December 22, 2006
BodiesI went to see the exhibit Bodies yesterday. This features actual human bodies, preserved via some process that leaves their appearance intact, and dissected in various ways to show the internal detail.
I thought the exhibit was amazing. As the audio guide pointed out, it lets you see inside the human body in a way that only doctors have been able to. Quite impressive the way everything is squooshed together just so. And some of the ways that people are displayed is fascinating--for example showing only the blood vessels, or only the nervous system. Many of the people had been smokers, and the image of blackened lungs contained within an otherwise healthy (relatively-speaking) body should hopefully be enough to scare a few people into quitting.
There were a lot of children there. I don't think it is inappropriate for children (young children probably won't quite "get" that these are real bodies). The only reason I wouldn't (and am glad I didn't) bring my kids is because they would probably want to go through the exhibit faster than you.
At the end of the exhibit they have a log book to sign. It's filled with the expected praise and horror, but also some funny stuff...on the day we went there were two different drawings of a child throwing up, plus one person who wrote "WTF is an ileum?" And there were people claiming that the level of detail revealed was proof that humans were created.
Some of the comments stated that the bodies were Chinese political prisoners and that this was hidden. I don't know where they came from, but I'm not sure why there provenance is such an issue...after all medical schools dissect people all the time (certainly I don't think they were healthy living people who were "harvested" for this purpose). I suppose there is some concern over whether they consented before they died. But I agree with the statement on the wall at the end, that the bodies were treated with the respect they deserved.
One thing I think would have been even more interesting would be to show bodies at different ages, and to show the effects of wounds on the body. The website mentions that by law they cannot reveal anything about the identity of the people, so I suppose both of these wouldn't be allowed. Plus, it might give more people the willies if knowing details of the backstory made the bodies seem more real.
The exhibit runs through April 1 in Seattle, and there are parallel exhibits in other cities. Definite worth the money, and get the audio tour also (which comes in both kid and adult versions).
December 19, 2006
PowerlessOn Thursday evening at 10 pm, following a severe windstorm in the Seattle area, the power went out at our house. It's still not back on.
Before I continue, I'll point out that we have a generator at our house, which runs off the natural gas line, so we have lights, heat, working refrigerator and are not suffering much from this (except that I had to fix a gate fence on the side of our house that had twisted its hinge apart). We are now suffering a meta-anti-schadenfreude, as we feel bad that our neighbors feel bad at our good fortune. Although many of them have since decamped to visit friends or family or hotels that have power. Our kids, meanwhile, are envious of their friends who are having an "authentic" power outage experience (although a one-night sleepover in a 40-degree candle-lit house seems to cure them of this).
The paper today had an editorial about how the region had survived the storm, and mentioning that there were "pockets" left without power. But the entire area we live in is still without power. I don't know how many houses, but there are three elementary schools that serve it. So that's a pretty big pocket. I think the feeling (from the cozy confines of a newspaper office in Seattle) is that the remaining outage is the usual contingent of outlying people who live on 5 acres at the end of a windy road lined with old trees. But it's not; there are still large areas with no power. Puget Sound Energy, the utility that provides electricity to us, had about 700,000 homes out at the peak, and their website says they still have 150,000 out. On the road leading up to our house, there has been a large tree leaning on the power line for the last 5 days (it actually is quite elegantly cantilevered over the street, which creates a nice entrance-to-a-National-Park effect, except every time you drive under it you have to wonder if this is the moment when the power line will finally snap and send the tree crashing down on your car).
Which reminds me, someone I know said they saw the CEO of Puget Sound Energy, Steve Reynolds, sitting in a Starbucks on Friday morning after the storm hit. This was a Starbucks in Bellevue, in the tiny patch of the Eastside that didn't lose power. The report was that he didn't seem too hurried to get back to work. Of course this was before PSE had done their full assessment and started using phrases like "unprecedented damage to the utility's electric system". If Microsoft is looking to hire someone with operations experience to help run their websites, I suspect (with the misguided certainty of a blogger) that ol' Steve might suffer an involuntary separation from his current job once PSE's response to the storm has been investigated (although I would be remiss if I didn't mention that PSE is also the utility that has kept the natural gas flowing to our house all this time).
Microsoft lost power on Friday, and possibly for some undetermined amount of time over the weekend, but by Monday things were back to normal. Although the refrigerators in all the buildings were emptied out (probably a good thing anyway) and I'm not sure whether to trust the chocolate milk.
So we'll see. Our generator is still cranking away after 100+ hours, hopefully in a coiple of days the lights will come back on around us, and someday the people will return.
December 12, 2006
Go Check Out MVSpyMichael Amster is a former Microsoft intern who is probably best remembered for having spent the summer rebuilding the engine of a convertible that he parked under Building 4 (that wasn't his official job, much to the detriment of his end-of-summer evaluation). Anyway, many years later he is now involved in a site called MVSpy. This is a video submission and voting site, but the twist is that the highest-voted videos will get their own show on Comcast On Demand. That's television, for those of you who have forgotten. Whether an on-demand cablecast gives you better or worse exposure than the original website is an open question, but in the meantime it would be great if you could click that link and head over to the site. Then Michael will see all these referrals from my site and will no doubt anoint me Louis XVII, the Lost Dauphin of France. Thank you.
Somewhere "Out There"I'm not big into the mindless link propagation posts, and lord knows Jason Calacanis is not the place to start. BUT I was interested in his comments about Being an "Out there person". It's actually a link to a report about a certain kind of employees who:
- Value fame as an "asset"
- Willing to share certain types of sensitive information on the web
- Believe it is appropriate to criticize their organizations on the web
- Believe that "organizations need to be more transparent to succeed"
- Believe "there's no harm in openly discussing the work I do inside my organization with others"
I suppose that's me, mostly, or I might summarize it as "There's no such thing as bad publicity. Calacanis makes the trenchant observation that such behavior is migrating over time from shocking to important to normal.
December 10, 2006
BCS FolliesIf you're a college football fan you've heard of the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS. This is the ranking system that determines which two teams meet in a bowl game for the national championship. It's the system that arranged an Ohio State vs. Florida matchup this year.
If you're NOT a college football fan, you may have heard of the BCS because you overhead a fan complaining about what a mess the BCS is and how it screws up the matchup each year. Why do people complain about that? It's simple: the BCS is behaving exactly the way it was supposed to behave.
Back in the way old days (1992, that kind of stuff), the college football national champion was decided by a poll. Actually there were two polls, one of the coaches and one of sportswriters, and sometimes they didn't agree, so you would have two national champions (this happened in 1991 with the Washington Huskies sharing the title with the Miami Hurricanes).
The system was obviously subjective, but most years the two polls agreed and there was reasonable consensus on who the best team was. BUT, there were two flaws that gradually became more noticeable: it was hard for one team to pass another in the polls unless the higher-ranked team lost a game, and teams tended to be penalized for losing later in the year rather than earlier.
The two are really related. Imagine that two teams finish the season undefeated, and one of them began the year ranked, say #2, and the other began the year ranked #5. Almost certainly they will wind up ranked #1 and #2 at the end of the year, but it is very unlikely that the team originally ranked #5 will be able to pass the original #2. And since the preseason rankings are somewhat random (being based on how they did last year, coach's reputation, quality of recruiting class, and other factors that mostly aren't really relevant to the current season), this isn't really fair.
The second problem was related to the first, which was that if the two best teams wound up with one loss each, the team that lost first would tend to finish ranked ahead of the other. It's a similar effect, in that after the first team loses, if it plays well thereafter it will likely climb up to be just behind the second team in the rankings, and then when the second team loses the first team would jump ahead. Again, this is somewhat random based on how the schedules are made, and didn't seem fair.
Now, college football does have a system of bowl games, which are one-game postseason contests. And if the #1 and #2 ranked teams at the end of the year always played each other in a bowl game, then the winner could be declared #1 with no complaints from anybody (except perhaps the #3 team, about which more later). But the bowl games had ties to conferences, in which the champion of a certain conference would play in certain bowl games, so a #1 vs. #2 bowl game would be a happy coincidence. The #1 and #2 teams would often play in different bowl games, both win, and remain in the same unfair preseason-ranking-and-first-to-lose-based spots.
In the mid 1990s agreements started to be worked out wherein bowls would let conferences out of their commitments if it allowed a #1 vs. #2 game to happen. This eventually coalesced into the current BCS system. The problem then became, how to decide who is #1 and #2? If both polls agreed, or at least had the same top two in a different order, it wouldn't be so terrible, although there was still the possibility that the #3 team was being treated unfairly by the rankings due to the factors discussed above. Plus, it was certainly possible for the two polls to agree on #1 but have #2 and #3 swapped, and then what?
Well, at the time various people and organizations were developing system to produce computer rankings of teams. The computer rankings were based on factors like wins, margin of victory, quality of opponent, etc (in varying degrees, down to zero, for some of the factors). Although the formulas were a bit murky, they did away with the preseason ranking problem and the first-to-lose problem.
The first BCS rankings averaged together the polls, the computer rankings, strength-of-schedule (included to encourage good teams to schedule stronger opponents), and number of losses (which was thrown in, I guess, to bias in favor of undefeated teams, although the other systems tended to factor that in also, so it wound up biasing in favor of undefeated but unappreciated teams, like those from small conferences that played weak schedules; they got zapped by strength-of-schedule anyway).
You can get PDFs of all the BCS results from this page; it shows weekly results, so scroll down to the bottom to see the final tallies. The first year, 1998, the system worked well, with the polls and the computers agreeing that Tennessee and Florida State were the top two teams (thus making the whole BCS foofaraw unnecessary, since the polls would have sufficed). In 1999 there were two major-conference undefeated teams, Florida State and Virginia Tech, who were as expected 1 and 2 in the polls and the computers, so again the system was not needed (everybody also agreed that Nebraska was #3, but Wisconsin, #4 in both polls, wound up #7 in the BCS due to bad computer rankings, weak schedule, and 2 losses). I'll point out that in both years the #1 going in (Tennessee in 1998 and Florida State in 1999) wound up winning the bowl game, so the BCS overall didn't affect the national champion.
The year 2000 was the first test for the BCS formulas. Oklahoma was the only undefeated team and the obvious #1, but while Miami was #2 in both polls, #3 Florida State was ahead of it in the computer rankings, in fact it was rated #1 by the computers. This was despite the poll-influencing fact that Miami had beaten Florida State during the regular season. But the computers had spoken, and so Florida State went off to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, a game which Oklahoma won without too much trouble. So the #1 team won the championship and everybody was reasonably happy. Except people in Miami, who felt they should have had a shot at Oklahoma (Miami wound up beating BCS #7 Florida in their bowl game). People started agitating that the BCS was a bit unfair and head-to-head games should be recognized and all that.
Let's pause to consider what was going on. Miami seemed to be benefiting from voter bias. Although winning a head-to-head is a legitimate way to decide between two teams, over the course of the season Florida State had apparently been a better team, per the computers. I mean, Florida State had lost to Miami: a pretty good team, right? Miami meanwhile had lost to...well wait, who had they lost to? Well, it turns out Miami lost to the Washington Huskies, who were the #4 BCS team. So while #3 Miami was complaing that they had beaten #2 Florida State and so should be ranked ahead of them, #4 Washington could make the exact same statement about #3 Miami, which arguably should have put Washington at #2--right? I think the lesson drawn here is that there is no perfect system, and trusting the computers is as good a system as any. After all Miami did have a big BCS advantage from being #2 in the polls; Florida State had to be significantly better in the computers to pull ahead of them.
Anyway, what ACTUALLY happened the next year, 2001, is that they added a "quality win" component to the BCS. Basically you got points for beating a team that was in the top 15 of the BCS ranking, earning from a 1.5 to a 0.1 bonus for beating #1 through #15. So what happened? Well, this time it was Miami who wound up undefeated and #1, beloved by both polls and computers, and we had another dandy "Who's #2" controversy. The polls both agreed on Oregon #2, Colorado #3, and Nebraska #4. But the computers were almost unanimous that Nebraska was really the #2 team, with Colorado and Oregon basically tied for third. Colorado had two losses to Nebraska's one, but they played a very tough schedule, #2 in the country. In particular, they had played Nebraska and stomped them pretty good, 62-36. But they had somewhat unaccountably lost the season opener to Fresno State, and also lost to Texas, #7 in the final BCS. Except then they turned around and beat Texas in the Big 12 championship. So they had beaten the #2 and #7 BCS teams, which games them 1.4 and 0.9 "quality win" points, respectively, for a total of 2.3. Anyway the net result was that Nebraska wound up ahead of Colorado in total BCS points (with lower being better) 7.23 to 7.28. Second bridesmaid Oregon wound up crushing Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, which was played before the Miami-Nebraska game, leaving them hope that if Nebraska won, Oregon might split the national championship (because after all the BCS fuss, only one of the two polls actually had its voters committed to vote the winner of the BCS title game as #1). But their hope was for naught when Miami won easily.
This was another year of controversy, with the #3 BCS team again having beaten the #2 BCS team, and the consensus #1 team remaining as the only undefeated anyway, rendering all the fuss somewhat pointless. There was also an interesting point which I, anyway, noticed, which was about Colorado's quality win points. They received 1.4 for beating #2 Nebraska and 0.9 for beating #7 Texas. But what if Texas had wound up #6 instead of #7? It was not, in fact, close--Texas was behind #6 Tennessee in the polls, the computer rankings, strengh-of-schedule, AND quality win points--but it could have happened. So now Colorado gets an extra 0.1 for quality wins and is now #2, because it has 7.18 points to Nebraska's 7.23. But hang on, Nebraska is no longer #2, right? They're now #3...so Colorado only gets 1.3 quality win points for beating them. Which puts Colorado back to #3. But now Nebraska is #2 again, so shouldn't Colorado get 1.4 quality win points for beating them? And so in an endless cycle. Help!
2002 brought a new wrinkle--a note in the BCS results that quality win points were calculated based on standings before the quality win deduction was made. OK, so somebody else noticed. The actual season was controvery-free, as Miami and Ohio State wound up as the two undefeated teams, 1-2 in the polls, and 1-2 in the computers. The only interesting thing was that Ohio State wound up winning the bowl game, so for the first time the BCS had actually produced a different champion than the old poll-only system (in the old days Ohio State would have been beholden to play the Pac-10 winner in the Rose Bowl and could not have played Miami). Which would have given Ohio State reason to complain, as an undefeated team, they they were unfairly penalized for a lower preseason ranking than Miami (they were #4, while Miami, as defending champion, began the season #1). This seemed like a year where the system worked perfectly, matching two undefeated teams who would not have met without the BCS, and producing, presumably, the deserving champion (although the Buckeyes, 11.5 point underdogs, had to squeak out a 31-24 overtime victory).
In 2003, you had a new twist: three major college teams all with one loss at the end of the regular season. The polls had it USC, LSU, and Oklahoma, but the BCS saw it the opposite way. So LSU played Oklahoma (and won), USC griped and groused about how unfair the BCS was, and much ink was spilled on how ridiculous it was that the #1 team in both polls didn't even get a chance to play in the title game.
But hang on. The 2003 season seemed like an example of the BCS working PRECISELY the way it was supposed. The rankings started out with Oklahoma above USC above LSU (there were other teams mixed in, but they filtered out as the season went on). USC lost to Cal 34-31 on Sept. 27, LSU lost 19-7 to Florida on Oct. 11, and Oklahoma lost 35-7 to Kansas State on Dec. 6. It seems clear that USC wound up ranked higher purely from being the first to lose a game. And if you want to play the "who did they lose to" game, Florida wound up as the #15 BCS team and Kansas State was #10, so Oklahoma and LSU lost to better teams. Although admittedly USC lost to Cal in overtime and Kansas State blew out Oklahoma...but still the computer rankings made it quite clear that Oklahoma and LSU were the two best teams (and they also played tougher schedules). Anyway LSU won the bowl game, but the AP voters (the ones who did not have to respect the BCS title game result) persisted in voting USC #1, so we wound up with a split title, which is what the BCS was designed to avoid. But arguably this wasn't so terrible; you had 3 top teams, two of them got to play for half the title and the other one got the other half.
But of course nobody but me saw it that way, so in 2004 the system was rejiggered so that the polls had much more weight. In other words, the system in 2003 was working as designed, de-emphasizing the polls because of the problems that led to the creation of the BCS ranking in the first place, and the response was to re-emphasize the polls, once again proving that BCS hindsight is 20-20. In 2004 there was nothing about wins or strength of schedule or quality wins, just two polls and the computer rankings, each given equal weight (that is, one-third for one poll, one-third for the other poll, one-third for the average computer ranking, with the high and low computer ranking (out of six) thrown out, just in case they diverged too far from the polls). What actually happened was that there were 3 major undefeated teams: USC, Oklahoma, and Auburn (plus Utah and Boise State, who nobody took that seriously). And Auburn did rightfully complain that the only reason they were #3 was because they had started the season ranked #17, while USC and Oklahoma were #1 and #2 in the preseason (since none of them had lost a game, the "first to lose" effect didn't come into play). But Auburn was also a solid #3 in the computer rankings, so this is a year where I felt the BCS rankings worked, in that they elevated the computer rankings so that they showed that the polls probably were correct (if Auburn had been a close #2 in the polls, depending on the details of how people voted, they probably still would have been #3 in the BCS, although I haven't gone back to see what effect their strength of schedule or quality wins would have had). Anyway USC crushed Oklahoma and the poll #1 won the national championship, as usual.
Last year was uneventful from a BCS ranking point of view; the calculations were unchanged, USC and Texas were the only major undefeated teams, they were 1-2 in the polls, and they met in a bowl game. The only surprise was that Texas actually beat USC, so for the second time (after Ohio State in 2002) a team that would have finished a clear #2 in the old system (USC would have been forced to the Rose Bowl against the Big Ten, so would not have played Texas) was able to take advantage of their shot at #1 to win the national championship.
So what is my appraisal of the BCS? Well, the part about matching #1 and #2 is good, as Ohio State and Texas will certainly agree; but generally the years where the ranking system "worked", in that it did something unexpected in choosing its #1 and #2, were the years that people complained about it the most and tweaked it to prevent whatever random thing happened from happening again. In other words, most people don't know what the heck they are talking about. What people are now calling for, especially Auburn, is a playoff, where instead of #1 vs. #2 you take the top (say) 8 teams and have quarter and semi-finals before the big game. I like to think this stems from a genuine desire to find the best team, not from gazing longingly at the money and publicity generated by the 65-team tournament that basketball plays every year. Nobody seems to notice that there is a playoff system now; it's just that it only has two teams, so there is controversy over who is #3. Do they not realize that if you have 4 teams in the playoffs, then the controversy will move to the #5 spot...and if they have 8 teams it will move to #9...and so on? I mean, when you have relative nonentities like Cal beating USC during the regular season in 2003, it's hard to argue that on "any given Saturday" (or Tuesday or whatever) one team can't beat another, and therefore deserves a chance in the playoffs.
So who knows. Maybe there will be a playoff. Or maybe there will be more tweaks next year. This year you have yet another controversy, as undefeated Ohio State is the clear #1, but there are various one-loss contenders for #2, with the actual BCS ranking having Florida beating out Michigan. Michigan already lost to Ohio State this year, a game that if they had won would have left them a solid #1, so they can't really complain; but in this case the computers actually have Florida and Michigan tied for second, with the poll then acting as the tie-breaker, and sure enough Florida is ahead of Michigan mainly because Florida lost on Oct. 14 (to Auburn) and Michigan lost on Nov. 18, so it's the "first to lose" thing, but didn't Michigan beat a better team (although Auburn is no slouch)...so maybe we should bring back strength of schedule or quality wins or something...but wouldn't it be unfair to ask Ohio State to play Michigan again, so maybe there should be something in the formula to bias against that...and on and on. As they say, be careful what you wish for, it may come true.
December 07, 2006
Digital Looting DivideAmidst all the fuss about people cracking DRM protection schemes to steal movies and music, it's often ignored that you can copy all this stuff rather trivially--as long as you are willing to go analog during the copy process. You can copy a DVD by playing it and running the output into a VCR (I know there's some system where certain VCRs detect that they are not supposed to record a signal, so you need a VCR that is old, stupid, or sneaky enough); failing that, you can train a video camera on the television and record that. I suspect that you could come up with a controlled environment and get a pretty good copy. Meanwhile with music, you can run the output of your playback device into a tape recorder, computer, etc. or even just record it off the air. Shoot, people buy ripped-off movies that have been recorded with a camcorder in a theater; those have to be worse than what you could do at home (note that I'm not encouraging anybody to actually make such copies, or commenting on the legality or morality of doing such copying; just thinking about the psychology of the result).
The problem, of course, is that then you don't have a digital copy. It's not as (gasp) perfect as it could be. I know I have this feeling even though I grew up listening to music on an AM radio and watching television off the air, which are probably both much worse quality than what you could achieve by starting with a digital version and going analog for a couple of feet. In fact I doubt it's noticeably worse than what you get with a straight store-bought VHS or cassette tape.
It's probably part of marketing by content people. While contuing to sell analog versions, they are simultaneously hyping the perfection achieved with digital content, so that making your own analog copies seems too infra dig to even consider. Very clever.
December 05, 2006
Poker and MeetingsThe reason for my recent blog silence is that I spent a long weekend in Las Vegas playing poker. There are various different styles of playing poker: you can be very loose, playing lots of hands; or you can play very tight, only playing pots when you have good hands. You can also be aggressive, raising and bluffing a lot, or not. Finally, you can earn the dreaded label "weak-tight", which means you don't play a lot of hands, and when you do play them, you get very scared whenever somebody raises you, and construct scenarios in which they have you beat.
I was sitting at a meeting in my sleep-deprived post-Vegas state and I had the thought that sitting around a conference room table was similar to sitting around a poker table. And THEN I had the clever-or-maybe-not thought that your demeanor in a meeting can be mapped pretty closely to the poker styles.
Meaning, playing a hand at the poker table is a lot like choosing to enter a discussion in a meeting. You can be loose or tight, that is you can open your mouth whenever you think of anything, or only speak when you have a "good hand"--something that it is really worthwhile to say. Once you are in a discussion, you can be aggressive, meaning you persist until you get your way, or you can be passive, meaning you defer to others. And of course you can be "weak-tight", meaning that you don't say much, and when you do, you quickly assume that any counter-arguments you hear are better than your arguments.
One concept I have heard in relation to meetings is "the power of silence". You should mostly be quiet during meetings, because it adds gravitas to anything you do say, makes people more willing to listen, and helps you prevail in arguments. People assume that if you speak rarely, you will only do so when you feel strongly about something, and if you shut up unless you really have something valid to say, you are more likely to win arguments, because you only starts ones where you have a well-thought-out position.
This matches up nicely with poker, where being tight but aggressive is usually the right way to play. You stay quiet until you have a good "hand" to play, but when you do play something, you are aggressive. I'm too loose in meetings and probably too weak-tight as well. So from now on I'm going to sit back, wait for the premium hands, and re-raise when I get one.