Archive for November, 2009


Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Last week I purchased Tegan & Sara’s new album Sainthood, which has quickly become my second favorite musical purchase this year. For those of you just tuning in, Tegan & Sara are Canadian identical twin lesbian singer-songwriters, which is even more awesome than it sounds. They are streaming their new album on Myspace, so if you’re into that sort of thing you can navigate over there and listen to their glorious tunes as you read the rest of my post. I implore you: such a decision is full of epic win.

Even though they are like seven years older than I am, I feel like I’ve been watching (listening) to them grow up. I was introduced to Tegan & Sara through Grey’s Anatomy, back when it was good. I think I bought their album So Jealous first, which was new at the time, and which, while I still like it a lot, was and stayed my least favorite of their albums. So Jealous was their third-or-so album at the time, not including a beautiful little gem called Under Feet Like Ours which they released on cassette when they were just starting out, and which you could order from a website that charged you in Canadian dollars.

Under Feet Like Ours was insanely worth the purchase. It is incredibly genuine, without the studio finish that comes with big budgets and famousness, and all the better for it. You can hear how T&S developed and matured through their albums. Every album is different, every one is good, and they all lead to where they are right now. Which, right now, just happens to be Sainthood, but it used to be The Con, and before that So Jealous (and then If It Was You and then This Business of Art).

And some day in the future they will grace us with something we will have been waiting for the whole time.

FOSS crashes economy?

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Not to be alarmist or anything, but Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is probably to blame in bringing the global financial system to its knees. A few months ago I came across an intriguing article in the New York Times about fat tails and gaussian copulas. It was a pretty good piece, worth at least a glance.

The interesting part begins on page six. Long story short, JPMorgan developed a way of using maths to quantify financial risk into a dollar value. Value at Risk, or VaR, as it was abbreviated, was a useful tool internal to JPMorgan. Then they did something totally bonkers: they gave VaR away. Anyone who wanted to learn and implement VaR could do it, and JPMorgan would help you out. Why would they just give away such a valuable piece of proprietary technology? This quote sums it up nicely:

As Guldimann wrote years later, “Many wondered what the bank was trying to accomplish by giving away ‘proprietary’ methodologies and lots of data, but not selling any products or services.” He continued, “It popularized a methodology and made it a market standard, and it enhanced the image of JPMorgan.”

The story ends with a score of financial firms coming to rely too heavily on VaR, then they overextend themselves, get lulled into a false sense of security, and finally fat tails come in and kick everyone’s asses. Also the economy exploded.

I can’t help but wonder if it was the tactically-superior give-it-away model of FOSS that allowed JPMorgan’s mathematical monstrosity to consume the world’s financial sector in a blaze of nihilist glory.

A different kind of difficult

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

In a previous post I challenged Georgetown’s economics department to “bring it” and kick my ass as best it could. I’m happy to report that they succeeded in winning the first round. Their tactics were a bit sneaky and underhanded, but nothing I couldn’t have anticipated. The fact is that I haven’t been putting in enough time and effort to be learning the most and getting the best grades I can. But that will change: I’m gearing up for round two.

See, what they don’t tell you about serious graduate school programs is the extent to which you are expected to know everything without having been taught it. In undergrad, the professor would only test you on things you covered in class. In grad school, you are lucky if what the professor covers in class is vaguely useful. More than half of what I’ve learned so far has been outside the classroom. This trend will surely continue into the future.

There’s also the little caveat about expectations. Some classes grade homework assignments strictly and care more about answers than methods and effort; some classes don’t even bother to grade homeworks (though if you don’t do them you’re almost guaranteed to fail the exams). Some exams test whether you can regurgitate proofs seen in class, some test mechanical problem solving skills and intuition, and some want you to know damn near everything. Sometimes you may spend more than half of your allotted time on two questions that, you find out after the fact, were only actually worth 18% of the exam grade, and you didn’t get any partial credit on them besides, but that your last five minutes of scribbling on a seemingly unimportant question netted you the majority of your points (a question which, by the way, was worth almost half of the points on the exam). No, you shouldn’t expect all exam questions to be weighted equally, either.

I know how I’m studying for the next round of exams: memorizing proofs, practicing my mechanics, and trying to learn damn near everything. And I am not making any more assumptions about how many points each question is worth.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.