I am one for epic quests. We celebrated Tim Marzullo's 30th birthday this past Friday by playing Beatles Rockband. Tim is another for epic quests and adventures and instead of randomly picking songs, he decided that we were going to play all the songs, album by album in chronological order. After toasting to some fine Sonoma Merlot, we began to play at around eight in the evening.
I was introduced to the Beatles by my first guitar teacher at the age of 13. One day, after he had been teaching us for a few months he asked my brother and me if we listened to the Beatles. We both shook our heads and said that we never heard of them, much less listened to the songs about the Beatles. He made no response and the look on his face was beyond shock. That anyone would be so ignorant about the greatest band ever was a sort of cosmic error that needed to be immediately rectified. I think he came the very next day to drop a compilation album and either it was my brother or I who asked, "Are they pretty good?". All he said was, "Listen" and left.
I still remember that the first song on Side A was "Love Me Do". The wonderful and loud harmonica intro followed by three thumps on the drums and Lennon-McCartney singing "love, love me do" in unison. I was hooked. I listened to the whole album without a break and I wondered what was I thinking not to have checked them out before. They were awesome! This was the time when most people (including myself) were listening to Bryan Adams. It was that and learning to play an instrument that really got me started into collecting and listening to music.
From that point, I wandered forward and backward in time. My head literally exploded in the next year with all the sounds of the 60s and 70s. Everyone starts their musical exploration at some starting point, a place which is sooner or later forgotten. My starting point has been the Beatles, which has remained as a sort of a center which I return to no matter how far I travel. Every time when I return to them I always find something new and interesting that increases my appreciation for their genius.
Rockband and Guitar Hero dumb down of the effort required to play a real instrument (See old post). Does this inspire people to really take up learning to play? or is it a cop-out from actually learning one. For a party game, Rockband is great. The simplicity does make it inclusive and levels the playing field for musicians and non-musicians. My own experience of listening to some of the songs that I had not heard before, or not listened to very carefully, made me want to go back and learn to play them.
We finally got done at one in the morning. We had made it through every single one of the 45 Beatles Rockband songs and number of bottles of beer and wine. It has inspired another epic quest: to listen to all the Beatles albums in chronological order starting from Please Please Me (1963) through Let It Be (1970).
Beatles fans often declare allegiance to either the McCartney-is-better camp or Lennon-is-better camp. That is indeed silly. What I do wish is that the under-appreciated songwriting skills of Ringo Starr are given a nod. I absolutely loved this song, it got stuck in my head over the weekend.
I am one for epic quests. We celebrated Tim Marzullo's 30th birthday this past Friday by playing Beatles Rockband. Tim is another for epic quests and adventures and instead of randomly picking songs, he decided that we were going to play all the songs, album by album in chronological order. After toasting to some fine Sonoma Merlot, we began to play at around eight in the evening.
It was pouring all day and I decided to do the unholiest of unholies which is to drive to work. I got there, parked and then made my way to the parking meter and decided to pay. The meter maids in Ann Arbor are pretty diligent about dishing out the parking tickets.
At the parking meter some people needed help. They did not know how the machine worked. It takes credit cards and cash and has a bunch of options. I was glad to help. In the meantime, more people showed up and were waiting behind me which included my advisor.
When it was my turn, as I never have cash I had no option but to use my credit card. The machine just would not accept my credit card and like most places won't take American Express (there go my Delta skymiles). I tried this three times and the machine would not obey my commands. Given my masterful support performance a few minutes earlier, people in line knew that I was no newbie at the machine. It truly did not work. I said loudly, " Damn, this machine won't work. I have no cash". Then the girl behind me asked me, "Do you need a dollar?". That was pretty embarrassing. I said thanks and said that I would prefer to borrow the dollar from my advisor who was in line behind her. I was thinking that borrowing a dollar from someone I know is better than from a complete stranger.
My advisor Daryl pulled out dollar and responded with a priceless remark.
"I have been supporting this guy for years. What's a dollar more?"
Dinesh Krithivasan has done a stellar job for over 300+ questions, posting one almost every day on the U M Quizblog: http://umqc.blogspot.com/. While he recharges his batteries, I will be running the questions for a week or two.
Googling is encouraged (though I doubt where it will get you for today's question). It's a homage to quizzing in an oblique way. For those who worked out the answer already - you know what I mean.
Among the scientists polled, 87 percent think evolution is true and 84 percent agree that human activity is the cause of global warming, whereas the corresponding numbers among the public are 32 and 49, respectively.I took the Pew Science Quiz and got all the questions right(wipes brow an breathes sign of relief!)
Surveys like the Pew study are useful in alerting us to differences in opinion between scientists and the public, especially on scientific issues. It’s crucial that these divides be bridged to improve the quality of debate on social issues.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it." John 1:1-5MS Word crashed about half a dozen times and it really put the Apostle John's quote in perspective for me. Everyone knows MS products are crap. Of course the worst among them has to be MS Word. I learned my lesson a few years ago and stopped using Word for anything longer than 2 pages. LATEX combined with WinEdt works splendidly and I have written most of my work using it. The real advantage is that it has never crashed and thus I have never had to scream in frustration.
I do have nice things to say about Notepad which I do use frequently and it is perfectly adequate for most things. Microsoft, as my friend put it, is not a software company, but a standards company. You use it not because it is good, but because everyone else uses it. For the millions out there, if the damn thing crashes, you know MS WORD is still with God. Only he knows its mysterious ways. For the rest of us it's CTRL-ALT-DEL.
A veteran quizzer once told me that quizzing was not so much about knowing stuff, but was more about entertainment and having fun. I disagreed at that point thinking that such a remark was an act of high treason. Over the years, I have realised that quizzing is not a knowledge test. If it were so then quizzes would be like exams - timed and written. A written and timed test is the fairest way to judge who knows the most. All teams get the same questions, no question of order or luck. The team/person that got the highest number of correct answers would walk home with the prize. That's not the point, is it? The point is to have fun.
Over the years, people have obsessed over the best format that minimizes luck and ensures that the team that knows the most (read: best) wins. Quizzing innovations is an activity which has almost become a kind of cottage industry among quizzers with time on their hands. I am about to add more to that body of literature. That being said IMHO, my experience suggests that there is no point looking for the Holy Grail of a perfect format. A good quiz depends on ensuring three simple things in order of importance:
a) The format should be the 'modified infinite bounds with a midway reversal'.
All questions have equal points, the next question to the team to the left/right of the team that answered it. If the question is unanswered then the original teams gets the next question. Order reverses halfway during the quiz.
b) A long quiz.
I think for 5-6 teams there should be at least >40 questions. A factor of 10 is ideal. Even the old system of rounds with pass-direct questions (full points for direct, and half for a pass question) would be okay provided the quiz was long enough.
c) Questions, questions, questions.
The greatest evil is not the format, or the order, or marking scheme -- but bad questions. If questions are set correctly, spread over different topics evenly, and are of similar difficulty then the quiz will be fair and the best team 'should' win.
In practice, luck and order does play somewhat of a role even in the modified infinite bounds format, though b) should take care of it to some extent. The critical issue is to normalize questions in some fashion. Why normalize? Each quizmaster (QM) has his/her own personal strength (read: fetish) and quizzes as a result tend towards personal idiosyncrasies. The good QM is diligent about this and goes about setting questions keeping in mind those biases (knowing the QM and his/her strengths can help you work out the answer, cause you can guess what he/she knows, and how he/she sets questions). One way to do it, as is usually done for big quizzes, is to have two or more question-setters with divergent interests.
Despite the best intentions of the QM(s): all questions are not equal, some are more equal than others. A QM may think that a question is reasonably difficult, but may turn out to be a sitter. On the other hand, some questions are way too tough and end up being unanswered. Personally, if more than 10-15% of questions end up this way then the QM did a bad job. You cannot go about an weigh each question for difficulty.
The other aspect is that there should be some drama, some element of excitement in a quiz. I am a fan of 'buzzer-rounds' which have fallen out of favour in recent times. It provided that adrenalin-rush and rewarded quick recall and reflexes which are sadly missing from the current slow-cooking style. The current trend is away from the fireworks and some quizzes have written components at the start. This is bad, bad, bad.
Long story short. I tried out two innovations at the quizclub. Each team was given two wildcards to allow them to Pounce or Bounce a question.
Pounce: You can attempt a question out of turn. The team has to write down the question or tell the quizmaster before the question is attempted by any of the other teams in regular fashion. There are no negatives and a correct answer get full points.
Bounce: You can bounce a question to the team of your choice. If team doesn't answer it correctly they get -(full points), and if they do answer it correctly they get the full points. Regardless of the outcome, the team bouncing gets the next question.
The rationale behind the Pounce rule was to ensure that sitters can attempted by all. In the past, with great difficulty I have resisted urges to destroy the chair I was sitting on, or strangling the person who smirks when handed a sitter as a direct while I was left wringing my hands in despair. Often, close quizzes are decided on the basis of which team got slightly easier questions. This is where the Pounce comes in. Jump in on question out-of-queue. Grab a sitter. Of course, a team can misjudge the opponents knowledge and would end up with the question in the regular course of events.
The rationale behind the Bounce rule is to induce some excitement and additionally serves as a handicap for the obviously better team(s). There are always going to be a few questions that seem so unreasonable and tough that no one can answer them and a weaker team can either direct it towards the strongest team, or to their closest rival to level the playing field. Of course, if a team is really good and they can actually answer the question that seemed 'too tough' then all the better for them.
Innovations in practice:
This weekend when I tried these out and found the results mixed. No one team used the Bounce rule. They all played too nice, perhaps fearing retribution. The Pounce rule was used by all teams to good effect. Only once out of six times did a team not answer the question correctly. In all six cases, the team would not have got the question in the regular order and judged the moment of 'pouncing' correctly.
This was the casual Saturday quiz and not the best testing ground when there were only three teams and no one was too worried about winning or losing as there was nothing at stake. I curious to see how this works out in a longer, larger quiz more at stake. These rules do favour teams that can fake emotions of knowing or not knowing answers depending on the situation. A tight quiz can almost be like a poker game.
You can sometimes work out the answer being seeing who knows it.
See analysis of the Infinite Bounds on the BCQC blog that waxes philosophical on this topic. Looking for the link to a list of the more innovative formats proposed. Anyone?
Cross-listed on BCQC's quiz blog.
Every man is wise when attacked by a mad dog; fewer when pursued by a mad woman; only the wisest survive when attacked by a mad notion.This quote was too long for twitter which is the ideal sort of thing for this kind of stuff. Cutting the quote into two tweets would not be fair.
Wonderful insight. A mad notion is more dangerous than being chased by a mad woman - I can buy that.
I don't like people. Which is why I don't understand racism. Of all the things that you could hate someone for, you are going to go with 'color'?Unlike Mr. Auslander (interesting name for a misanthrope!), I do like people. Usually it's hard for me to shut up up at parties, but occasionally I do listen and it's just as much fun. Of course, at parties where people know only a few other people, everyone is being very nice and polite to each other. It's supposedly called the 'cocktail party' syndrome. Though, I think that actually having cocktails would loosen a few tongues. Since this party was a high school graduation party, coupled with the fact that it was for an Indian kid, the alcohol was securely locked up. In any case, Indians are not so much into drinking as they are into eating. There was good food and plenty of it!
-Shalom Auslander (quoted approximately) in today's episode of This American Life
It's always too late when you realize how good you really had it. I was trying to pass myself off as a student and heaping more food onto my plate when someone blew my cover. Suddenly, I had to stop eating and say something intelligent. I surprised myself, given the short notice, that I managed to say something a few profound sentences, throw some technical terms and then went back to my eating. Personal Rule Never, never disclose your dissertation title or topic voluntarily. No one is that interested. The only people who ask you about your PhD topic are the ones who have similar degrees themselves, or are potential aspirants for one. The rest of humanity screams, "You didn't have to. You had me at Dr.?" The biggest bummer has been to lose my 'student' status. Suddenly, prices for conferences, movies, museums, and even the gym have gone up. You are expected to 'grow up', start wearing nice clothes, and stop pretending to be a starving student. Paradise Lost!
Cricket has a slight emasculating quality that does not really qualify it as a sport, IMHO. I enjoyed cricket and played it often. It's really impossible to avoid. My style of batting was 'hit out or get out' and thus extremely suicidal. I almost always got out being caught off a mis-hit, never bowled. There were a few times that I was run-out and it was because of some turd of a person at the other end who wouldn't risk it. I stopped following cricket after I got here. There are ways and means to play and follow cricket, but the sport did not have that sort of attraction for me that I would bother waking up at odd hours, or attempt to download some obscure software to watch bootlegs. Now an Indian not showing adequate enthusiasm for cricket are possible grounds for loss of citizenship, or at least the love of your friends.
The talk at the party was mercifully not about cricket (which I didn't know anything about), but about Indian politics. Like cricket, this interest was also abandoned after I landed in Columbia, a.k.a. the home of the brave and free. It seemed rather peculiar that Indian expats love to talk about Indian politics even after embracing American citizenship. At this party, I did not hear American or even world politics being discussed at all. It seems odd that while most Indians vote Democrat, their visions and views of Indian politics and policy are so much like the Republican agenda. It is bewildering to keep track of the sudden shifts and current math of coalition politics. Given my lack on interest in Indian cricket or politics, I am one strike away from losing my status as an Indian citizen. I am wondering what's gonna be the third strike.
The abuse is finally showing. My body has been lately rebelling against coffee and I have to limit my intake to one cup a day. Oddly, the un(in)dependence from coffee has coincided with my graduating. Having switched to tea as the post-prandial drink of choice, I bravely discover the brand new world of tea.
Apart from region of origin, coffee is mostly coffee. The variety in coffee drinks comes from the method of combination and preparation. The basic tea leaf comes in more varieties than coffee. If you manage to stumble into one of the specialized tea houses like (eg: Argo tea) your problem won't be deciding between a grande or venti, but in deciding whether you want to have the South American matte or hibiscus tea. The choices are bewildering and it takes a while to develop a taste for the more exotic varieties.
Starbucks, the bellwether of the coffee industry, has recently reported to indulge in some stealthy, sneaky practices. In my opinion it's not so much the local coffee shop, but public tastes have shifted to tea. Coffee shops aren't as hip as they used to be. My own anecdotal observation supports more new tea-houses in Ann Arbor than coffee shops. The self-respecting hipster would rather be caught drinking tea than sipping a latte.
Personally, drinking tea from a bag is quicker and less messier than brewing coffee, especially an espresso shot. Of course, the right way to make tea is to brew it fresh with tea leaves and not use tea-bags. I treat this as coffee rehab, so nothing fancy.
Next year's trend: lemonade and energy-drink bars.
Today's issue of the BBC magazine describes proper clapping etiquette:
To Clap or Not To Clap.
At a rock concert it is considered acceptable to applaud like a maniac, whoop, holler, punch the air, and even shout "rock 'n' roll" at the end of every song, should you see fit. But this is not the case in the world of classical music. You will find aficionados who sneer at "those people who clap after every movement". And the Time Out listing magazine's classical editor Jonathan Lennie has caused a minor kerfuffle in this rarefied world by going one step further and criticising those people who clap the microsecond a concert is over. In an open letter to the "Loud Clapping Man Who Sits Behind Me At Concerts", Lennie wrote: "Having sat through a long and profound work, why do you have to start making a racket as soon as you perceive it to be over?"These conventions have been around for a while and as Alex Ross points out(New Yorker article) most of these conventions are bourgeois inventions. They made classical music such a class act in the middle of the 19th century. He quotes James Johnson’s “Listening in Paris,” describing a typical night at the Paris Opéra in the years before the French Revolution:
... He insists that for some sombre pieces, a period of dignified silence after the last note is played is essential to appreciation.
While most were in their places by the end of the first act, the continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped. Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre, the floor-level pit to which only men were admitted. Princes of the blood and dukes visited among themselves in the highly visible first-row boxes. Worldly abbés chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony—the paradise—away from the probing lorgnettes.He further writes:
In other words, the opera served mainly as a playground for the aristocracy. The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing. Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé. Johnson quotes a nobleman writing, “There is nothing so damnable as listening to a work like a street merchant or some provincial just off the boat.”And to think of all that clamor about clapping at the right moment.
After this morning's 9am weekly lab meeting, I think it's time to adopt the 'cap and trade' idea used for carbon credits to discussions and questions during lab meetings. The idea occurred to me as someone droned on and on for the umpteenth time with impunity. There are always people who fear too silence, especially their own, during a meeting. They feel obliged to say something no matter how irrelevant or tangential it may be to the question at hand. Then there are those who take an unbearably long time to report on their activities of the past week. The 3-minute timer in their heads never goes off.
I put forth a Cap and Trade Meeting format for all the efficient managers of meetings everywhere. Assuming a lab group of 12 people, we start off with everyone getting 3 questions and 5 minutes of talking time. If you feel obliged to say more or cannot control your natural enthusiasm then you have to buy 'talking time' from someone who would rather be quiet. The currency of exchange can be money, or even something arbitrary, or more useful (as in the case of the present author) a mug of coffee.
This balances fairness and freedom. You can't really avoid the noise polluters from polluting but it does provide an incentive to talk less and talk more sense as a consequence. The wonderful aspect is that perhaps there will be a time when no once wants to say a single word and everyone preserves their talk time. Ah! then that silence will be so golden. It will be a Zen moment.
Malcolm Gladwell has a gift for sticky phraselogy, and why not? he wrote an entire book on it. His first book The Tipping Point made 'stickiness' a new buzzword. If his first book was about how things/ideas manage to cross a threshold after which there is no looking back, his latest book Outliers is about success itself. He looks at the fundamental reasons for success.
If you don't have time to read through the 300 pages of the book, don't be alarmed. It has chiefly four points. To be successful you need:
1) To work hard (>10,000 hours at something).
2) To be at the right place at the right time.
3) To be only above average smart, but not a genius.
4) To leverage or adjust your cultural advantage/ disadvantages.
None of the above are anything but conventional wisdom. Yet, the book is an interesting read only because Gladwell is so incredibly gifted at paraphrasing the obvious and coming up with interesting examples.
The 10,000 hour rule at first seemed a very good quantification of expertise, but then you realise that it's fairly obvious. A PhD takes about 10,000 hours of work (5 years x 50 weeks/year x 40 hrs/week), and about the same amount of time if you combined an undergrad + master's degree.
Once armed with the right stuff, we all know we have to also be located at correct spot in space and time to even have a chance to grab the opportunity when it comes knocking. It's an interesting observation that being born around 1955 was a good thing for Jobs, Gates, and others as it enabled them to jump into the PC revolution. Ultimately, is this really useful? We are simply unaware what skills will be valuable in 20 years that we can prepare. It's mostly just dumb luck to a large extent that some people come out on top.
We all know that to simply be smart is not enough. This reminds me of Richard Feynman, reported to have an IQ of 124 (just above average), who joked that winning a Nobel prize was no big deal, but to do that with an average IQ of 124, now that was genius!
There is no need to waste any more ink on cultural environment and the important role that it plays in eventual success. Sometimes it makes me guilty to think about my own accident of birth. There was at least one kid running around begging for a meal, who if he had half my advantages while growing up, would have done twice as much.
Most of Gladwell's work is good journalism, but he often falls short of good science. The most astounding leap that he makes is to draw the conclusion that rice farming teaches patience that makes Asians better at math since it teaches persistence and attention to detail. There is something to be said about language and how Asian languages are more calculation-friendly in terms of syntax. But, mathematics is not just merely arithmetic. Even if we consider calculation efficiency as an indicator of math skills, it would be interesting to show that American-born Asians who don't speak their mother tongues are somehow worse at math than their Asian counterparts who do. Indian languages are perhaps syntactically worse as we have more unique words for numbers than English, yet we are pretty good calculators. Why? A quick reason is that we have large families and children have to learn to add and count fast. I dislike these 'gee-whiz' sort of explanations.
The local independent bookstore in Ann Arbor - Shaman Drum is closing down and is selling everything at a 35% discount (really 35%, not just 'up to 35%'!). I went there last week and it was a like a a garden that was picked clean of the most beautiful flowers. I know of people who have been camping out there for days.
However, after some searching I did get a few books that I have always wanted at a nice knocked-down price and I wondered how they ever escaped the notice of the thousands of other book lovers in the City of Ann Arbor.
Shaman Drum has(d) the best and most knowledgeable staff and a great selection of books. It was a bookstore's bookstore. It's always great to have people around who can not just show you around, but also make great suggestions and tell you that your choice is excellent. Of course, good service is appreciated, but not everybody would like to pay extra for it. For a college town, it did not have such great discounts compared to Borders across the street. Perhaps, there is something fundamentally wrong in having a book-lover or music lover run a bookstore. I have yet to see them make money on a consistent basis. Either you are a lover or a seller.
When I checked out the lady at the counter packed my books in a Shaman Drum paper bag that read: "Shaman Drum Bookshop (www.shamandrum.com)" on side, and "Love your Local" on the other. Apparently, not much love for the local and independent. Like the paperbag this local, independent bookstore is going to get recycled too.
Rafa has pulled out of Wimbledon citing tendinitis and there won't be any epic final. This is a huge disappointment to everybody. I was reading some articles on The Championship and it was pointed out that since Federer got married he has not lost a single game and is 12-0 at this point. A perfect example of idiotic sports statistic. Nothing really wrong with the observation. It's fact. The annoying aspect is the sneakiness of the implied inference. To imply that Federer has become sort of super-human after his marriage, is what I call a pathetic inference from sports stat(PISS). The writer went on to suggest that Nadal should get married to his long-time girlfriend to improve his record.
It's almost impossible to watch any kind of sport w/o some appearance of these aberrant phenomena. With all kinds of data available and human tendency to find some sort of pattern in any collection of junk, our screen gets filled with these PISS facts over the course of the match. It's great to get a breakdown of the spots where the service lands, or errors on the forehand over the course of the game. These are concrete things that matter in the context of the current game, more so because they are temporally quite close to the matter at hand.
Most sports, and tennis in particular, is decided when one ball lands wide, or when one party makes a crucial error, or takes a single risky shot. He gets broken and the set is finished. At such moments, players aren't really getting any better or worse cause their former girlfriend is now his wife.
In reality, the players play and the counters count. As watchers, let us watch and spare us the PISS.
For quite a while Federer the Master lived atop a high, inaccessible peak. A life of ease. He lived even above Superlatives, above everyone who stepped on a tennis court, bathed in glorious Apollonian light. He was the supreme artist. Opponents did not quake in fear when they faced him, they just stood and let the Master do his thing. The guy was Perfection personified.
Then like in a Greek myth came along Rafa, the lion tamer from a magical island in Spain. This was a hulk whose topspin was like human dynamite. Only he dared to scale those Olympian heights. He showed that at least on the red clay he was the master of the Master. Finally, at Wimbledon in the Master's own backyard green he shattered the myth of invincibility. Youth triumphed over experience, muscle over elegance, and will over tradition. It was an old prophecy that since Federer was right-handed and dextrous, his vanquisher would be left-handed and sinister. Rafa, showed that Federer was no God, a King nevertheless, but still a mortal. The mountain was illusory; it was just a high pedestal. Rafa proved that again in the far-away Land of Oz.
Then they said that Rafa was the new King. He was born of a human mother but fathered by a God. Since then there have been two kingdoms - Federerland and Rafaistan ruled by two mighty warriors, both demi-gods. No one dared disturb the two Titans when they clashed on red, blue or green.
Since Wimbledon 2004, if you are not named 'Federer' or 'Nadal', you are not going to win any major tennis championship (They won 18 out of the last 20 Slams). With the odd exceptions during the Australian Open in 2005(Safin) and 2008(Djokovic), the Big Two have strangled everyone else.
For the last four years the French Open has been open to all players, but not for winning. You are welcome only if you are content to get the participation certificate. Of course a certain Swiss wasn't too happy to sit back and get the runner's up medal year after year. So this year, with the exit of Nadal the French Open became very interesting. Gone was the aura of Nadal's invincibility on clay. The crown rests rather lightly.
On one hand we had the rising stars and then old King, so to speak. Federer has still been a dominant force despite his losses to Nadal. But, this is a different Fed. There have been fewer and fewer easy matches, as opponents have dared to take a slug at the Master. King Federer is not that poetic master any more. His mental makeup seems more fragile (human, did anyone say)
The Murrays, Djokovics and Del Potros have been genuine contenders, Princes-in-Waiting for the final act of regicide. Then suddenly out of nowhere comes Robin Soderling, who in comparison to the new princes is like the street urchin who crashes the party and finds himself at the banquet table. I have great respect for his game and current form. This Swedish gunslinger simply unloaded on biggest baddie ever to step on the clay court. So earth-shaking was this event that the other princes in waiting got killed in their own gunfight. He later showed that this was no mere flash in the pan.
So what should King Fed do? Reward him for his giant-killing skills? or slaughter him as a proxy for his nemesis? As King Federer has looked less and less regal in recent tournaments, even Robin Soderling can fancy his chances. From the Soderling-Gonzalez game yesterday, Federer cannot be tentative. He has to step on the court like a champion. Soderling is no long distance runner. He managed to get it done, but blew a 2-0 lead and was 4-1 down in the final set in the semi. Federer is perhaps the best closer the game has seen. The only way to get Fed these days is to win the first set and then try to stay ahead. Monfils almost succeeded in his QF by keeping it tight, but then he lost it mentally and let go of the rest of the match. Soderling seems have veins that have ice in them.
The key to the game tomorrow is going to be the first set. If Federer wins the first set then I guess Soderling can bank on a also-ran, 'I did my best' refrain. However, if the Robin of Spring does win the first set, we are in for a thriller.
On a side note: When we talk of legends, we also have the soothsayers--That silvered-haired Bjorn Borg does have a black tongue. Last time he predicted quite confidently that Nadal would win both the French and the Wimbledon. This time he predicts that compatriot Soderling will go all the way. The commentators said that he sent Nadal a thank-you note to ensure that his 5-straight record was kept intact. I guess this time, Robin got a thank-you note for keeping is his 4-straight record at Rolland Garros intact.
The Renaissance Center is one of the singularly most impressive buildings in Downtown Detroit. The magnificent set of towers rise at the edge of the waterfront that connects Lake Erie to Lake St. Clair. If you swam across the river for a few minutes you would be in Canada. The Renaissance Center has the offices of the Canadian consulate in one of the smaller towers. The main tower is the home of General Motors which declared bankruptcy yesterday. The GM CEO used to be one of the highest paid CEOs and now the company has no money to pay him.
I feel really bad for Detroit. The glory days of Detroit are long gone, but many people have tried valiantly to clean up the image of the poster-child for urban wasteland. There have been so many creative attempts to revive the city. For example, the lovely Riverwalk Project (a promenade along the Detroit river)was mostly sponsored by GM. Now work seems to have slowed down for sections that are yet under construction. What's worse than having no beautiful projects? Beautiful but incomplete projects. With the car companies going under there are few companies willing to pay for stuff, and the way the state seems to going, there might not be anybody in the mood for scenic river walks either. The only alternative seems to be Keynesian intervention, but will the tax-payers agree?
Lots of buildings at the U of M were also paid for by Chrysler and GM. The University has either been rather canny or reflective of the times, as most recent buildings and donations have come from real-estate moguls or financial whizzes. I am wondering with the collapse of auto, real-estate and finance who is going to even have a pocket to pay for future endowed chairs and buildings at the University. There are going to be more students. As the economy tanks, people more people go back to school because they lose jobs or feel they need to be more qualified to more competitive in the marketplace.
When I entered the impressive main foyer of the central tower to make my way to the Canadian consulate, I saw a huge GM 100th anniversary banner from last year that read: "It's been 100 years, and we have only got started". In less that five days after seeing that banner, I saw GM no longer listed on the Dow Jones index and filing for bankruptcy. Motown is going to be Notown if there ain't gonna be any Motors left.
Some national parks have long waiting lists for camping reservations. When you have to wait a year to sleep next to a tree, something is wrong.
- George Carlin
(This post had been decaying in the drafts folder and I felt that I resuscitate it in memory of last May. My feet are itching for a hike.)
The green, rolling hills around San Francisco give way to the desert scrub of the Sonoran Desert. Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, magnificent mountains rise and you are at the edge of Yosemite. Yosemite is the oldest and the most famous of all national parks. Arriving at the edge you climb, and climb to end up at the Big Flat Oak entrance. Your first look at the Yosemite Valley takes you by surprise. The sheer size of monolithic granite walls stuns you. You can stare at all the photographs you want to of the valley, but you get a real sense of scale and appreciation for the grandeur when you are actually there.
The granite of Yosemite is the Mecca for rock climbers. If you are crazy enough, you can scale El Capitan which takes about 2-3 days. A climb during which you not only sleep on a ledge, but also eat and pee suspended thousands of feet above the ground. Climbers from all over the world come and often work for the park during the week so they can indulge in their passion for climbing on the weekend.
Our aims were less lofty, but still intense as we wanted to hike as much as possible and also do Half Dome. We managed to acquire the much-coveted overnight backcountry pass to Little Yosemite Valley. It is almost necessary to escape the Yosemite Valley because it gets overcrowded and resembles a zoo. Going there in the spring was a great idea. This the season when the waterfalls are full from the snow melt. School is still not out, and so the Valley is not yet overrun with visitors. Yet, you can get away if you really wish as most visitors rarely leave the valley and are mostly content looking at the waterfalls and the peaks from afar. John Muir and Ansel Adams would have lived in vain if this was all there was to the park.
Getting a back-country pass gives you a right to camp on the 'secret' backcountry camping ground. This is a rather well-kept secret and even the rangers give you a knowing wink. Set apart from the main Yosemite campgrounds by a footbridge and sheltered under the Three Sisters, it is far enough from the rather annoying trailers and buses. These monstrosities defeat the whole idea of camping and living in the wild. Why come here if you want to watch cable TV?
We settled in, got our rudimentary fire working. For the life of me, to this day, I have not figured out how you can really use two stones to create enough sparks to light a fire. I say this because I tried it in vain before I decided to walk on a paved path (how ironic) to the Yosemite supply store from our campsite. Why? I forgot to get a lighter. Where are the smokers when you need them? We stretched on our sleeping pads, read books, and snoozed.
Later in the evening, wanting to take advantage of the yello light I walked to Mirror Lake and got some wonderful reflections of Mt. Watkins and Half Dome before it started drizzling. Photography is as much about patience as it is about light. You have to wait for the right moment. What would I not give to get a month to live here? Ansel Adams whose photography defines Yosemite spent months on end here. Yet, some of his best photographs were taken when he had only one or two plates left. First you work hard to develop your craft, then you learn patience, so that when the time comes you are ready to seize the correct moment. Digital cameras give people flexibility to correct an exposure or composition instantly and retake the shot, but you still have to wait for the right moment. Some people have the tendency, which I call the 'Monte Carlo method of photography', which is to simply take a whole bunch of pictures without any thought and then hope that you will get a few that will really stick.
Our goal primary goal was to climb Half Dome. After having stared at pictures of the peak for years, now that it was in front of me, I wanted to go and grab it. From a distance the texture of Half Dome resembles elephant skin. Gray, tough to feel with grooves and striations. It's almost like it wasn't a mountain but a giant statue of a large, lumbering mammal that could come to life. A hike to Half Dome is a 17-mile roundtrip, and is done in a day (a long one). Since, we had the backcountry pass, our route was more leisurely (read long). We first went up to Glacier Point by bus and then hiked along the Panorama Trail to reach the Little Yosemite Valley.
The famous vertical face of Half Dome can be seen from most parts of the Valley and is only a few miles away. However, the recommended ascent is from the back which involves a circuitous route ending at the famous Saddle Point. From the Little Valley its only 4-5 miles to Half Dome and we got there early in morning before the crowd from the valley below even made it to the halfway point. To be on Half Dome before it starts resembling a circus and the cables to the ascent becomes a giant human caterpillar is a sheer joy!
Making our way back, we had to pack our tent and sleeping bags and make our way down. This time we would take the most direct route to the valley. If you thought that climbing up was hard with a large backpack, then wait till you have to start climbing down. Unlike people carrying water bottles who can skip their way down the switchbacks, we had to walk like pack animals in a zig-zag fashion, perhaps traversing eventually twice the distance. Nothing gets more attention from a fellow human beings than another fellow human being strapped like an animal. We did get a lot of brownie points for being 'hard-core' when it comes to hiking.
The trails have these rusted metal signpost with the destinations and distances. There is Clouds Rest, other lakes, and also signs for the 211 mile John Muir Trail which begins in the Yosemite Valley and continues to Mt. Whitney. It gets a lot hard-core than our baby steps. Someday, when I have three weeks to spare I will get on it too. But, these are passing thoughts. The more pressing thoughts are of food. At the end of the hike, we were dead tired and ready to eat a horse. There is only so much baked beans and Ramen can do for you.
We had no strength to even get on the bus that took us back to where our car was parked and where the restaurant was located. In the food-court we were probably the dirtiest pair. We had spent the last 3 days in the wild and we looked like it. As we ate we could see the sun setting and the glorious water from the Yosemite Falls gushing down.
Yosemite Photo Album
Group Theory in the Bedroom and Other Mathematical Diversions is Brian Hayes's set of collected essays from the American Scientist.
Full marks for the slightly risque title that will pique anyone's interest, but the book has nothing to with mathematics of partner swapping. The subject of the investigation is to find the golden rule for mattress flipping. Mattresses should be flipped periodically to ensure that all sides of the mattress get equal wear. It's easy enough to see that there are 4 possible configurations: (Side A, Side B) x (Top, Bottom). The goal is to find one rule, or a set or rules, that you can apply each time to perform a set of operations that ensures that you end up cycling through all 4 configurations.
If you only flip (along the long or short axis) you cycle through only two sides - A and B. If you only rotate in a plane then you cycle through - Top and Bottom. Using group theory, Hayes shows why there is no golden rule. You cannot perform the same set of operations again and again because the mattress is a Klein-4 group . A rotate and a flip along the short axis is the same as a flip on the long axis. Any set of two operations are equivalent to one operation. This proves to be the undoing of any rule, as we know that any ONE set of operations is not enough to cycle through all 4 configurations. So, you either need a fixed schedule, or a set of markers to ensure you do an opposite set of operations.
Being a kinda random fellow, I best liked Hayes's analysis of the effects of random flipping. If you randomly performed any one operation on a quarterly-basis then, on average, one side will get 31% of the wear instead of ideal 25%. A rather tolerable discrepancy of 6%. Then he goes on to discuss tire rotation and shows why that is completely different beast since it is a cyclic-4 group and hence there is a golden rule - "quarter turn clockwise (or anti-clockwise)".
What is most interesting about the book is that all these mathematical diversions start as anecdotes and rather innocuously. Consider the problem of partitioning a set of players into two teams: a problem that is encountered and solved on thousands of galli cricket and football 'fields' every day. The usual practice is to select two captains who then toss to decide who picks first. Then they go turn-by-turn to pick the rest of the players. Naturally, the players are chosen in order of ability. In general, this rule results in fairly balanced teams. Hayes calls this the Greedy Algorithm, because at each step the largest number (if you assigned numerical values to the strengths of the players) is chosen in each partition. In reality, of course this partitioning problem is quite a hard one, more technically, it's an NP complete problem and there are number of other algorithms, including the Karmarkar-Karp difference algorithm, but no optimal one. Then Hayes goes on to show why this does not matter on the playing field because on a log scale, abilities don't differ that much between strongest and weakest players and the simple 'greedy' partitions are reasonable without the need for fancy partitioning.
I greatly enjoyed reading the other chapters on namespaces, gear train ratios, and finding the continental divide. If only, mathematics was taught this way in schools.
Why no spoon?
Why no finger-bowl?
Why the drinking glass on always on the right-hand side?
and no chai and Indian-style filter coffee?
In seeking nostalgia it can often turn out to be a frustrating and disappointing experience. Food that even my dog won't eat.
And one thing that you should not to do at Indian restaurants: Don't order the cocktails. They are terrible. Given that it hard to screw them up. Better still - ask for the wine menu or help with those selections.
It took me a while to figure out how to use the SMS on my phone. I don't use it much in the US. For some reason it is rather expensive than it is here in India (~15c and 40c for international messaging) and it that is the subject of US federal investigation. As we all know, text messages consume very little bandwidth compared to voice transmission, so they should be much cheaper.
I was typing a message and I wanted to use the word 'nostalgic'. The T9 system did not have it in the internal dictionary. It was perhaps technology's polite way of saying - 'perhaps a shorter word would do, your show off! As a matter of fact, even 'fuck' is not in the dictionary; you have to add it your personal dictionary if you use it often. You live and learn.
Pondering more over this, I figured out a good game to play when you are bored which I call SMS whacking. The object is to use words that the T9 system won't recognize. Understandably, 'intransigent' was not part of the T9 dictionary. But, it's not always be big words. It did not know 'phlegm'. The funnest part is to find really small and common words that T9 won't recognize.
'exuberance' - yes
'recondite' - no
'abstruse' - yes
'Machiavellian' - no
'squaw' - no
'brie' - yes
'locquacious' - no
'pithy' - no
'lugubrious' - yes
My lovefest with books continues this week with a review of
James Wood's: How Fiction Works.
I am off to read some more...
#1 The Outline of Science, Vol. 1 (of 4) by J. Arthur Thomson (21431)
#2 Manners, Customs, and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period by P. L. Jacob (16654)
#3 Illustrated History of Furniture by Frederick Litchfield (11252)
#4 The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana by Vatsyayana (10522)
#5 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (9269)
#6 Searchlights on Health by B. G. Jefferis and J. L. Nichols (9007)
#7 History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary Ritter Beard (8348)
#8 Our Day by William Ambrose Spicer (8004)
#9 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (7354)
#10 The People's Common Sense Medical Adviser in Plain English by Ray Vaughn Pierce (6712)
I stumbled across this while searching for some other texts. Only #4, #5 and #9 are the well-known ones. It seems rather bizarre that people are downloading the History of Furniture, the Dress from the Middle Ages more often than the Kamasutra or Pride and Prejudice (No need for a gender-based query, we all know!). Good to know that Science is trumping them all, or is the web full of only dweebs?
I am really perplexed. Any ideas?
The safety razor was a great improvement over the cutthroat razor. But, after that it invention for the sake of marketing. To maintain customer curiosity, Gillette and friends come up with 'new' razors everytime I go to get a replacement.
There was Mach, then MACH III and MACH with a vibrating blade. I mean these are razors... not motor cars that can be endlessly customized, enhanced, improved. But, these guys will find something. I think the Onion really put a lid on the ridiculous improvements.
F*** everything, we are doing five blades.
When I do see five blades in the pharmacy aisle, I am gonna roll on the floor laughing.
This house on Main Street usually had a sign advertising guitar and music lessons. While running by the store a few days ago, I saw that the sign had been altered to read - "Guitar Hero and Rock Band lessons also offered".
Guitar Hero and Rock Band are video games that have become hugely popular. When I first saw the 'guitar', I was shocked at how toy-like it was. Of course, the Guitar Hero guitar IS a toy and not really a guitar. It's nothing but a glorified joystick that is shaped like a guitar. One of my other labmates who does play a real guitar was humbled at his attempts to display his axe-skills on Guitar hero. Guitar skills don't translate to the video game.
Perhaps, no one cares about real instruments anymore, and music teachers would rather teach anybody anything than go hungry. Learning an instrument is hard. Even to play decently it takes a few years. My own struggles with it have only reinforced the view that it requires a lot of patience, determination and discipline. Of course, once you are past the first stage, the fact that you can play can itself be a motivating thing.
While the initial motivation to learn an instrument may be to get the chicks, impress your buddies, or some TV-fueled teenage fantasy, which all seems rather silly in retrospect. The initial impetus is always public adoration, but eventually playing an instrument is mostly a solitary pleasure where you are your own audience. This solitary audience is an aspect that makes making music so liberating and relaxing. An escape into the abstract.
It seems a shame that few want to take the pains to learn how to play a real instrument. Instead of picking up a real instrument, people seem to want to pick up the guitar hero box. I hoped that perhaps this would encourage people to try the real thing. I know a guy in my lab who spent 2-3 hours in the summer getting better at guitar hero. If he had spent that time learning a real instrument, it would have paid much richer dividends.
It's 6pm and everybody has gone home. I am sipping my last coffee as a graduate student. I had always looked forward to the day when I would finally be able to say 'I'm done with this crap'. Sometimes, it looked like that day would never come. It always seemed a goal that was too impossible, too far, somewhere in the distance, a year or two away. Now it's finally here, it's not what I had expected to feel.
Today everyone, including my advisor, told me to go home early and get some sleep. Actually, for the first time in my life I genuinely want to stay here. Not because there is work to be done, but I just want to enjoy the last evening here at my desk - alone. I see piles of old papers that are all marked up and with coffee stains, old lab notebooks with failed experiments and incorrect analyses. They make feel that was time well-spent. My finished papers, in comparison, look too clean.
Tomorrow, in about 45 minutes I am supposed to wrap six years of work. They want the cream. I shall present three of my greatest hits, and if that's a hit with the committee, they are going award me a PhD.
My personal experience makes me compare doing a PhD to running a marathon. You have to be slightly mad to think of doing one, and a little more so to finish one. Just as the marathon is not a test of speed, but of stamina, a PhD is not a test of quick intelligence, but of rigor and intellectual determination. For the most part, you hang in there and keep going, and not be afraid of falling down or going down blind alleys.
I recall Chicago. After many miles, I finally rounded the bend on Columbus Drive and saw the finish, less than 400 meters away. Suddenly, all the weariness of those miles disappeared seeing that green banner with large, friendly letters reading, 'FINISH'. It was nice to get that medal around my chest once I crossed. That will always remain. And looking back, what I really enjoyed was running all those miles in the different neighbourhoods. Today, it's that same sort of feeling of seeing the finish line, one that you dreamed about for a few years. Yes, I look forward to crossing the line tomorrow, but tonight I want to sit here and look back.
Since, I now have more time on my hands, I felt that this is an appropriate time to try out Twitter. So, I have sold out (temporarily) and shall be twittering:
http://twitter.com/omphaloskeptik, where the good citizens of the world can find the answer to the burning question of the day -- What is Hirak Parikh doing gazing at his navel?
My most private activity is now public. I am now officially a part of the chattering masses.
Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day, February 12, 1809, two hundred years ago. As the Birthday Paradox illustrates, you need only 23 people in a room to get better than 1/2 chance of any two people sharing a birthday. The coincidence is welcome however, as I admire them both. What I find more interesting is how separate these people live in the consciousness of people and the media. In all my calendars/dairies I find the day marked as 'Lincoln's birthday', but Darwin goes unmentioned. The newspapers are going to devote more space to Lincoln, while Darwin's going to get a footnote somewhere in the Science page. Perhaps, the man of the moment, Barack Obama shares more with the former Illinois Representative than a would-be-curate-turned-naturalist.
In another parallel universe, Darwin's day has not gone unnoticed as Science magazine is running series on Darwin. The National Geographic had a Darwin cover story. Some folks in the city of Ann Arbor have decided to celebrate Darwin's Day. Now that I shall have more time this week, I intend to re-read the Origin of Species and Lincoln's speeches.
I am curious to see if Google's logo tomorrow is going to pay homage to Darwin or Lincoln. Regardless of the final choice, both were truly great men who contributed in immensely in two completely separate spheres. It also occurred to me that people are rarely shot for their scientific beliefs, merely excoriated or excommunicated. Political belief seems to be a more dangerous responsibility.
If you guys have a minute to spare while your women are getting ready. Check this out!
From Reuters: Indian Chick does the impossible!
For the first time, there is evidence that a woman can get her hair, makeup and clothes done in under one minute! What makes this even more of an achievement is the fact that it is an Indian woman! In my most sanguine moments, I thought that half hour would be a reasonable demand for someone to get ready, but this is an Olympian achievement.
It would indeed be a shame if this feat only managed to get in the Guinness Book of World Records. That book is meant for people eating nails, twenty hamburgers in 2 minutes, cycling backwards while playing a violin, or for pogo-sticking to Mt. Fuji. All impressive, but ultimately useless human achievements. This, my dear Gayathri, is worth at least a couple of Nobel prizes.
Here are some of the reasons:
Physics: Doing your hair in a French roll in the time it takes me to tie my shoelaces! And getting in a 9-yard sari in less than thirty seconds! The prize should be awarded for proving that the laws of physics as discovered by scientists no less than Newton, Planck, Einstein and Feymann do not need to be violated for a woman to get ready in less than a minute.
Peace: Surely, guys all over the world would appreciate her sharing this technique with their gals. I mean Al Gore got one for a Powerpoint presentation!
Chemistry: One definite woman has been synthesized by biological means that can ready in less than a minute.
Medicine/Biology: Nothing in the XX chromosome is responsible for any delay in getting ready.
Economics: Let's not even start. Gas, time, lights, etc. saved.
Literature: This might be the only tough sell, but heck! fact is stranger than fiction. This should count for something.
It's odd that in the end there are only two men left standing - the Manacor Minotaur and the Sublime Swiss.
Of course, Nadal needs to attend to the minor paperwork of writing off his fellow Spaniard - Verdasco. So, unless Nadal slips on the bathroom floor and breaks both (yes! both) his legs, or Verdasco grows an extra heart to keep up with the running he needs to do to face the ball-machine, we are up for another epic final.
Verdasco played brilliantly to knock Murray and Tsonga, and Roddick did well to force Djokovic out and make it to the semis. But, the finals have been reserved for the Big 2.
Nadal seems to be getting better and better each time I see him play. His serve and backhand have improved tremendously, and he is capable of not only returning but pounding even the best return. This is obvious. But, what seems to be most impressive is that he makes such few errors.
Federer once remarked that early in his career he did poorly because he could not make up his mind on what shot to make, as he had so many options. Now late in his career, he seems to have trouble deciding, should I play like a human, or a God? A very human Federer played against Berdych, and then the next two matches it has been 'The Federer'.
It seems that everything till the final is just practice for these two guys. A lengthy two-week prelude with the guys playing 'good' cop and 'bad' cop. Good cop - R. Nadal gets to work immediately and bulldozes opponents as quickly as possible; in contrast, Bad Cop R. Federer has been more of the tease, a trapeze artist, whetting everyone's appetite for the final showdown.
My generation has been honored to witness these two duke it out on the courts, year after year, slam after slam. So who will win? Does it even matter? To quote a Danish prince, the play's the thing.
Grab a seat and watch the drama unfold.
Last night while Nadal was clinically demolishing Fernando Gonzalez, on the other court Murray was playing Verdasco. The first set was rather routine with Verdasco losing 6-2 which prompted the commentators to talk about Murray's further progress, as if his win was a given. Verdasco came back to win the second, and finally upset Murray by winning the match in five sets. In the featured match, Gonzalez was given somewhat of a chance against Nadal. But, Nadal prevailed in straight sets, not looking troubled at all. Nadal is a monster and shows no signs of any weakness. He is simply a ball-fetching machine on defense, and devastating on the offense. Earlier, Victoria Azarenka wasn't given much of a chance against Serena, but she won the first set and then retired in tears because she felt dizzy due to a virus.
I really wonder if anyone really analyzes the commentators pronouncements and predictions. I think they are just as clueless as the average viewer regarding who will win. The only advantage they have over an average viewer is that they know how to watch a player, and they have deeper knowledge of the history and stats. However, I don't think they are any better at predicting a winner, and even when the score looks lopsided.
There isn't much separating a player in the single digits from someone tens of places below. All it takes is a couple of erratic shots, or a double fault or two, and the player could be a break down and lose the set, and then the match. This is highly unpredictable, so I doubt that even immediate performance in the previous game is any indicator if the player is going to over-hit the ball, or double fault.
I am curious to see if people would be able to identify the better player in a blind study (i.e. the faces of the players were obscured) just by watching a couple of games. I am sure that commentators would be better at identifying, but at predicting who will win - I am not so sure.
When I should have been doing something else, I spent last evening reading Keith Devlin's book and the exchange of letter between Blaise Pascal and Pierre De Fermat.
In a series of letters Pascal and Fermat developed the theory of probability, or more accurately a priori or objective probability.
The problem that concerns the letter is the Problem of Points which Fermat solved rather easily using his more elegant and shorter 'method of combinations', and which Pascal solved correctly, but without the intuition, using his more complicated recursive formula.
Two things were striking - people had been gambling for centuries before anyone took the challenge in the early 17th century to find a mathematical method to predict the odds.
Also, what took the greatest minds in Europe a better part of a century to solve, took me only about few minutes to solve the 'Problem of Points'. Upon reading Pascal's source of confusion, I realized how simple it is to apply a method, but how very subtle it is the really understand the problem. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants.
The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern