The Nature Conservancy saves our Louisiana vacation

We were going to be driving through Louisiana and we made the kind of plans we usually make in such situations: we planned to stop at the state welcome center, pick up some maps and try to find a state park to hike in and have a picnic lunch at.

The Louisiana welcome center was closed. I found a state park using the GPS, but its north entrance too was closed when we finally got there. It was with a despondent air that we continued making our way through the state. Where were the bayous? And would we ever see them?

So, when we crossed a long stretch of swamp on the highway, we decided to take the next exit and ask a local how we could get to see the swamp up close. She mentioned swamp boat tours and then seeing my disappointed face (we didn't have that much time: we were just driving through), told me about this place called St. Martin Lake about 20 miles back the way we'd come.

We took the 1.5 hour detour to go see the swamp and it turned out to be the highlight of our Louisiana trip.

And wouldn't you know it? It turned out to be a Nature Conservancy project. One more reason to support them!
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Asking our cellphone overlords

Normally, I don't use my blog to say "Amen", but this is one article I can make an exception for. Now that Congress has brought us telephone number portability (that enabled us to finally ditch our landline), what should Congress be asking cellphone carriers about?
  1. Why has the price of a text message gone to 20 cents, from 10, in two years? There was no big technology shift. There was no spike in the cost of electrons.
  2. In Europe, you’re billed only when you place a cellphone call — not when you answer one. And you’re billed only when you send a text message — not when you get one ... Somehow, though, we’ve let the cellphone industry get into the habit of billing both [sides of the transaction].
  3. If your monthly fee includes payment for the phone itself, how come that monthly bill doesn’t suddenly drop in the month when you’ve finished paying off that handset?
  4. Why ... am I still billed an astonishing $1.50 to $5 a minute to call [international] from my cellphone?
  5. When I call to leave you a voicemail message, the first thing I hear, before I’m allowed to hear the beep, is 15 seconds of instructions ... Is 15 seconds here and there that big a deal? Well, Verizon has 70 million customers. If each customer leaves one message and checks voicemail once a day, Verizon rakes in — are you sitting down? — $850 million a year.

Deadlines without consequences

I picked up the kids at their art camp and gave them the bad news.

"I have some work to do, so we are going back to my office and when that's done, I'll take you swimming."

"What work do you have to do?"

"I have to finish writing a paper."

"What are you going to draw on the paper?"

"Not draw. It's like the book report that you wrote in class. I have to write about the research that I'm doing."

"Why can you not do it tomorrow morning?"

"Because the deadline is today."

"What's a deadline?"

"Like when Amma tells you that you have to finish eating by 7pm?  That's a deadline."

"Why is the deadline today?"

"Because they have to create a book of everybody's reports"

"What happens if you don't finish by the deadline?"

"I will finish writing the paper by the deadline."

"But what will happen if you don't finish the paper?"

"Umm ... I will finish."

Glory or bust and we go ... bust

I need 3 "silver" points to advance to the next masterpoint level in bridge.  In the OKC regional, I picked up 10 points so how hard can 3 points be? Harder than I thought.  You get silver points only by winning in sectionals but there are not that many sectionals in the local area.  Plus, the events are quite short, meaning that I can usually play only one event.

So, Swiss Teams on Sunday.  Our team consists of one B and three C players. We blitzed the first two rounds, racking up 30-0 in both.  That put us in the lead and we had to play the ultimate 2nd place team (each of the members of that team have 5,000 master points. You need 300 to become a Life Master. I have 50.)   We managed to lose to them "only" 22-8.  Having lost that match, we fall down enough to draw another uppity C team and beat them 20-10.  And that meant we had to play the ultimate winners (they too have 10K points apiece).  We lost again 26-4.

At this point, we're tied for 3rd place [having lost to no. 1 and 2].  Now, of course have to play the team that we're tied for 3rd with.  They're a team with two A and two B players. We may be able to beat them, but it's going to be tough. If we win, we may get 3 points each.  If we lose, we may only get 1.5 points each.  It's going to be glory or bust.

Just so you understand what happened, this is the strategy to win a Swiss teams match in bridge:
  1. Do not sacrifice if there is a chance that you'll get doubled and go down 4.  My partner calls this the "Don't go for a number" rule.  A huge number that is.  There is no way to recover from a 7 point deficit.
  2. Stretch to make a vulnerable game.  Bid games that are 30% likely.  If you don't bid a game and they do, you'll be looking at a 12 point deficit.
  3. As declarer, make the contract; don't go for over tricks
  4. As a defender, take a chance to set them even if it'll result in over tricks
So what do we do on that last match?  There are 8 boards.  On six boards, we execute strategies 3 and 4 perfectly.  We're picking up 2-3 points a board.  But the  other two boards. Those two boards!  In one, my partner and I sacrifice in 5H doubled, down 4.  In the other, our team mates miss a vulnerable 3 NT.  One of these we could have survived.  But not both. We lost 24-6 (the actual score is scaled to sum to 30) and ended up with just 1.4 silver points.

Another sectional coming up in a month.  And then that's it -- no more sectionals -- until next year.  1.6 points to go.

Escapist entertainment

How does the Iranian government try to get their people's mind off Rafsanjani's Friday sermon? By showing Indian (probably Hindi) movies on TV instead:

Iranian state TV is currently broadcasting via its five channels:

1) a discussion on havij bastani (an Iranian desert with carrots and ice cream)

2) a 1986 Japanese cartoon

3) an Indian movie

4) an even cheesier Iranian movie

5) a documentary on the Iran-Iraq war

I’ve had almost every Friday lunch I can bring to memory listening to the Friday sermon playing in the background. IRIB1 made sure to start the live program a full hour before the sermon began to showcase the environment and the “revolutionary spirit of our people.”

Apparently the spirit was a no-show this time as there is no sign of it on TV.

Meanwhile, how the Chinese government gets its citizens distracted from the economy? By whipping up H1N1 hysteria to go along with ever-present xenophobia:

Apparently, a passenger three rows in front and five seats across from me on the flight had tested positive for H1N1 ... The set-up promoted the narrative that H1N1 was being spread by "foreigners." Quarantined businessmen told me they'd had contracts canceled by their Chinese colleagues, and my Shanghai hotel informed me that my room rate would be triple what it had been if I wished to return.

D.K. Pattamal, RIP

One of my favorite singers, D. K. Pattamal, passed away this week.

This YouTube video has a number of photographs as well as a raga sung by her:

I had no idea that Carnatic music used to be a male-dominated field (about half of all vocalists now are women) or that she had such a hard time breaking in (this was the 1930s):
Today, the hurdles this musician had to cross seem astonishing. As a Brahmin woman, she could not undergo gurukula training — the norm in those times. Nor did she belong to a family of musicians inheriting the art as a birthright. Patta desperately notated songs in concerts, and took down key phrases of ragas rare or intricate. Her brothers — later her accompanists — helped her in this task.

Midsummer nights' fair

An ultra-patriotic bicyle belonging to one of the fair visitors

Jewelry on sale

One of the more experienced people in the wife's pottery studio had a number of salt-fired pots.

This fellow who was selling leather belts cut and punched holes in it to my size.
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If a rejected paper is published, is it still rejected?

There is now a new journal, Rejecta Mathematica (slogan: caveat emptor), that is dedicated to publishing articles that were rejected by other journals. The paradox of whether a rejected paper continues to belong to the set of rejected articles once it's been published in Rejecta Mathematica aside, this is not a joke.

Each article is published along with a note from the authors who say why their work is important (even if it was rejected in the traditional peer review process). The first open letter is a pretty good instance of this in action:
It is not in the literature, and does not follow in any direct or simple way from existing results. In other words, it is, as far as we know, new.
The paper that I had the hardest time getting published (this one) was also new in that it didn't follow from existing results. So, I know what these authors are talking about. Now, the paper that I had such a hard time getting accepted is widely cited.

Rejecta Mathematica figures to be a very prominent location, so these folks will probably have the last laugh.

Alms fall apart

A piece of good news from my third home country even if the person tooting the horn is the country's president:
In the past three years, we have doubled primary school enrollment nationwide, refurbished hundreds of health facilities, begun rebuilding roads and restoring electricity. We have taken steps to root out corruption and remove unscrupulous officials. Growth has exceeded several percent per year. And, most critical, we are at peace.
Still, old habits die hard. Liberia was kept afloat for decades through American assistance and it appears that she still can not see a way past that type of assistance:
The G8 nations meeting in Italy this week have a useful role to play. Among other measures, they must keep their promises to increase aid and make it more effective by reducing bureaucratic delays, speeding disbursements and better aligning programs with African priorities. Effective aid is certainly not the only answer, but it has an increasingly vital role to play as other sources of finance dry up.
The justification -- that "other sources of finance" have dried up is novel, though.

p.s. the title of this post is a reference to my favorite West African novel. Know which one?

AIG is not the villain of the financial meltdown

Michael Lewis asks, about AIG:
How did an insurance company become so entangled in the sophisticated end of Wall Street and wind up the fool at the poker table?
and answers that it was all because of one supposedly insecure tyrannical boss. I think that boss is simply being made a scapegoat for a more likely tale which does come through amidst the one-villain article.

The big Wall Street firms needed someone to insure their large bets and that someone couldn't be a bank:
The traits required of this corporation were that it not be a bank—and thus subject to bank regulation and the need to reserve capital against the risky assets—and that it be willing and able to bury exotic risks on its balance sheet. There was no real reason that company had to be A.I.G.; it could have been any AAA-rated entity with a huge balance sheet. Berkshire Hathaway, for instance, or General Electric. A.I.G. just got there first. In a financial system that was rapidly generating complicated risks, A.I.G. F.P. became a huge swallower of those risks.
Over time, Wall Street firms started seeding these pools with 80% sub-prime loans and the folks running AIG's financial portfolio were too unsophisticated to cotton onto this. They didn't realize that they were being taken for a ride until a candidate hire did due diligence before accepting the job and told them what was happening:
The A.I.G. F.P. executives present were shocked by how little actual thought or analysis seemed to underpin the subprime-mortgage machine: it was simply a bet that U.S. home prices would never fall. Once he understood this, Joe Cassano actually changed his mind. He agreed with Gene Park: A.I.G. F.P. shouldn’t insure any more of these deals. And at the time it didn’t really seem like all that big of an issue. A.I.G. F.P. was generating around $2 billion year in profits. At the peak, the entire credit-default-swap business contributed only $180 million of that.
So, AIG got out of the business. The Wall Street banks started to take the risk on new mortgage-based securities. But the insurance policies they'd already issued were still enforceable. And Goldman Sachs still held a whip:
[AIG's management] had agreed to several triggers, including A.I.G.’s losing its AAA credit rating, that would require the firm to post collateral. If the value of the underlying bonds fell, it would fork over cash, so that, for instance, Goldman Sachs would not need to be exposed for more than a day to A.I.G. Worse still, Goldman Sachs assigned the price to the underlying bonds—and thus could effectively demand as much collateral as it wanted.
And that is exactly what they did when AIG lost its AAA rating because of the bad loans on its books. Michael Lewis seems to think that this makes AIG the fool at the poker table. And AIG's Joe Cassano the insecure villain of the piece.

Nope. This makes the US taxpayer the fool at the poker table.

Feels like home again

The kids were in California (at their aunt's) for six weeks. They came back today. No sooner had we pulled into the garage than the neighbors' kids came by. For six weeks, they never once popped their heads in to ask if S1 and S2 were back. But the moment they saw our car today, they are there! Are these kids telepathic or what?

S2 is singing. S1 is quizzing. The neighborhood kids are dropping by. There are toys on the floor in three rooms. It feels like home again.

Small town

How do you know you live in a small town? When the town newspaper is so starved for local news that it'll run the results of a weekly duplicate game.

Somber thoughts on Sarah Palin on a July 4th

This is my first July 4th as an American (headed out to a BBQ and fireworks at a friends' pretty soon). Looking at the internets, I learn that Sarah Palin has quit as being governor. So, some of this thinking is because of this strange confluence of events.

Palin's stated reason for quitting is absurd. If every politician quit 2 years before the end of their term because no one thinks they are credible, then the last 3 years of their term will become lame-duck and so on and so on until even a newly elected politician has no mandate (one could argue that Obama is now behaving as if he has no mandate, letting the Senate and its 60-member supermajority traditions override the clear message of the people who elected him, but that's another story). So, it's not that.

I doubt that it's any scandal coming up to the fore as some Democrats seem to gleefully assume. Rather, I think that she's simply going to cash in on her popularity with the extreme right wing probably with a TV show or a set of speaking gigs. Like Al Gore maintaining coyly that he might run for office so that people would pay attention to his environmental message, Sarah Palin will be coy about seeking further office so that she continues to garner media attention.

Few people in public life scare me as much as Sarah Palin does. Now, this is totally irrational (for a change, it's my irrationality I'm talking about) because she's never said or done anything to suggest that she's a white supremacist. Instead, like the old Biblical adage that you judge a tree by the fruits it bears, I'm unable to disassociate Sarah Palin from the frothing of the crowds she drew during the McCain campaign. So, if she's headed for a non-political role (say as Fox commentator) where she can roil even more people up, that is just all the more scary.

Does anybody actually print out their email?

I've suddenly started seeing this ridiculous line in the signatures of multiple people (usually not scientists: these are usually bureaucrats):

*Please consider the environment before printing this email*

So, now to the list of things I never imagined possible: there must be people who actually print out their email. People to who think it is necessary and useful to tell other people to not print out their email. People with enough time on their hands to set up a signature in color. Wow!

Fighting modernity: the apostolic visitation edition

The Vatican is investigating nuns in the US. The truly amazing thing? The investigation takes the form of a "apostolic visitation" which usually is carried out when something truly scandalous happens:
Church historians said that the Vatican usually ordered an apostolic visitation when a particular institution had gone seriously astray. In the wake of the priest sexual-abuse scandal, the Vatican ordered a visitation of American seminaries. It is now conducting a visitation of the Legionaries of Christ, a men’s order whose founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, sexually abused young seminarians, fathered a child and was accused of financial improprieties. He died in 2008.
Neeedless to say, American nuns are not abusing choir boys or stealing parish money. They're just too modern for Vatican tastes. Many of them do not live in convents or wear black habits. Some of them teach in non-Catholic universities. Gallingly, some of them have publicly protested against a male-only priesthood.

30m global terrain (DEM) data available free

NASA has combined Terra satellite images to create a 30m resolution terrain dataset that covers the whole world. It's available online for free, although the website is now understandably swamped (so don't click the link).

We used 30m data for the US to compute beam blockage characteristics of different radars, but when I was in India on a US-AID project, the best terrain data of India they could easily obtain was a 1-km resolution data set from the USGS [I'm sure some mapping agency in India would have had higher resolution data, but it would have been a nightmare trying to get them to fork over the data]. So, a freely available global 30m data set is great.

The image in this post is from the Himalayan region of Bhutan. More information at The New Scientist.