The Spectre of Math

October 28, 2009

Obsession for … politicians?

Filed under: Politics,Technology — jlebl @ 7:09 pm

What is this obsession with the entertainment industry. In Britian now they will have the “you download three pieces of illegal music and you can’t get on the internet” law. OK, I understand that according to current laws, copying copyrighted material without permission of the copyright owner is illegal. But, to make a law like that? Do you get banned for life from walking on the sidewalk if you have used the sidewalk to walk to 3 shops you robbed? Perhaps it is because your grocery shop doesn’t have the right kind of lobbyist working for them.

Plus it is entertainment industry. It is not like they are curing cancer. Who cares that Metallica only makes half of what they would make if nobody downloaded their songs illegaly. That’s only bad for Metallica, and it ain’t all that bad for them anyway. Why is it crucial for society that Metallica has lots of money (and they seem to be doing fine even with all this evil illegal copying going around). I mean, why is illegal downloading considered such a huge problem? Why isn’t world hunger considered a bigger problem? Why not spend all the energy and money the society spends on protecting the entertainment industry from reality to actually do some good in the world. I bet those kids dying of hunger could care less that some wanker is downloading illegal mp3s. I mean, there’s lots of really bad stuff going on even in the industrialized world. Spend some efforts on that. There are lots of people in a very tough spot in the UK as well (and US and the rest of the world). And they aren’t the entertainment industry.

Is it so important for society to make Metallica rich? You say that there would not be any Metallica. So what! As long as teenage boys want to get laid, they will continue trying to make music and become musicians. I bet far more than 99% of music made in the world is not made for the money. But that less than 1% makes a lot of money. But it is NOT crucial for society if that 1% comes or goes. If music is so unimportant to society that it will go away the moment it is not profitable, then who cares if it is gone.

It will also never get to that. Even if we allow everyone to download music willy nilly, it will still be profitable to make and sell music. It just won’t be so profitable. The people “harmed” are simply not able to make money “in this particular manner.” But there are many ways that I can’t make money. For example, I can’t say that everyone who walks past my house has to pay me $50. I can’t say that I invented blinking twice in a row and then charging everyone doing it. Who cares if I can’t make money that way. Why should there be a law that says that I have to be able to make money like that?

Access to internet will very soon be almost a requirement for life in a modern society. So it will be like banning someone from using the telephone or using the sidewalk or riding the bus.

Actually I stopped listening to Metallica the moment they started pulling this copyright nonsense. They have not gotten a single cent from me in the past decade. And I used to like them. Also, sorry about using Metallica as the single metaphor for the entertainment industry. By Metallica I mean all the successful bands and the whole recording industry and the movie industry, etc…

October 27, 2009

Notes, tex4ht, adsense, literate programming

Filed under: LaTeX,Linux,Mathematics,Technology — jlebl @ 3:50 pm

I’ve spent all yesterday playing around with tex4ht. I wanted to find out how hard it is to produce PDF and web documents from one LaTeX source without sacrificing quality of the PDF. So I worked on converting the diffy qs notes into HTML. The result is
here. I don’t agree with several default decisions that tex4ht makes so it took a while to get it right. For example, tex4ht does some equations (mostly inline ones) as regular html and some as pictures. The problem is complete lack of consistency. For example the Laplace transform symbol {\mathcal L} looked different, so the student would have to figure it out. Plus the html equations are hard to read sometimes if they are complicated.

Unfortunately tex4ht is another example of literate programming effort, which is a wonderful idea which in my opinion does not work. All the literate programming projects I have seen have terrible documentation. The problem is nonlinearity of the documentation and many times circular logic. Terms are not defined before they are used, plus there is no obvious starting place. The right information is hard to find. This is a problem with all things LaTeX related. Getting started is very hard because you have no clue where to find the right info. All documents seem to assume you know everything in all the other documents and you know where to find all those other documents.

That is not to say that traditionally documented things are better. That is mostly because traditionally documented things are undocumented. And many times traditional documentation suffers from the same nonlinearity and circularity. For example, trying to implement adsense was also a pain for lack of good documentation. The documentation is a series of FAQs essentially. Each answer is vague and refers to language defined somewhere else which is not linked. And even if linked, the structure is hardly linear. There is no one place to start which defines all concepts and then goes into detail in a tree like manner. Instead the overall document is missing, and you have a spaghetti of a not simply connected graph.

On the plus side I have made $1.59 on adsense since saturday. While that may not seem like much (it is not) it is the first kind of monetary support for the notes. Actually over $1 was from the genius page which is not related to the notes and is far less visited. But apparently it has more relevant ads, or the visitors are less stingy with clicking ads. There’s about 500-1000 hits a day on the diffy qs notes webpage, though on average only 20-25 new people per day download the PDF. Still it says something about how the server is nonbusy that my notes account for about 30% of the traffic.

There have been over 3000 unique IP addresses that downloaded the notes so far. 3000 copies for a math textbook is not bad I guess. Obviously, it cannot compete with porn in the number of hits. But it seems that I am only getting cheap-o visitors. Not a single person bought the paperback even though it’s very reasonably priced. I get $2.50 from that. So thus far, adsense is getting me the equivalent of a little bit over half a copy sold. Outside of time, I have spent about $20 putting the notes together. So I guess I am still way underwater.


October 22, 2009

job applications

Filed under: Mathematics,Personal — jlebl @ 7:09 pm

What a fun year to be on the job market (this is academia so this is for fall 2010). Anyway, submitted 30 applications already (It appears relevant to link my CV in this post).

October 21, 2009

Karmic hibernation + more UI ranting

Filed under: Hacking,Linux,Technology — jlebl @ 4:51 pm

For kicks I tested hibernation in karmic today. It works reasonably OK. From a technical viewpoint it works. From a UI viewpoint it still kind of sucks.

1) Hibernation has no feedback. That is, the screen goes black, that’s terrible UI. There should be a message: “Hibernating… please wait” or some such. That is not that hard. Old GDM did this long time ago if you did hibernation through gdm. Vista does the same thing and it annoys the hell out of me. I am patient and I let a computer that has gone all black on me sit for a little. But some less patient than me have already hit the power button or done other things that you are probably not supposed to do while the computer is trying to hibernate (this is not a what if scenario, I have personally seen this to happen). Even if the screen just displayed the ubuntu logo it would be OK. Display something that doesn’t look like a dead computer.

2) Waking up has feedback (sort of … read on)! Yay! It says “waking up…” Wow! After many years, this works the way it should. I thought: nice … but then the screen flashed and went black. I waited … I waited … nothing. I was ready to complain that waking up is slow as hell. I finally hit the mouse in frustration and the lock dialog went up. Bad UI strikes again. The lock dialog should be brought up automatically. Again something I have had solved in OLD gdm (though I don’t know if any distro actually did shutdown/hibernate/suspend through gdm, they all seemed to think it’s better to “sudo shutdown” or some other bad idea). What I would do is have gdm “wiggle the mouse” for you once the computer woke up. This had the advantage that it worked for all desktop environments and all screen locking mechanisms.

Maybe I should be less lazy and file bugs. Well, I tried to solve these exact issues myself when I was gdm maintainer, but I could somehow never convince anyone that it’s good to have nice clean UI that works, rather than something that technically sort of works but looks like crap.

I remember having a conversation about the “wiggle the mouse” thing. Someone told me “it’s an ugly fix and so it shouldn’t be done”. Apparently it’s better if the UI is bad and users are frustrated than if something under the hood isn’t up to someone’s technical standards. I always thought that it is better to have a system which on the outside works 100%. You can fix technical issues underneath later. Plus the problem of doing things the RightWay(tm) is that it usually requires several pieces of software doing things the same way, and that is rather impossible since everyone’s RightWay(tm) is very different. Plus the thing is that 90% of things are already spaghetti underneath any system, no matter how much bullshit people tell you. Every clean way of doing things is connected to a pile of elephant dung. That’s the way it is. In the star trek future, when one smart person would be able to design and write everything, then things would probably be done cleanly.

Just look at all the discussions on PulseAudio. To me, PA seems to be a good idea. People who argue against PA are usually morons who think they know exactly what the right way of doing things is, and everyone should do things the way they think things should be done. I think the best thing about PA is that it seems to play nice with lots of different APIs in an environment that is a heterogeneous pile of horse manure. That’s the way it will always be, trust me. Even in free software where you can change the code to work in the RightWay(tm), doesn’t mean that someone will change the code.

I am a bit dismayed by all the 3D nonsense in the desktops too. It doesn’t yet work well enough everywhere so that you can build the desktop on it. It works like shit on so many systems, there will always have to be a backup. It is like the current MP3 player I have. I thought a new MP3 player would be nice and fast and easy to use. But behold, it is a clusterfuck of a GUI. It has all these effects that make it slow and unresponsive. My other, far older, mp3 player with a smaller screen is way easier to control and there is no frustration on my part, if it only had more memory. Why can’t they just build new mp3 players by using existing ones and adding more memory. It’s like the UI on my netbook with the standard install of Jaunty. Because someone had the bright idea of writing the UI (netbook remix) in clutter, the thing looks inconsistent, the keyboard navigation is not exactly what one would expect, and on default install it was so slow it was unusable. OK, you say that was because of a buggy display driver. Yes. That’s exactly the point. The main UI should be far more forgiving of bugs in drivers. 3D drivers are buggy as hell on every system. The main UI should be robust. I’ll take things working and just not looking as flashy, over a flashy system that makes my skin crawl because of bugs or slowness. I’ll take a consistent UI I don’t have to think about over a flashy one.

Take web pages for another example. A simple html form is very fast on firefox. Typing on wordpress in visual mode is slower than typing on a 8086 PC. Or facebook, instead of buttons and the UI being simple html, the UI is a pile of not always working javascript. I for example have sometimes trouble pressing buttons. Damnit, buttons used to work on the web 100% of time more than a decade ago. How can you screw up a button. “Hey I know, html has buttons, but I will code up my own button to make it pretty on a specific web browser and will look different from any other button, and my coding skills suck so it will probably not actually work all the time.”

Must end ranting …

October 19, 2009


Filed under: Economics,Personal,Politics — jlebl @ 4:42 pm

I’ve been thinking about why it is hard to explain ones political views to certain other people. Especially people I think are smart and logical. I think the main point is motivation. If you are a person who’s main motivation for doing anything is some sort of material reward, then you will not understand how socialism works. On the other hand, if motivation by material reward is not the most important thing for you, then you have a hard time understanding the first kind of people (Let us call first kind the set of material-motivation people and second kind the complement of that set). And both will lead to the one side thinking that the other side is either stupid or evil.

The first kind of person will be unable to comprehend how anything could possibly work if there is no material compensation. And humans are very good at dismissing any objective evidence that doesn’t agree with their world view (whatever it is). So the first kind of people will try to look for other motives of the second kind of person who is suggesting something that requires people to work without material compensation (or at least sufficient material compensation). That there is ample evidence that a large proportion of the populace is not at all motivated by simple material compensation seems irrelevant. For example, take things like free software, wikipedia, any sort of volunteer work. But even cases when people take lesser jobs because the jobs are more fulfilling to them.

The second kind of person will, on the other hand, think that the first kind of person is just a greedy bastard who wants as much for himself as possible. And that’s not necessarily true. There are many of the first kind of people who are just plain scared that if you make a world where not everything is compensated materially, then the world will collapse. They do not necessarily lack compassion.

I think the problem for most economists is generally that they are the first kind of person. Capitalism in its pure form can only work if everyone is materially motivated. I will not improve my product to sell more if I truly don’t care about selling more. I would say the proportion of each kind of person is on some fuzzy scale about evenly distributed. So capitalism breaks down precisely because of the erroneous assumption that everybody is motivated by personal material gain. At the same time communism breaks down for the opposite reason. True believing communists, somewhere deep inside think that the majority of population is not motivated only by personal material gain, but that only a small set of greedy bastards are. So if you could just remove those greedy bastards, you could have a just society. That doesn’t work either (mostly because those greedy bastards generally ended up running the show).

I’ve had a tough time explaining my motivation for doing certain things. For example, working on GNOME at one point, or perhaps writing up my differential equations notes and letting them be freely distributable. I’ve had to resort to saying to the first kind of people that it was “for fame” and to “feed my ego” (and perhaps there is some truth in that). But that’s not primarily why I did both things. I did both things because I thought they should be done. Why do you clean up your desk? Why do you do laundry? Why do you mow the lawn? Because those things should be done. I wanted to have a decent desktop without having to keep paying a single company for delivering a crappy one. So I thought GNOME needed to be done. Lately I thought that buying moronically priced books leads to increase in the education spending, leading to a bigger barrier to education for lower income students and leading to larger debt (always a bad thing IMO) in the population because of student loans. So writing freely distributable textbooks needs to be done. I had the opportunity so I did it. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to save the world, I’m too cynical to try to do that. I also liked doing both of the things mentioned. But the motivation was not monetary gain.

I also did a lot of things for material gain. I have nothing against that. I don’t think capitalism is evil, just like communism also isn’t evil. Anyway … just rambling … I saw the latest Moore flick … maybe that’s why.

October 16, 2009

Democracy, Klaus, Lisbon, US Healthcare

Filed under: Politics — jlebl @ 9:42 pm

What do all these have in common? Well, Klaus (Czech president) is now blocking the Lisbon treaty despite that having passed by all possible hurdles and despite the majority of voters and governments in all of EU being for it. Let us not discuss whether Lisbon is a good idea or not, Klaus’s role should normally be mostly ceremonial. He’s trying to find technicalities to block the signing for as long as possible. He’ll have to sign it in the end I’m pretty sure, he’s just enjoying his ego being overinflated by all the attention he’s getting because of it. It seems that except for Sarkozy, Blair, Putin and Berlusconi, not many european presidents/prime ministers are well known. But Klaus is an exception, thanks to his anti-EU antics, he is well known, at least among all europeans and to some degree in the US as well.

Anyway, what does this have to do with Democracy? Well, Klaus is not exactly a popularly elected representative of all the people. He was elected by the Czech parliment. He is a representative of a minor EU country and is blocking something that affects all of EU. And this despite the fact that there are very few other dissenters. So for those that think that US democracy is bad in that it allows a single senator from a small state to block a piece of legislation. It’s bad in other places as well. Actually, I would say the EU is so wonderfully undemocratic in many aspects. Lisbon won’t fix that either.

October 14, 2009

Paper with Han on arXiv

Filed under: Mathematics — jlebl @ 7:40 pm

Yay. Just uploaded the latest paper (the one with all the pictures) to arxiv. See, although that link will only start working at about 8pm eastern time today. This is joint work with Han Peters and it took us about 3/4 of a year to get done. Actually it took us about 2 months just to write up, I figured out the last technicality in the main proof sometime in June/July. the rest of the work was explaining what we did, and proving some related minor things. Phew! Now I can concentrate on things like finding a job for next fall (my 3-year stint at UIUC will be over come end of spring semester).

October 5, 2009

Karmic and gdm

Filed under: Technology — jlebl @ 10:04 pm

So I updated ubuntu karmic yet again yesterday. In the morning I booted up and I noticed that the gdm login screen is now even uglier. It takes standard widgets which weren’t really in a nice configuration to begin with and drops incredibly eyepoppingly ugly colors on them. Not to mention that you have to think hard about what entry in the list is selected (the list has lines of different sizes to begin with which is butt ugly). Is it the black line or is it the white line. Instead of hitting enter, I went for the mouse just to be sure.

I’m also hitting a strange cosmetic issue with the completely pointless menu with my name on it that I need to hit to shut down the machine (Yeah it makes a lot of sense that I click on my login name to shut down …). Anyway, besides that, the menu keeps changing every time I boot or perhaps click on it. Especially the separators seem to keep running around. If I get a bit of free time to search for the bug, I might even report it.

Paper size

Filed under: Mathematics,Personal — jlebl @ 9:57 pm

At 28 pages so far, this is the biggest paper I’ve worked on. It does have pictures though. I have to brag. I know size does not equal quality, but this paper does contain lots of cool stuff. Then again we (me and Han Peters) have been working on this on and off for close to a year, so … Hopefully we’ll post a preprint to arxiv soon.

October 2, 2009

Boehner doesn’t meet his constituents (mathematical proof)

Filed under: Mathematics,Politics — jlebl @ 6:02 pm

Yesterday I saw Boehner on TV saying something like “not a single person outside of congress and government has come up to me and told me they want the public option.”

So what does that mean. Given that polls consistently show at least 50% support for the public option, let’s take 50% as a conservative estimate. Let’s suppose that Beohner would have met 10 random constituents (I would hope that a good representative would meet and talk to more than 10 people he is representing about the main issue of the year). The probability that all 10 of them are against the public option is 0.1%, that is 1 in 1000.

So the probability that Boehner met 10 constituents (and not just 10 of his own supporters) is 0.1%. In fact the expected number of constituents he met is 1. Ohio’s 8th district has population greater than 1. That he met a 100 constituents, the probability is on the order of 10^{-29} percent. Suppose that there are 1 million lottery tickets sold. I have better chance of winning the jackpot 5 times in a row, than that Boehner talked to 100 constituents.

I can see someone objecting: But the support is not 50% if you ask the right question (I’ll leave the fallacies of that argument aside). Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that only 20% of people support the public option. That is waaaaay below what even the most conservative of pollsters give. I mean there are more liberal democrats in the country than 20%, and I’d assume they would want far more than just a public option. Still, even with those unrealistic odds, with probability greater than 50%, Boehner met at most 4 of his constituents. The probability that he met 100 constituents is on the order of 10^{-8} percent. I still have way better odds of winning the lottery by several orders of magnitude. That would be like winning the lottery if 100 million tickets were sold.

What is the conclusion: With almost concrete certainty, I can conclude that Boehner is either 1) lying, or 2) does not meet many constituents. In fact, with better than 90% certainty, Boehner met less than actual 4 constituents about heathcare. Meeting only with people that support your opinion is NOT meeting with your constituents.

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