Thursday, July 28, 2005

Stanford Tennis

Yesterday night, I watched India's Sania Mirza take on Venus Williams in the Bank of the West Classic tennis tournament at Stanford. Although Venus won comfortably 6-3, 6-2, the match was far more interesting than the scoreline suggests. First of all, the spectator demographic was far from traditional -- never before have I seen either Indians or African-Americans turn up in such numbers at a tennis match -- and made for a rather amusing experience. Mirza probably had the bigger fan contingent, backed by a vocal desi crowd that thought nothing of cheering Venus's errors. I was seated around a big, fairly vocal contingent of Venus supporters -- all but one of whom hadn't seen a tennis match before -- who spent more time debating whether they could spot Venus's mom than they did watching the match or learning the rules.

The match itself was fun as well, thanks mainly to the gunslinger mentality that Mirza brought to the table, time and again uncorking spectacular winners to outhit Venus. (What a refreshing change of pace from the stereotypical Indian "touch artist" game of Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan or Leander Paes!) On the flip side, the slew of unforced errors flowing off Mirza's racquet sealed her fate pretty comprehensively. The match was very reminiscent of the Australian Open Mirza vs . Serena Williams match where, once again, Mirza used her powerful groundstrokes to dictate play against a hard-hitting opponent but ended up succumbing tamely due to a failure to curb her own aggression.

Unless your name is Roger Federer, it is hard to win consistently at the top level without a percentage game that allows your opponent to make mistakes and offer you free points. There's simply no way Sania can beat top-ranked talent such as the Williams sisters by outslugging them going for winners in every single point. Sania would do well to take a gander at the modern Andre Agassi game -- his success is the strongest proof yet that precise percentage play pays off in spades compared to the spectacular winners that he preferred to try pulling off in the earlier stages of his career.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Killers vs. Franz Ferdinand

As I've been giving my hard-earned PC-to-home-theater wiring a workout, I had occasion to go back and listen to the debut albums of two of the biggest successes of 2004, Franz Ferdinand and The Killers. Which, of course, inevitably led me to debate which of the two bands is better. As I weighed the case, I was struck by how eerie a parallel I was able to draw with my grappling over the Beatles vs. Stones question.

Franz Ferdinand is like the Beatles of the new age -- all the way from their sharp dressing to their sizzling tunes that catch on at the first listening -- but with a better sense of music and no annoying "Yeah Yeah Yeah" chorus. The Killers, on the other hand, are more like the Stones -- darker, grungier, high on the hirsuteness, and with songs that tend to grow on you more slowly. If I had to choose today, I'd go with Franz Ferdinand for the sheer joy and inventiveness of their music, but I reserve the right to change my mind in a few years as the bands evolve.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Home Theaters and Levels of Indirection

After nearly a year of inactivity, I had occasion to mess with the wiring of my home theater system yesterday. The problem at hand was to hook up the 5.1 channel analog audio output from my new home PC to my receiver, so that I could play multi-channel audio off the PC and listen to it on my 6-speaker home theater.

There was only one catch: the receiver had exactly one set of 5.1-channel analog inputs and that was earmarked for the input named "DVD". Since I had already hooked up an optical digital out from the DVD to the receiver via S/PDIF, there was a problem. The solution? Plug in the digital DVD output into the CD input, and the PC's output into the analog DVD input. Of course, in the process, I have also made entirely certain that no one else in the world can figure out how to configure my home theater to do anything at all, just in case anyone thought they could earlier.

Any computer scientist would know exactly how to solve the nightmare of nomenclature that results from hooking up AV equipment in these crazy ways: use a level of indirection!! Why did the receiver manufacturer have to hardwire the name "DVD" to the multichannel analog input? If only the input had been named something harmless like "Input 7" and the receiver menu let you associate different names ("DVD", "CD", "Tape", "AUX", etc.) with different inputs, life would be so much nicer. It'd be even cooler if I could punch in my own names instead of having to hope that the manufacturer had figured out all that I'd want to do.

Ditto with remote controls. Hard-button universal remotes never work because no one can ever anticipate all possible buttons that a device might require and put them all on one remote. My universal is slightly better with semi-programmable "soft" keys but it still leaves a lot to be desired. I have no way of creating my own names for the keys, and macros for performing complex tasks are given names such as "Macro 1" and "Macro 2". I think it's high time all devices migrated to the following system:
  • There is a uniform on-screen menu system on all devices that can be used to perform all functions via a small set of arrow keys plus some additional selector keys.
  • Complex functions, consisting of long sequences of key presses, can be programmed into macros stored on the device itself.
  • Each of these macros is given a short IR code which can be programmed into the remote control. (An alternative would be to store the macros on the remote and use RF to transmit the commands to the device and get it to react super-fast.)
  • The remote control has a surface providing tactile feedback, but comes with soft keys whose names can be programmed by the user.
Anyone reminded of instruction sets and programming languages?

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Dealing with Terrorism

The New York Times describes a police decision -- presumably in response to the London bombings -- to start random inspections of bags on the city subway system. In my opinion, this decision is a classic example of how not to deal with terrorism. One of the central objectives of terrorism is to introduce discomfort and pain into the average individual's way of life. All that is achieved by random inspection is that life just got a whole lot more annoying for a whole lot more people, with no accompanying improvement in overall human safety. There are just so many ways for the determined attacker to cause destruction that stopping some people on the subway will make no difference at all, beyond incentivizing the public to stop using public transport and burn more gas made from imported oil.

Every time I go through the hassle of removing my shoes to clear security at an airport, I visualize Osama dancing with glee at the havoc he's wreaked on easy air travel. (By the way, have you noticed how the security personnel always say, "We highly recommend that you take off your shoes" and never, "Please take off your shoes"? One slow day, I asked one of them what "highly recommend" meant. Did that mean I had a choice? She looked slightly taken aback by the question and turned to talk to her supervisor. He came over and told me, no, I didn't. Well, thanks for being upfront about it. )

Here come the A's

After a terrible April & May when Bay area baseball turned unwatchable, the Oakland A's have come to the rescue with yet another of those patented summer comebacks that you can set a wristwatch by. At last count, the A's are just one game out in the Wild Card race and are poised to clamber over the Yankees and Twins to make it to the playoffs.

As usual, their off-season trades look better and better by the minute, what with Tim Hudson having disappeared off the radar screen in Atlanta, Mark Mulder having a so-so season in St. Louis, Zito rediscovering his form of old, and Danny Haren sporting the longest winning streak in the AL this year.

A Recursive DUI Problem

When it comes to football players, improbability and truth go hand in hand. Whether it be Randy Moss taking a meter maid on an open-air car ride, or Koren Robinson's hilarious recursive DUI problem. (via the Bill Simmons Intern)

Sunday, July 17, 2005

An Indian Film in Ebert's List

Roger Ebert, in his fortnightly column on great movies, discusses Santosh Sivan's "The Terrorist" this week. The movie is the first Tamil film to make it to Ebert's list and only the fourth Indian movie to do so, after Satyajit Ray's masterful Apu trilogy. Ebert's review provides a nice analysis of the film's strengths. (However, his side-commentary on terrorism and suicide bombing is oversimplified and not entirely logical.)

When I first saw the film three or four years ago, I was struck both by its overwhelmingly beautiful cinematography and by its subdued, neutral intellectual style that let the viewers navigate their way without being biased by a prescriptive moral stance. On the flip side, Sivan tends to crank up the artsiness quotient one time too many with fancy camera work and deliberately long cuts. The sin is easily forgiven, however, in a film which magnificently avoids the pitfalls of cheap melodrama that has laid low many a good Indian movie.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The iPod Flea

Rather interesting innovation from Apple. Very plausible.

Space Age Anachronisms

I just moved to a sleek, new Thinkpad T43 laptop a few days ago. Thanks to Centrino, it came equipped with a generous package of networking options built-in. On the left side of the machine are two ports -- one for Gigabit Ethernet and the other for a 56K modem. (The intervening Megabit rate is covered by my 802.11a/b/g wireless.) I'd be curious to know if any one person has used both options on the same machine.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Evolution of Safety Margins

The NY Times reports on research in Australia that purports to show that the use of hands-free cellphone devices while driving is as unsafe -- in terms of the statistical likelihood of an accident -- as speaking on a regular cell-phone. At first sight, the results might seem counter-intuitive, given that using a cell-phone uses up one whole hand and probably a few more brain cycles as well. Ananthan's explanation of the numbers is that people simply tend to multi-task even more when using the hands-free device. Now that both hands are free, I can drive and talk on my phone while simultaneously reaching for my cup of coffee with one of my free hands!

The introduction of safer means of carrying out tasks already perceived to be relatively safe rarely has the effect of improving overall safety. For example, the invention of better brakes or a fancy new computer-assisted collision-avoidance system would simply mean that people will tailgate the car ahead of them even more closely than they already did, retaining the same probability of error.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Safety in the Third World

In a demonstration of typical colonialist claptrap, the English Cricket Board wants the right to make last-minute venue changes in its upcoming tour of Pakistan, allegedly for reasons of security. Last I checked, the bombs were going off somewhere else. Maybe we should give everyone the right to re-vote on the Olympic venues for 2012.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Karl Rove is outed

It is now official. Karl Rove was the source who leaked the Valerie Plame story. The New York Times has an interesting story on Matt Cooper's decision to testify. The blogosphere is alive trying to make sense of the sequence of events. (Mark Kleiman, as usual, has a number of interesting observations on why Matt did it and whether Bob Novak is a target.) Newsweek has a story on what Rove told Cooper.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Cricket's New Rules Claim their First Victim

A month ago, I wrote about the rule changes to one-day cricket that had been dreamed up by the comedians at the International Cricket Council. The changes have since been approved on a trial basis for the period of a year. Today's England-Australia encounter marked the second cricket match played under the new rules and exposed the idiocy of the one-substitute option.

Both sides loaded the eleven with five bowlers in the hope of winning the toss and bowling first. Unfortunately for England, Ricky Ponting called the toss right and Australia got to unleash its bowlers first up. Which meant that England couldn't afford to substitute out a bowler for a batsman. Australia, of course, had no such difficulties when it became their turn to bat, as they replaced strike bowler Glenn McGrath with hitter Brad Haddin, and gained a significant advantage. It is another story entirely that they cantered to a win even without Haddin's services, thanks to the asymmetry of pitch conditions. (It remains something of a mystery why Australia would wait until the third over of their inning to undertake the substitution. Perhaps they were considering McGrath as a pinch hitter in case they lost a wicket early? :-) )

If the ICC desperately wants substitutes in the game, why not at least allow the eleven to be named immediately after the toss, instead of before? Teams could still be required to finalize their twelve prior to the toss.

Picasa in Mi Casa

My collection of digital photographs has been growing at a pretty alarming rate over the last few years, and I've become increasingly tired of tweaking, organizing and publishing them manually with my own home-grown scripts. So, I finally decided to give Picasa a twirl to see if it really is as good as it's made out to be. There is much to like about Picasa, not least its elegant user interface, the neat classification primitives, and the ability to edit photos without overwriting the original data. (One of the banes of editing is that recompressing to JPEG after each edit is a sure-fire way of destroying quality.)

Unfortunately, there are some serious issues with Picasa's feature set which become apparent only as you start using it more extensively. First, Picasa ties you down into using it exclusively to manipulate photos, because your photo edits are transparent to other applications unless you export the pictures first. This wouldn't be a big deal, if not for the fact that Picasa's editing tools are simply not good enough. It does have a number of cool effects and adjustments that can be easily applied (saturation and color temperature are two things that come to mind), but the basic brightness and contrast adjustments are so terribly below par that it is almost unusable. This means I have to use a different editor to mess with photos, which is not only a big annoyance but also destroys the cool editing flexibility offered by Picasa.

But that's not all. Picasa has this cool concept of a "label" that can be associated with a set of pictures in order to create a "virtual" folder. You can even associate multiple labels with a picture so that you can have multi-dimensional views of your collection. All well and good, but I have already put in considerable effort into organizing my folders hierarchically by time periods and events. And Picasa provides no way of importing this structure to automatically create labels. Worse still, it destroys my hierarchical organization and provides no clean navigational aid to go through my pictures!! Somehow, I cannot imagine going through more than 100 folders to create an equivalent label for each of them. And using labels just for my newer pictures means that I have to contend with two different navigational modes for my photos -- a complete non-starter.

The final annoyance that sealed the deal was that there is simply no automatic way to select all photos in my collection. Picasa will only let me select from one folder at a time. There goes my idea of creating a Picasa screensaver with all my pictures. (You might be wondering why I'd need that feature, since Windows XP already lets me have a screensaver based on my pictures. Trouble is, Windows appears to use a horribly broken random number generator and a poor sampling algorithm that is badly biased by directory structure.)

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Episode Two: Nature's Revenge


Sequoia National Forest, July 2, 2005.

Anonymous Critic: The ironic juxtaposition of the gushing fluidity of the Kings river with the bottled-up flatness of defocused cola brings into stark relief the towering inconsequentiality of carbonation in Nature's grand design.

Pop Art Episode One: The Triumph of Consumerism


Sequoia National Forest, July 2, 2005

Anonymous Critic: A meditative metaphor on the intrusion of consumerist symbols into the farthest reaches of otherwise pristine territory.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

So much for a free press

I've been patiently waiting for a story from a reputable newspaper on the Valerie Plame controvery that discusses exactly who the source of the leaks are. The blogosphere has been alive for a while with stories about Karl Rove being the mastermind protected by Judith Miller, which would explain why her withholding of information is serious enough that she's going to jail. See Mark Kleiman's extensive coverage (Was it Rove? , Steve Teles on Reporter's Privilege, No Crime in the Plame Case. That's not what the Judge thinks) for an overview.

Two interesting points emerge from all of this. First, the press has known the whole story for quite a while but has ganged up to studiously avoid any mention of it in a show of misguided solidarity. Second, with regard to Judith Miller, the courts have been extremely clear that "the information she was given and her potential use of it was a crime." It is disingenuous for the NY Times editors to argue (a) that Miller testifying would have a chilling effect on whistleblowers everywhere; or (b) that the shroud of secrecy around the investigation somehow privileges them not to cooperate.

With respect to (a), the presiding Judge was clear in drawing a line between whistleblowers providing information on governmental misconduct and government officials committing a crime in providing secret information to attack administration critics.

With respect to (b), the Times admits that reporters' privileges are not unlimited. It also admits they don't have the information to know what the implications of this particular case are. The natural solution in such a case would be to let the courts -- which do have the requisite information -- determine the limits of those privileges. Worse still, Judge Hogan claimed that the source Miller "alleges she is protecting" had already waived her promise of confidentiality.

Friday, July 01, 2005

A Confidence Trick

From the Strange-but-true department. The BBC reports on the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's attempt to deliberately lose a confidence vote so that he can call early elections. Part of the attempt involved convincing his deputies and MPs to vote against his government, a task that he eventually succeeded at. Schroeder's motivations seem relatively above-board. His party is rather unpopular in Germany at the moment and is a long shot to return to power. Two-thirds of the country does want early elections, according to opinion polls. And finally, Schroeder claims he needs a fresh mandate in order to push through controversial reforms.

Nevertheless, deliberately losing a confidence vote seems to be out there in terms of strategies open to him. Wouldn't a mere resignation work? At worst, shouldn't he have been introducing a motion of "No Confidence" instead of one of "Confidence", since it seems clear that he himself had lost faith in his government?