Larry Hosken. Technical writer. Puzzlehunt enthusiast.
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My Virtual Stars

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I like rewarding my students. Before covid, I used to give them star stickers for good ideas. When I started to teach remotely, I wondered what I should do instead. I could tell them that they had won a star, but it felt too weak. The next idea was to show them a star and tell them that it belonged to them. But that still felt insufficient. Then I had an epiphany. I would say to them they earned a star, show it to them, and stick it to my face. So they, and all the other students, would see it for the rest of the class. The photo shows how I looked at the end of a successful lesson.

Tanya getting a prize at a linguistics Olympiad

Another picture shows what my MathRoots students posted on our Discord channel.

Students about Tanya's stars

Now that I am back teaching in person, my students asked me to continue sticking their stars to my face. Sometimes I forget about the stars and, after my class, wander around MIT star-covered.


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lahosken
1 day ago
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San Francisco, USA
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Canadian election mechanics, an immigrant engineer’s view

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Canada held a national election 10 days ago. I have watched and voted in US elections for 40 years — first in California, where I spent my early adulthood, and later Washington state. I have been watching elections in Canada for 15 years, since I immigrated in 2005. I first voted here in 2017, after becoming a citizen. But in this election, on 20. September 2021, I served as a poll worker for the first time. This gave me an insider’s view of how this election was run. As an engineer, I love the process and methods in use around me. I can’t resist writing down some of the differences in election mechanics, between this Canadian election, and the California and Washington election mechanics which I have experienced.

One issue. This election was about one issue: electing members to a national Parliament. There were no other races. Nothing from the province or city. By contrast, the US elections I know usually piled multiple races and initiative questions into a single election and a single ballot.

Elections Canada specimen ballot, with fictional candidate names
Sample Canadian national election ballot (Source: Elections Canada training manual)

A small, simple ballot. The ballot was a single slip of paper, slightly larger than the palm of my hand. The only issue was the general election to the Parliament. Canada’s current electoral system, the archaic “First-past-the-post” system, meant that voters at my location voted only on candidates for one electoral district. The above sample has four names, but our ballot had five names.

Very manual ballot marking. A voter filled out the ballot with a pencil or pen. They put an “X” or check-mark or solid fill-in in one of the circles. Then the voter folded the ballot back up, and (after tearing off a stub) put the ballot in the ballot box themselves. By contrast, for Washington elections the voter must fill in a space on the ballot in a way that a scanning machine can read. (The same is true for Vancouver municipal elections.) In California, I sometimes filled in scannable marks on a paper ballot, and sometimes tapped in choices on a voting machine’s computer screen.

One elections office. All the voting in this election, nationwide, was operated by a single office, Elections Canada. A separate organisation, Elections B.C., runs provincial elections, and a city department runs Vancouver municipal elections. By contrast, in both California and Washington, election operations are delegated to county-level elections offices. These offices run elections for municipal, county, statewide, and national races. In the US, I currently vote through the services of the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office.

Very specific geographical ballot boxes. Elections Canada divided the electoral districts into small, local “poll divisions”, each with a specific voting desk and ballot box. I was the Deputy Returning Officer for Poll Division 125 of Electoral District 59034 (Vancouver Centre). This corresponded to two condo towers, one on Robson Street and one on Hamilton Street. People at those addresses voted at my desk. If they waited in line, they waited with their neighbours. People at other addresses voted elsewhere. I was located in a room in the Vancouver Public Library’s main branch. Our room had perhaps 10 voting desks and 12 poll divisions. Some desks and ballot boxes embraced two poll divisions. One curious side effect of this is that some voting desks had long lines, and some had none, depending on how many neighbours turned out to vote. There was no taking the next open voting booth of several equivalents, as in California. And of course, Washington has 100% mail-in voting, so it is much different.

Very voter-friendly rules. As right-wing politicians in various US states try to set up voting rules to exclude participation by citizens they don’t want, it was refreshing to see Elections Canada operate by voter-friendly rules. Voters could register on election day. Voters who had moved but not updated themselves on our registry could update their address on the voter rolls. And in particular…

Voter ID was not evil. In the US, requiring voters to show identification is branded as a right-wing tool for voter suppression. This works by limiting the acceptable identification to a short list which the suppressed voters are less likely to have. In contrast, Elections Canada accepted documents from a long and very flexible list as identification. And, for voters who had none of those documents, they could still vote if another voter vouched for them.

Very manual ballot counting. At the end of the voting day, we closed our doors to voters, and then spent an hour counting the votes in our ballot box by hand. As Deputy Returning Officer, I cut open my corrugated cardboard ballot box, and read each ballot myself. Another poll worker, who had other duties during the day, sat beside me and tallied the votes — and provided a check that I was not misreading. We then recounted and double-checked all ballots. We packaged ballots up into a series of envelopes, by hand, and sealed then signed each. We filled out a paper form with the Statement of the Vote for our poll division, by hand, making three carbonless copies.

Very manual results aggregation. How did the results get to Elections Canada, for aggregation into overall riding results? By the supervisor of my location calling the district office of Elections Canada, then coming to my desk, reading the numbers from my Statement of the Vote form to the district office. There was shouting to be heard over background noise. There was a frustrated repeating of misheard numbers. There was nary a web-hosted tally form in sight.

Security through simplicity, wide delegation, and many eyes. Of the 52,039 ballots cast in Vancouver Centre, 120 were cast in my polling division’s ballot box. I know exactly how many votes each candidate got. One the three copies of the Statement of the Vote form came home with me. And, I was present in the election room all day. All the ballot boxes in the room were sealed and on public display. I have high confidence that there was no gross tampering or ballot-box stuffing at our location. (In contrast to, say, this reporter’s experience at polling places in Tatarstan during the recent Russian election.) I am confident that no voting machine misrecorded votes, because there was no voting machine. I know that voters verified what their ballot said, because the ballot is simple, and each voter controlled the marks on their own ballot. Now there are limits to my confidence. I don’t have visibility into how Elections Canada aggregated my results into the total of 52,039. I wish that I could see a preliminary report of polling division results, to check against what I wrote in my form, before the results are declared final. But overall, I could verify more of the leaf nodes of the election tree in Canada than I could in Washington or California.

A very, very long day. The flip side of simplicity is lots of manual work. The downside (one of many) to holding an election during a pandemic is that many people who would ordinarily take the poll worker job declined. Elections Canada was scrambling for poll workers. My spouse and I signed up in part because we were younger, vaccinated, and thus less at risk; we felt we had a patriotic duty to step in. But they wanted us to work the whole day. We reported at 05:30h, and weren’t released until about 22:00h. We had only one meal break, and a couple of bio breaks. It was an interesting day. It was a fulfilling day. But boy, it was a looooong day.

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lahosken
16 days ago
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Puzzle testing

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For the past two years, I’ve helped a friend prepare for his annual puzzlehunt. As the test coordinator, my role is a little harder to explain than if I were authoring puzzles or promoting the event. I found myself drawing a lot of parallels to tech industry work, so I decided to write up some thoughts on why I chose this approach and how well it’s been working so far.

Puzzlehunt formats vary, but in contrast to traditional puzzles like crosswords and sudoku, they don’t come with instructions on what you need to do. Also, unlike escape rooms, there isn’t generally a staff member attending to you at all times, actively facilitating your gameplay to keep things moving along. That means that in addition to checking for puzzle correctness, you need to find out where people tend to get stuck and then either revise the puzzle itself or write relevant hints. It’s a tricky balance between being vague enough to give the players room for creativity, exploration, and learning, and being specific enough that they can tell they’re on the right track and don’t flounder around too long.

What kind of testing does PuzzleBang need?

  • PuzzleBang is written over the course of a few months, but revisions may be needed up until shortly before launch. This means that test feedback needs to be turned around as fast as possible. At the same time, it needs to be nuanced enough to convey how and why players got stuck.
  • PuzzleBang runs in conjunction with a week-long university conference. Puzzles are released one day at a time. Pre-written hints are released throughout the first few hours after a puzzle goes live. This means that support might be needed at any point during the week.
  • PuzzleBang is published as a custom site. This means there are very few constraints on puzzle formats, which makes it possible to incorporate sound or video, provide arbitrary interactions, and potentially hide hints in the source code. It also means that the infrastructure itself needs to be tested, not just the puzzle content.

How do test sessions work?

  1. Prepare materials. Game Control prepares for testing by creating a private spreadsheet. Each puzzle gets its own tab. The tab is seeded with a direct link to the puzzle, all scheduled hints, the solution, and a description of any known issues. This allows us to test puzzle content without being blocked by site infrastructure work.
  2. Recruit participants. I reach out to friends to ask them if they’d be interested in giving feedback. The typical test solving team is 2-3 players who already know each other, have their own computers with reliable internet access, and have at least some experience with puzzles. I bring all the materials and I handle notes, so there’s no pre-work or lingering to-dos for the solvers: everything is self-contained within our allotted time.
  3. Set expectations. At the start of our video call, after chatting a bit, I give an official introduction to our testing session. More than anywhere else in the process, I’m drawing inspiration from the UX researchers I’ve worked with for this part. I remind the solvers that the puzzles are a work in progress and that the goal isn’t to solve well or solve quickly, but to provide actionable feedback to Game Control. One thing that can be hard to overcome is getting people to ask for hints. Just about everyone wants to keep working on their own. I try to address this by emphasizing that asking for hints is necessary to testing the hints themselves.
  4. Facilitate the session. Throughout the test session, I need to remain actively engaged. There isn’t always much to say, so I take notes on their thought process just to keep myself focused and not wandering away to other browser tabs. It also helps me provide more details afterwards in case Game Control finds my summarized feedback unclear. Staying engaged also helps me volunteer appropriate hints when people might not think to ask for one, or redirect people if I know they’re going down a time-wasting path. This is always a tough balance, since I want to see their full thought process, but I don’t want them to get frustrated by losing a lot of time to something unproductive.
  5. Summarize insights. At the end of the session, when thanking participants for their time, I emphasize how much insight they’ve provided and how much more polished the puzzling experience will be as a result. This is true every single time: identifying pain points is the most obvious outcome, but occasionally a test session goes perfectly smoothly, which might actually indicate that the author should not revise any further and should leave the puzzle as-is. After they log off, I jot down everything else I remember in the spreadsheet, pull out specific action items, and tag Game Control to alert them to the feedback.

Some of what I’ve written above is aspirational, e.g., I’ve run sessions with solo players, and I don’t always remember to cover all the key points during my intro speech. I have a tendency to ramble when explaining PuzzleBang and puzzlehunts and how they differ from escape rooms. For the most part, I think participants still have a positive experience and Game Control still gets the feedback they need, even when things don’t quite go according to plan.

There’s one exception that I think can derail a session though, and the main reason I’m writing this post in the first place is to warn myself about it in the future: I can’t be in both roles at once. If I’m facilitating, I can’t also participate as a player. All sorts of anti-patterns come out of this, like trying to contact the puzzle author through side channels to ask for help, or getting really stuck on something and not knowing that it’s the wrong path. Even if that’s a realistic outcome during the actual hunt, it just doesn’t fit with the video call test approach. During the actual hunt, you can reasonably assume that you’re stuck because you just haven’t thought of the right thing yet. During a test session, you might be completely blocked because of a bug in the implementation.

Collaborating on PuzzleBang continues to be a rewarding experience. Having something concrete to work on makes it easier to reach out to someone online. It’s a shared experience that provides something to look at, not just another video call with disorienting levels of near-eye contact. Most importantly, it feels good to know that the puzzle author’s hard work will pay off because players will have a smoother experience.



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lahosken
26 days ago
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Puzzlehunt testing: It's like UX testing, but different
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lahosken
29 days ago
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Weird Questions

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gallusrostromegalus:

If I’m somewhere where there are Educational Personell (Museum Docents, Q&A zookeepers, Park Rangers, Public School Teachers, Professors etc.) I have a question I like to ask them:

“What’s the weirdest question someone’s ever asked you?”

I say weird and not Dumb becuase even buckwild questions can have important answers, but whoever I ask it too usually has to think about it for a bit, then comes out with something different every time.  And I love every single answer becuase it just warms my heart out there to know people are trying to understand the world a bit better, no matter how limited thier starting point. A collection of favorites so far:

  • Art Museum Host: “A man once asked me “Can you help me find someone and if you can’t can you find someone who can?”  Which I always thought would be a great title for an Artwork.”
  • Park Ranger: “I’m so glad the Japanese couple asked me “Is bear spray like mosquito spray and it goes on the jacket, or on the bear?” instead of just trying it.”
  • Zookeeper: “A man once pointed at the live red-tailed hawk I had out for a demo and asked me “Aren’t those extinct?” We eventually figured out he meant “Endangered” but I hear that question every time I see a redtail now.”
  • Primary School Teacher: “About every other year a student asks me what part of the school I sleep in at night, because clearly I live here.  I tell them I sleep under the bleachers in the gym but it’s actually the Nurse’s office.”
  • Professor: “A student asked me “So how do I use this in a conversation when my aunt is wine-drunk at thanksgiving and being a jerk again?” Which honestly is a fair question about philosophy and really changed how I teach rhetoric.”
  • Natural History Docent: “A woman once asked me what the difference between a Million and a Billion was.  Kinda pieced together that she’d just left her church for her safety, and was learning about Earth’s Natural History for the first time. Nobody else was there because it had been snowing, so I walked her through the Hall Of Time and answered as many questions as I could.  She was bewildered, but really trying. It always struck me as a really brave thing, to try to understand all of that while fresh out of a dangerous situation. I hope it helped.”
  • Forensic Scientist:  “People ask me how to commit murder all the time, but if you really hate someone, stealing thier identity causes much more suffering and is a lot harder to get caught at. A guy did ask me if working at a body farm was creepy and did not like that it was ok until you learned that decayed human fingers are a deer’s favorite midwinter snack.”
  • Zookeeper: “People call us becuase they think they’ve found an escaped animal all the time, or they think they’re neighbor’s husky is a wolf. One guy asked me if his dog was part hyena because it had spots. But that one guy really did have a Tiger in his toolshed that one time so we try to take them seriously.”
  • Meteorologist: “A guy once emailed me about how hard you’d have to fan a tornado to make it start spinning in the other direction and included a picture of him holding up a box fan at an approaching tornado.  We printed it out for the work fridge.”
  • Park Ranger: “I was giving a talk on the Yellowstone Supervolcano and a guy asked if, after it errupted, the earth would be ‘hollowed out’.  I suppose I was just relieved that he understand that the earth isn’t flat.”
  • Primarcy Shcool teacher: “A student once asked me where she could sell her bones online so she could by a dog.  Which? Same.”
  • Natural History Docent: “A guy asked us ‘If I had a time machine, and managed to kill and cook a T-Rex, what would it have tasted like?’ and every paleontologist on staff deciced to take him seriously.  They did research to learn about fat distribution, and read up on culinary science to learn what flavors meat, even did chemical analysis on the bones.  They concluded that it’d be Tough (no evidence of juicy fat pockets), bitter (carnivores tend to taste foul) and would probably kill him, because heavy metals travel up the food chain and T-Rex accumulated a lot of the cadmium that was in the dirt in the late cretaceous.  Wrote him a letter with our findings and he sent us back a drawing of him and his buddies cooking a T-Rex over a fire and all of them throwing up and dying, and it’s my favorite drawing in the whole world.”

“Death by T. rex meat poisoning” is a pretty metal way to go, though

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rclatterbuck
34 days ago
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Kudos to educators everywhere.

T. rex meat poisoning has really weird "fucked around and found out" vibes
lahosken
34 days ago
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The Time to Vaccinate the World is Now

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Much of the world is on fire with COVID-19, new variants continue to emerge, and places like Brazil, India, and the United States see repeated waves of infection.

Herd immunity is not working. We need to get the world vaccinated, and we need to do it now. Andy Slavitt and Jeremy Farrar have put forward a goal of vaccinating 70% of the world population with at least one dose by March 2022 (210 days) with a public launch at the UN General Assembly meeting in September (Inside the Bubble podcast, August 25, 2021). We’ll add a goal, that 80% of the world population is fully vaccinated by Summer 2022. This will be an enormous challenge, but it is achievable.

Why We Need to Vaccinate Now

We need to vaccinate the world because the pandemic continues to rage worldwide, killing millions, leaving many survivors debilitated and wreaking havoc on economies. Periodic waves of infection overwhelm health care systems, causing excess death and demoralizing clinical staff. Vaccines reduce the rate of spread, and they keep people out of hospitals.

We now have almost 40% of the world’s population vaccinated. This sounds better than it is. The proportion of the population that is vaccinated varies shockingly around the globe. We’re getting most people vaccinated in the US and Canada, Western Europe, and China. Some people are immunized in Russia and Central and South America. But few of the more than 3 billion people in most of Africa and South Asia are vaccinated, including < 1% of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, or Zambia.

We are 18 months into the pandemic, and already dozens of variants have emerged. Several are sweeping across the globe, driven by their ability to proliferate rapidly and to evade immunity. It’s only a matter of time before a variant with high-level vaccine escape emerges, and even vaccinated people start getting sick again in large numbers. The more virus is circulating, the more chances for variants to arise. We control new variants by preventing the spread of the virus, and vaccination is the best way to do that.

The COVAX Alliance has shipped 215 million doses of vaccine to date. That’s a start, but it’s nowhere close to meeting the need, and many countries, particularly in underdeveloped regions, have vaccination rates that are only in the single digits.

Can We Vaccinate the World?

Yes, we can. We have produced about 4 billion doses of vaccines in the past 9 months. To get everyone in the world two doses of vaccine will require another 12 billion doses. That’s a lot of vaccine, but we can do it. COVAX estimates global vaccine production capacity at 8 billion doses in 2021 and 42 billion doses in 2022. The bigger challenge is getting vaccines into people’s arms. That’s going to be a huge lift, and that’s why universal vaccination needs US leadership, UN and WHO support for international mobilization, and massive logistics support from many countries to get vaccinators trained and deployed, supplies procured and distributed, cold chains setup, regulatory approvals obtained, record-keeping established, and vaccines administered.

There is precedent for international medical mobilization to fight infectious disease. Under President George W. Bush, the US-led the PEPFAR initiative to deliver HIV medications worldwide. The success of this program saved millions of lives in Africa and remains an enduring legacy.

How the US Comes Out Ahead by Leading the Effort

David Cutler and Larry Summers estimated that COVID has cost the US $16 trillion. The economic impact globally dramatically exceeds this. Operation Warp Speed cost $12 billion to develop and deploy vaccines in the US. It has already more than paid for itself. Ramping up vaccine production to produce 12 billion doses might cost $25 billion, and the logistics and deployment might cost another $50 billion. That’s not trivial spending.

Consider, however, that the US will lose trillions of dollars of GDP each year as long as the pandemic continues. We risk seeing regional economic and potentially even political collapse in many parts of the world. Congress is considering multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plans. Global mobilization for vaccination will quickly pay for itself in maintaining the economic viability of our trading partners. And, of course, saving humanity, that’s priceless.

Moreover, the larger the population of infected people on the planet, the more rapidly COVID variants emerge. The whole world is connected now, and COVID has shown that it rapidly crosses oceans. Fighting COVID in the world is essential to control it at home.


David J. States
Bill Gardner

David J. States, MD PhD is the Chief Science/Medical Officer of Angstrom Bio, Austin, TX.

The post The Time to Vaccinate the World is Now first appeared on The Incidental Economist.
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lahosken
39 days ago
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"We have produced about 4 billion doses of vaccines in the past 9 months. To get everyone in the world two doses of vaccine will require another 12 billion doses. That’s a lot of vaccine, but we can do it. COVAX estimates global vaccine production capacity at 8 billion doses in 2021 and 42 billion doses in 2022. The bigger challenge is getting vaccines into people’s arms. That’s going to be a huge lift, and that’s why universal vaccination needs US leadership, UN and WHO support for international mobilization, and massive logistics support from many countries..."

"There is precedent for international medical mobilization to fight infectious disease. Under President George W. Bush, the US-led the PEPFAR initiative to deliver HIV medications worldwide. The success of this program saved millions of lives in Africa and remains an enduring legacy."
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