Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Impressions from WolframAlpha presentation

I've watched the Harvard's sneak preview of WolframAlpha if it does about 1/3 of what the presentation actually shows (it's very easy to tailor a presentation to things you know your software can do and hide things it can't), it would be impressive. However, there are some odd things that I'm not sure make much sense. One of the reasons I can't be sure is that the presentation itself was terribly recorded. You can basically hear Wolfram talking and typing on a computer, saying abstractly what he is receiving back, but they don't really show the images.

But in some cases he gives some fishy examples. For instance (as we are talking about fishy things), his question of "How much fish is produced in France?". It starts with useful information and then he says that it's "1/5th of the rate that trash is produced in New York City". Pretty, but why would you waste computing power to show such randomly useless data? It doesn't seem right, unless there is something else that is not being shown, or if it's not doing what it should be doing.

In general I'm eagerly waiting for it. Just thinking that I'll have a free Mathematica to play with, it's already worth it. I'm sure this they can get right! And if it can calculate the number of people that travel by plane from Oklahoma City every day divided by the square root of the average number of years that a French monarch stayed in power between 1224 and 1843, all the better! I always wanted to know that!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ashamed to be surprised

This evening I've been trying to do something productive while I wait for some work to "finish its thing" (which won't finish before I'll decide to go to sleep), and came across The United Nation's World Digital Library. It's pretty small right now, with only about 1200 documents from around the world. But that didn't prevent me from finding a map that puzzled me:

Brazil ca. 1875

I'm not sure how accurate it was supposed to be, but I found many things that I don't remember from my Brazilian history classes. There is a very good chance that it's just because I'm not very good at remembering things, but it could be that we just weren't taught this. I remember all the revolutions and all the slavery changes that happened at about that time, but I just don't remember having discussions about how states (or whatever form of local sectioning that was going on back then) were divided and which states existed.

I should do some more research online to try to find where this hole in my education memory is coming from.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sad about semantics

On my way back home from work today (a day my bus didn't show up and I had to get a different bus home), I listened to The Semantic Web Gang and I was quite disappointed. It's not that the talk wasn't interesting. It was about ontologies and what it takes to build one, and it's probably one of my favorites in the area. What made me sad was the semi-conclusion that according to people's experience right now, manually building an ontology from scratch is easier than using any semi-automated methods to facilitate the construction. I'm sad about it because I'm learning that the hard way...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The society tries to be a power law

This was going to be a very long post, but after writing about 20 paragraphs of it, I decided that I should change it to be brief and remove all the references to my previous research (now you understand why it was going to be long).

Going to the point here, people have to be ready for the fact that human nature is to aggregate in a power-law fashion: very few people have a lot of <something> and a lot of people have very little of <something>. Nature (and I use nature in a broad sense here - more like "the physical reality"), although also exhibiting this behavior, acts in may ways to smooth this out. For example, the number of people I can know in my life is limited to the distance they are from me and how long it takes for me to get there.

However, broadcasting and now the web are breaking a lot of those barriers that nature was adding and making it easier for those "inequalities" to happen. Twitter is a huge example of it: it's very easy to follow somebody and you have the tendency to follow who your friends are following and there you have CNNs or Ashton Kutcher with almost a million followers (at the time that I write this, probably much more when you read it). And that gives you power and people need to be ready to handle this unequal power.

The event that triggered this post was the whole Stephen Colbert and the NASA module name. He has so many people that watch his show that pretty much anything he enlists his people to do it's very likely he will be able to get done. So he won the vote for the name of the NASA module. And NASA had to handle it by backing out of the idea to do it and named a treadmill C.O.L.B.E.R.T. instead.

And this morning, to make sure I wrote this (even being late to have breakfast and start my day), I watched this sort-of-interesting interview with Andrew Keen that talks about the same thing (but I think he doesn't really get the core reason for it): the web is dominated and will be dominated by a few players and the rest will be followers. He calls this a feudalism-like system. Interesting...

Alright, now I can start my day.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The joy of a calculator

It's actually interesting that I feel excited arriving at my home office and seeing a calculator by my computer. Not a simple 4-operation calculator, but my programmable, discontinued, HP 48GX. It reminds me of the time that I actually used it for doing more than just the 4 operations, when I was in undergrad. In graduate school I think I never really had to use it, as most complicated mathematical equations I had to solve I would do it directly on the computer (but there weren't too many of them - most things were conceptual and not numeric).

Different times, being a different person, able to go months sleeping 4 1/2 hours a day (I did some of it during graduate school too, but I think my average went up to something like 5 or 5 1/2 hours), learning and doing lots of different things. I can't say I'm not happy today, but I was a different type of happy then. I had more friends around, more music around, and more different projects that were actually getting done and not just in this design and early implementation phase forever.

Now you might be asking: why do I have a calculator by my computer? Can't computers do it all? Yes! But not while you are playing EVE Online. I'm at a point in the game that I gave up on just going around doing work for other people, and I'm mining and manufacturing goods to sell. So you have to look at things that I can make (i.e., I have all the skills needed and can mine/purchase the raw materials for), calculate how much my cost to make it would be and how much people will pay for it and see how many I have to make to get the ROI for purchasing the blueprints.

They are all reasonably simple calculations. Most products that I've analyzed only make sense to manufacture if you go mine all the raw materials (you can only sell it for more than what the raw materials cost), and I try to stay away from those. But there are a few that seem to make sense. So if I feel like I have enough time, I go mine myself and increase my profit, but if I don't, I can just buy what is needed and I still make a profit.

But why do I do this? Why play a game that the only thing you do is "work" and not get anything new out of it? I probably wouldn't do it if that's all I was going to do for eternity. My hope is to raise enough money to be able to buy a better ship and get back to doing work for other people. I need it not to be destroyed when the mission asks me to do something that takes me to a lair of pirates that kill me in a few seconds - I have lost about a 2 million ISK (the currency in the game) ship in the near past because of it.

Ah, fishing with a calculator...

PS: note that this is also a project that ends up being close to unfinished, as I have only been playing once or twice a week (and maybe coming online once or twice more just to set up my skill training queue), so don't expect me to be "rich" anytime soon.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Nothing like TV to change your mood

After a very non-productive day (well, that's probably a little too extreme - it was as productive as a 4-hour planning meeting can be), it's interesting how watching some TV can make it all seem trivial. It's our brain being transported to the world of fiction and leaving behind this confusing but mundane existence.

And it all gets better when it's the puzzling end of the second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I won't add any spoilers here, even thought I know that most people won't watch it. It's not that it's a good series, but it seems like at the end of the second season they found something that has some potential of being more than just "let's run from the machines and be lucky". I don't know if they will be able to follow-through with it, but I'm actually happy that they are trying.

This is the news for today. It's the weekend now and I have to start planning on what will be the list of things I will mark as "oh, well... another weekend without doing them". Call me the optimist.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Chag Sameach

Lots of food, more than normal amount of wine... It should be Passover... Chag Sameach to everybody that actually understands what it's about.

This year, after a lot of confusion, the first seder ended up being in my place with my girlfriend's parents. Small group, lots of reading... It was good and much less confusing than usual. Also the food was pretty good. I've decided to try doing the classics that I've never done before: matzo ball soup and Haroset. But of course I can't really just do simple things, so the matzo ball soup was from scratch including the chicken stock (I started all the prep work last night and was cooking it all morning long, starting at 6:15 AM to about 1 PM); and I've tried to Haroset recipes, a simple one mostly with dates (I've added some nuts to the recipe to make it closer to the consistency I'm used to), and another one with a good amount of spices (also making a few substitutions because Amy doesn't like hazelnuts). It was all good, except for the fact that the soup needed a little bit more salt.

And I also had to work today, which was fun. I've learned the importance of organization and knowing exactly what I had to do, or else I wasn't able to context change very efficiently. But it all worked well. I was able to get about 70% of the things I wanted to do done, which is about average for a normal day. Oh, well... There is always tomorrow.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Twitter, twitter, twitter - there, I said it!

I was once accused of talking too much about twitter on this blog. I'm not sure I agree with that accusation, but I'll write about it today, because I couldn't let this article go by without posting it here:

BakerTweet, the Arduino-based pastry early warning system

With the growth of twitter use by companies to do direct advertisement to their core clients (clients that are interested in what you are doing, so they follow you explicitly), I shouldn't have been surprised by somebody creating a hardware piece that integrates with the company in more fundamental levels, but I was. My mind still had twitter being this computer thingy that allowed short, but free text messages to go around that were produced by a person.

This company is now proposing the scheduling of static, "soul-less" messages... But I think it's great! Not because of what it's trying to do, but for what it means. Easier direct communication between people. The part of the implementation that I don't enjoy much is that it now loses the human side of being able to get feedback from your customers, which I think is 100 times more powerful than being able to message things out. It creates a sense of power to the customers, and make them want to come back.

Anyway, all is going to be over soon, as Google will take over twitter...