Category Archives: computers

August linkdump

  • The company that makes OldReader, the RSS reader I fled to after the sad demise of Google Reader, is from Madison!  OK, Middleton.  Still part of Silicon Isthmus.
  • I never new that Mark Alan Stamaty, one of my favorite cartoonists, did the cover of the first They Might Be Giants album.
  • Hey I keep saying this and now Allison Schrager has written an article about it for Bloomberg.  Tenure is a form of compensation.  If you think tenure is a bad way to pay teachers, and that compensation is best in the form of dollars, that’s fine; but if California pretends that the elimination of tenure isn’t a massive pay cut for teachers, they’re making a basic economic mistake.
  • New “hot hand” paper by Brett Green and Jeffrey Zweibel, about the hot hand for batters in baseball.  They say it’s there!  And they echo a point I make in the book (which I learned from Bob Wardrop) — some of the “no such thing as the hot hand” studies are way too low-power to detect a hot hand of any realistic size.
  • Matt Baker goes outside the circle of number theory and blogs about real numbers, axioms, and games.  Daring!  Matt also has a very cool new paper with Yao Wang about spanning trees as torsors for the sandpile group; but I want that to have its own blog entry once I’ve actually read it!
  • Lyndon Hardy wrote a fantasy series I adored as a kid, Master of the Five Magics.  I didn’t know that, as an undergrad, he was the mastermind of the Great Caltech Rose Bowl Hoax.  Now that is a life well spent.
  • Do you know how many players with at least 20 hits in a season have had more than half their hits be home runs?  Just two:  Mark McGwire in 2001 and Frank Thomas in 2005.
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OKCathy

This week’s Aunt Pythia column features Cathy O’Neil’s take on what questions online daters ought to have to answer in their profiles:

How sexual are you? (super important question)
How much fun are you? (people are surprisingly honest when asked this)
How awesome do you smell? (might need to invent technology for this one)
What bothers you more: the big bank bailout or the idea of increasing the minimum wage?
Do you like strong personalities or would you rather things stay polite?
What do you love arguing about more: politics or aesthetics?
Where would you love to visit if you could go anywhere?
Do you want kids?
Dog person or cat person?
Do you sometimes wish the girl could be the hero, and not always fall for the hapless dude at the end?

I gotta say, thinking back to when I was single, during the second Clinton administration, I don’t think these are the questions I personally would most want to ask of my prospective dates.

On the other hand, I think the questions provide a near-perfect portrait of Cathy!  So let me offer my own suggestion:  maybe profiles shouldn’t have any answers.  Maybe they should just have questions.  And you contact the person whose questions you’d like to answer.

What would your questions be?

 

 

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We are all Brian Conrad now

The quality of streaming conference talks has improved a ton, to the point where it’s now really worthwhile to watch them, albeit not the same as being there.  Our graduate students and I have been getting together and watching some of the talks from the soiree of the season, the MSRI perfectoid spaces conference.  This has been great and I highly recommend it.

One good thing about watching at home is that you can stop the stream whenever anybody has a question, or whenever you want to expand on a point made by the speaker!  We usually spend 90-100 minutes to watch an hour talk.  One amusing phenomenon:  when we have a question or don’t understand something, we stop and talk it out.  Then, when we start the stream again, we usually see that the speaker has also stopped, because someone in the audience has asked the same question.  This is very reassuring to the graduate students!  What’s confusing to us is invariably also confusing to someone else, even to Brian Conrad, because we decided to always presume that the unseen, unheard questioner was Brian, which is pretty safe, right?  (One time we could sort of hear the question and I’m pretty sure it was Akshay, though.)

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Is online education good or bad for equality?

It seems like it would obviously be good — now kids who don’t have money and don’t live near universities have, in principle, access to much of the world’s knowledge as long as they have a cheap computer and an internet connection.

But in math, I’ve heard anecdotally that this isn’t really happening.  I thought we were going to see an influx of mathematical talent, smart kids from Mississippi who couldn’t get any math past calculus from their peers, their local high school, or the public library, but who trained themselves hardcore on Art of Problem Solving or Mathematics Stack Exchange.  But I don’t think this is happening so much.  (Correct me if I’m wrong about this!)

I thought about this when I read this article about MOOCs, which says that they’re primarily used by wealthy people who already have college degrees.  What a depressing outcome that would be, if a platform meant to make elite education available free to everybody and help undo the student-loan disaster instead mostly made life easier for people whose lives are already easy, and saved money for people who already have money.

 

 

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Learn to be a crappy programmer

“If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” is a nice old saying, but is it true?  Cathy’s advice column today reminded me of this question, as regards coding.  I think learning to write good code is quite hard.  On the other hand, learning to write fairly crappy yet functional code is drastically less hard.  Drastically less hard and incredibly useful!  For many people, it’s probably the optimal point on the reward/expenditure curve.

It feels somehow wrong to give advice like “Learn to be a crappy programmer” but I think it might actually be good advice.

 

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In which I have a quarter-million friends of friends on Facebook

One of the privacy options Facebook allows is “restrict to friends of friends.”  I was discussing with Tom Scocca the question of how many people this actually amounts to.  FB doesn’t seem to offer an easy way to get a definitive accounting, so I decided to use the new Facebook Graph Search to make a quick and dirty estimate.  If you ask it to show you all the friends of your friends, it just tells you that there are more than 1000, but doesn’t supply an exact number.  If you want a count, you have to ask it something more specific, like “How many friends of my friends are named Constance?”

In my case, the answer is 25.

So what does that mean?  Well, according to the amazing NameVoyager, between 100 and 300 babies per million are named Constance, at least in the birthdate range that contains most of Facebook’s user base and, I expect, most of my friends-of-friends (herafter, FoFs) as well.  So under the assumption that my FoFs are as likely as the average American to be named Constance, there should be between 85,000 and 250,000 FoFs.

That assumption is massively unlikely, of course; name choices have strong correlations with geography, ethnicity, and socioeconomic thingamabobs.  But you can just do this redundantly to get a sense of what’s going on.  59 of my FoFs are named Marianne, a name whose frequency ranges from 150-300 parts per million; that suggests a FoF range of about 200-400K.

I did this for a few names (50 Geralds, 18 Charitys (Charities??)) and the overlaps of the ranges seemed to hump at around 250,000, so that’s my vague estimate for the number.

Bu then I remembered that there was actually a paper about this on the arXiv, “The Anatomy of the Facebook Graph,” by Ugander, Karrer, Backstrom, and Marlow, which studies exactly this question.  They found something which is, to me, rather surprising; that the number of FoFs grows approximately linearly in the number of friends.  The appropriate coefficients have surely changed since 2011, but they get a good fit with

#FoF = 355(#friends) – 15057.

For me, with 680 friends, that’s 226,343.  Good fit!

This 2012 study from Pew (on which Marlow is also an author) studies a sample in which the respondents had a mean 245 Facebook friends, and finds that the mean number of FoFs was 156,569.  Interestingly, the linear model from the earlier paper gives only 72,000, though to my eye it looks like 245 is well within the range where the fit to the line is very good.

The math question this suggests:  in the various random-graph models that people like to use to study social networks, what is the mean size of the 2-neighborhood of x (i.e. the number of FoFs) conditional on x having degree k?  Is it ever linear in k, or approximately linear over some large range of k?

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In which I am on Twitter (and so is Manny Machado)

I am on Twitter.

Why am I on Twitter?

The editor of the book I’m writing said it would be a good idea to have an account up and running well before publication.  So I could say “I have grudgingly agreed to use Twitter as a means of letting people know about my book.”

Except let’s face it — I like social media.  I like blogging and I like Facebook.  I even like Google+!  So I think I’m going to like Twitter, too.  Only an excuse was needed.

What does Twitter have to offer that other platforms don’t?  It’s very simple — on Twitter, I can ask Manny Machado about his already-legendary fake-to-first-trap-the-runner-off-third play in a crucial game against the Rays last October — and he answers!

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Graph search skepticism

Gary Marcus asks the right questions about Facebook’s new Graph Search:

Most search engines, including Google’s, mainly sort pages to see which come closest to some set of keywords (or their synonyms), but they do relatively little to integrate information across pages. If you want a list of all the books written by members of Congress in 2007, you can do a search, but you’ll end up lost. Unless someone has already compiled that information into a single page, you are likely to be directed to a series of individual pages, many with little relevance. It would be left to you to consolidate information across many, many pages; worse, you would have to start from scratch to get the same data for 2008.

But, in theory at least, Facebook Graph Search consolidates information over time and space (albeit in very limited ways). In effect, each user can now use Facebook as if it were a giant, custom-tailored database, not just a librarian that gives a list of documents that are most relevant to your query. Although the ideas behind Facebook Graph Search aren’t entirely original—Google can do similar things in limited domains, such as shopping, and Wolfram Alpha can do math (and draw graphs) based on data in its archives—it really is likely to change the way many people think about search…

Forget search engines. The real revolution will come when we have research engines, intelligent web helpers that can find out new things, not just what’s already been written. Facebook Graph Search isn’t anywhere near that good, but it’s a nice hint at greater things to come.

A nice hint at greater things to come?  Or, like Wolfram Alpha, another case where some of the best programmers in the world, given massive amounts of resources and time, fail to bring us appreciably closer to the dream of the research engine?  In other words, a hint that maybe there are not greater things to come, at least in this direction?

I’m not part of Facebook Graph Search’s “slow rollout,” but from the coverage I’ve read it sounds like it’s good at handling canned combinations of boolean searches.  That’s no joke, but does it really represent progress towards the goal that Marcus has in mind?

Wolfram Alpha, of course, has no idea what books members of Congress wrote in 2007, but that’s not quite fair, because Wolfram Alpha isn’t supposed to know about books.  What does Wolfram Alpha know about?  Well, a query for “Missouri Senate election 2010″ gives you the results of that election, so we know it has state-level results for those elections.  But it can’t put these together to answer “How many Republican senators were elected in 2010?”   “Senators elected in 2010″, which you might think would give you a list, doesn’t – it does, though, tell you that 24 seats went to Republicans and 10 to Democrats, along with the meaningless data of the total votes cast in the US for GOP and Democratic Senate candidates.  “List of senators elected in 2010″ gives the same result.  WA obviously has access, state by state, to the names of the Republican senators who won elections in 2010; but it apparently can’t put that information together into a single list.  Given that, I think gathering their book credits is pretty far off.

Meanwhile, a Google search for “Republican senators elected in 2010″ gives you the relevant Wikipedia page, with the complete list, state-by-state results, and much more.  And searching for “books written by members of Congress” pulls up as the first result a Roll Call article about books written by members of Congress.  Hard to complain about that.

Were any of those books written in 2007?  Who knows?  More to the point — who cares?  That’s the genius of the Google approach.  You know how they tell you, if you’re confused about something in class and you want to know the answer, you should raise your hand and ask, because probably other people have the same question?  That’s the Google principle, except they take it one step further; if you need an answer, not only do other people have the same question, but one such person has already found the answer and put it on the web.  Google can’t tell you which states that entered the Union after 1875 have public universities with animals as their mascots, or which Congressional district ranks 10th by percentage of area covered by water, which is the kind of thing Wolfram Alpha is ace at; but that’s because no one has ever asked those questions, and no one ever will.

 

 

 

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Startup culture, VC culture, and Mazurblogging

Those of us outside Silicon Valley tend to think of it as a single entity — but venture capitalists and developers are not the same people and don’t have the same goals.  I learned about this from David Carlton’s blog post.  Cathy O’Neil reposted it this morning.  It’s kind of cool that the three of us, who started grad school together and worked with Barry Mazur, are all actively blogging!  We just need to get Matt Emerton in on it and then we’ll have the complete set.  Maybe we could even launch a new blogging platform and call it mazr.  You want startup culture, I’ll give you startup culture!

 

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Most tech writers are single but most phone buyers aren’t

Matthew Yglesias, in Slate, says you’d have to be nuts to buy a phone on a contract:

If you buy a subsidized iPhone 5 from AT&T, the cheapest plan available costs $85 per month and only comes with 1 GB of data, a minimum of $2,040 over the two years of the contract. A basic T-Mobile unlimited voice plan with 2 GB of data costs $59.99 per month, $1,440 over the two years. In order to get that $450 iPhone discount, you would end up paying $600 more to AT&T over the life of the contract, and get less data….

Of course, customers have to actually recognize that the new deal is better. The subsidy model is basically a scam, but it only arose thanks to our own collective mental failings

All this is true — if you’re buying a single phone.

Otherwise, it’s wrong.

On the basic AT&T family plan with two lines, you get your $450 subsidy on both phones, and you pay $40 for voice plus $45 per phone; so $130 a month in all.  On T-Mobile, with no annual contract, you’re paying $120 per month for your two phones; the $240 in bills you save over the life of the 2-year contract doesn’t come close to making up the money you lose by forgoing the $900 phone subsidy.  AT&T has LTE coverage in major cities already, and Verizon has even more; T-Mobile doesn’t even start building LTE until next year.  Now the T-Mobile family will have 2GB of data each, but the AT&T family will have only 1GB to share.  1GB is fine for me and my wife (I’ve never used more than 300MB in a single month) but if you want more, you can get 4GB shared between the two phones for $150 a month.  You’re still coming out ahead on money, plus you can share your 4GB of data however you like instead of splitting it 2 and 2, and you’re on a faster network.  By the way, if you want tethering on T-Mobile, you’ll have to pay extra:  on AT&T’s contract, it comes with.

The details of the AT&T family plan aren’t really the point — the point is that people who write about tech are largely drawn from the universe of young single people.  What applies to them does not apply to everyone!

 

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