Friday, February 29, 2008

Job hunting conundrum

Thinking out loud...

The biggest problem I have in job hunting or, more generally, directing my career, is the question of what kind of work excites me while feeling relevant to the world as a whole.

Here are the constratints:

1) I have to be interested in the work
2) I have to feel that I bring relatively unique skills to the work
3) I have to feel that the work has a positive impact on the world
4) It has to pay the bills - rent, cat food, etc.

When I started college, I was a foreign service student. But I quickly decided it was stupid to try to work as a generic government wonk and leave my math skills out of the equation. Even if I'm passionate about an issue, I don't think I'll ever accomplish as much as I could if I bury myself in a job that doesn't use my talents and which other people can not only do just as well, but many people do much better. The prototypical type of job here would be "foreign service officer". I would be a passable diplomat, but many people would be better. It would be a waste.

An example of a kind of job I've seen along these lines is this position at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. I feel about as strongly about this particular issue as any. But do I want to be a policy advocate 40 hours/week? It just doesn't seem quite right.

So, now I'm adding the constraint "job uses math skills".

There are loads of academic jobs, but the downside there is
a) I'm not hugely excited by the reality of teaching.
b) I'm not hugely excited by the prospect of long work weeks, low pay, and constantly writing grant applications.
c) I think a lot of academic research is pointless.

I enjoy teaching when students are engaged in the topic. And in mathematics, that happens very rarely. One needs to way the small number of highly interested and motivated students against the vast number of people just taking calculus because it's required.

I don't mind the long work weeks that much, as long as I'm motivated by the work, but the entire grant application process seems bizarre as a model for a marketplace. As my advisor has said to me, a lot of academia consists of people providing each other with positive feedback loops. If person X studies topic A because person Y finds it interesting, and vice versa, that will not necessarily make it interesting to me. There is an infinite variety of complexity in the world of mathematics, but I have never found studying complexity and structure for its own sake to be all that rewarding.

So that knocks out academia - at least in the more traditional sense. I have a feeling I would prefer to end up in an academic setting anyway, but only in a way where I felt I was driving my own research and it was meaningful. Ziheng has the kind of position and drive that would serve as a model here, but the problem is that I am really not terribly interested in what he's working on.

So that leads to the conundrum: how do I apply the skills I have (math, cs, programming) to the kinds of problems I think are compelling. A near miss is "finance": finance requires a lot of sophisticated mathematics, but I fear that people in finance tend to be arrogant, self-interested bastards. Well, at least that's the stereotype.

A close cousin of finance is "economics", but the econ I saw when I looked into this issue back during grad school uses comically weak and inapt mathematics. Game theory is a good example of this. I love gaming, but I tend to arch my eyebrow in skepticism when I see its facile application to real-world problems. I should look again, though, more carefully.

An alternate approach is simply to focus on the kind of mathematics I like best, namely graphical modelling, and to see what kind of places use applications of this. That's probably what I should be doing these days. I've been lazy in terms of applying my thinking to the problem. Bad Whispers.

I'll revisit this issue again.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar preview & There Will Be Blood

Well, the Oscars start in a couple hours, so I finally got out to see There Will Be Blood to see how Daniel Day-Lewis did this time. When we last saw Mr. Day-Lewis in a film, he was stealing Gangs of New York from Leonardo DiCaprio (and everybody else) in a brilliant performance as Billy the Butcher. My hopes were high.

I have mixed feelings about There Will Be Blood. It's a Paul Thomas Anderson production and, on the whole, it's not his best movie. I don't think it's up at the level of Magnolia, or even Boogie Nights. The script is a bit weak in areas, and parts of it seem rather affected. For example, there isn't any dialogue at all for the first fifteen minutes of the film. That seems to me to be PTA showing off rather than doing the best thing to advance the film.

TWBB is an extended story about Daniel Planview, played by DD-L, a self-made oil man in California at the turn of the 20th century. About halfway through the film, I realized that this film was not going to be a dry, dispassionate study of the hard life in the oil business, but rather it was going to be entirely a long, drawn-out story about the conflict between materialism, as personified by Plainview, and religion, as personified by Paul Dano as the preacher Eli Sunday. Eli's brother Paul, also played by Dano, is the one who alerts Plainview to the existence of a massive oil field under some overlooked land near the coast of California. Dano reminded me somewhat of Edward Norton, and I totally missed that he was the one who played the Graham Woodring character in Little Miss Sunshine.

The acting is tremendous, especially Day-Lewis and Dano. The problem is that the screenplay is plodding, wandering all over the place for no good reason. It's weird: many of the individual scenes work very well, but the film doesn't really hang together well as a whole. I still recommend it to any interested filmgoer, because every performance by Daniel Day-Lewis should be seen and enjoyed. Is he a bit over-the-top at times in this film? Perhaps. But many people in real life go over the top at times, too.

The general incoherence stands in stark contrast to what I think was hands down the best film of 2007: No Country for Old Men. No Country for Old Men has a clear structure to it, and everything in the film contributes to the underlying themes. I have been meaning to give this film its own post at some point, but I've been avoiding reality for the past week since Buffy died. And yeah, it's pretty bad if writing a film review is too close to reality.

Anyway, on to the predictions:

Best Picture: No Country for Old Men
It's got the momentum and the cast and it's the best film I saw. I've managed to see four of the five nominees, only missing chick flick Atonement. While I enjoyed Michael Clayton, Juno, and There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men is simply better. By a lot.

Best Actor:
Well for starters we can rule out Viggo Morgenstern in a film nobody saw and Johnny Depp for his role in Sweeney Todd. George Clooney was very good in Michael Clayton, but not really up to the level of the other two nominees. I've already praised Tommy Lee Jones for his work in In the Valley of Elah on this blog. That might be the best work of the year. But he's got no hope going up against Daniel Day-Lewis. It would be a huge upset for anybody other than Day-Lewis to win here. This was a year where most of the best acting was in the Supporting Actor category.

Best Actress:
Of the five performances, the only one I've seen is Ellen Page in Juno. And she's not going to win, no matter how adorable she was in this film. I don't even know who the favorite is supposed to be. I doubt it will be Keira Knightley for Atonement. (checks) According to, the fans think Julie Christie will win for Away From Her. I've voted for Cate Blanchett for the second Elizabeth film, which I have yet to see, based on the idea that she's probably at least as good as she was in the first one.

Best Supporting Actor:
Javier Bardem, hands down. Anton Chigurgh is the best bad-ass character to come to film since Hannibal Lecter. I have a lot of fondness for Tom Wilkinson in this category, and I doubted I could see a better acting performance in a supporting role after seeing Michael Clayton, but Bardem just blows him and everybody else away.

Best Supporting Actress:
I only saw two of the five, and of the two, Ruby Dee in American Gangster is a non-entity. Consider this to be a lifetime achievement nomination. Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton is excellent in a central role of the film. Apparently this is a category that Blanchett might win?

Best Director:
Well, this often goes to the director of the Best Film winner, and I think this year will follow that logic. It'll go to Joel and/or Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men.

Best Original Screenplay:
Candidates include Juno, Michael Clayton, Ratatouille, Lars and the Real Girl, and The Savages. The last two are also-rans. Ratatouile is reportedly excellent, but I haven't seen it. Given the choice between Juno and Michael Clayton, I would lean a bit to Juno for its rare ability to capture the essence of teenage life accurately. Note to screenwriters: teenagers don't talk in deep tones about their lives like the kids on 90210 did. Mostly they have strong opinions about some things and are completely clueless about a lot of things. Juno has an excellent screenplay, and I hope it wins here.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
No Country for Old Men should win this one, too. An excellent adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy story (novel? novella?)

Best Animated Film:
I suspect Ratatouille will win. Some have complained that The Simpsons Movie wasn't included. I think it should have been included just as a nod to the years of excellence for the TV series, but the film itself was hardly one of the better Simpsons' stories.

Best Documentary:
Sicko? As usual, I haven't seen most of these.

Time to play Civ IV for an hour and then watch the Oscars. Perhaps I'll get to bed before 3 a.m. tonight?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Buffy is seriously ill

She did eat last night, but I'm very troubled by the fluid throughout her abdomen. This seems to suggest serious liver damage and/or cancer. I'm guessing she only has a few days left.

Fluid is not supposed to be in the abdominal cavity. Whatever has caused that to happen means something is seriously wrong. And I cannot go through and do not want to go through a two-month ordeal like I did with Pandora 6 years ago.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I love my red hooded sweatshirt!

Since Bill Belichick has been taking a beating the past week, I thought I would show my support for him with an embedded video featuring Adam Sandler in the red hooded sweatshirt.

Friday, February 08, 2008


What would Buffy eat?

She had a good 2007 because I discovered she would eat the Whiskas "Oh So Meaty/Oh So Fishy" gourmet food. Unfortunately, they don't have that in the US. The closest is "Purrfectly fishy", which I think she'll eat.

She used to eat Friskies, but she's turned her nose up to that recently. She's looking thinner than she did in France, and it's starting to worry me. The strange thing is that, when she turns her nose up to any particular food, Ginger does the same. And yet Ginger is not sickly and gaunt.


Well, I've gotten them some Iams dry food, which should be healthier than the Meow Mix. But while Ginger is tearing into it, will Buffy eat it? The only way Buffy will really gain weight is if I find a dry food she'll eat.

Good news is that she did like the treats I gave her yesterday. Bad news is that each only has 1 calorie.

This post was written with the aid and assistance of Ginger sitting on my left hand.

Update: 2/14
Well, it turns out that Buffy is seriously ill. Her weight has dropped to 4 lbs. 4 oz, which means she's lost at least a pound and a half since returning from France. The vets are very pessimistic about her condition.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Bowl thoughts

There's little to say that hasn't been said elsewhere. Some points I'd like to make:

1) People who complain that Belichick left the field with 1 second left on the clock need to first acknowledge that the clock had run to zero before time had been added, and that only later was a second added. Thinking that every possible action a person makes is a revelation about that person's black heart, thinking that every gesture or word is a sign of inner contempt: these kinds of things are more revelatory about the people making the "observations" than anything else.

I was hoping the Pats would win more to just shut up the sanctimonious critics than anything else. Now these mouthbreathers are going to be with us for a while.

2) Um, KSK? You guys really need to get a grip on your hate orgy.

3) The Pats Oline played like crap. But with that in mind, the Patriots' offense was more productive than people realize. What happened is that, in the second quarter, the Pats had two sacks in a row, and that kind of immediate reinforcement of a phenomenon makes it appear more significant that it really is. The Pats gave up 5 sacks on 69 plays. The Giants gave up 3 sacks on 63 plays. That's not as much of a difference as people are making it to be.

4) Luck played a huge role. Namely, the three fumbles lost were all recovered by the Giants. And the scrambling pass from Eli to Tyree has no business being successful. The Pats had no similar lucky plays.

5) Penalties played a huge role. The Pats made a lot of stupid penalties. The Giants made few, and also got away with a couple egregious ones, most notably when Toomer pushed his defender in the face to catch a ball.

With all that said, the Pats did not play well enough to deserve to win. The luck that had carried them against the Eagles and Ravens was not there. The coaching was suspect: the refusal to attempt a FG on 4th and 13, the abandonment of the running game, and the decision to cover Burress with Hobbs in single coverage on the biggest play of the game were all bad choices. McDaniels is a good offensive coordinator, but I don't like the decision to abandon the running game altogether in favor of the short passing game. Maroney ran well in the 3rd quarter, and then only one rushing play was called in the 4th.

Basically, everything went wrong. This does not mean "good defeated evil" or that the Patriots got their comeuppance for "running up the score" or that God hates a cheater or anything like that. (If the last theory were true, we wouldn't have had 8 years of W in the White House.) Problem is that it all happened at the wrong time.

People who think the Pats peaked too early must have forgotten the game against the Jaguars, which was easy as pie.

The Pats' D is starting to get old, which makes me fairly certain next season won't go as well as this one did, esp. if Assante Sammuel leaves. The idea of Hobbs and Gay being the starting CBs scares me. They need help at linebacker, too. The only upside for next season is that the schedule will be relatively light.

For people worried about the impact: I would say this rates about the level of the loss by the Celtics in the 1985 finals. It's nowhere near as bad as the really bad Sox losses in 1978, 2003, or esp. 1986. It's not as bad as the thumping the Pats took in Super Bowl XX. It's disappointing, but I'm not of the mind that the only way to enjoy a football season is if your team wins the Super Bowl.