Sunday, December 20, 2009

suspension of criticisms

In grade 7, I was (re?)introduced to music. I wasn't curious enough to use Kazaa or care enough to download music on my own accords. In fact, I didn't really listen to music at all. That is, until I had a friend who started sharing Chinese music with me. We had dial-up back then, and I remember it taking forever.

Since I didn't listen to songs very often, I was easily distracted by the details. I told him why I didn't really like each particular song -- this part of the lyrics seemed so cheesy, that sound there seemed uncalled for, and that random bit of Japanese is weird... Oh, and please don't send me another English song! They're so awkward.

Did I know anything about music? Actually, not really. I didn't. All I knew was that the songs didn't sound "right", whatever that was supposed to mean. I was just like one of those arrogant literary critics who pretended to know.

Yet as I listened to more and more music, these details stopped bothering me. This seemed counter-intuitive at the time. Have I merely accustomed myself to mediocrity?

I'd like to think that at some time or another, I just got the point. There are different levels that I could focus on: there's the level of the individual sounds, and there's the level of the song as a whole. When I learn to suspend my criticisms (much like the "suspension of disbelief"), I learned to appreciate a song as a whole and became more forgiving. It was no longer about "how many things about this song I would change", but the appreciation of the message. I focused more on connecting with it, emotionally and otherwise. I could do that without the song being absolutely perfect.

"But the individual sounds are important!" Sure. I'm not saying that we should shun all criticisms. But sometimes, it is worthwhile to let the details slide for a moment, just to gauge the actual message being sent. The arguments might still hold regardless of innocent mistakes.

It's always easier to criticize than to create, but it's much more worthwhile to give someone the benefit of the doubt and to focus instead on the message they're trying to send.

End of Entry

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2009 in retrospect

Writing a review blog is quite an indulgence, but this year I can actually get everything to fit in one bite-size entry. Here goes:

So the year 2009 started off terribly. Winter 09 was a disappointing term, and I quickly lost interest in everything. Luckily, life brought me to San Francisco in May-Aug 09. Working at Tagged doing programming was not something I was immediately comfortable with, but it definitely helped me grow. I finally learned that being afraid to be busy is not going to cut it, and went all out in Fall 09. I may have ridden on borrowed momentum (borrowed from... a certain person. You know who you are.), but that momentum sure helped me thoroughly enjoy this term. As for how I did in keeping my resolutions from last year, it's as you might expect. "Don't go nuts" was fine for the most part. "Don't be lazy" - not quite.

My resolution will change completely this year. In fact I have already done the switch. This new resolution is:

Focus on what's important.

It's simple, really. Focusing at the right "level" and looking at things the "right" way solves a lot problems. Not being lazy and not going nuts will be the consequences.

Actually, I need to add another resolution:

Declare major!

No comment on this one.

Let's end with notable moments in the past year, whatever I can remember: HSU Go Tournament, Waterloo Go Tournament, GEB, London Life and co-op drama, spring + winter trip to Rochester, Ghirardelli's / Pat's / Gelato / Tuk Tuk / Indian, hills across golden gate, a tuque, an epiphany that I'm supposed to have soon, the tactile dome, data center field trip, LA, pets gold/cash drama, jogging at the beach, balancing on the exercise ball, masala bay, the man that died in 95, sugar sammy, tutorial center, "Suppe mit nichts", collaborating using etherpad for cogsci exam ....

... and hopefully I'll have a tad more to add in the last 15 days of the year =)

End of Entry

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Gödel's theorems -- transcending transcendence

It occurred to me that perhaps I should have preceded the previous post with this one, a discussion about the consequences of Gödel that would answer the question "so what?" So what if Principia Mathematica is never going to contain all of mathematical truth? What does that have to do with anything?

Logic is Inadequate

Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem exposes a glaring weakness in any formal system. It points at a strange disconnect between logic and truth. The beauty and austerity of formal logic become questionable -- we can't know everything there is to know about the world using formal, deductive, logical reasoning!

I guess this is old news. But personal experience suggests that it is still easy to fall for the misconception that deductive reasoning is somehow "better" than other types of reasoning. Yes, it is much cleaner, but heuristics, induction, abduction and analogical reasoning are so much more powerful, and play such an important role in intelligent behaviour.

Truth is Weird

Gödel's theorem shows that there are lots more subtleties in truth than we give it credit for. Perhaps the crux of Gödel's result come from our misunderstanding of what truth really mean in our world. I guess the other question is: what exactly do mathematical truths mean in our world? Especially strange results like the Banach-Tarski paradox, so called the paradoxical decomposition of spheres...

Argument against strong AI

J.R. Lucas argued using Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem that machines can never be as intelligent as human beings. He argued that since machines are inevitably formal systems, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem applies. Thus, there must be some truth that machines ought not to be able to discover, but that humans can -- we can follow the construction from the last post to construct a statement that means "this theorem is not provable by the machine". While we know that this statement is true, the machine would never be able to prove or disprove it. Thus humans will always have the upper hand.

Although this is an appealing argument, consensus is that it doesn't quite work. Two of the possible arguments against Lucas are:
  1. In order for Gödel's theorem to hold, we must assume that the formal system is consistent. Computers need not be to be a consistent formal system. (Humans are quite inconsistent as well.)
  2. There are paradoxical sentences that humans cannot assign truth value to; thus perhaps we are formal systems that are more powerful, but not something that cannot be surmounted by computers.
A common theme

Themes that come up in Gödel's theorem and its proof are quite ubiquitous. The futility of the formal system in attempt to "break out" of its bound of incompleteness is like Escher's dragon, below, trying to break out of the 2-dimensionality of your screen.

There's a certain "zen"-ness to all this. Even the distinction between provability and unprovability is very much like the concept of the knowable versus the unknowable. The existence of an unprovable statement is akin to the proposition that there will always be unknowable truths. (Reminds me of this quote from Douglas Adams, the first one under "The Universe", for some strange reason)

The common theme here is, I believe, the desire to transcend, coupled with the inability to transcend. If right now, someone asked me to bet on what the meaning of life is, then I would put on my "pretend to be Zen" hat and answer: to transcend transcendence.

End of Entry

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gödel's First Incompleteness Theorem -- an intuitive sketch of the proof

In the early 20th century, Whitehead and Russell published a book called Principia Mathematica. In it the authors attempted to derive all mathematical truths from a finite set of axioms and rules of inference. The consensus amongst mathematicians at the time was that this was doable, and that it would make mathematics a lot more rigorous than it is even now.

But Gödel proved that such attempts would always end in vain. Gödel's First Incompleteness Theorem states that any consistent formal system strong enough to contain the natural numbers is incomplete. In other words, there will always be a mathematical statement whose truth value Principia Mathematica would not be able to determine.

Gödel showed this in a sneaky way, yet the logic of his proof is actually not too complicated. Essentially what Gödel did was to translate Epimenides's paradox ("this statement is false") into a formal language. I will give an intuitive and informal sketch of the proof below.


A formal system consists of a formal language (a set of words/symbols, with some sort of formal grammar), and a set of rules of inferences that can be applied to an axiom or a previously derived theorem. Here, a theorem is just a statement in the formal language that is derivable from either an axiom or from a previously derived theorem. The rules of grammar and rules of inferences need to be algorithmic, meaning that one should be able to apply the rules symbolically or syntactically, without looking at the semantics.

This algorithmic aspect of grammar and rules of inference are important in determining what is expressible in the system. An English statement is expressible in our formal system if there is a statement in the formal language that have the same interpretation -- that is, we can "translate" the English sentence into a statement in our formal language.

We will assume here that our formal system is strong enough to contain the natural numbers, and that concepts such as equality, addition, existence, etc... can be expressed in it.

Expressibility of theoremhood and proofs

The most important aspect of Epimenides' paradox is self-reference. If we are to create self-reference in our formal system -- specifically self-reference about truth-hood -- we must be able to express the notion of a theorem and a proof within the formal system. Gödel showed that we can.

Statements in our formal system are nothing but a series of symbols in our formal language. But there is nothing special about the actual symbols being used. In particular, we can use natural numbers to replace those symbols. As a very arbitrary example, if we are using symbols "=", "1", and "0", we can replace every instance of "=" with 131, "1" with 101, "0" with 100 etc. Then our statement "1=1" becomes 101131101, and 101131100 can be interpreted as "1=0". Similarly, we can translate any statement in our formal system into a natural number. This natural number is commonly referred to as the Gödel numbering of a statement.

Likewise, a proof of a theorem is no more than a sequence of statements, with some special properties: that every statement in the sequence is either an axiom, or derived via a rule of inference from a previous statement in the sequence. We can represent a proof P using a natural number as well, by concatenating the Gödel numberings of each statement.

Now, note the following:

(1) Since our rules of grammar are algorithmic, it is possible to check algebraically whether a natural number S is a Gödel number of a syntactically correct statement ("=32" is not syntactically correct, whereas "1=2" is).
(2) Since our rules of inferences are algorithmic, we can translate these rules into numerical operations. We can hence check (algorithmically) whether a natural number P is a valid "proof" for a "statement" S, another natural number.

This is enough to show that the notion of proofs is expressible in our formal system -- we can make a statement called Proof(P,S) that is true if and only if P is a valid "proof" for the "statement" S (note P and S are both natural numbers). Now, the statement Provable(S) := There exists P such that Proof(P,S) would be true if and only if S is provable. We have succeeded in expressing provability inside our formal system.

The Fun Part!

A free variable is a variable that is not defined in the statement. For example, in the statement "b+b=2", b is a free variable. Let's call a statement with one free variable a class-sign. Some examples of class-signs are "a+0=1", and "there exists b such that b*b=a". Examples of non-class-signs are "1+1=2", "there exist b such that b+b=2" and "a+a=b".

We can assume that these class-signs are somehow ordered and numbered, say R_n is the nth class-sign*. We can also use R_n(k) to denote the statement one gets when replacing the free variables in R_n with a known number k. Again as an arbitrary example, if R_2 is the statement "a+0=1" then R_2(10) is the statement "10+0=1". If R_9 is the statement "there exists b such that b*b=a", then R_9(9) is the statement "there exists b such that b*b=9".

Now let's define a set K consisting of natural numbers. A natural number n is in K if and only if R_n(n) is not provable. That is, n is in K <=> ~Provable(R_n(n))

As before, R_n(n) is the statement you get when you substitute the free variable in R_n with the natural number n. In the example above, R_2(2) is an unprovable statement "2+0=1", so 2 would be in K. In contrast, R_9(9) is a provable statement "there exists b such that b*b=9", so 9 would NOT be in K. **

Note that checking provability, finding the ordering of the class-signs, and everything else we've done thus far are algorithmic operations. This is important, because it implies that the statement "n is in K" is expressible in our formal system -- that there is a statement in our formal system that corresponds to "n is in K".

But this statement "n is in K" has only one free variable, namely n, so it is a class-sign! So we can make the following modus ponens argument:

(1) "n is in K" is a class sign
(2) Class signs are enumerated by R_n
.'. (3) there must be a natural number q with R_q = "n is in K"

Now the question is, is q in the set K?

The Pitfall

If q is in the set K, then R_q(q) is not provable. But R_q(q) is the statement "q is in K", which must be true by assumption -- a contradiction. If q is not in the set K, then R_q(q) must be provable, which means q must be in the set K -- again we have a contradiction. This is Epimenides' paradox, and the statement "q is in K" is the undecidable proposition that will forever stump Principia Mathematica.

What this proof is missing

The construction I followed is from a translation of Gödel's paper, which contains the rigorous proof as well as a quick sketch. It has the advantage of providing a quick proof without complicated constructions. I tried to also take ideas from a more elegant (but time-consuming) construction in Hofstadter's book, Gödel Escher Bach. Hofstadter puts more emphasis on core concepts that are quite well hidden here, such as the concept of quining. Hofstadter also writes about the consequences of Gödel's theorem in philosophy, biology, and AI, which is nothing short of being fascinating.

End of Entry


* We can do this, since (1) the natural numbers are countable, (2) class signs are a subset of statements in our formal system, which can be represented by natural numbers, so (3) the set of class signs have cardinality less than or equal to the natural numbers.

** Unprovability and provability of R_2(2) and R_9(9) are based on the assumption that our formal system is powerful enough to contain truths about the natural numbers. The two statements given are pretty basic truths about the natural numbers, so I would hope that they are provable/unprovable ...

More notes:

Thanks to Lilly for helping to ensure that I wrote something sane. =)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Elevator Algorithms

In Philadelphia, I spent a lot of time waiting for elevators. I inevitably paid a lot of attention to the control algorithms used by different elevators in different buildings.

All elevator algorithms solve the same type of optimization problem: given that a building has n floors and m elevators, how could we most efficiently move people up/down the floors? I'm sure you already know of the simple algorithm that every elevator implements, but one can definitely improve on this. Here's one improvement someone tried to make.
Example #1:
This building has one elevator, and 8 floors. The elevator was made to move back to floor 4 when it is idle.
This is an intuitive solution. Since there are n floors where people could call the elevator, why not minimize the wait time by making the elevator go back to floor n/2 when it is idle? The problem with this argument is that it assumes that an elevator is equally likely to be called from any of the n floors, which is not true. In most cases, people who use the elevator would use it to either go down to ground floor from the floor they're at, or up from ground floor to the floor they should be in. This means that approximately half the time, elevator request would occur at the ground floor. A better design is the following:
Example #2:
There are no more than 10 floors (I believe it was less), and about 6 elevators. When an elevator is idle, it moves to the ground floor, and opens its door.
This speeds things up a lot. Not only could you avoid waiting for the elevator to get to the ground floor, you don't even have to press the button and wait for the door to open! I thought that this was a great idea! (An acquaintance pointed out, though, that unsuspecting people might mistakenly think that the elevator is broken. Well then...)

The algorithm used in example #2 focuses a lot more on people going up as compared to people going down. I think this makes sense. Going up stairs takes a lot more effort than going down stairs, so people are more likely to use the elevator to go up. However in a building with more floors, more people would want to use the elevator to go down, so having all the elevators in ground floor is not going to help. Here's a solution that seems to work well:
Example #3:
This building has two elevators and ~12 floors. It is programmed to ensure that at least one elevator is on the ground floor at any given time. The other elevator is often seen on floor 6, but I'm not sure if there's a pattern here.
This makes a lot of sense. The first elevator takes care of the case where people want to go up from floor 1. The second elevator takes care of the case where people would want to go down, and since the elevator is at floor 6, the wait time is reduced.

For small n and m, I really can't think of a better solution than the one used in example #3. For larger n and m, though, it becomes more complicated:
Example #4:
This building has about 38 floors, and at least 12 elevators. The elevators are divided into two groups: the first group goes to floors up to 22. The second elevator skips all the floors until floor 22, so it stops at floors 22-38 (and the ground floor).
It would be quite disastrous if the elevators aren't organized this way. Imagine working on the top floor and having to wait for the elevator to stop at every floor in between! This elevator is designed to go super fast from the first to the 22nd floor, making things even more efficient.

All of these examples are real. What I don't understand is why so many buildings do not have these optimizations built into their elevators. Implementing these changes cost almost nothing, but can save a lot of peoples' time in the long run.

End of Entry

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Miscellaneous Noise

There are several things that I wanted to blog about but didn't, because none of these topics deserved an entire post. So, well, here are all the miscellaneous things that are on my mind.

Twitter. In the end I decided to try twitter. Doing so without letting it consume me is pretty difficult. While I try to keep my signal-noise ratio high, it's easy to retort to the "show everyone your shit" theme. It's worth it, though, because twitter makes me read more: many people post links through tweets, and I've caught on to that trend. In the end, your twitter experience all dependents on who you follow.

Cognitive Science Essay. I was hoping to publish it, as a summary of what I learned outside of class. Unfortunately, I grossly underestimated the amount of reading required to produce something good. I had to trade more reading for less writing, and settle for unsound arguments and butchered English. So instead of publishing the original essay, I'll probably convert its contents into one or two blog posts. Stay tuned.

Steve Pavlina. I was first introduced to Steve Pavlina's personal development blog about 6 months ago, and had since then learned that he is quite well-known. Indeed some of his articles really resonate with what I never quite put into words. They are quite rewarding to read. On the other hand, there's something really fishy about his site. The amount of product-endorsements on there is unbelievable -- some are questionable (like his recent post about "eliminating a limiting belief"), others are known to be scam (like PhotoReading). I think that if he really was serious about helping people grow, he wouldn't try to make people dependent on products, even his own. So, check out his blog, you might find it helpful, but please be careful and ... please don't worship him.

Failing Work Report. As I mentioned, this failure felt like pure freedom. It was relieving to know that I don't have to be one of those blind losers, that I won't have to worry about maintaining a clean record, and that I've taken yet another step to focus on what's important. This was one of my few academic failures, so naturally I was apprehensive about the mandatory tutorial session that followed. It would help me learn to fail, I thought. But no... the marker spent the entire tutorial session being impressed by the fact that I actually prepared for it! So I'm still too diligent to fail... -sigh-. (Oh, and all I need to do is make the edits they told me to make and resubmit to pass...)

End of Entry

Saturday, November 21, 2009

using affirmations for dreaming

Some of you have expressed the desire to experience interesting dream phenomena (lucid dreaming and possibly more). Though I am a rather inexperienced amateur in this field, there's one tip that I found helpful, and that is -- to state an affirmation just before going to sleeping.

The Monroe Institute uses the following one,
I am more than my physical body. Because I am more than physical matter, I can perceive that which is greater than the physical world. Therefore, I deeply desire to Expand, to Experience; to Know, to Understand; to Control, to Use such greater energies and energy systems as may be beneficial and constructive to me and to those who follow me. Also, I deeply desire the help and cooperation, the assistance, the understanding of those individuals whose wisdom, development and experience are equal or greater than my own. I ask their guidance and protection from any influence or any source that might provide me with less than my stated desires.
The important points here are (1) stating your open-ness to experiences that might contradict pure materialism, (2) stating your desire for these experiences, and (3) asking other entities for help. Monroe suggests that the last point is actually very important.

Of course, it's much better to use your own affirmation than a canned one. Here's one that I started using. I don't repeat it verbatim, so it comes out differently every night.
I know that there is more to the physical world, and I wish to expand my knowledge, understanding, and experience of it. I desire and appreciate all the help and assistance from entities whose wisdom and experience are greater or equal to that of mine, so that I can achieve those stated goals.
I was also told to ask for help in doing something specific. The specific thing you want will change over time, which is again why the affirmation will probably change from night to night. You may or may not get instant results, but either way, let me know about it if you're comfortable enough =).

(Confirmation bias? Self-fulfilling prophecies? Sure, it could very well be. But could it be a pattern that might open the door to something else? Maybe. We won't know unless we keep our minds open.)

End of Entry

Monday, November 9, 2009

Life as an entity

Reading "Ant Fugue" in GEB made me think of a way to defend my talking about "life" as a conscious, intelligent entity that I interact with, as I did in my previous entries (e.g. here and here).

Holism is the idea that the whole is more than a sum of its parts. The relations and interactions between the parts can give the whole characteristics not found in any of the parts. This is why an ant colony can be seen as an entity, with perhaps intelligent behaviour, while each individual ant is not very intelligent. In the dialogue "Ant Fugue" in GEB, the characters talk about their conversations with an ant colony -- one that is intelligent and seemingly conscious. This "intelligence" and "consciousness" come not from any particular ant, but the interactions between the ants. Hopfstadter describes how the concentration of the cast distribution can contain information, which when grouped into higher and higher levels can lead to intelligent behaviour. The ants themselves are not very important - they are constantly being replaced, without really affecting the colony. Incidentally, this is very much like how our brains supposedly work. We are conscious, but this consciousness doesn't come from an individual neuron -- it's more likely to come from the way the neurons interact. As before, normal neuron deaths and replacements do not affect us.

You can begin to see where this is going - "life" is like the ant colony, and every object in my vicinity (perhaps also everything in my past and future) is like an individual ant. These objects, taken together and allowed to interact, display a kind of behaviour that seems intelligent. The actual objects in my vicinity will change, but that doesn't destroy the integrity of the entity. By living my life and in doing so making certain decisions, I am in effect communicating with this being. It seems to be helping me, teaching me, and prompting me with interesting experiences. Maybe it really is intelligent and conscious. Maybe I'll know one day.

End of Entry

the "common sense" view of life

Professors seem to love to point out how the "common sense" view about life is a dualist view: that there's a mind and a body, two separate things, with the mind capable of existing without the body. They say that this is the view of life that most people grow up with, but that it does not make as much sense as materialism. Funny thing is that I (and some of you) have got it all reversed! We grew up with the opposite view, an atheist and materialist view. Only later are we introduced to the idea that there might be a God, a soul, and a distinction between the material and - perhaps - the spiritual.

Then comes the myriad of oddities about life: OBE's, NDE's, certain lucid dreams, strange psychic-like experiences. What do we make of it? The explanations from my professors are that these are illusions, hallucinations, pseudo-science, folktale... but wouldn't it be so much harder for them to say that if they themselves had similar experiences? Perhaps they are stuck in sleep paralysis and met a ghost who helped them wake up. Perhaps they have a friend who consistently sees ghosts, or a friend who talks about having psychic experiences. It's so much harder to discount those experiences when they're close to you. I think that difficulty comes from an intuitive knowledge that these individual experiences, though not scientifically testable or reproducible, does give us legitimate information about this strange, strange world.

It does complicate things when many people lie about their experiences. Yes, there are lots of people who are willing to deceive, lots of people waiting to drain the pocket of the gullible by falsely claiming that they have "special powers". They're horrible people, but they don't change the fact that the universe might be much more complicated than we give it credit for. I really want to know whether this experience is real. I want to know whether there are any critics of Robert Monroe, and whether they found anything wrong with his institute, or with the Stargate Project.

I think that the typical materialist should open their eyes to a new set of observations. Sticking to objective, repeatable, and "scientific" knowledge got us pretty far, but it might also restrict us. Maybe this is just one of those things that you can't rely on other people to tell you. Maybe there are things that we just have to discover for ourselves to know.

End of Entry

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Way to improve Jobmine's matching process

Yes, yes, there are tons of ways to improve jobmine. Googling "jobmine sucks" returns tons of reasons why Jobmine lacks usability. I won't go into it here, because though important, they don't directly affect the core functionality of jobmine. Inefficient job matching process, however, does.

The matching process is as follows: during round one interviews, employers have three weeks to interview students and assign a rank between 1 and 9 (not necessarily distinct) to each qualified candidate. After the three weeks deadline, students see the jobs that they are ranked for. A rank of 1 shows up as an "Offer", and a rank >1 shows up as "Ranked". Now, students are given a weekend to rank each of the positions from 1 to 9 (not necessarily distinct). Jobmine then matches students and jobs by minimizing the combined rankings of students and employers. (More details here.)

Sounds good in theory. In practice, students have difficult choices when faced with "Ranked" for a job they want, and "Offer" for a job they don't like as much. Students know that if they rank an "offer" job a 1, they will get the job for sure. This security makes offers attractive. The situation actually happened to me once, and like many students I took the offer. Imagine my delight as I found out that my first choice job was left unfilled.

I think that the problem lies in the lack of information flow. Students don't know how other students will behave. Incidentally, there have been facebook groups set up to facilitate information flow, allowing students to share their ranking results and preferences. There were people who emailed all candidates to ask whether anyone is taking this job. Unfortunately, Jobmine's interface makes it seems as though we should be as secretive as possible. But why shouldn't we share information to achieve a collectively better result?

One solution that would work well is a rolling ranking process: accept student ranking submissions that result in an offer being taken any time throughout the weekend. The system can then update the other jobs that the student was offered/ranked for to indicate their unavailability. This change can then be reflected on other students' ranking pages: e.g. if John is offered for job X, and Mary is ranked 2nd, and John takes a different job, then Mary would see "Offer" on her rankings page.

At least one advantage of this method should be clear: non-econ majors wouldn't have to study game theory to find the optimal rating strategy, and everyone will have better chances in choosing the jobs they want the most. This is done while preserving employer's ranking privacy -- more so than the facebook group and emailing!

A less obvious advantage is that the number of jobs filled should increase. We can expect that a small percentage of students will have a large number of offers from high-profile companies, usually ones that take in a flexible amount of students. These students must reject all but one offer. I assume that many of these positions are left unfilled, as people who are ranked for these positions settle for offers, which are safer. These companies would be left with no matches, and may be disinclined to continue into second round, reducing the number of total jobs. This is clearly avoidable in a rolling process. Offers not yet taken can go to a second group of students. Offers not taken by this group would again be trickled downwards. More jobs will be filled, which is a plus for both employers and students.

You might note one potential disadvantage: employers will be more likely to be matched with students further down on their priority list. With the employers I know, it's not a problem. Students think that the difference between an "offer" and a "rank" is huge, and feel awkward working for an employer who preferred someone else. The employers, on the other hand, highlight the difficulty in choosing students. To them, everyone they ranked is good. Employers, unlike students, have the ability to not rank a student (and rightly so).

Incidentally, I think that students should be able to reject an employer as well, and in this case, a more elegant matching method exists. Currently, students can be matched with a job they don't want even if they rank it 9. They then face the choice of wasting 4 months or failing the term.

Currently, to prevent being matched with a job, you must initiate a tedious sign-off process involving the student, the CECS, and the employer. The student must show that the position is sufficiently different from the stated job description. CECS seems to think that this is the only legitimate reason a student might reject a job, but there are other reasons: You might not like your future boss. You might not like the culture, bureaucracy, or disorganization of the company. You might not like the salary. There's a reason that an interview is a two-way street, and the mere fact that CECS wants to be so strict about this shows that there are jobs students don't like. The employer has the opportunity to not rank a student, so why shouldn't it be the other way around? CECS might say that taking a job is better than being unemployed, but that should be the student's decision, not anyone else's.

CECS might also suggest that an easy sign-off process would encourage students to apply to jobs without the intent of accepting it, and prevent student accountability. This is a legitimate concern, however we should note that an application is just as much a cost to the students as it is to the employer, and students don't normally have an incentive to pay this cost. Of course there are people who apply to jobs for "practice" or other reasons - but these people are already doing it! It's easy for a serious person to figure out how to avoid being ranked. CECS is really penalizing the honest students: first years who panicked under the stress of the economy and other students who genuinely wanted the job at first.

The other problem that CECS might want to prevent is employer disappointment. It's a legitimate concern in a shrinking economy, but wasting 4 months of a student's time just comfort an employer's hurt feelings? I don't know about that. I think it's fair game to let law of demand and supply dictate which jobs will be filled. Besides, job rejection is actually a norm in society, and employers should understand that as well.

(Some people may be disinclined to make the distinction between"good jobs" vs "bad jobs". There is no dichotomy here, I agree, but I'd also invite them to just look at some jobs titles in Jobmine - "Algorithmic Trading Developer", "Parking Attendant", "Student Marketing Analyst", "Head Cook", "Chemistry Research Assistant", "Brine Maker"....)

So, with this rejection ability in place, we have a second solution to the initial problem: to make job ranking and job rejection asynchronous: let job rejection happen any time in the weekend, and keep job ranking at the end. Every time a job is rejected, update everything as before (as in John and Mary). Like before, a student who is certain that he wants to take a particular job offer can reject all the other positions except one (and in doing so passes this information to other people). But this time, a student who is still deciding between two of his offers can pass down the rest of his offers, without having reached a decision.

Of course, I haven't modeled/tested these claims, and if there's something wrong with my reasoning, please let me know.

End of Entry

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Das Happyend

The German word "das Happyend" was borrowed from English, and acquired a neuter gender (hence the article "das"). It's such an inconspicuously word - so pure, simple, and lasting. Indeed the concept is very intuitive in stories, plays, and novels. Yet the complexity of "das Happyend" as a real life phenomena is very much under-appreciated.

My life has been full of these "das Happyend" moments. Take the High School & University Go Tournament in 2005 for example. I had wanted a school tournament for a long time, in hopes of drawing together all the high school go clubs in the area. Seeing everything happen was absolutely stunning. I remember the day I got the email from CPAC telling me that they're willing to let us use their room. I was ecstatic! It was one of the three times in my life when I actually did a happy dance.

Running the actual tournament was more tedious than I had imagined. There were very few teams, so I paired the teams by hand. There was the problem of assigning tables. There were other problems that I didn't solve as well as I could. Thank god Edward Chung, president of the Canadian Go Association at the time, was there to help me. It's unfortunately that I didn't appreciate Edward's help as much back then - a grave mistake on my part. All in all, things went fine. I was happy. The tournament happened. Das Happyend.

Then I woke up the next day. Did whatever I had to do. Read for a bit. Slept.

Then I woke up a week later. Showered. Ate. Did whatever I had to do. Slept.

I ran the same tournament a couple more times.

I'm here, now.

Thing is, you can't really have a "happy ending" in life, because there is generally no real "ending" involved, unless you happened to die. Eventually you have to move on, keep living, and keep asking the question "Now what?"

This is why life this term has been the strangest thing ever. Every co-op term thus far has had a "das Happyend" story attached to it. Looking back, that's what all my co-op terms had in common: I consistently chose an adventurous path. Of course I needed help at times in seeing the obvious, as you guys helped me with choosing San Francisco, and yes I've once I chickened out of the real adventure. Yet I'd be pretty damn bored if I just aimed for or picked any half-decent job! Adventure! Yes! Fun! Yes! Excitement! Challenge! Exploration! Home!

Every time I come back to Waterloo, it almost feels like I've cheated death. There's that "ghostly" feeling, that confusion that would last for at least several days, and sometimes weeks. This term, this "ghostly" feeling was really prominent. I resigned to the thought that the best of co-op had already passed. Naturally, my expectations had increased over time, so I didn't know if there will be many things to look forward to in the near future. I didn't even try very hard in applying for co-op jobs and preparing for interviews.

So is this really the end? If so "das Happyend" would be the most awful thing you could have. You might as well replace the phrase "and they lived happily ever after" with the phrase "and from then on they lived a not-to-spectacular life, always doting on the time when there was a story worth telling".

I have to admit that until a few days ago, I did feel trapped. "Now what?" is a depressing question if you don't have a sufficient answer. I knew that Microsoft China would reject me. The other positions weren't bad, but they was no thrill associated with any of the positions. Normality. Mediocrity. Maybe the best I could do is to readjust and refocus while the wind is calm, to prepare for the next storm. Maybe I should have quit co-op.

Yet life has a better plan for me - perhaps one good enough to be considered an adventure. I wouldn't call it a happy ending, though. A happy ending is something you at least had to work for. I didn't. I applied to the job without any intent on taking it. I didn't go to their information session (because talking about math with a potential new friend was more interesting and productive). I'm not sure if I left a good impression when I checked google calendar on the recruiter's laptop, when he asked about my availability for second round interviews. Heck, I didn't even get second round interviews!

Well, I guess I was too pro for second round interviews -- because next term, I will be working as a Data Science intern at Facebook.

End of Entry

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The economy of cluelessness

The Office According to the Office is a must read, especially for anyone who watches The Office (if you don't, don't worry, I don't either). Although the post is written semi-tongue-in-cheek, much of it is quite relevant. A natural question to ask after reading the link is: do we really need those pathological organizations, those clueless people, and the friction they create?

We can't easily get rid of the middle 1/3 of our population. Some of us try. That's what start-up culture is about, isn't it? Being more creative by constantly being at the start of MacLeod's cycle? Globalization is also putting pressure on getting rid of the clueless: increased competition means firms have more incentive to produce more efficiently, with less people. Goodbye clueless! Wait, why were you even here in the first place?

I think a potential answer to that question comes from an interesting dilemma: right now, only a fraction of us is needed to feed the entire population. However, because of the way the monetary system is set up, each of us needs to produce something society deems useful in order to put food on the table. As supply overshoots demand, we fight for the demand. Making a contribution becomes harder and harder the more efficient we get, even though efficiency should theoretically make lives easier.

That's what the clueless might be here for: to add friction, to mooch off of others, so at least they can be fed. It's like how in the Great Depressions, the Canadian government hired young men to build roads to nowhere in exchange for being fed (and not cause trouble). Yay for busywork.

High supply and low demand – I doubt our monetary system is built for this. Parkinson's Law states that demand will increase to match supply. Keynesian economists say that we should artificially increasing demand so the economy can grow. Is that really the best? In an ideal world, shouldn't supply be made to match demand, not the other way around? Efficiency should not make people compete doggedly to become more efficient: it should give people more time to do what matters to them the most: discovering new things, learning about the world, being creative, or even spending time leisurely.

Think about it, wouldn't the world be a better place if instead of the distracting everyone with bureaucracy and slowing the world down, the clueless class did nothing? Nothing. Free time. Zero. Of course there are problems with this- lots of problems. Some people like the feeling of importance associated with doing something. Other non-clueless people might want to pretend to be clueless so they can have infinite free time as well (a bit like how the smart guys caused the economic crisis).This change would not be "stable".

Dawkin writes in The Selfish Gene: “An evolutionarily stable strategy or ESS is defined as a strategy which, if most members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy.” For example, the strategy “if resident then fight, if intruder then flee” is an ESS, while “adopt any baby you see” is not (think about what would happen if a majority of the population followed that strategy, but a mutant did not). There is thus no incentive to “cheat” (or deviate from the norm). An economical system should be like an ESS: it should assume that people people will do whatever they can to maximize goal achievement, and it should give no incentive for people to “cheat”. Communism fails badly at this. Capitalism does slightly better, but I think we're on a local maximum, not a global one.

All this is still very abstract. A full sketch of the economics of an ideal world will probably require more work, perhaps by someone who is better versed in economics than I am.

End of Entry

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Fear of Mediocrity

University used to be a time for reflection. It was time well spent away from all distractions to figure out how to live the 40-60 years ahead of you, what to accomplish within that short time. I wonder how much of this kind of musing still occurs today, in the daily lives of undergraduate university students. I won't expect there to be many.

Perhaps they already figured out what they want to do, where they “fit” in society. Maybe they feel that the economy does not allow for that kind of luxury – the luxury of doing something beyond mere stagnation. Well, idealism is a luxury, isn't it?

Norman Bethune is said to have feared mediocrity. He had a peculiar intolerance towards it. Bethune is a surgeon who helped the Chinese resistance against the Japanese invasion, and is one of the few westerners hailed as a hero by the Chinese. In some sense he is the perfect idealist – he gave up the comforts of Canada to work in the battlefields in China, because that's where people needed him the most. Yet his lonely life in China made his life anything but ideal. During his days in China he longed for an English newspaper, yet what he got was a case of blood poisoning that resulted in his death in a tiny Hebei village.

It's fitting to recall this saying about how you should aim for the moon, because even if you don't make it you'd land on one of the stars. What they fail to mention is that the journey to the stars is both lonely and lengthy, and the years spent in the darkness of space are irredeemable. In fact, you often don't know where you're going, and may never get there! The universe is big – so incredibly big – and the chances that we can make a true impact are so tiny that some of us think of it as negligible.

If idealism is not luxurious, what does mediocrity have to offer? The work-8-hour-days-till-you're-40-then-have-a-midlife-crisis plan? The rat race? The push to publish, publish, publish? I'd say that the concept of mediocrity is much like the concept of degeneracy in Mathematics: you see the endless possibilities, the countless dimensions that can be spanned by the hyperplane, only to find that all the parameters cancel out and you are left with a single point in the space. The mediocre life is also the unexamined life, and as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

I remember in philosophy class in grade 12, we had to answer the question, “Is Socrates a great man?” As I loved being the devil's advocate, I wrote a piece about how Socrates was not a great man. My argument was this: many other people at the time may have mused about life as well, and had similar ideas. Socrates could have been an average man who happened to be vocal and have a large follower. Thinking back, I'm ashamed of having argued that. A man who could think like Socrates is indeed rare. Besides, would anyone else but the idealist die for his ideas?

You may comment, quite rightly so, that the insane person may do the same. You may go further to say that the idealist is insane. What is more precious than a simple life enjoyed, pleasure maximized, and happiness sustained? If Bethune could live again, would he have stayed in Canada?

I hope that even if Bethune choose to stay in Canada, he would do so not because of a shift in ideology, but as a result of knowing that China is not as glamorous as he had thought. He may not choose China again, but I don't think he would stoop to mediocrity. He will shine in other ways.

Mediocrity is too safe. The riskiest thing one can do in today's society is to play safe. It guarantees the bare minimum out of all that life offers: the dull and unexamined life that have zero impact on your person and the world. It is a life that you can live over and over and over again without growth. No matter how little chance we have of making a difference in ourselves, our own world or the world at large, that chance is worth taking. Because really, what else can we live for?

I sit here befuddled. Where would I go in the next 40-60 years? I don't know. I know for sure, though, that I will continue to be marveled by the beauty and intricacy inherent in our world. Sometimes I feel as if life is saying to me in that whimsical voice, “Come on Lisa, you should be able to figure everything out now! All the clues are out there, just put them together...” I wonder if many others hear that same voice.

End of Entry

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nostalgia: 雷锋 revisited

Some of you might remember this grade 1 reading, it's written by 雷锋*.

Translation, albeit with a loss of elegance.
Some people always say work is too busy, there's no time to study; I don't think it's about being busy, but about whether you want to study or not, and whether you know how to squeeze (make) time. If you want to learn things, there is time, problem is whether we're willing to make time.

A piece of wood has no holes on it, but why can a nail still squeeze inside? This is done by using pressure to force it in. Thus, the nail has two strengths: it can squeeze, and it can drill/pierce. When we learn, we should also use this "nail" mentality: willing to squeeze and drill/pierce (drive?).
*Or at least, it was purported to be written by him in his diary, which is full of "flowery language" praising of chairman mao and communism. However there are critics who believes that this is a fabrication. Doesn't matter in this context, though, I hope.

End of Entry

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Gaia Hypothesis, Meaning of Life, and Pascal's Wager

Let's muse for a bit, and have a thought experiment. Let's imagine that our cells are conscious in some form. Suppose also that they can perceived their existence and that they are intelligent enough to find patterns in their immediate environment. Perhaps we can assume at this point that our cells have basic control over its functions, i.e. it performs tasks such as cell-cell communication, excretion, and mitosis knowingly.

So far so good. We can imagine our white blood cells living a courageous life battling enemy intruders, our skin cells staring lazily outwards as nutrients are delivered to them, and our muscle cells so often torn so we could make them stronger. There are also nerve cells happily(?) transmitting signals to the brain like children playing the telephone game, and the cells lining our stomach screaming (or equivalent) as its burnt to death by the acidity. Their lives are as diverse as our lives!

For the fun of it, let's make them even more similar to us. Let's make them wonder about their purpose in life. We know one of their purposes very well: to help us survive, so that we can live and achieve our purpose, whatever that is. But our world and our existence is so different from the world the cells live in. How could our cells possibly understand that? How could they even guess that there's a world much bigger than it knows?

Let's try one method. Let's imagine that these cells are capable of having thought experiments, and that they know of the existence of atoms and molecules. Let's suppose that on one fine moment, one of the cells is having this thought experiment: "What if atoms are actually conscious, and can perceive their immediate environment? What if atoms can find patterns in their environment and have a basic understanding of it? What if they can question the meaning of existence and their purpose?" You get the gist of it.

How would the cells react, faced with the possibility that they, too, might be an insignificant part of something larger? How would they feel about knowing that the world doesn't revolve around them?

It's what western science had been pointing at, isn't it? The world does not revolve around us humans. Astronomy destroyed the idea that the sun revolves around the earth. The theory of evolution is making us question whether our domination of the world by chance, and whether it will even last. Are we really the black swan? Or is our search for meaning a hopeless quest, a quest that is now taken by only the most naive?

Perhaps, but let's muse some more. The cell might noticed that it's quite different from atoms: notably, atoms outlive cells. This means that at different stages of the atom's existence, it must have had different purposes, and it was a part of many different things. The cell, on the other hand, eventually faces death. But wait... could it be possible that something that is a part of the cell can "outlive" the cell, and have another purpose? Could it be that the cell is more complicated than what we think it is? If so, does the cell have another purpose? Who creates that purpose?

That brings us back to square one, with little insight to the real question: what's the purpose of our lives? Are we just an insignificant part of something bigger? Must we be the creator of meaning?

Well, of course you didn't expect me to give you real answers. I'm a human, after all (female, young, idealistic - you know the drill). Though there's this much my feeble mind can grasp - and there is going to be a "Pascal's Wager" involved:

Suppose you live your life as if there is a purpose, and finds out (or not) that there is none. What would you feel? Probably dejected. Maybe really depressed. But in the end there's no real harm done, you got the best out of it given what you know, and nothing matters anyways. Just have to get over it. Now, what if you lived your life as if there is no purpose, and find out after death that there is one? Now there's real loss - potentially infinite loss, something that we can't begin to fathom. Would you risk it?

Of course, there are way better reasons to explore the notion of a "purpose" than a Pascal's Wager. I'm sure that there are more solid ways to reason about things than random thought experiments. For now, though, this is all I've got.

End of Entry

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

the innovator's dilemma, and how rich countries die

The innovator's dilemma describes how very successful companies are brought down by new firms with new technology that at first only satisfy the "low-end" of the market, i.e. consumers with minimal expectations. Since this section of the market is usually the least profitable, the successful company sees the new firm as innocuous. But as the new technology improves and is capable of satisfying more and more users, the old company is displaced. (There was a good TED video about this from rkumar, but I had lost the link. Best alternative I've found is this)

This reminds of a similar article I came across a few months ago, right here. It talks about something a little bit different, about how special interest groups takes a long time to form, but once formed they make the economy less efficient. Thus, older countries are in generally less efficient than newer ones recently recovered from a war.

Two strikingly different theories, about two different groups, causing the same result: the failure of what was once a rich and powerful group.

What I can't help but notice is how silly the notion of a "company" or a "state" really is. A company or a state is really but a group of people with a certain idea, mandate, or a set of laws. The most important aspect of a company/state, though, should not be the idea/mandate/laws, but its people. So does it really matter that a few company has died, but a few others are thriving, if the same people from the former companies are now helping the new companies succeed?

What if the company itself had noticed the trend, and decided way ahead of the game that its business will no longer be profitable, and that its people should choose to invest their time in something better? Same goes with a state - is there any way for a state to notice its own inefficiencies, and without the destruction of a war, decide to start anew? In the end, the basic unit that we are interested in is the people. So long as people are happy and healthy, does it really matter whether they belong to old company/country A or new company/country B?

The problem is that we are change-averse. The reason we want the old company to exist, and we want to keep living in country A is because it's something we're familiar with. Change implies uncertainty, and uncertainty means that things could potentially turn out worse than before. It's also very likely that at least one person or group would be hurt by the change (older employees, unions, etc). Is there any way to compensate? I don't know - and yes, this can be a problem.

Yet if change is imminent, then wouldn't it be smarter to embrace it instead of avoid it? Wouldn't it be better to have a company/country die peacefully in the hand of its founders when everyone is ready, than to have the crap kicked out of it when you're least prepared?

I guess the other more open-ended question is... is it possible for us to live and thrive as individuals, without the fictitious idea of a company or a state?

End of Entry

Thursday, August 27, 2009

last day at Tagged

Missing Tagged

My third "last day" experience, and by far this was the most enjoyable. This is because the entire term has been a blast! I've done far more than in previous work terms, and the work itself has been interesting. Analytics was fun, and random math and stats problems were fun too. I had the most awesome boss that I could ever ask for. I also had food! I love food! My evaluation of Tagged is pure awesomeness. If any of you is thinking of a co-op or full time position in software, at least consider Tagged.

As for Tagged's evaluation with me - I was really surprised at how positive it was, and I almost felt guilty. There are many things I haven't done so well. I screwed up a LOT, but my boss didn't seem to mind. Compared to the other interns, I was the clueless one who couldn't remember the command "ssh", who didn't know how to write a batch script, who couldn't spot a geometric series, and who took two days to write a feature that would've taken another intern a few hours to complete. Then it was pointed out, and this is true I suppose, that's it's about expectations. I am a second year math student, and there's a set of expectations attached to that that I'm measured against.

Missing the City

I feel like a child again, with the same nostalgia felt when I first began reflecting the lost times that would never come back. I sit here and think of everything that happened here, in the last four months. At first I was utterly confused, and wasn't sure how long it would take for me to become comfortable. Eventually it got better, Raj and I explored the city, I started getting used to working with the code base for analytics first, then web. Then there are the countless breakfasts at Pat's, walks to the wharf, climbs up Taylor/Lombard, and Ghirardelli's - yum. Is it childish to reminisce also at the trips to the laundry room? And this room... I look out from here: Raj is at his computer as usual, and beyond that there's the large window, the balcony, then Columbus, then the Indian/Irish place we'd always go to, and also Pat's, then the rest of North Beach, then Alcatraz, engulfed by fog ... everything seems so natural, so right, so ... homey. I don't want to leave!!

If you liked it so much, why aren't you coming back?!?!?

It's tempting, really tempting, but if you read my letter to the world, you'd realize that working at Tagged isn't really the goal I should pursue. What I got out from Tagged was really two folds: (1) I gained more focus, more used to thinking, and (2) I learned a new set of tools which I could use for any purpose I choose. Point 1 will still be applicable if I come back, but point 2 wouldn't be. I want either something that resonates more with my passions, or an experience that I can draw a completely different tool from, or... both!

In my blog post "Turning Twenty" written last December, I mentioned "going home" as a large open-ended goal for the next decade. Then life threw San Francisco at me - the furthest thing from home in any way you could think about: I'm far from Greg, I'm far from any place I've been to, it was my first programming job, I had no knowledge of anyone here except a friend of a friend (Adam), and a guy who lives up in the mountains (whom I don't really know). At the time, I thought this was life saying to me again, "No, not yet! You haven't seen it all!" But now that I think about it... maybe life was helping me find home. Maybe life was helping me find home all along. Thanks, life! We're definitely getting warmer! (But we can't settle for anything less)

End of Entry

Monday, August 24, 2009

why programmers rock

In a very broad sense, this entry is a pseudo review of the last few months in San Francisco. I'm very grateful that you guys encouraged me to seriously consider this opportunity. This term has indeed been a blast, and I've learned things that helped me become more of myself. One of the reasons why this term has been such an experience is because I've been around programmers. Programmers, I must say, are the more interesting people one could chance upon.

I'm referring to real programmers, of course. I know many programmers who sees programming as something they do to put bread on the table. I know many of them, especially immigrants whom I doubt really enjoy what they do. They are of a different breed. For example, my parents discouraged me from programming, saying that it's a draining job that requires a lot of brain power that I wouldn't have when I get older. That's right, it's just a job to them, just like any other job.

Real programmers don't just do it because it's a job. They're not always like artists or pure mathematicians either, who do their work for the love of its beauty. Elegance exists in programming, but that's a side effect, not a goal. Most real programmers are pragmatists that, beyond all else, just wants to get something done.

That brings me to my first point:

1) Programmers aren't just programmers.

Most programmers have ulterior motives beyond programming. They seemed to have chanced upon programming because there was a problem they wanted to solve: maybe it was to automate something, build something, or find an efficient way to compute something. Programming just happened to be the best mean to an end. It is a tool, and there are many ways that one can use that tool. Programmers, thus, have a wide range of both personal and career interests.

On the same note, if you ask some real programmers what their major was, you would hear all sorts of things: physics is very common, so is math, you might have a few sciences and maybe even arts. This is possible again because programming is a tool that people can learn to solve various problems, problems that people in every day life can chance upon.

2) Programmers are not lazy.

Some of the laziest people I know are programmers. It make sense: why else will they want to program a computer but to do all the work for them? Programmers tend not to want to waste the slightest effort in anything they do. Low input. High output. They strives to be super efficient like that. Yet none the good programmers suffer from the laziness of thought. They can't afford to; almost all of programming is pure thought-work. Unlike the rest of us, programmers have learned that the least-effort solutions requires the use of their heads. So they do.

This discipline that they gain from the "least effort" mentality is really valuable; thinking more is not only the lest cost solution, it is also the most effective solution. I don't need to blabber on about the power of our minds, and how the only way to improve it is to use it consistently. I also already said enough about this being the reason why I wanted a programming job.

3) Programmers have a different world view.

Of course I'm thinking about Steve Yegge's series about the Programmer's View of the Universe. The second in the series was, in my opinion, the most insightful (though the first is very good too). He considers the question "what's outside of the universe" by imagining a Mario car racer asking "what's beyond the wall, beyond which is outside of the game?". He effectively compare the universe to an embedded system, and compares the "outside of the universe" to a place in memory not assigned to this system. The question then becomes, "what's in the position in memory that would have been assigned to the area outside the boundary of the game?" The answer is: it could be anything! This is the notion of the term "undefined".

I understand that his actual answer to the proposed question is not insightful in any way. It's the metaphor he uses to frame the problem that is insightful. Programmers like Yegge avail themselves to metaphors from Computer Science, which they can use to discuss the nature of the universe. For programmers, a metaphysical questions such as "If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around, does it make noise?" can be more concisely state as "Is the universe evaluated lazily?" These metaphors exist because programmers spend so much of their time designing and building systems, so they can't help but compare it to the designing and building of our universe. Perhaps this allows them to see through the eye of what might have been the creator.

We must be cautious, as these metaphors in themselves may not be accurate. For example, one can argue that one thing that differentiates a system that's evaluated lazily and one that isn't, is that lazy evaluation allows for the definition of an infinite series. Our world allows for the definition of infinite series, and therefore ... the tree should not make noise! Can you tell what's wrong with this argument?

Regardless of how accurate such metaphors are in depicting how the universe works, it is an interesting lens through which one can attempt to view the universe. Even though I may not pursue a career as a programmer, I do value the fact that I'm surrounded by programmers, and that I've dabbed my feet in it for a bit.

End of Entry

Thursday, August 6, 2009

reading monroe: book three

Just finished book 3, "Ultimate Journey". It's interesting how everything fits together so nicely - almost like a fiction. Except he seem way too candid. I really wish I'd be able to know for real.

But I feel happy for him: for seeking the answer and finding it.

End of Entry

Friday, July 10, 2009

existence and lucid dreaming

As a child, I didn't know that lucid dreaming was out of the ordinary. I could always control my dreams, in a way, except not all that well. In fact I think that knowing that I'm dreaming has become so ingrained in me that I stopped even questioning whether I'm dreaming - i.e. I don't know if I know if I'm dreaming or not...

For the past couple of weeks I've tried being more conscious in real life. I needed to start doing this for many reasons. I did the thing where you ask yourself throughout the day whether you're dreaming. The trick is to not dismiss the question, and to really think. You would then get into the habit of thinking about your state of mind, and you'd be able to realize that you're dreaming. At first it was easy: I'd be able to tell right away that I'm not dreaming, and I'd have fresh reasons every time. Then my dreams became more vivid, and the things I thought I couldn't do in my dreams, I was able to do. For example, I read and wrote in my dreams, when I thought I wouldn't be able to. I've yet to see writing on buildings, so that's a pretty good check for now.

Pressing the "pause" button every so often made me realized that I had absolutely no sense of time while at work. Do I have a sense of time at all? Maybe there's a reason why I'm so bad at estimating time... or estimating anything at all...

Then it became harder and harder to pull myself into full consciousness, to really question without any distraction whether I was dreaming. Eventually the answer came out to be: "I don't know. I don't know if I'm dreaming or not. How do I tell? It's impossible to tell!"

And in the end, it doesn't matter. So long as I treat all existence the same way - whether it's existence in "life" or in my dreams - and try to fix a minimum standard for existence in both realms... I'll be fine.

My question would no longer be: "Am I dreaming?" but "Am I existing in the way I want?"

End of Entry

Friday, June 12, 2009

Simplicity of People

Many people whom I find interesting tell me that they are a very simple person. Sometimes they say this in comparison to me. I find this interesting, because sometimes I don't find their thoughts/actions/personality simple at all.

This is not difficult to explain. Simplicity of a person comes from the amount of "focus" they have. A "focused" person would have one ultimate goal, theme, mission, motivation or statement that would explain almost all their actions. Their individual actions and decisions can seem strange to an onlooker - even insane, but if one understands the "focus" of the person, the actions would be self explanatory. This is why Howard Roark strikes us to be such a simple person: we understand his focus, and all his actions - however strange - stems from that focus.

Thus it is easy to find ourselves to be simpler than others, because we understand the motivations behind our thoughts and actions better than we understand anyone else's.

Yet most of us are not like a fictional character: we are imperfect. Even if we understand what our "focus" is, not 100% of our actions are consistent with it. Why? Fear and laziness. (And perhaps other reasons too.) Fear, laziness, and other setbacks adds complications: they make us hypocrites, acting against our true self. It is therefore difficult for an average person to be simple.

Simplicity requires us to align all our actions with our thoughts. To be simple is thus a true accomplishment. Kudos to all of you who achieves it.

End of Entry

Monday, June 8, 2009

Circles vs Lines

Milan Kundera makes a bold statement in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and that is this:

If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza, "Look, I'm sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can't you come up with something different?" And herein lies the whole man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle: it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.

This is why in the biblical Paradise, man was not really the man as we know it: time in Paradise turns in a circle. Man was happy the same way Karenin the dog was happy.

Kundera plays with the notion of time being circular vs. going in a straight line, the idea of eternal return, and its philosophical implications: in particular, lightness vs. weight. At first, the circularity of time is described as something heavy. Eventually, however, Kundera's characters finds the lightness of their lives too unbearable, and finds happiness only in old age, in a country side, where life resembles a circle more than a line. (I actually find that the circle is lighter than the line... but that's another story.)

It's interesting because Rand also used the circle vs. line analogy in Atlas Shrugged, in a slightly different manner. Taggart Transcontinental is a railroad, and Rand did not fail to point out that the rails are thin straight lines leading into infinity. There was also one memorable passage (that's too difficult to find without the book) when Dagny had ran away from the company and hid in an old cottage. She felt the need to work on something that lead somewhere, something that went in a straight line. Cleaning and washing and buying vegetables were "circular" kind of work that lead nowhere and need to be redone. She needed to build something - say, a new stone path - something that would require her to think, to design a pulley system to move stones too heavy for her to lift.

Both authors agree that the straight line is what differentiates men from animals. Rand embraces this as something that gives them happiness. She believes that happiness comes from achieving one's best - in Roark's words: "my work done my way." Kundera seem to state otherwise: that the routines, the circle, works to soothe us, relax us, simplifies our lives, and makes us more happy. The desire to rise, to get somewhere, to have a mission - it distracts us from our quest to happiness.

Why the difference?

The answer, I believe, can be found in an unlikely place - an interview with Robert Monroe. Monroe talks about what he learned through his out of body experiences and his encounters with non-physical entities. Regardless of whether this encounter was merely a hallucination, the story is intriguing: he was talking with one of his nonphysical friends about goals. He tells his nonphysical friend that one of his goals was to home. The nonphysical friend commented that yes, this was a noble goal, and asked whether he wanted to go home right then, for a short visit. Monroe of course said yes.

He ended up in a place with beautiful colourful clouds and something analogous to music in the background. Immediate he found peace. But as he stayed and relaxed, he found something unnerving about the place. He observed, and confirmed that - yes - there was something fishy going on. He would see a piece of cloud moving by, swirling as it moved. Then after a while another cloud would come by and swirl the same way as the first. The tune of the "music" was also repetitive, as were the games played by the entities that lived here. This was home: the circle, the paradise.

Monroe understood why he left home: he was bored. He wanted something else, and that's why he was alive on earth. Earth was not boring to him.

I believe that the "circle" type happiness is one that is more mundane, simple and even animalistic. I hesitate in using the word "animalistic" because of the derogatory nature of the term. What I really mean is that this type of happiness takes us only to the first four levels of Maslow's triangle: our physical need would be met, as will our sense of safety, sense of belonging, and if we're good - esteem. These are things that we know that animals can achieve.

The "line" happiness is what would really lead to self actualization. The line for Rand meant progress. The line for Kundera meant a mission - a thing that Tomas considered stupid at the end of the novel. In Tomas' defense, it was probably stupid for him: if what he wanted was not self actualization, but simple, good old happiness. The circle offered that. But for those who do seek self actualization - like Dagny Taggart and perhaps Robert Monroe - the life of the circle is one of boredom. They cannot be happy that way. Once again, there's a tremendous difference between Dagny and Tomas - I dare say that it's the same difference between Plato and the average human being.

It is impossible to conclude this discussion without asking myself: where am I in this picture? Line or circle? I've known this answer for the longest time: I am striving to go forward - in a straight line - but not all willingly. Circle does give me happiness, and I know that should I sink into the life of the circles, I would not be bored. I have the ability to be happy with a simple life, but I pray it wouldn't happen. I feel like it would be a waste of a lifetime - a betrayal, even. Maybe I will stop wanting the circles. Maybe I will look back in my old age (if I live that long) and find mission to be stupid.

I hope the latter will never happen.

End of Entry

Thursday, June 4, 2009

old quote

When you come to think of it, almost all human behavior and activity is not especially different from animal behavior. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super Chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between say Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that Chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher is rarely achieved. Why so few? Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress but rather this endless and futile addition of zeros. No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks 3000 years ago were just as advanced as we are. What are these barriers that prevent people to reach their fullest potential? The answer to that question can be found in another question, and that's this: Which is the most universal human characteristic, fear or laziness?

(from "Waking Life" 2001)

End of Entry

Sunday, May 31, 2009

For my roommate (cont'd)


Upon reviewing the methodology of the analysis, we found two major problems:
1) Data did not contain all the dates with 0 entries
2) Plotting trendline over individual dates is not right, since there could be trends within each 2 periods (i.e. positive/negative trend within the month of april, and positive/negative trends within the month of may) which skew the result

New methodology: Calculate the average twitter post per month for the past couple of months. This way, trends within each month will not affect the result. The aggregation period is chosen to be one month for convenience - esp since i've been here for one month. If aggregation is done for period less than one month, we will need to keep in mind the potential negative/positive trend within each month.

Jan - 4.258065
Feb -4.214286
March - 5.354839
April - 3.733333
May - 3.310345

Conclusion (Pending Raj reproducing the same result): May average is lower than Jan-April averages. My intuition through normal observation was right: there is a negative correlation between my being here and Raj's daily twitter posts.

End of Entry

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009

Why I don't use Twitter

[NOTE: I changed my mind. Please refer to a newer post.]

I thought that the video titled "Twitter in Plain English" was explanation enough, but some argued that the video had done no justice at all to the real value of Twitter. I don't disagree - the mayor of Toronto uses Twitter as a channel of communication. Certain police departments are using Twitter to provide up to the minute details as to what's going on. Twitter can be used well, sure, but that doesn't mean that I will use Twitter well. (Though it begs the question of why they couldn't post something on their own website that's easily updatable and 140 chars long...)

So for one thing, having Twitter is like talking to everyone and talking to no one at the same time. Exactly what blogging is like. It's like you're just casting information out to nowhere - information about your daily lives. It's exactly like bad blogging (i.e. what I used to do, and still do to an extent): there's no audience to consider, it's just you... except there is the pretense that the fact that you're on top of emails or gmail is sending your email twice is important to someone else. Sure, other people can and do read it, but ... what's the point? I'm mowing the lawn. So what? Twitter, then, has the potential to creating pretenous people who thinks that mowing the lawn might be big news for someone else.

And guess what? I'm really suseptible to that. Blogging sortaf swayed me to that direction. At first, it was used like a journal/diary type thing - just put all the thoughts down so I don't have to think about them anymore. Not a bad idea. Until it really grows and consumes you: if you're like me, you will probably consciously think about blogging or twittering or what not, and be really conscious of the fact that it needs to be up to date. Blogging isn't so bad, because blog entries can be made thoughtful. But Twitter? I don't want to think "I should Twitter this!" every time I have a late night chess game. It's true that not everyone will have the same problems, but based on past experience, I know that I will.

So there you have it: Twitter may be used well by certain people, but I see it as another wormhole that can suck me in if I started using it, and I would be moving backwards.

End of Entry

Monday, April 6, 2009

the paradox of selfishness

This is something that I thought about for a while... and finding the answer to this delimma seemed to have become more urgent when I saw this talk on TED.

It's a delimma between individualism and ... well, one-ness with the world. Between "materialism" and spiritualism.

Around grade 8 or so, I was perplexed by the paradox of selflessness. If you cared for someone else, well, isn't it because that person is valuable to you, and hence you're really acting out of self interest? Your desire for someone else's happiness is still a desire that you own, and any action to fulfill that is really an action to fulfill your own desires - a selfish act. At the time, I was brainwashed by the thought that selfless=good, selfish=bad. I concluded, therefore, that the world was not capable of true selflessness. The world must therefore be bad. This is the main reason why I felt so liberated after reading Rand, who basically said - yes, we act out of selfishness, even when we care for others, and that is good. If one acted to benefit someone that we don't care about... then we've betrayed ourselves. Values are important, and the self is what creates and attains values.

Yet on the other hand - the abundance of compassion, mutual respect, and love for those you may or may not know personally is what makes the world a better place. We are interconnected in a great many ways - both physically and mentally, in more ways that we'll ever understand in our life time. I'm trying to find that article about monkeys dipping potatoes in sea water - the one where after one monkey found that it made the potato taste better... the entire island of monkeys started dipping potatoes in sea water. What's more astonishing was that the monkeys in a different island started doing the same thing - and the two islands are totally separated, and the monkeys had no normal means of communicating with one another. Another experiment showed that people do better on yesterday's crossword compared to today's, as if people could access a collective consciousness... well, does this mean that a collective consciousness does exist, that we really are one? Is that what Budhhism teaches? Even without the collective consciousness, community spirit makes the world better. We're affected by what people do and say, how they act. Many will say that compassion, respect, and understanding is a small commitment worth making.

So that's the paradox: in the "micro" world, selfishness is what would make a happy person: the application of ones effort in the achievement of ones values. Yet in the "macro" world, things would be better if everyone cared for one another. How do you connect the two?

Well, things would be good if all individuals judged the world as something worth caring about. Then creating a better world would be a personal value for everyone. I guess the question each person has to ask is: how much do I value the world? In what way?

With that being said, I don't think that it's a question of "Which side do you choose?" - and I don't think that Dr. Taylor is right in that the answer lies solely in the right brain, the spiritualism and one-ness. Both are beautiful in its own ways, and they do compliment each other - ying and yang, productive and thoughtful, present and past/future...

How much do I value the world? To say infinitely much is an outright lie, and to say not at all is naive. Where is that balancing point - my balancing point?

End of Entry

Friday, April 3, 2009

New template

Why? So that I have a better idea of how long my blog posts really are... just so that I get feedback when I'm going on for too long without meaning to.

Anyways, I like this.

End of Entry

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Finance (cont'd)

Let me recap Steven's main arguments first, so if I missed anything, it would be obvious.

1) In my prev. entry, I have mistakenly identified "life and survival" as the sole goal of any society. Discovering new knowledge, for one, is an important value.
2) It doesn't really matter if people don't make the connection between making money and production, so long as the money connects in proportion to value, money will do the invisible thinking. And since "empirical evidence seems to show that despite how stupid people are most of the time, collective action is better than elitist judgment," money DOES connect in proportion to value.
3) Speculators contributes to society by predicting the future, which is a new knowledge that is valuable to society.
4) misc comments ... which I'm bitchy enough to address =P

#1. I apologize if I haven't wrote clearly, but "life and survival" being the sole goals of life is not what I intended to express at all. It would be quite depressing otherwise. I meant to use life & survival as a starting point, to show that society is about pooling effort together so that people can specialize, which leaves people time to "work to enrich their lives and the lives of their peers." Maslow's triangle, basically. This is why arts and sciences and philosophy is important - it leads to better and more meaningful lives. I agree that discovering new knowledge is vitally important - amongst many things it gives us more information so we can make better decisions about how to live our lives. The important point - and I think we both agreed on this - is that each person produces something valuable for the benefit of others, and in turn he is helped by others in achieving his values.

#2. I guess this was a disagreement of what I said about the nonexistent link between money and production. Best thing I can do then is provide other examples and ... disagree with you. Lol.

Lets start with examples of money not doing a good job connecting (in proportion) to value very well: qualified teachers are vitally needed in many jurisdictions, and they provide an important value for society. Why are they being paid so little? There're also pay biases between different genders and ethnic groups at in a given skill level. And heck, US government bailout of AIG! They got paid big bucks by taxpayers for doing something VERY valuable: failing in their business! Another very good example is Iceland. I have nothing else to say except to direct to you at this lengthy article at (Note: it's worth reading - and hilarious too when you get to the part about the elves) If money is capable of doing the "thinking" that connects to values, without each person being aware of it, I'd like to know where that connection is in the Icelandic society.

Collective action better than elitist judgement? I'm going to have to ask what the emperical evidence is, because there's a whole slew of counterevidence: people voting to reelect Bush (yes, he cheated, but that doesn't mean people didn't vote for him!), psychology of groupthink, people choosing who to vote for based on whose hair looks better... So no - in our world, a lot of people thinking A is true doesn't make A true. However, the judgement of a group of highly educated rational people would be more reliable than a single person. The problem is that our population base tends to be more capable of stupidity than rationality.

I hope this shows that money can't do the thinking - it can only pull together the aggregate of all "thoughts" that directs it. Stupid people making stupid decisions will make money flow in stupid ways. The problem escalates when the stupidity involves money for the sake of money - namely the financial industry. Without people being conscious of the link between money and values... well... you get our world, one where money distracts attention from production.

#3. A very good point. One question, though? What is the worth of the predictions? Well, everyone would benefit right? Everyone is affected by things such as the exchange rate, interest rate, unemployment... etc... and prior knowledge of what's going to happen next is going to be useful, no??

I don't think so. First, there's a thing with self fulfilling prophecies. For example, people expect a stock to go down, so they short sell. In doing that, they increase supply, hence prices goes down... and voila, stock goes down! This is why there was a ban on short selling of certain stocks with Lehmans went under. Right now we hear stuff about how economy is going to go to hell - what do most sensible people do? They spend less. Demand reduced, production plummets, people lose jobs, and we end up in a worse situation. So now, are the financial analysts predicting the future, or creating the future?

Another question to consider: compare this year to last year (or two years ago), in terms of GDP, unemployment, whatever else is important here. I haven't looked at the numbers, but I'm guessing big difference due to the financial collapse. Now consider something else: has the amount of food, water, and other resources that can be used to fulfill people's values decreased in the last 3 years? By resources I don't mean money. I mean things like raw material, factories, machineries, labour, knowledge ... etc? I would guess not - nothing has changed in the last 3 years that would decrease any of the aforementioned resource (except maybe machineries broke down and weren't replaced). There hasn't been droughts. Food production is okay. Labour is still there. Talent is still there. Technology is still here. Then is there any reason that production should decrease and unemployment increase, but for the financial system itself?

I stole the above off of a criticism of the nature of money, but I think it applies here. The financial system widens the gap between reality, and the finance la la land. When there is a trend, the market offers short-term incentives to rides on it - causing a bigger trend to develope. Correcting it too early would be risky - because you don't know whether the numbers are still going to go UP. The safe way is to start correcting it AFTER it starts going down. (well, I guess I'm just talking about the little I know about day trading now >_>). Hence, positive predictions can create bubbles that cause a painful burst when we return to reality, and likewise, negative predictions drives us into an unease that worsens the situation needlessly.

Let me summarize my argument, just because because I got lost here. Steven's claim was that the predictions offered by the financial sector is valuable. However, those predictions are often self-fulfilling, at least for a while, until there's a painful correction. These predictions, thus, cause people to behave irrationally, eventually causing a havoc. Since each person's behaviour is taken account of in the predictions, it becomes self-fulfilling and we go back to step one... well... it's just a strange loop, turled in itself, isn't it? Is this really a plus for society?

So you see... the "new truths" that the financial industry discover isn't really like those discovered by the R&D department of, say, Microsoft. It's not really like Shakespeare either. The "new knowledge" that the financial industry uncovers are something along the lines of self-fulfilling prophecies about the success of its own system, curled into itself in an unfathomable loop, yet it affects the world in strange, illogical, and doubtfully positive manner.

#4. Just because I like to be a bitch...

When I mentioned phys/bio/etc, what I meant to imply was that there're a broad range of fields besides finance that offer similar types of challenges, that would often appeal to the same group of people. For example, a lot of physicists in the (post?) Einstein era would not be able to find jobs, and end up working as quantitative analysts. It was a nice fit because physics involved lots of modelling, as does finance. I guess the high risk/return is kindaf unique to the field (the other field I can think of with that characteristic is consulting).

Ahh, feelings. I know what you mean, which is why I didn't list feelings as one my arguments. It was just something that applies to me. A lot of times, one's own intuition can be something of interest... Of course, your career choices are your decisions - I would slap you if you took my feelings into account.

I hope I didn't mess up too badly.

End of Entry