Bests-and-Messes: Bests of 2009

December 30, 2009 at 3:46 pm (Personal) (, , , , , , , , , )

And continuing the first post, here are some best of the year. I’ll keep the blunders to the last post!

Concept of the Year: Heavy-Tailed Distributions
Medieval people prior to 1660 have no concepts of probability (in fact, the word probability meant something else to them: authoritative, as with probity**), and would be astonished to find the individually random fall of the dice converging over large numbers. I felt the same way when I first encounter heavy-tailed, non-Gaussian distributions. More on this later in my Thesis Story, but for a taster: the squiggle in the middle of the picture, apparently random noise, is described by a straight line on a logarithmic histogram.***

To my astonishment, chaotic behaviour becomes coherent with large numbers, alluding to generative mechanisms I have never imagined. This opened a whole new way of interpreting the world for me, scientific and otherwise.

Favorite Exercise of the Year: Pistol Squats
Also known as one-legged squats. Anywhere, anytime, works on both strength and balance. Regular work on this makes yoga balancing poses easy! My record this year is 113 / 85 in one workout :) Incidentally, my goal for 2010 is to be able to do 10 bananeira push-ups. Have to work on that, since I can’t even do a single one at the moment…

Balloon of the Year
I’ve made a few nice sculptures this year: stork (Liana-Willow), princesses (Amalis), sailboat (Annie), killer bunny, Darkwing Duck, bat (Halloween), bicycle, gorilla (prize for a student)… but my favorite is this 5-balloon Alien (for another student at Halloween), modelled after Alien-the-Movie. I would hope to have a tutorial for this up soon.

Award of the Year
It’s a tie! I’ve had a few awards this year, and as my time at UVic comes to an end, both the Blue and Gold award (for community service) and Farquharson award (for teaching) were particularly meaningful. A strange place for a baseball quote (esp. from me), but here’s one from Ryne Sandberg:

“I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect… If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game did what they were supposed to do and I did what I was supposed to do.”

It was a great occasion to write to all the people that had a significant influence on me.

Best Acquisitions of the Year
Macbook Pro, 15″. I can’t rave enough my little Apple. I had one application crash in 6 months. One! (And it’s Illustrator working on a big, complex file.) Exceeds all expectations – and I haven’t even used the dedicated graphics card. Just an amazing, elegant machine.

Mountain Ocarina. What a wonderful pair of pure joy. Pack small, plays large; easy steps, but huge horizons. MOs are palm-sized flutes that weighs nothing, practically indestructable, makes big, beautiful sounds (without expending much effort to acquire and upkeep an embouchure), and has intuitive and responsive fingering. It has an octave and a third, which I (as a flutist) initially find limiting. Rumors is that Karl has prototypes that have an expanded range.

Aeropress. A little espresso maker, with gawd-awful packaging. Like the mountain ocarina, this doesn’t look pretentious, but is elegantly functional. The aeropress uses microfilter to make nice tasting espressos in 30 seconds, and cleans up in 5 seconds. I love things that are artfully chiseled down to its simplest.

** See Ian Hacking 1974, The Emergence of Probability.

*** See Clauset, A., Shalizi, C.R. & Newman, M.E.J. Power-law distributions in empirical data (2007). doi:10.1137/070710111 Python algorithm implemented by Keflavich.


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Bests-and-Messes: Best Reading in 2009

December 29, 2009 at 12:09 pm (Personal) (, , )

Best Books

I read ~100 books a year for pleasure. These are the best books I’ve read this year (not necessarily published in 2009).

  • Hugo Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally.
    My favorite book of the year, Heclo articulated many things central to my world-view that I did not have a name for. The following quote illustrates the message of this little book.

    “Today’s popular culture devotes vast amounts of attention and money to the star power of ephemeral personal success. The message is: become a celebrity or else be sidelined as just another drudging worker bee. In the same way, we are besieged by a consumer culture promoting a short-term self-preoccupation. This self is portrayed as being in a continuously needy condition, capable of affirming itself only by acquiring an ever-mounting array of material and symbolic goods.” […]

    “The wisdom of daily experience tells us something different. The deeper satisfactions we crave come from strong bonds of mutual attachment to other people and larger causes outside ourselves. Then the mirrors become windows and doors into a wider world of loyalties. In that world a sense of well-being and happiness finds us rather than our frantically chasing it down. It is a place where a person has a chance to find the simple satisfaction that comes from doing a job the way it is supposed to be done. It is a place where enduring relationships can liberate us from self-preoccupation, where we gain by giving of ourselves. It is here, not in the glare of celebrity, that life gains an authentic sparkle. And while the popular culture might not notice or reward these larger loyalties, they are the kind of things you and I are likely to cherish when, from some terminus, we look back on the course our lives have taken.”

  • Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
    A brilliant piece of work, this is a comic book about comic books as a genre of art and expression. It is a well-researched, scholarly book that could have been loaded with mul-ti-syl-la-ble words, but is instead fun, readable, and imaginative^n. It is thoughtful and gentle, opening my eyes to what comics could do. This is the book that directly inspired me to draw again, so I could one day use the sequential arts to communicate.

  • John Bannon, Dear Mr. Fantasy
    John Bannon is a lawyer, well known in the little circle of card magis for his sophisticated constructs. DMF had been out of print for many years, and I finally laid my hands on a copy… wicked, beautiful thinking. It is a poetry of perception and deceptions, and well deserves its reputation. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Bullets after Dark, the updated DVD treatment of the material in DMF.

There is much in common between the books, despite their genre. All three are thoughtful, clean, and written in clear language.^*

Favourite Essays
Essays are one of my favorite genre. Paul Graham is the favorite essayist I’ve came across this year. His writing is clean and intelligent, a modern day Francis Bacon. (That’s high praise from me – Francis Bacon, for all his personal shortcomings, is my favorite essayist.) See How to Do What You Love for one that particularly resonated with me. That said, Mr. Graham lives in a distinctly “Can Do” world, which may not work for those who have given hostage to fortune.

^* – for calibration, as examples of a book that I consider rambling on and on, see Against Happiness. As books that seem simplistic (to me), see A Whole New Mind. Pick any three theology/philosophy off the shelf and you are likely to have at least one specimen of more-garble-than-needed language.

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The “Motion 6” Bind

December 3, 2009 at 11:48 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

I’ve been following the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students, where (more-or-less) 2/3 of the delegates voted in favor of Motion 6, a motion that make members defederation much more difficult.

The first clause of Motion 6 is “Raising the petition requirement from 10% to 20% of students in the member local”; this alone makes No the only responsible vote. Most Canadian university campus are not politically active – 20% sets a higher bar for initiating referendum than most total voter turnout (see diagram).

Now that it passed, all CFS members are effectively chained for life. I hope UVSS manage to get out from this organization while it still can this year.

See EyeOnTheUVSS for links to the most recent articles and backgrounders. You are welcome to make use of the diagram, or contribute data to it.

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Peapod test

November 16, 2009 at 11:38 pm (Peapods)

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