Friday, January 30, 2009

Web Stuff Friday: Hi-res Muffin Dimensions

Super hi-res photo of Obama's inauguration has made the rounds, but I want to link to it as well. Here is the photographer's description of how he did it.

The Loneliest Ultra-Conservative Corn Muffin in the World made four short videos. Sadly, the director passed away recently at the age of 28, so this is a good time for a retrospective:
My favorite part is the scene in episode 2 with the hairdryer.

Dimensions is a series of videos by some French mathematicians. It's a journey from two dimensions to four dimensions. Some of these videos are really trippy. I liked the first three. After that, it gets pretty hard on my little brain.

And here is a nice little music video. The song is Her Morning Elegance by Oren Lavie:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Facebook Connections

I like Facebook. I'm not the kind of person who is going to post regular updates (and I don't do Twitter), but I do like connecting with people from long ago. Recently I have been connecting with people I went to school with as long ago as second grade. It's cool.

Today, I made some interesting connections through Facebook, but the most unique individual is someone I'll call Boulder. Now, don't get me wrong: everyone is special and unique, but Boulder is particularly unique. To give you an idea about how unique he is, I asked Mrs. Kid to guess who I had found on Facebook and when I quoted what the person said on my wall, she got it with one guess after hearing only the first nine words of the quote. She has met the man exactly once and that was at our wedding over 14 years ago. Here is the quote:
I have a poverty level existence and 2 girlfriends. They both know about each other and it's all poly friendly. I'm a big fan of Burning Man.
Priceless. I miss Boulder and wish he lived here in VA instead of out in CO. Knowing him made life so much more interesting.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Beginning of the End of Large Lecture Halls?

New York Times article: At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard. Wow.

Looking back at it, I think that if I had that sort of environment for learning in college, it would have helped tremendously. I didn't need that sort of environment for basic math, but having it for science and engineering as well as more advanced math classes would have really helped.

At the time, I might have denied that it would help or that I needed that sort of non-traditional environment. I would have been wrong. As I look back, I can see that really engaging with the content more actively would have helped me process it all. Because I was reasonably good at math, I didn't need that sort of help. I was able to process most of the concepts on my own with minimal help or socialization, but even in math, I have my holes. I was able to get by on tests, but I don't get everything the same way I'd like to.

Anyway, I hope this is a trend that keeps developing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Music Monday: Highlights from Concert for Obama

It seems that not everybody realized they were getting HBO for the two-hour concert for Obama. They gave it to everyone who has cable. Pretty cool. It wasn't all my cup of tea, but some performances were noteworthy.

Shakira, Usher, and Stevie Wonder: Higher Ground

Beyonce: America the Beautiful

Josh Groban, Heather Headley, and a choir that includes a co-worker (my very excellent former boss): America (My Country, 'Tis of Thee) (Tom is in the right side of the front row. Third from the middle)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Web Stuff Friday: Horrible Spider Rope

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is my favorite Neil Patrick Harris work. It's actually a close contest with his role in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

Play with Spider is so simple, but still fun. The best part is playing around with the way the spider moves and feeding it insects.

You Have to Burn the Rope. Wow. Simply insane. Snake Game is more my speed.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Tracking Obama's Progress

The St. Petersburg Times has a site called PolitiFact. It has two things I think are very interesting.

The Truth-O-Meter helps sort out fact from fiction. I love this sort of thing. Whenever a politician speaks, I start thinking about how truthful they are being. Now I have a place to go that will help me sort it all out.

tracks how Obama is doing on his campaign promises. Note that this is not about his positions. It's about his actionable promises. I'm not looking for 100% conformance, but will be interested to see how the picture evolves.

On a side note: One of my favorite quotes from Obama's inauguration speech:
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and Non-Believers.
Being inclusive is quite laudible. I wish he hadn't chosen Rick Warren to provide the invocation, but this quote is still a nice one.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bush: A Literate Anti-intellectual

While at a diner with some friends on Thanksgiving morning, a friend asked me "what exactly will be different on January 20th?" He had asked the same question of his Obama-supporting father, who had no response. I, on the other hand, am rarely at a loss for an opinion. My response was that I looked forward to the end of the anti-intellectualism that has seen its ascendancy during Bush's tenure and saw its zenith when McCain selected Palin as his running mate.

Bush didn't start the GOP's war on intellectualism, but he certainly became its poster child. He always seems to be speaking to working class men and women in a way that implies he is on their side in a battle of good old-fashioned values against high-falutin' intellectuals.

In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Bush Is a Book Lover, Karl Rove sheds an interesting light on Bush's intellectual side.

Bush's impressive reading list doesn't change my opinion of him. I never bought the idea that he was plain-old stupid (these bushi-isms not withstanding). I knew he wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I thought he was smart enough to recognize his limitations. In contrast, I always had the feeling that Al Gore thought he was the smartest man in any room he walked into. George W. Bush knew that he wasn't the smartest sibling at his parents' Thanksgiving table (his mom has said publicly that Jeb is the smart one).

I always hoped that some humility would help W lead well. Instead, it seems that W reacted to his place in his family by fashioning a public persona that is completely folksy and rejects any hint that he ever uses his ivy league education.

I'm not saying that Obama's brain trust is going to be perfect. Notably, I am wary about super-smart people coming up with overly-intricate solutions to our problems. Still, I am optimistic that having people who aren't trying to seem "folksy" in charge of the government will have some advantages.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Reaction, Part 3

Early this afternoon, a friend of mine sent an email to a racially diverse group of friends:
It looks like he made it in!
To which another friend replied:
I just got a text that someone saw a pig fly, hell froze over, and then they heard a big crash like glass was breaking. Glad to wake up today and see a 40 year-old dream come true.
I know that many white friends of mine seem to feel like we are already in a post-racial time. They don't see colored water fountains. They know that the law doesn't divide us into black and white. They have black friends. Heck, the smartest, most respected man they know is black ;).

Still, my non-white friends know this is an important moment. The racial environment we are in is more complex than it used to be. It's more like northern racism and less like southern fried racism. Every time a person of color (black, hispanic, asian, etc.) rises to a high position, we all feel like another glass ceiling has been broken, but there are many ceilings still to be broken. The highest profile barrier has been broken, but there are many more still in place.

Donklephant's First Thoughts on the Obama Presidency is a good read. It reminds me of The Onion's piece from election day: Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job.

Update: Mrs. Kid went downtown for the inauguration. Here is a shot she took of the crowd around her. Really a mass of American humanity.
From Inauguration2009

An Auspicious Beginning

Some random thoughts about today's ceremony:
  • Of course, things started on CPT. It looks like six minutes late is the new standard. Maybe I should be six minutes late for the next four or eight years. I'll call it "being presidential."
  • Religion and government should be separate. The benediction wasn't as bad as the convocation, but I'd rather not have any religion in the ceremony.
  • Aretha Franklin, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman were all getting it done. The musical interludes were brief but lovely additions to the day.
  • Obama's speech was great. Brief but inspiring.
  • Some day, Boy Kid will be able to go as President Obama to a costume party. My mutt playing a presidential mutt. Truly amazing.
Now the real work begins.

Inauguration Day

Mrs. Kid got up at 5:31 to head downtown with her mother. Last night I helped her pick out clothes to keep her warm and I got the camera batteries charged, but today I am sitting at home with the kids watching history on CNN and NBC.

As I watch the coverage, it really strikes me that D.C. is a Chocolate City today. Almost everyone CNN and NBC interviews on The Mall is black, but as the cameras pan back, it seems that most of the people down there are black. When I spoke with Mrs. Kid a little bit ago, she said that at least 3/4 of the people down there on The Mall are black.

Is this a big day for everyone in the U.S.? Certainly. First, the peaceful transfer of power is a time to celebrate the greatness of our democracy. Second, it's the end of an era that many are happy to see pass. Third, our country has huge problems and Obama is bringing great energy and a great attitude to attacking the problems. We all have reason to be hopeful, even if we have varying amounts of pessimism and optimism.

But, it's black folks who have traveled from far and wide to see this event. We are the ones who never thought we'd see this day. It's a huge deal. I don't expect to have a black-ruled country tomorrow. I don't even expect that we really will be on even footing. The financial and corporate worlds are run by the old establishment and things don't change that quickly. Still, Boy and Girl Kid are mutts just like the President. When they look at the world around them, they will see no barriers. This gets us one step closer to Dr. King's dream.

Today's inauguration isn't the final destination. It is a beginning for Obama and it's just another step on the journey for all of us.

OK. Back to watching inauguration coverage with the Kids.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Race Card

An article: In the Age of Obama, Still Playing the Race Card is spot on. If we black folks want to stop being victimized, we need to stop playing the victim.

A while ago, I hoped that Blago's nastiness wouldn't pull a bunch of black politicians in. It turns out that some black politicians jumped in voluntarily. I would have preferred if one or two corrupt politicians had been caught up in it. Instead, we have black politicians playing the race card and it disappoints (but doesn't surprise) me.

As I celebrate MLK Day, the Blago stuff reminds me of the great speech:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Only when we start believing in this dream can it come true. Here is the speech:


Friday, January 16, 2009

Web Stuff Friday: Oblique Whopper Validation

Random Strategies is based on a Brian Eno project called Oblique Strategies. If you have a creative process that is at a roadblock, the idea is that these strategies could help the process move forward. In its original format, the aphorisms were printed on little cards, but this online version is more practical. There is a similar app for the iPhone.

Whopper Sacrifice is quite possibly the greatest Facebook application ever. Now to friend a bunch of people I have been ignoring. The only problem is the limit of one coupon per person. What about one coupon per person per month? [update before this post even went out: Facebook has disabled the app, so I am completely dejected. At least I found out before I friended a bunch of folks I can't sacrifice.]

Validation is an award-winning short movie. It's 15 minutes long, but very nicely done. If you cry at Coke commercials (I'm not naming names, but you know who you are), be prepared for this bit of well-done schmaltz.

BTW: This post's title has set a high bar.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Ugliness of Modern Death

Craig Bowron's The Dying of the Light was a sobering glimpse into the state of dying in America. As he says:
To be clear: Everyone dies. There are no life-saving medications, only life-prolonging ones. To say that anyone chooses to die is, in most situations, a misstatement of the facts.
And later...
If we can be honest and admit that we have no choice about dying, then the only thing we do have a say in are the circumstances.
Don't get me wrong: I want to watch Mrs. Kid grow older (though she will forever be my child bride). I want to see my kids grow older. Maybe someday I will have grandchildren. Regardless, every day is precious. On the other hand, Quality of life is important.

I don't want to live a life that is so full of indignity and pain that death would be better. I don't think it makes sense for society to spend tons of money prolonging the lives of people who are ready to have nature take its course, while kids are going hungry. As modern medicine keeps on getting better at prolonging life, we are losing touch with natural patterns of life and death and that has its price.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jack Bauer and Our Torture Problem

In Day of Reckoning, Peter Finn discusses the Fox show 24 and particularly its portrayal of torture. Jane Mayer's piece in the New Yorker Whatever It Takes is a deep look at 24 that is a longer, but worthwhile read.

I like 24. I yell at the TV every time someone else acts like a "Stupid Kim." There are always a few Stupid Kims every year, so I get to yell once or twice each episode.

Another major device the producers use to keep things moving along is torture. Any time some good person needs information from a bad person, they use physical coercion to get answers. Punches are thrown. Guns are pushed into temples. Oxygen tubes are blocked. Torture is always tried and it almost always works.

This plot device is part of the problem with torture. I know that if you put a gun to my head and asked me for any information that would save my family or that would save my life without endangering my family, I would sing like a bird. I'm weak, so it's easy to imagine that everyone is weak. I would sing. Bad guys on 24 sing. It's clear: torture is effective. The only debate should be about when and how this last resort should be used.

There are two problems with this:
  • First, the baddest of the bad guys are not weak. They are willing to kill and be killed (maybe at the same time) for their cause. The bad guys can deal with torture and their zealotry helps them endure whatever their enemies want to dish out. They can even lie to the torturers just to point them in a wasteful direction.
  • Second, not everyone who is tortured has the information the torturer wants from them. This won't stop them from confessing just to end the torture, but doesn't make any information gleaned from such sessions helpful.
In 24, the bad guys are just about always weak and they always have the information. Torture and coercion work on 24 and that is part of our torture problem.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An Israeli Joins Me in Pessimism

Tom Segev's article Peace Is no Longer in Sight is a short piece that is in sync with my own pessimism. I'm not sure when it was that I lost hope for peace in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but I no longer can see a way to long-term peace.

You give folks enough money and you can overcome economic differences. You give folks enough peace keepers and you can make them feel safer. There is no way around deeply-held religious views that are in direct conflict with each other.

Some Israelis imagine that they can bludgeon the Palestinians into being peaceful, but that is hard for me to imagine. Some Palestinians imagine that if they make the Israelis feel insecure, then the Israelis will give the Palestinians what they want. Both sides are wrong, but I don't have a better answer that can work for both sides.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Music Monday: My X-mas Music

For X-mas, I got lots of music. Here are some of the highlights:

Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (video: Tusk)
The album is good. The song is great. Check out Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow) and Go Your Own Way from that same concert (mixtube playlist). Really nice, fresh versions of these classics.

Beastie Boys: Check Your Head (video: So What'cha Want)
It starts out with a sample from Cheap Trick Live at Budokan, so that's a great, great start. This album has a harder punk edge than most other BB albums, but it's an edge that works.

Nat Adderley: Work Song (video: Work Song)
Wes Montgomery plays guitar on this album and the two of them fit together well. "Sack O' Woe" is a tremendous song (but I couldn't find a YouTube link for their version of it).

Stevie Wonder: Songs In the Key of Life (video: Isn't She Lovely)
This album is absolutely legendary and for good reason. If you don't smile when you listen to "Sir Duke", "I Wish", or "Isn't She Lovely", then you have serious problems. Still, the album is far greater than just the sum of its hit songs.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Are Palistinians Hobbled but United?

One of my biggest problems with the U.S. "War on Terror" is that I feel it ultimately will make us less safe. As I recall, Bin Laden's biggest beef with us is that we support corrupt regimes in the Middle East. Attacking Iraq brought down a terrible, vicious ruler, but it also has helped al Qaida recruit more fanatics.

Now, Israel is bombing the heck out of the Palestinians. I understand that Hamas started this by firing missiles at Israel, but this response reminds me of a press conference I heard around the time of the first Iraq war in which John Shalikashvili said that if Iraq violated the no-fly zone, the U.S. military response would be swift, brutal, and disproportionate.

I understand the Israeli position as described in this article, but I also fear this quote from this article:
Wisdom tells us that violence can only breed violence. Israel's brutality guarantees that its people will not be secure. Israel may destroy much and kill many in Hamas, but that is not the solution. Hamas was born because of the occupation .... Israel and its allies should address Palestinian grievances instead of aggravating them....
Daoud Kuttab's Washington Post op-ed Has Israel Revived Hamas? gets at the heart of my concern. By bringing out the heavy artillery and hitting so many targets, Israel buys more security in the short-term, but what will be the long-term result? I fear that these hostilities will turn Palistinian doves into hawks and unite them behind Hamas.

For Israel's sake, I hope that Robert Lieber's ideas in Hard Truths About the Conflict work out:
Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel...because they concluded that the effort to destroy the Jewish state had failed and that refusing to come to terms with it was harmful to their national interests. Ultimately, peace will be possible only if most Palestinians and their leaders become convinced that terrorism and violence are a dead end and that they cannot under any circumstances prevail over Israel through the use of force. If today's conflict leaves a seriously weakened and politically damaged Hamas, that result is more likely to enhance the prospects for peace than to weaken them.
But I fear the attitude voiced by a senior Hamas leader who said:
The Zionists have legitimized the killing of their children by killing our children.
I can't help the feeling that both sides' intransigence will ultimately result in more violence and less security. I hope I'm wrong and that this somehow paves the path toward a peaceful two-state solution.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Scott Adams on Capitalism

Dilbert creator Scott Adams posted The End of Capitalism and then follow-ups: Call It Phase II of Capitalism and Investing in Individual Stocks. These are interesting thought experiments about restrictions that might be placed on us. Adams isn't suggesting these changes, but is predicting that some of them might come to pass.

One of the most interesting parts of his argument is the idea that the speed of the Internet and the complexity of connections have created a financial system that can't be regulated.
The economy is now too complicated for even the regulators to know when a con or a huge mistake is happening.
This is a sobering thought, but one I think is on target. Regulatory groups need to figure out a way to design themselves for change. They can't just set up a bunch of regulations and assume they will stay relevant and helpful.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Look Inside AIG's "Beautiful Machine"

The Post did a three-part article about the rise and fall of AIG's Financial Products group. These are the guys who brought down AIG and with it a lot of our interconnected financial system.

Part 1: The Beautiful Machine
Part 2: A Crack in the System
Part 3: Downgrades and Downfall

This series reminds me of all the stories, movies, and books about Enron after its fall. Like the guys at Enron, these people were seen as being the best and the brightest. Those who wanted to regulate them were backwards-thinking anti free market types. You can argue that the folks who started all these derivatives and intricate credit-default swaps could have handled them, but it got into the wrong hands. My point is that we need regulation because anything that complicated is bound to end up being managed by people who have an incomplete understanding of its workings and implications.

The "quants" who come up with mathematical models for risk think that if they can come up with a number for the risk, then they can control the risk. This sort of hubris will never completely go away. A brilliant mind with a ton of precise numbers can be very compelling.

There are several problems with building a business on mathematical models of risk. Here are a couple that come to mind:
  • Models are built on historical data, but today's global and electronic economy is more interconnected and fast than any economy in the past. It's like making predictions about car accidents based on the number of horse-and-buggy accidents.
  • Outcomes of complicated systems can't be controlled well. Just ask the guys who made Jurassic Park. Any time someone comes up with a really complex system, we should all be wary of the eventual ramifications.
It's also interesting to me that the two guys who got it all started worked at Drexel Burnham Lambert while my sister was there. She had to have known them. She knew the bubble was bound to burst, but I wonder if she knew that these former co-workers were part of the reason it went so bad.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Music Monday: I Am Now a Sara Groupie

Sara is a Japanese girl who plays the drums really, really well.
I hope she doesn't get burned out. That's quite a talent she has.