Jan 31, 2008


This is kind of a strange post. The thing is, I see or experience strange coincidences in my life often enough that I've given a name to the phenomenon--synchronicity. Of course, I'm hardly the guy who came up with the word or its meaning. Nor am I the only person who thinks that coincidences happen to them. But I do use the word to describe strange, chance-defying happenings or experiences that, oddly enough, happen surprisingly often--to me.

The reason I'm writing about this just now is that, well, something ... synchronicitous (is that a word?) ... happened just now. Well, it seems like that to me. See for yourself.

First, I was browsing through the BBC News site and happened to come across an interesting graphical illustration of how the US sub-prime crisis happened. I was interested because I'd recently been looking at graphing and charting, and how to make eye-catching charts to visualise a lot of data.

So anyway, the BBC's sub-prime crisis guide happened to use the US city of Cleveland as an example of how the mortgage crisis affected poorer urban populations. I was curious as to why they used Cleveland; but there's a good explanation in the page itself which I will give here, also because it happens to be an important part of why the crisis happened at all.

For many years, Cleveland was the sub-prime capital of America.

It was a poor, working class city, hit hard by the decline of manufacturing and sharply divided along racial lines.

Mortgage brokers focused their efforts by selling sub-prime mortgages in working class black areas where many people had achieved home ownership.

They told them that they could get cash by refinancing their homes, but often neglected to properly explain that the new sub-prime mortgages would "reset" after 2 years at double the interest rate.

The result was a wave of repossessions that blighted neighbourhoods across the city and the inner suburbs.

By late 2007, one in ten homes in Cleveland had been repossessed and Deutsche Bank Trust, acting on behalf of bondholders, was the largest property owner in the city.

So, enough about Cleveland. Not quite, as it turned out.

I then came across this, an article about a couple of books written by one William Cleveland, who is `[o]ne of the pioneers in developing guidelines for comprehensible data graphics'. (By the way, the site where I found the article, Pictures of Numbers, is a blog about charting and graphing with some very good articles, if anyone is interested.) It turns out that Prof. Cleveland developed something called lowess, a statistical technique used in scatter-plot charts.

Now, lowess is something I've been coming across in the mathematical software package, called R, that I've been using to make my charts.

And lastly, while finding the above article, I came across another article, by Stephen Dubner, a journalist and one of the authors of Freakonomics. (I haven't read it yet. Hear it's good though.) Anyway, Dubner's article, called `How's This for a Coincidence?', mentions that he was on a plane to Cleveland, where basketball star LeBron James plays for the Cavaliers (I don't know if that's still true). Dubner was blogging about an earlier post by his Freakonomics co-author, Steven Levitt, in which Levitt had asked the readers what LeBron James had in common with his (Levitt's) wife. They like doing the `have-in-common' thing from time to time.

How's that for synchronicity? (Sorry. Couldn't resist that last line.)

Synchronicity update: the Freakonomics blog has done it again, with their latest post: Levitt's `What Do Lolita and Freakonomics Have in Common?'

Synchronicity update 2: coincidentally, the above blog post talks about a chart of US students' SAT scores compared to their reading habits. I came across this chart a few days ago.

Jan 2, 2008

Life in the Cloud

OK, so suddenly I find myself with the urge to blog a bit about my changing computing habits. If reading techie stuff makes you want to tear out your own eyeballs and pin your eyesockets with two large needles, you should quit reading this now.

So. First off--the title. I'll explain it in a bit, but right now I just want to talk about what's behind it. Lately I've been moving a lot of my personal data online. I mean stuff that I'm used to keeping on my own computer, I'm uploading it for various reasons. For backup being just one of them.

Gmail--The Beginning of the End of an Era
It all started with Gmail of course, with its humongous 1 gigabyte of storage space. We quickly started using it to store our documents and such, a kind of freestyle file manager. And by now this has been going on for some time.

Google Docs
Then Google introduced Google Docs, the lightweight office suite which lives entirely on the web. It too stores files, albeit only documents, presentations and spreadsheets. But if you're whipping up a bare-bones document (assignment, proposal, whatever), and want to share it with friends and co-workers, it's excellent.

Google Notebook
Now we also have Google Notebook, which allows you to manage any textual info you might want to save for later use. These include bookmarks, and regular notes wherein you can keep stuff you've written but aren't sure what to do with it, stuff you need to remember, like an itinerary, or stuff you can't afford to forget, like your passwords. And of course, all of these are available from any web browser that can go online. I've found it very useful to have access to these notes both when I'm at home and at work.

Google Reader
I'm also using Google Reader, which just seems to be getting more and more powerful every few months. At this point I'm hard pressed to decide which is my favourite Google web app--Gmail or GReader. But I digress. If you're not a heavy (and I mean prolific) web surfer, you're probably not sure what exactly Google Reader is. A site that lets you read books, maybe?

Nope. It's a site which collects articles from websites you specify, and shows all new articles in bold highlighting. It actually shows all articles within its own page. This is incredibly useful because it saves you from having to hop around among a dozen different sites that you like. Instead you stay in Google Reader and read one article after another, skimming past the ones that don't interest you and digging down into the ones that do.

Once you pass over and read an article, it's changed back to non-highlighted. So you can always easily tell which articles you've read and which are new. You can `star' articles, like in Gmail, to keep them in a special folder in case you want to look at them later. You can `share' articles, which adds a link to the article on an automatic `blog' GReader creates for you, and which your friends can access once you give them its address.

I'll admit I'm a moderately fast reader, but GReader literally lets me read or skim through thousands of articles every month, no joke. So if you're someone who has to or wants to keep track of some kind of news, GReader will give you a considerable boost. And these days, keeping track of any kind of news is a snap thanks to search engines like Google automatically giving you continuously updated feeds of the search results. For example here's a feed on news about Jamie Lynn Spears. If you add this feed to GReader, it'll show the news headlines, and short summaries, as items almost as soon as they're posted onto the web. (Tip: don't do it, for your own sanity.)

Once you start using GReader and learning more about feeds and just how many kinds of information they can track, you'll be well on your way to becoming a true web guru.

Now owned by Yahoo, and still offering a boatload of free storage space for photos, Flickr is probably the best photo storage site on the web. I've been uploading photos to it left and right. The only limitation for the free service is that you can upload a maximum of 100 MB each calendar month. Shouldn't be a problem for the occasional uploader.

Honourable mention: Google's Picasa Web Albums, a slick photo sharing app that lets you do one thing for free that Flickr doesn't: organise photos into albums. Free Flickr lets you create a maximum of 3 `sets', which are its equivalent of albums. But you can get around that by `tagging' all photos which would go into the same album with a common tag, and then doing a search for that tag.

OK, that is a bit cumbersome. So why do I recommend Flickr over Picasa Web? Because the latter has an absolute storage limit of 1 gigabyte, which feels rather irksome in these days of unlimited storage. But then again, who's going to use up a gigabyte of storage, right? Hmm....

Last but not least, a gem among web apps. If you've ever had to manage money, you might have found yourself asking, Where did all the money go? Expensr tries to answer exactly this question, by making you keep track of all your expenses. It's free and it's fully on the web--once again, you can access it from any device with a proper web browser. (Forget the PC--I've heard people are using their Wiis to surf these days.)

If you take a few minutes to sign up and set up the accounts, you'll be rewarded in just a few days with a day-to-day visual analysis of your spending habits--as a pie chart showing where the money goes, and a bar chart showing how much goes each day. The site is new, but it looks promising. Some of the community-based features are intriguing. You can `tag' yourself as `in my twenties', `in my thirties', `in college', `renting', `a smoker', and so on and compare yourself anonymously to others in these categories.

The Cloud
Now, you might be getting a sense of how much you can put online just for the sheer convenience of it. Nowadays this data space is being called the cloud, and cloud computing seems to be headed for the big time, with Google and a select few others poised to be in the epicentre. And given the quality of their web offerings, I feel pretty good about that.