably.

Some people wrote a thing which was definitely on the part of the paper where I requested a joke:


  • Can't think of one, can you choose the best answer nondeteministically?
  • Why did the PDA get in trouble? He was on his PDA in class.
  • Finite automata are so finite that even humans get them.
  • I couldn't come up with a finite automata in the finite amount of time of the test. 

The prize for overall best joke that will definitely stay funny in new ways as the semester continues goes to this one:


"How does a finite automata decide where to eat? It accepts nondeterministically wherever it will be the most satisfied."


This post's theme word is metathesis (n), "the transposition of letters, sounds, or syllables in a word, for example aks for ask." The regular languages are probably closed under metathesis, if we cared to rigorously define that operation.

Monday, February 17, 2020

What is the worst security account question?

I take attendance by having the students answer a question.

What is the worst account security question? (Previously: 2016.)

Students came up with some bad ones, mostly classics:

  • name of 1st pet
  • favorite teacher's name
  • what is your name
  • hometown/first school
  • your password
  • hometown
  • I hate all of them
  • mother's maiden name is a classic
  • first vacation
  • what is you username?
  • where were you born
  • first job
  • what street did you grow up on?
  • 1st pet name?
The only outlier was the unusually-personally-invasive:
  • What was the first name of the first boy or girl you kissed?


This post's theme word is elutriate (v tr), "to purify or separate, especially by washing or straining." The account security question did nothing to elutriate spurious logins from authentic ones.