Sunday, December 9, 2012

Aha-Moments and Modern Art

In a retrospect, one of the awesome things in childhood were these aha-moments when you realize you just learned something really fundamental. Being an adult, these moments are somewhat rare - and if they occur it is mostly in a job (science) related setting. But today I was lucky to experience a "true" aha-moment, in an area I did not expect. 
Today in the afternoon I went to the Kunsthaus in Zurich - a very impressive collection, basically from all epochs of European art (I highly recommend a visit). Usually I like the classics and old masters most. Maybe this is because they are often very precise, observant, almost analytic. I also very much enjoy photography, especially of nature and people, since it captures reality and has the power to directly convey feelings via empathy. I never could relate to most pieces of modern art, though. But this changed today - and is my personal aha-moment of the year. 
In Kunsthaus there was a video installation by contemporary artist Pipilotti Rist, which basically consisted of a dark, weakly lit room with a 70s-style floor lamp, velvet carpet and velvet bar seats, with opened woman's purses on it and silent, somewhat harmonic, but still unidentifiable sound coming from somewhere. When I entered the room I felt somewhat uncomfortable. Even more strange, I felt it was not so much the room itself that made me feel like that, but it was more the presence of the few other visitors. I kept on strolling around the room, somewhat observing the purses, looking into them, because the sound seemed to come out of there. And indeed, in every of these purses was a little TV, showing a private scene: a young girl swimming in a swimming pool with her mother; a woman swimming in a pool and being filmed from below, such that the only thing you see are her breasts; a scene of a woman with, what seemed to be, a lot of blood all over her body; big red lips moving like they would passionately kiss someone. All of these scenes made me feel even more uncomfortable, because it was basically some kind of a "peep show" - a short glance into a most private scene of the live of someone else. 
I left the room, thinking that there is no sense whatsoever in it. I could not say what the artist wanted to tell me, what she wanted me to see. Being back in the main art hall, I sat down for a second and started feeling comfortable again. And then I realized: this is what the artist wanted to "show" me. As the classic sculptures and photographs earlier made me feel the joy of beauty or feel empathy with other people, this video installation served the exact same purpose, although much more extrem and intense: to trigger an emotion. An emotion, however, you would not expect to be exposed to or even wanted to be exposed to. In our everyday life, most (if not all) of the things we do take place in our comfort-zone. But this video installation forced me out of the zone and triggered this very precise feeling of being uncomfortable. And that was when I realized that with a large number of modern art pieces I have seen so far, I completely missed the point. I was much too focused on what can be seen, and not on what do I feel. So next time you see a modern piece of art and you think it's shit because you cannot "understand" it: there might not be anything to "understand", but only to "feel". And rather than analyzing the art installation, you should analyze yourself in order to "see" what the artist wants you to "see".

Friday, October 12, 2012

Nobel Peace Prize 2012 - The European Union

The Nobel Peace Prize 2012 is awarded to the European Union! Since I read a lot of (sorry to say that) "bullshit" comments on a very popular social networking site about the sense and nonsense of this decision, notably the ones talking about how this decision is perfectly in line with all the previous "stupid" decisions about Nobel Peace Prize laureates (especially the prize to Barack Obama is very often quoted here), I feel I have to write something about it.

Let me begin with an observation: I read from a lot of people from countries within the EU that this is the most hilarious and ridiculous decision ever (without any reasons). Well, the strange thing here is: it is de facto the recipients complaining about receiving the prize. What does this tell us? That a) they honestly and truly do not consider the EU a good endeavor, that has brought peace to Europe and is fostering inter-cultural exchange or b) they don't see that they are the European Union. Since I find it hard to imagine that there is anyone who really thinks in terms of a), it must be b). Now the question is: what is worse? a) implies a very hard-lined world view, which is even objectively wrong, but hey - at least it is a clear stand point. b) instead implies "unknowingness" or even ignorance and a very confined world view. Especially for a lot of Germans "the EU" is merely a huge bureaucratic apparatus that gets generously founded by their taxes but does not produce any visible and immediate output or personal benefit. Well, this is completely wrong: the immediate output is visible for every one, every day, in every European country (and especially the more wealthy ones like Germany): we live in peace - for over sixty years. One has to keep in mind: when we are talking about Europe, we are talking about 27 states, with 27 different national interests, 27 very different histories and 0.5 Billion people living on a rather confined space (as e.g. compared to North America). It is a tremendous political and societal achievement to somewhat coordinate these interests and to build a web of international contracts, agreements, treaties, etc. that secures this stable, peaceful state. For most European citizens, especially the younger ones, this state is the state we have always known. We cannot imagine Europe being full of hate and national conflicts. Not thinking about "the alternative" however creates in most of those people's heads the illusion that the status quo is something "normal", "natural" and not worth reflecting on. Also they do not see that they personally contribute to the European Union by living in a country that, as being part of the EU, accepts and complies to European law. And this is exactly the problem with those comments: people take peace as granted and do not consider themselves as part of the machinery that created this European state of peace.

However, here is an interesting point: In some sense, these comments which let me to write this text, are in a very strange way the perfect, living evidence that the European Union (i.e. we all) is a role model for peaceful co-existence and deserves this prize. Because: if you reach a state where people take their peaceful lives as granted, not being in doubt about it or fearing any severe international conflict, you really did your job 100% right.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why Evernote is Awesome and Search Its Killer Feature

You know this? Let's assume you are working on whatever new (research) project and are doing some initial information search on the web: relevant papers, journals, conferences, people, and so on. Your learning curve will be steep - you will be retrieving information that seems relevant to you every other minute. How do you keep track of this vast amount of information?

  1. Old style: use a notebook. This is great for sketching initial ideas and noting down basic knowledge. However, it apparently lacks all the online possibilities (videos, talks, slides, ...) plus you would have to print every interesting paper ... hence you will separate these resources somehow, which is suboptimal.
  2. You could use bookmarking. Sure, this will let you save the links to the information you found but does this help you in organizing your new project? In my opinion, it does not. Will tell later why.
  3. Use evernote! If you don't know it or haven't tried it: it's totally awesome! And it's free (in the basic version)!

Evernote easily let's you save articles and links, using it's webclipper, a very useful tool. Additionally to that you can store typed notes, handwritten notes from you tablet, pictures taken with your phone, and so on, in one big virtual notebook. This alone is great, since it allows you to later easily "reconstruct" the line of thought you were following. 

So far, so good. I think you got it: having one place to store all kinds of information is enormously useful. However, personally I think that the search functionality in evernote is the Killer Feature! Not because of the mere fact that you can perform search on your notes (if you were using emacs and storing notes in .txt files on your hd you could do this 20 years ago) - but because of how they implement it. 
There are basically two ways of searching your evernote: a) open evernote (the client or online) and type something in the search field. Fine, these are the basics you would expect. Problem here: you have to have a clue, that a certain piece of information is already in your collection, otherwise you wouldn't do a search in evernote but in google, right? And this is where awesome possibility b) comes in: when you install the webclipper in your browser, it will ask you whether you want your evernotes searched, whenever you do a google search. How awesome is this?! Think about it for a moment: with enabling this features (and I highly recommend to do so) you will basically enable searching through your "virtual memory" - on the fly - whenever you look for whatever information on google. Meaning: with evernote you are not only able to store any relevant information, but you will also be able to find this information again! Even when you are unaware that you have it! Without evernote you would most likely spend a lot of time to look for it again, using google. 
Summa summarum: the crucial part here really is the integration of evernote search and google search. And the latter, most of you will agree, is exactly what we do all the day: searching information on google, and not actually thinking about the stuff resting in our bookmark folders, delicious accounts or note-files somewhere on our hd. In this sense, one could also say that evernote is not only a tool for storing information, but for optimizing your personal information retrieval, in that it remembers what you already found. And this is truly ... awesome!

PS: Putting in my five cents - if you lost a lot of money because you were too *...* buying stocks of a social network company without a good business plan - if evernote goes IPO: invest!

Side remark:
I was waiting for such a service for quite some time. Actually, with some friends I built our own little cloud-based system to do similar things. However, it never really matured (science keeps us busy ;-) and we were merely using it on a private basis.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Raspberry Pi & Spotify

Like other people we have a radio in the kitchen. However, ours is so old that you don't want to touch the volume control, because the random noise produced by doing so gives you a headache. Now, since I am a proud Raspberry Pi owner as well, I had this idea to use it as a spotify-kitchen-radio, meaning: have the RPi in our kitchen, connected to the LAN, some speakers plugged in and spotify running. However, there is no ARM-build spotify client, so it's not that easy. However, there is an ARM version of libspotify, that provides an API to spotify's service (you will need a premium account, which I recommend to everyone anyways - spotify is really awesome and its only 10 bucks per month). So here are some comments, preliminary results and some advice on how to make the spotify API work on your RPi (and at least being able to play your playlists) 

1.) If you use Raspbian - that won't work, since it is build using the hard float ABI capability of the ARM. If you try to install libspotify and make the examples work, eveything seems find at the beginning, but then you get an error like cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory
This is due to the fact that libspotify seems to have been build using soft-float ABI. As long as spotify doesn't release a hard float build, you will have to go to step 2. This insight is the crucial part of the game here (and a "cannot open shared object file" error is not an obvious hint in this direction) 

2.) If you want libspotify to work, you will have your RPi running the soft-float build of Raspbian, also available here: 

3.) Once you have that, things are straight foward. Download libspotify from the spotify developer page and follow the instructions in the readme. This is also where you will need a spotify premium membership in order to get an appkey. 

4.) In order to test it, you can use the jukebox example. Simply, after building it, run jukebox/jukebox. It will ask you for your login credentials and a playlist to run. If you don't hear anything, try another playlist. This "terminal version" of spotify seems to not tell you when a title is not available anymore, but instead simply keeps silent. 

Advice: The jukebox example requires you to have alsa installed and *configured*. So, before testing the spotify api and complaining that it does not play any sound, you should configure the sound card. See e.g. here or simply google for raspberry pi and alsa Have fun! 

PS: As a kitchen-radio this is still a bit uncomfortable. What I would ultimately like to have is a LAN-internal web-interface to the pi and libspotify, so that from every computer/tablet/smartphone in the LAN, I can access the local web-interface and search for/play titles, artists, albums ...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Information ranking based on social media

Importance ranking of webpages was suggested to be more and more based on "social signals". I.e. how often is a webpage shared rather than linked. But this raises questions like: will the importance given to a shared piece of information differ by the "social" status of the person who shares it? I.e. is some link shared by Barack Obama "more worth" than some link shared by me? If so, who decides who is "more trustworthy"? These questions haven't been answered. However google & co. started implementing this kind of social ranking already. If you have a g+ account and you do a google search, eventually you will find "personal search results", based on the things shared by people you have in your circles. And to be honest, this service is amazingly useless at this stage. Let's say I perform a google search "android tablet". Most likely I am looking for some product information about android tablets or some wikipedia entry or whatever general information. However, the "personal result" only seems to perform a full-text search over all the posts of the people I follow on g+. A full-text search...that's it? Is this supposed to be the new awesome world of social ranking? There is no useful information in the 110 personal results whatsoever, since most people mention the terms "android" and "table" in a rather specific content: either they are talking about an app or a special feature of some android tablet or the success of android tablets in general or ... In this respect the "social signals" are not used in a constructive manner - they just add more clutter to the other 530.000 search results. The challenge will be to add a useful social dimension to improve information filtering. And I feel we are far away from that. Something else is needed here.