Friday, August 1, 2014

An Ode for the Damned

 An Ode for the Damned

Coffee-induced cacophonies
Can cause such cruel catastrophes,
Luring the pious off their knees-
Exalting their capacities.
“Nothing can get this sin off me”
Reads the epitaph etched upon
This albatross-decked medallion.
For, salvation could never be;
When medals make life’s denouement
Patent- by keeping Sin battalion.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Snapchat and Why Everyone Is an Idiot, Including Me

So a lot of people are speculating that Snapchat is either going to be massively successful or how they will flutter out and die in the vast emptiness of the web. The internet is a weird, fickle mistress who have made it normal to think that a company whose most popular product is a self-destructing photograph delivery service reminiscent of Inspector Gadget is worth $3 billion.

I've been getting angry at every post I've seen about Snapchat. Mostly because they all say the same thing. Snapchat is a fool for turning down the money from Facebook. Snapchat has no future plans for effective monetization on their current model. Snapchat has no way to lock users onto the platform. Snapchat's product isn't complex enough to fend off competitors. Ads will scare away current users.

All of these products are well-thought out and everything... actually they aren't. They are instinctively what might appear to be the case and they're all reasonable enough. So let's consider them one by one.

Questionable Plans for Monetization
Currently they have no future plans for effective monetization on their current model. This is a criticism I have heard countless times and the majority of the instances I first heard this critique is why I find it such a laughable one. This is exactly what everyone was saying about Facebook before they declared their IPO. It's why their stock fell the first few weeks it was on the market.

The same was said about Twitter, a company that even up to its IPO was hemorrhaging upwards of 70 million dollars per year. When it came to monetize, they looked to their user-base and the reach was so widespread that they were able to come up with an effective strategy which was what exactly? Oh! Analytics and lead generation- two simple services that any application sending data can provide.

Ads Alienate
Now- don't get me wrong, this is the reason that Facebook now has more ads. Sure Facebook has lost some users- but they still have a fairly solid core among its original user-base. Or at the very least, one strong enough to warrant a 3 billion dollar offer to a potential competitor. Aside from the fact that the multi-billion dollar mogul is threatened by any company, offering a $3 billion buy-out, one would guess, requires a fairly solid business and budget.

But what about the users that are leaving Facebook? Facebook is suffering from ads! What's the evidence of that? Most reports cite that the users fleeing Facebook are the younger users. Which is no surprise considering that the people most active on my Facebook Wall and Home page are family members. With potential job employers, people who just want to party and post pictures are realizing that this isn't the community for them. Though this does indicate a drop in overall reach, it does not indicate the failings of a business, rather the securing of a niche.

Ads Won't Work for Snapchat
Okay- so maybe ads were okay for Facebook- but Snapchat works differently. Users interface in a short time frame by sending each other pictures. Where is the room for advertisement? Apparently, no content marketers work with PPC or CPC or Google AdSense anymore. Most complaints assume, that ads will necessarily be entertaining snapchats users receive from third-part marketers or intrusive banner ads that will drive users int he opposite direction... because users are too savvy to watch ads.

This is an interesting argument, considering that I can think of a large number of services that don't feature advertisements and extremely successful competitors that do. For example, I generally watch television on a third party site "without advertisements". The site lists all episodes of most every series and by being quick on the draw to a few pop-ups, I have twenty to forty minutes of uninterrupted serenity with New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or whatever. 

But the only time I use this series is when I've missed a new episode and it's not up on Hulu, Xfinity, or Netflix yet. The fact is, freemium software has always been around and it's always had a limited user-base. In my life, I've used countless free alternatives including Word Processors, Video Editing Software, Audio Editing Software, MP3 Player Third Party Software (mediamonkey), VLC Player, and (seriously) countless others. But I still pay for premium versions of those types of software regularly. I bought GarageBand, my dad bought Microsoft Office (which came with three licenses) and I've used iTunes Store many a time in the last year.

In conclusion...
The fact of the matter is that if Facebook was willing to shell out $3 billion for Snapchat, it is worth at least $3 billion. If not to Facebook, then to someone, somewhere. Snapchat requires accounts and could easily track analytics for ads which marketers might find valuable enough to form partnerships with Snapchat.

Anyways, there are a billion reasons to think that Snapchat will fail but those reasons essentially amount to one thing: a lack of creativity. So will Snapchat be creative enough to avoid losing hundreds of millions of dollars where even titans like Twitter have only lost tens of millions? Fuck if I know- but get of your haughty high horses on your consumer watch Linkedins- waiting to say I told you so- because your theories are cracked out bullshit and you know it.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Commuting and Death

I once tried to start a web-comic with some friends and in one of the comics, a character is making light of his self-esteem issues. His line was, “I was going to hang myself on a bridge, but I didn't want to be a burden on the city.”

I was riding home on the BART the other day. I was six stops away from home, which would normally be a thirty minute ride. Suddenly, the train began to slow down between stops and an announcement was made. “Due to a medical emergency at the Hayward Station, Bay Fair will be the final destination of this train.” Everyone put down their books and looked to their neighbors curiously. Bay Fair was a good four stops short of the end of the line, several cities away. The denial was obvious as everyone shared the same information, but insisted on asking everyone around them to confirm what they had heard. Before anyone could reach acceptance, the conductor added that further details would be announced soon.

After another few minutes of everyone speculating on the possible details, the announcer revealed the source of the problem- a person on the tracks had been hit by the train. There was no emotional reaction felt in the car aside for an air of suspense. The conductor continued, “Therefore, the tracks are obstructed and this train will not be able to progress further than the Bay Fair Station,” there was more to the announcement, but all I could hear was the pained groans of a populace set back on their daily commute by a few hours.

Once I arrived at the Bay Fair station, a general sense of confusion left countless standing around aimlessly, asking “what am I supposed to do now?” and “will there be more trains?”

Eventually, I made my way through the herd of confused lemmings to find that BART had worked with AC Transit to reroute several of their largest buses to transport BART passengers to the four remaining BART stations. Upon boarding the bus, complaints were still the majority of what was heard among the crowd. At this point, I had muted my music to observe the overwhelming tones of hatred for the man on the tracks. The dissatisfaction continued as they asked us to leave an overcrowded bus which did not have enough room for all the BART passengers so that we may board a much larger one. People grumbled the whole way, mumbling profanities against the bus driver for doing his job to ensure that we all made it home. 

Once on this bus, I found myself in the midst of a crowd, unable to reach a handrail and standing uncomfortably in order to not fall. As I stood, the general tone of discontent settled down as the entire bus began to listen to one woman in a red shirt.

“I don’t know what’s going on or where I’m going!" she shouted. "These stupid fucks have got us moving from one bus to another and they're not even telling us where we’re going.” Despite the falsity of her statement, one could presume her complaints drowned out any such announcements whilst she followed the herd of lost cattle from car to bus to bus. “Some goddamn idiot was on the tracks. Yes, he died. I’m glad he did, because I would've killed the bastard if he hadn't. Son of a bitch, I would have killed him.” The air of the train had shifted from uncomfortable to upset in a hurry. Her rant carried on for some time, before a brave woman had the decency to ask for the bare minimum standard of decency.

“Do you have to curse so much?” It was at that moment, the woman realized that the people around her were listening to her curse the dead. Her rant toned down a bit as we reached the second stop and a seat opened up.

Once she was sitting, the dirty looks were enough to get her to say her final farewells to the brave soul on the other end of that cellular and sit in the solemn situation patiently with the rest of the dozens of people displaced by one unknown person who was now indisposed.

I stood and stared out the window, contemplating the way we can be so angry at a dead man. There are times to be angry at the dead, sure. When a loved one needlessly takes their own life, or when a mad shooter’s killing spree is brought to an end by his own bullet seem fair enough instances. But when we are mad at the dead for extending our commute, I think it's safe to say we're having the wrong reaction.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On the Fine-Tuning Argument

Of all the arguments for the existence of God, none bothers me as much as the fine-tuning argument. In summary, the argument posits that the universe is governed by very specific set of laws in which a slight aberration would render life impossible. Because it is highly improbable that these laws occurred by chance, we are urged to believe that a purpose-driven Being was responsible. An example of this sort of argument is the "watchmaker argument" propounded by Paley.

Before I point out specifically what is wrong with this argument, let me say that I believe all reason-based attempts to "prove" the existence of any God are doomed. Religion is ultimately based on faith, and it is a bit embarrassing to see it wrestle in the arena of scientific induction.

So let us begin. Consider a deck of cards. Without looking, I draw from it five cards: Ace of Spades, Three of Clubs, Four of Hearts, Seven of Hearts, and Queen of Clubs. It is a mongrel of a hand and utterly useless. No one would find it remarkable that I draw this particular hand.

Suppose instead I draw a straight: five consecutive cards irrespective of suit. This is a valuable hand, and observers would likely commend me on my good luck.

Suppose that I draw a royal flush: Jack through Ace of one suit. This is almost certainly a winning hand, and some people might be awed that I managed to come upon it. If I were playing in a game, some of my opponents might even suspect foul play.

What are the odds that I drew each of those hands? Statistics tell us that the odds of drawing a no-pair hand are 1 in 2, of a straight 1 in 254.8, and of a royal flush 1 in 649,740. Thus, at a glance, it seems reasonable that we attribute the highest value to the royal flush: it is the rarest of these hands.

But there's a mistake here. It is true that we have a 50% chance of drawing a hand that is within the class of no-pair hands; however, it is not true that this is the probability of drawing that particular hand. In fact, there are 1,302,540 ways of drawing a no-pair hand.

Why do we not find anything remarkable about me drawing that particular hand? The answer has to do with value assignments. Within a deck of cards, we have noticed certain combinations which are easy to remember and some of which are difficult to acquire. From this pool of memorable hands, we ranked them from least to most likely in terms of value.

In a sense, the combinations we choose are arbitrary. Take a hand consisting of all odds, for instance. It is not an easy hand to acquire, and it is certainly fairly simple to remember. It is not included among the "value-added" hands because whoever created these value assignments, for one capricious reason or another, simply decided against it.

Now consider a thousand decks, each consisting of a trillion cards. Each deck corresponds to a particular constant of the universe, and whatever card I draw from a given deck sets the value for the relevant constant. I painstakingly assemble my hand of a thousand cards, and lo and behold, I have by chance selected the exact combination that makes life possible. Everyone is amazed. My opponent, whose hand yielded a universe of nothing but rocks, flips over the table and accuses me of cheating.

Where there is cheating, there must be a cheater. Proponents of the fine-tuning argument believe that God is this cheater, and that he peeked into the decks to get exactly the right cards for his purpose.

But suppose that the universe of rocks demanded just as precise of a combination. If my opponent had replaced a few cards, he might have gotten some plants thrown into the mix; alternatively, he could have wound up with nothing more than star-dust.

"Well, look here," I would say to him. "Your hand is exceedingly improbable. You must have cheated to get your universe of rocks."

"That's stupid," he would say. "Who wants rocks?"

We, as life-forms, assign a high value to a combination that yields life. We are not interested in an equally likely combination that does not. However, in the void that was before the Big Bang, there was no value assignment to the infinite ways the universe could be. Marveling at the miracle of life is an activity justified entirely post hoc and is not a genuine assessment of how unlikely this particular universe is.

At this point, one might raise an objection. "That's all true," he might say. "But there's only one way the universe could have sustained life, and a near-infinite number of ways that it couldn't have. It's better than winning the lottery. Surely that counts for something!"

To this, I agree: if life is what you're looking for. If, for some reason, you wanted instead a universe full of rocks, you would be sorely disappointed with the way our universe turned out. If this metaphorical card exercise were actually a cosmic game in which rocks were the most highly-valued, then it is clear that our universe was dealt a mediocre hand.

Furthermore, there is scientific speculation that the much-revered constants of life are not as stringent as they once seemed. Certain laws of the universe may have been otherwise and still yielded life-forms similar to the ones in our universe. And of course, one cannot dismiss the possibility that our conception of life-form is too narrow, and that none-carbon-based life could have existed in a different universe.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Our Academic System: A Pretty Okay Joke

Rant time!

The difference between the people that will get the job at the interview and become successful in life will be someone intelligent with appropriate experience. When we chose committee members for our club here at UCB, we took people who interviewed well. The resumes didn't really help and I'll tell you why- they were awful. Some went back to their sixth grade class presidency. I do not care that you were popular in sixth grade and you wasted your time on writing a speech once so that your friends could think you were important. I care if you are going to be good talking to kids about UC Berkeley now or whether your going to be good at whatever your actual specific job is going to be. Similarly, I feel like I wouldn't care what school someone went to- only if they are or are not capable of doing the job. I would want to see previous things they did and worked on and check their references. UC Berkeley is one giant reference that says "hey, pick this guy- he paid for this degree and passed classes here! It probably wasn't too hard, but he's a hard worker- right?"

Okay, so let's look at the system we have going on right now. I am taking one of my courses solely because it's a requirement. There is no way to get around it, I can not possibly avoid taking this class. It is by far the most inane class I have ever taken. I only have three more weeks of class and I can say that the History of Ancient Philosophy has only damaged my academic career. I hate taking easy classes. I also hate taking classes that are about stupid topics. Socrates and Plato are fun to read, but honestly- all I learned in this class was that Plato was a communist who basically thought that Brave New World was a pretty sweet idea, minus the drugs and sex (Which honestly, just sounds extremely boring and unpleasant to me), that Socrates probably didn't exist and that they were both probably pedophiles (the greeks were pretty into that, and there's an odd reference about Socrates finding a pretty boy in one of the Platonic dialogues).

Anyways, why would a system force us to take certain classes? The only reason I can think of is to discourage us from actually taking that major or pursuing that interest. Political Science 4 was so stupid that I literally couldn't stand attending the discussions because the Grad Student didn't understand my interpretation of the Grand Inquisitor. Luckily for him, the professor did an outstanding job of explaining the exact interpretation the next day in lecture. Nevertheless, the class was so easy that lectures which happened after I did the reading were a waste of my time (thanks to the lovely We the People program- we should give these guys MORE money).

It would be okay if I could take it pass/fail for fun. But that was not the case. To be a political science major, it had to be a letter grade. And when the time came to choose between a B(participation was 20% and I never went to class) and not being a poli-sci major, I switched majors to philosophy (because I hated the class). The breadth requirement stopped me from majoring in a subject I loved because it made me think that everyone in the classes would be idiots forever (it probably might not have been).

Next let's look at the dreaded mandatory discussion section. I can see why this might be useful in ensuring that we are grasping the material and helping those who need help. But honestly, there are office hours and if I don't understand, I would just fail- so I'm clearly going to go ask for help if I need it- why make it mandatory? Please don't hold my hand through education. I am nineteen years old and I have been learning for nineteen years. Not surprisingly, I know how to learn things. I can't not learn. I do it every day. I learn people's names, I learn how to put back together poorly-constructed pens when they break, I learn how to cook something on the internet right before I do it, and when I'm working I learn math and how to use it practically as I try to make a shot glass. I learn legal things when I file for business permits and I do things better than ever. Starting a business will be my MBA. I feel like this is the case for most people. So why not jsut offer an incentive instead of creating a competition? Our system is geared to be a rat race instead of a way to learn and grow.

But why would we have breadth requirements in college? Do you honestly think half a year of learning anything is going to stick? I asked my roommate who was one point short of an A+ in astronomy one year ago a basic question and he couldn't remember. Sure, he remembers some other stuff- but this diminished so quickly it definitely wasn't worth studying for three exams and doing five labs. He just remembered fun facts that I knew before I ever took astronomy from watching the Magic School Bus and playing the computer game where they go into space. It's a half-assed attempt to keep us well-rounded. And if it's not, then what? A chance to get us into something why might not ever have known we loved? Like I'm seriously going to change my plans instantly? If I thought I might possibly change careers or majors, I would be trying out different classes anyways.

I think what we need instead of giving billions and billions of dollars to a school with so much red-tape and bureaucracy that we can't even learn anything- we should just buy every person a laptop and provide free high-speed internet to all of America (probably macs, so the stupid people couldn't break them). Then, if they want to do a job, they can just Google it. I learn how to do things as I do them. I'm currently starting a business, pitching a sitcom and writing philosophical exegeses on Sartre on this blog and it's all for fun.

The best course I have so far is Logic- all I do is the homework once a week and I understand it very well. The only problem is that I went into my midterm without knowing it was a midterm and with no sleep- so I didn't answer two thirds of a question and missed a lot of points- like an idiot. That's how I learned that I should try to go to lecture every once in a while! See- more learning done without explication.

But honestly- I would go to lectures if I didn't have to waste my time doing all this stupid homework for a class I never wanted to take. Seriously. I am getting a 6000 dollar opportunity to listen to some of the most intelligent people lecture and teach me something. Why would I need an incentive to do that? I saw Bill Clinton speak for free! UC Berkeley is a fantastic school and I love it. But why do we let unions bully us into paying tenured workers full salary for the rest of their retirement? And then why do we have an easily exploitable system that allows them to hike up their salary in the last year so that we can pay them more than they technically deserve? Honestly. It's bullshit. I don't blame them for exploiting a broken system- I mean professors actually deserve to be paid as much as they can get. That's capitalism and it's beautiful. But we need to reach a balance. That is a bad system for paying professors. It's just not good. And I know it's a lot of work to get tenure, but they're already getting paid that whole time they're working. So why not, instead of paying ridiculously high tenure so that they can be rich when they retire, we just pay them higher salaries so they can be rich while they have to go through the agonizing pain of working. Then they can save money for retirement or rely on their universal healthcare and improved medicare now that Obama agreed to pay for it.

Not surprisingly, (based on what I hear from Benjamin) private schools seem better than public schools because they don't coddle you and they don't try to make you fail- as most Berkeley students would tell you they try to do here- the only problem is that private schools charge more money. This is because they exist to make money and the best way to do this is to produce students that will go make money and donate back to them later. And that's honestly the only reason UC Berkeley has money. I got 6000 dollars in financial aid per semester. How much did my sister at UCSB get? Not a lot. About 1/6 as much as me, to be exact (get it!?). But that says something when the difference between two public schools financial aid is different by that much for two students in literally the same economic situation (a dependent with the same parents and same income). Seriously, Harvard can't even spend the income they receive from the interest on their bank account. I think that's a fact. I don't know. Look it up, you're on the internet.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

This post is too long

It's true!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Neat Things That Little Kids Say

I have the privilege of working with a first-grade class on Thursdays, and have collected for your enjoyment a bevy of the darnest things that little kids say:

Kid A: I have a cat.
Kid B: I have a dog, and two cats.
Kid C: I have two dogs and cats and a fish.
Kid D: I have dogs and cats but they ALL DIED.

Sam: Guess where I'm from.
(after many failed guesses on my part, he reveals that he is from Oregon)
Sam: Guess where my brother is from.
Me: Oregon?
Sam: (looks at the ceiling, scratches his head) I forgot.

Erin: Maisie says that she loves you.
Me: Oh. That's good.
Erin: I love you too. (grips my shoulder)
Me: Thanks.
(Erin runs back to her table, next to Maisie's)
Maisie: (hushed) What did he say?

Erin: This is my polar bear. It's upside down.
(she has drawn a picture of a striped sock. its colors are red and blue)

Kid: Look how small this pencil is.
(it's pretty small)
Kid: Isn't that funny?
(it's alright)

Erin: When are you leaving?
Me: In about twenty minutes:
Erin: Well, you are staying forever, OK?
Me: OK.
(I didn't)