Thursday, February 25, 2010

The snow falls towards the sky...

... outside my kitchen window.

It's 'cause of the updraft in the corner of the building,
but it still looks strange, mysterious, and beautiful.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Not the greatest week so far

Apparently flossing is as important as the dentist always admonishes me. I've got eight cavities between my teeth, six of them in my front teeth. $1.2K worth of repairs.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

We Regret to Inform You...

... or rather, UCSD regrets to inform me that they don't want me. I requested more feedback; hopefully they'll be nice enough to tell me why.

One letter to go; hopefully it'll be the thick one. I sent another letter to IU yesterday asking if I could come visit and when I could expect a response.

Straightforward Dishonesty

A guy came into the computer lab today asking questions about a virus on his laptop. I gave him some advice, which he kinda waved off and said "its only three months old, and I don't have time to mess with this 'safe mode' and stuff, so if I can't get it to work I'm just gonna break it. I'll pour some water in it or something and have them give me a new one."'

Epically irresponsible and cheaterly, and he's not even the slightest bit abashed about it. And talk about a poor relationship with your technology! Its Orwelian; Destroy=Repair. For the sake of ethical relationships between customers and suppliers, manufacturers should be differentiating between hardware failure and user-caused damage; and I believe they do so as best they can. This sort of thing should be a part of your "credit score."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fufilling long-standing wishes

Here are some pictures from before the Smashing Pumpkins show in Cleveland waaay back in October 2008:

This was one of those shows I wanted to see since I was maybe thirteen, and Rachael bought me tickets. After the show we left the theater via fire escape.

We look like good SP fans, eh? All dressed in black and moody.

Quote from Billy Corrigan: "The show is over, and that makes me sad. But thats ok, cause the sadder I get, the better songs I write. And you've all fed off of my sadness for years. Yes, its true. But that's ok too, 'cause because of you , I live in a biiig house. "

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Federalism reborn?

Funny, it never even occurred to me that state legislatures could do something like this. I suppose that says something about the state of affairs, eh?

in reference to:

"Almost all these measures would make it illegal for the government at any level to require a citizen of the state to purchase health insurance. This would let Americans opt out of any federal "individual mandate," which makes people buy insurance or pay a tax, a la Massachusetts and both the House and Senate bills in Congress."
- Health Backlash in the States - (view on Google Sidewiki)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My favorite fantasy...

... and a big reason I thought I was willing to do whatever it takes to be ultra-rich: the hybrid ultra-large aircraft. Its a blimp shaped like a lifting body, so it can carry heavier-than-air payloads. They say the large designs could carry a thousand tons across twelve thousand nautical miles. For reference: a cubic meter of water weighs about a (metric) ton; so assuming that you didn't fill it with anything much denser than water (on average) the interior usable area of such a beast might be a thousand cubic meters. And the circumference of the earth is twenty-two thousand miles, so its range could get you to the other side of the planet. Max speed is supposedly in the 100mph range, so it could cross the world in five days. That seems like a nice speed: slow enough that you get to appreciate the journey, but fast enough that time isn't a major constraint. I'm going to indulge in a few moments of massaging my fantasy.

Imagine if the surface of the envelope (the blimpy-part) was covered in printed photovoltaic cells. These could generate electricity, which could be used to electrolisize water and use the hydrogen and oxygen for fuel. Viola! Never need to stop to refuel! And operating costs go down to the cost of maintenance! Assuming turbines can burn hydrogen (can they?).

For no particular reason other than aesthetics, it would be cool to have giant, slow-moving, sail-like propeller blades to be used for slow cruising. They could fold back and be streamlined when moving faster. I imagine hydrogen verniers could be used for fine control; but probably wouldn't be suitable for takeoff (except over water).

So what could be done with this big, beautiful black blimp? For starters, I would live in it. Travel the world, see beautiful things, and go beautiful places. The inside would be done up luxuriantly; with as much of it as possible exposed to the windows and the space as open open and airy as it could be. Since the gondola would be in the center, underneath the mass of the envelope, it would be shaded for most of the day. Perhaps a cabin could be put in the envelope itself on either side so that they could be exposed that more of that charming eight-light-minutes-distant atomic fire. Morning on one side, evening on the other.

The main cabin would be all carbon-fiber, aluminum, and teak. Hanging plants by the giant windows could grow a small amount of fresh food; probably enough for two people with a stock of grain. To pay for whatever else we could sell photographs of the beautiful things we see from the sky, bring wealthy guests on tours around wherever they live and cook them dinner, collect stuff from remote and exotic locations and sell it in other exotic locations. There could be a separate cargo-only gondola so that it could be hired out solely for heavy lifting if I wanted to make some money while I wasn't using it.

For getting up to it and down from it (without actually landing), there'd be a winch. It would be suited to picking up and depositing a small vehicle, like a motorcycle. It'd be even cooler, of course, if a little aircraft could be somehow landed on it; but I'm having trouble thinking of a way that could be made to work even in imaginiationland. More realistically: since the thing can land in water, a little boat (or car/boat) would be useful. Also, somewhat randomly, I'd rig up a pully-and-weights system on the inside so two people could simulate flying through the main cabin space. Or better yet: on the outside, so we could fly through open space.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On music: meaning and experimentation

I've read suggestions that music has a vocabulary that has evolved in a way similar to that of natural (vocal) languages. The foundation has to do with proportionality; apparently a favorite topic of certain agean-dwelling people.

Its amazing to me that the Pythagoreans we able to discover the concept of octaves, perfect thirds, perfect fifths, and so on. If these were arbitrary designations they wouldn't be very interesting, but an octave (for instance) is an exact doubling of the frequency of the wave. How could early people have captured such an abstract concept? Is it really that easy to hear that A (440) and A (880) are the "same" note? Well, an octave is also produced by exactly halving the length of the string, which is probably why it was discovered and named. Whats intriguing is the connection between the doubling of the frequency, the halving of the length, and the subjective perception of "sameness". Its easy enough for us to see why that happens (except for maybe the last part), what with our understanding of sounds-as-waves; but I wonder what how the Greeks explained the phenomenon? I may have to do some more reading in that regard.

The point I'm getting at: there is meaning in the primitive foundations of music, and that suggests that there is meaning in the constructs that are derived from them. Is the meaning expressible in words? It seems that words are arbitrarily powerful so probably they can be; but perhaps whatever is being communicated in musical concepts is better suited to the musical medium.

It seems that music is taught as a pass-time, rather than as a language. Not being-well educated in music myself, I don't have much to offer by way of suggestions. But if a musical grammar exists, it seems that it would be a good foundation for musical creativity and exploration. Certainly grammar is a very useful tool for communicating verbal concepts; its useful because its an agreed-upon protocol between communicating individuals.

The "agreed upon" bit, I think, is a sticking point for artists. "Convention? Bah! I will cut my own path! I will make something entirely new!" Well and good, but don't underestimate the depth of conventional mediums, nor the difficulty of establishing new (significant) ones. Any jaded soul who quips "there's nothing new under the sun... anything creative's already been done" can look to combinatorics for assurance that there are very likely still undiscovered and significant pearls of beauty even in well-established mediums.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How Apocalyptic?

Just how bad would it be if the US government lost its "risk free" debt rating? One positive consequence that might arise is that officials would no longer be able to easily consume more than is produced just by issuing debt; they would have to pay more attention to the price signals. The question is: would they? Or are they so insulated that the would continue valiantly down a very obviously disastrous path?

That question wasn't meant to sound rhetorical, but I'm afraid it does. Our politics seem to be characterized by such head-in-the-sand positions. It seems likely that the federal government will continue issuing bonds even after its ability to pay them (at the rate investors require) has become doubtful. That leads to either: 1) a default or 2) a major political upheaval that drastically reduces the scope of government. Or both. In the long-run, a political upheaval might be desirable.

Actually, there's another option: massive inflation. Inflating the money supply will allow the government to pay its increasingly expensive and growing debts with decreasingly valuable currency, and thus spare itself the dishonor of breaking (the letter of) its promises. The decline in real value won't go unnoticed, however, and the price of the debt will continue to rise in a deadly feedback loop. It has certainly happened in other countries. Supposedly it took a wheel-barrel full of Marks to buy a loaf of bread in post WWI Germany. Zimbabwe is currently experiencing the same thing, as have the following countries in recent memory: Mexico, Argentina, Russia, Greece, Austria, Hungary, Japan, Israel, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Turkey, Taiwan... (the list goes on). Why can't it happen here in the 'States? Because we have a growing economy? 'Cause we're the only superpower? 'Cause we're, what... geographically large? Assumptions of our invulnerability to economic law often seem to implicitly rely on such tenuous foundations. The growth of our economy is good reason for optimism, but its not something that can be taken for granted, nor is it independent of things like an unstable money supply.

Setting Kurzweilian optimism aside for a moment, how bad is hyperinflation really? Well, for starters, the value of currency you have saved approaches zero very quickly. That's probably meaningless if you're an American, cause it's unlikely that you've saved anything anyway. Perhaps more relevant in wage-slave terms: whatever your employer pays you now, it will become insufficient to pay your mortgage (assuming adjustable rates), buy gasoline, buy groceries, or buy heat. You'll demand more from your employer, but they're faced with the same pressures, and eventually somethin's gotta give. It'll be your employment, one way or the other. You'll cry out to your government, and they will listen. They will help you: they will give you currency. You'll find that without also having given you wheel-barrels, you can't do much with it. You won't even be able to hire a plumber to unclog your toilet-pipes after you've discovered the most economical use for the currency your government's given you. Its no wonder that "wars, depressions, and social and political upheaval" often follow.

Is this an exaggeration? Hopefully. But it wouldn't be unreasonable to speculate that our current course, if unchecked, will lead there. Its (almost) funny how conservative many people are with the climate for instance, and how reckless they are with money. You've probably heard a well-meaning aspiring intellectual say something like: "Its true that we're not a hundred-percent sure about the effects of human action on the global temperature, but if the effects are large then we're facing disaster. Therefore, until we're certain, we should take the most careful possible route." Its not an un-compelling argument, which makes it all the more relevant in cases where we're absolutely certain that a given path will be destructive.

In other words: Yes, there's a chance that global warming will hurt you and everyone else. But hyperinflation will absolutely-positively-definitely hurt you and everyone else. So, to you crusaders for justice, civilization, and humanity: please focus your attention on real risks.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reading Currency values in [R]?

Apparently [R] doesn't have any base funcitons for interpreting numbers with comma separators and dollar signs in front of them. It reads them as text strings; and thus as factors. Try and coerce them into "numeric" type and it returns some garbage number (the index of the factor, I think). What the everlovingeff is that all about? Even Excel can handle currency-formatted numbers without blinking; you'd think the language designed specifically for high-performance data analysis would be able to recognize that "$10,112.43" is likely intended to be read as a number.

Of course, its easy enough to write a function that strips out the dollar signs and commas and converts it to the correct number. Maybe the [R] authors intentionally omitted that simple piece of functionality specifically so that I'd have a reason to learn something about regular expressions and the apply() function. Or maybe I just missed it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Data Supporting a Hypothesis

A while back I blogged about the obvious consequence of the eliminating pre-existing condition exclusions from health insurance. It seemed obvious to me, at least, but perhaps the proponents of the plan weren't convinced that it necessarily followed. The excerpt below lends a data point in support of my conclusion.

in reference to:

"In a state with 19 million people, 88 New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 24—88!—have bought WellPoint's best-selling individual insurance product because insurance laws make it perfectly rational not to acquire costly coverage until people need it."
- The Weekend Interview with Angela Braly: 'A Wasted Opportunity' - (view on Google Sidewiki)

My, what fun it would be to be able to mine WellPoint's actuarial data!

Random Sampling

If anyone needs random sampling done on all US firms that have operated since 1960, let me know. I spent a few hours yesterday putting together a nice little [R] program that does exactly that. The purpose is just to find a random sample of non-bankrupt company codes of an appropriate size (in this case: matched in size to my bankrupt population), so that you could then submit the list to a WRDS query and get data to test. In the spirit of open soure sharing: here's the code:

#First: find all companies that operated in the desired time period using a WRDS query. Then import the data.

NonBankrupt<-AllFirms[AllFirms$costat == "A" ,"gvkey"] #select non-bankrupt firms
SampleSize<-1112 #Change as needed; 1112 is just the size of my bankrupt sample
rSampleNonBankrupt<-sample(NonBankrupt, SampleSize, replace=FALSE)
write.csv(rSampleNonBankrupt, "/THESIS/rSampleNonBankrupt.csv")

I know what you're thinking: "that took a few hours to write?" Well, yes. There were some kinks to iron out with data-types and such. Presumably it would have taken much less time if I really knew what I was doing (so: next time it'll take five minutes). There's still a minor issue with the type of the output: WRDS needs a list with one input per line, not CSV. I'm trying to work out how to do that without bringing it into a spreadsheet.

This represents the final stage of my thesis; now all I need to do is bring in the non-bankrupt data and run it though the same tests as I did with the bankrupt data. I had been thinking of doing this for a while, but I was stymied with the problem the size of the data and the memory issues it presents. To my shame, I had forgotten that a random sample of non-bankrupt firms would produce a statistically significant comparison; I had been thinking that I should run the analysis on the entire population. *forehead smack* Statistics 101. Nevertheless, I could overcome the memory issues by setting up an SQL server and querying it dynamically from [R]... its just not necessary in this case. I'd still like to develop the capability, 'cause I imagine there are problems where the random sample itself will present memory issues.

Added: Well, that was easy. I just replaced the last line in the code above with this simpler one:
write(rSampleNonBankrupt, ncolumns=1, "/THESIS/rSampleNonBankrupt.txt")
Does the trick without any complaints.
Also, I discovered that the package "ff" handles large datasets. Soooo, no need for SQL servers. I also found a multicore allocation package; which would be extremely awesome if I had more than two cores. Maybe I can use COB's servers?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."


This video, brought to my attention via GeneExpression, is totally off the effing hook.

And sad but true: Hayek is ignored; Keynes gets attention. My spellcheck recognizes the latter but not the former, for god's sake (It also doesn't recognize "spellcheck"). Is it just my bias, or do the quotes from Keynes and Hayek at the end both seem to testify against Keynesians?

This video is also interesting as a propaganda piece in the way it seems to be manipulating human perceptions of social status. The Keynes character is full of loathsome conceit, the Hayek character is pitiable. I wonder how effective this is in subtle persuasion?

Added; some pithy points learned from the interviews with Hayek that YouTube (wonderful tool) suggests as follow-ups to that nice little rap:

Keynes's recommendation of deliberate inflation was a remedy to "sticky wages;" which was the result of trade unions having become very powerful in Britain at the time. That is to say: the contracts with unions forbade paying them a smaller amount of currency, so a roundabout way to achieve the same goal is to make the currency worth less in real terms. Note: "real terms" means "what one can actually buy with the currency" vs the face value of the currency. So inflation in this context can (and should) be viewed as a sneaky way of using government to stick it to the working folk. Though presumably to achieve a greater good. Presumably.

Hayek notes that Keynes later repudiated his own theory, and was appalled at the policies his pupils were using it to support. Keynes claimed that he would very strongly oppose such policies, but then died before he could be effective in the endeavor. I suppose this reversal means I can't continue to dislike Keynes as a person; but it casts a deeper shadow on those who continue to espouse Keynes's own disavowed theories in his name.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I'm increasingly glad that I quit when I did. Toyota was already loosing money, and this can do nothing but hurt their sales.

When I visited the Audi plant in Germany, they talked very specifically about how Audi was still recovering their reputation in the US market as a result of a very similar issue with sudden acceleration in the 1980's. Apparently its taken them twenty years to get over the bad publicity. The concerns turned out to be unsubstantiated in Audi's case, and they told us that they suspected foul play. That is to say: there was never any good evidence that there was actually such a problem with Audi's, and the news hype that it received may have been a deliberate campaign to malign them.

Toyota's already acknowledged that their was a quality problem with the parts, so the conspiracy theory doesn't fly here. But it is beginning to have a witch-hunt sound to it; what with the US Transportation Secretary saying he wants to meet face to face with Toyota's CEO to talk about it. I can't help but wonder if there's any real-politicking going on; the old guard car makers trying to hurt Toyota by maligning them. I imagine they're not shedding any tears, at any rate.

in reference to:

"U.S. Transportation Secretary Seeks Meeting With Toyota CEO"
- U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Seeks Meeting With Toyota CEO - (view on Google Sidewiki)

Thesis progress

My adviser says I'm done (almost). She recommended that I take what I've got and write a report on it, and that will satisfy the masters requirements. If this one last thing turns out to be significant, we'll spend next quarter preparing it to publish.

The last thing is to take a matched sample of non-bankrupt firms and compare their break point behavior to the bankrupt firms breakpoints for each indicator. If it's significant, we should see randomness in the non-bankrupt firms. However, as I'm typing this, I'm thinking that the time-frames might be an issue: the point of reference for bankrupt firms is the date of bankruptcy; the only thing I could use as a point of reference for non-bankrupt firms is the current date. Comparing the two might be confounding; I might get randomness as an artifact. We'll see.

I got a nice reaction from my adviser when I showed her the work I had done while she was away. She was having trouble interpreting a plot, I explained it, there was a thoughtful pause, then a big smile and: "This is really good work!"

Now Officially a VW fan blog

Look at this video.

Just look at it.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A little break from the seriousness

A slice of life, right there. I've laughed throughout every time I've watched it, for the last month or so. Thank you, Boing Boing!

My stereo is sweet. Its got a loose connection that makes the speakers buzz, but kicking it indiscriminately usually corrects the problem. Recently its gotten to the point where a heavy footstep in the room causes it to buzz... but no worry, another heavy footstep fixes it! So as we cross the room, we just have to make sure to take an even number of steps if we want the music to keep playing. Our downstairs neighbors must love us.

Why am I wasting time blogging inane observations? Excellent question! I'm going to the coffee shop now and leaving my computer here!

Behold: TAZA, coffee shop of dreams!