Carl Banks' Blog

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Time to watch the Simpsons

This fall, I've decided to do something I haven't done in more than ten years: I'm going to watch a full (all-new) episode of the Simpsons.

I distinctly remember the last time I saw the Simpsons: it was 1999 and I was in a Penn State dining hall. It was the one where Mr. Burns masqueraded as a doped-up alien.

When I was at Penn State, the Simpsons was the show. If the Simpsons was on any channel in the lineup back then, every public TV would be showing it (the only exceptions to the rule being football games and this movie). And since I had to eat, and since the dining halls had public TVs, I ended up seeing it pretty often.

Back then I expected maybe three or four more years out of the Simpsons, since it clearly wasn't as good as it had been in the early 90s. At some point I probably uttered something under my breath like, "I'm never watching the Simpons again. Well maybe if it's still on ten years from now (yeah right) I give it another try."

I don't know if I uttered those exact words, but it has been ten years, it's still on, and so I will give it another try.

Looks like seasons typically start around the end of September. I will keep this blog post updated.


I watched the Simpsons on October 3, 2010; first time I watched a full episode in more than a decade. Because I haven't watched it in so long, I am uniquely qualified to assess how well the show is now compared to how it was ten or more years ago, since I am not biased by ten years of new shows in between. Admittedly this is a small sample size, but here's my verdict:

No, it's not as good. The Simpsons characters always seemed to be stereotypes to me and not real people, but now they seem to be nothing more than substrates to carry jokes. Nothing remotely made me go, "Ha, that's so Homer" or "That's so Bart", but I had lots of "Marge being Marge again" moments.

And the show is still using the same old storylines. I'm not sure if I happened to watch the first episode in ten years implying a Lisa/Nelson romance, or if it's a running thing.

Nevertheless I did chuckle a few times, meaning it's still better than a lot of shows out there.

Tags: television, the_simpsons
Last Edited: 4 October 2010, 10:17 PM
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States I've visited

Map of the of states I've been to, color coded according to how often:

I've been to every state in the continental US except Rhode Island and Delaware. The state I've spent the least amount of time in are Michigan (just a layover at the Detroit airport) and Idaho (train ride across the panhandle).

Besides these states, the only other places I've visited are the Province of Ontario in Canada, and the Mexican State of Sonora. I've been all around the United States but don't get to other countries much.

Most extreme compass point locations for me (not counting time aboard airplanes, though I'd guess that wouldn't make a difference):

  • North: a point near Glacier National Park in Montana
  • South: Miami, Florida
  • East: Portland, Maine
  • West: Portland, Oregon
Tags: map, states_ive_visited
Last Edited: 3 October 2010, 3:46 PM
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Medium risk fourth down play

One of the things about football that I always thought could be improved upon was the limited options for fourth down.

If it's fourth down, and you are too far away to kick a field goal, there are only two options:

  1. Low risk: punt
  2. High risk: attempt to convert

Problem is, there's a big gap between the options. Roughly speaking, a punt will give your opponent the ball around 40 yards downfield but you give up the possibility of a conversion (not counting turnovers). Going for it on (say) a 4th and 3 is going to be converted about 50% of the time, but if you fail to convert the opponent gets the ball right there.

Right now, head coaches go for the low-risk option (punt) probably 95% of the time on fourth down. That's pretty boring. Having a medium-risk option might encourage coaches to take more risks on fourth down, leading to much more excitement. For instance, say it's 4th and 5 on the 50. Most coaches will punt in this situation. But what if there was an medium risk option? You have a 25% chance of converting, but if you don't the opponent gets the ball maybe 20 yards downfield, on their 30. I think some coaches might try that in that situation.

But what would such a medium-risk play look like?

When I asked this question in, I got an interesting suggestion in this thread: the person who receives the snap could roll out and bat the ball downfield with something like a volleyball serve, and it would be played more or a less like a fumble. I think there would have to be some limits on when a team could recover a batted ball (the ball should not peak higher than ten feet above the field, and would it have to hit the ground first).

The following table summarizes the risk tradeoff for these three options.

Option Risk Level Typical Conversion Rate Where opponent gets the ball if conversion fails
Punt Low 0% 40 yards downfield
Go for it High 50% Right there
Bat Medium 25% 20 yards downfield

Anyway, I'm not sure there wouldn't be drawbacks to this sort of volleyball bat play (like maybe too much risk of opponent returning the bat, or too much injury risk), but a play that could add a medium-risk option to fourth down I think would really add to the excitement of the game.

Tags: football, risk, sports
Last Edited: 12 September 2010, 4:31 AM
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Facebook -> Account -> Privacy Settings -> Applications and Websites -> Turn off all platform applications.

Tags: blocked, facebook, happiness
Last Edited: 28 August 2010, 2:44 PM
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Finished the Divine Comedy

Every so often I'll see a little clip or summary of some work that will evoke some sort of deep interest in me, and not merely grab my attention. Somehow from that small bit of information I know this will be a work I'll appreciate, and I am usually right. Such was the case for the Divine Comedy by Dante. As soon as I learned what it was about I pretty much had to read it someday.

It's really tough reading, however, and I didn't finish my first couple attempts at it. I finally got a good verse translation (I can't stand prose translations) to read on my Amazon Kindle (John Ciardi), which is not to say it was any easier reading. But this time I pushed through. (This was facilitated, in part, by my car being out of order for three months. I had plenty of reading time busing to work every day.)

I don't think the overall style of the poem could match me better. Pretty much everything in it was something I enjoyed. The structured, well-thought-out hierarchy of the world, the breadth of cultural allusions (although all the Florentine allusions were a bit too much), the allusions to science and astronomy, the fantastic imagery, and a lot of deep symbolism (about half of which I missed, and the other half I was only alerted to by footnotes). It lacked some of the annoyances many poems have, like wailing self-pity (except for one small part in Earthly Paradise).

But my favorite aspect of the poem was Dante's willingness to break form. In fact, it seemed like he broke form an optimal number of times, just enough so that one couldn't make any sort of sweeping generalizations. Every location he went was like the other locations, yet unique in its own way. This gave the poem an uncanny aura of realism in spite of the fantastic setting.

My favorite such diversion happened in Purgatorio, on the terrace where the Saved souls did their pennance for Sloth. Throughout the poem, Dante and his guide (Virgil or Beatrice) would stop to talk with the people wherever they went, and those people generally had a lot to say. But when Dante arrived at the Terrace of Sloth, the souls didn't stay to talk, since their pennance was to run around the terrance non-stop. The souls would only run by, identify themselves, and run off. So, Dante and Virgil spent their time on that terrance talking between themselves. Dante the Poet wasn't afraid to break the form of his story, even though talking to people in the next world was one of the most important aspects of the story.

All in all a very good read. If you're in a mood for some really tough reading I highly recommend it.

Tags: dante, divine_comedy, literature
Last Edited: 18 August 2010, 9:36 PM
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Fish Tacos

Give someone a boiled peanut and tell them it's a boiled peanut, they'll be like, "This is disgusting". Give that same person a boiled peanut and tell them it's a bean that tastes peanuty, they'll be like, "This is pretty good." It's sad that people are so mentally jailed by their own expectations.

Fish tacos are good unless:

  1. you don't like fish
  2. you don't like tacos
  3. you have mental impediment

We might also note that fish tacos are not the same kind of tacos you eat in a crispy corn shell with ground beef, lettuce, and shredded cheese, in case anyone doesn't know. (I could see that being a little weird.) Fish tacos are actual Mexican tacos, which means fish, shredded veggies, a squeeze of lemon or lime, and a bit of salsa or avocado maybe, on soft corn tortillas. Lots of people who claim to hate fish tacos would love it if you threw the same ingredients on a bun and called it a fish sandwich, or if you serve it without the tortilla and call it fish slaw. Hell, if you serve you serve it with a tortilla, i.e., the exact same dish, and called it fish slaw.

Tags: boiled_peanuts, fish_tacos, food, tacos
Last Edited: 8 August 2010, 7:53 PM
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Papers I've Written for School

These are some academic papers I've written for school, all for Aerospace Engineering courses. Although none of these are genuine research, nor were any published in journals, I have encountered an occasional proceedings or business publication that cites the web version of these papers.

Searching for Lyapunov Functions using Genetic Progamming (PDF Version §)
Here, I present genetic programming as a possible general method for finding Lyapunov functions. (Lyapunov functions are functions by which one can prove the stability of a nonlinear dynamic system.) This paper describes genetic programming, and how it can be used to find Lyapunov functions. This paper demonstrates that genetic programming is at least worth a better look. I now realize that there is a grave oversight in this method as I've implemented it, although the fix is obvious. [AOE 5984, Nonlinear Control, Virginia Tech]
Self-Tuning Control with Control Allocation (PDF Version †)
This investigates adaptive control: namely self-tuning control which uses parameter identification to determine control effectiveness for use in control allocation. This project is one of the main reasons I decided to abandon my research on on-line parameter identification. After doing this work, I no longer think on-line parameter identification is that important. [ECE 6414, Adaptive Control, Virginia Tech]
A Discussion of Methods of Real-Time Airplane Flight Simulation (PDF Version ‡, slightly modified from what I turned in)
This what the scholarly paper which was a part of my Master's Degree requirements. There are some annoying errors in it, but it's mostly quite detailed and accurate. It describes mathematics and computer implementation of flight simulation.
Composite V-22 Blade Design
Documents my unsuccessful attempt to design a V-22 rotor blade whose shape adapts to the flight condition (hover or propeller) using anisotropic effects of fiber-reinforced composites. Because rotor speed, and thus the centrifugal force, is much higher in hover mode, I wanted to use the extra force to twist the blade into an optimal shape. [Aerospace 597I: Behavior of Advanced Structures, Penn State]
Helicopter Dynamic Stability
In this paper, I do an analysis of helicopter dynamic modes. I am a little amazed that I managed this one, and I think my professor was, too. There's some really advanced stuff in there. As for the results, I doubt their accuracy. They look quasi-reasonable, but I suspect there was a mistake lurking in my code. (Incidentally, although I had to have put at least 30 hours into this project, I whistled through the whole thing. Dynamics just interests me.) [Aerospace 504: V/STOL Aerodynamics, Penn State]
Boundaray Layers
A brief explanation of how boundary layers can really simplify the complicated incompressible Navier-Stokes equations of fluid dynamics. [Aerospace 508: Fundamentals of Fluid Dynamics, Penn State]
The Hodograph Transformation
I describe the hodograph transformation, which is an interesting analytical technique whereby certain nonlinear equations in aerodynamics can be transformed into linear equations. [Aerospace 597D: Topics in Applied Aerodynamics, Penn State]
Project Asterius: Mission to Europa
Here is a report I wrote with my spacecraft design team: Amy Briggs, Becky Carver, Patrick Morinelli, Brian Sarsfield, and Mark Newey. It descibes our design for a Europa Lander. We all learned a lot, and had a lot fun, but our design methodology was utterly terrible. I can't bring myself to read the report any more. [Aerospace 402B: Spacecraft Design, Penn State]
Tags: aerospace_engineering, flight_simulation, papers
Last Edited: 6 August 2010, 1:48 AM
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Three months in Los Angeles without a car

It can be done.

Today I got my car back after two months in the shop after a month sitting in my garage unused (when I was too busy to attend to it). [1]

But I want to make it clear that good public transit was a big part of my decision where to move to where I live now (Santa Monica), and that my job is fortuitously right across from a bus terminal on the other end of the line. [2] In fact, I had been taking the bus to work for about a month before my car's transmission started to go. Around the same time I had a big project at work that was nearing a deadline, and so I never got around to taking the car in for service till a month later.

So for that month and the next two, I took buses (and, in a couple cases, a train) everywhere. Granted, I don't exactly have a vibrant social life, and I have a lot of the stores I need within a few blocks of my apartment. Also, I found that at no point did I have a need to hit anything like a Target [3], which would have been a pain. But the bus was able to get me where I needed to go: doctor's appointments, destinations here and there, and downtown L.A.

So, the next time someone tells you it's impossible to live in L.A. without a car, I am proof that it's definitely possible.

Still, I'm really happy to finally have the car back. In fact, I was so happy I went to the supermarket and filled up a whole cart.


[1]Two months in the shop was for three reasons, 1. I have a Saturn, and my repairs were covered under warranty, but there aren't any Saturn dealers left near where I live, so I had to take it to a non-Saturn GM dealer, which means they had wait for parts to come in, 2. rather than ordering parts for both repairs I needed at the same time, they ordered the second set of parts after the first repairs, 3. the guy fixing my car took a one-week vacation where nothing was done, and 4. they didn't call me when it was done so it sat finished for a week.
[2]Or was, rather. You knew that as soon as I found such an arrangement my company was going to find a way to mess it up. Soon after I moved, they moved my desk to a building two miles down the road. But since all my work remains in my old building, I work in that old building in a lab, for now.
[3]At least not until two days before I got the car back.
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Nickling and Diming

One of the main complaints consumers have is about companies who "nickle and dime" them all the time, meaning that they charge small fees for a bunch of things that aren't part of the up-front, advertised cost. Airlines charge fees for baggage, food, and earphones that aren't part of the ticket prices. Banks and credit cards charge all sorts of financing and usage feeds. Hotels charge for extra blankets. And so on.

Personally, I say bring it on.

First of all, we have to address a common myth. People think that companies resort to nickling and diming in order to squeeze out every little bit of profit they can, no matter how petty. Although it's true that the goal of nickling and diming is to increase profits, the idea isn't to profit directly off of petty things.

The fact is, these companies already know how much money to charge so as to maximize their profit margin (or, for airlines, to minimize their losses). Nickling and diming customers will acutally reduce their margins, unless the price increase is offset by a lower base price. And that is exactly what the real purpose of nickling and diming is: to allow those companies to charge less money for their basic service while maintaining their margins.

"But isn't that false marketing?" you ask.

Well, yes, sometimes it is, when the fee is unavoidable. But here's the thing: most nickle and dime fees aren't unavoidable. They're mostly for add-ons: optional amenities on top of the basic service.

Personally, I hardly ever use these optional amenities, and I'm rather happy to know I'm not subsidizing other customers' usage. In fact, I sometime rue how many amenities the basic service includes, thinking how many dollars I could have saved if I didn't have to subsidize those amenities for other customers (especially in hotels). And, when I do use optional services, I'm happy to pay for my own consumption, rather than burden other customers with it. The sword cuts both ways for me.

I don't deny that the actual economics is more complicated than I've presented here, nor that there are many shady uses for the "hidden fee". But the bottom line is, most of the time, nickling and diming customers reduces my price. So I say, more nickling and diming.

Tags: capitalism, consumer, economics, nickling_and_diming
Last Edited: 23 July 2010, 6:44 PM
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Nonfiction Book Title Rules

Nonfiction is one of the most popular genres of books sold today. It's also the genre with the absolute least amount of imagination when it comes to book titles. In fact, all nonfiction titles follow five basic rules.

Rule 1: All nonfiction books must have both a title and subtitle.

There are no exceptions to this rule. All nonfiction, every single book ever published, adheres to this rule.

Rule 2: The title will be in one of these three forms:

  1. <single_proper_noun_or_name>

  2. <optional_definite_article> <option_proper_noun> <noun> <preposition> the <noun_phrase>

  3. <adjective> <plural_or_collective_noun>

Rule 3: The subtitle will be in one of these five forms:

  1. A <adjective> Look at the World of <noun> in <optional location>

  2. The Story/Untold Story/Tragedy/Triumph/Defeat/Victory/Lessons of the <optional_proper_noun> <noun> in <optional_location>

  3. How the <proper_noun> Expedition/Voyage/Incident/Experiment/War <optional_prepositional_phrase> Changed the World/Ended Slavery/Is Destroying America

  4. A Journey into <abstract_place>

  5. The Day/Night/Hour <something_bad_happened>

Rule 4: Only the subtitle is allowed to identify the book's contents.

The title alone should never, ever be sufficient to allow someone to guess what the book is about. Preferrably, the title shouldn't have anything to do with the contents except in the most abstract, metaphorical sense.

Rule 5: The word "secret" may appear anywhere in the title or subtitle even if it violates Rules 2 and 3.

That's it: these five rules are sufficient to cover the title of all nonfiction books ever published. Let's take a look at some examples of valid titles.

  • Great Bass: A Comprehensive Look at the World of Fly-Fishing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado
  • Dark Valleys: The Untold Story of the Fall of the Amazon Hunter
  • Men of the Tundra: How the Chadwick Expedition Changed the World
  • The Pendregoth Scandal: A Journey into the Secret Dark Mind of Barry Goodfellow
  • Frozen Blankets: The Night the Cold Came to Okruk
  • Bronze Rain: Lessons of the Ambush in Chicketaw Valley
  • Broken Eggshells: How the War of America's Youth on our Police Force is Destroying America
  • Thomas Jefferson: A Journey into the Secret Life of the Slaves at Monticello
  • Secret Sailors of the Silent Service: How the Bluefin Voyage Changed the World
Tags: lack_of_imagination, nonfiction_titles
Last Edited: 15 July 2010, 2:35 AM
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Viewing all blog posts (Page 7 of 10)