Microsoft Research finally solves it: computer generated humour

This is brilliant, and you NEED to check it out right now. Microsoft Research has produced software for your computer called Songsmith that automagically generates synthesised accompaniment to songs that you sing into it. Or, more amusingly, to famous songs that you play into it. There are a number of these now cropping up on YouTube, and someone called Tim has produced most of the good ones so far. Here are a couple of my favourites: a techno version of Oasis’ Wonderwall and a latin version of Roxanne by The Police. Enjoy!

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How we watch movies these days

Last weekend, we “watched” a movie. However, as I suspect will become quite typical, we watched it on DVD, at home, in snatches of 15-30 minutes, punctuated by a whisper of “your turn” then one of us attending to Harriet. (She was a little unwell, and wasn’t sleeping as well as she would normally at that time.) Despite this, and a little surprisingly, I really enjoyed the movie!

The Bank Job

Facinating retelling of the 1971 Baker St robbery

Maybe it’s just my recent enjoyment of the conmen in the UK TV series Hustle, but I really enjoyed this fictionalised take on how some real-life British criminals conducted a major bank heist in 1971. Normally you need to suspend your disbelief in watching a movie, but given that a large number of the circumstances in this movie are actually true (and more of them than you might expect), skepticism is replaced with astonishment.

So it was with a sense of astonishment at the gall, luck and intelligence of these criminals that I found myself sucked into the plot. It is quite complex, with much of the film providing a set-up for the last 30-40 minutes. Although, it wasn’t until this last part that I found myself really enjoying the film. In this way, it reminded me a little of The Thomas Crown Affair, another film I really enjoyed.

Watching the DVD in one respect was better than the film would have been, as the DVD contained a mini documentary on the facts behind the Baker St robbery. This reinforced the incredible nature of the case, showing that sometimes fact is much stranger than fiction.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Not The Bookclub Book

Last month I didn’t read the bookclub book, but I did read the book the book nominator wanted to nominate as the bookclub book. (How many chucks can a woodchuck chuck etc.?) When it came to bookclub last week, it turned out more people had finished reading that book than the actual bookclub book.

The Year of Living Biblically

A thought-provoking book about taking The Bible literally

This book is the day-by-day diary of the author, A.J. Jacobs, as he takes a year to follow as many of The Bible’s rules as literally as possible. Jacobs doesn’t just follow the ten commandments – he digs through the old testament (the first eight months) and the new testament (the last four months) and attempts to go by every proclamation or suggestion. Is Jacobs a particularly religious man? No, and this is the intriguing part. The Bible is taken as an experiment to see what following it would do to someone, in this day and age.

There are some obscure, and some would say, obsolete rules in The Bible, but Jacobs is determined to follow them all. It would take a rather obsessive personality to persevere with this, but luckily that’s what Jacobs has, and the book also provides an little bit of insight into living with obsessive compulsive disorder.

There is fun in this book in learning about strange Biblical rules, their background, and their ardent adherents. But there is also heart – it is amazing to read about how a modern day New Yorker and his family is affected by taking up the challenge of living Biblically for a year.

My rating: 4.0 stars

For the record, the actual bookclub book was the author’s previous book: The Know-It-All.

How I stopped loving Twitter and embraced Facebook

Maybe this post is for geeks, but perhaps not. Twitter is a social networking site that allows you to send and receive short messages to your friends. Facebook, I’m sure you’ve heard of. Twitter is much trendier, much more elite, than Facebook, but I’ve pretty much given it up these days. According to Tom Reynolds, I probably shouldn’t admit this, or I will be shunned by the cool kids. However, I feel that I should explain.

I joined up to Twitter reasonably early on for an Australian, starting in March 2007. I wasn’t a huge user – perhaps posting about once a week. But I was there for the first meet-up of the Melbourne Twitter Underground Brigade in June 2007. These days Twitter is pretty big, with some people estimating about 5 million users, even the PM has been seen to use Twitter, and there are some pretty good features that it supports:

  • You can create an alias for people to message you on. You can give out this alias, rather than a “real” identifier for messaging (such as your email address), to protect your privacy a bit.
  • You can set up the alias to deliver messages to you in the form that you want, without the sender having to know anything about it. You can receive messages as emails, IMs or SMS, for example. And reply back in that form as well.
  • You can send messages to all your friends in one go. This is something that is not easily done with SMS, for example, without paying a fair bit of money, e.g. four times as much for four friends, etc.
  • You can publish messages so that anyone can come along later and read all the messages you sent out (and potentially join up as your friend).
  • It was extremely low cost (you only paid to send SMSs, in Australia at least, while all the messages you received were free).

Aside from the publishing aspect, which is rather interesting, these were all things that it’s been known for a long time that people like. No wonder Twitter was successful. I found it an easy way to keep abreast of my friends’ moods and activities. Australians were the sixth largest user of Twitter via SMS.

However, then in August last year, Twitter stopped delivering SMS to anyone outside of North America and India. They had to do this, because it cost them a lot of money to send all those SMS messages, and they weren’t getting any commissions from the mobile operators outside of those regions. Since SMS was the main way I used Twitter, it pretty much cut me off.

Serendipitously, Facebook was undergoing a redesign around the same time. The new design was clearly influenced by the success of Twitter and the status update field and feeds of friends status updates now appeared prominently.

My friends around the world have been gradually appearing on Facebook. Even those who don’t do geeky things. Even my parents. But where Twitter was like an open field where all were welcome to gather and communicate, Facebook is like a gated community or a private club – you are only welcome if you’ve been invited. Philosophically this is something I really hate. Sure, I like my privacy, but I don’t want to feel like I’m locked away. I don’t walk down the street hidden under a shroud, and I don’t think I need to be treated that way online. I occasionally blog. I post my photos to Flickr.

That said, I was forced onto Facebook in order to communicate with my friends who were using it to communicate with me. If I wanted to see their photos, they were on Facebook. If I wanted to see their mood or hear about their activities, it was on Facebook.

What changed is I got an iPod Touch, and installed the Facebook application. It was almost like using Twitter again, except even more people that I like were on it.

One day, Twitter might sort out a way to make enough money to pay for those SMS messages, bring back the features I want, and somehow attract all my Facebook-loving friends onto it. But until then, I’m stuck with Facebook, and despite my initial reluctance to join in, I find myself using it more often than I ever used Twitter.

Actuaries as Heroes

One of the troubles with an insight is that when you then explain it to someone else, they find it obvious. It can be a bit disheartening, but people seem to have a knack for finding surprises obvious in hindsight. Which, of course, doesn’t make them any less of a surprise at the time.

So, coming across a book that points out that stuff that I take for granted was not taken for granted 500 years back, and in fact, enabled civilisation as we know it today to flourish, I was a bit surprised, you might say. It was interesting to try to put myself in the position of people who didn’t know about probability, to see how something so “obvious” could be an exciting insight.

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

An interesting journey through the birth and history of risk management

The author, Peter L Bernstein, puts his main thesis plainly enough at the start – “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.” However, it’s a good thesis, is extensively researched, and Bernstein writes about it well. Enough to sustain interest over some 330 pages.

I found it quite compelling to think that, before the Renaissance, people thought of the future as something they couldn’t control, only put up with. And, that God or the Fates dictated what would happen, or tomorrow would simply be same as today, and it was egotistical or heretical to try. This assumption closed down any thought of trying to build a science of probability, so until the assumption was broken, we couldn’t develop probability, statistics, or insurance.

Marine insurance was needed to make European colonisation economically feasible. Life insurance was sold by governments needing to raise funds to wage wars. Risk management is used by organisations to manage large projects. Home or health insurance are regularly used by prudent families to protect against disasters. Society would be a lot smaller, simpler and sadder without this elementary mathematical invention. Yes, actuaries are heroes.

Bernstein drew me into the successive insights produced by keen minds over the recent centuries that has taken us to where we are today in economics, finance and gambling. Some of the people he profiled were more interesting than others (but others may have their own favourites) – the initial Renaissance thinkers and the behavioural finance guys were pretty cool. It would seem to be a rather complete set of the important contributors.

If you have any interest in modern history, economics or mathematics, you’ll probably find this book a worthwhile read. And it also made me reflect on what other basic assumptions we might hold that could be overturned in order to advance society.

My rating: 4.0 stars