A 76 percent game!

I still don't have a regular partner at bridge. When playing online, I register at the partnership desk and take whoever signs up. Mostly, this is a crap shoot. All kinds of people rate themselves as "Advanced" and turn out to be extremely poor bridge players. Over time, I've begun to generalize by nationality. Americans and Canadians typically rate themselves fairly. Turks and South Americans grossly exaggerate their skills. Indians and Chinese underrate themselves -- you would be surprised at how well Indian "novices" play. Europeans typically play Acol, a bidding system I don't know, so I haven't had a chance to make unfair generalizations about them yet.

Today, another Norman bridge club player was logged on to Bridge Base (without his regular partner), so we signed up to play a tournament. What a difference a known partner makes! We ended up with a 76 percent game and second overall (of 210 pairs!). To put this in perspective, I've never crossed a 55% game with any of my random partners, and never been in the top 1/3.

Oh, for a regular partner ...

The most annoying shopper

What's the most annoying, time wasting thing that someone ahead of you in a checkout line has done? Here's mine:

The lady had picked up the small brown bags that the store places near the ice cream section, so that you can store frozen foods in it. Presumably so that the ice cream doesn't melt too badly while you are shopping.

Anyway, she had picked up these small brown bags and gone through the store putting 2-3 items in each bag. A chunk of cheese and deli meat in one. Yoghurt and granola bars in another. And so on. She had eight such bags and asked the clerk at the checkout counter to put the items back in the same bag. So the clerk was unpacking each of the ice cream bags, scannning the items and putting them back in. One bag at a time.

Since 100 brown lunch bags sell for $2, this woman was messing with all of us behind her in line for a lousy 16c. Never mind how ungreen it is to use brown paper bags (and I know she'd at least talk the green talk because of all that crunchy stuff she was buying).
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And Tebow Wept

When Florida coach Urban Meyer decided to retire because of health reasons, the Florida players had a meeting. The AP reports that Tebow and several of his teammates cried.

A fox, not a hedgehog

I just finished putting together three presentations that I'll be making at the AMS annual meeting and realized that there is nothing connecting these three talks. Nothing.

Model Verification Using Gaussian Mixture Models (20th Conf. on Prob and Stat. in the Atmos. Sc., 2010)[ talk (PDF) online ]

Evaluating a Storm Tracking Algorithm (26th IIPS, 2010) [ talk (PDF) online ]

Predicting Turbulence using Partial Least Squares Regression and an Artificial Neural Network (AMS AI Conference 2010) [ talk (PDF) online ]

Can I send these back?

First, they came for the third floor. Putting up art that looked exactly like the carpet. I just laughed.
And then they came for our floor, with a monstrosity that looks like Texas with a noose in the middle.
What's the return policy, I wonder. Do we have until January to return these objects d'art?
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Philadelphia is so lawless that the laws of physics don't apply

Philadelphia is a lawless city. So lawless that even the laws of physics don't apply.

If the bell in their new city logo is tilted because it is ringing, why is the wooden frame that the bell is hanging from also rotated?

Scientists take the time to learn the basics of music, literature, art ... the social norm is to be familiar with these things. Why is it not a social norm for artsy types to be similarly familiar with basic science? Why do more Americans believe in UFOs than in evolution?

[First noticed here]

Innumeracy: feds can't do math

What's the problem with having a bunch of attorneys in charge of regulatory agencies? They can't be bothered to do even simple math ...

The federal agency in charge of regulating pipelines sets rates to meet a targeted rate of return, which is now 12%. They observed that the annual rate of return for one particular pipeline was 24% and so filed a law suit saying that the pipeline was overcharging. But here's the thing: because the pipeline depreciates over time, you can't compute the annual rate over the original amount.

John Hempton pulled the relevant formula out of Wikipedia (it's just a gussied up compound interest equation), plugged in the numbers and discovered that the rates being charged, rather than being too high, were actually too low -- presumably, Berkshire Hathaway (the owner of the pipeline) was being forced to accept lower-than-allowed rates because of market competition.

Jews for healthcare reform

In a post that suggests that Lieberman may be too dumb to know what he's doing (Why do liberals always cast aspersions on the the brains of the other side?), Matt Yglesias remarks:
Anyways, this reminds me that at a meeting this morning I pitched the idea of trying to do health reform in a secret Christmas morning session that only Jewish Senators would attend. There’s a whole bunch — Boxer, Cardin, Feingold, Feinstein, Franken, Kohl, Lautenberg, Levin, Lieberman, Sanders, Schumer, Specter, and Wyden. It’s a very progressive bunch and Lieberman could easily be outvoted

Let It Snow ... let it snow ... let it snow

Ever since Thanksgiving, we have been having a really cold spell. Today, however, was gorgeous. A sunny, 70 degree day in mid-December!

Since we were out the week of Thanksgiving, I missed the chance to put up Christmas lights in nice weather. I thought I could omit the whole lights thing this year, but the nice weather today took away my excuse. The kids wheedled me into putting the lights up this morning.

Last week's cold spell also pointed out a couple of drafty windows. So, I spent the rest of the morning caulking.

In the afternoon, the wife decided the cars were beaucoup dirty. S1, she and I spent the afternoon washing the cars.

And such nice weather! Wouldn't it be great to grill something? I guess ... time for me to break out the backyard grill to smoke eggplants for Bhaigan Bharta ...

Am I ready for cold weather or what?

Corrupt wheeling and dealing

How come the banks are making money and paying out huge bonuses? Because we the taxpayers are being swindled thanks to a corrupt Obama administration. Henry Blodget explains how you too can make $400 million dollars a year risk-free (to yourself: the taxpayer carries all the risk):

STEP 1: Form a bank.

STEP 2: Round up a bunch of unemployed friends to be "bankers."

STEP 3: Raise $1 billion of equity. (This is the only tricky step. And it's not that tricky. See below.*)

STEP 4: Borrow $9 billion from the Fed at an annual cost of 0.25%.

STEP 5: Buy $10 billion of 30-year Treasuries paying 4.45%

STEP 6: Sit back and watch the cash flow in

A hierarchical search strategy with economic incentives

DARPA ran a contest recently. They placed ten red weather balloons at secret locations all over the United States. The first person to correctly identify the locations of all 10 balloons would win the prize.

The winners (a bunch of postdocs from MIT's Media Lab) organized it as a pyramid scheme (the concept is useful beyond Madoff and Amway!). The person who reported a balloon to a central website would get $2000; the person who invited him to participate would get $1000, and the person who invited that person would, in turn, get $500, and so on. So, there was an incentive, not just to find the balloons, but to canvass your social network for people who were spread out, and into this sort of thing.

What I like about this is that it takes advantage of two concepts: hierarchical, parallelized search (each person looking in their neighborhood independently, sort of like a genetic algorithm) and a smart economic design of incentives (to increase the number of agents conducting the search).

Ultimately, it took just 9 hours to locate all ten balloons.

School bond issue: a fair trade

The school bond vote yesterday was closer than most -- Oklahoma requires a supermajority (60%) to raise taxes and so the school bond issue that passed with 65% of the vote was rather close.

I voted the bond issue, but only reluctantly, but not for the reason that animated much of the opposition. Much of the opposition centered around the fact that these bonds are for 5 years, instead of the typical 1 year.

I have no problem with a 5-year bond. Since these things require a super-majority, it's more predictable if a 4-year project can be funded through completion. You might get lower bids on the construction contracts too. Besides, interest rates are really low now and a 5-year bond takes advantage of that.

What I did not like was some of the uses of the money: for curtains, resurfacing athletic fields and the like. But I suppose there are parents who'd find money for science labs wasteful too. A reasonable trade -- they get their athletic fields and I get my science labs.

My former barber gives Carnatic music lessons over the web

S1 is learning the basics of Carnatic music, and to help him get the pitch right, the wife has him sing along with internet samples of the basic music exercises. I glanced over their shoulder and was surprised to see that the audio stream came from the homepage of "shivkuma" at RPI, aka my barber!

Shivkumar and I were in the same batch at IITM and were also graduate students at Ohio State at the same time.  One of the ways that we saved money as starving graduate students was that I'd give him a haircut and he'd cut my hair in return -- we saved a grand total of $10 that way!

Anyway, it was a nice surprise to see my former barber serving out Carnatic music lessons over the web.

Feels like Christmas

There is nothing like singing "Hark the angels" and "Silent Night" in a cavernous auditorium with 300 other people to make you get into the Christmas spirit.

Catlett Center on the OU campus has gorgeous acoustics and it was used to maximum effect during a Xmas choral music concert yesterday. The icing on the cake was that one in every 4 songs or so, they'd invite audience participation and then the whole hall reverberated.
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Disorganization and intimidation: how not to manage scientific reesarch

The New York Times buried this at the end of their article, but it's hilarious and hits close to home.

The case of Mr. Ayyadurai, the M.I.T. lecturer, illustrates just how frustrating the experience can be for someone schooled in more direct, American-style management. After a long meeting with a top bureaucrat, who gave him a handwritten job offer, Mr. Ayyadurai signed on to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, or C.S.I.R., a government-financed agency that reports to the ministry of science.

The agency is responsible for creating a new company, called C.S.I.R.-Tech, to spin off profitable businesses from India’s dozens of public laboratories. Currently, the agency, which oversees 4,500 scientists, generates just $80 million in cash flow a year, even though its annual budget is the equivalent of half a billion dollars.

Mr. Ayyadurai said he spent weeks trying to get answers and responses to e-mail messages, particularly from the person who hired him, the C.S.I.R. director general, Samir K. Brahmachari. After several months of trying to set up a business plan for the new company with no input from his boss, he said, he distributed a draft plan to C.S.I.R.’s scientists asking for feedback, and criticizing the agency’s management.

Four days later, Mr. Ayyadurai was forbidden from communicating with other scientists. Later, he received an official letter saying his job offer was withdrawn.

The complaints in Mr. Ayyadurai’s paper could be an outline for what many inside and outside India say could be improved in some workplaces here: disorganization, intimidation, a culture where top directors’ decisions are rarely challenged and a lack of respect for promptness that means meetings start hours late and sometimes go on for hours with no clear agenda.

But going public with such accusations is highly unusual. Mr. Ayyadurai circulated his paper not just to the agency’s scientists but to journalists, and wrote about his situation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India is “sitting on a huge opportunity” to create new businesses and tap into thousands of science and technology experts, Mr. Ayyadurai said, but a “feudal culture” is holding the country back.

Mr. Brahmachari said in an interview that Mr. Ayyadurai had misunderstood nearly everything — from his handwritten job offer, which he said was only meant to suggest what Mr. Ayyadurai could receive were he to be hired, to the way Mr. Ayyadurai asked scientists for their feedback on what the C.S.I.R. spinoff should look like.

To prove his point, Mr. Brahmachari, who was two hours late for an interview scheduled by his office, read from a government guide about decision-making in the organization. Mr. Ayyadurai didn’t follow protocol, he said. “As long as your language is positive for the organization I have no problem,” he added.

As the interview was closing, Mr. Brahmachari questioned why anyone would be interested in the situation, and then said he would complain to a reporter’s bosses in New York if she continued to pursue the story.

Many of my classmates have moved back to India, but they tend to work in sectors like electronics design or software. While the private sector has, for the most part, become dynamic and driven, public-sector scientific organizations remain hide bound. Little innovation happens there and mainly it's because they are managed that way.

The old country, well regarded

The Obamas just got done hosting their first state dinner. A full year after they took office. Gordon Brown didn't get one on his visit. Neither did Netanyahu. Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, has been the only visiting head of state to get one. Interesting ...

It's gone relatively unremarked, but there are 2-million Americans of Indian descent now. Indian Americans are the wealthiest minority in the US (not the Jews: please don't tell the neo-Nazis). The community is also extremely engaged in the political and cultural milieu of this country. And of course, Silicon Valley is chockful of Indian millionaires. So, this is not just about India being a natural ally of the US, it's also about domestic politics. Still, it's gratifying to see the old home country being well regarded.

... the meatless menu included a mix of Indian and American favorites, including some African-American standards. Collard greens and curried prawns, chickpeas and okra, nan and cornbread ... So, you have a vegetarian guest and you decide to have a meatless meal in his honor. How about a vegetarian meal? Come on, can't you give the crustaceans a rest? Still ... collard greens and curried prawns is an inspirational combination, especially for a state dinner: it's reflective of vibrant melting pots, of New Orleans (Mississippi & Cajun) and Mumbai (Karnataka & Goa). Curried prawns, eh? Wonder if they're as good as mine. Could us plebes get a recipe?

Obama gave a shout-out to the shared ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that these giants were the reasons why he (Obama) and Manmohan Singh could be there that night. Brings to mind this famous photograph of MLK standing beside a picture of Gandhi. A good set of shared ideals to harken to.

At home, though, it's a different shared history between India and the US that has taken hold. The kids and I somehow ended up reading back-to-back the stories of Paul Revere ("The British are coming"), the first War of Indian Independence (the brutal put down of the "Sepoy Mutiny") and the Madison presidency (Madison fleeing across the Potomac as the British burned down the White House). Now, the 5-year old thinks "British" is just one type of monster. Americans have put their sordid history with the British behind them, to the point where a British accent is fawned over. In India, however, British influences are still a prickly point. In contrast, Indian attitudes towards America and Americans are uncomplicated and mostly admiring.

But, forget all that! Curried prawns ... wish I can find Marcus Samuelsson's recipe. I bet you anything the he's fruited it up with mango sauce or something. Mine's probably better. Sure, it is.

The miracle of spray paint

Now that S1 has moved on to a 20" bicycle, S2 inherited the 16" one.

"But," she complained, "this is a boys' bike." This is a first. We've been palming off her brother's old clothes and toys on her for 5 years with no word of complaint. Still ... frugality dies hard.

Two cans of spray paint can do wonders, especially if she gets to choose the colors and hold down the sprayer.

Before and after:

UPDATE: K., snarking on Facebook, wants to know why I don't have a close-up picture of the finished handiwork. "Must not be too proud," he muses. Jeez, have some trust people!

Google Maps not reliable anymore

I've long been a user and fan of Google Maps -- its user interface and data mining simply can't be beat. In places like New York City, it even links to train and ferry timings, so you can get combination walking+public transport directions.

But the quality of their directions has dropped. Earlier this month, I needed walking directions in Syracuse and was directed to a spot a quarter-mile away and on the other side of the interstate. This would be bad enough if you are driving, but when you are walking, it's a disaster. If I'd known the walking path would require me to take a 1-mile detour to cross the interstate, I'd have taken a taxi!

Why is the map location so bad? Google's stopped buying map data and is instead using internal data. So, the quality of the maps is now much poorer; they're relying on user reports to correct errors and bring the maps to the old quality. Did I report that error in the location of the Syracuse building I was getting to? No, I didn't. Few people will.

Use Google Maps with care.

Aspiring to be Detroit

One country's industrial desolation is another country's aspiration.

The ad on the left is advertising a new housing addition in Chennai, which is fast becoming India's automotive capital. Note the names of the companies whose manufacturing plants are located nearby. The name of the development? Detroit.

Schwinn bicycle designers should read Wikipedia

S1 has outgrown his 16" bicycle and so we went out and bought a 20" one yesterday. I had taken it out of the box and started to assemble it when I discovered that I needed an Allen key. Turned out that I had three sets of Allen keys -- in one set, I had 4mm and 5mm. In the other set, I had 7mm, 8mm and 10mm. The third set was English units -- 5/32, 3/16, 1/4 and 3/8-inch keys.

But the Allen key that I needed to assemble the bike? 6 mm. Of course Home Depot's not going to carry a single key. I'm going to have to buy yet one more set, this time one that includes a 6mm key.

Wikipedia, useful as always, offers: 4 mm keys are almost exactly the same size as 5/32", and 8 mm keys are almost exactly the same size as 5/16", which makes 4 mm and 8 mm preferred numbers for consumer products such as self-assembly particle-board furniture, because end users can successfully use an imperial key on a metric fastener, or vice versa, without stripping. Wish the designers of Schwinn bicycles would read Wikipidea.

Please, Microsoft. No upgrades

The change from Office 2003 to 2007 broke all my Powerpoint presentations. Old templates and macros didn't work. Text got randomly resized. Callout boxes pointed to the wrong things. I can never just borrow slides from older presentations -- I need to inevitably edit the stuff. And now, just when I thought I'd caught up, Microsoft is releasing the beta of Office 2010. Yikes! Enough already.

Dead bottom

Yesterday at the bridge club was one of those days when nothing worked. Consider this deal where we scored a dead bottom.

I was playing South, in 6H on a 4-3 heart fit. I cash the two top spades and lead the third spade for a ruff. West discards a diamond; I ruff with the 9. I then cash A-K of hearts and learn the bad news about the heart split. I come back to my hand with a diamond. Then, I cash the Q-J of hearts. At this point, West has his fifth heart and I have none. Then, I play a club to the Ace and club back to hand and start playing clubs from the top. West can ruff the club, but he is end-played. He doesn't have a spade, so has to lead a diamond to the K-diamond in dummy on which I pitch my remaining spade. Then, a club to my hand.

6H made on a 4-3 fit when West has more trumps than me! Unfortunately, though, every one else was in 6NT and that contract has 12 cold tricks.

Book tour fail

Sarah Palin is going to be visiting Norman to sign her book.  The story quotes a book store manager as saying that she wants to visit small towns.  In pursuit of "real America", no doubt.

But here's the thing.  What kind of small towns have bookstores big enough to host a celebrity book signing?  College towns.  Towns whose politics would tilt 180 degrees from the hockey mom's.

Disney morals

This summer, we took the kids to Disney World. It was one of the worst things we've ever done with our kids. As my Facebook status soon during the visit read: "I don't like what Magic Kingdom is doing to our kids". We bailed out after one day even though we'd originally planned to spend 3 days in Disney parks.

S1, for the most part, was unaffected. He was simply thrilled that he got to go on rides all by himself. But S2 was totally engrossed in the crazy Disney spectacle of princesses. She picked up a lot of ideas that we had to work on correcting.

The image above, from here, therefore struck a nerve.

Changed, changing and stuck

Singapore was all agog recently because a Chinese immigrant professed that she still loved her native country. What they would think of someone with three "homes" escapes me ...

When I first interviewed for a job in Oklahoma, the only thing I knew about the state was "Grapes of Wrath". I came expecting dusty cornfields and weather-beaten people. Instead, I got a dramatic horizons, green fields and a friendly bunch of people. So, this struck me as true:
... several locals were telling a visitor about some of the assets of their state ... Their wives say that Oklahoma could use a beach. Otherwise, they had no complaints ... Between 2005 and 2007 Oklahoma had some 6,000 transplants from California. The grapes of wrath taste a little sweeter now.
In India, a government-owned enterprise is trying to increase condom usage amongst prostitutes:
WHICH flavour of condom do you prefer? ... Prostitutes in India opted for paan, or betel nut wrapped in a leaf, which many Indians chew as a digestive. Their answer persuaded HLL Lifecare, a company based in the state of Kerala, to market a paan-flavoured condom.
Admirably open-minded, don't you think? A state-owned enterprise conducting surveys among prostitutes and listening to their preferences ... Less open-minded, not suprisingly, is Africa. Liberia is, hands down, the most bigoted place I've ever lived in (not that I don't love Liberians and Liberia, mind you). It may be Uganda, but this describes Liberian attitudes to a T:
The country’s mix of vigorous heterosexuality and religiosity have made it one of Africa’s more homophobic places ... “Carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, as one MP put it, is imported by corrupt white men and women.

Thoughts on Google's new Go Programming Language

Google's been working on a new programming language called "Go". I went through the tutorial today and here are some hasty conclusions. I'll use Java as a contrast even though Go is more similar to C/C++ because you're likelier to be familiar with Java.

The Good:
  1. Functions can return multiple values. In Java, you're often creating useless new data structures just so you can return multiple objects from a method. Don't have to do that in Go.
  2. The concept of goroutines -- lightweight processes that communicate via a channel -- is quite awesome. They are easy to set up and you can feed one channel easily from another channel. You can even specify what types of objects the channel will receive. Presumably, serialization takes place under the covers.
  3. Things are very terse and UNIX-like. A steeper learning curve, but improved productivity. That's usually a worthwhile trade-off.
  4. There are lots of existing packages, so it's a full-fledged language already. And it's all open-source, so you have tons of examples to look at.
  5. No exceptions. Exceptions in Java have lead to a lot of crud. Go is back to basics.
  6. Interfaces in Go are really cool. If a method in Java asks for an interface as a parameter and you want to pass it a class, it's got to implement that interface. Which means you probably need access to the source of the class if it doesn't already implement the interface, even if you know the class has the methods that you need. Templatized methods in C++ are nice in that regard because you can pass in any class that has the necessary parameters. Interfaces in Go share the characteristics of both Java interfaces and C++ templates. They form a type hierarchy, but you can fit a class to an interface after the fact as well.

The Bad:
  1. Namespaces in Go as just as ugly as in C++. Java conventions have you naming your namespaces something like org.wdssii.polarvil so that you don't mistakenly name your packages to something someone else is using. In Go, the package is the same name as the file, so you're totally dependent on your project organization. Pretty fragile.
  2. There are way too many optional things in Go. Semicolons at the end of statements are optional, for example. Variables can be declared without actually specifying the type. This is just asking for trouble. It's better for a programming language to be simple and consistent. Java is very nice that way.
  3. There are magic variables defined globally by packages. For example, to parse command-line arguments, main() doesn't give you any parameters. Instead, you've got to use the package "flag" which magically gives you a Arg variable.
The Ugly:
  1. I see a line import "fmt" that seems to import strings. Really? Shouldn't you only import packages? Well turns out that you are importing a file at a particular location. Sort of like a #include. Java's import and classpath idiom is much nicer for moving code around.
  2. Functions whose names are capitalized are exported. If a function's name starts with a lower-case, it's private. Yikes. Didn't we already try this with Fortran? Variables whose names start with i, j or k are integers? Else not. Why go through that type of mess again?
  3. Every C-like language puts its return type before the method name. So what does Go do? It puts the return types after the method and its parameters. Why? Just to be cute?
  4. The claim is that Go programs can call C -- important because so many scientific libraries are written in Fortran/C. But it depends on using a particular compiler (gccgo) . This really ought to be built into the language. Java's Native Interface is better that way.
The Bleh:
  1. You define variables with a keyword "var". Functions with a keyword "func". They must have been looking at studies that say new programmers can't tell variables from functions and declarations from usage. So, they decided to be helpful. But it's ridiculous. Here's a language that tries to be all terse and everything and then they have this verbose crap?
  2. The distinction between reference objects and value objects is quite clear. You create reference objects with "make" and value objects with "new". You can also pass around pointers to value objects and garbage collection is automatic. This would be quite neat except that the lack of type information means that many of the advantages of this are lost when you start passing these around. People using the classes will have to just know whether they are dealing with a reference type or a value type. C++ is nicer here. The user chooses whether it's a reference type or a value type, not the creator of a class.
  3. The big selling point of "Go" seems to be how fast it compiles. What I really want to know how fast it runs. No real numbers on that.
  4. There is no pointer arithmetic, so Go doesn't need to support ++x. You only get x++.

Two worlds

There are two worlds out there. One world which searches for stuff on the left, and the other which searches for stuff on the right. More here and here.

Does Alexander McCall Smith know me?

Alexander McCall Smith (author of the Isabel Dalhousie series) on bridge in the Wall St. Journal:
Bridge is a quintessentially bourgeois game. It is a fine game for respectable people to play—people who don't get to night clubs or bars all that often, or who do not have all that many extramarital affairs. It is also a very good game for those who have no other excitement in their lives: If your average day has no great salients to it, then the prospect of getting a high-point hand at the bridge table in the evening is a very attractive one. And if you are an all-round inadequate, then being a strong bridge player is a tremendous boost.
The fellow must know me. And quite well too.

(The WSJ is not link-friendly -- links expire -- so I can't link to the whole article).


You know how some museums put art at their entrances? Sometimes, all that art amidst urban chaos can be unsettling:

This is another interesting cityscape. Fall colors reflected on a skyscraper:

A really good chick book

I was going on travel but was running short on books. The wife was headed to the library. So, I asked her to pick up a couple of books for me to read on the plane.

Naturally, she picked up a bunch of chick books.

Day After Night turned out be extremely good, however. Sure ... it's about 4 young women discovering themselves. But these women have been through the Holocaust. They're discovering themselves in the British Mandate of Palestine. That novelty makes up for a lot. The book manages to continually shock.

The story is based on a historical event (I don't want to spoil it for you) and what comes through in the book is the founding myth of Israel. Founding myths are, of course, great ways to understand a nation's character. Much of American attitudes can be explained by two founding myths: immigrants fleeing Old Europe to found a city on a hill, and how the West was won.

So, read Day After Night. It's not just a chick book.

A rap song about Alexander Hamilton

I wasn't a fan of their choice of the Obamas' tastes in paintings. But their taste in poetry is impeccable. Ironic, erudite and witty:

And my favorite Founding Father too! The others were such stuffed shirts.

The $8000 Housing Credit is a Lousy Incentive

Yikes! Talk about making a bad thing worse:
The homebuyers’ credit — enacted last year, expanded this year and scheduled to expire Nov. 30 — would be extended to cover homes under contract by April 30. Also, it no longer would be limited to first-time buyers; people who have owned a home for at least five years could get a $6,500 credit on a new residence. Income limits for eligibility would be raised, making many more people qualify.
The problem with the housing crisis is lack of demand. What needs to happen is for house prices to come down so young people can afford to buy houses. A $8000 credit essentially allows sellers to keep their prices irrationally high. Buyers get the money from Uncle Sam and pay the sellers. No houses are made more affordable. Extending this credit from starter houses to the more expensive houses that second-time buyers will purchase is a horribly bad idea -- this just means that the housing market will take longer to stabilize while simultaneously depleting the US Treasury.

The housing credit is just one more thing (not as bad as the mortgage deduction, but nearly so) artificially inflating housing prices and providing an incentive for people to get houses that are larger than they need or can afford.

Making Glaurung easy enough for a 7-year old

There are more than a hundred chess engines out there and many (most?) of them play extremely well. For example, Glaurung, a free chess program, easily and consistently wipes the floor with me.

S1 (the 7-year old) is getting into chess. He loves to play checkers on my iPod, so showing him Glaurung seemed like a good idea. But I do want him to win once in a while, so I started fiddling with the settings. It turned out to be much harder than I expected. So, for other people out there, here's what you've got to do to make Glaurung play easy enough for a 7-year-old to beat once in a while:

  1. Set the playing style to be "Passive". This means that the program only rarely goes on on a sacrificial attack sequence.
  2. Set the playing level to 1. The levels range from 1-100 and even 1 is quite solid.
  3. Turn off Permanent Thinking. By default, the program continues to think when it's your turn to play. The CPU on the iPod is fast enough that if you let it do that, it's way too good.
  4. Set the Book usage to Low.
  5. Deviate quite quickly away from the book.
I should probably explain setting 4 and strategy 5. There are lots and lots of opening sequences fed into the program and even at a low playing level, if the program uses the book, a child would be done for. The issue here is that the problems with not-so-good lines may have taken years to find. There's little chance that your 7-year old (or even you!) will find them at the table under time pressure. What step 4 does is to tell the program not to always choose the best opening line.

But the strategy in 5 is also something your child has to do -- he'll have to take the program along a bad tangent. At that point, settings 1-3 come in; the program plays poorly enough that it's possible for a bright kid to beat it. This strategy is no different than what you'd do when playing an over-prepared human opponent, so it's a good skill to have anyway.

Before I figured all this out, I found a blog post talking about Glaurung and asked the blogger for advice on settings. He suggested that I try A1 Chess instead. And so I did. A1 Chess is great for beginners. It's ridiculously easy -- S1 has beaten in 2 out of 3 times so far (tied the 3rd time) and it has an encouraging sound-track (with applause greeting every win). I have to wean him off it and towards Glaurung in a few months, but for now, it's good.

Investment banking profits are not that outrageous

An efficient market is one in which middlemen are non-existent or have wafer-thin margins. So, this sounds right:
Surely, one measure of that efficiency is how little is skimmed off by the financial middlemen. So the next time someone tells you that it's no concern of yours if Wall Street traders are earning a king's ransom, remind him of the story of Goldman and Morgan and the financial wizards who thought they could spin capital out of straw
Newspapers would rather print fables about kingdoms and traders than actual numbers. But the numbers are not quite so damning. Rental car companies have a net profit margin of 6.7%. Architecture firms make 7.2% and so on for pretty much every industry. They're all in the 7% range. Investment bankers? They pull in 10.4% : 50% higher than "normal", but not outrageous either.

Gross profit in investment banking is an eye-popping 99.83% but that's because interest payments -- a normal cost of business in banking -- is not factored in. Once interest payments are factored in, gross profit is about 32%, which is on par with other professional services. Even payment to top management (1.5%) is not outrageous.

Plastic kills

You may have heard about the floating garbage dump on the Pacific. It's twice the size of Texas and exists because ocean currents concentrate plastic into that location.

Birds flying over the floating island of rubbish pick up plastic, thinking it to be food, and feed it to their babies. The babies then die.

The image shows the contents of an albatross chick's belly. The photographer says nothing was moved or staged.

Barn door. Horses.

Over the weekend, the county headquarters of the Democratic Party was broken into and vandalized. So, for the past couple of days, there has been a police car parked infront of the building.

Talk about closing the barn door after the horses have fled.
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A Parai Drumset

Graduate students from India organized a Diwali celebration at the university last weekend. One of the programs was by a professor of "ethnomusicology". She'd spent several years in South India doing research on Dalit/Adivasi ("aborigine") drumming and is making a documentary on the tribals and their culture.

We got to talking to her after the program. The art form, apparently, is becoming more professional. It used to be the kind of music that village people would get to play at weddings, parades and funerals. Forty or fifty years ago, the tribals had to show up when commanded to do so and take whatever they were offered. Otherwise, they might get beaten. But now, young tribals are moving out and seeking better oppportunities. So, there's a movement afoot to preserve these cultures before they vanish. There's a huge native arts festival every February in Chennai (the state capital). Everybody who's anybody (the Chief Minister on downwards) shows up. The tribal musicians are now rather well-respected and highly sought after. If you want them to play at your function, you call them on the cell phone and negotiate an hourly rate. They cost more, much more, than a band of Carnatic musicians.

The tribals don't call their music by its traditional name "parai" any more. "Parai", of course, has a rather negative connotation -- it is the root of the word "Pariah", a Tamil word that made its way into English. So if you want tribal music at your wedding, what do you now ask for? You ask for a "drumset" -- an English word that has now made its way into Tamil.

Ironic that the class-conscious British would borrow the Tamil word, and that the upwardly mobile, assertive tribals would turn to an English word to paper over their discomfiting history.

Indian Standard Time in recipes

If an Indian tells you that he'll be with you in 2 minutes, take a seat. It could be anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes. Time is pretty elastic that way in the subcontinent.

Still ... one doesn't expect this relaxed view of time to extend to recipes. The wife saw whole wheat noodles at an Indian groceries store and because the package directions said to boil for 2 minutes, we thought they might make a healthier replacement for rice noodles in stir-fries. Unfortunately, it was not 2 minutes. The noodles needed 8 minutes to become al-dente.
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Subliminal tarring

So, an ex-NASA scientist is charged with passing military secrets. To Israel. Why is the background of the photograph the Taj Mahal?

Oh, yes, he was a co-PI on an Indian project to find water on the moon (this American "tech support" was the subject of a really funny Jon Stewart and Asif Manvi sketch). But that was all above board, people.

Please find a picture of Mr. Nozette standing by the Wailing Wall or something.

UPDATE: Uh-oh.

How many degrees of separation between me and Richard Heene?

The Norman Transcript did me a favor by printing an article on the whole sordid "Balloon Boy" episode. I'd gathered a vague idea about it from snippets of lunch-time TV at the gym and from friends' Facebook updates. But it's hard to pull together a coherent story about a boy in a balloon throwing up in TV interviews and a sheriff wanting to prosecute the parents. So now, I know.

Unfortunately, I also learned that the dad is a storm chaser. Since the community of storm chasers is rather small, I've started wondering how many degrees of separation there are between me and Richard Heene. How many degrees of separation, in other words, between me and celebrity-hogging insanity?

Scientists attempt human sacrifice

Seriously. This is from a police report from Gwalior, India (hint: think Ole Miss):
... the wife of a junior scientist ... complained to the police ... that two senior scientists ... had tried to kill her husband as part of a human sacrifice ritual.
The newspaper story disappointingly carries no further details.

Making stairs fun

How can you make climbing stairs fun? Volkswagen in Sweden had an idea:

Me thinks that stuff like this has diminishing returns. The second time around, these people are not going to take the stairs.

The Washington DC metro transit authority has a better system. They just turn off the escalators at rush hour.

Nobel to the new Soviet chairman?

We are the new Soviet Union. In the eyes of the Nobel committee, anyway. They gave the prize to Gorbachev, in 1990, not for what he had done but for what he had started: Perestroika. This was to strengthen his hand against anti-reformers. That seems to be what they are thinking when they give the peace prize to Obama, not for what he has done, but for the process of engagement that he has started. They're afraid that neoconservatives will push back this reform, so they want to strengthen Obama's hand.

But still ... for speeches? Take some comparable awards: Wilson created the League of Nations; Willy Brandt reunified Germany; Al Gore gave voice to global warming; Carter brokered peace between Israel and Egypt. Barack Obama has made 3 speeches. I know, I know, I sound like Hillary Clinton. But ... yikes!

p.s. Bill Clinton of course brokered peace in Northern Ireland. He's got to be downright pissed.

If you make a pun that nobody gets ...

A colleague and I were in an art gallery in Virginia killing some time before we went to a restaurant when I ran across this piece:
The writing on the piece is the Tamil alphabet, almost like the alphabetaries or samplers used in Early American cross-stitch.

The title of the piece, "Senthamil" is a pun. It could mean "written Tamil", as opposed to spoken Tamil (more than most languages, written Tamil is very formal and spoken Tamil is very informal: they are referred to as Senthamil and Kochaitamil respectively). The word "sen" in Tamil also means "red". And red is the predominant color in the piece.

So, here's what I'm wondering: Why would an artist who creates a fusion piece by marrying an Indian script with an American folk art form decide to give it a title that would make sense only to a small minority of his viewers? After all, what was the chance that any Tamil-speaking person would ever see that piece of art?
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An unappetizing name for a restaurant

"Potbelly" seems to be a chain restaurant in Virgina. They serve ridiculously large sandwiches.
Doesn't the name of the restaurant put off their clientiele? Why would they draw a straight line between their enormous sandwiches and potbellies?

When Pepsi first came to India, some overpaid taste consultant told them that Indians liked sweet things. So, the initial Pepsi formula was a little too sweet. The reigning Cola manufacturer hit back with an image of a bottle of Pepsi swarmed with a bunch of flies. For a long time, Pepsi in Indian minds was associated with something so sweet that it was fly-infested.

So, what's the idea behind Potbelly? Why would a restaurant chain actively try to induce feelings of revulsion? Is there some thing else going on?
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Posters on the white house walls

Count me thoroughly disappointed by the Obamas' art selections.

Take the picture on the left. Don't tell me that this is high art. It's a poster. Sort of like the inspiration posters of golf courses and mountain streams that middle managers like to hang on their walls.

A little self-aware in its depiction of wishy-washiness, maybe (but who wouldn't come off as wishy-washy after Bush the Decider?). But still nothing more than a poster.

And of course, as would befit a "Modern White House", there are craft projects and collages that wouldn't be noteworthy if they had come from a pre-school class. Yikes!

The only piece in that collection that has me drooling is this patent model of Morse's electric telegraph:

The broad shoulders start to shrug

I was changing flights at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, when I saw this worker scraping off "Chicago 2016" signs:
Sad for Chicago, definitely, but Rio deserves it more. The 2016 Olympics will be to Brazil what the Seoul ('88) and Beijing ('08) games were to South Korea and China. They would never have been as momentous to the US, Spain or Japan, all of which have already hosted an Olympics.

Mission accomplished in Afghanistan

What should we need to do in Afghanistan? Send more troops (as McChrystal wants) or carry out focused drone attacks (as Biden recommends)? Neither, says Brahma Challaney, a professor in a New Delhi think tank. He says that we should withdraw:

An American military exit from Afghanistan would not be a shot in the arm for the forces of global jihad, as many in the US seem to fear. On the contrary, it would remove the Taliban’s unifying element and unleash developments – a vicious power struggle in Afghanistan along sectarian and ethnic lines – whose significance would be largely internal or regional ... In fact, the most likely outcome of any Afghan power struggle triggered by an American withdrawal would be to formalize the present de facto partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines – the direction in which Iraq, too, is headed ... As in Iraq, an American withdrawal would potentially unleash forces of Balkanization. That may sound disturbing, but it is probably an unstoppable consequence of the initial US invasion.

His analysis of the situation is probably tinged by disgust at the increased American aid to Pakistan even as Pakistan shelters all sorts of anti-Indian terrorist groups. But that doesn't make it any less true.

Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is broken. The non-Pushtun groups are strong enough to resist a Taliban takeover of Kabul. Mission Accomplished. Time to leave.

Prechewed food for adults

Because I've been traveling a lot the past month (and therefore, eating packaged foods and in restaurants a lot), the book "The end of overeating" by the former head of the FDA was like a punch in the gut.

This is how he describes Chili's (a typical restaurant chain) "Margarita Grilled Chicken" (something, that because of the "grilled" in its name, I'd have assumed was relatively healthy):
The uncooked chicken had been in a marinade that combined orange juice, tequila, triple sec, sweet-and-sour mix, and artificial color, thereby including sugar, two kinds of oil, and salt.
The marinade is injected into the chicken using needles, or by tumbling in a "cement mixer". The idea is to prechew the chicken, to make the food go down easier and quicker.

In general, our bodies have evolved to crave fat, sugar and salt, but also to automatically regulate our appetite. But when we eat packaged or restaurant food, the level at which that appetite control kicks in is pushed upwards. So, we end up eating more.

Prechewed food. He even has the numbers. In the past, Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food about 25 times before swallowing. The food we are served now needs to be chewed just 10 times. Reasons? The processing of course: packaged/restaurant food is made easier to swallow by increasing the fat (lubrication) and removing bran and fiber. Vegetables, if any, are grated finely and mixed in high-fat dressing (the dressing is cheaper than the vegetables). It's applesauce vs. apples. "Adult baby food," one industry source calls it.

Internet via the power line

The last hotel I was in offered wired internet to all the rooms. The real cool thing was that they didn't do this through a cable or DSL modem. Instead, the internet signal traveled via the power lines, so that the modem was simply plugged into the wall socket:
Over cocktails, I tried to explain the internet delivery mechanism to another guest at the hotel but she was not a tech-nerd and couldn't grok how cool this was.
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A griddle to make biriyani

What's a pizza griddle pan good for, besides making pizza?
Making biriyani. Heat the griddle and use it to cover the pot so that the rice cooks from the top and the bottom. (The traditional way to finish a biriyani off is to use indirect heat, to place hot bricks all around a clay pot. Needless to say, your favorite neighborhood Indian restaurant does not do that. They probably use an oven).
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