Tuesday, March 31, 2009

TED Talks, Volume 2: Choice and Happiness

Choice is pervasive. Is it always good for us? What makes us happy? These TED talks are must-see videos for anyone who is interested in happiness.

Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice
Choice isn't always good.

Dan Gilbert: Why are we happy? Why aren't we happy?
We synthesize happiness.

Benjamin Wallace: Does happiness have a price tag?
If something supposed to be the best you can buy, is it really all that great? The big tie-in to Gilbert's talk is in the last minute of the talk, but the entire talk was fun.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Music Monday: Interesting Music from The Headmaster

The Headmaster (previously called C-Dog) is a friend from high school, undergrad (take 2), and grad school. Over the years, we were friends, housemates, and co-workers at AM560 WGMU. He was the Music Director with great knowledge of (and taste in) music. I was a clueless Program Director, but was lucky to learn from The Headmaster. Over the years, we spent lots of time listening to music together.

Joy Division/New Order
Albums: Substance (video: Love Will Tear Us Apart)/Low-Life (video: Face Up)
This band (recall that New Order is Joy Division renamed after Ian Curtis' suicide) resonated with us angst-ridden college kids of the '80's. Love Will Tear Us Apart was a great single, but the album Low-Life really got me hooked. When I was in school, I got into the drama that was Perfect Kiss, but now I love side 2. No single song is remarkable, but the entire side still works for me.

Joe Jackson
Album: Jumpin' Jive (video: Jumpin' Jive)
Jumpin' Jive was a fun album. I borrowed The Headmaster's copy for long periods. Any time I want some music to pick me up, Jumpin' Jive can do the job.

Talking Heads
Album: Stop Making Sense (video: Heaven)
The Headmaster and I saw Stop Making Sense at least twice in a theater. He also had a VHS tape of it that he knew so well he could hit Fast-forward for a while, and then when he hit Play again, he could sing along immediately. Stop Making Sense is Boy Kid's favorite album and that's a good thing.

Others: Psychedelic Furs, Violent Femmes, Lou Reed, Adrian Belew, Elvis Costello

Friday, March 27, 2009

Web Stuff Friday: FaceBook Chicken Scratch

FaceBook in Reality is a glimpse into part of why I am not that into FB. I like connecting with old friends, but that sort of exposure is kinda scary.

Boy Kid is getting into Star Wars, but I don't think he's ready for Robot Chicken Does Star Wars.

Scratch is a programming language. Scratch Day is coming up on May 16. Maybe this is the modern successor to Logo. Here are a few games people have made using Scratch. Each game is silly and simple, but kinda fun.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Life Tips: Changing Jobs

Lifehacker brings us: How To Jump to a New Career. Nice little piece with great advice.

Get Rich Slowly: How to Quit Your Job Gracefully. I have changed jobs many times, so I am getting pretty good at this part.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Entitlement Avalanche

Few people have a good feel for the nature of the federal budget. The picture painted by the graphic Spending Categories from 2008 has not changed significantly. Death & Taxes 2009 is also pretty nifty.

The problem isn't the earmarks. The problem isn't the bailout. The big problem is the way the numbers are going to change in the coming years. Paul Krugman's piece for the NY Times, Entitlements on the Back of an Envelope is a very succinct description of the problem. The big three entitlement programs are going to explode while the number of people paying taxes to support that growth is going to shrink. This is a major problem.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

TED Talks, Volume 1: On Creativity

I've always wanted to attend a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference. The closest I will probably get is watching videos of some of the talks. This is the first of a series of posts with links to talks I have found interesting.

Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?
Academic ability has become our idea of intelligence, but that is a very narrow way of looking at it.

Yves Behar: Creating objects that tell stories
This guy does amazing design. Listening to the story behind designs really adds a new dimension.

Stuart Brown: Why play is vital -- no matter your age
I need to play more. Playing with Boy and Girl Kid is great, but I need to do more.

Gever Tulley: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do

He makes excellent points. Kids need to be exposed to things with which they need to be careful.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Music Monday: 75 Albums from Esquire

C-Dog is an old friend from Undergrad, Take 2 and grad school. He will soon get his very own "Interesting Music from" post on this very blog, but in the meantime, he sent me a link to Esquire magazine's 75 Albums Every Man Should Own.

A comment C-Dog makes about this list is particularly interesting:
The list holds up a theory that I believe you and I even talked about back in the day. The theory being that the freshman outing of any band is many time the best (and sometimes only) effort. Note how many they recommend that are first albums.
I think I have about 10 of the 75 albums (and I have 5 of the 30 Albums that Didn't Make the Cut), so I have a lot of album buying to do.

I'm not buying all the albums on the list. I have little interest in some of the albums (e.g., i am not and never will be a GnR guy and my AC/DC days are mostly behind me). On the other hand, several are albums I know I need (e.g., Darkness on the Edge of Town, Band of Gypsies) and a few are albums by groups I have never heard of, but am eager to check out (e.g., Bill Callahan and Explosions in the Sky).

Thanks to C-Dog, I think I know where my tax refund is going (now to break the news to Mrs. Kid).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Web Stuff Friday: A Trillion Watchmen bRanes

Conceptualizing a Trillion Dollars is kinda cool. Big numbers are hard for us to deal with, but this at least puts it into some perspective. You can see the process here.

The Watchmen movie came out last week. If you haven't seen the movie or read the graphic novel, then this won't be funny. If you have, then this is hilarious (and a bit disturbing).

spEak You're bRanes is a site with quotes from comment sections on other sites. Some of the language is pretty salty, but there is lots of funny stuff in there.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bat Heading to Valhalla

On a recent shuttle mission, a Bat Hung on for a Ride Into Space.

This made me think:

Some people feel sorry for the bat (or Interim Problem Report 119V-0080 as his friends refer to him), but I like to look on the bright side. I think he went out with a spectacular exit. It was akin to a floating funeral barge. Perhaps he was a flying mammalian version of King Arthur!

All hail Interim Problem Report 119V-0080! May he enjoy his trip to bat Valhalla.

I know this is my first post in an age, but life is a bit too crazy these days.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Blame Game

Time Magazine has an online piece called 25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis.

The truth is that there is lots of blame to go around, but blame only helps if it gets us closer to solutions and prevents a repeat.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Compensation Run Amok

I have posted several times on the topic of compensation.

Donklephant links to a video of AIG's CEO on Charlie Rose. Ouch.

And now, the House has passed a bill taxing bonuses (to the tune of 90%) for people who get them from companies that received bailouts.

I know this is old news, but I'm still clearing out the long list of incomplete posts.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Electoral College

I know it's April and the next presidential election is a long way away, but a few weeks ago, some crazy Iowans got my attention by trying to bypass the Electoral College.

The way I recall it, the founding fathers didn't really trust the unwashed masses to elect the right people, so they put in place the electoral college so that a group of people with a clue could choose the right President.

My big problems with the current system are
  1. The election is over before it heads out West.
  2. Presidents get inflated sense of mandate when they have a huge electoral college victory, but a narrow victory in terms of votes
  3. The strategy that is mandated by the current system drives politicians to focus on a very small subset of the country. For instance, McCain focused on PA (not successfully) because it was his only hope.
I actually don't like Iowa's solution. I'd rather see one of the electoral college reform options put in place:
  • The Congressional District Method is the method that Kansas and Maine use. Give the winner of your state's popular vote the two electoral college folks that correspond to the Senators, and divide up the rest according to congressional districts. This makes more sense to me than what the other states do, but it has its downsides.
  • The Proportional Allocation Method divides up the state's electoral votes according to how the popular vote breaks down. No state is using this method.
No method is perfect, but the current system is pretty messed up. Folks like those at Fair Vote want to trash the Electoral College completely, but I like the constitution too much to support that. I don't think they have any chance of getting rid of it completely, but changing the way states allocate Electoral College votes is up to the states, makes sense, and is actually possible.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Music Monday: Giovanni

Giovanni Sample has some fun mash-ups. Some of my favorites are:
  • Guakahal
  • Dalai in the Storm
  • Basicamente
  • Bionic Man
I have liked mash-ups for a long time, but don't listen to enough of them. These pieces add a new aspect I haven't seen before: They are video mash-ups, which makes them visually interesting.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Three Stages of Couplehood

I know that I tend to avoid touchy-feely interpersonal topics, but here I go anyway....

To my eye, there seem to be three stages for any couple:

Stage 1: Hanging Out (AKA dating)
This stage is often full of drama, but the only people who really care and matter are the two people who are hanging out. Part of the point of this stage is ascertaining whether this couple should move on to the next stage, but that answer is often knowable early on, so most of the point is just about hanging out. When it doesn't work, you can just say "I break with thee, I break with thee, I break with thee" and throw dog poop on the other's shoes. Easy peasy.

Stage 2: Shacking Up (AKA getting married or living in sin)
At this stage, you find out if you are able to wake up next to the person every day. Can you figure out who does laundry and dishes? What food do you like? What shows do you like? Do your sleep schedules work together? At this stage, the stakes are higher than in stage 1: If it doesn't work out, then there is more emotional trauma and one or both of you needs to find a new place to live. Still, even if lawyers have to get involved, a complete breakup can be achieved in just a few weeks or months.

Stage 3: Being a Team (AKA Raising Kids)
This is where things get serious. Raising kids casts a bright, cruel light on your differences. If you and your partner don't share basic values, then raising kids together is going to be a challenge. I know couples who were great at stage 1 and stage 2, but then didn't do well at this stage. It's not that they were perfect couples that fell apart (no couple is perfect), but raising children has a way of discovering and amplifying problems. Opposites can make stages 1 and 2 really fun, but at stage 3 having unified values and big-picture strategy is key. Kids are common ground that cannot be divided.

I am amazingly lucky. I happen to be part of a tremendous team. By this I mean that I am mostly holding a clipboard while the coach and franchise player (Mrs. Kid fills both roles) do all the thinking and the real work. But seriously, we are in sync on just about every major decision (and even most of the minor ones). We have the same goals and fears for our kids and that makes everything else fall into place pretty well.

I have great sympathy for my friends who have found that their teams don't work so well. I tend to not blame one person or the other: It generally takes two to make it work or to get into a situation that does not work. Still, I feel for everyone involved.

[update: I realize that there is a fourth stage: denouement (AKA empty nest/retirement), but have no experience with this final stage, so I'll post an update in another couple decades]

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Meltdown Formula

Wired magazine brings us Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street.

So cool to see it.

This formula provides an answer to the question "What is the chance that two members of the same pool will default on their loans?"

The point of the equation is to calculate the probability that A and B both default in our time period. Investors used this equation to choose investments A and B so that this probability that they both default is as small as possible.

Most of the magic seems to lie in two places:
  1. The probability distributions (the F variables), which describe how long each investment is likely to survive.
  2. The correlation parameter (gamma), which describes how the two investment survival probabilities rise or fall together.
I could go into the mathematics of it all, but I will let the geeks among you check out the article. Basically, this formula helped people (like the folks at AIG's Financial Products group) setup credit default swaps and arrange packages of securities that were supposed to have well-balanced risks. If they had a risky investment they wanted to try, they could balance it by investing in something that had very small correlation with it. The problem is that when the base of the house of cards started to crumble, everything ended up having high correlation to everything else.

Anyway, it is interesting to see the actual formula. It feeds into my scepticism about people trying to push epistemological limits. Maybe we can't solve everything with equations. Just because you can associate a number with it, doesn't mean the number really has any meaning. These quantitative masters of finance thought they could control risk by associating formulas and numbers with everything, but ultimately risks can't be controlled by numbers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

No Time to Think

It has been quite a while since I have posted anything discussing current events. As I have said before, this blog is my chance to try to process events and information I find. In the past few weeks, I have been too slammed by work, community, and family obligations to be able to process information effectively. My mind is scattered by too much reading, editing, negotiating, and problem solving for my taste. I'll be happy when the insanity wanes.

I have eight unfinished blog posts waiting for my attention. They sit there on my blog dashboard reminding me of brief fragments of thoughts. I hope to return to them in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, here is one of the stragglers:

I read a haiku in the comics the other day. This was from the comic Get Fuzzy and was "written" by the dog Satchel.
One, two, three, four, five
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, e-
-leven, twelve, thirteen
As Satchel's owner, Rob, said in response, "Technical perfection."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Music Monday: Interesting Music from Mad Dog

Mad Dog was one of my pledge brothers. When a freshman in college, he informed us all that he planned to become an MD/PhD who did research. I recently wanted to find him and put in a google search for his (pretty common) name and "MD PhD" and found him at the top of the results. According to his university page, Mad Dog's...
...research and clinical focus is hindbrain malformation syndromes, such as Joubert syndrome. In particular, his goal is to improve the specificity of pre- and post-natal diagnosis, identify genetic causes of the disorders, and evaluate the outcomes for individuals with hindbrain malformations. In addition, [he] is researching better regional access for immigrants and refugees with developmental disabilities and community access to child health to improve service delivery to children with developmental disabilities in non-English speaking families.
Wow. He's a brilliant and good man, but to me, he was always an independent thinker who had a killer record collection. I will never forget the sight of Mad Dog's record collection arriving at the house. It filled multiple trunks. Here is but a small sampling of some great music I heard about from Mad Dog:

Brian Eno
Albums: Another Green World, Before and After Science, Ambient #3 (with Laraaji)
Videos: I'll Come Running, Kurt's Rejoinder, The Dance No. 1
I am listening to The Dance No. 1 (from Ambient #3) and it has me rocking back and forth and smiling. It hits a spot in my soul that only really beautiful, minimalist music can hit. This was the ultimate studying music for me. Just let the music wash over your mind. Eno's ambient stuff has always worked for me, but his more popular stuff is really fun as well.

Peter Gabriel
Albums: [all the great early albums were unnamed]
Videos: Solsbury Hill, Games Without Frontiers, Biko
I feel like Peter Gabriel is a musical version of Mad Dog. A strong moral compass shines through in his work, but the music is still very accessible.

Album: Drums and Wires
Videos: When You're Near Me I have Difficulty, Ten Feet Tall, Helicopter
I love this band. Such happiness. They always did really great songs. Great hooks. Tremendous energy. Fun lyrics.

Various Artists
Album: Soundtrack of Urgh! A Music War
Videos: Driven to Tears, Madam Medusa, Ain't This the Life
For some reason, this is the iconic Mad Dog album for me. It was an amazing album with tons of great, progressive artists. It wasn't until about two years ago that I actually saw the movie. Some of it doesn't age well (e.g., Gary Numan, Klaus Nomi), but some of it still works (e.g., The Police, Steel Pulse)

Anyway, I send heartfelt thanks to Mad Dog. You set a high bar as a person and as an academic, but you also opened my ears to music. Just about all the good music I listen to can be traced back to your influence on my musical taste.