July 2008 Archives

I’ve been enjoying listening to Spark, a Canadian (CBC) radio show on technology and culture. I’ve been listening to their summer long-form interviews, getting a chance to hear from folks whose work I know mostly from blogs and print:

I just discovered CBC Radio’s podcasts. Besides Spark, I’ve also been listening to:

  • C’est la View, an English-language program on Francophone culture
  • White Coat, Black Art, a program on medicine and medical practices and culture
  • Canada Reads, an annual reality-show-style competition where celebrities duke it out to promote their favorite Canadian book

When I first started working, I decided to give away about a month’s income (about 8% before taxes) every year to nonprofits. Working in the tech sector during the dot.com boom, I figured I’d always have more money than time, and that I could be most useful bankrolling groups doing work I believed in.

It was relatively easy at first. My costs were low, certainly low enough to give away a bit. I think back to how freely I pulled out my checkbook at the time, and how much I gave without thinking about it. As I got older, costs started going up, and I realized that I needed to get serious saving for the future. At the same time, I realized I enjoyed volunteering, and that small groups sometimes need manpower more than they need money. The more time I gave, the more my donation rates slipped. B and I got married, we bought a house, and took on a mortgage.

As we were doing our 2006 taxes, we realized that as two white-collar working adults without dependents, we’d only given away about 4% of our income in the past year. It was embarrassingly low. (The average household earning under $10,000 a year gives away 5.2%.)

Over the past year, we’ve been working to change that pattern, giving away more to groups we already donated to (e.g. Asha for Education), and becoming first-time donors to groups we admire but have never supported financially (e.g. Stop Prisoner Rape). As I finished our 2007 taxes in April, I was happy to see that we made it to 10% in the past year.

I’m inspired by the stories at Bolder Giving in Extraordinary Times, which advocates for substantially higher levels of giving by those of us privileged enough to do so. (Which, per the Global Rich List, is pretty much everyone I know.) I’m not there yet, but it’s something to aspire to.

I married into Netflix. I never used to rent movies, but B had an account, but when she gave me a profile under her 3-DVD plan, I started discovering a world of great movies that I’d missed in the theater. The more movies I rated, the better Netflix’s collaborative filtering performed. By the time I’d rated over 600 movies (basically every movie I’ve ever watched), I found myself coming to really trust the Netflix engine, to the point that I now rarely ever watch a movie unless Netflix projects that I’d rate it a 4 or higher. The predictions are eerily accurate—and help me avoid wasting hours watching bad movies.

I was disappointed when Netflix announced that it would cancel the profiles feature, allowing a single account to be split up into multiple queues . Without profiles, B and I would have to end up sharing queues and ratings, giving both of us crappy recommendations. I was particularly annoyed that Netflix would delete all my data.

Annoyed with Netflix I developed a tool last month to export user profile data, back it up, and optionally upload it to another Netflix account. Thankfully, Netflix relented soon after, so the immediate data deletion threat was over. I’ve been using the opportunity to experiment with moving my ratings data to other recommendation platforms, to combat lock-in and test other engines.

The first alternative movie recommendations platform I tested was Yahoo! Movies, powered by ChoiceStream. Porting hundreds of ratings over from Netflix to Yahoo was more difficult than i expected. Yahoo didn’t have every movie that I’d rated in Netflix; in many cases, it was difficult to disambiguate between different works with similar names.

After transferring several hundred ratings, Yahoo! Movies spat out the following recommendations for movies for me to see at the theatre:

  1. The Visitor (hadn’t heard of this, looks interesting)
  2. The Fall (Tarsem visuals, but iffy plot?)
  3. Brick Lane (saw it, glad I went)
  4. The Dark Knight (planning to watch)
  5. The Incredible Hulk (ick, no way)
  6. Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (do they think I’m a 9 year old girl?)

I really have to wonder about The Incredible Hulk and Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, but the first four recommendations aren’t bad. Unfortunately, Yahoo recommendations only touch movies in the theater and DVD releases, but they do do a good job of providing an immediate personally-filtered read on what interesting general-release movies are playing. I plan to look them up the next time I want to go see a movie and have no idea what’s playing.

I’m reasonably happy with this project so far. I’ve been able to get my data out of a closed system, save it as a personal backup, and move it to another platform. If Netflix had kicked users like me off their site by shutting down profiles, I would have had the capacity to move. While Yahoo! Movies’ collaborative filtering system isn’t a reasonable substitute for Netflix’s at this time, there may be others out there that do a better job.

(See the Bengali tattoo archive, if you want inspiration or have pictures to share!)

I was walking near home Sunday when I saw two 25-35 year old normal-looking white guys walking by, one of them with a tattoo in Indian script on his upper left arm walking by. As we approached, I glanced at his tattoo again. Jeepers. It wasn't Devanagari, but Bengali script. Who walks around with a Bengali tattoo?

By then, he'd walked past, but I turned around, and called out to him, "hey, excuse me, can I read your tattoo?" He smiled, extended his arm, and I read "Hare Ram Hare Ram Hare Ram" in a circle around his arm, an invocation to Rama, the mythological Hindu warrior-king. We introduced ourselves, talked for a minute. The tattoo bearer described himself as a Vaishnavite (a strain of Hinduism popularized in the west by ISKCON), and was aware of the Bengali language program at UC Berkeley.

We talked for a minute more, shook hands, walked away. How random that the first person I'd see with a Bengali tattoo would be a non-cultish-looking white Hindu guy in Berkeley.

I don’t believe that marriage is the single most critical public policy issue that LGBT Americans need to be fighting for right now; I suspect, for example, that expanding health care access and the reach of anti-discrimination law may have broader positive impacts. I’m also not sure that same-sex marriages will have better outcomes than opposite-sex marriages (about half end in divorce; many harbor emotional or physical abuse).

That said, the visibility and growing success of the marriage equality movement is remarkable, in the way that it helps reframe homophobic policy discourse into a parody of itself:

  • 1970s: gay predation endanger children
  • 1980s: gay diseases endanger public health
  • 1990s: gay demands endanger military cohesion
  • 2000s: gay marriages endange straight marriages

Marriage equality campaigners do a good job of heightening the contradictions, forcing homophobes to make increasingly convoluted arguments as to why it’s bad for people to have stable, monogamous, relationships saddled with legal rights and responsibilities. Since LGBT folks can’t be wished/prayed out of existence, the movement forces opponents to essentially say “down with gay marriage; I’d rather have more frightening, irresponsible, uncommitted, unmarried gay sex.” There’s something delicious about that.

About

Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.

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This page is an archive of entries from July 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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