Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The title alone can attract a number of readers, I guess. The flip side of an attractive title is the disappointment you get when you find the snappy title contains nothing - like, for example, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In my case, I’ve been betrayed quite a few times already, so the nice title actually lowered my expectation about the novel. Consequently, the actual reading was very pleasant.

Front cover of book showing young girl from the waist down in knee socks and Mary Janes and empty brown Oxfords next to her on a picnic blanket.
Easily you can see the novel is about pain, or at least, loneliness, since it is about the wife, not the time traveler. But once you open the book, you realize it is also about the time traveler himself, and his pain. I will reveal one very important part of the plot, which means, you must stop reading this article if you don’t want a spoiler. I am giving this book a solid 4-star (out of 5) rating. So, if you are interested enough already, go read it!

The time traveler’s pain lies in that he does not have any control over his own time travel. He calls it a disease, and a doctor is trying to fix it. Henry, the time traveler, feels that he cannot and must not alter any events in the past. However, somehow he made his mind to do two audacious things: to train his younger self to increase the probability of survival when he leaps in time, and to tell her future wife about what will happen and what should be done. The second part, Henry telling Clare of some of their common future, creates a loop of causes and effects, and the fun part of the novel.

I don’t think that anybody will call this a science fiction in a serious sense. The author does not attempt to explain any kinds of time paradox, nor does she even try to make the events more plausible by explaining things in a pseudo-scientific ways. It is extremely uncommon in a usual time-traveling sci-fi that the time traveling self interacts with himself in the space-time he travels. Henry says that he could not affect the way things evolve even though he tried, then later he does things that might well affect the future, for example, buying winning lotteries and picking stocks with clairvoyance. More profoundly, what if he could avoid meeting Clare in their initial encounter-to-be? Henry says he dare not ride on airplanes because of the danger of being on 5,000 feet high in the air when he gets back from time traveling, but the danger is not much less for a car traveling.

However, the gist of the novel lies in the feelings of the people involved in the fate of Henry’s. Therefore, this is not a science fiction, and is not to be blamed for such minor factors. Readers are fixated on such memorable scenes such as when Richard cuddles newly born Alba or when Henry meets 82-year-old Clare.

In this respect, it is too bad that the author actually made the time-traveling a disease, which some people might be able to control well, like Alba. Alba will find it extremely difficult to avoid becoming a superhero after all, with her “controlled” disease. This takes all the epic nature of the disease away from her, and makes any further story-telling on her future meaningless.

Still, the final verdict on this novel is, yes, a solid 4-star rating. The emotional depth of the happy and sad story between Henry and Clare is strong enough to pull any reader into its gravity.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cyberspace Polluting the Real World

The New York Times had an impressive article last week, about data centers of Cyberspace giants polluting the air we real people breathe. Whatever you do on the Cyberspace, some of the actions require computer processing. These are done remotely in data centers, where huge (though nothing to compare to ENIAC) servers are run throughout the day to take your orders. Data centers are huge buildings packed with servers, which means 1) they require a lot of energy, and 2) they emit a lot of energy, in the form of heat. You might remember news about Google or Facebook worrying about cooling systems in their new data centers.

For energy use, it is not just about how prodigal these data centers are in terms of energy consumption. They do eat up a whole lot of energy, for sure. But they are doubly polluting because they all have backup electricity generator, mostly run on diesel. The following picture shows a backup diesel generator at a large computer data center. (Picture at the courtesy of Richard Perry, New York Times, copied from the news article.) According to the annotation on the picture, there are six generators in total in the data center, enough to power 7,000 homes. And yes, they are polluting. Amazon was once fined by the environmental authority of North Virginia because they were running diesel generators without permits.

In addition to generators, large data centers also hoard on flywheels and lead-acid batteries for additional backup. Indeed a super-conservative insurance measure. Why do they do this, then? Because data center operators lose jobs if there’s any failure in the system. These people are not paid for energy efficiency. They are paid to keep the system running 24/7.

The amount of electricity used in data centers is also massive. In 2010, data centers used about 2% of all the electricity used in the US, or 76 billion kilowatt-hours. The whole paper industry used 67 billion kilowatt-hours that year. Doing things in the Cyberspace does not save energy as we expect.

According to a research done by a consulting company, the utilization rate of facilities in data centers is around 6 to 12 percent. Up to 94% of computing resources at data centers are idle, in other words, in a standby mode to be prepared for a surge in usage.

Pooling risks reduces risks. Suppose a data center have a peak time utilization rate of 90, but most of the day runs at 10. Since utilization rate of 100 is a nonsense, this data center keeps its facility level at 100, giving a safety margin of 10. Suppose another data center with exactly the same specs. If we can combine the two data centers into one, we do not need resources of 200, because the peak time will be most probably different for the two data centers. We might end up needing only, say, 150. The actual necessary resources depend on the covariance of the facility utilization rates of the two facilities. This is the basic concept of risk pooling.

So, the answer can be found in risk pooling. According to the article, there are 2,094 data centers in the US in 2010. Using a simple binomial probability function, I could get interesting numbers as follows:

1) Assuming simple binomial probability distribution (and normal distribution), a data center that has average utilization rate of 12% can operate on a probability of failure of 1/10^50, with only 19.3% of its current resources. This shows the hyper-conservatism of the data center industry. They are massing up more than 5 times necessary resources to prevent any blackout. Perhaps you think 10^50 processing orders (such as clicks of a mouse) can happen in your lifetime? No way. It takes 1.06*10^33 years if 3 billion people clicks at the speed of once per second 24/7 nonstop.

2) Pooling two such data centers will require only 34.2% of one data center’s resources, not 19.3% * 2 = 38.6%. Pooling ten such data centers will require the resources of only 1.43 data centers, not 1.93. Huge savings on resources keeping the same probability of failure.

Seeing the calculation makes the pooling solution so attractive. Then why don’t they do it? Because the data they are dealing with are sensitive data such as personal information. There are also business reasons, political and legal complications, and technical feasibility to some extent. So what? Cyberspace polluting the real world is a real phenomenon. We must start addressing the issue first by realizing it. Before people realized the significance of it, climate change was a kind of urban legend to many people.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Metro 2033: A Powerful Narrative about Human Existence

The so-called post-apocalyptic fictions deal with the lives of survivors of a certain apocalypse. The art of the genre lies on how to depict the lives of human beings after the world as we know is scrapped. In this respect, post-apocalyptics are destined to be part sci-fi and part fantasy, both of which factors can lead to a big failure if not controlled well. Most of the time, writers are so involved in creating the new world, and fail to capture the simple fact that what they tell are, after all, about human beings. On the other extreme, some writers use the post-apocalyptic setting as a mere prop in their theatrical setting, which means, the post-apocalyptic part of the fiction is merely an unusual setting..

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky is by all means a very well written post-apocalyptic novel. The writer did not indulge himself into his own creation, nor did he simply borrow the scene of a post-nuclear war Moscow for no purposes. The themes are about human nature, and they are well woven into the story where people are forced to think about human nature.

The theme of this novel has two layers. One is the communication conundrum. The other is about the purposes and weight of life. The first theme on communication is dramatically presented at the very end of the novel, when the right message is finally delivered only a few seconds too late. The second theme about life is repeatedly presented by the hero of the novel, Artyom. But this theme again is revisited very powerfully at the very end of the novel, where he says that we human beings are doomed to creep on earth. In this sense, in that we human beings are left with the doom because of our fear of communication, the two themes are interwoven - beautifully.

The most attractive aspect of the novel lies in its ending, where the coda is thrown at the reader like a sudden death. Throughout the whole time, Artyom narrates all kinds of thoughts on life and mankind to the reader. He is quite verbose. Then, at the very end, when all is lost, he does not elaborate. His action speaks louder, as he tears open the gas mask. It is time to go home.

I already said that this wonderful piece of art accomplished the dual objectives of a post-apocalyptic novel, which means the description of the life after the apocalypse is also all too powerful. I’ve heard some people say that the mutant creatures are too extreme - rather phantasmal than sci-fi. Yes, they are, to a certain degree. But not without a reason. Think about the librarians. They are big, brutal, but are also humanoid, and have hands rather than paws. They echo people’s speech. And they live in the library. Isn’t this wonderfully allegorical?

Even from the perspective of pure ideation, Glukhovsky is excellent. There have been much imagination about currency after an apocalypse, like bottle caps in the Fallout saga. In the metro, it is the bullets. Means of life are gauged against the means to kill lives. At the same time, it makes a perfectly realistic sense. Since the life in the metro is full of danger, bullets become indispensable commodity to rely on, for survival.

Even though I have shed glimpses of this wonderful fiction to make my points clear, I did my explanations rather vaguely, because I sincerely do not want to ruin anybody’s experience with this novel with some careless spoiler. I recommend this book very strongly. Whether you seek action, violence, fantasy, or food for thoughts, you will find it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How to Avoid GMO

Capitalism is unbelievable in some profound ways, sometimes, as in the case of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). I bet those scientists would never test genetically modified corn syrup on their own children. Yet those food industry tycoons are motivated by the the stock market figures and media coverages, and the scientist working for them are driven by 99% monetary incentives and 1% scientific curiosity.

Somehow, we are exposed to GMOs with little protection. This means we should take measures to protect ourselves from the god-knows-what impact of GMOs. As follows are some tips I garnered from the Internet.

1. Go organic. Buy food with organic labels. When I was in Switzerland, an American expat wrote an article on a journal, in which he said, “In Switzerland, I see food with organic label everywhere. Can I trust these labels?” That coming from an American person, perhaps this is not a trustworthy strategy in North America. However, let’s hope it is better in Canada.

2. Make a list of archenemies - soybean, corn, cotton, and canola. Someone says you should memorize the acronym, SCCC. They are produced in bulk in GMO, and are sold throughout the world. For example, canola oil seems to be en vogue in some parts of the world, but alas, most probably the canola oil you get at grocery stores will be from GMOs.

3. Live like your grandpa, in the old-fashioned way. Buy grocery locally, preferably at a farmer’s market. Prepare food yourself, rather than microwaving packaged foods. In packaged foods, the contents are simply enumerated in the unit of basic ingredients, not the plants and dairies we see in the farmer’s market. For example, if a packaged food contains fructose, it is most probably from some GMO corn.

4. Go veggie sometimes. Animals are positioned higher in the food chain, hence have harmful substances in more concentration. Most cows feed on corn, and you won’t imagine them organically grown.

* Photo credit: http://leightonpost.com/2010/04/30/poison-on-your-plate-gm-foods-and-your-right-to-know/

Saturday, July 21, 2012

History Anywhere - Bill Bryson's "At Home"

Bill Bryson is a born storyteller, so much so that what he tells, even though when I already know it, sounds quite savory to the ears. In a book called At Home, Bryson takes us back to many eras in time when people lived quite differently from the way of our lives today. For example, when he looks around in the kitchen, he tells us about a time when ice makers could make astronomical amount of money because they supplied ice for the old-fashioned refrigerators in the Industrial Age. In the dressing room, he reminds us of a time in our history when people wore 20 kg or more of clothing. Quite a well-off man like Thomas Carlyle had to read in the Kitchen at night because it was the warmest spot in his house, because of which his sole servant had to stay in the cold back-kitchen till very late every night.

In this book, Bryson tells interesting stories on many different aspects of human history in relation with our private life, in such areas as anthropology, paleontology, history of science, invention, medicine, and government affairs. Also, the way he tells his story reveals what a sensible man he is, just like he did in his previous book, Short History of Nearly Everything. Most probably, I will revisit one of his books in the near future, once again to be educated and entertained at the same time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How to Make Good Decisions

How many of you think that your driving skills are better than average? In a typical poll, 90% of respondents say that they are better than average drivers.

Let me tell you about a person I know. Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.

Which do you think is more probable? 1) Linda works in a bookstore and takes yoga classes. 2) Linda is a bank teller. Most of you probably chose 1 over 2.

Now, another comparison. Which do you think is more probable? 1) Linda is a bank teller. 2) Linda is a bank teller and feminist. Most of you, I know, chose 2 over 1. However, ,think twice.

Linda being a bank teller and feminist is clearly a subset of Linda being a bank teller. The probability of Linda being a bank teller and feminist cannot be higher than the probability of Linda being a bank teller. However, you made an apparent logical mistake. Why do you think so? It is because you formed a stereotype in your mind when I described Linda.
The Linda test is from Danielle Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). In this book, he suggests that we have two thinking systems: system 1, which is fast and intuitive, and system 2, slow but meticulous. Because we are lazy (according to Kahneman’s description), or because we seek efficiency in as many occasions as we can, we try to avoid the effortful system 2 as much as possible. In most cases, the system 1 will handle problems as they arise, and system 2 will occasionally check the validity of the system 1’s answers. Therefore, most of the time, we can respond fast with minimal efforts. This is also what Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book, Blink(2005).

When you hear the description of Linda, your system 1 responds accordingly, and searches through your cached database for plausible answers. The quick answer comes from the patternized knowledge database you have stored in your brain. In your patternized knowledge, Linda sounds more like a bank teller who is a feminist as well, rather than just a bank teller. So you choose the more plausible description even before engaging the system 2 to verify if the conjecture makes sense at all.

As a conclusion, here is my suggestion for your decision making, based on my reading of those two books, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Blink. When you face a decision-making situation, your system 1 will automatically engage and provide a quick answer. Pause for a second at this moment, and effortfully engage the system 2, if you think the decision is worth the efforts. If your system 2 concurs with your system 1, you have the best answer you can have. If not, ask another question. Am I super-confident about my system 2 answer? If yes, go with it. If no, you’ve better stick with your system 1’s original answer. Probably, your intuition (based on your lifetime experiences) produced a good answer, even though you cannot quite articulate the reasoning verbally.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Premortem - A Tool for Your Decision-Making

Most of us are affected by overconfidence sometimes in some part of lives. As a stark example, most drivers respond that they are better than the average drivers. In a typical poll, the rate is whopping 90%. So, they will drive as they will, because they are natural born drivers, and cause accidents. Is there a way to curb this overconfidence?

Run a premortem. When you plan for a project, whether it be a pre-project planning or fine-tuning in the course of action, take a time and think about what might kill the project. Then you can also think about ways to prevent the failure you imagined, before it actually happens.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes the idea of premortem, and credits Gary Klein for it. Kahneman says premortem enables us to overcome groupthink, the automatic flow into consensus  about which most individuals in the group are not really enthusiastic. The consensus from groupthink is more of an acquiescence rather than a willing agreement. This stems from the lazy, easy, and intuitive thinking of the individuals in the process - which is called System 1 thinking by Kahneman.

System 1 quickly fetches a solution from intuition. System 2, which is about deliberate thinking and brooding, will occasionally check the validity of System 1. However, most of the time, System 2 does not run the audit too deeply. If the readily available solution makes enough sense, that's it. Therefore, we end up with tons of problems that come from not thinking deeply enough. Overconfidence and groupthink are examples of the problems presented by System 1's shallow solutions.

Run a premortem. Think about possible ways your project can fail. Then think about how to avoid them.

Monday, May 21, 2012

One Second After - An Anachronistic Cold-War Agenda?

One Second After is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel by William Forstchen, where the continental U.S. is hit by an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), which instantly sends hundreds of millions of people back to the 19th century. It is rather surprising that a simple phenomenon of country-wide electric shut-down can cause such a huge damage, but when you read the novel, it sounds all too plausible - we are that dependent on electricity. The novel is well written in two aspects - one, the description of the post-EMP world is so touchingly real and persuasive, and two, the human drama is mind-numbing enough to make you think about the very nature of our existence and co-existence. Especially, I would like to recommend two scenes: the one with a girl soldier who dies holding John's hand after being triaged out, and the one where Jennifer, John's daughter, dies. The scenes are more riveting because the style of the narration is rather hard-boiled.

However, the novel reads too much like a Cold-war era propaganda against enemies of the state. John the protagonist and several others repeatedly say "But, this is America." For example, after describing kids who developed pot-bellies because of hunger, John reminisces seeing kids with pot-bellies in countries in Africa and Asia, but then he adds, "but, this is America!" Is child starvation in America qualitatively different from that in other parts of the world? (It is, actually, because it is fictitious, after all.) The novel is strewn with self-centered egotism deeply rooted in the protagonist's mind. For him, America is different, Black Mountain is different, and her daughter Jennifer is different. On top of that, the foreword to the book makes the whole thing sound like a Republican propaganda.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How Much Caffeine Did You Consume Today?

I am a caffeine addict, like you and the person over there with Starbucks paper cup. I know the undesirable side effects of caffeine, but abstaining from drinking coffee does not solve anything, because I will be still drinking lots of tea with even more chocolate. Right now, I am having tea and chocolate at the same time, and just found out that the nutrition facts sheet on the chocolate package does not include caffeine amount. So, I would like to share with you some facts I found by googling.

The following is a table on caffeine contents in chocolate, from https://www.amanochocolate.com/articles/caffeineinchocolate.html.

Chocolate Percentage
mg/3.5oz (100g)
mg/2oz (56g)
43% (Semi-Sweet)
60% (Bittersweet)

What I am eating right now has 70% cacao, and I finished eating 75% of the whole, which is 35g. So, I’ve added 139mg * .35 * .75 = 35.44mg of caffeine into my system.

Also from the same webpage, the following is on caffeine amount in drinks:
Food / BeverageServing Size (oz)Caffeine (mg)mg/oz
Coffee (Brewed)8107.513.44
Coffee (Decaf Instant)82.50.31
Coffee (Decaf Brewed)85.60.70
Coffee (Drip)814518.13
Coffee (Espresso)1.57751.33
Coffee (Instant)8577.13
Tea (Brewed)8475.88
Tea (Green)8253.13
Tea (Instant)8263.25
Tea (Lipton Brisk)1290.75
Tea (Lipton Ice Teas)1290.75
Tea (Nestea Ice Tea)16342.13
Caffeinated Sodas
Cocoa Cola Classic1234.52.83
Cocoa Cola Diet12453.75
Pepsi (Diet)12363.00
Dr. Pepper12413.42
Dr Pepper (Diet)12413.42
Highly Caffeinated Sodas
Jolt Cola23.52209.36
Mello Yello1252.54.38
Mountain Dew12554.58
Red Bull8.3809.64

Since I had two tea bags of green tea and one cup of tea today, 25*2+47 = 97mg of additional caffeine has come into my body from the tea drinking.

Then how much is OK? According to about.com, it is generally agreed that 300mg of caffeine per day is safe. I’ve already taken about 132mg of caffeine today, and most probably will drink one cup of coffee with some sweets this evening. That is additonal 77mg+ of caffeine. However, there will be some amount of caffeine in other foods, for example, the stir-fried noodle I had as lunch today, might also hold some caffeine in it, considering the various ingredients in it. According to some source, the caffeine in green tea is less absorbable into the body because of other substances in green tea. And I don’t have a clue whether the figures in the above table factors in this or not.

Still, I think looking at a table like that once in a while will keep you from having another cup of coffee. Yes, only sometimes, but sometimes is better than never. :)