Monday, April 25, 2011

Music and Raw Data Aggregation

There is utility and power in aggregation of resources, especially electronic resources today. 
Wikipedia aggregates more information than those shelves and shelves of old encyclopedias. Google aggregates the world's websites, putting them at our fingertips through simple searches. The list goes on.
But, more aggregation can be done in the way of electronic resources for music and raw data.

Consider the electronic resources for music:
-For radio I go to Pandora, LastFM, or maybe some other site
-For streaming a specific song I try to find the song on YouTube, or go to Grooveshark
-For biographical information I go to Wikipedia
-For lyrics I search in Google and sort through the results (most of which bombard with pop-ups) ... the same for guitar tabs
-Band websites are found on Myspace and Facebook 
-For "musician wanted" classifieds, or instrument classifieds, I go to Craigslist
It would be powerful to combine all of these resources into one music website.

Also, consider raw data aggregation:
What the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project (BEST) has done is to put all of the publicly available temperature records in one place, in a common format, making it much easier for outside researches to cross check and do their own analysis. Temperature analysis is now both easier for other researchers, but also more accurate since more data means less statistical uncertainty.
Now imagine if all publicly available raw data - scientific, governmental, commercial - were put in one place, in a common format. It would save researchers an unfathomable amount of time, which would be put towards data analysis instead of searching for and organizing data. Additionally, such aggregation would inspire and enable new research ideas that would not have been possible otherwise. Raw data is being used for anything from cell phone apps to physics papers, and it seems essential to begin forming a central database to provide better universal access.



Sunday, April 24, 2011

Free Software Arrrr!

It’s amazing how easy it is to get ANY software you want free from the internet these days. I don’t know who these wizards are who figure out how to crack the software, but thank god they’re out there.

I recently realized that some people just don’t know how easy it is, have had bad experiences in the past with torrents (the file that lets you download the program from other people), or just don’t like going to torrent websites because of the vulgar advertising that you’re always bombarded with, so I would like to share the way that I have consistently had a good experience…well, my experience used to be hit-or-miss. I would do a Google search for the software that I wanted, then scour the various results that popped up. Forget that strategy. Just go to Pirate Bay “top 100” and you always find torrents that work. Simply put, statistics work. People see the comments that others post on the torrents that are offered and choose the best one, consistently.
So to get free software there are 2 steps:
1) Download a torrent application (Client)
    - Transmission for Mac (I wish they made it for PC, too)
    - MicroTorrent for PC 
2) Go to "Pirate Bay Top 100" and look for your desired software
    - Download using program

It's easy to say it's easy when you've already figured it out, so I will share the fruit of my downloading with you via a nifty website called DropBox that allows you to upload and share up to 2GB of files for free on the internet and gives public links for files with no maximum file size. Awesome!

Download for free:






Make BART Automated!

One of the most interesting things that I learned in my mass transportation class at Berkeley is that BART can run entirely automated. When BART was first built in the 70’s it was demonstrated that the system can run without drivers, but the leaders of the project thought that the public wouldn’t want to put their fate in a computer’s hands. That initial decision has had lasting consequences: due to strong unions, BART administrators now cannot eliminate drivers. The public trusts automated trains - wikipedia has a list of "large scale metros" that are driverless - so why don’t we make the trains automated and put all of those driver salaries towards making BART run at night and add additional lines? My frustration with BART comes from the fact that they are always somehow strapped for cash despite the fact that passengers pay exorbitant prices to pack themselves like sardines in a 10-car train for a quick ride under the bay. It costs $8.65 to go from SFO to downtown Berkeley, but to go the full length of the route, SFO-Pittsburg/Baypoint costs $10.90, and with an average of 75 people per car (that's how many in my BART car as as I write), that's a ton of money.

 QUICK MATH: ~75 people x 10-car train x $10.90 =  $8,175. The full trip takes 1hr 20 mins. Where does all the money go? Service. Look at these salaries of BART employees. Drivers, known as "train operators" can make more than $136,000 dollars a year + awesome benefits. For what?... driving  - something a computer could do a better job at doing, it seems. I guess just knowing that other metros, like Vancouver's SkyTrain, have used technology to liberate human beings from the unnecessary task of driving makes it feel like something within BART's reach. To me this is representative of a larger movement as we move forward of making computers do menial labor for us wherever possible.

It looks like BART,
 but it's the 47 mile driverless SkyTrain of Vancouver
The most ridiculous aspect of BART is that it doesn’t run at night. How is it possible that BART trains don’t run between the hours of 1am and 7am on weekends? Do the administrators not realize that such a decision is absolutely crippling to everyone in the Bay Area? 
The effect it has on my life is that when I go clubbing in the City, it means that me and my friends can't get home afterward, so I end up getting in a car with a drunk driver. It means I can't make the 7:35am flight from SFO to Santa Barbara which is my only chance flying standby (my dad works at the airport).

So why don't they run it at night? Again, service. You have to pay everyone more for working late-night. If there weren't drivers, would all-night trains fit into the budget? How about all of those extensions, like to the San Jose airport
Let's embrace technology and modernize BART.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Physics Courses in the 21st Century

What are physics classes coming to, now that more information is becoming more readily available via the internet? How can you assign a homework problem that has  "4,392 results" on the internet, found in "0.15 seconds," and grade it as if it were representative of the student's ability?
There are only so many ways that you can write the standard "projectiles" problems, or "Gauss's Law" problems, etc., and today you can find the solution to ANY problem online, guaranteed. A professor can try to write problems in a covert way, but students aren't stupid: they'll sniff out the parallel problem on the internet and copy it to get their 100% homework score, which varies in fraction of the final grade from 30-50%.
    So what purpose does homework serve then?Well here's an illustrative example: I had one professor for E+M who knew all the students had the solutions manual to the Griffiths E+M book (again, found on Google in 0.15 seconds), but he'd assign all the problems from it anyway - this was the part that at first confused me, but by imagining yourself in his shoes it makes sense. He recognized the fact that to try to 'fool' the students by writing one of the standard problems in a covert and more confusing way would be petty and counterproductive, so his strategy was 'screw it, let them copy homework problems if they so choose.' He would assign an enormous number of problems that no student had time to finish without the aid of the solutions manual, and had a firm 'no late homework' policy. The trend was like this: at the beginning of the semester students started the homework early in the week, and used the solutions manual only to check their answers, due at 5pm every Friday in the Reading Room homework box. Then, as the semester went on students would start the homework later and later, to the point that they would start the assignment on Friday -- imposssssible to finish without shutting down your brain and copying as fast as your poor sore hand can write. Sure enough, when you'd look through the box of graded homework on Monday, you'd see all perfect scores. Then, for tests the professor allowed "cheat sheets," up to three pages of notes of any kind. Then on tests the class average would be below 50% with a perfect Gaussian spread --- how? Some students just copied homework and didn't spend time making good cheat sheets, while others put in the time necessary to actually learn the homework problems (no surprise here).  
    When I studied abroad in Italy, their system was different. There were only two exams that decided your grade: the written exam and the oral exam. You were required to first pass the written exam before being able to take the oral exam, but almost everyone passed the written exam; yet again, there are only so many different ways you can write the standard "particle in a box," "harmonic oscillator," and step/delta function problems, so the students simply got the previous exam solutions from last students, then aced the exam, which was always similar to past exams. But then there's the oral exam: I talked with one student who said that he didn't even get the book, for the oral exam the professor simply wants to hear his own words regurgitated back to him.
   My problem with these education systems is that students end up wasting a lot of time jumping through hoops rather than learning. This happens because the institution needs to give the appearance that its students have learned to solve crazy problems, and can give eloquent answers to difficult oral exams, but in reality students are shutting down their minds copying homework, memorizing solutions to problems knowing that it will show up on the exam, and regurgitating what the professor said without thinking at allllll. The students who choose to do things the hard way, 'nobly', spending all week on the problem set and still not finishing it, who don't write problem solutions onto their cheat sheet out of principle, who study from multiple outside resources for an oral exam rather than memorizing the professor's words verbatim, get screwed. There are an enormous number of extremely bright students who just can't put up with the hoops that universities like Berkeley throw at them, which is a shame. I look forward to a future education system in which students end up learning instead of jumping through hoops.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Physics Tidbits

Reduction in entropy via Jezzball
I was studying the ideal gas for my 112 midterm, and found the explanations in Kittel the most vivid that I've encountered, which is surprising since at first glance it seems like the book will be of the driest kind.
     It made me think of Jezzball, a game I used to play. In an irreversible expansion, a partition is removed, but the temperature (and energy since U=3/2Nτ) of the classical ideal gas does not change, and no work is done on or by the gas. Why? Well, you don't change the particles' velocities, as you would by pushing on the particles in compressing with a piston.
   Well, in Jezzball you are doing something similar, but instead you are doing no work, keeping the temperature the same, but making the volume smaller. This would lower the entropy without paying for it, how? Well, this is an alternate take on Maxwell's Demon, which tells us that the opposite of a free expansion cannot occur, which is why we call it an "irreversible" expansion.

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Society and Economics as an Ideal Gas
For ages people have looked for analogies between classical thermodynamics and economics. Here is one paper that treats the topic in mathematical rigor.

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I watched this video of Richard Feynman last night and it filled me with joy.
I think everyone has wondered at one point, "why do magnets repel," and although his initial response to the interviewer,"because there's a magnetic force that makes them repel" at first seems terse, his substantiation justifies the response beautifully.
The answer to a student of physics does have more layers of depth, but even our best understanding today reaches a point where there are unanswered why's.




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I was thinking about how the moment of a spinning top precesses around a vector antiparallel to the gravitational field, whereas a magnetic moment precesses around a vector parallel to the magnetic field...how can we resolve this discrepancy...should we change our convention of the direction of magnetic or gravitational field?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

An Idea to Reduce Electronic Waste

I have a laptop and an ipod with broken LCDs, as well as four desktop computers that I obtained from friends who were going to throw them away. All six of these devices are sitting under my bed, collecting dust - oh don't say that I'm becoming a hoarder, the laptop and ipod still work perfectly, I just can't see anything, and the desktop computers could be fixed with about 5 minutes of a technician's time; I'm going to fix them myself....someday...
Man putting his old laptop into the nearby E-Waste bin

A look inside the bin
What's actually going to happen is that all of these devices are going to get thrown into the trash (not e-waste recycling) because I'm never going to find the time to try to fix them, I'm not going to pay to have them fixed, and I'm not going to pay to recycle them. But there's a potential solution to this waste of resources that I would like to propose: a non-profit organization that collects these devices, assesses what is working, and implements them to best serve society.
When I studied abroad in Padova, Italy, I noticed large yellow bins all over the city in which you can drop off old clothes, shoes, etc., which the church picks up and redistributes to the poor. They look like large mail boxes. I thought it was such a great idea that I researched the concept and found that a non-profit called Planet Aid (although it has some dubious affiliations) does the same in the US. I think a similar model could be implemented for electronic devices. If there was a box in my neighborhood, I would walk over there with these old devices, drop them off, and feel good knowing that they would be put to optimal use in serving society. People could throw any electronic-related devices in the bins: cell phones, CD players, cords, monitors, and the organization would come pick up the items. The organization would have a few technicians who would sort through and test the various electronics, properly recycling the items that are truly unsalvageable, and keeping those that still have working parts. These devices will then be hooked up to form an ever growing supercomputer, which can be used for processing of data like BOINC, or for public storage; whatever best serves society. The resources these devices provide would be used optimally, instead of being thrown away, or sitting under my bed collecting dust and deteriorating. The other alternative would be to rebuild computers and send them to poor countries, but this scheme would require significantly less labor since aesthetics of the device are not important.
Assembly of all the parts to make a supercomputer 

1)Reduce 2)Reuse 3)Recycle --- since reducing consumption of electronic goods is not going to happen, the next best thing is to reuse them, which this organization would seek to do.

Update: I recently found that there is a non-profit organization called Free Geek that takes computer donations, fixes them up and gives them away to other non-profits or sells them for a small price to sustain the organization. Great!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Microsoft Word 2011 Hotkey for Fullscreen View

Microsoft Word 2011 Hotkey/Shortcut for Fullscreen View:
Don't want to click the fullscreen button to toggle fullscreen? Well, there's no set command to do it, yet. So make it:
 ---Tools -> customize keyboard -> view -> ToggleFull -> press new keyboard shortcut

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

SETI, Volunteer Computing, and Education in the Future

Painting in honor of the late Danny Ordaz
How easy it is to get swept out to sea when surfing the web.

While reading a book for my English class I remembered my friend told me a long time ago that you can have your computer help search for aliens when its idle. With Google always ready to serve me, I let my attention take a tangent, threw the book aside, and took out my laptop. The SETI alien project at Berkeley is the first result, and they have truly a remarkable system so that anyone can let their computer contribute to scientific data analysis. When we see lists of supercomputers, this aggregate network actually tops them all. 
I found that SETI is a part of the non-profit called GridRepublic which manages 20 different projects that need "volunteer computing," projects from understanding complex proteins to proving complex mathematical theorems. I installed the software, and then bam, my computer was contributing to 20 projects, advancing Science and The Knowledge of Humanity!

However, I immediately noticed that my hard drive had accelerated and the fan was cranking out at an alarming rate; I quit the program and will probably never run it again. 
Why am I never going to use the program again? The program has easily adjustable settings such that you can set it to only crunch data when the computer is idle, not while in use, but what is idle? If I don't touch my computer for a minute, is it automatically going to turn on and start crunching? Won't it sap the memory of my computer so everything will work a lot more slowly? I already have resource-intensive programs on my computer and I don't need another to worry about, especially one that doesn't provide me with instant gratification (I'll have to wait years to read the next SETI publication saying that still no aliens have been found); frankly, even though there are settings that allow me to participate as much or as little as I want, I don't have time to sort it all out, and above all I don't want to have to replace my brand new laptop after a year because this program runs my computer twice as hot as it runs normally. 
Actually no, she is not pregnant

This made me think about human nature, about selfishness. I have other computers sitting under my bed that I don't care about at all, which I could set up in my closet to crunch numbers as well. But am I going to? No - That would require my time to upkeep the machines, electricity, as well as serve as a huge distraction; GridRepublic has a "points" board, making the whole volunteer computing competitive, and I would naturally be curious as to the performance of my mini-cloud. But how selfish is it to not donate my time and resources? Its funny how knowing that something like this exists can throw you into a moral tizzy.

Yet, the idea is inspirational to me because it is a matter of optimization.
No matter what the resource is, if you're not using the resource to its full potential why not let someone else use it?
    If you have a fruit tree in your yard but only eat half the fruit, letting the rest falling on the ground to rot, why not let your neighbors eat from it? Data-crunching resources are following Moore's Law, so with a non-selfish community (or more likely if there were greater incentives to participate ie. money), we would crunch through these numbers in a jiff. 
It seems like technology is becoming so interconnected and independently operating that it's practically alive; through machine learning computers think on their own and solve their own problems, continuously optimizing performance, what a dream come true! After all, isn't optimization the one task our brains are constantly working on? Why not have computers do it for us? My optimizing mind was thinking about the prospects of efficient, affordable solar cells, nanomachines; technology that could fit so seamlessly into our lives that we forget its even technology. E-Ink is replacing paper as we speak - why? Because it's more natural than having a million LCD lights shining at your face.
It's painful seeing the improvements that can happen in our world, in technology, but are happening so slowly... or maybe my concept of speed has been skewed. For example, I see that education in the future is going to be electronically-based, using machine-learning and statistics to figure out the optimized way to present material, which problems you should be presented with based on your learning characteristics. The Kahn Academy is going in this direction, but they are trying to make the objectively clearest presentation possible - and that's a fallacy. People learn in different ways, so whereas the video they make may be the clearest presentation for, say, 90% of the population, there will still be 10% for whom a different presentation is more easily understandable. There are listening learners, seeing learners, and touch/experience learners studies show, and many shades in between, so there would have to be different presentations for different people.
How I imagine learning math in the future:
Wireless power and information will be transmitted simultaneously via the technology that this guy at my coop named Kun Wang is trailblazing, transmitted into a device that is a paper thin version of the iPad/Kindle; you can fold it up, spill on it, whatever, no problem. The student puts this device on the table, and decides to study math.
The student is presented with the material they are learning in the most efficient way possible. How? A concept like Green's Theorem has been presented sooo many times in soo many different ways, and through statistics, the best presentation would quickly be deduced. This is modified by the fact that the individual's particular learning patterns could be analyzed and understood through machine learning so that the 'best presentation' may inherently change from student to student. Let's say that a group of students are presented with 'presentationA' and are then immediately given a problem to solve, and on average 80% can solve it. Taking another group and presenting them with 'presentation B' yields only 40% can solve the same problem. Which presentation was better? Obviously there are many complications, but statistics on large numbers do wonders, and an optimized presentation could be found. One nice thing about computers is that they don't have egos, huh? The student could write their answer on this device: integrals, plus/minus, handwriting... the computer could interpret all of it and track how well the student is understanding things, and tailor the presentation of the material. Furthermore, methods to keep the students' interest would be employed by making the material more relatable. Instead of 'considering a given projectile,' it could be a golfball if the student is interested in golf, etc.

Thinking about the direction our society is going in blows my mind and makes me want to keep studying science.

"You can make babies, if you so choose. I can make you make babies, if I so choose."