Thursday, August 31, 2006

no i don't smoke

healthy omar drinks icelandic oj

recently i've gotten quite a few requests for cigarettes, even when there are many other people to ask around me. in addition, when at the doctor a few months back the nurse said to me "you smoke don't you?"

no i don't smoke, and i don't carry cigarettes.

there are three good explanations for these queries. one, suggested to me, is that it's my glasses. my red and black glasses supposedly give me a european look, and the impression is that europeans smoke a lot, so ask the guy with the weird glasses.

the second explanation is that i look sickly and thin, a look some people associate with smokers. now this disturbs me. i have been prodded from time to time to improve on my thin look and somewhat unhealthy eating habits (i suspect many people reading this are said prodders). maybe i am a bit sickly. anyway i'm trying to look healthier.. one step at a time... and the steps are small and slow, remember i'm sickly.

finally, the the third explanation is that it's random and i shouldn't think so much about it. i like that one.

who is more likely to smoke in this picture?

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performance and goffman

i'm taking a class on computer mediated communication, and our first reading is by erving goffman, titled The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (see wikipedia article on goffman and book).

the theme of the article is performance (ie how we are all performing) and how these performances function or fail to function. in some ways i didn't like the article because it was too qualitative for my liking: one-off observations merged together for some grand theory. on the flip side, quantitative observation has problems too. the ethnographer in the class pointed out that all these theory-generating mechanisms have flaws, though typically in the research community nowadays they list their methodology and assumptions, as well as address criticisms, things that this author didn't do.

anyway, i'm going to put some quotes here. note that the text is from the 1959 and so the language is a bit odd for us.

the first quote is from sartre, and i find that i sometimes do exactly this:
The attentive pupil who wishes to be attentive, his eyes riveted on the teacher, his ears open wide, so exhausts himself in playing the attentive role that he ends up by no longer hearing anything
these next two quotes suggest the unseemly side of performance in the professional space:
if attendants in a mental ward are to maintain order and at the same time not hit patients, and if this combination of standards is difficult to maintain, then the unruly patients may be "necked" with a wet towel and chocked into submission in a way that leaves no visible evidence of mistreatment. Absense of mistreatment can be faked, not order.


Thus, one student suggests about pharmacists that they feel that the four-year university course required for license is "good for the profession" but that some admit that a few months training is all that is really needed. It may be added that the American Army during World War II innocently treated trades such as pharmacy and watch-repairing in a purely instrumental way and trained efficient practitioners in five or six weeks to the horror of established members of these callings.

goffman emphasizes here that what's important for him is not so much what is real, but how the performance might be disrupted:
While we could retain the common-sense notion that fostered appearances can be discredited by a discrepant reality, there is often no reason for claiming that the facts discrepant with the fostered impression are any more the real reality than is the fostered reality they embarrass.... We will want to ask, "What are the ways in which a given impression can be discredited?" and this is not quite the same as asking, "What are the ways in which the given impression is false?"
the author ends with this quote from sartre:
There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

my band: black granite

while cleaning my sister's new place, my cousins jazib and sahir and i came up with the name of our new band: black granite (inspired by my sister's countertops).

we're working on the music but i wanted to show all of you our next album cover, courtesy of jazib:
some possible lyrics (sung in a death metal sorta way):

black granite
tenth planet
we're the reason that pluto has vanished

we're working on it ;)


at my cousin's wedding i heard, for the first time, nelly furtado's promiscuous (yes i'm behind the times :) ). the song features timbaland, and i liked the sound so much that i looked him up on wikipedia. timbaland didn't actually produce this song, but i went on and listened to a bunch of previews of his stuff, which is fantastic. i think i'm a timbaland fan.

anyway, in an odd twist, while i can't of course link to the song, the video, with the song, does appear to be on youtube (for how long who knows...). so if you look at this post soon, and want to hear this great great sound (the song is sort of dumb, with a reference to steve nash, come on...) take a peek.

here's a link to the video.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Times article on Academic use of AOL Data

the times has a good story on academic use of the AOL data, and how many academics are turning their back on the data. my prediction is that someone out there will really take the time to do a good job of anonymizing this data, and more academics may start to use that better scrubbed dataset.

what really got my goat was a quote from the article about Dr. Chowdhury, the AOL researcher who released the data (he was fired by AOL). the man is certainly very stupid if this is true:
Professor Etzioni said Dr. Chowdhury was horrified by what had happened. “He didn’t anticipate that this kind of data could be used to track down individuals.” Dr. Chowdhury declined to comment, at the advice of his lawyer.
idiot. sure, i wouldn't expect the average person to understand how easy it is to use this data to track down individuals, but an AOL researcher working with query data -- come on. i imagine that google didn't recently invest heavily in AOL for its technical people.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs: Mel Gibson

a few weeks ago mel gibson, in a drunken state, was stopped in his car with an open bottle of tequila. he yelled all kinds of anti-jewish slurs at the police who pulled him over. i hope mel gets his just dessert.

anyway, the august 21, 2006 issue of the new yorker has a fabulous shouts and murmurs concerning the mel gibson anti-jew fiasco. you can find the whole thing here, but i've quoted two of the stations below. NOTE: the first one is especially funny if you know that mel's father is against everything jewish and says the holocaust was exaggerated.

Mel Meets His Mother. His mother sayeth, “What hast thou done, that thy father is proud of thee? He yelpeth for joy.” Mel sayeth, “The Jews have started this war, as they have all the wars.” Mel’s mother sayeth, “Verily, thou hast started this war, thou idiot.” Mel sayeth, “Bring ice for my head, for it throbbeth.”


Mel Falls the Second Time. Whilst being interviewed by the Jew Larry King, Mel’s breath reeketh of alcohol. He sayeth on live television that he doth not like Jews, even those who maketh him rich unto the seventy-seventh generation. Larry breaketh to a commercial, during which Mel’s handlers sayeth unto him, “Art thou trying to give us ulcers?” They calleth for duct tape to be applied to Mel’s mouth.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Edible Woman

i'm reading margaret atwood's the edible woman, and it is amusing and enlightening. the book was published in 1969 so it is dated, but atwood does seem quite timeless. i don't think any description does it justice (the description on the back of this paperback is awful) so instead i will quote from a paragraph i like, where marian (the main character) describes the women's christmas party at her office. she works at a surveying company.

[Marian] looked around the room at all the women there, at the mouths opening and shutting, to talk or to eat. Here, sitting like any other group of women at an afternoon feast, they no longer had the varnish of officialdom that separated them, during regular office hours, from the vast anonymous ocean of housewives whose minds they were emplyed to explore. They could have been wearing housecoats and curlers. As it was, they all wore dresses for the mature figure. They were ripe, some rapidly becoming overripe, some already beginning to shrivel; she thought of them as attached by stems at the tops of their heads to an invisible vine, hanging there in various stages of growth and decay ... in that case, thin elegant Lucy, sitting beside her, was merley at an earlier stage, a springtime green bump or nodule forming beneath the careful golden calyx of her hair ...

if there's anything you're reading now that you really love, please let me know. i'm on a bit of a reading tear.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

the AOL debacle and the user search records

recently AOL majorly goofed and released poorly anonymized search records of hundreds of thousands of their users. the records contain over 30 million queries. you can see some news about it from google news at this link.

just to help people understand this: imagine if all your google queries for the past year were made publicly available. ie, for user bob, i would assign a number, say 42, and for each of his queries i publicly release that user 42 queried for such and such. so if you did 10000 queries over the past year, i know those 10000 queries (though i don't know that your name is bob, unless you queried for your name, or unless i do some digging). NOTE: it's actually more than just that.. there are click records as well.

i posted a comment about my problems with how individuals are treating this data over at a friend's blog, and i'm just so riled about all this that i'm going to post most of my comment here.

here's one problem: if it's clear that someone was doing some serious personal abortion research in these queries, i wouldn't say to my friends "look look, look at what this person is doing..." especially when the data is poorly anonymized (ie people can figure out where this person roughly lives, and they can use all their other queries to improve understanding of the user's context).

here's my thing.. i don't think people think of these records as they perhaps should think of them: they are like medical records. extremely personal! if suddenly a bunch of medical records were released on the internet, would you go scouring through them and post that a person in minnesota has a rare defect which causes him to fart whenever the word "gas" is said? it's funny, sure, but it's very personal.

here's a quote from the Technology Review blog which, if true, i find really irresponsible:
At the same time, though, other people -- Internet researchers, statisticians, sociologists, and political scientists -- silently cheered.
scientists, especially social scientists, work so hard in their studies to get consent and gather data ethically. now this gift is dropped on them: they can use it, but they should really think about how they can use it responsibly. for instance, there's a site which now lets you search over the AOL logs, and they will remove data if someone determines that the data is personally identifiable. but i really think that's the wrong way around: when such sensitive data is going to be made public, unless the anonymization is fantastic (which might not even be possible!) you get consent before revealing any of it, not the other way around. and poor anonymization, and no consent, are what we have with this data.


on the wall street journal web site, there's an interesting online discussion going on that was prompted by a posting of a discussion between a lobbyist for internet firms, and a lawyer with the electronic frontier foundation (eff). in a response to the lobbyist, the eff lawyer writes:

Mr. Bankston responds: Markham, you wrote that "companies, with feedback from their users, are in the best position to determine how long such data should be kept." I'd like to think that the market could take care of this problem, and that companies insensitive to privacy concerns would be punished by the market. But the only way that'll work is if consumers actually have enough information about companies' practices to make rational choices about which search engines to use, and enough information about how the law protects their online privacy. On both scores, however, the consumer is completely lacking in information.

i completely agree with this and hope internet firms become more transparent.

Monday, August 14, 2006

tapas at commerc 24, barcelona

we went to commerc 24, a tapas restaurant in barcelona started by Carles Abellan, an apprentice of el bulli mastermind Ferran Adria. el bulli is considered possibly the best restaurant in the world, adria is a genius, and getting reservations takes at least 6 months to a year. so we couldn't do that, but commerc 24 has great reviews as well, so we made reservations and headed there.

anyway, in this blog post i'm going to focus on wheatgrass. if you've ever had wheatgrass, you'll know it's intensely grassy, and even maybe a bit pungent. a couple of years ago back at google i'd have a wheatgrass shot almost every day, because the pain of drinking one was satisfying, not to mention the fact that wheatgrass might be good for you.

anyway, one of the dishes was a tomato, wheatgrass, prawn soup. a cold soup. oh my god it was fantastic! the wheatgrass gave just the right kick to make the dish exciting.
typically i find wheatgrass overpowering, but with this dish i just wanted more and more (and they actually brought more, but then we told them that we'd already had it and they took it away... damn, shouldn't have told them!)

there was also a fantastic egg concoction, which i won't describe but instead will let the independent food critic work his magic:
Next comes Abellan's signature "Kinder egg", an immaculately trimmed egg shell served in a ceramic egg carton, filled with layers of soft egg, truffle and potato foam that is rich and mouth-filling, yet light and uplifting. (from here)

it was a fantastic experience. i'm so happy we took one night to experience the food genius of spain at commerc 24.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

and what will you be?

at the Fundacio Antoni Tapies i learned that the artist antoni tapies determined he would be an artist while bedridden for months with TB. tapies is a genius of contemporary art, creating pieces like that above that fuse media and texture to evoke the subconscious and feelings that cannot be expressed concretely with language (or at least that's the gist i got from a video). he also does many other types of art.

what struck me was his statement that he figured out his life career-path while reflecting and lying bedridden for months. personally, i discarded the notion that long, deep reflection could lead you to the right career-path. first, life throws way too many curveballs that are just too pertinent and can't be easily factored into long deep reflection. second, "right" doesn't seem like a label you can apply to the path you choose for your life. there are probably many "right" paths.

in high school, my sister took a test designed to determine her ideal career path. i remember her telling me that the test told her to become a stevedore, a person who loads cargo on ships. how did it conclude this? had they analyzed the preferences and lives of thousands of stevedores, along with other professions, and determined that in some high-dimensional space my sister most aligned with the stevedore profession? i've read that if you take such a test a few weeks later, chances are your job recommendation will switch dramatically. this last point seems most pertinent...

a stevedore on the job

in an old star trek: the next generation episode (yes, geek alert) some children were stolen from the enterprise by an advanced society that could not procreate (how advanced are they if they can't do that...). a computer analyzed these children and determined their ideal professions. one was told to be a musician, another a woodcutter. they were given tools that would help develop these talents. talk about a form of hard paternalism!

van gogh worked in the art business for a number of years before becoming a painter, at the encouragement of his brother theo. would he have done better been told what to do initiallyly, hence avoiding his stumbling around? on the other hand, such advice might help a lot of people who have trouble directing their energy.

but for me, i'll continue stumbling, and avoid long bouts of reflection. don't get me wrong, i think reflection is good. i certainly think i didn't do enough reflecting when i chose computer science. for instance, i forsook my writing. since university i haven't really written seriously, and i used to be a half-decent writer. maybe i'll stumble into that...

Saturday, August 05, 2006

gaudi's barcelona

heading into architectural genius antonio gaudi's casa mila (la pedrera)

onto the roof, where we encounter strange faces and undulating paths

the spanish weren't so tall when this was made..

scary, fascinating faces on the roof. note the curves. gaudi is so curvy, so organic. and he's fascinated with light. to badly butcher quotes of gaudi's i heard during the tour:
1. nature: light and organics are the key. and...
2. architecture is the process of structuring the placement of light.

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Friday, August 04, 2006

my amsterdam: an incomplete summary in a few photos

come with me to explore the streets and canals of amsterdam

i did the gassen diamond tour. in the end they tried to get me to buy a diamond but the bling bling just didn't look good against my skin

the rijksmuseum: majestic, and full of master art... but the line was too long!

on the other hand, the crazy heineken museum was a cinch to get into, probably because the art isn't up to rijksmuseum quality

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