Go with a smile!

Sunday, November 28, 2010


There’s a song that’s quite popular right now. It’s “Fuck You” by Cee Lo.

I saw a letter in the Straits Times where a shopper was shocked that a song like that was played on the stereo system of a shop in that mall. I’m afraid that some members of the older generation have totally missed out on the pleasures of swearing. Well they are worried about kids, so I’m sure they know the meaning of the f word in practice. It’s totally symptomatic of the stifling conservatism in Singapore that you can get into trouble with the law for using this language in public. A real shame.

There are after all, plenty of vocations, some of them to be found in Singapore, where swearing is very common.

1. Sailors
2. Longshoremen
3. Grocer (especially in a less sexy environment like a market or a wholesale centre)
4. Taxi Driver / Bus Driver / Hauler
5. IT industry
6. Soldier
7. Trader

Certain occupations don’t have a lot of swearing because they take place in unsanitary environments, and you don’t want to be opening your mouths more than

It is instructive to think about the F word. It is actually not the most offensive word in the English language. Offhand, a poll was done, and it was concluded that the most offensive word is “cunt”. There is some evidence that swear words are universal. The relative level of offensiveness in swear words is roughly the same in English and Hokkien. Fuck = Kan. Motherfucking = Kannina. Cunt = Cheebai. The translation is almost exact.

Studies on vulgar language have shown that there is a special part of the brain that swear words activate, which elevates these words to a special status, over and above the normal use of language. Your name is also a special word, because your ears prick up when these words are used.

That said, I’m slightly uncomfortable with the song “Fuck You”. I thought about it for a while, and finally put my finger on it. (As opposed to putting my finger in it.) The F word is not actually a word. It is a word, but it is really a special punctuation mark. By itself, it doesn’t have that much meaning. Well, it means have sex with, it means to do something undesirable / drastic towards somebody. But even those uses can be reduced to something else. Like if you say, “I wanna fuck you”, it’s equivalent to “I wanna fucking have sex with you”. Or “I’m going to fuck him up good this time”, is equivalent to “I’m going to fucking fix him this time”.

I think that the spirit of the f word is that it’s a flavour enhancer, something like MSG. It should not be a word that is front and centre. It is only there to modify the meaning of the words around it. The use of “fuck” can make a funny joke a little funnier. But on its own, it is not a funny word. It is not a particularly meaningful word.

There are some essays written on the wonder of the word fuck. That is a mistake. It’s a bit like saying that the full stop is such a wonderful thing because it can be used in so many situations.

That is not to deny the pliability of the use of the word. If you listen to Cee-Lo‘s “Fuck You” he’s actually an eager beaver. On some level he’s accepted that his girlfriend is gone, but he still says “fuck you” and admits that it hurts to see him go. Consider, in contrast, Dr Dre’s “Fuck You”. It is an example of studied nonchalance. “I just wanna fuck you, we can't be hugging and kissing, you got a husband who loves you.” You are a sex object and I’m here spelling that out to you.



Sunday, November 21, 2010

Operations research and its discontents 1

There I was, in the interview room, with 3 people looking at me. The leader of the 3, the only guy, was already near the pinnacle of his career. Another one would see hers rocket in the next 10 years (she’ll probably be a cabinet minister one day) and another one would be sideline after 10 years.

He looked at me, and noted that I had displayed a talent for maths, and asked “how would you like to do operations research?” I asked, what is that? He said it’s maths. You could do maths for a living. I thought that that was a great idea.

It’s a funny thing, but the first time I thought that maybe this bond thing wasn’t such a great idea was when I started doing OR at that time. My first exposure to OR was in a class that was taught by a professor whose work on computer algorithms was widely respected. He taught an introductory class. I asked him, after the lesson on branch and bound, “there’s no more elegant way to do this?” And he asked me, “what did you have in mind? Come up with something more interesting, and we’ll see.”

Inelegant maths
Well that somewhat destroyed one of the reasons mathematics was supposed to be so attractive. And looking back, that was probably really the first time I had encountered engineering, real engineering instead of mathematics. At the grand old age of 21, which is really really late. (Not really very very late: there was this guy, Dr Old Fogey, who did nothing but mathematics until he graduated. Then only came towards operations research when he started his PhD. And his PhD was mostly maths anyway. Then he went to teach at a university for some years. I think he was about 40 when he became an operations research practioner, when he finally came face to face with real engineering problems. Needless to say, I consider this an extremely unhealthy path of mental development.)

Granted, branch and bound is still an algorithm, and it’s still closer to maths than engineering. But there was a bit of consternation.

Doing maths until your “A” levels, it still looks quite pretty. Sines, cosines, how you cross them, flip them upside down, cross out both sides. Then there’s solving quadratic equations, like you’re doing algebra. There’s geometry, where you use neat tricks to figure out what angle is equal to what other angle. There’s matrix transformation, where you figure out what a square matrix does, based on what it does to each member of the canonical basis.

The only time you had to do something ugly was the taylor expansion, or Mclaurin’s expansion. Even those were neat because there were patterns. The only really ugly thing was Newton’s method of finding a root. And every time I did that, I felt like I had to wash my hands afterwards.

Maths in university was even more neat. Almost all the major theorems had something profound and beautiful at the same time. The fundamental theorem of algebra. The Jordan curve theorem. Galois theory. Law of large numbers. Law of rare events. Index theory. Stone-Weierstrauss.

Now, there it was, the ugliness of branch and bound, where the only elegance was that you were guaranteed to conduct a brute force search by looking through no more branches of a tree than was absolutely necessary. Quite a paradigm change for me.

I began to suspect that there was something to engineering that I didn’t really understand, but I didn’t fully understand, even then, how far up my ass I had placed my head.

Other than that introductory class to operations research, I hadn’t done much OR during my first year. I didn’t want to do OR. I felt, you didn’t just go to a really good school and go away just knowing 1 subject in-depth. The curriculum I designed for myself was supposed to look like a minimum spanning tree.

Cold and beautiful mathematics
But eventually I did OR. Unfortunately I wasn’t in the right state of mind to do mathematics. There was a time when I started actively hating that subject. It was partially to do with how I had seen more of it than at any other time in my life, even JC. Partially to do with how divorced from reality I realized those equations were. Partially to do with how I was discovering many ideas from many other subjects that were much more exciting than those you found in mathematics. (Ideas from economics, psychology, history). Those were much more lovable and human things to study. Mathematics is hard – not only in the sense that it is mentally challenging, but also hard as in hard and cold.

Sometimes the more beautiful theories are hard and cold beauty, like that of a snowflake, or an elegant skyscraper. I had thought that mathematics was everything. There was a certain arrogance that you had in the university, where physics and maths were departments which had relatively high prestige. (Wouldn’t be the case in Singapore, but it was over there.) That is not to say that the engineering department was shoddy – it was one of the best engineering schools, even though it was not MIT. There was this arrogance that, if you couldn’t say something with equations, you hadn’t really understood anything about it. That engineers were merely engineers because they weren’t good enough in maths.

But even then I was starting to rebel against that attitude. Mathematics started to become unsatisfying because … well beautiful maths is like poetry. It is elegant, it is profoundly meaningful, and there are plenty of coincidences of meaning. But it is not a universal language. You would never write a technical report in poetry. Moreover I’m a prose person, not a poetry person. I’m for analysis, not algebra. I’m for non-fiction, not fiction. The uglier maths was just – well, ugly.

Inadequacy of means
Statistics was even worse. There was this assumption that everything was normally distributed. I could feel it in my bones that a lot of this just wasn’t true. Waiting times in a queue are almost never normally distributed. The wealth of people is not normally distributed. The intensity of natural disasters is not normally distributed. I just didn’t know what the student’s t-distribution was good for. Every time I used it for the wrong reason, I felt like I was shoving a square peg down a round hole.

I suppose it was possible to find better distributions, but then you had to find a different test for a different distribution. Very mathematically intensive.

There were other aspects of operations research that were fairly unsatisfying. One of them was the exponential arrival pattern. I suppose that the memory-less property was fairly wacky. Suppose you were waiting for a bus that came on average every 5 minutes. And suppose you had already been waiting for 5 minutes. Well, you could expect to wait for another 5 minutes.

Actually that was wacky enough. Another wacky inter-arrival distribution are things like earthquakes, where if an earthquake had just happened, it was more likely to happen again in a short period of time. Conversely if it hadn’t happened for a long time, it’s just never going to happen.

What I didn’t like about studying queuing theory was this. Either you did it with mathematics equations, in which case you had to do an absurd amount of mathematics for a relatively simple system. (I suppose this is true of a lot of physical systems: typically your physics questions in “A” levels involve fewer than 5 objects, and you have to write pages and pages of equations. And remember that nobody seriously attempted the 3 body problems until you had computers you could program to simulate what happened.)

Eventually, we have to resort to something that is brutally inelegant: simulations. And the worst part? Simulations give you generally accurate predictions about outcomes, until the complexity of the situation is too much for even computers to handle. (see earth sciences). The most unsavoury aspect is when you assume that the final product is a bell curve. I just thoroughly detest the bell curve: especially when modeling something as normally distributed is wrong, which happens surprisingly often.

What I didn’t like about doing optimisation was this: you assumed that the information was static, and you assumed that it was reliably correct. Both are very bad assumptions to make under operating conditions. It’s like somebody with a 155mm cannon having a fight with somebody with a M16. Under ideal conditions, the 155mm cannon guy will blow the crap out of the M16 guy, who will meet the nastiest death possible for a human being. 9 times out of 10, the M16 guy will win, because he can shoot the 155mm guy in the head before he loads the first shell, and even if he runs out of bullets, he can probably bayonet the gunner anyway.

To be sure, there are textbook examples of how optimisation can perform very well. For example, the allocation of resources. Rostering. Possibly some scheduling, but scheduling is a very iffy thing, because there is so much uncertainty involved. You need more and more sophisticated ways to do optimisation under uncertainty.

Fundamentally, one disappointment about operations research is this. At first, you are persuaded that you have “scientific” tools at your disposal, and that you will bring enlightenment to the poor people who have been doing things as in dark ages. Then you go to a school and they teach you textbook cases, and you’re thinking, “gee, this looks pretty simple and straightforward”. But later on, you start noticing that your models are not only an imperfect representation of reality in the sense that the answer will be an approximation to the best answer. It is often imperfect enough that your computer generated answer runs the risk of looking fairly ridiculous.

This is not computer science, where, once you type the program in the book into the computer, and assuming that your system requirements are satisfied, and assuming you don’t have bugs, it will work perfectly every time.

(to be continued)

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Orient: Club for a Fiver

I learnt about this documentary while watching the sports pages. It was mentioned a few times. This documentary deals with Leyton Orient Football Club during a season in which they got plunged into a financial crisis. The chairman famously sold the club for 5 pounds, hence the title.

There are a few scenes that depict half time talks by a football manager after an abject performance. These scenes are the highlight of the documentary and have elevated the manager, John Sitton to legendary status. That he was a newbie who didn't know what he was doing is somewhat besides the point. It goes without saying that a lot of strong language is used in these scenes.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:



Sunday, November 07, 2010

Social Network

I had 4 free movies after blowing $150 on cheap CDs at the gramophone at Cathay building. I spent them on “Inception”, “Heartbreaker” and now, the “Social Network”. (So I have 1 more). Good movies, all of them. Hope that something worth watching comes up. The movie tickets expire in April but I better watch 1 more movie by the end of the year because I think that 2011 will be quite busy for me.

Now since I'm going to be discussing the stuff that goes on in the movie you should treat this whole post as a spoiler.

1. Harvard
I didn’t go to Harvard, but one of my best friends did. I went to visit him 2 or 3 times. So when they filmed Harvard square, and Harvard yard, it looked veery familiar. Just as well I went to school in a place that will almost never be the setting for a feature movie.

A lot of the people I see there look very familiar to me, except that Harvard people are snootier than those at my college. No, I have never been behind those closed doors. But I can imagine.

What did I go to my college for? It was probably for the ivy, the intellectual atmosphere, the incredible stuff I could and did learn there. Probably also because I was vaguely familiar that it was a good thing to have on your CV. But the idea that you were among people who are movers and shakers, who are about to change the world - a lot of this escaped me.

Now that I see the excitement of a scene where everybody starts to realise that they're about to change the world, I think a little bit about what might have been. Instead, what a lot of my college life was like was realising that there was probably one or two things that I could have otherwise done on my own volition, that, even if it didn't change the world, would have amounted to a minor impact. Instead, I tried hard not to think too much about it, because after all I had to go back to Singapore and serve a bond that I didn't know whether or not I was going to enjoy.

2. Mark Zuckerberg
A lot has been made of how Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as an asshole in this film. The film begins with someone saying to him, "you are an asshole" and ends with someone else saying to him, "you are only pretending to be an asshole".

He comes off badly in this film but I can't help but wonder: who doesn't? The Winklevoss twins, who didn't do much of the work, but instead only had the idea of a social network, who understood the social implications well enough to tell Zuckerberg the only aspect of the facebook idea he couldn't have figured it out himself. Saverin, I'll talk about him later. The two asian sluts who threw themselves at Zuckerberg and Saverin don't come across well. Sean Parker doesn't come across well. There are almost no heroes in the story.

Except Mark Zuckerberg. Because, no matter how much mud is thrown at Zuckerberg, in the end there was still no taking away from the fact that Zuckerberg is Facebook and vice versa. It was he who had the talent, drive and acumen to make Facebook what it is today (Or at least, he was much of Facebook up till the point it had 1 million users.)

Now, it could have been true that the genesis of Facebook had much to do with Zuckerberg being a nerd on a campus where social status meant hell of a lot. But once he got the Facebook thing going, he did a lot of things right. He realised very early on that he could fob off the Winklevoss twins. He realised that between Saverin's vision of advertising on the site and Sean Parker's vision of holding out for the big payoff, the latter made more sense. And I read an interview with Zuckerberg before I watched the show. Zuckerberg was not the first to come up with a social networking site. Before him, there was Friendster and MySpace. An associate of his was quoted as saying, "execution is everything". That is true.

Google was at least 5 years late into the search engine race. It became big only after the great dotcom bust. Before it, there was lycos, yahoo, altavista and excite. What made it special? Execution. Similarly, Facebook is Facebook because Mark Zuckerberg made it better than MySpace or Friendster.

The Winklevosses are also portrayed as snide and cocky members of the upper class. Except this time, they were the losers. As Eisenberg says with that curled upper lip, "They're not suing for the money, they're suing because for the first time in their lives, things didn't go their way." A little harsh but true. Just ask yourself the question - what would they have done if facebook didn't take off like it did? Would they have sued him? Imagine some motorcyclist stole your purse and then drove into a wall. You'd have cocked your eyebrow, then taken that purse back and walk on as though nothing happened.

It makes good press, and a good soundbite to portray Zuckerberg as a jerk. I don't think he's exceptionally bad as a CEO. Anybody who has climbed that far up is a jerk. I felt that for the second half of the movie, he was less immoral than amoral. He just didn't let anybody get in the way of making Facebook really big.

However, in letting his restless ambition get the better of him, he did lose his one good friend. Other than that he didn't lose a lot of friends, because he never had any in the first place. He started out as a bit of a loser, albeit a talented one, and he ended up as the king of Facebook. Is that a tragedy?

The most jarring scene about him is that a lawyer did show some human interest in him, and he started stalking her on facebook. I was thinking: you're a billionaire, and you have to do something like that? What happened to all the chicks that are throwing themselves at you?

3. Eduardo Saverin
Now he's the really problematic character here. He was the only friend Zuckerberg had in the beginning, and he gave Zuckerberg the support. But he started to split off with Zuckerberg in the middle due to his differing points of view about the business. You had to feel for him, because he was a big loser in all this. But he wasn't a hero either.

First, he was a decent guy who was out of his depth. If he had pushed through his idea to generate revenue on Facebook through advertising, it would have been a disaster. Second, it was his choice to stay behind in New York and court investors: he had inadvertently cut himself out of the loop. Third, now you couldn't feel that sorry for somebody who gets to bang Brenda Song all the time, but he made a fairly unfortunate choice of a girlfriend.

Brenda Song = Sibeh Song

Saverin was the sacrificial lamb in this. He was a tragic victim, but a tragic victim is not the same thing as a hero. And even tragic victim is relative: what's so tragic about becoming a billionaire in the end? And did he stick it out because of the loyalty, or was it because he had a super-big stake in this? Was it that he just couldn't bail out, because he would never live it down for the rest of his life, that it did?

I heard that he's living in Singapore sometimes. Probably the guy has a soft spot of Asian girls throwing themselves at him.

4. Facebook
It probably gets a bad rap for all this. Does it depersonalise a lot of our social contact? Possibly. But then so did the telephone and every other telecommunication media that was ever invented. Yet at the same time it did reduce the distance between people: people wouldn't normally come into real life contact with the underprivileged, gay people or black people. Seeing them on TV would sorda personalise them wouldn't it?

It gets attacked a lot in this movie, primarily due to its genesis as the ultimate stalking tool for social misfits. This movie shows that its appeal is not that the girls on facebook are hotter than average, but that these are the people you actually know in real life. The way that facebook is a lot about assess to social networks, about how everybody was running their own final club, is something perceptive. But other than that, the most perceptive point was that Zuckerberg didn't really know what kind of a monster Facebook was growing into. Facebook may have changed the world because MySpace and Friendster failed to, but it changed the world. And we're still coming to grips with the implications.

People would dispute that Facebook is worth billions of dollars. So how and why would it generate revenue? What did it mean, that it had so much private data about everybody? Artificial intelligence hasn't been invented yet, so at the moment it's still a little hard to make sense of all the data. So what happens when that changes?

So the movie's good at how it started, why it caught fire, but not that much on how it eventually changed the world. But the latter question is not that relevant to our story.

There are glimpses of what the facebook culture really is like. You had plenty of computer wizards being hothoused in the same place. You had them zoning out when coding, driving themselves to a state of such intense concentration that the whole world gets shut out. You had them pulling stunts to audition for a place in Facebook: you had to do some hacking while drinking a shot for every 10 lines of code. That was badass, and some kind of symbol of massive intent that you had to have nothing but the best. If there was anything that symbolised the kind of ruthlessness that Zuckerberg was capable of, I guess that would be it.

Ultimately the “Social Network” is a good movie because it is a paradox: it was a movie that was made about a 21st century phenomenon, but it succeeds because it was made in the tradition of good 20th century movies: great plot and characterisation. Nothing flashy, nothing totally wacky or melodramatic. Human beings behaving the way that human beings behave.



Anonymous Nat said...

Dissing on Harvard, Hmm... Wasn't the fact that ----- taught at ----- for a while a motivation to go there? I wonder :D

12:50 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Thought I might have been clearer. I thought that some people at my school were snooty, but the people in the film at Harvard were snootier.

I went to that school because its liberal arts departments were as good as its engineering ones. Funny that it was my second choice school but I can't imagine not going there now!

The chicks there, though - while there were a handful of hot ones, I think the ones in NUS are, if not figuratively hotter, wear fewe clothes.

10:09 AM


Thursday, November 04, 2010

You are Not a Gadget

A new book I’ve been reading has forced me to think about the impact of information in our society. It is bluntly critical of web 2.0. It's called "You are Not a Gadget" by Jaron Lanier

The book is written by one of the pioneers of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier. He had already been dealing with the question of what the web would be like, long before 1995.

First, he thinks that the way that the web is set up today encourages mob behaviour. As psychologists already know, people do not behave at their best in a mob situation. We no longer act like individuals with a moral sense, but just become one of a crowd, the mystical crowd who is supposedly wise.

Well that’s the paradox of the crowd. If I recall Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds” correctly, he said that crowds are wise when they make decisions independently of each other, when the crowd is diverse enough to include – uh – diverse viewpoints and when the processes are decentralized. But inevitably crowds are not very democratic. Markets don’t behave like wise crowds because people are always communicating with each other and therefore having their decisions influenced by each other.

In any case, crowds do not produce great works of art. Great art, more often than not, is either a dictatorial activity, or a collaboration between a few people. It seems that crowds are probably better at decision making, which is just as well that big decisions at companies are made by boards.

But as many of you know from reading comments sections of highly controversial blog posts and know that firstly people become polarized into one of two opposing positions on the issue. Then everything breaks down and people start calling each other names. A lot of useful information does filter through, but you’d also have to wade through a lot of drivel.

One problem is that everybody is represented as a bunch of digits in cyberspace. People become dehumanized. Web pages are linked to each other based on key words without much regard about how relevant they are. It’s better than randomized linking, but a lot of the main context is lost. A lot of information is out there, but it’s all fragmented. The information is not rich: it’s just a bunch of words. You could call it pretty shallow info.

He is highly critical of search engines, because when things are linked to each other, a lot of the context that produced the document in the first place is lost. For example, a list of the top 100 works of music. What you get is that each item in the list is just a number, instead of understanding and appreciating that each piece is a universe unto itself. This becomes dehumanization through decontextualisation.

Another problem he talks about is how music can become free and cheap due to downloading. Artists don’t get paid for their work, and therefore not much good work gets produced.

The internet has also widened the gap between the rich and everyone else. In the internet world, there are a few stars holding on to a disproportionate amount of wealth and influence. He calls these people “lords of the clouds”. Everybody else is just struggling to get by. Advertising has replaced the creation of great art.

I think that shortly before the web became ubiquitous, people thought about multi-media. There was a burgeoning industry that produced multi-media on CD-ROMs before the whole enterprise got wiped out by the rise of the web. The emphasis for this was on the richness of medium, about novel ways of creating the user experience through sound and vision. Maybe it will be some time before the emphasis shifts back to this multimedia stuff.

The web has prospered because text-only information, or text information with only a few graphics has always been more economically efficient to produce. This has been true throughout the age of the printing press. At the end of the day, economics will always carry the day. Unless we have more efficient ways to encode data?

The problem with his book is that it seems to be a lot of ranting that has been cobbled together hastily. This is a shame because he has a lot of very thought-provoking points to make, even though some of the alternative scenarios seem quite far-fetched.

It’s always useful to listen to what people like him have to say, because they were around before the rise of the internet, and they had envisioned something slightly different from the web that we ended up with.

I’m also reading John Seely Brown’s “Social Life of Information”. It was published 10 years ago, but I think that the web hasn’t actually changed all that much since then.