Monthly Archives: October 2004

Recommendations from/for Amazon

In recent days I have been amusing myself by attempting to optimize my recommendations page on Amazon. The biggest difficulty is that Amazon is offering a system to recommend creations [books, albums, films] but I want recommendations of creators [authors, bands, directors]. I don’t need Amazon to tell me that if I liked Quicksilver and Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash I should read the rest of Neal Stephenson’s bibliography. Unfortunately my ability to teach it not to do this is pretty limited. Here’s what’s on my recommendations page at the moment:

1. [Book] Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb
2. [Book] The Golden Age, John C. Wright
3. [Album] Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
4. [Film] Lost in Translation
5. [Book] Royal Assassin, Robin Hobb
6. [Graphic Novel] The Hedge Knight, George R. R. Martin and Ben Avery
7. [Book] Assassin’s Quest, Robin Hobb
8. [Book] The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson
9. [Book] Fool’s Errand, Robin Hobb
10. [Album] You Forgot It in People, Broken Social Scene
11. [Book] Pattern Recognition, William Gibson
12. [Book] Zodiac, Neal Stephenson
13. [Film] Underworld
14. [Book] Golden Fool, Robin Hobb
15. [Book] The Phoenix Exultant, John C. Wright

The first four items are actually pretty good suggestions: I haven’t read either Hobb or Wright, and while I already knew about the Franz Ferdinand album and Lost in Translation, they are the sort of items I’d like to have recommended. (I’ve actually heard the album and liked it, though I don’t own it. I haven’t seen the film yet, but enough people have recommended it that I think I would probably like it as well.)
After that it goes downhill. Having decided I would like Robin Hobb, Amazon goes on to recommend four more of her books, along with another by Wright and four books by authors I’m familiar with. Can Amazon really only come up with two writers I might like? On the other hand, You Forgot It in People is an appropriate recommendation (although I haven’t listened to it). Underworld is an interesting case: in terms of style and genre it’s a good recommendation for me, but I’ve heard that it’s terrible, and I’m inclined to say that Amazon shouldn’t recommend bad movies. On the other hand, its customer rating is 3.5, so Amazon had no way of knowing that it’s bad. (And maybe it’s not. I should rent it because, hey, Kate Beckinsale.)
My recommendations list is heavily weighted towards books, away from music and films. This is because Amazon has information about many more books that I own than CDs or DVDs. The logical conclusion is that I buy more books than other media, and am therefore more interested in book recommendations. This isn’t actually true: it’s easy for me to find books that look interesting, but harder to find music that I think I’ll like. Fortunately I can get a list of pure music recommendations. Amazon seems to be better at finding music for me than it is at finding books, in terms of suggesting new bands rather than the entire catalogs of artists I already own. But something mysterious is going on: the recommendations lists in particular departments aren’t sublists of the main set of recommendations. For example, Franz Ferdinand disappears when I look at the music list by itself, new items appear, and others get reordered. Does it recalculate the list from a different set of preferences?
Anyway, I understand that getting a computer to make good media recommendations is an extraordinarily difficult problem. However, it doesn’t seem like it would be so hard to include an option that would give a list of only the top results from each author, band, etc.

Publication: Entangling flux qubits with a bipolar dynamic inductance

This one is a lot harder to explain than my previous article. I would have to do a series of posts explaining what qubits are, what entanglement is, and why you would want to do it before I could explain what’s actually in this paper. Which, when I think about it, isn’t such a bad idea anyway.

Physical Review B (Condensed Matter and Materials Physics -1(II))
Phys. Rev. B 70, 140501(R) (2004) (4 pages)
Entangling flux qubits with a bipolar dynamic inductance
B. L. T. Plourde,1 J. Zhang,2,3 K. B. Whaley,3 F. K. Wilhelm,4 T. L. Robertson,4 T. Hime, S. Linzen,1 P. A. Reichardt,1 C.-E. Wu,1 and John Clarke1
1Department of Physics, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA
2Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA
3Department of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA
4Department Physik and CeNS, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Theresienstr. 37, 80333 München, Germany

(Received 4 May 2004; published 5 October 2004)
We propose a scheme to implement controllable coupling between two flux qubits using the screening current response of a dc superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID). The coupling strength is adjusted by the current bias applied to the SQUID and can be varied continuously from positive to negative values, allowing cancellation of the direct mutual inductance between the qubits. We show that this variable coupling scheme permits efficient realization of universal quantum logic. The same SQUID can be used to determine the flux states of the qubits. ©2004 The American Physical Society
PACS: 85.25.Cp, 03.67.Lx, 85.25.Dq

Final Presidential Debate

I may try the liveblogging thing, although it seems unlikely that people will be checking the site during the debate. If not, I’ll just put my impressions here at the end.
I’m watching on a low-res C-SPAN web feed, so I’ll be missing any signs of Bush’s earpiece/mind control device. So if you see it, post a comment.
(All times PST)
5:51: While I wait for it to start, I realize that I never linked to this fascinating video examining George W. Bush’s debate performance over the years. It seems that he was a very skillful and articulate debater back in 1994, but something has changed since then…
6:05: Kerry: “The measurement is not ‘are we safer?’, it’s ‘are we as safe as we ought to be?'” I like that.
6:07: “Comprehensive” is Bush’s word of the evening, apparently.
6:12: The flu vaccine question was good for Bush: he got to hit his talking points on both drug importation and tort reform. Kerry’s taking the opportunity to talk about health care.
6:14: Kerry was asked how he can keep his pledge not to raise taxes below the highest bracket. Seems like a softball question if no numbers are cited.
6:20: Education as a solution to outsourcing? IT and engineering jobs get outsourced, too.
6:25: I think the low resolution is making Bush look more scowly. He was smiling a moment ago.
6:26: He was definitely smiling when he said “Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.”
6:26: Interesting question: “Is homosexuality a choice?” Bush says he doesn’t know, and launches into a defense of the FMA.
6:27: Kerry goes out of his way to point out that Dick Cheney’s daughter is gay. I’m not sure I approve of that.
6:30: I approve of Kerry’s comments on faith: that it guides his politics but he doesn’t want to impose it on others.
6:33: Bush tries out his evil chuckle.
6:35: I hope electronic medical records cut down on error better than electronic voting machines.
6:37: Lots of violent motion by Bush’s right hand. I’m concerned he’s turning into Dr. Strangelove.
6:40: I have a feeling Kerry’s not going to say much about how he’s going to pay for his health care plan. Too bad we don’t still have that budget surplus… where’d that go, anyway?
6:41: “…ah, never mind”? Well, ok then.
6:42: “I think government funded health…

…will lead to lower quality health!” Hmm, maybe there’s static over the earpiece. That might be why he stopped in the middle of that sentence a minute ago.
6:44: It’s good that Bush was asked about the $1 trillion price tag on privatizing Social Security. I’m guessing neither candidate is going to explain how they are going to pay for things.
6:46: Kerry’s pressing this issue and working on his fiscal responsibility cred. Bush seems to think this is very amusing.
6:48: The real answer to the Social Security problem (insofar as there is a problem) is to uncap the payroll tax, but I suppose that would violate Kerry’s tax pledge.
6:49: Foam? Wonkette says there was foam. Sometimes I wish I had cable.
6:52: It really bugs me when they ignore the current question to go back and respond to a previous one. Maybe it’s the rules lawyer in me; I’m sure they have good strategic reasons for doing it. Kerry seems to do this more often.
6:57: Sure was nice of Bob Schieffer to ask Kerry that minimum wage question. It basically made his argument for him.
7:03: How many times have we heard “Massachusetts”?
7:10: Getting sleepy.
7:16: I completely zoned out on the affirmative action question. Now Bush is talking about how he can feel that other people are praying for him. Hmm. At least he’s improved on his father by acknowledging that atheists are equally Americans.
7:18: Bush: “Freedom is a gift from the Almighty.” Kerry: “Everything is a gift from the Almighty.” I think I like Kerry’s statement even worse.
7:20: Another softball to Kerry: Will you work to bring America together? “I’m going to crush the Republicans, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women!”
7:29: Not much content in the last ten minutes. A question about “strong women”, and then the closing statements. Bush talks about a painting for a while. He wants us not to look at the mess he’s made in the past, but at the mess he’s going to make in the future.
7:32: And it’s over. I think it was pretty close; Kerry only seemed to score points when he attacked Bush’s jobs record—something he did well, but only a couple times. Otherwise it was a lot of vague talk about policy that didn’t score points one way or another. Bush has reined in his petulance and his anger that came through in the previous debates, although there were times when he seemed agitated, and some of his smirking/laughter seemed weird. Maybe the guy on the earpiece was telling jokes to keep him from getting mad?

Fun with Google

This site is the 322nd hit on Google for “travis” and the 655th hit for “hime”. My father’s site is the 7th hit in the same search, and an Amazon ad for Scared Money is one of the sponsored links.
It is the 31st hit for “arcane” and the 49th for “gazebo”. The most common referrals are search requests for information on gazebos.
It is the 2nd hit for “customer service crush” in an exact phrase search, the 2nd hit for “caffeine inflation” as separate words, and the 7th hit for the phrase “death burger”.
Yes, I am bored.

I’m praying for better science policy.

Over the weekend, the NYTimes published a story on the Bush health care plan*:

Can Prayers Heal? Critics Say Studies Go Past Science’s Reach
In 2001, two researchers and a Columbia University fertility expert published a startling finding in a respected medical journal: women undergoing fertility treatment who had been prayed for by Christian groups were twice as likely to have a successful pregnancy as those who had not.
Three years later, after one of the researchers pleaded guilty to conspiracy in an unrelated business fraud, Columbia is investigating the study and the journal reportedly pulled the paper from its Web site.
No evidence of manipulation has yet surfaced, and the study’s authors stand behind their data.
But the doubts about the study have added to the debate over a deeply controversial area of research: whether prayer can heal illness.
Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science.

So the US government is paying people $2.3 million to pray? I remember an episode of The West Wing where the Bartlett administration agonized over a $100k grant for intercessory prayer research in exchange for a conservative congressman’s vote, and decided against it. But that’s what makes it fiction, I guess.
Now, I’m not opposed to using science to investigate religious claims, but this sort of research has been done for over a century with no result, and at some point you just have to give up. On top of that, I don’t really understand the reasoning. There’s a god, and he has the power to heal, but he won’t use it unless a bunch of people in a scientific study ask him to? Critics cited in the article complain about the lack of a physical mechanism, but I don’t even see a theological mechanism for this. I can’t imagine what the grant proposals look like.
*Yeah, cheap shot.

Don’t say the Z word!

I finally saw Shaun of the Dead last night, after reading good reviews and hearing multiple people recommend it. And indeed, it was terrific. One thing I liked is that it manages to be a comedy without being a parody of zombie movies; indeed, much of the comedy derives from the characters behaving perhaps more realistically than the typical zombie movie protagonist. It’s funny, but it’s also a good action/horror movie in its own right.
The influence of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive was evident, although Shaun relies much less heavily on the gross-out humor that defined Jackson’s film. Of course, no film could hope to equal Dead Alive in that department.

The Physics of Death Burger

If only my research were so easy to explain:

Some science with your fish and chips?
You’d think it was straightforward: the more you shake salt and vinegar over your chips, the more seasoned your chips become. But you’d be wrong.
Retired astrogeologist Dr Allan Mills, of the University of Leicester, was drawn to the subject while watching his assistant season his chips.
His inquiry into the physics of salt cellars has uncovered a surprising finding: shaking salt from a large chip shop-style dispenser actually slows down the flow and dispenses less salt.
Meanwhile, shaking the vinegar bottle does mean that more comes out and is evenly dispersed, but only because without shaking almost none would reach the chips at all.

One of the most valuable things I learned at Cambridge is that vinegar on chips French fries is really good, especially when the fries are hot. The place to go for this in Cambridge is one of the two trailers in Market Square that sell burgers &c. One of them bore the somewhat inscrutable slogan “This is the trailer of LIFE”, and was therefore known as “Life Burger”; the other trailer was then naturally called “Death Burger”. Interestingly, Life Burger seemed to have more vegetarian options while Death Burger was heavier on the meat and the grease.
Needless to say, my preference was for Death Burger.

Relationships and retrospective understanding

Another dating post (they do seem to generate more comments) but in a more serious vein.
Found on Unfogged, a blogger has a Question for Men:

If a woman does not wish to date you anymore, how much information do you actually wish to know about why?

Right away, not much; I tend to be more concerned either with the immediate practical implications of the breakup or the fact that, emotionally speaking, I feel like I’ve just had a large hole punched through my torso. After some time goes by I start to get curious, but at that point I’m unwilling to ask.
It’s not clear that being told the rationale on the spot is helpful, because whatever it is, it’s likely to be an intellectual blindspot for me. For a long time I thought of myself as a “nice guy”, or rather, I assumed axiomatically that I was a nice guy. A more accurate statement is that I am an accommodating guy, and although this has some properties of niceness, it’s not the same. Not realizing this, I was unwilling even to consider the proposition that I might be mean or inconsiderate, and the answer to “what went wrong” completely eluded me. If one of my exes had tried to explain, I just wouldn’t have understood.
Eventually I became more and more bothered by the things I didn’t understand, and puzzling over them something clicked into place. I finally saw it, the thread of self-centeredness running through all of my past relationships. In retrospect it was completely obvious, but at the time I couldn’t see it. I’m not sure someone else could have explained this to me, since I had to question my own assumptions about myself.
The new understanding did raise another question: there were times when I believed I was in love, but looking back I didn’t act like it. So was I really in love, or just deceiving myself about that as well?