Monday, November 5, 2012

New York's man-made climate

Hurricane Sandy, 2012
By Aaron Sherman

Nothing like it had been seen in a very long time. The hurricane ripped through the eastern seaboard and washed away entire communities in New York and surrounding states. The financial mess that the nation had been through wasn't yet over and the blow came hard in the communities that it hit. It was brutal. It was 1788.

Nothing like it had been seen in a very long time. The hurricane ripped through the eastern seaboard and washed away entire communities in New York and surrounding states. The financial mess that the nation had been through wasn't yet over and the blow came hard in the communities that it hit. It was brutal. It was 1821.

Nothing like it had been seen in a very long time. The hurricane ripped through the eastern seaboard and washed away entire communities in New York and surrounding states. The financial mess that the nation had been through wasn't yet over and the blow came hard in the communities that it hit. It was brutal. It was 1938.

There are two things we know about New York weather:

  1. About once a century, a really nasty hurricane will hit.
  2. It's clearly precipitated by a financial crisis...

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Music on Amazon

Amazon now has a kind of cool feature where you can turn your purchasing history into a sharable bookshelf. The above collection is a random selection from the music that I've purchased over the years. Pretty slick, really.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Stocks don't get "punished" for missing estimates

You see it all the time, "so and so got punished for missing estimates." It's especially common in the press relating to a specific market segment, but isn't strictly a finance publication. The other day I saw this in numerous articles about Google. Here's what one Android Web site had to say:
Stocks -- or, more accurately, investors -- always react to quarterly results. Analysts keep detailed models of their expectations, and the average of these models is known as the “consensus estimate.”  If you miss consensus, as Google did, you get punished.
This is exactly wrong. There's no punishing going on.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Digging into politics: the political spectrum

One (U.S.) view of the political spectrum.
Politics is complicated, I'll grant, but the rampant misunderstanding of what the political spectrum actually looks like is often frustrating to me. First off, unlike the visual spectrum, it's not a line of various shades of color stretching from conservative to liberal, as many Americans seem to think. Instead, it's actually an incredibly complicated star with dozens of end-points. In this essay, I'm just going to touch on one aspect of it: how people view the function of government.

Imagine that you asked thousands of people to complete the sentence, "the government should exist to provide..." Like the old game show, we can imagine taking the top four answers to this question and laying them out in a grid. The most common  answers would probably be variations on, "benefit to society," "corporate liberty," "benefit to the individual," and "individual liberty." At their heart these describe who you think government should provide benefits to and who you think government should protect the rights of. As it turns out, while Democrats and Republicans would like to paint each other as enemies of individual liberty, both parties favor a balance between corporate and individual liberties. On the other hand, the traditional liberal position slides further out toward individual liberty.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What are Instant Runoff Voting and Approval Voting?

Voting is actually a very complex topic within political science and applied mathematics, but let me introduce you to the simplest form of two of the most popular alternative voting systems in the world: Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV) and Approval Voting (AV).

Both systems seek to solve a simple problem with the system that the United States (and most nations) currently use, which is called Plurality Voting (PV). That problem is that PV forces voters into two opposed camps, each camp taking one candidate as their "champion". This results in what often turns out to be a maximum of unhappy voters. For example, if you place people's views on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being the most liberal and 10 being the most conservative, PV tends to foster candidates that fall around the 2-4 and 7-9 range However, if your goal is to elect someone who represents the majority of Americans, it would certainly make much more sense to elect someone that falls into the 4-7 range and let the end-points tug that center-line back and forth. The problem is that centrists are essentially blocked out of PV systems because they are seen as "spoilers" for the extremes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Physics of Total Recall

Total Recall, which I just watched last night, has a lot of problems, but I'm going to ignore most of them. As with the first film, there's a central ambiguity about reality and which side of the looking glass most of the action takes place on. I'll ignore that. I just want to focus on the central plot device in the movie: the shaft and transport vehicle that goes through the center of the Earth. It's introduced in the very beginning of the movie, so there won't be any real spoilers here. I will mention a scene later on that involves the same shaft/vehicle. but I won't introduce enough context to be interesting.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Audacity of Change: Obama's Healthcare Gambit

Starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I began to hear an increasingly alarmed cry from certain political sectors about the fate of healthcare. As early as 1987, health care costs rose from #15 to #7 in the list of Americans' top worries about the future and  that only got worse. As the '90s wore on and into the '00s, I continued to hear two things:

  1. Because of the baby-boom, health care and retirement programs were going to run out of money.
  2. Because doing anything about it was complicated and fraught with risk, no politician was going to do anything about it until it was too late.
Pundit after pundit proclaimed this second point on the left and the right with all of the conviction of optimists slowly ground down into cynics by the repeated failure of their politicians to do anything challenging that would risk their political futures.
In 1993 and 1994 the Bill Clinton administration attempted to push the Health Security Act through congress. This was a true overhaul of health care in the United States, which provided for a set of regional health care alliances which managed the interaction between health insurance providers and consumers. It avoided the controversial "mandate" of Obama's plan by making health care premiums a tax which funded regional alliances.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Critical skills for new computer science graduates

So, you've decided to go to college for computer science. Good for you. I'm here to tell you that most of the time, you won't care about most of what you've been taught. In fact, what you need to know might not be obvious at all. In many cases, it's the secondary tools, not the abstract knowledge, that's most important, and that is a rarely communicated view that many graduates I see have never been informed of.

Here's what you need to learn (much of which you probably won't unless you seek out the knowledge on your own) before you graduate and start looking for work. When I interview people, I expect you to know these fundamentals as a starting point, and I ask questions that build past these basics. If everything on this list isn't second nature to you, then you probably won't be able to deal with the kinds of things that I'm going to want you to figure out in an interview at all.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

On the physics of Avengers

Obviously, this is going to be a spoiler-ridden analysis of the physics of the film. I can't imagine how I could cover this without spoilers, so you have been warned...

Hugo Weaving in Captain America
holding the tesseract.
The Avengers is a superhero movie, and as such, there's a lot of physics that we throw out the window in the name of the genre. The Hulk becomes massive, absorbing that mass from ... where? Is that an endothermic or exothermic process? We don't worry about it, because it's just a convention of the genre.

However, there is a long tradition of nit-picking aspects of the story in comics when the author makes a point of trying to use the science as the justification for plot elements. So, to move on to that...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Final Fantasy and other releases you weren't told about

I don't pay much attention to what's being released, direct-to-video in the U.S. except every 6 months or so, when I go review what's on Amazon. This is when I find some of the most surprising movies that I watch. For example, there was apparently another computer-rendered Final Fantasy movie (Final Fantasy VII, just to be confusing, since it's only the second  movie in the franchise). It's getting decent reviews, so I might have to check it out...

Also in the "well reviewed, but you've probably never heard there was a sequel," category are Ip Man 2 (there's a 3 being advertised on Amazon, but it's either a fake or a bad bootleg... hard to tell from the reviews... but 2 is real and the first was a good enough film to make me consider buying the sequel), Full Metal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos (which is a film based on the series, which is itself a reboot of a previous series which had its own film... so sequel?!) and the Alec Guinness version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I've somehow never seen.

These things just manage to sneak up on me, but sometimes it gets way out of control, and not always in a good way. Such is the case with Highlander which has had recent (as in the last 5 years) releases of an animated movie, Highlander - The Search for Vengeance and a live-action, direct-to-TV-and-then-video Highlander: The Source. The latter, being one of my top contenders for worst film of all time, right up there with Misery Brothers.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cabin in the Woods needs an "altquel"

Sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and franchise mergers are the meat of Hollywood's content-generating engine. From AvP to Rise of the Return of the Revenge of the Reinvented Reinstantiation, the modern cinema is all about rehashed revisionism. So, when I watched Cabin in the Woods, I immediately started to wonder: how can there be a sequel to this movie? Of course, I can't even explore why that's a difficult question without spoiling the film, and I won't do that in this posting. However, what I can say is that a sequel would have to be a very different story, and might not interest the same audience. A prequel could be interesting, but it might be slightly predictable, since we're told at a certain point in the film, pretty much exactly what has transpired before.

This is where I lit on the idea of the "altquel". That is, a sequel that follows the same events from the first film (perhaps from a slightly different perspective) up to a critical moment in the film, where a key even causes the two films to diverge. Essentially, it's the story of an alternate timeline or universe in which the same events lead up to very different results.

So why an altquel for Cabin in the Woods, specifically? Without indulging in spoilers, all I can say is that there is a moment in the film where we get a glimpse of what might have happened, had any one of several other actions been taken. It's a perfect jumping-off point for an altquel!

But, Cabin in the Woods is really more than just a horror movie. It's a postmodern, revisionist take on the state of the horror movie genre, so why go with a straight altquel? Why not tell all of the stories at once? How? OK, that will require spoilers, so let me give you some time to go watch the movie, first...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Quite possibly the worst film-review of all time

Sometimes reviewers just "don't get it". That's OK. I don't demand that they understand every sub-genre as well as its fans do, and it's still possible to review a film well when you don't understand the conventions of the sub-genre. Acting, writing, cinematography, costuming... these can all be evaluated in a semi-objective fashion, regardless.

That being said, professional reviewer Rex Reed recently decided to abandon all pretense of doing his job and submit a review of Cabin in the Woods which is so bad that it actually deserves a review of its own.

Before I get started, let me be clear: there will be massive spoilers in this review. See the movie first, then read this for the lulz. His review actually makes the movie a bit more fun, if that's actually possible.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Growth of Google+ and Where It Can Go Next

Google+ has been growing rapidly, it seemed to me... but I had no hard data. Then this came along:

that shows G+ hitting 100mil users
Faster than any other social service
This is slightly misleading in a way. There's a sort of tipping point, now, where any social media, primarily-text-oriented posting system will immediately absorb a very large number of users once it becomes "significant enough" to warrant mirroring corporate, celebrity and brand posts from other services. This is why you see The White HouseHugh JackmanNASA, and the like on Google+. It's not that they're not on Facebook and Twitter, and in fact, most of their postings are mirrored to all of these services.

Still, Google+ is certainly growing rapidly. I find that posts I used to be able to comment on have now ballooned into massive post-fests in which any comment I might have will be drowned out, and as with any other social venue, I find myself searching for more and more restrictive subcultures in order to find a group of peers with whom I can converse in a meaningful way. The ability to share circles with specific people is a real win. That definitely makes the process easier.

I feel that the G+ niche is going to be the corporate outreach and community/ecosystem building space. Google is already using it this way, if you look at some of their recent posts:
They use the service to find and build communities around their technologies. This is exactly what every technology company wants to see happen to their products, but it's hard to take those first few steps, especially because, to marketing people, this tends to smell like losing control of the message, and that's a cardinal sin in their books.

It will be interesting to see if other organizations can build this kind of ecosystem using Google's tools...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How to watch Babylon 5

Babylon 5 has been off the air for over 15 years, and there's now a whole new generation of science fiction fans who probably don't know about it, and definitely haven't seen it. If you start watching it straight through, I'm afraid you won't enjoy it. So this guide is here to help you to see the show in the best possible way.

You have to understand that it's a show that was finely honed for its audience and its presentation format. It built up a following by slowly ratcheting up the amount of story being developed and then delivering big "arc" episodes that drove all of the story lines forward at once. This makes for a great series, but a slow start. Many viewers see a couple of episodes and give up, assuming the show won't go anywhere.

The FX can be distracting as well. It was aired when HD was being talked about, so the episodes were filmed in wide-screen, but the FX shots were rendered for non-HD TV and then the master data files were lost in a fire, so if you see it in HD the special effects look even more cheesy than they should, given that they were created at the dawn of the computer-rendered FX age. In addition to the purely FX shots like the exterior, the show pioneered a lot of the virtual set work that has taken over the industry. These scenes too had to be transferred over from the original broadcast masters, and could not be re-rendered. That being said, the graphics are phenomenal, given what they had to work with, and one of the draws of B5 for the "hard SF" crowd is that space combat is highly realistic. Spacecraft don't bank in B5, for example, they pivot and thrust the way they should.

First off, get over the FX and buy the first season on regular DVD or watch it online on WB's site with commercials (no, there's no Blu-Ray because to do that, they'd have to re-build every FX shot from scratch, costing millions of dollars). The guide below assumes you have at least the first season available.

I will avoid spoilers as much as I can, but I suggest keeping a bookmark to this post and not reading ahead too far as you watch the series. I'm going to walk you through the first two seasons, telling you which shows to watch and which to skip. I'll also give you a sense of when to wait a while before seeing the next. This part is important, so try to stick with me, here.

My Low Carb Diet in Detail

As I've mentioned, before, I came dangerously close to gaining enough weight that I'd be back where I was before my first low-carb diet (which lasted about 2 years and helped me lose about 50 pounds). I was back to 250 pounds and feeling terrible. I had to use a CPAP machine again, and that was compounding how bad I felt.

So, I gave up. Thanks to Jeff's help, I've managed to get my life back into a low-carb routine. Now, because I find most low-carb diets horrifying, I think it would be useful for me to go over my diet. It's really this simple:

  1. Avoid all sources of mass starch and sugar (pasta, potatoes, grains and rice, sugar, honey, etc.)
  2. Reduce intake of high carb veggies (sweet fruit, non-potato root veggies like carrots, tomatoes, squashes, etc.)
  3. Trim intake of medium carb veggies (beans and other legumes, etc.)
  4. Reduce milk and juice intake (substitute cream or cheese where possible for whole or skim milk)
  5. Increase fiber intake (fiber supplements, use Fiber One as a garnish, etc.)
  6. Reduce or eliminate high-surgar alcoholic drinks like wine, beer and most mixed drinks.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I shouldn't be tracked by Google: A modest proposal

Google shouldn't track my behavior. That's a simple enough concept, but that seems to have been lost in recent days with the publication of their new privacy policy. Why is it that they can't keep their hands off of my data?

Well, I mean, I want them to manage my email, sure. That data they should manage, but they shouldn't read it. I mean, they should read it in order to format it, spam-filter it, check it for phishing links and invalid from-addresses. They should also read the attachments so that they can present me with easy ways of downloading or displaying them as needed. Oh and they should present contacts that are mailed to me in useful ways and allow me to import them into my contacts list. But they shouldn't be reading my mail, you know? Like for advertising. I know I could pay money and get a no-ads version of gmail through Google Apps, but I don't want to pay for it, I just want random ads for political candidates from other countries and arthritis medication instead of things I'm interested in. You know... because Google shouldn't be reading my mail.

And they definitely shouldn't be coordinating across their platforms. I mean sure, they should read all of my texts and instant messages so that I can easily index them along with my mail and search through the whole thing at once. I'd really like more features for adding tags to text messages through Google Voice too. But I just don't want them to read that stuff. You know, because it's ... icky.

Also, I'd like Google to stop sharing my private data with other companies. OK, I know they don't do that, but let's say they did. That'd be pretty annoying, right? See? Right, there. Google is doing annoying things to us! Google says their corporate motto is "don't be evil" (actually, it's part of the S1 filing with the SEC, a sort of proviso to potential stock holders that they'll do things like pull out of China if they feel they can't provide a helpful service without propping up the state system of censorship, but that's sort of the same thing, right?) But I think they are evil because they unified their privacy policy and say that their various products will share information. I mean, sharing my information is bad, right? Well, except that I do want it all to be available in ways that make sense. I mean, Google+ should definitely read my contacts and Google Calendar should be integrated with Google+ to allow Google Pages companies to share corporate events calendars. I'd also like to be able to share my free/busy time with circles. I just don't want that other kind of sharing ... because it's icky.

OK, I'll admit it, I don't really know what it is that I'm worried about. Yeah, Google gives me more choice, control and ability to take my data out of their services than anyone else. Sure, they champion the use of open standards that make the Internet a playground for entrepreneurs and technophiles alike. And I have to admit that they've fostered a boom in open source software development that has taken systems like Linux into the hands of millions of people. But none of that changes the fact that I'm kind of scared about a nebulous evil that I expect to be creeping around the door any second now.

Good thing Congress is getting involved. You don't see Facebook sharing ... well OK. But you don't see Yahoo distributing user information across ... well OK. But you don't see Cisco coordinating with the Federal ... Hmm. Well, it's just scary!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Low Carb Chocolate Shake / Hot Cocoa

I have gone back to a low-carb diet, the only thing that worked for me in the past, and once again I'm seeing pounds dropping at a surprising rate. To help others who want to try this, I thought I'd share my recipe for chocolate shakes and hot cocoa.

Low Carb Chocolate Shake / Hot Cocoa

(serves 4)

These are yummy, though you definitely should not go in expecting it to taste exactly like a regular shake. The primary reason for this is that milk has a fair amount of natural sugar, so you should replace as much as you can stand to avoid with water. Depending on how much water you use, this will taste less and less like a regular shake. To reduce the impact, you can buy protein powder to add, which brings back some of the full-bodied flavor of milk, but without the sugars.

  • 2 cups Whey Protein Isolate
  • 10 packets (or equivalent) artificial sweetener
  • 8 packed, level teaspoons dutch process cocoa powder
  • 4 very small pinches salt, a bit less than 1/8 tsp
  • 4 very small pinch nutmeg (fresh grated if possible, I use one-short pass over the microplane grater per cup)
  • 1/8th teaspoon cinnamon
  • 6 cups water (replace water with cream or milk to taste)
Stir and strain to remove any bits that did not dissolve. Refrigerate and shake before serving.

For the hot version, use the above recipe, add 1 raw egg and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla. Then whisk over low heat until the mixture begins to steam. Do not boil. A small amount of cream in place of some of the water is recommended for the hot version.