Thursday, March 29, 2007

Silicon Valley: First Impressions

About two weeks ago, I moved to Mountain View, California from Boston, MA. I am starting a new job at a startup here. I live in an apartment complex in Mountain View with James, my new roommate. When I mentioned to a friend in Boston that James was Asian, the first thing he said was that James and I'd be like Harold and Kumar. James has a pet hamster, Dottie. Dottie, being nocturnal, spends hours at night going round and round the hamster wheel in his cage. It cracks me up every time he puts his head out of the wheel to see if he's actually gotten somewhere. I can almost see the disappointment when he realizes he's just where he started. He keeps doing it anyway.

I had barely reached California before I had my first run in with the law. James drove me to a bike shop on historic El Camino Real, where I bought a new road bike. With great enthusiasm, I started biking back to my apartment less than a mile away. I had hardly gone half-way, before I was stopped by a cop for running a red light. Fortunately, the man let me go without a ticket, but not before first verifying that the shiny new bike was indeed mine, and not stolen.

Everything is pretty much the same out here on the West Coast, but with little differences. You have the same stores, fast food chains, etc. I walked into a Target store that was so similar to the one in Somerville - down to the arrangement of the aisles - that I could walk around the store blind-folded. But instead of Stop & Shop on the East Coast, you have Safeway here. Thankfully, Trader Joe's is here too.

The one big bonus of moving to the Bay Area was an immediate and drastic positive change in the weather. I am still getting used to the fact that every day can be nice. I wake up to cloudless, blue skies every day. I am also getting used to zipping up and down US Highway 101, the backbone of Silicon Valley. Speaking of Silicon valley, I had a mini culture shock upon my arrival. Driving on Segways, playing volleyball at lunch, lava lamps on everyone's desk, free snacks and soda at the workplace -- all seem to be the norm here.

There are also many more immigrants of all stripes here. Driving a rental car on Sunday, I noticed groups of (illegal?) immigrants waiting around for work on El Camino Real. Oakland seems to have a noticeable black population (as opposed to Silicon valley, where I have seen none). But mostly, I was struck by the profusion of Indians here. Specialty Indian restaurants, Indian TV channels, dyed in the wool Punjabi cab drivers, middle-aged Indian men and women strolling down the streets in saris and dhotis, the sound of Indian-accented English, apartment complexes completely rented by Indians, etc. made me realize how much fewer Indians there are in Boston.

Friday, March 16, 2007

JetFlu Airways

Update at 1:16pm: Wow, someone from JetBlue headquarters read this post and emailed me (in an unofficial capacity)! He mentioned that my flight is still scheduled for departure. I am heartened to know that JetBlue listens. Its a rare corporate trait, and I appreciate it. Thanks, JetBlue.

Update at 12:36pm: I am not as mad as I was an hour ago. I was also finally able to track my flight status on JetBlue's website. As of 12:36pm today, my flight is still On Time. So, may be I will be able to fly after all. I guess I will get to the airport and find out. JetBlue, I still hate you.

JetBlue Airways fucked up. Again. It is March 16, and we are scheduled to get about a foot of snow here in the Northeast. It also happens to be the day I am scheduled to fly on Jetblue flight 471 from Boston, MA to San Jose, CA. Only, I wake up to read that JetBlue has preemptively cancelled more than 200 flights operating out of the Northeast (mostly from JFK and LaGuardia). What's worse, I have been spectacularly unsuccessful trying to find out if my flight is one of the canceled flights. JetBlue's website is completely unresponsive ("Server too busy"). Their phone lines have been jammed to oblivion by anxious customers. Boston's Logan Airport website and customer service representatives insist that there is no JetBlue flight 471. Fan-fuckin'-tastic.

On Valentine's day, I booked my JetBlue flight. On that day (February 14), when the Northeast was hit by a regular winter blizzard (about 10" of snow), JetBlue was in the news for fucking up majorly at JFK. Due to bad weather, planes -- both departing and just arrived -- were stranded on the tarmac for up to 8 hours. With passengers in them. Can you imagine spending 8 hours going absolutely nowhere inside a plane? Especially if you can see the terminal from the window by your seat. But I still gave them the benefit of doubt. Also, it couldn't possibly happen again, now, could it? Well, it could. And it did.

Bottom line: I still don't know if I will fly today or not. Its this uncertainty that sucks.

Hey, JetBlue: Eat shit and die. I realize that was unnecessarily harsh.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Pink Floyd & I: The End of A Relationship

"Leave ... but don't leave me."

This is a re-post of an article on my earlier homepage from sometime in 2004.

It was with great sadness that I recently ended my one and only meaningful relationship. For the same reason many relationships end: I outgrew my love for The Band That Barrett Built (and left).

Goodbye, Pink Floyd. Its time to take down the great gig In the sky. There will always be a special place in my heart for you. But I think its best that I move on. There was a time in my life when I spent days thinking only about you, and the beautiful music you made. I would keep talking about you, to anyone who cared to listen. In hindsight, I was blinded by love, and I failed then to see your shortcomings. I remember once reading someone call your lyrics trite. Oh, the blasphemy! At the time, I was furious, lost for words even. But now I see there was some truth in that criticism.

Our relationship has served its purpose, and now I must move on. There won't be another like you, but all good things must come to an end. I hope there is someone out there who loves you more than I ever did, though I doubt it.

OK, what do I really mean? Well, for a start, I have left behind the time when I listened to the entire Division Bell album (or Wish You Were Here, sometimes) every day. Occasionally, multiple times in a day. Secondly, I started to critically listen to Pink Floyd's music, instead of simply worshiping every song they ever produced. I can now admit that Pow R. Toc H. is an awful song, even though its an early. So were most songs on The Final Cut. However, I will punch you in the face if you talk nasty about Dark Side of The Moon.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Fun with Probability

Prof. Derek Abbott at the University of Adelaide posed a list of questions as "Imponderables". One of the questions, involving probabilities and expectations, caught my eye. I am going to reproduce that question here (edited), along with my "answer" to the question:
If someone comes to you and tells you, "Give me any amount of money you like. I will toss a fair coin. If it is heads, you win and I will double your money; if it is tails, you lose and I will give you only half your money back". You play this game, because if the amount you bet is N, you can win either 2N or N/2, giving an expected return of 1.25N.

Now consider the following related game: Someone presents you with two envelopes and says, "One envelope contains 2N and the other contains N/2. Pick an envelope". Then when you've picked an envelope, this person asks if you want to keep that envelope or swap it for the other one. What strategy should you adopt? Swap or not? Let us complicate it a bit further: Suppose you have the option of looking inside the first envelope. What then?

What is the fundamental difference between the two games described above? Another related question is: does the act of observing the amount in the first envelope change the probabilities in question?

First, some terminology: Let S1 be the strategy of staying with the first envelope, and let S2 be the strategy of swapping the first envelope for the second.

In the version of the game where the player can not see the contents of the first envelope, it is easy to see that a player's expected earning is 1.25N with either strategy S1 or S2. Let us focus on the version of the game where the player is allowed to see the amount in the first envelope.

Consider that you are the player, but you have short-term amnesia, rendering you unable to remember the value of N from the previous time you played the game.

Suppose you play the game 20 times, following the strategy S1. If the first envelope is chosen at random from the two envelopes, you can expect the first envelope to contain N/2 in about 10 games, and 2N in the other 10 games. In fact, this is true a priori: It is true even before you see the amount in the first envelope. It follows that your average earning per game is 1.25N.

Similarly, suppose you play the game 20 times, following the strategy S2. Observe that if the first envelope is chosen at random like before, you can expect that the second envelope contains N/2 in 10 games and 2N in the other 10 games. Once again, this is a priori true. Seeing the amount in the first envelope does not change the fact. Clearly, your average earning per game is 1.25N again.

So, both strategies are equally beneficial, in both versions of the game. To be formal about it, let E[S] be the expected return for strategy S. Let Y and Z be random variables representing the amounts inside the first and the second envelopes, respectively.

Clearly, Pr(Y = N/2) = Pr(Y = 2N) = Pr(Z = N/2) = Pr(Z = 2N) = 1/2.

Let F be the event that the player looks inside the first envelope. The crucial observation is that the event Y = N/2 is independent of F. So are the events Y = 2N, Z = N/2 and Z = 2N.

Therefore, in both versions of the game,
E[S1] = E[Y] = 1.25N, and
E[S2] = E[Z] = 1.25N.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Literal Appeal to English Speakers

From the Desk of the Language Nazi:

I don't claim mastery over the English language, either in its written form, or in diction. But it irritates me when I have to repeatedly encounter misuse of the language by native English speakers. My pet grouse is with the misuse of the word "literally". Virtually every use of this word that I have come across has been incorrect. It kills me a little every time. A like-minded soul even ranted about the abuse of the word "literally" on craigslist.

My fellow English speakers, I urge you to be sparing with your use of the word "literally". For example, you might say:
"News of John's resignation was literally a bolt from the blue to me."
Unless you were actually struck by lightning and burned to a crisp when you heard news of John's resignation, that is incorrect usage. Instead, say:
"News of John's resignation was virtually a bolt from the blue to me."
When in doubt, use the word "virtually" in place of the word "literally". Both words have the same number of syllables; and "virtually" is probably what you should have used in the first place. Other acceptable substitutes: "practically" (more forceful, but to be used with caution), and "really" (much less forceful, but widely applicable).

So, the next time you speak to me, do not misuse the term. Or I will break open your head. Literally.