All entries for November 2009

November 28, 2009

Minor Frustrations #2

Follow-up to Minor Frustrations #1 from The Missing N

Brace for impact: Tomorrow starts a 6-day nightmare. Between Sunday morning and Friday afternoon, I have the following: three Maths assignments (so far I have only managed to finish one), two tests, one programming assignment, a concert, and a Student-Staff-Liaison-Committee meeting. Not to mention my usual unforgiving timetable. As it has been a while since my last post, and as I won't be able to post much next week, I thought I'd post a short blog entry now. And given the short amount of time I want to spend on this, the stressful circumstances and my current frustration at my Algebra assignment, I thought a little rant would be appropriate. A completely unrelated, but nonetheless heartfelt, rant.

I mentally frown at people who... comment on movies while watching them. Some people seem to be unable to help themselves, and I do my best not to get angry at them, but it is something that can really spoil a movie for me. Maybe they see it differently, but to me the whole idea behind watching a film is that you pay fully attention to what is being said and what is going on on the screen. The strength of a visual medium like a movie, is its power of immersion. You see events taking place before your very eyes and you hear the accompanying dialogue, noise and soundtrack; in short, you feel sucked into the screen, and the external world suddenly stops existing. You forget that it is, after all, just a movie.

Therefore, I find it terribly frustrating when someone on the couch next to you suddenly yells "Oh god, did you see that!?". Not only is it a rather silly question, it also instantaneously breaks the wonderful spell under which the film may have put you, and yanks you back to reality, to the fact that you are in fact sitting/lying in a room and staring at a TV or a computer screen, and that whatever what you see taking place is to some extent... fake. The magic is momentarily lost, and it always takes little a while to dive back into the movie.

Especially if the blabbermouth keeps talking.

I have come to realise, though, that those people who enjoy talking during movies do not do it intentionally. It is for them a spontaneous thing that they do not think about, and which is as much a part of the movie-watching as the silence is for me. And as I talked about in the previous Minor Frustrations post, this isn't an all-important issue in my life. Rather, it's one of those things you don't care that much about but that you feel good complaining about. There.

November 14, 2009

Review: The Black Swan

Not rated

I'd like to invite my readers to perform an amusing experiment. First, search the web for a page outlining the causes of the current financial crisis (I recommend the Wikipedia article on the matter), and skim through the sections to get an idea of how many different events could supposedly have been used as indicators of the upcoming disaster. Then, perform a new search, to find out how many experts saw it coming and how early they predicted it.

You should find a puzzling contrast between the two.

'The Black Swan' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is not a book about the global recession. In fact, it was first published in 2007 and does not even attempt to make any economic forecasts whatsoever. Still, the book bears a relation to the crises, as it is about the unpredictability in general. According to Taleb, the more significant events of human history, the ones that have the most impact, are not following a traditional cause-effect structure, but are intrinsically unpredictable events which He calls these events 'Black Swans' -- a reference to the unexpected discovery of the non-white swans -- and describes them as having the following three characteristics: Rarity, extreme impact, and restrospective (though not prospective) predictability.

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next (Don't cheat by using the explanations drilled into your cranium by your dull high school teacher.) How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet Bloc? How about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.

Taleb then goes on to describe two hypothetical worlds, Mediocristan and Extremistan. The former is a place where the common is the rule and where anything out of the ordinary is so insignificant that it can be ignored, while the latter is the exact opposite, a place where the highly improbable can have an massive impact, i.e. a place where Black Swans occur. In our world some things do belong to Mediocristan, like the height distribution of people ("extreme" cases have little to no effect on the global average), but a lot of other phenomena belong to Extremistan, like book sales (a few bestsellers can completely outweigh the enormous mass of lesser-known books) and often we don't realise it. Taleb uses these concepts to segue into various other related topics, such as the problem of induction, the flawed notion of an 'expert', empirical skepticism, and even the 80/20 rule and the Long Tail, which I wrote about in this post.

The style of the book is rather singular in my opinion. The book content is quite serious and displays profound insights and deeply held opinions of the author, and yet it is written in an entertaining and casual way. It is full of sophisticated expressions ("Epistemic arrogance", "Platonic fold") and references to well-known thinkers (David Hume, Karl Popper, Henri Poincaré, etc.), and yet in the same time it contains a lot of informal language, blatant sarcasm and cynicism, as well as several Yogi Berra quotes. If we set aside the actual content for the moment, I'd say it's definitely an enjoyable reading experience for anyone.

It is, however, the content that matters in a book like this. I personally found myself pleasantly agreeing with the author half of the time, and strongly disagreeing with him the other half. Taleb has a strong dislike for academics (due to their tendency to allegedly think inside the box and ignore unpredictable Black Swans), whereas to me the Academia is one of the most respectable and honest communities there is -- so there's already one point on which we don't see eye to eye. Furthermore I like to think that the world in which we live is predictable to some extent, and that through continuous effort and research it may be possible to construct more realistic models of reality,so 'The Black Swan' goes against much of what I believe in. But as Taleb says himself, you learn more by reading authors with whom you disagree. Taleb himself is very well-read, a fact which pervades the book, so while it is true that much of what he presents is his personal opinion, he has some strong evidence on his side and presents convincing arguments for his case. I also enjoy his bashing of macroeconomic theory and his criticism of financial experts and economic forecasters, not to mention his depiction of bankers, statisticians, and other people who pretend to be mathematicians. Finally, I am totally awed by the fact that he knows Benoît Mandelbrot personally.

I read 'The Black Swan' in the way I believe Taleb would have wanted me to: skeptically, and with an open mind. I do not blindly accept every word of his book, and still disagree with him on certain areas. But I have definitely learnt something from his book. I now see the world in a slightly different perspective, as I am sure anyone taking his book seriously would. If you are a firm believer in the predictability of historical events or in the principles of modern financial theory, I cannot promise that you will like what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has to say. That, however, doesn't stop me from recommending the book, especially if you are one of those people.

Other similar books include 'The (Mis)behaviour of Markets' by Mandelbrot, or 'Fooled by Randomness', Taleb's previous book.

November 09, 2009


Monday, 9th November. Today, Chartjackers released their single "I've got nothing" for Children In Need, the annual British charity appeal. The four boys have embarked upon quite a formidable journey and I genuinely hope that they will succeed in what they're trying to achieve, so I thought I would spread the word by explaining the idea behind the Chartjackers Project to those who haven't heard of it.

The project was started by Charlie McDonell, Alex Day, James Hill and Jonathan Haggart (more commonly known as Charlieissocoollike, Nerimon, Jimmy0010 and johnnydurham19, their respective pseudonyms), four boys who had already attained considerable popularity on YouTube -- Charlie, for instance, is the third-most subscribed Youtuber in the UK. 10 weeks ago they decided that they would attempt to create a song and get it to no. 1 on the UK Singles Charts, and then donate the money to charity. It sounds banal at first, but the real twist was this: they weren't going to produce the single themselves, but instead it would be made almost entirely by... the Internet! The four boys would be coordinating the project and informing members of the YouTube community, through their regular video updates, how to get involved. Through collaborative effort, the Internet would "hijack the charts"! In 10 weeks! I will go through the steps by which the single was gradually constructed.

  • Lyrics: It was decided that the song should be a cheesy pop song, in the spirit of the 80s or 90s. A video was posted in which the group kindly asked Youtubers to submit, in the comment section, one line each. Only restriction: it had to be as kitsch, superficial and as cheesy as possible. In other words, a line that could fit into any stereotypical love song, devoid of deeper meaning. "Metaphors are good". The projects kicked off, and thousands of comments were posted, each offering a possible line. People were then were encouraged to have a look through the submitted lines, compile them into an actual song and send it to the ChartJackers by email, whereafter the four boys would have a look at the submissions and choose the one that they found the most suitable. The lyrics were done.

  • Melody: Another video was posted, this time asking people to make up a melody, film their performance of the song (the lyrics had been made public by this point), and post the video on YouTube. The four boys would then go through these numerous video responses, and pick the most catchy melody. Again, the theme was "80s or 90s pop song". The performing abilities of the video bloggers in question were disregarded -- all that mattered was the melody itself. A melody was chosen, and the ChartJackers now had a song. Or at least the very basis structure of a song. They now needed a band and a producer.

  • Producer: Having realised that they would not be able to record the song single-handedly, the ChartJackers sent out a message that they were looking for someone who could help them out. A budding producer got in contact with them, and told them that he was very interested in their project and would love to give them a hand.

  • Band: Again, people were asked to submit videos of themselves performing the song, except this time the melody had been agreed upon, and the focus was therefore on the performance itself. The ones that looked promising were then asked to turn up for an audition, and the boys now had to go through the most difficult task of choosing which one was the best. In the end, it came down to not just talent but also looks, since an important factor in the success of the single would be the look of the band. Two performers (Adam and Miranda) had what it took, and luckily they seemed to be able to work together easily.

  • Recording: Most of the song was produced in a closed studio without the participation of the YouTube community. However, the ChartJackers posted a new video giving people another opportunity to get involved: if one were to submit a video of themselves clapping to the rhythm and/or singing along, the sound could be included in a special clap-and-sing-along part of the track. The responses were overwhelming.

  • Music video: The music video would contain footage of Adam and Miranda singing the song in a park, but that would only be part of it. The online community was now asked to submit videos of themselves literally performing the lyrics as well as they could. For example, one could be holding a medal while the line "I've won the greatest prize" was being sung. Charlie McDonnell proceeded to edit all these clips into one big music video, which would be a visual representation of the enormous collective effort that had gone into the making of the single. The sing-and-clap-along clips were naturally included.

In the end, the ChartJackers had a song. And boy is it catchy! It's available for 79p on iTunes, since the four boys didn't have the means to produce an actual CD. The money paid for downloading it goes directly to Children In Need, but only the sales made by people in the UK will count towards the UK Singles Charts. If you'd like to hear what the song sounds like, the ChartJackers have already posted a high-quality version of the official music video on YouTube. You can find it here.

I honestly hope that they are going to make it, if not to the no. 1, then at least to the Top 40. Something like this has never been done before, and it would be amazing to show the world what today's online community is capable of if they work together.

November 02, 2009


Alexander's Alternative Definition

Genius: A person who can watch the film 'Primer' for the first time, and understand what's going on.

Watch it. It's only 1h20, and not a bad film. But you'll see what I mean.

November 2009

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