Travelling Thoughts: DC and Germany

In the end of September/beginning of October, I went first to DC for a meeting of all of the people funded by our funding agency in DOE and then on to Germany the following week to two conferences, first one on Multiscale Modeling of Materials held in Freiburg and the second on Nuclear Materials in Karlsruhe.  Just sharing some random thoughts from those trips.

  • The meeting in DC was held in a hotel way out in Rockville (ok, so not in DC proper, but in the outskirts).  My last night there, I went into town, catching the subway and walking around the mall.  I made stops at the Washington Monument (always impressive in its simplicity), the Jefferson Memorial (a favorite stop, as Jefferson, in spite of his flaws, is still a hero of mine), the Lincoln Memorial (which had way too many people as the AFL-CIO was setting up some rally there; but still great to see), and a very brief stop at the American History Museum (which didn’t really impress me all that much, but to be honest I only stayed 10 minutes).  I walked the length of the mall as the sun set, watching as the lights came on.  A very pretty view. Though DC is often a symbol to us of the problems of the country and the agendas of politicians so removed from our own interests, it is still a very powerful symbol of the greatness of our country, of the men who worked so hard to build a solid foundation on which all of this rests.
  • On the flight to Germany, I watched two movies (I usually use flights to catch up on things I haven’t had the chance to see): The Losers and Kick-Ass.  Both are based on comic properties.  I enjoyed both.  I’m a bit surprised at what they show on these flights, as it isn’t exactly private, and these are both reasonably violent movies.  The Losers was simply entertaining, with some nice stunts and an overall plot-line that was interesting.  The main villain was a little over the top, but there were enough twists to keep me interested.  Kick-Ass, on the other hand, I enjoyed greatly.  Maybe a little overly violent, but there is something in the story that is the ultimate teenage wish-fulfillment, of a guy just fighting back at the injustices around him.  The acting was good, the story was good.
  • It took us a little while to figure out the German train system.  Connected to the airport in Frankfurt was a massive train station, but we landed at Terminal 2 and it wasn’t completely clear where to go to catch the train.  Turns out we had to catch a bus to Terminal 1 and the train station was right there.  But, once we figured that out and where we had to transfer (to get to Freiburg we had to transfer in Karlsruhe), it went smoothly.  A nice train system is always very pleasant.  I understand the difficulties of building a comprehensive train network in the US, especially the West, but it sure would make some kinds of travel easier.
  • The first place I went for dinner in Freiburg had outdoor seating, with the tables spread out underneath a huge chestnut tree.  It was a bit surreal to have dinner, completely jet-lagged, with chestnuts falling all around us.  Every once in a while there would be a crack of a chestnut crashing down on the cobble stones.  Fortunately, none of them hit our food or beer.  The food, incidentally, was the German version of pizza, which as a crust with onions and cream cheese.  It was actually very tasty.
  • This was my second visit to Freiburg and it was just as charming as I remembered.  Freiburg is known for the Cathedral in the center of town, one of the few places to survive World War II without much damage.  They’ve channeled a river through the center of town, in some places about as wide as a lane in a road, in other places just a small stream maybe 1 foot wide and half a foot deep, but which runs along the streets through the town.  Children were playing in this stream, putting little toy boats and watching them float away.
  • Karlsruhe, on the other hand, was simply much bigger.  I had essentially two nights there, but they were spent with colleagues at dinner, so I didn’t get a chance to see anything.  The impression from others was that there wasn’t much to see.  I’ll have to go back some time and check for myself.
  • The conferences themselves were overall good.  I had some good discussions with old and new friends, with some potential new collaborations established.  These conferences are better and better experiences as I know more and more people.  I was only at the Karlsuhe conference for one day, so didn’t experience a whole lot.  The hotel was very nice, though maybe a bit vanilla, while that in Freiburg was plainer but because of that maybe more charming.  It had a nice restaurant for breakfast as well.  The Karlsruhe felt more like a chain that catered a bit more to business types.  Both of my talks went well and generated some discussion, which is all one can ask for, really.

Poker and the Pareto Principle

A while ago, I wrote about the Pareto Principle, which is an observation that, more or less regardless of economic structure, most of the wealth in most nations ends up in the hands of a few.  Even more specifically, about 80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the people.  Further, there are some simple computer simulations that can reproduce this distribution of wealth with some very simple rules — if you can only exchange wealth by either buying things from one another or investing in a random “stock market”, where all people have the same chance of returns, this 80/20 distribution comes out naturally.

So, what does this have to do with poker?  I spent way too much time playing poker on my Blackberry against the computer agents and discovered a strategy that leads to wins relatively quickly.  If you take some chances at the beginning, going all in, most of the time you will lose (probably about 4/5 times if there are a total of 5 players).  But, if you win, you quickly build up a chip-count that is higher than the new players.  You now have the ability to take risks that involve more money, but are overall smaller risks for you.  If you have $10K, you can bet $1K without much worry, but for a player that only has $1K-$2K, that is a huge portion of their funds, and they will be much more risk adverse as if they end up on the wrong side of the cards, they will lose almost everything.  So, by betting big, you can keep essentially force them to fold most of the time.  Of course, once in a while they will have a hand that is worth betting on, but so will you and you can outlast them.

The point is, by starting with a bigger pot than the other players, you can take bigger absolute, but smaller relative, risks that are large relative risks for them, forcing them to fold.  This concentrates more and more chips — wealth — in your hands relatively quickly.  It doesn’t take any skill, just some extra cash.

In real poker, of course, the dynamics of real players changes things.  But, this simple computer-controlled poker world seems to mimic the Pareto Principle and the computer simulations remarkably well, showing that with some initial luck that gets you ahead of the curve, you can quickly gain wealth without any more skills or “work” than the others.  The rich get richer, through no special effort of their own.  Something to think about.

Maui

Wow, time flies.  Way back in May, I went to a workshop on Solid-Solid Nucleation, which was held in Maui.  Actually, a colleague was invited, but he had a conflict and gave me the choice of representing him in Maui or Switzerland.  I chose Maui.  In any case, Lisa and Rose went with me.  We had a great time!  Rose and Lisa spent a lot of time on the beach while I was working.  Then, during the weekend, we went on the long drive on the north side of the island.  We checked out the village near our hotel (near Kaanapali).  The last day, before we caught our flight out (which left at 10:30 at night), we went up the volcano.  We were a little hesitant because of the long drive and the need to get back to catch the flight, but it sure was worth it.  I had expected to have a magnificent view of the island, maybe even see the other islands.  Instead, it was completely cloud-covered, but that actually made it more spectacular.  Standing there above the cloud line was a truly marvelous experience.  One of the best places I’ve ever visited.

I tried to do some panoramas of what we saw.  They didn’t turn out quite as nice as I hoped, but here they are.  A view of the volcano’s crater and another of the skyline around the crater.  The crater especially I couldn’t get to look as I hoped.  The contrast of the different images must not have matched right (and, to be honest, I didn’t feel like individually adjusting them).  This is as good as I could get with the program Hugin without a huge amount of effort.  At least it gives the idea.

Blu-ray blues

We recently got rid of our cable TV (keeping the internet of course) and wanted to get a set up where we could stream Netflix and other video sources directly to the TV.  Of the various options, it seemed that a blu-ray with built in WiFi would be best, and we started with the Samsung BD-C6500.  This claimed to be able to connect wirelessly, stream Netflix and Hulu Plus, and had a bunch of other internet-ready content via apps.

Most of this is true.  We were able to hook it up no problem, got it connected to our wireless network and streaming Netflix, and were able to browse other internet content such as YouTube.  However, one major glitch:  the blu-ray player lost the network settings each time we powered it off.  We’d have to re-scan and enter the password for our network each time.  This makes using it almost unbearable.  Further, Samsung customer support was not very helpful, suggesting a few things that made no difference.  Finally, the apps available were meager at best, with no Hulu Plus or ESPN apps, and the few apps that weren’t there by default were not very interesting.

Contrast this with the Sony BDP-S570, which at Best Buy cost the same.  This blu-ray player set up as easily as the Samsung.  However, it kept the network settings no problem.  No re-entering the network password.  And the number of apps that come installed with it is much greater than the Samsung, with maybe 5 times as many.  I haven’t found yet if it is possible to install new ones, though I assume there must be some way.  Hulu Plus is not available on the Sony, but in contrast to the Samsung, it seems that there is a plan to get it soon.  This one is even 3D-ready (it isn’t 3D capable yet, but with a firmware upgrade expected to be available soon, it will be).  This isn’t something I care much about, but it just points to the overall better product this player is for the same price as the Samsung.

I’m not sure how much of the issues with the Samsung are specific to our setup.  Our router is an Apple Time Capsule, and I saw online others with that setup having the same problem.  It is just odd that this day and age this kind of thing doesn’t work better.  And that Samsung didn’t have a better response suggests they are ignoring the problem.

I’m very happy with the Sony.  And if anyone else runs into these network issues with the Samsung, I would highly recommend taking it back and getting the Sony instead.

Inception

Lisa and I went on our first date in on the order of three years, leaving our daughter in the care of a friend.  We decided to spend our evening with dinner and a movie, and the movie we opted for was Inception.

I’m not much of a DiCaprio fan, and my fiction leanings tend more towards fantasy than science-fiction.  However, this is the type of sci-fi story that I do enjoy, one where the pseudo-science is used as background for the story and not as the entire crux.  Here, the pseudo-science is that people can enter the dreams of others, either extracting or, in the very rare case that is the premise of the moving, implanting ideas and information.  DiCaprio’s job is to plant a new idea in the mind of his employer’s rival.

I found the world that Nolan, the director, created to be both rich and believable.   (From what I understand, the plot was his idea, something he’s been working on for the better part of 10 years; he was more than just the director.)  The real world is our world — the technological level is the same as ours.  The only big difference is this ability to enter and manipulate dreams.  As a result, all of the fantastic occurs in the mind.  The special effects convey this fantastic world to a marvelous degree, though not outlandishly as sometimes our dreams can be.  This is especially true in the scenes in the second dream level when gravity disappears.

Overall, I enjoyed the plot.  It made sense within the context of the rules of Nolan’s universe.  The ways the different dream levels interacted both with each other and the real world also made sense, as did the potential for getting lost in dream world.  Overall, the world Nolan created and the rules that dictated how it behaved seemed self-consistent.  There weren’t major points that just didn’t work within the confines of the universe.

Probably just as enjoyable as the plot were the characters.  All of the actors did a great job with their characters.  Even though most didn’t have much time to get fleshed out, they still were quirky and hinted at rich backstories that seemed intriguing.  Each actor brought his or her A-game to these roles and made the film that much more enjoyable.

So, not much to say with regard to specific points in the plot, to avoid spoiling it for anyone.  I would just say that I greatly enjoyed the film and would recommend it.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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