Thursday, February 26, 2009

An evening with Izzy

Sorry, I didn't really mean to call Itzhak Perlman "Izzy", but it sounded more interesting.

So, yes, today finally was the concert I was most excited about this season: Itzhak Perlman recital (well, it was the one I was most excited about because it's probably the only one that I really knew I was getting when I chose what I was going to watch). It was a violin and piano recital with Rohan De Silva at the piano (interesting name for a person born in Sri Lanka).

Well, it was quite amazing. But not life changing. Yes, Itzhak Perlman is funny and knows how to play the violin, but I felt that it was missing some emotional attachment with the public, between the musicians and on the pieces themselves. It really seemed like Mr. Perlman was running everything in auto-pilot and Mr. De Silva was just following along very competently.

Maybe it's all back to my inability to connect very well with music any more, but I was impressed but not moved. I left the concert hall a little disappointed.

One interesting thing, though, was the public. Seattle is a very politicized city, so the most common thing that people were talking about is that Itzhak Perlman played at the inauguration with Yo Yo Ma. I almost said: "so what? Who cares about who is playing at the inauguration? It's not that it's a venue where they present and criticize high art!" Anyway, I didn't...

Other things that I saw (and took notes):

* The huge diversity of people, from old-timers that probably followed Mr. Perlman's carrier since the beginning; to young people wearing jeans and eating protein bars inside the concert hall.
* People that really don't go to concerts, but were trying to impress their dates with a US$75/seat concert with a lot of useless and sometimes incorrect knowledge, like the incorrect way of pronouncing Sri Lanka.
* People amazed by a piano tuner in the intermission verifying and adjusting the tuning of the piano.

Anyway, I didn't want to make it not as exciting, but I am now suffering a little from the trivialization of a good experience by writing it out. Suddenly the things that I wasn't so excited about became so much more important than listening to one of the most important violinists of my lifetime (and my parent's lifetime).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

We are what we want other people to see what we are

Today has been a reasonably slow day for me. I've started the day wrapping up performance reviews (mostly copy-and-pasting what I've written in an offline text document during Friday evening and Saturday) and then just hanging out thinking of how I can spend more money (or not) and what I learned with the process of writing performance reviews.

It's actually interesting to not only look back on your year and think what your accomplishments were, but also looking back on the year for multiple people (I had to review 11 this year). My conclusion from it is that it doesn't matter what you tried to do, it matters what you've delivered to production. In other words, if it's not out there for other people to see and criticize, it's not worth much.

Another example that made me think about it was a blog that I've come across very indirectly while browsing Twitter looking at people that randomly start following me (BTW, she was not the one that added me, but annbkeller:

Bookoftea's Journal: on... yes, tea! An interesting field to write about as there are probably as many tea drinkers as wine drinkers. It's hard to get numbers here, but I'll cite some:
  • The wine industry in the USA was a 21 billion dollar industry in 2007 [source]
  • While the tea industry is only a 6.8 billion dollar industry [source]
  • 600 million gallons of wine are sold in the US each year. [source]
  • While Americans drink 35 billion gallons of iced tea every year (if you consider that tea). [source]
  • Apparently 90% of the tea consumption in the US comes from iced tea [source], so that means that Americans consume about 6 billion gallons of "non-iced tea" a year!
So it's a lot of tea and not so many people to really cover this.

Anyway, I don't plan on starting a tea review blog. But I'm getting to the conclusion that I have to plan to start something. Maybe I'll just stop reading so much and start writing something. Or maybe coding in the bus to work, working on my hundreds of data mining/structuring projects and blogging about what I think. Or even more easily, make sure that I post comments on people's blogs when I find them interesting, reply to discussions on the FreeBase data modeling mailing list, or just at least send emails to my friends or call them on their birthdays (I missed a very important one last week that I'm still angry with myself because of it).

And I'll rephrase myself to end this post:

It doesn't matter what you intend on doing: If you are not ready to take criticism, there is a red flag right there. Probably your time is better spent doing something else.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Always Welcome

Since I move to the new house I've been receiving regularly some sort of "welcome to the neighborhood" package with coupons or just advertising. Yesterday I've received another one. A puzzling one. The "introduction" said: "Please accept the enclosed gifts from neighborhood businesses who are anxious to meet you. [...]" Who are they?

Hollywood Video - ok
Ace Hardware - still ok
Dirctv - local?
Vonage - again, neighborhood?
Labels - (a company on Salem, VA that does cheap address labels)
Proactiv - acne product
Sheer cover - makeup
Gerber Life Insurance Company - in White Plains, NY

So out of the 7 ads/coupons that I've received, only two were from local companies. When I see those examples of bad advertising methods is when I realize why Google makes so much money. Their advertising tries to be more meaningful and not just "there is a new address in town, let's flood this person with all we've got - one might stick!". I'm sure something works, or else they wouldn't do it, but I wonder how much more effective it could be.

In general I believe that a world of easier information transfer should just kill those advertising models. What I think should win is something more in the lines of the "Progressive Auto Insurance" model: you need auto insurance, so come to our site and check out your options. One of the options is ours, but you can end up going somewhere else. You get the traffic, the customer-selected information of what they want so that you can better tailor your products to sell more, and you might even get referral money from some companies.

Die, junk mail, die!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Going back in time and realizing that some things were left behind

For some reason yesterday I decided to listen to some music and realized that I never actually transformed some of my CDs into MP3s, so there I went ripping all CDs that I found that I hadn't ripped before. And among those CDs I found a CD I've received from a cousin with a (not too official) recording from 2001's R.E.M. concert at Rock In Rio.

Of course as I've entered the CD, it didn't recognize any of the tracks so I had to enter all the information manually so that I could find things again after recording the MP3s. So I decided to challenge myself to remember the names of all the songs by only listening to them. It was more challenging than I was hoping (well, I should have imagined that, as I learned a long time ago that I can't trust my memory for anything). I got about 15 out of the 19 without help. These were the ones I couldn't remember the name:

* The Lifting
* Find the River
* At My Most Beautiful

And the only one I was really sad I couldn't remember:

* Pop Song 89

Oh, well... I probably wouldn't have remembered "So. Central Rain" if they hadn't announced the song name before they started playing it.

Now I should be working on performance reviews, but I've lost inspiration after about 15 minutes of it. Inspiration-hunting is time consuming.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Weekend driving

So this last weekend we went for the first time (well, actually it was the first time for me) to the Olympic Peninsula to relax and have some time away from all the work and home duties. It was nice, but a lot of driving. If you want to know what a lot means, well, here is an approximation of our trip:

It's pretty long, huh? Well, my car left with a little less than 2K miles on its odometer and came back with almost 2.5K. But I was quite happy with its fuel consumption. If I had enough courage, I could probably have done the whole trip in a single tank of gas. But I did put on gas when it was a little less than 1/4 left on the tank, 80 miles from home. On average about 32 miles a gallon, which is pretty impressive for driving in some mountainous roads and a 2.0 turbo engine.

If you are interested in pictures, you can check my SmugMug gallery. I'm impressed with myself for having it up this quickly. I knew that if I didn't put the time to get it out now it probably would take another couple of months until I would have enough energy to do it. And it would have forgotten a lot of details about why I decided to take some of those pictures.

So now I'm back to real life with a lot of things happening at the same time. So it's time to try to get some of those things done.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Finally another book done

I had convinced myself that I was going to stop to enumerate all the books that I read, but I guess I have to talk about this one. I have to do it because it was probably one of the books I had the hardest time to finish. Not because the story was bad, or it was difficult to read (I have given up reading books because of those reasons before), but it was because this book made me depressed. So before I continue on explaining why, I think I need to introduce the book, huh?

Richard Powers's: The Time of our Singing

It's a great work of literature. A very captivating and feels very realistic. So, is reality what made me depressed? Actually, that's not incorrect. If I sit down with my psychologist (which I don't have) and talk about it, I think I can distill down to three sources for my annoyance:

1) A good part of the story describes the struggle that was being African-American in the early to late 20th century in the US. Lots of things going wrong, lots of hurt people, lots of people with no perspectives of going anywhere in their lives. Not only this, it depicts the "white society"'s disgust towards them. I was never able to understand this type of behavior towards people. Yes, it's natural to be afraid of the people you don't know. It's expected that you should be worried about people that fit your mental profile of being dangerous (like people that walk on the streets with guns), but being disgusted by their presence? Why?
2) The story goes around a family of a physicist and a former singer that have kids that they teach music from very young and music becomes a part of their being. They can think and communicate using music. I think I envied that ability. I've been struggling a lot lately about my relationship with music and the book was making me remember that some time in my life I used to be able to read much more into music than I am right now.
3) The main protagonist of the book is a middle brother, Joseph. His job throughout the book (and hoping I won't spoil much of it by saying this) is to go and be there for for his family. He ends up having no real life of his own (except for things that I won't mention here), never graduating from college, never marrying, never really having the career that he trained all his life for. But he is there for his family and that is what keeps them from completely collapsing. I'm the middle brother and where am I? I don't even reply to emails...

So now you see why I'm very glad that this is over. I've been very stressed at work lately. And arriving to work depressed due to reading this book was not helping at all! Now I need my next book to be something simple and uplifting. Haven't decided what yet. I have until 3 AM tonight to figure it out, as I'll be awake babysitting a process that has to run successfully tonight or else I'll be in big trouble trying to deliver a project by Friday and having the weekend to celebrate.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

People with some time in their hands - great!

So I was randomly watching an episode of Wine Library TV and Gary Vaynerchuk had a visitor that owned Freezer Burns. What is this site? Well, it is a video blog of some person, Gregory Ng, trying frozen meals and providing his review on them. Have you ever seen a wine tasting video (especially from very excited people, like Gary Vaynerchuk)? Well, think of the same thing being applied to frozen food. He even sniffs the food and tries to explain what he is smelling.

All and all, I think it's awesome that somebody is putting the time and providing real information about things for people freely. The frozen food world is much smaller and slower-moving than the wine world, so we probably won't see much competition coming in this line of work. Also, I'm not sure how long he can sustain this show. He is already at episode 54 with only a few months of work. So maybe I should visit the frozen food aisle more often and realize how diverse and changing it is.

I wished more people did things like this. I actually thought of doing a series of side-by-side comparisons of products. Probably I would never make a video blog about it because I'm not very good at talking to people, but I always thought that being able to compare things side-by-side is the best way of deciding what is better for your application. What review places like Consumer Reports is missing is the details of what their rates actually mean. Also, their bandwidth is quite limited and they try to cover a lot of different types of products. In the end, they are always behind on the latest versions of things (especially consumer electronics that change very quickly), so by not knowing what they actually think is important, you can't extrapolate their ratings to the newer models.

Other review places, like Amazon, provide reviews that vary too much on completeness and objectivity. Yes, everything is subjective, but if you don't know what a same person thinks about their experience in all the products you are considering buying, it's hard to make a very well informed decision.

So, go Gregory Ng!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The music of random harmony

So, as I mentioned on my previous post, this morning I had a choir presentation during the morning services at Congregation Beth Shalom. It went alright. We sang a few pieces in place of the Rabbi's sermon. But this was not the interesting thing of the event (at least for me). On preparation for the day, the person that was organizing the event said: "One of the hidden goals for this event is to make people realize how nice it is when the congregation harmonizes with the cantor. So, you choir singers, harmonize!"

Before I explain what happened I have to point out that very few people in the choir actually have any background in formal music theory. But most had experience singing and think that they can sing well. So, what was the result: people did their best to harmonize with the music by themselves. Even when they didn't know the melody at all.

Oh, I'm to blame for it too! I actually do that all the time during services. It's a fun experiment but I usually do it quietly, mostly singing to myself. This time people were doing it loudly enough to rival the cantor. And I stayed back and tried to listen to what was coming out of it. It was awesome! There were interesting rules to it: people were looking for thirds and fifths, playing around with basic counterpoint rules, like working with contrary and oblique motion, and sometimes just enjoying the bottom of their range (especially Basses).

What was interesting was the combination of it all: a wall of sound that was mostly harmonious, but generally purposeless. I wished I had good enough music ability and memory to write things down. It would have been an interesting study of harmony and the ability for humans to perceive chords.

I was briefly talking to one of the singers after services. I mentioned to him my observation and he said that part of it was based on people's musical background on their interpretation of the harmony. That some people might be thinking of a minor chord while other people would be thinking of a major chord.

I didn't hear any of this type of confusion. Mostly what I heard was people mixing scale modifications. Like some people using the harmonic minor, while other people doing a plain minor scale, or a melodic minor scale. Added to general mistakes from people without enough singing knowledge/experience, that's where the dissonance would come from. As I said, the actual problem was that there was no purpose to the counterpoint. Each person was doing their own and you just got all the notes all the time, instead of movement.

Anyway, I've spent way too much time trying to convey this experience in words. Maybe one day I'll put enough time on my music studies to be able to transcribe what I heard and make people listen to it and get their own conclusions. Now it's time for me to move onto something else. I'll hopefully find out what before it's too late.

New changes - giving DISQUS a try

I decided to enable DISQUS on my blog. It's not that it will make much difference in general as I have very few people that actually comment on my posts, but I decided that it was worth the test. Hopefully it's something that works. Today, after my choir "concert" this morning (it was a short participation during Shabbat morning services at Beth Shalom - more on this on another post), nothing really worked out for the rest of the day. I tried to go back to my research project, but my computer decided to become unstable and froze a couple of times. I should be coding on my Mac and not on my Windows box...

Anyway, I think right now I should start thinking about dinner. Then I'll come back and post about the choir event this morning.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Another concert evening...

It's interesting that most times that I come back from a Seattle Symphony concert I get kind of introspective, thinking about life and what my priorities are. But what worries me the most is not that this happens on my way back home and when I try to sleep, but that it happens during the concert and I completely space out. It's like I've lost the ability to keep enough of an attention span to watch a concert! Shouldn't surprise me, as "modern life" is just like that: you need to keep busy because there are too many things to do, too many things to learn. But is this that life we should be living?

Well, I won't try to answer this question here. It's probably not a question that can be easily answered. There are lots of factors involved, like the cost of success and the benefit of it. It goes back to the fact that most of the cheap hotel/motel business in the US is owned by Indians, Mexicans and Middle Easterns. It's hard work and they can do it, so they take the business. It's that simple. So if you want quality of life you automatically close some of your options in life.

Maybe having less options is good, though. Completely changing subjects here, I decided some time ago to move around on RSS readers (My last post on the subject) and moved away from online readers to using RSSOwl. There are some interesting features about it and I was starting not to miss being able to read the same stream anywhere I was until today when it decided to do a database cleanup and... Lost most of my feeds for some reason. And now I have to subscribe to everything again! I guess I'm going back to online readers. At least their bugs are less destructive (at least as far as I know). If I had less options at least I would spend less time adapting to a new reader and moving all my feeds from one reader to another (well, this time I don't have to as I've lost 90% of them).

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

House depreciation in Seattle

I came across this odd map posted by Zillow:

Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA MSA - Map of Real Estate Market Year over Year Home Price Appreciation

The areas are not that interesting, besides saying that Bellevue got hit with over 13% depreciation, which is pretty big (and my house is in the tip of the area that only was down 0-11%). What I found interesting is the ranges:

<0% (appreciation)

Note the 2 percentage point range of the blue region. Seems too arbitrary... Fishy...

Monday, February 02, 2009

Causality and statistics

One of the first things that people learn when they start taking statistics seriously is that most of the statistical studies out there are completely meaningless (or as some people might put it, 87.2% +- 0.5% of them - sorry, couldn't resist). The reason they are meaningless is that they try to conclude causality without actually having any methodology to do so. The example that triggered me to think about it was on a Brazilian newspaper:

Ficar muito tempo na frente da TV e do computador aumenta depressão - Staying for too long in front of the TV or computer increases depression. The problem with this story is that there is certainly a causality that goes on the other way: people that are depressed have the tendency of isolating themselves from social contact and end up staying in front of their TV and computers more often.

Then they try to prove causality by using time as a causal agent: they look at adolescents that watch too much TV or stay too much in front of their computers and then check how many of them end up more depressed. Then they start trying to explain it by saying that if they interact more with people it makes them less likely to be depressed. However, if they are already spending too much time in front of computers and TV when they are young, maybe it's because they don't have engaged parents that provide them with more things to do. And that could be very well be a much more important source for depression (lack of stability at home) and watching too much TV and staying too long at the computer are just a measurable side-effect.

Actually, those types of news are what make me depressed. And I read them because I read things on the internet. If I didn't spend this much time on the internet I wouldn't be depressed. So there you have the causal connection!

Google is harmful problem

Just as an update on the post that I've written a few days ago: it was apparently a glitch on all Google's results:

Oops! Google glitch highlights users' dependence

It does point out that the more people only use one system, the more dangerous it will be if this system starts having problems. And amazingly enough, it's very easy for software systems to have problems (it tends to have more "moving parts" than non-software systems - although I always find bogus the idea of being able to explain software engineering using terms from mechanical or civil engineering).

Anyway, I won't say much more than what the article already says. Errors happen and Google was there to fix the error as quickly as they could.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A month of spam

So my month of analyzing how well the spam detectors for gmail, Yahoo mail and Hotmail work. The results are a little hard to interpret, but they are interesting anyway. Before you look a the table, here is some nomenclature:

True negatives: Email that I've received on that account that was not classified as spam and was not spam
True positives: Email that I've received on that account that was correctly classified as spam
False positives:Email that was classified as spam but were not spam
False negatives:Email that was spam but was not classified as spam

ProviderTrue negativesTrue positivesFalse positivesFalse negatives

So, what is the conclusion? Well, first that Yahoo's spam classifier isn't very good in catching spam. About 1/3 of the spam that I've received ended up on my inbox. And only one real email ended up in the spam folder (which is statistically the same as gmail or hotmail). Gmail seems to do a very good job at classifying spam, but it does seem to err more on throwing things on my spam folder than letting spam pass into my inbox, and that does annoy me a lot. As you can see, it's the account I use the most and receive the most amount of spam. If I don't check spam for a couple of days sometimes it's hard to sift through 70 spam emails to find one non-spam there. Unfortunately I don't have much to talk about hotmail because that account is mostly dead.

Other things we can say about this? Well, we can look at any date trends on spam. Do they happen more often on weekdays or weekends? (unfortunately my data is not split by time - the date on the email many times doesn't make much sense and I haven't checked my emails often enough to annotate time) Let's look only at gmail where there was enough data to make it interesting:

Or as a graph:

I wished there was much there to show. Probably I'll need to look for longer than a month to get a better trend there. Look at the raw data day-by-day in the month for gmail:

Two of the spikes you see are Mondays and one is Thursday. The interesting trend that I've seen right now is that it seems like I'm getting significantly less spam in the last few days. Let's see if this trend continues.

Well, I guess that's it. It was fun! I should do things like this more often. Now it's time to start my day.