log (2005/09/16 to 2005/09/22)

I like this picture. Following links from it led me to these pictures, which I also like. (I wonder if the URLs of clusters on flickr stay valid even if the tag structures on the site shift around?)

(And here's George W. Bush eating a kitten.)

Ian points out that Opera is now Free (as in Free Beer). Even the adless version! C00l. I'll have to finally upgrade to 8 one of these days.

From Susie Bright, the memorable-looking word count dot org (although when I went to it just now it never finished loading up the words, so I couldn't actually use it; I was going to get the neighborhood of "chess" if possible, natch; but see backstreet leotards), from which we get to Number 27 (nice design), and to Just Curio dot Us (cute idea, lots of spam).

I have found your website davidchess.com by searching Google for "yahoo webcam". I think our websites has a similar theme, so I have already added your link to my website.

The "yet another list of lots of weblogs" site blo.gs has been acquired by Yahoo!! Very odd.

I fiddled with the JavaScript for the log here so that the skin-chooser selection control (down at the bottom of the page there) shows the correct skin (CSS stylesheet) name as already selected (even) if you're using a non-default skin. Pretty exciting, eh?

In related news, here's a puzzle for Firefox CSS experts: if I go to this page in Firefox with (say) the "Normal" CSS skin active, and then change to the "Mocha" skin using the box at the bottom, all is fine. But if I then push "reload", or otherwise load the page while the "Mocha" skin is active, the words in the main (righthand) column of the page slam over leftward against the vertical divider, with maybe one pel of space between them. Looks awful. What could be going on there?

(So odd: also if I resize the browser window with Mocha active, it looks fine after; but if I then press reload, it messes itself up again. Heh.)

Oh, otherwise, I dunno. The 'real' world encroaches rudely on the insularity of concept.

Do something that strikes you as beautiful.

Oh, sigh.

So this week while pretending to cross-country ski I'm listening to Gladwell's "The Tipping Point", from audible dot com (abridged). It's kinda interesting, has some fun anecdotes and stories about fads and fashions and stuff. But it annoys me somewhat in that it's so much just anecdotes and stories, and so much not science.

The whole idea of a tipping point is a little iffy. People talk about tipping points, and the "knees" of exponential curves, and so on, as if they were real. But really exponential curves are some of the most self-similar things going; they don't have knees. I mean, we could arbitrarily label the place where the first derivative is 1 (one) as the "knee", but the only thing special about it is that the first derivative is less than one to the left of there, and greater than one to the right of there.

There is a related equation that does have a tipping point, though. Take one of the simplest possible differential equations: delta x equals x minus one (for x greater than zero; delta x equal zero for x not greater than zero).

As long as x stays between zero and one nothing interesting happens; the curve just decays back toward zero again. But as soon as x gets the tiniest bit above one, it takes off for the sky and never comes back. If you start x at point-nine-nine, it just goes quickly to zero. But if you start x at one point oh one, off it goes.

So in this case x equals one is fairly called a tipping point. It's a metastable state between two potential wells, one that leads back to zero, and one that leads off into positive infinity. (Unless I have all the math entirely wrong because it's Monday morning, in which case the reader is invited to fix it up for emself.) It's like the two ways an orbit around a planet can decay: in toward a landing, or out toward the stars.

This is the kind of thing that I think Gladwell is talking about. But this kind of thing has two very important features:

  • Delta x is positively correlated with x: that is, the more of it there is the more of it there's likely to be in the future, and
  • There's that "minus one" in there, a decay rate that offsets the growth rate for small x.

What irritates me about Gladwell's book, I think, is that it fails to explicitly call out either of these critical things about the kinds of phenomena that he's interested in. Instead what he does is look retrospectively at various stories about things that eventually took off, and give facile labels to various of the inevitable features of the story.

It's easy to parody Gladwell's "laws". The "Law of the Few" says that if you look at any case where something started out with just a few people doing it, and later there were lots of people doing it, you'll find that at first there were just a few people doing it. And sometimes you'll be able to point to a few of them and say "those were the ones that told other people about it!".

Similarly, the "Law of Stickiness" says that if you find a phenomenon or message that spread to lots of people, you'll be able to point to something about it that helped it to spread. And the "Law of Context" (I think it is) says that there's also other stuff that matters besides the people involved and the thing itself, and that sometimes you'll be able to point to some small feature in that other stuff and say "this was important for the thing to spread."

These laws do not strike me as having amazingly useful predictive powers. *8)

Now there are lots of interesting scientific questions to ask about the epidemiology of any particular spreading thing: about how to identify the set of people through which a thing is spreading, about what correlates delta x with x, about what the decay rate is.

There are broad questions also. To a first approximation, after all, delta x positively correlates with x in almost any human endeavor: humans love to copy each other. But why do some things spread wildly and others not? Why do many things, that you'd expect to naturally settle into either extinction (if growth is slower than decay) or ubiquity (if growth is faster than decay), instead settle at some small but more or less fixed fraction of the population? (This was a question that we chewed on, and never really solved to our satisfaction, back in the computer virus days; see the second open problem in Steve's paper.)

But Gladwell doesn't talk about, or even hint that he's aware of, either of these things, and I think that's a pity. The closest he gives us to an answer to "why didn't this spread?" would be (in our terms) "the growth rate was too low"; well duh! On the other hand maybe it's just that I've known too much about these phenomena for too long, and that what seems obvious and rather shallow to me is really important and groundbreaking as a piece of popularization. (In his terms, maybe I'm an "innovator", and Gladwell's a "maven". Now does having applied those labels actually tell us anything new? I'm not convinced.)

So that's that. When I actually finish listening to it I'll probably write it up. (I'm currently in the epilogue, where Gladwell is talking about stuff that happened in the year or so after the book came out, and making up more post hoc labels for features of phenomena.)

Let's see. Have I mentioned that I've been playing this computer game called "The Sims 2"? (Ha ha ha ha ha!)

From some Google search, to some weblog entry, to a Google Video listing of a Sims 2 version of Eminem's very Eminemish Without Me, in which he taunts the listener for listening to him. Much of the video just uses the Sims 2 University Expansion's new "jump around making silly rap-looking gestures" action (and so credits EA more than the video maker), but it's got some clever bits. (Requires the Google Video Player, which I can make work only in IE so far.)

(Ooh, very scary!)

I've been posting my endless Sims 2 stories and pictures over on Hullabaloo, so as not to glaze over the eyes of too many of y'all innocent log readers *8), but here are a few recent highlights.

As detailed in a four-parter starting here, Brandi LeTourneau (former Criminal Mastermind, now famous surgeon and until recently Eleanor Raptor's live-in squeeze) has moved out of the Love Nest and opened a nice upscale boarding house in an old industrial building on the edge of town. Taylor whatsisname (the guy that Gina Raptor left her little college house to when she graduated) moved in after finishing college (passing the house along in turn to his de facto fiancée Candice Ng), and Joan Danvers also moved in (escorted by her Mom in a complex set of transactions necessitated by the fact that the game doesn't actually allow teenagers to move out on their own).

You can read the full story over there, but here's a funny picture. The first day that Joan went to school from the new place, she came home with an A+ report card, and just had to brag to someone:

Joan is proud, Taylor is annoyed, Candice is asleep

Candice (who Taylor had invited over while everyone else was out) managed to sleep through the whole thing.

And over at Gina's place, I made my first piece of Custom Content using a non-Maxis tool! (For whatever reason Maxis hasn't yet released anything that lets users customize objects; but the user community has hacked merrily around this.)

Here is Gina admiring her new acquisition:

Miss Raptor admires Miss Kinski, and the snake

After acheiving her first Lifetime Want by becoming a Celebrity Chef, Gina got another one. Rather than some typical Romance Want, like "have a zillion lovers at once", she now wants to reach the top of the Athletic career, by becoming a Hall of Famer (like Marisa did the other week, just before she got pregnant with Hermes). Of course in Gina's case it'd probably be the "Wealthy Celebrities Who Get Into Sports With The Help Of Their Marketing Departments Hall Of Fame", but that's okay. *8)

So she got on the computer, switched careers, and as of one aye-em this morning when I finally decided to go to bed she was at the "MVP" level. A couple of coaching levels to go, I think, before she gets her second Lifetime Want, the fortunate thing.

So what's your Lifetime Want? Or is extending that Sims idea up into this universe an undesirable oversimplification?

Late update: Arrr!