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Showing posts from January, 2009

Lip-Synching: A Growing Scourge?

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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 But the Grammy was revoked when it was discovered that the vocals on the record did not belong to the two frontmen (Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus) with good looks and nice dance moves.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. Car…

Remembering Isaac Asimov

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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.

Qutub Minar: Delhi's Iconic Tower

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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) ru…

Unisex Water Closet (WC) Restrooms

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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 …

Do We Know How to Measure Investment Risk?

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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 t…

An Impotent United Nations

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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 t…

Why Madoff Is Out On Bail

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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.

Java Annotations, XDoclet, or Neither?

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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 …

Rahman's Latest Score: Slumdog Millionaire

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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).

We're All Gullible

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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 skeptic.com website, and the Penn & Teller show on Showtime television. You will surely discover at least one myth you actually believe (or believed)!

Is Facebook Dangerous?

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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 o…