Wednesday, April 30, 2008

4-30-08: What are the Odds?

I listen to the Tony Kornheiser Show daily via podcast, and there's a running joke he does that I find hilarious. A few weeks back, some kid tried to outshine NASA and said they had mis-calculated the odds of some asteroid hitting the Earth. The kid, I think middle-school age, put the odds at something like 1 in 450. That's a lot worse than the 1 in 45,000 that NASA engineers had predicted. It turns out the kid, who is smart despite what people may think, was still not right, and was corrected by NASA. Kornheiser brought up the story on his show, and said: "It seems pretty simple to me of what the odds of this thing hittin' us would be. It has to be 50/50: either it hits us or it doesn't!"

 
Then I thought of all the goofy events people put odds on. It's pretty amazing. I've seen people put odds on a quarter falling off a sleeping, intoxicated, fellow's head. The prize was the quarter. I do not know how that worked, since it of course fell off. Alcohol was involved on both ends.

 
I just finished The World is Flat on a plane ride from Tampa on Sunday, and started a book called The Numbers Game: by Alan Schwarz. It's an interesting book about how fans of baseball have fallen so deeply in love with the numbers behind the game itself. Schwarz does a great job at explaining the personalities behind the craze, and I think the subject goes well beyond baseball. I think it's human nature.

 
People have always tried to put their lives in order through numbers, some more than others. Sure, not every one is like Will Ferrell's character in Stranger than Fiction, who was an IRS agent who counted the number of times he brushed his teeth in the morning, but we all put numbers to something. Even if it's  the odds of a disaster happening, or how often you shave on a sunny day (always a good idea; keeps a good tan line), numbers always come into play.

 
But why is this? Why do numbers factor so easily into our lives. I think it's pretty simple: we are naturally attracted to simple mathematics and order. It's difficult to organize your life using colors or shapes, so why not numbers? It seems pretty simple to me, and it's great food for thought. As far as if I'll use numbers to organize some part of my life today, I'd put the odds at 50/50.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Harlan Chamberlain Returns Home

I don't often post twice in a day (or daily for that matter), but I just read some great news that Harlan Chamberlain, Joba Chamberlain's father, has returned home from the hospital. Joba, a relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, missed a few games to attend to his ill father. The elder Chamberlain had suffered from a serious respiratory problem and had been hospitalized near their home in Nebraska.

I'm far from a Yankees fan, but I love hearing stories like this. Not people getting ill, but athletes being good human beings and good children and visiting their family. Joba was deeply disturbed by this, as he should be. I'm really glad to hear his father is recovering at home. I'm happy for the Chamberlain family.

I'm also not saying athletes are bad people in general. They all have families that they love, and 99% of them are generally good people. It's just nice to see some more personal stories sometimes that make you feel good about somebody who had suffered. I might never meet Joba Chamberlain or his father, but I'm pulling for the kid (unless he's out on the mound against the Red Sox when the game is on the line).

4-29-08: They Don't Write Songs Like This Anymore

This is my favorite Rolling Stones song. It always seems to put me in a good mood, oddly enough:

 

 
I'll never be your beast of burden

My back is broad but it's a hurtin'

All I want is for you to make love to me

I'll never be your beast of burden

I've walked for miles my feet are hurting

All I want is for you to make love to me

 

Am I hard enough?

Am I rough enough?

Am I rich enough?

I'm not too blind to see

 

I'll never be your beast of burden

So let's go home and draw the curtains

Music on the radio

Come on baby make sweet love to me

 

Am I hard enough?

Am I rough enough?

Am I rich enough?

I'm not too blind to see

 

Oh little sister

Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, girl

You're a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty girl

Pretty, pretty

Such a pretty, pretty, pretty girl

Come on baby please, please, please

 

I'll tell ya

You can put me out

On the street

Put me out

With no shoes on my feet

But, put me out, put me out

Put me out of misery

 

Yeah, all your sickness

I can suck it up

Throw it all at me

I can shrug it off

There's one thing baby

That I don't understand

You keep on telling me

I ain't your kind of man

 

Ain't I rough enough, ooh baby?

Ain't I tough enough?

Ain't I rich enough, in love enough

Ooh! ooh! please

 

I'll never be your beast of burden

I'll never be your beast of burden

Never, never, never, never, never, never, never be

 

I don't need no beast of burden

I need no fussing

I need no nursing

Never, never, never, never, never, never, never be



Happy Riot Day, everybody. Don't go crazy.

Monday, April 28, 2008

4-28-08: Theory of Everything, Part 2: Fear of the Unknown

Part Two of my general Theory of Everything is the Fear of the Unknown.

 
Similar to the Fear of Change, the universal Fear of the Unknown is present in nearly every situation involving human interaction. I think of the Fear of the Unknown as a subset of the Fear of Change. It's a more specific form of change, since rather than being aware of what is to come, not knowing is downright scary.

But Fear of the Unknown doesn't have to involve some great cosmic mystery. I'm sure we've all thought of the big questions; every once in a while I'll scare myself by thinking of what it would feel like one second after dying. It can be terrifying, but, it can also be more subtle. Sometimes it is simple ignorance. People tend to assume that, since they aren't aware of the good that something might involve, then it has to be bad. Sure, it's not always the case, but it's amazing how often that is true.

Let me use nuclear power as an example. With the rise in the price of gasoline and diesel fuel, which are both used to generate power, people are talking more and more about alternative fuels, specifically "green" technology. Most of the time it's solar power or wind power, neither of which have proven to be efficient or powerful enough to handle the ever-increasing demands of today's society. But why not nuclear? It has been shown to be more efficient than other sources, including fossil fuels. When was the last time we built a nuclear power plant? Not for over 30 years, at least. It's not like the ones out there are getting any better with time. We need new plants.

 
But… nuclear power isn't safe enough. People aren't sure about it. Since the Three Mile Island incident, which resulted in a grand total of zero deaths despite an abnormal amount of negligence on the part of the operators. Despite what people think, nuclear plants are safer now. You'd think they could dedicate as much security to these as other power plants, so is the terrorist threat as bad as people think? People immediately associate images of nuclear explosions with nuclear power plants, but they'd be more than willing to pay more at the pump and in their utility bills. It's because they are afraid of the unknown possibilities.

 
Sure, there are other issues with nuclear power, such as the whole "not in my back yard" mentality, which might have some of the Fear of the Unknown involved. But, the heart of the issue is that people are, in general, willing to accept more risk if it is known. It's also true of the stock market, where speculation has been more important than true earnings for decades. Some one afraid of a war with Iran can cause a spike in oil price today. It's all about risk. It's why we pay insurance premiums on our cars and health care, why we never go all-in on something we're not sure about, and why we limit our trust in people until they earn it.

 
It's the times when people go against the grain and take substantial risks that intrigue me. But it's not always the path to wealth. Warren Buffett, the genius investor and wealthiest man in America, was once asked what his secret to investment success was. It was surprisingly simple: "Never lose money." Buffett also only invested in companies he knew were good businesses. He doesn't like tech stocks, because he doesn't know them. So is he really a risky guy? Or is he just in touch with his Fear of the Unknown. Just ask his accountants, and look at his portfolio.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

4-27-08: Trip to Tampa

I just got back from a quick trip to Tampa Bay. I took my dad down there to see the Red Sox play the Rays last night, as an early Father's Day gift. Before you go and say "Wow, that's an awesome gift; you're a great son," I didn't get him anything last year. I was supposed to take him golfing, but he hurt his shoulder and we never went. So, this seemed to be a bit more of a guarantee (the Rays play in an indoor stadium called Tropicana Field, so rain-outs).

The biggest surprise last night was the sheer number of Red Sox fans in the stands. You've probably heard a lot about "Red Sox Nation" and how so many fans go to away games, but this was something else. Of the 38,000 fans there last night, I can say, in almost certainty, that 2/3 or more were Red Sox fans. Pretty much every one I sat near was a Red Sox fan. We had great seats on the third base line.

The other thing that surprised me was how fun it was to watch a game in Tampa. I'd never been there, and I was thoroughly impressed with Tropicana Field. Sure, the Sox lost, but it was a great time. The only snag on the whole trip was a bit of a mix-up checking in to the hotel (they didn't get my reservation from Orbitz, but a couple phone calls fixed the situation), but they had a hell of a bar. It was called The Green Iguana. The hotel was the Westshore Hotel. Funky place.

I'm not sure if I'd recommend a trip to Tampa in general (if you had other options), but it's not a bad city to visit. There's a huge bridge between Tampa and St. Petersburg, which are the two cities that comprise Tampa Bay. It's something like 7 or 8 miles long. Pretty wild. The people seem to be pretty nice, and it has a great airport. Gas is about the same, maybe a little cheaper.

I'm also not sure what I think about Southwest Airlines. It was an OK deal so far as the fare, but I don't think I like the seating scheme. It's just weird. They don't have reserved seats, so even though I paid for a "Business Class" seat, I got on the plane towards the end of the boarding process, and sat in the back. The seats were really comfortable, and the service was fine. Nothing really bad happened, so all I can say is, with the exception of the boarding process (check in online ASAP!), it's a good deal. I like JetBlue better, though.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Those Mac users think they're so cool

Here is a Marketplace story from Pat.

You can hear the story, titled "Those Mac users think they're so cool", on the
Marketplace website,
at http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/04/23/mac_users/

Pat also sent this message....
----------------------------------------------------------
This sounds like an interesting study, though I'll admit: I don't normally drink
Starbucks, I don't eat organic food, and I'm the most modest guy on Earth.
----------------------------------------------------------

For all the news from the world of business and beyond, listen to Marketplace on
your local public radio station, or visit the Marketplace website at <
http://www.marketplace.org >.

4-24-08: Theory of Everything, Part One: Fear of Change

Part One of my Theory of Everything is the ubiquitous fear of change in human society. Fear of change, scientifically referred to as "Metathesiophobia" (source: phobialist.com), is, from my experience, a subconscious, almost primal, trait in virtually every human being. I myself exhibit this fear constantly, and it usually has to be pointed out. Sometimes it manifests itself in the form of anxiety, nausea, or in a more obvious form. Every one exhibits the trait in different ways in different situations, but it is ever present.

What causes this fear of change? Is it a genetic trait, or is it learned? Does it appear more frequently in different cultures, or is it simply masked in different ways? For instance, one might say "A primitive culture is obviously more resistant to change than a modern, civilized culture." That seems to make sense to me at first, but look at the logic involved. One would assume, in that case, that the fear of change is magnified in such a culture because they have either gone longer without seemingly large changes, or their being primitive in relation to a more advanced culture would make them somehow less intelligent and "open to the idea." But is that really true? One could make the case that their apparent resistance, assuming they have been exposed to other cultures and simply refuse to budge, is because they simply believe they don't need to change. Is that really a fear? I think it would be more obvious if they were threatened with extinction, and were stubborn, then it would more likely be out of fear. Say a disease like smallpox, which has been virtually wiped out in western civilization, is rampaging a small tribe of people. If they knew they could be saved by modern medicine, and valued their own survival above all else, and still refused to change, that might be fear. I believe it would at least play a small part.

But I like to focus more on the subtleties of the fear of change. It seems to take shape frequently, even in the most mundane of instances. Sometimes it might be a small change in a daily routine, or trying out some new food. People tend to revert to the lowest common denominator: safety. Change can be dangerous. A lot of it is. And don't say "Well, not really; staying the same can result in harm." No: staying the same means staying the same. If something bad happens to you, that is indeed a significant change in your lifestyle. BAM! You find out you have a horrible disease that could have been prevented by you not eating Brazilian nuts every day for 25 years. But you love Brazilian nuts, so you blame something else. People seem to immediately place the blame of a significant, catastrophic change in their lives on some other thing that is new to them. In this case, maybe it's just shit luck or you ate something funny last week. It can't be the nuts.

I think (and remember: this is just a big guess; you probably shouldn't be using this as a solid source) this fear is simple human nature: people find the path of least resistance. On top of that, people tend to find routines. People will do something, learn it nearly instantaneously, and revert to that. Early learned habits or skills, like motor skills, are difficult to break later on. I think the same is true of mentalities. People don't necessarily have a fear in the sense that they consciously form a fear of something based on logic; it's mostly instinctual. It's amazing how frequently it shows itself. See for yourself.

That's it for this for right now. I'll let you mull that over.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

4-23-08: The Theory of Everything

I've decided to attempt a Theory of Everything.

Well, not exactly everything, per say. I think right now it'd be easy enough to just do human interaction.

This is obviously going to be a complex theory. It'll likely involve a tremendous amount of faked anthropological guesswork on my part. I'm willing to put the time in, though. Don't you worry.

My first three installments will be the following:

  • Fear of change
  • Fear of the unknown (similar to first topic)
  • Mob theory

I'm also posting this message using the "e-mail posting" setting, so if the formatting is all messed up, it must've gotten mixed up somewhere in the internet tubes.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

4-13-08: NCAA Championship

I'd just like to congratulate the Boston College Eagles on winning the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Championship last night. Jerry York is a great guy, and his team had a fantastic playoff run, winning the Hockey East and, of course, the NCAA Championship.

I'm not a fan of BC Hockey; I grew up in Durham, NH cheering for the great Wildcats of UNH. But, I think what the BC team this year did was special, since they had failed to win the title in their last two appearances in the championship game. They had some special talent, led by the fire-plug Nathan Gerbe, who had a fantastic goal in the semi-final against North Dakota. With him and others leading the way, they blew out their final two opponents by a combined score of 10-2. Truly amazing stuff. I'm happy for Hockey East.

Congratulations, BC. And congratulations to Minnesota-Duluth's Women's Ice Hockey team for winning the championship, as well. I'm a huge proponent of women's hockey (I coach a girls' high school team) and people should pay more attention to it. It's good stuff.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

4-12-08: Broadwater

Is it just me, or is it odd that something the size of the Queen Mary 2 that's supposed to go into the middle of the Long Island Sound (on a permanent basis) gets little press coverage until it's blasted by two governors?

That's basically what happened with a project known as Broadwater, which was a proposal to install a floating liquefied natural gas terminal in the middle of the Long Island Sound. I don't know how long this was in the works, but it's just funny that I'd never heard of it before. Maybe I should pay more attention.

But the other thing is that it was opposed by both the governors of Connecticut and New York. I guess it was supposed to save money on heating bills, too. When the bill comes in a couple years, you'll know who to thank. I know it's probably not the best idea to have something like that just floating around for people to bomb, but don't you think some one would've thought of that beforehand? There's also the environmental concern, which was apparently also addressed. I'm not going to form a solid opinion on this yet, though. I'd like to see how the appeal process works out. It should be interesting.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

4-10-08: Avoiding Traffic Jams, Thanks to Microsoft

Several months ago I was talking to one of my good buddies about whether or not we'd soon see a practical technology that would let people avoid traffic. It would probably need to use data gathered from GPS units (like Garmins and Tom-Toms) and some complex software algorithms.

Thanks to Microsoft's new Clearflow software, it's been done. This is just amazing to me. It's something that I've been interested in for a while. I deal with algorithms all the time, and the fact that they did this is pretty awesome. I don't know how long it will take for this to become a nation-wide application. My guess would be under two years, but with the rate of innovation nowadays, it could very well be later this year.

What the software does is it not only takes into account the shortest route via distance and speed limits, as normal online route-finding software (like Mapquest and Google Maps) does. Clearflow takes into account traffic conditions, and it's very robust. I'm not sure if it's in real-time yet, but I'm sure that capability will be realized eventually. That's what I'm looking for. Using real-time traffic data to let people get to places quicker would be really neat. It might even save a few lives, who knows.

Good on you, Microsoft.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

4-6-08: Astronomy Domine

I've been watching this show called "The Universe" on the History Channel for months now. It's fascinating stuff. It covers a variety of topics, including nebulae and even some astrophysics stuff. The first season mostly covered the Solar System, but they've gone into some other interesting stuff recently.

One of my favorite RSS feeds in my Google Reader account is the "Astronomy Picture of the Day" on the NASA site. It's just awesome stuff. I highly recommend it. You get to see some of the best pictures taken by the Hubble Telescope and others. My personal favorites are the nebulae out there. Just amazing how big those sons of bitches are! They're light years in length. Just imagine being in a huge cloud of dust and shit that is that long. Just for reference, one light year is 5,865,696,000,000 miles. (Source: howstuffworks.com). That's about 5.9 trillion miles. Our Sun is about 93,000,000 miles away from Earth.

I think one reason why so many people become interested in astronomy is the scale of it all. You simply can't picture how big the universe is. And it's only getting bigger, faster. I think one of the reasons why we search for life is that we simply can't imagine being the only living beings out there. In all likelihood we're not the only lifeforms like us, but there's less and less of a chance that we'll ever meet those people.

Just think of it like this: mankind in its current form has been around for something like 10,000 years. We have yet to achieve interplanetary travel, but we'll probably reach Mars within the next 25-30 years. Now let's say our "window of opportunity" is 50,000 years. It's probably way more than that, but let's say it's that. How far will we be able to travel? The laws of physics limit our speed, and we'd likely need to go light years to find another life form like ours. And we'd have to figure out how to talk to them! And what if they exist right now, what's to guarantee they'll be around by the time we have the technology to reach them? Sure, we're sending signals out to space every day, but within a few light years from Earth they become so weak and scrambled that they are meaningless. It's not likely we'll see something like in the movie Contact.

But what if we did? What if we found life out there? Intelligent life, mind you. Obviously, we'd need to find any form of life first. That's like an appetizer for our hunger. Get us warmed up; get our hopes up.

It really blows my mind thinking about this shit. By the way, the title of the post is actually a Pink Floyd song off The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Great album. The guy who wrote the song, Syd Barrett, went insane and virtually disappeared for years. That was early Floyd.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Thursday, April 3, 2008

4-3-08: Professor Walks Out

I read a very interesting piece on a website called InsideHigherEd.com yesterday about a professor at Syracuse who has a policy of walking out on a class if he catches a student text-messaging or reading a newspaper during class. He made it into the news because he did so recently.

There are a couple parts of the article that I won't address, primarily the issue of the guy bringing race into the issue. He doesn't come across as a racist, more of just a guy who is a bit too open to bringing race into any discussion. Some people are just like that, and it's their right. What this professor did is he mentioned in an e-mail to the class that the student who was caught text-messaging is Cuban. I also won't bring up his race into this. The fact that this was done by a black, Jewish man is irrelevant.

What I find interesting are two topics: whether or not it is the right approach to walk out on a class because of the actions of one student, and what role a professor really takes in a student's education.

The first issue of group discipline is more complex than it would appear. If you have a group of 400 students in a lecture hall, as this professor did, and you catch one student, in the front row, sending a text-message, is it fair to the other students to just walk out? I think, in this case, it is not. If it were, say, a military academy, that's a different story. The difference is that in a normal business environment, or just normal life in general, the actions of an individual are not really the responsibility of the group. Individuals go to jail. Individuals get promoted. Individuals get fired. Sure, there are plenty of consequences for the organization in general if the actions of an individual are detrimental to the company, but the individual is still responsible. In a military setting, it's not the case, especially in a foreign country. My girlfriend is stationed abroad, and if one U.S. service member screws up, it looks bad for every one, and every one suffers. It is important to recognize the consequences of an individual's actions, but in the setting of a classroom, each individual is learning on an individual basis. There isn't a group test at the end. A similar analogy can be made to a sports team, but that's another deal.

The other issue is the role an instructor or professor takes in a student's education. One student criticized the professor in this case by saying that students are the consumers and the professor gets paid to lecture. They should tough it out and do their job. That's an interesting point. It's true, the students are paying large sums of money to have the professor stand in front of them and teach them. But does that give them the right to disrespect a professor's policies? This professor apparently set his policies up front, and the culprits were sitting in the front row. That's blatantly disrespectful on their part.

I'm no angel when it comes to paying attention at class, but I understand where the guy is coming from. He takes his job seriously, and expects his students to do the same. I think that's part of his teaching, which is fine with me. I don't think walking out is the right approach, though, because it's not the fault of the entire class that there is one bad egg (well, one that was caught). It is difficult to single out a student, but if they violate the policy, kick their ass out of the room. It's more realistic than just walking out. You don't see CEOs walking away from things once some one does something they don't agree with, right? Nope, they fire people. That's how the world works. You can still teach respect, and be respectful to the rest of the class. Since he is a tenured professor, he's probably safe from a lawsuit if he follows his own policies.