Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lip-Synching: A Growing Scourge?

Remember Milli Vanilli? They won a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1990. But the Grammy was revoked when it was discovered that the vocals on the record did not belong to the two frontmen (Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus) with good looks and nice dance moves. In recent days there have been a growing number of examples wherein the audience has been duped into believing that they were watching a live performance only to discover much later on that they were witnessing a farce. More recent examples include the following.

  • The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Lin Miaoke lip-synched over the voice of Yang Peiyi, who was deemed unfit for the on-stage performance due to her buck teeth.

  • The inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriella Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill made the decision a day before Tuesday's inauguration after a sound check to use a previously recorded audio tape for the broadcast of the ceremonies. Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, said the weather was too cold for the instruments to stay in tune.

  • The grand finale for Saregamapa, Zee TV's singing competition. Every year, the finals celebration happens in front of a very large audience. And the larger the audience, the more the emphasis shifts from singing to dancing around with scantily clad accomplices.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Remembering Isaac Asimov

Not being a fan of fiction or lengthiness, my favorite Isaac Asimov books are his Opuses (Opus 100, Opus 200, and Opus 300). These were published to mark his 100th, 200th, and 300th books respectively. Each Opus contained excerpts from his most recent previous 99 books, both fiction and non-fiction. If you're like me or if you're looking for a gentle introduction to Asimov's highly influential writings, you could do a lot worse than picking up Opus 100.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Qutub Minar: Delhi's Iconic Tower

The Qutub Minar is the world's tallest brick minaret and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tower was a fixture throughout my years growing up in New Delhi. The image is etched into my memory since it is located just a few miles south of the Indian Institute of Technology's Delhi campus, where I lived. Somehow, as we moved from one campus residence to another over the years, we always ended up with a south-facing balcony and a clear view of Delhi's iconic tower. However, despite having lived next door to the famous Qutub for most of my childhood, there was much that I didn't know about it until last year when I set out to help my daughter, Ria, with a school project.
  • The tower is 72.5 meters high, consists of 5 storeys, and is made of fluted red sandstone and white marble (the first three storeys are pure sandstone; the fourth and fifth storeys are sandstone and marble)

  • The minar was built over a period of almost 200 years (1199-1369) by a succession of Mughal (Mongol) rulers including Qutb-ud-din Aibak (Delhi's first Muslim ruler, who only managed the first storey), Aibak's son-in-law and successor Iltutmish (who completed the next three storeys), and Feroz Shah Tughlak (who rebuilt the fallen fourth storey and added the fifth storey)

  • The exterior is covered with intricate carvings and verses from the Quran

  • A second tower was planned to be taller than the Qutub Minar but was abandoned mid-construction at 12 meters

  • According to some, the place where Qutub Minar stands today was once occupied by about 20 Jain temples, which were demolished and the stones reused to build the Qutub Minar

  • According to others, the Qutub Minar was built on the ruins of Lal Kot (Red Citadel) in the city of Dhillika, the capital of the Tomars and the Chauhans, the last Hindu rulers of Delhi

  • The staircase inside the tower has been closed since the 1980s when a stampede caused a number of deaths

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Unisex Water Closet (WC) Restrooms

I recently had a bit of trouble finding the restroom at one of my favorite restaurants. The restaurant is Coda in Boston's trendy Back Bay neighborhood. They have two restrooms in the back with doors labelled WC. I discovered later that WC stands for water closet. Both restrooms have the same design -- a sink and a sit-down toilet bowl -- and are, therefore, gender-neutral. If one of the two restrooms happens to be occupied, you can simply walk into the other one regardless of your gender. And each restroom is single occupancy, i.e. no sharing. I believe this design also alleviates the problems faced by homosexuals and transgender individuals who occasionally get challenged when using gender-specific restrooms. According to Wikipedia, "The water closet was the original term for a room with a toilet, since the bathroom was where one was to take a bath. This term is still used today in some places, but might be a room that has both toilet and bath. Plumbing manufacturers often use the term to delineate toilets from urinals." By the way, Coda is highly recommended for good food, drink, and service.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Do We Know How to Measure Investment Risk?

Joe Nocera is one of the most influential business journalists in America today. His piece in the New York Times offers a good summary of the debate that is currently raging on whether VaR (Value at Risk) is a good enough model for measuring investment risk and predicting the sort of financial meltdown we're currently in the midst of. Detractors point out that VaR, at best, only considers risks that occur within a probability of 99% (3 standard deviations). It does not consider the other 1% -- the outliers or unknown risks that Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls "fat tails" (the tails at either extremes of a bell curve) or "black swans". Taleb and others compare VaR to "an air bag that works all the time, except when you have a car accident!" Proponents of VaR acknowledge that, like democracy, VaR has flaws but is the best we've got. They remind us that, after all, it is VaR (along with good human judgment) that allowed Goldman Sachs to do a better job than others of sidestepping the mortgage crisis that precipitated the mess we're in.

An Impotent United Nations

I have been astonished at the impotence of the UN resolution 1860 calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Gaza. Both parties have blatantly ignored the UN's call for peace. Hamas said "they would not heed a resolution they were not consulted about." Israel said "the state of Israel has never agreed that any outside body would determine its right to defend the security of its citizens." Wonderful! By this logic the UN can't tell North Korea or Iran to stop their nuclear programs either! The problem with such logic is that unilateral decisions are often not the best decisions. This is why private companies have boards, nations have parliaments, and the civilized world has the United Nations. I employ a very simple formula when it comes to determining responsibility resolving matters such as this: responsibility is directly proportional to power, i.e. entities with the most power have the greatest responsibility to help resolve the conflict. By that logic, the first in line are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (also known as the world's superpowers). The first on the list is, you guessed it, the United States of America. Then we have the United Kingdom, France, the Russian Federation, and China. Then comes Israel. And finally Palestine and Gaza. The voting record for resolution 1860 also tells an important story: 14-0 with the United States abstaining. Need I say more?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Why Madoff Is Out On Bail

I know that people are puzzling over this. My understanding is that white collar crime is treated differently from blue collar crime. Once a white collar crime has been uncovered the culprit is typcially no longer a threat to society and is, therefore, able to secure bail quite easily. Moreover, I believe Madoff was allowed out on bail in exchange for his cooperation in the investigation. Since this was a crime of great complexity, it is important to secure Madoff's cooperation in understanding exactly how he defrauded his clients so that appropriate new regulations can be put into place. There are generally no such compulsions when you're dealing with petty (blue collar) crime. Here's a news item that explains this in more detail.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Java Annotations, XDoclet, or Neither?

First, let me explain why I have "Neither" on the subject line. Annotations in Java have been and remain controversial. They are a way to place tags in your Java source code to facilitate the automatic generation of source code artifacts, e.g. XML configurations or other boilerplate Java code. A very common use might be to place annotations in your POJO (plain old Java object) that allow for the automatic generation of Hibernate object-relational mapping (ORM) XML files (i.e. the *.hbm files). Folks in the "Neither" camp argue that annotations clutter the code and that code and configuration ought to reside in separate files. Folks who favor annotations argue that having configuration inline with the code makes it easier to keep track of all aspects of the component -- only one Java file per component -- and reduces mundane work since tools can use brief annotations in the primary Java source file to generate elaborate peripheral artifacts. However, once we're convinced of the benefit of annotations, we still have the challenge of choosing between XDoclet, which is what started it all, and Java annotations, which is a feature in Java 5 that makes annotations part of the Java language. In my view, annotations are the way to go. Further, Java annotations are superior to XDoclet because they are part of the Java language, can be validated during compile-time, included into the compiled code, and queried at run-time via reflection. Creating a new Java annotation is as simple as creating a new inline interface-like Java structure.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Rahman's Latest Score: Slumdog Millionaire

Folks, I recommend this piece as a brief introduction, especially for Westerners, to A R RAHMAN -- a truly ingenious music composer who deserves a wide and varied audience. Perhaps what is most impressive about Rahman is his comprehensiveness and reach -- the way he combines classical music sophistication with an extraordinary sense for percussion, rhythm, and the various genres of music. Although everything he puts out is good and he has numerous gems hidden in obscure movie soundtracks (e.g. Chor Chor, Zubeidaa), my favorite movie soundtracks by Rahman include Bombay, Earth, and Water (note: they might take a few listens to grow on you). And I just discovered that the movie Slumdog Millionaire (Rahman's latest score) has climbed to #46 on IMDB's list of Top 250 movies (all-time).

Saturday, January 3, 2009

We're All Gullible

I am recommending Stephen Greenspan's excellent essay from The Wall Street Journal. The piece is excerpted from Greenspan's new book on gullibility. The book is tipped to become definitive on the subject. The author has studied the subject in great depth and rightly refers to gullibility as a very common form of social incompetence. Those who fancy the idea that they're not gullible ought to check out the following sources that specialize in debunking myths: the Disinformation series of books, the website, and the Penn & Teller show on Showtime television. You will surely discover at least one myth you actually believe (or believed)!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Is Facebook Dangerous?

In his recent blog, Bob Cringely rightly warns us not to expose ourselves too much on social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and MySpace. I try not to say NEVER quite as loudly as Bob Cringely does. I am also not quite as paranoid. But I am VERY selective about which applications I install on Facebook (since all applications require access to the personal data on your Facebook profile and I don't want to clutter up my profile with applications I don't use). Some of the Facebook applications are actually fun and educational, e.g. Deadline, The New York Times Quiz, Who Has The Biggest Brain? (and all of the games in that series). If I suspect I might like an application I will install it and play around and then uninstall it if it doesn't measure up. How else do you find great new apps? I also regularly go through my applications and uninstall the junk I'm not using (I'm going to do that again right now). And one more thing - I don't have a lot of personal information (e.g. birthday, address, phone numbers) on Facebook in the first place; so the apps I install are welcome to it!