Monday, September 27, 2004

New! My Yahoo! Released!

Jeremey Zawodny brings news of a new update to My Yahoo! - without getting hung up on the eye candy, the big news is that RSS / Atom is now a first class citizen. I'm all for opening up RSS to the masses and My Yahoo! is probably as good a way as any - although I doubt anyone will be reading 200 feeds in it. At least Yahoo has shown they can adapt to the changing world of content syndication - I expect people will use a variety of different aggregators rather than a single solution that solves everyone's problems. You might check your desktop aggregator once a day but keep some items in My Yahoo or Bloglines for checking more frequently or when on the road. The next big thing will be keeping all of your aggregators in sync.

RSS for Symbian

This is an RSS Aggregator for Symbian phones. It looks like it's headlines only but it's a start.

Google News RSS ... kinda

Not exactly bonefied, but via Scoble is this service for publishing a Google News query as RSS. Pleeeeease add this google! Yahoo has it!

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The plural nature of perfection and ketcup

Malcolm Gladwell has written an article about why there are many many varieties of mustard and spaghetti sauce but only one type of ketchup. While this superficially seems trivial (as with many things Gladwell writes) there is a lot more to it when you delve into it. The first thing to understand is why there are so many varieties of mustard - people don't have a single concept of what the perfect mustard is (the plural nature of perfection). Making mustard better for one set of individuals will make it worse for another set of individuals. In the 70s most mustard in the US was French's but boutique brands like Grey Poupon showed people that there were other varieties of mustard which appealed to different tastes.
Now the weird thing is that Ketchup is something that everyone agrees about what perfection is. The explanation is that ketchup is "sensorily complete" - it provides maximum stimulation to all of the taste senses. Many have tried and failed - Ketchup is ketchup. I only wish the article had detailed what the difference is Ketchup and Katsup is...

This site details the various ways in which the authors girlfriend of 16 years is a pain. Funny but also kind of sad since they have two kids...
What Margret and I have, essentially, is a Mexican stand-off with love instead of guns. OK, yes, sometimes there are guns too. The important thing is the mindset, though. Sure, people can argue about important issues, that's fine, good luck to them I say. But where, I ask you, are those people when you take away the meaningful sources of disagreement?

Vim Tips

Bram Moolenaar has a great article on how to use vim - Best. Editor. Ever. Figuring out all the things you can do in vim can be a little problematic.

All Cereal Restaurant chain

This is great if your into eating cereal - a restaurant that serves nothing by cereal. In fact, Cereality will have 30 different types of cereal and even does take out orders. Can't get enough of that Sugar Crisp!

NPR / KQED Audio Stream in iTunes

I've been listening to the KQED Audio Stream for some time (and yes, I give them money!). Jeremey Zawodny has just started using it and is similarily impressed. He also found out how to use iTunes to listen to it which works much better than using the web browser. To add it:

Joel on software: Mouth Wide Shut

Interesting article from Joel on Software on the pros (and mostly cons) of pre-announcing software. I found this via Dare Obasanjo's article indicating that Microsoft (aka his employer) should underpromise and overdeliver, rather than vice-versa.

Liquid that becomes frozen when heated!

Article from Physics web on a liquid that freezes (i.e. becomes a solid) when heated. This kind of turns the world of state transitions on it's head although I guess there is nothing that really prevents it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

HOWTO: Google News without subscription news sources

Since apparently newspapers are increasingly requiring you to register so they can spam you, I'd prefer to get my news from people who don't do this. Unfortunately Google News lately seems to have "Subscription Required" sources as the first entries (this might just be that the underlying newsources are increasingly requiring subscription) but there are usually equivelent non-subscription sources. Using the advanced search though you can make a query which finds results without the word subscription (or just put -subscription on the end of the query). I made the following search box to find things in Google News that don't require a subscription:

Google News

Update: Some people are claiming that Google News is right leaning. I haven't really noticed this but if it's true it's probably more reflection of the overall statistics of the collection of news sources they use. Maybe some day they'll have an advanced setting for setting the media bias -- Patent pending!

NetNewsWire 2.0 (Beta)

The long awaited beta (ok, so I suppose we're still sort of waiting) of NetNewsWire 2.0 is out. The big new features are styles, searching, smart lists, tabbed browsing and more. There is also a new seperate application, Mars, for editing WebLogs. Congratulations to Brent!

140 MPH Speeding Ticket given

Apparently a record 140 mph speeding ticket has been given to a motorcyclist doing 205 mph in a 65 mph zone. Apparently the speeder was caught by a airplane that was looking for speeders. Suprisingly, once the police pulled him over, he just stopped (if this was L.A. I doubt that would be the case) despite the fact that, unsuprisingly, he didn't have a valid license.

Not Fooling Anyone

Not fooling Anyone is a site that chronicles cases of bad conversions from a chain business into a new business. In most cases, it seems to be the same basic business. We've all seen the chinese restaurant that used to be a Taco Bell but take a look at the place on the left. The sign's not broken! Some guy bought a Texaco station, took down the T and calls his gas station EXACO. That takes gumption! Another fine example is someone who took over "Embassy Cleaners" and turned it into "Kembass Cleaners" - complete with a black box on the sign where the Y used to be!


The Scobelizer is recommending Map24 - it's a replacement for Mapquest but it's a Java applet and supports dynamically maps with a rich client experience on the client (like zooming).

Monday, September 20, 2004

How much for just the war?

If the nightly news isn't depressing enough for you then this won't help any! The average cost per person for the Iraq war at this point is $1600 / person and the estimated total (how you estimate what a war will cost if an exercise for the reader) is $3,415 (estimates from the US military). One could argue your also paying for it in higher gas prices too. Whenever people say "It's not the money, it's the principle" then ... it's the money! In this case, it's doubly true because no two people seem to agree what the principle was...

Ali G interviews

Slate delves into how Ali G is able to get interviews with famous people and then ask them idiotic (yet probing) questions. I've only seen the show from time to time (no HBO) but a sample would be asking an anti-terror expert if he's in favour of stronger sentances for suicide bombers (although odd as it might seem, some people do go to jail for attempting to be suicide bombers.

Reliability Theory to explain aging

From is an article about the nature of human aging (or as the article puts it "Why we fall apart"). Reliability Theory tries to model the decay and failure modes of systems including organic systems (i.e. you). You may think you're falling apart in your 40s but the depressing conclusions of this theory is that it's all down hill from 10 years old.

Getting a deal on insurance

Yaron Y. Goland (he of UPnP infamy amongst other things) has written an article on shopping for car and rental insurance. Something no one wants to do - I've been using State Farm for many years without any problems apart from costing a lot but I think it is due to living in the bay area. Another excellent blog if your cost consious is the Personal Finance Blog.

Spyware relief

Several people have recommended Spybot search and destroy to get rid of spyware - I'm still having a problem with these bastards on my home machine (how to get rid of said bastards).

Cracking good news Gromit!

Aardman animations is apparently hard at work on a feature length Wallace & Grommit movie - "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit" due out in 2005. Aardman did the movie "Chicken Run: as well as the three Wallace & Gromit episodes ("A grand day out", "The Wrong Trousers" and "A close shave"). The train sequence in "The Wrong Trousers" is one of the most fantastic examples of stop motion animation ever so I'm really excited about this.

Why no Wi-fi?

Like a lot of people, the Wi-fi reception at my home is only so-so in certain locations (my wi-fi box is upstairs and I'm writing this downstairs). You can build an antenna but this article from InformIT describes the common causes of wi-fi interferance. Unfortunately, in my case, it's mostly due to walls.

The War in Iraq in pictures

The reality of modern warfare is told in the work of photo journalists and the war in Iraq is certainly no different. Look at these photos and then decide for yourself whether it's mission accomplished?

Friday, September 17, 2004

Wrecked car schadenfreude

If looking at pictures of car accidents (often fatal) involving expensive cars is your thing then you must check out Wrecked Exotics. The number of descriptions that being with "The driver was doing 130 mph when..." is truly disturbing. They have photos of bad and funny(!) accidents of lessor cars too, to clense the palette.

Creepy blog!

Someone found a digital camera and decided to put a picture a day on the web and annotate them as though they were his own. Seems perfectly normal to me - who wouldn't do that?

Horse head pillow

Have you ever wanted to relive the horse head scene in Godfather every day when you wake up? Sure you have! Well now you can with this horse head pillow!

National Guard Bush-style

Since the details of how President Bush got into the National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam and then subsequently, didn't live up to his obligations once the war was over is in the news lately, this article from Slate seems relevant. See back when Bush was in the Guard, it was considered a sure fire way to get out of service, but these days, it's a sure fire way to get shipped to Iraq. It's not "a weekend a month and 2 weeks a year" anymore - you'll be serving in Iraq, not in Alabama. And unlike Bush, you won't be getting out 2 years early (with no explanation) - you'll be kept in longer thanks to stop loss!
People in the National Guard however seem to be suckered into risking their lives for the sake of fighting terrorism. I spose their are a lot of terrorists in Iraq .. now! However this part blew me away:
Some 40,000 members of the Guard are in Iraq today—six times the number of guardsmen sent to Vietnam. Already, more Guard troops have died in Iraq than in Vietnam.

The Lessons of failure

The accepted wisdom is that Silicon Valley in a good place to fail because failure is seen as a way of learning to succeed. To some extent it's true and people often mistake luck for skill (OTOH, people seemed to have realized in the past few years that sometimes a failure is just a failure and when you make the same mistake twice people will notice). Anyhoo, Steve Wozniak (the inventor's inventor) has an article on the lessons he's learned from his failures - he's a good example of learning from your mistakes.

100 Photos that changed the world

Life Magazine has compiled 100 Photos that changed the world.


Have you ever wondered what life would be like after your dead? Not to your soul, your body. Maybe you'll be cryogenically fronzen, maybe you'll be cremated or maybe you'll be turned into a faux diamond.
The LifeGem is a certified, high quality diamond created from the carbon of your loved one as a memorial to their unique and wonderful life.
Nothing says forever like cheap imitation jewlery made out of one of your loved ones. Of couse, just because it's cheap, doesn't mean it's inexpensive - prices range from $2500 - $13000. Why you could wear your whole deceased family as rings! I'm just waiting for the Law & Order episode ripped from this headline...

Remote control B52 update

An update on the Remote control B52 - it crashed. There's a video here - it looks like it was flying in a fairly heavy wind and as it made a turn into the wind, it stalled. I've crashed a few (more than a few) remote control aircraft but it's refreshing (in a schadenfreude sort of way) to see the experts do it.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Review: Fooled By Randomness

I just finished reading Nassim Taleb's treatise on the nature of randomness, Fooled by Randomness. In it, Taleb argues that, while many in the financial industries accept that the market is random, their approach to working in it completely ignores this. A central theme of the book is how randomn events are frequently mistaken for skill. Taleb highlights various patterns that occur when people do not appreciate the randomness inherent in the market.

The Black Swan Problem
One of the central themes in the book is how people deal with (or characterize) rare events. The Black Swan problem is as follows:
  • No number of observed white swans will prove the assertion that all swans are white
  • The observation of a single black swan will be sufficient to disprove the assertion
Mutual funds usually brush this under the rug with the "Past performance is no guarantee of future performance" (wink, wink, nudge nudge - look how well we did last year!) but the Tech crash of 2001 would be a good example of a black swan.

Survivor Bias
Survivor bias is introduced as a way of explaining why traders, in Taleb's world, who have had several good years may appear to be successful but are really just lucky since the vast number of trader's who fail are no longer in the business. Given a set of N equally competent traders in a random market a certain percentage will have years of success, many will have some good years and some bad and others will be all bad. How many of each depends on the size of the original set. Survivor bias indicates that may of the lower performing cases will be pruned leaving only the "best". However in this case, the "best" only arises from statistical distribution rather than skill. If the set of N is small then the successful traders might truly be skillful but it is not, hundreds of thousands of people working in the security industry and millions have washed out of it. The same principal applies to mutual funds - given the large number of funds available today, it should not be suprising that some have had many good years but it is not necessarily as a result of skill.

Alternative Histories
Taleb notes that people typically attribute their success to skill and their failures to bad luck or rare events. In addition to the actual outcome, there are (potentially infinite) alternative outcomes or histories with an associated cost/benefit associated with them. Of course, to have real value, this analysis should be done prior to committing to a course of action. But analyzing decisions that have been made is a good way to keep yourself humble.

Asymmetric Odds
Taleb uses the term Asymmetric Odds to describe distributions where the probability of each outcome is not equivelent. He notes that people tend to focus only on the probability and not (correctly) on the product of the probability and the expected return from the event.

The Rare Event Fallacy
Much of the book deals with the "Rare Event" - it is common to call these "Unforeseen events" either because they have no historical precident and have not been considered or because they are are simply ignored. Because of this reticence to deal with rare events, Taleb trades on the basis that they are not fairly valued and the rarer the event, the less fairly valued it is. The idea is that the frequency of the event is not the only factor - the product of the event frequency and the magnitude of result that event do. Taleb is content to lost small amounts of money over a long period of time provided the occurrence of a rare event will be sufficiently profitable. Taleb higlights the blow up of LTCM which used trading models developed by Nobel Laureates but failed spectacularily when the Russian banks failed. It should be noted that one can only afford to lose money over a definite period of time (the human life span at the very most) but it seems that the sort of events that Taleb is capitalizing on occur on the order of a decade.

Finding patterns in randomness
Taleb observes that humans are geared to finding patterns in noise regardless of whether there is a pattern to be found. Our brains seem to be better geared for dealing with thing analytically than statistically. This leads to people confusing correlation with causality - a phenomenon that anyone who reads of the latest medical discovery is certainly familiar with. In Taleb's world, the most common example of this is traders who develop trading strategies that are designed to work well on historical data and then trading on that basis. True randomness means that coincidences will occur and this has to be taken into account. Simple put, people are not built to deal with probabilities and to act rationally means ignoring the emotional or gut reaction. Taleb describes some measures he goes through to prevent his emotions from second-guessing - watching CNBC but with the sounds muted, not looking at his daily wins / loses. He feels that people will only focus on the noise (which plays out over the short term) and the signal which occurs over a longer time period.

The Sandpile Effect
Another failing of the human mind is that, if left unchecked, people will assume that all relationships are linear. The simple fact is that most things in life are non-linear or appear linear over some restricted domain but are not. Taleb focuses on a model (Polya processes) where the odds of winning/losing is non-linear and increase with the amount of winning/losing. The statistical noise that picks the winners under the Survivor bias becomes much more important in this situation where winning early on causes an insurmountable advantage over other competitors. This particular non-linearity magnifies random noise to the point where it is more important than any signal (for example, skill).

I really enjoyed reading the book. Many of the ideas in it were familiar to me from studying physics but there was a fair amount that was new or presented in a new way to keep me reading. The book uses various people (seemingly people Taleb has met in his career) as archetypes of various ways of thinking. Of course, Taleb himself is the archetype of the rational investor taking randomness into account - the book does come off as arogant in places - but there is enough self deprication in it to suggest he doesn't take it too seriously. The net effect of the book was to probably dissuade me from trading stocks the way I did in the late 90's and at least to behave more rationally about investment (for example, if you wouldn't buy a stock at the current price, you should sell it - easy to say, hard to do). I most definitely will not be trading options waiting for the next stock market collapse as Taleb is now doing - I read the book out of interest and to learn something. I suspect the book will be read on Wall street and largely ignored because it requires too much discipline and most investors have short time scales depsite what they may say to the contrary. Taking small loses for an extended period of time, waiting for a rare event with a large payoff may strike some as being akin to a lottery ticket. On the other hand, the only difference between the venture capital industry and a lottery ticket is the odds.

Some Links:

More on Zell

Zell Miller's iditotic diatribe at the RNC Convention is causing quite a buzz. Now it appears he may have used email chain letters as his primary source. Also, NPR has a fairly comprehensive analysis of the main points (aka slanderous lies) in the Zell Miller and Dick Cheney speeches (but then they would woudn't they?).
I better be careful (with my so called "free" speech!) or Zell will challenge me to a duel!

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Zell Milller: I am idiot, hear me roar

Slate has an article refuting the numerious lies and misrepresentations in Zell Miller's RNC convention speech / tirade about how lousy a person John Kerry is and why he would not be a good president. Too bad, Zell endorsed him 3 years prior: "one of this nation's authentic heroes, one of this party's best-known and greatest leaders—and a good friend. ... John has worked to strengthen our military.". The most damning crap is about Kerry voting against Patriot (which as everyone but Zell seems to know didn't work then and doesn't work now), SDI (ditto) or F15s, the B1 bomber etc. Truly damning except Kerry didn't vote against them because there was no vote on them. Cheney, who was secretary of Defence under Bush 41 was a vigilent protector of our nation:
Congress has let me cancel a few programs. But you've squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse-traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don't fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements. … You've directed me to buy more M1s, F14s, and F16s—all great systems … but we have enough of them.

Update: Russell Beattie (and probably lots of other people) are covering this too.
Update 2:Zell Miller's interview with Chris Matthews after his speech. He proves he is not just mad but in fact bat-shit crazy by going off on Chris Matthews (for a fairly benign question) and then challenging him to a duel.

Donnie Darko Explained

Now that Donnie Darko is being re-released to theatres (it was ignored by many when it came out in the fall of 2001), Salon has a explanation of what the hell is going on (warning: you'll need to sit through some Salon ads to get a day pass). I found it informative although I didn't remember the film that well - fortunately, there is an extensive summarization of the film at the start of the article. I more or less understood the overall idea of the film but the article goes into much more details about why X happened. The article was not as satisfying as Salon's explanation of Mulholland Drive but that is most likely because that film is so much more impenetrable.