Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A page is turning

It's now official: after over 4 years working for Applied Strategies, I decided that it was time for some adjustments. I enjoyed the job tremendously, and for a long time now. For someone who is interested in developing quantitative models like me, it was a dream come true; but first and foremost, it has been a privilege and a pleasure to work with a team of smart, dedicated, and trusting people - and I am really proud of what we achieved together.
And yet, over time, I have found it increasingly difficult to balance work and my personal life, and reached the conclusion that I needed to re-establish some independence, so that I could dedicate more time to other aspects of life which matter to me. This was a very difficult decision to reach, for a variety of reasons - but I will be resigning for my position on September 15. What exactly will happen afterwards is still open; both I and Applied Strategies want to keep working together, but the exact modalities of the partnership are still under discussion. The one part I am certain of, though, is that this will begin with a healthy dose of vacations!

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Methodical beauty

The French word "Vitrail" translates in English as "Stained Glass". This I learned today reading an article on the piece Gerhard Richter created for the Cologne Cathedral. While "Stained Glass" is a technically accurate description of the process involved, it seems to miss the whole point, which is less about technique than beauty. By contrast, Richter's piece, inspired by his Color Charts, is an essentially mechanical composition, relying on mathematics rather than human inspiration; And yet, the result is strangely beautiful, in a way somewhat similar to Bach's music.

Gerhard Richter: Cologne Cathedral (from Wired Magazine)

Addendum: I could not find what specific function Richter used to create the piece, and would be really interested to know! What I found out is that I there were some concerns that the random patterns would display inappropriate images...

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Making humans more computer

Sorry if this article is last month's news, but I still find it interesting. There is something pleasantly twisted in trying to make computers more human, and ending up making humans more like computers... And it is somewhat reassuring to know that people are still so much better than computers - but that if you want to see any work done, you'd better make it fun. At least, when the machines take over in the future, they'll have to keep us entertained.
clipped from www.wired.com
But reCaptcha has an even sneakier — and more delightful — purpose. The words are pulled from the book-scanning project of the Internet Archive
One of the two words in the test is the control word: The gatekeeper computer knows what it should be, so it's there to make sure the puzzle-solver is indeed human. But the other word is there for a different reason. The Archive's scanners are good, but some of the words are too smudgy for the software to decipher. The game takes the image of each smudgy word and puts it into reCaptcha. Each time someone completes a reCaptcha puzzle, they'll be doing a tiny bit of work — translating that difficult image into text

Roughly 50 million Captchas are solved each day. If von Ahn can acquire just a fifth of those users, he'll have a stunning 30,000 daily man-hours of work at his disposal. It would constitute the world's fastest and most accurate character-recognition computer, processing 10 million words a day.

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Me vs. Myself?

There is an interesting piece by James Surowiecki in this week's New Yorker. The argument that more regulation can (at least in some cases) enable individuals to make decisions closer to what they really want - or, conversely, that an unregulated market may prevent people from doing what they really want to - is in itself interesting. It is also pleasantly refreshing; as of late, one would conclude from reading the mainstream media that being free-market based (or as unregulated as possible) constitutes a valid criterion per se to evaluate the quality of a policy decision.
clipped from www.newyorker.com
Americans may want to buy the biggest and most environmentally damaging vehicles available, but polls show that, given an option, some three-quarters of them vote for dramatic increases in fuel-economy standards
Back in the nineteen-seventies, an economist named Thomas Schelling, who later won the Nobel Prize, noticed something peculiar about the N.H.L. At the time, players were allowed, but not required, to wear helmets, and most players chose to go helmet-less, despite the risk of severe head trauma. But when they were asked in secret ballots most players also said that the league should require them to wear helmets.
The players wanted to have their heads protected, but as individuals they couldn’t afford to jeopardize their effectiveness on the ice. Making helmets compulsory eliminated the dilemma
Without the rule, the players’ individually rational decisions added up to a collectively irrational result. With the rule, the outcome was closer to what players really wanted.
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Monday, July 23, 2007

Vampire Weekend

It was my first time at the Rickshaw Stop, and also the first time I heard the music of Vampire Weekend. Technically, it wasn't really the first time; L had somehow gotten in correspondence with their frontman, Ezra Koenig, and played one of their song over the phone for me, but (to put it mildly) it wasn't the medium of choice to fully appreciate the music. Anyway, we were invited to see them open for the Shout Out Louds (so this was also my first time on the guest list for a band) - and I loved it.



There is no mistake, Vampire Weekend is an indie pop band from New York, and they do look the part all right; once they started playing, the first comparison that came to my mind was with The Strokes. And yet, there is something else, something very fresh and endearing about them. It has to do with the attitude, or rather the lack thereof - but also with the music, which has a lightness to it that is often lacking in pop acts. The rhythm section is excellent; I could not place it initially, but reading through some of their press pointed at a self-professed afrobeat influence. It would seem like an unexpected blend, but they pull it off perfectly, and make it sound obvious, keeping the best of both worlds: catchy, upbeat songs, and lyrics with just what it takes of cleverness and irony.
By contrast, the Shout Out Louds were pretty painful. I have to admit I had heard one of their songs before, "the comeback", and had developed a strong distaste for it - but the rest of the material did not do anything to change my opinion. So while I wish Vampire Weekend were the main act, this turned out for the best, as it gave L and I a chance to sneak out of the concert midway through the Shout Out Louds, without missing anything of a great evening.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Palate bending experience

If only for the fact that I find it extremely annoying to have my espresso order be translated into "a doppio, for Mathias", I try to steer away from Starbucks. Unfortunately, the cafe I usually go to closes at 3, so when I need a late-afternoon shot of caffeine, I have to compromise and go there; which is a great opportunity to keep up with the latest trends in weird coffee-related drinks Starbucks keeps coming up with.
Their latest, the Raspberry Mocha, is truly a winner. I quote the press release:
For a truly refreshing experience, Starbucks has paired the flavors of fresh raspberries and delectable chocolate, inspired by the very sweetness ofsummer.

This comes with a very mysterious add campaign, claiming that "Lawn moving is a competitive sport", and that "Life is better from the porch". I really have no idea what this is about, but then that's also probably why I don't buy drinks "inspired by the very sweetness of summer".



Or so I hoped; I order my usual double espresso"doppio, for Mathias"; but when I take the first sip, something feels terribly wrong. A strong scent of raspberry is there, reminiscent of air-refreshing aerosol; apparently, the "barrista" inadvertently innovated and laced my drink with some raspberry syrup. I can't say whether life is better on the porch, but for sure it's much better without raspberries in espresso. This thing has to be the vilest thing I tasted in quite a while - and the taste is just amazingly persistent. I could still taste it half an hour later.

The second palate-bending experience of the week happened at Sanmi, a Japanese restaurant on 3226, Geary Boulevard. The place is recommended for the non-sushi dises, so L and I go for a Sukiyaki (delicious) and a Black Cod Kasuzuke.
There are things you like, there are things you dislike, and all sorts of indifferent stuff in between; and then, there are a few things where talent and strong personality are obvious, but which are so outlandish that the question of whether you like it or not just does not seem to apply, because there is no clear point of comparison for them.
In the realm of movies, "2001: A Space Odyssey", is a good example; in Japanese food, there is the Black Cod Kasuzuke. I have never tasted something remotely similar before; L and I spent a good part of the dinner trying to figure out the strong taste. Was it coming from the fish, or from the sake and miso marinade? Was it more reminiscent of black olives, or coffee? Right after watching 2001, I had similar discussions, trying to make sense of what I had just experienced - but I believe this is where the analogy will fall apart. I watched the movie a second time, in hopes of understanding it better, but I doubt I will try the Black Cod Kasuzuke again. If you are not faint-hearted, and want to get off the beaten track of sushi, I would definitely recommend it, though.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Bastille Day, Ratatouille et Sauternes

I haven't done much this year to celebrate "14 juillet" - or, as they call it here, "Bastille Day". Last year, I had promised L French people joyously dancing in the streets under lampions with firemen; instead, the numerous French people we found in the little French quarter were all sitting down and enjoying dinner. That was a bit of a flop, and my motivation wasn't too high this year - so I ended up spending most of the week-end working on the computer on random projects, and watching Enter the Dragon. One cannot always be fiercely revolutionary.
Keeping up with the French theme, L and I went to the movies, and we watched "Ratatouille". It must be my contradictory spirit, but I end up disliking most movies that receive widespread critical acclaim; this one was an exception, and was just as good as it was promised to be. I can't find anything smart to say about it - just go, it's a great movie.
No disaster on Friday the 13th; besides being the ending of another week of work, it was also the birthday of a friend. We went to an Ethiopian restaurant in the Mission with a small party, and ended up at my place. I finally popped open one of my "collection" of Sauternes, a 1990 Chateau Haut-Violet. It was a fitting occasion, and a very nice bottle, but I still need some practice to get fully accustomed to the conversations style of medical students, though; transitioning from a discussion on the grapes that enter the Sauternes, straight to the issue of whether there is a scientific method to determine the color of urine, is an art that will take me some more practice to get fully comfortable with...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The rationally ignorant voter

The New Yorker had a review of “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics”, by Bryan Caplan. From what I gather (I only read the review), the book follows a pattern established by Gary Becker - apply the arsenal of economic theory to the analysis of social phenomena typically not considered a part of economics. The results are usually perversely entertaining; this one does not disappoint. It looks into voting, and concludes that, far from being surprising, the apparently irrational outcomes of that system are really not an accident, but rather a logical consequence of the mechanism itself.

clipped from www.newyorker.com
In other words, it isn’t worth my while to spend time and energy acquiring information about candidates and issues, because my vote can’t change the outcome. I would not buy a car or a house without doing due diligence, because I pay a price if I make the wrong choice. But if I had voted for the candidate I did not prefer in every Presidential election since I began voting, it would have made no difference to me (or to anyone else). It would have made no difference if I had not voted at all. This doesn’t mean that I won’t vote, or that, when I do vote, I won’t care about the outcome. It only means that I have no incentive to learn more about the candidates or the issues, because the price of my ignorance is essentially zero. According to this economic model, people aren’t ignorant about politics because they’re stupid; they’re ignorant because they’re rational.
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clipped from www.newyorker.com
“Democracy is a commons, not a market.” A commons is an unregulated public resource—in the classic example, in Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), it is literally a commons, a public pasture on which anyone may graze his cattle. It is in the interest of each herdsman to graze as many of his own cattle as he can, since the resource is free, but too many cattle will result in overgrazing and the destruction of the pasture. So the pursuit of individual self-interest leads to a loss for everyone.
Caplan rejects the assumption that voters pay no attention to politics and have no real views. He thinks that voters do have views, and that they are, basically, prejudices. He calls these views “irrational,” because, once they are translated into policy, they make everyone worse off. People not only hold irrational views, he thinks; they like their irrational views.
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Sunday, July 8, 2007

One minute to make tough decisions

From Steve Pavlina's blog, via LifeHacker, an interesting - and very lightweight - approach to difficult personal decisions:


Sometimes we face tough decisions that involve one or more unknowns. We can’t know in advance what the consequences of each alternative will be. This is especially true of big decisions like quitting a job, entering or exiting a relationship, or moving to a new city.

(...)

Let me give you a very simple method of making these kinds of decisions. In most cases it takes no more than 60 seconds to evaluate any particular path.

For each alternative you’re considering, ask yourself, “Is this really me?”

What you’re asking is whether each path is a fair expression of who you truly are. To what degree does each option reflect the real you?

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I am a permanent resident!

That's it - in the mail today, I received a letter from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, saying it in big bold capital letters, over a hand proudly waving the flame of liberty: I am now officially
WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.



This concludes a process begun some 6 months ago; most of it was done since a while already, except one part, the background check. I should now receive my "Permanent Resident Card", a.k.a. "Green Card", shortly. Yipee!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

ISO attorneys, with street creds

So among the flow of emails in my inbox today, there is this message posted to a forum, by a guy looking for IP attorney recommendations; and half an hour later, a recommendation follows, for Joe Schmoe, whose email address is... JoeSchmoe@mofo.com. Way to establish a relationship of confidence from the get-go!

On Baroni and steroids

After I went to the Strikeforce/EliteXC fighting event in San Jose two weeks ago, I intended to write something, but a busy week followed, and after postponing for a few days, I more or less gave up, as it did not seem that relevant anymore.
And then last week, the news broke that Phil Baroni had tested positive for steroids – two different types no less, as if to make sure that he would be caught.

This came in a long string of fighters being caught recently, most of them coming on the losing end of their fights (with the notable exception of Nick Diaz choking out Gomi while on pot,) some of them involving fighters of higher profile than Baroni. And yet, this one felt strangely upsetting.

Baroni and Shamrock both have abrasive personalities, and trash-talked profusely before the fight – The confrontation had so much build up I expected to be disappointed, and yet, both fighters really made it a fight, in spite of early injuries. Baroni really won me over that night; he showed lots of heart, got choked out without tapping; most importantly, he gave respect to his victorious opponent, and lost with class, a word not too often associated with Baroni.

And then came the steroid issue. Why, oh why? The cheating was pretty idiotic (how can you not realize you are going to be tested if you fight on a main event in California?), but, more than anything, I found the whole story just saddening. Baroni seems to have had issues with self-esteem, but by now, he should have understood that people like him for what he is: a fighter with a big mouth, generous to the fans, who always makes it a fight. Becoming the champ would not make a big difference; after all, fighters likes Couture or Sakuraba prove that one can be immensely popular with a very imperfect record. On the other hand, posting an apology for coming short in the fight, but not a word about the juicing up, is just disrespectful. I still wish Baroni – as well as Shamrock – a prompt recovery, but, more importantly, I wish this helps him get some needed maturity.

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Monday, July 2, 2007

Internet Vacations

I have been busy in the past few days and haven't had much time to post. I'll catch up soon, but in the meanwhile, and without much of a connection (need some vacation, maybe?), here is a picture taken today in San Mateo:



Not too sure what these guys are doing, but it's reassuring to know there is someone to talk to, next time my internet vacation breaks down!

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