Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TECHNOLOGY: Hackers reverse-engineer NASA's leaked bugging device

From the New Scientist:
RADIO hackers have reverse-engineered some of the wireless spying gadgets used by the US National Security Agency. Using documents leaked by Edward Snowden, researchers have built simple but effective tools that can be attached to parts of a computer to gather private information in a host of intrusive ways.

The NSA's Advanced Network Technology catalogue was part of the avalanche of classified documents leaked by Snowden, a former agency contractor. The catalogue lists and pictures devices that agents can use to spy on a target's computer or phone. The technologies include fake base stations for hijacking and monitoring cellphone calls and radio-equipped USB sticks that transmit a computer's contents.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Office hours - and learning Malayalam in 21 days

Office hours for next month are scheduled for Monday, August 4th.

I have been on a "Learn Malayalam" project this summer. I set myself a target of learning enough Malayalam within a 21 day period. It has been working quite well. I am almost done, and have reached the desired level of fluency.

This three week period happens to coincide with the World Cup. Which was nice. Because I could cheer for Team USA in malayALam. The best thing about America is that it is a country that celebrates diversity. It is quite awesome that you can cheer for Team USA in whatever language you want.

And, while on the topic of learning Malayalam, I wanted to send out a quick shout out to Gita Natarajan Shankar, Aruna Govind and Rita Maheshan for offering time to talk to me in malayALam, and/or offering resources. This is exactly the type of "constructive cooperation" I need. I am quite sure that it is this sort of "constructive cooperation" and support that is also responsible for the success of Indian-Americans in Spelling Bees - it is important to identify for other people what they need, when they need it and given them the right support at the right time.

And below is my thank you note on Facebook to my Facebook friends.

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I hope to have brought some Germany-like efficiency to my Malayaalam learning. I truly believe that it is possible to learn languages quite quickly (And this has important implications for Reading/Writing [well, I think they are important] and for improving literacy levels in the world too, but that is a different matter. I am close to the end of the scheduled 21 day period. Still have a few more days to go, but I think I have reached the desired level of fluency now. It should be smooth sailing from here on. It has been fun cheering with you all. Thanks, Avinash Kishore Shahi Ujjwal Sinha Partha Basu Stan Veuger Anusha Iyer Sundar Pichai Sunil Ravipati Arnab Pal Shalin Patel Raghav Krishnapriyan Nirupama Bulusu Pradeep Madhavan Louis Osofsky. And for the finals, best of luck, Deutschland! Viel Gl├╝ck!
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Monday, June 30, 2014

INNOVATION: Information School team app for West African fishermen snags sustainable fishing prize

From UC Berkeley:
When they woke at the base of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 30-foot-high kelp forest Saturday morning — under the watchful gaze of leopard sharks, red octopuses and dozens of other marine species — four students and alums at UC Berkeley’s School of Information knew they faced no ordinary programming challenge.

The team spent the weekend participating in a nationwide Fishackathon, a project supporting sustainable fishing practices around the world. The team’s project first was judged the best at the Monterey Bay Aquarium site, and then faced finalists from four other hackathon sites across the country. After Tuesday’s final presentations, the I School team was awarded the hackathon grand prize.

I School student Dan Tsai and 2014 graduates Isha Dandavate, Jenton Lee and Kate Rushton joined dozens of other programmers, students and information professionals from Silicon Valley and across Northern California at the aquarium the weekend of June 13-14 for two straight days and nights of design and development. The aquarium had teams of oceanographers and fishing researchers available as resources and consultants for the contestants, to provide information they needed to guide their designs.

Response to Tyler Cowen : why Indian restaurants are better than Pakistani restaurants

Bang in the middle of World Cup season when international rivalries are prominently on display (and what could be more important than watching Deutschland play ("JA, JA, DEUTSCHLAAAAAAAND!!")) comes this short post furthering the point I made on why Indian restaurants in the United States are better than Pakistani restaurants. Tyler Cowen has argued otherwise in his book. He wrote that Pakistani restaurants are better than Indian restaurants in the United States. But when I asked him for amplification, he did say that... well, read on to find that bit out. But first, the question: is Tyler's observation really true? Has Tyler Cowen scored one for Pakistan?

At first blush: perhaps, in a manner of speaking, but then again, maybe not. Indian restaurants do tend to cater to the American palate more often than Pakistani restaurants. However, it must be first noted that this is not universally true. It must also be noted that there are reasons to believe that - when the full 90 minutes are done and the final whistle has been blown - Indian restaurants come out - overall - ahead of Pakistani restaurants. That is my considered opinion on this matter any way.

Why? Two reasons, both observations on the restaurant market in the United States. The first thing I would like to note is that where this is greater competition among Indian restaurants, and where there is a greater concentration of Indians, the quality of Indian restaurant food is excellent. This includes such areas as the San Francisco Bay Area and New York. Competition brings quality. This is the point that Prof. Cowen clarified via email in his reply to me. He agreed that the quality of food in these areas is outstanding - and he attributes it to competition as well.

The second thing I would like to note is that Indian restaurants are like American business schools in an important way - they have made various choices that may be treated as "strategic positions". American business schools have, of course, done exactly this - Duke positions itself as a team-based school ("Duke grads are great TEAM PLAYERS!"), Wharton positions itself as a great school for people interested in Finance ("Finance? Come to Wharton!) and HBS positions its students for leadership roles ("HBS- more CEOs than any other business school"). Indian restaurants have done the same thing. They have positioned themselves as vegetarian or vegan, as buffet-based or menu-based. Now, vegetarianism happens to an extremely good lifestyle choice and, therefore, the Quality of a regional cuisine is a function of whether it offers good choices for vegetarians. In this regard, Indian restaurants in the United States are superior to virtually every other regional cuisine (except perhaps Thai).

And so, in the context of great international rivalries, it must be noted that Pakistani are certainly in contention in this game. However, there are few to zero Pakistani restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian - and this is important because the wafting flavors of kebabs and koftas are enough to tempt even the most die-hard dieter. Furthermore, Indian cuisine is a strict superset of Pakistani cuisine and so there is little to support the contention that it has anything to do with Indian food per se.

I note Tyler Cowen's point that Indian restaurants have added more sugar to some of their dishes, have diluted the flavors of some of their soups, et cetera, all of which add up to much less flavor for the gourmet. (This is a valid and very important point - and it is especially true in places where there is less competition.) But being a bit of a gourmet myself, I would argue that you can quite easily satisfy your appetite for excellent food at Indian restaurants by simply downloading the Yelp app for the iPhone or Android and finding out what dishes at a particular restaurant are bad.

It may then be concluded that Tyler Cowen's goal must, in fact, be challenged. As an unbiased referee, I am going to be unable to award this point to him. If anything, given that Indian cuisine is a strict superset of Pakistani, it is clear that you are better off going to an Indian restaurant, particularly one that supports your dietary choices- whether low carb or low fat, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian.

And now, I must go back to Germany versus Algeria.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Office hours

The office hours for June were on June 2. The next office hours are on July 7 and August 4 between 7:30 and 8:15 a.m. Office hours are on the first Monday of every month between 7:30 and 8:15 a.m. PST.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

TECHNOLOGY: How Can Supercomputers Survive a Drought?

Via HPCwire.com:
Water scarcity has been surfacing as an extremely critical issue worth addressing in the U.S. as well as around the globe nowadays. A McKinsey-led report shows that, by 2030, the global water demand is expected to exceed the supply by 40%. According to another recent report by The Congressional Research Service (CRS), more than 70% of the land area in the U.S. underwent drought condition during August, 2012.

When it comes to 2014, the condition has become even worse in some of the states: following a three-year dry period, California declared state-wide drought emergency. A report by NBC News on this drought quotes California Gov. Jerry Brown as saying, “perhaps the worst drought California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago”. Many such evidences of extended droughts and water scarcity have undoubtedly necessitated concerted approaches to tackling the global crisis and ensuring water sustainability.

Supercomputers are notorious for consuming a significant amount of electricity, but a less-known fact is that supercomputers are also extremely “thirsty” and consume a huge amount of water to cool down servers through cooling towers that are typically located on the roof of supercomputer facilities. While high-density servers packed in a supercomputer center can save space and/or costs, they also generate a large amount of heat which, if not properly removed, could damage the equipment and result in huge economic losses.

The high heat capacity makes water an ideal and energy-efficient medium to reject server heat into the environment through evaporation, an old yet effective cooling mechanism. According to Amazon’s James Hamilton, a 15MW data center could guzzle up to 360,000 gallons of water per day. The U.S. National Security Agency’s data center in Utah would require up to 1.7 million gallons of water per day, enough to satiate over 10,000 households’ water needs.

Although water consumption is related to energy consumption, they also differ from each other: due to time-varying water efficiency resulting from volatile outside temperatures, the same amount of server energy but consumed at different times may also result in different amount of water evaporation in cooling towers. In addition to onsite cooling towers, the enormous appetite for electricity also holds supercomputers accountable for offsite water consumption embedded in electricity production. As a matter of fact, electricity production accounts for the largest water withdrawal among all sectors in the U.S. While not all the water withdrawal is consumed or “lost” via evaporation, the national average water consumption for just one kWh electricity still reaches 1.8L/kWh, even excluding hydropower which itself is a huge water consumer.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

ECONOMICS: Indian-Americans and the Spelling Bee

Further thoughts on the success of Indian-Americans in the Spelling Bee below. References to be added later.
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Imagine a perfect world of education. Imagine Neverland. It is a world in which all children get access to high quality education. All teachers in all schools are committed and devoted.All teachers in third grade teach children about Matisse, evolution and early American history [1]. The children are all enthusiastic. The parents are involved in their children's school work. Together, they work on homeworks and projects. And the children all learn. The joy of learning pervades the household. The joy is palpable. The household is thriving.

Now let us consider a different setting. We have a different school district. In this school district, the teachers are not all perfect- some are good, some are bad. The students' ability, drive and motivation also lie across a range. Some students are thriving. But some are not.

Let us now zoom in on one classroom. This classroom is in an inner city. In this classroom, a teacher is struggling with a difficult question. She quit her job in the corporate world to take up this job as a teAcher. But the children come from troubled homes. They are unable to focus. They don't even complete the most simple homework problems. The teacher recently received a death threat. She is considering quitting. This school is obviously not thriving.

Consider the parent of a child in this classroom. The parent knows that her third grade child is having difficulty learning about Matisse. (An obscure/hard-to-internalize topic for an eight year old if ever there was one.) But the fact of the matter is that she knows that her child is smart. Her son is able to learn about Matisse just fine when her son is taken through the material carefully by her. But in the classroom, the child faces a range of pressures. It is not so much that the child is unable to learn. The child is unable to "perform". (Maybe the question we should ask is: why should a third grade child be expected to "perform" any way?) It all seems quite unfair. One could forgive the parent's belief, now firmly established, that it is government ultimately that has failed her.

Now, consider yet another classroom in yet another school. This is a middle income families' school. The parents of the children in this school are educated. Most children take it easy. That is, after all, what childhood is all about. but a few are highly driven to succeed. These children are encouraged by their parents to do excel.

As an organization behaviorist, I am always in search of excellence. What is the root cause of motivation[3]? What condition or conditions in the environment[4] infuses some people with drive and energy? Why do other individuals under the same conditions and/or environment seem listless and even utterly bored? How is it that, despite all odds, individuals in even relatively average environments are driven to excel?

The answer must lie in something that must ultimately come down to the individual. Much has been said about the poor quality of educational achievement in America. Is this really true? Steven Sailer has argued that the educational outcomes of Scandinavian-Americans actually closely resembles the educational outcomes of the much admired Scandinavians. I don't wish to cite his opinions on minorities not because his analysis is not "accurate". It is, in some sense. However, it is also important to note that individuals in this setting, and we ARE talking about children here, have little control of their destiny. As Janes March once said, "three decisions that individuals take early in their lives has a huge impact on their future - when they are born, where they are born and who they are born to". One can hardly blame the children. However, it is also important to keep in mind that just because a few children are doing poorly, it does not mean that the whole system is rotten. It simply means that that there may be pockets of excellence even in seas of mediocrity (not that the American educational system is like that). (Please understand that I am specifically not blaming anyone. I refuse to say that African-American children are failing because it is their fault or because there is something in their culture. In fact, I highly doubt that is the case and refuse to believe that the vast majority of children, whether black or white, are anything other than inherently good ). There is goodness and excellence around us. A lot of people seem to miss this completely and fail to see the wood for the trees. And I have generally seen Republicans point out the way to excellence and achievement far more consistently than the Democrats. Whether you believe that or not, you would do well to pay heed to the Republicans whether you agree with them or not. As I have heard many a conservative say- the best allies of the conservatives are ... the facts. The truth is that there is much that is excellent in the American educational system. And it is this excellence that we must seek to identify. Wherever it may lie.

Now, here is a question to think about. Which setting does the real world resemble? Obviously, the second one. But the thing to note is that despite the odds, -some- children are succeeding. So ask not what the country is doing for you. Don't blame the educational systems. Don't be part of the problem. Ask what you can do for your country. Find out how you can get behind what is working. And be part of the solution.

It is fair to ask if the parent can, in fact, know anything about what her children will need to do in order to learn. Has this model of children learning via parentally involved instruction actually worked anywhere? As a matter of fact, yes. This model has worked extremely well in many states. In Texas, I have personally come to know about schools where the children are generally interested and motivated. And they do learn. The home schooling movement is yet another instance of the 'perfect setting' exemplar. When done correctly, children learn rapidly. There was even one home schooled child who went on to attend Harvard. There is ultimately no substitute for motivation and hard work.

The final takeaway is simple- The American educational system may not be perfect but it can be made to work for you. Focus helps. Hard work pays. Success is possible. This is (approximately, to the first degree of approximation) the argument Malcolm Gladwell makes in "Outliers" on the schooling system. (By the way, he is quite mistaken about the significance of the Chinese numbering system in terms of its effects on the ability for young children to learn.)

To understand why Americans feel that their educational system is failing them, it is insufficient to merely look at bad organizations and play the game of blame. One must also look at the average organization. We must ask what makes individuals in even average organizations "wriggle out" and, against the odds, succeed.