Archive for February, 2007

China’s True Dash of Flavor (aka MSG)

A New York Times piece delves into Chinese cuisine. I have some comments to make, so here we go.

China’s True Dash of Flavor

Published: February 18, 2007
TODAY the Chinese Year of the Pig begins, and Americans across the country will venture to their local Chinatowns for a festive meal. Yet despite the enduring popularity of Chinese food, many still see it as strictly a down-market cuisine, more the stuff of cheap takeout than one of the world’s great culinary cultures. In the old days of chop suey and egg foo yung, this reputation may have been justified, but now that fine and authentic Chinese dining is available in the United States (if you know where to look for it), why do so many people still think of it as junky?
(Read the article)

Simonyi’s comment

Technology Review had a discussion of Charles Simonyi’s intentional programming work. Such a frustrating article. It didn’t say anything — certainly too little about how intentional programming is implemented. Most of the article was just saying, yes, cross layer design is always difficult, abstractions leak (not to mention sometimes abstraction leak is intentional to preserve performance), so on and so forth.

No, the reason this was an interesting article was the biographical part, and of the biographical part was a nugget of a quote by Simonyi:

Simonyi was born in Budapest in 1948. The son of a physics professor, he fell in love at 15 with his first computer–a mammoth Russian Ural II in Hungary’s Central Statistical Office. By the 1960s, the Ural, which received its instructions through cash-register-style keys and had a roomful of vacuum tubes to perform calculations, would already have been a relic anywhere else in the world. But Hungary’s Communist leaders were trying to use the Soviet castoff to optimize rail and trucking schedules. The Ural wasn’t up to the task: there was no way to input real-time data on shipments. “It was completely hopeless,” Simonyi recalls. “It could have been done very easily by supply and demand. Unfortunately, that was politically incorrect.”

An apt observation that the free market is but a machine of humans running an optimization algorithm.

Zune, XBox, Trojan horse

It looks like the Zune is a flop. At least in the conventional sense of market share against the iPod and portable music players. This is predictable with the kind of PR that came before its release.

However, I highly doubt the Zune was meant to be just a music player. Earthlings know that the industry vision has been that of a central computational and storage hub in the home or on the network, and portable anywhere devices as terminals. It’s old news, but I guess it’s time to get pushy when vanilla home PC’s are already in pretty much every home and old usage models require no more computational power than is already available.

In this context, the Zune is a way to dump a preferred portable devices platform out there so Microsoft can write software for it. Windows Mobile on PDA is another one of those things, but far more people buy music players and cell phones than full-blown PDA’s (I’m guessing). One has to be a bit deceptive about what is really going on when pushing these devices, which is why the Zune is “just” a portable music player, when in fact, it is a big screen with computational capabilities and built-in wireless, so with a software change it immediately becomes a generic portable device. Microsoft has done this before, certainly. The XBox was “just” a gaming console — for a while. Not any more, despite J Allard’s early protests to the contrary. It’s clearly a computational and storage hub that just happens to be accepted in the living room. Intentionally implementing an accepted specialized device within a generic platform embodiment so that the specialization can later be removed is like Trojan horse marketing, I suppose (no revelation here, just a personal reflection), but it remains the case that the Trojan horse must be a gift worthwhile enough to be accepted.

By that measure, the XBox achieved a level of success as a gaming console by having some compelling features, but the Zune did not. The Zune was too similar to practically everything else. Maybe if the Trojan horse were a cell phone instead (iPhone?) or a car-device (GPS+music player?), Microsoft would have had more success. Actually the GPS+music player idea isn’t bad. It is getting pretty popular, but only a bunch of small random brands are selling it, with inconsistent interfaces and idiotic software as a result. There is where Microsoft could have made a difference — as it already has a well regarded PC-based navigation solution and user base from that.

So there you go, Microsoft. Keep the 2-cent change.

grid cells and 2D position coding

This is fascinating. Most things that sound fascinating at first really are pretty boring, but this is a notable exception in quite a few years.

First there was a seminar (which I missed) with this kind of description

How grid cell neurons encode rat position

Recently it was discovered that neurons in an area of the cortex (called dMEC) of rats, fire on every vertex of a regular triangular lattice that tiles 2-d space. These so-called “grid cells” efficiently encode rat position in a system that can be shown is analogous to a residue number system (RNS). By interpreting measured dMEC properties within an RNS framework, we can estimate the amount of position information stored within dMEC, and show how an RNS-like scheme is particularly well-suited to store and update positional information.

That tipped me off to this really amazing paper:
Microstructure of a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex by Hafting, Fyhn, Molden, Moser, and Moser.
(Read the article)

Transcription: How Chinese Wikipedia fell into disarray

The evolution of the Chinese language Wikipedia follows a tortuous path. I suppose I’ve been around since the beginning, but really only to watch from the sidelines. In the beginning it was mostly mainland users who dominated in numbers, but since a year or two ago, with the on-again-off-again filtering of mainland Chinese users, the site has shifted towards more users from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

In recent months, some changes were made to the site with interesting implications. These changes are fairly unique to the Chinese language site but there is something to be learned from them.
(Read the article)

“Emergency” shut down

This old building needs to go. There are no light fixtures in the rooms, the heat cannot be adjusted, the lobby front door stops opening periodically, and the blasted water gets shut down every half a month. No, it’s not an “emergency” shutdown, but because the plumbing can’t be worked on somehow unless the water is turned off to the entire building! The entire building!

3PM TO 6:00PM

Date: 2/1/07
Time: 3PM TO 6PM
System: All domestic water (hot and cold)
Duration: 3 hours

Replace shut of valve on the 11th floor

Loss of hot and cold domestic water. This means that no bathrooms, showers, kitchens and drinking fountains will be operational during this shutdown.

Fill bathtub with water for duration of shutdown. Use this water to flush your toilet. Fill a bucket from the tub and dump it into the toilet bowl. This will force the toilet to flush.

To avoid flooding, please be sure all faucets are off and stay off for the duration of the shutdown. If you try a faucet and find the water is still off, turn the faucet back off.

Thank you for your patience


Previous reasons have included leaky pipes on the 4th floor, the basement, the lounge, and various other places. Maybe I’d be content to fill a bucket of water from the village well and dump it into the manure pile if the rent were cheap and I were a sharecropper, but clearly…

What’s green with lots of numbers?

Uh, I don’t know … the Matrix?

No? Oh it’s money, I see. Except it’s money promised in spam, and spam from the military. How did I get on their list, I wonder. Maybe because of this guy?

To: [me]
From: “Army National Guard”
Subject: What’s green with lots of numbers?
Reply-To: “Army National Guard”
Errors-To: [email protected]
Date: Thu, 1 Feb 2007 06:51:50 CST

That’s right. The universal language of cold, hard cash. How does up to $56,000 sound?

If you’ve checked out the Guard’s “College First” Enlistment Option* and aren’t convinced the Guard can help you get through college – if up to $20,000 for enlisting isn’t enough, then it’s time to up the ante.

You can get up to a $20,000 enlistment bonus, up to $20,000 to repay student loans, more than $4,000 a year for continued schooling, and as much as $12,000 in pay your first year of part-time service. That’s more than $56,000.

But you have to act now.

Up to 100% Tuition Assistance
Leadership Training
Extreme Adventure

* “College First” Enlistment Option not available in all states

Sorry, fellas, but warm, soft direct-deposits from the NSF sounds a lot better, especially because I kind of like my unextreme unadventurous life. And life is the key.