June 13, 2014

How Can Someone So Smart Do Something So Stupid?

Most people I know think that I am smart, but that I do stupid things.  You could describe many of my friends the same way.  If you're part of a particular clique of super-smart WPI twenty-something engineers, I bet you could be described this way, too.  (Note:  I hear that you do jello shots on garage roofs -- I rest my case.)

Anyway, take a look at the Title Question.  Has that ever been said about you?

My wife says that phrase approximately once every six hours about me.  And she means it every time.  I've heard my friends' wives say it about them.  Hell, I've heard our wives commisserating about how we're all that way.   What the heck does that mean?

In other words:  How the hell CAN someone "so smart" do something "so stupid"?

I think I've figured it out!

Before I go any further, I don't think this is necessarily a man / woman thing.   I have little doubt that literally millions of times per year, men say that about their wives.    At the very least, we can debate that some other time.  I just want to describe the phenomenon, not start World War III.

The So-Smart-So-Stupid Answer
The answer is that there are many dimensions of intelligence, and two are breadth and depth.  (There are probably many other meaningful dimensions, but these are two.)

For a given set of raw brain-processing ability, it can be divvied up into different attention-chunks.  So two people with IQ's of, say, 140, can allot their attention in different amounts -- and either to a few topics deeply, or more topics not-quite-as-deeply.

So here is precisely what happens, which leads to the Blog Title Question.
  1. A "Deep" person can demonstrate a few tasks extremely well.
  2. The "Broad" person observes that this person is really good in a very precise area.  Even if she has this skill herself, she senses the depth.
  3. However, the "Broad" person also sees that there's some really basic things that said Smarty is totally screwing up.
  4. This seems like a contradiction.
And hence:  "How can someone so smart do something so stupid?"

Epilogue  (I wrote this later)
So I wrote this post and was feeling pretty good about the article -- then I went back a few hours later and noticed something a bit ...untoward.  (Whoa, there's a word you don't hear much.)  Anyway, if you take the picture above (of the woman) totally out of context, it looks like I'm saying "This is the stuff that broads talk about."

That is not how I meant it.  And lest anybody say, "Yeah, but I bet I that's where the term 'broads' probably came from, so you're just as bad!  We're not broads!"  I would like to say that I'm pretty damn sure that the phrase "broad" originally referred to a woman's decolletage, not her perspicacity and parallel mental processing abilities.

June 12, 2014

Brett Finds God

All of my life I have been an avowed atheist -- well, at the very least, I'm unaffiliated from any run-of-the-mill Gods. 

Yet, I have read countless times about the benefits of praying.  Praying helps you focus your thoughts, and helps you live up to your own ideals.  Nevertheless, for the longest time, I thought this was one of the downsides of atheism:  No praying.

Then, a few years ago, I decided to forge ahead with praying anyway.

Nothing In Common With "Capital-G" God
I quickly concluded that if I were going to pray, it certainly would not be to the Judeo-Christian God.  I have virtually nothing in common with that Guy.   I mean, how boring is He: totally all-powerful, all-knowing, all everything. I cannot relate to Somebody like that whatsoever.

I need a lower-case-g god:  A god who is more human, more flawed, with strengths and weaknesses, not one who checks every goddamn box in the Awesome column.  Not somebody for whom I gotta capitalize my frickin pronouns when I refer to Him.

God Shopping
I'll Pass
So I went god shopping. I inspected a few of the Hindu gods that had promise -- but nothing panned out.  I discovered that I have a natural aversion to praying to any god with any of the following:
  • A trunk
  • More than two arms
  • A pastel complexion
Then I investigated the Christian saints: So lame.  Christian saints are to mythology what Thomas the Tank Engine is to children's toys -- they took something that could be cool and made it uptight and stodgy. 

But then I hit the treasure trove: the Greek gods!

Here's my take on each God:

Asshole Divorcee
Zeus:  The ultimate father figure, but more of a selfish, divorced dad than Mike Brady.  Too philandering and bossy -- kind of an asshole.  If he were a mortal, I have little doubt he'd drive a Corvette, date twenty-something waitresses well into his late 40s, and occasionally have chlamydia.

Hera:  Meanwhile, if Zeus is the prototypical divorced dad, then Hera is the bitter ex-wife.  It seems like she spends all of her time bitching about Zeus (not that he doesn't deserve every bit of it), rather than just getting on with her life.   Hardly inspirational.

Achilles:  Sure, Achilles is a great warrior, but in kind of a single-dimensional way.  He doesn't really represent my values. Plus, do you know why Achilles sat out the first half of the Trojan war? It was because Agamemnon filched his most attractive slave (Brisies) for himself! I could hardly worship somebody who took sex slaves in the first place, much less was happy to stand by while a war raged, because his harem was a bit light.

Hercules:  Great, you're really strong, we get it.  Maybe I'll pray to him if the lid gets stuck on the pickle jar again, or if I want to carry three boxes up from the basement in a single trip.   But otherwise I'll keep looking.

Attractive Dingbat
Aphrodite:  She's the stereotypical brainless hot chick, who almost got herself killed by a mortal (Diomedes) because she wasn't paying attention.  Put on some decent clothes and get a job, you trollop.

Hephaestus:  Not cool himself, per se, but he has all sorts of neat stuff:  he was the armorer for the gods, and makes some really slick weapons. But he himself is weird and moody.  Worshiping him would be like hanging out with a creepy kid just so that you can play his Xbox One.  Nope.

Paris / Helen of Troy:  Fuck no.  Choosing them would be like worshiping Jason Priestly or Shannon Doherty.  Out of the question.

Apollo / Ares:  I could never quite figure out Apollo, except for the fact that he was typically pissed about one thing or another. And Ares was even worse.  A bunch of meatheads, if you ask me.

Hades:  He's like a creepy goth kid, with whom nobody wants to hang out.  So he gets this angry dog (Cerebus) to make some sort of statement. Get a life.

God Found!
So far, I had no luck.  I needed a god who was strong, yet clever. Someone who could not rely on power alone, because in the real world, nobody can.  Someone who was cunning at times, but clearly had a very good heart.  Someone who did important things.  Someone I could relate to, and be inspired by.

At long last, I found my god -- or, as it turned out, goddess: Pallas Athena.

About Pallas Athena
Pallas Athena is the goddess of Just Warfare, which is awesome.  In other words, she fights, but she fights nobly.  Also, while she's not quite strong enough to go toe-to-toe with Ares (who is the primary god of war), she typically gets the best of him anyway.  

Totally Awesome
She's kind to mortals, and isn't always bitching about sacrifices, like some other gods I could mention.  Generally, she wants to avoid bloodshed, and tries to help the mortals to get along.

Her symbol is the owl, which is an awesome creature in its own right:  An owl is a quintessential predator, yet is known for its wisdom.  (Plus, have you ever seen an owl up close?  Man, those things are cool.)   It captures her spirit perfectly.

Oh,  and she's not some hussy.  Aphrodite or Hera were always tramping around with the other gods, or seducing mortals, but not Athena.  Hephaestus tried to throw himself at her once, but he was no match for her, and just ended up embarrassing himself.  She very well might be a lesbian.

Even how she was born is awesome: She sprang from Zeus's head in full battle armor, and pretty much had a not-to-be-fucked-with demeanor from the get go.

Worship 101
I'm still figuring out how to best worship her.  I'm treading a bit lightly -- I certainly don't want to piss her off.  But I hope she doesn't hold me to ancient Greek standards, as I can hardly afford to be sacrificing hecatombs, like they did back then:  I looked it up: a hecatomb is 100 cattle.   My wife would be pissed if I bought 100 cattle and then slaughtered them in the back yard.

But I did buy a statue of her decked out for battle, with this awesome owl.  I pray to it now and then, when I need strength or focus -- like before a big presentation at work.  I like to think that she's rooting for me, too.

However, if you ever hear that I've been struck dead by a bolt of lightning, you can conclude that I either offended her, or one of the other gods heard I was talking smack.  For my sake, please do NOT forward this blog to any dieties.

June 10, 2014

How to Think About Forecasting

When I graduated college in 1995, I got a job working in Data Warehousing -- setting up reporting systems using a variety of relational and multi-dimensional databases.  It required a balance of financial reporting (i.e., what to report) and data design skills (i.e., how to report it).

Yet, if you asked my grandmother, you'd hear a slightly different story.  As far as she was concerned, "Brett works in computers."   Now, people often said such things in the 1980's, and it's probably acceptable septuagenarian-speak today.    But for most of us, it no longer cuts it.

Working "in Computers"
Why is that?  How is it possible that a phrase that was totally legit in the 80's can now sound so ridiculous? 

The answer:  As a society, we have learned things, and as we learned, language got more precise.   The phrase "in computers" was fine, back when few people did.   But today, it's just a catch-all for a broad array of specialties -- networking, security, graphics, databases, software development, etc. etc. 

Here's the kicker:  As our language evolves, even some of these terms will become too generic.  I already know term that's bound for the trash heap:  Forecasting.

Forecasting isn't really a thing.
These days, I tell people that I do forecasting, and they nod approvingly.  Quite often, they exclaim, "You should talk with So-and-So."  Sometimes I do talk with So-and-So, and find that we have very little, if anything, in common.

Why this?   The answer is simple:  Forecasting isn't one thing.  People picture it as a specialty, like something specific, like database administration or UI development.   People think that it surely has some common base of skills that all forecasters share, the equivalent of a DBA's schema or accountant's general ledger -- but it doesn't.

If you choose any two forecasts, they're likely to be wildly, crazily different.  They can use radically different techniques, different math (or as my Oxford-trained friend puts it: different "maths"),  different error tolerances,  different outcome distributions, etc. etc.

How to Think About Forecasting
I've dreamed up many analogies and descriptions for forecasting, to try to convey to people just how broad forecasting really is (and consequently how devoid of meaning the term is).

Here's the best one I've come up with:  Forecasting is just guessing what's going to happen next.   That's it.

If you think of it in those terms, a lot of what I've written becomes obvious.  You might presume that forecasting is a formal skill -- but what about "guessing what's going to happen next"?  Is that a formal skill?  Not quite so much.

Also, if someone at a party says that they do "Forecasting", you might not your head.  But what if they said, "I guess what's going to happen next."  ...There, you'd probably give them a blank-eyed look, because it's such a meaningless thing to say.

But that's all forecasting really is.

Brett's TSX

Anybody who knows me is aware that I love my car.  It's not an impressive car of anyting -- it's not an Audi RS5, a Porsche Cayman, or a Tesla.  In fact, it's eleven years old -- I bought it in November 2003.  It's a glorified thin-person's Honda Accord, but I love it.

But it hasn't always looked so nice:  I maintained it meticulously for the first few years, but eight years on, it was really showing its age:  All that time, I had to park it outside, and the net effect was that the outside got dulled (due to the icy winter) and oxidized (due to the blazing summer).  Its cherry gloss red dulled to a milky matte red; the wheels got a fair share of scrapes; the headlights fogged. 

By 2011, I was looking for something new, and had a good shot at convincing my wife to let me get something a bit pricier.

Quest For The New
So I went on a quest for an new car.  Here are the front-runners, in no particular order, that I was considering:
I fell into a pattern of falling in love with a car based upon pictures and reviews, and spending endless cycles building and re-building the car online.  Ultimately, I'd go see the car in person, and for one reason or another, I'd find myself happy to get back into my own car.   Some were too loud (Cayman), some felt a bit heavy (S6 and 6-Series), some simply left me flat (Jaguar XK, Mercedes SL), and some weren't compellingly different from what I currently drive (Lexus IS350, Infiniti Q50 and Audi S4).

Fun Facts About the TSX
  • Acura is the bling version of Honda, much like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Deluxe is the bling version of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese:  Technically, yes, it's better, but you're still not impressing anybody.
  • The TSX is the sports version of the Honda Accord sold in Europe.  Honda sells a different model as the Accord in the United States, because Americans are fat.  This is true.
  • It sports a naturally-aspirated (i.e., non-turbo) four cylinder, with 200 horsepower and 168ft/lbs of torque.  To those who don't already know, these numbers compare quite favorably to many mopeds.
Brett's Bet and the Result
Around then, I happened to see my mechanic (a wonderful guy) and I asked him how much life was left in my TSX.  "This car here?", he said.  "This car is not even halfway through it's life yet.  You could drive this over 250,000 miles." 

That's when I decided to take the plunge:  Instead of buying a new car, I'd fix up the one I had.  I tracked down Pasquale Bruno, a passionate Italian autobody expert, and we set to work:
  • A high-end paint job.
  • New headlights.
  • New trim.
  • New wheels.
  • All worn pieces on the inside replaced.
  • Cold-air exhaust and re-spec'ed ECU (both to bump up horsepower)
  • Stainless steel brake lines.
  • Rear-view camera
  • Bluetooth and iPhone integration
What's more, I cleaned out my garage and hardly ever leave it outside (especially not in the winter).

The result:  I'm ecstatic.  I preen over it constantly -- washing, waxing, polishing.  As a result, it looks and runs great, and I still get compliments (including this past weekend from a valet).

Here are some other pics of it (click to expand them):

All told, I've probably put $12,000 into it so far.  I know it's a waste of money, but on the bright side, it's much less of a waste than the depreciation of a new car!   Or, at least, that's what I keep telling myself.

Frequently Asked Questions
Okay, time to dive into my mailbag, and answer questions people have sent me about my car!  Let's see what's on peoples's minds, shall we?

Q: Isn't the TSX more of a girl's car?
A:  Shut up.

Q: The only way that car would break 100mph, is if you dropped it out of an airplane.
A: That's not even a question. 

Hm, I guess there aren't a lot of questions.  Okay, that's all for now!

After I wrote this, my friend Rachel took this picture and sent it to me.  She can go jump in a lake.

June 6, 2014

Into The Next

In this post, I'm going to give an idea of where I think we're headed, and where to look for alien life.

Here's my Wave of Refinement theory:  On some cosmic level, we're at the crest of a wave -- a wave that started at the beginning of the universe.  It's a wave of refinement.  It started off with a vast sea of energy (immediately following the Big Bang), transforming into matter, into galaxies, into solar systems, into life, into intelligent life, into computers, into the next, into the next.

Each of these phases is considerably faster than the one before it.  Technology cycles (like adoption rates of fire, language, written language, printing press, electricity, then phone, then television, then cable, then internet, then cell phone, then Facebook, then Twitter) are collapsing from millenia to centuries to decades to years.

Take a Good Stare
Now ponder this: Where will we be in one thousand years?  Personally, when I really try to look ahead, and then I ponder this question, it's the cognitive equivalent of staring into intense direct sunlight -- only instead of intense light, it's intense chaos.  But the result is the same -- I cognitively have to avert my gaze, it's too intense to keep looking.

The world will be totally unrecognizable in a thousand years.  I'm not sure it will be recognizable in a hundred.  Things are transforming.  We'll be inside the computers soon, whatever that means.  I don't think we have the imagination to KNOW what that means, but it's what's going to happen.  Experts can agree on scant few details, aside from the porn being amazing.

But I think I see where this is generally headed, even after we merge with computers.  Into tinier bits of energy, with quicker processing times.  A year to us now will be an absolute eternity to future manifestations of this wave of refinement.  Much like a century now is an eternity compared to caveman days (e.g., 100,000 years ago), and that was but a fraction of the time before that.

As a result, if we seek other intelligence, perhaps we're looking for it at the wrong level.  Perhaps the majority of intelligent life has, for all intents and purposes, refined itself so much that it is woven into the universe as a form of energy. ...but not energy like photons and joules, something far more subtle and essential.

Don't Bet On It
For them, our life would be ridiculously slow.  We're slower than the slowest tortoise, and any attempt at communication would be tantamount to shaping the rings on a tree that after ten thousand years spells out the "h" in "hello".  To them, we are a mountain range or a scultpure:  we're just matter.    Probably the closest analogy would be a reef, which people treat as a thing, but it is (or at least has the potential to be) alive.

So that sucks.  No Martian babes, apparently.

June 4, 2014

Brett Endeavors a Grammar Maneuver

Hello!  Today I have made a momentous decision which I must call out and justify for the public record.

I'm no longer saying "his or her".  

I hate that damn phrase.  Starting immediatley, I am saying "they."   I realize this is a second-order grammatical faux pas; I forge ahead nonetheless.

Grammar Snobbery
Brett, Grammar Dandy
If you know me, you are likely aware that I am a ferocious grammar snob.  The rest of you will surely lose respect for me when you read this post.  It's pathetic, and I am not a proud man.

But the truth is:  I delight over grammar and its rules like a foppish aristocratic manchild.

It's quite similar to how I feel when reading The Economist, where I'm all like "Mmm yes, Belarus, do implement those reforms." or "Tut tut Zimbabwe!"

So here's one of the symptoms:   I cringe when I hear a first-order offense  like "irregardless,"  "could care less," or "supposibly," and internally recoil like I've been bitten by a snake.  I mean, you could never tell by looking at me; but inside, I'm aflutter like an aging schoolmarm. 

Another symptom:  I fawn over parallelism, and bestow silent accolades to myself for my skill:
*   Incorrect: I want to do some creating, then learn something, then have grown. 
*   CorrectI wish to create, to learn, to grow.

Violating parallelism will get you dinged on the GMAT, and plus, it sounds terrible.  Seriously, if you replace "have grown" with "have, like, grown and shit." in the "Incorrect" sentence above, it flows just as well.   (Parallelism says, when listing verb clauses, if one verb ends in -Ing, all must end in-Ing; if you use the Infinitive once, you use the Infinitive every time.)

I also secretly delight myself at distinguishing between the use of that and which.  "That" is a required phrase, "Which" is optional.  Hence, one should use "that" only if you kinda gotta know it for the sentence to make any frickin' sense whatsoever, but if you're charming people with delightful side details, then it's which.

I preen over such details, and give myself little blue ribbons for getting things like this correct.  I am generally, if for fleeting moments, quite the dandy.

I'm Not Normally A Tight-Ass
You might wish to say "Yes, Brett, you are anal retentive.  Get over it."  But I'm NOT!   I swear, I do more than my fair share of cursing and occasionally dabble in some rather questionable (if quite amusing) effrontery.

Like, last year, I was on a conference call with twelve people, and the project lead said, "Okay, so we've got a number of issues to discuss.  Number one is...."   While we were discussing that, I raised another concern, and she says, "So Brett just put a big Number Two on the table."  and I immediately interjected, totally straight-faced, "I'd like to clarify that I did NOT just put a big Number Two on the table.  That's gross." before going on mute and weeping with laughter.  Total silence on the line. Truly, one of the finest moments of my life.

On another call, our India team kept saying that they "have to take a [data] dump" or "who took the last dump" or "I look forward to that dump."  Each time it would make you wince slightly.   After a while, I had had enough, and so I said, "Well, if you need any help, [co-worker] would be happy to help you take a dump.  Wouldn't you [co-worker]?"  Then I ran over to his desk (we're good friends) and we both cackled on mute, while our Indian colleagues remained oblivious.  Another life highlight.

Back to My Grammar Faux Pas
Okay, so now that you know that I'm a grammar dandy (even if I am occasionally vulgar) hopefully you understand that I don't lightly violate the grammar rules by which I derive my fragile self-worth.

But I'm willing to give it all up, because I'm sick of "his and her."  It makes all sentences sound awkward:   "If each student could take his or her seat".   Oh please.

What's worse, this is a brand-new, self-inflicted problem!  Until the 1970's, people wrote "if each student could take his seat".  See how much nicer that flows?  Unfortunately, it comes an unpleasant side effect of sounding like (if not arguably, being) a sexist asshole.  So society changed it.

Total aside: I super-cringe when someone  uses her for the generic, instead of "his" or "his or her."  It's like some failed offering to the Gods of Progressivism.  Like, "if each students could take her seat" (when speaking to a mixed group).  This sounds forced and weird, like, every goddamn time.

Anyway, I think a gender-neutral phrasing sends a healthy message to men AND women.  Plus, I read that women comprise over 15% of the total population.  I bet a lot of people don't realize that there are quite so many women.   So we should be, like, nice to them.

Screwed The Replacement
So I love the spirit, but  our implementation sucked:  We should have chosen "their", not "his or her." "His or her" sounds like total crap.  And even THEN women get kind of screwed because they're still  in second place!  Arrgh!  I have yet to hear someone say "her or his," but I imagine that the term exists in copious feminist diction.

So screw it.  I'm making the bold decision to switch to "theirs".  Like so:

Current:  If each student could take his or her seat.
Brett's New Way: If each student could take their seat.

Current:  I'd appreciate it if he or she would call me back.
Brett's New Way: I'd appreciate it if they'd call me back.

Please Don't Judge The Grammar
I understand if you don't agree with me, but don't lump me in with the grammatical riff-raff -- as if I had confused "their" with "there", or wrote "you're" for "your."   I couldn't bear it.

I'm begging you.   Grammar snobbery is all that I have --  I couldn't...  I couldn't bear to lose it...  I'm feeling faint just thinking about it.  Where is my silk fan?   Where is it?  Where is my fan?

Ah yes, here it is.  Okay... One sec.

...Okay, I'm feeling better now.  Where was I?