17 July 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 is a decent and fairly entertaining summer movie. I enjoyed it more than the first one, actually.

However, the first question on my mind after watching the movie was, how much did Oracle pay for its product placement? A good chunk of the movie plays like an Oracle ad.

Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others is a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang. Each one has a single simple "twist" as its premise and the author explores the consequences implied by that idea. Overall a very enjoyable read.

There is a huge variety among the stories. Some have religious rather than scientific/futuristic overtones (I found those a bit boring).

I particularly enjoyed two of the stories, "Story of Your Life" and "Liking What You See: A Documentary".

In "Story of Your Life," a scientist learns an alien language that changes the way she views the world. This story is a rare combination of a cute technical premise, a moving human story, and wonderful writing that really shows form in the service of message.

"Liking What You See: A Documentary" examines how society responds to the widespread availability of a simple (and reversible) medical procedure that renders people unable to perceive human beauty. The fact that the characters are so instantly recognizable (despite the differences between the world of the story and our present world) shows how people's dreams, fears, and insecurities just don't change. The story is also quite chilling, perhaps because I got the distinct sense that it does not quite sound as outlandish now as when it was written (just 8 or so years ago).

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

I think of Nudge (by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein) as the "applied" version of Predictably Irrational. While Predictably Irrational was primarily about what makes people tick and about various classes of cognitive failures, Nudge goes more in depth into how we can design policies and institutions that counteract some of those those biases (something PI touches on, but only briefly). In that way the two books are quite complementary.

The core of the book focuses on case studies of policies and experiments in a few areas, for example, retirement planning, credit, and healthcare plans. Some of the important takeaways for me:

  • In order for people to make good decisions, they need relevant data about the alternatives, e.g. "What is the present discounted cost of this mortgage?"
  • People quickly learn how to make good decisions when they get accurate and timely feedback on recent decisions. (Unfortunately, none of life's big choices fit that criterion.)
  • Institutional planners can make a huge impact by choosing good defaults.

The authors advocate a theory of libertarian paternalism, which I agree with to an extent. They make the case that good institutional design can ameliorate many situations where our innate biases are especially likely to be self-destructive. But the ideas proposed in the last few chapters of Nudge (example topics: privatizing marriage, allowing patients to sign away the right to sue for malpractice) do not seem to have this property at all. Instead they seem to have sprouted from a general desire for libertarian policies. Which is not to say they are bad ideas (I think many of them are good, in fact), but I don't think they add much to the core thesis of Nudge.

In general the book is well-written and easy to digest. Recommended.

11 July 2010

Supercomputer plays Jeopardy! as well as top humans

As reported in the New York Times, IBM's research division has been hard at work creating Watson, a machine that answers questions. Their tech demo is getting Watson to play Jeopardy! against previous Jeopardy! contestants:

Over the rest of the day, Watson went on a tear, winning four of six games. It displayed remarkable facility with cultural trivia ("This action flick starring Roy Scheider in a high-tech police helicopter was also briefly a TV series" — "What is 'Blue Thunder'?"), science ("The greyhound originated more than 5,000 years ago in this African country, where it was used to hunt gazelles" — "What is Egypt?") and sophisticated wordplay ("Classic candy bar that's a female Supreme Court justice" — "What is Baby Ruth Ginsburg?").

By the end of the day, the seven human contestants were impressed, and even slightly unnerved, by Watson. Several made references to Skynet, the computer system in the "Terminator" movies that achieves consciousness and decides humanity should be destroyed.

The Watson team has taken an approach that is complementary to what Wolfram Alpha has done, relying on NLP to parse source documents rather than using explicitly curated data. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Watson is being productionized and IBM is considering targeting this technology at niche applications as well, e.g. medical decision making. There are already moments when I feel as if the phone in my pocket (and access to Google, Wikipedia, etc.) is augmenting my intelligence and helping me to make better decisions. I can scarcely imagine how life will change when everyone has access to a Watson all the time.

Bad Hemingway Imitation

I must have seen this in a fortune dozens or hundreds of times, but it still makes me laugh every time, so I wanted to share it with you.

Peter Applebome wrote the following winning entry in the 1989(?) International Imitation Hemingway Competition. The last time I read any Hemingway was nearly a decade ago, and it's still a bit disquieting for me to read this.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a condo in North Dallas that looked across the tollway to the discos and honky-tonks of the Rue St. Bubba. We were young and our happiness dazzled us with its strength. But there was a terrible betrayal that lay within me like a Merle Haggard song at a French restaurant.

"The Great Landry says the Cowboys will be back," said the girl.

"Then it must be so," I said, though I knew it was a lie.

"When football season comes, then it will be cold. Like Switzerland. But not now. The cold will come later.

"Pass the Doritos," I said, and her eyes shone like the stars over Amarillo.

I could not tell the girl about the woman of the tollway, of her milk white BMW and her Jordache smile. There had been a fight. I had punched her boyfriend, who fought the mechanical bulls. Everyone told him, "You ride the bull, senor. You do not fight it." But he was lean and tough like a bad rib-eye and he fought the bull. And then he fought me. And when we finished there were no winners, just men doing what men must do. And the pain was washed away, but the image of the woman stayed with me like a blessing and like a curse. [...]

Read the whole thing for the excellent punchline.

08 July 2010

Back from vacation

Switchbacks leading to Grimsel and Furka passes — right and left, resp. (map)

I just returned from a 3-week cycle tour of the German-speaking Alps, which was a total blast. Selected photos are available on my trip blog. More pictures and a full trip report are coming soon, but it will take me some time to sift through the full suite of 2400+ photos from the trip.

For the time being, I'm grateful for cotton clothes, not having to do my laundry every day, getting to sleep in my own bed, and not getting hungry every two hours.