Monthly Archives: May 2008

Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age – Book Report

The weekend is here, and I’m trying to use my “free” time as effectively as possible.

I just finished a book that I borrowed form the library, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age by Duncan Watts. The book is basically an overview of the evolution of Network Science, the thing I’m studying in grad school. I’m technically specializing in “Social Computing,” which includes the study of stuff like complex systems, graph theory, sociology, etc. Since it’s a relatively new (or recently popular) field, there’s a lot of overlap with other fields. And as described in the book, it is very interdisciplinary.

Much of the book covers things I studied in SI 508: Networks. But in the sense that Six Degrees is more of a historical recollection than a textbook, there was quite a lot to take in. For example, Watts starts by describing previous attempts to map out social networks at a time when computing power was non-existent. The complexity of the problems ensured that the researchers could only dream of solving their problems until the next generation of scientists (and computers) arrived. The book then follows a fairly linear path from the study of random networks to small-world networks to scale free networks. Then we get to read about network dynamics: epidemics, cascades, percolation. Finally there’s a neat section about multi-scale networks and complex systems that exist in our everyday lives.

There are a few recurring themes in Six Degrees that I noticed. First is that physicists seem to be spoken very highly of (possibly because Duncan Watts is a physicist?). If you ask me, Computer Scientists are actually pretty good at solving problems, too… Secondly, there is a common “critical threshold” that systems can pass. A sort of on/off switch that determines whether a network is a small-world or whether a musician enjoys platinum success. Another is that innovation really occurs when people with differing backgrounds and ideas work together. That last one is something I really want to stay aware of as the school I’m currently attending has a great number of smart people, all with their own unique interests and projects.

I felt a certain sense of appropriateness while reading a book entitled “Six Degrees.” While I don’t know Duncan Watts directly, quite a few people I do know were referenced in the book, either in the actual narrative or the bibliography. Cris Moore, a researcher at the Santa Fe institute was my professor at UNM for one of my algorithms classes. For that class, I did experiments with random graphs, determining at which average degree distribution the “giant component” emerged (which is possibly why I went down the path to study social networks, eventually).

Lada Adamic is also referenced a bit briefly in the book. She was the professor for that aforementioned Networks class that I took last Fall. I’ve also taken another class with her and she’s been advising me quite a bit on what direction to go with my studies. Mark Newman, who I haven’t worked directly with but who works directly down the hall from the School of Information has a fairly huge role in the book as well. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m studying networks for school, or maybe it’s that the group of people studying networks is very tightly knit, but I still think it’s pretty awesome whenever I see someone I know mentioned by name in a book!

By my calculations, my “Watts number” is at least three since I am a student of Lada who works with Mark who worked directly with Watts. Or equivalently, I was a student of Cris who worked with Mark who worked with Watts. It might actually be two, but since there’s a level of uncertainty in this particular social network, I’d have to ask around to find out. I guess I could just walk up to Mark Newman at school one day and shake his hand to bring it down to two for certain. Maybe one day I can bring it down to one (I actually convinced Lada to hand Watts my resume at a conference they were both attending!).

Throughout the book, I’ve gotten several ideas on how I could do further research on the datasets that I’ve gathered over the past few semesters. I think the biggest challenges might actually be working them into my coursework since I’m not quite a research track student. Specifically, I haven’t probed far enough with dynamic networks, especially in the context of contagion in things like the spread of Facebook App installation. I’m sure there’s a ton of other things I can do with the data I have; I just don’t know what would be most interesting, or interesting at all.

It’s probably just the perspective of the book, but Six Degrees makes it seem like Duncan Watts was behind all of the breakthroughs in network science for the past 10 years or so. Seriously, it reads like Watts is the Superman of network analysis. The fact that he knows his own experiences better than anyone else’s is most likely the reason for this (I could write a lot about what I did, but not as much about what anyone else has done). But still, I bet Watts is a network beast in real life!

Anyway, if you’re interested in studying social networks or networks in general, I highly recommend this book. Duncan Watts has a way of writing for ordinary people. Actually, I’m not sure if this book is entirely accessible since I already had a semester of network theory under my belt before reading it. But I have a feeling it’s very readable.

In the end, Watts concedes that the science of networks is still in its infancy. I think this represents a very cool opportunity, and hopefully I can contribute to the work that’s already been done so far. Man, I’m totally pumped right now! Another book I’ve been meaning to read is “Nexus.” Hopefully that one’s available at the library when I go to return Six Degrees.

Facebook Removing Network Pages: WTF?

I was browsing around Facebook today when I thought of checking the network pages for my universities. Network pages are interesting because you can see stuff that’s popular in your particular network. While the Network pages seem to be rarely used, I still think they’re interesting to have around. For example, here’s the statistics page for Michigan as of right now:

I found it really difficult to find the network page today. In fact, I had to go to google and query for “facebook networks” to actually find the networks page. This is because Facebook is apparently discontinuing the network pages.

Now is a good time for me to ask, “WTF!?” Social networks are interesting because they have multiple variables. People know each other through networks, especially by regional and work networks. By removing network pages, Facebook is losing a pretty important source of info. I understand they’re not removing actual networks; just their pages. But still, why bother getting rid of something? They aren’t really being used, but I still like to check them now and then to get a quick overview of what’s happening.

Recently, Facebook seems to be closer and closer to jumping that proverbial shark. Not just because of this change, but because of changes to the developer platform as well. It’s gotten to the point where one cannot casually write applications for Facebook because the functions they use will surely become deprecated within months. Can you imagine that happening on a real OS? Combine the “alpha” hijinks of the platform with the fact that no meaningful income is being made on the apps, and you have a formula for slow, rotting death of applications!

Will the next Facebook please stand up?

Youtube Slowness

For the past few days, Youtube has been weirdly slow. I don’t think it’s my internet connection, because my home and work locations both result in lots of buffering in Youtube videos. Considering that Google owns them (literally), it seems like they should have all the bandwidth they need. Yet almost every video I try to watch ends up timing out and rebuffering. Maybe people should make more of this crisis than the whole “Twitter is always down” thing.

Because people actually use Youtube!

Wii Fit – Mini Review

I pre-ordered Wii Fit from Amazon.com and got it a few days ago, on Friday, I believe. That was probably a good idea, since it seems there’s a Wii Fit shortage of sorts going around (in addition to the shortage of Wiis themselves). I saw them going for pretty inflated prices on the Amazon Marketplace. I wonder if they’re actually selling for that much.

Wii Fit comes with a neat balance board and a “game.” I put “game” in quotations because it’s really debatable if it’s a game or not. The balance board is sort of a scale, balance sensor and exercise step all in one. Wii Fit (the game) is a collection of stuff that more or less fits in four categories:

  • Yoga Poses
  • Strength Training
  • Aerobic Stuff
  • Balance Games

The game starts out by giving you a really hippie-esque lecture about how balance is really important for you body. Like, the kind of balance where you don’t fall over and you put equal weight on your feet. I guess I never thought much about it, but I did the test and had some pretty interesting balance issues. My right foot seems to be pretty darn prominent. The board also tells me I’m obese! NOOO! I lost a lot of weight playing DDR but since grad school started I’ve gained it back and then some.

So I’m making a resolution of sorts to lose some weight. This is where Wii Fit actually does pretty well.

First off I’ll say that the Yoga and Strength Training parts have a trainer that you can pick. Male or Female. The trainer does examples of the moves before you do them, then you see them do it as you’re doing it. Being a male, I chose the female trainer. I think this is probably what most people do. They pick the opposite sex because it’s more motivating. The female training avatar chick is kind of okay looking, but I think it would be cool if you could “customize” the experience. That’s all I’ll say about that.

The yoga stuff probably won’t help burn much fat and stuff, but it is good for working on balance. I just finished unlocking all the yoga things (today is my 6th day on Wii Fit). The last one is pretty crazy, but many of them are doable. I can do that one that the lady is doing on the box art (the tree) even though it looks kind of insane. At the very least the yoga stuff is good for mellowing out and breathing (which I learned to do pretty well being a brass instrument player, but probably suck quite a bit at now).

The strength training is probably the best part of the game to get fit. I should note that Wii Fit is probably the most painful game I’ve played since the original NES system (and its blister-inducing controller). Like, I’m in a lot of pain for much of the exercises. Especially the push ups (which are really hard for me) and the plank, which is basically torture for fat people. It even sounds like a torture device! In the 6 days I’ve been doing it, I think I actually am getting better. Imagine that, a game that gets easier each time you play it.

The Aerobic stuff is kind of fun. There’s this weird hula hoop thing. It’s a little weird. Also, there this thing where you just run in place for a while. This wouldn’t be fun, except you get to see your Mii guy run around the island. It still isn’t really that fun, but it’s more fun than staring at the wall and running in place. I bet running outside would be even better though.

The balance games are sort of fun, too. The skiing one is very fun, and there’s also a snowboard one (which you do sideways). There’s also a zen thing where you sit on the board and stay as still as possible. Sounds like the luge or something!

Overall, Wii Fit is great because it provides so much feedback. When you do something right, the avatar tells you that you did a good job. If you screw up, they’re not too hard on you. But you get an actual number to show how well you did and you can keep track of that number. That’s definitely an incentive to keep trying and improve on stuff you’ve done in the past. When you weigh yourself, you get a history of your weight and you can actually see it getting closer (or farther) to the goal!

I think the biggest thing keeping people from exercising is probably motivation. The game gives you a good, personal motivation to keep trying to reach your goal. It does a good job of not sounding too preachy, but also telling it to you like it is.

I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with it, but for now I would like to continue until I reach my goal of having a “normal” BMI.

Nintendo Delivers on Lime Green DS!



More than two years ago, I wrote a post about how I wished that Nintendo would release a lime green ds. Strangely, this post has received a lot of notoriety on videogame sites since some people couldn’t understand that I just photoshopped a DS to look lime green and pined for a real one. At the time of this writing, that post is #1 on a Google search for “green ds” and probably a few other similar searches. Probably not for long, though.

I just learned today that Nintendo really is releasing a lime green DS, but it’s in Europe only. Hopefully I’ll be able to find some way to snag a lime green DS. Maybe through ebay or something.