Monday, July 22, 2013

Practice makes... more practice.

I was picking up my new pair of glasses the other day, and ended up explaining my take on the cube to the tech that did the final fit and one of the waiting customers there. I had done the same with the woman that scheduled the optometrists' appointments the previous weekend, and both times I was feeling really on the mark, like delivering good comedy or a convincing musical performance. I was wishing a little bit that I could get somebody else to film me doing this, just because I've never actually seen it, and I'm not entirely convinced I could just fire up a camera on a tripod and run through my schtick for nobody. Part of the reason that it's a little bit different every time is that I usually tend to tailor my responses to the initial questions, and then steer the presentation in to my standard bit when it seems right to do so. I'm not even thinking about that when I'm doing it, it just seems to go that way on its own.

At lunch the subsequent Friday, feeling confident with my new glasses, I got the "how long does it take you/what's your fastest time" questions and I started feeling a little disappointed that that number hadn't really changed much. I answered the rest of their questions and went to eat my lunch. While I ate, reflecting on my good performances the previous day, it occurred to me that it is pretty rare that I work on my speed specifically. What I tend to work on is exactly what I'm doing - explaining the Rubik's cube to people while I'm solving it. If I were using a faster solution method, I wouldn't have enough time to explain it while I was doing it. I also wouldn't have enough spare processing ability to be able to talk while I did some of the more complicated moves, especially at first when I would still be learning them.

So that got me thinking - what we practice is what we do is what we practice. Ok, so that's not worded well. Let's think about this in terms of music for a moment. If you spend all your time practicing by yourself, you can develop considerable technique but you are surrounded by a mostly comfortable situation - your roof, your room, your, idiosyncrasies, your accompaniment (if any), and your lack of an audience. You run the risk of not absorbing new input, and the challenges you face are fairly small and usually self-imposed. This is why for most players there is much value in both teaching and public performance.

The value in teaching others comes from many things. First, it forces us to strengthen our foundation of knowledge on the subject, purely by repetition. Second, we are presented with students that are approaching these ideas with (hopefully) a new mind. Sometimes the fresh perspective is invigorating to the teacher, allowing them to re-approach ideas with a new mind themselves. Sometimes the fresh perspective just helps us re-verify the ideas while we teach them to our students. Sometimes the fresh perspective makes us reevaluate some ideas and throw out some ideas entirely, but this is usually more difficult to do. Third, now we have a reason to communicate ideas back and forth. In our musical example, this would usually be some sort of musical notation. (In the cubing world, I might communicate an idea like R'D'RD'R'D2R'.) In dealing with other persons, both as students and as audience members, we are presented with the concept of hazard. Sometimes there are mistakes, and it is a necessary part of the interaction.

This brings us to the value of performance. In our musical example, we are strengthened by our interactions with other musicians, and it gives us more reason to communicate musical ideas although usually this happens in a more informal way. Instead of using strict musical notation, the ideas may be as simple as a set of lyrics and some chords to go with them. (In the cubing world, talking to other cubers at a competition, I might say, what moves do you use for the Sune and the Y permutation?) The level that the communication takes place at is usually raised by the level of skill of the participants. We are influenced by the different styles, methods, and presentations of our fellow participants, both in other groups and our own group. The outside influences add dimensions to our own ideas that we would not have had in isolation. We are also presented by more aspects of hazard. Will the microphones shock us if it starts raining? Can anybody in the back of the room hear the acoustic guitar? Are we going to remember the new ending that we just rehearsed last month the one time? Is the movie theater going to call and say we're playing too loud? (Cuber example: If I use my faster, looser cube to gain speed do I run the risk of having a piece pop out during a solve?) The best things that we learn from performance are usually not how to avoid hazard, but how to skillfully deal with it.

We must practice so that many things are second nature and we do not have to give those things our attention. We must practice so that when hazard appears we can give it our attention to minimize it. If this is not what we do, if we do not place ourselves in hazard's way, then we are ill-equipped when it finally occurs.

So, for me, for now, that means that I stick with my performance art/comedy bit/one-on-one cubing presentations, since I have a bit that's only designed for a small group of people.

While I'm thinking of it, for those of you that need to read more about the inherent hazards of musical performance, please go read my friend Nikki's blog at

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A missing news tidbit, or, Data is easier to locate when it's codified.

When some guy on YouTube is juggling Rubik's cubes, it seems that I get told about it nearly immediately. I was even reminded about it the other day when I got my oil changed. Somebody saw me with my cube and told me about it - just in case I hadn't seen it. (I blogged about it here.) To be honest - it's kind of amazing to me that it only took a day or two for me to find out about it because in every minute of every day, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. It's a little bit amazing that people can find things there at all, but it's made much easier by the fact that when someone posts a video, there's usually a title, and most of the time there are keywords added and a category attached so that people that might be looking for a certain thing can find it.

So, when Edward Snowden made himself a fugitive last month, nobody told me the really important part of the story and I didn't find out about it until I caught up on episodes of NPR's "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!". I had to find out the really important part when Faith Salie mentioned it. Snowden took four computers, some clothes, and a Rubik's cube with him.

In his defense, if I had to become a fugitive it would be hard for me not to take a cube with me. Faced with hiding out in public parks and hotel room lobbies and warehouses and who knows where else, at least a cube wouldn't be traceable, wouldn't need batteries, and fits in your pocket (sort of). In the article they mention that he used it as an identifying trait for people he was going to meet that hadn't seen him before. This may mean that I will have to stop telling people at work that if they can't remember my name to "just ask for the guy with the cube".

So why didn't I hear about this until Faith mentioned it? Well, part of it may be that that particular facet of the story wasn't revealed at first, so maybe nobody was aware of it until a month ago, and it's my fault that I didn't listen to that episode of "Wait Wait" until this week. Why didn't I hear about it from anybody in person? It's way down in any of the stories about Snowden, not part of the sound bites, and unless you start reading the part where he meets up with the journalist from the Guardian via an elaborate scheme, perhaps you wouldn't have noticed.

It was easy enough to find in a web search - that's how I found the right part of the transcript from "Wait Wait" to link here, and it's how I found the right spot in the article from the Guardian. Once you've turned speech into text, or just have text in the first place, then you have something to work with. That gets me thinking about the part of the Snowden incident that is more likely to have the rest of you concerned but we'll have to start with a thought experiment first.

Go in a store, or some other public place, and look around. Or, think about your workplace during the day. How many people are there, and how many of them are on the phone at any give moment? One in ten? More? Less? Perhaps that's an exaggeration, so we'll aim low, and also to include people that are at home not on the phone and to correct a little for the lower phone activity at night. Let's say that at any given moment, only one person in a thousand is on the phone. (If that number seems low, give me a minute here.) So that means if the population of the United States is 316 million or so, then 316,000 people would be on the phone at any given moment. Since we're going to make the radical assumption that most of these people are calling each other and not outside the country, we're going to divide that number in half. That means that for every minute, if this haphazard model is correct, there are 158,000 minutes of telephone audio generated. That's over 2600 hours every minute - more than 26 times the amount of media uploaded to YouTube. Since it's just audio, it doesn't take up nearly as much space.  With some reasonable compression, if the phone companies wanted to store every phone conversation being made, they probably could - but they would need server capacity on par with YouTube.

Even if you think I estimated low, I still I think it's safe to say that there are hundreds and hundreds of hours of phone conversations taking place every minute of every day. What could someone do with all this data? That totally depends on their ability to search it. Right now,  speech-to-text programs are adequate for some things, especially under good audio conditions, so I'm sure it's relatively easy to have a computer do the first draft of the transcript for a well-engineered radio show. Under typical audio conditions, most speech-to-text programs would prefer a little bit of training. Once it gets worse than that, could a computer decipher the dropped packets and field noise of a poorly routed cell phone call or would they have to put a human on it? Yes, I realize that they can do profiling from the CallerID information and decide what to look at and what not to look at and narrow this down to who they really need to listen in on. However, you still have the disadvantage of not having keyword tags and a title like a YouTube video does. If someone thought they were being listened in on, they could start calling from other numbers, or start making a lot of mundane calls about nothing, or start including highly searched keywords in every phone call.  Penn Jillette references the early days of email being searched and what to do about it when he breaches this topic on his podcast. (See episode 69, "Frank and father's got nothin' to hide".) George Carlin refrences a friend of his in one of his routines who always initiated a phone call by swearing at J. Edgar Hoover since it was assumed that the FBI was listening in. (See the bit "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" from the album "Class Clown".)

But my point, and I seem to not have exactly made it so far, is that even if the government is technically listening in on everything I think there's a practical limit to how much they're able to pay attention to. Otherwise, somebody would have called me sooner to let me know about this Rubik's cube thing.

(Thanks, Faith.)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cubing in Public, Federal Holiday Edition

I suspected something was up when SuperMonkeyWife got ready in the kid's bathroom instead of ours, although I did not discover that there was a broken shower head in our bathroom until later.

My first though was that I should peruse the local drugstores. At least they're open on the 4th, and I didn't really want to go to Walmart and stand in line behind all the people getting beer and sparklers.  Since I tend not to spend more than $20 on a shower head and I didn't really need anything fancy other than having the detachable head, whatever might be at the drugstore would likely be acceptable. (If you're wondering, the part that fails on the plastic ones is the piece that you hang the detachable head on. The repeated stress of hanging the shower head back on it eventually cracks it in its weakest point. I am not convinced that buying a more expensive shower head will prolong this failure long enough to make up for the additional expense.) I asked the clerk at CVS where a shower head might be, and he walked to the aisle I already perused. Plungers, yes. Sink stoppers, yes. Fluorescent light bulbs, for sure. No shower heads.

As we're walking back towards the aisle, he noticed me twiddling the cube in my hand and suggested that he could fix it for me. I asked him how fast he was, sincerely hoping that I've found a real cuber at last, and he wasn't sure how to answer the question right away. Without waiting for him to try to formulate an answer, I told him that I average just under 40 seconds and he seemed impressed. Then I had to lay on him the heavy news that 40 seconds wouldn't even get me in the senior division and that there are kids in  California that are averaging under 15 seconds. I showed him a typical solve, and then I did a second one for his coworker up front. His coworker made the "the best I ever did was three sides" comment that I've already complained about in a previous Holiday Cubing post. However, they seemed like nice guys and I didn't feel like calling him out on the three sides thing. While I was talking to them, and they were still capably handling customers, one of their customers took interest in what I'm doing and commented about how he used to be able to do it, but he can't now. (I'm surprised that I haven't complained about that particular thing in a previous post.) He asked if I can explain it, and I went through my usual bit about the centers not moving relative to each other, and about how there's a one-to-one correspondence between the pieces and their eventual locations, and it seemed unsatisfying. He wants to know if there's like, a thing I can just tell him that will subsequently allow him to solve the cube. I tried to make clear that there isn't and explained that it took a couple of weekends for Will Smith to learn how to solve a cube for "The Pursuit of Happyness". He asked me for the cube, so he could show me that he could do a side - except that he fell victim to the classic blunder of getting involved in a land war in Asia.

No, that wasn't it.

His classic blunder was that he completed a side, but not the layer. For someone who had a) claimed to have previously solved the cube and b) had just watched me explain the bit about the centers and how they determine what goes where, I didn't expect him to revert to working without any of that information. He was also a bit shaky, having put himself on the spot, and I know firsthand that that doesn't lead to efficient cubing. As soon as he finished the side he asked about solving the rest of the cube from there, and I had to take it back from him and re-complete the side so that it was a complete layer and explained again why that had to be that way. I showed him the move to insert edges into the middle layer three times, more slowly each time and then walked him through the move the fourth time. I rushed through the remainder of the cube, eager to get out and see if the other drugstore on that corner had a shower head. No dice.

After the second shopping failure, I relented and went to Walmart.  I got a shower head, along with a few other necessities. I also poked my head in Gamestop since I was over that way. At Gamestop, instead of getting to talk to my usual clerk, I got the shift manager instead. Having the cube in my hand gave him some sort of flashback from 1981 where he won $10 from a friend of his for solving the cube. He said it took him 57 minutes and change, and I heard my usual clerk suggesting to the manager that he was just making up numbers. I had a list of games that I was considering, but I couldn't make a clear decision because the manager was too chatty and wasn't making any sense to me (although it's equally possible I didn't make any sense to him).  Thinking I needed to worry more about dinner, I leave without getting anything and ponder the idea that someone solved a Rubik's cube in just under an hour.

Assuming one had any sort of a system at all, there are only 20 pieces to solve. Let's get really crazy and suggest that they're only making one turn every 10 seconds, so an average of 6 turns a minute. So, that's a solved cube in 342 moves, or  17 face turns per piece. By comparison, the lower bound is 1 face turn per piece for the 3x3x3 cube if solved by computer. A good speedcuber is using a solution that is somewhere in the neighborhood of 45-60 turns, or 3 face turns per piece. My corners first method might be 70-80 moves, or 4 face turns per piece. The Nourse method would put you somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-120 moves, or 5-6 face turns per piece, unless you're super unlucky. So, with 17 face turns per piece, the solution must be so complicated and esoteric that perhaps it would stand to reason that you would forget it, or it was somehow an example of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, or it was utter baloney.

I will leave the determination of the scenario as an exercise for the reader.