I love good systems. When I was in an a cappella group in college, we struggled through the audition process. Choosing people was tough. We had it easy though, because for the first few years, people didn't have any alternatives. Later, when other groups were trying to recruit the same singers, things got complicated. It got personal, it got ugly, and, at least at my school, it hasn't been solved yet. Other schools have solved it though. Stanford and Harvard have great systems that optimize the results for the auditionee. Their audition process system was recently described on the RARB Forum.
I do wilderness search and rescue. When someone gets lost in the woods, I help try to find them. Although we have lots of training, it's a volunteer group, and I'm not required to respond to a call. If I choose to pass, it's usually because I'm out of town or busy with work. Weighing my other responsibilities against someone else's life is a bit strange. Saving a life would be more important than a day of writing software, but my contribution to a search is relatively minor, and it's not clear how much of a difference I make. If I go to work, I'm quite likely to get something done. Also, I have a bigger commitment to my employer, and helping millions of people save a few minutes each day is also valuable.
I can reconcile all that, but sometimes it's more complicated. What if the missing person didn't just fail to come back from a hike, but was known to be depressed, wrote a goodbye note, tied up loose ends, and apparently walked off into the woods three days ago? Are they lost and in need of help, or did they choose this path deliberately? Does it matter? Is being physically lost different than being emotionally distraught? If we find them and bring them back, are we helping? What if they did intend to kill themselves, but changed their minds and couldn't get back? And what about a 90-year-old with alzheimers who wanders off every day? To what extent is he making decisions and how much will his life improve if we bring him home?
These people are certainly worth some amount of effort, but how much? The community often expends quite a lot of time and money, but I need to decide how much I can contribute. Should I wake up hours before dawn, take a day off work, and crawl through poison oak for four hours looking for them? I enjoy the experience, but the sacrifice is harder to justify in some cases.
As hard as the decisions might be, I need to make them without much information. When someone is lost, we can't know for sure what happened until we find them (and sometimes not even then). Usually, even what information "we" do have doesn't reach me until after I've had to decide whether to respond. How heavily do I weigh the meager information I have against my other commitments? How do I decide when I should help? The balance of service and sacrifice is something I'll be thinking about for the next couple weeks, along with an important lesson: after bushwhacking through poison oak, do not wipe sweat out of your eyes, no matter how much it stings.
Weird thought for the day: compare equal temperament and just temperament to Lat/Long and UTM. Equal temperament and Lat/Long are better in broader, global context, while just temperament and UTM are better in local context. The analogy is a bit broken, since different tuning systems define different realities, while different coordinate systems describe reality in ways that are differently inaccurate, but I thought it was interesting anyway.
Thought for today: Even if copyright terms don't just get extended indefinitely, by the time the copyright expires on a given creative work, it's not unlikely that all existing copies will have been lost, destroyed, or will have degraded beyond recovery, simply because the public can't make copies for the first ~100 years. It's not a big danger for things widely reproduced, but things not sufficiently popular during their monopoly years are in danger of extinction.
I finally got around to making a couple technical changes to this site. One is a spam fighting experiment. My email address as it appears on this site now has a number in it. The number gets changed every day, and my mail filters reject an address more than a few days old. This way, spammers finding my address here will only have a few days in which to use it. It's probably too late for me, since my normal address, which I don't plan on disabling, is already in a zillion spam lists, is all over Usenet, mailing list archives, software packages, and other web sites, but I thought it would be interesting to see how it would work.
The other change, was to make the table of contents page better. Now it's generated with the rest of the pages, rather than being built whenever someone asked for it. This let me fix a couple things. One is that I can easily list the page titles now, which I think is nice.
The other is kind of technical and probably not very interesting to most people. It's related to the fact that I have a set of source files from which I compile all the web pages you can get from the server. This lets me do some neat things that make site maintenance much easier. The old TOC used timestamps of the served files, so I set those to match the source files. That way changes to the standard page footer wouldn't make the TOC show that all pages had been updated. But it also meant that browsers wouldn't know that their cached version was invalid. The new system has access to the source files, since it runs at build time, so it can use those timestamps and I can let the other ones reflect what they're supposed to.