Monthly Archives: July 2011

Good Mistakes

I enjoyed this TED talk, Tim Harford: Trial, error and the God complex, because it touches on some subjects I’m really interested in right now, like epistemic arrogance. The ending anecdote stuck out for me because he talked about making good mistakes, mistakes that go in the right direction. This reminded me of antifragility. I’m curious if Harford has read Taleb. In general, I think his ideas about trial and error would benefit from reading Taleb.

NFL Thoughts

So it looks like there will be football this year!

I have no comments on the labor issues other than I had a visceral emotional dislike for the owners. Had nothing to do with facts, though.

Anyway, ESPN is saying that the Ravens will release Derrick Mason. I don’t know if the Niners could get him, but they definitely should. Crabtree and Morgan aren’t good enough. I’d also like to see Plaxico, but that probably isn’t going to happen either.

One last thought: Time to defend my fantasy football crowns!

Deleting e-mails…

My work e-mail account recently informed me that I am running out of hard disk space.

Being used to Gmail, this is foreign to me. I just let everything sit in my inbox, and I don’t think I’ll ever have to worry about deleting anything. If it’s important, it gets a star and stays at the top of my inbox. Everything else just fades away. I don’t even bother archiving.

In any case, while waiting for someone to get back to me, I have taken the opportunity clean out my inboxes.

So far, so good…

Album Cover

On the Opera Blog, they have this cool, random thing where you can make an album cover:

You follow these instructions:

  1. Use Wikipedia to find something random The first random wikipedia article you get is the name of your band.
  2. Go to Random Quotations for a random quote. The last four or five words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album.
  3. Go to flickr and explore the last seven days. Third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.
  4. Use Photoshop or similar to put it all together.

I made this!

I made a typo; it should be “International Cystinuria Foundation,” but I don’t really want to fix it.

The original quote:

If we have the opportunity to be generous with our hearts, ourselves, we have no idea of the depth and breadth of love’s reach.

Margaret Cho, weblog, 03-09-04

Photo credit:
Southwark – Cathedral by Gareth Evans

Absurd Grammar

I think we should test The Oatmeal’s philosophy in class tomorrow. He uses absurdity to make grammar fun. Let’s see if absurd sentences can make grammar less excruciating.

I imagine it will at least make it easier to brainstorm sentences with incorrectly used conjunctions and prepositions.

Sticker Farming

I have been farming for stickers on Brawl the past two days. Last Monday during our weekly get-together, we played Brawl for the first time in months. I remembered the only challenges I had yet to unlock: collect 500 trophies, collect all (700) stickers, beat boss battles on very hard, beat boss battles on intense. The last time i finished a challenge, I was still in college.

Then, yesterday, I had a breakthrough. After some SSE and coin launcher, I collected 500 trophies.

I have moved on to sticker farming. I use a sticker factory custom stage. I use Bowser on Special Brawl, with Mega and Fast enabled. Now I only have 21 stickers left.

Maybe I will finish it this time.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

I finished Haroun and the Sea of Stories today. Thursday last week, the power went out at work. Now, I wasn’t there, but this still affected me. I was in Berkeley instead of Santa Clara. However, all the servers I wanted to work on were off. So, in my boredom, I plucked Haroun and the Sea of Stories from an ATDP bookshelf and read several chapters. I had never read anything by Rushdie before. I tweeted about how delightful it was, and I was amused that there was a character named Butt. (Later, there are two characters named Butt!)

I found myself wondering what happens next. I knew I wouldn’t have time to finish the book while sitting at the office, so I borrowed the book yesterday… and finished the book today.

Thanks for leaving the book there, Lloyd. It’s a very enchanting tale. I’ll return it on Monday and leave it for anyone else passing through.

Here was a passage I especially liked:

Iff replied that the Plentimaw Fishes were what he called ‘hunger artists’ — ‘Because when they are hungry they swallow stories through every mouth, and in their innards miracles occur; a little bit of one story joins on to an idea from another, and hey presto, when they spew the stories out they are not old tales but new ones. Nothing comes from nothing, Thieflet; no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old — it is the new combinations that make them new. So you see, our artistic Plentimaw Fishes really create new stories in their digestive systems…”

It reminded me of the Everything is a Remix* series by Kirby Ferguson.

Another passage makes a point about morals that’s very sophisticated for a kid’s story:

As for the Chupwalas, all of whom belonged to the Union of the Zipped Lips, and were the Cultmaster’s most devoted servants — well, Haroun kept being struck by how ordinary they were, and how monotonous was the work they had been given. There were hundreds of them in their Zipped Lips cloaks and hoods, attending to the tanks and cranes on the deck, performing a series of mindless, routine jobs: checking dials, tightening joints, switching the tanks’ stirring mechanisms on and off again, swabbing the decks. It was all as boring as could be; and yet — as Haroun kept having to remind himself — what these scurrying, cloaked, weaselly, scrawny, snivelling clerical types were actually up to was nothing less than the destruction of the Ocean of the Streams of Story itself! ‘How weird,’ Haroun said to Iff, ‘that the worst things of all can look so normal and, well, dull.’

Well, this isn’t exclusively a kid’s story. I think it can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike. However, it is mostly written from the perspective of a child (though the child is not the narrator) and so it is very much written in the style of a children’s story.

Oracle Loves Broken Documentation

I hate Oracle so much.

I’m trying to download ASMLIB packages. So, I go to the documentation for Grid Infrastructure*. At one point, the documentation tells me: Download and Install the Oracleasm Package 

After you determine the kernel version for your system, complete the following task:

Open a Web browser using the following URL:

Of course, their fucking link is broken.

P.S. Oracle, here’s the correct link:

Suckers in Politics

I’ve strayed from thinking about antifragility, and I’m now thinking about the sucker-nonsucker distinction that NN Taleb gives. In that article about antifragility, NN Taleb lists true-false as fragile under epistemology, but sucker-nonsucker is listed as antifragile. I’m not quite sure why sucker-nonsucker is listed that way, but I’ll think about it later. Talking about suckers is something Taleb does in all his books, so I’m at least familiar with the topic. I’d now like to think about how it applies to politics.

Because we’ve been studying Hitchens in class (for style, not content), the word credulous has been on my mind. Credulous seems to be one of Hitchens’s favorite words. Now, it seems to me that I should avoid political affiliation because it makes one more credulous. That is, when one joins a tribe, one is much more likely to believe that tribe’s claims than the other tribe’s claims. Of course, these political tribes push out so much spin that it’s not good to believe either one of them. However, one gobbles their propaganda quite easily when one identifies so closely with them. One becomes less skeptical and more credulous. Credulity isn’t great in and of itself, but it’s especially worse when the people you want to listen to are, for the most part, liars and thieves.

Now that I’ve described something more abstractly, I should try to come up with a more specific example. Let’s use the Republicans since I was semi-recently a sucker for them. They preach a philosophy of less spending. Yet, during Bush’s administration, they engaged in multiple (expensive) wars and nation-building missions, and they passed Medicare Part D. They expanded the welfare state. Even though their actions contradict their so-called principles, people still cling to the belief that this is what the Republicans are for. Of course, the suckers are now latching onto the Republican’s rebranding as the Tea Party. We’re for less spending, and this time we really mean it. Or at least, say many people who voted for all the wars, Medicare Part D, and the bailouts. Sometimes votes accidentally align with so-called principles, but that only happens when they’re trying to obstruct the other party.

I don’t want to argue that both parties are equal, but I do want to point out something from Democratic side. I believed President Obama wouldn’t expand the national security follies of the Bush Administration, but I was wrong. He engaged in a war with Libya and arrogantly believes he doesn’t need Congressional approval. (Really, this should be an impeachable offense to prevent overreach by other presidents.) He’s cracked down on whistleblowers and has essentially provided immunity for the law-breakers who engaged in torture, which is a heinous crime against humanity. Alas, I should know better than to believe in the rhetoric of politicians. Of course, the loyal Democrats delude themselves into thinking that principles really do matter and that the Democrats aren’t in the back pockets of corporate interests. They tell themselves, If only the Republicans weren’t obstructing everything, then Obama could pass all the great things we want. They like to believe that he’s not essentially a neoliberal.

Ideology is another source of credulity. Believing in an ideology, like libertarianism, makes people immune to reality. I remember I had a professor who used to remark quite frequently on the usefulness of modus tollens.

When viewed from this lens, politics becomes less about fixing things and more about doing the least amount of damage. Note that least amount of damage is not the same as least amount of work, so I’m not subscribing to a libertarian ideology. Notice that the Framers restricted what government could do. One should ignore any rhetoric from politicians and elect those who will do the least damage. Now, there are issues with picking whom to elect since these people are mostly sociopaths and charlatans. If we want to reform government, then we shouldn’t look for a savior who will fix everything. Instead, we should just try to find someone who isn’t a complete money-grubbing fraud. As a general rule, I think we’d be better off if we elected more ordinary people, as opposed to rich corporatists and career politicians. Avoid the businessmen and politicians because they’re more likely to be greedy and they’re probably better at knowing how to fool you than people who don’t spend all their time practicing that kind of skill.

I should also think about being informed on political matters in terms of the sucker-nonsucker breakdown. I don’t need to follow the horse race or be informed about the latest scandals. I should, however, learn enough that people can’t take me for a sucker.

World of Goo

Let it be known that I beat World of Goo on the iPad. (With Stevie’s help.) I’m still working on OCD.

I will also note that I have beaten Portal 1 & 2. One day, I may look back on these entries. I’ll see this and be like, “Oooohh yeahh! Those games were fun!”

Relationships and Antifragility

I find NN Taleb’s concept of antifragility fascinating. I’m going to try thinking about it and applying it to different situations. You already caught a glimpse of this when I said googleable knowledge is fragile. Hopefully, I can understand this concept better by writing about it. Perhaps one day I can use it to improve my life or improve a group of lives.

Two of Taleb’s examples were especially helpful in helping me understand this concept. First, he uses an example of a package. If it’s marked fragile, that means it will break if disturbed. A package that’s more robust would be wrapped in bubbles and could handle a sturdy punishment. But an antifragile package would become stronger by this mishandling. Now, it’s hard to imagine this being true for a package. So the imagery of a hydra, in his chart, was especially helpful to me. He contrasts the Sword of Damocles with a pheonix and a hydra. The first can break; it’s fragile. The second can die, but it’s reborn; this means it’s robust. Meanwhile, when you cut the hydra’s head, it grows three more. This means damaging it makes it stronger. Thus, the hydra is better than the pheonix. It’s not just reborn when hurt, staying where it was before the shock. Instead, it becomes more powerful. That’s antifragility.

Let me try to apply this to relationships. A conflict-free relationship is worrisome because relationships benefit from some amount of conflict. In a relationship, conflicts are inevitable. The question, then, is how does the couple handle these conflicts? When there are no conflicts, the relationship may appear stable, but it’s actually fragile. If a conflict comes up, the couple doesn’t know how to handle it, so it can blow up the relationship. Contrariwise, if there are conflicts, the couple practices conflict-resolution. They learn more about each other. When new (and sometimes bigger) conflicts come up, the couple can handle them better. Thus, a good relationship benefits from conflict.* That, I believe, is an example of antifragility.

Addendum: Hm. I think this needs clarification. A weak relationship is fragile. A strong relationship is antifragile. I’m not sure what I’d call robust… a pleasant relationship?

*A lot of conflict may mean the relationship isn’t going to work. This doesn’t disprove my point. Evolution exhibits antifragility, but it can’t handle the sun going red giant and swallowing up the Earth. Plus, I’m still exploring this concept, not proclaiming any gospel. I am still free to examine this angle.

Google’s New Aesthetic

I’m engaging in a little structured procrastination here: Blogging instead of grading. (Blogging is important because I need to write more often.)

Google has updated their look. See this blog post from Gmail on their new preview theme. They’re updating their aesthetic for other parts of Google too. I heard they revamped Google Calendar. The ultimate objective is a more unified user experience for all their products.

I actually like the top bar, an almost black (I think it’s like #2d2d2d) with text links to other parts of Google. It’s convenient and not too obtrusive.

I like the new button-look. It’s a light gradient, but it doesn’t look glossy. When you hover over it, you get a drop-shadow and a darker outline. It’s a cool look that I’m pretty sure will get copied everywhere. I suppose it will usher the end of the glossy buttons era.

It’s interesting seeing red text used to indicate the current page/inbox/etc. I’d always used red for link hover, never for something like that. I usually go for some type of light background for the current page, or maybe a darker link. I suppose we’ll also see this new thing pop up everywhere too.

I’m working at Berkeley now, so I’m not too happy about Google being newly enamored with red. They have red buttons, red active links. I suppose they did a bunch of multivariate tests and discovered that red is the new blue.*

I also never noticed this before, and I’m sure it’s not new with this look, but regular links are blue with no underline. Hovering adds an underline. I kinda like that. I may copy it myself. But I won’t copy the buttons. I do, however, expect to see a lot of this new aesthetic copied in other places on the web. New buttons and a lot more red.

(Note: I’d like to have a longer entry on this accentuated with pictures, but alas, this is all I have time for considering my other time commitments. Better this than nothing.)


Algorithmic Thinking

some proto-thoughts on algorithmic thinking…

Algorithmic thinking is fragile thinking. Let’s say I have a computer issue, like I need to mount a hard drive. Now, I could just google it and find instructions on how to do it. I could copy and paste an example line from a sample fstab file. That’s algorithmic thinking: Google it and follow the instructions.

However, in this example, I don’t know anything about hard drives. I don’t know anything about mounting. I don’t even understand what each option means in the example line.

Sure, it can get me through the day, but it doesn’t mean I understand anything. I don’t have any feel for what’s going on. So, when the algorithm fails, I don’t know how to solve my problem anymore. If the drive doesn’t mount, I don’t know why it didn’t mount. I also don’t know what to do next to solve the problem. Shallow thinking breaks when it deviates from the algorithm.

Some math students are good algorithmic thinkers. They can follow directions really well. However, when the problem changes slightly, they’re dumbfounded. If the word problem is told is a slightly different order with slightly different terminology, they are stuck. They don’t truly understand the topic; they only know how to copy the algorithm.

I could be a master googler. I could know how to access information rather than keeping any of that information in my brain. However, it means that my thinking is not only shallow, but also fragile. Any time I have to deviate from the exact directions, I’m lost.

That’s not to say that this type of thinking is completely useless. One’s knowledge is naturally shallow when one begins to learn a subject. Mastery, though, can’t come from shallow thinking. Instead, one must to expose one’s knowledge to those situations where one can’t follow directions. This conflict forces the mind to learn a subject more deeply. It means the knowledge becomes more robust. The end result in my field, for example, is that I’m able to actually program instead of copy and pasting code. Or I can troubleshoot a computer issue instead of googling and picking random things to try.